Wednesday, April 10, 2013

TO THE WONDER: SPIRITUAL HIERARCHIES, CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND GIVING BIRTH TO LOVE.




“Our Lord Jesus Christ went up into a little castle and was received by a virgin who was a wife.”
“Now, then, play close attention to this word: it was necessary that it be a virgin by whom Jesus was received. “Virgin” designates a human being who is devoid of all foreign images, and who is as void as he was when he was not yet…
…If a human were to remain a virgin forever, he would never bear fruit. If he is to become fruitful, he must necessarily be a wife. “Wife,” here, is the noblest name that can be given to the mind, and it is indeed more noble than “virgin.” That man should receive God in himself is good, and by this reception he is a virgin. But that God should become fruitful in him is better; for the fruitfulness of a gift is the only gratitude for the gift. The spirit is wife when in gratitude it gives birth and bears Jesus back into God’s fatherly heart.”
Meister Eckhart, Sermon Jesus Entered. Transl. by Reiner Schurmann from Wandering Joy

I wanted to begin this review with those words because of a conversation I had days before watching Terrence Malick’s TO THE WONDER. I was with a friend, whom you know as roomasick, browsing information about the film when we stumbled upon an interview with Ben Affleck where he speaks about working with Malick and about his style of directing. In it, Affleck jokes that since he was aware Malick has a Doctorate in Philosophy and translated works by Heidegger, a good way to get into his mind was to read those translations. Obviously that did not work for him and did not even give him inkling into what the film was about or how he was to react to Malick’s direction. While the remarks from the interview about the preparation verge on some sort of self-serving absurdity (should we even ask, when directed to perform, for the director to give us a map of his thought process, a diary of his inhibitions and beliefs? To draw for us a belief system? In other words,should we ask from the creator of a situation to justify all aspects of it?), said remarks stayed with me. My thoughts went into tangents when confronted with other Malick films such as THE NEW WORLD or THE TREE OF LIFE. Granted, if a director has thought, read and translated thinkers who devoted their mind’s life to ask ultimate philosophical questions (questions about the nature and origin of being, not of the why of things, but of the how is it that things are), then wouldn’t the same person work through those questions in another medium of his choosing? Yes, as obnoxious as this could sound, Malick’s films are not only of grand themes (be it WWII, the destined clash of two cultures, or even a ‘cultural’ history of the cosmos) but also about the workings of phenomena, really they are about the origin of all being, in different disguises.

And so it is with TO THE WONDER that when I saw it, the film seemed to me a radical departure from his previous work and a clear attempt by the director to flesh out a philosophy of what it means to lead a good life. TO THE WONDER was, to me, an actual attempt at delivering a system of thought through images and emotive evocations. It is his most engaging film, in the sense that it engages our very present and the very systematic undercurrents in our civilization to ask political and religious questions.

Reiner Schurmann, in his book Broken Hegemonies, defines what I believe Malick is using film for, to think: “ To think is to linger on the conditions of what one is living: to linger on the site we inhabit.” And indeed, in TO THE WONDER there is nothing more but the depiction of the site the characters inhabit, and of their reflecting, their lingering on the conditions of what has happened, or what does not happen, to them.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Gaze Of A Male



One of my chief arguments about the contemporary superhero movie (for all intents and purposes, the biggest current subgenre of blockbuster) is that it was sexless. In capturing the essence of these characters as action figures, they were rendered mostly sexless: even famous tomcat Iron Man is wedded to monogamy in the films with Pepper Potts (who, in the comics, actually married Stark bodyguard Happy Hogan for a brief while). But there was also a big of a progressive movement to ignore that these films were aimed primarily at a male audience, toning down the feminine sexuality on display. Females were still considered second citizens in these films, but it was more along the lines of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” a shit-kicker in military wear brandishing a gun and owning a slinky dress only for practical purposes.

But a friend showed me a photoset posted online that caught my eye. It was comprised of gifs featuring the male stars of the Marvel Universe films, in moments of their films where they are in various states of undress. It’s a good enough way to explain the unprecedented crossover success of “The Avengers”: here were beefcake/sensitive images of conventionally handsome-to-completely gorgeous men, emphasized for what I now realized were a female audience. Granted, male filmgoers have always wanted to see their heroes muscle-bound and raring to go, but it was usually in service of wanton brutality. But the stars of the onscreen Marvel films were hunks you could take home to mom: in particular, one of the money shots from the trailer to “Captain America” is Carter absentmindedly realizing she’s actually fondling one of Cap’s pecs. Yes, it’s a period movie, but you’d really only see that in a contemporary film.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Praise of Love



What’s interesting about Roger Ebert is that no one could ever land a serious blow towards him, reviewing films in a profession that practically places a bullseye on oneself. Rob Schneider’s pathetic barbs towards him in retaliation for a spat involving his classic “Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo” lacked enough teeth that Ebert’s returning blows were actually career-damaging. A mano-e-mano with Vincent Gallo isn’t really too distinguished, as Gallo gets into a row with everyone, while a potentially-biting spoof in “The Critic” was flattering enough to allow he and Gene Siskel to cameo as themselves, one of the few moments that show wasn’t taking the piss out of Hollywood. Most Ebert takedowns were along the lines of Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s pathetic “Godzilla,” as Ebert lookalike Michael Lerner boasted of a city given a “thumbs up,” seeming more like the schmucky Ed Koch.

There was always something Teflon about Ebert’s appeal. Pal Siskel was the angrier one, the feistier fellow with a bone to pick with some movies. With Ebert, his bone-deep hatred of some films seemed to come as a by-product of his love and affection for other films, whereas Siskel always seemed like an assassin. It’s what made their dynamic so interesting on “At The Movies,” which most movie buffs of my generation grew up watching: Siskel would take personal offense when the industry would chuck a piece of junk in his direction, and he wouldn’t mince words. And while Ebert had his share of pithy insults and clever put-downs, he almost seemed either hurt or disappointed when a film was a let-down.


Of course, not many films were, not even the bad ones. Ebert singled out a few he hated in a couple of his seventeen published books, but in most negative reviews, it seemed like he was having a good time. Writing seemed fun when it came from Ebert: his more serious essays and reviews would have real intellectual heft, but he knew when to boil it down to “just a movie” territory. The truth was, bad movies always had some sort of redeeming asset to him. He once told a lie that feels like truth to me: “All bad movies are depressing, no good movies are.” It’s a testament to how beloved he was that I had trouble googling the exact quote, his passing jamming the traffic at Ebert-related sites.

But I don’t think films depressed him: even “Kick Ass,” which repulsed him to no end, established a conflict within himself that proved more fascinating than the film: was this entertainment, and if so, why? Was the escalation of on-screen violence featuring children a changing of the times, or a lowering of standards? His changing opinion of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” ultimately said more about film criticism, and depictions of violence in society, than anything Ben Lyons has ever written.

Monday, April 1, 2013

THE THIRTY BEST FILMS OF 2013


It’s the end of the first quarter of 2013, and I am burnt out. How exciting that we would have such a collection of masterpieces so early, from some of cinema’s greatest masters? Sure, the results haven’t been pretty from a studio perspective, but indie and foreign directors have produced a bumper crop of must-sees thus far in 2013, and compiling them all was an eye-popping experience. If this says anything about the quality of the rest of the year, then movie lovers have been spoiled beyond belief.

Some of these were festival releases. Others are already scheduled for a theatrical release in the next month or so. The hope is that 90% of these titles will be on DVD by late summer, at least. Make sure to give ‘em a looksee, particularly the titles you do not recognize.

30.  “Byzantium”

Neil Jordan adds to his menagerie of monsters and boogeymen with this gothic tale of a mother-daughter vampire duo pursued through the centuries by a male-driven vampire cabal. Fiendishly fast and loose with the rules, this glossy commercial production from Jordan also features a sexy-beyond-belief performance by Gemma Arterton, who I am learning to forgive after the inept farce that was “Tamara Drewe.”

29. “The Iceman”
Classic Millennium Films release: dark, ugly, filled with depressing violence, terrible wigs and completely inappropriate casting (David Schwimmer shows up as a character repeatedly referred to as “the kid”). At this point, I feel like if you really love movies, those have become weirdly positive attributes by now. It’s a generic true crime story about an unusually prolific hitman, but the real pleasures in “The Iceman” lie in Michael Shannon’s terrifying performance, easily the most fascinating and tightly calibrated turn of the year.

28. “Electrick Children”
When I am vexed by a film, I normally chalk it up to the possibility that perhaps there’s just something I’m not getting, and the film remains in my memory like an unfinished puzzle. Such is the case for this Mormon coming-of-age drama, which finds the fascinating Julia Garner as a fifteen year old girl who flees home with an immaculate pregnancy she blames on a haunted cassette tape owned by her mother where someone covers Blondie’s “Hanging On The Telephone.” It’s less strange that I’m making it seem, but it’s not a film without its surprises.