Monday, November 19, 2007

The Cinephiliac Flaneur; or, how I stumbled upon the Batman Set

"The moving eye in the moving body must work to pick out and interpret a variety of changing, juxtaposed orders, like the shifting configurations of a Victor Vasarely painting."

--Learning From Las Vegas (1972)




Last July, Scott and I were wandering through the Loop in Chicago, seeing the sights and waiting for Tim and his wife to arrive. We stumbled upon a film set--it wasn't the first time I had done so downtown, but it was the first time I immediately recognized the film being shot--The Dark Knight (2008).

It appears to have been the set-up for the scene where Joker (Heath Ledger) is sprung from a prison truck by his henchman (look closely and you'll see the bullet holes and cracked windshields).
These probably won't be the most interesting of images to most fans, as there are quite a few images from the new Batman movie online. But I post them because I feel it somehow speaks to my larger project on the cinephiliac practice of everyday life, which I have discussed now twice.


There is something appropriately symbolic about just wandering the city, as a cinephile, with a fellow cinephile, and stumbling upon a set--a practice intensified by an overt cinematic presence, leaving its trace in photos and now blog posts. As it had been to stumble upon the old Punch Drunk Love location about a week later in Hawaii.
Unfortunately, the coolest image from The Dark Knight set was that of a crashed police helicopter in the middle of the street later that night. Unfortunately, we were in a car then, driving too fast to get a snapshot. If only then we could have been still wandering aimlessly.

peace,
js

Monday, July 16, 2007

1408: Ghost Stories and the Value of Genre Promiscuity

I haven't blogged on films much this summer because I haven't really had the time. But I also haven't blogged much because I didn't see much all summer that really provoked me into wanting to write. Some things intrigued me about Ratatouille , but I feel like Ted Pigeon already pretty much nailed my thoughts regarding that film on the head (I'm also curious to see if he can continue his amazingly prolific blog production).

But I was interested in 1408--Mikael Håfström's follow-up to the horrendous, Derailed (2005). The two films do not seem on the surface to have much in common, other than--apparently--Håfström sees the American urban hotel as the site of all evil.

But I was interested in 1408 because I love ghost movies, almost more than any other single genre, and there have been so few of late--good or otherwise.

1408 starts out very strong--a great sequence in a book shop, where Mike Enslin (John Cusack) signs copies of his latest book for an equally bored crowd, as though no one really believes the ghost stuff. Its a nice variation on the skeptic-as-protagonist set-up.

Then there's another seductive scene when Mike first arrives at the hotel, and the manager (Samuel L. Jackson) warns him not to go into the room. I felt it built the anticipation nicely, as did the long sequence where Mike tries to actually find the room.

Several other devices--such as a "scaredy cat" electrician, and a possessed alarm clock (which works despite being utterly predictable)--ratchet up the tension further.

But then the film hits a wall (literally and figuratively). It doesn't know where it wants to go from there. It doesn't know how to bring everything together towards a satisfying climax--or even a satisfying anti-climax.

It falls back on lifeless psychobabble about relationships with dead daughters and dead fathers. There is some arresting imagery (including suicide jumpers in an effectively eerie bit of post-9/11, post-classical modernist anxiety re: the American Skyscraper).

But most of the would-be scares feel random and arbitrary--as though the filmmakers weren't quite sure what would work, all capped off with a final twist ending that doesn't feel like much of a twist ending.

There are also the requisite false endings prior to that, which I'm sure most people saw coming a mile away. Again, it felt like another attempt to find something to do with a story that it had effectively brought to a certain point, but couldn't sustain.

So, why does such a promising film die out? I think it has something to do with the inherent cliches of the ghost film--how many directions can subtle variations on the exact same plot go?

Are ghost movies, by virtue of their genre, just fatally flawed in their DNA?

Comparing 1408 to The Shining is an obvious one, and has already been worked through several times before--two Stephen King stories about a writer trapped in a haunted building. But the comparison bears repeating.

Why does (in my opinion, of course) The Shining work and 1408 ultimately doesn't? I think there's something to be said about committing to the genre. The Shining never really commits to being a ghost movie (it could mostly be the work of a delusional drunk), and thus can maintain its creepy atmosphere and eerie ambiguity up to the end.

Conversely, 1408 does commit to being a ghost movie, and thus its possibilities for a resolution that isn't just unsatisfying straightforward suddenly feels diminished--you can either kill yourself or burn the building down (or both).

Or it can all be the dream of a dead person. But that twist only works (Carnival of Souls, Sixth Sense) once every couple of decades.

Or worse still (see Dark Castle's films), they actually confront and beat the ghosts face-to-face, as though they were just another embodied antagonist.

But still its not that easy. I want to criticize 1408, but I'm not sure what it could have done right in its second half. If it didn't commit to genre, I'd probably just be as inclined to criticize it for being too much like The Shining. There's only so many times a ghost film can ape that ending, too.

So, again, are haunted house movies just born with that genetic flaw?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

i have not done this before

I picked the name "jamais vu" because I read about it in Chuck Palahniuk's Choke, a book I was reading the summer I first started blogging (2005). Jamais vu is, as the reductive definition usually goes, the opposite of deja vu. Rather than experiencing something for the first time and getting a familiar feeling (deja vu), jamais vu is the feeling of experiencing something for the first time, despite having experienced it before.

Certainly, I knew it was a cool concept when I first started this blog, but I didn't really appreciate how appropriate it would prove to be. I do not think this new version of jamais vu will be like the old one. Even though I may be the only one who notices the differences. Primarily, the new will be different because I've learned a lot about blogging--how to write and how to converse, in a way I was unaware of when I first started.

First-time bloggers always treat the blog like a journal, where they keep long, detailed and even exquisitely argued criticisms and thought pieces. But in the long run, such one way dialogue is unsatisfying.

The second time around, good bloggers realize to hone down their pieces to better fit and flow with the ephemerality of the blogosphere. That said, I do not know if I have the ability to do that, but I do recognize it.