The Horse Would Have Lived Except it Died

July 15th, 2008 § 0 comments

My interest in No Country For Old Men did not begin with the movie itself, but with other people’s reactions to it. With all Coen films, I find them aesthetically entrancing, morally interesting, and generally unmoving. I am impressed mostly by a kind of boyish insincerity, and I remain interested in them as filmmakers because I can’t decide if I believe they are intentionally so or not. There was an article in a recent new yorker that addressed their habits of deceiving and tricking their audience, how they play at references and cinematic customs—their movies are a little too gleeful of their own intelligence, and count too much on a viewer’s gullibility. I saw No Country in Richmond, in one of our old movie theaters that shows one “popular” film, and one less so on a small screen upstairs. As the credits rolled up at the end of No Country the entire theater moaned “no!” A young man stood up and said, “oh shut up, it was good,” as the crowd piled out. I was interested and surprised by both reactions, that our audience was annoyed enough to protest quite loudly, and that we were rebuked like children—it made the film ending odder than it was, after all, it is not the first time a killer has gone unpunished, in movies or otherwise.

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Grumbling Gum-Shoes

June 15th, 2008 § 0 comments

Some three or four years after my Noir class I am finally reading the novels/writers that inspired the genre. Hammett has been my first victim of dissection, after reading a collection of The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and Red Harvest, I am appalled I thought of starting Proust instead. Hammett’s novels read so easily I am wary of them, wondering if they are just dated versions of the paperbacks in the supermarket I deem mind-numbing trash. The vernacular of his novels is quite interesting, they read like a cross between a play, a screenplay, and a film; not like what I expect of a novel. Plays are always overly descriptive, they are meant to be spoken and looked at rather than read, or so I assume, and there is something visceral and visual about Hammett’s wording. He too is overly descriptive, like he feels obligated to tell us exactly what this or that guy looks like so he can drop it and move on. His description of Spade; “he looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

I wrote a paper years ago justifying the appeal of the noir detective, saying something about all their wrongs—the tough guy act, the straight talk, the ambiguous morality—equaling a right, but reading their characters is different from watching them. Predictably there is less polish, the stories focus as much on murder as they do on crime, dishonest politicians, prostitution, homosexuality, race, and pornography, whereas the movies stick to gum-shoe investigation. They are misfits in the book, Spade fights between the rule of law, the rule of crime, and his own morality, acknowledging that none are just or ‘right’. Bogart brings celebrity and a polish to the character, and Hollywood a cleanliness to the story that does not exist in the literary version of Spade’s Frisco. Of all Hammett’s anti-heroes Spade is the most timeless, misfits never cease being themselves.

sam spade

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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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Misdemeanors in 1989, Crimes in 2006

June 1st, 2008 § 0 comments

After a long, unbroken string of depressing foreign films, Army of Shadows, The Battle of Algiers, l’Enfant, we bumped Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors to the top of the queue—hoping for comic relief. I like Allen, and I suppose predictably I am more drawn to his older films, perhaps because they are both better and dated. A quote from my current read stated, “the surrealists were attracted to everything that was out of date”, and I plead guilty to that myself. The general expectation of a Woody Allen film is that it will be funny and quirky, I often notice that I laugh at situations that, when taken out of context, are not quite as funny. For example, his deadpan delivery of, “a strange man defecated on my sister.” Crimes and Misdemeanors is a dark drama disguised as a new york comedy. The plot unfolds stories of a wide range of characters forced to choose between happiness and success, family comfort or an unpredictable mistress. What I found most interesting about the film is how much it seemed to be the precursor to Match Point. They are strikingly similar in plot and general outcome, they both involve murder and a murder for the same reason. Seeing them in the opposite order, I was struck by how different they are in meaning. In seventeen years what changes in society, in people, in morals (to be unavoidably ambiguous)?

The outlook in both films is dark, but 2006 seems darker than 1989. In the 1989 version of human weakness leading to lust, lies, and murder, the characters seem to feel remorse. The doctor is haunted by the memory of his dead mistress even while he takes items out of her apartment while she lies leaking blood on the floor. Happiness is hard to find, someone to kill your lover is not as hard to come by. All of the characters, however, waver for a moment between potentially fulfilling decisions, and those more compromising. Allen’s love interest remains his for a while, but ultimately leaves him for a successful movie director. As for the doctors murder, he got away with it legally without question, but could he manage to overcome it morally? In Crimes and Misdemeanors it is acceptable to kill ones lover for convince, but one ought to feel guilt. This crime lead him back in to his rocky past, and forward into his comfortable and now secure future. I like the suggestion in the title of crime, acts that break the laws of society, and the misdemeanors of foolish decisions and betrayals, of passionless marriages lacking comparability. Allen makes an obvious point of criticizing our tendency to favor fluff over substance, in film as in life.

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Theft & Plunder

May 14th, 2008 § 0 comments

The Rape of Europa seems to fit in with a discussion myself and others had somewhat recently with a certain nameless historian (Shem) about if art simply reflects the condition of a culture, or if it is a force in changing that culture. As a documentary I thought the film was sporadic, unfocused and somewhat pointless, but it illustrated what in culture is valued and at lengthy costs preserved. Most artists I know argue against the idea that we are reflectors rather than innovators or the illustrators of perspectives otherwise unseen, though each side seems to depend on how the role of art is perceived within a particular society. The effort taken (during the second world war) to destroy, preserve, hide, restore, and protect works of art and monuments, proves to me at least that art is more than reflection. In Europe, something I found rather interesting, the self-identity of each city rested with a particular church, building, or museum. Thinking of our own country I know I am more compelled by landscape, it seems more a part of my “American” identity than any particular place.

Having studied in great detail the art of the Third Reich and the “artistic” minded tactics of Hitler as a politician, I find this a compelling argument for art as a leader of change. He was infatuated with mediating and controlling the art of his time, on keeping its potential danger away from the general public, perhaps because certain artists were “reflecting” the wrong vision. Many of our most recognized Modernists were seen as a threat to the dominant party, and those artists were part of a wider movement that was pushing ‘thought’ of all kinds, not just art, into new territories. As the film pointed out, the list of artworks Hitler wished to possess predated the countries he chose to invade and occupy.


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