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?

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).

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?


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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:

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

In a way, it's perfect that this post follows up my musings on the difference between kids' films and adults' films. I noted that movies about and for grown-ups usually contain an element of stoicism, an existential mix of fatalism and grim determination. This aspect is present even in the more romantic movies, but it's especially notable in a work like Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Everything about Naruse's film proclaims a world-weary understanding of society (represented not in the abstract but by a series of well-defined yet very individual types), coupled with a tired but steady endurance and attempt at progression - best represented by the titular image of the heroine climbing up to her workplace: is the motion endlessly cyclical or slowly advancing?

This is a very modern film in the early sixties sense, its jazz score, tastefully glamorous Ginza bars, and sleek widescreen images suggesting an affinity with contemporary films like L'Avventura and La Dolce Vita. Most modern of all, indeed far more modern than at least that latter film, is the movie's treatment of women. Naruse never objectifies Mama, his female protagonist (real name: Keiko) even as we see what leads others to do just that. From her patrons to the coolly professional bartender/manager (who turns out to be the most foolish romantic of them all), all see her resistance to customers' overtures and her refined and slightly distanced charms (compellingly conveyed by her warmly approachable good looks) as noble, heroic, even tragic. But we come to understand Mama not as a saint but as an unusually stubborn person whose principles give her the only sense of worth she has. To hold to them is a matter of survival, not idealism.

The film's emotional flavor is best represented as a persistent ache, the kind you can adjust to but never quite get used to. There are moments of physical and psychological breakdown, grief-stricken funerals, heartbreaking departures, sorrowful loneliness and shocking revelations. But somehow these potentially melodramatic developments seem less indicative of the movie than do its continual reversion to Godard-like (yet pre-Godard) moments of objective/subjective narration over nighttime cityscapes (they're objective in the sense that Mama's tone is cool and explanatory, subjective because it's Mama we're hearing, for once unfiltered by her guarded speech or reserved expressions). These "bookmarks" along with the recurring ascension of the staircase and the persistence of Mama's stumbling forward momentum indicate Naruse's true attitude towards his subject, a very self-willed "life goes on."

One of the fascinating aspects of the film for non-Japanese viewers will be its presentation of the Ginza, where men pay to spend time with women, yet not (necessarily) in a sexual context. That the concept manages to represent both the difficulty for women in a male-run society and the universal loneliness of the human animal, male and female alike, is testament to Naruse's unique ability to fuse acute social perception and subtle analysis with unsentimental and entirely genuine humanism. The combination makes When a Woman Ascends the Stairs a truly excellent film, and I look forward to my next Naruse.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why are kids' movies sadder?


Watching Wall-E for the first time the other night, I found myself emotionally involved in an unusual way. Not that "grown-up" films can't move me, or bond me to a character, or give me the blues. But somehow it's a different feeling. Viewing the movie, even knowing that it was probably destined for a happy ending, I feared for the hero's well-being, sympathized with his vulnerability, sensed the real possibility of failure and disappointment, in ways I usually don't watching even the most violent, despairing drama. Why, I wonder?

For a few reasons. Adult movies (no, no, not those types of adult movies) rarely work on the same primal level that a powerful children's story can. Adult art and entertainment usually contains a stronger intellectual element than family entertainment - a factor which can strengthen appreciation but also work to distance the viewer from the situation in some respects. Ultimately, though, I think the issue is primarily one of psychology rather than aesthetics.

A children's classic - think Wizard of Oz, E.T., and now Wall-E - engages emotions that a movie focused on adult concerns and perceptions, by definition, cannot. A certain base level of innocence, vulnerability, fear, goodwill are established. These traits recall in many of us a childhood state in which we were far more trusting than we've become - and the better the movie, the deeper we come into touch with this state. The saddest "grown-up" films tend to be tragedies, but there's an aspect of stoicism and grandeur inherent in that very term - "tragedy" in part suggests a certain inevitability. Even the most despairing, fearful, wounded screen grown-ups contain an element of resignation - watching these films, we feel that we share a conspiratorial understanding with the protagonists: the universe is not made to our liking, we will have to struggle to achieve what we want, and ultimately we're all gonna die. Grim, perhaps, but in the acceptance there's also a kind of existential comfort: we're facing up to the unhappy truth cold and sober.

Children's stories - movies, books, etc. - evade this truth, and in doing so perhaps they remind us that our existential acceptance is vaguely abstract. At heart, we're still those scared children: the possibilities of failure and disappointment are not merely sad potentialities in Wall-E, they are terrifying, deal-breaking prospects. If Wall-E can't win Eve's love, if he can be physically destroyed, then the universe is not merely indifferent but malevolent, and all is lost. There are no compromises or fleeting happinesses in children's movies - it's all or nothing, the happy ending or the blackest pit of despair. This is the type of awareness found more often in dreams than in waking day-to-day reality; it's a sensibility that could potentially lead to madness if indulged as a living ethos.

But for two hours, in the guise of a fairy tale or a myth we can partake in this purity - in a vulnerability which can only thrive if it isn't crushed. We tip our hats to the fatalist heroes and stoic warriors and comic failures of the grown-up cinema but we wring our hands at the prospect of one little robot's heartbreak or annihilation which, in this context, may even be one and the same.

Monday, November 2, 2009

WALL-E

A movie like WALL-E serves as a reminder that "they don't make 'em like they used to" can be either wrong or misguided. Wrong because WALL-E is a triumph of straight-up storytelling - visual storytelling no less - with an emphasis on characters, the clever creation of an imaginative world, and a very human heart (despite its ostensibly inhuman characters, two robots engaged in a tentative romance alongside an attempt to save the hapless human race from its lethargy). And the statement may be misguided because WALL-E achieves these things, despite its multitude of references to Hollywood classics of about 30 years ago, by tying itself very firmly to contemporary social and aesthetic ideas: the iGleam of Eve, the perfectly-timed "green" message (which might have come off as preachy 10 years ago but now seems merely sensible), the amusing but resonant gender role reversal (it's Eve who's knowing, aggressive, and unsentimental, while WALL-E is a soft-hearted, shy sweetheart).

So then, WALL-E is proof that modern-day classics can be made without twisting narrative into a pretzel or abandoning the pleasing conventions of entertainment for glib pyrotechnics - yet it's also perfectly relevant for today's world, topical in a way that does not seem to impact its timelessness. Either they do make 'em like they used to, or they don't need to, right? Problem solved? Not quite. The problem is twofold: that the WALL-Es of the movie world are so rare (and most of them are released by Pixar), and that so few movies correctly strike the balance between modern relevance and a mooring in the well-founded traditions of storytelling and artistic expression. There are moments in this film which approach sublimity, an iconic status rarely achieved since the heyday of Lucas and Spielberg, much-maligned auteurs who nonetheless tapped into a universality of Hollywood expressionism that has rarely been accessed since. The shots of WALL-E's binocular googly eyes as he longingly regards Eve belong in the pantheon with the great, humanizing close-ups stretching from Griffith to Garbo to the creature who seems most directly related to WALL-E in both physical shape and vocal intonation - E.T.

Alongside that extraterrestrial's influence, the impact of 2001 (musically quoted at a key moment) and Star Wars is indelible. And no wonder, as legendary sound designer Ben Burtt (who created R2D2's beeps and the flourishs of a thousand lightsabers) lent his talents to Pixar for this adventure. Yet all the comparisons and influences are misleading: WALL-E stands on its own two treads by soaking up the legends of the past and then subsuming them to its own directive. In so many ways, WALL-E shines like a beacon in our own trashy, small-minded, often nihilistic cinematic landscape. There's the sweet (and ironic) humanism - even the sludgy, dumpy people are presented as kind hearted. Also the reliance on visual storytelling as opposed to comedic talkiness, hip indie gimmickry, or blockbuster one-off set pieces (the film's computer animation feels organic and its narrative unfolds fluidly). Finally, there's an overarching, contagious love of creativity, imagination for its own sake. A freshness suffuses the proceedings, particularly manifested in the end credits, which chronicle the rebirth of human/robotic civilization with a progression through various artistic styles, from cave drawings through Egyptian hieroglyphs all the way to impressionism and finally a breathtaking Van Gogh landscape. The optimism and heady aestheticism of this passage are intoxicating - an ear-to-ear grin being the only possible outcome. I wouldn't say WALL-E is the best film of the decade, but it's certainly the best popular entertainment, and at this uncertain moment in movie history that may be most important.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

This is Your Brain on Cartoons

We used to watch this religiously in elementary school: at least once a year from about kindergarten to third grade. Oddly enough, none of my friends recognizes it. Was it a local phenomenon? As for the plot, a high school student is getting high and stealing from his kid sister's piggy bank, so a variety of cartoon characters, including Garfield, Tigger, Bugs Bunny, Muppet Babies, and the Smurfs, decide to scare him straight.

This is certainly one of the trippier anti-drug films - the weed that the teenage protagonist smokes must be laced with acid. For some reason, the film posits the Ninja Turtles as narcs rather than stoners, which is a bit hard to believe (maybe they turned stoolie so the cops would turn a blind eye to the mutants' own dealing?). Not all the cartoon characters are virtuous - a vaporous and malevolent dopester is voiced by George C. Scott of all people, and oddly enough (in the wake of the Reagan era) the ghoul has a decidedly slick Gordon Gekko vibe. All in all, the video is more enticing than intimidating - it remains so unclear what drugs actually do, and yet they seem so adventurous, that one can imagine Winnie the Pooh and Alf inadvertently turning a generation of kids onto marijuana (naturally one of Alvin's chipmunk brothers recognizes the smell instantly).

The first third of the video is embedded below, with the rest available on You Tube. If you'd just like to sample it, go here. But be warned, it can lead to harder stuff...

(If you want to see the pre-film cameo by a very special guest, here you are.)


You Only Live Once

I did not watch this DVD in optimal conditions. Between the widescreen television which stretched the square frame, the discussions going on around me in the room, and the eventual switch from TV to laptop (with one ear of the headphone not working), I could discover any number of excuses for why Fritz Lang's classic crime melodrama didn't work for me. After all, I'm not even a major Lang aficionado - I admire his supreme skill (how could I not?) but often find his movies cold; I admire the visuals but grow restless with the drama. Less so with his Hollywood work - I quite liked Fury - but he certainly is not in my pantheon of personal favorites (yeah, I know, he's heartbroken).

Yet I enjoyed You Only Live Once immensely; I was completely engrossed despite the distorted image, the noise, the interruptions. Formally, Lang's work was as tremendous as ever: the consistent yet often subtle use of "prison" bars around the outlaws, the proto-noir lighting effects, the occasional fairy-tale echoes of a froggy pond near the honeymoon suite, or the happy home that will never be broken in (the ever-elusive American Dream takes on the quality of a kind of beautiful, half-imagined fable in Lang's jaundiced, almost brokenhearted view of his adopted country). All in all the film luxuriates in a heavy, oppressive atmosphere of the harsh, spare cells, foggy, murky jailyards and backroads, and the cluttered backwater homesteads of Depression America. It captures a time and a spirit, and makes a fascinating comparison with the restless, ruthless Gun Crazy and the romantic, charismatic Bonnie and Clyde - all of which reconfigure the mythology of that outlaw couple to fit the ethos and styles of their various periods.

In You Only Live Once, the violence retains an air of desperation - the transgression of Gun Crazy and adventurism of Bonnie and Clydee hardly factor here. There's no way out for Fonda's character, and he's never tapped into his latent ferocity with greater skill or intensity. It's especially interesting to see him here, young, coiled tight, after watching his performance as the tepid innocent in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. Though it was obviously intentional, I nonetheless found Fonda's inertia quite frustrating in that film; it seemed that, in the face of police harassment and public hysteria, he was too passive - even Kafka's protagonists register a kind of panicked reaction. Anyway, no one can accuse Fonda's character of accepting his fate this time; indeed, by the ending, he may have gone too far for many viewers. Yet both director and star deserve credit for neither demonizing nor sentimentalizing the "hero."

A remarkable, thoroughly entertaining, wonderfully crafted thirties classic. Highly recommended.

Dickens does Drunk

A brilliant and highly amusing (and, let's be honest, quite accurate) presentation of inebriation from the distinguished author. Excerpted from the chapter "My first dissipation" in David Copperfield:
Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking, and trying to suppress a rising tendency to shudder. Steerforth had made a speech about me, in the course of which I had been affected almost to tears. I returned thanks, and hoped the present company would dine with me tomorrow, and the day after - each day at five o'clock - that we might enjoy the pleasures of conversation and society through a long evening. I felt called upon to propose an individual. I would give them my aunt - Miss Betsey Trotwood, the best of her sex!

Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as "Copperfield" and saying, "Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn't do it." Now somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair - only my hair, nothing else - looked drunk.

Somebody said to me, "Let us go to the theatre, Copperfield!" There was no bedroom before me, but again the jingling table covered with glasses; the lamp; Grainger on my right hand, Markham on my left, and Steerforth opposite - all sitting in a mist, and a long way off. The theatre? To be sure. The very thing. Come along! But they must excuse me if I saw everybody out first, and turned the lamp off - in case of fire.

Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window curtains, when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.