Saturday, November 30, 2013

2013 in Shit: Elysium

So, first things first: I hated District 9, and I hated this movie. Elaborating on either of those positions seems pretty dull to me, so I am going to try to do something that I don't have the background for at all: I'm going to try to discuss, despite an utter lack of technical knowledge (which I can sometimes fake), the opening shot of the movie, and why I think it spectacularly failed.

Elysium opens with a panoramic chopper tracking shot (see? I have no idea what I am talking about). Or rather, several; helicopters glide over future Los Angeles and the titular space station. This is meant, I assume, to achieve two ends: to orient the viewer in the secondary world (or future world, if you prefer), and (but also through) to present a striking juxtaposition. Wealth against poverty, visually coded in all those heavy ways that these thing tend to use as shorthand (the most obvious being white vs brown).

The aerial tracking shot manages to be simultaneously stabilizing and unsettling; it does the work of establishing without connoting stability. It uses the cinematic shorthand of objectivity, the aerial shot, as though a satellite or the sun itself, and makes it kinetic, smooth and quick.

The quickness of the shot is worth mentioning; despite the smooth tracking, it zooms over the ground in an uncanny way. This might have something to do with what people complain about when they talk about the difference between digital and film; a quick lookup of the film's technical specifications followed by a wikipedia search of the types of cameras used leads me to believe that it was shot on the Red Epic-X with the framerate dialed down, giving the impression of time lapse footage without the artifacts present in non-digital cameras; this would explain why, despite not looking as though there is any actual fast-forwarding going on, the camera appears to cover the ground much faster than one would expect a helicopter to allow for. The most obvious association, for me at least, is that this is what footage shot from a low-flying UAV might look like, if it were equipped with very high-end cameras. Thus the uncanniness of the whole thing.

In these opening shots is, in their way, the whole film. They're a sort of visual-technical objective correlative, an establishing frame which emphasizes the way that the film will concern itself with an apparently rigid hierarchical social construction that is nevertheless in motion; and how that motion, through the narrative, is conveyed through speed. If my assumption as to how it was filmed is correct (I wouldn't put too much credence in that though) there is another resonant dimension; the way that this speed is actually a kind of rehabilitated disjunctive slowness, that is, is formed not by acceleration but by deceleration, the shooting slowed to present quickness.

There is an obvious material explanation for why these shots don't linger; the film needs the ability to establish without stretching its run time. Regardless of the motivation, its aesthetics present themselves to the viewer as a sort of alienation from usual cinematic language; the most obvious counterpart is the Tarkovskian long shot, the most obvious example from Solaris. Consider, for instance, the steady series of aerial zoom outs that takes up the last minute and a half (roughly) of the movie; unlike the panning that begins Elysium, the speed of the shot seems less awkward due to the unsteady camera, and the fact that it moves away from, rather than over, its subject. I'm not a huge fan of Solaris (or that shot in particular) but it seems to me a good example of how something like Elysium uses that bizarre sped-up consistency to orient the viewer beyond in ways that exceed the ordinary language of film.

(Note: having since rewatched the opening scene, the only place where the speedy footage happens excessively are the shots over Elysium, not over (the film's) Los Angeles; this could be an interesting juxtaposition to follow but maybe I am wrong about that as well, or perhaps it is a digital artefact, or whatever else; basically I'm leaving this as is and someone who actually knows what they are talking about is free to run with it or call out my ignorance or whatever else.)

Friday, November 29, 2013

2013 in Shit: The Croods

Can you believe it took until 2013 for a film adaptation of the popular Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game franchise to happen? I'm not sure why they reskinned it as some awkward "caveman" story, but hell, its good to see that someone finally gets it; the game had such a beautifully epistemology of objects that it was always only ever a matter of time.

That old saw about how hammers only ever see nails or whatever was never quite what made THPS the game that it was. You could skate on fucking anything, of course, and so all the world's stuff was reduced to an extension of the tool; but this was a simulated, bounded three dimensional space activated through a series of abstractions mapped to a physical object that was set within a historical relationship to other interface devices, providing a structural grammar of a medium. It's not like any game ever isn't a collection of nails. Admittedly some of it was that it wasn't your ordinary hammer; as fun as making those little divots in the walls of Goldeneye 007 was, the sort of hammer that turned all planes from barriers to surfaces was pretty exhilarating. Way more than that though it was about how the tool itself finally became transparent: that fuckin blackslide though.

To be completely honest, The Croods only really gets the former point; but then, it would be hard to imagine the filmic equivalent of the latter. If this was a culture in which B-roll footage was the real shit that everyone went for, maybe making what we now consider an ordinary movie would do it. But that isn't the case, and a simple inversion is lazy and useless. The way the characters bound off their animated landscapes, though, that's pure THPS. Even the nods to 50s Looney Tunes are mediated through that aesthetic of plane-as-mechanic; when Wile runs and hangs there's still the implicit knowledge that represented planes impose systemic boundaries. For Eep, though, its nails all the way down.

The movie isn't great, but there's enough there to keep it going even if Nic Cage is pretty disappointing. Granted he doesn't do a bad job; his turn as reactionary dad gesturing vaguely to unspeakable terror to keep his authoritarian grip on the family is what it needs to be, and the flourish of didactic storytelling as a mode of closing possibilities is a nice bit of weight, given its relation to the form, that pulls against and, in doing so, gives weight to the joyous bounding off walls that really interests the movie. And he gets a little turn as the salvage puzzlemaster as well, cobbling together the things and events seen prior that sutures the movies end to its beginning, as it wears itself out and yet keeps pushing forward. Narratives can't just be abandoned, you know, or cut off when everyone dies.

If Riddick’s being read through D&D is primarily a way of structuring how the narrative is impacted by the film’s slightly-less-than-obvious aesthetic decisions, by way of the genre switching, then reading The Croods through Tony Hawk Pro Skater is sort of the opposite. Where Dungeons & Dragons as frame is concerned primarily with justifying the fiction of a linear agent around whom the rest of the stuff is organized, while THPS is, no matter how far I go to try to make it seem smarter by way of obfuscation, mostly an excuse to say there is a clear level on which this film works, and it is analogous to the act of playing a particular video game that many people have probably played, and in being analogous it does something interesting and worth considering, even if the things it does that fall outside of that analogy are almost uniformly dull.

The Croods still holds a space in my mind somewhere in orbit of Wreck-It Ralph, maybe alongside Rise of the Guardians; I'm never sure how much the organization of space in these films (Guardians' architectural hegemony and Ralph's hub world) use of animated space actually stands in contrast to the Shit That Came Before. I'm certainly not encyclopedic in much of anything, and especially so in the history of animated film (much less television, no matter how many times my teenage ass rewatched Neon Genesis Evangelion in one sitting). I expect my punchy ahistoricity here to be especially potentially aggravating. There's only so much fucking it I can get away with, of course. And yeah, the movie rehabilitates bad dad, and even if it hadn't Ryan Fucking Reynolds (as Guy, get it) is Eep's love interest, so it's safe to assume those nails are going to rust on a bed of reproductive futurism. Here's to hoping for tetanus.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

2013 in Shit: Riddick

Having never seen or played anything in the Riddick-verse, I opted into it with this film. Knowing that Vin Diesel is into Dungeons & Dragons, I watched it through the lens of a campaign, and thought it was a pretty neat movie.

The movie initially threatened to be incredibly cool, in a similar way to how John Carter threatened to be incredibly cool; but where that movie collapsed in on itself in a particularly unspectacular way, Riddick moves through a series of well-obscured generic shifts that kept it, if not as amazing as it initially suggested it might be, at least really interesting. For the first, maybe, slightly less than a third of the movie (I am likely exaggerating its length out of poor memory) I was tentatively convinced that I might be watching a movie about one man, whose only conflict was with a planet. There's almost no dialogue, and no other characters played by humans; if it was less malleable an environment than The Croods presented, it was largely because the game after which it might be argued to be modeled (D&D rather than THPS (I originally wrote my piece about The Croods first so I guess just consider this a TEASER)) has a fundamentally different method of abstracting space. I was incredibly excited about the idea that we might be allowed to spend an hour and a half doing little more than following Vin Diesel, absolutely devoid of companionship, wrestle a planet into submission.

When the shift comes and the other characters show up, the movie knows at least to cast off the sensawunda-tinged cosmic horror and leap straight into a series of genre frames that are each done pretty damn well. The high note, for me, is when it becomes clear that for a good chunk of Riddick we are watching something like a mixture of Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, with Diesel as Mike Myers. If he isn't going to spend his time leveling up off dire wolves and scorpions, he might as well roleplay the unkillable menace. And when that burns itself out Diesel gets to take a brief turn as Hannibal Lecter before the film goes full locked room zombie flick, complete with sick motorcycle foray into mindless-enemy territory.

It might just be because I happened to spend a good amount of 2013 experimenting in using D&D to tell a horror story about a haunted house, but the fusion of campaign and slasher film excited the hell out of me. Reading Riddick as a tabletop adventure necessarily positions Diesel as the most proactive, if not the only, PC; that he goes on to largely absent himself of the story is not exactly how campaigns tend to work, but, as someone who almost exclusively plays as a DM, it makes him seem, to me, like maybe the most ideal player; not in the sense that he gets out of the way to let "me" tell the story, but in the sense that he seems to readily recognize just how fundamental negation is to that game.[1]

Given a more recent watching or the context of the other films, I might have more to say about the particular use of genre in this movie; lacking those things, the best I can offer is a general sense as to how the way this movie pulls off its internal generic shifts, at least when viewed under the campaign rubric, points towards the possibilities it offers. For all the apparent uses of Carpenter and others, Riddick might be closer to Wreck-It Ralph than any other movie, and certainly (to me at least) is the best statement on games that came out in theaters in 2013. Both Riddick and Ralph offer not just the apparent visual motif of games, whether through the occasional HUD that the camera enters that signifies Riddick's vision or through the neon clutter of Ralph, but also a rough filmic equivalent of the focusing effect that the type of interaction that games offer allows and films do not. Where in Ralph that was done by a specific ordering of the clutter, Riddick creates the effect, as read through tabletop RPGs, exclusively through the use of meta-referents; this is a movie that demands that you watch it in dialogue, whether with fellow enthusiasts or with yourself. It's in the genre-swapping as much as it is in the loving attention to what each of those genres does best and worst, in how the movie seems committed not to the transcendance of any of these genres but to adhering to their individual representative capacities, in the clear signalling of this film as a passion project of its star whose idiosyncracies are easily known; this isn't the sort of movie to watch for its mastery of cinematic grammar, even if it does use blocking or lighting to particularly good effect here and there, but to evoke a certain kind of communal activity, the post-theater enthusiastic dialogue, and how that shades into a mixture of analysis (most often as apparently-simple recap) and roleplay.

This is one of the reasons that, for instance, the film can get away with framing the traditional, much-hated grind of an RPG in a cinematic grammar more reminiscent of 'arthouse' film than anything else without any real dissonance; while grinding is basically the confluence of mechanical advancement in a closed system with narrative justifications of that system, it doesn't follow that the removal of the mechanics requires a doubling down on the narrative (via genre) justification, despite this being the nearly sole way that translations of games into film have operated in the past. Riddick instead offers a productive disjunct, the narrative frame all but repudiating the mechanical representation that it smuggles in. What tension would normally arise, however, is subsumed under the larger narrative that the film's moves suggest, most especially its apparent orientation against itself as a text (assuming one takes text to mean a hermetic artistic construction, or a mode of weaving together abstractions to organize them internally in such a way as to exemplify through the juxtapositions allowed by cultural shorthand). Lacking an overwhelming attendance to internal coherence isn't just a fancy way of saying that Riddick's a mess, either; it is likely one of the most internally coherent movies I have seen and enjoyed recently, through its attention to worldbuilding and integration of disparate aesthetic categories. It's that the movie, in manifestly not giving a fuck about that, creates a space in itself for alternative methods of interpreting and valorizing by way of its competence and disinterest in the normative cultural model by which all interpretations work.

Does that sound radical? It isn't. Texts have been doing this for decades, at least. That Riddick does it as well probably has more to say about (my perception of a?) hegemony within criticism than it does about the film's particular merits, anyway. That it then uses that framing to allow for a productive juxtaposition of generic elements without becoming messagey about doing so is, if also not radical, at least really, really great.

[1] Here’s the first (and likely last) Year in Shit easter egg, embedded as the link prior: an essay, written by me over the bulk of the last year (on and off, admittedly) and only now posted, about how the structure of Dungeons and Dragons is dialectical, and how tabletop play is actually just social relations, and why The Forge is class war psychoanalysis. Shouts out to my longest campaign ever, and to Jenna, Steve, Bunny, Sara, Mark, Adam, Duck, Michal & the rest; and also to Finch for a lot.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

2013 in Shit: Pain & Gain

Pain & Gain was Spring Breakers without the fucking thinkpiecey bullshit; a gaudy, glossy & cheap fuck you to America whose misanthropy coincidentally happened to reify structural oppressions. A two-note disharmony without even the faintest inclination that it intends to resolve itself. A twisted, spitting mess of class resentment and reaction crawling out of the kinetic-to-the-point-of-frantic aesthetic of director and cinematographer unleashed of tone and everything else.

I don't actually know that, though, since I walked out of Spring Breakers after about twenty minutes, at the request of a friend. Even that early I could feel the sharp edges of my own self-righteous thinkpiece emerging; thanks to him, though, I instead got to watch at a distance as everyone else's moral panic (whether in the form of condemnation or justification) coated a little corner of the internet a nice, thin, demure shade of eggshell. Luckily Pain & Gain wasn't art.

Dwayne Johnson's performance is my favorite that I've seen this year; and I again say this as someone who has zero interest or ability in judging the craft of acting. To say that he uses the skills he honed as The Rock to play a bodybuilding ex-convict and -alcoholic involved in a blundered heist is probably to give you the wrong impression. What people tend to think of as the hallmarks of acting in professional wrestling aren't what, I think, he draws on; the bombast and theater, the melodrama and blocking of the body, the utter self-involvement in the absence of a coherent self aren't the broad sketches but the bubbling undercurrent, and his bumbling naivety is beautifully highlighted (and honestly hilarious) because of it. Mark Wahlberg's rapper-cum-three-color-chameleon baggage is a bit less effective but still good, and Anthony Mackie makes the best of a bullshit role. Had Johnson not been perfect, a Cena third would've been, at least to me, a really funny choice; two white rappers and Papa Doc in a story about how bullshit the American Dream is would have a much different tenor.

The two notes that Pain & Gain never bothers to harmonize are generally, when brought together, called dark (or black, probably, in this instance) comedy; Bay, instead, holds one in the one hand and the other in the other, and seems to structure the film by hiding them behind his back and asking whoever happened by during shooting to pick a hand. It's kind of impossible to convey just how incoherent the tone of this movie is; even the narrative and aesthetic threads fray under the absolutely implacable refusal to unify itself, and even when the film expects you to laugh in horror or to cringe at a joke, its forward momentum obliterates the apparent synchronizing and peels back at its own artifice. It's the sort of movie that keeps going for no other reason than that it's a movie, which are composed of images displayed over time, and so even when it barrels right through the unity of image and time, time is an aspect. That is, the forward momentum that we usually associate with narrative is here at an almost total disjunct from the mechanical reality that time moves forward as images are shown in succession. Which, frankly, I kind of adored; it was also incidentally cool that this resonated with the overall tonal and thematic disjuncts as well, I suppose.

I worry, occasionally, that when I make these sort of broad claims about how a film fits together (or aggressively fails to) that I rely too heavily on modes of criticism developed to valorize individualist constructions of art; saying, for instance, that the disjunctiveness of Pain & Gain is not an instance of ineptitude but a totalized thematic richness dovetails too nicely with an auteurist valorization of Bay as Director for that not, I suspect, to be presumed to be my ultimate goal, at least by some. And I certainly wouldn't contend that films aren't products of individual humans working collectively, whose individuality is never quite subsumed into the enterprise (I probably have claimed and will continue to claim this -ed); except that at the same time, despite the traditions I operate according to (see: my loosely deployed jargon), I am, if anything, interested on the human level exclusively as regards what might be broadly described as the reader, not the writer. This is the lesson that I wrenched out of deconstruction, and which I don't think is quite in accordance with its aims; but I similarly don't particularly care about those. Mine is an attempt -- at least, this is how I organize myself to myself, as I am a set of words and ideas collected under a byline -- to help read, not to help write. Whether Pain & Gain is an incoherent mess worth little more than derisively ignoring or a bizarre fecund unity of antagonisms is not a question I situate with any aspect of the industrial apparatus that defines its creation, but with the way that it is capable of being approached. This is, also, primarily a question of social (and material) conditions, and my attempts to under- or over- write them, as the case may be. There is more to be said here, but whatever; anyway.

This is, of course, what is at stake in the divergent reception of two roughly identical films, the one written off and the other written on past the point of dullness and boredom. Korine's a brilliant artist, Bay a hack and a shill. Satire works in these particular ways, according to this theory of power, else it is a failure, a symptom, its artist alchemized into an analysand. Irony, rather than a constitutive aspect of language, is a degraded mode of production, one of those magical generational foci that define the affect of a decade. ANYWAY.

This thematic is reproduced in the performances as well; as Johnson draws equally on his status as an established performer and the tools he learned as a wrestler to give a bubbling undercurrent to his naivety, to make himself into something of a mixture of socially-determined manchild and evil (yet sympathetic) brute (the movie being racially coded in these terms as all fuck), his cute sociopath role is never really reconciled, and again is wonderful because of it. The scene that begs to be famous, where he grills a number of his crew’s victim's hands to remove the fingerprints while wearing an apron, manages to fall just short of inspiring revolted laughter that the whole movie seems desperately to desire. He's a little too cute, the stylistic flair a little too perfectly technically realized, the moral stakes a little too underdeveloped; the whole thing is just honestly amusing, unless you for some reason buy into the "true story" frame that the movie presents and then seems equally desperate to undermine at every possible opportunity, I suppose.

This frame is, I would guess, largely at fault (if one looks solely at the film as text rather than at the social factors I ineptly skewer above) for Pain & Gain's less-than-Breakers reception; where the latter had the dubious luxury of pure fiction to operate in many eyes as commentary, Pain at least ostensibly pretends to be concerned with the lives of real murdered individuals. The tonal disharmony, then, is much more prone to moralizing critique on the film's own grounds. On one level this is pure ineptitude, employing what is functionally little more than a marketing frame without attending to the narrative which allows that frame to operate; on another it is the pure violence of critique, for the exact same reason.

As I recall (I saw this movie months ago and have trash memory, and I am sure as hell not doing due diligence given the number of things I am set to write about from here on out) this frame is presented most aggressively in the opening scene; Wahlberg runs from the cops, jumping from rooftop to rooftop. If I'm not wrong (I probably am) the claim that this is a true story is inserted via title card as Wahlberg is hit by a cop car, his legs smashed by the grill and his face crunching against the windshield, the camera in (actual, for real) slow motion (a trick it will repeat to show us spittle a few times as characters are hit in the face with things, very abjection). If Johnson's scene is a clear attempt to synthesize that fails beautifully, then this opening is clearly the opposite. It's a Lurid Reality claim over what is unmistakably an absolutely irrealistic genre marking; it is the film's total disconnect in a single frame. Maybe it is just because I have little interest in things like memoir generally, or because my favorite examples of the genre are books like Jane Jeong Trenka's Language of Blood or Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, with the former's experimentations with form and the latter's subtitle being a ridiculous misnomer attributable to the market, or maybe because Brecht's rejoinder to Lukacs in discussing the merits of realism vs expressionism (or modernism) still has an immediacy that excites me to no end, but I feel little compulsion to scrutinize the True Story claim as an ethical concern rather than a formal tool. And damned if the form isn't shot through the whole fucking thing in the exact way it's framed: broken, noisy, jarring and gross, utterly devoid of High Artistic Unification, and an absolute joy to watch.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

2013 in Shit

Last year, I did a thing I called 2012 in Film; 16 reviews of the 16 films I had seen in theaters over the course 2012. It was exhausting and often stupid, so this year I decided to go way, way harder.

The reason the name is updated to 2013 in Shit is because, in addition to the 18 movies I’ve seen in theaters in 2013, I also, for the first time in my life, read a pretty good amount of books in the same year that they were published. 15 of them, really, and I had hoped for a couple more. I’ve already had reviews of three of them published in other venues, but I’ll still add some extra original thoughts for those days.

What this means is that, starting tomorrow, I’m going to be posting something once every day for the next 35 days. That’s until the end of December. I’m giving myself an extra two days because I anticipate seeing Oldboy and Hunger Games: Catching Fire, so that will have to be written about as well.

Last year I wrote just under 13,000 words total, with one review a total of 2 and others nearing 2,000. Having given myself a slightly larger lead time than last year (I’ve been at this a little longer than a week and a half so far, but I’ve also been trying, very lazily, to place a couple of these, which have been done for about a month) I expect this round to be slightly more consistent in terms of length. It’s going to be a lot.

So here it is, your table of contents, in no order whatsoever:

  1. The Color Master
  2. Riddick
  3. The Hanging on Union Square
  4. Love is the Law
  5. Oblivion
  6. The Wolverine
  7. Ender’s Game
  8. After Earth
  9. Fruitvale Station
  10. My Education
  11. You’re Next
  12. Taipei
  13. The Purge
  14. Stoker
  15. Elysium
  16. The Childhood of Jesus
  17. Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction
  18. Joyland
  19. The Last Stand
  20. Hitchcock
  21. A Tale For the Time Being
  22. Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  23. The Conservation of Shadows
  24. The Croods
  25. Pink Globalization
  26. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
  27. From Up on Poppy Hill
  28. William Gibson
  29. Ghosts in the Machine
  30. Pain & Gain
  31. Carrie
  32. Escape Plan
  33. Oldboy
  34. Apology
  35. Nevada
As per last year, these are going to be roughly in the shape of reviews, and (also like last year) roughly is going to be the key word here. It will be fairly obvious what I wrote with particular venues in mind, I suspect, given the loose barrage of words and ideas that surround those moments of near-clarity.

So, here goes nothing.