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NEW YORK, NY — If you have seen “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” odds are you are anticipating “The World’s End,” the latest film from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They chat with Fox 4 Film Critic Shawn Edwards about this new film, until Simon spills his coffee.

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So it’s hard to think about this film outside of how it’s a Coen brothers film and it looks and feels like a Coen brothers film. I guess one of the things about the film that really stuck out to me were the opening shots, bleak, textured images that looked kind of like Ted Bundy’s painted Americana, gross and dirty and just kind of the way things are. They are, in many ways, perfect images of morality in Coen-verse. Coupled with the cripplingly convoluted and inane voice over, they show us an America (that is very specifically American) that just kind of fumbles and screws up over and over and over again, without ever being aware of what it is doing. A naive America–now that’s a novel idea which has never been discussed in art or literature ever before. Nope.

But seriously, the Coen’s approach to Americana is really intriguing. And I’m not *quite* sure why. I think maybe it’s the judgement of naivety while simultaneously alienating the viewer viewer style, especially shot angle and lack of depth in shots (the most alienating ones are the flattest, like the opening landscapes of the film), as well as sound and odd–albeit tight–story structure/characters. These choices allow the viewer to laugh at the stupid, naive decisions made by the characters in the film because, hey, they’re not invested in the character’s well-being or safety. Similarly, the world that the characters come from is equally stupid and meaningless, chock full of meaningless characters and places . Meaningful events can happen, but they are meaningless due to their location and/or the characters involved. I guess if you put this in a larger social context…well, I don’t know quite what you get exactly. It seems like Coen brothers take a strong stance on human nature, while managing to stay out of stuff like contemporary politics and/or social concerns. Which is pretty impressive, I guess, when you think about the films being made just a few years beforehand…Mean Streets, Apocalypse Now, hell, the 1980s were chock full of socially aware films, even the ones that tried to avoid politics by making fun of them (Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance). So I dunno. Maybe Blood Simple was the Coen brothers’ attempt to make a film that had no social/political agenda…focusing instead on speaking truths about human nature and The Way Things Are. Is that part of indie style nowadays? Maybe that’s why a lot of “indie” films suck so bad. Because they filmmakers are preaching the State of Humanity without being as intelligent, visionary, witty, or plain old talented as the Coen brothers.

…in the room. Here’s a set of random thoughts about this movie. And why I’m not sure how I feel about it.

*Elephant is shot like a documentary, giving us very little insight into the character’s psychologies aside from their actions, clothing, who they’re friends with, etc. In other words, how we often judge people IRL–especially in high school. The lack of a musical score in combination with long takes and little-to-no analytic editing (suddenly we just jump to another place) all place the viewer “in the moment” while simultaneously estranging him from the inner psychology of the characters he meets.

*This “documentary” approach is intriguing on the stylistic level, bringing up the time olde film-y question of how real is real? What determines the “reality” of something on camera? These questions are particularly interesting because Elephant is NOT a documentary–rather, it is documentary style applied to a fictional world.

* HOWEVER (and this has always been my big beef with this film) Van Sant places certain pieces of information that allude specifically to the Columbine massacre, while other pieces of information–especially those having to do with the non-shooter characters–are completely fictional. This seems to me to be problematic on a number of levels. Firstly, it means that Van Sant takes a specific interest in the shooters, supplying them with real-life details that the other characters are not awarded. As a result, we gain slightly more insight into/appreciation for the shooters (especially by the end of the film) than the other characters. Secondly, it means that Van Sant makes certain assumptions specifically about the Columbine massacre. This shifts the focus of the film away from being a study of adolescence and into “it bleeds it leads” territory. Van Sant could have easily made the same film, with the same ending (school shooters shoot up a school), but he didn’t.  Instead, he a made a weird, fictionalized-yet-documentary-in-style film ABOUT Columbine itself. And I don’t know what to think about that. Also because it’s hard to tell if the film is self-aware about that stuff…we already got so many fictional accounts of Columbine masquerading as the Truth (newspapers, for one) that perhaps Van Sant is critiquing that stuff. But like I said, it’s hard to tell if he (or the film) are consciously doing that.

*I would also like to point out that it makes high school a sort of high-art melodrama/opera. Which is kind of cool, because it really does provide a lot of insight into how horrible it is to be in high school. But also, again, somewhat questionable in terms of “what are you trying to do with this film?” Especially the end of the film, which is Iwouldn’tbesurprised a reference to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, but looks and feels like some kind of dooming judgement on the evils of human nature. Which takes it completely beyond Columbine territory, unless you want to think, like the shooters, that everyone in the world is horrible and deserves to die.

Yep. That’s what I have to say on that.

…completely rocked my world. This movie is a bromance (that can never be!), a heist film, a surfer-subculture flick, and a buddy cop story all rolled into one, insanely over-the-top Katheryn Bigelow party in my face. I loved every minute of it. I don’t even know how to approach a film like this critically. On one hand, it begs to be mocked and enjoyed, but never thought about. On the other hand, it tells, on some level, a truth about masculinity, freedom, and the human spirit. I’m not even sure I can separate the two, which is the beauty of many of the Katheryn Bigelow films I’ve seen. The dumb, brutish, Hollywood-ness of her films is necessarily linked to their deeper meaning and truths.

Swayze and Keanu are stupid men, seeking only thrills, with no concern for the well-being of friends and loved ones. But they are also images of a very nuanced masculinity, which loves the world and yet cannot conform to its standards. In the end, their boyishness ruins (almost) everything. It’s hard to tell if Bigelow is critiquing or appreciating from a distance. Some of both, I think. Critique with a touch of “but it’s okay, you’re doing your best.” I love her films because they don’t hate men (or women, for that matter). Instead, they try to reconcile with our understanding of gender norms in an empathetic yet Hollywood-ized language. It’s totally great, and completely insidious for those who don’t hold the same values as Bigelow.

Point Break. In the spot-on words of Keanu, it’s pretty great. Definitely.

Mean Streets is on one level a film about storytelling. The main characters all tell stories, fabricate characters, situations, etc. It is on one level a cultural thing that deeply affects Scorsese. On the other hand, it is Scorsese’s love letter to the art of narrative and human expression. Scorsese’s films always seem so human to me because they are both completely absurd and false, and yet true to that falsehood, loving and nurturing it as an integral part of being human.

Some things about Mean Streets that are false: the redness of the bar, much of Johnny Boy’s characterization (and the other mafiosos, for that matter). Pretty much everything about Teresa–at one point she’s a stupid Italian chick, at another she’s a beautiful, elegant lady. The film’s soundtrack. The dialogue. The tone.

But Mean Streets also speaks truth, in part because of these crazy characters and stories. The editing makes the film a film in an obvious way, but it also represents human experience and memory on a deep level. We remember and live moments, not neatly constructed story arcs. We are one place and then we’re somewhere else. Time passes. And, in our memories and understanding of the world, we often craft imperfect approximations of people and places. We remember someone from high school as a character in our lives, rather than a fully-fleshed human being. And that’s okay. We tell the story of a person, or a place, or an idea because we get at the heart of the thing we want to represent. And, in our lies, we tell a truth.

Scorsese knows all this stuff. He loves story because he loves what it means to be human. Yes, Mean Streets and many of his later films are depressing, or attempts at understanding masculinity and its prolific flaws (certainly no more prolific than the flaws associated with femininity, however). Or  he examines crime, Catholicism, and any other number of themes that seem heavy and difficult. Weighty. Scorsese is concerned with all of these things. But he is also concerned with story, and with the basic human desire to talk and relate and whisper truths in the dark.

A collection of note-thoughts about the end of the world.

*the opening sequence is a slow, dreamy apocalypse–it is a kind of beautiful fever dream, or a tweaky, drug-induced trip. What makes it powerful/uncomfortable and impossible to digest is the weird beauty and/or reverence for violence, death, and inhumanity. It seems to speak a truth about human nature, but it is convoluted and cloudy.

*very shallow focus, combined with CUs in the sequence with Harrison Ford is uncomfortable. It breaks things into parts, not allowing us to see the whole. Throughout the majority of the film, we can feel the presence of a whole truth, horror in the flesh. But we are only provided with its totality in a small number of moments.

*the actors repeatedly break the 4th wall. Their haunted eyes pierce straight through the audience. I’m not sure how much of this is due to the production history of Apocalypse Now, and how much of it is just good acting. Apparently Martin Sheen was struggling with alcoholism throughout production…it adds some power/mystique to his haunted, gaunt face.

*”don’t look at the camera” = self-reflexive, Vietnam as a myth created by media…the myth of Vietnam is fabricated, in other words. The film also creates a myth through music and the soundtrack. 

*Apocalypse Now has its own mythos due to its completely insane production history, etc. etc. Watching the film is like watching Coppolla et. al.’s vision crash and burn. It is a kind of cinematic deterioration. 

*the absolute worst thing about this film was the ending. There is no revelation, no apocalypse, no death/rebirth moment. Everything is just horrible. And that is what Coppolla leaves us with. We expect the worst, and get something that can never meet that expectation. THAT is what makes this film complicated/truthful/dishonest/powerful/terrible/upsetting/depressing/many many other feelings.

 

What makes this movie so weird/humorous is that it seems like it’s simultaneously anachronistic and totally realistic. For instance, Mrs. Miller’s entire characterization (speaking mannerisms, gross eating habits, etc.) is on one level totally true to how people actually are, but also seems out of place and overly dgaf-y for a film set at the turn of the century. It is as if Robert Altman decided to take the morals/social roles of 1970s America and displace them into a totally different setting, thereby alienating the audience just enough to see their culture from an outside perspective. It makes 1970s society a place of Otherness.

This is, of course, particularly effective with the character of McCabe. He is constantly at odds with the Western setting. His morals seem to be more those of the cowboy, the loner, as evidenced in the final sequence of the film where he faces the mercenaries on his own as the town people attempt to save the burning church. He is more in synch with the original idea/ideal of the West, and for that reason he cannot ever get close to anyone. This is complicated, however, by the totally anachronistic/realistic Mrs. Miller, who seems to be the one character that can help him fit into this 1970s-cum-1900s Western town community. It is her transcendence of/separateness from the alienating culture of the town that makes her appear “real” to McCabe, allowing him, for the first time, to try to fit in. In return, McCabe allows Mrs. Miller to be a woman with thoughts and feelings, rather than simply a badass brothel madame.

However, and this is the real tear-jerker of the film, it doesn’t work out. McCabe cannot step outside his lone gunman role, and Mrs. Miller is forced to stay as a one-dimensional version of femininity. It is an incredibly moving portrait of the trapped-ness of masculinity in the 1970s, punctuated by the coded-masculine genre of the film.