Culture Warrior

Culture WarriorEvery Tuesday, Landon Palmer brings you Culture Warrior: an analysis of film as an art form and an examination of its role within larger trends in culture and society. Integrating media scholarship and film history with a critical eye on popular and contemporary cinema, Culture Warrior combines ongoing conversations in the worlds of academia and online film criticism. Whether looking at big studio franchises or arthouse indies, changing industry practices or new distribution models, every week Culture Warrior brings what you’re seeing in the theater or at home into a whole new light.

Updates Every: Tuesday

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“There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show.” The above summary is of an an impromptu speech The Wire showrunner David Simon delivered at “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas” in Sydney this week. Simon’s work as producer has been characterized by a distinct effort to represent the “great horror show” America he mentions – the America without social mobility, the America where people are left to survive in the marginal social position they’ve inherited, the America without special interest groups to make a perpetual underclass visible in the media and worth pandering to for politicians’ votes. The Wire, as Simon attests directly, sought to represent the conditions and lives of people who are “economically worthless,” a series that lent a rare lens to ordinary people’s endurance in the face of total invisibility in the public sphere. Mainstream contemporary movies and television shows have, perhaps until very recently, almost exclusively surveyed the lives of those with considerable economic worth: audiences with expendable income that can be advertised to during commercial breaks or be expected to buy most movie tickets. But Out of the Furnace and Killing Them Softly – both of which take place in 2008 and were released almost exactly a year apart – offer an incisive lens into a hermetically sealed, economically deprived, and otherwise underrepresented American underclass.

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“Black Friday” sales have spilled over into Thanksgiving Day. Amazon just announced that it wants to set the stage for the robot war by piloting commodity-delivery drones to your home. The holiday shopping season has literally become a deadly event. Consumer culture is out of control and omnipresent, rampantly breaking through boundaries of common sense, private space, and basic human decency. Yet on the everyday, experiential scale, consumer culture seems, more than ever before, like no big deal. Perhaps we have, for better or worse, collectively accepted it as an inevitable part of living. We expressed shock that the NSA was data-mining its citizens without any evidence of consistent legal parameters, yet only the occasional TED speaker is concerned that similar practices persist on behalf of marketers who feed from the social media we volunteer our lives to. Public schools are looking to private sponsors to fill in the funding gaps left by austerity. Bookshelves are stocked with arguments that our purchases – not our civic engagement, social awareness, or self-determination – have become the major constitutive factor in developing our individual sense of self. To these, we don’t really seem to mind. However, one place that blatant product-hawking is held accountable, in which peddling is met with a rattle of dismissal and rejection rather than tacit acceptance, is decent movies. Until now.

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Kill Your Darlings

Perhaps the most misleading aspect of the new crop of Beat movies that have surfaced during the past few years is that they obscure the fact that there was once an older crop of Beat movies. If your only exposure is Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, Walter Salles’ On the Road, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, and Michael Polish’s Big Sur, you might assume that the Beats participated in an artistic movement reserved exclusively for the written word. Yet Allen Ginsberg was front-and-center of experimental film projects like 1959’s Pull My Daisy (narrated by Kerouac) and 1966’s Chappaqua, while William S. Burroughs spent most of his career after the 1970s in independent films (alongside producing spoken word albums). Even Jack Kerouac, the most novelistic of the best-known Beats, showed his media literacy by recording improvisatory experiments in audio technology before he published “On the Road.” The literary Beats not only inspired later independent filmmakers, musicians, and artists, but they participated in multimedia productions themselves, seeking to realize a revolutionary new aesthetic across a variety of platforms of expression, often concurrently with their most famous published work. There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing only on these authors’ best-known works in adapting them to screen, but the resulting films do reinforce a rather common image of the Beats as forever-young literary outsiders, when they were in fact heavily involved in the social and artistic movements their work cultivated and helped inspire throughout their lives. But this raises a question: Do […]

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Captivity/survivor narratives are hardly unfamiliar to our movie screens, and such films tend to come in bunches. Three years ago, for instance, both Buried and 127 Hours boasted solo or near-solo performances from two rising Hollywood stars who spent the duration of their films as the solitary face we see. But last month brought a prominent and concentrated group of such films, all met with overwhelmingly good reviews, promising major performances from their leading survivor types, and coasting on significant awards buzz. While each film explores near misses, false moments of possible redemption, the necessary instance of despair, and ultimately an incredible optimism in the possibility for human beings to survive a conflagration of elements that work overwhelmingly against them, each of these films go about this differently. Yet the major factor connecting J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is that they all stage humans’ fraught relationship to nature through the problems and failures of human commerce and its attendant production of waste. Their respective fights with or on the landscape of nature, in other words, are inaugurated by the failure of humans to wield their own devices.

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Last week, Rob Hunter was so befuddled and inspired by Drafthouse Films’s newest resurrection project The Visitor that he coined a term to make sense of it: “WTF Cinema.” Says FSR’s resident critic Lorde Mayor, “Basically, these are movies that consistently challenge expectations (both visual and narrative) to the point that viewers have literally no idea what to expect. This has nothing to do with plot twists, reveals, or shock endings, and instead has everything to do with leaving an audience in a frequent state of head-scratching awe as the unexpected appears onscreen again and again.” Hunter’s coinage is a useful idiom to describe (or express one’s total failure to describe) a certain type of movie that defies easy comprehension or simple justification for its existence. But I think there’s another aspect of The Visitor worth focusing on that tells us a lot about why it’s taken on this wonderful WTF currency: The Visitor, despite not having been re-edited since its initial theatrical run, is in no way the same film it was when originally released. The Visitor is a film of 2013 more than it ever was a film of 1979.

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District 9

This week’s Culture Warrior looks at District 9’s place amongst the very best of smart science fiction.

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Ten years ago today, The Matrix: Revolutions was released in theaters. This is, of course, no monumental cinematic anniversary. It’s quite likely that nobody will ask you today, or any day for that matter, where you were the first time you saw the third Matrix film. At most, this revelation will be a reminder that you, like me, are getting older, and the space between decades ain’t what it used to be. But much has changed in studio tentpole filmmaking in the past ten years – in practice, if not, well, “quality.” On this rather unceremonious anniversary, the third Matrix film has a surprising lot to tell us about how studio franchises have developed since the early Bush era, and where they likely will and won’t go moving forward. The Matrix, a film series initiated by a late-90s cyberpunk sleeper hit that arguably overshadowed the return of f*cking Star Wars, by its final chapter came to be treated by Hollywood as a failed prototype never to be repeated again.

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Cinephilia can take the form of an insatiable hunger, an obsession that continually demands for more – films that cater to more exclusive and refined taste, more resurrected annals of long-forgotten film histories, and more works that pose ever-escalating challenges to the dominant language of cinema. It is no revelation to observe that the Internet has realized a newfound framework for such obsession, like a magic well that promises an endless depth of access to knowledge about obscure, lesser known, or forgotten works. The Internet is not a space where filmic knowledge is publicly available; it is a space where potential knowledge can be excavated and contested over. The game of happenstance is addictive precisely because it carries an eternal promise of more. It is this type of cinephilia that accompanies the recent emergence of several obscure auteurs in web, literary, and moving image culture. One is an Italian-American sicko visionary whose approach to giallo-style torture porn marries the snuff film with high cult art cinema. Another is a Russian émigré whose obsessive Kubrick-on-steroids brand of perfectionism arguably oversaw some of the greatest British films ever made. Yet another is Charles Manson meets Tobe Hooper, a schlocky and gore-obsessed B-auteur and countercultural burnout whose communal approach to filmmaking blurs the line between events behind and in front of the screen. But none of these filmmakers ever existed. All were invented to explore the myth of the genius auteur in the complete absence of an actual body of work to talk […]

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Carrie 1976

In contrast to Stephen King’s famous tomes The Stand, The Shining, and It, the author’s breakthrough novel – 1974’s “Carrie” – is relatively fit for adaptation as a feature-length film due to its various publications rarely running over two hundred pages. That said, beyond the usual acts of restructuring typical of Hollywood treatments, the movie versions of Carrie White’s story have stopped short of recreating the third section of King’s novel, “Aftermath.” Thus, they forego the subsequent history of a town that must physically and psychologically rebuild itself after an unfathomable tragedy. This section of King’s novel surveys the systemic long-term reactions to the Carrie incident: the development of scientific research and social programs for telekinetics, the slow rebuilding of a small town, and, naturally, a nation’s serious look in the mirror on the subject of high school bullying. While such a vast third act rarely takes shape in Carrie films, it’s the act that we’re collectively most familiar with when it comes to national news stories about young people, violence, and the ever-persistent phantom of bullying (still a term that resists a stable definition in school administrations), whether these real-life tragedies take the form of suicides or mass shootings.

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Captain Phillips

A boat at sea is a pretty rich place to explore ideology. Bear with me here. The sea, by assumption, bears no visible national borders, no unified language, no tactile culture for human beings. Yet humans travel the sea, conquer it, capitalize on it. Our use of the sea is in no way apolitical, yet an endless horizon subject to the laws of nature conveys something essential, a visage that suggests a false, elusive neutrality. The sea simultaneously erases and amplifies the distinctions we’ve made between ourselves on land. Much has been already discussed about the ideological implications Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips. What to make of a popular piece of entertainment that is, at least in part, about global inequality? Are the systemic factors that motivate Somali piracy ignored? If not, might audiences still interpret the film in a simplistic hero v. villain binary de rigueur of Hollywood entertainment? Is the film, as Dana Stevens observes, “a tragedy about the ruinous consequences of global capitalism” or is it, as Andrew O’Hehir argues, “a disturbing celebration of American military power”? Perhaps a film like Captain Phillips, by virtue of its setting and narrative, can be seen as a vessel of ideology that, at the same time, investigates the core processes by which our political identities and assumptions come into realization.

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Gravity

A weird thing happened on my way home from a matinee screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. I cried. Like, actual tears down my face, shortage of breath, no control crying. The pitiful kind of crying you hope nobody else sees. I’m pretty embarrassed to admit it – not because I see any shame in crying, even (or especially) over a film, but because for the life of me I couldn’t understand why on earth I was crying over this film. Gravity is no doubt an impressive technical achievement and an entertaining 90 minutes, but it hardly registered anywhere in the ballpark of emotional profundity for me. I found the trauma that Sandra Bullock’s character must overcome to be both forced and rudimentary, realized through some of the most on-the-nose thematic dialogue this side of Mad Men season 6. And don’t get me started on the 3D tears. I’m not trying to be cynical, but rather am attempting to illustrate the incredible gap I experienced between the character’s emotions onscreen and my belated visceral response to the film. I’ve seen many great films that have left me silent, even catatonic – films far “better” than Gravity that have asked me to walk away from them emotionally shattered or existentially crippled. But no film has ever elicited this type of reaction, and taken me so completely by surprise in doing so. I finally realized I wasn’t emptying myself over emotional resonance, character identification, or poignant thematics, but something a bit more abstract: […]

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Breaking Bad

Spoiler Warning for all both of you who haven’t yet seen Breaking Bad‘s finale. There’s something a little bit curious about a series that gave us one of cable’s most definitive male anti-heroes seeking absolute resolution and closure upon its final hour. But that’s exactly what Breaking Bad did Sunday night, with Vince Gilligan repeatedly pronouncing The Sopranos’ ambiguous ending as its prototype-for-opposition. It’s telling that, amongst all the finales of comparably beloved 21st century cable dramas, Gilligan steered the conversation about the end of Walter White so directly through the terms of David Chase’s game-changer. Sure, both shows have clear points of comparison, as each are violent, regionally specific contemporary tales of a paterfamilias’ less-than-legitimate business tooled toward the visage of a “normal” domestic life, and both shows carried some debated expectations that their respective underworld kingpins would find their demise by the last musical cue (be it provided by Bad Finger or Journey). But more appropriately, these two shows can be seen as bookends to the same greater phenomenon: the golden age of cable’s repeated focus on male anti-heroes to drive their narratives. As many have noted, this trope has brought us some great – or, at least, compelling – shows, but now with the calculated (and certain) death of one of its most celebrated manifestations, it’s time to give this trope a rest and see what else television can do.

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Mad Men Split Season

This past week, AMC announced that it will split Mad Men’s seventh and final season into two 7-episode increments to air in 2014 and 2015, similarly to the way that Breaking Bad has been careening to its much anticipated yet seemingly breathless finale. On the one hand, this represents a business move that exists anywhere between shrewd and shameless, but one that is unlikely to anger fans who would be happy to follow Don and Roger well into the disco era, even if they’re ultimately only getting one extra episode as a result of the wait. But the decision has convincingly been perceived as an act of desperation on behalf of a network whose two brand-making critical darlings of original programming will soon see their end, with no surefire successor to take their place (perhaps Low Winter Sun should create a crossover story with The Killing). But what I find most striking about this decision is the fact that, perhaps more so than any recent quality cable show, Mad Men has done of great deal of work to identify itself through – and, in the process, help to define – what a television season means in the age of binge-viewing. By separating each season by discrete gaps in the historical procession of time, Mad Men has overtly defined each of its seasons as characterized through changes in its characters’ associations, lives, relationships, locations, business affiliations, etc. So, will each “part” of Mad Men’s final season take place in a separate […]

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past May, riding a wave of critical praise given towards what is, by most accounts, an ambitious, immersive epic of a tumultuous young romance. Its sexuality is frank and transparent, and no punches are pulled – this, it seems, is the type of risky, visionary cinema speaks to the very rhyme and reason why Cannes exists in the first place, especially in the context of an ever-homogenizing global market. Recent news, however, has cast a different light on what would otherwise be a surefire arthouse darling. First, author Julie Maroh (who wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based) all but disowned the film for framing a straight male gaze on a relationship between two women – a serious critique indeed, but not at all surprising considering past Cannes darlings. Things became considerably worse when news of Kechiche’s on-set antics entered the discussion. The film’s cast and crew have attested to exploitative labor practices and possible emotional abuse directed toward the two leads, particularly during extended takes of the film’s central lovemaking scene.

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Last week, conversations flared around the alleged retirement of Jack Nicholson. The jury is still out as to whether or not he has officially called it quits in his acting career, but even if the accomplished performer (nominated for Academy Awards 12 times – more than any other male actor) and notorious personality hung up his guns for good, he’d leave behind a rich 5-decade-long career. Magnetic but not conventionally handsome, brash but able to convey remarkable subtlety, Nicholson is as much a consummate actor’s actor as he is a movie star. Like other aging stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, some of his later roles have found him exercising a form of self-parody, a send-up of the patented “Jack” persona. But when you look past the long list of Nicholson’s greatest hits, a rather complex performer emerges, one that any late-career parody can’t contain. Beyond the groundbreaking performances of The Last Detail and Cuckoo’s Nest or the canonical star turns of Batman and As Good as It Gets, here are some of Nicholson’s under-appreciated deep cuts.

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Amongst all the star cameos in Lee Daniels’s late-summer hit The Butler, one performance stands out as a particularly curious bit of stunt casting. John Cusack, with nary any make-up, a slight gruff in his voice, carrying that aura of meandering disinterest and slight condescension he’s fine-tuned for nearly a decade struts onto the screen as none other than Richard Milhous Nixon. Cusack’s turn as Nixon is both ingenuously lazy and charmingly surreal – no effort is made to convince the audience that the man onscreen is anybody but John Cusack (in contrast to Liev Schreiber’s Norbit-esque turn as LBJ), yet the continued reference toward Cusack as one of modern history’s most readily recognizable and continually invoked Commanders in Chief has a certain Dadaist charm to it, as if Daniels and Cusack were admitting playfully that this was simply yet another star turn and that Nixon was too large and imposing a historical figure to channel with any serious effort for a film not about Nixon. Nixon himself, of course, probably wouldn’t stand for a film not about Nixon. Nixon is a figure that refuses to leave public consciousness. The central subject of more narrative films than any modern President, Nixon’s endless contradictions, standalone history, and almost inscrutable public appeal has provided a subject of endless fascination for storytellers of all stripes, from John Adams to Robert Altman. Here’s an overview of the 37th President’s cinematic highlights.

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Fruitvale Movie

During the summer of 1998, one of the two multiplexes in my modestly sized hometown devoted one of its sixteen screens to limited release films throughout the entire season. They showed a range of small, non-mainstream narrative works from that surprisingly indie-rich summer, including Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box, James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy, Don Roos’s The Opposite of Sex, Whit Stilman’s The Last Days of Disco, Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors, and Mr. Jealousy, a film that almost nobody remembers Noah Baumbach made. Despite their nearby availability, I saw approximately zero of these films. I was thirteen years old, and my parents maintained their strict no-R policy. But it was enough for me that the names of these films showed up in the local paper, and that I saw their posters displayed through smudged plexiglass outside the box office as I bought my ticket to see Jane Austen’s Mafia! for the third time (I’m not kidding). I told myself I was perfectly content with the likes of Godzilla, Small Soldiers, and that other Avengers, but I patiently looked forward to the day when I was brave enough to sneak into (and, a few years later, pay to see) these movies so that I could figure out what this trailer was all about. I wasn’t yet experiencing blockbuster fatigue, just bottled excitement that there were new and weird and envelope-pushing movies that existed out there. But apparently, my multiplex’s experiment was a […]

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Loki Glass Prison

The glass prison designers of the fictional world are making bank this year. It seems that almost every action-packed superhero or quasi-superhero film features the same prominent set piece and it hasn’tt gone unnoticed: a recent meme circulated remarking on the inefficacy of the glass  prison, showing the evolution of the structure on film. The image, created by Raven Montoya, stacked a number of villains captured in glass prisons on top of each other: Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, Magneto from X2 (technically a plastic prison), Loki from Avengers,  Raoul Silva from Skyfall, and lastly, the animated Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. The caption  quipped, “Yes! Of course it’s a good idea to put the homicidal maniac in a glass prison. I’m sure he won’t get out.” That the villain always escapes comes hand in hand with another trope of the glass prison—to  quote the Joker in The Dark Knight, “It’s all part of the plan.” The villain intends to be caught in order to set his diabolical plan in motion. Charlie Jane Anders of io9 cites the Rube Goldbergian  nature of the scheme as one reason for the evil mastermind to create this situation—to enhance  his devious nature. She also notes a more important use of such a tactic: “You get to put the hero and the villain in the room together, without having them fight.” All this would seem to be blockbuster screenwriting 101. You set up a mid-movie failure to create tension before the final […]

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Passion Movie

During a 35th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Indiana University Cinema in 2011, Paul Schrader stated that studios stopped making movies like Taxi Driver a long time ago, and moreover, studios weren’t interested in making movies for adults anymore. Judging by his collaboration with novelist/screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis in The Canyons, it seems he believes Hollywood isn’t interested in making movies anymore. The Canyons portrays an entertainment industry that has collapsed into the things that its product has afforded for its participants: lifestyle and status. The Lindsay Lohan’s Ghost-starring flick envisions a Hollywood in which its movers of money have stopped even pretending to care about the product peddled, instead spending all their time and efforts on the social capital afforded. The stylish restaurants, isolated mansions, cold XXX-capades, and even the privilege of getting away with murder.

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Sharknado

Last week, my partner hosted a screening of Miami Connection, Drafthouse Films’ release of the heretofore largely unseen low-budget Tae Kwon Do musical from 1987, for a small group of friends. Ever the meticulous party-planner, she made the viewing interactive by constructing, amongst a litany of other viewing activities, a series of Bingo cards that our friends could play while watching the film. At first, I was a bit worried that this might make the viewing of a ridiculous ‘80s cult film all too predetermined, forcing our friends to anticipate amazing lines like “I thought we are all orphans” or the transcendent pro-friendship tunes of Dragon Sound ahead of time rather than experiencing these moments organically, as she and I did the first time we saw Miami Connection. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. The interactive viewing was a great success for our dear Miami Connection virgins, and everyone went home whistling “Against the Ninja” whether they wanted to or not. But I’m not interested in talking about a party that went well (okay, maybe a little bit). I’m interested in what something like Miami Connection Bingo cards represent for people seeing the film for the first time: the simultaneous, seemingly paradoxical engagement with cult film initiation and cult film participation.

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