Zen Mind, Film Critic’s Mind

People say being a movie critic is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in a dark movie theater and watch a movie, or to go home and write your opinions about that movie. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our criticism pure in its fundamental sense. Film criticism developed in many ways after the advent of the internet, but at the same time, it became more and more impure. But I do not want to talk about Rotten Tomatoes or the blurbing of random Twitter handles. I am interested in helping you keep your criticism from becoming impure.

Okay, I could keep going, rephrasing the first chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the Buddhist masterpiece by Shunryu Suzuki, to fit into a discussion of film criticism, but I don’t think anybody would get it. I will however keep lifting concepts and ideas from this seminal work, which is mostly about zazen – Zen meditation – but that is also about how to live and create with a beautiful clarity and fluidity by getting back to a beginner’s mind.

Which brings me to the films of John Carpenter.

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Make The Oscars Great Again

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony looks to be especially troubled, and it’s coming as no surprise. We’ve seen the writing on the wall as the Academy first toyed with doing a “Best Popular Film” category, and then through the mishigoss that has led to a year without a host. Then the Academy decided to do away with the tradition of last year’s winner announcing this year’s winner in the gender-opposite category, likely due to a fear of a repeat of the Casey Affleck situation. We also got word that the show would be presenting performances for only a couple of the Best Song nominees, kneecapping one of the more delightful (and often weird) parts of the night.

Now the Academy has come to the ‘insult to injury’ stage of it all, announcing that four categories will be presented during the commercial breaks. And they won’t be minor categories, at least not to film lovers – they include cinematography and editing. Editing, I shouldn’t have to tell you, is literally the foundational discipline of what makes cinema cinema. Without editing you don’t have the art of the movies. And without cinematography you have radio plays.

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GLASS Is The Worst Kind of Bad M Night Movie – The Boring Kind

That M Night Shyamalan should make a bad movie is no surprise. He has made plenty of them. But that he should make a bad movie this stultifying, this tedious, this uninteresting – that’s the surprise. Shyamalan has, over the course of his career, veered from being a budding master of the thriller, a competent exploitation filmmaker and, most excitingly with his bad movies, an outsider artist. But he has rarely been a bore*. Sadly, he is now a bore.

Shyamalan’s bad films have, before Glass, been transcendently bad; they’re like transmissions from an alien mind, barely understandable glimpses into a bizarre universe where logic and meaning are lost. They’re thrilling; to sit through The Happening or Lady in the Water is to be changed on a fundamental level. To watch a critic devoured alive, or to hear a guy give a monologue about hot dogs in the middle of the apocalypse are the kinds of cinematic moments for which I live – incongruous bits of madness that seem like good ideas to one man and one man only. To have the privilege of seeing inside the strangest parts of Shyamalan’s psyche is truly a joy, and I don’t mean this in some kind of ironic, distanced way but rather in the same way that I get joy from watching weird exploitation films from the 70s. These are works of art where you are granted a look inside the weirdness of another person, the kinds of things most of us don’t share with each other. Truly exceptional outsider filmmakers don’t have the right filter; watching a Neil Breen movie, for instance, is glorious because you’re just getting this dude’s unabridged weirdness, and it’s very intimate and very inspiring. The Happening and Lady in the Water had that same frisson. I love those films, and again, not in an ironic way.

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“Pain Don’t Hurt.”

When Patrick Swayze’s Dalton shows up at the hospital with a gaping knife wound in his side (in a spot similar to where Christ was speared by the Roman soldier. HMMMM…), Kelly Lynch’s Doctor Clay prepares to stitch him up. She asks if he would like a local anesthetic and he turns it down.

“You like pain?” she asks him.

“Pain don’t hurt,” he replies.

At first blush this sounds like lunkheaded macho bullshit, like a lot of what you find in the movie Road House in general, but it’s actually profound. And it’s deeply wise. It’s just some of the wisdom that Dalton displays (“Nobody ever wins a fight,” said in the same scene, is pretty great as well, if undercut by the whole entire motion picture).

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INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE Gives Spider-Man To Everyone

You can’t be Batman. People like to say you could be, but Bruce Wayne was a billionaire who had the ability to dedicate his life to training and self-improvement. You can’t be Superman – he was born that way. You probably can’t even be Captain America; sure, Steve Rogers was a scrawny dweeb before the Super Soldier Serum, but he always had a kind of intense heroic decency to which most of us only aspire.

But Spider-Man? Yeah, you could be him. Peter Parker was an angry nerd in the right place and at the right time, and when he got super powers he immediately behaved selfishly with them. He totally fucked up, got his uncle killed. And from that point on Peter never quite made the most of his powers; he was always poor, he was always harried in his personal life, and he was always hated by the police and media. Peter Parker was, and is, a schmuck. Just like you. Just like me.

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The Danger Of Makeover TV, or, “These Pants Don’t Fit Anymore”

I watched an episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo last night and it was… fine. I like these kinds of shows, and I get emotionally entwined with the people who are having themselves/their homes made over. I wept through both seasons of the new Queer Eye (which, by the way, really impacted my understanding of post-Industrial Revolution broken masculinity, and is a subject I’ve been taking notes on for the past year). I like watching all home makeover shows. I like the little dramas, and I like feeling inspired to take action in my own life.

But watching this show I suddenly realized something I had missed before, and it was the subtle way that shows like this reinforce really bad messaging about change, and how it works. It’s the exact kind of messaging that leads to people getting discouraged and dropping their New Year’s Resolutions, by the way.

At the end of the episode, after a few days of decluttering and tidying, this gay couple in WeHo sat down to discuss how this experience changed them. They both said they were dramatically altered, that their approach to life and emotions had been forever rejiggered, and that they cherished their now-tidy home. And I was suddenly struck with the thought “This is bullshit.”

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Why Does Batman Have A Secret Identity?

Secret identities are a big deal in superhero comics, and they have been since the inception of the medium, since its primordial days in the form of pulp magazines. While secret IDs have not played a major role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some of the best moments in DC movies (the classic, pre-DCEU ones anyway) have involved our heroes’ identities either being revealed or their efforts to maintain their secret. Superman II has a whole storyline predicated on Clark Kent’s double life being erased from Lois Lane’s memory, and one of my favorite scenes in Tim Burton’s Batman is when Bruce shows up at Vicki Vale’s place to tell her his truth.

Those secret IDs make sense for some of the characters – Spider-Man has a vulnerable Aunt May and later Mary Jane to protect from vengeful enemies, and Superman needs the downtime of being Clark Kent to keep his head straight – but it’s harder to unpack why Batman needs a secret ID. First of all, it seems like half of Gotham and his villains know who he is, and depending on which iteration of the comics you’re reading, many of his fellow superheroes and Justice League buddies know that Bruce Wayne is the Batman. It’s often a poorly kept secret.

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“Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Try.”

For years Yoda’s famous advice to Luke Skywalker on Dagobah vexed me. “Do or do not, there is no try” always struck me as fatally reductive, and too results-oriented. It felt less like spiritual wisdom and more like corporate motivational drivel.

In fact, the phrase calls to mind Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan, center of one of the most famous ad campaigns of the 20th century*. But as is so often the case with stuff that gets printed on motivational posters or superimposed on images of ladies doing yoga on the beach and then shared on Facebook, there’s true wisdom in there. You just gotta get past the bullshit to see the beauty.

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BLACK MIRROR: BANDERSNATCH And The Illusion Of Free Will

This contains minor spoilers for Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

I’m in the minority on Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch interactive episode – I find Charlie Brooker’s anti-humanism increasingly tiresome, and out of place in a world that desperately needs positivity*, and I also think that the meta-within-meta concept is student-level stuff and not half as clever as it thinks it is – but I was intrigued by the way the episode approaches the concept of free will. Free will is one of the underpinnings of our modern society – we all operate under the assumption that we have it, after all – but it’s less clear cut than that.

The usual free will debates are free will vs destiny, which fall into the theistic realm – destiny is a supernatural concept that requires some kind of a guiding force. But for the past few decades the real debate has shifted inward, to the self, rather than outward to God or the Fates or whatever. It’s possible that we don’t have free will because we are, essentially, robots whose programming allows us to justify the actions we are forced to take as choices we make.

You see this in Bandersnatch, as Stefan becomes slowly aware that he’s not the one making the choices in his life. In the context of the show this is a fourth wall break, but it read to me as being quite close to some of the stuff I’ve been learning about the human mind in the past couple of years, and that is quite close to research that has changed the way we look at the world and our place in it.

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The Movies Are Still Saving My Life

When I was a kid the movies saved my life. I grew up in a single parent household with a mother whose emotional neglect bordered on abuse; I suffered from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder and the parts of my brain that were not broken operated so differently from the other kids that I had a hard time making friends or forging any connections. I found a lot of solace in TV and comics and books, and on TV I began watching movies, which our local stations ran all weekend and after school and late at night. Then I began going to the movies, to the little Main Street Twin (which now somehow has like eight screens), and eventually I took the train into Manhattan to see older and weirder movies. VHS opened the world up for me, and it was off to the races from there.

The movies offered a refuge and an outlet, they let me dream and hope. I was a troubled, poor kid from Queens who couldn’t have been farther from the movie industry, but in that world I saw meaning and in those movies I saw my fears and my dreams reflected back at me. I was so alone all the time, but not when I was watching a movie. 

I spent all of my free time immersed in movies. Eventually I spent ALL of my time immersed in movies, making an unlikely career out of them.

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