Lost in the Movies: July 2008

A Man Escaped

Appropriately enough, while reviewing the austere minimalist Robert Bresson, who abhorred waste, clutter, and distraction, I am about to embark on a digression. For the past couple weeks I've generally stuck to a film-per-day, with the exception of the introduction to my AUTEURS series. This has kept me writing, though occasionally below the level I would like, and gives me something concrete to focus on. Nonetheless, I expect to depart from this in the coming days. For several reasons, one of them named "Twin Peaks." I've been watching the entire series for the first time and in my desperation to (initially) find out who killed Laura Palmer and then (eventually) to see where the hell the series can go after that question has - apparently - been answered, I've converted all my Netflix queues to the show. Expect a review of Fire Walk With Me next week and possibly a review of the series this weekend. In the mean time, I could dip into my personal collection (which I spent the last few months watching anyway) but I won't be tackling many sights unseen.

Furthermore, there are a number of topics circulating the blogosphere which have piqued my interest, and oddly enough, they're all political. First, the upcoming W. by Oliver Stone...certain to be the most interesting release of the year even if it's not very good. Second, the political implications of The Dark Knight, which I already discussed in my review but which may possibly warrant further discussion. Thirdly, a dust-up over Jon Voight's extremely silly op-ed about Obama being a socialist unduly influenced by his childhood teachers (never mind that Obama first encountered said childhood teachers as an adult...). I'm not sure if I want to gallop off in these directions, but I thought I'd throw it out there. For now, though...A Man Escaped.

Dancer in the Dark

The best films of Lars von Trier, a sadistic Danish jester, face up to their flaws and nastiness and hyper-self-consciousness unblinkingly. Their unashamedness becomes their virtue; and von Trier can be called one of the most interesting directors of his time because even if he's an asshole (and the evidence suggests this is so) he doesn't try to hide the fact. In an artist, dishonesty is a greater sin than villainy, and von Trier takes his adventures and experiments to their logical extreme, rarely trying to hide what he's doing.

Sometimes this results in a work of gripping sincerity: Breaking the Waves has been decried as cruel and misogynistic but as I remember it, Emily Watson's performance is fearless and with all attempts at nicety stripped away, a certain brutal honesty leaves no room for the gleeful nastiness that von Trier sometimes capitalizes on. Dogville, on the other hand, is supremely nasty and it makes no bones about it. Any attempt to disassociate the nastiness from the director by concealing it within "the world of the film" is obstructed by the spare set, a stage with chalk outlines, so that we can never look past the film's artifice, and hence never forget that all the trials Nicole Kidman must endure are devised by the man behind the camera, not the characters she interacts with.

I Was Born, But...

Like the child in whom we can retroactively see elements of the future adult, I Was Born, But..., a mostly lighthearted silent comedy by a 29-year-old Japanese whiz kid named Yasujiro Ozu, contains seeds of the master's later work. Yet just as that child, however similar to the grown-up he or she will become, also has a youthful energy and cavalier innocence that will eventually subside, this 1932 classic skips, jumps, and grins where later Ozu films would serenely and sadly contemplate. (That said, I have yet to see Good Morning, made when Ozu was 56, which apparently includes a farting contest.) There are some pillow shots and static, close-to-the ground compositions, as one would expect from Ozu, but also frequent dollies, as if the camera had to move in order to keep up with the kids.

I Was Born, But... is also one of those movies whose supposed plot (the one that critics summarize in their reviews) doesn't actually arrive until the last twenty or thirty minutes of the movie. Most of the running time is spent on "Our Gang"/"Little Rascals" material, gracefully (often gorgeously) photographed, as a group of beanie-clad schoolchildren play on dirt roads, running between trolley cars and amidst telephone poles . This developing industrial world is their playground, but it's a world they don't really understand, which brings us to that last act of the film, where the "plot" kicks in.

The Virgin Suicides

Few things are as intriguing and as vexing as a film at odds with itself. Particularly when that same film shows such stylistic verve and moody vision that you suspect it may be winking at you behind its confusion. Sofia Coppola's turn-of-the millennium debut, The Virgin Suicides chronicles five lovely adolescent girls who, as the title suggests, off themselves. If it sounds like I'm being flippant, be not alarmed: the movie is just as cavalier in tone...or is it? The film is narrated by the collective voice of the neighborhood boys, who are fascinated by the mysterious Lisbon sisters but can never figure out what made them tick, let alone stop ticking. Just like its subjects, Virgin Suicides proves to be inscrutable.

Is it a distanced black comedy? A tragedy disguised as a melancholy tone poem? Is it about the yearning of the boys or the suffering of the girls? Are they even suffering? We can never be sure, but as if that weren't enough, Coppola and her unique voice complicate things further. The screenplay, and supposedly the novel it is based on (which I haven't read), takes the male point of view. To the horny and goofy but also somewhat dreamy and romantic teenage boys, the Lisbons are like beautiful Martians. The boys read the sisters' diaries, filled with casual banalities, and look between the lines for hidden meanings and psychological clues. Trying to play it cool, they munch popcorn and leer through a telescope at one of the sisters as she screws random men on her rooftop, but they seem more genuinely excited later when the girls communicate with them by playing records over the phone. They watch them walk around school, flipping their hair, flirting with the stupidest guys, giggling. And this is all after they've lost their little sister, who jumped out of a window in one of the early scenes.

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Biograph shorts, Part One

Forward-looking and backward-looking, often at the same time, David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) provides a fascinating and somehow appropriate figure to kickstart the history of film. In 1908, screened cinema had been around for thirteen years, photographic trickery creating the illusion of motion for a bit longer. Griffith was a theater man and when, in his early thirties, he turned to film-acting it was a practical matter. Eventually he wound up at Biograph, a New York film production company. Over five years, he would produce 450 short films and, in this compressed and incredibly productive period, develop a language of film which survives in some incarnation to this day.

The Adventures of Dollie (1908)
A pastoral kidnapping tale, filmed entirely in long-shot, this was Griffith's directorial debut. To what extent he had story input I don't know, but it certainly fits the Griffith mould. There are scenes of blissful middle-class domesticity, which give way to a melodramatic plot device in which outsiders threaten the secure little family. In this case, gypsies kidnap a little girl, hiding her in a barrel, which falls out of their wagon as they cross a river, is swept downstream, and eventually deposits the girl back with her kin. Griffith is far from developing the intricate interplay of images that will eventually characterize his work: the story is divided up into a series of tableaux, shot from a distance, and essentially serving as black-and-white live action illustrations to a children's book.

THE AUTEURS: A Declaration of Principles

Directors, auteurs, filmmakers -- call them what you will. Certain individuals carry a presence into their work which makes them the undisputed authors/auteurs of their movie. Well, not quite undisputed. Accomplished screenwriters like Budd Schulberg and Gore Vidal, along with other film professionals and many critics and historians, gripe to this day about the injustice of attributing a film entirely to its director. They complained that the theory, originated in France and applied to American cinema in the 60s and 70s, retroactively overevaluated directors who were little more than hired hands on the set, their power subservient to the producers and their creative input eclipsed by the writers. Certainly, there's a fair amount of ridiculousness emanating from the auteurist credo. Anyone who's worked or observed filmmaking in process, on anything from a major production to the smallest student film, knows that it's impossible for the director to have his hand in every aspect of creation, unlike the novelist or the painter.

You Can Count on Me

Movie buffs are always looking for a little guidance in their journey through the thickets of cinema. I've debated the value of canons with friends (I'm very pro-), but most people, consciously or not, rely on some sort of structure at some point in their video odyssey. I rely on several, faciliated by my Netflix queues (which the company had to backtrack from deleting, thanks to customer outcry). One of these is the 250 best films of the 21st century, according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They? I avidly followed current releases in the nineties, but around the turn-of-the-millenium I stopped paying attention to what was coming out each weekend and in the process, I've been more or less out of the loop when it comes to contemporary cinema.

You Can Count on Me was the highest ranking film I hadn't seen, after Spirited Away. At #29, it's obviously well-thought-of (the rankings are based on year-end critical top-10 lists), but I knew next to nothing about this 2000 release before going in. A relevant aside: this blog should probably contain a permanent warning to the effect of "There Will Be Spoilers" but for now consider this fair warning. The movie opens with a couple in their car, obviously returning from some sort of party, in silence. The wife is thinking to herself then turns to her husband and asks, "Why is it that they force adolescent girls to wear braces at the time in their life when they are most insecure about their appearance?" Moments later they are creamed by an oncoming Mac truck.

The Brave Little Toaster

I have been hoping to write about D.W. Griffith for a few days now; a disc of Biograph shorts is sitting impatiently beside my computer. It will have to wait, because I want to watch the whole thing before writing on it and - at 3 hours long - I didn't get to it today. Instead, I've reviewed the second animated film in a row. Like yesterday's Spirited Away, The Brave Little Toaster was released by Disney without actually being a Disney film (a quick glance at the names of the animators reveals that it was largely a Chinese operation). Its eccentricity is apparent from the title, while the source material only adds to the general air of idiosyncrasy.

This evening I stumbled across the unfortunate news that sci-fi author Thomas M. Disch had killed himself a few weeks ago. In addition to writing highly literary, much-acclaimed, but scarcely-read fiction, Disch was a poet, a playwright (whose work the Catholic Church tried to prevent from being performed), and, as it happens, the author of a children's book called The Brave Little Toaster, turned into an unusual animated film which inspired several sequels and still proves popular today. I haven't read any of Disch's work, though after reading a few of his obituaries I may be inspired to. A quick glance at the Amazon summary of Brave Little Toaster (grumpily described by a School Library Journal critic as "lamentable idiocy") reveals that its plotline does not entirely correspond with the film and, given Disch's reputation for stubborn individualism, it would be interesting to note where allowances and modifications were made for mainstream consumption.

Spirited Away

A little girl lies in the backseat of the family car, fidgety and irritable. It's moving day and she doesn't want a new home, or a new school. When her parents stop to explore an odd tunnel in the neighborhood she frightens easily and asks them to turn around. She is no precocious adventurer, and this is not director Hiyao Miyazaki's earlier animated opus My Neighbor Totoro in which imaginative youngsters bring magic and excitement to everyday life. No, this film is Spirited Away and Miyazaki has something more intense and even more fantastical than Totoro in mind. And to make it work, he introduces Chihiro, his 10-year-old heroine as a somewhat irritable brat, whose own father calls her a "scaredy-cat." Suspicions that the oncoming fantasy of Spirited Away will be a mere dream of Chihiro's are quickly dashed, and we get something grander instead, a world much larger and more frightening than Chihiro can handle at first, but one which she will adapt to and eventually flourish in.

If the film sounds preachy or its coming-of-age arc conventional, don't worry. Chihiro's growth is achieved subtly without overt message-mongering, but even if it wasn't, the film is so full to the brim of whimsical, magical invention that it would hardly matter. The world of the film is a huge sauna devoted to the rejuvenation of spirits, real, personified - if that's the right word - spirits that is. They include leaping, chirping big yellow birds, greedy little frogs that get zapped and frozen in the air when someone needs to make an escape, and a shy-seeming black cipher with a mask who turns into a devouring demon. Staffing the sauna are a variety of lumpen forest critters, a foreman with eight arms (whose employees are enchanted, and surprisingly lovable, dust bunnies), and a woman with a head two or three times the size of the rest of the body (she looks like a Pez dispenser pounded flat). Words fail but the images speak for themselves -- see the movie and be awed. And I didn't even mention the "Radish Monster" who doesn't look like a radish but seems to weigh about seventy tons. His huge girth and hapless expression (unblinking eyes and ever-gaping maw) make the scene in which he pins Chihiro in an elevator hilariously uncomfortable.

The Dark Knight

I finally got around to seeing The Dark Knight. Normally, on a Monday after a movie is released, this news would not be especially shocking. In the case of the movie which just shattered all box-office records for opening day and opening weekend, I can safely say I was behind the curve on this one. Actually I did try to go last night, but after arriving at 7:30 and discovering the next two hours' worth of shows were sold-out, we discussed our options and decided to buy tickets for the 9:50 screening.

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the kiosk, they were gone too.

So here it is, Monday morning, and I've just returned from a matinee showing of what is sure to be the biggest movie of the year. Or of all time, if some of the blogs and their comment sections are to be believed. The term "hype" doesn't quite do justice to the phenomenon we have on our hands here. All the rabid press aside, what communicated the power of this film to me was the sheer volume of people I knew who wanted to see it. Old, young, guy, girl, artsy, popcorn-munching, avid movie buffs, people who never go to the movies. At a cross-generational family reunion this past weekend, it was on everyones' lips.

Storytelling Giant

The other day I was talking to an animal-lover and preservationist about local wildlife. Apparently, as people and their homes encroach on natural habitats, woodland creatures begin to nest in backyards. Unable to change their surroundings, they accommodate themselves to it, adapting for the sake of survival. The same can be said of creative types in a media-saturated, commodity-drenched world.

This is a central idea in David Byrnes' 1988 film Storytelling Giant, a compendium of Talking Heads videos punctuated by lower-case talking heads, normal folks telling normal and not-so-normal stories about their lives. Usually these anecdotes (they're relatively short, none more than fifteen or twenty seconds) serve as lead-ins to the videos, so that we get someone talking about self-realization before the burst-of-consciousness song "Once in a Lifetime," or partying before "Wild Wild Life." Initially it appears that the film will be little more than a video collection but as it moves along, certain overarching themes begin to appear.

The Wolf Man

When I was about seven, around the time I was first getting into movies, I was obsessed with the old horror films. Or more accurately, books about the old horror films. They had thick yellow cardboard covers and their photo-illustrated texts told the movies' stories, followed by the details of their production. These books sparked something in my imagination, but I have to admit that few of the actual movies, when I finally saw them, really lived up to the imaginative brushfires they'd ignited. Unlike the economical gangster pictures or the evocative westerns, the old Universal horror films don't really justify the iconography that they propagated. They are generally clunky, weighed down with exposition, and often hammy and stagey. They can be fun if you're in the right mood but if you're not, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about.

I just saw The Wolf Man for the first time and it certainly fits in with this general trend. And yet. The Wolf Man is one of the oddest of the horror films and its oddities hold a certain fascination which doesn't quite redeem, but at least fills out, the picture. Firstly, whereas the classic Universal horror movies Frankenstein and Dracula were released in the early 30's, The Wolf Man arrived on the scene ten years later amidst a World War that America was about to join. And the film's setting is distinctively contemporary, though its modern elements jar uneasily with the story's medieval roots - automobiles and gypsy carts jostling for room, along with ham-handed psychological analysis and old-fashioned superstition.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford definitely veers into Terence Malick territory, but with some interesting differences. Firstly, the obvious similarities. Both Malick and Assassination director Andrew Dominik love to set lonesome types adrift in stunning vistas of natural beauty, draping the proceedings with intricate, evocative narration. (In her amusing but scathing review, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon writes that "when Jesse's wife ...wipes her hands on her apron, we're told that she 'wiped her pink hands on an apron' -- because, you know, we probably ascertained that she has hands, but we might not have noticed that they were pink.") Certainly both open themselves up to charges of pretension and self-indulgence, as well as praise for taking their time to evoke a delicate mood and definite perspective in their visuals, instead of just shooting a mere setting in which stuff happens.

But the differences are telling, particularly in terms of cinematography, by the master cameraman Roger Deakins. In Assassination, wide-angle lenses are not favored and when master shots are used, the edges of the frame are blurred, drawing our focus to the people at the center of the frames. In one memorable shot, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) stands on a railway awaiting an oncoming train in the black of the night. We only see him and a few blades of grass illuminated by the lantern and as the camera zooms over his shoulder, the darkness is all that remains for a few moments, until the train arrives and illuminates a corner of the screen (though, revealingly, not all of it). Here, as elsewhere in the film, Dominik chooses to isolate his elements of interest and obscure the rest.

I'm Not There

I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' 2007 biopic (of sorts) is as inscrutable as Robert Zimmermann at his most enigmatic, but seldom as interesting. Whereas each phase in the singer's career came from somewhere (however hard it is to discern that "somewhere" from the outside) and resonanted one way or another, here they're just a series of poses. The choice of different actors to play each persona of Bob Dylan, accompanied by very different styles, only deepens the incoherence and the decision to intercut these segments dilutes whatever virtues these flawed and incomplete storylines hold.

Why is it a cardinal rule of multiple-storyline movies that said storylines must unfold concurrently? Sometimes it works, but here the mishmash of moods and styles and personalities creates a jagged work unable to build up and sustain its various moments. If the point is that any man, and Dylan especially, contains multitudes which cannot necessarily be reconciled why smush them all together? A more powerful picture would let us immerse ourselves in each stage one-by-one. It would trust our memories and outside knowledge to connect whatever dots there were to connect, to notice the contrasts and disparities while still allowing us to enjoy what each moment has to offer. Later in the film, the intercutting slows down and we are allowed to take a breath and look around. Of course, this also reveals how thin most of the storylines really are; perhaps this is why Haynes chose to interweave them all.

Landmarks of Early Film & Be Kind Rewind

Without intending to, I recently watched Landmarks of Early Film and Be Kind Rewind back-to-back. The former is a disc collecting works by the pioneers of cinema, while the latter is French director Michel Gondry's latest film, featuring Jack Black and Mos Def as video clerks forced to create homemade versions of blockbuster films for their customers after the originals are accidentally erased. Both these works, the first rather inadvertently, the second very self-consciously, celebrate the imaginative power of film alongside its documentary capacity. Indeed, the primary charm of the video clerks' work is that the artifice is so transparent. Their mini-films are simultaneously journeys into a fantastic world of made-up stories and a couple guys goofing off in home movies. The films they make provide both an escape from and an affirmation of their lives.

This same fusion of reality and illusion was omnipresent in the early years of film. We all know the story of how spectators (supposedly) cowered in their seats as the Lumieres' train pulled into the station; today few would be compelled to do the same, yet the power of the images lingers. Why? Unlike their American contemporary, Thomas Edison, whose studio produced shorts that were little more than curios to be viewed through a peephole, and whose content was easily summed up by simple names (The Kiss, The Cock Fight, etc.), the French brothers always suggested a world outside the frame. They took their cameras out onto the street, using natural light and capturing images of middle-class domesticity and working-class public life. People walk in and out of the frame and the fixed view, rather than having a narrowing effect as in Edison's work, creates a curiously widened frame of references, enriching what we see by virtue of what we don't.

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