Thursday, March 25, 2010

Narrative Reveal and Act Structure in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket

(note: This was a paper I used for a class on American Cinema since 1970 which I received a 98% on. I am reprinting this in slightly edited form for my two-and-a-half readers.)

As one of the many examples of the independent film movement of the 1990’s, it isn’t too surprising that Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket doesn’t appear to follow typical Hollywood structural and stylistic traits. On the surface level, the film takes the conventions of the gangster film and turns them upside down, focusing on seemingly well off characters (with the exception of Dignan) enticed by the romantic notion of living a life of crime, rather than working class characters who see it as their only way out. Perhaps because the characters were already relatively well-off, the motivations for their actions Bottle Rocket are not always obvious and clear-cut, and they are revealed at a very different pace than a typical Hollywood film would reveal them at.

The plot itself is continuously unfolding with relatively unpredictable events, which seems to stand in clear opposition to the “situation-resolution” plots in many Hollywood films. For example, in the film Die Hard, there is a very clear trajectory for the plot by the end of the first act: once the terrorists invade Nakatomi plaza, it’s pretty clear that most of the rest of the film is going to be spent ousting the terrorists, and the end will likely be a climactic duel. In The Untouchables, we can count on the downfall of Al Capone as the climax right after the opening shot, no less. Bottle Rocket, on the other hand, presents many different situations throughout the film, often followed by new developments and new situations. While the climax of the film is not completely unrelated to its set-up, it is not as easily foreseeable as the climax of films such as Die Hard or The Untouchables.

Because of this more complex structure, it is a bit more difficult to divide Bottle Rocket comfortably into Kristin Thompson’s four-act structure she outlines in Storytelling in the New Hollywood. The set-up and complicating action have very clear cut turning points, which as Thompson defines as the shifts of the protagonists’ goals in different directions which signal the end of the act (Thompson 27). While the turning points in the development, climax and epilogue are also quite clear cut, their running times are noticeably shorter than the set-up and the complicating action. Because of this, the film could be said to have either a three-act or four-act structure, though it’s also possible to cut the complicating action into two parts and label it a five-act structure, which is almost unheard of for a film that only runs 87.5 minutes (excluding the end credits), but is perhaps the most fitting.

The Set Up: You can’t save everyone

Bottle Rocket begins with a departure. Anthony Adams is about to leave from a mental health clinic, in a way meant to convince his friend Dignan that he is escaping, though in actuality, the clinic was a voluntary institution Anthony had checked himself into. This very first scene of the film already establishes important character traits about its dual protagonists, Anthony and Dignan. Dignan seems to clearly love the execution exciting, if illegal, plans. This is further embellished upon in the next scene, with Dignan revealing to Anthony a plan which goes many years into the future, through which they live a life of organized crime and eventually “go legit,” seemingly a reference to The Godfather.

Anthony’s main trait at this point in the film seems to be his willingness to encourage Dignan to follow his dreams, as ridiculous as they may be. This part of his character is established through the conversation with his doctor as he climbs out the window, with the doctor reminding Anthony to not try to “save everyone,” though it soon becomes apparent that Anthony isn’t taking that advice to heart at this point in time.

The film doesn’t wait long to dive into Dignan’s plans, which include a practice run, which subsequently turns out to be of Anthony’s own house, and an actual robbery of a book store, all in order to join “the team” of a local thief named Mr. Henry. The focus of the rest of this segment is developing Dignan’s character, mostly through perception of him by others as being someone who is not to be taken seriously. This is most apparent through the characters of Anthony’s younger sister Grace and the workers at the book store they rob. Grace claims to see Dignan as a likable guy, but her reaction to Anthony’s mention of him is less than enthusiastic. While planning for the robbery, he threatens that there will not be a “gang” (surprisingly not using the word “team”) when he feels that Anthony and Bob aren’t taking his plan seriously. During the robbery sequence, the clerks working are not afraid to insult him to his face, despite the fact that he is carrying a loaded weapon and demanding all the money in their drawer.

While Dignan is clearly a wannabe criminal at this point, Anthony doesn’t seem to have much motivation to go anywhere in life. Like the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, life seems to just happen to him, and he’s rather comfortable with it being that way. It’s established that he’s never had a job, that he abruptly left his ex-girlfriend simply for coming to the sudden realization that he did not want to see her or her friends anymore, and that his reason for entering the clinic was simply because he was tired of answering peoples’ questions. There does seem to be subtle hinting that he desires a girlfriend and/or sex, as his behavior when talking to Stacy, his ex-girlfriend’s sorority sister seems to border on being flirtatious.

A third factor in the plot comes through Bob Mapplethorpe, who is not really a protagonist of the film so much as he is the unfortunate victim of the side-effects of Dignan’s behavior. His main defining characteristics seem to be his desire to be a part of a “team,” which is a recurring motif throughout the film, and his love/hate relationship with his older brother Future Man. He comes much closer to being a criminal than Dignan or Anthony, as he grows marijuana in his yard.

Dignan’s motivation is finally revealed after the heist: Mr. Henry was his former boss at his job in the landscaping business, who suddenly fired him. As he liked that job very much, his feelings were clearly hurt by the firing ordeal. This revelation is the beginning of a turning point, and after a pop music montage which references Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (through a series of jump cuts in a car ride as Dignan shoots bottle rockets out the window of a car) and a short conversation about whether or not crime pays, the first act finishes as they drive up to a motel.

Complicating Action: Bob’s gone. He stole his car.

Act two begins in the motel the next morning, about 23.5 minutes into the film. Here begins a noticeable “lull,” a seeming shift in the pace of the film meant for introducing new subplots and furthering development of the main characters (Thompson 43). For the next half and hour, Dignan, Anthony, and (at first) Bob are laying low at the motel. Anthony takes a dive into the pool, which not only serves as a reference to The Graduate, but allows him to discover a romantic subplot when he makes his way to the surface. If his flirtatiousness with Stacy was subtly hinting that he was looking for some sort of female companionship, his first notice of Inez makes his desire much more obvious, as he follows her around the motel, talking his head off to her, despite the fact she does not understand English well at this point.

Dignan’s main concern at this point is hiding the identities of the members of his team, which as usual is not taken at all seriously by Anthony. Bob seems to be more willing to follow Dignan’s lead at first, agreeing to go to a barbershop for a haircut, but gets a reality check when his brother is put in jail for the marijuana crop that was going. This further develops Dignan’s lack of a grip on reality, as he sees laying low a far more important task than helping Bob’s brother. Dignan also betrays a bit of jealousy toward Anthony, as he seems to keep bumping into Anthony’s private moments with Inez. Whether he’s jealous that Anthony is with a pretty girl or because Inez is taking up time with his friend is unclear. All this begins the dissolution of “the team” that forms one of the major subplots of the second act.

What tempts me to cut the complicating action in half is the shift in tone at approximately 35 minutes into the film. Bob leaves, “stealing his car,” as an angry Dignan puts it. Anthony’s relationship with Inez also begins to change around this point, as soon after he has a noticeable jealous streak when she talks to another man in Spanish at a club that she, Anthony, and Dignan are visiting, and is clearly upset when she says she does not want to leave the motel with the two partners in petty crime. While she does later admit she loves him (through another motel employee, Rocky, translating her Spanish to English), this message doesn’t quite reach him as Dignan misinterprets it.

When the Dignan and Anthony do leave the motel, it’s accompanied by a pop music montage of them driving through the countryside, leading into a fight between the two of them. Like the end of the set-up, the end of the complicating action is marked by a revelation in the character of Dignan, once again elaborating how neglected he feels by society, or Anthony in particular this time, and showing his desire to be respected.

Development: It’d mean a lot to me if you let me do this one on my own.

A narrative ellipsis and time-compression montage mark the beginning of the development. Anthony reveals through a voice-over narrated letter to grace that he is living at Bob’s, and in a stark contrast to their earlier states, the two of them are now both working three part time jobs. Though he and Dignan had been fighting in the last scene, he betrays a fondness for his old friend when describing the spirit of the kids on the soccer team he coaches, which also counts as another iteration of the “team” motif. Even when Dignan’s not around, Anthony apparently has the desire to belong to a team. With Inez out of the picture, however, he has gone back to lacking any clear immediate goals, and mostly seems content just to survive.

Dignan has not changed one bit, however. He shows not only having been reunited with Mr. Henry, but with a new heist and a desire to reunite his “team” to pull off the job. Mr. Henry’s motivation for working with Dignan becomes clear: it’s not because of his skills, but because of his heart, and the fact that he lost his “team.” Anthony is unwilling to until Future Man making fun of Dignan causes him to feel sympathetic, and a desire to see Dignan succeed.

The team motif shows up in one more place to great affect when Bob rejoins. After a brief fight, Dignan tells Bob that they would like to have him on “the team.” This cuts directly to the team eating breakfast at Bob’s country club. In the background, a speaker saying “Curtis Forsem, you’re on the team” can be heard. While this little bit of humor may not add much to the overall structure, it reinforces the continuing motif and characters’ obsession with being a part of a team.

The development section ties up the loose end of the Inez storyline, too. While she’s been gone for the entirety of the development section, Anthony brings her up to Dignan while scoping out Hinckley Cold Storage, where the mistake is revealed, and it cuts to Anthony calling everyone at the motel until he finally gets through to Inez. This scene is cross cut with Dignan and Mr. Henry chatting about Mr. Henry helping with the heist. Dignan refuses his help, revealing that being a part of the team isn’t enough: he wants to be in charge of the team, to be in the position of respect, to get the respect he’s never received.

Like the first two acts, this section ends not only with a revelation about Dignan, but a piece of music taking over the soundtrack, as Anthony dances to a jazz music in celebration of his success with Inez.

Climax and Epilogue: We did it, though, didn’t we?

The success and happiness of Anthony’s dance is contrasted by a cut to the beginning of the heist, with a dramatic sound effect to emphasize the difference. The team is all in different states: Bob is nervous, Dignan is excited, Anthony seems a bit apathetic, and Kumar and Applejack (two of Mr. Henry’s men) seem like they’re not sure exactly what to do. At one point, Bob and Anthony consider leaving over the walkie-talkies, realizing that neither of them really have much reason to be taking part, but both end up staying when the heist goes massively wrong.

Dignan shows a clear lack of caring about whether or not he goes to jail. When Anthony tries to get him to save himself by retreating to Bob’s, he refuses to leave, instead choosing to stay behind and save the injured Applejack, whom Bob accidentally shot. The way in which he convinces Anthony to let him stay once again betrays that desire for respect and success as a criminal, to be finally taken seriously. However, though he’s able to get Applejack to the car, the police interrupt the scene and chase Dignan throughout the entire warehouse, arresting him.

It’s also revealed at this moment that Mr. Henry truly is an exceptional thief, and not as sympathetic as he appeared during the development. While the team was botching the heist at Hinckley, his own team was cleaning out Bob’s house. This and the chase scene is accompanied by slow motion and an old British pop song, with the song picking up pace around the same time the police begin chasing Dignan around the warehouse.

As Dignan is pushed into the police car with the car door opening, it cuts to another shot of a door opening, this time to months later, showing Anthony and Bob entering the state penitentiary to visit Dignan in prison, beginning the film’s five minute epilogue. Dignan actually seems to be doing very well in prison, seemingly just proud of the fact that they actually went through with the heist, even though it was unsuccessful. He seems somewhat surprised to hear about Bob’s house getting cleaned out. One last minor narrative thread is tied up here: Bob and Future Man have actually been brought closer together by the robbery. Surprisingly, there are no references to “the team” in this epilogue.

Bottle Rocket ends with an entrance, as Dignan is brought from the yard back into his cell, though not without first joking about Anthony and Bob breaking him out. The film refers back to its beginning, with Dignan saying, “Ain’t it funny how you used to be in the nuthouse, now I’m in jail?” In what would become typical of Anderson’s later films, the film ends moving in slow motion to Mark Mothersbaugh’s score.

Three or Four… or Five?

I have divided Bottle Rocket into four acts, based on the most clear turning points of its narrative. However, when one looks at the running times of what I’ve outlined, the films to not fall into the “roughly equal” time lengths of the four act structure (Thompson 36):

Set-up: 23.5 minutes

Complicating Action: 30 Minutes

Development: 19 Minutes

Climax & Epilogue: 15 minutes

There are two possible methods to make up for this disparity in the lengths of the acts. On one hand, one could combine the development, climax and epilogue into one 34-minute long act. This still gives a 10-minute disparity between the lengths of the set-up and the development/climax/epilogue, however, but could be justified on the grounds that the climax of the Anthony/Inez subplot is seen during the development section.

On the other hand, one could make the acts more roughly equal by dividing up the set-up and complicating action a bit differently, turning the film into a five-act structure. If one were to consider the revelation of Dignan’s motives in becoming a thief the first major turning point, the first act ends about 19.5 minutes into the film. The second major turning point would be Bob leaving the team behind at the motel, about 35.5 minutes into the film, creating a second act that is about 16 minutes long. The second half of the complicating action section – from Bob’s departure to the Anthony and Dignans’ fight – would then be about 18 minutes, thus creating a five-act structure in which all the acts are between 15 and 20 minutes long. While the five-act structure is usually reserved for lengthy films nearing three hours in length, it actually fits Bottle Rocket very well.

Perhaps the foremost reason why Bottle Rocket doesn’t fit nicely into Thompson’s four act structure is that none of the film’s major turning points appear at the film’s “mid-point,” which would be close to 43-44 minutes into the film (Thompson 31). The closest turning points would be Bob leaving the motel at 35 minutes and Anthony’s letter to Grace at 53 minutes, both far enough from the actual mid-point to cause imbalance between the lengths of the first two acts and the last two acts, especially when considering the film’s brief running time of about 87.5 minutes. Because of this, I prefer to break the film up into the five act structure.

Sources cited:

Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

3D sucks, but Avatar is decent.

I saw Avatar in 3D this weekend, and tried to approach the 3D with an open mind. I've always had a negative inclination about the technology, but the experience turned that inclination into a well-supported opinion. Not only does it not add anything to the theatrical experience, it's an eyesore that detracts from the experience. Why the 3D in Avatar is aesthetically displeasing:

1. Unless an object moves very slowly across the screen, the motion is unrealistically stuttered, almost looking like it's being lit by a strobe light.
2. Shallow focus shots look terrible. As anyone with a background in photography will tell you, the usage of a telephoto lens, which is used to get shallow focus, has a flattening effect on the image it shoots. Cameron still tried to employ 3D on these shots, and they became difficult to look at.
3. Hypersituated objects look silly. In 2D, it's one thing to have a hypersituated object at the edge of a frame get cut off. It's like something just simply isn't in a person's field of vision. But in 3D, it looks like only part of the object even exists, and becomes distracting.
4. The bright spots on screen are simply excruciating. 3D works by focusing the light bouncing off the screen in a specific direction. The low-key scenes in
Avatar have many bright spots coming from the key light on the actors bodies. The light from these bright spots becomes focused on the eyes of the viewer, and if not just causing wincing, could possibly cause eye damage if the viewer is exposed to them for long enough. Of course, I'm not an optometrist so don't take my word for it.
5. The wide angle, slower shots where the 3D itself isn't an eyesore draw a lot of attention to themselves. Since I tend to pay very close attention to the way the film is shot, this actually isn't much of a problem for me, but others who want to focus on the surface aspect of the film - i.e. the story - might be distracted.

All that being said, I found a way to combat the effects of 3D in the theater:

What Bomby will look like in theaters if 3D becomes the standard.

Since I couldn't take nearly 3 hours of aggravated assault on my eyes, I found myself trying to fight back against the screen. First, I tried taking off the glasses. The film was still watchable, though more in that poor-quality-Hong Kong-DVD way. The image was a bit blurry, but was at least more manageable. Then, I simply blinked with one of my eyes, and came to the realization that the 3D only works if I had both my eyes open.

As I mentioned earlier, Avatar is the biggest of the 3D movies thus far, and industry analysts are trying to use the success of the film as proof that 3D is "the future of cinema." The question then becomes: why is Avatar a success?
I would argue that it's mostly out of curiosity for the movie itself, not out of audience "demanding" 3D. Compare Avatar's success to Disney, who have already had a few major disappointments with 3D in the box office returns of A Christmas Carol, G-Force, and Bolt.

Considering the sizable backlash against the 3D and large amount of negative critiques, I'm pretty certain that there's going to be enough skepticism in the public that future 3D films will see diminishing returns, and eventually a repetition of the failures of 3D in the 50's and the 80's. If not, I guess I can always cover one eye.

As far as my thoughts on the movie itself go, I actually rather liked Avatar for what it was. The narrative was a bit predictable and very heavy-handed, but the art direction was appealing, the cinematography gave the actors enough breathing room, and the action sequences were well edited and very entertaining. It's by no means an excellent film, but it was enjoyable commercial fare.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A pointless outdated Kill Bill references post.

All six-and-a-half of you unfortunate souls who stumbled across this blog probably already know that Kill Bill is chock full of references to other works. For the most part, these have been covered by a lot of other blogs, most of them much better and more popular than my pathetic netrag, which means that this post is pretty trite and outdated by now. However, I think I stumbled across a reference that I haven't seen on any other places on the interwebs yet:

Does this seem like a bit of a stretch? Keep in mind that on his commentary for the Rolling Thunder edition of Chungking Express, Tarantino praised Peking Opera Blues. Here's some more crap I found on my free time that other people have probably already found:

Nothing too special here. More than any other movie, Kill Bill of course references Lady Snowblood. Most people have picked up on these two images:

Some things I have not seen get talked about. Take, for instance, this little monolog:
O-Ren Ishii seems to have Meiko Kaji's signature ominous stare:
I might be stretching a bit here, but I think this zoom is worth noting:
This is your typical action film zoom which can be seen in many action films from Japan and Hong Kong, but compare Uma's facial expression to Meiko's in the following sequence:
This is all for educational purposes (save the kids!) so don't sue me. You probably already knew that, but this line makes Blogspot happy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Attempt at a Top 10 List, a.k.a. A Futile Exercise in Tokenism

Lists are all the rage in the entertainment evaluation community. At the end of each year, various entertainment publications will come out with their annual top tens: Top Ten Albums, Top Ten TV Shows, Top 10 Movies, Top 10 Celebrity Mishaps, etc. Every once in a while, a particularly ambitious publication might attempt to calculate a definitive list of the best works of a particular medium of all time. Of all time!

There’s nothing wrong with these lists, per se, but I do have a few problems with them, personally, which I feel are a part of a minor bothersome trend within the field of art criticism. However, I will go more in depth on these later. For now, I will start my demonstration by attempting to compile a list of my top ten favorite films of all time.

What should a proper top ten list entail? Quite simply, it should be a list of my favorite films of all time. The problem comes with the fact that I’ve seen many more than ten films. Many more than ten times ten films. Probably even more than ten times ten times ten films. Since there’s no way in hell I’ll ever remember every single film I’ve ever seen, I can safely assume that the ones I don’t remember probably wouldn’t make the cut, anyway.

But even when all those are eliminated, there’s still a few hundred films that I remember liking very much. Films that often times, I find comparisons between to be futile. Surely I can’t judge The Killer by the same canons I would judge Sansho the Bailiff, can I? The truth is, I like very much a wide variety of films that are often incomparable with one another. Perhaps the best way to start a top ten list would be to come up with ten wildly different films that I love which I feel best represent my taste in cinema. Now, to come up with ten different categories:

  • Ozu and Mizoguchi should respectively be reserved a slot each for one of their films, simply because they are the masters and two of my favorite directors of all time. Choosing pretty much any Ozu would work fine, due to his stylistic consistency. The critical consensus seems to be that Tokyo Story is his best film, though I might have preferred Early Summer myself. Or did I? Or was my favorite Floating Weeds? I’m not sure, but I’m leaning toward something from the “Noriko” trilogy. As far as Mizoguchi goes, he was a bit less consistent than Ozu, but the best of his works reach a level of artistic accomplishment that most filmmakers could only dream of. I think I’ve come to a consensus with myself that Ugetsu is my favorite, but how can I ignore Sansho the Bailiff, or The Life of Oharu, or Street of Shame? Women of the Night was absolutely gorgeous, too. Pretty much any of his films I’ve seen except Yang Kwei Fei could contend for this spot.
  • A French New Wave Film. Quite simply, the French New Wave is not only one of the most important “movements” in film history, but one of my favorite. The free spirited nature of these directors changed forever the way that films are conceived and shot. This leads to a question of moral integrity: Godard or Truffaut? The answer was obviously Godard for a long time, but I’ve taken an extreme liking to Truffaut lately. On one hand, we have a wild experimenter, who challenged his viewers to think critically about the film they were watching. On the other hand, we have one of cinema’s greatest storytellers. One is completely in your face, reminding you that you are watching a film. The other is a master of narrative structure, subtly changing the ways a story is told. Perhaps the best answer to come to would be a happy medium. One of Godard’s more narrative-centered films, or one of Truffaut’s more experimental films. Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player serves as a great happy medium, don’t you think? Or what about Pierrot le Fou?
  • A New Hollywood film. For the uninitiated, New Hollywood was the movement in the 1970’s that happened when a bunch of young, educated, bratty film buffs gave the middle finger to the Hollywood establishment and started incorporating influences from the French New Wave into their films, to reinvigorate the stale state of commercial cinema’s world headquarters. The consensus is The Godfather, which is a spectacular film and a sheer joy to watch, but at the same time just a tad bit overrated. I hate to use that word to describe a film as good as The Godfather but its greatness does get blown a bit out of proportion. I think I’ll go with Apocalypse Now, a film which unfortunately we will never see anything of its kind again. At least not in the current filmmaking climate.
  • A Newfangled Chinese Art Film! Let’s expand this to Taiwan and Hong Kong, too. Wong Kar-Wai has always been one of my favorite filmmakers, but his films are much more expressionistic than most of this movement, which is marked by minimalism and subtlety. I probably should put at least one Wong Kar Wai film on this list based on that alone. I should also probably choose something from Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, or Jia Zhang-Ke. Maybe an early Zhang Yimou like Raise the Red Lantern would fit the bill. Of these filmmakers, Hou is the most experienced and respected, but unfortunately I’m mostly familiar with his more recent work thanks to the unavailability of acceptable versions of his earlier, and supposedly better, work. Jia is great, and I loved The Platform, but there are other films along the same time that I liked as much. Tsai is probably my favorite of these choices, but his films are so similar to Wong’s thematically that I’d feel redundant having both a Wong Kar Wai and a Tsai Ming-Liang film in my top ten. Perhaps if I chose Wong’s Days of Being Wild, his most subtle and rewarding film, that would solve this problem. It can also make up for my choosing a Truffaut over a Godard. It also unfortunately ignores the impact that Chungking Express had on me. What if I choose both Chungking Express and a minimalist film?
  • An action film! Oh boy, what fun this will be. Action films are very intricate and difficult to pull off, yet don’t get the respect to deserve due to the fact that they have less “deep meaning” (arbitrarily) assigned to them. A Kurosawa film would sidestep that whole “deep meaning” (whatever the hell that phrase means) barrier. The thing is, while Kurosawa was an early pioneer of action, that would be doing a disservice to the complex and dynamic action sequences found at the height of Hong Kong action cinema. If I wanted to appeal to the bigwigs, A Touch of Zen would be a good choice. The problem is, the film is a bit on the bloated side and suffers in the dramatic sequences. There’s always good room for a John Woo shoot ‘em up. I think I’ll make my choice from madman Tsui Hark’s oeuvre. Tsui made three truly great action films in Peking Opera Blues and the first two Once Upon a Time in China movies. Any of the three will do.
  • An American independent film, post-Stranger Than Paradise. If I include a Tarantino film, I’ll look like a complete noob, won’t I? However, I can’t deny how much I enjoy Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. Then there’s Richard Linklater, and his excellent films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which are two of the greatest romantic films ever made. Wes Anderson makes his nice little pageants. My favorite director of this movement is Paul Thomas Anderson, whose works are so consistently awe-inspiring that choosing a favorite is more difficult than fitting a camel being ridden by a fat rich man through the eye of a pin. Screw it, noobishness aside, I’m going to go with Pulp Fiction. Much like a lot of my generation, Tarantino was the first director whom I followed anyway.
  • Two spots left, and I could use another national cinema. Something from Italy, perhaps? No, I’m hip and current, and to prove how hip and current I am, I should choose something from an exciting, emerging national cinema. Eastern Europe in general seems to be on the rise, but anyone who knows me knows how excited I get over Korean cinema. Look at the variety of voices, too: there’s Bong Joon-Ho the Satirical, Park Chan-Wook the Twisted, Hong Sangsoo the Guy with Women Problems, Kim Ji-Woon the Versatile, Lee Chang-Dong the Heavy-Handed, Kim Ki-Duk the Minimalist. I think I can safely narrow my choices down to Memories of Murder, Lady Vengeance, and Oh! Soo-Jung. Historically I’ve always liked Lady Vengeance but right now I like Memories of Murder a lot… Memories of Murder it is!
  • One spot left. Should I choose a western? A silent film? A Hitchcock? A film noir? Citizen Kane? Something more typically mainstream? Classic Hollywood cinema? Soviet Montage? Italian Neo-realism? Erotica? I don’t have any comedies! Alright… think, Adam, think. Did Hitchcock ever direct any funny, silent westerns? God damnit. What if I expand the list to fifteen? No, then I’ll keep expanding it to include every film I’ve ever liked. Alright, let’s go with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Can’t go wrong with Leone, right? Not until someone mentions John Ford, but you all know how much I can’t stand that damn John Wayne. Yes, I know its heresy any I’m burning in hell. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Okay, so let’s review what I’ve narrowed myself down to for a safe-ish top ten:

  • An Ozu. Something from the Noriko Trilogy.
  • A Mizoguchi. Probably Ugetsu.
  • A French New Wave Film. Probably Shoot the Piano Player or Pierrot le Fou.
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Chungking Express
  • A Chinese art film. Let’s say Vive L’Amour until I’ve seen Hou’s early masterpieces.
  • One of Tsui Hark’s three best films. I’m thinking Peking Opera Blues
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Memories of Murder
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

That four of these films are less than twenty years old is a bit alarming, no? I could go back and reevaluate to catch more of film history and make myself look better, but I have another point to make.

Here comes the second hurdle, the one that induces brain aneurysms: putting them in order.

This is the part I hate. This is the part where I have to compare films from disparate genres that I would prefer differently depending what mood I’m in. The part that I’ll redo every day for the next three years, not to mention that I’ll probably see more films that I’ll think deserve a slot in here.

Because these films are all so different, I can’t simply choose a set of general canons and evaluate them all based on such. The things that make an Ozu film great are nearly the opposite of what makes a Tsui film great, as are Vive L’Amour and Pulp Fiction.

Common criticism technique would tell me that I should forget form and stylistics in lieu of content and substance. What films enlighten me as a human?

But why is this so important? Looking at art objectively, is content not simply arbitrarily assigned by the artist? Why should I applaud the artist who makes something socially conscious and not the artist who makes the thriller? Does choosing a more “meaningful” subject matter really take that much more talent and inspiration?

No, it doesn’t, and until and unless I am convinced otherwise, I will continue to posit that form always takes precedence over content. Certain subject matters might have more personal appeal, but truly great art is able to transcend that.

To put it quite simply, ordering this list would be either an exercise in maintaining the status quo or a futile quest to upset it, or maybe a bit of both. The fact that certain genres of film will never produce a film that could ever be considered to be among “the greatest” simply because of their generic status as “low art” is a disgrace to all the hard work and creativity that went into them.

And that, my friends, is why I choose to no longer attempt to make definitive numbered lists.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Official 2009 in Film Post, Part 2

Greetings to the two of you that will ever read this pathetic little blogspot. Here's what I've already seen from 2009:

First of all, the spillover from 2008 that weren't available to be seen around here until 2009:

Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar Wai)
I missed the score from the original Ashes, as outdated as it sounds, and I wasn't a big fan of the added CG. However, seeing a restored 35mm print of Ashes was well worth the price I payed for it plus more, having seen nothing but terrible quality DVD's for years. The cinematography ranks among the best ever filmed.

The Wrestler (Darren Aranofsky)
Lots of pretty tracking shots and a surprising amount of color, not to mention an excellent performance from Mickey Rourke. I'm not going to say his was better than Sean Penn's in Milk, though it's a pretty close competition. This is a major change for director Aranofsky, who I've mostly associated with less conventional narratives. While it may have the feel of a typical indie flick, it's one of the best of its kind, and definitely top 5 of its year.

Che (Steven Soderbergh)
Part one is spectacular. The colors of the cinematography are full of vibrant greens, which make the film come to life. Soderbergh made an excellent choice not to film Antonio Banderas alone in shots, which captures the spirit and ideals of Guevara. (However, one of my socialist friends might disagree, as he is opposed to guerrilla warfare due to the fact that it isn't as inclusive as Marxist ideas are supposed to be). Overall, an excellent war film.

Part two is well made, but boring. The most amusing part is spotting Matt Damon hidden somewhere in the film. At best, it gives me hope for digital cinematography, as I was completely convinced that it had been filmed on blue-tinted film stock. Things do start to pick up toward the end. Overall, a bad war film.

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Despite stiff competition, Tokyo Sonata emerged as my favorite movie of 2008. Although I'm not too familiar with Kurosawa's earlier work, I can safely say that this is a big departure from the conventional horror genre, at least. Sonata can, in fact, be seen as a horror film in its own right, due to the fact that the overall scenario could happen to pretty much anyone in today's economy. It takes some unrealistic turns, but I'm willing to suspend disbelief due to the fact that the film gets away with it so convincingly. The cinematography is steeped in Japanese tradition, and ranks as my unofficial favorite film of the year.

Departures (Yojiro Takita)
Speaking of Japanese cinematography, advertisements and screen shots of Departures mislead me into thinking it would be more Japanese-style than it actually is. While the visuals are a bit more westernized than I had hoped, it's still a thoughtful and winning experience. Perhaps it didn't deserve to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, but considering only one film from Japan could even be eligible, I'm not too disappointed.

Cyborg She (Kwak Jae-Yong)
aka, My Sassy Girl Part 3. I'm considering writing more in depth about Kwak, who I have mixed feelings about as a writer/director. This is a better example of his work. Not as ridiculously uneven as say, Windstruck or Daisy, but it doesn't quite reach the highs of My Sassy Girl, either. Kwak has a very clear formula in his screenwriting, but for the most part, it works here.

The Films from 2009 that I've scrounged up enough money to see in theaters:

Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
I notoriously disliked 300 around my friends. Despite that, I decided to actually go with the hype for once and see Watchmen. Much like Snyder's previous film, the visuals are nowhere near as intriguing as they are purported to be. Despite the well-done CGI, most of the framings are rather boring, though a few excellent shots do stay in my mind to this day. Overall, a worthwhile experience, though there was no way it could've lived up to the monumental hype surrounding it.

Away We Go (Sam Mendes)
A very stylish and enjoyable indie comedy. Also contains a grossly inaccurate portrayal of my home town of Madison. At least we were post-Hippie crazies and instead of clueless farmers. Not actually shot in Madison, by the way.

(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb)
Practically a love letter to having good taste in music, this might be the best rom com dram I've seen come out of America since High Fidelity. Speaking of which, the influence from Cameron Crowe (and a bit of Woody Allen) is very strong.

The Hurt Locker (Katheryn Bigelow)
Remind me not to have Sundance 608's lemonade while watching a movie with this much frantic camerawork. If I were not familiar with filmmaking techniques, I probably could've been tricked into thinking this was a documentary. Once I got used to the zooms (which were definitely not tracks), I enjoyed the film very much. The intensity of the bomb diffusing scenes is amazing. Perhaps not quite as good as Che Part One, but miles ahead of Part Two.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Official 2009 in Film Post, Part 1

This is more for myself than it is for the twelve people that will unfortunately stumble across this blog.

First, the films that I plan on seeing:

Theater (if Possible) Tier:
Thirst (Park Chan-Wook)
I Come with the Rain (Tran Ahn Hung)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Red Cliff (John Woo)

Possibly Theater, Probably DVD Tier:
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
Funny People (Judd Apatow)
Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki)
Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee)
The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie)
Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar)
Avatar (James Cameron)

Not gonna hold my breath for a local Theatrical Release Tier:
Written By (Wai Ka Fai) Mother (Bong Joon-Ho)
Vengeance (Johnny To)
Storm Warriors (Pang Brothers)
True Legend (Yuen Woo-Ping)
Air Doll (Hirokazu Koreeda)

Waiting for DVD/Already Missed in Theaters Tier:
Blood: The Last Vampire (Chris Nahon)
New York, I Love You (Shunji Iwai, other people)
Whatever Works (Woody Allen)
Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola)
Paper Heart (??)
Ninja Assassin (James McTeigue)
Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
Drag Me to hell (Sam Raimi)
Up! (Pete Docter... eh... Pixar)
The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)
The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson)
The International (Tom Tykwer)
Coraline (Henry Selick)

Stuff I might watch if someone else wants to:
Adventureland (Greg Mottola)
I Love You, Man (John Hamburg)
The Hangover (Todd Phillips)
Knowing (Alex Proyas)
Sunshine Cleaning (Christine Jeffs)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hard Eight

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Samuel L. Jackson

In the opening sequence of Hard Eight, a mysterious old man approaches John (John C. Reilly), offers him a cup of coffee and a cigarette. This man is Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who claims he has a surefire way to help John earn some cash in Vegas toward his mother's funeral. John has never met Sydney before, and much like the audience, is curious as to why Sydney wants to help him.

The reason? Insignificant now. The fact is, Sydney's technique helps John become very successful, and the bond between the two of them becomes very strong, so much that when we are introduced to Clementine (Paltrow), she is endeared by the way John looks up to Sydney.

Is the reason why Sydney helps John just a MacGuffin? Not necessarily, but it is one of many ways in which the film creates suspense in this masterful debut film of his. To reveal any more of the plot would not necessarily ruin the film, but might take away the impact of the first viewing of the film. While the atmosphere is familiar to the film noir variety, the twists and turns the plot takes are completely unexpected, so that even the most seasoned viewers of the film will be find a delightful surprise in store for them.

Hard Eight is the impressive debut of Paul Thomas Anderson, who has gone on to make even better pictures than this later in his career. His trademark steadicam tracking shots, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Elswit, are already in place. There's one notable shot that sticks in my mind which follows Sydney as he walks through a casino. The way the colors light up the screen gives a sense of beauty to a place riddled with alcohol, addiction, loose women and sleazy men.

Samuel L. Jackson deserves a mention, as this is possibly his second best performance to his performance in Pulp Fiction a couple years previous to this. Philip Seymour Hoffman also has a memorable cameo as a young gambler who taunts Seymour.