America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Thursday, February 21, 2019

February 21, 2019: Film Non-Favorites: The Shining


[For my annual Valentine’s follow-up, I wanted to keep the FilmStudying going and highlight some non-favorite filmmakers and films. Share your own non-favorites, film or otherwise, for what is always the most fun crowd-sourced post of the year!]
On why I greatly prefer the ending to King’s novel than Kubrick’s film.
I don’t like losing readers, even for the best of reasons; but if you either haven’t read Steven King’s The Shining (1977) or haven’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s film version (1980) of the novel, and are interested in checking them out sometime, you should probably skip this post, as I’m gonna SPOIL the heck out of the endings to both. Because while there are definitely stylistic and even thematic differences between the two versions throughout (and while I prefer the novel throughout for reasons related to those I’ll focus on in this post), it’s really the endings where they become not only distinct but starkly contrasting and opposed. I won’t spoil every single detail, but suffice it to say that King’s novel ends hopefully, with notes of redemption for its protagonist Jack Torrance and especially for his relationship to his son and family; whereas Kubrick’s film ends with Torrance murderously pursuing that same son with an axe and, thwarted, freezing to death, more evil in his final moments than he has been at any earlier moment in the film (during which he has already gotten plenty evil).
There are various ways we could read this striking distinction, including connecting it to the profoundly different worldviews of the two artists (at least as represented in their collected works): King, despite his penchant for horror, is to my mind a big ol’ softie who almost always finds his way to a happy ending; Kubrick has a far more bleak and cynical perspective and tended to end his films on at best ambiguous and often explicitly disturbing notes. Those different worldviews could also be connected to two longstanding American traditions and genres, what we might call the sentimental vs. the pessimistic romance (in that Hawthornean sense I’ve discussed elsewhere in this space): in the former, such as in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), the darkest supernatural qualities give way by the story’s end to more rational and far happier worlds and events; in the latter, such as in his contemporary Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (also 1851), the darkness is only amplified and deepened by concluding events, leaving us adrift (literally and figuratively) in an eternally scary world.
King’s and Kubrick’s texts, and more exactly their respective conclusions, certainly fit into those traditions. But given that both create similarly horrifying worlds and events right up until those endings, I would also connect their distinct final images to the dueling yet interconnected ideas at the heart of my last book project: dark histories and hope. Where the two versions differ most overtly, that is, is in whether they offer their audiences any hope: in King’s novel, Torrance finds a way through his darkest histories and to final moments of hope for his family’s future (achieved at great personal sacrifice); in Kubrick’s film, hope has abandoned Torrance as fully as has sanity, and both his family and the audience can only hope that they can survive and escape his entirely dark world. Obviously you know which I personally prefer; but I would also argue that, whatever the appeal of horror for its own sake, without the possibility of hope and redemption it’d be a pretty bleak and terrible genre.
Last non-favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other non-favorites you’d share?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

February 20, 2019: Film Non-Favorites: The Coen Brothers


[For my annual Valentine’s follow-up, I wanted to keep the FilmStudying going and highlight some non-favorite filmmakers and films. Share your own non-favorites, film or otherwise, for what is always the most fun crowd-sourced post of the year!]
On three contrasts that illuminate the shortcomings of the unique and talented filmmaking duo.
1)      Fargo (1996) and A Simple Plan (1998): The Coens had been making movies for more than a decade by 1996, but I would argue that the multi-Oscar winning Fargo nonetheless elevated them to a new level of cinematic attention and acclaim. Fargo is a smart and entertaining crime and mystery thriller with a dark sense of humor, but for my money it’s inferior to A Simple Plan, another film about crime and punishment amidst a wintry landscape. As I wrote in that last hyperlinked post, Plan is incredibly thematically rich, with threads about class and poverty, multi-generational family inheritances and legacies, the American Dream and its dark undersides, and more. But it also has something that I didn’t quite find in Fargo (or, if I’m honest, in most Coen films I’ve had the chance to see): a beating human heart and a deep sense of sympathy for its characters, even (maybe especially) when they’re at their worst.
2)      O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Mudbound (2017): This is a closer and tougher one, as O Brother is a very engaging and likable film, with a marvelous turn by George Clooney at its heart, and it even manages to adapt The Odyssey in the Depression-era American South quite successfully. But I would also argue that it has a central weakness, one shared by too many films about the white South: that it takes histories of race and racial violence (including a prominent role for the Ku Klux Klan) and turns them into plot developments for its mostly white protagonists. For that reason, I would always make the case for the rare films that tell those stories of race and the South with more breadth, depth, and nuance, and found 2017’s Netflix original film Mudbound to be much stronger in that regard. It’s not a perfect film, and as usual with the Coens Brother is far more sophisticatedly and entertainingly made; but I think the historical and cultural questions are dealt with much more successfully in Mudbound, making it an important complement to Brother at least.
3)      No Country for Old Men (2007) and Hell or High Water (2016): This one is far easier for me, as I think No Country, despite wonderful performances by Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones, is a deeply limited and flawed film. Indeed, I think it succeeds mostly as a sort of high-brow slasher film, with Javier Bardem’s unkillable, single-minded killing machine with a strange but rigid personal code echoing the Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees of the world quite closely. Which is fine as far as it goes, but to my mind not nearly deserving of the praise I’ve seen heaped upon it. And to elucidate my point, I would point to Hell or High Water, a much less acclaimed film that does a much better job capturing its Texas settings and communities, its small-time criminal protagonists and their individual and family identities, and its themes of class and poverty, crime and punishment, and family legacies and changes. Plus it features Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger in a performance worthy of putting in conversation with Jones’s, if not even slightly more lived-in and compelling. Which I suppose is my point in this whole post: there’s room to see lots and lots of movies, so by all means let’s keep seeing Coens Brothers’ films; but there are other, and to my mind, better films to see and share as well, is all.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other non-favorites you’d share?

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

February 19, 2019: Film Non-Favorites: The Big Short and Vice


[For my annual Valentine’s follow-up, I wanted to keep the FilmStudying going and highlight some non-favorite filmmakers and films. Share your own non-favorites, film or otherwise, for what is always the most fun crowd-sourced post of the year!]
On the value and the limits of satire when it comes to contemporary, contested events.
One of the more interesting artistic transformations of the 21st century has been that of writer and director Adam McKay. McKay rose to prominence through his collaborations with comedian Will Ferrell (and others) on a series of extremely silly comedies: Anchorman (2004) and its sequel, Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008), and The Other Guys (2010). If you haven’t had a chance to see any of those films, the most important thing to emphasize (and one you can gather from just about any clip from any of them) is that they are almost entirely, and very purposefully, non-thematic, overtly not interested in social or cultural issues and just trying to make audiences laugh as consistently and hard as possible. But in 2015, McKay wrote and directed The Big Short, a satirical dramedy based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name about the 2008 housing crisis and financial meltdown. And this past Christmas saw the release of a second, very similar McKay film, Vice, a satirical dramedy based on the life and political career (to date) of Dick Cheney (starring Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams as his wife Liz, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, and many more actors).
These satirical yet serious takes on hot-button contemporary issues parallel in many ways one of the 21st century’s most popular cultural genres: the satirical news commentary and comedy program. Originated by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (especially once Jon Stewart took over the hosting gig), this genre has become one of the most prolific in recent years, from Stephen Colbert and John Oliver to Samantha Bee and Hasan Minhaj (among others!). Even late-night talk show hosts have gotten in on the act in diverse but equally compelling ways. What unites all these satirical news programs is their desire to walk a fine line between making audiences laugh (not constantly, but at least consistently) and providing thought-provoking commentary on current events, and I would say McKay’s recent films are aiming for that same sweet spot. I haven’t had a chance to see Vice yet, but I did see The Big Short and it was most definitely seeking to provide both laughs and knowledge, often in the exact same sequences (as with the famous and controversial use of random beautiful actresses to talk about the fine points of housing policy and economics). As that hyperlinked sequence featuring Margot Robbie notes, knowing these seemingly boring details is pretty vital to understanding the last decade in American life, and the goal of using comedy and satire to convey such details links McKay’s recent films to these news programs.
Yet I have significantly more ambivalence about McKay’s films than I do about those programs, and I think it boils down to one factor: the use of talented, likable actors to create sympathy for figures who have contributed negatively and destructively to these recent histories. That was somewhat the case with The Big Short’s protagonists, mortgage brokers (played by highly likable actors such as Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale) who seemingly fought the system yet at the same time profited greatly by predicting and betting on the upcoming crash and crisis. And it’s very definitely the case with Vice—again, I haven’t had a chance to see it as of this writing, but part of the reason why is that I love watching Christian Bale in anything, and really don’t relish the thought of him playing Dick Cheney, to my mind one of the truly evil figures in the last century of American political and social life. Every historical figure is a flesh-and-blood human being, with various layers and sides, and so I suppose every one is also worth extended attention and even sympathy. But I don’t know that we need an entire film creating such a multi-layered portrait of Dick Motherfucking Cheney (that’s his full name, y’know), and I likewise am not at all sure that the lighter touch of comedy and satire are appropriate when it comes to depicting such a figure. I suppose there’s a place for such films, but they’re likely to remain non-favorites for this AmericanStudier (and for reviewers such as Slate’s Bilge Ebiri, it seems).
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other non-favorites you’d share?