Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It's Moments That Seize Us


            When describing something like Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s attempt to capture the experience of growing up in something resembling real-time, it’s easy to toss around hyperbolic terms like “brilliant” and “tour de force” – and even easier to get swept up in them. With something this ambitious and experimental, you walk into the theater expecting your life to be altered, your mind opened to new, profound insights into the human condition, whatever that means. To tell the truth, though, Boyhood is nothing like that. Just as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life didn’t reveal the meaning of the universe, Boyhood doesn’t shed light on any mind-blowing secrets about coming of age in contemporary America. It is, in fact, rather ordinary.

            The boy in question, named Mason Jr. and played by neophyte actor Ellar Coltrane, is no one special. He’s white and able-bodied, gradually evolving from a fresh-faced kid into a gangly teenager with a pierced ear, possessing few exceptional qualities except a penchant for photography and moody philosophizing. The 12 years of his life covered by the film (compressed into a nearly three-hour running time, which feels surprisingly like nothing at all) contain little that could be categorized as action and follow only the ghost of a narrative structure, not rising toward a climax so much as meandering around one. Even the most ostensibly sensational events, such as Mason’s strained interactions with his two alcoholic stepfathers, are conveyed through the dispassionate gaze of a documentarian. Although it offers an intimate look at the everyday existence of its protagonist, the movie never really allows us into his head; we merely observe, never experience.

            Deprived of the visceral immediacy I had been anticipating, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat let down at first. What I thought would be a joyful celebration of youth instead turned out to be a rather depressing reminder of how boring reality is, delivered from the perspective of someone I found neither relatable nor particularly interesting (especially as an adolescent, Mason is a quintessential Linklater character: wistful, talkative, laid-back and in love with his own thoughts). Once my initial reaction faded, however, it dawned on me that I was supposed to feel that way. Boyhood isn’t about catharsis; it’s about numbing, the sinking realization that this is it, this is life, and you have no idea what to do with it.

            If that sounds like a downer, it is. Yet it’s also strangely captivating, unfurling with a dreamy, leisurely serenity that mirrors its Texas backdrop, not bowling you over with emotions so much as letting them sink into you and creep beneath your skin. Bereft of shocking revelations, turning points and anything else resembling a major plot twist, Boyhood revels in details – gestures, pop culture references, objects, places rendered with such evocative specificity it feels like you’re wandering through a memory. For example, when Mason accompanies his mother (Patricia Arquette in a performance revelatory for its quiet poignancy) to her college psychology class, he sees the professor put his hand on her back, and we instantly understand the implications of this tiny, seemingly casual act. Linklater is predominantly known for his dialogue, and to be sure, there’s plenty of it here, but he also puts on a clinic in how to impart information by showing rather than telling.

            In the hands of almost any other director, Boyhood might have ended up as little more than a curiosity, its unconventional filming style elevating a fairly conventional teen movie plot (alcohol-soaked parties? Check. Short-lived romances? Check. Heart-to-heart conversations about the future? You’re damn right check). But with his naturalistic direction and subtle script, Linklater infuses the proceedings with a sense of sincerity that most coming-of-age films lack, eschewing shallow nostalgia and familiar clich├ęs in favor of something messier and more honest. Furthermore, anyone who dismisses the premise as a mere gimmick would be mistaken. On the contrary, it’s the entire point. Life, according to Boyhood, is basically meaningless; there’s no grand master plan, no higher purpose to the series of arbitrary benchmarks we pass on our way to death (to paraphrase Arquette in the movie’s most haunting scene). What make it all worthwhile are the little things, the fragments of time between benchmarks when you forget about the inevitability of mortality and the impermanence of things. Life is about the clear sunset that greets you after a long hike, the song you hear on the car radio, the near-infinite number of seconds that tick by as you debate whether to kiss the girl sitting next to you. It’s about the moments that are there and then, before you know it, gone.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

I, For One, Welcome Our New Ape Overlords


       Tragic blockbusters are fascinating. Since we as audiences have become so accustomed to summer popcorn flicks wrapping up with the hero defeating the monster, saving the world and getting the girl (because, let’s face it, the hero’s pretty much never a girl), the few that enter darker territory often seem to merit extra attention simply for their willingness to break from the long-held assumption that crowds can only be pleased by happy endings. What makes the Planet of the Apes franchise so peculiar, other than its shocking longevity, is that, as critic Matt Zoller Seitz asserts, it has always been inherently bleak. From the moment Charlton Heston laid eyes on that partially-buried Statue of Liberty at the end of the original 1968 film, humanity was doomed, and if any later additions or reiterations deviated from that pessimistic viewpoint, it would feel false, incompatible with the rest of the canon. It’s not just the apocalyptic, if rather ludicrous premise that makes these movies inevitably tragedies; it’s because, even in creating a universe where apes rule the world, they still paint humans as the ultimate monster, catalysts of their own downfall.

        Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest installment to the simian-obsessed series, continues in that despairing tradition. Set ten years after 2011’s similarly awkwardly-titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which showed how apes became hyper-intelligent and introduced a deadly virus that quickly spread across the globe, Dawn finds civilization in shambles as a handful of survivors hole up in San Francisco, unable to connect to any other communities that could possibly have sprung up, while the group of apes led by Caesar has thrived on land that’s been reclaimed by nature. Naturally, the two societies eventually discover each other and come into explosive conflict. Given that audiences have known the conclusion to this story for nearly half a century, it would’ve been easy for both of these movies to fall into the usual prequel trap, where the predetermined outcome prevents current events from having any real weight. While most prequels make do with lazy writing that simply goes through the motions, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise presented a coherent narrative – something that’s appallingly hard to come by in modern blockbusters (talk about setting low standards) – that was not only fun to watch unfold, but also seemed interested in telling a new story, rather than merely setting up for an old one. Despite changing directors, with Let Me In’s Matt Reeves now at the helm, Dawn seamlessly transitions from and builds off of the solid foundation established by its predecessor, taking advantage of the fairly large time jump to mine different creative ground without losing the blend of epic scope and intimate focus that made Rise successful. It offers an equally thrilling, unexpectedly contemplative look at what happens when brute force triumphs over compassion, the consequences of historical violence, and the meaning of family, community and home.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Year of Antiheroes and Finding Light in the Darkness


        People too often confuse cynicism for moral complexity. Challenging an audience’s capacity for empathy or their flexibility where ethics are concerned can produce some fantastic, intellectually and emotionally stimulating art, but declaring that human beings are horrible and life sucks isn’t inherently interesting, especially if everyone else is screaming the same thing. Great TV – or rather the shows that typically attract that label – still tends to be bleak and troubled; the apocalyptic HBO drama The Leftovers, which premiered June 29 with one of the most promising but soul-crushing pilots I’ve ever seen, should fit right in. However, I’d argue that what separates not only the good prestige TV from the bad, but also the new from the old is its ability to craft distinct yet nuanced and thoughtful worldviews, ones that complicate typical good/bad, optimistic/pessimistic binaries. Shows like True Detective and Fargo in particular felt like responses to the Machiavellian brutality of Breaking Bad and The Shield. They indulged in the same tropes even as they critiqued them and, by adding this layer of introspection and self-awareness, pushed TV as a whole in a different, exciting direction.

“The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.”
-          Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), True Detective

        That was possibly the second most quoted line by True Detective’s idiosyncratic, existentially fraught protagonist, just behind the one about time being a flat circle, but it could easily be put in the mouths of any of the corrupt cops and destructive antiheroes who populated the past decade of TV. More than anything else, these stories revolved around the idea that evil can only be defeated if people are willing to lose – or at least temporarily discard – their humanity in the process.

        It’s not hard to understand the appeal of these disillusionment narratives. They contain ample amounts of both external and internal conflict and are pretty much obligated to focus on a complicated, unpredictable protagonist, even if too many writers mistake glowering machismo for charisma. Imbued with a sense of paranoia that forebodes an inevitably tragic conclusion, these stories reflect and speak to a world that feels constantly on the verge of exploding, a reality defined by economic crises, global conflicts and power struggles, and environmental disasters. They tell us that the institutions we rely on are broken and corrupt, that the idealized heroes we’re forever waiting on will never show up, that human beings are heartbreakingly, almost irredeemably flawed. As depressing as that sounds, there’s something comforting about art that confirms our doubts and fears, just as it can be cathartic – or, at least, beguiling – to follow characters who don’t feel bound to the same legal and ethical codes as the rest of us. It’s no coincidence that antiheroes are almost exclusively white men, not just because that demographic is by far the most represented in media in general, but because they have traditionally been accorded more power in Western societies and, therefore, are allowed more freedom to flaunt the rules. The best shows, like Mad Men with its Great Gatsby-esque deconstruction of the American Dream, interrogate the notions of strength, dominance and entitlement associated with whiteness and masculinity, instead of merely glorifying or reveling in it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Death, Taxes and Community


            Yesterday was not a particularly good day. First, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, essentially stating that corporations are allowed to refuse birth control coverage for female employees due to religious objections. Then, Noah Berlatsky, a writer I’d previously respected, published an article in The Atlantic arguing that Orange Is the New Black doesn’t pay enough attention to men, despite the fact that the show is set specifically in a women’s prison and therefore has no reason to represent male convicts (if anything, I wish it didn’t care so much about its male characters, but that’s another discussion entirely). And as if that wasn’t enough, Community got renewed by Yahoo! (yes, that Yahoo!) for a last-minute sixth season.

For many people, the revival of NBC’s beloved cult comedy, following its cancelation earlier this year, is a cause for celebration. But when I saw the news, I felt a jolt of irrational exasperation. Of all the acclaimed, prematurely axed shows, from Terriers to Enlightenment to this season’s Enlisted, why is this the one that gets a second chance?

            Once upon a time, I did genuinely like Community. Although many fans consider the first season the show’s weakest, I’ve always had a soft spot for its zany, idiosyncratic, relatively unassuming brand of humor interspersed with moments of surprising sweetness (I might or might not have cried during Abed’s family reconciliation video). Season two earned its hype with consistently hilarious episodes that delighted in subverting sitcom conventions, pop culture tropes and audience expectations without abandoning its characters (see: “Mixology Certification”, “Critical Film Studies”, etc.). I was as anxious as anybody waiting to see how long it would survive despite middling ratings.

            The third season started out uneven at best, though episodes like “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism” were enough to keep me invested. It wasn’t until some vague point after the infamous 2012 hiatus that I realized I didn’t enjoy Community anymore; in fact, the show was actively getting on my nerves. Where the meta commentary and obscure references once felt fresh and clever, they now came across as smug, trite and self-indulgent, and where the madcap energy had once been balanced out by a commitment to emotional realism, it now veered into outright chaos, as if Greendale had been transported from a parallel dimension to a completely separate universe where the basic rules of narrative structure and logic no longer existed. I hated everything the show did with Britta, from pairing her with Troy to gradually dumbing her down. Most people approved of the change as far as I could tell, but personally, I’d rather have the intelligent, idealistic, if self-serious Britta of season one than the walking, talking blonde joke of season three. It bothered me how the other characters treated her, constantly making fun of her values and telling her to be quiet; the “fun vampire” quip was amusing until it occurred to me how closely it mirrored the way feminists and other social justice advocates are viewed in real life, dismissed as humorless extremists trying to ruin everyone else’s party.

 Don’t even get me started.