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

Serial Podcast

It’s happened. A podcast has achieved the status of a cultural phenomenon. Where podcasting has largely either operated as a supplementary commentary on culture (from new films to dead authors to linguistics, and probably everything else) or an extension of talk radio (political or public radio-style podcasts), serving as the custodian of our connected watercooler conversations, This American Life’s Serial podcast has now found itself at the center of a cultural conversation and a thing to be witnessed on its own – the type of thing people make podcasts about. Serial as a phenomenon can be largely credited to its inventive use of the medium – to tell a story over weeks like a must-see television show. And like the way we currently watch television, Serial has inspired a regular output of recaps, conversations, fan theories, thinkpieces, and parodies. Add the stakes inherent in the fact that Serial is one journalist’s episode-to-episode investigation of a complicated 15-year-old murder case, and what you have is the capacities of a storytelling platform transforming real life into accessible, compelling, perhaps exploitative drama. But the way we’ve been making sense of Serial as a phenomenon says a great deal about how we relate to – and “elevate” – new media phenomena based on prior media phenomena.

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Interstellar Memento 1

Time is a precious resource in Christopher Nolan’s most personal (i.e., non-bat-related) films, and time rarely ever runs in a linear, straightforward fashion. In Memento, time is split between a receding past and a stagnant present that changes the shape of knowledge and memory with every revelation it produces. In Inception, time is collapsed upon itself many times over, with a singular moment in one tier of consciousness extending to a multiplied time scale in others. Interstellar perhaps presents his most tortured relationship to the movement of time, wherein time is relative yet deeply consequential depending on your orientation with the cosmos, and must therefore be approached strategically. Your experience of time in Interstellar is hardly universal. It depends very much on where you are. While the film’s genre-entry depiction of the procession of time is intended as a rumination on relativity, black holes and the like, as a cinematic (i.e., non-scientific but experiential) exercise, Interstellar’s depiction of temporal relativity is truly affecting. It’s maybe the strongest suit of a rich but messy film, for it exercises something unique about the very act of watching movies.

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Dark Knight Rises

Lynchian. Kubrickian. Felliniesque. A directorial adjective can have strong, transportable power, even if its exact meaning may rely more on general impressions and evocations of inspiration than a concrete set of rules. Many of these terms, however, gain currency well after a director has established a set style, producing a moniker that results as a sort of shorthand for auteurism: a term pregnant with assumed meaning to describe an implied close familiarity with the themes, styles and obsessions that codify a filmmaker’s body of work. “Lynchian” was arguably solidified as popular parlance with David Foster Wallace’s 1996 essay from a visit to the set of Lost Highway, a work of writing that tied together both Lynch’s idiosyncratic film style and his esoteric personality as a person. And that’s the essential formula for the directorial adjective: unlike the auteur theory, which provides insights into the person but takes an analysis of the films themselves as a primary concern, the directorial adjective suggests a fluid coherence between the defining aspects of films and the outsized personality of their maker. To be Kubrickian is to be an obsessive perfectionist of form. To be Hitchcockian is to possess a sadistic sense of humor imbued through the events of the thriller, a personality that regularly makes murder into a game. You don’t know it when you see it with the directorial adjective, you know it when you feel it, when you sense the currents of that personality speak through choices of style and narrative. There […]

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Halloween_MichaelMyers

Where would horror cinema be without gothic fiction? The careers of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, James Whale, Roger Corman and many a German expressionist owe a great deal to the storied architecture that characterized the settings of 18th and 19th century literary classics. Moreover, from The Uninvited and Rebecca in the 1940s to the modern takes of the early 1960s (The Haunting and The Innocents, just to name a couple), the grand haunted house has proven to be a mainstay in horror, whether as a foreboding living space harboring dark secrets, a site for challenging and torturing tourists and skeptics, or an active site of dark experiments. The notion that houses – namely, large estates – contain histories which resonate beyond mortal bodies that inhabited them has vastly defined and influenced not only the terms of a cinematic genre, but what we find scary in general. But as postwar suburbanization came to redefine the relation between people and the places they reside, the horror genre had to redefine itself away from an increasingly archaic experience of housing. But haunting the suburbs has proven to possess its own unique set of problems: how does a place that has minimal history become haunted by spirits of the past?

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20000 Days on Earth

For a while, it seemed like movies about music were at serious risk of getting in an unsalvageable rut of redundancy. Narrative films have relied repeatedly on the musical biopic, where seemingly every landmark musician in the second half of the twentieth century has been afforded an identical dramatic arc. It’s a formula that an occasional great performance can rise above, but ultimately offers little new in terms of cinema’s relationship with the power of pop. Nonfiction films, by contrast, have shown an opposite problem, treating lesser-known chapters of popular music history (from underappreciated artists to allegedly undervalued studios) with all-too-familiar hagiographies and seemingly requisite Bono interviews. But 2014 has not only produced a surprising glut of interesting films about music, it’s shown how great movies about music can explore relationships between sound and image, music and history, art and the artist well outside of the tired formulas. Here are some solid movies released this year that have generated a rather different kind of noise.

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Double Down Breen

Writer/Director/Producer/Editor/Actor/Music Supervisor Neil Breen throws himself against the dry ground of the Nevada desert, articulating the existential climax of his dense, bewildering, remarkable film Double Down by screaming, “I’m an American. I’m an American! I love this country, my country!” Breen plays a mercenary computer hacker who abandoned his work as a military fighter pilot after somebody (?) shoots and kills his fiancée during a naked lounging session in his pool. Breen’s character’s dramatic outpouring of patriotic guilt promises a return to moral fortitude after serving whatever moneyed interests pay him the highest dollar – in this case, an unidentified foreign nation instructing him to singlehandedly shut down the Las Vegas strip for two months. Double Down’s protagonist gives us some insight into the mind of its esoteric creator. The first third of the film features Breen’s character (named Aaron in the trailer and Eric in the film) listing his seemingly endless resumé, from his storied work as a fighter pilot honored by every military medal in existence to his (literally) incredible skills at digital espionage. Aaron/Eric is a self-sufficient one man industry, reliant on no one and requiring only canned tuna fish, his car, his three laptops, his three flip phones and his two satellite dishes (that he expertly attaches to his car’s bumper). Similarly, Breen himself is a multi-hyphenate and an ostensibly self-reliant individualist. A Las Vegas architect who has self-funded three bad movies thus far, Breen’s work represents something of a Baby Boomer’s fantasy come to life as he uses his accumulated […]

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EW

Warning: Spoilers for Gone Girl (book and film) Boy kisses girl. Fade out. Throughout the canon of classic Hollywood to today’s rom-coms, the beginning of coupledom – and even marriage itself – has been presented as the end of the narrative’s dramatic journey. The long-held institution of “happily ever after” assumes marriage and committed coupledom to be a reliably constant plane of uneventful happiness compared to the roller coaster of getting the couple together in the first place. Movies about long-term couplehood – or, more accurately, movies about breakups and divorce – have, by contrast, been the forte of independent and art house filmmaking, institutions markedly less invested in happy endings. But for a social convention that so many people experience, for a form of human connection that takes up and develops throughout years of peoples’ lives, marriage and other forms of committed coupledom have provided significantly fewer narratives than stories of people getting together or people breaking up. Yet there is as much (if not more) drama, character development and awkward comedy in long-term commitment as there is in getting together. David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl offers a notable shift in this direction: an interrogation on the institution of shared living in the guise of a missing person thriller. But this film follows a couple of other, less blockbuster-y titles that share similarly incisive and unique takes on the subject of committed coupledom.

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consumed

With David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl opening Friday, the often fraught relationship between narrative cinema and written fiction is in the air, and has already produced an onslaught of comparison pieces between the book and the film. A filmmaker’s relationship to an author’s vision is a tricky one that is rarely assuaged by the author’s presence in the filmmaking process – difficult-to-navigate medium-specific capacities make difficult hurdles for even the most “cinematic” novels. But what happens when this process is inverted? And no, I’m not talking about novelizations, but the relatively rare instances in which established film directors publish novels independent of their cinematic output. No doubt, their cinematic output frames any readings of these books and – like the process of adapting a book to film – almost forces the reader ask about the artistic correspondence across medium. Sometimes, the intent in jumping across form is clear, as with Guillermo del Toro’s collaboration with Chuck Hogan for The Strain in hopes of turning that series of novels into a television show. Occasionally, a novel is a passion project of its own eventually adapted to the medium of the author’s origins, like Ethan Hawke’s novel and subsequent film of The Hottest State. But rarer still is the work of a filmmaker-turned-novelist without the plans of taking the work in reverse – the novel meant simply to exist as a novel. Two directors have seen recent releases of written work seemingly intended to never make it off the page: David […]

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The Zero Theorem

Warning: This article is best read after having seen all the films in the title. Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem is widely considered both an extension and revisitation of the dystopian themes the director so spectacularly explored in Brazil. Gilliam’s newest has even been categorized as a third part of a trilogy of dystopian science fiction satires – or, in Gilliam’s words, “Orwellian triptych” – following Brazil and 12 Monkeys. While Gilliam in interviews resists notions of a planned trilogy portraying future systems of control over almost thirty years, the Orwellian triptych carries remarkable similarities beyond these films’ driving conceits and Gilliam’s signature wide angles. The films of this trilogy portray individuals attempting to find truth and meaning beyond the dehumanizing systems in which they live, yet each protagonist is overcome by a sort-of predetermined fate and ultimately victimized by the alienating forces of technology. But the films of this trilogy are as notable for their stark differences as they are their similarities, and The Zero Theorem finds Gilliam fashioning his most discomfitingly ambiguous funhouse mirror of our present future yet.

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Robin Williams Teddy Roosevelt

As with any Ken Burns documentary, PBS’s The Roosevelts (having finished its second of seven two-hour episodes last night) features a trove of archival material including photographs, documents, newspaper headlines, excerpts of diaries and books reads by actors ranging from Meryl Streep to Billy Bob Thornton, and new footage from the preserved estates of the title characters. Yet what dominated yesterday’s entry (which takes place roughly between 1901 and 1909) was silent film footage of the United States’ 26th President, often brought to life for a sound-sync audience through music or even foley effects. While Burns’s films are known for their archival display, they don’t always contextualize how certain information is made available at certain points in history. Yet as The Roosevelts promises to cover over a century of ground between 1858 and 1962, the way information spread is a story that will inevitably be told, explicitly or implicitly. Between the early days of the moving image alongside the rise of industrialization in the late 19th century to Hollywood’s important role in rallying Americans during WWII, the story of how media develops in turn shapes how history is known.

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Breathless Movie

The legacy of the French New Wave looms large over modern film history, yet its legacy is decidedly messy, one that refuses to fit comfortably within one stable tradition or definition. The movement became popular alongside the rise of European art cinema during the late 1950s and early 1960s, yet many of its films preferred playfully anarchistic pastiche over a reverent approach to cinematic modernism. Unlike other European postwar filmmaking traditions, the French New Wave both loved and hated Hollywood filmmaking, with its members ranging from the political dissidence of Jean-Luc Godard’s work after 1965 to the cheeky MGM-invoking festivals of radiance that were Jacques Demy’s 1960s musicals. And there were as many, if not more, consequential French filmmakers only tangentially associated with the New Wave as there were decidedly within it, with Alain Resnais and Louis Malle’s late 1950s work often awkwardly placed as its inciting texts. The French New Wave was a school without formal rules, without clear qualifications for induction, and without an interest in legibly framing its own legacy – its criteria required seemingly little else than a distinct expression of difference from what’s come before. But beyond the intellectual and artistic changes the French New Wave brought upon the greater cinematic landscape, no contribution of the movement is more apparent than the term New Wave itself, a term that both reinforces and confuses the French New Wave’s legacy each time it’s applied. And while “New Wave” might be a useful shorthand for recognizing significant shifts in filmmaking style […]

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Iron Man

In March, Evan Kindley asked a compelling question about musicians and their like-minded descendants: “Why is it that the kids of cult folk musicians (e.g. Kristy MacColl, Rufus Wainwright), often go on to respected solo careers while the offspring of major rock stars (e.g., Jakob Dylan, Julian Lennon) are more often one-hit wonders flashes in the pan?” As Kindley and his responders note, there is no scientific basis in this observation, just a sense that the rules of cultural value apply differently when it comes to the offspring of marginal artistic figures – and, seemingly more often than not, those offspring find success in arenas more conventional than their parents. The world of filmmaking is similarly full of dynasties that produce children who seem to inherit opportunities (if not success) not immediately available outsiders. When the American Zoetrope logo introduces Roman Coppola’s A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, for example, it’s easy to speculate the ways that the Coppola filmmaking legacy, and all its resources, afforded Roman an opportunity he may not have had otherwise. But while one’s status as the son or daughter of an independent, experimental, underground, or avant-garde filmmaker may similarly bear the weight and burden of a famous name, it cannot possibly work the same way in terms of economics and industry-based reputation. Being the offspring of a Filmmakers’ Co-Op co-founder might carry some cultural capital in certain circles, but rarely does that guarantee access to the actual capital needed to make a movie. It’s something […]

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Gandhi Movie

Yesterday, Scott Beggs discussed how the subject of war permeated throughout Richard Attenborough’s career both in front of and behind the camera, noting how anti-war themes ran through the former Royal Air Force flier’s directing debut in Oh! What a Lovely War to his Best Director win for Gandhi and beyond. But there’s another important aspect of Attenborough’s unique career that informed this consistent theme of pacifism: the actor/director often gravitated toward stories of activists determined to change the world and its asymmetrical relations of power. Attenborough rarely put himself in the position of liberator, but recognized and used his position of Western privilege to render the speech of others heard. Attenborough was a genteel Englishman who seemed positively aristocratic in his presentation and demeanor – his appearance made him look the part of someone who might have been quite comfortable in the role of colonizer a century ago – but he used this assumed authority as a platform for making the voices of the wronged and exploited accessible to the ears of the powerful. His career and biography make him seem in many ways a walking contradiction: Attenborough held several honorary titles of the British Empire, from Commander of the Order of the British Empire to Knight Bachelor, yet his career behind the camera is best known for chronicling the just dissolution of that empire and depicting the tragic folly of imperialism.

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Boyhood

For the past four years, I’ve been in a long distance relationship. As of two weeks ago, the distance component of that relationship has thankfully come to a close, with my heart and my wallet eternally grateful. But the change is bittersweet, as I’ve also been in something of a long-distance relationship with a city that my person inhabited, having now arrived at the end of my routine round trip travels from my current home in southern Indiana to Austin, Texas. I only officially lived in Austin for slightly over a year, from 2009-2010. But in four subsequent years of visits ranging from a brief weekend to an entire summer, I developed something of a strange relationship with the city: I saw it through elliptical fractions of time. Each visit to this rapidly growing city required reorientation, as I was forced to understand the differences big and small that have taken place since my last visit. One day Rainey Street was a mostly empty lot with a few great food trailers. The next visit it became a caravan of bars. A few visits later, dreaded condos were being developed. For nearly anyone who has experienced the city of Austin through time, there is an Austin Then and an Austin Now, with Austin Then forever casting a shadow over the always inferior Austin Now. If any filmmaker has a claim to Austin Then, it’s Slacker director Richard Linklater. But as his recent output has shown – most evidently in the magnus […]

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Transformers Age of Extinction

So far, 2014’s highest grossing “summer movie” (in what now seems like a four-and-a-half-month “summer”) was Captain America: The Winter Soldier with about $260m. That’s the lowest domestic gross for the summer’s biggest hit since Mission: Impossible II in 2000, and it was reached with the addition of inflation, 3D and IMAX. I’m not about to make a sky-is-falling claim here; there were a lot of factors and coincidences that went into having a crop of blockbusters that didn’t reach the heights of any of the past 13 years. But when the equation used to be $300 – 400m = blockbuster franchise, it’s worth stopping to ponder what these shifting numbers mean for the future of the biggest of Hollywood business. The endless franchises are running thin, not imploding. Last summer, every film nerd with an IP address was reposting Spielberg’s comments about the inevitable demise of Hollywood’s current mega-budget system. All fingers pointed to The Lone Ranger as the most obvious canary in the projection booth. But as Scott Beggs pointed out, the reality is that every trend in film, and even the most standard modes of productions, eventually change. This summer, we got a sense of what that shift might actually look like. As opposed to bomb after bomb, we saw slowly declining receipts, making for the lowest domestic grosses for Spider-Man and Transformers movies to date. Despite the critical raves for X-Men: Days of Future Past and Hugh Jackman’s boasts about how much it cost, it couldn’t even reach the heights […]

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Casablanca

1942’s Casablanca has repeatedly been canonized as the best film Hollywood ever made. Its iconic dialogue produced a bevy of quotable lines that sealed seated their seemingly eternal place in movie culture, and it’s damn near impossible to refer to Humphrey Bogart’s iconic career without bringing to mind his worn mug reminiscing to Dooley Wilson’s iteration of “As Time Goes By” in his empty bar’s depths of night. Never has Bogie been so tragically Bogie, or, for that matter, Bergman so classically Bergman, Rains so nobly Rains, Lorre so campily Lorre, and the film’s team of studio scribes so harmoniously in tune towards a pitch-perfect example of Hollywood narrative convention. Given the vaunted reputation of Casablanca, it’s strange that the film’s director, Michael Curtiz, is so often obscured within observations of its notable ensemble, much less considered the film’s reigning auteur. Among all the beloved directors of Classical Hollywood – Howard Hawks, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock – Curtiz is rarely included, often regarded on the relative margins as a talented director for hire, a perfect mirror to Casablanca itself: a stellar Hollywood product, but in a class altogether separate from, say, the previous year’s Citizen Kane. But Curtiz’s diverse career (for classical Hollywood) as it manifested over several decades, across horror films and gangster pics and musicals, bears evidence not only of a capable Hollywood director-for-hire, but a behind-the-lens personality whose revisited worldview throughout his career is inseparable from his individual works.

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The Blair Witch Project

On July 30, 1999, The Blair Witch Project expanded to a wide theatrical release and raked in over $25,000 per screen on over a thousand screens, thus becoming the first sleeper horror hit of that late summer, one week before The Sixth Sense opened. The weekend of July 30th solidified Blair Witch’s status as a phenomenon, but to recognize it as a defining date of the film would be to misrecognize what Blair Witch did. Rather than come about as an instantaneous cinematic event (in the way that the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain or the 25th anniversary of Batman have been nostalgically reflected upon this summer), Blair Witch’s reputation manifested as a slow unraveling over many months of speculation and word-of-mouth, from its chilling first-screening at Sundance to an Internet-based fury of speculation to a teaser attached to The Phantom Menace of all things. The film represented a first in many respects – transmedia marketing via the web, a jumpstart of the modern found footage subgenre – but it also bears its young age in surprising ways, whether in its analog aesthetic or the particularly 20th century character of its word-of-mouth circulation. Despite that the film set the supposed standard for viral buzz-creation and found footage horror, The Blair Witch Project remains an important anomaly for a shaky tent-full of reasons.

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Robin Wright in The Congress

Stardom is a fundamentally contradictory experience for audiences. On the one hand, we can feel like we know a star intimately as a human being, despite the many roles that they play and despite the fact that they do not know us. We carry our past knowledge of the star onto each new project. And every time a star is captured by a camera, a brief record of them is made, in a moment solidified for a seeming eternity. Marlene Dietrich may be long deceased, but in revisiting any close-up fashioned from Josef von Sternberg’s films, she can feel as immediate to us as she was to the cameras eighty years ago. On the other hand, a star is always both more and less than a human being. Stars are the foundation for an industry of magazines, brand names readily available for peddling products, personalities to be mimicked, fashion icons to aspire to, and economic conditions for a film’s making and marketing. We can experience fleeting moments of intimacy with a star image, but the industry that makes stardom possible continually alienates us from a polished, selectively represented human being before us. It is through this dual capacity of stardom that stars continue to exist well after the physical lives of the people who embodied them. These inherent tensions between personhood and media are explored in great depth in Ari Folman’s new film The Congress, a film that uses the strange condition of stardom and the technological advancements of the current […]

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 06

Warning: Spoilers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and all of the Apes films, for that matter) When Battle for the Planet of the Apes ended the franchise’s first cinematic run in 1973, it concluded the series with something of a whimper instead of a bang. While many of the original Apes sequels are enduringly fascinating in their expanding narratives, trenchant topicality and surprisingly bleak endings, they were also assembly line products rushed through production annually, with nearly each successive entry’s budget slashed in half – a series constructed on a model of diminishing returns. Most of the normal creative team were not available for the fifth entry, so The Omega Man’s married screenwriting team of John and Joyce Corrington were hired to helm Battle despite being unfamiliar with the series. After inter- and intra-species conflict, Battle ends with a flash-forward (a bookending device) showing a monument of Caesar (Roddy McDowall) with a tear going down his face as the orangutan Lawgiver (John Huston) tells his story of unifying man and ape. The ending has been criticized then and now for its cloying, unearned sentimentality – perhaps the fatigue of Vietnam made even this call for peace in a “family film” ring false only four short years after John and Yoko urged Americans to give it a chance – and it emotes without ever really saying anything. Is the Caesar statue crying over achieving peace, or with the knowledge that peace is only temporary? Inadvertently or not, the ambivalence of this final moment […]

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Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

Warning: Spoilers for the ending of Snowpiercer Somewhere along the way, purchasing a ticket for Bong Joon-ho’s long-awaited Snowpiercer became a populist act that echoes the content of the film itself. Months of coverage followed Harvey Weinstein’s threat to cut the festival favorite. Knowing the kind of backlash that would ensue, Weinstein opted not to cut the film himself but instead asked Bong to shave 20 minutes off and add an explanatory voice-over to bookend the film. Bong refused, and the web backed him by reporting on the story, supporting the director’s vision and pushing for its unblemished release. While The Weinstein Company narrowed the rollout of Snowpiercer from a wide to a limited opening, no cuts were ever made, and it would seem that the voices of many overcame the far more powerful voice of one. It’s a strange case of life mimicking art, with movie fans and erstwhile supporters of artistic integrity using collective action against a major cultural gatekeeper. After traveling worldwide mostly without incident, film fans and prospective moviegoers pushed Snowpiercer to pry open the door and enter the American moviegoing scene on its own terms. But, as the film itself shows, the relations of power are never quite as simple as they seem.

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published: 11.21.2014
D
published: 11.21.2014
B+
published: 11.19.2014
C+
published: 11.19.2014
B-, C


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