Monday, April 13, 2015

Catching Up: American Sniper

If Selma sticks to subtlety and inference -- illustration over flat prose -- American Sniper is something of the inverse.  It remains surprising to me how much box office and media attention this film has received since its release.  We know it raked in a tremendous amount of cash, we know that many rallied to argue about Chris Kyle's place as a hero or the film's relationship to a type of nationalist propaganda.  My parents and older relatives were among those who seemed to find the film emotional and moving, even as others I knew dismissed it as an inaccurate portrayal of a man who -- in his own words -- depicted himself as something more superego than patriotic martyr.  To be perfectly honest, I found (and continue to find) it difficult to speak to either experience.  I can't tell you who the real Kyle was, I can't say I found the film to even be particularly patriotic.  All I can judge is that the character on screen, the version of Kyle played by Bradley Cooper, and what I saw did not read as particularly conservative or liberal.  The character may certainly have his own beliefs, but the film felt less like a hero-worshiping construct and more like a ringing antiwar reminder.  Frankly, if American Sniper does anything it makes "serving your country" look downright terrible.

For all of Kyle's "successes" on the field we see just as many failures.  Kids are killed, families are torn apart, he loses friend after friend to injury and PTSD-induced suicide.  Though he's particularly skilled at killing, the repeated refrain of the film seemed to be "hey, look, this guy is kind of messed up, right?"  Cooper plays him as someone struggling, warped, and incapable of living in peaceful spaces. Though Cooper's version of Kyle is often almost unsympathetic, the film's problem is perhaps that the character is given a little less credit than the cinematic moments spent in modern warfare.  There are a surplus of combat/sniping/mission sequences in this film, and as the movie starts to construct a similarly skilled "super villain" sniper for Kyle to square off against, the messages become mixed.  Kyle vs. another sniper is a one-man, one-goal mission that doesn't square well with me.  Though it's possible to read the obsessive nature of Kyle's returns to the military as quietly gesturing toward a larger problem, the film's visible love of the combat sequences seems to ask us to forget how thoroughly messed up Kyle has become and to think of him as a true "army of one."

In these later scenes, the juxtaposition of Kyle's emotionally crippled home life against repeat tours of duty creates a mash up of mixed messages.  Sniper grows sad, weird, and confusing -- disturbing almost because it's just too much, and because it can't decide what Kyle is or how we should view him.  The real truth is that while it may be conflicted, it's not a particularly interesting or unique conflict.  We have a surplus of films that speak to precisely Kyle's dilemma, often without the burden of having to respect a deceased subject.  Facts are the things that get in the way here, and what prevents the film from spending sustained time in one space or another.  The actors are in a choke hold here, and the film is less riveting than uncomfortable.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Catching Up: Selma

Though I'm months divorced from my screening and thousands of pages behind in contributing anything to the cultural commentary surrounding Selma, I can't let it drop.  Many films like Selma - those detailing important sociopolitical events or human rights issues - are examples of vehicles we're told we should find important, but which often feel like problematic films.  Maybe they read too saccharine or maybe they smudge truths in ways that are too pointed, maybe they just aren't cinematic.  By contrast, Selma is a film that may actually be important.  It's a rare film, a mixed biopic that focuses on a pivotal moment associated with its chosen figure (here, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. as played by David Oyelowo) instead of being driven solely by that figure.  What struck me while watching it is how thoroughly the film avoided the "sacred cow" treatment of the man at its center -- something that other films this year (like The Imitation Game) fall just short of

Selma never forgets that the events surrounding the march were not MLK's alone, nor does it build him into a guiding saint.  Instead, the film finds the importance of people, of groups coming together, of politicians in flux and the uncertainties even of the man who found himself leading the charge.  It's a testament to the direction that the film is never a flat MLK memorial and that it doesn't feel like a holy object; stagnant, engraved with gospel truths.  Selma is lived in, real, broken, and filled with miniature portraits of people who complicate and humanize history in a way much different than what we're taught in our textbooks.  As it does this, it's interesting that even towering figures like MLK and LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) almost become afterthoughts, power players overshadowed by the turmoil experienced by regular folks and the violence of that fateful day on the bridge.  Director Ava DuVernay approaches her subjects with a sort of naturalism, elegantly matching thematic pieces and shreds of character so that the viewer understands the consequences of action or inaction.  As she does so, she widens the scope of the story while making it look incredibly easy and true.  Perhaps this is why it was so easy for people to overlook her direction, not to mention David Oyelowo's powerful performance.  They each disappear against the power of the film and the presence of the character, it's almost too perfect, too documentarian to feel like a constructed fiction.  It's no excuse, but that's the only way I can think to even begin to explain the film's relative absence in this year's awards season: Selma just isn't showy enough.  It opts for subtlety, quiet realism, and intelligence.  We forget what kind of work it takes for a film to feel emotionally true.  Not simply dramatic or interesting, but emotionally true.  This is something that Boyhood succeeded at as well, but Selma's "genre" position as a biopic is interesting in its own right: thought the film has something to show us and to teach us, it doesn't hit us over the head with what it wants us to understand.  DuVernay remembers that events involve people, they are not one person, and that a person can be a hero, but is still a person first.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Radio Silence

This is the first post in over two months and marks the conclusion of the site's longest period of radio silence. Though the writings produced here are of no real consequence to the internet, the world, or to my own career, the burden of lost posts has gnawed at me in this break.  I've had a hard time not doing this, and that's a truth I didn't quite expect.

The initial goal of Love & Squalor was to chronicle and concretize my own critical opinions on theatrical releases in the hope, largely, of falling into a type of writing habit.  It has remained an outlet and a control: if I go to see a movie, I have to write about it.  If I have to write about it, I create a reason to produce a certain type of writing and hone a particular voice.  It's a practice I find quite productive, and I've stuck with it even when I find that I have almost nothing to contribute to the public conversation.  Writing here is a means to an invisible, vaguely obsessive compulsive end.  There is no money in it, there are no tangible benefits, and I've failed outright in contributing to or linking myself up with an online community.  But I'm not stopping.

In the hours/days/weeks to come I will begin the process of accounting for lost time. Not because I have to, but also, yes, because I have to.  As this process unfolds, my hope is to begin to rebuild this site and rethink what it is I want to do with it.  The questions are the same ones we all have: what is this thing that I've made? What can I do with it? Where does it need to go? Who am I when I write here?

That last question is perhaps the biggest one and the thing that could forever block anything produced here from having any traction.  It's a question of persona and brand identity, a question of public and private, and a question of what this is if the human being backing this up is nothing but a (near) randomly produced pseudonym (that, frankly, I don't particularly like).

The thing is, though, that I have a problem with the internet.

Hold on, let me restate that: I have an endless list of problems with the internet.

The biggest one is I've grown uncomfortable with the amount of personal information people are willing to share, as I suspect many reading this have.  There's something eerie about the graveyard of images and thoughts we're leaving behind; all our past selves hanging in the ether, haunting us and waiting to be resurrected again and again. A major part of me does not want to be found.  The problem with this is that for the sake of my career I also need to be found.  I need to be my own brand, I need to have work that's accessible to potential employers, publics, and readers at large.  I don't like this. I resist this. I will not accept friend requests from people I have not met in real life. I would much rather, for example, stick with excising my opinions and thoughts on other people's art while calling myself Wilde.Dash.

Sigh. So it is. Of course, though, the obvious truth is that that is not my name, that it is not even close to any part of my name.  It reveals nothing of what I do or who I am or speak to any trace of credibility I might have.  It is meaningless, and yet it is a type of armor.  It doesn't protect me, it just keeps the worlds separate.  Wilde.Dash is like the Hannah Montana to my Miley, maybe.  Or not. I've kept her around because right now it doesn't really make career-sense to be traceable to this material. It's not a matter of pride or shame or the invincibility of anonymity so much as it's flat out this: if you looked me up and found this, it might confuse things.

This is a very strange limbo to be in, and one I've been trying to work out. I don't quite know how to build this site and this persona while also building "my own."  I don't know what I want to say or how to really participate in the community while existing, essentially, as a cipher (though I also grew a bit sour about certain community dynamics, which perhaps I'll post about at a later date).  It's weird that this site remains a secret to a great many people who know me, and it's weird that I don't jump at the chance to invite my own friends to be a built in audience.

I write all this in an attempt to explain what I expect may be a slow-going sea change here to any who might be paying attention.  This is some of what I've thought about in my absence, and some of what I'll be taking into consideration in my return.

A note on that: since the new year, I have been slogging through the incredible anxiety of the preliminary examination process (sometimes they call them comprehensives).  I'm in my third year of a PhD program, a point where my own coursework has ended and the curious torture of self-sufficient production and study has taken over.  I teach multiple courses every semester, have to read things I don't particularly want to constantly, and have been caught up in the writing of a gargantuan paper wholly unrelated to my dissertation.  All of this has been a privilege and a nightmare, a process that my colleagues and I have determined is impossible to understand/empathize with from outside of the situation.  There were times when I did not sleep for days.  There were times when I caught myself sitting on the couch staring in the same way Jack Torrance does out the Overlook's window.  There seems to be a type of PTSD or postpartum that comes with this process, and though the papers have been turned in, the test has been taken, and all that's left is the oral examination, I've shuddered at the thought of sitting down for too long in front of my laptop lately.  Since I'm supposed to be a writer, since I'm supposed to be producing, since most of my post-exam to-do list involves design projects and stories and essays, this is a problem.

So, I'm dipping my toes back in.  I'm writing this. I'm trying to decide how I want to analyze the films I'm going to write about, if I want to remain more critical fan than theorist or if I want to start actually breaking them apart to examine the pieces.  I think that this might ruin things, might destroy the part of me that loves cinema for its magic. We will see, I suppose.  In the meantime, well, now I've left the breadcrumbs of something like insight...


Monday, January 19, 2015

Inherent Vice

Let me tell you what the weirdest thing about Inherent Vice is.  Because, no, it's not the relative plotlessness, the character names, the bizarre situations, the hapless protagonist, the neo-noir dialogue, or the wealth of hazy non-sequitors. Those may count as idiosyncrasies, but they're not oddities. At least, not if you put the whole thing in context.  That's because the weirdest damn thing about Inherent Vice is that everyone seems to want to discuss it as a Paul Thomas Anderson movie and next to no one is consciously appraising it in its most dominant context: it's a goddamn Thomas Pynchon adaptation. Through and through, head to toe, moment to moment: Pynchon. All the time.  There's an argument to be made that figures the adapted script as Inherent Vice's true triumph, as Anderson has made quick work of the near-impossible. He has diluted the famously convoluted slipstream of Pynchon down to his clearest scenes without losing the off-kilter humor, the sharp (odd) dialogue, and postmodern genre-fuckery that makes his novels tick.
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