An oldie, but one I'm quite proud of...

When the king holds court, he is not to be disturbed. And so it is for oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, becoming richer by the second as his derricks pump black gold from the veins of the California earth, when Holy Roller Eli Sunday walks quietly but determinedly up to him midway through There Will Be Blood. Earlier in the film, Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) promises Sunday (Paul Dano) $5,000 for the coffers of the young preacher's church in return for the liquid that surges and pools beneath the land; despite the gusher he quickly hits, Plainview fails to pay up, and Sunday has come for his money. The beating that ensues is one-sided, to say the least: Plainview knocks Sunday to the ground with resounding blows to the face, the evangelist recoiling until he finds himself backed into a pit of muddy, sludgy oil. Plainview literally rubs Sunday's face in it, humiliating him by shoving fistfuls of this unholy ointment into his mouth. He chokes off Sunday's own formidable power, his spooky whisper, until it is a desperate gargle.
Various critics have written of There Will Be Blood's innumerable cinematic influences — Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, even 2001: A Space Odyssey — but the words that popped into my head watching this drubbing were about another film, one that Anderson himself has said was an influence.
The fighting isn't fast or fancy; no one's a quick draw or a sharpshooter. Instead, the fisticuffs are slow and awkward and unfailingly human; it's a sloppy fight, with men crawling on the ground and clawing at each other's legs. The other men stand idly by, watching these Americans make fools of themselves in a land they fail to understand. And though Dobbs and Curtin win the battle, there's no clear winner once the film's bigger picture emerges: The money they get from McCormick leads, almost fatefully, to their ruin.
I wrote that about the barroom brawl near the beginning of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but the description of the fight itself, and the consequences it breeds, seem equally applicable here. There Will Be Blood is, to be somewhat reductive, about battles: capitalism against Christianity, optimism against pessimism, past against present, gangster against Westerner. There may be a clear winner at first sight, but Anderson's epic bristles with layers of meaning, densely allusive and fiercely, almost willfully, strange. In the end, it seems, the film foresees both kings "fast finishing," and watching the violent descent allows a glimpse into America's very own heart of darkness.

For the full article: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/60/60bloodbrennan.html

Along the Ground

Between the broken foothills of Signal, Wyoming and the dry, flat plains of northern Texas, cramped towns periodically dot the landscape, not so much erupting out of it as clutching it tight, holding steadfast to dying hopes tied up in the land. Alongside the magnificent vistas of Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), it is possible to find the decrepitude, intolerance and claustrophobia of a civilization releasing its last breath: the film's emotional Ground Zero is the close, grungy home of Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and his wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), shored up by wary glances and quiet desperation, the slate grays and dusty tans suggesting a place on the point of vanishing altogether. Though the gay romance at the heart of the film shatters the mold of the traditional Western — no men in white hats riding in to save the day, no Gary Cooper waiting around at high noon for the gauntlet to be thrown — its borderlands form the site where the genre's enduring themes inevitably clash, where individual freedom and social obligation, tenuous capitalism and Jeffersonian yeomanry, the fierce promise and final devastation of the American Dream, hit up against one another with irrevocable force. The musty, mothballed atmosphere of pained faces and mismatched clutter that Lee conjures in Ennis and Alma's tiny town may lack the grandeur of Monument Valley, but the hard-nosed ordinariness has a heft all its own. Brokeback Mountain is part of a decade-long spate of new, wide-ranging "Westerns," each exploring the notion that the West may no longer be the place recognizable from Stagecoach and Gunsmoke. But in films and television shows as divergent in tone and subject matter as 3:10 to Yuma and There Will Be Blood, Don't Come Knocking and No Country for Old Men, Deadwood, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Assassination of Jesse James, "The West" remains a vital idea, an organizing theme of the American self-conception, embodying hopes and disappointments clung to as fervently as the ground itself.

Read the rest: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/69/69newwesterns_brennan.php

Everything, and So Much of It

The lights go down, and in the projector's glow you can still make out the sheen of Brylcreem in his hair, still see, as he launches into the meat of his pitch, the easy confidence of a man who knows what he's doing. But there's something else here, too, some intimation of failure beneath the gleam of success. When he talks about Teddy, an aging Greek who mentored him in the long-ago days of copywriting for a fur company, his frequent pauses create the staccato rhythm of a man trying to catch his breath:

Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound" . . . It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called "The Wheel," it's called "The Carousel" — it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again, to a place we know we are loved.

Images of a family idyll — children climbing trees on some sunny weekend afternoon, husband and wife laughing over a shared hot dog — click on and off the conference room's vinyl projection screen. And so Don Draper's life flits gently past, like sand through the gaps in his fingers.

Set between the first wide distribution of the Pill and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the first three seasons of Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner) feel like an adaptation of The Tempest set before the characters wash ashore, except that we viewers already know the names of the rocky shoals ahead — Cuba, Oswald, Selma, Tet, Chicago — and watch for them as though still trying to steer clear. Unaware, Don (played with two parts sex appeal and one part menace by Jon Hamm) and his wife Betty (January Jones, at times so fragile and pale she seems on the point of vanishing), a picture-perfect suburban couple, find themselves up to their necks in anomie. Don's troubling grasp of just how painful the past can be is matched only by his wife's own grief, which she burrows into so deeply that she can only express it to a neighbor's 10-year-old son, holding his mittened hand. "Glen, I can't talk to anyone," she says, beginning to cry. "It's so horrible. I'm so sad . . . Please tell me I'll be okay." "I don't know," he replies. "I wish I was older."

For Don and Betty and Glen, as for secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and the other victims of the Eisenhower Snooze who roam the halls of ad agency Sterling Cooper, what one wants soundly trounces what one already has, despite/because of the fact that what each wants is far more difficult to get, and less easily explained. This is, as Betty Friedan famously termed it, "the problem that has no name." It arises not from poverty but from immense, unyielding comfort, like a bed from which you cannot get up. It is, in short, a feeling that life itself, amid luxuries unimaginable to one's parents, loses some vital part of its value. "I look at you and I think, 'I want what he has,'" Peggy tells Don. "You have everything, and so much of it."

What "everything" might entail is left unexplored, and maybe that's the point: modern America is a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side proposition, full of evidence that we're not making what we can out of what we've been given. The characters' struggle to move beyond the ennui of afternoon cocktails and idle affairs, to rediscover a better past, mirrors our own struggle to move forward with all that baggage on our back. In this country, fifty years on, we're still waiting for the time machine to bring the imagined idyll around again, desperately seeking something, anything, to salve the old wounds. And as goes the country, so goes its television: Mad Men's emotional thermostat seems to be set permanently at longing — longing for what we had (or believe we had) and lost, longing for what we hope to gain, longing sentimentally and longing with distress, longing stuck in the uncomfortable place between nostalgia and regret, where it becomes hard to tell whether the pain we feel stems from having once been happier than we are now, or from never having been happy at all.

See the rest: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/69/69madmen_brennan.php


Terrible Angels

One watches The Birth of a Nation from the present like a cop at a mob funeral: separated from its mournful agonies by an unbridgeable chasm, the fierce emotion at its center something we cannot share. Nearly a century after David Wark Griffith's historical epic emerged as the American cinema's first great lunge toward art, the funny-sad sight of Flora Cameron adding raw cotton appliqués to her burlap dress still carries with it a masterful balance of ruddy gentility and hopeful striving — we can sense it in Mae Marsh's wide, innocent eyes, in her childish belief that the war is just another game of pretend. But we know the image's original sense, for in it we can see the ghost of this country's history of violence. If Flora is innocent, then so is the Confederacy, the nation itself. Such sins are not so easily forgiven, even in the cinema's magical, dreamy dark.

That's not to say that Griffith's film was not as controversial upon its release in 1915 as it is today. Woodrow Wilson famously praised the film after it was screened at the White House, while the NAACP launched protests against it. Melvin B. Tolson called it such a "blatant lie that even a moron could see right through it," while James Agee placed it on par with Lincoln's speeches or Whitman's poetry. Regardless of its artistic merit, it is certainly one of the three or four most important films in the history of American cinema, the flash of lightning from which all our other fires and sparks have descended: its hateful tale of a nation's (re)birth also functions as the birth of a national cinema, the original sin we've spent a century attempting to redeem.

For The Birth of a Nation was that difficult thing, a racist masterpiece, a technical marvel whose history of Reconstruction was so egregious that it changed the trajectory of African-Americans on film. Not until Mario van Peebles did black men regain on-screen strength, relegated in the interim to empty, demeaning minstrelsy (Mr. Bojangles, Step-n-Fetchit) or unthreatening quiet (Sidney Poitier, a fine actor whose misused talents never achieved the reclaiming force of later blaxploitation pictures). Yet by introducing and developing the close-up, cross-cutting and the iris, Griffith took a leading role in the invention of a filmic syntax which remains with us to this day. For better or worse, The Birth of a Nation is cinema's subject, object and verb.

The real question one asks in any reappraisal of the film is perhaps impossible to answer. "Is it art?" Perhaps not, if you are of the mind that historical importance and artful beauty are separate qualities. That is not because The Birth of a Nation tells a tale of misery and woe — Alain Resnais twice found terrible beauty in history's burnt-out path, in the warning sorrow of Night and Fog and the cosmic loneliness, the laborious love, of Hiroshima, mon amour. But Resnais' films attempted to reclaim humanity rather than deny it. On the other hand, the beauty in certain of Griffith's compositions — like the forces curving around the side of a hill on the way to Atlanta, a scythe at the neck of the Confederacy — does not outweigh the militant ugliness of his racism. The film history that commences with The Birth of a Nation is a history not just of form but also of narrative content, a history whose art resides, if only too rarely, in its striving depiction of what a man no less artful than Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." Griffith's film is a terrible angel, one to which we are as irrevocably tied as the Civil War or Reconstruction itself. And in that we are culpable all the more for using the syntax it developed to say something more perfect about our tenuous Union.

Time Capsules

Two capsule reviews from a brief stint at LA Weekly, before all film journalism went to shit (not in quality mind you, in ability to make a living):

MATTIE FRESNO AND THE HOLOFLUX UNIVERSE “Define distracted,” petty criminal Al Lewis (Ellen Cleghorne) asks murder suspect Mattie Fresno (Angela Pierce) early on in Mattie Fresno and the Holoflux Universe, and even in a story as unwieldily metafictional as this, it probably wouldn’t do to have Mattie name her own movie. But you get the point — distraction and diffuseness, not the proffered “unified theory of what is,” are the thematic and aesthetic core of director Phil Gallo’s failed political satire/media roasting/New Age fantasy. One could describe Mattie Fresno as being “about” the title character’s involvement in a convoluted assassination scheme, or “about” her physicist grandfather’s self-created alternate universe, but to do so would imply that the movie hangs together more coherently than the average YouTube video. Too bad, because the assassination plot, conceived by a public-relations firm to win the public’s eternal sympathy for a struggling client, briefly sustains a welcome, rabid cynicism about the politico-media complex, “spin doctors,” megalomaniacal TV personalities, fake holy men and an American public that laps it all up like a pig at the trough. Unfortunately, Mattie Fresno blunts these sharp satirical edges with moments of aimless screwball comedy, awkwardly composed flashbacks and green-screened dream sequences suggestive of anything but the universe’s deepest complexities. Rarely has a film killed off its own best instincts with more vigor.


DAVID & FATIMA Politicians and filmmakers, one might conclude from director Alain Zaloum’s suffocatingly simple movie David & Fatima, have developed similar approaches over the years: platitudes, platitudes, platitudes. But in the case of this Israeli-Palestinian twist on Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers and their warring clans inhabit a world too complex and too dusty with ancient conflicts for such banalities to ring true. The result is a film so emphatic in its treatment of the parallels between David Isaac (Cameron Van Hoy) and Fatima Aziz (Danielle Pollack) that the handful of affecting moments, like the lovers’ dance in a dilapidated shack by the Dead Sea, end up as whispers drowned out by the political din. More typical is the clumsy opening sequence in which David and Fatima’s mothers, going into labor, meet while en route to the hospital, perhaps spurring David’s belief that “if we pretend everything is OK, the world might change.” By the time Martin Landau swoops in as a radical rabbi who denies love’s power to conquer all, it’s too late: The humanist Realpolitik he imparts with his steady voice and watery eyes has gone distinctly out of vogue this year. “Do you think this is some kind of joke?” David’s sister asks him after discovering his tryst. “Some exercise in Middle East politics?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes. With Tony Curtis as a wizened romantic named Schwartz.


Dylanology 101

It is in these moments ~ the subtextual ones, where Dylan himself is not necessarily revealed, but the intense web of allusions that make up his work and his popularity are ~ that I’m Not There, No Direction Home, and Don't Look Back get at just why he is, humanoid or not, an "archive of American mythology." He survives in our minds because of the shared nostalgia he has come to represent, because he is, for those of us who see identity as infinitely malleable, the secondary handhold we need. There's a throwaway moment at the tail end of Pennebaker's film in which one of Dylan's entourage, speeding away with the musician from a throng of British fans outside yet another venue's service entrance, in yet another car so dark it seems to absorb and dim the glow of the streetlamps, calls Dylan "the vanishing American." It is this elusiveness that reflects the elusiveness of a vanishing America, a spectral, idealistic place where the American promise and the American people still seem, from this nostalgic viewpoint at least, to work in unison. For anyone who has ever heard and responded to a Dylan song ~ and I would venture a guess that most people who come across this piece fit into that category ~ his mystique is as personal as it is political, reminding us of a time in our lives in which we believed that authenticity, or on the other hand the elasticity of identity, would win the day. But even in 1965 he was vanishing before our eyes, like the America which time had obliterated. "It looks like its dying," he sang, speaking to that part of us which clings to our hopes but lowers our expectations, "and it's hardly been born."



My first year of teaching now over, I have realized that I utterly neglected this little project of mine for more than a year, which is too bad. Today I'm posting some excerpts of and links to pieces I've written for other publications, and here's the first, about Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2007):

"Children of Men is, like other apocalyptic fictions, a prophecy — an educated, dramatized guess about where we are going based on where we have been. Where we have been is where Eliot comes in: his sexual and spiritual dystopia of the last century's first fire sermon, coupled in the film with images of Nazi atrocities (cages and train stations and camps) from the second, creates a language for postulating the impossible. America in September of 2001 was like no other country in history, except perhaps Pax Brittanica in 1914, where the sun never set. But decline, like shifts in character, comes suddenly. The war that could not have happened between prosperous states; the attack that could not have happened on the American mainland. The analogy, without Eliot, remains shallow — a constructed coincidence of historicity. But with him it becomes instructive, tying together not just the series of events that preceded and followed each disaster, but also what we are to make of them. Being set in Britain makes Children of Men no less American, at least in the sense that American politics dominate (for better or worse) the world stage, and that those politics emerge as the target of Cuarón's sharp portrayal of a futuristic Britain saddled with a government poisonous in its policies and devoid of humanity. If Cuarón's vision of the world in 2027 is uncomfortably close, it may be because the decline has already begun."