brutality and the art of feeling physics

For the most part, when I want to talk about an abstract aspect of a movie, I think I make myself understood. Even if you and I don’t agree on how well a given film achieves an effect, we can at least identify what that effect is. Psychological drama, sociological implications, spectacular images, twisty plots — all of these seem like common-sense enough things to talk about with regard to cinema, and you know what the film is evoking even if you don’t know how or why.

But there’s a category of film effect that has slowly begun to take shape for me, one that’s harder to explain. It’s an aesthetic that hits a certain nerve. Whether this is just my own nerve or one shared by other people, I don’t know, and I don’t know what the best word for it would be, but what comes to mind is brutality.

1. a general sketching of a vague thing i’m trying to describe

13-11-19 skyfall crane-on-train

I suppose I wouldn’t need to bother describing this feeling, except I was finding, as I wrote about Skyfall last week, that it was hard to explain exactly what appealed about the early scene where James Bond climbs into the control booth of an excavation machine loaded on a moving train car. He’s chasing a guy, naturally, and in his pursuit he drives the earth mover over several compact cars on the same train, which has precisely the effect you would imagine on the structural integrity of the vehicles in question. Or take another, better example from my recent blog post about Heat, where an armored truck is turned on its side and pushed several feet, with audible scraping.

What I’m after here is an explanation for myself as to why this crushing phenomenon and the brute force that it implies are so satisfying. I think it’s because it gets me to sense — almost as if it were in the room with me — a kind of physical force that in theory I’m only seeing on the screen. I’m not talking about torture or graphic violence, but a sensation of being subject to an unstoppable mass.
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my favorite star wars scene or: how i learned to stop worrying and love the sarlacc

I’m usually worried about rehashing yet again an over-tread topic, so I wouldn’t normally write about Star Wars, possibly the single most-discussed film(s) I can think of. Just off the top of my head I can tell you that Jonathan Seabrook’s analysis of George Lucas’s turn to the dark side (in Nobrow : The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture) has more to say than I ever would, and Chuck Klosterman’s essay (in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) captures most of the personal reaction I have toward the franchise.

But now, when you least expect it — the biggest piece of even the most remotely newsworthy Star Wars development was weeks ago — I think it’s a good time to just riff on my favorite scene and my somewhat tortured relationship with it. It comes at the end of the first act of Return of the Jedi. For those who do not already know the original trilogy backwards and forwards: I’m talking about the end of the sequence where Luke and friends infiltrate Jabba the Hutt’s compound to rescue Han Solo. It doesn’t go very well, our team is discovered, and Jabba sentences them to a thousand-plus years serving as a snack for the sarlacc, which amounts to a living hole in the ground.

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maybe oedipus’ real problem is nosiness

I don’t think I find mythology worthwhile for the same reasons as most people. Often I don’t “get” myths, if I may sound like an ignoramus for a second. But that’s just the starting point for me; if I can’t understand them at first, I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and consider what they might be a metaphor for. This is the spirit in which I read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex recently.

photo by Madeleine Burleson under cc

It starts out with a plague in Thebes, where Oedipus has been king ever since he saved the city from the sphinx and took queen Jocasta as his wife. Pretty quickly, we learn that the cause of the plague, according to the oracle, is that the city is suffering from “pollution” in the form of the man who killed the previous king, Laius. Get rid of this guy and the city will be back in business. The rest of the play consists of Oedipus interrogating people who may have information on who this terrible man could be. (For what it’s worth, I read the David Grene translation from the series of Greek tragedies edited by Grene and Richmond Lattimore.)

I’m just beginning to wrap my head around Aristotle’s Poetics, so I’m not even going to use the phrase “fatal flaw” in this post, and besides, it’s more fun to come to these things with no ideas on what you ought to be looking for. But even if I can’t define “fatal flaw” exactly, I think it’s only natural that I’m looking for some significance — a mistake Oedipus makes, a character trait that damns him — that explains why he is so totally screwed. I want to get to the why of the art just as much as the who and what.

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the great gatsby as a test case for what we lose in adaptation; not a post in which i grumble about the superiority of any medium over another, i promise

Greg Olear, writing for The Weeklings, makes a good argument that Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is gay. I’m a sucker for unlikely theories about books and movies, but even more so when they rely on a close reading of the evidence. Also, since Baz Luhrmann’s movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby is finally coming out this week, Olear’s argument has gotten me thinking about the fundamental differences between the art of film and the art of writing.

Before I get to that, I’ll have to convey to you the gist of Olear’s argument, especially the way he uses Nick’s point of view to make it. A big chunk of Olear’s evidence comes from the way Carraway describes each of the other five major characters in the novel. Part of the argument comes from how Nick casts a pretty detached eye on the women, even though they are all supposed to be desirable in their own way. As an example, there is a passage where Nick describes Jordan Baker (a golfer), the woman he gets involved with: “She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.” Olear summarizes it this way: “Other than the word small-breasted — which de-emphasizes the golfer’s feminine attributes — this could be a description of a man.”

Meanwhile, when Nick talks about Tom Buchanan he is struck by “the enormous power of that body.” This does seem telling, since in my experience as a straight dude, we don’t normally characterize other guys this way unless we’re talking about football players.

But I’ve just now re-read the passage that Olear uses to make his case that Carraway is “in love” with Gatsby, and I find it unconvincing — it seems to just be a description of a man who has quite a bit of charisma, but straight men can recognize that in other men just about as well as gay men can. To me, the description seems to convey mostly a general sense that Gatsby makes everyone feel better in his presence and is able to use his charm to uplift everyone he meets; we all know people like this, and it’s not at all clear that Carraway is attracted romantically to him.


photo by Rakka under cc

Whether I agree with Olear or whether Nick Carraway really is gay doesn’t matter so much to me, though. Instead, what occurred to me while reading was about how any of this would be communicated on film. My conclusion is that it can’t. The paragraphs Olear cites are a great example of what a book can do that a movie can’t even under the best of circumstances.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how novels can go into a character’s head in a way that feels intimate; what I’m thinking of here is similar to that phenomenon but still distinct. I do this thought experiment: What would we get if a filmmaker set out to do the most faithful rendition of the book possible, sans running commentary in voice-over by Nick Carraway? (It would just be cheating if he were allowed to read the book over the images.) Well, we’d have a long movie, but even with all the extra hours of scenes, we probably still wouldn’t know that Nick thinks of Tom Buchanan’s body as having “enormous power” or that Jordan Baker’s bearing reminds him of a cadet’s. We can see through Nick’s eyes or from Nick’s perspective in the film, but seeing isn’t the same as describing.


photo by advertisingelyse under cc

Frankly, I feel as though film is inevitably more objective than the written word, since it is divided from the connotations of words. I’m worried there’s a grand theory of film that has already proven me wrong, but I’m okay with that possibility, because damn if it doesn’t seem intuitively true. An image by itself can’t convey the dense forest undergrowth of mental associations that Nick makes when he eyeballs other people. I hate to talk about the essential qualities of an art form, but I have to admit, at times like these, I want to talk about what a novel does best vs. what a film does best. I can only hope Baz Luhrmann’s film can make up for what can only ever be lost in the transition.

the dirty poet speaks: yes to willis, no to austen



Any poetry pasted to an electrical pole at a street corner is already tugging at my heartstrings, more so when it is signed with the pen name “the dirty poet,” and triply so when the poetry is actually good. Even better if he is willing to field random questions about his cinema tastes.

His book, should you be interested, is linked at the end.

underplex: If you’ve got “desert island” movies, hit me.

the dirty poet: This year I realized that Bruce Willis starred in three of my top five movies: Die Hard (my favorite Christmas flick), Armageddon (I always weep when Bruce says to Ben Affleck, “I’ve always thought of you as my son”), and Pulp Fiction (the only Quentin Tarantino movie that really works). By the way, Lincoln sucked.

photo by Alex Eylar
under cc

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walking and talking, as well as what it takes to make a good supercut

I don’t normally like supercuts, and I think it will become clear why as I explain why this might be one of the best I’ve seen in the handful I’ve bothered to watch.

For one, this one doesn’t just assemble the best snippets that happen to fall into a seemingly arbitrary category, as so many supercuts do. Compare the walk-and-talk supercut above to the one below, “160 Greatest Arnold Schwarzenegger Quotes.” The Schwarzenegger supercut has some highlights, but it’s hard to learn much about how movies work from them. Okay, so maybe you could guess that Schwarzenegger is your go-to man if you want the hero to make a yoke appropriate to the manner in which some creep (or giant crocodile?) is about to die. But even this conclusion is qualified, since half of his quotes aren’t even particularly punchy. There’s just not much to get or think about here.

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broken arrow of time: the three flavors of time travel (part 2 of 2)

On Tuesday, I began this post about the three flavors of time travel. The gist is that time travel films can be categorized based on their answer to the question ‘If I go back in time and try to kill my grandfather before he makes my existence possible, what will happen?’ I left off with ‘closed loop’ time travel, which is basically time travel in a universe where you cannot affect the future. Today I’m moving on to ‘open loop’ and ‘continuous-ridiculous’ universes.

photo by Bob Owen

open loop

In an open loop universe, if you go back to the past, you may in fact be successful at killing your grandfather. (‘Successful’ here is a purely clinical word.) But instead of going into the same future that produced you, you will continue in a new timeline that has split off, one in which you are never born. Time traveler you sticks around, beginning from whenever you popped into this point in the past, but now you can never go back to the future world you came from, because you’ve made it cease to exist; there’s no future with a you in it, only the present with the anachronistic you. In this case, the thread of your narrative that is pulled back to intersect with the past does cross paths for exactly a moment with the timeline that will eventually produce you. But it’s an ‘open loop’ because even as your narrative crosses that timeline, you create a new branch that goes off on its own trajectory.

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