Thursday, September 30, 2010
I think the obvious question is where Easy A gets to sit in the ethereal cafeteria of high school cinema. There’s the overwrought Hughes table (eating their feelings, no doubt), the horny virgin table (making bets or hatching schemes), the kids you forgot you went to high school with (I’m looking at you, late ‘90s “classics”), the Heathers (presumably setting something on fire), and the cool kids: Ferris Bueller, Cher, and the Plastics. It’s a hallowed trinity of teen films, protected by the endearing but way-out-of-their-league Can’t Hardly Wait. Well, Easy A is at the next table, aspiring to their insight and wit but held back by its need to fit in.
Which is pretty ridiculous for a movie about a young woman—Emma Stone, excellent—whose whole purpose is to stand out, as she learns about reputations when she pretends to make men of the downtrodden, and her fake suitors are legion. Notwithstanding the unfortunate moment where Stone is forced to say with a straight face the phrase, “my complete lack of allure,” I wish the film had more of her increasing self-confidence, because it’s mostly witty, sophisticated, and impulsive. But then there are those lapses, the stereotypes and lacy, see-through characterizations (one kid actually voices aloud, “I’m just a fat piece of shit”), the accelerated pace of certain plot points (like a snap friendship), the too-picaresque plot (the school year is a sequence of episodes, but high school itself is a network of relationships constantly interrupting you). A lot of this could be forgiven—after all, Mean Girls is full of stereotypes around the margins, although that film humanizes them through self-awareness, humor, and Jonathan Swift accuracy. But unlike Mean Girls, Easy A doesn’t have very much to say beyond your typical “honesty is the best policy” (it is), “the suburbs are hypocrite incubators” (they are), and “American society is dangerously sexually frustrated” (aren’t we?).
Still, Easy A is a great time, thanks first and foremost to Stone’s winning performance, nailing her usual sarcasm, whip-smart banter, and armor-chink sincerity. Dan Byrd matches her in his few scenes—they really should have spun off—but, you see, Byrd had an appointment with a plot absurdity that we’re supposed to root for (although, in light of recent gay teen tragedies, I’m becoming more amenable to his narrative exit). Since Mean Girls made the teen world safe for adults, Easy A ups the ante with the progressive dream team of Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci who singlehandedly return your investment, and Lisa Kudrow shows up to deliver a very funny string of profanity that recalls an encounter I once had with a high school teacher, only without the underlying sexual politics.
Will Gluck brings a sharp eye to the high school, shot without a lot of what the kids call drama, because to them, the world is a very serious place. So there’s a lot of natural light and muted colors, and not a lot of montages and Top 40 hits. There’s also a very appropriate trick that’s something like a rumor’s-eye view. Writer Bert V. Royal ought to have a successful career ahead of him if he sticks to his strengths—witty repartee (with phrases like “Kinsey-6 gay” and “Disney World went blue”) and a sharp understanding of modern adolescence (e.g. the voice-over is a webcam confession, texting is a constant, one scene glancingly addresses Facebook).
So Easy A absolutely gets to sit near the cool kids, the best teen movie I’ve seen since Mean Girls (though television has since yielded Veronica Mars and Friday Night Lights). I just hope they talk about something deeper than fashion tips.
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Oh, Modern Family, you were thisclose to your All-Time Get Out of Gay Jail Free card (which I understand involves ear-piercing techno and mandatory fishnets). You finally address that little discrepancy where relatable hetero parents Phil and Claire kiss and icky gay ones Cameron and Mitchell hug like the roommates they are. So we have a whole episode about Mitchell’s cootie approach to PDA, and finally they kiss, in the background, for like a second. It was so quick there are numerous reports today that people missed the kiss entirely! Methinks someone missed the point.
The point is not, my oh so well-meaning straight brethren, that being gay is normal and passé and mundane. Sure, in an ideal world, what passes for a loving gay television relationship could get by with a background smooch and a whole lot of cutesy emotional hugging. The reason we, well, I was annoyed with Modern Family’s approach to Mitchell and Cameron’s lack of intimacy is not that they never ever ever kissed on screen in itself. The problem is the disparity, that Phil and Claire can kiss and share romantic dinners (have you ever seen Cam and Mitchell flirt?) and that Gloria and Jay can kiss and engage in less than heavy petting. It’s not the fact of Cam and Mitchell’s chastity; it’s the discrepancy.
So now we get an episode where Cam and Mitchell do kiss. There's no way you could interpret that as Modern Family trying to hide its gay romance. Behold: two dudes kissing, in the split-second background of a scene where Jay and Claire embrace in the foreground, which can in no way be construed as stealing focus. I take that back. What’s in the foreground is the elephantine disparity.
It should be noted that it was a terrific episode of a show that is wildly overpraised for being basically the latest incarnation of the family sitcom with zero new bells and whistles. But this week there was theme and genuine sincerity and it all tied together beautifully and, might I add, it was hysterical (last week? Not so much). It’s the politics and ethics of the show that are undercooked.
While we’re at it, did anyone pick up this week’s Entertainment Weekly? Four covers: Jay and Gloria hanging on each other but relatively platonic; Phil worshiping Claire, each embracing the other rather intimately; Cameron adjusting Mitchell’s tie, Mitchell’s holding his own hands in front of him; and one more of Jay and Gloria, this one appropriately romantic with Jay holding his trophy while she caresses his neck. Quick, see if you can guess which couple has never had sex!
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Since the Letterman interview was the pinnacle of both Joaquin Phoenix’s deranged performance and the film itself, we’ve already seen the most compelling sequence of a film that overcompensates for its “real” “documentary” qualities with a lack of focus. That’s because it’s not actually about a celebrity spiral, not in itself, and it’s not about the relationship between art and truth like its cousins Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish. No, I’m Still Here is a dystopian present of tabloid culture.
See if you can guess the connecting thread among I’m Still Here’s primary influences, tonal, aesthetic, and moral: MTV Cribs, in which we witness an untouchable celebrity in his natural habitat; The Real World, in which a bunch of people simulating real life succumb to cabin fever; TRL, in which we endure awkward interviews with actors interrupting the ostensible purpose of the show; The Hills, in which everyone keeps a straight face aiding and abetting the awful, amateur adventures in art perpetrated by the stars; Jackass, in which, well, I won’t spoil what exactly, but suffice it to say I’m Still Here is shot through with a puerility that can only be described as Steve-o-esque. It’s a pimped ride, a pregnant teen, and an anti-smoking PSA away from replacing MTV’s development slate and just airing on repeat.
That’s because, like MTV, I’m Still Here is really about the garish American preoccupation with celebrity. Let me rephrase that. I’m Still Here is really about the schadenfreude element of the garish American preoccupation with celebrity, the fascination with which we behold famous trainwrecks, an element of immaturity carefully cultivated and rewarded as a means of establishment cooption by such “reality” networks as MTV, E!, and Bravo, not to mention such disparate media as People magazine and Perez Hilton. I’m Still Here is just giving us what we want. Well, not we. I’m sure you and I are very classy people who would never leaf through a tabloid or click on a TMZ headline.
In that light, I’m Still Here is either appropriately ugly, cheap, and poorly shot and edited (because sometimes beautifully shot and edited, but only sometimes), or it’s just ugly, cheap, and poorly you get the idea. It’s unfocused and overlong; by the end, you’re screaming, “We get it!” But much of the film is wonderful: consider the first present-day scene, Phoenix wandering around his yard ranting about his Princess Jasmine-like prison, director Casey Affleck shooting from behind in almost complete darkness except for the navy hoodie that finally turns and looks at us as he’s made his decision to quit acting.
Curiously the film traffics in its own celebrity fascination. There’s Ben Stiller, playing himself, in a gloriously awkward meeting about Greenberg; there’s Edward James Olmos, a generous man clearly worried about Phoenix and reaching out to him with a touching monologue; there’s Sean Combs, a serious artist juggling his concern that Phoenix is Punking him (there’s another MTV show) and his concern for his acquaintance’s obvious mental distress. The surprise is that these vignettes, among the film’s most riveting, don’t undercut the argument but supplement it—would these people be as interesting if they weren’t famous?
It’s too bad I’m Still Here plays more as indictment than exploration. There’s a lot to chew on here, but the film, like tabloid culture, is a dangerous distraction. In the end I’m Still Here gets lost drooling over the outrageous antics of its star.
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Tuesday, September 28, 2010
The most regrettable thing about Catfish is that [SPOILER ALERT!!!!] the documentary team were not mauled by hillbilly cannibals during their dread-inducing pop-in at the Ishpeming, Michigan farm of the subject’s online love interest. In other words, the trailer is a big fat lie and/or an elaborate deception subliminally preparing us for the film’s shaky relationship with reality. Does Catfish have a truth problem? Who cares? Spoilers in the murky waters below.
As many have noted, any substantial response to Catfish depends on blowing the “surprise” “twist” that New York photographer Nev Schulman’s Facebook lust affair (or whatever the kids are calling a sext-only romance) with one member of a family he’s come to know well over the Internet is a sham in that each of his Ishpeming Facebook friends are all doppelgangers of the puppetmaster and matriarch Angela Wesselman (slash Pierce). But that sounds sinister. Catfish is mind-blowing in exactly one respect, its essential, glorious humanity.
But before we can get into that, we have to get over some ethical hurdles, and not just the ones you’re thinking of. The pre-Ishpeming sequences may have been fudged, reenacted, or influenced by a trio of young, well-off New York guys ostensibly “taking advantage of” a poor, middle-aged Michigan woman, because apparently her deceptions are excusable and theirs are not. Because she’s a poor woman, you see. Some claim she’s mentally unwell—not only do I find the film not evidence enough of such a diagnosis but it’s further example of the patronizing tone of liberal concern trolls. It’s almost enough to make me cut up my membership card. Almost.
Not that I want to divorce ethics from aesthetics, but this film is so celebratory of poor, little Angela Pierce—how else to explain the cult that’s arisen around her, as if Catfish were a fight film inviting us to take sides?—that what really strains credulity is that Nev and his directors (brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost) created such a sympathetic portrait in spite of themselves. Schulman and Joost are irrevocably affected by their encounter with Angela. The first half is all pixelated close-ups and first-person exposition, but everything comes alive in Michigan: oblique underwater shots on a golden day, wondrous flashbacks, a stationary shot of Angela painting Nev that is among the most humane and surprising scenes all year. Nev’s tramp stamp doesn’t make an appearance in order to win us over, that’s for sure.
Catfish is undeniably fascinated by Angela, a woman of such creativity and imagination that she constructed an elaborate fictional universe in the service of reaching out to someone she found interesting. Her words suggest a pathological liar, but even her victims seem humbled by her. The title is a metaphor for the people that spice up our lives, and Angela Pierce is just one such character who has, through this film, moved many. She’d still sit undiscovered had she not crossed paths with the right well-off New York guys. The implicit question: how many other Angelas sit waiting in their homes, how much extraordinary human creativity will never be known to the world at large?
The Social Network comes out this week, and there’s a lot of hand-wringing about Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions in his charitable donation to education. Because giving money isn’t enough; you have to do it for the right reasons. In light of all this cynicism and entitlement, Catfish is truly a breath of fresh air. It’s an ode to humanity in the digital age, pleading that the Internet can conduct real human relationships, no matter how fictional.
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Sunday, September 26, 2010
Good news, everyone: The financial crisis has a happy ending! Let’s go shopping. The business of America is business. Other economic one-liners. If this does not describe your experience, or, indeed, real life, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps may not ring true. Director Oliver Stone’s unsubtle moralizing streak demands happiness for the virtuous (or penitent) and downfall for the greedy, but it’s an insult to anyone following the news during the days of golden parachutes, government bailouts, and salary caps.
But it’s easy to be righteous with hindsight. Let’s flashback to 2008: Gordon Gekko, Reaganomics antihero released from prison just in time for the dot-com bubble to burst, has read the tea leaves and written a book warning about the impending market collapse. Gekko’s book symbolizes speculation and betting against the system, twin evils that give capitalists a stake in the collapse of their own economies. Stone excoriates the act of speculation on multiple fronts in the film, creatively translating economic jargon into relatable scenarios. Everything comes down to power in relationships. It’s all about tradeoffs.
But Michael Douglas’ greatness doesn’t keep Gekko from being a sidenote in this story of another young man who learns that power corrupts and you can never have enough and money is intrinsically worthless, this one played by Shia Labeouf with Long Island roots so neon that Stone uncomfortably turns us into Hannibal Lecter sniffing out his ancestry: one step removed from poor white trash. Labeouf plays Jacob Moore, a hotshot investment banker with a hard-on for green energy who is involved with Gekko’s estranged daughter. Events, like the subprime mortgage crisis and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the bailout of AIG, transpire with names changed to protect the guilty, and our characters are tested. Stone charges the film with symbolic whip-pans, iris split-screens, and Rembrandt lighting, techniques equally obvious and exciting. You know what happens already, but it’s summarized with the appropriate trenchancy in the film: “privatize the gains and socialize the losses.”
The brilliance of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is conceptual. The economy is not an infallible system, and the invisible hand is not divine. It is a casino of self-motivated people who act for human reasons, extensive and diversified, but no more impervious to moral ruin than you or I. Every scene that sparks is a performance of this concept. Moore’s mother is a realtor, the better to explore the mortgage crisis, and a Chinese firm contrasts Asian long-term planning with American get-rich-quick.
Sadly too many scenes drag, and the narrative as a whole is a slapdash reconstruction, forgetting about characters unless they’re onscreen. Worse, it boasts several endings culminating in the karma ex machina, an authorial bailout. Not that it depicts a soaring Dow in its finale (which would miss the point entirely), but rather that it doles out moral justice that doesn’t jibe with real life, ours or the film’s. Gekko tells us in that knowing way of his that Americans want to be sold a bill of goods; we want to believe in the happy ending. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps delivers. And we all lived happily ever after.
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Saturday, September 25, 2010
Welcome to awards season, the time of year when even gritty crime yarns like The Town become bloated statements floating away on hollow themes and empty meanings. There's a fine film in there, but it's stuck between two masters. The Town wants to retain its street cred, embracing its ever-present hip-hop bass and the occasional blare of police sirens as part of the city’s vibrant fabric. But it also desperately wants to gentrify, appeasing its white bourgeois philanthropists aiming to demolish the ghetto and build a sculpture garden.
Thanks to the great successes (depending on how you define it) of Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Christopher Nolan over B-movies with meaning (Salt, Below), we’re no longer allowed to have fun dimestore films. Instead, our laughably premised urban crime flicks have grown dangerously self-serious, and The Town is the latest example. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot is absurd—Ben Affleck and his team of Boston thugs rob a bank and take Rebecca Hall hostage, after which they begin a serious romantic melodrama. It’s okay to have a ridiculous plot; crime pulp is built on it! But what should have been a muscular, low-rent morality play becomes this somber, pretentious meditation on ideas the film doesn’t really care to explore.
Built on the skeleton of fraternal bonds and the inability to escape your past, which is basically the core of every film about one last job (I recommend Out of the Past), director Affleck packs on all this nonsense about justice and ethics and loyalty and honesty and forgiveness and other Big Ideas that serve more to pad the film and seduce Oscar voters than to flesh out the characters or drama. The misguided final shot suggests Affleck thinks he's addressed his themes, but in fact they get credit just for attendance. There’s a stirring moment when we realize the FBI isn’t exactly itching to protect their only witness, and when she gets a lawyer, he’s a cowering bumbler. The only person standing up for justice in the film is a punchline.
Thing is, there’s a lot to enjoy in The Town, several parts more than holding up their ends. Foremost among them is Jeremy Renner, playing Affleck’s hothead brother-in-crime. In the opening heist, Hall notices Renner’s neck tattoo peeking out from behind his costume and mask, and there’s a later sequence where Renner surprises Hall and Affleck on a date. It’s the best scene in the film, the tension pulled ever so tight until this climactic release. In fact, the cast is quite impressive, from the Chris Cooper cameo to Jon Hamm’s soaring star to even Blake Lively, though she’s saddled with the age-old hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold persona. Which, again, would be right at home in a fast, cheap crime noir.
In other words, less grandiosity and moody staring, more car chases and pec shots. The Town’s a potboiler with its eyes on the Pulitzer. You wanna preach honesty and atonement? You can start by dropping that façade.
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Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The Best Years of Our Lives #11.
Well, at least it’s a fictional story. Never mind that it’s all one wide shot or that focal points are in the background and so obscured or that it lacks any of the creative energy of George Albert Smith or Émile Reynaud. At least it’s not a god-damn coal truck moving back and forth.
I’ve already spent more time talking about it than Edison did planning it, but here’s the gist: A drunk walks into the bar, buys a drink, gets in a fight, and gets thrown out. The other patrons return to their business. Fin. I know, it’s a real human condition piece.
Honestly, it is a step up to see Edison Labs venturing into extended fiction on real sets instead of lighted areas against black backdrops. But in four years, Edwin S. Porter would shoot the audience, in three years Méliès would crash into the moon's eye, and a year earlier, George Albert Smith made Santa disappear. Soon they’ll all be headed into the 1900s. I hope Edison manages to break through too.
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The Best Years of Our Lives #10.
At last! A real film! George Albert Smith’s “Santa Claus” is the most magical, creative short yet. It has narrative, editing, effects, wit! It took a decade, but cinema has finally proven its worth.
The story is simple: the maid puts the kids to bed on Christmas Eve, when Santa arrives to deliver presents and escape undetected. At first it’s a simple play—the stationary camera filming a backdrop as actors nestle into bed like it’s the beginning of The Nutcracker. But then the maid, on her exit, reaches to turn out the lights, which I like to think of as a personal attack on Thomas Edison’s cinematic failures to this point, and suddenly the wall is black! Smith cut between the original shot and a later one with a black curtain dropped. The magic of editing!
Then Santa arrives on the roof in a split-screen effect. So he’s in a circular iris on the right depicting the roof as the kids sit in their beds on the left, and all the while the whole frame is filling with snow on this magical wintry night. Santa makes his way downstairs inside the bubble, and suddenly he’s bursting into their room through the backdrop, on screen in both places at once for the splittest of seconds. He dependably spreads good cheer, snaps his fingers and disappears just in time for the kids to wake up and discover their rewards for working fourteen-hour days at the local mine.
I can’t tell you how delighted I am to arrive at this point in cinema history. GA Smith is a magical filmmaker, and “Santa Claus” a terrific film. It’s a Christmas miracle.
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The Best Years of Our Lives #9.
I feel like a mother who bought her child a paint kit for Christmas and is having trouble, ten years on, feigning pride at his crude color blobs. Look, Edison, I get that you invented the lightbulb, all due respect, no offense, none taken, but you gotta stop just filming things. Come up with a story, edit different things together, invent a way to move the camera, anything. But you can’t keep filming things, like, say, a giant coal dumper going about its business, and expect me to be impressed.
Normally I’m faux sarcastic, but here I’m seriously annoyed. I suppose it's my fault for picking a film called "Giant Coal Dumper," but I wasted my 1897 pick on a documentary short that, unlike other early experiments, couldn’t even pass for avant-garde. It’s 1897, people, not 1890. The time for cutting slack for imagination is over. Until the exciting cut at the end where the coal cart appears in frame driving toward the barrel, I was falling asleep. And the film’s only 40 seconds.
That said, that cut is genuinely exciting, and it has a lot to do with the composition, the diagonals and the way it arrives from our right and crosses over to the left. The forms on display—the smokestack, the rolling barrel, the cart driving—turn a factory world into elegance. It’s no Red Desert or Europa ’51, but it’s also half a century less industrially advanced, and there’s some beauty in that.
But seriously, one more “Car Driving” and this project is over.
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The Best Years of Our Lives #8.
If this is where cinema is headed, count me out! This utterly indecent filth is polluting our theaters! This isn’t the righteous land of God-given empire; it’s Rome before the fall. Eight years into cinema, and already film has become pornographic smut! In fact, this is the first real narrative film, live-action anyway, that I’ve seen for this project, and after seducing us with a perfectly pleasant (and chaste) romantic encounter, it culminates in the most garish, faintworthy sexual experience of 19th century cinema.
Apparently it’s a snippet from a play—what were those heathens on Broadway doing!—performed by the original actors, hence the narrative quality. It’s actually quite thrilling—if you can keep your food down—to see the remnants of silent cinema as directed/invented by William Heise of Edison Labs: a pair of lovers mouthing words, faces expressing every shift, and ultimately a big, showy smooch for the bleachers.
I hear this is the first filmed kiss. If only it were the last. Welcome to the United States of Sodom.
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[Spoilers for Mad Men episode 4.9 “The Beautiful Girls” to follow.]
Everyone’s missing the point here, so allow me. Yes, “The Beautiful Girls” is certainly and obviously about the lifestyles of beautiful girls in the mid-‘60s, from Betty-in-training Sally on up to the one-time sexpot Miss Blankenship. But cinema is more than narrative. As directed by Michael Uppendahl (who also helmed last year’s time-bomb “The Color Blue”), “The Beautiful Girls” is about the melting pot. Barriers are falling and doors are opening. Where once you could keep well within your own milieu, and thus not worry about challenging your worldview, now all these disparate cohorts of the mid-‘60s are bouncing off each other, often in surprising, explosive ways. Insert Crash joke here.
Look at the climax: It’s just Don returning Sally to Betty’s care—and can we please all take a moment to notice how pleasant Betty was, at least to Sally? Hate her or not, this is a complex woman worth taking seriously—but look how many people from different walks of life are thrown into the scene: There’s Dr. Faye in the background, receptionist Megan (notably the daughter of an immigrant), Joan and Peggy (our constantly dueling forces of modern womanhood). It's no coincidence they're the colors of the rainbow (Megan in yellow, Peggy in green, Faye in blue, Joan in purpley red). As Don leaves, Megan sits shaken by her encounter with Sally. As Betty leaves, she bumps into Joyce, our new favorite lesbian.
Earlier, some stranger brings Sally to Don, and Abe Drexler sits in the reception area scoffing at the way he handles himself. When Miss Blankenship passes, Peggy is literally bounced from room to room searching for someone to help. In a truly threatening moment, Roger and Joan, in a neighborhood they could once walk through comfortably, come face to face with a poor, black criminal. One of the EMTs (if that’s what they called them back then) is also black. Which brings us to Abe and Peggy’s little culture clash, and later Peggy and Ken/Stan’s culture clash, and the racist company owners sitting in the fishbowl blissfully unaware of the world-changing going on around them (in this season’s masterstroke of black comedy).
Some of these encounters are accidents (the mugging), and others are staged (Abe running into Peggy and Joyce), but really they’re all driven by the engine of the ‘60s, social upheaval grabbing the country by the coasts and turning it over. It’s strange to see Roger and Joan in this low-end diner, though they’re somewhat at home having been there plenty in the past. It’s weirder still to see Sally playing house with her father; Oedipus aside, Don hasn’t ever been so present with his kids. Note, too, the wife-beatered young pizza boy. We never see this many people from this many demographics bombarding each other on this show. Uppendahl clearly gets this, his shots fluidly moving from one social group to another (as in the pan from Betty and Sally over to Joyce), but Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner wrote the events into their script.
It’s easy to notice what the title is telling us to look at, or what the historical commentary suggests, or even the topical moments like the Greek revolution or the possibility of internal forces organizing and taking over America (both factual historical points equally reminiscent of the current global financial crisis). What’s shocking is how few people are noticing the big picture. Which is strange, because so many detractors like to reduce Mad Men to exactly that.
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A Werner Herzog film should be an event, but he never gets quite the same buzz as, say, the latest French New Wave auteur-genarian. When he does, it’s for eating shoes or hunting man. Maybe it’s because he’s constantly making movies—they’re not Franzen novels—but so is Clint Eastwood, and we’re constantly told about his “latest masterpiece,” which you’ll forgive me for ignoring. As for quality, his other 2009 crime drama The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is one of the best films of the year, a manic attack on American abuse of authority. It’s a shame My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done got overlooked, because, when it's not lost down its own rabbit hole, it’s one of Herzog’s most optimistic films.
David Lynch’s intriguing producer credit garnered the most press, but the film is as Herzog as you can get without communing with Klaus Kinski. It’s about another incarnation of manic obsession, this one played by the stormy Michael Shannon, who holes up in his house after killing his mother and taking hostages as Willem Dafoe’s detective tries to end the standoff. Like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, it’s inspired by a true story that Herzog colors in with exotic locales, vibrant fauna, and evocative non sequiturs. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger is typically great at immersing us in Herzog’s worldview, with his fluid expansive pans, low-angle tracking shots, and unusual perspectives. The film also incorporates a theatrical technique of freezing actors in tableaux, a deliberately stagey alternative to the freeze-frame that suggests Herzog’s aware of his own artifice, a welcome undercut to his usual gravitas.
What it means isn’t so easy to parse. On the inscrutability spectrum, My Son is much closer to Heart of Glass/The Wild Blue Yonder than Aguirre, the Wrath of God/Stroszek. The title suggests both a Greek and Biblical influence on today’s West, a perhaps domineering one a la Grace Zabriskie’s murdered mommie dearest. But My Son is unique among Herzog films in its ray of hope. In the final shot, I swear to you Herzog goes Capra on us. What had to happen to get to that shiny day is another matter.
Despite the elliptical storytelling and dreamy flights, where for Herzog relevance is irrelevant, I’m most confounded by a particular non sequitur spoken by our antihero in Peru: “I am going to stunt my inner growth. I think I shall become a Muslim. Call me Farouk.” It’s an obvious topical touch, but to what end? Brad Dourif as Shannon’s uncle gets to spew some hilarious venom, including, “Only faggots and negroes with attitude become actors,” which is obviously an example of his comically dangerous influence. So maybe we can chalk the Muslim line up to internalizing family prejudices? One of the problems with having to wait for DVD is the potential for great contextual upheaval since a film’s release. I don’t recall quite so much Islamophobia last December, like, say, furor over a mosque near Ground Zero, or a pastor planning to burn Korans, or a newspaper editor apologizing for publishing a front-page story about peaceful Muslims on the anniversary of a terrorist attack perpetrated by some violent ones. In fact, said mosque was celebrated in December by some of those now condemning it.
Believe it or not, all of this actually pertains to the film. Herzog often portrays humanity as a species, each member connected (just watch Encounters at the End of the World), and My Son is all about revolution, breaking with our collective past. Civilization is built on a continent of bloody bodies. Human dynamics have nearly always been measured by power. The conquerors are our ancestors, and you and I are modern Orestes. As per the film, in a terrific monologue by Udo Kier, “Only Orestes can lift the curse, but he has to murder his mother to do it. So he is damned if he does, he is damned if he doesn’t, and he is doubly damned if he wavers.” We know which Shannon chooses, but is the slate wiped clean? There is a fourth way, Herzog argues. Good comes from generosity, from reaching out to help one another, from a social contract that includes John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. It’s humanism, plain and simple. Given the headlines, I think that’s exactly what we need right now.
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Saturday, September 18, 2010
The Best Years of Our Lives #7.
I’ll cut it some slack for being Louis Lumière’s first film, but it’s not especially impressive in any way, real (“Roundhay Garden Scene,” “Dickson Greeting”) or imagined (“Monkeyshines,” “Annabelle Butterfly Dance”). It’s 46 seconds of a whole bunch of women swarming out of a factory. Made me long for Sally Field.
Okay, the visual clarity is nice. There’s an interesting “set” bisecting the shot with interesting levels, and the camera is at an angle such that our focus is off-center and the wave comes at us and breaks in all directions. Also there are bicycles and dogs and some adorable porkpie hats. Depending on the version, some horses as well. But our distance from and the volume of the actors counteracts any historical interest (like a good look at the clothing or something), and as far as nothing happening goes, I’d rather watch Annabelle some more.
Or, for that matter, another 1895 Lumière film, “Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat.” Now there’s a film with rhythm and movement and structure. Cinema. “Workers Leaving” is a snippet, and one that doesn’t have me itching to see the (hypothetical) rest.
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Fake Mad Men spoilers for Episode 7.13: “The Plain Dealer”
There’s a music cue in “The Summer Man”—which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it—that put this enormous smile on my face and flooded my head with endorphins. Or maybe that was my gentleman caller. It’s one of the series’ most striking sequences, a taking stock of the ‘60s kind of scene. It also thankfully busted my previous semantic association with this particular song, which is bumper music for some right-wing talk radio show that I’ve heard because my parents are, politically, babies.
And the way it pops up out of the blue really reflects the song itself, the latest example of a trend on Mad Men toward ‘60s iconography unmistakably coupled with increasing vulgarity. Because we’re finally getting into (Sarah Palin’s) Real ‘60s.
That’s why I always hoped Mad Men would fade out, for good, Simon of the Desert-style. Only instead of using rock-and-roll and young people to represent vulgarity, on Mad Men it’s just a sign of the times.
Don warmly congratulates Peggy on her engagement, and we’re off to see Betty one last time. She’s dressing for a date she had been reluctant even to go on. She holds a dress up in the mirror, smiles to herself. The album version of “Gimme Shelter” fades in, cue montage:
Pete calls Trudy from the office, tells her he’ll be in the city tonight, puts his feet up on his new desk in Don’s old office. He considers calling his mistress. Harry and Jennifer Crane sit down for dinner with the gaggle. They heartily applaud some announcement from Nixon on their state-of-the-art TV, our favorite know-nothing ascending to the full-fledged establishment. Joan sits down for dinner with her daughter—“WAR!, CHILDREN!, it’s just a shot away”—hears a news announcement about Vietnam and turns off the TV (as we recall with great relish that Greg died violently back in Season 6; also he was completely, uncensoredly naked). Roger could be anywhere: if he’s not dead, he’s either drunk to the point of nonexistence in the world, or he’s with Joan in spirit if not body. I prefer the idea of Joan as an independent woman at the end of the ‘60s, but she and Roger are the definition of soul mates.
The song length is padded with other glimpses. Lane and a trophy wife. Ken-doll and the missus standing still in their packaging. Betty leaving the kids with a sitter (Carla?). Sal going to town on some dude. And finally, a house party at Peggy’s where she flaunts her ring and her man. Don’s marriage was the old regime; Peggy’s is a new beginning for the country, not immediately perfect but on the right track.
Song fades out, and we cut to Don. He’s surrounded by hippies. Sally’s there, with a flower child friend. The concert picks up: “Sympathy for the Devil.” We’re at Altamont. The girls dance. Don’s inscrutable. The last shot is a slow push on him. It’s not happily ever after, but he’s come out the other side a better man. Slow push, the song rolls on, fade to black, song continues. “Created by Matthew Weiner.” Gunshot and commotion. Credits.
Not saying that’s what I want to happen exactly (it does seem to suggest a link between Don and the Devil that I think is going a bit far), just a slightly-less-than-random guess based on a couple trends with some help from American history. If I had my druthers, we’d close on Sally visiting the saddest hospital room in history, where Don’s ranting about that negro president she elected. But that’s me.
What about you?
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Friday, September 17, 2010
The Best Years of Our Lives #6.
You’ve seen one Edison Labs film, you’ve seen ‘em all. The “Annabelle Dance” series—which follows the continuing adventures of eternally dancing Annabelle, doing a serpentine and then a sun dance in later installments, presumably to earn her release—is a naked attempt to profit off the barn-burning success of the “Monkeyshines” films, which paid director William KL Dickson’s way to the most exclusive restaurant of the day, The Gilded Sage. Only instead of a phantom exercising (exorcising?), we get a costumed woman dancing. And to be perfectly honest for the first time all paragraph, it’s mesmerizing.
The “Annabelle Dance” series is obviously a continued experiment in the kinetoscope’s ability to capture movement, but it plays like a dream. Annabelle just bounces around the stage in an empty room, performing for no one, rhythmically waving her dress. She cuts a Lynchian figure in that flowing butterfly outfit. I have no doubt that she lives in my radiator.
I’m not sure if the edits—since the film is really a sequence of five or six shots of Annabelle dancing, and the final couple are wider—are the result of damage or intention. Regardless, the jump cuts not only expand the filmmaker’s toolkit but augment the film’s mystique.
What I’m trying to say is, if I were one of the ruthless slave-traders on the lonely asteroid where Annabelle is kept, I’d at least let her have a break every now and then.
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Thursday, September 16, 2010
Maybe it was the movie, or maybe it was the circumstance, but I kind of had a blast watching Going the Distance. It was a late-night screening, one element of an eventful night out with friends, so my cards are on the table. But why else would you go see what looks like a standard romantic comedy than to have a fun social evening?
What’s most surprising is that Going the Distance isn’t actually a standard romantic comedy. Sure, there’s a romance, and the patented formula (guy gets girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl back) is proudly driving the train. And you likely know the premise—that the lovers played by Drew Barrymore (who has mastered the art of acerbic wit) and Justin Long (whose dryness could pass for improv in a very winning performance) are attempting a long-distance relationship. But, without spoiling, there are interesting twists on that age-old formula. Or maybe I just don’t see enough rom-coms.
Going the Distance also impresses with its mature, observant take on 2010 America. Technology is pervasive in the film, the exemplar being a scene where the lovers are talking on cell phones while watching a YouTube video, presented in split-screen as if we have multiple windows open. Stronger still is the film’s hard look at the Great Recession. Job opportunities are not the magical fixes you expect from the genre, and relationships are invariably strained by economic necessities, even after happily ever.
Mostly, though, the film is just flat-out funny, thanks largely to writer Geoff LaTulippe. Not every joke works, but there’s enough going on (and enough great stuff not spoiled by the trailer) that you’re nearly always smiling, except when they want you not to, which scenes are great for bathroom breaks. Plus, the cast is full of scene-stealers. Christina Applegate and Charlie Day are basically in one-man shows whenever they appear, guaranteed to keep you in stitches, to say nothing of the comedic talents of Jason Sudeikis and Jim Gaffigan. And Kristen Schaal’s cameo had me falling out of my seat.
It should be noted that my enjoyment of the film is not tantamount to a critical endorsement. Is it a good film? Well, it’s not bad, let’s put it that way. Going the Distance doesn’t have much to contribute to the conversation on contemporary romantic mores. But would you really want it to?
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Wednesday, September 15, 2010
The Best Years of Our Lives #5.
Spoiler alert: It ends with a guy sneezing. Starts there too. It’s, like, five seconds. Beyond the period signifiers—the mustache, the outfit, and the cool (read: unobtrusive) film damage—there isn’t much to say about this one. Yes, I came up with six paragraphs on “Roundhay Garden Scene,” but two of those were basically lies and a third had nothing to do with the film. Because that’s how I roll.
I do enjoy the expressive, step-by-step silent era performance Ott gives. We don’t just get any old ahchoo. He rears back like a dragon, removing dust from his eye, he inhales as the hairs of his nostrils tickle him to the breaking point, and he succumbs, bowling over in release. Word on the street is that Ott fellow was a real cut-up around the Labs. I find his comedy big.
There, that’s two paragraphs about a sneeze. And now a third, because not only is it a classic—in fact, you may have seen this before—but it’s pretty entertaining. I’m just glad the rest of the series is lost. Nobody needs to see “Fred Ott’s Tubercular Cough.”
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The Best Years of Our Lives #4.
In which we further interrogate the age-old question, “What is film?” “Pauvre Pierrot” is one of three animated shorts made by director Émile Reynaud in 1892 and the first projected for public exhibition. But it’s less cinema than theater. There’s one set, a stately courtyard outside the lady’s balcony (think Cyrano de Bergerac), and the film makes four cuts: from the original wide background to a medium shot of the courtyard to the original to a medium shot of the balcony to the original again. It’s like Google Street View zooming in on two buildings in a single block. Yep, I’m the guy comparing the first animated film to Google Street View.
My unflappable millennial “impress me” stare notwithstanding, "Pauvre Pierrot" is a cute little picture. Our hero surveys the scene before bounding into the courtyard to seek the lady when he’s forced into hiding by another suitor. Obviously this shall not stand, and even more obviously, our hero is invisible as long as he’s behind a column, because the world is two-dimensional even for the characters. You’ve seen all this physical comedy before, but this is something like the origin, at least cinematically. After “Dickson Greeting,” I should really be grateful that this has something like scenes, or at least scaffolding.
The star here is Reynaud, with those hand-painted images and surprisingly fluid animation. While Edison Labs was capturing the verbs of American life (“Fencing,” “Boxing,” “A Hand Shake”), Reynaud was pioneering escapism. So now you know who to thank for Roland Emmerich.
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The Best Years of Our Lives #3.
Cinema’s first self-portrait? I guess that blurry karate instructor from “Monkeyshines” got the boot for not showing up on film, so William KL Dickson started operating on himself, so to speak. Leaving us with this three-second record of Dickson in period costume performing some sort of healing ritual and/or his rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz."
Actually it’s supposed to be a greeting—he’s described in synopses as “waving” at the camera—but I honestly don’t see it. The action consists of Dickson standing on stage (well, he’s spotlighted against a curtain anyway) and bringing both arms, one bearing his hat, together in a sort of heart shape. Maybe that’s how people greeted each other back then (in lieu of constantly biting their thumbs at each other). Maybe it’s a snippet of the greeting, after he’s removed his hat. Or maybe he’s about to say grace.
Okay, okay. The New York Sun from 1891 reports that the full film consists of him bowing, smiling, removing his hat, and waving, so I suppose this is all that remains. This would be a lot easier if I had any scholarly resources at my disposal.
Anyway, the lighting is a simple spotlight, but I love the way it obscures the front and back, shooting a diagonal beam that alights only Dickson, and only his upper half at that. It’s a ghostly vision of the real Dickson, one calling the shots behind the camera, the other performing for a public that isn’t there yet. Shortly thereafter the Dancing Dicksons exhibited “Dickson Greeting” for the American public, the first kinetograph exhibition in the country. It’s a self-portrait of the artist as a young man welcoming us to the modern age.
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010
The Best Years of Our Lives #2.
The "Monkeyshines" trilogy, which later became Star Wars, are three shorts by William KL Dickson and William Heise, known collectively as the Williams (or, informally, as Dickseise) around Andy Warhol’s Factory, I mean, Thomas Edison’s Labs. They shot the "Monkeyshines" tests in either 1889 or 1890 (which, yes, makes them America's first films: USA! USA! USA!), but since reports conflict, I watched one for each year, and as kismet would have it, the third is lost.
Both films are just stationary shots of a white-clothed man on a black background, or maybe that’s just how little information the kinetograph picks up (the difference from LePrince's single-lens camera is astonishing, though that film has been remastered, and it's noteworthy that the "Monkeyshines" films have a vertical aspect ratio, taller than they are wide). Regardless, “Monkeyshines No. 1” plays today like gothic avant garde, the barest essence of a man holding stock still until he suddenly breaks, and throughout his exercising the figure contorts from the image of a torso into a skull and then a hand then a bird and any number of shapes in the clouds as it were. It’s a really interesting, active-audience work, regardless of intent.
“No. 2” is less thrilling, possibly because we see our subject more clearly, donning some sort of robe and endeavoring to swing his arms, flail, twirl, and bend. It’s much more active than its predecessor (inaugurating the rule of sequels), and it’s nice to see such technical progress made, but I fear “No. 2” falls into an uncanny valley. We want our human figures either to register barely, so we can interpret them as Emshwiller designs, or to be recognizably human. You get what I’m saying. “Monkeyshines No. 2” is the Polar Express of the 19th century. (And yes, you may blurb that on the poster.)
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The Best Years of Our Lives #1.
Our first surviving motion picture, the inscrutably titled “Roundhay Garden Scene,” is a ferocious indictment of the Gilded Age featuring an elaborate car chase and the finest explosives work since the Civil War, not to mention one mind-blowing finale twist that may or may not involve (spoiler alert!) Charles Darwin making out with Andrew Carnegie (surprisingly hot). I didn’t completely get the factory scene, but things got back on track immediately after the third intermission; everything makes sense once you realize she’s a post-op Transylvanian.
Actually “Roundhay Garden Scene” is a two-second stationary shot of four people cavorting about a lawn in Victorian England. Oscar Wilde makes so much sense now.
I hate to complain about the film’s degradation—the right side of the frame eats away at the action—because “Roundhay Garden Scene” is a really special artifact. It’s 24 frames of film capturing two whole seconds of simulated life in 1888. Think about that year. Grover Cleveland was a one-term president. The Spanish-American War was but a gleam in Hearst’s eye. Director Louis LePrince and his cast (nepotism alert!) were further from 1950 than we are now. I’ll try not to wax utterly awestruck at the historical magnitude of all these old films, but you gotta give me this one.
As for the film itself, I can only muster an exhaled, “Contrived.” I prefer his earlier work.
On the serious, though, the shot is intelligently framed, placing the action in the lighted area, the middleground, as shadows cut a romantic diagonal across the fore, and a corner of the house adheres to something like the rule of thirds. Truly, there’s something hypnotic about the way these figures behave and the spatial relationships among them. It’s basically a film about people moving on preordained arcs that don’t make sense individually but together create a jolly atmosphere. Best Actress of 1888 (kidding! They didn’t let women accept awards!) Sarah Whitley spends the first half walking backward, as the year’s Best Actor Joseph Whitley (John Barrymore’s father was robbed!) charts this robotic sweep across the film’s horizon, and two indistinguishable figures (I’m told they’re also Whitleys/LePrinces) dance around in the back.
Which may not be how I spend my afternoon strolls through the yard, but, you see, I live in a more enlightened time. If I want some fresh air, well I live in Houston so I don’t go outside exactly, but I close my eyes real tight and try to remember sitting on top of a mountain in the Sierra Nevada, just me and the sky, and I breathe in real deep and then I remember that if I work really hard, well I’ll probably never get there again, but at least I’m doing what I love in a collapsing civilization at the end of history. Or so I’m told.
Where was I? Right. “Roundhay Garden Scene”: Zero to nostalgia in two seconds.
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Monday, September 13, 2010
At last, I'm at my 1888th film. I wish I could go on a Chabrol binge right now (I've only seen Le boucher!), but duty calls. For the next, let's say, five/six months, I'll be charting the course of cinema starting with Louis Le Prince in 1888 and watching a movie from each year until I get back to the future. Or die trying, I suppose.
But my schedule has changed since I introduced it, having watched Liebelei among others, so here's my official syllabus, accessibility-willing:
1888 – "Roundhay Garden Scene" by Louis Le Prince
1889 – "Monkeyshines, No. 1" by William K.L. Dickson & William Heise
1890 – “Monkeyshines, No. 2” by William K.L. Dickson & William Heise
1891 – “Dickson Greeting” by William K.L. Dickson
1892 – “Baby Crying” by Michael J. Loughlin
1893 – “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” by William K.L. Dickson
1894 – “Annabelle Butterfly Dance” by William K.L. Dickson
1895 – “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” by Louis Lumière
1896 – “The Kiss” by William Heise
1897 – “Giant Coal Dumper” by Thomas Edison
1898 – “Santa Claus” by George Albert Smith
1899 – “Thomas Edison’s Cripple Creek Bar Room Scene” by Thomas Edison
1900 – “Explosion of a Motor Car” by Cecil Hepworth
1901 – “Fire!” by James Williamson
1902 – “Barbe-bleue” by Georges Méliès
1903 – “The Life of an American Fireman” by Edwin S. Porter
1904 – “The Impossible Voyage” by Georges Méliès
1905 – “Rescued by Rover” by Cecil Hepworth
1906 – “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” by Thomas Edison
1907 – “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest” by Edwin S. Porter
1908 – “The Physician of the Castle” by the Pathé Brothers
1909 – “A Corner in Wheat” by DW Griffith
1910 – “Edison’s Frankenstein” by Thomas Edison
1911 – “Little Nemo in Slumberland” by James Stuart Blackton and Winsor McKay
1912 – “The Cameraman’s Revenge” by Ladislav Starevitch
1913 – Fantômas by Louis Feuillade
1914 – “Laughing Gas” by Charles Chaplin
1915 – Les vampires by Louis Feuillade
1916 – “Mystery of the Leaping Fish” by Christy Cabanne and John Emerson
1917 – "The Butcher Boy" by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
1918 – “The Sinking of the Lusitania” by Winsor McKay
1919 – Broken Blossoms by DW Griffith
1920 – The Golem by Paul Wegener
1921 – The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjöström
1922 – Dr. Mabuse the Gambler by Fritz Lang
1923 – The Pilgrim by Charles Chaplin
1924 – The Last Laugh by FW Murnau
1925 – Seven Chances by Buster Keaton
1926 – Moana by Robert J. Flaherty
1927 – Berlin: Symphony of a Great City by Walter Ruttman
1928 – The Cameraman by Buster Keaton
1929 – Pandora’s Box by GW Pabst
1930 – The Blue Angel by Josef von Sternberg
1931 – À nous la liberté by René Clair
1932 – Scarface by Howard Hawks
1933 – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse by Fritz Lang
1934 – The Scarlet Empress by Josef von Sternberg
1935 – Peter Ibbetson by Henry Hathaway
Alternate: Top Hat by Mark Sandrich
1936 – The Crime of Monsieur Lange by Jean Renoir
1937 – Make Way for Tomorrow by Leo McCarey
1938 – Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein
1939 – Le jour se lève by Marcel Carné
1940 – The Bank Dick by Edward F. Cline
1941 – How Green was my Valley by John Ford
1942 – Listen to Britain by Humphrey Jennings
1943 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
1944 – Ivan the Terrible Part 1 by Sergei Eisenstein
1945 – Detour by Edgar G. Ulmer
1946 – Ivan the Terrible Part 2 by Sergei Eisenstein
1947 – Quai des Orfèvres by Henri-Georges Clouzot
1948 – The Red Shoes by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
1949 – Late Spring by Yasujirô Ozu
1950 – Gun Crazy by Joseph H. Lewis
1951 – The River by Jean Renoir
1952 – The Quiet Man by John Ford
1953 – El by Luis Buñuel
1954 – Senso by Luchino Visconti
1955 – Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray
1956 – Aparajito by Satyajit Ray
1957 – Men in War by Anthony Mann
1958 – Some Came Running by Vincente Minnelli
1959 – The World of Apu by Satyajit Ray
1960 – Rocco and his Brothers by Luchino Visconti
1961 – Leon Morin, Priest by Jean-Pierre Melville
1962 – Limelight by Charles Chaplin
1963 – The Leopard by Luchino Visconti
1964 – Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara
1965 – Loves of a Blonde by Milos Forman
1966 – The Party and the Guests by Jan Nemec
1967 – Marketa Lazarová by Frantisek Vlácil
1968 – Les biches by Claude Chabrol
Alternate: Teorema by Pier Paolo Pasolini
1969 – Z by Costa-Gavras
1970 – The Spider’s Stratagem by Bernardo Bertolucci
Alternate: Zabriskie Point by Michelangelo Antonioni
1971 – The Third Part of the Night by Andrzej Zulawski
1972 – The Devil by Andrzej Zulawski
1973 – The Mother and the Whore by Jean Eustache
1974 – Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper
1975 – Night Moves by Arthur Penn
1976 – Kings of the Road by Wim Wenders
1977 – Providence by Alain Resnais
1978 – Jubilee by Derek Jarman
1979 – Zombie by Lucio Fulci
1980 – Berlin Alexanderplatz by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
1981 – Possession by Andrzej Zulawski
1982 – Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman
1983 – The King of Comedy by Martin Scorsese
1984 – Broadway Danny Rose by Woody Allen
1985 – Witness by Peter Weir
1986 – The Fly by David Cronenberg
1987 – Near Dark by Kathryn Bigelow
1988 – My Neighbor Totoro by Hayao Miyazaki
1989 – The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover by Peter Greenaway
1990 – The Godfather Part III by Francis Ford Coppola
1991 – Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami
1992 – Bitter Moon by Roman Polanski
1993 – The Piano by Jane Campion
1994 – Sátántangó by Béla Tarr
1995 – Underground by Emir Kusturica
1996 – Lone Star by John Sayles
1997 – Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami
1998 – Happiness by Todd Solondz
1999 – Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai by Jim Jarmusch
2000 – La commune (Paris, 1871) by Peter Watkins
Alternate: Esther Kahn by Arnaud Desplechin
2001 – What Time is it There? by Tsai Ming-liang
2002 – Russian Ark by Alexander Sokurov
2003 – Crimson Gold by Jafar Panahi
2004 – The World by Jia Zhangke
2005 – L’intrus by Claire Denis
2006 – I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone by Tsai Ming-liang
2007 – Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas
2008 – Night and Day by Hong Sang-soo
Alternate: Che by Steven Soderbergh or Le premier venu by Jacques Doillon
2009 – My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? By Werner Herzog
2010 - Hopefully something worthy of this project.
I've added a static page linked at the top, where you'll find a schedule just like this with links to all the reviews. If all goes well, I'll be in the 1900s by next week! See you on the other side.
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Has any canonized auteur been met with such furious confusion as Jean-Luc Godard? Even well-studied Godardians disagree on his meanings and periods and politics. Which means there’s no way I’m going to “get” everything on my first viewing, so anxiety-free I finally completed Godard’s New Wave output. I haven’t seen them all in order (Made in USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her are absent because Criterion released them last fall), but I once skipped way ahead—seeing King Lear, after reading the play, no less—and it was like a final exam in a language I didn’t know. So back to the late ‘60s: Masculin féminin, La chinoise, and Week End.
In Masculin féminin, horniness incarnate (Jean-Pierre Léaud) dates a rising pop star (Chantal Goya) in mid-‘60s consumerist PARadISe. (Sidenote: I can’t believe I failed to mention I’m Not There’s debt to Godard, but an early scene from Masculin féminin is explicitly repurposed in Haynes’ film; better late than never.) Interesting that Masculin féminin returns to black-and-white after such a vibrant venture into color as Pierrot le fou, but I suspect it’s both a dialectic thing (masculine/feminine, black/white, me/other) and an exposure of such dichotomies as whole spectra full of values.
Anyway, it’s more of a piece with Godard’s late ‘60s films than the b/w Band of Outsiders era, with France portrayed as an oppressive colonial power whose citizens are distracted by American capitalism. In fact, the Marshall Plan was born about the same time as the protagonists of Masculin féminin (and La chinoise). The kids here—Léaud adorably smooth-faced and hypersincere, Goya in a state of constant anticipation afforded only the very young or the very entitled (or both)—are more than happy to talk about the problems with the world, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their dual profit motives: sex and things. In an intertitle Godard calls them the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” Trade Marx for Jobs (or Baudrillard) and you’ve got the iYouth of the 21st century. Much of Godard’s hysteria has been dismissed by history—for one, nonviolence has achieved however gradually relative social equality in the West—but it’s nevertheless impossible to imagine a millennial expression of political power on par with what the French or American students were up to in ’68. Maybe that’s because the world isn’t so physical any more. The young do engage in political expression en masse—galvanizing in response to the Bush era, overwhelmingly embracing gay rights—just not with such violence.
Around ’67, Godard’s desperation to break with classical cinema—not giving himself enough credit for Pierrot le fou or 2 or 3 Things, I suppose—begat La chinoise, at once his most artificial and intimate film from this period. Artificial: 1. The action is broken up by improvised interview segments where Godard or cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who cameos with his camera à la Contempt) interrogates the characters. 2. Most of the film is confined to a single set, white walls covered in primary colored leftish philosophical rhetoric. 3. The camera is either stock still, confronting every monologue, however absurd, or vacillating on a preordained track from speaker to audience as the residents rant about Maoism. I can’t speak for what Godard thought he was making (though a riveting train ride, one reprieve from our Maoist prison, suggests La chinoise is no endorsement), but what I saw was a group of children expressing their rebellion in typically dramatic fashion, which in this case, with the proper education and proclivities, means violent extremism. (Sounds like the upcoming Chris Morris feature Four Lions, distributed by the Alamo Drafthouse this fall.)
The way Godard portrays France, a rightist state where violent outbursts regularly occur (a woman shoots her philandering husband outside a coffee shop, the patrons finish their meals), suggests any communist sympathies are more reactionary than reasoned. Which is why I say La chinoise strikes me as unprecedentedly intimate. These kids are based on real life intellectual Maoists at a fancy school where nothing is required of them other than to think, and as sympathetic as Godard is to their ideals, he presents them honestly: they’re on summer vacation (which is to say their rebellion has an end-date) living in an apartment owned by one of their parents; they clearly don’t absorb the impact of their violence, even intellectually; they spend their time indoctrinating each other, putting on crude plays about adult ideas and dismissing individual liberty in the name of revolution. They reinforce rather than challenge their beliefs. That’s why the train scene is so pivotal. It’s the sustained counterargument the film has been lacking, and it’s at once more economical and persuasive than the previous hour of Maoism had been, like Socrates catching Bernard-Henri Lévy on the toilet. La chinoise isn’t Maoist propaganda; it’s a man revolted by the status quo searching for answers.
That’s my favorite thing about early Godard: He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. His filmmaking changes so much because he’s figuring things out like the rest of us. Week End doesn’t know what the world needs, but it does know what (Godard thinks) the world is: a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Our heroes are two adulterers plotting to kill each other just as soon as they can get to the girl’s dying father and make off with his inheritance. Complications ensue in Buñuelian fashion—in fact, Week End looks like outtakes from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or The Phantom of Liberty; by the end I was sure Coutard must have shot those films, but alas—and the couple find themselves walking, hitchhiking, and carjacking their way across a Beckett-ian wasteland to their inheritance. Did I mention they know they’re in a film?
The claim to fame is a ten-minute tracking shot through a nightmarish traffic jam, and indeed it’s a sardonic delight. Not as witty as Buñuel’s best, but as raw an expression of modernist frustration as the cinema has known. Our ears are full of car horns for practically the whole shot, our reward for enduring a screaming child in the scene previous , and the rest of the film is a cavalcade of horror. This is the 20th century, Godard screams, but he’s drowned out by the wails of a woman crying for her Hermès handbag as a fiery victim falls from a wreck. An intertitle in La chinoise calls it “a film in the process of being made,” but Week End is “a film adrift in the cosmos,” one open-ended, the other found whole. La chinoise is a question. Week End is an absolute. Eventually someone gets to the point: “Nowhere do I see the sweet humanity and equable moderation that ought to be the foundation of the social treaty.” Nowhere? Sounds like you're seeing what you want to see.
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Thursday, September 9, 2010
The best thing about Austin’s rising film scene is the theatrical fetishization of that heavenly manna, Mexican food. Excepting that and ejaculatory shots of Texas skylines, the film world might be better off without Robert Rodriguez. His 2007 collaboration Grindhouse was fun sleaze that introduced the world to Machete, one of the many films that turned out to be better as a trailer. The lesson: making bad movies on purpose does not excuse them being bad.
Not that Machete is an unadulterated disaster. No, that would have been fun. Instead Machete is often painful to sit through, because of either aggressive violence or unending boredom. Notwithstanding the counterintuitively handsome production, I’m not sure if it’s a lampoon of grindhouse films or a grindhouse film itself; either way, it’s purposeless beyond an excuse for stunt-casting (like hiring cult icon/bad actor Steven Seagal or finagling Lindsay Lohan into a nun’s habit, and then absolving her of motivation for her final “arc”). At one moment directors Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis want us hollerin’ like groundlings at naked women and violent spectacle, and at the next they’re dropping the porn music cue to start laughing. Which was actually funny the first time.
Danny Trejo acquits himself well as the new Charles Bronson, but you understood why women fell for Bronson’s ugly mug. Trejo’s in a different class, his face all ancient and ravaged, a Leone landscape unto itself—but he’s not seductive. Michelle Rodriguez could have a future in a spinoff series about her undercooked character. Meanwhile Robert De Niro—good again at last!—and Jeff Fahey, as a senator and his aide, could go on the national circuit with their comically heavy-handed fiery nativist act.
Yes, Machete takes on (or parodies taking on) the present anti-immigration panic. Like everything in Machete, it’s half-good. De Niro enjoys spewing a schoolyard jab at Sarah Palin’s schoolyard jabs. There’s a spot-on commercial for an electrified border fence. The plot hinges on the hysteria being founded, i.e. there really is a network of illegal immigrants who rise up shouting, “Viva la revolucion!” The rhetorical campaign is ripped from the headlines, with politicians conflating terrorism and anchor babies, a term I fervently hope textbooks remember. And greed is the root cause of the nativist fever.
But satire hangs on precision, and you question whether Rodriguez is really Texan when you notice that none of the signs at the protests are misspelled, and nobody pronounces it “Messkin.” Worse, his solution is unimaginative and genre-ordained: violent warfare. It’s straight from the ending of Attack of the Clones, only with scarier aliens. And he treats it with such awe, like these shootouts are breathtaking feats of badassery, that it’s neither mockery nor cautionary; it’s fantasy.
Forgive me if my dreams of open borders and easy immigration aren’t filled with bloodshed. Of course the violence in Machete is winkingly hyperbolic. It’s a symbol of the nativist disrespect for humanity and the absurdity of vigilante justice. But the film is nevertheless confused. At the end, when all the survivors raise their weapons in solidarity, one of the kids makes a peace sign with his fingers. I wonder if he got the joke.
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. is the antibiopic. Who is Bob Dylan? We get six answers, one for each phase in the artist’s life, each “Dylan” played by a different person with a different name, all metaphysically connected. What is Dylan’s life story? It’s America, a freewheelin’ carnival loosely pasted together, impasto textures only roughly adhering to the papier-mâché component. So why is Dylan important? Who said he was? I’m Not There. isn’t about Bob Dylan.
It’s all there in the first scene, a fluid pan through grainy black-and-white: We the audience/camera/Dylan are ushered onstage beneath an American flag to perform for a screaming audience. Cut to title sequence, the semiotic hand of our creator overlapping words like he’s learning to speak: he describes himself, it gets more complicated, and finally he’s at the only truth he can safely say: I – I he – I’m he – I’m her – not her – not here. – I’m not there. That period, repeated in the cast credits (which also overlap: “cate bale.”), is the mark of a gavel, sentencing the sentence to a lie detector; “I’m not there.” is useless as information but accurate as truth.
Haynes literally autopsies Dylan in the post-title sequence to signify deconstruction, previewing his metaphorical storytelling and suggesting a postmodern sensibility that runs deeper than just fracturing a person into six. You can state truth in sentences, since language is artificial, but if you really want to interpret the world, you have to accept that truth is evasive, names are imperfect, and your questions are irrelevant anyway. “Who is Bob Dylan?” has as many answers and contradictions as the question “What is I’m Not There. about?” The giveaway is our playful introduction to Heath Ledger’s Robbie Clark, an actor who rose to prominence playing beloved folk protest singer Jack Rollins (Christian Bale’s character; both are “really” playing Dylan), who struggles, as artists do, against commercial cooption: on the set within the set, Clark points to a billboard with the name “Jack Rollins” and the face of Heath Ledger done up as Bob Dylan/Robbie Clark. He declares, “It’s not about me, any more, it’s all about him,” gesturing to his own image, but it’s really Bale, but it’s really Rollins, but it’s really Dylan, but it’s really Ledger. I’m not there / I contain multitudes.
Here Dylan literally does, born out of a sophisticated melting pot of 20th century American culture. Not just his six analogues and the identities they assume (which include Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud, and Billy the Kid) but the people he’s described as: James Dean, Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, not to mention, notably, us the audience. Which forces us to confront the subject of the title. Over a montage Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing a version of Dylan’s first wife) reads some of Rimbaud’s poetry, charmingly translating as she reads: “It is wrong to say, ‘I think.’ One should say, ‘I am thought.’ ‘I’ is someone else.” I is us. We am America.
We am also an audience of art consumers, so naturally Haynes delivers a film dripping with art, primarily that which flees the literal: Dylan, Rimbaud, Guthrie, Joan Baez (and Dylan’s other pseudonymous love interests, Sara Lownds and Edie Sedgwick), the Beatles, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, beatnik jazz, stream of consciousness, abstract expressionism, costume. Haynes borrows from Bergman and/or Desplechin and memorably quotes Pennebaker’s Dylan doc Dont Look Back and Fellini’s 8 ½. The Cate Blanchett sequences owe royalties to Richard Lester, and the Richard Gere portion lives in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Greaser’s Palace, just offscreen. It’s a restless film, abandoning one sequence to try out documentary, or launch an extended music video, or repeat that snippet of the film-within-the-film: first it’s just a normal scene, then we realize it’s an act, and finally we see it on television.
Television’s a recurring harbinger of alarm in the film, because it delivers images of America’s unpleasant realities directly to the living room, thereby fomenting a national reckoning. Midcentury America had to face the fact that it wasn’t America. It still isn’t America; “I’m not there.” But the story of America is one of increasingly fulfilling its promises of equality and freedom. As the title suggests, I’m Not There. is perhaps ultimately about liberation, hence our national mythology of individualism and reinvention. One notable moment of liberation in the film occurs while the TV blares Nixon’s “peace with honor” speech, because why should our words be beholden to reality? Order, whether by labels or expectation or prison or history or status quo or marriage or knowledge, is overthrown at every turn, every atom in the picture constantly seeking entropy, with one notable, ironic exception that finds its own freedom in submission, while representing The Establishment of Establishments.
I’ve told you nothing about what happens (at one point a whale swallows a child) or what it’s like (a puzzle with none of the right pieces) or what it’s about (evolution) or how it’s about it (colorfully, with self-conscious irony), and even less about Bob Dylan, whose themes and techniques pervade the picture. Well, it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe, if’n you don’t know by now. The usual suspects—the performances, the relationship of the film to Dylan’s life or mythology—are irrelevant, tools in service of the many meanings ambitiously woven through this singular pastiche. But fear not, Dylanttantes: if I can say one thing with certainty, it’s this: I’m Not There. is not about Bob Dylan.
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Saturday, September 4, 2010
Here’s the problem, as I see it, with Ralph getting whacked. Oops, wrong show. Also, spoiler alert. But here’s the problem, as I see it, with Modern Family winning best comedy: it is staunchly, disappointingly, and distractingly unremarkable. It’s just your standard family sitcom, notable for being so darn funny and not much else in a television landscape crawling with great comedies.
Okay, there’s a gay couple raising a baby. You’ve convinced me. Best show on television. (Kidding, though, props.)
First things first: Thesis. It’s my eternal deal-breaker, because art is expression, so it helps to express something. Modern Family’s thesis amounts to, what, the interminable schmaltzy moralizing at the end of each episode? It’s about as substantive as Friends, which has also won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy (in ‘02). Everybody Loves Raymond, the most recent family sitcom to win (’05, ’03), may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but at least it had something to say, and not to make it a class thing (because plenty of bourgeois families have fueled outstanding art, even on television, even in the past decade, like, say, the ‘04 winner Arrested Development), but Raymond had real problems while Modern Family, in the midst of our deepest recession since the Great one, sees a well-off extended family, um, struggle with law careers and getting an iPad the day it comes out. Just sayin’.
Stylistically, too, it's just your regular family sitcom (a network narrative intermingling family members) presented with a mockumentary conceit that is certainly fashionable if not explicable. It does boast a great ensemble and witty writers, but they'd be better served working on shows where the guiding principle isn't not to alienate any audience members (except the homophobes, but even they are likely to be wooed by the traditional family values of the platonic life partners of dubious romantic attraction). And credit where it's due, the show is capable of some shockingly real moments, like Cam and Mitchell at the Hawaii hotel on the elevator decompressing after a relaxing day with family, which is, truly, a staggering moment of believability quickly usurped by the antics of a lost baby stroller.
So, critically, I can’t agree that Modern Family is even among the top-tier comedies, each of which satisfy the most basic requirement that they function as more than funny narratives: 30 Rock, Archer, Better Off Ted, Louie, Parks and Recreation, Party Down, The Sarah Silverman Program, The Thick of It, United States of Tara, etc.
Then there’s the laughs-per-minute argument. Yes, Modern Family is certainly one of the funniest shows on the air, though even by that standard there are plenty funnier, including not just obvious choices like Archer and The Thick of It but The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Mad Men, which is underrated for its humor.
Unfortunately, the Emmy lineup was limited to, at most, two series deserving of the title "outstanding" (30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm, each funny, and each multivalent, one a postmodern media satire and the other our reigning comedy of manners, if I understand correctly). Still, that puts Modern Family in third place among a weak lineup.
Take the second tier comedies, the very funny, less cohesive or coherent shows with promising conceits: Community, Cougar Town, Glee, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, and The Office. (The bottom tier, since you asked, are the non-Tara CBS shows, which includes Showtime.) It’s hard to rank fine if not outstanding shows (and harder still for full twentysomeodd episode seasons to compete with the uniformity of truncated shows like most of the top tier), but Mother and Office were rarely funny and even less uniform, and Glee was a roller coaster from line to line. Community is probably the best, having cohered after about ten episodes, and Modern Family and Cougar Town fill in the middle. Most weeks, Cougar Town made me laugh more, and if that weren’t enough, Cougar Town is a genuine exploration of coming of age, no matter how old you are; every story and character is about becoming who you are, embracing your own weirdness.
Which is to say Modern Family isn’t even the best comedy on Wednesdays in the 8 o’clock hour on ABC. But it sure is funny!
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Let’s get this out of the way: it’s not a very good documentary. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Who Killed the Electric Car?, and any number of Iraq films other than No End in Sight, it’s one of those topical pieces inspired by the wondrous hybrid of Powerpoint animation and home video that should only be remembered in two years by niche newsmongers. And people desperately searching for illegitimacy in the ascension of Mitt Romney to the Oval Office (Just kidding! Unlike the Mormon elders, I am not a prophet).
But it’s also a strident campaign against the Mormon church that lacks the schoolyard snark of Michelle Malkin or the hilarity of the victim complex of Sean Hannity (because, in this case, gays really are victims of an anti-humanist society). The case presented here strikes me as legally defensible that the Church has operated as a political action committee and should therefore lose tax-exempt status. The institution is also presented variously as a well-organized shakedown, a criminal conspiracy, and a ridiculous cult, all arguably accurate perceptions, but never as a good-faith, well, faith composed of well-meaning people who just want what’s best for the world. Maybe it isn’t, and you’d have a hard time convincing me that any religion that usurps its members’ discretion can be positive, but it’s frankly unconvincing without any play for balance. It’s the anti-Mormon Fox News, only cheap and without a larger-than-life and/or trainwreck personality.
I’m not excusing the church for its well-documented human rights abuses and hardline social stance against its gay members nor the practicing Mormons who submit their independent thought to the will of the church nor the Elders who claim to be in communication with a deity that would rather gays be dead than happy and good nor the members who believe their religious beliefs ought to govern the American experiment. I'm just saying we don’t have to stoop to their level.
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Wednesday, September 1, 2010
The American is an old-fashioned throwback in almost every way. It follows George Clooney, one of the dying breed of movie stars, who trades his Cary Grant finesse for taciturn paranoia as a hit man hiding out in small-town Italy. It's moody and contemplative, like the European arthouse thrillers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, its closest relatives being Melville’s way-of-the-hit-man study Le Samourai and Antonioni’s identity piece The Passenger. And it's decidedly analog in an age of Bourne. But where The American is truly of its time is in its post-postmodern tail-eating: it gets lost in delicate homage.
That’s my initial reading, anyway, simplified for maximum impact. Despite misguided bursts of obviousness, like the recurring butterfly Symbol with a capital S, our hero’s almost laughable discovery of blood on his hands, everything about the priest character (can you guess what animal he’s often seen with?), and the ever-so-scarce score that swells just in time to wake you up as the reflective pace and attendant silence rock you to sleep, there doesn’t seem to be any coherent purpose.
It’s tempting to read a film titled The American as a geopolitical fable, and there’s evidence for that. The American is warned from the outset not to make any friends. No matter how he tries to blend into the European cultures he’s surrounded by, he stands alone. His cold, effective violence doesn’t secure him; it invites more violence. His relationships are financial. He has enemies and allies that conform to basic international relations. So what’s the point? Maybe it’s a melancholy rumination on an aging superpower, the butterfly inviting us to metamorphose into a kinder, gentler hegemon before it’s too late. The priest tells The American he's in hell, a place without love. I don't think America is devoid of love, but you wouldn't know it from the political climate.
Honestly, I’d be more than happy to sit through the film again to try to make sense of it. Just because the pieces don’t seem to amount to much beyond the usual existential crisis (I suspect the most salient purpose of the film is to explore how we deal with the effects of our violence) doesn’t mean the pieces weren’t beautifully crafted, not to mention set in out-of-the-way, travelogue Europe. Clooney, specifically, turns in a shocker of a performance for anyone unconvinced by Michael Clayton that he’s not just a suave rogue. Director Anton Corbijn, whose first and previous feature was the sumptuous black-and-white Ian Curtis biopic Control, again reveals an aptitude for stunning visuals with his cinematographer Martin Ruhe, contorting every village wall and riverside scrub into an oppressive obstacle. They even manage to make the moon-white snows of Sweden somber.
As for the pace, it’s deliberate, as they say, but what are you so antsy about? Relax and let it steadily draw you in. By the end, you’ll think the film was fifteen minutes shorter than it was. Le Samourai and The Passenger are equally pensive, and in each case it only heightens the film’s angst. What better way to put us in the tense, guilt-ridden mind of The American?
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