REVIEW “Eye In the Sky:” False Promise of Rigorous Ethical Meditation Obfuscate Glaring Jingoistic Project

REVIEW “Eye In the Sky:” False Promise of Rigorous Ethical Meditation Obfuscate Glaring Jingoistic Project

Eye in the Sky opens with a quote on black. “Truth,” the title card waxes, “is the first casualty in war.”

The point is resonant and well taken, but it’s hard to say if the film itself agrees with the adage at all, and, even if we’re to assume it does, whose truth is liable to atrophy in war is extremely ambiguous, if not purposefully obscured.

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Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” a Surprising Triumph, Delight

Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” a Surprising Triumph, Delight

Horror movies are the best movies. There. I said it.

Horror’s ability to dramatize larger-than-life threats (monsters, ghosts, demons, psychos) in order to disseminate resonant and cogent themes that reflect and meditate on the very nature of fear itself provides the genre’s Achilles heal and elevating grace. When horror films fail to suspend our disbelief or provide convincing writing and performances, it can fail miserably at its own objectives: to scare and to ponder. But, when horror succeeds at provoking immersion and conviction, and engenders a textured, multi-layered approach to fear, it can soar above all other films in its unique ability to do that which it sets out to do: scare us. tl;dr: when horror films are good, they’re really, really good and when they’re bad they’re rotten. I was surprised and delighted to find Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane situated in the former category.

“10 Cloverfield Lane manages to animate the idea that the biggest threats and terrors can come from within the domestic space and from within our own families rather than the more evident dangers from outside the doors of our supposed refuges.”

Wielding the virtues of a stunning cast and a big budget, 10 Cloverfield Lane succeeds at delivering any horror maven’s desires: 1) effective jump scares, the bounty of which any adrenalin-junkie is in constant pursuit 2) codification of fear towards the film’s central diegetic threats (apocalypse, confinement, kidnapping) and 3) rumination on insidious, non-diegetic fear (which I will soon elucidate). All of these elements constituate the film’s brilliant thematic work.

The film follows Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010]), who leaves her fiancée in the middle of the night in pursuit of greener pastures only to be driven off of the road by an irate truck driver (it’s less trope-y and “done” than it sounds). She wakes up in a cinder block cell, with a now-broken leg chained to the wall. She manages to use an water-drip IV to retrieve her personal affects from across the room, including her surprisingly not-dead phone, but she has no cellular service. She’s underground. Enter Howard, played by John Goodman (who begs no introduction, obvs), who brings a tray of food and benevolently urges Michelle to stay hydrated and “get handy” with a pair of crutches. In the coming days, Michelle learns that her surroundings are but one room in a surprisingly cozy bunker (which looks like equal parts the Dharma bunker from Lost and a studio set from the apartment of insert-your-favorite-sitcom-here) which she shares not only with Howard, but also with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. of Short Term 12 [2012]) a Podunk simpleton who holds Howard in nothing but the highest regard for his foresight in constructing and generosity in sharing a bunker built for a doomsday scenario which has apparently taken hold of the nation somewhere in between the inciting car accident and Michelle waking up. The nature of the Armageddon is unclear–Howard offers hypotheses ranging from nuclear blasts at the hands of “the Russkis” to extraterrestrial probes. Michelle is skeptical, convinced that she’s being held for nefarious purposes rather than protective ones. Whether or not the apocalyptic scenario is actual (and, therefore, whether or not the strange and short-fused Howard is a hero or a villain) forms the central mystery of the film.


On paper, it sounds like 10 Cloverfield Lane takes its cues from the exposition of Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt minus the comedic impulses and War of the Worlds, but the premise is articulated with what feels like utter-freshness as we are immediately encouraged to think that this is not a film we’ve seen played out before. The film’s relationship with not-so-acclaimed Cloverfield (2008) is only established, rather negligibly, in the last 15 minutes of the film, and its association with the antecedent film is liberated from the pesky shaky-cam and found-footage aesthetic. (The script was developed independent of the 2008 film, and it shows).

One of the greatest strengths of the film derives from its mise-en-scene which successfully impresses upon us the confinement and the sense of always being watched (as well as the contrivance of the bunker’s resemblance to a family home) of the characters, but additionally generates a prosthetic sense of confinement for the audience. The pacing of the film is on fire (save for a regrettable time-is-passing montage that shows Michelle, Emmett, and Howard to be getting along as a content, surrogate nuclear family) with every breath of stagnancy punctuated immediately by a scream-provoking cut, a chase sequence, or a big-reveal. The performances also shine brightly, chiefly in Goodman’s case.


Goodman makes an unlikely candidate for a dramatic, nay, terrifying, role, but his tendency towards comedic timing only contributes to the uneasiness of the film, as much of his dialogue is simultaneously pathetically laughable and highly unnerving. (He treats Michelle to home-distilled vodka, lamenting “I just said I distilled it, I didn’t say anything about it actually tasting good,” and he apologizes to Michelle about the circumstances offering, “I know that this isn’t the life that you prefer, and that it’s been hard for you to come down here… but I really want us to be a happy family, you and me”). As the audience attempts the tenuous process of deciding whether to loathe or root for Howard, Goodman provides the requisite nuance to evoke pity, horror, and above all, confusion. Primarily, we find out Howard is estranged from his daughter, Meghan, a reveal which is likely to provoke a pout in solidarity with Howard even as we are equally suspicious of his motives as Michelle.

Additionally, Winstead makes a great kickass heroine or “last girl.” In the first place, her characterization elides the Sci-Fi/fantasy impulse to masculinize it’s central female characters (re: Ripley of Alien fame, cuz, you know, women can’t be tough unless they’re basically manly). In fact, it is actually the female-coded skills of sewing and fashion design which allow Michelle to triumph over her circumstances–a properly badass gender and genre subversion. But, whatever the moment, Michelle provides a portrayal of the consummate survivor, scrappy, spry, and resourceful: at times, she endeavors to placate Howard, and at others she defies and mutinizes against him. This interplay advances greatly the thematics of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which dramatizes issues of (abusive) father-daughter relationships through the hyperbolized stakes of this surrogate family–Howard is simultaneously the bungling sitcom father, “just doing his best” as well as the twisted and monstrous parental archetype so familiar to horror films (albeit these portrayals are usually emblemized through a woman, see also: Psycho and Carrie). With the threat of apocalypse looming large, albeit somewhere in the background, 10 Cloverfield Lane manages to animate the idea that the biggest threats and terrors can come from within the domestic space and from within our own families rather than the more evident dangers from outside the doors of our supposed refuges.

SPOILER-SATURATED CONCLUSION AFTER THE JUMP

Continue reading “Review: “10 Cloverfield Lane” a Surprising Triumph, Delight”

Yamaguchi’s Short in “10 Nights of Dreams”

Andre Bazin once wrote of that “Photography and the cinema… satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence our obsession with realism” (Bazin, 312). While many film writers at the time focused on different aspects of film’s language, it cannot be denied that cinema’s ability to connote the index has been overdetermined in cinematic writings. The far more striking ability inherent to the cinema is not the index, the art of imitation, or “an image of the world… formed automatically without the intervention of man,” but rather, cinema’s ability to depict in real-time the bizarre, absurd, and seemingly uncapturable nature of poetics, dreams, surrealism, and fantasy (Bazin, 313).

Yamaguchi’s 10 Nights of Dreams short brilliantly underscores this point. Using a mixture of editing and mask-work to turn human beings into pig-human hybrids (two fat men snort instead of speak, and Yoshino turns into a pig-nosed woman right before Shotaro’s eyes), Yamaguchi highlights the film medium’s ability to represent something outside of the scope of reality, but animates these fictions in a convincing nature. Perhaps it would be better to say of cinema that it can present images with no referent as if they were born out of reality: Yamaguchi’s dream sequence looks scarcely less real than the realist cinema that fascinated Bazin, yet it has no index. Setting aside even special effects, the logic, or lack thereof, of Yamaguchi’s short elides film language–processes like parallel montage, accelerated montage, montage by attraction, all of which Bazin uses to elucidate his pro-realism writings–instead favoring the manic, nonsensical, nonlinear, and outrageous logic of dreams. For example, Shotaro recalls Genai’s advice to use his magic-broomstick-like staff to get out of dangerous situations at a moment that feels too convenient, in fact, utterly contrived. Going further, certain narrative information is given and then redacted. At the end of the short, Shotaro announces his imminent death. The narrator announces he lived until 138. Cut-to Genai saying he would become an astronaut. Cut-to Shotaro as an astronaut confirming his claims. Finally, the pace of the film is inconsistent, connoting the elusive temporality of dreams rather than reality.

In contrast with Bazin, Benjamin, a contemporary, seemed to predict film’s predisposition to poetic realism above indexical realism and man’s intervention above the concept of film as unmediated by an artist’s hand. Conversely, Benjamin wrote, “The entire process of film is determined by… intervention,” and “Nothing shows more graphically that art has escaped the realm of ‘beautiful semblance’” (Benjamin, 238-240). Yamaguchi’s film shows that film can vividly animate scenarios that transcend the scope of our lived reality, but the image he provides is no less true, to the extent that everyone feels and experiences dreams; the images from our dreams are thus true, yet they elide a rendering that privileges realism.

word count: 462

Works Cited:

Bazin, André, and Hugh Gray. “The ontology of the photographic image.”Film Quarterly 13.4 (1960): 4-9.

Benjamin, Walter. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.”Visual Culture: Experiences in Visual Culture (2011): 144-137.

 

 

The Persistence of the Gaze as an Unwelcome Other in Le Bonheur

The Persistence of the Gaze as an Unwelcome Other in Le Bonheur

Excerpt–Intro

Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda’s 1965 film, opens with two rotating shots of sunflowers in the French countryside, coupling the opening credits at the beginning of the film. The returning floral motif in the film could be said merely to represent typical notions of femininity, in which the fragility and beauty of a flower are meant to express these qualities as ideal feminine traits. The flowers in this sequence might merely serve to demonstrate the beauty and cheerfulness of a family’s day in the countryside, or to establish the “happiness” of the couple through the bright colors and formal beauty of abounding flora. But, the sunflower sequence does something else, too: the circular, iris-like center of a sunflower in bloom becomes a visual metaphor for the oculus, or eye, itself, and the two sunflowers could be said to be looking at each other, performing a non-traditional shot-reverse-shot sequence. This might seem an incidental, or completely erroneous, observation, but the rapid-cutting employed towards the end of the sequence mirrors a de-facto shot-reverse-shot sequence towards the middle of the film, exposing the true work and coding of the interplay between the sunflowers. In Varda’s vision, 

Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 4.42.27 PMThe sunflower sequence (left) is edited precisely like the shot-reverse-shot sequence on the right.

sunflowers, innocuous and ubiquitous, are just as likely owners of gaze as people, positing that viewers and voyeurs are ever-present, as an unwelcome third party witnessing or sharing a private event. Not only do the sunflowers seem to share a conversational interplay like two people in a shot reverse shot, but the second flower take focus (literally) away from the family at the center of the film, interrupting the first sunflower’s beholding of them and obfuscating them. In Le Bonheur, an affair becomes a metaphor for this unwelcome other. Gaze is like a mistress–it is an unwelcome third participant, that, like the foregrounding of the second sunflower, or the sunflower’s apparent gaze itself, detracts and steals from a private interaction between two people.