Tag Archives: film

Sicario and Defining Strength: Laughing at all the wrong places

Did you ever go to a movie and wonder what the audience was thinking?

Sicario cast

Credit: Lionsgate

In Philadelphia, I had been to movies where the audience loudly booed.  Some of these are great to superb films — No Country for Old Men is the biggest one that comes to mind.  At the same time, booing at anything is somewhat of a pastime in Philadelphia.

Leaving Philadelphia and coming to the South, film-going audiences are generally more polite and genial.  However, I’ve experienced something arguably more insidious–inappropriate reactions at the wrong times in movies.  These reactions mostly go in the opposite direction and are overtly positive or outright jubilant.

My wife and I went to see the film Sicario at an advance screening last week and were disturbed and dismayed by the audience reaction.  In discussing this, I need to get into a few minor spoilers.

[MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SICARIO]

In Sicario, Emily Blunt’s character is a surrogate for the audience — an agent in over her head and often confused as to what is happening.  It’s a brilliant conceit to put the audience in the same position as the lead protagonist.  We are experiencing the horror that she is, step by step.  This includes confusion over the Spanish language, government/military verbiage, and what is happening at any given moment.

In the film, Blunt acts as a good counterpoint to the group she volunteers to serve with to fight the war on drugs.  She wants to get the job done, but doesn’t believe the ends justify the bloody, violent, unethical means.  It is a tricky balance that Blunt walks, but she pulls it off admirably.  The people she works alongside on the mission also do a great job in being despicable characters for the audience to reject.

Here’s the thing: despite Sicario being what the AV Club calls the “polar opposite of a crowd-pleaser”, the audience in this screening was highly pleased for all the wrong reasons.

They actively rooted against Blunt and for her morally bankrupt teammates.  Laughing and cheering was constant during the screening of the movie.  A movie that was meant to disturb and instill feelings of dismay over the futility of the United States War on Drugs instead made many people jubilant and energized leaving the theatre.  

An American crisis: confusion around a definition of “strength”

Walking out of the movie, a gentleman with a smile on his face summed up the overarching feeling in much of the crowd, “that girl was really in over her head, wasn’t she?”

She was, but it wasn’t a sign of weakness.  Her general unwillingness to kowtow to morally bankrupt, evil forces is admirable in the context of the film.  It is sad that people viewed these bankrupt characters as “cool” or “badass” in how easily they often were able to put aside any sort of moral fiber in their bodies to kill and torture others.

It’s a similar tough line that another drug-related piece of entertainment, Breaking Bad, walks.  There are many scenes in the show that are impressively staged and viscerally thrilling.  However, we can be seduced into rooting for a reprehensible man in the form of Walter White.  Breaking Bad–like Sicario–is brilliant in this way, making us reconsider what we think is valid and right when it comes to making morally bankrupt decisions.

We also see this with current presidential candidate Donald Trump.  His lack of a filter–and empathy–along with a pushy, bullying nature is viewed as masculine strength, when it’s anything but.

A larger problem manifests when people don’t engage with the material and laugh or cheer it off.

Good and bad is a series of greys

Put simply, I don’t feel as though many Americans can handle good and evil being a series of greys.  The nuance is lost. Physical intimidation and competency in killing is viewed as ‘strength’ and only a couple steps away from fascism.

It is the major problem I have with a movie like 300.  As a movie, 300 is very well made and pulls upon many reliable genre tropes like the underdog and revenge as motivation. However, its focus on Might Makes Right leaves a sour aftertaste.  There is no more emblematic symbol of this overarching ethos than Leonidas’ kicking of a Persian emissary into a well.  We don’t need to talk this through.  We need to be strong and kill whoever gets in our way.

Maybe this speaks to something bigger in the context of our country?  America is used to being #1 and being told we aren’t wrong.  American exceptionalism is at an all-time high during the presidential election campaign.  It is a horribly bitter pill to swallow to be told we aren’t good at something.  Sicario is that pill.  

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Art is Big Business!!!??

One of the hardest concepts for me to digest and understand over the past couple of months is the uneasy relationship between art and commerce.

The key question: how can one be true to oneself and produce art without being concerned about the business side?  Further, how is art sustainable without losing one’s creative flair and passion for what they are doing?

DJing in the Atlanta area made me realize this tension.  For all intents and purposes, it is hard to strike a balance, playing music that is more creatively adventurous, while becoming financially self-sufficient.  But, as with any creative pursuit, one must have faith that it will eventually pay dividends, whether those dividends are monetary or not.

I have always had an admiration for artists who are able to construct pieces of art that are uncompromising and willing to go to places others are not.  That are able to shine a light on truth and give an additional perspective to something that has gathered dust.  But, once again, is it possible to follow this track, remaining financially viable?

In my opinion, art is currently at a crossroads.  This couldn’t be more obvious than in film.

In the 1970s, there was the auteur period.  Directors were king and many nearly had as much power and clout as the studios.  Only in the 1970s could relative unknown Michael Cimino make the ambitious film The Deer Hunter, then be given countless amounts of money to make the bomb Heaven’s Gate, nearly bankrupting United Artists.

The 1980s were reactionary in a way, putting a greater emphasis on constructing blockbuster films and franchising.  However, films like Back to The Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Empire Strikes Back are pieces of pop art.  These types of films effortlessly balance adventure and entertainment with adept storytelling and some interesting insights on the human condition.

The 90s, aughts, and 10s have continued this trend to diminishing returns.

Watching the film Prometheus about a year ago reminded me of this uneasy balance.  The film starts out as an interesting treatise on faith and humanity but ends up being a b-movie gorefest best experienced in an MST3K-esque format.

But that’s the thing, what is the balance?  Is there a balance that can be found between art and business without sacrificing either?

In my opinion, Christopher Nolan is an excellent example of a balance between art and commerce.  The ability to make entertaining films like The Dark Knight and Inception that also pose larger intriguing philosophical questions about life.  But Nolan is a bit of an outlier.

So, where is this line and can it be somehow defined or crystalized?


Instant Gratification In a Digital Age

When I was in high school, films and music were my escape.

I used to have a library of VHS tapes envisioning I could start my own video rental company some day. I even considered charging classmates to rent out the tapes, but never had the business acumen to pull it off.

Then came the DVD. For the longest time I resisted, but became a late adopter of the technology once I bought the special edition DVD of Fight Club in 2000. Despite the format change, I wasn’t happy with my local Blockbuster’s selection.

This brings me to Netflix.

I never once considered the concept of the internet or an interactive community outside of face to face conversation. Netflix provided an opportunity to access a multitude of titles, many of which were considered not mainstream enough for big box stores.

As an angst-ridden teenage cinephile, Netflix was my catnip. Through Netflix I began to watch what I wanted when I wanted to.  And therein lies the problem. Netflix was my pusher and I could get my fix in a few days.  A few years later with streaming, I could get it instantly.

In a digital age, we no longer have the patience to wait for *anything*. This translates to a short attention span for many. Heck, I’m writing this blog post on my phone right now.  This also translates to the revolutionary nature of mp3’s, Napster and later p2p (peer to peer) sharing sites.

Ten years from now, we’ll wax nostalgic for the day of CDs like we do now for records . I envision retrobars spinning compact discs, playing Coldplay and American Idol albums on loop.

God I hope not.

Regardless, I fear this will result in the death of the slow burn. Music and film are now often programmed to be immediate, accessible. Very few albums or films are a major success unless they sell the sizzle, something that pulls the viewer or listener instantly. Unfortunately, this often results in movies engineered for Trailers and albums engineered for singles.

All I’m saying is maybe it isn’t so ironic that the notoriously slow moving films of Terence Malick are now getting booed at Cannes and a film like Lost in Translation is slammed for not having a “story”…

On that upbeat note, happy Memorial Day weekend to my American friends out there!!!!

John still loves Lost in Translation and doesn’t care what others think.  He can be tweeted at @jododojo10 or even contacted at his new, shiny Tumblr blog – newwaveofthefuture.tumblr.com


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