Battle Surfaces: Epic Warfare and the Cinema of Attraction in the 21st Century

Posted in Essay, film with tags , , , on May 25, 2011 by Nathan Douglas

Battle Surfaces from N.W. Douglas on Vimeo.

The above video and below written essay comprise my final project for one of Dr. Laura U. Marks‘ arts and culture classes from this past spring. Both are reproduced here with little tweaking; both only begin to scratch the surface of this topic, and while I’d like to devote more time to a film by film analysis of the mass battle on film as its evolved over the decades, that’s probably something more suited to an actual graduate study. In the meantime, I hope that this whets the appetite for deeper discussion and raises questions about the digitally-aided mass battle — and its stunning rise and fall in recent Hollywood moviemaking.

Tom Gunning characterized the earliest, pre-narrative films as the “cinema of attraction.”[1] This was filmmaking that was exhibitionist in nature; it was eager to show audiences both the real world reproduced on screen, and fancy tricks only available to the cinema (such as the visual effects employed by Georges Méliès). After 1906 and the rise of the narrative as the dominant framework for filmmaking, the cinema of attraction did not disappear but went underground “both into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films.”[2]

What drove home the immersive effect of these early films on their spectators? Using the Lumiere Brothers’ “Train Arriving at a Station,” Akira Lippet answers that question by drawing out the spatial impact of the cinema of attraction as described by Gunning: “The image-become-life – and not the train – threatens to breach the space of the spectator and swallow him, her.”[3] The cinema envelops its viewer and draws them into an interior psychology that belongs to the cinema surface alone. With the advent of the narrative, would this “swallowing” ability be retained in any form?

Over 100 years later, the cinema of attraction is still alive and indeed functioning as a component of narrative films. It survived over the decades, attracting audiences with each new innovation after another: the introduction of synchronized soundtracks, the creation of widescreen, 3-D, the rise of blockbuster practical effects, and more recently, the seemingly endless development of digital visual effects.

The rise of digital effects to become the cornerstone of the Hollywood blockbuster suggests that the swallowing power of the image surface has indeed survived and evolved with the cinema of attraction.  What’s intriguing about the current period is the sense of reversal accompanying the application of artificial effects. When the cinema was born in 1895, it immediately found a foothold with films based in reality. The “actualities” were a raging success for simply showing audiences elements of real life recorded by the camera.  Once Méliès began plying his trade, though, the cinema-as-magic-show model took off and became the most prevalent type of attraction until the narrative took over.[4] The cinema of attraction’s means of enthralling transferred from that of total realism, to that of artificiality. The digital effects-dependent film of the late 20th/ early 21st century has seemed to take the opposite path. What began as an obviously artificial creation (as seen in The Abyss or Terminator 2) has become the most indispensable feature of the 21st century’s blockbusters, not least because of efforts to make such effects appear more realistic.

As Lev Manovich points out, though, perceiving what is real is not the same as perceiving that which is photoreal, and it is only to the photoreal that the current effects-driven cinema really aspires.[5] The drive towards realism, of creating a seamless composite of the animated and the filmed with no visible seams, has itself been mirrored by recent efforts to craft blockbuster films that attempt to show the usual spectacles they’ve always shown, but without the glossy production values symptomatic of the Hollywood picture.  As the modern war film was turned upside down by the unhinged documentary aesthetic of Saving Private Ryan, and the horror film adopted a video-diary style (pioneered by The Blair Witch Project) so the epic period film, which we will be focusing on, embraced incoherent, hand-held visual styles, cold palettes, and graphic violence.  The past would be shown the way it was, warts and all.

In my video essay “Battle Surfaces,” I chronicle the visual progression of the epic battle sequence in cinema. For the purposes of my study, I’m focusing only on depictions of battles where the use of gunpowder and firearms is either completely absent, or very minimal.[6] The blueprint of the standard epic-scale battle sequence is laid down in Alexander Nevsky (1936). Sergei Eisenstein’s combination of wide shots of crowds charging each other with close-ups of hacking and slashing, filling the frame with constant busyness, set the standard for how a battle would build peaks and valleys of movement and emotion. This is a pattern repeated again and again over the decades, particularly in Hollywood’s 1960s sword-and-sandal epics (Spartacus, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire), and continued with updated brutality in Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000). What all of these films have in common, is the use of real human extras to populate the wide shots. There may be hundreds (or in the case of Spartacus, thousands) of men on screen, but most films attempting to recreate a battle involving tens of thousands must rely on the power of implication, of the sense of offscreen space created by the moving frame.[7] Such attempts at conveying the sense of battle were not helped by limp fighting styles (see the 60s’ films for examples) and clean coverage of the action. Every angle of every battle shot could be attributed to a human perspective of some kind; even the usual crane shot carries an implicit knowledge of limitation within itself, rarely rising high enough or moving forward in a way that doesn’t necessarily preclude human movement.

When The Lord of the Rings stormed onto the screen in 2001, it opened with a mobile aerial shot of a battlefield where tens of thousands of creatures engaged in battle. The camera swooped like a bird over a landscape that could not exist, recording millions of discrete, intense actions that could not have all been carried out perfectly by human extras. The LOTR films went on to claim that image – the aerial, computer generated shot of thousands of computer programs – as their major legacy. A spate of similarly epic-sized films centered on huge battles soon followed. The epic battle was reborn.

The aerial CG shot offered two things to audiences. First, it provided the “wow” factor that the epic film, dormant since the end of the 60s,’ needed to draw crowds back to theatres. Filmmakers could now let the audience feel like gods, floating high above the action while enjoying the sheer scale of the image. This type of shot offered a higher-resolution, more dynamic, and more spatially-developed experience of the same basic camera angle developed by real time strategy (RTS) computer games, in which players assume god-like sight and managed armies and cities.  The thrill of the entirety of a humongous spectacle could be savored, and the montage could stitch multiple takes of this panorama together to make something truly operatic and geographically relatable. And it all looked so photoreal, carefully blending thousands of digitally animated extras with the background, the film grain, and the colour palette. In cutting his battle scenes, Peter Jackson followed the example of Gladiator and Braveheart by covering the action with hand held cameras, cutting swift and often incomprehensible movements together before cutting back to the CG wide, stabilizing the scene in its vast steadiness.

But the CG aerial shot also offered audiences the tools for defusing its awe: it was not just its vastness alone, or its complexity of visual content, but the combination. It was too perfect. No real attempt at filming on such a scale could yield the right combination of well-timed choreography, frame size, and camera movement. And so almost as soon as it changed the nature of huge action scenes, it could already be defeated. The first few times it was used, it carried the potential of Lippet’s swallowing surface, both colliding with the viewer and sometimes enveloping them with the promise of a wider expanse beyond the frame; however subsequent over-use in post-LOTR films exposed the weaknesses of relying too much on the mass CG shot: it corralled such large elements (an army) into the frame and eliminated the centrifugal power of the shot.[8] In addition, the behaviour of each soldier was bang-on. Not one extra was caught messing up. This is, of course, because the soldiers were animated figures operating under individual AI programs, and it is this algorithmic efficiency that calls attention to itself so readily.

My video essay intends to show the progression of the battle as filmmakers sought to make each one more convincing than the last. Limp choreography in the 60s’ gave way to fierce and graphic bloodshed in the 90s; with that problem solved, the question of conveying the scale of a real battle became the next obstacle to achieving total realism. And as we can see in shot after shot from the last decade, such realism is elusive when simulated by a computer.

Phenomenonologically, these aerial shots fail to genuinely engage the senses. The visual element is compelling, but the use of sound is often what gives away the artificiality; if we were to reach out and use every sense to feel the depth and scale of a wide aerial shot, we’d experience a distant perception of the battlefield’s din. These shots, though, are inevitably paired with a stirring score, which overpowers the ears; the sound mix is often turned up to keep excitement high, but to such a level that would be unrealistic if heard from so high. What these shots accomplish is much more metaphorical than literal; the sight of an army of good sweeping in to save the day says more about the emotional significance of the scene than it does of the sensual significance.

Add to these problems the issue of the drive towards realism affecting the types of stories being adapted after LOTR; the very approach towards even myths such as The Iliad, with the film adaptation (Troy, 2004) refusing to include supernatural elements and opting for a straight warfare-focused rendition, is telling of the urge to press the aerial shot into the service of realism.  In that spirit, filmmakers kept expanding the height of the shot, turning little figures into little dots (Alexander did this to limited effect in the battle of Gaugemala sequence), perhaps in an effort to hide their artificiality. As the decade wore on, such large-scale shots either took the super wide approach or disappeared altogether (the fantasy-war film 300 is noticeably bare of such shots, for a film so focused on a massive army’s attack). By the time Ridley Scott made his third historical epic of the decade, Robin Hood (2010), he’d eschewed the wide-scale CG shots used on Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and, save for a few kilometers-wide panoramas, relied on practical footage to edit his climactic battle sequence; while the wide panorama used to be all about savouring the climax of two forces crashing together, its appearances in Robin Hood limit it to being merely a geographic tool. The battle scene came full circle; the director credited with reviving epics in 2000 effectively performed the funeral for the extravagant effects-driven epic ten years later. The general sentiment in this particular genre and other effects-heavy fields seems to be favouring a slow return to more practical effects work.

One other element may have contributed to the swift decline of the epic digital battle: easy public access to filmmaking documentaries (included on DVD releases of the epic films themselves) that expose the secrets of such sequences and demystify the image-making process. Once one sees how “easy” it is on a physical scale to create such sights, the “wow” factor may indeed decrease. A great part of the appeal of the old epics was the sheer pleasure of seeing so many real moving parts working together and knowing that someone had pulled off a great feat making it all work. The digital battle scene does not lack comparable expertise, but its creation within a world of code makes the achievement far less glamorous.[9]

What does it all mean? The final movement of “Battle Surfaces” is called “Apatheosis,” which attempts to sum up the effect of so many digital battle scenes unleashed on the public over such a short span of time: apathetic climaxes. One money-shot looks like another, and when they are taken out of their original context, one can see how similar they tend to be. It’s intriguing to consider the possibility that such shots actually might serve a pacifistic agenda; though designed to awe and excite, the way in which such wide views reduce a body of humans to amorphous, algorithmic mob serves as a warning of sorts to the dehumanizing aspects of warfare, and of film as war propaganda.

But overall I want to emphasize the fact that these shots began life ten years ago as the newest and most exciting iteration of the cinema of attraction, and now find themselves virtually defunct, as far as Hollywood is concerned. The drive for realism has left them behind, and their ability to swallow the viewer has been exposed as shallow. As far as surfaces go, these ones have very little depth[10]. Removed from their proper context, they have no purpose and no place to gather or extend energy. On the more modest scale of that first shot in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, they contained some of the raw energy of the earliest cinema, and had a frame that was limited enough to point beyond itself. Once the filmmaking industry grabbed the concept, it grew, tired out audiences, and drew the outside into the frame. It gobbled up itself, not the viewer. And thus, it has to go.

Works Cited

Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Film and theory: An Anthology. Ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2001.

Endnotes

[1] Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Film and theory: An Anthology. Ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2000. p. 230

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. P. 65

[4] Gunning, p. 231

[5] Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2001. P. 200

[6] The type of battle scene that enjoyed such a lusty revival in the first decade of the 2000s was almost exclusively pre-Renaissance.

[7] Lippit, p. 73

[8] Ibid.

[9] Another possibility: RTS games quickly caught up in graphics resolution and performance to mimic the best of the mass aerial shots, eliminating the need for players to vicariously experience the thrill in a theatre.

[10] Consider how the higher the perspective of the shot, less depth is perceived at ground level, crushing the armies flat against the distant ground.

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The *Other* Best Films of 2010

Posted in film, Lists on March 16, 2011 by Nathan Douglas

Every year has its discoveries. And since my progress at catching up with the acclaimed titles of the most recent year is advancing at its usual crawl, I tend to get more pleasure out of compiling my list of favourite non-2010 films that I watched for the first time over the last year.  In that sense, 2010 was a rich year.  Below are my top 11 films that didn’t come out last year, followed by various other rankings.  You can find the entirety of my 2010 film journal on the sidebar.

* Denotes a repeat viewing that provokes a considerably different reaction from the last remembered viewing.

Image: The unforgettable Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond, one of the most haunting films I’ve ever seen.

New Favourites:

1. The New World [2008 Extended Cut] (USA, 2005) Terrence Malick

2. Vagabond (1985) Agnes Varda

3. Citizen Kane (1941) Orson Welles

4. The Gleaners and I (2000) Agnes Varda

5. *Pinocchio (1940) Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen

6. Memories of Murder (2004) Bong Joon-ho

7. Beau Travail (France, 1999) Claire Denis

8. The Ice Storm (1997) Ang Lee

9. Being John Malkovich (1999) Spike Jonze

10. Vertigo (1958) Alfred Hitchcock

11. Raising Arizona (1987) Joel and Ethan Coen

Films to be grateful for:

  • After The Thin Man (USA, 1936) W.S. Van Dyke II
  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence (USA, 2001) Steven Spielberg
  • Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) Michael Curtiz
  • Another Thin Man (USA, 1939) W.S. Van Dyke II
  • Bad Lieutenant (1992) Abel Ferrera
  • Brakhage (1998) Jim Shedden
  • Brazil [Dir. Cut] (1985) Terry Gilliam
  • Bright Star (UK, 2009) Jane Campion
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938) Howard Hawks
  • Defiance (USA, 2008) Edward Zwick
  • Election (China, 2005) Johnnie To
  • Election 2 (China, 2006) Johnnie To
  • The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) Roberto Rossellini
  • Hallelujah (1929) King Vidor
  • Junebug (2005) Phil Morrison
  • Loves Of A Blonde (1965) Milos Forman
  • Match Point (USA, 2005) Woody Allen
  • Nights of Cabiria (Italy, 1957) Frederico Fellini
  • Putney Swope (1969) Robert Downey Sr.
  • Rope (USA, 1948) Alfred Hitchcock
  • A Serious Man (2009) Joel & Ethan Coen
  • Sonny (USA, 2002) Nicolas Cage
  • Still Life (China, 2005) Jia Zhangke
  • Stroszek (1977) Werner Herzog

So, What’s The Big Deal?

  • Bronson (2009) Nicholas Winding Refn
  • Days of Heaven (1978) Terrence Malick
  • The Five Obstructions (2004) Jorgen Leth & Lars Von Trier
  • In The Loop (2009) Armando Iannucci
  • Killer of Sheep (1977) Charles Burnett
  • Let The Right One In (2008) Tomas Alfredson
  • Punch-Drunk Love (2002) Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Superman: The Movie (USA, 1978) Richard Donner
  • Taste of Cherry (1997) Abbas Kiarostami
  • The World (2004) Jia Zhangke

Blech/Yuck/Yawn

  • Daughters of the Dust (1992) Julie Dash
  • Legends of the Fall (USA 1994) Edward Zwick
  • One Hour Photo (2002) Mark Romanek
  • Super Fly (1972) Gordon Parks Jr.

 

Of Gods And Men

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film, Reviews - Film with tags , on March 10, 2011 by Nathan Douglas

The following was originally written in October 2010. I have revised it slightly for publication here. Of Gods And Men opened in limited US/Canada release on Feb. 25.

Prior to seeing Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men at the VIFF last year, I had read a few positive reviews from its screenings at Cannes.  The reception in Toronto and New York was no less encouraging thanks to positive pieces penned by Michael Sicinski and Glenn Kenny, both of whom are well-known for their insight, scrupulousness, and grounded opinions of any film, whether prestigious or not.  These are not fellows who will offer knee-jerk praise to any Palm-baiting arthouse flick that makes it over here.  The advance word was very good, to say the least.

I mention this in order to talk about a couple more reviews that were filed from Cannes, both somewhat negative and similar in one specific way.  Both Michael D’Angelo and Matt Noller criticized the film for being, in Noller’s words “somber and respectful to a fault: the Cannes equivalent of Oscar bait.” D’Angelo unenthusiastically described it as “mass hagiography.” Watching the film, I couldn’t help but reflect on these words and the assumptions behind them — especially the hint of an attitude that seems to automatically roll its eyes at works that approach subjects of intrinsic gravity with reverence.  As a film about men who gave up lives of comfort, romance, and eventually their blood for the spiritual path to which they felt called, a certain amount of seriousness should be expected.  Faith, religion, doubt, and death are all “heavy topics,” and a film that tackles them, as this one does, is bound to be “somber” in places.  Why all the fuss?

I’m frustrated by this seemingly detached way of viewing and dismissing a film that deals with difficult subjects as “too reverent.”  The implication of this complaint is that Beauvois’ respect for his subject somehow morphs into a technical flaw in the film’s storytelling. “Beauvois is less interested in humanizing the monks than in sanctifying them” writes Noller, while “Of Gods & Men never sets a foot wrong, but neither does it challenge the viewer to feel anything but passive admiration,” says D’Angelo.  “Good” people doing good things. Ho-hum.  Compounding the situation is the fact that Beauvois has made an intensely detailed film, materially and intellectually, about religious devotion (which may or may not make either critic uncomfortable, though wondering about that reads too much into brief comments) that does nothing to coerce the viewer to take one side or the other (Christian or Muslim), but also doesn’t leave plenty of room for the atheist to make moral claims about the problems of religion. It takes great pains to portray its characters’ faith in action while avoiding adopting any religious opinion (including atheism) as a worldview for the apparatus.  Its reverence is almost anthropological in nature; full of deep respect for the way a long-held tradition inspires courage in its adherents.

Of Gods and Men is an inherently “spiritual film,” in the sense that most of its scenes seem haunted by a spiritual presence.  I do not invoke these terms to describe something vaguely intuited during the film, but to give weight to a presence, even a character, that is rooted in the religious identity of the subjects.  What’s intriguing is how this presence is evoked not necessarily through obvious formal choices, but through performance and character.  One monk tells a young woman of how he used to be in love with a woman, until he encountered “a greater love,” which he followed into the monastery.  Later we see this man’s loving care of the villagers around him, whom he heals and binds, acting in the manner of Christ.  The words of the monks tell us how God is moving in their lives, but this sort of interaction is never physicalized in a supernatural way.  Everything that happens is internal, both on the screen and off.

Keeping that in mind, a certain scene late in the picture inspired a curious effect in me as I watched.  Somewhere during one of the monks’ communal prayer times, I felt compelled to close my eyes as they prayed.  What’s fascinating to me about this compulsion was not that I felt like I too needed to pray along with the characters, but that I had an inexplicable sense that closing my eyes would actually allow me to “see” the scene in front of me “better”, or perhaps, more clearly.  I did close my eyes, briefly, and certainly felt like I didn’t miss anything by doing so.  Indeed, I think I had a brief moment of perception where I felt in tune with the monks on screen, with the rhythm of their lives and their worship, such that this late scene of religious devotion invited me to participate.  I sensed that I what I was seeing and hearing was not the whole picture, that something else on another level entirely was going on, and that closing my eyes might bring me closer to seeing it.

The whole film is conventionally narrative, but punctuated by regular interludes showing the monks at chapel together, chanting and praying.  These moments become a ritual within the editing, allowing Beauvois to shape the film into something approaching a liturgy.  This cycle of prayer and praise sinks in over time, easing the viewer into the film and pointing them towards the Holy.

I believe that Beavois’ evocation of a sense of the Holy is also result of a phenomenology closely attuned to the monks’ faces and bodies, both individually and collectively.  Or to put it another way, if Beavois is deploying a spiritual or transcendental aesthetic, it’s one that hews closer to Rossellini than to Bresson.  The film’s formal asceticism only extends as far as the sparseness of its subjects’ lives.  If Beauvois’ frames seem bare, it is because of the settings he’s capturing: outside, it’s uncomplicated mountains, deserts, and fields; inside it’s sparsely furnished rooms of people with few possessions.  The images seem devoid of distraction because that is precisely the world these monks have created for themselves — Beauvois is ultimately operating in a tradition of historical realism that recalls Rossellini’s own picture about monks, The Flowers of St. Francis.  Beauvois’ monks, like Rossellini’s, are miles removed from Bresson’s inexpressive “models;” and like Rossellini, Beauvois spends most of his time meditating on the human face in flux, not set in stone.  There is a rich humanism humming under the surface of both films, a deep respect for each man as he struggles with doubts.

The film is intriguing in its refusal to follow Bressonian models of transcendental filmmaking, or to dabble in Bergman-style expressionism.  Except for one shot — a praying monk backlit by dusty rays — Beauvois avoids the sort of austere flamboyance that spiritual and existential dramas have typically indulged. And except for a climax of flat close-ups of each monk listening to a cue from Swan Lake, Beauvois also eschews the visual purity favoured by Bresson (and even this, Beauvois’ most Bressonian moment, is dominated by cathartic music; a choice that, diagetic source or not, is a direct affront to Bresson’s values).

If the film speaks to our time, it does so by addressing the gap between Christians and Muslims, particularly in taking steps to care for and humanize Muslim believers from the perspective of its protagonists – that is, from a peaceful, loving worldview rooted in the specific traditions of these Christian monks.  Beauvois avoids trying to reconcile Islam and Christianity as equally viable paths within a fundamentally secular world – indeed, the issue is never raised — but instead focuses on how the two might respect each other while gently affirming their own exclusive creeds.  A deep respect is preserved between the monks and the villagers, with neither side feeling compelled to shuck their beliefs and convert.

The final shot is a masterful summary of faithfulness in general, for both sides involved.  It’s a wide shot of the monks and their kidnappers, Muslim extremists, marching up a mountain into a snowstorm.  The monks walk gracefully to their fate; the would-be killers go matter-of-factly.  There is no judgment to be found in the framing; it is just a simple statement of the faith dynamics that drive these two groups.  One will love and keep dying for that love, regardless of who’s pulling the trigger; the other will keep killing, as they believe they must.  The viewer may pick sides but Beauvois’ staging doesn’t force it.  It’s a fitting end to a film that coolly examines faith tested by doubt and decision-making.  It’s a moment of facts, not opinions.  It is a moment of natural reverence, of understanding the gravity of what’s about to take place.  It needs that breath of anticipation, of waiting, in order to register an effect.  If there is no holiness to be found in that moment, then it’s all a waste of time.

Maybe that’s what the naysayers were looking for. And they can keep on looking. This is one of those rare films that observes the religious experience and does not blink. It does not preach.  It simply records. If one can’t help but feel reverent, then so be it. This is about as unobtrusive as a film about this subject gets.

Favourite Music of 2010

Posted in Lists, Music with tags , on January 26, 2011 by Nathan Douglas

I’ll remember 2010 as the year I started to actually pay attention to fresh non-pop music.  Or to put it another way, I will remember it as the year in which I began to make an effort to keep up with quality bands and albums as they released new work, enough so that I feel confident in putting together a list of favourites.  It was also a year in which I solidified my appreciation of artists, some of whom I began exploring in 2009, but who did not release albums in 2010: Joe Henry, Over The Rhine, Okkervil River, The Mountain Goats, David Bazan, Florence and the Machine, to name a few.  And Radiohead. Heck, even Bob Dylan.  I have had a very sheltered listening life.

To put things in context, my music-listening tastes have always been months or years-long affairs dominated by one major genre or type.  Besides a childhood raised in traditionally Anglican church musical setting (and discounting my brief, second-grade flair with new country) film scores were my first great musical love.  At fourteen I discovered Switchfoot and almost immediately after, CCM, both of which dominated my high school life.  I still love Switchfoot to this day; the CCM of my teen years, not so much (and for those who care, I would indeed defend the notion that Switchfoot should not be described as CCM).

For the last couple of years my listening time has been devoted to more “indie” bands and artists (and catching up on 30 years of U2).  And for the first time ever, I’m enjoying a truly wider variety of styles all at once.

When I put together a list like this, I don’t really have a critical hat to wear as I would if it were a film list.  If it moves me in some way — emotionally or physically — or if I think it reaches down into that spot a bit to the left and below the stomach and presses my melancholy buttons, it’s probably going to make the list.  And to be honest, 2010 had a lot of melancholy moments.

These were the albums, the songs, the notes, the words, that would come alongside and sigh like an old friend.  These works went a long way to making the hard times bearable. Or they were just plain fun. Either way, I needed these albums.

  1. Arcade Fire — The Suburbs (Half-Light II)
  2. The National — High Violet (Bloodbuzz Ohio)
  3. The Roots — How I Got Over (Right On)
  4. Daft Punk — Tron: Legacy (End of Line)
  5. Janelle Monae — The ArchAndroid (Cold War)
  6. Mavis Staples — You Are Not Alone (Wonderful Savior)
  7. Shearwater — The Golden Archipelago (Black Eyes)
  8. Titus Andronicus — The Monitor (The Battle of Hampton Roads)
  9. Anais Mitchell — Hadestown (Wait For Me)
  10. Tobymac — Tonight (City On Our Knees)

John Legend’s collaboration with The Roots, Wake Up!, deserves an honorable mention.  I’d also be remiss to avoid the fact that one of the single most possessive and, somehow, satisfying singles I heard in 2010 was B.o.B’s “Airplanes.”

In terms of non-2010 releases, I was immensely moved by David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches (2009), thoroughly wowed by the lyrical dexterity of Okkervil River’s The Stage Names (2007), and, in what was perhaps my favourite musical experience of 2010, brought to my knees again and again as I worked my way through Joe Henry’s output.  Civilians (2007) is a masterpiece for the ages.

Soundtrack-wise, I didn’t hear much besides Tron: Legacy that really gripped me, although Hans Zimmer’s surprisingly excellent Sherlock Holmes score does technically qualify as 2010 music release.  I greatly admired John Adams’ work on I Am Love, but have not heard it as an album yet.

And that was 2010.  The new year has already brought at least one album that I’m fairly certain will be on this list next January.  Onwards and upwards, then.

EDIT (3/3/11): Shuffled Mavis up to #6. It’s a beauty.

Review Bag V: Late December Gumbo

Posted in film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , on December 23, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

Sonny (2002) Nicholas Cage

Given the recent swell in attention to Cage and his most extreme performances, real or fictional, and my own somewhat morbid appreciation for such displays of commitment, it was impossible to turn down the opportunity of seeing his one and only work as a director.  That film is Sonny, a low-budget yarn from 2002 starring a still-rising James Franco as a young, reluctant New Orleans gigolo yearning to escape the trade, and his domineering pimp mother, after his stint in the Army fell through.  If needed, the performance could be best summarized exactly how you’d hope it would be with Cage directing: Franco doesn’t play Sonny; he plays Cage, or a compendium of Cage roles evenly spread through one scene after another.  Between the hair, the costumes (including black leather jackets and police blue-and-blacks), and the camera angles, Franco IS Cage in seemingly every heavy dramatic role he appeared in between 1980 and 2000.

It’s all there in some form: naked, post-coital tantrums, volcanic arm flailing, TV-smashing and curtain ripping intimidation, table throwing frustration, head-pounding freakouts, and a climactic, drunken stumble through the red-light district.  It isn’t wall-to-wall craziness, though.  It’s fascinating to watch, as a peek into Cage’s larger artistic sensibility, and as a work in context of Cage’s later roles in the same decade, especially Bad Lieutenant.  In fact, if Sonny does anything, it seems almost a marriage between Abel Ferrara’s depravity and Herzogian spontaneity, summarized best in a sequence where Franco, in cop-role play, services a client according to her perverse wishes, complete with a slowed-down shutter, low-end ambience, and Franco’s Keitel-esque expression of disgust.  In the next scene, after tearing apart the room, Franco gets his just payment from the frugal housewife, who throws a crumpled bill at him only to watch it do a little loop-de-loop before landing short of the target.  It’s the sort of unintentionally funny little moment that you can imagine Herzog seeing and thinking “That’s my man.”  Late in the picture, Cage himself shows up as Acid Yellow, a gay pimp who wears a Liberace jacket, hangs out with Technicolor green and red poodles at the bar, and brandishes a cane sword.  Cage says on the commentary that he was contractually obligated to appear in the film, and Acid Yellow was the smallest role he could give himself, but with today’s appreciation for his most bizarre roles, even this tiny one has more than enough gusto to deserve inclusion in the strange performances of Nicolas Cage.

That is the only real appeal of sitting through Sonny, the promise of Cage going off the deep end as a director and an actor.  As drama itself, it can’t quite make the transitions between melodrama and something more affecting actually work; it’s setting and fidelity to that setting (see Brenda Blethyn’s deluxe Southern Belle treatment) keeps it locked firmly in a world of garish, greasy theatre; as messy and emotionally boring as its endlessly running mascara.

I haven’t yet mentioned the cinematography of Barry Markowitz, who did his best to light on what appeared to be a tight schedule; the broadly slapped shadows and sweaty, honey-brown tones do the most heavy lifting to set the film in 1981, making the image itself feel like a product of that time; nor Clint Mansell’s tasteful score (and Cage’s equally tasteful use of Bach among others), which are both notable.  But this is mostly an “interesting failure,” one that goes off the rails later than expected and still fails to transcend that promise.

Alice In Wonderland (2010) Tim Burton

The less said about this, the better.  Just that any film that makes me want to embrace Marxist theory as a prescient explanation for this sort of soulless, mass-produced, late-capitalist derived trash — pardon me — is kind of an evil film, indeed.  There is not one drop of imagination in this garbage, remarkable considering the source material (though I have no great love for that either), resplendent to someone’s malformed taste in its faux-plastic coating of digital effects.  Linda Woolverton’s script is a colossal bore, opting for yet another “Here Comes The Messiah Figure” outline that, well, you know what happens.  You’ve seen every other movie these last few years where someone’s prophesied to come kill whatchamacallit with the whatsit.  The only real surprises the film holds are: 1) to what variety will the Cockney accent be ignored in favour of other English accents, particularly where small talking animals are concerned, and 2) to what degree will the digitally animated March Hare’s (pictured above) insipid lunacy raise my blood pressure?  Answers: not enough, and too much.  I was hoping Burton would close the film with five minutes of break-dancing Mad Hatter (a la the 2003 remake of Zatoichi, to take another beloved cultural property that got fresh eyes and an unusual closing dance number), if only to take the film’s undercurrent of madness to its fullest end.  No such luck.  Alice’s madness isn’t that at all; just calculated, factory-made silliness.  Yuck.

It Happened One Night (1934) Frank Capra

Watching this for the first time in about six years, I was struck by how easy it is to slip right into the rhythm of the film’s chemistry; Gable and Colbert really are electric.  What also surprised me was how much I no longer care for Gable’s childish treatment of Colbert, or more specifically, how many times Capra and writer Robert Riskin go back to the same well regarding that dynamic (her ineptitude and helplessness on the run), and particularly the film’s uneasiness with how to balance out Colbert’s headstrong ways with some rather contrived bits of idiocy on her part.  Oh yes, she gets him back at times, but the balance still feels rather one-sided, which perhaps is to be expected for 1934.  Contrast that, though, with another classic from the same year, The Thin Man, which features a couple equally blessed in charm and wit, and better suited to complementing each other.  And while in that film Nick Charles is indeed given an edge in competence of a sort, that superiority is solely relegated to matters of his detective profession, not general life skills.  To go back to Capra, yes, I understand that Colbert being on the run and unable to take care of herself is part of the point, being a spoiled rich heiress and all; but I find the frequency with which her ineptitude is highlighted makes for less interesting comedy than the alternative and generates enough of a (fine, I’ll say it) sexist tone that makes this second viewing just a little bit tarnished.  I guess ignorance really is bliss.

While I’m getting that out of the way, I’ll also mention how odd the final act seems, not just in comparison to what passes for romantic comedy today, but for how it kind of sucks the air out of the balloon, so to speak.  On the one hand, I appreciate how Riskin’s script eschews an easy sentimental reunion once Gable sees Colbert driving away with her father; at the same time, the film seems to run out of gas at this point, the instant that they are separated for more than a day.  Their last real scene together finishes 27 minutes before the film ends; the rest is a somewhat plodding walk to the finish line (save for a great scene with Gable and the father) where the moral and legal mechanics of reuniting them are closely detailed.  And as much as I appreciate the efforts to build an airtight case for the leads to be reunited (this section seems as much a justification to moral watchdogs, given the constrains of Colbert’s marriage/remarriage), a lot of the tension drains flat out of the picture.  I fear too much time passes between the leads’ last big scene together, and that wonderfully concise image of the bedroom sheet tumbling, to give that last shot all of the energy it needs.

Nevertheless, the film remains brilliantly witty and it’s one of Capra’s better balancing acts between comedy and drama; just witness the feather-light steering from clever banter to tender silence in the swamp scene; notable also is Capra’s trademark attention to the Depression, little details that are tossed in at just the right moment to keep the context relevant.  And Joseph Walker’s cinematography is as lush as ever, achieving a noir-like intensity in the many nighttime scenes.  Even if I’d give the edge to The Thin Man for its couple’s dynamics, this is still a fine film; as far as romantic comedies go — at least as vehicles for getting attractive people to fall in love with each other for our amusement — this is still the one to beat.

Happenings Elsewhere

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Reviews - Film with tags , , , on October 15, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

I promise that I have some new posts coming soon.  This year’s edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival ends this evening.  I saw five films, and not one of them was a dud.  Recaps are on the way.

In the meantime, hop on over to Christianity Today Movies, where I talk about Letters To Father Jacob one more time.

Review Bag IV: Three Men On The Brink (Ray, Ferrera, Romanek)

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , on August 4, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

Shattered Glass (2003) Billy Ray

The first viewing was satisfying, the second was refreshing, and now the third time proves ever more the charm.  Quietly released in 2003 and soon after forgotten, Billy Ray’s dramatization of the outing and fall of Stephen Glass — a wunderkind writer for The New Republic who fabricated dozens of stories in whole or in part, and was fired in 1998 — is holding up very nicely.  The plotting always impresses me; it’s lean, subtle, and guided with a steady hand through several layers of flashbacks, lies, and supposedly objective narrative.  For such a static, indoors-set film, the choice to shoot it in scope seems puzzling at first, but the results speak for themselves: Mandy Walker’s images are sleek and satisfying, and beautifully framed on just about every straight line to be found in an office setting.

What most stuck out on this viewing was the open ending: TNR editor and Glass-inquisitor Chuck Lane reading off the titles of various Glass stories he believes were cooked, while Glass remains silent, indicating that each title listed was indeed fabricated in some fashion.  The scene jumps back into Glass’ little narrated world that began the film – a sort of journo-dreamland in his head where he’s contentedly waltzing around a convention – before being pulled back to reality, sharply, by Lane’s voice: “Steve?”  Glass looks up and the image cuts to black.  On the one hand, it’s a simple reinforcement of the flimsy fantasies that Glass has cooked up – he’s deluding himself as much as he’s trying to fool us – and only the hard voice of Lane, the true journalist, can shatter the illusion.  Lane defeats Glass one last time.  This is an effective and understandable reading of the film and its stated themes.

At the same time, I wonder if Ray is quietly commenting on the subjective nature of narrative filmmaking itself, and especially that of film narratives that are “based on a true story” or “true events.”  After all, the title of the film refers to Stephen himself, so the uttered “Steve?” and subsequent silence from Glass almost seems like a veiled admittance that the very film that contains it is itself “fabricated in part,” however small or necessary the changes may be.  In fact, one might begin to question the ethics, if any, of docudrama filmmaking, especially in how the end result of such endeavours often results in a condensed “record” that replaces (or outright creates) the public’s perception of the real incident, which may or may not have already been specially crafted by various media outlets.  It is this, Ray’s focus on a storyteller — a facts-based one by profession, but a storyteller all the same — justly condemned for his falsehoods,  that allows the film, caught in its own tension between truth and fiction, to fold back on itself.

The audience is left in a similar position to Glass’ colleagues, who chose to disbelieve the evidence of his lying because they liked him so much, except the only relationship viewers have with the film’s “heroes” is through the virtuous portrayal of Chuck Lane; Peter Sarsgaard’s acting is efficient in quickly establishing Lane as a no-BS truth-teller and allying him with the viewer, while the audience grows irritated with Glass’ shenanigans.  But like Glass’ friends, we too are placed in a position of epistemological bias, and once Lane has won the day, the viewer that is convinced of his own objective sight (established by Ray’s navigation of perspectives; by beginning with Glass as a sympathetic if somewhat irritating kid and ending with him as the king of weasels, slain by the righteous Lane) may find it hard to return to a more balanced view of these determined people, seeing both the truth-tellers and the liars in all of their humanity.

How many novels does Stephen Glass have to write before he’s redeemed and maybe even appreciated for his supposed gift for fiction making?  Can this film, with its condensed account of the events, be blamed for writing Glass’ story sort of like Glass might?  By all accounts and the assurance of involved parties, Ray’s reconstruction sounds accurate.  But it will never be perfect.  I wonder what real-world consequences have been added to Glass’ plate because this film exists and tells the story in this particular way.  And what that might mean for docudrama type films in this age; its own ability to entomb certain accounts of incidents bolstered by the all-seeing, all-remembering networks that make up our daily lives.

Bad Lieutenant (1992) Abel Ferrara

It’s a slog.  It may be one of the most rewarding slogs in it’s genre — it leads to a climax that proves genuinely affecting, depending on your tolerance for the miraculous — but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.  Ferrera treads a fine line between exploiting the sordid situations of his anti-hero — see how far I can go with this bit of depravity! — and allowing them to shock, horrify, and browbeat the viewer into harboring absolutely no hope for the salvation of the Bad LT (Harvey Keitel).  By the time Ferrera lingers over a long heroin-shooting scene, all feelings, including revulsion, seem to have fled the picture.  For both the (resilient) viewer and the LT, only numbness remains.  For any other film, this would be the appropriate point for declaring the picture dead.  Not here, though.  This vacuum of feeling is Ferrera’s secret weapon.

It is because of that numbness that the film’s climax registers with scalpel-like accuracy, and painful intensity.  Numbness is destroyed by realization, by inner conviction, and by trickles of grace.  Ferrera plays the LT’s breakdown completely on the nose, and yet still it feels understated.  It’s difficult to evaluate Keitel’s performance on a simple “good/bad” scale; surely my generation, for whom sarcasm is a sacrament, would scoff at his animalistic moans as “overacting.”  There is a sliver of truth in that view.  And yet when he groans under his sins, I can see into the abyss with him.  I can feel the weight crushing him.  Few performances that I’ve seen have so clearly, so painfully, so poignantly expressed the world of a man who by his own reckoning (and probably most of the audience), is completely beyond hope.  A viewer who is spiritually tuned into the film will understand that there is no way to overstate the anguish of a lost soul, a realization that gives the scene and its antecedents, and the film as a whole, an overwhelming and perhaps undeserved power.  It shouldn’t be any other way.  After ninety minutes of filth, the last thing you’d expect would be an invasion of total, scandalous grace.

One Hour Photo (2002) Mark Romanek

Fine.  I was tense.  I was in suspense.  But let’s get one thing clear.  This is not Kubrickian.  This is not Hitchcockian.  What it is, is just plain sadistic, without any of the psychological depth that Kubrick would bring to the table, nor any truly thrilling formal approach that would accompany Hitch.  It’s sadistic in the sense that Romanek’s sterile visual scheme, his lingering (but not long) shots of William’s sad puppy expressions indicate to me a director more interested in toying with his strange specimen of a character than revealing him.  Well, I’m not playing.  This is porn for people who enjoy watching pathetic, awkward souls go off the deep end.  Is he or isn’t he a pedophile?  Oh look he’s watching the kid!  Look he has a hospital-clean, sparsely furnished apartment!  Psycho!

Maybe I wouldn’t be so angry about it if Romanek didn’t try to have his art-film cake and eat it too.  There are techniques used here that belong in a more humanist examination.  Take the aforementioned “lingering” takes: many shots of Williams’ somber face seem to go on a bit longer than your typical Hollywood picture, and, as they linger, seem about to invite the viewer, acclimated to briskly paced-cutting, to get comfortable and peer closer at the sight.  I think there’s a certain timetable to how observation of long shots work, which involves the viewer realizing after about thirty seconds or so that this shot is going to be longer than usual; that there must be something more to it.  At that point, the viewer’s perception of the shot resets and begins combing the image for details; the viewing effort exerted by the viewer increases in order to meet the curiously protracted shot length on its own terms.  If the viewer is game, the more active engagement rising from the “reset” helps the viewer to glean some sort of meaning, whether they project it or actually “get” some of the director’s intent.  One Hour Photo seems poised to take advantage of this technique, except the decision to linger — but not to wait (or to put it differently, to tease in an art house kind of way) — destroys any chance of the viewer getting to spend some sort of realistic, organic time with Sy; and make no mistake, in a film as sewn up in pre-ordered creepster character clichés as this — the stiff walk, huge glasses, fussy neatness, the stunted social skills, that damned empty apartment, his art-department pristine wall of photos, and on and on it goes — the only hope we have of connecting in a human-to-human sense with the man would be through a sense of having shared real time and real moments with him.

In a similar sense, I would chalk up the failure of Williams’ performance to really affect me as another casualty of Romanek denying us the time we need to get to know Sy, however blank he might be.  It’s difficult, and in this case I’d say impossible, to genuinely engage with Williams’ blankness while watching from a mental framework wherein each slightly longer-than-usual-shot is under girded with the expectation that this boring face will soon be replaced by another image anyway, so there’s little point in trying to connect with it.  I’m not convinced that Williams’ performance even has any real depth, but the stunted editing eliminates any possibility of an open-ended result, and subsequent interpretations.

So that’s what the film isn’t — actually insightful on any human or formal level — but there are nice Fincher-esque close-ups of film being developed and bright PTA-style shots of store aisles, and the overall feel of a train derailing in slow motion for the sick amusement of all us normal folk — thank heavens we’re not weird like Sy the Photo Guy!  And it is strange to see how Sy’s wall of pictures, however silly and overblown it comes off in the movie, visually anticipates Facebook, Flickr, and other digital means of sharing thousands of personal moments with entire strangers.  Sy had to steal his clients’ memories in order to put together his wall of obsession; eight years later we offer our most intimate selves freely and even assemble the collage for him.  Make of that what you will.