Tuesday, November 8, 2011

VIVRE SA VIE (1962) Review

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard is cinema's greatest punk, surpassing his partner in crime, Francois Truffaut with more irreverent affronts to the establishment and a greater reverence to cinema than Trufaut, who loved cinema but worshiped literature (Godard worshiped both with a greater emphasis on cinema). Both Godard and Truffaut's debuts (Breathless and The 400 Blows, respectively) immediately situated them as punks and announced, in a Sermon on the Mount fashion, that the cinema would never be the same. Vivre Sa Vie (translated as My Life to Live) was Godard's fourth film, and after dabbling in the crime, political and musical genres, turned his attention to the "message" movie popularized by Stanley Kramer. These films all have Godard's specific touch and, especially in the earlier pictures of his 60s era, show him refining his punk tendancies at the purpose of pushing cinema's boundaries.

Vivre Sa Vie is not however, business as usual, since its one of Godard's least political films and more specifically, his most Dickensian film. Godard uses his muse (and then wife) Anna Karina as a way to express his ideas, but Godard cares for Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Karina) more than most of his other characters and makes his arguments against prostitution in Paris through primarily emotional means over intellectual means. When Nana cries while watching Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, the scene is devoid of irony and instead registers as entirely genuine. In every Godard film, politics are essentially present in the lifestyles of the characters. Godard's characters frequent cafes and often purchase drinks, meals, cigarettes and pay for music to dance,  causing Capitalism to always be present in his work. This is certainly true in Vivre Sa Vie but besides this element, the film is free of Godard's direct statements and  allusions to politics which characterize his later work. From the close-ups of Anna Karina in the title sequence on, Vivre Sa Vie is primarily about Nana and her plight over any message.

Godard's treatment of prostitution in this film is not especially outrageous since he is suggesting that the line of work is dehumanizing and laced with shame. The nudity of the prostitutes is downplayed in a documentary-style, draining the eroticism of the women. Though the film's attitude to the situation at hand is fairly conventional, Godard's punk tendencies permeate the picture. In one of the film's most famous moments, the opening sequence shows Nana and her boyfriend having a discussion while the audience only sees the back of their heads. This sequence is exceptionally punk because Godard shoots this sequence this way to be knowingly irritating. But this sequence also illustrates Godard's genius by suggesting that these characters do not have much of a past but simply must exist in the ever-changing present. This idea is showcased in Nana's languid process of becoming a prostitute following her haphazard meeting with her first client. Godard's punk tendencies are further intentionally irritating with an overly long dance sequence (to get the audience to fall further in love with Karina) and Nana's quick, somewhat-trite death. These two sequences have their points and meanings, but at both times one feels Godard gleefully pissing off his audience.

Godard fits in more hip flourashes, like his shots of Karina smoking before a graffiti laced wall, but Vivre Sa Vie is one of his tightest films in that, his maddeningly pretentious moments serve directly to support his attitude about prostitution. Godard is probably the most pretentious filmmaker per dollar of film and yet, in this film, this ratio is reduced and the human element is pushed to the forefront. That is not to say that this film is not an intellectual film that resembles an essay (which many of Godard's films do, though this does not approximate his films), but the main focus of this film is to tell a story about a character that the director loves.

As usual, this film proved highly influential, especially upon filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Viewers will recognize Uma Thurman's bob in Pulp Fiction with Nana's haircut, but the influence of this film on Tarantino goes deeper. For one, Tarantino adopted the 12 named chapter structure in his segmenting of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. For another, the way that Godard playfully moves the camera in this film (the 180 degree rotating of the sequence in the cafe with Raoul (Sady Rabbot) is readily evident in the opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs and the diner sequence in Death Proof.

This film registers with me as Godard's best black and white picture because of its strong humanist bent. Though I haven't seen all of his ouevre, this film is easily the most humanist of the pictures I've seen by him (which include: Breathless, Bande a Part, Le Mepris, Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou, Masculin Feminin). I highly recommend it.

Note: This film is available to stream for those who have a Hulu Plus account and available to purchase through the Criterion Collection.


Best Hip Hop Song of ALL TIME

First off, I have to apologize for being slow in my posts. Life has been pretty busy (in a good way) so I will try to post more frequently. Got a this piece on Erik B. and Rakim since I haven't done anything by music yet and I'll have reviews of Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie and Orson Welles' F for Fake within the week.

2011 has been a strange year for Hip-Hop and music in general. I've felt that a lot that has come out has disappointed or has merely been mediocre. I've really dug St. Vincent's Strange Mercy, Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Thundercat's The Golden Age of Apocalypse, Andrew Jackson Jihad's Knife Man  and a couple others, but I've generally been disappointed, especially with Hip-Hop. Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. have released solid work this year, but I thought those works were generally a bit overrated. Watch The Throne was extremely mediocre with only a few tracks standing out to me ("New Day", "Otis"-sort of, "Niggas in Paris"-sort of") and Tha Carter IV was embarrassing for a guy who once crowned himself the "Best Rapper Alive."

Maybe I'm becoming sentimental in my own age and preferring to listen to an era of Hip-Hop that suits me better than the modern era, The Golden Age and its aftermath. When I think of Hip-Hop I think of A Tribe Called Quest, The Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Ice Cube, etc. Really the time between 1988 and 1996. I tend to dismiss the notions that Hip-Hop is dead. Like most media output, many people are nostalgic to the point that they disregard most modern art and say things like "they don't make ______ like they used to." Movies, Music, Literature, you name it. This is really a topic for another, much larger post, but I wanted to insist that I do not hold reservations on newer media outputs. I once was a nostalgist, but now I am not.

That said, I wanted to go back and do something that will from this point on, be an anomoly for me. I want to crown a best Hip-Hop Song of All Time. These lists are generally worthless since time has not ended and thus, a best of all-time in anything can simply not be evaluated. I am putting this song with the title of "Best of All Time" to reiterate its massive, hiroshima-esqe influence on the genre, and provide some discussion to a song (and a rapper) that simply does not get enough attention anymore.

The song I am selecting for the "Best Hip-Hop Song of ALL TIME" is Eric B. and Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke" because it is perfect. In 3:52, Hip-Hop changed. There is Hip-Hop before Rakim and Hip-Hop after, with the effect being a kicking down of doors akin to Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" which like "I Ain't No Joke" is not necessarily Dylan's best song but is certainly his most important. "I Ain't No Joke" introduced Internal Rhyme to Hip-Hop allowing for an unmatched quality and opening the floodgates for all rappers everywhere. Following the album Paid in Full the bar was raised and the genre progressed with the effect being something like the Sermon on the Mount: this is how it was before, this is what it will be from now on.

More than its influence however, this is the ultimate Hip-Hop song because it outlines everything that MCing entails. After several albums, most people don't know who Rakim truly is. He still remains shrouded in mystery and myth. That is because Rakim raps about his ability and his status as an MC and does not bring his own personal history into his songs. For a regional art form, Rakim does not once state or mention where he is from (!). On "I Ain't No Joke" he doesn't once rap about his family, his girl(s), his worldview, etc, instead rapping about his supremacy as an MC over all other MCs. Nas advanced beyond this template by rapping with Rakim's ability and coloring in the lines with his personality, his family, his upbringing, his neighborhood, his community. Indeed, Nas' whole life up to the age of 20 is on Illmatic. For Rakim in 1988 (and rarely if ever, after), all that matters is his technique and ability to Rhyme. With "I Ain't No Joke" the boasting of a rapper's ability was forever cemented as an essential component of rap. One could argue that boasting had been a part of Hip-Hop before Rakim, which I would not disagree with. But Rakim explained to a whole generation of MCs both younger and older that as a rapper, you are only as good as your ability. Many who argue that Hip-Hop is dead argue that it has died because rappers often care more about their material worth than their abilities (which has been growing since the 1990s but officially exploded with the superstardom of 50 Cent). While I tend to disagree with this view, I do agree that the Hip-Hop of Rakim is generally dead in this respect.

"I Ain't No Joke" also further cemented the practice of proving respect in Hip Hop. After "I Ain't No Joke," the listener takes Rakim seriously, especially after hard-hitting rhymes like "I hold the microphone like a grudge." Modern rappers accumulate phantom dead bodies with all the violence and murder in many of their catalogs, yet this line by Rakim devastates all of that because it is authentic even while being hyperbolic. The rest of the song details questions as serious as cancer, nobody smiling, waking up to a stern enemy, the unknown but presumably grisly end of unnamed seven MCs, rough rhymes, and guides out of triple stage darkness. Rarely are rappers this capable of adding so much surrealism to their verses and retaining a realistic, authentic feeling.

Finally, I suggest that this is the best rap song of all time because it is airtight with not a second wasted. In a genre known for its excesses (in lyrics and beats), this song does not have an ounce of fat. Every word and line feels pre-ordained and inevitable. The listener plays the song and it ends before he/she realizes what has happened. Hearing this song is a revelation, even for a listener who has jaded attitudes toward 1980s Hip-Hop. The song itself is almost beyond dissertation however, because it is really all about pure effect. "I Ain't No Joke" is Hip-Hop in condensed arrested motion that moves anew whenever played. Other rappers have used Rakim's template and improved upon it, but no other rapper is as strong a pioneer as Rakim.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

DRIVE Review

DRIVE (2011)
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

The director’s kinkiest film in a filmography that knows Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive establishes itself as the ultimate fruition of his fetishistic tendencies reigning them in through alternating maximalist and minimalist brushes. It’s also his tightest film, one that only really becomes derivative during extended sequences of silence between characters or single characters that actually, miraculously bear character development. The film is made from the building blocks of several conflicting genres making it as Walter Chaw states in his review, “devilishly difficult to pin down.” Refn has made a film that works most successfully as a layered criticism of the car heist flick characterized in the aughties by the Fast and Furious franchise and in the process has made a film that works outside of that reading and stands on its own as the true sister film to John Woo’s The Killer. Every facet of the film is stream-lined to its core (character, plot, action, etc.) and after all the cutting of the fat, Refn’s fetishistic tendencies and genre influences rise up.

The genre influences at work in this film clash on a fundamental level that makes the “working” of the film astonishing. Ryan Gosling (Driver) has stated in interviews that this is his superhero film and that he and Refn wanted to make a John Hughes film that was gruesome like cotton candy covered in blood. Refn has also stated that this film is a fairy tale, albeit one built on a foundation of heist film convention.  Critics have suggested the Samurai film in Gosling stoic performance. And then there is the homage to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and the dedication to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which sees the film, not distaining mainstream filmmaking, but preferring avant-garde cinema as a more expressive and interesting alternative.  Cataloguing this, we see: Superhero, Teen, Car Heist, Samurai, Avant-Garde, and of course, Romance and Noir. When I first saw the film (I’ve seen in twice) I disliked the film because it felt to me that Refn had bit off more than he could chew, or more specifically, that the genres he had picked to play with did not attract to one another by electric charge. After seeing the film again, I see the film at face value as a fairy tale about a white knight that protects a powerless damsel and vanquishes the enemies. But this simple tale has tons of fetishistic ideas popping off of it at any given moment and the diverse genre elements do not bump heads but rather, make way for each other.

The samurai view holds up well in that, like a white knight, Driver does not look after his own self-interests but protects the innocents of his community (Irene (a lovely Carey Mulligan) and Benecio (Kaden Leos)). Driver’s economic situation is also firmly rooted in Samurai protagonist convention. Driver has three jobs: heist driver, mechanic and Hollywood stuntman (in that order) that reinforce the samurai film view of a subsistent economy providing for a monastic life.

Speaking of monasticism, Driver and Irene never consummate their romance with anything more than a kiss, which has a few potential readings. For one, it neglects the samurai view as samurais are not traditionally supposed to give into lustful inclinations, but serve only to the support of the community. A romantic move is anti-samurai because it introduces a conflict of interest for the protagonist who keeps an emotional arms distance from individuals while serving the community. This is one case in many, in which the film subverts genre conventions or perhaps drops a genre’s rules in favor of another. In this case, the kiss in the elevator works under the romantic and noir conventions but seems very John Hughes. It also works as film criticism in that it indicts the PG-13 car heist film for feigning shallow sex between its characters. Drive is the kind of film that is so authentically fetishistic that it actually looks down on the typical car heist film for it’s trashy portrayal of sex as ultimate expression of love. The lone kiss in Drive carries more emotional weight than twenty PG-13 and even R-rated sex scenes.

Back to the genre reading, Chaw said that the film worked as “boilerplate noir” which is also true in the sense that the locations are seedy, the villains are generally unforgiveable monsters (especially Nino (Ron Pearlman)) and the protagonist is drawn into the mire by a woman. These elements would make Drive sit comfortably along the lines of 1950s film noir. But Irene is not a femme fatale in the traditional sense. Driver is drawn to her because of her undeniable sweetness but also because he sees a nice family life that he could inhibit in the wake of Standard’s (Oscar Isaac) demise, which after his royal ass kicking in the parking garage, quickly becomes a foregone conclusion. Standard and the Shannon (Bryan Cranston, in an inverse of his Breaking Bad role of Walter White) are the weakest characters in the film, even more so than the seemingly defenseless Irene. Irene is stronger than both men because she at least is able to draw protection from Driver while the weaker men have no such protection. She also exhibits power over Driver when she slaps him, her sole attack that though quickly shrugged off by Driver nevertheless carries weight.

The noir, specifically boilerplate noir reading (and the fairy tale reading) also works in that the film exists in a strange sort of vacuum that only shows the outside world of Los Angeles in the beginning heist sequence with reference to the Los Angeles Clippers game on television and radio. Other than that, the film feels claustrophobic. Even shots of the Los Angeles skyline that would be invigorating in other films serve to show the limits of the characters’ environment. The characters are trapped in the doom-laden LA due to income-inhibitions. They live in LA and they have no other choice. Notice this when Bernie Rose (Albert Brookes) asks Shannon if he is going somewhere and the Shannon weakly states that he was “thinking about it.”

Chaw also asserts that the film is apocalyptic, like Taxi Driver directed by Michael Mann in the 80s. I don’t necessarily agree with this reading, as it seems somewhat limiting. I think the film is fatalistic in the sense that the events of the film seem like foregone conclusions after the fact (as exhibited in the various cross cutting of scenes that show present actions cut against the past (for example, the final “duel” between Driver and Bernie cut against their final conversation)).  I don’t view the film as apocalyptic either because the events of the film suggest that life will go on for the surviving characters. Benecio is fatherless but he was always essentially fatherless, ditto Irene. Driver continues to drift through the streets just as he started. Two mobsters have died but more will take their place as Nino briefly references in the pizza parlor scene with Bernie and Cook (James Biberi). I do see what Chaw means though as Taxi Driver via Mann. Drive’s Driver lacks the overt passion of Travis Bickle, and is not as human. In this way he is more like the absolute ideal of a hero like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Mann’s absolute ideal of the Good (hero) as ultimate badass. Through this logic, Irene is the absolute damsel and the mobsters are the absolute Bad (villains). Standard and the Shannon are the Ugly (human). This view of the characters helps to solidify the film as film criticism by making the characters not so much symbols as archetypes of the car heist film, the samurai film, the western, etc. Despite all the evidence of the film is noir, Driver never becomes tainted enough in the process to drop him from his status as Divine Good to Ugly (human). Conversely, his survival through all of the film’s brutal violence works to further deify him. After all the discussion on Drive’s genre conventions, it becomes evident that like the works of Tarantino, Drive is many genres supported primarily on the samurai and car heist film put into a blender and blended to puree until it becomes one unified piece and no longer totally resembles any specific genre.

The violence in the film is disturbing and relentless in a way that resembles the hyper-violent films of the early aughties and reminds me of Scorsese’s Casino. Gosling stated that he loved experiencing the violence of Refn’s Valhalla Rising in the commune of a theater where the audience vocalized their collective shock of the violence with laughter. Indeed Refn’s violence is so graphic and almost over-the-top that the safest coping mechanism is laughter. The use of violence in Drive is perhaps the greatest support for the fact that this is film as film criticism because Refn seems to be saying that the violence in the general PG-13 car heist film is too sugar-coated and thus, wholly unauthentic. There is no middle ground to Refn.  In general, it seems that the heist film is generally considered less violent and potentially more moral than the gangster film because of a Robin Hood complex. Theft is simply theft and doesn’t involve the loss of human life—though heist films are often violent or suggest violence through tension. Still the gangster film is more operatic: the morals start out in black and white and become grey while the heist film’s morals start out grey and become greyer or separate back into blacks and whites. The violence in Drive is fetishistic, one of Refn’s primarily fetishes in the film, but it is used as accusation of the erroneousness of the PG-13 car heist film. Refn states that for film there are no limits and suggests through the violence in this film, that the soft violence of those other films is somewhat immoral because of its untruthfulness. Find this in every scene of maximum violence that looks shows the violence from a safe distance, and then cuts to a “money shot” that looks directly at the horror of the act—evident in the elevator scene and the pizza parlor scene with Bernie, Nino and Cook.

The other fetishes in the film shift abruptly from hyper feminine to hyper masculine and exist as one unique tone. As Chaw stated in his review, the film fetishes work which has gained mainstream support from the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and the artistic canon of Michael Mann which gets off to the very operations of its characters and does so in ways that are utterly cinematic. The opening heist in Drive is stimulating in the tightness and precision of its operation. There is not an ounce of fat on this sequence. The fetishization of work is masculine by nature, but Driver is more of a hyper-feminized masculine character and in his own strange way, becomes the ultimate male Tarantino protagonist. Indeed Gosling is more James Dean than Marlon Brando in his acting in this film and in his general persona. He is, like Dean, much fairer than Brando in more aspects than complexion. I’d like to update Chaw’s statement of Drive as Taxi Driver via Mann in the 80s to Drive as Taxi Driver via Mann in the 80s in drag. The film’s soundtrack is hyper feminized 80s synth pop, the colors are neon; the writing of the title sequence is hot pink. Going further, Refn has stated that the lack of Driver’s dialogue was used not to harden the character, but instead to make him weaker and thus more feminized along archetypal standards. And yet, Driver is distinctly not homosexual. His control over Blanche (Christina Hendricks, who like the film, makes a lot out of little) is hyper-masculine in its brutishness. Consider that he bears over her with utter control and while wearing feminized leather driving gloves. Scenes like this that contain endless layers make this film a pop masterpiece of sorts.

This film is also surprisingly subtle even though elements like the hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine elements are pushed to the maximum. The sound-design is pushed to the maximum as well—the gunshots go off like canons, the flesh slices are louder than in most other films. And yet, the performances are generally very still, especially between Driver and Irene where the tiny gestures speak volumes. Drive is a startling oddity of a film. Despite its Godardian approach to the thin material as film as film criticism, Drive contains moments of real cinematic poetry on aesthetic and emotional levels. When Driver drowns Nino in the ocean, the film is haunting and opaque and even that scene nods to genre conventions—specifically the slasher films of the 80s. The scene with Driver, Irene and Benicio by the creek at the end of the dam are simply gorgeous. These scenes raise the film above all of its convolutions into the gorgeous sadness and raw romantic poetry of works like Woo’s The Killer.  At the end of the day Drive works like the melodramatic sappy and sad singing of the Woo film’s blind girl—its tempting to dismiss it but the longer it goes on, the more vital it becomes. It’s a difficult film that you could play without volume in a club or at a house party and it’s made by a man who has the right ideas and executes them in the right way. Ultimately there’s a good reason that Refn won best director at the Palm d’Or and The Tree of Life won best picture. He directs the hell out of Drive and I can’t wait to see what he has in store next.

-Abraham El-Raheb

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Statement of Intent

I've been fiddling around with doing a blog for some time now and decided that, rather than linger around on the edge any longer, I should gather the gumption and take the leap. Why the hell not? The economy is in Hell, will be for the near future, and I might as well find a way to turn negative frustration into positive energy. I am primarily versed in film so the majority of this blog's content will focus on film criticism, but I will try to cover television, music, etc. with a similar aesthetic. All media reviews will be assigned a star rating (out of four) and will hopefully convey my attitude toward the work in question's merit.

Finally, I'd like to state my intentions of doing this thing properly, meaning that I will come at my reviews with a strong foundation in the works' authors, the history of the medium, the politics present in the works, etc. I will do my best to provide valuable insight and education into the works at hand. I say this because the overall effect that the internet has had on film criticism has been overwhelmingly negative with too many voices that are not up to the task.  Nobody would seriously listen to a juggler diagnosing a patient, for instance, yet this occurs in abundance in film and other media criticisms because people feel entitled to speak their mind. Far from wanting to remove rights from people, I would say that most people (potentially myself included) are not entitled or adequately prepared to diagnose a film, just as most people are not entitled or adequately prepared to diagnose a patient. But with all that said, I've been watching film and reading film criticism for over ten years, and I think I've got the right stuff for the job. I hope I'm right about this and I hope you enjoy.