Monthly Archives: October 2014

Whiplash

whiplash

Whiplash is a great new film about jazz starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. If you’ve ever played an instrument, pursued anything creative with a passion, or even if you just like jazz, you should see this film. Here’s an excerpt from my review for Christianity Today:

One of the things Whiplash is about is the necessity of discipline and accountability in a world where kids grow up—emboldened by shelves of participation trophies and constant “you can do anything!” pats on the back—thinking world-changing greatness is just a Kickstarter campaign awayIt’s a world where many aspiring artists, including many Christians, skip that whole “tireless, decades-long training to master the craft” part, jumping straight to making the “masterpiece” that they are then surprised to see get trashed by the critics.

No, in order to be a legend, in order to make a difference as an artist, one must accept the indispensability of mastering technique. In order to be a good improviser, one must first excel within limits. Prior to “breaking the rules” in a brilliant and influential way, artists must study the greats and be great. Before Jackson Pollock was in a position to convince anyone of the excellence of his abstract expressionism, he had to first train in representational technique (he did in part under Thomas Hart Benton). Terrence Malick could have never made a formally bonkers film like To the Wonder had he not first established his credibility with more traditional fare like Badlands.

So it is for young Andrew under the tutelage of Fletcher, a man who maintains that the most harmful two words in the English language are “good job.” Andrew is brought to literal blood, sweat and tears repeatedly in the film, as the Hegelian collision between his drive and Fletcher’s punishing temper gradually produces something brilliant. Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is nurturing and outwardly loving; he’s there to hug his son when a concert performance doesn’t go so well.

But Fletcher provides something fatherly that Andrew desperately needs: discipline. One minute Fletcher encourages Andrew and the next he’s slapping him in the face. One minute Andrew is Fletcher’s go-to drummer and the next he’s kicked out of the band. But it’s not bipolar as much as it’s two faces of the same love—a love that includes both grace and discipline, both mercy and judgment. When Andrew comes to realize this, he may as well be reading Hebrews 12:5-6: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Read the rest of the review here.

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What’s Missing in “Gone Girl”?

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is an exceptionally made film. That’s the first and undeniable observation that one must make about David Fincher’s new film. Fincher is a master of the craft and his command of the filmic language gets more impressive with each film he makes. The editing, angles, words and plot turns in Girl are all as razor sharp as the box-cutter that proves so pivotal in the film’s most dramatic scene. I don’t think Girl tops Fincher’s best work (Zodiac or The Social Network), but it’s certainly one of the most cinematically accomplished American films to be released this year.

Still, Gone Girl left a bad taste in my mouth and has me a bit sour on Fincher in general. Since Se7en he’s been a filmmaker I’ve greatly admired, and Zodiac is probably in my top 20 films of all time. Yet I felt like Girl was missing something, and it made me wonder whether Fincher’s films in general are largely void of the spiritual or existential gravitas that their lighting, music and mood would suggest they might have. Even in their unique brand of postmodern-ish film noir (a genre that in the mid-20th century was the most existentially perceptive of Hollywood’s output), Fincher’s films (with the exception of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network) feel a bit one-note. He’s probably the best living director we have in terms of giving prestige treatment to C.S.I.-type procedurals and potboiler page-turners. The case could certainly be made that Fincher is a bit Warhol-like in terms of taking popular, mass-consumed culture (Facebook, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) and turning it into high art. But I’d rather not call it high art as much as highly polished art. He’s a technical, aesthetically brilliant filmmaker. What’s I’m less convinced about is whether he has much to say.

After finishing Fincher’s Gone Girl one gets the feeling that there was maybe something profound-ish going on in the film. Something about the elusive nature of truth in narrative, or maybe something about the changing nature of media. I tried to reflect upon the film from an auteurist angle, looking at Fincher’s larger filmography to pick up connections to his typical preoccupations. Certainly Girl explores familiar Fincher territory like domestic violence and female revenge narratives (Panic Room, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), postmodern “there’s no way to know what’s real” narratives (Fight Club, The Game) and head-scratcher detective procedurals (Se7en, Zodiac).  And while all of this makes Girl more intelligent and substantial than your average film, it nevertheless strikes me as mostly really good decoration. But where’s the meat? Where’s the film’s coherent voice and vision?

If Girl is about anything it’s about marriage. Here it may convince some viewers of its insightfulness, perhaps. It’s a film that tries to be a commentary on marriage in America in the same way that American Beauty or Revolutionary Road do; which is to say lyrically bleak and meager on substance. And that’s a shame. There’s a way to tell stories that critique American marriage and gender roles in a way that is insightful even as it is bleak. Mad Men does a pretty good job of this, I think. But Girl‘s portrait of marriage, much like that of the Underwoods (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) in House of Cards, feels too extreme, too cold-hearted and cartoonish to reveal anything very insightful. Girl’s central villain, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is so fictionally overblown as a femme fatale that it’s hard to make any connections to real life. Even Barbara Stanwyck as the consummate noir vixen in Double Indemnity (1944) feels closer to real life than the man-eating “Amy” of this film. I’m far more interested in films that explore the dark sides of suburban soccer moms (and dads) in subtler ways. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (2001) comes to mind as one example.

In addition to providing a not-really-helpful commentary on marriage, Girl also feels a bit exploitative and counter-productive in light of the current cultural conversation surrounding domestic violence. Wesley Morris discusses this at length in his critique for Grantland:

The movie doubles as a snide contradiction of the serious conversation Americans have been having lately about men, women, exploitation, and violence. Gone Girl isn’t complicating that conversation. It gets off on thumbing its nose at it, using a vengeful false accusation to exploit an old trope of the terrifying femme fatale… Flynn and Fincher are presenting a glib and facetious alternative provocation in the name of entertainment. The movie isn’t smart enough to think around the problems it superficially engages with. Amy turns abuse into a romantic fantasy for her amusement and for ours.

Maybe I’m reading too much into Girl and expecting too much of it. But again, Fincher is clearly a smart guy and an accomplished director. He’s got immense talent. Can’t we expect more substantive and nuanced ideas from his films?

There is a cold objectivity and moral indifference to Fincher’s films. On one hand it’s refreshing to see dark stories simply told, with room for the audience to make judgments and determine the blurry contours of good and evil (I like many of Michael Haneke’s films for the same reason). On the other hand it feels sometimes like Fincher is interested in drama, intrigue, violence and revenge for their own sakes; as if the survival-of-the-fittest struggles of human existence are compelling even when stripped of telos or conscience.

Maybe there’s more than meets the eye in Fincher’s films. Perhaps if I re-watch his other films I’ll feel differently. But Girl feels too flippant for our times; a waste of slick form on middling substance. But maybe that in itself is a commentary on the HD polish of our vacuous age.