Thursday, January 21, 2010

An Inert Man


I saw fifty-three of the films on the 2009 release schedule. I liked most of the films, which is a rarity for a film fan as finicky as I am. I did, however, have my disappointments. I am a big fan of Vince Vaughn but I didn't laugh at all seeing him in Couples Retreat. Other films were so unimpressive that I can barely remember them. For instance, I think that Virginia Madsen was in The Haunting in Connecticut but I could not tell you anything else about that film. The films that were bad were infuriatingly bad. The ten worst films that I saw this year were as follows:

2012
(500) Days of Summer

The Collector

Extract
Inglourious Basterds
Land of the Lost
Paranormal Activity
The Road
The Unborn
Up in the Air

Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air may have won Golden Globes but this isn't enough to keep them out of Tony's Hall of Shame.

I saw The Collector by mistake. One night, my son and I made a last-minute decision to see a movie. The Collector had just opened and I had not heard anything about it. My knowledge of the film came exclusively from a poster on display outside of the theater. I found myself intrigued by the creepy poster art despite the fact that I was not sure what it represented. I later learned that the central image, which was somewhat murky and distorted, was supposed to be a serial killer in an orange ski mask. At the time, though, I assumed that the image was of something more fantastic - a Hellraiser-type demon with a bald, pock-marked, orange head that goes around collecting souls. Yes, I know, this old man is losing his sight. The point is that I would never have seen the film if I realized that it was just another Saw retread. This year, the torture porn of Saw was given a strong moral basis in Law Abiding Citizen and Last House on the Left, both of which were much more substantial and satisfying than The Collector.

The children's films were exceptional during 2009. I saw a number of these films accompanied by an enthusiastic five-year-old boy named Nathan. I was amused, intrigued and sometimes even moved by these films, which included Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Monsters vs. Aliens, Planet 51, Ponyo, Up, and Where the Wild Things Are. I saw a number of entertaining action films, including Star Trek, Angels & Demons and The Taking of Pelham 123. I would like to have seen more human dramas, but the few that I saw were good. This includes Sunshine Cleaning, Fish Tank, Brothers and Disgraced. I enjoyed as my one guilty pleasure the 3D carnage of The Final Destination. The best comedy was, without a doubt, Hangover. Most of my favorite films this year were dark genre films, including Watchmen, Moon, Drag Me to Hell, District 9 and Pandorum.

Avatar was a truly magnificent film, although I have a couple of philosophical differences with writer/director James Cameron. Avatar is critical of the human race for shutting themselves off from the natural world and yet it allows people to shut themselves inside movie theaters with a candy-colored illusion of nature that offers to take the place of the real thing. The film, as journalist Jeet Heer pointed out, "represents both an alienation from nature and a nostalgia for nature." Also, I didn't agree with the portrayal of the military as bloodthirsty murderers. A military colonel is shown to be the ultimate brute of the film when, in fact, the true brutes are the scientists who demand the planet Pandora's mineral stores and have created the horrible weaponry with which it is to be obtained. I am inclined to agree with other criticisms put forth about the film. Some critics found it odd that Cameron used advanced technology to make an anti-technology film. Cameron denies that he is anti-technology. Has he seen his own Terminator movies? Heer found the film troubling because it "rehashes many familiar tropes from the history of European/First Nations contact, particularly the myth of Pocohantas" and "regurgitates the myth of the white saviour." Still, I enjoyed the story and the characters, admired the direction, and was blown away by the effects.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the dentist office and my dentist asked me if I had any plans for the evening. I responded that I was going to see Up in the Air. My dentist didn't say anything at first. But then, at the risk of ruining my plans, he finally spoke up and let me know that I might not want to see this film. He said, "I should warn you, my parents saw the movie and they said it was depressing." I was about to get two teeth drilled and this guy was worried about me being bummed seeing a movie. But he was right about Up in the Air, a painfully depressing story about corporate downsizing in the wake of the financial meltdown and the growing alienation of hip corporate robots in the Internet age.

In the days of the Great Depression, Hollywood producers saw it as their job to make America happy. They found, as the perfect antidote to joblessness and poverty, Shirley Temple, a cute little moppet who sang uplifting songs like "Be Optimistic." Temple, brimming with charm and energy, sang:

Be optimistic!
Don't you be a grumpy
When the road gets bumpy
Just smile
Smile and be happy!

Where's our cute little moppet? It wasn't long ago that Dakota Fanning was a cute little moppet in The Cat in a Hat (2003) and Charlotte's Web (2006). But, before the age of fifteen, Fanning was raped in Hounddog (2007), tortured people as a glam vampire in New Moon (2009), and engaged in lesbian smooching in The Runaways (2010). I suppose that in 2010 it is time to put away childish things and face up to the harsh realities of the world.

Hollywood no longer believes that, in hard times, they need to produce happy escapist films. We, as Americans, have become dispirited by war and downsizing. So, what does Hollywood do about it? They rub our faces into this mess by giving us depressing films about war and downsizing. It is the art of miserablism. This year, we even got Food, Inc., which is a documentary exposing the foulness that is our food production. The hunters in Avatar respect their animal prey, comforting them as they die and bidding for the safe passage of their souls. We, as depicted in Food, Inc., needlessly defile and torture our prey before turning them into a Happy Meal.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a passive man in turmoil in A Serious Man. As abuses are inflicted on him, Gopnick cringes, he frowns and, most of all, he questions again and again why this is happening to him. But never does this man put up a fight against his abusers. Sy Ableman, a creepy, pretentious windbag, has seduced Gopnick's wife, who is now determined to divorce Gopnick. Ableman is full of rationalizations to justify the affair and acts towards Gopnick as if they have no reason at all to be at odds. He talks of them handling the situation in a calm, "adult" manner, doing what makes "eminent sense," and taking "the appropriate course of action." Gopnick fails to react to Ableman's actions as the intolerable aggression that it truly represents. Ableman may tell Gopnick that there's "no cause for discomfort" and he may insist, "We're going to be fine." But Ableman is lying. Ableman, who wants to be regarded as a devout Jew, suggests that his romantic relationship with Mrs. Gopnick has not been consummated. Gopnick is more than willing to believe him.

Gopnick's brother, who lives with Gopnick and his family, refuses to deal with people and has withdrawn from world. "I think his social skills have held him back," says Gopnick. But Gopnick's own social skills, in all their refinement, have not proven very useful. Gopnick puts himself at a great disadvantage by following social rules in an effort to be a "serious man" while no one else around him could care less about those rules. Civilization creates much sublimation and deception. Thriving beneath the artifice is the jungle law - "every man for himself," "anything goes," "might makes right," "survival of the strongest" and "eat or be eaten." Gopnick has imagined orderliness where none has existed. The overdeveloped civility that he shows towards others has proven a liability for him. Gopnick has a nightmare where Ableman slams him against a blackboard while shouting, "I seriously fucked your wife." His subconscious mind, unfettered with notions of fellowship and propriety, recognizes the painful truth of the situation.

It isn't much of a story when the protagonist plays no active role in the events that are unfolding around him. Richard Corliss contrasted A Serious Man with Philip Roth novels, including Stern. Corliss wrote, "The men at the center of Philip Roth's novels may rage and flail, but Larry doesn't dish out insults, he takes them." He sees the film as not being about Gopnick but about the actions that surround Gopnick. He found that, in this instance, "action is character."

Gopnick visits three different rabbis in an attempt to make sense of his problems. A junior rabbi tells him about God being in every place in the world and he needs only to open up his eyes to recognize him. He points outside of the window and tells him that God could even be found in the parking lot. He babbles further and, when his speech reaches a fevered pitch, he turns towards the window, sighs, and feebly gushes, "Look at the parking lot." It was one of the most ridiculous moments in the film.

Blogger Steven Menashi wrote, "When Larry, standing on his roof, spies Mrs. Samsky sunbathing naked, it recalls 2 Samuel 11, in which David, on the roof of the palace, sees Bathsheba bathing naked." In the Bible, David commits adultery with Bathsheba, who is married to Uriah the Hittite. The Lord, displeased with David's actions, curses David's house with turmoil. In the end, David's son Absalom leads an insurrection against his father that plunges the kingdom into civil war. The film suggests in more than one instance that God will punish wrongdoers, plunging their lives into turmoil if not outright striking them dead. But, for most of the film, Gopnick finds his life in turmoil without having done anything. A scene features Gopnick on the phone with a bill collector working for Columbia Record Club. The bill collector explains at length that records were automatically sent to his home when he failed to return postcards indicating that he did not want the monthly selection. Does this mean that we can invite misfortune simply by doing nothing? The only time in the film that Gopnick finds peace is when he takes refuge next door smoking pot with Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker). Sin, it seems, is the only relief from the tyranny of civilization.

Gopnick's neighbor Mr. Brandt (Peter Breitmayer) is introduced with blood smeared on the front of his shirt and a dead deer tied to the roof of his station wagon. Gopnik looks appalled when he learns that Brandt allowed his young son to take a day off from school to go hunting with him. It is not a surprising reaction from Gopnick, who demonstrates great respect for authority and institution. This civilized man, who spends most of the film dressed in a tie and carrying s briefcase, supports advanced social development represented by schools, businesses and communities. Guns and a blood-stained shirt are, by all indication, repulsive to this modern man. Yet, Brandt may be a good role model. To start, Brandt has a better relationship with his son, who treats his father with respect and obedience. A number of scenes feature teachers giving stultifying lectures in stuffy classrooms. It does not make education look as rich and rewarding as the bonding experience that a father and son could enjoy while spending a day in the woods together. One of Gopnick's harassers, the father of a cheating student, shows up in Gopnick's driveway making threats. Gopnick winces when the grim-faced Brandt approaches with hedge clipper and asks in a threatening manner, "This man bothering you?" It looks as if Brandt is ready, on Gopnick's word, to clip off the man's head. This aggressive, hard-nosed man is a throwback to simpler times when a man relied on personal strength and will to survive. Brandt, who is no passive victim, would be ready if this corrupt civilization were to collapse. He would fit in well with his hedge clipper and hunting rifle in the post-apocalyptic horror comedy Zombieland. Zombie movies are a freeing experience because zombies, as adversaries, lack the pretense that characterizes predatory modern man. Zombies do not hide their predatory natures and we are allowed to dispose of them with a well-aimed shotgun blast to the head. Gopnick, outside of jungles, woods and post-apocalyptic ruins, must engage in futile debate and negotiation that only end up frustrating him.

Gopnick seems to believe that, in the evolution of man, the spine has become a vestigial appendage. I found that this character, in his unwillingness to erupt in rage, was useless to me. Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) of Law Abiding Citizen erupts with great rage after his wife and daughter are murdered during a home invasion. The rage does not come immediately. Shelton, like Gopnick, is initially inclined to trust authority and institution and calmly follow the rules. He is, as the title suggests, a law-abiding citizen. But, then, the criminal who actually committed the murder agrees to testify against his accomplice for a reduced charge, which will put him in prison for a relatively short time. The deal appeals to prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who is unwilling to risk his high conviction rate to take the murderer before a jury with a less than air-tight case. The man whose wife and child were murdered is subject to gibberish from Rice as ridiculous as the junior rabbi's "Look at the parking lot" speech. The film establishes Shelton, the aggrieved man suffering the loss of his wife and daughter, as the protagonist and Rice, an arrogant prosecutor whose career ambitions take priority over empathy and justice, as the lead antagonist. Our highly developed laws, which are too abstract to deal with a social reality as fundamental and blatant as murder, fail to assure justice for Shelton. Shelton sets out to take revenge by murdering the criminals, the lawyers and the judge. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are too cowardly to stand by Shelton once the violence escalates and they abruptly try to make their protagonist and antagonist switch roles in the third act. The turnaround doesn't work and ruins an otherwise gripping film.

Gopnick never takes charge. He doesn't mount his roof with his neighbor's hunting rifle to blast away malefactors like a man battling zombies in a post-apocalyptic world. He does not, in the manner of Clyde Shelton, plant bombs to destroy corrupt social institutions. A Serious Man ends abruptly without a climax or a resolution. The film, in its ambiguity, is open for endless interpretations. In the blogosphere, a number of people have desperately dissected the film for clues as to its meaning. At one point, Gopnick meets Ableman at a restaurant called Embers. The name of the restaurant is stated repeatedly and with great emphasis. Is "Embers" supposed to relate to Gopnick entering the firey pits of Hell? The following dissection appears in the Trivia section of the Internet Movie Database: "In his argument with the Columbia House records employee over the phone, Larry Gopnik repeatedly rejects the album Abraxas by Santana, in a variety of ways. He did not order Abraxas, he doesn't want Abraxas, he won't listen to Abraxas. Abraxas is a Gnostic term for God, particularly a God who is encompasses all things from Creator of the Universe to the Devil, and an etymological root for 'abracadabra.' It is thus implied that Larry Gopnik is vehemently rejecting God and magic." A film that can mean everything risks, in the end, meaning nothing.

Disgraced also features a passive protagonist. Professor David Lurie, a middle-aged, divorced scholar of romantic poetry, is forced to accept the hardship of life after becoming a victim of a vicious criminal assault. After a period of raging and flailing, Lurie resigns himself to the fact that life, with all its brutality and anarchy, is essentially a difficult and often painful experience. Unlike Gopnick, Lurie does not consult a religious authority to ask why he has become a victim. Lurie ends up more passive than Gopnick, but he is more admirable than Gopnick in that he has come to earn his passivity. He arrives at an inner peace only after his struggles have shown him that he is powerless to resist forces much bigger than himself.

Prior to his assault, Lurie found himself in another predicament. Like Gopnick, this college professor found himself entangled in a prickly situation with a student. Also like Gopnick, he came to a distorted view of this relationship by looking at it through the prism of his academic speciality. Lurie interpeted his feelings for an attractive student by referring to the work of Wadsworth and Byron. The misbegotten affair brought to his life a passion he so desperately needed. He failed to understand that what he saw as romance was sexual harassment to the student, whose own extreme passivity failed to challenge the professor's deluded notions. Gopnick, functioning as a physics professor, struggles to find the perfect calculation to explain his problems. But his knowledge of Schrodinger’s Cat and the Uncertainty Principle are not useful to him in this situation. Physics, with all its mathematical equations, works independent of everyday realities and cannot be relied upon to solve the mysteries of life.

This brings us back to Up in the Air. It is abstract mathematics derived from classrooms that has plunged the world into the current financial crisis, which forms the backdrop to this film. Further dollars-and-cents calculations also create the film's central controversy. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizer, travels around the country conducting employee layoffs for bosses too cowardly to do it themselves. Bingham's boss (Jason Bateman) has been convinced by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), an ambitious young employee, that the company could greatly cut costs by grounding staff members like Bingham and having the firings done by way of a remote, on-line video conference. Bingham argues that this impersonal new system will not work and asks that Keener travel with him to see how the layoff process works. During his travels, Bingham meets a glib mystery woman in a travelers lounge. After trading banal banter, they go up to his anonymous hotel suite to hop into bed for anonymous sex.

It was not at all appealing spending time with these characters. The characters, worse than being unpleasant, are inconsistent and therefore unbelievable. Keener, despite a purported degree in psychology, does not seem to comprehend the emotional trauma a person experiences losing their job. But she later proves to be an extremely sensitive young woman. I cannot explain where she obtained this sudden sensitivity, tears and all, unless it is something they sell at the duty-free gift shop. Bingham, a cold and detached corporate hatchet man who likens himself to a shark, also makes an abrupt and radical character transformation. One blogger described this transformation as no less than "miraculous." Bingham, who has warmed up to this woman from the travelers' lounge, wants to change his life to pursue a relationship with her. This frequent flier, who has happily been in flight for 10 million miles, suddenly wants to settle down on terra firma with this woman with whom he had a meaningless booty call. The film is, in the end, vapid and dishonest.

Up in the Air has a few obvious plot elements in common with The Messenger. In both films, two characters are at odds as they collaborate in a sad mission to deliver traumatic news to a bunch of regular folk. Both films have a third act that centers around a quandary at a wedding. But these films could not be more different. The Messenger is a film with heart, which is something glaringly absent in Up in the Air.

The Up in the Air tagline - "The story of a man ready to make a connection" - could also apply to Avatar, where an alienated man becomes part of a "people" and develops a strong bond with nature by plugging his pigtails into flora and fauna. Avatar shows that jungle law can be simple and basic and at the same time include fundamental social codes that prohibit savagery. I personally dream of a simple, honest and meaningful existence for myself. It could be for this reason that I see in last year's films conflicts between nature and technology, physics and common sense, and alienation and community. After the stock market crash, we certainly need to look at who we are and get back to community and common sense.


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