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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—27 February 2010

A New Substantiation Of Auteurism: Sometimes the movies that are making money and the movies that are worth talking about are the same movies. Thanks, I guess, in part to myself, and to my esteemed colleague Jim Emerson, the conversation about Avatar isn't quite over yet. Threads on various sites and blogs, my own included, are all about the current box champ, Shutter Island, with comments covering everything from its plot twist to its putative continuity errors. And while the picture itself is only in a small number of theaters at the moment, The Ghost Writer is being hailed as a welcome adult thriller, and its signer is being considered as a filmmaker first, as opposed to history's greatest monster.

What do these pictures have in common? Well, I reckon you know the answer. Like them or not, all three are what you might call auteur pictures. Films by strong, well-known directors with definite directorial signatures or at least traits. More than being interesting in themselves, the films are interesting in the way they link to each director's body of work. In the case of James Cameron's Avatar, it answers the "can you top this" question with a resounding yes. The topping being done in both the technical and box office departments. The Preston-Sturges-inflected-dialogue department doesn't even apply here. In the case of Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, we see a triumphant return to the contemporary-thriller genre, which for some Roman-watchers constitutes what they call a "return to form." With Shutter Island, it's another episode of Martin Scorsese's Adventures In Big Budget Commercial Filmmaking.

Right now I want to talk a little more about Shutter Island. I saw it for a second time last Wednesday, and I recommend that admirers of the picture do the same. First off, on the subject of budgets, while $70 million ain't cheap, the picture looks as if it could conceivably have cost a good deal more than that. Also, seeing the film a second time, noting how the film's plot resolution is set up—the various line deliveries (the much-mocked "evaporated" dialogue from Kingsley is in fact delivered exactly as it ought to be) and exchanged glances—reveals how layered of a picture it is, and it's plenty layered. Finally, a second viewing enables one to really see the personal dimension of this film, and how it fits in with Scorsese's other films concerning one of his great subjects: the compulsively self-wounding man. And, finally, a second viewing gave me a new perspective on and admiration for Leonardo DiCaprio's lead performance, particularly the aspect of it that has nothing to do with accents or line readings.  DiCaprio's measured walk at the film's very end is as eloquent a bit of physical acting as Sean Connery's rush to the ocean liner swimming pool in Marnie.

To reiterate: an auteurist film is an interesting film. What other pictures in commercial release right now are you actually interested in talking about?

Watch The Language: So a ten, or maybe 13, year-old girl cusses up a storm in the upcoming graphic-novel-adaptation Kick-Ass. Movie's not even out yet, and the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of public morality are already het up about the cussing in the film's "red band" trailer. Because anybody can see the "red band" trailer, you see. And also, there should be a limit of what we allow children to do in movies. Well, there are limits—that's why there are child pornography laws. Watching what is passing for debate on what is essentially a non-issue, I yawn; as I am 87 years old, I vividly recall the release of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, and the outrage over the salty language articulated by young Tatum O'Neal in that picture. Well, whatever problems Tatum had in later life, I'm inclined to believe that few of them were directly related to her doing some cussin' in a picture.

This non-issue gets my Jake LaMotta "I Putchyazs Boat In Da Ring" Award; that is, I think both sides are full of it and oughtta drop dead. The makers and promoters of Kick-Ass who think it's so edgy to create a potty-mouthed homicidal "Hit Girl" and the official concern trolls and their "what about the children" posturings. However. This "controversy" comes at a very particular moment, one in which the potential forces of repression/oppression appear to be getting the upper hand. To dismiss those stirring up shit about this as "people who don't count and don't matter," as one prominent Douglas-Sirk-hater does, is to play very much into those people's hands. It would be both appalling and in a way entirely apt if the war over free cultural expression's tide was turned over a piece of work as potentially insubstantial and meretricious as Kick-Ass, huh?

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but John Romita Jr. & Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass is one of the best super-hero comic books of the last few years. Romita – one of the two best super-hero artists working today – is at the top of his form. And Millar’s combination of irreverant frat boy and irreverant punk humor has a real point: a big part of his humor is about enjoying offensiveness/tastelessness for its own sake, but it isn’t all just posturing.
Excellent observation on auteurism. I can’t find the exact quotation, but Sarris makes a similar point somewhere by stating that calling Director A a “better” director than Director B, simply means that he’s made more good films.
Jon, while ‘Kick-Ass" may indeed be a great comic, a movie—even one as seemingly slavish to its source material as “Watchman,” and which actually ended up betraying its source material—is a different animal as a comic book. And the red-band trailer for “Kick-Ass” under discussion is a giddily adolescent exercise in "look what we’re getting away with" crassness.
Jaime
I hate to be the douchey party-pooper guy, but I don’t hate it so much that I’m going to hold back on insisting that auteurism is not as outlined above – cultural presence (really, that’s all that Cameron’s bringing to the table? we can’t do a better job of finding links to his other pictures?), theme, plot – as these wheels spin independently of what film directing is all about. Strong auteurs are identified less by how they indirectly impact the people who sign their paychecks (the public, the studios) and more by how they directly impact their – for lack of a better word – employees during pre-, actual, and post-production work. Evidence of direction is found in molding the image, coaching an actor’s moves or handling of dialogue, working with the editors and the sound people, etc. You know – direction. Again, sorry, douchiness. But hey, I didn’t call you a retard!
Jaime
Case in point, as we have the Alfonso Cauron HARRY POTTER on in our house right now. Now, I’m not going to bat for this guy as a major director (and, in fact, I think David Yates is the series champ), but I think he has a distinctive enough sense of rhythm and space, that you can feel his imprint in this, CHILDREN OF MEN, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, and SOLO CON TU PAREJA. (To name the only films of his I’ve seen.)
Haice
To take the example of your still from Paper Moon—-very popular in its day, made a ton of money—-yet critics wouldn’t dream of it placing it on a ten best list for ‘73 or the Academy nominating it for Best Picture or Best Director—-yet seems to be a model of craftsmanship and artistic confidence today. No masterpiece, but nothing to sneeze at either. Could it be just as rich as Day for Night, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, Charley Varrick, The Long Goodbye, Mean Streets, American Graffiti, Badlands, Par Garrett and Billy the Kid, Last Tango in Paris….?
Jaime and Haice—in my post I’m deliberately taking a pretty narrow view of auteurism as such. Haice, Paper Moon did get several noms, two for supporting actress, which O’Neal won (her interfilm competition was the great Madeline Kahn) and one for screenplay. It was a well-liked film (I don’t know how many ten-best lists it made) and a hit. Bogdanovich WAS working in a self-conscious auteur mode at the time—of course he had championed so many of the directors that Sarris put in his pantheon. I think it’s still a well-regarded picture today.
I agree with you wholeheartedly about Shutter Island. On my first pass, I found it to be a somewhat frustrating experience as much of the middle section seemed to drag and I wasn’t convinced by many of Scorsese’s rhetorical flourishes. But the ending is so strong it virtually incinerated any of my lingering doubt and I was sure it would play better a second time. That turned out to be an understatement. A friend described the picture’s ultimate effect as devastating and I would go further and say that the whole film is devastating as all the detail can be seen to support and flesh out the “reveal”; in other words, it’s not just some gimmicky twist for shock value. The fact that many are spending all their time only on trying to “figure it all out” after the fact or disputing the picture’s success because they guessed the twist in the first few minutes comes across to me as a kind of willful retreat into irrelevance but one which mirrors Teddy’s own, just without the depth. I don’t believe for a minute that the twist is at all central to Scorsese. The emphasis on it and the thriller plot in general has been, I suppose, helpful however to compel audiences who might otherwise be repelled by the picture’s real focus as an intense study of grief and loss. For me part of the great power of the film’s final section has to do with the way in which it makes clear those purposes. I have read reviews in which critics condemn this section for prolonging the reveal, especially as so many are said to have guessed it already, and thus turning into an anticlimax. But such statements can only evidence the mindset of those utterly uncaptivated with Scorsese’s secret subject, or those perhaps who cannot or will not recogize its inherent power.
“A giddily adolescent exercise in “look what we’re getting away with” crassness." While I’m aware that movies and comics are entirely different animals, with those 12 words, you have just about summed up writer Mark Millar’s entire career.
Nathaniel: Beautifully put, sir.
Nathaniel: But why make the subject “secret” then? This is a very serious question. The movie in actual fact signals in every scene that it aches for a final twist. And in my opinion this ache almost destroys ist. It would be so much better without the desperately needy double-sense written so overwroughtly into it. (I know it’s in the book. But I also know that Dennis Lehane is not a very good writer.)
“I know it’s in the book. But I also know that Dennis Lehane is not a very good writer.” Well, maybe, and maybe not. But given that the parties involved were under some kind of contractual obligation to adapt Lehane’s book, I’m not sure what you expect, Ekkehard, or want. A linear telling of the story of the DiCaprio character’s career and marriage and the events subsequent to it? I’m not sure that would work too terribly well. A friend who’s close to the production told me, after I mentioned to him that I had seen the film a second time, that a lot of care had been taken to design it for repeat viewings—not so much in terms of illuminating the plot, but in bolstering the emotional content. The various expressions of Ruffalo’s face as he reacts to DiCaprio almost constitute an entire movie in and of itself. Kingsley’s much-mocked reading of the line “It’s as if she evaporated…” also, to name just one reading, gains a new power as well.
I don’t mean a linear telling, necessarily. And I really am not interested in how they could fulfill a contractual obligation. I just try to imagine how this would have worked as a film. It works for you, obviously, and for a lot of people. For me: not. So what I thought of or rather try to imagine (no harm done, really) is – completely independently from the book – a film that would work for me. And this would, I imagine, be a film that plays with open cards. (For the audience, of course, not the Di Caprio character.) Nothing changed but the information from the very beginning: This guy … well, you know, no spoilers just yet. As it stands now, every instance of double-entendre (exactly the moments you enjoy when seeing the film a second time, exactly the moments showing, or, rather, exuding, the “care taken to design it for repeat viewings”) feels gimmicky to me. It disrupts the scenes, it twists them, so to speak, from the very beginning – but in a gimmicky direction. That is the aforementioned ache inscribed in every moment; a headache for me. (You can’t say this inscription of a future twist was not there – as saying this would in fact defeat your argument. So, it’s established: It’s there. And for me it almost destroys the film, marvelous scenes notwithstanding. I have other problems with it, too; they are about late Scorsese in general, but I won’t get into that here.) ok, spoilers now -- This could be so interesting, in theory: A therapeutic maze, a memory therapy with all the delusions and false or questionable remembrances intact (in the images). And of course you would not have to tell what “really” happened or what is simply imagined or wrongly remembered. All the ambivalences remain, but the hole thing not continually twisted towards this final revelation. For the film’s lovers there is, once again, no need to imagine an alternative version, of course. This is just insight into a different perception of what we agree is there.
Ekkehard, I’m curious about your problems with late Scorsese!
My problems with late Scorsese are probably disappointingly simple. I think that after “Casino” (which I adore) or even after “Kundun” (which I liked a lot at the time) a certain academicism began creeping into his style. “Academicism” in the sense that he is a consummate master who has turned from somebody genuinely (re)discovering his art with every new film into someone delivering master classes in filmmaking with basically every single scene he shoots. It’s a thin line, I admit, and in a way I envy everybody who thinks the old spark and curiosity is still there. I just don’t feel it any more. There is, of course, always a lot to adore but so little to genuinely embrace and love. For me.
Well, in some ways the twist is prescribed and justified by the narrative itself—it is, after all, all about a psycho-drama played out for a specific subject’s benefit. But beyond that it’s also back to what I said before. The idea of the twist or the choice for this particular narrative to be structured like a mystery (and in many ways it remains a mystery in the larger sense far after any pedantic reveal) is a strategic decision to lure an audience into an investment they might rather otherwise spurn. In that way it resembles Egoyan’s masterful Exotica, another picture carefully constructed around its reveal and another which deepens dramatically upon reviewing as the reasoning for that structure becomes clearer and the effects more potent. In fact, it is that structure which allows us to better comprehend and appreciate certain details. So it is not a case of arbitrarily disrupting or distorting the natural flow of scenes and sequences, whatever that may be presumed to be. It’s the opposite. We are alert to the starngeness, the mystifying quality of the dialogues in the film and initially they do seem to be “un-natural” but what we discover is that this is exactly how people who are very familiar with these subjects would talk about them together, not willfully obscuring the issues, but trying to avoid direct contemplation of them as much as possible or indirectly referencing an already given known. The mystery structure compels us to be attentive to nuances and character responses more than we otherwise might. The resolution becomes a hidden motivator for actions and the appropriate point of the narrative construction itself. In the case of Shutter Island, the reveal probably should come across as one we all saw coming, as it should for Teddy. It’s Teddy’s steadfast denial which makes it a reveal to begin with.
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I actually pissed off a good friend last night after watching The Ghost Writer by immediately comparing it to Shutter Island. I think both movies have predictable plot twists; my problem with Shutter Island lies not so much in the twist itself but in the ultimate execution of the reveal, which involves a ten minute monologue followed by a ten minute flashback explaining everything Ben Kingsley just explained. The Ghost Writer, on the other hand, wraps itself up in one beautiful shot and is then over in less than a minute. As beautiful as Shutter Island is (and the coda, in particular, makes the thing work), there’s no reason for it to go on so long except that, as Glenn states, Scorsese is adventuring in a commercial venue, making movies that need to play to a wider audience and so have to explain every last detail lest anyone leave the theater confused.
The giddy crassness of KICK-ASS is almost entirely the reason why the original comic sold so well. The phantasy element of it is overwhelmingly juvenile and is the main reason why I hate Mark Millar’s most recent stuff: his comics all provoke the reader by allowing them to identify with the impotent protagonists’ rise from impotence to badassery. It, WANTED and MARVEL 1985 are all spineless and idiotic to a fault. They’re not funny, just excessive and proudly shallow and I say this as a proud fan of Ennis/Dillon’s PREACHER. I think Matthew Vaughn’s film adaptation looks like a more polished and possibly better version of Millar/Romita Jr.‘s original story (funnier, at the very least; Nic Cage’s character is much more goofy in the trailers than the character in the comic, which is actually pretty appealing), there’s no way you can get around that kind of smugness.
Glenn, I believe you have illuminated some of the film’s most interesting aspects in saying both, “The various expressions of Ruffalo’s face as he reacts to DiCaprio almost constitute an entire movie in and of itself,” and, “a second viewing gave me a new perspective on and admiration for Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance, particularly the aspect of it that has nothing to do with accents or line readings. DiCaprio’s measured walk at the film’s very end is as eloquent a bit of physical acting as Sean Connery’s rush to the ocean liner swimming pool in Marnie.” It almost feels like Shutter Island’s divisiveness has been a gift from Robin Wood, who once remarked that it was never backlash to his writing that saddened him but rather the silence (and insinuation that no one cared enough to extend the conversation/debate). As a USC film student, I can attest that the film and subsequent discussions of it have led to contentious dialogue- particularly when I suggested that a perfect defense of Shutter Island was written in December 1967 by Jean Narboni and published in Cahiers as, “Towards Impertinence.” Narboni writes, “As self-avowed reflections on cinema’s specific mode of operation, the films I have referred to and those I would wish to see being made can only collect up as they go along the soil of lived experience and the struggles of the world, integrating them into their substance (rather than reproducing them) in order to bear witness to them.” In an author’s note on the article, it is written, “Films do not suffer today from a lack of comprehension (quite the contrary) but from a failure to read (and to listen).” I believe many are failing to read and to listen to Shutter Island, instead choosing to look for signposts of comprehension. Part of the joy of the film, particularly in subsequent viewings, resides in the work of director of photography Robert Richardson or sound re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman (or Ferretti’s work for that matter). Consider the moments when Fleischman chooses to pan dialogue. Or the shots that seem to be conceived FOR the sound mix. Richardson stated that in Inglourious Basterds he was perfectly willingly to sacrifice continuity in the interest of emotion (such as in the opening scene at the rural farm’s kitchen table as the direction of the key changes). The scene between DiCaprio and Jackie Earle Haley is a good case study in this and still has me wondering whether the lighting changes are intentional, and coded, or simply executed in the name of emotion (one is reminded of Jaroslav Kucera’s claim that in Daisies they were after images that might have their own independent meaning). And what about the scene with the telephone operator, in a room reminiscent of Accatone in its sparseness and lit with a blinding key from above that doesn’t spill throughout the room and still retains perfect detail in the operator’s face, despite the overexposure. The marvels of the film are endless really if one is trying to read and listen. So I must say that I not only love the film but also defend what I see as Scorsese’s impertinence.
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And what are the opinions of the professors at SC? I’d be curious to hear a few samples.
“A friend who’s close to the production told me, after I mentioned to him that I had seen the film a second time, that a lot of care had been taken to design it for repeat viewings—not so much in terms of illuminating the plot, but in bolstering the emotional content. " I’m glad to hear this was intentional on the part of Scorsese et al, because that’s exactly how I responded to the film. I’ve seen it three times, and I’ve found it more engrossing, and more emotionally impactful, each time. The third time really confirmed it for me. Usually, with a “twist” film (and no, I didn’t have the twist figured out in the first five minutes, but I wasn’t really surprised by the reveal, either – it was more like an “oh, of course that’s what’s going on” reaction, mostly because I wasn’t actively trying to figure it out) the first viewing is interesting because you don’t know what’s going on or you think you have it all figured out and then BAM, you’re blindsided by a twist. The second viewing is interesting because it illuminates all those times when you should have been able to figure out the twist, but you missed them. But if you ever watch the film again, it’s really kind of boring because you already know what happens and you’ve already discovered all of the hints along the way. This his where Shutter Island is so different. The hints are there, but they are there in service of character more than plot. They help to create a sense of paranoia, which is what Teddy is feeling, and also to illuminate his state of mind. Of course, the plot itself is mostly in service of character as well, which is ultimately why the film words so well – all its elements are of one gloriously constructed piece. And the emotional impact is simply devastating. This is not a horror film by any stretch, but it is a very haunting film. It’s really stuck with me. I’m glad to know that others appreciated it as much as I did.

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