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4Mar/150

Code Black (2014)

Today might be the day

Code Black is a documentary feature about the doctors of C-booth, an emergency room which sees the most patients out of any hospital in the country, and their growing pains when forced to move to a new facility.  Ryan McGary directs.

Today might be the dayI normally don't pay attention to who the producers of a movie are but as the credits rolled on Code Black I snapped to attention.  There's the usual list of financiers but what struck me were the number of doctors who put up their money for this film.  Director Ryan McGary's project, which documents the evolution of and frustrations work in an emergency room known as C-booth with a specific reputation, is an important one for these physicians.  "More people have died in that square footage than anywhere else in the United States," says one doctor early in Code Black, and if the stakes weren't made clear by the dialogue they are by the grainy footage of a 21-year old male with multiple gunshot wounds being flown into the hospital.

These moments are brief, but I thought we were going to be watching something like Leviathan for a moment and Code Black would be a documentary about the experience of an emergency room doctor in a visceral or surreal way.  The introduction, with the hazy greens and blues of the hospital rushing with the camera to pick up the wounded patient, was an exhilarating experience.  But those moments of intense subjectivity were quickly gone, replaced instead with a camera that makes easy sense of the chaos going on in C-booth and moments where we cut to talking heads as they tell us why they chose this life.

Code Black is not a great documentary and McGary proves himself a capable director in telling this story, which he claims is non-partisan, and filling in the cracks in his talent with sincerity and pain.  I can't imagine anyone on either side of the aisle watching Code Black and thinking that they have the right opinion on health care.  Even my own preconceptions were challenged when they discuss the bill which forced emergency rooms to treat critical patients, something I've considered a good thing for long, then bringing in doctors which question that decision when someone has to pay for it in the end.  But even then another doctor, shortly afterwards, points to the curious problem where we're willing to sign legislature which protects these emergencies (a leftover of the Regan administration of all things), yet isn't willing to create a program which could have prevented those problems with a few cents worth of medication a day.

4Mar/150

Maps to the Stars (2014)

David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars presents a semi-sprawling satire of Hollywood, focusing on aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), her enigmatic assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and his wife, and their son, child actor Benji Weiss.

It's available to rent now on Amazon, Google Play, and VUDU.

David Cronenberg's Maps to the StarsKyleDislikeNew

I have generally been a fan of David Cronenberg’s lauded post–A History of Violence shift away from raw sci-fi body horror (which really started with Spider if you want to get picky about it). Aside from Eastern Promises I haven't loved any of these films, but they've all been varying degrees of successful and interesting—those two criteria not always intersecting at the same point on the vertical axis, as with 2012's Cosmopolis. So I came into Maps to the Stars curious, if not altogether enthusiastic, and then added two points for Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska. John Cusack isn't discerning enough in his role choices, so for pre-release anticipation his casting ends up being a zero-sum move.

The results surprised me a little bit—Maps to the Stars may be a better representation of the world it's trying to satirize than any of those involved realized or intended. This is a wonderfully shot, great-looking movie filled with excellent performances at the service of a story designed to suggest depth where none exists. Sprawling casually across three intersecting groups of characters who inhabit various stages of the rickety Hollywood success ladder, writer Bruce Wagner's screenplay has novelistic ambitions—fitting, as the movie is based on his novel Dead Stars, itself supposedly based on earlier versions of the script—but it lacks the patience to develop its characters in any truly meaningful ways. It's a curiosity for a director like David Cronenberg, falling surprisingly flat despite a few inspired moments. Even when discussing his failures, I'd have never imagined Cronenberg capable of “flat.”

3Mar/150

Stan Brakhage: Chinese Series (2003)

Chinese Series - 2003

Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues.  You can watch Chinese Series here.

Chinese Series - 2003Chinese Series is a struggle. The closest analogue I have for it in the other Stan Brakhage films I’ve watched is Rage Net, that magnificent film which kept tearing itself apart in frustration before finally cutting to black. But while Rage Net had Brakhage dealing with his divorce from his first wife and the subsequent self-loathing which followed, Chinese Series was made when Brakhage was facing his mortal demise.

Whether Chinese Series exists in a “finished” state or not is up for debate because he was still working on the film when he passed away in 2003. I question that because the cold hand of finality is not something which touches Brakhage’s work often. The most notable example was The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, but in other films dealing with death he abstracts the concept in such a way that his films make death seem like one drop in an infinite plane instead of a cold end.

2Mar/150

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

Following the events of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen finds herself at the mercy of a rebel alliance who want to turn her into a symbol of their resistance of the capital.  President Snow, also not one to waste an opportunity for propaganda, puts the capture Peeta Mellark in front of the camera's to denounce Katniss and the rebels.  The symbol of the mockingjay spreads wide, as does the insurgency, and the fight for control of the 13 districts begins.  Francis Lawrence directs Mockingjay - Part 1 from a screenplay written by Danny Strong and Peter Craig with stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore.

White savior complexRereading my review of Catching Fire again, it's a wonder the Hunger Games film series could bounce back from the dull and morally hypocritical depths of the second chapter.  I finish this first part of Mockingjay not with rage, but boredom, a bit of admiration, and a question about whether the final film will have any surprises.  Truth be told, Mockingjay - Part 1 is just as hypocritical as the first chapter, but the change in scenery at least helps the pill go down a bit better.

The Hunger Games films work best when they're dealing with the way media and government collude to produce a narrative which makes the populace easy to control.  It's been my position that the Hunger Games franchise, by dragging out its narrative and doing its best to keep the audience from the violence, is betraying the class-rooted rage which made the books so popular.  What makes Mockingjay - Part 1 intermittently effective is a certain self-awareness in the visual exchange this time around.  Mockingjay - Part 1 is almost entirely a battle of propaganda with the actual ground war mostly kept off-screen, but the distancing effect makes us question the motives of the resistance and whether any real change will come of this.

1Mar/150

Spike Lee: Bamboozled (2000)

Pierre Delacroix needs a hit.  His boss has pestered him to create a television program which will connect with modern black audiences.  So Pierre, using satire as a cover, reaches back into America's racist cultural past and recruits some actors in need of a paycheck to create The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program featuring performers in blackface.  The show's a surprise hit, but many people, from a militant hip-hop collective to Delacroix's coworkers, are angry with these images dug back up for a new generation.  Spike Lee writes and directs Bamboozled with stars Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Honorary black manFor my money, Bamboozled is the most interesting Spike Lee film we've discussed so far—that doesn't necessarily mean it's one of the best (though it might be). If there's any movie in Spike's filmography that has such a wide range of possible meanings between the two ends of the “what it's supposed to mean” and “what it actually signifies” spectrum, I don't know what it would be. That the use of blackface and the film's portrayal of the actual minstrel show its characters stage threaten to overwhelm the underlying critical message has been written about plenty already, but it's impossible to consider Bamboozled otherwise. We could talk about whether or not it's even possible to show what Lee shows without lending new and refreshed power to the racist images he wants to employ as a critical mirror to the current entertainment landscape, but for me the film's contradictions-within-contradictions-within-contradictions start before we even get to the show-within-the-show.

Central to what makes Bamboozled so often simultaneously fascinating and frustrating is the opening monologue by pro(/an)tagonist and creator of the show-within-the-film, The New Millennium Minstrel Show Pierre Delacroix, during which he, in the hilariously over-affected accent of an Ivy League academic, defines satire for the audience. This moment is funny on a superficial level because the character can't possibly realize what a joke he himself is—the audience's narrative distance highlights Delacroix's lack of awareness at how significantly (and poorly) he has compromised his own identity in order to fit in among the almost entirely white executives and writers at the TV station at which he works. That this assumed identity is one of broad-stroke satire itself—assuming all the cliché traits of the stuffy-old-rich-white-men establishment he will later try to fight—would seem to indicate that Lee wants us to be wary of “satire” as simply an excuse for neglecting deeper critical inspection.

The film goes on to criticize both its black and white characters for excusing the production of a new minstrel show—replete with portrayals in blackface and other iconic racist imagery—under the guise of satire. The white characters use this excuse as a thin veil for their gleeful enjoyment of the images and stereotypes being (re)produced, and the black characters claim that since it's in the name of satire, the program is gaining a critical, socially responsible function that is never articulated past this initial vague sentiment.

Then come the question of whether Spike, in resurrecting such imagery for his own film, is not doing at least a little of the same. The irony in Delacroix's opening monologue suggests otherwise—that in projecting the images of minstrelsy in the context in which he does so, he hopes to illuminate how racist imagery and stereotypes are so easily maintained in current media due to a lack of audience awareness and willingness to engage critically. Then again, he also said that this opening monologue defining satire was included “because motherfuckers are stupid.”

One of our common disagreements over the course of this project has been not necessarily Spike's messages themselves, but the degree of success with which he embeds them in his characters and stories. Often I feel like we're being lectured at, something I don't think you agree with typically, if ever, so I'm curious to get your thoughts here not just on the use of blackface (which has to be discussed), but on whether Lee maintains the integrity of his message in the first place.‏