Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg's film of Bruce Wagner's Hollywood satire-nightmare turns ludicrous situations into operatic tragedy.
Let me indulge my passion for operatic drama for a moment and say that I've seen Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" four times now (the theatrical version and the new "extended cut" on DVD, twice each) and, while I'm watching it, I feel like I've never before seen a movie that fully recognized what human behavior is like. Sure, the focus is entirely on a certain demographic slice of human beings -- mostly middle- to upper-class, educated, New York-dwelling, Judeo-Christian-atheist white people -- but these people are alive and ragged and messy in ways few movie characters are allowed to be. (The characters, and the lives the movie depicts, are messy; the movie itself is exquisitely shaped according to its maker's vision, and that was apparent from the theatrical cut.)
Of course, all movies are stylized and all characters, whether documentary subjects or fictional, are creations (of writers, directors, actors, editors, cinematographers and others) presented to us in a frame. Yet there are dimensions to the interactions in "Margaret" -- the longing to be understood, the perverse impulse to (deliberately?) misinterpret someone else, the desire to inflict emotional sabotage on yourself or another person just because you can -- that movies so often overlook in an effort to provide clear and clean drama in which everybody announces, bluntly and correctly, exactly what they mean to say.
In other words, as Lisa Cohen might say, "Margaret" calls bullshit on most other movies.
It's not enough to say that Louis C.K.'s "Louie" is the finest, funniest, most adventurous half-hour comedy on television. It's not even necessarily accurate, since the series is more like a short story anthology than any kind of sitcom you've ever seen. Yes, Louie is the main character, a divorced New York stand-up comedian whose observations and adventures provide the backbone for the stories (sometimes more than one per show), but other characters or storylines may or may not continue beyond the half-hour in which they're introduced. Last season, for instance, Louie found himself in temporary but indefinite custody of his 13-year-old niece at the end of the episode... but she never reappeared.
The flighty, fidgety bookstore employee played by Parker Posey, whose name we don't discover until the last word of the two-parter called "Daddy's Gilfriend" (it's Liz), is unlikely to show up again, but Posey says she'd love to come back in the role he originally envisaged for her -- as his shrink. This, I think, is a good thing. Liz's function was to act as a force of instability, to shake Louie out of his risk-averse routine. And, boy, did she succeed. She is fascinating, goofy, beguiling -- and baffling, frustrating, unsettling, frightening, exhausting, all in one volatile, bubbling cauldron of moods and impulses. You can read it all in Louie's face as he attempts to figure out what to make of her, from situation to situation, moment to moment, all through the night. (His range of tentative reactions reminded me of the wife of bus driver Mark Ruffalo in "Margaret," who churns through turbulent sequence of responses as she tries to get a read on Lisa Cohen and what she could possibly want from her husband.)
"If you think this movie is mediocre, why have you written so much about it?" That's a comment I sometimes get -- and although I understand where it's coming from, I don't think it makes sense if you stop to think about it for two seconds. I usually respond by saying that I don't see any contradiction there at all. Who hasn't encountered a movie that, afterwards, is more interesting to talk about than it was to actually sit through? Who would argue that the only movies worth analyzing and arguing about are those you think are successful? When I was 18, one of my college film professors told us something I've never forgotten -- that you can often learn as much (or more) about film from a bad movie as you can from a good one.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky raises this same issue in a round-table conversation on "The Dark Knight Rises" at MUBI.com that takes a course similar to the ones we've been having here at Scanners:
... I'd be lying if I said that I don't derive pleasure from trying to crack it and figure out what exactly makes it frustrating or dull. You gotta give credit where credit is due: even when Nolan makes a mediocre film... it's at least fun to talk about. You can't say that about many filmmakers -- but, then again, it would be even better if the movie was as fun to watch as it is to discuss.
My feelings precisely. One more thing, though, before I get back to this MUBI confab, and that's the matter of tone and attribution of motive -- not to the movie or the characters in it, but to those who take part in the discussion. First, as I said previously, I have nothing worth adding to what's already been written about the shootings in Aurora, CO -- and I've avoided reading most of it because, as Dave Cullen wrote in last Sunday's New York Times, almost everything we think we know about the killer and even the circumstances of the incident itself, is wrong.
"Gotham's time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it, the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we've performed for centuries. Gotham... must be destroyed." -- Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), "Batman Begins" (2005)
"Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one: economics.... We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them... and stab them in the heart." -- Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson), "Batman Begins" (2005)
"You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other." -- The Joker (Heath Ledger), "The Dark Knight" (2008)
"Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country." -- Maximilien Robespierre, 1794
"I am Gotham's reckoning... I'm necessary evil.... Gotham is beyond saving and must be allowed to die." -- Bane (Tom Hardy), echoing his former master in "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)
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(You've seen "The Dark Knight Rises" by now, right? Good. I'm going to discuss a few things that I would consider spoilers, albeit mild ones, and then get to some pretty big spoilers later on, before which I will offer an additional warning, just in case.)
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The villains of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies don't think very highly of "ordinary citizens" (now popularly referred to as "the 99 percent"), whom they tend to view as mindless savages, slaves to fear who'll claw one another and the city of Gotham to shreds at the slightest provocation. The films themselves sometimes confirm that view (Gothamites get a little panicky in "The Dark Knight" when they fear that Batman is not keeping the crime rate down) and sometimes don't (they choose not to blow themselves up in the Joker's intricately planned ferry experiment). This isn't really a theme that's developed in the movies, but like most of the political and social references, it's something that's... there.
So, we're having this wonderful discussion at Scanners about the moral dimensions of superhero movies -- mostly about "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Marvel's The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight." I was bringing up some things from 2008 and 2009 about how some see the Joker as a "nihilist" or an "agent of chaos" and how I see him figuring into the moral design of the movie, and somebody posted this comment:
I'm so confused. You've spent the better part of 4 years slamming the dark knight for not being a "good" film, even though you're now saying its chalked full of thematic material. So am I correct in assuming you like the themes it raises, it's that the execution was poorish? So it's ok to like the themes just not the way it's presented, or that they presented too obviously, sloppily. Please give me a straight answer. I want to understand your interpretation of the material once and for all.
OK! Now, on the eve of the release of "The Dark Knight Rises," is probably a good time to attempt to do that once again -- if only to remind people that, although I have written a lot about "The Dark Knight" and Christopher Nolan (including pieces on "Following," "Memento,"The Prestige" and "Inception"), my reservations about his work have been closely focused on two things, involving writing and direction. Here's my (slightly cleaned-up) reply to that comment above:
In the classroom lesson that wraps up the romantic and thematic threads of "The Amazing Spider-Man," a high school English teacher takes issue with the old saw about there being only ten (or so) stories in all of human history. She says she believes there's only one: "Who am I?" This being a remake-reboot of the Peter Parker Becomes Spider-Man origin story, that's a good thing for this, or any, coming-of-age movie to focus on.
An appealing cast headed by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone provides all the special effects the movie needs, and they're far more engaging (for adults, anyway, I would imagine) than the usual clinical computer visuals. (Yes, I *liked* it. Hey, Mikey!) The emphasis is on charm, emotion and comedy -- until the third act CGI blowout, but even those scenes give Spidey some real weight and mass for the first time as he swings through the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan. (There's even a built-in joke about it, with two students of Midtown Science High School discussing some user-uploaded YouTube footage.) The way director Marc Webb (" Days of Summer") and DP John Schwartzman shoot Spidey and the city, they both seem to occupy a common, more-or-less real physical space. The camerawork isn't all "Avatar" floaty and fakey, and there's a lovely shot of Spidey on the Oscorp building with sunlight shimmering off the windows that looks like real glass and steel and sunlight, even though the Oscorp building itself is a CGI creation. (So are the hallways of Morse Science er, Midtown Science High, but you'd never know it.)
What's worse than finding a hair in your soup? Being raped.* -- @AntiJokeApple, June 2, 2012
"I was raped by a doctor... which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl..." -- Sarah Silverman, "Jesus Is Magic" (2005)
Seriously, what is a rape joke, why do you tell one, and how do you apologize for one? I empathize with comedians who get up on stage, alone, and develop new material, often without knowing where their minds and mouths are going to take them (or their audience). It's a semi-disciplined, stream-of-consciousness high-wire act without a net, and as any comic will tell you, they frequently fall. (See Patton Oswalt's remembrance of a bad performance in the early 1990s and the "Magical Black Man" who haunted and helped him.) But no matter what they say or do, they're still accountable for saying or doing it -- and, more than ever before (thanks to blogs and social media and video smartphones), they are held publicly accountable. So, when I heard that Daniel Tosh of Comedy Central's top-rated "Tosh .0," was in hot water for telling a "rape joke," the first thing I wanted to know was: What was the joke? That has to be where it all starts, don't you think? What did he actually say?
Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" was written in 2003, filmed in 2005 and stuck in post-production for six more years. The 150-minute version briefly released theatrically last year was an inchoate masterpiece, perhaps, but a masterpiece nevertheless. The DVD/Blu-ray release, July 10, will feature two versions of the film -- the theatrical release and a new "extended cut" by Lonergan that, he says, better reflects his current vision for "Margaret." As he told Indiewire, "The cut that was released was the cut I delivered. They're both the director's cut; they're just different cuts."
Paul (teenage Patti Benton's boyfriend in Paul Mazursky's 1978 "An Unmarried Woman" -- a specimen of living, breathing upper-class urban cinema that belongs in the same genus as "Margaret") would no doubt observe that Lonergan's movie is "flawed." (Or, as Patti says: "I liked it. Paul thought it was flawed.") And it is. "Margaret" rapidly unravels in the last third or so, along with the turbulent world of its teenage protagonist Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin). I don't want to get into the plot or characters at all here (I want to wait until I see Lonergan's "extended cut"), but let me say that this movie features four of the most mesmerizing and complex characterizations I've ever seen in any movie: Paquin's Lisa, Jeannie Berlin's Emily, J. Smith-Cameron's Joan and Allison Janney's Monica (the latter a one-scene cameo).
To best appreciate Aaron Sorkin's writing, you should probably know as little as possible about whatever it is he's writing about. Imagine that pithy, rather snarky statement delivered at a rapid clip from the mouth of one of Sorkin's characters. It's a generalization, an oversimplification, but it contains a kernel of truth. I'm gonna be rough on Sorkin's HBO show "The Newsroom" because, dang it, I think it can get better. (According to one character, getting better-ness is in our nation's DNA.)
The press has not been kind to the first couple episodes of "The Newsroom," in part because it displays so little affinity for how news is reported, written and presented. Anybody who's worked in a newsroom would have to cringe at the idea that these characters are being portrayed as professional newsgatherers, even if they are on cable TV, the lowest rung of the journalistic ladder -- just slightly below Murdoch tabloids which, at least, have reporters who gather news illegally rather than just making it up as they go along like they do on cable.
Having some familiarity with how "Saturday Night Live" is put together, I found Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" unwatchable, bypassing so many promising reality-based opportunities for comedy and drama while manufacturing absolutely bogus, nonsensical, unbelievable and impossible ones. Doesn't the guy do research? "The Newsroom" feels like it was written in Sorkin's spare time, perhaps between projects he actually cared about.
Don't get me started on his lack of technological savvy. When someone in a Sorkin script says something as common as "blog" or "Twitter" they sound like they're speaking Estonian. Because they may as well be. Even "The Social Network" was weak on showing how technology made Facebook into a popular and compelling user experience. As Bobby Finger at BlackBook wrote, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) calls the rebooted show they're doing "NewsNight 2.0" because "in this parallel-universe-alternate-history-2010, people still speak like it's 2006. They also use email like it's 2001..." (More about that in a moment.)
Or: Do comic-book movie blog posts display traffic superpowers?
New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis held a discussion of comic-book movies and that subset known as "superhero movies" in advance of the Marvel re-boot, "The Amazing Spider-Man," which opens Tuesday, July 3. (The article will appear in the paper July 1, but is now online.) This, I think, goes to the heart of the matter:
SCOTT:What the defensive [superhero] fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns: a billion dollars! Who can argue with that? Nobody really does. Superhero movies are taken seriously, reviewed respectfully and enjoyed by plenty of Edmund Wilson types.
I've made some of these arguments many times before, but the one that really stands out for me here is the seriousness with which mainstream critics and intellectuals now approach comic books and comic-book movies. That's unprecedented. Distinctions between popular culture and high culture aren't nearly as rigid as they used to be. Movies that would once have been treated as nothing more than commercial entertainment products are now given serious consideration as artistic achievements. Because they can be both at the same time.