Category Archives: Project Silverscreen

Project Silverscreen NEO: Stoker

Although the true nature of Project Silverscreen is the subject of heated discussion among web historians, most scholars can agree that it was almost certainly a feature of this very blog and was likely focused loosely on classic film. Unfortunately, since the last entry was recently dated a frightening 36 billion Tweets old, a fresh re-branding has been prescribed and will be carried out posthaste.

This is Project Silverscreen NEO.

Preface Postface: As Stoker is relatively new and I am relatively kind, this review avoids explicit spoilers. However, for the interest of discussion, some plot details are inevitable.

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Stoker is:
Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman

Do people change?

Fictional ones do, at least. Fiction is so brimming with hero journeys and three act lives that a pop culture consumer might start to buy into the idea. Maybe the extra self-reflection awards some journeymen with deep, corrective insight; in my experience, though, comparisons with the reductive growth of calculated protagonists lead only to pangs of dissatisfaction and romantically-distorted expectations. Sugar helps the medicine go down, but it is increasingly difficult to detect a trace of medicine in the power fantasies and manic pixie dream diets today’s film audiences are trough-fed.

Stoker is an overdose. In the cold dialogue and colder performances, one immediately tastes the bitter hint of a movie that shouldn’t work. In Stoker, characters crave violence (and, fair warning, carnally: the movie might have been renamed Stroker, as the film’s school bully keenly suggests) and yet this violence is not fetishized or padded with exaggeration. In Stoker, there are no characters that serve as moral ciphers. In Stoker, there is only a chilling absence where the protagonist should be. It’s fucking nuts, then, that Stoker is not only a fascinating study of sociopathy but a riveting film in its own right.

Let’s get my problems with the movie out of the way; there are two. First, the film is top-heavy with clumsy, expository exchanges that sound about as natural as an Emo Philips joke. India is supposedly attune to details and sounds that others overlook, but the idea that housemaids and caretakers walk around spouting Information like JRPG NPCs is difficult for me to reconcile with the rest of the movie, which is subtle, suggestive, symbolic, and nowhere near as jarringly loud these two points of contention. The second of said points is Stoker’s high school “bullying” scenes, which seem to have been culled almost entirely from Nickelodeon’s Doug. In one scene, the school’s head bully shouts blatant rape threats while sitting behind India in art class and capturing her crude likeness in a nude sketch. The teacher, somehow oblivious to the first 90% of the bully’s extreme abuse, responds to the hubbub with the verbal equivalent of a slap on the wrist; the scene ends. The extent of the school authorities’ absolute terror under this kid’s reign becomes clear in the second “bullying” scene, in which Head Bully makes a few more rape jokes while perched on a discarded armchair throne (one of four or five which are inexplicably sitting on the grass near the sidewalk that India uses as a detour on this particular school day). He’s presented as a secondary school sultan or, alternatively, a Heathcliff villain. His jokes (which are about as sophisticated as you’d expect from a cow-licked, adolescent shit) didn’t offend my sensibilities, but the ridiculous, cartoonish representation of bullying did; it’s lifted straight from an after-school special, sans rape-related content. Maybe these blunt scenes are meant to reflect India’s heightened senses; whatever the case, they simply do not match the measured confidence with which the remainder of the film is conveyed.

There. I’m done bitching.

Criticisms aside, the majority of Stoker is gorgeously composed and very much in line with director Park Chan-wook’s filmography. Certain shots and transitions in Stoker are every bit as striking as the best scenes from his Vengeance trilogy. On the surface, Stoker fits right in: it even features the breathless two-act construction of many of Park’s films, leaving the audience disoriented and unable to calculate how many minutes are left until the resolution in Act Three allows them to expectorate Acts One and Two into the nearest porcelain bowl. However, like an icebox with something sinister resting beneath the Chunky Monkey, India’s story is frostbitten to its core.

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In previous Park films, we meet good people who are forced into nasty situations. “Sympathy” commands an equal share opposite “Vengeance.” On a broader level, it’s commonly accepted that a palatable movie requires someone the audience can get behind, or else the film must punish the shit out of those unruly, fictional bastards until they redeem themselves on their death beds. Stoker absolutely refutes such a narrative while remaining completely watchable (for those of solid constitution), maybe even enjoyable or cathartic. Park’s New England mansion is inhabited by disassociated personalities who shock and disgust in their defiance to change for the better. India does not see herself as one person, but rather as a stalk of wheat arrested by the wind. There is a girl for every angle of her face; each change in her environment creates another India and destroys the last. Stoker’s is a curiously Zen-like representation of sociopathy, a meditation on the result of Self absolution. The concept of India as one comprehensive being does not exist. Consequently, she only feels responsibility toward Newton’s third law. She is almost purely reactive.

India’s actions are told in a boggling, recursive fashion. Pieces of the film’s plot are pressed flush into place only to be yanked later and jammed elsewhere. You’ll spend as much time hashing out Stoker’s particulars after the credits as you will deciphering India’s muted expressions during the movie. Revealing scenes force the viewer to return to previous events and expand the initially elided account.

It’s not just the storytelling: every element of Stoker is duplicitous. The characters, India, her mother Eve, and psychotic charmer Uncle Charlie, flip like dynamic billboards. The direction moves like a magic eye puzzle, driven by clever transitions and juxtapositions. The dreamlike composition is sometimes symmetrical, sometimes starkly contrasting. The plot, to reiterate, doubles back on itself in mystifying contortions like Ouroboros or an advanced chapter of the Kama Sutra.

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Perhaps Stoker warns against the dangers of expectations. India loses herself in letters, books, memories of her father, and detaches from a tragic reality until she discovers her criteria for happiness has been disturbingly and permanently altered. We watch romantic comedies and underdog tales and our expectations are skewed to demand marked character growth, three clean acts, and a happy ending to boot. Then again, by attempting to extract a simple lesson I might be missing the point entirely. Maybe, like India the loving daughter, the point does not exist.

Here’s what I do know: during my sophomore year at university, I was enrolled in a class dedicated to the reading and writing of the “personal essay.” I did honest work in that class. I wrote about depression and personal ghosts, or at least the figments I then mistook for phantoms. My best essay, however, ends with a sunny spin. There is the classic implication of real “corner-turning” and the uplifting promise of a “lesson learned.” I’d like to be able to defend the essay’s final paragraph and say that it wasn’t just manipulative artifice. I’d like to say I’ve changed, that I’m different now.

I can say that my professor loved it.

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If you, unlike that professor probably, dug Stoker, check out Chan-wook Park’s trilogy of excellent thrillers: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy,  and (my personal favorite) Lady Vengeance. If you didn’t dig Stoker and are probably a much happier person for it, watch them anyway. Take your medicine, it’s good for you.

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Project Silverscreen: Satire Edition

This week, Project Silverscreen is inspired by the video release of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods. The originally intended subject was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, but instead of prattling on like I have an inkling of authority on the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, this week I focus on satire. It’s pretentious!

“Society is binding,” stoner-philosopher Marty posits to his archetypal friends as their RV rolls toward the Cabin of the titular Woods. “It’s filling in the cracks with concrete.” Like so much of Joss Whedon’s future occult classic, Marty’s reflections double as cushioned jabs at the complacent horror genre. Marty, a soothsaying fool in the Shakespearean sense, is the film’s voice of reason; he’s exhausted by humanity’s tropes and wants to give someone else a shot: “Society needs to crumble. We’re all just too chicken shit to let it.”

Yeah, much of what The Cabin in the Woods has to say about the state of horror echoes the groundwork laid out by 1996’s ScreamCabin’s creators aren’t regurgitating the same reflexive study for a new generation, though: while The Cabin in the Woods is an affectionate celebration of horror’s history, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s loaded dialogue and blunt metaphors offer a bleak premonition of the genre’s future and present a counterpoint to Marty’s own prescription of complete paradigm shift. The cycle of blood has churned for centuries: interrupting its flow could bring dire consequence. For example, colossal, eldritch hands might erupt from an arcane fissure and seriously devalue your vacation home.

See, it’s about this cabin in the woods. There are teenagers. You should watch it?

There’s a lot to love about The Cabin in the Woods. Unfortunately, its major twist is also commercial poison. The subtext and sub-terrain that lurks beneath its teen slasher packaging doesn’t translate well to a mass market. Scream, in addition to belonging to a generation of pop culture that was ostensibly more eclectic, had a stylish, sexy aesthetic that practically oozed from its poster, the residue of which would fuel an explosion of video sales, successful sequels and Ghostface masks. The Cabin in the Woods, left to collect dust on the Lionsgate shelf after its wrap in 2009, never had the benefit of shrewd marketing. In addition, its invigorating mélange of ideas can’t be summarized conveniently in a trailer; commercials for the film could only make vague allusions to its depth. One theatrical poster depicts the film as a Rubik’s cube. The Cabin in the Woods has many mysterious cracks on its facade; like a Rubik’s cube, it wouldn’t function without them.

“Filling in the cracks” is also a good way to describe America’s current aversion toward satire. Classically, satire–the boring, words-on-a-page type stuff including Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, dating all the way back to Petronius’s Satyricon–presents a world of fantasy undermined by the truths of reality. It’s a genre of comedy that’s all about the gaps: what is said and what is meant; the vehicle and the tenor. The Cabin in the Woods is a fun slasher where horror tropes are bandied about like razor blades in a 1970s Halloween bucket; it’s also, like Scream, a study of the genre’s formulaic tendencies; it pecks at the cash-grabbing cynicism of production companies like Lionsgate; and yet, it warns against recklessly abandoning these tested waters, a meditation on the commercial and human ramifications of eschewing the genre’s primal appeal. A considerable portion of Cabin‘s audience will only appreciate the first interpretation; another chunk will write it off entirely and groan that it “isn’t even scary.” When I talk about America’s aversion to satire, it’s that last, prevailing group I’m concerned with. Yeah, I’m talking about stupid people.

But not you, esteemed reader. Them.

So, you shouldn’t take offense to anything I’m about to say. Stupid people are ruining everything I love, including satire, and these are the reasons why:

Stop being so genuine. Sure, you can take everything at face value, say what you mean, act how you want to be treated and be a generally decent dope for the rest of your dim life. I’ll be first in line to steal your wallet and spit in your latté and you can bet I won’t be the last, because humanity is inherently awful. You don’t want spit in your latté? Spit in their latté. You know: Them. Those fucking hipsters that probably drink lattés.

To reflect your new, intellectual lifestyle, you need a new, intellectual pop culture. What better way to simultaneously expose your freshly gnarled core and silence Them into reverent submission than by completely betraying your previous musical tastes in favor of something harder to enjoy? Here’s a quick guide:

  1. Avoid “hooks” or “choruses” or “melodies.”
  2. Do you know of anyone who likes this artist or album? Does this artist or album have the capacity to be liked? Avoid.
  3. Abstract and incoherent lyrics imply that the listener inhabits an elevated mental plane. Imagist Ezra Pound once advised young writers to “go in fear of abstractions;” Ezra Pound doesn’t get your music. Warning: never offer your own interpretation of a song without first receiving and ridiculing another’s.
  4. Practice these phrases and try them out at the next social gathering:
    1. “Their new album is shit.”
    2. “Their old albums were better.”
    3. “I loved [album title] when it was new.”

Once you’ve calculated your taste, start drafting a new “taste profile” for next week. Avoiding definition is crucial: you are only consistent in your scathing hate for everything else. Don’t worry about contradicting yourself; critical thinkers will be too busy admiring your distracting mustache!

So, you’re a misanthropist now. You’ve extended the same wild scrutiny to every facet of your life and you’re simply miserable. Life has assumed a hoary pallor, alienated friends stare past you in glazed trances and your last living grandparent shuffled into 5 o’clock traffic to end your most recent phone conversation. You wake up at one o’clock PM and start drinking at noon. You spend half your waking hours groping a stolen fabric sample while conversing with an old Hieronymus Bosch poster. You begin to wish you could live inside that world with the other demons, blue skidoo right into its sanguinary hellscape and begin your penitence. You watch season three of Blue’s Clues instead. You won’t stop until you breach the underworld.

Bosch has some interesting ideas about flute storage.

In the purgatory of cable (an endless procession of Kitchen Nightmares and Charmed)you see a trailer for a movie. It’s called The Odd Life of Timothy Green and it looks delightful.

Does it?

The film is about a plant boy who sprouts from the discarded dreams of his barren mother and father. His cherubic smile pierces through your 19-inch TV and cleanses your being of impurity.

No.

As His eyes train directly upon your soul, they twinkle with enough radiant sincerity to dissolve forty thousand civilizations into Nirvana. He whispers the antidote to suffering, but His eyes are deafening. You wonder how light can be so noisome.

The boy is not his own.

You squint. He is hollow. Inside his skull, blazing spiders weave into and out of the blackened husk of a wailing infant. The flames consume their flesh as they consume the infant. Their excrement coats the orphan in new flesh. You blink.

The TV screen’s snow frosts the walls of your apartment. As you rise to your feet, the crunch of a half-eaten churro invigorates. Like an old friend, your bristling cynicism has returned. Timothy Green is cloying bullshit, and everyone needs to know. Quickly wrapping your emaciated, Hanes-draped shape in the nearest Snuggie, you burst into daylight, truth seeping from the taut corners of your elated grin.

Yes, Timothy Green is cloying bullshit contrived by cynical bastards for the sole purpose of robbing a naïve audience desperate for life affirmation. You wouldn’t have it any other way.

Somewhere in California, a single tear navigates the tan crags of Dick’s cheek. The Disney executive exhales wistfully.

“You’re welcome.”

***

That brings me to my third point:

There is no problem.

Satire isn’t meant to be universally perceived. Historically, it’s a loophole created to express opinions that you’d never dare to shout from your soapbox. A work can’t be good satire if everyone can parse its meaning. When Mark Twain penned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it was Huck’s “unsivilized” antics that captured the American audience (composed of both admiring children and disgusted adults), not Clemens’s sly commentary on race, religion, and Southern values. Gulliver’s Travels sailed off the shelves instantly after publication, but not for its critique of humanity: it was adventurous, silly and written as travel literature, a colossally popular genre. Although the savvy reader or viewer may pick up on a comedy’s satirical themes and allegories, most are in it for the poops and farts. Who’s to say which interpretation is more satisfying?

It’s sort of like the fictional country from that book, Utopia: life seems ginchy until you realize everything runs on slavery. A universe of uniformly cynical assholes would be insufferable and just as creatively oppressive as this realm’s infatuation with innocuous schlock like the Timothies Green and Troubles with the Curves. Satire is culture’s big in-joke; it’s okay if you or someone you know isn’t into it. A distaste for satire doesn’t make an individual stupid; in fact, they’re probably more in touch with reality and better equipped to feed and groom themselves. If you are a lover of satire, congratulations: expect to be routinely misunderstood. Don’t sweat it. Just sit back, dim the lights and fire up that Cabin in the Woods commentary track for the third time.

Society will take care of itself.

Project Silverscreen: Chinatown

This week, Project Silverscreen tackles Chinatown, the 1974 Roman Polanski noir masterpiece starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Well, “tackles” is a little inaccurate. Chinatown is barely scuffed.

I enjoyed Chinatown immensely. It’s a tightly-plotted, gritty, occasionally shocking piece of intrigue. I just don’t have much to say about it and I’m not interested in writing a conventional review. I could have compared it to a milder noir pioneer such as The Maltese Falcon or discussed the gutting twist ending, but instead I wrote some bad Jack Nicholson fan fiction. Enjoy:

“Ha,” Chinatown-era Jack Nicholson laughed mentally in his head as he gulped a big swig of his favorite alcohol and swallowed it, savoring every liquid drop. “This will cure my sobriety.”

The tiny drinking glass clinked like a solid object meeting another one that is just as solid; he had emptied it and placed it on the table. Along with the glass dropped his burden, although this did not cause a sound because it was metaphorical.

“I’m too old for this shit,” Jack growled grumpily and audibly. He was probably around 37 and had just finished shooting some of the hardest acting of his life. He felt the area of his face where his nose had been bandaged just hours ago: the application of the bandage had scared him; it was all too real and made him frightened for his nose. As he acted his character with the expertise of a chameleon, he felt Jack Nicholson begin to slip and this new soul, this oft-hatted fellow with the damaged proboscis, slip in the opposite direction. It slipped into his brain. Sometimes Jack would stare thoughtfully at various personal effects–pictures of children and dogs and wives–to regain his sanity. “I’m feeling pensive,” Jack explained loudly to no one, wanting only to hear his own voice and not the nasally one of this encroaching, bandaged persona. The pension was palpable.

Suddenly, a boom. It was a woody boom like that of a door being knocked upon. In a startled panic, he knocked his glass from the table and caused an even louder sound.

“Of course,  that’s just like me. Making loud noises.” Amused by this personal quirk, Jack accompanied another mental laugh with a visible grin.

Another boom: it dawned on him like the morning sun: that woody boom shared the exact tenor of his acting trailer’s own door!  Acting fast, he sailed o’er an obstacle and quickly reached the knob to that very door. Sweat collected on his knob-turning palm like a pool of growing anticipation. Without any input from his anxious hand, the knob began to turn and the door accordingly opened.

The man who figuratively greeted Jack on the other side seemed to hail from the land of fairies because he was thin. He dressed normally.

“Hello, Jack,” this very same man squealed, this time greeting him literally.

“Hi,” Jack responded colloquially.

The thin man smiled at the easygoing, casual nature of their rapport. “Do you know who I am, Jack?”

“Did Faye put you up to this?” Faye Dunaway was Jack’s costar in Chinatown. She enjoyed practical jokes. He did a mind chuckle again when he thought of her previous, entertaining hijinx. He imagined her naked.

“You are a dull boy, aren’t you?” the thin man humorously referenced The Shining. The reference was anachronistic. “Who is the one person in this world who knows intimately the extent of your misery? Who knows of your secret fear of acting too well? Of your penchant for making loud noises?”

“Jesus Christ,” Jack blasphemed. “You’re me.”

The thin man nodded: “From the future.” It was only then that Jack realized the familiarity of the enigmatic man’s squint. It was really uncanny and, in retrospect, pretty hard to miss. “I jog in the mornings, also,” the thin man added, explaining  his only defining trait.

“Why are you here?” Jack reasonably inquired, expecting exposition. The man chortled or snarled; Jack had never learned the distinction.

“What if I told you that your fears aren’t unfounded, Jackie? That you really are too good at acting; that your expert pretending actually fooled the fabric of reality into synthesizing an entirely new being? That this,” he paused to chortle again, “ungodly parasite knows your sleaziest growls, your narrowest squints, and seeks to employ them in your destruction? What if I continued to tell you that I’m here to deliver a crucial message?”

“This monster I’ve created: does he have a name?”

“Christian Slater.”

“And the message?” Jack bent down to pick up his glass from the trailer floor because it had fallen previously.

The envoy smirked coolly and produced sunglasses from his clothes. He put them on his face, obscuring his eyes. “I’m him.”

A series of metal bangs issued from Christian Slater’s rightmost hip. Bullets sailed forth into all of Jack’s vital organs. One of them blew off his nose, symbolically. “I guess I really am too good,” Jack grinned like a complete badass as he bled a lot. Christian Slater left and made Heathers and The Wizard.

As color drained from Jack’s face onto the white carpet, he lost himself in the prismatic depths of the overturned drinking glass and recognized the sunlit face of a beaming child.

Next week: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Project Silverscreen: Requiem for a Dream

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary (1976; the bicentennial edition):

Re•qui•em (rek′wê ∂m, râk’-, rêk’-) n. [ME. < L., acc. of requies, rest (see RE- & QUIET): first word of the Introit in the Latin Mass for the Dead] [also r-] 1. R.C.Ch. a) a Mass for the repose of the soul or souls of a dead person or persons b) a celebration of this c) a musical setting for this 2. any musical service, hymn, or dirge for the repose of the dead 3. a dirgelike song, chant, or poem

You know what it is! …is not the new slogan for Project Silverscreen, a sometimes belated weekly feature that takes a look at a classic film and vaguely nods, but not before displaying some words on your screen. Maybe read them, because someone in 2012 went to the effort of locating and transcribing a physical dictionary for the sake of authenticity.

Stop smiling, ma. It’s not that kind of movie.

No matter where Requiem for a Dream starts, you can be certain it won’t end up anywhere sunny and verdant. The title promises this much. In a twisted way, however, the whole damned ensemble of Darren Aronofsky’s seminal downer does fulfill their deepest wish. Just as last week’s film, The Graduate, ends on a long, pensive look at the ebbing adrenaline of its eloping couple, Requiem lingers on four similar, sequential images. After twenty, largely dialogue-free minutes of escalating horror, an overhead shot resolves each of the four primary characters’ narratives with one idea: at the nadir of their lives, these victims have achieved absolute anesthesia. If you’ll indulge some freshman-level psychoanalysis for a moment (it’s the kind I’m best at), Requiem for a Dream’s ending is a classic return to the womb.

One ideal–freedom from emotional pain and external oppression–is the sanctuary everyone seeks inside and beyond Aronofsky’s film. Sara Goldfarb hopes to find it by earning celebrity, a commodity that she fantasizes will nullify her son’s dismal life and her husband’s death. Harry Goldfarb, his girlfriend Marion and his partner Tyrone have less distance to fall: obligations flit from awareness as soon as they pass out of sight; their only concern is scrounging up the cash to accommodate the next trip. Infantilism, the way our recollection of infancy surfaces within our personality, is the name of the game for the dreamers: drugs are the “good mother” of Freudian theory, a constant embrace that protects them from harsh reality, the “bad mother” of responsibility and hardship, an amalgamation of all their discomfort. Much of Freud’s work has fallen out of favor, but the idea of the “splitting” of the mother, a consequence of traumatic mothering, still resonates. Considering how Freud’s criticism informs the ill motivations of Requiem for a Dream, it’s difficult not to imagine the addicts’ needle as a debilitating teat–maybe on a super cold day.

Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst not quite as famous but just as foundational, offers another understanding of infant psychology and, tangentially, the infantile adults of the picture. Lacan presents human development as a journey through several worlds. Lois Tyson, in Critical Theory Today, provides a succinct outline: we are inaugurated in fog, not perceiving where one’s self ends and the exterior world begins; after Lacan’s Mirror Stage (estimated at approximately six to eight months) we develop a sense of self as if examining our physical boundaries in a mirror and the fog begins to lift; the Mirror Stage begins our existence in Lacan’s second world, the Imaginary Order. Tyson describes the Imaginary Order as a “world of fullness,” a complete and satisfying union with the mother where the Desire of the Mother is the single determining factor, the last word in contentedness. The Imaginary Order is, as far as the infant can tell, a perfect existence. It’s our first benchmark for quality of life and, unfortunately, nothing afterward compares. We learn language, we develop meaning; we learn what it means to be separated from perfection forever. The Symbolic Order comes along, mucks everything up and forms the prison from which we’ll try to escape every day of our lives.

We were talking about a movie, right? There’s a whole lot of Lacan in Requiem for a Dream, some bits more blatant than others. Mom is everywhere: Tyrone gazes wistfully at a photograph of his own mother throughout the film; Harry and Marion futilely seek perfect companionship in each other; Sara, Harry’s own forgotten mother, grasps at old times and an old dress which is tinted with the rose color of nostalgia. It’s important to note that Sara also clings to a photo of Harry’s graduation that features Harry, departed husband Seymour, Sara and the red dress; although Sara presents the moment captured in this photograph as the height of her own happiness, the Harry in the photo isn’t smiling. From the moment we are initiated into the Symbolic Order, lack is a fact of life. We are never without that emptiness, even in our best moments.

Requiem for a Dream isn’t a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of drug addiction. Drugs are simply a convenient, universal, modern day substitute for Gatsby’s Daisy (or, more recently, Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop and his Julia). They are the ensemble’s objet petit a, Lacan’s term for, as Tyson puts it, “anything that puts [them] with [their] repressed desire for [their] lost object” (that object being, of course, the mother of the Imaginary Order). The various drugs of Requiem for a Dream are used as opiates to distract from a bleak present and fading future.

Toward the end of Aronofsky’s film, Harry revisits a dream from earlier. He stands on a sunlit pier suspended over blue ocean. It is a rare scene in Requiem, one saturated with light and luscious colors; we know it can’t be real.  Harry casts his eyes toward the pier’s end where Marion waits with back turned. As she turns around, he stumbles back, engulfed in darkness. Marion, the pier, the ocean dissipates. That lack comes creeping back. As our fallen friends assume the fetal position, we get the feeling they have finally earned their permanent place in placebo paradise.

Next up: Chinatown

Project Silverscreen: The Graduate

Way back in 2011 and before the Endtimes, two friends and I underwent an oath: to watch one highly-regarded film each week, selecting from a list I myself carefully compiled. A year passed. Now, we’re making good on that oath. No matter how long, esoteric or beguilingly paced, we’re paying each film on the list our devoted attention. In the end, maybe we’ll have learned a thing or two.

It’s not quite criticism; it’s not quite a review; I guess it’s Project Silverscreen.

The beauty of director Mark Nichol’s opus, The Graduate, is that it could be one of the best films of any year; the reality of its release in 1967 is irrelevant to its lasting appeal. As long as there are young men and women who paddle against (or submit to) the swirling eddies of post-collegiate ennui, The Graduate will continue to prick at our zeitgeist. I’m one of those indolent, young men, uncannily resembling Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in nearly every way save the implication that his actual undergraduate experience, skipped in favor of an in medias res exposition, was not an entirely rushed, sparsely satisfying period. Ben’s myriad athletic and academic accomplishments aren’t making his transition beyond academia any easier, though: the criteria for success he has been fed since primary school is suddenly useless. He has come within inches of his education’s celebrated culmination only to reach through what he thought to be solid, to have it blur into the horizon like a mirage. Months after graduation, I still feel the way Ben does, that I’m skimming the surface of the world on a raft, waiting for rescue or to drown in apathy.

Right, I’m back. That regrettably dark tangent is proof of how well The Graduate’s first act, our introduction to Ben and his neuroses (which are played to wonderfully endearing effect by Hoffman), works by fashioning him as an avatar for the viewer. It’s a method of characterization often attempted and so rarely successful: to place the audience directly in the protagonist’s shoes and establish an affinity which, if consistently developed, results in a cathartic payload magnified several times over. Crafting personally identifiable characters has been of popular interest since the inception of the epistolary novel. Those works stand as pioneers of first person fiction. The Graduate’s introductory act is first person film.

The film’s initial few shots, inaugurated by the ever-welcome “Sound of Silence,” are extended, continuous, strange, shoulder-height views that never feel composed. From there, the viewer lodges himself behind Ben’s eye sockets: one notable set piece emulates the “male gaze” as Ben struggles (and fails admirably) to stare a stark-naked, seductive Mrs. Robinson square in only the face; another plummets underwater and places the viewer behind a scuba mask as Ben reluctantly demonstrates his new wet suit for party guests. The camera is an observer: subjects are occasionally obstructed by moving bodies (Mrs. Braddock’s sequined party dress, a wooden knob adorning the hotel’s front desk) just as they would be during one’s most productive sessions of people-watching. Yes, The Graduate is a movie about people watching people (watching people, if you want to get obnoxiously meta), an idea that reasserts itself through composition and narrative frequently. Speaking in excessively broad terms, it is a film about long, paralyzing bouts of passivity and the sudden, rash fits of action which punctuate human life.

As the film climbs toward its frenzied, farcical climax and Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson imbues our hero with a fraction of confidence, he accordingly loses a bit of that tendency toward passive hesitation. A change in camera work reflects his growth: the observing eye is further removed; the audience’s connection toward Ben weakens as his character grows more prominent and his situation more complex. This would appear to be the trade-off with avatars, and the reason why so many video game protagonists maintain radio silence, or why so many romantic love interests have absolutely sterile personalities: the true individual cannot be Everyman. The true individual has his own set of ugly problems. This is realism.

There is a clear moment when the scales begin to tip. Having been coaxed into an uncomfortable date with Mrs. Robinson’s own daughter (a plight which is, despite its over-use in today’s lexicon, definitely “awkward”),  Ben is disgruntled and looking to project his frustration onto an innocent victim. What better way to greet his date, Elaine, than from behind a pair of sunglasses (worn at night, no less)? Where so much of the film’s emotion is previously emitted from Hoffman’s eyes and inferred using the audience’s privileged perspective, the affinity is now severed. The viewer struggles to keep up as Ben hurtles down the highway like a bullet with the trajectory of a sin wave and pulls Elaine brusquely into the front row of a burlesque club. Not quite redeeming himself, Ben at least recognizes the injustice of his plan as the curiously mean-spirited dancer’s pendulous breasts threaten to smother poor, sobbing Elaine. It’s strange to witness the fair-weather Elaine’s instant capitulation: immediately after exiting the club, they share a kiss, a hamburger and the revelation of true love. From here, the film transitions from a meditation on the consequences of indolence to those of spontaneity. It all gets reasonably ridiculous and carried away and, as the smiles fade from the faces of the eloping couple during their final filmed moment, it’s clear they feel a bit egg-faced, too.

Following a compelling first act, I’m not sure if what The Graduate becomes is a pear-shaped compromise toward narrative convention or a grounded rebuke of consequence-free, youthful rebellion. Not that any of that really matters: it remains a damn entertaining film.