I promise, I kept telling myself I'd update this thing sometime during my Spring Break last week. I kept saying to myself, I am going to find time to make some nice, cool, thoughtful entries to this thing, and maybe try to reclaim whatever fanbase I had before life kept throwing things in my way. Nope. Didn't happen quite as I hoped.
And it's not like I was super-busy during this break either. Going into my break, I was planning to try to get at least a good majority of my Godard-versus-Tarantino thesis done. That didn't work out quite as planned either. True, I do have a little under 13 pages at this point, which is something---but it's not really close to done, and considering how slowly I write, it probably won't be done unless I somehow find it in me to awaken that long-dormant devil-may-care side of me and just keep on writing, writing, writing 'til I have a first draft finished.
At least, though, it looks like I might actually have enough to go past the minimum 25 pages. I know, I know: quality, not quantity. But I was talking to one of the State Theatre ushers sometime last week, and when I told her about the 25-page minimum, she said, "That's not a thesis! That's, like, a paper." Perhaps she was joking (she has that lightly-joking kind of personality). She later qualified that statement with, "Well, as long as it counts as a thesis, that's all that matters."
Look, I know I probably shouldn't be complaining so much about my thesis project only because many other seniors are probably struggling with 60- or 100-page theses they have to write. Hey, it's in my nature of worry at least a little bit, even about something that maybe I shouldn't worry so much about. Is it a good thing if I still find myself doing a little bit of research, reading through books and such? Seems like I should have been done with that stuff months ago. Meh.
Whatever. Today, at least, I finished up my projected second section of the paper. Two more sections to go.
Meanwhile, my backlog of films that I've seen but haven't written about for this blog is growing. Let's run them down, shall we?
There's Breach (*** out of ****), that based-on-real-events thriller about Robert Hanssen that isn't particularly distinguished visually, but generates a few indelible suspense moments and has a great performance by Chris Cooper as Hanssen. Cooper is so good at conveying the tortured inner soul of the character that he suggests the great movie this could have been. Instead, the film sets Hanssen up as basically a sympathetic villain for Ryan Phillippe's relatively boring young agent to catch. (But then, Phillippe's pretty boring in nearly anything I've seen him in---including Flags of Our Fathers. Maybe that's why Reese Witherspoon left him.) Writer/director Billy Ray laudably keeps Hanssen's motives vague---there are suggestions of resentment on Hanssen's part toward the relative lack of attention he received for all his years of service---but, like his previous docudrama, Shattered Glass, Breach is more honorable than memorable. (Tak Fujimoto's grayed-out cinematography is slick at first but gets monotonous after a while, although I suppose it's an appropriate choice given the relatively mundane, dull surrounding in which these events take place.)
Same for The Lives of Others (*** out of ****), the recent German Oscar-winner that tells parallel stories, both set at the same time during the existence of the oppressive Stasi in 1980s East Germany. By far the more compelling of the two is the transformation of Stasi member Gerd Wiesler from mere foot soldier with occasional bouts of conscience to full-blown human being with a full conscience. Here's another fantastic performance, from Ulrich Mühe as Wiesler; the moment where he first hears the "Sonata for a Good Man" as he's surveilling the artsy couple he's spying on is memorable for Mühe's facial expression, which literally seems to melt at hearing music of such beauty. The Lives of Others---far from being just another version of Francis Coppola's great The Conversation---is really about the possibility of creating art in the midst of a regime that represses the voice of artists, and on that level I suppose I developed a loving attachment to this movie as I watched it, partly because it confirmed my idealistic sentiments about the possibility of creating transforming art even in less-than-ideal circumstances. It's only afterwards that I realize that the movie itself is rather prosaic and safe aesthetically, although again the cinematography is impressively gray and serves its purpose. A movie about the power of edgy art that is itself an aesthetically safe, humdrum piece of work? Kind of a paradox there, I'd say. But I admit, it did move me in the end, and its lunge toward Oscar-baiting uplift at its conclusion struck me as fairly honest and genuine. It's not bad...
...but even better is David Fincher's surprisingly excellent Zodiac (***½ out of ****). A friend and I actually braved the nasty winter weather on Friday night to go see this movie, but I think it was worth the effort (although we were probably nuts to chance it in the first place). I can imagine some people finding its 160-minute length rather excessive for what is essentially an extended police procedural. But I was riveted every minute. This is an obsessive movie about obsessive characters searching for the elusive Zodiac killer---and it turns out that the most obsessive person of all is a cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal, well-cast), who refuses to let the case go years after many of the other detectives and journalists had given up on it as a lost cause. So whether or not every detail is important is secondary to the fact that, for many of these characters, God really is in the details---even at the expense of personal attachments. Zodiac is a classic example of style being the movie's substance: perhaps not every single detail of the movie is important, but it's there, haunting these characters to the point of absurdity.
Of course, why are these characters so obsessed? Why does Graysmith become obsessed? Hitchcock arguably captured the mania of obsession more powerfully in Vertigo, but, while Fincher isn't known for being a psychological director (although one could certainly interpret his cult hit Fight Club as one long twisted journey into one man's frustrated mind), here he's at least trying to tone down his TV ad style here in order to focus on character and plot. To its credit, the movie has enough integrity not to beat us over the head with thuddingly obvious "explanations" for these characters' behavior. For all I know, Graysmith couldn't let this go simply because he, as puzzle-minded as he is, simply wasn't wired up to rest until this particular puzzle was solved, at least to his satisfaction. In some ways, I see Zodiac as sharing a mild thematic kinship with Michael Mann's Miami Vice: all the cops in both movies are so immersed in their jobs that their personal attachments---whether to a person or to their job---suffers. In Zodiac, some are able to walk away; some are not.
For those who don't know much about the Zodiac case, it's probably a good idea to know beforehand that technically no one has ever been caught in the case. So what Zodiac, with all its meticulousness and attention to detail, amounts to is a gigantic case of frustrated expectations---Fincher shapes his film so that you're expecting the fairly tidy resolution of, say, a typical CSI or Law and Order episode, and then...well, Graysmith might get a certain kind of closure at the end, but it's not the sense of absolute truth that one gets from the usual CSI episode, where the rightness of the solution is rarely in doubt. Then you realize, of course, that life doesn't always lead to such easy answers, and that policework can be a long, arduous process. The skillful way both of those points are made are what distinguish Zodiac from its other police-procedural peers.
And finally---Zodiac is another high-definition video movie, but, as with the case with Ed Lachman's work for Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion last year, I could hardly tell that Harris Savides' work here was high-def video, except maybe for its lack of grain. In Miami Vice and Collateral, Michael Mann made no concessions as far as trying to make his digital video images look like film---at certain points in both films, he leaves in the video grain, and both films in general have that undefinable video "look" to them. Not Zodiac. Fincher's feature apparently never saw a foot of film or videotape: the whole thing was stored onto a hard drive and, I guess, edited from there. More interesting than that, however, is why Fincher decided to shoot a movie that is set in the late '60s through early '90s in a format that is pretty much associated with the new millennium. Hmm. Well, maybe Fincher was merely interested in creating a long-running visual counterpoint: for a film that is very much about the characters' fuzziness about the truth, even the clarity of the digital images seem to taunt them.
Zodiac, thankfully, isn't merely distinguished on the basis of technology. Fight Club fanboys---and personally, I'm on the fence on that film, at least until I see it one more time---might find this a disappointment, perhaps, but for me this is---to indulge in ad-copy hyperbole a teeny bit---the first near-great film of 2007 that I've seen.
Finally, oh yeah: Fast Food Nation(**½ out of ****). Richard Linklater's adaptation of Eric Schlosser's muckracking bestseller is pretty much a wash as drama---its rampant didacticism ensures that it's pretty much received as polemic first, drama way way second. (Linklater has never been much of a visual filmmaker anyway---which is probably why Waking Life, with its playful, pleasurable rotoscoping animation, is probably his best feature to date.) Still, as polemic, it explores some interesting areas outside of those disgusting meat factories, especially regarding political idealism in all different walks of life. The most cutting scene, for my money, isn't the concluding graphic footage of cow slaughter. Instead, it's the few scenes where those action-oriented high school/college kids decide to stage a symbolic protest---by letting all the cows loose---only to realize how ineffective it is, because the cows simply aren't, by nature, smart enough to leave. It looked powerful in theory, but in practice it turns out to be a disaster. It's one of the more thought-provoking depictions of political idealism gone awry I've seen recently.