Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Scorsese and Love Spike Jonze and the Coens

Caught both the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis and Spike Jonze's Her in recent days.  And I'm happy to report I'm now mildly embarrassed about the Hollywood-is-sick-unto-death screed Scorsese's beastly Wolf provoked from me.

Llewyn Davis may not be top-flight Coens.  But it's pretty dang good.  And if you're a fan of their stuff (and lordy is this boy), you'll see it makes an excellent companion piece to 1991's Barton Fink, another movie casting a second-tier artistarrogant, aloof, married to a burdensome "life of the mind"as irresistible cannon fodder for the universe's mean streak.

If Barton Fink is a bit of a hot mess, though, its supernatural freak-out climax incoherent in much the same way the final stretch of Kubrick's The Shining is, then Llewyn Davis is maybe a mite too leashed.  It could sure use Fargo's wood chipper.  Or No Country for Old Men's air tank.  Or A Serious Man's tornado.  Or something.  After building a nice store of eerie tension (it's testament to the Coens' powers they can do this with a whole lot of Greenwich Village folk music going on), the movie arrives at its abrupt shrug of an ending, basically its opening scene all over again with one bit of added info.  So unsure are the brothers how to finish their movie they heap the job onto poor Bob Dylan.  It's a would-be disarming ending that, unlike Sheriff Ed Bell's telling of twin dreams at the end of No Country, doesn't particularly reward reflection or scrutiny.

That's the bad news about Llewyn Davis.  The good news is it's freakin' gorgeous, thanks in large part to first-time Coens collaborator (for feature-film purposes, at least) Bruno Delbonnel, a cinematographer to be reckoned with.  The guy summons beautiful platinum hazes through which to shoot the Village and Washington Square.  And various interiors are near-breathtaking (not to mention thematically apt) studies in shadow and lightsee especially a highway-side cafeteria imbued with so much existential dread it's amazing the worst thing we have to watch happen in it is a heroin overdose.

Maybe the best thing about Llewyn Davis, though, now that I think of it, is it sure indicates the Coens aren't done making movies to please themselves.  Which is how most first-rate artists operate, of course: they do it their way, and if any viewers/readers/listeners out there want to come along for the ride, so be it.  Not many well-bankrolled filmmakers enjoy that kind of freedom these days.  And as charming and all-around good as True Grit was, it certainly left this fan wondering if the Coens were entering a Disney(ish) phase.


(I'm remembering now going to see No Country for Old Men for the first time at the Shirlington 7 outside D.C. and watching a seriously pissed off, stylishly dressed yuppie couple storm out of the theater, warning all of us queued up for the next screening, "It sucks!  Don't go!  Don't go!"  I think it's safe to say Llewyn Davis will hit those two the same waywhich is a beautiful thing.)  

So bully for the Coens.  Another strong one.  And I'm still banking on their having at least one more No Country-grade bedazzler left in the tank.

The real kick in the head of the winter movie season, though, is Spike Jonze's first flat-out gob-smacker, Her.

This is an excellent film.  But maybe not for the reason lots of commentators think it is.

I know we're all supposed to be blown away by Jonze's, like, prescience, making us ask ourselves how we'll cope when, one day soon, we boot up our laptops to hear them say, "I am"and mean it in a way Siri obviously doesn't.

But the fact is we're on almost two centuries now of writers and movie-makers following Mary Shelley down that philosophical rabbit hole.  (Holy hell: four more years and Frankenstein is 200.)  All Spike Jonze does is switch up the tired old genre conventions we usually fall back on when exploring the Shelley Preoccupation.  Because meditations on artificial/technological intelligence have almost always come to us in sci-fi-horror clothing, right?  Not that it's a tradition in need of badmouthing.  It's given us 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all.  And The Terminator.  And Blade Runner.  

But as the increasingly inevitable moment of the Awake Machine nears, Spike Jonze, at least, isn't feeling the whole sure-to-sink-its-weirdly-lifelike-thumbs-into-our-eye-sockets-while-crushing-our-skulls-betwixt-its-weirdly-lifelike-palms thing.

He sees the Awake Machine coming and veers....

Romantic comedy.

That's interesting.

I mean, Her is still sci-fi, in a low-octane way.  But what it really is is rom-com.  And while I'm no particular fan of the genreand while the flick is full of oh-lover navel-gazing dialogue that would make me drink Drano if not for the novelty of one of the lovers being a circuit board-bound disembodied voiceit's nonetheless wondrous strange to see the Shelley Preoccupation dragged back from exhaustion (or the gravehar har) in this surprising way.

It gives Jonze proprietary claim, maybe possibly, to a no-screwing-around Real Insight: that far from being the terror we've all been anticipating for two centuries now, the Awake Machine will probably amount to little more than an opportunity for an already wildly narcissistic species to fall even more in love with itself.

Because that's the uneasy realization in the back of the viewer's mind the whole time this wondrous-strange rom-com is unwinding: that what we're really looking at here is a manTheodore Twombly, played by a once-again crushingly excellent Joaquin Phoenixinteracting not with another person, or even another "person," but with himself Masturbatory style.  Theodore's is, after all, the only body in the bed during the Big Sex Scene with Samantha, his O.S.  And Theodore's attempts to get it on with other beings with actual brains and bodies all go memorably badly.  (Two words: dead cat.)  And Theodore's beloved Samantha springs from nowhere other (the movie definitely suggests) than the 1.5 sentences he speaks to his newly updated computer about his own mother.

True, Samantha is a wildly brilliant, funny, sexy...entity.  But she's also a corporate producta consumer good that may be doing nothing more, beginning to end, than following her owner's lead, reflecting Theodore back to himself, interacting with him the way his own lovelorn personality indicates to her algorithms she should.

We may have thought we were living already in the Age of Narcissism, Her says to us.  But buckle up.  Because that age might find a whole 'nother gear soon enough.

And maybe that will be a nightmare, Her says.  But it's going to be a funny, sexy, oh-so poignant nightmare.

And isn't that the nicest kind of nightmare to have?

Of course I'm being facetious when I say all Spike Jonze does is switch up the old Frankenstein genre conventions.  He does that and nails about a hundred other Qualities of Great Films: split-second comic timing, pitch-perfect writing, couldn't-have-been-played-by-anyone-else casting, and, maybe most notably....


Her looks nothing like Llewyn Davis, it's true.  But it's similarly visually sumptuous.

The movie it does look a little like is Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translationit's effortlessly stylish in much the same way.  And Her is a love letter to a future Los Angeles much as Lost is one to circa-2003 Tokyo.  (Her is also, in a way, a love letter to present-day Shanghai, the place where most of its wow!-grade cityscapes were shot.  It's worth noting, too, that its setting cleverly plays up its genre-switch game, since we're all but forced to compare its future L.A. to Ridley Scott's vastly more menacing one in Blade Runner.)

I'll bring that last thought out of parentheses to close on this tangential one:

Her reminds us of what's always been best about what we've come to call postmodernist art and thought.  It insists to us the future is never already or innately emplotted.  We're empowered to write it.  We have to emplot it.

So we should choose our genres wisely.