Whither the TV Critic?

March 25, 2010

As you’ve no doubt heard, At the Movies has been canceled. That means that Yesterday’s Salad favorite A. O. Scott is out of a (second) job. Good Tony Scott: there’s always room for you at the Salad!

I’m really sad to see the show go. I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert and their approaches to film no doubt shaped my own. I always liked Siskel more, but the last few years of reading Roger Ebert have shown me how great a critic he really is. Amazingly, for someone whose fame derives from TV, Roger Ebert was a terrific writer, capable of writing long, penetrating essays and perfectly crafted reviews. It’s rare to find someone as adept at writing both short and long. Yet beyond style or a set approach to film, the most important lesson the show taught me was that films were something to talk about, something we could participate in long after.

But the reason I’m sad to see At the Movies go has nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the present. A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips were doing great work. They were smart and funny and had a good rapport with each other. Sometimes they had to review too many movies in a week to make the show really compelling, while other times they got to focus on one or two films, taking the time to situate the movie within the context of an actor or filmmaker’s career.

It was incredibly smart–though it might not have been TV enough. I liked watching the show because I like to hear intelligent people discuss modern culture. Then again, this is also why I like the PBS Newshour. Both feature conversations between talking heads instead of conflicts between screaming interrupting heads. I hope A. O. and Michael can find a way to continue their dialogue. I hear people do great things on the internet these days and that someday someone will figure out a way to make it pay.

The Unhurt Locker

March 14, 2010

Even though I read it the day after the Oscars I was intrigued by the fact that the New York Times now traffics in both the same statistical probability work employed by our own Dash Hammerskjold and the intuitive, qualitative methods employed by his arch-enemies. Has Yesterday’s Salad become oracular? Should it be renamed Tomorrow’s Salad?

Welles’ Trial

February 22, 2010

Orson Welles adaptation of Kafka’s Trial is a masterpiece of adaptation. I don’t mean to suggest that it in itself is brilliant (though it often is), rather, that it’s one of the most interesting adaptations I’ve ever seen. Kafka’s story does not lend itself easily to film; so much of its brilliance lies in its narrator’s voice (how would you work in “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K”?) and in its play with the genre of realism. Everything seems as if it’s obeying the laws the laws only to get farther away from reality as we learn more and more about its world. There’s also no coherent plot.

Welles’ adaptive genius is the mis-en-scene. Kafka’s spaces are often narrow and claustrophobic whereas Welles makes them overly monumental, though paradoxically still claustrophobic: it makes the bureaucracies seem even more impressive/oppressive. Rooms are sparse and minimal as if the world can no longer be at all decorous. The costuming give the world a classic-noir feel instead of the Imperial feel of the original. The world is recognizably Welles and Kafka.

And then there’s Joseph K.  The casting is brilliant. Two years after playing Norman Bates–still bearing the mark of killer–Anthony Perkins oscillates between innocence and guilt. But mostly, he’s just frustrated that he always seems two-steps behind everyone else. It’s a brilliant move by Welles who saw The Trial as a comedy. Instead of a morality tale, we’re suddenly given an enlightened Peanuts Strip with K as Charlie Brown. He never quite says “Arrgh” or “Good Grief!” but the sense of it lies behind everything else.

For those who haven’t seen many late Welles’ movies, The Trial is an excellent starting point. The production value manages to be high even as the budgets are low, and the artistry is there even as it struggles to come across in lesser settings. But most of all, it’s simultaneously brilliant and frustrating, something you’ll love dearly in retrospect even if you can’t love in the moment.

Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” is a movie that insists upon a moral framework but refuses to provide one. It is generally a movie about framing, about how we see and what we look at. The camera is incredibly motionless, emphasizing the fact that just because something is imperceptible, that something is outside the immediate frame, it is still a part of the cinematic universe. There’s much that we can’t see in this movie. Sometimes we hear it and imply the actions, and other times we don’t have anything beyond a fragmented understanding of what’s just taken place.

Accidents, horrifying events, torture all take place in this small town, but we have no real way of explaining things. In fact, we often don’t know what has occurred. A man hangs. Suicide? Murder? No explanation. A fire. Arson? Accident? The movie refuses to tell us even what mystery we’re dealing with, let alone whether or not we should look and ask questions of culpability–this despite the fact that it’s structured like a classic detective story with one character trying to explain everything that’s been going on.  It all remains a mystery. And, if so, we need to be playful with our reading of mystery itself.

The idea of a “mystery”cult, or even the Christian mystery, is that once you’ve been exposed to the mystery, the mystic aspect, everything becomes clear. Haneke leaves us on the outside. Without knowing the mystery, the events remain not only obscure but insoluble.  We can only guess since we don’t even know the hermeneutic frame. The film’s narrator suggests the Holocaust, but that appears to be a gambit: it offers one inexplicable tragedy as a solution for another. The question, again, is one of framing: how do we even start looking at these problems if we don’t know what mystery governs, ties every(some)thing in place? Read the rest of this entry »

The Ciceronian’s last post makes me actually want to see “The Blind Side.” Yes, I still think that its best picture selection owes more to populism than anything else, but the Ciceronian’s review points to a rather unexpected attribute as the reason for its success: “The Blind Side” explains the New South to America in a complex and responsible way.

As Gordon Hutner explains in What America Read, the dominant genre of American literature from the 1920s through 1950s was realism (despite the advent of modernism) and one of the primary goals of realist fiction was to describe the changing social and economic conditions of the United States. The growing bourgeoisie wanted the Talking Heads’ age-old question answered: “Well, how did I get here?” I’ll go so far as to say that the success of “The Blind Side” is due to accepting this aspect of realist fiction.

After all, that’s why last Monday’s episode of “House” worked.

Yes, “House,” the doctor-cum-detective show whose love of formulas knows no bounds, and whose general message seems to be: be patient; doctors will mess up repeatedly before they actually solve your problem.

Monday’s episode, ‘5 to 9’ (an homage to Agnes Varda’s “Cleo 5 to 7”?), focused on the hospital administrator and her quest to have it all: family, love, and the career. It allowed her to stretch a little–even if that stretching meant channeling Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton,” practicing her big meeting while dressing in front of the mirror.

Yet it also focused on the health care industry as industry, showing some complexity: the challenges facing hospitals trying to ensure that their doctors get paid reasonably while also dealing with insurance companies trying to grow through cost-cutting. There were also subplots about patients suing for malpractice since the insurance company considers the procedure (reattaching a severed thumb) inessential, and another patient trying to get a prescription for breast milk so the insurance company would pay. It’s almost as if someone on the “House” writing staff listened to the “Planet Money” episodes about health care economics and used it as the basis for a drama.

In other words, it’s proof of the continued vitality of middlebrow realism, even if contemporary literature has abandoned that thread.

The problem of movies relying on visual effects is not only that it causes the movie to age rapidly, but that it becomes excessive, a crutch in place of story and acting. After all, productions don’t have infinite budgets. A dollar invested in the effects is a dollar not invested in the script. This is the problem with Avatar. The first ninety minutes are disorienting and immersive: we are being guided into Pandora in much the same way as Jake Sully. He becomes our Avatar for new experiences and new possibilities, for a new type of filmmaking.

And then the movie gets conventional and boring. Our eyes adjust to Pandora and we watch Sam Worthington strain to act under the motion capture suit before the plot devolves into a series of large, predictable, action sequences. Perhaps they’re filmed better than most, but that’s hardly the exciting, new world we were promised.

This is an even bigger problem in Altered States (1980). I’m now officially at risk of turning this into a William Hurt blog, but it’s worth mentioning his film debut. There are some truly unshakable parts in this movie, but the director, Ken Russel, overwhelms the story through his excessively psychedelic visuals.

The plot of the movie is both strong and weak: a scientist doing research on schizophrenics as a window on different understandings of consciousness becomes interested in sensory deprivation as a way of understanding the mystical experience. So far so good; there are some logical jumps here, but nothing too far out.

This part of the movie is grounded in the world of the scientists and the physical world is terrific. The set design is quietly terrifying: there’s nothing that’s too strange and out of place, but it’s discomfiting. The sensory deprivation chamber looks horrifying at the same time as it’s completely mundane. Everything is grimy. William Hurt, speaking to us from his chamber, does some great voice acting.

Then it gets ridiculous. Read the rest of this entry »

Long-time readers know that one of our regular features is best picture predictions. This year we went 8/10, guessing that “Invictus” would be the apartheid movie nominated (it wasn’t; “District 9” was), and that “The Hangover” would be the movie picked to tell the mainstream, “Hey–we’re still cool” (it wasn’t; “The Blind Side” was). Since I just defended the melodrama yesterday, it will sound rather hypocritical of me to attack the selection of “The Blind Side,” but….there’s no reason that this movie should have been nominated for Best Picture, and its inclusion can only be considered as another attempt by dandified cosmopolitans to embrace tea party values.

Now, I like Sandra Bullock; “Speed” is easily one of the best action movies of the ’90s, and “The Net” truly captured the potential pratfalls of the internet age and our subsequent loss of privacy. I’m glad she was nominated for an Academy Award for leading actress since she clearly elevated what would have been a poor man’s “The Express” into a cultural phenomenon. But I can’t escape the feeling that one of three not-very-good-reasons led to TBS’ nomination: 1) academy members don’t watch enough movies to vote fully informed; 2) Hollywood is patting itself on the back for continuing to recycle plots and further their dominance of archetypal mythology; 3) An ill-founded embrace of populism.

Nominating “The Blind Side” is like Obama’s bank tax: you can defend it as smart policy given the circumstances, but the timing suggests an appeal to crowds for the sake of an appeal to crowds. Will more people watch the Oscars now? Probably–though the inclusion of movies like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Up,” and “Avatar” would have helped anyway. The Academy seems to be going full-press, hoping that a turn to big box-office films will salvage the midterms.