Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): August 2010

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wendy and Lucy


#82 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

The zeroes did not see many high-profile "movements" or artistic trends in American cinema. Indie cinema, the big news of the early to mid nineties, was co-opted by Hollywood, and (perhaps resultingly) few new young directors emerged; likewise widely-embraced new developments. Still, there were transformations, some subtle, others under the radar. With Royal Tenenbaums setting the tone, studio "independents" embraced quirk as their defining characteristic - a once marginal taste now became the norm. Financially independent (which is to say, actually independent) cinema reacted accordingly. There were two prominent approaches, both defiantly smallscale. The first, and more low-budget, was dubbed "mumblecore." Its subjects were middle-class youths, usually well-educated but not concerned with work (either for mysterious reasons or because they were given rather unconvincing "cool" jobs). The narrative focus was almost always on (heterosexual) relationships, and the form took anti-sleekness to its extreme: handheld camera, tiny casts and crews, often shot on video. Long-held close-ups were the aesthetic trademarks of the mumblers, and this (along with the filmmakers' penchant to cast themselves and their friends in the main parts) often led to charges of narcissism.

At any rate, "mumblecore" received more media attention (albeit exclusively in hip, trendy outlets) than any other indie movement, and seems to have spent itself after reaching a high-water mark a year or two ago. Meanwhile, quietly but with growing acclaim and less controversy, a number of independent films appeared at festivals with an opposite tack: rather than explore the emotional travails of the financially secure but spiritually wandering young, it sought out subjects on the periphery of society: struggling immigrants, street orphans, crack addicts in the flooded hinterlands. Stylistically there was a similarity, in that these indies were usually shot low to the ground, but it should be noted that (ironically) the films with more impoverished subjects sometimes had bigger budgets, more access to professionals - even movie stars, and more established backers (Wendy and Lucy was produced by Todd Haynes). Movies like Ballast, Frozen River, and particularly the films of Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo) represented this trend which, unlike mumblecore, shows no signs of dissipating at the moment. Wendy and Lucy very firmly belongs to this category.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Civilisation in Pictures


A visual tribute

Not so long ago, I re-watched "Civilisation," a fantastic series which originally aired on the BBC in 1969. I discovered this program five years ago, on VHS in Kim's Video in New York. Most of the tapes I rented from there were rarities, avant-garde films with a radical edge. By contrast, "Civilisation" was retro-history, an art scholar offering his old-fashioned views on Western civilization. This was initially part of the charm, in a hip-to-be-square kind of way; what could seem stodgy has in fact gone so far out of fashion that it feels fresh once again. Yet there was more to it than that - and soon I was hooked. Later I discovered my grandmother owned the book that went with the show, I "borrowed" it, read it cover to cover, and still have it on my shelf. Kenneth Clark is a charming host, particularly for American viewers, to whom his Britishisms (polished pronunciation, slight stiffness in delivery, and, let's face it, really, really awful teeth) are novel. He's also a tad awkward onscreen, often gripping his elbows and squinting, occasionally pausing and clearing his throat mid-sentences as if he's camera-shy.

Yet he is incredibly erudite and, what's more, utterly un-pretentious - remarkable given his approach. The show is billed as "A Personal View" and Clark makes no bones about the subtitle. Even narrowing the focus to Western Europe, whole countries are absent (Russia and Spain barely register). Because television is an audio-visual medium, music, painting, and sculpture are privileged - an occasional poem is read out loud but there are no prose excerpts and philosophy is hardly mentioned (with a few exceptions, in which case the thinkers are dealt with more as representatives of a zeitgeist than formulators of systems). The twentieth century is alluded to through shots of airplanes and computers, but no modern art is shown. Elsewhere Clark tells us, evidently serious despite the tongue-in-cheek reference to criticism, "I've spent my life in trying to learn about art, and I am completely baffled by what is taking place today. I sometimes like what I see, but when I read modern critics I realise that my preferences are merely accidental." This is a slight disappointment; even with its limited scope, the series would have felt near-complete had it devoted even just five or so minutes to the whole of twentieth-century art. Instead we get one peek at a Pollack painting (in an earlier episode, where he's connected to J.M.W. Turner) plus the bemused, wordless fondling of an abstract sculpture before Clark exits the film at the conclusion.

What the show lacks in comprehensiveness it more than makes up for in individuality. It surveys about a thousand years of art and manages to touch on most major movements and artists, but "Civilisation" feels neither rushed nor generic. Partly this is due to Clark's unifying presence and pointed perspective, partly it's due to the impeccable craftsmanship of the production. This is another aspect of the series which grew on me; initially, its old-fashioned style provided a retro charm but upon further viewings I realized that the show was far more accomplished as a documentary series than television today can pull off. It varies its scope and style depending upon the material, imaginatively utilizes different locations, techniques, and approaches (while maintaining an overall cohesiveness), and most importantly, it takes its time. We are allowed to drink in the artworks, the music, the locations; even Clark's brisk and often tightly-packed monologues are given enough room to sink in (though it may take several viewings to catch everything).

In short, the series is worth purchasing, or renting if you can find it (the DVD is currently unavailable on Netflix for some reason). As Allan Fish said beneath his  eloquent tribute, Clark and his documentary will "make you want to look at the stars." But for now, look at these pictures...

The pictures follow the jump - preceded by a video to give you a sense of the film's flavor:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The House of Mirth


#77 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

Though helmed by a bona-fide auteur, House of Mirth fits snugly inside the conventions of the art-film adaptation style, the elegance for which "Masterpiece Theatre" and Merchant-Ivory are bywords, and which those who don't like can tag, with Truffautlike scorn, "the tradition of quality." Some have tried to read a "queer eye" subversion into Terence Davies' handling of the material, but viewers not keyed in to the director's idiosyncrasies (myself, for example) will see a more or less faithful handling of Edith Wharton's source novel, gracefully executed without seeking the propulsive vision Martin Scorsese brought to Wharton in his 1993 Age of Innocence. (In that film, the ornate and coded appearances and behaviors of society are filtered through the rapid-fire, visceral sensibilities of the director; some were impressed by the friction, some didn't notice, and others found the combination incongrous - like Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose characterization of Scorsese led to angry letters and, fifteen years later, a fascinating blog thread which Rosenbaum himself eventually joined. But I digress...) On the aforementioned thread, Arthur S. notes that Scorsese's film is "a rare film which adopts the novelistic narrative rather than the old standby of make the book a play and shoot the play"; though Davies' film has been praised for its cinematic qualities, its approach struck me as very much the latter. (Quickly defined: the cinematic approach emphasizes uniquely filmic qualities, such as editing, camera manipulation, or intimate and/or complex visual viewpoints; usually the "cinematic" will stress presentation rather than text, at least compared to a play.) However, this observation should not be taken as a thorough-going criticism: there are virtues in the "theatrical" on film, and Davies makes the most of them.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"What's the difference?" (The Asphalt Jungle & The Killing)




This is an entry in Adam Zanzie's John Huston blog-a-thon. It contains spoilers.

Maybe Sterling Hayden should just stay away from horses. In John Huston's 1950 noir masterpiece The Asphalt Jungle, Hayden plays Dix, an honorable but desperate "hooligan" who bets - and always loses - on the races. His bookie turns to him to provide muscle for a jewel heist; inevitable complications ensue and Dix winds up with an infected gunshot wound in his side. Like a haunted man, he flees his midwestern city for the countryside, loyal girlfriend Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) at the wheel as Dix slumps in the passenger side mumbling to himself deliriously. What about? Horses, and not the ones you bet on. Rather, the ones you raise and ride, the ones you race perhaps, while other people bet on them, earning you money. As consciousness enters its last dissolve, Dix's car pulls up at a ramshackle Kentucky field. Earlier in the film, we heard him tell Doll about his happy childhood, a long lifetime ago, when he grew up on this free and open horse farm. Now it's gone to seed - and so has he, reeling and stumbling through this equestrian limbo until he finally falls hard onto the soil, dead along with his dreams: an Icarus who never even made it off the ground.

Johnny, Sterling Hayden's character in Stanley Kubrick's 1956 breakthrough The Killing never makes it in the air either, though he comes damn close - all the way to the airplane tarmac in fact. But let's rewind for a moment, an appropriate gesture given this film's chronologically fractured storyline. If Dix loved horses, Johnny treats them rather callously: he even hires a hitman to kill a certain Red Lightning, ahead in the final stretch of the seventh race of the day. His hope is that the pandemonium ensuing from the guaranteed spill will create a cover for his daring robbery of the racetrack. It's a meticulously planned job, and this time Hayden is not a mere hooligan, but the head honcho. His luck is no better, however, even if he makes it out alive this time. It won't be a horse that accompanies Johnny's failure, but a yapping, foppish little dog, whose collision with the luggage cart sends Johnny's suitcase - and with it the whole loot - crashing out onto the runway, whirled around by the propellers in a mad mockery of his planned flight. Hayden's expression is priceless as his girlfriend tells him to run and the film ends as he delivers the most exquisitely limp and pathetic closing line of all time. "Meh," he mumbles half-inaudibly, "Wasadifference..."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Platform


#74 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

The films of Zhang Ke Jia are like time-lapse images transforming both slowly and rapidly before your eyes. Finally what you're seeing at the end (of a shot or, particularly in this case, of the movie) bears little resemblance to what you saw at the beginning, though the route of this change is not easily re-traceable ("how did we get here?" could be the epitaph to each of Jia's films). This transformation is slow because Jia's camera takes its time. In Platform there are no reverse shots, no close-ups, and almost no cuts during scenes (I can think of at least one exception: the provincial theatrical touring group rushes up to an elevated railway in a desolate landscape; suddenly we are on the tracks ourselves, facing away from the train which is rushing off behind the camera, while we stare into the cast's faces as they grin and wave, exhausted). The transformation is also rapid, however, because so much happens within a fixed time frame or spatial plane: a building dissolves into dust (or takes off like a space rocket) in Still Life, a mini-universe is revealed by the ascension of an elevator in The World (a film less defined by fluid long takes than Platform or Still Life, though they are still a part of the texture), in Platform hearts are broken and futures fixed in a lovers' discussion which ends with one character proclaiming (ever time-conscious) "You're too late" and walking away. If that last transformation seems less dramatic than the previous one, don't be fooled. Within each shot, in itself a miniature movie, Platform fixes its gaze on a moment, albeit one always in flux (as moments always are). But over the movie as a whole, there is a more rapid physical and spiritual transformation than anything in either Still Life or The World. That's because Platform takes as its subject the still-bizarre mutation of China from a totalitarian communist workers' state to a semi-capitalist ultra-modern society in the 1980s. An obsession with transformation and mutation are not only aesthetic strategies in Platform, they are the very meat of the film, its text, context, and subtext. Here, form and content fit together perfectly as hand in glove, which is good, because nothing else in the film is so easily malleable.