Physical Media Dilemma #63: I know I’ve posted about this topic before and as far as “problems” go it’s nothing, but it weighs on me. This is what remains of the items in a storage locker my wife and I rent. We’re trying to pare down our possessions because it’s just impractical to own so much stuff, particularly in the city. What you see above, apart from a few other items, are tubs filled with CDs. I know I’ll listen to the music on a lot of them again but I’ll almost certainly never play the discs. I’ve been buying CDs since 1988—first purchase RATTLE AND HUM—and I know I will hold on to some favorites. But I need to winnow this down, right? By about 85% I’m thinking. Right? Help talk me into this. Also: the allure of replacing favorites with vinyl is pretty strong.
“Where do films come from? Where do they go? After a hundred years of movie, we are still not very adept at answering those questions. Let alone the matter of what they do to us while they are ‘here.’ We have set explanations, and we agree more or less that certain arguments apply—that the business system of motion pictures delivers (or seek to sell) these things to us; or that they may be the work of individuals, artists, auteurs, film-makers. Then, as for what they do, why they entertain us—or not. They make us laugh, cry, hide our eyes, or cultivate our souls. They move us. As if we were so important. Or is it just time that is moving? Look back a hundred years or so in your own family history, say, beyond the lives of people you knew or heard of, beyond mere names, to the notional claim that the family tree had branches then. Were those people moved by stories or plays they encountered? Does it matter? I mean ‘matter’ besides the extraordinary, anonymous but undeniable thrust of life itself. What is left of their being moved? Is that load there in our spit, our blood or our come?”
—David Thomson, The Alien Quartet
That’s the lyrical opening to David Thomson’s otherwise prosaic book on the Alien series, the fourth in a short-lived series of movie guides published by Bloomsbury in the ’90s. I like that quote and return to it from time to time because I don’t really have an answer to its questions. Even those first two. I’ve been at this thing I do long enough to forget whole films until stumbling across an old review I’ve written about them. I’ve seen movies inflate to dominate the cultural conversation only to fade away in a month, or a year, or a decade. (In the summer of ‘89 I saw heads with the Batman logo shaved into them but it’s hard to find too many people with a kind word for that movie now.) And I’ve seen other films linger like ghosts, sometimes passed down in moments borrowed by other films, sometimes in the memories of others. To talk about movies is to talk about ephemeral things that, in one way or another, live forever. Maybe the role they play in what Thomson calls the “undeniable thrust of life itself” is reason enough to say they matter.
Late to the Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
I don’t want to spill a lot of words on this one since it’s already been talked to death (and subsequently half forgotten). I eyed this movie warily before it came out as it got passed from Guilermo Del Toro back to Peter Jackson and then expanded from one to two to three movies for reasons that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, at least from a creative standpoint. My wariness grew as I heard reports of the 48 FPS projection and its disturbing, more-vivid-than-life-itself qualities and intensified when the less-than-stellar reviews started appearing. Nonetheless, it’s not like I wasn’t going to see it. I love Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Worst-case scenario, this would just feel like a bloated postscript with some memorable moments.
It’s good to prepare worst-case scenarios, isn’t it? Leaving aside the 48 FPS issue for the moment, it’s a slog to get to the memorable sequences. Watching it, I was reminded of how deftly Jackson and his collaborators adapted the massive Rings trilogy into three films. It took some effort to streamline all that narrative into feature-length films (longs ones, sure) while still finding room for the characters to come alive and the space for all those action sequences. The Hobbit has trouble pulling off the same trick in reverse. I knew I was in trouble when Bilbo breathlessly laid out the back story for what felt like 30 minutes and then the subtitle, An Unexpected Journey, flashed on the screen. There’s good stuff between the bloat, though. Martin Freeman’s a lot of fun as Bilbo, Ian McKellen has some fine moments, and the confrontation with Gollum is a real highlight. There’s a lot of imagination in the production design, too. (I was particularly fond of the Storm Giants, but could have done without the scrotum-necked Goblin King.)
As for the 48 FPS projection, I can’t say I wasn’t warned and I didn’t expect to like it. But my attitude was to treat it like an aesthetic choice. Jackson wanted the moive to have that look so I should give it a chance. We live in changing times. I love film as much as the next person but I’ve seen some directors find the aesthetic advantages in digital. (Che was a real turning point for me in appreciating what someone who knows how to play to the strengths of new technology can do.) And I can kind of see why he would want The Hobbit to have that look. In the effects sequences, where real actors fight CGI beasties, both realities live side-by-side seamlessly. As proof that, yes, Jackson’s effects studio knows what it’s doing, it’s extremely impressive.
On the other hand, it’s that sort of vividness is all wrong for a movie like The Hobbit, at least to my eyes. Why give a fantasy film the hard digital sheen of news footage? There’s a scene in the goblin cave when Gandalf scares off the bad guys with a flash of light and it took me a moment to figure out what the flash of light reminded me of. Then it hit me: It looked like a stage effect, as if someone were shining a spotlight at the audience. Carrying that thought a little further, The Hobbit looked like a really elaborate version of a filmed opera much of the time, a sort of Live From The Met with orcs instead of arias. I felt less transported to another world than dropped in the middle of its elaborate sets. Is that where we’re heading, toward movies that aspire to be more like a windows than a canvases? I hope not. I’m glad I had a look at what 48 FPS looks like, but I left The Hobbit hoping never to see it again.
I watched Petulia again today in advance of talking about it for a podcast on Monday. It’s one of my favorite films, as anyone who’s ever been to my place knows since a giant poster of it hangs in my hallway. I don’t think I’d ever noticed how gorgeous this shot is, with a melancholy Julie Christie leaning on a sousaphone as George C. Scott looks on, all the “kook,” to use the film’s preferred term, drained out of her demeanor. To get the full effect, you have to see the scene, which begins with Christie appearing only as a reflection in the horn’s bell as Scott walks up toward the front of the frame, and into focus, before the camera pans over for the composition seen above. It’s just a moment out of time beneath a gloomy San Francisco sky. Somewhere nearby the promise of the Summer Of Love is unfolding, but these two will only get to look on from a distance.
Vintage trailer: New Year’s Evil (1981) [Warning: Fairly graphic by trailer standards]
This is from the crop of holiday-themed slasher films that appeared in the wake of Halloween and included everything from My Bloody Valentine to Mother’s Day (but not, sadly, Thanksgiving). I honestly can’t remember if I’ve seen it or not and from the looks of the trailer I don’t think I missed much if I did skip it. But I was thinking of this movie today for obvious reasons and because it reminded me of a time in my childhood when I became fixated on lurid newspaper ads for horror films. I was compelled to look at them and contemplate the terrifying images they promised but at the same time scared witless at the thought of actually watching one. I had a friend named Patrick at the time who helped feed my curiosity by telling me all about them having, he said, snuck into virtually any title I threw his way. It turns out he was lying, but he also had an extremely vivid imagination for a second grader. Of New Year’s Evil, I distinctly remember him recounting a plot involving a New Year’s party interrupted by vicious, tiny, furry creatures that devoured the partygoers’ feet. It was a complete fabrication, but all these years later I still kind of want to see that movie.
I can’t really say I enjoyed Les Miserables, the big-screen adaptation of the beloved Victor Hugo-inspired 1980s musical, but I liked it in the moments when the material found a way to sneak around the film itself. I went into it a bit wary, and probably a bit prejudiced thanks to the Twitter chatter about Tom Hooper’s direction, but I left feeling that, if anything, the sniping had been understated. The opening 10 minutes of this movie feel like the work of someone with little command of shot composition and even less of a sense of editing. The sets look spectacular but Hooper seems determined to shoot the movie as an homage to a filmed stage production, cutting from here to there for no particular reason and pacing behind Hugh Jackman as he ponders his fate at a monastery like an overzealous dad with an iPhone. In its worst moments, it feels like a film shot on sets years in the making over the course of a long, rushed weekend.
The film calms down a bit from there and the musical itself, when allowed breathing room, has some tremendously moving moments. Here at least, they’re weighted toward the first act of the film and mostly tied to Anne Hathaway’s character who—spoiler?—isn’t around the entire film. The back half’s a slog of badly staged action, lesser songs, and thinner characters. I’d never seen the musical in any form and while some of the songs will stick with me, I suspect my most lasting memories of the film will be my annoyance at the way it was filmed: all those unmotivated, Adam West-era Batman-style dutch tilts and shots of actors positioned on one side of the screen and singing out into a frame that’s 2/3 negative space, connecting with nothing, the viewer least of all.
I may have posted something about this before but, oh well: This is a song combining “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” with a recitation of James Taylor’s dialogue (maybe every line of his dialogue) from Two-Lane Blacktop. It shouldn’t work but it certainly does, at least to he ears of this lover of that film.
I can’t remember anyone every saying anything nice about 40. Growing up, it was always something to be dreaded, the subject of lame Hallmark cards featuring grim reapers and “over the hill” jokes. My earliest thoughts of considering about what it might be like to be 40 are all tied up with a 1980s cultural conversation about aging rockers. Wasn’t it, maybe, after all, a little embarrassing for the Rolling Stones to be prancing about the stage in their forties? What is rock and roll if not the music of youthful rebellion, etc., etc., ad nauseum.
Truth is, I didn’t think all that much about turning 40 until about a year ago, when it started to feel imminent, maybe even unavoidable. My last check-up found me in great shape, having recently dropped about 30 pounds and I always look both ways before crossing the street. And today I made it to that landmark. And, you know what? It doesn’t feel bad at all. In fact, it feels pretty good. I’m going into it with a happy marriage, a cheery toddler, and a sense of possibility. My career recently took an unexpected turn, but after a few weeks away I now think of that in terms of conversations I don’t have to have, burdens I don’t have to shoulder, and opportunities I can now explore. It’s scary but exciting. I’ve spent my career watching, listening, thinking, connecting, and helping likeminded colleagues do the same. I’m confident those skills will transfer elsewhere.
And if I can take a moment to be self-indulgent—and I think the occasion warrants it, if any—I feel better than I have in a long time: loved by my family, confident in my professional abilities, secure that I conduct myself personally with care and integrity, and ready for whatever the next decade brings. I’ve heard fifty’s not so bad either.
The 10 Best Films of 2012: An Incomplete But Annotated List
In my experience, no best-of list is ever done. No matter how diligent one is in trying to watch everything of note throughout the year, the end of the year is always a crush, always an exercise, to borrow a term from Dan Kois, in triage. There’s simply no way to see everything, particularly if you have other professional responsibilities, as I did in 2012 and in the 15 years prior. Since turning in my top 10 list to The A.V. Club, the Chicago Film Critics Association, and the polls for Village Voice and Indiewire (think I missed the deadline on the last one) I’ve already seen one film—Only The Young—that might have made my list and spent a lot of time thinking about another—Not Fade Away—that might easily creep on the list if I were to revise it in a year or so. Then there are all those movies that Scott Tobias insisted I watch, like Miss Bala and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, that I never quite got around to seeing—but which I’ll spend some time with next week in advance of another project in which I’m involved that I’ll be talking about soon. Oh, and I wasn’t in town for the preview screening of Django Unchained, which I’m finally seeing tomorrow. Tarantino’s a favorite. This list didn’t even give him a chance. If nothing else, it’s incomplete because of that, in addition to all the other reasons. Nonetheless, here’s a list.
10. Holy Motors
I’ve tried to explain the concept movie to others and it’s like trying to describe a particularly vivid dream that blurs at the edges. Then again, that’s more or less what it feels like watching Leos Carax’s comeback feature, which doubles as a grand statement on the power of movies and illusion, a collection of ideas that are brilliant on their own but pick up cumulative power as they’re gathered together here.
9. The Loneliest Planet
Nothing and everything happens in Julia Lotkev’s long trek through the Caucasus Mountains, wherein one moment upends the relationship of a young couple. The scenery is breathtaking, the moment in question shocking and troublingly plausible, and the film’s deliberate pace allows gives both the room they need.
8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
I don’t think there were two more divisive films this year than Zero Dark Thirty and this tour through the far ends of the Louisiana bayou sometime after civilization has begun to collapse. Both worked for me, this one thanks to director Benh Zeitlin’s eye for offhand beauty and the performances of first-time actors Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis.
7. The Deep Blue Sea
Squint and it actually is a remake of the Renny Harlin shark movie—it’s desire that emerges seemingly out of nowhere to devour the unsuspecting victims.
6. The Kid With A Bike
Shocker: The Dardennes deliver a moving drama about moral choices and their consequences. Is it just that we’ve started to take them for granted that this didn’t show up on more lists?
Michael Haneke’s depiction of age ravaging an elderly couple is as unblinking and true of any of his films, even though it deals with a more everyday sort of devastation. (Or at least those I’ve seen: I’m not a timid viewer, but—true confession—I’ve bailed on Funny Games twice after 15 minutes.) That there’s no irony to makes it all the more powerful.
4. Wuthering Heights
Never mind Anna Karenina: The real breakthrough in offering a fresh take on familiar literary material this year came from Andrea Arnold, who dug into the Yorkshire soil for a raw take on Emily Bronte’s novel. Her vision perfectly captures the book’s oppressive romantic gloom and accentuates some of its key scenes by casting two black actors as Heathcliff (one as a child and the other as an adult).
3. The Master
Sure, it was inspired by Scientology, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable film is also the bigger story of a generation confronted with new freedom, deep doubt, and the maw of unknowing in the wake of World War II.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
It was a good year for Andersons. Wes Anderson’s melancholy picture book sensibility found a beautiful outlet in this coming-of-age story, in which children and grown-ups alike struggle with disappointment and receive just enough hope to make the struggle seem worthwhile.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
When the smoke clears on this one, it will be recognized not just as a stunning procedural about the hunt of Osama Bin Laden but as a psychic snapshot of a decade spent in the moral wilderness. Yes, the torture is there, and yes, the characters operate as if it’s necessary to do their jobs. (Whether it is useful or necessary remains an open question, at least in the version of the film I saw.) Would it be honest to depict the process any other way? Would it make us so uncomfortable if we didn’t feel some collective guilt for wondering if maybe, in the thick of those dark years, it was necessary? What’s also been lost in the discussion: The rest of the film, which is stunning, tense, upsetting and, in the end, offers no real sense of relief, only the possibility that the cycle will repeat itself.
Need to see again: Lincoln
I liked it and wrote as much. But this is one of those reviews I filed thinking I might have missed something and the reaction of others tells me it’s definitely time for a second look. (It’s the converse of last year when I begged everyone to give War Horse another look.)
Flight, Argo, Declaration Of War, Bernie, and Oslo, August 31st. And more, no doubt, when I revisit this even a week from now.