Archive for January 14, 2013

Holy Motors, Cinematic Drives


To be consistent with various political commitments, I want my favorite movie of the year to be Django Unchained. It does many of the main things I want great movies to do: it riffs on established genre patterns,reshaping them while acknowledging the greatness of previous iterations. It gives me an underdog hero who kicks ass in creative, bloody ways. It makes smart, challenging claims about American culture and history. And it’s accessible to just about everyone–everyone, at least, who can handle a far more liberal sprinkling of actually offensive profanity than I ever intend to produce.

However, I’ve had several days to ponder my feelings for the unexpected challenger in the mix. This homo high school kid who sang many a tune from Les Mis would not have been shocked to have the Jackman-led cast make me fall in love all over again or some such crap. But no, that is not the competition. I suspect I’ll love Amour as well, simply because Haneke is a brutal artist who makes the highbrows respect the sick shit I revel in whether it’s Cannes-eligible or not. No worries, Quentin, the real challenger isn’t even on the Academy’s list: it’s Holy Motors, which I finally saw last Thursday thanks to the Floyd Theater and Student Activities Board at the University of Louisville.

To say too much about why Holy Motors deserves its places on many of the world’s top 10 lists of 2012 risks robbing you of the experience. Perhaps you should stop reading now and just see the movie. For those who want more, though, I’ll explain a few reasons why I find the film impossible to stop thinking about.

1. It recapitulates film history without being dense or annoyingly erudite. Yes, lots of allusions, but you could miss every one and still vaguely sense that each of the film’s segments riffs on a specific aspect of film production or style. And just as the brilliant lead performer (Denis Lavant) slides into a new and unexpected performance, the camera and sound perform similarly, using cinematographic gestures and musical flourishes that highlight the current mode of the narrative without creating the obvious disjunctions so common to high-minded pastiches. I feel that even calling the movie pastiche–even though I’d have a hard time arguing that it isn’t–belies the unity it achieves through its fluid integration of elements, a sustained, followable, FUN tone that rolls into new thrills like a high-end rollercoaster.


2. It seduces with different possibilities for unity. The advertised structure–the male protagonist moves through (at least) nine different scenarios, recreating himself for each encounter–does not follow a consistent logic, but it doesn’t abandon logic, either. The all-life-is-performance, authenticity-is-illusion themes are necessary but a beginning rather than an end. The film provides several, incompatible ways to feel for the various performances, granting authenticity to the postmodern truism about performance by suggesting that several of the scenes we see could be non-chronologically presented moments from the same life and relationships. Instead of being unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim, our protagonist, Mr. Oscar, gets driven from point in time to point in time, each point matched to its appropriate genre elements and tones, by a ride in a limousine. And so in the audience, I find myself actually identifying with the abstractions onscreen, seeing not just a heap of styles, which it is, but also my own confusion at encountering life as a remix of familiar narratives and genres, my own desire to be knowing and professional about this encounter, and my own bemusement about living life in the layers-of-performance manner imposed on everyone, to one degree of self-consciousness or another.

Holy Motors - Motion Capture

3. Just about every moment is gorgeous and compelling. Denis Lavant on the screen, most notable in the motion-capture dance but in all the other sequences as well, renders movement as poetry, reminds us that acting is an art of embodiment. The supporting cast holds up extremely well; women, no more or less interchangeable than men, even though the women involve different actors whereas Lavant is a distressing number of the men, move with beauty and mystery that provide eroticism, pathos, bathos, and even laugh-out-loud hilarity. Holy Motors isn’t easy, and I imagine it requires some comfort with “art film” viewing habits in order for the viewer to play along, but if you can play along, you’re in for a treat of a sort I haven’t otherwise experienced.


Have I managed to tell you everything about this movie while revealing next to nothing about it? I do hope so. One last word: accordions!


Digital Book Burning?

I just saw my first bad review on Amazon for Burning the Middle Ground. Since anyone playing the writing game long enough will likely encounter a bad review, I feel like I got off easy. The reviewer dislikes the book because it is gory, far out, and “has profanity sprinkled throughout.” I wouldn’t suggest that the profanity is a heavy sprinkling, but I have to agree with all of these points. Like much of my favorite art, the book deserves the equivalent of an R rating (hence it’s recommended for readers age 18+) for scenes of horrific violence, strong language, and adult situations.

The review’s negative points are, to me, at worst neutral and at best positive for my target audience. The review raises an interesting and potentially disturbing question, though, with its final mention of “deleting the book.” What is the relationship between burning a print book and deleting a digital book? The former is a spectacle of hate and oppression considered nigh criminal by many, while the latter is, arguably, just management of limited memory space on a device that gives no easy/legal option for transferring the data to someone else. While I can’t imagine burning a book, I have to admit that I’d probably remove a book from my Kindle if I disliked it as much as this reviewer disliked my novel.

However, posting in public about deleting a book turns the deletion into a public spectacle of erasure–like book burning–so maybe deleting the digital has the potential to be as politically problematic as burning the printed page.

When I considered this maybe, my paranoia engine turned on. The reviewer’s Amazon name is “Mom of 8,” and the review contains the phrase “Maybe I’m just a simple country gal.” From these details, I infer that the reviewer is a heterosexual whose normative reproductive activities provide a great deal of her self-identity, and she is from the country, probably a right-wing-leaning area. These inferences could be totally wrong, of course, and they are based in part on problematic stereotypes. Nevertheless, powered by these inferences, I can’t help thinking that my novel’s gay main character and critical attitude toward right-wing-leaning areas like its fictional setting of Kenning, Georgia could have something, perhaps something unconscious, to do with the reviewer’s reaction.

Note that most of the profanity in the novel is spoken by my cheeky gay New Yorker protagonist, and it eventually becomes a subject of conversation with a more reserved Southern policeman, which I’d say proves that the profanity is relevant to the book’s larger concerns. Forget, for a moment, that I also have a critical attitude toward many of my lefty protagonist’s assumptions and behaviors.

And so I go from thinking that I almost completely agree with my first negative review to thinking that said review is comparable to a public book burning on the grounds that the book is offensive to conservative, moral majority sensibilities.

And you probably won’t believe me, but I just typed “burning on the grounds” without intentionally punning on my book title. But the book is indeed driven by, and perhaps it is even about, the very paranoia that gave my reaction to my first bad review a double edge. The novel includes a bonfire scene that doesn’t directly involve books, but when I wrote that scene, I was thinking of certain rallies that did.

Anyhoo, here’s the link to the book on Amazon. The Amazon page now features the bad review at the top of the list. Selfishly, I’d love for some more positive reviews to offset the mathematical impact of the one-star rating (many thanks to the other reviewer who gave me five!), but I’d also just be keen to see more opinions, either on Amazon about the book or here (meaning my blog or Facebook) about the possibility of digital book burning.