Review Of John Cassavetes’s “Love Streams” (1984)

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John Cassavetes Love Streams Gena RowlandsIn looking at John Cassavetes’s films a quarter-century after his death, a dilemma emerges. No, I don’t mean this in the silly, cliched sense that there’s a ‘problem’ (ugh- that word!) with the films, themselves. I simply mean that Cassavetes is still close enough to OUR time that he could provide a glimpse into the critic’s psyche, and the sort of trends most art-goers are utterly shackled by. This is because Cassavetes went from writing and directing 3 or 4 neglected masterpieces — often booed and hissed out of movie theaters — to being given the sort of love and adulation that is the inevitable due of most great artists. In this way, quite a few people in the industry probably feel stupid — that is, if they’re even remembered, now — and feel the need to make amends. And what better way to atone for such than to praise everything Cassavetes has done (as Ray Carney does), and push the director higher, higher: precisely where he belongs?

Except there’s just one problem. A reaction to one extreme with yet another is not exactly helpful, for — being a kind of mirror image of the same, original stupidity — it still disrespects the art, the artist, and the process which lets one become the other. (Cassavetes, after all, is gone. You had your chance, folks.) The fact is, for every masterpiece John Cassavetes had made, there was at least one mediocrity. Faces, Opening Night: classics, both of them. This just can’t be reasonably argued against. Husbands, too, is an interesting watch, with brilliant moments, albeit quite flawed. A Woman Under The Influence is similar in this regard. As for Minnie And Moskowitz? An oddity, to be generous, even if saved by 2 or 3 flat-out great scenes. Shadows, little more than a young man’s first, solid exercise. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie — one of the greatest films ever made, by any director, in any time period or genre, and my own personal favorite, as well as my vote for cinema’s most ‘enigmatic’ creation. Then, there’s 1984’s Love Streams, another interesting movie with a handful of brilliant parts — the equal of anything else in the man’s output, really — nonetheless marred by lots of fluff, weak editing, and a too-prosaic end. Yet it’s Cassavetes’s final film, and, what’s more, feels like it, too: a fact that encourages film-lovers to love it, now, especially since they were unable to support Cassavetes at a time when he could have really used the help.

Love Streams opens with Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes) getting yelled at by his secretary — likely over some bit of bad behavior — and interviewing a number of young women, most likely for “a book about nightlife,” about what it means “to have a good time.” The girls are all quite nervous: a nice touch, for he’s already distant and unapproachable just a few minutes into the … Continue reading →

Review Of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind” (1984)

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Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind Hayao MiyazakiTo be sure, watching Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind is an interesting experience, albeit not for the reasons typically claimed. Yes, he’s made superior films over the years: films that were better scripted, better illustrated, and much better scored. Yet for too many viewers and critics alike, there is a subtle danger in the more polished films, in that their veneers can be mistaken for genuine depth, and their ‘lush’ imagery — especially in works like Princess Mononoke — for communication. This is because cleaning up a handful of cliches or improving a few visuals are not really qualitative changes, but cosmetic ones, and can do but little to push a work of art to deeper territory, assuming one understands the meaning of the word ‘art’. In this way, Nausicaa is both the beginning of Studio Ghibli as well as the summation of everything Miyazaki could and could not do across his career, prefiguring so many of the tricks and conceits not only within anime, itself, but in video games, comic books, and — for good or ill — popular notions of depth and intellectual probing.

That said, the film’s main problem is its profligate waste, for it takes a potentially rich idea — a low-tech society on the margins after some wisely-unnamed apocalyptic event — and utterly ruins it with a child’s conception of what a good film might look like, as opposed to an adult take on adult themes, executed in an adult manner. And, naturally, it bears repeating that animation is NOT cinema and shouldn’t try to be, at the risk of confusing the advantages of both, and thus being unable to enjoy the privileges of either. In fact, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind spoon-feeds the viewer pretty much every aspect of its tale: its symbols, the meaning of this or that line of dialogue, the film’s imagery, and everything in between. It doesn’t trust your intelligence partly because it thinks it’s speaking to adults, and partly because anime directors, on the whole, have always struck me as solid to good film-makers that have never quite grown up, and assume, in their own solipsistic way, that the rest of the world has merely followed suit. For this reason, Nausicaa is middling, at its best, but puerile and condescending even at its heights. And, in this case, these are little more than visual tricks, combining scenic vistas with messy, anachronistic robots and ships, literally sliding into the film’s shots, nicely subverting a handful of expectations, all the while not knowing what the hell to do with the rest of them.

Nausicaa opens up with an immediate reference to the world’s “toxic jungle,” as an over-voice declares that a thousand years have passed since the collapse of industrialized civilization. Precious little is left to the imagination, which ought to really be the thing to fill in an art-work’s gaps — or else there is no engagement, merely acceptance — and the artist, … Continue reading →

Perils In Palacio: On R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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R.J. Palacio Wonder

R.J. Palacio. Image via The Telegraph.

Near the end of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, an interesting — nay, emblematic — thing starts to happen. Just when Auggie, the book’s friendless, deformed, 5th-grade hero gets all the abuse that he could possibly stand, a mildness comes over the other children. Perhaps this is because Auggie finally stands up for himself. Perhaps it is because the popular girl befriends him, then ‘risks all’ to stand by him. Or perhaps it is something altogether stranger, less definable, in the way that a mob might rise and go despite still suckling at their accumulated aims. Yet none of this matters, really, for Auggie gets friends, a possible romantic interest, and even receives the school’s most prestigious award for — well, for survival, I guess, despite not doing much to earn it. He gets, in short, the sort of rich fantasy life that every bullied ‘loser’ must on some level entertain. The only difference, here, is that nothing is imagined, for there are just too many hands (of adults, kids, God) laying it all out on a platter.

Now, I’ve wondered how this could be; how a children’s book that purports to teach kids about life prepares them for nothing but its bowdlerization. There are, I suppose, many answers to this, but the short one is that condescension, for all intents and purposes, is dead. No one cares to talk ‘up’ to anyone, for everyone, we are reminded, is corralled into ghettos of both mind and place. No one really understands dilution (of compliments, emotion), for what was once an end, and very much ‘the’ end, is now a means to something vaguely therapeutic. No one wants to hear of inborn talent unless it is doled out and democratized for all. Yes, this is pure condescension — all of it — but when few care about the word and how it applies to things, when it ceases to be something that is feared, defended against, rebuked — then it is dead, for it has entered into the body as an autonomic impulse rather than a choice.

Of course, Palacio’s badly written, badly edited, tin-eared, and poorly thought-out book is not the problem. The real problem is that someone decided to bring this book into schools, and schools, always so very sensitive to trends, decided to teach it, and teachers, wanting to believe the best of their kids, simply bought it, and kids, being kids, nodded their heads at the book’s various ‘lessons,’ and went back to a far more bitter reality — often with glee. In fact, Wonder’s peculiar brand of irreality has been making inroads for decades, now, as people were slowly brought in from the margins (into schools, jobs, relationships) and, lacking skills or any way to make their worth tangible to the real world, they were simplified rather than dealt with, to the point that our innate differences were quietly erased. In this arrangement, human nature … Continue reading →

Review Of “La Planète sauvage” (Fantastic Planet)

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La Planète sauvage Fantastic Planet Roland Topor LarouxThe more that I study animation, the bigger its differences (self-imposed and no) with cinema seem to go. This is because animation — as I’ve argued elsewhere — despite forcing a kind of irreality upon the viewer, requires no genuine suspension of disbelief, since we know that people don’t quite perceive the world in the way that animators depict. This is an often overlooked advantage, for it gives an artist leeway to break quite a few rules without necessarily compromising the art’s art, all the while putting the viewer into a receptive state of mind that wishes to further test boundaries. In fact, it is precisely this willingness to explore and engage that’s necessary for good art to flourish. It is surprising, then, that so few animated films have broached artistic greatness, a thing that might be remedied if the ‘why’ of such is better understood, and the word’s answers better applied.

Rene Laloux’s 1973 film Fantastic Planet (La Planète sauvage) is a good pedagogical tool to this end, for it is well-scored, well-voiced, well-limned, intellectually, and well-animated — the last being true despite its simple appearance, which by its nature tends to heighten the Draag giants, diminutize the tiny Om, and deepen the more outlandish creatures, within, merely by stripping them down to a few salient parts, and mimicking the way child-like dreams and memories really work. Indeed, it is animator’s Roland Topor’s work that drives much of the film, both in the film’s overt decisions, such as La Planète sauvage‘s lingering shots and mnemonic imagery, to the smaller stuff, such as the heavy-handed shading, thus nicely recapitulating how a child might interpret (and conduct) the word ‘art’. Yet for all that, the film is more or less adult, and while didacticism hinders so much animation, from Soviet ‘classics’ (Hedgehog In The Fog) to even the most recent Japanese anime, it still manages to handle its ideas quite well, deftly turning away from its own arcs, at times, before things get too formulaic and predictable.

The film opens with a fleeing Om (identical in sound to the French homme), as a few blue-skinned Draag children torture her and her child with exotic-looking objects and reneged opportunities to escape. It takes the viewer a moment to get what’s going on, nicely imaging the sort of helplessness that the Om, themselves, might feel. They kill her, and Tiwa — a conscientious, pre-teen girl — decides to keep the infant as a pet. Named Terr (the film’s onomastics, if you can’t tell, are a weak point), he provides a pretty good voice-over: ‘good’ because it is succinct and does not needlessly recap what we’ve already witnessed, keeping things to an occasional sentence or two, the first of which (‘That was my first encounter with the Grand Master of the Draags’) tricks the viewer into accepting Tiwa’s father as the referent, even as Tiwa is the one to grow in stature over … Continue reading →