Monday, July 13, 2015

All the Feels

The most remarkable thing about Pixar's miraculously great Inside Out on a storytelling level is how it would seem to have no antagonist. And not in the slightly relativistic sense that 'in real life, there are no bad guys.' That applies here, but it remains that there is no single person working to thwart our heroes, in part because there aren't even any clear-cut heroes. Joy is the de facto leader of Riley's brain, but her insistence on running the show creates as many problems as it solves, and by the end of the film she's ceded some of her authority to the often more prudent Sadness, whom she's been undermining the entire time. Even if we accept that Joy and Sadness are collectively our heroes, that still leaves open the issue of there being no villains. Anger, Disgust, and Fear are trying to keep things from coming apart but don't have the experience to do so, and they know it. The various other workers in Riley's brain provide obstacles that need to be overcome, but they're not exactly working at cross purposes; they're just carrying on business as usual.

Therein lies the brilliance of the conceit at the heart of the movie. Everything of consequence that happens within Riley's mind--the crumbling of her personality islands, the irretrievable loss of memories--is part of its working order. To stop working, Riley would have to be brain-dead; she still functions without her core memories, but in increasingly dysfunctional ways that become self-destructive. The moment when the control panel starts greying over and the emotions can't control it is a refreshingly lucid depiction of depression as not mere sadness, but the inability to feel emotions of any kind--but it's an 'aha' moment for a first-time viewer that this is in fact a story about depression, or at least the potential for it without a healthy exercising of one's emotions.

It is only after surveying the story as a whole that the theme of depression comes into full view. For what is depression but the mind turned against itself, marshaling its analytical and emotional power towards self-flagellation and eventual self-destruction? And what is going on inside Riley's brain but that her inner workings are working against themselves? Thus do we return to the issue of an antagonist: if Riley's brain is the protagonist of the story, working to keep her well-adjusted and healthy, it is also its own opponent, spiraling into lethargic depression when its attempts to stay relentlessly happy fail. A depressed person is their own worst enemy.

And that is why Pixar are geniuses.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar Predictions

Long story short: Birdman has the momentum, but the Academy doesn't like comedies, much less black comedies, and Boyhood's got a lot of good will. Boyhood will take the major awards, with Birdman and Grand Budapest Hotel dividing a lot of the others. The Theory of Everything is a dark horse candidate for a lot of these, but despite its inconceivably strong Golden Globes showing, I can't imagine it walking away with much. The live action and documentary shorts I haven't seen and are a , crapshoot.

Those in the 'Should Win' category marked with an asterisk were not nominated. Seriously, Gone Girl got screwed.

Will win: Boyhood
Should win: Boyhood

Will win: Eddie Redmayne
Should win: Michael Keaton, Timothy Spall*

Will win: Julianne Moore
Should win: Rosamund Pike

Will win: J.K. Simmons
Should win: Edward Norton, Ethan Hawke

Will win: Patricia Arquette
Should win: Patricia Arquette

Will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Should win: The Lego Movie*

Will win: Birdman
Should win: Birdman, Mr. Turner

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Will win: Boyhood
Should win: Boyhood

Will win: Citizenfour
Should win: Citizenfour

Will win: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Should win: Don't know

Will win: Boyhood
Should win: Gone Girl*

Will win: Ida
Should win: Don't know

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Will win: The Theory of Everything
Should win: Interstellar, Gone Girl*

Will win: "Glory" from Selma
Should win: "Glory" from Selma

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar

Will win: Feast
Should win: Feast

Will win: Parvaneh
Should win: Don't know

Will win: American Sniper
Should win: Interstellar

Will win: American Sniper
Should win: Birdman

Will win: Interstellar
Should win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Will win: The Theory of Everything
Should win: Gone Girl*

Will win: Birdman
Should win: Birdman

A Brief History of Time-Spanning Biopics

The Oscar race this year is unusually heavy on biopics, with special attention being lavished on the most crushingly mediocre. It's worth unpacking, then, what exactly makes a good biopic, since there do seem to be so precious few of them.

To try to fit an entire life into a feature-length movie is impossible, so the question of how to deal with figures whose life stories are so well known becomes a matter of focus. There are, generally speaking, two extremes:

1. Focus on a single goal or event, to illustrate the essence of the figure in question, at least during the time depicted.

2. Try to get as many incidents and anecdotes in as possible, the better to illustrate the events that shaped the person into who she became.

The first approach is generally the more successful, as it is the approach taken to most non-biopic films: introduce the character, give him a goal, and make him work for it. All of the normal storytelling principles of character creation, cause-and-effect narrative, tension and release, are here observed. Selma sticks to this approach and is the better of most of its fellow contenders for it. By focusing on the events in its titular city over the course of a single summer, it allows us to see the nuts and bolts of Martin Luther King Jr.'s doctrine of non-violence: the background of the city and the country's racial conflict, the stakes involved, the planning and arguments and doubts, the setbacks, the eventual triumph. Through this we see many sides of King--brilliant orator, shrewd strategist, shamed adulterer--that are obscured in the popular imagination. They would certainly be obscured in a survey of his 'greatest hits' that the conventional biopic form would dictate.

The second method is more perilous, but also more often deployed. The fact of the characters being real, and real famous, tends to overwhelm the needs of the script, and so too often these movies become a bland series of Big Events that often bear little relation to each other. This happens, then that happens, for two hours or more. Development of characters tends to be thin, because their circumstances are changing so quickly that we don't have time to get a sense of who they are and what they are dealing with in any given moment. It's ultimately self-defeating--in an attempt to show us everything about a person's life, we learn little about who they are.

This is the damning problem with the wildly over-hyped The Theory of Everything: the movie crams into two hours Stephen Hawking's rise as a celebrated physicist; the deterioration of his motor facilities; and the beginning and end of the relationship with his first wife Jane Wilde, across several decades. None of these three subjects are explored in any real depth, nor are the characters: Stephen Hawking becomes a standard suffering genius, and Jane is flattened into a saintly doting wife (except when historical necessity requires she begin to have doubts and frustrations). The Imitation Game too subscribes to this model, with predictably disastrous results. Besides its condescending treatment of its subject's sexuality, one of its worst narrative sins is splitting the difference on the story it's trying to tell: World War II code-breaking on the hand, post-war persecution by the British government on the other, with a tragic boyhood romance thrown in for bad measure. None of it sticks, except for a sequence near the end that deals with the actual procedural details of cracking the Germans' code, and having to grapple with the cost in lives of not being able to reveal their discovery. More is less.

On a script level it's difficult-to-impossible to mitigate the drawbacks of the kitchen-sink approach, but it is possible for the direction of the movie to do so. A director can use the movie's mise en scene to depict the world as seen through the eyes of its famous subject. This is the tack taken by the criminally under-appreciated Mr. Turner, which marshals its gorgeous cinematography toward recreating the awesome English vistas that J.M.W. Turner painted. It also widely sidesteps the trap of trying to create a Lifelong Arc by both confining itself to the artist's later years, and also drifting through the years ala Boyhood. This allows us to see the man naturally, in a variety of often mundane everyday moments, rather than lashing together a number of plot points in service of a forcedly tidy narrative.

Selma has some formal audacity, albeit of a very different kind. It reinvigorates the tired device of superimposed titles used to tell the audience the when and where of a scene, by styling them as FBI surveillance notes. In doing so it illustrates the extent to which King was monitored, and also occasionally creates a dissonant note between what is presented and how it is described--the use of a term like "Negro agitator" speaks volumes about how the Civil Rights Movement was viewed. The movie also makes smart use of its music, juxtaposing cathartic African-American spirituals with the brutality of the police crackdowns depicted onscreen, and featuring an end credits song, "Glory," that draws explicit lines between the events of the film and the protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri during its production.

Whichever the approach taken, the question of accuracy will always hang over a biopic. Strict fidelity to the facts is ultimately a straightjacket: life is messy and redundant and full of too many peripheral figures to count; narratives, especially in a medium that with a fixed length like cinema, demand an economy not found in real life. Questions of absolute accuracy should come second to dramatic needs.

The key is to remain true to the spirit of the figure in question--portray them as the kind of person they were, in the kinds of situations they faced. One of Selma's weakest aspects is its one-dimensional portrayal of George Wallace as an unremarkably hissable old racist when he was in fact a cynical strategist, summoning the demon of Southern racism in a Faustian bid for votes. A less pernicious lie has Correta Scott King confronting her husband with an audio tape of him having sex with another woman, a tape furnished by the FBI. This never happened, but it is forgivable because of the broader truths it is illustrating: the FBI's invasive and illegal surveillance of King, and the marital strains, of his own making, which he faced. As the old maxim goes, never let facts get in the way of the truth.

Of all the prestige biopics to ignore this guideline, American Sniper is the most egregious. It portrays Chris Kyle as ambivalent about his 'Deadliest Sniper' reputation, not necessarily proud of what he does but grimly determined to see his work through to the end. The real Kyle was in fact proud of his distinction, going so far as to rack up a few extra kills in order to keep ahead of any would-be challengers. He was also wildly boastful, to the point that he invented stories about punching out Jesse Ventura and sniping looters from the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. American Sniper is solid if mostly unexceptional as a film, but by completely ignoring these fundamental aspects of his character--the contradictions of which would make for a fascinating story in themselves--it fails utterly as a biopic. For Clint Eastwood, the truth was an obstacle to his fiction.

The Academy attention showered on The Theory of EverythingThe Imitation Game, and American Sniper, and the snubbing of Selma and Mr. Turner, bespeaks not just a political and social conservatism, but aesthetic conservatism. The filmmaking of the former is reliable at best, tired and dull and misleading at worst; the two latter films are not perfect (Selma is occasionally hobbled by punch-you-on-the-nose dialogue, and Mr. Turner does run awfully long), but they, in their own ways, are doing pushing the medium in exciting directions and doing good by their subjects. For biopics that have aspirations beyond Oscar-bait they serve as excellent models.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Pale Imitation

I was expecting The Imitation Game to be anodyne Oscar-bait, but I wasn't expecting it to be irritating to the point of being offensive. But so it is, by treating Alan Turing's homosexuality as a mid-film plot twist and then acting like that constitutes psychological character exploration.

The movie acts coy about Turing being gay, with a cop at the beginning of the movie looking at the camera and saying, "I think Mister Turing has something to hide!" and then waiting until halfway through the movie to "reveal" that he's gay.  This is made worse by an obnoxious subplot that takes place in Turing's schoolboy years that makes his boy love abundantly clear and serves no other purpose but to do so. The movie spends half of its runtime on a bullshit 'prickly genius needs to learn how to get along with people' plot that was far more effectively done in The Social Network, comes alive for twenty minutes or so with some actual code-breaking and discussion about the ethics of keeping their knowledge a secret, and then, finally, gets into the British government's prosecution and persecution of him. But then it merely talks about his trial and conviction, and then glosses over his suicide with some end titles. This, after tossing in a rancid joke about cyanide--his method of suicide--in that awful opening scene.

The movie wants to make some big statement about how shoddily the British government treated a national hero based on his sexuality, but ends up treating his sexuality, and his heroism, shoddily in turn. I've heard of form fitting content, but this is fucking ridiculous. That it's being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay is a travesty of art and gay politics.