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Preparing for The Dark Knight to Rise

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:


Steve Park: A funny man, serious and significant

Meet Steve Park. You may know him as Sonny, the Korean store owner in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989) -- or perhaps as a regular on "In Living Color" during the 1991-1992 season. While recently going through the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" (2009) with an audience for a week during the Ebert Cinema Interruptus at the Conference on World Affairs, I came to the startling realization that the Steve Park who played Japanese-American Mike Yanagita in "Fargo" (1996) and the Stephen Park who played Korean-American Mr. Park 13 years later in "A Serious Man" were one and the same.

The Coens sometimes give a single-scene appearance to a relatively minor character who provides the key to understanding (or at least defining) the film's mysteries. In "Miller's Crossing" (1990) it's Mink (Steve Buscemi) who, in a rapid-fire exchange with Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) at the Shenandoah Club lays out the movie's convoluted map of relationships before we can take in everything that's being thrown at us.

In "No Country for Old Men" it's Ellis (Barry Corbin), cousin of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who, in the quiet scene that begins the last movement of the picture, spells out the harsh realities of the past, present and future for the retiring lawman who feels overmatched in the modern world and wants to opt out of it: "You can't stop what's comin'. Ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."

Park has the honor of appearing in two such key scenes for the Coens, years apart. His Mike Yanagita is funny, with a delectable Minnesota accent to bounce off Marge Gunderson's, but he's also a disturbing and even tragic figure. Mr. Park (Clive's father) is one of many forces buffeting Larry Gopnick. And, unlike Larry, he's a man who knows exactly what he wants, even if Larry's rationalist worldview can't comprehend him. (Watch the video, above.)

Far Flungers

Why the Coens tortured poor Larry Gopnik

No wonder so many people thought Jesus was a heretic! All this talk of a kind and forgiving God? I mean, did he skip the bit where God asks Abraham to kill his favourite son? Wasn't flooding the entire world a little rash? Can ordering that hit on Amalekites be classified as reasonable behaviour? Let's face it, Old-Testament God could use a little anger management.

May contain spoilers


And the Muriel™ for the Oscar™ for Best Picture goes to...

In case you didn't know, the top five Muriel Awards for Best Picture of 2009 are:

1) Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" 2) Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" 3) Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" 4) Joel & Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man" 5) Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours"

(Click titles above for mini-appreciations by Muriel voters.)

Surprisingly, three of those are among the ten Oscar nominees for Best Picture, too. I was honored to be asked to provide a Muriel blurb for the Coens' existential comedy, my favorite movie of the year. It goes something like this:

Roger Ebert

TIFF #6: Oy vey, such a film you should see

There is something about the Jewish way of humor and storytelling I've always found enormously appealing. I memorized material by Henny Youngman and Myron Cohen at an age when, to the best of my knowledge, I had never met a Jew. I liked the rhythm, the contradiction, the use of paradox, the anticlimax, the way word order would be adjusted to back up into a punch line. There seemed to be deep convictions about human nature hidden in gags and one-liners; a sort of rueful shrug. And the stories weren't so much about where they ended as how they got there.

The serious man is consoled by the friend who has stolen his wife

Roger Ebert

TIFF #1: Darwin, Herzog, the Coens and the Antichrist

I've just finished combing through the list of films in this year's Toronto Film Festival, and I have it narrowed down to 49. I look at the list and sigh. How can I see six films a day, write a blog, see people and sleep? Nor do I believe the list includes all the films I should see, and it's certainly missing films I will see. How it happens is, you're standing in line and hear buzz about something. Or a trusted friend provides a title you must see. Or you go to a movie you haven't heard much about, just on a hunch, and it turns out to be "Juno."

Nicolas Cage in "Bad Lieutenant"

I can't wait to dive in. Knowing something of my enthusiasms, faithful reader, let me tell you that TIFF 2009's opening night is a film about the life of Charles Darwin. The festival includes the film of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." And new films by the Coen brothers, Todd Solondz, Michael Moore, Atom Egoyan, Pedro Almodovar, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Alain Resnais and Guy Maddin--and not one but two new films by Werner Herzog. Plus separate new films by the three key talents involved in Juno: The actress Ellen Page, the director Jason Reitman, and the writer Diablo Cody.

Okay, I've already seen two of those. They were screened here in Chicago (Page as a teenage Roller Derby in "Whip It," Cody's script for "Jennifer's Body," starring Megan Fox as a high school man-eater, and that's not a metaphor). I already saw more than ten of this year's entries at Cannes, including Lars on Trier's controversial "Antichrist," Jane Campion's "Bright Star," Gasper Noe's "Enter the Void," Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," Bong Joon-Ho's "Mother," Lee Daniels' "Precious," Mia Hansen-Løve's "The Father of My Children," and Resnais's "Wild Grass." A lot of good films there. Not all of them, but a lot.


Autopsy of a scene: The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes

View image Two doors, mirror images. Two sides of a coin that's about to be tossed, and called, by Ed Tom Bell when returns to, and enters, room 114. The crime scene tape stretches across both, visually tying them together.

Because I brought this up in a larger context in "The Uncertainty Principle (or, The Easy Read), I figured I may as well follow through with it. (If you don't want to read another post about that movie, here, just keep a movin' right on through. You can't stop what's coming.)

So, let's take a look at what's here, and what's not here. And by that I mean what's in the movie, not what we might have seen if we'd been somehow been able to enter the picture as invisible ectoplasmic entities, free to wander back and forth at will between the membranes of those motel walls. We may draw different conclusions about what we see (and about how important it is), but let's not invent extraneous fictions beyond what the movie shows us (like Chigurh hiding under the bed or slithering down the drain)....


The Uncertainty Principle (or, The Easy Read)

Son (Michael Shannon). Opening shot: "Shotgun Stories."

In Sally Potter's "Yes," there's a scene in a restaurant kitchen in which a Lebanese chef and a young Brit-punk dishwasher get into fierce confrontation (you can't really call it an "argument") over politics and religion. The kid grabs a frying pan and goes after the chef. The chef picks up a knife. Standoff. The manager arrives. Summarily, he fires the chef.

In the Q & A after the screening at Ebertfest, some people said they thought this was clearly a race-based (or racist) decision on the manager's part. Others debated the choice of weapons: Didn't a knife appear more threatening than a pan?

He (Simon Abkarian), "Yes."

Back up two weeks to the Cinema Interruptus series of screenings at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, CO: We're looking at the scene in "No Country for Old Men" in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell returns to the scene of the crime at the motel. [Spoiler alert -- although why you would be reading this blog if you haven't seen "NCFM" is beyond me.] The way the scene is constructed, we expect Chigurh to be standing behind the door when Ed Tom enters the room. The door opens flat against the wall. Ed Tom steps over a pool of dried blood in the doorway, looks around the room, checks the bathroom window (which is locked from the inside) and, relieved, sits down on the bed. He notices an air vent that has been removed. Four screws and a dime are on the floor.

What more do you need to know? I'm not saying it's unreasonable to want to know. But take a moment to look before you start jumping to conclusions. What is there and what is not there. Does the movie provide the answer(s) to your questions, or does it not? If not, what does that decision tell you? That the Coens are sloppy or forgetful? That they're interested in something else, like the experience Ed Tom has just gone through? That maybe you're asking the wrong questions? What else?

Festivals & Awards

Ebert's predix, Oscar's results

In theory, if I correctly predicted every single Oscar race, nobody could outguess me, and by default, I would win the prize. Alas, that has never, ever happened, and it's unlikely again this year, because as usual I will allow my heart to outsmart my brain in one or two races, which is my annual downfall. In any event, for what they're worth, here are my Academy Award predictions in a year rich with wonderful films.


For Your Consideration: Anton Chigurh, Supporting Actor

View image Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem): You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't.

(A comment by Phillip Kelly in reply to an earlier post made me chuckle and got me thinking. He wrote: "I guess my theorizing [of] Anton Chigurh as main character doesn't stand now that Miramax is touting him for Best Supporting Actor. Too bad." That's the jumping-off place for this entry.)

The New York Film Critics Circle gave Javier Bardem its 2007 Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Anton Chigurh ("shi-GUR") in Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country For Old Men" (which was also named Best Picture). The funny thing is, so much of the discussion of the of the movie centers around Chigurh that you'd think he was was the lead. And critical reservations about "No Country" tend to focus on interpretations of Chigurh, and whether the critic accepts him as a character or a mythological presence or a haircut or some combination thereof.

"No Country" traces the path of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), from his opening narration to his closing monologue, from his nostalgia about the "old times" and his fear of the violence in this modern world to his account of two dreams about his father. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), sets things in motion by taking the satchel of drug money, and Chigurh spends most of the film relentlessly tracking him down, while Ed Tom follows a trail of blood to catch up with them both. None of these characters is a conventional "lead." We never even see Moss or Ed Tom come face-to-face with Chigurh. He exists in the physical world, but his presence is strongest when it's felt by these other two characters, even though they don't share screen space with him.


No Country For Old Men: Out in all that dark

View image The light and the landscape.

View image Signs of man.

I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too. Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was.

Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe.... You can't help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times.... -- Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) The land is black, swallowed in the shadows. The sky is beginning to glow orange and blue. This is Genesis, the primordial landscape of "No Country for Old Men." We may think we're looking at a sunset at first, but the next few shots show a progression: The sky lightens, the sun rises above the horizon to illuminate a vast Western expanse. No signs of humanity are evident. And then, a distant windmill -- a mythic "Once Upon a Time in the West" kind of windmill. So, mankind figures into the geography after all. A barbed-wire fence cuts through a field. The camera, previously stationary, stirs to life, and pans (ostensibly down the length of the fence) to find a police car pulled over on the shoulder of a highway. There's law out here, too.

View image Boundaries.

View image The law. (Do these images look sterile or "technical" to you?)

Light, land, man, boundaries, law. Each image builds subtly on the one(s) before it, adding incrementally to our picture of the territory we're entering. The establishment of this location -- a passing-through stretch of time and space, between where you've been and where you're going, wherever that may be -- seeps into your awareness. Not a moment is wasted, but the compositions have room to breathe, along with the modulations of Tommy Lee Jones' voice, the noises in the air, and Carter Burwell's music-as-sound-design. The movie intensifies and heightens your senses. Light is tangible, whether it's sunlight or fluorescent. Blades of grass sing in the wind. Ceiling fans whir (not so literally or Symbolically as in "Apocalypse Now"). Milk bottles sweat in the heat. Ventilation ducts, air conditioners and deadbolt housings rumble, hiss and roar.

"To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated." -- Jean-Luc Godard"No Country for Old Men" has been called a "perfect" film by those who love it and those who were left cold by it. Joel and Ethan Coen have been praised and condemned for their expert "craftsmanship" and their "technical" skills -- as if those skills had nothing to do with filmmaking style, or artistry; as if they existed apart from the movie itself. Oh, but the film is an example of "impeccable technique" -- you know, for "formalists." And the cinematography is "beautiful." Heck, it's even "gorgeous." ...


One shot: They wrote that

View image To some, it's just another genre picture. Composition, color, movement, texture, shapes, faces, expressions, bodies -- that's where you begin to experience what this montage sequence is "about."

If film is first and foremost a way of seeing (and I believe that to be the case, even if not everyone sees seeing the way I do), then what we see in a shot, or a series of shots, is as important as... as anything. The movie is what the film does, as the mind is what the brain does. One of my oft-used analogies is Picasso's "Guernica." Now, you can know or not know what the painting is "about" -- the story it depicts, the historical-political events upon which it is based. You may even sense the emotions the artist is expressing and the techniques he's using to express them. But all those things don't even come close to adding up to "Guernica." "Guernica" is a large composition designed to evoke responses in the viewer. That's where you begin to discover the thing itself.

All of which serves as an introduction to one image from "No Country for Old Men" that I would like to point out (separate from the longer piece[s] I'm working on now). It's a second or two of film that occurs just after Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who is being chased through the desert by a truck at night, jumps over a river bank and glances back and up to see how close his pursuers are. It involves seeing dust produced by the braking truck, illuminated by the headlights as it breaks over the edge of the bank, darkly silhouetted against the light from above. It's Moss's POV, and it's a detail we notice because he notices it. The hounds of hell are loose on his trail (or will be in moments), but here's this moment of sinister beauty develops from it, and sticks around just long enough to register before more urgent matters assert themselves.

It's a directorial (and photographical) coup in many ways, but I was delighted to discover that it's one of those images the Coens visualized in advance and actually chose to record in an early version of their screenplay (which deviates from the finished film in several significant aspects): Moss is almost to the steep riverbank. Another whump of the shotgun.

Shot catches Moss on the right shoulder. It tears the back of his shirt away and sends him over the crest of the river bank. Moss airborne, ass over elbows, hits near the bottom of the sandy slope with a loud fhump.

He rolls to a stop and looks up.

We hear a skidding squeal and see dirt and dust float over the lip of the ridge, thrown by the truck's hard stop. That moment, in the middle of a deadly chase, is a "privileged moment" of a kind that, perhaps, Francois Truffaut did not have in mind when he coined that phrase, but it sure is one. For all we know, it could be the last play of the light that this man will ever see -- and we share the site with him. It's natural, it's what perhaps anyone in this situation could see, but the Coens make sure that we do see it. The next several images I don't want to describe right now, but they are among the most electrifying and surreal in all of cinema -- at least since the relentless approach of the nightmare dog in Buñuel's "Los Olvidados" (1950). But at this moment, we're awash in sensations: the squeal of the tires, the clang that tells us something or someone is getting out of the unseen truck atop the bank, the cold river into which the wounded and disoriented Moss is about to plunge...

View image Luis Buñuel's "Los Olvidados" (1950).

But I just wanted to point this out, and that they wanted to be certain it was not just in the film, but even in the screenplay (which in other respects is somewhat different than the film itself). Writers often do that kind of thing, and the credit (or blame) for a shot or sequence will usually be attributed to the director, even if it was right there in the script. But it is the director who bears responsibility for realizing those images, and sequencing them, and presenting them so that they do what they need to do. The Coens, being their own writers, directors, producers and editors, pretty much understand what they're looking for. And they recognize what they've got when a miracle drops in their lap: the birds, and shadows of birds, over the highway in "Blood Simple"; the pelican plopping into the ocean at the end of "Barton Fink").

"Content, as I see it, is a series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience." Sergei Eisenstein, you are so right! (I wish I liked your movies more.) Shocks as content -- the junior-high equation [ART = FORM + CONTENT] trembles, previously secure elements threaten to swap sides. What Eisenstein theorized about cinema goes for writing, too: words as shocks; shocks arranged in a certain sequence. Words call up images and the images recur, mutate, cross-refer as the words extend in linear space and the reading-experience extends in time." -- Richard T. Jameson, "Style vs. 'Style'" (Film Comment, March/April, 1980)If Michael Bay turns everything up to 11 and assaults you until you feel bludgeoned and numb, the Coens do the very opposite. Bay, from the Alan Parker school of airless imagery, tries to shut you down, to restrict your imagination to fit his literal forms. (If you feel like cattle being funneled through the slaughterhouse, so be it.) The Coens open up the doors of perception, so that you become hyperaware of the many vibrant sensations -- light, color, sound, motion -- that are in the world around us every day, the kinds of living details to which most (flat, inert, mechanical) films just aren't attuned.

So, one brief shot of the dust in the headlights -- it's a small thing, but it makes all the difference. It's just one of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, and one reason I emerge from a movie like "No Country for Old Men" feeling like my senses, my emotions, my mind, have been stimulated, invigorated rather than dulled.