Monday, May 22, 2017

Over-analyzing Arrested Development in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is one of the worst books I have read to completion, so the essay that follows should not be taken as a recommendation so much as a deconstructive cheat sheet for anyone who is considering or being coerced to read it.  With any luck, this will be the last so-called close-reading I have to do in, like, ever.


The protagonist of Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is 44 years old, married, and a father, but continuously exhibits tendencies that suggest he’s trapped in some kind of arrested development. Themes of adolescence, adulthood, and masculinity to a lesser extent all pervade Seize the Day, and Bellow traces most of Wilhelm’s psychological malaise back to a lack of sympathy from his father, Dr. Adler. Instead of giving in to pity, Adler’s apathetic attitude towards his beleaguered son compounds with Wilhelm’s problems, engendering a cycle of passive behavior and unfulfilled dependency on paternal affirmation. The further Wilhelm drifts from his father and his father’s approval, the harder he finds it to attain fulfillment as a grown man, and the more entrenched he gets in a prodigal son inertia of his own making. The final scene depicts the culmination of all Wilhelm’s varied reversions to childhood, rendering Seize the Day an essentially deterministic novel.

Although Wilhelm thinks, “Dad never was a pal to my when I was young,” the son’s first major act of straying from his detached father is abandoning his education to chase after a highly dubious career in acting. Wilhelm bears disdain towards academic pursuits, personified by his cousin Artie, an intelligent professor whom his mother casually brings up to avail him against leaving for Los Angeles. Artie is competent in multiple languages, and Wilhelm dislikes him for that very fact, thinking him “boring” or, worse, cynical.
How could anyone bear to know so many languages… Did Artie love his languages, and live for them, or was he also, in his heart, cynical? So many people nowadays were. No one seemed satisfied, and Wilhelm was especially horrified by the cynicism of successful people.

As a child might, Wilhelm strains to see the value of learning in and of itself, and looks down on the elitism he observes in people like Artie or Adler, whom he deems a “vain man”, albeit a respected and medically knowledgeable one. Moreover, he condenses the nearly two years of college he did experience into a set of memories with no educational aspect, and prides himself on eventually taking a different course.
Sometimes he told people, “I was too mature for college. I was a big boy, you see. Well, I thought, when do you start to become a man?” After he had driven a painted flivver and had worn a yellow slicker with slogans on it, and played illegal poker, and gone out on Coke dates, he had had college.

Here, and also later in the book when Margaret admits that college “seemed practical”, Bellow gives a window into Wilhelm’s prevailing, reactionary mindset, and leaves little room to wonder why he finds Tamkin’s carpe diem speech so enticing. Because of his overwhelming inadequacies relative to his father’s accomplishments, Wilhelm reassures himself by diminishing these accomplishments as empty or somehow injurious to him. In the paragraph describing Wilhelm’s fear of Artie’s cynicism, Bellow goes on to write, “Whenever at the end of the day he was unnaturally fatigued he attributed it to cynicism. Too much of the world’s business done.” Wilhelm’s default recourse in his extended adolescence tends to lie in distancing himself as much as possible from the antiquated success models of his parents, hence his “bid for liberty” in choosing the actor name Tommy. As the only person in his family not to complete higher education, he retains a scornful distaste for those who do adhere to that tradition, calling them cynical or selfish, and he mentally justifies his less prudent alternative as more independent or adult. “But Wilhelm had been eager for life to start. College was merely another delay.”

Nonetheless, for one reason or another, Wilhelm chooses to lie about his educational history, perhaps for fear of being rebuked, perhaps because he knows subconsciously he was wrong and doesn’t want to admit it. “Wilhelm respected the truth, but he could lie and one of the things he lied often about was his education, [saying] he was an alumnus of Penn State.” In fact, the son lies constantly, even to himself sometimes, and when he isn’t lying, he happens to be drawn to habitual liars, viz. Tamkin and Venice. First he lies about his prospects of actually making it in Hollywood, massively inflating the credibility of Venice’s offer when “the scout had never made him a definite offer of a studio connection”. Once his trust in Venice starts to disintegrate, he lies to his parents yet again, saying the scout fully believes in his acting talents. Then he lies to his father about the pills he’s taking and the woman he has been seeing in Roxbury.

On top of these dishonesties, the son willfully indulges Tamkin’s clearly fabricated claims simply because the man makes him feel better than his own father. When Adler ridicules one of the “psychological poet’s” conceptual inventions, Wilhelm excuses it as “just his kind of fantasy”, and later he ponders to himself, “I must be a real jerk to sit and listen to such impossible stories. I guess I am a sucker for people who talk about the deeper things of life, even the way he does.”

Wilhelm’s predilection to telling and tolerating lies is closely related to his childlike ego, which is always excusing itself from responsibility and avoiding commitment. As has already been mentioned, “he used to pretend that it [Hollywood] had all been the doing of a certain talent scout,” even though the idea to drop out of college originated with him. In response to his dad reprimanding him over his messy room – another youthful quality –, he places the room’s condition squarely on his wife, or lack thereof. Wilhelm’s conviction of his own helplessness manifests most clearly in his thoughts after meeting with his father. “And not only is death on his mind but through money he forces me to think about it, too. It gives him power over me. He forces me that way, he himself, and then he’s sore.” Wilhelm cannot help but see himself as a victim of others’ cruelty: his company’s, his wife’s, and his father’s. His future in his view is so laid out before him that he is basically enslaved. “The Emancipation Proclamation was only for colored people,” he mopes. “A husband like me is a slave, with an iron collar.”

In puerile fashion, he refuses to take responsibility whenever he is in the wrong, up until the very end, when he tells his pale father, “I should have listened to you,” but not before checking to see if the masseur is paying attention to them. Even after this humble admission, though, he backpedals and hides behind “bad luck”, the perennial cause of his woes. Just so, he reels at the thought of groveling before his former employees and begging them to take him back. “I can’t get on my knees to them,” he exclaims. “Rojax take me back? I’d have to crawl back.” His character is completely passive and determined by his social climate, borne along by forces he dares not oppose. This fact elucidates the meaning of one of the final scenes, in which he walks along Broadway with a great crowd, “in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence – I labor, I spend, I strive…” (111) In such a crowd, the motiveless Wilhelm must stand out.

The protagonist also balks at opportunities to promote himself, letting his father do that work for him. Multiple times Adler is described as a salesman, boasting of his son and daughter to business associates, but Wilhelm considers this inappropriate. “Now God alone can tell me why I have to lay my whole life bare to this blasted herring here. I’m sure nobody else does it.” Repelled by the success of his father, he generally shies from asserting himself in any threatening capacity or even from contradicting other people. Like a typical millennial critic who’s afraid of drawing harsh words from others, he peppers his speech with weasel phrases that downplay his own observations as subjective and undermine the purpose of argument altogether. Bellow writes, “When he was forced to differ he would declare, ‘Well, I’m not sure. I don’t really see it that way. I’m of two minds about it.’ He would never willingly hurt any man’s feelings.” He won’t venture even to criticize his sister Catherine’s art, waving away any misgivings he has with it as a matter of personal taste.


Driving home his pessimistic determinism, Wilhelm also has a habit of hugely overstating and dramatizing the plights in which he finds himself, bringing everything back to his literal suffocation and murder. “It would kill me to go back to school now,” he tells Venice at one point. Later in the book, he actually starts choking himself in front of his father to demonstrate his wife’s animosity towards him, and on the phone with her he yet again brings up the topic of her choking him. “You must realize you’re killing me,” he says. “You can’t be as blind as all that. Thou shalt not kill! Don’t you remember that?” When Tamkin elaborately compares money-making to the art of killing, Wilhelm listens, ill at ease, possibly because he connects it to his own life. All these references to or mock enactments of violence serve two purposes: first to emphasize the childish mentality of Wilhelm, second to show how powerless he feels to change his fortunes.

Bellow insinuates the son’s immaturity, and the immaturity of modern society broadly, in many other ways both subtle and patently obvious.  As an example of the former, there is Wilhelm’s heavy reliance on Coca Cola, which Mr. Perls disapprovingly notices him drinking for breakfast.  As for the latter, the point that Wilhelm’s job at Rojax Manufacturing involved selling “kiddie’s furniture” can hardly be dismissed as mere coincidence.  Extended adolescence applies to women too in the world of Seize the Day: inside the cafeteria, Wilhelm observes a crowd of elderly ladies who are heavily made-up and acting in a manner he thinks unbecoming of their age.  “Were there no longer any respectable old ladies who knitted and cooked and looked after their grandchildren?”  At the same time, the sight of the ostentatious women stirs in him a memory of how his grandmother treated him as a small child, implying that he is still mired to some extent in the stage of youth.  In his argument with Margaret on the phone, the wife expresses dedication to her traditional role as mother, saying, “Growing boys need parental authority and a home,” but even this exchange harkens back to the theme of Wilhelm’s arrested development.  Margaret says she has cannot afford to get a job if it means having a couple kids running loose, to which Wilhelm replies, “They’re not babies.  Tommy is fourteen.  Pauline is going to be ten.”  In this aspect, Seize the Day has become even more pertinent with age.  50 years ago, a man might have been shamed and frowned upon for suckling off his parents after college, or even after high school; now, under Obamacare, young Americans can continue to reap some of childhood’s perks until they turn 26.

Wilhelm’s objection to Margaret’s babying of his kids reflects his ongoing struggle to reconcile his true age with his emotional need for validation from his father. At least twice in the book he crosses himself for acting like a little kid with respect to Adler, and characters often reinforce that impression in his mind, Adler scolding him for speaking “nonsense and kid’s talk” and Tamkin arguing with him “dryly, as though he were dealing with a child”. Bellow seems to make the case that Wilhelm’s firmest claim upon adulthood is his ability to regulate his emotional vulnerability in public, viz. by suppressing the urge to cry. In his protracted conversation with Wilhelm, he feels tears welling up at one point but does not let them out. Later, in the brokerage office, he fights the temptation even harder.
His need to cry, like someone in a crowd, pushed and jostled and abused him from behind, and Wilhelm did not dare turn. He said to himself, I will not cry in front of these people. I’ll be damned if I’ll break down in front of them like a kid, even though I never expect to see them again. No! No! And yet his unshed tears rose and rose and he looked like a man about to drown.

By the protagonist’s correlation of crying with his own latent childishness, the last scene of Seize of the Day signifies more than just the “consummation of his heart’s ultimate need”. It also shows that Wilhelm has given up on attaining the one thing, his father’s approval, that would make him feel like a mature man, implying also that he’s given up trying to determine his own fate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Pepperdine Chaplain Sara Barton Writes Poem For Freedom Wall Denouncing the Freedom Wall

Article written by George Stefano Pallas.  School spirit and lingering optimism practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

On January 25, three print-outs of a poem attributed to Pepperdine University Chaplain Sara Barton were pinned to the Freedom Wall outside the school’s main cafeteria. The poem was written in some kind of free verse and appears to have been addressed to another user of the wall, although the lack of specific details in the text leaves no definite pointers to the context of the poem. In it, Barton voiced disapproval with the way that certain individuals exercised their freedom on the wall, using words and images she deems hurtful, and asserted that freedom of this kind is a form of voluntary slavery or entrapment.


Although it was initially instituted as an open bulletin board for expressing their opinions, most Pepperdine students utilize the so-called “Freedom Wall” as another advertising place for fraternity recruitment, club events, off-campus apartments, and other illicit materials that can be displayed in no shortage of other locations. The Freedom Wall typically goes many weeks without receiving new student-authored content, and when someone does pin something of an unpopular or conservative bent to the Wall, it’s often torn down within a matter of hours.

In the short time preceding the poem, two articles were posted to the Freedom Wall that may have inspired Barton’s response. One was a meme posted on January 20, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, which depicted Pepperdine’s since-banished Christopher Columbus statue wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “White Lives Matter Too”.

A crude and disgusting meme posted to Pepperdine's Freedom Wall

The other potentially offending target of Barton’s criticism was a set of posters created by the conservative group Turning Point USA that used quotes from TV figures to promote free-market capitalism and freedom of speech. Although the Files’ staff arrived at the scene too late to examine the materials in question, the Pepperdine Graphic newspaper reported afterwards that someone had scrawled obscenities, presumably of the hateful variety, over the posters and removed them within a day of their being posted on January 12.

On the same day that the posters were removed, a sign was taped to the upper-left corner of the Freedom Wall, presumably aimed to address the Turning Points situation. The sign read, “The Freedom Wall is a venue for individual members of the community to express themselves. The wall is governed by the principle that when we speak freely in our participatory democracy, we must do so responsibly. Therefore, personal attacks, profanity or indecency of any kind is prohibited. When posting an item, you are encouraged to sign and date it.”

A positive note of encouragement left on the Pepperdine Friendly Wall

The warning is taken almost verbatim from the Student Activities handbook, excepting the part about the types of speech prohibited, but the print-out doesn’t identify whether a student representative, a staff member, or some other actor posted it.

According to Turning Points USA’s website, the mission of the group is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government”.  None of the posters distributed on the Freedom Wall expressed animosity towards any group based on non-political attributes.

With this in mind, it remains uncertain to what exactly the Pepperdine chaplain was referring when she wrote, “So to the persons who disgraced / our community freedom wall / with words and images designed / to wound sisters and brothers who are not you, / heed not my words or views, / but that of natural law.” To date Barton has made no other public remarks about the systemic suppression of conservative articles on the Freedom Wall.

Barton’s poem advances an interpretation of freedom as a zero-sum economy in which claiming more freedom for oneself necessarily involves seizing freedom from some other person, unless one “exhale[es] compassion for another”. At the same time, Barton argues that the amount of freedom one wields in self-interest directly relates to how socially isolated and enslaved one is.

Freedom, in a sense, only threatens to put us all back in chains, a word Barton herself employs to describe the plight of the unnamed person who utilized the Wall. “This is neither sentiment nor drivel,” she says, preemptively implying that someone would find the poetry to be sentimental and also drivel.

Barton began working as the university chaplain in July of 2014. Before rising to her stewardship over the spiritual development and faith of Pepperdine’s youth, she was a vocal proponent of women in church ministry, authoring a book on the subject. Barton’s tweets reflect her ongoing interest in this and other Feminist causes.








In addition to endorsing the much-reported “Women’s March”, the Black Lives Matter movement, egalitarian T-shirts, and husbands submitting to their wives, Barton has been especially active on the social media platform since the election of President Donald Trump. The chaplain’s preferred method of Resistance has entailed issuing a series of #mypresident pound signs in support of President Barack Obama, defending migrant rights on the basis of Jesus being a refugee of King Herod, and retweeting a profile posing as a character invented by J.K. Rowling, who subsequently clarified that the oldest, wisest character in the popular children’s series was a closeted homosexual.












Over the last year, Pepperdine swapped DirecTV service for Rokus in all living areas, destroyed a parking lot and stripped out 84 beds, got rid of a Bank of America ATM in the main plaza, shipped the aforementioned Columbus statue to Europe, and removed both a frozen yogurt machine and mural artwork from the main cafeteria so as to free up more white space on the wall. Pepperdine also fired resident directors Michael Harri and Brittney Patag for setting off a fire alarm in an unoccupied building that the school had already planned to demolish before anyone would enter it again.  None of the student advisors under the authority of the directors were alerted to the firing until well after the decision had been made.

The base tuition rate set by Pepperdine for the last academic year was $49,770 and will rise by 3.96% to $51,740 for 2017-2018. Dean of Seaver College Michael Feltner said, “In determining the tuition rate, Pepperdine considers numerous factors including the external economic environment, the tuition rates at peer institutions, and the needs of the university.”

With all that said, as the needs of the university continue to rise by a paltry 4% each year, here is a joyous and fast-paced video documenting a year in the life at Pepperdine that the Author unconsciously edited to LCD Soundsystem’s resounding and beautiful Someone Great, a seemingly cheery, dance-inducing single which, much like Pepperdine, is actually really sad when examined and pondered more deeply.

Monday, March 27, 2017

100-Something Movies: The First Update (M-Z)

Continued from the first part of the update.

May –

I got a little carried away working my night shift and accidentally wrote about a page of commentary on May in coincidental enthusiasm and boredom.  Suffice it to say that May is a delightfully oddball yet also reflective horror film about isolation, female sexual desire, and obsession with aesthetics.  It’s probably not for everybody, but those for whom it is are certain to love it.

Please don’t go look up the trailer.

Memories of Murder –

Memories of Murder is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, unless you have seen Mother.  This may be the best entry point to Korean New Wave cinema, intermittently hilarious, suspenseful, and dizzying in its presentation.

Moana –

I will admit that Moana is far from a perfect movie.  In fact, I could probably fill a page or two with things I would change in it – some irritating lines of dialogue, a lame song in the middle act, the way her hair never stays wet very long.  It’s also the first Disney movie in a really long time I can envision myself watching over and over again without getting bored, like Shrek or How To Train Your Dragon (both of which it resembles a lot), as well as the first Disney movie in a while that didn’t have some severely dating social agenda to grind and just contented itself with telling a good story about two people learning to respect each other.  I’m still in shock at just how great it was.  I. Am. Moanaaaaa.

Mother –

Mother is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, unless you have seen Memories of Murder.  Of the two, this one packs more of an emotional punch and may linger longer for that reason.  Bong Joon-ho cleverly builds the end into the opening credits, but one can’t understand the significance of it until the story has run its breathtaking course.

Perfect Blue –

I will admit up front that I don’t admire Perfect Blue as much as some other movies on the list; in fact, one might view its inclusion as a kind of affirmative-action for alternative animations.  But here we have to ask if affirmative-action is even inherently bad when it comes to cinema.  If it’s good enough for the Oscars (and we all know the Oscars have never, ever honored crappy movies), then it’s good enough for us. Regardless of politics, Perfect Blue is still an entrancing thriller by all measures, whisked along by jarring transitions, freakish animated imagery, desperate violence, and a perspective that keeps getting more and more unmoored from reality as we know it.  If you’ve already seen Black Swan, you should feel obligated to watch the crazier, more visionary original that inspired it.  I should also note that this isn’t a movie to watch in public or with judgmental people, unless you don’t mind people thinking you’re weird.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer –

Perfume can aptly be described as the anti-Les Miserables, employing much of the same apparel and d├ęcor but designed to polarize, repel, and offend.  The sensualist movie manages to be at once massive in scope and incredibly tactile, and like Les Mis it’s highly musical, though it aims to be more eerie and haunting than anything else.  For a great (and funny) video further extolling Perfume, albeit by sampling scenes taken from very late in the film, check out Twin Perfect’s video on it here.

Punch-Drunk Love –

Does choosing the Adam Sandler-starring Punch-Drunk Love as my only essential P.T. Anderson flick over The Master or Magnolia or any of his more serious movies make me a simpleton?  Maybe it does, but The Master and Magnolia only really succeeded in making me bored or angry, and there are lots of other movies that induce me to anger or boredom.  On the contrary, there aren’t a lot of movies that made me feel quite the same as this, thanks to Jon Brion’s incomparable score, the unhinged soundscape in general, and Sandler’s surprisingly convincing performance as a toilet plunger salesman with lots of unspecified issues.  Punch-Drunk Love thrives upon the kind of cringeworthy situations and crippling anxiety that permeate a lot of the Youtube videos I consume, but does so in a commendably entertaining way.  I would urge anybody who doesn’t appreciate its brilliance to watch the first thirty minutes or so of the movie Krisha, which aspires to do pretty much the same thing and ends up being the most excruciating thing I’ve ever heard.

Robocop –

There’s a sizeable group of people out there who seem to think that Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is a sage and wickedly satirical attack on capitalism, police militarization, or something else, but if we’re being honest, nobody watches Robocop to this day for any of those reasons.  They watch it because it’s fun to see Robocop stop criminals and say one-liners like, “Come quietly or there will be trouble.”  Because Murphy is a character one can easily root for, and the bad guys get their just deserts in ridiculously violent ways.  Because the world depicted still looks believable and there’s a certain undying charm in the stop-motion ED-209 effects.  I’m also inclined to agree with Red Letter Media that Robocop 2 is underrated, if lacking the heft of the original, and I will never watch Robocop 3.

Rosemary’s Baby –

Possibly the best horror movie ever made in its time still holds up remarkably well today.

Secret Sunshine –

Criterion has a fine essay on the spiritual themes of Secret Sunshine that probably does a better job summarizing its merits than I have time to do.  One thing I got out of it as a mere Christian raised in evangelical circles that the Criterion writer probably didn’t is the importance of meeting people where they’re at in their suffering instead of ministering to unreceptive ears.  While told from a secular point of view, the movie doesn’t indiscriminately mock religion or those who seek peace in God, only those most fervent and presumptive proselytizers who think they know exactly why someone thinks the way they do (“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t real…”) and dish up overused evangelical catchphrases to people who are mired in grief.  I believe it’s an intentional irony that the most Christ-like, loving character in the film is a nonbeliever who starts going to church just for the sake of cozying up to the woman he likes.

A Separation –

The guy who made this movie is a political stuntman and sellout to his countrymen in Iran, but he does make damn fine movies every now and then.  A Separation is totally humorless and depressing but extremely well acted with culturally universal themes of justice, subjectivity of memory, and spirit vs. the letter of the law.

A Serious Man –

A Serious Man may not be the funniest or most technically impressive film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography, but it might just be my favorite, no thanks to Sy Ableman.  Some people have viewed it (and praised it) as a bleak and atheistic movie denying the existence of any grander meaning behind humanity’s suffering, but I think the message of the movie is a whole lot simpler and on the nose: no one is entitled to an explanation from God – after all, He’s God –, and the order behind the universe is like the mathematics behind Schrodinger’s Cat, a perplexing mystery we all have to accept on faith.  Longer review here.

Seven –

Was there a mainstream movie in the 90s that exuded a more filthy atmosphere and sense of foreboding than Se7en?  “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

Sleeper –

Woody Allen envisions an intellectually degraded, hedonistic future wherein people don’t even have the patience for sexual flings unless it’s a group activity, getting into mechanical cylinders that simulate intercourse quickly and efficiently.  Of all the collaborations between the two actors, Diane Keaton was most attractive in Sleeper, which seems like an odd thing to mention regarding a 44-year-old movie, but so it goes.  It’s a mix of Brave New World, slapstick comedy, and general zaniness that should be recognized more as the weird departure from his formula that Allen actually pulled off to great success.

The Social Network –

The Social Network is an exhilarating, cynical tour guide through all of Generation Y’s newfound ways of flexing their human depravity, corruption, dishonesty, arrogance, gluttony, lust, and betrayal.  It’s basically the story of mankind crunched into a raging 2-hour firestorm of filmic, Fincherian drama, and while some of the figures depicted therein have denounced the story’s theatrics, it undoubtedly stands with the most captivating film stories of our time.  It’s also a compelling psychoanalysis of one of the most powerful corporate machines alive today, why young people latched onto it in droves (SPOILER: It was all about Sex), and how its founder shrewdly nurtured it into a powerhouse of explicit and surreptitious advertising. Fake, but accurate.  On top of that it’s simply brilliant filmmaking, as you can see in this underrated video essay on how Fincher shoots phone conversations.

Splice –

A lot of people seem to hate this movie because the creature (cruelly named Dren by its creators) performs rather graphic coitus with one of the humans in a later stage of her development, and this is understandable.  Of all the sins that should repel us in enlightened society, making love to non-existent, genetically engineered bipeds definitely ranks near the top, certainly on par with or worse than abortion, terrorism, corruption, coercion, and bald-faced lying.  Within the context of Splice, I found this part one of the more imaginative and warranted love scenes I’ve come across, yet that’s not mainly why I enjoyed Vincenzo Natali’s film.  Even if for nothing else, Splice deserves a spot on this list just for better utilizing computer animation than pretty much any mainstream sci-fi to date; much like Ex Machina, it blends makeup, the actor’s physicality, and strategic CG elements to create a more believable and empathetic character than could be achieved solely through one of those tools.  Also clever is the way the priorities and ethics of the two scientists’ unfold over time, the one who seemed more caring and maternal at first being exposed as the more clinical and selfish person all along.  Unfortunately, the ending confrontation takes a needlessly icky and exploitative turn, relegating Splice to the unenviable Abyss Society of movies I love until the director just gave up and scrambled to finish the damn thing.

Spring –

The DVD cover of Spring sells it as a monster movie disguised as a love story.  This is false advertising. It’s actually a love story disguised as a monster movie, one that uses wacky rules of immortality, rebirth, and oxytocin-generation to ponder about living out life to the fullest.  The cinematography is pretty but indie-movie cheap, which adds to its charm for me, and the dialogue feels natural as in the “Before” movies without being utterly boring.  The first 18 minutes are foul and unrepresentative of the movie and you should skip them.

The Squid and the Whale –

Perhaps the most unsentimental and uncomfortably riotous movie ever to deal with divorce, The Squid and the Whale finds self-reflective comedy in the miseries of wretched and despicable people.  Each family member exhibits uniquely loathsome tendencies and bears legitimate grudges against the rest, but Noah Baumbach remarkably prevents any of them from emerging as moral champion, a tact he kind of abandoned in While We’re Young, where Ben Stiller clearly espouses the director’s own beliefs and Adam Driver evolves into an antagonist.  Squid being based in some part on his own childhood, I imagine Baumbach purposely projected more ignoble aspects of himself, his colleagues, and his kin onto all the characters, resulting in an extraordinarily balanced, if not conclusive or typically satisfying script.  I also must give props to any film that references Risky Business, Pink Floyd, and other 80s artifacts as vigorously as this one.  A snobbish and elitist movie that isn’t above ridiculing intellectual snobbery, The Squid and the Whale shrewdly depicts humans’ arrogant propensity to blame everything that’s going wrong in their own lives on individuals other than themselves.

Starship Troopers –

Starship Troopers is a movie about bloodthirsty, indoctrinated young skulls full of mush killing giant bugs to gain their citizenship that makes one want to think twice about going to war, which is quite an achievement for what it is.  I watched this with several college students, one of whom said that it was “basically the cheesiest sci-fi movie ever made” and another of whom had difficulty accepting it was a “real movie, like released in theaters”.  Contrary to their disdain, Starship Troopers is played almost completely straight except for some scattered propaganda videos, and its seamless CGI still tramples a lot of movies made today.

Straw Dogs –

Straw Dogs blew me away, and in the interest of letting it blow you away too, I refrain from giving away anything about the plot except to say I wouldn’t recommend it to the sensitive or to most women.  Dustin Hoffman is incredibly layered, the editing perfect but for a couple fast sequences at the end, and almost no prop or character is set up that isn’t put to some very memorable use.  You also shouldn’t watch Straw Dogs alone, since it begs to be discussed afterwards.

Submarine –

This is the coming-of-age teen movie for those who can’t stand teen movies.  Submarine frequently breaks from conventions but not in a way that narcissistically calls attention to its breaking from conventions, which is itself a convention (see The Spectacular Now or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). For example, the token school bully of the film is not an obstacle to the protagonist pursuing his love interest because the bully character actually is the love interest, nor does writer/director Richard Aoyade ever condescend his audience by sermonizing about how bullying is wrong.  The lovely cinematography makes strong use of yellows and reds, Alex Turner contributes several wistful songs to an all-original soundtrack, and film generally does a good job not spelling out the moral of the story that stupid kids should apply to their own lives.  It’s sweet and sad and funny and possibly better the second time around.

Sunshine –

Thrilling space-fiction that doesn’t rely on too many twists or frills, features a fantastic score, and incorporates some cool themes about God or immortality or something.  The DVD I have access to is broken and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can’t really say much more.  Maybe this annotation will be replaced somewhere down the line, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Synecdoche, New York –

At the point of writing this, I have only seen Synecdoche, New York once and do not have a very firm idea of what its plot signifies, other than that Charlie Kaufmann is a screenwriting genius.  The movie only runs two hours long but by the end you feel as though it has lasted a lifetime, which was probably the point.  An exhausting film, mentally and emotionally, that I hope to revisit sometime down the line after I’ve watched Your Movie Sucks’ feature-length analysis of the feature.

Thirst –

A few words I would use to describe Thirst: humorous, violent, playful, seductive, erotic, extravagant, elegant, mesmerizing, gonzo.  A tale about a struggling religious man that never fully commits to its religious underbelly (Park Chan-Wook is not, as far as anyone knows, a Christian), it nonetheless draws upon the legend of the vampire as a metaphor for the baser primal instincts latent in all men, the id which wages a savage war for dominance with the hero’s waning Catholicism.  It employs special effects rarely but effectively, has the best, most justified sex scene ever for what that’s worth, and couldn’t possibly close in more spectacular fashion.

The Vengeance Trilogy –

Taken collectively, these are the best films I’ve ever seen in terms of film form.  Orson Welles is always credited with inventing the cinematic toolbox, but Park Chan-Wook has built much greater wonders using the same tools.  Like Welles, Park underwent no formal film schooling, studying philosophy in college, and actually busied himself outside of directing with writing essays and film critiques.  Knowing nothing of his personal background while watching the trilogy, it didn’t surprise me to learn afterwards that he counts Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Vonnegut among his major influences, as all three movies deal in the kind of high drama, dark comedy, and flexible narration those older writers mastered.  To say a brief word about each film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a tightly scripted, starkly photographed thriller wherein every character action is justified, makes perfect sense, and contributes to an escalating trail of violence. Oldboy is the comic-book movie to end all lazy comic-book movies, running circles around American action flicks with parallel imagery, in-camera transitions, stunning long takes, and almost every other trick in the book.  Lady Vengeance falls somewhere between them both, starting out as perhaps the most confusing and stylized of the bunch before transfiguring into the most contemplative, harrowing film of the series.  I could write pages upon pages about every aspect I loved in each one’s framing, editing, scoring, cinematography, and writing, but for now I’ll simply exhort you to order the Blu-ray or pull Oldboy up on Netflix, which looks about the same.  Since they’re not a trilogy proper but an accidental sequence of thematically related dramas, you can really watch them in whatever order pleases you – alone, without your kids or friends, because they’re rated R for many, many reasons.

Victoria –

Would Victoria be as impressive a film if it wasn’t captured in an unbroken two-hour take and just shot traditionally?  As to this we can only speculate, but it is marvelously structured as a thriller and I wouldn’t expect it to weaken on repeat viewings, unlike Birdman, which uses its faux-one-shot grandstanding as a smokescreen for an insufferably masturbatory script.  The flashing lights and drowning bass of a transportive nightclub beckon viewer and young heroine alike into a sensual underworld, demanding to be seen and heard in the same darkness that engulfs the characters.

We Need To Talk About Kevin –

Beautiful, tragic, grim, and more disturbing in a real-world sense than most anything since Silence of the Lambs, Kevin delivers a powerful meditation on pure evil, whether it exists as an entity in itself or is merely inculcated by external causes.  Lynne Ramsay doesn’t make films often, but when she does they are astounding.

The rest of the list:
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E-H
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