Pazartesi, Aralık 01, 2014

Preliminary Thoughts On Two Recent Films: Birdman and Interstellar – John MacKay

“Like Mike Shiner, like the Farmer’s Almanac, this is a film teeming with practical advice – in regard to indie success, but mainly just about publicity and its collusions with filmic form. The message is incredibly simple: just use both the new and old media for all they’re worth, but know how to do it. It might not work – there’s the real vulnerability – but it just might.”

John MacKay[1], Birdman ve İnterstellar (Yıldızlararası) filmleri üzerine yazdı. Birdman; Amores Perros/Paramparça Aşklar ve Köpekler, 21 Grams/21 Gram ve Biutiful filmlerinin yönetmeni Alejandro G. Iñárritu’nun, Türkiye’de ilk kez 14. !f İstanbul Bağımsız Filmler Festivali’nde gösterilecek filmi. Kara komedi olarak nitelendrilen filmin, bir zamanlar ikonik bir süper kahramanı canlandırmış ama artık gözden düşmüş bir aktörün (Raymond Carver) hikayesinden uyarlanan bir Broadway oyununda rol kapma ve eski günlerine dönme çabasını anlatırken starlık sistemini eleştirdiği ve süper kahraman hikayelerini ters yüz ettiği belirtiliyor.[2] John MacKay filmi incelerken, filmde “medya”nın konu edilişine de bakıyor. Mesaj çok açık/basit: Hem yeni medyayı hem de geleneksel medyayı kullan, ama bunun nasıl yapılacağını da bilmen lazım. İkinci film ise Yıldızlararası. Filmin, dramatik öğeler de içeren bir bilimkurgu filmi olduğu söyleniyor.[3] Filmle ilgili Türkçe eleştiri/yorumlar da var.[4] John MacKay, filmin içeriği yanında, 35mm, 70mm ve IMAX 70mm gösterimleri ve ticari boyutu (business model) üzerinde duruyor.

On BIRDMAN (preliminary thoughts) – John MacKay
(Warning: a billion spoilers. Written to distract myself from the news.)

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s BIRDMAN; OR, THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014) is, as everyone has noticed, overtly self-reflexive. Washed-up superhero star Riggan Thomson, played by washed-up superhero star Michael Keaton, attempts via a move to more serious drama to revive his career and his spirits – apparently a successful move, career-wise, for the non-diegetic Keaton, who has been dubbed an early favorite for major acting awards. But BIRDMAN does more than provide an opportunity for Keaton and the other actors (all of whom do great work) to strut their stuff. It asks: What does it take for an indie film to succeed, in 2014?

Iñárritu has suggested that Riggan’s actorly victory has something to with surrender, with going for it, with vulnerability. “In the moment that Riggan tries pretentiously and ignorantly to prove he is something that he is not, when he surrenders to that, when the critic says I will kill you, when his daughter rejects him and he realizes he has lost everything, in that moment right before that climactic act onstage, he is not acting. He is real and that is why the critic responded to his performance. He broke the rules of the game. And by surrendering to his reality, he gets to the unexpected virtue of ignorance. There was beauty in it.” Etymologically, of course, “virtue” means “strength.”

The triumph, from one perspective, has been considerable: reconciliation with his daughter Sam, recharged star clout, and artistic success. Riggan’s narcissism and control-freak proclivities, allegorized through the motif of telekinesis, are subdued long enough to enable him to connect with others in a new way. Something of the same is true of his ambiguous rival, the virtuoso theater actor Mike Shiner, whose real-world impotence can only be conquered by confession (to a female therapy-veteran ca. 20 years his junior). (“Spit on the bald guy’s head!”) True, the incredibly conventional benefits of vulnerability are spread unevenly across the genders. Sam, largely therapeutic/instrumental in any case, is proven wrong about her dad’s irrelevance, leaving her safely infantilized; and Lesley and Laura’s surrender (in the form of ex nihilo smooching) is the purest of spectacles, not least because both of these adult women are characterized as somehow “dysfunctional”: as unable to conceive and/or as neurotic.

When we look more closely at the structures within which successful surrender occurs in BIRDMAN, they seem to fall into two general categories, both of which have a dual aspect. The first is stylistic and concerns above all the film’s extraordinary use of highly mobile long takes. Technical display to be sure, they also create an opening in time during which the actors seem immediately exposed (see esp. Sam’s main monologue and the other OscarTM-reel set pieces) and contributes the overall feel of a balancing act, where our sensing the potential for screw-ups (lapses in concentration above all) is part of the game.

The second concerns the media. On one side, Riggan, a social media illiterate, goes viral due to his inadvertent buffoonery on crowded 44th Street. Mimicked here are the always-ambivalent pleasures of proximity to the star’s “real” body, when the fan either enjoys a brief gulp of that ocean of love in which the star normally swims, and/or feels momentarily superior to him/her. On the other side is the province of more traditional and extended kinds of commentary and response, the still-potent “old media” venues dominated by erudite critics able to separate the “real” wheat from the “pretentious” chaff. Inasmuch as BIRDMAN is a satire, then, what it does is wryly to delineate an unexpected intersection between two relatively distinct zones of the mediasphere, united by (an ideology of) vulnerability. Self-display of the Twitter or Facebook type meets Method authenticity, Stanislavskian “inner truth” - and Riggan and co. reap the benefits.

This is OK as far as it goes, but requires some revision. First of all, Riggan is in fact recognized almost immediately, even without his clothes on, on the streets of Manhattan: he is in no way a forgotten figure, but brings considerable accumulated spectacular capital along with his underwear. Second, what ultimately matters on this particular Broadway is not, despite what Iñárritu says, Riggan’s actorly surrender (of which we get no view anyway), but simply his production’s endorsement by the person credentialed to endorse it – Tabitha, the NYT critic.

Key here is one of the film’s most intriguing ambiguities (or evasions, depending on your viewpoint): we never really know, or are never told, whether Riggan’s play/production is, in the end, a piece of crap or not (rather like we don’t know at the end whether he’s jumped out of despair, or because he really does think he’s invincible). This is quite different from the “in-the-frame” productions you get in most other backstage comedies or burlesques, whether of the so-bad-it’s-good “Springtime for Hitler” variety, or the straight-up fiasco like the play-within-the-play in Frayn’s NOISES OFF. What this means, among other things, is that we can’t simply write off Tabitha’s positive review as a satirical jab at critics for their lack of perception or courage. The film teaches us that vulnerable self-display (or risk) on its own counts for nothing (i.e., does not convert into value) - witness the “mad” and seemingly homeless actor channeling Macbeth in front of the theater.

The style side needs to be rethought as well. Riggan’s baring of himself on the public square is accidental exposure on the narrative end, but the cinematography conveys a very different signal, one of mastery and control: a sweeping camera flying with absolute precision alongside the choreographed thruway. Similarly, we are denied a look at Riggan’s final onstage plunge into something “real,” despite the camera’s apparent omnipotence, as though to affirm that that special relationship between critic and spectacle, those credentials, need to be honored. Exert control, in other words, in such a way that it comes out looking like risk: let’s call it “purpose without purposefulness.”

Like Mike Shiner, like the Farmer’s Almanac, this is a film teeming with practical advice – in regard to indie success, but mainly just about publicity and its collusions with filmic form. The message is incredibly simple: just use both the new and old media for all they’re worth, but know how to do it. It might not work – there’s the real vulnerability – but it just might. For the critics, create those satisfying allusive textures that only they will recognize (the Godard graphics at the beginning; Riggan soaring through space like Fellini’s Guido; the various Chekhovian pistols that keep THE SEAGULL fluttering in view [but also IVANOV]; etcetera); for the new media sphere, include a good dose of old and new-style spectacle, and build up and maintain the usual online venues (check out BIRDMAN’S remarkable FB page, for instance). For both, keep things “meta,” which today is a great way of managing risk. Barthes, the film’s presiding semiotician, said it best: “Irony always departs from a secure/sure place. . . [It] is always a classical way of speaking.”

On INTERSTELLAR (preliminary thoughts) – John MacKay
(alert: spoilers galore)

Everyone knows by now that Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR was first released on film: 35mm, 70mm and (the format I saw it in last night) IMAX 70mm. (Nolan, seemingly no opponent of the accumulation of surplus value, has said: “I think, truthfully, [the shift to digital] boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo.”) But it struck me yesterday, pretty early on in the screening, that the film is actually about the shift to digital (and perhaps this has been noticed already); and its message is, in the main, pretty conventional.

The first giveaway for me was the dust storm, weirdly encountered in a little girl’s bedroom, and which looks less like dust than like super grainy celluloid (and “grain/corn/dirt/earth” is what this real estateobsessed film has on its mind). The message that conducts young Murph and her dad on the fateful journey to Dr. Brand Sr.’s compound is in binary code, not coincidentally, and the two “plans” confronting the protagonists constitute the options presented by the digital, as Nolan sees it. Plan A (the good one; a positively presented model of colonialism, which Nolan appears to believe necessary but never explains why) involves physically (indexically) transferring humanity with all its trucks, farming and baseball to the other, new world; Plan B, recreating humanity on the basis of mere code, artificially generating diversity but under constant threat of genetic impoverishment, endless inbreeding and reloopings of the Same. (There's a strange fascination with kinship models and incest in this film, no doubt the structural site of "the Real" here: a father and daughter encountering one another when she's too young, and then too old, for coupling but note the physical similarity between young Murph and Brand Jr.!) There is still another option – a shift to some higher dimension of infinite substitutability of time/place, the realm “they” (who turn out to be “us,” of course) occupy – but that’s not a shift we humans can make (yet), as Brand Jr. sadly informs us.

The ultimate advocate of Plan B is of course the lonely digital entrepreneur Dr. Mann – a moniker surely alluding to Michael Mann, whose COLLATERAL gave digital filmmaking such a boost early on. But not only is Mann’s data madeup – that is, lacking any referential link to the airless and inhuman climate of “his” planet – but he also proves unable to link to the main ship, thus incapable of giving his project any specific forward direction. (As we learn later on at a key moment, data on its own lacks all capacity to particularize, to refer.)

And linking is everything here, for what is it that proves capable of tying together the interstellar (digital, new) and the earthly (analog, old) realms, right when things seem most hopeless (after Dr. Mann’s suicidal meddling)? Spectacle of course, but mainly just good old narration, whose machinery kicks into high gear at this point: suddenly the film’s structure is taken over by the hoariest old mechanisms of parallel editing, as we bounce between physicist daughter on the family farm learning materiality’s secrets in order to overcome them, and astronaut dad in (cyber) space establishing contact with habitable space “manually,” as he emphasizes. (Seriously, the film is astonishingly oldfashioned, despite the scientific mumbojumbo: I thought I was watching THE LONELY VILLA for a second! Icy female softened into womanliness by “love,” the true medium binding all things [not bits and bytes]; the wisecracking [here, robot] sidekicks; deathbed confessions; saving the family farm, for god’s sake [the film is a kind of “mortgage melodrama,” actually – the lease on Earth is running out!]; on and endlessly on.) Earth has to be abandoned, ‘tis true, but not earthly attractions and (even more) tales: in this battle between technocrats, Dr. Mann dies because he has an obsession, but no story to tell.

So Nolan’s message seems to be that we can best save the Earth (i.e., Hollywood) by mobilizing all the triedandtrue resources of old “celluloid” Hollywood – the references to the Dust Bowl era are, I think, better read as indices of that earlier media moment – including discovering in celluloid a new source of cultural and financial capital (in spectacle: early prestige releases in IMAX 70mm), while of course taking full use of every advantage the new technology gives us in production, exhibition and distribution: note, if you will, the phalanxes of digital and CG artists rightfully acknowledged in the credits of this “analog” film. This is the usual message, of course. As always in Hollywood, it’s really about the business model.