What I'm Watching
Sunka Simon, associate professor of German studies
Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
Friday Night Lights fulfills all the requirements of a great U.S. television serial: a semi-intact oedipal family working through its emotional and economic struggles contrasted with social misfits and those from broken families. The common goal of football unites them even in discord and sets the stage for some great mini-dramas on the adult and teenage fronts. The series excels in producing male and female heroes in unseen and unacknowledged places, just as the camera travels horizontally across the windswept greyish brown Texas planes, blurring any attempt at differentialization on the surface. Football: the production of American nationalism and economics as it is inextricably connected to the ideal of the middle-class American family and its ability to integrate strangers, to tolerate them and to heal them, to make them whole again, insinuating, of course, that all "others" are lacking in some way, but exposing, along the way, that the need to "heal" reveals the empty-ness at the center, embodied by the travails of the wheelchair-bound quarterback.
Bob Rehak, assistant professor of film and media studies
A hard movie to write about without dropping massive spoilers, Christopher Smith's Triangle belongs to the family of puzzle films, genus time-loop tales, species psychological thriller - putting it in the same category as 2007's Timecrimes/Los Cronocrímenes and 2004's low-budget marvel Primer. Such brainteaser plots, whose origami-like layers and folds scramble conventions of classical cinematic narrative such as causality and character motivation, are often bleakly existential in their outlook, and Triangle is gloomier than most in its portrait of a young single mother (Melissa George) whose sailing trip with friends becomes a maze of multiplicative murder when their boat capsizes in a freak storm. If the film's first 20 minutes give little hint of the metaphysical mayhem to come, the final 20 bring unexpected gravity to the gamesmanship, as the protagonist escapes one kind of trap only to find herself confronting another in her role as caregiver to an autistic child. Triangle left me thinking for days afterward, and while I'm not sure its nautilus-shell logic holds up, the domestic drama at its center remains a beautifully tragic ruin: the fall of the house of Escher.
Patricia White, professor of film and media studies
All About Love (2010)
A lesbian rom com from respected Hong Kong director Ann Hui, this film is both enjoyable and oddball. Macy (Sandra Ng) and Anita (Vivian Chow), girlfriends in their school days, meet again at a counseling session for pregnant women. They walk home together, and flashbacks show the almost farcical conditions under which they each became pregnant. Anita wants them to form a family and raise the kids together-Macy's ex and her new girlfriend are willing to help parent--and so are the two men! But Macy's not quite ready to commit. Hui notes the film was a tough sell to investors in the current Hong Kong climate, as the subject matter meant the film wouldn't be released in mainland China. It proved a tough sell to HK audiences too, who apparently weren't quite as ready for the film's light (and somewhat incoherent) treatment of lesbianism and single motherhood. But worth it for the flashes of HK's feminist and lesbian communities and Hui's sure-handed direction.
Road to Nowhere (2010)
Road to Nowhere is a movie about the production of a movie, in which the line between reality and fiction threatens to dissolve. If the description sounds hackneyed, it's because that genre of meta-picture has long been the province of master filmmakers from Kiarostami to Lynch. I was surprised, then, at how fresh and exciting Road to Nowhere feels. It works in part because it keeps the narrative stakes low; I care about the characters without feeling a need for closure or explanation. This comes out of Hellman's stylistic choices, I'd say; he maintains a detached realism that holds us at arm's length. By letting his ambiguous images linger (are the characters performing for the picture-within-a-picture, we ask, or just for each other? is there a difference?), Hellman builds fascination without letting us enter the world of the movie. It's a formal strategy that works beautifully. That's not to say that Road to Nowhere is without problems. Most troublesome is the role of the project's lead actress (Shannyn Sossamon) who is reduced to a femme fatale. Hellman's camera fixates on Sossamon's striking face, which becomes an aesthetic object, symbolic of folly and allure. Even as Hellman figures this objectification through his surrogate filmmaker character's (Tygh Runyan) own obsession, the whole thing remains disconcertingly retrograde. Still, Road to Nowhere is a marvelous work, one that withholds closure but not pleasure, and one that I expect to watch again soon.
Donnie Darko (2001)
After hearing about it, glancing over it in Blockbuster, and reading its Wikipedia entry, I finally got to watch Richard Kelly's cult film Donnie Darko (2001) this summer. From the poster I expected a Stephen King version of "Harvey," so I was surprised when it was completely contrary to those morbid impressions - the characters' low-key eccentricities, the thoughtfully chosen and appropriately mercurial soundtrack, and the luminous photography/cinematography that seemed to emerge from summer haze. Very different from the poster, a dark, slick, prognostication of supernatural horror mutated into a rabbit skull. Like (spoiler alert!) Frank, the emblematic bunny rabbit, the film I had seen and imagined had two faces: the fascinating impenetrability of its mask, and the equally enigmatic story of the doomed teenager behind it.
Star Wars Detours (2012)
If you're ever wondering what Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine talk about when they're not plotting inter-galactic domination, then Star Wars Detours is for you. LucasFilms' new project whimsically revives old Star Wars favorites (Leia, Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan, Vader, Palpatine) as beings of human social habit living their day-to-day lives. Conversations in this series are not of political or military gravity. Interactions instead are light-hearted and self-aware (Jar Jar Binks asks, "Why does everybody hate me so?" another character robs a card game for "grocery money"). The project lives on a Facebook page (facebook.com/starwarsdetours) where LucasFilms hilarious computer animated vignettes, memes, and posts from the characters via their imagined Facebook profiles. Luke Skywalker and Yoda are yet to appear so stay tuned!
Black Dynamite 2012 (Adult Swim cartoon, 2012, feature film 2009)
Black Dynamite was originally a relatively underground blaxploitative feature film in 2009 that has been released as an Adult Swim cartoon this summer. The show has already become the next big treat to Adult Swim regulars. Though it's a cartoon the show is more of a peppermint schnapps vs a peppermint patty, so don't let the kids watch. Featuring Michael Jai White as Black Dynamite, the show holds true to the original more or less in character of the former CIA turned rouge in his quest to stop "The Man" (usually Richard Nixon, the KKK, IRS or the basic white overlord) from destroying the black community and their progress and or peace. Black Dynamite was a collaged film, borrowing from the blaxploitation era of the '70s. What's stunning about the show, other than its crudely blunt humor - which works much better in animation than in film - is its retro throwback element. Blaxploitation films have been a real issue for the NAACP and other activists of the black community dating back to the '70s, but in watching the show, it seems to me that Black Dynamite may have a power for good at least in providing a strong voice for black people, even more entertaining in cartoon form. It would seem that so far Black Dynamite is leading among black cult entertainment along with The Boondocks, a much more artistic animation also airing on Adult Swim. Perhaps we will see more of these clever race- and social-justice-related cartoons, since live-action shows aren't doing as well on BET these days.
Recently I've been catching up on an anime series from a few years ago entitled Mushi-shi (2005), directed by Nagahama Hiroshi and based on a manga by Urushibara Yuki. The anime follows a mushi-shi, or "bug master," something like a travelling investigator and healer who has the ability to see mushi, an elemental form of life that is neither animal nor vegetable. Although entirely fictional, the anime interestingly explores the ambiguous territory between "folk" beliefs about diseases and supernatural spirits and the germ theory of modern medicine. It has a rich color palette and a contemplative feel that exemplifies how far some anime can be from the children's fare often associated with "cartoons" outside of Japan. The depiction of mushi in the series also calls to mind the writings of the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, who was one of the first writers on film to attempt a theory of animation. Eisenstein talked about the links between "animation" and "animism"- the ability to bring inanimate objects to life and to evoke the "primitive" realm in which any object may aspire to the primordial, liquid, and ever-changing realm of "protoplasm." Surely Eisenstein would have been intrigued by the ethereal mushi of Nagahama's animation, or by the shape-shifting creatures and animistic ethos of Miyazaki Hayao's famous anime films such as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away.