Sunday, February 21, 2016

857. A Further Reply to Armchair Squid

In which I present a rambling reply that was too long for the comments section and is probably of questionable merit, but here it is all the same...

Winter Soldier is about as good as any Marvel movie has gotten, but I've never for a minute believed Marvel was producing the best movies (let alone comics) despite how popular they are.  There's a huge gap between what's popular and what's good these days.  They're not always contradictory, and not always contradictory, and not always contradictory (all emphasis variations equally valid), and viewers realize this while not necessarily comprehending it (witness the rise of extreme hate for extremely popular movies even when they absolutely don't earn the hate).

We've grown increasingly unsophisticated as a culture.  I'm not talking sophistication such as classical music (which remains just as good as it ever was), or snappy banter (which is what a lot of Old Hollywood was about, like Philadelphia Story, which I would argue is far more an argument for how women rose in societal prominence in general post-WWII, when they began to shoulder far more of the culture than ever before; in a lot of ways we've been experiencing backlash from Hepburn's day, which is what happens every time society makes a huge push to help a given sector out). 

What most people deem the dumbing down of succeeding generations because of various pieces of technology is actually a reflection of disparate elements shrinking away from each other again and not having the slighted clue how to come back together.  We live in a nation with more land than it knows what to do with.  We're spread out, and we like it that way.  We like our isolation, even when something new comes along to make the world smaller (the phone, the car, the Internet).  And we're in the midst of a huge pushback.  We don't want to know what the other guy thinks.  And it retards everything. 

I keep coming back to this: We're aware that everyone thinks differently, but it's one thing to know it and another to understand it.  (We live in a culture that idolizes memorization without comprehension, and possibly it's always been that way.)  Obviously you like movies for different reasons than I do.  I keep going back to examples like Shakespeare and Melville because these are things generally recognized as genius now that were apparently incredibly easy to dismiss as so much fluff in their own day.  We still admire Marlowe and Twain, but for much the same reason we always did.  We see depth in Twain because Huck Finn gave Jim a chance, but in the end, Huck Finn is a boy whose grasp of the greater world is immature, not wise, and his journey with Jim one of rebellion, not conviction.  Ahab grapples with the fundamental questions of nature. 

We retreat to older things, because there was a time when we weren't so afraid to recognize good things for what they are (alongside the above examples, you understand).  We don't see that happening anymore.  Popular things are assumed to be rubbish.  And never given near the consideration as older things.  The same with new things in general.  Critics invariably like isolated things better.  Not necessarily the good isolated things, just the ones that are similar enough to the stuff they love, the stuff that doesn't challenge them, makes some general point but otherwise saying nothing new.  Because we hate challenges.  It's so much easier when there's a reasonable consensus about what we're supposed to like.  We're exactly like all the people who hated Elvis, who hated the Beatles.  And the people who liked Elvis, who would have had their say, don't say it, aren't allowed to be considered authorities.

So we become more and more unsophisticated, not because the culture lacks sophisticated things, but because we pretend it doesn't.  And then totally misinterpret what is sophisticated.  One final example.  To me, Pixar was both the birth and death of sophisticated animated movies.  It got so far ahead of itself that in its artistic pinnacle, WALL-E, it went for the most obvious, least sophisticated answers about life, the exact opposite of what it achieved with Ratatouille, what I consider to be the studio's best, in the ways it both supported and subverted animated movie norms.  Yet no one argues that Ratatouille is Pixar's best.  Which is completely incomprehensible to me.  Pixar has done a lot of variations on the mold at this point, something for everyone, and yet its best work is also likely to become, inexplicably, forgotten.  (At least for now.)

Technique is a funny thing.  It's very much a thing suited to the era where it originates.  Sometimes there's something so far ahead of its time, it takes a long time, predictably, for everyone else to catch up.  Star Wars is just the most obvious modern example of that.  Took decades for Hollywood to figure out how George Lucas did it.  We're living in that era now.  I agree that technique only exists to serve the storytelling.  That's why I look for the best stories, the best storytelling, and yes, the best technique.  Everyone likes to be entertained.  But the best work, to my mind, should be the hardest to enjoy.  But not this much.  At this point, Beethoven would be exactly what he probably was to countless readers of Peanuts, an insider reference to something otherwise never personally enjoyed.

...And I'll stop yammering now.  Because most of the time we talk in order to understand ourselves, most of all.  If it happens to help anyone else, so much the better...

Friday, February 12, 2016

856. Mock Squid Soup: February 2016 - Gravity

The monthly meeting of the Mock Squid Soup film society, hosted by Armchair Squid and Mock! (and excited bloggers everywhere), occurs yet again!

Here were my clues:

1) Directed by someone who helmed a Harry Potter movie.  Alfonso Cuaron, who was responsible for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  And if you haven't already, definitely see Children of Men

2) Something about LEGOs.  There was a LEGO International Space Station.  I still need this.  I still don't have it.

3) Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain were in similar movies, together.  Yes, first as supporting characters in Interstellar, and then enjoying Damon's hysterical hijinks in The Martian.  All three movies highly recommended.

So, I finally saw Gravity.  My sister fell asleep, but I was absolutely riveted watching it.  The 2013 blockbuster was warmly received by critics and audiences alike, but it took me a couple years to catch it myself.  As I assumed I would be at the time, I was impressed with the results.  In it, Sandra Bullock endures a series of unfortunate events, in space (with no snarky narrator), and in the process blows up the remainder of NASA's assets (more or less), but she makes it back, darn it, and that's what counts. 

I may be sounding flippant, but that's just because it makes me easier to read (hopefully).  It really is a great movie, and a sad statement on the state of space exploration affairs, in which disaster really is the best we can hope for these days, as we wait for something better in the future.  Fifty years ago we saw man walk on the moon, and yet in all the time since we've been slowly floating away from such ambition (if you'll, ah, pardon the allusion), with one disaster after another, in real life, curtailing the public's interest and the program's budget, one at a time.  We have more nations in space than ever before (the ubiquitous box office attraction these days, China, makes a cameo in Gravity, naturally), but all we're doing is place-holding.

It's depressing, but Gravity, strangely, isn't.  It's one of the big hits Bullock has had in recent years, a whole string of them after a long period where it seemed like she, too, had been left behind (not quite like, say, Mark Watney, but still).  Although we experience her journey far more than follow her along (she doesn't do a ton of talking to herself), she's far more hopeful about her prospects than the grim suggestions of her fate and inexperience suggested before anyone actually saw it.

It doesn't hurt that George Clooney appears. He sat through a dry spell, too, but nowadays people kind of like him, and for good reason.

Another space movie you should probably see is Moon, in which Sam Rockwell discovers there's more to him than he knows (heh).  The proliferation of astronaut movies in recent years, regardless of their subject matter, has been very good to see for someone like me whose childhood was filled in part by fantasies of going into space.  Even if everything does go wrong, we've done enough so that we aren't completely lost.  I'd call that hopeful enough to think the future still looks bright.

Now, going back to Gravity itself, this is a prime example of filmmaking at its finest, a director firmly in control of his craft, not needing anything more than a relatively simple subject, two characters, and for considerable periods of time not even needing either of them to speak.  Survival cinema (Cast Away, All Is Lost, The Revenant) isn't even where I would classify Gravity.  I'm of the school where if I'm going to be impressed with a movie, it's because there is something sensational about it, not so much special effects (because at this point any movie can do something flashy with that and not necessarily stand out because of them), but simpler things like dialogue (though, oddly, I've never really cottoned to someone like Aaron Sorkin, who's supposed to be the Greek god of banter; my examples from The West Wing and The Social Network suggest he's better at having characters bandy about talking points but never really getting anywhere, with the ambiguity not so much being an asset as an indicator that, really, Sorkin has nothing to say, which is to say, I'll always be more of a Tarantino guy, who builds entire scenes of seemingly inconsequential conversation to speak volumes about the characters involved) or how something is shot (which is why Orson Welles is the Greek god of cinematography).

And the mastery Cuaron displays in Gravity is different from the splendid tracking shot that is Birdman (Cuaron, it should be remembered, still holds the mark for tracking shots in the aforementioned Children of Men; seriously, if you haven't watched it, what are you waiting for?), in that following Bullock in her dilemma is totally different from following Damon in his during The Martian.  We aren't given any prelude material, but rather we're dropped right into the midst of the crisis.  A lot of viewers have assumed that Bullock is simply incompetent, but the disaster began before she had to deal with it, virtually on her own.  Clooney talks her through the early panic, but most people would panic in that situation.  It should be noted that Clooney in fact sacrifices himself to save her.  That's a completely different mindset from the one we follow.  Because Bullock does settle down, and figures out how to survive, just like Damon. 

Like Apollo 13, this is all about damage control.  And maybe it is metaphor, but it's also about resilience and trusting the systems that have been set in place around you.  By the time Bullock is hurtling to earth, we're once again in that scenario where we kind of expect to see her happy ending through to conclusion.  Except the conclusion isn't always what we expect.  When Cast Away settled on Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt not happily reconciling, it tainted the whole movie's legacy, so that the only thing people remember about it now is Wilson.  Which is fine, but it's also basically exactly the same as The Martian, all things considered, or half of Robinson Crusoe.  I've suggested elsewhere that Matt Damon essentially becomes Tom Hanks in The Martian.  I mean, I like it, think it was one of 2015's true pleasures. 

But Gravity is better.  Maybe not for everyone.  I mean, as a spectacle, because we love spectacles, it is, but I think more people would happily rewatch The Martian than Gravity, just as fewer people are willing to give Interstellar its due, much less something like Tree of Life, which is like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a million times better.

Which, by the way, is what I'd also say of Oz the Great and Powerful over The Wizard of Oz.  The China Girl is a thousand times more fulfilling than the Scarecrow.  James Franco, who fits this material better than, say, the horrid mess that was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, makes a better career statement than Judy Garland connecting with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  And that's cinematic heresy for you right there.  But what are you going to do?

As an art statement, Gravity is exactly in the direction film should be going, letting great filmmakers make great films.  Not comfortable films.  Not small intimate films or big historical dramas.  We've latched onto Star Wars because it reached further than any big idea had gone before, and did it in as simple a way as it could, given the circumstances.  George Lucas had previously made American Graffiti, the cultural predecessor to Happy Days.  So basically Luke Skywalker is Richie Cunningham and Han Solo is the Fonz, and the Millennium Falcon is a set of hot wheels.  Pure and simple. 

Gravity is pure and simple, but it's also big and complex.  If we're not exactly looking like we're making progress in space anymore, or as a culture in general, if you want to be expansive about it, this is a film that says all is not as bad as it looks.  We follow Bullock home.  Pure and simple.  And we let the character worry about the rest.  Because the rest belongs to us, not in the sense that we will use our imaginations concerning what happens next, but we in all our seemingly stagnant progress will have something else to experience tomorrow, even if all the important pieces of the story, of history, have already happened, all the International Space Stations and Chinese units gone.  But not forgotten. 

That's our advantage.  Our wonderful, terrible, inspiring, limiting, source of all our abilities.  Memory.  Like gravity.  It's an anchor.  It brings us home every time.

Friday, February 05, 2016

855. Mock Squid Soup: February 2016 - Three Clues

In anticipation of next Friday's meeting of the Mock Squid Soup film society, hosted by Armchair Squid and Mock!, we're supposed to provide three clues as to what movie we'll be talking about.  Here're mine:

1) The director helmed one of the Harry Potter movies.

2) One of the elements of the movies was featured in a LEGO set that I've been obsessing over since I failed to buy it originally.

3) That second clue is useless to you.  So here's a better one: Matt Damon appears in two recent movies that are thematically similar, and so does Jessica Chastain, actually.  But if you Google to find out where they appeared together, you will inadvertently discover a secret that the NSA will hound you for.

That last sentence is a total lie.  But I will still know, and my sister's cat will judge you harshly.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...