Monday, January 19, 2015

This Turing Feels More Machine Than Human


While watching The Imitation Game, the new historical drama revolving around celebrated mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing and the British intelligence effort to crack the German Enigma code during World War II, I could not stop imagining it as a TV show. It attempts to pack about four different stories into less than two hours of screen time and, as a result, fails to do justice to any of them. There’s the traditional biopic, which follows Turing from his teenage years in boarding school to his conviction for “gross indecency” not long before his mysterious death (the film presents it as an unambiguous suicide, though some dispute this); the quasi-romantic relationship between Turing and Joan Clark, who bond over their mutual status as outsiders; the workplace drama showing Turing’s sometimes prickly interactions with his fellow codebreakers; and the old-fashioned, John Le Carré-style spy thriller involving the hunt for a Soviet double-agent led by Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6 played here by formidable character actor Mark Strong. A full show or mini-series might have been able to flesh out the supporting players and thoroughly explore the inner workings of the Bletchley Park operation, but in a feature-length movie, these potentially fascinating elements are sidelined in favor of something cursory and generic.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Admirable ‘Selma’ Sings with Restrained Energy


        The single most eye-opening moment of my college experience came during the first semester of my freshman year. Most of the students in my Honors 101: Research Methods class despised our teacher for reasons both justified (her clinical, DIY approach to teaching suggested she was more accustomed to dealing with grad students than fresh-faced undergrads) and not (somehow I don’t think they would’ve been so openly disdainful and disrespectful had she been a white man instead of a black woman). At one point, our class discussion turned to Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement, and my professor told a room full of primarily privileged white kids that Rosa Parks was not just an ordinary lady who one day got too tired to stand up from her seat on a bus, but an outspoken, trained and educated activist. As minor as it might have seemed at the time, this moment forever changed how I view history, especially as it is taught in the American education system, where reality is often simplified, distorted or outright ignored in order to create easily digestible, comforting narratives. For the first time, I truly grasped the full meaning of the truism “History is written by the victors”, though it might be more accurate to say “History is written by the powerful”.

        So, this was the challenge that faced director Ava DuVernay and the rest of her team when making Selma: how do you translate Martin Luther King Jr. and his work to the big screen while countering a dominant cultural narrative that has long reduced him to a docile saint? On top of that, the film must also compete with the feel-good white savior stories that have served for decades as Hollywood’s main framework for dealing with issues of race. It’s a formidable responsibility to tackle for the industry as a whole, let alone a single project. Yet, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the final film is how lightly it carries this weight, never bowing under pressure or coming across as either self-conscious or self-important. Selma may be closer to the glossy, polite dignity of Spielberg’s Lincoln than the ferocious rawness of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which still stands after 25 years as mainstream cinema’s sharpest, most honest commentary on American race relations, but it’s a piece of lean, effective, confident filmmaking that, along with the more unassuming yet equally poignant Middle of Nowhere, establishes DuVernay as one of the most exciting and vital voices in the contemporary movie world.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why the Oscars Have Nothing to Do With Art


        Now that the Golden Globes have passed (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the uneven ceremony Sunday night) and the Oscar nominations are set to be announced this Thursday, the 2015 movie awards season is officially reaching peak frenzy. As intense as this time of the year can be for film fans, I haven’t felt a great need to write about this year’s race, in part because the majority of my thoughts, hopes and gripes aren’t all that different from last time; the dynamics of each season are essentially the same, just with a new set of names in the spotlight. While the particular debates and controversies this time around haven’t piqued my interest, I have found myself lately thinking a lot about what it really means to be “Oscar-worthy”, or even what it means for art to be good in general, and what, if anything, that says about our interests and values as moviegoers and a society.

        The phrase “Oscar-worthy” gets tossed around a lot, but there’s rarely any explanation of what that actually means. Though it’s often said with some level of derision or irony, it seems to be used as a sincere marker of artistic quality just as often, even by those who turn their noses up at the Academy. It implies some kind of standard that movies must live up to in order to be deemed deserving of awards consideration, though no one ever articulates exactly what those standards should be. To what extent should a film’s technical/aesthetic prowess, cultural or popular impact, or political, social or moral significance be taken into account? Do Academy members have any greater responsibilities to the industry or the public when making their selections or should they simply choose what they legitimately liked the most based on their own personal preferences? For the most part, it’s agreed that the Academy has little actual credibility as a tastemaker, and the Internet has made it too easy to follow industry politics and the PR campaigns specifically designed to influence voters for even the most naïve person to believe they’re completely unbiased. I keep wondering why so much time, money and effort is invested not just by the industry itself, but by critics and moviegoers on awards that few treat with anything other than contempt. I’ve suggested before that the awards season is worthwhile because it provides an opportunity to celebrate filmmaking, even if the specific objects of celebration aren’t always the most laudable, but perhaps what really makes it worthwhile is that it forces us to consider and articulate why we think certain films deserve wider recognition and why others don’t. It pushes us to interrogate our own ideas of what makes some art great instead of just taking our gut instinct of “I liked/didn’t like this” at face value.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

In the Wild


At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of the 2012 Cheryl Strayed memoir, as schmaltzy inspiration porn – Eat, Pray, Walk, someone on my Twitter timeline joked derisively. It is, after all, the true-life story of a not-destitute white woman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery, the kind of didactic, feel-good confection that awards bodies gobble up like chips, ostensibly serving little purpose other than to provide its star performer with an opportunity to do Real Acting and gain some positive PR along the way. Frankly, as someone who nurses a deep-seated, perhaps irrational bias against biopics (anything revolving around a specific historical or living figure, really), I approached Wild with a certain skepticism, the way many critics seem to regard superhero or Hobbit movies, steeling myself for a pandering, by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser that I would inevitably forget the instant I left the theater.

It did not take long, however, for me to see that my fears were unwarranted. The film opens in medias res, finding Strayed at an unstipulated point on her 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches all the way from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada. Quiet reigns as she settles on a rock and removes her shoe to reveal a broken toenail coated in dried blood, a startlingly gruesome image to encounter at the very beginning of a movie whose marketing campaign focused predominantly on its uplifting tone and postcard-pretty scenery (several people at my screening audibly winced). Strayed then proceeds to accidentally drop the shoe (cue more gasps), watching in dismay as it tumbles down the mountainside before deciding to fling her other shoe after it with a fierce, piercing scream. It was that scream, that fleeting outburst of raw, tempestuous emotion, that assured me this was going to be different from your standard Oscar-bait, less hesitant to confront the messy ambiguities of reality.