Monthly archives of “February 2015

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Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino (2012)

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It’s funny–the memories I have of Inglorious Basterds don’t align much with what it turns out, upon investigation, I wrote about it. My memory of it was that it made a cartoon of Nazism, which discomfited me. I also remember arguing with my friend Harold about that; he enjoyed the catharsis of the comic revenge fantasy, and believed, if I recall correctly, that I was being a sanctimonious spoilsport and prig.

This is basically the same movie as Inglorious Basterds, except this time the comic revenge fantasy is directed at slavery instead of the Final Solution. Again we find Tarantino making extensive reference to B-movie history, ginning up auteur-esque gestures (e.g. a lengthy scene where Django’s mentor explains the difference between playing a character and being a self), completely failing to demonstrate a capacity to edit himself (this thing could have been cut by a third), and running through probably a hundred barrels of stage blood.

I tend when watching violent movies not to really see the blood. I don’t like blood, for one thing, and for another its appearance in a film is usually just a kind of notation, signifying that violence has occurred. Do you notice whether it’s a puddle the size of a pancake or a puddle the size of a manhole? I don’t — who cares? But you can’t miss Tarantino’s blood any more than you could fail to notice the lights on the Sunset Strip. It doesn’t trickle or ooze, it explodes in Hawaiian-Punch-colored geysers. Look on the poster — it’s everywhere!

Despite its striving after effects and affect, and its predictably cartoonish, weirdly pornographic vision of slavery, I enjoyed this. Harold was right; there’s some shameful but deep atavistic pleasure in seeing the hero tortured and knowing the torturer, within the hour, is going to meet an elaborately painful end.

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Boyhood, Richard Linklater (2014)

BOYHOOD - 2014 FILM STILL - Ellar Coltrane

Childhood memories are like dreams: They reveal a lot about you, but they’re generally of interest only to you, those who love you more than is healthy, and those you pay $200 an hour. I couldn’t stand Linklater’s Sunrise and Sunset and Around Sunset and Getting Close to Sunrise movies–wait, is Twilight one of his too?–because while I recognized and identified with the emotional situations of the characters, I didn’t see any reason why I should pay money to marinate in their garden-variety self-delusions and poetic fantasies when I had my own perfectly serviceable picayune memories of youthful joy and disappointment to savor back at home. This has always been Linklater’s jam, to take my own Gen X experience and put it on the screen for me to review. I guess people a lot younger or older than me might find this stuff more novel? But that would be to assume that my generation is somehow unique, which I don’t really believe. I was living in Austin when Slacker came out, and it was totally weird to go see it there on the UT campus, with an audience who looked, felt, and smelled pretty much exactly the same as the cast on the screen. In a very real sense the movie was watching us, not the other way around. In Boyhood, Linklater wisely goes further back and picks up his protagonist around age six, well before he becomes completely annoying and starts saying things like, “What really matters in life, and what’s life anyway, and really when you think about it, what’s matter?” and “Don’t bogart that.” All adolescences are unhappy, and unhappy in almost identical ways, but unhappy childhoods are a bit more diverse and distinctive. As a result, I’m able to hang with this, interested and sympathetic, for about the first two-thirds, right up until the kid gets some hair on his upper lip and starts taking arty photos. Beyond that point, I’m better off stalking my own half-remembered crushes on the Internet or going out to take arty photos my own damn self. The scenes of adolescence, don’t get me wrong, are precisely, devastatingly accurate. The bit at the house under construction, five boys sitting around in terror of each other, sex, the past, sex, the future, sex, and above all themselves, desperate to be accepted and experienced, oblivious to the fact that time is passing, is pitch perfect. But so too would be a YouTube video of someone else’s root canal. Once was enough.

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Gone Girl, David Fincher (2014)

gone.girl_.thm_ Because they do extraordinarily strange things, the characters in this thriller, I can’t help but assume, must have very complex psychologies. But the movie remains focused on the strange things they do, rather than the complex reasons they do them. So instead of coming away with a sense of having plumbed the depths of an interesting psyche, I come away thinking something along the lines of, well, that was weird. I can’t really even get too heated up about the movie’s misogyny, since its objects seem more cartoons than actual women, its perpetrators more cardboard than actual men.

In fairness, the idea that extreme behavior and situations—rough sex, murder, obsession, Missouri—are regularly figured in our culture as sensations to be rubbernecked at while we flick through the channels (the movie’s absolute best moment is a winking tracking shot near the very end which focuses briefly on the satellite dish atop the antagonists’ soulless suburban home), rather than human phenomena worthy of thoughtful analysis, is part of the movie’s raison d’être. Or at least I’m guessing that’s what David Fincher is telling himself.

But while the critique of Nancy Grace’s style of serial sensationalist indignation is present, it’s not the main event here. The main event is the psychotic, beautiful, brilliant bitch everyone still loves to hate, these thirty-odd years since Glenn Close killed and boiled that rabbit, these three-thousand-odd since Helen launched those ships.

Movies to watch instead of this one:

Fury, Fritz Lang (1936). Spencer Tracy > Ben Affleck.

To Die For, Gus Van Sant (1995). Still my favorite movie about TV, I think.

Caché, Michael Haneke (2005). About the same amount of blood, but a good deal more significance.

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Lucy, Luc Besson (2014)

Beginning with La Femme Nikita, in 1990, Luc Besson has done one thing for twenty-five years. He puts beautiful vulnerable young women in mortal danger, and then he gives them the power to annihilate their enemies. It’s his kink. I suppose you have to admire the consistency.

This one’s garbage.  At least back in 1990 you got a little Jeanne Moreau to add some depth to the fluff. The Obi Wan role this time goes to Morgan Freeman. He must have spent days on set staring wide-eyed in amazement at a green screen, since about 65% of this movie is CGI nonsense. (Do you know what she’s doing in that picture up there? No, she is not playing a laser harp. No, she is not checking out an awesome fiber-optic lamp at Spencer Gifts. She’s seeing the matrix, dude! She’s seeing it!) Even with all the padding Besson can’t quite 90 minutes out of his plodding and novelty-free script; you’ll get 89 only, and lucky you.

Oh weird, I just noticed there’s a another picture of this actress just a few posts down from this one. A lot of what I said there goes double here. Both times out, Johansson is at once all-powerful and completely without human affect. Why would filmmakers think a character with those characteristics would be engaging for audiences? Discuss.

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber (2011)

debtI don’t often read 400-page books on economic history, but this one had me thoroughly engaged the whole way. I don’t think it can really be summarized, and I won’t try. I underlined about a third of this book and I think my annotated copy itself will have to stand as my notes. I will write down one idea that has continued to rattle in my head since finishing the book.

Contrary to common belief, there’s nothing immoral about being in debt. Indeed, being in debt to someone is a way to maintain a human connection to them. If I loan my neighbor a couple eggs one week, and the next week she brings me some of the cookies she baked with them, and then I mow her lawn for her because she broke her ankle, and then she watches my cat while I’m away for the weekend, we are in a healthy pattern of recurring indebtedness to one another. Note that the inexactness of the “repayments” helps to keep the relationship going. If I loan my neighbor a couple eggs, and the next day she brings me back a couple eggs, I’ve been repaid exactly, but what else has happened? Our relationship is severed. Graeber provides examples of some cultures where it’s considered quite rude to pay a debt back exactly. In effect, you’re saying “I don’t want to have a relationship with you any more.” So people in this cultures will deliberately over- or under-repay debts, so as to keep the relationship going.

I’d never thought about debt that way before. Obviously my mortgage lender doesn’t think about it that way, either, right? Our mutual goal, on the contrary, would appear to be to get to the end of our relationship, by me paying back the money I owe on my house. But wait — is that really the bank’s goal as well as mine? If everyone paid all the banks back, all at once, everything they were owed, why would the banks continue to exist? The bank insists on being paid back, but it also never wants to be completely paid back. How does it survive that fundamental existential contradiction? This book, among many other things, is a long answer to that short question.