Articles by

<Matt Zoller Seitz>

10/09/09 4:00am

This is the transcript to Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay, viewable here.

On the Waterfront is a masterpiece with an asterisk. The asterisk refers to the film’s storyline. It’s widely described as a self-justification by artists who gave the names of suspected Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The most prominent of the informers was On the Waterfront’s director, Elia Kazan.

In 1952, Kazan, already a famous and influential theater and film director, was pressured by HUAC to supply the names of colleagues suspected of Communist affiliation. After previously refusing to cooperate, Kazan eventually caved in and named names. A few of the people he named were already known to the committee as Communists. Others—including actor Zero Mostel—became new additions to the Hollywood blacklist. From the instant he cooperated, Kazan’s legacy was tarnished, and in some quarters negated, by his stool pigeon status. Though he expressed ambivalence and even outright remorse, he never officially apologized for the damage he inflicted. And he sometimes defended himself on the grounds that the American Communist Party’s defense of Stalinist Russia’s brutality was a greater sin than his decision to inform.

It seems strangely fitting, then, that On the Waterfront would prove to be Kazan’s most compelling and durable film. The recipient of many Academy Awards, it fuses seemingly incompatible genres into a unique whole. It’s a muckraking expose, a love story, a gangster picture with traces of film noir, and a how-to manual for theologians looking to apply Christian teachings to a secular world. And it’s a parable of self-improvement, with its protagonist, ex-boxer Terry Malloy, transforming himself from a shiftless chump into a dockside Christ taking a beating for the little guy.

Over the decades, much liberal ire has been directed at On the Waterfront, thanks to the participation of Kazan, screenwriter Budd Schulberg and actor Lee J. Cobb, all of whom named names before HUAC. The film has been derided as a rat’s fantasy, recasting HUAC interrogators as kindhearted government gumshoes and the American Communist Party as the equivalent of the mob lorded over by Cobb’s character, waterfront boss Johnny Friendly. This description implies that On the Waterfront is fueled by a simplistic agenda that can be easily defined and dismissed. What’s onscreen is more confounding and rewarding than that.

For one thing, in the film’s world, the gangsters run the show. The American Communist party never had the power to determined who worked and who didn’t. But studio bosses and the United States Congress did. Their blacklist destroyed the careers of many artists with Communist affiliation and forced others to work under assumed names.

09/25/09 4:00am

This is the transcript to Matt Zoller Seitz’s 10th anniversary video essay on Freaks and Geeks, viewable here.

Florescent lights. Combination locks. Clueless parents. Clueless teachers. Clueless friends. Paranoia. Alienation. Hormones. Zits.

These are but a few selling points of the NBC series Freaks and Geeks, which debuted September 25, 1999. Set at a white suburban high school circa 1981 and devised by men who knew the territory, creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow, it was hailed by critics as one of that season’s freshest new series. It lingered in the basement of the Nielsen ratings for 18 episodes, less than a full season, until the network, which never really knew what to do with it, finally pulled the plug.

In retrospect, it seems a minor miracle that the series lasted as long as it did, since its stock in trade was honesty. And when the subject is adolescence, a period that grows rosy in the memory but sucks ass when you’re actually living through it, honesty isn’t much of a selling point. Mass audiences are only interested in reliving high school if it’s sentimentalized. The chance to revisit something remotely in the ballpark of the real thing is as appetizing as cafeteria food—and Freaks and Geeks was a weekly feast of teen awkwardness.

The title refers to two cliques represented by eight major characters. The freaks are the stoners—in spirit and fact. Their ranks include Ken Miller, a sourpuss who insulates himself from intimacy with sarcasm; Nick Andopolis, whose budding basketball stardom was derailed by his pot habit; Kim Kelly, a hot-tempered hellraiser who’s ashamed of her working-class parents and secretly fears her life is already wasted; and Kim’s sometime-boyfriend, Daniel Desario, who’s nearly written off his future and treats his smile as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The ringer in the bunch is Lindsay Weir, the love of Nick’s life—a clean-living ex-Mathlete who from a stable, loving, upper-middle class who lives in mortal fear of normalcy.

Geek No. 1 is Lindsay’s little brother, Sam, a dorky sweetheart and human mood ring. Sam’s pretty smooth, though, compared to his best friends: the showbiz-obsessed dentist’s son Neal Schweiber, whose interests include Star Trek, slapstick comedy and ventriloquism; and Bill Haverchuck, whose thick glasses, gangly body and monotone voice mark him as an uber-nerd, but who paradoxically seems more comfortable in his own skin than any other major character.

Many of the adults are just as multifaceted—notably the school’s guidance counselor, Jeff Russo. An ex-hippie who can’t stop talking about his adventures in the sixties, he’s a walking pop-culture sight gag. But he’s also the kids’ moral compass and spiritual Sherpa, and an emblem of the show’s unironic heart.

Ten years on, Freaks and Geeks seems a time capsule in more ways than one. Despite the slightly edgy title, it was a very gentle show. Although the freaks often behaved as if they were high or drunk (or about be), we never saw them smoking pot or consuming alcohol. And while it was understood that Daniel and Kim were sleeping together, we never saw evidence—although some of the dialogue walked right up to the edge of what NBC censors would permit. There was a fair amount of wooden exposition and plot recapping. And the moments before and after commercial breaks were italicized with corny little music cues, known in the TV business as “stings.”

But despite limitations imposed from within and without, Apatow and Feig’s show used popular culture, especially music, with real wit and passion. The show’s music montage and in-the-moment performances were deliriously cinematic, revealing of character, and sometimes quite moving. Throughout, dry humor, mortifying shenanigans and fleeting moments of bliss appear with startling regularity, rising up through the show’s impassive surface like flowers blooming through cracks in a sidewalk. It’s a love letter to the species, catching people in the act of becoming.

07/03/09 4:00am

A transcript of Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay, viewable here.

Released 20 years ago this month, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was one of the most controversial films of its time. It was praised in many quarters for its script, direction, photography, acting and music, and singled out by some prominent critics as a rich and multifaceted drama about racism, police brutality and the dynamics of an urban community.
Others condemned it as contrived, unrealistic, shrill, even irresponsible — a potent work of propaganda intended to stoke racial resentment, perhaps even incite violence.

That there were no notably violent incidents at theaters showing
Do the Right Thing is a matter of public record. But one doubts this was merely a lucky break on Lee’s part. A close look at the movie’s construction confirms not just its entertainment value and political relevance, but its generosity of spirit. Do the Right Thing is not a film-as-argument. It’s a film about arguments. More specifically, it’s about the roots of the grievances people hold and the anger they unleash.

It’s less about the interaction between particular ethnic groups in 1980s New York City than the psychological processes that drive people to violence and the difficulty, at times impossibility, of figuring out who started the fight and how it might have been prevented. Racism is a key cause of the riot that ends the movie, but it’s just one factor among many. The real culprit is human nature. Lee explores this subject by making every aspect of the film, from sequences and shots to lines and music cues, into opposing forces that dance around each other, argue with each other and whale on each other without achieving resolution, much less victory.

Although Lee’s offscreen remarks about which characters he personally sided with understandably confused the issue, the film itself is not an argument for or against anything. Nor, for that matter, is it meant
to be taken as a journalistic representation of big city culture clash.
The characters are as emblematic and the situations as metaphorical
as those in a stage play, a medium Lee goes out of his way to evoke,
demonstrating special affection for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town,
a drama which, like Do the Right Thing, includes a character who’s a stand-in for the playwright: Mr. Senor Love Daddy, the storefront DJ who provides an ongoing pop score for the neighborhood residents while watching their drama through a plate-glass window and offering history, commentary and context. It’s telling that the only character invited to use Senor Love Daddy’s microphone to address the neighborhood is
Mookie, the deliveryman for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria — a character played by the writer-director.

That’s not the only nod to theatrical convention. Honoring guidelines laid down by Aristotle, the story unfolds during a self-contained period in a single location. And while that location was a real block in Bed-Sty, Brooklyn, Lee and his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, chose to light and shoot it in a highly artificial manner that makes it look like a set.
Many conversations are blocked in a foursquare manner, as if the actors are on a stage. And from start to finish, Lee bruises or outright breaks the fourth wall by having characters deliver lines straight into the camera.

The result is a boisterous, rude, colorful, sentimental cinematic twist on what used to be called “a play of ideas.” It presents many arguments, many prejudices and many words of wisdom, some compelling, others nonsensical. Then it shows what happens when people lose control of their emotions and transform hostile thoughts and feelings into words and actions.

The opposing impulses collide in the form of individual characters,
but no matter who gets dressed down or beaten up, nobody really wins,
and conflicts don’t so much end as momentarily subside. They just keep circling around and around each other, waiting for another chance to clash. Lee’s dialogue is often structured as a series of verbal mirrors,
with characters repeating themselves with minor syntactical changes
or inversions that seem to alter the statement’s meaning. (Da Mayor to cops trying to figure out who turned a fire hydrant stream on a passing driver: “Those who’ll tell don’t know, and those that know won’t tell.”) The plot, the characters, even individual lines of dialogue are all continually grappling with one another and with themselves.

Lee shows where the urge to fight rather than talk originates:
not in rational grievance, but in the need to impress friends, heal wounded pride, assert dominance or simply to let off steam on the hottest day of the year. Repeat viewings of the movie confirm that many of the hostile encounters were triggered by personal issues that are
only tangentially related to politics. For instance, Buggin Out’s anger at Sal and his sons is less about the absence of black faces on Sal’s
wall of fame than the fact that Sal snapped, pulled a bat on him and kicked him out in front of his neighbors.

In his definitive 1989 review of Do the Right Thing, originally published in the Chicago Reader and republished in several anthologies, including Movies as Politics, Jonathan Rosenbaum traces the chain of hostile and sometimes violent encounters that leads to the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police, and the subsequent trashing of Sal’s pizzeria by neighborhood residents — including Mookie, who up till then has been depicted as a detached observer who’s mainly interested in getting laid and paid. Rosenbaum writes, “The movie shows certain events happening and certain steps leading up to them: these events include one supposedly levelheaded pizzeria owner blowing his cool and a group of angry blacks trashing the establishment… At most, one might intuit that some of the film’s angry black characters associate their trashing of the pizzeria with ‘fighting the power,’ but there’s nothing in the film that suggests they’re right about this; nor does the film say that Sal is exposing his ‘true feelings’ or that Sal is the equivalent of ‘any white person.’ Indeed, the movie takes great pains to show that the characters who tend to talk the most about ‘fighting the power’ in less hysterical situations — Radio Raheem, Buggin Out and Smiley — are relatively myopic and misguided, and are seen as such by their neighbors; it also takes pains to establish Sal as a complex, multifaceted character who can’t easily be reduced to platitudes.”

Rosenbaum continues: “In place of either/or, Lee gives us both/and, epitomized by the two quotations that close the movie, from Martin Luther King, Jr. (condemning violence) and from Malcolm X (describing situations when self-defense may be necessary). Some have argued that Lee’s refusal to choose between these statements proves he’s confused, but this argument only proves how reductive either/or thinking usually turns out to be.”

06/26/09 4:00am

Watch Michael Joshua Rowin and Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay here.

As played by Jeremy Renner, Staff Sergeant and bomb dismantler William James of The Hurt Locker is the latest macho outsider to be the focus of director Kathryn Bigelow, as well as the latest in a long, complicated legacy of cinematic outlaw anti-heroes.

Why are we drawn to such alpha male leaders, both in the movies and in a world increasingly influenced by the movies? From Jesse Hooker, the patriarch of the vampire clan in Near Dark (1987), to Bodhi, the leader of a gang of bank robbing surfers in Point Break (1991), to the criminals and thrill-seekers who transcribe their exploits via neural recorders in Strange Days (1995), Bigelow’s most troubling characters are united by their attraction to risky and dangerous missions, which they experience the same manner as an adrenaline-inducing “drug.” Beyond the basic dictates of their work, these men take a perverse pleasure in courting death — and through them, so can we.

That perverse pleasure is an immediate one for William James — a variety of religious experience, perhaps. But for the audience it is most definitely mediated. The film’s first shot is from the point of view of a bomb-dismantling robot, and as The Hurt Locker progresses, the soldiers’ points of view are increasingly answered by the looks of surrounding enemies and civilians. These acts of putting oneself in another’s place, often via technology — acts undertaken by both the audience and the audience’s surrogates — reflect on the experience of watching movies. It’s the same sort of reflection seen in Bigelow’s Strange Days in the metaphor of a virtual reality device that lets its users re-experience the most dramatic events of other people’s lives; the device becomes a drug that can offer hits of vicarious sex and violence. In The Hurt Locker, how we see — from what distance, and through what set of eyes-shapes our perception of the enigmatic and troubling character of James.

Since the macho outlaw hero bears an unstable relation to death and destruction, he is often seen as a danger to the very people he’s supposed to work alongside and protect. A particular scene in Bigelow’s film confronts this dynamic. Setting off test explosives in the middle of the desert, James realizes he left his gloves at the bombsite. While on his way there to pick up his gear, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a member of James’ team who does not take well to his hot dog attitude, vocally toys with the idea of detonating the explosives. Soon there’s a shot of James in the distance: he’s found his gloves and is yelling back at his fellow soldiers like a little kid. Since the shot of James is from the point-of-view of Sanborn and his colleague Eldridge, the effect is comical and sinister. What would otherwise be a harmless wave encapsulates Eldridge’s and especially Sanborn’s disdain for their leader’s jocular recklessness.

James’ seeming obliviousness to the possibility of death evokes Captain Willard’s assessment of Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now: “He was one of those guys that had a weird light around him. Somehow you knew he wasn’t gonna get so much as a scratch here.” Indeed, James may be an ungodly amalgam of Willard and Kilgore. He is continually drawn back to war, where he can best put his demons to use, and also possessed by the sort of gung-ho attitude that would make one attack an enemy-occupied beach just to ride a wave, an act reminiscent of the surf-or-die bank robbers of Bigelow’s masterpiece, Point Break.

James, Willard, Kilgore, and the surfers: from afar these outlaws suggest unusual beasts: fascinating to watch, perhaps, but lethal to encounter up close. Their air of invincibility and their communion with the sur-logic of adrenaline are too much to handle for those lacking the same courage, or madness.