Posts Tagged ‘Blue Velvet’
In the opening seconds of the series premiere of Riverdale, a young man speaks quietly in voiceover, his words playing over idyllic shots of American life:
Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.
Much later, we realize that the speaker is Jughead of Archie Comics fame, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, which might seem peculiar enough in itself. But what I noticed first about this monologue is that it basically summarizes the prologue of Blue Velvet, which begins with images of roses and picket fences and then dives into the grass, revealing the insects ravening like feral animals in the darkness. It’s one of the greatest declarations of intent in all of cinema, and initially, there’s something a little disappointing in the way that Riverdale feels obliged to blandly state what Lynch put into a series of unforgettable images. Yet I have the feeling that series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who says that Blue Velvet is one of his favorite movies, knows exactly what he’s doing. And the result promises to be more interesting than even he can anticipate.
Riverdale has been described as The O.C. meets Twin Peaks, which is how it first came to my attention. But it’s also a series on the CW, with all the good, the bad, and the lack of ugly that this implies. This the network that produced The Vampire Diaries, the first three seasons of which unexpectedly generated some of my favorite television from the last few years, and it takes its genre shows very seriously. There’s a fascinating pattern at work within systems that produce such narratives on a regular basis, whether in pulp magazines or comic books or exploitation pictures: as long as you hit all the obligatory notes and come in under budget, you’re granted a surprising amount of freedom. The CW, like its predecessors, has become an unlikely haven for auteurs, and it’s the sort of place where a showrunner like Aguirre-Sacasa—who has an intriguing background in playwriting, comics, and television—can explore a sandbox like this for years. Yet it also requires certain heavy, obvious beats, like structural supports, to prop up the rest of the edifice. A lot of the first episode of Riverdale, like most pilots, is devoted to setting up its premise and characters for even the most distracted viewers, and it can be almost insultingly on the nose. It’s why it feels obliged to spell out its theme of dark shadows beneath its sunlit surfaces, which isn’t exactly hard to grasp. As Roger Ebert wrote decades ago in his notoriously indignant review of Blue Velvet: “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.”
As a result, if you want to watch Riverdale at all, you need to get used to being treated occasionally as if you were twelve years old. But Aguirre-Sacasa seems determined to have it both ways. Like Glee before it, it feels as if it’s being pulled in three different directions even before it begins, but in this case, it comes off less as an unwanted side effect than as a strategy. It’s worth noting that not only did Aguirre-Sacasa write for Glee itself, but he’s also the guy who stepped in rewrite Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which means that he knows something about wrangling intractable material for a mass audience under enormous scrutiny. (He’s also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which feels like a dream job in the best sort of way: one of his projects at the Yale School of Drama was a play about Archie encountering the murderers Leopold and Loeb, and he later received a cease and desist order from his future employer over Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which depicted its lead character as coming out of the closet.) Riverdale often plays like the work of a prodigiously talented writer trying to put his ideas into a form that could plausibly air on Thursdays after Supernatural. Like most shows at this stage, it’s also openly trying to decide what it’s supposed to be about. And I want to believe, on the basis of almost zero evidence, that Aguirre-Sacasa is deliberately attempting something almost unworkable, in hopes that he’ll be able to stick with it long enough—on a network that seems fairly indulgent of shows on the margins—to make it something special.
Most great television results from this sort of evolutionary process, and I’ve noted before—most explicitly in my Salon piece on The X-Files—that the best genre shows emerge when a jumble of inconsistent elements is given the chance to find its ideal form, usually because it lucks into a position where it can play under the radar for years. The pressures of weekly airings, fan response, critical reviews, and ratings, along with the unpredictable inputs of the cast and writing staff, lead to far more rewarding results than even the most visionary showrunner could produce in isolation. Writers of serialized narratives like comic books know this intuitively, and consciously or not, Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying something similar on television. It’s not an approach that would make sense for a series like Westworld, which was produced for so much money and with such high expectations that its creators had no choice but to start with a plan. But it might just work on the CW. I’m hopeful that Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators will use the mystery at the heart of the series much as Twin Peaks did, as a kind of clothesline on which they can hang a lot of wild experiments, only a certain percentage of which can be expected to work. Twin Peaks itself provides a measure of this method’s limitations: it mutated into something extraordinary, but it didn’t survive the departure of its original creative team. Riverdale feels like an attempt to recreate those conditions, and if it utilizes the Archie characters as its available raw material, well, why not? If Lynch had been able to get the rights, he might have used them, too.
I first saw Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain when I was fourteen years old. In a weird way, it amounted to a peak moment of my early adolescence: I was on a school trip to our nation’s capital, sharing a hotel room with my friends from middle school, and we were just tickled to get away with watching an R-rated movie on cable. The fact that we ended up with Raising Cain doesn’t quite compare with the kids on The Simpsons cheering at the chance to see Barton Fink, but it isn’t too far off. I think that we liked it, and while I won’t claim that we understood it, that doesn’t mean much of anything—it’s hard for me to imagine anybody, of any age, entirely understanding this movie, which includes both me and De Palma himself. A few years later, I caught it again on television, and while I can’t say I’ve thought about it much since, I never forgot it. Gradually, I began to catch up on my De Palma, going mostly by whatever movies made Pauline Kael the most ecstatic at the time, which in itself was an education in the gap between a great critic’s pet enthusiasms and what exists on the screen. (In her review of The Fury, Kael wrote: “No Hitchcock thriller was ever so intense, went so far, or had so many ‘classic’ sequences.” I love Kael, but there are at least three things wrong with that sentence.) And ultimately De Palma came to mean a lot to me, as he does to just about anyone who responds to the movies in a certain way.
When I heard about the recut version of Raising Cain—in an interview with John Lithgow on The A.V. Club, no less, in which he was promoting his somewhat different role on The Crown—I was intrigued. And its backstory is particularly interesting. Shortly before the movie was first released, De Palma moved a crucial sequence from the beginning to the middle, eliminating an extended flashback and allowing the film to play more or less chronologically. He came to regret the change, but it was too late to do anything about it. Years later, a freelance director and editor named Peet Gelderblom read about the original cut and decided to restore it, performing a judicious edit on a digital copy. He put it online, where, unbelievably, it was seen by De Palma himself, who not only loved it but asked that it be included as a special feature on the new Blu-ray release. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of the true possibilities of fan edits, which have served mostly for competing visions of the ideal version of Star Wars. With modern software, a fan can do for a movie what Walter Murch did for Touch of Evil, restoring it to the director’s original version based on a script or a verbal description. In the case of Raising Cain, this mostly just involved rearranging the pieces in the theatrical cut, but other fans have tackled such challenges as restoring all the deleted scenes in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and there are countless other candidates.
Yet Raising Cain might be the most instructive case study of all, because simply restoring the original opening to its intended place results in a radical transformation. It isn’t for everyone, and it’s necessary to grant De Palma his usual passes for clunky dialogue and characterization, but if you’re ready to meet it halfway, you’re rewarded with a thriller that twists back on itself like a Möbius strip. De Palma plunders his earlier movies so blatantly that it isn’t clear if he’s somehow paying loving homage to himself—bypassing Hitchcock entirely—or recycling good ideas that he feels like using again. The recut opens with a long mislead that recalls Dressed to Kill, which means that Lithgow barely even appears for the first twenty minutes. You can almost see why De Palma chickened out for the theatrical version: Lithgow’s performance as the meek Carter and his psychotic imaginary brother Cain feels too juicy to withhold. But the logic of the script was destroyed. For a film that tests an audience’s suspension of disbelief in so many other ways, it’s unclear why De Palma thought that a flashback would be too much for the viewer to handle. The theatrical release preserves all the great shock effects that are the movie’s primary reason for existing, but they don’t build to anything, and you’re left with a film that plays like a series of sketches. With the original order restored, it becomes what it was meant to be all along: a great shaggy dog story with a killer punchline.
Raising Cain is gleefully about nothing but itself, and I wouldn’t force anybody to watch it who wasn’t already interested. But the recut also serves as an excellent introduction to its director, just as the older version did for me: when I first encountered it, I doubt I’d seen anything by De Palma, except maybe The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible was still a year away. It’s safe to say that if you like Raising Cain, you’ll like De Palma in general, and if you can’t get past its archness, campiness, and indifference to basic plausibility—well, I can hardly blame you. Watching it again, I was reminded of Blue Velvet, a far greater movie that presents the viewer with a similar test. It has the same mixture of naïveté and incredible technical virtuosity, with scenes that barely seem to have been written alternating with ones that push against the boundaries of the medium itself. You’re never quite sure if the director is in on the gag, and maybe it doesn’t matter. There isn’t much beauty in Raising Cain, and De Palma is a hackier and more mechanical director than Lynch, but both are so strongly visual that the nonsensory aspects of their films, like the obligatory scenes with the cops, seem to wither before our eyes. (It’s an approach that requires a kind of raw, intuitive trust from the cast, and as much as I enjoy what Lithgow does here, he may be too clever and resourceful an actor to really disappear into the role.) Both are rooted, crucially, in Hitchcock, who was equally obsessive, but was careful to never work from his own script. Hitchcock kept his secret self hidden, while De Palma puts it in plain sight. And if it turns out to be nothing at all, that’s probably part of the joke.
One of the greatest compliments that we can pay to any story is that it seems shorter than it actually is. It’s obviously best for a narrative to be only as long as it has to be, and no more, which means that the creator needs to be willing to cut wherever necessary. (Sometimes it’s even better if these time or length limits are imposed from the outside. I’ve always maintained that Blue Velvet, my favorite American movie ever, was tremendously improved by a contractual stipulation that forced David Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham to cut it from three hours down to two. And as much as I’m enjoying the streaming renaissance on Netflix, I sometimes wish that the episodes of these shows were shorter: without a fixed time slot, there’s no incentive to trim any given installment, and a literal hour of television tends to drag toward the end.) But it’s nice when a movie, in particular, grips us so completely that we don’t realize how long we’ve been watching it. I still remember being so absorbed by Michael Mann’s The Insider that I was startled to realize, when I checked my watch after the screening, that it was two and a half hours long: I would have guessed that it was closer to ninety minutes. And you only need to compare the experience of watching the original cut of Seven Samurai with, say, four episodes of the second season of True Detective to realize that three and a half hours can be something very different in subjective and objective time.
But there’s another storytelling trick that deserves just as much attention, which is the ability to make a short work of art seem longer. I’m not talking about the way in which even a twenty minutes of a bad sitcom can seem interminable, but of how a story can somehow persuade us that we’ve lived through a longer and more meaningful experience than seems possible to encompass within a limited timeframe. On some level, this is an illusion that you encounter in most narratives of any kind: with the exception of the rare works designed to unfold in real time, we’re asked to believe that the relatively short period that it takes to physically view or read the story really covers days, weeks, or months of action, and occasionally much longer. Many biopics, for instance, ask us to go through an entire lifetime in a couple of hours, and the fact that the result is usually so unsatisfying only indicates how hard it is to pull this off. But it has a greater chance of succeeding when it uses our perceptions of time to convince us, in a pleasurable way, that we’ve seen and felt more than could be packed into a single sitting. We could start with Citizen Kane, which is exactly a minute short of two hours long—which, like Blue Velvet, probably reflects an attempt to meet a contractually mandated length. Yet more than any other movie, it feels like a full picture of a man’s life, and the fact that it asks us to assemble Kane’s story from the fragments of other people’s memories offers a very important clue as to how this kind of thing works.
Because one of the best ways to create a subjective impression of length is through contrasts: the alternation of big and little, loud and soft, fast and slow. I got to thinking about this while listening to “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” which is one of the two or three best songs in Hamilton. It’s as epic a number as you could imagine, and it leaves you feeling as if you’ve lived through an unforgettable experience, but it lasts just four minutes. In his notes in Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda explains how it works:
Part of the inspiration for the structure of “Yorktown” is what I call the “Busta Rhymes soft-loud-soft technique. On countless songs, Busta will give you the smoothest, quietest delivery and then full-on scream the next verse. It makes for a delightful tension and release, and it’s entirely vocal. Same here. “I have everything I wanted but I can’t die today / We’re going into battle / Here’s what my friends are doing / Hercules Mulligan!” Thank you and God bless you, Busta Rhymes.
It isn’t hard to see why this kind of alternation creates an impression of length, in the much same way that we find with the experiments with chronology in Kane. With every transition, the listener has to readjust, and the mental effort of these regroupings draws out our perception of time passing. The switching costs of moving from one moment to the next allow the story to do with a juxtaposition what would otherwise require a pause. As the old proverb says, a change is as good as a rest.
And this phenomenon emerges from something fundamental in how our brains are wired. As the neurologist David Eagleman says about the perception of time in everyday life:
When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated.
In other words, it takes a while for the brain to process new information, leading to a subjective impression of extended time. It’s why travel or a change of scenery can make our lives seem to slow down, and why we’re advised to use surprise or variety to keep the days from turning into a blur. The real challenge for artists is to combine different kinds of time within the same narrative. A movie or book that consists of nothing but action will quickly become boring, and so will a string of talky interior scenes. If you can speed it up and slow it down in the right proportions, the result, at its finest, will make you feel as if you’ve lived a rich, fulfilling life over the course of two hours. Hamilton does this beautifully. So does Kane—and you could even argue that the best reason to use a nonlinear narrative, rather than as a gimmick, is the ability it presents to treat time as a tool. You’re not just painting a picture; you’re asking the audience to assemble a puzzle. And it helps to use different kinds of pieces.
At some point, everyone owns a copy of The Album. The title or the artist might differ, but its impact on the listener is the same: it’s simply the album that alerts you to the fact that it can be worth devoting every last piece of your inner life to music, rather than treating it as a source of background noise or diversion. It’s the first album that leaves a mark on your soul. Usually, it makes an appearance as you’re entering your teens, which means that there’s as much random chance involved here as in any of the other cultural influences that dig in their claws at that age. You don’t have a lot of control over what it will be. Maybe it begins with a song on the radio, or a cover that catches your eye at a record store, or a stab of familiarity that comes from a passing moment of exposure: in your early teens, you’re likely to love something just because you recognize it. Whatever it is, unlike every other album you’ve ever heard, it doesn’t let you go. It gets into your dreams. You draw pictures of the cover art and pick out a few notes from it on every piano. And it shapes you in ways that you can’t fully articulate. The specific album is different for everyone, or so it seems, although logic suggests that it’s probably the same for a lot of teenagers at any given time. And I think you can draw a pretty clear line between those for whom The Album involved them deeply in the culture of their era, and those who wound up estranged from it. I’d be a different person—and maybe a better one—if mine had been something like Nevermind. But it wasn’t. It was the soundtrack from Twin Peaks, followed by Julee Cruise’s Floating Into the Night.
If I’d been born a few years earlier, this might not have been an issue, but I happened to get seriously into Twin Peaks, or at least its score, long after the series itself had peaked as a cultural phenomenon. The finale had aired two full years ago, and it had been followed shortly thereafter, with what seems today like startling speed, by Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. After that, it mostly disappeared. There wasn’t even a chance for me to belatedly get into the show itself. I’d watched a few episodes back when they first aired, including the pilot and the horrifying scene in which the identity of Laura’s killer is finally revealed. As far as I can remember, the premiere was later released on video, but nothing else, and I had to get by with a few grainy episodes that my parents had recorded. It wasn’t until many years later that the first box set became available, allowing me to fully experience a show that I ultimately ended up loving, but which was far more uneven—and often routine—than its reputation had led me to believe. But it didn’t really matter. Twin Peaks was just a television show, admittedly an exceptional one, but the score by Angelo Badalamenti was something else: a vision of a world that was complete and unlimited in itself. I’d have trouble expressing exactly what it represents, except that it has something to do with the places where a gorgeous nightmare impinges on the everyday. In Blue Velvet, which I still think is David Lynch’s greatest achievement, Jeffrey expresses it as simply as possible: “It’s a strange world.” But you can hear it more clearly in “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” which Badalamenti composed in response to Lynch’s instructions:
Start it off foreboding, like you’re in a dark wood, and then segue into something beautiful to reflect the trouble of a beautiful teenage girl. Then, once you’ve got that, go back and do something that’s sad and go back into that sad, foreboding darkness.
If all forms of art, as Water Pater puts it, aspire to the condition of music, then it isn’t an exaggeration to say that Twin Peaks aspired to the condition of its own soundtrack. Badalamenti’s score did everything that the series itself often struggled to accomplish, and there were times when I felt that the music was the primary work, with the show as a kind of visual adjunct. (I still feel that way, on some level, about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The movie means a lot to me, but I don’t have a lot of interest in rewatching it, while I know every note of the soundtrack by heart, even though I haven’t listened to it in years.) And even if I grant that a soundtrack is never really complete in itself, the Twin Peaks score pointed invisibly toward an even more intriguing artifact. It included three tracks—“The Nightingale,” “Into the Night,” and “Falling”—sung by Julee Cruise, with music by Badalamenti and lyrics by Lynch, who had earlier written her song “Mysteries of Love” for Blue Velvet. I loved them, obviously, and I can still remember the moment when a close reading of the liner notes clued me into the fact that there was an entire album by Cruise, Floating Into the Night, that I could actually own. (In fact, there were two. As it happened, my brainstorm occurred only a few months after the release of The Voice of Love, a much less coherent sophomore album that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.) Listening to it for the first time, I felt like the narrator of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who once saw a fragment of an undiscovered country, and now found himself confronted with all of it at once. The next few years of my life were hugely eventful, as they are for every teenager: I read, did, and thought about a lot of things, some of which are paying off only now. But whatever else I was doing, I was probably listening to Floating Into the Night.
So when I heard that the Twin Peaks soundtrack was coming out today in a deluxe new vinyl release, I felt mixed feelings at the news. (Of course, I’m going to buy a copy, and so should you.) The plain fact is that toward the end of my teens, I put Badalamenti and Cruise away, and I haven’t listened to them much since. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t give them a lifetime’s worth of listening in the meantime. I became obsessed with Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted, the curious performance piece by Lynch in which Cruise floats on wires high above the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Much later, I saw Cruise perform, rather awkwardly, in person. I tracked down her other collaborations and guest appearances—including the excellent “If I Survive” with Hybrid—and even bought her third album, The Art of Being a Girl, which I liked a lot. Somehow I never got around to buying the next one, though, and long before I graduated from college, Cruise and Badalamenti had ceased to play a role in my life. And I regret this. I still think that Floating Into the Night is a perfect album, although it wasn’t until years later, when I heard Cruise’s real, hilariously brassy voice, that I realized the extent to which I’d fallen in love with an ironic simulation. There are still moments when I believe, with complete seriousness, that I’d be a better person today if I’d kept listening to this music: half of my life has been spent trying to live up to the values of my early adolescence, and I might have had an easier job of integrating all of my past selves if they shared a common soundtrack. Whenever I play it now, it feels like a part of me that has been locked away, ageless and untouched, in the Black Lodge. But life has a way of coming full circle. As Laura says to Cooper: “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years.” And it feels sometimes as if she were talking to me.
Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the last two weeks, I’ve been looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here.
The most striking quality of the movies of Michael Mann—who is probably the strangest living director to be consistently entrusted with enormous budgets by major studios, at least until recently—is their ambivalent relationship with craft. It’s often noted that Mann likes to tell stories about meticulous professionals, almost exclusively men, and that their obsession with the hardware of their chosen trade mirrors the director’s own perfectionism. This is true enough. But it misses the point that for his protagonists, craft on its own is rarely sufficient: a painstaking attention to detail doesn’t save the heroes of Thief or The Insider or Collateral, who either fail spectacularly or succeed only after being forced to improvise, and their objectives in the end aren’t the ones that they had at the beginning. This feels like a more faithful picture of Mann himself, who over the last decade has seemed increasingly preoccupied with side issues and technical problems while allowing the largest elements of the narrative to fend for themselves. It’s often unclear whether the resulting confusion is the result of active indifference, uncompromising vision, or a simple inability to keep a complicated project under control. The outcome can be an unambiguous failure, like Public Enemies, or a film in which Mann’s best and worst tendencies can’t be easily separated, like Blackhat. And the most freakish example of all is Miami Vice, which is either a botched attempt to create a franchise from an eighties cop show or the most advanced movie of the century so far. But as Mayor Quimby says on The Simpsons: “It can be two things.”
I’ve watched Miami Vice with varying degrees of attention perhaps a dozen times, but I’m not sure if I could accurately describe the plot. The script and the dialogue seem to have arisen like an emergent property from the blocky, smudged images onscreen, which often threaten to push the story off the edges of the frame entirely, or to lose it in the massive depth of field. Frederik Pohl liked to describe certain writers as fiddler crabs, in whom a single aspect of their work became hypertrophied, like a grotesquely overdeveloped claw, and that indisputably applies to Mann. These days, he seems interested in nothing but texture: visual, aural, thematic. Digital video, which allows him to lovingly capture the rippling muscles on Jamie Foxx’s back or the rumpled cloth of Colin Farrell’s jacket so that you feel like you could reach out and touch it, was the medium that he had been awaiting for his entire career, and he makes such insane overuse of it here that it leaves room for almost nothing else. The film unfolds only on the night side of the city in which it supposedly takes place, just as it appears to have shot roughly half of a usable script. (This isn’t necessarily Mann’s fault: Foxx abruptly departed toward the end of production, which is why the last scene feels like a bridge to nowhere.) As with The Night of the Hunter and Blue Velvet, Miami Vice is one of those movies in which it can be hard to tell the difference between unintentional awkwardness and radical experimentation—which is inevitable when you’re forging a new grammar of film. It looked like a failed blockbuster, and it was. But you could also build an entire art form out of its shattered pieces.
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”
One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:
The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)
And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:
In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…
For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)
In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.
Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.
I miss Roger Ebert for a lot of reasons, but I always loved how fully he occupied the role of the celebrity critic while expanding it into something more. “Two thumbs up” has become a way of dismissing an entire category of film criticism, and Ebert was as responsible for its rise as anyone else, although he can hardly be blamed for his imitators. Yet he wouldn’t have been nearly as good at it—and he was damned good, especially when paired with Gene Siskel—if it hadn’t been built on a foundation of shrewdness, taste, and common sense that came through in every print review he wrote. He knew that a rating system was necessary, if only to give shape to his discussions with Gene, but he was also aware of its limitations. (For proof, you need only turn to his classic review of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, which transforms, unexpectedly, into an extended essay on the absurdity of reconciling a thoughtful approach to criticism with “that vertical thumb.”) Read any critic for any length of time, whether it’s Pauline Kael or David Thomson or James Wood, and you start to see the whole business of ranking works of art, whether with thumbs or with words, as both utterly important and inherently ridiculous. Ebert understood this profoundly.
The same was true of the other major tool of the mainstream critic: the list. Making lists of the best or worst movies, like handing out awards, turns an art form into a horse race, but it’s also a necessary evil. A critic wants to be a valued guide, but more often, he ends up serving as a signpost, pointing up the road toward an interesting vista while hoping that we’ll take in other sights along the way. Lists are the most useful pointers we have, especially for viewers who are encountering the full variety of movies for the first time, and they’ve played an enormous role in my own life. And when you read Ebert’s essay on preparing his final list for the Sight & Sound poll, you sense both the melancholy nature of the task and his awareness of the power it holds. Ebert knows that adding a movie to his list naturally draws attention to it, and he pointedly includes a single “propaganda” title—here it’s Malick’s Tree of Life—to encourage viewers to seek it out. Since every addition requires a removal, he clarifies his feelings on this as well:
Once any film has ever appeared on my [Sight & Sound] list, I consider it canonized. Notorious or Gates of Heaven, for example, are still two of the ten best films of all time, no matter what a subsequent list says.
In short, he approaches the list as a game, but a serious one, and he knows that pointing one viewer toward Aguirre or The General makes all of it worthwhile.
I thought of his example repeatedly when I revised my list of my ten favorite movies. Four years had gone by since my last series of posts on the subject, and the passage of time had brought a bit of reshuffling and a pair of replacements: L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had given way to Vertigo and Inception. And while it’s probably a mistake to view it as a zero-sum game, it’s hard not to see these films as commenting on one another. L.A. Confidential remains, as I said long ago, my favorite of all recent Hollywood movies, but it’s a film that invests its genre with greater fluency and complexity without challenging the rules on a deeper level, while Vertigo takes the basic outline of a sleek romantic thriller and blows it to smithereens. As much as I love them both, there’s no question in my mind as to which one achieves more. The contest between Inception and Wrath of Khan is harder to judge, and I’m not sure that the latter isn’t ultimately richer and more rewarding. But I wanted to write about Inception ever so slightly more, and after this weekend’s handwringing over the future of original ideas in movies, I have a hunch that its example is going to look even more precious with time. Inception hardly needs my help to draw attention to it, but to the extent that I had a propaganda choice this time around, it was this one.
Otherwise, my method in ranking these films was a simple one. I asked myself which movie I’d save first—solely for my own pleasure—if the last movie warehouse in the world were on fire. The answer was The Red Shoes. Next would be Blue Velvet, then Chungking Express, and so on down the line. Looking at the final roster, I don’t think I’d make any changes. Like Ebert, who kept La Dolce Vita on his list because of how it reflected the arc of his own life, I’m aware that much of the result is a veiled autobiography: Blue Velvet, in particular, galvanized me as a teenager as few other movies have, and part of the reason I rank it so highly is to acknowledge that specific debt. Other films are here largely because of the personal associations they evoke. Yet any movie that encapsulates an entire period in my life, out of all the films I was watching then, has to be extraordinary by definition: it isn’t just a matter of timing, at least not if it lasts. (You could even say that a great movie, like Vertigo, is one that convinces many different viewers that it’s secretly about them.) Ebert knew that there was no contradiction in embracing The Tree of Life as both the largest cosmic statement since 2001 and an agonizingly specific evocation of his own childhood. Any list, like any critic, lives in two worlds, and each half gains meaning from the other. And when I think of my own list and the choices it made, I can only quote Ebert one last time: “To add a title, I must remove one. Which film can I do without? Not a single one.”