Cover Aesthetics

I’m the sort of guy who likes minimalist covers. A single image, one or three colors, something striking, a bold font. I like seeing those kinds of books. I like buying them. One of the things that hold me off from a lot of Fantasy literature, especially the Pulp kind, is the genre of cover art just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m slowly getting over that, however, as I’ve read enough to know that the pulp style is usually an honest display of what’s in the book. That has it’s own merit, even if I still find it too busy for my eyes.

Something like this, for example…

25952316._uy2128_ss2128_

…is perfect. Dark colors suggest mystery, the image is striking and portends danger. And this novel is a Dragon-Award winner, and as good an example of the swords & sorcery genre as you’re like to find. 

Then there’s something like this…

9781513655604

Completely different genre, of course (comedic urban social novel), so it’s supposed to look slightly odd. But again, plain background, so everything is focused on the image, which is suggestive of graffiti and whimsy. I haven’t read it, but I kind of want to.

Nazi Horror

Things I learned today:

  1. Roman Polanski experienced the Holocaust to a terrifying degree, losing his mother at Aushwitz, which puts his career as primarily a horror director into perspective (it doesn’t excuse his crimes and the bastard should have gone to jail – Fiat Iustitia, ruat astrum).
  2. There’s a whole sub-genre of Nazi horror cinema. I suppose I already knew this, but a blog calling itself Planet Auswitz analyzing it does rather Make It Official in a way.

For my money, the true Nazi Horror movie is Conspiracy. An HBO original from 2001, it gives you the other end of the monster. It takes place at a cushy conference in a lakeside villa. Not a drop of blood is spilled or a shot fired in anger. Nevertheless, it is a chilling meditation on human evil.

conspiracy-filmThe film is about the Wannsee Conference, wherein high-ranking Nazi officials planned the Endlosung der Judenfrage – the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, what Jews call the Shoah (“Calamity”), and what popular culture refers to as the Holocaust. Note this nomenclature. What we commonly consider a bloodthirsty pogrom on a larger scale, some bizarrely Teutonic irruption of anti-Semitic feeling, was in fact an entirely rational conclusion of bureaucratic logic. The Nazis came to Wannsee to sort out this Jewish business, once and for all. And given the status of Jews in the Third Reich, and the ongoing war, that business could only get sorted out one way.

The film makes this clear. If you’ve ever been in one of those meetings where all discussion is an illusion, the decision has been made already, and you are just being informed of the expectation to enthusiastically lend your support, then you will get this film. The meeting begins with a palimpset of discussion of alternative solutions – mass sterilization, primarily – but although it’s practicalities are debated it isn’t serious for a minute. With that camel’s nose inside the tent, the SS shove towards acceptance of what was already being done – mass extermination of Jews throughout Eastern Europe — in fits and starts. As having soldiers shoot them one by one is impracticable, poison gas becomes the obvious solution.

The dawning horror on mens faces as they realize what this meeting really is and that they’re really going to do it, that no real debate or discussion exists, that the fix is in, makes this film a favorite of mine. The verite aspect as well: the actual Wannsee conference took place in just about the running time of the movie. And it’s perhaps my favorite Kenneth Branagh performance. He plays Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague, as a consummate politician, gemutlichkeit, but the iron fist slips out of the velvet glove when it needs to. The SS takeover of Jewish Policy questions from every other relevant government agency is the real purpose of the meeting, and Branagh plays that skillfully.

These men, highly educated, deeply civilized, allowed their reason to be corrupted by a premise — Jews are the authors of the world’s ills — that they never examined. Once accepted, this idea drives all before it, until not just humanity and sympathy, but even law, become unreasonable. Spiritual horror at the inversion of morality hit on an altogether different level than zombies, even if both are really about the same thing.

Godard is a Godless, Worshipful Communist

Was, whatever. Any perusal of his filmography — especially from the Era of ’68 — could have led me to that conclusion. But reading Godard on Godard, his collection of film criticism I earlier linked to, has rather shoved my nose in it, to a distasteful degree.

In his obscure five-run magazine Gazette du Cinema, Godard wrote a piece called “Towards a Political Cinema” sometime in 1950. It begins thusly:

One afternoon towards the end of a Gaumont newsreel, my eyes widened with pleasure: the young German Communists were parading on the occasion of the May Day Rally. Space was suddenly lines of lips and bodies, time the rising of fists in the air. On the faces of these young Saint Sebastians one saw the smile which has hunted the faces of happiness from the archaic Kores down to the Soviet cinema. One felt for Siegfried the same love as that which bound him to Limoges. Purely through the force of propaganda which animated them, these young people were beautiful. “The beautiful bodies of twenty-year-olds which should go naked”

Yes, the great Soviet actors speak in the name of the Party, but like Hermione of her longings and Lear of his madness. their gestures are meaningful only in so far as they repeat some primordial action. Like Kierkegaard’s ethician, a political cinema is always rooted in repetition: of history. The actor infallibly becomes what he once was, the priest. The Fall of Berlin and The Battle of Stalingrad are Masses for a consummation.

He at least has the honesty to acknowledge propaganda as propaganda, and to absolve it, as everyone does, by its intentions. Communists always get their alibi.

One wonders if it occurs to Godard that the little Saint Sebastian’s has little choice in whether they were there or not. Under communism, everything not forbidden is compulsory, and everything compulsory is to be embraced with the enthusiasm of addicts. After a while, this simply becomes conditioning. One also wonders if this did occur to him, and this is precisely the reason he likes it. By the effacing of the individual alone can New Soviet Man be built. That’s why the gulags and the trials and the mass starvation were not accidental, not unintended aberrations of Communism. They were precisely the point. By terror are the little virgins sacrificed to appease the great God History.

There is nothing about this philosophy that is not Satanic.

 

Criterion Collection Lust and Other Class Settings

I haven’t watched a single thing on my art-house bucket list, but I’ve subscribed to the Criterion Collection subreddit, because displays of aesthetic approval from an institutional source matter more in the Matrix than actually developing aesthetic sense.

Which is fine, as most people have no idea what aesthetic sense even is. I include philosophers in that number. Among other things, I’m moseying through Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and he makes flash statements about unmusical people liking opera, but he never says what he means by “unmusical”. If Nietzsche had an ounce of Aristotle in him, he wouldn’t be so beholden to Hegel and Schopenhauer as pre-reading.

As it happens, reading German philosophy and watching New Wave Cinéma is mentally demanding, and as you can’t disprove the notion that any of them aren’t just jacking off, it rarely feels like a good time investment. But in small doses, it can be of use, if only as variety and challenge. Which was part of the point, if I recall correctly.

The Four Categories of Oscar, Or Why I’m So Tired of Holocaust Movies

I have been tired of them, in fact. I was bored of Holocaust flicks when I saw the trailers for Jakob the Liar. None of them are as good as Schindler’s List, and they have all the plot creativity of a 19th century melodrama. I’d be surprised if Jojo Rabbit does’t include pauses saying “You Have One Second to Hiss the Fuhrer”.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Formula still works: Jojo Rabbit is an average film that would never get 6 Oscar noms if it wasn’t about the HOLOCAUST

The link describes the Four Categories of Oscar: the subjects that the Academy loves to rain Gold upon, which are as follows:

1. Holocaust and/or Nazis

2. Slavery/civil rights/race

3. The AIDS epidemic and LGBTQ themes

4. Hollywood

Examine the Oscar winners, and most of the nominees, of the last ten years, and one of those 4 pop up. They are the expectations of our rulers.

To be fair, there are good reasons why these films tend to do well in Oscar season:

Another reason these subjects are employed is because the Holocaust and slavery are monuments to human depravity and suffering – and as uncomfortable as it is to admit it, both subjects are chock full of dramatic potential. The same is true of the AIDS epidemic, which was its own kind of Holocaust. The bottom line is, any subject which has death as a constant and contains a foreboding presence is going to be loaded with drama… and hence has the potential to be a good film.

They give the most hackneyed story structures a historical weight, elevating them into what voters believe to be classy award-winning pictures.

Tropes work because people respond to them. However:

But the suspicion is it’s even simpler than that.

The two cities at the heart of the film industry, Los Angeles and New York, are the cities with the largest Jewish and gay populations in the US, which most likely translates into a solid number of Academy members being Jewish, gay, or both.

Which is why we don’t see films about the Holdomor, or Sherman’s March to the Sea. Hollywood will never ever shove Communists into the role of cartoon villainy that Nazis play, and Hollywood doesn’t give a damn about the South except when using them as a backdrop for films about Race. That doesn’t flatter the sensibilities of the Academy, so you won’t see them.

The other reason than boredom is that films about Nazis have a tendency to be political hatchet jobs in disguise. I haven’t seen it, but I’d lay good odds that once or twice in JoJo an off-hand comment in the mouth of a bad guy will suspiciously echo the sentiments of someone on the American Right. They’ve been calling us Nazis since the time actual Nazis were a thing, so how can they resist the chance? Especially when it be waved away as “just a joke”.

Maybe if JoJo gets shut out, we’ll see fewer of these. But I’m not betting on it.

Some Thoughts on Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Finally sat down and watched it. I would put it squarely in his Western Phase, that he’s been on since Django Unchained. It’s more of a meta-Western, but it has that tone and that feel to it, and the main character is a down-on-his-luck Western Star. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

  • Quentin Tarantino is the Last Great American Director. He’s the only big-name auteur left in town, and we’re gonna miss him when he’s gone, and talk about him the way people talk about Kubrick or Hitchcock.
  • Hippies turning on a dime from quirky to feral makes 1969 real in a way that no other film I can think of ever has.
  • Everyone who complained about Margot Robbie not getting enough lines in this movie absolutely missed the point. She’s meant to play an elegy of Sharon Tate, and she nails it. Call this objectification/iconography if you will, but that’s what we’ve been doing to Sharon Tate for 50 years. Tarantino gave us a look at her observing her imminent iconostasis, and he did it with the language of cinema, which is primarily a visual medium.
  • I would totally watch a DiCaprio and Pitt in a buddy cop movie.

Quick Review: The Rise of Skywalker

SWsplatterEverything in here is SPOILERS, because we’ve reached that reality in Star Wars movies. The guys at Red Letter Media have been saying since Rogue One that there are only so many things that can happen in Star Wars, so even if you technically haven’t seen the ninth (and final?) episode, you’ve seen most of the things it has on offer. There are escapes and jumps to lightspeed and blasting stormtroopers and epic lightsaber fights and grand space battles. Heroes will be tempted to turn to the dark side of the force. The villain who’s been THE villain will be THE villain again, and he will do the same villainous acts. There are one or two mild surprises, but even these are predictable. This is a Star Wars movie that approaches an almost mystical reverence for itself as such.

Thus, it veers hard away from whatever Rian Johnson was attempting to move towards with The Last Jedi, almost apologetically giving the fans every emotional touchstone they could want. Of course, such a course precludes any possibility of expanding on the Saga. What we are left with amounts to a do-over of Return of the Jedi, minus the Death Star (or with a million Death Stars, depending on your point of view). The only real emotions in it are feelings of being haunted by the weight of past actions and past glories, an unavoidable meta-commentary on the state of the story and the fandom and everything else. This movie, and Star Wars itself, is a run-down mansion haunted by ghosts.

Just to beat this point home, the climax of the movie is determined precisely by the past flooding back in to save the world from the past. Just as THE Villain (yup, it’s Palpatine), is back, standing in for *every* Sith, so Rey hears the voices of *every* Jedi. No one at Lucasfilm can think of doing things any other way. It’s either desperate or cynical and possibly both.

None of which is to say that it’s a bad movie. It moves along snappily. You’re not ever confused as to what’s happening and why. You never have a scene end and think “what was that all about?” J.J. Abrams’ trademark visual energy is very much present. I’ll even cop to one or two moves bringing about genuine emotion. But once it’s over, it feels entirely forgettable. It’s Star Wars: A Star Wars Story: Featuring Star Wars. It’s exactly what Scorcese was talking about with movies becoming theme park rides.

Which leaves us with that show about not-Boba Fett and not-Yoda. I’ve heard its pretty good. If they can keep that going a few more seasons, that galaxy might grow after all.

Quick Review: The Irishman

the-irishman-feat

It was boring.

There.

Actually, let me be fair.

The first half is kind of boring. The second half describes the conflict between the mob and Jimmy Hoffa, and it’s more interesting than you’d think. Obviously it was dumb for Hoffa to get in bed with organized crime, and obviously that was only gonna end one way. But the way that end comes about suprises with it’s politeness, it’s almost genteel conversation of the essential conflict. It comes down to two men declaring their intentions, each of whom never raise my voice, each of whom express respect to the other. It matters not. The source of every conflict – who is to have power, who is to give way – cannot be avoided.

And so as you go through the movies second half, the power of things unstated chokes the characters off. The film becomes almost Bergmannian in its slow shots of characters in inescapable agonies. That’s to the good.

What’s to the bad is the story itself. Goodfellas and its comic twin, Wolf of Wall Street, succeed as cinema because they provide an answer to a question: Why does this institutional wickedness exist? What need does it serve? The Irishman leaves a hole in the role of its titular character. Why is he this way? Why does he just fall into the role of an assassin? We get a taste of some prisoner-clearing in WWII – a far more common practice in that war than is commonly known – but that’s only a hint. There’s nothing at the heart of this man that we can get a grip on, not ambition, not hatred, not bloodlust. Is it merely loyalty, without any higher connection to anything else? That seems rather shallow for Scorsese’s body of work.

Is it worth watching? If you’re curious as to how Jimmy Hoffa went down, sure. If you like a slow-burn drama, this’ll work for you. But if you’re expecting the electricity of Scorsese’s better-known work, you won’t get it here.

Art-House Film Bucket List

Understand that I’m using the term “art-house” to refer to indie films that are considered exemplars or game-changers of the art. In my last post I mentioned the French New Wave specifically, because that’s the gold standard of arty-farty, but I’m good with exploring literally anything. The odder the better.

So here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Breathless by Godard
  • The 400 Blows by Truffaut
  • The Seventh Seal by Bergman
  • Days of Heaven by Malick

I reckon that’s a start. I’ll add to this as I go. Suggestions are welcome.

There’s a New $&^@ Ghostbusters Film Coming Out, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the French New Wave

They’ve basically turned Ghostbusters into PG-13 Goosebumps.

I wrote a while ago about how we should just let the Ghostbusters “franchise” fade away, and not let it be a “fandom” to which we have obligations and loyalty.

Ghostbusters was a good movie. A classic, even. Ghostbusters 2 was… enh. The cartoon was a cartoon. The reboot bombed. We don’t need another Ghostbusters movie. We don’t need to “save” the “franchise”. It’s not a fucking fast food chain, it’s a movie. Just one movie that was entertaining in 1984. The rest of the dreck that’s been built around it is forgettable and unimportant. Another movie is unnecessary and would accomplish nothing but spark unending debates and wearisome attempts at drollery by idiots on social media.

The time and money spent on whether determining whether another Ghostbusters movie could be better spent on creating a genuine and new piece of entertainment that could itself become memorable and rewatchable over and over again.

But nobody listens to me, so this is happening anyway. So the skinny kid from Stranger Things is going to be an OG Ghostbuster’s grandson. (my money’s on Egon – this pig is directed by Jason Reitman, Ivan’s son). And as Ace of Spades noted, there are no jokes in the trailer. This is being played straight.

Now, it’s probably going to be competent, as Jason Reitman is at the very least a competent director. But the whole thought of it benumbs me, indeed depresses me somewhat. They. Just. Can’t. Stop. With the endless Franchise movies. They’re terrified of doing anything else.

So the hell with it. I’m going to dive headlong into art-house movies. I figure I’ll start with Godard, the only name of French New Wave Cinema that my memory retains. I know nothing at all about that whole Criterion Collection scene, so why not learn something?

And sure, I’m positive it’s going to be full of arty-farty po-mo sophistry. After all, Godard was a critic before he became a director, a fact that should surprise no one. But that  gives me a window on his art that you don’t get with other filmmakers. And Jonathan Rosenbaum attests that there’s a connection between his criticism and his films:

Like Cocteau, Godard commands a vigorous rhetoric that crosses nimbly from one medium to another, registers most effectively in aphorisms, playfully orbits the work of other artists into a toylike cosmology of its own, and instantly changes whatever it touches by assimilating it into a personal aesthetic. Look long enough at his criticism and virtually every departure in Godard’s films will be theoretically justified; study the films with enough scrutiny, and even the most outrageous reviews will start to make sense.

Besides, I enjoy reading film reviews, even when I don’t agree with them. The meaner the better.