Thursday, February 28, 2008

american splendor, by berman and pulcini

American Splendor, a film about autobiographical comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, sets its first act in 1970's-era Cleveland, and in this way it completes Film Club's triangle of films about the 1970s (the other two points are Dazed and Confused (Film Club XXI) and The Virgin Suicides (Film Club XX)). Like those others, American Splendor has value as a reflection upon the Americana of that period, but it's interesting in other ways, too.

American Splendor could have ended up as a rather run-of-the-mill biopic, or even an exemplary one: the material of Pekar's life is certainly engaging enough, and Giamatti is a gifted interpreter of the "character":

But directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are significantly more canny and ambitious than that. They seem to have a keen sense of the fundamental strangeness of the endeavor of making a biopic in the first place, of the distortions and misrepresentations that will inevitably emerge from the process. They exploit this strangeness by pairing the biopic narrative with documentary material, bringing in the "real" Harvey Pekar to provide commentary and reflection on the events we see unfolding in the biopic material:

Pekar's an especially interesting figure to be doing this kind of thing with, given that what the film is adapting in its narrative segments is not so much the "raw material" of Pekar's life, but rather the creative work that Pekar has produced over his lifetime. The film ambitiously shoehorns some of this material in as well, forming a third representational layer:

Pekar's comics work is autobiographical, yes, but the production of any autobiography involves its own degree of highlighting and omission. That's accentuated in Pekar's creative output, of course, because he's working as a writer in collaboration with artists, whose stylistic "takes" on the Pekar "character" only serve to further obscure the "real" Pekar. The film seems distinctly aware of this point, exploiting it strikingly:

An even more dizzying example comes at the point in the narrative where a California theatrical company does a stage adaptation of American Splendor:

What we're watching here is a cinematic re-creation of a stage re-creation of a comic book re-creation of a real experience—four distinct layers of representation, for those of you keeping score. The fact that Pekar spends a lot of the movie railing against "phoniness" and "Hollywood bullshit," and striving to create a body of work that represents the trials and tribulations of "real" everyday life is perhaps a crowning irony. And the fact that he succeeds to such a remarkable degree, in spite of the artifice inherent to the technologies and techniques of representation, is perhaps a crowning triumph.

There are a few possible choices here for follow-up films—both David Lynch's Inland Empire (2007) and Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life (1998) have a similar awareness of the vertiginous hall-of-mirrors that can open up between narrative and reality. (I also considered the harrowing documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003).) But the film that best exploits this tension, to my mind, is Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002): next week's pick!

Skunkcabbage's write-up is here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

dazed and confused, by richard linklater

This week in Film Club, we chose to look at Dazed and Confused (1993), another piece about adolescence in the 1970s.

Dazed and Confused is a pretty successful example of the ensemble film, a form I'm extremely interested in (most of the fiction-writing I've done over the last, eh, decade has been in the ensemble form). However, watching it this time I was more interested in a particular relationship in the film, particularly the one between freshman Mitchell Kramer and senior Randall "Pink" Floyd. The film begins to draw a parallel between them about thirty minutes into the film:

For the remainder of its run-time, the film investigates parallels between these characters, in part by investigating what is important to each of them. Young Mitch is enthralled by the novelties that are becoming available to him, here on the threshold of late adolescence. Three of the big ones, of course, are drugs:


and women:

Mitch's arc involves his introduction to and successful negotiation of these pleasures. It's almost heartwarming, in a way—and this is testament to one of Dazed and Confused's great strengths: it aptly observes that for a certain type of (middle-class?) adolescent, "high-risk" behavior is also a, perhaps the, primary source of enjoyment. Antisocial perhaps: but also life-affirming in a way that is deeply felt and legitimate.

The story complicates this, however, through the narrative arc of Randall. Randall undeniably enjoys these same sorts of "antisocial" pleasures throughout the entire course of the film:

However, Randall also derives affirmation through another, more official, channel: he plays high school football, and his team is preparing to embark upon a promising-looking season, one where he's the designated starting quarterback. Part of the tension of Dazed and Confused's narrative, then, comes from setting up these two sources of pleasure as mutually exclusive, through the narrative device of the "pledge sheet." In order to continue on with the football team, Randall is required to sign a sheet pledging not to drink or do drugs (womanizing appears to be left as an option). This forces him to make a choice between two sources of enjoyment, each of which the film designates as legitimate.

To be precise, it should be said that the sheet itself doesn't force this choice: the film takes pains to set up the act of signing as essentially empty. We see other football players who have signed the pledge, but explicitly state that they have no plans to honor it. Randall has effectively forced the choice on himself, in the name of principle—he sees it, understandably, as a virtue not to put your name to a document you have no intention of honoring. But the film is not content to show this as a heroic act: the more lasting impression the film gives us is that Randall's "principled" choice is one with lasting consequences, one that he will come to regret, and which will also hurts his teammates and their own chances of success. The degree to which they feel betrayed by Randall is palpable, just check out the mug of that fella on the right:

For a movie with almost no footage of actual sports being played, Dazed and Confused makes a compellingly strong case for sports as a source of meaning, value, unifying narrative, and homosocial community for young people, presenting it as a more legitimate and lasting source of life-affirmation than the more obviously hedonistic pleasures that the film glorifies with a much greater percentage of screen-time. Maybe that means that next week we'll move into the world of sports movies? Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

the virgin suicides, by sofia coppola

I'm fighting illness this week, so forgive me if the logic of this piece overheats or goes off the rails.

The opening title of The Virgin Suicides (1999) makes it more-or-less plain that it's going to be concerned with what we might broadly call "girl culture":

Representing the title of the film as a series of doodles that evoke a "girlish" school notebook evokes one of the major poles of adolescent girl culture, namely, its tendency towards secrecy, towards a kind of private involution and elaboration. The film orients around this pole again and again; it is endlessly riddled with codes, secret messages, notes, diaries, and cryptic signs of all sorts:

The other pole of "girl culture," of course (and herein lies one tie to last week's pick, Picnic at Hanging Rock), is beauty. Preternatural, Venusian beauty, nicely embodied here in the figure of Kirsten Dunst, aka "Lux":

Taken together, this combination—beauty plus privacy / secrecy—adds up to something that can perhaps best be described with the single word "mystique." The main people fascinated with this mystique, of course, are boys:

—and the movie, in essence, represents the efforts of boys (and, to a lesser degree, men) to observe, decode, or otherwise, er, penetrate this mystique.

The temptation here is to read this as autobiographical: it's nearly impossible (for me at least) not to read the film as Jeffrey Eugenides—the author of the novel on which the film is based—reflecting on his own youth, and his fascination with this mystique. The story is pretty clearly framed as an outsiders-looking-in tale—it's narrated by the boys, and an argument could be made that the story, as such, is more about the boys than it is about the girls. This gets considerably more interesting when you consider the fact that it's a female director (Sofia Coppola) who has chosen to adapt the book: if we stick with the idea that girls / women are on the "inside" of "girl culture" and that boys / men are on the "outside," then Virgin Suicides, interestingly, becomes an "insider's" take on an "outsider's" story.

Coppola seems generally pretty sympathetic to the boys, which can lead to some curious conclusions if you think about it too hard: sometimes I think (admittedly cynically) that Virgin Suicides (the book) is a calculated piece of flattery, a premise leads to the rather nasty conclusion that Coppola's movie serves, perhaps inadvertantly, to amplify the praise of someone who is essentially her own sycophant.

Another interesting effect of Coppola's sympathies here is that Suicides ends up performing a rather spectacular inversion of the critique implied by Laura Mulvey's concept of the "male gaze": in Suicides we are presented with a world where "gazing" is not reprehensible / critiquable but is in fact the most admirable thing a man can do in relationship to women. Being observed, then, is one of the things, if not the thing, that a woman can most aspire to, at least in the universe where that inversion is functioning. (Compare this against Lost in Translation (2003), Coppola's follow-up, which is also very much about a beautiful woman struggling with the issue of being unseen.)

But is that it, exactly? Ultimately, decoding the film's stance on the value of being viewed, depends around how one reads the suicides that form the end of the line for the girls' narratives.

The uncertainty circulating around the suicides is in some ways the film's most intriguing element, and Eugenides and Coppola both seem to know it, suggesting overtly that the fundamental inexplicability of suicide represents a terminal expression of what I've been calling "mystique": it is a gesture that raises questions that cannot be answered. One question we could ask of it, then, is this: do the girls commit suicide because they are inadequately seen, because their desire to be fully understood goes thwarted and unfulfilled? Or do they commit suicide because the prospect of a life of being endlessly observed is in and of itself inadequate? To a degree, the film lays the blame for the suicides at the door of the repressive parents, although this doesn't so much answer the question as it reformulates it: when children suffer from parental repression, are they suffering because they can't be observed, or because their observation is all too total?

Next week: Dazed and Confused.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

picnic at hanging rock, by peter weir

Film Club reconvened this week after a brief hiatus, and we watched Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) to continue with our theme of "colonists in supernatural peril."

The film takes place in the year 1900, and focuses on the inhabitants of Appleyard College, a Victorian girls' boarding school. The very phrase "Victorian girls' boarding school" will burn the mind of certain readers with an erotic force that borders on the radioactive, evoking, as it does, a particularly intense mix of succulence and repression. If that's your thing, the opening scenes of this film will function as a kind of fetish material for you, because Weir has gone to the trouble to stock the college with a score of willowy beauties (and a hot French governness), and he presents them in a variety of scenarios that seem like they are, at any given moment, half a step away from tumbling into porn:

But the film ultimately has other things on its mind, and it swiftly transplants the group of girls out on a field trip to Hanging Rock, a weird mass of volcanic stone. Four of the girls wander off to explore:

...and, inexplicably, only one comes back. A governness goes in search of them, and she vanishes, too.

Like our last Film Club pick, I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Picnic is built around a system of clashing opposites: logic and reason, associated (at least initially) in both films by white colonists, versus mystery and irrationality, associated with the natural world that the colonists seek to colonize. The bulk of the film is spent watching various authorities, searching for the girls, interrogate Hanging Rock in various "rational" ways:

The film invites us, the viewers, to perform our own "interrogations"—it provides a goodly number of details that could be said to be "clues." But all these investigations and theorizing end up inconclusive: all throughout the film Hanging Rock deflects attempts to interpret it.

Part of the reason for this might be because the film presents the Rock as resistant to conventional dualites of classification: early in the film, two characters squabble about whether the Rock could be said to be old or young (it's "old" in our time-frame, but "young" when viewed from a geologic perspective). Additionally, even though the landscape also gives off strong psychosexual evocations, it can't easily be gendered. There are plenty of shots that emphasize the phallic presence of the mountain:

—but an equal number of shots which evoke the vaginal:

(My Film Club compatriot Skunkcabbage memorably described this polymorphous mix as a "Freudscape.")

So Hanging Rock remains, at film's end, a "text" that can't really be "read." If this film has set up a clash between rationality and irrationality, irrationality carries the day simply by virtue of its persistence. It basically wins the game by making a single move—spiriting away a selected number of characters—and then simply passing time until rationality burns itself out with fruitless activity. It's not the most dramatic way to play the game (and this creates some dead space in the narrative, which gets filled in with subplots that are more-or-less boring), but it's effective.n

Saturday, February 2, 2008

visual grammar I

This month, the Gene Siskel Film Center has been doing a retrospective on Shohei Imamura, a director I'd heard about, but whose films I haven't seen. Because of bad weather and travel committments, I've missed every entry in the series, but it inspired me to Netflix one of his films (Vengeance Is Mine, 1979) and take another out from the library (The Pornographers, 1966).

I started with The Pornographers, which is a mightily impressive movie, in a number of different regards. The one I particularly want to focus on today is the way that Imamura composes for the screen. He seems to have an inexhaustible repetoire of inventive methods for dividing or compartmentalizing the frame, often in ways that focus our attention precisely or reveal relationships between characters. These screenshots probably say this better than I can:

After this, I'm really eager to see more Imamura films.