Friday, February 27, 2009

Quick DVD Reviews and a Couple of 'Shotgun' Links

I've been super busy lately and unable to get on this blog post-Oscar's to get some material up. Well, after a dismal showing once again in the prediction department (and the unfortunate events of Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Picture) let's just forget this years Oscar's even happened. With the 'official' movie season starting next week with Watchmen (no offense to Paul Blart: Mall Cop or Madea Goes to Jail) there hasn't been a whole lot to write about as far as new movies go, so I'm taking this opportunity to catch up on some 2008 films I missed. I caught W. and Body of Lies this past week, and next week I plan on watching Swing Vote and I've Loved You So Long. Reviews and links after the jump...


Oliver Stone's film is a fascinating look at a subject that is all too familiar to us. Instead of lampooning the president (which is like shooting fish in a barrel), Stone wisely observes -- this is what it must be like to have a father you'll never please. It's an interesting take on the 'legacy' of Dubya, and Josh Brolin is incredible as the man who must close out each important meeting with a word of prayer. What I liked most about Stone's film was that there didn't seem to be a bit of condescension in Stone's tone; everything here seems neutral enough, besides the viewer has lived through this, we don't need Stone's revisionist history running amok, here. Toby Jones is absolutely fantastic as the always annoying Karl Rove, and even though the film already confirms what we know (based on books written by the likes of Bob Woodrow) about Dick Chaney, it's still quite amazing how Richard Dreyfus embodies the man (or, I guess he could be called a character). The film doesn't feel flat, even though, as I mentioned earlier, that the viewer essentially knows how things go, and that's to Stone's credit. There are two scenes that I think make this movie great: the first is after Bush has been told that there are no WMD's in Iraq, and that the CIA messed up. The shot of Rusmfeld (Scott Glenn) not even missing a beat, supping up his noodles without looking at the President or the head of the CIA, is one of the films great moments. The other scene I'm thinking of is the way Stone ends his film. He wisely sidesteps any obvious railing against the Bush Administration (wisely avoiding text at the end of his film to inform us what happened after the film is over....again, we already know what happened) and shows Bush in the outfield of his baseball stadium in Arlington (he was the owner of the Rangers), throughout the film Bush is seen in the outfield (a dream, perhaps), and Stone bookends his film with this shot. Throughout the film Bush goes from hearing the roaring of the crowd as he stands on the pitchers mound (he's in control, throwing things, 'pitching' his destiny, etc.), to being in the outfield catching fly balls, until in the last shot of the film, he goes back to catch the pop-up, but the ball never comes down. Stone then cuts to a title card that reads: "The End." We already know how this thing ends, it's not necessary to show us the ball falling on the ground, or again, the easy joke of Bush dropping the ball. It's a great way to end a great film. W. is a fascinating, fascinating picture, and would gladly (retroactively) place it in my top 10 of 2008.

Body of Lies

Ridley Scott's spy thriller begins harmlessly enough, but as the film progresses, and the cliches of the spy thriller begin to pop up, the films banality becomes more apparent and kills any momentum this thing had at being a unique spy thriller. Scott is to be commended: his film looks great. But, when is that never the case with a Ridley Scott, the problem I had with Body of Lies is the fact that no matter how good Leonardo DiCaprio is, when he's relegated to yelling into a Blue Tooth the entire film, you're really misusing one of the best actors we have in film today. Russell Crowe plays DiCaprio's boss in a complete throw away roll, as he drives his kids to school and plays stay-at-home dad all while talking DiCaprio throughout some pretty important and intense international terrorist affairs. Silliness aside, I liked the way the film moved with a certain ease and swagger in its first half; actually sidestepping the convoluted plots that so often bog down these spy films. There are no double crosses or moles in this thriller, but the film loses a lot of that goodwill with the way the filmmakers have DiCaprio's agent be more like a Bond/Bourne type of spy, rather than what your 'normal' CIA agent probably is. As usual in these kinds of movies, the agent crows too big of a conscience for his line of work, and when he befriends an Iranian nurse, well, you can pretty much write the rest of the movie from stock thriller cliches. But whatever, it's not like I was expecting much from this movie. All I wanted was something that was entertaining for two hours, that contained authentic locals (they seemed to have shot this thing on location), and some good performances, and I got that. The film almost falters because of how average it is -- reminding of another spy thriller Spy Game, directed by Ridley's brother Tony; it too had two good performances from Brad Pitt and Robert Redford and beautiful, on-location cinematography. If you have a couple of hours to kill, Body of Lies isn't a complete waste of your time, despite how paint-by-numbers it is.

A couple of Shotgun Stories-related links:

Alexander Coleman writes-up a masterful review on my favorite film of last year, Shotgun Stories. Check it out.

Jim Emerson mentions the poetry and simplicity of the opening scene with is Opening Shots feature on the Jeff Nichols film. It's amazing how much Nichols gets across in this film by saying so little. It's rare to find a filmmaker these days who will let the audience infer bu organically letting elements of the characters past come out through the nuances of storytelling.

I've been preparing to teach a class on the American Short Story, and one of the stories we'll be reading is Hemingway's "Cat in the Rain", as succinct a story as you will find, which, in typical Hemingway fashion, makes the reader read between the lines of terse dialogue and exposition in order to fully understand the stories buried themes. Nichol's film reminds me of that. It recently played on Sundance (I made sure to Tivo it), and because of the two links above, I plan on taking a look at the film a third time. My hope is that I can give a more detailed response to why I loved the film so much, since my initial reactions to the film were more about my emotional response to the film.

That's all for now. I'll try to be back later with some new stuff, as this weekend is looking like an Argento fest all day today for me, followed by date night with my fiance and a showing of He's Just Not That Into You (ugh), and then the countdown to Watchmen begins. Be back later with more....stuff.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Would Vladimir Nabokov Like Slumdog Millionaire?

I just posted a review for Slumdog Millionaire in which I'm pretty harsh to Danny Boyle. And deservedly so, it was because of him that the film is bollocks. But I was sitting around thinking today....what would Vladimir Nabokov think. Yes, I'm that nerdy. You see, Nabokov had this to say in regards to art: "Style is morality". Hmmm. The brilliant Martin Amis (a fan of Nabokov, he also wrote a book about the famous author) compounded upon this idea by adding: "Style is morality; style judges." Essentially what Amis and Nabokov are saying is that you don't respond to plot, you respond to style.

But I wonder if they would think that that all-style-no-substance fare of Slumdog is any good. Let me rephrase that, it's not just that the film is all style and no substance, because I will freely admit (and I think this is where Amis is coming from) I love, love, love stylistic films that are a tad loose in regards to caring about their plot (i.e. Tony Scott films). The difference between that kind of style (and the style Amis most certainly speaks of in regards to his own literature) and the 'style' of Slumdog is that the style of Boyle's film exists primarily because the story is shallow. The film's failed attempts to create an all-encompassing, transcending fairy-tale is ruined by the films overuse of style; here style has exposed the irresponsible way in which the film was storyboarded; it's all a fraud, something that the viewer, regardless of plot, has little to invest in or care about because of the way Boyle completely disallows the viewer to feel anything organically. At least in a Tony Scott film I know that Domino is as flashy and kinetic as the images that swirl around her. I can't think about how any of those adjectives (kinetic, flashy) describe Jamal, the 'slumdog'.

Before I continue, I think I should clarify what I mean by style over substance. I'm not saying that style is bad, in fact I'm not even saying that all-style is bad, good movies have been made from that prototype. What I mean by all style and no substance is that the films style exists solely because the film had no substance to begin with. Think about a film like Miami Vice, Man on Fire, or Domino, all films that have style to spare and little regard for their plot; however, their stories move with a certain ease, the directors show obvious control of the medium and know how to buoy a poor plot with amazing visuals. I don't really recall anything specific about all three of those films when it comes to major plot points, but I can relay the story to you and explain explicitly how the visual details make each film memorable.

Obviously the American public are disagreeing with the authors' basic claim that you respond to style, not plot. I think a lot of people are actually convinced that what they are seeing is something so moving, so profound, that they've disregarded that the film is beating them over the head with its visual 'style'.

I often say on this blog, that for me a great film needs to be both aesthetically pleasing and contain a narrative that makes me care. Often times there is a trade off, as is the case with most Tony Scott films (ah, but these are not great films). And yes, even someone as great as Terrence Malick (his films are great, because the visual is tells the narrative, and it's often something quite moving and thought-provoking) usually abandons plot, because he'd rather let his visuals (which are poetry) do the talking. It's apt that Malick is so often attributed to a poet, because he excels in imagism. His films are often bare-bones in the plot department (especially in regards to dialogue forwarding the storyline). Michael Mann pictures (again, I'm thinking of Miami Vice), are similar. He often has his cops, hitmen, criminals talking in half-phrases or mumbling. Most every emotional plot pot is said through silence (of course with Mann there's always rock music in the background). Danny Boyle should have studied Michael Mann to learn how to do a montage properly (Mann's The Last of the Mohicans is a perfect example of music, in lieu of dialogue, being the driving force of emotion in film).

Martin Amis and Vladimir Nabokov's quotes show that for great masters, like themselves, it's understandable why plot is second to style. When you get down to it, Martin Amis has some of the most generic plots in 20th century literature; however it's his style that sets him apart from others, showing why he is a master at the postmodern novel. But story is crucial, and that's major failing of this years lead nominee. I haven't seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but according to Ali Arikan at Cerebral Mastication it's no good, either. He makes a great point against the film, and it's not like I enjoy being anti-populist film, it's just that, thinking on these two quotes from these two literary giants, I can't help but think that there's some who have it in regard to the all-style-no-substance filmmaking, and those who don't.

It's important to distinguish between style as 'morality' (style is remembered, not plot) as the authors above state, and style for style's sake; the former is evident in the films of masters like Malick and Mann, the latter will get you nowhere in film....except 10 Academy Award nominations. Danny Boyle will never be any of the names I've mentioned above, but he's a decent enough director who unfortunately lets his style run amok. Sometimes that works as was the case with 28 Days Later (his penchant for extreme close-ups worked well in the horror genre) and sometimes it fails him, revealing what a weak storyteller he is (as was the case with Slumdog Millionaire). I don't think Nabokov or Amis would enjoy the film simply based on their quotes. They're not saying that story (story and plot differ, I feel as if this idea is deserving of a much bigger post) is irrelevant and style is all you need, rather the issue they are addressing is that artists need not be so wrapped up in plot, which are usually full of contrivances, and should let their visuals do the talking (again, think of Malick's films), progressing the narrative through style and imagery.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stranger Than Paradise: An Existential Journey Wrapped-Up In an Image

Just got done watching Stranger Than Paradise. I've lost count how many times I've seen it, but it's easily my favorite Jarmusch film. If you've seen the movie, then you may understand why the image above (our three lead characters looking out over a snow-impaired, frozen expanse of nothingness) says more than I ever could about the film.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To Avoid Fainting Keep Repeating, It's Only a Lousy Remake...

I'm probably way behind on this rant, but allow me to indulge myself. I just saw that they are remaking Last House on the Left. To that I say, 'ugh.' I mean seriously, it's hot on the heels of the 're-imagining' of Friday the 13th (did we really need to re-imagine that?), and apparently the studio thought we needed some more crap infiltrating theaters in February. I guess Paul Blart had to make his exit sometime.

Here's what I don't get, is there really a need for the kind of sadistic torture film that is bound to be passed off as something artistic....a nihilistic picture about the uncertainty of our times? I can't see a need for it. I feel dirty just writing about it. This is my problem with the horror genre today (and I love the genre) because it's truly run out of ideas (unless your name is Neil Marshall) when all that's left to do is recycle vomit-inducing faux socio-politically charged tripe like The Last House on the Left. I don't even care for the original Wes Craven version that much. Upon subsequent viewings I've come to the conclusion that the only reason people back in 1972 thought it had any kind of merit or value was because it happened to be loosely based on a Bergman film (The Virgin Spring), and therefore, in the prime of the foreign-art house movie boom, moviegoers were left thinking that they had just witnessed a profound film from the horror genre, all because of what the movie alluded to.

If I want to watch a nihilistic horror, I'd rather watch Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Man Bites Dog, because at least those movies have a little humor, a little life in them; this recent slew of remakes is nothing better than the hack and slash yawners that were littered throughout 1980's horror.

Let's see, off the top of my head we've had the following unnecessary remakes: Thirteen Ghosts, Black Christmas, April Fool's Day, Prom Night, Black Christmas, House on Haunted Hill, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, House of Wax, and now you have Friday the 13th, My Blood Valentine, and Last House on the Left. I can't wait to see what producers come up with next. It's almost as if they're just scanning the aisles of video stores with a checklist saying, 'ooh...let's remake Happy Birthday to Me!' -- which actually wouldn't be such a bad idea (although Final Destination did have elements of the 'bizarre' deaths found in Happy Birthday to Me).

It saddens me even more that they are in fact remaking another seminal horror film: A Nightmare On Elm Street. I really wish Michael Bay and his band of tools would stop meddling with things that don't need to be remade. If you're going to remake (or re-imagine, bah) a horror film then why not try your hand at something that failed to begin with, or was so obscure that it wouldn't hurt remaking so people could introduce themselves to the original source material (Black Christmas could have been that film, but it was bollocks). Why not remake The Prowler or He Knows You're Alone or Terror Train, The Burning, Alone in the Dark, Visiting Hours....I could go on. The point is there's a bevy of so-so horror films from the 1980's that these guys can try and make a buck off of, but why bother with classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street or irrelevant fair like the recent remakes of Prom Night and April Fool's Day.

Now don't get me wrong, my bitching aside I will probably see the Friday the 13th remake, because well....I am somewhat of a masochist and I love the genre too much to completely bail on it. Friday the 13th and other remakes of its ilk are pretty harmless and it's probably unfair for me to group the remakes of Halloween and Friday the 13th in with the nihilistic tripe like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the former being harmless remakes where the only downfall is that they're unnecessary -- plus I will gladly pay $8.00 to see Dean from "The Gilmore Girls" (Jared Padalecki) get his head chopped off, because lets face it, he was a real jerk to Rory.

A final note: Roger Ebert's review for the remake, re-imagining, re-vision, re-whatever of Friday the 13th is now up on his site. I'd like to quote this hilarious paragraph:

So far in the series, he has been drowned, sliced by a machete in the shoulder, hit with an ax in the head, supposedly cremated, aped by a copycat killer, buried, resurrected with a lightning bolt, chained to a boulder and thrown in the lake again, resurrected by telekinesis, drowned again, resurrected by an underwater electrical surge, melted by toxic waste, killed by the FBI, resurrected through the possession of another body, returned to his own body, thrown into hell, used for research, frozen cryogenically, thawed, blown into space, freed to continue his murder spree on Earth 2, returned to the present, faced off against Freddy Krueger of "Nightmare on Elm Street," drowned again with him, and made to emerge from Crystal Lake with Freddy's head, which winks.

I know what you're thinking. No, I haven't seen them all. Wikipedia saw them so I didn't have to.

Brilliant stuff. And I guess that's why when the dust settles I don't lose any sleep over these countless remakes -- I'm never going to watch them, but somebody else will; and that means witty, wonderfully funny criticism like this. And I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Neo, Cyber, and Postmodern Noir: A Look at Film Noir as an Evolving Genre

Many critics suggest that Touch of Evil (1958) was the last true noir film, not because the studios stopped making hard-boiled noir films, but because it seemed that as a society, as a culture, America was moving towards something different and was unable to associate themselves with the ambiguous morals of the genre (it’s ironic that postmodernism would base itself on this idea). However, the genre has actually evolved – it has elevated itself – into new, more controversial, more sophisticated realms. Beginning in the uncertain times of post-war America in the 1970’s (Chinatown), moving towards Reagan’s America in the 1980’s with films like Blue Velvet and Blade Runner there seemed to be a new kind of noir that was being labeled as “neo-noir.” These films were representations of how the genre was moving outside the boundaries of noir only being films about seedy gangsters, femme fatales, and cops and robbers; these classic elements of the genre were now being replaced by greedy water companies, and corrupt politicians or policemen who were representations of the evil America never thought could exist in the people they trusted.

Fredric Jameson states that neo-noir represents some kind of nostalgic look into the past, it attempts to “see the present as (past) history; the classical nostalgia film, while evading its present altogether, registered its historicist deficiency by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts” . This idea is especially evident through the films Chinatown, Blue Velvet, and Blade Runner, films that show how the genre has evolved and adopted the themes of postmodernism to make smart, creative comments about the state of the present by looking into the past .

The modern noir (Chinatown and beyond), uses the genre differently as a means to comment on the instability and ambiguity of the modern world. Not all modern noir films can be classified as “neo-noir” or “postmodern-noir,” they are labeled that in the sense that they came after what many refer to as the last true film noir, Touch of Evil. After Touch of Evil was released in 1958, the genre was reduced to an “at home viewing” type of entertainment, as the studios felt they had to do something to rival the convenience of television. This meant the creation of cinemascope and the widescreen film, which meant bigger budgets, lots of sets, and even more extras. The film-going experience now was merely an excuse to see just how much money the studious were willing to spend to show the average moviegoer just why cinema was better than television. So, just like the characters in film noir, the genre was pushed to the outside, living on television and existing within a medium that many people did not take seriously. Critics saw the genre as nothing more than cops and robbers, gangsters, and femme fatales, located in world that the general public was not interested in seeing anymore. Filmmakers saw it as a way to make serious films for little money, with big themes that lay underneath its style.


Touch of Evil

In Orson Welles’ last great film he constructed an influential crime film with all of the greatest elements of noir thrown in. We have the corrupt and seedy Sheriff Quinlan (played by Welles) and Vargas (Charlton Heston), the DEA agent who is committed to bringing the corruption of Quinlan’s town to an end. The interesting thing about Touch of Evil is that is doesn’t simply rest on its beautiful cinematography for it to warrant serious consideration as a great film, it is in the obtrusive and effective framing and blocking techniques, and the way the cinematography acts as dialogue that Welles best explains the themes of the film. The best example is in the virtuoso opening tracking shot that lasts for minutes. It is not as if Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, are showing off, this is not style for style’s sake; it’s that Welles is saying this film (and his filmmaking style; Welles never made another film for the Hollywood machine) does not move in the traditional, linear sense. As Roger Ebert states in his brilliant essay , the film “is a series of loops and coils”. The film is edited together in a jarring, sometimes disruptive fashion (in particular the torment scene of Janet Leigh in a hotel room) suggesting that the film and its characters and morals also do not move in a linear fashion. Rather, as the opening shot suggests, the film moves in loops and coils, and Welles and Metty trap their characters within the same shot. The effect is two-fold: we, as the audience, are introduced to all of the characters, and all of the characters intertwined in the scene to show how jumbled and disjointed things are going to be in this town. Like the picture of Vargas above, we are strangers in this town, and ironically Vargas, a Mexican, is a stranger too, in his homeland. The theme of displacement and disorientation fit perfectly with what Welles is trying to visually say with his famous opening shot.

Quinlan is a nasty character who embodies many of the traditional stereotypes and clichés that are attributed to Mexican lawmen, while Vargas has many of the attributes of the stereotypical gringo. This ironical flip is another way we feel like Vargas is lost in his hometown. In one scene Vargas tails Quinlan with a radio as his partner is asking him questions. Now, watching this one cannot help but think that there had to be an easier way to go about doing this, but what is suggested again through the brilliant blocking and set design is a sense of uncertainty: things are askew. Vargas weaves his way through the tangled metal of oil rigs and scrap yards and as the angles take us from high-up, from Vargas’ view suggesting authority and righteousness, to low-down angles, in which we see from Quinlan’s point of view, giving us the visual affirmation that he is the dirtiest of cops. The “tailing” scene is almost as masterful as the opening tracking shot. It is here that Welles has tremendous fun with dutch angles, obtrusive blocking and framing, set design, and lighting. Welles is using the camera to tell us what we cannot hear from Quinlan as Vargas is following him. The audio is so bad on the wire that Vargas’ partner is wearing that we have to rely on the visual language of the film to let us know what is going on. And how perfect, that the scene end with Quinlan in the mud.

And then there is Welles himself, playing Quinlan like a director of a movie.
Orchestrating the investigation like a director orchestrates the filming of his movie. Roger Ebert makes the same correlations about Welles playing Quinlan like a director (but he says it much better) in his essay:

Much of Welles’ work was autobiographical, and the characters he chose to play (Kane, Macbeth, Othello) were giants destroyed by hubris. Now consider Quinlan, who nurses old hurts and tries to orchestrate this scenario like a director, assigning dialogue and roles. There is a sense in which Quinlan wants final cut in the plot of this movie, and doesn’t get it. He’s running down after years of indulgence and self-abuse, and his ego leads him into trouble.
There is a sense, as Ebert states, that with most of Welles’ characters, that this role is autobiographical. This is where Touch of Evil becomes something more than a beautifully shot, stylish film noir. It is in this character that we catch a glimpse of Welles himself. When one sees Quinlan the sheriff as Welles the filmmaker, the film takes on a whole new self-reflexive meaning. Welles was not that fat when he made the film, he donned tons of make-up and put pillows in his suit to make him appear bigger than he was. When Quinlan enters a room, you are aware of it because of how obtrusive his presence is – and it is not just his presence, but also his attitude – which is all captured beautifully by the framing of every shot Quinlan appears in. He is larger than life. He is the only, and often the loudest, authoritative voice in the room. Much like Welles, he is often misunderstood as a brute, and this is seen through the sympathetic loyalties of Quinlan’s cronies. Yes, maybe he is doing things the wrong way, but the result in Touch of Evil is always ambiguous. You are never quite sure if Quinlan was on to something or not, regardless of how unconventional his methods were (again used to show how he clashed with the culture of Vargas) he just might have been right.

Welles often called himself an actor of kings, an apt description for roles he chose to play; larger than life characters who, again invoking Ebert, were brought down by hubris. In Touch of Evil we see Welles portray Quinlan as a once brilliant detective, who is haunted by his past and has allowed his ego to bring him down. And that could be said about Welles himself.



Loneliness is at the heart of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. At one point Detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is asked “Are you alone?” by a voice on the phone; “aren’t we all?” he replies. Chinatown is a film noir in the traditional sense (the nostalgic opening credit sequence reminds you of that fact) with its private eye, femme fatale, hidden truths, and shadow lands; however Polanski takes these classic noir tropes and plays with them. The shadows of alleyways and seedy locations have been replaced by stark, glossy 1940 Los Angeles business buildings -- seedlings for what would grow into the metropolis we recognize today. Polanski also removes the traditional femme fatale role from his film, as Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is the victim, not the seductive siren. Gittes is a private detective, but Polanski has some fun with this particular trope as he has his Tec’s nose sliced in half. Gittes even says at one point that he is a snoop, and what good is a snoop with only half a nose.

But what makes Chinatown stand apart from the “traditional” noir film is its study of human isolation. It didn’t mark the dawn of what we now call “neo-noir” (that distinction goes to John Boorman’s more cynical, hard-boiled noir Point Blank), but it did popularize it, and again elevated the genre into a higher art form. It was the first film to take the limitations studios wanted to place on the genre and break through them. So, if Touch of Evil was the last classic noir to be made, then Chinatown is definitely the first “neo-noir”.

If someone were to ask me what the film represents, I would simply say: loneliness. Loneliness for the J.J. Gittes character, and loneliness as seen through the lens of the camera as it pans across the empty spaces of Los Angeles with almost a weeping eye, as it knows what is about to come: the industrialization of the desert area. The loneliness at the heart of a lot of noir heroes from the 40’s, is represented by the private detective, the idea of the loneliest of men rummaging though the despair and secrets of others lives while running away from their own problems. Like Sam Spade and the characters of Raymond Chandler stories, Chinatown reintroduces the audience to a fundamental film type – the private detective – a man who occupies human tragedy for a living. But this is different, Gittes hates his job, and through the eye of Polanski and his cinematographer John Alonzo, we see a desolate Los Angeles landscape that is the perfect representation of how Gittes feels: empty. After the nostalgic and traditional opening credit sequence, Chinatown turns into an existential noir, a subject that seeks to understand and wrestle with the very idea of loneliness.

We also see Polanski using lighting, colors, and the vastness of what once was Los Angeles to show that he too is aware of the influence of noir on his film. His framing of shots is also a call back to the classic noir films, especially Touch of Evil, and how each shot is framed to give one the sense of claustrophobia, this is juxtaposed with the widescreen cinematography of the landscape of Los Angeles: “L.A. is a small town,” Gittes says at one point, and Chinatown is very much concerned with the process by which Los Angeles was transformed from desert community to giant metropolis. Claustrophobia is a hallmark of any classic film noir. Polanski and Alonzo are embracing the widescreen format, unlike earlier noir that was pushed to the side for bigger epics and cinemascope, Chinatown is using the widescreen to comment on the vastness that once was L.A. It creates a landscape that reminds the viewer of something out of Camus, an existential void where Gittes pans across the desert community, from Los Angeles until the Pacific, pondering his loneliness. The film creates an almost unbearable tension between the width of its frame and the ways in which the camera seems to be bearing down on the characters and their environment. Joe McElhaney states that the film:

Is intensified by the shallow sense of space, activities placed front and slightly off center, occasionally broken by shots of extreme and narrow depth […] The dominant colors of Chinatown are brown, gray, and black — barely colors at all, an indication of the film’s debt to the noir tradition of black-and-white, and of its attempts to render this drought-ridden environment as completely closed in on itself. The various hues of brown and gold (associated with the parched, sunbeaten desert earth surrounding Los Angeles) seep into every corner of the characters' lives, from clothing to homes to work environments. Evelyn’s clothing often represents her state of mind.

Yet, behind it all is the investigation of the drought. The screenplay explains, "Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water." Alonzo's cinematography evokes the L.A. you can glimpse in the backgrounds of old movies, where the sun beats down on streets that are too wide, and buildings seem more defiant than proud. (Notice the shot where the bright sun falls on the fedoras of Gittes and two cops, casting their eyes into shadows like black masks.) Tim Dirks in his essay hits on one of the key ideas behind the film being “neo-noir”:

The film's claustrophobic, cyclical, bleak mood surrounding the heroic quest of the detective struck a responsive chord after the scandalous Watergate era of the early 1970s. The film's two puzzling mysteries and tragedies – family-related and water-related – are beautifully interwoven together. The water-rights scandal at the heart of the film expresses how ecological rape of the land has occurred in outrageous land-development schemes that redirect the water's flow. It reminds viewers that the days of abundant natural resources (and life-giving water that turns a forbidden wilderness into a plentiful garden) are past - the land has become barren due to the selfish manipulations of rich and powerful businessmen.
The businessman has replaced the goon with a fedora and gun; men in suits who work in skyscrapers and work for the government have replaced these classic noir villains. This fed the uncertainty of the time that Dirks talks about, and this is where I invoke Jameson once again: Polanski is using the “nostalgic” to represent his issues with the present. There’s a scene in Chinatown that gets to the very core of this idea -- when Gittes asks Noah Cross (John Huston) what more he could possibly want, Cross replies: “The future, Mr. Gittes.” Gone are the villains who are looking to rob banks or pull off heists, Chinatown is the seminal “neo-noir” film where the villains look for something much more than money, they want control. This can be seen in later noir pictures like Blade Runner and Dark City, futuristic or cyber-punk versions of the same themes. By the end of Chinatown, when the mystery is finally solved, the metaphor is clear enough: America is not the innocent place it once was. Like Polanski’s vision of Los Angeles, it too has been transformed into something much bigger, creating more places for the seediness to hide. These thoughts were becoming more permanent in the 1970’s. Polanski sets up these themes, but it is Ridley Scott and David Lynch who slam them home in 1980’s with Blade Runner and Blue Velvet.


Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner reverses this notion I have been discussing with Chinatown, the idea of what Jameson introduces that to look into the past, filmmakers are saying something about the present. With Blade Runner, we get the opposite, a look into the future to show the over consumerism and consumption of mass commercialism. Scott’s version of L.A. is filled with digitized billboards, and skyscrapers with advertisements being projected onto them, and the constant advertising heard over a loud speaker (the film is based on a Philip K. Dick story, and this is seen in another one of his stories, “Minority Report” where the advertisements address you personally), it’s a carnivalesque atmosphere, like that of Vegas; characters going about their business in a dehumanized city. This Los Angeles is nothing more than an absent center, something that Fredric Jameson touches on in his book Postmodernism: Or the Culture Logic of Late Capitalism when he mentions the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles:

[B]uilt in the new Los Angeles downtown by the architect and developer John Portman, whose other works include the various Hyatt Regencies, the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and the Renaissance Center in Detroit….they [these postmodern buildings] no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a difference, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system if the surrounding city, but rather they seek to speak that very language, using the lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically “learned from Las Vegas”.
The aping of Las Vegas in modern day Los Angeles is eerily similar to Scott’s vision back in 1982. Scott’s take on the giant metropolis lacking distinction, following the rules of the commercialized game. When Jameson reports in further detail about his journey through the hotel it’s as if he’s describing a labyrinth of compartmentalized shops and various merchants. It’s a dizzying array of high-class advertisement all offering a better life within so that you don’t have to think about the dirty Los Angeles that’s outside of the reflective glass walls (the hotel reflects the image of the streets so that one can not see inside the hotel, the inside acts as its own sheltered world, truly a Utopia or Disneyland, which I’ll explain later). This correlates with a theme that Scott broaches quite early in the film, the idea of the “off world” existence; but more on that later.

So is Blade Runner a film noir? I would call it a cyber-noir, or postmodern-noir, with stylish elements that allow the viewer to think deeper about some of postmodernism's key ideas. Many critics like Roger Ebert, simply say that it is all style and no substance, a film that is only interested in its grandiose set design, and not in explaining or elaborating on the rich and complex storyline created by Philip K. Dick. I disagree with Ebert though; I think that if one looks at the film hard enough they can see the noir elements that are there as well as the ideas of one of postmodernism’s most influential thinkers, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard introduces in his book Simulations the idea of a “hyperreality” (2) and the “loss of the real” (25), copies become what we associate with real and Blade Runner seeks to explore these deep questions in two ways: one is through the idea of escaping this world and living a better life on the “off world” a kind of hyperreal existence, it also examines the characters of Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) replicants created by the Tyrell Corporation, to see if we as a society can rise up against the corporations that look to control us through commercialism. The other way which the film explores Baudrillard’s thinking is through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. Baudrillard’s claim can best represent all of the films discussed when he says: “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (12).

One of the first shots of the film, and one of its most famous, is of the city with its towering digitized billboards and a voice that can be heard telling people to escape to the “off world” where there are no problems and you can start you life over, away from “reality.” This is a place where your “dreams can come true.” These are the sounds of an, “easy money,” get rich quick mentality that was rampant in the 1980’s. All of life’s problems go away if you run away from them. The voice is head over the city, a city that has turned into a large scale, run-down Chinatown. This “off world” idea is what Baudrillard is getting at with his idea of the simulacrum, the copy without an original, life is good and life is easy if you leave the “real” world for your own that you can create. This “reality” is the idea behind Baudrillard’s mention (and what Jameson is getting at with his summation of the Bonaventure Hotel) of the “reality” of Disneyland:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.
So, this “off world” vacation that is offered to those who live in the Los Angeles of 2012, is the same that is being offered to those who live in the present of 1982. This loss of the real, and the hyperreality, shows how Blade Runner is unlike any other noir; it is dealing with the questions of consumerism through the realm of cyber-noir. And even though the noirish qualities of the film best represent the relationship between Deckard and Rachel one cannot ignore the films main point: that through commercialism and over-consumption we can alleviate all of our problems, we can let the replicants, or Others, that look so much like us, “expire” while we buy and consume anything we can to make ourselves feel more like men or women, and we equate this commercialism to happiness, when in reality we are just as the replicants are, products off an assembly line. The film asks us if we can be like Roy and Pris and rebel against the Tyrell corporations of our lives, if we can rebel against the commercialism that plagues our society that is turning humans into indefinite, unidentifiable consumerist robots. This leads me to my next point about the film, the “reality” of its characters, especially as it is seen through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel.

When the film was initially released in 1982 it had Ford’s narration guiding the viewer through the story, also providing a traditional nostalgic homage to the great noir films of 40’s and 50’s. The ending was left ambiguous, in fact, in the 1982 version you weren’t sure whether or not Deckard was a replicant. Creating an even bigger dilemma with him having to “expire” Roy and Rachel and the other replicants. When the film was released years later in a “Director’s Cut” the narration was axed and a happy ending tacked on. The ambiguity was gone, Deckard and Rachel leave for the “off world” and live happily ever after. There are so many versions of the film out there now, and there are elements of the original 1982 version that I dislike (for how retro the voice of over narration is by Ford, it really placates the viewer and spells everything out a little too much), but the Director’s Cut really neuters the ambiguity of Deckard and Rachel’s relationship and the uncertainty surrounding Deckard’s status as a blade runner. Does he not want to kill them because he is one? He is just as much a slave to his boss as the androids to the Tyrell Corporation. It is this reason that the original 1982 version (the newest “Final Cut” version is pretty good too, much better than the Director’s Cut) stands as the best example of the film as “neo-noir”.

I’d like to talk about the scene where Deckard kisses Rachel -- before this moment happens he keeps her from leaving his apartment and traps her by the window. The way Deckard moves is robotic, and when they kiss, Rachel shows more emotion than Deckard. In another scene we see Rachel crying, where Deckard, it seems, is incapable of emoting anything. Of course the problematic 'signs' of humanity are the crux of the film, built into the very images used to forward the story. I think it very telling that it was the aspects of Blade Runner that most challenged ideas of humanity that were cut or altered. In particular, the removal of the Unicorn Dream sequence also removed the most obvious suggestion that Deckard was a replicant. Also, when the Director’s Cut version you no longer get the great line from Deckard's voice-over telling us "Rachel was special - no termination date”. This omission changes the impact of Gaff's final line: "Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?” In the original release Gaff is seen as outsmarted, as opposed to philosophically correct in the Director's Cut. I think these changes give the film less impact at the end. The themes/meaning behind the film changes, the ambiguity is gone, and all of the mystery of the replicant/human dilemma seems to be removed. That haunting last line loses all of its power.

In the newest cut of the film (the version Scott supposedly wanted to release to begin with) the ending is perfect. Rachel and Deckard are leaving his apartment, Deckard scared that someone might be there not just terminate Rachel, but him also for not getting the job done. As they leave Deckard sees one of Graff’s origami animals (a unicorn, suggesting that they know about Deckard's implanted dreams id he is indeed a replicant), he picks it up, hears the final line echo in his memory (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”), clinches the origami in his hand, and gets onto the elevator with Rachel. The end. No happy ending to the off world, no final showdown either, but you get the sense that Deckard knows Graff is now after them both and they will always be hunted; further evidence that Deckard himself may in fact be a replicant.

Regardless of which version you are watching, the form/techniques used to introduce these themes are as strong as ever. Especially the lighting in the film, the heavy use of backlighting, hard lighting and light coming through moving objects (like fans) make the film's grim future alive. The lighting also adds to the feeling of film noir. Many science fiction movies are shot in an unnaturally hard light, as if they were shot in a hospital (for example Stanley Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey). In Blade Runner we have a vivid feeling of dark alleys, sinister rooms and chambers, which is essential to old detective stories. These lighting techniques also introduce us to the ambiguous love affair between Deckard and Rachel. Notice how Rachel and Ray are usually lit in bright light, and how Deckard and the other humans are always in darkness. The opposite is used in most film noir. Ridley Scott’s idea to light the film this way is brilliant as one can see in the picture above, Deckard looks no more “alive” than Rachel.

By looking into the future, the film questions the state of the world in 1982, a time when this kind of postmodern thinking was starting to be embraced. Simulations was published a year after this film was released, but already the short stories of Philip K. Dick were introducing people to these postmodern ideas. All of this to say: Blade Runner is the quintessential neo-noir. It has been called neo-noir, cyber-punk, and postmodern, but it is the perfect example of how a filmmaker can take a genre like film noir, and create something completely new, something that is completely elevated above every other kind of noir picture. As was the case with Chinatown, Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet succeed in taking noir elements and breaking free from the confines of genre labeling to create films that aren’t just simply noir, but noir as high art.


Blue Velvet

If Chinatown uses the style of noir to create an atmosphere of loneliness and despair -- revealing the corrupt truths of America the way Gittes reveals the corruption of the Cross case; and if Blade Runner uses noir's style to look into the future to raise the level of awareness about a kind of hyperreality we live in, then David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is an attack on the ideological nostalgic 1950’s America filtered through Lynch's twisted, microscopic lens. Lynch’s film peers into the secrecy of our lives in order to see what lies underneath the façade of “everytown” USA. Blue Velvet involves families, strokes, teenagers in love, severed ears, murder, drugs, and yes, sadomasochism. And yet Lynch does in deed bring all of these elements together in noir fashion to create an ethereal experience, something so surreal and so bizarre, it is as if the viewer is taking hits from Frank Booth's gas tank.

What Lynch does so brilliantly, and the reason why people refer to Blue Velvet as a neo or postmodern-noir, is through an ideological lens he paints a picture of how we wished the small American town actually were so squeaky-clean and upheld the ideals of Americana. At the time Lynch was making the film, 1986, this was a powerful response to Reagan’s America. The film has two kinds of scenes: (1) The everyday small-town scenes, in which people go out on dates to the soda fountain and drive around town in shiny cars, and (2) the subterranean scenes in which the most unspeakable acts take place behind closed doors (i.e. the reasoning for the severed ear…not only are we blind to such things existing around us, now we have become deaf). We see this common thread running through both Chinatown and Blade Runner but something new comes into play with Blue Velvet. That theme of exhibitionism and how no matter how we may want not to look, we cannot help but not turn away, and the idea that if we look hard enough there is corruption and perversion underneath every rock.

Lynch offers two key visuals to guide the viewer as they wade through these troublesome postmodern waters. The first symbol is at the beginning of the film in the form of a severed ear. We come to find later that the ear does indeed belong to someone important to the story; however, more than mere foreshadowing and plot device, Lynch is asking the audience to remember the visual throughout the film. It is a reminder that drugs and sadomasochism are protruding this small quiet town and that if you look hard enough, you can find just about anything in your seemingly comfortable existence. The other meaning behind the ear seems to be more politically charged. Through Lynch’s own twisted and darkly comedic way (Blue Velvet is both comedy and noir) he is reminding us that we have turned a deaf ear to the things we choose not to listen or look for in our own small town America’s. Notice how the films opening is in slow motion, people smiling, white picket fences, firemen, dogs, and friendly neighbors waving at the camera. Lynch juxtaposes this ideological world with the ear, the representation of the outside world that is about to invade this small town.

The other key visual is one that is crucial to any good noir film: lighting. Lynch uses many of the techniques of noir, but the film isn’t as toned down with drab colors or shadows like those in Chinatown and Blade Runner. Lynch uses specific, vibrant colors, focusing them on one part of the screen creating an almost uber-glossy rendition of noir, with its night clubs and nightmare sequences being drenched in spotlight, where the lighting seems non-existent -– this is a dark world where there is rarely any room for light to enter -– there is also an emphasis on disorientating color schemes (Lynch is a painter in addition to a filmmaker) to create a world of both illusion and allusion. The film is both dreamy and grotesquely real, there is almost a hazy feel throughout the film, the feeling between being asleep and being awake throughout the nightclub scenes and especially the nightmarish scene where Jeffery and Dorothy are taken to the strange house of Ben (Dean Stockwell), the man holding Dorothy’s child. And yet, the film is beautiful to look at, an allusion to some of the great noir films like Double Indemnity, T-Men, White Heat, and Touch of Evil; Lynch is obviously aware that pastiche is the ultimate postmodern trope.

Even some of the films most uncomfortable scenes (i.e. Frank coming by for his “required” sex with Dorothy) are lit with beautiful soft light and framed with a kind of innocence that would exist in the 1940’s the era Lynch is definitely mimicking (or mocking). For example, the scene where Jeffery is witnessing Frank torture Dorothy is seen through his point of through the blinds of a closet. The scene is framed and portrayed in way where Jeffery is almost like a child, witnessing for the first time the uncertainties of sexuality. He’s peering through the blinds of the closet, what he is witnessing is cut-up, fragmented. Lynch uses this visual to create a sense of confusion. Is what he’s seeing erotic or unlawful? Jeffery’s thoughts are ambiguous at first, but when he is caught the scene plays out like that of twelve-year-old boys being caught “experimenting” with their mother's Cosmo magazines. Thus begins the journey of Blue Velvet, it is from that point on that Jeffery just keeps going down, further and further into the abyss bringing everyone “innocent” with him.

Another way Lynch comments on the small town is through the visitation of Jeffery. Jeffery used to live in the town and is visiting from college because his father had a stroke. Once he left for college, one can see how Lynch suggests that he became “wise” to the world, he is no longer deaf or blind to what is happening around him. This is why in one of the films most uncomfortable scenes, when Dorothy stands on Jeffery’s front lawn naked, he is seemingly unfazed by the event and hurries to cover her up and save her, leaving his girlfriend Sandy (Laura Dern) to wonder what is happening. She doesn’t understand and begins crying, storming home angry at Jeffery. The next scene, Jeffery has taken Dorothy home and is seen speaking with the angered Sandy on the phone, and to hammer the point home, Lynch has Jeffery say very little and has Sandy forgiving him for everything, even though Jeffery has in fact continuously rendezvoused with Dorothy for sex. Sandy, still blinded by teenage romance and unable to see the big picture because she is trapped by the ideals of her small town, is willing to exculpate the problems of her and Jeffery’s relationship caused by Dorothy. She is blind to the possibilities of Jeffery even having a sexual relationship with Dorothy. This is another reason why in the first scene that we are introduced to Frank and Dorothy (the closet scene mentioned earlier), Lynch has Jeffery in the closet and not Sandy. He represents that outer world; he’s placed amidst the other outsiders of the story.

And finally Lynch’s film is cyclical, it ends the same way it begins, minus the stroke victim, but added is the reconciliation of Dorothy and her son. However, this doesn’t change the fact that Jeffery will leave, and everything will be back the way it was before, the town will be blind to any kind of future corruption and for that matter we are all guilty of that according to Lynch. The film is cyclical, yes, however throughout the film, as is the case with Blade Runner, there is a plot revolving around an absent center. Lynch gives us this de-centered, de-stabilized universe while keeping the main themes circling around this absent center; this is the vortex that Jeffery finds himself pulled down into the more he discovers about Dorothy and her situation. The last shot of the film suggests that even though we see Dorothy with her son, the film remains cyclical in the sense that there will always be corruption (in our towns, in politics, etc.) and that even though there may be these outsiders that invade these small towns -– invaders that come in and try to help the ideological small town open their eyes to the “real” world –- there is no point, there will always be corruption (this is the nihilistic Lynch kicking in, here) and America will forever remain deaf to the cries of the Dorothy’s of America.

Why is Blue Velvet considered a great neo-noir? Because it takes some of the classic elements of the genre, just as the other films have, and Lynch makes it his own. In film noir ordinary people find out that evil lurks just beneath the surfaces of their lives; they inevitably get caught up in the shadow worlds, they find themselves capable of committing unspeakable acts. A proper film noir is, contrary to the limitations of genre labeling, not usually a gangster or crime film, but the story of how evil enters everyday lives. The genre is profoundly pessimistic; it does not show bad people doing bad things, but average people doing bad things. This complicates things and makes it all the more ambiguous because the implication is that we are all capable of evil.


Misc. Films and End Notes

Film noir is still being used effectively today. I have given three examples of how the genre has been elevated to heights it was unable to reach in the past. This is not to say that the genre is bad. I love film noir, and some of my favorite films are the classic noir’s of the 40’s and 50’s (Scarlet Street, Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, T-Men, and White Heat are just a few of my favorites), but with the addition of cyber and postmodern elements to the genre, one can see how these “neo-noir” films (Chinatown, Blade Runner, and Blue Velvet) are noir at the highest form. They have elevated the genre to high art by dealing with issues of the absent center (Blue Velvet) and the dehumanized (Blade Runner); by using the style of the classic film noir seen in Touch of Evil and Chinatown. These three films were all influenced by Touch of Evil and even more films since are emulating the successes of Welles’ vision by using the noir genre themselves to speak about the depravity of society (Blood Simple), the lust the government has for control of our thoughts (Dark City), how through the medium of celebrity magazines, hookers are “replicated” to look like movie stars (a kind of simulacra) where nothing is what it seems in “La La Land” (L.A. Confidential), and the use of classic postmodern tropes like pastiche and the unreliable narrator (Memento).

The truth is that the genre is still full of great ideas in addition to the genre being more than capable of still churning out stylish films. The point remains the same: Many films could qualify as “noir:” films by such great filmmakers as David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and True Romance), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas), and films like Heat or Collateral by Michael Mann. Below are what I think represents decent companion lists for some of the quintessential films and texts that will give the viewer (and reader) a sense of what “neo-noir” is. Just because a film has cops and robbers and an ambiguous “good” guy versus “bad” guy storyline doesn’t immediately make it a “noir” film. In fact the best noir films are usually not gangster films, they are films about the evil that creeps into our daily lives and causes us to either: do the evil we never thought we were capable of or witness such an evil we never thought could exist in our comfortable lifestyles.

Recommended Neo-Noir Viewing:

• Samuel Fuller’s, The Naked Kiss (1964)
• John Boorman’s hilariously violent, Point Blank (1967)
• Robert Altman’s, The Long Goodbye (1973)
• Arthur Penn’s, Night Moves (1974)
• Lawrence Kasdan’s, Body Heat (1981)
• Brian DePalma’s homage to Hitchcock, Body Double (1984)
• The Coen Brothers’, Blood Simple (1985)
• David Mamet’s masterpiece, House of Games (1987)
• Stephen Frears’, The Grifters (1990)
• John Dahl’s, The Last Seduction (1993)
• Kathryn Bigelow’s extremely underrated, Strange Days (1995)
• Curtis Hanson’s masterful look at the seedy side of L.A., L.A. Confidential (1997)
• Alex Proyas’ brilliant mix of German Expressionism and Noir, Dark City (1997)
• The Coen’s again with, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
• Christopher Nolan’s postmodern noir, Memento (2001)
• David Lynch’s beautiful, labyrinthine, Mulholland Drive (2001)
• Steven Spielberg’s masterful adaptation of Philip Dick’s, Minority Report (2002)
• Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s, Sin City (2005)

Books and Essays I’ve cited throughout:

You can take a look at a number of the essays by clicking on the authors’ name, which I hyperlinked, throughout my piece.

For Fredric Jameson’s thoughts read, Postmodernism: Or the Culture Logic of Late Capitalism

For essential postmodern reading check out Jean Baudrillard’s, Simulations

Also recommended is the fantastic book that takes a philosophical approach to the genre, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, edited by Mark T. Conrad.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

He Aint Heavy, He's My Brother

[This is a repost from last month. Why repost? Well, because the wonderful blog Film for the Soul is Counting Down the Zeroes. Click the link for the explanation. This is one of my contributions to the ongoing discussion involving films from 2000. I'll be back later with another film (re)view: the sorta-ingenious "slasher" film Final Destination. Until then, go check out the other fine entries over at Film for the Soul.]

Almost ten years ago Kenneth Lonergan made a film about a brother and sister that seemed painfully realistic. Buried beneath the nuances was something universally identifiable for those of us who have siblings. The film had two breakthrough performances from Laura Linney, one of our finest actresses working today, and Mark Ruffalo, channeling his inner Brando (his characters name is even Terry, reminding the viewer of Brando's finest performance from On the Waterfront) and doing a helluva job never hamming it up. The film is You Can Count On Me, a small, almost completely forgotten film from 2000 that will probably go unremembered by the time all the "best of" lists commemorating the decade in film come out next year; however, it's a film of tremendous power and honesty, a film that evades every conventional emotional "gotcha" moment to deliver something honest and understated. In other words: real. Executive produced by Lonergan's friend Martin Scorsese, it's easy to see how he was attracted to such a familial story (think about the families in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull), but friendship aside (Lonergan went on to help write Gangs of New York) I think Scorsese saw a film that had special elements in it: a film that doesn't play by Hollywood's conventions when it comes to a family drama.

Sammy (Linney) and Terry (Ruffalo) are brother and sister, and as the film opens we find out their parents have died. Immediately Lonergan shows great control of the dramatic action as he handles this opening scene with visual language, rather than having the characters spell it out for the viewer in a fit of false tears and overacting. A policeman comes to the door to inform the babysitter that something awful has happened. Lonergan then cuts from the police officer, who hasn't said exactly what's happened (we knows there's been a crash, but we don't know how bad it is) to a church steeple. The effect is far greater than how these types of scenes are usually handled.

Flash forward to present day and we see Sammy taking care of her eight-year old son Rudy. Sammy is taking care of Rudy by herself, and we get the sense early on that she raised Terry, too. Sammy hears from Terry and prepares for his return. There is something especially recognizable and wonderful about the way Sammy glows at the news of Terry's arrival. The prodigal son (or brother in this case) is returning.

When we meet Terry he is bumming money off of his girlfriend and telling her that when he gets back she may want to think about moving out. Terry is someone who is not sure what they want, a borderline drifter who feels happiest when he isn't challenged or asked to honestly excavate his feelings. Meanwhile Sammy is preparing for Terry's return only for Terry to tell her that he "got on the wrong bus". Terry is in town, he's just not ready to face his sister yet.

Their reunion, when it does finally happen, turn sour quickly as Terry makes his intentions known. He plans on asking Sammy for money, and then bolting the next day. Later Terry spends the night at Sammy's and learns of his girlfriends attempted suicide. This breaks Terry, and in a great scene of power Lonergan stays on the scene just long enough for us to feel something for Terry, but he doesn't dwell there; this is a special moment shared between brother and sister, and the viewer isn't meant to see the whole thing. What follows is Terry staying in town, getting to know his nephew Rudy (disappointing him along the way), and Sammy acting like an immature high school girl towards the two men (her lovers, more on them later) in her life.

What I love about the film is the way Lonergan just kind of hangs around and lets us watch these characters grow, think, mess up, and just act like normal people, not over wrought caricatures designed solely to tug-at-the-heart-strings. Linney earned herself an Oscar nomination for the film, which is amazing considering that there aren't really any "Oscar" scenes in the film. Everything is underplayed, and played for a more contemplative effect, rather than a spur-of-the-moment, manipulate-your-emotions effect.

There's one moment in particular that I'm thinking of that sums up the many layers to the film. Terry and Rudy are getting along great, and Terry is something of a positive male role model in Rudy's life, something he's never had. Terry treats Rudy like an adult, talking to him like an adult, taking him to to adult things like playing pool and such. Terry has told Rudy that he will take him fishing, only later int he week Terry is upset with Sammy because she has sabotaged him by asking the local priest to come over and see what's "wrong" with Terry and his lack of direction in life. How does Terry take out his frustrations? Not on Sammy, the person who raised him (and is still raising him), but by punishing Rudy and simply telling him, in a very eight-year old manner, that he is no longer taking him fishing. Later that night in the hallway Sammy, immediately on Terry's game, tells him that he can punish her any number of ways, she understands that he's pissed at her, but don't take it out on Rudy by canceling the one event he's been looking most forward to. Terry passively aggressively states that he isn't punishing Rudy and that after what she and the priest said he just doesn't think that it would be a good idea for Rudy to around such a poor role model. Sammy's response: "you suck", and she throws some towels at him.

It's a scene that could have been played a number of different Ordinary People type ways, ways that serve as nothing more than Oscar-bait. But I love how Lonergan writes that scene, putting an exclamation on it by having Sammy say something that is real, and actually kind of funny. Is it a crap thing for Terry to do? Yes, but it's the type of moment that happens in a lot of families, and it's not the end of the world. It's something that makes you laugh because the scene has a familiar ring to it.

Terry does redeem himself by picking up Rudy for fishing the next morning, but he continues his buffoonery and immature actions by taking Rudy to see his estranged father. This scene is a forgone conclusion the moment we hear Terry talking about it. Once again, watch the way Ruffalo acts through this scene. Always sure of what he's doing, but as the viewer we know that his immaturity will get the best of him and the scene can only end badly.

Terry isn't the only one who is immature and unsure of their life path, Sammy is also trying to figure out what she wants. Once Terry moves in we see that Sammy is now back to raising Terry, in addition to raising Rudy. Lonergan makes the obvious connection here that Terry is no different than the eight-year old Rudy. Terry tries to make Rudy aware of how bad life is and how much of a simulacrum their little town is, and that he's be wise to get out of the town as soon as he can. Terry is just as fake though, never quite knowing what it is he wants, not only does his body language and temper-tantrum moments make him no more mature than Rudy (there is even a moment when he makes Rudy "promise" not to tell Sammy about taking him to a pool hall, making Terry sound just as much the kid as Rudy), his pseudo philosophies and the way he evades deep questions by firing back at Sammy's phoniness is no better than thousands of first time Cather in the Rye readers. Terry obviously is an emotionally underdeveloped male who resorts to brat-like moments when he thinks he has been wronged. There is a scene where he thinks Rudy has gone back on his "promise" about the pool hall incident, so instead of spending the day with him he drops Rudy off at his babysitters and tells him if he doesn't want to be adult about things and tell mommy about everything then he's going to spend the afternoon at the babies house. Ruffalo is astonishingly annoying and affective in this scene as he clearly gets across Terry's insecurities and childishness.

Sammy is not necessarily above Terry, either. Her downfalls are in the fact that she has always been responsible for raising boys, whether it be Terry, her childish ex-husband, and now Rudy, she has never had time for herself. She mistakes the abrupt nature of her having to act like an adult as a free pass for her to act childish herself once Terry is there to look after Rudy during the night. Sammy's been dating a man named Bob off and on. A year ago she was probably ready to marry him, but thinking on it now she's not ready; however she still calls him every now and then for some afternoon delight. The way she rings him up and her flippant "it's just sex" attitude shows how she too is as mature as high school student. Bob eventually pops the question, and all Sammy can do is laugh. Her response is to sleep with her new micro-managing boss Brad (played wonderfully by Matthew Broderick), who is in an unhappy marriage. Her and Brad rendezvous often, and it's an added layer to Sammy's character as we see her screw up time and time again that she knows Bob is the solid one, the obvious choice for a husband, but even during somewhat of a reconciliation with Bob after the proposal fiasco she realizes that she is late for her afternoon romp with Brad, and immediately leaves Bob with many unanswered questions.

Sammy may be seen as an irresponsible mother -- bouncing back and forth between two lovers, leaving Terry to put Rudy to bed so she can go off and have a good time -- but it's in these mistakes that makes Sammy's character so recognizable. The town priest sees her as an example, a beacon of how to do life right, but when she goes to see him and tells him that she is sleeping with a married man while stringing a decent guy like Bob along, the priest (played by Lonergan) simply feels compassion for her while Sammy is looking for more of a fire and brimstone type of punishment. This is what causes the visit from the priest to sting so much for Terry. He knows she's been sleeping with Brad, so when the priest says that Terry should be more like Sammy, it hurts, because now Sammy, the closest person to Terry, has become nothing more than a contradiction, one of the phonies that Terry rails against.

Terry and Sammy (and Brad for that matter) are real character types that we know, work with, or are ourselves. To err is human, and so rarely do we get a film that understands that people screw up, and that it doesn't have to be so extreme, it doesn't have to be an intense drama about a flawed character like Leaving Las Vegas (which is a great film, don't get me wrong) or a hokey parable about flawed people who learn to right their wrongs ala Bruce Almighty (not such a good movie). Lonergan's film is filled with the emotions that correlate with dealing with everyday problems and the results of trying the best you can to work those problems out.

Through all of the muck and mire Sammy will always love Terry, no matter how many times he screws up, and no matter how many times he reminds her that she's not the saint that everyone in town thinks she is. Lonergan's film touches on something deep and true about sibling relationships: even though we may be frustrated by them, it's almost impossible to severe those ties. The ending is so subtle in its power, not to mention it's a clinic in great acting. Terry is leaving and him and Sammy sit on a bench at the bus stop. They are thinking about the events that have occurred since he's been there, and how they as brother and sister have grown-up a bit. Sammy is crushed that Terry doesn't know where he's going or when he'll be able to get a hold of her. Terry pleads with her that she just has to trust him; trust him that he cares about her and Rudy, and trust him that he is responsible to take care of himself (something that is probably hard for a big sister who raised a little brother with no parents around). Terry comforts Sammy the only way he knows how, by telling her to remember and hold onto the "thing" they used to say to each other all the time as kids. This causes Sammy to cry uncontrollably, nodding her head she hugs Terry as he continues to ask "do you remember?" Here Lonergan does the right thing by never telling us what it is. This is Sammy and Terry's secret, their moment of the past, their password that made everything okay for a brother and a sister who had their parents taken away from them. And we don't need to know it, rather the viewer is left to think about their own "moments" with their brother and sister, and Lonergan and his wonderful actors nail this scene and make it better than any kind of Chris Columbus-type scene with "We Are Family" playing in the background.

Even though Sammy ultimately roots for Terry and will always believe in him, and no matter how powerful the final scene of the film is, there is also a more ambiguous feeling to the end scene. The moment Sammy cries and pleads for Terry to stick around, he is uncomfortable, and it's fair to say that one can view the ending as nothing more than Terry pulling out cliches from his bag of tricks he's used on Sammy over the years. When Terry tells Sammy that they'll have Christmas together, you can't help but think he's trying to do anything to make the tears stop for Sammy, perhaps alleviating some of her grief over him leaving, but more than anything just trying to make the moment less awkward for him. I think the moment when he tells her to remember what they used to say to each other as kids undercuts the selfish-Terry reading, but it's definitely there, and the fact that the ending (or the entire film) provides no real major epiphanies for the characters, you have to at least consider the fact that Terry hasn't changed by the end of the film.

You Can Count On Me is a rare film, a family drama that has genuine moments shared by the characters, moments that we as the viewer are not privy to, but have an inkling of what it is they're getting at because of our own experiences with the people in our lives who remind us of Sammy and Terry. This isn't an over-dramatic, screaming sibling rivalry film that goes for the easy emotional punch; it's a film that lingers on moments. Lonergan's camera takes its time and meanders though the small town capturing real-life moments that remind the viewer of the kind of honest, documentary-like filmmaking style of John Cassavetes. This film really is a testament to what a talent Lonergan is, he uses some great visuals like the opening and the way he uses buses to show the transitional phases of these characters; not to mention the fact that Sammy has to pick up Rudy and Terry (her children) at bus stops throughout the film. But it's also a film that showcases what tremendous actors Linney and Ruffalo are. Ruffalo's Terry is a performance that catapulted him to many starring roles, and Sammy got Linney a well deserved Oscar nomination and solidified her place as one of the go-to actresses who may not grace the cover of magazines (Joan Allen and Catherine Keener are others, too), but turn in great, under-appreciated performances film after film. This was 2000's best film of the year and it's certainly an under-advertised masterpiece.

It's sad that Lonergan hasn't had anything released since this film. He did help Scorsese write Gangs of New York, but it's been a Malick-like absence from him since he wrote and directed this film. He's had a ton of issues getting his next film, Margret released. The film stars Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Alison Janney, and Rosmarie DeWitt, but it has yet to get a solid release date. The film was made in 2005 or 2006 and was set to be released in 2007 and has just kept getting pushed back. The film sounds an awful lot like The Sweet Hereafter, but based on Lonergan's work here with You Can Count On Me and the way he handles big dramatic moments delicately (making them almost feel too nuanced or subtle) I have faith that Margaret can be a great film.