I watched Sunset Limited a few months ago, jotted down some thoughts the next morning, but then forgot about it until I was going back through my notebooks, which is why I’m only posting it now. The film is written by Cormac Mccarthy, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s comprised of a single conversation in a small apartment — ninety minutes of dialogue relieved by only the most inconsequential action, like taking a piss or putting soup on the stove.

The premise of the film is that BLack (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has prevented White (played by Tommy Lee Jones) from jumping in front of a train. Black, who is a former convict and a deeply religious man, tries to rescue White, who is a deeply atheist professor, from his emotional and spiritual crisis.

The starkness of the film is profound. Not only is is strictly limited in place and time, but the set is sparse, almost rudimentary. There is no music or sound effects, only ambient sound, except for an eerie sort of noise that sounds when each of the men come to the crisis of his argument.

In this sense, Sunset Limited directly contrasts popular movie making, which constantly overwhelms the viewer with audio and video excess, with relentless action, and with an ever-cutting camera, to the point where dialogue and character development are almost irrelevant. Without these distractions, the script of Sunset Limited must stand entirely on its own, for ninety minutes, without relief, a task that it usually accomplishes.

The staging sometimes feels a little forced, with the characters changing locations on the set more frequently and with less motivation than would be normal for a real conversation, but the dialogue is generally natural and free, a serious accomplishment, especially considering that the conversation takes up topics — religion, morality, death, personal responsibility, and so on — that can quickly feel heavy and awkward.

The discomfort of the film is precisely in this contrast between its visual starkness and its conversational depth, in the sparseness of the space that it uses to confront the profoundness of its moral questions. In this sense the film does what McCarthy always does, relentlessly, in every book and film he writes — he present us with the moral question of what we are in ways that are difficult to avoid.

A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t like McCarthy. He always makes me uncomfortable.” And that’s true. His work is often uncomfortable because of its intensely moral character, in the sense that it confronts us with the nature of our inhumanity, which is always an uncomfortable experience.

This is why McCarthy’s voice is such an important one in American culture, because he insists that his work perform this moral function, no matter the genre, whether he is writing westerns, or cop dramas, or gangster films. He contradicts the assumption, now thoroughly ingrained in us, that art should be merely entertainment, should leave us feeling content and comfortable, should leave our understanding of ourselves largely unchallenged. What his writing does is make us sit with the questions we would rather ignore.

In the case of Sunset Limited, he makes us sit with questions of faith, morality, meaning, death, and human responsibility, makes us sit in close proximity to them, in a cramped apartment, with no other distraction, until we are forced (like his protagonists) either to flee the room or remain and be broken by them.

The Guelph Festival of Moving Media is coming up soon, running from November 7 to 10. Since I was privileged enough to have some input into the titles that were selected, I have something extra invested in the festival this year, and I hope to attend several of the films that I have not yet seen, particularly Hole Story and Chasing Ice, which is supposed to have some absolutely stunning cinematography.  The schedule also includes some great films that I have already seen, of which I would especially recommend Smoke Traders and Meet the Fokkens.  There should be something for everyone, so check out the schedule, and go see something.

As three dimensional film becomes increasingly common in cinemas, and as it becomes increasingly viable in home entertainment, I have been wondering how directors might employ this technology to expand the vocabulary of film language and how viewers and critics might understand what it is that this expanded vocabulary actually allows film to say.  It seems to me that the three dimensional film has been used so far mainly as a technical gimmick and as a way to enhance a sense of size and scale.  I have seen very few examples where it has been used to say or show something unique about plot or character or mood, and I want to discuss the possibility that it can in fact be used in this way.

First, however, I need to make clear that three dimensional images are not technically speaking three dimensional at all and therefore not actually very different from two dimensional images in most respects.  Both two and three dimensional images are projected in two dimensions, and both merely produce the illusion of three dimensions.  The difference between the two is only that supposedly three dimensional images produce the illusion of three dimensions much more convincingly than standard two dimensional images do.  Their difference is not so much in what they do as it is in how well they do it.  In terms of developing a language of three dimensional film, therefore, it is important to recognize that we are not describing the illusion of three dimensions as something essentially new or unique to three dimensional film.  Rather, we are describing the illusion of three dimensions as a preexisting space that a technological advance has merely enlarged to a degree that might allow films to produce meaning in new ways.

This recognition should only reinforce the more obvious ways in which the language of two and three dimensional films must be understood as deeply related.  After all, two dimensional films already use the illusion of depth as part of their film language, and three dimensional films cannot help but draw from the existing conventions of two dimensional film language for the two dimensions that still dominate three dimensional images.  This is why three dimensional film language is not now and can never be something distinct from two dimensional film language, but must always remain an extension of preexisting film language.  When we talk about three dimensional film language, therefore, we must always talk about it in this way, in relation to two dimensional film language.

With this understanding in mind, I would suggest that three dimensional film does in fact allow film to create meanings in new ways, that it does in fact expand the language of film, at least in potential.  Let me take up an example, not because it is the best of its kind, and not because it is necessarily very significant, but precisely because it is neither of these things and is the simple kind of moment for which  three dimensional film will regularly need to account.  The scene occurs in Michael Apted’s The Voyage of the Dawntreader, which is not a great movie for several reasons that I will not take up here, and it involves one of the main characters, Lucy, and a young girl whose mother has been captured by the evil mist that serves as the film’s antagonist.  Lucy and the young girl are going to sleep on the beach with the rest of the landing party, but the girl is lonely and worried about her mother, so Lucy tries to comfort her.  Though the two are lying several feet apart, they reach out to each other and hold hands through much of the scene, a gesture that in traditional film language would represent something like the bridging of the distance between them and of the loneliness that the two of them are feeling.

The scene is comprised of alternating shots from behind the heads of the two reclining characters, all standard over the shoulder conversation shots except that the actors are lying and except that the camera is tighter than normal behind the actors, to that the sense of perspective and foreshortening is accentuated.  This effect, which could certainly be accomplished in two dimensional film as well, is dramatically heightened in the three dimensional version, where the speaking actor’s head not only dominates much of the screen, and not only occludes in part the listening actor, but occupies a visibly dominant place with respect to the sense of depth that the illusion of three dimensions is creating.  The three dimensional film does not create an effect here that is impossible in two dimensions, but it makes this effect dominate the screen, makes it overshadow other elements of the film in ways that the two dimensional version would not. The sense of a relationship reaching across a distance of loneliness can be read into the two dimensional version of this scene as well, but it comes to dominate the three dimensional version of the film because the sense of depth and distance is emphasized so much by the enhanced illusion of three dimensions.

In other words, three dimensional film is able to foreground the meanings created by the illusion of depth to a degree that would be more difficult if not impossible in two dimensional film.  The meanings that are associated with depth and foreshortening and distance are now able to dominate other elements of the film’s language in ways that were not possible before.  The meanings themselves are not new, because two dimensional film already references a set of meanings associated with the illusion of depth.  However, these meaning that are produced through manipulating depth and distance are now much more powerful, and this shift, at least potentially, should change the way that directors weigh these kinds of shots in their films, but I do not think that many directors have yet come to account for these kinds of effects.

The scene from The Voyage of the Dawntreader is perhaps instructive here again.  Here is a case where the effect of the scene’s use of three dimensional film to enhance a sense of depth and distance seems out of proportion with the scene’s actual significance.  Though the three dimensional film language seems to draw attention very strongly to the relationship between Lucy and the young girl, this relationship does not actually play a very central role in the story, and the scene is not otherwise very significant except perhaps to show something of Lucy’s character.  Why, then, should the enhanced illusion of three dimensions be allowed to make the scene appear more significant than it is?  Perhaps the technique is merely being used to add interest to an otherwise static scene.  Perhaps it is simply being employed without much thought to how it might appear and how it might be read.  Whatever the reason, it is an example of a director failing to understand the full implications of the increased illusion of three dimensions that his medium now allows him.

This is why I think it is very important for directors and viewers and critics alike to take some time to think through the implications of three dimensional film on the use and interpretation of film language.  The technology is widely used, but it is not yet widely understood in an artistic sense, I think, and this work needs to be done before really great films can be made in three dimensions.

I was watching the classic animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas the other afternoon, one of the occupational benefits of being a mostly-stay-at-home father, and I had the sudden realization that its story is parallel to the story of Beowulf in some significant ways.

First, both stories centre around a small community that is terrorized by a monster who lives in the surrounding wilderness: Whoville by the Grinch and Heorot by Grendel.  This in itself is perhaps not very remarkable, not considering the vast number of other stories that are also structured in this way, and not considering the many historical and mythological and poetical reasons that make this plot structure narratively compelling.

Where the Grinch and Grendel are really similar, however, is in their reasons for attacking their nearby communities.  Neither are motivated be greed or revenge or instinct or even hunger.  Both are motivated solely by anger at the sounds of happiness that they hear in the communities from which they are excluded.  Grendel is enraged by the revelry in Heorot, and the Grinch is similarly unable to tolerate the singing down in Whoville.

The two monsters are not just angered because there are others who are perhaps happier than they are, nor just because there is happiness from which they have been excluded.  They are angered because the others who are happier than they are have had the temerity to make their happiness loudly and vocally public.  This is the crime for which the two communities are punished, the crime of proclaiming their happiness, and in this sense at least, these two very different stories are quite similar.

I am not sure what conclusions we might draw from this parallel, but it is exactly the sort of textual connection that I cannot resist marking, so I will simply mark it and leave the rest of you to make of it what you can.

Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line – There is something about Errol Morris’ directing that makes his films irresistible to me, something that enables him to elicit from the people he interviews a depth and a range of personality that other documentarians rarely if ever reach. His subjects, far more often than not, appear as full fledged characters, as people so full of idiosyncrasy and personality that the hardly seem believable. This film, his first, is no exception. There are characters, even relatively minor ones, who appear so vividly that I doubt I will ever be able to rid myself of them. His films seem less to explore a particular story or a particular person and more to use these things as the occasions to make a study of human nature in all its variety. This film is a marvelous example of his approach, and I recommend it very, very highly.

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York – This is a difficult and elusive film in many ways, but I think that one of the keys to thinking through it is to take seriously the allusion that one of its characters makes to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, because I feel that both the film and the book orient themselves in a similar way in relation to reality and to the cultures in which they were created. They both employ a kind of mundane surrealism to explore the ways that our culture alienates us from ourselves, Kafka focusing on the influence of bureaucracy and legality and policing, and Kaufman focusing on the influence of our culture’s pervasive sense of isolation, neurosis, hypochondria, and self obsession. Even the endings are remarkably parallel, both heroes dying almost alone, accompanied only by virtual strangers, both still trying desperately, even until the end, to make sense of the lives that they have lived and the circumstances that have brought them to their deaths. The difference, I think, is that Kaufman’s hero dies naturally in the arms of a woman who cares about him, even if only very tangentially, a woman whose life he has even acted for a time, while Kafka’s hero is summarily executed by agents of an anonymous and uncaring judicial bureaucracy. There is a little hope in Kaufman, in other words, though it is a very little hope indeed.

David Shapiro’s Keep the River on Your Right – This film is as odd and as endearing and, well, as creepy as the man whose life it tells. Tobias Schneebaum is an intelligent and fascinating man, and his story is almost too strange to be true, but there is something about the way that he relates to the tribal peoples with whom he has lived over the years that seems to border on obsession or fetish, something that is not quite whole or balanced. The film is not less interesting for the reason, however, and it is well worth watching.

Hector Cruz Sandoval’s Kordavision – This film is about memory and retrospective and nostalgia. It is constantly recalling the earlier life of its protagonist, Korda, the famous photographer of the Cuban revolution, but even more, it is also constantly recalling the revolution itself, through the accounts of Korda and other photographers, through Sandoval’s contextual material, and through Castro himself. In doing so, it seeks to retell the revolution to an American audience in a way that might overturn longstanding misconceptions, and I think that it succeeds in this respect, at least to some extent, but its very success in telling Cuba’s past makes all the more obvious the uncertainty of Cuba’s present. Korda and his fellow photographers and even Castro himself are all so obviously playing the role of old men reminiscing about an earlier and a better time, so obviously living in a time that has long ago passed, and there is no sense that their roles are being taken on by those who are younger and more virile. The film’s effect, therefore, is truly nostalgic, a celebration of the past that can only ever figure the present in terms of loss.

Peter Mettler’s Petropolis – Because this film employs exclusively aerial shots and takes as its subject a massive ecological disaster, it is very reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, though without Herzog himself narrating chunks from the book Revelations in his ominous German accent. The film itself is primarily an aesthetic object rather than a film essay and provides only minimal information about the Alberta tar sands (though there is much more information in the extras), and I would say that the film suffers from some indecision in this question of whether to be aesthetic or informational. In my opinion, it needed either to be more fully aesthetic in its aims, as Lessons of Darkness is, leaving aside entirely the contextual subtitles at the beginning and the narrative voiceover at the end, or it needed to be more fully informative, fleshing out the subtitles and the voiceover to make them into useful context for the film rather than insufficient afterthoughts. In the end, however, the strength of the film is its cinematography, which is nothing short of amazing, and which will in itself certainly be worth any money that you might spend on a rental.

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon – I am still not sure that I have a real grasp on this film, though I have been talking about it with anyone who was willing for the better part of a week. The final crisis of the story is meant to be obscure, I think, and I can readily accept this, but I am not even certain of the reason for its obscurity, and I am also confused about the ambiguous but persistent links between the film’s primary story and the larger story of Germany entering into the First World War. That being said, the acting and the cinematography and the pacing are superb, and I would encourage you to see it, even if only for the chance that you might help me to understand it better.

Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate – This film is an adaption of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas, which I reviewed only very recently. Polansky takes my recommendations and removes one of its two storylines, and he follows this storyline fairly closely for the first part of the film, deviating only very significantly in its latter stages. It is precisely in these latter stages that the film breaks down, however. The dynamic between the hero and the young woman who embodies the devil never achieves the complexity that it does in the book, and it falls apart almost entirely at the end of the film. Much of the film is like this. It fails to capture the tone that makes the book so enjoyable and then hurries to an unsatisfying end. I did not find much to enjoy in it.

J. J. Abrams’ Star TrekI have already written on this film once, so I will not spend much further time on it.  I will just say that it generally does what a good Hollywood action film should do, that it strikes a good balance between respecting the past Star Trek franchise while making room for some new ideas, and that it moves well between humour and gravity.  It even made me forget, at times, how much I hate plots that meddle with time continuity.  It is never more than a standard action flick, but as long as you have no grander expectations of it, you will not be disappointed.

Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited – This is the super-extended version of the film, which was supposed to have corrected the problems with the the only somewhat extended version, which was supposed to have clarified the original theatrical version.  I never did see the original or theatrical versions, so I am unable to say whether this third cut is an improvement over the first two, but I can say that, in its own right, it is not a very good film.  It has a grand vision and massive landscapes, I will admit, but it also has horrible pacing and a ridiculously convoluted narrative structure to go along with some pretty average acting and one of the worst accents, courtesy of Angelina Jolie, that you are ever likely to hear.  Some of the scenes are simply interminable, dragging on through endless conversation that does little to enrich the characters and almost nothing to forward the plot.  These dialogue scenes grow so tedious, I confess, that I watched much of the third and fourth hours of the film on fast forward, and I feel as though this may have improved my viewing experience considerably.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception – This is another of those films, like The Matrix or Dark City,  that is based on an interesting idea but lacks the script to be what it could have been.  The dream worlds in which Inception primarily takes place are logically inconsistent in several ways that directly affect the plot, so it is almost impossible to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the story of the film, and there is no substance to any of the secondary characters, so it is difficult to care much about their fate, and there is little to compensate for these faults.  The strongest parts of the film are those that explore the main character’s past relationship with his now deceased wife, a relationship that has become inseparable from the dream world.  These sections remind me a little of Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come, a film that I liked very much but that most people seemed to pan, and theses sections are the only places in the film where there is anything very compelling to the story.  Inception is perhaps worth seeing, but it is not nearly as complex or as innovative as many people make it out to be.  Despite what your friends may have said, you will not need to see it more than once “to really get it.”  Once will be more than enough, and only if you have not much else to do.

Robert Rodriguez’s Machete – I can only describe this film by saying that it is a Robert Rodriguez film.  Either you will know what this means or you will not.  His work is a little like Quentin Tarantino’s, only without the artistic pretensions: All the violence, but only a fraction of the thinking.  Let this example stand for the whole:  The lead character, whose name is Machete, finds himself trapped in a hospital.  He grabs a bone scraper from a tray of surgical instruments, disembowels one of his assailants, then uses the dying attacker’s intestines as a rope to swing through the window to the floor below.  I will leave you with this scene as the basis to make your own recommendation.

Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited –  I quite liked this film, though it would not rate it as highly as some of his others.  It has the same sense of being just slightly surreal, the same strange blend of humour and pathos, the same ironic tone, all of which I enjoy, but it lacks something that I cannot quite define, something that keeps me from being involved in its story as deeply as the stories of his other films.  It is certainly worth watching, particularly if you are a fan of Anderson’s other work, but I was expecting more from the film than it offered.

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly – This is an interesting film in its way, but like many scripts that are based on books, it suffers in comparison to its source text.  It needs more time to develop the paranoia that the main character experiences as an anonymous narcotics officer assigned to surveil his own undercover persona, more time to explore the possibility that the drugs he is using are themselves producing a kind of paranoid self-surveillance, more time to examine the ways that this culture of self-surveillance, whether created by a drug induced paranoia or by a paranoia about the use of drugs, has now become a strangely essential part of our society.  More practically, it also needs to have someone other than the ever underwhelming Keanu Reeves starring in the lead role, but this should have gone without saying.