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Month: January 2011

Winner Takes All

Plowing through Oscar-nominated films for the next few weeks.  So it was time to see The Social Network (is that title a pun on The Facebook?).  I had avoided it in theaters because it sounded so dull, but the miracle is how much David Fincher does visually with this cliched and overtold story. The pacing and rhythm are beautifully executed, and timed to match both score and plot. Sometimes the film takes it time: as in the detour to England to watch Mark Zuckerberg’s alter egos, the Winkelvoss twins, race in the Henley Regatta.

The scene only serves to inform the twins that Zuckerberg’s Facebook has made it to Europe….a fact the audience already knows. So what is it doing there? It shows us the elite world Zuckerberg rejected in dropping out of Harvard; it shows us a literal race to match the metaphorical races to finish coding and get a product to market; and (paradoxically) those pulling oars slow the film down, briefly, between snatches of frenetic cutting to speeding music. It shows how some races can be so close that they are won almost by chance. This scene does all that while keeping us in almost constant motion with the crew. Their faces heave toward and away from us, as we see the race from every point of view.  It works.

Most of the film cuts back and forth between the development of Facebook and the lawsuits it spawned later, when the twins and Eduardo Saverin sued for their contributions to the company. The alternating structure is very effective.  It is what makes a suspenseless story about an unlikeable guy into a watchable film. Of course, this is made by David Fincher, who is not only a great storyteller and action director, but also a master stylist.  The film has a beautiful quality, with a soft, smeary focus and the reddish-greenish palette of glowing computer screens.  Perhaps that is due to using digital video, but perhaps that is just Fincher’s keen eye.

[Speaking of eyes, check out the cool blog post about this film on David Bordwell’s blog….]


Greenberg (2010), Focus Features.

I am still working my way through Roger Ebert’s Best of 2010 list.  This weekend I got to Noah Baumbach’s unprepossessing Greenberg, which is technically on Ebert’s Second Ten Best List….  The movie got little attention when it came out, and one can see how hard it would be to market. Ben Stiller cranky and unlikeable? No plot to speak of? No female name-brand star?  The film trudges uphill as perversely as Roger Greenberg in this film still: he is a man in L.A. who can no longer drive a car. Yet the film is good: well written, very well performed. with its own quiet charm. Baumbach was not nearly as understated in his first success, The Squid and the Whale, as he is here, where nothing gets “explained” or “worked out.” The main characters–Greenberg, his brother’s personal assistant, and his college buddy–struggle through complicated, enmeshed relationships with credible awkwardness and grace.  Their actors–Stiller, Greta Gerwig, and Rhys Ifans, respectively–deliver subtle, complex performances.  Stiller is an especial surprise since we think we know him already.  Here he is physically changed, his whole body slumped, his manic energy mostly tamed. He holds on to just enough charm to make you believe that these people put up with him.

The film begins, somewhat perversely too, by following Greta Gerwig’s character around on her odyssey of errands in L.A.  The camera stays close to her face, but she is utterly unselfconscious.  At the steering wheel, she turns to face us.  “Will you let me in?” she asks an unseen driver.  Yes!  She celebrates.  Then, later, again: “will you let me in?”  No, not this time.  She sighs.  The scene seems a microcosm of the film as a whole: as difficult and unpredictable as Greenberg himself, but earning its tiny triumphs.

Eye Candy

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Black Swan makes more sense now that I’ve seen more of Darren Aronofsky’s work.  Requiem for a Dream (2000) explodes with so many visual pyrotechnics that it is hard to focus on anything else. The shots are beautifully composed: for an example, look at the circular frame of papers behind the characters in the shot at right and how their arms counterbalance each other. Aronofsky is attentive to every visual detail. The palette, the angles, the special effects all effectively reinforce the same drug-induced perspective that intensifies as the film progresses.

When the characters do drugs we get a flash of close ups–a flame, blood cells, pupils dilating– with a rhythmic popping to emphasize the transition to dream state. But these characters do a lot of drugs and after a while the eye candy gets tiresome, even exhausting. There is so much to look at that it’s hard to think about plot or character. That may have been true for Aronofsky as well because there isn’t much action or even conflict here. The characters descend into worse and worse addictions, which results in some over-the-top humiliations. Black Swan marks progress then: its nightmarish fantasy world is more grounded and there is a strong story, even if the ending is still melodramatic. Requiem for a Dream is worth seeing for its strong performances and visual creativity, but there’s not much else going on.

Slow and Steady

Focus Features, 2010.

The customer reviews on Amazon for The American (Corbijn, 2010) are wildly polarized. Half of its viewers give it one star and call it “slow” and “booooring!” The other half love it and compare it to classic French film. Roger Ebert put it on his best of 2010 list, though critics mostly overlooked it. Intrigued?

The movie is indeed slow. Although it has a thriller plot (assassin is forced to lie low in a picturesque spot while his enemies hunt him down) and a few action sequences, the film moves at a deliberate, cautious pace that matches the extreme self-control of its hero, played by George Clooney. This clip captures some of the pacing and tight focus that the director Anton Corbijn uses to turn what could have been standard Hollywood fare into something visually and structurally interesting. It’s a small scene, but it carries weight, as the ending will reveal. “Jack,” played with admirable understatement by Clooney, is so tightly wound, so unrelentingly professional that his smallest human gesture seems momentous. The screenplay by Rowan Joffe shows this off nicely, with the barest minimum of dialogue.

The shots are just as carefully composed as the story and performances. The film begins with a broad panorama of a snowy Swedish landscape. The camera moves gradually toward a house under the trees and establishes its ground rules: no fast cutting, no hand held cameras, long takes. There are some wonderful moments of editing too — like one where a killing takes place during a cut, in the gap between shots. This is visual storytelling at its best: elegant, spare, and surprising. The American will find its audience slowly but surely.

New Endings

I’d like to inaugurate the new beginning of the year and my blog with a piece about endings.  What follows is a new direction for me, but one that is continuous with my earlier readings of photographs.  This year I will post short, essay-like reviews of films –some recent, some less so–that come out of my teaching, writing, and thinking about texts and images.

And now, the endings….

Endings are tricky in all sequential arts.  Time doesn’t stop, but the artwork must, and it must stop without feeling random.  A satisfying ending should emerge from  what already happened, but also extend it somewhere new.  Even more than beginnings, endings point in two directions, though the signpost into the future is more of an ellipsis, a … that trails off “into the sunset.”  It’s a precarious balancing act and the last three films I saw failed at it in one way or the other.