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2007: It’s Okay to Play Catch-Up

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2007: It’s Okay to Play Catch-Up

Commentary, first.

1. A landmark year for me as well as for the movies. Returning to school proved the right thing to do, despite all the concessions that go with such a decision. Not only did I find the vocabulary I’d always yearned for, and lacked, it keeps growing as I keep writing and reading. I giggle to think of how measly my first attempts at film writing were back when I joined the blogosphere a mere year and a half ago. I giggle more when I realize how right on I was about some movies back then without really knowing why (beyond “that made me cry” or “that was a dope edit” or “Wes Anderson’s wit speaks for me”). What makes me giggle the most is coming to understand how cool it is to change one’s mind. Before 2007 I was a staunch platformist: this is what I believe, deal with it. 2007 taught me some humility, in school and out. Not that I don’t stand by my arguments: I will continue to defend my use and experience with and understanding of the English language. Yet I find myself more willing to have a conversation about a topic, with a topic, to take my time with a topic (films, books, meals, loves, families, etc). This topic of conversation finds its best example, perhaps, in my engagement with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou during the first half of this year. I wrote a big, long paper about Wes Anderson’s fourth film at the end of my first semester back at Berkeley detailing how I’ve come to appreciate the picture. I still think it a fine piece of writing, one I enjoyed revisiting this week, but I view it as a necessary step, a stage of my education, if you will, towards a better understanding of what film is, and how film works, and how to write about both, from my experience. More simply: I would not write the same thing about The Life Aquatic again, now. I would write something more film-specific about its liquid, eternal philosophy. But I may keep that final paragraph.

2. Part of the joy of school for me has been the exposure to all kinds of great texts—about film, yes, but in general about philosophy—that have provoked my thoughts, pushed me further, made me more aware. Helped me live a little better. One branch of philosophy I’ve become somewhat infatuated with is speech act theory for the simple fact that it forces one to pay closer attention to how language is used, how one uses language, how language acts. The conversation can be heady (Frege) and silly (Derrida) and stuffy (Searle), but the writers I’ve grown to love (Wittgenstein, Austin, Cavell) find a way to make the serious conversation lively, and funny, while thoughtful and generous. Putting it all into action is still tough, but I’ve got a head start, I think, thanks in large part to my interest in writing on a regular basis outside of school. As much as I have trouble coming to grips with all the demands of blogging specifically, and the burden of writing in general, I look forward to more writing, with more frequency, in 2008 (and beyond).

3. A friend who just graduated in December said, “I felt smart when I started; I feel less smart now. I think that’s a good thing.” I’m apt to agree. I’m no expert. Never have been an expert. Just an expert at posturing as an expert. I aim to erase that posture, as best I can, and embrace my natural amateur perspective (pace Agee). For all the movies I’ve seen, there’s literally thousands of other movies I have yet to see. (Yes, 1 to 1000.) Still haven’t seen some key 2007 pictures. Oh well. All I’ve got is time and curiosity, health allowing.

4. Inland Empire didn’t open in the Bay Area until February so it counts on my list, okay? And if I were to make a numerated list it may top it. Big deal. Wanna fight about it? Nah, me neither. The great thing is, on any given day, any of the ten I list below could challenge for the crown. (Especially that 30-year old picture.)

5. The list below betrays the fact that HBO played a big part in the second half of my 2007. The summer was devoted to David Milch: I devoured Deadwood’s brief three seasons in time for John from Cincinnati to kick my butt for ten short episodes. What we were given is great but I, like so many, wish there was more. I can honestly say that Deadwood is one of the greatest things I’ve seen; or, it speaks for me as much as it speaks to me. John felt the natural response to its predecessor, kinda how David Lynch keeps making films as works of criticism of his own films by praising and investigating what came before in a novel way: John is as much about Deadwood’s idea of community (as a networked organism of individuals akin to family, regardless of bloodlines, and putting one’s faith into such a social agreement) as it is about transcendence at the end of the world. The fall was devoted to The Wire, which I’m less enthusiastic about, but still find astounding in stretches. I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid until the third season, which started something special by introducing Bunny, because, for the most part, I found that the first two chapters in this death of the city saga relied on the whole cops-versus-robbers premise just a little too much. What’s weird is that those first two feel more like pet sociological projects than the third and (masterful) fourth seasons, which are engaging drama first, sociology second. I’m curious to see how this current, and final, season plays out after a somewhat bland, however sure-handed, first episode (complete with a grating Steve Earle cover of the theme song) built almost entirely of exposition. Perhaps my inclination to call it bland is a dismissive attempt to corner what I sense as a lion of despair, ready to pounce on the little joy left for the underclass. However, my racial and economic privilege prevent me from fully understanding this, I imagine, despite growing up the only white kid in a classroom of black kids for six years. All I know is that The Wire, for all the great things it does (the dialogue, the plotting, the casting of so many black actors, etc.), does not lift me up the way the waves John surfs explicitly manifest my liquid philosophy.

6. The list below betrays another influence on my movie year: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangre, screened over two days last summer at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. I initially promised an essay about the film, and began to write one, pairing it with some notes on the finale of The Sopranos, but given my summer school work load I could not get the piece to where I wanted it, even after pumping out over 2500 words. The main thrust of the piece was about serialized stories spread across lengthy, wide canvasses; about how difficult criticism of such works can be. I didn’t get into the nitty gritty of Rivette’s masterpiece: how the second episode, as it were, of the second troupe improvising a birth of man scene inspired by Prometheus Bound, made me want to vomit and masturbate simultaneously (no, I’ve not seen Pasolini’s Salò yet, and I do not think it will beget the same sensation); how sexy Juliet Berto looks wearing a mask and short hair; how Léaud’s mute made me laugh out loud; how cool and complex the film’s argument for life-as-performance works out (it’s equal parts preparation, improvisation, faith, knowing your role); how the thirteen are arrayed; how one’s network is arranged across time and space, arrayed in the city or on the globe; how cute kids and turtles can act; how eternal each segment feels, and how rarely you notice edits during rehearsals; how much joy there is in walking down the street, speaking to no one in particular.

7. All this talk of networks. Of liquids and joy. Why, then, would I choose to speak of anything but that which I deem worthy of praise, of what there is to be thankful for? As I continue to write I find it ever less appealing to write something solely to denigrate the work of others because, at least on some level, or most often, that posture is an insecure expression of taste, not value. Hence, I hope to not have to write anything as bilious as my review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford again, nor indulge my urge to spew hate, as I did in the general direction of Pan’s Labyrinth; two movies I simply did not care for last year. However, people I respect think highly of both pictures, which almost compels me to revisit them. Or maybe just the Brad Pitt one, if pressed to choose. Life is pretty short as it is.

8. Two things I found great joy in this year were the two (polar opposite) pictures from the Andersons, Wes and P.T., and their different approaches to how we define family. It is a most obvious split. [Spoiler warning?] Where P.T. offered a picture of disintegration, Wes gave us a film of delight—of our unflagging desires and wills to start over and to enjoy ourselves, to consume, to retell our experience as a string of joyful happenings. Wes gave us family as a haven, despite itself and despite its pratfalls. P.T., on the other hand, remains fearful of the family; of fathers in particular. Where Wes absents the father (“We lost our father and we’ll never get him back.”), P.T. blows him up Frankenstein big and lets him huff and puff and blow the house down. The Whitman brothers have each other, at least, as their story (their train, their world) continues, and travels on into the future; Daniel Plainview has no relatives (by blood or by marriage) at the dead end of his story. Here I cannot help but think of my 2007 muse, Stanley Cavell, and his complimentary pair of books on film genres: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedies of Remarriage and Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. Now, Cavell’s books are very much interested in females, and neither Wes nor P.T. made pictures with many women—nor is Darjeeling a “comedy of remarriage” to Blood’s “melodrama of the unknown woman”—so the analogy only goes so far. Best to say that the structure of conversation is what interests me: in the comedies there’s a resolution because the man and woman can have and meet at a happy conversation; in the melodramas the conversation fails. (This is explored further in Cities of Words, which may be Cavell’s best book.) Upon my first viewing of Darjeeling, aside from the continuing evolution of Wes’ visual sensibility, I was struck rather immediately by the overlapping dialogue, and how the family shares a dialect. The brothers’ resolution is an agreement not about passports or schedules but about how they will speak to one another without their parents, as their parents no longer offer a chance for that kind of felicitous conversation, and not because they do not love or wish to love their parents: love “isn’t over” for the three of them. Family is what you make it. Once H.W. goes deaf in There Will Be Blood, Daniel no longer has a comfortable companion in conversation with whom he has no fear of disclosure. Henry offers the idea of a new version of that kind of open-ended conversation, and Daniel accepts this at first (“Having you here gives me a second breath”), but Henry dies because Daniel can no longer trust those conversations; and because Daniel will not accept Henry’s usurping of Daniel’s true blood brother’s story to survive. Daniel’s shunting of H.W. and shooting of Henry and mauling of Eli are the literal spoils of Daniel’s decision to refuse the conversation of the city of words. His eponymous plain view of the world allows for one will alone—his own—to dictate how he lives and acts and speaks in the world. “I want to hear you say it.” He begins the picture in a hole he’s made underground, his first word, “No,” and he ends his story in another man-made tomb, his last words, “I’m finished.” (Plus, you know, that great symmetry of beatings: Daniel beats the earth with a pickax in the dark the same way he beats Eli with a bowling pin in the light.) Granted, this is only one aspect of a crazy-rich film, but I have yet to read much about how speech and language operate in this picture. For to sustain a family there has to be an agreement of what is said, and how that is said, as much as by sheer force (or through the stupid, unknown and perpetual ubiety) of bloodlines. (Further concession: this attention to speech seems central to No Country for Old Men for me, and remains the most intriguing aspect of the film to my ears, but that film is out to erase families just as much as Anton Chigurh is out to erase infelicitous speech. Lastly: Perhaps not as explicitly as Ratatouille, The Host offers family as food, as nourishment, which is a really cool thing, too.)

9. Since I couldn’t stay away from Cavell, I thought I’d go ahead and quote another normative passage from my perpetual education: “First, that in the modern period of the arts—marked variously by splits in the audience (and conception) of art between the academic and the advanced—the great arts together with their criticism increasingly take on the self-reflective condition of philosophy (teaching us, let us say, to see that King Lear is about theatre as catharsis, that Macbeth is about theatre as apparition, Othello about the treacherous theatre of ocular proofs, Hamlet about what surpasses theatrical show). The second contention is that the medium of film is such that—from the time of its first masterpieces in the second decade of its technological establishment—it could take on the seriousness of the modern without splitting its audience, between the high and low, or between the advanced and philistine.”

That’s from the first chapter (“Something out of the ordinary”) of his most recent book, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow (another excellent, endearing and educational companion), introducing why he will turn to a clip of Fred Astaire as evidence of what he defines (over 30 pages) as “the ordinary”—and the need to return to it as much as step out of it. I found it so striking because it seemed so right on the money, such plain evidence of a long, rich career of thoughtful reading and writing and living. Given this premise, it seems plain to see, or simply possible, that There Will Be Blood is about film as catharsis, that Syndromes and a Century is about film as apparition, Inland Empire about the treacherous cinema of ocular proofs, Out 1 about what surpasses theatrical-cinematic show. It’s from this understanding that I try to approach film as the modern philosophy. That is as long as it’s great film.

10. Who cares if you’re a little late? There’s no time like the present. In fact, there’s no time but the present. Let’s get into it.

Some witty awards, second.

The “It’s Okay To Play Catch Up” Award: Killer of Sheep. Of course it would be more fair had Burnett’s film seen release sooner. But here it is, folks, primed for us to enjoy it. What weirds me out is that it won’t get half the year-end attention that Army of Shadows got last year, despite it being twice the movie as Melville’s grey-on-grey fatalistic downer. Not to say Melville’s film is weak (I really dig it), but Burnett’s is interested in the film medium (its history, its language, its actions as a history and a language) in a bolder fashion. There’s a joy inside its hurt, pushing outwards, brimming in its rhythms and compositions.

The “Wasteland” Award: Paul Thomas Anderson’s disaster-zone There Will Be Blood. Boy was it hard waiting, for two months, to see this bad mutha a second time. Still, I sure was happy to see it, and write something about it, a little earlier than the rest of the pack. I don’t quite agree with my friend who thinks she’s never quite seen anything like it before, but it certainly is smart cinema. And funny. Or, as I put it in an email: hilariously terrible. The first time I saw it I was too caught up in all of P.T.A’s flashy, horizontal and operatic formal flourishes to laugh much; the second time I guffawed twice and snickered a lot. I look forward to writing some more about Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in the future since my first missive was a somewhat vague tease and not really an act of criticism. Especially since one can find a lot to say in the film’s favor, which is a lot to condense here, so I’ll just say, for now, I enjoyed reading the essays about the picture written by Manohla Dargis and Michael Koresky, and all the blogging by Glenn Kenny, the best. (Could be retitled “The Wasteland is a Milkshake Award,” right?)

The “So Close” Award: David Fincher’s Zodiac is almost close to great. Or, after the murders it gets close to great, when it’s all about procedural and acting (ahem, movies). Otherwise its (early) attraction to pulp violence and its sometimes-sitcom dialogue cheapen the terrific ensemble acting and the central caveat that reading a film isn’t deciphering its code; it’s building the best argument. Just like life. Maybe if the film had been six hours long, like my friend said, it could have been one of the great movies. It remains Fincher’s best, and something tells me the director’s cut will be even better, even if Fincher added a scant four more minutes. (Formerly “The Worthy Failure Award,” which seems apt for this film thematically since nobody “wins” or whatever, but I worry such a name would be misconstrued as a wholly negative dig.)

The “You Gotta Be Kidding Me” Award. (three-way tie?): The rats in the kitchen are adorable. I still don’t want to know if some rats are cooking my 5-star meal, but Ratatouille’s egalitarian, joyful goodwill made me forget my prejudices with a big, stupid smile. It’s deceptively simple but oh so deep dished delicious, and brave. Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End offers a similarly optimistic and mutopic philosophy that most people seem to miss because it, too (maybe above all?), is deceptively smart. Wait: each time I finish the Aqua Teen movie I’m bewildered and fatigued in a great way. Its opening is genius, yes, as is the Oglethorpe and Emory flashback involving bed sheets exploding, yes, but I gotta say I wish there was more Carl.

The “Termite” Award: As much as I’d like to give it to the first ten minutes of 28 Weeks Later, or to Death Proof’s grainy genre fun for continually halving itself, doubling back, and wrecking big at the finale, the award lands squarely on the doorstep of David Lynch’s time-collapse madhouse Inland Empire (which sits a house next door to Satoshi Kon’s Paprika): it’s all about passage, internal networks, rhymes, time mapped by an Escher architecture of film (as digital seems so apt to amplify), acting eating faces, seeing stars, one’s mirrored persona, rabbits, boobs and lust and cigarettes, and light. So much harsh and gorgeous light. For all of David Lynch’s soothsaying Magi powers, Laura Dern is Inland Empire. And she won’t quit. She doesn’t quit. That’s the beauty of it.

The “Overrated But Still Pretty Good” Award: The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men is ostensibly “excellent,” maybe even “perfect.” However, I still find something missing: I don’t think it’s quite the masterpiece as some critics (that I respect and am often willing to arrogate to) have named it. I was hoping I’d have a better evaluation of the picture by now but more important things, like life, got in the way. And, to be honest, I simply don’t care to extrapolate further than, “Cool, they understand speech-as-spectacle in the social practice of language,” and “Ouch, that violence hurts.” Maybe it’s a knee-jerk kinda thing, or maybe I just don’t want that kind of crisp brutality in my life all that often (both positions clearly barometers of my taste more than evaluations of the film), but I’d sacrifice seeing No Country again for another shot at Eastern Promises. At least the Cronenberg picture ends with a birth. (Still, stay tuned to Vinyl Is Heavy for some Coen Fatigue (pace Sean).)

The “Auteur” Award (tie): Carlos Reygadas and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It was not until this past spring that I found Reygadas, via Battle in Heaven. It took a summer screening of Syndromes and a Century to show me Joe’s funny bones. Since then I’ve watched all their available films, and enjoyed them all tremendously. Luckily, the two of them are after different things in film, but I wager we will remember them longer, with more passion, than, hmn, Noah Baumbach. (Charles Burnett lost in a close race; the DVD set Milestone put out here at the end of the year is a treasure.)

The “Sergei Urusevsky” Award: Too easy to name Stellet Licht and its sunspots, which were created by using oldish Russian cameras. I choose Robert Yeoman’s Darjeeling Limited turquoise and yellow widescreen delight.

The “Perpetual Education” Award: Immediately understanding why I love The Darjeeling Limited and rediscovering why The Life Aquatic is a special film this year. Stop ghettoizing Wes Anderson. For real. He’s the real deal.

Parts of these films were amazing, but they fall just short, in one way or another: 28 Weeks Later (best opening sequence of the year), Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters (best make-out scene of the year), Eastern Promises (best balls-out sequence of the year), I’m Not There (best use of the word “pussy” of the year), Margot at the Wedding (best plant-fighting of the year), No Country For Old Men (best dog-in-a-river sequence of the year), Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End (best special effects, best giddy upheaval of the year), Zodiac (best male ensemble of the year). Still, I dig these flicks more than a lot of others, like Transformers (although the sand there looks good). I’ve watched a few of these multiple times, which means I did not see others, like Colossal Youth, for instance, even once. Funny that the two standing as polar opposites are probably the “best” of the bunch. Big points for guessing which two I’m thinking of; however, in all seriousness, the only prize I can offer is an Internet slap on the back. Unless I know you physically. But, wait, am I serious here?

An alphabetical and protean “Favorite Ten of 2007” list, finally.

I know it’s a little predictable (or redundant?) but aren’t most lists a little predictable? (Or redundant?)

The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson
Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino
The Host, Bong Joon-ho
Inland Empire, David Lynch
Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett
Paprika, Satoshi Kon
Ratatouille, Brad Bird
Stellet Licht, Carlos Reygadas
Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson

If you made it to the end, thank you for reading. Be well: enjoy yourself and enjoy your movie time. And I’m Out of here, fakers.

House contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy. He will be graduating college, finally, in 2008: he’s excited.