Raiders of the Lost Oak

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I don’t know what it is about Oakland that makes first-time filmmakers so confident, daring, and willing to pull out any possible cinematic flourish to appeal in the audience in such stylized yet urgent way, but let me tell you we need more debut filmmakers attacking subject matter with the same kind of relentlessness. Hell, we need more filmmakers in general to swing material where it hits us, with little care as to whether everything lands or doesn’t.

Most of Blindspotting lands, let me tell you. Most of it lands as hard as a movie about the tension in police brutality, racial identity, and cyclical violence should land in order for you to get the message and walk away shook. And some moments the reason you had to catch your breath was because you heart was tightening in anticipation of horribly unfair things to happen to Collin (Daveed Diggs) while some moments, it’s because you could not stop laughing in relief of the aftermath.

Oh yeah, I wasn’t just talking about Carlos López Estrada’s directing and how he’s well-acquainted with establishing moods via editing rhythms with the help of Gabriel Fleming and realism via nighttime cinematography of the traffic lights and streetlamps illuminated city streets with the help of Robbie Baumgartner. I’m also talking about how well he’s effortlessly he’s able to handle the multitudes of tone that the screenplay by Diggs and Rafael Casal. I haven’t been able to find proof that Estrada himself is from the Bay Area, but Diggs and Casal are natives and confidently provide a map of moods and attitudes that Estrada and his crew bring to the screen that give the streets a two-sided personality based on what Oakland was and what Oakland is turning into. And it is a disarmingly funny screenplay full of lively energy despite dealing with subjects that are no laughing manner, but that Diggs and Casal know all too well to sugarcoat: sometimes casual life in Oakland is going to be violently interrupted by some brutal truths.

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One of those brutal truths introduced early on in the split-screen opening credits: the before and after of Oakland’s gentrification, turning from a diverse melting pot community that is overpoliced into a mecca for performative hipsters. The very next brutal truth is the impersonal “rehabilitation” system as a judge sleepily states to Collin the terms of his parole for a crime we are not privy to yet. The next one takes a smash cut worth 27 days from his zoned out face in a courthouse to his zoned out face in a neon-decked Uber with his best friend Miles (Casal) to reach, during which time we learn that Miles is the more intense stereotype between the two of them of “gangster” behavior. For one thing, the very first thing we watch him do is offhandedly buy himself a gun from the Uber driver and most of the things he does since is the sort of thing that would get him in trouble with the law if he were the very same color as Collin, often with grill-grinning antagonism. There are many exchanges between Collin and his ex-girlfriend/co-worker Val (Janina Gavankar) that serve to implicitly and later explicitly state just how easy it is for Collin to get in trouble for nothing while Miles is able to walk away after inciting that trouble.

But the very bond between Collin and Miles is a genuine one, chemistry that comes effortlessly from Diggs and Casal being childhood friends without feeling like cheats because both actors are able to craft distinct flesh-and-blood identities with their own personal lives and conflicts, so it’s painfully easy why it appears Collin is strong on refusing to cut Miles loose even if it appears as though he must. Plus, if getting to write their own dialogue feels like stacking the deck in their favor, their delivery of impromptu raps to describe their current situations and states, swapping verses and even words back and forth like they’re passing a blunt, a wonderful connective version of dialogue between the two characters (and something that comes natural to both actors – Diggs won a Tony for his charming performances in Hamilton and Casal’s main career is poetry as a regular of Def Poetry).

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This relationship is the core of Blindspotting‘s deft handle on tone: if the audience is having a good time, it’s because Collin and Miles are having a good time, usually in the presence of Miles’ relaxed but no-nonsense homelife with his wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger). If the movie is tense and upsetting it’s because tension is brewing between their relationship or because some other urgency regarding Collin’s closing parole status is causing added stress for him that nobody around him recognizes.

Or he could be reliving the incident of that very same night we catch up with him three days before his parole’s end, where he watched a police officer (Ethan Embry) gun down a black civilian Randall Marshall (Travis Parker) on his way to make curfew. It is a moment that haunts Collin directly and indirectly all throughout Blindspotting, a reminder that all the negative perceptions of black people and the pressures keeping them from responding to a changing world have a dead end at the wrong turn. If there is anything like an inciting incident to this shaggy hang out plot, it is this wake up moment.

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And yet it can not be overstated how absolutely funny it is in between those angry and occasionally violent releases. Blindspotting does not play around with serious revelations such as that nor abandon them, but it’s impressive how well the movie is able to unwind at most of the harshness with a good reminder that Collin and Miles have each other and especially using every turn life gives them to show the difference between the two characters and how they can roll with Oakland’s development whether it’s a health drink or a developer’s party. It’s not a message movie despite its lack of subtlety in its stances, it’s an observational one and one without any distance towards the characters. Blindspotting is the sort of movie that thinks everybody deserves to make it out ok in the end, especially Miles despite him having the most apparent flaws (and there is at least one scene where Miles looks REALLY ugly to the audience, but the film knows how to confront that directly).

Honestly, the only real flaw (other than some clunky transitions) I can consider a possibility against the film (read: seen it brought up by filmgoers I respect) is its late attempts at an unconventional structure with two climaxes close by, but I can’t say I’m way too bothered by it. For one thing, the second climax feels less like a restart and more like Estrada ratcheting the tension to its highest point. For another, the script is structured that way because Blindspotting is the story of two men, not one, and their personal conflicts are not the same. I mean, in the end, that’s just the whole thesis of Blindspotting, beyond giving us the best and most gorgeous portrait (I hesitate to say eulogy even if the movie is aware of what’s to come) of Oakland’s urban side: Collin and Miles may come from the same place, but they don’t come from the same place and they’re not going to reach the same ends. But it’s great to watch them take the journey together and hope they can stay together for as long as they can.

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25 for 25 – Asa Nisi Masa

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Like I said in The Room review, I’m generally of the attitude that most filmmakers, regardless of skill or genre, imbue some part of themselves and their psychology in their art. After all, the way an artist chooses to shape their object doesn’t come from just anywhere, it comes from inside (it’s for this reason I don’t judge anyone who chooses to avoid Roman Polanski or Woody Allen movies, etc., though I don’t). Now, I don’t know how far back openly self-reflexive cinema has been happening, but Federico Fellini’s Italian masterpiece 8 1/2 strikes me as the most audacious dirty laundry-slinging you can possibly get away with before losing me as a viewer. Everything meta- after 8 1/2 seems trying to catch up, whether New Nightmare or Annie Hall or Birdman. They just can’t hold a candle to 8 1/2 for me.

Its very opening scene is the kind of shocker that puts you right into the headspace of its lead character Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) and does that by putting us in a point of view shot for the majority of the time that he’s being asphyxiated by leaking gas in a car stuck in bumper to bumper highway traffic in the patronizing eyes of the other cars. He escapes through the sunroof and begins to glide and fly up into the sky before being caught in some rope from a shore below and the movie has already taken up a surrealist nature that overwhelms the viewer, pulled out of it once the person holding the rope tugs and Guido falls into our view and us out of what was presented as a dream. A cold awakening that sets the heightened theatrical tone of the film (though it should be noted that 8 1/2 is in many ways much more grounded than most of Fellini’s other works like Satyricon and Amarcord), the feeling of lack of self-control or freedom that fuels the frustration Mastroianni guides us through all within the film, and it aligns with Guido’s perspective irrevocably.

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All of this is tied to the fact that Guido, a film director (obviously representing Fellini himself), is in the middle of a big epic spectacle production that he has no clue what to make it about, a half-constructed rocket ship one of the major setpieces Piero Gherardi provides as towering monument of Guido and Fellini’s uncertainties and insecurities. He’s also in the middle of a break ostensibly for his health in a Catholic spa that Gherardi and composer Nino Rota craft as a hypnotising carnivalesque white block (even more solid in the black and white stock of which 8 1/2 is shot by Gianni Di Venanzo) of “supposed” salvation and real confusion, the kind that you don’t really mind living in because it blankets you well. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with his imminent separation from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) while his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo, Fellini’s real-life mistress) is staying right next door at the spa. And while the plot circles and circles with Guido’s inability to make any creative decisions walking right past all of his assistants in the hotel or appease his clearly tired producer (Guido Alberti), any real attempt to present a solution is way too hard for Guido and he retreats into his hat or sunglasses to indulge himself in a memory of his childhood – like being punished for witnessing a prostitute’s dance – or a fantasy that is extremely telling of his flaws – such as the chauvinistic harem sequence.

Guido’s not a good guy, he’s spineless, he’s creatively bankrupt (at this point in his career), he’s a liar, he’s an adulterer, and that’s just the things that Fellini wants us to read into a character who is essentially meant to represent him. Even if 8 1/2 is eager to forgive Guido’s faults by the end of it, I can’t pretend this decision on Guido’s personality is a brave move on Fellini’s part and it’s even more miraculous that 8 1/2 can be so entertaining as a movie, swinging around Rota’s big marches and fanfares to make start seeping in between Guido’s real circus of screen tests and press conferences and his fantasy escapes within his mind, so that by the end of the picture it becomes so overwhelming you can’t tell where one begins and one ends.

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But I’m almost getting ahead of myself, for what makes Guido still so tolerable a protagonist in spite of his faults is how humane and willing Fellini is to go backwards into his psyche to find the root of his problems with women, his art, his inner guilt, and the honesty behind 8 1/2‘s revelations end up feeling relatable as a result. The other big deal is how every cast member no matter how cartoonish he or she is presented by the film, they’re so involved in their own lives that it’s clear we’re witnessing real people only given a distorted lens by Guido/Fellini, most tragically towards Luisa who looks probably more like a stern killjoy to Guido, but Aimée is not willing to play along with that ruse and even before the screen test confessional where Aimée gets to do the best work out of everybody in the movie, she gives Luisa a sense of pain and embarrassment so sharp it’s impossible not to understand her frustrations. Fellini as a filmmaker intelligently stays out of the cast’s way so that even Carla has inner life and we can imagine where she goes when not in the presence of Guido. Or Claudia Cardinale being pictured on the spot as Guido’s ideal woman (standing out in black amongst a sea of white in the resort) despite her clear ailings that brought her there to begin with and are exacerbated by Guido’s fetishizing of her. Fellini may not have an idea of how to craft these women, but the cast does and it only puts more perspective in how small Fellini/Guido’s own ailments are.

Nevertheless, while I wasn’t wrong in claiming 8 1/2 may be one of Fellini’s most restrained films, it still announces itself as theatrical even without all the fantasy sequences. Moments are full of metaphor within them such as Guido’s attempt to clumsily direct Carla in a love scene between them or Guido’s descent into a sauna steamed white hot wisps like Hell itself despite meeting with a cardinal in that very sauna. The connection that can be made between Guido’s inability for creativity and his sexual impotence is implied by his own mind. All of this, when we’re reminded they all come from our alignment with Guido’s perspective, suddenly tell us that these real-life scenes are no less fantasy escapes than Guido’s mind-harem, they’re all Guido trying to rectify the fact that he doesn’t have an authority over his own life by visualizing them as big moments and himself as a big character in the center of his life. And who doesn’t see themselves that way, director or not? Which is how the movie and Guido arrive to the final revelation that Guido doesn’t need to direct his life the same way he directs his movie, although whether or not Fellini truly believes that is up for question as even when Guido relinquishes absolute control around the end and is willing to start over, we see his younger self guiding his own life literally and figuratively in a dance I find impossible not to associate with the finale of The Seventh Seal, albeit a bit more optimistically.

I don’t want to say 8 1/2 is an impressionistic movie. I don’t think think it’s ambiguous at any point about what it’s about or what it’s trying to say, but I don’t know. Maybe I just respond so well to that because I want to be a filmmaker myself. Maybe I just respond to it well because I’m a straight guy who has similar neurotic hang-ups. Maybe this essay is my own great big sloppy 8 1/2, for I have started and stopped over and over again writing this not knowing how or what to focus on (and indeed 8 1/2 is the sort of movie where there is so much about Fellini to unpack that I wouldn’t have known where to start), and so that will leave me with some sort of dissatisfaction about what I’ve had to say. But I can’t lie to myself about how I feel for 8 1/2 and how sometimes I find myself trying to escape even the slightest antagonism by dreaming within my own shades.

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