Film

We’re the Good Guys, Right?

We’re the Good Guys, Right?

On the Marvel movies

Marvel’s first hit, Iron Man, was released in 2008, just as the surge in Iraq was coming to a close. This marked the end of the hot wars of the Bush years and the transition to a cooler state of continuous half-war, characterized less by boots on the ground than by eyes in the sky. The Obama era revealed that the war on terror would be unlike past wars, with beginnings and ends. It was a way of life rather than a discrete event, a chronic condition rather than an acute one. The war was routinized and, with the dramatic surge in the use of drones, mechanized.

Sanctuaries of Trust and Caring

Sanctuaries of Trust and Caring

On Oscar Movies

Back in the 1990s, I predicted — maybe it was after I saw Happiness — that sound design would soon get so extreme that there would be a movie in which we heard not just the sound of salt leaving a saltshaker, but also the sound of it hitting the food. With Phantom Thread, that day has come.

The Prequel Boom

The Prequel Boom

Why do studios keep doing prequels if fans hate them? And why do fans hate them so much in the first place?

In other words, though the term is recent, the narrative technique of the prequel is not as new as it may appear. What is new, it seems, in modern prequels is their much lower ideological stakes. People were willing to kill and die over the legitimacy of Julius Caesar’s consolidation of imperial power in Rome, and despite the heated rhetoric of online debate, it is difficult to imagine anyone working up as much real-world fervor over George Lucas’s decision to posit a racial-biological basis for susceptibility to the Force in The Phantom Menace. Yet as the debates over diversity in casting and the portrayal of female leadership in the recent Star Wars films shows, story-telling decisions do carry a political-ideological charge, which is presumably not unrelated to their ability to provide the foundation for community and identity among particularly enthusiastic fans.

The Battle of Mythologies

The Battle of Mythologies

Padmaavat, protest, Bollywood, and Indian national narrative

The Padmaavat protests are remarkable chiefly for the scale of their success. All kinds of groups have protested Bollywood for offending their religious or cultural sensibilities—many for good reason—but its most faithful enemies have always have been Hindu fascists. They have hated and feared the spell the movies cast over Hindi-speaking India, because no other enterprise, save electoral democracy itself, has had more spectacular success in creating a national—and a nationalist—imagination. For its part, the movie business has always been extremely faithful to its duty as the keeper of an Indian dream. When the nation broke away from the British empire in 1947, the roaring business of Bombay commercial cinema was held together by two things: the business acumen of Partition refugees, and an undivided language—the blend of Hindi and Urdu kept alive by progressive writers and actors.

Sanctuaries of Trust and Caring

Sanctuaries of Trust and Caring

Oscars 2018

What McDonagh believes in is storytelling. Storytelling, like Catholicism, can be plunked down anywhere, and through sheer force it will conquer. So it doesn’t matter to McDonagh if he finds himself in Belgium, Joshua Tree National Park, or Missouri: he will tell his story with forceful dialogue and dramatic violence and he will get his point across: Repent, sinners!

Refusal of History

Refusal of History

The evasions of Call Me by Your Name

The film’s refusal of history may itself be a response to Italy’s legacy of adult male/adolescent boy-themed cinema. Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice dramatizes Thomas Mann’s 1911 novella about the infatuation of an aging professor (in the movie he is a composer) with a beautiful aristocratic boy as a cinematic tone-poem to an entire decadent bourgeois class cut off from vitality and passion. In Teorema, Pasolini’s 1968 spiritual and political fable, a ravishing Terence Stamp sleeps with everyone in the repressed haute-bourgeois family that welcomes him, man and woman, overseer and servant, with liberating and destructive results. Guadagnino can’t be innocent of these precursors, but he seems determined to vaporize them.

Pirates and Traders

Pirates and Traders

A sack of oat flour was mysteriously displayed on the front desk.

The traffic in Lagos is famously bad. The local driving culture dictates tailgating, honking, flashing of brights, left turns into oncoming traffic, passing on the right, and shouting (but no cursing or lewd gestures—not in such a religious country). It isn’t rare to see a car casually reversing down an on-ramp, a motorcycle scattering pedestrians on a sidewalk, or a truck inching over a highway median to make an improbable u-turn.

Heads without Bodies

Heads without Bodies

Trump has grafted his head onto our collective body, with his horror-movie hairdo always in our face.

Earlier in his career, in 1989, when he was merely a rich gasbag and an annoyance, Trump bought a big ad in the New York Times so he could publicly call for the executions of the Central Park Five, young black men accused and convicted of assault and rape. The men were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002 and released from prison. They sued the City of New York and won. Trump went out of his way last year to let voters know he still believed they were guilty. This is how he thrives. Now he has grafted his head onto our collective body, with his horror-movie hairdo always in our face. Trump’s head is struggling to control our actions and responses the same way Milland’s head struggled to control Grier’s body in this cheap movie. The devil finds work where he can. The Thing with Two Heads was too dumb to be noticed by James Baldwin in his book-length essay on race and the movies, and I had to go to Canada to run into it. Now it’s the kind of stupid we live with every day.

Notes from the Third Annual Drone Film Festival

Notes from the Third Annual Drone Film Festival

What better device than a drone to pursue a man running away?

The ability to move a camera through the air is not much younger than cinema itself, but the technology has never been so cheap and accessible, or so smooth in its execution. Even in a festival designed to celebrate it, the drone does its job so well that it’s easy to forget.

Rise of the Machines

Rise of the Machines

On the Fast and the Furious movies

Every film franchise is a testament to growth and conquest. In the case of the Marvel movies, that growth is exponential and expanding: movies beget more movies, more spinoffs, more series that emerge from spinoffs. What sets the Fast and the Furious series apart from franchises like this—at least for now—is its habit of folding all that hot-media-property energy back into itself, making the movies all the more strange and intense.