Monday, December 26, 2011

Deus Ex Machina, the Genre-izing of Art, and more

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Loyal readers: I apologize for the two week delay in our posts; this is exclusively my fault.  Spread very thin during finals week at school, and now scattered with all my free time since coming home for break, I’ve had little time/focus to write an article.  But here it is—though as befits my current state of mind, it’s a general stream of scattered thoughts on film that has been going through my mind lately.

Deus ex machina—what is it, what does it mean, and why does it drive critics so nuts?

History lesson: the phrase is in Latin, meaning “God [Deus] out of [ex] the machine [machina]”.  It refers to a convention in Ancient Greek drama, wherein a sort of crane-do-hickey (i.e. a machine) lowered actors portraying Gods onto the stage, often to solve tricky problems via divine intervention.

©, via
Today, when people call something a deus ex machina, they are referring to any sort of miraculous, inexplicable happening that resolves a situation.  For you older folks, a great example of this is at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (a fantastic western that’s worth a watch for all generations), wherein John Wayne—well, you know, kind of saves Jimmy Stewart’s ass, seemingly from out of nowhere.  For you younger folks, Aslan’s resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will suffice.  If you’re still not getting it, think back to when you were kids, and you invented superheroes to play make-believe with your friends, and that one annoying kid you played with always had a superhero who magically had a counter-power for everything; if you had laser-beams, he had laser-beam defense; if you could breathe fire, he could douse you in water.  This kid was using deus ex machina inventions all the time.

So why do critics hate this so much?  Essentially, it’s because a deus ex machina often is a crude device employed by a lazy author to save characters who need saving for the story to work.  It doesn’t do justice to a complex plot line, the audience immediately realizes its unlikelihood and ridiculousness; thereby, the plot loses credibility and compromises its integrity.  Usually, a logical and realistic resolution functions far more effectively.

Critics are mostly right about this: if a plot is to be credible and authentic, it must resolve itself according to the rules already established therein; it must maintain integrity in its structure.  However, critics can also be incredibly pretentious in their vilification of deus ex machina.

Such a pretentious critique may be found here

Sometimes, a deus ex machina, or rather a seeming deus ex machina, is absolutely necessary to a story; and moreover, a story has no credibility without it.  Life and everything that happens in it is truly unexpected, and the result of countless upon countless accidents.  Think about it: you’re now married with kids because you happened to meet that special someone at a party you almost didn’t go to for a friend who you met because you happened to sit next to each other in some class at a school you attended only because your dad changed jobs in a certain year.  Ever been driving and realized that if you hadn’t been paying attention for that split-second, you probably would’ve been killed in a major accident?  These are the kinds of circumstantial, accidental happenings that rule our lives, and certain invocations of a deus ex machina simply serve to reflect the insane, inexplicable, accidental nature of daily life.

Unless wholly abused, deus ex machinas serve such a genuine, imperative purpose in literature and plot development; thus, shove it! pretentious critics.

I’ve also been thinking about our incessant need to classify and categorize, especially regarding art.

This last semester, I took a creative writing class.  And I certainly learned some interesting things, heard some good advice from my professor (a successful author of several novels), etc.  But one common critique of his that frankly, I think, shows him to be (at least in certain aspects) a narrow-minded—even lazy—reader is his need to put every story into a genre.  He says things like “The first scene seemed funny, but the second scene seemed serious.  I advise you to just make it a full-blown comedy or a full-blown drama, because otherwise I’m confused about how to take it”.

I realize that we have a need to organize everything in our minds in order to better understand it (e.g. Kingdom→Phylum→Class→Order→Family→Genus→Species); but honestly, I hope that we’ve progressed to the point where we can interpret art, and discern subtle nuances that reflect themes far deeper and richer than any particular genre can paint.  Life isn’t all a comedy, or a drama, or a tragicomedy, or a satire, or an underdog story, or an indie drama, etc.  Life is so filled with various facets, that speaking of it as only one of these things is ludicrous and short-sided.  And the task of art, really, is to provide some sort of reflection/improvement of life (note that this doesn’t mean that art must be realistic; rather, if it’s fantasy, it still must reflect, in its core ideals, the realities in which we live/should live).  So why do we then demand that everything be so neat and tidy and inauthentically wrapped in the scheme of some hackneyed ‘genre’?

© 2011

 That’s why I love Woody Allen’s work so much; most of it transcends any BS, artificial label some critic could give to it; it thereby maintains credibility and authenticity to life.

So please, let’s be open to depth and nuance in all art—including film—and let it speak with the full power of its own voice, rather than from within some artificial, trite framework.  Let’s become more active readers, watchers, etc. who don’t need to be told how to think and feel in every artistic encounter; often the most rewarding experience is to come to an understanding of a work after having to strenuously and constantly apply our minds to it.

Upcoming stuff:  Within the next couple weeks, check out another video review of Alex and me on the critically-acclaimed, heavy Oscar favorite The Artist (hint: I think it’s excellent).  Also look for Alex’s next article coming out on the Globe-nominated film Young Adult.
If you’re bored during these waning holidays, watch some of The Twilight Zone on the Sci-Fi channel for its annual New Year’s Day Marathon (I should really get paid for this plug).  It’s a thought-provoking series that holds up beautifully today.  I’ll write an article on it soon.


Monday, December 5, 2011

How Many Years Ago? (Fargo)

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

©, 2009

It is once again time to dip into the well of history and analyze a film released long ago in the second entry of our blog’s series, "How Many Years Ago?" If you remember from the introduction to the first post reviewing 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Paul and I look at a film under a historical lens and view how that particular picture shaped the future of cinema in one way or another. The film under scrutiny for today’s post, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 seminal masterpiece, Fargo, actually kills two birds with one stone: depending on what kind of mood I’m in, Fargo is hands-down my favorite movie of all time. The bleak and pure snowy landscape of Minnesota and North Dakota mask the vicious and bloody carnage that unfurls to a small group of characters over the course of a few days. And to top it all off, the movie’s actually really damn funny!

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the hapless used-car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (a stunning William H. Macy) organizes the kidnapping of his wife with two petty thieves (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) who think they are much smarter then they actually are. Turns out Jerry’s in a little bit of a financial situation after same bad deals at the auto dealership, so he not only needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off his debts, but to also pay off the two criminals. Jerry’s wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell), a shrewd business man in his own right, begins to feel something is strangely amiss when Jerry relies too heavily on him for the ransom money. Meanwhile, in Brainerd, North Dakota, the two thieves, Carl and Gaear, while transporting the kidnapped Mrs. Lundegaard to the remote cabin hideaway, ferociously slaughter a state trooper who is on to their trail. The seven months pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in her Academy Award winning role), becomes the lead investigator on the case. Once connections between all the characters are established it’s only a matter of time before someone must pay. Even though this whole mess eventually begins to sound sadistic, and even a bit inhuman at times, one is both pacified from the release of their laughter at the humorous moments in the piece, and repulsed at how alarming laughing might feel during the rampage.

Actually the biggest shock, and those that know me well can support this, is how long it took me to actually write a piece on a Coen Bros. movie. I will defend to the death that Joel and Ethan Coen are simply the finest filmmakers in the profession. Having seen all fifteen of their films, I can attest that each is densely layered with rich dramatic moments of tension while still maintaining a sophisticated level of humor throughout. Perhaps, if the mood strikes me, I may even do an overview of the fifteen films they have created just to emphasize the fullness of their works. The Coen’s have literally almost tackled every genre, from western in True Grit to full-blown comedy in Burn After Reading. Thrillers have never looked better than their debut piece, Blood Simple., when compared against the film-noir classic Miller’s Crossing, and the musical based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? In 2007, Joel and Ethan even won Best Picture at the Academy Awards with their searing and visceral No Country for Old Men.

This film is INCREDIBLY important to the evolution of cinema even though it was released just 15 short years ago. Now, disclaimer, I’m not arguing that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences that annually present the Academy Award statuette are completely infallible in their own right and truly represent the best of the year (I’m looking at you Sandra Bullock….like, honestly, the total blundering of that whole situation just became one of the next posts I’m writing). Yet, as in this instance, I will defend the Academy when they show signs of forward moving, progressive thinking. However, if you read the following argument and still find the Academy to not be your cup of tea and that they, in no way, are the ultimate bellwether for change, bully for you and I will hold no grudges.

The state of small and independent films had been evolving as far as they could grow without actually breaking into the mainstream during the early and mid 90’s. Just two years prior, in 1994, arguably the most important and famous independent film, Pulp Fiction, made a massive splash with audiences, critics, and the Academy alike--even though it lost Picture, Director, and Actor to the less challenging Forrest Gump. In 1996, independent films had risen to such a status in the motion picture community that FOUR out of the FIVE available nomination slots in the Best Picture category were filled with films that had a considerably smaller budget than most studio outings, and thus considered independent: the eventual winner The English Patient, Fargo, Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, and Scott Hicks’ Shine. (The fifth and final slot was reserved for the questionable Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire). That smaller films had catapulted to such a position emphasized not only that the reserved Academy members had begun to take notice, but that they actually decided to do something towards this response. The Academy, usually known for their big and epic choices (like the colossal piece Titanic the very next year), were willing to set aside their allegiances to studio heads and marquee actors for one season to honor films that had a tough time even coming up with a budget to begin shooting with.

On a side note--Frances McDormand’s Oscar winning performance as Police Chief Marge Gunderson is one of the five greatest female performances in the history of the medium. Of course, all taste is subjective and my opinion might seem bogus to another critic and fan, yet, there is an underlying thread of humor and sensibility that allows the viewer to empathize with her heavily pregnant character as she begins to battle forces that are just slightly more overwhelming and bigger than she is. McDormand, the real-life wife of co-director Joel Coen, asserts her position as one of the most versatile actresses of present with her character’s northern accent alone that will most certainly have one rolling in the aisles clutching at their sides.

Please go rent, buy, stream, illegally download Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 masterpiece Fargo. Along with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Little Miss Sunshine, it is my most favorite movie of all time, and one that I would be proud to bestow with the elusive, and almost unheard of, five star rating.