Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inglourious Allusions

One of the things that most fascinated me about Inglourious Basterds was how seamlessly integrated and evocative the allusions to other movies were, which is not something I've ever before accused Tarantino of pulling off. There are now a number of lists floating around the web that try and catalogue all these references, and this one seems to be the most ambitious. A lot of them are a bit of a stretch (just because it resembles a movie in theme doesn't imply an intentional reference), but if you've seen the film it is a pretty interesting read.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

(Re)Writing History With Lightning: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino is undoubtedly a polarizing filmmaker, but I can’t say I’ve ever been that consistently strong of an apologist for him or critic against him. Simply put, some of his movies are really good (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), and some are outright terrible (Death Proof, Jackie Brown). I will say that, not unlike a lot of guys my age, I was completely enamored with his work when I was 15, but since then he’s become more of a curiosity than anything. Which is part of why I was so pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds, his wickedly funny, expertly shot, and oddly philosophical new film. Watching this movie was like (to use an aspect of its plot) being bashed over the head by Tarantino’s love for cinema with a baseball bat. And I somehow mean that in a good way. When it was over, I found myself remembering why I used to think this guy was a genius.

One of the big criticisms of Tarantino, which I myself have been wont to employ, is that he’s more concerned with winking at his audience about the cleverness of his dialogue and dropping references to 70s trash cinema than he is with telling a decent story. His movies always reflect a unique and refined taste, but never in a way that adds up to anything truly worthwhile for the purposes of the script. But with this film, I think he’s finally made a movie that reverberates--hell, radiates-- with his love for cinema in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to the larger point of his story. Whereas movies like Death Proof and Kill Bill ventured into the realms of lazy pastiche and outright thievery, with Inglourious Basterds it seems like Tarantino has finally made something truly original out of his influences, a movie not just informed by other movies but about them in the grandest sense possible.

This isn’t to say that he doesn’t still have an inveterate penchant for name-dropping. In addition to meeting Churchill and the whole Nazi high command, we get mentions of Chaplin, Max Linder, G.W. Pabst, Henri Georges Clouzot, King Kong (in one of the film’s best scenes), Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and even a cameo from Emil Jannings. But these pop culture references are imbued with a meaning that wasn’t present in the idle chatter of even something like Pulp Fiction. Take the Clouzot reference, which we get when we see the French auteur’s name on the marquee of a movie theatre showing Le Corbeau. As I mentioned in my discussion of it a few days past, Le Corbeau is a movie with a huge amount of social significance to Vichy France, as Clouzot was later accused of being a traitor simply for making it. The fact that it makes an appearance in Inglourious Basterds just before a scene in which a French woman is drawn into an involuntary collaboration with the Nazis is certainly no coincidence. It’s a rare instance of one of Tarantino’s references being added in the service of his movie rather than at its expense, and throughout the film we get countless delightfully obscure moments like this. They add an invaluable amount to the story as a whole, which, as Glen Kenny recently mentioned on his blog, is told with a remarkable economy in no more than sixteen(!) extended scenes.

I’m convinced that the reason this style works so well is because Inglourious Basterds is a period piece, which forces Tarantino to ground his references in a certain time and place. Getting out of his trademark So-Cal milieu was probably the best thing he could have done for his work, and he seems to embrace the shadowy cellars and wide open fields of the French countryside with real relish. His visual style here is impeccable, making effective and often hilarious use of cut-scenes, fantasy sequences, camera moves, and cross-cutting to make a movie that is made up of small moments that add up to way more than the sum of their parts. Say what you will about the guy, but there’s no denying Tarantino has improved as a visual storyteller with every film he's made. Here we get several scenes of wickedly drawn-out suspense (most notably the scene in the tavern) that display a masterful control of pacing and language. As for the dialogue, it’s as sharp and idiosyncratic as ever, especially when it’s being delivered by Brad Pitt (whose shamelessly terrible Tennessee accent provides all of the movie’s funniest moments) or Christoph Waltz (who deserves the Oscar nod he’ll undoubtedly get for playing the gentlemanly sociopath Col. Hans Landa). I could have done without the somewhat annoying Eli Roth as the baseball bat-wielding “Bear Jew,” or the often intentionally anachronistic music, but these are small complaints, and outside of a few unusual moments (a montage set to David Bowie?!), the score is actually a real pleasure to listen to.

The big debate among critics on this film seems to be whether or not it’s disrespectful toward the struggles and atrocities of WWII, and many reviewers have dismissed it as outright offensive. Whether or not the idea of creating a revisionist revenge fantasy about the Nazis is in bad taste is another argument for another day. I’m not sure it’s an issue that Tarantino is even that concerned with, as there are much more interesting, less polarizing ideas in play. To my mind, the real statement here is self-referential and self-reflexive. This is a film not just built from other films, but literally about the cinema and its role as a social and historical tool. As has already been said by many others, Tarantino seems to be using film as a means of exorcising the demons of history in order to rewrite it with a perversely violent and oddly triumphant vigilante ending. But there’s even more going on than that. All of Tarantino’s movies play like love-letters to the cinema, but Inglourious Basterds takes it to a new level and tells us not just what movies the director is into but why he loves movies in general. Consider a scene near the end of the film where a woman guns down a man in a projectionist’s booth, only to look at the movie screen and see his face still flickering there in some kind of momentary immortality. And then for him to seemingly rise from the dead directly afterward, almost as though the magic of cinema is enough to be able to bring him back to life. It’s perhaps the film’s best moment, and it’s a huge statement about the power of movies not only to re-write history, but to have a hand in creating it (it’s no surprise that a propaganda film is at the center of the story). Whole articles and Masters theses could be (and probably will be) undertaken about the meaning of such a scene, and it takes a true love of cinema to even recognize it, let alone to have written it. For what it’s worth, I have trouble thinking of any other modern American director who could or would create a moment like that.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Alive In Joberg

District 9 was finally released yesterday, and so far it's been getting some pretty stellar reviews. The movie is based on an excellent short film called Alive In Joberg that director Neill Blomkamp made a few years back. Everyone's probably seen it by now, but if you're like me and are always behind the times on this stuff, then check it out. If District 9 is half as interesting as this film, it's sure to be worth seeing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Kids These Days...

There's a great post called "young and dumb versus old and in the way" currently up on film critic Glenn Kenny's consistently interesting blog Some Came Running. It dovetails nicely with my ramblings about the culture industry from a few days ago and this whole idea that, as Kenny implies, culture isn't necessarily any more in jeopardy now than it's ever been. I'm not sure if I truly buy that argument, but it's an interesting read nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sleep Dealer (2009)

Sam Peckinpah once remarked that he made Westerns because they were the best medium through which to comment on the state of the modern world. Watching his movies, it’s easy to see his point, but I would argue that science fiction is an even more effective genre for delivering social commentary. I think that Alex Rivera, whose excellent film Sleep Dealer follows a collection of marginalized Mexican workers who literally “jack in” to the world economy to remotely do the jobs Americans won’t, would probably agree with me. The film uses the speculative nature of its eerily familiar backdrop to make an expansive statement on the future of technology and the world economy. Working on a shoestring budget, Rivera has managed to create one of the most cutting, hypnotic, and worryingly plausible science fiction films I’ve seen in some time, and along with the recent Moon, Sleep Dealer bodes well for the future of the genre.

One of the first SF films that truly fits the bill of being “cyberpunk,” Sleep Dealer takes place in a dystopic near future that resembles something William Gibson might have dreamed up. In Rivera’s future world, first world nations like the U.S. have been completely walled off from Mexico, where the story takes place, and multinational corporations have taken a controlling interest in natural resources. The story follows Memo, a young man who lives with his family in a small Mexican village where the water supply is managed by one of these nameless companies. When his father is killed by fighter plane drones that protect the company’s interests, Memo is forced to become a new kind of itinerant worker. Distraught and vaguely desiring revenge, he heads for the border town of Tijuana, a technological dust heap where migrant workers get their bodies implanted with “nodes” that allow them to jack in to a worldwide network and perform blue collar jobs across the border. Soon, Memo is regularly working at a “sleep dealer”-- the slang term for the companies that set up the jobs-- and remotely building skyscrapers hundreds of miles away in San Diego.

The social implications of the story are patent, but Rivera is good about letting his character’s struggle speak for itself. The film never becomes too didactic, and what little reference it makes to the modern day is exceedingly clever. For example, when Memo’s sort-of girlfriend, Luz (a futuristic writer who makes her living selling virtual reality recreations of her memories on the internet), takes him to get some illegally implanted nodes, the guy who puts them in is called a “coyotech,” a shrewd allusion to the modern coyotes who lead immigrants across the border. Rivera uses small details like this one to help immerse the viewer in his future world. The film uses extensive narration from Memo, which does allow it to cut some corners, but overall Rivera is quite adept at using small bits of set design, editing, and clips from fake TV shows (Memo finds out about his father’s death by catching it on a reality TV show that follows the exploits of drone fighter pilots) to quickly establish the world he’s trying to create.

Sleep Dealer’s
special effects certainly aren’t going to win it any awards, but they are completely serviceable. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they so quickly draw the viewer into this world that you aren’t likely to notice the effects aren’t ILM-worthy. In many ways, the budgetary constraints here have shaped the movie in a positive way. Rivera’s future world is gritty, organic, and oddly familiar (Blade Runner comes to mid), which gives everything a touch of immediacy and surreality. Too many science fiction films give us an antiseptic and metallic world completely different from our own, but the world of Sleep Dealer is just different enough to sell the future premise, and just familiar enough to let the ideas really hit home. Rivera’s world is one augmented by technology but not completely transformed by it. Characters in Mexico still drive cars, farm vegetables, and work outside, but they do so amid the constant glow of flat screen TVs and holographic computer screens.

Sleep Dealer
has been criticized for being a small story about ordinary people in the service of a wider critique of political, social, and technological issues instead of vice versa. It's true that the story is relatively A-to-B, but never in a way that becomes boring or trite. Like the world it presents, this is a film that prizes experience and atmosphere above all else, and Rivera does such a great job of building his environment that it helps to carry the story along in its wake. As for the commentary, this is not a film that overtly preaches to its audience or falls into the realm of polemic. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like the best science fiction, Sleep Dealer is more concerned with asking questions than it is with providing answers or making statements. Thankfully the questions it asks--about the moral implications of immigration policy, the possible effects of mass globalization, and the price a society pays for prizing technological “connectivity” at the expense of personal relationships-- are endlessly fascinating.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Culture Industry

Going back and re-reading some of the film criticism from the 1920s and 30s is always an interesting experiment. If anything, it’s fascinating to see how prescient guys like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin were with regard to the possible directions film could take. From the very beginning, cultural critics (many of them Marxists) were arguing about the problematic nature of film as a cultural tool. Especially troubling to some of these critics was the cinema’s propensity to be used as some kind of mass marketing device that would homogenize culture and encourage complacency and conformism. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’re still having this debate today, perhaps more with regards to television than film, but these critics were writing before the television was even invented. The similarities are still there, though. Ask anyone who doesn’t own a television why and they’re likely to cite a very similar argument.

It is pretty compelling, though, to see that from the very start of sound film people were worried about its cultural placement as a product. Because of financing and other monetary constraints involved in getting a movie made, critics were concerned that film would never be able to be as “difficult” a medium as literature. Here, they weren’t able to anticipate that digital technology eventually would make it easy for anyone with a credit card to start making art films in their garage, but this is another issue that’s still alive and well in contemporary film culture. Every film snob in the world (myself included) has at some point lamented the way movies have become so mass-produced and easy to swallow, and they often point back to the golden age of cinema as a better, simpler time. If reading the criticism of the early 30s (or taking one look at the old studio system) proves anything, it’s that this belief is completely misguided, because before narrative film had even come into its own, people were already complaining about the lack of real artistry and the tendency to avoid taking risks. These critics, in particular a group known as “The Frankfurt School,” even had a name for it: The Culture Industry. This applied to all pop culture in general, but it seems to fit film and television the best. In short, it means a constructed culture full of mass-produced and palatable copies of the real, spontaneous art that springs from “average” people (again, most of these guys were Marxists). Take what you will from it, but to imagine that people were making these kinds of claims in a world before Transformers 2 and “Must-See TV” is pretty amazing, and you can only wonder what they’d be saying if they were still around today.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Le Trou (1960)

French films from the fifties have always held much more of a fascination for me than those of the New Wave. Filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, and Resnais undoubtedly made huge contributions to cinema, but they often did so at the expense of telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, I love many of their films, and had I been around in 1960 I would have championed them as much as anyone else. But from a modern perspective, it seems they reach a point of experimentation that now seems a bit tedious, and many of their films, unclassifiable as they are, seem oddly dated. This has never been the case with the class of filmmakers that directly preceded them. Directors like Jean Pierre Melville, Henri Georges Clouzot, Robert Bresson, and Jacques Becker were taking equally bold stylistic risks in the 1950s, but they always did so in the service of their narrative. Whereas Truffaut and Godard eventually just made films about film, movies like A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Les Diaboliques, Bob Le Flambeur, and The Wages of Fear were all about process and experience. They detailed the ways people would go to extremes in order to survive, and they were always just as entertaining as they were inventive and political.

Case in point: Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (The Hole). One of the all-time great prison break movies, this film revels in the details of the ways five Parisian convicts plot and scheme to escape from their jail cell. Le Trou is based on a true story, and in a bold move, Becker even cast one of the actual participants in the real-life jailbreak to play a character in the film. The rest of the cast were all nonprofessionals as well (some of whom would go on to have respectable acting careers), but you wouldn’t know it to watch the film. If anything, the lack of dramatic training is what makes these characters, who are cool and professional to the core, seem so believable.

Becker’s fascination with the minutiae of prison life and the small details of the prisoners’ plan pervades the whole film. It’s all a part of the preoccupation with the process of performing complex and dangerous tasks that seems to be a running theme of filmmakers like he and Clouzot. Here we get to bear witness to every small part of the convicts' scheme, from the way they build a periscope from a tooth brush and a shattered piece of glass so they can spy back on the guards, to how they construct an hour glass with sand smuggled from one of the guards’ ashtrays in order to keep track of time. Beyond these tasks, their days are filled with the monotony of prison life, which sees them assembling boxes, sleeping, and eating food sent to them by their relatives (there’s a great early scene of the prison’s inspector expertly and shamelessly cutting apart one prisoner’s items to check them for contraband), but at night they band together to institute an ingenious and very audacious escape plan.

In the early running, Becker maintains an airtight control of space and pacing, to the point that it seems many of the scenes play out in real time. This is one of the most-discussed aspects of Le Trou and Becker’s filmmaking in general, what has been called his seamless “control of temporality.” Here, he uses it to immerse the viewer in the gargantuan task these men create for themselves, and from the very beginning of the breakout there is a palpable sense of tension. Take, for example, the first step of the plan, which requires the men to hammer through the stone floor of their cell in order to reach a tunnel directly beneath it. As the men take turns chiseling the floor of their cell with a crudely fashioned hammer, Becker simply lets his camera roll, eventually creating a four-minute take of the floor being broken apart. The effect is that we become completely immersed in their struggle as though we are the sixth member of the team, and Becker’s refusal to cut away to show the guards just outside the cell only heightens the suspense. This stress-inducing scene is only the beginning of a massive undertaking that will see the men tunnel through rock, file metal bars, pick locks, and chisel through cement, and all while avoiding roving guard patrols.

Le Trou
culminates in a stunning sequence of two of the men finally making their way to the city’s surface and getting a glimpse of the Paris street and the outside of the prison walls. It’s an amazing and evocative sequence, considering how hermetically sealed the film’s environment has been up to this point, and it speaks volumes about the film’s themes of freedom, responsibility, and loyalty, especially since the two then return to the prison in order to collect the rest of the group. What follows is a painfully nerve-wracking ending that hits about as hard as any you’re likely to see.

Le Trou was the last film made by Becker, who died shortly after filming, and its release in 1960 coincided with that of Godard’s Breathless and the start of the New Wave. Directors like Melville would continue the tradition of hard-boiled, realistic film that was started in the 40s and 50s, but it seems that Le Trou stands as a kind of turning point in French cinema. The bold style and medium-shattering experiments that followed were certainly a necessary step in film history, but it does seem a shame that the tradition of taut, athletic films like Le Trou was briefly lost along the way.