Saturday, May 10, 2008

"Iron Man," Morality, and the Military-Industrial Complex


Iron Man (Jon Favreau)

I recently had a conversation with a man who reminded me that whenever one evaluates a work of art, but especially a movie (or screenplay, which is what we were actually talking about), one always brings an “agenda” to the process of judgment. “Did this movie fit the parameters of what I expected from it? If yes, then it is good; if not, then it is bad.” This is the common mode of thought for most people when they see a movie, which is a more direct way of describing subjectivity within artistic consumption. Movie critics in general, and I in particular, all do this in one way or another. But what caused Iron Man to crystallize these thoughts is how blatantly the movie made me aware of my own agenda as I watched it.

Indeed, during the first half or so, Jon Favreau and his 4-man screenwriting team (the credited ones, anyway) do seem to want to make a layered, complex, and fun little movie. While making the first villains a bunch of vaguely ideologically defined Afghani warlords amounts to more than a bit of thoughtless Orientalism, Favreau still manages to depict Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) transformation as a deep and personal one. One minute a too-charming weapons manufacturing billionaire, a morally awakened superhero the next, Favreau lets Downey be Downey (the man could never be boring if he tried), while still letting the pain seep through.

Even better is when Stark returns to America after 3 months in captivity in Afghanistan. He decides to improve on the prototype he built to free himself from his captors, which results in the hot-rod-red and gold titanium suit we know and love. Getting the suit built to perfection, however, involves a lot of tinkering, which leads to the funniest parts of the movie, and points to the most pointed layer that goes frustratingly unexplored.

Tony Stark’s backstory—jazzily exposited in an awards-show montage at the movie's chronological beginning—describes the man as a boy genius, graduating summa cum laude from MIT at the age of 18, and taking over his father’s weapons-manufacturing conglomerate when he is 21. Not too long after he ditches his woman-for-the-evening—a Vanity Fair reporter whose name he can’t remember—he is seen in his workshop (a funhouse of futuristic gadgets, natch) working on a car. But Favreau does something incredibly sly in that moment. Contrasted with the slick playboy image we have just witnessed, we see where Stark’s passion actually lies: in the laboratory. This is a man who loves to build things, to work out the most minute details of a complex series of problems. These moments are expanded even further when he is building the suit. After he casts off his man-about-town persona, Stark seems free to pursue his true love, and derive a massive amount of joy from it.

Around such issues is where my own “agenda” rears its ugly head. After getting these little tastes of Stark’s real character, I wanted to see the subtext expanded: I wanted Favreau to incorporate how Stark let himself—perhaps forced himself to—become a lascivious brat who cared for little else but booze, cars and women. Furthermore, the scene with Stark working on his hot-rod presents a robust opportunity for Favreau to explore how the two sides of Stark’s personality can co-exist (before he finds moral clarity, of course).

Instead, by the time the suit is finished and Stark has delivered his final speech to his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the moment has passed, the battle lines have been clearly drawn, and any mention of Stark’s conflicted relationship with his past has been disposed of with a couple of brief lines of dialogue. Even Stark’s initial moral imperative (use himself to destroy the weapons he inadvertently helped get into the hands of the very people he thought his weapons would destroy) vanishes in the second hour, since we see that those warlords are being controlled by Stark’s business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

Another potential for a much richer and more nuanced analysis of morality in the face of global capitalism is Stane. Bridges, like Downey, also qualifies for the “could-never-be-boring-if-(s)he-tried” category of screen actors. Despite the one-dimensional characterization that Stane eventually collapses into, Bridges still allows for him to be a bit more than a simple moustache-twirler. But when we are first introduced to him, we recognize that Stane’s bitter jealousy of Stark lies in the fact that Stane was so closely bonded to Stark the elder, and viewed the future of Stark Industries as being taken out of his hands by a young upstart whelp much smarter than himself. Throughout the first half of the movie, Stane is painted as a member of the system of the military-industrial complex run rampant, a very human but very willing member of a world which sees Afghani villagers as little more than collateral damage. Because of Bridge’s subtle performance and Favreau’s initial light touch, we understand that a man who helps create modern evil can still be a human being.

Things run off the rails when it comes to light that Stane was the one who hired the Afghani terror group to kill Stark. After subduing their leader and stealing the plans and prototype of Stark’s suit of iron, he plans on building his own suit, toward ends never actually defined. This of course leads to the big blazing shoot-out that results in Stark’s near-destruction and Stane’s total destruction. Everybody lives happily ever after.

Time after time, Favreau leaves key moral questions hanging. (The problem of their being initially raised and then discarded has stuck with me more than with the laughably stupid climax, because, well, it’s laughably stupid, and can be brushed off as such.) Dana Stevens in Slate offers up a particularly glaring example. (Full disclosure: I had read the following excerpt before I had seen the movie.)

“In one scene, the Iron Man confronts a group of Afghan villagers, unable to distinguish the civilians from the combatants. At once a Terminator-style readout appears on the inside of his mask, clearly labeling each civilian, and with surgical precision, he takes out all the bad guys, leaving the grateful good guys standing. It's a clever and viscerally satisfying gag that got a round of applause at the screening I attended—but it left me with a bitter aftertaste that lasted for the rest of the movie. How much collateral damage have we inflicted by trusting just such 'smart' weapons to make moral decisions for their users?”

I was admonished for yelling “what the fuck?!” when this scene occurred. While I may be looking through a glass darkly at it, I believe that there is enough dropping of the ball by Favreau & co. throughout the movie to let Stevens’s reading hold up. There is so much potential for making ambiguous the confluence of modern warfare and global capitalism within Iron Man that it is hard to forgive Favreau's simplistic renderings of Stark’s moral dilemmas.

I haven’t even focused my attention on the moronic metal-lite score, or the shockingly stupid dialogue uttered by Stark and Potts during the climactic battle, or the cheeky ending that leaves us wanting more. Favreau and his screenwriters do leave us wanting more; it’s just not the “more” that they think. My friend Noah—along with A.O. Scott—argued that the movie set out to fulfill the formula of the big action-superhero movie, and for him, it did that. Iron Man met his agenda, and I wish it had met mine.

EPILOGUE: When I first saw the trailer for Iron Man, the primary musical piece used was one of the greatest shit-kicking, foot-stomping songs of all time: “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath. This song’s concluding instrumental passages find their way into the beginning of the closing credits, but I thought to myself how fascinating it might have been if Favreau had woven the song throughout the film, like Robert Altman does with the central theme of The Long Goodbye. Brilliant covers by the Bad Plus, Sir Mix-a-Lot, The Cardigans, and The Replacements are ready for service, perhaps on Stark’s car radio, or the gentle muzak of an elevator shaft . . . shit, there goes my damn agenda gettin’ in the way again.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Detangling a Master's Thornier period


Hitchcock and Authorship: Spellbound

If there were ever a single figure for Alfred Hitchcock who undermined his claims to the authorship of any of his films, it would be David O. Selznick. Hitchcock’s first producer in the United States, Selznick’s sensibilities were in stark contrast to those of Hitchcock. Hitchcock dismissed the first American film he directed, Rebecca, as “not a Hitchcock picture,” implicitly pinning its failings on Selznick’s “theory that people who had read the novel [by Daphne du Maurier] would have been very upset if it had been changed on the screen.”(1) Indeed, such adherence to the source material flew in the face of Hitchcock’s normal working methods, which usually gutted the novel/story/play upon which the script was based. Moreover, his dismissal of the film as not his own speaks not only to his acknowledgment of Selznick’s interference, but also to how strongly Hitchcock was aware of himself as the author of his films. It is this notion of authorship that Hitchcock often used as a barometer for whether or not he liked his own work. By extension, the question “what is a Hitchcock film?” becomes central to Hitchcock studies, and from such an auteurist viewpoint, can structure the worth of certain pictures as more important than others.

Another example of conflict between authors will be examined forthwith, using the second film Selznick produced for Hitchcock, Spellbound. Selznick’s voice is more difficult to conclusively infer compared to Rebecca; Paula Cohen points to Selznick losing power in Hollywood throughout the 1940's, thus making it more difficult for him to control elements of production the way he used to.(2) The “Selznick touch” is more blatant in the film, according to Cohen; this will be addressed more fully later. What is the prime concern of this paper is Hitchcock’s signature, and whether or not it still makes its presence felt despite external creative sources (i.e. Selznick).

Firstly–and perhaps most importantly–the theme of psychoanalysis is presented more explicitly in the film than anywhere else in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Scholarship has often come back to psychoanalysis to read Hitchcock’s films. None of the other films, however, have their narratives based upon the concept so blatantly as Spellbound has. According to Cohen, this is Selznick’s doing, who had been in analysis for some years.(3) But aside from this, Cohen states that Selznick didn’t have any direct involvement with the film until late into editing. Thus, we are left with Hitchcock having the ability to exercise his creative voice solely within the project.

Cohen’s text also asserts that not only did Hitchcock regain his voice in the film, but that Selznick had implicitly become part of that voice. “[Selznick’s] contribution [to Hitchcock’s development as a filmmaker] can be summarized as follows: he steered Hitchcock toward strong ‘domestic’ narratives (the du Maurier novel; the psychoanalytic theme); he alerted Hitchcock to the challenge of novelistic character...and he encouraged Hitchcock in a more creative use of the female performer. Spellbound can be read as something of an allegory of the painful, but ultimately fruitful, effects of Selznick’s influence.”(4) Is this assertion relevant? Is it even plausible? Female protagonists certainly didn’t play so central a role in the British films (despite the characters of Alice in Blackmail and Iris in The Lady Vanishes, for example). Are Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, Alicia in Notorious, and the blondes of the 1950's films the products of Selznick and Hitchcock’s cross-pollination? Spellbound may offer some answers.

Let us return to the idea of psychoanalysis. Hitchcock scholarship has often come back to psychoanalytic theory to explain sexual (and, subsequently, narrative) dynamics of the primary characters in Hitchcock’s films, but only Spellbound literally takes psychoanalysis as the direct agent for its narrative. What does such a use of psychoanalysis do? To begin with, it foregrounds the need to decipher past experience as a means of purging current states of emotional crisis. John Ballantine’s amnesia–quite bluntly revealed during the film’s exposition–is rooted in childhood trauma, and he will only be cured and cleared of murder charges when he uncovers this trauma through analysis.

Lesley Brill sees this method as a way in which the romantic tradition of purging the past to heal the present continues, albeit in modern scientific terms. Brill similarly sees the psychoanalytic project to reconstitute identity analogous to the romantic quest for similar ends. In Brill’s mind, the distinctly romantic elements of this quest undercut the scientific notions of psychoanalysis. “Not only does Hitchcock radically condense the process of psychiatric self-discovery, but he explicitly attacks parts of its scientific framework, notably its emphasis on an ultimate professional impersonality and its dependence on deductive procedures.”(5) Indeed, one can find textual evidence of this within the film, when both Dr. Fleurot and Ballantine (masquerading as Dr. Edwardes) remark to Dr. Petersen about the need for impulse, for feeling, and not complete reliance on cold data.

Does this notion of psychoanalysis as romantic quest hold up? I’m not so sure. Indeed, Brill goes to great lengths to say that due to the film’s links with romantic archetypes, realism and plausibility no longer are factors when analyzing the film’s structure; in fact, the point is quite the opposite. Hitchcock’s use, according to Brill, of “such intrusive artificiality implies that works of art reveal essential significance by condensing and cutting through the haze that makes up most of daily experience.”(6) This is a viable statement for many of Hitchcock’s films, including ones which Brill classifies as “ironic” rather than “romantic;” but, like Brill’s thesis as a whole, it is difficult to ascribe this quality to all of Hitchcock’s work, namely, Spellbound.

One of the things that Brill says is incorrect to criticize Spellbound for is its being “‘talky’ or ‘theatrical.’”(7) The film has these traits, but they are used to turn the story into an archetypal romance, a modern version of a classic tale of love conquering demons, and identity restoring itself through the purging of those demons. Therefore, the film’s “talkiness” and “theatricality” are meant to elucidate meaning, rather than hinder it. This concept, however, is not as strongly present as Brill would like to think.

The “talkiness” of the film is a most intriguing tool of Hitchcock’s. He was always one to flout the greatness of silent cinema, the idea of making narrative “purely cinematic.” Indeed, his best films use dialogue only sparingly, for the very purpose of telling a story through visual means.(8) Yet, Spellbound is a dialogue-choked film, with characters constantly talking in order to dissect the hidden meanings of their behaviors. Paula Cohen reminds us that psychoanalysis was dubbed the “talking cure” when it was developed in the early 20th Century. “Talk, as Freud used it, was a therapeutic method by which unconscious information could be brought to the surface and made available for interpretation.”(9) It is as if Hitchcock was using the continuous flow of dialogue to illustrate the very techniques of psychoanalysis as part of the style.

This “talking cure” style, however, only further problematizes the film. Hitchcock uses the dialogue almost heavy-handedly, doling out explanations as if they were deadweight. No attempt is made to express the emotional intensity of the narrative through only visual means. The most recognizable visual sequence of the film–the Dali-designed dream sequence–is narrated by Ballantine, and continually interrupted by Petersen and Dr. Brulov. If one compares a similar dream Hitchcock constructed in Vertigo (where Scotty dreams of Elster and Carlotta standing next to him, and of him falling into Carlotta’s grave), then one sees that Dali’s images are being subverted by an obsession to explain them. Indeed, Cohen senses this as well within the sequence, saying that “the blatant artificiality of the imagery brings its metaphoric function into relief but jars with the narrative thrust of the film as a whole and with the narrative that accompanies the sequence in particular.”(10)

Cohen’s argument begins to contradict itself in a certain manner over this point. She speaks to the “fated...clash” of narrative and pictorial aspects within the film, each of which she distinctly assigns to Selznick (narrative) and to Hitchcock (visual).(11) Yet, as previously mentioned, Cohen believes that Selznick informed Hitchcock’s narrative thinking for the better, allowing him to develop more psychologically complex characters, specifically female ones. If the dream sequence can be used as a metonym for the rest of the film (and I believe it can, in certain respects), then how are Selznick and Hitchcock’s voices working well together? It doesn’t seem as though they are.

Consider Ballantine’s final revelation that allows him to purge himself of his amnesia and guilt complex. The sequence begins normally enough, with Petersen and Ballantine skiing down a mountain, in the hopes that it will trigger Ballantine’s memory. The cliff makes him remember the accidental killing of his brother, handled in an 8-second flashback that Ballantine narrates. Hitchcock would normally have allowed that flashback to run its course, in terms of its need to serve the story. It is a revelatory moment, one to which Hitchcock would normally devote a greater amount of time. Ballantine also delivers a superfluous voice-over narration (“It was something from my childhood! I killed my brother!”) in addition to the imagery. This seems completely incongruous to Hitchcock’s normal style. When talking to Francois Truffaut about North by Northwest, Hitchcock explicated the scene between Thornhill and the Professor at the airport: “It wasn’t necessary for that to be heard because the public already had the information.”(12) In Spellbound, Hitchcock is making redundant the very things within the narrative that one would think would be most powerful. Nothing feels like Hitchcock in these sequences.

Moreover, the visual quality of the film is more reminiscent of Rebecca than it is of Hitchcock’s other films. One sees very dynamic lighting contrasts, casting strong shadows across the walls and faces of the characters. While this very textured style served the purpose of Rebecca’s constant presence in Manderley, here it only bolsters the notion of psychological duplicity, a point already made plain by the shower of dialogue. What is interesting about the use of textured shadows in these films is that they aren’t seen elsewhere in his body of work. Paula Cohen sees this imbuing of Hitchcock with Selznick’s style as a positive thing. If one, however, analyzes these qualities in Spellbound within the context of Hitchcock’s other work, the more one realizes that the stylistic tendencies which produce Hitchcock’s primary concerns (moral ambiguity, ambivalence toward femininity, the fragility of the order of modern life) become undermined by Selznickian melodrama. “FT: There are some very beautiful scenes in the picture. For instance, the one showing the seven doors opening after the kiss, and even the first meeting between Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman; that was so clearly love at first sight. AH: Unfortunately, the violins begin to play just then. That was terrible!”(13)

Let us consider the gender dynamic of the film. On the one hand, Hitchcock’s handling of gender roles is quite intriguing, given their reversal (the female Petersen as the clinical doctor, the male Ballantine as the hysterical patient). However, characters consistently refer to Petersen’s displacement as a doctor. As previously mentioned, Fleurot speaks of her lack of warmth; she has “no intuition” (a stereotypical “frigid woman” trait). When she and Ballantine are out walking together, he consistently brings up how wrong she is to disregard love. Later, when she and Brulov argue about Ballantine, he criticizes her femininity: “the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of the intellect.” Earlier, he says that “women in love make the best psychoanalysts ’till they fall in love; then they make the best patients.” One can infer from these exchanges that Petersen’s only redemption is to become a “real woman”: to embrace romantic love, and to unconditionally accept her lover’s faults in order to help him. Nowhere in the film does this get subverted by Hitchcock’s usual ambivalence toward femininity. Compared to films like Notorious or The Birds–where Alicia and Melanie are neither glorified nor condemned for their “pure” and “impure” characteristics–Petersen very simply gives up her independence in order to reaffirm the patriarchy. The film condones this. There is no ambiguity to the moral codes under which Petersen and Ballantine operate. By “curing” themselves with “talk,” there is no longer any deeper meaning or subtext from which we can extricate motivations or notions of characterization.

If it weren’t for Hitchcock’s open dislike for the film, this last point could explain an incredibly clever thing Hitchcock has done with Spellbound. Once the notions of redemption have been identified and achieved through the narrative dialogue, the depth of Petersen and Ballantine’s characterizations are negated. The meanings of their conditions–and thus their lives–have been easily explored and explained, which ties to how loosely Hitchcock used hard psychoanalytic theory (Cohen refers to “psychoanalytic subject matter” in the film as “highly simplified, even bowdlerized”[14]). The lack of depth in the protagonists, especially in comparison to Hitchcock’s greatest films (and the fact that psychoanalysis has always been put upon him, rather than he accepting it willingly), could point to Spellbound being a parodic work, a deliberate subversion of psychoanalysis through the very use of it on levels of form and of content. By making the film heavy-handed and unambiguous, Hitchcock could be illuminating his disdain for such practice in not only film, but in the world. One could see Spellbound as the ultimate critique of psychoanalysis by using it against itself. But Hitchcock claimed to Truffaut that once Selznick gave him the idea about doing a film on psychoanalysis, he supported it (“I wanted to do something more sensible, to turn out the first picture on psychoanalysis”[15]). It would appear that in terms of Hitchcock being “[reluctant] to fantasize” and “[trying] to use a logical approach to the man’s adventure,”(16) Paula Cohen could be correct: Selznick had permeated Hitchcock’s working methods. Where the argument weakens is in the notion that such methods flourished once Hitchcock became his own producer. Spellbound ultimately seems more like a Selznick-dominated misfire than a “Hitchcock picture.”


1. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, with Helen G. Scott, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, pp. 127 & 129.
2. Paula Marantz Cohen, Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1995, p. 53.
3. ibid. p. 54.
4. ibid. p. 55.
5. Lesley Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 240.
6. ibid. p. 281.
7. ibid. p. 281.
8. Truffaut, p. 222.
9. Cohen, p. 56.
10. ibid. p. 60.
11. ibid. pp. 55-6.
12. Truffaut, p. 250. [italics mine]
13. ibid. p. 165.
14. Cohen, p. 56.
15. Truffaut, p. 163.
16. ibid. p. 165.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Conversation about "Contempt," Part III


Maddog (a far better nom de guerre for such a discourse, I should think),

You will never find me disagreeing with you when it comes to Weekend. It is the nuclear bomb planted in the heart of pre-'68 narrative cinema, including Godard's own oeuvre. As you, I, and countless Godard enthusiasts (and haters, for that matter) know, the man never returned to that kind of filmmaking again, even after 1980, when Sauve qui peut, la vie (Every Man for Himself) marked his "return" to narrative, whatever the fuck that means.

It's a little difficult to respond to your central complaint, that Contempt is boring. I'll never begrudge anyone of their opinion, but I've never found the film boring. Quite the contrary: Contempt has always been one of the most thrilling and engaging cinematic experiences I have had the pleasure to enjoy. Of course, I won't let myself off the hook so easily.

The "END OF CINEMA" concept is an intriguing entryway for discussing what is going on in Contempt. I'm with you when you key in on that moment as crucial to illuminating the film's stance on art cinema. But rather than side with Paul when he claims, "I don't think the cinema will ever die," Godard seems a bit more measured in his thoughts. I stand by my claim that on a certain level Contempt is an art film in and of itself. But I also think that Godard is being highly critical of what the art cinema can achieve. After all, Fritz Lang may be "worshipped," but Godard certainly does not present what Lang is creating as worthy of such adulation. He is in fact viciously parodying it.

Godard's best work in his early phase encompasses the tension of emotional identification and alienation. Tenderness and Godard's frequent distancing of the audience from that tenderness is what makes his deconstruction of narrative so fascinating. He distances us from Paul and Camille's disintegration through the deadpan comedy of stepping through the hole in the door, or, when Paul interrogates Camille once more about her ceasing to love him, the camera oscillates from one face to another while a lampshade separates the two lovers.

What's more, the idea of what cinema is and whether or not it is approaching an end is more ironic than you initially think. It is not as flamboyantly vicious as Weekend, and that is what distinguishes the two films when it comes to such an idea. Contempt does believe that the "art film" is dying or dead, but it approaches that notion with much more ambivalence than Weekend does. Hence, our emotional engagement with Paul and Camille, even though we are kept at arm's length. Also, the cinematography's intense sensuality, and its integration of the overwhelming power of nature as the backdrop to the film's second half, brings that ambivalence into sharper focus.

But perhaps the thing that gives the whole game away is the implementation of the score by Georges Delerue. It is one of my all-time favorites, both for its elemental qualities and how Godard uses it in the film. It is warm, sensuous, and full of feeling. It aids in engaging a tender, emotional response from the images. But Godard places it in peculiar places, and cuts it off seemingly at random. (For example, the score plays over Lang walking across the studio lot and lighting a cigarrete, a more rote exercise than the score would normally accompany.) We are constantly forced to reconsider what the music is being used for, and why it makes us feel the way we do. Delerue's music embraces "high art," and Godard then tears it up.

We haven't even gotten to how Godard manipulates Alberto Moravia's novel on which Contempt is based, but that could be moot, because I always misremembered you enjoying it. I am curious to hear if we can save Contempt for the end of cinema.


A Conversation About "Contempt, Part II

This is Madelyn Sutton's first response to Evan Davis's provocation about the controversial Jean-Luc Godard film. Contempt is playing through Tuesday, April 8th, at Film Forum in downtown Manhattan.


Evan dear,

You covered plenty of ground; I hope you'll forgive a similarly broad response, which addresses, I suppose, your general effusiveness - and my (mostly) opposite response.

Why do I so despise Contempt? It's a difficult question to answer, particularly in the space alloted for this discussion. I will say, first, that I consider the general experience (physical and intellectual, rarely emotional) of the viewer particularly significant - this is why I would begin with the question above. I recall first seeing Contempt in Malcolm Turvey's class on Hitchcock and Godard, though not particularly well (I can barely remember what I saw for the first time today!); what I do remember is being bored. Of course, in terms of the more general discussion of the film, the immediate answer might be, "Why, that's just the point!" Really? Would I like to watch a full-length feature making this point more than once? I might go ahead and interpret the thing a thousand ways to attempt to defend my displeasure and barely suppressable yawns, intellectually, yet I think this negative experience matters a great deal. I guess I sound a bit like Jerry - "The wise man does not oppress others with his superiority."

And yet, I adore many of Godard's particularly "difficult" (read: pretentious, longish, etc.) films, such as Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere) and, my personal favorite, Weekend. Early in Contempt, when Palance's Jerry first appears, he's ranting (and I love Palance throughout for just this sort of thing) about his somewhat depleted budget and empty "set"; he concludes with arms thrown out, saying, "And this, my lost kingdom!" However, when Frencesca translates the latter for Paul, and I think the difference is important, she says, "It's the end of cinema." Paul, as obtuse as he will be throughout, answers, "I don't think cinema will ever die." If the subject of Contempt is indeed the art film, you will surely agree that this is a significant exchange and an important moment of various levels of miscommunication. However, returning to my earlier comparison, I can't help but draw a parallel to the intertitles of Weekend, one of the more powerful of which reads "END OF CINEMA". As such a claim can hardly be considered minor for either film - it's about the death of the medium itself, after all - broadening the comparison is surely acceptable. Furthermore, I might add, if Godard has indeed performed what this phrase states, it's as significant to his "project" as, say, Hegel's "death of art" or Nietzsche's "God is dead," if I might be so bold. And I will!

The respective manner in which the two films enact the "end of cinema" highlights the distinction that, in my general verbal and, after all, knee-jerk response, becomes paramount. Weekend is hilarious, disgusting, shameless, and wonderfully broad; it effectively touches upon many issues, including Marxism, the evils of bourgeois consumerism, the irreversible comodification of the "men, nature and gods" that still (somehow) interest the art cinema, the destruction of the sages and innocent idols of the past, the need for revolution on the scale of the present destruction, and so on. This is the "end of cinema" - the end of a tradition of filmmaking in which we can continue to root for the "good" rather than the "bad," ponder the significance of the danse macabre or the quality of emptiness of the individual, become intimately involved or perversely aligned with the characters whatever their supposed moral qualities, or, say, the universal qualities of hatred, violence, sadness or love. Sure, the belief in so many "truths" remains lurking behind the screen where the contemporary Hollywood film plays or even within the hearts of many contemporary indie films; after all, people continued to make art after Hegel and to worship "God" after Nietzsche. The point is, the door was opened. The "protagonist" can turn to his wife and say, "What a rotten film. All we meet are crazy people." (And just one more quote! "I am here to inform these modern times of the grammatical era's end and the beginning of flamboyance, especially in cinema." Postmodern? Maybe, if you believe in that stuff. Fantastic? Undeniably so.)

So, I'll stand up and say, well, Weekend does, in fact, achieve a sort of "END OF CINEMA", without leaving the cinephile wallowing and afraid - we've entered the beginning of flamboyance! Screw "high art" or the "Idea"! But what about Contempt? If the filmmaker's angst represented by the misunderstood hero-artist (Lang) or the easily bought-and-sold (Paul) or the powerful yet shallow (Prokosch) is not ironic, and I don't think you mean to suggest that it is, Evan, well, doesn't that mean there's still the hope for the great cinema, for the power of the "Art Film"? Does the "end of cinema" refer to this profuse bitterness and worship of Lang, the languishing voice of greater truths? If so, can we accept this backwards adoration, knowing what we know, having seen what we've seen? Gods, nature, existence, essence, beauty, nature - they're "grammatical" (or linguistic or dead) values, and Lang, and perhaps all of Contempt, worship angrily and tragically at their demise. Get over it! I'll take flamboyance over boredom any day.

But I'm not fully convinced of this latest interpretation of the film; as I mentioned, I might redeem the film for myself by viewing such nostalgia as ironic. Paul claims to love all of Camille "tragically," and having seen Contempt, we know how absolutely moronic that statement is.

How's that? I'm dying to say more.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Conversation about "Contempt," Part I

For the next several days--or until they want to kill each other, whichever comes first--perennial odd couple Evan Davis and Madelyn Sutton will hash it out about one of Jean-Luc Godard's most celebrated early works. Check back regularly for updates.

Contempt is currently playing at Film Forum in downtown Manhattan until Tuesday, April 8th. The film is also available on an excellent DVD from the Criterion Collection.



I don't know if you've had a chance to re-watch Contempt yet, but I suppose that since this whole scheme was my idea, I'll be the first to jump in. Let me also note that I plan to read the source novel by Alberto Moravia before this correspondence is over.

Having seen Contempt again last week (and for the first time on the big screen), I am still awestruck by the power the movie has on me. Never again did Jean-Luc Godard have a similar kind of power in one of his films, even in the ones I have held more dearly to my heart. Set amidst the master's 15-film winning streak in the 1960s, Contempt lacks the puckish anarchy of Pierrot le Fou, the apocalyptic majesty of La Chinoise and Weekend, the gleeful abandon of Breathless, A Woman is a Woman, Band of Outsiders and Masculin Feminin, and the academic depth of Les Carabiniers, Alphaville and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her-- but it has to be, alongside Vivre sa Vie, Godard's most emotionally satisfying work. And perhaps why that is has something to do with the subject he is honoring and deconstructing: the art film.

The topics of art vs. commerce, tradition vs. modernity, man vs. nature: these were subjects taken on by the great art filmmakers of the day. At least, they were so-called because the industry decided that a certain type of world cinema had to be codified as a genre. Antonioni, Bergman, and to a certain extent Resnais all dealt with this type of modern, ambiguous cinema, and Godard set out to probe just how they may have all connected into such a genre as the "art film." Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is the frustrated screenwriter who sells his soul to a boorish American producer, Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) in order to make some quick money for he and his young wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot). But in the process, a series of misunderstandings leads Camille to loathe Paul for his avarice, his potential infidelity, and his insouciance toward Prokosch's advances toward her. All the while, Fritz Lang, who is directing the adaptation of The Odyssey being written by Paul, stands at an observational distance, a relic from a past Contempt craves to reclaim, but cannot.

The distance between not only Paul and Camille but between Paul and everybody else is emphasized by the language barrier established from the humorous concept of the "international production." One of the most tender scenes involves Lang and Francesca (Giorgia Moll), Prokosch's assistant. They are the only two who speak all involved languages (French, English, Italian, German), and they seem to hold a deep warmth for each other because of this. Such tenderness doesn't exist between any two characters in the film, even Paul and Camille.

Famously, the prologue of a nude Camille and Paul lying in bed was forced on Godard by the film's producers, Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine. They thought that there wasn't enough "skin" of Bardot on screen, which would naturally be the main selling point, right? What Godard does in that moment is not only expose the audience's voyeurism, but also problematizes Bardot's own image of herself. The persistent questioning of Paul about whether or not he loves her various body parts illuminates Camille's deep insecurity about herself, and gives us a prophetic image of why Paul and Camille's marriage is fragile long before Paul becomes involved with Prokosch.

As emotionally involved as we become with Paul and Camille, Godard deliberately forces us to examine their tenderness and cruelty from a distance. He shoots long, distant takes that are never clean in their mise en scene. Most famously, in the extended break-up/make-up scene between Paul and Camille, pillars, doors, and even lampshades prevent the two characters from joining in proper unity. Indeed, the apartment itself becomes a war zone.

Flash cuts remind us of the past and predict the future. Georges Delerue's brilliant score comes and goes seemingly at random. During a vaudeville show, the music stops so the characters can converse uninterrupted. And what Lang is seemingly making is a delicious parody of a traditional misconception of the "art film," when in fact, in the form of Contempt, the audience is witnessing one of its greatest incarnations. Godard is constantly distancing us from natural emotion, which in its own perverse way makes us feel even stronger the emotional catastrophe that Paul and Camille are inflicting on each other. In the late 1950s/early 1960s heyday of the "art film," Godard made the weirdest and most beautiful of them all.

This is all perhaps a bit vague in its effusiveness, but I think that depth will be achieved once the sparring begins. I look forward to your rebuttal.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Gus Van Sant's Newest Masterpiece

Paranoid Park opens this Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan, and opens wide in two weeks.


Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007)

I'm writing this a little out of order. Sorry. I didn't do so well in creative writing . . .

No one would ever accuse Alex Tremaine (Gabe Nevins) of being anything but normal. He is 15, lives in Portland, OR, goes to high school, has divorced parents, has a girlfriend, and loves to skateboard. But there is something else to Alex, something more mysterious and perhaps more profound. Of course, he doesn’t really know it yet.

Paranoid Park is a film that brings every confused and terrifying element of Alex’s psyche to a boiling surface. Writer/editor/director Gus Van Sant has sculpted a film that is an embodiment of subjectivity, every element some evocation of emotional consciousness. And it takes a most brutal event to make Alex even slightly aware that there is something going on inside of him.

The event in question is a death that Alex causes, but is difficult to classify as murder. The police certainly do, but within the diegesis of the film, they never discover the truth. Alex can barely comprehend what has occurred, but it creates a deep rupture that closes him off from his former life.

Van Sant, taking his cue from the source novel by Blake Nelson, frames the movie as a letter Alex is writing to his friend Macy (Lauren McKinney), but unlike Nelson’s protagonist, Van Sant’s Alex tells it out of order. Accordingly, Van Sant fragments chronology in a dense and effortless way. Alex is so consumed by the bewildering viscerality of his emotions that he is unable to cohere his experience properly. Alex is a stream of consciousness, but the film then becomes the complete embodiment of that stream, giving form and grace to Alex’s confusion.

How does Van Sant accomplish this? First and foremost, credit must be given to DP’s Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li. It is a rather canny move on Van Sant’s part to use Doyle in place of his standby for the “Death Trilogy,” Harris Savides. Whereas Savides’s images are dense and heavy, Doyle’s are light and lyrical. He is looser and more delicate. (See his work with Wong Kar Wai for further proof.) Slow motion, eerie lighting, and the texture of faces are all a part of Doyle and Van Sant’s arsenal, emphasizing a tension between Alex’s exterior monotone and the swirl of interior psychic trauma.

As much as Paranoid Park’s visual conception brings forth a vision of Alex’s psychological deterioration, so the sound design further ruptures his subconscious. The songs, which are certainly not part of Alex’s universe (from Elliott Smith to Beethoven to Nino Rota), marry themselves to Doyle and Li’s images in a startlingly bracing way. From the slow-motion shower scene set to a piercing sound tone, to the silent breakup between Alex and Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) set to a theme from Juliet of the Spirits, sound is wholly integral to the lyrical tapestry, and may signal a push forward in American sound design when considered alongside No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood.

And then there is the subject of skateboarding itself. As mentioned by a friend who himself is a skateboarder (and who will, hopefully, eventually post a response to this review), the movie doesn’t appear to contain much fidelity toward the question of why teenagers skateboard in the first place. (There is also the semantic issue of misnaming Portland’s Burnside Skateboard Park as Paranoid Park, when in fact there actually is a Paranoid Park located in downtown Portland.) The movie’s launch point is skateboarding, but it is not its destination. What Alex finds in skateboarding is a liberating, alluring, and dangerous escape from the trials of his quotidian existence (divorce, homework, girlfriends). Especially if we accept the notion that the film’s aesthetic achievements serve as a subconscious counterpoint to what Alex is actually conscious of, then we can argue that skateboarding is not what he believes it to be. And certainly his fantasies of kids doing high-level tricks–gorgeously filmed in Super-8 by Li, which serve as their own counterpoint to Doyle’s more immediately psychological images–are delightful dreams of his own aspirations, aspirations he may never actually achieve. Similarly, his description of those who frequent Paranoid Park (“train hoppers, guitar punks, throwaway kids . . .”) is a highly subjective reading of those he finds there, and may not necessarily be reality. The film seeks to uncover the rift in Alex’s consciousness that his “murder” creates. And since his association with one of Paranoid Park’s regulars leads to this rift, we can potentially see his view of skateboarding as a trap rather than a liberation.

Akiva Gottlieb at Slant mentions that at the end of the film, “we empathize with an ‘unrepentant murderer.’” Granted, he puts the key phrase in quotes, but it is worth mulling over. By film’s end, it has been revealed to us who exactly Alex is writing his letter to, and what he does with it. In one of the film’s most haunting images, we watch Alex in slow-motion throw one page after another into a fire while “Angeles” by Elliott Smith plays on the soundtrack. His soul has finally been unburdened. But does this mean that Alex has not repented? Does it even mean that he “got away with it?” Thanks to Van Sant’s fragmented chronology, we cannot be certain as to what may have happened after Alex disposes of the letter. It is unclear when his conversation with the detective–in which it is revealed that Alex’s skateboard has been found with the security guard’s DNA on it–occurs in relation to the letter’s burning. One can presume that the police might find further evidence on that skateboard that links Alex directly to the murder. And the final sequence finds Alex dreaming Li’s skateboarding fantasias, which he finally appears in. Have his fantasies consumed him to the point where he is a part of them, or are they delivering their farewell, never to return? It is unclear, and for Alex, the only thing that matters is that he is now able to honestly grapple with what he earlier called “different levels of stuff.” In other words, he has passed from innocence to experience. And perhaps he will begin to understand what those different levels actually mean.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pregnancy, Abortion & The Movies: A Look Back at 2007

A rather unexpected cycle of films, as aesthetically and economically different from each other as could be, all took as partial or total focus of their narratives the topic of abortion. From small budget quirky comedy Waitress to the latest Judd Apatow powerhouse Knocked Up to Tony Kaye’s epic documentary Lake of Fire to the even quirkier teen comedy Juno to the Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, all five of these movies dealt with abortion on some level or another, which is a surprise given how much the subject has stayed off of the front pages in recent years. (More hot-button issues in the last four years seem to have been war, torture, gay marriage, stem-cell research and sexual impropriety by the nation’s leaders, whereas in the mid-1990s, abortion clinics were picketed and bombed with terrifying frequency, and whether a candidate was pro-choice or pro-life could make or break their campaign.)

It is certainly commendable that abortion should find its way into three relatively mainstream American comedies–Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno. These movies, however, don’t really take abortion as its primary subject; rather, it is an unexpected pregnancy that is the spine of these films’ narratives. All of these pregnancies are carried to term, fitting them neatly into that subgenre of romantic comedy in which the female protagonist gets a bun in the oven in the first act, and has a blissful delivery at the climax. This is all well and good, to a degree. As several people have pointed out, there’s no story if the baby doesn’t get born. I’ll dispute that later; firstly, let’s examine just how these movies resolve the conflict early on, in which a woman must choose either Planned Parenthood or the local obstetrician.


In Waitress, much like Knocked Up and Juno, writer-director Adrienne Shelley dispatches abortion with quite a bit of narrative speed. Shelley’s heroine Jenna, a preternaturally gifted pie maker played by Keri Russell, discovers that she is pregnant, the father being her abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto). She and her friends Dawn and Becky (Shelley and Cheryl Hines) wait outside the diner where they all work discussing Jenna’s new problem. Dawn brings it up hesitatingly: “have you thought about...the other thing?” Becky and Jenna react with shock and horror. Jenna immediately assures them that she will have the baby–despite the fact that she hates the thing, and for the rest of the movie, writes it letters which blame it for ruining her life. By the end of the movie, her pregnancy has given her the strength to become an independent, self-reliant woman, and she sloughs off both her husband and her OB/GYN lover (Nathan Fillion).


Judd Apatow similarly pays slight and evasive attention to the issue. Alison (Katherine Heigl), an up-and-coming producer/host on E!, has a drunken one-night stand with Ben (Seth Rogen), a Canadian pothead slacker living off of an accident settlement. After she discovers that she is pregnant and informs Ben, Apatow presents two scenes. In the first, Ben consults with his friends. One (Jonah Hill) insists that Alison should “take care of it.” He eventually calls it a “shmashmortion,” so as to not upset one of the guys. This guy eventually bursts into a fit of hysteria, begging Ben to keep the baby away from “those butchers.” He even offers to raise the child himself if Ben does not believe he can handle the responsibility. Meanwhile, Alison is having lunch with her mother (Joanna Kerns), who similarly tells her to “take care of it.” A few more brief words from her, met by silence from Alison, lead to the clinching transition: Alison calls Ben to tell him that she is keeping the baby. Ben decides he wants to be involved, and after many setbacks, he and Alison fall in love, the baby is climactically born, and the three of them literally ride off into the sunset.


Juno is the only one of these three films to actually use the word “abortion.” High school junior Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) decides one night that it would be more fun to have sex with her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), than to watch The Blair Witch Project. Pregnancy ensues, and she makes the trip to the local clinic. A school acquaintance is outside protesting, and warns Juno that the fetus has fingernails. Inside the clinic, a goofy-looking slacker takes Juno’s information, making uncouth jokes in the process. As Juno looks around the waiting room, director Jason Reitman rapidly cuts from one nervous, “uncool” woman to another, until he cuts to Juno high-tailing it out of the office. That night, Juno tells her friend (Olivia Thirlby) that she couldn’t go through with it, that the thought of a fetus having fingernails freaked her out too much. She then decides to find a cute couple in the Penny-Saver who can adopt the child. She finds one (Jason Bateman & Jennifer Garner), and thanks to seeing Garner act as a good mom when she interacts with her niece–as opposed to the suburban ice queen she previously believed Garner to be–Juno realizes that she can give as well as admit her complete love for Paulie. Climactic birth ensues, and Juno and Paulie play their guitars into the sunset.

Make no mistake: no woman should ever be forced to have an abortion. She has the ultimate right to choose what to do with her body, be that abortion, adoption, or becoming a full-fledged mother. And certainly on the most literal level, Jenna, Alison and Juno make their own choices. But, as I have hinted at, there seem to be other rhetorical forces at work informing those choices.

In 21st Century America, abortion is something which is considered practically every time a woman becomes unexpectedly pregnant. It is a serious decision, and it is not my impression that most women make it lightly. (People tell me that in post-communist Romania, women often use abortion as a form of birth control; but more on that later.) In Waitress, Knocked Up, and Juno, however, abortion is treated as something of an afterthought, an idea quickly discarded for the more sensible option.

Juno decides to have an abortion, certainly, but writer Diablo Cody and Reitman suggest that her decision to give the baby away is the first step toward a growing maturity within Juno, culminating in rejecting the arrested development of Bateman in favor of the loving maternity of Garner. Certainly Juno’s horror at the abortion clinic implies that such a choice for a pregnant teenager is positively repugnant.

Both Jenna and Alison don’t appear to want to be mothers at all. They are both career women who are attempting to discover their own right to independence. Jenna is outright contemptuous of the thing growing inside of her, and Alison is depicted as a hot young spinster who is told by her bosses that she needs to focus on her image in order to get ahead. She is not happy to hear that she is pregnant, but after her talk with her mother, she comes to a quick decision to have–and keep–the baby. The way Apatow constructs the sequence suggests that Alison petulantly makes her choice as a defiant act against her mother. Neither Shelley nor Apatow have created scenarios in which their women might make a more serious, considered decision about the rest of their lives. There actually doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of choice in the matter. At points, all three movies are openly hostile toward abortion, from the outright disgust of Ben and Jenna’s friends to Juno’s shock and horror at the clinic.

As for the rebuttal, “there’s no movie if she has an abortion,” honestly: as far as narrative is concerned, the pregnancy rom-com subgenre is a little too easy to make. Your three-act structure is built right in, as if nothing else interesting could be explored with these characters. Is it really that impossible to make a 90-120 minute movie–a romantic comedy, even–in which a woman has an abortion? I would like to think that Apatow, Cody, Reitman, and Shelley are creative enough to put together films that are more complex when it comes to the issue of women’s choice.

By contrast, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire never flinch from the realities and broader emotional spectrum of abortion. 4 Months (a fiction film from Romania following two college friends over the course of one day as one of them tries to obtain an illegal abortion during the Ceausescu era) and Lake of Fire (a documentary shot in 35mm black-and-white in the US over a 17-year period) are certainly different in many respects, but both take abortion as seriously as cancer.


Lake of Fire may stand as the definitive polemic on abortion in America. Begun in the early 1990s, when the British-born Kaye was still a commercials director, the film features talking-head interviews, vérité footage of pro-choice and pro-life rallies, and two actual abortion procedures. Advocates on both sides of the aisle–and along various points of the spectrum–let their voices be heard. Kaye gives roughly equal time to most participants, and though his rhetorical technique subtly reveals the film’s pro-choice leanings, he never allows the film to devolve into an ideological screed. Many unexpected opinions emerge from various figures, including author and Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who is literally pro-life. He is an atheist and is opposed to abortion, war and the death penalty, a platform most pro-lifers would not claim as their own. Another is Norma McCorvey, the woman who served as Roe in Roe v. Wade. After being a pro-choice crusader for many years–along with being a lesbian–McCorvey claims to have seen a collection of dead fetuses in the walk-in freezer at the Texas abortion clinic where she worked. Soon afterward, she denounced her lesbianism, found Jesus, and became one of the key pro-life advocates in America. This is obviously a massive political windfall for the pro-life movement, but Kaye treats it as another example of how complex the issue of abortion is, certainly more complex than many of the demagogues in the film would like us to believe.

The film’s climactic sequence–following a woman in Wisconsin through her own abortion procedure–is similarly treated with great restraint and impassivity. the woman describes her previous abortion procedures, and appears to have a great deal of melancholy about the latest. Doctors and nurses interview her, making sure that she is doing this of her own free will, and that she is 100% certain that this is what she wants to do. Then Kaye shows the actual procedure. Some critics have decried this move as exploitation, that Kaye wishes to merely shock the audience with the image of a dead fetus. But the procedure is so restrained, and its gruesome elements so deftly and matter-of-factly handled, that all we can think about is simply, this is how abortions are done. After the procedure has ended, the woman speaks directly to the camera about the experience. Eventually, she breaks down crying.

The grand ideas we come away with after the movie ends is not that abortion is an uncomfortable afterthought, something which women quickly need to disregard when they discover that they are pregnant. Instead, the question of abortion emerges as something which is a very real, serious idea that every woman must decide for themselves. No one takes it lightly, and no one underestimates its consequences. But the necessity of its legality has the potential, as Kaye shows, to rip America in two.


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days offers up a case study which Tony Kaye might have used had he filmed in Romania instead of America. Two college students, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), attempt to traverse the black-market abortion industry in Romania in 1987. Ceausescu criminalized the procedure when he came to power in 1966, and it wouldn’t become legal again until 1989, when he was deposed. Meanwhile, Otilia must monomaniacally overcome many obstacles in order to help Gabita procure an abortion. These include incredibly precise logistical steps in order to avoid being caught, negotiating with a terrifying doctor (Vlad Ivanov) who eventually forces Otilia to prostitute herself, and her boyfriend’s family, who trap her at dinner and incessantly talk about the banal while Otilia grows more and more anxious by the second. Mungiu films in long, sustained, hand-held takes, allowing a mood of quiet menace to creep into every corner of the frame. Otilia thinks of nothing else but helping her friend, to the point where, through her own frustration and the incredible rigor of Mungiu’s images, she becomes consumed by the quest and the quest alone, physically unable to understand anything else. The portentousness of the ending–a two-shot of Otilia and Gabita after the procedure, neither woman able to eat dinner while a wedding party goes on in the background–speaks to the depths of, and perhaps the irreparable harm done to, their friendship. But the film never questions the bond between them, or the necessity for the both of them to do what they do, even if it means potential harm. And the evil done to them is not abortion itself, but a political ideology that doesn’t allow for Gabita to share the experience of the woman at the end of Lake of Fire.

So what are we left with? Five films which roughly split into two camps: comedy vs. drama, pro-life vs. pro-choice, mainstream vs. art house. Their approaches may all widely differ from each other, but these dualities remain fairly consistent. It would seem to suggest that mainstream America cannot face abortion in 2007. Or it could suggest that pregnancy narratives are merely in fashion, and the suppression of abortion is just an unfortunate byproduct. Further still, it could be that no one knows how to make a pro-choice comedy. I am not sure. In any case, we are left with a somewhat disturbing trend that has the potential to continue for years to come.

By the way, here's the piece that killed my motivation to put this one on the web, mainly because he beat me to the punch, and it's much better:

J. Hoberman in The Village Voice