Lost in the Movies: June 2010

Cities of the Imagination

"Dread of what?" Carl Jung wrote in his memoirs. Reflecting upon his youth, and his fellow students' incapacity to "admit unconventional possibilities," Jung continued, "After all, there was nothing preposterous or world-shaking in the idea that there might be events which overstepped the limited categories of space, time, and causality. Animals were known to sense beforehand storms and earthquakes. There were dreams which foresaw the death of certain persons, clocks which stopped at the moment of death, glasses which shattered at the critical moment. All these things had been taken for granted in the world of my childhood. And now I was apparently the only person who had ever heard of them. In all earnestness I asked myself what kind of world I had stumbled into. Plainly the urban world knew nothing about the country world, the real world of mountains, woods, and rivers, of animals and 'God's thoughts' (plants and crystals). I found this explanation comforting. At all events, it bolstered my self-esteem, for I realized that for all its wealth of learning the urban world was mentally rather limited."

But if the city represented cold, hard, narrow realism to rural mystics, a scientific rationalism which was blind to the stream of rich unconsciousness imbuing everything, it could also be invested with a kind of alchemical magick, a dream-projection of civilization taking the same subversive approach to the functional architecture of the metropolis that urban minds took towards the natural wonders of the countryside. The utilitarian skyline could be transformed into an oneiric dreamscape, a mental correspondence to the byzantine mazes of the imagination. This post, using images from Zhang Ke Jia's film The World (reviewed last week) and Michel Gondry's music videos alongside quotations and my own thoughts, will offer a brief reflection upon this perennial theme.

The World

#70 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.
"It's a small world after all, it's a small world after all, it's a small world after all, it's a small, small, small, small world..."
"The world" of this film’s title is a theme park which combines a lushly wooded landscape with reproductions of international monuments: a towering yet smaller-than-normal Eiffel Tower which looms over the whole park like a panopticon, a small set of the New York skyline which still includes the World Trade Center, a bite-size Leaning Tower of Pisa which perpetually invites tourists to stand twenty feet in front of it with their hand out so that photographic "tricks" can make them appear to be holding it up. (Director Zhang Ke Jia always shoots these particular tourists from the side, so that the absurd artificiality of their gesture is highlighted.) This demi-monde, further dislocated by being placed in Beijing instead of the American setting (say, World Showcase in Disney World, or else any number of miniature golf courses) where we might expect it, is fascinating enough to sustain the film even if there isn’t a plot. Which, at first glance, there isn’t, really. Still, a story of sorts develops over the course of the film, or rather several stories, glimpses into characters' lives which remind us how vast and implacable is the real world outside the bounds of our dreamlike global village.

Boomer Baseball: Field of Dreams & the American 60s

“Ray Kinsella, child of the sixties, builds baseball field and at end of movie meets his dead father.” 
         -Japanese tagline for Field of Dreams, paraphrased by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson

Beloved for its family drama, revered for its sporty caché (at least among those who can forgive a rightie Shoeless Joe), Field of Dreams is generally less recognized for its cultural-historical importance. It was one of the crucial films signifying a late 80s trend: the ascension of the baby boom generation to Hollywood's height of power, accompanied by a burst of 60s nostalgia which helped (re-)define the era for a generation. Preceded by "thirtysomething" and "The Wonder Years" on TV, big hits like The Big Chill and smaller films like Running on Empty (among others) in the cinema, as well as cultural events like the 20th anniversary of Woodstock and the release of the Beatles catalog on CD, Field of Dreams arrived at a crucial crossroads. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was crashing down and a new world was being born - for many in the West, the first time such a sensation had arisen in two decades. Meanwhile, the baby boomers were all hitting or approaching 40, many heading nuclear families and holding professional jobs they never would have foreseen, or so we were told.

The Reagan era, encapsulating a strong reaction to the 60s counterculture and New Left, was coming to an end, with President Bush half-heartedly promising "a kinder, gentler America." As the Wall crashed, and conservatism tentatively relaxed its hold on the American consciousness, pop culture experienced a renewed burst of creativity. New filmmakers like Spike Lee and Oliver Stone emerged to point a light at the country's darker aspects; TV suddenly grew adventurous and subversive with "Twin Peaks" and "The Simpsons"; postmodernism exploded from an academic subculture into the dominant media approach; meanwhile, a reversion to authenticity in mainstream rock was just around the corner. At the center of all these phenomena (except for the last) were baby boomers, who after plugging away and working their way up had finally emerged as mainstream trendsetters. Not only did they point the way forward; they also looked back at their own history, which was ripe for mythologization and nostalgia after a decade in the "dated" bin. Field of Dreams, with its attempt to synchronize America's National Pastime and the Age of Aquarius, its yearning to fuse youthful dreams, old traditions, and adult responsibilities, may be the quintessential film of this moment.

A Serious Man

#67 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade. This review contains spoilers.

In his four-star review of A Serious Man, Roger Ebert writes, “I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke where Job asks the Lord why everything in his life is going wrong. Remember what the Lord replies? If you don’t remember the joke, ask anyone. I can’t prove it but I’m absolutely certain more than half of everyone on Earth has heard some version of that joke.” Well, no, I don’t remember what the Lord replies, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard some version of that joke (is that the joke?). However, Ebert’s withholding the punchline is very much in the spirit of the film he’s reviewing. This is a film that begins with a ghost (is it a ghost?) getting stabbed and ends with a tornado bearing down on a Hebrew school while the tinny sound of Jefferson Airplane reverberates from a transistor radio. In between, a woman kicks her husband out of the house and then makes him pay for her suddenly dead lover’s funeral; a boy tokes up before his Bar Mitzvah and receives a Grace Slick-inspired blessing from his 90-year-old rabbi; an uncle with cysts is charged with gambling and arrested for soliciting sodomy; an escape across the Canadian border is brought to a bloody halt by anti-Semitic hunters (don’t worry, it’s all a dream!); and a Jewish dentist discovers a hidden Hebrew script on the inside teeth of a gentile. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is trapped in the center of this eventually literal cyclone, and throughout the film he wears a dumbly neurotic, perpetually perplexed expression. He doesn’t understand what’s going, yet at times he seems to behave just as irrationally as the incidents befalling him, particularly with all the crap he takes from his shrewish wife. Everyone in the movie seems to be acting according to the dictates of some hidden humor – in both senses of the word; gee, I wish someone would let me in on the joke.

Visit the picture gallery

Check it out here. I've also updated labels, which can now be found in a "cloud" near the bottom of the sidebar. And if you missed it this weekend, here is the update on my blogging status.



As you can see, The Dancing Image has now incorporated posts from my two other blogs, The Sun's Not Yellow and Lost in the Movies, which have ceased to be active. It's also received a minor makeover. To replace the functions of several blogs I have added tabs to the top of the page: one which highlights my stronger pieces so they don't get lost in the shuffle, plus a full directory of all my writing, the Wonders in the Dark lineup, and my annual "best of the blogosphere" round-ups. There may be more changes down the line, but then again this may be the end of said line, more or less.

Following my break from online work (save the biweekly "21st Century" pieces, constituting my entire output for the past couple months), I intended to work on some long-term, in-depth essays and series I'd placed on the backburner long ago. None came to fruition, partly because of waning enthusiasm, partly because of a busy schedule, and partly because - upon reflection - some of them were never all that promising to begin with. Anyway, a commitment to blogging has really served its purpose by now; it got me through some lean years, gave me a (semi-)creative and intellectual outlet, and engaged me with a lot of great people whose work and commentary I enjoyed.

From now on this blog will serve three purposes, aside from the dubious distinction of storing my past work. One: It will continue to link up writing I do elsewhere. For now this means the "Best of the 21st Century?" series for Wonders in the Dark, as I intend to fulfill my promise of completing that venture. I'm doubtful that it will mean much else. Two: It will continue to provide an outlet for any random musings on film or films, either in review form or (more likely) loose, impressionistic observations. Most likely there will not be any such pieces, but I certainly don't want to rule out the possibility.

Three: There is one planned project I have not entirely abandoned though I am wobbling on a 50/50 axis as to whether or not I'll still attempt it. This is my canonical exercise in which I draw up a personal list of favorite great films and go through them one by one, looking individually at story, film history, formal analysis, first impressions; incorporating a fair amount of research and eventually illustrating my take with video, picture, and short written essays, each set of posts would culminate with a piece diving right into a particular aspect of the movie. All in all, it's a nice idea, but will require a lot of work and I don't know if I want to go there anymore. That I'm even humoring it in the midst of my general disengagement from blogging demonstrates its tenacity.

Because I want this work to stand on its own, I would probably isolate this series on its own blog; however, at the end of dealing with a particular film, I'd link to all the different chapters in a post here. Even if I do begin this project, it is doubtful I will ever finish it, as it could take years and years to complete. Other demands have my ear but, again, it's a nice idea, so we'll see. Till then, thanks for your support and continue with your own good work, "onscreen" and off.

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