bob dylan’s ‘mr. tambourine man’ is not doing his job

You get glimpses of why art is magic once in a while. This week, I was lucky enough for it to happen twice for me. One of those times was for Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Listening to the song, it’s easy to focus on what the singer wants from the titular Tambourine Man: “Take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,” the singer asks. With a little imagination, it’s easy to read the song as a simple request for deliverance via the art of song.

By the way, when I talk about songs, I like to refer to the narrative voice of the song as “the singer,” because “narrator” sounds wrong for the medium, but let’s not confuse “singer” in this discussion with Bob Dylan himself. Anyway, the “singer” here makes it sound as the the Tambourine Man can transport him to a place of grace and joy, it’s fair to say, and I don’t know that there’s much to say about this aspect of the lyrics other than than there’s some beautiful phrasing.
Continue reading

the sopranos: the means justify the ends

This week, it was sort-of-but-not-really revealed that perhaps Sopranos creator David Chase believes that Tony Soprano ended up surviving the end of the show, though probably not, or maybe yes, or whatever.

I’ve known about the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos since the finale aired in 2007, but I’m only actually watching the series for the first time right now – I’ve just finished season 3. In theory, the series has been “spoiled” for me since the beginning.

And yet I’ve savored the series – a fairly grandiose way of putting it, but not really much of an exaggeration. The pleasure of watching The Sopranos far outweighs, for me, knowing what’s going to happen to some or almost all of the characters. In light of what I get out of the series, it seems a little upside-down to me for anybody to get up in arms about the lack of a definitive ending for Tony Soprano. Continue reading

the giver is a study in “wait, what?”

Like a lot of mediocre movies, The Giver‘s problem is not so much in its fundamental conception but in its execution. I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it on Saturday, not so much because it’s special — it’s not — but because it’s middling in the way that so many movies are: It’s full of details that are confusingly counter-intuitive and character motivations and relationships that make little sense. Cumulatively, these small mistakes stop the better elements (like the strong performances of Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep) from adding up to anything greater.

So, as an exercise in examining the many ways that cinema narrative can be poorly handled, I will present my specific objections to The Giver in the form of rhetorical questions, for want of any better organizing principle. Frankly, this will be more satisfying if you’ve seen the movie, but don’t take that as a suggestion that you should.

In any event, I’m going to entirely spoil the movie, so beware. Continue reading

is gladiator a tragedy?

When I first saw Gladiator, at 19, I was only really watching Maximus.

The general-turned-warrior, played by Russell Crowe, was a real man any which way you looked at him. You could love him for his intelligence; you could love him for his brawn; you could love him for being a leader; you could love him because he actually just wanted to go home to his family. If the fearsome killer didn’t do anything for you, you could admire the family man.

In theory. I, for one, could not have given two hoots about the family man. Gladiator worked for me because it elaborated vividly and at length on the premise that Maximus was a badass. The beginning and ending of Gladiator’s appeal was that it let me forget I was myself for a while and pretend I was him.

photo by Nick Thompson

Of course, one finds oneself a bit lost in the end when this is what one yearns for in a film. Leaving the movie, I went through a sort of withdrawal. The fantasy ended, I was left with the reality that I was an anonymous college student waiting for a bus in the basement of the Mall of America. Spending time wanting to be Maximus was time wasted, and I knew it. Now, more than a decade later, I find that a little part of me still enjoys watching Maximus being a badass, but it’s no longer the only story in the movie. I have traded my ability to become completely engrossed in a dream for the ability to watch a movie more carefully and for other reasons.
Continue reading

vol 2. of my comments on the house of blue leaves in kill bill: vol. 1

When I wrote about Kill Bill a couple of weeks ago, there was another whole aspect of the House of Blue Leaves sequence I didn’t get around to. It was the way the movie creates an action sequence that feels like more than just a bunch of noise and fury — an action sequence that causes the viewer to sense the violence and the physical aspect of the fight on something more like a gut level.

What I’m trying to describe could be called an aesthetic of brutality. With “brutality,” I’m trying to put a label on the general idea of destruction and mayhem as depicted in movies. Across movies, some punches seem to land harder than others, and some explosions seem more propulsive than others. Some movies, for lack of a better word, are more artful in their brutality than others.

The House of Blue Leaves section of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, for instance, has a higher brutality quotient than a lot of battle scenes I’ve watched, and I’ve been thinking about why. Part of the effect, I think, is achieved just by the length of the battle, which takes place over 30 odd minutes. Another reason the action feels so visceral, though, is what Quentin Tarantino does not just in the night club but to the night club. That is, he lets the Bride and the Crazy 88 gradually destroy it and leave a heaping mess of blood and body parts every which place, until the place is nothing but a war zone, totally transformed from the hip dance joint it was only minutes before.
Continue reading

the house of blue leaves in kill bill is neither a house nor leaves. discuss.

I was watching Kill Bill, Vol. 1 the other day, not thinking much about it. Then a question sort of popped into my head: What is up with the House of Blue Leaves, the Tokyo nightclub where the whole end third of the movie takes place?

Over the course of more than 30 minutes, the House of Blue Leaves becomes much more than a backdrop or a location. It takes on the properties of a palpable space that has volume and a kind of complex presence. We’re used to considering nuanced characters and relationships, but spaces, not so much. Watching Kill Bill, though, I have the sense that Tarantino’s treatment of the set creates a sense of space that is nuanced and specific.

Describing how, though, will take some doing.

Continue reading

boyhood and the trailer form

Very occasionally, I will fixate on a particular trailer, and this past week has been one of those times: I’m sort of hypnotized by the Boyhood trailer. To be clear, in general my fascination is independent of how much I want to see the movie or think that it will be good. Instead, it has something to do with the way that movies are packaged and sold in the form of preview.

Trailers are a strange type of para-film that are designed to make us emote just barely the length of a song. They often succeed at this – I frequently feel as moved by trailers as I do by full movies. But unlike songs, the coming attractions don’t build from one to another as songs can over the course of an album. Trailers, by design, are modular. After the emotional wallop of a good preview, we just move on to another trailer with its own insistent presentation of a potentially cathartic movie. The emotion of a trailer is snuffed out about as quickly as it was evoked. Aesthetically, the entire medium is an odd cousin of the feature-length movies being sold; the trailer needs to convey the central conceit and the tone, leaving you with a feeling unsubstantiated by real story, where the whole film must unspool more slowly, seducing you and only gradually leading to the emotions it wants to inspire.

Continue reading