August 26, 2012

Cronenberg's Cosmopolis

In the 1980s when I was a young adult, there were movies and there were art films. There was TV trash and there were foreign films. There were grocery-store bestsellers and there was literary fiction. 

Somewhere along the line, things changed and we got high-low culture. Not highbrow culture (a steady diet of Schopenhauer) nor lowbrow culture (Wheel of Fortune) and certainly not middlebrow culture. It was The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was being smart about dumb stuff. It was the complexity of high culture, the joys of low culture, and the craftsmanship of mid culture, shot through with self-awareness and metacritical. 

From the 2000s on, certainly, all the smart people I know watched TV voraciously. They rarely went to the arthouse cinema. They read books by smart authors who had likewise embraced popular forms, and we ended up where we are today, where you can't claim to be an intellectual and not know what The Hunger Games is. Now talent is EVERYWHERE and everyone knows about it. We probably have the closest thing to a shared culture than we have for decades because middle-schoolers, literary scholars, soccer moms, and retirees are all reading the same stuff. 

But it bodes poorly for a film like David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, which is an art film. Art. Film. Weird and difficult. Unfamiliar. Unrealistic. The most amazing thing about the movie is that it is a near-perfect adaptation of the novel that is its source material. I wouldn't have thought it could be done, but Cronenberg captures the exact tone and timbre of Don DeLillo's cult classic. The surrealness, the humor, the despair. And all the themes. I feel like most movie adaptations are lucky to capture one or two themes of a literary novel, but this one felt even more expansive than the novel. (It probably helped that my husband noted that "take a haircut" means "take a big loss" in the world of finance. To which all the rest of us went "Ooooooohhhh.") 

And Cronenberg has the visual skills to replicate the symbolism of the novel and translate its themes into images. It's a road trip, it's a journey back in time, it's a search for Rosebud, it's a limo that gradually turns into a hearse, it's reading a foreign language, it's looking out the window, peering into your body (bottoms up), getting humped, zapped, pied, and prousted. 

Which is all to say: I really liked this film.

August 19, 2012

The Chatty Hero

How much did I love The Bourne Legacy? A lot. There's co-star Rachel Weisz, who goes most of the movie without any visible makeup, looks appropriately disheveled for being on the run for 24 hours, and acts as if she's been hit with a ton of bricks—and I mean that in a good way. She's shell-shocked and evinces just the right amount of glass-eyed trauma.

The writing and plot were great, if not perfect. Movies about dark conspiracies almost always start with a series of enigmatic scenes showing the main players reacting to a crisis or getting set up. It's a way of introducing the characters, building tension, and letting the audience struggle a bit to put the situation together, but it's become a cliche at this point and I really did want the filmmakers to just tell me already. That said, once the preliminaries are established, the plot and writing were fantastic, especially with regard to the two main characters. The growth of their trust in each other was slow and sure, neither instantaneous nor falsely drawn out for drama. Same with their affection: they don't go beyond holding hands, but that handholding feels significant and intimate because the actors (and writers) make you feel how out there it is to hold hands with a virtual stranger.

The man as protector in action films is always a tricky thing. We want to see it, want to experience that powerful mix of physical mastery and erotic attention. But it can't be straightforward anymore. The man's exceptionalism has to come from something other than just his maleness. He's specially trained, made of computer parts, enhanced with drugs, part supernatural creature, whatever. These add-ons provide an out for our twenty-first-century brains while keeping intact the essential charge we get out of, for men, seeing our gender glorified onscreen and, for women, imagining intimacy with such a creature. The writers wisely make Jeremy Renner's character vulnerable—and aware of his own vulnerability—in extra measure, someone who is truly unexceptional without the medicine that only Rachel Weisz's character can make for him. This knowledge keeps him from every having the kind of smug attitude that was a staple of the old Bond movies, for example.

Jeremy Renner is the perfect action star, with a frame that's both graceful and solid and the acting chops to put real personality into his character. What I loved the most about his character is a tribute to both him and the writers: He talks. A pretty good amount. Kind of normally. He's neither the taciturn hero nor the wisecracking hero. He introduces himself, asks "are you okay?" after a gun battle, makes conversation with strangers. It's kind of refreshing.

August 11, 2012

In Defense of Nonideological Art

As a grad student I was all about the ideology of art. Art was an elaborate cover-up for the oppressive lies that the artist unwittingly told on behalf of the dominant culture. The idea that art could address universal concerns that were innate to human existence was, like, so naive.

This simplistic view has given way to more nuanced thinking, and Eugene Ionesco expresses it pretty well. Of great art, he says:

"It is not the collapse or the break-up or the erosion of a social system which is the principal theme, the truth of these works, but man eroded by time, his destruction seen at a certain historical moment but true for all history; we are all murdered by time."

August 9, 2012

Cosmopolis's Jolt

I thought of Cosmopolis's protagonist, Eric Packer, and his need for a jolt—through poetry, a pie in the face, even an actual stun gun—when I read this comment from Andre Breton, all the way back in 1922. He was writing of the yearning in artists of his time to blast themselves out of the logical realism of the past:

"There is a pretense that it has not been noticed how much the logical mechanism of the sentence is proving more and more impotent by itself to give man the emotive shock which really gives some value to his life." 

August 1, 2012

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

While perusing reader reviews of this amazing YA novels, I wondered: Do people ever call male protagonists "whiny"?