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Director: Peter Weir           (1989);    (Witness – 1985)

John Keating (Robin Williams);  Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard);  Nuwanda/Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) 

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            A return to Dead Poets Society reveals an interesting aspect to the film that can go unnoticed at first.  The film is so inspirational, and emotional, and presents such an intriguing vision to learning and life, to the point that you want to just run home and pick up that old copy of Leaves of Grass, that it is easy to miss the significance of Peter Weir’s film.  He fails.  Keating, that is, not Weir.  Keating fails, ultimately.  He inspires a group of students (nicely done, by the way, rather than over doing everything the way Hollywood wishes – at the end, there is maybe only a little less than half of the class that stands for him – the fact remains, some people are just unreachable; the ‘I want to be a lawyer and I am going to be a lawyer goddamnit and I have no need for art thank you very much’ sort of thing), inspires and raises them so that they may or may not continue to push themselves to look at the world differently.  But by the end of the film, there is one student dead, another one expelled, and the stogy old headmaster is hammering away at Pritcher’s introduction to poetry with all of its soulless rules – order and structure has been returned to the classroom.

            The film fits in with a couple of strong reoccurring themes that appear in many of Weir’s films – that of the colliding worlds, the part that rules and order play in our lives, and the insolubility of these worlds.

            A brief look at one of the earlier films before Dead Poets Society connects one of Weir’s recurring themes. Witness.  Here, there is the theme of two worlds.  The Amish community lives in a world that is a sub-set, one that is ruled by very strict rules based on belief and religion.  They live under traditional rule, ignoring and moving about in an existence that is in direct denial to the rest of the world and technology.  The mother and son go to the city, with all of its own, alien rules and constructs, and they get trapped by them, witnessing the murder.  John Book (Harrison Ford) comes to the Amish world.  The film is this wrestling of the two worlds, the relationship between Book and Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) amidst the very traditional, disciplined existence of the Amish.  It doesn’t work – it can’t work.  She is threatened with becoming a social pariah, a scarlet letter of sorts, if she is seen too often with Book.  It is the threat of the disciplined, their unwillingness to bend or stretch the rules for the ones willing to expand their horizons, to test limits of the society they are in.  The ending is wonderfully done.  Book and Lapp are framed on the porch, he in front of the white clapboards of the farmhouse, her in the blackness of the doorway – framed together but separated and apart.  Then the scene is cut into isolating head shots, back and forth, with nothing said.  The emotion is there, felt in their eyes and body, but they are cut off and cannot communicate now that his necessity there is completed.  She is shown with the blackness of the doorway and the traditional farmhouse, the interior of the house, behind her.  It is what she has ahead of her.  Book is composed with the openness of the field, the sky, the road twisting off and over the hill.  They are and remain from separate worlds.

note: this is not the exactly the image I'm talking about, but it is the closest that I could find and it at least gets the idea across. Sorry about that.

note: this is not the exactly the image I'm talking about, but it is the closest that I could find and it at least gets the idea across. Sorry about that.

            For Dead Poets, all this is there as well.  Discipline, Tradition – the pillars of the school.  As the headmaster says, ‘the system is tested, it works, you can’t try and change it’.  Keating comes in from this other place, an idea of a different life more than a world.  The world of art, of beauty, of free-thinking and challenging oneself to see the world from new perspectives.  He comes to this world of tradition and rules, where individuality is unacceptable.  The ones that try to be outside the system are expelled and disciplined.  Nuwanda (Charlie Dalton), like the threats of being marked in Witness, marks himself.  He chooses to be outside, if not with a scarlet letter, then with scarlet markings – he lipsticks angular symbols on his cheeks, he paints a red lightning bolt on his chest.  But by the end of the film, his desk is empty.  The system will not tolerate challenges to it and it removes him.  The idea is in essence removed. 

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            Neil is slightly different.  He is some Christ-like sacrifice – with his bare chest and his crown of thorns before the opened windows before his suicide – for art.  Art, beauty, poetry, thinking for oneself, they cannot exist within the system.  So, it ends with Keating being sent away.  The classroom is returned to its unchallenging and ordered ways.  There are a few who are inspired, but how long will it last?  Will they not have to succumb in the end, or be expelled?  Is it only death or expulsion for the arts?  Poets is an inspiring film, but its sentiment is one of deathly caution and observation – we are all succumbing to the world of money and rules and abiding by the law of noble pursuits (as Keating calls “Lawyers, Doctors, Engineer’s”).  Is there a path one can still find in the sticky structures and rules of society where art and an inspired life is possible?

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Director: Terrence Malick         (2005)

Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher);  John Smith (Colin Farrell)

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            Terrence Malick.  The New World is a true film – a pure film.  One that is so inherently connected to the idea of film, the images, the meditative landscapes and cinematic sweeps, the profoundly deep emotional impact, that it is almost a thing uniquely apart.  It is an artistic creation that surpasses the notion of best film of the year or awards shows because it transcends the concept – it is a creation that is perfectly linked to the nature of film and its visual and emotional aspects of the medium.  So it is not easy to talk about.  That said, however, there are a number of wonderful subtexts to this film.  Malick is always the meditative filmmaker, combining action and emotion and movement with periods of reflection and solitude and quiet.  In a sense, his films pulse – and they rely on this pulsation between ideas and time to formulate and absorb them to fully engage the viewer.

            Almost the entire film, in almost every aspect of it, functions within a duality of ideas.  There is the philosophical yin-yang of almost every scene and sentence that he presents – and it causes a unique and powerful sensation.  This is one of the most beautiful films made in years – and it is one of the saddest and most powerfully draining.  It is a love story that feels simultaneously like discovery and complete loss.  It is an observation on the world as something man pursues, explores, discovers and conquers but, at the same time, one that he tarnishes, corrupts, destroys and ultimately loses.

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            Pocahontas is a symbol of this.  She is the native, but becomes the immigrant – the first American coming to a strange land and language and needing to assimilate to its culture.  The Europeans come to land as the visitors and explorers, but they possess the land upon arrival, immediately oozing ownership of it almost as soon as the anchor is thrown.

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           The plotline is a love story, told in flowering terms with devotion and discovery injected into every meeting, every moment of their courtship.  It exists in this utopian situation, this place full of only freedom and new wonders.  It is an escape from the world that John Smith knows and he says that it exists like a dream.  Malick plays with the imagery, showing us scenes of the woods reflected in water, perfectly still and then, in a moment, with ripples running through the image.  It is a mirror of the world, the place that Smith talks about in his journey, the opportunity to start new, to have no man answer in deference to another, but the world of rules and order shimmers at the edges.  It cannot be held away forever and the sense of it ripples through this dream utopia.  But the image has more to it – it leaves the ambiguity about which is the real world, which world is the truth, the one we live in or the one we see.  And it feels always just out of reach.  So that even here, at the films most lush and lovely, there is this haunting reflection, the yang to its yin, the perfectly equal and reflecting opposite to the idea.

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          Pocahontas learns the language, the ideals and constructs of the culture of Europe.  Yet in almost everything that she says is this sense of loss, this duality of intent.  She says “I give myself to you, you are a god.”  It is a line of love and giving, but it is the loss of herself that you feel at the same time, because she is discovering this new wonder (love) but it comes with the ideas of possession and god and ownership and all that makes her utopian world vanish. 

            There is a strong, meaningful contrast between the natives and the English.  Both are presented fairly.  The Indians, despite their setting, are not peaceful, idealistic characters; they also have their violence, their fear, their aggressions.  On the other hand, the white man rejects nature and he suffers for it.  He becomes walled in by their little fort, unprepared for the winter, with nothing to eat, relying on things of zero value to save them. At the same time, the natives prosper by accepting instead of resisting the earth.  Late in the film, in the scenes in England, there is a nice contrast with this. We see what becomes of the wild, utopian freedom of the American woods as order and symmetry takes over the gardens of England; the paving over and clipping of all the trees into pointless shapes.  The film shows the duality affixed to this – the absurdity of ‘progress’ and how it squeezes out anything natural or meaningful; the inevitabilities of progress and loss. 

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            All of these themes are reflections of the duality in the nature of the observations within the film. The film also presents the contrasting philosophies at the heart of the two tribes; the internal ‘taking’ to the external ‘giving’.  Pocahontas is always moving her hands from her chest outward, to the world and the sky, giving outward – the Indians seemed to have this exposure of their soul:  it is external, of the earth and the sky.  As its opposite, the Europeans were always constructing walls around their possessions. The armor in the beginning was a great metaphor for this – the naked Indians with only stained skin tapping and poking the armor, and the Europeans all wrapped up, protected and cold, steely and completely useless in their gear, all their senses cut off and, like a big clunky machine, unable to defend themselves or see their attackers.  It builds in theme throughout the first part of the film, so that when John Smith comes back to the camp in winter, as starvation and desperation has struck the English, you are asking yourself what are they protecting?  And inside, when the gates open, it is just emptiness and disease – a rotting. The skeleton of an unfinished church.  It is a lovely metaphor: the housing of our souls, made interior and contained. 

            But Malick goes much further with it.  When Pocahontas goes to London, and you first see the cathedral, it is stunning, unbelievable.  You see it in a way you’ve never seen it before.  All of the wonder and amazement of man’s ability and creation – you can feel it.  See it.  Then the point is driven home: the cathedral – while a true testament to the amazing achievements of man and the beauty of his creations – is dark and empty inside, a fancy wall built to protect nothing, closing off the sky and worshiping only ourselves and our ability to make.  It is why the Indian runs out – to escape this captivity.  And we are left with the sense of a world lost, even while it has only just been born.

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Director: David Fincher      (2008)

Benjamin (Brad Pitt); Daisy (Cate Blanchett) 

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            David Fincher’s century spanning film The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, shot with meticulous era detail, is, to say the least, an unusual film. Fincher’s earlier films (Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room) were impressive displays of film technique, visual metaphor and complex overlaying metaphoric development. His latest two (Zodiac and Bennie Button) are quite different, at least structurally. Far more restrained, more focused on story development, on subtle moods and cavernous spaces, they are both films very much focused on the processes of time; on its passing, its textures and feel. Fincher seems to be narrowing on finding some way to film the actual sense of the expanse of time, on its variable lengths, on the profundity of its movement and its effect on lives.

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            Button has an unusual and interesting structure. The arc of the story is no arc at all, but more like an infinity sign. The nearly incomprehensible Irish tugboat artist, Mike Clark, explains in a bar how the wings of a hummingbird, when slowed down, trace the infinity pattern – he even carves it out of space, slow and dramatic, just in case you missed those first few weeks of Algebra class. Fincher maps the film to this. Benjamin and Daisy weave the course, in opposite directions, for the length of the film, connecting at the ends, in youth and in old age. And they intersect in the middle, both in the center of their lives, for the culmination of their love affair – a few years of happiness overlapping and joined in the passing. Most of the movie we watch the two live their lives on separate paths, following the arcs as they sweep away from each other and back again.

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            If the house in New Orleans can serve as some axis, a home in space that stays in place, then we watch Benjamin travel away from it and into the world, to harbors and Russia and war, while Daisy heads the other way, growing in years spent in New York, in dance and youth. Their small relationships at the time mirror each other in this flipped loop from the axis with Benjamin having his middle aged affair with a married woman while Daisy has a youthful fling with a young artist. When they meet in these far off paths of their lives, they are distant, going opposite directions, and they don’t or can’t understand or make room for the other. Daisy even heads to what looks like the same street in Russia as part of the dance troupe just to make the point – the distance, the out of phase traversing of their lives. At their most distant point from each other, Benjamin goes to see her in the hospital. Broken, cut and looking her worst from the accident, Daisy looks at him – the scene shot from her point of view and blurred, slowly drawn into focus as if he were at a great distance. She sees him and says, ‘you’re perfect.’ Even physically, they are at their furthest point.

            The same happens on the second loop of the symbol, after their life together, with Benjamin traveling out again, far out in the radius of his path before returning home again, meeting at the end point for Daisy to mother him as a senile infant.

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          The one constant in all this flux, in the constant movement and change of time, is love. In bed, Benjamin, conscious of their soon to be diverting paths, says how ‘nothing last’. She retorts, ‘some things last.’ She means love, of course. It’s the one unchanging, sturdy constant in their lives, even when the cycle is at its deepest apogee. Well, love and its opposite; the unavoidable aloneness that traces particularly Benjamin’s life – his separate track than everyone else, his path alone.

            There is a scene that beautifully depicts this structural concept. In the center of their romance, Benjamin stands at the edge of the room watching Daisy dance alone in her dance studio, stumbling on her repaired knee. This is the point of their paths crossing, the very center of their lives. Daisy even comments on this in the scene, stating how they are both around the same age. She talks about the geometry of their lives: ‘In dance, it is all about your line. Once you lose your line, you never get it back.’ She tells him she’s pregnant. It is the point that starts Benjamin on his journey past her; he senses the end of their life together immediately, and fears his inability to be a father. He sees it is the start of the end, the crossing point where his journey dips below the axis line and resumes its path away from her. Fincher, being a visual master, composes the scene with them leaning on the ballet bar, against the wall mirror – Benjamin looks at her mirror image, she at his – if you trace their eye lines through the reflections, what does it look like? The infinity sign. This is that line they cross before heading off again in opposite directions.

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           Here, at their most intimate moment, as they are starting a family and deep in the heart of their love for one another, the relationship between them is visually perfect – each and their mirror image. The mirror is an axis plane between the one aging and the other in reverse, between the lives of each together and in distance, bound in this juncture and in memory and reflection. In the frame, there are 4 of them, the ones on the positive side and the negative side of the axis, and the relationship between them all is this continuous, flowing figure 8. It is a wonderful image that visually sets the deep emotion and separateness of the film. Benjamin is a man alone, in love and dedicated to that love for his life, but most of it he spends in reflection, in the sweeping infinite sign away from home and happiness.

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Director: Cristian Mungiu     (2007)

Otilia – Anamaria Marinca (blonde);  Gabita – Laura Vasiliu (dark hair, pregnant)

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            4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the 2007 Romanian film about illegal abortion by director Cristian Mungiu, is set in 1987. It’s stated in small type at the start of the film, but the feeling of the age permeates the film. This was before the fall of Communism, Romania still under the police state of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The bleakness and poverty of the state is everywhere. Mungiu’s long takes and intimate, fidgety camera work is crucial, squeezing the tension of the story and the situation to a trembling intensity. If you ever wanted to see a film that makes its case for legalized abortion, this is it. But that is neither the main point here, nor the most interesting aspect of the film. Ultimately, the film deals with deeper issues, looking hard at fear and oppression, both in government and how rooted into our psyche it is.

            The film, on the surface, has little to do with politics. But as the story unfolds, each scene reveling additional layers of oppressive powers and its manipulative abilities, it comes clear that this is a film very much about the state. It opens in a dormitory room, though we don’t know that immediately (one of the nice storytelling efforts here is how the elements reveal themselves slowly, often after the fact – a method that increases the sense of things out of one’s control). Otilia (the blonde, main character) says she’s going out to buy a few things. She walks the halls, dips into various rooms, and stops at ‘the store’, which is another dorm room – all the while never stepping outside. A scene later, when she walks outside, the camera tight on her back, it comes as a bit of a surprise, as the opening sequence was suggestive of a prison. The feeling set up by that scene, one of containment, where the characters are constantly held within some unseen or unmentioned control, fills the length of the film. (The film’s poster, or the version of it shown above, captures this sense perfectly – there is no where to go, no future, no outlook within the system.)

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            Everywhere the characters go, they are under surveillance, showing ID cards, explaining their actions, justifying their commitments and tardiness. It is a police state, and the film exceptionally captures the sense of government abuse and control – that feeling of constant fear of some guilt being forced upon you from any side, at any time. But the film is getting at some more general theme. In the hotel room, with the abortion doctor laying out the conditions of the procedure, the tension rises subtly and steadily until it is this huge fear in the room. The scene is wonderfully done. The abortionist starts in a relatively calm ordering of the situation, continually repeating the risk to himself, that he comes here and is honest, open, asks nothing but the same from the two women. Slowly, almost methodically, the scene shifts as the situation dawns on the women and the audience at the same time. The power he has swells enormously, fearfully, until the helpless, inferior position they are in becomes desperation. It is the story of strong government, one that comes as if to aide and assist but manipulates their power over you until you are willing to give up anything out of fear. It is what happened, in a sense, to Eastern Europe.

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            This idea of oppression is everywhere and Mungiu is clever enough to show it work its way into all the relationships in the film, not just as an example of government. Otilia leaves the hotel room to go across town to her boyfriend’s house for his father’s birthday. Immediately, she is protective. Her boyfriend subtly manipulates guilt into her being late, positioning himself in some attempt at authority through accusation. The dinner scene and their conversation in his bedroom afterwards masterfully work this idea in with subtle shifts of tone and dialogue – the dinner conversation regurgitating party lines of class distinctions and city/country/educational superiority – until she flees, by herself, out into the dark and empty city, fear on all sides, alone. It is a film strongly about choice and the suppression of freedom, not merely in the rights for abortion, but in the rights to live, to will oneself against fear; it is a film that deals deeply with the immense sacrifice and loss generations of people had to put up with under powerful governments and sexist ideals; it is a film that impressively looks into the inner workings of oppression.

            In the end, the two women are alone, together but with this thing between them. The feeling you get is that Otilia has had to do this on her own, that she has made the greatest sacrifices, taken the greatest risks and that she has had to deal with much of the process on her own. The film ends and there is this thing undeniable, as much as they want to deny it, that lingers – the history, the sacrifice and loss; it’s their youth, the generations growing up under this oppression, the lives lost to the weight of this age of authoritative control.

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Director:  Steven Soderbergh  (2009)

 Chelsea – Sasha Grey;   Chris (boyfriend) – Chris Santos

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            The first 30 minutes of dialogue in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience are so closely focused on the economy that for a moment you wonder if you walked into the wrong theatre. Client after client, these men complain to Chelsea about the state of the economy, about money, investing and business, often in the foreplay of their purchased experience with her. Chelsea, professional escort, follows the same line. After each of her appointments, she catalogues the details of their time together – designer clothes, names of brands for shoes, lingerie, skirts; a checklist of outfits that reads like the factual minutes of her meeting. She focuses on the business with all the dry cataloguing of her life. She shops, prepares for her next appointment, listens blankly as her clients complain about business and money . . . she shops again. 

            Ultimately, Soderbergh’s film is a finely nuanced look at consumerism. Chelsea’s clients buy her, but not merely for the sex. There is a pseudo-life to their meetings – dinner, a movie, conversations on the couch. It becomes clear that the clients here are purchasing some simulated relationship, some life in mimicry; the ‘experience’ of a girlfriend without the reality of it. But like what is said over Chelsea’s lunch conversation (wonderfully edited in segments throughout the film), no matter how much they think they want the real Chelsea, they don’t. They are paying for her to be what they need her to be. And throughout the film, that is not so much sexual as it is a desire for some companionship, some fake relationship that they fool themselves into believing is real.

            She is a product – she is selling whatever these men want her to be. We get only tiny glimpses into Chelsea’s real self – her books, her scattered comments about her parents (she didn’t want to depend on them, wanted to make her own money), her story about Charles Barkley’s bar tab – and they show her as extremely young and immature. She sells herself as high culture and then lets her clients project that culture onto her. 

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            Chris, Chelsea’s boyfriend, is the same character only on the other side of society’s professional fence. He prostitutes his body as a trainer, he establishes business relationships with clients that pretend at friendship but that have the same underlying bind of money at its roots. His conversation with his client at the gym is about their “relationship” and “appointments.” It is spoken with the identical terminology as Chelsea’s escort services. The connection is important because it expands the isolated case of Chelsea’s profession to incorporate a society of professions. The film paints a portrait not of an escort, but of a society that prostitutes itself for consumer pleasure; a culture where life has been replaced by the false, fake experiences of customer purchase. 

            For much of the film, we are watching this constant purchase and consumption – of food and wine (in almost every scene), shops, clothes stores, markets. Chelsea prepares herself, layering on makeup as if it is a shield of cover against whatever real personality and identity lies within. She moves about hidden behind sunglasses. The conversations clients have with her are them projecting their business and culture onto her. She is this blank slate, emotionless at all times, even when Chris is telling her their relationship is over if she decides to go away for the weekend (the only rule they have that she can break). She listens completely impassively and detached. 

            The only true emotion in the entire film is something we never see – her newest client cancels their weekend because that morning, when video phoning with his daughters, the tears were streaming down his face and he realized he couldn’t go through with his simulated romance. It is that suggestion of something real, a real life with commitments and responsibilities and emotion – even when he tells her over the phone, you can feel it, almost see it, and it is like relief, like this glimpse into something real.

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            This idea of consumerism takes over the film. A package is sent to Chelsea. Soderbergh shows it several times; it arriving, placed on the counter, waiting – so much so that when she finally opens it, you expect it to hold some great secret, some insight into whom she is. It is a work of art, a gift from a client. On the surface, it explains the art on the wall, which doesn’t fit with her blank state – they were gifts, things other people liked and then projected onto her. But the print in the mail suggests more. When she opens it, her expression is completely blank, unmoved, working out the memory of who it’s from – it is just another product. It speaks of the absence of culture, to the superficial lives of everyone we’re watching. Earlier, a street drummer pounds away his beats outside a clothes store – there’s not a lot of music in the film, but it is a focus point here. At the end of the scene, Soderbergh shows the drummer working his furious rhythms and holds the shot for some time – filmed from behind so we can see that no one is watching. When he finishes his song, there is no acknowledgement, no notice from the street – he creates with all this furious energy and off it goes out into empty space. It is what has come of things. There is still art in the world, still creative souls, still energy, beauty and something real, but it goes unnoticed, unseen and unfelt, like the art work gifts. The whole film is this process, the circulation of money, the spending, and purchasing to present oneself as something desirable and better, so as to acquire money and back again, the cycle continuing, like the weekend trip to Vegas that is ‘ all the same trip, never-ending.’ If someone sits outside of it, they create in what feels like a vacuum, outside the flow of commerce and attention. 

            The film has a chilled air about it, cool, calculated, emotion-starved with the people in the film isolated and lacking some basic human relations. It is a society focused only on the economy, on money and business and consumer-based needs and fulfillment. For a film at least superficially about sex, there is a noticeable lack of feeling or warmth amongst the characters. Even the look of the film itself tends predominately towards blues and grays. When the film ends, again with an encounter surrounded by discussions of investments, gold, money, it is striking how lonely it seems: if the film, to some extent, deals with sex as a modern currency, then here is the only fulfillment we see, one fittingly based around a hug. The film deals so much with the emotional depravity of the time that here, it is just simple human contact that satisfies the client – and it seems far more needy and desperate, lonely to an isolating degree, as if sex has become this empty product and the two figures holding each other is the only feeling in the world. But he’s still paying her making the embrace false and contractual, and the image is one of awkwardness and emptiness; half naked souls acting out life, clinging to the false satisfactions of product.

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director: Michael Mann     (2004)

Max (Jamie Foxx – taxi driver); Vincent (Tom Cruise – hitman)

          Right in the beginning of Collateral, there is a long shot that director Michael Mann holds with the camera still and the taxicab pulling out of the cab station for the nightshift.  It is late afternoon and Max (Jimmie Foxx), having just cleaned up the cab and prepared for his night of work, rides off into the. . . well, not quite the sunset, but close.  A wall.  There is a large, building-sized mural on the wall opposing the cabs, and the shot holds there long enough for us to get a good look at it.  It is a western scene – a cowboy riding on a white horse chasing down this wild eyed and raging black bull.  There are mountains, rugged and rocky, in the distance and everything else is just the open plains of the wild west.  There is a clear parallel that Mann draws on throughout this film, weaving his tale of city suspense and action in with the genre of the wild west, the cowboys riding into town and shootin’ it up, taking care of their own business regardless of the law and gunning down their enemies.  The image repeats – Vincent’s (Cruise) boss is located in a cowboy bar, the hats and western getups crowding around the club; the coyotes jogging across the empty streets like it were the far off, deserted planes.  Vincent has that cowboy make up, the carefree killings, the swinging into town to do his job; the hired gunman.  He takes it with a modern feel; the big shoot out is in an LA club, the modern day saloon, he draws his gun with the quick draw of a cowboy but holds it cupped in two hands like the modern cop. 

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          The point though I think is much deeper rooted into the film.  Mann creates this very desolate city.  It is the sparse, sprawling LA – but they are downtown and the streets are empty.  There is an overwhelming sense of these isolated buildings, wide, blank streets, a ghost town of sorts.  There are people milling about, crowded into bars and clubs or walking the streets, but their placement leaves the city feeling empty, sparsely populated.  All of this is juxtaposed against the steady, unbroken flow of the freeway – the lights repeatedly shown flowing in the background, continuous, always present but passing by, flowing unnoticed.  It adds to the sense of the empty buildings, the downtown streets where no is out.

          Even more so, as the film goes along, the action taking place, the suspense, the Hollywood aspects, there is this dark underlining to the night.  It is difficult to pin down, but it is there, and as the film goes on, the darkness of this rises up, eventually dominating the final scenes.  One of Mann’s themes that he seems to return to in many of his films is the man against the system; courage and bravery defined as the actions of a lone man working against a much larger force.  The Insider – family man, not a hero in any other sense, takes on the money and power of the tobacco company; but his fight is against the propaganda, the idea, the dominance of power and corporate rule in this country, and it is that that Mann sees as making him a hero.  Ali – a film that deals only passingly with his boxing and focuses much more on the man; the civil rights example, the man who carried a country ideal on his shoulders by answering to no one but himself, by taking on the government and the draft and, far weightier, the racism and oppression that it issues and distributes in its foundation.

collateral2          Here, in Collateral, it isn’t as easy to see immediately.  For a while, it seems like the battles being fought are simply Max verses Vincent.  But there is this underlying element that slowly rises.  Vincent spills out dark philosophy on the meaninglessness of lives, on the alienated, the indifferent.  It borders on nihilism.  But the reason the film works and is tense and engaging is because his talk is almost convincing at first.  He draws you in.  He talks about the modern world where no one knows one another, where the city is full of people who don’t see those around them, do nothing for them, care nothing for them.  He mentions Rwawanda – ‘10,000 people killed before sun up; people haven’t been killed that fast since Nagasaki, Hiroshima; did you do anything about it?  Did you sign up for Amnesty International?  Did you even bat an eyelash?  I kill one fat slob – a bad man – and you have a hissy fit.’  Vincent doesn’t let up – he is always threatening, then spouting out a discourse on how no one cares about these people, who will even notice?  And all the while, the streaming traffic goes on in the background, the highway full of people driving by, not noticing, the teeming masses ever-flowing.

          This is the battle – it is against the tide of the masses, against the bleakness of life, against the alienation of modern cities and modern lives, against the desolate downtown buildings, the tides that can plow you over – it is against the void, the philosophy and indifference of nothing.  Max almost goes under.  He drives, listens, drives on.  He is forced to become involved in it, to gain the courage to lie and show power in the face of power.  He sees the coyotes running across the empty road – scavengers, the wild animal nature of man – the song that starts playing is singing about how he is reading his thoughts, that, in essence, Vincent is seeing the gapping void opening up in Max.  And he starts to see the futility of his own life; its lack of direction and aimlessness.  But when he is letting himself be taken in by the police officer, at the point of giving in, he sees that the lawyer woman that he met in the beginning of the film is Vincent’s next victim and he is awoken because now it is suddenly made personal.  And he fights for it, becoming Mann’s hero against that which is so much larger than himself by seeing the personal, the care and will to life that is missing in Vincent’s ideology – that thing that can separate us from the animal.  And the film ends with Max and the girl exiting to the street as dawn is coming up – the road rushing by, the masses of people unnoticing – but they are on street level.

          This fits in well with the western theme.  Men fighting it out in a lawless land (the law is always pushed away with ease here – the cops are easily beaten, ignored; the lawyer tries calling 911 but the phone lines are cut, Vincent guns down the good cop with ease, Max beats down and handcuffs the arresting cop after his crash – this has to be solved alone).  The west; the desolate plains, man struggling for purpose and reason in a lawless land, the vast plains and animal world, the struggle. . . .  The wild west can be felt just beneath the city, as he rides his cab around.

 

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soloist poster

Director: Joe Wright         (2009)

Steve Lopez – LA columnist; Nathaniel Ayers – cellist

            The film opens on the pedaling of a bicycle, the camera held steady with the axel so only the feet and the pedals go round and round – and although the rider and the bike move forward, we just see this cycle, this closed loop, a revolving in circles. This story is not going places – or, at least, parts are not – and immediately you get the sense that the film will not resolve itself in some foolish ‘all is wonderful’ ending and solution. We see Steve Lopez, columnist for the LA Times, riding the hard way, up a hill and through a group of cyclists going the other way. This is a man going his own way, against the tide, and it’s clear that the cellist yet to come is not the only soloist here. In minutes, we see Lopez fall from his bike and smash his face. Over the next 2 hours, there is a wonderful parallel metaphor set up as we watch Lopez’s wounds, so hideous at first, heal in every scene, while cellist Nathaniel Ayers, with no exterior damage, remains unhealed, and unchanged. It is a nice image that gets the point across – not all problems have solutions. And as the screen litters itself with images of disasters and struggle, with wars and bleak news coverage, this contrast of the healable and unhealable problems of the world solidifies.           

            Lopez (and this film is as much his story as it is the story he is writing) is shown, throughout the film, alone, out of place and set apart. There are scenes of him in his house, at night looking at the city skyline, in his car, always alone – late in the film, he is at a bar, the only patron there, and when another customer comes in, it is only to make him even more apart, his distant connection to the bartender now gone too. He is as much as Ayers a soloist – distant in social situations, preferring to be working, to be off trying to solve this ‘case’. In the process, of course, he develops a friendship, but in many ways, it is the little things around this that make the film interesting.

            Another theme weaves itself in nicely as the film moves on. There are a number of overhead aerial shots, these bird-eye’s views of highway overpasses and houses that carry a strong sense of loss. They contrast well with Ayers set in his tunnel, out on his own and separate, with Lopez looming, building his story, trying to make connections to how someone ‘smart, kind and talented’ could end up here, so cast out of the system. The aerial scenes become this sense of all the individuals among the houses and the cars, along the streets, and all the stories each have. It also has a built-in ‘God’s-eye’ view. Ayers plays and the music transports – the camera takes flight above the street, out of the everyday and soars above. For part of the film, it seems to be linking this a bit with the spiritual, the transcendent, even the heavenly. But thankfully, the film turns away from the Godly and builds a much stronger idea. There is no God on the streets, not these streets, not anymore, if ever there was. These streets, a city, a world even, of wanderers, of those unconnected and alone, of soloists. The aerial shots, the more they are shown, feel more and more disconnected. The atheist cleaning his median of highway has little to say, his group unable to meet because they have nothing to discuss – the people are spread about, not united under one idea but left scattered to search for one. The professional cello teacher, the only religious figure in the film, is absurd; rich and set off from the city as if belief can only be had by those wealthy enough to afford it; and it makes him look clueless and antiquated, out of touch as if a different species. 

            The purity and power of music is referred to in the film as ‘grace’, but it is not in a religious sense. Ayers bristles with anger and violence when the mention and absurdity of God or praying is brought up – to him, music is prayer and Lopez his god – and the director, Wright, takes this and makes his point with it: we are alone, there is no one and nothing looming above to save us; we can create a beauty that transcends the poverty and suffering of life and we can save and deliver each other, and ourselves, through this, as well as through kindness, friendship and time. That Lopez’ writing is the prime mover of the events and progress of the story is further support to the idea – creativity is what we have that makes us more than just raccoons digging in the dirt. The camera works to reinforce this; there is a shot of the cello case in the mail cart pushed through the rows of the office and it is this delivery, this kindness and gift that moves the story forward. The scene is filmed as if it were us pushing the gift, us giving the gift. In the end, the reality of life is not cheapened or ridiculed but honored by the magnitude and depth of the issues. Ayers has problems too deep to solve, wounds too permanent to heal, too inexplicable to resolve; but, like Lopez, like all of us, he perseveres, he pushes forward, unresolved but inching forward, the circle just going round and round.

 

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