The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

the-master-dvdfab
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.

The Phoenix

phoenix“They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follows. The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible, that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry, then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first. So he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird.”

Herodotus, people.

I haven’t kept up with the blog in about a year. I’ve been in mourning for a failed writing project and obsessed with photography. Like a beaten dog slinking back into the yard, I am slowly returning to the written word, and I resolve to keep up with my reading, viewing, and listening here in 2013.

Some scraps from the unpublished posts of 2012.

Open City, Teju Cole (2011) I’ve wondered what an American Sebald would sound like. Cole provides a useful and provocative redirection for the question. The ways Cole thinks through history, space, literature, memory, and tone are consistently provocative, but as in Sebald, the overall impression remains one of stillness. A deceptively simple novel. I want to read it again in a year.

I wanted to like HHhH more than I did; it seemed unnervingly slight, too playful. I enjoyed Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was amateurish but affecting. I had to switch off a number of movies for intolerable violence, including Savages and Lawless. This is unusual for me; either the violence is getting worse or I’m getting less tolerant or both. In Moonrise Kingdom I saw Wes Anderson beginning to imitate himself and it made me sad. Cronenberg’s Freud movie was stupid; I don’t think Cronenberg has one single thing left to say and as such his attachment to Delillo’s Cosmopolis makes a great deal of sense. Almovodar’s The Skin I Live In was awesome and irresistible. That one I could go on about. The superficial level of the film being “about” identity politics — you could certainly lead a rousing discussion about the performance of gender in the film with a room full of students — but what really fascinates me is its crazy structure and pacing, like a 19th century generational novel crossed with TMZ.

Plus a bunch of other stuff I’m sure, but like I said, in 2012 I mostly spent my spare time watching photography how-to videos on YouTube and wondering if I’d ever write another word. I’m going to try to keep up this year. I’ll also post some photos from time to time, I think.

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.

Margin Call, J.C. Chandor (2011)

Wow, this got so many raves, and it’s such a dog. I use the term advisedly, to ruthlessly mock the writers of this film for trying to pass off a cancerous chocolate lab as a metaphor for the American economy.

The script is relentlessly pedantic, all the performances seem drowned in valium, the pace — ironically, since this is supposed to be about spectacularly dramatic events — is grindingly glacial. I apologize for the adverbs.