Sunday, June 10, 2012

Connections

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: "Our knowledge of the particular facts of the world around us is gained from our sensations. We see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and feel hot and cold, and push, and rub, and ache, and tingle. These are just our own personal sensations: my toothache cannot be your toothache, and my sight cannot be your sight."

What mathematics does, Whitehead explained, is create a public world that's the same for everybody. Mathematics imagines a world "as one connected set of things which underlies all the perceptions of all people. There is not one world of things for my sensations and another for yours, but one world in which we both exist."

Can film criticism, or any kind of criticism for that matter, discover one world that underlies all of the perceptions of all people? And does it matter if it can or not?

Mathematics is essential to the science of bombs, and vaccines, and medicines. It makes architecture and engineering possible. That these things matter is obvious. But do things like films and what we make of them matter in the same way? And to whom do they matter?

Tom Wolfe famously pointed out that without the theories of Rosenberg and Greenberg -- Red Mountain and Green Mountain -- le monde, the little world of artists, dealers and collectors in the Fifties and Sixties, was unable to see. Until you grasped the theories, you saw something all right, but not the "real" paintings. So what? Rosenberg and Greenberg didn't even have the same theory about what they were looking at. They weren't even seeing the same things.

Physicists sometimes think of light as particles. Sometimes they think of light as waves. Neither particles nor waves by themselves explain all there is to know about light, but taken together they do. And that matters. Because the bomb blows up.

What matters about criticism is that it should be useful somehow. A modest goal for a critic might be to make something accessible to a viewer, or listener, or reader, that wouldn't be accessible to them without the critique. And my thought is we should do that without going overboard about the importance of the work we're talking about. We should talk about art the way we talk about mushrooms on our lawns, keeping our heads straight when we swim, finding our way home after a night on the town, or whether we prefer one-egg or two-egg omelettes.

The only things I can make accessible to anyone is what I see, hear and think when I watch a film.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What Can Be Dehumanized Will Be Dehumanized

I got an email from the Lyric Opera of Chicago today, promoting an upcoming performance by pianist Lang Lang.  Struck me as strange.  The overhead camera and screen on the stage seem designed to dehumanize the event.  Like if opera singers had cameras pointing down their throats so you could see their vocal chords moving.


An overhead camera and onstage screen will allow every audience member to witness Lang Lang's energy and grace at the piano.

All this lacks is a whispered commentary, slo-mo of Lang Lang's crazy fingers and instant replays.  Yet another example of the power of technology to dehumanize human experience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Apparently, somebody convinced Suzanne Collins that the narrative of The Hunger Games, her teeny-bopper dystopian novel, needed some "fixing" for the film version of the book.  So Collins, whose millions of avid readers turned out for the opening of The Hunger Games (2012) last weekend, tinkered with the story to explain why the "game maker" -- the fellow charged with making the gladiatorial Hunger Games of a future, Fascist America entertaining and instructive for the survivors of a failed rebellion -- would change the games' rules of engagement on the fly.  And she destroyed the focus that was crucial to the success of her novel.

Why Collins would agree to fix something that wasn't broken is a mystery to me.  I'm guessing some of the money men and women behind the film were too dull to understand the overarching importance of young love, star-crossed lovers and love triangles to Collins' readers.  That a cynical game maker would play up the love angle for a sappy and spoiled audience and then sadistically pull the rug out from under the lovers didn't require any explanation at all.  Neither did the fact that the idea of the lovers committing suicide -- the ultimate symbol of  rebellion against a dystopia -- would panic the game maker. 

Certainly, there is no reason why a film should conform slavishly to the novel it's based on.  The novel is one thing and the film quite another.  But these are not trivial changes.  They go beyond "tweaks." They are irritating shifts in the narrative that complicate rather than clarify the story.  They distort the story's point of view and diminish the story's heroine, young Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

And Jennifer Lawrence is exactly what The Hunger Games (2012) has going for it. She is immensely likable; someone an audience can care about.  She moves well, and her face is large enough and smooth enough for the camera to linger on, to turn into the kind of landscape that's missing from most of the film.  Simply put, The Hunger Games doesn't need a single scene that doesn't have Jennifer Lawrence in it.


 







Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games (2012)

If anybody deserves a poison berry for the The Hunger Games (2012), it's Gary Ross. His direction was even worse than the script.  He never found the right mix of action and contemplation to make his film work.  Ross never catches the power of nature, violence and unreason that drives the book.  What master made the lash, Yeats asked.

Whence had they come,
The hand and lash that beat down frigid Rome?

Gary Ross doesn't have a clue.

It's hard to get from a first-person novel to a third-person film. That may explain why the producers of The Hunger Games (2012) ended up with a second-rate director. Maybe the good directors shied away from the script.  What Katniss is thinking dominates the book, and, when you take that away, an enormous weight is placed on Lawrence's delivery and body language to communicate what's going on in her mind.  In the novel, Katniss Everdeen makes a dangerous passage from a young girl to a woman, from a huntress to a warrior, and, at the end, back to a teenage girl. If The Hunger Games team had pulled that off, they would have had a great movie. All of that teenage energy, confusion and drama, dropped into the middle of gladiatorial training and combat. My god! 

It turns out, of course, that a PG-13 rating was more important.  The bad news is the team planning the sequel may be just as inept.  The producers couldn't get Tony Scott, whose Man On Fire (2004) had exactly what The Hunger Games films so badly need.  The buzz is they'll soon sign music video director Francis Lawrence who made I Am Legend (2007), a boring remake of The Omega Man (1971).  The one ray of hope is that someone on the project has signaled by dumping Ross that they think there is more at stake here than a massive boxoffice that's already a dead hog cinch.  There are moments in popular culture when great myths finally crystalize.  Maybe somebody understands that The Hunger Games novels and films could be that kind of moment.  It's a damn shame if they're not holding out for a director and writers who are equal to the task.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

How Did HUAC Work?

"Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." -- E. O. Wilson

I thought I knew how HUAC and the blacklist worked, but now I'm not sure.  In the case of Elia Kazan, for example, they say Kazan actually stood up to the committee and refused to implicate his friends the first time he testified.  Later, he named names.

What kind of pressure was put on Kazan to cooperate with HUAC between his first and second appearances?  Who applied the screws?  How many others defied the committee at first, then broke down and testified?