Thursday, January 25, 2007

Stare Into It and Go Blind: LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE

A Prose Poem Review

The treacle flows unbidden, across the honey-gold landscape of the Southwest. Wes Anderson's sleep is disrupted by an ironically primary-colored VW bus rolling over his grave, as the Griswold family bickers and pushes the clutch-blown heap of their American dream down a hill, working together without realizing what they do.

The lens of good-natured condescension inspects suburban melancholia, pathetic and laughable, built of brickabrack wood paneling, molded plastic Walkmans, vintage Mayor McCheese tumblers, though this pop culture detritus is a $20 prize to the flea market hunter.

Late in the day, after we have learned not to bother reading Rememberance of Things Past, for a designated scholar has summarized its mysteries, the Family of Man waves their Loser flag high. They dance artlessly, triumphant in their mediocrity on the grave of Nietzsche's Übermensch, wiggling defiantly to the thump and screech of Rick James' "Superfreak", the coked-out fuck anthem made newly defanged theme song for "America's Funniest People".

They will hit every note as hard as they can, directly on the nose. They cannot miss, for the targets are wide as a Volkswagen, and canary-bright, the piercing cries of their broken automobile horn filling the air.

Black comedy's frightmask melts away in warm, friendly glow; the similarities of our failure, bathos and self-pity are a comfort, and, dear little Miss Sunshine, we only namedrop those bogies of pornography, divorce, drug addiction, suicide and death itself to chase them away with a giggle. The hopes and dreams of all must have their brains dashed against the rocks, be those dreams shallow and grotesque, or scholarly and beautiful:

Rather than fly too near the blistering glory of the sun, better Icarus should not be Icarus at all.

Sunshine, stay at home, wrapped in your whimsical cocoon, fattened on ice cream with middle-class angst chips, until the day the chrysalis parts. Step out, spread your precious, precious wings, adjust your unnecessarily ugly glasses, having learned you need no one's approval but your own.

How you shall survive, I cannot say, for your caretakers and support network are incompetents,
And crazies,
And ogres.

On this protracted Eightfold Path, Step Nine, it seems, Sunshine, is not discovering that you are a Winner in your own special, private way that only your tribe can recognize. Nor is Step Nine an end to suffering by eradicating desire for such poisonous vanity trophies as pageant titles, Air Force Jets or financial independence.

Step Nine is that when all dreams are bankrupt or unattainable, we are Losers all.

When Little Miss Sunshine beams down on us, we all lose.

In Other News: They are now apparently issuing Oscar nominations to family situation comedy episodes. Good luck next year, "Full House"!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Keyholed: Notes on C.S. Tashiro's "Videophilia"

"I am here to destroy classical cinema."

On page 353, buried in the bulk of the 1999 anniversary anthology Film Quarterly: Forty Years - A Selection, sits Charles Shiro Tashiro's essay "Videophilia; What Happens When You Wait for It on Video", nestled into a subsection devoted to articles on "Technologies." The Film Quarterly book itself is best picked through at whim, a big cinderblock-sized carton of gems and pits; Tashiro's piece is a bit of both. I turn my frustrations on this 16-year-old article because it is always instructive to see how technology is written about in its own era; which Prophets of Doom or Deliverance must have shuffled off whistling in embarrassment, and which problems remain with us.

"Videophilia" is an exegesis on the inherent limitations of home video circa 1991 (when the piece was published), the ideological devilry at play in the medium and a lament on the changing relationship between viewer and film text. There are innumerable places one could turn for explanation of the sound and image reproduction limitations of video, the loss of resolution and presence of projected film on home monitors, and the more artistically-inclined lament that the viewer's engulfment in the massive sails of the cinema screen are an intrinsic part of the movie watching voyage. However, "Videophilia" is alternately sweet, shrill and confused for several other assumptions Tashiro makes. The medium under examination is mostly laserdiscs, and, annoyingly, Tashiro insists on calling them "videodiscs" throughout (and continues to do so?), though in common parlance "videodisc" can refer to anything from laserdiscs to the stylus-read CED SelectVision headaches to VHD. Surely I'm being grumpy or nitpicking here, but it was 1991, and Tashiro was a disc producer for Voyager/Criterion. Many of the complaints about the physical realities of laserdisc viewing are, of course, now resolved by DVD. Tashiro is particularly perturbed by side-breaks, and blows a gasket over a break in the middle of a dissolve in Lawrence of Arabia (a disc he produced!): "It can be ignored, but it cannot be overcome. The jolt created by the side breaks becomes an integral part of the text." Point well taken. Such gripes look quaint in retrospect, but I suppose if no one makes them, they are never resolved.

Speaking of resolution, a goodly portion of "Videophilia" is given over to breaking down what happens to a film's sound and image when it becomes video. Tashiro neatly outlines the exact image components that are degraded / must be balanced by a video transfer. He is so suspicious of the word "transfer" that he proposes "translation" is a more forthright term. Again, a number of his concerns have been rectified or improved since 1991, but to illustrate issues with contrast, resolution and color, Tashiro invents a complicated movie scene about a baby chasing a butterfly as her parents break up in the background. To further complicate his example, he invents the term "videobility", defined as the "ease of translating a particular film to video", given its in-film image qualities. I have not had to supervise a film's transfer to video, but understand Tashiro's intention to demonstrate that someone somewhere has to make color balance, brightness and contrast choices during the transfer. However, the scene Tashiro fabricates is designed as impossible to properly "translate". No matter what adjustments his fictional equipment operator makes, he's screwed. It's a telecine jockey Kobayashi Maru. I've heard the intimate gory details of a lotta DVD transfers, but nothing as nightmarish as Tashiro's invented baby-scene videodisc translation. This is not to pooh-pooh questions of fidelity, both of image quality and to the filmmaker's vision, it just seems a gratuitous tactic, when the author could presumably have found anecdotal examples from his own career experience.

Ultimately, like much of the essay, with the confident vision of hindsight it is easy to discount much of the panic given of in this section of "Videophilia"; a brief trip to any internet DVD discussion forum demonstrates a major shift in the savvy of the home video audience. The problems of transfers and/or unsatisfactory DVD production choices are now the first questions on the lips of consumers, and the mark of a good video reviewer is attention to these qualities. Tashiro perhaps could not have predicted this upshift in public awareness, the change in videophile discourse largely the legacy of Video Watchdog magazine. Tashiro's fatal assumption is that consumers would accept the shortcomings of home video as a matter of course, and his lack of faith the ability of technology to substantially improve its resolution capabilities is simply shortsighted. Personally, I find this cynicism the most tiresome thing about "Videophilia".

The piece not only lacks hope and imagination that the future might improve (and people will stop buying laserdiscs), but Tashiro projects his own bizarre personal viewing habits and limitations onto an invisible public at large. For example, he's writing in a period when the merits of letterboxing a video are widely understood, at least by "Film Quarterly" readers. He approves of letterboxing in principal, but in practice "this interest has bred the fallacious notion that there is a singe 'correct' aspect ratio." His explanations of why this is a problem and how to fix it are mostly baffling. Asking the cinematographer or director is no good, for it "perpetuates the auteurist mystique while assuming that the filmmaker knows best how a film should be watched." The only time I'm aware of this causing trouble is those Kubrick discs that say "director approved!"

He complains, of course, that letterboxing cannot actually duplicate the effect of CinemaScope. This is true insofar as we're talking monitor-vs-screen-size, but Tashiro takes a different tack that I can only describe as "weird" or "dumb": the problem is the presence of black bars taking up chunks of the visual field, enclosing the 'Scope frame. Tashiro insists, cause a viewer to wonder "what is behind those black bars?" as they remind a viewer that film is the dominant, superior medium. Perhaps I'm just used to it, but after my first letterbox viewing, I ceased to perceive the "bars" as part of the image field: I'm looking at the illuminated rectangle floating in a black sea. In effect, there are no bars, any more than I am confused or irritated by the curtains on either side of the movie palace screen. This, too, will be a moot point once we can all afford proper widescreen televisions... or will it!!! Tashiro has the foresight to kinda-sorta imagine that "even if an HDTV standard is introduced that produces a ratio wide enough to accommodate Panavision and CinemaScope, there will still be a need for vertical masking of films (and videos?) shot in the 1.33 ratio." Again, true; again, unless you're a dog or something and don't understand what you're supposed to be looking at when you see a TV, this hasn't proven a problem. Having had this great and terrifying vision of black bars violating the sides of old movies and "Andy Griffith Show"s, Tashiro adds "May I propose we call this vertical matting 'keyholing'?"

Sorry, buddy. We call it "windowboxing".

The above are mostly temporary complaints with an obsolete technology; it was not silly to voice much of this at the time (I particularly like hounding laserdisc over the side-breaks). Now's the silly part. Would that Tashiro had remained a videodisc producer; he oversaw some fine VDs, among them West Side Story and The Wizard of Oz. The altered relationship the viewer enjoys with a film text in the video medium is a worthy subject, but Tashiro mistakes his own experiences and prejudices for ideologies inherent to the medium. He couches it all in diffident language to indicate he is merely exposing the ideological assumptions of video viewing, but plainly finds them automatically at odds with and inferior to those of the theatrical viewing experience. His closing conclusion is that videodiscs engender "the destruction of classical cinema." Make of that what you will.

First, he complains of the lack of audio manipulation capabilities of consumer viewing devices: we cannot hear sped-up audio to accompany the fast-forward function, which he feels subjugates the role of sound, negates the sound-image relationship. The practical reality (besides that some DVD players now do provide fast-forward sound samples) is that, arguably few consumers use the fast-forward function to study anything about a film, instead using it to locate scenes of interest to replay at normal speed or simply pick up where they left off. Likewise, Tashiro's laments about chapter divisions. Some of the trends he has identified are no longer de rigeur -- he says "most discs are still produced without chapters" and that these chapters rarely correspond with logical scene divisions so badly that "there is no single pattern or rationale for their placement" -- though his finer point that the film has been ideologically aligned to evoke books or CDs in the chaptering process is well taken. However, Tashiro and those directors who do not cotton to the rupturing of a film's continual flow on disc (David Lynch refuses chaptering on discs over which he has control, and Roman Polanski disabled the search functions on Criterion's Knife in the Water) are bucking against the medium in vein, with a fundamental misreading of the purpose of chaptering and fast-forward. I have heard anecdotes that Lynch's first DVD production meeting included a producer demonstrating that with the miracle of chapter marks we can now "skip the boring parts" of the Wachowski brothers' Bound. Tashiro fears "Chapter stops run like a mine field under the linear development of classical narrative. Fans of a film no longer have to sit through the parts they don't like", without pausing to wonder if the fear plays out in practice. My experience is that it does not. Again, I only use chapter marks to hunt for frame grabs or to resume viewing a familiar film where I left off last night. The major exception is pornography, but our viewing relationships with that genre have always complicated spectatorial assumptions.

Tashiro imagines "How different an experience it would be to enter a movie theater and be able to skip the tedious parts or scramble the order of the reels... Isn't one of the consequences of the repeated viewings encouraged by home video boredom?" No, and no, to answer the rhetorical questions. As to scene-order scrambling, we might look to the Surrealist afternoon pass-time of wandering in and out of films-in-progress to invent new, mysterious and incoherent narratives, a practice which the moviegoer and videophile are welcome to continue, but which, er, they mostly do not. The first CDs to toy with the scramble/ repeat functions are The Residents' 1980 Commercial Album, which suggested listeners program each 30-second track to repeat three times to construct traditional pop songs, and They Might Be Giants' 1992 Apollo 18, which encouraged randomizing its 38 tracks into a sound collage. Even these avant-garde explorations of the medium are just that: rarified exceptions, not seminal reconfigurations of how we listen to music. The iPod Shuffle, mp3 revolution and related movements have simply moved a music audience back to the pop-single culture that predates a focus on albums, not really shattered forever all familiar modes of music experience. LD and DVD chaptering has not even caused a similar minor shift in feature film viewing or construction by artists. As long as anecdotal evidence is the order of the day, I'd hazard I most often chapter-skip to avoid watching TV show theme songs, which hardly disrupts the text, since they were designed to be disrupted by commercial-breaks in the first place. For network television shows, DVD creates a new and false (sometimes funny) unity in a text previously structured around programmed interruption.

The freeze-frame sends Tashiro on further flights of fancy, worth block-quoting:
Freeze frames turn a film into a sequence of stills or paintings. In so doing, they further destroy linear development. A single CAV side contains 54,000 frames. That's 54,000 possible points of fixation, alternative entries into an imagistic imaginary. The film's characters and story can be discarded in favor of new narratives inspired by the images. Just as photographs and paintings arrest our gaze and inspire us to invent, so too the frozen film image, isolated in time, loses its context and crates a new one.

With motion removed, the film image becomes subject to a different critical discourse. No longer is it enough to talk about an image getting us from point A to B (the narrative prejudice). Criticism of the image's frozen form, composition, lighting, color are invited. Individual images can be subjected to the standards of photography and painting. Of course, few film images can withstand such scrutiny, since most are composed in movement.

Freeze-frames can be criticized foolishly as if they are discreet compositions. Quick reality-check tells us they are not. Simply: nobody does this. There is no critical discourse to speak of which discards all narrative concerns and assumption of motion to subject freeze-frames to new, crazy video-centric coding. The practices closest to Tashrio's fabricated New Discourse of Videophilia are the comparative frame-grabs on DVD Beaver (intended only to evaluate video transfers), and the frame-stepping engaged in by animation scholars to isolate drawings for study within a moving composition. Similar to Tashiro's concerns are the obsessive trainspotting of, say, "The Simpsons" fans pointing out blink-or-you'll-miss-it gags, but these are embedded in the text with the authorial intent that they be discovered in just such a fashion, data packets accessible only with new tools but which expand the narrative, not shatter it.

Furthermore, all the hand-wringing is for naught, as all the alternative viewing modes Tashiro outlines already existed in a film audience, always shall, and arguably are positive signs of imaginative, savvy audiences who do not engage art in glaze-eyed torpor. He seems to envision a nation of videophiles slumped on the couch in front of frozen CAV frames, utterly ignoring the glories of classical narrative, lost in a fugue of their own unrelated Jedi adventures, spinning yarns of the other patrons of Rick's nightclub, or dinosaurs chasing Lawrence of Arabia. A videophile game of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has not, to my knowledge, disrupted the normal tendency to watch a movie on video start to finish. Nevertheless, well before freeze-framing, viewers were familiar with encountering frozen, isolated images from movies: paintings on posters, promotional stills and lobby cards, and textbook frame enlargements, none of which duplicate a film's movement, all of which failed to render it "no longer... enough to talk about an image getting us from point A to B." If the real sinister trump card of freeze-framing is that an audience is encouraged to dream their own "new narratives inspired by the images," I can only shrug and suggest that is a function of all art, moving picture, imagistic, and otherwise. In a quite literal sense, fan fiction, song, and visual art depicting adventures inspired-by but not present in creator sanctioned texts existed long before freeze-frames... long before motion pictures. More to the heart of the matter, if we cannot imagine ourselves smooching Marlene Dietrich, or ponder if Lolita was ever happy in Alaska after the book ends, I'm not sure what art is for. No Pause button necessary. At any rate, an audience's creative, resistant relationship with a text is, in reception studies, equally regarded with optimism and admiration as Tashiro's distaste for the idea.

Similar to the above discussion of chapter-marking and audience’s uneducated acceptance of video transfers as accurate reproductions of the film experience, Tashiro seems concerned that Criterion’s audio commentary tracks, providing “voices outside the text” lead to an inability to freely engage the film. While the marriage of a director’s voice or film scholar’s history and analysis to the image itself is differently coded than a printed interview, article or book, the audio commentary phenomenon has thus far not stopped film critics and amateurs from discussing a film once it has been Officially Audio Commentaried. Audiences frequently resist commentaries with which they do not agree, and Tashiro’s whole tack seems at odds with his assumptions about the ability to manipulate a video text.

Speaking of bizarre assumptions: "Who, after becoming used to the flexibility of home video, has not wanted to fast-forward past bits of a boring or offensive theatrical film? Doesn't this desire suggest a transformation of the cinematic experience by home video?" Tashiro continues in that vein. The answers: me, and no. I may be an exception, but I've never fast-forwarded through a movie because I was bored or offended. I get bored and offended, like anyone. This is not a fundamental change in the film audience experience. I have also never walked out of a movie. I am aware, however, that audiences have, have always had, and will continue to have, the option of walking out of a theater. That one can turn off a video or fast-forward through it is the logical extension of that phenomenon. I could also stop reading Tashiro's essay, should I chose, but it does not suggest a transformation of the literary experience. What all this does suggest, is that Tashiro is projecting his short attention-span and itchy fast-forward finger onto the rest of the world. "Whether we like it or not, home video turns us all into critics... we're able to subject film texts to our whims" he continues, blind to his own ideological assumptions.

There are non-threatening realities being tortured into Tashiro's vague condemnation of home video.

Film texts are, and always have been, subject to our whims.

The subjecting of a text to whim, will, fancy or fantasy is not what makes one a critic.

Happiest of all, in a world gloriously flooded with art, and which allows open civilian discussion of our opinions, we are all already critics.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Robert Anton Fnord Wilson Rising

Robert Anton Wilson's Meat Capsule
January 18, 1932 – January 11, 2007

Literary revolutionary, quantum psychologist, professional wise-ass, political op-ed crank, trickster philosopher, etc., etc. and Illuminatus! co-author, Robert Anton Wilson, after prolonged physical ailment and even longer mental expansion, has finally expanded his mental so much that left his body somewhere in Capitola, California. The man would, emphatically, not want to be mourned, but SubGenii, Discordians, potheads, skeptics, mystics, mathematicians, and disobedients everywhere may need to take a moment and give a laudatory round of applause. Somewhere in Atlantis, even an eye atop a pyramid is misting over. Wilson's escape from this plane is probably great for him, but a frustrating loss for the rest of us. Goddamnit, one of the good ones got away, and left us holding the check. That tricky son of a bitch!

On Wilson's website and blog, he would often share his thoughts on literature, television and film. Whatever else he was, Exploding Kinetoscope celebrates R.A.W. today as a perceptive and hilarious media critic with a bent toward locating powerhouses of mythological, political and sociological resonance in our pop landscape. In Illuminatus! the Greek gods watch the 20th century's history of man's inhumanity to man unfold through an extended Laurel and Hardy metaphor. A line of dialogue in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever gave Wilson a Joycian epiphany, and "summed up the world"; he traced our motivating drives from feudalism to Right Now (in one paragraph!), with the end result: "Shit, motherfucker! I want my fucking money, motherfucker!" Ha ha! Ugh...

Wilson loved Chaplin, Griffith, Eastwood, and George Carlin. He loved Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter cycle, and the films, and like me, but probably nobody else, he believed each Lecter book was more beautiful and truthful than the last. For that alone, damn him for leaving.

Sometimes on his website, Wilson would favor readers with a Movie Haiku. They were never definitive thoughts on a film, just fluttering musings. RAW, agnostic in all things, didn't believe in definitive evaluations. Except, perhaps, once:

King Kong

Can't blame the big ape:
I, too, went a bit goofy
Over Fay Wray once

Hail Eris... Praise Bob.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

My 10 Favorite Films of 2006... But NOT YOURS

The Rules of the Game

-Skip this introduction, if you have no problem with year-end film lists.

-We make lists because lists are fun. Even more fun, I've illustrated with The Hot Movie Babes of 2006!

-According to my "2006 Comprehensive Viewing Diary", I saw 129 films in 2006. Knowing I failed to record a few, that can probably be pumped up to 150. This is "pathetic" and I resolve to see more in 2007... however, I did manage to read more books in '06 than '05, or ever before, and frankly, I'm not willing to cut into that figure, no matter how much I like movies.

-If the movie was released in 2005, but there was no way to see it in the U.S. until 2006, it is a 2006 release for this list. While it may not be "fair" to include 2005 festival-and-foreign openers like Manderlay, The Proposition or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I feel it's a greater disservice to never give them an opportunity for listhood.

-If I see a commonality between the films below, it is that they are not making many year-end round-ups, and that on their release, I was generally frustrated or confused about how they were being discussed or ignored. I tend to be drawn to genre films because they engage, trouble and move us in a more seductive manner than Important Message Movies. Below are: a biopic that leaps the pitfalls of the genre by being about something larger than the subject herself. Two crime thrillers crafted by master hands but in which no one cared to look for what they might be "about". A comic book adaptation with more to say about fascism, imagination and the revolutionary spirit than Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men combined. A political documentary so grand it should make Michael Moore buy a gun and shoot himself in the head for crimes against humanity, but which isn't even eligible for Academy Awards. Gory Korean weirdness, smudgy digital mindscapes, and cartoon headtrips whose strange forms distracted writers from engaging their beauty. One hilarious, obnoxious foreigner goofing on Americans, making the nation pout in response... but not the one you think. A goony summer kiddie blockbuster so universally despised, no critic could be bothered to explain its success, unless to say it must be that audiences are stupid. Er... right.

I didn't gerrymander my list to favor underdogs, it just came out that way.

If you find these films unworthy, dare I suggest you did not think about them hard enough? I suppose I do.

-The disclaimer is unnecessary for Exploding Kinetoscope, because I'm happy to title it a "favorites" list. Those questioning the validity of "Ten Best" or the vague "Top Ten" lists might find peace by replacing a critic's "Best" with "Favorite".

If critics aren't qualified to make lists unless they've seen every film that year, then neither are they qualified to write about film unless they've seen every film in history. Neither are you qualified to have a best friend until you have tried out every person who ever lived. You do not have a favorite food, a favorite sweater, or favorite Beatles song. Are favorites inherently interesting? Must we undergo this semantic torture and soul-searching for a game that, for a rare occasion, allows critics to write only about films they enjoyed?

Look, I'll read your list, if you read mine. It's fun, and maybe we can convince each other to watch ten movies through each others' eyes. As Mr. Presley said, the Halls of Darkness have Doors That Open. Peek ye, through mine door!:

10. Wacky Races: Manderlay

Manderlay takes on the specific problem of America's foundation in slavery and the ultimate failure of the marginal improvements in race relations in the aftermath of abolition. Those are things Lars Von Trier thinks the nation does not like to talk about honestly, and bleak conclusions we rarely reach. An unfair generalization, perhaps, but this is hardly about being "fair". Manderlay is the more difficult film than Dogville. It's the meaner, funnier satire, too.

As Mr. Morrissey said, "I have spent my whole life in ruin, because of people who are nice." And so Manderlay and Dogville's terrible truths are ideas no one wants to hear, not ever. Are there possible problems with, gulp, democracy? No, no please, it cannot be that the very notion of kindness, charity and goodwill can be problematized in practice. As relevant and necessary as it will always be to take stock of race relations, Manderlay is, beneath that, a satire not of American racism, but a cultural tendency to simplify unfathomably complex issues. Beneath that, a parodic look at how and why social progressives do their good works in general. Manderlay is, beneath that, a puckish pantomime of human nature, as we struggle with moral dilemmas we've brought on ourselves, strive to do good for all the wrong reasons, and hurt each other in the name of salvation. Nice try, human beings!

Oh, and for my money, David Thomson can keep his Nicole Kidman fetish. I'm happy to develop one revolving around Bryce Dallas Howard. Reasons We Go to the Movies #1: To look at pretty girls.

9. I Outta V Ain't Bad: V for Vendetta

Apologies for not having a photo of Natasha Wightman, who is hotter.

The only Alan Moore adaptation of which the Old Magician should be proud is the one that made him recoil the hardest? Ah well, a crazy genius is still crazy. The Wachowski Bros. and James McTeague may or may not realize how their minor story tinkering rejiggers the politics of Moore's novel to become an unambiguous call to active revolution, rather than a meditation on the process by which the power of the political symbol to makes its meaning manifest. The comic remains superior (superior to anything on this list?), but I'm unconvinced a madder Hollywood big-budgey could've been made from the material. McTeague makes a smashing debut... and no one would have made this movie but the Wachowskis.

8. Fertile Crescent City: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

This movie is not about hot babes.

Here comes the story of the hurricane. The media whipped itself into a frenzy with tales of organized terror-squads of rapists and hospital snipers, implying without saying that perhaps the flooding of New Orleans was a modern cleansing of Sodom and Gomorrah. The implication is that no matter how much suffering CNN was happy to show you, not to go down to Louisiana and try to help. So never again should you let anyone tell you Spike Lee is irresponsible, too angry, or an upstart.

When the Levees Broke does its most important work as Lee documents and explains in level-headed terms exactly How It Went Down. Did you know how a levee works in engineering terms? The various construction options and cost of upkeep? The issues involved in building port cities? Exactly where to point the finger for what happened in the New Orleans flood and why? You will learn these things.

Spike Lee's Requiem, though structured as a Jazz Funeral, does not quite propose that we have entirely lost one of the greatest American cities. It proposes that something died inside the national character that summer, not because of a natural disaster, but the unnatural actions of a government toward its people. Because of laziness, ignorance, greed and lies, and oops! Those are all human failings. If you hadn't reason enough before, the Hurricane Katrina debacle should tell you: someone seriously does not care about your safety and well being. Not my president!

Levees is also about celebrating and remembering to value our national treasures of art and culture. There are sequences that Reel Film called "completely unrelated and downright pointless tangents (i.e. the history of jazz within the city)." It's a dead-wrong evaluation. In such a vast document, other critics have been most moved with political outrage; some needed Levees to truly understand the unfathomable damage to lives of survivors. The human loss would be atrocious in any situation; that it took place in a city whose primary contributions are to arts and culture make it easier to ignore for some, and harder to bear for others. Levees documents the most important Mardi Gras of all time. It's not a party: The Carnival, Mikhail Bakhtin explains, is a playing field for working out all issues, socioeconomic, political, communal, of death and renewal. And New Orleans certainly has a lot they deserve to work out.

7. Believeth All Things: A Scanner Darkly

Like a beam of pink light from Philip K. Dick's brain, comes Scanner, adapted by the most sympathetic sloppy philosopher on the contemporary movie scene. Linklatter is a Problem Author, a man whose body of work is half films I Do Not Get. I don't get why he wants to make School of Rock when he has Slacker and Waking Life rattling around his brain. Guru or crackpot, it is not mine to say, but Scanner Darkly's full-service breakfast-in-bed of hashish brownies and bong water provides more food for thought than any previous PKD adaptation. No other filmmaker has been philosophically nimbleminded enough to tackle the material. Ridley Scott, Spielberg, Verhoeven never stood a chance.

The rotoscoped animation augments the performances of those gorgeous icebergs Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, but obscures frenetic freaks Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr. It does afford an imaginary look at Ryder's breasts (truly, the movies are the stuff of which dreams are made!), but as any fan who's seen Autumn in New York can tell you, they don't look like that. Ryder's is the performance for which I couldn't wait, this year. As in her best work, Ryder constructs a character out of emotional building blocks that rub disconcertingly against her real life. Sympathetic and nervous, we watch her Donna attempt to drown her fears and personal disappointments in a pond of Slack, only to fall in, sink over her head, and nearly lose herself in nervous breakdown. To be sure, it is uncomfortable to watch, as Donna melts down while trying to force her coke-rushing brain to slow down so she can explain the intertwining reasons she's doing so many drugs, can't get closer to her boyfriend, and completely needs him. So uncomfortable that a fainthearted actor wouldn't have taken us there, let alone herself.

Reeves' monologue, in which he explores his filthy house like an anthropologist of the Self, investigating himself in both senses of the word, is my favorite male performance of the year. In his stoned terror, Reeves' Bob Arctor wonders if he has inadvertently undone the Gordian knot of his existence, been doomed, having unravelled his own spiritual DNA. "What does a scanner see?," he asks. "Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can't any longer see into myself. I see only murk." Arctor gropes for the reasons we turn to the fantastic for stories to explain the mysteries of existence. The Biblical reference is important, for what is the Holy Bible but a fantasy novel investigation of the soul? The power of fantastic fiction is in metaphor so incisive as to cut through the muddle of perception, and scan for the truth. It is a moment of clarity.

6. All That Killin and Fuckin, and No Sons: The Departed

At this point in the list, and until we reach #1, the ranking means little to me. The Departed... man, I'm pretty rave-prone, you know? But in The Departed, Martin Scorsese builds within his exciting little cops-and-robbers story, a complex web of visual motifs to match William Monahan's meticulous infernal machine of a screenplay. Doubled and reversed characters abound: at the story's core, DiCaprio's Bill Costigan a good man duty-bound to act like a criminal, and Damon's Colin Sullivan a bad man honor-sworn to act like a do-gooder. They vye to please two stand-in fathers, one dark (Nicholson's nutzo crime boss Frank Costigan), one light (Sheen's Capt. Queenan). The men chase each other without realizing it, through endless corridors of ironic payoffs, mirrored situations, loaded dialogue. "I'm a detective, I'll find you!" Colin flirts with a woman, a pickup line from a man who can't find himself. "One does tend to follow the other," goes a line late in the picture I wouldn't spoil for you, but it's in reference to anything but the cat-and-rat games Bill and Colin are playing. Visual riffs on Psycho, Vertigo, The Wild Bunch, The Third Man and Kill, Baby... Kill play witty cinephile sports, even as they expand the real issues of identity and personal responsibility addressed by the cracking crime story.

Even The Departed's admirers seemed to agree it is not obviously "about" something, unlike the self-announcing weight of Raging Bull or Last Temptation of Christ. I smell a rat. The Departed is about personal identity in crisis. It examines how the ambiguities implicit in acting or performance may corrode self-reliance, loyalty and family responsibility. The Departed sees the exhausting, chaotic blur as we are forced to shift between domestic, public, private, and work identities. In short, it's a story about the fractious stress of getting ahead in America: don't stop till you're numb.

5. Into the White: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

This movie is totally about hot babes.

Like his spiritual brother-in-arms Quentin Tarantino, Park Chan-Wook makes sick joke exploitation movies staged as handsome arthouse films, and bursting with delirious style. As with Tarantino, beyond the virtuoso picture-making, star-turn performances and youthful energies, it is difficult to get anyone to talk seriously about the story, the thematic elegance and the content beneath the exciting form. Lady Vengeance completes Park's loose trilogy, with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, but who in the press asked what that might mean? Hint: it's not just about revenge. If that's as far as you can get, you're shortchanging yourself as much as you are Park Chan-Wook.

It seems to me that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance gradually exposed its characters to a world of moral relativity, and the difficulty of evaluating your motivation and responsibilities in light of knowing everyone is in the same predicament. Sympathy, after all, can be a real bitch.

Oldboy expands the idea, leaving characters and audience reeling at the prospect of surviving in a chaotic universe. Is it a shaggy dog story, a man being punished for a crime he had no idea he committed? No, it is about the impossibility of trying to chart and control every unforeseen consequence of every action. Oldboy expands Mr. Vengeance's existential dilemma: what if you do not ultimately even answer to yourself? It seems to suggest we take those moments of happiness as they come, before the awful reality of their context is revealed.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has the trilogy's most hopeful ending, though our protagonist, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), goes through no less agonizing a journey. She suffers similar psychic trauma to Ryu in Mr. Vengeance, learning that your Right may conflict with someone else's. She is battered around by the absurdist universe that tortures Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy. She nearly slits her throat on the blade of her own poor choices: having sympathy for the vengeful may not be the same as approval, assistance, or enabling them.

In a trilogy so black and comfortless, how can Geum-ja find any salvation without Park copping-out? It's a salvation hard-won, but Geum-ja finds it. Revel in your ability to create opportunities for redemption. Be grateful for the instances when you greet a second chance having learned a lesson. Bury your face in them and dig in.

4. Queen of the Universe: The Notorious Bettie Page

Gretchen Mol gives the performance of a lifetime, and easily of the year, but how the film was ignored and overlooked as a major artistic statement is one of the great mysteries of 2006.

How does one make a sympathetic, honest biopic about a subject who seems in some ways to have later turned her back on her celebrated work? Is this possible, without pulling punches? Or without seeming to end in defeat? Is it unfair to a good Christian woman to claim her life as a third wave feminist sex-positive parable, when she never claimed to be fighting the good fight in the first place? Since Bettie Page, after her career as nudie pin-up, bondage model, grindhouse-movie dancer, and Miss January 1955, was born again into the Spirit, is there a way to make Bettie's story end in triumph not just for the enduring icon, but for the woman? Can we reconcile the destinies of Bettie Page, Pin-Up Queen and Bettie Mae Page from Nashville, TN? How does one responsibly depict Page's modeling work for the reasons it is beloved, without casting it in different ideological light than the participants ever considered? Is there a way to depict the dismay of government and religious forces about pornography without smugly portraying them as repressed killjoys? Is there continuity between pin-up photography and pornography? What about bondage and fetish photography and pornography? For whom, and how can these things be liberating? The model? The audience? The ironic or nostalgic audience?

Mary Harron's Bettie-pic decides that rather than avoid these questions, they are the primary issue at hand. With more grace than Citizen Kane itself, The Notorious Bettie Page charts those conflicts at the heart of our lives, and decides it is how we conduct ourselves amid a sea of inevitable contradictions and ambiguity that defines us. The biography is sketched in bold, decisive strokes, and then the characters are left to interpret the meaning of their own lives. What do we regret, and of what are we proud? Who tells us what our sins are? Who wields judgement and defines our moral codes? Most importantly, Harron and Guinevere Turner's challenging screenplay asks: of all the patriarchy's methods of controlling female sexuality and yoking feminine power, which manifestations hurt the most?

There aren't easy answers, but neither does Notorious turn Page's story into a grim moral quandary, when we are probably here as fans who want to understand how a woman in ball-gag and ropes could look so sunny, make it all so fun. It is not a harrowing film, even though every man in Page's normal life is out to control, dominate and do violence to her free will and self-confident, natural sexuality. It's ultimately funny and warm because everyone wants to exploit Bettie Page... except the exploitation filmmakers, and fetish and nudie magazine photographers: they are artists, and they love, understand, and empower her, in their own naive way. Is that unfair? It seems pretty clever, perceptive and accurate to me, and so Notorious Bettie Page lets Bettie Page reclaim her own myth, and in return gives us back a strong, smart, talented, funny woman at the core of a great American icon.

Mott Hupfel's cinematography is so gorgeous that any chrome postcard and mid-century girlie mag collector will weep. Achieving what The Aviator could not, Hupfel recreates the photographic style of not just the year in which a scene took place, but of whatever photographer was shooting her at the time. It is no gimmick, and no approximation. Anyone intimately familiar with Bunny Yeager's saturated pastels, Irving Klaw's grainy dance loop films, and the cute griminess of Varietease should be in awe of Hupfel's ability to not only imitate but integrate and expand these styles, and make them play, butt heads and help the director make story and emotional points. And I mean it: at first glimpse of Bettie splashing in the searing-blue Florida waves, I cried. It means people can still be photographing films that look like Bunny's pictures, and the choice is being consciously made to create ugly films.

3. Avast Me Hearties!: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

I was talking with my friend Arlen today about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", and how if you caught an episode by accident, it probably seemed ridiculous, silly, perhaps bad. It is none of those things, as anyone fully invested in that subversive fantasy and rich character drama knows. You gotta be a fan, though, or you're never gonna know the joys of being a fan.

From the unlikeliest source comes a new form of pop entertainment. Disney, beginning probably with the 2002 video game Kingdom Hearts is the first major American media conglomerate to begin crafting entertainment that seems designed around the desires, needs and dreams of fan culture. This is a big deal. The Japanese pop culture industry has for years reaped the benefits of catering to otaku and the broader audience alike. Kingdom Hearts crossed-over anime and Final Fantasy style RPGs with the texts beloved to the similarly obsessive Disney-head crowd. Smart marketing move, but that's not all: smart, generous storytelling, willing to open its fictive world. Here's an area where cinema writers, who typically love analyzing closed, unmalleable texts fear to tread. Pirates 2 is for Henry Jenkins.

The story is built out of the elements that satisfy and inspire fan-fiction writers. Careful, obsessive attention to the arcs and quirks of every periphery character, piling on the backstory and complicated relationships, until the puffy summer blockbuster assumes Wagnarian proportion. Every character combination would be a potentially interesting pairing for slashfic. Holes in character histories and the timeline are left open for imagining more adventures. New fantasy elements and characters are introduced with such color and variety, they expand the Pirate-verse in every direction. Any Pirates fan gets a three hour cruise on the funniest, sexiest, most breathless, dreamiest galleon on the water. The rest of you may be lost at sea.

Pirates keeps both hands free to spin gold out of solid fanservice. The Disneyland fetishist is moistening up as soon as the scene moves to the deep bayou where the ride opens... but when we get cameos by the "famous" fireflies, believe me: Annual Passholders everywhere spontaneously generated E-Tickets in our pants. Captain Jack Sparrow is granted the biggest, baddest entrance since Frank-N-Furter; every Janet Weiss in the audience faints. The revelation of a magical, literal Moral Compass immediately spawns 1000 pages of naive erotica about what happens if any of the cast points it at anyone else. Phallic sword jokes, Elizabeth in drag, everyone in bondage and homoerotic whipping scenes means something for everyone! The cosmology explodes into a specialized Land of the Dead (World's End), demons and monsters, mythological curses and Vodun priestesses. A gambling scene explains a game you can play at home. Don't get the ladies started on the empowering role models to be found in Keira Knightley's liberated lady Elizabeth Swann or Naomie Harris' scary sexed-up Tia Dalma. Boys get to appreciate the sacrifices of their martyred fathers like Will Turner, girls get both hands-on high-sea adventure, and pretty dresses, and Monster Kids all want a pet Kracken. The cosplay opportunities provided by Tia Dalma, Davey Jones, and Cannibal King Jack Sparrow are boggling.

The effort to drive fans out of their skulls with ecstasy runs so deep it's downright frightening. When Elizabeth tricks the crew of a ship on which she's stowed away into believing a ghost is onboard, the tale concocted by the superstitious sailors is a rejected storyline for The Haunted Mansion, proposed in 1957. Now, tell me that isn't crafted with care.

2. Boy, You Sure Are Good At Telling a Funny Story!: The Black Dahlia

Yeah, right, lady!

Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) sits nude in bed, but for a fedora perched at a silly angle on his head, a cigarette in his mouth and a femme fatale (Hilary Swank) sprawled on his chest. The movie detective is stripped down to his most basic, iconic props (er, heh heh, where's your gun, buddy?). So is that what makes film noir? Shadows, macs, gangsters and cool jazz? That God of Delirium, Brian De Palma, knows it is not the fashionable trappings that compose the core of a genre. It is the filmmaking language that creates their narrative conventions and, here, the worldview. If De Palma knows anything, it's the biology of thrillers, crime pictures, detective stories. Film noir is ruled by a black whirlpool, ready to suck down anyone, anytime. Once it's got you, you do not escape. That's the heart of noir. At the mutilated center of The Black Dahlia's whirlpool is the enigma of Elizabeth Short.

The film is based on a novel by celebrated douchebag James Ellroy (don't get me started, folks, there's not enough mill for that much grist!). The story fabricates wholesale nearly every fact concerning Short's life and the investigation of her 1947 murder. It should drive the true crime buff in me up the wall, and it seems to have aggravated Ellroy fans (I imagine them in a constant state of aggravation anyway), but as in all of De Palma, the real subject is the Movies.

As Bucky investigates the Short murder, all he uncovers is the bottomless, swirling despair of noir's amoral, consuming void. There are not goodies and baddies, no Light Woman and Dark. From the corridors of power to the average upstanding cop to the disenfranchised would-be starlet, everyone is corrupt, lying, weak and guilty. Los Angeles itself is rotten in its very foundation. In one of the film's most giddy, ominous moments, a literal earthquake sends sick vibrations through Bucky's world: the planet itself is unstable, untrustworthy. He eventually meets himself at the bottom, as the murder worms into his psyche, the suspects bump against his own social circles, and the motive is located in his own domestic space.

James Ellroy likes to believe this is a model of how the world works, and all a man can cling to is the screwed-up integrity of his conflicted, repressed macho heart. Brian De Palma does not cotton to that nonsense, and makes the existential brutality of The Black Dahlia the engine which powers the closed-circuit loop of film noir itself. De Palma's masterstroke has always been the understanding that the language of movie thrillers translates into gibberish in the real world, and yet they excite and move us anyway. From Blackmail to Saw, the thriller does not "make sense", almost above and beyond any other genre, yet we happily meet it halfway and play by its rules. Film noir often wears the mask of detective fiction, the illusion of Holmesian deduction is eventually stripped away to reveal the black math beneath the logic. We accept that the bona fide classic The Big Sleep ultimately does not make sense, so The Black Dahlia subverts the language of the genre by stretching our capacity for lunatic un-reason to the limit.

Because Dahlia is not about the real moral dilemmas of mankind, but how we interface with a genre, Bucky's quest is specifically about how he may navigate the precarious grounds of film noir. There can be no purpose of constructing a personal code of ethics when the game rules are designed to ensnare everyone. De Palma proposes a delightful answer to this bleak problem. Bucky finds a strategy for survival by recognizing his own capacity for perversity, the amorphic capabilities of his own body amid nothing but body-related anxiety, the creative skill of free-association: Bucky learns the value of play, within the genre's nasty web.

Symbolically emasculated in the first scene, when his teeth are smashed out of his face by his own partner (Aaron Eckhart) in a fundraiser boxing match, Bucky eventually traces a network of similar mouth injury imagery to avenge Short's murder. In Swank's slumming bisexual aristocrat Madeleine Linscott, who's made herself over in Short's image, Bucky's first indulging in bad-news Vertigo necrophilia. But he also picks up from Madeleine the ability to recognize the eroticism in his own homosocial relationships, the pervasiveness of costume and playacting, and the polymorphous perversity at work in every human. And so on. Bucky's happy ending finds him in the arms of Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson, acting like she doesn't know how to smoke) icy ex-prostitute accomplice to several crimes, with knife-scars that mirror the inscription of male power upon the body of Liz Short. My hunch is the guy doesn't find solace there because she's the least-corrupt of the cast, but the symbol with the most ties to every issue that's consumed him: she's Elizabeth Short, she's Madeline Linscott, she's Lee Blanchard, she's George Tilden. With his new skills, he sees in this nihilistic universe that Kay is imbued with meaning. The white light into which Bucky steps in the ending is the enveloping glow of a film projector.

De Palma casts himself as an unseen director in a fictional screen test for Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). He emotionally brutalizes the woman for no particular reason except that it is what directors of thrillers do, for their own diverse reasons. De Palma does not make hollow genre deconstructions; he obviously works out problems of power and control, gender issues, of symbol and language, of space and physics... it just all seems so mad, and unreal because he focuses on how they operate in the movies. The locus of putrid inspiration behind the Dahlia murder turns out to be a movie (The Man Who Laughs, no less). However, it's in that cruel screen test that Short can tell her story, that she is preserved in one piece. In a meaningful way, the movies also save her life, and Bucky's. The nexus of all fascination, beauty and power in The Black Dahlia is not poor Elizabeth Short's tormented body but the obsessive dream of cinema.

1. Finding Something Inside the Story: INLAND EMPIRE

Uh-oh, looks like somebody's movie is too hard for people. The opening fence, roses and sky in Blue Velvet symbolize America! Most of Mulholland Dr. is a crazy dream! And if your David Lynch appreciation cannot extend beyond this kind of literalist idiocy, you'll never mine the riches of INLAND EMPIRE. Ten years from now, I promise it's a masterpiece, and haven't (Eraserhead) we (Fire Walk With Me) been (Lost Highway) through ("Twin Peaks" finale) this ("Mulholland Dr." pilot) before? The general tone of frustration and disappointment among newsprint reviewers only begs the question "exactly who do you want David Lynch to be?"

Imagine, if you will, another world. A world in which David Lynch's hallmarks are not outrageous violence, uncomfortable sexuality and impenetrable weirdness, but the active exploration of the subconscious and our resistance to its fertile boundlessness; the location of evil and sorrow in the will to dominate; the abiding comfort and beauty in forms, colors, textures, sounds; a universe of hard lessons, but underlying connection, chaos bound and avowed to keep love, mystery and universal energies on course. That is the world of my David Lynch. You may need to watch with a third eye, but as Jeffrey Beaumont said, there are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience.

INLAND EMPIRE is one of Lynch's encouraging works, harrowing though it is, so ignore all reports that your spirit guide is going to ditch you on the astral plane. Laura Dern in a devastating, giving performance as Nikki Grace as Susan Blue, is our center, a heroine who learns to traverse boundaries, surfs the vast ocean of the non-rational and comes out on top and smiling. Pity those unwilling to even try.

Addendum : Number Eleven

I honestly feel sadness and dishonesty for not finding room for...

Borat - Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan - Joining the sacred Hardest I Ever Laughed ranks of South Park - Bigger, Longer, Uncut, Brain Candy, The Nutty Professor and Jingle Cats: Sing Meow of Christmas is Borat. That is pretty damn respectable company, Mr. Cohen. Neither as mean or political as anyone claimed, the central joke is less that Americans are ignoramuses than that everyone is funny when in uncomfortable social situations. Good enough for me.

Cute Multiplex Junk

Sometimes we have special "ways" of enjoying movies. These include: irony, derision, erotic spectacle, and rooting for outsiders.

Casino Royale - Between Daniel Craig and Eva Green, which of the leads do you most want to see in a bathing suit? You may change your mind by the end, because the only proper answer is: both! "Jeffrey Wright" is also an acceptable alternate.

Apocalypto - Weird. Dumb or possibly crazy, Mel Gibson gave me the a lot of gleeful enjoyment of a film in the opposite way the author intended.

Snakes on a Plane - Hey Rob Zombie, you know how you think you know about and love exploitation movies? The key element you have forgotten is known as "fun". Snakes was given an unfair handicap from "go", but made it over the finish line with more heart and determination than anyone could have expected.

I Don't Know What to Say

Is it possible I spent more time with my mouth hanging open in awe at Lady in the Water than any other film of 2006? Certainly it appalled me very much, but it gave me so much perverse pleasure, I find it so fascinating, that it deserves some recognition for sheer misguided, unworthy, confused, artistically-retarded splendor.

Next: 2006 DVD Round-Up and Stunt Airshow!