A Review of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

I finally got around to seeing it, last night, and felt compelled for some reason to record my impressions. Which lie, for you should you care, right after the jump.

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Using Viktor Shklovsky

My hero.

[This post began as a response to some comments made by Douglas Storm on Amber's most recent post.]

The name “Viktor Shklovsky” comes up a lot at this site (I’m guilty of mentioning it in perhaps half of my posts), and one might wonder why the man and his work matters. Below, I’ll try and lay out what Viktor Shklovsky has done for me, and what he might be able to do for you, too! Because Shklovsky might be the single most interesting and, above all else, useful critic I’ve ever encountered…

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Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 7

Batman #404 (“Year One, Part 1″) (February 1987), page 23 (detail). Written by Frank Miller, art by David Mazzucchelli.

Seventeen years have passed since my last installment in this series, so let’s at last sit down and write some kind of conclusion. But first, a recap:

  • Part 1 and Part 2 provided background for Frank Miller’s groundbreaking four-issue comics miniseries—namely, I described what he’d been up to prior to that, as well as what North American comics were like at that time;
  • Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 offered close readings of the respective four books in the series;
  • Part 8 (now up) examines the impact TDKR had on Miller’s subsequent career.

Now, in these final entries, I’ll outline what became of Batman, Frank Miller, and comics themselves after the Dark Knight returned…

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A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class.

A D: Much like how you hated The Tree of Life, Jeremy, I hated Bryan Singer’s two X-Men films. Hated them!

Jeremy: What, seriously? They made you physically ill?

Yes, seriously, ill. I would have gnawed my own arm off to escape, if it hadn’t meant forfeiting my malt balls.
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Art as Inheritance, part 3: Reverse Chronology

I’ve been doing some research into reverse chronology (for the follow-up to my post “From ‘Doom House’ to ‘Mood House’”), and I thought I’d compile the results here.

Reverse chronology is probably as old as narration itself. Once one has the idea of telling a story forward, it’s a simple enough matter to tell it backwards:

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow.
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
She swallowed the cow to catch the goat…
She swallowed the goat to catch the dog…
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat…
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider
That wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.
But I dunno why she swallowed that fly
Perhaps she’ll die.

How far back does this idea go?

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More on Inception: Shot Economy and 1 + 1 = 1

Some good questions came up in the comments section of my lengthy Inception critique (“Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception), and I thought it made the most sense to respond to them with a new post. So let’s wade back into Limbo, shall we…

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Scott Pilgrim vs. Inception for the Future of the Cinematic Imagination

Fight!

Regarding my impassioned critique of Inception, many have asked me: “What could Nolan have done differently?” Which is one way of asking: “What could he have done that you would have liked?”

At first my response was along the lines of, “Well, not doing the things he did”—but that’s flippant. And so I next tried answering that question more specifically here, by analyzing a scene from The Princess Bride—an entirely conventional scene, but one that displays a wit and a charm—an imagination—that’s wholly lacking in Inception. In that post, I quoted Viktor Shklovsky:

There is indeed such a thing as “order” in art, but not a single column of a Greek temple fulfills its order perfectly, and artistic rhythm may be said to exist in the rhythm of prose disrupted. Attempts have been made by some to systematize these “disruptions.” They represent today’s task in the theory of rhythm. We have good reasons to suppose that this systemization will not succeed. This is so because we are dealing here not so much with a more complex rhythm as with a disruption of rhythm itself, a violation, we may add, that can never be predicted. If this violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device.

…following which I wrote:

In other words: Yes, art proceeds by means of familiar conventions and devices (otherwise we wouldn’t understand it). However, each time, those conventions and devices must be made to feel new and fresh—otherwise, we won’t be having an artistic experience. The challenge confronting the artist is how to reinvigorate what so many others have already done. (And you can’t just make a list of ways to do that, because then those techniques would lose their power.)

But what does this really mean? Below, I’ll try to answer that by way of another film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

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Art as Device, and Device (When it Works) as Miracle (or, The Princess Bride vs. Inception)

"Have fun watching Inception, Adam!" "You think he'll like it?" "It would take a miracle."

In my recent criticism of Inception, I took Mr. Nolan to task for his inelegant use of screenwriting devices, such as his endless reliance on (often irrelevant) exposition. Some took objection to this. (See the comment thread here, also.)

To clarify: the problem is not the device, but the clumsy, bare-boned way in which it’s executed. A friend of mine said—and I wholeheartedly agree—that Nolan is simply shameless. This is what I mean when I call him artless. As Viktor Shklovsky put it in his great essay “Art as Device”:

There is indeed such a thing as “order” in art, but not a single column of a Greek temple fulfills its order perfectly, and artistic rhythm may be said to exist in the rhythm of prose disrupted. Attempts have been made by some to systematize these “disruptions.” They represent today’s task in the theory of rhythm. We have good reasons to suppose that this systemization will not succeed. This is so because we are dealing here not so much with a more complex rhythm as with a disruption of rhythm itself, a violation, we may add, that can never be predicted. If this violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device.

In other words: Yes, art proceeds by means of familiar conventions and devices (otherwise we wouldn’t understand it). However, each time, those conventions and devices must be made to feel new and fresh—otherwise, we won’t be having an artistic experience. The challenge confronting the artist is how to reinvigorate what so many others have already done. (And you can’t just make a list of ways to do that, because then those techniques would lose their power.)

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Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception

Truth in advertising.

Update: Related posts that may interest you:

1.

Christopher Nolan, while presumably a rather likable fellow (he does give work to Michael Caine), is a depressingly artless filmmaker. To be sure, some of the concepts in this new one are clever enough (even if they play like weak snatches from Philip K. Dick): the military developed shared dreaming, which then became a tool for corporate espionage—sure thing. The great Dom Cobb and his team now must infiltrate a businessperson’s mind in order to plant the seed of an idea, rather than steal one—a nice enough twist, and a fine enough premise for a caper.

But Nolan then fails to dramatize his concepts. His primary—indeed, practically his only—tool for delivering information to the audience is character dialogue. Rarely does anyone shut his or her mouth during the 148 minutes that are Inception. Its actors are talking threadbare ciphers, eager mouthpieces for their director.

Examples abound. After failing in their mission to deceive Saito, Cobb remarks to his teammate Arthur: “We were supposed to deliver Saito’s expansion plans to Cobol Engineering two hours ago. By now they know we failed.” (A potential response: “Hey, dude, I’m, like, your partner. I know the score!”) An even better one: the line where Cobb points out to Michael Caine’s character—a university professor teaching in Paris—”You know extradition between France and the US is a legal nightmare.” Yes, Mssr. Professor Caine probably does, in fact, know that! But I’m sure that somebody way in the back row was happy to hear.

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Said and Unsaid

http://bookpeopleblog.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/coetzee.jpg?w=300&h=300

Does the mirror have two faces?

Here are two quotes by two foreigners about America (the first obliquely-US box office return is the most important marker for studio films).

Christopher Nolan, about his upcoming film Inception:

When somebody’s spent years making a film and spent massive amounts of money — crazy amounts of money, really, that get spent on these huge films — then you want to see something extremely ambitious in every sense.    Full article

J.M. Coetzee, when asked about the significance of his novel Elizabeth Costello ending with a letter dated September 11th, said:

As for September 11, let us not too easily grant the Americans possession of that date on the calendar. Like May 1 or July 14 or December 25, September 11 may seem full of significance to some people, while to other people it is just another day.  Full Interview

What is being said here? Unsaid? Again that word ‘ambitious.’