Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Review :: Rambo

Rambo may be the best action movie of the year. It may be the best action movie of the last ten years. Sylvester Stallone gives us something we've been wanting for a long, long time: a grown up action hero, a franchise that's capable of growing up as much as its audience has. John McClane should take notes.

It seems to me that Rambo is Stallone's critique of the action hero. It is a story of one man, John Rambo, but it is also a meta-story, the story of all action heroes. Rambo has always been a tortured soldier but somewhere along the way his story was hijacked: the Vietnam vet was turned into just another 80's action icon, and suddenly all his torture, all his pathos evaporated. He became just another shining, muscled symbol of adolescent masculine fantasies. As entertaining as these fantasies may be (and their value as entertainment is certainly debatable) they are insincere and callous, almost nihilistic in their willingness to portray violence as entertainment. Most action movies, after all, only play at morality; they use only a basic distinction between good and evil as a thinly-veiled excuse to justify the graphic depiction and glorification violence. Rambo does not. At one point in the movie, during a voice-over/dream soliloquy, Rambo admits to himself, "You didn't kill for your country... you killed for yourself." It is as if, in damning himself for what he's done, John Rambo, and Sylvester Stallone, is damning us the audience for finding enjoyment in the mindlessness of the prototypical action hero, the cartoonish hero capable of inflicting massive amounts of damage without suffering the mental or spiritual aftermath.

Rambo, though one of the most violent movies I've seen outside of the horror or torture genres, subverts the average mindless action movie by giving meaning to violence, by grafting its violence onto something most action movies do not have - a moral theory. The film is a redemption story, the story a disillusioned soldier once again finding meaning in the chaos around him. But it's more then just that. I read the film as Stallone's own rejection of the action movie conventions that made him a star and the as the reinvention of the moral hero, of the hero that even thinking people can admire. Rambo is the work of a mature filmmaker, of a filmmaker capable of reflecting not only on the world around him but on his own part in creating that world. For all its violence, the film is introspective and reflective and will prove to be, I think, the best action movie of this year.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Review :: There Will Be Blood

There are some movies that make criticism seem inadequate.

I think of art and criticism as two complementary modes of thought, one the implicit and the suggestive and the other the explicit and argumentative. Art is the warm and breathing form of the human; it's our desires and our emotions given shape. Criticism is the cold and precise surgeon's scalpel, cutting away the tissue of imagination to see how it all fits together. Criticism is neither violence nor murder, however; rather, criticism is like an anatomy of the human mind. Together, art and criticism form a hermeneutical synthesis: art meets criticism on the fields of thought and in between the two we grapple with our own minds and struggle to find meaning. The difficulty, however, is that it can be awkward to synthesize the two, since art and criticism speak entirely different languages. When criticism attempts to apprehend art, especially (as is the case in this article) the art of the moving picture, it must translate it, and in this translation something can easily be lost. For all its nuances, all its intricacies and precision, language language is cold and dead; it can often fail to contain, or even suggest, the majesty or elegance that can be evoked from even some of the most simple camera moves.

All of this is to say that I don't know what to say about Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. It is the kind of movie that can make criticism seem inadequate, that can make us feel like any attempt to dissect it with words were merely an awkward fumbling towards uncertainty. Several days have passed since I saw There Will Be Blood and I am still not certain what, if anything, I should say about it that would do the film justice. It is the kind of movie that other movies wish they could be. It is the end of cinema, cinema's apotheosis.

The fear that I was over-reacting, that I had somehow been caught up in a fever of generosity, is one of the factors that kept me from writing about There Will Be Blood the moment I got home. I wanted and needed time to reflect on what the film had made me feel. In the theatre, with the sounds and images of Paul Thomas Anderson's genius surrounding me, I felt I was witnessing something that hadn't been seen since Kubrick - the limits of narrative cinema. Now, upon reflection, I think I still feel the same way.

There Will Be Blood is a story of madness. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a self-made oil tycoon; Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday, the self-appointed cult mouthpiece for the Church of the Third Revelation. When the discovery of oil brings Plainview to Sunday's church, the two begin a rivalry that will span decades and that could ultimately destroy them both.

That's about as much as I want to say about the film's plot. It's not a complicated movie. Like King Lear or several of the films of either Stanley Kubrick (Lolita or Eyes Wide Shut) or Werner Herzog (Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo), There Will Be Blood's power and grandeur are borne from simplicity, from a mythic and terrifying depiction of human desire and ambition turned violent and self-destructive. The terror that we feel while watching Day-Lewis' Plainview isn't the terror of the unknown or the alien but the terror of recognition, of seeing our own mundane and all-too-human capacity for madness.

This is without doubt Paul Thomas Anderson's finest film to date. I loved Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, but those films only hinted at the genius that Anderson displays in There Will Be Blood. With this film, Anderson evolves from artist to visionary. The change in Anderson's work here is like the transformation in Ingmar Bergman between Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal, or in David Cronenberg between Scanners and Videodrome. Anderson has stepped up from being good and has become great. It's breathtaking to think that Anderson is still young.

I could go on. I could rave like a lunatic. I could throw more words at There Will Be Blood and hope that some of them are appropriate or adequate. I won't, however. The film is still too vital in my mind, still too alive to properly dissect. I've mostly talked my way around the movie, talked more about my experience of the movie then about the movie itself. The most I can say is this: I've seen the best of film. I've seen Kubrick and Kurosawa, Lynch and Herzog. Now I've seen Anderson. And as far as I'm concerned, he ranks with the greats. He's standing on the shoulders of giants and becoming a giant himself.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mini-Review :: Juno

For the most part, I try to keep my reviews fairly formal. I don't want merely to restate a film's plot or simply to devise clever ways of simply saying "I think this" or " it's rubbish." I review films as if they are works of art and literature that demand or require intellectual responses... at least, I hope I do. But this, I suppose, means that I limit the kinds of movies I want to review (of course, I reviewed both Live Free or Die Hard and Halloween on this site so obviously a movie doesn't need to be intelligent to warrant an intellectual response). It also means that unless a movie provokes me, either positively or negatively, I don't really have anything to say about it.

Which brings me to Juno. Juno is a fantastic film filled to the brim with those elusive qualities we like to call "heart" and "quirk," not not so full of either of them as to be too sentimental or too pretentious. It's tender and it's human. For better or for worse, however, that's all I can come up with to say about it. Ellen Page's performance is pitch-perfect and is a beautiful combination of strength and vulnerability and Jason Reitman's direction is remarkably solid, always ironically flirting with indie cliches and yet remaining self-aware enough to avoid them. That's it. I loved the film but have nothing of real substance to say about it, at least not yet. There are a million other reviews of this film out there, most of them raving, so I'll just leave it at this: go see it.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Essay :: History and Civilization in Heart of Darkness

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote on Heart of Darkness. It doesn't necessarily represent my own thoughts on the subject but it is, I think, accurate to what Joseph Conrad was saying in his novella. Enjoy.

History is too large a topic and too large a word simply to throw around. The word needs to be limited, defined, its scope narrowed, before it can become an effective hermeneutical tool. In this essay, history will refer to the story that people tell themselves about themselves, to the reported story of human events rather than to a scientific or otherwise objective account of events; it will be treated as a theme, as something Joseph Conrad is interested in discussing and commenting upon in Heart of Darkness. The study and representation of history is one of humanity’s chief ways of understanding itself. In this way, history is very similar to, and functions in much the same way as, a myth, that is, an informative and identity-creating story.

Unfortunately, Conrad’s treatment of history in Heart of Darkness is rather cynical and unflattering; it tends to uncoil history and to reveal an ugly truth that is living inside of it. If it is true that history is written by the victors than history, like economics, is very much the tool of the ruling class, an ideological broadsword used rather inelegantly to hack and bludgeon into submission those who would challenge authority. This means, then, that history is probably largely artificial, a construct laid over the consciousness of a people in order to control them. History exists only in the human mind, a point Conrad seems to make very early on in the novella. The unknown narrator, before Marlow even speaks, contemplates time and the image of the river Thames and says, “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth? … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.” The river, and perhaps the whole earth, is indifferent to time; it stands still and simply is while people scurry about, build and collapse empires, and pass away.

In the novella, history and time are tied to civilization and to progress. London is emblematically the present and represents all the achievements and glories of civilized humanity; the jungle is the past, it is nature in its purest form, devoid of human subjection and control. The Thames, however, flows through London, reminding the unknown narrator that all of this, all of civilization, merely stands rather precariously on the edge an all-consuming jungle ready to retake what was taken from it the moment that civilization falters. William Blake said that where man is not nature is barren; Conrad seems to agree, but only to an extent. Nature will inevitably reclaim that which belongs to it and is careless of humanity’s so-called achievements. Nature is not domesticated by civilization and time, it is merely temporarily caged by it.

This combination of time and civilization means, however, that by stepping out of civilization one is also stepping out of time or at least stepping backwards inside of it. Indeed, this is exactly how Marlow describes the journey to Kurtz, as a peeling back not only of civilization but also of time. He says, “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.” By stepping back in time and out of civilization, Kurtz and even Marlow open themselves up to see who they really are; they cut themselves off from whatever “humanizing” influence civilization may have and risk losing themselves in nature, in the basest and most savages impulses of “purified” human nature, nature that is without the guiding and restraining influence of history. Marlow feels this movement, feels the change happening around and inside of him as they travel back in time along the Congo. He says, in what really amounts to a scathing critique of human achievement, “We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign-and no memories.” The creation of identity afforded to humanity by time and history is, Marlow discovers and Conrad suggests, largely illusory and artificial. History is a fence thrown up in the hopes of stopping an eternal tide, a self-deception that allows us to function as a society but which may crumble the moment we venture outside of our permitted bounds.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

"The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?