Sunday, November 19, 2006

Now At The Getty: The Religious Art of Sinai and Dresden

Running now through March 4th at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai represents the largest American instillation of Byzantine icons from St. Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula -- which happens to house more than half of all Eastern icons in existence. As such, Holy Image, Hallowed Ground constitutes a major event in the art world on the basis of its subject alone. Therefore, it is all the more gratifying that the exhibition not only establishes the stylistic and thematic range of the pieces, but their substantial aesthetic value as well, and at least a facsimile of their impact. These are works that don't reproduce well, however -- the pieces require the beholder to interact with them in their space. Take for instance the masterful Late 12th century Annunciation from the Holy Monastery: here, a burnished golden ray of light cuts through the large, empty gold-leaf background, depicting the Holy Spirit's descent in the scene. In print -- or on-screen -- the work's compositional grace is manifest, though it fails to reach its genuine phenomenological impact: in person, the ray of light seems to almost descend toward the Virgin when one moves in front of the icon, with the burnished ray becoming apparent from certain angles when it is invisible from others.

Another instance of this work's power in its presence can be found in the superlative 11th century Scenes of the Nativity immediately to the Annunciation's left. In its case, the work's beautiful color palette becomes visible in a manner that seems impossible in print or on line. Yet, it is not simply that the work utilizes rich hues, but that they guide the beholder's view, narrating what is genuinely a sophisticated narrational space: the viewer's gaze lands at the Mary and then the midwife in the upper center of the composition, before his/her attention is led to the magi approaching and then to a scene of their adoration of the Christ child. (This element again is not evident in print, and therefore does not fully tell the story of their readings; in person, the nativity works in much the same way as Masaccio's Tribute Money.) However, this piece's complexity does not begin and end with its color schema, but indeed finds a form to communicate multiple narrative scenes within the hilly topography of the composition -- often in clearly readable sequences. In addition, this eleventh century work (most likely originating in Constantinople) utilizes space in a fashion where form articulates content, as with the beam of light that connects the Christ child with the ethereal upper register, or with the magi literally leaving on the panel's other side (thereby giving form to the axiom that they left on a different route after being warned by an angel -- whom we see with them elsewhere). And then of course there is the exceptional detail that was once thought to be the purview of the illuminated manuscript, but again in the presence of these works is shown to be essential to their achievement.

If I am becoming a bit long-winded with reference to this single piece, it is because I have been studying it specifically for the past couple of months, in preparation for the exhibition. For the sake of total disclosure, in my new life as an art historian, I have been enrolled in Holy Image, Hallowed Ground's curator Robert Nelson's Icons seminar at Yale. Having said that, let me also say that with my intimate experience of the pieces for these past few months, I can say without reservation that Prof. Nelson's exhibition has exceeded my expectations. These are works that are not only made to be seen, but to be interacted with, in space that the Getty has recreated admirably. For those who can and do see these pieces at the Getty sometime in the coming months, this is the sort of exhibition that can make one rethink its period, and in fact the history of art. Future writers of textbook surveys will need to contend with the Annunciation, Scenes of the Nativity, St. Theodosia (from the catalogue cover; above), a remarkable 6th century St. Peter, and countless other works of similar sophistication -- not that their reproduction will tell us what we need to know about these wonderful works.

Ironically, then, another exhibition currently on view at the Getty showcases a series of works that are actually more impressive in reproduction, as a colleague of mine pointed out: Gerhard Richter's 2005 Wald Series in From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter. These series of anti-art, semi-figurative landscapes, commissioned for this exhibit to respond to the half-dozen or so Dresden Friedrich's on display, suffer from the excessively intense over-head lighting and the space's stark white walls (in contrast to the purple tones in the two Romantic-era rooms) to be sure; even so, these spatial difficencies do not mitigate the garish palette of this modern heavyweight: the resonant golds of the catalogue are in the presence of the works, ill-conceived lemons. Moreover, the cycles themselves are incomplete, and at a point, arrest for lack of continuity -- while patterns emerge, to be sure, as with a rich series of landscapes reproducing water effects (again more poetic in print), at some point these same patterns fall apart, denying the cohesiveness that an engagement with the Romantic master would seem to dictate -- that is, if they are to respond to him at all.

As for the Friedrich's, in spite of their slim numbers, there is opportunity to learn something new about this artist -- namely, that his misty and often tumultuous landscapes were very much in the service of another project: his belief in transcendence, presence beyond surface, and particularly his devout Protestant faith. A Crucifix in a suitably Gothic frame (designed by the artist) makes this case as the centerpiece of the exhibition; however, given this point of reference, works such as the poetic Bushes in the Snow (1827-8; above) or Two Men Contemplating the Moon (c. 1819) register this same quality with greater nuance. In this way, then, From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter at least provides a framework to view the former's metaphysical purpose -- to say nothing of giving American audiences the opportunity to see rarely-seen masterworks.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Film: Marie Antoinette

In the words of my girlfriend, Marie Antoinette is not just a girl's movie, but a very particular kind of girl's movie: a movie for girl's who don't mind quasi-long take movies with little dialogue. In other words, its for her -- or better yet perhaps, for who she was maybe five years ago; that is, the kind of girl who then (as now) knows that the first song was Gang of Four. So, I will leave the main -- albeit short -- assessment of the film to her, Lisa K. Broad, with my own similarly concise comments to follow. Enjoy.

Somewhere beneath the 80s-soundtrack and cotton-candy color palate of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette beats the heart of an American art film. Reveling in pure sensual experience, the film largely avoids the psychological terrain covered by most film biographies. The dialogue is sparse and strange, and the narrative nearly non-existent, but the vivid music and imagery demand not just to be seen and heard, but to be actively looked at and listened to. In its penchant for flat, frontal staging and cheeky reflexivity, Marie Antoinette brings to mind Sally Potter’s Orlando (minus the feminism). I also wouldn’t be surprised if Coppola had studied up on the punk period-pieces of Potter’s mentor Derek Jarman.

At once compromised and uncompromising, the film is alive with beautiful graphic compositions that manifest a painterly attention to color, light, and texture, and striking radial symmetry, but Coppola rarely allows them to linger onscreen long enough to be fully appreciated. Seemingly afraid of alienating her audience, she falls just short of the true long-take style she hints at. The subject, or perhaps the object, of each of these aesthetic meditations is the lovely Kirsten Dunst. Although Dunst’s Marie Antoinette remains completely opaque throughout the film’s duration, her body is exhibited to us so closely and at such length that a kind of phenomenological intimacy is generated that gives way to a creeping, visceral dread as the specter of the royal family’s grisly demise looms ever closer. Thus although Marie Antoinette isn’t terribly deep, it skims along the surface of things with a kind of rigor and sensitivity that escapes many films that presume to plumb the depths.

-Lisa K. Broad

Thanks, Lisa. Let me concur with your observation that "Coppola rarely allows [her compositions] to linger onscreen long enough to be fully appreciated." While one might say that this distinguishes the director as a post-MTV artist, it remains, to my thinking, a flaw of her aesthetic. In my opinion, this same element limits her highly-regarded Lost in Translation (2003), as does her generally tendency to film in a relatively shallow depth-of-field. Perhaps one could connect such a style to the inherent shallowness of the film's subject, but to do so does not exactly flatter the maker -- as she would have produced a superficial form to express her film's superficial content.

As to Coppola's choice of topics, let me say that it makes sense that this daughter of Hollywood royalty would dare to produce a biography of this oft-vilified historical figure. That she musically situates the picture in her own teenage decade -- the '80s -- provides added resonance (in terms of the film's biographical dimension). Ultimately, Marie Antoinette manifests nothing if not the director's ambition. And in its defense, let me add that I find the connection compelling: surely, Marie would not be so out of place in our celebrity-obsessed age.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

New Film: Volver

Literally meaning "to return," Pedro Almodóvar's Volver confirms its title through a number of related associations: director Almodóvar was born in La Mancha, where for the first time he has located one of his films; Volver stars two of his acting axioms -- Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura -- the latter of which he is working with for the first time since 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; and then there is the subject of "motherhood" that found expression in his All About My Mother (1999), which coincidentally was released the same year that the director's mother and occasional cameo Francisca Caballero passed away.

Here, Maura plays Cruz's and Lola Dueñas's deceased mother, Irene, who begins to appear to locals of their former home town, including their soon-to-be late Aunt (Chus Lampreave). Dueñas's Sole is the first of the daughters to see their dead mother, after she arrives for Aunt Paula's funeral. (Death, it should be noted, is everywhere in the opening portions of the film.)

However, it is less in this trans-grave reunion than in Cruz's familial plotline where the picture's melodramatic heft becomes apparent. After an initial visit to Irene's grave and Aunt Paula's home, before she passes on, Cruz's Raimunda and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) arrive home to find the shiftless man of the house lazing on the couch after losing his job earlier that day. After gazing at his teenage daughter, the gentleman climbs into bed with his wife, who withholds intimacy from him. The next day Raimunda arrives home to find her stunned daughter -- the implications of which are that she has been sexually assulted by her father (who claims that he is not this). To be sure, we learn that he did try, though as we also learn the young woman has slain her father in the midst of the act. Raimunda quickly intervenes, enlistening her female friends first to hide the body in a restaurant freezer and later to bury him in a spot beside a country stream.

In the meantime, Raimunda herself has stumbled upon an additional revenue stream -- necessitated by her husband's lost income -- by catering for a local film crew (at the aforementioned restaurant). It is at this point that Sole encounters her dead mother and the film's secondary plot commences. Sole takes her mother in as a hair-washer in her fugitive hair salon and soon Sole is forced to hide her ghost mother from her sister and niece.

At this point, the ontological status of Irene is still contested: is she actually supernatural? Is she instead alive? Or perhaps is she a fictional projection of the character's loneliness? After all, those that have seen her have all this loneliness in common. (In this way, Volver resembles the director's masterpiece Talk to Her, 2002; and like that film, Almodóvar poetically concludes Volver by bringing together two lonely people.) Whatever Irene is, suffice it to say that Almodóvar's masterful manipulation of narrative information allows the spectator to evolve in his or her thinking as to what Irene could be, before the director discloses the perfectly reasonable answer. As such, Almodóvar again reveals himself to be one of the world's most accomplished classical directors.

Then again, the classicism of Almodóvar, or rather his position within the framework of popular filmmaking might be more accurately described as "rococo." Indeed, commensurate with this term, Almodóvar's art seems to signal a style that is decorative for its own sake: the director's strong bold colors (blues, yellows and reds) and his canted angles and overhead camera positions all seem to exist for their own sake. If anything one could say that Almodóvar succeeds in producing visual pleasure. Nevertheless, the visual tropes serve as both a signature visual style and also position the artist's work within a tradition that stretches back to the melodramas of John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk.

Certainly, Volver is no less melodramatic than its hyperbolic sources, particularly given the film's central mother-daughter dynamic, to say nothing of the incestuous content. Yet, in the case of the latter specifically, it would seem that Almodóvar is again figuring the autobiography that is inherent in the picture's title (as one could also say of the film's systematic disclosure of familial secrets) -- that is, as long as one can read the homosexual Almodóvar into the experiences shared by the mother and daughter, given the clear autobiographical elements that are otherwise connoted in his almost male-free narrative. Either way, one might see in this generational exposition of victimhood an archetype of homosexual experience, as it also connects the film thematically to much of the director's corpus (where non-normative sexual experience are closer to the norm).

However, in identifying the author as homosexual, another important component of the narrative loses its obvious interpretation: namely, the emphasis upon the almost vulgar excessive physical beauty of Ms. Cruz. No longer a pure object of fetish, one might instead see in Almodovar's framing of the actress a curiosity in her other-worldly beauty that seems to connect to the picture's profane sense of humor through the director's often tongue-in-cheek compositions (like his overhead's of Cruz's cleavage). At the same time, Volver remains somehow restrained compared to much of the director's corpus. To be sure, it is for this reason, among others, that Volver stands out among the director's work -- this might be his finest film this side of the very similar Talk to Her. Further, the director's genuinely Hitchcockian handling of narrative information (the plot's amoral manipulations are certainly worthy of the master) makes Volver the finest fusion of art and entertainment released thus far this year.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

New Film: Climates

Be advised: the following post contains spoilers.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates (Iklimler), starring director Ceylan and his wife Ebru, compels its viewer to read the film as auto-biographical by dint of the director's casting of he and his wife as a couple who are in the process of breaking up. Indeed, it doesn't take Ceylan long to depict the split -- the director's character Isa, a photographer, initiates the parting following a session photographing ruins with his bored girlfriend in tow, and a dinner party where the latter laughs hysterically after Isa attempts some small-talk with the host. Following a dream sequence of Ebru's Bahar, where she is buried in sand by Isa after he tells her that he loves her, the male lead tells his girlfriend that he believes they should split up in a sequence where we first see him rehearsing and that we see the actual communication, without realizing that she is listening (Nuri blocks the scene to hide Bahar's participation). Shortly thereafter, director Ceylan shows Bahar leaving and it would seem that the film will continue to follow her post break-up.

However, in the next scene it is Isa who returns as the subject. Subsequently, Climates follows the male lead through its second act as he returns to his professorial job, and later, bumps into a couple of friends in a book store. After the chance meeting, Isa arrives at the woman's flat to find to find her parting ways with her boyfriend for the evening. The woman, Serap, lets him in and the pair soon engage in violent floor-play that concludes with Isa force-feeding the woman a stale nut on the floor in the midst of copulation. As such, Ceylan identifies the sadism of his male lead that will again manifest itself in the third and final act when Isa travels to a distant locale where he discovers his ex is working.

At this juncture, it might be worth noting that Climates operates as a sort of revisionist Turkish Voyage in Italy (1954) to the extent that it also follows a couple, with the director's real-life wife playing the female lead, as they part and reunite while traveling through the director's homeland. The revisionism comes in as the couple does not ultimately reunite, though they do get back together for a night of passion. This moment is filmed in a series of close-ups that obscure the couples' mouths, making the emotional component unclear. That Nuri uncharacteristically uses a modernist score during this passage further marks its debt to L'Eclisse (1962), as does also the film's concluding dissolve, where Ebru disappears leaving only the mosque behind her. Yet, it is less Antonioni than Rossellini who appears to be the picture's source -- in fact, as Andrew Sarris once remarked quite rightly, Rossellini-ennui preceded Antonioni-ennui -- provided the opening setting in the ruins (transposing a key scene from Voyage), the couple's reunion, and that film's similar autobiographical component.

That Rossellini and Bergman, however, were nearing the end of their relationship during that film -- where the couple does stay together, thanks to "miracle" that did not occur outside the film -- while Nuri and Ebru remain together following a film where they split, does seem to situate Climates as reversal of the earlier, epochal modernist text. In fact, Climates is built upon these junctures of expectation, be it the shifting focalization, the scene where he tries to get back together with her while they sit in a van, but are repeatedly interrupted by crew-persons loading the vehicle, or the concluding divergence of the two characters. To be sure, Climates does echo the visual rhetoric of modernism, utilizing as it does long takes, to say nothing of its articulation of ennui, but even in Nuri's compositions we can see a reappropriation of modernist form for his irreverent ends: particularly revealing is the sex scene where Isa and Serap creep closer and closer to the camera -- and to the aforementioned nut -- or the above-noted scene where we are made aware that Isa is breaking up with Bahar only after the fact, as if to mute its impact.

Yet, it is not simply the director's ironic blocking, but his use of high-definition video that separates it from its high-modernist sources. This new technology provides both an infinite depth of field that is well-suited to the picture's alienated subject matter, as it does a tactility that would seem impossible without it: the snowflakes that fall at the end of the film, for instance, come closer to the camera than would ever seem possible; and the flakes shot out the window have more definition than film could ever muster. Moreover, the film's usage of yellow (during the sexually-explicit sequence) possesses a truly preternatural character. And indeed in its very adaptability, Ceylan manipulates his compositions of dark skies to match the psychology of the film's ruminative male lead. Then again, Climates cuts against an obvious reading of the film as a sequence of landscapes -- and climates -- that convey the pair's collapsing relationship as they break up in a summer paradise and tentatively get back together in a harsh winter clime. (In fact, even the noted sky-scape nearly precedes the couple's reunion.)

All of this is to say that Climates is post-modern in the sense that it stakes out new territory within the modernist framework that it expressly positions itself within. It is a film that repeatedly shifts the epistemological basis for the images -- the film undercuts itself -- often connoting irony in the process. Still, Climates never fails to express a concise worldview, which perhaps even the director's biography belies: that life is filled with sadness and that relationships don't last. This proposition, however, given its evident incongruity to with his biography, has not mediated the director's need to express himself, which he has done in unmistakably first-person form, whether or not it adheres to what we know of his personal life.

Lest it is not yet clear, Climates is one of the year's most inventive art films, and indeed one its best as well.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

New Film: The Departed & a Flags of Our Fathers debate with Matt Singer

Martin Scorsese's The Departed seems to have everyone on its side (save for a few important detractors listed below), scoring a box office victory in week one, registering a considerable 93% "fresh" rating among America's critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and placing 48th in IMDb's on-going survey of its reader's favorite all-time films. It is, as the story is seeming to be written, "His most purely enjoyable film in years". So why then did I find The Departed to be a deeply troubling, magnificently flawed foray into pornographic violence? Well, if we keep reading David Ansen's review, that's because "it's not for the faint of heart."

Before we get to the charge that Scorsese's film is "pornographic," which I am strongly convinced it is, let us first consider the picture's visual style. Note the use of visual, and you may already have guessed what I'm up to: The Departed is one of the vaunted director's laziest visual works of art, which is to use that latter term more than generously. There basically is no visual in The Departed, as Scorsese and his cinematographer (Michael Ballhaus) have foregrounded most of their subjects, often keeping one figure out-of-focus in the extreme foreground, while another character interacts with them in the recesses of that same close-in space. Moreover, as film scholar David Bordwell points out on his blog, the average shot length for the over 3200 shots in The Departed is approximately 2.7 seconds a piece -- compared to 7.7 seconds in such superior Scorsese pictures as Mean Streets (1973) and The King of Comedy (1983) -- making it difficult for the viewer to focus upon what little there is in the film's mise-en-scene.

All of this is to say that The Departed could just as well be heard only as it can be seen (as always, Scorsese's film seems to score with respect to its soundtrack). In saying this, one could easily object that scant visualization is by no means a signifier of bad filmmaking, to which I would agree. Then again, as opposed to the paradigmatic cinema of the austere, Robert Bresson's, where the spare visuals call attention to that which exists beneath the surface, namely to the spiritual dimension of life, in Scorsese's film, there is nothing beyond his flat visual. Indeed, what is perhaps most troubling about The Departed is this absence of a moral core, its failure to critique the misanthropy which the film depicts (as critic Armond White argues rather cogently) even as it revels in the carnage on screen. With The Departed, Scorsese seems to have crossed over into postmodernism, while in the process revealing a sensibility and personality that is nothing if not cruel.

Of course, I would be remiss were I not to mention the film's redeeming facet (in the parlance of Jonathan Rosenbaum) which in the case of The Departed I would say is its fine male lead performances by both Leonardo DiCaprio -- who my girlfriend really thinks I look like, which makes me feel good -- and especially Matt Damon. Then again, the film's original, far superior incarnation, Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002), equals if not surpasses Scorsese's on this front as well in its awe-inspiring teaming of Andy Lau and Tony Leung. And at least the Hong Kong version does not have to contend with Jack Nicholson being "Jack Nicholson" for every split-second of the actor's screen time.

Further, the earlier version also does not manifest the insistent psychologizing of the Scorsese version, in part no doubt to that national cinema's tendency toward episodic narratives, and away from the psychological naturalism of the American cinema. (Both Bordwell and another of the picture's high-profile critics, Dave Kehr, make mention of this cloying proclivity.) Similarly, in its usage of more naturalized violence, The Departed attains a degree of the pornographic that the stylization of Infernal Affairs mediates. The Departed is a viscerally experience, to be sure. My only question is how can we endorse such brutal violence at the service of such facile nihilism?

Moving on, I was hoping to construct this piece as a portrait of two directors moving in very opposite qualitative directions, that is of Scorsese becoming less and less a major director with each passing film -- though the first half of The Aviator (2004) showed a great deal of acumen -- while Clint Eastwood further solidifies his standing as America's greatest active director with each passing film. While Eastwood has done nothing to jeopardize this status (so long as he remains the creator of The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976), The Gauntlet (1977), Bird (1988), White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), Unforgiven (1992), the sublime A Perfect World (1993), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Space Cowboys (2000), Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) -- all of which are major works of art) he has done nothing to help it either. In fact, I would not hesitate to call his latest, Flags of Our Fathers, the director's weakest film since his thoroughly dispensable Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).

While there is just enough in Flags of Our Fathers to make it an Eastwood film -- and therefore worthy of our attention -- such as the film's rethinking of myth (The Outlaw Josie Wales, Mystic River) the picture's anxiety toward inadequate parenting (True Crime [1999], Million Dollar Baby) or even a visual style marked by both volumetric interiors represented via wide-angle lenses (The Bridges of Madison County) and also strong chiaroscuro (Million Dollar Baby), there isn't enough otherwise to mark this as essential cinema, though it does flirt with summarizing our moment. To this end, if The Outlaw Josie Wales said something profound about America's loss of faith in itself in the years following Vietnam and A Perfect World encapsulated the early 1990s anxiety concerning children raised in single parent households, Flags of Our Fathers should have said something about our contemporary anxiety with respect to Iraq, which again it almost does. As the film frames the issue, war is made palatable by symbols, and particularly photographs, be it the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima that is the focus of the film's narrative, or the execution of the Southeast Asian that made us doubt American's virtuousness during Vietnam. (Is Iraq's image Abu Ghraib, or are we still waiting for that one image that helps us to redouble our will? Eastwood leaves us to speculate.)

Of course, to criticize a film for not summarizing its moment is a bit unfair, even if its director has done this so successfully in the past. The larger flaw of Flags of Our Fathers is in its utilization of a flashback structure, which its narrative would at the same time seem to necessitate. Specifically, there is one sequence wherein we are directly delivered from a close-up of strawberry syrup covering a bowl of ice cream (made to model the film's image-subject) to a placement on the battlefield that cannot help but strike one as a painfully literal. While at least Eastwood does not succumb to producer Steven Spielberg's propensity to connect character subjectivity to incidents beyond their possible range of experience (he does this in his own World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, 1998) this frequent movement between past and present does not seem to serve the director's greatest strengths as a director. At the same time, Eastwood does share Spielberg's bleached-out color schema, as he does his interventionist camera work during battle.

Then again, his direction of battle scenes, in particular, does show his enormous range: as when the black sand explodes in front of the intervening camera producing substantial visceral impact. On this basis alone I hold out hope that Letters from Iwo Jima (2007) can still give the director his great World War II film. If only he hadn't changed the title from "Red Sun, Black Sand," which was in itself a masterpiece.

Matt Singer responds:

So now you look like Leonardo DiCaprio? Is it possible Lisa was taking a piss?

And I think you missed the boat on Flags (haven't seen The Departed yet). You seemed to review a movie that didn't exist -- the movie you wanted to see -- instead of the movie that Clint offered. Plenty of people have tried to make the movie into something about Iraq, and you seem to wish that it was a movie about Iraq. Why can't it be a movie about World War II? I don't understand that.

And I thought the flashback structure was ingenious and, the moment you singled out as too literal, the ice cream sundae, was perhaps my favorite moment of the picture. Granted, Eastwood takes liberty by using the moment as a key into a flashback, but given this is based on true stories, I took this to be based in something that really happened (I haven't read the book -- someone correct me if it doesn't appear in Bradley's book). Is something is too literal if it actually happens?

Comparing this movie, even in passing, to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is a really low blow. And you like Clint! How could you do that?!?

Michael J. Anderson replies:

As to your criticisms, I think most are well grounded -- basically I did not make my case well enough, which I will admit. So let me grasp at what I think is Flags fundamental flaw: its flashback structure. If we are to look for a superior treatment of the same motivating theme -- the persistence of trauma -- I would call your attention to Eastwood's Mystic River. In the case of this work, the trauma depicted is in childhood, which coalesces with a key theme from A Perfect World, namely that children are made to grow up too fast -- in the case of the later film, to disastrous results. In both cases, this theme is subsumed by a linear narrative that provides just a hint of circularity with its opening and closing images -- a primary Eastwood trope. Likewise, with Mystic River, where this theme is more explicit, said trauma has implications for the actions and therefore for the plot of the film.

To the contrary, Flags of Our Fathers depicts this element for its own sake, which has a stifling effect on the narrative. Let me make this analogy: say you are driving on an interstate and you slide over onto the shoulder. As you do so, you feel a series of jarring bumps as you have driven over a "rumble strip." I think we could say a similar experience occurs during each instance of shell shock structuring the narrative -- sure it gets the point across; but it lacks in the subtlty that the director often achieves in expressing human psychology through action. I guess my basic critique is that the film lacks the director's characteristic economy, which in the opinion of this writer links the director to Hollywood's finest. (Also, for an Eastwood devotee like myself, this flaw as noted above strikes me as all too similar to the key problem with screenwriter Paul Haggis's monumentally over-determined Crash, 2004; so it's all his fault, in other words.)

Eastwood himself has admitted that he tried to re-construct the narrative without this structure to no success, which I think points to its weakness: that it doesn't lead anywhere other than this most basic point of that enduring trauma flows from wartime experience. Eastwood at his best, i.e. A Perfect World or Mystic River, would have expressed these ideas through action, that is in the subsequent actions of the characters, or even in what we as spectators might (wrongly) think that the actions of the characters were, again as in Mystic River. And from this subsumption of action within the contours of plot, moreover, it would be possible to universalize from the narrative what precisely this trauma signals in our current experience -- as Eastwood has communicated the theft of childhood (endemic to our times) in both, or the mass trauma of 9-11 in Mystic River. No similar conclusion can be drawn here, because again the (literal) image of Iraq is unclear, and we have no entry point through which we can extend the film's critique.

All of this is to explain why Flags of Our Fathers is not Eastwood at his best. I hope my feelings have become more clear.

Matt rebuts:

You have written more, and written far more clearly, but my initial statement stands. You are upset at the movie for not what it is, but for what it's not. Specifically, you are upset that Eastwood's depiction of trauma in Flags differs from his depiction in earlier films like Mystic River and A Perfect World. You give a lengthy and cogent explanation why the earlier model is superior, but I think that's mostly an excuse for your belief, rather than the basis for it. The unspoken (but more genuine) reason you hold for opinion -- in my eyes -- is that you, as a devout auteurist, want Eastwood to depict trauma as one way across all his films, because that strengthens your auteurist reading of his films. By trying something different, he skews from one of the things you've found in his films to link them all together.

I certainly agree that the choice of using the flashbacks throughout instead of as prologue and epilogue is less subtle and more blunt: but in a war film, I don't think subtlety is necessarily a plus. As much as it is about trauma, I took Flags to be about perspective. When the American people see Joe Rosenthal's photograph, they see heroism and triumph. When the men in the photograph see it, they see the horrors they've endured. And because everyone loves that photograph, the men in it can't escape it. And every time they see it, they are confronted with what they'd done. I wrote in one of my reviews of the film that my grandparents, both WWII vets, did not like dwelling on anything from the war except the most frivilous stories — just as Bradley, author of the Flags book, didn't even know his father was in the famous Iwo Jima picture until after he died! The more I've thought about it, I've considered what a great sacrifice those brave men made when they came back home. They smiled and sold those war bonds, and pretended like being atop that mountain in the Pacific was a great accomplishment, not day 5 of a 30 day trek through hell. As good as Mystic River is, I thought Flags was even more moving and poweful.

And it was manly, too. And manliness is awesome.

And now you've gone from comparing Flags to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to Crash?!? Wow.

Michael redoubles:

By Mentioning Crash -- and really, as underwhelming as I think Flags is, it remains light-years ahead of the Haggis picture in terms of its quality -- I meant to step outside my little auteurist framework and ask whether this deviation could be due to a collaborators' contribution... which is another way of me saying, 'why do I think this film is so far inferior to the director's better efforts?' (So yes, you're right in your critique.) But, Midnight in the Garden... is material ill-suited to the director, as is this picture. Hence the comparison. And that it is material shaped by Haggis leads one to the second comparison. I might throw in Spielberg as another check on the film's quality, though a producer's role in shaping a film is far more unclear often times. Then again, perhaps the film's scope can be related to his participation. And if anything, those parts that look and feel like Saving Private Ryan are among the better moments in the film.

Matt retorts:

I concede your cleverness, turning my auteurist argument about you against me. Perhaps the Yale debate team could use your skills.

But I press on nonetheless! Midnight in the Garden is a terrible movie but a remarkable soundtrack: I remain convinced to this day that Eastwood made it mostly so he could put that soundtrack in his CD collection. And I'm glad he did; it's in mine too. If you wanted to make an Eastwood auteurist argument related to jazz and his movies, Midnight in the Garden can be recouped. A little, anyway.

I'll agree that the main Iwo Jima battle resembles Saving Private Ryan with one distinct difference, though I should warn in advance that I haven't seen SPR since 1998 so my recollection isn't perfect. The thing that Flags has that SPR does not is a remarkable number of shots designed to ape what a real war photographer's shots might look like — I'm thinking specifically of the shots of the camera falling into the water as it leaves the transport for the beach, and also of a camera getting covered in dirt as men storm past it — images I took as a credit to the work of men like Joe Rosenthal who were yet more unsung heroes of that battle (you don't see Rosenthal touring America with his subjects, after all). Spielberg's version is a grunt's eye's view, but it is a beautiful, perfect one in its own grisly way. Eastwood's shows the seems a bit more, yet another element that ties into his showing the reality behind a legend, and another perspective to the multitude he shares. I quite prefer Flags to SPR.

You won't find many people who hate Crash more than me. Maybe it helped that I didn't know Haggis co-wrote this movie until I saw his name in the end credits, maybe not. I think even if Flags wasn't based on true lives, it would still feel infinitely more authentic than Crash.