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 naïve 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.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Train of Thought: Tourism, Travel, and the Self-Conscious Spiritual Journey of Wes Anderson’s "The Darjeeling Limited"

A taxi hastily makes its way down a narrow city street in an overhead long shot that soon movies in a zipping, zooming motion to meet the car head on, destabilizing the viewer and isolating this small vessel in a sea of stereotypical exoticism that, the soundtrack informs us through the shorthand of the theme from Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar, must be India. Throughout the scene, the business-suit-and-fedora-wearing passenger, played by Bill Murray, alternates nervous glances at his watch with nervous glances at his surroundings as he’s jolted the backseat of the tiny cab, whizzing through colorful, crammed South Asian scenery full of pedestrians, animals, buildings and cars that present nothing more than obstacles on a hurried drive to the train station. It’s clear he’s on a time table, not taking in the environment as much as moving through it as fast as he can, the tension increased by jumpy, jagged juxtaposition of quickly traveling shots. There is something specifically American in Murray’s appeal, and seeing him in the opening sequence of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited only works to further emphasize the foreignness of the setting relative to its protagonists.

Charting unknown territory no less than in the director’s previous film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Murray’s unnamed character presents a stereotypical image of the privileged, white, insensitive, ignorant American abroad. Of course he is late, and when the cab driver pulls into the station, Murray runs away without paying and, barely looking back at the people behind him, cuts the line at the counter to buy a ticket, all before breaking into a sprint after the moving train, in the first of four of Anderson’s signature slow motion processions in the film, this one to the Kinks’ elegiac “This Time Tomorrow.” As he awkwardly strives forward he’s slowly overtaken by Adrien Brody’s character, who enters frame and film from right, outpacing Murray and clambering aboard the racing titular train as Ray Davies wonders “This time tomorrow where will we be/ On a spaceship somewhere sailing across an empty sea…  This time tomorrow what will we see/ Field full of houses, endless rows of crowded streets/ I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t want to see/ I feel the world below me looking up at me/ Leave the sun behind me, and watch the clouds as they sadly pass me by/ And I’m in perpetual motion and the world below doesn’t matter much to me.” The sequence is undoubtedly comedic, but there is something mournfully poetic in the use of music, in Murray’s silent, defeated figure, slowly receding into the background as the train passes him by, and in the soft, bittersweet smile that plays on Brody’s lips as he watches the older man left behind, a soulful and ultimately sad expression that will take the rest of the film to explain.

Parts of this essay have previously appeared in “Baggage: Objects and Spaces as Markers of the Emotional Journey in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.”

What Brody’s Peter and his brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson) and Jack (JasonSchwartzman) Whitman, must leave behind in Anderson’s film is not only Murray’s surrogate father figure—the actor’s notable and surprising absence throughout the rest of the movie shadows the absence of the Whitmans’ deceased father—but everything that this peripheral character represents. The central trio of wealthy white Westerners embarks on a (very self-conscious) spiritual journey across India by rail not merely for the sake of seeing the world, but also for the healing of personal ailments. Their journey, at first nothing more than a forced family march to enlightenment, complete with laminated itineraries and detailed user instructions for spiritual rituals, combines an exploration of traveled space with an investigation of psychological processes of change and transformation. The brothers’ displacement and entering of a new territory is specifically what prompts the characters’ reassessment of their own existence, encouraging them to rethink their worldviews and paradigms and move, significantly, towards the creation of a new community. By the end of Anderson’s film, The Whitman brothers will have stepped away from the safety of home, the familiarity of objects, the security of material comfort, and the need to plan and control everything around them; they stop being tourists and become travelers. In embracing the danger of uncertainty and the possibility of community, in their family as well as with the Other, they go against typically Western notions of rationalism and individualism to begin to understand and accept a new way of life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

High School Confidential

Roger Ebert opens his review of Rian Johnson’s debut feature Brick (2005) with the following quote from Elaine May’s A New Leaf: “You have preserved in your own lifetime, sir, a way of life that was dead before you were born.” The line is more than appropriate, considering Brick is, in a surprisingly straightfaced manner, carrying on in its own lifetime a style of film that was dead long before it was born. At the same time, the depth of feeling and sincerity that runs through the film makes it seem utterly, breathlessly alive. In part nostalgic for a time and a style long passed, in part playing with and updating the conventions of the classic noir, Johnson’s film transposes the snaking plots and sneaky moods of gritty detective fiction to a contemporary high school—90210 goes noir, or what we would imagine a David Lynch or Coen brothers reimagining of Heathers might look like.

The movie, which hums with constant menace and sparks with hipster slang, was awarded the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision in 2005—and, whether or not you can take its premise seriously, there is no denying it is a work of originality and vision. Brick is an intriguing experiment in determination that unashamedly demands your attention, “one of those movies than seems not made but born—a small masterpiece that’s perfectly strange and strangely perfect” (Patterson). The combination is surprising, but what is even more surprising is the extent to which it works. The question begs to be raised, why is the Hammet-Chandler school so readily compatible with actual school?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

ATLFF'15: What I'm Excited About (Part II)

I’ve made it through the opening weekend of this year’s festival, and, true to my first post about the Atlanta Film Fest, I went to a lot of screenings. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned.

In case anyone was wondering, The Dickumentary informs us that cock worship is alive and well in North America, in the small but dedicated following of the St. Priapus Church of Montreal—located mainly in the (sacred?) basement of the order’s high priest and founder, D.F. Cassidy. While it is admittedly hard—no pun intended—to top that piece of information, the other screenings were also more than worth the time, if only to find out how much of a pain in the ass, according to filmmaker Jonathan Kesselman, John Heard is. My favorite event so far has to be the “Other Worlds” short block, a surprisingly diverse and impressive collection of eight horror and sci-fi films, by turns hilarious and terrifying, that truly made me happy about the future of the film industry. What I take away from it all? Don’t ever pick up a crow totem off the ground.

But the festival is less than halfway through, and there are more exciting events in the coming days. This is what I’m looking forward to.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

ATLFF'15: What I'm Excited About (Part I)

The 39th Atlanta Film Festival kicked off tonight with the overwhelmingly overcrowded and (possibly) overhyped opening night presentation of Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael, the true story of gay activist-turned-Christian pastor Michael Glatze. Star and producer James Franco unfortunately couldn’t make it, due to “unforeseen circumstances,” but the film was received amongst predominantly positive buzz, and I dare call the first day of the festival a success—but maybe that’s just Happy Hour talking (5 p.m. every night at the Highland Inn Ballroom for anyone interested).

So what else has people excited about this Georgia peach of a celebration of filmmakers and filmlovers? From a record number of 3,761 submissions from over 100 countries, the organizers have chosen the strongest and most radical lineup of narrative, documentary and experimental feature-length and short films, and what awaits audiences and guests at the Plaza and 7 Stages Theatres, the Woodruff Arts Center and the Rialto is indeed an interesting roster of screenings, events, panels, workshops, discussions, and experiences.

In the order they’re scheduled, here are the movies that I’m most looking forward to this weekend:

The Sideways Light (Saturday 3/21 9:30 p.m. upstairs at the Plaza)

This atmospheric indie thriller from first-time writer-director Jennifer Harlow follows a young woman named Lily (Lindsay Burdges) who cares for her ailing mother (Annalee Jefferies) when she starts to notice strange occurrences in the house her family has owned for generations. The daughter is haunted by memories as the mother starts losing hers the question raised is whether or not there’s anything else haunting them as well or if every odd incident is just a byproduct of the older woman’s unraveling mind.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bazin and Cinematic Realism(s)

“The faithful reproduction of reality is not art. We are constantly told that it consists in selection and interpretation….That it why up to now the ‘realist’ trends in cinema, as in other arts, consisted simply in introducing a greater measure of reality into the work: but this additional measure of reality was still only an effective way of serving an abstract purpose, whether dramatic, moral, or ideological…. Realism subordinates what it borrows from reality to its transcendent needs. Neorealism knows only immanence. It is from appearance only, the simple appearance of beings and of the world, that it knows how to deduce the ideas that it unearths. It is a phenomenology”
– Andre Bazin, “Vittorio De Sica: Metteur en Scene” (64-65)

In “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Andre Bazin points out the indexical nature of the cinema, the objective character of photography which provides it with a quality of credibility absent in the other arts. We are forced to accept the reality of the object presented, or “re-presented,” by the camera because the image it creates, like a fingerprint of reality, “shares, by virtue of the process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model” (13-14, emphasis in original). Bazin’s essay ends, however, on a note that seems to contradict most of what has come before: “On the other hand, of course, cinema is also a language.” If we are to understand that film is not only indexical, but, like language, then, also symbolic, constructed through an arbitrary connection to the object represented, how can we speak of cinematic realism,  “an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image” (“The Myth of Total Cinema” 20)? In order to answer that question, we must first distinguish between the different types of realism that Bazin discusses.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

City Lights (1931) Analysis

The Tramp, wearing tails, drives around in a Rolls Royce.  He spots a man smoking a cigar and patiently follows in the car until he drops the butt. The character jumps out of the Rolls, fights off an old, ragged bum who had himself bent over to pick up the cigar butt, grabs it, sticks it into his mouth, leaps back into his Rolls and drives away smoking; the assaulted bum looks on in stunned silence. This little comic bit, one of the countless memorable scenes in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) is more than just a funny sight gag; it is a glimpse into a way of life and into the underlying metaphor of many of the filmmaker’s works. The sequence underscores much of what the great artist’s career was built on: the contrast of wealth and poverty, surface riches and actual need, appearance and essence. What the Tramp needed was never financial success—he was destined, from the time of Chaplin’s Essanay shorts, to fail at attaining material rewards. What the character wanted was of a more spiritual nature: love and acceptance into “proper” society. Most of the time, he was doomed to fail at attaining that as well.

Read my analysis of Chaplin's The Circus here.