Monday, September 18, 2017

Late Summer Western #15 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid **** (1969)

Watch enough movies you start to learn things about yourself.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of those, I prefer it to the other great Western of its time The Wild Bunch.  Peckinpah's film is about a bunch of old angry dudes who are cruel and hopeless. At least Scorsese's psychopath gangsters had a sense of humor.  Butch and Sundance, as played by Newman and Redford, take life with a grain of salt, smirking and wisecracking through life with a peculiar courage, but courage nonetheless.  They're outlaws because they got nothing better to do. They know the Old West is fading so they leave and give it a go in Bolivia. An existentialist tale for the weary; they're irreverence blended with bathos leaves a more lasting impression than slow motion violence. All to a Burt Bacharach score!  

Late Summer Western #14: Little Big Man **** (1970)

Little Big Man was based on the picaresque novel of the same title by Thomas Berger. The story is the life and times of Jack Krabb, a white man who lived among both Native American and White cultures. The film takes aim at the mythology Hollywood has championed in Westerns, namely: the triumphant narrative of winning the west. 

Little Big Man is American history as tragic farce.

Dustin Hoffman begins the films buried in makeup as a 121 year old lone survivor of the Battle at Little Bighorn. His story begins when Jack and his sister are taken in by Cheyenne Tribe after surviving a massacre.  Later Jack gets captured by the U.S. Cavalry and obverses religious hypocrisy, con artists, and the cruel nature of business. Back with the Cheyenne Tribe he witnesses a massacre committed by Custer's troops and tries to make it as a frontiersman.

Custer as played by Richard Mulligan is a complete buffoon, holding on to command only by his inane charisma. Obviously inspired by the Vietnam War, Little Big Man is one of the great anti-establishment films of its time.  

Arthur Penn's underrated direction balances a unique tone, hitting the line somewhere between absurdity and tragedy.

Hoffman pulls off the naivete and pathos of his character in several different vignettes; a film worthy of the current political climate.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Late Summer Western #13 High Plains Drifter *** (1973)

Clint Eastwood's 1973 Western High Plains Drifter bordered on being a straight up exploitation picture that reportedly offended John Wayne, a sordid morality tale on revenge and human nature. Eastwood plays "The Stranger," a loner who comes into Lago and within 20 minutes commits four felonies . . . and then the city fathers decide to give him carte blanche in running the town (a surprisingly prescient premise). He appoints a dwarf named Mordecai played by Billy Curtis as Sheriff and Mayor. The Stranger learns the town hides a terrible secret from its past and that three dangerous outlaws are approaching. So he enacts harsh justice on "Lago," exposing the town as a place of sinners and hypocrites.  Is he the Old Testament God? Or some avenging angel? High Plains Drifter is Sodom and Gomorrah set in the Old West; a viscous allegory that borders on dark comedy. Eastwood revels in his menacing performance. A cruel, cruel, Western. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Late Summer Western #12: Wind River ***1/2 (2017)

In the wintry and violent 2017 Western Wind River, Graham Greene plays a seasoned police chief who warns the young FBI agent Jane played by Elizabeth Olson, "This isn't the land of waiting for back up. This is the land of you're on your own."

Wind River refers to the Native American Reservation in Wyoming where the movie takes place. Jeremy Renner stars as Cory, a Wildlife Field officer who discovers the body of a young woman when out tracking one day. The FBI is called in to investigate the murder; they send Jane who is inexperienced, but determined to pursue the case. She enlists the help of Cory in her investigation. They have their work cut out for them.

Renner anchors the film as a character trying to come to terms with a tragedy from his own past. Life on the reservation is portrayed as tough, a place forgotten by 21st Century America. Inspired by true events, the oil boom of the past decade led to increased crime on reservations, criminal activity that typically targeted young girls. The law is designed so it's next to impossible to prosecute someone who does not reside at the reservation, leaving most of the missing person cases unsolved.

At 110 minutes Wind River moves along fast, feeling more like a 90 minute film. The acting and the dialogue are simple and to the point. A shootout scene begins without warning and devolves into brutal violence, one of the most striking sequences I've seen in a recent film. The main character is the land itself, all shot with a haunting beauty.

Taylor Sheridan has made another classic America film with Wind River, coming off of last year's socially relevant Hell or High Water. Both films do a great job of establishing setting, while creating characters that are believable and memorable.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Late Summer Western #11: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid ***1/2 (1973)

Sam Peckinpah's  Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid bears his unique cinematic signature: violence and anti-romantic sentiment come in a heavy dose. James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson are both excellent in the title roles, even though they were too old for their respective roles. The pacing of the film feels a bit off, and many characters are never developed.  Still, with Bob Dylan's music and Peckinpah's impeccable style, the film is full of depth and moments of grace.

Peckinpah goes against history, Hollywood history anyway, in all of his Westerns.  Dualities are everywhere. Pat and Billy are two sides of the same coin, their actions mirror each other, unclear where one character begins and the other ends. Violence enters into almost every sequence.

The supporting cast is eclectic. Bob Dylan made his screen acing debut as Alias. Harry Dean Stanton, Slim Pickins, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel, and Jason Robards all appear.  Characters come and go in every scene.

The version I watched was the 110 minute version from 2005. Legend has it there's a much longer cut only a few people have seen. The 2005 version hints at a masterpiece, yet lacks the full vision of The Wild Bunch.  Still, Pat Garrett and BIlly the Kid is a fantastic Western full of great moments and a keen sense of the sublime.

The film can best be summed up in an exchange between Pat and Billy:

Garrett: It feels like times have changed
The Kid: Times maybe, not me.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Late Summer Western #10: Chisum **1/2 (1970)

An agreeable "by the numbers" Western, Chisum features John Wayne teaming up with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to fight corrupt cattle barons. The story flows along well enough and it's a bit moving to see an aging John Wayne entering the final decade of his film career. The character sketches of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are one dimensional, but nicely plays upon the mythology of two friends destined to become famous enemies.  Fans of Westerns will recognize players from classics of previous years. Highlights include a shoot out at the end and even some musical interludes. President Richard Nixon screened the film and praised it for its "law and order" themes and for the good guys prevailing over the bad (not sure if Billy the Kid was a good guy). The appeal to Nixon (and his fellow squares) makes sense; the 1970s were the decade of moral ambiguity, making Chisum seem a tad anachronistic. Still worth a look as a textbook example of genre.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Late Summer Western #9: Bad Girls ** (1994)

Bad Girls was a well intentioned Western that dared to be different by casting four female leads. Unfortunately, the movie is a complete mess. Andie MacDowell, Drew Barrymore, Madeline Stowe, and Mary Stuart Masterson star as four "fallen women" who end up becoming legendary gunslingers.  It's as if the writers took a crash course on Westerns and included every cliché imaginable.  Meanwhile, the action scenes are choppy and poorly edited. Anything good to say about Bad Girls? The four leads are all iconic actresses of the 1990s - so Bad Girls is a must watch for fanatics of the decade's cinema.  Robert Loggia appears in a few scenes as a grizzled (and incoherent) old dude. There's a Jerry Goldsmith score. According to IMDB the production was plagued with problems. It shows.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Late Summer Western #8: Rio Bravo **** (1959)

One of the ultimate "hangout" movies, Rio Bravo consists mostly of dialogue and brief moments of intense action. Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly cited Rio Bravo as having a substantial influence on his film education.  The influence shows in Quentin's films, with their preference for dialogue punctuated by action instead of the reverse. An unconventional Western, Rio Bravo dares to immerse movie goers in character study and nuance.

John Wayne is Sheriff John T. Chance, a seasoned officer of the law attempting to hold a dangerous man in jail, the brother of a local strong man. To help him, Chance recruits his former deputy and struggling alcoholic "Dude" (Dean Martin), a young gunfighter Colorado (Ricky Nelson), and his cranky friend Stumpy (Walter Brennan). When not attending to business, Chance flirts with Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a saloon gambler. The premise is one Hawks would revisit in two other movies El Dorado (1967) and his final picture Rio Lobo (1970).

On the Blu-Ray Commentary Track film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter speak at length on the "Hawks" style. Carpenter has cited Rio Bravo as a major influence on his own films, especially his 1976 cult film Assault on Precinct 13. The premise, what modern critics would call a siege narrative, features a group of people facing overwhelming odds in a claustrophobic setting.

Carpenter praised how Hawks favored simple shots and compositions, a style that allowed the story to unfold in a naturalistic way. Schickel alluded to Rio Bravo being a response to television, a medium Hawks found to be simplistic due to its clipped narratives that favored economy over in depth story telling. Hawks also wanted to make a statement about the 1952 classic film High Noon, a film he considered to be a ludicrous study of courage.  Hawks was more concerned with how professionals handled a tense situation.

Rio Bravo feels claustrophobic, but not in a negative way. It's a breeze to spend time with these characters.  There's Leigh Brackett's pulpy dialogue, an unforegettable scene of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson crooning "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me," and the measured tone throughout.

Rio Bravo gains resonance after repeated viewings.  Wayne carries the film with ease, while the supporting cast provides comic relief and poignancy to the story.  A film that can be appreciated on many levels: the acting and direction, it's attitude towards violence and ethics in the Old West, and its influence on subsequent filmmakers.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Late Summer Western #7: Seraphim Falls ***1/2 (2006)

Starring Liam Neeson (Carver) and Pierce Brosnan (Gideon), Seraphim Falls is a tale of revenge and redemption set a few years after the Civil War.  Both stars deliver stoic performances as two men on both sides of the same coin.  For reasons unknown, Carver intends to kill Gideon, searching him to the ends of the earth. With a posse in tow, Carver chases Gideon through the harsh environs of the frontier. The film begins as an adventure story.  As the film moves along the landscape changes from snowy mountains to arid deserts, the situations and characters introduced become increasingly surreal. Jack London meets Sergio Leone. John Toll's cinematography captures the harsh grandeur of the landscape in a gritty and often violent tale. Many character actors appear in memorable small roles, Anjelica Huston appears in a crucial scene towards the end.  Seraphim Falls attests that Westerns remain an ideal genre to explore mythical themes in new and innovative ways.  Highly recommended.

Late Summer Western #6: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ***1/2 (1962)

One of John Ford's last great Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a complicated film operating on many levels.

The film begins with aging Senator Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) arriving in a former frontier town to attend the funeral of a friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Then the story flashes back to Rance's arrival in the town as a young man about thirty years earlier (both Stewart and Wayne were twice the age of their characters). He wants to practice law, taking the advice of Horace Greeley to go west.  Upon arrival, his caravan gets held up by the nasty outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Ranse gets nursed back to health by his future wife Hallie (Vera Miles).

Enter Tom Doniphon, a mysterious local, the only one with the courage to stand up to Liberty Valence. Although Ranse has the courage to challenge Liberty, he stands no chance in a physical confrontation. And he detests guns. Rance builds a successful law practice and leads a movement for the territory to become a state, defying the large landowners.  The frontier is closing, a place where old values are in decline and newer ones are taking over.

That's the dichotomy between Rance and Tom. The man of thought vs the man of action. In The Searchers Ford's suggests that John Wayne's character Ethan, a ruthless Indian hater, has no place in the "civilization" emerging in the West. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Wayne lets Rance take credit for ending the threat to the town, even letting him take Hallie as his wife (suggested she and Tom were together). These characters become archetypes of the American mythos.

The theme of civilization is further emphasized in Ford's depiction of the democracy emerging in the west.  Rance teaches a class on civics and instructs the ruffians of the frontier on the merits of voting and civic duty.  Ford's portrayal an emerging democracy looks a little hokey, yet the message is clear: democracy, as flawed as it is, stands as a workable alternative to a culture based on fear and violence.  

A troubled production, Ford and Wayne feuded throughout.  The two aging stars, Stewart and Wayne in a young man's story, adds a layer of melancholy.  What seems to be a story of courage becomes something else, a commentary on history and the inevitable mythmaking that distorts rather than shines a light, cinema being one of the biggest culprits. 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is a fascinating Western, a commentary on the genre itself.  It would be a compelling story to revisit in a remake.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Late Summer Western #5 Winchester '73 *** (1950)

Winchester '73 traces the tale of a rifle through the maelstrom of the Old West. The story begins on the Centennial Day (July 4, 1876) in Dodge City, with Wyatt Earp presiding as Marshall. Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his partner are in pursuit of a fugitive and take part in a shooting contest, Lin ends up winning a Winchester 1873 rifle, the most coveted gun in the West. What follows is a compelling journey featuring outlaws, Native Americans, and settlers.  At around 90 minutes, director Anthony Mann packed in quite a bit of story. Critics credit Winchester '73 for revitalizing the Western genre for the 1950s, a genre that would dominate the decade on film and television. Stewart's career also received a boost, introducing a more subdued and contemplative style. He would go on to star in many Westerns during the decade. Stewart's performance displayed a serious tone that would add poignancy to his Westerns to differentiate him his pal John Wayne. Shot in vibrant black and white, Winchester '73 tells a clever story with menacing villians and biblical irony.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Late Summer Western #4: Ride in the Whirlwind *** (1966)

Monte Hellman's second Western of 1966 Ride in the Whirlwind, written by Jack Nicholson, is slightly less experimental, but no less compelling, than its predecessor The Shooting.  The plot involves a gang of outlaws led by Harry Dean Stanton who are being chased by vigilantes, meanwhile a group of cowboys led by Jack Nicholson take refuge with the outlaws and are mistaken for being perpetrators of crimes they did not commit. Ride in the Whirlwind reminded me of an early Stanley Kubrick film with its deliberate pacing and fascination with triangular conflicts.  And the Utah landscape is a character in itself, desolate and beautiful. In both Hellman films, the West is an unforgiving place, marking a clear departure from the familiar Hollywood productions of John Ford and Howard Hawks. The sense of isolation, cruelty, and its anti-romantic tone mark these two Monte Hellman films as landmarks in the Western genre.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Late Summer Western #3: The Shooting *** (1966)

One of two films directed by Monte Hellman in 1965 on location in the Utah desert, The Shooting has gained notoriety through the decades as an art house Western.  The minimal story begins with two miners played by Warren Oates and Will Hutchins who discover their friend was shot by an unknown gunman.  They become paranoid since they are in the middle of nowhere and are later visited by a woman (Millie Perkins) who mocks their existence and asks the two men to accompany her to a place called Kingsley.  Along the way they meet up with a stranger named Billy Shear (Jack Nicholson) who also treats everyone with contempt.  No one seems to know where they are going and they are running out of food and water. The cinematography is stunning, creating a real sense of desolation and dread in the landscape. I agree with those who consider the film a Waiting for Godot set in the Old West.  The Shooting is a "trip" movie about aimlessness, a striking slice of cinema from the school of the absurd.

Late Summer Western #2: The Missouri Breaks *** (1976)

Any movie starring both Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (neighbors in real life) in the 1970s sounds like a match made in heaven, yet their one and only project together, The Missouri Breaks, proved one of the decade's biggest disappointments. With Arthur Penn directing what would now be called a "revisionist western," rumors circulated of never ending problems on the set.  Not surprisingly, stories of Brando's erratic behavior and refusal to take direction were of more interest than the film itself. 

There were other problems: delays caused by weather, accusations of animal cruelty on the set, and daily script revisions. Leonard Maltin called it one of the worst "big movies" ever made, most noted Brando's odd performance.  All the bad reviews makes me wonder if these critics actually watched the film. While there are flaws, the astounding cast of 1970s character actors created a unique tone, blending farce with pathos. The Missouri Breaks has aged well.

A sense of entropy permeates the entire film, mirroring audience exhaustion with the Western genre.  Nicholson plays Tom Logan, leader of a rustling gang. Robin Hoods they are not.  I suppose cattle rustling lacked the romance associated with outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, they seem to be the bottom feeders of the criminal underworld in the Old West. Logan's gang includes a cast of legendary character actors: Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, and Frederick Forrest among them.  The new cattle baron David Braxton (John McLiam) is cracking down on rustlers so the gang decides to rob a train and get revenge.  The train robbery scene, a staple of the Western, is shot as a routine maneuver, as if the men are bored with such antics.

Plans for revenge are put on hold when Logan gets into a relationship with Braxton's spirited daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd). In the mean time Braxton hires a "regulator" to take care of Logan's gang. 

Enter Brando as Robert E. Lee Clayton, a guy who is a little . . . eccentric. He speaks in an Irish brogue and has lots of hobbies, bird watching among them. One by one he dispatches of Logan's crew, each killing stranger than the one before.  Like a cat playing with a mouse, Clayton likes to toy with his victims before getting rid of them.  At one point he wears a dress as he brings fire and destruction to the land (sure that was Brando's idea). Clayton gets more demonic and terrifying as the film unfolds.  He reminded me a little of the psychotic, Godlike character known as "The Judge" in the Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian. Brando's performance, while offbeat and probably not what the scriptwriter had in mind, is nevertheless memorable and effective. 

What to make of The Missouri Breaks?  Robert Kolker, author of the epochal A Cinema of Loneliness, wrote the following:

Although the film carries some favorite Penn oppositions - particularly that of the individual who lives on the fringes of the legal order and confronts the guardians of that order . . . it is a fairly lifeless work, unable to locate itself within a point of view or a consistent method of telling its tale (20).

Kolker's analysis does get to the biggest flaw in the film: the story feels thin and aimless at times.  But the lack of a tone adds, not subtracts, from the film. Unlike traditional Westerns The Missouri Breaks is commenting upon, the story's allowed to go to some dark places and deal with psychological complexities. Even the "happy ending," if you wish to call it that, feels ironic and oddly appropriate.

Work Cited

Kolker, Robert.  A Cinema of Loneliness. London: OUP, 2011.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Late Summer Western #1: Shane **** (1953)

From 1953, Shane is one of the greatest Westerns ever made. The film tells a fantastic story with many powerful themes in the subtext: the tight bond of a family and a meditation on courage and loneliness. Filmed on location in the awe inspiring Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Shane is certainly one of the most beautiful films ever made with stunning cinematography by Lowell Griggs.

Based on the Jack Schaefer novel, the story is set in Wyoming several years after the Civil War.  Loosely based on the Johnson County War between settlers and cattle barons, material also covered in Michael Cimino's 1978 film Heaven's Gate, Shane tells the story from the point of view of a young boy.

As the opening credits roll, a stranger named Shane (Alan Ladd) passes through the homestead of Joe and Marlen Starrett (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) as their nine year old son Joey (Brandon De Wilde) watches. At first the family's uncertain about the stranger seeking a brief stay at their place, but in time Shane and Joe form a bond. Upon first impression Shane seems small and unsure of himself, but looks can be deceiving.  In time they learn he is one of the best gunslingers around and is pretty good in a fight.

Under incessant harassment from a ruthless cattle baron who uses intimidation to drive homesteaders out, they try to lure Shane into a fight.  At first he turns the other cheek, but the next time he strikes back. Stevens filmed an epic fight scene with Shane taking on several goons.  The bond between Shane and the family grows. He teaches Joey how to shoot a gun, although Marlen voices her disapproval of violence, he becomes a trusted defender of the community. 

Enter the main villain Jack Wilson, memorably played by Jack Palance.  In a memorable scene he kills a settler in cold blood.  Realizing a final confrontation is inevitable, Shane decides he must end the threat for good.  He insists on confronting Jack alone, Joe and him get into a fist fight as Joey watches his two male role models fight it out.  Shane wins, deciding to save the family by sacrificing himself.

Joey follows Shane into town and watches the final confrontation, leading to one of the great farewell scenes in movie history. By film's end, there are as many questions as answers.  Where did Shane come from?  Was he some archangel sent by God to defend good from evil?  Is he on a quest for redemption for past sins he committed? Was he even real?  The simplicity of Ladd's performance is more powerful than anything in a modern superhero film.

Like many great Westerns, Shane asks the question: What makes a civilization?  Close bonds between families and communities are emphasized.  Civilization also means people sacrificing themselves for a higher cause. A great movie, one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk **1/2 (2017)

One of the most anticipated films of 2017, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a quasi reimagining of the war film.  The few reviews I skimmed are overwhelmingly positive, praising Nolan's ingenious approach to the genre.  What is the approach?  Basically, separate vignettes told in fragments that blend into a panoramic picture of the Battle of Dunkirk. For myself the film's shortcomings are simple, I found the vignettes unengaging, minimalistic to the point of incoherence.

The German invasion of France in May 1940 changed the course of world history, the swift surrender of the French army left the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) stranded on the French coast. To save the army, the British navy and English civilians organized a dramatic evacuation immortalized in the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill.  The BEF was saved and Britain went on to resist the Third Reich on its own until the American entry into the war almost two years later.

The film opens with British soldiers in retreat from the German forces, interestingly the Germans never appear in the film.  The enemy remains an abstraction.  Other story lines follow Mark Rylance as a British civilian determined to do his part in the evacuation with his sons in tow. Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander, he's really good at gazing wistfully into the sea.  Nolan regulars Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy appear in small roles.  The story unfolds in an elliptical way with flashbacks and flash forwards, but the approach adds little to the overall narrative. 

While there's enough sound and fury to fill 100 minutes, few of the images are memorable. There's a claustrophobic sense of space, with boats constantly being straffed by German planes, yet it all looks like crisp archival footage set to Hans Zimmer's pulsating music. 

Dunkirk is not a bad film by any means, it's an impressionistic war movie along the lines of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, multiple impressions of a singular experience. Yet even Malick allowed us to get inside the heads of his characters. Nolan keeps us at a cool distance.  In other great World War II movies such as Das Boot and Saving Private Ryan we get to know the characters and their motivations, there's a deep humanity through those works.  Maybe Nolan grew tired of the Interstellar critics who chided the film's maximum effort to create an emotional resonance.  Dunkirk keeps sentiment at arms length, resulting in long stretches of tedium.

And then there's the politics of the film, or lack of it.  The issue never comes up, the stakes of the battle are never articulated.  There's hardly any discussion of Hitler and the Third Reich, the enemy could be anyone from anytime in history, giving Dunkirk an almost Sci-Fi feel.  While war films are hardly required to get into the ideas at stake in a battle, patriotism without ideals walks a razor's edge.  Dunkirk is a WWII film that seems to exist outside the war itself.  There's enough style for ten movies, it's the lack of substance that leaves you famished. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes ***1/2 (2017)

By far the best of the reboot trilogy of Apes films, War for the Planet of the Apes matches the original 1968 movie in the power of its allegory. The previous film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ended with most of humanity wiped out by a virus as the apes are becoming the dominant species on the earth. By the third film, humanity is reduced into tribal societies.  Most of the film focuses on the apes, humans play a limited role in a bold creative choice.  Woody Harrelson plays a Colonel Kurtz type military leader who wants to wage a war of extermination on the apes. The enlightened Chimpanzee messianic leader Caesar wants to lead his people to freedom.  The apes look more realistic than ever, Andy Serkis deserves special recognition from the Academy for his groundbreaking work in these films.  By far the darkest of the trilogy, it's about the end of one culture and the rise of another.  Harrelson excels in his character's introduction, you know where's he's coming from! In the last half hour the movie takes the allegorical themes up another notch, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, and leaving the door open for more.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream (2007) ***

As far as rock documentaries go, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down A Dream gets the job done.  Directed by New Hollywood prodigy Peter Bogdanovich, the documentary covers the entire history of the band up till 2006.  As the decades have passed, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became standard bearers of the rock and roll spirit. With interviews and archival footage, Bogdanovich presents a full portrait of the prolific band.

A telling fact is revealed about Petty early in the film.  Despite growing up in Gainesville, Florida he never picked a up a southern accent. Tom's independence, determination to do things his own way, comes out in that anecdote.  While he's written about his Southern roots, no one would ever accuse the band of being Southern Rock.  They embrace a more complex idea of American identity. 

A rock and roll fanatic, Petty recruited what became the Heartbreakers when he was a teenager. After years of honing their repertoire, they scored a record contract.  In 1976, "American GIrl" became a hit single with its Byrds inspired melodies.  During a period sandwiched by punk and disco, the Heartbreakers carried the torch of rock music inspired by earlier eras.  Interestingly, they gained a following in England with fans and critics before finding success in the states.  Their third LP from 1979, Damn the Torpedoes, proved their breakthrough in America: "Here Comes My Girl," "Refugee," and "Even the Losers," all became staples of FM radio.

Through the 80s their music and popularity flourished even more with the rise of MTV.  By the end of the decade Petty had a thriving solo career, even playing alongside other rock legends as the youngest member of The Traveling Wilbury's. By decades end the hits kept coming: "Running Down a Dream," "Free Fallin," and "I Won't Back Down."

Petty soldiered on through the 1990s, always carrying the banner of American rock and roll as audiences fragmented.  Their 2002 LP The Last DJ is one of the best albums to deal with post-9/11 America, with Petty's prophetic condemnation of the corporate takeover of radio in the title track.

Interviews with other band members including keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell, and former drummer Stan Lynch illuminate the band's sometime tumultuous history: tensions over Petty's decision to go solo or creative differences in the studio often got intense, but never broke up the band. The tragic loss of bassist Howie Epstein to a drug overdose in 2003 also gets discussed. The interviews are complemented with excellent archival footage.

Fervent fans of the band will love the documentary. Those new to Petty may find it a bit self-indulgent at times. Regardless, Runnin' Down a Dream is a worthwhile history of an essential band.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Long Strange Trip ***1/2 (2017)

The Grateful Dead are originals. They created music that comes from the fabric of the American experience.  The four hour documentary Long Strange Trip, currently available on Amazon Prime, chronicles the four decade career of the band from their beginnings in the psychedelic scene of 1960s San Francisco to mainstream success in the 1980s. Fronted by the sphinxlike Jerry Garcia, the band carved a deep niche in the history of rock and roll with their improvisational style that created a unique symbiotic relationship between audience and artist. 

With Martin Scorsese on board as executive producer, Long Strange Trip recaptures some of the magic of his 2005 Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home.  The film includes interviews, superior archival footage, and historical perspective on the forces that drove the band.  The tone subtly shifts as the narrative moves forward from the bright idealism of the 1960s to the harsh atmosphere of, in the words of Garcia, the "fake culture" of the 1980s.

In the mid 1960s, Garcia formed the Dead along with bluesman Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. They became fixtures of the counterculture in San Francisco.  The Dead joined Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, serving as the house band for his famous LSD experiments, as chronicled in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

In time the Dead added their own elixir of blues and jazz to rock and roll.  Founding members included the classically trained bassist Phil Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir, two drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and lyricist Robert Hunter. Unlike other bands of the era, the Grateful Dead worked from a different model: building a loyal audience through nonstop touring, promising a unique, transcendent experience with each performance.

During the 1970s, the Dead gained a loyal fan base of "dead heads" that followed them everywhere. Although some critics considered their music boring and repetitive, their popularity grew. The 1987 single "Touch of Grey," 20 years in the making, finally got the Dead on the pop charts and even some MTV play.  But just as they were peaking, Garcia fell deeper into his addictions, the documentary suggests it may have been a deliberate message to his fans: Don't be like me.  Years of touring took their toll. Garcia passed away in 1995 and instantly became a legend.

Well versed fans of the Grateful Dead may find the documentary too superficial for their taste, while for those new to the band it's an excellent primer. Original members of the band and those who worked closely with them add colorful commentary.  The time flies by.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Baby Driver ***1/2 (2017)

Edgar Wright's exuberant Baby Driver is a movie for people who love movies. There's fantastic car chases, an eclectic array of music, and exciting heists.  A hip crime film with elements of the musical, pure cinematic energy carries Baby Driver over the top, a highlight of 2017.

Starring Ansel Elgort as expert driver "Baby" who offers his talents to professional criminals. There's a direct lineage with two other movies: Walter Hill's 1978 film The Driver and Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive from 2011, both movies about existential loners who drive for the rush of it.  Wright constructed a more relatable protagonist, giving "Baby" a worthy back story. An ear condition creates a non-stop buzz that he drowns out by constantly listening to music.

Wright surrounded Elgort with a top notch supporting cast with Jon Hamm and Elza Gonzalez as husband and wife bank robbers, Jamie Foxx as the loose cannon, and Kevin Spacey as Baby's menacing boss. Lily James plays a waitress who befriends Baby, she prevents the film devolving into a cold descent into violence.

Baby Driver is a pop song of a movie, moving along at a smooth pace with likable characters and crackling dialogue. My only criticism would be the movie tries to be too cool for its own good at times, as if in a desperate struggle to avoid the conventions of mainstream moves.  As a result, the last act gets predictable.

Still, Baby Driver is the ideal summer movie.  A triumph of cinematic vision and sound design, a breath of fresh air in a summer clogged with franchises and sequels.  Like Tarantino, Wright puts his encyclopedic knowledge of movies into action, leaving film buffs with all sorts of cool references to ponder.      

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jurassic Park ***1/2 (1993)

Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs to the big screen. Almost 25 years later the effects still work and its status as an iconic blockbuster remains undisputed.  Although it lacks the cinematic virtuosity of Jaws, Close Encounters, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park succeeds as an amusement park ride movie - a formula Spielberg  crafted to near perfection.

The opening scene imitates Jaws.  A group of native workers are handling a dangerous animal that's out of sight. Someone makes a mistake and workers gets killed by the predator as head of park security Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) looks on, a low rent Quint. The two protagonists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), both paleontologists, are recruited by the Walt Disney (Steven Spielberg?) like visionary John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to inspect the park.  Neil and Dern are pleasant enough screen presences, bringing life to a CGI driven venture.

Once they arrive at the park, set to classic b-movie John Williams music, we meet Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician skeptical about genetic engineering for profit.  Goldblum makes the movie, contributing humanity and reason.

The exposition scenes are my favorite because they most closely resembled the Michael Crichton novel. Scientists extracted dinosaur DNA from mosquitos and use it to clone dinosaurs. They cut corners and assumed they could control an ecosystem, not considering the consequences of bringing together two species separated by millions of years of evolution. In the best scene, the closest to USS Indianapolis moment from Jaws, Dr. Malcolm explains chaos theory.

Inevitably, things go wrong and the dinosaurs attack.  The most harrowing sequence of a T-Rex terrorizing two kids who are there to visit their Grandpa.  From then on Jurassic Park is an adventure story, some characters become dino snacks; some make harrowing escapes.

But its unfair to compare Jurassic Park to Spielberg's earlier triumphs. By 1993 he had yet to score a Box Office Smash since the early 1980s (outside of the Indiana Jones movies). So he had to adjust his style for a new decade.  George Lucas played a significant role in post-production and his signatures are present: faster paced action, thinner characters, and awe inspiring effects created by his company Industrial Light & Magic.

Compared with the tent pole movies of this summer, Jurassic Park has aged well. Spielberg took notes from adventure films of the past, duplicating the magic of Ray Harryhausen's special effects extravaganzas.  And it's a perfect introductory film for anyone interested in the Sci-Fi genre.

Monday, May 29, 2017

War Machine *** (2017)

The Netflix film War Machine stars Brad Pitt as a fictional version of the Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal who was removed from his post after an unflattering 2010 article in Rolling Stone.  I recall reading the article as a depiction of McChrystal and his staff as cowboys running roughshod out on the fringes of Empire, they were also less than thrilled with President Obama. 

Pitt plays the fictional version (General Glen McMahon) as a laconic dunce with good intentions.  Upon arrival, a defanged version of Lt. Aldo Raine from Inglorious Basterds, he inspects the base of operations like George C. Scott in Patton.  Only he ain't no Patton, in fact the entire movie is a Patton told in reverse.  McMahon walked into the middle of a war with unclear objectives, a counter-insurgency impossible to defeat, and a lukewarm public on the homefront. Attempts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghani locals meet with predictable results.

It should also be pointed out there's hardly any actual fighting in the film, except for a brief battle at the end.  The tone of War Machine falls somewhere between satire and drama, a combination that will irk some, but appropriate for the material.  A first rate supporting cast and some A-list cameos are a big plus.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Get Me Roger Stone *** (2017)

Get Me Roger Stone will be remembered as an educational artifact from the 2016 election, but beware, watching the film is akin to sticking your head inside the filthiest toilet you can imagine. 

Who is Roger Stone?  A self described dandy who helps political candidates destroy their rivals, Stone started out as dirty trickster back in the Nixon days. According to William Safire's Political Dictionary the term "dirty tricks" was used in the 1960s to describe CIA Cold War operations, but took on a new meaning during the Watergate era.  Watergate involved all sorts of dirty tricks orchestrated by Nixon's reelection committee (CREEP), which ranged from Fraternity type pranks to shady slush funds, and eventually to illegal surveillance on political enemies.

Stone played a key role in many GOP campaigns to follow. In 2000 Stone organized a "riot" to stop the Bush v. Gore Florida recount.  The documentary suggests Stone is analogous to "The Cigarette Smoking Man" from the X-Files, a shadowy figure manipulating the course of history.  But he's more of a rake straight from a Dickens novel, a scandal monger who thrives on creating chaos.

The film follows Stone through his acrimonious relationship with the Trump campaign as an adviser in real time, he was hired, supposedly quit, then came back.  Stone had a long history with Trump, going back to 2000 when he engineered Trump's quashing of the Reform Party.  A media savant always good for a sound byte, Stone fed Trump many of his best attack lines and conspiracy theories.

At one point in the film Stone says he's merely playing a character. Is the whole persona an act? You be the judge.  When asked if he's afraid the movie will make everyone hate him he replies, "I revel in your hatred." Enter at your own risk.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Jackie *** 1/2 (2016)

The 2016 biopic Jackie is about the aftermath of the JFK assassination. While countless movies have dealt with the events of November 22, 1963, none have been told from the point of the First Lady who witnessed the terror firsthand.  Natalie Portman literally becomes Jackie in a poignant performance.

Jackie is about trauma on all levels - personal and historical.  The script and direction did a great job of recreating the hours after the assassination.  The first 20 minutes are unbearably emotional, with the immediate minutes after the assassination recounted in wrenching detail with a chilling movie score by Mica Levi.

Based on an interview Mrs. Kennedy gave to a Life Magazine journalist a week after the tragic events in Dallas when she sensed a plot to erase JFK's legacy from history. Lyndon Johnson believed a low key funeral would serve the country best and encouraged her to retreat into private life. 

Out of respect for her husband, but also to let the her husband's enemies know the extent of what they did, Mrs. Kennedy insisted on a public funeral that would follow the path of President Lincoln's and also selected the President's resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Other performances stand out as well: Peter Sarsgaard as a stoic Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as Jackie's assistant Nancy Tuckerman, and John Hurt in one of his final performances as a priest consoling Jackie.  Above all Portman portrays her character with intelligence, poise, and determination.

Jackie comes back again and again to the idea of Camelot, a brief period when America lived up to its ideals. Mythology of course, the early 1960s look grand in many ways but they were far from paradise.  Just ask Martin Luther King or Rachel Carson. Bobby wonders in a moment of doubt, "What did we really accomplish"? Jackie comments, "Isn't this what the Birchers wanted"?  The tension of memory and reality are in conflict, preventing the film from entering into hagiography territory.

Despite the mythmaking, the iconography of the Kennedy's continues to glisten.  The power of personality in history cannot be underestimated, and I don't mean hero worship, but leaders who brought out the best of its citizens: a call to service, not to ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Colossal ***1/2 (2016)

Colossal blends two genres, Indie Mumblecore and the Monster Movie, and does it with intelligence.  Anne Hathaway stars as "party girl" Gloria who returns to her hometown after a break up.  Back in town she meets up with former High School Classmate Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who runs the local bar.  He offers her a job, but their attention soon shifts to a monster attacking Seoul.  After some initial shock, Olivia discovers she may be connected to the mayhem in Korea.

Many of the Indie Drama's conceits are addressed in Colossal, the cliché of returning home and discovering the real meaning of life being among them. It's also a hangout movie with a crew of barflies who engage in Cheers like conversations on life.  Pick your indie to parody, Garden State immediately comes to my mind.

Alcohol also figures into the story, there's constant drinking throughout.  Drinking never helps the characters, it holds them back and prevents them from moving forward.  The bar itself, the setting where most of the movie takes place, looks and feels more like a purgatory - like that one in The Iceman Cometh.

As with all monster movies there's deep metaphor running through the picture.  Watching Colossal it's hard not to think of it as a commentary on America being the richest (and most disruptive) country in the world.  Americans have the right to act like irresponsible, drunken fools if they feel like it.  Unfortunately American actions have repercussions for the rest of the world - which literally happens in Colossal.  Look no further than the past election, the rest of the world, not just the U.S.A., will have to deal with whatever shit the administration stirs up.

Politics and drinking aside, Colossal is also well written and acted.  No one plays passive- aggressive better than Sudeikus, his nice guy façade takes some ominous turns, a troll who lives a double life on the web.  And Hathaway does an amazing job with the absurd material, moving from apathy to awareness in a believable character arc. One of her best performances.

With a year full of other monster movies due for release, Colossal will easily be remembered as most in tune with the times.

The Founder *** (2016)

The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, the man who popularized McDonalds and fast food culture.  Played with subtle menace by Michael Keaton, Kroc's story is an all too familiar one in the lives of successful Americans.

Kroc begins as a typical Willy Loman type, a middle aged salesman barely eking out a living.  A seller of milk shake machines, one day Kroc discovers a revolutionary roadside restaurant managed by two brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) who are able to serve delicious hamburgers and fries in under thirty seconds. Blown away by their system, Kroc begs the McDonald Brothers to franchise their idea.  They've tried before, but were unable to make it work.  Kroc convinced them into entering an agreement with him and he made it a regional and eventual national phenomenon.

The McDonald Brothers symbolized the mythical American idea of business: you have an idea, build a small business through hard work and guts, and make it thrive to improve the community.  Kroc's ethos looked further to the future, a business model of expansion, homogenization, and obliterating the competition. The brothers got a raw deal, representing a swath of the business community politicians pay lip service to every election, who at the same time arguing a corporation is a person.

Keaton brings humanity to an unlikable character. While struggling on the road he listens to Norman Vincent Peale records on the power of positive thinking after going through years of rejection.  He finds the country club world his wife yearns for, played by Laura Dern, static and dull.  Success changes him, but unlike the real estate men in Glengarry Glen Ross or the bible salesman in Maysles Brothers documentary Salesman, he triumphs over all. 

The art design and direction capture the 1950s as the decade is mostly remembered - all blistering sunshine boldly striving into the future.  In the current cultural moment Americana makes us nervous and pensive for a past we barely recognize, yet at the same time provides a burgeoning faith that the project is redeemable.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Circle **1/2 (2017)

The Circle imagines a near future world with a catch all social network that dominates the media landscape.  Tom Hanks plays the creepy-nice CEO and comedian Patton Oswalt co-stars as his henchman who envisions a "post-privacy world" where people will live in total transparency, meaning anybody, anywhere can monitor each other at all times. A brave new world of newsfeeds and minute by minute status updates. Based on the Dave Eggers novel of the same title, I hate to pull out the "book was better" cliché, but in this case it's true.

Emma Watson stars as Mae, the company's latest recruit who rapidly climbs the ranks after leaving a boring temp job.  Mae's the ideal millennial: bright, compassionate, awesome social skills, tech savvy, and attractive.  The script, unlike the Dave Eggers novel, doesn't give Mae much to do.  She mostly interacts with people without establishing anything beyond a surface relationship -  no one is allowed to develop.

At its best The Circle satirizes the false optimism Ted Talks speeches and 21st century workplace culture.  The company, obviously inspired by Google and Facebook, looks Utopian on the surface. Most employees live on the "campus" where there are endless extracurricular activities and social events.  Their motto is "sharing is caring" which they repeat like a well behaved cult during the Steve Jobs-esque presentations.

The dark underside of social media is handled with sharper wit on TV shows like Black Mirror and Mr. Robot. The Circle works more as a sardonic companion film to the 2013 comedy The Internship with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, an amusing commercial for the Google worldview.

The design of The Circle and the music are both well done, obviously inspired by David Fincher's 2010 film The Social Network.  But Fincher's movie kept the focus on human relationships and had a heart within its dark soul.The Circle is a jumble of half baked themes.

Hanks is never convincing as the nefarious CEO and Oswalt is given little to do.  The same goes for John Boyega as the mysterious genius who started the company, he only gets one worthwhile scene that's all exposition. Bill Paxton appears in one of his final roles as Mae's father. Karen Gillan stands out as Mae's co-worker/frenemy Annie.

So The Circle disappoints, which is a shame considering the timely subject matter and the strong source material (Eggers did get a script credit).  The ending feels especially rushed and ineffective. The final result is a milquetoast of a movie that's too timid to fully explore the questions it attempts to raise. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Five Came Back **** (2017)

The new Netflix documentary Five Came Back is a moving and poignant three part series on five American directors and their experiences during the Second World War. The five filmmakers chronicled are Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler.  Five contemporary directors provide excellent commentary: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Tero, and Lawrence Kasdan.

Before the war Stevens, Capra, and Wyler were known for making comedies and crtically acclaimed dramas.  Ford had built his reputation by directing historical films and Westerns like Young Mr. Lincoln and Stagecoach, while Huston was an up and comer known for The Maltese Falcon.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor instantly mobilized Americans and these directors all wanted to serve in some way.

Ford, a hard drinking Irish-American, served in the Pacific theatre. He was present at the Battle of Midway and made a film based on the footage he shot.  Battle of Midway and many other films were heavily edited to reassure the homefront. Ford also supervised a film crew during D-Day, capturing the horror and desperation of the Normandy invasion. 

Capra's assignment was to educate the public, most importantly the soldiers entering the armed forces. His series of films entitled Why We Fight did just that. After the war Capra started his own studio, Republic Pictures, which made only one film in its short existence, It's A Wonderful Life, which went unnoticed upon release.  The rest is history of course, few films better captured the spirit of post-war America. 

Spielberg tells Wyler's story, a Jewish-American who lost family members to the holocaust. Wyler's documentary Memphis Belle followed a B-17 bomber crew that flew missions in Europe, getting footage Spielberg calls some of the most spellbinding ever put on film.  After the war Wyler directed The Best Years of Our Lives, a classic that captured the sense of lost time and sadness of the WWII generation, but also looked ahead to a brighter future.

George Stevens filmed the brutal 1944-45 campaign that ended with Germany's defeat.  He also took part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and made a film that was shown at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence of Nazi atrocities. Stevens was haunted by Dachau for the rest of his life.  His later film were more serious in tone and explored the nature of good and evil.

John Huston also saw his share of action.  His film The Battle of San Pietro was banned by the military for being too graphic for the public, it went unseen until 1982.  Huston also made one of the most poignant films of the war Let There Be Light, a documentary about a group of soldiers recovering from PTSD. Coppola named it one Huston's finest moments as a director.

Five Came Back also raises important questions about artistic freedom and democracy.  How does one be patriotic and critical at the same time? How do movies shape and control public opinion?

All the documentaries mentioned are also available for streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Salesman *** (2016)

Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for the 2017 Oscars.  In protest to the Trump Administration's travel ban directed at Iranian nationals Farhadi did not attend the awards ceremony.  That's a shame, because I think if more Americans watched movies from other cultures reactionary politicians would never introduce such policies.

The Salesman tells the story of an Iranian couple played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti whose lives get turned upside down after a home invasion.  The film begins with a harrowing sequence as their apartment building begins to collapse.  Forced to find a new place, they settle into a two bedroom apartment.  Emad (Hoesseini) teaches literature at the local High School and directs a production of Death of a Salesman by night. His wife Rana (Alidoosti) acts in the play.

One night an intruder enters the apartment and attacks Rana.  Insulted at the attack on his wife, Emad is torn between the conflicting emotions of revenge and being supportive to Rana.  A thoughtful man who his students look up to, he is unable to deal with his emotions, handling it with an uneasy stoicism.  What is expected of man in that situation? Meanwhile Rana struggles to deal with trauma and her husband's desire for revenge.

The filmmaking style achieves a sense of realism, immersing the viewer in the urban milieu of modern Iran.  One gets the sense of urban blight that infects so many cities around the world.  People go on with their lives the best they can and not lose hope.

As The Salesman wheels towards a heady climax, the film is interspersed with scenes from Emad's production of Death of the Salesman, a play with deep resonance to the themes in the film.  Everyone aspires to achieve dreams and sometimes expectations are not meant. Whatever happens we have the power to control our own reactions  An immersive film with impressive performances all around, The Salesman is a sensitive meditation on empathy and conflicting emotion.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Robert Osborne

A generation of movie fans were introduced to classic film by TCM host Robert Osborne. Mr. Osborne passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He served as the affable movie host during prime time for TCM from 1994-2016.  Before each film Osborne talked about the making of the film and afterwards shared trivia and some final thoughts.  Starting in 2006 he was joined by a rotating group of co-hosts for the weekend series The Essentials.

Turner Classic Movies continues to show countless movies on television no one else will show, ranging from silent cinema to obscure films impossible to find anywhere else.  As a commercial free network, TCM epitomizes counter programming for the 21st Century media landscape. With the proliferation of streaming services and home entertainment systems, the network remains vibrant and innovative.

A film historian and journalist, Mr. Osborne was a walking encyclopedia of movie knowledge. He appreciated all genres; never patronized his audience. We'll miss his incisive commentary and passion for film. 

Logan ***1/2 (2017)

Logan, starring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, perhaps the most popular of the X-Men, will go down as one of the greatest superhero films ever made. After two unremarkable stand alone films, Wolverine X-Men: Origins (2009and The Wolverine (2013), Logan brings a powerhouse of pathos and emotion rare in comic book movies.

Most Marvel movies are entertaining enough for at least one viewing, but Logan transcends the limitations of the genre.  Deeply inspired by the Western, evident in a poignant reference to Shane, Logan eschews fantasy in favor of a gritty realism.  By far the most violent Marvel film ever produced, it also provides some of the best performances from Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and newcomer Dafne Keen. 

Logan is a changing of the guard story told in the context of a world that eerily reflects our own, or what it could become.  Will Logan point the way forward for future movies of its genre, just as Deadpool did last year?  Or will it be a stand alone oddity in the Marvel universe, not unlike the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Whatever happens, Logan tells a modern myth with extraordinary grace.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

HyperNormalisation ***1/2 (2016)

HyperNormalisation, a 2016 BBC documentary directed by Adam Curtis, takes an insightful look at the past 40 years of history to comprehend the existential cul-de-sac of the current moment.  The film examines international politics, technological developments, the media, pop culture, and corporate power.  Nearly three hours long, HyperNormalisation may not be the definitive statement of modern history, but a place to begin the conversation.

The film begins in 1975 when New York City faced bankruptcy and urban decay, in a desperate move the city turned over its finances to private bankers. Young real estate developer Donald Trump saw an opportunity and secured loans from the banks to build luxurious hotels, rising him to celebrity status. He came to personify Reagan era capitalism and excess.

As the counterculture went into terminal decline in the 1970s, artists turned inward in the hope of inspiring change through self expression, in an archival interview with Patti Smith she reflected on the loss of hope among artists to effect any political change through mass movements. Pop Culture began to neutralize radical art, Nike once used the Beatles song "Revolution" in a TV ad. Madison Avenue made radical the new cool, but a toothless one.

Meanwhile Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attempted to build a balance of power in the Middle East, which entailed playing Arab countries against each other. The Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad felt betrayed at Kissinger's duplicity, warning him it would have unthinkable consequences for the West and the region. I remember a history professor beginning a lecture on Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy with the caveat, "he's not welcome over there anymore."

Cyberspace brought hope for some, prophets from the 1960s envisioned an online world of people communicating and acting without government or corporate interference, a realization of the 1960s dream of a participatory democracy. But as the early hackers demonstrated, corporations were already using the cyber world to gain ever more control over citizens by mining their financial data.  

After the Vietnam debacle Western governments increasingly used the media to blur reality, utilizing "perception management" to mislead people. Libyan leader Gaddafi was made into a villain by the Reagan Administration only to become an unlikely ally in the 2000s for agreeing to halt his already defunct "weapons of mass destruction" program, moving from "fake villain" to "fake hero." 

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe in 1991 prompted euphoric declarations of "the end of history," a new golden age for liberal democracy. Yet anxieties of the future persisted. Conspiracy theories proliferated and became part of pop culture on TV shows like The X-Files. HyperNormalisation notes how movies were seemingly preparing people for a major catastrophe with recurring images of New York City and Washington D.C. being attacked. The future landscape looked like a scary place and politicians adjusted their rhetoric accordingly, reaching apotheosis with the 2016 Trump campaign.

When the catastrophe did arrive on 9/11/01 politicians spoke of more security to prevent future attacks to a jittery populace, while destabilizing the world with aggressive foreign policies in the name of security and protection from "weapons of mass destruction." The movies had prepared us. 

Yet there were encouraging signs. In 2008 Americans elected Barack Obama President, a watershed (and sadly divisive) moment in American history.  The Arab Spring portended a new wave of democracy in the Middle East. The Occupy Wall Street Movement fired a salvo at the exploitative financial establishment.  Yet Obama's presidency ended with America more divided than ever, while the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street quietly dissipated.

In Russia Vladimir Putin built an autocracy out of the old Soviet Union, emphasizing national pride and militarism as an alternative to Obama's globalism.  Putin kept his opponents confused, a shape shifter with ambiguous motives and talent for leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.  Others took notice (and delight) at Putin's methods. 

The year 2016 brought about a perfect storm of "reality distortion." The Trump campaign launched a movement spearheaded by the nationalistic alt-right who found true love in their own American Putin. After years of repressed rage at politicians and the establishment, Americans between the coasts were ready for an outsider to disrupt Washington. As Trump broke the rules of campaign etiquette and horrified his critics, Red State America went into happy dance mode. In melodramatic stump speeches, influenced by WWE wrestlers, Trump promised to bring back jobs, crack down on illegal immigration, get the terrorists, and negotiate fantastic trade deals. He had them at hello.  

Trump's Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, albeit the winner of the popular vote, epitomized establishment politics and failed to win pivotal swing states in the Rustblet. Trump used social media to control the narrative, always a few steps ahead of the competition. Social media mutated into an echo chamber and the terrain of trolls free to express their retrograde politics in the relative comfort of cyberspace. Social media, heralded as a decisive factor in enlarging democracy, took a macabre turn foreseen in the Netflix series Black Mirror.

One may not walk away feeling better about the current situation after watching Normalisation, but it will provide context and knowledge.  In an interview Curtis talked about change being possible if enough people can come together want it. If you sensed things were not quite right before the election, now things really feel disjointed. And that could result in more collective action for the future. Hopefully. The early signs are encouraging. 

So society has arrived definitive moment with a stark choice: retreat into further alternative realities of empty pleasures or work towards alternatives through community and real world action. HyperNormalisation features many competing narratives that do not add up to any definitive answers - that's the point. 

Also dig the eclectic soundtrack, a free association of pop culture references. 

(HyperNormalisation is available for free on Youtube)