Monday, November 30, 2009

Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Modern Job

by Brandon Colvin

Despite being the least stylized, most aesthetically conventional example of the Coen Bros’ auteur-tastic cinema, A Serious Man is so damn unusual that it might be their most radical, difficult film.

Pondering the film’s (intentionally) obscure narrative and thematic intricacies is akin to stretching one’s brain around an elusive (meta-) physical paradox, encouraging what could be called a “quantum” viewing experience, one hinging upon the fundamental principle of underlying uncertainty—the principle that defines the existence of A Serious Man’s pathetically unfortunate protagonist, Jewish mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Overcast with a complex and complicating membrane of impenetrable spiritual and existential malaise, A Serious Man narrates Larry’s Job-like downward spiral with exceeding intrigue while being more than a little disjointed. As one might observe upon viewing A Serious Man, however, the film’s puzzling disunity may be the Coens’ exact intention, the narrative fulfillment of physics theories and mathematics proofs that suggest our universe is indomitably chaotic.

Larry, an archetypical conventional mensch plodding through a banal existence in suburban Minneapolis c. 1970, finds himself in the midst of a vertiginous descent into an inescapable abyss of mind-crippling, heartbreaking, soul-crushing inscrutability. Beset by fate or randomness or Hashem (God) or nothingness, Larry suffers a series of mounting crises, from the dissolution of his marriage to the bizarre death of his wife’s (Sari Lennick) manstress to his extortion at the hands of frustrated Korean student (David Kang) to his accruing debt and failing attempt to earn tenure.

Attempting to model himself after and seek advice from the “serious” Jews around him—including a slew of ineffectual rabbis, uncaring community leaders, and his wife’s self-important lover, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed)—Larry probes the (non?)meaning behind his misery, fruitlessly investigating the confusing collision of religious enigma and cryptic mathematics showering ambiguous shrapnel all around him. Though his questioning is undertaken in earnest, it is also darkly hilarious—ironic and biting in its unrelenting honesty, sharply devastating in its unsolvable futility. Larry’s tribulations are, like A Serious Man as a whole, tonally paradoxical, both emotionally-lacerating and cackle-inducing—as ambivalent as the uncertain universe its characters populate.

This elusive universe is best interpreted according to two complimentary quantum concepts discussed by Larry in his lectures: the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The first is a thought experiment revolving around the indeterminacy of atomic particles, specifically the unpredictability of radioactive decay. Schrödinger explained that if a cat were locked in a box with a device that released a tiny amount of radioactive substance that could cause atomic decay (but might not), after a certain amount of time, the cat could theoretically be either alive or dead. Because the decay is unpredictable, one could not know for certain. In this instance, with the box locked, the cat is both alive and dead, demonstrating the quantum concept of superposition—the overlapping coexistence of multiple outcomes/realities—in concrete, macrocosmic terms. The cat is not either living or dead; it is both. That is, until one opens the box.

There are, however, some boxes that cannot be opened. Their contents remain immeasurable. Larry’s trials constitute such a “box,” and, as Heisenberg suggests in his uncertainty principle, as he seems to begin comprehending some aspects of the universe, the others retreat from his grasp with ferocious intensity. Nothing can be pinned down for sure. It is always shifting, always indefinite. This is the reality of A Serious Man.

The film’s bizarre prologue establishes the nature of the narrative’s ambiguous circumstances before Larry even appears onscreen. A 15-minute Jewish parable taking place in 19th Century Poland, A Serious Man’s introductory scene depicts the eerie experience a curmudgeonly couple has with what is either a man or a dybbuk (demon) masquerading as a man. The husband (Allen Lewis Rickman), who has offered the entity (Fyvush Finkel) entrance into his home in order to repay its previous kindness, believes it to be human, a local acquaintance. His wife (Yelena Shmulenson) is convinced it is a dybbuk, citing evidence that the man in question is three years dead. The husband remains skeptical.

As they debate, the entity remains seated in a chair, until, suddenly, the wife stabs it through the heart with an ice pick. The entity’s reaction is curious. At first, it does not bleed; it merely chuckles. The wife notes the lack of blood. Suddenly, red begins staining the entity’s shirt, rippling out from the wound. Befuddled and bleeding, the entity leaves into the snowy cold, remarking that it knows when it is unwelcome. Horrified, the husband worries what will happen when the body is found in the morning, feeling his wife has committed murder. Confidently, the wife remarks that she has merely forced evil out of the house. The entity is presented as both man and dybbuk. The Coens leave the box unopened.

Despite a few clichéd moments, a couple of bland dream sequences, and a handful of unnecessarily canted angles, A Serious Man proves to be an intriguing entry in the Coens’ oeuvre. Like Job, Larry and the viewer never receive an answer to the persistent “why?”

All that is displayed in the awesomely destructive power of the universe/Hashem/uncertainty, epitomized by A Serious Man’s stunningly unexpected conclusion. Whether one is a pot-smoking teenager, like Larry’s good-for-nothing son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), or a whacked-out numerological quack, like Larry’s brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), the universe remains incalculable, even with the assistance of Danny’s marijuana or Arthur’s garbled prophecy, The Mentaculus.

No solution is stable. Threats await in the form of racist neighbors, bullies, unfulfilled sexual liaisons, car crashes, subscription scams, lawsuits, anonymous defamatory letters, natural disasters, and x-ray results only delivered in-person. Though Larry is “trying to be” a serious man, he is left dangling over an abyss of obscurity, just like the viewer. There is only uncertainty; and, perhaps, even that is uncertain.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Supernatural Anti-Sex Education

by Chuck Williamson

A crude amalgamation of supernatural soap opera, neo-gothic rape fantasy, and fundamentalist abstinence parable, the Twilight franchise has continually been the source of mixed cultural signals. New Moon, the second installment of this inexplicable pop-cultural phenomenon, is no exception, tempering its chaste adolescent romanticism—full of love triangles, teen angst, and pseudo-poetic exposition—with sadomasochistic kink, coded threats of sexual violence, and authoritarian alpha male posturing. But don’t get too hot and bothered. Directed by certified franchise killer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass), New Moon recasts its supernatural boyfriend bugaboos as fundamentalist gospel, dishing out the secularized death/sex abstinence tropes in LiveJournal-lite soundbites. “Every second that I’m with you is about restraint,” predatorial dreamboat Edward Cullen (Robert Pattison) exposits, “And you’re too fragile.” For Bella (Kristen Stewart), the central dilemma is simple: keep your damn pants on or you’ll be the main course of a vampire buffet (a sexy buffet). A tangled knot of sub/dom discourses intermixed with reactionary anti-sex rhetoric, New Moon acknowledges female erotic pleasures only to disavow them, propping up its phantasmagoric romance on a broken edifice.

But none of this is particularly new. Designed to trigger a specific spectatorial response, the audible gasping, squealing, and cooing of an obsessive fanbase, New Moon hashes out the same promise of female pleasure offered in the films of Rudolph Valentino. Marketed by studios as the silent screen’s “great Latin lover,” Valentino occupied the dual position of erotic spectacle and sexual aggressor. The Sheik (1921), for instance, spiced up its orientalist fantasy by casting Valentino as the object of erotic exhibition, a preternaturally handsome serial rapist who casts bedeviling looks at the shrieking female fanbase. And like the sparkle-vamps and teen-wolves of New Moon, Valentino narrowed the gap between discipline and pleasure, stomping toward his resistant female prey for a little nonconsensual, fade-to-black hanky-panky (that, as the next scene suggests, she really enjoyed). This sadomasochistic quality is made even more transparent in The Eagle (1925), where Valentino, decked out in BDSM fetish gear, gestures at his female detainee with a riding whip—before his code against flogging women forces him to verbally humiliate her instead (predictably, she kinda digs it). But this authoritarian attitude eventually subsides when true love stops Valentino right in his tracks, sending him into a euphoric paralysis that only the look of his lover (and that fanatical female audience) might break.

As in the films of Valentino, New Moon dispenses its predictable, paper-thin plot in dull, expository chunks, focusing more of its energies on erotic spectacle. Romantic interludes, punctuated by snatches of purple prose and forced exposition, are staged as a slipshod mix gothic chamber drama and Tiger Beat photo spread, replaying the same one note ad nauseam as the camera doles out the two-tons-of-hunk money shots. Ooooh, mantastic! Nearly every “big moment” between Bella and Edward is preceded and/or followed by forward-tracking shots and slo-mo effects designed to accentuate our fang-faced beau’s super-sexy-cool mystique. Pattinson’s performance intermixes Byronic moping with teen idol modeling, and the camera eagerly frames his body in a staged series of theatrical tableaus that could double as a centerfold (check out the scene where he takes off his shirt—raaawr!). When the focus shifts from Edward to Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the framing becomes less affected and more visceral; the camera lingers on his semi-nude body and details its every inch in fetishistic detail (the scene where he lopes about shirtless through the rain sends all the prepubescent hearts aflutter). While these sequences momentarily interrupt narrative progression (particularly since the noise of screaming tweens drowns out most of the dialogue), a bit of sadomasochistic lip service always snaps us back in shape. Like Valentino, the New Moon boys have to negotiate between their compromised (possibly effeminized) statuses as erotic objects and narrative roles as authoritarian bullies. Behind the veiled threats of sexual abuse and domestic violence (of which we see physical evidence) lurk a desire to dominate their twitchy, blank slate love interest who, by the time she becomes the world’s most inert adrenaline junkie, seems to get off on victimhood.

But even Valentino, for all his authrotiarian-meets-androgyne posturing, never wasted his time with promise rings and monologues about self-control. The paranormal heartthrobs of New Moon might steal a page or two from the Valentino handbook, but their neutered, anti-pleasure waffling makes them far less interesting as cinematic sex symbols. Like many of Valentino’s films, New Moon is a bloated, lifeless bore that succeeds only as female fantasy. But don’t let the film’s forced references to Romeo & Juliet fool you—its low-stakes love story is about as convincing as a stop-motion animation made out of crayons, poster board, and teen mag cut-outs. Pattinson and Stewart stumble into frame like dead-eyed somnambulists, regurgitating their prosaic, pseudo-poetic dialogue in bullet-points—and even though this limp spectacle does nothing for outsiders, the Twi-hards go wild. Carrying on the torch passed on from the Cult of Valentino, Teams Edward and Jacob seem to care less about the film’s quality than the promise of fantasy role-play, where forbidden pleasures can be indulged through the act of film spectatorship.

But New Moon eleventh-hour disavowal of female pleasure complicates this spectatorial engagement. As the film’s pro-abstinence subtext culminates in a full-on marriage proposal (and the crowd goes wild!), Bella sinks further and further into the backdrop and becomes little more than a prop used by Edward to prove his virtue and integrity. So much for sexual gratification — to quote Beyonce, “If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Say what you will about Valentino, but at least he followed through with his promise of torrid and illicit pleasure. New Moon, on the other hand, goes from female-focused smut to after-school special.

But what the hell do I know? This movie was not made for me.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Disaster (On Your Mind)

by James Hansen

Pull back the knives! Richard Kelly, known in certain circles as THE GREATEST DIRECTOR OF ALL TIME and in others as an inexplicably successful hack job, is back again with The Box, which should be known as the third film in Richard Kelly’s Melodramatic Menage-A-Trois Sci-fi Extravaganza. With just three movies under his directorial belt, Kelly is three for three in tackling the end of the world by looking at the people who can save us, the people who can’t, and the people who contemplate disaster on the sidelines. While Donnie Darko’s parabolic singularity found new hope, Southland Tales (and The Box) illustrate a collaborative mish-mash of a society-enabling snap-crackle-apocalypse that swarms the earth faster than a D-list celebrity porn star flashes her box on reality TV.

If both Southland Tales and The Box ultimately suffer from an overly explanatory mode of address – Southland Tales in its final third, The Box a little more consistently throughout – it is only because Kelly actually has something to say. Perhaps movies with musical interludes and a Swimming Pool Transit Authority have no right to feature finales that drench overwhelming seriousness onto thin moral lessons, but Kelly seems to disagree. As the dead man standing on the corner or the boy looking through a window, Kelly makes it clear that the world is a vampire sent to drain the better homes and gardens of an objectivist mass culture without rationality.

The Box, based on the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, delivers an impending sense of dread throughout its opening half when the recently deformed Arlington Steward offers a box with a bright red button to Norma and Arthur Lewis. Norma, a prep school teacher seen teaching Sartre’s No Exit before being asked to display her deformed foot to the class, and Arthur, a wanna-be NASA astronaut who flunks his psych exams, have a moral dilemma placed on their dining room table like it was Thanksgiving dinner. Push the button, get a million dollars and someone in the world will die. Can hell be other people if you don’t know the other people? Once the button is pushed – hence the box opened – hell remains broken loose for the entirety of the second half, as the conspiracy and trappings of the box and its associative systems becomes entangled with what seems to be entire human race.

Starting with gobbly-gook water portals run by “The People Who Control The Lightning,” Steward’s associates, looking for some good in the world, run morality tests with the box and stand by perpetuating the cycle until the humans have literally killed each other. Nothing subtle here, especially in the screenplay (“This is purgatory, isn’t it!!??”), but the moral quandary isn’t something to toss off so easily. The digital cinematography, operating as an hourglass peering into a forgotten, immoral world, echoes the period distinction, yet also allows for a hallucinogenic time warp (almost literally), which brings the distinctly past moments into the hyper-modern foray of a chaotic, uroborotic society seen in Southland Tales.

If The Box is less assured than Southland Tales – and I’m not sure it is – it may be that Kelly, for the first time, is dealing with real people and the morality that operates in a supposedly normally functioning society. (Donnie Darko does this to some extent, but its prophetization makes it troubling; Southland Tales may highlight a post-world world overtaken by modern trends and obsessions, but its deep connections to satire position it an a different context). This is a both a strength and a weakness, as Kelly tries to keeps it “real” but leaves his characters a bit too broad, which has resulted in some of the backlash, not to mention that this movie is actually bat-shit crazy making any goal of realism pretty far off target. But, then again, Kelly is a pimp… and pimps don’t commit suicide. Kelly is pushing the viewer against the grain (and himself against the critical community), for better or worse, but it’s all to keep us, and himself, alive. It’s another grand swing from Kelly who, for the third time, might be biting off more than he can chew. But he’s still biting...hard.
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