This is one of the year’s best movies.
Did somebody say "ambiguity"? I'm a big fan. Generally speaking, I much prefer movies with a little uncertainty, or a little emotional ambivalence, to those that spell everything out and tell me exactly how I should feel about it. Most of my favorite movies of 2011 thrive on ambiguity, open-endedness, a sense of the fluidity (or "slipperiness" as I like to call it) of time and space: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," "Certified Copy," "Margaret," "Meek's Cutoff"... But sometimes resonant inconclusiveness slips into deliberate laziness, substituting opacity for meaning. And when that happens, it's a shame.
Or, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes, sometimes it's "Shame," the movie by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carrie Mulligan:
... McQueen... opts to shroud the movie in vagueness. This goes beyond the characters--Fassbender as the barely-sketched lead, Mulligan as the generic broken woman (tellingly, her sex life is played as comedy while Fassbender's is played as grand tragedy), Beharie as the foil whose attraction to Fassbender is never explained--and their relationships; Shame is a Choose Your Own Meaning movie, full of blank spaces that a sympathetic viewer can fill with their own interpretations (this culminates in a lengthy sex scene between Fassbender and two women, with Fassbender's facial expression serving as a sort of Rorschach blot).
It's smart filmmaking--and also totally duplicitous and self-serving, the arthouse craftsmanship nearly hiding the film's middle-brow triteness (see also: I Am Love), every scene ladled with big dollops of cinema's most respectable cop-out: ambiguity. When McQueen isn't marking time with exercises in post-slow-cinema aesthetics (as in the long tracking shot of Fassbender sternly jogging to his bitchin' Glenn Gould playlist), he elides and defers. Shame wears its emptiness like a badge of honor; McQueen is trying for banal blankness, and though he succeeds in that respect, you kind of wish that a filmmaker (and one with a background as an artist at that) would aspire to do more than just say nothing.
(Picture the headline above in Comic Sans.) MSN Movies contributors have selected our Top 10 Movies of 2011. What does that mean? Whatever you want it to mean. Are these movies "the best"? Are they our favorites? Are they "movies we got to see before the deadline"? In my case, it's some combination of all three -- but I'm really quite happy with the aggregate results. As for my own contribution, as usual I hadn't seen everything I wanted to by the deadline ("A Separation," "Hugo," "The Artist," "Mysteries of Lisbon," "Midnight in Paris" among them), and still haven't, but them's the breaks. My lists will evolve in coming days (Village Voice/LA Weekly poll, indieWIRE Critics Poll, and so on), but I do want to say that I went all-in with my emotions. I picked these movies 'cause I love 'em, not because I merely admire them or appreciate them.
The Big List starts here; the individual lists start here.
Of course, as much as we love lists, the best thing about the MSN feature is that we have short appreciations of the top 10 movies, written by some very perceptive and eloquent people. And me, too. You will find the Group List, with excerpts and links to the full mini-essays, below -- and my personal ballot at the bottom. Let me know what you think -- and be sure to read the previous post ("Idiocracy and the ten-best trolls") for a good laugh:
"Related to this, and common in the comments sections of blogs, is the position that because some random person on the internet is unable to defend a position well, that the position is therefore false. All that has really been demonstrated is that the one person in question cannot adequately defend their position." -- "Top 20 Logical Fallacies," The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe*
This week my mother went to pay her cable bill. It's a long story, but the cable company said she couldn't keep the account in my late father's name (two years after the fact), so they closed the old account, opened up a new one for her, and then proceeded to apply her payments (made to the new account number) to the deactivated account, resulting in claims that she was past due. Nobody can figure out how they did this. They offered to issue her a refund check in a few weeks, but in the meantime she needed to pay the same amount (again) to her existing account. She did that and they credited it to the wrong account again. In the meantime, the first refund check had arrived. So, she deposited that and, this time, she decided to go to their office in person, pay in cash, and get a printed receipt in her hand. Because that's the kind of gal she is.
She "owed" them $114.25, so she gave the young man at the counter $120, fresh from the ATM. He said he didn't have any coins to give her the 75 cents change. That's OK, she said, here's a quarter. But I don't have any coins, he said. That's why I'm giving you the 25 cents, so you won't need to give me 75 cents; you can just give me six dollars back, she said. But I don't have 75 cents, he said....
Film Studies Ryan Gosling
Over the last ten days or so I have been serially obsessed with "A Dangerous Method," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Margaret," "Moneyball," "A Separation" -- and I haven't had time to really devote myself to following these obsessions because I must get to the next movie on my end-of-year "must-see" list, which grows and mutates by the day. Of course, I never do make it to all of them by my deadlines, but between Thanksgiving and mid-December, those of us who whip up those inevitable year-end ten-best lists of movies and who participate in film critics' polls and/or awards balloting feel a little like those wretched souls at Wal-Mart on Black Friday (or is it Black Thursday now?), busting down doors to get to screenings and screeners so we can see and evaluate everything in the rush before voting day.
It's a joy to have these opportunities to see new stuff that might not be released in many cities until late December or sometime in 2012, and to catch up with things that slipped by earlier in the year. But ithe pressure to evaluate everything in "ten best" terms, rather than just watching the movies and thinking about them and writing about them and considering "listworthyness" later on, can also be frustrating. Especially while award-bestowers -- I'm talking about you, New York Film Critics Circle -- have moved their year's-best announcements earlier and earlier (right after Thanksgiving weekend!). So, even as I'm watching things, they're being honored or ignored in various quarters.
(Photo by Roger Ebert)
In his splendid Salon.com interview with David Cronenberg focusing on "A Dangerous Method," Andrew O'Hehir begins by noting that Cronenberg is "a beloved interview subject for film journalists" -- both because of the richness of his work and the stimulating quality of his conversation. I can testify to this, having interviewed Cronenberg several times over the years (starting with "Dead Ringers" in 1988, which in retrospect seems to have begun the second phase of his career). As O'Hehir says, Cronenberg is "a genuine intellectual in a realm crowded with poseurs and pretenders. He can talk easily about almost any topic you bring up; if he hadn't turned out to be one of the premier cinematic visionaries of his generation, it'd be easy to imagine him as a writer or philosopher or historian." Few filmmakers are as articulate about their own work.
What immediately struck me about the five paragraphs I'm about to quote -- in response to O'Hehir's first suggestion -- is the breadth and depth of Cronenberg's understanding of his own filmmaking process... and even the impetus and history behind auteurism. Cronenberg is a man who thinks when he speaks, exploring and refining his ideas as he communicates them. In the fast-serve business of media-coached mini-interviews and rigid, publicist-enforced talking points, that's a rarity.
O'Hehir raises an idea from Charles Drazin's book, French Cinema, "where he talks about the difference between old-school French movies, what they used to call the 'tradition de qualité,' mostly literary adaptations and historical dramas, and the auteurism of the New Wave, where you had to be a writer-director. It struck me that in your career you've almost gone backward, from the second kind of cinema to the first."
[This was originally published at MSN Movies in 2006, but MSN has taken down their archives.]
"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it." -- Charlie (voiceover by Martin Scorsese) in "Mean Streets" (1973)
If I do bad things, am I a bad person? Can I be a good person despite the bad things I've done? Can I compensate for the sins I commit in one part of my life by doing good works in another? Is forgiveness possible? Is redemption achievable? Or does it even matter if there's not really anyone, or anything, watching over us and keeping track?
Those are some of the Catholic concerns that have preoccupied filmmaker Martin Scorsese throughout his career. His latest film [circa 2006], "The Departed," is based on "Infernal Affairs," a 2002 Hong Kong thriller directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, about two moles: an undercover cop who has infiltrated a criminal gang, and a crook who is embedded in the police department. So, who's the good guy and who's the bad guy? Frank Costello, the gangster kingpin played by Jack Nicholson, says: "Cops or criminals: When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" And what about when you're pointing one? In the cosmic sense, we're all facing that loaded gun, and brandishing one, every day. And the difference -- if there is any -- is what Scorsese makes his movies about.
Watching certain Scorsese pictures today ("Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "GoodFellas," "Casino" and others), you can appreciate the ways they both reflect and question the prevailing moral climate in early 21st-century America. It's a topsy-turvy universe in which the President of the United States himself insists that judgments about "goodness" and "badness" are not to be based upon actions, but are simply pre-existing existential conditions. Good or bad, right or wrong -- it just depends on which side you're on.
"I got a porcupine called 'Zazoom' He leaves his scent on people's graves." -- "Russian Unicorn"
You know the Kuleshov Effect, illustrated by the famous Soviet montage experiment in which an actor's performance seems to change, depending on whatever image (a bowl of soup, a child in a casket, a beautiful woman) appears before identical footage of his face in close-up. Performances in the movies only begin with what the actor does on the set. They are created and re-created every step of the way, from editing to final sound design and mixing (effects, looping, punching, music, etc.). There's also what I would propose we call the "Russian Unicorn Effect," after the amazing music video parody by Bad Lip Reading.
OK, it's already kind of got a name -- the McGurk effect -- and it was "discovered" in 1976 by cognitive psychologist Harry McGurk and his research assistant John MacDonald -- and it explains how sounds can change perceptions of images and vice-versa.
I saw and heard the parody above ("Russian Unicorn") a few months ago, which led me to check out the original Michael Bublé video ("Haven't Met You Yet"), below. I could not believe the difference. Try it yourself -- first the parody, then the original here (embedding disabled, unfortunately).
"People who are just getting 'seriously interested' in film always ask a critic, 'Why don't you talk about technique and "the visuals" more?' The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn't very interesting. [...] The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made - -which is more or less implicit." -- Pauline Kael, "Trash, Art and the Movies" (1969)
"By neglecting to analyze technique, Miss Kael can do no more than assert that a given film is new, or beautiful, hoping that her language will provide the reader with something parallel to the qualities implicit in the work of art." -- Charles T. Samuels, reviewing Kael's 1970 collection Going Steady (which includes "Trash, Art and the Movies") in the New York Times Book Review
"It is this implacable ignorance of the mechanics of filmmaking that prevails in all Kael's books. Yet she is never called on it. The reason, of course, is that her audience knows even less of these mechanics than she does, and professional film people do not wish to incur her displeasure by calling attention to it. She seems to believe that films are made by a consortium of independent contractors -- the writer writes, the cutter cuts, the actor acts, the cameraman photographs. In effect she is always blaming the cellist for the tuba solo." -- John Gregory Dunne, reviewing Kael's Deeper Into Movies (1973) in the Los Angeles Times Book Review
"To me, a good review, good criticism -- whether it's in the Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment -- would be trying not to say, 'I don't feel,' or 'I don't see it the way you saw it,' but, rather, 'Let's see it. Let's bring in the evidence.'" -- Jean-Luc Godard, debating Kael in 1981 and challenging her approach to criticism
"Listen, you miserable bitch, you've got every right in the world to air your likes and dislikes, but you got no goddam right at all to fake, at my expense, a phony technical knowledge you simply do not have." -- director George Roy Hill in a letter to Kael (quoted in Brian Kellow's biography, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark")¹
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In her 1969 Harper's essay "Trash, Art and the Movies," Pauline Kael made her case for trash, saying semi-famously: "Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." But what separates "art" from "trash" (whatever she means by those labels) and is it really an either/or question? What if the differences have something (or everything) to do with "technique" (by which Kael, depending on which sentence you cite, might mean anything from technology to professional craftsmanship to directorial style)? After all, her favorite filmmakers (Altman, Peckinpah, De Palma, Godard, Spielberg) are stylists whose artistic vision (trashy vision?) is inseparable from their distinctive techniques. Even at a glance, you're not likely to mistake these auteurs' films for anyone else's.
So, I'd like to look into how the term(s) "technical" and "technique" are used by Kael (mostly in "Trash, Art and the Movies") and in those cherce quotations above. Way back when, Sidney Lumet said he considered Kael one of the most "perceptive and articulate" reviewers to come along in years, but that, like most critics, she lacked "any technical knowledge of how a movie is made." That mattered to him -- maybe especially after she said in his presence (after many spirited libations) that her job was "to tell him which way to go."²
Dunne, the occasional screenwriter, observed: "Few critics understand the roles of chance, compromise, accident and contingency in the day-by-day of a picture."³ I'd add that a failure to recognize the collaborative back-and-forth of the creative process -- and the industrial process -- of making movies (including contractual measures and union guidelines) also contributes to embarrassing critical misunderstandings that regularly find their way into print.
I made a wisecrack recently that, as far as I can tell, the zombies on AMC's "The Walking Dead" are metaphors for zombies. (Fortunately the show has the sense to hire guest stars like my friend Scott Wilson to add a human dimension to the endless splatter.) Another wise and talented friend, Kathleen Murphy, wrote something about the undying appeal -- and flesh-creeping significance -- of zombies a few years back that, unfortunately, can no longer be found on the web. But she was kind enough to send me the introduction ("It's alive!"), which I happily resurrect from the abyss for you here. Dig in:
Back to back, belly to belly I don't give a damn, I done dead already Oho back to back, belly to belly At the Zombie Jamboree
by Kathleen Murphy
In the hierarchy of horror movies, zombies usually come in dead last, behind glam monsters like vampires and demons, witches and werewolves. Ambulatory corpses are rarely pleasant to look at, and it's devilishly difficult to project personality through all that putrefaction, what with your fleshy bits constantly dropping off. Mostly zombies just shamble and chomp, activity that falls somewhat short of the meat-and-potatoes of high-class drama.