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“Monsters” and the Question of Context in Criticism

“Monsters” and the Question of Context in Criticism (photo)

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I was a guest on this week’s /Filmcast, where I joined regular co-hosts David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley to discuss Gareth Edwards’ indie monster movie “Monsters.” I always have fun chatting with the /Filmcasters, but I thought this episode was especially thought-provoking. At least it was for me; half a week later, I’m still mulling over the issues we raised, in particular the question of context in criticism.

Context was already on my mind while I was watching “Monsters.” From a technical perspective, the film is a marvel: expansive without being expensive, made for well under a million dollars by a tiny crew (Edwards himself did all of the film’s numerous alien special effects on his own computer using off-the-shelf software). It presents a creative and convincing post-apocalyptic world where aliens have landed, taken control of the area around the US-Mexico border, and human life has, rather believably, picked up the pieces and moved on. The same way you glance at images of war atrocities on CNN then go out to Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee, the people in “Monsters” just carry on their lives ignoring the “creatures” as long as they possibly can.

All that stuff is great, but the movie, from my perspective, isn’t perfect. In telling a really unorthodox monster movie, Edwards wound up making a fairly orthodox mismatched lovers road trip movie — “It Happened One Night” set in the world of “Cloverfield.” The dialogue is trite and the relationship between the main characters is unconvincing. As remarkable as the world of “Monsters” is, the film set in that world isn’t particularly compelling.

Thinking all of this as I was watching the film, I began to wonder: to what degree do the flaws “Monsters” deserve a pass simply because of the ingenuity of its creators? How much does how a movie was made affect what a movie is? If “Monsters” had cost $30 million dollars — and the movie looks so good, you could believe that it might — would we be less forgiving of its flaws?

The topic of the world outside the frame’s influence on the world inside it came up on The /Filmcast before we even got to “Monsters.” During the show’s news segment, we discussed the trailer for Mel Gibson new film “The Beaver,” which is about a man who has a mental breakdown and starts speaking to people through a beaver puppet he finds in the garbage. I thought it was interesting how the trailer seemed to hint at Gibson’s real life problems, and to speak to a potential audience’s desire to see him redeemed cinematically. Adam Quigley disagreed:

“I always find it kind of unfortunate when actors’ outside lives start to factor in to how people perceive them onscreen. I really wish you could just separate those two things… I want to be able to watch [a] movie completely separate from that outside context and just be able to appreciate it as a story about this guy.”

I understand what Adam is saying. Plenty of movies never get the fair shake they deserve because of infamous events that surround their production or scandals linked to their stars. Before it was ever released “Proof of Life” was notorious as the film that broke up Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid’s marriage, and the fact that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, then a real life couple, were appearing together nude in “Eyes Wide Shut” dominated the early conversation about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” a movie that’s worth watching for a lot more than the nudity.

But on the other hand, watching a movie “completely separate from that outside context” can also limit our understanding of it. It’s hard to fully appreciate the impact and importance of “On the Waterfront” without knowing the culture that produced it, or the personal experiences director Elia Kazan confronted during the HUAC investigation. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” stands alone as a marvelous Western, but it stands even taller when watched in concert with the earlier films from director John Ford whose philosophies it examines and critiques. Arguably, the later dissolution of Cruise and Kidman’s marriage makes the marital difficulties they play out in “Eyes Wide Shut” even more fascinating to watch.

Mel Gibson won’t be the first guy to play a role with eerie echoes of his own personal problems, either. Just next week Stephen Dorff plays a actor adrift in his own success in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.” I don’t know that Robert Siegel wrote “The Wrestler” for Mickey Rourke, but his own career travails only intensified the character’s heartache. Part of what makes Robert Downey Jr. so perfect to play Tony Stark in the “Iron Man” films is the fact that Downey Jr. has lived Stark-ishly at times in own his life. And I don’t think it’s as simple as “these guys have led lives similar to their characters and that’s kind of fun to point out.” I think it’s “these guys have led lives similar to their characters, which they draw on in order to give rich and personal performances.”

In the case of “Monsters,” I think our review of the film was fair. The film has strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t think the extraneous matters surrounding the former compel you to simply ignore the latter. You don’t need to see other Ford films to dig “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” You might need to know about its production history to really love “Monsters” (if you don’t believe me, read the online comments from viewers who clearly didn’t know much about the movie outside its trailer and were disappointed by the film).

I can also think of examples where you might need to not know a movie’s context to really enjoy it; Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” is a charming movie about determination, pluck, and the love of moviemaking but it’s got very little to do with the realities of Wood’s real life. If you hear how Wood’s career really ended — destitute, alcoholic, making porn — you might not enjoy Burton’s movie quite as much. But that brings up the subject of whether a biopic has an obligation to the truth, and that’s a whole other can of worms.

Context can be a sticky thing. Important in some cases, a nuisance in others. Its implications can be crucial. Or they can be monstrous.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.