Dreams!

I’ve been feeling unenthusiastic for a while now about modern movies.

Sometimes, I’ve thought this was because they all seem to follow the same pattern.

Other times, I’ve bemoaned the overuse of CGI; as good as digital special effects have gotten, the eye and brain can often still tell they aren’t real, and they fall into a sort of effects “uncanny valley” that makes suspension of disbelief and emotional investment more difficult than it was for some of their more low-tech, low-fidelity predecessors.

I’ve argued that the roughly two-hour time limitation imposed on films generally prevents them from doing the kind of in-depth exploration of character or theme that longer-running mediums can – novels, the trend in television towards long-form serialized storytelling, even comic books.

So the time had come to ask myself: what are movies best-suited for? What can they do better than any other medium?

Director Leos Carax and actor Denis Lavant’s Holy Motors (the incredibly versatile and physical Lavant, who astonishingly transforms himself into at least 10 very different characters, deserves nearly as much credit as the director) presents one possible answer, and it has restored my faith a little bit in the whole concept of movies.

The answer is – more than any other medium, movies can simulate dreams. They can dispense entirely with language and literal meaning, and instead free-associate at the level of symbol and metaphor. Their relatively short length is no longer a liability, but an asset.

I don’t pretend this is in any way an original insight, but it’s one I apparently need to be reminded of from time to time.

The oneiric Holy Motors is, among other things and as best as I can tell, a riff on art and creativity vs. commerce; a history of cinema, and a requiem for old-school filmmaking, in which costumes and makeup and prosthetics and human dexterity and grace were at least as transporting as zeroes and ones on a hard drive; and a meditation on identity, aging and loneliness.

Moreover, it’s all these things while still being relentlessly entertaining and quite funny (it positively delights in setting up narrative expectations, then perversely zagging just when you expect a zig).

It’s not a linear movie that makes literal sense, and there will be at least as many interpretations as there are viewers; and at the end you will have questions, at least one of which will be “What the HECK?!”

But you haven’t seen a movie like this before, and isn’t that reason enough to see it?

It’s streaming on Netflix Instant.

(Video at the top of the post, taken from the film’s intermission, is a slamming cover of Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside‘s “Let My Baby Ride”.)

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26 thoughts on “Dreams!

  1. I was all excited to see someone else complaining about CG, but then I saw that there complaint was what it was doing to live action movies. My complaint is what it’s done to animated stuff. CG is awesome, but seriously, not everything needs to be CG.

    I, too, have soured on movies in general. I haven’t much to add about that that hasn’t been said a million times before. TV has just ruined me to the constraints of 90-150 minutes. Even a good movie, I think “What could they have done with a 13 episode season?!”

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    • You know, I haven’t so much soured on movies as decided that if all I’m going to get is a quick burst of dopamine, I might as well just watch movies that give me a quick burst of dopamine. So when I watch movies, then tend to have a lot of explosions.

      Occasionally though, I’ll stumble across a movie that provides a much more lasting and layered experience, and that’s enough to sustain me through the times when explosions just don’t seem like enough.

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      • Holy Motors might be a good choice for something more layered – there’s a lot there to chew on and it’s very open to interpretation. I saw it with a friend who is a photographer, very visual-brain guy and he was pulling very different things from the film than I was. I am hoping to have the time to see it again at some point. It’s a rare movie that I want to see more than once – even movies I really like, I usually don’t feel there’s any more to be gotten from an additional two-hour time investment.

        Relatedly, I always get really, really mad about time wasted on bad movies. I have bought plenty (plenty) of records that I spun once or twice, decided they weren’t for me, and rid myself of, and I never really get upset about the time or money I wasted on them.

        But a movie that I didn’t like? I am OFFENDED that I spent time on it. So I read lots of reviews, and get opinions from people I trust, before I will commit to seeing a movie. I have to be pretty sure going in that I will probably not hate it.

        With records & books, I will take chances based on impulse, and not be too upset if they don’t pan out – hey, it was an experience, it was worth a shot.

        But movies? I want my time and my 5 dollars back, you sonofabitch.

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      • I also want to re-watch Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain again, which I haven’t seen since college. I don’t know if it’s just the similarity in names and the fact they are both kinda bats**t, but I am wondering if there are any intended thematic linkages or homages there.

        Unfortunately, me taking the time to watch two mindbending movies (that I have already seen) anytime soon is probably pretty unlikely.

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      • Glyph, I’m definitely going to check it out.

        Since I watch 99% of the movies I see at home, I feel less angry about wasted time because, if a movie’s not doing it for me but isn’t bad enough for me to bail altogether, I’ll find myself doing other stuff anyway, and the time is rarely completely wasted. In fact, a pretty good measure of how good a movie is, to me, is how many other things I do while watching it. The less multitasking, the better the movie.

        Now if I pay for a movie and sit in a theater for 2 hours and it sucks? That pisses me off.

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      • For a while there, I was only watching movies that had Redeeming Artistic Value. Like, if I were being interviewed by Terry Gross and she asked me what movies I’d seen recently, I’d want to be able to say “Oh, Into the Wild, of course. Wasn’t Don Cheadle great in Talk to Me?” or similar.

        Thankfully, I rediscovered the joys of shit blowing up. Life is too short.

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      • – Oh, s**t gets blown up in this movie all right. That s**t is YOUR MIND.

        Look, I’m not trying to talk you out of eating cheeseburgers; a good cheeseburger is a thing of beauty, and sometimes it’s all that will do.

        But life is indeed too short, to eat nothing but cheeseburgers. Try that new Thai joint down the street once in a while.

        How’s this? Last night I read someone at AVClub describing the movie as “French Quantum Leap”, with all that that description implies.

        Interested now?

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      • Dude, that was the basic plot of French films in the 90’s. (That and “here’s some sad people who are sad for very good reasons”.)

        Now, I’m not saying that I’d rather have “Failure to Launch”. Lord no. (shudder)

        But why pay money to wince? I wince every day for free.

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      • I had sort of given up on Terrence Malick after The Thin Red Line, which I really disliked. Then I saw The Tree of Life and was utterly captivated by it. At least half the audience walked out during the film. I don’t know if it’s me or not. I know what you mean about dreams. Interestingly, I just read that Stanley Kubrick was a huge fan of Eraserhead and would screen it for people at his home. It sort of makes sense because that’s about as close to a troubling dream as any I’ve seen on film.

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    • Will,

      What do you feel is lost with CG animation relative to the traditional stuff? Most of the “traditional stuff” was being done with computers for a while now. “The Iron Giant” was a big deal because it was the first hand drawn movie in a long time.

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      • Will, I’ve noticed that in anime. I’m watching a well-regarded show right now, Last Exile, but I’ve been struggling with it because of the abrupt difference between the hand work and the CG. The show is very stylistic – the art is one of its main attractions – and either the CG or hand-drawn style would have been impressive on its own, but together they just don’t mesh.

        My hunch is this – with hand animation, color variance is easy but a high frame rate is expensive. With CG, a high frame rate is easy but natural coloring is expensive. People in the animation industry get so excited by the density and clarity of CG that they don’t even notice how much it lacks in the one area that hand animation is so strong.

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  2. There are two things movie does better than TV, bothe because of bigger budgets:

    1. Employ the biggest stars.
    2. Portray enormous spectacle.

    Which is why the paradigmatic movie nowadays is Tom Cruise (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) being Tom Cruise while a lot of shit blows up.

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    • I’m pretty sure Tom Cruise is just a reasonable facsimile of Tom Cruise at this point.

      But if the explosion itself isn’t the thing, TV can do plenty of good visuals now. Starting at least with Twin Peaks‘s attempt to bring film techniques to television, and moving on to the frequently visually-stunning Breaking Bad and Hannibal, that’s plenty of spectacle for me.

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