May 21, 2013
The first part in what is bound to be a difficult if powerful trilogy to sit through, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Love patiently and subtly unfurls as a stark critique on colonialism and the formative effects it perpetuates. Filled with lots of casual nudity of pallid middle-aged, often over-weight Austrian women on holiday in Kenya seeking to enjoy young, dark, virile native men, the film has a raw human quality that is as visceral as it is shameful in its critique of a society that has neglected its responsibilities for its decimation of indigenous culture. What makes the film both so hard to watch and important to experience is its flagrant shaming of an ignorant middle class culture implicated in its ravenous apathy to consume, as it perpetuates its dominance in a capitalist world ruled by money and class systems. Seidl is Pasolini with a conscience.
The drama of Paradise Love unfolds patiently and gradually reveals a humanism to all its characters that resonates beyond the film in the grand scheme of things. The most outstanding shots are Seidl’s brilliantly composed wide shots. They recall Wes Anderson in their busy quality and the dimension they add to characters. However, the tone could not be more different. The vintage wear and irony is transformed from precious to critical. There is humor, melancholy and grim undertones in the image of the rotund Teresa (a casually fearless Margarete Tiesel) reclining in her hotel bed in sheer, unmatched underwear below a painting of a primitively drawn leopard hanging out on a tree branch. Mosquito net curtains frame each side; the walls and tile floor, exude a history in their grimy white color.
When Teresa arrives to the resort hotel on a white bus labeled “Comfort Safari” after driving past a shanty-like town, she is greeted to a modest row of four African women in zebra-print wrap dresses singing a song in their language with the refrain “Hakuna Matata,” with the accent on the last syllable. It stands out in contrast to the children’s ditty from Disney’s the Lion King, which emphasized the first syllable of the last word. In fact, the phrase, which translates to “no problem” (the once long-standing slogan to entice tourists to Jamaica) appears constantly in the film. By extension, beyond the critique of post-colonial apathy, the film implicates Disney for its co-opting of culture into a cartoonish commodity constantly marketed to the most vulnerable to commercialism: children.
It’s casual consumers eating up culture via corporations like Disney presenting experiences, that this film is targeting. That’s not to say people who buy tickets to Disney movies and theme parks or its toys, clothes, games and books are indecent people. They only want to have fun. Early in the film we meet Teresa as a woman who seems stuck in a rut but rather resigned to her position and status. She chaperons a large group of mentally disabled to a day at a fair and has a teenager who would rather live on her cellphone screen than care for the state of her room. Seidl quickly sets his grandiose ironic tone, lingering for long takes on the contorted faces of the mal-developed adults in bumper cars. The sounds of their squeals and grunts echo in the ride and dominate the soundtrack. There is no music. If it’s uncomfortable, it is so by design and implication.
Teresa then struggles to get her overweight daughter out of her room plastered in posters of teen idols. She drops her at a relative’s house, and takes a selfie of the trio outside the home. She waves bye-bye, and she’s off to an adventure as a “sugar mama” to the locals in Kenya. She’s a rather insignificant person who treats people with a resigned decency than most are capable of, which adds to the gradually revealed and utterly horrific behavior toward the indigenous people of Kenya who work at the resort and stand on the other side of a short fence made of ropes on the beach or ride in circles on scooters on the other side of the resort’s guard gates.
The performances are brilliant in their stark and simple frankness. There are no lingering close ups that pander to the viewer’s emotional connection for a staged sympathy. When the 50-year-old hausfrau dishes out the shillings to the men who promise to protect her from those peddling trinkets on the beach or the street, there is also a sense that this woman only wants to be loved. As she gets deeper into it, she eats up the drama that comes when she chooses one man over another and then goes back again to another man, even if it’s all seemingly paid for.
All the while, the drama within the frame features scenes that are the epitome of ironic discomfort from the flagrant sexuality to the undertone of white material indulgence. It plays as much with the knowledge of the viewer as well as his or her conscience, transmitting comedy and tragedy at once in its statement of culpability. Paradise Love is far from escapist cinema, but it is important cinema. In fact, very few films slap the viewer into looking at reality with such harsh yet subtle scenes. There is no cheap violence or overripe sexuality. This is raw and distant yet involving. Seidl is saying, “look,” with a soft, assured, even-toned voice, “this is you.”
Paradise Love runs 120 minutes, is in English and Austrian with English subtitles and is unrated (the film features lots of frank, full-frontal sexuality). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 24, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.
May 16, 2013
Lens flares, zooms, explosions, 3-D, space ships, aliens! Ugh, that was exhausting. Still, I cannot knock Star Trek Into Darkness. It takes a crafty, passionate hand to do a film like this right. So often science fiction action films slip and stumble over the edge into camp or dance too sacrosanct in a pair of safe zones: talking down to children or challenging the adult intellect. The Star Trek franchise has long suffered all of these states except for a handful of transcendent moments on television or in the movies. Director J.J. Abrams, however. seems to have the ideal formula locked down.
A fourth theatrical film into his career, and there’s no doubt Abrams has an innate talent for the science fiction action genre. Super 8 was the fifth greatest film I saw in 2011 (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 10 – 1]). Before that, I appreciated his previous Star Trek film enough to purchase the Blu-ray, and I only buy about three to four new releases for my library per year. I have not seen Mission Impossible III, but I may correct that. But, most importantly, three sci-fi action films in, and I have no trouble calling him a better director than George Lucas. The more I learn about what happened behind the scenes of Star Wars: A New Hope, the more I feel its success came from serendipitous good fortune for Lucas. However, Abrams is the super-evolved spawn who grew up with Star Wars through the rose-colored glasses of 1970s youth. It seeped into his consciousness as a consumer, and he idealized it in a manner as most adults beguiled with nostalgic memories of the film’s release in 1977. The trick is he turned his passion into a talent for writing efficient scripts and later directing similar films. That’s what makes him the ideal choice to direct the seventh Star Wars movie.
Abrams’ talent unfurls in full blossom on the 3-D screen with Star Trek Into Darkness. His signature use of blue lens flares cut bright highlights into many shots. As much as he loves setting technology in motion, he also relishes in the way characters and nature react to it, adding a heft and presence beyond gravity. From puffs of steam from a levitating freight vehicle barreling down an invisible aerial road to the spaceship Enterprise wobbling through hyperspace, all these animated props are granted a deeper dimension. Abrams loves the zoom effect. From a classic use jolting the audience’s eyes to a closer look at a distant skirmish to melding wide exterior shots of floating spaceships to intimate close-ups of its crew, he keeps it feeling fresh and engaging.
The symphony of sonic overload during the violent scenes perpetrated by a mysterious character (A brooding and blistering performance by Benedict Cumberbatch) who comes out of nowhere to disrupt the peaceful mission of exploration by Starfleet is presented with balance against the mere mortals struggling with the ethics of deep space exploration and their own human (and sometimes alien) foibles. Abrams even indulges in some quiet moments. He set up one particularly frightful scene of violence by first presenting a couple fretting over a sickly daughter using barely a word of dialogue.
The actors dive full force into their characters, and no one over stays their welcome on the screen. One could say the film heightens their distinctions, from Dr. Leonard McCoy’s (Karl Urban) sardonic skepticism to Chekov’s (Anton Yelchin) humble desire to live up to a new task after Scotty (Simon Pegg) butts heads with the captain over the subtleties of the engine room on the Enterprise. The same can be said of the leads, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine playing cocky with ebullient charm) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto delighting in Spock’s limited range of stoic and befuddled). It’s also a delight to have Uhura (an assuredly poised Zoe Saldana) raised to a high level of relevance from the original TV show to Spock’s love interest, as established in the previous film. To top it off, the passage of time since the last film reveals a witty layer of friction threatening the bond of Uhura and Spock in a manner that should distinguish a love affair between a human and a half human/half Vulcan. But the most fascinating actor to watch is Cumberbatch. As the slippery central nemesis of the film, he plays a sort of creature confident in his position above the beings around him. His presence in various scenarios takes the challenge of this character to all sorts of interesting levels, as one amusing kink in the plot piles on top of the other.
If there are any gripes about Star Trek Into Darkness, they are nitpicky ones. Maybe a syrupy exchange between a couple of characters in a life-and-death situation could have been cut with a few more drops of vinegar. The sexism heaped upon the women may be innate in the “Star Trek” world of the original television series from the ‘60s, but Abrams’ early work as creator of both the “Felicity” (with Matt Reeves) and “Alias” television serials proves he can do women fairer justice. But everything else works so clean and clear in Star Trek Into Darkness, these complaints only take up a few seconds of the film’s run time and hardly resonate through the rest of the movie.
With this brilliant Star Trek sequel, Abrams proves he knows how to create an atmosphere that engages movie audiences instead of pandering to them. As Star Trek Into Darkness breezes along the director always maintains an element of surprise and mystery to keep the drama moving forward. He peppers in moments of wit throughout featuring dialog provided by a team of three capable writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) whose combined sci-fi/action credits speak for themselves. Yet Abrams never indulges in the script for exposition. Instead, he uses it as part of a mood that serves the roller-coaster experience of the film. He knows there’s no room in sci-fi action for indulgent introspection. Sure Tarkovsky does fabulous intellectual sci-fi but leave that to him if you are not going to go dive into that sort of movie whole-hog. Though this reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise is slated to carry on with Abrams in a producer role, what he has proven exciting about his work with stale sci-fi franchises is that he can breathe vibrant life back into them. It bodes well for the upcoming series of Star Wars movies.
Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13 and runs 132 (breezy) minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now, including 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Paramount pictures invited me to a 3-D screening Wednesday night for the purpose of this review.
I had a chance to meet the young actor Brady Corbet during this year’s Miami International Film Festival (Actor Brady Corbet praises 35mm ahead of rare screening of ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ at MIFF). We stayed in touch, which made it easy to get him to answer some questions about his new movie Simon Killer, a stylized thriller that relies on a meek protagonist who seems lost in a downward spiral of heartache after breaking up with a girlfriend.
The suspense relies a lot on Corbet’s subtle performance of a repressed, unstable young man who corners himself with his own lies about the world around him. Director Antonio Campos adds a languorous style that highlights the performance with some rather inventive use of camera tricks that transition several scenes. There’s also a hip soundtrack that includes a cover of Miike Snow’s “Animal” you probably never heard. Then there is a brilliantly staged scene at a disco featuring the opening of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” that captures the titular character’s fearsome instability.
I sent Corbet an email to ask for a chat. He was in Paris, so we did it via email. The resulting Q&A can be read on the blog “Cultist” from the “Miami New Times.” Jump through the logo for the blog to read it:
Simon Killer runs 101 minutes and is unrated (Corbet says it would have probably received an NC-17 rating should it have been submitted to the MPAA). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 17, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this story. The film also opens in South Florida at the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, the same day.The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).
With his new film, French director François Ozon brings a more lighthearted sense of humor to the thrillers that he built his career on. In the House examines the role imagination plays in the disruption of marital stagnation not too unlike what Stanley Kubrick did with Eyes Wide Shut. It also celebrates storytelling in vivid form, playing comfortably with the edges of cinematic techniques. It only falters toward the end, when it falls a few too many plot twists that undermine the craftiness of much of the film.
After bored literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) complains to his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) that his fresh class of students is the “worst class ever” as he grades their introductory papers, his wife tells him “You say that every year.” But then he stumbles across a paper that will shatter their reality. He starts to read aloud seeming to assume another banal paper. Luchini, a veteran actor who had his start with Eric Rohmer, infuses his teacher with a bitterness who still has an undying passion for crafty storytelling. When he ends his recitation of this essay with “to be continued” he turns ennui to bewilderment. “He needs a shrink,” notes Jeanne of the student. But, underneath his pride, Germain has been seduced.
Indeed, Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer) will turn out to be trouble. He has turned in a rather voyeuristic piece of narrative about finally finding his way into the home of “the perfect family.” His entry comes by way of offering math lessons to the home’s occupant, his classmate Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), a cross-eyed looking chump. Claude describes the home with the zeal of a stalker. Germain seems hooked by the first “to be continued,” and so Ozon will unfurl a twisted tale illustrating how real the consequences of imagination has on life.
Claude always seems to have Mephistophelean smirk, implying a danger brewing below the surface, but Germain, so stuck up and conservative, constantly espousing the merits of “the genius” Flaubert, falls for this other world like a sucker. Inside the home, Claude never seems to stop staring at the woman of the house, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). His mouth half open and his eyelids sleepy, he seems lost in her visage. Claude describes Rapha’s mother as “the world’s most bored woman.” But he also seems very aware of the sexual being below the exterior. Meanwhile, he writes off Rapha Sr. (Denis Ménochet) as a man more concerned with basketball than his career, much less giving his wife any attention.
Claude notes Esther’s obsession for improving the home while including a reference to her “middle class curves” when the sun shines through her dress as she measures a window. Germain nitpicks at Claude’s writing, tweaking the text as far as his choice of language and characterization, but when he suggests deviations in the plot, Claude always seems to win, offering one shocking scenario after another that always seems to intrigue the teacher. The boy’s sly, crafty look, as he talks about how everything must happen in the house, including the possible seduction of Esther, enhances his power over these scenarios that subvert any critiques by Germain, who Claude sometimes calls “Maestro,” much to the teacher’s chagrin. As much as this middle-aged man wants to be a conservative intellectual, however, he also harbors a restless desire for adventure. He takes Claude under his wing to mentor him after class and they work on his essays together, tempering the fantasy with his decades of angst and the boy’s pubescent desires. All the while, the audience wonders: how real are these stories?
The film is a witty adventure of possible scenarios that grow slightly more dangerous with each of Claude’s essays. Ozon creates a strange sort of suspense that works best when he leaves it up to the audience to judge or doubt whether the experiences are real or made up for the sake of Claude’s story. Germain seems to waver, as well, convincing himself this is only a student creatively exploring his talent for writing while secretly hoping it might be real. Ozon is aware of not only using pace and editing for the sake of this illusion but also a wry sense of mise-en-scène. When Germain and Claude meet to talk about the writing, Claude stands against the solid blue of the classroom wall, as if it’s the blue screen for the boy’s projections.
If it were not for an obsession with plot twists that take the film out of the house and start involving he teacher, this film would have enchanted to the end. Instead, In the House starts losing its momentum during the third act and ends with an unsatisfying, contrived finale with three or four too many new developments. It unfortunately turns a rather witty feeling film into a tedious affair that disengages the viewer instead of seducing them further into this tailspin of teacher/student relations.
In the House is rated R, has a runtime of 105 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. It opens today, May 10, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema for its South Florida premiere run (the theater’ s publicist provided a DVD preview screener for the purpose of this review). It then appears at the Tower Theater beginning May 24. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.
In the second part of my conversation with filmmaker Whit Stillman (this is continued from: A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’), we touch on context and ways of approaching his last film, Damsels in Distress, as well as one particularly good review by a local colleague and another completely wrong review, which was not mine. I was quite critical about the film (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding), and he was game to talk about it while he visited Miami as a juror for the Miami International Film Festival, this past March.
In this part of our conversation, we also touch on where I come from as a film critic, something that I have noticed people like about my reviews but, at the same time, also seems to narrow my vision (I’m working on it): my approach to cinema as an art. Not to discredit my criticism or any film criticism for that matter, but there are many factors to consider outside a movie besides the work itself when it comes to criticism. Any work of art resides in the perceived reality of the viewer. Whatever baggage a viewer brings to a work can affect how the work is received, from whether the viewer watches a film in the morning or at night to the mood they bring with them into the theater to the amount of knowledge and life experience they interpret the movie with.
I try to look at technical things but also consider zeitgeist and theory from filmmaking to literature to psychology as well as anything distinct about the filmmakers involved in the making of a movie. Still, my own experiences and biases also inform my reviews. There are times when I do have a chance to mull things over for a month before writing. For my review of Moonrise Kingdom, which was positive (‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film) I had a month. My initial reaction was that the film felt cartoonish, distant and over-stylized. But with time, I later considered it the most innocent and honest film of Wes Anderson’s career. It turned out to be one of the most popular reviews on my blog, which says something about my final opinion.
With Damsels, I knew the film had some value, as I had written a review that was more mixed than negative. I was prepared to see it again in the theater, but never found the time to do so. Stillman told me it was in and out at the only multiplex showing it in Miami in about a week. I had even felt it worthy of recommending to my wife who, much to my delight, came to admire Stillman’s work after I had introduced her to his earlier films. As I had expected, she enjoyed Damsels much more than I did.
After I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in the theater, I left confused and unsure of what I had experienced, but I knew the film was trying to say something profound. I now consider it one of Kubrick’s most underrated and misunderstood masterpieces after more than 20 re-viewings later and a seminar paper on the film, which I used to illustrate Lacanian theory during my Master’s studies for an MA in American Literature. With anything, opinions can and do change. It’s happened even more profoundly with music with this writer. Therefore, I have no shame reconsidering any film I critique, much less Stillman’s last film (Terrence Malick, maybe you’ll be next [Film review: With ‘To the Wonder’ Malick loses sight of cinema for message]?). What an opportunity to have the director sit with you and consider your criticisms with an open, curious and civil mind.
Here is the second half of our recorded conversation from about two months back. We went Dutch for coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts off Alton Road in Miami Beach:
Hans Morgenstern: One thing I am wondering about is your intention in the film.
Whit Stillman: There’s a very serious intention in the film.
But I mean, is it a cultural criticism of today?
Of course. All the films are. But I think it’s a kind of life preserver. I think there’s a very serious intention in the film where there is all this kind of romance of suicide, the romance of depression, in college. And the way most people deal with this is to therapize it, take it really seriously and re-dramatize it. And, actually, to get out of those moods for people, when it’s not clinical mental illness, is to distract, to make active, to do these things, and then, with the passage of time, they very often get out of that cast of mind. So the things in the film we presented as a joke, but actually there’s quite a bit of truth. In fact, I think, there’s a quite important practicing psychiatrist from one of the Ivy League schools who saw the film late in its run in New York, which lasted to the 17th week down at the Cinema Village, she came up to me and said, “You know, I think the things they are doing in this film are better than what we do in the university. I think this is better.” So, they’re really depressed, everything is terrible, you know, taking a shower, cleaning up, putting on— for a girl, maybe for a guy— putting on some good scent, dancing, getting out, socializing, cup of coffee, you know, distraction. Distraction activity, hygiene distraction activity, order, work, these sort of things get people out of themselves.
But is distraction really the cure for their problems?
Yeah, it is the cure because time is the cure, and distraction is the entry ramp for time. So I think it’s a movie that’s serious by virtue of its intentions on all kinds of levels, but I can’t announce that because I like things that are not obvious, and people can take it as they want to take it or take it as silly as they want to think it is. It is a very silly film.
Well, that’s the kind of film I usually love because when I walked into the theater…
How’d you see it? Was it a press screening?
It was a press screening at a cinema.
Was [“Miami Herald” film critic] Rene Rodriguez there?
Rene was there.
Rene gave it a really nice review, coz he didn’t like [Last Days of] Disco that much.
We corresponded about it, and he said, if you like the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” you will like this film. Is that a fair comparison?
Yeah, well, Aubrey [Plaza] is the same in “Parks and Recreation,” has nice spirit. It’s not a show I follow, but, from what I’ve seen, it’s OK.
Maybe I did come at it too cynical. The thing I know is that when I was finishing considering it, which was probably too soon, was that, yeah, I do want to see it again, I do want to recommend this to my wife, and she did see it, and she loved it. So what I predicted about it was right.
And she just saw it this past week?
A few weeks ago.
Before we met up? Oh, cool. Interesting. Because it had been on the Starz thing? Do you feel your blog affects attendance?
Yeah, insofar as it is shared. Miami Beach Cinematheque shares my reviews. So he’s a big champion of my blog, and so is [The Miami International Film Festival Director] Jaie [Laplante]. In fact, this year, the director of Bonsai, which was a big award winner last year, is at the festival to give a seminar, and I loved Bonsai. In fact, Jaie said my review was his favorite review the film had received.
What’s Bonsai like?
Bonsai is actually based on a pretty famous Chilean novel, and it’s about this down and out writer who decides to take up a job to write this novel for this famous writer, and he ends up incorporating his own personal relationship into the book, and it jumps between the writing of that book, and his memories as a college kid, so there’s this great sort of self-actualization in writing going on there (Read the review: Film Review: ‘Bonsai’ breathes life into art).
Sounds great. I have a feeling your taste may be more art film than mine.
Yeah, I tend to get that.
Which is good. Someone has to do it (laughs).
I am part of that whole group, the Florida Film Critics Circle, with Rene and Connie [Ogle] at “the Herald.” They know I have this small blog but that I’m covering something different in cinema.
Rene, his review— thank God we got that— it was great. It was syndicated all over the place. That review appears all over the place, and he wrote a nice review. It’s a solid review and a kind of way-in review that tells people how to get into the film. One review that kinda annoyed me, and it’s kinda important, is this one guy who always, always attacks my films. I don’t know what his problem is. But he started this whole thing making a big deal about two posters that are on the walls. He said, the director was telling us, because he has the Lola Montes poster in the girls’ room and the Grand Illusion poster in the other thing [Xavier’s apartment],
he’s telling us this and he’s telling us that and his intention is this and his intention is that and all this hogwash. The thing is, there’s so many things you can say about a film. Why presume or state something that’s not knowable by him because I had no intention with those posters at all. I have no feeling for those films, none. It’s just that we were really hard up for posters and any art that looked non-ridiculous. No one would give us posters for free, coz we’re not going to pay for posters in a low-budget film. I mean, it’s advertising. They should want it up. So for the suicide center, I went to a place, and I had a contact, I had a connection, so I asked for, you know, the big old-fashioned musicals like Showboat, Guys and Dolls…
We asked for the right to use the posters in the Suicide Center, and they said, “Oh, no, we’ll charge you a purchasing fee of $1,000.” We’re not gonna spend a cent. If we have to, we’ll pay the $10 and put it up on a poster board, but that’s about it, and so I was stuck. From my old illustration agency we got some stuff, and then we were stuck for other things, and then, by accident, I ran into the guy from Criterion at a party, and I asked him about the posters. He said, “Yes, but you’ll also need permission from Studio Canal and Rialto.” This is the way it always is, “Yes, but.” But, the thing is, I knew they were brother and sister, the Halperns, who I know really well, so I just sent them quick emails, and within a day I had permission and Criterion sent us all these posters. And there are more posters than that up. The guy didn’t see the Godard poster that was up. It wasn’t a very good-looking poster, so we just had it in the background in Xavier’s apartment. And I go into the set and the art department has put up the Grand Illusion poster, and I wasn’t very happy about that. I didn’t want it that present.
It really draws your eye. I do remember seeing the Grand Illusion poster.
That one really draws your eye. The Lola Montes thing he mentioned, you practically can’t see that. Only someone who studied the Criterion artwork would have noticed that because it’s only half of the image. I love the artist who did the image. In fact, I was thinking when it came to do the poster for the film, I was over at the Criterion art department trying to get their ideas. I just love that guy’s work. But [lowers voice] there’s no intention at all. I was thinking, well, it’s plausible… could the character have this on his wall? Well, yeah, he could have that on his wall. It’s possible.
But it’s background. It’s nothing to the theme of your film, right?
Nothing on the walls is supposed to be focal. For instance, my university daughter still hasn’t got her posters back because I took all her posters from her wall because she had to decamp from her room and so the posters were in my apartment, and they were by an artist friend who I had represented, and so I just took her posters and gave them to the art department and said, “Put these in the girls’ room.” And, anyway, he built this whole review about my pretentiousness in my references.
Well, you see, that’s wrong. And they were just these two quick background images?
It’s wrong on so many levels. It’s wrong on so many levels, and then he pounds us in this really important review. He pounds us through the whole thing. Why kill a film based on a presumption out of thin air?
I hope you didn’t get the idea that my review was all negative.
No, your review was not bad. I had remembered it when you first mentioned it to me, but I went back and looked at it. I kind of enjoyed that I didn’t know where it was going to go. I kinda enjoyed the A, B, C thing. I, of course, I thought “A” right away: not older but definitely more cynical.
I went into To the Wonder with hopeful expectations. I felt moved by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and its take on life and death and mourning with grace. It made for an abstract viewing experience, but it also dealt with such sublime encounters in a respectful and beguiling manner while not forgetting the humanity in its main characters. I had hoped To the Wonder would offer a similar statement about love. Instead, it has some archaic message about marriage under God. But, even worse, the journey never feels compelling. I felt the film rush by with one redundant, brief scene after another on a path to a sloppy, hollow end that reeked of contrivance. The precarious edge Tree of Life teetered on, To the Wonder plunges over.
Before the film derails, however, the first few minutes feel promising. Grainy, saturated home video of a train trip in France featuring the two lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) is juxtaposed with wide Paris cityscapes. Speaking in French she says, in voice-over, “A spark. I fall into flame.” Brief sentences. Pregnant with impressionistic poetry. Intimacy captured in a moment when he holds her hair. She doesn’t flinch. However, problems began to arise not long into the film. There’s a distance between the camera lens and the actors. Emmanuel Lubezki has shot amazing work for many well-known directors. He has long proven himself a capable cinematographer, and he comes through in To the Wonder. There are beautiful moments of light and shadow throughout the film, beyond scenes shot during the magic hour, a light that has obsessed Malick from the start of his career as a filmmaker. However, the issue lies in the content of the shots and how Malick has contextualized them via the cutting room. Many shots of Neil focus on his back. If Marina faces the camera, it’s only to twirl away from it, her arms outstretched to the sky in one scene after another. If that’s a representation of a woman in love, I know a few women who will take offense to that, if not laugh it off.
It’s scenes like these— which are repeated, no less— instead of the powerful complexity of scenes in Tree of Life, like when the father tries to teach his son how to fight and hugs him after yelling at him “hit me!” capturing the bitter pull and tug of love and hate between son and father that seems amiss throughout To the Wonder. It feels as though Malick did a rush job in the editing room, without enough consideration to the performances. It does a disservice to the acting and character motivation.
Neil ends up moving Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from France to his hometown in Oklahoma, which, as revealed by his first voice-over he seems more romantically in love with than the foreigner he plants there. “Honest. Rich,” he says. However, as his job seems to involve him testing the soil on farms, he soon learns the land he seems to revere is actually poisonous. Any sympathy for the man is diffused by his cold, distant looks to Marina’s attempts at seduction. Her daughter shares her own frustration with trying to fit in at school. “Mom, we have to leave. There’s something missing,” she says in French (she might as well also be talking about the movie). After her tourist visa expires she tells him, “We have to face the facts.” When he refuses to marry her, she is obligated to return to France. He then falls for a childhood friend, Jane, (Rachel McAdams). “She hadn’t changed. Kind,” Neil says in voiceover. Still, even in Paris, Marina pines for this man, and you wonder why. But in Oklahoma, now Jane twirls in the fields, arms outstretched to the sky.
A parallel to this story is that of a Spanish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who Marina bonds with as a fellow exile. Meanwhile, his voiceover is full of doubt, as he carriers out charity work. “How long will You hide?” Statements like that are coupled with declarations like, “There is love between a husband and wife.” A wedding does eventually occur, but inside a courthouse. Men in handcuffs sign as witnesses. These abstract, loosely connected scenes are building toward something rather archaic in message while contrived in form. Worst of all, it feels too definitive and preachy for Malick.
Although the images continue to enchant, the actors feel like props, which takes out the human experience of love. The scenes feel like misshapen puzzle pieces forced to fit together, and the dramatic arc lacks the substance in performance and character development to carry you along. When the tidy ending arrives after creating such a complicating setup among people, it betrays the spirit within a person. Malick’s reach is so wide, the film really feels like he has concocted something out of nothing. If love were only about God, then fine, but anyone who has been in love knows that the sublime lies within them as well as outside.
To the Wonder is in English, French and Spanish with English subtitles, runs 112 minutes and is rated R. It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 3. The film also opens in South Florida at O Cinema, beginning May 9 and the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, where it will begin its run May 10. It arrives in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso on May 24. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line preview screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).
How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ’2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 4 of 4
April 28, 2013
Chapter III-B: The Sublimation of Narrative: Film Techniques in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Note: this is a continuation from the post: How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ’2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 3 of 4
7. Film Techniques should be invisible
Finally, and most uniquely to the medium of cinema, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick employs obtrusive film techniques, including powerful match cuts and long, self-aware musical sequences where music goes beyond mood and atmosphere to take on a narrative role. This last element of Hollywood cinema dictates the audience should not become aware of technical aspects of movie-making while watching a film. As film scholar David Bordwell notes, “Hollywood’s pride in concealed artistry implies that narration is imperceptible and unobtrusive” (24). Cinematic techniques, such as music and editing, must not break the movie’s spell by calling attention to themselves.
Some edits in 2001 might feel superficially jarring upon initial viewing, but they are actually pregnant with questions and meaning. Granted, whenever a film is spliced, information is lost, but the Hollywood aesthetic dictates that scenes need to be cut in a seemingly seamless manner. Bordwell explains, “From shot to shot, tonality, movement, and the center of compositional interest shift enough to be distinguishable but not enough to be disturbing” (55).
Much to the chagrin of some critics, 2001 contains several conspicuous edits. As cited earlier, critics like Sarris, Kael and Schlesinger bemoaned the ambiguity between scenes. However, Kubrick’s editing decisions were well thought out. He inserts transitions between many important scenes that force the audience to fill in “gaps” of time and space. These transitions are more associative edits rather than temporal. Nelson pointed to this as an outstanding aspect of the movie: “ embodies a kind of ultimate cinematic universe, where all the assurances of ‘normal’ perspective are literally turned upside down, and ‘settings’ project … a disturbing lack of contextual and historical definition” (110). The narrative effect of this leaves questions of story continuity in the viewer’s mind.
The viewer should not mistake these odd moments of editing with a plot hampered by events strung together haphazardly or coincidental ploys written into the storyline to keep the movie going. These are, in fact, tools that allow the director to raise his story to another level, beyond the theoretical confines of classical Hollywood cinema. In fact, one could argue Kubrick’s movie is more truthful as a result of what he leaves out between cuts as opposed to employing expository dialogue. In Robinson’s Lexicon, the term “cut” is defined as “[The] key to what is carried across from one image to another; whereas with words, inventions of man’s reflective powers, artifice is carried across; with images[,] entities within the visible creations, it is creative power that carries across the cut.” (Lavery 358).
The first scene that compels the viewer to see beyond the action in 2001 is probably the most famous scene of Kubrick’s entire career. It occurs in the early part of the film, during “The Dawn of Man,” when Kubrick introduces the ape-men. He directs the viewer’s attention to a scene involving the ape-men’s cognition that a bone could be used as a tool/weapon by showing the creatures’ transformation from this revelation by using a jump cut to show man’s final stage of evolution: man in space.
During this scene, a screaming Moon-Watcher tosses the bone in the air. As the bone hurtles against the sky in slow motion, the sound cuts to silence before the viewer is presented with the vastness of space and a satellite drifting above the planet earth. A second later, Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube begins. Beyond exciting viewers’ intellect with his surprising edits, Kubrick further emphasizes the jarring cuts with the waltz. As this scene clearly shows, “The Dawn of Man” section is not just about man evolving from apes; it seemingly encompasses the lifespan of Homo sapiens.
In his Newsweek review, film critic Joseph Morgenstern pointed out that an extraordinary amount of time is covered in that gap: “The man-ape gleefully hurls his tool of war into the air. It becomes a satellite in orbit around the moon. A single dissolve spans 4 million years” (97). The edit is a trick of the mind, as much as it is the eye. It is a direct association between club and space vehicle. The bone doesn’t turn into a satellite. They are two images literally juxtaposed. To correct my namesake (no relation), the transition is not a dissolve but a simple splice in the film. More specifically, it is a match cut, where two similar looking objects are edited into one another to create a relationship (W. Phillips 130). In effect, quicker than a blink of an eye, the viewer is transported four million years into the future. Nelson defines the implication of the association thus: “The technological leap from the bone to the moon-bound Pan-American spacecraft, imagined against the black background of infinite and unknown space, emphasizes that the next stage of man’s evolutionary rise continues the initial development begun by the ape.” (82).
This becomes the most important cut in the movie, as it clearly sets a profound tone. The match cut of the bone to the space vessel cracks the invisibility element of editing. Maybe not in a literal way that makes one think of the artifice of movie-making, but a jarring, obtrusive way. It calls attention to itself. The film is not looking to explain events, but seeks to stimulate the viewer to inform the action. Hence, the film’s appropriate hallmark of scant dialogue and exposition versus visuals pregnant with meanings. Throughout the film, Kubrick shows the audience that dialogue has little value in exposition. Instead, he emphasizes nonverbal communication like music and images, which he emphasizes through other carefully thought-out cuts within the film.
Classical Hollywood cinema dictates a movie should use music sparingly, supplementing the action on screen but never overshadowing it. As Bordwell says, “The music confines itself to a moment-by-moment heightening of the story. Slight anticipations are permitted, but recollections of previous musical material must be motivated by a repetition of situation or by character memory” (35). 2001 both follows this rule to its fullest effect but also takes a daring turn away from it. Kubrick utilized diverse but, for the most part, famous classical music pieces for the score of 2001. One of the most iconic pieces must be Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which appears during the opening credits and during the epiphanies that note the ape-men’s transformation to human and humanity’s ascendance to Star-Child.
Classical Hollywood cinema demands fleeting, associative uses of music that cue the audience into what event might happen next. As Bordwell notes, “During the film, music adheres to classical narration’s rule of only allowing glimpses of its omniscience, as when the score anticipates the action by a few moments” (34). In other words, the tone of the music should be an efficient thematic element scored to the scene that might clue the audience to a character’s intentions or the mood in the scene. Bordwell explains, “Just as classical camera work or editing becomes more overt when there is little dialogue, so the music comes into its own as an accompaniment for physical action. Here music becomes expressive to certain conventions (static harmony for suspense or the macabre, chromaticism for tension, marked rhythm for chase scenes)” (ibid).
The manner in which Kubrick uses music in the film was revolutionary in that entire scenes went on with only musical accompaniment and no dialogue while the narrative developed on an almost subconscious level. In the documentary film Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, film director Tony Palmer calls 2001 a milestone in cinema history precisely because of the way Kubrick utilized music:
I always think that history of the cinema divides into two essential eras: before Stanley Kubrick and after Stanley Kubrick, especially in relation to the use of music in film. Before Stanley Kubrick, music tended to be used in film as either decorative or as heightening emotions. After Stanley Kubrick, because of his use of classical music in particular, it became absolutely an essential part of the narrative, intellectual drive of the film.
In fact, Kubrick at first hired composer Alex North for an original score, which would have conformed more to Hollywood cinema’s demands that the music be inspired by the image and try to convey a musical mood in support of the images. North recorded a soundtrack, which is now readily available, but Kubrick was so taken by the classical temp tracks he used during filming, he decided to stick with those instead. “This was a crucial decision,” wrote Roger Ebert in his second review of 2001, where he reflected on the film 30 years after he first saw it. “North’s score … would have been wrong for ‘2001’ because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action— to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action.” Ebert emphasizes the word “outside,” which points to Kubrick’s reaching beyond the actions on screen and drawing the audience into a film that tries to go beyond conventions of Hollywood cinema.
Throughout 2001, non-diegetic music never overlaps with dialogue. There are, however, three questionable scenes focusing on man’s interaction with the monolith. There are the ape-men, who seem to react to the sound of György Ligeti’s high-pitched howling chorus that emanates around them or possibly from within the monolith. Also, the lunar scientists reel in pain after a similar chorus of voices turns into a piercing high-pitched sustained note. Then, during the penultimate emergence of the monolith, Dave Bowman enters the star gate as the chorus once again returns.
One critic referred to the monolith as “the singing slab,” as the imagery seems to respond to seemingly non-diegetic music (Sweeney 229). This minimal use of music that might or might not be non-diegetic adds to the potency of the scenes, which offer a repetitious pattern of similar, yet unique and related events that occur during entirely unique instances during man’s evolution. Ciment explained it best:
The oratorio by György Ligeti which acts as a musical leitmotif for the presence of the monolith coincides with Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that all technology, if sufficiently advanced, is touched with magic and a certain irrationality. Its choral accompaniment leads us onto the threshold of the unknown, just as Kubrick’s use of the opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra prepares us for the profundity of his intentions … 2001 postulates the same progression as in Nietzsche’s work, from the ape to man, then from man to Superman” (Ciment 128).
Ciment also notes that 2001’s use of Also Spoke Zarathustra during the evolutionary leap from ape-man to space-man and the rebirth of Bowman emphasizes the film’s Nietzschean tone (105). Kubrick harnesses the power of music to tell the story, rather than limiting the score to offer cues to the audience of what might happen next or set a mood. In 2001, music becomes an essential part of the narrative, while dialogue refrains from offering any profound details into character motivation. With his use of music in 2001, Kubrick goes beyond the limitations of language and even images alone to push his statement.
Although Hollywood film demands some degree of cognitive effort by the viewer, it never calls on the viewer to accept abstractions. For instance, at the end of 2001, an astronaut transforms into a baby floating in space. Traditional Hollywood film demands that there be some kind of explanation as to how this happened, be it exposition or a visual representation of the force that brought on such a change, but the film joins the aged astronaut and the fetus only by a film splice, which is imperceptible to the human eye, considering how fast film rolls. Essentially, nothing joins the two embodiments of the one astronaut. Also, nothing before the transformation hints that this is what will be happening to the astronaut and nothing after the transformation explains why it did, at least not definitively.
The dictates of traditional Hollywood cinema never allow for such ambiguity, as every event in a Hollywood movie must contribute to the story in some definitive manner, be it subtle or obvious. For instance, a classic Hollywood version of 2001 might show an alien wave a magic wand over the astronaut and then a flashy transformation might play out between the human and baby forms, definitively linking the two as a single being.
I believe in cinema as serious art. Not as solely entertainment but a medium that allows us a way of looking deeper at ourselves, a kind of aid to mankind in delving in and discovering ourselves. In turn, finding transcendence in art. 2001 strives to tap into a deeper power of the film medium, inspiring contemplation of the deepest questions of life, such as the origins and future of humanity, while not falling into the trap of heavy-handedness. It can only achieve this by breaking the limits of conventional Hollywood cinema.
I think Ebert hit 2001’s purpose on the head when he revisited the film 30 years after he first saw it and contrasted its purpose with the absence of deeper purpose in movies that follow the classical Hollywood cinema:
Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are.
2001 is constructed to inspire viewers to go beyond the image and ultimately look into themselves and what they can bring to the movie. The pay-off for those watching the film comes only when viewers embrace its open-ended quality, feel liberated by it, and instead of scratching their heads or superficially marveling at the “weirdness” of the film, begin to invest in the scenes that call to them. It is only then that they can grow from within after watching a film as convention-busting and masterful as 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is art, the sort of art that out lives us, intriguing one generation after another.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
Ciment, Michel. Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. Trans. Gilbert Adair and Robert Bononno. 2001 ed. New York: Faber & Faber, 2001.
Ebert, Roger. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. 27 March 1997. Rogerebert.com. 6 Feb. 2006 <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970327/REVIEWS08/401010362>.
Lavery, David. “‘Like Light’: The Movie Theory of W.R. Robinson.” Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values. Ed. Richard P. Sugg. New York: Golden String Press, 2001. 346-363.
Morgenstern, Joseph. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. Newsweek 15 April 1968: 97-100.
Nelson, Thomas Allen. Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze. New and expanded ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Phillips, William H. Film: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
Sweeney, Louise. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. Christian Science Monitor 1968. The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. Ed. Jerome Agel. New York: New American Library, 1970. 227-229.
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Note: In Miami, O Cinema hosted an encore screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday, April 27 at its Miami Shores location. This screening was part of O Cinema’s on-going Kubrick retrospective inspired by Room 237, which also played at part of the retrospective (see event page). Today is the last day to catch the film, inspired by Kubrick’s the Shining; both these films have one more screening each this afternoon at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables (see calendar).
Room 237 trailer: