Saturday, September 29, 2012

Depressive Laughter: Performative Recognition and Disbelief in "The Master"

308) The Master (2012) Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Date Released: September 14, 2012 Date Seen: September 23, 2012 Rating: 4.25/5

RV!: The Master (2012) Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Date Released: September 14, 2012 Date Seen: September 28, 2012 Rating: 4.5/5

You can't take the world straight, can you?" -Peggy Dodd-

The first time I saw The Master, I was totally awed by P.T. Anderson's characteristically virtuosic storytelling. I didn't have much to write about the film, let alone much to say. But then I re-watched it at the Ziegfeld with a particular line, or more accurately a specific motif, in mind. Something about Lancaster Dodd's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) emphasis on laughter got to me. "Laughter is good," he tells a drawing room full of curious listeners. He even says, "The secret is laughter," just before Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) irrevocably loses his faith in The Cause at its 1st Congress. The color drains from his face when he realizes that Dodd, as his son asserts, is "just making this shit up as he goes along." 

I fixated on laughter in The Master for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while watching the film first time around, I heard best bud Steve Carlson helplessly laughing in fits and spurts, like when Quell drinks rocket fuel or paint thinner. Secondly, laughter has come to mean something entirely different for me personally in the last couple of months as I've dealt with bouts of lingering depression. Laughter isn't in other words just a symptom of happiness.When depressed, I sometimes find myself thinking of something shameful I've done or something absurd that happened to/because of me, and I'll let out a mirthless little guffaw. And I won't be able to control my laughter, but it just sort of wells up in spite of me. In fact, the mute, self-mocking braying of Jerry Lewis came to mind as I watched Phoenix's Quell the first time around, though I'd hardly go as far as to say that Quell is a Lewis-like character. Still, both Quell and a typical Lewis character have one thing in common: they both often laugh out loud as a means of simultaneously laughing at themselves and others. And that's because I think there are two kinds of laughter: laughter that connotes recognition and laughter that signifies disbelief. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Two Parts of a Sublime, Lonely Triple Feature

266) Samsara (2011) Dir: Ron Fricke Date Released: August 24, 2012 Date Released: August 24, 2012 Date Seen: August 25, 2012 Rating: 4.5/5

268) Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) Dir: Joe Dante Date Released: June 15, 1990 Date Seen: August 25, 2012 Rating: 4.25/5

Imagine my disappointment when I watched Compliance between the two aforementioned films, eesh. 

Anyway, I spent the evening at the Landmark Sunshine recently. I was mostly alone, though I did see some friends a few rows ahead of me at Samsara, and was lucky enough to meet up with some others for Gremlins 2. But it was a lonely night at the movies, sitting in crowded auditoriums for two films and then a fairly empty one for a final third. It was also great fun, if that makes any sense. 

It probably doesn't, so let's go with that assumption, and explicate from there, or whatever.

Samsara is fairly similar to Baraka except that Fricke's sophomore feature is much more about the slow, encroaching effects of time on man-made stuffs. Sky-scrapers, sculptures, subways, all of the monuments we make to artificially pay homage to nature: all of these things age. The subtle cracks in the eyes of humanoid statues, the slow trickle of rainwater down a leaf, the fault lines in a rock-wall, the intricate works of spiritual art we ritualistically make and then undo--it's the cycle of life, according to Fricke. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Simon's Introduction: American Horror Story 1.5: "Halloween, Part 2," Part 1

Dennis Cozzalio and I are going to recap American Horror Story's first season at our respective blogs. Each Monday, one of us will will start the discussion and we'll go back-and-forth on our respective blogs. I am posting my first post on "Halloween, Part 2" here, but you can also follow along with our conversation at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Read on for some more of my thoughts on the fifth episode of season one.

Oh, hullo, Dennis.

So, as promised, I've finally started to come around on American Horror Story. I've kept with the show because I've hoped it would get as good as and then better than the standard set by "Pilot." Now, I think "Halloween, Part 2" is probably the best episode of the series thus far. Granted, we're only five episodes in, but shut up, that's why. 

Anyway, I rewatched "Halloween, Part 2" so that this introductory post would be a little more detailed than my previous plot synopses have been. And as I rewatched it, I got a better handle on what I liked about this episode and why it mattered more to me than what I disliked. A good part of what I liked can be credited to episode director David Semel, who not only paces "Part 2" with great care, but also shoots it with an eye for negative space, and an artful use of natural lighting and extreme close-ups. 

Generally speaking, I also found the way that various characters' arcs were immediately resolved in this episode to be satisfying. Addy's dead, so now Constance can, to paraphrase Manohla Dargis's review of Premium Rush, let a little light into her storyline (ie: be more than an ostensibly complex but mostly just lovably catty old crone). Thanks to Hayden, Ben is forced to accept that he can't superhumanly hold his family together. And thanks to Violet's increased interest in him, Tate's past is revealed just a little more. All of these revelations would not be as satisfying as they are without Semel's direction, I think. He's got my vote for MVP of "Halloween, Part 2," easy.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Relative Truths

267) Compliance (2012) Dir: Craig Zobel Date Released: August 17, 2012 Date Seen: August 25, 2012 Rating: 1.5/5

274) The Tall Man (2012) Dir: Pascal Laugier Date Released: August 31, 2012 Date Seen: August 31, 2012 Rating: 3.5/5

I joked on Facebook that some intrepid film programmer (cough, I say cough) should pair Compliance and The Tall Man together in a double feature that's guaranteed to please nobody. I feel like if you like one of these two films, you're bound to hate the other. Just a hunch I have. Anyway, I myself hate Compliance, but am intrigued by The Tall Man. Look, I'm not that stupid: I know that they're two essentially different film, but they do both provoke their audiences with loaded questions about the relative morality of human behavior. 

Also, both Compliance and The Tall Man begin with Kubrick-ian intertitles that state unequivocally: these events are true. They are true in Compliance in the most tediously literal sense: what viewers see is a dramatization of events as they transpired. Between hatefully stupid scenes where shots of a deep fat frier are used to relate just how tense events are, we see an incredibly cruel (but true!) prank play out at great length and are left to judge whether or not we, as one character suggests in the film's last scene, would in fact behave similarly under the same circumstances. The Tall Man also nakedly asks viewers in its concluding scene to weigh in on its central provocation. Does kidnapping a child and whisking them away from their abusive biological family a good thing when you consider that the child's surrogate family is loving, well-to-do and can provide for them in ways that their biolgoical family cannot? 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Bad Idea Podcast #15: I Scream, You Scream

264) Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) Dir: R. Winer Date Released: WHO KNOWS Date Seen: August 24, 2012 Rating: 0.25/5

265) Ice Cream Man (1995) Dir: Paul Norman Date Released (DTV): May 9, 1995 Date Seen: August 24, 2012 Rating: 2.5/5

269) The Moderns (1988) Dir: Alan Rudolph Date Released: May XX, 1988 Date Seen: August 26, 2012 Rating: 2/5

270) The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998) Dir: Stuart Gordon Date Released: SERIOUSLY, WHO Date Seen: August 26, 2012 Rating: 3/5

The proverbial mixed bag. See the next Bad Idea Podcast for some seasonal, ice-cream-related fun.

Editor's Note: found it!


263) How to Survive a Plague (2012) Dir: David France Date Released: September 21, 2012 Date Seen: August 23, 2012 Rating: 3.5/5

I got a lot out of watching France's doc, especially since I'd read a number of his articles before watching it. This was in preparation for my interview with Mr. France, an investigative journalist that I'm profiling in an upcoming issue of the Village Voice. More to come...

Editor's Note: I got the hook-up.

Simon Insists: American Horror Story 1.4: "Halloween, Part 1," Part 4

Dennis Cozzalio and I are going to recap American Horror Story's first season at our respective blogs. Each Monday, one of us will will start the discussion and we'll go back-and-forth on our respective blogs. I am posting my second post on "Halloween, Part 1" here, but you can also follow along with our conversation at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Read on for some more of my thoughts on the fourth episode of season one.

Hey, grrl, hey.

Again, I agree that in theory, Constance's actions make sense given how she has so far been defined on the show. It's in her character to show her love in that way. But that doesn't mean I need to appreciate it on said level. Constance's identity is so loaded with portentous bathos, the kind typified by the tacked-on Southern Gothic atmosphere provided by the "Stay away from my boy toy!" sub-plot in "Halloween, Part 1," and earlier in the AHS's second episode. The crude way that Constance is established as a monstrous parent are just cheap enough to be in a Charlaine Harris novel. 

I admit I'm making the Harris connection so I can go back to the Alan Ball-esque quality to American Horror Story that I find so risibly obnoxious. Falchuk and Murphy have this nasty habit of tonally front-loading their material so we know exactly how we're supposed to feel all the time (hence the declamatory speechifying). If we're meant to jeer at certain characters, they pour it on thick, and if we're meant to like a character, they pout it on equally thick. And in the case of Constance, that thick-ness is a prime example of why more is not more. More specifically: I disagree that there is as much of an interior life to Constance as you imply.