The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer; Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel)
“And like that, he’s gone.”
Ill Stills 2011-2013.
Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage and Power as Negative Space
Bad things will happen, Robert Miller explains to a news journalist in the opening scene of Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, though he’s not worried. Bad things happen all the time, and they do not necessitate loss, because loss is a swimming shark, and until the shark has stopped swimming, it is not dead. In the finance world, this is called an arbitrage, in which the difference of market prices means a shark never has to stop swimming, and taking a hit in one corner might just mean turning a profit in another. The money stays shuffling, and no one loses. Ideally.
Miller (Richard Gere) is the arbitrageur of Jarecki’s film, and manipulating finances in and out of accounts and hedge funds in his own self-interest is the character’s raison d’être, but Jarecki is also concerned with the arbitrage of power, who has it, who is pretending to have it, and the stratagems necessary to sustain it. When Miller commits manslaughter and flees the scene, he immediately begins moving pieces off his life around, acquiring new confidants, burying his weakness, and steadily moving forward, eyes always on the prize.
During a scene in which rugged detective Bryer (a composed, threatening Tim Roth) interrogates Miller for the first time, Miller’s tells are more than obvious, jittery nerves, inconsistent story, and a throbbing side he can’t help clutching. Bryer knows, but that’s okay, too, because that market, the criminal investigation market, it only has a fraction of a sliver of a window of time to make a power grab, and by then, Miller will have reallocated and moved on. Besides, sometimes an arbitrageur needs only to appear to hide a weakness. If a major business executive is unable to fill a $412,000 gap of misappropriated funds, well, then jettison the business to someone else. They will, of course, notice, but a deal is a deal, after all, and besides, that business can just be moved again. The bluff is infinite; everything else is expendable.
In all the chaos of contextualization, determining who, if anybody, in Jarecki’s film has the upper hand, becomes exceedingly difficult to parse. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, whose masterful work on 2010’s Carlos inspired the very first Ill Stills, revels in this confusion, deconstructing traditional visual binaries of power (who’s sitting/standing, who’s driving/riding) in moments of narrative tension in order to make the viewer question the impact of environment on control, and vice versa. When Miller meets with his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling) in Central Park, she refuses to sit with him, a classic business bluff, but Le Saux keeps his camera on Miller, and Brook’s head is decapitated from the frame. There is no question as to who will come out above water.
Elsewhere, Le Saux deftly complicates the power dynamics inside vehicles through light filters and askew angles. Are those who drive more powerful than those who ride? In one situation, say, a police officer who has picked up a suspect, yes, but when the environment changes, so do the rules, and a weakness (not being in control), becomes a strength (the luxury of knowing how control is limited). This is how Miller scapegoat, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the getaway driver, and Jimmy Grant, the police suspect, locked in the back of Bryer’s car (or Miller’s car), can occupy the same sphere of limited agency, and how Miller, cruising along behind the wheel, just before a horrific car accident, can later become Miller, plotting in the back of a limousine with his lawyer. The plot? To uncover Bryer’s manipulation of a traffic camera photo that would have pinned Jimmy Grant as Miller’s getaway driver. The pieces shift and shift, and the bubble strains, but does not burst.
The film’s climactic exchange isn’t between Miller and Bryer, or Miller and Jimmy, but between Miller and his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), in their bedroom. Ellen knows everything, and threatens to expose Miller to the police if he does not sign away his company. Miller contemplates his options like a true financier. Which market offers more stability, the domestic or the legal? Will Ellen risk conflation of the two, or is she bluffing? Jarecki and Le Saux again volley the question back to the audience with the film’s most striking image, the couple, in their stark white room, divided by their marriage bed, as Miller considers the contract. The negative space between them is overwhelmingly present, a maelstrom of terrible power with no shape, and no direction, hovering between the film’s final two players.
Jarecki’s dénouement offers no catharsis. Miller and family are at a benefit dinner in his honor. It’s impossible to tell who has folded to whom, but one thing is certain, in this environment, suited up, among colleagues, among money, Miller is God. He kisses his scorned wife and daughter, who struggle to keep smiling in the face of such blatant hypocrisy, and he strides to the podium, his back to Le Saux’s camera. Miller is centered, and his is steady, and the people in the crowd, well, they’re just pieces, ready to be moved. Le Saux switches to a medium shot, and facing the lens, Miller’s bravado is uncanny. Even now, he is swimming, thriving. He goes to speak. Cut to black.
The Perks (and Burdens) of Being a Wallflower
“She was not equal to her own writing. And, on the highway like this, speeding toward some tawdry destination, she had the sudden terrible conviction that language itself didn’t matter and that nothing mattered ultimately except the body, the human body and the bodies of other creatures and objects; what else existed?”
- Joyce Carol Oates (“Accomplished Desires”)
“You think too much.” I get this all the time, from bosses who don’t comprehend the miasma of hazardous conditions on the road from point A to point B, from women who’d like to experience a moment of closeness without the derisive nitpicking of every look or kiss, from friends who worry. This thing that is essentially me, this cleverness and aptitude for analysis, not just of films, or novels, or art, but of people and situations, it’s also a trap. The ability to construct with language and the hypersensitivity to the sensations of existence, it spills over. To “be” becomes a verb for another, imaginably happier, set of people.
As the title suggests, Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of his breakout, young adult novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, situates the artist, budding author and high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman), firmly at the fringe of society, as someone who watches, takes in, but can never partake. His friends, a homosexual, a punker, a “slut,” theater kids similarly living fringe existences, watch with him, their gazes equal parts contempt and longing, their minds, tail eating snakes of damaged logic that compound rejection and guilt in ways only hormonal adolescents, or writers, can. They are Charlie’s family, and they “get” him, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is also Charlie’s narrative, the novel and film being constructed as a series of letters Charlie writes (to himself, or to his psychologist) in an attempt to understand his role as cerebral spectator of a world that refuses to acknowledge him, and this is where Chbosky’s romansbildung finds its complexity and sadness. In order to act as medium between reader and world, Charlie must disappear, become nothing.
Charlie’s story then, is one of inaction. His first relationship, with entitled punk princess Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman, her?), is a one-way conversation, signified by Charlie’s long absences during Mary Elizabeth’s phone calls, in which Charlie relegates himself to a boyfriend-as-concept, a character who knows when to hold hands, or to fool around awkwardly after dances. He is a prop, and Mary Elizabeth is merely a simulacrum for another love, one that hasn’t yet happened, or has, but was sullied, or is impossible in the way that love often seems to be. The true object of Charlie’s unrequited affection is Sam (Emma Watson), whose raw effervescence, and penchant for spontaneous bursts of emotion, seems to transcend the boundary between thought and being. Charlie, high for the first time, watches Sam as she stands in the back of a pickup truck, her arms outstretched, blissful, as it rockets through a tunnel He says he feels “infinite.” He thinks he is a part of that bliss, and maybe he is, but he’s still only watching.
Throughout the second and third act of Wallflower, Charlie will take everything vibrant about Sam and distill it through his thoughts and letters, until she’s nothing but a series of contradictions on the page. This is the only way he can have her, he believes, can have anything. In his world of words, he finds understanding. He interprets, but does not live. It’s a problematic approach that not only leads to further alienation, but depression and questions of accountability. Charlie’s burden, the burden of being a wallflower, a man of inaction, is one of guilt, the feeling that if he had only done something, anything, he could have saved the day. He harbors guilt as a victim of a childhood incident of molestation by his aunt, and blames himself for her death, a car crash, because of the resentment he’d built up in the aftermath of his premature sexual awakening. He could understand his aunt’s pain, but could do nothing to alleviate her malady, the ramifications of which would negatively impact his entire young adult life.
It’s interesting to note that during Charlie’s one moment of heroism, physically defending his gay friend against a closeted lover, his mind goes completely blank – a blackout. It’s what Charlie has always wanted, in a way, to live without process, without analysis, or reinterpretation, but his blackouts, symptomatic of his swelling depression, terrify him, as if the only thing worse than too much control is none at all. When Charlie attempts suicide following the reemergence of his repressed sexual memories, a shot of his typewriter, alone, detached from its author, presents itself as a chilling indication of Charlie’s desire for, and fear of, total selfhood.
There is hope in this image, as well, though, the hope of connection, that perhaps through interpretation, Charlie acts for all of those on the fringe unable to articulate their own fears and dreams, and there are a lot of us, aren’t there? On the fringe, I mean. This is why Stephen Chbosky’s quirky coming-of-age novel amassed such a following in the first place, how it became one of 2012’s most critically lauded films. Drugs, alcohol, neuroses, despair, violence, and sexual turbulence might not be in the dictionary next to classic childhood experiences, but guess what? That’s life. Most of us didn’t get to be the prom queen. Most of us cried and trashed in bed the night before, working up the courage to even go to prom, to face the masses of young women and men who didn’t understand us, and who we, in turn, didn’t understand. So we dressed up, and we sipped from flasks, and we pined, and we hated it, and we danced, but then again, maybe we didn’t.
Warrior: The Intimate Spaces of Pugilism
Two men circle and jab, lock bodies, and careen to the floor. Sweat drips over swollen eyes. Lungs take desperate, cutting breaths. Bones bend to fracture. The audience, seething swells of testosterone and rage, goad annihilation. Nervous television viewers strain through their hi-def, through the snark of announcers and roar of the crowd, through the thin, wire cage, where blood is spraying, jonesing for a drop of immediacy. Inside that cage, one man will rise victorious and one will not, simple as that. Outside, the city bricks ooze poverty and rancor, and the spaces in which a human being can face another human being recede to point zero. This is the America of Gavin O’Conner’s Warrior, an America in which the men who fought to the bone integrating themselves into this country never learned to stop beating the shit out of each other, while the country industrialized, digitalized, moved on.
The film’s two protagonists (antagonists?) are estranged brothers, Tommy and Brendan (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), but the film’s singular title is no misnomer. The essence of mixed martial arts is reductive. There is no place for convolution, no time for the battery of tangled relationships that exist outside of the cage. A warrior’s opponent is nothing, a momentary blip in a solipsistic ascension to Godhood, and even in defeat, he is safely inside himself. These cages, the warrior needs them.
Tommy is the warrior, in the reductive sense, AWOL from the Marine Corp, refusing to engage with anybody, with any conflict, that threatens to become emotionally present. Tommy’s deadbeat, alcoholic father, Paddy (Nick Nolte, whose beautiful sad-sackery makes me rue the cancellation of HBO’s Luck all the more), on the road to recovery, struggles for reconciliation with his sons, but for Tommy, Paddy is merely a tool toward his end goal. For Brendan, Paddy is a non-entity, the bad taste of a past that’s best forgotten.
Brendan, who, surprise, surprise, will oppose Tommy in the film’s decisive MMA competition, is the warrior’s antithesis, a man so multifaceted that he is ruled by the emotion that combat requires necessary to jettison. His is a plural existence, one of the family, supporting and connecting with a wife and daughter, connecting to students, connecting to friends, and one as a fighter, alone, hurtling toward decimation, or redemption. Masanobu Takayanagi, Warrior’s director of photography, finds an aesthetic niche in the fundamental voyeurism of sport, extending the scopophilic yearning, and its inherent barriers, to the fighters’ most private encounters. When Brendan confesses to his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), that he’s moonlighting as a parking lot prizefighter, Takayanagi positions the camera outside the bathroom doorway, setting up an emotional bulwark between Brendan and the audience, the breaching of which becomes both an invasion of, and invitation to, his moment of intimacy and the space it occupies.
Compare this to the film’s opening scene, in which Paddy returns home to find an inebriated Tommy waiting on his stoop. Despite the fact that this is the only glimpse of each other the men have had since Tommy’s childhood, O’Conner and Takayanagi are careful not to include the two in focus in the same shot. The film’s title card, bold white lettering that appears after Paddy invites Tommy inside, alerts the viewer that this is the film’s first bout, and one that perhaps takes precedent over sport. The camera here, and throughout the entirety of the movie, is handheld, personal, but isolating. The audience dances around the cage, rarely inside.
Of course, there is redemption, both for Tommy and Paddy, and Tommy and Brendan, through battle. Tommy’s admonishment of Paddy in a casino puts Paddy back on the wagon (the Paddy wagon?), which is what Tommy has subconsciously wanted from moment one, to return home to find the villain he left, and face, and overcome him. Paddy as born-again twelve-stepper was unexpected to, unacceptable for, Tommy, so he keeps Paddy at arm’s length, until Paddy is roped back for the KO. Paddy’s relapse is a disheartening moment, or would be if the same tactics that O’Conner has utilized to distance his audience in the film’s first two acts hadn’t sterilized its characters completely, complicated by the fact that at the moment of Paddy’s defeat, Tommy embraces his father, for the first time, perhaps ever, and comforts him at the nadir of his malady. Tommy has won, and he moves forward, on to Brendan, toward actualization, in only way actualization is understood by impoverished young males – fighting.
Brendan forces his empathy into the cage with Tommy, despite Brendan’s trainer screaming that Tommy is not his brother, and that Brendan should do right by the warrior’s credo and destroy with prejudice the object that stands in his way. To Brendan, as warrior, there can be no familial past with Tommy, because there can be no Tommy-as-person, but when Brendan takes his brother to the floor, he offers up love, in the immediate sense, apart from any sort of biased forgiveness of past wrongs. Tommy taps.
Again, through defeat, there is rapprochement. The brothers exit the cage, Brendan’s arm around Tommy, compassionate. They move straight toward the camera, one that has found stability, until they are past it, and that final barrier to connection is overcome. The two share the frame, pointedly. Bloodied and shaking, they are exhausted, but unified.
Ivan’s Childhood: Reflections Beyond the River
There are things that will always be out of our grasps. Some of these things are tangible objects, a beautiful man or woman, a better job, more money, and the struggle seems all the more fruitless because you know, deep inside, these things can be obtained, have been by others. But not you. Then, there are those dreams for which we reach that we will never touch, impossible goals, conceivable, but, ultimately unattainable, and the struggle seems all the more beautiful for it. Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Ivan’s Childhood exists in this dreamscape. It is a film of smoke, of water, of substances that refuse to take shape. It is the past that can never be altered. It is the future that will never come.
Still, we reach.
Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) is a child of war, a soldier, courageous and agile and headstrong the way only an adolescent can be. He crosses through enemy swamps undetected. He refuses to cough up answers. Around him, his temporary guardians plot to send Ivan to military school, away from the front, and the inherent dangers of the battlefield, but Ivan will not be swayed. He has no concept of Ivan as child. There are vague recollections of youth that come to him in dreams, in which he’s playing with his mother, or a young girl who might be his sister, but these moments are gone. These people are dead. Ivan finds counterpoint in the company of adults. Will he be the braggadocios Captain Kholin? Or, perhaps he is more like the young Galtsev. Director of Photography Vadim Yusov shoots Galtsev and Ivan as equals from the moment the two are introduced, and Ivan stands tall in frame against Galtsev’s interrogations. Ivan meets his gaze. They are doubles. Later, as Ivan tells his story of escape from boarding school, Galtsev is seen in the mirror, listening intently, as if he, himself, is Ivan, reflecting back a decade, to some distant past, when he was someone else entirely.
Or maybe Ivan will turn out like the derelict he meets while attempting to go AWOL. The man is a crazy soul in wont of a nail, which he has misplaced ages ago. Still, he searches amongst the rubble of the house where his family, like Ivan’s, has been killed. “Oh, Lord,” he says. “When will this all end?” He locks himself behind what’s left of his gate. For him the war is lost. It has been for some time.
When Ivan dreams, he is staring down a well with his mother, looking at the impossible reflection of a star in the shape of a cross. He reaches, and his hands are in the water, so close, but the star is a mirage. Even in his sweetest dreams of youth, salvation is an abstract concept. “You needn’t get so worked up over the smallest things,” a voice advises, and now Ivan’s mother is gone, too, has become a symbol, far above Ivan, who, trapped by his longings, cannot escape the well he’s crawled into.
Ivan is a symbol, though, too. He is youth, and he is vitality, and for this reason Kholin (Valentin Zubkov), against all better judgment of, hey, having a prepubescent boy on the front-line fighting Germans is a stupid idea, keeps him close. When Ivan is around, there is still some semblance of hope and innocence. He is a glimpse beyond the war, perhaps to Kholin’s own childhood, when things were simpler. Kholin is trapped also, exhausted by battle, by disappointment and death. A beautiful nurse, Masha (Valentina Malyavina), catches his eye and Kholin pursues her in the woods, but there is nothing genial about his seduction. He is verbally aggressive, physically imposing. When the two kiss, it is against Masha’s will, and Kholin holds her tight, above a deep crevasse, as if, could he will himself to let go, she would disappear forever, perhaps never having existed to begin with.
A song, played in a devastated bunker on a battered phonograph, reminds the men of her. “They tell Masha not to go beyond the river” a voice croons, as Kholin and Galtsev sit in silence. “They tell Masha not to love the young man.” It is a song of transgression, of lost innocence, an innocence which Kholin destroyed in the woods, which the war destroyed in Kholin. The real Masha enters the room while the song plays, but Masha is being transferred, and Ivan has disappeared, and only the record is there to comfort them that, yes, at one time, there was more to life than this terrible bunker, this omnipresence of war, the quantity of which can only be measured by its own stinking void of loss.
The film ends with two juxtaposing sequences. The first is documentary footage of the aftermath of World War II, blown out buildings, corpses lining the street. The wife and daughters of the infamous Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, whom he poisoned with cyanide, lay next to his charred body. Ivan is now just a photograph in on a report, disposed from whatever file it was kept in. He’s been captured, tortured, killed. What did they expect?
Part of Ivan, though, is elsewhere, on a pristine beach, with his mother. He drinks from a bucket, a body of water easily consumed, contained, not like the well with its illusion of heaven, or the river of the song with its mysterious dangers, or the swamp, which looks so much like the sexual awaking of the woods, but offers only gunfire and bloodshed, or the ocean Ivan runs along in his dream, or in his death, chasing a young girl, his sister, his mother, Masha, until he outruns her (and what’s he chasing now?), his arm outstretched, so pathetic, so inexperienced, and we see ourselves in him, and he is real.
Real Talk: Before Sunrise and the Connection of Nostalgia
Three months into 2013, and already one of the most buzzed about films of the year is Richard Linklater’s long awaited follow up to his Sunrise trilogy, Before Midnight. Do I care? It’s been over a decade since I first fell in love with Linklater’s vérité style of urgent philosophizing, characters frustrated with identity, and society, and growing up, and wanting to talk endlessly about it all. Like a lot of high school students, I connected deeply with this search, and knew that somewhere inside the confluent streams of ideas and voices, maybe there would be answers, maybe even the, capital-A, Answer.
So, I bought every Linklater film available, most of which I still own, The Newton Boys gathering dust in a stack against the wall, and subjected my closest friends to repeated basement screenings of Waking Life and Dazed and Confused. I shelled out forty pounds and took a date to the premier of Fast Food Nation (terrible, terrible idea), and sat rapt at an inspirational lecture Linklater gave on filmmaking. When I finished Before Sunset, one rainy afternoon my freshman year of college, I was inflicted with a strange melancholia that lasted for days, and thought, yes, this is love.
Smash cut, 2013. Linklater hasn’t made an interesting film in six years, and I’m staring at a snap-case DVD edition of Before Sunrise (there’s even a full screen option!). Ethan Hawke’s disgusting 90s goatee lurches dangerously close to Julie Delpy’s face, and seems to be a terrible harbinger for a one-night-stand, philosophical or otherwise. What did I see in these two? Was this romantic in the 90s? Did it move me then? Would it now? What was the deal with goatees?
And the DVD is in, and the train is moving, and an old German couple are arguing, and it’s jarring because there’s no subtitles, and Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are about to begin a romance that will span three films. The two put aside their pretentious novels and get to talking in the dining car, and despite looking like a junkie from a 1950s PSA, Jesse convinces Celine that she should impetuously get off the train and hang out with him in Vienna until morning. I guess charisma goes a long way.
Delpy is the much stronger actor of the two, as Hawke sort of mugs and makes awkward transitions between thoughts, but for some reason I’m completely engaged in these two young lovers, younger than me now, who are so hungry for self-discovery they throw caution to the wind at every chance. Let’s talk to strangers and visit a graveyard and make out, because who knows about anything? Life is a swirling orgasm of excitement and ennui and you might as well get your kicks in while you can because the other three hundred and sixty four days you’ll probably be parked in front of MTV with a bong and a bowl of cereal watching popular music piss itself down the drain. Ah, to be young again.
Sunrise has more to offer than nostalgia, however. Though Jesse and Celine’s colloquies, which are often fascinating in themselves, take up ninety percent of the screen time, Linklater uses subtle visual and editing techniques to explore the nature of communication in a vague though impactful manner. The tactic of dropping an audience into the film during a foreign conversation is given extra merit midway through the movie at a restaurant filled with foreign conversation. Cinematographer Lee Daniel, whose perfunctory work on Linklater’s walking and talking pictures always keeps dialogue in the foreground, lingers on various couples speaking French and German and English, each exchange as important as the last. While this is a trick that emulates a similar scene in Linklater’s breakout, Slacker, the global setting of Before Sunrise, and the restaurant in particular, takes the film briefly out of its own closed circuit. In the morning, a sterile tracking shot, indicative of the couple’s reemergence into “real time,” follows Jesse and Celine to a cellar window where, inside, a man is playing Bach on a harpsichord. The camera cuts to the couple’s POV, in their naïve voyeurism, and the sense of magic is rekindled. Celine and Jesse dance to his music, and the man plays away, unaware that right above him hearts are beating in ¾ time.
Perhaps this isn’t an accurate depiction of life, or love. It’s not the life, or love, I know, anyhow, with its miasmas of antagonism and confusion. Love, as a whole, is too complex for one night of romance, too complex for romance in general, probably. Jesse and Celine aren’t in love, no, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in their infatuation, in their passion for life, and each other, and themselves. This is just one moment, a marvelous moment when two people meet and anything can happen, when the mystery of life seems to contradict everything else, every harsh reality, every disappointment, and open itself up, and in six months, in ten years, in twenty years, who knows? Who knows about anything?
OSCAR MONTH BONUS ROUND: G.O.A.T. EDITION
If given the list of all the Academy Award nominees for each category, what would a greatest Academy Awards of all time look like? Weeding out the minor categories, who would take home the coveted trophies? Would Celia Johnson have a leg up on Jodie Foster? Can Roger Deakins compare to Freddie Young? Film fans, I present to you, my real dream picks, a cross section of some of the finest acting, directing, and cinematography the Academy has ever recognized.
And just think of the backstage drama…
All About Eve
The Godfather, Pt. 2
The Last Picture Show
Lawrence of Arabia
Sunrise, A Song of Two Humans
There Will Be Blood
The Thin Red Line
Winner – Raging Bull
Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window
Akira Kurosawa, Ran
David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia
Jane Campion, The Piano
Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
Winner – Orson Welles
Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot
Nicolas Cage, Adaptation
Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront
Peter O’Toole , Lawrence of Arabia
Rober De Niro, Raging Bull
Winner –Nicholas Cage
Bette Davis, All About Eve
Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter
Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream
Francis McDormand, Fargo
Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs
Winner –Bette Davis
Charlie Kafuman (and Donald!), Adaptation
John Michael Hayes, Rear Window
Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Picture Show
Robert Bolt, Lawrence of Arabia
Wolfgang Peterson, Das Boot
Winner, Those Fabulous Kaufman Brothers
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad
Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous
Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander
Paddy Chayefsky, Network
Woody Allen, Interiors
Winner – Paddy Chayefsky
Emmanuel Lubezki, The New World
Freddie Young, Lawrence of Arabia
Michael Chapman, Raging Bull
Roger Deakins, True Grit
Vilmos Zsigmond, The River
Winner –Emmanuel Lubezki
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Thief of Bagdad
Winner - 2001: A Space Odyssey
Foreign Language Film
Fanny and Alexander
Knife in the Water
Raise the Red Lantern
Winner (Tie) – Fanny and Alexander and Mon Oncle
For All Mankind
Man on Wire
Winner – For All Mankind
Ill Stills Episode Six – The Grand Oscar Month Podcast
In episode six, Kevin Hinman and Arison Cain give Oscar Month a glorious send off by venting their frustrations about Argo, the Academy’s penchant for blandness, and why the sassy old man archetype is as uninspired as a little kid who swears. Also, bad puns galore and a third act twist that’s sure to disappoint almost everyone. It’s an Ill Stills podcast for the ages!
Spoiler level: none.
Rebel Without a Pulse,
OSCAR MONTH: DREAM PICKS
Picture – Amour
Director – Michael Haneke, Amour
Actress – Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Actor – Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
S. Actress – Sally Field, Lincoln
S. Actor – Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Adapted Screenplay – Lincoln
Original Screenplay – Moonrise Kingdom
Cinematography – Anna Karenina
Costume Design – Anna Karenina
Editing – Lincoln
Score – Skyfall
Song – Adele, Skyfall
Production Design – Anna Karenina
Sound Editing – Django Unchained
Sound Mixing – Skyfall
Visual Effects – Life of Pi
Documentary – The Invisible War
Foreign Language – Amour
Animated Short – Fresh Guacamole
OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY NOMINEE 2012 – SKYFALL
Nobody did it better than Roger Deakins. At sixteen years old, when I saw The Man Who Wasn’t There, saw a hubcap floating off a tire in slow motion in beautiful black and white, I understood for the first time that film could be art. Deakins’ style was so prominent that, for a blossoming cinephile, it became easy to connect the dots. Of course the lavish Kundun and the stark Jarhead, and the mesmerizing Jesse James were all shot by the same genius of composition and lighting. Look at the golden hues. Look at those unwavering close ups. Roger Deakins kept the Coen’s grounded and breathed life into the often questionable projects of Sam Mendes. On Mendes’ Skyfall, Deakins’ cinematographic aptitude does an incredible amount of heavy lifting, and helps elevate the latest entry in the James Bond franchise to something resembling, though not quite, art, but swept up in the changing tide of blockbuster aesthetics, the cinematographer abandons his stamp of confident nuance, delivering a film that is discernibly gorgeous, though, too often, stylistically derivative.
Skyfall’s abominable script-by-committee pits a rather lugubrious James Bond (Daniel Craig) against Javier Bardem’s Silva, a *yawn* former MI6 agent who attempts to kill M (Judi Dench) through *ug* cyber-terrorism. Oh, and Silva has a secret island. High five. Mendes and Deakins’ all but shove the script to the background, doubling down on the melancholy sexuality that has become a staple of Craig’s 007 projects. Deakins’ new penchant for the lightweight Arri Alexa digital camera gives the film a detached, voyeuristic look, rejecting the tired element of wish-fulfillment that has long been crucial to the James Bond franchise. The Skyfall audience only gets to watch Bond, never gets to be Bond and lose itself in the fabrication of the action hero archetype, but this approach is nothing new. The superhero movie has changed, and yeah, Bond is a superhero, and alienation is the new wish fulfillment, and murky is the new sleek, and this is all standard operating procedure for the genre post-Nolan, post-Pfister.
The Dark Knight looms mightily over Skyfall, in its textual grit and cynicism, in its protagonist’s laconic dread, and most importantly, in its visual pallet. Wally Pfister’s influence has been creeping into action cinema steadily since his game-changing involvement in Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot, and on Skyfall, it almost threatens to overwhelm Deakins. Bond’s arrival on Silva’s secret island (high five…come on, don’t leave me hanging), a low angle shot that slowly rises as well-dressed men with pistols fill the frame, could have been any number of scenes from Inception. Bond standing atop the new MI6 building as a flag waves in the background is the iconic Batman redemption moment. During Skyfall’s climax, Deakins even takes pains to replicate the grit of film, which Nolan and Pfister insist on using, juxtaposing jarring source lights (a helicopter spotlight, bright yellow bulbs, a blazing red fire) against the pitch black of the Scottish countryside. Pfister shot on IMAX. Deakins blew up high-res images in post.
When it’s not Pfister and Nolan whom Deakins is aping, it’s Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar-Wai. Skyfall’s most impressive scene, in which Bond tracks an assassin through the dreamy lighting of a Shanghai skyscraper, would be even more impressive if it wasn’t so obviously imitative of Doyle’s work on Fallen Angels and 2046. Shooting through neon soaked glass, the endless reflection of bright greens and blues, it’s all stunning, but it’s not Deakins, it’s Doyle. The courtroom shoot-up? It’s Pfister. Deakins tries out every hat in the book only to lose his voice in the blockbuster realm, as if the project is too unwieldy, too haphazard, to adhere to any concept of auteurship. Where is Sam Mendes in this mess? A knockout Judi Dench performance gets shuffled from inane plot point A to inane plot point B. Craig looks absolutely miserable. Only the sound crew seems to be having fun.
I almost changed the above still when I looked back at my True Grit write up and realized the Deakins’ shots I’d chosen for both films were almost identical. A single, warm light source illuminates a dead body, or bodies, capturing the quiet of death, the almost unperceivable change that occurs in the air when a life is lost. In a film buckling under the weight of influence, it’s a moment that’s pure Roger Deakins, and a reminder of why I fell in love with his body of work in the first place. Will I be frustrated if the Academy hands Deakins the award on Sunday? No. The cinematography is consistently striking. It’s not as if Roger Deakins has lost his talent, not one iota. The framing is perfect, and the lighting is perfect, but that natural evolution of an artist whose vision has towered over his peers for so long is missing. Like Skyfall is so keen to reiterate, sometimes the old ways are best.