American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Now that Matt Zoller Seitz has announced that he's moving on, back to Dallas from Brooklyn and into full-time filmmaking, I thought I'd take a quick glance over the shoulder at some of the writing he's done at his home, The House Next Door, since he opened the place January 1, 2006. Of course, he's done a lot of other writing -- for The Dallas Observer, The Newark Star-Ledger (the Sopranos' hometown paper), the New York Press and the New York Times among other outlets -- but he became a habit with me through the House.
Matt has been a generous proprietor (sometimes perhaps too generous, but that's hardly a grievous fault). Today the House Next Door masthead lists more than 40 contributors -- novices and vets alike -- including the invaluable editor-cum-landlord Keith Uhlich.
At the same time that I'm excited for Matt (who, by the way, I've never met face-to-face), I'm not going to pretend I'm not bummed. This is how I deal with the grief part: Let's celebrate MSZ for all he's done in (and for) the blogosphere. Consider this a very short clip reel. As the lights go down on one phase of Matt's career, and the curtain opens on another, sit back and immerse yourself...
Oh, and sorry about that headline, guys. (That's as in Zoller-, not polter-.)
Open House (first House Next Door post, January 1, 2006):
My grandfather, a self-educated German-American farmer from Olathe, Kansas, believed that no journey, however seemingly circuitous or self-destructive, was ever truly unnecessary, or even avoidable. Sometimes we just have to continue along a particular path for inexplicable, personal reasons, disregarding warnings of friends and family and perhaps our own internal voices, until we arrive at our destination, whatever it may be. This type of journey, my grandfather said, was the equivalent of "driving around the block backward to get to the house next door."
"The New World" (first theatrical cut, January 2, 2006):
"The New World" (second theatrical cut, January 25, 2006):
Other people direct movies. Terrence Malick builds cathedrals. "The New World" is my new religion, easily the most pictorially innovative and moving American studio release I've seen in the 15 years I've been a professional movie critic. To appreciate it requires viewers to abandon narrative filmmaking conventions they're comfortable with (perhaps even spoiled by) and learn a new language, a primordial language of pictures that largely bypasses narrative cinema's persistent theatrical influence and plugs into the rhythms of thought. [...]
In service of this unfashionably transcendental vision of life, Malick merges images and music with a silent filmmaker’s muscular grace. The immediacy of Malick’s shooting and editing style (he improvises entire scenes and subplots on the fly, and sends second unit cameramen to pop off shots of anything they deem beautiful, and finds the movie in the editing much as a reporter finds a story in his notes) pushes against the film’s lofty, contemplative elements: the swelling classical score (Wagner, Mozart, James Horner), the ruminative multiple voice-overs. The resultant aesthetic tension jostles us into new ways of seeing. Watching "The New World," we are at once dislocated and free, experiencing the shock of the new while recollecting it in tranquility (or speculating on how we will remember it). Malick’s characters pore over their lives as if words will fix their feelings; sometimes a random, lonely word will puncture a reverie or a moment of intense violence (a word like “mother,” for instance, or “wonder”). But words, Malick realizes, fix nothing because nothing is fixed; there is no past or present, no differences or similarities, except those we choose to mark. In Malick’s films, memory becomes history (or anecdote); thoughts and feelings become images, and images become music, and everything becomes new.
Diversity of response isn’t prima facie evidence of a masterpiece, of course. It’s the minimum we should expect from a film that aspires to be more than a diversion. But as I look back on that evening, I am less struck by what happened afterward than by the audience’s behavior during the film. Whatever opinions they formed after the fact, while they watched “The New World,” they gave themselves to it. They knew this movie respected them, and they responded in kind.
I close with a few words from another American visionary, Willa Cather: “Miracles seem to me to rest not so much on faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but on our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what was there always.”
"The New World" is a miracle. I’m glad I’m alive to see it.
"No Country for Old Men" (November 16, 2007):
5 for the day: Contrapuntal Narration (January 7, 2006):
The Coens' shift from up-close, graphic violence to obscured or elliptical violence cements the sense that we've been privy to a mysterious but fundamental change in the universe. We see bloodied flesh close-up when it's a new phenomenon; when it ceases to be noteworthy, the filmmakers stop showing it. A notable exception is the climactic car wreck that injures Chigurh. It has the hallmarks of a deus ex machina, but it occurs too late to prevent the assassin's campaign of terror and it doesn't so much end his rampage as interrupt its denouement. [...]
...[T]he Coens insist that no man can verify if these forces actually exist or if we insist they do out of vanity -- in order to convince ourselves that our existence matters to anyone but us and our loved ones. The confluence of forces that suggests fate or justice might be evidence of a higher power (represented in the conversation between Bell and the old lawman about what God wants), chance (Anton Chigurh's tossed coin, which decides if a person lives or dies -- an intriguing hint that on some level, this stone-cold psychopath feels guilt and perhaps wishes to reassure himself that his bloody deeds were inevitable) or free will (a subject broached in the scene where Carla Jean declines the coin toss to force Chigurh to accept responsibility for his deeds). Or it could be the result of electrons colliding to produce a result that might have been different had a single electron bounced differently. This free will vs. destiny thread runs through all of the Coens' work, even their most maligned and dismissed movie, "The Hudsucker Proxy" -- a comedy in which the story's microcosmic society, the Hudsucker Corporation, persists no matter what executives, workers, stockholders and outside agitators do to influence it. That film's most revealing image is dolt hero Norville's blueprint of three ridiculously successful toys, all represented by the same drawing, a straight line (the side view: free will) and a circle (the overhead view: destiny).
McCabe & Mr. Milch (on "Deadwood" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," March 5, 2006):
"Taxi Driver." (Martin Scorsese, 1976) War vet turned cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) preaches the values of fitness and military discipline, but smokes, pops pills, stays out all night and softens his breakfast cereal with Thunderbird. He bemoans society's decline, declares that all the animals come out at night and says he wishes a real rain would come and wash all the scum off the streets, but he's a sociopathic, combative loner who's so comfortable in hardcore porn theaters that he takes his dream girl there on their first and last date, then channels his wounded anger into "protecting" a child prostitute and stalking a presidential candidate. The difference between Travis and Travis' self-perception is is the true subject of this movie. Written by Paul Schrader, "Taxi Driver," like all great contrapuntally narrated films, exposes the gulf between our sense of our own importance and our actual importance, between what we think we know about ourselves and the truth of the matter. And it shows us, though both narration and subjectively distorted imagery, how feelings warp our sense of life. Scorsese's film is all tension, no closure; all schism, no merger. The blowout finale solves everything and nothing. The hero is a lunatic. The lunatic is a hero. A core of mystery is preserved.
On his directorial debut, "Home" (February 28, 2006):
To some degree, nearly all of Altman’s films are anatomies of community. Ditto “Deadwood,” which week to week showcases a panoramic concentration that recalls Altman at the top of his game. Like Altman, Milch is not content to fixate on the plight of one individual -- a fundamental creative choice that puts both men temperamentally at odds with much of American popular culture. Both Altman and Milch prefer to see the big picture, the pointillist mural that takes shape when an artist asks the audience to take a few steps back from the canvas. They study human constellations comprised of distinct human beings who embrace different religions, inhabit different social strata, imbibe different substances, muse on their own pet obsessions and pursue their own strange agendas, all the while remaining largely oblivious to their impact on everyone else. Both Altman and Milch are not just storytellers. They are dramatic anthropologists, devising a collective organism in order to scrutinize it.
The Sopranos: "Kennedy and Heidi" (May 14, 2007):
I made the movie because I originally went to college to study filmmaking, got sidetracked into a long and satisfying career as a critic and reporter, but continued to think like a filmmaker whenever I watched movies or TV. My personal background explains why my criticism tends to be equally interested in form and content, often more the former than the latter. It also explains why "Home" is a elliptical movie, very realistic in certain respects and surreal in others, with kind of a hothouse atmosphere, a documentary approach to behavior, and a dry, admittedly strange sense of humor. The style is a mix of classical Hollywood compositions and camera moves and some fairly wild documentary stuff. The narrative blends scripted and improvised scenes, and the finale is open ended and perhaps a bit ambiguous.
"Home" gave me a chance to visually express some of the aesthetic qualities I value as a moviegoer, which I guess makes it a continuation of criticism by other means. The movie also represents an admission that I am and have always been a filmmaker in addition to being a critic, and that I have no intention of choosing one pursuit at the expense of the other, and people on both sides of that line might as well get used to it.
The Sopranos: "Made in America" (June, 11, 2007):
The most significant scene in the entire run of The Sopranos occurred in last night's episode, "Kennedy and Heidi." It wasn't the bloody car wreck or its disturbing aftermath. It wasn't Tony's trip (in any sense of the word "trip"). It wasn't either of Tony's two therapy scenes, and it wasn't any of the scenes of mourning (or not mourning). It wasn't even a scene really. It was a five-second cutaway to the two title characters, Heidi and Kennedy -- the teenage girls in the car Chris Moltisanti swerved to avoid.
"Maybe we should go back, Heidi," says Kennedy. Heidi's reply: "Kennedy, I'm on my learner's permit after dark." [...]
... Any righting of this universe's moral scales will be incidental. Tony's been living an expedient life for too long. If he was going to change, he would have done it. He's been going down this road forever. He's had too many close calls to count. Each time, he hears some version of Heidi and Kennedy in his head, Kennedy saying, "Let's go back," and Heidi saying, "No."
Heidi is driving.
"There Will Be Blood" (December, 26, 2007):
"It's my nature."
That's the punchline of the the fable "The Scorpion and the Frog," a fable repeated in numerous pop culture works, including The Sopranos, which referenced it in Season Two. About 10 minutes into "Made in America," the final episode of the final season of David Chase's drama, that phrase wriggled into my head and stayed there. It's key to appreciating the final episode, and key to understanding Chase's attitude toward people; they are what they are, they rarely change, and when they do, they stay changed for as long as it takes to realize that they were more comfortable with their old selves, at which point they revert; and once they're taken out of the picture, by illness or incarceration or death, the world keeps turning without them.
Which is a roundabout way of saying, what the hell did people expect from David Chase? Closure? Satisfaction? Answers? A moral?
It was the perfect ending. No ending at all. Write your own goddamn ending.
On Wong Kar-Wai (from an interview with Keith Uhlich, April 27, 2008):
... [I]t mostly sticks with Daniel, a closed-off man who seems to have little soul to lose, and syncs up his lordly ruthlessness and the director's style, robbing the film of the greater complexity it might have achieved from having the hero and the style work at cross-purposes (and they surely would have in a film by Altman or Terrence Malick). From the moment we meet Daniel, he's a terrifying capitalist instrument, telegraphing his objectives (to the viewer, his clients and his rivals) so unambiguously (and with a rumbling, often gleeful voice) that at times he evokes John Huston's Noah Cross from "Chinatown." Between Day-Lewis' hyperreal performance -- always teetering on the edge of theatrical artifice -- and Jonny Greenwood's aggressively dissonant score, Daniel radiates an almost vampiric mix of hunger, patience and indestructibility; midway through the movie, when he's riding on a train and a shaft of sunlight unexpectedly hits his face, I half-expected him to burst into flame.
Yet in characterizing Daniel, here too Anderson mostly transcends his influences, creating a character we haven't seen before in a movie that feels fresh. Daniel is inarguably kin to Michael Corleone and Charles Foster Kane -- a monster of ego, manipulative, ruthless and self-loathing. But there's more here than Lonely Capitalist cliche. Daniel has human potential, but it can't be tapped because his drive is so intense and his emotional armor so thick. You can see it in the way that Daniel dotes on H.W. during their initial train ride together in the 1902 sequence. Even though he's probably already thinking of ways he can amortize this profound emotional investment -- sure enough, in the 1911 section H.W. accompanies Daniel on business meetings, enabling Daniel to declare, "I'm a family man" before he commences screwing whoever he's dealing with -- from the start, the connection between boy and man seems intuitive, elemental, real. Later in the film, after Daniel has used and neglected H.W. and then coldly sent him packing, there still seems to be real love there, however mangled. Later, when the newly-returned H.W. walks through a field with Daniel, who is spouting the usual self-justifying bullshit and otherwise acting as if he's done nothing wrong, the boy hauls off and starts slapping him. Anderson's directorial detachment -- framing the whole exchange in long shot -- is masterful.
From the Editor (first anniversary post, January 1, 2007):
There’s got to be a review [of "My Blueberry Nights"] out there that’s pointed this out, but I haven’t seen one yet, that the movie is broken up by… you know, it’s a fragmented movie that’s really a series of vignettes and almost a series of character moments. Some of ‘em are big epiphanies, and others are just kind of fleeting conversations. But they’re broken up by these intertitles that are “time” and “distance.” It’ll say, “Four Days Later, 3,221 miles.” And the title cards don’t really mean anything. They’re there and they pop up onscreen, and they seem to be very momentous, and the first time you see them you think, “Ah, this is important. This is the key to everything.” And they keep popping up throughout the movie, and they don’t illuminate anything, and they don’t mean anything. And that’s the point of putting them up there… these distinctions of… Where are you from? Where are you now, physically? What time is it? You know, is it a holiday? Is it an anniversary? These things are not as important as the life that’s going on inside of you, which doesn’t obey any calendar or any clock or any map.
I think it’s Wong Kar-wai sending a message, and it’s very much in tune with the one he’s been sending throughout his filmography, which is “life happens in the moment.” Life happens in the moment; it doesn’t happen… you know, if you spend too much time looking forward or looking back, you’re not really living. And that’s why his movies are focused on… they’re built around the moment in the way that Michael Mann’s films are. They’re about emotions, and when he kicks into slow motion, or fast motion, or freeze frame, it’s almost never to italicize a plot point. It’s usually to italicize a feeling. Or to extend a feeling, or to truncate a feeling, and it’s all about the feelings and the sensations, and what people see and what they hear and what they feel. Very few movies are about that. That aesthetic is not shared by most movies. And I was looking back over the filmmakers that I am generally most attracted to, and they all have that in common.
Writing is a hall of mirrors, a combination journal and photo album that exists in your head from cradle to grave, present tense; so I guess it's inevitable that no matter what I write about, it somehow circles around to something I've seen before or written about before, someplace I've been before, someone I knew before. [...]
The House Next Door started out as a hobby -- a place to put writing that was too personal, too out-of-the-mainstream, too unclassifiable or too random to publish in NYPress, which employed me as a film critic, or The Star-Ledger, where I worked as TV columnist. But that changed... [...]
Strange that what started out as a solo venture became a collective enterprise. This has happened to me throughout my life, from elementary school comics newsletters up through independent film projects that were originally intended only as screenplays, but that ultimately morphed into self-directed ventures involving dozens of people whose only shared trait, it seemed, was a willingness to get drawn into another person's obsession. Everything's different, nothing's changed.
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...