Dozing at the Movies

(This is Part 1 of a hopeful series of posts on media watching and attention levels)

Forget “quality.” Forget your opinions about what you are viewing. How do you, as a viewer, actually watch movies? Are you sitting up, attentive and eager? Are you sitting in front of your TV tray with a giant sandwich lodged in your mouth? Are you sprawled out horizontally on the couch, with the screen appearing tipped to the side? Are you even awake at all?

The answer to this last question seems self-evident: doesn’t “watching” something imply a certain level of alertness? Perhaps abstractly, but experience suggests that many spectators’ “viewing time” (with television especially, but also with film) is actually spent in fluctuating degrees of consciousness and attentiveness. Put simply, people just fall asleep. I see this everywhere from my mom, who once woke herself up with her own snort during a theatrical screening of Catch Me If You Can, to one of my friends, whose reliable, quasi-narcoleptic ability to fall into dreamland during any film has become a running joke.

Given the gallons of ink that scholars have spilled over the years on (often ill-advised) theories on cinema’s “dreamlike” properties, and the regularity with which we see individual films (often directed by Lynch, Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Chris Nolan) compared to the act of dreaming, it’s rather ironic how little attention has been paid to the fact that many spectators are dreaming while “watching” movies. Even those who study reception usually presume in good faith that audiences for a given film actually stayed awake through the damn thing.

Yet, in spite of this silence, I’d argue that sleeping is a key component of film (if not all media) spectatorship. After all, I can think of few activities that so directly pepper our banal, everyday experience of watching movies. Thus, in celebration of an activity that all of us have done (yes, even you), I proudly present the “Three Shades of Movie Dozing” that structure our movie-watching habits.

1) The Coping Mechanism

This is perhaps the most obvious way of thinking about movie dozing, so I won’t linger on it long. We can use sleep to shield us from cinematic experiences we deem unworthy of our precious time. Stuck in the cineplex with the latest Hollywood stinker, the average moviegoer has the options to either a) soldier on (with great suffering), b) physically leave the theater (but in doing so toss her or his $10 ticket to the wind), or c) use the occasion for some retaliatory slumber. Who hasn’t used sleep as a strategy to turn their noses up to movies that bore or offend them? The culture industry may have taken your dollars, but they will never take your freedom to shut your eyes.

“Let me sleep! Let me sleep!”

(Note that “retaliatory sleeping” is obviously different than the sorts of “productive” sleepiness incurred by “challenging” art films. In those instances, a Great Auteur has deigned in his or her [actually, usually his] cinematic wisdom that thou shall feel heavy of eyes in order to break out of the spell of commercial or bourgeois ideology. When in these situations, sleeping is not a defense, because that is precisely what they want.)

2) The Scheduling Stimulus

Aside from mood changes and workload levels, there are few factors that affect when and what people watch more than the threat of sleep. The decision-making is typically unspoken, of course, but tell me, why really didn’t you want to start that late-era Godard flick at midnight? In the backs of our minds, we always know that we could be the victims of unwanted sleepiness ruining a film we would may have otherwise loved.

In these instances, we get a clear look at how cultural judgments about cinematic quality and taste really guide our mundane viewing choices. The “quality” picture (often designated as such by hearsay and reputation before we even watch it ourselves) should be confined to those times of the day when one is best able to attentively respond to its greatness. The “throwaway” picture, on the other hand, may be safely viewed at any time or level of drowsiness. After all, you won’t have to justify to your fellow cinephiles later that you slept through a “bad” (or even “average”) film, but you will have to answer for any snores emitted during a culturally-designated good film.

3) Taboo

As we can conclude from the above comments about scheduling, movie dozing can be seen as undesirable or socially stigmatizing. Especially with particular films and in social situations (say, group gatherings) where we feel we ought to watch, sleeping during the movie is something to be rigorously avoided and feared.

When I’m watching a movie and start to become tired, my eyes begin to emit a strange clicking noise each time I blink (I’ve never received confirmation whether this is audible to others). Whenever I hear the clicks, I know it’s just a matter of time before I’m out, so I sit up in my chair, lean forward, find something to eat, or contort my body into any number of positions to fight the good fight to stay awake. For to movie doze in social company is also, on some level, to relinquish one’s right to judge the merits of said movie at the end of the screening. Rather than face the stigma of having “not actually watched” the flick, I strain my eyes open to give appearances, even as my mind has long wandered off to other places.

Fight it! Fight it!

Of course, this also means that if one loses the battle and drifts off, every attempt must be made to deny it at the end of the screening during the post-movie discussion. For those good at faking, this means sampling the bits and pieces of film that one successfully captured in their minds during wake time and using it to fashion a comprehensive opinion of the full work (usually with assistance of judgments they have heard about the film prior to watching it). Sticking with group consensus about the film’s quality is also safe, because nobody will challenge you or force you to reveal that you only have partial-film memory to support your opinion. Venturing out and challenging another’s opinion when you yourself have not successfully completed the movie is always a dangerous proposition, so do it at your own risk.

I like to imagine a scenario where a hardcore group of film buffs watch a prestigious film together and all fall asleep at various times. Would any of them ever openly acknowledge it to each other, or would the ending conversation proceed as if everyone had seen it (with each participant hoping that the others don’t call their bluffs)?

Happy dreaming…err, viewing!

On Batman, Hype, and Why You Already Know Your Opinion

Like 90% of my gender and age demographic, I am patiently anticipating the opening of The Dark Knight Rises tomorrow, pre-bought tickets in hand. And I say this even though I know I will probably find it a bit of a slog. Like my experiences watching The Dark Knight and Inception in theaters, I fully expect TDKR‘s fat 165 minute runtime to beat me into a frustrated stupor, force-feeding me its own self-aggrandizing Big Themes with a minimum of wit or self-awareness. As others have argued, Christopher Nolan’s recent screenplays feel less like fully fleshed out worlds than platforms for characters to talk (and talk and talk and talk) about who they are, why they are important, and how everything they do is oh, so philosophically dense. It’s the blockbuster equivalent of people in costumes standing around speaking in thesis statements (with at least one of the actors sounding like Scooby-Doo gargling rocks).

But, really, my opinion is boring. And so are the equally-set opinions of TDKR‘s rabid fans, who are already waiting to proclaim it as one of their favorite movies. Riddle me this, dear reader: what do the detractors and supporters of The Dark Knight Rises all have in common? Answer: with the exception of a lucky few critics and preview attendees, nobody talking or writing about TDKR has actually seen it (at least until after this weekend, when half the U.S. population will have). Similar to what A.O. Scott observed about Inception back in 2010, the online community’s entire reaction to Nolan’s film has followed a predictable arc of ecstatic embrace, cranky pushback (i.e. my above paragraph), and pushback against the pushbackers (i.e. my likely comments section below) — all before the film in question has even opened. At this rate, perhaps watching the actual movie is more a formality, as legions of fans and anti-fans converge on theaters to find evidence supporting the reaction they have already established in their heads.

“Why haven’t you seen my movie yet?”

I guess one could poo-poo all of this as mere “hype,” but TDKR‘s case does suggest some interesting ways we react to films. We form out opinions not necessarily by engaging the text itself, but through determining our expectations through multiple “paratexts” ancillary to the actual movie (spoilers, reviews, toys, online commentary, promotions, trailers, etc.). In many ways, the debate over TDKR and its “quality” has already been set, with observers combing positive and negative reviews in order to load their cannons with evidence that the film is, respectively, a “masterpiece” or “overrated.” The ongoing controversy over TDKR‘s Tomatometer rating at Rotten Tomatoes shows how, on the one hand, critical reviews help form our opinions, but on the other hand, we may also use reviews as mouthpieces for our own preset expectations. Why else would so many Bat-fans issue death threats to critics writing negative notices for a sure-to-be-masterpiece-that-fans-themselves-have-not-yet-even-seen?

Keep all of this mind when the movie finally opens tomorrow and the “real debates” over its quality, politics, etc. commence. The precedents for discussion have already been laid.

All of this said, I’m not “above” the fray of opinion. I eagerly await watching Batman tomorrow. And I probably won’t like it.

Melancholia: O Wondrous Death

Death performs a strange double role, foiling the smooth continuation of our lives while at the same time putting everything into refreshing perspective. Annihilation is at once that which ends life and that which allows us to go on living—an uncanny mixture of the horrible and the sublime. Not incidentally, the same words could easily describe Melancholia, the latest film from Lars von Trier, Denmark’s reigning Prince of Provocation. By taking us past the brink of nothingness, twice, and then forcing us to relive the calm before the storm, von Trier produces a work of supreme hopelessness, endless beauty, and startling emotional power—already, I would argue, worthy of placement among his best films.

As numerous critics have noted, von Trier’s work has long balanced the forces of control and disruption—from the paranoid formalism of Europa, to Björk’s musical eruptions in Dancer in the Dark, to the cinematic game play of The Five Obstructions—and Melancholia is no exception. On a stylistic level, this play is certainly present, as the film toggles between the fearfully glossy tableaux vivants that make up its opening montage and ending shot, and the jittery handheld camerawork that von Trier has experimented with throughout his career comprising the majority of the rest of the film. In fact, one of the movie’s formal pleasures lies in its ghoulish ability to make the apocalypse so beautiful.

The opening sequence in particular—a series of slow-motion images portending the death of Earth upon its collision with the planet Melancholia—is almost too achingly gorgeous in its depiction of anticipatory movement: Charlotte Gainsbourg swinging her child on the lawn beneath an ominous sundial; a horse complacently sinking to earth; Kirsten Dunst raising her arms to the heavens in awe of the electronic charges dancing from her fingertips. Combined with the unrelenting build of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde prelude, it seems like the film itself is taking in a huge, slow breath and holding it, allowing a brief moment to savor the beauty of existence before releasing.

And release it does: Melancholia crushes the world in seconds, in a concluding shot that is at once devastating and cathartic in its mercilessness. It’s a hell of a money shot.

I can think of few films that are at once so blunt and so enigmatic. On the one hand, von Trier has never been known for his emotional subtlety, and in fact the power of his films is often in their spectacular way of screaming at the audience without blinking (naming the destructive planet in your film on the very subtext of the story has to be one of the most groaningly obvious metaphors since Will Smith got fried by that jellyfish in Seven Pounds). In addition, the film at first glance is as unrelenting a portrait of despair as one could find: from its opening moments, the movie makes it clear that there can be no reprieve from death’s jaws. If anyone walked into Melancholia expecting a sentimental rumination on the Important Things In Life, I doubt they left the auditorium in high spirits. Like a battering ram, Melancholia crushes all things into mulch. It may be that von Trier is simply laughing at us all, as he so often seems to be in his reliably absurd (though now, thanks to his infamous Nazi gaffe, likely defunct) Cannes press conferences over the years. The director certainly does take some delight in dismantling the hubris of his upper-class characters: even at the height of tragedy, when Claire (Gainsbourg) and her son are showered in hail on their golf course and realize the end is near, von Trier can’t help but place a sign in frame revealing that, contrary to the pompous statements of the family patriarch (Kiefer Sutherland) throughout the film, the family owns a 19-hole golf course, not 18.On the other hand, malicious and broad as von Trier’s movies may be at some level, what has endeared me to them is their rare ability to swim around in the emotional lives of their characters and make me feel what they feel in ways that hardly seem merely sadistic. Central character Justine’s (Dunst) depression is in many ways the front and center of the film, underlying the disastrous wedding reception of the first half and ironically making her the voice of “reason” in the second when the true direness of the world’s situation becomes more clear. Judging by many online discussions and reviews I’ve read on the film, many have interpreted Justine’s melancholia as an unrelenting acid burning through the façade of her upper-class existence. After all, she bitterly dismantles the propriety of her wedding reception piece by piece—pissing on the golf lawn, casually humping the temp worker her boss has assigned to follow her, repeatedly rejecting the affections of new hubby Michael, brutally telling off her boss and resigning her job, etc. In addition, Justine’s conversations with Claire throughout Part 2 are so shockingly unsentimental that many reviewers have taken them as shortcuts to the film’s overall philosophy. Justine contends that humanity is evil, that nobody will mourn it, and that its demise shouldn’t be sugarcoated by meaningless niceties (like Claire’s proposal to meet Melancholia sipping wine on the terrace).

But what these interpretations of Justine’s maliciousness fail to see is how she is not simply a razor-tongued prophet of doom eager to destroy the frivolity of those around her. In fact, I read the film as Justine’s struggle to glean meaning from a world she knows is without any. Anyone who has been (or knows someone who has been) severely depressed will recognize this dynamic—the crippling lack of belief in the worth of anything, coupled with a guilty impulse to still “make everything work out.” Lest we forget, Justine seeks comfort and counsel throughout Part 1 from both her father (John Hurt), a drunken twat more focused on romancing women than in his daughter’s future, and her mother (Charlotte Rampling), a bitter old reptile only interested in burning any semblance of joy in the reception brick by brick. It is extremely telling that poor Justine seems caught between the bourgeois vacuity of her father and the venom of her mother, neither of which she can truly see herself.

As at least one other reviewer has argued, in spite of her explicit declarations to the contrary, Justine also proves surprisingly sentimental at times. Right after calling out Claire’s wine-sipping plans as “shit,” Justine nevertheless attempts to comfort Claire’s young son by building a “magic cave” in which to await the planet’s death.

The magic cave, as strange and opaque a symbol as anything von Trier cooked up in Antichrist, finally brings the family together as Justine, Claire, and her son sit inside holding hands, waiting for the end. How are we to understand this final image of Justine and Claire locking hands? Is it Claire’s final admittance that Justine was right in her melancholia all along? Or is it Justine’s realization that even things as hokey as familial comfort or sisterly affection are still worth holding onto? Even at the peak of the film’s nihilism, von Trier manages to belie hints of a perverse humanism.

Of course, together or alone, reconciled or not, the jaws of Melancholia still engulf Earth in the film’s final shot, incinerating our protagonists in a ball of flame that seems to spill past the screen and into the auditorium. J. Hoberman observed that, walking out of Melancholia’s initial screening at Cannes, he felt “light, rejuvenated, and unconscionably happy.” When I first saw Melancholia last fall, I was absolutely captivated by its bleakness, unexpected humor, and (in the second half) almost unbearable suspense. Sitting in the theater watching that big blue ball of sadness envelope me, I felt an indescribable mixture of awe, despair, fear, and hope. Awe, because of the sheer spectacle of the film’s final moments. Despair, because I knew that one day I would also be sitting in my own magic cave waiting for death to swallow me. Fear, because I realized this fate cannot be stopped. Hope, because this puts all things, petty and Important, into refreshing, horrifying perspective.

Dancing in the Darkness

Writing my first ever blog post is more difficult than I have anticipated. Perhaps my inertia against starting one is simply too strong. I settle into a complacent state, always deferring my blog writing for another time, “maybe tomorrow.”

How appropriate, then, that my blogging stupor has been ended by nothing less than a musical — you know, that silly old genre where gents and dames kick away their inhibitions with a tap and a song. How can I not bellow my notes for praise for Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (directed by first-timer Damien Chazelle), a criminally overlooked cinematic treat from 2009? Guy and Madeline follows its titular New England couple from early relational bliss to romantic dissolution and back again. An appealingly simple structure, and fitting, because the film embraces simplicity as its primary charm, from its breezy runtime (85 minutes) to its bare-basics, vérité visual style. The film’s disarmingly mellow setup, however, disguises its surprisingly sophisticated approaches to composition and movement.

Shot on the cheap on handheld, 16mm black-and-white, Guy and Madeline resembles an innocuous tour through Boston’s jazz scene and twentysomething youth life for much of its runtime, complete with all-diegetic music and very sparse dialogue. Understated and relaxed, these sections feel less like a direct documentary than a glimpse into an alternate universe where all communication can be done through simple smile or raise of the eyebrow. This is best revealed in a beautifully silent scene early in the film where Guy meets/flirts with new love interest Elena on the subway through a sequence of exchanged stares and affectionate finger brushes. Rarely have such basic points of contact been so quietly, casually erotic. (And in an age of mumblecore, where internal emotions are too often flushed away in a sea of verbose, rambling confessionals, these kinds of scenes are all the more precious.)

Like most American films of the past decade, independent or otherwise, Guy and Madeline‘s visual style shows a penchant for tight close shots of faces and expressions. Although faces have always been our primary point of connection to any character, today’s movies seem particularly obsessed with every pore and contour of its performers’ heads (again, see mumblecore). Unfortunately, what is often lost in these intimate settings is a greater sense of the performer’s body or the space of the scene. What struck me most about Guy and Madeline, though, was its willingness to occasionally pull the camera back and allow us to soak in the simple elegance of its surroundings.

This is especially true for the film’s several unexpected musical sequences, which often spring magically from the tone of their scenes. Witnessing the first musical scene–an ecstatic song-and-tap-dance-off at a jazz party–reminded me of my first time watching von Trier’s dazzling Dancer in the Dark when Björk’s Selma suddenly and wildly bursts into song nearly 40 minutes into the runtime. Guy and Madeline‘s musical scenes are not as violently and unexpectedly eruptive as Dancer‘s, but still pack a similarly surprising punch. Most Western musicals today, wherever they still exist, betray an underlying discomfort with the hokines of ordinary men and women breaking into song and dance. The result is usually one of two things: either a) the musical scenes are heavily ironized, placed in distinct dream spaces separate from the film’s primary, and often more dour, reality (Dancer in the Dark, The Wayward Cloud); or b) similar to the early days of the musical in the 1920s and 1930s, the music is self-consciously stagey or motivated as the specialized activity of “actual” theater performers (Moulin RougeRent, Dreamgirls, the High School Musical films, Glee, the nearly unwatchable Nine). Rare is the movie where the musical sequences themselves are ordinary, arising “naturally” from the film world and involving the participation of “non-professional” characters. (Even animated films, with the exceptions of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog or Tangled, have turned away from this trend.)

In contrast, Guy and Madeline‘s musical scenes lightly spring from its own diegetic reality, are conducted by “non-actors,” and, while somewhat jolting in their sudden appearances in a way different from classical Hollywood musicals, never feel self-conscious or ironic. More than any film I can recall from the past several years, it is at once hip and delightfully old-fashioned.

Which brings me back to staging and shooting style. With the trend around tight single shots and rapid-fire editing, even when actors do sing and dance, the result is often cut to ribbons (ostensibly to give the scene some more energy). We can scarcely make out the intricacies of the performers’ movements in the machine-gun cavalcade of shots. Compare this to Guy and Madeline, where the camera pulls back into wide shots and long takes of the actors gallivanting around the set. The result, particularly in an ending scene where Madeline discovers Guy’s lingering love for her, is nothing short of pure joy: an infectiously sincere and beautiful portrait of humans in movement harkening back to the glory days of Astaire/Rogers and Kelly, and their initial homagers Godard and Demy in the 1960s.

Yeah…this movie rules.