Friday, December 30, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1 episode 7 (Sundance version) - "No Goodbye Thanks"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 15, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Jane Campion)

What an intense hour of television, full of twists and gut-punches. Not only did the show manage to surprise me and keep me in suspense, it did so despite some prior clues (and correct suspicions). More importantly, Top of the Lake really delivered on its premise, and the themes it sustained throughout. That includes a mood of uneasy, think-twice foreboding...the viewer's feeling of generalized mistrust reflects Robin's own state of mind all too well. Looking back over the story, none of the developments appear arbitrary. The outcomes, the revelations, the discoveries both false and true, are deeply rooted and cleverly seeded. There are plenty of loose ends and open questions but the important threads are tied up, the necessary answers provided, and appropriate ambiguities retained.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 6 (Sundance version) - "The Dark Creator"/"No Goodbye Thanks"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 15, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

This was the best episode so far, but that praise comes with a caveat - in a sense, this isn't an episode at all. I'm referring to the different versions of the series, which I recently discovered (I wrote the intro to this viewing diary, explaining this discrepancy, at a later date), but I bring it up now because this is one of the few "episodes" where that chopped-up quality feels especially evident. Usually the American cuts find a good, natural-seeming spot to stop but episode six ends abruptly when Robin rides toward her fateful meeting with Matt. Nicely suspenseful, certainly, but without much of a final visual punch. Most likely, the "proper" ending occurs several scenes earlier at Jamie's funeral, as his friends push a skiff containing his body out from shore. That's quite a scene, though I questioned it at first. Staging an elaborate memorial at Paradise, the mourners decorated with Jamie's signature "NO" on their faces and clothes (even the horses have the word emblazoned on their haunches), while GJ's hippies sing a folksy cover of a Bjork song...it all seemed a tad overdramatic for a show that's usually much more down to earth.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 5 (Sundance version) - "A Rainbow Above Us"/"The Dark Creator"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 8, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Jane Campion with Garth Davis)

The two big developments in this episode are a death and the discovery that someone else is not dead. Jude, Robin's mother, passes away not long after visiting GJ's compound. Her immediate feeling of reassurance is perturbed anew when she notices Robin embracing Johnno. Jude's final scene in the show depicts her extracting a promise from her daughter, that she won't go out with Johnno. Ironically, Robin is with Johnno when her mother dies, only hearing her voice one last time from a phone message recorded earlier. Robin's relationship with Johnno is up and down: she is relieved to discover his "secret" was simply that he didn't do enough to help her when she was being raped, not (as she feared) that he participated himself. Still, she has doubts, and after her mother's vague warning, she presses: did he signal her rapists to pick her up fifteen years ago? Johnno is so offended that he storms out, although later they will reconcile. But he never flat-out says no.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 4 (Sundance version) - "The Edge of the Universe"/"A Rainbow Above Us"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired April 1, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

As it turns out, Robin's big discovery - "I think I know what she meant by 'No one'!" - may have more to do with herself than with Tui. Visiting Al at his chic glass house that evening, she explains that by "no one" Tui may have meant "more than one" rather than zero. In other words, she was gang-raped. Al is dismissive, turning the subject to Robin's past. In this episode, we we finally learn the details of the detective's own trauma. About twenty years ago she attended prom with Johnno; he disappeared with some friends, so she left and hitched a ride in a truck. Johnno also hopped aboard the back (though she never knew he was there) and then the driver and other passengers took her to an isolated spot and raped her. The perpetrators were not charged, but the cops and Mitch violently punished them off the books. Robin got pregnant, gave the baby up for adoption, and years later received a letter from her now-teenage birth daughter, to which she never responded.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 3 (Sundance version) - "Searchers Search"/"The Edge of the Universe"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired March 25, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis)

Similarly to other short series I've seen, episode three is reserved mostly for character development and insight. Robin discovers her mother is going to die, and she tells her fiance (on the phone) that he deserves better before cheating on him with Johnno. We learn more about Johnno's past, both his relationship with Robin (she was his first kiss) and his years in a Thai prison. Even the still-missing Tui gets screentime when Robin is moved by a videotape of her playing in the woods. This may be Top of the Lake's clearest nod to Twin Peaks yet - and Robin's fascination with the victim places her closer to the likes of Dale Cooper than the "True Detectives". There's an extra twist to the bond, though, since Robin too is female and haunted by her own dark past. She clearly identifies on some level with the missing girl.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 2 (Sundance version) - "Paradise Sold"/"Searchers Search"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Originally aired March 18, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion)

There's something special about second episodes. Rarely are they as immediately memorable or self-contained (open ending aside) as pilots. But they offer something a first episode rarely can: a feeling of settling in, investing, opening a door and entering a much bigger room. The first episode of a show could almost be a movie as it sets the wheels in motion. Even in Top of the Lake's case (where exposition is minimal), characters must be established and premises must be anchored down. That's why it's so liberating to see the same opening credits give way to new images at the start of a new episode. Two opposite qualities attach us to the material. One is familiarity. Whether it's been a week or a few seconds since we watched the previous episode, the interim of ending and new beginning offers us reassuring authority in this world. It's as if we were sitting next to a new viewer, explaining who's who and what's what. The other quality is openness. With the necessary work done, the plot doesn't have to tie itself up anytime soon. Relationships are fluid and malleable. Nothing is set in stone; anything could happen.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Top of the Lake season 1, episode 1 (Sundance version) - "Paradise Sold"


Welcome to my viewing diary for Top of the Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will review another episode. I will be following the Sundance Channel order, which is the one available on U.S. Netflix. It divides the six BBC episodes (each directed in its entirety by either Jane Campion or Garth Davis) into seven shorter episodes. The episode titles will usually reflect which two BBC episodes were cannibalized. This is my first watch-through of the series so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes.

Aired March 18, 2013 (written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee/directed by Jane Campion)

Premiering in 2013, the first episode of Top of the Lake knows that we have certain expectations about this sort of mystery show. It makes sure to toy with those, but also, in a way, fulfill them. The short series was created by the great New Zealand/Australian director Jane Campion with Gerard Lee, whose work I'm unfamiliar with (IMDb reveals him to be a longtime collaborator of Campion, co-directing a short film from '83 and writing her acclaimed feature Sweetie). Together they craft a world both realistic in its grungy, atmospheric detail and heightened in the eccentricity of its behavior. From an American perspective, Top of the Lake is illuminated by two popular trends, both with deep roots in Twin Peaks: the auteur-driven "prestige TV" phenomenon with Campion not just creating, producing, and co-writing the episode but also directing; and the "dead girl" genre in which the body of a tragic young woman sets the plot in motion, introducing an outside detective protagonist and exposing secrets and weaknesses in the surrounding community. The big surprise for me, based on what little I'd heard (or thought I'd heard) about this particular show, is that this time, the "dead girl" doesn't actually die...or, as the episode ends, does she?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top of the Lake: a viewing diary


Introducing the New Zealand show Top of the Lake (2013)

This week I launch my first viewing diary since The Prisoner. The first episode will be reviewed on Friday, and new entries will follow every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday through the end of the year. Top of the Lake is a mystery set in the murky mountain town of Laketop, on South Island. The show stars Elisabeth Moss, whom I simultaneously began watching on Mad Men (at the pace I'm going, that particular viewing diary won't be published for years); here she plays an urban detective who joins a local police investigation in her rural hometown. Top of the Lake is co-written and co-directed by Jane Campion, whose Bright Star I reviewed in 2010 (I featured a couple of her short films in my #WatchlistScreenCaps exercise a few years later). I've yet to see most of her features but consider her work A Girl's Own Story one of the strongest short films of the eighties and also admire The Piano, so I was looking forward to this series going in.


complete directory of season 1
(*these links will work on the day of publication)









The Netflix/Sundance Version (which episodes I'm watching)

Logistics turned out to be incredibly complicated. There are two versions of Top of the Lake available to American viewers. On DVD, the show follows the BBC structure of six episodes; streaming on Netflix, the show uses the Sundance Channel breakdown of seven episodes. The BBC episodes have titles and a single director for each episode (whereas the Sundance episodes often have two), suggesting that the production was organized around longer individual episodes and then the same material was divided up into shorter episodes to fill a longer run in America. So in other words, the British pilot has its ending chopped off and attached to the beginning of the second American episode. This shifts a bit more of the second episode's end to the beginning of the third episode and so on until the sixth American episode contains hardly any of the sixth British one, most of which has been shifted to a brand new "episode seven." Confused? I certainly was. Here's a picture:


At least I'm pretty sure that's what happened. If anyone has more details, please let me know in the comments below and I'll update the post accordingly.

I decided to stream the show on Netflix, and only discovered after three episodes that I was locked into a slightly skewed version of the series. Nonetheless, I don't regret it - this is likely the version that most of my readers will have seen so it makes sense to give it priority. Still, it does muddle discussion of the different directors' input, and occasionally disrupts the narrative flow (the end of the penultimate episode feels particularly abrupt). Still, the writers probably knew they would have to write for two different structures because even these cannibalized episodes tend to end in cliffhangers. It's a little embarrassing for me to go back and read my notes on the episodic structures now that I know more about their creation, but it is what it is. This is a viewing diary - sometimes I figure things out as I go.


I hope readers who've seen the show will enjoy re-visiting it, and if anyone watches along with this diary (either over the next several weeks, or coming back to these posts in coming months and years), I hope you'll comment and leave your own reflections and speculations on each entry. I will probably cover season two either live as it airs (it was shot last year in Hong Kong, with Nicole Kidman making an appearance) or catching up at a later date if it coincides with too much other activity on the blog. However, those will probably be shorter entries, in accordance with my new viewing diary format (a paragraph on the story and a paragraph on my own reflections). This diary for season one - which I wrote over the spring and summer - is more in-depth, with about five paragraphs each.

See you on Friday for "Paradise Sold".

Friday, December 9, 2016

December status update: where we've been, where we're going (+ my call to the Ben Dixon show)

my new Twitter header and all-around favorite picture at the moment

With the election behind us (but oh, not really) and Christmas on the horizon, this seems like a good moment to pause, take stock, and look both forward and backward. I have some big projects coming up and others that I've just completed, which I'll get to in a moment.

First of all, now that they've been bumped off the front page, let me take one more opportunity to point you toward my Favorites series that wrapped up in early November (a great way to share it is to retweet my tweet-storm thread featuring a picture, link, and line for each one). It began way back in 2012 and hadn't even reached the halfway point this fall but I resolved to finally plow through it by posting an entry every day beginning in mid-September. The end result is a hundred entries on the films that move me, approached in as personal, casual, yet thoughtful a manner as I could manage. Hopefully, they encourage you to check out some the great films they cover. I've also posted a couple Fandor videos on older films (Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) related to the new releases The Birth of a Nation and La La Land (and if you like them, please share them - the Boston one in particular has gotten a disappointing number of views, unfortunately). Incidentally, Fandor has adopted a cool new format which displays my previous work quite nicely. In November I also posted my first political commentary on this blog in years (mostly in the form of Election Night tweets) and shared a series of podcasts I've appeared on.

So what's upcoming? Having resumed my Favorites series and Fandor video essays after abandoning them in the spring, two endeavors remain. The first, my numerous YouTube/Vimeo series (including both my Citizen Kane study and the various ongoing series) will have to wait until 2017 to resume - I'm not ready to jump back in yet (although I did post one stray video there last month which I worked very hard on, for Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl). The second, my weekly TV coverage, is ready to return but in a slightly different format for the moment. Several months ago, I finished watching Jane Campion's short mystery series Top of the Lake, writing long reviews of each episode along the way (it's a viewing diary covering my reaction as it unfolds, unaware of what will happen next - just as with The Prisoner - whose concluding entry I'll also be posting soon - and True Detective). The introductory entry will go up on Wednesday, and then entries will go up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, wrapping up inside December. Aside from Showtime's 2017 Twin Peaks, this will be the last time I cover individual episodes of a TV show in such depth. From now on, I intend to write shorter capsules, similar to the format of my Favorite series, as I'll be covering series with dozens, even hundreds of episodes in the coming years. I've already begun some of that work, but won't publish any given series until all the episodes have been completed. No more getting ahead of myself!

And before I get to the final item, just wanted to insert a little teaser: stay tuned for lots of Twin Peaks material in the new year. That kind of goes without saying, given the new episodes but even before that I am going to share a massive series of character studies I've been preparing for months, plus - hopefully - an episode guide I can publish concurrently with any rerun Showtime decides to air before the new premiere. As early as New Year's Day, I may be in a position to promise nonstop Twin Peaks content every single day as we count down to that relaunch.

Finally, some other business to take care of with this entry: I always like to link up to whatever else I'm doing online, including appearances on podcast. Usually this is something Twin Peaks- or occasionally film-related, but last month I actually called into a YouTube political podcast for a change. This political season I've become a big fan of The Benjamin Dixon Show, a left-wing live talk show (which I usually download to listen to on my phone as a podcast) that invites listeners to call in with the "name, comment, and/or question." Ben's commentary is fantastic because he takes clear stands without falling into the "can't criticize my own side" trap. With that in mind, I called in to mention something that had been bugging me - the tendency of a handful of leftists to dismiss protests of Donald Trump by employing right-wing talking points. This ended up launching Ben into a great discussion of his own, about conspiracy theories (especially those involving George Soros) and the need to balance between having standards and taking available opportunities. Hopefully I can call again at some point - if anything, I'm only going to have more to say about politics in the coming months and years though I don't suspect a whole lot of it will find its way onto this blog (tune in on Twitter if that's your thing).

Here's the full show (if you want to jump to my comment at 33:13, follow this link)



Buckle up, and let's extract what relief - and contemplation, and action - we can in 2017, in all areas.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Lost in Twin Peaks #4: speculating about season 3 w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped

fan poster by Austin Shaddix

Last month I spent a full episode with Twin Peaks Unwrapped discussing Mark Frost's new book; this month (well, technically, the last day of last month but I'm a few days late in sharing) we're back to the short and sweet format of "Lost in Twin Peaks" - this time I focus on what to expect, and not to expect, from the upcoming series. Don't get me wrong; I actually haven't a clue, like almost everyone else not named David Lynch or Mark Frost (and ok, a few of the crew members though the actors all seem to be in the dark outside of their own scenes). But these are my musings and hunches, so enjoy. I talk about why Twin Peaks might actually wander far beyond Twin Peaks; the possibilities of alternative universes in light of Lynch's interest in quantum concepts (inspired by Martha Nochimson's work in David Lynch Swerves); and my suspicion that the series will mostly drop the soap opera format (with reference to Dennis Lim's work in The Man From Another Place, suggesting how the timeless sensibility of Lynch nonetheless frequently manages to connect with the relevant zeitgeist). In addition to my two cents, the podcast features extensive talks with John Thorne, discussing the Log Lady intros, and H. Perry Horton, discussing his new book on Twin Peaks - well worth listening to in full.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

ODE TO BOSTON (video essay on Guy & Madeline on a Park Bench for Fandor Keyframe)


My latest Fandor video essay, like my previous one, is inspired by a new release to look back at an earlier film. In this case, the new release is La La Land, Damien Chazelle's musical love letter to Los Angeles. Watching the trailer, it was clear this movie was screaming from the rooftops that it was an "L.A. Movie" with candy-colored photography of famous locations from the title metropolis. I was most struck by a shot of the Angel's Flight Railway, where the opening scene of my short film Class of 2002 took place. So there was a bit of personal resonance to these clips.

Likewise, when I watched Chazelle's feature debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (I keep accidentally typing "Guy and Madeline Go Boating"), I was struck with a bit of geography-inspired nostalgia. But this time it was more subdued and subtle - despite fleeting shots of unmistakable landmarks early on, it actually took me a little while to realize the film was set in Boston. The locale was slightly disguised by the black-and-white imagery and an emphasis on handheld close-ups of the actors. Nonetheless, the city casts a spell over the film, and I decided to draw out that mood even further in my tribute to Guy and Madeline. I created a short musical montage to a city that I - and obviously Chazelle as well - have a great fondness for.



Here is a sample from the accompanying piece I wrote for Fandor:
The film closes with a powerful trumpet solo, shot in a single take—a close-up of the composer-performer playing the instrument as an expression of his love for Madeline. This video essay imagines—perhaps not so outlandishly—that the music is not only a tribute to her, but also to the city in which they fell in, out of, and perhaps back into love. Keeping Guy in a corner of the screen the whole time, I’ve stitched together a montage of the movie’s many quick location shots—juxtaposing these images with a one-minute sample of Guy’s sustained solo. (continue reading on Fandor Keyframe)



For my own personal recollections of Boston, visit my essay Boston, You're My Home, written the day of the Marathon bombing in 2013.

And you can also check out my film Class of 2002, which contains original and found footage from both Boston and Los Angeles:


Monday, November 14, 2016

Black/White: a video essay on Black Girl


Here is my first video essay on my personal YouTube/Vimeo channels since May. Appropriately enough it has a political subject, focused as it is on the work of Ousmane Sembene, the great Senegalese filmmaker sometimes dubbed "the father of African cinema." I explore how his first feature film's aesthetic and polemical qualities intertwine.


On its fiftieth anniversary, Black Girl (aka La Noire de...) is widely considered the first sub-Saharan African film by a sub-Saharan African filmmaker. As one would expect, much of the film takes place in Dakar, Senegal (where writer/director Ousmane Sembene was from). However, two-thirds of the film takes place in France, where the main character Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) has traveled to work as a domestic servant for a French couple. This film, then, offers a (cinematically) unfamiliar window into a familiar milieu, as we watch the interactions of a typical bourgeois domestic scene - an unhappy wife, an indifferent husband - through the eyes of an outsider to it. In these sequences, Sembene designs a world defined by a heavy contrast between the colors black and white - not just obviously in the skin tones of the actors, but through clothing, decor, even food. It's tempting to read the film entirely through this lens of sharp racial contrast but as this video demonstrates, that's only half the story.

Black Girl's most important contrast is not between black and white in France, but between that very stark French juxtaposition, and the more subtle shading in Senegal. What applies to form applies to content as well: the rigidity of Diouana's life in Antibes is not matched by the more relaxed events and performance shown in the Dakar flashbacks. Through this larger contrast, and also be freely cutting across time and space to analyze these different lifestyles side by side (as well as ending back in Africa, on the face of a little boy who accompanied Diouana in some of the earlier scenes), Sembene discourages us from placing the European part of the story as the ascension of a hierarchy, the inevitable outcome of Diouana's situation. Instead, we are encouraged to regard the sharp black/white contrast of the European scenes, and the stark racial and economic power dynamics which accompany them, within a larger context - and then to reject it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Discussing The Secret History of Twin Peaks #2 (Twin Peaks Unwrapped)


The Secret History of Twin Peaks, by Mark Frost, fostered a number of elaborate theories about what its unusual approach means - or whether it means anything at all. Last week I appeared on Twin Peaks Unwrapped where I discussed the book with hosts Bryon and Ben. Are the "mistakes" and "inconsistencies" of the book actually purposeful, and if so what purpose do they serve? What does the novel tell us about Mark Frost's vision of Twin Peaks as opposed to David Lynch's? How seriously should we take the intimations of flying saucers?

After my appearance, the podcast brought on another guest, Aaron Mento. He had very strong opinions about what Frost intended. Listen as he decodes the words and images, and see what you think...

Discussing The Secret History of Twin Peaks #1 (Obnoxious & Anonymous)


Several weeks ago, Mark Frost's new novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks was released to general excitement, acclaim, bafflement, and frustration. Imaginatively written as an FBI dossier full of fictionalized mixed-media files (newspaper clippings, confidential reports, postcards, etc), Frost takes us through the history of the town and some of its inhabitants up to the final day of the series, going just a few hours further than what we had already seen. To the surprise of many readers, Frost focused a lot on a wider context - Lewis & Clark, Jack Parsons and the occult, UFO lore, even the JFK assassination and Nixon adminstration. Like all parts of Twin Peaks, the Secret History found its celebrants and its detractors...and Cameron Coultier (as the video's cover-image suggests) was definitely one of the latter! I joined him for a video chat on his Obnoxious & Anonymous YouTube channel to discuss the book for several hours with other Twin Peaks fans. This was the first of my appearance on two different podcasts - the second will be cross-posted later today.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Sci-Fi Countdown - Star Wars (CinemaVille discussion w/ Bob Clark for Wonders in the Dark)


Bob Clark's final podcast for the Wonders in the Dark sci-fi countdown covers the first Star Wars film, a/k/a Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), I made another guest appearance. We talk about the film's unique legacy, connection to the larger saga, and other matters in the seventy-minute-long episode.

Lost in Twin Peaks #3: discussing Mark Frost w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped


Twin Peaks Unwrapped just completed a "Mark Frost Month" in honor of his new book The Secret History of Twin Peaks. Though he co-created Twin Peaks and was far more involved with its day-to-day creation than David Lynch, Frost has often been overlooked in discussions of the show. Ben and Bryon invited me on to discuss Frost's contributions, and also his other works like Storyville. Be sure to listen to the whole podcast, as it includes a great interview with Twin Peaks writer Harley Peyton, who shares his memories of working with Frost.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Lost in Twin Peaks #2: discussing the theme of incest w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped


I wasn't sure what picture to use at the top of this post. To show characters for whom incest is an issue in Twin Peaks would give away crucial story aspects to the casual browser who hasn't watched the show yet. And that's a problem I'll get to in a second. The picture of the cabin in the dark woods, with the light in the window and the action inside obscured, is eerie enough to suggest a secret beneath the surface without getting explicit. That in itself is in the spirit of Twin Peaks, a show that digs beneath Twin Peaks' welcoming but spooky appearances to unearth corruption, betrayal, loneliness, violence, murder and, yes, in more than one storyline, incestuous overtones.

Lost in Twin Peaks #1: discussing the Owl Cave ring w/ Twin Peaks Unwrapped


I wrote about the results of the election yesterday, following the conclusion of my Favorites series on Sunday and the posting of my most recent Fandor video on Monday. From now through the weekend, I will  be cross-posting twice a day, sharing podcast appearances from the past few months now that I'm done with other work. Starting next week, I will begin sharing new material - starting with a video essay on Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl (1966) which has political as well as aesthetic implications.

Ben and Bryon of Twin Peaks Unwrapped have invited me to participate in a recurring segment on their podcast, in which I discuss Twin Peaks - usually a particular theme or aspect - for about ten to twenty minutes. They presented these segments two weeks in a row (usually, to my understanding, they'll appear once or twice a month) so I'm just catching up by sharing them now (the second will go up tomorrow). At the end of the first podcast, I pop on to discuss the Owl Cave ring in Fire Walk With Me - in particular, why I see it as a more positive object than many other fans do. The rest of the episode includes some chatter about the film and cast of the upcoming continuation - but most importantly, there is an extended, captivating interview with the author of The Twin Peaks Access Guide, Richard Saul Wurman, 81-year-old renaissance man who, it is casually mentioned, was also the founder of TED Talks.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

11:30 pm to 3:30 am: The Unthinkable

I did not expect this to happen.

This is the logical outcome of the ball that started rolling when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq. It's what happens when one side says "Why not?" and recognize that power creates its own norms. And it's what happens when the other side has no faith in its own values - their integrity, their popularity, or their feasibility.

Hillary Clinton ended her campaign in true form, sending John Podesta out to calm the crowd and send them home (essentially Go to sleep, We've got this), while she wrapped things up behind closed doors, calling Trump and letting him take the stage to proclaim victory before she had addressed her own supporters. Elite to elite, the way the whole race has been run, ceding the populist ground to the vulgar puppet for Paul Ryan and the ruthless Republicans who will actually be setting the agenda.

I don't know if Bernie Sanders would have won. I think he would've had a better shot. What I do know is that the results are in, and Hillary Clinton has lost. And Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.

I am in no mood or mindset to neatly compose an essay right now. Even this intro has taken me forever to get right. Instead, I am going to reprint most of what I wrote on Twitter in real time as the outcome of the race slowly became clear and the nightmare dawned. There's hope here too. But it emerges against a far more stark, dangerous backdrop than I foresaw.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Day Status Update


After a slow summer, this site has been quite busy in the fall, finally wrapping up the last (more than) half of my Favorites series by adopting a daily schedule after grinding away, off and on, for four years. Several projects are wrapping up simultaneously, while others are waiting to get started, and those projects plus work plus actually needing to get out to vote...all keep me from doing what I had planned for last night or this morning: finally talking about current events on this blog for the first time all year. My reflections on 2016 will have to wait to go up till tomorrow, if I feel like it - aside from brief thoughts right now, and some links to previous political/cultural essays that represent where I was at the time of writing, not necessarily where I am now.

First, though, how am I voting? My most enthusiastic vote will be cast for Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire's first district, a candidate who avoids corporate PAC money (as a result she was not the DNC's desired nominee, email leaks have revealed). But that's probably not the vote you're curious about. I will be voting for Hillary Clinton for president because I currently reside in a swing state and consider this strategy the best one to ensure Donald Trump doesn't become president, despite my many objections with Clinton specifically and, much more importantly, to the entire system she represents and participates in. While I have, to put it mildly, major disagreements with anyone who thinks Trump is a preferable choice, I also don't have much tolerance with those who condemn third-party voters or abstentions. Yes, not voting for Hillary Clinton could be seen as privilege. You know what? Voting for her could be seen as a privilege too. Both actions have dangerous consequences, and can be deeply repellent to the people most directly affected by those consequences. I've made my calculation, and now you must make yours. (A few minutes ago, I published this piece without this paragraph, but I don't want to seem coy - so there it is.)

Monday, November 7, 2016

Nat Turner & Charles Burnett: video essay on Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property


This cross-post was written in October, but delayed until my Favorites series ended yesterday, so that the schedule wouldn't be too cluttered.

It had been a few months since I posted any video essays on Fandor (or anywhere for that matter), but I’m happy to return now with a short video exploring Charles Burnett’s film Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property – obviously very relevant given the recent release of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation biopic of Turner.



(more information & images from the video follow the jump)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Favorites - Masculin Feminin (#1)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Masculin Feminin (1966/France/dir. Jean-Luc Godard) appeared at #1 on my original list. Most entries are only a couple paragraphs; this one, to conclude the series, is much longer.

What it is • It is autumn, and an important election is on the horizon. Against a background of looming violence and repression, there is also a sense of determined, restless energy amongst the nation's youth, a dissatisfaction with the status quo and desire for change that is finding expression in a reinvigorated left...accompanied by absorption in a pop culture that celebrates consumption and pleasure dissociated from any sense of deeper meaning. But Masculin Feminin is not a present-day documentary and these "children of Marx and Coca-Cola" are not millennials. The country is France and the year is 1965. The film focuses on five young people - three boys, five girls (in their late teens or early twenties, living independent lives, yet still free-spirited, and uncertain, enough to seem more like "boys and girls" rather than "men and women"). Though Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and his buddy Robert Packard (Michel Debord) hew to a more orthodox Communist Party line than the fashionable Maoists and anarchists emerging at the forefront of the New Left, they are definitely plugged into the zeitgeist: joining in strikes from their factory jobs, petitioning the Brazilian government, and protesting the Vietnam War and the Gaullist government up for re-election. However, they appear to be rather clueless about the youth counterculture, Paul especially (watching him "sing" Bob Dylan's lyrics is one of the more amusing moments in the movie).

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Favorites - Lawrence of Arabia (#2)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Lawrence of Arabia (1962/UK/dir. David Lean) appeared at #2 on my original list.

What it is • T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is an outsider long before he arrives in Arabia. Born from a liaison between a noble father and a servant mother (herself born out of wedlock), Lawrence is still at odds with his surroundings when we meet him: an intelligence officer stationed in Cairo, perpetually bored but bemused. So he is assigned a mission which, however fleeting, should entertain him for a few weeks and produce effective results for the British Empire. Lawrence is to journey into the Arabian Desert to link up with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), leader of the earnest but unsuccessful Arab Revolt against the Ottomon Empire. Despite his simple mission - assess the situation - Lawrence decides to go much further. When he finally returns to Cairo, he is caked in dust and accompanied by an Arab boy (Michel Ray) who has experienced hardship, battle, and loss alongside the British officer: they are fresh from the daring conquest of Aqaba from its unprotected desert flank. Overnight, Lawrence is deemed a hero - and his journey has only just begun. As with many epic films from the thirties to the sixties (and perhaps beyond), Lawrence's first half (actually a bit more than half) is divided from its second by an intermission. Some have praised the tight, focused, cohesive early section at the expense of the more scattered approach post-intermission. But in fact the film's greatness, deeply rooted and established in the first part, is fully realized in the more uncertain, sprawling second part. Lawrence's story isn't simply one of military success. It's a tale of cultural disorientation, in which a British officer attempts to subvert colonial policy but - unlike similar situations in Dances With WolvesThe Last Samurai, or Avatar - can never fully assimilate. This is also a story of humiliation, of hubris, and of Lawrence's psychosexual kinks applied on the battlefield as well as within his own mind. Lawrence of Arabia has been celebrated throughout history, placing highly on "greatest ever" lists and winning Best Picture in 1962 (maybe the most deserving Oscar winner of all time, with the Godfathers, On the Waterfront, Casablanca, and Gone With the Wind its only rivals, and even they probably fall short). Yet I can't help but feel the film is misunderstood, especially when celebrated as eyecandy without substance.

Why I like it •

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Favorites - Vertigo (#3)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Vertigo (1958/USA/dir. Alfred Hitchcock) appeared at #3 on my original list.

What it is • In the opening minutes of Vertigo, Det. James "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) experiences his first, but not his last, trauma, nearly falling from a tall building - and then watching as the police officer who tries to save him actually falls to his death. For the rest of the film, he suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights so debilitating he can't even look out the window of his apartment without collapsing. An old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) offers him a job to relieve the tedium of his unexpected retirement. Elster's wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been acting strange - she may in fact be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, an Old San Francisco beauty who was scorned by her husband and separated from her child. This is a Hitchcock movie, and Hitchcock movies, however eerie and tense they get, don't usually dabble in the supernatural. Nevertheless, as Scottie immerses himself in the Elster mystery he does seem to be uncovering a case of genuine possession. He falls in love with Madeleine, an aloof, aristocratic blonde, vowing to keep her safe. And then... Well, I saw the film without knowing much about it and I'd recommend you do the same if you can. Stop reading now, and seek the film with a fresh curiosity (jump to the "How you can see it" section to find a convenient option). Only if you have watched Vertigo, or have already had it spoiled, should you keep on reading. After losing Madeleine, Scottie disappears into a fog of regret and anxiety, a catatonic state which, when he finally emerges, leaves him an emotional cripple obsessed with the past. He meets Judy (also Kim Novak), an earthy brunette, nothing like Madeleine...except that she does looks a bit like her. If just for her hair...or her clothes...or her manner of speech. Vertigo's trailer presents this character as a distinct individual and the film could easily play into that expectation. Instead Hitchcock does something far more interesting - something he hesitated to do, only acquiescing when his wife/lifelong collaborator Alma urged him to trust his initial instinct. With a good half-hour or so remaining, Vertigo reveals that Judy is Madeleine; or rather, there never was a Madeleine, not that Scottie knew anyway. In the recent documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, an interesting survey of the American auteur's method, the commentators all concur that Vertigo is - for better or worse - exclusively interested in Scottie's perspective. I find this opinion confounding. The big twist of Vertigo is that we learn Judy's secret long before the climax. Therefore from this point forward, while we may sustain a lingering sympathy with Scottie, if we are paying attention our sympathy is just as likely to shift, irrevocably, to her. This is a powerful subversion of the preceding film; as the fantastic recent episode of the Projection Booth podcast observes, Judy's flashback changes everything. Prior to Steven Spielberg, no director had greater name recognition than Hitchcock, but Vertigo perplexed critics and audiences. It remained hard to see for close to forty years, finally getting a major restoration in the late nineties. Now Vertigo's star has ascended; in 2012, it became the first film in fifty years to surpass Citizen Kane on the Sight & Sound poll. Today it is regarded by a wide swathe of critics of the greatest film of all time.

Why I like it •

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Favorites - Day of Wrath (#4)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Day of Wrath (1943/Denmark/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer) appeared at #4 on my original list.

What it is • In a rigid, codified society, dominated by a theocratic order, Anne (Lisbeth Movin) doesn't quite fit in. Married to a much older pastor (Thorkild Roose), she is in love with his son from a previous marriage (Preben Lerdorff Rye). Aside from this menage a trois, she has no living family that we meet - although we do learn that her late mother, unbeknownst to Anne, was alleged to be a witch. Perhaps instinctively, Anne empathizes with Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier), an accused witch whom she hides away, vainly trying to protect the old woman from being burnt at the stake. In a society with no avenue for alternation, the slightest deviation from the central path sends one into a kind of disorienting freefall. Discovering her family history, and becoming enamored with a dashing young man so different from her dour husband, Anne no longer quite knows what to think. Perhaps she has been deceived into accepting a repressed, unhappy life. Perhaps she is a wicked sinner, disobeying God's laws despite her fortunate position. Or perhaps she is a witch, with the power to change her circumstances, an amoral force that is good or evil depending on how she perceives it. Shot under Nazi occupation (a condition Jonathan Rosenbaum, among others, considers central to the film's sensibility), Day of Wrath was initially rejected - as were many of Dreyer's films - before critics embraced it as a towering achievement. It is visually striking, between the innovative camera style and the iconographic power of its stark monochromatic imagery, the white aprons and cuffs contrasting with the deep black dress material. There are many great films about witchcraft, but this is one of the greatest, despite - or perhaps because of - its refusal to clearly come down one way or another on whether these supernatural phenomena are real, let alone if they are moral. Anne is eminently comprehensible, but the other characters are not stereotyped; each seems authentic and ambiguous. Anne's terror, delight, and curiosity are palpable, and if we embrace them we also fear their consequences, for others but especially for her.

Why I like it •

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Favorites - The House is Black (#5)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The House is Black (1963/Iran/dir. Forough Farrokhzad) appeared at #5 on my original list.

What it is • The House is Black is not a work of fiction, but the "documentary" description doesn't quite suit it. This is a film about death, about God, about play, about loneliness. It is about the feeling that can swell up inside of you on a bright day, as if you're lost inside a moment. It is about cold medical facts, and hard-earned hope that these facts can be applied to save lives - perhaps more importantly, to ease pain. The film is certainly about pain. And as a narrator tells us over a black screen in the opening seconds, it is about ugliness. It is about companionship in suffering and maybe above all, it is about empathy, an empathy the filmmaker feels for her subjects, and which she coaxes the viewers to feel as well. Empathy is not sympathy. Though commissioned and presented by a charity, the film does not ask us to gaze in horror or pity from afar. The first shot of the film, one of the most powerful shots I've ever seen, features a woman gazing at her own reflection in a mirror. We are watching her watch herself, as the camera moves closer. These camera movements are relentless, and the cutting even more so - several times a second during some rapid montages, dancing with the rhythm of the soundtrack (squeaks, chants, rumbles, repetitive noises picked up at the location). This film is important not just for its subject, but for how that subject is conveyed. Farrokhzad was a poet, and she narrates most of the film (after the stern introduction), softly reciting verses that evoke emotion through abstraction even as we are shown blunt, concrete images of faces, hands, and feet. These images are intercut with quick clippings of birds flying together, of a wheelbarrow rushing over rough turf, individual elements that make up the film. It is a film about poetry, and it is itself a poem. Most frames contain people, usually gazing into the camera lens, not as a challenge but as quiet assertion. There is not much talking, or writing, but the film takes its title from the final scene, which memorably contains both. A child, asked to offer examples of something ugly, names various body parts - a hand, a foot - and then giggles mischievously. This is a film about joy in the face of despair, joy not as mitigation but as relief, something natural that flows from day-to-day life because why wouldn't it? And then another person is asked to write a sentence on the board containing the word "black." He pauses, thinks for a moment, and then slowly, with difficulty, produces the following: "The house is black." This is also a film about sorrow, underlying everything else, the joy, pain, or fear. And yes, The House is Black is about leprosy. Almost everyone we see is leprous to varying degrees, some in early stages so that their affliction appears as a slight blemish, others shockingly encased within their own skin. The film is sobering, but to call it hard to watch isn't quite right. We, if we are fortunate enough not to already suffer from physical afflictions ourselves, quickly grow used to the sight of these people. The horror surrounds the film, in the neglect, the isolation, the maltreatment that facilitates the pain. Within the film is something else, pain yes, but also the dignity of existing, however temporarily, within a space created by an artist (Farrokhzad was so drawn to the people in the colony that she actually adopted one of the little boys when the dozen-day shoot ended, bringing him home with her). Farrokhzad, a strikingly beautiful and brilliant twenty-seven-year-old woman, a controversial, bold, and original artist celebrated at a young age for her talent with the written world, would be dead within five years, killed in a car crash in 1967. The House is Black soon became not just a memorial for those documented onscreen, but for the woman whose imagination and intelligence illuminated the film. It is twenty-two minutes, her only movie, and a masterpiece.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Favorites - Stille Nacht I-IV (#6)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Stille Nacht I-IV (UK/dir. Stephen & Timothy Quay): Stille Nacht I - Dramolet (1988), Stille Nacht II - Are We Still Married? (1991), Stille Nacht III - Tales From the Vienna Woods (1992), Stille Nacht IV - Can't Go Wrong Without You (1993) appeared at #6 on my original list.

What it is • Each film is black-and-white. Each is rendered with exquisite stop-motion animation. Each is only a few minutes in length (the first, shorn of credits, barely clocks in at seventy seconds); together they add up to only fourteen minutes. Stille Nacht I: Dramolet was commissioned for MTV back when they used to do that sort of thing, presumably aired as a little bumper between programming. It stars a doll with a cracked head and its top lopped off, clothed in a sack and staring poignantly at a bowl on a wooden table. The bowl, naturally, is filled with iron shavings dancing about as if hypnotized by a hidden magnet. This eerie yet oddly sympathetic doll could be a refugee from the Quay's landmark animation from the previous year, Streets of Crocodiles (think the doll creature in Toy Story, which is almost certainly a tribute). The next Stille Nacht is a music video for the avant-garde nineties band His Name is Alive. If the first film was striking but fleeting, Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? evokes a more lingering effect. Featuring a female doll whose legs pump up and down and a white rabbit who twitches and flutters against a door, the short obviously calls back to Alice in Wonderland. Yet Carroll's work, weird as it is, features a common-sense little girl as its protagonist, grounding us in a world of wackiness. If we're with anyone in Stille Nacht II, we're with that rabbit and hence we aren't just interacting with a skewed universe, we are enmeshed in it. Stille Nacht III: Tales From a Vienna Wood is closer in form to the first, though it's longer (the longest of the four), a visual experiment with a collage-like soundtrack, perhaps more an object of contemplation than immersion. The camera rotates around a six-legged table with an extended spoon beneath it (the warped, exaggerated, shifting perspective derives from the Quay brothers' enduring fascination with the distorting process of anamorphosis, explored at length in their animated documentary Anamorphosis, or, De Artificiali Perspectiva). A bullet fires from a gun and shimmers through the dark undergrowth of, I suppose, the titular forest - though it's hard to say exactly what we're seeing. Then we are on to the final Stille Nacht, which returns to the Alice imagery and HNIA score of II, while raising the uncanniness another notch. This time we are both inside the room with the woman and the rabbit, and outside of it with a deathlike figure who shimmers hungrily in his desire to get inside. The rabbit devotes great attention to an egg that appears beneath the bleeding doll (this short is heavily invested in menstrual imagery), placing it inside a cage while his ears feverishly wiggle back and forth. There is a precision and intensity to all of the action in these films, as nonsensical as it seems, a conviction that impresses us with the notion that everything we see is incredibly important, even if we can't quite determine why. It's an odd comparison - and maybe the little bunny brings it to mind - but the works of the Quays function almost like nature films, but nature films shorne of a narrator to helpfully explain the habits and instincts of the world onscreen. It's left to us to explain the purpose of the frenzied activity or, better yet, give up and just go for the ride. Dreams, like nature, operate with an overpowering logic we may not be able to fully comprehend even as we sense its meaning intuitively.

Why I like it •

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Favorites - Gimme Shelter (#7)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Gimme Shelter (1970/USA/dir. Albert & David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin) appeared at #7 on my original list.

What it is • In 1969, the Rolling Stones were on top of the world. A few months before the events captured in this documentary, they were first dubbed "the greatest rock and roll band in the world." That world they were atop of was in turmoil, an ecstatic turmoil if you were young and adventurous enough to take part. No subsequent American epoch can claim a fraction of the energy generated by the counterculture and the intersecting New Left in the autumn of '69. The Stones, ever-eager to capitalize on the zeitgeist, toured the U.S. while pondering how best to connect with this moment. Renowned in subsequent decades for their high ticket prices and uncompromising business sense, they wanted to offer something more idealistic on this tour - their first since 1966 (the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks all abstained from touring in that three-year period, some more voluntarily than others). Woodstock had unfolded just a few months earlier, and the Stones proposed their own free concert on the West Coast, relocated at the last minute from San Francisco to the Altamont Speedway. Savvy to the currents of the time, the band chose Albert and David Maysles, perhaps the most celebrated contemporary nonfiction filmmakers, to document their moment of triumph. Unlike the catch-all potpourri of Woodstock, the Maysles' documentary is judicious, focusing on a few key events (aside from some cutaways to press conferences and other interstitial material). The first is the joyous Madison Square Garden concert in November, an exciting but thoroughly professional affair (frenzied fans leaping onstage are wrestled to the ground by perpetually busy bodyguards). Though the emphasis is on the Stones' set, the directors make room for opening act Ike & Tina Turner, who steal the show (a bit defensively, Jagger - shown watching this clip later - mutters, "It's nice to have a chick, occasionally"). The second event is the legal/financial wheeling and dealing of celebrity attorney Melvin Belli as he arranges the Altamont deal, while the third event is a trip to Muscle Shoals. There the Stones record a few tracks that will land on their seminal 1971 album Sticky Fingers. About half the film zeroes in on the fourth, most important event: Altamont. Hippies endure massively bad acid freakouts. The Hell's Angels, disastrously, enforce their notion of security around the stage. Jefferson Airplane is interrupted by violence in the audience, and the members of the Grateful Dead fly away shortly after landing (the Stones took a lot of heat for hiring the Angels, but apparently Jerry Garcia was the one who encouraged them to do so). And finally, the Stones appear before the seething crowd, nervously performing "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Under My Thumb"...as a man is killed before their (and our) eyes. A crucial fifth event - participants visiting the mundane room where Gimme Shelter is being edited - unfolds surrounding all this other material. Mick Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts wearily watch the footage, recognizing that they were present for a decisive, awful moment in rock history, but unable to fully assess its significance or their own responsibility.

Why I like it •

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Favorites - The Passion of Joan of Arc (#8)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928/France/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer) appeared at #8 on my original list.

What it is • Joan of Arc lived from 1412 to 1431, dying when she was still a teenager; her legendary accomplishments - turning back a British invasion of France, following the voices she heard in her head - were achieved nearly six centuries ago. In over a hundred years of cinema, there have been dozens of adaptations of her life (Wikipedia counts forty - including Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure!). Nine countries have participated (all Western except for Japan - which aired a French opera). Acclaimed directors, including Georges Méliès, Cecil B. DeMille, Victor Fleming, Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger, Robert Bresson, Paul Verhoeven, Werner Herzog, Jacques Rivette, and Luc Besson, have offered their interpretations. Geraldine Ferrar, Michèle Morgan, Jean Seberg, Hedy Lamarr, Julie Harris, Geneviève Bujold, Janet Suzman, Sandrine Bonnaire, and Leelee Sobieski have all played Joan - Ingrid Bergman even played her twice, once for her husband (joining a tradition stretching from Méliès' wife Jeanne d'Alcy,  to Besson's wife Milla Jovovich, though d'Alcy didn't marry Melies for another thirty years and Jovovich divorced Besson between the film's production and release). With such a storied history - and I haven't even mentioned the excellent La Marveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d'Arc, which followed the film being reviewed by barely a year - you'd think there would be some difficulty in determining the Joan of Arc masterpiece. But there isn't. The Passion of Joan of Arc routinely appears near the very top of all-time great lists, Carl Theodor Dreyer is widely considered the greatest filmmaker to tackle the topic, and Falconetti is praised as the most superb Joan. That's an understatement, actually; many would rank her performance as the greatest in the entire history of cinema. The Passion of Joan of Arc, which focuses exclusively on the trial and execution of Joan, has a tumultuous history. It was controversial when it was shot - territorial French critics despised the idea of a Dane reproducing their saint - and it was frequently banned and censored. Multiple, corrupted versions existed for decades until the original cut was discovered in the early eighties in, of all places, a Norwegian mental institution. Rather differently from Dreyer's sound films, Passion (considered by many the apex of silent cinema) consists almost entirely of close-ups of actor's faces, a riveting, hypnotic symphony of actors' expressions exemplifying the art of intercutting reaction shots.

Why I like it •

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Favorites - The Godfather Part II (#9)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Godfather Part II (1974/USA/dir. Francis Ford Coppola) appeared at #9 on my original list.

What it is • It is several years after the events of The Godfather (depending on your source, as few as three or as many as seven). Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has moved the family business out west, and the effect is slightly chilling. In the original film, the Mafia already operated on a grandiose political level detached from its reputation for sleazy street crime. Now Michael is fully enmeshed with the political and corporate world of postwar America, and his geographical relocation exacerbates his distance from the old world (as does his visit to Cuba, sitting side by side with the heads of "legitimate" financial powerhouses, further blurring the lines between the Mafia and Big Business). Yet even as we watch the mobsters advance into modernity, we leap back in time to explore their roots: the film actually begins in Sicily, with a young Vito Corleone (Oreste Baldini). As in late fifties American, turn-of-the-century Sicily makes no real distinction between the wealth and power of criminals and politicians: when local kingpin Don Francesco (Giuseppe Sillato) condemns Vito to death for his father's betrayal, there is no greater authority to condemn him, and Vito must flee for his life. In New York of a hundred years ago (where the boy grows up to be portrayed by Robert De Niro), crime is the only available path for the underdog immigrant, the only way he knows he can protect his family. The irony, of course, is that in the present day Michael follows the path his father set forth and it leads not to the preservation, but to the destruction, of his family. Michael's wife Kay (Diane Keaton) is estranged, his son Anthony (James Gounaris) is threatened, and his brother Fredo (John Cazale)...well, poor Fredo. The Godfather Part II portrays the chilling logic of power, its ability to destroy even that which it has been unleashed to protect. If The Godfather suggests a graceful acceptance of this reasoning, Part II bravely follows it through to its bitter end. There aren't many sequels among my Favorites - even when obvious opportunities present themselves (like one of the later Star Wars films) I have a tendency to favor the original over the works following in its footsteps. Unsurprisingly, The Godfather Part II is the film to buck this trend. It's the only sequel to win Best Picture or to place on many Greatest-of-All-Time lists, and amazingly it does so not as an improvement on a first chapter that didn't really have its act together but rather as the extension of one of the most popular, beloved, and acclaimed classics of all time. On my own list, The Godfather appeared in the top twenty, yet here Part II is even higher. And I'm certainly not alone in that preference, no matter how slight, over its iconic predecessor.

Why I like it •

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Favorites - It's a Wonderful Life (#10)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. It's a Wonderful Life (1946/USA/dir. Frank Capra) appeared at #10 on my original list.

What it is • You may know this one: George Bailey (James Stewart) dreams of escaping his small town in upstate New York. Family crises, business troubles, and true love (however he might try to resist it) foil his plans for college, world travel, and a grand career. Threatened with financial catastrophe and public humiliation on Christmas Eve just after World War II, George contemplates suicide but an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has been told George's life story in a series of "flashbacks," intervenes to show him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he'd never been born, teaching him to be thankful for what he has and proud of what he's accomplished. Well...my Favorites list has hopefully been a healthy mix of under-the-radar recommendations and familiar classics. Few are more familiar than It's a Wonderful Life, certainly as celebrated a movie as Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz though its trajectory is closer to the latter than the former - forgotten for years before television gave it second life. In fact, more than almost any other film in the history of Hollywood, It's a Wonderful Life has become synonymous with a particular ritual - and not just any ritual, but one of the most important in American culture. This has become the Christmas movie since PBS began airing it as holiday counter-programming in the seventies. In the process, attention settled on the "see what life is like if you'd never been born" high concept and especially the exuberant setpiece closing the movie with a joyous bang, all "Auld Lang Syne" and bells ringing on Christmas trees. It goes so well with eggnog and heapings of Christmas dinner crowding the coffee table in front of the TV, carols competing for attention from nearby stereos, and relatives gathered together in a living room, their chatter overwhelming the dialogue onscreen. Perhaps because of this taken-for-granted familiarity, or the fact that the Greatest Generation who experienced its timeline is now in its nineties, or simply because the black-and-white studio style can no longer claim the universality it once held, It's a Wonderful Life's dominance has become more precarious in recent years. More purely light-hearted fare like A Christmas Story (also set in the forties, but shot in color in the eighties) have threatened its perch, as have hundreds of other Christmas films aired on hundreds of other channels (and thousands available on platforms like Netflix) - long gone are the days when families had to select from only a few options for holiday party TV. I think it would be a pity if It's a Wonderful Life did slide back into quasi-obscurity, a favorite among cineastes but unappreciated by the wider public. It's much more than just a feel-good Christmas movie, but that status allows it to slip a deeper perspective and more ambitious approach into a diet of December fluff.

Why I like it •

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Favorites - Citizen Kane (#11)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Citizen Kane (1941/USA/dir. Orson Welles) appeared at #11 on my original list.

What it is • The great man is dead, and he died alone (well, sort of...). But this isn't an ancient legend, and we can't be fooled into believing this titan was universally revered and respected. It's 1941, the age of mass media, an age that Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) himself helped create - as we're reminded more than once. And so, within moments of our grandiose introduction to this larger-than-life character, a rapid-fire newsreel exalts, mocks, glosses, and punctures Kane from all angles. He is an awe-inspiring tycoon and a ludicrous public figure; he is a powerful man of the world and an isolated loner in his private castle; he's a communist and a fascist! The rest of the film both follows and subverts this pattern in more subtle fashion. After that info-battering, a throughline is needed, and it arrives in the hunt for the meaning of "Rosebud," Kane's dying words. A roving reporter (William Alland) interviews a series of figures who knew Kane, each from a different perspective depending on their relationship to him, where he was in his own life when they knew him, and the quirks of their own personalities. The film itself reflects this diversity in almost subliminal ways, shaping its style around the voices of these narrators while reflecting the different eras they inhabit. Citizen Kane is one of the all-time great biographies in any medium, one of the few biopics to transcend the problems that afflict that genre. Shaping an entire lifetime into a two-hour feature isn't easy, but Kane turns those challenges into virtues. It works both as an anthology of interrelated short stories and as a sprawling but cohesive novel. Of course, Citizen Kane is frequently praised as the greatest film of all time due to technique more than narrative: its incredible visual invention and ambition (we all know the litany: the trick shots, the visible ceilings, the deep focus, the long takes, the creative montages, etc etc) amplify the plot, themes, and characters, but also transcend them. At twenty-five, straight from his groundbreaking work in radio and theater, Welles was given the most unusual deal of Hollywood's Golden Age, using it to make a film that both extends and radically re-configures the tools of that particular trade. There's a million things I haven't mentioned here (most notably three words: William Randolph Hearst), and I couldn't even scratch the surface of most in a short capsule piece. Fortunately, there's plenty of other writing on Kane, including some by myself that has been linked below. Besides...

Why I like it •