Friday, January 24, 2014

Somewhere (2010)

"He is (lame).  He just happens to be there...sitting somewhere.  He doesn't have any initiative or determination.  He doesn't ask for anything.  He does what (his publicists) tell him to do, but we (rarely) hear a word from him.  He does not make life happen, he waits for others to make it happen, and then perhaps reacts.  He's not going anywhere with his life, and he doesn't even care that he's not going anywhere.

This description fits all too many men today, not only in our American culture, but in much of the world.  Most men do not know how to motivate themselves.  If they have any motivation at all, it is for some form of immediate money, sex or power.  Nothing more.  They have no internal motivation, and without the external motivations of sex/power/money, they do not know how to choose or make decisions about what they want to do with their lives." Richard Rohr OFM (Three Kinds of Men)

For all of Somewhere's overt geometrical symbolism that bookends the film, we are unfortunately left with too few (if any) emotional touchstones.  "I'm fucking nothing.  Not even a (film)".  It's more lost in translation than Lost in Translation.  I am always intrigued by Sofia's interest in seeking out something human in the world of extreme privilege & excess, but she seems so opposed to her characters potentially Breaking Bad that she instead breaks bland - especially with Johnny Marco.

I disagree with Ebert that Johnny is experiencing depression.  There seems to be no internal dilemma or discontentment which may be cause for some form of chemical imbalance - or vice versa.  He isn't apparently experiencing anything except a brief buzz or erection - neither of which he seems to really desire as much as sleep.  He has no emotional life, and doesn't seem aware that such an experience actually exists.  He seems confused when he receives various text messages that asks "why are you such an asshole?" or "what's your fucking problem?".   When asks if he studied method acting, he replies that he doesn't really follow a particular method. :)  When asks "Who is Johnny Marco?", he replies, "ummm...".

All this seems to suggest that Sofia intentionally created an extremist white male character of excessive privilege with no inner (spiritual/emotional) life.  He isn't even self-possessed enough to be a true narcissist.  He just seems removed - mostly childlike in his interactions - extremely obedient.  An arrested adolescent who is neither content or discontent - who doesn't experience guilt or shame or happiness or joy.

It feels like an (opportune) indictment on the Utopian fantasy of white male privilege - money, sex, celebrity, privacy, and non-ethnic ubiquity (with the exception of non-white servants of course).  All this without apology, awareness of other, desire for meaning, or (subversively) without need to violently defend or justify these fantastical circumstances.  ("ummm")  Somehow though, it doesn't translate as an indictment - as one (white male) review states, "Her film captures this sense of wonder and of estrangement from self..." - as if that is something we should want to experience or "capture", which only seems to confirm the fantasy (even if inadvertent).  What was meant to be poetic, might (beneath the surface) actually be political.

The film ultimately, however, seems to fail as a poem or a politic. Cleo (12 year old daughter) is supposed to be the vehicle of awareness & change for Johnny.  (This is where the film really begins to lose it's ground.)  She is juxtaposed against every other dehumanized, objectified female in the film - which appears to be the point - but Johnny only recognizes this in the most extremely subtle of ways (as if Sofia is intent to avoid any emotional device within a thousand yards of melodrama), which makes the final (could have been really powerful) scene completely unearned as either reality (walking dead?), symbol (into the wild?), or metaphor (shawshank?).


To help me explain, I will default to a portion of Kartina Richardson's enlightening review...

The banality of the surface is an attractive and easy subject to explore successfully for those wishing to create art, but who, for whatever reason, are unable to think about the metaphysical ideas that make great film great films. This is because they have vulgarized trying. They are minimizing. For lack of better articulation at the moment, I will awkwardly call it the “Countersignaling” movement or aesthetic. 
(In Coppola's films, and films that share a similar style (I hesitate to use the term mumblecore because it’s farther reaching than that), trying is not only vulgar but unenlightened; trying to be sexy, fancy, feminine, masculine, or successful. Trying to do anything big is bad. In a small way this is good; there is no shortage of awful hollywood blockbusters that promote ridiculously plastic ideas that confine.) 
Countersignaling is an aesthetic unique to the very privileged. Of the young, white, educated, liberal, upper middle/middle class. It isn't a celebrated attitude of poor Americans, or the children of immigrants, or Americans of color of any economic class. It isn't an attractive aesthetic to those who have already been minimized by the world and fight against that to assert their value. 
But as much as I dislike the aesthetic I do understand why it exists. Countersignaling is a reaction to plasticity. Money grants automatic importance and for many liberal, artistic, educated folk, that privilege leads to discomfort and guilt. But a caving to that guilt instead of true examination, turns the artist’s work into a constant minimizing. The result then is false: If it were actual minimization the film itself would not exist. The very act of making something is, to to varying degrees, asserting your voice, asserting your importance, trying. So the film is reaching. Reaching in every way for diffidence (shot composition, costume, music, casting, etc) when real diffidence is not actually there. 
The mundanity of our realities and the moments we escape numbness are actually extremely interesting. Appealing because they have both light and dark sides, but Coppola only makes small comments on the surface of these moments. She never delves deeper. I don't want to see characters sweetly discovering and experiencing these moments. I’d much rather see characters creating escape like Kit in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands.

As the engaged observer, I was desperate to discover, experience, and grieve with Johnny his "nothingness" - his emotional poverty - his need for maturity - his need to be known - as I have been able to do with Kit, Jake LaMotta, Freddie Quell, Solomon Northup, and even Llewyn Davis.  Sofia did not allow me that grace, because she never allowed Johnny to experience it for himself. That makes me question her own relationship with grace.  After-all, this is her third film about this particular "condition" of celebrity.  Even if I understand what this trilogy might mean for us - I am even more curious about what it means for her.  The scene where Johnny is sending Cleo off to camp, he yells, "Sorry I haven't been around!".  She can't hear him due to the loud helicopter behind him - which felt reminiscent of Apocalypse Now footage, where Sofia would have been close to Cleo's age.  Is she subtly grieving her childhood - or feeling antagonistic about Hollywood?

Is she using these three films to confess her own privileges as an "independent" artist?  Or hide them?

I don't know.

Who is Sofia Coppola?


Monday, January 13, 2014

Raging Bull (1980)

“Raging Bull” is not a film about boxing but about a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution." - Roger Ebert

This wasn't a film Martin Scorsese cared about creating. Robert De Niro had been trying to get it launched for almost a decade (with Scorsese in mind), but Marty had never been interested in sports, especially boxing. Fascinating then, that Raging Bull would become one of his most personal artistic expressions. Scorsese's previous film New York, New York had failed critically and bombed at the box office. He was going through a divorce, and he eventually landed in the hospital due to cocaine abuse. This experience is sometimes known as "hitting your bottom".  It's a crisis of limitation that often leads to grieving losses/failures and engaging self-confrontation/self-reflection. Raging Bull evolved from this process within Scorsese as he discovered himself within the fragmented, emotionally impoverished character of Jake La Motta. It was here he realized that "the most difficult opponent in the boxing ring is yourself".

(Raging Bull went on to become the capstone of the New American Cinema. Like many films from that era and before, the combination of deep introspection with dramatic dreamlike images is what we have come to know as cinema or cinematic.)

Scorsese ends the film (not really a spoiler) with a semi-confusing title card that is more suggestive of his own awakening process than of the protagonist...

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind.  
“Give glory to God by telling the truth,”they said. “We know this man is a sinner.” 
He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know.  
One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

The often misinterpreted scripture quote from John 9 seems to serve two or maybe three purposes. First, it was a way of honoring one of Scorsese's professors (a significant mentor) from NYU who had died just before the film was finished. Second, it's (again) about Marty's personal "rehabilitation" process, himself stating that he had "learned something" or gained some insight through this wilderness filmmaking experience. However, Scorsese also suggested that the quote was in part for the audience, who may find themselves passing judgement on La Motta, rather than embracing the opportunity to 'see' and understand this violent man as a mirror of ourselves and our society.

This 'mirror' is essentially the spiritual core of every lyrical image in the film.

Religious imagery, iconography, and rites of service are embedded in almost every scene. The icons are often observers of sexual dysfunction, brutal violence, and emotional dishonesty. La Motta's world is hyper-religious. It's full of his own controlling, paranoid expectations for how others should meet his demands (before he has even articulated them). He creates his own religion of violent, toxic narcissism. Even more than his judgement for his friends & enemies, he condemns himself to brutal punishment, where he must be severely beaten, but can never allow himself to 'fall down'. Back in his corner, it even seems that he is being administered his last rites by his manager. "Confession, Penance, Absolution."

At his most broken & isolated, we find him sixty pounds heavier in a dark (night of the soul) jail cell, full of animosity for himself as he literally bangs his head & fists into the wall. He cannot breakthrough the dense barriers that have divorced him from his people & place. But at least he can see and feel them physically realized.

The final scene has Jake La Motta quoting Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) from On The Waterfront. It's the "I Coulda Been a Contender" monologue. It is interestingly layered, to say the least, as he looks in the mirror confessing to himself...

"You don't understand...I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."

I believe that Raging Bull depicts the industrialized male experience just as deeply real & symbolic today as it was almost 40 years ago, about a man from 70 years ago. Technological 'progress' has also failed, as we still find ourselves locked up in our own prisons of insecurity, shame, and suppression, without sight of our internal opposition, resistance, and anxiety. However, we are not just the prisoners, but also the guards - and like Scorsese, we might just find the keys in the places we thought the least likely.

“Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know.
One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Martin Scorsese (Introduction)

For our first series of blogposts, we will be discussing Martin Scorsese's personal relationship with the history of cinema and it's restoration, the themes of his own various cinematic narratives, why they matter, and how, through his films, we can begin developing emotional honesty, empathy, and self-reflection.  Though he is a great technical, structured director - his driving force is his desire to connect with his source material from the inside-out, so that his films are as much of an subjective, emotional expression as they are objectively told narratives.  Many of his early films were very personal, often semi-autobiographical or contextual to his own life in NYC's Little Italy - following the tension between deeply embedded Catholicism & life on the violent streets of New York.

Below is a quote from Scorsese on Scorsese discussing his connection with the script from Taxi Driver - and how it allowed him to "exorcise" his antagonistic feelings at the time.  The same process was true for me almost 25 years later. (More of that discussion to come)

"I don't think there is any difference between fantasy & reality in the way they should be approached in a film.  Of course, if you live that way you are clinically insane.  But I can ignore the boundary on film. In Taxi Driver Travis Bickle lives it out, he goes right to the edge and explodes.  When I read Paul (Schrader's) script, I realized that was exactly the way I felt, that we all have those feelings, so this was a way of embracing & admitting them, while saying I wasn't happy about them.  When you live in a city, there's a constant sense that the buildings are getting old, things are breaking down, the bridges need repairing.  At the same time society is in a state of decay.  ...So that sense of frustration goes in swings of the pendulum, only Travis thinks it's not going to swing back unless he does something about it.  It was a way of exorcising those feelings, and I have the impression that De Niro felt that too."

Almost more than experiencing Scorsese's films, I love to hear him discuss them and the many other films or life events that influenced each particular process along the way.  Developing characters and constructing images that reflect our loneliness, fear, grief, vulnerability, gratitude, joy, and everything in-between, whether direct or symbolic, is as essential to my existence as is food or sex or spirituality.

And that is what the process of Restorative Cinema is thoroughly about.  And if you experience cinema in the same way, you may indeed enjoy this discussion.  If so, please feel free to share your experiences & perspectives with us.