Wednesday, March 30, 2016

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There is no theme richer for an American artist than the spirit and the themes of the country and the country's history.  We have never figured out what this place is about or what it is for, and the only way to even begin to answer those questions is to watch our movies, read our poets, our novelist, and listen to our music.  Robert Johnson and Melville, Hank Williams and Hawthorne, Bob Dylan and Mark Twain, Jimmie Rodgers and John Wayne.  America is the life's work of the American artist because he is doomed to be an American.
--Greil Marcus, review of Self Portrait

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Joy, The Big Short

Joy (Russell, 2015)  Rating: 7/10 Stars.
Another year, another, shouty, distracted, over-excited David O. Russell movie.  This one has a reminiscent voice-over from a character who dies halfway through, and a narrative structure in the first half-hour that mixes events so achronologically it almost seems like it’s going for Malickean abstraction, but instead just ends up deeply confused and broken.  It picks itself up, though, and somehow coheres into a fairly stirring ode to feminine enterprise and determination, anchored by a performance from Jennifer Lawrence that absolutely deserves to be called “powerhouse.”  

The politics are kind of fascinating, too:  It starts off with an onscreen dedication to “daring women” so on-the-nose it can make you snort, and there’s no doubt it considers itself a feminist film--but it’s the feminism of Loretta Lynn or Norma Rae here, not that of, say, Lena Dunham.  In fact, the film could almost be aimed at the archetypal Trump voter--white working class, bitter about declining Rust Belt jobs, lacking in education and social capital, resentful of the cultural elite, devoted watchers of daytime and reality TV, attempting to hold a family together in a hostile world.  Joy herself is a capitalist success story of the type Hollywood has always been weirdly reluctant to celebrate.  Movie makers worship artist types and celebrate sports stars, but they seem strangely blind to characters who achieve self-actualization through achievement in business or commercial enterprise, despite the fact that that is a far more common and relatable story for everyday Americans. 

In truth, as much as I tend to resist Russell’s style, he is valuable for being the only major filmmaker out there actually depicting this demographic, and demonstrating understanding and respect.  And it rests on the shoulders of a performance this magnetic and exciting, I gotta give it a passing grade.

The Big Short (McKay, 2015)  Rating 7/10 Stars.
Can be read as the coda or epilogue to the great “culture of excess” cycle of 2013 that included The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, American Hustle, The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, and The Wolf of Wall Street.  While those films described a culture and critiqued the underlying values, showing us what American society has too long valorized, The Big Short is the final afterword that runs down the real-world economic consequences when such cultural values hit the mainstream, complete with names and dates.  As such, it risks feeling a little like the doctor’s explanation at the end of Psycho.  It compensates with jokes and a supposedly adventurous aesthetic that rather pales in comparison to those earlier entries, but its jargon-heavy explanations really are appreciated and necessary.  It’s just a shame it couldn’t manage to say more: government housing policy, perhaps the most important culprit, gets off stock free here (pun intended), and there’s but a single brief mention of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite those two buying up more toxic securities than anybody by far.  (Plus, just as an aside, I found the cutaways to Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain to be cut and sound mixed in a highly distracting manner that required me to watch them a second time to understand what they were trying to tell me.  And then I was a little insulted that McKay didn’t think I would understand that info if he’d just put it in the dialogue.)  But again, as most people have said, I’m still glad it exists.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

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Rock 'n' roll is, today, too big for any center. . . . In one sense, this is salutary and inevitable.  The lack of a center means the lack of a conventional definition of what rock 'n' roll is, and that fosters novelty.  Rules about what can go into a performance and, ultimately, about how and what it can communicate are not only unenforced, they're often invisible, both to performer and audience.  That rock 'n' roll has persisted for so long, and spread to such diverse places, precludes its possession by any single generation or society--and this leads not only to fragmentation but to a vital, renewing clash of values . . . [But] The fact that the most adventurous music of the day seems to have taken up residence in the darker corners of the marketplace contradicts rock 'n' roll as aggressively popular culture that tears up boundaries of race, class, geography and (oh yes) music; the belief that the mass audience can be reached and changed has been the deepest source of the music's magic and power.
--Greil Marcus, 1980