Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Rise of the Videogame Aesthetic in Cinema

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Serenity (2019).

This piece contains spoilers for Serenity and Aquaman.

When critics first saw Serenity (2019) they lost their minds. Charles Bramesco of The Guardian calls it a “zeppelin crash of a film”; and it broke Adam Woodward of Little White Lies, who wrote a conceptual review that sees it as a career rest stop for lead Matthew McConaughey. Everyone seems to agree that the acting is clichéd, the dialogue stilted, the style overwrought to the point of camp, and the camerawork just plain weird.

But as a counterpoint, I submit for your consideration the idea that writer-director Steven Knight is not introducing us to a guy named Baker Dill (McConaughey) who, asked by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) to kill her abusive current husband Frank (Jason Clarke), suddenly discovers that – spoiler! – he’s a character in a video game. Knight presents us with a video-game world called Plymouth Island whose player-avatar, Baker Dill, discovers the central game plot among the various mini-games.

The difference is subtle but important. If you viewed the movie as the former you invite a traditional critique, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls it “a high-level goof, a collection of clichés assembled as a meta-movie.” But view it first and foremost from the perspective of a video-game aesthetic and Serenity starts to make sense.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Bruno and his Friend, the Future: The Collected Stories

Bruno Schulz, self-portrait, 1922.

Review of Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz, a new translation by Madeline Levine, released by Northwestern University Press.

Schulz (1892-1942) had very few friends. The future was one of them.

I suppose I first encountered the brilliant, mesmerizing, disturbing and delightful writing of the Polish genius Bruno Schulz on the installment plan. First, sometime as a teenager in the '60s while also bumping into the similarly magical writing of his contemporary and Czech counterpart Franz Kafka; second, by coming upon a 1977 article by Cynthia Ozick in The New York Times; third, by finding a dusty old bilingual English-Polish copy of two of his most famous collections, The Street of  Crocodiles (1934) and the fantastically titled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1935) in a used bookstore in about 1980; fourth, by watching a strange little 21-minute stop-action animated film by the Brothers Quay, loosely based on the aura and mood of Street of Crocodiles, in 1986; and fifth, when this new translation by Madeline Levine of his collected fiction was released late last year by Northwestern University Press.