“Dunkirk” and the flouting of cinematic conventions.

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Here’s a theory: We can mark the moment a director truly blossoms into his or her own as an artist by when they chose to break a cinematic convention. Continue reading

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“Graceless” published at Loud Zoo

Very excited to announce that my short story “Graceless” has recently been published at Loud Zoo, part of Bedlam Publishing! “Graceless” follows college professor Cleanth Bachmann, long since past the point where he should have grown up, as he tries to have one last hurrah before the senescence of old age sets in. His sexual advances toward a student lead him down a dark road where he’s forced to confront the person he became when he wasn’t looking. It has sex, quick dialogue, and more than enough pretentious literary and musical references. In the kind words of Loud Zoo, it’s an “engaging exploration of the mind and masculine entitlement.”

Best of all, you can read it for free on their website! Check out it in the October issue, along with a lot of other great writing in there as well.

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The Battle of Algiers: Still Looking Good at 50

Here in Chicago, the Music Box Theater’s presentation of the 4K restoration of The Battle of Algiers offers an opportunity to revisit the faux-documentary, aged a solid 50 years. Disturbingly, and remarkably, the film feels more relevant than ever.

That phrase seems like a cliche hook (and it probably is) but I want to sit on it for a minute if for no other reason than to emphasize that I really mean it. Watching The Battle of Algiers now is a bizarre experience where, every fifteen minutes or so, your jaw drops a little lower as you hear relevant headline after relevant headline. For example: one Algerian FLN fighter tells another it’s hard to start a revolution, harder still to keep it going, and hardest of all to win it — and then, if you do, the real work begins. From Tunisia to Egypt and on down the line, there’s hardly any country that hasn’t come out of the Arab Spring knowing this adage all too well.

Or another example: at a press conference, a reporter pushes on the French Colonel in charge of shutting down the resistance, asking something he says his fellow journalists are too afraid to ask — what is going on with torture here? The calm bait and switch of the Colonel is all too familiar, as are the excuses and complaints he offers up — lives are on the line, the halls of justice move to slow. Even the sardonic rebuke of the reporter seems recognizable: the law can really be a nuisance sometimes.

But what is most remarkable about the film 50 years down the line is what is not relatable about it. And what most sticks out like a sore thumb — refreshing and daring to the point of being, even now, thrilling — is the portrayal of the Muslim revolutionaries. It is for this reason alone that it seems impossible to try to imagine a modern day remake of the film. It’s not just that the Arab freedom fighters aren’t treated stereotypically, a thing shocking enough when you consider how conditioned we’ve become to a one-note, uniform portrayal of such things. (Can you think of one time in a film or TV show where you have seen an Arab with a weapon and it hasn’t been accompanied by that cliche, undulating, high-pitched whine singing, by an extreme long lens shot with heat-wave distortion?) What is especially remarkable is that the Muslim revolutionaries are the heroes of this story, they are revered as such. The film attempts from time to time to take a balanced approach, but it undeniably leans toward the FLN. As a modern American viewer, it’s not just remarkable and unprecedented to see such a thing, it borders on being confusing. So ingrained is the stereotypical Muslim fighter in our collective media unconscious, that to see a portrayal like this which rebuts it so completely is almost baffling.

It feels like here is where, in my position, one is supposed to draw a distinction. There is a difference between the Arabic freedom fighters of the FLN and the terrorist organizations of our day. One is fighting for liberation, freedom, the other oppression. But The Battle of Algiers does not draw such a distinction,or at least not so definitively. While it unarguably favors the FLN, it does take time to document their atrocities, and resists presenting these atrocities as the work of heroes or martyrs. Compare the bombing sequences, first when the French bomb the Arab quarter, then when the FLN bomb back. Yes, when the Arab quarter is bombed we see the children’s bodies being carried away. But we see more of the French victims before the explosion — including a young boy eating ice cream. This significantly changes how we sympathize with both sides.

50 years later, the most remarkable thing about the Battle of Algiers — aside from its perfectly paced editing and its decades-ahead, phenomenal sound design — is that it presents to a Western audience a view of an Arabic community that feels still, tragically, far too unique. Importantly, my appeal here is not for sympathetic portraits of an Arabic community (or others), but a different portrayal, one which pushes against the traditional Western view. The most heartbreaking thing about The Battle of Algiers is that we seem not to have learned from it, that we seem to have fallen on the crutches of stereotype rather than exerting the energy to lift ourselves off of them. Perhaps it’s not too late for the film, though. Perhaps we just needed a few decades to catch up with it.

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Review: “Jason Bourne”

There are more than a few issues to highlight in the latest installment of the Bourne franchise. The fact that they choose to set the final action set piece in Las Vegas. The all around pretty atrocious acting, from anyone who happens to step in front of the lens. The fake American accent on the part of Alicia Vikander, which is so bizarre it almost seems as if she’s trying to do some other, very subtle foreign accent instead. But at the end of the day, most of these could be forgiven as the shoddier execution we often expect with an action film. What can’t be, and what sinks the movie into the territory of the truly forgettable, is that the film completely fails to push the franchise along in any meaningful way. Instead, it acts as a sort of lazy greatest hits compilation, compiled with less energy and originality than most YouTube best-ofs. Continue reading

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Best Film Scores Century To Date

The folks over at The Playlist posted their collected best film scores century to date and as always it’s pretty spot on. We did think of a few that seemed to be missing, though, so we wanted to highlight some often underrated but pretty spectacular recent film scores.

“Norwegian Wood” (2010) – Jonny Greenwood

By no means is Jonny Greenwood underrepresented on The Playlist’s list (see his #2 spot for “There Will Be Blood”) but, for our money one, of his best and most underrated is his fabulous score for the 2010 adaptation of this early Murakami hit.

Not only does this score have the dark, foreboding tones of Greenwood’s TWBB work (and others), but it has these infused into a sound that’s overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly romantic. There’s a definite Bernard Herrmann influence at work here as well, recalling classics like “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”

Perhaps this score is a little more slept on given that the film isn’t quite as well known, but it’s a perfect recasting of classic influences in a tragic and wrenching mode.

“Contagion” (2011) – Cliff Martinez

Cliff Martinez, constant collaborate of Steven Soderberg (among others), has more than established himself as one for the ages. While his “Solaris” score makes an appearance on the list, his “Contagion” score deserves recognition as well. With it’s slinky bass lines and it’s bubbling synths, it would be hard to deny that — if not influenced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s work (who, by the way, have a new song) — it’s at least within the same camp.

But Martinez pushes the sound in a different direction here, taking the more driving sections of a score like that of “The Social Network” and making it a thread that pulls together the various storylines of “Contagion.” Like the disease itself, the score bubbles just under the surface of the film, reminding us of the dark pulsing danger that’s gaining momentum. It’s ominous and entrancing, all without being overwhelming. It’s also some of Martinez’s best work.

“The Revenant” (2015) – Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, Bryce Dessner

Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of the most interesting and challenging composers working, also apparently can be one of the best film score composers when he decides to. His score for Inarritu’s “The Revenant,” composed with help from Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner of the National fame, is jaw dropping in its beauty and simplicity, much like Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. The two are a perfect complement for each other — both give the impression of being natural grace while also being relentlessly unforgiving. Sakamoto leaves so much space in some sections it seems it could swallow you up. And then the haunting melody works its way back. Somehow, the whole piece seems harrowing and sorrowful, yet outlined in a sliver of quiet awe. If the film’s story left you wanting more (or if Leo’s acting left you wanting less) look to the score for the awful and awesome wonder of nature that the film seemed intent on concocting.

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Trump: A historical perspective

For a brief minute, let’s set our anxieties aside. Let’s imagine Trump does not become our next president. Regardless of whether current polls deem this a realistic or not fantasy, let’s simply allow ourselves to imagine this for a moment. Trump is defeated. Hillary is elected. The United States finally has their first female president.

How will this be viewed in a hundred years from now? What will the iPads or Chromebooks (or, you know, whatever) of 7th graders say about this historic moment? Here’s my bet. You know how your slightly edgier high school history teacher, the one who was young enough to still care and try to change minds and all that, threw out the perspective that actually no, Lincoln didn’t really care that much about ending slavery, and that if he did care it wasn’t for some grandiose, laudable moral reason but for political or economic ones? That actually this watershed moment in the history of the United States came about because of the same old seedy, political motivations? I imagine the textbooks of 2116 to read something similar.

“Contrary to some opinions,” 7th graders will read on their Google Glass, “America elected its first woman president not on the strength of her credentials or because there was an outcry for gender equality, but because her opposing candidate was so odious that the antiquated two party system — divided in the extreme up until this time — was able to come together in order to thwart such a man from taking over the country’s highest office. A vote for Hillary was not so much a vote for the first female president as it was a vote against her reviled opponent (Donald Trump (1946-2017)).”

Maybe this seems obvious or unimportant (or, outside of our fantasy view here, unrealistic) but I think it’s worth noting. I think this for two reasons. One: I think this is largely true (that a vote for Hillary is mostly a vote against Trump) but not completely true. I am excited about voting for a female candidate and there are a whole lot of other people out there who are too. And this kind of changes my perspective about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Because while I don’t doubt that it is largely true that the reason the Emancipation Proclamation went through were largely political rather than moral, there was undoubtedly a significant number of people pushing it through and fighting for it for very moral reasons. How could it be anything but this? The moral issues were so huge, so important, how could this not be what they were fighting about? And while maybe some of the important players did not think of it in moral terms but in political ones (due, no doubt, to their afforded privilege), the political terms cannot be fully separated from the moral ones. I would even venture to say that the political terms were something of a signifier for the moral ones. (Which is, importantly, not to say that those fighting on political terms were secretly fighting on moral ones. Instead, it is to say that the political and moral are always tied together, whether or not the player pushing their action understand this).

And so then, two: our political and our moral reasons are not totally separate. The fight against Trump is not separate from the fight for a woman as president. And, as before, I don’t mean to imply that everyone who is reluctantly voting for Hillary — despite the fact that they loudly and repeatedly claim she is a liar or criminal or whatever — are actually secretly supporting a feminist cause at heart. I simply mean to imply that we can’t separate the two, not completely. We are all dealing with a moral issue too, whether we want to or not. Maybe part of the problem is that the issue is so large, so prevalent and important, that we aren’t able to see it, just as we can’t begin to imagine how others actually see us. But make no mistake, whether we choose to recognize it or not, future generations will. Let’s hope we make a decision that makes them proud of us rather than one at which they shake their heads.

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a crumb: Limbus: The Reckoning

As is most likely evident by now, the Philanthropist is taking a month off. It will return fresh and sparkly July 1st. Until then, here’s a new little segment called ‘crumbs,’ which is for things a little more than flash fiction but a little less than short stories. Enjoy.

[Beep]

Ok so first, well I was playing Limbus: The Reckoning and I had another idea which I know you’ll probably think is stupid too but whatever. So like I know I’m not very good at it, at Limbus, but I finally beat the boss and got to another level, and I was wondering if like this was the last level or if I had like five more bosses to beat or something, and but so what if it’s like that? What if after you die, you’re all of a sudden in like the next level, with a bunch of people that died in this world, but you can still die in this next level and you don’t know if there will be another level after it or if it’ll just be the end or what? I mean you’re probably going to think that’s wrong too, but like nobody knows so it could totally be true.

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the Philanthropist: issue four: time is an illusion.

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THE PHILANTHROPIST is an ongoing graphic(less) novel, with new issues on the first of each month. You can get started here. Hope you enjoy.

illusion—

Idle words at mumbled volumes. Chairs squeaking, settling, shifting. Paper pamphlets, shuffling and crumpling. A few hundred wool suits all rustling together. A dull roar, filling the massive auditorium.

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the Philanthropist: issue three: Pennywyld Crybilly.

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THE PHILANTHROPIST is an ongoing graphic(less) novel, with new issues on the first of each month. You can catch up with issues one and two if you’re a little behind. Hope you enjoy.

 

[A face: the mouth stretched out, contorted, smeared. Behind thick-rimmed glasses, eyes wide. A hand close, blocking the corner of the frame. A streak of blood, arcing across the image. Reflected in the man’s glasses, the machine.]

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the Philanthropist: issue two: the Bells Bells Bells Bells Bells Bells Bells.

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THE PHILANTHROPIST is an ongoing graphic(less) novel, with new issues on the first of each month. It follows Simon, aka the Philanthropist, and his trusty sidekick the figure, aka the Raven, as they fight amateur graffiti artists and debate the lesser works of Edgar Allen Poe. Or something like that.

You can catch up on issue one here. Hope you enjoy.

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