Lost in the Movies: January 2010

Echoes of Fitzgerald

Despite the picture, these are not selections from The Great Gatsby (which, upon recently re-reading, launched me on my present Fitzgerald kick) but from "My Lost City", an essay featured originally in The Crack-Up (1945), and which I read for the first time in the slim 1996 volume The Jazz Age. (I had originally planned to include the bittersweet valedictory "Echoes of the Jazz Age," which opens the collection and lent my post its name; but I realized all my favorite quotes were from the next piece in the book.)

Goodbye, TV

Tonight my DVR, filled with otherwise unavailable classic movies, kicked the bucket. Who knows when I'll get the chance to see the likes of The Wind or Mission to Moscow or Miss Mend again? And with that, I'm waving goodbye to television altogether. My cable bill was an uncomfortable expense that I couldn't really justify except for the idea of catching up with these films I'd recorded in past months and hadn't watched yet. With that excuse gone, fuck it.

If I can figure out a way to get high-speed internet without cable (and Comcast tries their best to make that an impossibility) I will be kicking goddamn television to the curb. I never watched it anyway, except for TCM and football games so the idiot box can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. (Not that the physical TV is going anywhere, as I need it to watch the volumes of DVDs I own, borrow, or rent from Netflix.)

I don't usually blog about this sort of thing, but I'm so annoyed right now I couldn't resist. This is the middle finger to you, television. After 26 years I'm saying goodnight and good riddance.

By the way, activity will probably pick up next week. There are reams of real-world distractions right now but I've got plenty to write about when I do get back. Stay tuned - pardon the inappropriate pun.

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

The Sacrifice

The Sacrifice was Andrei Tarkovsky's last film, made just before he was diagnosed with cancer and released while he was dying. Having now seen a slim majority of the master's films (and all of the ones which are most often acclaimed - save Nostalghia) I wouldn't rank this as one of my favorite Tarkovskys, though it was - as always - an interesting and often rewarding viewing experience. It's somewhat different from his other films in mood and style. Though his serious, slow, at times lugubrious aesthetic was never what when one would normally describe as "youthful", there's a painfully taut romanticism and intensity to his earlier films, a kind of breathlessness of expression which make their auteur appear a brash, bold enfant terrible. But The Sacrifice is somehow more stately, more mournful, less throbbing with the expressionist anxiety of young genius. It's a film of maturity, of regret, of decline - the characters are all older than the usual Tarkovsky protagonists, the camera style is more removed (despite the usual dreamlike black-and-white Tarkovskian interludes which Lars von Trier sought to evoke in Antichrist), and the scenario - both the setting and the story - more spare, if at times apocalyptic.

January 20, 2010 - wither the new epoch?

At 9:00 am today, a re-publishing of my Obama piece from last year was slated to go up. The essay, a recounting of my attendance at the president's inauguration 24 hours after the fact, is still up here if you want to read it: as a first-hand memoir of the event and first-draft summation of the zeitgeist, it's still pretty interesting, I think. However, it no longer fits the mood of the moment. I was going to re-post it to commemorate the first anniversary of Obama's presidency today - not only its promise but rumbles of its discontent (which I saw represented, metaphorically, in the confusion and congestion of the gigantic crowd and the difficulty of authorities in marshalling them). Yet this ambivalence no longer seems appropriate, because the balance shifted yesterday - the ambivalence is souring into something more bitter, both in terms of the presidency and the populace that elected him.

As most of you know, Republican Scott Brown won the special election to replace Ted Kennedy tonight, beating the originally favored Democrat Martha Coakley for this historically Democratic Senate seat in a historically Democratic state. I am a Massachussetts resident, however I'm still a registered New Hampshire voter - I've remained on the rolls in the state of my birth because, among other reasons, it's a swing state where my vote actually seems to make a difference. Well, the joke's on me today - not that one vote would have dented Brown's shockingly comfortable margin. As an independent, I'm not a down-the-line liberal and I agree with Brown on some issues (well, Afghanistan anyway) over Coakley. But on the crucial issue of the day, health care - on which this 60th vote is actually essential - I've had it with the obstinant do-nothingism of ideologues like Brown.

Likewise with his general toe-the-line sensibility; that a Republican can win just a year after Bush left office doesn't infuriate me so much as that a Republican can win without making any effort to distance himself from the disastrous policies of one of the worst administrations in U.S. history. This victory seems to justify the intransigent, stubborn fanaticism of the right wing over the past year, and for that alone it's worth ruing. But worse than what it "represents" (which may be overblown although things certainly look even more troublesome for November '10 now) is what it means in concrete terms - that the already precarious and compromised health care bill is no longer protected by a 60-vote caucus. If one of the most initially popular presidents in history, with his party more in charge of the capital than it's been in a generation, can't pass a reform that the American people have repeatedly demonstrated their desire for (and if the American people can't quit dithering and hand-wringing long enough to demonstrate this desire when it matters most) ... well then, I might as well declare my disgust with politics once and for all and give up on any hope of moving forward on just about anything.

There's still that window of hope if the administration can get the House to approve the present bill and keep it safe from filibuster but if not, that new epoch I saw dawning a year ago may have prematurely come to its frozen halt on this day of wretched weather and dismal electoral results - or worse yet, this may be the new epoch, a decade of economic futility, public malaise, and pathetic political impotence - an era whose one redeeming virtue is that it rubs our faces in the shit we managed to avoid in the Zeroes: yet if even that exposure to the elements doesn't serve as a catalyst for change and improvement, what's the point? Might as well plug back in that iPod, turn up the TV and drown out the outside world.

Anyway, I hope this is not the case. But the general feeling is if not now, probably never - not just in terms of physical health care, but in terms of finally putting away childish things and facing up to the future and our nation's spiritual health. We'll see.

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

Update on Blog 09

Heading into the weekend, I don't have too much to say though I've renewed Netflix and should thus have some more to write about in upcoming weeks. I also wanted to keep you posted on the promised updates to "Blog 09" at the Dancing Image. As expected, some new participants (albeit original invitees) have joined in: Jason Bellamy from The Cooler, Dennis Cozzalio from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, the whole gang from Out 1, and Andrew from Encore's World of Film & TV have all thrown their hats in the ring. Check for the entries where the blog names would come in alphabetically (also, some of them had other nominees too, so check out the bottom of the post). Plus, Tony Dayoub added his own favorite piece (since I had chosen the one to represent him in the intro) which can be found, again alphabetically, under Cinema Viewfinder.

Here is the updated post.

Happy Martin Luther King Day weekend (even those of you, like I, who unfortunately don't get the day off). See you next week.

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

Goodbye and Happy Birthday

One of my favorite directors - and certainly one of the greatest in cinema history - passed away today. Eric Rohmer had the astonishing skill of composing films which were basically wall-to-wall conversations and making them beautifully, transcendentally cinematic. True, he was helped by the able eye of Nestor Alemendros, but also by an innate understanding of film language and style. I'll confess I've only seen the Six Moral Tales, but on that basis alone he knew how to make talk not just sexy, but cinematic. A few years ago, when Bergman and Antonioni died I wrote that the auteurs' Olympus was suddenly much emptier. Now, with the undisputed master of screen dialogue gone, Olympus is a whole lot quieter too.

On a brighter note, Luise Rainer just celebrated her 100th birthday. Happy birthday, Luise - hopefully the Oscars, which have supposedly axed their honorary awards from the broadcast in a gesture of open contempt for their own history, have enough sense remaining to pay tribute to their oldest winner at this year's ceremony.

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

Balloon Land

A creepy and cool cartoon short from Ub Iwerks in 1935.

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

Blog 09

[Those who have not yet submitted their selection are still invited to do so; but from this point on, for sanity's sake, I have to keep it limited to those I originally contacted (i.e. the folks on my blogroll; if you're there but were not reached yet, consider yourself invited).]

I originally wrote a very long intro to this piece, but that's been discarded and I'll try to keep it succinct [not sure how well I succeeded now that all's said and done - ed]. This is a tribute to the past year of celebrating movies & a blow against the ephemeral nature of the exercise; in asking bloggers to select their own best work for the year (the full list follows after the jump) I'm hoping we can take another step beyond the purely chronological approach to blogging, in which our best work slips away once it slides down from its perch atop our site.

Images from Syndromes and a Century

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Syndromes and a Century. The enticing visuals, considered apart from the film's intriguing themes and structure (though of course they are all inextricably linked), are worth celebrating, so I present, unadorned, images from the movie:

Triumph of the Will

As I may have mentioned recently, I've been tracking down classics I haven't seen (and re-watching old favorites) in anticipation of a long-awaited, perpetually postponed canonical exercise. On Netflix, I set up a queue of about 50 films which it seemed especially pressing to watch. The list ranged from iconic hits without a great deal of critical acclaim (Saturday Night Fever, A Nightmare on Elm Street) to widely acknowledged classics I had seen only parts of (The Great Dictator, Orpheus) to unseen films by auteur directors (Made in USA, Simon of the Desert, Salo). I proceeded chronologically and finished just before the new year; but at task's end I realized there were still a few films I meant to see which had slipped through the cracks.

One of them was Leni Riefenstahl's notorious 1935 Triumph of the Will, probably the most famous, castigated, and cautiously celebrated propaganda film of all time. Documenting the National Socialist Party rally of '34, when Hitler had just ascended to power but had already taken complete control of the country, the film has been imitated even as it's been held at arms' length. Today, Hitler and the Nazis tend to be viewed primarily in conjunction with the Holocaust but to watch Triumph of the Will in 2010 is to be reminded not just how the Nazis saw themselves but how the world first came to see them. Before his name became synonymous with pure evil, the German dictator and his bizarre, unexpected, and wildly popular movement were regarded with a mixture of awe, dread, and comic incredulity - sometimes all three at once. Triumph of the Will was widely screened and, while scorning the political content, many filmmakers admired the craft and later imitated it for their own propaganda films (once Hitler's Germany had unqualifiably become the enemy). Indeed, seeing this film after the films which followed it, one can see all the sources of the Hitlerite myth, both the one he fostered and the one that sprung up when his toxic brand of fanatical monumentalism encountered foreign sensibilities.

"Smoking hernia and taking odium, and getting very high (some were only four foot three high, but he had Indian hump, which he grew in his sleep)."

A radio interview (no pictures, folks) conducted with John Lennon on December 10, 1963. After playful but nonetheless quite straightforward discussions with the other Fab Three, the reporter turns his attention to Lennon, only to be skewered on the nonchalantly vicious lance of the laconic pop star. Hilarity ensues (if not for the hapless questioner), followed by a reading of one of Lennon's poems from which the above quotation was plucked.

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

Patriot Games

I'm so used to Patriot Games, having seen it numerous times, that I can hardly "see" it anymore. To put it on the VCR is like putting on mood music, where you may not hear every note but still catch the general ambience. The comparison is appropriate because Patriot Games is a movie marked by signifiers, yet without real depth - a straight-up action movie which relies more on connotations than insight for its effect. Still, I like the retrospectively more classical style of the '92 film, and find its details, however superficial, evoke an enjoyable mood. Take the ubiquitous Irish pubs, thick accents, and ethereal Celtic music (which, along with the draconian anti-IRA perspective of the film, so incensed Variety film critic Joseph McBride that he wrote a scathing review - and was apparently fired from the publication as a result!). They are little more than associative signposts, but they work - if the film has any soul, it's borrowed, but I prefer borrowed soul to no soul and miss the days when Hollywood films - however superficially - bartered in such.

How cool is this picture?

Bulle Ogier in L'Amour fou (1969), dir. Jacques Rivette. Click on the image to see it in its full glory.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow, which is why I re-used for it the Film Preservation post on this site a few weeks later.