Amadeus, 1984 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

A monumental cinematic experience overflowing with glorious music (obviously), resplendent production design, lavish costuming, impeccable performances, and gorgeous cinematography. That rare bird whose success is matched only by its ambition and whose creativity is equaled by its craftsmanship, an fabulous film fit for its formidable subject. Like Salieri, when confronted with the task of appraising and critiquing a work of such unbridled and overwhelming inspiration as this, one cannot help but feel inadequate to the task. From capo to coda, the whole thing is so breathless and inspired that at best we struggle to keep up as it flies through ideas, more often than not getting swept up in our own enjoyment. In this way, the film is like its source material, its eccentricities and intricacies inundating the viewer as Mozart’s “too many notes” dumbfound the listener—yet remove even one scene and the whole would be diminished, our inability to speak to the genius of this material thus being a gift of silence so as better to hear the voice of inspiration in the music. This is not to say that the film is ever as pretentious or austere as the times it portrays might suggest; rather, just as Mozart’s music and character juxtapose the vulgar and comical (what Salieri calls his “rusty squeezebox” harmony) with the sublime and delightful (“It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God”), so too does the film find a perfect balance between the original and the biographical, the playful and the serious, the composer’s spirit and the facts of his life.

What a formidable task Forman has given himself, to make a film that echoes the spirit of Mozart’s work, a cinematic experience with the same energy and cunning and charm in its visuals and dialogue as the composer provides in the soundtrack. How much easier it would have been to focus solely on the tragic soul that is Salieri: Certainly his is the more common tale, the journey of a poor country boy who defies his upbringing and family expectations to pursue his heart and his art, a typical rags to riches story where the transcendence of art is the elevation of the artist above his station, which here gets passed over entirely in the first few minutes of the film. We have seen this movie dozens of times and Hollywood elites have honed it into a blockbuster formula, so much so that part of the brilliance in Forman’s AMADEUS is precisely the straight rejection of this trope, not only in that Mozart is treated as a child prodigy whose genius is recognized and rewarded immediately—only to be practically punished for his dedication to artistic integrity in a riches to rags subversion of the genre—but moreover because Salieri’s aesthetic failure and personal frustration (even as he continues to enjoy social success) stems precisely from an inability to escape his formulaic nature, his grounding in a formula.

Perhaps this dialectic—the genius and the craftsman, the inspired and the formulaic—is best exhibited in the scenes where the two composers first meet, and, in the end, when they part ways forever. In the first moment, we see Salieri standing inflexibly over the shoulder of Emperor Joseph II, who rigidly hammers away at a rigid march composed for the occasion, staring at the sheet music intently so as to get every note right, Salieri’s music coming across as technically correct if inflexible and muddled; Mozart, on the other hand, forgoes the stiff staves of sheet music and plays the music back perfectly—beyond perfectly, actually, as the younger composer begins to improvise and elevate the piece, breaking it apart and breaking the rules and breaking Salieri’s self-composure as he does. Even when the two rivals come together at the movie’s climax, with Mozart in his deathbed soon to be as lifeless and stiff as Salieri’s music, the older maestro can barely keep up with the young genius, struggles to put into writing—that is to say, to make formulaic and followable—the flow of Mozart’s genius, struggles even to make sense of how these notes will relate.

Here and throughout, the movie suggests that creative genius cannot be controlled, cannot be made to fit a formula, that it, rather, like divinity itself, holds sway over our helpless desires and designs. In this way, AMADEUS is very much in line with so much of Forman’s earlier oeuvre, especially CUCKOO’S NEXT—which we get hints of when the camera passes through the elderly Salieri’s sanitarium—and the director’s Czech films. In all of these works, Forman depicts a society of stifling hierarchy and bureaucracy, which dull creativity and personal expression, but which can never fully contain the genius of life.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

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Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968 – ★★★★ [Movie Log]

A meditative, if not exactly intriguing or compelling, exercise in minimalism precariously situated between a broad swath of contradictions, which function like a fugue, constructing the film through thematic counterpoint. Part biopic and part concert film, but fully neither, lacking almost any narrative outside the chronological presentation of a life stripped to its bare, mundane, economic facts, few pieces played in their entirety and for no audience except the anachronistic one on this side of the years and the camera. A film lacking practically any camera movement or narrative pacing, with long static takes of stoic musicians doing little more than waggling their fingers, about polyphonic music as vivacious, byzantine, and brisk as has ever been composed. Pieces played on historically accurate instruments not by actors but by professional musicians (including as JSB Gustav Leonhardt, one of the leading figures of historically informed performances) in true-to-life costumes, in many of the same rooms that Bach premiered these same pieces, allowing the viewer an imaginary glimpse back in time to the baroque, a technical historicity that encourages us to slip into fantasy. The story of a man as told by his second wife through a mixture of narrated fictional journal entries and photographs of real textual documents (contracts, sheet music, etc.), that nonetheless obscures its narrator—the real Anna Magdalena Bach died penniless on the street—just as Bach’s vision was obscured at the end of his life, just as the audience is encouraged to wonder at what it has been allowed to see, what it accepts as true, and what remains false or faraway. The end effect would make that great philosopher of music, Schopenhauer, proud: In order to hear the music as (we think) Bach wrote it and heard it himself, in order to make the music true to itself (in this sense, at least), the visuals must be falsified, the ultimate contradictions of film being those between sight and sound, reality and representation.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Falling Down, 1993 – ★★★ [Movie Log]

On one level, the movie—like so much of Douglas’ other work in this period, from WALL STREET to DISCLOSURE—is expressive of a white male power fantasy, allowing the audience to enjoy its destructive, hateful impulses without real consequence. Douglas is a hypnotic and compelling everyman antihero on this front, who pushes (or is pushed into pushing) his otherwise “rational” positions to a socially unacceptable, if nonetheless wished for, extreme. Balancing black comedy with bleak commentary, it is no wonder the movie was such a success, offering viewers an escape from and a release of their own violent desires, subtly transforming their unconscious reactionary desire into the realm of nightmares, so as to disguise what they truly want from themselves, so that white audiences could eat their rancid cake yet still have it, too.

On another and less successful, if more morally sound, level, however, the movie pretty squarely, textually if not cinematically, makes Douglas’ D-Fens out to be the unambiguous, if still human, bad guy. It’s hard not to hedge on this point, because the film itself seems so much less certain of this real, authentic moral ground, less convinced that D-Fens is out and out a villain than he is, at some (the first) level, a victim, and that his anger is justified even when his actions are not. No doubt viewers and critics both at the time and today feel this way, hearing in D-Fens’ rants their own discontent, and like D-Fens utterly missing the true causes of their suffering, laying blame at the wrong feet.

In this sense, the movie actually makes more complicated (and so undercuts) a rather straightforward morality tale, what the screenwriter has said is something of an allegory for the decline of American imperialism and its resultant lashing out of white male rage—a story even more relevant today, but here obscured by the enjoyment and fantasy the audience gets to participate while remaining at arm’s length. D-Fens is part and parcel with the broken down system that undergirds and motivates his violent break down, cause of his own condition; yet the movie too easily allows the viewer to identify *with* Douglas, rather than identify D-Fens *as* the problem.

Again, I think that both levels are operating throughout the movie, and the elements for an insightful social and political critique are more or less here, but the movie misses that potential for authentic, stringent satire because it is too invested in Douglas as the star. What the movie lacks is a real world, complicated and nuanced and full of deeply human characters, with which the audience might contrast D-Fens’ reactionary wrath. Instead of fleshed out characters who, in their mere being, would expose the falsity of D-Fens’ acting out, and who could interrupt the enjoyment on display by giving weight to its violence, all Schumacher can muster are his own (racist) caricatures to fit a half-baked ideology. Perhaps this would have made for a less compelling or hypnotic blockbuster, but it would have also made for a more thoughtfully provocative and morally challenging film than this, which thinks its so much smarter and powerful and truer to the human condition than it really is.

What we end up with, then, is just the usual white, male, reactionary, masturbatory Hollywood narrative, and precisely the sort of squandered potential that D-Fens at heart represents. It is all too indebted to and stubbornly locked into its own narcissistic positionality, unable to see beyond the white male star as the one and only viewpoint from which to measure the rest of the world. No doubt that makes for a relatively engaging film, like all polished Hollywood blockbusters can be, but one that, like its main character, leaves you empty, even angry, and searching for real meaning in all this confusion. Good intentions, road to hell, and all that, ya know?

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

BlacKkKlansman, 2018 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

Infrequently, and not for quite some time, have I walked out of a theatre feeling viscerally shaken by what I just watched, forlorn tears filling my eyes while a seething righteous rage filled my gut, unable to talk about the film for fear that I might either cry or scream, or maybe both. Here is a film that pulls no punches, and lands every apoplectic jab one after another, right on the nose and right in the stomach, calculated to make anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear leave the theater feeling a double consciousness, equally outraged and hopeful, despondent and invigorated. And all this after a movie that for the vast majority of its run time is straight up hilarious, finding nuances of gallows humor and black comedy and social satire in truly bleak, hate-filled history.

Although the movie has near universal acclaim at this point—and I imagine that history will be kind to it, even if the film itself is unkind to history—there are a few common critical tropes I think worth briefly dissecting, including one that touches on the overwhelming affective mélange just mentioned. Some already have called the movie’s tone “inconsistent,” likely preferring the tonal blandness (as easy to swallow as mayonnaise) of the usual, vapid, insipid blockbuster fair. But what these critics miss is precisely the split, complicated, mixed nature of the black experience—explicitly mentioned in the movie by way of reference to Du Bois and the divided-against-itself quality of blaxploitation cinema. To have made a film with a simple, single tone is to betray the difficult experience of people of color for a false smoothness mythologized by white Americans. These critics want a cleaner affective experience, one that is easier to swallow with fewer jagged edges, one less politically urgent and more entertaining, one reduced to the black-and-white, clear-cut morality that Lee has refused ever since DO THE RIGHT THING, where answers don’t come easy and the fury of his community is mixed inexorably with the joy of their art.

Another common critique emerging, and one that the film shares with the similarly exigent and provocative and exasperated SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, is that the movie is “too on the nose,” not “subtle” enough, and to direct in the line it draws between the events of the narrative and the political situation today—and connection powerfully made explicit in the film’s coda, one of the finest endings to a film I have ever seen. This point makes absolutely no sense to me: So you want a political film, one that is trying to articulate a nuanced and complicated position, that is trying to imagine a morality beyond the binary configuration of black-and-white or cop-versus-villain, to be less clear, less pointed, and in effect, less political?

For me, this is the film’s greatest strength and its raison d’être: The modern tactics of white supremacists, first emerging in the early 1970s—when simultaneously the first films targeting black audiences and staring black actors are being made, and often are as bombastic as the earliest films made for a white audience and the white house—have reached their culmination in the Trump era. There is a direct line to draw between the work of the Klan under David Duke and the state brutality of the GOP under Trump, and this is a point that we are morally obliged to not shy away from or mince words about, nor should we criticize those, like Lee or Kwame Ture, who speak truth to power clearly and explicitly.

And on that front, there are also those critics who, while certainly celebrating the film, have cheered the “return” of Spike Lee, who is “necessary once more.” Well intentioned as such a sentiment is, it betrays how these critics miss the larger point of the work: Lee has never been anywhere else but right here, in the heart of America, making incisive and intransigent and important films about the racial hell that is this nation’s racist ideology from its birth (in land, in art, in economy, etc). Spike Lee has always been necessary, no more today than he was a few years ago when he made the riotous CHI-RAQ or when he made the razor-sharp BAMBOOZLED.

But then again, as Lee has said time and again, industry (and especially white) critics, bred and supported by the same politico-economic institutions that Lee’s movies take aim at, never have understood his work. As he so famously said near the beginning of his career, white audiences don’t and won’t get his films, which aren’t made to submit to the dominant white gaze. Those white viewers who think that the movie is supposed to be a clear history lesson, an anti-racist pill easy to swallow, who think that just seeing this movie is enough to make them “woke,” who think that they are supposed to identify with the main character (like David Duke does, because his voice can pass as white), who think that this film, like the rest of America, is *for them*—well, I think they have missed the point, even if they have heard the call. For here is a movie that offers no easy conclusion or tightly tied final bow, but which, in its final frames, demands action, a movie that exists outside the theater even more than it does on the screen itself.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Sorry to Bother You, 2018 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

To the chagrin of its critics—who seem to think that (some sort of idealized) politics-writ-large requires the seriousness of realism, whatever the utter ridiculousness and absurdity of our actual social era—this is truly a sui generis work of equal parts anger and hope, a magic realist embodiement of Marx’s famous witticism that history occurs “first as tragedy, then as farce.” In his brilliant debut, rapper-cum-director Boots Riley exposes the tragedy of our political moment, the exploitation of the American workforce and the double consciousness demanded by racist institutions, by making a farce of late capitalism, mocking the vulgarity of the wealthy with the bawdy strokes of broad comedy. If it seems unfocused, it’s because our era is so widely awful as to need a scattershot sort of satire; if it seems weird, it’s because this moment in our history is itself run through with unstable contradictions; if it seems manic, it’s because the movie merely is responding to and reflecting manic times.

“Sorry to Bother You” is not just meaninglessly repeated catchphrase of telemarketers at the end of their rope, as alienated from their work as they are from the prey on the other end of the line. Beyond that, it is also a call to wake up from the peaceful, easy false consciousness of capitalist ideology (hence the tagline, “Destiny is Calling,” which recalls the hopeful determinism of historical materialism). It is a call to cast aside the unreal excess and benefits afforded to the small portion of winners under capitalism—invariably white sociopaths, willing to overlook the suffering of the masses that they themselves cause—and to take up and link arms instead with the proletariat.

Because the film functions like a wake up call for the sleeping giant of the general populace, it inherently will make its viewers uneasy: There is no option to simply sit back and relax and watch the events on screen unfold, for the movie demands action of you, implicating every viewer either in a system of oppression or a movement of revolt—where do you stand? how will you answer this call? This is part of what makes the film so difficult to classify, what makes its postmodern genre of strange magic realist satire hard to digest for some critics. At every stage, “Sorry to Bother You” resists Hollywood’s standard humanist tropes and narrative structure, refusing to make compromises with the familiar filmic fantasy of happy endings for messianic heroes. It is that rarest of birds, a work of art that bastardizes and weaponizes the aestheticization of politics, turning the tools of fascists and neoliberals against their own power structures.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Oleanna, 1994 – ★★½ [Movie Log]

Cinematically, what appears on screen is stilted, confused, and lackluster, a visually indolent experience in a single monotonous setting filled with contrived dialogue expressed colorlessly and unconvincingly. That’s unfortunate, too, because the text of the drama itself is extremely provocative, intellectually stimulating, frustrating in its ambiguity and angry in its urgency. It’s as little wonder that the play caused such an uproar when it premiered as it is that this film adaptation—ripe for a remake in the current political climate—came and went without stirring the same level of controversy.

If the film is any indication whatsoever, the original play must really have been an event to see, something that roused extreme emotions, vastly opposed opinions, and addressed an increasingly important and relevant and necessary topic. It’s truly a shame that whatever dialogues and debates the play spurred at the time had ultimately so little material impact—but then again, part of that problem lies with the ambivalence of the text, which takes no side, presents two opposed positions in the extreme, taken to points of absurdity, making its two characters into straw(o)men to heighten the stakes and idealize their differences. In a sense, these are mythical characters, utterly inhuman and unreal, like figures from a Jacobean morality play or classical parable, which works to isolate and emphasize the underlying differend that puts them at such violent odds. Hence the tagline of the movie: “Whatever side you take, you’re wrong”—the movie doesn’t necessarily seek to answer the problem so much as it hopes to stoke a much needed debate.

Both of these characters are reactionary and invested in maintaining, to different degrees and different ends, the institutional structures that Mamet no doubt hopes to ultimately criticize: On the one hand, the professor seeks the power of tenure; on the other hand, the student seeks the protection of the institution—neither really seeks to dismantle or deconstruct (in the Derridean sense) the networks of pedagogical power, but instead to mold the educational structure to their own ends, to replicate or reverse (without upending) preexisting power dynamics. The point that Mamet seems then to be making—to quote another part of the tagline from the film: “Teacher and student or man and woman, how do you draw the line?”—is a call not for understanding or reconciliation, but for reimagining power dynamics beyond the traditional good and evil, right and wrong, powerful and prey dichotomies of power.

In the impossible extremity of their positions—the paradigmatically chauvinist pedant versus the stereotypically misandric feminist—it is precisely the vehemence of their polarity, the vastness of their divergence, the false and mythical purity of their dichotomy that illustrates why such binaries are absurd and function finally to strengthen institutional power rather than upset it. In their (often righteous and sometimes merited) anger, the dogmatist and radical don’t just reify the standard binary line that undergirds basic power structures, but ultimately (and I think what matters most) cross moral lines themselves, turning vengefully violent and repressive. It is these latter lines that I think matter the most, such that the point is not to draw dividing lines but to not cross them, to not assert power or reproduce its dynamics.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Finding Forrester, 2000 – ★★★★½ [Movie Log]

Movies about writers are notoriously hard to do, since writing by its nature is not cinematic. “Finding Forrester” evades that problem by giving us a man who wrote one good novel a long time ago, and now writes no more: He has turned into a recluse afraid to leave his own apartment. There are shades here of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” as Connery peaks out from behind a massive pair of binoculars, otherwise used for birding, watching for rare specimens perched to take flight—Brown’s character, then, is like a black swan, thought impossible by the stuffy pendant (F. Murray Abraham in perfect form), but a reality waiting to be discovered in a land untrodden.

What makes one a writer? This is the driving question at the heart of the movie: Is it sheer talent, like Brown’s character at the film’s beginning? Is it a matter of mastering the rules, as Abraham’s character has done? Is it about asking the right questions and being a good observer, like Connery’s character, who has gone some 50 years without writing another novel? In the end, what the movie suggests is that the genius of writing cannot be identified with a single individual, but is in truth about the network of relations a person cultivates: Having lost his family, Forrester can write again once he has formed new friendships; Jamal grows as a writer, allowing his work to be exposed, once he has found himself among peers and powers that support his talent; while Crawford will never be the writer he wants to be because he intellectually isolates himself, narcissistically imagines himself as above the fray of his students.

How telling it is, then, that Brown’s bedside table and Connery’s apartment are overflowing with classic works of literature, while Abraham’s classroom is watched over by the portraits of these great (dead white male) authors? Writing relies on and rallies signifying networks—the present review, for example, begins with words taken from Ebert’s 2000 essay on the movie—and this is what Abraham’s character fundamentally fails to understand. Jamal’s writing succeeds because it exists in conversation with the work of others—he is even faulted and penalized for this—while Crawford treats those texts as petrified, statuesque, unable to enter into dialogue, words to quote and criticize. Surrounded by extreme wealth and power, the originality of writing has everything to do with the monetary and copyright value it produces, and not the unique genius and voice it can express.

Crawford’s failure here is the failure of inflated certainty that arises from an apotheosis of egoistic mastery; Abraham’s character presumes that he knows what writing is, a presumption that reifies writing and makes it into a commodifiable Thing, rather than understanding it to be a practice, an unfolding that exists only as a becoming. Hence he thinks he can locate (that is to say, “find”) writing, which does not move and does not change: Crawford believes he can remove Jamal from his creative environs, from Forrester’s casual apartment to his own stuffy office, and still produce the same effects, because what matters is the man (the gender matters) and not the network and emplacement. No wonder, then, that Crawford completely misses Jamal’s writing potential, for he is like the hobbyist who believes the only place to watch for birds is in the park. In this view, it is as easy to overlook the possibility that creative genius could arise in the Bronx as it is easy to ignore the irony that this century’s “Great American Novel” was written by a Scotsman.

And here is the greatest differend (to borrow Lyotard’s term) of the film, around which its central division circles: On the one hand is an attitude best summarized by Joyce—”the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring”—while on the other hand is an attitude, not the opposite but from a reverse angle, exemplified by Lacan calling the author “only a pen-pusher.” What matters to Crawford is the biography of an author, a reading of the text as a keyhole into a person’s private life, a philosophy shared by so many critics (“what is the writer *really* trying to say?”) that it has sent Forrester into hiding; for Forrester, however, what matters about an author’s life is its potential for exciting creativity and genius, not biographical facts, but how experience can be transformed and sublimated into art. To do so is to practice the work of writing.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan