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, 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.