READY PLAYER ONE: Remember When….

 

 

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018)

One of the mollifying aspects of nostalgia, which has taken a strong grip on American culture of late, especially as we all cope with exponential advancements of technology and the constant bombardment of media from streaming services, is that it provides a recess from the fast-paced media-driven craze of today’s world. It allows us to dive back into a time when everything just seemed quieter. It’s rather ironic then that Ready Player One is so high-octane and exhausting. The movie is a pop-culture junkie’s version of snorting three lines of cocaine. For some, that’s a high. For others, it’s another instantly gratifying entertainment that provides no lasting value. I feel somewhere in between these two extremes.

The film’s most interesting aspect is in its mythologization of James Halliday, the OASIS’s creator. His character essentially mirrors the way nostalgia has evolved in internet culture. It starts off as a fond personal memory of cultural markers which shaped us, especially those “nerds” such as Halliday, as adults.  But once internet culture got a grip of nostalgia it turned into something weird and malformed. Its personal weight started to lessen. It flattened into a 2D stream of a million different “references” whizzing by your eyes with each click. Halliday’s OASIS is filled with his favorite media references when he was a kid, but they’re so vast and they exist in such quantity and velocity within the game that they don’t register as anything other tokens of remembrance. The OASIS, as a virtual reality program, is the physical written and produced manifestation of an “Only 80’s/90’s Kids Will Remember This!” meme that you see re-posted on Twitter every day.

READY PLAYER ONE - Dreamer Trailer (screen grab) CR: Warner Bros. PicturesThe underlying darkness of the film’s social commentary occurs as we, along with the central characters, discover the clues that tie together Halliday’s life. His obsession with his own past, the pop culture remnants of his childhood as well as the devastating regrets he had as a person, descends into unhealthy levels as more is revealed. At the end of the film, after Wade wins the game, Wade Watts is transported to Halliday’s childhood bedroom, where he speaks with him. It’s not enough that the film suggests Halliday was so possessed by a long-gone past that he downloaded his own conscience into his video game (Wade asks, “you’re not a hologram are you?”), but that Halliday also keeps a younger version of himself alongside for company.

The lack of fulfillment in Halliday’s life forced him to retreat to an era where he felt he was his best self, his happiest self, so much so that he kept that version of himself near him at all times. In small doses, these moments of escape provide mental balance and a harmonious re-connection to where we came from. But the further we are dedicated to constantly holding onto what used to be, in pop culture, politics, social ideas, anything, the less we find ourselves dedicated to progress. In the end of the film, Wade decides to change the way the OASIS works. His final statement declares that people need to spend time outside and in the “real world”. This is as deep a cut as Spielberg has possibly ever made on American society.  Spielberg’s ability to elevate the shallow and lazy self-satisfied geekdom of the novel into an actual discussion of nostalgia’s effect on human memory and its toll on us, is what makes him one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

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SONG TO SONG and VOYAGE OF TIME: There’s Something Wrong With Terrence Malick

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Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

When you feel as if an artist you always admired has lost something, what do you do? Do you hold out hope for future projects? Continue to selectively relive their past glory? Review their work chronologically to determine when and where it exactly all went to hell? It’s a troubling thing, realizing that a brilliant filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, or whoever cannot create the beautiful works which helped change your life, which helped inspire countless moments of your own burst of creativity.

Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, and to me one of the greatest artists in American history. His repertoire, much like Kubrick’s, is sparse, spread out, untamed, and utterly brilliant. In the 30 years between 1970 to 2000, Malick made only 3 films: his debut feature Badlands, his most “critically acclaimed” work, a tragic romance called Days of Heaven and after a long hiatus, a film I consider to be possibly the single best movie I’ve ever witnessed, the war epic The Thin Red LineIn the 21st Century, however, his production increased in both volume and frequency, churning out The New World in the last decade, and a whopping 4 features and 1 documentary since 2011, a ratio of output to time-span that shocked pretty much everyone in the cinema world. Something about Malick had changed.

Initially, I thought he had simply had an explosion of great ideas he felt were necessary to put to film. When The Tree of Life released in theaters, I made it a point to revisit and experience Malick’s filmography in chronological order to prepare myself for what many hailed as a decades-long passion project. My roommate Joe and I spent the week watching 1 Malick film each day, starting with Badlands and working our way to The New World. I learned a lot from that experience, especially the historical and technical origins of Malick’s signature voice-over narration that haunts his characters and landscapes like whispers of ghosts reaching out into our world. I saw glimpses of dazzling visuals, lingering tracking shots, and an aching small-town nostalgia within Badlands that would culminate in a tidal wave of personal memory in The Tree of Life. The definition of auteur given by film critic Andrew Sarris boiled down to the idea that there existed a thematic string, a world-view, within a filmmaker, which was prevalent throughout their entire oeuvre, and that made the “auteur”. This string was clear in Malick’s career.

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Has it been cut? If his last three narrative features are any indication, at the very least it’s been weakened and frayed. A few weekends ago I saw his latest offering, a romantic music-centered film called Song to Song. A compilation of all the typical Malickian ingredients, from the dream-like visual work to the understated characters to the themes of love, loss, death and memory, the film felt like it was directed by Malick on autopilot. It was a movie filled with the filmmaker’s most natural instincts and so many of them packed together with no theme that it becomes a self-parody. The style that I used to love, that used to evoke such a deeper questioning to the themes he explored, that added immense depth to a painterly celluloid canvas, now evoked only an eye-roll, a sigh, and a glance at my cell phone to see how much time I had left before I could go home.

Is Malick bored? Or did he just run out of ideas? It seems counterintuitive for a bored and imagination-dry filmmaker to start making movies at a faster pace than he used to.

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Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2017)

Even more perplexing is the other movie I saw from him, a short documentary in IMAX at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum called Voyage of Time was so moving and beautifully composed. It’s is a visual “companion” of sorts to his narrative masterpiece The Tree of Life, and is a representation of human existence told through the creation of the universe. The film has no dialogue and almost no humans aside from a girl standing in a field and two kids playing in the front yard of a colonial suburban home. This film was purely the essentials of Malick’s visual technique. Aside from a beautiful opening scroll that in itself eclipses any inane forced voice-over dialogue from his last 3 disappointing films, the film is just CGI and natural shots depicting the birth of the universe and the world and ultimately, its expansive relation to us and our place within it.  What is the string between this film and Song to Song? Is there any thematic connection? They were made by the same man, a director I have incredible admiration for, but one is comprised of all his greatest tendencies and the other all his worst. One felt personal and profound while the other felt like pseudo-intellectual blabber and faux-artistic posturing.

The clearest distinction I can make between the old and new Malick, is that before, his visuals and his words were dictated by an inner voice that was so clear, making his style a necessary vehicle to project that voice to us. Malickian style now seems like nothing more than a pandering technique for his fans. The weight of his voice-overs is absent, the meaning behind his mesmerizing images isn’t there. Song to Song‘s entire aesthetic could be recreated by anyone with a high definition camera and it wouldn’t lose any of its already flimsy effect. That is sad to say about a filmmaker who didn’t miss a step for almost 4 decades of sparse but masterful filmmaking.