I saw Tree of Life by Terrence Malick – he’s one of the great auteurs of contemporary American cinema, but this is only his sixth film. It won the top prize at Cannes this year. There is much that is beautiful and moving in this film and it has really stayed with me. Malick went to Harvard as an undergrad, where he studied with philosopher and film theorist Stanley Cavell, and the film is very much informed by Malick’s take on American transcendentalism. But there’s also much that is annoying, even laughable in the movie (and not just the dinosaurs that somehow make their way into a story of growing up with a harsh father in 50s Texas). The mother is so idealized and ethereal and overlit that the movie threatens to run aground on this lack of imagination. I love to see a great artist make a great, big flawed movie. I can’t wait for a woman director to get the chance to do the same.
A movie that recently caught my eye was Labyrinth (1986). Directed by Jim Henson and scripted by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, it’s a trippy fantasy built around Henson’s creatures and British concept illustrator Brian Froud’s designs – as well as a marvelously daft performance by David Bowie (who also provides songs) as the Goblin King. It’s particularly relevant to my research on special effects, because it comes out of a key transitional moment when predigital effects – matte paintings, miniatures, make-up, puppets – were at an apogee of sophistication, just beginning to give way to their CGI replacements. An artifact of the analog era, its industrial origins are as much of a lost neverland as the dreamtime of its narrative.
Personally, Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) stood out not so much due to its special effects or spectatorial impact (I was actually disappointed by the effects; Fringe does them better and integrates them more successfully into the narrative), but for its expression of and response to the current sociopolitical situation in the United States and some astounding confirmations of feminist psychoanalytical film criticism’s insights. The film makes visible the epistemological shift between a 20th century North America based in large part on scientific explorations and insights, privileging “facts” over affect and a new order that holds stock (literally) in implanting subconscious messages (“job-creators” instead of “millionaires”???) and triggering affect-based reactions to re-balance power structures in the favor of globally connected monied elites (which in the film happen to be Asian heavies). Of course, favoring affect-based motivation changes on the psychic frontier over a rational economic dialogue allows the female-coded monstrous to surface. The psychological, and here also neo-colonialist, rape of the Other for financial gain gets warped by a woman scorned. Race and gender stereotypes collude to almost erase the white man’s responsibility for it all. The film explores long held assumptions of Woman “who does not exist” but in the liminal split between the Real and the Symbolic. And from there in Inception, she haunts the deepest layers of the colonizer’s unconscious which, in this case, is mapped and overseen (!) by her “sister’s” well-laid architectural grid. Woman as spectacle, specter and spectator!