April 8th, 2007


Violent history

A History of Violence is a departure for David Cronenberg in that it takes place in a world that could easily be mistaken for reality. None of the events violate laws of physics or science, and characters behave rationally as movie characters go.

But those are just superficial aspects. The film is, ultimately, a David Cronenberg film, with all the positive and negative attributes that denotes.

David Cronenberg has two major strengths as a filmmaker. The first is his ability to craft impressive, memorable visuals. He does that here, both in images of violence and rustic beauty. It is strange to see the man who brought us Videodrome and Scanners create images of Americana that easily outdo those in most movies by more conventional directors. Cronenberg is, simply, a superior visual composer than most, and while the sucking wounds in the movie are closer to his trademark, he brings that to all aspects of the production.

The second major strength Cronenberg has is his ability to infuse his films with theme and subtext. Anyone who wants to turn their brain off for 90 minutes is advised to avoid his work. Cronenberg wants to make you think, and he's good at it. Sometimes he does this in innovative and interesting ways that draw you in, like with Videodrome, and sometimes he overplays his hand and becomes preachy and grating, like with Existenz. A History of Violence is much closer to the first than the second. A layered examination of violence is coiled underneath and throughout every scene and every plotline. The movie is about violence in a deep and profound way.

And this brings up Cronenberg's major weaknesses. Characters and plot. His films are so focused on subtext that they often treat the surface text as a mere holding bag, to be crumpled up and tossed away when the point has been made. None of Cronenberg's characters are memorable except insofar as the actors make them memorable. We remember Max Renn as James Woods surrounded by weird shit, and Johnny Smith as Christopher Walken...being Christopher Walken. The actors in A History of Violence do a good job of making their characters work, but the film's lack of interest in those characters is clear. We never really get to know them, or spend time with them except when it works to the subtext. They must develop in the crevices of the film.

And the plot is kind of silly and not deeply explored. Which is a valid choice, but one that will disappoint some viewers.

Of course Cronenberg has another strength, external to that of directing, and that is as an analyst of his own work. His directors commentaries are phenomenal. While many prattle on about trivia Cronenberg dives in and dissects. Sure he throws off a few comments about what's a set and what's not, but even those are often to make a point about the nature of filmed 'reality' and not just to tell you where in Canada the scene was shot.

A History of Violence is not, ultimately, a great film. It's not complete enough on the surface for that. But it's a smart film and an interesting film, and a film that tries to say something worth saying, and for that it's better than 95% of what's out there. Cronenberg's excellent commentary means the DVD is more than worth your time.

(no subject)

Orwell Rolls in His Grave is an interesting movie that stitches together a lot of stuff I already knew (Most documentaries I watch these days tend to do that. Maybe I read too much.) It's heavily slanted and a bit alarmist, but that doesn't change the validity of the underlying point.

What does alter that validity, however, are certain blatantly false statements made in the film regarding "The Public." Politicians and political activists of all types like to talk about what "The Public" wants in an attempt to make their (sometimes) radical ideas seem founded in populism. It's almost always bullshit. In this case the subjects of the documentary talk about how the public doesn't like all the money in politics and all the media consolidation, but they don't know what to do about it. There are probably some polls to back this up.

But it's bullshit.

The public, by and large, doesn't know and/or doesn't care. There are significant communities of activists and academics who are alarmed, but the public is mostly ignorant and uninterested. If the public, as a whole, did care about these things they could change them easily. We could throw all the bums out of Washington in 2008. We could elect people who will impose strict controls on lobbying and on media consolidation. We could organize these efforts relatively easily through the unregulated Internet, and usher in a new era of clean American government.

But we won't. And the irony is that if we had the desire to do this, we wouldn't have to. Capitalism would take its course and Internet based news organizations would expand and push out old media altogether. There's no reason why a perfectly good text/video hybrid website couldn't run circles around ABC and the NYT when it comes to reporting, if the audience were there and willing to pay.

And why won't we? Because it would take effort. We'd have to log on to the internet, debate policy, organize, contribute cash to the project, and ignore all the hysterical lies that would be spewed back at us by the powerbrokers. That's a lot of effort. It's easier to watch Grey's Anatomy or play World of Warcraft. Which is, in fact, what we DO.

That's what the public cares about.

Empires collapse through decadence. We are an extremely decadent society. I don't exempt myself. Most humans tend to take the easiest path available, and there are a lot of easy paths in America right now. We don't care about the longterm consequences, we'd rather have bigscreen TVs and big-ass cars than energy independence or a stable environment.

And as long as big media keeps us entertained they can HAVE the democracy. Gawd, it's not like we were using it anyway.