An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Friday, February 26, 2010

On feeling dumb, vis a vis "The Ghost Writer"

I'm always bad at political thrillers. Even though I'm fascinated by the genre's conspiratorial whispering and paranoiac behavior, the twists and plot developments in these movies are such that I'm left in the dark almost every time. This is particularly true of the vaunted conspiracy-thrillers of the '70s, when directors like Alan J. Pakula were less interested in narrative coherence than in conjuring a zeitgeist-y mood of sociopolitical dread and mistrust.

Roman Polanski's impressive new political thriller, The Ghost Writer (no relation to either the Philip Roth novel or the '90s Nickelodeon TV series), is enjoying critical comparisons to Hitchcock, which makes a certain amount of sense, but I think Pakula's may be the more pertinent name to drop. Watching The Ghost Writer, I was reminded of my frustrated attempts to parse confounding Pakula efforts like The Parallax View and Klute. These movies, and others of their '70s-paranoia ilk, enjoy an unusually healthy reputation among cinephiles, and not without reason—they're uncompromising works that speak volumes about their times, both socially and cinematically. But they also don't make much of an effort to satisfy the viewer's narrative appetites, or to resolve themselves in ways that, you know, make sense.

Really, The Ghost Writer isn't nearly as challenging as something like The Parallax View or even the tongue-in-cheeky Winter Kills. (Here it's worth noting that one of the key entries in the '70s paranoia movement, and one of its most accessible and enduring films, is of course Polanski's own Chinatown.) In fact, it's comparatively straightforward, although Polanski's approach to the story is quite leisurely—not at all "tight" or "taut," not even really a "thriller" in any practical sense. But here's what I wanted to talk about: during portions of the movie, and especially in the last act after a game-changing plot event that I won't spoil, I was so confused about what was going on in the story as to feel stupid. When the final twists came, I got what they were, but I couldn't grasp their implications, or the chain of events that led to them. I think I've maybe reasoned out some plausible explanation to myself now, but I dunno.

What's the proper reaction when you fail at basic plot comprehension of a convoluted movie? Is it your fault for being thick, or the movie's fault for not revealing itself more carefully? Is it possible to engage with the film on any higher critical-thinking level if you're not entirely certain what the devil happened in it? Of course the answer to the latter question is yes, but it's hard to surmount those feelings of, "Ugh, why am I being so dumb here." I've never been one of those people with a strong inner compass for the contours of stories—I'm never the guy who guesses the twist in advance, for instance. And at any given plot-driven movie, there are typically a few particulars that I don't worry about when they go over my head; I focus on the big picture—and, of course, on elements more important than mere plot. Even people like my parents are way better than me at the whos, whats, wheres, and whys of story consumption. I don't really have a problem with this, but it can be seriously frustrating when I don't get closure on an involving movie like The Ghost Writer.

Good movie, though. It's definitely improving with thought. You should see it. There's an incredible monologue involving a metaphor about airport lines that reminded me of Noah Cross bellowing, "The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!" The final shot is amazing. And, without giving it away, there's one respect in which the film calls to mind the greatest political thriller ever made, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. Not that it's in the same league, of course. And by the design of the story, Polanski never really allows a certain character to reenact a certain Manchurian Candidate scene that I would have loved to see. But perhaps I've said too much.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

ME VS. A.O. SCOTT: RUMBLE ON SHUTTER ISLAND

I generally like A.O. Scott. He's a clever writer who understands and respects cinema. (Look up the opening sentences of his Pearl Harbor review for one of the all-time great burns in film criticism.) But sometimes his cleverness goes too far in the wrong direction. Scott's merciless takedown of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, a movie I'm pretty much in love with just hours after seeing it, is one such instance. Frankly, I'm calling bullshit. You hear that, Tony? (Yeah, that's right, I know your friends call you Tony. "A.O," like keeping your name a secret makes you so fucking cool.)

Let's look at the first paragraph. I think it establishes that Tony and I are just not on the same page with this film. He complains about the "frantic" and "demented" "amplification" of "every detail and incident in the movie." For him, I guess this is a bad thing. Huh. You know, me, I sort of think that a psychodramatic horror-thriller steeped in noir and Hitchcock that's set at a freakin' asylum for the criminally insane...I sort of think a movie like that calls for a little amplification. Of the frantic and demented variety, even. This would not be the right film for Scorsese to practice the restraint and subtlety of, say, his adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Even our Tony concedes that the histrionic style is "not always unenjoyable," which I think is his absurdly fussbudgety way of admitting that he had a good time. But, whatever, what this opening graph comes down to is that this movie just isn't in Scott's wheelhouse. It is so centrally located in the exact sweet-spot of my own wheelhouse that I can only imagine how drab Tony's wheelhouse is. But enough talk of wheelhouses.

The next paragraph finds Scott paying lip service to Scorsese's directorial acumen. He observes that Marty uses his "considerable formal dexterity" to "conjure a tingly atmosphere of uncertainty and dread." Yes—I think this much is undeniable, so I'm glad Scott didn't try to deny it.

After getting that obligatory praise out of the way, Scott sets his sights on a rather puzzling target: the Boston accents of Leo DiCaprio and other cast members. He picks on these "dialect-coached Boston inflections" that "spread through the movie like a contagious disease." Um, okay. Tony, what the hell do you have against Boston? Is this some weird New Yorker thing? Why are you spending precious review space on this topic?

In a paragraph introducing some supporting players, Tony makes the flat-out dumb assertion that protagonist Teddy's death-camp liberation flashbacks are "gratuitous." Really? Expertly deployed visual depictions of a character's psychological demons and life-defining backstory don't strike you as, I don't know, at least potentially important?

From there Scott launches into a vague yet comprehensive list of the movie's narrative components, which he seems to regard, condescendingly, as silly. "All these riddles send out tendrils of implication that end up strangling the movie," he says. "Mr. Scorsese’s camera sense effectively fills every scene with creepiness, but sustained, gripping suspense seems beyond his grasp." Wait, really? You didn't find this shit gripping? What the hell, man! I guess this is hopelessly subjective territory here, but I can't even remember the last time I was so purely, undistractedly enthralled by a movie. My enthrallment had everything to do with Scorsese's "camera sense," in concert with what I think is a damned well-constructed story by acclaimed thriller novelist Dennis Lehane (adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, quite well I thought). If Tony didn't find the movie to be long-term suspenseful, I think that owes more to his own unwillingness to accept Scorsese's heightened, melodramatic approach than to any failure on the director's part.

Now here's where the review gets really annoying: it's time for A.O. Scott to prove how clever he is. He's so clever that, get this, he figured out the twist ahead of time! And because he's such a smart fella, the movie must pay the price of being deemed "a strained and pointless contrivance." Imagine you're Professor McBrainiac A.O. Scott, you're sitting through Shutter Island and it's halfway done or so, and you guess the twist. Now, you could spend the rest of that time examining Scorsese's stylistic stratagems and their thematic resonance. Or you could "study the threads on the rug [Scorsese] is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you." A clever line. But I thought those threads on the rug were kind of, I don't know, interesting and beautiful. And the claim of "pointlessness" says to me that Scott wasn't studying that rug closely at all. Because really there are all kinds of larger resonances here, on a societal level (the state of the mental-health profession in the '50s, creepy postwar paranoia), a personal level (post-traumatic stress, guilt so powerful you have to step into elaborate fantasies to escape it), and a meta-cinematic level (all the Val Lewton, noir, Hitch, and dozens of other genre influences that Marty has spent a lifetime internalizing). There's stuff here, but Scott doesn't want to acknowledge it because...

...It turns out he's got a big ol' agenda to push: A.O. Scott isn't down with the critical adoration of Scorsese. He says that certain people will ignore the silliness of this movie "out of loyalty to Mr. Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt." This agenda was confirmed on Twitter, where Scott posted that his review was sure to offend all the "Martisans" out there. (Again, very clever coinage, but stupid idea.) No one argues that Marty's been making perfect movies lately, or that he's batting a thousand in his filmography. But to attack Scorsese as overrated (as Scott implicitly does here) is basically like attacking Hitchcock as overrated: it smacks of wanton contrarianism and is hard to take seriously. Scott writes that Scorsese was "unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern." I think it's pretty clear that he cares about the DiCaprio character, about his tragic trajectory of violence and shame, and that the "local formal concerns" add up to a crushingly, damningly powerful ending, a "perfect note of empathetic despair" (to quote Glenn Kenny), pairing a final line and a final shot that collectively propel the film beyond simple narrative gamesmanship. But then, I didn't figure out the twist ahead of time, so I guess I'll never be as brilliant as A.O. Scott.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why I'm not okay with THE ROOM.

I haven't seen Tommy Wiseau's The Room, the neo-Ed Wood cult phenomenon that's cornered the market on so-bad-it's-good movie appreciation in the early 21st century. And as of now, I have no plans to see it.

It's not that I'm above it all. I've engaged in my share of laughing at crappy art over the years. Last year, I went with some friends to a midnight screening of Troll 2, another popular title in the so-bad-it's-good genre (there's even a monument to its amusing awfulness in the form of a documentary called Best Worst Movie, whose makers were on hand to shoot footage at the screening I went to). I was reticent at first, but ended up having a pretty good time. It was liberating to partake in the shared experience of loud, collective snarking—not that every drunk dude in the audience with a propensity for derisive quipping was funny, but the fact that we were all breaking down the doors of the holy temple of cinema that is the Music Box Theatre and trashing it with this weirdly watchable gem of junk-culture crap made for a fun evening. For one night, the venerated rituals of polite moviegoing went out the window, and we masochists were free to let loose our inner Tom Servos.

So, okay then, why don't I want to recreate that experience with The Room, which is held in equal esteem by smart critics and undiscerning cultists?

Coupla reasons. For one thing, The Room is inseparable from its creator, the mesmerizingly unself-aware anti-auteur Tommy Wiseau. A cursory glance at any interview/appearance by Wiseau—try this one, which I had the dubious honor of transcribing in my stint as A.V. Club intern—reveals that, to put it simply, there's something wrong with him. The people responsible for inflicting Troll 2 on the world are nowhere to be seen, but Wiseau is front and center in every aspect of Room-mania: he attends as many screenings as he can, gives interviews, and even appeared as one of the tragicomic sideshow attractions on Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job. As far as this poor sap is concerned, the audiences who flock to midnight shows of The Room are there because they find its drama so emotionally compelling. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the exploitation of Wiseau, who clearly has mental health problems of one kind or another. Somehow this guy got a movie made. If you want to gather 'round and laugh at its ineptitude, go for it—I'm sure it's just as epically terrible as everyone says. But in what cruel universe is it considered acceptable, much less a fun night out, to mock borderline-retarded people to their face? Even if you disagree with my premise that Wiseau suffers from some sort of mental malady, surely you wouldn't dispute that creating a cult of personality around someone only to ridicule him to his face is just plain mean. I mean, this guy is getting on airplanes, traveling all over the country for screenings—he thinks people love his movie. He think it's a hit, that he's made it big! Don't you have something better to do?

Which brings me to the other reason why the ever-increasing popularity of The Room frustrates me. This past weekend, the film played to multiple sold-out crowds at the aforementioned Music Box, a beautiful old movie palace that dates back to the silent era. It currently serves as Chicago's major arthouse theater. According to their website, the theater seats 800 people, which means that capacity sell-outs are rare; after all, arthouse fare like Andrea Arnold's lovely Fish Tank (currently drawing low-attendance crowds at the Music Box) isn't known for putting asses in seats. But here's my beef: if you're gonna make it out to the Music Box for the schadenfreude festival that is Tommy Wiseau's traveling freakshow, why not maybe come back next weekend to see A REAL FUCKING MOVIE? It's a revolting injustice that a cult turkey like The Room can sell out a theater like the Music Box while films of actual, non-ironic value struggle every week to find even a meager audience. Is our film culture so diseased that an arthouse theater only draws the attention of its city's populace when it's overtaken by mean-spirited camp-lovers? Apparently, the answer is yes.

So go ahead and keep tormenting a damaged filmmaker while devaluing the meaning of arthouse theaters. I'll be giving my money and time to some movies that deserve it.