Watch: Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’: The Blossoms of Violence

Watch: Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’: The Blossoms of Violence

How many people do you know who’ve been shot? This was a question that occurred to me as I watched Nelson Carvajal’s latest, a video essay on Spike Lee’s recent cinematic leap into rhymed verse ‘Chi-Raq,’ a film whose eccentricity grows on you. Carvajal approaches the film from an up-close perspective, that of a Chicago resident who has, in fact, known many people who’ve been shot, in Chicago, which is becoming one of the country’s most violent cities. Carvajal does not do voice-over much–this may be his first video essay with voiceover, if my scholarship serves–and he has chosen a nice place to deploy the technique. Where better, indeed, than in a piece about this film, which addresses the matter of gun violence head-on in a way which doesn’t seem head-on at all? The presence of the editor here makes the essay’s central argument, which is that critics back away from ‘Chi-Raq’ because they can’t handle the reality it depicts, quite convincing. After all, neither the quality of the film’s direction nor the brutality of the state of affairs the film satirizes can really be questioned. Can they?

Watch: How ‘Mad Men’ Is A Close Cousin to ‘The Swimmer’

Watch: How ‘Mad Men’ Is A Close Cousin to ‘The Swimmer’

It would be hard for me to choose a favorite, or even a favorite six, among the stories of John Cheever. Maligned though he may have occasionally been for grounding his tales of inner abstraction and desperation in the white upper-middle New York suburbs, it was what he did with his setting that really counted: the imaginative leaps, the shocks, the lines of articulated despair, falling into crisp, less-polluted air. It was this Cheeverishness that drew me to ‘Mad Men’ first, and held my attention; the sense that Matthew Weiner was not only trying to teach his viewers about the evil 1960s but also trying to transport them into Cheever’s universe gave me great admiration for the show. My admiration was not consistent, which I view as a sign of mental health, but the Cheeverishness was. Matt Zoller Seitz and Nelson Carvajal do noble and smart work in tracing the links between Cheever’s immortal story, ‘The Swimmer," Frank Perry’s film of same, and ‘Mad Men’ in this video essay for Vulture and In the film adaptation, Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a suburban gentleman (possibly) who swims across his municipality by leapfrogging from pool to pool, a journey that takes him through various substrata of his particular layer of culture, a journey that, ultimately, leads him to an enigmatically empty destination: his own home, windows darkened, doors locked. What better progenitor for ‘Mad Men’? After all, doesn’t Don Draper take this journey every day, a long, winding trip through entitlement and intrigue and interpersonal slaughter, at the end of which all he has to look at is his own deceptively blank face? Carvajal, known in some quarters as the "Sultan of Splice," is in fine form here, snipping and sampling and matching clips with admirable adroitness; Seitz brings his near-encyclopedic knowledge of, and obsession with, the show, as well as his profound understanding of Cheever’s work, to bear in his analysis. This is a good watch, and a good encouragement to go out and buy Cheever’s Collected Stories. It’s a red paperback, big enough to fit in your pocket, and just large enough to shape your mind for the rest of your life. 

Watch: RIP Haskell Wexler, 1922–2015

Watch: RIP Haskell Wexler, 1922-2015

‘Medium Cool’ is probably my favorite Chicago movie. I remember learning about it in college and then frantically seeking it out on DVD; at the time it was a hard film to find. (This was before it got the Criterion release.) I eventually got my hands on a burned DVD copy and watched it several times. For those unfamiliar with the film, it tells the story of a TV news cameraman (Robert Forster) who gets swept up in the melting hot summer of 1968 in Chicago, climaxing with the riots at the Democratic National Convention. The film had a cinéma vérité-style look to it, with many handheld shots that punch in on the action and moments of high drama. It’s an immersive experience, that is documentary-like at times, with the success owed directly to the film’s writer, director and cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. It’s amazing that Wexler pulled this all off, too, considering that he actually filmed it in the summer of 1968, placing his lead actors right in the middle of the riots as they were happening. When I learned of Wexler’s passing on Sunday afternoon, I was visiting some friends just down the street from Grant Park, where the climactic and stirring riot footage of ‘Medium Cool‘ was filmed. I couldn’t stop thinking about the film as I took the "L" (our elevated transit train in Chicago) home that night, looking out the windows, seeing all the city landmarks that Wexler shot with his camera. I then remembered a special evening back in 2010, when I attended a small screening of ‘Medium Cool’ at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center. Wexler was in attendance, and afterwards he discussed the film in front of the cozily seated audience. I leaned forward in my seat for most of that discussion, studying this accomplished cinematographer, who wore a baseball hat and leather jacket. He spoke with an insight devoid of cynicism. It was just plain, simple diction, but still full of depth and takeaways. I later learned that he was also a two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer (for ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and ‘Bound For Glory’), who, in addition to working on big Hollywood films, also made a laundry list of commercials and documentary short films. This was in addition to his passion projects (like ‘Medium Cool’) which he funded by working on those bigger feature films. He even photographed what looks to be at least half of Terrence Malick’s ‘Days of Heaven’—but bizarrely only received an "additional photography" credit (the Oscar for that film would go to director of photography Néstor Almendros). Even today I’m still learning more about the endlessly fascinating and unquestionably prolific Wexler. Revisiting just a fraction of his filmography in my video tribute to him, I can only begin to scratch at the surface of how great his eye for images was. And now that he’s gone, his films will continue to live on, and Wexler should find peace in knowing that "the whole world is watching."

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Watch: ‘The Force Awakens’ Meets ‘Please, Mr. Kennedy’

Watch: ‘The Force Awakens’ Meets ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’

Nelson Carvajal likes to put pairs together. Usually, it’s pairs; sometimes, he might add an extra element. I first became aware of this tendency when I saw his match-up of ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ after which the thunk my jaw made as it hit the floor could be heard across the Hudson. Now, he’s mixed and matched ‘Please Mr. Kennedy,’ a ditty from the Coen Brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ with scenes from ‘The Force Awakens.’ Does it work? Yes it does. The swooping nature of the song, goofy as it is, syncs beautifully with the gestural, sinewy visuals of J.J. Abrams’ film. Just watch!

Watch: Todd Haynes’ Isolated Women

Watch: Todd Haynes’ Isolated Women

One of the much-buzzed about events at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival was the spotlight screening of Todd Haynes’ latest film Carol. The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt and tells the story of the May-December relationship between two women, the young Therese (Rooney Mara) and the older, married Carol (Cate Blanchett). And while Carol adds further dimension to the Haynes LGBTQ filmography (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine), it reinforces Haynes’ recurring cinematic trope of the isolated female figure, one who is often suppressed by the societal restrictions of her time and place. 
Consider, for example, the heroine of his Douglas Sirk-inspired Far From Heaven. In 1950s Connecticut, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore, Haynes’ ubiquitous muse) finds herself to be the center of adoration and praise from the socialites in her suburban utopia. Cathy leads the ideal life; her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a successful company man, her house brims with beauty and warmth and Cathy herself is an ‘up and at ‘em woman of the times,’ dividing her work load between attending art shows and supporting the extracurricular activities of her kids. Once Cathy learns that her husband is a closeted homosexual, her picturesque life unravels internally—but for the sake of social upkeep she has to exude the familiar facade of familial normalcy (by the standards of that era anyway) on the outside. To make matters even more strenuous, she is coldly criticized by her peers once she embarks on a friendship with her African American landscaper Raymond Deagan (Dennis Halbert). And through all this, with music and art direction from the era, Far From Heaven never really falls into campy 50s melodrama. The brilliance of Haynes’ direction comes in its simplicity of staging; often his heroines are exposed quietly by judging third-party characters who simply stare at them; other times, these female protagonists become transparent beings in the frame, becoming more helpless as they fall into self doubt or defeat. It’s a subtly piercing yet bold choice in today’s kinetic moviemaking canon. 
Haynes, a Brown University graduate who majored in semiotics, reminds us that some of the strongest works of art come from the minimalist approach and by presenting us images of genuine pathos; we are forced to find a little bit of ourselves in those moments of introspection or grief. And in the films where Haynes does embellish a a flashy visual style (e.g. the different color palettes in the Bob Dylan experimental biopic I’m Not There), those choices are always grounded in the intense proximity and affinity he shares for the isolation felt by his screen protagonists. This was evident in one of Hayne’s early works, the 43-minute short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which Haynes shot using barbie dolls in dollhouses and occasionally mixing in archival footage and music from The Carpenters discography. Here is the most potent case for Haynes’ theme of the isolated female figure: In presenting an unauthorized biopic on Karen Carpenter’s anorexia and untimely death using barbie dolls as the main actors, Haynes’ made a masterstroke comment on the cultural pressures placed on women from an early age. Carpenter was 32 years old when she died, and her death brought a bigger spotlight to eating disorders; so by using the barbie doll—the paramount cultural signifier for what “beauty” meant to little girls everywhere—as the main screen figure, Haynes stripped a tragic story to its elementary roots, transforming children’s play into a twisted, unnerving parable of isolation and depression. There’s a generosity in that filmmaking gesture of simplicity, an invite from a perceptive artist who dares us to expose our vulnerability collectively as an audience. An audience of isolated individuals, yearning to come together once the theatre lights go down.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOWwhich boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Watch: Before ‘Everest’: The Allure of the Mountain Climber’s Tale

Watch: Before ‘Everest’: The Allure of the Mountain Climber’s Tale

In his review of Franc Roddam’s 1992 mountain climbing movie ‘K2,’ Roger Ebert wrote: "If I ever fell off a mountain, I would shout ‘Stupid! Stupid!’ at myself all the way down, for having willingly and through great effort put myself in a position to fall to my death." I thought about that line as I watched the trailer for the new star-studded film Everest, which traces the real life events—and lives lost—from the disaster at Mount Everest in 1996. ‘Everest‘ is a film that I find of particular interest: a red-blooded survival tale set in one of the world’s most unforgiving, freezing and deadly mountains. There’s no doubt I will be engrossed by the setting of this film alone, but Ebert’s blunt take-down of the genre—and of the real life mountain climbing sport in general for that matter—made me revisit some favorite mountain movie titles from my childhood, such as ‘Cliffhanger‘ and ‘Alive.’ Those were two films about two very different sets of people stranded in the snowy mountains: one concerns heroes who are professional mountain climbers fighting armed henchmen and the other recreates a bizarre, true story survival tale of a Uruguayan rugby team that resorted to cannibalism after their plane crashed in the Andes mountains. I thought about the films’ differences in regard to their respective plots and what was at stake—but this consideration was soon eclipsed by the bigger, more worldly theme of mortality. At the end of the day, these mountains serve as domineering and unnatural environments for us; we probably shouldn’t be up there climbing in the first place. No matter how different one mountain-climbing film is from the next one, they all share the same absolute truth, in that we are deeply humbled by how deadly these snowy wonders of Earth are. And when some of these films look at a mountain’s visual majesty as a means for spirituality, they only get to that personal epiphany after putting their protagonists through tragic loss or defeat. The mountain is supposed to represent life’s hurdles, life’s challenges. Even when we reach the top of the mountain, we are reminded of how small, frail and, in some instances, alone we are in the grand scheme of things. And there’s a terrifying beauty and an unapologetic humanity in that. So if one were to look at it that way, maybe falling from the mountain is an act of humility; it’s the most outward physical gesture that proves we tried elevating ourselves in the first place.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOWwhich boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Watch: Where Does ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Really Come From?

Watch: Where Does ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Really Come From?

I was seven years old the first time I saw John Singleton’s powerful debut film Boyz N The Hood. I remember how I watched it too: It was one of three movies on a six-hour unlabeled VHS tape that my mother’s cousin had recorded off Pay-per-view. At the time there was a lot of excitement and anticipation towards the film from the adults in my family; this was supposed to be a good movie. And it ended up being a very good movie. Outside of the matter-of-fact handling of its material and its investment in its palpable screen characters, there were embedded themes of gentrification, social unrest and the repetitive nature of violence in poverty-stricken urban areas. Upon first viewing however, the film’s unruly anti-heroes who were taking an eye-for-an-eye vengeance towards each other were the persons of interest who transfixed the seven-year-old in me. As I got older, I began to pay more attention to those embedded themes and often found myself disappointed in how the slew of street films that followed mostly relied on shock violence for value, while offering little introspection. Still, it’s important to note that even as a child, I felt that Boyz N The Hood was about something; the year before I watched Boyz, the Rodney King Riots were a fixture on the living room television set. Those were the same streets I would later see in Singleton’s film.

As I write this, the country is entering its one-year anniversary since the untimely and awful death of Michael Brown, the eighteen-year-old black man who was fatally shot in cold blood by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death sparked civil unrest last summer; this week, unrest has resurfaced in Ferguson. On Sunday, August 9, 2015, police in Ferguson shot another eighteen-year-old black man (Tyrone Harris Jr.) during a demonstration in commemoration of Michael Brown’s passing. Coincidentally, during this same week in 1965, the Watts Riots—which started when a black motorist was arrested for drunk driving—brought 4,000 bodies from the California Army National Guard to a Los Angeles neighborhood. The clash would result in thirty-four deaths. And on Friday August 14th, the musical biopic on N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton) hits theatres across the country. I’m not listing all of these events to stress some cosmic coincidence; if anything, it’s to further shine some light over what I’ve been ruminating on as of late.

In the simplest terms, I could best describe it this way: we are in a heightened state of national unrest. On the one hand, gang wars have been happening on the tough streets of this country for decades. On the other hand, you have the law enforcement that tries to combat those wars in an effort to retain order for the communities. But in between those hands is a complex, layered and deeply rich history of varied philosophies (the pacifism of Dr. King vs. the radical retaliation of the Black Panthers), taste-making media gatekeepers (CNN vs. Fox News), and (most unfortunately) racism. From the glorification of street gang violence to the misconstrued views that all black men wearing hoodies are thugs (a la Trayvon Martin), the power for understanding and the possibility for gauging what we’re saying with these films lie in the moving images presented to the public.

And this isn’t some soapbox declaration. Street violence has been an element in my personal life from the get-go. Shortly before I first watched Boyz N The Hood, gang members shot my father’s brother-in-law several times here in the streets of Chicago; he survived the incident only to move his wife and kids out of the city not too long after recovering. The weekend I moved out of state for college, I received a frantic phone call from my mother: the oldest son of a family friend was shot and killed in a drive-by across the street from my mother’s apartment. He was in early 20s, was not in a gang, and sadly was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even though I don’t live in Compton, where numerous gangbanger films take place, growing up in the violent streets of Chicago positioned me to observe these films on two levels: as entertainment and as personal social filmmaking.

With my latest video essay titled Street Culture, Street Cinema, my aim was to conjure up a visual melting pot of historical violence and contemporary carnality to show the generational passing of the torch; this torch of course carries the burden of voices that aren’t heard or that have already accepted a fate of bleakness and social immobility. I’m not saying that decontextualizing street gang films is going to save the world—but at the same time, when the world we live in quickly calls a black shooter a “thug” or a “threat” and yet somehow manages to marginalize a white shooter as only being “mentally ill,” well then, the responsibility falls on all of us to look deeper into the media we devour on a daily basis. I worry that a social media mantra like #BlackLivesMatter only gains traction because of its populist “hip” factor—the same way that a catchy rap song about murder captivates the pop culture public. That simply won’t do. The reality is that Black lives struggle. They have struggled for a long time. Civil rights violence, segregation, and class struggle are all a large part of this nation’s oral and visual history. But that somehow becomes mute the minute the national media dialogue focuses much of its efforts on proving how certain cops are not racist and how that week’s Black victim was already going down the wrong path anyway. It’s not as clear-cut as that. Gang culture spawns from inopportunity in low-income housing neighborhoods coupled with desperation for a crack at the American dream. The problem is that most movies don’t delve into the “why” but more into the “where,” which are the streets, where the bullets soar through the air like Shakespearean verses stressing the tragic, inescapable plight of life. I hope that, while watching my video essay, one can come closer to feeling both the historical and emotional undercurrent that permeates every image of street violence. Much in the spirit of my first viewing of Boyz N The Hood, our eyes should penetrate through these images with a fervent yearning to want it all to be about something, and to ultimately mean something.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOWwhich boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Watch: Shakespeare on the Silver Screen

Watch: Shakespeare on the Silver Screen

In high school, I was, admittedly, usually on the verge of rolling my eyes at the thought of reading Shakespeare in my English classes; this must’ve quietly pissed off my English teachers, considering that these were AP (Advanced Placement) English courses intended for gaining college credits. It’s not that I didn’t respect Shakespeare’s glorious body of work—I just wasn’t interested in fetishizing every pentameter of his slippery sonnets.  I preferred to adore the urgent, contemporary voices found in works like Crime and Punishment and The Catcher in the Rye.

It wasn’t until a high school field trip to the Goodman Theatre in the Theater District of downtown Chicago, where I saw Amy Freed’s The Beard of Avon, that I began to develop a different attitude toward Shakespeare. Freed’s amusing play told the story of how Shakespeare didn’t author his own plays, in fact being just a front man. Sure, the premise is devilishly fun, and it sure annoyed the loyal literary folk on the faculty, but what it did was it made me hone in on the language of these plays, and how it mirrored the temperaments of the society where it was spoken. My interest became less about swooning over the preciseness and clinical breakdowns of his poems than about why these works even materialized in the first place. 

So by the time I was in college, I was very deliberate in relating several real life political current events to musings from Shakespeare’s works. I remember a celebrated paper I wrote in one of my college English classes (I took several of these, since my minor was in Writing) during my Freshman year was supposed to be on Marc Antony’s speech from ‘Julius Caesar.’ Our professor had played clips from ‘Julius Caesar’ (starring Marlon Brando) during class to give us supplemental inspiration. When I got back to my dorm room and turned on my TV, I watched Howard Dean’s now infamous “scream” speech following his coming in third place in Iowa caucuses in early 2004. So I wrote about Marc Antony’s speech by fusing my observations of Dean’s body language with Antony’s rabbling of the crowd. Again, it became less about the words, and more about the feeling—more about the temperature of the moment.

In the years since college, I’ve revisited some of the major film adaptations of Shakespeare. I was always surprised to see so many movie stars (e.g. Denzel Washington, Bill Murray, Leonard DiCaprio, etc.) try to Laurence-Olivier their way through a soliloquy, some to better ends than others. But what these prolific screen adaptations show is how vital Shakespeare’s work (or whoever wrote these plays) is for the present. Sure, the language may be airy and fleeting, but they touch upon on universal themes of guilt, corruption, love, and foolish abandon. From groundlings at the Globe Theatre to patrons at the movie theatre, we come back, time and time again, to see these plays, to learn lessons as old as time itself. It’s drama at its earliest; it’s comedy at its most earnest; it’s viewers looking at themselves at their most exposed vantage point—stage front and center.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Watch: Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ Meets Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’

Watch: Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ Meets Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’

Given the dramatic way in which Christopher Nolan injected the imagination into the plot of ‘Inception,’ and given the surreal, somewhat dreamlike premise of Pixar’s ‘Inside Out,’ it wouldn’t be too far off to suggest that the soundtrack of the older film and the bizarre visuals of the ever-more-popular new film were simply waiting for Nelson Carvajal to come along and mix them. The result is fitting, playing up the elements of both films that give you butterflies in your stomach.

Watch: Michael Stuhlbarg? Michael Stuhlbarg Is Calling!

Watch: Michael Stuhlbarg? Michael Stuhlbarg Is Calling!

Are you familiar with the work of Michael Stuhlbarg? He famously played Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers film ‘A Serious Man’–and he also famously played gangster Arnold Rothstein in the HBO masterpiece ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ If, by chance, you aren’t familiar with Michael Stuhlbarg, this video by Nelson Carvajal will be the perfect opportunity for you to get acquainted with his work–and, as it turns out, for Stuhlbarg to get acquainted with himself, as… Well, just watch.