Monday, July 27, 2009

Evil Corporate Poetry?


Big bad corporate jean vendor Levi's just launched a new ad campaign called "Go Forth." I don't normally pay much attention to commercials (I'm a muter) or to the marketing strategy of multi-billion dollar companies (even those, like Levi's, that I sometimes buy products from). But a friend turned me on to one of the campaign's new TV spots. Entitled "America," it's directed by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, which I skipped in theaters, but may now have to rent) and features an old recording of Walt Whitman reading one of his own poems. The music is from composer/violinist Final Fantasy. Check it out:


Pretty striking, right? Many of the images, especially those photographed from the moving vehicle, as well as the ones of urban decay and of children running and playing in the high grass, are strongly reminiscent of David Gordon Green's George Washington. (In particular, the two shots of young boys flexing, at :44 and :47, seem like direct homages to Green's auspicious debut.) Of course, George Washington was itself heavily indebted to another film, Charles Burnett's 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep. Like that recently unearthed classic, this unusually artful advertisement employs stark b&w photography, though the iconic compositions are definitely more Green than Burnett, as is the fleeting portrait of the rural/urban divide.

What strikes me as interesting and troubling and worthy of further discussion is the use of such pleasing aesthetic gestures—that grand, mythic imagery, set to luminous music and Whitman's vivid prose—to sell pants to twentysomethings. The images complement the words in sometimes beautiful, often rather shrewd ways. But does that Levi's stamp at the end spoil the magic? Can we appreciate this 60-second short film out of context? Can it be divorced of its "purpose," of its capitalistic agenda? Can we admire its artfulness whilst turning a blind eye to the hypocrisy of its construction?

Some more thoughts/questions:

George Washington and Killer of Sheep are about the plight of "invisible" Americans, about their joys and hardships, about life on society's fringe. Does this commercial recast symbolic specters of impoverished America as corporate mascots, both trivializing and fetishizing their struggle? Or are the signifiers so divorced of the signified—what with the Green/Burnett allusions being sandwiched between Levi's usual apolitical romanticizing of the White and the Beautiful—that Fukunaga's imagery lacks any social context whatsoever? Is it all just movement and symmetry and rhythm and emotion—young people being youthful to sell the brand?

Is Fukunaga's post-racial patriotism an endearing utopian fantasy (ala George Washington) or just a cynical exploitation of Obama-era naivete? Is that AMERICA sign, half-submerged in water but still flickering bright, a symbol for post-Katrina New Orleans, a city broken but still breathing? Or does it just, you know, look really cool and epic?

Is there a narrative strand to the piece? Check out the succession of shots that begin at :16. A limousine inches through a teeming crowd of sign-carrying protesters. Cut inside the vehicle and some suit is hiding his face from the angry mob. Cut again, and he's sitting in a high-rise office building, master of his (corporate? political?) domain. Are we meant to sympathize with this beleaguered VIP or cheer on the radicals descending upon him? Despite the bitter and inherent irony of Levi's romanticizing Down-With-The-Man street dissent, the material that surrounds this brief detour would seem to support the latter interpretation.

But let's look closer. After panning in on the blank face of our powerful suit (:19), Fukanaga cuts to a series of three shots in a narrow apartment, all of them focused on a vaguely similar-looking young man. He playfully hoists himself up in a hallway, drinks from a cup near two friends/relatives, and kisses some religious icon. Could this be one of the VIP's memories? If so, what purpose does it serve? Is it a testament to the self-made man lie of America, the notion that everyone can become rich and/or famous if they set their minds to it? Or is it of a more wistful tenor, evoking some desire to return to a simpler, more honest way of life? If the latter's the case, isn't such a sentiment fundamentally disingenuous, at least coming from a big company like Levi's?

Also, isn't there something incredibly questionable about Fukunaga, a director who made his name chronicling the plight of Honduran migrant workers, now directing commercials for a company that, as one YouTube user sharply put it, has "used sweatshops and prison labor?" Guess he's selling out in (gloriously monochromatic) style.

The bigger and broader question here, of course, is whether artistry can really exist in this medium at all. How can one make any sort of statement or evoke any sort of truth when the bottom line is SELL THE PRODUCT? Then again, Hollywood cinema has always been a product and most would agree that the studios do occasionally churn out art pictures. Despite its baldly commercial intentions, could this poem-as-advertisement (or is advertisement-as-poem?) qualify as art? I'm leaning towards no, but goddamn if the thing doesn't make a persuasive argument for itself.

Friday, July 10, 2009

CONTROL Freak


The following was written as a response of sorts to another piece posted over at The Tisch Film Review, one written by film buff compadre Daniel Gorman. Before continuing here, I urge you to shoot on over and read his review first. It's probably the most lucid, reasonable and compelling defense I've yet encountered of Jim Jarmusch's latest, The Limits of Control. What follows is meant not as a condemnation of Mr. Gorman's insights, but as a measured rebuttal. (Albeit an admittedly snarky and sometimes messy one.) I've always believed that film criticism should act as a kind of dialogue, with different voices trading different perspectives. I hope this piece, taken in conjuncture with Mr. Gorman's and with a grain of salt or ten, will inspire further discussion.

Oh, as usual, SPOILERS abound.

***

Ostensive - adjective: "Seeming or professed; appearing as such but not necessarily so; pretended: His vision was of ostensive profundity, but a closer look revealed otherwise."

"It pays to be obvious. Especially if you have a reputation for subtlety."

-Isaac Asimov


There are reviled pictures and then there are divisive ones. Transformers 2 is a reviled picture, pretty much across the board. Public Enemies is a divisive one. Make no mistake: The Limits of Control, the latest from indie cinema’s beat poet laureate Jim Jarmusch, belongs in the latter camp. This is not some lost dog in need of rescuing, some maligned victim of misunderstanding. Yes, it’s gotten some pretty harsh reviews. It’s also gotten ecstatic, enthusiastic ones, fawning write-ups in such backwoods, country rags as, err, The New York Times and The Village Voice. What’s more, the respectable swinging dicks of contemporary criticism—the Rosenbaums, the Kennys, the Joneses—have by in large rallied behind it. This thing has its supporters and they are vocal.

I wish I could align myself with their cause. I take no pleasure in basically siding with Peter Travers, Roger Ebert and Armond White. What can I say, sometimes the hacks are right. The Limits of Control irks me not because it's inscrutable (it's not) or because it's boring (oh boy is it ever, but I begrudgingly admit that's a wholly subjective reaction). It irks me mostly because it's the type of art-house howler that congratulates its viewers—for their immaculate taste in movies and art, for their good liberal values, for their ability to "get" the Big Picture that it screams from the top of its lunges in each and every scene. Great art challenges us. The Limits of Control pats us on the back and feeds us a cookie. Let's take a closer look at this shrink-wrapped mission statement from contemporary cinema's preeminent Ambassador of Cool.

Mystery.

A mysterious man has appeared, as if from nowhere, to perform mysterious tasks, apparently at the behest of mysterious people.

The Limits of Control is a mystery in quotation marks. It frustrates not because it fails to provide answers, but because it informs us, from frame one, that the questions themselves are irrelevant. The matchbooks, the rendezvous, the coded conversations—these token noir MacGuffins are trotted out, joylessly and ad nauseam, simply to remind us that we’re watching a winking genre riff, a methodical “deconstruction” of the form. There’s no real mystery, because there are no stakes in this metaphoric spy game. Who is our mystery man? A more pertinent question might be “who cares?” Jarmusch certainly doesn’t.

Being and Nothingness.

Ebert sums up much of the film’s modus operandus, the idea of languidly waiting, of simply being.

Many a great works have predicated their “action” on inaction. Watching someone wait can be compelling because of what it reveals in the person doing the waiting. (Just ask Samuel Beckett.) How do we fill stationary, statuary time? What great wonders do our minds drift to when we are alone, when we are static, when we are simply existing? What do we reveal about ourselves in our quietest moments, in our languid downtime? Cinema can make for glorious people watching—see José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Slyvia for a recent, beguiling example—but such a game requires, you know, actual people to watch.

Isaach De Bankolé’s Lone Man is a blank cipher with no interior space. He has no passions, no desires, no driving force beyond his tireless commitment to The Mission. If he’s a spiritual man, as implied by his feng shui exercise ritual, faith has rendered him something of a Holy Bore. Like Ghost Dog, he seems to live by some sacred code. Unlike Ghost Dog, he doesn’t grapple with this code, and his humanity never gets in the way of his duties. (Where's a precocious little bookworm sidekick when you need one?) Never once does our man betray his gangster-chic aloofness, his stone-faced stoicism. Eavesdropping on this prophet-saint-warrior-apparition yields no insights into the human condition, no great truths, no recognition of oneself in his plight. There are no emotions, no insecurities scrawled across his perpetual scowl. There is only… well, yes, nothingness. Project what you want onto this surrogate specter, cause lord knows he's not sending anything back.

Repetitions.

“You don’t speak Spanish do you?”; two espressos, in separate cups - not a double espresso; Diamonds, Matchbooks; Unintelligible, yet edible, notes; “he who believes himself bigger than everybody else ought to visit the cemetery”.

Oh, but there are more! Tai Chi in the morning. Sleepless nights. (Samurais don’t sleep.) Pretty buildings. Jarmusch’s coolest friends, playing dress up and talking about the molecular structure of wood. Movie trivia. Pensive staring contests. Scenic rail tours of the Spanish countryside. “Do you like movies?”

Point Blank.

The film bears a resemblance to John Boorman’s pseudo-psychedelic thriller, with De Bankole assuming the role of Lee Marvin’s carved-out-of-granite perpetual motion machine, a pit bull on a singular mission who’ll be damned if he’s letting go.

Ah, but Point Blank is exciting. It has urgency, it has personality and characters, it has flaws. It’s rough around the edges. It surprises you, frequently and with gusto. Stripped of all these qualities and drained of any lifeblood, Jarmusch’s film reads less like homage and more like somnambulistic art-house parody. Point Blank is stained and smudged with human fingerprints. The Limits of Control is so hermetically sealed—so coldly and carefully composed, so formally rigid—that we might well be watching it from behind a layer of thick Plexiglas. This is not a picture that you can reach out and touch. There is nothing genuinely human to respond to here.

Godard, et al.

Not quite (not simply) a homage to the French New Wave, Jarmusch instead casts his net a bit wider.

I’ll say! But how well and to what end? Rivette is playful and his films are messy. His puzzles might not have answers, but, in their tantalizing intrigue, they make us want to dig for them anyhow. Resnais invests his puzzle-narratives with a breadth of emotion, and they’re always linked to some echo of a past, real or imagined. (Beyond a pillaging run through of his fave flicks, what history does Jarmusch conjure up in this black hole reality?) Antonioni was interested in the spiritual ennui of real people, not that of noir bodysnatchers. Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player, for all their precise and purposeful genre dissection, are unpredictable. If their moments of jump-cut spontaneity are artificial, than Godard and Truffaut hid the strings well. As for the Bresson connection: what De Bankole is doing in The Limits of Control feels, in fact, like the anti-thesis of non-acting. His poker face is an affectation, a mannered and very precise suppression of personality, of every ounce of emotional gravity this expressive actor is capable of carrying. If Jarmusch meant to pay tribute to his influences, he’s a poor study.

This is no filmic dialectic, no conversation between texts, ala Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema. It’s more like Spot That Reference!, a post-modern party game predicated on the mere recognition of allusions. It’s the cinematic equivalent of name dropping—hardly shocking for a filmmaker who has always seemed as much status-coveting hipster as hungry artist. Jarmusch, who’s got the moves but not the touch, is simply tipping his hat to the stuff he admires, without capturing more than an iota of what makes those works so special.

As for Christopher Doyle, he’s unquestionably MVP here. His compositions, echoing the frame-within-frame wonders of Point Blank, lend the film some aesthetic grace and gravity. Course, like every principle player in this deadpan farce, Doyle's operating with the volume way down. Anyone expecting the vibrant, erratic poetry his lens usually ensures is barking up the wrong tree. Such flare would spoil the zombie torpor of this embalmed art project.

Doubles and Dopplegangers.

Having nothing to say - having no point - is different from arriving at ones point in a round-about way. Jarmusch seems to have a handle on his material at all times, and while one can disagree with or dislike that point, or its system of delivery, it is entirely inappropriate to confuse that dislike with idiocy on the filmmaker’s part. Whatever one makes of The Limits of Control, to assume that, like Ebert, every shot and gesture is simply a passing whim is, not to put too fine a point on it, missing the point.

Oh, Jarmusch is no idiot. Far from it. He knows exactly what he's doing. He doesn’t just have a handle on his material, he has a suffocating kung-fu grip on it. There’s nothing “passing” about his choices either. They are considered and calculated and executed with a kind of totalitarian perfectionism, plotted out into living-dead oblivion. There's no wiggle room here for surprises, no time for stylistic or intellectual detours, no give in the structural integrity of Jarmusch's impossibly schematic narrative. Oh, and the writer-director doesn’t arrive at his point in a roundabout way. He hits it over and over and over again, each wink-wink, star-cameo rendezvous designed to reinforce the man’s none-too-complicated agenda. Imagination = good. Art = good, and undervalued, and increasingly marginalized. (It's weird to think that anyone could find any of this even remotely opaque.) Jarmusch has more or less made his point by the end of the first reel. The rest is just sledgehammer repetition—though it does come in pairs (or “doubles”) for you symmetry junkies—until the summative scene. Speaking of which…

Politics.

Make no mistake – beyond the genre trappings (lovingly violated), Jarmusch has made a boldly political film. I don’t necessarily agree with Rosenbaum’s assertion that Bill Murray’s “American” is a Cheney stand-in (an unreasonably limiting perspective, to my mind), but I do agree that Jarmusch has, for better or for worse, laid out a very specific statement of purpose – a kind of personal declaration/summation.

About the only thing I do agree with in Rosenbaum’s glowing review is that Bill Murray most definitely is playing Dick Cheney. Not that it really matters what straight-laced, American imperialist dog he’s standing in for. In 2009, can this kind of middle finger to the proverbial man still be considered “bold?” Here, at last, is the ultimate accessory of the modern boho cultural warrior: indignant, one-note political dissent. It’s telling that after all the self-satisfied babble and jabber Jarmusch has subjected us to—a lot of preaching to the choir, if you ask me—the man squanders his one and only opportunity for actual discourse. Our Lone Man finally encounters his living and breathing antithesis, his ideological archrival, and what does he do? He just chokes the motherfucker to death. Up with art and imagination! Down with imperialism, with control, with the squares and the philistines! Mission accomplished. Personal declaration/summation delivered. The Limits of Control offers a political “message” as useful and sophisticated as, say, a Michael Moore polemic or an Anti-Flag record.

The irony, of course, is that Murray’s buttoned-up “American” is the only warm body on screen. Maybe it’s because he’s not playing a glazed-eyes genre archetype, a Ghost of Bohemia’s Past. Or maybe it’s simply impossible for Bill to completely suppress his natural charisma, though he came pretty close in Broken Flowers, Jarmusch’s last tiresome cameo-fest. Either way, you know you’ve stumbled into a dead party when the imperialist scumbag makes for better company than the smokin’ fatale in the translucent raincoat.

Repetitions.

“Do you like movies?” Not yours, Jim.

***

More irony for the ironist: the film's title, pretentiously pinched from a William S. Buroughs essay, offers a kind of unintentional auto-criticism. Jarmusch is indeed railing against a "very particular kind of control," yet what of his own stifling, oppressive variety? This is the kind of airtight artistic statement, coldly calculated within an inch of its life, that renders intellectual engagement moot. The thing unpacks itself before you, revealing all its "mysteries" at once, bashing you repeatedly over the head with the blunt end of its blunt agenda. There are limits to control, and Jarmusch bumps up repeatedly against them.

As a kind of summative effort, the sort of work the film's defenders would champion as a "culmination" of the director's interests and obsessions, The Limits of Control confirms every suspicion I've ever had about Jarmusch as an artist. He's the filmmaker as neither thinker nor feeler, but scenester. He makes movies the way some folk wear leather jackets or brandish guitars or drive luxury sedans. His cast list often reads like an exclusive NYC party roster. This here is the ultimate testament to his Cult of Cool, the obvious, referential, Euro-fetish manifesto he's been working towards from the very start. But, as any good culture vulture will tell you, "cool" is a fickle virtue. One can almost hear the whispers of disaffected bohemia: "The whole thing just reeks of effort." On to the next winking idol, to new gestures and postures and poses and struts. That deadpan thing is so 1984.