The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

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In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson got earth’s most intense actor into the role of a megalomaniac and essentially just let the camera watch Daniel Day Lewis volcano all over everything. Here he does the same with another great slow-burner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though the results here are even more diffuse in terms of plotting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the Master’s acolyte and foil, and does terrific but often overcooked work; you get the sense that Hoffman is not the only three-named intensity-monger that Phoenix is bending over backwards to impress. It’s an engaging movie to look at, but as with There Will Be Blood, I wind up feeling there’s a certain emptiness to the endeavor. So many of the scenes feel like exercises in a Strasberg seminar; there’s a great deal of emoting, but not a lot of emotion. Part of the trouble is that the movie is so fearful of being about anything specific that it winds up not being about anything in particular. The wish to belong, the lure of alcohol, rationalism vs spirituality, male friendship, PTSD, American vacuity . . . they’re all toyed with as themes, but Anderson puts down no significant bets on any of them. So you’ll remember people laughing, crying, shouting, fighting, and kissing, but not why.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin (2012)

beastin' on crab - _DSC8525.NEFI was pretty sure I was going to hate this and sure enough I did. It’s a straight-up noble savage number which reassures us that poor southerners are stupid, drunk, stubborn, dirty, fearful of modernity, and anti-social, but also of course magical, poetic, natural, and authentic. The fact that the movie was shot handheld on 16mm is a nice formal corollary to the film’s thematic depravities; just as Zeitlin would have us believe that these utterly inauthentic stereotypes somehow represent something essential and fundamental about the people of southern Louisiana, so too does he hope that his use of antique technology will lend an air of authenticity to the shamelessly shallow and ridiculous characterizations he parades before us. The whole thing pains me all the more because I’ve grown to so love the culture of Louisiana myself over the last ten years, a love made pointed and profound by my constant recognition that I will never fully understand the place. The nerve of this carpetbagger is impressive, I’ll say that much. His film company is named “Court 13,” after an empty squash court at Wesleyan he used as a film set for his undergraduate projects. That’s a true story!

Listen, bell hooks taught me to read at Oberlin College in the spring of 1989 and she can speak to all this far more wisely and deeply than I can, so if you want the straight dope check her out right here.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo (2012)

11869272There’s the subject, and then there’s the form. The subject of this book exhausts and depresses me. It’s about a few residents of a slum in Mumbai and the various social and political factors that impede them from improving their lot in life. Their situation is terrible. They lack adequate water, sanitation, and food. They subsist by scavenging in the garbage. The institutions that ought to serve and aid them — police, government, courts, schools, charities — in fact do them more harm than good, exploiting their labor and extorting their meager resources. It’s terrible, but not terribly surprising; we know full well that situations like this exist all over the world.

 

What is surprising is the form of Boo’s book. It’s not a study or a history; it’s a story. There are no statistics or interviews with experts or extended analyses of causes and effects. Boo spent years in this one relatively small slum, interviewing and re-interviewing the same residents, and tracking the particular setbacks and advances they made in their individual lives. The questions of how or whether these particular examples might be used inductively to fuel broader conclusions about poverty in general is not here entertained or answered.

 

The effect, for me, was disorienting in two ways. First, because the book follows the narrative arcs described by the lives of persons, those persons felt like characters to me, rather than humans. Second, their stories seemed radically decontextualized. I wanted to know more about what was going on in the city around them, the slums around them. I wanted to know more about the history of the country, the political situation, and so forth. At the same time, I realize that my sense of having no context is analogous to the contextless-ness of the slum dwellers themselves, who have few means of understanding what’s going on in the world outside the slum.

 

This is a good book but a strange one. I am having a hard time assessing the nature of my reaction. I guess another way to put it is that I wanted Bertolt Brecht to have written it. It needs a dash of the alienation effect, so as to ensure that I don’t think of humans as characters or vice-versa.

Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn (2011)

DRV-12153.NEFThe titles for this movie are in a pink cursive font, over a moody montage of a laconic, perfect criminal going about his business, while in the background we hear a breathy 80’s synth-pop song. I don’t think this guy is trying to be the next Michael Mann, I think he’s trying to be Michael Mann. And he comes damn close, to my delight.

Haywire, Steven Soderbergh (2012)

HaywireFile this next to The Limey in the dossier of completely disposable but formally interesting Soderberg genre pieces. The movie is boring and incoherent as a thriller. It’s sort of a Bourne Identity crossed with La Femme Nikita, I think, but to tell the truth, it’s been a couple weeks since I saw it, and I barely remember. But that’s OK; Soderbergh doesn’t really care about the plot, he cares about technique, and here what he seems to be exploring are claustrophobic spaces and the dramatic potential of terrible light. There’s no reason to go out of your way to see this, but it’s fine to look at. See Soderbergh point his camera right at the light to see what happens. See him film an action scene in drastically underexposed lighting to see what happens. Etc. I swear, I think he really does use some of these seven-figure movies as test kitchens for his eight-figure movies. I might have those numbers wrong but you get the idea.

The Debt, John Madden (2010)

debtGeriatric Mossad agents pursue a geriatric Mengele.  Plodding structure, uninspired mise en scene, overheated performances. What’s most interesting about it to me is the strange sense of history slipping through your fingers. It’s almost like the meta-movie here is about the fact that Nazi-hunter movies will inevitably become an antique, necessarily self-conscious genre, as Westerns did in the 1960’s.