Friday, June 15, 2012


Since his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson has carved out a thoroughly distinct thematicism in his films, an exploration of the hidden melancholy existing in the shadows of our visible selves.  Regret and weariness seem to cloak the figures in Anderson's work, unique individuals plagued by satisfactions they can't attain and haunted by memories of choices made poorly, cataloguing lifetimes of mistakes.  But while Anderson doesn't shy away from sorrow or the bitterness of romance, he is far from a pessimist, instead allowing the majority of his protagonists the opportunity to escape from the murk of their shadow selves and truly enter the rich, technicolor worlds their director painstakingly creates for them.  Whether it's Max Fischer's blossoming relationship with Margaret Yang at the end of Rushmore or Jack Whitman's painful decision to let go of the past in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson believes in hope and fosters a genuine affection for his characters.  That affection is given over to fully in his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, with expectantly gorgeous but somewhat frustrating results.
Like virtually all Anderson films, Moonrise Kingdom is the story of several outcasts attempting to trudge their way through a world that is too dull for them to properly thrive in, detailing their travails and difficulties in remaining true to themselves.  Set on the fictional island of Penzance, the narrative follows young orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman, evoking a prepubescent Max Fischer in both looks and intellect) as he exits the Khaki Scouts and takes off with his melancholy girlfriend Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) to establish a private existence in the hidden recesses of the wilderness.  A tangle of concerned adults get caught up in the search, among them the lonely scout master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), local policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis, doing excellent work), and Suzy's estranged parents Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand.)  As Moonrise Kingdom progresses, it becomes clear the film isn't about the search for the missing kids but rather a large scale search for self within all of the characters.  Anderson parades a multitude of motivations and anxieties out on the screen, especially among the adults, and he offers all of them some sort of personal answer by film's end, making this one of his most warmly satisfactory works in some time.
The whole thing reads very cute.  Anderson's detractors will no doubt find it "twee" and accuse the director of his trademark high stylization trying to mask an arrogant precociousness, but Moonrise Kingdom is, at its heart, nothing if not sincere in its approximation of the poignant sting of adolescent love.  Watching Sam and Suzy grow close and discover the excitement and breathless wanting burning between them is one of the film's most delightful plot points, and Anderson assembles it in all its true beauty and awkwardness.  The scene at the beach where Sam and Suzy dance together and fall into a kiss is both touching and hilarious, perhaps one of the most perfect demonstrations of Anderson's love for his characters in his entire oeuvre.  I won't detail it lest I ruin one of the film's best moments, but suffice to say it's a clear illustration of Anderson's belief in the necessity of distinct self-definition.  Sam, like so many Anderson protagonists before, has a very clear and developed idea of exactly who he is-even Captain Sharp says so in a later scene meant to compare and contrast the idealism of youth with the twilight hindsight of adulthood-and it's this wanton, willful iconclasm that marks him as a target by so many of his peers.  Suzy too exists outside of the lines, virtually invisible to her family (her parents practically living the chasmic distance between them on two floors of their house) and tormented by a fiery temper given to extremely intense outburts; her volatile nature imbues Moonrise Kingdom with a level of violence thus far unseen in any Anderson work (when Suzy stabs a boy with a pair of scissors, we see the graphic result along with some heartbreaking collateral damage.)  Together Sam and Suzy make sense in the way that only two misfits can, understanding each other and supporting one another with their quirks and imbalances.  One stabilizes the other, and their bond is deep, immediate, and eternal.  This element of the tragic certainly isn't lost on Anderson, as Moonrise Kingdom is essentially a series of increasingly powerful threats against the couple's love.  That their relationship withstands those trials is testament to Anderson's desire to consistently see the world with innocence and wonder.  Sadness and darkness intrude, but imagination and self-knowledge protect against them.
That lack of self-knowledge is what makes the adults in Moonrise Kingdom such troubled figures.  All of them are lost, scrambling and searching for that thing that defines them, makes them whole, makes them real.  Randy Ward doesn't know whether to paint himself as a scout master or a math teacher (his paying job): this dichotomy of not being able to truly do what he loves versus what he must to comfortably survive creates an emptiness in him that yearns to be filled.  Anderson believes in risks and chances, of going out on a limb for everything you want, and Ward can't summon the strength.  Compared to Sam, Ward seems the lost child, alone in the wilderness of the world, screaming in the night.  Captain Sharp is haunted by a different sort of emptiness, a crippling loneliness seeking out connection in doomed affairs and living out its days on an equally lonely houseboat afloat at the edge of the island.  Sharp throws himself into a distanced illicit romance with Laura Bishop and allows it to enervate him inside and out; what he perceives as love and the adult communication between two equals is really just one person using another.  Laura, for her part, struggles with boredom and the seeming inevitability of falling out of love, while her husband Walt seems content to exist in a sleepwalking stupor, obsessed with chopping wood and showing up with mysteriously blackened eyes.  Whether Laura and Walt's marriage is an abusive one is somewhat unclear, but what is perfectly visible is the suffocating sorrow existing over their brilliantly colorful home-when Laura tells Walt to stop feeling sorry for himself and Walt simple asks, "Why?", the sense of ache and yearning is so profound it's almost unbearable.  Anderson is a master at this sort of existentialism, and here what could have been a tossed-off retort becomes weighty with poignancy.
As always, Anderson's visual aesthetic is dense, layered, and clearly indentifiable.  It's obvious why his set dressers and designers receive top billing in the end credits-every frame is packed with visual cornucopia, whether it's the lush, elegiac autumnal colors of the island's flora, the interiors of a house (shown in the trademark Anderson dolly shot), or the patterning on a sweater or suitcase.  Anderson loves to fixate on specific objects: here it's a portable record player, a menagerie of young adult fantasy/sci-fi novels, and a brooch cleverly disguised as a merit badge.  Moonrise Kingdom is an intricately created microcosm, one that Anderson obviously knows as reality, and it is a sheer joy to watch his vision brought to life.  The off-putting aspect to this film may be Anderson's choice to shoot on 16mm film, which lends the work a grainy, unfocused quality in the wider shots.  My girlfriend equated it to watching a home movie, and while I understand and admire why Anderson shot the film this way, I can't help but wonder how much more lovely the film could have been had it been shot digitally, or even on faster film stock.  You quickly get used to it, though, and what's truly gorgeous isn't necessarily Anderson's shots but his always superlative use of color.  Everything is bright, crisp, extreme, and unexpected, showcasing the director's true flair for staging and packing the frame with worthwhile minutiae.  The post-production work on this film must have been insane, but the results were well worth it.  Moonrise Kingdom feels visceral and alive in the same way as Sam's paintings and Suzy's beloved fantasy book covers-they're the unreal wrought into being, the magic brought to life.  Anderson gives us access to the wonder.
For all its tremendous successes, though, Moonrise Kingdom ultimately suffers from Anderson's desire to cram too much into a small amount of time.  The first half of the film, detailing Sam and Suzy's escape and the adults' hunt for them, is fantastic and engaging, creating a world of unique characters and circumstances that all interact briefly and evocatively.  It would have made for a perfect short piece, much in the same way as Hotel Chevalier (which i still consider to be Anderson's finest work).  After the escapees are found, the film begins to lag.  None of the ancillary characters, especially the adults, seem well-drawn enough (even Sam feels a bit like a regurgitation of Max Fischer), and all of them spend the good majority of their time floundering around, waiting for salvation at Anderson's benevolent hand.  When it comes, it almost feels unearned.  Walt and Laura are the worst example, and it saddens me to think that Anderson wasted the powerhouse talents of Murray and McDormand.  Both are fine here and work with what they're given (especially Murray, who brings a sadness to Walt that's defined his work with Anderson through multiple films) but the fact is, they're given very little to do or say and even less room to grow or change.  Captain Sharp, played with an uncharacteristic tenderness and vulnerability by Bruce Willis, fares better but ultimately succumbs to the same purgatorical fate-the things that happen to him in the film surely change his life, but they come too fast, almost unexpectedly, and the decisions he makes seem almost haphazard rather than a natural extension of his character.  Anderson gives Ward a slightly larger palette, but his summation too feels quick and obvious.  I won't speak much of Tilda Swinton's Social Services representative, other than saying Anderson totally squandered one of the finest modern actresses in a role that could have been handled by a first year acting student.
If you can look beyond those very minor flaws (they more or less evaporate in the wake of the film's overall beauty and heartfelt sincerity), then Moonrise Kingdom is an incredibly rich and rewarding film bursting with its director's impish wit and near-faultless visual design.  All of the deadpan mock seriousness is there in abundance, where every line feels like an epic philosophical profundity and every minor interaction between characters seems infused with years of repressed longing and sorrow.  It's nice to see Anderson working with his favorite themes again-much as I loved The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the fantasy of it precipitated a certain amount of distance between viewer and material.  Here Anderson aims his bow straight for the heart and sinks his arrow deep, turning in a film that echoes the considerable awkwardness existent in every stage of life, as well as our constant need to define ourselves in hopes of deriving meaning from our lives.  Characters like Sam get it-we are whoever we want to be, and fuck everyone else if they can't accept it.  Moonrise Kingdom is a map to the inlet of iconcoclasm, and Wes Anderson's hope for the triumph of individuality and decency in the face of a society caught up in its own misery.

Friday, May 4, 2012



     Released to theaters in the summer of 1975, Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws was nothing less than a cultural event, the first movie to “…break the $100 million mark in box office takings…” (Buckland 86) as well as being the film that set a new standard for Hollywood formulaics.  With Jaws Spielberg “…ushered in the age of the contemporary summer blockbuster” (Buckland 86) and “…revolutionized industry practice…” (Morris 43).  Jaws opened on 494 screens simultaneously and “…eventually grossed around $500 million worldwide…” (Morris 44), reaching millions of people and allowing its director to tap into a mass cultural consciousness.  While Jaws is primarily thought of as a thriller par excellence, it is actually an intellectually complex and disturbing film, most notably in its open embrace of misogyny and depiction of male impotence.  By romanticizing male power dynamics and interrelationships, Jaws posits a highly misogynistic worldview that effectively endorses a deep hatred of the female.
     Jaws is based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, itself a bestseller.  In her book-length study of the film, Antonia Quirke maintains the novel “…was of no particular merit, even as a time passing page turner…” (Quirke 6), but Spielberg hired Benchley to draft the film’s screenplay, which eventually went through three major revisions before arriving at its heavily truncated final form.  Spielberg excised much of Benchley’s plot in favor of an intense emphasis on the shark and its reign of terror over Amity island; Benchley’s novel is more concerned with the personal and psychological effects the shark’s presence has on the principal characters.  Where film and novel converge, though, is in their explorations of masculinity and their demonizations of the female.  Benchley’s prose is wrought with misogyny, reveling in rape fantasies and implied sexual punishments.  Spielberg, while more subtle, allows the same attitudes of dominance to infect his film.  Jaws becomes less a “Moby Dick” evocation of obsession, the classic “man vs. nature vs. himself” motif, than a glorification of male virulence and ascendancy, a “will to power” by way of a natural threat to society; in their heavily academic essay, Thomas Frentz and Janice Rushing posit that the film effectively “…reaffirms patriarchy through the slaying of the feminine…” (Silet 37).


Chrissie Watkins, punished for her sexuality.

     The film’s opening scene establishes Spielberg’s misogynistic tendency.  After flirting with a drunken islander, pretty, young Chrissie Watkins goes for a late night swim and is attacked and killed by the shark.  The attack itself is horrifically violent, Chrissie’s death being “…unconventionally protracted, longer than your average screen murder…something as long as a screen rape” (Quirke 12). Spielberg shoots the scene in a way that heightens its sexualized content: the camera beneath Chrissie, with the shark gazing voyeuristically up at her through the murky blue of the water and the heavenly, ethereal moonlight from above.  John Williams’ score is fittingly surreal, as though hypnotized by Chrissie’s blatant femininity.  If, as David Gilmore states in his full-length study of misogyny that “…the greatest obsession in history is that of a man with a woman’s body” (Gilmore 17), then this opening scene is nothing less than a coveting, with the female (Chrissie) an object of hungry, violent lust.  The shark here illustrates the subtext.  Chrissie’s immolation is “…the perfect metaphor for casual sex…” (Quirke 13); her death is punishment for her wanton sexuality.
     Benchley’s novel is even more explicit in this association.  Prior to the attack, Chrissie and the drunken man have sex on the beach, a mess of “…twined limbs around limbs…”, an act of copulation performed “…with urgent ardor on the cold sand” (Benchley 10).  Afterwards Chrissie bounds into the water, bearing the stench of her sex.  Benchley makes mention of the shark smelling Chrissie; given that sharks are tuned to the scent of blood, Benchley is here suggesting the bizarre quality of menstrual blood as “…the world’s most deadly substance and a magical scourge” (Gilmore 25).  That the shark then destroys Chrissie completely references primitive beliefs of women as sexual witches, reinforcing “…misogynist pollution fears…” with the blood in the water as a contaminant (Gilmore 32) and a deep-rooted, perhaps culturally ingrained, fear of the female.  Spielberg shoots Benchley’s vision of the Watkins attack almost exactly as it occurs “…even to the subjective mood” (Bowles 209), highlighting the author and director’s shared sexual conservatism.


Martin Brody, unsure of himself as always.
     After the attack on Chrissie, Spielberg introduces us to Martin Brody and the film’s other major thematic concern: male impotency.  Brody enters Jaws waking, tired and groggy.  The world continually forgets him; he is small, simple, unmemorable.  Brody is Amity’s Chief of Police, removed from New York, where he was even more invisible.  Brody relishes Amity because in Amity, small and isolated Amity, “…one man can make a difference” (Quirke 41).  Spielberg here gives the impression Brody has never made any difference, in either the lives of the anonymous citizens he’s sworn to protect or the lives of his own wife and children.  As seen by critic Nigel Morris, Brody is shown to be “…morally spineless in his conformity…” (Morris 53), unable to stand up to the various authority figures bearing down on him in the wake of the shark’s voracious attacks.  Spielberg continually shows Brody in the far left or right of the frame, pushed against a figurative wall, pinned down and squirming under the thumbs of Amity’s economic guardians (the shark is pure poison to a community that survives on its summer tourist influx.)

The terror, revealed?
Spielberg revels in Brody’s ineffectualness and pitiful self-awareness.  The most demonstrative instance of this is the pierside confrontation between Brody and Mrs. Kintner regarding the death of her boy, Alex, taken by the shark in a brutal attack several days prior.  Wearing a beaming, near ecstatic smile awash with naivety, Brody hams it up for the newspaper photographers, posing with a group of local fisherman who have just hauled in a tiger shark, which everyone (except for Matt Hooper, the young marine biologist requested by Brody to help deal with the shark) assumes to be responsible for the recent attacks.  Mrs. Kintner approaches Brody clad in a black dress and mourning veil and the entire pier goes silent-her entrance is almost ghostly, perhaps a harbinger of violence to come.  Standing before Brody, Mrs. Kintner slaps him full force and admonishes him publicly for not closing the beaches when he knew there was a shark in the water.  The slap has an incredible significance in establishing Spielberg’s themes.  First and foremost, Mrs. Kintner is calling Brody out on his impotency.  He could have prevented the attack by closing the beaches, if only he could have stood up to Amity’s economic guardianship.  “You knew,” Mrs. Kintner laments.  “My boy is dead,” she goes on, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”       
Brody, humiliated in front of the entire community.
    This is Brody defined: complete inefficacy.  Brody could not gather the courage to stand for what he knew to be right; in sexual terms, this is equitable to failure in maintaining an erection.  Here the slap’s secondary implication becomes clearer.  Mrs. Kintner’s accusation is a public emasculation.  “A slap in cinema is sexual…” (Quirke 36), carrying a severe intimacy.  Mrs. Kintner’s slap “…is like being kissed by a skeleton…” (Quirke 36), both enervating and painful.  Brody is made to cower before a woman, unable to offer up any sort of defense.  He is a failure as an authority figure and also as a man, and the entire gathered community is allowed to bear witness to it.  It’s a humiliating scene that Spielberg plays up for thematic effect; in Benchley’s novel the encounter is private, in Brody’s office, without the physical confrontation.  Spielberg wants to create a sense of rage towards the female in Brody-the embarrassment he suffers as a result of this encounter with Mrs. Kintner will later manifest itself as rage towards and fear of the shark, itself cast as an embodiment of the female.
It's all happening right before his eyes.
     Brody’s emasculation continues in one of the most loaded, subtextual scenes in the film, the dinner scene between Brody, Hooper, and Brody’s wife Ellen.  Over a copious amount of wine, Hooper and Ellen exchange glances and smiles while an oblivious Brody descends into drunkenness (watch how he pours himself an entire glass of wine, more than anyone else at the table).  Ellen is clearly infatuated with Hooper, a young, virile, intelligent man with an aristocratic upbringing, the very opposite of her husband.  Brody is old, tired, and common, retreating from the difficulties of life in New York and finding himself unable to face the challenges wrought by the shark terrorizing Amity island.  The contrast between Brody and Hooper here is extreme; Spielberg uses Ellen’s attraction to Hooper to illustrate Brody’s feelings of insecurity and suggests that they may not be entirely unfounded.  Brody recedes into the background of his own home, made invisible by his wife’s dismissal.  At one point, Ellen’s hand comes to rest on Hooper’s as she gazes at him, seemingly dazzled; in response “Hooper flirts with Ellen, who flirts back, so subtly, almost unaware she’s doing so” (Quirke 39).  Ellen’s eyes glint in the low light of the dining room, a little girl lost in the glow of a crush.  Brody then rouses himself and reiterates Hooper’s earlier suggestion that they go into town and cut open the tiger shark caught earlier, to see if the Kintner boy’s remains are inside.  Ellen reacts immediately, asking “Martin, can you do that?”  It seems a minor, almost throwaway remark, but in light of the tableside scene that just took place, it becomes bitter mockery, a woman questioning a man’s desire and authority.
Together but apart.  The rift that will never be traversed.
     The scene has no parallel in Benchley’s novel.  It was an invention by Spielberg, but it subtly reinforces one of the novel’s strangest and most disturbing (as well as its most misogynistic) episodes, the sexual affair between Hooper and Ellen.  Benchley saw his novel as a comment on class relations, a discourse “…about class consciousness centered around the Sheriff Brody-Ellen Brody-Matt Hooper triangle” (Bowles 211).  Benchley’s Hooper is an arrogant, Ivy League islander, the younger brother of one of Ellen Brody’s old boyfriends.  Spielberg dismisses much of this backstory but does acknowledge Hooper’s wealthy background (at one point in the film, Hooper confesses to Brody that he purchased his research boat with money given to him by his wealthy parents.)  The Ellen Brody of the novel is wracked with longing for the life she could have had had she not married Brody, and she uses Hooper to achieve some semblance of the life she so desperately regrets leaving behind.  Ellen sets out to seduce Hooper; meeting him at an out of the way restaurant, the two get drunk together and discuss sexual matters:

          “(Hooper) poured Ellen a glass of wine, then filled his own and raised it for a toast.  “To fantasies,” he said.  “Tell me about yours.”  His eyes were a bright, liquid blue, and his lips were parted in a half smile.
            Ellen laughed.  “Oh, mine aren’t very interesting.  I imagine they’re just your old run-of-the-mill fantasies.”
            “There’s no such thing,” said Hooper.  “Tell me.”  He was asking, not demanding, but Ellen felt that the game she had started demanded that she answer.
            “Oh, you know,” she said.  Her stomach felt warm, and the back of her neck was hot.  “Just the standard things.  Rape, I guess, is one.”  (Benchley 147).

     This is a very interesting exchange, and is evident of Benchley’s blatant misogyny.  The first fantasy Ellen blurts out is rape, which she considers to be one of “the standard things” a woman fantasizes about.  Benchley also implies that the idea of talking about rape is arousing to Ellen, endorsing a primitive idea of subservience to male sexual authority.  In the novel, Ellen goes on to detail exactly how she would want a man to rape her; Hooper asks if the man raping Ellen has a large penis.  The conversation is so titillating for both parties, they find themselves in a hotel room having sex, and Ellen finds herself reduced to an object:

          Even after his obvious, violent climax, Hooper’s countenance had not changed.  His teeth were still clenched, his eyes still fixed on the wall, and he continued to pump madly.  He was oblivious of the being beneath him, and when, perhaps a full minute after his climax, Hooper still did not relax, Ellen had become afraid-of what, she wasn’t sure, but the ferocity and intensity of his assault seemed to her a pursuit in which she was only a vehicle.  (Benchley 153).

     Again Benchley’s misogyny is on full display here.  The female is only an object to be used for the sole purpose of male satisfaction; the entire conversation that preceded Ellen and Hooper’s coupling was not an instance of two people getting to know one another but a prolonged arousal ritual for the male party’s sole benefit.  Brody eventually begins to suspect the affair, and tensions between the two men in the novel’s final third set aboard the Orca reach a boiling point.  The dinner scene in Spielberg’s film is a heavily truncated version of the events in the novel; we never see Hooper and Ellen have an affair, but the suggestion is made implicit by the flirtations between the two.  Spielberg uses it as a device to further explore Brody’s male insecurities, which manifest themselves aboard the Orca via extended contact with Hooper and Quint, the latter being the garrulous, rogue islander Brody hires to hunt and kill the shark.


Quint brings a lifetime of hatred to his craft.
     The second half of the film and the final third of the novel are congruent, with both detailing the hunt for the shark in the open seas.  Benchley furthers his class consciousness theme with the introduction of Quint, a salt –of-the-earth fisherman who represents, even more strongly than Brody, the “…crusty know-how of small, local businesspeople in America” (Silet 28).  Quint is possessed of a lifetime of wisdom and experience; he is at once arrogant in his confidence and suspicious of what he doesn’t understand or trust (made manifest in his derision towards Hooper’s “anti-shark cage” and chemical means of killing the shark.)  Spielberg brings this into the film almost exactly while adding more misogynistic traits.  Quint is ribald and obvious, given to reciting a number of sexist song lyrics like “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women” and “Here lies the body of Mary Lee/died at the age of one hundred and three/for fifteen years she kept her virginity/not a bad record for this vicinity.”  Quint also takes an immediate dislike to Hooper.   
In one of the more “rapid fire” sequences in Spielberg’s film, Quint and Hooper engage in a back and forth over what it takes to be a fisherman; Quint demands Hooper tie a basic knot and accuses Hooper of having “city hands”: “You’ve been counting money all your life.”  Hooper replies venomously, “I don’t need this working class hero crap!”  Spielberg establishes an early antagonism that clearly makes Brody uncomfortable.  Thrust between two extreme personalities whose knowledge on the matter at hand (sharks and, to a certain degree, masculinity) far exceeds his own, Brody is forced into a diminished role again wherein his authority amounts to nothing other than a title.
Class warfare on the high seas.
     Once aboard Quint’s boat the Orca, Hooper and Quint engage in a number of games of one-upmanship: Quint downs a can of beer in one gulp and crushes the can while glaring at Hooper; Hooper drains a small Styrofoam cup of coffee and crushes the cup in his hand in sarcastic response.  They argue constantly over the most effective methods of fishing for the shark.  As the hunt progresses, the two men fall into something like a rapport based on a latent homoerotic attraction: Hooper sees in Quint the sort of man he wishes he could be, the rogue individual making his own way in the world oblivious to social concerns and obligations.  Quint sees in Hooper what he could have been had his ambition been stronger, had he been less docile and more willing to take part in society.  This dual magnetism becomes a uniting aspect for the two men and allows them to establish a bond based on mutual admiration and attraction.    Though “Quint and Hooper represent polar opposites in almost every imaginable realm…” (Friedman 166), they “…ultimately learn to understand and respect each other, to work together to defeat a common enemy” (Friedman 165).  The bond, which excludes Brody, reaches its culmination in the “scar comparison” scene in the film.
Scars of the flesh, scars of the heart.
     The interactions aboard the Orca almost all revolve around the absence of any female presence, and the “scar comparison” scene is no exception.  Few sequences in the film so aptly demonstrate Spielberg’s latent misogyny.  Over a number of drinks, Quint and Hooper trade barbs, eventually settling in to a swap of war stories and battle wounds: being cut by a thresher shark’s tale (Quint), being bitten by a moray eel (Hooper), etc.  This interaction isolates Brody, standing away from the table where Hooper and Quint sit together; Brody “…has never looked so lonely” (Quirke 70).  Clouded with doubts as to his own masculinity, Brody can only recede into the background yet again as he glances at his tiny appendix scar, ignored by the alpha males.  Quint’s memories in particular speak to a hatred of the female (his reference to an arm-wrestling contest/night out in which he was “…celebrating my third wife’s demise…”) with squealing delight, as well as a glorification of the masculine (again, arm wrestling).  Not to be outdone, reveling in the contest and a need to top Quint, Hooper reveals the ultimate scar.  Baring his chest, he cackles “Mary Ellen Moffit, she broke my heart.”  All three men laugh at this, suggesting a shared understanding that to be spurned by a woman is the greatest pain of all.  Spielberg implies that a woman’s motives are ultimately unknowable (why did Mary Ellen Moffit break Hooper’s heart?) and therefore utterly alien, a true manifestation of the psychoanalytical Other in society. 
The sharks acts according to stranger motivations.
     This brings us to the question of the shark and what it ultimately represents.  In the film, Hooper refers to the shark as “a miracle of evolution,” unchanged in its design since prehistoric times.  The shark is ancient, unknowable, and mysterious.  It is a simple element of nature, supposedly beyond any sort of intelligent motivation; the shark is animal instinct in its purest form.  This shark, though, is different.  Both Quint and Hooper acknowledge it in the film, remarking that neither, between their shared lifetimes of experience, have ever seen a shark behave the way this one does.  Spielberg allows a supernatural element to attach itself to the shark; it seems to strike with intelligence and malice.  It is very much a force beyond instinct.  It makes conscious decisions and behaves in an almost human way.
Hooper, Brody, and Quint, in awe of the shark.
     It becomes apparent that the shark is emblematic of the female in society, the ultimate Other.  Quint and Hooper both react to the shark as one would an attractive woman: they watch it glide along the boat and are mesmerized by its size and grace.  Hooper proclaims the shark “beautiful.”  As it becomes obvious that neither man can possess the shark, though, the attraction becomes anger and disgust, and the urge to destroy it becomes overwhelming for both men.  Brody, true to his established character, is afraid of the shark and fears being devoured, of completely disappearing inside it.  Brody feels eclipsed by the idea of femininity; Hooper and Quint merely hate it.  “The ability of feminine sexuality to disrupt the displaced onto the shark…” (Silet 25) and it becomes the men’s collective mission to silence that sexuality through immolation.
Brody confronts the vagina dentata.
     At this point the shark attains a mythic symbolism.  Jane Caputi, professor of women’s studies at Florida Atlantic University, sees the shark as representing “…the primordial female and her most dreaded aspects…the Terrible Mother of death and hell…” (Caputi 307-08), an engine of fear rooted in primitive beliefs revolving around “…a frightening and terrible mother goddess locked in love/war with a young male protagonist who ultimately kills and dismembers her, thereby creating the new patriarchal order” (Silet 25).  The shark here ceases to be a mere animal and instead assumes the role of a female threat, one that must be slain in order for society to function.  The shark, in the film and the novel, becomes an evocation of one of the most ancient misogynistic beliefs, that of the vagina dentate, the toothed vagina.  In the film especially, there is an intense focus on the shark’s mouth, ringed with bloody, gnashing teeth, eager to consume anything in its path.  In the film’s epic conclusion, we watch as Brody shoves a cylinder of compressed air into the shark’s yawning mouth, effectively smashing the vaginal teeth “…so as to ‘prepare’ the female orifice for male entry” (Silet 26).  This entry comes in the form of a bullet to the tank that explodes and destroys the shark completely. The male penetration and climax (Brody firing the bullet and the subsequent explosion) is so powerful, it renders the female form non-existent, virtually reducing it to a receptacle for male desire and dominance.  The patriarchy is restored through the absolute eradication of the female.
The female, eradicated.
     Both Spielberg and Benchley suggest that the female is inherently evil; by making the shark something beyond an ordinary animal, they imbue it with a motivation towards ruining men in particular.  One could cite the opening attack on Chrissie Watkins or the constant reference in book and film to the shark as “he” as negation of claims of misogyny, but “…gender disguise…is a common practice among patriarchal myths…” (Silet 25) that connects to Spielberg and Benchley’s ultimate distrust and fear of the female.  The shark functions most vividly as threat that is distinctly feminine.  That the threat is contained in such a violent, literally explosive manner is indicative of the subconscious hatred both author and director hold towards the female person.


     In her 2010 book The Male Brain, Louann Brizendine makes the claim that a man’s brain is more interested in objects than emotions.  Perhaps this idea helps to explain why Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley so willingly reduce female characters and female personifications (the shark) into mere totems.  Objects and symbols are far easier to deal with than complex, thinking persons; in a constructed world wherein one object represents another, meanings can be interpreted in any number of ways.  Jaws, as a film and as a novel, offers a fear of an unbridled female sexuality.  Spielberg and Benchley both seem terrified by the possibility of a woman as a sexual or intellectual equal, and in their creative works both men go to lengths to establish scenarios in which the female is reduced or removed. 
Steven Spielberg confronts his greatest fear.
     While not inherently frightening, especially in light of more modern approaches to gender differences in society, the works of Benchley and Spielberg should be approached carefully, with a cognizance of the somewhat archaic notions of femininity both contain.  The works of Spielberg especially bear reflection, as he has maintained a significantly higher and more influential cultural relevance than Benchley.  Ideas have a way of taking on power when they’re communicated and received en masse, and Spielberg certainly has the reach.  Recent films, like Schindler’s List and Munich, have both shown a remarkable leap in maturity, but the critical complaints against him, of being “…incapable of creating complex female figures” (Friedman 8), are as true today as they were when Jaws was released over forty years ago.  The fear of the female is still very present in modern culture, and while our society has made advances in correcting gender inequality, the specter of hatred still looms in the shadows.  Or beneath the waves.


  Benchley, Peter.  Jaws.  New York: Doubleday, 1994.  Print.

  Bowles, Stephen E.  “The Exorcist and Jaws.”  Literature Film Quarterly 4.3 (1976): 196-214.  Print.

  Brizendine, Louann.  The Male Brain.  New York: Broadway Books, 2010.  Print.

  Buckland, Warren.  Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics Of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster.  New York: Continuum, 2006.  Print.

  Caputi, Jane E.  “Jaws as Patriarchal Myth.”  Journal of Popular Film 6 (1978): 305-26.  Print.

  Gilmore, David D.  Misogyny: The Male Malady.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.  Print.

  Jaws.  Dir. Steven Spielberg.  1975.  Universal Studios, 2000.  DVD.

  Morris, Nigel, ed.  The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light.  London: Wallflower Press, 2007.  Print.

  Quirke, Antonia.  Jaws.  London: British Film Institute, 2002.    Print.

  Silet, Charles L. P.  The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays.  Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2002.  Print.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Evoking the murky grit, shadow skulking, and moral vagueries of classic espionage films like Coppola's "The Conversation" and De Palma's "Blow-Out," Tomas Alfredson's take on John le Carre's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a stately and entrancing mindfuck, capable of both brutal violence and an aching yearning. While the narrative approaches near alienating levels of complexity (and how could it not, dealing with spy/counterspy operations at such high levels of national government?) the measured, impeccable performances and Alfredson's gorgeous, haunting mise-en-scene coupled with Alberto Iglesias's Lynchian netherworld jazz score create an aura of suffocating claustrophobia and crumbling allegiances. Depicting the Cold War as seen through a fog of tangled emotions and sickening near hallucinatory setpieces, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a symphony of noir-tinged elegance and aristocratic pomp, with each character struggling to reduce the influence of their own humanity to a narrow point capable of allowing the necessary distance demanded by total national security. Nothing here is sacred, be it egoism or romance, and all are prone to shatter at the hands of adversaries. The corruption runs deep, scarring all involved. The psychological constructs that are erected throughout the film become glass houses and by the end of it all, few escape unscathed by the flaying shards.
1973. The film opens with a botched operation to scoop up a potential Hungarian defector in Budapest who supposedly has the name of a mole in "The Circus," the British intelligence division overseen by the equally enigmatically monikered Control (played masterfully by John Hurt, channeling the spirit of Orwell's "1984" .) Control has long suspected the existence of such a mole; when confirmation comes from field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), Control dispatches agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to broker the meet. Things spiral out of control: Pirdeaux is shot, and in the aftermath Control and his right hand George Smiley (Gary Oldman, all sophistication and cool understated intelligence) are forced into retirement. Control dies from illness soon after; Smiley settles in to comfortable domesticity.
1974. Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate Tarr's allegations. Smiley assembles his team and undertakes a covert investigation, treading lightly under the auspices of new Circus head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, an impish delight) and his deputy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, playing it very straight and very British); Alleline's promotion was based on the strength of his heading up Project Witchcraft, delivering highly sensitive Soviet documents that Alleline trades with American intelligence. Smiley conducts a series of interviews with ousted Circus operatives and employees, gradually putting the pieces into place. When Smiley finds Tarr hiding in his home, the dominoes begin to fall with startling rapidity, unveiling a tangled mess of surveillance, lust, and murder that goes back to Soviet mastermind and spy ringleader Karla.
Anything else would begin to spoil the fun. Suffice to say it all begins to fall apart. Despite the script's "down the rabbit-hole" convolutions, the major thrust of the narrative is easy to grasp. Fully appreciating the level of depth and the film's multiple layers requires multiple viewings; hints and insinuations blossom into full-on revelations, connecting the characters' relationships in subtle and scandalous ways. The interconnectivity is fairly stunning, illustrating the beauty and complexity a film is capable of with such a panoramic cast. The relationship between Prideaux and Haydon, for instance, is handled with a minimalist grace that is reminiscent of Samuel Fuller's treatment of similar subject matter in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"; the overwhelming beauty of matching a tear with a bullet hole amplifies the intimacy between the two, as well as the emotional devastation the events they're wrapped in have wrought on both men. A lesser director would have relied on crass dialogue and even crasser action, but Alfredson treats the confrontation with an almost ethereal translucency, the grey area magnified to a blinding sheet of denial. The recurring Christmas party scene also paints a picture of rampant, errant emotion struggling to be kept in check. With minimal expository dialogue and an astounding job of acting by all the players, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" elevates itself to a melodramatic level of tragedy virtually free of contrivance. Looks of yearning and nervous backwards glancing amp up the paranoia to near deafening levels. This is a space full of ruin and sorrow; all of the muted colors and soft focus reflect the growing sense of weariness and loss that everyone involved begins to feel.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does an astounding job with Alfredson's vertigo-inducing color schemes, transforming them into putrid washes of back alley paranoia and sickly swirls of crawling menace. In van Hoytema's hands, the Christmas party becomes a tension fueled nightmare of spy/counterspy and sexual repression while a torturous interrogation turns into a brutal, splattering murder scene in a matter of milliseconds. Alfredson's desire to dwell on the bloodshed isn't quite as elegiacal as it was in "Let the Right One In" (these are intelligence agents rather than vampires) but it is atmospheric, showcasing the director's deft hand in weaving horror film aesthetics into a fairly narrowly formatted genre. The effect and mastery is similar to that displayed by Peter Jackson in his criminally underrated "The Lovely Bones"; horror out of context but gruelingly and squeamishly effective. Alfredson, like Jackson, is more than willing to remind people where his approach truly comes from; van Hoytema allows him the palette and toolbox to achieve it. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" uses violence as something of a moral counterweight, as though to suggest the reality of consequence resulting from what these people are actually involved in. While it's intense, artistic, and disturbing, it's never once exploitative: every drop of blood serves the story.
This film isn't a reinvention so much as an homage. The tropes of the genre and style remain intact, the unrelenting bleakness found at the center of the best Cold War evoking films channeled effectively via double-crosses and selfishness. Alfredson keeps his distance throughout; even the few moments of warmth allowed Smiley vanish in the face of the daunting corruption at hand. Some may accuse the director of coldness or remove, but it's what the film necessitates in order to be as engrossing as it is. Much like Anton Corbijn's "The American," the focus is on the process of the game, the endless manipulations and red herrings as Smiley opens up door after rotted door. The illusory quality of each new twist lends the proceedings a psychedelic edge, George Smiley on the precipice of the Big Nowhere. The soundtrack references the free-willed spirit of the late 1960's while simultaneously burying it under the reflexive repression and private political shame of the 1970's. Like "The Conversation," this is a film burning with deep sexual undertones, the surface gloss of spy vs. spy an involved ruse meant to obfuscate the troubling questions of desire and loyalty. Alfredson isn't holding back-he's just injecting ideology with displaced teenage lust. Smiley is plagued with memories and regrets; the mole becomes a metaphor for Smiley's attempt to grasp his own failures and impotencies.
There's no happy ending here, because there's hardly any ending at all. Every man involved (and they are all men) is torn apart. Even Smiley is forced to confront the gravity of the future, the rapidly changing face of the political landscape and the uncertainty threatening his own little slice of the world. Alfredson's advancing oppression splashes the skies in a deluge of grey; the clouds roll in as the years roll on. By 1974 a storm was building, ballooning itself on a detritus of hubris and the ever-growing tower of splintered egos; self-congratulation would become the echoing testimony to fuck-up after fuck-up. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" may only represent one fleeting, anxious moment in the Cold War timeline, but it captures the boiling antagonism and distrust that defined it better than any film in decades. That it does so in the transposed frameworks of horror and sexploitation, and produces something so elegant out of them, allows it to transcend the tag of mere history and pass into the realm of something far more hallucinatory.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Lifetime Network original films have become a genre onto themselves, much the same way that SyFy original productions have found their unique niche in the cable machine. Both networks churn out a very particular style of product: SyFy an endless parade of genetically crossbred monsters pitted against one another as they rack up (mostly human) collateral damage, Lifetime an endless parade of tearjerker/true crime melodramas usually zeroing in on damaged relationships and spousal abuse. The quality of the films is never high, nor is it expected to be. In that sense, Lifetime's recent production of "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" represents a new level of professional ambition veering ever-so-slightly away from the tawdry; the treatment of something so topical and current demands a more refined approach to narrative and structure. For Lifetime, it wouldn't do to just rehash the facts in a wash of muted colors and tear-stained faces: the audience needs to be hypnotized in order to be properly horrified by the sheer brazenness of Drew Peterson and his bloated narcissism. Who better to inhabit and ultimately realize that moon-sized ego than Rob Lowe?
The film plays out almost exactly as the case itself did. Modern day lothario Drew Peterson became the focus of a police investigation and a national media frenzy after the inexplicable disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Ann Cales (played by Kaley Cuoco of "The Big Bang Theory"), in 2007. A police officer himself, Peterson was long suspected of murdering his third wife, Kathleen Savio, by forcibly drowning her (though the death was initially ruled an accident); Savio's family maintained that Peterson was responsible, and that Savio's death was the terminus point of a destructive relationship laden with psychological torment and abuse. Peterson constructed a bravura persona defined by gross misogyny and a feeling of imperviousness that bordered on the godlike; his second wife Victoria Connolly described him as "a legend in his own mind." Lowe's portrayal certainly makes that the crux of Peterson's personality, imbuing him with a swagger and arrogance difficult to reconcile with his lackluster physical appearance and outdated opinions of women. Lowe's Peterson is pure caricature, the epitome of mindless villainy, the guy you love to hate-not far from the reality.
Told mostly through newscasts and other media appearances shot through a simple narrative of elliptical discovery, "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" looks to do little other than give the audience a straight run-through of the events, barely rising above the level of an episode of "America's Most Wanted." The sheer force of Peterson's bloated self-confidence occupies the screen en-masse at all times; even when coating his obvious insecurities with the threat of violence (such as when he drops in on Stacy and a male friend having lunch and accuses her of adultery) he remains the controlling force. Peterson's world is the world as made by Peterson, defined by his suspicions and allowing for little outside influence. The view is singular to the point of anachronistic, with Peterson inventing his own versions of events and effectively feeding his own delusions. Perhaps most troubling is his attack on Stacy at her sister's funeral, where he confronts her about sleeping with her sister's husband, asking her later to tell him " many times you banged him." Peterson's apparent need to be cuckolded speaks volumes about his actual levels of confidence; the only intimacy available to hi is blind rage. His hostile suspicions more than make the case for him committing violence against his wives (a theory the film wholeheartedly endorses); Stacy's awareness of this violence and her constant relegation to it elevate the inevitable melo-tragic result.
The film hinges on Lowe's performance and little else. I wouldn't have watched this, except i happened to run across a ridiculous scene during some late night channel surfing and was immediately sucked in by the over-the-top charisma in Lowe's performance. Out with buddies who paint Peterson as the ultimate ladykiller ("I'll bet Drew gets more tail than anyone in this place," one toadie blathers), Peterson rises to the challenge and approaches two young ladies at the bar, telling his friends that "Big Daddy's gonna get it done." Lowe, looking like Mike Ditka vacationing in Hawaii, saunters over and immediately seals the deal. I was struck by the absurdity of it and made myself watch the film the next time it aired. While there's little remarkable about the actual film itself (director Mikael Salomon has done serviceable work for television and feature film for years, but nothing mind-blowing), Lowe completely gives himself over to the role, enjoying every minute of portraying this hammy, over-confident blowhard. In scene after scene, Lowe chews it up: emerging from his garage in majesty on his motorcycle, strutting out of his front doors in an American flag bandana and aviator sunglasses while mugging insanely for the camera (looking a little like a patriotic Unabomber), and terrorizing his suspicious neighbor Karen (Katherine Dent, giving her small role more than it deserves) by raising and lowering her garage door (seriously?) as he delivers the film's titular line: "I'm untouchable, bitch." The fun Lowe seems to be having is infectious to the viewer. Peterson is repugnant, but we can't get enough of him. In this sense, the film works masterfully, illustrating the grotesquerie of Peterson's media appeal and our fascination with domestic brutality. Stacy recedes under the weight of Drew; his posturing and performance all but erase her memory, and the community at large begins to lose sight of the fact that she's probaby dead. She's collateral damage in Peterson's personal thrillride. Cuoco's abysmal performance does little to actually give Stacy any depth: she's either a battered and terrified wife or a strong take-no-shit lady. Cuoco can't decide; the scenes where she stands up to Peterson feel like rote line recitals. There's no emotion; Cuoco makes the viewer feel as though nothing is at stake. Even her attempts at assuaging her own guilt over her imagined complicity in Peterson's crime against Savio feels empty. While the real Stacy certainly suffered, Cuoco's portrayal is merely insufferable; Lowe overwhelms her at every turn.
Peterson's odyssey has the feel of phantasmagoria, one unbelievable contrivance after another. His steadfast denial of involvement in either of his wives' disappearances has made him something of a self-styled pariah. Though Peterson has yet to go to trial (he is in prison waiting to face charges of murder against his third wife) Lifetime allows no presumption of innocence: in perhaps the film's penultimate scene, the camera slowly heads up the stairs and pans to Peterson's open bedroom door, where he's seen standing menacingly across from a large blue barrel supposedly containing Stacy's body. The scene is rendered in ghastly, sickening greens and jaundiced yellows; it's ethereal, surreal, and slightly skin-crawling. Peterson and his friend are then seen loading the barrel into the back of Peterson's SUV. Apparently based on a confession from Peterson's body-dumping accomplice, this scene destroys any pretense to objectivity the film may have had; rather than the studied (in theory) portrait of an American crime that "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" could have been, it instead becomes another gas-soaked log on the media fire. Lifetime films are about opportunism in the same way that episodes of "Law and Order" were "ripped from the headlines," but here there's an absence of resolution both laughable and disturbing. Is the film meant to be taken seriously as a meditation on the problem of abuse, or is it mere camp thought up for the sole purpose of seeing Rob Lowe mug it up beneath a bushy moustache? Or does the real purpose lie somewhere in between, giving viewers a vague, blurred comment on the commensurability of tragedy and consumerism?
The answer seems to lie in the film's bizarre final scene in which Peterson is processed at prison. In grueling slow motion, we're treated to Lowe stripping down in a lurid, grinding, mockery of a striptease, laughing to himself as two state police officers look on impassively. The world is watching, and it loves what it sees. To Drew Peterson, it's all a joke; death, sex, and masculinity are all intertwined in a cosmic stew of entitlement and desire. "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" scrapes the muddiest bottom of narrative storytelling while hyping up the most sensationalistic aspects of a bizarre, fragmented series of events. The gargantuan ego at the center of them makes for a fascinating character study, but Lifetime's treatment of the Drew Peterson saga is the equivalent of a lightbulb flickering in a void.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Intricately layered and hypnotically complex, David Cronenberg's brilliant adaptation of Christopher Hampton's stage play "The Talking Cure" (in turn based on John Kerr's book "A Most Dangerous Method") takes on the deep-rooted neuroses associated with want, lust, and desire as exemplified by the destructive and symbiotic relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Eschewing almost every trace of the "body horror" that defined his formative work, and even the radical violence that punctuated his last two films, here Cronenberg burrows in the hidden recesses of psyches and intellects in torment and crafts a piece that explores his interests in indulgence and transformation in greater detail than almost anything he's done. It almost feels like Cronenberg's been working towards this film his entire career: it isn't hard to trace the trajectory from the repression-gnawing parasites of "Shivers" to Jung's embrace of his most primal sexual instincts in "A Most Dangerous Method." Both involve violence and arousal as by-products of the grotesque (or the unexpressed); that Cronenberg is here dealing with something close to an accounted actuality rather than horrific fantasy makes the thematics presented all the more shattering when ultimately realized. There are consequences to pleasure, emotional and potentially deadening.
Opening on a hysterical, near-epileptic Spielrein being carted up to a sanatorium, Cronenberg immediately establishes the fractured, frightening tone of the film. Spielrein's condition is violent and halting, causing her to stutter and contort herself. Given over to the psychiatric care of Jung, he decides to implement Freud's radical "talking cure," a theory that laid out the groundwork for all of modern psychoanalysis. By removing himself both visually and emotionally, Jung gets to the heart of Spielrein's psychosis-her early and continued sexual excitement arising from her father's disciplinary beatings years before. Two years later, cured, Spielrein begins medical studies herself, hoping to become a psychiatrist as well. Jung's successful treatment of Spielrein grants him an audience with the much admired Sigmund Freud, and the two form an antagonistic bond that ultimately tests the beliefs of both men as well as the strength of their individual theories of psychoanalysis. Freud's approach is clinical and rooted in sexuality; Jung opens himself up to the possibility of mysticism and parapsychology, to Freud's growing distaste. When Spielrein confesses a sexual attraction to Jung the idea of it gnaws away at him and he reluctantly acts on it; from there Cronenberg's film becomes a cavernous parade of defeat, humiliation (both sexual and professional) and self-doubt as Jung, Speilrein, and Freud commence an odyssey of interaction that spans years.
The principal actors all turn in exemplary performances here. Fassbender caps off a stellar year with a portrayal of Jung as a man haunted by the realisation of his own desires and his crippling fear of acting on them. Watching his restraint erode away as he desperately tries to keep it in check, and its resultant effect on him, is mesmerizing. Mortenson is all cool, clinical detachment as Freud, playing up the Master's need to exert authority as well his subtly condescending ridicule of any psychological theory not beholden to his own. And Knightley is simply stunning in her depiction of Spielrein, bringing her from the brink of madness to the cool and composed manipulator she becomes at the end of the film (i would be surprised if she didn't receive an Academy nod.) The three entwine themselves beautifully, like an intellectual threeway where the only rule is climax denial.
The deterioration of Freud and Jung's intensely competitive and adversarial relationship allows for an illustration of differing psychological approaches that highlight several of Cronenberg's authorial themes. The film's lush evocation of myriad sexualities, and Jung's growing awareness of his own ravenous sexual appetite, references previous Cronenberg works like "Crash" (where the outre fetish begins to have a strange and hypnotic allure to the film's protagonist); the exploration of sadistic and masochistic tendencies in relationships recalls "Videodrome"'s strange "Samurai Dreams" programs found inbetwixt the white noise of late night television reception. Cronenberg's subtle treatment of the idea of transformation comes into play in "A Dangerous Method" as well, with Jung's shifting ideological alliances and growing personal awareness acting as a less visceral mirror to Seth Brundle's grotesque reawakening in "The Fly." Cronenberg's world is packed with the bizarre; here it's just dressed more politely. Spielrein's initial fits are nothing if not agonized representations of the consequences of repression. So too Jung's state at the end of the film, hollowed and carved out, dreaming of the apocalypse and wondering how it all spiraled out of control, another major concern in this work. Control is constantly switching hands, especially between Spielrein and Jung: when she comes to him asking to begin a sexual relationship, Jung has the power to grant or deny her wish. When he in turn becomes infatuated, the power reverts. Jung weeping into her skirts, begging her to stay, is perhaps the film's most openly vulnerable moment; Jung never allows himself this concession to emotion again. Spielrein late seeks to inflame and dominate Jung by working with Freud. Freud in turn exercises authority over Jung by never conceding to having his own dreams analyzed by his protege. This constant circle of domination is a brilliant illustration of Freud's threepart divided self, with each character variously inhabiting the roles of id, ego, and superego.
Of course sex is at the root of the film, as it is in so many other Cronenberg statements. Jung has difficulty accepting Freud's idea that every human psychological frailty stems from sex, but even more difficulty recognizing the proof of the theory in his own actions. After their initial meeting, Freud sends a troubled colleague, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel, in full on sleazy magnetism mode), to Jung for treatment. Jung cannot process Gross' lustful approach to life, taking the most issue with Gross' nonchalant attitude towards doctors sleeping with patients. Gross believes in pure freedom, shorn of repression and open to all experience; Jung believes in certain ethical standards that he cannot reconcile with his own desires. This conflict inevitably becomes the constant antagonist in Jung's spirit; when he tells Spielrein of his apocalyptic dreams, he's not just filling her head with evocative nightmares-he's telling her that his experiences with her have utterly ruined him and hollowed him, and that he can't heal the wounds their union has inflicted. It's a harrowing scene, given life by Fassbender's crumbling restraint and growing self-doubt. Cronenberg isn't endorsing a full-on de Sadean approach to pleasure at any and all costs, but he is suggesting the harm inherent in self-denial. As there are consequences to pleasure so too are there consequences to repression, whether it's supernatural dwarves born of rage or a lifetime of sadness and regret.
The haunting final shot of Jung sitting alone in his lakeside chair gazing out at the water suggests both the unknowable expanse of human emotion and the fallibility lurking within the idea of self-restraint. The atmosphere is distinctly forlorn, yearning, and wretched, allowing Cronenberg to map out the terminus of desire and the subtle onset of obsessive self-reflection. Jung's twilight years were spent in an increasingly dreamlike state; his work became more artistic and vague and his theories more involved with parapsychology and the notion of the spiritual in the everyday. The pressures and professional antagonisms he was facing from both his colleagues (Freud openly denounced him) and himself (he never seems to have recovered from his experiences with Spielrein) forced him into a life of speculation and a transference of the supernatural as a substitute for fulfillment. For all its intelligence, wit, and sophistication, this is very much a film shot through with an aching, hopeless sadness. The question of possibilities is defeated by reality and the brooding weight of existence. Love is of the moment, to be seized. It cannot be cultivated or hoped for or achieved; Jung's mistake is his failure to act on this truth, made even more punishing because he knows it as a truth. "A Dangerous Method" serves as Cronenberg's multifaceted warning against fallacy, against preconception, against propriety. No one ever gets what they really want. Sometimes other people get hurt.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Arriving fashionably late to the party, David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster novel "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is a gripping, taut procedural that hypnotically shreds three hours away while elevating the source material to a breakneck state of breathless storytelling. Obviously aware of the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009, Fincher doesn't seek to outdo or compete with it in any way, instead paying respectful homage by utilizing some of what worked in the original and fleshing out some of what didn't. Fincher's resultant film is one more self-contained and narratively rich, especially as far as the main characters are concerned; in Fincher's world the reasons as to why the characters are who they are are explored in greater and more evocative detail, giving us versions of Mikal Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (the fabulous Rooney Mara) that feel more like actual people than harshly drawn archetypes. Appropriately, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" has a greater emotional resonance than its Swedish forebear, opening up a new dimension to a story almost everyone knows, as well as a new textural element to Fincher's film work.
The question isn't so much whether this is a good film (it is) or even a necessary one (still not sure, as much as i like it) but rather how it differs from the original. I liked Oplev's film very much, finding it incredibly dark and atmospheric; in my mind it approached a level of quality to that found in Jonathan Demme's masterful "The Silence of the Lambs." I found myself wondering if even Fincher could do any better a job with it, growing more and more excited as its release drew near. I'm astonished at how far apart the two pieces are in composition, pace, and tone-they really do stand as two separate works from two very different directors. It could be argued that Oplev's version already dipped into the David Fincher pool; few modern directors have had so distinct and psychological a take on the serial killer template. Oplev borrowed all the grime of his "Girl" from Fincher's "Se7en" and quite a bit of its exposition from "Zodiac"; in turn Fincher seems to have borrowed the best bits of his "Girl" from another Scandinavian source, Erik Skjoldbjaerg's 1997 film "Insomnia" (later butchered in the Americanization process by Christopher Nolan). Oplev's and Fincher's films are mirrors of one another, two faces of one coin; its evident Fincher spent some time with Oplev's film by way of some key set pieces that seem almost identical and by way of his meatier narrative exposition. For all its successes, Oplev's film was lean on plot details. Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian correct that and fill out "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" to a point where every scene is crucial; one missed bit of dialogue and the whole thing comes unraveled.
The plot is labyrinthine but remarkably linear. Recently disgraced journalist Mikal Blomkvist is facing public and financial ruin as the result of a lawsuit for libel lobbied against him by a wealthy industrialist suspected of criminal activity. Blomkvist accepts an assignment from the wealthy and retired Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) on his island town of Hedestad, to root through forty years worth of private investigation and find out what happened to his niece Harriet year ago. Vanger suspects someone in his extended family of murdering Harriet; Blomkvist has the necessary skills to root out the truth. The Vanger family tree is a shitstorm of Nazis, misogynists, and abusers; as Blomkvist gets deeper into the truth he hires troubled ward of the state and hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander to assist in his research. Lisbeth, recently self-delivered of her own abusive relationship with her guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), more or less leads Mikal to the reality of what happened to Harriet. Together the two end the taint of corruption that has plagued the Vanger family in the form of prodigal son Martin (the superb Stellan Skarsgard, playing fabulously opposite his character in "Insomnia") and reunite Henrik with Harriet.
The actual investigation really only informs the latter half of the film. The majority is taken up detailing Mikal and Lisbeth's separate paths to their working together. Lisbeth's history is rife with abuse, degradation, and betrayal; her encounters with the sadistic Bjurman are just as frightening to behold here as they were in Opvel's film. Fincher has never shied from violence, preferring a realistic approach to it rather than a stylized one, and here that approach works to ensure a deeply unsettling intensity to Lisbeth's rape and revenge. Mysteriously gone is any retelling of Lisbeth's crime against her father; rather than show it in image Fincher allows Lisbeth to tell Mikal, in about two sentences, how she came to be a ward of the state. The difference in interpretation here is striking, and points to how differently the two directors actually view the character of Lisbeth; Fincher's approach to her is what makes me prefer his version.
In Opvel's film, Lisbeth (played by Noomi Rapace) is an absolute loner with little use for anyone; her past has so destroyed and shaped her that the only defense is complete and total removal. She is severe rather than awkard, crushingly confident, and infuriatingly distant. Opvel played up all Lisbeth's hard edges and allowed for little emotion in her character; the result is a difficulty in appreciating the complexity of her relationship with Mikal (the two make love once, and it's viewed as a fluke event.) Fincher's Lisbeth is a different thing entirely, a fragile and damaged person who projects a thorny exterior to protect against a deep and continuous hurt inflicted against her by those she trusted most. As played by Mara, Lisbeth is an intensely sensitive person; her actions seems to have far more meaning and her motivations are much more clearly understood by Fincher's focus on the personality behind the facade. Her eventual relationship with Mikal is then seen in a different light, the first time Lisbeth has opened up and chosen to trust another person. When Mikal ultimately betrays that trust (as everyone in Lisbeth's life has) the emotional devastation Lisbeth feels is palpable; Fincher's portrayal ultimately answers the riddle of Mikal and Lisbeth's troubled relationship that made so little sense in the two Swedish follow up films. Mara's stunning work as Lisbeth adds to the empathy; Mara looks both haunted and hollowed, and the few moments of joy that Lisbeth experiences are warming. Fincher's Lisbeth is someone we feel for; Oplev's Lisbeth is someone who we aren't even sure feels herself.
That warmth carries over into Fincher's actual look for the film. Gone are all the harsh angles and deep focus and lurid colors of Opvel's nightmare; instead Fincher washes his Sweden out, painting a country under the throes of near endless winter. Colors are muted and soft, lights are bright and glowing. It's a huge deivatiation from the director's earlier work; even "The Social Network" was more foreboding than "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." This composition is another reference to "Insomnia," Sweden as an eternal blinding white, the ultimate blanc noir behind the Coen Brothers' "Fargo." "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" exists in a dreary haze where even the dark recesses are bathed in sickly white; interesting that so many secrets are hidden amidst so much visibility. Opvel's film had an opulence and austerity that Fincher ultimately rejects; again, his realistic approach frames the story he's trying to tell. Rather than fantasy and exaggeration, Fincher opts for reduction and believability. A character as extreme as Lisbeth cannot be rendered in caricature; Fincher's composition reflects that ideal and effectively allows us in to her world.
Earlier i raised the question of this film's necessity. It's something i'll probably never really be sure of; the issue is complicated further by the fact that i prefer this version over the Swedish one. The more i think about "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" the more i get the layering Fincher has weaved in to it; it's technically flawless film by a director at the height of his craft. Fincher's decision to allow an emotional attachment to his characters further demonstrates his sensitivity and understanding of what makes a great, unique film; while the deeper philosophical concerns found in "Se7en" or "Fight Club" are absent here, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"'s warmth and respect for its main character elevate it to a level those films had a hard time reaching. Fincher usually deals in darkness; with Lisbeth Salander he's letting in a little light. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" may not be definitive, but it's a wonderful start. Here's hoping Fincher chooses to finish out the series.

Monday, December 19, 2011


The opening scenes of Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" introduce us to the banality of human wreckage in the form of binge drinking leftovers, mountains of clutter and waste, and the crumpled form of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) passed out beneath the anonymous arm of a one-night stand. From there the film embarks on a troubling exploration of delusion and personal emptiness, resulting in Reitman's finest work to date and one of the year's better pictures focused on the ennui of modern existence as experienced by the thirty-something set. Questions of expectation and the measures of success as an adult are held up for reassessment, with the suggestion that living in the past is preferable to facing the yawning unknown of living in the present. There is no redemption in "Young Adult," very little hope, and nothing even beginning to approach empathy or compassion. It's a sad, fucked up world full of dead dreams and unfulfilled promises, and for most of us, memory offers the only respite.
In Mavis Gary, Reitman and writer Diablo Cody introduce us to a character who is rapidly approaching the nadir of her life. A ghost writer of a failing series of young adult novels, Mavis spends her days on the couch assimilating youth culture via television and her nights drinking til she passes out. While working on what's to be the final book in her series, she receives an email from her high school boyfriend's wife, announcing the birth of their new little girl. In a blink of her delusional eye, Mavis decides to head back to her hometown of Mercury, MN, and rescue boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) from the shackles of adult responsibility, convinced they're meant to be together and her quest is righteous.
Mavis' campaign to win Buddy back makes up the brunt of the film's narrative, and its appropriately transfixing and unbelievable. As she attempts to insinuate herself into Buddy's life, she enlists the help of former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, most likely providing his own wardrobe), a nerdy outcast who still bears the considerable physical and mental scars of a vicious high-school beating; in Matt, Mavis finds a foil for her self-loathing and uses him as a mirror to remind herself of her supposed stature as one of "beautiful" people who've just hit a snag in life. Matt, for his part, enables Mavis even as he tries to get her to abandon her plan, treating her to home distilled whiskey and puppy-dog crush adoration that borders on pathetic. Neither can let go of their high school selves, and in the two of them we begin to see the crippling effect of memory and nostalgia: everyone's an outcast in their own way, but it just sucks way worse for some.
This is a troubling, disturbing film. Mavis's delusion is never exaggerated or apologized for: it simple is, and we have to accept it as a part of her makeup. We know she's troubled (she suffers from trichotillomania alongside her borderline alcoholism) and plagued by self-esteem problems, but her behavious is so selfish and ultimately deplorable that there's no room for pity. Mavis seems determined to destroy herself, and her obsessive crusade to break up Buddy's marriage only leads to an inevitable breaking point. Buddy himself is a bit of an engima; he still has something invested in Mavis, for all his professed love for his wife and daughter. When the two share a brief, drunken kiss on Buddy's front porch i couldn't help but feel he should bear some of the responsibility for Mavis' mental state, but Reitman and Cody let him off the hook. Buddy gets it all, while Mavis and Matt are left wanting for something even beginning to approach happiness.
And what exactly is that "all"? "Young Adult" never really makes it clear, and that's part of the reason for the film's efficacy. If a wife and family are the true measures of success in the adult world, then yes, Buddy has it all-a decent job and the security it provides, a cool wife (she plays in an all-mom band called Nipple Confusion), and a new kid to keep it all alive. We're led to believe that Mavis is fighting this ideal, and that she wants Buddy back to reject this series of expectations. Her parents mourn the dissolve of her first marriage without considering the why; it's frightening to think that the posturing of adulthood comes before the actual satisfaction of their child for some parents (when Mavis matter-of-factly confesses to them that she thinks she might be an alcoholic, their reply is blank stares and denial.) Mavis' mission then becomes an act of rebellion, another grab at the brass ring of youth. Only her tearful collapse on Buddy's front lawn reveals the truth. While a bit of her confessional is over the top (a better screenwriter would have approached it differently, or excised it completely) it does offer some kind of answer for Mavis, an answer that Matt couldn't get at when he tries to get Mavis to view her life in perspective to the world around her. Again, the issue of Mavis' selfishness quashes any hope for empathy; the only person i felt any real joy for in the film was Matt, when he finally gets to realize part of his own dream (as sad as it is) in the wake of Mavis' breakdown.
Perhaps most troubling, though, is Reitman and Cody's decision to allow Mavis to continue her delusion. The final chunk of "Young Adult" reinforces Mavis' view of herself and her world and gives the distinct impression that she'll live her life the exact same way she has, nothing learned. Self-inventory is an impossibility for a character this damaged. It's a bold choice to present someone so flawed and let them revel in their own emptiness; if nothing else Reitman and Cody should get the award for balls in American film for 2011. In that sense this film reflects reality far more effectively than did their previous effort "Juno"; whereas that world became bogged down under the weight of its own pretense and stylization, "Young Adult" seems almost neo-realistic in its portrayal of psychic damage scarring across an entire generation. Maybe it's troubling precisely because it's so correct: the world is full of Mavis Garys and Buddy Slades, and neither represents anything close to what i want.
Reitman and Cody have made an amazing film. It's unsettling but magnetic, over the top in its believability but 100% correct in its illustration of malaise on the cusp of depression. In detailing the virulent strain of sadness that haunts our adult lives, "Young Adult" demands that we consider and reevaluate our expectations, even if none of its characters do. Mavis Gary and Buddy Slade are warnings, archetypes extended to the point of caricature to make a point. There is no right way to be an adult, no matter what the world tells us. We just have to do the best we can, and not hurt other people. It's the only way to really grow up.