Lost in the Movies: November 2009

Man on Wire

Best of the 21st Century? (#196)

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

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

Where is Mulholland Dr.?

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

This week on Examiner

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Reading I Met the Walrus

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Handcrafted Cinema and Figuring Out Day of Wrath

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


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

Flight of the Red Balloon

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

Pirate Radio

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

This week on Examiner

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


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


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

What are the Best Films of the 21st century?

This introduction to the Examiner list was published on Wonders in the Dark, where you can find a whole lot of additional comments.

Over on the Examiner, I've initiated a series to explore recent cinema. It's called "Best of the 21st Century?" (emphasis on the question mark).

There are good reasons for this, both critical and personal. Critically, the motivation is obvious. We are approaching 2010; the first decade of our young millennium has come to pass, and as our own digits predispose us to think in tens, it's a time to take stock of things. Personally, my inspiration for this exercise is even stronger: I just haven't seen many movies from the 00s. That's why I am only writing about the movies I haven't seen on the guide list - a number that still encompasses just over half of the titles. (That list, compiled from various critics' lists, is a fairly "objective" analysis of the most acclaimed films. This still leaves room for dreck like King Kong which, thankfully having suffered through once, I won't have to review here. Sorry, Dennis.) The list will be updated in January 2010, and I may update my approach to reflect the new list. I'll be posting every couple days until we've caught up with what I've already reviewed on the Examiner, and after Christmas we'll probably take a one-a-week approach, which means this list could theoretically go into 2012 (on second thought, we may have to speed up my approach here...). In the mean time, it will serve as preparation for Allan's own 2000s, a full-on canonical approach, to be initiated after his massive "100 best films of the silent era" is completed. All my pieces will be on the Examiner, which is where the series originated, but if you follow the embedded links on my posts here, the site will not be difficult to reach.

Follow the jump and you can read my introduction to the series, as well as a full list of all the titles, seen and unseen by me (an asterisk indicates the films I have not seen, and thus will be reviewing...as long as they are available on Netflix). Some of the films' titles are linked to reviews I've already written, either for one of my blogs or for the Examiner prior to this series beginning. Feel free to share your own thoughts on recent cinema below - but save your top 25/50 lists for Allan's countdown, which will begin in the springtime.

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

The following comments are from The Sun's Not Yellow, where the list was originally linked.

Welcome to Hugowood

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Frozen River

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

For the Love of Movies interview

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

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

The Stars Are Beautiful

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

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

This week on Examiner

rewritten early 2010: Originally this provided a link to a preview of my upcoming work at the Examiner. Here are links to the new homes of the pieces written that week: For the Love of Movies interview, Frozen River, What Are the Best Films of the 21st Century? (no longer active; updated version will be appearing on Wonders in the Dark shortly).

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

discussing Schindler

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Over at the Examiner

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

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

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

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

Pickpocket (1959)

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

Wings of Desire (1987)

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

Severed Ways

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow, based on a Boston Examiner round-up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Two News Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please discuss, particularly the health care debate, below.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Beatles on your screen

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

The Exterminating Angel

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Jewish Film Festival in Boston

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at the Boston Examiner and linked on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Year Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

Why are kids' movies sadder?

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

This is Your Brain on Cartoons

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

You Only Live Once

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

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