Archive for January, 2017

Review: Silence (2016)

At the start of Silence – the second film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel – the Tokugawa Shogunate has closed Japan to Christianity (and the ‘West’ more generally). Word reaches Macao that Catholic missionaries are facing torture and death, and two young priests are shocked to hear their mentor Ferreira has recanted the faith and adopted Japanese ways. The priests would have been raised on stories of the heroic sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross; the suffering of the early saints at the hands of the Roman Empire; and Elijah cheekily defeating the priests of Baal. We know how the story ends: after temporary suffering comes eternal victory. So they go on a quest to find Ferreira and save his soul.

I read what happens thereafter as a variation on the Garden of Eden story. In Genesis, eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge brings suffering. In Silence, the introduction of Christianity to Japan forces missionaries and locals to define themselves in relation to it. Embracing or refuting the religion – publicly or privately – brings suffering.

Silence dramatizes reformers coming dramatically up against the limits, encountering a hostile environment that transforms from agentive forces to reactive ones. They start out trying to effect a change for the better; they end up trying to minimize harm. This ought to resonate with (and provide deep challenges for) anyone with plans to change the world, for whatever defensibly righteous reasons: the political protestor; the secular global ‘development’ worker; the PhD student – and not least of all myself, stuck between all these categories, seeking to provide design and policy recommendations based on research on refugees’ online privacy needs.

However we may regard the characters’ goals, the ethical dilemmas they experience seem analogous to what various international aid-type workers experience, as well as those my (mostly Lutheran) pastor friends have discussed with me: with what do you do when your congregation’s heartfelt beliefs are heretical? What do you do when your presence appears to be hurting more than helping? What do you do when your conscience conflicts with the institutional line? To what extent can you trust that God (or the system) is playing the long game effectively – in spite of immediate, visceral feedback to the contrary? How do you handle being co-opted by a variety of systems, playing your naiveté to their advantage? Is admitting powerlessness abdicating responsibility? Is pursuing your conscience mere narcissism?

In the movie, this plays out in debates between the priest Rodrigues and the local inquisitor, representative of the shogunate, concerning the cultural compatibility between their respective visions of Japan and Christianity. The specific options available to Rodrigues narrow until they become a series of singular choices among bad options. Visually, as the characters move from the expansive cityscapes of Macao to Japan, the cinematography eschews sweeping crane shots of dramatic landscape in favor of the compact, foggy and claustrophobic. The more I think about it, the more I see how the film embeds challenges to the narrowness of the characters’ worldviews. Both the inquisitor and Rodrigues are, of course, fighting losing battle on behalf of purity – syncretic mixes of local and external influences develop, as they always do.  Yet within the film, the precision of their wills is convincing in its immediacy.

Nonetheless, the film remains largely from the missionaries’ perspective, with ‘Japan’ (and the suffering Christians therein) considered in its relationship to them; the country is an operatic hell-scape that reflects their own failings back at them. This is reinforced by their limited ability to communicate with the local Japanese Catholics. While I think the film ultimately critiques this – the condescending ‘white savior complex’ mission/outreach model is an oft-critiqued, oft-resurgent bad idea – from our own contemporary moment, this certainly opens Silence to the criticism that it uses Japan as a prop for three white men’s spiritual crises. To this, I’m really interested to read how the movie has been received in Japan.

In a sense, missionaries have it easier than aid workers; the “not of this world” nature of Jesus’ kingdom allows wiggle room between apparent material circumstances and the spiritual kingdom that awaits at some later date. Artists’ ability to gauge their successes is somewhere in between. At a meta-level, Nick Ripatrozone at LitHub notes, “the apparent cross of Scorsese” is “trying to perfect an idea than wrangling with personal belief”. While the obvious comparison point for the (Catholic) director is the Last Temptation of Christ, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky  writes that Rodrigues is also a “typical Scorsese narrator in that he can’t stop voicing his admiration or disgust for other characters”. This attention to mediation – to the layers of perception at work – I see as an insightful engagement between Catholicism and artistry.

To go back to the above challenges to global do-goodery, however, Silence poses harsher critiques to those who would separate their piety from others’ material circumstances. Here, the refrain is “they’re suffering for you.”  This is especially pertinent to the American cultural landscape and its homegrown varieties of evangelical Christianity, recent ill-regarded cinema from which have tended to offer easy answers to many of the difficult questions posed (and left unanswered) in Silence. In this genre, characters often have their faith confirmed with little risk to their middle-class material security and social status. True to Max Weber’s protestant work ethic, the correct spiritual choice is often closely related to secular middle class success. A protagonist must, say, choose between worldly prestige or mere personal fulfillment and eternal life, a choice remarkably similar to the archetype of the mid-level management executive who must choose between the career-making presentation or his child’s soccer game.

That’s the American pulpit and cinema. We know how the story ends. The good guy wins. You are the good guy. You always win. Iron Man saves the day.

Silence received only one Oscar nomination, for Rodrigo Prieto’s aforementioned cinematography. At least three Best Picture nominees, by contrast, fit into the ‘triumph over adversity / following your dreams’ genre.

In the face of all those self-serving tales of comfort and affirmation, Silence offers a human story worthy of the spiritual one, a direct accusation to both the active and uninvolved, and a final act in which God and Man accuse each other, asking to what (human and divine) silence in the face of all these failures testify.

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Review: Kate Plays Christine

Kate Plays Christine is a film without a subject. This is partially both the point and the hook: the film revolves around Sarasota, Florida news anchor Christine Chubbuck, who left almost no public record except urban lore of her on-air suicide on July 15, 1974, inspiring Network (1976). To cinematize this mix of limited material and interesting subject matter, Christine documents actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray Chubbuck for a fragmented film within a film. It’s a framework that could illuminate any number of things – about acting, identity, voyeurism, gender dynamics, cinema and who knows what else. Unfortunately, the documentary fails at most all of them. Kate Plays Christine is a movie in which the filmmakers set themselves up with a difficult task, can’t think of an interesting approach beyond their high-concept hook, half-ass the execution and blame the medium and its audience for their own failings. The result is a self-satisfied ode to its own solipsism.

It’s shitty as history. If one takes ‘Chubbock’ as the subject, it is notably constrained by its limited sources, mostly Chubbuck’s childhood journals and a few era news reports. It is apparent, however, that nobody involved did much background reading (Sheil’s prominent copy of Durkheim’s 1897 classic Suicide aside). The result is the first hour is mostly unfounded, unfocused speculation from Sheil and others about Chubbuck, the 70s newsroom, and suicide – despite how much has been written on the latter topics. Factual claims – that Chubbock was descendent from screen icons Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks – are voiced, but neither confirmed or refuted. Grasps at theoretical framings are half-hearted. Murmurs about sexism and Chubbuck’s probable difficulties with it underscore the masculinity of the media professionals she meets, but also underscore the extent that everyone is mostly creating projections about Christine. The latter seems to be the film’s primary point, which (again) might have broader applicability if the filmmakers weren’t conspuously trying to avoid empirical evidence.

It’s shitty as a portrait of craft. As an exploration of acting, it devotes a notable amount of time to superficial actions; ‘getting into character’ is mostly represented by purchasing a wig and buying contact lenses so Sheil might better resemble Chubbuck. She goes to the office building that was once an old TV studio, but doesn’t go inside. Beyond that, Sheil doesn’t say particularly insightful things – which, fair enough, not everyone can explain their own particular genuis. But if what Sheil says isn’t enlightening, neither is the process of watching Sheil say un-insightful things illuminating. The direction and editing doesn’t compensate.

If one takes the movie as examining the process of creation, it doesn’t show much in the way of how historians, directors or film editors continually reflect and revise throughout their work. This is underscored by the film’s best moment of drama: when Sheil meets with people who actually knew Chubbuck, one-time co-workers who challenge Sheil’s assumptions and the filmmakers’ motivations. By that point, however, one is left to wonder why the filmmakers didn’t seek such pertinent input earlier in the process. Whether academia or cinema, you edit your drafts until they’re good, and if you only have enough good footage for a 20-minute documentary than that’s what you make. The movie neither serves as a record of reflective choices made throughout its production, nor gives an indication it was paired down to reflect the best thinking resulting from those choices.

It’s shitty as cinema. Moments of heartfelt reflection on the challenges of acting are displayed – particularly one actress relating an unstable emotional moment to how she imagines Christine may have felt, and an actor’s speaking of the constant rejection that comes with the job. These, however, are in service of a project conspicuously ill-advised. Speculation on Chubbuck is mostly a parade of quasi-professionals venturing obvious, surface level interpretations of her actions. May have extraordinarily hesitant connections to Chubbuck (an employee at the gun store where Chubbuck bought the weapon) who seem reluctant to be interviewed. The ‘scenes’ of Sheil acting as Chubbuck, the ‘film within a film’, are furthermore extraordinarily stilted, shot almost entirely in over-exposed close-up and assembled from clichés and the most literal record. Watch, as Christine’s family tells her they’re worried about her! Watch, as she heroically confronts her editor about bumping her ‘important’ stories! Then, there are the scenes that deliberately blur the line between when we’re seeing ‘Kate’ and ‘Christine’, such as one in which she goes for a swim in her all-important wig, which naturally falls off. The camera lingers. The physical explanation runs: it’s difficult to swim in a wig. The symbolically-minded one goes: it’s because cinema is fake. The wig is the movie in a nutshell – an argument about the artificiality of cinema, as represented by an actress wearing a wig, as evidenced by the fact that the wig is not waterproof.

And then, after all that, the film ends with [spoiler-ish] an admittedly tense final monologue in which Sheil the actor-character looks straight at the camera to decry the ‘fucking sadists’ that are the film’s raison d’etre. To the extent that Sheil and Greene accuse the audience more than themselves, it’s a bold claim to make given how sloppy the whole production has been. And indeed – given scenes that are eminently readable as Sheil’s reluctance to ‘act’ for the camera – there’s certainly a case to be made that she, at least, mostly meant director Robert Greene & co.

But Christine’s biggest problem is that it’s just shitty at being shit. As critic Michael Atkinson suggested, I wouldn’t rule out that all this half-assery is a deliberate create choice, a statement about the laziness of documentaries and biopics. If so, I’m sympathetic to the impulse, but it’s dour, unoriginal, and self-satisfied execution reads like a film-school provocation that should be beneath seasoned professionals. ‘Art’ is short for ‘artifice’. Every documentary –-every film ever – is compromised. These ideas are not novel. They’re premises, not conclusions, and the interesting part comes in what the filmmakers do with them.

There are numerous interesting, innovative documentaries about frustrating subjects and failures. Director Joshua Oppenheimer said of The Look of Silence that he expected his direct subject (a man confronting his brother’s killers) would ‘fail’, but that he expected the way it failed to be interesting. Silence and its predecessor, The Act of Killing, brilliantly used its interviewees’ mix of reluctance and bravado at the murders they committed to illuminate how performances (everyday and cinematic) might and might not be ‘authentic’. Errol Morris’ films routinely interrogate the layers of storytelling at work between his agenda as a filmmaker and his interviewees’ – applied in The Unknown Known (2013) to a frustratingly unreflective Donald Rumsfeld. With regard to the specific subject of acting, Maximillian Schell turned Marlene Dietrich’s willful obscurity and idiosyncratic demands into abstract art in Marlene (1984). Documentaries about questionable movies are genre unto themselves: American Movie (1999), Lost in La Mancha (2002), Overnight (2003), Lost Soul (2014), Audience of One (2007)

A core message of Kate Plays Christine is that looking at images tells us much less than we might hope. Yet as a statement about the limits of documentary, empathy, and cinema, it is notably constrained by its own ignorance. It takes its own questionable creative choices as evidence that cinema itself is questionable, coming off like the kid in class that calls everyone else is stupid because s/he didn’t do the assigned reading. As an audience, we do trust films to mediate some sort of experience, and they often fall short. Noting that a film is aware of its own artifice, however, isn’t the same as saying it engages with that artifice effectively. Christine, of all films, should know that. Unfortunately, you can’t accuse cinema of deficiency through a film that seems committed not to function.


*FYI: Over the years, I’ve used this blog as an irregular dumping ground for various written pieces that otherwise might not have a home.  I still do film reviews over at The MacGuffin, but as the 2017 awards season is gearing up and I’m otherwise working on my PhD, I thought I might distract myself distract myself by writing some reviews of films that have already been critically picked-over. They won’t all be negative – and I’ll admit that the above could be the most negative thing I’ve ever written about a movie, I cringe reading it, and should anyone involved with the production happen across my humble blog I sincerely apologize. Somewhere, I believe, there could be an alternate edit of Kate Plays Christine that is much much better.

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Los Angeles Pleasures Itself: Against the ‘art’ of La La Land

Hollywood celebrates itself, bullshit and all. Especially the bullshit. That’s a known fact, and I would have been naïve to go into La La Land not expecting a healthy dose of it. It’s also a cliché that any near-universally acclaimed awards frontrunner can expect a backlash. With this in mind, I’m reluctant to blog here and rain on everyone’s love-fest for a nice little movie my mom will probably see and like. Still, criticism is staking a position, so here goes: La La Land embodies ideas about art I find objectionable in both content and its burgeoning position as an awards contender. There are fine lines between celebrating the dreamers, validating their self-absorption, and exploiting the lot of it for commercial purposes, and La La Land conflates all those impulses – admirable and awful – together in a big ball of masturbatory stardust.

Simply put, in La La Land, creating cinema is closely equated with moving to L.A. and being employed in ‘the industry’, and it gives much less attention to the creative aspect than to the professional one. The result is you’re not rooting for the characters to make meaningful art so much as gain employment in a willfully exploitive industry.

While that may pay the bills and amount to reasonable professional aspirations, as a vision of the pinnacle of artistry I personally find it highly unsympathetic. It never occurs to Stone’s character that she could maybe act in a low-budget, independent production. It never occurs to Gosling’s character that he could reach out to fellow jazz traditionalists. In fact, no one in this movie seem to have ‘friends,’ just romances, flat-mates, relatives, professional connections, dreams and an industry that’s shutting them out. It never occurs to them that they could make art outside the industrial systems against which they’re chafing, and which they are not shown expressing justifiable resentment towards. As the movie being fawned over this year as 2016’s pinnacle of the cinematic art form, it’s frustrating.

There is a certain current awards-season narratives positions Land as a film of privilidge, contrasting Land’s heterosexual white leads against Moonlight’s queer African-American ones. I see the privileges La La Land celebrating as running deeper: the privilege to move to L.A. and spend years *aspiring* to work unreflectively making American commercial culture. Which is to say, I think we’re supposed to watching the opening musical number – set in a routine traffic jam – and think wow, Los Angeles is awesome but difficult, whereas all I could think was – dear crap, how much gas must all these cars be burning? Why exactly should the audience care which of these interchangeable aspirants get to ‘make it’? Couldn’t they maybe take the damn bus and work in regional theater? Why are we celebrating this horror?

To be fair, as an examination of creation, what the film has – and I suspect, a big part of why it has garnered a lot of its support – is sympathy to challenges faced by the laborers on the edge of the Hollywood system. In the words of the movie, it “worships everything and values nothing”. I appreciated how the final half hour (the film’s best section), raises questions about where personal and professional concepts of success might diverge. These challenges often go unacknowledged within films, including films that take place even more narrowly within the Hollywood matrix (2011’s Best Picture winner The Artist, 2016’s Hail, Caesar!), whatever other critiques they raise. Yet when watching those, I get the sense that they more clearly demarcate their subject matter as concerning the Hollywood system unto itself. While La La Land acknowledges the difficulty of Hollywood, it ultimately takes the position of a successful insider who eventually succeeded. Even its nuanced counter-point to Gosling’s jazz traditionalism (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”) is gently voiced by a character whose ‘revolutionary’ thinking is in the service of making a slick commercial product with broad four-quadrant appeal.

It’s here that La La Land’s intense devotion to frustrating ideas about professionalism stand in contrast to the film’s under-developed treatment of art. Gosling and Stone’s characters are clearly passionately committed to their respective ‘ideas’ about jazz and acting, but they never articulate much about what those ideas are. This is similar to criticisms leveled at Damian Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash (2014), that it didn’t ‘understand’ jazz. I didn’t buy those criticisms because I never thought the audience was supposed to take Whiplash’s leads’ boneheaded ideas about art-as-personal-sacrifice as valid, so much as read them as justifications for a mutually self-destructive relationship. It produces artistic results at a great cost. I can’t argue, however, that La La Land shares that same sense of perspective. As such, I’m inclined to suggest that putting an Ingrid Bergman poster on your wall or watching Rebel without a Cause are actions so iconic that they’re largely bereft of meaning, and merely clocking in the requisite name-check doesn’t entitle you to shit.

Similarly, there’s little attention to the process of artistry (in which, I find Richard Brody more convincing than I did in regard to Whiplash). Here, let’s examine how the film depicts the art of writing, gallingly underdeveloped in light of Gosling’s assertion that you “need to see” jazz to understand it. Late in the story, Stone’s character writes a play. It’s a one woman show, based on her childhood, called Goodbye, Boulder City – the individuated narcissism of such creative choices going unremarked upon in La La Land itself. We get only fleeting glimpses of the play’s creation and production, mostly related to her character announcing ‘I’m writing a play’, though one could surmise it’s drawn from various anecdotes she mentions throughout the movie. We see nothing of her artistic choices, how she has shaped a particular telling of her story for the stage, the edits she made and the revisions she did. The film cuts between her preparing to perform and its reception afterwards, further reinforcing the play’s primary value in terms of its relation to industry. The play is treated as valuable not as an act of Stone’s self-expression, nor as art unto itself worth of audience attention. Rather, its value is that it’s an audition piece for the movie industry. Her childhood, the subject of the play, is by extension most valuable as preparation for Los Angeles; leaving the city to return to her hometown is equated with abandoning her art altogether.

Here, I partially realize how different my own preferred cinematic myths are. Growing up, I romanticized the origin stories of directors like Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, and Sam Raimi who spent weekends covered in fake blood, with limited budget and no distribution guarantees, working on masterpieces far outside the Hollywood system. Other B-movie directors who never ‘made it’ within the system still made films – terrible ones, sometimes, but they made something and showed a lot of heart in the process. In that mode, I thought 2016’s Sing Street a delightful film in which Irish teenagers start a band, fight the power, make some listenable-but-imperfect songs, and follow their dreams against long odds.

So anyway – what I’m saying is, follow your dreams, find a job, and make your art – and by all means buy tickets to the work of the other creative laborers who do. Nonetheless, Hollywood is but one exceptionally-privileged venue of many, and don’t equate its commercial constraints with what cinematic art is or should be. See an independent film; make one of your own. America’s media industry doesn’t need more validation from within or without.

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