Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs trailer

Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs trailer.

In the same vein,

A sequence analysis of Moonrise Kingdom by Morgan Honaker

9 reasons why Fantastic Mr. Fox is the coolest film

Notes on the film techniques of Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson / / From Above by Kogonada

Matt Zoller Seitz considers my favorite Wes Anderson film Rushmore

Saturday, September 16, 2017

From "The Battle for Blade Runner" by Michael Schulman

From "The Battle for Blade Runner" by Michael Shulman:

"As for the future that Blade Runner envisioned, Ridley Scott’s bleak 2019 seems prescient in our age of environmental degradation, omnipresent machines, and general foreboding. What is Apple, after all, if not a tech behemoth on par with the Tyrell Corporation? It even has its own enigmatic robo-woman with eerie flashes of humanity. Not long ago, I asked her, 'Siri, do you dream of electric sheep?' 'Electric sheep,' she purred back. 'But only sometimes.'"

Noir Jukebox by Corey Creekmur

Noir Jukebox from Corey Creekmur on Vimeo (with thanks to Catherine Grant)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

From a Vulture interview with John Cleese

From a Vulture interview with John Cleese:

What are you working on now?

I have a show I’m working on at the moment called Why There Is No Hope.

Sounds funny.
It is funny. Some people immediately see the title as funny and other people go what?! There is no hope that we’ll ever live in a rational, kind, intelligent society. To start, most of us are run by our unconscious and, unfortunately, most of us have no interest in getting in touch with our unconscious. So if the majority of people are run by something they don’t know anything about, how can we have a rational society?
. . .

There’s absolutely nothing that gives you any hope about the future of human society?
Nothing.

Nothing?
Nothing.

So why get up in the morning?
Just because you can’t create a sensible world doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the world you’re in. I think Bertrand Russell once said that the secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible. Once you realize that things are pretty hopeless, then you just have a laugh and you don’t waste time on things that you can’t change — and I don’t think you can change society. I’ve spent a lot of time in group therapy watching highly intelligent, well-intentioned people try to change and they couldn’t. If even they can’t change …

As someone who’s spent a lifetime working in and thanking about comedy, is there one joke you can point to as being the funniest thing that you ever said?
Interesting. It would probably have been something unscripted. Eric Idle and I were performing in Florida once, taking questions from the audience, and a woman stood up and asked me, apparently seriously, “Did the Queen kill Princess Diana?”

What’d you say?
Certainly not with her hands.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

From Franklin Foer's "How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality"

From Franklin Foer's "How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality," an essay adapted from his new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

"Facebook represents a dangerous deviation in media history. Once upon a time, elites proudly viewed themselves as gatekeepers. They could be sycophantic to power and snobbish, but they also felt duty-bound to elevate the standards of society and readers. Executives of Silicon Valley regard gatekeeping as the stodgy enemy of innovation — they see themselves as more neutral, scientific and responsive to the market than the elites they replaced — a perspective that obscures their own power and responsibilities. So instead of shaping public opinion, they exploit the public’s worst tendencies, its tribalism and paranoia.

During this century, we largely have treated Silicon Valley as a force beyond our control. A broad consensus held that lead-footed government could never keep pace with the dynamism of technology. By the time government acted against a tech monopoly, a kid in a garage would have already concocted some innovation to upend the market. Or, as Google’s Eric Schmidt, put it, “Competition is one click away.” A nostrum that suggested that the very structure of the Internet defied our historic concern for monopoly.

As individuals, we have similarly accepted the omnipresence of the big tech companies as a fait accompli. We’ve enjoyed their free products and next-day delivery with only a nagging sense that we may be surrendering something important. Such blitheness can no longer be sustained. Privacy won’t survive the present trajectory of technology — and with the sense of being perpetually watched, humans will behave more cautiously, less subversively. Our ideas about the competitive marketplace are at risk. With a decreasing prospect of toppling the giants, entrepreneurs won’t bother to risk starting new firms, a primary source of jobs and innovation. And the proliferation of falsehoods and conspiracies through social media, the dissipation of our common basis for fact, is creating conditions ripe for authoritarianism. Over time, the long merger of man and machine has worked out pretty well for man. But we’re drifting into a new era, when that merger threatens the individual. We’re drifting toward monopoly, conformism, their machines. Perhaps it’s time we steer our course."

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Iconography and the Yammering Haters: a Review of Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" Video

As someone who remembers the flowering of the music video during the 1980s and the ascendance of figures like Madonna and Michael Jackson as they newly explored the form, I usually don't have much to say about the dull marketing calculations of recent music videos. A typical example would be Katy Perry's recent "Swish Swish," a forgettable video that alludes to Space Jam (1996) to little effect. Full of celebrity cameos, sight gags, and grotesquery, "Swish Swish" exemplifies the contemporary degrading cartoon Idiocracy attention-seeking visual internet squalor that does not linger in the mind.

Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" video, however, strikes me as something else. As Anne Helen Petersen points out in her Buzzfeed essay "The Great White Celebrity Vacuum," Swift largely has not produced much new work during the last six months, and the "Look" song and video mark her return to the public eye with multiple iconographic images that point back to her previous incarnations and personae. In dramatic contrast to the relative sweetness of, say, "Shake It Off" (2014), "Look What You Made Me Do" comes across as a vindictive, fierce, and paranoid Swift interrogating her own media image with every millisecond of the video seemingly test-marketed for maximum meme-worthy impact, and I like the semiotic intensity of it all (without pretending to get the many, many references to incidents in her highly publicized and debated past). Swift has arrived at a cold and angry level of fame, but the video also asserts the power of her celebrity. After all why would someone cut the wing off of a jet marked "REPUTATION" with a chainsaw? In comparison to Perry's slippy hijinks, Swift's "Look" is hagiographic--all about power with her dominating every shot composition in a triangular tableau that reminds me of some of evil robot Maria scenes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) which Madonna also used to good effect in her "Express Yourself" video.

After a humorously Gothic beginning with Swift's zombie alluding to Jackson's "Thriller" video, she digs up the grave of her reputation (a reply to Petersen's essay), then reappears in a bathtub full of jewels before assuming her throne with a bunch of snakes giving her tea. I've read of how all of this imagery alludes to various celebrity tiffs, put downs, when its isn't ripping off other videos, but I enjoyed imagining other reasons for snakes, a Cleopatra/Britney Spears reference, perhaps? Has Swift's fan base and internet buzz become the same kind of writhing vicious commentary, a perpetually petty yammering chorus of snark (such as one finds on Twitter, for instance) aspiring for influence on a staircase? In The Circle, one can find a good depiction of this chorus when Emma Watson's character Mae chooses to go fully "transparent" for her Mark Zuckerberg-esque mentor Bailey (Tom Hanks), allowing herself to experience the ultimate celebrity nightmare of being on a continual internationally-accessible video feed from when she wakes up in the morning until she goes to bed at night. When she does so, everyone who follows Mae constantly comments on everything she does with a creepy tweet-like relentlessness that shows how horrific contemporary media exposure can be. Not only is Mae drastically over-exposed, everyone else is reduced by the movie's Facebook-like social media to endless miniaturized bickering commentary, all of it fed by the need for attention coupled with the dictates of social media engineers ("oligarchic platform owners") profiting over human gullibility and cell phone addiction.

Then, the "Look What You Made Me Do" video cuts to a car accident with Swift suddenly looking a lot like Katy Perry as she's thrown onto the dashboard and steering wheel before paparazzi arrive to pruriently photograph her. I enjoy the way the shot evokes the twisted aesthetics of Jake Gyllenhaal's work in Nightcrawler (2014) and its emphasis on just how sick the public has gotten to be as it sates itself on images of car crashes, death warmed over for the evening news, all of it making J. G. Ballard's Crash (1973), and by extension the Cronenberg 1996 movie adaptation, a documentary prophecy rather than a novel.

It's also fun to see Swift serve up her power-play with Spotify as a robbery with other women in cat masks. In that moment in a video full of expensive sets rapidly deployed, Swift wields a baseball bat as she robs the streaming service, at one point holding up a stack of burning money. Does this shot intend to refer to the Heath Ledger's Joker and his nihilistic burning of money in The Dark Knight? Ultimately, Swift did win her feud with Apple Music when they, in Kaitlyn Tiffany's essay, "agreed to pay royalties to everyone during its free trial." So, does that count as a robbery with money to burn? At any rate, the shot does show off Swift's power to affect big business with her marketing decisions.

In the end, I still don't get why Swift's persona feels obliged to cut off the wing of a jet with a chainsaw, but the image has a gleeful destructiveness. So, yes, Swift's newest incarnation stands before a lit cross-like T as her earlier media selves squirm and fall down below, but one could also say that's an image of the celebrity celebrating a video that quickly breaks records across the world, no matter what others say or tweet or post, etc. Whatever her faults, with these kinds of images, Taylor Swift reminds the viewers where we stand or fall in the vicious hierarchy of celebrity.          

Sunday, August 27, 2017

a note on Steven Soderbergh's creative method

“You go through three phases trying to express yourself in any art form” explains Soderbergh. “First, you imitate. Next, you begin to document what you’re thinking and feeling and use the crafts you’ve learned through imitation. Then there’s the third phase: taking the emotions and feelings you’ve experienced—which are autobiographical—and creating a fictional story with which to express them. That was the big leap for me, because emotionally, sex, lies, and videotape is very autobiographical, and yet nothing in the film actually occurred. And by being fictional I was able to be clearer in what I was trying to get across.” --from Michael Dare's sex, lies, and videotape essay on Criterion

Turning the Screw by Johannes Binotto


Turning the Screw from Johannes Binotto on Vimeo.

A study of the mise-en-scene of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur. As Jeff, Robert Mitchum remains supremely sleepy throughout.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Internet addiction and Adam Alter's Irresistible

"The environment and circumstance of the digital age are far more conducive to addiction than anything humans have experienced in our history. In the 1960s, we swam through waters with only a few hooks: cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs that were expensive and generally inaccessible. In the 2010s, those same waters are littered with hooks. There’s the Facebook hook. The Instagram hook. The email hook. The online shopping hook. And so on. The list is long—far longer than it’s ever been in human history, and we’re only just learning the power of these hooks.

Compared to the clunky tech of the 1990s and early 2000s, modern tech is efficient and addictive. Hundreds of millions of people share their lives in real time through Instagram posts, and just as quickly those lives are evaluated in the form of comments and likes. Songs that once took an hour to download now arrive in seconds, and the lag that dissuaded people from downloading in the first place has evaporated. Tech offers convenience, speed, and automation, but it also brings large costs. Human behavior is driven in part by a succession of reflexive cost-benefit calculations that determine whether an act will be performed once, twice, a hundred times, or not at all. When the benefits overwhelm the costs, it’s hard not to perform the act over and over again, particularly when it strikes just the right neurological notes.

A like on Facebook and Instagram strikes one of those notes, as does the reward of completing a World of Warcraft mission, or seeing one of your tweets shared by hundreds of Twitter users. The people who create and refine tech, games, and interactive experiences are very good at what they do. They run thousands of tests with millions of users to learn which tweaks work and which ones don’t—which background colors, fonts, and audio tones maximize engagement and minimize frustration. As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponized version of the experience it once was. In 2004, Facebook was fun; in 2016, it’s addictive."  --from Adam Alter's Irresistible (a book that has been preoccupying me recently)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A respectful reaction to Richard Brody's paragraph about Atomic Blonde

I've been lazy and shiftless this summer, disappointed in Baby Driver, respectfully confused by Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and quick to loathe Ghost in the Shell with its numb robotic rigidity, but I was very impressed with Atomic Blonde, so I thought I'd supply some respectful annotations to Richard Brody's paragraph [in italics below] about the movie in The New Yorker:

"This standard-issue spy-by-the-pound yarn [Ha!]--set during the last days of the Berlin Wall [I happened to propose to my wife when the Berlin Wall fell, which struck me as good symbolism at the time. We're still married, and Atomic Blonde cleverly mines the historical moment for good mob scenes and dramatic juxtapositions of espionage skullduggery with joyful city-wide celebrations]--is both enlivened and deadened by its unusually realistic and numbingly plentiful violence. [I was concerned about that possibility too, but it struck me that there's all the difference in the world between Keanu Reeves realistically (?) fighting many men in John Wick (2014) and Charlize Theron doing the same in Atomic Blonde (David Leitch directed some of the former and all of the latter). The action scenes of the latter left me thrilled even to the point of wondering, when one considers Wonder Woman as well, why anyone should even watch male action heroes anymore? Haven't we pretty much seen all that they can do? But Charlize Theron's delightfully ice-cold Lorraine Broughton doesn't bother to explain herself. There's no back story for her (as some critics have complained). She just pulls off a stiletto heel and uses it to take down several guys in a speeding car. With so much post-Imperator Furiosa-infused killer attitude, she doesn't need any back story. And Brody says nothing about Broughton's fashion choices, again one of the movie's most important aspects.] Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an M.I.6 agent sent to the still divided to locate--with the help of British colleague (James McAvoy) [who proves impressive in part because he somehow manages to hold his own next to Theron. McAvoy's performance as David Percival is pleasantly deranged and corrupt.]--a wristwatch containing a list of Western spies [I liked the use of the fancy wristwatch as a McGuffin, having received a used black and silver Tiger Tudor watch for Christmas last year. I enjoy how such watches implicitly rebuke the moronic Apple Watch Series 2 with its emphasis on nudging people to flail around all day], and to rescue a Stasi turncoat (Eddie Marsan), who has the list memorized. This action is seen in flashbacks, intercut with scenes of the bloodied, bruised, and embittered Lorraine's chilly debriefing by her handlers (Toby James [who reminds one pleasantly of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)] and John Goodman [who has been in every movie, it seems, that I've seen in the last three years]. The deceptive twists and cynical moods of espionage [What's wrong with that? Brody writes as it that's a bad thing.] take place in nostalgically bleak Cold War cityscapes [just in Berlin--and Berlin comes off looking cool, reminding me of the Sex Pistols' song "Holidays in the Sun"--

"The Berlin wall

I got to go over the wall
I don't understand this thing at all"

I mean, really, is there a better emblem of the terminal stupidity of the cold war?], but the fine points of spycraft are either reduced to mere winks or amplified to bone-thwacking and gore-spraying martial artistry [Brody does not acknowledge that what makes this movie compelling is that Charlize Theron goes beyond any kind of usual kick-ass ability to something almost impersonally and rudely sublime. In real life, her teeth were injured! By doing her own stunts, she suffered much for her edgy contempt for ordinary women's star vehicles, but no, Brody cares about the "fine points of spycraft."] Theron keeps her cool throughout the pummeling gyrations [said begrudgingly], but the film strains to achieve a breathless panache and lurid swagger for which David Leitch's direction is too heavy-footed and literal [I thought the direction was playful and creative, the cinematography full of bruised, lurid, decadent colors.]; a deft, metal-bashing automotive ballet comes too late to help. [I don't remember exactly what he's talking about here. Brody doesn't mention a clever Hitchcock-esque moment when Broughton arranges for an entire city street full of protesters to raise their umbrellas to block a hitman's bullet.] With Sofia Boutella, as a French agent with an artistic streak." [Brody doesn't mention the movie's clever '80s soundtrack, the way Broughton's on-going discussion with the intelligence officers back in London balances the action with sharp dialogue, or, for that matter, how the movie generally has a surprisingly smart screenplay by Kurt Johnstad and Antony Johnston, in a world of lesser-written contemporary releases. I have great respect for Richard Brody often and The New Yorker always, but in this case, I beg to differ.        

Thursday, August 3, 2017

captive attention links

---Not a Grande Dame by Catherine Grant

---Incident by a Bank

---trailers for Thor: Ragnarok, Proud Mary, Call Me By Your Name, UnaReady Player OneJustice League9 DoigtsMother!, and Suburbicon

---"What is the defining characteristic of the femme fatale, that film noir archetype of the scheming woman who preys on men? Even more than greed or coldheartedness, it might be deceit: a virtuosic ability to manipulate men with lies and playacting. The femme fatale is spawned by male anxiety—not prompted by women’s wartime emancipation, as many have argued, but arising from the age-old fear of being fooled by women, and the misogynistic belief that they are inherently duplicitous and inscrutable. This shapes the way actresses play femme fatales: they are often giving a performance of a performance, enacting a charade of feminine sweetness and frailty that satisfies the expectations and desires of their marks. In Eddie Muller’s Dark City Dames, Jane Greer recalls that when she played the enchanting thief, liar, and killer Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past (1947), director Jacques Tourneur wasted no time on the character’s psychology, simply instructing her: 'First half—good girl. Second half—bad.' He told her to play it 'impassive,' conveying the depths of her evil through a shocking depthlessness. A woman like Kathie or Kitty almost doesn’t seem to have a real self beneath the layers of lies: she is, as a disgusted Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) tells Kathie, 'like a leaf the wind blows from one gutter to another.'" --Imogen Sara Smith

---Anatomy of a scene: Valerian 

---five action sequences from Atomic Blonde

---"I still feel that we’re still in the early years of what digital will ultimately become." --Henry Blodget

---Aldous Huxley on Technodictators

---"If there’s a defining mood to Brooks’s work as writer/director/star, it’s one of profound restlessness and dissatisfaction, often followed closely by the shame of leading a life of privilege and comfort and its never being enough. As David, Brooks wants for nothing but perspective, and the price for that perspective is the liquidated value of his material possessions and a sizable share of his dignity and self-worth. In the film’s moral reckoning, it’s a fair sum." --Scott Tobias

---"'Cool' was our mantra on this film, and it became very empowering" --Cindy Evans

---The Legacy of Paranoid Thrillers

---"The premise of hijacking is that it undermines your control. This system is better at hijacking your instincts than you are at controlling them. You’d have to exert an enormous amount of energy to control whether these things are manipulating you all the time. And so we have to ask: How do we reform this attention economy and the mass hijacking of our mind?" --Tristan Harris

---"Charlize Theron Is Not Here to Make Friends" by Anne Helen Petersen

---Romero's filmmaking tips

---Zygote

---"They are all attempting to capture your most scarce resource — your attention — and take it hostage for money. Your captive attention is worth billions to them in advertising and subscription revenue." --Tobias Rose-Stockwell

---Schorem

Thursday, June 8, 2017

bruised links

---"Jaan Pehecchaan Ho" from Gumnaam and Ghost World via @dcairns

---"A Brief History of the GIF" by Lorraine Boissoneault

---trailers for Beatriz at Dinner, Baby Driver, Good Time, Becoming Cary GrantLogan Lucky, and Okja

---"So when it came time for her own directorial debut, Ms. Lister-Jones knew she wanted to work with a woman behind the camera. Only women behind the camera, actually: For her indie comedy Band Aid, released Friday, June 2, Ms. Lister-Jones hired an all-female crew, from the grips to the drivers to the production assistants.

'I wanted to see what it would feel like,” she said, “if a community of women exclusively created a piece of art together.'" --Melena Ryzik

---"Saturnz Barz" by the Gorillaz

---the pleasures of wealth and fame and Johnny Depp

---Maya Deren's Film Philosophy

---"my interest was telling this story [Ghost World] in a slightly exaggerated, nightmarish, almost film-noir version of the world. A social and critical satire depicting America’s fabric woven from falsehoods and lies, hypocrisies and scams. It just seems to be what happens in a capitalist society. There’s politicians and TV evangelists and corporations, and none of them have the best interest of the average citizen." --Terry Zwigoff

---the best aggregators of film links? @CriterionDailyMovie City News, and @nathanielr's link lists

---"The handsomest Frenchman on earth, swaddled in an outsize yet epaulet-perfect trenchcoat, hiding deep blue pools of blankness under the brim of a fedora, stares into Parisian drizzle through a rain-blurred windshield, inserting keys from a huge ring until he finds the one that fits. A steel-haired, middle-aged, world-weary gambler comes up with the grandest con of his day while cruising the nightspots and fleshpots of backstreet Montmartre, but his moment of deepest melancholy comes from a single gaze upon the bare back of a young girl he’s sheltered as she sleeps with his young protégé. A bald, stocky Jewish Frenchman, wearing a Stetson and sunglasses at night, barrels his Cadillac convertible down the Champs-Élysées in search of diversion. Alain Delon in Le Samouraï, Roger Duchesne in Bob the Gambler, the great filmmaker of action and attitude Jean-Pierre Melville in life." --Ray Pride

---"one of the fascinating things about the cinematic image is precisely that it’s difficult to pin it down." --Laura Mulvey

---"On the music of Ghost World" by Terry Zwigoff

---“I remember it was Day 2, my body was hurting, and my face is all bruised up, and my eye was swollen shut,” Ms. Theron said. “I remember thinking to myself, really?” --from "Women Who Have the Chops (and the Punches and the Kicks)" by Julie Bloom

---Orson Welles: Hollywood Magician

---an excerpt from Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You by Charles Taylor

---"Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast presents an odd and dilated experience of this particular kind of uncanny nostalgia, without any acknowledgment of its own weirdness. It is at once discomfitingly familiar and unfamiliar. By consistently hitting certain marks hard (precise musical cues, familiar costumes, lines of dialogue, and a multitude of shot-for-shot reenactments that feel like torpid tableaux vivants), it relies upon the viewer’s assumed willingness to completely integrate the new fetish object and the lost original. In so doing, it suggests that the pleasures of mere recognition offered by this uncharismatic filmic doppelgänger should be enough to regain or even surpass the enchantment of its original for the return viewer. This is a remake that refuses to acknowledge the inevitable uncanniness of its status as such. In its dogged familiarity, however, the specter of the original only becomes more and more insistent. In the lackluster and slightly down-tempo musical numbers, it becomes harder and harder to be present in the movie theater while another (better) version is being simulcast on the screen of memory." --Sara Chihaya

---10 tips for filmmakers

---"Netflix Isn't Killing Movies, Hollywood Studies and Theaters Are" by Jordan Zakarin

---"Sofia Coppola on Bill Murray, Nicole Kidman, and the Movie that Made Her the Second Woman to Win Best Director at Cannes" by Lynn Hirschberg

---"To me, it’s telling the same story but from the women characters’ point of view. I would never want to remake someone else’s movie, but I love the premise of it. When I saw the movie I thought it was so… I don’t know… weird. It stayed in my mind. It’s a very macho guy’s point of view in this women’s world, so it started making me think about what it must have been like for the women during wartime. They were raised to relate to men, that was their whole role in the Southern world of that era, and now there’s no men. It was wartime but these women were left behind." --Sofia Coppola

---"It’s also important to remember that most of these images are actually sequences of images: Peter O’Toole blowing out the match followed by the sun rising over the desert, the baby carriage rolling down the steps amid the chaos and brutality of the attack by the Cossacks. And beyond that, each separate cinematic image is comprised of a succession of still frames that creates the impression of motion. They are recordings of instants in time. But the moment you put them together, something else happens. Every time I get back into the editing room, I feel the wonder of it. One image is joined with another image, and a third phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image, perhaps a thought, perhaps a sensation. Something occurs, something absolutely unique to this particular combination or collision of moving images. And if you take a frame away from one or add a couple of frames to the other, the image in the mind’s eye changes. It’s a wonder to me, and I’m far from alone. Sergei Eisenstein talked about it on a theoretical level, and the Czech filmmaker František Vlácil discusses it in an interview included on the Criterion edition of his great medieval epic Marketa Lazarová (1967). The film critic Manny Farber understood it as elemental to art in general – that’s why he named his collection of writings Negative Space. This 'principle', if that’s what you could call it, is just as applicable to the juxtaposition of words in poetry or forms and colours in painting. It is, I think, fundamental to the art of cinema. This is where the act of creation meets the act of viewing and engaging, where the common life of the filmmaker and the viewer exists, in those intervals of time between the filmed images that last a fraction of a fraction of a second but that can be vast and endless. This is where a good film comes alive as something more than a succession of beautifully composed renderings of a script. This is film-making. Does this 'phantom image' exist for casual viewers without an awareness of how films are put together? I believe it does. I don’t know how to read music and neither do most people I know, but we all 'feel' the progression from one chord to another in music that affects us, and by implication some kind of awareness that a different progression would be a different experience." --Martin Scorsese

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Comfortable in no man's land: the pleasurable questions of Wonder Woman

'Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.’ --William Moulton Marston (the original creator of Wonder Woman)

I enjoyed director Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman in part because the movie begs several questions that I've been brooding on, such as why did the filmmakers choose the first World War for its story and not some more recent period? 

Why is the battle scene where Wonder Woman climbs up from a trench and takes on a classic stalemated no man's land the strongest one in the movie? How does Wonder Woman resist superhero blockbuster fatigue? I don't usually care much for heightened characters with unrealistic CGI-driven powers. How is it that Gal Gadot's version of a superhero almost makes her superpowers beside the point? What is the relationship between Wonder Woman's mythological origin/worldview (with its emphasis on Ares, Zeus, Hippolyta, etc.,) and the more historical one of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)? Even as naked and bathing Steve Trevor describes himself as being an "above average" specimen of mankind, is he even needed in this movie? When Wonder Woman decides to go find and fight Ares as a way to stop war, is she being naive or somehow smarter than Steve?  

When we see Robin Wright playing Antiope as Diana Prince's fighting coach on Paradise Island, are we supposed to see her work here as some fundamental opposition to her usual role as the conniving Claire Underwood in the much more cynical House of Cards? How much is the success of Wonder Woman due to its lack of cynicism? When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) faints underwater after crash landing his plane near Paradise Island, is he meant to look weak and helpless before waking to find an Amazon staring at him on the beach and saying "A man!" somewhat like Miranda does in Shakespeare's The Tempest when she beholds her first man:  "How beauteous mankind is, Oh brave new world," etc.? When Wonder Woman rather whimsically decides to climb the ladder and start running toward a machine gun nest across no man's land, are we supposed to think of hundreds of thousands of men being nihilistically slaughtered in movies such as Gallipoli (1981) and Paths of Glory (1957)? Does it help somehow that the movie doesn't have Nazis, so that one can also associate this movie with Jean Renoir's more sympathetic portrait of the Germans in Grand Illusion (1937)?

Wonder Woman is an ideological opposition to male dominance in a svelte package, an oddly compassionate goddess-woman who can scarcely see a wounded war veteran without wanting to do something about it. I'm not sure how it works. Perhaps Jill Lepore's book can help explain things.  At any rate, Diana Prince proves refreshing as an antidote to stupid masculine oppression everywhere.

Related links:

---"Top Ten Things About Wonder Woman" by Anthony Lane

---"Jenkins sets her “Wonder Woman” in the First World War instead of the Second, and, in a way, this makes a certain chronological sense, since the Marston family’s models were the formidable women who fought for suffrage, equal rights, and birth control in the nineteen-teens and twenties." --Jill Lepore

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The mystery of creation and terminal sequelitis: a discussion about Alien: Covenant

One afternoon recently, deep in the heart of the Film Doctor compound, Wickham F. and I discussed Alien Covenant:

FD: We both came out of Alien: Covenant reasonably entertained, but I had a lots of mixed feelings about the movie. I've taught the original Alien (1979) in my science fiction class, and Alien: Covenant struck me as being way way too similar to that film. It had the same music, the same scenes in terms of the way the aliens took over people, and a lot of the same plot developments. It seemed more like a remix than a sequel in which Ridley Scott was intent upon returning the viewer to favorite moments in the past in some sort of greatest hits. Alien: Covenant came across as such a bizarre cannibalizing of the original movie, which does hold up amazingly well. Part of the charm of Alien is that the technology is so crude . . .

W: It's a man in an alien suit.

FD: So much of the movie could be terrible, but because of the biology, the imagery, and the design hold up so well.

W: Yes, by H.R. Giger.

FD: I have great respect for the first movie, but this one is, what, number 7?

W: I think, ultimately, there is this inherent problem with the Alien films, in that they have to somehow get to a mysterious planet where they're all going to get killed.

FD: Right.

W: And there has to be some motivation for them to get there, and they always go unsuspectingly. There are plot structure elements that are very repetitive from movie to movie. But still, Prometheus was a very daring choice for Ridley Scott as the director, because he kept telling people, it's not really an Alien prequel. And then, the studio executives objected to that, so that at the end of Prometheus, he sneaked in an alien to accommodate the suits. Scott attempted to make a different type of movie set within the Alien universe, and because that film got so much backlash, so much confusion, basically, when people where going in expecting one thing and getting something way more philosophical with inconvenient plot holes and weird character motivations. I imagine that Scott was more recently feeling pressure to make something more akin with those original Alien movies. So, even with trailers, you could tell they were saying "There's a xenomorph, they're landing on a planet, and there are head crabs. We're going back to what you love, people. Come on out to the theater."

FD: Isn't that a form of completely selling out? At the same time, Alien: Covenant has some thought-provoking mise en scene--a massive open space with twisted roasted corpses all around that reminds one of Pompeii, massive human head sculptures.

W: I'm assuming that we're in full spoiler territory here. 

FD: Michael Fassbender's portrayal of the android David is compelling, but at the same time, Alien Covenant comes across as a bit pretentious, with David playing Wagner and sometimes reciting Shelley's "Ozymandias."

W: Meanwhile, no one makes science fiction horror movies anymore. And if they do, no one makes them like Ridley Scott. I think Alien: Covenant is something of a bait and switch. It gets you in the door, thinking they're going to touch down on a planet, and bad things are going to happen. The movie starts off that way, but then Scott keeps building upon the mythology he began with Prometheus, which is the idea of creation, of God, the question where do we come from as humans? In Prometheus, David asks one of the scientists, "Why was I made?" The guy is drinking. He's kind of a buffoon, and he answers, "Because we felt like it."  And David replies, "How unpleasant it would be if someone told you that was why you were made?" (I'm paraphrasing.) And then, David takes some of the alien goo, and puts it in the scientist's drink. 

At the time, audience members thought what the hell? And what I like about Alien: Covenant is that you have this android preoccupied with creation. We all know that Ridley Scott is obsessed with androids, even going back to Blade Runner (1982). So, Scott appears to be imprinting onto this recent movie his philosophical inclinations and questions, such as do robots have a soul? In Blade Runner, androids were obsessed with living. Due to their short longevity, they just wanted to live, and they weren't given that opportunity, because they are terrorists, basically. 

So now, Scott explores the mystery of creation by developing David who is frustrated with where he came from. So, I can understand why some fans are upset, because Scott is basically and totally doing his own thing.

FD: But he's repeating his own thing.

W: He's repeating himself to some extent, but he's also mucking with the alien mythology. He's saying, to hell with all of that James Cameron stuff in Aliens (1986). Also, Alien 3 and is stupid. I'm going to build my own weird backstory to the Alien ethos with my own agenda. 

FD: When it comes to David, he's a delightful character. I like him in the scene where all of the humans freak out because an alien pops out of somebody (and Alien: Covenant fully explores other ways that infant aliens can burst out of human flesh in unexpected places. It seems like after awhile, you are going to run out of places to pop out of), but beyond that, I enjoyed how in the midst of a scene where everyone is completely freaking over this gruesome birth, David remains utterly cool. He has nothing to fear. He's completely calm and collected, and therefore delightful. 

To keep going with spoilers, it turns out that David is a complete fan of the aliens. He enables them in various ways. He wants to encourage their reproduction and spread them across the various planets. David wants to treat them as superior beings, but ultimately these aliens never do a whole lot except go [hissing noise] and then kill people. It seems like, if the filmmakers want to treat the aliens as exceptional, then the aliens need to start developing language, but mostly, still, they are fun bugaboo horror villain characters who are not that much different from demented cats.

W: They have two mouths.

FD: Alien (1979) was so good about keeping the alien mysterious, and there was also the strong sense of the biological imperative, that the alien has to survive cleverly. Now, with Alien: Covenant, the aliens replicate, and get killed. A lot of that initial interest in their sophistication and mystery has been lost because we're getting used to them.

W: Yes. That's a problem with prequels. They tend to get rid of the mystery of villains, such as Darth Vader. I think you have to take the first Alien as a completely different beast, no pun intended. It's a slasher movie in space, stripped down, with believable characters, space truckers, etc. It's a minimalist film in comparison to the bloated blockbuster of today.   

FD: And yet, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains such a great female lead, and an influential character. With Alien: Covenant, one kind of remembers Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and Billy Crudup playing a weak captain named Christopher Oram. We also learn that James Franco played another leader who was killed off at the beginning. The crew mourns for him, but I couldn't figure out if we were supposed to be sad or happy because the character played by Franco was killed. I was cheered by the fact that he was dead on arrival like Kevin Costner in The Big Chill (1983).

W: There are some featurettes for Alien: Covenant that effectively set up the characters for the movie in ways in which the film itself does not. The featurette sets up some of the romantic subtexts and the relationships between the crew members, and you don't get any of that in the final product. As for your point about the problems with the villainous alien itself, I think that was probably due to studio pressures to return to the proven formula.

FD: In every week of 2018, we will get another tentpole sequel blockbuster-wannabe, and Alien: Covenant already seems to point in that direction. Potential audience members will get really really sick of all this rebaked reliable product, infinite repetition and terminal sequelitis.

W: This movie tries to please everyone.

FD: So, basically, you're saying that Prometheus proved too original, and so Alien: Covenant retreats from that. 

W: Yes, Prometheus took more chances. The problem with Alien: Covenant is two-fold. The characters are criminally underdeveloped, so when they get picked off, you don't care at all. They're just fodder. Secondly, Alien: Covenant relies too much on the basic horror movie trope of minor characters wandering off without much motivation into dark corners just so they can get killed. 

FD: After all, an exploration of the mystery of creation comes across as lacking if it's driven and defined by craven studio calculation. Ridley Scott deserves more than that.

W: He most certainly does.   

Other discussions with W. consider The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Loved Ones (2009), and World War Z (1013).

Monday, May 29, 2017

A sentence from the Library of America's Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z

I've been very much enjoying the recently published Shake It Up, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. It provides a jukebox sampling of lively loopy rock, soul, and folk journalism that shifts giddily from Eve Babitz seducing a cheerfully newly thin Jim Morrison in "Jim Morrison is Dead and Living in Hollywood" to the decidedly grim portrait of the up-and-coming band Led Zeppelin slogging across America (in a way that most definitely does not resemble Almost Famous (2000)) eventually traumatizing Ellen Sander in "Inside the Cages of the Zoo," from Lester Bangs not being all that sympathetic when Elvis died to Ed Ward not finding Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run all great after all. The book is full of twists when one might expect more praise--Chuck Eddy not caring much for the later Ramones, for instance. And the style often comes across as pleasantly drug-addled and deranged. I felt that this one sentence by Camden Joy's piece entitled "Total Systems Failure" deserved honorable mention here:

"Then the record companies ran out of Nirvana specialty reissues and Sonic Youth did not make another Daydream Nation and stupid Mark E. Smith assaulted his girlfriend while Elvis Costello forfeited his place in the pantheon and generation-defining classics were on the tips of the Breeders' and Uncle Tupelo's tongues when the band members turned on another as Nick Cave and Morrissey became jokes and Bob Mould and Mike Watt continued on cluelessly and the gifted pop band Christmas came back as the utterly irrelevant smug swingers Combustible Edison and traditionally deserving dues-paying types like Vic Chesnutt and the Fastbacks could not get a commercial purchase on the popular imagination as everybody from the Posies to Pearl Jam to Archers of Loaf never figured out how to make an album entirely important from start to finish, forgetting the point of pop stardom is to bring together huge clumps of otherwise unaffiliated folks, and Pavement couldn't follow up the Pacific Trim EP with the requisite jubilant breakthrough (their Let It Be) and Cat Power and the Mountain Goats defiantly clung to Dylan pre-'65 and Tom Waits was too late with The Black Rider and Yo La Tengo were inexplicably overlooked (how does that begin to happen?) and the fetish for releasing crappy home demos--whose very lack of finish lent them the steady hiss of a gradually disappearing public--succeeded only in stealing mid-decade credibility from keenly perfectionist pop stars like Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Lowe and They Might Be Giants precisely when they issued their masterpieces."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Film in Deep Focus by Morgan Honaker

Morgan Honaker examines the implications of the recycled narrative in recent movies as part of her Film in Deep Focus video essay series. I've been brooding on the extreme repetitiveness of tentpole releases ever since I watched Alien: Covenant last week (a film which has an uncomfortable number of similarities with Alien (1979)). It's a pleasure to see Morgan analyze these trends.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Film Doctor's 9 Year Anniversary

On May 18, 2008, I began copying my former newspaper movie reviews onto The Film Doctor blog. Now, almost 9 years later, I know better, but I still post things on occasion. Here's a link to my notes on Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

complicit links

---Amy Heckerling visits Criterion

---Decisions, Decisions by Cristina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin

---Matt Zoller Seitz considers Rushmore

---"The female glance is deeply attuned to textures, to shades of light. You can feel the temperature of the bodies around you, the anxiety and claustrophobia or, alternately, the expansiveness and delight. It’s an almost synesthetic mode of filmmaking, focused not on plot, or narrative, but the capacity of an image to convey a feel. It forces identification with, and empathy for, the way women experience the world — an experience that’s often marked by passive observation and the rhythms of the domestic world. Scenes shot in this way can feel paranoiac, distracted, and disjointed, but that’s just the reality of living in a world where your body, your value, your power is constantly surveilled. If the male gaze disassembles and disempowers, then the female glance puts that world back together on its own terms." --from Anne Helen Petersen's "The Radical Feminist Aesthetic of The Handmaid's Tale"

---Richard Kelly's filmmaking tips

---“The problem is audience behavior. People are going to movies less and less, and when they're going, everyone's going to see the same movie.”

---"[T]here is mounting anxiety among theater owners, studio executives, filmmakers, and cinephiles that the lights may be starting to flicker."

---"Why does everyone hate Anne Hathaway?"

---"Get Out and the Death of White Racial Innocence" by Rich Benjamin

---"Well, in this case, there was a script, which was the evolutionally history of the universe [audience laughs]. And lately – I keep insisting, only very lately – have I been working without a script [To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song], and I’ve lately repented the idea. The last picture we shot, and we’re now cutting, went back to a script that was very well ordered. There’s a lot of strain when working without a script because you can lose track of where you are. It’s very hard to coordinate with others who are working on the film. Production designers and location managers arrive in the morning and don’t know what we’re going to shoot or where we’re going to shoot. The reason we did it was to try and get moments that are spontaneous and free. As a movie director, you always feel with a script that you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. And with no script, there’s no round hole, there’s just air. But I’m backing away from that style now." --Terrence Malick

---David Bordwell's analysis of a scene in A Quiet Passion

---"Looking at To-Be-Looked-At-ness--Feminist Videographic Criticism" by Catherine Grant

---Mark Freeman considers The Graduate

---Complicit

---“I like people pushing, people not conforming,” Kidman said. “I love the widening of the boundaries, pushing through the extremism. I love filmmakers and storytelling. I am not interested in popcorn movies. I go to see them and like to be moved by them, but as an actor I examine humanity and why we’re here.”

---trailers for HHhH, Flames, Thor: Ragnarok, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriGhost in the ShellRedoubtable, A Ghost StoryIt, and I Am Heath Ledger

---"Judge has said that one reliable source of comedy for him is the way humanity simply isn’t prepared for modernity, which ensnares us in vast systems of control in order to sustain itself. What he couldn’t have imagined while making Idiocracy in the early 2000s was that technology was about to thrust humanity into an era for which we are even more ill equipped. It was around that moment that Silicon Valley inventions — blogging platforms, social media, YouTube — began sweeping away old orders and gatekeepers in a way that was both exhilarating (because we were more in charge of our destiny than ever before) and mortifying (because we were, well, more in charge of our destiny than ever before). Idiocracy was released the same year that Time magazine heralded this new age by naming us all the Person of the Year. A decade later, Donald Trump earned that honor, along with the presidency. If anything can explain the short time horizon on which Idiocracy and reality merged — if you believe they have — perhaps it is that technology left us completely, terrifyingly, to our own devices." --from Willy Staley's "Mike Judge, the Bard of Suck"

---"Being There: American Cypher" by Mark Harris

---"The GIF as a Tool of Rereading, Resistance, and Re-narrativizing in Social Media Spaces" by Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt

---The Chameleonic Charlize Theron

Friday, April 14, 2017

The endlessly exasperating 20th Century Women by Mike Mills

Last weekend, I watched, or tried to sit through Mike Mills' rather lengthy 20th Century Women on Blu-ray, in part because I have great respect for many of the actors involved, and also because I liked Mike Mill's 1979 internet radio station. Sitting through the movie, however, proved to be a traumatic experience in which I relived all of the rage and sheer angst provoked by Mike Mills' previous movie entitled Beginners (2010) (Mills' earnest movie-making style gives me the unholy fantods). I did, however, manage to write down some notes on 20th Century Women, which follow: 

1) Such acting talents! Such skills in casting! Such a terrible movie.

Many years ago, Annette Bening had a role as a seductive soulless con woman in The Grifters (1991). Oh, how I miss those days.  Now, Bening plays Dorothea, a Birkenstock-wearing earth mother of 1979, the maternal glue who brings together various quirky characters. She endlessly worries over her frail sensitive 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) who is just trying to learn how to be a man just before Reagan's '80s and Mtv hits the scene in Santa Barbara, California.

2) A typical scene in 20th Century Women:

After getting off of his skateboard, Jamie encounters his mother in the kitchen of their funky 1979 house. He gazes soulfully off into the distance, his lip quivering slightly. 

"What about my feelings?" cries Dorothea. She lights a menthol cigarette.

 "I can never have children," cries out Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who plays a red-dyed head artist from New York City estranged for her mother, but who still enjoys dancing, flailing around to 1979 new wave bands like Talking Heads. Later, someone will write "Art Fag" on Dorothea's Volkswagen Bug. This term designates that some prefer Black Flag over Talking Heads, but the problem is that Mike Mills wouldn't know how to depict a genuinely punk character even if she kicked him with her Doc Martens in the head.  

3) I can see exactly why Bening, Elle Fanning, Gerwig, and Billy Crudup would go for Mike Mill's screenplay, because they get to emote and re-examine their deeper feelings in every scene. If their characters' home was on fire, they would probably die because they'd be too busy therapeutically pausing to consider how they might emotionally react to the fire just before it mercifully burnt them alive. Billy Crudup gets to play William, who looks and acts exactly like Russell of the infinitely superior Almost Famous (2000). Why wouldn't Crudup want to return to one of his best roles? William is not sure what to do. Should he sleep with Abbie, or kiss Dorothea, or fix car engines, or make bowls and open a ceramics shop? Or, how about Elle Fanning, who plays Jamie's platonic friend Julie? She likes to lie next to Jamie at night in bed, but she can never get romantically involved with him because he's too smart and sensitive and inclined to explore his feelings, etc. Abbie, meanwhile, can never have children, but that proves (spoiler alert) untrue, but not until after Mills can milk that bit of drama over and over in a very sensitive fashion. Did I mention that all of the characters watch Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech? Be advised: everyone dances together towards the end of the movie in a hotel room. Dorothea lights another menthol cigarette. Jamie meanders down a hill on his skateboard.

4) Mills has so much trouble bringing this endlessly meandering ensemble drama into some sort of landing after flattering each movie star with his or her star-making scene. . . . .

At this point, my notes gave out. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Emma Watson and the Evil Disney Hegemony: 5 notes on Beauty and the Beast

1) In a sense, Bill Condon's live-action Beauty and the Beast is Emma Watson's debutante ball, her first major starring role (aside from the beast, and he's diminished by the computer-generated imagery). The French Revolution-era fairy tale also makes Beauty and the Beast Watson's first historical drama. After her work as Hermione Granger, she tended to choose ensemble roles in movies like Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring (2013), where her character Nicki stood out for her crass American consumerism and vanity, i.e. the opposite of Hermione. Watson didn't seem to fully know it at first, but one could claim that she became the break-out star of the extremely profitable Harry Potter movies in part because J. K. Rowling marginalized Hermione as Potter's sidekick, and therefore she became the most compelling character compared to Ron Weasley (the nondescript redhead played by Rupert Grint) and the rather dutiful Harry. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe has since distinguished himself in the London play production of Equus by gouging out the eyes of horses in the nude, or, more recently, by playing a flatulent corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016), a movie which I have deliberately refused to see (in part because I cannot abide Paul Dano). In other words, of the three original leads of the Harry Potter juggernaut, Emma Watson has come out of it as arguably the most credible star.

2) As we get introduced to Belle in her decidedly provincial French town (Gascony), I remembered that the Disney cartoon version of Belle stood out more for her large eyes. I had heard that Watson was the original star in mind for the makers of La La Land, and if one thinks about it, Emma Stone has the freakish anime look that would suit Belle. As Belle walks along singing "There must be more than this provincial life!", the villagers call her odd in part because "her looks have got no parallel" even though she's always got "her nose stuck in a book." Now, when the villagers sang this in the 1991 cartoon version, it was obviously true. In the live-action version, Emma Watson does not exactly stand out in the same way. Director Bill Condon keeps finding ways to emphasize her, at one point making Belle the dominant contrast as the rest of the village freezes as only she walks by, but Watson still strikes me as the kind of character actress who can blend into a movie (such as, say, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)) rather than command the focus of a scene as Belle. In short, one thinks of Emma Watson's recent work for the United Nations, and how she's perhaps too smart by half to be in a Cinderella-esque Disney extravaganza at all.

3) But perhaps, that's the main clever thing of Bill Condon's version. We've been waiting for a Watson vehicle that places her front and center of a very expensive production, and now that she's in one, she doesn't quite fit, and that tension makes the usual bland Disney pap somehow more effective, and more striking, even with its magic resurrections, its funny CGI sidekicks, its syrupy songs, and its ballroom dancing in the iconic yellow dress with a quickly tamed CGI teddy beast. Belle and Watson do share an extreme high regard for reading and books, but in the limited world of Beauty and the Beast, Belle can only go back and forth between provincial Gascony and an enchanted castle of pre-revolutionary 18th century France (with only a brief sojourn in an attic in Paris). Emma Watson, in dramatic postmodern contrast, has a heck of a lot of more feminist options, including the one of starring in the live-action version of her favorite Disney movie.

4) One critic wrote that she has doubts about Watson choosing this Disney vehicle. Doesn't it undermine her intelligence, her edgy roles chosen since the grim dark Potter world mercifully ended in 2011? Isn't Watson selling out to endless Disney hegemonic brainwashing merchandising, its savvy corrupt multi-media synergized machinations that gets otherwise intelligent adults to visit Disney World once or twice a year at obscene expense just so they can feel that Proustian youthful bit of manufactured Disney magic? In the same vein, I still sort of like a McDonald's Big Mac, but I know that's due to skillful TV marketing, advertising of the McBurglar and the smiling red-footed Ronald affecting my innocent brain many years ago before I had any way to resist it. So do so many brainwashed Americans pour into Disney World every year as they pay somewhere around $14,000 to fly in, stay in a hotel on the property for a few days, and see the cartoon characters cavort under the prefab magic castle under fireworks every night with their screaming toddlers, everyone always standing in long lines as they seek to that reclaim elusive Disney joy, that "It's a Small World After All" cheerful, smiling, always smiling, they-had-better-smile-or-else, heavily copyrighted-cartoon-ride of a lifetime.

5) When I think of all that highly evil, highly profitable thought control (not to mention the absolute horrors of the Pirates of the Caribbean series that still endures--a purely redundant nightmare), I wonder how I could like the new Beauty and the Beast at all?  Yet, I did, perhaps in part due to glibly cheesy half-baked memories of a cartoon that I saw long ago, and that's what so annoying about it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"That exposed edge of the world": an interview with Adam Houle, author of Stray

A friend of mine, Adam Houle, just published his first book of poetry entitled Stray with Lithic Press. Adam was kind enough to let me interview him for the Film Doctor blog. First, here's an example of Mr. Houle's work:

The One Where the Girl Died in Woods Close to Home

It started when a filament popped
in the lone headlight
of the snow sled,

quietly, beneath the engine’s roar
and the grind of the single-track
trundle churning snow

as the girl left late
to make it home.
The blizzard, my mother

says, buried her
back-trail and without
a light she could not find

her trace. That filament,
the fine hair finely split,
brought on a deeper night,

and with it the wind conspired.
The wind banked great drifts.
It rearranged the known world’s face.

Here's the interview:

FD: What do you think of the contemporary resistance to poetry? What advantages do poetry have over prose?

AH: What resistance there is is a particular type that seems steeped in distrust. Distrust that there’s a “hidden meaning” that the poem or poet or teacher will use as a weapon; distrust that poems don’t “do anything”; perhaps distrust because advocates for poems over-sell a piece or group of pieces and, when that piece doesn’t have the earth-shattering results promised, the hearer suspects either the poem or the self are defective in some way. Too often I think poems are presented as puzzle boxes painted black with a busted latch that’s latched from the inside anyway, and so what’s the point? But poems need time and space, and they are best met on their own terms. They’re not instrumental; rather they are worthwhile unto themselves as themselves. The act of reading carefully and with empathetic attention slows us down, it asks more of us, and I find a lot of pleasure in that process. Sitting down to read a poem need not be a hallowed event separate from the world. A poem can be a prismed look into that world, and I find my eyes are fresher when I’m also spending time reading and writing poems.

I think too that there’s a perception that poems are narcissistic little things written by narcissistic little souls, but that’s just absurd. I mean, if you go see a movie, and it’s a bad one, you don’t swear off all movies, right? You read a bad novel, and you think: that’s it. Prose is awful. That sounds really shortsighted. But it seems like we don’t have a problem doing that to poems. There is a lot of great work out there, and new pieces published all the time. There are magazines publishing excellent poems issue after issue, poems that could speak to all sorts of folks from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. So, should you come across one that you don’t like, big deal. Move on. It’s such a rich field.

But I think that’s true of prose, too. The advantage that, say, a lyric poem has over a twenty-page short story is a temporal one. The physical act of reading down the page takes less time with a poem, which I think also works against the poem in that someone might, wrongly, assume it has less heft or significance or something like that. It’s just a little song, after all. But I think experiencing poems on their own ground should be a part of all our lives. Sometimes, I, with great sneakiness, start my classes a few minutes early and just read a poem I recently enjoyed. I say: Hey, listen to this cool thing I read. And then I read that cool thing. No commentary, no quiz, no paper assigned. Just a minute and a half or whatever to listen to a poem.

So that’s an advantage. I mean, I can’t take a few minutes before class to read Moby-Dick, right? Poems are companions to a thoughtful life, and I guess I get bummed when I hear someone say how awful poetry is. That said, I don’t need to get too bent out of shape. Poetry doesn’t need me to defend it. It’s crafty and wily, and it will be okay with or without me.

FD: How would you describe your aesthetics?

AH: I don’t know. That’s the short answer. The longer is this: I’m trying to get the words right in their right orders. I like speakers jolted to speak, to make structure of experience or psychological states, of both, to enlist artifice and authenticity. Poems are stylized, they’re crafted things that should seem essential, that they could not be otherwise. There’s pruning and distillation, a tautness in the language that, for me, is primarily important. And that starts with the line—and as the lines tumble down the page, I like when I’m engaged by vibrancy in voice, in image, in sound, in the singleness of the poetic moment being offered up, that builds on itself and organizes its own internal logic. Show me a possible world. Show me a possible self. I think poems memorialize through attention to how they operate. I like knottiness and texture, part luxury purse and part mucky rucksack that carry and convey something essential about the world in which they exist.

FD: Why do so many of your poems have such cold imagery?

AHStray isn’t really a warm book, is it? When I was organizing the poems, culling, structuring the book’s arc, looking for unnoticed recurrences, thematic echoes and the like, it became quite clear to me how much I identify with the sharpness of the winter world. It wasn’t intentional in the composition, revising, editing process. But I saw I had written a lot of poems, and it was time to get them into a larger shape, to curate and structure a manuscript. And there’s something evocative about a winter landscape. It’s brutal and unforgiving and elegant and austere. The sight lines are crisp, and in winter I truly feel like I’m on a planet, a living rock hurtling through space. So you have that exposed edge of the world sort of feeling, and then, if we increase the magnification, there are quiet dramas and sorrows and joys unfolding right there. I think much of Stray tries to come to find a shape for that.

In college, I lived in this little back apartment in Green Bay for a couple years. Half the place was heated on my dime; the other half by the landlord (illegal addition, electric heat, you get the drift). So, I blocked the warm half, killed the heat I had to pay for, and swept snow out of my kitchen most mornings from November through March. The cold must have seeped into my psyche.

FD: Why do you tend to favor formal poetry, such as the sonnet?

AH: Formal considerations help me speak to tradition; poems are shaped things—they have contours that I like to think make expressive and evocative sense. For me, the sonnet and its relatives in Stray offer a counterpoint to the thematic straying throughout the collection. It’s a formal return, then, and I hope offers echo, or a refrain of sorts, to the collection as a whole; there’s a rhetoric to the sonnet that makes sense to me. It’s nimble, it’s flexible, and it offers compression that, when it’s well wrought, lets the poem sing spontaneously within a frame. That’s the authenticity and artifice I mentioned earlier—it’s a worthwhile tension, a richness that I admire in so many poems I read.

FD: What do you make of the poetic tendency to write about animals?

AH: Wonder. That’s the first word that comes to mind. I’m in awe of life, and I think about the ways the world we make brushes against the world we find. For me, it’s attentiveness and openness to what’s missed in the day-to-day—the snippets of song and the suggested narratives of the animal world. I don’t think I’m doing the animals in my poems any great favors by writing about them. I’m just trying to pay homage to the world, to memorialize it in some small way. At the same time, I’m also aware that I’m responding to some necessary part of myself.

FD: Could you guide us through the writing process for, say, "The Least of Wonders," or is that a dumb intrusive question?

AH: That’s neither dumb nor intrusive. For each draft, for me at least, the process is dictated by the poem. I try to see clearly what a draft’s doing. Most drafts start with an image, a small bit of a line, a phrase that sort of sticks sideways in my mind. That ends up in the notebook, and as I follow the sound or the sense, I realize that it’s something that should get over to the computer. Perhaps it’s only a few stanzas, but I’ll type it, print it, and work on it more in pen. Changing the medium helps. Carrying the draft with both print and handwritten stanzas gives me some distance and clarity. “The Least of Wonders” first appeared in Jelly Bucket out of Eastern Kentucky University as a very different poem. The revisions that I hope made it a stronger poem happened in fits, with lots of other poems drafted in between. Those in between poems taught me things “The Least of Wonders” needed.

After grad school, the early morning hours of concentrated work became harder to find, so I’ve had to be more diligent in my conscientious working habits. Part of that is being okay with working in small spaces—a half hour here, jotting down nonsense rhymes for fun when I’m waiting for a meeting to start, that sort of thing. One thing it’s shown me, though, is how important poems are to me.

FD: Advice for young poets?

AH: Read widely and without prejudice. Write diligently. Don’t apologize for doing either. That’s advice to me, too. I feel very young.

FD: What motivates you to sit down and revise and develop your next collection on a pleasant spring day when you could be relaxing and enjoying yourself outside instead?

AH: I can do both, though. I find the hard work of trying to write poems well a true pleasure. My home office has a window, and I can look out there, see what the neighbor cats are getting into. I can take the notebook to the porch. I can take the dogs walking while hashing through some ideas, thinking about lines, or trying to think nothing at all and otherwise taking in the day on its own. For me, it’s not a beautiful spring day that gets in the way; it’s the other obligations. I take those obligations seriously, and it’s an honor to do so. But I also need emotional and psychological space to work, to say nothing of time. But the work gets done because it must. I’m happier and more effective when I have poems waiting.

FD: What do you think of promoting your work through readings, interviews, etc.? (I'm thinking of Don DeLillo, who I hear refuses to promote his work.)

AH: I think a lot about my intention when it comes to promotion. More important than promoting my work, I hope I’m promoting poems and community and attentiveness, maybe a line or stanza or whole poems sort of rattle around and glom on to the mind and heart of a hearer. That’s what happened to me, at least, in high school to a certain degree and certainly in college and grad school, when our reading series brought in writers who memorialized things that mattered to them, and their verve, energy, and generosity at the podium and in the classrooms changed me in small, important ways. I felt less alone, less lost in my head—here were folks who worked hard to share a flash of vision, a structuring moment that resonated, invisible strings vibrating across the auditorium or wherever. So there we all are, engaged, entertained, listening to language structured, I hope, to do something of consequence, to broaden us, deepen us, humor us, mark us in some small way. It seems really human to do that, to want that, and I support being human.

The same human urge is true for interviews. We’re curious. We like insight. We like knowing things about books that evoked something in us. That seems reasonable. But it’s also reasonable for an author to dislike the whole process. I read once that James Joyce was asked why Ulysses was so long. Joyce responds with something like if he could have paraphrased it he wouldn’t have had to write it. So, what’s DeLillo have to say about Underworld that he didn’t say in Underworld? Also, who wouldn’t prefer getting the work done to talking about how some work gets done? I feel that way, but I also think generosity matters. And we must eat. For many, I think it’s both pragmatic and idealistic to both give readings and provide interviews to promote the work at hand but also literature or art in general. Good readings and good interviews can do both: sincerely promote a single work as part of a larger thing happening in the world, a diverse and faceted and rebellious thing where people get words on pages.

FD: Why do you repeat words on a given line? Can you give an example?

AH: The best example of that repetition in Stray is probably “Earthworm Flooded Out in Rain.” So, there, the speaker’s sort of lamenting the crappiness of how an earthworm dies after a big rain washed it out. I always thought that sucked. You make it through the flood, but then you’re up on the sidewalk or whatever, and the sun bakes you because you can’t get back to the dirt. So, in that one, it’s a pooling of sonic energy. For me, the repetition of “dappled” in such a short space creates an insistence, a cycling or charging of sorts. It allows the speaker and the reader to spiral for a moment before moving on. It has the same effect in “Night Studies,” but with different expressive potential. It’s echoing the memorizing work the beloved does with her Latin studies. I see that sort of repetition, in a general sense, as internal rhyme. That the preceding consonant sounds would make the two appearances of “dappled” not actually be rhyme seems inaccurate. I mean, maybe it’s uninteresting as a rhyme, but I don’t think that’s true either. In any event, that sort of repetition adds a sonic insistence that I like—it’s a bit hypnotic, a bit hymn-like, or chant-like.

FD: What do you think of rhyme in contemporary poetry?

AH: Poems make patterns; they have a shape, a form, a feel. Rhyme can be lovely and memorable and fresh. I remember reading a review of a book that used rhyme as a dominant patterning throughout the collection. The reviewer said it’s like listening to a friend with a lot of neat things to say who just happened to speak in rhyme. I loved that description because it touches on both the artifice and authenticity of the poems. Rhyme creates expectations for the reader, and when those expectations are both met and messed with, the results can be so satisfying as a reader and as a writer. There’s a tension between the orderly movement and the vagaries of the piece itself, and that’s exciting. It offers a framework for the play of the lines, and the play of the piece as a whole. And when that’s handled well, I’m invested as a reader. I respond to both the unexpectedness, the jolt of the poem, and the fulfillment of the sonic contract the poem made.

That said, a poem using pure end-rhyme that does so with less-than-successful results calls far more attention to itself than, say, an unmemorable open form poem. That poorly-rhymed poem sort of blinks like a church out in the county that uses neon signs. Well, not like that. I’d like to see that. I think, though, that the sound for poems like that are probably the least of the concerns. Usually, the rhetoric of the poem, the emotional / intellectual movements are sort of weak. The expected rhymes can be symptomatic of expected responses or nebulous, generic responses to the situation at hand. We’re probably lacking concrete significant details, a directed speaker, etc…we’re lacking a lot of things likely because the poem grew too enamored with its own end rhyme. The Love/Dove, June/Moon sort of stuff. But the whole line matters—I mean, what if we go:

“Honey Boo-Boo weighs down the mind of Mama June/ who smokes out back and aims her cherry at the moon”—so now we have rhyming hexameter couplets about the tv stars using the dread June/Moon rhyme. We also have a little drama unfolding, and the strange gesture in the image of the Mama June lady pointing her cigarette at the moon while mulling over her daughter. Maybe it could work. What we’re really worried about with rhyme, though, is “I loved you with all my heart all June / and we kissed under the summer moon,” right? A little vague, a little expected. But I’d say that the unsuccessful end-rhyme is one of a few things that could be addressed.

FD: How often do you abandon poems?

AH: Every chance I get. I take ‘em to the swamps, tell them they’re better off without me, and fold them into paper boats and send them on their way. I sprinkle them with turtle food too, so they get eaten.

I’ve become pretty diligent about seeing poems through a few different drafts before I either full-on commit or put them into the abandonment file on my computer. I’ll filter through there from time to time to see what might strike me. But, for the most part, I abandon a poem when I lose interest. I don’t really see misshapen stanzas or a few lines going nowhere as a poem I abandon, though. That’s exercise or a start to something that will come around again. So, I think that when a poem or starts are going nowhere, I’m just recycling them, composting them. If the image, line, metaphor, or genesis are urgent enough or deeply rooted enough, they’ll come around again. Right now, there are some poems I refound from last year. They’re works in progress. So, they were abandoned, but when I went through some old draft work, I found them, read them, and didn’t cringe at some of the work there. I’ll revisit.

FD: Do you find some subjects (such as, say, multinational corporations) not conducive for poetry? Are you careful about the ideological implications of your work?

AH: I try to get the poem right. I try to be emotionally and intellectually honest. I try to be accurate and find fruitful juxtapositions of sounds and sense. It’s an ideology of attentiveness, and I think that matters. I respond to the world in specifics, though. I don’t think in terms of movements or ideologies. That’s not say there aren’t implications, because of course there are. I write from my own limited, tentative, and tenuous grasp on the world, and that’s bound to change over the course of my life. So I hope that my work rings honest, sincere, and well crafted with people. I hope the voice is compelling. I hope readers enjoy the poems, that something sticks with them, slows them down a bit. But I don’t sit down to write and say, okay! Let’s write one that a Marxist would really appreciate. Or I really want to burn the Tea Party folks with this.

Speaking of Marxists, I don’t think multinational corporations are inherently off limits to poems. They’re part of the world, after all, for better or worse. Do I feel moved to write about them? Not overtly, not consciously. Images have found their way into poems that conjure corporate-y things. But that’s in service to that particular poem and not part of a larger project. I think it’s less about subject and more about execution. Compel me. Move me. Show me the private history of one against the backdrop of a world in crisis. Teach me something about being on earth.