I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Scarface for Douchebags," or The Stockbroker as Tragicomic Antihero

“Now you’re not na├»ve enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, buddy? It’s a free market and you’re a part of it” –Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987)

“At the end of the game, you count up your money. That’s how you find out who's best. It's the only way.” –Bert Gordon, The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)

 Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) starts with an ad for Stratton Oakmont; the commercial makes us believe the brokerage firm is a golden American institution, a pillar of financial stability, as traditional, trustworthy, and established as if the Mayflower passengers had etched the very name into Plymouth Rock. Cut to the nightmarish circus of a rollicking party on the trading floor of the company—not unlike what we’ve imagined went on in Rome before the fall (all but the roller-skating chimp and snorting coke off hookers, of course)—and then freeze-frame on the billionaire brokers tossing a dwarf at a huge velcro target, literally and figuratively abusing the Little Guy. Stratton Oakmont is America, its founder proudly proclaims in the ad. How horrifying is it to realize that he just might be right?

The tale that follows the fictional commercial amounts to a nonstop barrage of drug-fueled decadence adapted by Terence Winter from real-life stockbroking swindler Jordan Belfort’s memoir. The book is a distant relative of the truth, it’s been said, and the film is a distant relative of the book. The humorous, “honest” movie poster of The Wolf of Wall Street created by Uproxx titles the movie “Scarface for Douchebags.” Although obviously meant as a joke, the film’s framing as a crime movie points to the many parallels between Scorsese’s film and the gangster genre, and raises the question, is Belfort even worse than the cinematic mobsters the director seems to draw inspiration from? The filmmaker might be the best cinematic connoisseur of charismatic sociopaths, and Henry Hill or Nicky Santoro ain’t got nothing on Leonardo DiCaprio’s titular wolf. The film’s brokers are avatars of an age of heedless self-indulgence and greed, gangsters with fountain pens instead of guns, slicing and dicing your bank account and putting your savings in a vise rather than your head.

It has long been accepted that the mob has always been a cinematic stand-in for the underside of American capitalism. As Frederic Jameson eloquently puts it in “Reification and Utopia,”
“When indeed we reflect on an organized conspiracy against the public, one which reaches into every corner of our daily lives and our political structures to exercise a wanton ecocidal and genocidal violence at the behest of distant decision-makers and in the name of an abstract conception of profit—surely it is not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself that we are thinking, American capitalism at its most systemized and computerized, dehumanized, ‘multinational’ and corporate form” (145).

Parts of this essay have appeared previously in my review of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When the Indie Mogul Met the Art-House Blockbuster: How the Weinstein Co. Framed "Snowpiercer"'s U.S. Release

In the spring of 2012, a few months after filming The Avengers and just before reprising his role as Captain America for a third time, Chris Evans played the rebel who leads a ragtag, rag-wearing lower-class community in a revolt against their decadent overseers in Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language debut Snowpiercer (released in the U.S. in 2014). For the film’s South Korean director, the challenge was finding the right clothes and camera angles to hide the actor’s Marvel superhero physique in order to assure his credibility as the malnourished leader of the revolutionaries. This problem provides an apt metaphor for the Weinstein Co.’s marketing and distribution of the movie. Analyzing the Weinsteins’ involvement with and public statements about Bong’s film  and its intended audience in trade publications, I will argue that the distribution company used a discourse of distinction built on aesthetic value judgments in order to rationalize and justify decisions based on financial considerations. Their challenge was finding the right language to disguise the sci-fi action blockbuster as a small indie movie better fitted for online and on demand distribution rather than a wide theatrical release.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Overpowering the Voiceover: Female Subjectivity and Sound in Klute

Some critics have called Alan J. Pakula’s neo-noir Klute (1971) progressive and radical in its positive depiction of an independent, sexually liberated woman; others have argued that the construction of the female character is no different than that found in classic noir, and that Klute actually operates in a profoundly anti-feminist way. This essay seeks to explore the reasons behind these diverging interpretations, locating the source of the difficulty in assessing the main female character’s power over the narrative in the disjunctive relationship between sound and image in the film. In marked contrast to the classic noir cycle, in Klute the story is filtered through the subjectivity of the female character, who poses a distinctive challenge to the patriarchal order and the foundation of the heterosexual couple. At the same time, there is a disconnect between the words she speaks in voiceover and the actions we see unfold onscreen that actively works to undermine her point of view. It becomes increasingly difficult, then, to say with any certainty whether the film’s central female protagonist can be considered an active subject or a passive object presented for the male gaze. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Must Be Exhausting": Nihilism, Irony and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir

“The Absurd is not in man… nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting them.”
–Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

 “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you”
–Al Roberts, Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

Bunny Lebowski: Ulli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a nihilist.
The Dude: Ah. Must be exhausting
The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)

Joel and Ethan Coen, the double-brained, quadruple-handed creative entity behind some of the most boldly original films to come out of the post-New-Hollywood generation, have created and maintained a unique, unmistakable signature style, a willful blend of darkness, humor, and sophistication. The sixteen movies the brothers have written, directed, and produced to date mostly limit themselves to the confines of two recognizable registers, film noir and comedy. Prior to the darkly comedic unraveling of noir themes, characters, and motifs in such postmodern works as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), the Coens were already making (self-)consciously comic use of noir plots and stylistic techniques through their characteristic mix of irony, poetry, and drama. Commentators, noting the pair’s cold, cynical treatment of characters and their fiercely, hyperconsciously intertextual play on films past, have sometimes described the Coens’ work as emptied out stylization or as unnecessarily grim, pessimistic, and even amoral. Using Blood Simple (1984), the filmmakers’ first feature effort, I will argue that far from social, moral, and political apathy, what emerges in the films of the Coen brothers is a consistent, if occasionally nihilistic, philosophy of human experience. The directors’ work manages to repurpose and revitalize conventions of past cultural forms in a way that is meaningful to the present moment. Perhaps even more importantly, their films amount to a deeper investigation of the human condition that is as serious and engaged as it is humorously macabre.