Saturday, January 07, 2017

MOONLIGHT: gay, male PRECIOUS?



I feel like this one may land with a thud, considering everyone and their mother seems obsessively interested in extolling this film, but I thought MOONLIGHT was massively overrated.

This film, which lightly traces the hard life of a gay black man beginning life in an impoverished neighborhood in Miami, is certainly beautiful and poignant.  The acting is meritorious – I’m a sucker for good child acting and this film kills it in this regard.  If a movie’s power derives from hardened silences, tearful reunions, human tenderness juxtaposed on callous circumstance, MOONLIGHT is essentially CITIZEN KANE.

To the white and privileged (including myself), the nefarious marketing ploy of MOONLIGHT prays on the same problematic liberal instinct that the movies PRECIOUS and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD exploit.  These are impoverished African-American characters with drug problems, their lives are harder and more complicated than yours, their neighborhoods more dangerous, their choices narrower, their poetry starker.   These undertold stories from underheard communities must be important (right?) because they are undertold and underheard.  I have to like this movie—right?—because it’s important.  It’s Oscar-worthy.  It’s…real.

But what speciously feels like I’m racist if I don’t like this, is actually (to employ just a little hyperbole in the name of syllogism) I’m racist if I do.  I’d argue that one aspect of racism lies in a tendency to under-critique individuals in favor of socially-bequeathed tropes about what THOSE PEOPLE are like, how THAT GROUP acts, what PEOPLE LIKE HER know, what GUYS LIKE THEM perpetrate.

But is the movie good?  Haven’t we seen drug dealers?  Haven’t we seen Crack Heads?  Haven’t we seen poverty and tragedy, Bad Mothers and Absent Fathers, Bullying, Bigotry, Fear?   Does the story twist us in new ways, test our limits, make us hate or love better, make us scared for our own lives?  Do we get wet in the waves of it?  Do we shiver in its breeze?

I’d argue that we don’t.  MOONLIGHT traces a life, but that life is merely grand gestures of violence and reconciliation.  For a more that’s so god damn boring so god damn frequently, it’s so blithely unsubtle.  All these important conversations and silences have a way of rendering none of them important, and it’s exasperating.  I’m not saying the struggle of the characters here isn’t interesting, but to call MOONLIGHT the best or even one of the best movies of the year is to ignore that it is not particularly interesting in its telling.  It’s overlong and redundant; its perpetual Shallow Depth of Field and super-saturated Ghetto vistas become beautiful ciphers with little meaning (probably much like Miami itself). 

 But we aren’t allowed to engage with the text like that, because to do so would be to deny its power.  Instead, MOONLIGHT is the gay, male PRECIOUS because if offers reprieve from the preconscious guilt of white privilege—symbolic catharsis that confuses FEELING SOMETHING for DOING SOMETHING.  If we can heap praise and awards on undertold and underheard stories we don’t have to tell and hear the REAL story, and that’s how racism hides in egalitarian art.    There is nothing malicious in anyone liking this movie, but there is a reason to disbelieve.  Because the malicious thing is the fear of Other imbibed in human nature on all sides, which society strives valiantly to extirpate.  We’re not quite there yet.

#oscarssowhite, yes, but not because Viola Davis needs Oscars, like now.  The problem is that we need Viola Davis to get Oscars so we feel less implicated in the infernal machine of racism.  The Oscars are for us. 


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

MAD MEN: the real thing?





To me the post-SOPRANOS season finale is the ideal modern Rorschach Test—a projective screen for viewers to throw whatever asinine assumptions, puerile fantasies, and naïve fears they have on beloved characters about to leave their lives forever.  The finality of their exit allows for genuine emotion—not TV emotion, not “that show was fun but now its over” emotion—to siphon in.  Series endings are some fuckedup postmodern version of a graduation or a wedding.  They are as real as anything, because they take something very real away from us.  It’s pretty brutal, really.

All that said, I will keep this fast because I think anything that needs to be said has been said.
I give MAD MEN finale an A-.  For the record, BREAKING BAD got a B.  BOARDWALK EMPIRE gets an A. SOPRANOS gets an A+.  Sorrynotsorry.

I didn’t particularly like Peggy and Stan’s forced-fed romance.  Seems so uncharacteristically happy-ending hackneyed for a show that so stridently avoided cliché.  It seems Matt Weiner’s affection for Elizabeth Moss and her Peggy got the better of his artistic sense.  Why MAD MEN is great is that every time you think it should hit the throttle, it steps on the brake.  It’s been doing it for seven amazing seasons.  This withholding, this lack of splashiness, is very much the point, it’s what MAD MEN had to offer us overall: the idea that life doesn’t need Drama to be dramatic.  Peggy and Stan—the opposite of that.

Overall I was a little touched by Don and Betty’s phone call goodbye – it was simple and balanced and reflected the love and resentment they have for each other pretty remarkably.  Don and Peggy’s call—less impressed; a mere curtain call for the actors to have one last moment together.  Whatever... sentiment, move along.

All that earns it about a B.  What kicks it up to A-, classic series ending territory is that holy-shit-genius ending.  It’s such an instant-classic update on The Sopranos final go-dark moment. 
If you are wondering whether or not Don went back to NY to create that coke ad, or if Don had some sort of “true enlightenment” and stayed retired ad ifinitum, you are doing exactly what Matt Weiner wanted—and fully missing the point.  Like the “Did Tony Die” preseverating that followed Gandofini’s “series wrap”, it comes from a place of ego on the audiences’ behalf—we want to feel we own these characters, have a claim on their future, for christs sake know if they live or die.  David Chase denied us that; now Matthew Weiner does too—sort of brilliantly.  Don may have created the ad; sure that makes sense.  Or maybe it’s just a final coda of commentary—this saturated dream of Coca-Cola “bringing us together”—the steamrolling corruption of the corporate agenda.  But there is no “really happened”, there is no secret, there is no correct answer.  Debating it only shows what you project upon it. 

And for my half—I project a lot of bleakness.  MAD MEN postulates, as the Sopranos did, that real change is impossible for human beings.  We love and lose, we remarry, we fight and reconcile and dream and lets dreams slide away, but we don’t change.  We bring home the bacon or venereal disease, but we don’t change.  We enter into routines and break them and soul search and bob for apples at the county fair, but we don’t change.  Don cannot run from the past because it will never be wholly just his past; it is his present and it is his destiny, and it is so interwoven into his DNA that there’s simply nothing else to cling to, even if—even when—he wants to.  Long after it is of any narrative pertinence to the show, this always gossamer storyline of Don being Dick Whitman remains as a haunting reminder that it’s not who Don is but rather what he is that indicts him: he is a liar, he is a cheater, he is a man who—let’s not moralize here or opine on whether better men exist—is not a good man in the way polite society wants good men to be.  He is a Tony Soprano who kills softly, differently; who tries to feel; does feel; has vision; blurs vision; lights a cigarette; snubs one out; doesn’t change.

And like Tony when all is said and done, Don doesn’t live and Don doesn’t die.  He ends.

 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

EX MACHINA: no gods here




EX MACHINA is a good film, though it is only about two-thirds as clever as it thinks it is.  The future it imagines is an uncannily plausible cocktail of Google Glass technology and sublimated narcissism.  The kind of future that all the money on earth buys the richest boys in Silicon Valley.
In short: Nathan, a Mark Zuckerberg-type young rich genius, invites one of his employees (Caleb) to his secluded complex to test the brain power of an android—an Artificially Intelligent fembot names Ava—with a “Turing Test” (not much of a ‘test’ really: does the flesh-and-blood human know this being is a robot, or not?).  Obviously Caleb falls in love with Ava’s perfect mechanical ass and, erhm, wit.  Obviously complications ensue.
Seamless (literally without seams—at what point did the hallmark of futurism become doors that don’t look like doors?) and inhuman, Nathan’s world is an exquisitely carved bio-dome seemingly plopped on Jurassic Park’s Isla Nublar.  Somehow you still need key cards to unlock doors, but whatever.  The technical wonder of EX MACHINA (and it is considerable—Ava is one of if not  the best-designed synthetic human I’ve seen in the movies) is a perfect foil for the stunning natural design of Nathan’s compound.  It manages to invoke certain questions of creation, erosion, and possibly limitless power.  In short, and very much on-theme, something godly.
I like movies with big ideas; especially great looking movies; especially great looking movies with amazing residential architecture, like this one.  I think people should see this movie—although don’t expect “I See Dead People” twists, much action, or even careful plotting.  The only intricacy here is Ava’s circuitry, considerable as it is.
But the real problem with the techno-babble and epistemological navel-gazing of EX MACHINA is that “A.I.” technology has been so beaten to death in pop-culture Sci-Fi that even dropping an Alan Turing reference and stirring in some Wittgenstein doesn’t change the fact that this is pretty thin soup (and metallic tasting, at that).  Robots, free will, somewhat facile mind games: been there, done that.
Ultimately, we expect the Greek-drama trope, the deus ex machina, from the get go: the craned-in god that will alter the course of the story, bring about the pat ending, deliver justice.  But, perhaps obviously in hindsight, this God never comes.  EX MACHINA clearly enough imagines a future without the deus, where sentient machines are their own gods. 
Where free will is a programmable, personal protocol.  God help us.

Monday, March 09, 2015

MAPS TO THE STARS




Cronenberg counts among the sparse filmmakers whose movies I will see no matter the content: a bland history of lichen, a biopic about Anton Khrushchev, a psychological drama about twin gynecologists who work on mutant vaginas, whatever.   Yet even my deference is tempered—in fact, since and including his “breakthrough” Hollywood drama A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE I haven’t blindly endorsed his films.  In particular I hated A MOST DANGEROUS METHOD, a psychoanalytic film I am very much the target customer for, because of its chilly mood and cardboard melodrama.  On the other hand, I loved his last movie, COSMOPOLIS, a densely academic takedown of capitalism, starring of all people (best casting ever) a limo-riding Robert Pattison, which was a movie it seemed no one else liked.  So call me an avid fan, not a rabid one.

Anyway here we are again – back in L.A.—with its hot yellow days and long shadows, its potted palms and sitting rooms, its traffic and noise and curbside limousines.  Certainly Cronenberg’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE, there’s something a bit down the canyon about this: call it RODEO DRIVE if you want.  And though it doesn’t quite indulge in that film’s abstraction, there is a certain Lynchian nightmarishness to what’s going on here. 

And it starts with the cast.  Julianne Moore is heroically ugly, faded in every sense, absolutely egoless as the not-quite-as-pretty, not-nearly-as-young daughter of a dead and very soon to be forgotten actress.  A talented newby plays Benjie, a Justin Bieber cypher, rich-before-his-time, Twitter-polluted and horrible.  John Cusack is his psychologist-cum-masseuse father, whose unspecified and catharsis-forward therapeutic-method is a  jokey critique of the me-too feelgoodiness that engine California Health and Wellness—the sun-soaked sibling of Corporate-America’s Beauty sector.  Pattison is back, as the limo driver this time, yet another actor also-ran with little to eat than what other’s put on his plate.  He drives around Agatha, a mysterious and fire-scarred girl with secret ambitions and histories herself.  It’s a large but strangely (?) incestuous cast, with lots of cross-relationships, scenes-together, converging fates.  

The theme of relevance (specifically Julianne Moore’s perseverance on her own) is entwined with themes of reverence (should we blame or lionize our parents?) and reference (is it MULHOLLAND DRIVE or DAY OF THE LOCUSTS or even outside-LA films like THE SHINING that are being invoked?).  Characters implode in a fairly by-the-numbers, Hollywood-stupid way. As flaccid revelations are made, drugs are taken, ugliness continues to fester, we soon realize that this Map doesn’t lead anywhere terribly new.

Yet there’s a ghost here that continues to call into the night; long after the credits roll, long after you leave the theatre.  The film is so chilly it’s freezer-burnt, impossible to warm to, carefully crafted to be droll and inhuman.  Yet there is that ghost.  That ghost that calls out somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, that reminds you they once were living, that they once were Hollywood.  Though MAPS TO THE STARS is hardly a great film, if there’s anything perversely beautiful here, it’s that familiar desperation to in some way matter. It’s something Hollywood certainly bloats,  but it is—despite our specious Jungian insights—not unique to the “stars” at all.