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Thumbs Up for “Three Masters”

My latest film criticism, “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience,” excerpted in the previous post, is recommended reading for the week at RogerEbert.com. If that doesn’t get you to read, I don’t know what to do with you. (But I’ll think of something.)

A further excerpt:

In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10

Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?

Read the rest here.

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Three Film Masters

My latest film criticism is available now at Bright Lights Film Journal. “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience” addresses the question, as the tag line has it: “Is the filmmaker tyrant, aesthete, ringmaster, or hermit?

It is commonly claimed by artists that they create for themselves. Wrote Stanley Fish, to whom I respond,”If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about.” Fish called the consolation and comfort of art a “rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification.”

“Of course,” said Fish, “the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.”

I challenge this stance, here particularly with regard to three filmmakers whose consideration of their audience is discoverable in their filmmaking. Spielberg is a filmmaker commonly charged with pandering to his audience. Anderson and Haneke may be characterized, peculiarly, by antagonism to their audience. When an artist claims to create only for himself, yet sets his work before a public audience, what is one to make of that? Is it contempt? Is something more complex at work?

An excerpt:

The notions of “external justification” and “effects” are complicated by the thought that the reader, viewer, or listener is the artist himself. I think, of myself, for instance, that I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is me, with my sensibility, only smarter, someone who can read – decode – without knowing, as the reader, everything I as the writer write, or encode, and more. I wish, then, to consider with regard to three modern filmmakers and their most recent (at this writing) films – Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master, and Michael Haneke and Amour, all released in 2012 – where they stand, as filmmakers, in relation to “I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do” and “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Because the relationship of the filmmaker to his artistic act and also to his viewer is my focus, I wish very briefly to begin with their relationship to my viewership.

Remarkably, for completely different reasons, all three films are works I do not imagine ever viewing in their entirety again. Lincoln is a film I simply do not regard highly enough. I anticipate encountering it on television in the future and pausing to enjoy particular scenes, mostly for the pleasure of watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary act of possession. I do not believe in the future that the film will be especially esteemed for more, though certainly its supporting performances are very fine too, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay offers a vivifying extraction of the personalities and politics.

While I have been an admirer of Anderson and think There Will Be Blood a magisterial achievement, I found The Master almost unbearable and nearly impossible to sit through, which I managed only out of cineastic duty. Despite the nearly universal critical encomia, I do not personally know a single individual who did not hate the film.

Of Amour, I can say that my disinclination ever to sit through the whole film again is based tellingly and contradictorily in Fish’s observation that “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Toibin’s admiring readers had been profoundly touched by his artistic realization of their painful experiences, which is to say moved both by the artistry of the realization and by the painful fulfillment of the art’s effect. They did not separate the two. Nor I with Amour. My response to its artistry is refined to a form of admiration beyond only aesthetic pleasure, in which the bleakness of the emotional response is inseparable from the “value of the [filmmaking].” The aesthetic pleasure resides in the artistic compulsion of the craft, which is precisely to seek its “external justification” in the profound and painful verisimilitude of its effects.

Whatever Haneke is compelled to do with an image, with mise en scene, in for instance the closing shot of Isabelle Huppert’s Eva entering the apartment of her now dead parents and feeling their absence, the unsentimentalized empty space of their having vanished completely from the world, that compulsion is unfulfilled if the bleakness of Eva’s realization is not stunningly visited upon the viewer just as it is upon her.

Read the rest here.

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Season’s Jeer and Cheer

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No doubt many will be ritually watching It’s a Wonderful Life this holiday season. I recall with satisfaction when my brother, Jeff, and I discovered the film on late night television after a print was finally turned up in distributor mothballs, many years before the film became, for some, the tiresome phenomenon it has now long been: the Pachelbel canon of movies.

There is another Jimmy Stewart film waiting to be similarly discovered, the very next film, in fact, that Stewart made after Wonderful LIfe, William Wellman‘s 1947 Magic Town. The largely forgotten Wellman directed the first A Star Is Born as well as Jimmy Cagney‘s The Public Enemy. He teamed on this film with Robert Riskin, who wrote, interestingly, several of the famous Capra films, though not Wonderful Life. Magic Town is probably the best Frank Capra film not made by Frank Capra (much as I think Roman Polanski‘s Frantic – with Brian DePalma‘s Obsession second – the best Alfred Hitchcock film not made by Alfred Hitchcock).

In Magic Town, Jimmy Stewart’s character arc is reversed from that of the previous film. He plays a cynical if naturally “charming” pollster who surreptitiously seeks to use the mathematically and naturally perfect American small town of Grandview in order to advance his career. In the process, he ruins the town and then has to save it, discovering his goodness. Jane Wyman plays the daughter of the editor of Grandview’s newspaper, the lovely and decent, but wily foil to match the big city huckster. As in any Capra Capra film, there is a full cast of supporting characters – and a town meeting hall with a pot belly stove.

Like its predecessor, the film was a commercial flop. It remains so obscure that there is to be found only this “charming” clip on the web.

 

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CineFile – Drive

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with Ryan Gosling, by Nicolas Winding Refn.

Primal eruption  and withdrawal.

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Go to the Theater this Sunday

Last Sunday on the sad red earth saw the thirteenth and concluding installment of the film noir Double Down. (You can catch up with DD here. Man murders his rich identical twin, assumes the twin’s identity, and pursues the same woman, a detective, as a lover – what’s not to like?) Beginning this weekend, the Sunday Matinee turns to drama, in a play that treats the kind of political themes that interest so many readers of this blog.

What We Were Thinking Of is a drama of 60s generational conflict set against the backdrop of the culture wars and the Gulf War of 1991. Like another world, isn’t it?

1971. When you’re young, intellectual and arrogant, violence can be twisted into a justifiable act. But 20 years later, the consequences of your actions can suddenly come back to haunt you.

AJA

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Cine-File: I Am Love

Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is film in its most fully realized nature. It is a film of such mastery that analyses of its craft and expression, already appreciated, will grow over the years. It is the kind of art produced on those rare occasions when an artist’s vision and his insight into how to craft that vision – how to control, coordinate, modulate, alternate, choose, and sustain his elements – achieve what once we thought of as a kind of divinely inspired union.

Some, who are accustomed to think of film as a medium of recorded action, within the scene and in the cut from shot to shot, will find the movie slow. I Am Love is not a drama recorded on film. It is not a narrative transferred to film. As few films do, it utilizes all the film elements, including environmental sound and graphic, even plastic images, not always to advance a narrative, but to compose a whole. It is, contradictorily, one of the more sensuously rich minimalist films ever made. The Milan that first appears in winter white is stunning, yet stolid in each disconnected shot, like the old world industrial wealth and privilege of the Recchi family. The ambient noises are environmental piano notes collecting with the images to arrange a whole. The dialog is pared to the essential, every exchange – from the response of the paterfamilias to his granddaughter’s birthday gift, to the clashing notions of the two grandsons of what kind of businessman the elder Recchi has been – weighted with an importance easily overlooked. Even the brief appearance of a young Indian-American businessman, replete with turban, to engineer a takeover of the family business, carries with it lightly the film’s clash of contending forces. He is, in his internationalism, a sign of the new millennium’s global economic forces overwhelming Milan’s old world, yet he facilely offers neoliberal economic bromides that tell us, really, only that the location of the money and power is changing. Long scenes have no dialog. The film is carried from moment to moment by small incidental dramas that build to a stunning conclusion.

At the center of the drama is Tilda Swinton’s Emma Recchi, the wife of Tancredo, the son who inherits the family business along with his own, eldest son. As we encounter her, Emma – who we later learn is Russian, brought back to Italy by Tancredo from an art collecting journey – is the orchestrator of the artful composition that is the Recchi’s high styled and formal world. Then she meets the young chef who is her eldest son’s new business partner and friend.

The portrayal in film of couples falling in love is always a uniquely challenging enterprise, for all the centrality of it to film history. In stage dramas, long, finely wrought scenes can give us two people sharing their personal histories, feelings, and ideas as people mostly will in life. Film will not well tolerate that long focus on words, so filmmakers tend to sketch out the basis for a connection in minimal amounts of dialogue that sometimes can carry their heavy suggestive load and often cannot. There is heavy reliance on the “chemistry” of the two actors to provide that superficial yet invisible ingredient of love that will make it believable.

I Am Love takes neither route. Antonio is the chef as artist, as Emma has been the household artist. Antonio’s cooking is his sensuous way of being in the world, and Emma – as in the lunch scene in which she first tastes Antonio’s food and her companion’s disappear in shadow – is simply ravished by it. What develops between them is simple and direct in a way that nothing else is in Emma’s life, until the end, when three different kinds of love for a dish of food determine the course of events. The dramatic, climactic scene, played out completely without dialog to the soundtrack music of contemporary composer John Adams, music that is not a support to the film, but fully another element, is both a return to heightened silent movie acting and reminiscent of the kind of stylized stage movement one might see in a Robert Wilson stage production.

As Emma is ravished by Antonio’s nature, so will many viewers be by Guadagnino’s film. The final, surprising image, after the end credits have begun – slow moving, mysterious, recessed in shadows – will take its place among the signature images in film history.

AJA

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