Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
Earlier this week Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe became only the fourth film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize, after Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 1975), Stephen Hunter (Washington Post, 2003) and Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal, 2005).
A few other movie critics have been named as Pulitzer finalists -- Stephen Schiff (Boston Phoenix, 1983), Andrew Sarris (Village Voice, 1987), Matt Zoller Seitz (Dallas Observer, 1994), Stephen Hunter (Baltimore Sun, 1995), Peter Rainer (New Times Los Angeles, 1998), Ann Hornaday (Washington Post, 2008), A.O. Scott (New York Times, 2010) -- and I've read and admired many of them over the years.
I was first impressed by Morris's writing when he was in San Francisco, where he wrote for both the Chronicle and the Examiner, in the late 1990s. With him and Ty Burr on the movie beat, the Boston Globe now has one of the best critical teams around. And that's saying something: The New York Times team of A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis is far and away the finest in that paper's history.
The Pulitzer submissions from Morris (who's only 36) covered films and subjects such as "The Help," "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," "The Tree of Life," "Drive," the "Fast and Furious" series, "Scream 4," "Weekend," "Water for Elephants," Sidney Lumet and Steve Jobs. A few excerpts to give you an idea of what earned him the prize:
. . . And on the eighth day, Terrence Malick took over. He, too, created heaven, earth, ocean, and the firmament. The bang was big. It was beautiful. It was abstract, expressionist, and microbial. Great spurts of lava turned kaleidoscopic with rage. Clouds of natural gas billowed up like mastodons. Amniotic corkscrews torpedoed through water. A dinosaur lay felled beside a creek. Bubbles slid along wet earth like prehistoric pucks idling between air-hockey points. Sometimes the soundtrack swelled with Mahler. Sometimes it just swelled with silence. Occasionally, the swelling was ponderous. "Brother. Mother,'' someone whispered, "It was they who led me to Your door.''
Which is to say that "The Tree of Life'' is a collection of conversations that lost souls and true believers have with themselves while keeping their heads to the sky. But the movie is church via the planetarium. It's as if Malick set out to paint the Sistine Chapel and settled for a dome at the Museum of Natural History. The movie heaves with ambition and accomplishment. It kneads together into a single cinematic loaf the start of the universe, the activities of a Texas family in the 1950s, and several beach-bound, New Age promenades.
Behold the stupendous imagery (a soaring biplane, a woman blissfully levitating above her front lawn), the superb musical selection, the subtle jut of Brad Pitt's jaw. Could a work of art be more handsome? Could it be more borderline profound? This movie weighs so much, yet contains so little. It's all vault and little coin.
[Director Nicolas Winding Refn] has a big, thick style. It's impasto filmmaking and it benefits from a conventional script and an established genre. In "Drive,'' Refn finds about a half-dozen ways to disturb with the combination of utter stillness and grisly violence. When a man has his hand manically hammered backstage at a strip club, the dancers sit topless and look on with the detachment that you imagine Refn used to film the scene. He's described "Drive'' as a fairy tale, which sounds disingenuous (Refn is sure to become as notorious for his statements to the press as his countryman Lars von Trier). But he's not wrong. "Drive'' has moments of magic, in which he dares to nudge the tiniest bit at the limits of time and space. In one elevator ride, the second before the Driver beats a man senseless, he steals a moment of romance that, impossibly, lasts for an eternity. Nothing. A kiss. Then stomp-stomp-stomp. The absurdity is exhilarating. The exhilaration is absurd. This is such a visually muscular movie that you have to laugh at the bravado. If he wants the job, Refn could become a hero to a generation of kid moviegoers the way Tarantino did for a previous one: as a controversial pop-artist.
Three summers ago, I went to visit a friend in West Texas. She took a group of us to a restaurant in a big, well-appointed country house. At some point during the meal, one of us saw something alarming. A ceramic statue of a squat black woman was propping open a door. It was the sort of figurine that sums up a particular strain of race in America. The owner was a tall white woman who looked 50 in a very young way. When I asked her about the statue, her face lit up. "Oh, mammy,'' she said. "Isn't she wonderful?''
I don't know what kind of racist craziness we expected her to express, but that wasn't it. I was the lone black person in our group, which also included only one native Southerner, and as a confrontation brewed between this woman and the young people in her restaurant, I watched her defiance turn into something else. "Mammy is strong,'' she kept saying. "Mammy raised me.'' We saw a loaded insult. She saw an emblem of welcoming. We were mad. And our anger broke her heart.
This pretty much captures the cognitive dissonance of watching "The Help'': One woman's mammy is another's man's mother. What can you do? It's possible both to like this movie -- to let it crack you up, then make you cry -- and to wonder why we need a broad, if sincere dramatic comedy about black maids in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 and '63 and the high-strung white housewives they work for. The movie is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time. [...]
... Black women, in one way or another, have always been someone's maid. These are strong figures, as that restaurant owner might sincerely say, but couldn't they be strong doing something else? That's the hardest thing to reconcile about Skeeter's book and "The Help'' in general. On one hand, it's juicy, heartwarming, well-meant entertainment. On the other, it's an owner's manual.
The "Fast and Furious" movies:
Go on and laugh your Benetton, Kumbaya, Kashi, quinoa laugh, but it's true: The most progressive force in Hollywood today is the "Fast and Furious" movies. They're loud, ludicrous, and visually incoherent. They're also the last bunch of movies you'd expect to see in the same sentence as "incredibly important." But they are--if only because they feature race as a fact of life as opposed to a social problem or an occasion for self-congratulation. (And this doesn't even account for the gay tension between the male leads, and the occasional crypto-lesbian make-out.) [...]
All the racial mixing isn't idealized, and isn't untouched by the reality of race in America today. Brian's [Paul Walker] ability to move from one side of the law to the other seems as much the result of white privilege as it does bad screenwriting. And it's useful to remember that most of the nonwhite characters aren't upstanding businessmen or girls-next-door--they're robbers and car thieves. But the weird excitement of these movies, if you take them together, is how they distort reality to create the illusion of revolution. The movies give us felons who seem, even unwittingly, like they're fighting for something--say, for the normalization of racial integration at the movies. Some of us grimaced when John Singleton, the director of "Boyz n the Hood," signed on to direct the first sequel. It seemed desperate. He should be out doing something important, we thought--but, as it turns out, that's exactly what he was doing.
Is there a star as determined as Tom Cruise to show how hard he works? Is there one as desperate to show how hard he's working for us?
We're now in an age of such control that smoothness and the illusion of ease have taken over the movies. Ryan Gosling's performance in "Drive'' encapsulates the vogue for a kind of touchless action-hero and all that he does: the appeal of his grace and clenched jaw, the erasure of sweat and strain. I love Gosling and the less archly styled Jason Statham. But Cruise is laughing at them. Cruise will clench his jaw until his teeth shatter -- do you think he cares that he just had his man-braces removed? For a paying audience to watch him save the world, he'd have his entire mouth reconstructed. Silly me. I almost typed "pretend to save the world,'' but isn't that the difference between Cruise and everybody else? There's no "cut'' for him.
We might have given up on Cruise. The runty cockiness, the intense asexuality, the general relentlessness, the sprinting -- lord, the sprinting: so passé. But Cruise hasn't given up on himself. "Ghost Protocol'' is the fourth "Mission: Impossible'' in 15 years, and his decision to keep making these ridiculous movies -- this one's "A Tom Cruise Production'' -- doesn't feel desperate. It feels like a workout. For him. For us. For whoever on the set was responsible for saying, "Tom, that's a union job'' or "Mr. Cruise, we have stuntmen to run along the surface of that skyscraper and fling themselves inside.''
There comes a point in your moviegoing life where you look at the screen and then you look at the world and you ask, "What is going on?'' You want the movies to show you the chaos and mess and risk and failure that are normal for a lot of us. Generally, the movies hide all of that.
Sometimes you don't want to escape. You want to connect with a movie that's really about something, to listen to a filmmaker talk things out, to watch him amp everyday life without calling attention to his turning up the sound.
You want to see a guy contemplate getting dressed; open a box of Nikes, then put it away; maybe get stoned; head to a friend's dinner party, then go out to a Nottingham club where he'll meet another guy, take him home, and spend the next day and a half getting to know him so well that, come Sunday, he's in love. You want to see intimacy and sex, yes. But you want to experience the way intimacy compounds sex until it begins to sprout feelings. What you want is "Weekend,'' one of the truest, most beautiful movies ever made about two strangers.
As much as Apple is a company, it never strikes the culture as a corporation. What Apple uses and creates has been bad for landfills, the designers of album covers, brick-and-mortar anything, and attention spans. Yet Apple maintains a high approval rating, particularly in relation to, say, Microsoft, which, despite having a philanthropic chief executive, has never succeeded in giving itself a human face. In the Mac vs. PC ads, Apple bills itself as the antidote to Microsoft. To love Apple wasn't to sell out. It was to buy in. Most people use PCs, but Apple has the mindshare. [...]
Through my window, I sometimes see a couple on their sofa in front of the television with their MacBooks. There's a sad scene in Miranda July's recent breakup movie "The Future,'' in which a couple does a version of the same thing. Some nights, I'm in that relationship, too. The most terrifying sequence in Pixar's "Wall-E,'' more or less about two gizmos in love, is the way man has evolved into a dumpling obsessed with his screen. It was a vision of the future that occasionally feels like now.
We don't know whether Jobs's revolution has enhanced or ruined us. Are we smarter or ruder? More efficient or more indolent? More creative or more consumerist? It's impossible to remember a before. We are our screens now. Which is to say that Jobs is the quintessential visionary. Without leaving civilization entirely, how can we see around what he saw? Would we even want to now?
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