Sunday, July 29, 2007

Today's Celebrity: Living La Dolce Vita

Lindsay Lohan dominated the headlines last week when she was arrested for cocaine possession and driving under the influence after chasing her former personal assistant’s mother around Santa Monica. This happened less than a month after Lohan, barely twenty-one, was released from rehab.

This is certainly not the first of erratic displays from Lohan. Last year, while filming Georgia Rule, producer James G. Robinson threatened to sue her for constantly showing up over an hour late to set, often hung over. Robinson wrote to Lohan:

"You and your representatives have told us that your various late arrivals and absences from the set have been the result of illness; today we were told it was 'heat exhaustion'. We are well aware that your ongoing all night heavy partying is the real reason for your so-called 'exhaustion'."

Also dominating the “news” this week was Britney Spears’ crazed, belligerent behavior at a photo shoot for OK! Magazine that was supposed go with an article declaring her comeback after years of similar (and highly publicized) behavior since her marriage, divorce and pregnancies.

In other news, Nicole Richie was sentenced to four days in jail for driving under the influence after taking her “Mercedez Benz the wrong way down California State Route 134 highway in Burbank. After failing an on-field sobriety test, Richie admitted to having smoked marijuana and taking a vicodin painkiller. (imdb)”. Richie is rumored to currently be pregnant with the child of Good Charlotte’s lead singer, Joel Madden.

All this happened mere weeks after Paris Hilton was released from jail.

And this stuff gets more media attention than the Iraq war.

For years, young girls have admired this quartet of young women who have really done nothing with their clout and fortune but be famous and act famous. Spears hasn’t released any new music since 2005. Lohan hasn’t been in a successful film since Mean Girls in 2004, which wasn’t even that enormous of a hit in terms of box office gross. Hilton and Richie don’t really have jobs—they aren’t singers or actresses, though they’ve tried and failed; they only exist to give OK! Magazine and the like something to write about. (And no, being on a reality TV show doesn’t count as a “job”.) Lohan and Spears are no better. They aren’t artists, they don’t have any work ethic (ie. you’re not an actress if you show up an hour late on set), and they don’t make any real contribution to society.

These four overwhelming media figures play without work. They live a life of privilege without justification. They have no gifts, talents or words to share with the rest of us, no practical purpose in the natural order of the world. They are, quite literally, useless human beings. And yet we lavish them with attention.

If I had a daughter who admired somebody like Paris Hilton, I would shield her from every media outlet I possibly could. That America’s young have come to admire people who are famous for neglecting work, family or any moral responsibility whatsoever in favor of endless nights of partying is frightening. That girls barely in their double digits actually consider a hotel heiress to be a role model—one who is arguably most famous because of her sex video—should be enough to give alarm to us all. Or, at least, one would hope.

With this quartet’s recent string of stints with the law, drugs and outright insanity, I hope, I hope, I hope this is the beginning of the end of this type of media infatuation. I hope Americans who once admired these figures will see how these celebrities' lifestyles have caught up with them, that a life free of responsibility certainly has its consequences.

Then the paparazzo can turn their cameras where they rightfully belong: Brangelina and Tom Cruise.

I saw La Dolce Vita (1960) last week for the first time in years. The film admires a movie star life without consequence or commitment, but then slowly reveals how this lifestyle makes it impossible to make any real connection with a human being. Fellini allows us to admire the beauty of "la dolce vita", but at the same time realize its hollowness. The infamous scene at the Trevi fountain is perfectly indicative of this. Celebrity journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) admires voluptuous movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) as she gracefully meanders in the fountain. But, as soon as Marcello joins her and tries to kiss her, the entire moment sobers: the fountain stops running, the sun comes out, and no connection has been made.

La Dolce Vita is credited for giving the English language the word “paparazzi,” as the journalists who stalk celebrities in the film are referred to as “paparazzo (little birds)”. Fellini makes the audience experience the characters of La Dolce Vita as if we too were paparazzi. We have little knowledge of the aspirations, wants, or needs of these characters. There is no psychological element here, no third dimension. We are simply intrusive observers of the lives of the rich and famous.

It is unclear, for the most part, what types of films the actress Sylvia makes, or why a figure like Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) gets so much media attention. It doesn’t matter what these people are famous for, it only matters that they are celebrities. Their fame is their career.

Such is the status of today’s dominant media figures. It doesn’t matter what Lohan, Spears, Hilton and Richie have done to become famous, for they have ingrained themselves in our national consciousness and vocabulary to such a degree that they don’t need to make films, release albums or appear on television to continue to be famous. Their fame is literally their career.

(There’s one scene where Marcello and Maddalena drive a prostitute around town and, when she enters the car with these two, it becomes evident that even women of the night have a better work ethic than privileged celebrities...)

Fellini predicted how a then-recent cultural phenomenon would grow exponentially. Some saw Fellini’s film as satirizing the celebrity/media relationship when it first became an international sensation almost fifty years ago, but today’s cult(ure) of fame has reached such ridiculous degree that it’s beyond satire. Back in the day, an actor or musician would have had to continue releasing work to continue being in the media spotlight—not today. Our society not only worships mediocre music (Spears) or unprofessional acting (Lohan), but they worship singers that don’t sing and actors that don’t act. When Paris Hilton announced her “retirement” last year, the big question on everyone’s mind was, “retirement from WHAT?”

Princess Diana was killed almost exactly ten years ago. Di was a celebrity beyond celebrity, a figure that actually exceeded the media attention Americans bestow on their celebrities. But unlike today’s headliners, Di—a kindergarten teacher-turned-princess with a humanitarian heart—actually made an effort to do some good in the world. Her unfortunate death is the only celebrity death that immediately comes to mind that was actually caused by paparazzi.

Paparazzi have a frighteningly influential role in our culture. As evidenced by the case of Princess Diana, they aren’t just intrusive observers, but have direct consequence on their subjects. The endless attention they have given to Lohan, Spears, Hilton and Richie only encourages the quartet's irresponsible behavior. Not that these 21-26-year olds aren’t accountable for themselves, of course. Their own accountability is the one thing they’ve all failed to fully realize.

I just really, really want it all to stop.


Monday, July 16, 2007

There's Something About Michael

I started to appreciate Michael Moore years before I had even learned what the words “liberal” and “conservative” meant. In the late 90s, Moore had a TV show that aired on Bravo called “The Awful Truth”, which was, in essence, a highbrow “Jackass” with the intent of socio-political satire. The show, which I saw on Bravo, basically had Moore pulling outrageous, often hilarious, stunts to either illustrate seemingly obvious political problems or simply to force people into awkward situations of clashing culture. Some of the more memorable segments include: Moore launching a “Sodomobile” across the nation to educate citizens on the fight for gay rights, eventually running into gay-bashing “preacher” Fred Phelps; Moore taking Rage Against the Machine to perform outside Republican and Democratic primaries; and, my personal favorite, Moore gathering a dozen or so nicotine addicts who have been reduced to using voice boxes in order to speak and, right before Christmas, taking them “caroling” outside the Marlboro factory.

These stunts were ludicrous, brave, intentionally shocking and controversial, but never without a sense of humor. In the last five years or so, as Moore has gained enormous success, even infamy, for his feature documentary work, his sense of humor has certainly taken a blow as well.

The name Michael Moore extended to red and blue states alike not because of his work itself, but because of his headline-making speech upon his acceptance of the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 2003 for Bowling for Columbine. Not unlike the incendiary reaction to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, most of the criticism of Moore from the far right stemmed from masses who had never even seen the film they were protesting. Since Moore’s speech—and since his smash-hit, $120 million-grossing and Cannes’ Palme d’Or-winning documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which itself seemed to be a response to the criticism of his speech—he has, like it or not, been an outspoken, relevant media figure, and will probably continue to be.

In fact, the growing success of theatrical documentaries must be at least partially attributed to Moore’s work. Since Bowling and Fahrenheit, documentaries have no longer been just for PBS-ers and struggling intellectuals, but have made for profitable filmmaking, with subjects of interest as far ranging as penguins, global warming and fast food.

I find Moore’s work puzzling. Not his politics or the subjects he chooses, but the way he constructs his films.

Moore’s latest, Sicko, should be a subject that most Americans, left or right, can take an interest in. His thesis is refreshingly simple: while capitalism makes our country work the way a democracy should, American health care would operate with better-vested interest for the people if the profit incentive were removed. Unlike the arguments of many critics of socialized medicine, Moore’s stance hardly makes him, or anybody who agrees, a Communist or Socialist. It makes sense that medical institutions and health insurance providers would operate in better interest of the people if they were employed by the state (as Moore points out, America’s public schools and law enforcement work just fine this way). If we’re the richest country in the world, why can’t we put effort into becoming No. 1 in terms of health care? And, in today’s environment of skyrocketing corporate greed and backstabbery, the response to the idea of socialized medicine reverberates as a sensical, not radical, “why not?”

Moore’s thesis is brief and compact, so his examples throughout that support it quickly become redundant, eventually losing their initial impact. Sicko starts off with example after example of horror stories average Americans have had with insurance and pharmaceutical companies, then Moore examines other developed countries that have socialized medicine: Canada, France, and Great Britain. He talks to a doctor in London who makes a great living despite being employed by the government, for he gets paid in terms of how many patients he cures and how many lives he saves. Moore then gathers several Americans who have had injustice done to them by their healthcare providers (or simply can’t afford healthcare) and takes them to Cuba, where they are given the attention their home country couldn’t provide. Throughout, Moore sticks to the same formula: talk to normal people, and play the dumb guy by asking them simple, obvious leading questions, the answers of which largely speak for themselves (such as when he asks a normal Canadian, who obviously receives the government’s health care, if he has ever been a Communist or Socialist).

While the film and argument are certainly worthwhile, and will hopefully continue a national discourse on the problems with our healthcare, I found myself wishing it was made by a different documentary filmmaker, for Moore’s signature style is the only thing that weakens his stance.

While no documentary can be purely objective, the best documentaries are those where the filmmaker simply lets their subjects speak for themselves without lead or direction, the documentarian simply being a witness and not an active participant. If the style be cinema verite (as it happens) like The War Room (1993) or in the style of retrospective interviews and archive footage, like last year’s VH1-esque The US vs. John Lennon, the subject is best-served if we the audience are focusing on that subject, and not the filmmaker.

But Michael Moore is, in fact, the subject of each of Michael Moore’s films, with health care (or 9/11, or gun control, or GM CEO Roger Smith) coming in at a close second. Moore has a dense presence both in front of and behind the camera; when he’s not in the same frame of the people he’s interviewing, he’s narrating. His editing techniques are especially worth notice, and so is the manner in which he uses bombastic music to incite immediate emotional responses. His interviews and archival materials are often peppered with brief footage from old films or obscure television clips to add some humor to the piece (such as when he incorporates a clip of some Eastern European medical comedy show when he states that Slovenia is right above the US in terms of serving medical need). And his musical cues, ranging from tired Rolling Stones numbers to orchestral scores from other movies (Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer), are anything but subtle. At one point, he even uses a Star Wars intro parody to show a list of conditions that would keep you from qualifying for medical care, complete with John Williams music. It’s sensational documentary filmmaking at its pop-cultural, postmodern best. With this constant visual and oral blast to the senses, Moore’s documentaries can be pretty damn entertaining, something easily consumable for our decreasing attention spans and far removed from any pre-Michael Moore documentary you’d see on PBS (yawn!).

Unfortunately, this skilled style makes the documentary far less substantive. His filmmaking techniques—sensation-driven and not content-driven—and simplistic interviews (usually devoid of conversations with experts or scholars) hurt the value of the information he’s presenting, and cause his films to lose most of their power upon multiple viewings. It's the documentary equivalent of style over substance. Michael Moore is basically the Guy Ritchie of documentary filmmaking...(okay, that's not entirely accurate, but it's fun to say).

While the facts Moore brings to the table in his films seem to be technically accurate, the information he chooses to omit becomes more and more apparent. Had Moore chosen to show the downsides of universal healthcare in Canada, England, France and Cuba, followed with an argument as to how the positives outweigh the negatives, then Sicko would be that much more powerful and influential in promoting socialized medicine. (Anybody who has taken College Writing 101 knows this.)

Like visiting Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, like asking Congressmen to sign up their children to fight in Iraq in Fahrenheit 9/11, and like the entire premise of “The Awful Truth,” Moore does an over-the-top stunt in Sicko to make his point. Arguing that political prisoners in Guantanamo Bay get excellent health care (for free, nonetheless), Moore takes some of the victims of unjust American health care to the “American soil” on Cuba to ask for medical assistance. The point is made long before the ridiculous gesture is completed. In Moore’s two previous films, he performed these stunts only at the potential embarrassment of himself (and I thought they were pretty clever), but watching Moore yelling towards Guantanamo Bay prison on a boat with some very sick people did not seem in the least bit funny. Moore knew that they were going to get sent away (just like he knew the Congressmen would ignore him, and that Heston would walk out on him) because it’s his very intent to use these stunts to incite something abrupt that would drive his point home. Why did he waste his time? Why didn’t he just get these people to free medical care in Cuba (which he does right after) first? It’s one of the instances in the film in which it becomes perfectly clear that this movie is about Moore, and not the sick people on the boat. It makes me look at that clip from “The Awful Truth” differently. Is Moore just pulling an outrageous stunt to make his point at the expense of embarrassing the people with voice boxes, or is he actually making a positive impact?

Dr. Gupta of CNN recently went head-to-head with Moore regarding the specific details of Sicko. Moore seems to go through a process like this after each film he releases and, as with each film Moore has been previously criticized for, Gupta didn’t dispute the facts themselves, but the way they were presented as well as the ones he chose to omit.

And in the anti-Michael Moore documentary Manufacturing Dissent (2007), the filmmakers show how Moore’s examination of unlocked doors in Canada in Bowling for Columbine (to show the Canadians’ sense of safety) was inaccurate: only about 40% of the doors he encountered were unlocked, when all of the doors shown in the final cut were unlocked. Moore critics often run into a trivial mess like this; debating how many doors are locked or unlocked in Canada at any given time doesn’t get anybody anywhere. Moore pulls these stunts to make a point, so of course he’s only going to include footage that supports his point. One wouldn’t need a documentary to tell us that, most likely, not every door Moore came up to that day was unlocked, and showing the raw footage of Moore knocking on doors all day certainly wouldn’t make for an entertaining documentary, at least not in the Michael Moore style. To reverse an old phrase, it’s not in the details.

Michael Moore, not to mention most of the media today, certainly has a very odd definition of “truth”. His television show was called “The Awful Truth” and his website that supports the facts of Sicko is called “The Truth.” When reading Gupta and Moore go back and forth about different facts from different sources, one quickly becomes aware of the fruitlessness of discovering “truth” in the confused, misinformed, often fear-driven and increasingly prevalent media of today (in both news and documentaries). No wonder Steven Colbert’s term “truthiness” was quickly coined as a legitimate word in our culture. And debating the details of Moore’s films still seems to be missing the point entirely. Why is everybody so concerned with overturning facts in such an obviously subjective documentary? What good would it have done Michael Moore to intentionally make a movie full of lies, and what do critics prove by countering everything he says? (I would pose the same question regarding Al Gore and the criticism of An Inconvenient Truth as well.)

One of the best political documentaries in recent years is Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004), about the hardly fair or balanced partisan news reporting at the Fox News Network. Because Outfoxed is criticizing a sensationalist style of news reporting, the film itself is very straightforward in its style, with simple interview techniques, non-manipulative archive footage (ie. no old movies or obscure TV clips), obvious iMovie-style cuts when an edit has been made, and pretty much no music. While the film is in no way amateur, the filmmaking style is simplistic as to not receive any of the same criticism in media technique that they are criticizing Fox News for. They’re trying not to fall in a trap that would undermine their own argument. As a result, however, the film is not entertaining. In the world of the political documentary, entertainment value and substantive argument are, quite unfortunately, mutually exclusive terms.

But there has been an even more powerful style of documentary filmmaking recently. Two films from last year, Jesus Camp and Deliver Us From Evil, criticize the subjects they are presenting not through asking leading questions, fancy editing, or fact omission, but by simply letting their subjects speak for themselves. They leave the opinion up to the audience. And through their professional and seemingly objective style, they drive their point home much more powerfully than any of Moore’s films.

Yet no documentary can be purely objective, and docs that seem purely objective, but in fact may not be at all accurate, can be dangerous (ie. propaganda). While Jesus Camp and Deliver Us From Evil are two of my favorite docs in recent years, and I have outspokenly praised their attempts at objectivity, any subject presented as objectively as these has the capacity to be powerfully manipulative.

That being said, maybe what Michael Moore is doing with his docs is actually good for Americans. Maybe because his technique and style are so obvious, and the details of his content are so criticized as a result, that it unintentionally enables viewers to be just as critical and able to decide for themselves where they fall in respect to Moore’s argument instead of merely being overwhelmed by the sensation of its technique. Maybe he’s creating a critical discourse not just of himself, but the issue at hand, that would otherwise not be so relevant without such a controversial and prevalent figure.

In 1920s Soviet Russia, filmmakers of the country manufactured “propaganda,” but not propaganda in the traditional sense. With films such as Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928) or Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera (1929), the Soviets used obvious editing and montage techniques (in expense of narrative cohesion) in order to express an idea, but, along the way, intentionally used this to educate audiences on how films express ideas through editing (and even sensational emotional techniques) so that they can view “propaganda” critically and objectively. Realizing the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary potential of this “cinematic education”, the Soviet government quickly censored this practice in the nation’s film schools.

However, had this practice persisted, perhaps the Soviets, and citizens of other nations around the world, would be more educated when viewing media not be “duped” by the subjective media techniques used commonly today.

I’m not saying Michael Moore is the next Eisenstein, and I’m certainly not saying he’s intelligent enough to do this intentionally, but as his filmmaking style continues to keep audiences in critical discourse, maybe we can take this knowledge and criticism to other media outlets, like the news, and use our education to keep ourselves from being duped anymore.

Maybe then we can decide for ourselves what “truth” really is.


(For further reading on Moore's odd obsession with our neighbors to the north, see his only narrative feature (and John Candy's last screen appearance) Canadian Bacon (1995), a surprisingly clever comedy about a cold war between the US and Canada. At one point, two American characters realize that every door in Canada is unlocked. Funny how Moore's narrative fiction eventually became documentary fact...)

(Because I love this nation, I love my right to criticize it.)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Transformers and the iPhone

Michael Bay has been called a lot of things, but I’m going to try a new word on him: auteur.

If an auteur is a filmmaker with a signature style and worldview that shows up in each of his films, then Bay certainly qualifies, even if said style is synonymous with shit, and said worldview involves a black-and-white, good vs. evil moral compass that isn’t afraid of excesses in the sexual portrayal of women and unintentional hilarity in the ridiculousness of the physics-defying action scenes. But unlike the typical filmmakers that come to mind when the word “auteur” appears (Hitchcock, for instance, was one of the first directors to be tacked with this title), Bay doesn’t examine or criticize any element of the social, cultural or political conditions he is representing in his films—he is instead merely part-and-parcel of American culture.

The nature of Michael Bay’s films is emblematic of the reasons why Islamic fascists want to destroy our country: they’re excessive, loud, arrogant, bloated products that divide the world strictly into easily-comprehendible segments of good and evil with the sole intent of using its content to capitalize on the filmgoing market at the expense of cinema being an art in any shape or form. Indeed, this approach can be an art all its own.

Cinema has always been an economic machine with the intent to sell. Yet financial gain and artistic merit have never been mutually exclusive terms. But, when a film, a product in itself, becomes the catalyst for launching other products (not-so-subliminal advertising), the art loses its value. Yet films with this intent can still retain entertainment value. As evidenced by Casino Royale, audiences are only temporarily distracted by product placement in films.

In the mid-80s, Hasbro invented a line of toys that turn from typical mechanical devices (cars, helicopters, guns) into badass robots. But they needed a TV show to give a storyline and background for the toys and, most importantly, as a device to sell more toys. Thus, Transformers was born. It became a cultural phenomenon in the television, toy and even film market (Transformers: The Movie (1986)) and, along the way, became an inseparable part of the childhood of millions of males born between the late 70s and early 80s. (As I was born in 1985, I wasn’t a part of it. However, another 1980s Saturday morning cartoon series pretty much defined my childhood: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) Transformers, TMNT, GI Joe, He-Man, Thundercats and the like were all TV shows that basically existed as thirty-minute commercials for toys. But, along the way, they have had an underestimated emotional influence on the lives of the children who adored them. This sometimes had its consequences: Transformers: The Movie killed off many of the series’ characters (including Optimus Prime) solely to sell a new line of characters as toys, disregarding how this may have been shocking to its single-digit viewers.

Now, riding the wave of 1980s cultural nostalgia, is Michael Bay’s magnum opus, Transformers (2007). The film has made quite an impact at the box-office, no doubt partly a result of once-admirers, now in their twenties and early-30s, aiming to rekindle a new, nostalgic relationship with the subject. Like the original series and movie, a new line of toys will be released in hope of creating a new generation of fans (not unlike the CG Turtles movie released earlier this year, which I refused to see). And Bay's film is not without its share of product placement (look for the Mountain Dew vending machine that becomes a transformer during the film’s climax). However, things have changed in the American market in the last twenty years, and it seems we as a society have adopted transformers of our own.

Apple’s iPhone was released almost immediately before Transformers entered theaters. And, just as Optimus Prime is hardly just a truck, the iPhone is hardly just a phone. With its easy access to the internet, music, pictures, videos, maps, and probably a dozen other things I forgot, the iPhone contains an extraordinary number of practical uses within a single device. The fact that it’s advertised as a phone can be deceptive. The iPhone, and many other multifunctional products like it, are quickly becoming an inseparable part of American culture, and can very much take on a life all its own.

As Michael Bay’s films certainly do not comment on cultural trends, and are instead a part of them, it is interesting that our society has adopted its own personal transformers at the time of the series’ revival, and that these machines continue to become a larger part of our lives. America certainly didn’t operate to this degree when the original series debuted over twenty years ago, but the ideas it presented may have fed into the very American need for convenience and multitasking through technology.

Michael Bay’s Transformers, being live-action and not animated, requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that the original series did not need. Needless to say, because of Bay’s total lack of skill at creating relationships on screen (human or not), the transformers’ relationship with the humans, and their entire presence in a human landscape, is hardly believable. However, what’s interesting is how easily the human characters accept the fact that the technological devices can embody personality and free will of their own, that something created by humans can itself be like a human. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix (and before and since), the sci-fi genre has obsessed itself with a cosmic battle between humanity and technology. It is possible, as technology has become such an irrevocable part of the American lifestyle, that the battle is no longer between man and machine, but between good machine and bad machine, while man is merely a spectator. Transformers follows the very real American need to trust technology, and let it move forward with bringing on a life of its own, influencing us as an essential part of our cultural makeup.

If you don’t think we as a society are eager to trust technology on a human level, consider this: our military has developed a robot that is designed to rescue injured troops during battle. The robot has the face of a teddy bear to give the likely panicked soldier a feeling of safety and peace.

An emotional connection with a machine during a time of crisis—this is the direction we are heading. And it seems to be a good thing for most people.

There is a scene of the film in which the process of “transforming” is shown. A government military scientist puts a normal Nokia cell phone into a container and puts energy into it from The Cube (even if you see the movie, whatever the hell The Cube is still won’t make sense). The phone then suddenly becomes a mini-transformer, creating—out of nothing—legs, a head, a voice and even a little machine gun.

I couldn’t help but think of the iPhone.

(On another note entirely, Optimus Prime seemed to be a character of strange moral ambiguity for a film like this. He vowed, Terminator 3-style, not to kill any humans in their fight against Megatron. Yet he lets Bumblebee get sacrificed without rescue for fear of human casualties, self-righteously justifying his stubbornness by saying Bumblebee—who literally can not speak for himself—would have wanted it that way. And while Prime doesn’t kill any humans, he does manage to saw another Transformer’s head off medieval-style. He also has an odd, outspoken desire toward the film’s end to sacrifice himself to martyrdom, begging Shia LaBeouf to kill him with The Cube, though Shia doesn’t comply. Optimus Prime by far Michael Bay’s most complex character to date.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Soderbergh's Schizopolis (1996)

I’ve had mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh. I often feel that this prolific filmmaker has been celebrated far too much for many projects that are basically film-school-level experiments in style. I view The Good German (2006), Bubble (2005) and Full Frontal (2002) as interesting in concept, but devoid of any substance in execution, whose good exists merely as an exercise in style. Bubble (an exercise in minimalism) and The Good German (an exercise in recreation of style) infuriate me in particular because the style is so overbearing that it comes at the expense of depth of characterization and narrative. (Good German is misguided even in its own goal, giving elements such as sex & violence and rapid-fire editing that routinely removes itself completely from any illusion of American war-era filmmaking reborn.) Not that I don’t think Soderbergh was well-deserved in receiving the directing Oscar for Traffic (2000), and not that I didn’t enjoy films like The Limey (1999), Out of Sight (1998) and sex, lies and videotape (1989). Soderbergh has talent, no doubt. However, his best films are not his indie experiments, but the ones he makes that have a more traditional narrative while still retaining some originality (and punch) in their style, such Traffic, Out of Sight, sex, lies and the first Ocean’s film.

There are many filmmakers today that straddle the constantly-blurring line between the studios and the indies: Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklater, Paul Greengrass, Alfonso Cuaron, Christopher Nolan, Spike Lee, etc. These filmmakers have seen success with mass audiences, while at the same time making more personal, lower-budget pet projects. Yet most of these filmmakers retain a distinctive style no matter what type of film they’re making. Soderbergh, on the other hand, has no discernable style except for an abundance of style itself. Most of his more obscure work has seemed like empty film school exercises in concept from somebody with too much success, fame and money to still be in film school. Not that I disrespect experiment in film—I love what the French New Wave and many other European traditions have done for the medium. But, with Soderbergh, there seems to be something missing beyond character development and narrative thrust, and it is the essential ingredient in artistic filmmaking: a critical element.

Then I saw Schizopolis (1996).

This film accomplishes a major feat that nothing else in Soderbergh’s oeuvre has: it deconstructs the language of cinematic expression. But not only that, it aims to deconstruct language itself—a post-structuralist exercise in a medium of self-imposed rules and regulations. But perhaps the greatest feat in this worthwhile experiment is that it doesn’t treat itself too seriously (or seriously at all), and is in fact absolutely hilarious.

The film bookends with a theater attendant (Soderbergh himself, who plays two other characters in the film as well) telling the audience of the theater (ie. you) how important the filmis that you are about to see. He stresses that he is not relaying this information for financial gain, but because he sincerely believes this to be true, then says, “if you don’t understand this film, it’s your fault, not ours. You must watch it over and over again until you understand everything.” He ends the film with a rather droll Q&A with a silent audience. This is an obvious tongue-in-cheek approach to the distance that art house cinema puts between the screen and the audience through its self-important deviation from mainstream film style. It’s basically what every film geek would like to say to the normal moviegoing audience: “if you don’t understand, it’s your fault.” But by far the most notable aspect of this approach is that it aims to seem as if it’s not taking itself seriously at all within a critical style that is known for its seriousness. This contrasts with Soderbergh’s own work even.

There is a great tradition of inaccessible European and independent art cinema that is celebrated by critics and film buffs alike, many of whom refuse to acknowledge that the films themselves “make no sense” in any practical way (Fellini Satyricon is one of my personal favorites of these types). This takes nothing away from their cultural importance—I’m certainly not knocking these films, and neither is Soderbergh. What Soderbergh accomplishes quite brilliantly is that he takes much delight in his own awareness that his film “makes no sense”. He uses experimentation with dialogue, editing and any recognizable narrative form as sort of a light game, which relaxes the audience (me) enough to enjoy the seemingly anti-intellectual ride. He dares us to treat this seriously. He dares us to make sense of this work. (His commentary on the Criterion DVD is an interview he has with himself that illuminates nothing about the production and meaning of the film. The joke continues…)

But the film’s great irony is that it uses undisciplined meaninglessness as a technique to search for meaning itself (or lack thereof), most notably in its use of language. Characters in some scenes use a variety of random words that seem to describe something (usually a proposition for sex. ex, Woman: Arsenal. Nose army. Man: Nose army. Beef Diaper?), but the words themselves mean nothing at all; they merely suggest meaning in their inflection and the action that follows them. In other scenes, characters communicate with one another using entirely different languages (sans subtitles). And, in some of the funniest and most frustrating scenes, characters interact with one another by merely describing what they’re saying (Husband coming home from work: “Generic greeting!” Wife: “Generic greeting.”). Are these examples a deconstruction of filmic language, and how it sounds familiar even when it means nothing? Or, is it an examination of the meaninglessness of our routine suburban fa├žade of propriety and dialogue that substitutes for real human connection? The similarity between the two is scary. But in the tradition of the film itself, I’ll restrain drawing conclusions.

Whatever is going on, the film is certainly subversive in style and form, on par with Luis Bunuel (although without the same explicit aim). Also, a sequence toward the end of the film, in which several events are re-told from the female's perspective, can't help but hark back to a similar technique used in Bergman's Persona (1966), a film that, like Schizopolis, toyed with the relationship between screen and audience throughout. Therefore, the film certainly has a respect for the art film, even as it tries to convince us not to take artistic filmmaking too seriously. (It is also reminiscent of many literary traditions, and could be deemed the filmic equivalent of the equally subversive works of Kurt Vonnegut or William S. Burroughs.)

Soderbergh’s physical presence throughout (as the two principal characters) is worth note as well. In the great European art film tradition, the director’s presence on screen (through their signature style, not physically) was essential in the experience of watching films that “make no sense”. One would have to come into these films with a knowledge and appreciation of the cinema, if not the specific filmmaker him/herself, in order to really “appreciate” the film. One would need to evaluate an art film in respect to the director’s canon of other films. After all, these serious films are reserved only for an elite audience, one that treats film seriously. Soderbergh, by contrast, is not only a filmmaker seemingly devoid of a signature style, but also one who rarely seems to treat the medium seriously (or at least would like you to think so). Soderbergh’s physical presence in the film is yet another subversion of the art film. A film this experimental in style and critical in purpose should treat itself very seriously, but it doesn’t. Soderbergh moves beyond subverting film techniques, but subverts these subversive techniques as well. And the director’s physical presence on screen (as the director’s presence is supposed to help “make sense” of the nonsensical in the art film) refuses to provide any illumination to the film’s purpose and meaning. His constant presence has us longing for closure, but we get none of it (the DVD commentary is an extension of this as well). The more of him we see, the less we know what to think.

Thank you, Steven, for not telling us what to think.

The Godfather vs. Arrested Development

First posted on February 22, 2007 on facebook:

Is "Arrested Development" a sitcom version of "The Godfather"? We’ll see…


In The Godfather, Michael Corleone wants to leave his family business behind and find a normal life on his own terms. However, he is forced into the family business when an attempt has been made on his father’s life, as he is the only one qualified amongst his brothers and sister to continue the family business. Michael is practically the only one who looks after his father, helping to evade further attempts on Don Vito’s life while he is incapacitated in the hospital. He has a spouse that dies during his stay in Italy, and is unable to sustain a functional relationship with his girlfriend/wife Kay because of his devotion to family affairs.

In the pilot episode of Arrested Development, Michael Bluth wants to leave his family business behind and find a normal life on his own terms. However, he is forced back into the family business when his father is taken to jail, as he is the only one qualified amongst his brothers and sister to continue the family business. Michael is practically the only one who looks after his father, visiting George Sr. frequently in jail. He has a spouse that died at some point in his past, and is unable to sustain functional relationships with various women because of his devotion to family affairs.


Don Vito Corleone is the patriarch of an olive oil manufacturing empire that is a guise for an organized crime syndicate that has connections with powerful individuals in America and abroad (Cuba in Part II). An attempt is made on his life and he is incapacitated, but still tries to run the family business and exercise power through his son, Michael.

George Bluth, Sr. is the patriarch of a real estate empire that is a guise for an illegal syndicate organization with a powerful individual abroad, Saddam Hussein. He is arrested and sent to jail, but still tries to run the family business and exercise power through his son, Michael.


Sonny Corleone is the oldest son of Don Vito Corleone. Though he is the eldest and therefore first in line to run the family business after his father, his eccentric personality and arrogant temper prevent him from being qualified. When he acts on his own decree, he makes dumb, shortsighted decisions that threaten the efforts of the family as a whole. He is a relentless womanizer.

George Oscar Bluth II (“GOB”) is the oldest son of George, Sr. Though he is the eldest and therefore first in line to run the family business after his father, his eccentric personality and arrogant attempts at magic (and other occupations) prevent him from being qualified. When he acts on his own decree, he makes dumb, shortsighted decisions that threaten the efforts of the family as a whole. He is a relentless womanizer.


Fredo Corleone is the second oldest son of Don Vito Corleone, but is unfit to run the family business. His stupidity, lack of confidence, and otherwise child-like behavior prevent him from being taken seriously by any member of the family. Despite his attempts at success, integration into the family usually comes to no avail. He is often humored by deciding family members (Michael), and given menial business tasks (i.e. casinos, whorehouses) for the family.

Buster Bluth is the youngest son of George, Sr., and is unfit to run the family business. His stupidity, lack of confidence, and otherwise child-like behavior prevent him from being taken seriously by any member of the family. Despite his attempts at success, integration into the family business usually comes to no avail. He is often humored by deciding family members (his mother), and given menial tasks (i.e. learning cartography) to distract him.


Connie is the only daughter of Don Vito. In "Part II": Though she and Michael care for one another very much, she often abuses what little power she has and requests money with spite. She is lazy and unmotivated, treading on the comforts that her familial status gives her. She rebels against the values of the family by remarrying somebody that the rest of the family despises.

Lindsay is the only daughter of George, Sr. Though she and Michael care for one another very much, she often abuses what little power she has and requests money with spite. She is lazy and unmotivated, treading on the comforts that her familial status gives her. She rebels against the values of the family by marrying somebody that the rest of the family despises.


In "Part I": Carlo Rizzi is Connie’s first husband. He exploits and abuses the status of the Corleone family for his own personal desires (i.e. giving information that leads to the death of Sonny). He openly does not love Connie, as he beats her and cheats on her regularly. They have one child together.

Dr. Tobias Funke is Lindsay’s husband. He exploits and abuses the status of the Bluth family for his own personal desires (i.e. his acting career). He openly does not love Lindsay, as the nature of his sexuality is frequently in question. They have one child together.


Tom Hagen is an attorney, though not directly related to the Corleone family, works exclusively for them. He is good at his job in a very unfunny way.

Barry Zuckerkorn is an attorney that is not directly related to the Bluth family, but works almost exclusively for them. He is bad at his job in a hilarious way.


There are very few similarities between Mama Corleone and Lucille Bluth. Mama Corleone is an unspoken matriarch who has little knowledge of, or involvement with, the family business. Lucille Bluth, on the other hand, is a drunken bitch who constantly manipulates Michael’s involvement in the family business.


In Part III, Vincent Mancini, Sonny Corleone’s illegitimate son (and next in line to run the business), falls in love with Mary Corleone, Michael’s daughter, despite the fact that they are direct cousins.

George Michael Bluth, Michael’s son, has an unrequited attraction to Lindsay and Tobias’ daughter, Maeby, despite the fact that they are direct cousins.