[2014] Whiplash

Power can be a frightening subject, but it can also be used to explain away the end of things. Partnerships, whether thrust upon or voluntary, are continuous, minor exchanges of power throughout. When a sovereign directs his subjects to do the bidding of the Crown, the King is exploiting his uninundated power upon ultimately powerless people. When democratic processes mask power, through funnymoney campaigns, who wins? Power can always be recast as a struggle among constituencies; always in motion, teetering atop a spinning point. At some point, every aspect breaks, in order, without notices. Nothing knows existence anymore.

Whiplash is about a power dynamic between two less-than-stellar characters; it is because the audience is watching two antiheros duke out unrepented angst for two hours across many movie months. Neither player has an emotional majority, and in seeps excess power. In blazing boorishness, JK Simmons, seething with disappointment in everything plays Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor of undetermined but presumably stellar qualifications. In crippling consternation, Miles Teller, slithering with ego and id, plays Andrew Neiman, a drummer of self-sabotage, bad luck, and unquestionable talent. The tale unfolds as typical power dynamic drama often do: one man sees the collective success of a team as his own creation and success. The other man is scratching the walls raw for approval from the gatekeeper to his success, at the behest of everything else. Audiences will inevitably attempt to piece together why this is the case through context clues (plenty) and clever story by outline omission (lots). Director Damien Chazelle masterfully shows and not tells his take on anxiety, adrenaline, and authority.

Power is not tradeable and there is no such thing as “equal power” because there is always a time dilation. The opening few scenes in Whiplash are blurry because no dynamics have yet been established, which serves this story and mood. Fletcher is a menacing presence, the audience can tell; he looms in the background, but then he tosses—no hurls—a chair at Andrew when he cannot immediately tell whether he is anchoring the piece a little fast or a little slow. Where the power play manifests is in the idea that it doesn’t matter if Andrew was playing fast or slow; it was that he was playing at all relied on the whim of a monolith determined on extracting genius FOR THE GREATER GOOD, whose good was neither great nor greater. At every step, to be particularly honest about dissecting the motivating factors for each player, we’d have to ask “for whom”? And we’d be wrong. Continue reading

[2014] Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The pulse of humanity continues to thump as though nothing changes from day to month to millennium; even nihilism makes sense stretched out over an eternal timeline. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [just Birdman for the rest of this essay] is a thrice-meta dialogue between film, a film audience and everyone else. Its message is messy and unkempt and uncomfortable and its style is prolific and unimpeachable. It plays anti- to almost every convention, even the anti-convention of bakers’ dozen favorite Boyhood, which was a deeply boring and inauthentic approach to cinema verité. Its whole gimmick – and yes it was a gimmick – was that it followed the same cast around a coming-of-age, one-size-fits-all approach to growing up. Birdman, essentially and almost certainly accidentally flips it the proverbial bird, daring to ask, “is this it?” Boyhood asks us to inspect the shit, then eat it, while Birdman thumps through it, seemingly at random, slicing life, not into categories bounded by “age,” but into tiny pieces that can’t be ordered.

Birdman the film feels like a culmination of a century of film-making but Birdman the film also acts as a secret joke between friends, which adds a whole order of long-and short-form narrative. Alejandro González Iñárritu directly points at Alfonso Cuarón (director of 2013’s marvel, Gravity, and 2006’s non-nominated Children of Men) and utters something about a “single shot,” chuckles, and collects a trophy to pair with his…trophies. Birdman in turn collects a stunning number of film tropes into a mess of moments: magical realism, the myth of super, Hays impersonations, comedy of remarriage, meta-narrative, among others, and crosses between the World Trade Center with no net. It, for lack of a better word, works. The casting is kinetic: Michael Keaton is electric; Edward Norton is characteristically ugly and charismatic; Emma Stone took a break from the latest Miyazaki to eyeball the world without blinking; Naomi Watts shines like an undying fluorescent bulb. They have summed to triumph, as it wasn’t enough to just have the idea, and execute, but also to electrify.

Birdman the audience demands introspection from this film and it gets the uncanny collusion of collective narcissism and mystified mental health. Together, these conditions mirror the state of the union circa 2014. The world suffocates inside own self-importance and the stigma of “I don’t feel well” is unironically swept under the positivity rug. The everyman, he who would be King, balks at reality, as he can escape to Instagram or Facebook or to the quick-fix brigade. She who would be Queen sees the world in three-by-five, not an index card, but a glass screen, through which she can collect “likes,” “hearts” and texts. It’s not the method that is irksome, but the purpose. The dogma of this self-medicated cynicism is not the drive to be better than one’s current self, tomorrow, but to count to a million. Michael Keaton (as Riggan Thomson) arrives, not twenty years after playing Batman, to be Birdman, the magical superhero, can’t combat like-fever in his head, where his titular character splits from reality and demands more, for better or for suicide. None of these underpinning methods Linklater their way to T.R.U.T.H., but rather ruminate in the graveyard for “likes,” “hearts” and go-fuck-yourself’s. Continue reading

[2014] Boyhood

Hey loyal reader(s)! Back after a long hiatus – school beckons. I’ve got some free time now and I’ll try to post 2-3 a week. Let’s start with 2014’s Boyhood, a movie some consider “runner-up” to 2014’s eventual winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I’ve had a fair few conversations where the main point of contention was anything less than a win for Boyhood would be (before the Awards)  or was (after) a direct insult to the novelty of longitudinal film making. That said, it is a good exercise to begin to understand the cagey genius of Boyhood. Although an entertaining film to say the least, levels of inauthenticity continue to plague how I remember the film.

The gist of the film is that the events play out in a splice version of real-time. Director Richard Linklater managed to keep a cast and production team together over the course of over a decade to semi-script evolving relationships as the characters and the world grows up and shifts semi-expectedly. Young Ellan Coltrane plays a boy on-screen, but he’s also just a boy off-screen. His acting is himself playing a version of himself. There’s something exploitative but heartwarming about a boy transitioning to manhood on-screen. The fact that the character develops self-awareness as fast as the actor does cures what could be thought of as a diorama rather than drama. The young boy is as authentic as he is allowed to be, two steps from real life, and three from the generation about whom he is supposedly documenting. But it doesn’t change the fact that the rest of the world plays house while the director tinkers over missed connections and predictable abusiveness.

The story, while heartwarming on the surface, feels like an amalgam of expected human vices sewn together for clarity’s sake – in realty, no life is a neat set of explanatory variables converging along a path. There is no line of best fit and statistics be damned at the expense of waking up on every other morning and breathing in the fresh air for just five minutes. Where are these moments in Boyhood? Are we just expected to believe that the only important or life-changing parts of the boy’s life are those of drama or coincidence? The dilemma of documenting life in so many layers is the nuance takes a backseat for storytelling clarity. For a movie that pitter-patters discussing a life “worth living” from “moment to moment” feels much like the embodiment of a home-schooled child tattooing “Carpe Diem” on the inside of her arm as she watches Boyhood from the couch in her basement. Boyhood, for what it’s worth, lets this girl know that it’s okay to just be. But Boyhood also attempts to capitalize on the serial failure of the human spirit. It’s all a little too real –  and that’s what makes Boyhood triumph beyond the long shadow of exploitation and questionable humanistic storytelling. Continue reading