Frank Capra said “Film is a disease”.
He went on, but that’s enough for now. I caught the disease early on. I used to feel it. And they used to take me to the movies all the time. I used to feel it whenever we walked up to the ticket booth with my mother, my father, my brother. You’d go through the doors, on the thick carpet, to - past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell - then to the ticket taker, and then sometimes they’d get - these doors would open in the back and there were little windows in it in some of the old theaters and I could see something magical happening up there on the screen, something special. And as we entered, for me I think now, it was like entering a sacred space, a kind of a sanctuary where the living world around me seemed to be recreated and played out.
What was it about cinema? What was so special about it? I mean I think I’ve discovered some of those - some of my own answers to that question a little bit at a time over the years.
First of all, there’s light. Light is at the beginning of cinema, of course. It’s fundamental - because it’s created with light, and it’s still best seen projected in dark rooms where it’s the only source of light. But light is also at the beginning of everything. Most creation myths start with darkness, and then the real beginning comes with light - which means the creation of forms. Which leads to distinguishing one thing from another, and ourselves from the rest of the world. Recognizing patterns, similarities, differences, naming things - interpreting the world. Metaphors - seeing one thing in light of something else. Becoming enlightened. So light is at the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves.»
Martin Scorsese, “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema”
(2013 National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture, live at the Kennedy Center)
The Great Gatsby (2013)
AMONG THE WHISPERINGS AND THE CHAMPAGNE AND THE STARS.
by Chad Perman
I can’t handle how quickly modern culture moves. Mostly, I’m simply ill-equipped—needing time to think and reflect and sort out one’s thoughts feels dangerously close to being a handicap in the digital age. But at the same time, I’m in no way immune to the seductive pull of an ever-happening right now, with all the excitement and escapism that provides. I feel the tug of it, but also the need to pull back. Which in the end only leaves me with a kind of free-floating anxiety, an indecisiveness that effectively manages to keep a thing like contentment forever off my plate.
When I saw The Great Gatsby with my mother on Saturday, as part of our early Mother’s Day date, I had an experience with the film that was interesting to me, and I wanted to write about that: how the film I saw was in no way the film I had expected to see, and about how that happens; how I had ended up at a place in my thinking where I had basically already decided I would hate the film before I’d ever seen it; how I had ended up getting the whole thing so completely wrong and how nice that felt, but then, also, how quickly I started to distrust my own judgement on the thing I’d just seen— seemingly because of how I’d felt about it before I’d seen it—and how I started being defensive in my liking almost immediately, despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with going to a movie on a Saturday afternoon, being swept up in it and marvelously entertained, and that just being that.
But first, before I wrote, I wanted a little time to think more deeply about all of this, to reflect and explore various threads of my experience before trying to pull together an entire essay on The Great Gatsby.
Yet, less than an hour later, I was at the computer trying to write it. And not because I was ready to write about it—I absolutely wasn’t, and have the internet equivalent of a trashcan full of crumpled up paper to prove just that—but rather because I felt I was up against some kind of cultural deadline, and had to get my oh-so-important ideas out into the world, immediately, or risk missing out on the Gatsby conversation altogether. Because the conversation was already going on, all around me. Within 24 hours of the film’s release, it had already been through both critical attacks and then a backlash to those attacks; within 48 hours several insightful thought pieces about the film were already out, and soon after, the weekend box office reports were released, which kicked off another round of debate and conversation about what the film was and if it had succeeded or not. And then the film opened the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. For about five days, the internet was obsessed with The Great Gatsby. But soon, signs of Gatsby-fatigue began to set in; people were getting tired of hearing about it. Clearly, the time to have a relevant opinion about the film has just about passed (I mean, James Franco has even written a review of it at this point). As always, there are new things to talk about—Is the new Star Trek movie any good?—and the internet is ready to move on. But the internet is always ready to move on, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU WHILE YOU’RE BUSY MAKING OTHER PLANS.
by Brianna Ashby
I sat on the toilet for at least ten minutes, crossing and uncrossing my eyes, trying to make sure that the faint pink line that had appeared in the window wasn’t a figment of my imagination, or an optical illusion, or some strange shard of refracted pinkness that was magically hovering just over that particular spot. I put the stick on the edge of the tub and watched as the line grew darker and more definite and my heartbeat grew louder and more deafening and I think I said something like, Holy Shit. I left the urine soaked harbinger of change where it lay and walked into the kitchen on legs that felt like petrified wood, and even though the look on my face very clearly said it all, I had to force the words out so I could begin to believe them. After a few minutes of Are you sure? I’m sure. How sure? Four tests sure. Holy Shit, the shock began to soften. We walked the fifteen paces from the stove to the couch hand in hand, and sat, our fingers intertwined and resting atop my unsuspecting belly, the air around us imperceptibly vibrating like a cloud of hummingbirds.
We’re having a baby.
By nature I am a worrier, a perfectionist, and a hypothetical soothsayer; a mild neurotic who thinks she can ordain anything that could possibly happen at any time in the future. (I also find planning ahead tremendously advantageous, which coupled with the aforementioned traits, makes me a real tour de force among obsessives.) So, naturally, the second I saw the fuzzy pink apparition of a line start to appear on my fourth home pregnancy test, my mind took off in all kinds of directions. Having children lends itself quite freely to lying awake at night sick over the pitiful state of the world, the oppressive cost of higher education, and whether or not the paint in your window sashes has been tested for lead, but these superficial worries are nothing compared to the deep intestine-wringing fantods that accompany one particular late night thought:
Am I a good parent?
Shouldering the responsibility of growing and raising a well-adjusted child with all ten fingers and ten toes is staggering, and even the smallest hiccup in the process can feel like the most epic failure. Parents tend to take everything personally, from the mundane to the earth shattering. A toddler’s distaste for spinach or a teenager’s rebellion, those things are the stuff of sitcoms and laundry detergent commercials, and yet, they still resonate as failures, no matter how hilariously insignificant they may be. Any imperfections in our children tend to magnify our own, and so it becomes that, in the pursuit of the very best life for our kids, we set lofty goals and hold to unrealistic expectations that the universe has not only signed off on our plans, but that it’s also going to help us along. And if you’ve ever had any dealings with the universe, you know that this is just not the case.
Watching the trials and tribulations of the Buckman family, as they unfold in Parenthood, is an exercise in humility for those of us trying to raise our kids so that they don’t become serial killers—but it’s not so child-centric a film that it becomes irrelevant to everyone else. We all have people in our lives whose function (or dysfunction) have helped mold us into the human beings that we are, whose both obvious and poorly disguised neuroses become fodder for ribald holiday jesting and future sessions with our therapists. The Buckman children are no different, all products of their upbringing, the sons and daughters of a hard-drinking abrasive father (Jason Robards) and a quiet mostly subservient mother (Eileen Ryan).
Gil (Steve Martin) is an obsessive perfectionist so hell bent on not repeating the same mistakes his father made with him that he would go to nearly any lengths to be seen as a hero to his children, often to the detriment of his own personal and professional aspirations. Helen (Dianne Wiest) is an embittered divorcée whose well of distrust toward men runs deep; her transparent unhappiness and bitter resentment has driven her own son into virtual silence and her daughter intto blatant rebellion. Susan (Harley Kozak) was something of a free-wheeling wild child until she settled down with Nathan (Rick Moranis), whose fastidiousness and controlling nature seemed like the right answer for her aimlessness. At first, she felt grounded, but now she just feels stifled. Larry (Tom Hulce) is your run-of-the-mill no-goodnik. The long haired, leather-clad black sheep baby of the family, Larry shows up after a ten year absence with a chip on his shoulder, as well as a serious gambling problem and an illegitimate son. The one thing that all the adult Buckman children have in common is a wish to do right by their parents, and to do right as parents, both of which are a struggle, if largely against themselves.
When Gil and his wife Karen are faced with the reality that their eldest son is struggling with emotional problems that will effectually bar him from “normal” public school, their immediate reaction is complete denial. People tend to react poorly to bad news, and people who depend on a tenuous façade of perfection to hold it together naturally pretend that whatever they’ve just heard is somehow a terrible mistake. It is infinitely easier to live in a fantasy world than admit that your reality is flawed, so we shift the blame (for lack of a better term) to avoid shouldering any responsibility for what went wrong.
Meanwhile, as Gil is over-zealously coaching Little League and throwing the full weight of his desperation into positive affirmations, Susan is watching with increasing dismay as Nathan drills their adorable chubby-cheeked three-year-old daughter with flashcards to prepare her for the SATs. Nathan’s rather terrifying hyper-involved parenting has made their child into a kind of tiny robot—a toddler who has no idea why a child her age would twirl around and around in circles until they fell down—and his unrelenting pursuit of a tangential Nobel Prize win has left Susan out in the cold. Still, their children don’t have problems. They don’t have problems. Nope. Other people have problems.
Helen has problems.
From the outside, it would appear that Helen, still reeling from the split with her husband, has her hands full with two unruly and undisciplined children that couldn’t give two shits about anything their mother has to say. The other Buckmans take pity on Helen and her kids, seeing them as casualties of our ruthless modern times, but secretly, I’m sure they’re all quite relieved that this textbook case of familial dysfunction exists, if only to divert attention from their own equally dubious issues.
Garry (Joaquin Phoenix, known as “Leaf Phoenix” back in 1989) is frightfully introverted, sullen, secretive, and unresponsive, having retreated inward since his father’s unceremonious abandonment, and Julie (Martha Plimpton) is torturing her mother with standard teenage fare: yelling, slamming doors, acting out, and dating boys that Helen doesn’t approve of, especially “that Tod” (Keanu Reeves). To spite her mother, Julie runs off with Tod, proclaiming that they’re in love! she needs him!, and all of the motherly reproaches in the world couldn’t tear them apart. Tod is a breath of fresh air in what becomes a pretty depressing domestic clusterfuck. Although he’s not terribly bright, he is charming, adorable, and wholly uncomplicated. Until he and Julie end up husband and wife, that is.
Bruised, but not crippled, by the news that her baby girl has married “that Tod,” Helen digs in her heels and allows the newlyweds to live under her roof, and slowly begins to allow Tod into her life. Goofy, approachable, and most importantly, male, Tod is the only person able to penetrate Garry’s defenses, having himself come from a place where he learned early on that “they’ll let any asshole be a father.” Seeing Tod’s ease in dealing with her children, and the ease with which he found himself a place in her family, Helen stops trying so hard to force herself into Gary and Julie’s lives, and realizes that sometimes, just being there is enough.
It’s easy to get sucked into a sort of vortex after a traumatic event, or an extended run of feeling impotent, or stagnant, or unappreciated. And it’s safe to say that the Buckmans are all swirling around right in the very middle of it, totally unable to see a way out. Tod’s introduction into the whole mess provides some desperately needed objectivity, and a shot of hope that catalyzes a series of crucial changes in Helen, and Gary and Julie, and more indirectly, in the rest of the Buckman siblings, who finally begin to own up to their shortcomings as parents, and as people just trying to get along.
Realizing they all have to help themselves before they can truly help their children, Helen and Gil and Susan and the rest start facing their fears head on, each small act of emotional bravery helping to pull them out of the mess they were wallowing in. Admittedly, a shotgun wedding between two clueless teenagers is far from ideal, but it serves as a strong example that sometimes imperfect ideas can become workable solutions.
As adults, we’re burdened with a fear of repeating the past, as well as an anxiety about the future, both of which can be paralyzing. When we’re young, our frame of reference is smaller, and the future is more exciting than daunting, so we’re far more willing to dive into our lives without the hindrance of preconception. We get lost in all of the analysis and over-analysis and introspection and worry, and we have so much wrapped up in the idea of leading a “successful” life, that we tend to miss the fact that sometimes things are what they are and exactly what they need to be.
Parents, as a rule, want to give their kids whatever they want, to give them the gifts and wisdom that will allow them to lead peerlessly wonderful lives. Often, though, we end up burdening them (and ourselves) with all our good intentions. We try to guide our children down the “right” path instead of letting them be who and what they’re going to be, especially if they’re going to turn out anything like us. Everyone has their own insecurities, which even the idea of parenthood tends to exacerbate a million fold, and this self-loathing (mild or otherwise) blinds us to the fact that all we can do is our best—and that our best is good enough. We have to be good to ourselves before we can be good to anyone else, and that means giving ourselves a break. Everyone deserves to be happy, even us, as adults and as parents, and part of that happiness comes from learning to let go of our fears of failure and simply accepting that life is a rollercoaster, not a merry-go-round, as Grandma would say. Our children will find happiness in their own time and on their own terms and all we can do is give them a lantern, or a Tod, to help light the way. The path is up to them.
Brianna Ashby is the surprisingly well-rested mother of a nearly three year old who, since her daughter’s birth, has finally learned to stop worrying and love the bedlam.
“…Art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being—literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone. You’re connected to the arts. So I feel like that can’t be too bad.
Art is also about problem solving, and it’s obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.”»Steven Soderbergh
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
by Andrew Root
“At least it’ll give us something to complain about.”
I have a coffee mug without a handle. Granted, it’s difficult to drink anything hot out of it without constantly shifting the cup from hand to hand, or sipping quickly then setting it back down. It’s a warm shade of brown with an intricate mosaic pattern on it, and the interior is a deep aqua. What a thing of beauty! What a pain in the ass to drink from! It never gets offered to guests, and more than a few have wondered aloud why I keep it around. Disappointment over the lost appendage was eventually overshadowed by my fondness for the object as a whole, and I just can’t bring myself to throw it away. The mug still performs its essential functions admirably, and while it’s not perfect, I now have something to say about the thing. A flaw can make a thing precious to some, defective to others — or both simultaneously. And if there’s one thing my generation enjoys, it’s complaining lovingly. We’re drenched in irony, and that means that we’re able to acknowledge that something both sucks and rocks at the exact same time.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World falls into the category of the great, flawed film, and it has excellent company. Scorsese’s Gangs of New York spends hours setting up a brutal landscape peopled by the indelible likes of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, only to have his grudge match with Amsterdam Vallen (Leonardo DiCaprio) fall into anticlimax. Love, Actually may be one of the best romantic comedies ever put to film, but it can’t be ignored that the entire Keira Knightley subplot centres around a man who (though he claims to be “without hope or agenda”) actively attempts to undermine his best friend’s marriage. Michael Haneke’s Cache is thrilling and richly orchestrated, but only if you have the patience of a saint. A fair share of Christopher Nolan’s films fall apart under close scrutiny. These—and many more like them—are the “above average” movies; classics in their own right that have unmistakable, though not unforgivable, blemishes.
This film, based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, has more than its fair share of elements working in its favour. Director Edgar Wright was fresh off his one-two punch of the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead and the meta-cop-actioner Hot Fuzz; Arrested Development’s Michael Cera leads a cast that includes the most recent incarnation of Superman (Brandon Routh), the future Captain America (Chris Evans), Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick, and Tarantino-tested heroine (not to mention possessor of the most dreamy doe eyes in Hollywood) Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The original score was composed by Radiohead super-producer Nigel Godrich, and the soundtrack features new songs from indie-rock royalty and contributions by everyone from The Rolling Stones to Frank Black of The Pixies. Scott Pilgrim boasts energetic and creative fight scenes. It blends comic books, video games, and rock n’ roll seamlessly. It’s a coming of age story, a musical, a romantic comedy, and it features Jason Schwartzman. This movie is fucking cool. So what’s the problem?
“Is the news that we suck, because I really don’t think I can take it.”
Scott Pilgrim (the character) is largely a slacker. His friends talk to him in exclusively acrimonious tones. He plays bass for the mediocre band, Sex Bob-Omb, and at 22 years of age, he’s dating a 17-year-old. His younger sister Stacey, on the other hand, has a job at a coffee shop, is decisive, offers sage advice, maintains close ties with a varied group of friends, and can offer such pithy introductions as “please forgive my brother, he is chronically enfeebled.” When Stacey refers to Scott as her “little brother,” it flips a trope on its ear, upending the well-trodden character definition that age equals wisdom; older siblings must watch out for their younger counterparts. The viewer with insight into the emotional maturity levels of these two characters can fully appreciate that Stacey is the older sister in every aspect save age. Or, y’know, they can smirk because it’s kind of a funny moment.
The quick pacing of this moment is not anomalous, nor is the opportunity for ambivalent audience response. The film takes the seemingly paradoxical stance of embracing up-to-the-minute trends and using them to tell an age-old story of a man fighting to keep the woman he loves. Scott Pilgrim might earn extra lives for vanquishing his enemies in a cloud of coins, but he is essentially caught in a series of duels for the hand of his dream girl, Ramona Flowers. Sadly, these juxtapositions work both for and against the film. It’s difficult to reconcile such an arcane story in an ultra-modern setting (a setting ironically made ultra-modern by the retro gaming and comic book motifs it employs), and with Wright’s high-energy persona in the director’s chair, the viewer can be carried along by the rushing current, the finer points of story and character becoming a blur. There’s little incentive to pause and reflect on the structure of the film, or the subtleties of character when the film bulls on relentlessly. It’s like taking a train past a managed forest: At first glance, it’s an indistinct blur of trunks and leaves; nothing remarkable. But if you keep watching, you can see the trees begin to form patterns and rows. The rider of this train might start to wonder about the intent behind planting that many trees in that distinct a pattern, or whether there was a pattern at all – perhaps it was all in their minds? But the train does not slow, and soon the forest is quickly behind. Maybe the rider will return to the forest at some point to study it more carefully. Maybe not. Who’s got the time to invest in such a fleeting moment? Is it worth it?
“I’m in lesbians with you.”
I once endured a 40 minute lecture on the first two lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York”). The professor waxed poetic on the dual meanings of the “son of York,” and displayed several graphs which broke down syllable distribution and the symbolic flow of enjambment. We talked about the difference between an iamb and a trochee for ten full minutes. As he wrapped up his talk, the roomful of exasperated undergrads clamoured to know exactly what the point of all that had been. He summed it up by saying that analyzing the quotation in that much detail reveals that the major themes of the play had been summed up in just the first two lines. As we groaned and half-heartedly scrawled a few notes, clearly underwhelmed, the professor asked “Isn’t that cool?” He was like a cat, dropping off a half-dead bird on the living room carpet. We preferred the moving, living thing that flowed past – brilliant for a second, gone just as quickly. In dissecting the thing ad infinitum, the professor had seemed to rob it of its essence. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “if you try to take apart a bird to see how it works, the first thing you have is a non-working bird.”
“If your life had a face, I would punch it.”
I’ve come to feel that I was wrong about that lecture. In the years that have passed, I’m more attuned to the idea that if you can analyze a quotation in seemingly endless detail, there must be a good deal of worth to be found. For me, the same holds true for films. I’m a big believer that “not getting” a film is a bogus statement. It usually says more about the viewer than the film itself; users of that phrase frequently can’t seem to articulate why they were confused by (or just didn’t like) a movie, only that they closed themselves off to it at some point. I recently watched Room 237, which is an inquiry into The Shining and all its complexities and subliminal messages. There’s a fascinating section of the documentary which examines the impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel, how windows exist where no windows should be, and lush hotel suites are found within empty walls. I mentioned this to a friend, and he replied “Oh, so they made a mistake when they were making the movie?” NO. Stanley Kubrick - a man with a 200-point IQ - is more than capable of recognizing a simple mistake in a floor plan and correcting it before shooting one of the many, many takes he is famed for. This deliberate “mistake” instead requires some effort — and trust — from the viewer. I trust that I should seek out the deeper truth in Kubrick’s work, rather than write him off as incomprehensible. This doesn’t mean that the analysis is always an enjoyable experience. The fact that a documentary like Room 237 even exists is testament to the levels of obsession to which film geeks can - and have - driven themselves. What’s the point? Where’s the enjoyment? I don’t know if I have an answer for that. Maybe we don’t do these things because we want to, but because we feel compelled to.
Edgar Wright is one of the most energetic, driven, detail-oriented directors working today, and because I have unquestioning faith in his abilities (and his vision of a paradoxical central character driven to obscene levels of self-confidence by the devastation of a broken heart), I’m willing to dive head-first into what may be the shallow end of this pool. Fact of the matter is you can find a lot of stuff in this pool if you look for it.
“Believe it or not, I used to date Scott in high school… He’s an idiot.”
I’ve written thousands of words and talked to anyone who will listen about the issues with this film, from my preference for the original ending (in which Scott and Ramona – two inherently incompatible characters – don’t end up together), to the unfair treatment of Ramona (why is her deliberately shadowy past constantly being thrust into the spotlight by the men she dates? How about some respect?). I’ve also delved into how important it is to know that the script for the film was finished before the source comic books, thus creating a dilemma for Wright when fans of the books didn’t care for his diversions from the still-unwritten material. I’ve also talked about how basically everything Brandon Routh says or does is a stitch, from declaring smoothly that he “doesn’t know the meaning of the word” when his girlfriend calls him incorrigible (he really doesn’t) to his diatribe on the work schedule of cleaning ladies (she has the weekend off, so she won’t be around to clean up the dust he’s going to pummel you into until Monday), to the hilarious send-up of vegan culture (“Being vegan just makes you better than most people”). The film’s visual effects are clever and in many cases absolutely stunning (deservedly nominated for an Oscar). Cinematographer Bill Pope (who famously filmed The Matrix and its sequels, and brings some serious action movie cred to this film) gives beautiful depth to the scenes – I’ve scarcely had such a notion of space in a film that wasn’t in 3D. This is a film that deserves study, and is also incredibly enjoyable. I feel like an apologist for complex filmmaking when I ask you to give Scott Pilgrim a second watch, but perhaps I shouldn’t. This is a film that was made for people like me. I’ll watch it at least once or twice a year for the rest of my life, discovering additional nuance, angrily protesting the changes made to the original story, devouring the disc of special features. This film is an entire emotional and intellectual experience, which speaks to both its artistic strength and its commercial weakness. I mean, who would want to put their full mental energy into analyzing the cultural subtexts of a movie that was - by all accounts - a flop?
Who would want to drink out of a mug with no handle?
“Bye, and stuff.”
Andrew Root is a writer living in Peterborough, Ontario.
Out of Sight (1998)
YOU’RE A BANK ROBBER. THAT’S NOT A VERY MARKETABLE SKILL.
by Taylor Long
For years, I considered my love for Out of Sight to be a “guilty pleasure,” but I’m not sure why. I don’t remember the first time I saw it – probably on a late night run on HBO, Encore, or Starz – but I know I loved it immediately, the characters and the dialogue popping off the screen, teeming with excitement; it felt better than ordinary life and yet within reach. But no one I knew ever talked about it, no magazines or newspapers or websites ever mentioned it. It wasn’t until long after I had gone through many repeated viewings that I discovered I wasn’t the only person in the world who considers Out of Sight a great film. Far from it, in fact.
On paper, it’s not hard to understand why someone might presume that Out of Sight would be bad. It has a criminal and cop (technically a bank robber and U.S. Marshall) romance, of which there are plenty. The U.S. Marshall, Karen Sisco, is played by Jennifer Lopez, whose film career hasn’t exactly boomed since 1997. It feautres more action than your average romance, and more dark comedy than your typical drama. It doesn’t lean heavily towards any one genre, which can be helpful with regards to setting up expectation. And, as one New York Magazine commenter pointed out on a recent interview with director Steven Soderbergh, it was a box office bomb.
But much like a person, a film can defy the sum of its parts. You might find yourself bored while talking to a graphic designer who loves Terrence Malick films as much as you do, but enchanted by a social worker who lives for horror. This force is generally known as chemistry, and this particular kind has no guarantees. The harder one tries for it, the more elusive it becomes. It’s inexplicable, unpredictable, and impossible to turn away from. And Out of Sight could teach a master film class on the stuff.
Most of us probably know someone like Jack Foley (George Clooney). Someone who can find that sweet spot where charm isn’t cheesy or sleazy, who not only knows what to say and when, but how to say it. These are the kind of people who get jobs and promotions with ease, who can teach you how to sneak into a sold out concert or exclusive restaurant, who always get refunds and discounts.
It doesn’t take much immersion into bank robber lore to see a pattern here. People like Jesse James and the Newton Boys are often credited by their captors for having a wellspring of charisma, and it’s easy to understand why theft might appeal to this type of person. They are constantly in pursuit of a bigger score than the last, some kind of ungettable get—an almost irresistible goal for someone who feels they can get anything (and usually can).
Most of us also probably know someone like Karen Sisco, as well. Someone who is always balancing their need for moral “goodness” with their own understanding and sympathy for those without it. These are the kind of people who will still tip 20% on bad service, who will do a lion’s share of the work without begging for the same amount of credit, and who are bound to give people second chances.
The smallest of Soderbergh’s details bring depth to Jack and Karen. We see Karen with her Dad several times, but early on it’s implied this hasn’t always been the case. So, of course her treasured possessions — a Sig Sauer and a $900 suit — are from him. Because it makes sense that a Dad who hasn’t always been around is going to try to “make up” for it with expensive birthday presents. And one might also say that a woman with an absent cop father would be bound to fall for law-breakers.
Even colors play a role in Soderbergh’s domain. Everything is red, bold, and hot in the first half of the film, when Karen and Jack meet. The lining in Jack’s suit. The light in the trunk of the car that Jack jumps into with Karen after he escapes from prison. The top Karen wears when she visits Jack’s ex-wife. The walls of the hotel Jack and his co-conspirator, Buddy, are staying in before they head on to their next job.
The second half of the film, when the reality of their fate begins to bear down on Jack and Karen, is dark and cold. The lightly snowy evening when they finally re-meet. The black of everyone’s hats, coats, guns. The constant evaporation of hot breath in frigid air. The dim lighting of the cars, the boxing ring, and the mansion, where the details of Jack and Buddy’s “last big score” unfold.
That Karen is a U.S. Marshall and Jack is a bank robber matters about as much as it doesn’t matter. Most bank robbers probably wouldn’t touch Buddy — who confesses every crime he commits to a sister who often reports him — or Glen, who keeps secrets as well as a sieve holds water. But Jack’s loyalty stops him from turning them away. And Karen’s rogue desire for success at almost any cost doesn’t quite fit in with the red-taped and multiple-layered chain of command of government and law enforcement, but would serve her well in a jewel heist. It’s easy to imagine a version of Out of Sight where they switch roles.
During the film’s final moments, a switch does occur. It’s Karen’s tenacity and Jack’s compassion that bring about the film’s end. That a U.S. Marshall is forgiving doesn’t mean she’s emotionally weak. That a thief steals from people doesn’t mean he disregards concern for others. That a force which passes between two people can burn hotter than the Florida sun doesn’t mean it can survive a Detroit chill. And just because a film stars a dancer turned pop singer turned actress, in a cop and robber romantic action dark comedic drama that bombed at the box office, doesn’t mean it can’t transcend all those things, either.
Taylor K. Long is a writer and photographer in Vermont. She stole a small book of stickers from a stationary store when she was six. They were very pretty stickers. You can find her other confessions on tumblr and twitter.
Spring Breakers (2012)
THE AMERICAN DREAM Y’ALL.
It’s easy to think of the movie-going experience as passive – you sit down, the lights dim, and for the next hundred minutes or so someone has a direct synaptic connection to you. Whatever happens, you’re the passive receiver, and all you need to do is decide whether you like the content being piped into your brain.
A lot of films operate like this. They have ideologies, firm visual sensibilities, a grand, directorial vision, and all you need to do is sit back and take it. (This, by the way, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Spring Breakers doesn’t work like this. It’s the first film I’ve seen where the lights came up and I felt almost euphoric – not from the preceding ninety minutes, but from the collective sigh of relief coming from every other seat.
Spring Breakers forces you to participate in it. Harmony Korine presents you with a canvas so rote that at times you’re amazed that the borderline-pornographic sequences on display are leaving you so cold. There are dozens of tits—bouncing and jiggling and covered in liquor and cocaine—but remarkably little titillation. The cinema I sat in was filled with typically brazen adolescent men, but the overwhelming atmosphere was one of discomfort. There was the feeling that all of this was a little too obvious, so by the books that it leaves space for the rest of your mind to conjure up theories about what’s really going on.
And it’s at this point where people start to hate it.
Drab and lifeless, lacking substance, even rape apologia at its worst – a lot of people have weighed in against this film, and it’s definitely possible to read it that way. The film splashes us with lurid colour, paints caricatures rather than characters, and delights in constant repetition. There are no obvious clues; despite all the neon, none of the signs read Satire This Way. There are genuinely funny moments (pink ski masks, a piano, a gangster rapper crooning Britney Spears songs), but even those moments leave you wondering what the point of it all is.
Films like this excite me, because I’m indecisive, and when I’m asked to reach out and complete the contract between the artist and the viewer, I keep changing my mind. At the moment, I think that Spring Breakers is an excellent piece of satire that depicts youthful nihilism and then takes it to horribly logical extremes; tomorrow, I might shrug it off as a stupid, needlessly exploitative and cynical vision of young people.
I’m British, which I think only adds to the confusion in this case. I actually had cause to visit New College of Florida—the primary campus location at the start of the film—back in 2009 (if you look closely, there’s a scene where their 50th Anniversary banners are flying proudly; one wonders if they regret the accidental promotion now). It’s quiet, bookish – there are only a few hundred students (I attended a university with around 15,000), and not the backdrop I’d expect for the kind of decadence on display in Spring Breakers. I met a few people during my visit, and, while they were all perfectly lovely, none of them really seemed the type to disrobe in a heartbeat, run along the boardwalk, and scream “spring break forever, bitches”.
This isn’t to say that the stereotype doesn’t exist – New College, after all, was just a filming location, and it’s reasonable to assume that a tiny, aggressively rigorous liberal arts college probably isn’t the natural habitat for nihilistic softcore misogyny. But it might be fair to say that, for Spring Breakers to really work and make you question its motives, the culture that it apes needs to be worth this level of scrutiny. Essentially, for Harmony Korine to have a point worth making about decadent twenty-somethings—desperately fornicating in the streets and committing casual acts of violence so they have the funds to keep the party going—those decadent twenty-somethings need to already exist.
From my quaint, suburban, sexually repressed vantage point, I can only wonder if they do. Girls Gone Wild and Jersey Shore might be about real people, but they can hardly be considered documentary filmmaking. I have heard horror stories about Ibiza and Magaluf – arguably Europe’s Daytona Beach – but have never witnessed it myself. There’s the real, oppressive sense that the world of Spring Breakers exists, but I’ve only ever seen it on a screen, or heard about it through an anecdote.
Maybe it should be a point of recognition that Korine came from a similar viewpoint – he never went on spring break, so maybe this is all a fever-dream, a dystopian view of what America’s youth might actually be like. I don’t usually spend my time questioning how “real” films are, but here it feels critical. I’ve never been on some wild, decadent vacation in the sun. I haven’t even been to that many house parties. But I still feel that white rapper-cum-gangsters roam the streets in Florida, and that there really are countless girls and boys writhing around hotels and beach parties for a couple of weeks a year—but without the knowledge that they’re really there, it’s hard to be sure that the whole phenomenon needs dissecting.
With all of that in mind, I keep coming back to James Franco. The female leads, despite career history, actually feel perfectly cast – all teen heartthrobs coming out of their shells, shedding clothes and inhibitions and an entire demographic in one stylish swoop. And casting Gucci Mane as a rival gangster rapper works, notably because he already is one. But Franco feels as alien as his character’s namesake. He does a commendable job, and disappears behind the silver grill of teeth and spaced-out drawl, but in a film that largely feels disturbingly close to something real, Franco treads a fine line between slipping out of view and leaping out of the screen.
That might be it, though. A fine line. Heady, disturbing satire, balanced (however improbably) against absurd comedy, never quite figuring out where it wants to sit. It reaches out and asks you to fill in the blanks, then rearranges the pieces every time you try and make contact. It’s thrilling, and infuriating. A dozen meaningless aphorisms that occasionally flicker with charge, but never long enough to allow you to really figure them out. Spring break forever, bitches.
Christopher Fraser is a science fiction writer living in the north of England. He has a website. He hopes there is more to life than bikinis and big booties.