Jan 31, 2011

A royal toast to our new front-runner

I must admit to a silent flutter of pleasure at the sudden ascendency of The King's Speech, and not just because it's fun to see all the Oscarologists tearing their hair out, although it is satisfying to read this sort of thing:—
"I said on my last Oscar Poker podcast that if Tom Hooper won the DGA I would quit. The reason being, not out of disgust — it is their choice, their club, their statuette. But because it would show that I learned absolutely nothing in the eleven years I’ve been doing this website. And that is absolutely true: I know nothing."
Nor is it because I think that King's Speech is a better movie than The Social Network. But I do appreciate this reminder of the stubborn independence, epistemologically speaking, of the filmmaking community from those writers and journalists paid to supply commentary on it. Flying in the face of four long, long months of wanton theorising, predictive analysis, statistical break-down, voodoo incantation, rain dancing, star gazing and tea-leaf reading on the Oscar blogs, Tom Hooper's win at the DGA has the reassuring thunk of reality. Attempts to guess which way the Academy is going to leap have always struck me as a queasy blend of wish-fulfilment, projection and outright patronisation. First everyone had AMPAS down as old farts who could not disentangle themselves from their oxygen tanks for long enough to fill out their own ballots, leaving it to their nurses to do it for them, and ensuring easy victory for films like Driving Miss Daisy or Scent of a Woman in which some young pup tends to the palliative care of an aged film legend. Then, thanks to a belated achievement Oscar for Martin Scorsese (for a tonally berserk crime thriller) a final acknowledgement of the Coens (because there was nothing else to vote for that year), Academy members underwent a Pimp-my-Ride makeover — ta da! — into snazzy young Sight-and-Sound-reading hepcats, snapping their fingers to the latest Tarantino soundtrack and discussing auteur theory into the wee small hours. Neither guise ever struck me as all that convincing. The stodgy old fart rap was merely a side-effect of the blandifying effects of any electoral process, and the hepcat stuff was just a mirage created by the sheer desperation that has beset the task of choosing a winner these last few years. You think the Academy wanted to reward Scorsese for The Departed, a film in which every main character but one ends in a fine misting of brain matter and splintered jaw fragments? You think that if a movie like Driving Miss Daisy or Gandhi were around, the academy wouldn't have been all over them in a heartbeat, rather than queue up to pin a medal to the chest of Javier Bardem as he punches in the skull of yet another sheriff in No Country for Old Men? You think they wouldn't have crushed the indie-spirit of The Hurt Locker in a second if Avatar hadn't been about blue people? Wake up, people! The only reason the academy has been unable to reward a film like Driving Miss Daisy or Gandhi recently is because Hollywood doesn't make films like Driving Miss Daisy and Gandhi any more. The entire middle class has dropped out of the filmmaking ecosphere. Liberal weepies are dust. Sweeping epics are done. Loin-cloths are out. The only examples of 'Oscar' movies we've had recently have been duds like Invictus and The Blind Side, undernourished and overlit b-versions of the kind of film that used to get 'A' treatment and clean up at the awards. The academy haven't lost their taste for Oscar bait. They just haven't been let near a healthy enough specimen. They're like drunks who've managed to stay dry for several years not because they have lost their taste for alcohol but because nobody has offered them a drink. The Brits have finally done it with The King's Speech. Evidently they didn't get the memo about cratering the forehead of their hero before the end credits foll. I say, Bottoms up, old bean! Pip Pip!

Jan 30, 2011

New York City just like I pictured it

'“The only city on earth that glitters from afar when you are in it,” said Updike, or something like that, and its true: stand on any street corner and gaze down the avenues, each block milkier than the last, and you will find yourself looking at more places you are not, or could be, or should be, than any other city in the world. Want — or aspiration, or ambition — is built into the very architecture of the place. The absent cradle of the welfare statemay be what lends the city it’s vertiginous late-capitalist thrill, but it’s like driving without shock absorbers: you feel every bump in the road. Even the car horns sound a note of muscular self-furtherance. In London a parp on the horn registers the inquiry “Are you mad?” In Paris, together with a shrug heavenward, it sounds a more philosophical note “The whole world is mad.” In New York, it is more primal, self-expressive. “I’m mad! Get out of my way!”'
— from my article about living in New York for Intelligent Life. The link works this time. Photograph by Jasper James

New Band Alert: Elizabeth and the Catapult

I'm not a big fan of 'joke' videos but I'm willing to forgive this one, from Elizabeth And the Catapult, caught as I am in the first hot flush of New Band Love. Their new album, The Other Side of Zero, is terrific (there's another one, from 2009, just as good). I love the way their songs shift keys, McCartneyishly, or like a silkier Aimee Mann. Their singer, Elizabeth Ziman, sounds like she's just woken up on some tracks, like Kathleen Edwards, and a little perkier on others, like Edwards after a mug of coffee maybe.

Jan 29, 2011

No, we really are the best

"They've refused to talk about America exceptionalism," John Boehner told CNN's Kathleen Parker Wednesday night. "I don't know if they're afraid of it, whether they don't believe it. I don't know." — Slate
Exceptionalism, for the uninitiated, is the belief in America's supremacy as a nation. Every nation believes itself the greatest, of course. American exceptionalists listen, nod and believe themselves actually, objectively superior. It reminds me of all the conversations I used to have in my teens, wherein someone gently tried to break the news to me that what was coming out of my mouth was known as "opinion," and I not-so-gently asserted that that was their opinion: what came out of my mouth was fact. It gives me the shivers just to think about it.

Jan 28, 2011

INTERVIEW: Joel and Ethan Coen

'In the gilded hospitality suite of New York’s Ritz-Cartlon, the Coen brothers are pondering their success. “We are part of the system more than you would suspect,” says Ethan, the younger, more combative and one suspects more emotional of the two brothers. “We are like Hollywood insiders now, it’s really weird.”

This draws a nod from Joel, the older, more laconic one you could imagine playing bass for Patti Smith. “One day you wake up and you realise that’s happened and it’s a shock,” he says. “You find yourself at the academy awards, or wherever the hell it is, going ‘hey…’ you know, and suddenly you know all these people. And you go: how the fuck did I get here?”

Ethan finishes the point. “And Matt Damon is your best buddy. Which is nice, he’s a nice guy but it’s also weird.”

Actually, Matt Damon — who is a nice guy, but who possibly does bring a little weirdness to the role of BFF— is next door right now, giving interviews to promote True Grit, the Coens new film, their 14th to date, and the latest installment in what appears to be a concerted effort to cover the length and breadth of America with Coen Brothers movies. Maybe because their preoccupations seem so resolutely anti-heroic, or because their ambitions fit so snugly within their love of genre, the scale of this project was hard to spot at first, but while everyone else was lost in hyper-space, the Coens have been quietly wallpapering their homeland. They’ve covered New York in the 1950s (The Hudsucker Proxy), Los Angeles in the 1940s (Barton Fink), Mississippi in the 1930s (Oh Brother Where Art Thou?) and 1990s (The Ladykillers), Texas in the 1980s (Blood Simple) make that twice (No Country For Old Men), Minnesota in the 1960s (A Serious Man) and 1990s (Fargo), not to mention Arizona, Washington, North Dakota, Santa Rosa and now, for good measure, Arkansas in the 1880s. A few more like this — Ohio in the 1970 was a happening place, I hear— and their patchwork quilt of America will be complete.

“It’s true,” says Ethan, but insists, “We’re not crossing off a list.”

“… but every now and again you come up with a story idea and you think well, the natural place for this story is a specific period and its something you haven’t done,” says Joel. “And you think that would be fun.”

“We haven’t done the seventies,” says Ethan.

“We have a script set in New York the sixties,” offers Joel. “It takes place in the folk revival of the early 1960s, that whole weird thing.”

There’s also a script of theirs about the cold war, called 62 Skidoo. “We wanted to get Henry Kissinger, but he’s getting too old,” says Joel.

“What else?”

from my interview
with the Coens in the Guardian

Jan 25, 2011

My 2012 Oscar predictions in full

And now, without further ado, here they are. A drum roll, if you please..... jiminy cricket, am I excited.... okay, here we go.... the winners will be... David Cronenberg for Best Director, War Horse for Best Film, Viggo Mortenson for Best Actor, Michelle Williams for Best Actress, Evan Rachel Wood and Matt Damon for Supporting...... oh you wanted this year's Oscar winners? What's that you say? You wanted this year's Oscar nominations? Jeez. I hate to say this, but you need to aim a little higher. I know all the Oscarologist's hearts are leaping like deer right now, barely able to contain their excitement as they try to guess which syllable the announcers will lay most stress on tomorrow: "The Social Network" or — as some would have it — "The Social Network". There also seems to be some difference of opinion as to whether the interpretative dance number will feature Barbara Hershey clipping her toenails into a vast champagne glass over the lip of which hangs the head of a drunk swan, or whether it will feature a troupe of Natalie Portman's body doubles bringing themselves to simultaneous orgasm in a Busby-Berkeley-style ziggurat. But the race for the actual Oscars was over by mid-December, as is traditional. C'mon. Pick up the pace, people. The Chinese are already teaching their kids how to place bets on 2013's Oscar race.


"But Biutiful outstays its welcome, and the director can't resist a tempting tangent, darting down the side streets of the plot in pursuit of the foreign workers and their grinding lives. Ethically, this is commendable, but it throws the arc of the drama out of whack.... Nonetheless, the film should be endured, for the sake of it's leading man." — Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
Not for the sake of the leading man's performance, mind you, but for the sake of it's leading man, as if Bardem's feelings might be hurt if we do not go. Lane is not saying 'the film is something to be endured, but Bardem's performance is a treat'. That would be a nonsense, for Bardem is the on screen for most of its running time; an enjoyable central performance from him would lift the film firmly from the 'barely endurable' category. No, the film must be endured "for the sake of its leading man," which is to say, because Bardem is a talent and one ought to be supportive of talented people's work, even if it is something to be endured. Hmm. I wonder if he would say the same if this film weren't Spanish. I am one of Anthony's biggest fans, but at best this is unpersuasive and at worst it's codswallop. Another two hours of my life back. Shit. What to do.

* An occasional column devoted to those books, movies and art works which would, on balance, better serve us by remaining unread, unwatched and unseen, based on the principle that the reactions we have to absent art works can be every bit as enriching as to those demanding our urgent personal attention

Jan 24, 2011

INTERVIEW: Darren Aronofsky

"Aronofsky is a handsome, big-boned man with a vulpine smile and a lingering impression of sternness which not even his man-of-the-hour high spirits can dispell. Maybe it’s the moustache, which manages to bypass the seventies altogether and burrow back to the 1930s and 1940s when directors like Josef von Sternberg, bullhorn in hand, bent the very light itself to their bidding. “There is, strangely enough, something very old fashioned about him,” says Vincent Cassel, who stars in Black Swan. “The moustache, the way he carries himself, his voice, which is very particular. Darren really likes actors, you can feel it, but at the same time he likes to trick you; he tells secrets to one that the others don’t know to get something different out of them.” It is often said of film directors that they are control freaks. Aronofsky goes one better: he’s a loss-of-control freak, his films are immaculately calibrated surrenders in which his heroes splinter and break upon the rocks of obsession. His debut, Pi, was a low-fi freak-out about a mathematician whose efforts to divine order to the universe literally drive him out of his mind: the film ends with him taking a power-drill to the side of his head. His second was an adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem for a Dream--“a manifesto on Addiction’s triumph over the human spirit” as Aronofsky called the book in a 2000 forward--and that pretty much describes the film, too. Strip away the viscera of his movies and you will often find a theorem, or diagram, whether it be the spirals that run through Pi, the circles that loop through The Fountain, or the neatly arranged doubles and doppelgangers of Black Swan. It is often said of movies that they divide audiences, as if a divided critical reception could happen to anyone. In truth, it tends to only befall films that are internally riven to begin with. Doubleness is, after all, both Black Swan’s subject and its object, its method, its madness, it's raison d'etre. There is the doubling of genre: both horror movie and ballet movie, Repulsion and Red Shoes, Polanski and Powell. There is the doubling of theme: white swan versus black swan, Portman vs her various doppelgangers. “I just want to be perfect," whispers Nina. "Perfection is not just about control,” replies Vincent Cassel. “It's also about letting go.” As temping as it might be to interrogate that exchange for clues as to Aronofsky’s relationship to his characters, or his actors, or women, the truth is more interesting: it more closely resembles a conversation Aronofsky has been having with himself his whole career." — from my profile of Aronofsky for New York Magazine

Spielberg's CE3K: Paradise Regained

"And from her native east,
To journey through the aery gloom began,
Spher’d in a radiant cloud, for yet the sun
Was not."—
Paradise Lost. Bk. VII. L. 245.
From Gavin Pretor-Pinney's excellent The Cloud-Spotter's Guide:—
"In the closing sequence of steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an enormous UFO descends on to Devil's Tower in Wyoming, and Roy Neary, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss, climbs onboard with an assortment of American scientists to be taken off to who knows where. Moments before it appears, a host of smaller craft descend in an advance party. They emerge from a layer of thick, billowing clouds that spread out in time-lapse fashion across the desert sky. These were the first convincing special-effect clouds in the history of cinema, and they were created by the visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbell. Though they swelled down behind the craft in somewhat unmeteorological fashion, they spread out in much the same way as real stratocumulus do. In order to create them, Trumbell had to invent and build a piece of equipment down as a 'cloud tank.' It revolutionised cloud special effects and it worked on the principle of temperature inversion. Trumbell's clouds didn't consists of water droplets suspended in air, like the real thing, bit tiny globules of paint in a tank of water. To have the necessary control over their behaviour and to be able to light them effectively, he knew that his clouds would need to be miniature ones. 'I had the idea that realistic miniature clouds could be created in a liquid environment — into which could be injected some other milky white liquid,' he said in a 1977 article in American Cinematographer magazine. So he built a seven-foot-square glass tank at his special-effcts studio, into which a remote-controlled arm could be lowered to ibject a special mixture of white poster paints. The tank was like a large aquarium — only for someone who couldn't decide if they wanted fish of the cold-water or tropical variety. The bottom half of the tank was filled with cool water and the top half with warm. Of course, the water temperature would always have a tendency to even itself out. But a complicated system of plumbing, heating and filtration allowed the effects co-ordinators to sustain a temperature inversion in the water, in which a layer of dense cold water below was covered by one of less dense warm water above. In the boundary region between the two layers, the remote-controlled arm was carefully manipulated to squirt its clouds of white paint. Spielberg could then point the camera up through the water and film the clouds from below. The temperature of the paint solution was halfway between that of the warm and cool water, which meant that it was also halfway between the two in density. When injected into the boundary layer, the paint swelled upwards only as far as the ceiling of warm water above and sank down only as far as the floor of cold water below. And just as we can't see temperature inversion in air, the inversion in the water was not visible to the camera. Trumbull's clouds gathered and spread in a puffy layer in the same way as stratocumulus do below a temperature inversion. 'Since each "take" required a totally fresh and clean tank of specially heated (or cooled) and filtered water,' explained Trumbull, 'the shooting was slow and difficult and occurred on and off for over a year to achieve the results we wanted.'"
I think Trumbull's effects for Close Encounters are the most beautiful ever committed to film, more beautiful even than his work on Blade Runner. They are used much more sparingly,on account of the time it too to create them in-camera. One year to get the clouds right. Compare it to the three-month window in which most films get topped and tailed with effects today. I'm going to leave digital effects out of this for the moment, although I suspect that even if I included them I would still come back to Trumbull's flying saucers — and in particular the sequence (described above) where they first emerge over Devil's Tower, their lights smudged and flaring, the clouds like illuminated candy floss. Directors like Kubrick had used anamorphic cameras before, but nobody had thought to use them as Spielberg uses them, both for realism — the lights on his UFOs would look no different from the lights on a truck — but also as a cloaking device, so that the audience would never be entirely certain of the contours of his ships. There are some shots later, in which we see them in full detail and it's a mistake: their undersides look just like the side of the star destroyers in Star Wars, released just a few months later. The climax itself, a radiant bath of white light obscuring the limbs of the aliens themselves, brings Spielberg very close to the Milton who did the same thing to his God in Paradise Lost who is inaccessible to human sight, precisely because he is the source of all light
"... thy self invisible [ 375 ]
Amidst the glorious brightness where thou
Thron'd inaccessible, but when thou shad'st
The full blaze of thy beams, and through a cloud
Drawn round about thee like a radiant Shrine,
Dark with excessive bright thy skirts
appeer, [ 380 ]"
How many climaxes of Spielberg's films that applies to: Dark with excessive bright. He may be the only director I can think of who uses light to hide things. Close Encounters may not be the best of his films, but it is, I think, his most personal. I know that honor usually goes to E.T. but that film feels like the more calculating, burnished work, while Close Encounters is the less self-conscious, more instinctive piece of filmmaking, marking one of the rare instances in which Spielberg drew directly on his own autobiography for inspiration: the time when, aged 6, he was bundled into the car by his father in the middle of the night to go see a meteor shower.

my book Blockbuster:—

Biographers of Spielberg and Lucas generally have a pretty tough time of it. Both men’s stubborn normalcy refuses to buff up into the 24-carot gleam we usually expect of our geniuses. The biographer arrives at his subjects door, sleuthing for clues of what is to come — portents of future greatness — only to find their subjects slumped in front of the Mickey Mouse Club, wallowing in the same pop-culture plasma-pool as the rest of us. “George’s favourite story was Goldilocks and the three bears,” writes Dale Pollock of Lucas. “The future director of Jurassic Park had an early fascination with dinosaurs,” notes Joseph McBride, unlike the other 70 million children in America, who were of course, effortlessly boring their way through the latest text-books on subatomic physics. You can see the problem. The portraits are either of slink-off-the-page banality, or — the opposite tack — eerie banality, of TV zombies from Midwich Cuckooland. “The beak was matched by a bird’s gaze, motionless, eerily unblinking,” tries John Baxter, “and he moved in an avian way, darting and topping, his actions apparently unmediated by intellect.” You’re not sure whether such a creature would grow up to direct Jurassic Park or evolve into one of its stars.

Twenty-four pages into the Baxter, however, and you come across this great fact: Spielberg’s grandparents would occasionally come from new Jersey to visit the family in Ohio, and he loved it when his mother said it was “something to look forward to.” It was one of the first phrases he learned to say. If you had to know just one fact about Spielberg, and throw away the rest, that would be it, I think, for from it everything flows: both the keening narrative instincts which drive his films along — replace those grand-parents T Rexes or UFOs and you pretty much have the entire oeuvre — and also the delicate art of audience beguilement that drive audiences along to his films, commonly known as hype. Spielberg movies don’t begin with the credits; they begin the moment you first hear about them. Half the fun with a movie like Close Encounters was the humming sense of anticipation that kicked in when you first saw those dead-pan, gnomic posters, or first asked what its title meant, and wondered what a close encounter of the first or second kind were, and whether they’d be worth having. The other half was the humming sense of anticipation you felt while watching the thing, for the film is, at its baldest, one long teaser trailer for forthcoming attractions, with the aliens glimpsed, in fractionally greater increments, in everything from beached super-tankers and planes to rampaging toys and hoovers. “America is the first country in the world to take its fads seriously and to beat its chest about them and to say ‘Look what we can produce, look at the kind of gross national product which our culture alone can produce,” says Spielberg. In which case, Close Encounters is chest-beating at its most lyrical. In its vision of America, roused from its slumber by the whirring concert of its consumer clutter, the film amounts to a sort of junk Sorcerers Apprentice, with Spielberg playing Prospero to America’s gross national product. The film’s sprightly mischief comes from exactly the same place in the national psyche that produced Watergate board games, Nixon impeachment T-shirts and CB radios — which, during the energy crisis, allowed truckers to radio to one another the locations of gas stations with gas — for it is a movie all about the fun to be had in times of national crisis. When the lights go out in the Neary house, the children cheer.

If you ever wondered where all those great national fads of the seventies — lava lamps, pet rocks, slip ‘n’ slide — went do die, then Roy Neary’s house would be your first port of call, for it an eruptive mess of toys and train-sets, hobbyhorses and doll’s heads, a junkyard of yesterdays’ enthusiasms. Close Encounters is a great movie for household mess, which functions in much the same way that garage junk does in Star Wars, somewhere between an insistent fetish and a guiding aesthetic, and its net effect is to make you wonder at just how much stuff there was in American lives in 1977. There is the mess of Neary’s living room, not least after he shovels his front-garden into it, the mess of his kid’s bedrooms, then the mess the aliens make of Melinda Dillon’s kitchen. And it is out of this mess that the possibility of alien visitation seems to grow, like just another fad or craze. “Its better than goofy golf!” Neary tells his kids. The first time he sees UFOs, he is alone. The second time he goes out there, he brings his wife and children — “Remember those articles about the aurora borealis in National Geographic?” he asks Teri Garr, “well, its better than that!” The third time he goes out, everyone is there, all the crazies and hill-billies, whole families with their picnic hampers, playing cards and painted signs. “It’s like Halloween for grown-ups,” says Gillian.

Or July 4th for moviegoers. The one thing the whole thing really resembles, but which nobody points out, is the pre-release build-up for a blockbuster movie: an audience of Americans are drawn from all over the country, by an “implanted vision” they get from watching TV, to congregate together, to watch a show of music and lights.... “They were invited!” insists the French UFOlogist, played by none other than film director Francois Truffaut, which clinches it: the aliens are opening a blockbuster, and tonight is their premiere. You could be forgiven for not noticing this in 1977, though, for blockbusters were only just achieving their status as pre-eminent national spectacle and so could reasonably remain absent from their own cultural radar. By the time of E.T., in 1982, Spielberg would have Eliott playing with Star Wars dolls, for it would be inconceivable to make a film about an 11-year-old and have him not be a Star Wars fan; and by the time of The Phantom Menace in 1999, George Lucas would return the nod by giving E.T. a walk-on at the galactic senate, but the toys that run around Neary’s floor hail back to an altogether more innocent era — Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet, Frankenstein’s monster. Close Encounters was the last time when Spielberg could reach for the nearest toy in a movie and not be in any danger of it being one of his own. It thus marks the high-point of his innocence as a filmmaker, far more so than E.T., if only because back in 1977, he still had no idea of what Spielbergian meant: this was the last movie of his that wouldn’t betray that knowledge, for it was all being mapped out for the first time, the suburban sprawl, the flying toys, the spilled fridges and sprinkled lawns. We would, for instance, see many monster-in-the- rear-view-mirror gags in his movies — from the Nazis that Indy sees in his mirror in Raiders, to the T Rex in Jurassic Park glimpsed in a side- mirror, whose decal reads “objects are closer than they appear” — a nice touch. But not as good as the moment in Close Encounters when Richard Dreyfuss pulls in at a turnstile to read his map, sees some headlights in his rear-view mirror, and waves them on, only to have them go up over the car. Dreyfuss said that when he read that in the script, he could hear the audience react.

The important thing is that he could hear at all. Jaws had played to theatres so rowdy they almost drowned out the movie, razzing up the audience to match its own internal hoopla-levels. Close Encounters, too, is full of the sounds by which seventies blockbusters usually heralded their global importance — the excited babble of simultaneous translation, the crackle of air traffic control — but the movie’s key scenes play out in a midnight hush so pure that you can hear the crickets chirp, or the whirring of a child’s toy, or a dog bark in the distance. It is almost as if Spielberg had listened to the expectant silence that descended on the world after Jaws, like snow, and then turned that expectant silence into his movie. Said sound editor Frank Warner of the UFOS: “we decided that [their] presence would be expressed simply as silence — or more accurately, a cessation of normal ambient night exterior sounds — crickets, birds, etc... When an accustomed sound stopped, it became a signal that something big was about to happen.” The rebuke to the sound and fury of today’s blockbusters — with their crank-up towards immediate Dionysian blow-out — could not be more acute. The special effects of Close Encounters were pretty damned special, with something of the magic of headlights seen from the safety of your parent’s car on a long journey home — a flypast of flared coronas, blurred haloes, and buttery anamorphic flares. Close Encounters was the first film to suggest that when mankind finally gets to make contact with intelligent life from another galaxy, we might, in all our wisdom, have forgotten to put the right type of film in our cameras, or leave our thumb clamped firmly over the lens.

Roy Neary, meanwhile, takes his place amid the aliens, arms outstretched in what would become Spielberg’s signature sign-off — the image that ends films as disparate as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, E.T. and Schindler’s List, of a man surrounded by children, a filmmaker meeting his adoring audience, the bow of the maestro. It is this movie, though, in which all of Spielberg 's innate benevolence and Mozartian instincts for delight got their purest display, their least self-conscious outing. It tends to be the thing that most divides critics about the director — his unshakeable proclivity for the upbeat — and it’s true that we prefer our artists a little more down in the mouth, edgy, gritty. It’s like the old Turgenev dictum about happiness writing white: grittiness is, in the eyes of most film critics, next to Godliness. It’s easier to spot that way. You’re onto a much safer bet liking someone like Martin Scorsese, whose genius shows up in all the fully-vetted forms — to the left of the studio system, tearing films from his breast like chunks of his own flesh — than you are liking someone like Spielberg, the audience gigolo, devoid of visible self-destructive impulses, alighting aerobically on film after film, slam-dunking one box-office record after another... if that guy also turns out to have been the best filmmaker of his generation, then what, frankly, was the point? What was the point of all those hours passed in the dark confines of the arthouse, watching the frankly unwatchable? But there you go. If you have to point to any one director of the last 25 years in whose work the medium of film was most fully itself — where we found out what it does best when left to its own devices, it has to be That Guy. These early films of his now play like a bracing crash-course in the history of the medium, with a young man’s excitement for his newfound toy: first, a step on the gas with Duel, then a quick exercise in collective fright, Jaws, and finally, with Close Encounters, a deep push on the bass pedals of straightforward awe and wonderment: Let’s see what this sucker can really do.

So what can it do? Well, it turns out it’s pretty good at bright lights, music, and faces. Spielberg’s eye for ordinary American features — squidgy-faced cops, beaker-featured technicians, hairy hill-billies — is here as scrupulously unbeautiful as anything in Walker Evans. Mellinda Dillon said she felt like Lillian Gish being directed by Griffith as Spielberg coaxed her through her reactions; and indeed, the film may be the closest modern audiences will ever come to knowing what it was like to dig out your nickel, and take your seat for the first cinematographs, flickering silently overhead: “A tense, well-knit, immobile mass of human faces, their eyes alertly fixed on the screen,” is how one spectator at New York’s Bijou theatre described his fellow audience-members in 1909. He could as easily have been describing the climax of Close Encounters, with its row upon row of transfixed spectators, bathed in a baptism of light, watching the First Picture Show. Everything about the shoot marks it out as the film that should have been Spielberg’s downfall — his over-reaching epic, his Intolerance — but even at its furthest reach, the film draws us close to home: when the aliens start leaving huge great super-tankers in the desert, it resembles nothing so much as the carelessness of a child, strewing toys around their playpen.

Jan 23, 2011

A return trip to the dark side, please

Regular readers of this blog will know what a bee we have in our bonnet about dark sides. We are well aware that it could be just jealousy on our part, never having had one, coupled with resentment over the high esteem in which they are held. The time for dark sides, we think, was surely somewhere in our mid-teens, just after we had discovered the work of Joseph Conrad but before we had fully investigated the ouevre of Fred Astaire, when our primary aim in life was to be taken seriously by adults and wished they would realise just what a threat our aesthetic choices posed to their crapulously upbeat view of the world and rose-tinted false consciousness. Pah! It is true that we still get twinges of wishing people were more frightened of our aesthetic choices than they would appear to be. The old dream lingers that someone will browse our book-shelves, or dvd collections, and feel the hair go up on the back of their neck at the sheer balls-out bravura with which we poo-poo the merely pleasurable and meretriciously 'enjoyable'. But the fact remains that after 43 years on our allotted plot of earth, we nurse an undiminished reverence for delight and all who traffic in it. We believe that 'happiness writes white' is a challenge not a let-out. And nothing makes us happier than the gentleman's cigarette Bill Murray lights before as he exits the restaurant where he has just performed the Heimlich maneuvre in Groundhog Day. Except perhaps the three landings executed by each of Elliot's friends at the end of E.T. — one, two, three perfect ellipses carved out by their bike wheels on the forest floor. Heartlessness, either our own or other people's, does not strike us as all that interesting an emotional state state. Self-hatred, likewise, does not strike us as especially revealing or worthy of investigation, certainly not to the degree our leading actors and actresses appear to believe. Most of what passes for moral ambiguity, in the indie movie scene, turns out to be merely a moral scheme that's had its hair mussed, a deliberately muddied puddle. We won't go on, merely draw your attention to an article that appeared in The Sunday Times today in which we finally got some of these things off our chest. Excuse the slightly hectic tone.
'“Give yourself to the Dark Side,” urged Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. His advice was roundly ignored by Luke Skywalker at the time, but these days, Google “dark side” and it brings up a long list, from Justin Bieber (“Bieber’s CSI cameo shows off his dark side”), to William Shatner (“Shatner’s trek to the dark side”). The latest to succumb is Natalie Portman, currently tearing up the awards circuit for her turn in Darren Aronofsky’s dark fantasia Black Swan. She plays an uptight ballerina who turns herself inside out in her efforts to win the approval of her despotic dance instructor. "In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsess, getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself," he tells her. "All the discipline, for what?" "I just want to be perfect," Portman whispers back."Perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go," he says, setting her on a crash course in Dark Side Development that involves staying up late, smoking cigarettes, taking drugs, making out with her girlfriends, and diddling herself when Mom’s back is turned. "We're going to strip it down,” he says. “Make it visceral and real.”

With its bullying insistence that all of us, even the Ninas of this world, have a dark side that needs coaxing into sulpherous bloom, Black Swan is the arthouse sensation du jour, a fable fashioned from the foremost aesthetic hang-up of our time. Aronofsky has made a film not just for every actress who has ever played ‘ugly’ in order to win an Oscar, but for every comedian who had had to recant of his comedic ways, for the Paul McCartney who winced when Lennon dismissed his songs as “tinsel and fairydust”, for the Steven Spielberg who conceded that Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking was more adult “because it appeals to our anxiety-ridden darker side”, for the Thom Yorke who once confided, "It annoys me how prettym y voice is", and for screenwriter Alan Ball who, when called in for a meeting with Dreamworks executives to talk about his script for American Beauty, was told, “’Could you just make it just a little more fucked up,’ which is not a note that you get in Hollywood very often. And I thought, ‘Wow!’ And that gave me free range to go a little deeper, go a little darker, go a little more complicated." It may have been the first time in the history of Western civilization that a creative artist was asked by his corporate overlords to make his work darker; but it was certainly not the last. Darker = deeper = good is one of our more unbreakable pop culture shibboleths. A dark side has become a must-have item on every celebrity’s wish-list, next to membership at Crunch gym on Sunset and a lunchtime table at Spago’s. You cannot move in Hollywood for bright young things seeking a little indie cred in down-and-dirty roles where they get to graffiti their own good locks, or saw off their own leg in symbolic severance of their years in the salt-mines of the Mickey Mouse Club. At this year’s Oscars, Hollwyood’s beautiful people will collect together, dressed in the world’s ritziest designer clothes, in order to applaud James Franco for his role in 127 Hours, in which he saws off his own arm with a blunt pen-knife, working through his own tendons like a butcher through gristle, and Portman for her enthusiastic bouts of self-graffiti in Black Swan. Said one critic of her performance:-
“Nina may be the most tightly wound character I’ve seen in a movie since Peter O’Toole’s homicidal Nazi in “The Night of the Generals” 43 years ago. Often sweaty, given to unnaturally tense little intakes of breath, plagued by rashes on her shoulderblades and prone to poking, cutting and splitting her skin and nails.”
Miss Portman will be wearing Dior.

Turn to the upbeat studio pabulum they are all supposedly in recoil from, and it’s scarcely any brighter. “There’s no denying it, these are dark times,” begins the latest Harry Potter, the “darkest yet”, in which our heroes spend most of their time crouched in a tent, debating the hopelessness of their situation, while the forces of darkness threaten to engulf them. That’s the kid’s movies. Amongst current entertainments aimed at adults, only Star Trek has dared deliver anything like the uplift of summers past; the rest — from The Dark Knight to The Terminator — all come plunged in terminal gloom, their brooding heroes pacing back and forth beneath skies the color of vengeance. When the TV show Battlestar Galactica ended on a rare note of optimism last year the chat-rooms were in uproar. We would appear to be bang smack in the middle of a new critical consensus wherein grittiness is close to Godliness, and everyone seeks a position on or close to the ‘edge,’ now as over-booked as Malibu beach-front property. Everyone is against the mainstream now, even the mainstream — especially the mainstream. “It’s a strange critical phenomenon that only works of art that are ‘edgy’ or ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ are regarded as in anyway noteworthy,” wrote Nick Hornby recently. ““Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please?” We are sold books on the promise of their being “dark and disturbing,” TV shows for being “raw, uncompromising, gritty”, pop lyrics that are “dark, edgy, angry,” even “raw, edgy” fashion shoots. Fashion shoots. As in: models, clothes. Album of the year, meanwhile, is Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “an art-rock set that radiates an almost unbearable feeling of desolation,” according to one reviewer.

What happened? Wasn’t pop culture supposed to be a matter of cheap uplift, ambrosial optimism and the false consciousness of a Hollywood happy ending? A trip to the multiplex these days involves more radical alienation than a season of Brecht. "You have a responsibility for the way you make the audience feel, and I want them to feel uncomfortable,” says David Fincher, this year’s Oscar favorite for best director. "Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything's okay. I don't make those kinds of movies. That, to me, is a lie. Everything's not okay." Really? It’s always a lie that everything is okay, and always the case that everything is completely screwed? That seems as comforting a fantasy as any purveyed by the latest Julia Roberts film, and yet it’s Eat Pray Love that gets it in the neck from Fincher and co. Maybe this rash of miserablism marks the final maturation of pop culture, now risen from its teenybop roots to arrogate the mantle of seriousness once associated with the High Arts. When the New York Times describes a play as “moving like an edgy pit bull, uncompromising in its complete disregard of solicitous and genial warmth” we take it for granted that a satisfactory aesthetic experience is being described. Similarly, when Carol Ann Duffy recently wrote in the pages of the New York Review of Books about a Ted Hughes poem that “seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written,” (it was about who Hughes was shagging the weekend Slyvia Plath committed suicide) we assume she meant it as praise. "Dark means serious,” commented Peter Steinfeld wrote on the Commonweal blog. “Dark means shadows. Dark means not evading the sad and inexplicable complexities of life.”

Yes but why? Any attempt to answer why darker automatically means deeper invariably runs the risk of tautology. It just is. On January 23rd, 1918, the art dealer Paul Guillaume opened a three-week exhibition of work by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in his gallery on the fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris. The exhibition catalogue was written by the poet Apollinaire, a friend of both painters, who described them in terms that would set the course for their critical reception for decades to come. “Like the orange, Matisse’s work is a fruit bursting with light,” wrote Apollinaire. Picasso’s work, on the other hand “offers a thousand opportunities for meditation, all illuminated by an internal light. Beyond that light, however, lies an abyss of mysterious darkness... is this not the greatest aesthetic effort we have ever witnessed?” Got that? Light = lightweight. Dark = the greatest aesthetic effort in the history of mankind. Matisse was aghast at his friend’s bias. “If people knew," he said, "what Matisse, the painter of happiness, had gone through, the anguish and tragedy he had to overcome . . . they would also realise that this happiness, this light, this dispassionate wisdom which seems to be mine, are sometimes well-deserved, given the severity of my trials.” For Matisse vs Picasso read Lennon vs McCartney, Spielberg vs Scorsese, Morrissey vs the Pet Shop Boys, or any other of the cultural multiple choices by which it is determined whether you are un homme serieux, with the soul of a Russian, or a irretrievable lightweight with the depth of a puddle.

Roll back to the clock to the pre-20th centuries and things start to lighten up, thanks to the reinvigorated hold of organized religion. The Renaissence is shot through with shafts of Godly radiance; in Paradise Lost, He is variously described as "the Eternal coeternal beam," "bright essence increate," and "pure ethereal stream,” obscured by his own brilliant light, an image unmatched in Western culture until the release of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. So maybe it’s the Godless 20th century that’s to blame. “Pessimism has become something of a fashion, and kind of intellectual pose to demonstrate one’s moral seriousness,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in the Times Literary Supplement, in 1993. “The terrible experiences of this century have taught us that one never pays he price for being unduly gloomy, whereas naive optimists have been the object of ridicule.” When Samuel Becket won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, they singled out for praise a “negativism that cannot desist from descending to the depths. To the depths it must go because it is only there that pessimistic thought and poetry can work their miracles.”

Never mind that Beckett is actually a lot funnier than that or that any serious investigation of the historical traumas which are supposed to plunge us into such high-toned despair in fact reveal the exact opposite: the stubborn persistence of human hope, whether in the form of Matisse’s hard-won happiness or the “tragic optimism” of Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankel. Those who have lived through tragedy experience no greater urge to relive it, aesthetically, than the next man; if anything their taste for douleurs is somewhat diminished. The people who take most delight in measuring the exact length, width, and depth of their dark sides tend to be those most comfortably removed from the heart of darkness’s epicenter, their moral authority that of a curious tourist. They are darkness’s groupies — it’s flunkies, its wannabes, it’s hangers-on. The English composer John Dowland, who was known by the tag Semper Dowland, semper dolens ("always Dowland, always mourning"), doubtless had good cause for his grief, but the cult of melancholy which swept Elizabethan England, as summed up in the figure of Shakespeare’s Hamletdressed in “the trappings and suits of woe” included many who just though they looked great in black. Likewise, the “Werther Fever” that swept Germany after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; or the fashionable despair that beset European cafĂ© society upon publication of T S Eliot’s The Wasteland in 1922, and later characterized by Saul Bellow as “The Wasteland Outlook,” characterised by “the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pip-squeaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness". It was all perfectly caught by P G Wodehouse in his
Wasteland parody:-

And Despair.
I am a bat that wheels through the Air of Fate
I am a worm that wriggles in a Swamp of Disillusionment
I am a despairing Toad
I have got dyspepsia”
It could equally well describe this year’s Oscar contenders, from Fincher — a despeptic toad if ever there was one — to Portman and Aronofsky, who once said, “Quite clearly, the planet is dying, and we are dying on it. To find that funny, or to find Paris Hilton's partying interesting, is beyond nauseating”*. Except that even Paris Hilton these days sports Alexander McQueen skull t-shirts and diamond-studded skull earrings, at which point, every self-respecting Goth knows the game to be up. When even Paris Hilton embraces her dark side, it’s time to cross over to the sunny side of the street. Or curl up with a season box-set of Glee.'
The Sunday Times
* One thing that has occurred to me since writing this piece is that there may be a reason this appeared in an British rather than American newspaper and it's tied to the reason Aronofsky/Fincher et al are, despite various testaments to their 'European' sensibility, a distinctly American phenomenon. Only in a culture driven by a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week effort to feel good about itself — which is to say, a culture driven by TV — does it make any sense for artists to define themselves wholly by their antagonism to that. This is my beef with both these directors: how reactive they are. Their darkness is an argument with the mainstream, and thus entirely dictated by it — in exact mirror-image. It is because Julia Roberts smile is so bright that Aronofsky feels compelled to tear strips, literally, off poor Natalie Portman. To the exact same degree that Jimminy Cricket wishes upon on a star does David Fincher wish to see that star implode beneath the weight of a thousand suns. Every statement they make comes freighted with the need to summon every banished demon, every dark thought an American news anchor has struggled to suppress. But if it's even got to that point — evening things up, injecting tone, apportioning out darkness like it was shade of paint — you're lost. I feel like saying to them: stop reacting. Ignore everybody else. You have complete freedom to say what you want. Now what is it?

Jan 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, David Lynch

On the occasion of David Lynch's 65th birthday, Flavorpill posts 65 little known facts about the director. Ten of the best:—

1. The script for Eraserhead is only 21 pages.

2. On his 15th birthday, Lynch worked with his fellow Virginia Eagle Scouts seating VIPs in the bleachers outside the White House at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

3. He claims to have eaten lunch at Bob’s Big Boy in Los Angeles nearly every day for eight years straight, from 1976 to 1984.

4. He voices the character of Gus the Bartender on The Cleveland Show.

5 He is a fan of the Bourne trilogy. He likes the first one the best.

6. For part of the 5-year-long Eraserhead shoot, Lynch supported himself with a paper route, delivering the Wall Street Journal.

7. Childhood friend Toby Keeler once asked Lynch what Wild at Heart is about. Lynch responded, “It’s about an hour and forty-five minutes.”

8. Lynch always buttons the top button of his shirt, because he feels too vulnerable with the top button open.

9. He has written two comedy features, Dream of the Bovine and One Saliva Bubble, both of which remain unproduced.

10. Lynch on the real life inspiration for the opening of Lost Highway: “I woke up one morning and the intercom rang, and a man says, ‘Dave!’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he says, ‘Dick Laurent is dead.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And there was no one there… I don’t know who Dick Laurent is. All I do know is he’s dead!”