Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): 2009

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy new year (best of blogsophere goes up next week)

Thanks to everyone for the enthusiastic response (see last post). Keep 'em coming, too - especially since I've pushed back the round-up post until after the weekend. I simply haven't had any time to work on it yet. All of you have made this a great year for my online endeavors - despite their infrequency. Happy New Year & see you next week...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Best of the blogosphere

Last year, I posted a year-end round-up of my favorite entries from my "fellow travelers." This was much easier to do in 2008 for several reasons. For one thing, there were fewer sites on my blogroll and as I myself had only been blogging for half the year, I only included entries written after July. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly (and shamefully, from the '09 perspective) I was not a very good member of the blogosphere this year. In terms of my own output - which was sporadic - but also in terms of my participation on other sites.

Certainly, I established a presence at Wonders in the Dark, enjoying the suspense of the countdowns, participating in the lively back-and-forths, and contributing my own pieces from time to time. Otherwise, however, I found myself falling away from following most other blogs with any regularity, and a lot of great writing got lost in the shuffle. Sporadically, I would pop up to read and perhaps comment on individual posts but as such my reading of whole sites was hardly comprehensive. (Since I saw few new movies in theaters this year, I also tended not to check out the applicable reviews, which also played a part in cutting off my reading.)

As a result, combing through the past year's volumes of prose, in order to select my favorite pieces from my "followers" and "fellow travelers" on The Dancing Image and The Sun's Not Yellow has proved difficult. So I've reached a compromise which I think is not only fair, but perhaps better than my original idea. Lazy, perhaps, but also honest and, honestly, more beneficial in the end. I would like to solicit your choices for your own best writing of the year, and I will link it up on my both blogs, same as last year. As a "thank you" there will be three exceptions to the rule: Sam Juliano of the aforementioned blog, Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder, and Ibetolis of Film for the Soul. All of them published some of my work this year and in return, "above the fold" so to speak (the rest of the submissions will be listed alphabetically) I will post my favorite piece of theirs that I have read (though of course they are invited to highlight their own favorites as well).

So please feel free to propose a piece below - I will also be visiting all the sites on my blogroll to solicit submissions. And, though I said no resolutions, I can say that I hope next year I will be able to repay my gratitude for your readership and thoughtful commentary with a more active presence online - I'm even hoping to set aside some time during the busy week specifically for that purpose. Until then, I hope you will consider participating in the round-up - among other things, I am looking forward to seeing the work everyone's most proud of.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Christmas Tale


Despite its cheerful Yuletide title – which is in fact so warm and snug as to initiate Grinch or Scrooge-like reactions post-haste – A Christmas Tale displays all the surface signs of being a cynical, darkly comical take on the holiday. The director, Arnaud Desplechin, has already made a specialty of family dysfunction, asocial charm, and passive-aggressive relationships in his 2004 film, Kings and Queen. Matieu Amalric, who played the slightly mad musician in that one, returns as another difficult personality – this one possibly more sane, if no less aggravating. In this round of Desplechin’s friendly feud with the nuclear family, Almaric plays Henri, the middle child of grand old eccentrics Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon Vuitton (Catherine Deneuve). Henri is returning home (to Roubaix! the opening credits inform us, exclamation point and all) for his first holiday celebration in years – ever since his older sister banished him from her sight. And that’s only one crumbling cornerstone of the family edifice: death, illness, depression, infidelity, age-old scars and new wounds alike, are all ingredients in the tastily rancid eggnog Depleschin serves up with delight. Ultimately, given the nuggets of dysfunction stuffed into the film’s bulky stocking (and A Christmas Tale runs for 2 1/2 hours), it almost goes without saying that the movie has, more or less, a happy ending.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Syndromes and a Century


Syndromes and a Century touches reality only tangentially – like a dream, or a memory. Nothing in it is “un-realistic” so to speak, and nothing that happens is fanciful or even especially dramatic. The film, directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, begins quietly and maintains this peaceful air for about an hour. A female doctor is interviewing a male doctor, asking him questions that will pertain to his job – as well as a few curveballs. Both doctors leave the room and walk out onto the deck of the clinic, a pleasant little building deep in the country. The camera pushes forward to frame the meadow behind them, and remains on this composition as they leave the picture and their indistinct chatter continues softly in the background. A feeling of nostalgia, of a deeply buried connection one cannot quite put a finger on, may wash over the viewer. If one gets into this groove, the movie flows along quite nicely, like a calm boat ride down that river in Wind in the Willows. However, as in that story, there’s a Wild Wood – and a Wide World – on the horizon, distant as that possibility seems while enjoying the quiet pleasures of this opening.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kings and Queen


Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (2004) places just inside the top 50 on my “guide” list. That means that enough critics rated it in the year-end Top 10, or even their all-time list, to merit placement over such critical standbys as Pan’s Labyrinth or Russian Ark (it’s only a few notches below the widely beloved City of God). Not bad for a French film that lacks those other works’ narrative or formal gimmicks – Kings and Queen's dual (and eventually merging) narratives don’t quite provide the “hook” one usually associates with such wide acclaim, fairly or not. At first glance, Kings and Queen appears underwhelming, its high praise somewhat mystifying.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

...enin rebmun, enin rebmuN

And the record rotates full circle: when 2009 was fresh, I posted "Number Nine, Number Nine" on The Dancing Image in response to a meme (remember those?) about nine New Years resolutions. Now I'm ready to take a deep gulp and a look back, to see where I succeeded and where I fell short.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Annie Hall

(Another day, another delay. But not to fear, there's more where yesterday's Manhattan came from: here's a passage on Annie Hall from that same essay. Hopefully tomorrow, or the day after, I'll discuss a film mentioned by characters in both movies.

Incidentally, I don't think I can stand by the claim that Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories represented the "high point" of the Woodster's career, except perhaps on the strength of the two most popular films. However, I do still think this period may have been the most interesting point in Allen's development as an artist and entertainer.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Manhattan

I promised some new posts for this blog, but I was just stuck on the T for about 40 minutes longer than necessary, I already have a bit to write tonight and I'm not quite feeling up to it. So here's a compromise, on my end at least: a piece new to you, but not to me. It's a selection from an unpublished essay I wrote on Woody Allen years ago, revived in honor of seeing Manhattan on the big screen recently, with Gordon Willis in attendance. Even with the cinematographer on hand to speak after the show, it was hard to focus exclusively on the photography: the image, the performances, the story all blend seamlessly together in one of Woody's finest pictures. Here, then, in a moment of frustration with my own city let me turn my gaze towards Allen's idealized metropolis...

(P.S. The time it took me to actually dig up this old piece made this not so economical after all, but at least it didn't take much mental energy...)

The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience was shot quickly and cheaply in the fall of 2008, as a historic election loomed and the entire economy collapsed. The film, which leaves a bitter aftertaste, is a perfect statement of the Bush era zeitgeist right at the moment it all came undone. References to current events (which already feel a little dated, like yesterday's front page) pop up perpetually throughout the film, but in a way they are unnecessary. Soderbergh captures the time and place just as well through the hideousness of his characters and his setting - New York in the throes of a yuppiedom so impeccable yet inert, it makes one long for the tackiness of the 1980s. No tackiness here - porn star Sacha Grey is cool as an Apple-designed cucumber in her "straight" debut as high-class call girl Chelsea. Just as the title suggests, Chelsea is there to look good on her john's arm, to discuss movies intelligently (or rather, superficially but with a veneer of intelligence), to eat at the finest restaurants and listen to her "dates" whine about how they're only going to make a few million this year. And to sleep with them, of course, but the sex is almost an afterthought, and sometimes - in peeved tones - she complains in her meticulously recorded bookkeeping about the lack of intercourse. She's a pro, then, in every sense of the word, and what she sells is not so much her body as her image. What the men are buying is the faux "experience" of having her as a girlfriend; she's just one more accessory in the age of the iPod.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Catching up

Update 6/4: I've deleted the content of this post, which for those swimming the back channels of my blog at this late date, no longer has any semblence of relevance. I kept the picture though, because, well, I like it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Tracey Fragments

The title is quite literal, as this film - the story of a sullen girl in love with the cool new outsider boy, and guilty over the disappearance of her brother, for which her parents blame her - is told in fragments. Not just fragments of narrative, but fragments of the screen, with multiple views popping up and down, left and right, all over our monitor (and this seems a film much more suited for the small screen than the big one, lest its cacophony become overwhelming). This is a risky formal gambit, but surprisingly both story and action remain easy enough to follow, however mixed up the chronology and mise en scene. What's more, the style - while not exactly as expressive of adolescent confusion and mental exhaustion as the authors may hope - does indeed complement the subject and add to the delivery. Unfortunately, none of this can compensate for a perfunctory screenplay; in comparison to its potential, The Tracey Fragments adds up to less than the sum of said fragments.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Grizzly Man


Over and over again, we are told that Timothy Treadwell wanted to be a bear. That he felt closer to bears than to other people and that in nature he sought his salvation. We’re informed, by commentators and by the narrator (filmmaker Werner Herzog himself) that Treadwell would drop on all fours and growl at those who stumbled across him in Katmai National Park and Reserve in Alaska, where he spent summers living amongst the creatures, just him and his camera. Or rather, him, his camera, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, whom he never mentioned or acknowledged in any of the footage, but who died alongside him in 2003. Herzog, who mixes Treadwell’s own footage with latter-day interviews and his own commentary, at one point listens to Treadwell’s death tape (the camera was running, with the cap on, so audio but no visuals remain of Treadwell’s butchering by a Grizzly in his tent). After a few seconds, Herzog rips off the headphones and tells Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend never, never to listen to the tape (which she acquired through a coroner) – in fact, she must throw it away. In his last moments, it appears, Treadwell was all too human and his death cries are too grisly for any member of his species to experience.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Antichrist


Antichrist is a film which surrounds itself with an intangible, yet undeniable, aura of Olympian, or perhaps Styxian, grandeur. First there is the title with its connotations of the apocalyptic and the blasphemous. Then there’s the reputation of the director himself – though already an accomplished filmmaker in the 1990s, Lars von Trier has made himself the cinematic bete noir of this young century, a veritable lightning rod for controversy. His psychologically brutal methods with actors have earned criticism (it’s said that Bjork vowed never to appear in a film again after enduring Dancer in the Dark), while his storylines garner accusations of misogyny and anti-Americanism. With his devilishly grinning visage and intellectually refined sadism, he himself strikes a cutting figure in public appearances and even in his own movies: the 2003 documentary The Five Obstructions saw him torture one of his idols, the older director Jorgen Leth. Von Trier forced Lethe to remake a classic short film over and over under various conditions, all of them set, with perverse pleasure, by von Trier himself (on one occasion, he rather obscenely forced Lethe to hold a banquet in front of starving Calcuttans; on another, von Trier himself takes over directorial duties, violating his own rules and holding Lethe responsible for the violation).

Yet undergirding – perhaps even motivating – all this diabolical cruelty, nastiness, and alienating misanthropy is the suggestion of a moral vision. Is this morality merely a front, a charade, as von Trier’s most vociferous critics seem to suggest? Or does von Trier, engaging in the very evil he claims to condemn, only strengthen his moral outrage by including himself in its aim? All these questions are liable to spin around in a viewer’s head while watching one of the Dane’s films, but to be fair, such questions are usually overtly suggested onscreen as well. Not so much this time. While Dogville, The Five Obstructions, and Dancer in the Dark (I’ve seen neither Manderlay nor The Boss of It All) are all evasive and tricky, their purposes are not as obscure as that of Antichrist. This new film, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, is narratively straightforward and stylistically far more conventional than much of von Trier’s recent work. By the ending its themes are clear enough: violence towards women, masochism masked as sadism, the collapse of smug rationalism. The story is always rather easy to follow, with some scenes consisting of nearly undisguised exposition, and the remarkably uncluttered cast certainly make the characters easy to keep track of (there are no speaking parts except for Dafoe’s and Gainsbourg’s; and all the extras have their faces blurred out). Even much of the initially obscure symbolism – the deformed animals who haunt the film, the wife’s obsessive thesis paper, the strange chapter headings (“Grief,” “Despair,” “Pain”) – is clarified by the climax. Yes, the “what” is not so hard to ascertain. What’s more elusive is the “why.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

This is England

It's 1983. Arch-conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is at 10 Downing Street. The UK has just recently emerged victorious from the brief Falklands War, in which a few hundred British troops died. And in the poorer and more working-class districts of England, gangs of skinheads roam the streets, albeit not with the connotations that term carries now...not yet anyway. Director Shane Meadows firmly places his story within this historical context, in an opening montage which combines images of 80s pop culture with documentary footage of political occasions and social unrest. Then he segues into the main narrative, a coming-of-age tale centered around Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old whose father has died in the Falklands War. The boy misses his dad, is mercilessly teased, and seems vaguely lost until he is adopted into a good-natured gang of older skinheads.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Coming up this week

Originally this provided a link to a preview of my upcoming work at the Examiner. Here are links to the new homes of the pieces written that week: This is England, Antichrist, Grizzly Man, The Tracey Fragments.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Capturing the Friedmans


Putting aside the fact that much of Capturing the Friedmans is in video – certainly the family home movies which provide its elusive emotional core – this 2003 documentary calls to mind those competing definitions of cinema: “truth 24 frames a second,” “lies 24 frames a second.” While nonfiction films would seem to sway the pendulum in the former direction, they actually make the issue even more complex. On the one hand, what we are seeing, especially in a documentary like this which utilizes primary source material (home movies compete with interviews for screen time, and there are no re-enactments – thankfully) is an undeniably direct representation of external, physical reality. On the other hand, what lies behind that exterior – what is the shell of the image concealing? And more importantly, why this particular footage, and why shown in this particular way? If the truth is in what we see on screen, then the lies – or at least the mysteries – are what we don’t see, what’s hidden behind and littered around the frame.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In Bruges

Martin McDonagh apparently never received (or else discarded) the memo that Tarantino-style hip thrillers are out of fashion. Good thing too, because In Bruges is amusing fun, even if its conceptual hook is no longer fresh and the first and second halves of the black comic plot sit uneasily next to one another. The film ultimately displays a deft command of dialogue and character: its protagonists may seem stereotypical but, as embodied by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, they live and breathe relaxed charm - even in the more hyperkinetic moments. (Incidentally, minor spoilers ahead...) Ken (Gleeson) and his younger protege Ray (Farrell) have been exiled to Bruges following their latest hit (in what has become the default occupation of characters in need of a job, they are professional killers). Ken enjoys the prettily medieval scenery while Ray gripes, drinks, gay-baits, makes fun of midgets (er, dwarfs), punches out Americans, and woos a sexy drug dealer (Clémence Poésy). Finally their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes, sounding remarkably like Michael Caine over the phone, at least to this ignorant Yank's ears), calls Ken to deliver his troubling assignment: kill Ray.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Man on Wire

Best of the 21st Century? (#196)

(Counting down the most acclaimed films of the decade.)

We're skipping ahead quite a few spots on the list, because Philippe Petit didn't play by the rules, and neither should we. So at #196, sure to advance (as the more recent films usually do over time)...Man on Wire, the true story of a man who walked on air, 1,368 feet of it to be exact. While observing that Petit did not play by the rules, it should not be assumed he was careless, absent-mindedly whimsical, or entirely spontaneous. His spirit may have conveyed such vivacious joie de vivre but within the impulsive performance artist was a rigorous disciplinarian. This is almost always the case with a great artist, but it's especially true of one whose art involves standing upon a thin wire, suspended between the two tallest buildings in the world, dancing 110 stories up from the pavement, where one wrong move, one ill-read gust of wind can end with the kind of flop you don't recover from.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Where is Mulholland Dr.?


For months now, I've been slowly making my way through 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (usually in the bathroom or bedroom, as it's difficult to transport it elsewhere). It's a nifty tome to have on hand, and since I bought it at a discount I don't regret the purchase. That said, most of the prose is merely serviceable, despite the occasional splash of liveliness (usually courtesy of Jonathan Rosenbaum or, especially, Jean-Michel Frodon). What's more, the descriptions, while attempting to be succinct and introductory, are often burdened by academic jargon and strained sociopolitical readings - as if the authors can't decide whether they're writing for scholars or laymen. There are also a surprising number of gaffes, grammatical and factual, throughout the book. Granted, a tome this size (nearly 1,000 pages) must have been hard to edit but a cursory check-through should have taken care of most of the mistakes. At any rate, despite its flaws, the book mostly serves its purpose, which is to establish a rough canon of the most talked-about, popular, and/or acclaimed films in history - if not 1001 films you must see before you die, at least 1001 films you should probably know about.

However, there's one startling omission which throws the whole enterprise into question. Tonight, I was reading the entry for Lord of the Rings - all three films squeezed into two pages. True, I have my problems with the trilogy but, given its impact, its popularity, and the critical acclaim which greeted it, the saga certainly belongs in the book. As I turned the page I looked forward to another entry from 2001: Mulholland Dr. David Lynch's masterpiece, which aside from being a personal favorite (and what I consider one of only two or three great American films I've seen this decade) is also one of the most acclaimed films of the 21st century. It's controversial, to be sure, but about as noteworthy as cinema gets in the 2000s. In other words, an absolute no-brainer for this book, something I think even opponents of the film could recognize.

Yet on the next page was The Pianist. But that meant we were already into 2002, and no sign of Mulholland! I was immediately perplexed; had they gotten the wrong year for the film? (It wouldn't be the first time.) But no, as I flipped back and forth it became increasingly clear that they just hadn't bothered to include Lynch's movie. Huh? To me, that's inexplicable. It fits all the criteria for inclusion, there's plenty to discuss (just think what Frodon could have done with it!), and it's certainly a more obvious inclusion than, say, Meet the Parents, which greets us a few pages earlier. What's going on here? A massive typo in which a whole entry was accidentally excluded? I must admit I'm perplexed. What's the point of a canon which doesn't include what is by many accounts the best film of our young century?

This week on Examiner

Originally this provided a link to a preview of my upcoming work at the Examiner. Here are links to the new homes of the pieces written that week: Man on Wire, In Bruges, Capturing the Friedmans.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reading I Met the Walrus


Last night, I settled down to read a book I'd received a while back as a birthday present from an aunt (the same one whom I mentioned in my Michael Jackson obit this past summer). I'd already started it several weeks earlier, and enjoyed what I read without finding it especially astonishing. Now I thought I'd read a little more before falling asleep, but I couldn't stop until the book - a short tome, but still about 150 pages - was finished.

I Met the Walrus is written by Jerry Levitan, and while it contains illustrations and some nifty designs to liven up the pages, most of it consists of his text. It's a memoir of sorts, focusing on one specific incident in his life: when, as a precocious and fearless 14-year-old, he infiltrated John Lennon's and Yoko Ono's hotel suite in Toronto and conducted a lengthy interview with his genial hero. In summary form, the story seemed like just a nice little anecdote; the first part of the book, recounting Jerry's fascination with the band, was entirely familiar to me - in a comfy but unexceptional way - from the reams of Beatle & me memoirs I've perused in bookstores over the years, being a great fan of the band myself.

But when Jerry's and John's paths intersect, the enthusiasm of the story suddenly becomes infectious. Jerry wavers on the line between obsessed stalker and devoted fan but ultimately falls on the latter side due, paradoxically, to both the innocence of his exuberance and the sophistication with which he gets himself on the "inside." Ultimately, he's able to wrangle a long and revealing interview with the great Beatle star, possibly the only one Lennon offered in Toronto, while a bevy of seasoned press pros salivated at the hotel door. (Jerry even gets a date with willowy Apple beauty Mary Hopkin, to boot!) By the end of this little book, I had a an ear-to-ear grin, and I'd recommend it to all Beatles fans and perhaps those who aren't as well. Jerry is obviously a lifelong dreamer, but his conclusion betrays an adult voice that he manages to keep subdued for most of the text, where he succesfully recaptures the bright but somewhat naive perspective of his youthful self. We learn of his struggles and failures later in life, as well as some rather astonishing successes (though unforgettable, the Lennon interview was not his last daliance with the big time).

Indeed, this book is actually a tie-in to a larger project of which I was unaware, but I'm thankful for my ignorance as it lent my reading a true feeling of discovery. If the title I Met the Walrus doesn't ring a bell with you either, read no more about the book, starting at the beginning if you can, and check it out whenever you have some time to kill in a bookstore. It's that rare achievement, a genuinely affecting, charming, and - no less - true "feel-good" story.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Handcrafted Cinema and Figuring Out Day of Wrath

Two excellent essays from the Criterion Collection: one on Il Posto, written by Kent Jones, one on Day of Wrath, written by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Tonight, I just read the latter and re-read the former and was so taken with both that I had to link them up here.

Jones' sensitive piece wonderfully conveys both the humanist spirit of Il Posto and the larger context in which it was birthed; Rosenbaum's brief but penetrating discussion of Day of Wrath manages to be both subjective (memorably conveying his own initial indifference and later emotional engagement with the film) and objective (placing the film in its various historical contexts, that of its making and that of its telling; also, thrillingly conveying the formal audacity of the Great Dane).

Two selections, to convey the flavor. From Jones:
One of the most unusual features of Italian cinema of the late ’50s and ’60s is the way that it affords us multiple perspectives on the same event, namely the economic boom following the postwar recovery. Where the directors of the French New Wave each created his or her own unique poetic universe, Italian cinema of the same period feels like a series of moons circling around one planet. Again and again, one encounters the same sociological material, filtered through Michelangelo Antonioni’s elegant precision, Luchino Visconti’s luxurious emotionalism, Dino Risi’s exuberance, or Valerio Zurlini’s sobriety. Again and again, one sees the construction sites, the quick-stop cafes, and the cramped apartments owned by nosy landladies that were constants of postwar Italian society. Most strikingly of all, these movies feature a parade of young men fitted outfitted in regulation white-collar attire, betraying their essential inexperience. They are ill equipped for a life of work and responsibility in a mechanized, high-efficiency world, and lonesome for the nurturing comforts of home.
From Rosenbaum:
Set in 1623, when people still believed without question in witches, the film views that world from a contemporary perspective without for a moment dispelling our sense of what it felt like from the inside. Dreyer pulls off this difficult task through his singular style, involving a sensual form of camera movement he invented: the camera gliding on unseen tracks in one direction while uncannily panning in another direction. It’s difficult to imagine—a three-dimensional kind of transport that somehow combines coming and going in the same complex journey—but a hypnotic experience to follow. The film’s first real taste of it comes fairly early, when we follow Anne in her sinuous progress towards the torture chamber where Herlof’s Marte is being interrogated. The camera tracking with Anne around a pillar prompts our involvement while its simultaneous swiveling away from her establishes our detachment. And enhancing the strange sense of presence that results is Dreyer’s rare employment of direct sound rather than studio post-synching—giving scenes an almost carnal impact that becomes lost in smudgy and staticky prints.
Two of my favorite films, and two wonderful pieces of criticism. Enjoy, and happy Thanksgiving.

Ballast

Without warning, the screen lights up - if "lights up" is the right word to describe the overcast, gray, yet eerily beautiful Mississippi Delta landscape which fills the wide, wide panorama. A young boy in a parka approaches a flock of birds, then begins to run: the birds, hundreds of them, spread their wings and fly in the air, rising off the marsh as the handheld camera shudders, struggling to keep up with the boy. The kid (named James, and played by JimMyron Ross) watches the sky, vaguely impressed, expression nonetheless rather inscrutable. Cut to new vista, solid white letters imposed over the image: "Ballast."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Flight of the Red Balloon


In recommending this movie, I should warn you that you might very well hate it. That sounds peculiar, but while the film was a hit amongst critics (enough to earn it thirtieth place on a list of the decade’s most acclaimed films), it has plenty of detractors. The Netflix rating is just over 2 stars; a typical message board thread on IMDb simply reads “Zzzzzzz…”; when my own parents saw it last summer, my mother despised Juliette Binoche’s frantic, histrionic character, and my father fell asleep. But I liked it. Why? The division between critics and many viewers may suggest that the movie is some sort of arthouse pomposity. However, on first view the minor-key film hardly seems ambitious enough to warrant charges of pretension (I eventually revised my view, but as the ambition is quite subtle, the point remains.) The “story” follows a pampered yet seemingly unspoiled little boy whose mother, voice actress at a puppet theatre, is a nervous wreck and whose gentle Chinese nanny takes him on urban walks and makes little movies to pass the time. This plot is merely pretext for a series of tableaux, although certain events do allow us to peek at the character’s psychological underpinnings. Nonetheless, despite Binoche’s hyperactivity, the fleeting flavor of Flight serves a soothing balm rather than a caffeinated jolt to the system; while part of me misses the verve and vivacity of the French New Wave, this Gallic lassitude also has its charms. Flight of the Red Balloon is, essentially, a home movie with nice photography. If that’s not your cup of tea, look for coffee elsewhere. If it is, savor the taste.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pirate Radio

Ironies and contradictions abound with the U.S. release of The Boat That Rocked, er, Pirate Radio as it's been rechristened stateside (the name change itself is a kind of paradox: despite its obviousness and seeming desire to ride the coattails of pirate-mania, it's actually a much better title). First there's the fact that the movie, about the bold offshore DJs of mid-60s Britain who refused to accept the watered-down programming of the BBC (which only played a few hours of rock a week), has itself been watered-down. Not only by its American recutting - which excises, according to the Village Voice's Robert Wilonsky, some of the funniest bits - but also in its very conception. The screenplay loudly proclaims an allegiance to rebellion yet the film is essentially a sweet-natured farce which eschews drugs, politics, and even generational warfare (most of the DJs are rather long-in-the-tooth).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

This week on Examiner

Originally this provided a link to a preview of my upcoming work at the Examiner. Here are links to the new homes of the pieces written that week: Pirate Radio, Flight of the Red Balloon, Ballast.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Frankenstein

Close on the heels of Dracula, I re-watched Frankenstein, James Whale's 1931 horror classic which is, if anything, even more iconic than the vampire pic. In many ways, Whale's movie has more to offer - while the vampire myths are fun and can be interpreted any variety of ways, Mary Shelley's gothic-romantic classic is compelling on a different level. The idea of man-created man both fascinates and repels us, and it only grows more relevant with time (evidenced by the countless sci-fi and horror spin-offs of the film, as well as the popularization of the term "he's created a Frankenstein monster"). Yet in some ways, I find Frankenstein less satisfying than Dracula, perhaps because it is more ambitious than the other film, and hence it's more noticeable when it falls short.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dracula

Dracula is a film that can come full-circle if you let it. Ostensibly a straightforward chiller upon its 1931 release, it arguably launched decades of horror films - an avalanche which has kept rolling in one form or another to this day. Of course, as the form kept developing, the original monster movie (or at least the original monster talkie) began to seem creakier and creakier. Though Tod Browning had crafted some distinctive work before and after Dracula, much of his most famous film was confined to English drawing rooms; meanwhile, film technology was still adapting to the advent of sound and while the German master cinematographer Karl Freund was able to memorably maneuver his camera from time to time, the film overall is not especially fluid. Furthermore, Bela Lugosi's legendary performance may have frightened people at the time, but now it's become a museum piece, a template for hams throughout the ages (including Lugosi himself). Right?


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What are the Best Films of the 21st century?

This post is no longer active, and is out-of-date to boot. An updated list and intro to the series will be coming up on Wonders in the Dark soon, and will be linked here when it's ready. (Update: Here it is.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Welcome to Hugowood

Of course, the big Newsweek news this week is Sarah Palin's cover photo, apparently filched from Runner's World magazine without their permission. You can see it here - quite unsurprisingly it's stirred up cries of sexism, and not just from the (suddenly sensitive) right. Frankly, I'm as scornful of the pathetic ex-governor as the next sensible person, but I don't think Newsweek's cover is doing the anti-Palin cause any favors. Actually, I see it as part and parcel of Newsweek's increasing tendency to take too strident, crusading, and misguided a tone with its journalism: see also "The Case for Killing Granny," Newsweek's boneheaded cover from several months ago which attempted to discredit the "death panel" crowd by, um, making their case for them (?!). Sold a lot of magazines I'm sure, but I highly doubt it won many fence-sitters to the side of Obamacare (and should that even have been Newsweek's mission in the first place?). Editor Jon Meachum's introductions to each issue also seem to take a frequently holier-than-thou tone, and this is by my count the second Palin cover issue to rather hysterically warn the country against her. If you wanted to turn her fans and quasi-fans even further against the mainstream media and the "liberal elite" (and throw in a few previously sympathetic feminists to boot) you couldn't do a better job if you were a GOP operative.

Well, that's more than enough on that - I only mention it because I went to the site for another link and wound up with a lot of articles on Palin and Newsweek's homemade controversy. The article I was digging for is actually a small piece in an issue from a few weeks ago, which I just read tonight. It's called "Lights! Camera! Revolución!" and it details, with a snide tone, Hugo Chávez's attempts to create a Bolivarian Hollywood, replete with propagandistic entertainments, empty studios, and censorial government boards.

Look, I'm not one who will eagerly step up to Chávez's defense. Despite his egalitarian promises, he seems to be a colossal boor with strong authoritarian tendencies, one too scatterbrained and egotistical to lead his country to the promised land which he himself has promised them. In addition, he's alleged to have decimated Venezuala's cultural scene in a philistinic quest to stamp out "elitism" in the arts.

But - and this is a huge but - he is not a "totalitarian"; not even close. He remains hugely popular and has won several elections. Say what you will about him, note his repression of the press and opposition, and affinity for Castro and Ahmadinejad, but implying he's a dictator is stepping way out of line. Yet this is what Mac Margolis does repeatedly in the Newsweek piece, casually comparing Chávez's homegrown film industry to that of Stalin, Franco, and in the author's words "other 20th-century autocrats he emulates."

This kind of careless language is no light matter given the U.S.'s history in the region. Think the toppling of Guatemalan democracy in the 50s (at the behest of United Fruit), the CIA-fueled bloody coup and violent reign of Pinochet in Chile in the 70s, the illegally-funded war against the Sandinistas (who also won an internationally-monitored election) and the devastating support for a government which facilitated nun-raping, priest-assassinating death squads in El Salvador in the 80s. With that kind of history (to name just a few examples) government and media labelling of an admittedly flawed ruler as dictatorial and now even "totalitarian" are to be regarded with extreme suspicion. How interesting that Newsweek, and the rest of the media, lets loose a lot of excessive liberal yapping on a cultural issue like Sarah Palin's presidential ambitions (despite the fact that even conservatives think - and probably hope - she hasn't a chance) yet they unquestioningly go along with the neoconservative line that Chávez is a "dictator" in the same category as other anti-American despots like Castro, Mussolini, and even Hitler, despite the verifiable fact that he is not.

(This is not the first time I've found a Newsweek article so wrongheaded I had to air my objections. Last winter I criticized Newsweek for another article - this one a tone-deaf, yet highly indicative, piece of cultural criticism looking back on art in the Bush years. Here is my response.)

Frozen River

Ray Eddy's very name sounds tough, and upon first appearance the name seems to fit. The scraggly hair, worn-out clothes, and lined face suggest a woman who's been on the ropes and knows them well. While ostensibly married, she's effectively a single mom; her deadbeat husband is a compulsive gambler who has fled his home and family just before Christmas. As the holidays approach her threadbare household, she must support her two sons (one a bitter, shaggy-haired teen, the other a sweet little kid barely out of toddlerhood) on the income earned from a dead-end part-time retail job. Meanwhile, her double-wide trailer, long dreamed of and half paid for, will not be delivered until she's paid the full deposit. Ray's toughness transcends the stoic - she also carries a gun around and isn't afraid to pull it on the sullen Mohawk woman Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) who has stolen Mr. Eddy's car and parked it on the local reservation, a patch of land that spans the border between the Canada and New York state. When the young Native American offers Ray a job of dubious legality as payback, Ray accepts and is soon engaged in a criminal enterprise ferrying illegal refugees (or contraband slaves?) across that very border.

Monday, November 16, 2009

For the Love of Movies interview

When critic/filmmaker Gerald Peary set out to document the history of movie criticism, his subject's story had a beginning. Now it seems that the story may have an ending too, and not a happy one. Or is it merely a rebirth? Nearly a decade after he initiated his project, For the Love of Movies: The Story of Film Criticism is completed and showing around the country (the next screening will be Thursday evening at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH). Print criticism is rapidly disappearing (since the release of the film, which already featured dire warnings of a crisis in criticism, the number of fired critics has grown enormously). Meanwhile, the rising presence of the Internet seems to be shifting the definition of criticism - but towards what exactly? Last week, I spoke to Peary about the past and the future of criticism, and also about his own work, both as critic and creator. Most of the discussion is contained here, with some slight edits for clarity and space. My words are in bold, Peary's in regular. Clarifications are offered in italics throughout.

[For background on the film itself, you can read my review of For the Love of Movies, published back in September.]

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Stars Are Beautiful


[Thanks to Rommel Wells, whose My Space page - which I googled - allowed me to copy and paste Brakhage's text instead of having to transcribe it all myself.]

Stan Brakhage's 1974 film The Stars Are Beautiful is unusual among his works, primarily because it features a soundtrack, in the form of a narration (as well as direct sound which accompanies home-video footage of his children clipping a chicken's wings). He wrote the voiceover himself over the course of a month or two: growing tired of the same old creation myths, he invented a new one every night - imaginative speculations on where the stars, sun, and moon came from. The film itself is not one of his strongest works but the narration is inventive, humorous, often silly, and occasionally quite stirring. Here it is, in full:

This week on Examiner

Originally this provided a link to a preview of my upcoming work at the Examiner. Here are links to the new homes of the pieces written that week: For the Love of Movies interview, Frozen River, What Are the Best Films of the 21st Century? (no longer active; updated version will be appearing on Wonders in the Dark shortly).

Friday, November 13, 2009

discussing Schindler


As expected, Schindler's List (placing #23 on Allan Fish's "best of the 90s" countdown) has opened up an interesting discussion on Wonders in the Dark. Does the film trivialize the Holocaust? Did Spielberg spread himself too thin? Are there actually 22 better films from the decade? Is Rage Against the Machine overrated? (Wonders threads have a delightful tendency to wander.) Jump in and discuss - the more voices the merrier.

Over at the Examiner

If there's any Bostonians out there (or perusers of random city's cultural scenes), here's a guide to the some of the movie goings-on for the next 7 days. This took way longer to assemble than I expected, and I didn't get a chance to compile much else, but there's some good stuff in store for the Examiner next week. I'll provide a preview on Sunday.

(The link is no longer active, but here are some of the films I mentioned:

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

One of the greatest movies over made. In postwar Italy, director Vittorio De Sica and writer Cesare Zavattini abandoned the glamorous studio films of the Mussolini era, writing real stories about real people, casting non-actors to fill the roles and shooting in real locations to capture the desperate mood of the times. The story is one of their simplest yet most effective: a working man has his bicycle stolen; needing it to support his family he sets out through Rome with his son to find it. Despite - largely successful - attempts at realism, the film is also quite poetic, with wonderful black-and-white photography, highlighted in a brand new 35mm print.

Pickpocket (1959)

Another one of the greatest movies ever made, and this one's showing for free! French director Robert Bresson's minimalist masterpiece is austere, but it's also one of his most audience-pleasing works given the exhilirating shots in which he tracks skilled pickpockets hard at work - you'll walk out of the theater and into the subway with one hand on your wallet and renewed respect for those who want to take it. But the heart of the movie is in its character's moral and spiritual crisis, inspired by Crime & Punishment.

Wings of Desire (1987)

A free screening for a Harvard class, open to the public. A few years before it became a reality, German director Wim Wenders imagined bodies passing through the Berlin Wall - though in this case they were heavenly bodies, celestial vessels for angels who could watch over human interactions without being able to affect them in any way. Eventually one angel, played by Bruno Ganz, has had enough and decides to "plunge in", giving up his wings to be mortal, and yet to be alive. Features some of the most stunning cinematography in cinema history.

Severed Ways

An epic vision of "the New World" circa 1007, when Native Americans, Irish monks, and Vikings lay claim to the land nearly 500 years before Columbus approached its shores. Shipwrecked Vikings make their way through the rugged wilderness. Eric Hynes of indiewire.com has called this "a visionary work from one of the most promising new American narrative filmmakers in recent years.")

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Muslim Matter (Fort Hood & Maj. Hasan's Religion)

Adam Reilly has an excellent editorial in the most recent Boston Phoenix in which he pretty much manages to articulate everything I've been thinking about the massacre at Fort Hood and the media's reaction. You can read it here.

While Hasan's religion certainly seems to have played a role in the shooting, and it would be foolish for commentators to avoid or deny this (which some have been doing), there's something quite offputting about the way Fox News and other conservative media outlets have been covering the story. Reilly puts his finger on it is this astute piece:
For much of the conservative commentariat, the answer was obvious from the outset: anyone seeking to explain the atrocity Hasan perpetrated, they claimed, can start and end with his faith. Here in Boston, for example, WTKK-FM's Michael Graham teased his afternoon radio talk show by saying of Hasan's motive: "Let's face it: you and I both know the answer." At michellemalkin.com, meanwhile, the author herself situated Hasan in a broader category she'd created six years ago — "Muslim soldiers with attitude"— and reiterated her own previous contention that the Muslim members of the US armed forces constitute a menacing fifth column. (In Malkin's incendiary words: "The Islamist infiltration of our troops is scandalous. Not one more American, soldier or civilian, must be sacrificed at the altar of multiculturalism, diversity, open borders, and tolerance of the murderous 'attitude' of Jihad.")

And then there was Shepard Smith, every liberal's default choice as favorite Fox News personality, who followed a similar line of thinking when he described Hasan's name — without actually saying it — during an interview with US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas on Thursday:

SMITH Senator Hutchison, other news organizations are identifying the shooter. . . . Have you been given a name, and what do you know about this suspect? How much are you able to tell us?
HUTCHINSON I have been given a name, but I would not want to confirm that, because I don't know if this person's family has been identified. . . .
SMITH We've been given a name, as well, and quite frankly, I'm not comfortable going with it till it's given to me by the United States military. . . . But the name tells us a lot, does it not, senator?
HUTCHINSON It does. It does, Shepard. And that's why it's a very sad situation.
He goes on to take some on the left to task for pooh-poohing Hasan's religious beliefs and floating the questionable argument that Hasan's actions were a symptom of PTSD. I think I'm even less comfortable than Reilly with the notion that we can blame PTSD - and by extension the military's justifiably criticized approach to the disorder - for Hasan's behavior. Yes, he counseled many returning vets with no doubt harrowing war stories. But does that constitute "trauma"? Hasan had never served in a war zone; true, he was set to deploy overseas (in a non-combat role) in the near future, but PTSD stands for "post-traumatic stress disorder" not "pre-traumatic stress disorder."

I don't want to dismiss this idea altogether; it is my understanding that there can be secondhand symptoms experienced by someone dealing with a PTSD victim and coming into a similar situation. Yet this type of indirect disorder would have had to play such a minor role in Hasan's overall motivation that to "blame PTSD" seems to trivialize the very real suffering of PTSD victims who have experienced combat and still manage not to murder. Furthermore, Hasan's action appears to have been entirely premeditated - which hardly seems a sign of the kind of blind, furious rage which would characterize the action of a PTSD victim (to my understanding; anyone who knows better please correct me if I'm wrong).

I also can't entirely concur with Reilly's ultimate conclusions. On the one hand, he suggests that the Army do more to deal with religious tensions in the ranks (apparently Hasan felt a conflict between his faith and his duty; and allegations of harassment have surfaced as well). While I agree, I'm not sure this would do much to prevent a future Hasan-like shooting, and the theory that it would seems to give too much credence to the idea that Hasan was in some way indicative of Muslim soldiers, or even Muslim soldiers with conflicts of conscience. (Notions that Reilly elsewhere and thoroughly debunks.)

Finally, I'm not sure that much of anything can result from this incident. Ultimately, religious questions and exposure to PTSD victims aside, Hasan's actions were those of an isolated and dysfunctional individual. The only aspect which may be worth exploring further is his relationship to the radical cleric Anwar al-Alwaki, who praised Hasan in the wake of the killing. Even that will probably turn out to be more a case of "like minds" than anything else.

Of course, none of this is going away, as Hasan - it's easy to forget (I have numerous times) - is still alive and will be facing many questions soon enough. Perhaps we can have a meaningful discussion on some of these tangential questions, but in the spirit of inquiry without various agendas getting in the way, most perniciously of those who flirt with (or fully embrace) bigotry and seek to paint Muslim soldiers with a broad brush.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

October

Years ago, I saw a few brief scenes from October which engendered in me a passionate desire to see the whole movie. One moment stood out especially - Eisenstein cuts between a group of cartoonish bourgeois women beating a man with umbrellas and a drawbridge going up, with a cart and dead horse hanging from the precipice. Eventually the cart tumbles down the broad, erect face of the bridge, which is beginning to resemble a skyscraper. The horse finally plummets as well, over the other side of the bridge, into the water. The cutting, the movement onscreen, the vividness of the photography: all added up to one of the most rhythmic, hypnotic, and startling uses of cinema I'd ever experienced. Another sequence which stayed with me was the juxtaposition of Kerensky with the mechanical peacock - again, the cutting between the two figures, the movement within the frame, created a marvelous sense of tension and release, almost musical.

I sought out October for a while, trying to order it through a video store without luck (though the clerk informed me that Coppola had decided to become a director after seeing October for the first time). Finally I saw it on a big screen ... and was disappointed. What was brilliant in short snippets didn't quite hold together in long form. There was not enough of an arc to tie in all the effective moments, and the didactic, propagandistic aspect which was easy to overlook for a few minutes became overbearing over the course of two hours. The lack of central characters also had an unfortunate effect - while relatively anonymous ensembles are a regular feature of Eisenstein's silent work, they're usually smaller in number and more distinctive in appearance and behavior; here, the drama is dispersed too widely, and becomes diffuse.

Upon re-viewing the film for the first time in years tonight, my opinion largely remains the same. However, and this is a big however, the final half-hour is excellent and ranks with Eisenstein's very best work. It's a strong finish, not quite enough to make me see the whole film as a masterpiece, but powerful nonetheless. Here Eisenstein ties his bombastic, electric montage agitprop to a more focused narrative (after spanning months and several locations, he settles on the night of October 25 for the last 30 minutes) and a more humanistic aesthetic - several faces begin to emerge from the crowd, lending the "symbolic" proletariat a soul. There's also a fascinating ambivalence in Eisenstein's use of art, particularly sculpture, which manages to represent both the overbearing power and privilege of the upper classes and the romantic spirit of the revolutionaries. All in all, it's a rousing finale and remains one of the more effective depictions of revolution onscreen.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Desistfilm

Expect several posts on Stan Brakhage in the coming days. As you may have noticed, my recent movie write-ups have been progressing through the early sixties. That's because I assembled a Netflix queue, chronologically ordered, of movies I felt I had to see before assembling a personal "top 150" list which will then lead into my long-announced, upcoming series of great movies. Anyway, I've reached 1964 and with it Dog Star Man. I knew I'd seen the prelude but wasn't sure I'd ever watched the whole film, so I rented Criterion's gorgeous "by Brakhage" 2-disc set to catch up with everything I'd missed when perusing the discs in the past.

I love experimental cinema, but have been uncertain about Brakhage, possibly the most celebrated avant-garde filmmaker. Some of his work intrigues me, some leaves me cold. Upon just re-viewing Dog Star Man, I found much of it rather unsuccessful, but some of it fascinating and effective. I'll do a separate piece on that tomorrow, as I don't have the time to write much on it now.

Instead I'd like to embed one of his earliest films, Desistfilm, which has been described as his "breakthrough." I enjoyed it in part, I think, because it's as much a home movie as an experiment - there's something stirring about all these fifties kids with their distinctively period hairdos and costumes, living on the edge of reality, or at least appearing to do so as captured by Brakhage's stuttering camera and uncanny soundtrack. It's both playful and oddly mournful - at once a portrait of Blakean "experience" and nostalgic innocence (those edgy Beats are such little kids!).

I love the Brakhage quote which precedes the Criterion presentation: "A seven-minute film made with four rolls of gun camera film from the Second World War, spooled in the dark and spliced. Just an explosion of Denver beatnik nerves." Like seeing the quivering soul behind your parents'/grandparents' attic snapshots. Brakhage's other films rise or fall on the power of their visual purity: they are what they are, with most representative functions stripped from the image. This one, for me at least, is pure association.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Two News Stories

I was going to begin today with a post called "One Week on Another Blog" thanking everyone for their enjoyment of & participation in my new venture. However, there's too much going on right now and I'd rather focus my attention elsewhere; nonetheless, let this serve as thanks to those who dove right in for the first week of The Sun's Not Yellow.

Two stories seem to be dominating the start of this week. In an exciting surprise, the House passed its own version of major health care reform by 5 votes. In a grim surprise, one which emerged right away but is continuing to develop, it turns out that the shooter at Fort Hood was a Muslim, and not incidentally so. (The links are to the AP stories.) I hope to discuss both these issues, but particularly the former, in the comments section below the post.

I have not been following the health care debate with enough vigor (and one needs vigor to navigate the intricacies of the various bills and the back and forth of the legislation) to comment extensively now, but informed readers are welcome to clarify particular points. I would have hoped for something more universal than the present reform (it's claimed to cover 96% of Americans), and I have some questions about elements of this particular plan. Among my questions: what's the cutoff for mandates (at what income level would consumers be forced to buy health insurance, as opposed to having it provided), what's the definition of "large companies" required to offer coverage, how stiff are the penalties for consumers and companies who don't purchase, and what's with the projection that a public option's premium will be higher than private insurer's?

I have no illusions about the bill being perfect - and it's also my understanding that this version will have to be reconciled with what the Senate recently passed (please correct me if I'm wrong - how different are the Senate and House versions?). But by the standards of what we are used to, this is a sweeping rehaul, and it's a welcome change. Less importantly, this is a big victory for Obama, or at least a big step on the way to victory. If he ends 2009 with major health care reform signed into law and a new strategy and firmer mission in Afghanistan, I think he can tentatively call his first year in office a success.

The violence at Fort Hood hits close to home, as my cousin serves there when he's stateside (thankfully, he is presently "safe and sound" - ?! - in Iraq). That the alleged killer is apparently alive, and has recently been taken off a ventilator, means that this story is not going away, and its ramifications will continue to grow in the coming weeks and months. What does that mean? The tragedy could be hijacked to fit political ends. Right now, it seems to be the action of one deranged man (though he hid his derangement quite well). His own faith and his opposition to the war obviously played a part in his justification for killing, but to what extent are these "causes" indicative of any larger phenomenon?

I had written several paragraphs more, particularly focusing on the right's tendency to extrapolate, but as so far most commentators have been relatively subdued I'll refrain from casting stones. Suffice to say, we should wait for more information to come out before drawing conclusions about, on the one hand, trauma and conscience being "responsible" for Hasan's actions, and, on the other hand, any connections to the larger world of radical Islam or terrorism beyond the cursory (particularly worrisome are suggestions that this is at all representative of America's Muslim population, a population which is one of the most integrated and moderate of any Western country - to clarify, it clearly is not indicative at all).

So then, a thought for the fallen and their families, and for those who risked life and limb to stop Hasan's rampage. Hopefully, the country can allow tragedy to unify rather than to divide. Criticisms may be in order down the line, but let's keep perspective here: sometimes it's easier to digest something when it's made to fit a larger narrative. I'm as guilty of that impulse as anyone, but real life is not the movies and sometimes a senseless killing is just that. (Of course, sometimes it isn't. We'll know more later.)

Please discuss, particularly the health care debate, below.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Beatles on your screen

Tonight I finally received my Beatles stereo package, which included a DVD with short documentaries on each album. I was reminded of the wonderful proto-videos the band churned out in the 60s, ranging from sequences in their features to stand-alone promotional films designed specifically for a certain single. So here are my favorites. (Granted, I'm not quite sure "Rain" was actually created in the 60s; methinks it was perhaps concocted out of outtakes from their "Paperback Writer" promo-film for the '96 Anthology series. Still, it's pretty sick, and is thusly included.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Exterminating Angel

Just finished watching this movie for the first time. I'd anticipated it for a while, but perhaps I picked an inopportune moment to watch it - I was by and large left cold. Then again, maybe it's not just a matter of mood; I've seen at least a dozen Bunuel films at this point, and while I like some more than others (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, one of my earliest Bunuels, still strikes me as the most amusing and entertaining) I'm not in love with any of them, and the master filmmaker's charms largely allude me. I don't find his work especially disorienting as surrealism, nor do I find his effects particularly shocking - while watching a Bunuel film, scenes pass before me and while I can appreciate the "subversion" on an intellectual level, viscerally I just don't find them very subversive (or are they supposed to be subverting my sense of subversion?).

I love the premise of Exterminating Angel - that a dinner party of snobbish and catty sophisticates find themselves trapped in a drawing room, apparently by their own lethargy; weeks pass as they starve, sweat, stink, and go mad, yet they can't bring themselves to leave. I found individual images and fleeting moments striking: the severed hand that leaps and darts through the darkened room (only to change into a woman's hand with a sharp cut when the sequence is revealed as a hallucination), the sheep passing through the mansion's grand entrance as Bunuel's camera gracefully tracks them (animal moments tend to be highlights of Bunuel films for me: another favorite is the random emu in the otherwise unimpressive-to-me Phantom of Liberty). And Silvia Pinal was captivating, especially in her final, desperate speech to the bourgeois prisoners.

Yes, writing about these moments makes me like them, and by extension the film, all the more - so why then, while watching, do I feel apathetic and antsy? I think I'm astute enough to recognize there's something there I'm not quite getting, but for whatever reason I just tend to find Bunuel's films underwhelming. I wonder, do they grow with re-viewing? I believe I've seen most only once. Anyone else share a similar reaction? I respect Bunuel, and in the abstract I can admire the work, but a fair amount of the time I feel just like the guests in this movie, trapped in a room I can't get out of.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Accattone

In discussing the delicate yet punchy effect of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1961 debut Accattone, one must choose words with care. Such care is not quite possible at present, so I'll eschew deeper evocation for a brevity which can perhaps suggest some elements of the film's success.

Accattone is not an avant-garde movie; it has characters, a story, a narrative that unfolds in chronological time, in a real location. (The story: Vittorio Accattone is a pimp; after his girlfriend/employee is arrested, he starves for a bit and then tries to groom an innocent young woman into a pro - yet he ends up torn between a love for her and a commitment to the life of criminality and impulsiveness which is all he knows.) There's a dream sequence but it's rather straightforward - in some ways less surreal than the scenes of waking life. The film's overall style is a more mobile, more impressionistic neorealism, so it exists in a recognizable context as well.

Yet slipping into Accattone, one feels one is entering a universe without rules (even as a certain fatalism shrouds the proceedings) - each step is a step into the abyss, each moment a new discovery. I'm not quite sure how Pasolini evokes this atmosphere. In general terms, he shoots "close to the ground" with locales and milieus that make earlier neorealism seem almost artificial; on the other hand, he employs a loose, mobile mise en scene which seems to settle on (if such a phrase can be used) movements, cuts, and framings based not on screen logic or narrative necessity but a spirit of poetry. And yet the beauty is never forced, few films are more beautiful more organically. The precise alchemy of Pasolini's magic is then difficult to ascertain; ironic, indeed, that he himself turned out to be a theorist, codifying the seemingly elusive poetry of the image.

The music of Bach presides over the film, yet it doesn't feel imposed on the material, rather as if Pasolini chipped away at reality with his camera, and these mournful rivers of sonic emotion came pouring out. I don't know that Accattone's great; it is not as forceful nor controlled as Mamma Roma a few years later. Yet the restless energy which Mamma Roma can only hint at (with suggestions which tease its teenage protagonist and torment his mother with reminders of a life she knew all too well) flows through Accattone - it exists in suspension between true freedom and the fatal knowledge which brings one crashing down to earth.

Viewed "instantly" on the Netflix website, the film is presented in a very rough print, with white-on-white subtitles often hard to read and the visuals often ragged and jumpy - and yet this raw, unkempt, "found" appearance oddly suits Pasolini's vision, however inconvenient.

Jewish Film Festival in Boston

(What follows is my full piece, originally written for the Examiner, which was initially linked up at this spot. From now on this will be its home.)

For ten days, the Museum of Fine Arts will hold a festival of nine features and three short films, all following Jewish protagonists and dealing with themes pertaining to Judaism. The festival's proclaimed theme is "home" and indeed, many of the films deal with exile, immigration, and travel - home experienced in absentia, abstractly rather than a constant source of comfort. But an even more pronounced theme of the program is "family." Almost every film deals with rich (and often troubled) relations between parent and child, husband and wife, even surrogate families, often to be found on the stage (see the theatre school in Erga Netz's documentary How to: Be or Not to Be on the evening of November 15, preceeded by Isaac Brown's and Nadia Ramouter's short doc Nes Gadol Project, about a teacher who attempts to set up a performance at a school for the handicapped).

Also climbing the family tree are Ori Ravid's Eli & Ben (Nov. 7 at 7 pm), a coming-of-age tale in which a boy's beloved father is accused of corruption; Axelle Ropert's The Wolberg Family (Nov. 12 at 9 pm) about a mayor and his dysfunctional family in the French provinces; and Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's He's My Girl (Nov. 7 at 9:15 pm) a gender-bending comedy about a naive mother and her gay son, as well as his cross-dressing lover and thespian ex-wife (it's a sequel to Man is a Woman, which screened at the festival in '98). On a light note, Shelly Kling's short film Gefilte Fish (showing before Eli & Ben) examines the relationship of a young woman to her mother, grandmother, and fiancee through her preparation of a fish dinner (or lack thereof, given her humanitarian impulses). Elsewhere, Shai Agosin's To Life (Nov. 15 at 1 pm) follows a Mexican photographer on an ambivalent voyage to reunite with her 80-year-old father; while the protagonist of David Ofek's The Tale of Nicolai and the Law of Return (Nov. 15 at 3:15 pm) is leaving family behind in Romania, while he seeks work - eventually illegal - in Israel.

Some of the festival's films are historical, with World War II and the Holocaust represented by two films. Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis (Nov. 15 at 3:15 pm), by Gaylen Ross, documents the story of a Hungarian Jew who struck a deal with the Nazis; though he saved many fellow Jews with his actions, many despised him - he was assassinated years later and only now has his killer granted an interview, which is included in the documentary. Toyland deals with the Shoah more indirectly, and it puts a dark spin on all the films about adults turning the Holocaust into a tall tale (Life is Beautiful, Jakob the Liar) in an attempt to block its horror. Here, it's a gentile mother telling her son that the Jews are being taken "to Toyland" and this lie - meant to cover up her own passivity as much as anything else - ends up bringing her son closer to the horror rather than further away.

The festival opens and closes with by examining Jews under another dictatorship, in this case the USSR: Andrey Khrzhanovsky's Room and a Half, Nov. 5 at 7 pm, chronicles the life of emigre poet Josef Brodsky. Within the Whirlwind (Nov. 15 at 7 pm), a Marleen Gorris film, wraps things up with another Jewish poet suffering at the hands of Communist officials: Emily Watson plays Evginia Ginzberg, who was sent to the gulag by her husband's betrayal.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Year Obama

A year ago today I was speeding through the back highways of New Hampshire with my radio blaring, listening to a constant stream of static occasionally interrupted by dispatches from news bureaus - the bureau varied depending on whichever station was coming in clearest at the moment. I had just finished a one-day job in rural Vermont (rather redundant, I know) and when I left the location in the evening, only a couple states had been declared - I think McCain actually had the lead at that point. As I drove, state after state fell and it became clearer and clearer that the expected Obama victory was coming to arrive. I arrived home shortly after the race had been called, in time for the speeches - one eloquent in defeat, the other soaring in unprecedented victory - and to write, before going to bed, my final thoughts on the election (found in a comment under a recent post on The Dancing Image):
I was thinking about posting a final post on Obama's speech and his promise and his risk, but instead I'll let this comment be my coda to the election.

First, the speech tonight had the power of a great, popular movie. Grandly orchestrated, with sentiment approaching hokum (that soaring music as Obama's multicultural, multigenerational ticket and family gathered onstage) yet genuine emotional depth (the picture of Jesse Jackson, a man who has often been very critical of Obama, openly weeping, was one of the most moving sights I've seen). It even had its stoic, downbeat counterpoint, with a very gracious, very dignified concession by John McCain, whom I've increasingly regarded as a tragic figure. I some ways, we could call the 2 hours between 10:30 and 12:30 the greatest movie of the decade.

As far as I'm concerned, this past decade has seen not just a political deficit, but a cultural one as well. There have been some good, and a handful of great, movies (though admittedly many remain to be seen by me). But where were the masterpieces - the Godfathers or Easy Riders or Citizen Kanes - which told great stories and also connected with the zeitgeist, the cultural milieu? In popular music, did we have any Beatles or Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan? Are they even possible anymore? Cinema, music, literature, art - none really seemed to be able to conjure up that heady brew of transcendence, popularity, and grand vision that was attained in the past. Perhaps we have become too fragmented, or too sheltered and diversified in a vast media cocoon?

Obama offers the promise of transcendent greatness, based in part on something we haven't seen in our politics OR in our culture for years: the possibility of unified deeply-felt shared experience. Whether he will acheive this greatness I do not know. It is admittedly vague and almost intangible, but he has already shown us two immense sources of strength.

We've seen The Great Symbol, the man who has a way with words, who connects with people, who is really the first true presidential candidate, the first public servant, of the 21st century in everything from his framing of issues to the way he marketed his campaign (can you think of another symbol as imaginative as the ubiqutuous [sic] O/sunset rising over a harvest field?). And yes, the first black president. That is huge, absolutely huge, and the most concrete way in which Obama's election was, no matter what we thought we expected, shocking and moving.

He has also shown, quite apart from this idealistic, transcendent appeal, a skill as a shrewd, intelligent, fiercely accomplished politician: The Great Campaigner, or The Great Operator. We've only seen him in this regard as a campaigner, but his performance was astonishing. So he is not only someone who can speak well, but who can get things done, at least in one sphere.

But while we've seen The Great Symbol and The Great Operator, we must await the Great President, which is all that really matters in the end. How will the symbolism of change play out in policy? How will his operative skills apply to internecine warfare and the attempts to bridge party divides and the inevitable downturns in public opinion?

Now, I voted for Obama because I took a rational look at his policies vs. McCain's, his demeanor vs. McCain's, not because of these larger-than-life qualities. But it's these qualities which make me excited about him and his possiblities [sic], even as part of me remains skeptical and pragmatic about his prospects.

As for Obama's potential president greatness, this is where the big mystery lies because no matter what anyone says we really don't have any evidence, except words (and we all know how this can be betrayed or disappointed) as well as conjecture based on his other strengths, how he will operate in this arena.

Maybe then, this was just the trailer - if so, I hope the movie lives up to its promise.
He's not a Great President yet, by any means. But then again, it took him a while to become the Great Campaigner too...

Anyway, I sat down at this computer to write about Obama's troubled "first year" (which I put in quotes because it's only been a little over nine months - an important distinction, I think). However, I find myself going back to that historic moment instead. Is it just nostalgia for lost dreams?

Well, no, actually. Though disappointment and frustration with the president is in the air, I was not expecting a Messiah. I still think he has greatness in him, but it will continue to take some adjustment. The real assessment of his first couple years will not be made until next year - right now, the crucial moments on issues from Afghanistan to health care (despite a number of missteps and a lack of effective leadership) remain on the horizon. It's ridiculous to award him the Nobel Peace Prize, but it seems just as ridiculous to get disappointed this early. At any rate, I've been largely distracted from politics this year (and distracted from other things as well, as anyone who's attempted to follow my intermittent blogging can attest to). I've followed the issues sporadically but not with sufficient rigor to warrant a full-on essay about Obama's first year. Instead I offer up a look at the past, if you're interested (and haven't seen these already) - my political series from last fall, in anticipation of the election (needless to say, many of the issues addressed remain anything but resolved), and my description of Obama's inauguration, which I was able to witness in person.

Godspeed, Mr. President, but gear up. The next few months will be critical.