Noir with a Twist

September 6th, 2008 § 0 comments

Fritz Lang might well be, along with other German Expressionists, the father of the dramatic noir style with its long shadows, dark streets, deserted houses, and claustrophobic buildings, but he is not a typical noir storyteller. I would argue that the essence of noir does not lie in its style, but within the stories and characters; they are predicable, yes, but timelessly captivating. While many films look like noir, most do not contain the plot or characters to bring the style to life. There are so many craggy faces and toned legs that are inseparable from genre that they stand out more than dark cityscapes and sprawled out bodies. There is a pleasure, and also an insanity, in hoping for change in a story fated from the beginning.

It is impossible, or at least unwise, to argue that Lang is not a noir director, and yet his films call into question his reputation of being a “prolific Hollywood director” of countless noirs. He breaks the rules, departing from conventional expectations, in so many ways that his films stand out as misplaced. While Lang pretends to fill the requirements of the cliché detective story, heavily foreshadowing a predicted outcome, he never delivers quite what we think we want. His films are too morally unique from the noir genre, making them difficult to place within an endless line of dead women. All this is certainly to his credit. His departures never fail to surprise, and his careful manipulations of a genre he seemingly helped to create, are extremely clever.

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Bat Country

August 30th, 2008 § 0 comments

“Happy,” I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception—especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far too relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they’re scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them with any confidence.

hunter-thompson-rum-diary

Perhaps Hunter S Thompson is the true “cynical idealist,” for though it was F. Scott who said it he was no idealist, and perhaps it was F. Scott, not Hunter, who was the true drunk. While Fitzgerald’s characters are predetermined to be crookedly bent toward self-destruction, Thompson’s disheveled characters are happily optimistic in the drunken hours before dawn, about themselves, the world, and the combination of the two—a long road of possibilities stretches out before their blurry eyes. It was “fatalism with a loop hole.” Hunter thoughtfully ponders notions of luck, or “survival by coordination, as it were.” Societal hope for Hunter seemed to lie on edges, near boarders, and in the fringe. Or was it doom? He covered unlikely places— San Juan, Las Vegas, the Campaign Trail—and indulged in “controversial” habits—drugs, guns, journalism, and alcohol. Thompson creates stories full of mean little words collectively surrounding the larger ones, giving them an unusual new shape.

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The Pajama Clad Director

August 10th, 2008 § 3 comments

julian schnabel

Consistency in directors, or expecting consistency, has become such a problem of late that I am beginning to think I simply shouldn’t expect it. There are some men of whom I could forgive just about anything, I sat through Don’t Come Knocking in France, yet I don’t think Julian Schnabel is one of them. For the painter he was hyped to be in the 1980’s, introducing himself as the “greatest American painter”, I don’t think I have knowingly seen his works in person. I might have passed by one in the past, missing the name or ignorant of it, and admittedly my knowledge of painters, especially hotshot, pajama personalities showing at Mary Boone, is deliberately faulty. Word in art jargon seems to be that as his reputation waned he turned to other mediums, including film. The Diving Bell’s success I credited to the director himself, and not to those who wrote and photographed the film—I say those two aspects now because the glaring problems with his previous films stems from the writing and the filming. Having recently watched Before Night Falls and Basquiat I am thinking a bit of “luck” was involved with his third film. His French cast was good, with characters flawed enough to be human, and the photography interesting enough to keep the film from wallowing in self-pity.

A fellow grad once made fun of the student body at VCU, saying with sarcasm, “it must be so hard to be white and middle class.” Both Before Night Falls and Basquiat dwell on the injustices of society, seen through the self-centered expectation that life should be fair. Avoiding plot specifics, Schnabel’s interest in biographies, and sadly mangled ones at that, runs through all three films. The protagonists are all men, all artists (of sorts), all were successful, and all created around them the myth of artistic tragedy. Perhaps Diving Bell is captivating only because its protagonist narrates a self-reflective story of a life well lived, shot through with mistakes, carelessness, and selfishness. Being “locked-in” almost seems to have woken the Elle editor up, or so the film states, as to the truth…

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A Context for Conceit

July 20th, 2008 § 0 comments

breathless

History deals heavily within the confines of context, and so it is that my brother shouts at myself and others when we make assumptions and judgments—as we tend to do so often—about people, places, events, that happened outside our knowledge of “the context” they happened in. It was the first film class I took in collage, however, that taught me if I wanted to understand much of anything, I had to be able to separate myself from it. This separation is necessary to see any context other than your own. I don’t tend to think of visual art in this manner, for inexplicable reasons I am moved in ways I can almost always articulate, and I am not usually helped by, or reliant on, context. Artistic histories never seem to exist in the same realm as the art itself, they are two separate ideas that rarely connect together in my head. I have great interest in art history but it never gives a context, at least not one that does not feel artificial, to art itself. With film, however, it is imperative for me to understand it as something besides what it is—context renders the unwatchable watchable. Who is the film for, how does it function, and is it worth taking the time to guess? It would be fair to say, although I am not sure it is fair to do, that I ask more questions of film than I do of visual art. The necessary connection film shares with its audience is perhaps slightly less muddled a history than that of the fine arts, or that connection has been maintained by the industry because appeal and movie-going pleasure is linked to profit. My relationship with film has always revolved around struggling for a context in which to place it, a way to make sense of that which I dislike, dismiss, or despise. Without a context too large a percent of films could be dismissed from my current perspective. My latest dive into Truffaut and Godard was disappointing to say the least, and I am gasping for a way to hold their reputation and critical acclaim against what I see as two bad films, both from the 1960’s, Shoot the Piano Player and Breathless. My determination not to dismiss them has caused quite a ramble of thought.

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I Wasn’t There

June 5th, 2008 § 0 comments

Expectations for artists have changed, perhaps because of post-modernism or changes in institutions, where the ability to lecture/discuss/critique is valued over the artwork. Visiting artist programs have taught me, through observation alone, that younger artists are expected to be well read, articulate, well informed and well connected, knowledgeable of their own field as well as others–mainly philosophy and politics. These qualities don’t sound unpleasant, but they don’t feel too good when they are expected of you. They seem to be distractions added onto the pressure of making, or alternative ways to gain validity and recognition when art objects are dismissed. “Research” seems to be one of those promising new vocabulary words, akin to studio “practice.” Our chair stated the other day, “if you hear someone who lectures well send them my way, but not if you only like the work.”

I was thinking about artistic expectations while watching both The Last Waltz and I’m Not There. Since Dylan and The Band are connected, I thought they would be interesting to watch in succession. Both films were dominated, or made worth while, by one central person: Robbie Robertson in Scorsese’s documentary (1976) about The Band’s last performance, and Cate Blanchett, playing one of the many Dylan’s in Haynes film. Both movies seemed only average, I’m Not There is a frightfully confusing mixture of visual tricks and cinematic genres, and Scorsese’s documentary, though thoughtfully sequenced, was marred by his own questions and The Band’s general lack of intellect.

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