Monday, July 26, 2010

Jordan's Review: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 1: Public Relations

Its November of 1964, which means just under a year has passed since the climactic events of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” and “Public Relations” opens up with the question that hangs over pretty much every episode of this series in one way or another: “Who is Don Draper?” Is he a married man from the Midwest with two kids and a distaste for talking about himself? That’s how he puts himself forward in the interview with Advertising Age that opens the season, and yet we, much like the interviewer, know that this is a shield he has put up to keep the world from getting in.

Don Draper is a man in upheaval. Working at the head of a new agency where its admitted that everyone came to work in large part for him, Don is a man at the cutting edge of his field. The offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Price (or SCDP as a sign behind its front desk calls it) reek of newness and promise, and the staff within is largely young, witty, and committed. Don knows that he has command of this new office in a way he never did at Sterling Cooper, and he seems to be using that power to truly drive the organization he is working in. The Don of yesteryear resisted contracts and lived life in a way he would feel comfortable abandoning in order to protect his hard won freedom; the Don Draper he has become chooses instead to use his (forgive the pun) agency within the new agency to make it truly his own. Rather than remaining free by staying untethered, this Don wants to preserve his freedom by exerting control over his life. When Jantzen, a bathing suit company who wants to sell bikinis but maintain a wholesome image, rejects his entendre-laden campaign, instead of making the hard sell, Don rejects them. In this new company, Don has the power to decide what type of organization he is working in, and he wants SCDP to look forward, not backward.

Don Draper is a man of contradictions. When he leaves his shiny new office every night, he retreats to a bachelor pad furnished with antiques; Don, it seems, likes he private life the way he likes his liquor: old fashioned. We have seen Don deal with this crisis before as he has been torn between the traditional way of doing things that part of him treasures and the new way forward that his freedom craving side adores. Don used to express this inherent paradox through his marriage to Betty and his dalliances with a series of self-possessed brunettes that really understood him (or at least tried to. They can’t all be Rachel Mencken after all). Yet his marriage with Betty is over now, and Don seems slightly unsure of how to move forward. Should he retreat to the old patterns by pursuing Bethany, a young dancer who seems like a more self-possessed Betty? He agrees, reluctantly to a date with her, but is clearly left unsatisfied and is driven to pay for sex with a prostitute who is willing to slap him around. Don needs a woman who challenges him, and in the absence of one who mentally stimulates him, he may be forced to settle for one who is willing to oppose him physically. And in the wake of that encounter, Don seems physically spent, and perhaps even satisfied. Yet satisfaction in the moment is a far cry from true happiness, and no one knows that better than him.

Don Draper is a man struggling for control. In his new life he has too many strings that tie him, to his new agency, to his children (who he seems more committed to if only to oppose the cold force that is his ex-wife), and to those who have been loyal enough to follow him. Don has discovered a way to liberate himself not through fleeing from commitments, but through attempting to shape the world around him until it fits his comfort level. He wants SCDP to be an agency on the cutting edge, and any client who can’t get on board with that can walk right out the door. Yet it’s impossible to say that Don has seized full control over his life, as is evident when he sits smoking and quietly seething in his old house, now occupied by Betty and her new husband Henry Francis, waiting for them to return. When confronted with the question “Who is Don Draper?” at the beginning of the episode, Don falls back on his old pattern of refusing to be categorized, of struggling to be free by avoiding easy categorization, but in his new life that doesn’t make Don a man of mystery; it makes him a failure. By the episode’s end, Don knows this, and it’s clear in his interview with The Wall Street Journal that Don also understands the new way forward. He may no longer be able to avoid the question of his identity, but he is now in a place to shape it, just as he was when he assumed the Don Draper identity. So finally, he has an answer to the question that hangs over this episode: Don Draper is the head of a scrappy upstart advertising agency, which crawled out from under a corporate chain and has forged a place for people who want cutting edge advertising that looks to the future.

It is criminal of me to pretend that this episode only dealt in Don when we were treated to so many other great moments. I could spend just as long as I digressed on Don looking at the new Peggy, who feels at home enough in SCDP to drink like one of the boys, to flirt with and boss around Joey (who may be the art director in Sal’s stead, but definitely works in the art department) like one of the boys, and to stand up to Don after he bullies her. Peggy is more confident and self-assured than we’ve ever seen her before, and perhaps the best thing about her is she does all this while maintaining her essential femininity. Peggy is a new kind of woman and I can’t wait to see what the season has in store for her. Roger seems to be writing a book, drinking a little too much (shades of a crumbling marriage, or is that wishful thinking?), and quipping often as ever. Bert seems slightly uncomfortable with his new role of actually having things to do, Harry is sunburned from his time out in Los Angeles, Pete seems to be as sycophantic as ever, and Lane looks British and disconcerted, which is really the role he plays. Joan is tucked away in her own office, making sure everything runs smoothly, but from a position of greater respect and authority than ever before. I can’t wait to see how she deals with this new position either. Finally, Betty seems to be increasingly cold and distant (as if that’s even possible). Her mother-in-law constantly (and rightly) criticizes her, Sally acts out and fears her, and Bobby (fuck you, New Bobby) is trying to make himself the most likeable person in the room, not that his mother will even notice.

“Public Relations” does the work of any premiere of Mad Men. It reminds us of the show’s major themes, starts laying ground work for new season long arcs, and plops us headfirst into the world of SCDP, an agency that plans to remake the advertising world while it remakes each person within it.

Grade: A-


-Sorry for the late posting on this, but last night’s premiere party festivities kept me busy. Generally I’ll try to get the reviews up by about two hours after the episode ends.

-Oh, Roger: “They’re so cheap they can’t even afford a whole reporter.”

-“He thought the circle of chairs demands conversation…” “…About why there is no table.”

-“You hit it off, come Turkey Day maybe you can stuff her.”

-Another great Don and Roger exchange on the interview: “Well I learned a lesson—stay away from one legged reporters. “Yeah, I was thinking about that. Who is he to criticize?”

-“I wish we really had a second floor so I could jump off of it.”

-Lucky Strike is 71% of the business at SCDP if I heard correctly. Not only is that, as Lane puts it, untenable, but it also means we’re less likely to get Sal back in the art department anytime soon.

-I can’t wait for next week, when I promise I’ll do a little more plot summary and a closer look at other characters, and a little less Don Draper dissertation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Fritz Lang

by Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“Each picture has some sort of rhythm, which only the director can give it. He has to be like the captain of a ship.”-Fritz Lang

It would be impossible to dig too deep into the meat of the auteur theory without coming across the legendary film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, which featured the birth of the theory in an essay by Francois Truffaut in 1954. The magazine was populated by the best and brightest film critics in France, many of whom were also en route to becoming the best and brightest French filmmakers of their generation (among the magazines contributors were Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Truffaut). These critics gathered to praise what they saw as the best of cinema, and lauded great early filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, and this column’s subject, Fritz Lang, as true auteurs—that is, they believed these great directors transcended any limitations placed upon them and managed to make each of their films a personal statement that could have come from no one else.

Hailed by many as one of the fathers of film noir, Fritz Lang’s American movies were the focus of much of the praise dealt out by Cahiers. They saw strong differences between the movies he made in the 1920’s and early 1930’s before fleeing Germany to avoid persecution by the Nazis, and those he made once he arrived in America. The differences these critics pointed out, however, highlight what I see to be a flaw in their original auteur theory. These critics were more impressed by Lang’s ability to leave an individual mark on his American movies not because the actual films were better, but because the conditions he was under while making them did more to strain his artistic vision.

The Motion Picture Production Code (known popularly as the Hays Code) was a set of industry-wide censorship guidelines that governed the vast majority of American movies made between 1930 and 1968. The Code enumerated three general principles, all of which complicated the films of Fritz Lang once he began the American chapter of his career. These principles were: 1. No picture will be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin. 2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented, and 3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. These guiding principles explain much of the story contrivances that often plague older movies. This is why the gangster has to die or go to prison at the end of every gangster movie. The entire genre of the comedy of remarriage (in which a divorced couple are thrown back together by circumstance and fall in love all over again) was borne as a way around the Code’s principle that pre-marital sex could not be shown in a movie; therefore, instead of having two people with a sexual history finally work things out, filmmakers simply had a married couple, who would clearly have had sex before, coming back together. Fritz Lang was so highly regarded by the critics who created the auteur theory in part because he was able to take full authorial control of his movies, even when the Hays Code directly interfered with his vision. Instead of focusing only on the films that required him to use narrative trickery and compromise story points due to censorship, however, this column will examine a theme that runs through his early work in Germany, and continues through his American movies, albeit toned down by the Code. The theme that seems to have been the focus of the majority of Lang’s career is an examination of what drives people to commit crimes, whether against the laws or the customs of their societies. Lang was less interested in the right and wrong of a particular act, and more fascinated by the situations that might drive someone to commit it.

In Metropolis, Lang’s 1927 opus with the distinction of being the most expensive silent film ever made, Lang examines the decision by an upper-class man in a strongly classist society to break with the upper-caste and champion the rights of the workers who toil in near slavery in a mechanistic underground city. The film was co-written by Lang and his then wife Thea Von Harbou, and though Lang later disparaged its seemingly socialist message and heavy handed symbolism, it stands as an early example of his drive to examine the impulse to commit crime, and how even a criminal can be a sympathetic figure.

This theme likely reaches its most obvious apex in M, Lang’s first “talkie,” released in 1931. The film follows Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a serial killer who preys on children, and the efforts of both cops and criminals to apprehend him and bring him to justice. M is exactly the kind of film Lang never could have made under the Hays Code, as even MGM studio head Irving Thalberg admitted. Upon the film’s release, Thalberg gathered all of his writers and directors together for a private screening of the film, admonishing them to make films of a similar power and caliber. Yet he privately admitted that he would never have green lit such a controversial project under the Code. The film condemns Beckert for his actions, and even condemns the criminals who try to stop him using vigilante justice, yet the movie is also sympathetic to the situation each of them is found in, taking pains to examine why each person commits the acts they do throughout the movie. In an impassioned plea for his life before a kangaroo court assembled by the criminals who have captured him, Beckert describes the daily torture he goes through as he attempts to avoid giving into his darkest urges and struggles not to kill again. He then calls out each of the criminals who form the “jury of his peers,” pointing out that many of them have committed murder before. True enough, the criminals are so desperate to stop Beckert because his crime spree is bringing extra law enforcement attention on the illegal acts in the city. Understanding the financial strains that lead to this brand of mob justice, and the deep, unsettling madness that drives Beckert to abduct and murder innocent children does not make their actions right, nor justifiable, yet it does make them more sympathetic than nearly any other film of the time could have or would have.

Lang’s first American film, Fury, is a similar indictment of mob justice that even through the strictures of the Code manages to examine the realistic motives that lead people to commit sadistic acts. The film follows Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man who is mistakenly arrested for participation in a kidnapping, and then is lynched by an angry mob who sets the jail on fire in an attempt to punish him for a crime he did not commit. Wilson narrowly escapes death at the hands of the mob, and plans to execute revenge by having the entire mob prosecuted for his murder. The studio (MGM, clearly impressed enough by M to hire Lang when he came to America) exerted great control over Lang’s first effort, forcing Lang to make Wilson innocent of the crime he is lynched for and also requiring a tacked on ending that has Wilson reconciling with the fiancé (Sylvia Sidney) who he manipulated into testifying in the case. Even with these studio interferences, Fury is still an examination of what drives an idealistic man to become disillusioned with the concept of justice and morality, and to become consumed with the desire to enact revenge. In effect, Lang took the requirement that Wilson be innocent as a loophole through which he attracts audience sympathy to the selfish and cruel acts Wilson commits in his attempts to punish those who tried to lynch him.

Lang clearly exercised more control over his next film, 1937’s You Only Live Once, which follows career criminal Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) as he tries, and fails, to reintegrate into society, and the effects that has on his relationship with his wife Joan (Sylvia Sidney). The film dodges the Code in two ways that still allow Lang to pursue his examinations of the motivations behind criminal acts. First, he has Taylor framed for a bank robbery that leads to six murders, in order that the criminal is innocent of the charges that put him in prison. Additionally, he ensures that when actions conspire to make a real murderer out of Eddie Taylor he is already on a tragic road that will ensure he is punished for his crimes. Even this film was censored in part by the code, as PCA director Joseph Breen objected to the “realistic violence” of the robbery scene and demanded that the final film contain, "no flash of a man's face contorted with agony, no showing of a woman lying on the sidewalk, no hurling of bombs, no cop lying on the street, his face contorted with pain, no truck crushing out the life of a cop, no terrible screaming, no shots of bodies lying around, no figure of a little girl huddled in death, no shrieks." Lang had to cut the violence out of the movie, but he was able to keep the message in—Eddie Taylor may have been a career criminal and an eventual murderer, but that did not make him an unsympathetic monster. Rather, he was more a victim of circumstance than a true villain in any way.

By the time Lang made The Big Heat in 1953, the Code was still in place, but the studios had become much better at working within its strictures, using innuendo and sly plotting to imply anything they could not show directly. The film is a classic noir, following Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) as he attempts to bring down a crime syndicate and loses everything in the process. Bannion is eventually taken off the case by a corrupt superior, yet he continues to act as a vigilante in an effort to secure vengeance for the lives of four women destroyed when they crossed his path. Bannion is in no uncertain terms the hero of the story, and his actions are more directly moral than those that Lang tends to examine, yet we as an audience are still privy to illegal acts and violence throughout the film, all of which is arguably justified by Bannion’s quest for vengeance.

Throughout his career, Lang continually returned to examinations of criminals and in-depth looks at the sympathetic side of their immoral actions. Lang was not a champion of crime, nor was he amoral in his depictions of it; he simply sought to create a gray area in the era of black and white. Instead of throwing his characters into the camp of “Good Guys” or “Bad Guys,” Lang strove to populate his films with real people, flawed though they may be. He condemned them when they were wrong, and championed them when they did right, but he never lost sight of the fact that even the most depraved among us is still a human being, and is still relatable, even if we fear relating to them. Whether he was operating with near total freedom or working under the strictures of the Hays Code, Fritz Lang found creative ways to keep his vision intact, and ensured that each movie bearing his name was a true expression of his own personal aesthetic.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

8/1: Charlie Kaufman

8/15: Todd Solondz

8/29: Jean-Luc Godard

9/12: Sergio Leone

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sam's Review: Inception

Christopher Nolan’s newest puzzle piece film, Inception, would be dizzyingly chaotic in the hands of just about any other writer or director.

The likely blockbuster is about a group of thieves, but they aren’t your ordinary criminals pulling off the ordinary heist. They are extractors, who steal ideas and information from people in their dreams. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the most skilled extractor who takes the lead on all of the jobs, though a troubled past involving his wife (Marion Cotillard) is becoming a distraction.

Joined by an architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page), a trusty right-hand man (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) and an impersonator of sorts (Tom Hardy), Cobb goes for one last job-an inception. This is more difficult than extraction because it is about implanting an idea, much more difficult than extracting one.

DiCaprio takes the gig because he is promised to be reunited with his estranged children by a businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants to implant an in the mind of a young heir (Cillian Murphy) to dissolve his father’s company. Cobb really has no choice but to take the gig, setting up one of the most creative spins on the heist film.

But to label Inception would be much too simplistic and not give credit to the depth of the story. DiCaprio borders on over-acting as he struggles with his past with his wife and his longing to get back with his children. But the familial issue Cobb suffers with never really brings the story down as it felt like it may in the first act of the film.

Nolan makes things more complicated for himself and his characters by including dreams within dreams, within dreams (and sometimes farther). Early explanations of these dream rules are equivalent to slowly stepping into a pool-initial apprehension at the overwhelming sensory overload, the audience gets used to it and finally is glad they got in.

Nolan has gotten much praise of late for his recent work with the Batman franchise, especially The Dark Knight, though Inception harkens back to his Memento days where putting together a creative, if not linear, narrative is what’s designed to give audiences the real thrill.

From the director’s chair Nolan delivers as well providing appropriately mind bending visuals like a city folding in on itself and fights happening in apparent zero gravity. But the way he is able to tell a potentially muddled story is what is most impressive. That’s not to say the film is without holes, but the writing is tight enough that any of the problems are incredibly easily overlooked by the audience and those found within the film are the size of a needles tip.

For years the “It was all a dream!” line has been used by lazy writers looking for a way out, but Nolan is able to effectively use it as a way in. We know when it’s a dream. The characters tell us.

Of course this is fantasy, but Nolan is able to verbalize and contextualize what it is like to be dreaming and to be a player in these visions. We see what the start of a dream looks like and we feel how time is perceived in different states of consciousness. The action and tension all deliver but what most is stunning is how Nolan is able to keep everything in line, placing all the puzzle pieces to deliver the best film of the summer. Sweet dreams, indeed.


Jordan's Review: Inception

After a string of successes with Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, it’s safe to say Christopher Nolan has earned my trust. No one combines the spectacle of the blockbuster with lofty thematic notions quite as well as he does, and after the monumental success of The Dark Knight, he was thankfully given as much money as he could possibly use to create his next film. Nolan infuses Inception with many of these philosophical notions, including the idea that reality is fluid and the question of how much control we have over our own lives, or even our own subconscious. Oh yeah, and there are explosions. Because he can.

The film follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief who through the film’s daringly high concept actually enters the dreams of his mark in order to steal his deepest secrets. Cobb has some secrets of his own of course, and those haunt him, manifesting in his waking life through criminal charges that keep him from his children, and in his dreams (and the dreams of those he invades) through the ethereal form of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard, who is every bit as unnerving as the role requires her to be). Cobb jumps at the chance to get his life back when a wealthy businessman (Ken Watanabe) offers to get the charges against him dropped if he will perform the titular act and implant an idea into the mind of the heir to a rival corporation Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy).

Cobb brings his team along for the ride, including Arthur (a subdued Joseph Gordon Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page) as they construct a thrillingly complex layer of dreams to lull Fischer into believing the idea they need to implant is his own. Under a less sure hand, the incredibly complex plotline, which involves dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams, would easily have fallen off the rails, yet Nolan navigates the murky waters of his plot with little hand-holding, dropping audiences into the experience without so much as a title card to orient us. For a movie so startlingly complex, and with such a long run time (the film runs two and a half hours), Inception is incredibly tightly written, with each narrative trick paying dividends further down the line. There is a feeling throughout that a master is plying his craft at the top of his game, and there is no doubt that the product we are seeing is exactly what Nolan envisioned.

Which raises the question of why the film, much of which takes place in a dreamscape, often comes off seeming coldly logical and strangely calculated. It’s as if Nolan comprehends the intellectual possibilities of setting his film within a dream, yet somewhere along the way forgot what dreaming feels like. Lip service is paid to the non-linear construction of dreams throughout, yet the story follows logically, with nary a hint of surrealism or dream-like atmosphere throughout. The movie raises brilliant ideas, executes them excellently, and even intersperses them with well choreographed and inventive action set-pieces. Yet in contemplating it afterwards, I can’t help but think that Christopher Nolan, for all of his brilliant creativity, must have some pretty boring dreams.

This is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellently executed film, however. Nolan’s dreamscape may not closely resemble the way we experience dreaming, but he has created a whole world and he drops the audience right into it without hesitation. It’s a world of ideas, a world where confidence and competence mix with wild improvisation and where lofty ideas are given their due rather than dismissed. Nolan treats us to car chases, gun fights, and even a fight scene set in zero gravity, but he never loses sight of the fact that he is making a movie of ideas. Inception is a well crafted, immersive, immensely entertaining experience, right around the time where I was beginning to lose faith in this summer’s movie selection. Christopher Nolan could have used an extra infusion of imagination on this one, but his sterling intellect and mastery of the craft more than make up for any minor lack of creativity. This may not be the best depiction of dreaming ever put on film (ok, it certainly isn’t), but it is a damn fine look at how more action movies should be made.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Random Pop Culture Top Ten List: Top 10 Edge of Your Seat Sequences in Film

By Jordan

Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) weekly list in which the writers at Review to Be Named take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

The suspense film (alternatively known as the thriller) has been around as long as cinema itself, and many entries in the genre boast scenes that put viewers “on the edge of their seat.” The best among these are not being metaphorical with that contention—some sequences are actually intense enough to keep audiences literally leaning out of their seats, ready to rocket towards the screen, or in some cases, to flee very quickly away from it. The best of these scenes allow you to forget for their duration that you are even watching a film as you get fully caught up in the struggles of the characters and in the impossibly tense situation in which they find themselves. The following is a list of ten of the most intense sequences in cinematic history. Try to stay in your seat long enough to reach number one.

10. L.A. Confidential

As the film’s three central cops (Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce) inch ever closer to solving the Nite Owl slayings at the film’s center, they are caught up in a web of corruption, deceit, and betrayal. The film’s climax occurs during a pulse pounding shoot out in an abandoned motel, as Crowe and Pearce are attacked from all sides by crooked cops and discover just how high up the chain the corruption goes.

9. Funny Games

Michael Haneke’s bleak, brutal examination of violence in society, and particularly in cinema Funny Games (which must for clarity be separated from every other bleak, brutal examination of violence in society and cinema that Haneke has made over the course of his career) has a simple set up: two men approach the vacation home of a husband, his wife, and their young son, and set about terrorizing the couple, forcing them to engage in “games” for the amusement of the killers and, more importantly, for the entertainment of the audience, whom one of the killers addresses throughout the film, ensuring that Haneke gets across his message that those who view the film are complicit in the acts that occur in it, and often take a visceral pleasure in them. After the first member of the family is dispatched (I will refrain from revealing the identity of the victim for those who have not seen the film, though it is arguably inconsequential), the killers leave the house, stranding the survivors in the room with their grief, and giving them the chance to attempt a daring escape. The shot that begins this sequence lasts an astonishing ten minutes as the survivors grieve, suffer, and begin to collect themselves to develop a plan for escape. The emotional honesty of the sequence is enough to be exhausting, yet layered on that is the audience’s innate knowledge that at some point, the assailants will return to continue their game, and that every wasted second brings the remaining members of the family one second closer to an unimaginable fate we as the audience will be forced to bear witness to.

8. Memento

As Leonard (Guy Pearce) searches for his wife’s killer in Memento, Christopher Nolan’s high concept thriller that plays out in reverse to mimic Leonard’s own memory deficiencies (he has short term memory loss and can only remember the last five minutes) he comes into contact with Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who initially appears to be an ally. Yet it is gradually revealed that Natalie’s motives may not be entirely pure, a fact that is confirmed when Natalie confronts Leonard with her manipulations, explaining all of the evil things she has done to him over the course of their relationship. She then walks out of her house, leaving Leonard with less than five minutes to find a pen and write down her treachery before he forgets it and is left subject to her machinations. Knowing the stakes of Leonard’s situation, and feeling the vitriol that he holds towards Natalie make his race against time all the more intense and all the more suspenseful.

7. Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds opens with a 25 minute long sequence in which Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa (and Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz) interrogates a French farmer he suspects of harboring a family of Jews who have gone missing. The audience knows from the first that this family is hiding beneath the floorboards, and yet it seems that Landa also possesses this knowledge. His confident, polite demeanor and skill for subtle intimidation allow him to slowly, methodically cross-examine the farmer, playing a game of verbal and intellectual cat and mouse that slowly ratchets up the tension as this figure of titanic intelligence wields his authority to exert ever more telling details from the farmer, all while the family waits in quiet terror right beneath their feet.

6. Children of Men

The question of whether Children of Men should appear on this list had an obvious answer; the real challenge was determining which of the film’s many intense sequences was the most suspenseful. While the car chase sequence and Theo’s (Clive Owen) mad dash through the war-torn refugee encampment both come close, the darkly comic and deeply suspenseful escape from the Fishes raises the tension higher than the others by just a bit. After learning that the rebellious group he has unintentionally fallen in with intends to kill him and exploit the miraculously pregnant Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) as soon as the sun comes up, Theo wakes Kee and her caretaker (Pam Ferris) and the three attempt to quietly escape. After disabling the other cars parked at the farm, Theo attempts to start the car they plan to escape in. Attention is drawn to them as the car fails to start, and Theo is forced to push it down a hill while being chased by a group desperate to kill him and capture Kee [Note: So much of this movie could go on the list, let's just watch the trailer!].

5. The Shining

Stanley Kubrick's atmospheric, nightmarish thriller is pretty tense throughout, and the sense of dread is ratcheted higher and higher as the film goes on. By the time Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is released from the storeroom on the condition that he dispose of his wife and child, all hell breaks loose in The Overlook Hotel, both literally and figuratively. As Jack stalks his family, axe in hand and mania in full force, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is drawn fully into the horrors the hotel harbors. The final act in its entirety could make this list, but the most intense sequence comes at the very end, as Jack trails Danny through the maze outside the hotel.

4. Mulholland Drive

Partway through David Lynch's Mulholland Drive we leave the central storyline behind for an interlude in which two men discuss one's recurring nightmare in the Winky's chain restaurant where the nightmare takes place. As the man recounts his nightmare, the other helps him to play it out, and they decide to investigate the area behind the Winky's where "there's a man [...] he's the one whose doing it." The closer they get to the place where he believes the man behind the Winky's lies in wait, the more you should feel desperately that its time to turn the movie off. If you manage to keep watching, the scene only gets more and more tense [Note: Sorry for the terrible quality of the clip, but the full scene is necessary to get the point across].

3. Rear Window

Throughout the film, LB "Jeff" Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is thought crazy by everyone around him as he obsessively investigates Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a man across the courtyard from Jeff who he believes has murdered his wife. When the wheelchair bound Jeff is left alone after his love interest Lisa (Grace Kelly) is arrested for breaking into Thorwald's apartment and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) has gone to get her out, Thorwald comes a-calling and the helpless Jeff has to face off against a man he knows has committed cold blooded murder [Note: Oddly, the top three clips on this list made someone else's list on youtube, though in a different order. Anyway, thanks to "Bobbert 23" for making my job easier!].

2. No Country for Old Men

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in an Oscar winning role)has already proved himself to be a cold, calculating, unstoppable killing machine by the time he tracks Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) to a motel. Brolin knows he is coming and prepares to get the jump on him. From the moment Chigurh's footsteps can be heard in the hallway things get terrifyingly tense, and that is just the beginning of the epically suspenseful struggle that is about to unfold.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

Perhaps the most suspenseful sequence in film history comes at the end of The Silence of the Lambs when rookie FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Oscar Winner Jodi Foster) accidentally finds herself in the presence of the notorious serial killer Buffalo Bill (ted Levine), whom she has been hunting the whole movie. With no hope for back-up and no desire to let the monster escape, Clarice descends into the byzantine basement the killer has constructed. As if hunting a notorious serial murderer on his own turf wasn't terrifying enough, it isn't long before Bill cuts the power on our girl Starling and leaves her blinded in darkness while he stalks in night vision goggles.

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Paul Thomas Anderson

By Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“It’s dangerous to confuse children with angels.”-Thurston Howell (Henry Gibson), Magnolia

“The book says, we might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”-Narrator (Ricky Jay), Magnolia

The introduction that accompanies each installment of this column references my desire to discuss not just the thematic consistency of a particular subject’s work, but also to weigh in on the technical elements and personal style of each subject. To some extent I am limited by my desire to keep these columns shorter than novel length (I recognize they are almost always too long already), and I tend to gravitate more toward an examination of thematic consistency for two reasons. Firstly, I feel that this is the element that any given viewer is most likely to pick up on when seeing a particular work by a director. Walking into a movie by, say, Martin Scorsese, it is much easier to pick up on the consistency of his protagonists than on his shot composition or the fact that his Catholicism plays prominently throughout his work. Knowing very little about cinematic technique, or for that matter, Scorsese’s biography, it is still easy to see thematic trends when watching several of his movies.

Secondly, I think that it is easier to talk in the abstract about the themes that interest a director than it is to refer to shot compositions that may be difficult to describe or impossible to display in clip form (though I do try to intersperse as many relevant clips as possible throughout each column). For those reasons, Whose Film Is It Anyway? has become more of a look at thematic trends than at the whole of what constitutes auteurism, a trend that I will attempt to buck from time to time, both to give service to the other tenets of the theory, and to keep things interesting. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

In discussing Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur, many challenges arise from the first. Anderson is a director that has made just five films, but they differ in ways that might make them seem on the surface as if each exists in an entirely separate cinematic universe. When I began to formulate my thesis for this column, I considered potential ties that bind Anderson’s work. What I initially came up with was that each of his films is excellent (with the exception of Hard Eight, which due in part to studio cuts, and likely in part to first time insecurities, feels only half-formed), many of them are epic in scope, and they all feel wholly different while being undeniably the work of Anderson. Yet these are all surface observations and not worth wasting 2000 words on. Before I delve into one of the many thematic elements that a deeper analysis reveals tie the works of PTA together, I want to look at just two of the technical aspects he uses throughout his works.

The first is his propensity for long, uninterrupted takes, especially tracking shots which he generally uses to establish a mood and introduce a large variety of characters. Anderson keeps his camera moving throughout most of his films, but these tracking shots in particular get at some of what he is exploring in each of his movies. In Hard Eight, the long tracking shot that follows Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) and John (John C. Reilly) through a Casino not only ties the two of them together inextricably, but also sets up the sense of cool detachment with which Sydney faces the world and nicely contrasts that with the naïve wonderment inherent to John’s perceptions. Boogie Nights opens with a three minute long tracking shot that not only introduces nearly every character in the expansive cast, but also places each one of them in their position in the world at the moment the film starts. Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) owns every room he walks into and commands respect. Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) appears at his side, like the matriarch she will try to be throughout the film. Rollergirl (Heather Graham) is wearing her roller-skates, weaving through the dance floor, switching partners. Scotty J. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) seems like he isn’t quite at home in his own skin, and a boy who for now goes by Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) looks like he just wants something more.

The tracking shot in Magnolia comes later in the film, as Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is guided through the television studio. This shot also lasts for nearly three minutes, and is a thematic tour de force as the young genius is shuffled around to fit the interests of everyone else, while every adult in sight ignores his real worth. In Punch Drunk Love, the film opens with a shot that follows the painfully neurotic Barry (Adam Sandler) through an awkward interaction with the woman destined to be his romantic interest (Emily Watson), back through his well ordered office, and finally, in a mad dash to rescue/steal a harpsichord seated curbside. The scene shows the dichotomies in Barry’s personality as he attempts to be calm, polite, and ordered, but is inevitably drawn into frenzies by the emotions he attempts to suppress. And the tracking shot that follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, who won a much deserved Oscar for his performance) through an oil explosion in There Will Be Blood manages to solidify what drives the man while simultaneously underscoring the deep, lasting problems that come along with an association to oil.

I will give the second technical consideration I want to mention short shrift because in spite of my better efforts, I want to explore one of Anderson’s many themes at some (limited) length. Yet Anderson’s use of music to set tone is incredibly important to an understanding of his work. He collaborated with composer Jon Brion on Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love, and in each case, the music perfectly underscores the tone that Anderson is aiming for. He also used the music of Aimee Mann in Hard Eight and Magnolia, including having her write some original songs for the latter film. Mann’s use in Magnolia is especially important, as her songs in many ways inspired Anderson while he was writing the script (to be clear, Anderson has also written all five of his films). In fact, one line of dialogue in the film (when Claudia says, “Now that you’ve met me, would you object to never seeing me again?”) is lifted directly from a Mann song.

The same can easily be said of the way music is utilized in Anderson’s other two movies, though in different ways. In Boogie Nights the soundtrack overtakes the score, filled wall-to-wall with popular music from the era, and giving an undeniably nostalgic tone to each scene. Not only does the music take you back immediately to the era in which the film is set, it also provides an insight into each of the characters, who often comment on the soundtrack as it plays. And, in the film’s best scene, the non-stop barrage of pop music actually adds to the tension that gradually builds into a crescendo of panic and regret. In There Will Be Blood, the score by Jonny Greenwood adds a constant sense of existential dread to the proceedings.

To call Anderson’s work dense is intended as a compliment of the highest order. Each of his movies, and especially his three epics (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, which are so called both because of their scope and because of their run-times, as each clocks in near the three hour mark) are simply packed with characters that are fully realized, allusions it would take chapters to unravel, and a near cacophony of potential themes to explore. Instead of devolving into a laundry list of the themes he considers, I would like to look at one that can be seen to some extent in each of his films: the relationships between parents and their children, and how the failings of the former can affect the entire lives of the latter.

Much of Hard Eight, Anderson’s first and least fully formed effort is dedicated to this theme. Sydney is established in the opening scene as a father figure for John, buying him coffee, offering him a cigarette, and pledging to teach him how to make money gambling. John, in return, is devoted to Sydney as if the man was his father. Yet, when it is revealed near the end of the film (obvious SPOILER warning) that Sydney killed John’s real father and has been mentoring him as a way to assuage his guilt, the cracks in his efforts, and in the effects they may have had on John’s sudden violent outburst are made more clear.

The failures of parents is crystal clear in Boogie Nights from the first. When Eddie comes home late from work one night, he is screamed at and degraded by his mother until he finally runs from the house, and is driven into the porn industry, assuming the name Dirk Diggler. Her cruelty leads to much of his earnest insecurity throughout the movie, and also to his desperation to be a star and to make something of himself. Rollergirl also spends much of the movie seemingly looking for parental figures, staying loyal to Jack long after the faux family at the film’s center falls apart, and begging Amber, in a moment of coked up mania, “Will you be my mom? Can I call you mom?” On the other side of the parenting coin, Amber Waves has lost custody of her child due to her profession and her drug problems, which effects both her and her son, who meekly calls Jack’s house looking for Maggie (Amber’s real name) early in the film, desperate to get his mother back.

None of Anderson’s films tackle the relationship between parents and their children more directly or rewardingly than Magnolia, of which Anderson has said, “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I'll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I'll make some clunkers, maybe I'll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make.” The film is a mosaic of life in the San Fernando Valley, filled with characters whose lives have been wrecked by their parents, or whose lives are in the process of being destroyed by the flaws in the adults that surround them. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) was a quiz show champion when he was a kid, but his parents stole his winnings, ruined his innocence, and left him a pathetic shell of his former self. His modern day equivalent, Stanley Spector, endures the abuse of his father and the indifference of the casting coordinator (Felicity Huffman) on the same game show, but cracks begin to show in the surface of his psyche, and he is left ineffectually commanding his father, “Dad. You have to be nicer to me.” The other two kid competitors on the show with him are already rude and greedy, products of parents working steadily to maximize the profits that can be made from their children’s successes.

Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise, in a performance that garnered him a surprisingly well deserved Oscar nomination) is a motivational speaker who teaches men to “Seduce and Destroy” the women in their lives with callous indifference after being forced to care for his dying mother when his father Earl (Jason Robards) abandoned them to his philandering ways. Claudia Wilson Gator (Meolra Walters) is a manic cocaine addict who fears forming connections since distancing herself from the father (Phillip Baker Hall) who molested her in her youth. Magnolia is absolutely filled to the brim with familial failings and the lasting consequences of those flaws.

Punch Drunk Love is notable if only for the fact that Barry’s parents are not referenced once. In spite of their apparent absence, however, the effect they had on his upbringing is apparent through Barry’s interactions with his seven overbearing and cruel sisters, and through his repression and latent rage. The household that wrought these characters was clearly a deeply flawed one, and each of them (and Barry’s brother-in-laws) are paying the price for that decades later.

Daniel Plainview nearly manages to destroy the life of his secretly adopted son H.W. in There Will Be Blood. Daniel’s neglect leads H.W. to become anti-social, a tendency which is exasperated when he goes deaf in an accident caused by his proximity to his father’s noxious business. The only thing that saves H.W. from being destroyed by his father’s maddening cynicism, greed, and nihilism is the love of Mary Sunday, who guides him further and further away from Daniel’s poison sphere of influence. The Sunday clan provides another example of flawed parenting however, as the weak willed parents allow the arrogant machinations of their preacher son Eli (Paul Dano) to go unchecked, leading his fervor and superiority to grow until it eventually seals his undoing.

Selecting one of Anderson’s themes to examine seems reductive of the brilliance and depth of his work, yet he persistently examines the roles that parents play in their children’s lives, for better or (mostly) worse. As the writer and director of all of his films, and the clear driving authorial force behind them, there is little doubt that Anderson is an auteur. What makes him so fascinating a topic for this column is how prolific and diverse he manages to be while working within a recognizable framework. He tells stories of the porn industry in the ‘70s and ‘80s and stories of the oil boom at the turn of the century. He tells stories that span decades, and those that take place in a single day. He weaves tales through vast ensembles and focuses with laser-like precision on the downfall of a single man. Paul Thomas Anderson cannot be accused of making the same film over and over (a charge leveled at many auteurs, the similarly named but unrelated Wes Anderson among them), yet his voice never wavers throughout his work. He can be held up as a shining example of the limitless possibilities of auteurism, which is often seen as a dead and repetitive notion. Most importantly, though, he can be counted on to make a blazingly original work that can still be easily defined as stemming from the fertile mind of Paul Thomas Anderson.

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Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

7/18: Fritz Lang

8/1: Charlie Kaufman

8/15: Todd Solondz

8/29: Jean-Luc Godard