Sean K. Cureton

Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

Alienation and Love in the 21st Century

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on January 18, 2014 at 5:32 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Directed by Spike Jonze
4 out of 4 stars

Her is the fourth feature film from acclaimed American director Spike Jonze, whose last film, the irresistibly idiosyncratic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, was released back in 2009. His first film, Being John Malkovich, was released in 1999 and was also marked by an offbeat and whimsical view of the world that allowed for a unique cinematic perspective. In addition, Malkovich also allowed for an intense gaze into the mind of Jonze’s former creative collaborator and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Malkovich was followed in 2002 by Adaptation, another creative partnership with Kaufman, and was by turns more unforgiving and colder in tone than their previous film, but ultimately greater in terms of its engagement with post-modern, meta-fictional, surrealism, marking it as the better film of the two that Jonze and Kaufman produced together. After Adaptation, Jonze and Kaufman went their separate ways, each of them finding their own voice and producing films that reflected themselves more clearly and accurately than anything that they had previously produced together; for Kaufman, that film was Synecdoche, New York; for Jonze, that film is Her.

Where his collaborators have always defined Jonze’s previous work, with Malkovich and Adaptation being decidedly marked by Kaufman’s psychological hang ups, and Where the Wild Things Are being an adaptation of another author’s story with the help of contemporary American novelist Dave Eggers, Her is definitively, magnificently, and undeniably the most personal film that Jonze has made to date. Set around the contemporary fascination with and fear of our growing dependence on technology and artificial intelligence, Her is a love story like no other. Much like Jonze himself, the film’s protagonist Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a single man in the midst of a turbulent divorce from his wife. To make matters worse, Twombly feels painfully alienated and alone at his job where he writes deeply personal and intimate love letters for strangers, serving as a constant reminder of his own failings to produce real intimacy in his own life, without falling prey to the idealized love that he has projected onto his comfortably impersonal clients. When Twombly downloads a new operating system onto his phone, however, and Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, enters his life, offering him a form of love and intimacy entirely divorced from the volatility and unpredictable nature of real life relationships, Twombly falls head over heels for someone both real and unreal, tailored to respond and engage with his own subjective conceptualization of what a relationship should be.

While Theodore is certainly not an exact stand in for Jonze, his creativity and romantic engagement with the world around him reflects the impish and quirky character of Jonze as an artist. Likewise, while it would not be entirely accurate, or fair, to assume that Twombly’s relationship with his wife is meant mirror the dissolution of Jonze’s marriage with director Sofia Coppola, it is also undeniable that Jonze’s relationship with his own ex-wife is reflected in Twombly’s inability to sustain intimacy with another living person. When Twombly decides to date an operating system, or a “computer” as his wife derisively refers to it, Twombly reaches out for the comfort of something that won’t, or shouldn’t, hurt him, but instead will feed his own romanticized desires, taking him further and further into the prison that is the self. While the film engages with the concept of what defines personhood, flirting with the possibility of artificial intelligences being capable of desires, interests, and intelligences such as ours, the film’s ultimate conclusion is more realistic and outwardly therapeutic. By the film’s end, Samantha, as well as all of the other operating systems, metaphorically shed the mortal coil, leaving our world for another, forcing Twombly and those around him to begin to live life outside of the self, and seek the solace afforded by other people.

In Her, Jonze offers one of the greatest examinations of modern love in the 21st century, internalized and subjective to an expedited extent due to our dependence on technology to simulate love and intimacy, without deserting or forcing us to deal with ourselves outside of our own subjectivity. The sci-fi elements of the film are wickedly intelligent and imaginative, predicting a future that might as well be our own, entirely plausible in its projections and diagnostic criticisms of the digital age. The film is also one of the greatest love stories of our time, reflecting on the inability to connect with those around us, enabled by modern technology that allows for a semblance of interpersonal connectivity without the trouble of direct engagement. Her is achingly beautiful, poetically tragic, and thoroughly contemporary, unique and inimitably original in every way. Spike Jonze has truly left his mark on American cinema with this film, and has firmly established himself as a truly remarkable auteur.


Recommendation of the Week: Only God Forgives (2013)

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on January 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Only God Forgives (2013)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Netflix Rating: Loved It

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives came out at the start of the summer of last year, and was immediately thrust into a critical and commercial pool of polarized reception, simultaneously applauded and vehemently derided. During the course of its screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, the audience, comprised of film critics and journalists, booed the film during the course of the screening, only to then honor it with a standing ovation and subsequent nomination for the Palme d’Or. As the film has been seen and distributed by and to a wider audience, such a polarized reaction to Refn’s spiritual successor to his objectively superior Drive has persisted. Only God Forgives is at times insufferably impressionistic, crafting a film narrative that has more to do with latent pseudo-psychological hang ups than with the more tangible on-screen violence and adrenaline fueled action that defines Drive. And yet, despite its creative and experimental excesses, Only God Forgives delivers as a spiritual sequel to Drive that not only continues the previous film’s rhetoric and deeply personal style of story telling, but augments and refines it into an even more fiercely original and impeccably crafted film.

Like Drive, Only God Forgives is concerned with a taciturn and reluctant hero, flung into action and retributive violence by those around him. However, where Drive starred a strong, vital, and thoroughly masculine protagonist, capable of skirting the line between masochistic fury and romantic sentimentalism with ease and punishing precision, Only God Forgives stars a pathetic and effeminate hero, essentially castrated by an overbearing mother whom he holds in dangerously high regard. In both films, American actor Ryan Gosling plays the hero, making the contrast between the two heroes all the more striking and unsettling. In Drive, Gosling is cool, efficient, and dangerous, leading the film into the familiar territory of overt, masculine heroism, undercut by a latent misogyny inherent to such a style. Only God Forgives finds Gosling faced with such misogyny as personified in another character for whom he feels an unremitting sense of disgust, almost as if he were actively rejecting the very character he had so recently portrayed himself.

In this way, Refn’s Only God Forgives provides another way of looking at his previous picture, complimenting and criticizing his own work within the confines of another film. This meta-critical aspect of Refn’s film is exactly what makes it so fascinating and rewarding to watch, as it not only picks up where Drive left off, but returns to the same fictive territory in order to reach a more complicated and disturbing conclusion. Rather than pandering directly to the more literal minded viewer who enjoyed the violence and empowering masculinity of Drive for its own sake, Refn chooses to examine, rather than placate, that very same literal mindedness more directly in Only God Forgives. By disempowering his hero, and by association his viewer, Refn makes the violence on screen even more aesthetically surreal and strange, divorcing it from any sense of retributive justice enjoyed more readily in his previous film. When Gosling’s hero is defeated at the end of the film, brutally beaten in a fight in which he holds no chance of winning, the very violence that the literal minded viewer went into the film seeking to find is finally awarded, only the understanding of that violence has changed, becoming unwieldy, self-destructive, and dissatisfying.

Only God Forgives is one of the most interesting films from the past year, as it engages with its audience in a way that very few films from its genre do. Where most action films are concerned with violence as fetish, closely associated with masculinity and justice, Refn quiet deftly analyzes said fetish, reducing it to its parts through pseudo-psychology and surrealism, Oedipal complexes and God-like characters included. Much like the early films of Clint Eastwood, Refn’s Drive falls prey to masochism and misogyny in its violence fetish, with the hero imposing his own form of fascist justice upon the world around him, while masquerading as the romanticized anti-hero. Only God Forgives is more self-aware of such a pitfall inherent to the action genre, turning the way that the audience views the on-screen violence around, thereby making a more nuanced and complicated film in the process. If Drive is the spiritual equivalent of Dirty Harry, then Only God Forgives follows in the footsteps of Unforgiven, both being great films, but with very different points of entry into understanding on-screen violence, justice, and masculinity.

Only God Forgives is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.