Monday, June 21, 2010


Zodiac was one of the stunning number of best of decade movies that came out in 2007- alongside There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men and a bunch of other movies that don't fit the point I want to make here- and I remember in reviews at the time, it was criticized somewhat for its formlessness. It has a number of seemingly key moments- a dramatic irony-laden announcement about Altamonte playing over one scene, the hero's wife leaving him, etc- but it never seems entirely to be about the loss of hope from the 60s to the 70s (the way Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is) or about how pursuing even a noble goal obsessively can isolate you and break you apart from society (there are any number of things like this, but let's say 'Pretty much all of Batman'.) It's messy, and like No Country for Old Men, it doesn't really resolve in a satisfying way. How could it?

That said, I think the real key is the connection to Dirty Harry- one made explicitly within the movie, when the characters attend a (historical) showing. Dirty Harry was a fantasy in which the bad guys were really bad, the good guys were shackled by the rules and not by the nature of reality, and crime would continue getting worse and worse until it was finally and decisively punished. It was also, in a lightly fictionalized and highly stylized way, about the Zodiac killings. Zodiac shows those same events- and however much it adheres to reality, it's still fiction- but it shows them as part of a world where things don't work out cleanly, and in which people aren't pure and demonic evil but sort of messy, stupid bastards. The suspect it fingers for Zodiac is a pederast and a pretty gross man, but he's also pathetic and powerless, a loser janitor who seems hardly cogent enough to hate. His crimes end not because he's caught, but because of some other reason that the viewer never really knows. He might not even have committed some of the crimes he took credit for.

The structure of the movie is like There Will Be Blood in that it doesn't really seem to know where it's going a lot of the time, and it seems to show the viewer a lot of things that don't really relate. Yet somehow, by force of the scenes being placed in the relationship their given, they seem to work like a machine, and you as an audience member never think 'now why the hell am I looking at this.' When it ends, you feel like it's a fair ending, even though nothing is really finished, and everything anyone reached for just sort of drifted away.

I think that's a key element to a lot of modern fiction. We don't have depressing movies because we let the villains win, we have depressing movies because we don't know what a villain is or what it means to win or to lose. That kind of vaporous story has been around for a long time- it's what people look for in an Ozu movie, and a lot of indie sort of dramas- but introducing it even to genre fiction seems new to me, at least in the form it now takes. And all the other genre fiction seems like a lie, because it is one. Which is fine. But sometimes it's an ugly and hateful lie, like Dirty Harry, and Zodiac takes that lie away by making a world that contrasts it without being its opposite: it doesn't make you hate Dirty Harry by showing that real cops are disgusting pig assholes, because the cops in Zodiac are decent, hardworking, and intelligent guys. It makes you hate Dirty Harry by showing you all the things Dirty Harry tried to make you enraged about, and making them natural, reasonable, and in line with common sense. That's the best kind of criticism.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pulp Fiction

For all the apparent nihilism and colorful violence, Pulp Fiction is thematically unified by Flannery O'Connor style moments of grace. As with O'Connor, not everyone actually finds grace in those moments, but in all of the episodes the climax is a character given a chance to pause and reflect on what is right, what is honorable, what makes one a good person- Jules letting Ringo go, Vince with his decision about remaining loyal to his boss, and Butch with his decision to go back into the den of the rapists.

I realize I'm not the first person to point this out, but what I think is interesting is the way in which the viewer understands and feels the honor of those choices, even when they don't actually make a lot of sense. The one that comes to mind is Butch: the obvious interpretation is that Butch recognizes that, even for a man he was minutes earlier prepared to kill, he can't allow rape and torture. The issue is that immediately after he frees Marcellus, Marcellus tells him he's going to have one of their kidnappers tortured. By the logic of his previous decision, Butch should act to prevent this. Instead, he nods amicably, appearing to accept this as a reasonable course of action.

There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that, to Tarantino, it's the rape that was key, and not the torture. This is backed up by the sex dungeon aspect of the basement they're taken into, and the callous killing of the gimp, but it's problematic; the crime becomes one less of inhumanity which can't be allowed and more one of disrespect, in which a man who is manifestly not a bitch is fucked like one.

Another explanation is that Butch's empathy comes from shared experience- he may not like Marcellus, but he knows him, and he was almost in the same position a moment earlier- rather than a general humanitarian urge. This is somewhat less problematic, since it merely puts a limit on Butch's grace that is fairly consistent with the character we've seen. But for the viewer, it's not clear why this would be satisfying.

My worry is that one respects Butch's decision and the grace he earns from it (as opposed to say, Vince's, which is played mostly for laughs) because of the way the episode functions, and not inherently because it is right or agreeable. That doesn't make Pulp Fiction a worse movie, but it makes me a more easily manipulated audience member, and I'm never comfortable with that.

On the other hand, Jules' grace seems very real to me- the miracle bullets can be very easily seen as the random working of chance, the same chance that kills Marvin for no reason, but Jules makes it into an opportunity to awaken himself in a way all his quoting of the Bible never accomplished. It's... well, it's beautiful, and I think Jackson's performance of the "I'm trying to be the Shepard" speech at the end exemplifies why Tarantino's movies endure in a way most of the people imitating him do not- it wasn't just about post-modern takes on French New Wave movie trickery, it was using that to express something fundamental and meaningful. Even if the Roger Avery part still worries me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

New Moon

So, the frustrating thing about Twilight isn't actually that it's terrible. Lots of things are terrible. I hate 24 and Red Dawn much more than I hate Twilight, because while they all have pretty terrible underpinnings, it's hard to find something that encourages teenaged mooning (and more seriously, problematic gender issues) as horrible as something that encourages torture or murder fantasies. But Twilight... there's just so much there that could have been interesting, but instead turns into more endless mooning.

One of those things, the one that's most striking, is the sense of Edward as a guy who is endlessly holding himself rigid against the temptation to do something he knows is wrong, but which both his instincts and most of his society would view as day-to-day business. Not the turning her into a vampire aspect, although that's a whole further set of missed opportunities, but the idea that he's constantly in a state of just barely restraining himself from killing her. As presented in the series, this is seriously problematic. The implications include: that all men are predisposed to attack women and women are helpless to prevent this, and thus should do their best to keep from provoking the men. That attraction and temptation to violence are a reasonable equivalency. That sex is more or less the same thing as violence. That sort of thing.

In different hands, though, it could come off as one of the more interesting kind of characters- the T.E. Lawrence, the Johnny Cash, the dark figure who is driven to do dark things but manages to keep that drive in check... mostly. Who doesn't like himself (or herself) much because of those drives, but who may appear saintly to the outside world. Who doesn't naturally have a conscience, but decides painfully to acquire one. It's a common enough thing in fantasy fiction, and I think Buffy has a character like that, but it's one that never gets old- the idea that moral horror is a marvelous gift that people have, and the terror of imaging what kind of life you would lead if you didn't have it.

That kind of fiction is exactly the opposite of 24, which celebrates the amoral Nietzschean victory against the self, and argues that sacrificing one's soul should be viewed as heroic, rather than as more or less the worst thing in the world. Twilight could have gone there. It has the material for it. Instead, it stuck to recreating the version of Romeo and Juliet that people who have never read or seen it tend to make in their heads. Pass.

edit: I meant to mention Jules from Pulp Fiction here. Jules isn't quite the monster trying to be good trope, so much as a bad man who has an epiphany, but he has a line- "See now I'm thinkin', maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. 9 Milimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. Now I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be a shepherd." That recognition, and its interpretation of the (entirely made up) Bible quote Jules uses, is a perfect Flannery O'Connor moment of grace, and the characters I'm talking about are people trying to live with what happens after that moment. But those moments are just the most beautiful things in the world.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Crimes and Misdemeanors

As I understand it, the moral philosophy of the movie is this: it doesn't really matter if there is real justice, if murderers go to jail or Hell or they are tortured by their conscience or anything like it. The inescapable punishment for a murderer is this: either they are punished, or they are not. If they are punished, they have to deal with that. If they are not, they have to live in a world in which there is no justice, in which murder is something one can get away with.

I can claim to believe whatever I want, but for that claim to hold I have to act in a way that doesn't contradict it. I can still hold that things have meaning, an essential and inviolable conscience for instance, as long as I don't violate it. To me, dealing with the level of nihilism that murder entails sounds worse than almost any other hell that comes to mind. I don't know if murder condemns me to hell, or if Providence will cause me to be brought before a jury, or if it will make my soul shatter (and thus provide an opportunity to make a Horcrux) but as long as I don't actually kill anyone, I'm free to believe any of those things. If it's a branch of fiction, it's one I'm not interested in living without.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

So, I didn't really expect to like this a lot, from what I had read about it- up to this one I liked all of his movies that I've seen, some (Panic Room) in opposition to whatever critical consensus I'd found, but the descriptions and reviews all sounded pretty bad. The most damning one compared it to Forrest Gump, and in watching it that was pretty much all I could think of.

It's relentlessly picturesque, it's slathered with voiceover, the main character has an ineffable wisdom that expresses itself as naivete, there's a central romance that ends tragically and defines the arc of the plot, and it goes through all sorts of historical moments en route. It doesn't have the underlying 'unthinking is better' motive of Gump, it doesn't have the cute little meetings with historical figures, but it does feature fate in a prominent role and it is altogther boring.

There are some moments, some bits of humor and pretty shots and cynicism slipping in, but it's just not a good movie. I don't really see anything in it of what I like about Fincher, just a central conceit that doesn't really matter- nearly everything about the story could be equally easily told with a character who ages normally. I don't hate it, but I don't think I'll keep it, either.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Day at the Races

I like Marx Brothers movies, but for nearly all of them I feel like I'm asked to sit through a lot of fairly dull things for the fun parts. Aside from Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, they've all got these giant musical numbers and a pair of leads who aren't the Marxes- they vary in quality, and in a Night at the Opera, they're fairly well integrated, but overall I'd far rather do without them.

In a Day at the Races, one of the musical numbers is nearly all black people, it makes me feel kind of conflicted- on the one hand, there's some uncomfortable stereotyping, with all of them living in what look like slave quarters and dropping 'who dat' and 'chillun' left and right. Worse, they'res some blackfacing at the end of the scene, and that's always embarrassing, no matter what.

On the other hand, it's awesome. For the first and only time in a Marx movie, there's a musical number where the parts that don't have the brothers featured are exciting and fun as hell, all kinda swing dancing awesome moves and exciting performances and everything. The brothers love it, too, and the implication is that they fit in fairly well with the group. So- is it ok to enjoy it? Can something exploitative, with racist elements, be redeemed by just being fun? I never know how to answer that kind of thing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Army of Shadows

I really want to like Jean-Pierre Melville, and I admire his movies, but of the three I've seen- Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge, and Army of Shadows, I can't really say I enjoyed them.

It's a complicated issue, 'admire' vs. 'enjoy'; the latter implies that a movie has to be fun, or exciting, or populist, which I hope isn't really right. I enjoyed, for instance, Solaris (the original) which is slow and methodical, but which hits certain notes that really moved me. In Army of Shadows, I can see the notes being hit- the moral dilemmas posed are ones absolutely worth posing, and of literary weight- but somehow they don't strike me. It may be Melville's subdued palette, which is somehow greyer than noir ever managed to be, or it maybe his characters' minimalist acting, which reminds me a lot of Bresson, another French director whose movies I am always glad to have seen but rarely excited to be watching. It's maddening, though, to try to push yourself to like something and fail, like your mind will not listen to itself.

It's worth noting that Army of Shadows is one of those movies that very clearly got mixed into the blend for some of the strongest parts of Inglourious Basterds, and I think that's something that happens a lot with movies like these- bits of Bresson movies get turned into Schrader scripts, Kurosawa gets turned into Leone, etc. etc. This feels like it should resolve the issue, but it just makes it worse- if people I enjoy can enjoy this, why can't I?