Saturday, November 17, 2007

I've Seen Things

In my life, I've heard many films called "an uncompromising vision of the future," and it is after some thought that I'm willing to make the leap and say that most of the other films that garnered this label simply don't deserve it. Blade Runner does.

It's officially been over a week since my last post. I'll use the excuse that I've been waiting, letting you all stew on what that damned eye could even mean. Also, that's a good excuse for me being busy and out of sorts this past week. Also, if you read the comments, my friend Andrew revealed his expert analysis of me, pictures on my blogs, and/or eyes by noting that the screen-grab in my last post in fact belongs to Ridley Scott's 1982 neo-noir, cyberpunk film, Blade Runner.

I recently had the opportunity to see what I came to realize was my favorite film at the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd St. in New York, in it's latest and potentially last "Final Cut" form, and on digital projection at that. The experience highlighted the aspects of the film that appealed to me going in, and made me realize things that may have always appealed to me without being so apparent.

Without art we would be nothing but foreground and live entirely in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast, and reality. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Even though the film opens with a text-scroll, explaining the setting and in as clearly as possible readying us for what is about to happen, and what themes are about to be explored, it isn't the narrative or the story that first strikes me in Blade Runner. It is unsurprisingly the aesthetic completeness that is what strikes me most about the film. The first thing that we see is fire shooting up over a dystopian sprawl. Even as the flying car we've been promised zips towards and past the camera, there is no mistaking this future for the clean, white-washed one of the Jetsons. There is something barbaric, something sparse in these opening moments of the film. Vangelis' magnificent score rolls in alongside the stunning visuals, and each note struck pushes us closer to the edge of our seats. We're about to see something, and we know it. The way the lightning strikes, and how the flame erupts upwards - it is as if Scott has captured that very point in the decay of a thing that resembles its own conception.

Appropriate, since in many ways it is the theme of irreversible decay that helps to keep the film relevant today. Screenwriter Hampton Francher's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is less than faithful, but in the same way that a Miles Davis version of a Gershwin song isn't faithful; It comes with a change in tempo and pacing, which in turn bring along a turn of theme. While the book languishes in the question of humanity, navel-gazing as it attempts to answer it, the film successfully demonstrates the true difficulty of the question by posing it to us in the frame of activity, of a bustling city and quick, snap decisions.

However, it is in the film's ability to show us empty spaces, and thoroughly hollow time (all scored with haunting melodies), that it lectures us about the questions asked in the busy streets. The Tyrell Corporation's monolithic pyramid, J.F. Sebastian's funhouse apartment set inside of a desolate, lonely building, Chew's eye-laboratory,and (especially in the recent Final Cut version of the film) Deckard's apartment, specifically his balcony. These are places of contemplation and creation: the location of the Nexus 6's designs, Sebastian's toys, and Deckard's reclamation of his own humanity, in the form of affection for Rachael.

Ironically, it is in these locations that the differentiation between being a human, and having humanity, is revealed too. While Deckard may change, and become compassionate, he does so while it is revealed to us (and to him) that he is very likely not human at all. It is in Sebastian's world of imperfect (but self-aware) toys that we really meet the childlike Pris, and where we receive Roy Batty's treatise on what it means to be alive. And it is in the killing of his maker, Tyrell, in his plush, sky-high suite that Roy summarizes a core motif of cyberpunk as he asks "Can the maker repair what he makes?": That this world is beyond saving, and god, if there is one, isn't coming to the rescue.

What do I care about Jupiter? Justice is a human issue, and I do not need a god to teach it to me. - Jean-Paul Sartre

In fact, with Sebastian and Tyrell we have two stand-ins for god, both failures in different ways. Tyrell, for fear of being overthrown by his creations, has made it impossible for them live long enough to touch him, knocking down their Tower of Babel, so to speak, and causing them to lose faith in him, leading to his own death when they see that he is either unable, or unwilling to help them. (A common argument against the Omnipotent and Omni-benevolent god's existence is that in the face of disaster and evil, god appears no where.) Sebastian - himself a reflection of the Replicants' "accelerated decrepitude" (or vice versa - proves to fall to the opposite extreme of Tyrell. Instead of exerting mastery over the lives of things non-human, he bows his head to them, unable to resist the perfect beings that he had a hand in creating, and in doing so relinquishes any power he might have had over them.

It is no surprise that the philosophy that is explored in Blade Runner is existentialistic, as it has its roots in the noir films of the mid-century, which in turn were often cinematic tellings of early century hard-boiled detective fiction, which itself was heralded in France by the young existentialists for its examination of life. Just as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald detailed worlds free from divine order and rife with corruption and a dichotomic class structure, so does existentialism struggle with these themes, all of which are central to Scott's film. Blimps overhead remind us that the Earth is done for, and that (if we're rich enough) we should move off colony. Deckard's boss, Bryant, tells us that "If you're not cop, you're little people." And as the film's two gods are done away with - one going blind by his creation's hands as he died, and the other left alone to his mediocrity - we are left with the message that life will go on without them as much as it ever would've with them. "It's too bad she won't live," says mysterious but knowledgeable, cosmopolitan detective Gaff in reference to Rachael, "But then again, who does?"

The film echoes these early 20th century sentiments, while doing so in a then-30-years-from-now setting, emphasizing their eternal nature. And it does this so convincingly. Between the still awe inspiring sets and models, the most attention to extras I've ever seen, and the layer of Vangelis' musical brilliance, Scott creates a compelling world that makes the viewer concerned for its characters in ways that even some of the best film noir didn't. Despite the weight of the setting, it remains above all else a human story - using the force of the backdrop and atmosphere as a frame for the lives and questions which are center. It is by all means my favorite film.

I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn't mine anymore, but one in which I'd found the simplest and most lasting joys. - Albert Camus

But does that mean it is the best film I've ever seen? What does something being your favorite really mean? What does this mean about how and what I value? Sometime this week or next, look forward to my thoughts on these questions, with which I'll start a series in a new label-type: Meta-criticism.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie.

Over the past five years I've struggled to answer a very simple question: What is my favorite movie? I know, I know, that question isn't as simple as it may seem, but at its heart it is not very complex. It is as simple as asking what film I value most, or what film could I simply not live without. In the last few years of my young adulthood my answer has floundered about.

I held up Doctor Zhivago as a perfect blend of romance and epic, while capturing the time and feel of its setting marvelously, especially with its use of color and light, and for a time this was what I would call my favorite film. Over the years though, my love for it has decreased. Despite the power at which Strelnikov's arrival still has over me at the end of the first half of the film, the films slow-but-steady pacing has begun to wear on me, making the experience of a film more like a chore, despite its appeal. It is like a change machine that, upon entering a single dollar bill, you get a dollar and fifty cents in quarters back. it certainly is a profitable experience, but I'm not quite sure I want to expend the time necessary for that sort of profit margin.

Ask anyone I knew in my first few years of college what movie I held most dear, and they'd likely tell you that I was a Fight Club sort of guy. As I aged my appreciation of the subtler message of the film grew, and it became clear that Palahniuk's story was less an anti-consumerist statement and more an anti-extremism one. Despite the appeal of the acting, and its surprising longevity (considering that it is a film with a twist ending) it simply has never been enough to make my number one spot. Maybe it's because that while I get to associate The Pixies with the film, I also have to remember that Taking Back Sunday co-opted it, and in a drastic turn of heart my love for those two bands has been dramatically inverted in the time between the film's release and now. Take a guess which one I still like.

Even though, in fact perhaps despite, that it is a comedy, I have also made clear that my love of Woody Allen's proto-mockumentary Take the Money and Run is nearly unparalleled. Even among the filmmaker's later, more serious works like Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, and more recently Melinda and Melinda (all films I also cherish), this is the one that to me most adequately illustrates Allen's genius. This is the first film that he appeared in, acted in, and directed, and the passion for the work oozes out in every scene. The writing is crisp and surprising, and even today I'm taken off guard by how funny bits I've already seen still are. Even still, the shallow nature of what is at base a comedy alone coupled with my sometimes elitist nature (and general interest in more than just laughs) has thus far, and will continue to keep it out of my number one spot.

There are others that make it close. Recent contenders include City of God and The Departed, both of which provide the pacing I desired from Zhivago, but an inkling of doubt that they'll remain evergreen nips at the back of my mind. Classics like Chinatown and M easily make the top ten (and even top five on a good day), but fail to break into the very highest tier.

So, what is my favorite film of all time? Well, I guess that it should have been obvious to me from the get go. And only recently have I come to realize that I'm out of my gourd for not coming to this conclusion more recently. There's a hint in this post's picture, but you'll you'll have to wait until my next update for confirmation, and as full an analysis as I feel it deserves from me to boot.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Not Agreeable, But Necessary

This will be among only a few non-analysis posts you'll see here. As the headline reads, this is a place for analysis. I won't post bare links or copied news stories, and you won't have to put up with my sloppy fiction or poetry. Instead I will do the one thing I feel I am adequately skilled at doing: explaining why some things are worthy of your time, and why others aren't so much.

This past summer has been filled with things that have sparked my critical mind. I've been brought to an analytic state by Radiohead's daring release, and bold content, of In Rainbows, the debate of racism in the videogame Resident Evil 5, wonderment over how Aaron Sorkin hit a home-run with SportsNight, but fell flat on Studio 60, Wes Anderson's retreading old ground (albeit with a different tractor) The Darjeeling Limited, finding two familiar and worthwhile reads in Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, and the state of political affairs in this country and world wide (including, but not limited to, the thankfully more active investigative eye being placed on Blackwater USA.)

Despite all of these things, my writing on them has been minimal at best, and honestly, something needed to be done. Keep on me about this. If you know me and know I have something to say, tell me to write it here. If you read something I wrote and think I'll have something worthwhile to say about something I haven't yet written about, comment and tell me to. I need the writing samples, after all.

I'll be using a few simple labels to help organize posts. You'll notice that this post has Landmark and Not Critique, both of which should be rare to a fault. Landmark posts will come at key points in the blog's life, and probably in mine. Changes in format, hosting, basic content, etc. that are announced will be done so alongside a Landmark label. Not Critique posts should be limited to things like "I'm sick. Stop asking me to post. Leave me alone," and "I've won the lottery. Stop asking me to post. Leave me alone." Other labels will include the types of things I'll be looking at, as listed above (in no order worth figuring out: Film, Books, Music, News, Video Games, Politics, Television.) Due to the non-exclusivity of many of these properties, you'll probably even see a few posts with more than one of those labels. Finally, I'll bring out a few unique labels if I feel I'll be posting on a given topic excessively (Jay-Z for instance, or The Office.)

I'll have a new layout hopefully by the end of the week, as my good friend and roommate Matt "Bloise-san" Bloise will be whipping one up for me. If you have any advice for a look or style, comment here. In any case, stick it out with me, let's see how this goes.

By the way, the title of this post comes from a bit attributed to Winston Churchill, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”