experimental formalism

Favourite Films on Fridays: #42, Memento

How the hell did I get here? It’s thrilling to be tested in this way. The logical evolution of the detective story. Not: can you solve the mystery, but: can you even stand to keep up? At times, Memento really starts to make you feel like Lenny. You, not quite able to follow because the plot is moving backwards too fast; him, not able to remember anything because of his condition… How did I get here? Just about keeping up in the moment, as the plot rattles past, but as you nod along with the dialogue to show you understand, wondering: Where exactly am I now? As the scenes, and the links between them, become less clearly marked, you’re asking yourself a lot of questions: ‘Wait, how did we get here? What am I looking for? How will this scene end?’ By opening with the plot’s conclusion, but obscuring what it means, the film is able to pull you straight into its plot with the first few scenes. Having already won you over, with the clarity of its original scenes and central mystery, Memento begins to blur the lines a little. Eventually, it all gets too much, about three-quarters of the way in. You’re trying to juggle too much. It might be sloppy film-making. It might just be that the experiment, of saying ‘c’mon keep up’ and testing the audience, gets pushed a little too far. The problem with shuffling a plot around, so that each scene comes chronologically directly before the last one, is that it’s easy to be gratuitous. Merely writing something in order and then sliding the pieces around doesn’t work. (Trust me.) It has to be designed that way. Of course, Christopher Nolan is a master craftsman, and a great loss to the world of puzzle games. Memento starts out exceedingly tight, as it lays out its premise on the table. This man can’t remember further back than five minutes ago, and every five-minute scene will take us to the beginning of the last. This isn’t easy to grasp, and so the first hour of scenes are clearly marked at their start and end by contrasting locations, or a key line, anchors as carefully chosen as Inception’s totems. One scene will start in a busy diner and end in the same darkened woman’s bedroom the last scene started in, with Lenny’s anonymous motel room acting as a palette-cleanser. Discussing Memento‘s genius, people tend to talk about the mind-expanding reversed plot. It’s a story of vengeance that opens with the successful killing, and works backwards. But the true brilliance in Memento, what brings everything together, is the one story that runs forward: there are black-and-white scenes interspersed between these backwards scenes. This is Guy Pearce’s Lenny in his motel room – the neutral space of the film – narrating the story of Sammy Jankis, whose amnesiac plight reflects his own. Memento is the kind of perfectly-constructed puzzle that Nolan took to the blockbuster with Inception. But far better: it’s smaller and more personal, and the form is more fitting to the content. This is, after all, the story of a single character with a very particular problem, and about getting the audience inside of his head (as opposed to Inception, which was about getting all of its characters into as many heads as possible). Because Lenny can’t remember more than five minutes back. He’s got a condition… Wait. Have I already told you about it? Memento is here at least partially as a represent of the kind of muscular, intelligent thrillers in my formative film-watching years. The Usual Suspects; Se7en… born out of first viewing a film on this list, #2. Last week’s film, Wristcutters, represents the best of the other side of the family, oversoon by the powerful matriarch of our #1. There’s a family tree in this list, one that will only become clear once it’s all done. Ha, fitting, right?

“You have tried your best to please everyone/But it just isn’t happenin'” – Black Swan

“The Ultimate Girl Film!” cries Cosmo. Black Swan “will lift your heart”! Five stars, Pick Me Up! “Love. Shoes. Glory.” …But that didn’t happen, did it? A companion piece to The Wrestler, replacing the ballet of tights and the ring with …well, ballet. The female yin snuggling into that film’s sweaty masculine yang. Out of context, its individual components – female jealousy between performers, powerful male romantic lead with a French accent, dancing – suggest a film as narrow as that of its twin. It could have been so easily read as a … sigh … ‘chick flick’. But that just doesn’t seem to have happened. Instead, the buzz around Black Swan was tense. People had spoken about coming out shaken, not feeling quite right. When I sat down to watch it, finally, I wasn’t being quite sure what I was about to face. That itself is a fist-in-the-air moment of cinematic triumph. It reminded me that cinema, for me, hasn’t always been quite so safe, so – if I’m being uncharitable – inert an experience as it is now. I used to be, straight-up, a little scared of going to the cinema. We’re not talking about big scary films, here. I mean when I was really young, so largely the family-friendly output of the Disney corporation. It wasn’t the films themselves, it was the unknown, having no idea how I’d feel when I emerged from the dark in two hours’ time. It’s still there, under the surface, and to this day, horror films in cinemas present a boundary to me that, say, an equally scary TV series just doesn’t. One way in Black Swan is kind of a chick flick, actually, is its relationship with horror. It’s a genre which is often ignored in the female-demographic stereotype, but almost all the horror-hounds I know are girls. Obviously, it’s non-traditional as horror film. Black Swanis undeniably, unashamedly Art. It invites you talk about it in terms of technique, how excellent Natalie Portman’s performance is and just how precisely constructed it all is, and puzzle over motivations and meanings. Honestly, it’s hard not to fall into language which might be termed ‘pretentious’, and I can feel my film-critic voice coming on as I type this. Sorry. But it does borrows from the horror genre, using some of its cheap schlocky tricks to make you jump, and diving regularly into body horror. But the film as a horror depends upon expectations, both of the mundane and of high-art, to let all that slip in, under your skin … and then pulls. And so a film which never in a thousand years would announce itself as a horror story leads to everyone talking about how weird and shaken it left them feeling. The Wrestler brought out the weepie in its manliest of settings, tears alongside the sweat and blood. Black Swan finds the horror in a dance movie. But tears? Sweat? This isn’t the film for those, thank-you very much. It’s tight where its older brother was loose; all clean lines, and black and white. The David Bowie to The Wrestler’s Iggy Pop. The film’s world is constructed from blacks and whites: every location emphasises the two colours, and the camera takes the opportunity to drink it all in. Where monochrome wouldn’t be suitable, or believable, the palette is instead drained of colour, shading everything into grey. It’s not colourless in the way Transformers is, or most post-Gears of War shooters are, but in a way that makes the world feel a little anodyne, stiff, and sexless. This is the world of the beginning of the film. Natalie Portman’s Nina is living an enforced childhood, innocent and absent of corruption or sexuality. This absence casts a looming shadow bigger and blacker than any film saturated with depravity and evil. It’s not quite real. Nina’s mother never slips into the clichéd controlling stage-mother trailers suggested, but her motivations are unclear and not wholly pleasant. And it’s from here that the shivers creep in, working their way under your skin. The new colours that seep into the film are attractive, but they’re dangerous. The basic construction of Nina’s life is a tension between being uncomfortable with the way things are and the stakes of an wide-eyed child being corrupted. You’re not sure which way to pull, for Nina to grow up or for her to remain safe in her bubble. So: a perfect metaphor for growing up then. And corrupting influences do enter Nina’s life, of course. You know enough of the story by now, by trailers and osmosis, and what you don’t know it’s best to keep that way. But it’s inevitable that Nina will try to grow up, and that colour will seep in (the clubbing scene being a perfect example of both, its flashing reds and greens like throwing paint directly into your eyeballs). Nature might abhor a vacuum, but nowhere near as much as fiction does. Those sharp edges never collapse. Black Swan remains to its final moment totally precision-crafted, a perfect mirror. That conclusion seems inescapable: mirrors are everywhere in the film, literally, and permeate its idea metaphorically. But a mirror to what? Increasingly, as the film continues and the mirror is smashed up, everything. It is a mirror reflecting Nina’s twin, within the film and its own, The Wrestler, outside of that. The reflection of male and female, that false dichotomy. It reflects Swan Lake, in a way that is entirely obvious once someone points it out. It is a mirror the way performance is a mirror, trying to get your lies close enough to the truth to communicate some grand Truth about the world. And Black Swan‘s particular set of lies are exactly perfectly picked. …So, yeah, sorry, got a little pretentious there. Can’t say I never warned you. And, hey, to cheer us all back up, here’s a little game:first person to tell me why I chose the title (no Googling, cheaters!) wins themselves a kiss.

ALEX’s Best of ‘10: All Day

[You have selected: Alex Spencer] Just/a/position: The Why of Girl Talk’s All Day All Day has gotten a lot of attention here at Alex-Spencer&Friends. Just yesterday, it received its own poem. We’ve looked at its finest moments. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the link is being passed around to those of our number who haven’t yet experienced it. (You can get it free, so there’s really no excuse.) It’s a thousand parties given voice, on the run from the law. Right now, it’s possibly my favourite album of the year, despite actually only being actually one single song. Despite actually being two-thousand other songs. It’s the best pre-party record of all time… So, it’s brilliant, okay? Miles has already dissected the highlights (just fyi, this post is going to be deeply in conversation with his, so I recommend going and checking it out if you haven’t already) and concluded that the appeal is “more simple than any ‘What is Girl Talk saying with this combination?’ nonsense”, which is fair enough. All Day is a hell of a feet-mover and hip-shaker, and that might be all you need to know. However, as is my wont, I’m going to be contrary. Miles has done the how. I’m having a think about the why. The mash-up form, as it appeared in the early ‘oos, is something I’ve never really ‘got’. They seem, to me, like a (post-)modern equivalent of novelty hits. Hearing two completely contradictory bands next to each other is played for laughs, right? It’s just novel to have Beyonce duetting with Kurt. It seems to encourage the idea of ‘real music’ over ‘guilty pleasures’. Isn’t it funny when the proper musicians stoop down to the level of popstars? This is all personal preference/prejudice, remember. And I can see how it could maybe show a song through a new filter, maybe reveals some of the shared foundations and dirty tricks pop pulls across all of music. I’ve just never heard one that makes me feel that way. But then there was Girl Talk. All Day does seem to make an argument for a continuum of pop in which all genres are equal. First of all simply by the sheer mass of songs and types of songs it is made up of. This creates a universe within the album, a patchwork of hundreds of songs. But more key is how it uses them: that patchwork is an entity completely separated from most of the songs that comprise it. Songs are used more like samples in early 90s hip-hop, where they created a backdrop to the raps and squeezed fresh life out of long-dormant songs. Or like in DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing where an entire album is built out of (largely unrecognisable) scraps. And it does all this as a celebration. There’s no sneer on the face of All Day. The secret origins and histories of its component parts occasionally inform the joy of listening to it, enhance or change your reading of it. Rude Boy is one of my favourite songs of 2010, but I’m not familiar with Waiting Room. So, the idea of Rihanna as the vocalist of Fugazi means little to me. Not so Miles. But I like hearing Rude Boy, in any situation. All Day does the basic curation thing that sampling tends towards: this is good stuff, or interesting stuff, or the good bit of a song where the rest fails. The timeliness, I reckon, is a big factor in our obsession with this album. It dropped a scant month ago, right as we entered this period of reflectiveness. It’s as good as any way of gauging the music landscape right now, and squeezes absolutely everything you could need in an end-of-year roundup into less than an hour. Not that the majority of the samples are from the last year so much as it offers a history of everything it’s taken us to get to this point – from XXX to Willow Smith. And that history suggests a possible present. A musical world that could exist, right now. If only. A world where pop is equally informed by old-school hip hop and old pop music? That’s world I’d take, every time. All Day does all the other stuff that mash-ups and samples can do, with added finesse. Occasionally, two songs running alongside one another offer a laugh – Dancing in the Dark riffs against All The Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom by N.E.R.D. is just funny. But it also makes Springsteen sound that little bit more epic. Or it puts a popular song through a new filter: putting Bad Romance against Aphex Twin brings out that dark side that I think a lot of casual Gagaites like myself want more of from the Lady herself. But that’s just hinted at in a momentary snatch that leaves anticipatory saliva on the lips. And that’s just one aspect of it. On one level, it’s a joke. On another, maybe it’s a ironic self-aware dissection of pop, rap, and everything else it assimilates into its mass. On another, it’s about putting a 19 year-old Kylie fronting a heavy-metal band. But mostly importantly… another uninteresting thing about the traditional mash-up, one song playing against another, is that they tend to rely on you liking at least one of the songs. At its very best, Girl Talk takes songs you don’t like and somehow makes something great of them. That’s not a mash-up, that’s alchemy of the highest order. Mash-up making meaning? That’s just a bonus. Great rap over your favourite songs. It’s magic. Get your damn hands up. About the author: Alex Spencer‘s interests include: anythingwhich is ambitious/stupid enough to countas heroic, if only to himself. He is looking forreaders with a gsoh and who enjoy longwalks and pretentious music-journalism.