The Stranger, 1946 – ★★★★½ [Movie Log]

With his mastery of chiaroscuro lighting, sharp angles, and self-destructive characters, Welles seems predisposed to film noir—and what better or darker subject suited to such a mis en scene than the pursuit of a Nazi war criminal, architect of the Holocaust? In shooting this story as a film noir, so soon after WWII and the initial exposure of Nazi genocide, when the general public was still in shocked disbelief, Welles tosses out many of the thematic tropes we associate with the genre—the femme fatale, the pulp criminality, the narration and flashback devises—instead depicting a far seedier, lawless, nightmarish world, hidden not in the dark but by the light. There are obviously long and bright flashes here of his innate genius for cinematic storytelling, such as the opening sequence which seems to foreshadow the shadows of THE THIRD MAN, yet Welles nonetheless is working within the confines of not only a genre that he subverts brilliantly, but within a studio system that resisted without end his rebellions, producing a bumbling version of the film that ultimately only hints, in fits and starts, at what Welles unbound might have made.

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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The Lawnmower Man, 1992 – ★★ [Movie Log]

For a story about a mentally handicapped man growing exponentially intelligent, the movie itself becomes increasingly stupid as it fumbles along incompetently. At bottom, the film treats virtual reality—which is really just code here for “newfangled CGI”—and, by metonymic connection, advanced intelligence itself, as a danger to humanity (and all this built upon the backs of animal testing, mind you: Others all the way down once more). Under threat are core values presumed by traditional Enlightenment values like empathy—the kindest character in the film, the titular Jobe, turned into the cruelest—and notions of autonomy—Jobe made dependent on technology, unable to care for himself. It would be easy to deconstruct this ambivalence toward digitality, technology presented as both a means of escape from the torturous confines of the brute body—Jobe, forced into manual labor, flogged by cruel authority, finally uploads his consciousness into the computer itself to become his own master—while simultaneously a mode of our own enslavement—made the center of his virtual universe, Jobe seems awfully like the genie returned to his cramped lamp, another magic object of enlightenment and bondage all at once.

More interesting, however, than these standard sci-fi tropes and computer anxieties—surprising in only how terribly they have been translated to the screen—is the utterly bonkers religious subtext of the film. In a pivotal scene, Brosnan (the mad scientist) says to Fahey (his Frankenstein-esque creation) that Christ-like delusions are a sure sign of madness—no doubt an insanity that runs throughout this strange pseudo-creature feature—to which Fahey responds aspirantly: “Cyberchrist” (and, of course, the film’s original and better title was “Cybergod”). Except, having been brought up by an abusive and manipulative Catholic priest, when the slow Jobe transcends his earthly form to approach digital divinity, he seems more an antichrist than a cyberchrist, more in like with the dispassionate ruthlessness of the Old Testament than the simple kindness of the New. Nonetheless, what is so fascinating (if poorly portrayed) about the metaphor is the suggestion that in the absence of God, missing from the Church and unmentioned by science, technology and virtuality will fill the vacuum, offering up a new iGod, a Moloch of the machine. In a sense, the movie asks: If the biblical Job had had a computer or if he had been on Twitter, would he have suffered so silently, would he have become so pious, or would he have posted incessantly, joined some incel forum, and fooled himself with digital delusions of grandeur?

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

High Noon, 1952 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

At the time of its release, HIGH NOON was reviled both by chauvinist nationalists who thought it (rightly) to be allegory against McCarthyism and the blacklisting of Hollywood leftists, a story of a lone lawman sticking to his guns despite the rejection of his peers, as well as by actual Soviet communists who saw the film as a celebration of the individual over community. The film was decried by critics, filmmakers, and John Wayne himself as antithetical to the American ideals of classical westerns, yet nonetheless won numerous awards and set the template for the cynical post-Westerns that would follow. In the decades that followed, it was a favorite of politicians as ostensibly diverse as Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, the movie most often screened in the White House, an outline of stoic morality, of staunch heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, of personal sacrifice and social obligation, but devoid enough of any explicit principle that the film could be appropriated by diverse ideologies across the political spectrum—even today, Cooper might just as easily stand in for Robert Mueller as he could Donald Trump, depending on how insane of an ideologue you might be.

In a deeply uncanny way, then, HIGH NOON is both of its time and utterly timeless. It is a clear allegory for the political paranoia and cowardice of its era, a reflection of and on the dominant genre(s) of classical Hollywood—shot like a noir, set as a Western—straddling the star system of silent films (Cooper) and the new icons to come (Kelly). Yet there is nonetheless something that remains modern about the film, its diverse heroines far better suited to today than to the 1950s, its moral standpoint as true for Athens (which the movie makes explicit) as it is for America, set at the start of the Civil War, at the intersection of America’s temporal disjuncture, speaking to a divide between neighbor and self at the crux of our national soul. This is all without even mentioning the ingenious temporal mechanic of the film, a tense and daring constraint that few films have tried to repeat, and none with as much skill.

Crafted in the starkest black and white, its score pulsating and cool, its climax practically a callback to Cooper’s silent origins, the movie is engaging and challenging in equal measure. And at heart, HIGH NOON is less a western than it is a formalist morality play, less about standing up to oppression than standing up for what one believes in, because standing up is what it means to be (a bipedal) human. Even Kelly’s Quaker pacifist, who takes her own turn behind the barrel of a gun, makes this point clear, not because she abandons her convictions, but because she keeps her vow, her promise to stand by the other, which is precisely what Cooper does and the cowardly townfolk fail to do. This is hardly a Western about machismo—Bridges’ character is resolutely rejected on that front, and the women characters are stronger than almost any man—nor about the moral purity of the American soul, Cooper family tossing his badge to the ground at the film’s conclusion, the rejected rejecting those he protected, wondering if it was worth it in the end; nor does this slip so easily in to simple cynicism, painting the hero instead in the most Kantian of colors of non-pathological and self-sacrificing duty.

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

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, 1984 – ★★★½ [Movie Log]

Listen here, Buckaroo: In one sense, it is a film profoundly (and to its own detriment) ahead of its time, a PoMo sci-fi satire and comic book comedy with the screwball wit of something like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY or a Verhoeven film but without half the budget. The humor is as surreal as the imagery, broad slapstick mixed with early nerd in-jokes, an everything-goes absurdism fit for the directionless void of space. The aliens anticipate the body-horror body-snatchers of Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, the naturalistic and nonlinear spaceships evoke the bioships of FARSCAPE, the creative universe seemingly as expansive (if ultimately undeveloped) as the MCU. With the popped collars and wide lapels and massive shoulders, Buckaroo and his crew may look utterly of the 80s, but its an 80s of our future, the retro-80s as we imagine it in so man nostalgic properties made today.

Yet in another sense, the movie calls back to the golden era adventure stories of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, in the vein and hot off the heels of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. As his name suggests, Buckaroo is a classic swashbuckling hero ripped straight from funny page serials; and like those comic strips, the audience gets dropped into the universe in medias res, the existence of its labyrinthine mythology both clearly evident while remaining entirely unclear. Buckaroo answers the question: What would a Renaissance Man look like in the modern postindustrial era? Replace da Vinci’s realist painting with Buckaroo’s sincere, post-ironic crooning; make him a rocket engineer rather than the speculative inventor of the helicopter; toss in the spectacle of Hollywood celebrity, make him a secret agent, a doctor, a 14-year-old boys dream—what else is any Uomo Universale except that?

Imagining forward in time while looking to the past for its inspiration, the problem with the movie is in the final analysis how it fails to capture the present. Oh, certainly the body snatching motif—an echo of director Richter’s screenplay for the ’78 remake of that film—speaks to something of the public’s anti-Russian paranoia (the bad guys are “red” aliens, after all), but by and large the film seems uninterested in anything Earthly and human and here and now. That includes, fwiw, the film’s inability to remain coherent for longer than ten minutes at a time, tilt-and-whirling from one incredible vignette to the next, none of it tying very well together. The film wants to take you through a host of brilliant ideas and places without spending enough time to develop one, let alone to let its characters live and breathe and grow. At best, you have to sit back and enjoy the ride, accepting that wherever the movie takes you and wherever you go, there you are.

Just so long as it leaves me in the end with those incredible closing credits, which will leave the best of tastes in your mouth.

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

Impromptu, 1991 – ★★★½ [Movie Log]

An impromptu, Chopin—aptly played by a young Hugh Grant, holding his own in the overpowering presence of the Judy Davis as the scandalous but fierce George Sand—should conceal its careful clockwork artistry so as to appear utterly spontaneous, unpredictable, and lively. It’s a shame, then, that IMPROMPTU feels so often so forced, so rarely alive with the genius the film is filled with, more like a meticulous and thoughtful exercise for nimble fingers than a performance stoked by a spark of genius. The elements and personages are here for something much more passionate and moving, truly great painters (Delacroix) and writers (Sand/Alfred du Musset) and composers (Chopin/Liszt) populating every scene, but the film too easily uses their talent to dress up its love story rather than dwelling on their art, their creativity, their aesthetic struggle in any significant way. The movie is rather explicit that only Chopin’s work matters here, even as the frail pianist himself is secondary to Sand, her own novels quickly cast aside and her renegade habiliments and habits neutered. So while this is a story that belongs to Sand—a life likely more interesting than any of the rest of her circle—it is Chopin who, by virtue of his immortal genius, becomes the star: A strange sort of cinematic fugue that unfortunately runs counter to the simplicity and clarity of Chopin’s actual musicality.

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

Immortal Beloved, 1994 – ★★★ [Movie Log]

In the way that Beethoven himself bridged the classical and romantic periods, the film wants to be a mixture of CITIZEN KANE and AMADEUS, retelling a monumental life through melancholic flashbacks and the mystery of an empty signifier. The idea is a worthwhile one, if much too conventional for its utterly original and avant-garde subject matter—something the movie sorely misunderstands, giving little weight to the specificity of the composer’s genius, tone-deafly treating him merely like a lightening rod for romantic passion—but the execution here is as flat as a second-rate soprano, lacking in the verve or audacity of its models, substituting pathos for authentic artistry. Anton Schindler (played by Jeroen Krabbé), the film’s framing narrator, is too blank to serve as a Salieri, and Beethoven’s string of mistresses too sycophantic to provide the complexity of Kane’s memorializers—the result, ironically enough, is rather monotone and cold.

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

First Reformed, 2017 – ★★★★½ [Movie Log]

Revolving around many of the themes that have characterized his career—subjective desolation, ontological isolation, mental dissolution, masculine despair and impotency—Schrader’s film is an austere, bleak, harrowing confrontation with the God(lessness) of the Anthropocene. Like the restrained existentialist works of the mid-century European art house that Schrader is so clearly indebted to here, the film is less about a clear interpersonal narrative arc than it is a series of piercing questions and intellectual challenges. Is there a place for divinity when we have razed Her creation, pillaged Her earth and polluted Her heavens and plundered Her seas, to make room for human bloat? What is the status of God in a geological epoch when humanity, our machines and machinations, now has the power to cause—though not the power to stop—mass extinction and global catastrophe? Will God forgive us for how we have spoiled the gift of life, or should God forgive us at all—if we have made this Eden into Hell, do we not deserve it?

For all the explicit ways that this is a study of spiritual waning and the degradation of divinity in these modern times, it is also a film about mankind’s new god, a god even older and more violent than that of the Old Testament: Mammon, who Marx called Kapital. Standing in the wreckage of a once beautiful harbor right after dusk—or is it just before dawn?—where earlier he helped scatter the remains of an environmental activist who, in his hopelessness, had committed himself to Dante’s dark wood of the suicides, Hawke’s Rev. Toller practically whispers: “Every act of preservation is an act of creation. Everything preserved renews creation. It’s how we participate in creation.”

Faced with these lines, which reverse Picasso’s famous dictum that “every act of creation is first an act of destruction,” I cannot help but remember a scene from another film I recently watched, Zizek’s guide to ideology. In that film, the Slovene philosopher stands in a massive airplane graveyard in the middle of the African desert, our original Eden now laid waste to, and speaks of the incredible amount of waste produced by Capitalism, and how we must learn to live with (and not abandon or ignore or repress) that detritus, the inevitable rejected residue of perpetual invention for the sake of its own survival, not ours. “Everything preserved renews creation”—we must learn to live WITH our refuse, not refuse it; we must learn how to recycle it and reuse it, how to love creation even in its inhuman excess, how to find hope in the face of our own destruction (the destruction we cause, the destruction we experience), hope when the face of God has turned away from us.

It is a unforgiving film about desolate times, which takes an unflinching look at the heart of human heartlessness and devastation and misery—and yet (those beautiful words of hope itself) there is something undeniably beautiful about this starkness. The cinematography, shot in an unnerving aspect ratio that simultaneously calls back to an older era of filmmaking and contemporary Instagram photography, is slow and sublime. The screenplay is unsurprisingly musical and poetic, the score simple yet agonizing, the direction somehow delicate even when handling these hefty themes. But it is Hawke’s performance, muted but affective, that elevates the film and keeps us listening to the words, listening for the voice of God, a listening that is a type of praying in 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