Selma

Don’t shoot the messenger without filmlook!


Selma is not an aggressively mediocre film, but certainly an uneven one, vacillating from pretty good to very bland and then back to blandly bland and once again to blandidy bland bland.
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Reported on 9th of March, 2015

My prejudice (yipe) regarding Selma is more to do with the crankiness of expertise. Like a cop watching Law & Order, a doctor watching House, or me watching movies of any kind, I’m know a smidge about the civil rights movement, and a smidge more about Dr. King himself. He is a personal hero, and, being that I’m me, that’s a very small list. So your film is going to have to get it my version of right. Even Boycott, which was parsecs better, did not make that much of a dent. Both films ultimate fail to capture what a poet, analyst, strategist (see Boycott for that, by the way) and, you know, person King was.

Selma

24 February 2015 @ The Duke of York's


$0.25 or, if one must be quotidian, and one must... 
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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To be fair, Selma is hardly all bad. It contains some beautiful and connective moments. During an early protest a young man is killed, and when Dr. King consoles his grandfather, he meets a man who’s lived 80 years with the right to vote, and without the ability. This moment captures the powerful mix of responsibly, guilt, and the struggle to negotiate the two that Dr. King dealt with every minute, and Mr. David Oyelowo nails it.

The film really lands, and possibly should have begun, here. There’s a smattering of moments like this, and, beyond my usual template, we’ll get to those again. I don’t favor the shit sandwich mode of praise-criticism-praise. In this case, however, the final praise arises from lambasting critics praising other filmmakers. So, it’s more of a shit sandwich with a deep-fried shit schmear. That means our real problem is that we deep-fried shit only to use it as a topping. It’s a wasted step.

The film is an attempt to show the man behind the man, and it, I don’t know, did that. Such an approach is a risk and ultimately a failure dramatically, as it removes choice and conflict, bizarrely from a story rife with it. But there’s also an element of letting Hoover win. Special Agent J. Edgar Hoover, whose hatred of Dr. King was legendary, famously wiretapped Dr. King, obsessed with catching him ‘Tomcatting’. I just read over this sentence and realized the term is so quaintly racist it merits explanation: black people screwing around. In a move more psychological than tactical, Hoover, or rather his underlings, then played sex noise tapes back to the SCLC and possibly Mrs. Scott King.

The film recreates this scene, which may or not have happened, to trite effect. But there’s some secondary problems with which to contend. My King scholarship is wildly out of date (about twenty years), but at that time, Dr. King’s extramarital affairs were still not confirmed. Nor do I think that the tapes were played back for Mrs. King in 1965 (I seem to remember in was nearer to ’67). I could look it up and be right, or look it up on a different site and be wrong and who cares?

Holy unmotivated camera angles, Batman! Also, as Robin, how do I know about show that has me as a character...Batman?

I did accidentally look it up, and now I can’t not say that it was ’64, before Selma. But fictional film is not an historical document. What matters is that by bringing this particular element into the story is that whatever did or didn’t happen, you’re now serving SA Hoover’s agenda. As with Kill the Messenger, you’re not telling the story of how the story was shifted; you’re shifting the story. I get that this movie, however unfortunate I consider this agenda, is an attempt to humanize Dr. King. But there are numerous ways to humanize a character, not leastways the obvious conflict between risking people’s lives for a higher moral achievement, something that’s, I don’t know, at the heart of the non-violence moment.

Dr. King’s extramarital affairs have the further knock-back effect of making Mrs. King yet another wife who complains. Even though she starts out in the film as clearly integral to the SCLC, she is sidelined by this little slice of thud, capped by the almost embarrassingly clichéd I Showed Up At The Last Minute To Support My Husband In The End. It’s historical revisionism, sure, and it’s an appalling female character, sure times two. But it’s got as much heft as the part in Fantasy Island when she realizes that being with Willie Aimes ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and she returns joyously to the status quo.

Bit of an historical reach back for that trope, huh? I could have used the Spacek arc in JFK. The reason it’s not like that is because I only saw that film in the theater once. Seen it about twenty times since then, and there’s a fast forward button. Truth be told, I’ve digitized my DVD at this point (also had it on Laserdisc), and I just in-point and out-pointed those scenes completely. In other words, too lazy for the fast forward button, and will extend great efforts to maintain my laziness. Including the energy expended not thinking about how much effort I go to maintain it.

Much idiotic controversy has been generated by whether or not Selma‘s portrayal of Pres. Johnson was or was not accurate. Sigh. Give Johnson clown makeup and a bloody butcher’s knife for all I care (and in that case, don’t steal my idea!), but either 1) make him a character, or 2) give him something to do. Instead Selma‘s Johnson acts as a cheap supervillain to provide unmotivated and changeable conflict whenever it’s due, including the unfortunate choice to imply that he was behind Hoover’s playback nonsense. I don’t know or care if this is true, but I do care that he is heard to utter the line:

‘Get me J. Edgar Hoover!’

Yeah.

Going back to the good, there’s a moment where Pres. Johnson discusses backing down the police presence of the march with Gov. Wallace. As he does this, he recognizes that this is not how he would like history to see him. He goes into the scene trying to convince Wallace, and walks out convinced himself. This is a nice moment, except…

We could get into the historical context, but what matters dramatically is that this is a beat. We need to see him change his mind. Whether or not this is how it happened, or if it’s true, we don’t just switch gears without even a glimmer crossing our eyes. And even if we do, it’s lousy storytelling.

The middle layer

I’ve added headers! Get a coffee! Take a break! Don’t notice that the act of reading this is now as long as seeing Interstellar. Don’t say, however, that it’s as long as the experience of seeing Interstellar. Words hurt. I should know.

Photography, like acting, has generally reached the point where it’s good enough that it rarely merits comment. People are good at their job. Sometimes they blow you away (Mr. Roger Deakins) and sometimes they blow (Ms. Jessica Chastain. Please stop hiring her. Seriously), but most of the time they nail it because you didn’t even notice, which is possibly the highest compliment one can receive. Selma, well you notice. It looks awful, and the guy who shot it should be shot…with a 25mm open to ƒ8 with no backfill. No, I won’t take it back!

The experience was not aided by my idiotic decision to healthily snack on blueberries during the screening. Cake. Never get off the cake.

The experience was not aided by my idiotic decision to healthily snack on blueberries during the screening. Cake. Never get off the cake.

Look, as much as the idea of race in general is made-up crazy, black people, especially dark-skinned black people, do have one thing that’s different. Their skin color. File under the category I can’t find it on the internet but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I swear there was a featurette on the cinematography of the otherwise appalling Harlem Nights. Mr. Woody Omens, recognizing that Mr. Pryor’s skin was light and Mr. Murphy’s dark lit them differently, even during tracking shots. I think it stuck with me, thinking about setting all the lights, one side two or three stops hotter than the other, all the trouble that goes into terrible, terrible, terrible films.

Mr. Bradford Young has done subpar, though hardly egregious, work previously. A Most Violent Year suffers from the same I pressed the instagram sepia button post-production quality of most films these days, but at least you can distinguish one pixel from another. Film is an unforgiving medium, and though I love the freedom that digital provides, there is merit to at least learning the basics of key, fill and back. Mr. Young is a child of the digital era, and it shows. Whatever your take on shooting black skin (super yipes!), I like to see the actor’s faces. Selma furthermore favors dutch angles, and confusedly shoots one crucial scene from below Dr. King’s feet, only then to inexplicably cut to an overhead. Holy unmotivated camera angles, Batman! Also, as Robin, how do I know about show that has me as a character…Batman?

The Good Will Hunting Effect

Anyway, as I (will) have said somewhere else, structure doesn’t matter, or rather it matters especially much, when there is a lack of wit or poetry or insight. I just saw Coffee Town (not in the theater, on tape, because it’s the first movie from College Humor), but you know what? It’s funny. It’s possibly the stupidest story of all time, and certainly offensive on any number of levels, with characters to match, but the jokes don’t stop. That’s right. A film with an embedded callback joke-double about AIDS is better than Selma. It’s indeed a weird world that these two films are now temporally forever linked in my mind.

And possibly, possibly, jokes would be out of place in Selma. But what makes a joke – the Timecop effect – which is itself is a phrase also out of place, would not be. The civil rights movement is very much about contradictions living side by side. The insane to us now, but serious as a heart attack then idea that black people were so different that we might catch something from them being in the vicinity. A famous photograph from that era that stuck with me was a protester wearing a sign that simply read ‘I am a man’. The idea was the protest: he had to wear a sign. And though this less-than-human quality of racism exists today, we forget despite all the historical revisionist Save me, Whitey, Save Me, films, this was the mainstream view.

Dr. King, I hope it goes without saying but apparently it does not, was not only aware of these contradictions living in tandem, but made his bones with them. And this is possibly the greatest risk with making a film like Selma, let’s call it the Good Will Hunting effect. When you write a film about a genius, you better at least be close to being one. As much as I enjoy Mr. Affleck’s first film, and Mr. Matt Damon being evil in Interstellar (and good in Team America: World Police), those two cats ain’t that bright, beyond ‘Math is hard. I made math!’.

Our screenwriter Mr. Paul Webb likewise does not possess Dr. King’s gift for oratory and precision. He instead favors the current fashion of The Real, bland statements ‘like people totally really talk and stuff and things’. I’m not sure why they’re talking about their own dialog, but maybe Robin wrote it. Ms. Ana DuVernay’s direction to ‘Now pause. Longer. Longer. Longer. And…line!’ does not combine well with this aesthetic.

Selma is not an aggressively mediocre film, but certainly an uneven one, vacillating from pretty good to very bland and then back to blandly bland and once again to blandidy bland bland. Like when you put a better movie inside you not so hot one (don’t do that), the best scenes of the film were penned by Dr. King himself, a man who could fucking well write. There are some decent moments outside his speeches, but this punctuation is in no way aided by Ms. DuVernay’s unfortunate choice to play a where-are-they-now montage over his Montgomery speech. Too slow most of the way, and too fast here.

The unkosher schmear

Finally, and speaking of which, there was some a-twitterspherefaceing in regards to Ms. DuPurney’s snub as a director in this year’s Oscar race, and how this might have been motivated by racism. I would have to agree, and naturally not as a compliment. Selma is another prestige picture, with all the faux realism, pauses that count for insight and lack of awareness of dramatic tension that such a project embodies. Selma is generally as inoffensive as the rest of the Praised this year, and better than most (with the confusing for me personally exception of Mr. Wes Anderson’s work. I hate him. He’s not allowed to make good movies. Unless it means he’s trying to make me seem objective. Is that why he made it? But this only makes me a better nemesis!

Truly a worthy opponent).

To be clear, Selma wasn’t all bad, better certainly than Birdman and the truly crummy and hateful Foxcatcher. Ms. DuPurney deserves to be in the ingroup of overpraised filmmakers against whom I will forever rail. That being said, Ms. DuPurney’s lack of recognition may also have to do with The Other Black. Selma is a film, hardly ept to be sure (read it again), which contains the story of a good man who triumphs. It lacks the narcissism and nihilism that characterizes the Critical Mass. Next time, make the movie entirely about Johnson as that character. I’ll see it, hate it, relate it to HK-American crossover directors, and invent a rule about it regarding Knock Off. For the sake of creating incongruous links in your head, let’s call it the Rob Schneider Effect.

Profits!
King speeches, @ $1.00 each. On the plus side, I’m going to redelve into some King scholarship.
$4.00
I had high hopes at the beginning, which Dr. and Mrs. King discuss their imaginary ordinary lives together, as he readies to accept his Nobel Prize. They didn’t explain it, and the wistfulness sells.
$2.00
We get a glimpse of the guy when he convinces the Selma locals on national aspect of the march. Unfortunately…
$1.00
Total Profits
$7.00
Losses!
This moment is difficult to explain, and yet I feel I have to. The decision has been made, the Selma types are joining in with the SCLC. Like the group of people at a computer monitors cheering, we in the audience apparently have to be told that A Victory Has Been Achieved (though we are kept in the dark on Dr. King’s motives – see below). If you’re doing this, you’ve already failed, but here’s two ways not to do what you shouldn’t have done anyway.
1) Actually saying, ‘Bingo!’
$1.00
2) Having the character lay down the piece on an Bingo card. Clunk.
$2.00
Speaking of choice, Dr. King’s decision to suspend the second march to Montgomery was potentially the most dramatic point in the film. Don’t undercut it by
1) Saying it has to do with ‘being in the moment on the pulpit’.
$0.50
2) Having another that isn’t Dr. King character say it.
$1.00
The let’s-include-everything-inclusion of FBI reports titles to situate the scenes. A film about FBI and King would be an interesting film. Make it.
$1.00
Found another one! So, in trying to quell Dr. King’s legitimate anxiety over risking lives for a higher goal, someone quotes the whole (and wholly inappropriate) the birds not reaping and so forth; the correct passage, as anyone who’s seen Life of Brian will tell you, is Luke 12:27. Dr. King caps this by saying ‘Matthew 26:6’. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Familiar with the Bible??????Sigh.
$0.25
Total Losses
$6.75

$0.25

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