Friday, December 26, 2008

Vintage Cars

There's something so damned familiar about "Gran Torino" - and that seems to be the main source of pleasure in it. Not least of which we get to see Clint Eastwood in the not-too-subtle familiar mode of his heyday, the laconic aging hardass that won him an Oscar for "Unforgiven" and that stretches all the way back to the "Dirty Harry" era.

Eastwood has struggled with this persona his entire career. The spaghetti westerns in the '60s were themselves responses against what was considered a used-up and tired genre, given new life (he claims by his own hand) by the world-weary "Squint." When he began directing himself, the films he seemed to have his heart in were closer to Bertrand Tavernier than to Don Siegel. But Eastwood knew to remain a good studio asset, and mixed the personal films with the action ones over the years.

In retrospect it seems that Eastwood has always been conscious of his legacy as time passes. The "Dirty Harry" films get more progressive in theme as they go along (even as the filmmaking technique regresses (but a meta-nod to "The Dead Pool," which seems to be about being Clint Eastwood)). He made sure to be in charge of his own fate, and tried constantly to retool his persona rather than retread it (vide "Tightrope" or "Every Which Way You Can"). There was a bad fallow middle period during the 1990s (from "The Rookie" to about "Blood Work") in which his own worst impulses resulted in flaccid and sloppy films having little to do with his previous urgency as an icon. But he began to return to (or develop a refined) form with "Mystic River," then "Million Dollar Baby," and finally the 2 Iwo Jima films of 2006.

I don't consider any of these particularly great, but they are well-regarded. He has outlasted his critics, and keeps doing what he knows how to do. Now it seems there is always a Clint Eastwood film around Christmas time (2 this year), and they're never the big, grand epics other directors strive for. Even "Sands..." a war picture, didn't feel epic. Eastwood's technique is disarmingly simple, and practically nonchalant. His blocking and direction of actors often seems rushed and uninvolved.

Yet sometimes it's perfect for his theme. I think "Mystic River"'s award-winning performances stood out exactly because the film surrounding them was so slipshod. But the overly-relaxed "Honkytonk Man" and "Bronco Billy" (neither of which delivers on any kind of '70s-style Eastwood-esque "moments") are brilliant examples of restraint and sensitivity.

These smaller productions also means he can make more films. Such previous prolific stalwarts as Coppola and Gilliam struggle to get each film funded and finished (and that's without any stars dying). Even Brett Ratner, god help us, has priced himself out of regular commissions now that he got himself attached to X-Men-sized projects.

Eastwood apparently isn't interested in going that route. He might not be capable of it. As a wise man once said, the man knows his limitations.

There's a humility to Eastwood's direction that is unassuming, undemanding, and seems stuck in the past. It would be easy to catch "Gran Torino" on cable in a year and not be entirely sure it was 1, 5 or 20 years old. By not being of the moment, it approaches a kind of timelessness.

Eastwood is working with similar material here as in "Unforgiven," the out-of-time warrior unable to find his place in a changing world. The sense of outrage has been replaced by one of stubborn inevitability. Is Eastwood considering his own mortality, one film at a time?

Our knowledge of his previous career only helps. And with the resonances to other roles, from the haunted agent in "In The Line Of Fire" to the widower in "Bridges of Madison County," "Gran Torino" feels solid as a well-kept automobile.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Girls on Film

We are the ultimate voyeurs when watching films. We are allowed to watch whatever is shown, completely anonymously, and we're safe to enjoy what is revealed.

It is passive, yet some would accuse the gaze of being an aggressive act. The ultimate site of our visual pleasure is glamour, either embodied by stars, Hollywood artifice and spectacle, or extra-textural context. We enjoy and yet have no culpability in watching and dreaming.

Fantasizing and yearning. The people up on screen do not know they are being watched. Those on display are being objectified.

We give ourselves over to the storytellers. Camera placement, and every edit was decided by someone else, and presents us with images, information, and anticipation as the film unspools in a specific manner. We are in thrall, yet powerless.

At least, so the more adventurous and experimental filmmakers would have us be.

If we leave the theatre, or the room, the film continues and we miss something as it continues. It's unaware and uncaring that the observer has left. The film exists on its own, regardless of who regards it. Running in its own endless forward movement. With the rise of video, and the internet, not only can the viewer now pause, or even rewind scenes, they can interact with the story.

The film is now at the mercy of the observer, who can negotiate the experience themselves. Not just decode it. But write it. Branch like a videogame from scene to scene, or change the configuration of the elements. Zoom in or edit. Move heads. This interaction is no longer spectatorship. It is participation.

We don't respond to moving images in the same way when they're in our control. We have the urge to manipulate, and change, just to see what might happen if a color is added, or the music is changed, or sped up. Or a scene from one show is put into or on top of another.

We consume it as we find convenient, rather than as how it was intended. The constantly changed and reconfigured art piece is no longer a film but a performance object. The feedback loop is for our own feedback. Evidence of our presence and actions upon the piece.

Instead of looking anonymously at the figures up on the screen, presented to us - as common cultural currency, presented by personal or industrial configurations that have sociological meaning - we are now looking directly at ourselves.

It puts ego back into the process. And it makes impossible the surrender to the caress of cinema.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Elvis Lives and Breathes. Apparently.

You may know about the new "Elvis Duets" CD (released November '08), that features duets with Elvis and current artists created in the studio by using digital tools (when Bono sang with Sinatra in 1995 without ever meeting in the same studio it was news). Martina MacBride has gone one better, and offers this "remix" of Elvis's performance of "Blue Christmas" from his '68 "comeback" special.

This is problematic. I don't call myself the biggest Elvis fan, but the integrity of this footage has been profoundly changed in order to sell us a new singer. This isn't just cutting to (or into) archival scenes, it's intrusion into historical documentation. People familiar with this televised concert knows it has a historical and cultural context outside the mere depiction of Elvis singing a couple songs. His nervousness, the intentional staging in close quarters with his fans, the general status of his career previous to this, and band members who were positioned as equals rather than mere backup, all say volumes about what gave this event and the footage its power.

His performance and demeanor are irrevocably altered by the intrusion of a singer standing next to him who was not there (or here on earth) 40 years ago. This is a step closer to the "bringing Humphrey Bogart back to life" future that James Cameron is salivating for.

I understand that new generations have a different relationship to this footage than people who actually lived through it. They may have similar concerns in 40 years when someone is painting a digital moustache on their cultural icons in 2048.

Or, they may not. Because their cultural icons may not exist in some original pristine and culturally specific state. Their meaning may be in flux through the stream of culture and of time, and any additions or deletions will be considered acceptable and expected wear (let's call it patina) as new generations and technology reappropriate old material to make it new.

Well, not new. But different. In a way, Elvis did the same thing back in 1955 with blues music.


A shorter version of this post appeared on the AMIA Students of Westwood site:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Real and the True

Realistic modes of representation are being subsumed by the age of digital. By this I don't mean that digital is "less realistic" (although I feel it is); I mean that Hollywood films are no longer interested is showing us what actually exists in the world.

The magic and the lure of cinema from the early days, and through its history, has been to show audiences something they can't otherwise see, whether it's a train pulling into a station in Paris, a flight to the moon, or a dinosaur attacking its own creators (whether he's a scientist or an animator). And the very artifice of film is constructed by photographic units captured in order and manipulated into pieces of story, that's told sequentially piecemeal, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Many intangible elements go into film's power to persuade us, to move us to laugh, cry, fall in love or to stomp out. To fall into a dream state, either through dreamy rapture or droning boredom.

Businessmen have always attempted to offer more spectacle when audiences were swayed to other forms of entertainment. The Roman emperors offered bread and circuses to the plebeians who might otherwise riot if not for those distractions. 3-D and Cinemascope were born of desperation in the '50s when audiences moved away from the downtown centers and discovered television did pretty much what the movies could do.

The new technology of digital image making is creating worlds, people, and devices that can't possibly exist in the real world. We revel at such sophisticated constructions as the aging Brad Pitt, the shuffling Jar-Jar Binks, or the orcs fighting Harry Potter. We regard the sheer craft and consider the computing power, and walk out confounded, thinking "How did they ever do that?"

(Coppola had the same problem in the '70s. How did he get that blood to shoot out that way?)

Yet we know it is not real. It is the spectacle of arrogance. It defies us to believe it all, and no matter how seamlessly integrated, there is an uncanny feeling that your pocket is being picked.

The dichotomy between the quest for hyperrealist special effects and the aesthetics of old-school techniques of classic Hollywood is unchallenged. To do so seems downright retrograde and luddite. Isn't a hyperreality better? Why settle for that clear sky when a clouded one works so much better for the mise-en-scene?

The obvious artifice of films, with extreme musical cues and impossible camera shifts, from extreme lighting to randomly occurring rainstorms, is the texture of the stories being told. They're fake, told with and by artifices. Even the mistakes are meaningful. From mis-matched inserts to cover unseen action (Benazeraf) to guileless stop-motion animation (Karel Zeman), there's a hand-made and mediated construction that's closer to a story-teller stumbling over his words and regaining his thought than a film running off the gears. It's human and humane. And it's more endearing.

Audiences have an innate ability to get what the film is trying to get at. Eisenstein used to situate his close-ups in a defiantly non-continuous space. He wanted you to know what the film was doing - no "invisible editing" for him. Hitchcock insisted on those faded rear-projection scenes well into the '60s, when techniques were advanced far beyond that 40-year-old method.

Now scholars have finally decided there's method to his madness. Was Hitchcock being lazy or did he know something we don't?

Realism isn't all that audiences are demanding. Perfection is overrated (and unobtainable). We do like watching people (actors or not), in real sets, or carefully constructed ones. But it's the way those building blocks are used that give us pleasure. The handmade aspect of film is its own performance art. The extravagant spectacle of the old Hollywood Roman epics are beloved exactly because they are from Hollywood. The senators talk with British accents, and the streets aren't covered with dog shit. There's pleasure and comfort in the way Hollywood creates these alternate worlds, that we pay 50c a matinee for.

The puppets in "Nightmare Before Christmas" are fake. The giant ants in "Them" are clearly constructs (manipulated from just off-screen by 2x4s). Yet they exist, like the egg-yolk monsters in Ridley Scott's "Alien." The fact that the creature is a live human, on the set (in a costume), creates a photo-chemical reality (on film) CGI can never convincingly portray. Jar-Jar Binks was ever only 60 or 70% realistic, in spite of any photo-realistic surface. Because it's outside of reality, only a visual trick; a piece of math, not a piece of meat, not actual analog material.

On material (that is, film).

No one's going to be talking about Jackson's $300+million remake of "King Kong" in 70 years beyond the footnote that it ultimately is. It is a magic trick, a prestidigitation. With all the shaky push-ins, painted plates, and swimming fur from the fingers of the animators, the original ape (only this tall in real life) still moves us to tears.

It's not very real. But it feels true.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The preservation and appreciation of old films is specifically tied to the concept of what's been forgotten. This is not just a nostalgic attempt to regain, or at least relive, some fading past that has been discarded by the modern Now. There seems to be a fetish to discover (sometimes literally unearth) some old or bitched-up reels of cast-aside films that were forgotten, discarded or abused. The more bitched up the better.

Physical decay asserts itself upon each showing of a film. Each run through a projector harms and leaves its traces on a print, subtly or catastrophically. These remnants of having lived a full projected life, these battle scars, are the marks of a survivor.

These ruined traces are evidence of films having been released and shipped to theatres, shown 3 or 6 times a day for who knows how many dozens or hundreds of patrons. These young and impressionable (perhaps) audience members will remember the films decades later when they encounter them on late night t.v. in their retirement. They may even remember a jarring cut, when two pieces had to be spliced together to repair an unknown previous break.

That edit will become part of the cultural memory. The analog remnant of that print's misfortune becomes encoded in hundreds of people for the next 50 years.

The age of new media has turned away from visible and unpredictable wear on its moving images. Spots and blemishes are erased and replaced by computerized tonal modularities (unless a retro-hip director wants to re-create an "old film" look by putting digital scratches on his music video). The suturing of image cut to image, the artifice creating a narrative foreground text and background texture, is more seamless than ever. Now we don't see the construction (or deconstruction) of the artifact before us - the dinosaurs and fake Humphreys are so believable we stop and mediate on the amazingness of the non-real materials ("materiel"). The virtual suture.

The "perfection" creates a cognitive dissonance more jarring and uncanny than any Hitchcock rear-projection or Eisenstein montage edit. There's something to be said for all the errors and scratches, the physical plasticness of film. It's mechanically produced and reproduced. The embodiment of realism defies its very nature.

It does not stand in witness to actual dinosaurs, poised for le plan americain. Film's an index to reality, not reality itself. The information contained between (yes between) the cut from long shot to close says more than Fincher's perfectly rendered 360 teacup-zooms.

A new (ironically) aesthetic has reappropriated the analog plastic surface of film in all its imperfections. Tarantino's and Rodriquez's "Grindhouse" not only embraces the low-tech production techniques of a fading industrial-corporate business model, it actually physically mars the surface of the film as a reverential remnant homage to the physicality of the prints as they took on wear and damage on their way to ruin.

Tarantino reportedly took his interpositive out to the parking lot and ran it behind a motorcycle. Rodriquez used the latest digital tools to create his damage.

The film as artistic object is what creates a transcendence. Films are artifacts from the past. Remainders. Further philosophical manifestations (or do I mean "physical mediations"?) of the decay of film are seen in Bill Morrison's "Decasia" (2002) and Peter Delpeut's "Lyrical Nitrate" (1991), two full-length compilations that take pieces of old decaying nitrate film and edit them together to create a new, aggressively atrophied narrative of ghost images related only by the sheer beauty of their photo-chemical deterioration of images, right before our eyes.

The ruin is fading evidence of another time, lost forever but suggested by broken and crumbling artifacts. Run through a machine that is in itself becoming obsolete. For an aging audience that will one day also be ruined and dust.