“The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012)

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There’s something about Schenectady; it makes for good films. One that comes to mind is “Synecdoche, New York (2008),” in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director in the midst of a personal tailspin who deploys his newly-won MacArthur Fellowship grant in an unholy bid to undo the fourth wall, setting in motion a bizarre performance art project that metastasizes out of his control, enveloping the entire town, its myriad denizens, and finally the world.

Schenectady’s name means ‘beyond the pines’ in Mohawk. It was once the site of a number of small villages. Briefly overlapping with the Mohawk Nation’s regional tenure came corporate-colonial juggernaut New Amsterdam in the form of Arent van Curler, a Rensselaer cousin and manager of the family’s manor-estate patroonship.

It’s just the sort of place that would make a good setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story. Lovecraft, that master of generational decay, with his tales of degenerated Dutch aristocratic lines like that of the eccentric, voodoo-obsessed Brooklyn recluse Robert Suydam in ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ or the spectral Jan Martense, last of a doomed line of Catskills gentry done in by his own inbred cretin-relatives in ‘The Lurking Fear,’ would have felt at home in Schenectady’s claustrophobic, narrow streets of century-old wood houses moldering in the shadows of the oaks, requiem to a proud, long-vanished working class.

ben mendelsohn

Ben Mendelsohn as Robin van Der Zee, Luke’s mentor and business partner.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” grapples with eternal human motives like greed, jealousy, and love in Schenectady’s postindustrial shadow. Ryan Gosling is Luke, a motorcyclist carney, bank robber, and would-be father to a young boy he didn’t know he had. Eva Mendes is Romina, a waitress and young mother navigating two loves and the exigencies of her son’s needs. Bradley Cooper is Avery Cross, a law school grad turned local cop caught between ambition, a desire to fit in, an inclination toward justice, and his machiavellian father’s designs. Behind and about these characters looms the insidious corruption of the local police force, personified in a good-old-boy monstrosity played by Ray Liotta. The film ranges like a greek tragedy over themes of history, class, and fate, but the characters never lose their agency. Their lives are their own.

 The Place Beyond the Pines is a multigenerational, small-town epic that, like an old stone well, discloses its secrets gradually, as one peers further and further into its depths.

A meditation on “Sicario” (2015)

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“The history of civilization is nothing more or less than the development of order.” -August Comte

“Order out of chaos.” -Old secret society motto

“Better an injustice than disorder.” -Goethe

“All good things on this earth flow into the city.” -Pericles of Athens

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying.” -Bob Dylan

Like most of the films featured on this blog, Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” is about America. More specifically, it concerns the efforts of a waggish, wily government spook, played by Josh Brolin, to sew a little chaos, and weave a bit of order, along America’s southern border in the no-man’s land of Juarez, Mexico. He is joined by a soft-spoken mercenary, played by Benicio Del Toro, who undertakes this mission for his own opaque reasons. Central is the agonizing internal struggle of a young FBI attache, played by Emily Blunt, over whether their methods-and ultimately their motives-are sound.

The cinematography mimicks the gaze of a shellshocked bystander: tunnel vision sweeping sluggishly from detail to detail- someone’s shoes, a gun, the face of a sleeping man, the desert wastes scrolling past a jet window. The soundtrack is unsettlingly sparse: only atmospheric bass that is easily mistaken for the beating of your own heart. Both convey volumes by gesture and implication, leaving much space and time for the viewer to ponder the gravity of what he is witnessing. The descent into Juarez is reminiscent of Brueghel’s paintings of the Black Death.

* * *

Over the course of a few hundred years, tiny, militaristic, republican Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean, enveloping territories, resources, and peoples, bringing them under a single world-order. Where there had once been only endless, village-by-village butchery and the caprice of the local chief, now in every city was a Roman tax collector, a Roman court, a Roman bathhouse, and a Roman theater. The city personified its will, and its dizzying bureaucratic edifice, in a single man, the Caesar. Its offer was an ultimatum: Bow to Caesar, prosper in peace. Reject Caesar, and die by his metal.

But seemingly just as soon as Rome had actualized its wildest goal, conquering the farthest reaches of the known world, the tide reversed, and this youthful command would be whittled down, over the course of the next millennium, to the bargain of an aging manager: “I’ll pay your tribe to guard the border along the Danube,” and finally to the pathetic plea of a senile puppet: “Here’s one-and-a-half tons of gold, if you promise not to sack the capital again.” The Eastern Empire continued in this sad state for centuries before it was finally put out of its misery by the Muslim Turks in 1453. Citizenship, once restricted to the inhabitants of Rome, became a reward for military service, then a tool of assimilation, then a bargaining chip, then nothing at all. Rome’s effort to embrace the infinite, to throw its arms madly around all of existence, ended when it was engulfed.

To love something is to want to dominate it, to merge with it- and, finally, to surrender to it. Just as Rome once had, America fell in love with the world. It dominated the world. It is in the process of merging with the world. (There is much work still to be done on this front.) Sicario’s depiction of the drug cartel affords a glimpse of the new world America might some day surrender to, a world it formed in its own image, a world increasingly out of its control.

Some might call America’s project good, others will call it evil. They will attribute America’s actions to greed, or power lust, or idealism, or chauvinism, or madness. The same things can all be said of one person’s love for another person, the causes of which are inevitably obscure, even to the lover himself. Good or evil, love is about power. And the loved will always hold more power than the one who loves. And the master will always end up as the slave.

What do we do now?: an analysis of “Garden State”

Spoiler Alert

Why am I writing this right now, a blog entry that few people will ever see, on a movie that has been reviewed and analyzed to death by countless others with more credentials and experience than me?

Writing a blog gives me a sense of accomplishment, despite the fact that, since by some estimates, there is one blog for every six people on earth, blogging is rather like shouting into an abyss. Ah! What an apt topical reference, since the dvd cover of this movie, Garden State, is a shot of the three main characters shouting into what they call the “infinite abyss,” an underground cavern of indefinite depth recently uncovered by the attempted construction of a supermall just outside of Newark, New Jersey.

Zach Braff’s choice to give his twentysomething coming-of-age (or not) romantic comedy the setting of New Jersey is fitting for a number of reasons.  First, as per the oft-given advice of ‘write what you know,’ Braff himself grew up in the state, and had a background and early life not unlike his alter ego, Andrew Largeman: pushed by high-powered parents, pumped full of antidepressant drugs for perceived ‘disorders’ since before puberty, and driven forward only by the vague, oft-cited dream of becoming an actor.

Second, New Jersey has a fairly long history in our culture as a byword and synecdoche for greater suburbia, dating back at least to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, which takes as its subject a similar group of comfortably numb, idle youths.  While it has been made prosperous by its location within the Northeastern corridor, convenient proximity to major cities like Philadelphia and New York, abundance of ready-to-develop farmland, and string of Atlantic vacation towns, New Jersey in itself really has no reason to exist, or at least to boast the massive population it does.  It is a place of strip-malls, boarding schools, office complexes, and bedroom communities, where baby boomers went to buy McMansions and plunk their families, while they communted into the city to win the bread, and where, to this day, most of their progeny still languish, living out various degraded versions of ‘the Dream.’  Though the state is by no means as socially homogenous as it is often portrayed, New Jersey remains entrenched in our minds as the quintessential example of what rabble-rouser James Howard Kuntsler calls “The Geography of Nowhere.”

And that’s precisely where Largeman and his friends find themselves, ten years or so after graduation: nowhere.  Their disillusionment is palpable, and all the more humiliating and pathetic for their recognition that they have little to be disillusioned about, little justification to feel that they missed out on something, or were dealt a bad hand.  After all, none of them are starving, or without a home.  (it is perhaps this very inability to articulate their failures, even to remember what their vague, unrealistic dreams once were, that left Largeman’s generation doomed. What is worse, to have a plan and fail in its execution, or to never have had a plan at all?  Theirs is the latter, a problem too deep and systemic to be solved even by the herculean effort of a rom-com trope like the fairy-tale ending (as we shall see).

Take Largeman’s friend Mark (played brilliantly by Peter Saarsgard).  A stay-at-home son and part-time grave-digger, with ‘investments’ like Star Wars figurines and Desert Storm trading cards, who hosts parties in his parents’ circa-seventies wood-panneled rancher and hustles big box stores with fake returns for pocket money.  His mother (who is romantically involved with one of her son’s former classmates, a timid clerk in a medieval-themed fast food joint who appears onscreen in full knight’s armor) keeps urging her son Mark to ‘apply himself’ and buy some ‘real-estate tapes’ to learn the biz and make a fortune, so the disfuncional family can ‘buy a yacht.’  These scenes barely require commentary.  With a keen eye for the absurd, director Braff really piles the levels of unreality and dream-logic on here.

Every character in the movie, in one way or another, is floating in a fallen fantasy land—not living a life, but rather acting a part, chronically uncomfortable in his or her own skin.  Early on, Largeman is pulled over by one of his old schoolchums, a former cokehead-turned police officer who, after letting him go, asks Largeman tentatively of his own macho performance, “How’d I do?”, and then quotes a Robert De Niro movie.  This is characteristic of Largeman’s friends.  Raised on Hollywood and having grown up insulated from the exigencies of reality, they have no references but fictional ones.  Anything they do will be acting, for they’ve never had to ‘do’ anything; only play the part.

And the problem is not simply a financial one; these kids (for what else can one call them; not adults, surely) are not failures simply because they can’t find decent jobs and still live with their parents.  Take the super-nerd Jesse, who earned a fortune from “the Man” through his patent on silent velcro.  When Andrew and Sam visit his freshly constructed and unfurnished mansion (still in their old neighborhood, of course; no one moves away) he introduces them to his favorite pastime: shooting a flaming arrow directly up into the air, and then dodging as it plummets down upon him.  When they ask what else he’s been doing lately, the lucky inventor says, “Nothing—really.  I’ve never been so bored in my life.”  The malaise of these people is independent of material prosperity—what they lack is not quantifiable, and their condition can’t be remedied by anything you can find at the department store or on the prescription counter.

It’s not all negative, though.  These man-children and girl-women can be endearing in their childishness—like Largeman’s girlfriend Sam, who still eulogizes and buries her pets in a giant pet cematery in the back yard, next to the abandoned above-ground pool.  Largeman himself, as he rides about suburbia on his grandfather’s WWII motorbike, conjures the cute image of a boy playing with his veteran father’s war trophies and paraphernalia.  Except Andrew Largeman is not a boy, he’s a man; and in order to find something heroic and inspiring, he has to reach back two generations, instead of just one.  That’s how removed from anything essential, immediate, purposeful, or meaning-endowing Largeman, and by extension his whole generation, is.

Andrew Largeman begins the movie asleep in a sterile apartment in LA, where he’s searching for bit acting roles and working as a waiter—in short, both figuratively and literally in a dream.  He ends the movie in the arms of his true love, Sam: cue romantic kiss and swell of uplifting music—in other words, in the midst of another dream.  But it all falls flat, because the couple’s last words, repeated to each other, still haunt us: “What do we do now?”  “What do we do now?”

“You can be anything you want to be,” said the prosperous baby boomers to their pampered children. “Pursue your dreams.”  Hey, dreaming that biggest of dreams, the American one, worked for them, right?  Well, this time, it’s different, as was apparent back in 2004 when this movie released, as has only become more painfully apparent since then.  And the zeitgeist that Garden State captured almost a decade ago, the ambiguous note it ended on, just keeps ringing through the youth’s ears, becoming softer and more distant with each passing year, as each graduating class takes its turn at shouting into that infinite abyss, somewhere east of eden, somewhere west of the mall, and somewhere that is no longer (because it never was) home.

“I’m just the servant, madam”: an analysis of Joseph Losey’s “The Servant”

Spoiler Alert

I have no doubt that, over the past forty years, a lot of ink has been spilled on account of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, a 1963 film adaptation of Robin Maugham’s (a nephew of W. Somerset’s) novelette.  And why not?  It’s a perfect literal telling of Nietzsche’s myth of the inversion of master and slave morality, the odd phenomenon that occurs when a master gives up all his powers and responsibilities to his slave for the sake of convenience, and somehow (go figure) loses his authority in the process.  Something akin to this must have been what our patron saint B. Franklin was afraid of, when he warned (under the guise of Poor Richard): “Those who would give up freedom for security deserve neither.”

It’s a tale that every society fat enough to support an idle aristocracy must come to terms with, and the Brits, with their peerage that has managed to prolong its existence through all the turbulences and revolutions of the past four centuries only by relegating itself to the status of a quaint tradition, the knickknacks on the nation’s cultural shelves, obviously take the cake in this category.  To conjure the right image here, just think of the BBC show, Jeeves and Wooster.  Whose name comes first in the title?  The personal valet’s, the servant Jeeves’, of course.  High-born Wooster is more of a pretext than a character, an idle parasite cowed by his aunt, the holder of his trust fund, an animate, awkward, unpolished plot device who gets himself into jams precisely so Jeeves can show off his finesse, masterful grasp of British social convention, and deep nobility of character.  It’s almost inevitable that the slaves (and the future eye of history) will in the end think more highly of themselves than of their masters.  Not to steal from Nietzsche again, but just think of the Christians and the Romans.

So why am I writing this, if all this territory has been covered already, and brilliantly, by philosophers, historical commentators, and literary critics?  Well, because I am interested not in the first and last iconic scenes of this movie, but the ambiguous middle.  I want to know precisely how and when the aristocratic Tony, with his nonchalant after-dinner talk of building cities and toying with whole populations, loses his power to his cunning manservant Hugo Barrett.  In what scene did this happen, on what look, on what turn of phrase did tall, blonde Tony seal his future fate—cowering like a dog on the floor while Hugo has his way with both the women Tony loves, in Tony’s house and bed, wearing Tony’s smoking jacket, and drinking Tony’s liquor?

It’s easy to say that this process is inevitable, a slippery-slope eventuality—but let’s nail this down.  Let’s be scientific here.  Let’s establish some causal relationships, as far as that can be done with a piece of fiction.

Hugo’s first assertion of will over his lord Tony is indirect, and not physical, but artistic.  Tony has already given over to Hugo the task of decorating the new house, and when Tony’s fiancée Susan comes over with a vase of flowers, Hugo almost immediately removes them.  Even after Susan retrieves them and voices her dislike of the manservant to Tony, Tony does nothing.  I suspect he’s caught in a bit of a power struggle here, and views Susan’s attack on his manservant as an attack on himself.  Wouldn’t want to get henpecked, right?  Well, as Tony will see, better to be henpecked than slave-pecked.  After Susan leaves, Hugo throws out the flowers, commenting to Tony, “Not very practical, they aren’t, sir.”  So here we see the lower taste, practicality, overcoming the higher, more refined taste of superfluous intricacy.  From here on, it’s only downhill.  Once Tony cedes control of interior decoration to Hugo, he basically seals his own fate as a dog.

A few scenes later, young Tony gets a glimpse of his future, when he visits his fiancée Susan’s aristocratic parents at their country manor.  There’s a great shot of the Sir and Lady posed before classical arches, indoor faux roman columns, and statues of classical figures, the man with a cane, the woman reclining on a couch, dressed to a T, devoid of the spark of life, more like statues themselves.  They’ve become relics, and the distinction between owner and owned has fallen apart.  They’re just part of the aesthetic, their only purpose to display a long-dead way of life to the onlookers of their social circle.  Their country manor is more like a museum diorama than a home.

And there you have it, folks.  Tony’s downfall was, initially, artistic.  Cede your aesthetics to your lessers, and they will rule you.  When does Tony finally realize his plight?  In the last scene of the movie, when he holds a crystal ball up to his eyes, and sees, through this convex lens, his house inverted, the peasant partygoers lounging, upside-down, on his antique, heirloom furniture.

So the artistic eye is everything.  Just ask the Romans, with their fondness for imported Greek architecture, philosophy, and slave tutors for their children; as the saying goes: “First the Romans conquered the Greeks, and then the Greeks conquered the Romans.”

What is it about Nicholas Cage and rabbits?: a review of “Seeking Justice”

Put the bunny back in the box.

What would you do if your wife was assaulted and raped?  If you’re Nicholas Cage, you’d buy two candy bars.

In Seeking Justice, Nicholas Cage plays Will Gerard, a regular guy driven, like so many of Cage’s characters, to the edge by extraordinary circumstances—driven to do things he never would have thought himself capable of, driven to employ skills he never would have guessed he possesed.  In short, to transcend the commonplace.  To be transformed by an oftentimes cruel world, and in turn to transform it, to bend fortune to his own will.  Did I just compare Nicholas Cage to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch?  Yes, I did.

As the high school teacher sits in a New Orleans hospital lounge, waiting for his battered wife to regain consciousness, a curiously Bostonian, Wahlberg-esque fellow approaches him.  Sympathizes.  Introduces himself as Simon.  Offers to “take care” of his wife’s attacker.  What must Gerard do to signal his approval?  Saunter over to the lounge’s vending machine and buy two ‘Forever Bars.’  What would Gerard owe this Simon, were the deed done?  Eh, a ‘favor.’  What does Will do?  What any dazed, emotionally traumatized, and enraged husband would do.  He ‘goes ahead,’ as Bill Lumbergh would say, and drops some change for a little snack.

And so the deed is indeed done.  But that’s not all, folks!  Simon’s group, like any vigilante conspiracy, is given to excesses, and Will Gerard, the english prof and avid chess player from New Orleans has bit off more than he can chew.  And I’m not talking about those Forever Bars.

“The hungry rabbit jumps,” goes the shadowy group’s catchphrase (for every secret society needs a cool thing to say; it’s like a handshake!).  Meet another member of the Brotherhood?  “The hungry rabbit jumps.”  Eliminated a target? “The hungry rabbit jumps.”  Mutate into a long-eared rodent a la Donnie Darko, become ravenous and leap up onto the kitchen table to reach some truffles? You guessed it: “The hungry rabbit jumps.”  The whole time I’m sitting there going, “Put the bunneh in the box.  Why didn’t you just put the bunneh in the box?”  What is it with Nicholas Cage and these furry little creatures?

New Orleans works wonders for any film with a dark, criminal theme, and Seeking Justice is no exception.  It’s no wonder why Nicholas Cage, that pioneer of the bizarre, seems to favor this setting (see “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”).  The post-Katrina city is a place of sharp juxtaposition, of wanton, costumed Creole excess crowded up against shopping-cart-pushing destitution, of posh hotels with Versailles-style french architecture a few blocks away from shantytowns.  I like to think of it as a place where our dreams collide with our nightmares, where things both sacred and profane can occur.  Like so many places recovering from devastation, New Orleans has an aura of unreality about it, of being outside of time, of being beyond any common measure of health or normality.  And what could be more surreal than wandering through this mad place, pursued by criminals and cops alike for a crime you didn’t commit?  Ask Will Gerard, he knows.

The suspension bridge-tense plot takes Gerard from the jazz-echoing streets of the French Quarter to the obscure bayous of rural Louisiana, from the Superdome to a still-vacant mall replete with creepy mannequins, their plastic stares paranoid and accusatory in the lonely darkness, on a desperate quest for truth and redemption.

Will the unfortunate English wonk  find what he’s looking for, let alone a fairytale ending with his stunning and (and stunningly accurate with a pistol) wife?  If you like vigilantes, candy, unintentionally humorous deaths, gun rights, or Nicholas Cage’s oddly sincere and utterly unique acting style (which he calls “Noveau Shamanic;” I do not jest—google it), then take the journey to find out.  I give Seeking Justice four out of five melodicas, because I’m a hungry rabbit for more Cage.  Put me back in the Cage.  I could go on, but you get the idea.