actors, art, directors, Film Spotlight, In My Opinion, movies

Masochism

Georgia O'Keefe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930
Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930

There’s a secret spot in the brain, an endorphin-rich place many humans try to enter. It is a dangerous location dividing two sides of psychological states: drive and fortitude on the sunny side and the murky, ruinous side of masochism and martyrdom. Whether you are a writer or reader or observer of films, these characters who are on a quest for the ultimate mental escape, catch us, and pull us along for the ride. They have something to share about the human condition. Will they triumph or will they fall? The pleasure/pain principle is human nature’s most fascinating oxymoron. Some live it; almost all of us are entertained by it.

The Artist  
Natalie Portman, The Black Swan, 2010
Natalie Portman in The Black Swan, 2010

I admire the performing arts. The symmetry, the composition, and the spectacular lengths artists make it look and sound effortless garners awe. What’s the price an artist will pay to be the best? The rigors of practice and the dedicated focus to be perfect requires an atypical lifestyle where time and schedule are aligned for one purpose–to exist only for art. The Black Swan is one of my favorite psychological thrillers. The stress Nina Sayers struggles with as she strives to be perfect is an example of masochism. How does she achieve perfection? She has to let go of her bodily self and transcend to that secret spot where she becomes the black swan, Odile, and is no longer Nina, the good white swan, Odette.  Darren Aronofsky told a similar story–opposite societal arena–starring Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008). Both films depict the extent to which an artist will transcend to the art form they worship.

Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014)
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014) is a tale about the sadomasochistic relationship of character Miles Teller and his mentor, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons who won the Oscar as his manipulative old-school instructor. Miles needed the task-master to push him to greatness. He couldn’t be the next Buddy Rich without the abuse. By the end of the story, the boy transcends into a man and the power struggle shifts to an exciting conclusion. The dynamic duo and the gorgeous jazz easily made Whiplash one of my favorite films of the year.

Transcendence via Sex
Lars Von Trier, 1996,  Breaking the Waves
Lars von Trier, 1996, Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996) is an odd film set in Scotland starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård. Bess is Calvinist and pure of heart while Jan is an atheist oil-rigger. Her love for her husband extends to great limits most of us wouldn’t venture, for he becomes incapacitated and wants her to have sex with others and describe the details to keep their union whole. Her devout relationship with God affects her rationale, and she concedes, convinced it is God’s will to cure Jan. Bess eventually overcomes her repulsion with lovers and transcends to the special spot via sex to a symbolic state of purity by martyrdom. Visionary director Lars von Trier incorporated ten rules in his Dogme 95. The remote Scottish landscape is ancient and stimulating and perfect extension to the film. You can learn more about Lars von Trier’s technique HERE.

Dangerous Jobs 
The Hurt Locker directed by Kathy Bigelow, 2008.
The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2008.

The threat of imminent death causes an adrenaline surge to create the complete escape. This altered state is foreign to normalcy. War puts you in that heightened state seen in films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper.  How ironic that only when faced with death, do some people feel alive.  

LEOs and FF/EMTs
Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell
Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell

The ER nurse or doctor. The ambulance driver. The firefighter, and the police officer. Surrounded by the threat of death to others and themselves requires control and steady hands. The exposure releases the chemical surge and the instinct for survival kicks in; they are in the zone. They commit to a lifestyle that few of us could stomach. These heroes are in a voluntary, dangerous career, and they take the abuse. It’s their identity.

The Athlete 

Similar to the skater, the dancer, and the musician, the focus to excel and perfect their sport requires one visit the sweet spot in the brain. Extreme sports, extreme results.

The Actor 

What about the craft of the actor? How far will an actor go to alter their state of being? There are few actors who come to mind who are willing to transform their bodies for the sake of their art, but Christian Bale probably does it better than anyone.

Extreme sleep deprivation is as close to the sweet spot as I’ve ever been. This altered state of torpidness is fascinating and dangerous. In the sweet spot, pain is not felt, the world does not hurt. Nothing can touch you. Does pain brings pleasure?

actors, directors, movies, oscars

Knight of Cups

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I’m bored. Where are the great films of 2013? I wish we did not have to wait for the fall/winter to watch the big contenders fighting for the awards’ season.  I am excited about an upcoming film. Any way you stack the deck, this one HAS to be great–Terrence Malick’s, Knight of Cups.

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Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett. A dream cast! Directed by Malick? How could it be bad?

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So we don’t know anything. The plot is under wraps. We know it’s in post-production but no release date set other than some time in 2013. Here are some random facts I can share, however.

Terrence-Malick

Did you know Mr. Malick comes from Ottawa, Illinois? Why, that’s only thirty miles from my hometown! When I run into him, that will be my ice-breaker. We’ll talk about corn and tomatoes. He will be suitably impressed and ask me to write a screenplay for him. (Told you I was bored.)

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Okay, if you are into Tarot cards, you know all about the Knight of Cups. Be my guest and educate me. The title of the film should shed a clue about the protagonist or plot or meaning of the film. I do recognize that tarot cards have been around for hundreds of years, and if you don’t believe in the cards, just look at the artwork. They are pretty to look at, aren’t they? Once a Tarot reader said I was going to be wealthy. I’m still waiting. Anyway, I went to:  http://www.tarotteachings.com/knight-of-cups.html to find some background into the meaning of the Knight of Cups. I make no claim this site is valid. I’m just trying to get an inside take on the title of the film.

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Our Knight of Cups is what I’d guess a knight to be: cunning, an evocative lover, and mesmerizing. A powerful person who can charm anyone. Their symbols include running water like waterfalls and rivers. When the Tarot reader lays the card on the table and the cup is up, positive attributes such as “effective” and “sensitive” are his adjectives. But when the reader lays the card and the cup is pointing down, that’s when the negative associations like “manipulative” and “vain” and “volatile” come to play.

Who in the film is the Knight of Cups? Is it Christian Bale and will the cup be up or down?

actors, authors, books, directors, movies

Vertigo vs. The Machinist

Which psychological thriller is better–Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo(1958) or Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004)?

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Here are some ways in which they are similar.

Unreliable Narrator

In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart plays the male protagonist, Scottie Ferguson, a nice man who has issues. Forced to retire early from the fraternal police force due to his disabilities, principally acrophobia and clinical depression, Scottie was recently released from a sanatorium at the film’s beginning. From his point of view the story is told, and the audience is left to lean upon the other character’s reaction to him for clues to find out what is real or a delusion.

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Scottie is a respectable man. He is a public servant, a background-checked professional. He has Midge Wood, an ex-fiancee, a solid, decent woman who cares for him. He was also Jimmy Stewart. I can’t watch Scottie on screen and not feel compassion for the character because I take the residue of Stewart’s popular appeal with me to the viewing.

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Christian Bale, who plays Trevor Reznik in The Machinist, hasn’t slept in a year. His physical demise is indicative of his mental trauma. For the role, Bale lost over 60 pounds and dropped down to 120 pounds. In the film, Trevor’s fraternal brothers at the factory used to like him when he drank and played cards with them. They wonder about his behavior and eventually ostracize him. Trevor’s landlady gives us a glimpse of Trevor’s goodness when she compliments him for being the model tenant. When Trevor interacts with others, like the waitress at the airport, you admire his politeness and sweet smile. He tips heavily and has done so every night for a year. Admirable, right?  The Machinist came out in 2004, one year before Batman Begins, but I think Christian Bale is a modern-day Stewart, able to bring integrity, expression, and sensitivity to any role, and I predict Bale will surpass his super-star status of today and reach legendary heights like Jimmy Stewart when enough years pass by.

Creative Cinematography

jimmy3 James Stewart - vertigo

How did Hitchcock create that “Vertigo-Effect”? The camera pulled away from the target while simultaneously zooming in, thereby creating the disturbing, off-balance sensation. Very unusual and exciting technique.

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In The Machinist, Anderson’s use of a gray world with splashes of red enhanced the industrial setting and the heaviness of a man losing his mind. The cold factory, the storm approaching, the hellish amusement park all create a macabre atmosphere. The score for both films are outstanding. Creepy and haunting, they add to the overall atmosphere. Bernard Herrmann composed the score for Vertigo and Roque Baños composed the score for The Machinist.

The Agonizing Descent  

Both films are exercises in psychological states of being. Because you like the two protagonists, you’re willing to go with them, much like the amusement park’s fun house ride which becomes more disturbing as the motorized car turns around another bend. Scottie and Trevor were both fools. They were both misunderstood and confused. The resolutions to their crises leave no room for speculation, and I was glad. Not happy endings, but I was relieved their questions were answered.

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Trevor wants to sleep.

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Scottie wants Madeleine.

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In the end, both unreliable narrators are dangerous.

In The Machinist, I appreciated the Dostoyevsky references like Trevor reading The Idiot, a novel about a saintly, kind prince in 19th century Russia who becomes insane after the corrupting world abuses him. Another example is Trevor’s hallucination called Ivan, referencing the tormented middle brother visited by the devil in The Brothers Karamazov. Also, there’s the 666 ride in the fun house with the sign at the fork in the road that reads Crime and Punishment, all classics by Dostoyevsky who wrote about moral dilemmas and loved by the screenwriter, Scott Kosar. 

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One big factor for deciding which thriller is better is how you view Christian Bale’s extreme weight loss. As a tortured soul, his body mirrored his mind. To see him looking like a walking corpse–was it distracting or did it bring an authenticity to the role? We all know method actors who will do anything to become their characters. Could the story have been told if Bale had been at a normal weight? Or does the mirroring of torture make the movie more thrilling? Which do you think is a better psychological thriller?