I’d just like to say that not many years ago I was the one who thought someone should start a year-end film critics’ poll, a la The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop survey, and I nagged editors at both the Voice and Film Comment on it several times before the idea took, first at the Voice, then, now it seems, everywhere. It was my idea. Dammit.
Anyway, as it has been folded into the Zeitgeist via polls and appearances in The Village Voice, indiewire, Sight & Sound, Film Comment, The Boston Phoenix, In These Times, The L Magazine, and, in a sense, Moving Image Source, here’s my 2011 Top Ten, qualitatively arranged as always.
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2. A Brighter Summer Day
3. A Separation
4. Mysteries of Lisbon
5. My Joy
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene
8. City of Life and Death
9. Tuesday, After Christmas
Runners-up, in order: You All Are Captans, Le Quattro Volte, Putty Hill, Meek’s Cutoff, The Trip, Certified Copy, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Silent Souls, Children of Hiroshima, The Arbor, Drive, Shame, The Artist...
The grand total: 2 old movies, 1 Iranian, 1 Iranian in exile, 2 documentaries, 1 Russian, 1 Ukrainian, 1 Korean, 1 Romanian, 4 U.S. genuine indies, 1 U.S. dependie, 0 Hollywood studio entries... 0 sequels, 2 films edited down from made-for-TV mini-series, 1 found-footage film...
The year's Nobel goes, a little too late, to Raul Ruiz.
Note that the list does not come within a Nigerian-runner’s short mile of Melancholia, J. Edgar, The Help, The Tree of Life, Tabloid, Hanna, Moneyball, The Debt, The Descendents, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Ides of March, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rampart, X-Men: First Class, Young Adult or Albert Nobbs, which have come to be this year’s most celebrated deflated souffles, gobbled up by some critics remarkable only for the bloated scale of their bellies and the numbness of their taste buds. So to speak. In other words, far too many critics today know next to nothing about the medium of which they are ostensibly expert. It’s safe to say that far too few even bothered to see ten or more of the films on my twentysomething list, because the damn things are demanding or long or weren’t gifted with a robust ad campaign. This reality makes polls, however well-intentioned, essentially meaningless. Among sports writers, for instance, this kind of rigor-less attitude toward material and achievement would cost people jobs. With film, the opposite has often proven to be the case.
Note too that A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and Children of Hiroshima (1952) are not new or newish films, but are included because they received, simply enough, their first U.S. week-long engagements. Period. To ignore them is to let the whims and market cowardice and dull-wittedness of film distributors, and the reasons they do or do not choose films for theatrical and video release, control the discourse.
As for blogging, I'll say what Warren Beatty said when he won his producing Oscar: I'll try to do better.
A reaction is warranted, methinks, regarding the article in the new Vanity Fair and its various hype-permutations in the pre-Oscar media (including, prominently, on NPR), regarding the Hollywood onslaught of 2011, how it is 98% sequels and remakes, and how, the author figures, we have come to such a sorry position, sucking relentlessly on the same formulaic teats, and allowing the 12-to-25 demographic to completely rule our movie universe.
It’s true, and simultaneously an old argument – the remake/sequel cataract has been building slowly since the ‘80s, before which sequels were cash-in also-rans, not an accumulating crescendo of ever-profitable emptiness and repetition. I’m more frankly fed up with the demographic blinders, which pablum-ize everything just so attention-attenuated teenagers can feel juiced by it regardless of what’s actually going on, and which place us now in a position of having our entire movie culture dominated by huge-budgeted, hugely profitable superhero movies, and, what’s more, superhero movies adapted from decades-old comic books. I know it’s common to decry how stupid we’ve become in toto, and equally common to prove the position wrong by comparing the pop culture of the ‘50s to ours today. Fair enough, but imagine how your parents and grandparents might’ve reacted if you’d told them that in five decades’ time the art form and American life in general would evolve into a universalized obsession with superhero movies. Which were, back then, the kinds of movies that only kids watched, along with cheap giant monster thrillers and beach romcoms. The adults had something else.
Today we don’t, not if we want to go to the movies. The Vanity Fair article explores the nexus of causes for this dilemma, and it’s a familiar list, beginning with marketing costs and market research. But there really is no one to blame ultimately except the ticket-buyer. If my students tell me the last Transformers or X-Men or Twilight film was as pleasurable as drinking lye, I tell them it’s their own fault – they bought the tickets knowing what was coming, and therein ensured the production of the next sequel or sundry ripoff. Perhaps the issue with all of this willy-nilly ticket-buying is the money itself – as in, where do all of these teenagers get all this money, so they can outspend the rest of us by a wide enough margin to change the industry? They’re not all working at nicely paying jobs, that’s for sure. Parents, stop handing out cash and start handing out chores. Make those brats scrub toilets before they can go out and spend your hard-earned income.
But let’s pretend the 12-to-25-ers are responsible for their own finances, because they can be if we make them. Besides, no one stays "young" (25 and under, as opposed to "old") forever, and at this rate the idea of a Hollywood movie made for American adults will seem absolutely antique and obsolete within the decade. Face facts: the world’s central entertainment capitol has winnowed down its output to what fleetingly pleases the brain stem of undereducated (given the latest stats, it’s a fair generalization), hormone-zonked, sensation-addicted teenagers, and most of them will be overseas and tolerant of only the sparest amount of dubbable dialogue. Could you have said this 25 years ago? Yes. Is it worse now? Yes.
What’s to be done? If most of us could agree that big-ass Hollywood movies simply suck nowadays, and I think we can, then we need to simply boycott them. Do what loads of people did this past three-day weekend to would-be-franchise-ripoff I Am Number Four – don’t go. Use Facebook and Twitter – if we can ‘Net-organize enough to overthrow ironclad dictators, we can certainly join forces and resist the wailing crescendo of publicity, marketing and advertising that accompanies movies every week that everyone, even the slowest Slovenian teenager or laziest Wisconsin cellar-dweller or geekiest Japanese schoolkid, knows will just suck. Don’t go. Don’t go. This summer, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, The Hangover Part II, Transformers The Dark of the Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Smurfs, Conan the Barbarian, Spy Kids 4, Final Destination 5? Don’t go.
A blast from the past, from my pre-website Voice years, just in time for Christmas:
"We all pretend the rainbow has an end/and you’ll be there my friend someday..." And so goes the chilling, enigmatic bridge verse to "There’s Always Tomorrow," the key ballad in boomer America’s most protean air burst of televised Christmas mythology, 1964's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The first and most resonant of the CBS-broadcast holiday puppet passions, this deep-dish freakazoid may not be the greatest find in AMMI’s "Wishing You an Animated Christmas" series starting Dec. 20 (that would be Lev Atmantov’s 1957 restored The Snow Queen), but it is, metaphorically speaking, the mother lode.
Nearly all Christmas tales, from Dickens on down to Jingle All the Way, are capitalist parables at heart — it’s what Christmas is all about, to quote Linus Van Pelt out of context — and Rudolph is as Adam Smithian in its politics as it is Jack Smithian in its nutlog extrapolation of the Johnny Marks’s original carol. Like it or not, the story’s dynamics hinge on the North Pole’s alarming reindeer unemployment problem — only eight tenured positions and so many applicants. Rudolph begins as a mutant (born too close to the factory?), and is quickly deemed an unprofitable embarrassment by everyone from his Member of the Board dad Donner to Santa himself, the unforgiving nabob at the local industry’s helm. "Shame on you," Santa tells Donner —not for hiding Rudolph, but for having him at all.
While a snowman sings "Silver and Gold," Rudolph tries to prove himself worthy of cost-effective membership in the machine despite his "noncomformity," all the while skirting the advances of the Abominable Snow Monster — the subSiberian Cold War specter of Communism. A spry little Horatio Alger, Rudolph embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery until Santa, focused as always on efficient trade practice, realizes how he might profit from Rudolph’s inflamed uniqueness and enthusiastically formulates a new frontline team position for the young buck. "I knew that nose would turn out to be useful!" an ass-protecting Donner exclaims, and Rudolph becomes Christmastown’s first freelance consultant. But his is a per project application — won’t Rudolph get laid off when the weather is clear?
Along the way, Hermie the Elf Dentist evokes the obsolete craftsman losing his soul on the Industrial Revolution assembly line (complete with barking foreman), and Yukon Cornelius embodies the pre-industrial entrepreneur scrambling after the American Dream, penniless, semi-deranged and running amok in the wilderness. The Island of Misfit Toys — a kind of fascistic monarchy of capitalist castoffs eventually rescued from a gainless limbo — is clearly Cuba. Fearlessly righteous, the narrative assures us that every sensibility, even the finally toothless shell of Communism, can be folded successfully into the system.
But there's a price to be paid: during the end credits, the gift-delivering elf aboard Santa’s sleigh throws a bird overboard without an umbrella — not knowing the bird is a misfit toy and cannot fly. It’s never been said that mass production wouldn’t have casualties, only that we shouldn’t care. What’s more vital is Rudolph’s expression of rampant Americanism: not simply to join, but to lead.
Everybody's doing it! I was distracted, I guess, and didn’t realize it was time for all of the movie critic polls to assess not just 2009 but the entirety of the ‘00s as well. This is sport, but I like it, so here’s my decade-best list, the Top 50, in order because it's not fun any other way, as it’s being fed into the exanding universe of film critic best-of stats...
1. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins, France)
2. What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)
3. Adaptation (Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman, US)
4. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary)
5. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman, US)
7. Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, France)
8. Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)
9. Cache (Michael Haneke, France)
10. Inland Empire (David Lynch, US)
11. Gerry (Gus Van Sant, US)
12. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, US)
13. Children of Men (Alphonse Cuaron, US/GB)
14. Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, Korea)
15. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weersethakul, Thailand)
16. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, US)
17. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
18. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, Taiwan)
19. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)
20. Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, Sweden)
21. Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France)
22. The Weeping Meadow (Theo Angelopoulos, Greece)
23. Safe Conduct (Bertrand Tavernier, France)
24. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
25. Platform (Jia Zhangke, China)
26. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, US)
27. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, US)
28. 4 (Ilya Khrjanovsky, Russia)
29. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)
30. The Day I Became a Woman (Marziyeh Meshkini, Iran)
31. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, France)
32. Wordly Desires (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
33. Dans Ma Peau (Marina de Van, France)
34. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, US)
35. Ballast (Lance Hammer, US)
36. Le Fils (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
37. Wendy & Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, US)
38. Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, US)
39. The World (Jia Zhangke, China)
40. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, US)
41. Turtles Can Fly (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran/Iraq/Kurdistan)
42. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)
43. Once (John Carney, Ireland)
44. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, China)
45. Monday Morning (Otar Iosseliani, France)
46. The Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel, Argentina)
47. The Last Train (Alexei German Jr., Russia)
48. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel)
49. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, US)
50. The Mist in the Palm Trees (Carlos Molinaro & Lola Salvador, Spain)
A cavil: there are only three films on the list that were never distributed in any way in the United States, and this is not because I have such fabulous faith and commonality with this country's running-scared film distribution industry, but because I have children and a mortgage and do not get to travel to international festivals very much. So, my list should be seen through this scrim; conservatively speaking, I don't think the list would change radically if I was single and wealthy and festival-obsessed, but it would change somewhat.
My 2009 lists are forthcoming...
Reviewing indie/archival/imported DVDs has an ethical parameter distinctive from plain old movie reviewing – rather than simply assessing everything that cascades down the pike, you must select, and then in an effort not to appear at all peevish, you select the most worthwhile options, week to week. So, the movies on the lower end of the scale, which I have to see as well, never get their day in court. I’m committed to justice, so here are money shots taken at recent releases I refused to cover:
The History Boys (2006) Straining, education-free theatrical camp, and I mean that in an actively hostile way.
The Notorious Bettie Page (2006) Was Page this dull? It’s impossible to imagine.
Nuit Noire (Black Night) (2004) German brooder Olivier Smolders essentially remakes Eraserhead, but with large and weird European bugs.
My Best Friend (2006) What crap. So of course it was remade in Hollywood.
Life Is a Bed of Roses (La Vie Est un Roman) (1983) Alain Renais has fun in a mansion full of actors, but can’t say we had the same.
The Bow (2005) Kim Ki-duk’s comet continues to arc downward. Folktale-simplistic to the point of being childish.
Trigger Man (2007) Quite like the movies I made on Super 8mm in high school. Wait a minute, it’s exactly a movie I made on Super 8mm in high school.
You Kill Me (2007) I was already done right here with the idea that beautiful young women would love to have sex with Ben Kingsley. So arch it curdles in the belly.
Party 7 (2000) The warmup swing before Ishii’s A Taste of Tea and Funky Forest: The First Contact, and not at all amusing.
Redacted (2007) DePalma doing post-Blair Witch combat mock-doc in Iraq?! DePalma doesn’t do realism, folks. The only thing real-seeming about this ham-handed Casualties of War remake is the ordnance.
Sixty Six (2006) If the director of Leonard Part 6 and City Slickers II can still snag, and immolate, new projects like this soft-soap Yiddishe drischla, you can, too.
Where the Truth Lies (2005) Hard to grok what Atom Egoyan was thinking here.
Lady Chatterly (2006) What the fuck? Literally. She’s less "awakened" here than trapped in the mouth-breathing mind of an incurious preteen, and he’s a mopey ape. Jeesh.
Margot at the Wedding (2007) An abomination, glib, anything-for-an-uncomfortable-laugh-line. Is every character on a psychopharmacological program, and if so, why don’t they mention it?
What Remains (2006) Sally Mann is a savvy narcissist, and her documentarian just wants to fuck her.
This Is England (2006) Spittle-flecked skinhead hysteria. Expert, but so? Was it such a serious social problem, or is it just those wacky clothes?
Ludwig (1972) You watch this waxworks wondering how Visconti didn’t get run out of Rome for putting audiences through his films.
The Stranglers of Bombay (1960) I used to like Hammer films as a boy. I must’ve been a very patient kid.
Bosque de Sombras (The Backwoods) (2006) Gary Oldman picking up rent money in Spain.
Day-Time Wife (1939) The worst movie of 1939? If it is, it’s not Linda Darnell’s fault.
Hotel des Ameriques (1981) Andre Techine making it up as he goes along. A wonder he found work again.
Gospel According to Harry (1994) Lech Majewski’s uproariously pretentious music-video-surrealism at work. Likewise for The Roe’s Room (1997) and Glass Lips (2007).
The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949) Forgotten, rumored to be lost, rediscovered experimental color Maigret mystery, shot in Paris, starring Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton, and still a dud.
Noise (2008) Henry Bean tries for frustrated-modern-man satire, and gets very lost.
Slacker Uprising (2008) This is the mad Moore ego trip evil conservative shitheads have been defining all of the other Moore films as.
Dark Floors (2008) Atmospheric haunted-hospital horror, but the demons are actually the members of the Finnish rock band Lordi, growling.
Rachel Getting Married (2008) A step up from Baumbach’s wedding fiasco, but if Demme hadn’t tried to impress us with his great taste in world music and his cohort of cool musician friends, this would be a 40-minute featurette.
Monte Grande: What Is Life? (2005) A biography of the late philosophical physicist Francisco Varela, who seemed very smart and nice, but who had no significant message to impart. The title question goes unanswered, except as something that ends.
The End of America (2008) Smokin’ hot pundit Naomi Wolf essentially reiterates the points made in her bestselling anti-Bush book to a medium-sized audience. She’s right, and I appreciate the Nazi parallels, but this isn’t a movie, it’s a promotional tool.
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976) Another famous import hit from the ‘70s bites the dust. Almost unendurable.
Way Down East (1920) Griffith was a stodgy hump; compared to contemporaneous movies (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Parson’s Widow, The Penalty, The Golem, even Olive Thomas’s The Flapper), this is a preachy, lumbering snooze. The ice-floe stunts were cool, though.
Runners-up, in order: Times and Winds, The Duchess of Langeais, The Wedding Director, WALL-E, Woman on the Beach, Appaloosa, Che, Alexandra, Pineapple Express, Jellyfish, Operation Filmmaker, Milk, The Edge of Heaven, Boy A, My Father My Lord, Encounters at the End of the World, Snow Angels, Chop Shop, Stuff and Dough, In Bruges
Didn't see in time: A Christmas Tale
Here're my polled lists/results/comments/etc.:
Sight & Sound
Moving Image Source
with Film Comment to come.
O Noel to all, and to all a brave new year.
The Atkinson Muniment Room, Part V
[A 2001 PTSNBN piece, "Auto da fe," on the emerging subsubgenre of crash-trauma movies, explored for rather personal reasons...]
The crash – be it in a car, train, plane or less popular mode of high-speed, high-risk transport – has always been one of cinema’s basic visual sacraments, starting with silent comedy’s injury-free Model T smack-up. Like the dance number, the adventure-film stunt and the gunfight, crashes have been ubiquitous ocular orgasms ever since Hollywood began using the phrase "big budget," raising unshirted hell from a comfortable distance and filling the screen with krazy chaos audiences, in the 20s, 30s and 40s, would more than likely see nowhere else.
The attraction is primal – not long before movies coalesced into a functioning culture, transportation was relatively slow and scant on decimation, but combustive technology and flight raised the stakes on vehicular accidents, and the results were something to see. For seven decades or more, wrecks have been an axiom and qualifier of pulp entertainment – they were pure spectacle, resonating waves of hair-raising danger that never quite reached us.
That has changed: in movies, crashes are no longer just marvels of destruction or, even, narrative kick-starts. Slowly, the crash has claimed ground as a thematic and dramatic fulcrum, finding itself at the shaken, shuddering center of movies’ emotional mission. And it’s not just Cronenberg’s Crash that matters in this way, although that film did an astonishing and largely unrequested job of raising consciousness about the fiery, deadening enchantment of mechanistic calamity. Of course, it’s Ballard and Cronenberg’s nipple-twist on civilian post-traumatic stress, a psycho-state usually relegated to subplots but addressed unblinkingly in Weir’s Fearless and Kieslowski’s Blue, both released in 1993, for all intents the start of the crash season. Here, the survival of deadly catastrophe becomes its own perverting cross, and in both movies the wound is at first experienced as an incomprehensible unburdening. There is no other story; the crash has become the story.
In 1996, Jacques Doillon’s Ponette studied the bludgeoning after-effects of an orphaning wreck on a 4-year-old, for whom the accident began a crisis of metaphysical hunger. But in the last two years, crash shock has proliferated. While Random Hearts was traditionally configured around an airline wipeout, and Fight Club's chicken run was only a minor impasse on its way to apocalypse hyperbole, Jesus’ Son hovered over a slick-highway smack-up as if it was the forbidding memory it would’ve been had the hero not been lost on dope. The Dutch film Total Loss also flashed forward and back around a protracted flyaway pile-up that punctuated everything coming before it with friction sparks and spraying glass. Pollock’s climactic collision, like the ones that ended both Steve Prefontaine biopics, was deliberately anticlimactic, while Erin Brockovich’s opening sleight-of-hand whiplasher had Julia Roberts blind-sided out of the corner of our eye; emotionally marginal, they still clubbed the viscera. Unbreakable began with an off-screen train derailment that seemed to haunt the film and Bruce Willis’s gloom-plagued hero long after the nominal plot was supposed to have taken over. Cast Away’s aerial plunge was a universalized nightmare come true, and was never forgotten amid the trials that followed. Even You Can Count on Me’s most potent moments – and there could’ve been more of them – stem from the sister-brother protagonist’s shared lives under the shadow of their parents’ fatal crash years before. A split-second in time that continues to exhale decades later, dwarfing the lives that press on.
Quite apparently, in reflecting and refracting their audience’s perspective, movies have been compelled to address the reality of vehicular disaster. As the century-plus of cinema and modern transportation has worn on, more and more of us have become familiar not with merely what it’s like to witness this particularly lunatic by-product of automotive convenience but what it’s like to endure one. Our mass participation in the dynamic has evolved from spectator to survivor, and anybody who’s escaped a serious crash can tell you that the electric relationship between an individual and the juggernaut trauma he or she experienced on the road or rails or airways is, in the end, harrying, demonically irreducible and bottomlessly mysterious. (I’ve had my share, and my life turns on one of them as if on a hinge.) Strange as it may seem to the non-initiates, Ballard’s and Cronenberg’s vision isn’t merely metaphorical, it’s affective. So many of us belong to this tribe, and more are being inducted every hour. It might be the characteristic social ache of the last and next 50 years, the holy ordeal of the post-industrial community. Our mundane experience of machinery gone amok has silently demanded representation, and movies have begun to listen.
I’m despairing of actually saying anything new or fresh in regards to Tuesday’s election, coming finally to the barrel end of an inhumanly long election period in which virtually anything that could be said has been said ten times, but nevertheless, there’s this: I think the whole thing is horsecrap, medicine show shucks and intellectual pollution. I’d vote for Obama even if he were headless, but that doesn’t mean I think very much of what he says has meaningful substance or legislative teeth. Nothing either candidate, or any candidate going back decades, has said can be relied upon to hold true once office is taken. They’d say anything, and there’s no way for us to "know" anything about them, or what they might do once elected.
The fact that I "feel" a "sense" of "trust" about Obama that overshadows my reaction to any Presidential candidate since I’ve been of voting age means nothing. My choice is simple, and has been since I was told by my mother to vote for Nixon in my fourth-grade classroom election ("the lesser of two evils," she said), and did so, and then came to regret it by the time I made it to fifth grade. My choice has always been dictated by this: vote against the bomb-dropping, mass-murdering, pocket-filling, Christ-howling, lie-vomiting conservative barbarians. You vote this way, you can’t go wrong.
But that’s not how people are deciding their vote, and this is what terrifies me. When you hear people talk about why they’ll vote for McCain, it sounds like hunting-lodge whiskey talk. When you hear people explain why they’ll vote for Obama, it’s a spew of vague rationales and encomiums about "hope." If they mention taxes or health care, it’s always without understanding. No one is voting, in other words, for any good reason at all. They’ve placed their weight behind Obama because of his rhetoric, and it never occurs to them that that’s not enough.
What would be enough? How about knowing something about socioeconomics, about social policy, about the reality of Iraq and Afghanistan, about why exactly Iran may or may not be a threat, why health care needs reform – what exactly a President does and can do, beside be a seemingly competent "leader" so the rest of us can be safe little children content in knowing we don’t have to pay attention to the way the big world outside is run. It’s laziness, it’s amnesia, it’s morally abhorrent self-indulgence. Because we don’t pay attention, thousands of people are murdered every year with bombs and ammo we pay for, accounting carpetbaggers rob us blind of tax dollars and investment funds, lobbyists hawk our airwaves and bandwidth and media resources to monopolies, insurance companies kill people rather than pay for care, wars are initiated on preposterous untruths and whim, and so on. The same clueless narcissism that allowed the Bush administration to wreak its historic havoc is now, turning 45 degrees for emotional reasons of its own, coming close to electing Obama. We’ll always be better off without a conservative administration in power, but the reasons we choose our government chairmen remain paltry, nonsensical and shameful. However you vote, do us all a favor: ignore your gut, save your "feelings" for group therapy, and find a factual reason, or preferrably reasons, for your choice.
There’s no underestimating the contributions Martin Scorsese has made to the state of American cinephilia. More than just a moviemaker, he has been a restless, tireless gadfly nagging the long-term-memory-loss culture around him to hold onto the past. Italian neo-realism, Michael Powell, film preservation, John Cassavettes, John Garfield, the blues, the reputations of studio auteurs like William Wellman, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller – he devotes so much celluloid and interview time to his various causes it’s a wonder he can find the time to make his own films. (Indeed, if you’re assembling a profile of any industry figure from Cecil B. DeMille to Satyajit Ray, your first step is to sit Scorsese down.) Now, Scorsese the director has finally nailed down an opportunity to cannonball into the old Hollywood he knows so well; hard as it is to believe, The Aviator is the first non-documentary feature in the man’s canon to serenade the act of making cinema.
Or at least in part – however much a Hollywood gossip-page ubiquity, Howard Hughes was hardly a vital Hollywood producer (ruled by erratic and exploitative instincts), and can barely qualify as a filmmaker. (His two directorial credits, 1930's Hell’s Angels and 1943's The Outlaw, are woeful and sensationalistic claptrap.) Hughes is more accurately remembered as a half-baked engineer, an irresponsible pilot, an underhanded billionaire capitalist, and, most spectacularly, a world-class neurotic whose famous descent into unwashed, paranoid junkie madness in the years before his death assured his notoriety after many other late industrialists had faded from the country’s consciousness.
The Aviator, working with a script by John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai), skims the surface, of course. Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a paradigmatic brash young powermonger, spitting out orders, puzzling his minions with his mania for details, courting starlets. As is de rigueur for its genre, the movie’s narrative feels like a long string of boxcars – incidents from the Hughes biography are dutifully reenacted in sequence (meeting Katherine Hepburn, conceiving of the Spruce Goose, crashing the XF-11, "discovering" the 15-year-old Faith Domergue, defending himself against accusations of war profiteering before a corrupt Senate committee). Meanwhile, the parlor-game-casting cameos demonstrate the futility of reincarnating yesteryear’s icons by way of today’s movie stars (holy Toledo, is Kate Beckinsale not Ava Gardner). Scorsese clearly has an Oktoberfest with the period ambience, just as he did in New York, New York, orchestrating busy crowds, swooping his camera through the Tinseltown chintz and staging frantic overlapping patter across dinner tables (and golf greens) like Howard Hawks eagerly returned from the grave.
But where’s Hughes? In the public bathroom, frozen in fear of the doorknob he must turn in order to exit. Given the amount of time devoted to depicting if not understanding Hughes’s pathologies, Scorsese may have made the first epic biopic portrait of OCD. Fairly controlled by his cleanliness compulsions and neat-freak-hood (when Jude Law, as a rather dubious Errol Flynn, steals a single pea off Hughes’s plate, it’s enough to scotch the meal), our semi-hero is something of a study in self-immolating, verminophobic frustration. At times, the movie’s title seems ironic – The Hand-Washer might have been more to the point. When the FBI ransacks his home at the backroom behest of competitor/PanAm prez Juan Trippe (a suave Alec Baldwin), Hughes squeals in horror, "They’re touchin’ things!" How exactly Hughes manages to sleep with – exchange fluids with – so many women while he can scarcely tolerate shaking hands is a mystery the movie doesn’t try to solve, but his allure as the subject of a nearly-three-hour examination is evasive. Certainly, wealth, womanizing, neuroses and larceny hardly make for a distinguished profile in Hollywood. (The post-crash addiction to morphine is elided altogether.) Unaccountably, Hughes’s 1938 global circumnavigation, cutting Lindbergh’s 11-year-old New York-to-Paris record in half, is summed up in a newsreel.
Scorsese gets down to it with the air action, and if the Hell’s Angels sequences and the searing Beverly Hills smash-up of the XF-11 are the film’s fiery peaks, it may be because there’s a scent of sulphurous, Scorsese-ite danger in the otherwise well-regulated air. (It’s hard not to wonder who else was hurt or killed in that crash, but their names are apparently lost to or bought out of history.) The omnipresence of digital unreality provides another layer of safety and homogeneity.
Still, DiCaprio is The Aviator’s pivotal quantity – that is, if you buy him as a master of the universe-slash-man of action, bedeviled by impulses. But the conscious contrast between today’s baby-faced, teen-voiced toddler-men movie actors and the Golden Age’s grown-ups is unavoidable, and though DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a 30-year-old until he’s 50. (Dean Stockwell’s Hughes, in Tucker, seemed a good deal more traveled.) When Hughes is swapping repartee with Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, who nails the vibe stunningly) during a Bringing Up Baby-ish nine rounds, it plays as if she’s interviewing him for an internship.
No small obsessive himself, Scorsese dares to limn Hughes’s mid-life breakdown – holing up in his private screening room naked and unshaven, filling hundreds of empty milk bottles with piss – in terms repetitive enough to try the uncompulsive’s patience. Similarly afflicted viewers, however, may have shivers of empathy, just as ex-cokeheads sweated through the final act of GoodFellas. But the thorough dissolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s is only hinted at, a tactful strategy that asks us to provide The Aviator with its gruesome denouement. Instead, Hughes’s temporary self-collection (with Gardner’s grooming help) and grandstand before slimy Senate goldbricker Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) serves as the only conceivable triumph a screenwriter could locate in the man’s messy, ethically crippled life. At best, The Aviator could’ve been a Raging Bull brother-film, given that film’s crystalline purity of purpose and humiliated courage. But it brakes far short.
I’m frankly getting tired of being the kid in the crowd pointing at the emperor’s bare-naked buttcheeks, but someone (besides Chicago Reader’s J.R. Jones) has got to make the case for the achingly obvious: Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a sophomoric, cliched howler, so ludicrously bad in so many ways one doesn’t know where to begin. It could be with the arch narration, the prose and thrust and supposedly-short-story tone of which is so amateurish that it could never find publication outside of a high school lit mag, much less substantiate itself as a film’s redundant narration literally explaining actions as we see them, or worse, explaining things we should see and experience but don’t. Or, perhaps, with Allen’s conception of character, which has become so one-dimensional that his heroines wouldn’t seem out of place in a decades-old YA novel. Or Allen’s ponderous recycling of storylines, M.O.s, jokes, compositions and sometimes entire scenes from his other films. Or his pretentious-idiot-freshman ideas of "creative people" and artists and the mythical dichotomy between the artistic life and the mundane lives of "ordinary" people.
Or his relentlessly held faith with wealth porn. Or his nonsensical notions of art and painting and photography and poetry, all of which are invoked in the film without being convincingly portrayed. Or his banal invocation of Gaudi and Miro and "Spanish guitar" in the same way he got derisive yucks years earlier namedropping Bergman and Kurosawa and Klimt. Or the simple thinness of the story, which tries to emulate Rohmer but amounts to a quarter of a decent Rohmer script, but with none of the humor or feeling.
Sure, Cruz, Hall and Bardem were charming, if in spite of some of the extraordinarily unnatural things they were given to say. (Johansson is milky-gorgeous, but comparatively dull.) But Allen’s film is a tired, sick dinosaur around them, and the exasperating experience of it hardly meshes with the happy tolerance and even indulgent praise it’s received by the majority of critics, including a handful of smart ones, who I can only assume have been so deadened by superhero bullshit that this movie looked like a refreshing glass of urine might to a man dying of thirst in the desert. Honestly, on paper it wouldn’t pass muster in an undergrad screenwriting course, and on the screen it’s a patronizing snooze.
It’s time, I’m afraid, to let loose the dogs of apocalyptic cultural complaint, this time upon the throat of The Dark Knight, which I was coerced into finally seeing despite my official moratorium on voluntarily watching superhero movies, or any film in which someone puts on a mask or has "special powers," the latter of which is all by itself a dead giveaway, as a narrative device, to the film-culture mess we find ourselves in. Superheroes are, essentially by definition, idiotic confections intended for children, and the fact that I can’t escape them as an adult so far this millennium makes my blood boil. I did my time as a kid loving X-Men and Spider-Man and The Avengers and Jack Kirby specials (and E.C. reprints and even Warren mags like Creepy and Eerie), and heaven knows I do not begrudge the American early-adolescent his or her time in the shade with comic books, or their afternoons in matinees watching Batman or Iron Man or whatever. But it’s gotten to the point that superheroes comprise the substantial percentage of movie options we have now, in one form or another, and to avoid them as a grown-up you’d have to avoid cinema. What’s more, adults are flocking, adults reviewers are treating the movies seriously, the filmmakers themselves apparently believe they’re making coherent and profound statements. Meanwhile, the digital whooshing and ultrasurroundsound noise are getting so assaultive it seems we’re not that far away from a movie somehow reaching out during an action scene and just hitting you in the head with three-pound piece of flying shrapnel, just to "make you feel" the chaos.
But that’s my beef in general; The Dark Knight epitomizes the problem specifically not by simply being a Caped Crusader trifle masquerading as Paradise Lost, but because it failed to do the simplest things movies have always done: tell a fucking story. The film is quite literally one violent set-piece followed by a 20-second snatch of exposition, to explain what significance the set-piece is supposed to have, repeated again and again and again, for over 2.5 interminable hours. Stories require character and incidents that happen to those characters and decisions those characters have to make, and us watching them make those decisions, and then the tragic/triumphant/ironic result of those decisions. The Dark Knight runs along literally like a series of disconnected cabaret acts, with what passes for narrative happening off-screen most of the time, and the ample screentime remaining filled up with chases and fights so haphazardly shot and cut you can’t tell where anybody is or what’s going on. We hardly see Bruce Wayne, the Joker (yes, Heath Ledger was fascinating) has no backstory or motivation, plot holes loomed like event horizons (sure, you evacuated that hospital), dialogue scenes never lasted more than a few seconds – in other words, anything that might substantiate the film as dramatic material fit for adults was almost completely elided. I’ll tell you the two moments I appreciated, both missable in the melee: Christian Bale’s dry, almost imperceptible chuckle at Michael Caine’s I-told-you-so mini-punchline as they walked away from the camera, and the way the hulking gangbanging convict played by Tommy Lister went back to his seat after tossing the detonator overboard, brooding over perhaps having sealed his own death by doing the right thing. You can see why: these tiny instances involved humans, reacting and revealing their history. That’s about it for the whole film.
We wouldn’t be having this conversation if the audience were only kids, however large that audience might be. Somehow the entirety of American culture, young and middle-yeared and old, is embracing the childish universe of superheroes – which is structured around the easily-distracted worldview of kids, not around the reasoned, complex worldview we would hope children would grow into. Does America need that badly a post-post-9/11 big Daddy to vanquish danger so we can slumber in our cradles? The much-lamented infantilization of the mass populace continues, and at what cost? How much public effort and energy and time is spent consuming this attenuated nonsense – watching it, watching PR stuff about it, ‘Net-surfing for it, blogging about it, texting about it, pursuing gossip about it, rewatching it, YouTubing it, ad infinitum – and not attending instead to a government that eats tax monies like a Moloch and kills people by the thousands? Movies can be art, and can connect us with human verities and empathies and experiences that might help us deal with the real world. That’s what stories have always been for. But instead we’re using film as the walls of a bubble we’re constructing around ourselves like the disturbed children of abusive parents. Old Hollywood movies have always had their fair share of bullshit, but they were about people, always (or until Star Wars). Not anymore.
"Though he got to eventually write-direct two more films, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1970) and the forgotten Yugoslav epic Romance of a Horsethief (1971), Polonsky is famous now only as the Kazan antithesis, the Hollywood director who lived up to his principles and surrendered his career rather than surrender his friends’. Today, his reflections on Kazan’s final moment in the sun display little mellowing with age. 'About Kazan, I put it three ways: one, I wouldn’t want to be buried in the same cemetery with the guy. Two, if I was on a desert island with him I’d be afraid to fall asleep because he’d probably eat me for breakfast. Three, we’ve already given him the Benedict Arnold award, which is usually reserved for presidential assassins. Except he didn’t kill a president, just his friends. All those people with the Group Theater, they were his best friends.'
"'Seriously, it’s a terrible mistake,' the 88-year-old Polonsky growls from his home in L.A. a few weeks before the Oscar ceremony, waxing enthusiastically about Greenwich Village, his great grandchildren, Charlton Heston ('I was on this radio show and Chuck called in, and I said hey, you’re the king of guns, why dontcha go get a gun, give it to Kazan, he could blow his brains out and go down in infamy, which is all he wants.') and the 'media blitz' he’s enjoying. 'Suddenly everybody remembers the blacklist.' But does he plan to go to the Oscars? 'I’m invited, I’m always invited, I’m a member of the Academy. But why would I go? Did you know you have to pay to get into that? Why would I pay good money to see that guy, to go and sit on my hands?'"
Money-shot reviews for May-June ‘08 (excluding several dozen films reviewed at IFC.com (check the index, at left), TCM.com and The Boston Phoenix):
My Effortless Brilliance (2008) Terrific if unambitious Kelly Reichart-esque indie about two estranged friends (a wary forest ranger/ex-grad student and a lonely, porcine, self-absorbed young novelist, played with wincing authenticity by critic/musician Sean Nelson) weathering the final death thrashes of their friendship in a secluded Washington cabin.
Ira & Abby (2006) I don’t know why Jennifer Westfeldt isn’t a star, but the witty-yet-conventional rom-com scripts she writes for herself might be a factor.
Speed Racer (2008) What tutti-frutti similes haven’t been evoked to describe this nightmare? It’s not a movie, it’s not even a Fruit Roll-Ups kiddie-TV commercial, it’s the Fruit Roll-Ups box design itself. Or the Roll-Ups? The high fructose corn syrup of contemporary cinema?
Petit Pow! Pow! Noel (2005) Watch for the upcoming Film Comment article in which I try to suss out exactly what this nauseating, creepy Canadian non-doc is actually about (along with Canadian non-docs like 2004's Jimmywork, 2006's Radiant City and 2006's Missing Victor Pellerin), beyond perhaps surmising that Canadians have an odd sense of humor.
Secrets of a Soul (1926) German Expressionism meets Freud in a nine-rounder, and G.E. wins by a knockout.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Crashingly overrated Ealing farce, which famously has Alec Guinness taking on eight small roles while a muttering, sleepy Dennis Price slowly, humorlessly, goes about killing them off for the sake of inheritance.
Lost in Beijing (2007) Middling Chinese melodrama in which a young couple of capitalist scroungers get mixed up, pregnancy-wise, with an older massage-parlor pimp-hood and his dragon lady. The Taiwanese Ellen Burstyn, Elaine Jin dominates easily.
The Edge of Heaven (Auf der Anderen Seite) (2007) The best looking Turkish cast eva? Revealing and powerful and marvelously generous to Hanna Schygulla, when it doesn’t stretch for those idiotic, whatta-awful-coincidence Crash moments.
The Gang’s All Here (1943) Busby Berkeley’s nightmarishly strange wartime musical froth; was BB, as many have maintained, a Surrealist/abstractionist, or did his irrationally opened-out, impossibly-observed orchestrations represent a striving toward a kind of bathing-beauty Gesamtkunstwerk that always lingered just beyond view?
The Stranglers of Bombay (1960) I used to enjoy Hammer films. I must’ve been a patient kid.
Merci Pour le Chocolate (2000) Claude Chabrol, pianos, hot chocolate, a lurking pathology that’s never explored, Isabelle Huppert in one of six movies she made that year, and me, wondering why. Watching Anna Mouglalis, however, was akin to observing a new species of human.
Kung Fu Panda (2008) Refreshingly witty about both real Chinese martial art traditions and Hong Kong genre loopiness. If they had now the Oscar category they’ll have to invent soon for Best Voice Acting in an Animated Feature, because soon all acting will be at the behest of digital cartoons, then Dustin Hoffman would take it.
Get Smart (2008) Holy shit, they made it into an action film, and killed all the jokes. Only funny line: crusty character star-of-the-moment Blake Clark as a Homeland Security general, spitting something about Kim Jong-Il: "That man’s insane! Everyone knows you can’t make pudding from bones – bones are crunchy!"
My Blueberry Nights (2007) Catching up with this critical hot potato – nobody seemed capable of dismissing or faintly praising it fast enough – I was entranced. In a few years, after all the gotchas and one-ups have been forgotten, it’ll reappear as classic Wong.
The absence of clamor for my judgments on contemporary issues has been deafening, and so here forthwith is the first edition of My Pedagogic Autocratism, a semi-regular feature of the blog that will, once and for all, solve the problems and issues addressing modern American culture. I know, I know, it’s about time, but I’ve been busy.
Abortion: Easy, pick a time limit. Since all pregnancies are more or less exactly the same length, you don’t have to consider a wide variety of scenarios, and one point, more or less randomly selected, in say, the second trimester, should suffice. Or, perhaps, the end of the first trimester – someone decide. If everyone wants me to, I will. Extreme parties on either side won’t like it, but they’ll have to compromise. It’s the only way. Some bodily rights will be surrendered (as little as possible), and some semi-advanced fetuses will die (as few as possible). Most of us, and our daughters, would be well-served.
Political campaigns: Here’s my plan: allow contributions to roll in unfettered from all corners for all qualifying candidates – then, pool the money and divide it up evenly. That’ll level the playing field; the candidates that get millions and the candidates that get pennies will, in the end, have the same amount of funds to spend. I’d also outlaw corporate lobbying and TV commercials in one way or another starting in an election’s year’s June, but I know that’d be difficult to swing. But this isn’t: mandatory weekly debates, unscripted and unrehearsed and four hours long, televised on network TV commercial-free and open to unscreened public questions, for fifteen weeks leading up to Election Day. You miss one, you’re out. It’d virtually obliterate the need to spend media money.
Drugs: What’s the problem? The controlled substances that are a crisis are only a crisis in impoverished urban centers, largely, and so economic disparity is clearly the problem, not the dope. Refigure and reconceive federal law to favor taxpaying citizens, not corporations, and the issue will vanish. It means socializing, of course, which isn’t an ideological leap – we’re already massively socialized, and have been for more than a century, but in the form of corporate welfare and market support. That’d have to change. It’ll mean the financial sector will suffer, and America will no longer be the biggest swinging dick on Earth, but its majority of inhabitants will be better off. We could reenter the top 75% of industrialized nations in terms of poverty-line qualifiers, infant mortality, literacy, etc. This would, of course, also solve the problem of crime in a broad sense. Really, who wouldn’t swap American trade dominance for, say, Norway’s benefits, quality of life, minuscule crime rate, and health care system? The 1% who control the wealth, that’s who, and no one else.
Hate speech: Ignore it.
Capital punishment and prisons: First, abolish capital punishment. It’s just too fraught with error and ethical compromise. I don’t question the universal principle of taking an indisputably guilty multiple murderer or child rapist and simply disposing of them like fish bones. But it’s proven too difficult to do as a matter of policy. But those felons – the ones convicted by way of unarguable evidence, not eyewitnesses – would be considered beyond the pale of "humane treatment," and so tax money spent on their lodging and upkeep would be kept at a minimum. They should not be given better conditions than the zoo animals of yore: concrete space, bars, period. No TV, no library, no rec time, no therapy. I have no large issue with how other prisoners are being treated, except that the rough 25% of them that are in for drug charges would be granted immediate pardon. The number of inmates in general would gradually decrease, as per my proposition on "Drugs," above.
Iraq: Get out. Now. They want us out, we are morally and politically obligated to get out, the entire world views our presence there, clearly, as occupation, not security. We’re hanging in there because we (read: them, Bush, etc.) still think there’s a chance that we will own and profit from the nation’s oil resources. Nobody in the Pentagon or The New York Times gives a holy crap about the Iraqi people (or if they do, it’s a private concern, not useful at the agenda-setting table). So, if it is in fact a civil war happening or on the brink of happening, we’ve already lit the gasoline, and so whatever hellfire erupts we’re responsible for. We apologize, pay reparations, deep into the future, maybe even enable The Hague to try Bush and Cheney for war crimes. We give up the idea that we’ll be able to run the Iraqi government by fiat, and control the oil. If they want a theocracy, they will have one. It’d suck for the moneymen, who see nothing more than multi-digit figures clocking down (just as they always did when a beleaguered country would go "red"). But it wouldn’t make a difference to the rest of us, anymore than Iran’s 29-year theocracy has.
Best Actor of 1929: Uno Henning, A Cottage on Dartmoor
Best First Film of 1931: Madchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan)
Best Soviet Film of 1933: Outskirts
Best Screenplay of 1940: Remember the Night (Preston Sturges)
Best Short of 1944: Hell Bent for Election (Charles M. Jones)
Best German Film of 1946: The Murderers Are Among Us
Best Supporting Actor of 1948: Thomas Gomez, Force of Evil
Best Film of 1952: El
Best Cinematography of 1959: The Letter Never Sent (Sergei Urusevsky)
Best Italian Film of 1961: Salvatore Guiliano
Best Actor of 1963: Michel Piccoli, Contempt
Best First Film of 1965: A Blonde in Love (Milos Forman)
Best Supporting Actor of 1967: Boris Karloff, Targets
Best Cinematography of 1969: The Color of Pomegranates
Best Hungarian Film of 1973: Riddance
Best Short of 1977: Valse Triste (Bruce Conner)
Best Supporting Actress of 1981: Lisa Eichhorn, Cutter’s Way
Best Documentary of 1987: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On
Best Actor of 1988: Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers
Best Actress of 1994: Karen Sillas, What Happened Was...
Best First Film of 1999: The Blair Witch Project
Best Japanese Film of 2004: A Taste of Tea
Best First Film of 2006: The Mist in the Palm Trees
One-offs, for the Spring of 2008:
- When it’s all looked down upon as if by a seagull caught in an updraft, it does appear that Dick Cheney is the only politician in memory who seems to know he is evil.
- Tracks records count for only so much – I recently saw We Live Again (1934), a Golden Era melodrama that combined the talents/work of Rouben Mamoulian and Preston Sturges and Leo Tolstoy and Maxwell Anderson and Fredric March and Gregg Toland and Thornton Wilder (uncredited) and Alfred Newman, and despite its credits it kinda smelled up the joint. Anna Sten, whose second Hollywood film this was, remained dreadful, but she alone couldn’t’ve pulled the film down. It had to be fate.
- I find as I plow through my 40s that I can no longer tolerate The Eagles.
- It’s hilarious how reviewers of Martin Amis’s new book of 9/11 essays are taking to slam him for his fundamental position of seeing serious religion and civilized reason as standing opposed to each other, which they (the reviewers) are doing presumably because the corporations they work for insist on it, for fear of losing market share. They are wrong. Amis, admittedly too often a self-infatuated boob, is right. Look at the definitions. If religion wasn’t illogical, whimsical, fantastical and unreasonable, it wouldn’t be religion, it’d be fact. I could start a faith centered on, say, balloon-headed alien gods from Alpha Centauri, but the minute I produce an iota of evidence to support my religion’s ideas, a photo or strand of DNA, my Balloon-Headed Alpha Centaurion belief system is no longer "belief" or "faith" or religion, it’s science. Period.
- Speed Racer, attended for the sake of children in a movie wasteland of few choices, is little more than sensory abuse. As if someone had taken a wad of radioactive Good ‘n Fruity and ground them into my eyes with their boot heel. As if we all, myself and my children, are regarded as little more than toddlers, instinctly and dumbly drawn to brightly colored objects.
We Are Wizards (2007) Doc made by high schoolers about extreme Harry Potter fandom. Terrifying.
My Brother Is an Only Child (Mio Fratello Figlio Unico) (2007) Reviewed here.
Beowulf (2007) Although deftly, Oedipally rewritten to fit the Hollywood standard of what-goes-around-comes-around storysmithing, a waste of hard-drive space. Digitals can’t act. And why are the women always cross-eyed?
The Ruins (2008) Boy, A Simple Plan was smart and gripping.
What Remains (2006) Sally Mann is a savvy narcissist, and her documentarian just wants to fuck her.
Party 7 (2000) The warmup swing before A Taste of Tea and Funky Forest: The First Contact, and not at all amusing.
Leatherheads (2008) Such a shame. Could set the the cause of historical sports movies back a decade.
Hypocrites (1915) Lois Weber’s magical moral diatribe, outshining Griffith in his prime. More here.
The Ocean Waif (1916) Alice Guy-Blache goes commercial. Doris Kenyon may’ve been the loveliest WWI-era actress in America.
The Pied Piper of Hutzovina (2006) Eugene Hutz goes to Eastern Europe and Russia, a British documentarian in love with the lug goes, and nothing is consummated except Hutz’s sweaty intercourse with his concert audience.
Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) Mumble this. Actually, Greta Gerwig is terrific as the in-between girl everybody wants.
Standard Operating Procedure (2008) Errol Morris, stop blowing Karl Rove. Where’s the investigation up the ladder? And what is it with all that Elfman-scored F/X bullshit? What’s here that CNN didn’t tell me? My knives are out in In These Times.
I Am Legend (2007) A lazy rent. The Matheson book still awaits the right adaptation. For one thing, without the book’s ending the title makes no sense.
Bosque de Sombras (The Backwoods) (2006) Gary Oldman and Virginie Ledoyen and some little girl with Muppet gloves Straw Dogs-ing in Basque country, kinda, and for what reason I couldn’t say.
‘49-‘17 (1917) The first full-on Western parody? Short-lived phenom Ruth Ann Baldwin (who made 12 films in 1917 before being demoted to the script department at Universal) rips the cliches open, but gently.
The Guatemalan Handshake (2006) A wondrous, eccentric indie from Forgottentown, PA. I wax at IFC Blog.
Inside (l'Intérieur) (2007) Nothing is more vulnerable than a pregnant belly, but this blood bucket blows every opportunity, and goes too far too soon too crassly.
Smart People (2008) The firsttimer directing did whatever he could to fuck it up, but the literate personality in the house keeps things afloat. Thomas Haden Church deserves a Nobel.
Bamako (2006) Abderrahmane Sissako’s best film, and the oddest political polemic to come out of a developing nation since, well, maybe ever.
A new first – at least to me – in the history of Presidential doublespeak: today, in honor of Pope Benedict XVI’s U.S. visit, Bush spewed a requisite string of hollow ping-pong balls, and out with them came this pungent phrase, uttered in righteously doctrinaire tones: "the dictatorship of relativism." Roll that baby around in your cheeks for a minute before hocking back out.
Now, we could, but won't, leap right over the initial conclusion – that "relativism" is a word and idea Bush himself, who retains an aura of dumbfounded mediocrity despite his many, presumably educational years in office, could not have possibly defined during his grade-C Yale years, and, I’ll bet, for decades after that. Chances are he still doesn’t know exactly what it means, nor "sophistry." In this particular moment at least, you’d be hard pressed to find an instance in American history where the gap is any broader between a president’s literacy and the language he is given by speechwriters to say aloud.
Of course, his staff, and the Pope, know what relativism means, insofar as they’re familiar with their own definition: for them, "the dictatorship of relativism" refers to the blight that has infected our culture in the postwar decades, a blight of liberalism, plurality, multiculturism, tolerance and political correctness. You can just hear the think-tank thought-crunch meeting that decided that "relativism" would be the new neocon bugbear, the new code word intended to invoke in the economically terrified skulls of Middle America the new way to demonize them – foreigners, Muslims, homosexuals, abortionists, New Yorkers, liberals, anti-corporatists, atheists, artists, Frenchmen, what have you. It’s a good code word, because its translations are flexible and various, however unmistakable it is coming from the smirking and uncomprehending lips of Bush II.
What Mr. and Mrs. Joe Nebraska won’t contemplate, because they’re not instructed to, is the realpolitik oppositive term, which by definition is the ambition of Bush, Ratzinger, et al. – "absolutism." If you defined it for most Americans, though, I’d imagine they’d feel a giant, cold chill run up the collective spine. But that’s what the stakes are: ideological and therefore practical dominance. Bush virtually came right out and said it, and the struggle for it and against it won’t end when he’s gone.
The Atkinson Muniment Room, Part IV
(Sometimes, one senses that a disposable piece of journalism never quite got its fair day in the sun, as didn't this 2004 PTSNBN consideration of Oliver Stone's Alexander; writing it was so much more fun than watching the movie.)
"There seems to be no dodging the big, fat neo-epic, a born-again genre with roots in the expensive deployment of muscular-dull movie stars, milling extras and Cinemascope. Today, only the expensive muscular-dull movie stars remain, stranded in a storm of digital backfill. Are a new line of weightlifter Hercules movies very far behind? Of this year’s dusty antiquities (King Arthur, Troy, The Passion of the Christ, Alexander), which has balanced pretension, budget bloat and profit desperately enough to win the inevitable Academy benediction?
"Dispensing with the essentials, let’s immediately say that Oliver Stone’s Alexander – the winner of the just-like-the-awful-Columbus-movie-race-of-1992 sprint against Baz Luhrmann’s Untitled Alexander the Great Project – is a festival of risible wiggery. The blond mop someone dropped on top of poor Connor Paolo’s head as he catatonically limns the tween-aged Macedonian conqueror is merely the appetizer; together, warriors Jonathan Rhys-Davies, Gary Stretch and Jared Leto could assemble a Bon Jovi cover outfit when the Asian campaigns are over. Presiding above all is Colin Farrell’s tousled bleach job, his gypsy-moth eyebrows and dark brooding roots suggesting less the eponymous myth-figure in his battlefield prime than a Vanity Fair hairdresser ablaze with purpose during a high-pressure Kirsten Dunst cover shoot.
"Truly, Monty Python has scorched this earth already so well; the reoccurring title "June 323 B.C.' only does The Life of Brian’s "Judea 33 A.D.... Saturday Afternoon... About Tea Time' one better by not being a gag. Stone seems a vaguely sensible choice, given the Stoney, chopshop last half-decade of historical pageants, as messily incomprehensible in their montage-frenzy as the football games in Any Given Sunday or the taping sessions in Nixon. Alexander’s major battles are paradigmatically sloppy, too, overedited and consumed with the CGI delirium tremens, but in most aspects the man at the wheel here could have been Wolfgang Peterson. Although inexplicable brogues and burrs appear and disappear, and although Stone’s post-produces the Dickens out of his movie trying to generate the maximum spit-fog of sound and fury, Alexander manages to be as dull as the Victor Mature films of the 1950s, which barely moved at all.
"At least there’s no anachronistic insertion of martial arts into the soldiers’ training regimen. What’s unique about Alexander is its man love. A semi-hidden homo heart has always beat under pre-medieval pop; we’ve all seen the cut Curtis-Olivier seduction in Spartacus by now, if not the Ben-Hur that Stephen Boyd and uncredited scripter Gore Vidal were fashioning under Charlton Heston’s oblivious nose and with director William Wyler’s scoffing consent. But this Salome drops all of its veils – Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) is forthright in his belief that well-moderated gay fucking will 'build a city-state and lift us from our frog-pond,' while Alexander’s passionate longtime companionship with first lieutenant Hephaistion (Leto) is the movie’s only love story. Predominant among a few laugh-getters is Hephaistion’s silent, bedroom-eyes beseechment for nookie – augmented by a slight toss of Anistonian hair – only to be told by his top, 'not on the eve of a battle.' Once Babylon is taken from the Persians (yes, Stone goes for a replay of Intolerance’s vertical pan, although naturally nothing we see is real), the two die-hards lounge around in silk robes with chaliced cocktails like a married couple at The Pines. They even pledge to meet in Hades like Achilles and Patroclus, which is more than Troy had nerve for.
"Indeed, if Angelina Jolie, as A’s sorceress-mother Olympias, white pythons entwined around her legs, seems destined for a Maria Montez Lifetime Achievement in Vamp Award, Stone reaches for screaming-mimi drama queenhood. When Alexander, having conquered the Persians, decides to take the peasant girl Rozanna (Rosario Dawson) as his wife, a puddle-eyed Leto appears with his mascara running like Dorothy Malone’s to present his own engagement ring. The gay trysts are always implied but the l’amour fou is not, especially at Hephaistion’s deathbed, where Leto trembles like Wuthering Heights’ Cathy, and Stone scores another unintentional hilarity as odyssey-worn Alexander wanders to the window blabbing about the adventures the army will have in the spring while his lover endures lonely death throes in the background.
"There’s more – Val Kilmer, as Alexander’s one-eyed lout-Dad King Philip, delivers a refreshing draught of conviction, and the dialogue is full of standard-operating-bullshit humdingers ('And you, unbreakable Antigonous!'). The climactic battle with Indian elephants has a certain bizarre friction until you realize to what outlandish degree Stone is digitally shake-&-baking the images, 28 Days Later -style, to make the slow-moving beasts seem more scarifying. But despite all of the fringe benefits, Alexander is a patience-tester, clotted with relentless Vangelis hosannas and declamations of glory. Unsurprisingly, it’s a political lemon. The 'we’re superior to the Persians' speeches and Alexander’s cant about nation-building for the benefit of the poor 'barbarians' might constitute a critique – of Alexander or Bush II or both – if they weren’t undercut by the film’s exalting wail of praise. Intercutting regal eagles with Alexander’s profile may suggest Gance’s Napoleon or a recent campaign ad; either way, it’s celebrating bloodshed. Stone seems to identify with the slaughterer general, whatever era he’s in."
Aromatic money-shot film reviewing, March to April, 2008:
Night Nurse (1931) Cheesy pre-Code salaciousness, with Joan Blondell’s giant, shiny corneas and a bizarrely druggy performance from Ralf Harolde as an evil MD.
Terror’s Advocate (2007) Has Barbet Schroeder lost his nerve, after so long?
Her Name Is Sabine (2007) From The IFC Blog: "did the 16-year-old Bonnaire use her sister as a model [for A Nos Amours], and was the film’s Suzanne intended to be slightly ‘off,’ autistically disconnected in some hidden way from her family, helpless in her impulsiveness? It almost seems certain that Bonnaire was channeling her sister in Agnes Varda’s ferociously antisocial Vagabond (1985) – the existential tension of which could easily be read as an autistic crisis, or vice versa."
Aniki Bobo (1942) Manoel de Oliveira’s first feature, a Little Rascals melodrama blessed with a nightened rooftop idyll at a young girl’s bedroom window.
Rite of Spring (Acto de Primavera) (1963) De Oliveira has a Portuguese town reenact their own annual Passion Play as a Christ film – nudging over Rouch and forecasting Kiarostami, it might be MdO’s best.
Dangerous Crossing (1953) Jeanne Crain stuck on a cruise ship and no one believes her missing husband exists at all. Didn’t Jodie Foster remake this, for a ten million times the budget, and I've forgotten it already?
Khadak (2006) The best and most eccentrically Mongolian Mongolian movie ever made by an American and a Belgian.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007) What’s wrong with it? Aims low, conjures quixotic characters in broad strokes, Adrien Brody is revealed to be the new Buster Keaton.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) Canned, underlit, underdramatized, and silly, but the aristocracy-pimping-daughters-to-the-king tale should be remade in a few years by someone who knows how, not some BBC bum.
The Dragon Painter (1919) Not a great silent, but a glimpse of a subgenre we never knew we had – post-WWI ethnic melodramas made specifically for Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
Paranoid Park (2007) Lovely, evocative and masterly – but isn’t Van Sant a little old to be still hanging out with disaffected teens?
Moolaade (2004) Sembene went out with a fuck-the-genital-mutilators-where-they-live bang. And it looks beautiful, an indulgence he finally allowed himself.
Daisy Kenyon (1947) Hands down, the most unpredictable, poetic, grown-up, four-dimensional Hollywood melodrama of the ‘40s. Alright, maybe not hands down, maybe arguably. But still.
The Band’s Visit (2007) Stone-faced comedy of alienation, except I’m not laughing.
Inspector Lavardin (1986) Claude Chabrol, snoring.
Children of the Sun (2007) A home-movie-built doc about the Kibbutz, which seen intimately here seem both idyllic and moronically destructive for kids.
And Along Came Tourists (2007) Idiotic "drama" about a German hunk "learning" about genocide while "working" a summer job at the tourist attraction that is Auschwitz.
War Made Easy (2007) Another primer in American propaganda, and as with all the others viewing it should be a high school graduation requirement.
Life Is a Bed of Roses (La Vie Est un Roman) (1983) Alain Resnais going crazy in the ‘80s. At least he and his cast were having fun like gangbusters.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) British history shot like a Lord of the Rings sequel. Risible.
Terror Island (1920) Harry Houdini, and an adorable artifact of a much-mourned, long-lost era before there was a Criss Angel.
The Man from Beyond (1922) Houdini again, but in a story that begs to be remade: a man, frozen on an Arctic shipwreck for a century, is thawed out and awakens to obsessions about the woman he left behind.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Why can't all American movies be like this? Relaxed, thoughtful, ruminative, literate, comfortable with long scenes of dialogue and multiple narrative threads (Brad Pitt’s James is really just one in an ensemble). Sinfully overlooked, underseen, overcriticized and misunderstood.
Read the new Modern Painters — because I'm in it (dirty kuffar!), and there's art, too!
Random observations/ruminations, March ‘08:
Juicy money-shot reviewing continues, for Jan.-Feb. '08:
Monte Carlo (1930) Who knew Jeanette MacDonald was so fuckable? Lubitsch certainly did. A gift from the deep early-sound past, and Jack Buchanan, looking all of 19, saves us from leering Chevalierism.
Gone Baby Gone (2007) Sorry, Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, looking like a to-die-for prom couple, deserved to be razzed out of the office by Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman.
Planet of Storms (1961) Soviet sci-fi, famously recut and rereleased twice by Roger Corman, is in its aboriginal state, like so much Soviet pulp, surprisingly despairing, doomy and martyr-drunk. Crazy Venusian landscapes.
Secret Things (2002) Jean-Claude Brissau’s trite gender-warfare softporn, notable only for Sabrina Seyvecou’s wide-eyed orgasmic zest.
The Milky Way (1969) Luis Bunuel finally, after a lifetime of anti-clerical ire, addresses Catholicism head on, and as always a master satirist’s vision dwindles with the vitality of his target. Ah well, it’s still funny.
Island in the Sun (1957) Robert Rossen cashed a check directing this thick-limbed adaptation from Alec Waugh; James Mason stands out as a frustrated colonialist bigot, as does Dorothy Dandridge as a color-line-crossing West Indies maiden. The rest, as blah as Joan Fontaine’s postdubbing.
Darkon (2007) Profound and wickedly ironic doc about live-action sword-&-sorcery role-playing, saying bargeloads about the quest for meaning in the otherwise destitute lives of the American lower-middle classes. The filmmakers go the "game" one better, by arranging it into a straight-faced action movie, and making the warehouse workers, ex-strippers and fastfood clerks-in-armor the stars of their own fantasy epic. But are they?
Kilometre Zero (2005) Hiner Saleem returns to Iraq, with a dust-dry comedy about the Iran-Iraq war, the oppression of the Kurds, and driving with corpses.
Across the Universe (2007) What tripe. Did we ask for a remake of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? No one thought actually naming the characters Jude, Prudence, Lucy and JoJo was a bit... fucking stupid? And why in this version of the ‘60s are there no Beatles?
Wife to Be Sacrificed (1975) Crazy fetishistic Japanese exploitation, but with an ironic and lyrical heart, once you’re past the enemas and coprophilia. Masaru Konuma is new to me, but distance will be maintained.
One Hour with You (1932) Lubitsch and MacDonald again, ringing out like a penguin-headed crystal drink stirrer gently rapped against a Waterford glass.
Trigger Man (2007) Quite like the movies I made on Super 8mm in high school. Wait a minute, it’s exactly a movie I made on Super 8mm in high school.
The Master Mystery (1919) Harry Houdini’s first bid for stardom; almost four hours of serial (surviving out of at least seven) in which the escape artiste gets bound up dozens of times, and then wriggles loose. With arguably cinema’s first robot (but unarguably one of its most hilarious), and a blissful aura of aged pulpy innocence, like an itch-free morphine dream you don’t want to wake from.
The Atkinson Muniment Room, Article III
[Returning again to the forgotten/urinated-upon pages of the PTSNBN, this time in anonymous and very snide retort to the semi-notorious David Manning scandal of 2001, in which it was revealed that Sony publicity executives had fabricated their own blurb whore out of whole cloth. So, he responds.]
To: The Village Voice, Newsweek, Variety, MSNBC, Los Angeles Times, et al., and to whomever else it may concern:
I’d like a chance to respond to the recent news report that I, David Manning of The Ridgefield Press, am a fictional character concocted by a desperate and amoral (but very smart and hip) Sony Pictures publicity department to provide their fabulous, terrific films with advertisement blurbs. Though a riveting, inventive and even sexy conceit, this is simply untrue: I am alive and well and irresistible in America. Great! I have a house (or rather, the basement of a house), a gerbil, a credit card, a receding hairline, a used car and a kick-ass Sony DVD player. Absolutely real! Fantastic!
While it’s true I do not work for The Ridgefield Press, whatever that is, I am still just as much of a "legitimate" critic as any other – and I’ve got the blurb credits, Four Seasons towels and junket buffet waistline to prove it. (That sentence rocked!) Why am I being pilloried, among the nation’s "gray-market" reviewers? (Lewis Lapham’s phrase, not mine, and isn’t he sensational?) Could it be elitism? I was the only critic who had the nerve to declaim love for the heart-stopping thrill-ride Vertical Limit and that uproarious laugh-fest The Animal, and for that I’ve been relegated to the critic’s ultimate gulag – being a public relations felony instead of a flesh-and-blood filmgoer who just so happens to like virtually every movie he’s ever seen. I just love movies, like a pig loves its slop. With so many fussy, can’t-relax, can’t-stop-discerning-crap-from-cranberry-sauce "serious" critics scribbling away, isn’t there room for a little unconditional l’amour? Hot!
Anyway, I wasn’t entirely alone in my praise of Hollow Man and A Knight’s Tale, just almost alone, which proves something, I just don’t know what. That they’re all Sony movies – scintillating, cool, unforgettable Sony movies – isn’t a coincidence, but it’s not important, either. When Sony has a hard time finding blurbable praise, that’s when they call me. (And they always knew what suite I’m in.) The other studios never call. Simple as that. Blast off!
One thing’s for sure, though – the Sony people deserve to be cut a little slack. Of course they solicit quotes straight from reviewers after feeding them and getting them starched on chardonnay – you expect these busy pros to hunt through every review in The Oshkosh Telegram-Monitor looking for quotes? (Tremendous point!) This whole critic thing is absurd anyway, the studios should just be able to forget about the quotation marks and say IT’S GREAT without needing an "objective" judge to qualify it. Exciting idea! Bottles of soda don’t need critics, and neither do skin mags. You see it, you buy it, simple as that. Awesome!
I’m real, but I know for a fact that Peter Travers isn’t, and neither are most of the Times’ restaurant critics. For that matter, John Simon is not a man but a mutant bonobo that someone taught to type. (Go see The Animal, John!) So what? Critics are old-hat. Face it, I’m the future – I give a voice to hope, to acceptance, to treating corporate entertainment as though it were nature: it’s all good. The proof is in the asking: who’d invent a snobby, hard-to-please critic?
Money-shot movie reviewing, January to February ‘08:
Theodora Goes Wild (1936) The pioneering screwball comedy, proving only that a knack was needed, and Richard Boleslawski – whose only comedy this was – didn’t have it. Irene Dunne, too, needed instruction, and had to wait for McCarey.
Dance Party, USA (2006) Aaron Katz’s debut, a mini-teen morality tale balanced between mysteriously deft and amateurishly unconvincing.
Rocket Science (2007) Sometimes, all you need is to give up on insisting every scene has a punchline.
The Hands of Orlac (1924) Conrad Veidt becomes an Expressionist set design, miming "my hands suck."
The Heartbreak Kid (2007) How deliberate is this dreary patronizer, erasing the protagonist’s original blind narcissism (putting the blame on his demonic blonde anti-wife), and then, in the very end, sketching it back in?
Sunshine (2007) Ho-hum sci-fi (reminding me no one has yet adapted Tom Godwin’s classic "The Cold Equations") transcended by the dreamy rapture of solar proximity, and then ruined by a fourth-act deux ex cinema.
Looks and Smiles (1981) Ken Loach among the north country’s unemployed youth, avoiding the punk era’s cliches and basking in Chris Menges’s incisive-yet-ghostly black-&-white.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) Maurice Chevalier remains a mystery, if the stodgy staginess of early-talkie musicals do not, and Miriam Hopkins shines. Lubitsch was funnier mit out sprechen.
El Cid (1961) Hollywood’s greatest landscape painter, Anthony Mann, goes medieval, and history has rarely looked so forbidding.
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) Inspired desert topping whipped up from nothing much at all, especially if you’re not intimately familiar with cannabis.
The Stepford Wives (1975) An ineptly-made marvel of gender-metaphor outrage, even with the dated ultra-conservative couture (as opposed to the Playboy bikinis William Goldman wanted), which suggest nothing today so much as a kind of New England sharia law.
Pierrot le Fou (1965) Movies don’t get any more transcendent, captivating, whip-smart – any more movie-ish. Seeing it again after decades, I feel ten years younger.
In Bruges (2008) Martin McDonagh, for all of his stage awards, plays like a McTarantino. Which is not to say this lark doesn’t sing and tickle, which it does. I hope the Belgian government helped with the financing, because they should’ve.
The run of 2007 Top Tens, polls and surveys to which I contributed, below. I have no illusions about the year-end Top Ten rigamarole, but they may all be a helpful consumers’ guide for the Netflix-impacted. That, and I like making priorative lists, like a fool out of an unwritten Nick Hornsby novel; the yen for qualitiatively organizing a mad and tumultuous culture into heirarchies, the demon behind the entire phenomenon, may merely be our way of holding on lest our virtual planet spin us off.
The IFC Blog Top Ten
The Boston Phoenix Top Ten
indieWire.com Critics' Poll (the remnants of Dennis Lim's PTSNBN poll)
Film Comment's End-of-Year Critics' Poll 2007
Sight & Sound Films of 2007 (modified to comply to the UK's release calendar, and badly; I overlooked that Inland Empire was an '07 release in England)
The Boston Phoenix Alumni Critics' Poll
2007's Best U.S. Debuts on DVD, at The IFC Blog
The Atkinson Muniment Room, Article II
(More work previously performed for the PTSNBN, being my review of Pokemon: The First Movie (1999), in the spirit of things dying and of resistance to the entropy that befalls all good enterprises in time.)
"Stand aside, for I am the master of Perplexichu, the 152nd Pokemon species of the Head-Slapping variety, with the special power of Gape! Upon confronting a foe, my Pokemon can muster the Alarmed Gaze, before which absurd and poorly trained moviemakers crumble! If called upon by me, my Pokemon can even transform into Irkadon, a highly evolved form of Pokemon of the Cranky Critic variety! Hmm!
"Upon confronting Pokemon: The First Movie, I as Pokemon Master declare, yes! Under my command, there will be a thousand more Pokemovies! Without my own Pokemon to train and battle other Pokemon just as some have been said to illegally set fighting cocks and pitbulls on each other for fun and profit, I might’ve thought five minutes into the lysergic introductory short Pikachu’s Vacation that I’d died and gone to very-bad-acid Hell. In fact, entire hunks of the saga (titled Mewtwo Strikes Back, about a cloned, psychic feline Pokemon endeavoring to take over the world by cloning more Pokemons, the bastard!) made me wish I was Dopechu, air Pokemon of the Peyote variety. Amid the low-grade Akira brimstone, noxious cuteness and stone-knives animation, the Pokemon universe reveals itself here to the neophyte adult as possibly the most deranged, pointlessly complex, automatic-writing-like cultural manifestation imaginable outside the cosmologies of the more creative psychotics. It makes the Star Wars mythos play like Pong.
"Reeling in Poke-sorrow as the movie climaxed with the evil clone Pikachu pounding the peacefully protesting original Pikachu and weeping helplessly, Perplexichu nevertheless didn’t buy the film’s climactic anti-violence message anymore than I did, since Pokemons live to serve masters like me! and fight! Human and Pokemon alike will surely be stunned into a brain-raped silence by The First Movie, but kids everywhere, for whom the movie is simply a motivational training film for increased consumer binging on trading cards and video games, will bask as if in an opium fog..."
Allow me to finally and officially register my perspective on the 2008 election-year terrain and potentialities: we’re fucked. And we’re not fucked necessarily because the current administration has chain-dragged us so deeply into global death-chaos that we may never fully emerge, and we’re not necessarily fucked because the Republicans vying for their party’s nomination can be species-identified as either bloodthirsty warmongers or Christian mental patients. We’re not even necessarily fucked because our current choices for a Democratic candidate (for whom I’d have to vote even if she or he were not human but actually a farm animal – a sick, old, blind farm animal), are a woman and a black man, neither of whom have a junkie’s chance of getting elected President in this country. No, we’re fucked because of, simply, the Way Things Are, that is, the nexus of conditions that leads Americans to vote not with their common sense or their pocketbooks or their natural sense of responsibility toward their neighbors, or even the newly enormous amount of information available to anyone online, but instead with their fiercely-held whimsical prejudices and fleeting associative impressions and absolutely fantastical sense of what politicians do, why they do it, and why any of them want the job in the first place.
Listen to the mediascape, from Fox to NPR, right to the middle, where fantasies and lies and propaganda can grow like happy weeds, and you’ll hear it, as the polls are vetted and the primaries reported and the citizens interviewed: Obama or Clinton or McCain or Romney or whomever "sound" sincere or dedicated, "appear" to be moral or strong or insightful, are successful in "impressing" upon someone the sense of being human or independent or knowledgeable or whatever. One nitwit "likes" Huckabee, the other "trusts" Obama. Holy shit, is this all we've got? Feelings? This sort of vague, gut-reaction childishness not only dominates what we hear about our fellow countrymen’s reasoning, it is all there is. Often a campaigner’s real-world business connections and past non-campaign utterances and genuine actions are brought up, but no one takes these very seriously. The facts of Giuliani’s record as the Mayor of New York are not open for dispute, nor is the dishonesty of his hilarious attempts then and now in taking credit for everything but the moon landing, but no one cares. The Tolkien-esque faith-facts of Mormonism get aired around, but they make no impression. We hear nothing about Congressional voting records, or how much economic and environmental malfeasance each of the running governors could lay claim to, in their years slicking corporate money-chutes back home. Real actions, real costs, real profits, real victims – these are the hardcore gists of every political record, and these are what matters to our voting. But we don’t live in the real world, we live on, and/or through, television, where the momentary flushed feeling of trust or "likability" – a word that should be outlawed from broadcast in campaign years – is all voters are taught and told that they need to concern themselves with, and thus they reliably do, every four years.
In the real world, debates would be nightly, grueling, unscripted, unrehearsed, and impossible to fake through. Commercials would be forbidden. In the real world, every iota of a candidate’s professional record would come under universal scrutiny, and would be roundly prioritized over what he/she looked like, his/her "choice" of scripted words, or his/her wardrobe. In the real world, you’d need at least to pass the same Citizenship Test that scores of Mexican fruit-pickers pass every year; that tenet alone would’ve saved us from Bush II. In the real world, the actual motivators and organizational machines behind the candidates – the political parties’ funders, movers and powerbrands – would be transparent to the public eye. Corporate lobbying would be illegal. When the money comes in to the coffers, we would all find out from whom, and why. In the real world, we’d be voting for the most qualified and most educated Head Clerk we could find, not looking to baby-love the most adorable powermad would-be monarch. In the real world, we'd vet his cabinet apppointments as well, and publicly question every judiciary appointment. In the real world, we’d all be grown-ups taking responsibility for our government.
Aphoristic money-line movie reviewing, for consumables viewed late December, early January:
Beyond Tomorrow (1940): Begins as deliciously crusty Christmas fable, de-evolves into trite showbiz morality play, but with elderly ghosts. Not helped in the least by the DVD-makers’ gambit of cutting necessary scenes from the film and packaging them as an "extra scenes" supplement.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007): Is acquainting my kids in a fun way with all-American history and iconography worth this agony?
The Golden Compass (2007): De-anti-Christian-ized and pumped full of digital hormones, it made as much narrative sense as a unicorn-&-rainbow dorm poster.
Chameleon Street (1989): The ideas still stand, but the self-aggrandizment and clueless filmmaking fall flat as old soda.
The District (Nyocker!) (2004): Hungarian animator Aron Gauder has mastered a hilarious fusion between digital animation, rotoscoped caricature and grotesque psychedelia, and it’s the most entertaining animated feature seen anywhere since The Triplets of Belleville. And the only animated satire for aeons.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007): Loving and self-glorifying. It never, after all, gets out of that chair and bed; Schnabel may be honing a distinctive filmmaking personality here (call it wistful eulogization, three films about three dead creative minds), but I was hoping for the winged moment that never came, despite the hotties.
Klimt (2006): Old-party historical surreal-ization of a rather uneventful biography. Ruiz dresses it up with nudes and masquerades.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007): Like Primary Colors, Nichols’s other dressed-to-impress political "satire," this terribly witty claptrap ignores the realities of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, U.S. politics, and the invasion of Afghanistan just as it claims to be savvy about all of the above. "Let’s kill Russians," indeed.
Mafioso (1962): What’s wrong with spaghett’ with squid ink? Chortlesome and, eventually, coolly ironic, if a little overappreciated by American critics otherwise emaciated in January ‘07.
Quiet City (2007): So delicate it could crumble if someone opens a window. For reasons to do with its amateurishness as well as its melancholy realism.
Four Daughters (1938): Depression schmaltz, except it has the percolating Lane sisters (really, only Priscilla made honey), May Robson releasing genuine-sounding barbs as an old aunt, and the brand new John Garfield, seething as the screen’s very first Angry Young Man, and leaving his heelprint in America’s forehead.
"The hot-pants Queen Victoria of American film criticism, Pauline Kael has now paid the debt of nature, and provided the obituarians with the opportunity to finally top off their 35-year outpouring of ardor and awe. Never before has a film critic’s living reputation sent so many scrambling for encomiums, and never has a film critic’s passing left so many media mouths so faklempt. Don’t expect it to ever happen again: Kael reigned supreme as film culture’s fiery, maenadic Mrs. Grundy – what will she say? – during that culture’s most fecund and dynamic day, and both have gone the way of film clubs, the Monthly Film Bulletin, Luis Bunuel and the Bleeker Street Cinema.
"Kael occupied an utterly unique throne in the nation’s cultural consciousness: a film reviewer-as-high priestess, a self-invented demagogue that often garnered more attention than the movies she reviewed, and seemed by virtue of her discursive, combative style of argument to elide any subsequent opinion. She was never the nation’s eyes and voice, as much as she had wanted to democratize the filmgoing community; rather, she was the cognoscenti’s peppery permission slip to love their love of trash. Her public profile was a stunning balance between notoriety and high-brow respect, and so she reached readers many other critics could not. Her 12 volumes of collected pieces were routinely reviewed and universally lauded in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books and other pivotal venues that rarely, if ever, reviewed film books of any other stripe.
"Perhaps most tellingly, she was the focus of rumors – a film critic! – that speculated on her liaisons with colleagues and with certain testosterone-dizzy filmmakers. She was the obvious model for Clare, the tempestuous, pint-sized San Francisco-to-New York uber-critic in Theodore Roszak’s Pynchonian movie-conspiracy novel Flicker. Stories still circulate about Kael the wolverine bitch and her coterie of male critic cubs, nicknamed the 'Paulettes' by the excluded, disrupting screenings of films she didn’t like and rallying New York Film Critics Circle votes by intimidation or threat. Her fragging of Andrew Sarris’s auteurism, however preposterous (she misread auteurism, and at the same time saw every movie through the scrim of its maker’s intentions), became an anthologizable wrestling match. Though far from the most influential critic in terms of box office – Vincent Canby wielded a mightier sword in that respect – Kael so terrified Hollywood that they attempted, once, to bring her into their fold and experimented with a doomed Kael development deal. After smarting from Kael’s one-paragraph dismissal of Star Wars as 'plodding'" and 'exhausting, too, like taking a pack of kids to the circus,' George Lucas even named Willow’s arch-villain Kael.
"What other American film reviewer – without the benefit of ever actually writing a full-length book – became so famous for his or her opinions? Kael was infamous for her withering assbites, but her extraordinary handstand over Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris ('Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?') dates horribly, and few will still forgive her for singing hosannas about a director’s cut of Altman’s Nashville no one else got to see. Every reviewer digs cesspool ditches that he or she cannot help but fall into decades later, but few go as far toward the earth’s core as Kael did in making claims for, say, De Palma’s The Fury or Reed’s Oliver! Still, looking back over her oeuvre, Kael was right when it was important: she witnessed the peaking moments of Godard, Bunuel, Antonioni, Bergman, Altman, Bertolucci, Coppola, Wiseman and Scorsese, and yawped approval.
"It’s also stunning to ponder the amount of films she didn’t review – from 1961 to 1980, this most hallowed of cineastical judgment-makers never critiqued a single new film by Samuel Fuller, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jacques Rivette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Andrzej Wajda, Miklos Jancso, Jean-Pierre Melville, Monte Hellman, Ermanno Olmi, Dusan Makavejev, Jean-Marie Straub and Sergei Paradjanov. As an avid Kael reader from high school – I’d read her long, ropey, luridly subjective reviews at the newsstand and then put The New Yorker back on the rack – I loved her for chutzpah. She launched at a movie like a feckless boxer, taking as long as she needed to rationally explain her wholly irrational reactions, and caring little if the process was bloody, aimless and cruel. (Kael’s castigation of directors for making obvious thematic statements could just as easily be applied to Mozart, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Renoir.) More than anything, Kael’s ham-and-egger energy opened a conversational loop in your head, and in the 60s and 70s conversation was what movies were for. (She was particularly awake to the gritty American New Wave, believing as we all did that Hollywood had finally, irrevocably grown up.) Virtually Whitman-like in her rangy meanderings and obsession with the visceral and sensual, she was a critic who’d found her moment – imagine Kael trying to make her special sort of sense of this year’s movies. Her breathless blathering about a movie she adored – and no one’s world ever shook, rattled and rolled after a good movie like Kael’s did – was emblematic of its present: a lovely lost age when a love for movies was a Romantic passion, a lantern-lit children’s crusade that went with first love, sex, dope and freedom like cigarettes go with coffee.
"It was, at least, an unimaginable time when film critics would routinely repackage their reviews as books, and people would read them. The '70s have faded, but Kael’s popular status persists, as if no one can remember her writing as well as they remember the adolescent reading of it. If Kael was to be the most lavishly praised film critic in the country, then the actual substance of her reviews and style could be and have been comfortably overlooked. Often hailed as a great stylist, Kael was in fact the sorriest influence on critical prose in this country. (It was shocking to read, in the hagiographic New Yorker profile a few years ago, that she carefully wrote and rewrote in long-hand, and dithered over punctuation.) Beginning as deliberately anti-academe, Kael’s approach consisted largely of run-on sentences, endless repetitions, the bulldozing abuse of the cosmic 'you' (you sit there, you feel this or that, you notice something, ad nauseam), and the frustrating emphasis on actors’ looks and voices. No other critic has ever been so proudly subordinate to her own perverse attractions; for her, Sutherland and Christie’s matching curlie-dos made Don’t Look Now particularly notable.
"She has often been flattered for her classical allusions, but it wasn’t anything Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Parker Tyler and Manny Farber didn’t do before her. Her frequent diatribes about how unarguably crummy movies have gotten (at least nine such essays in 20 years, during the '60s-'70s) merely read today like fits of constipative crankiness. What’s more troublesome is Kael’s frivolity: if she took movies seriously, often her reviews did not. (The New Yorker still reserves derisive glibness for the film pages.) She seemed allergic to politics, and often ignored a film’s political context. Assessing the 1973 Jeff Bridges movie The Last American Hero, Kael admitted that the film is more cynical and despairing than the Tom Wolfe articles it was based on thanks to Vietnam — but that, for her, was its ruination. In review after review, a film is merely something either well-done or botched whose highest purpose is distraction and amusement. Nowhere in Kael do you find the idea that cinema connects with the real world on any level; nowhere do movies mean anything outside of themselves. (Read her capsules on old noir films: it’s as if the genre was all about being cool.) In this, Kael seemed smugly hyperaware that movies are made by men and machines and chemicals, and are therefore silly, dismissible follies. Even her praise of Godard – calling Breathless 'a frightening little chase comedy' – smells of the populist’s condescension. Bad movies are simply entertainments that don’t 'work' (a lazy phrase Kael resorted to more than any other critic); good or great movies are entertainments that do.
"Which is the core of American film criticism, before and after Kael. So why is she so singularly lionized? Prolix reviewing alone doesn’t make a legend. Indeed, Kael’s relentless eminence seemed to have everything to do with her attitude and gender. Face it, a miniature tigress with gray hair and barbed tongue dressing down a male-dominated culture was and still is a richer source for personality cultism than the entire frumpy lot of American film reviewers combined. What if she’d been a man? She might have been less newsworthy, but if Kael remains important, it’s only insofar as her books keep the golden age of filmgoing alive, and insofar as her influence and power-brandishing has either hindered or helped cinema as it stands today. Film criticism is such a mundane project, plopped down upon an endlessly complex entity: movies. That Kael was the first and last true celebrity moviehead may be, in fact, a sign of hope for the future."
A totally functional weblog entry: first, let’s note that Laurel & I had a lovely, if ill-timed and, in the end, perfectly nonsensical NPR radio interview publicizing Flickipedia on December 24th, on the Patt Morrison Show on KPCC Los Angeles, which you could, if you’ve resolved in ‘08 to subject yourself to hapless Christmas Eve malarkey, hear here.
Then, let’s note my next book, the cinephiliac essay collection Exile Cinema: Filmmakers At Work Beyond Hollywood due in March from SUNY Press, and, perhaps, this gingery nugget from crypto-cineaste/word-wizard Guy Maddin, writing about Brazilian psychotronologist Jose Mojica Marins:
By now, Coffin Joe was the Freddy Krueger of his day. And yet it was hard for the great bellowing maniac to attract the money for his newest Joe adventure (a real problem, sometimes, in continuing characters, as I have found in my fruitless efforts to fund a series of feature length episodes about Archangel’s Lt. Boles). But Mojica persisted, and came up with a truly bewitching – and not a little upsetting – concoction: Awakening of the Beast (1970). Again the soundtrack is composed of near-constant screaming (a daring gambit, ill suited to cross-promotion), and almost every shot seems to have been made with a different type of film stock. Brutal spankings are meted out to the female cast members! Flaccid bottoms are painted with faces! A mad hippie shepherd violates women with his crook! All this; and with that wet liver-slab of a lip convulsing in jollity, the world tilts a little further on its axis. Ha-ha-ha-ha! No one has ever made another movie like it, and no one ever will.
For whatever it’s worth, and because blog-scribes do this frequently enough, I’d like to tilt an Amazon cocktail to friends and cohorts of mine, and the books they’d be delighted to see you add to your shelves this cruelest of seasons, or soon, when they’re available:
• O editor and everyone’s better half Jessica Winter’s Rough Guide to American Independent Film (Rough Guides/Penguin);
• Believer editor and master biblioculturist Ed Park’s long-percolating debut novel, Personal Days, from Random House;
• of course, The Village Voice Film Guide: 50 Years of Movies from Classics to Cult Hits (Wiley), edited by Museum of Moving Image mover Dennis Lim, with what has become, in retrospect, a substantial helping of ambivalence;
• the second volume of jauntily allusive poetry from the ex-Jane Dark, Joshua Clover, from University of California Press: The Totality for Kids;
• the inestimable Chuck Stephens’s co-edited Japanese Movie Posters: Yakuza, Monster, Pink and Horror, which sounds like a law firm from, well, a Chuck Stephens riff;
• Laurie Sheck’s new volume of verse Captivity from Knopf (still haven’t gotten Io at Night out of my system);
• Jim Hoberman’s latest, The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties, from The New Press;
• roving filmhead David Sterritt’s last collection, Guiltless Pleasures: A David Sterritt Reader (Univ. Press of Mississippi);
• Bard prof Ed Halter’s From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games (Thunder’s Mouth Press), and the curiously unavailable Cinema’s Third Eye: The Evergreen Review Film Reader;
• Newsday critic, Sundance chronicler and erstwhile tippling pal John Anderson’s newest angle on the indie scene, I Wake Up Screening: What to Do Once You’ve Made that Movie (Billboard Books);
• old-school poet-prince William Heyen’s ten-thousandth volume, Confessions of Doc Williams & Other Poems, from Etruscan Press;
• Luc Sante, premier cultural excavator/commentator, has Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces, 1990-2005, from Yeti/Verse Chorus Press;
• Lincoln Center programmer and Film Comment gadabout Kent Jones’s overdue compilation Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism (Wesleyan);
• Promethean moviehead Howard Hampton's ever-awaited collection Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses, by way of Harvard;
• and naturally Guy Maddin’s indispensible From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings (Coach House Press), as well as the foreward to Angela Dalle Vache’s Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema (Univ. of Texas Press) – a book coming just in time with the March DVD release of gotta-be/gonna-be Maddin fave Diva Dolorosa (1999), by Dutch found-footagist Peter Delpeut.
Here're my official bests for 2007, weary and worrisome hag that she was:
1. Syndromes and a Century
Thailand’s great, mysterious, life-affirming, diptych-entranced, meta-meta-man Apichatpong Weerasethakul does it again, twice, or maybe more, while seeming to do nearly nothing at all. A dream had by us all, and just as maddening and gorgeous.
Who knows how long the heart-kneaded buzz from this beloved greatest-musical-since-Demy may last, but in my seat it was an all-viscera epiphany, and it’s made moviegoing since a little bloodless.
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The greatest of the Romanians so far, Christian Mungiu’s patient knuckle-biter is at least 50% off-screen space and trauma; the mercilessly suspenseful birthday dinner scene alone is more concisely conceived and effective than any ten American films this year.
4. Half Moon
Northern Iran has supplanted the American West and the Australian Outback as the globe’s most expressive road-movie topos, and Bahman Ghobadi’s mythic Kurdish bus trip is simultaneously hilarious, magical-realist and tragic.
5. There Will Be Blood
Didn’t see it coming – P.T. Anderson sheds his pretentious snark-generation-ism for Upton Sinclair’s period saga of catapulting capitalism, scene for prickly, crazy scene the most fascinating new American film of the year.
6. Regular Lovers
May ‘68 awaited its definitive film portrait until the arrival of Philippe Garrel’s impressionistic personal meditation, which manifests the cataclysmic, liberating, and finally tragically disillusioned emotional thrust of resistance, coupled with the electric sense of being 19, sexually alive, responsibility-free, and ready to dope up and drop out, all of it seeping out of this neglected three-hour epic like fragrance from a valley of lilacs.
7. Killer of Sheep
Charles Burnett’s legended, much-hailed, rarely seen 1977 classic about being black and poor and spiritually unmoored in ‘70s L.A. finally saw theaters, a full 17 years after it’d been an early choice for national Film Registry canonization. It’s a ghost movie, returned to haunt us.
8. 12:08 East of Bucharest
Another Romanian, Corneliu Porumboiu’s deadpan comedy picks at the scab of the 1989 revolution, revolviong around what must be the eloquent and entertaining three-shot in recent cinema.
9. Los Muertos
Lisandro Alonso’s lovely, remarkably eloquent naturalist odyssey tracks an aging convict as he is released in rural Argentina, and heads upriver to find his daughter and grandson. Exposition is all but absent; the focus is on the moment, the soothing re-establishment of intimacy with nature, performed and captured in astonishing single takes.
10. Michael Clayton
Semi-hack screenwriter Tony Gilroy steps definitively into the men’s club with this ethical torture device, thought-through and written and acted with a startling concern for the sickening quotidian of power culture.
Runners-Up, in order: The Host, No Country for Old Men, Lars and the Real Girl, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Brand Upon the Brain!, Czech Dream, 3:10 to Yuma, The Boss of It All, Zodiac, Lust, Caution, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Into Great Silence, The Lives of Others, Tears of the Black Tiger, We Own the Night, Dans Paris, Broken English
Candidates for Bests and Runners-Up, Had They Been Released Theatrically Instead of Debuting to DVD, which Should Qualify Them for Full Consideration in Any Case, by This Point: Vibrator (Ryuichi Hiroki, 2003), Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962), Five (Abbas Kiarostami, 2003), Green Chair (Park Cheol-su, 2005), The Way I Spent the End of the World (Catalin Miltescu, 2006), The Castle (Michael Haneke, 1997), Quiet Flows the Don (Sergei Gerasimov, 1957), Moscow Elegy (Alexander Sokurov, 1987), Black Test Car (Yasuo Masumura, 1962), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (David Lee Fisher, 2005), Able Edwards (Graham Robertson, 2004), The Call of Cthulhu (Andrew Leman, 2005), Isolation (Billy O’Brien, 2005), Horrors of Malformed Men (Teruo Ishii, 1969), Casshern (Kasuaki Kiriya, 2004), The District (Aron Gauder, 2004), I Am a S+M Writer (Ryuichi Hiroki, 2000)
Lassoing up the stragglers of 2007 has been no ecstatic task. The Kite Runner is clumpy, unconvincing, programmatic dung (typically, lauded for its sky-flying cinematography, which is all digitally managed) so typical of company men like Marc Foster, who also denuded whatever might’ve been interesting about Monster’s Ball or Finding Neverland (the latter is particularly woeful, given its material and the melancholy potentialities that rise up the spine of any awake reader of Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys), while Doug Wright’s Atonement vacillates between big-movie abbreviation and real estate porn, and genuinely moving images, and remains equally conflicted between Christopher Hampton’s crafty script and the presence of Keira Knightley, who resembles a tubercular Treblinka resident (at the 20th cigarette lighting, all one could think was, no, eat), and who is as pleasurable to watch as, and who has the responsive range of, one of the vampire extras in the Underworld movies. Still, I didn’t find the famed and reputedly ostentatious Dunkirk tracking shot inappropriate; I was happy for the space and time.
Like Juno, Margot at the Wedding is something of an abomination, a glib, arch, anything-for-an-uncomfortable-laugh-line family farce about a family no one has ever met, who say things to their parents and siblings and sons and perfect strangers than no human being has ever said, unless the meds have gone wanting on all fronts. ("I masturbated this morning," is Baumbach’s idea of an amusing/discomfiting non sequitur, said by adolescent son to mother.) All of which would be fine if everyone’s history of psychopharmacological tribulation was a prime subject for dialogue, which it isn’t, or if the film took place in a decaying southern mansion (even then). French movies that do this, and there have been a few, are not not lousy because they’re French, they’re just lousy, too. Which all might also be moot if anything else about the film was believable, from the falling tree to Nicole Kidman’s egomaniac forgetting her purse in the end, to the earwig she finds on her hand after having climbed thirty feet into a tree (earwigs, Noah, live under rocks and in the moist folds of patio cushions, not high up in trees).
Of course, Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a sharp, mean, leather-gloved slap in the face, with an arsenal of parallel-narrative weapons that all by themselves give the film a daunting gravity. But it’s been hosannaed elsewhere. It's Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood that's the shock to the system, an adaptation of Upton Sinclair that sheds everything I’ve always felt self-infatuated and annoying about Anderson’s films (never-say-when sophomoricism, pointless epic-ness, aimless traveling shots, excessive quirk), and comes at the turn-of-the-century oil-prospecting morality tale with a stunning sense of grandeur (every image has an iconic feel), a bewitching respect for actors and viewers (you’ll find no other recent American film so full of multi-character set-piece shots), a disorienting soundtrack that keeps you on the balls of your feet (by Jonny Greenwood), and Daniel Day-Lewis, making good on the small but entertaining bet he lost, via caricature and cheese, in Gangs of New York. Also, this is a film of uneasy textures and elisions; like Punch-Drunk Love, what we witness sometimes seems to evoke things we didn’t, and the filmmaker has no interest in spelling things out for us, but instead lets us stew and grapple with the mysteries of history. The best new American film of the year, and in the nick of time.
More aphoristic money-line movie reviewing, for consumables viewed in late November, early December:
Lars and the Real Girl (2007) While it sat squarely in a Bunuelian frame of Midwestern mind, this was a remarkably funny/sad/sad/funny freak; when it schmaltzed, it schmaltzed. Why doesn’t anyone conclude that Lars was mentally ill?
Ten Canoes (2006) The present state of the art in middle-class exotica-racism; the Aborigines even fart! Can’t imagine what your average Aborigine thought of it, or what they made of so many flat-screen-TV-owning white people the world over basking in the warmth of such adorable primitivity. At the same time, it told a compelling tale, or tales. What can you do.
Paprika (2006) The Japanese scare me – is this their idea of narrative entertainment?! This most psychotic-infantile of animes positively quakes with a screaming fear of dreams.
This Is England (2006) Spittle-flecked skinhead hysteria. Expert, but so? Was it such a pervasive or serious social problem, or is it just those wacky clothes?
Silip (Daughters of Eve) (1985) Famed Filipino softcore hooey, but with a very Greek-tragic arc, and the sex, at least, is come by honestly.
Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) Guy Maddin’s latest full-on dipso-psycho-retro-hyper-meta-Oedipo-mytho-melodrama, and a salve to the Maddin-addicted. Seen in the pre-recorded, non-live-performance mode.
Get Carter (1971) It’s been decades since I’d last seen this droll little nastiness, which suffers, datedly, by comparison with its own reputation. Are all landmark British genre films (I’m thinking of Michael Reeves) overrated?
Bug (2006) A play.
My Winnipeg (2007) I prefer this autobiographical demi-doc to Maddin’s last few features – although taking his word for it as non-fiction is a fool’s bargain. Poetic and eloquent and disarming and narrated, poignantly, by Guy himself. Is this coming in '08?
Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) The unearthed artifact amid a flood of fabulous but familiar Imamura films, a nearly-three hour epic of backward village incest, superstition and panic, and more evidence that the Japan we don’t commonly see exported here is in fact a land of maniacs. But in a good way.
The Doll (1919) Ernst Lubitsch’s answer to Lars and the Real Girl, or Making Mr. Right, made in Germany before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Still witty as hell.
American Gangster (2007) When will they realize that evocations of The Godfather only serve to remind us what a terrific movie The Godfather is? Or were they hoping, not unreasonably, that the targeted 15-to-25 demographic wouldn’t know a Corleone from a canelloni?
No Country for Old Men (2007) Adroit, gnarly, riveting – and a little dry for lack of energetic Coenanigans? Perhaps I’d been cell-saturated with hype by the time I arrived. I certainly wasn’t surprised by any of it, save maybe the final act’s notorious ellipses.
Juno (2007) Imaginatively written, beautifully acted horsecrap. Does every character, in every line, have to be snarky-sarcastic-clever-allusive? Anyone who thinks this is how even bright American teenagers talk don’t know any. For all it does right, an irritant that rubbed me raw.
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) Tsai Ming-liang tries for a Apichatpong Weerasethakul bifurcated mystery, and comes up a little short, and tedious, at least by his own extraordinary standards. Love the butterfly.
Syndromes and a Century (2006) Weerasethakul slam-dunks another lovely, elusive, diptych-ed meta-consideration of life-as-movie, or/and vice-versa, and does it without unrealistic longueurs or lack of chat, and with an intoxicating sense of wise love. Here is the future.
Into the Wild (2007) I gave up after two hours. I knew how it ended, after all. It’s not that I couldn’t stand the protagonist’s company any longer, it’s just that there’s not much there there, or, more concisely, it’s no Vagabond.
Half Moon (2006) Bahman Ghobadi goes metaphysical, and outright comedic, and Kurdish-musical, and it’s the best Iranian film seen here this year.
Just over 20 years ago, I thought of killing myself. Or rather, the thought was suddenly present in me, like an unwanted ghost. It only ended up occupying my skull and nervous system for five, maybe six, months, but I remember it as vividly as if it had been a literal houseguest, a hairy-armed biker my sister had move in with my parents and me, or a drooling Rhodesian ridgeback that, once my mother threw him a chop bone from the kitchen door, had refused to leave.
I remembered it anew when Spalding Gray, famed monologist, writer, actor and affable New York/Long Island personality, had been discovered bloating in the East River, almost exactly two months after he’d been declared missing, in January 2004. The day I began writing this, of course, is months and months afield by now. I met Gray only once, if you can call it a meeting: one day standing in front of my then-fiancee’s building on Seventh Avenue waiting for her to emerge at day’s end, I happened to look to my left, and there was Gray striding toward me obliviously, his eyes on the pavement. He looked up a few feet short of colliding with me, at which point I indulged in a split-second decision to create a potentially awkward and certainly unnecessary situation by sticking out my hand and announcing "Spalding!" He stopped dead and reflexively shook my hand, his puzzled brow knuckling up, when I quickly admitted (A) to not actually knowing him, (B) to being a big fan, and, however, (C) to knowing his then-wife Renee Shafransky, who had taught film classes at my college a few years earlier. A relieved smile, and adieu.
Of course in terms of how we know Gray through his films and performances, he was impossible to dislike, which is why I felt bizarrely comfortable greeting him by his Christian name in the street although I was in fact a perfect stranger – if it had been Woody Allen or Griffin Dunne or Tom Waits, I probably would’ve done the New York thing and ignored the passing celebrity as if he were homeless. And so the media outpouring of grief and bewilderment upon the discovery of his suicide – at least on the East Coast – was perfectly understandable. And so were the strained attempts to "understand," to fathom the reason why such an intensely amiable, hilarious, seemingly life-affirmative personality, who freely admitted to depression and self-destructive impulses in his work but who at the same time seemed with the help of those inventive and generous admissions to conquer them outright, could actually take that harrowed and horrifying final step off the Staten Island Ferry and into the nightened abyss. It’s as if joy and love, however abundant, are valueless commodities in the human exchange, currency with no standard or weight – if not for Spalding, then for none of us. It’s as if the lusty embrace of life’s ironies, comedies, tenderness and absurd beauties counts for absolutely nothing if the mysterious call to self-slaughter is sounded and heard.
Which is, in fact, my understanding of the matter. Psychologists have all but given up trying to dissect the causes of "suicidality"; they are commonly surmised to be, for each individual, some distinctive, fiery, undecipherable cocktail of psychological elements (depression, mainly), sociological factors (as per theoretical pioneer Emile Durkheim, poverty, injustice, oppression, etc.) and biological possibilities (misfiring serotonin valves, etc.). Saying that suicide can result from depression is not unlike saying a car crash can result from driving on whiskey, and while Durkheim’s theories have been all but discredited (they may hold for, say, a handful of Primo Levis, but not for the rest of the Kurt Cobains), the biochemical perspective has become so ubiquitous in clinical culture as well as in the world at large that virtually any emotional problem is having antidepressants pelted at it in handfuls like rice at a bride – and not entirely unsuccessfully, either.
But the literature does not offer up much in the way of understanding – suicide is just the bullet-train’s last stop, the organic point at which a depression, or a life fraught with circumstantial misery, runs out of track. There are statistical trends, popular "triggers," models of behavior and condition that tend to coincide with the suicidal impulse. But they do not coalesce into a readable idea. How could they, come up with a coherent thesis for the most inexplicable of human actions? Suicide makes less sense, if you’re up for measuring such things, than cruelty, homicide, rape, the most extreme fetishes, or religion. Map it on a senselessness grid, and it stands alone in the upper right-hand corner. (I remember reading in April of 1990 how a Norwich, Connecticut woman named Michelle McDonald – you better believe I wrote this down somewhere – drove her car into the Thames River almost four years to the day after her twin sister did the same exact thing, at the same exact spot.) But go ahead, scour the publications, hunt online through the university studies, psychological papers and clinical trials – no one has a substantial clue. Rather, the emphasis is on treatment, stratagems for solving the problem no one fully comprehends. It’s difficult to blame the psychiatric community for simply opening the hydrants at the first sign of fire, rather than figure out how the blaze started – after all, it’s burning, and, anyway, most suicidal individuals haven’t a clue as to why they must do what they must do, and if they did, they couldn’t tell you in words. They’d have to show you.
It’s hard to argue against the fact that John Berryman, for instance, showed us something substantial and extreme and dead-serious when he, like Gray, leapt into the winter’s water – from Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge, some 100 feet in the air, in broad daylight. Bridges are magnets: some 25 people a year touch the void off the Golden Gate Bridge, and there’s even a bridge in Luxembourg – portentously painted blood-red from its original construction – that attracts so many jumpers the townspeople below have to live with the daily prospect of falling bodies. The incubi that occupy the lucklessly self-destructive adore the terminal edges of modern life – rooftops, airplane safety doors, interstate straightaways, the pistol trigger, the next cc line on the hypo. These are threads of social trivia that do not lend themselves easily to diagnostic categorization. I heard Spalding Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, interviewed on NPR within a week of his body’s appearance, and like everyone she was attempting to provide an explanation for what seemed resolutely beyond knowing. Maybe Gray was depressed about a recent car accident, maybe he came to see the world a certain, despairing way, maybe he felt as if he "had nothing left to give," ad infinitum. It was difficult to listen to, because Russo came close to sounding foolish in her mushy, earnest, NPR-ish efforts at applying a middle-brow education to what was obviously beyond her experience. It might have just sounded nearly foolish to me because I knew why – like many of us, comprising a kind of secret tribe of survivors, I had had a taste of the history Gray knew, I’d felt the weight of the homunculus. My compatriots and I have always known that Ted Hughes had nothing at all to do with Sylvia Plath’s appointment with the oven, that George Sanders’ suicide note glibly asserting "I am bored" was nothing if not disingenuous, that Jean Seberg didn’t need J. Edgar Hoover to drive her to barbiturates, that for Hemingway the women, the booze and the hunting trips were all distractions and deferrals, strategies to make the inevitable swallowing of gun barrel happen later rather than sooner.
We’re excluding here the suicide arguments of the very stupid (Muslim terrorists, the porn star Savannah), the very desperate (Goering, Goebbels, Hitler and Braun) and the excessively noble (kamikaze pilots). The reality is that the will to self-kill has nothing, by and large, to do with the way we see the world, or with how much "we have left to give," God knows. Suffering and deprivation are not reliable coordinates, either – or two-thirds of the world population would be taking the gas. (Likewise, everyone knows the pleasure principle – and, therein, the rewards to be gained from parenthood, work, love, sensual gratification or entertainment – is no competition for the self-annihilation idea.) It is not a deduction based on experience or observation, it is not the logical result of misfortune. It is, almost by definition, not deductive or reasonable at all; it is not purely "emotional," either. It is, rather, an alien yet organic occupation, the presence of a daemon. Psychologists should not be looking for a syndrome of influences and biological indicators; they should be looking for a thing, a shadow on a CAT scan, a squirming lump on the medulla. I tell you, it has mass and weight, it has consciousness, and teeth. See the 1959 William Castle-Vincent Price horror flick The Tingler, whose absurd, or perhaps less absurd than is comfortable, premise is that human terror spawns an insectasoid entity to form on the spine – thus, the spinal tingle of fear – which, if someone is frightened to a sufficient degree, will grow big enough to overpower the person’s entire nervous system and kill them. In one tastefully silhouetted scene, Price performs an autopsy on a woman who’d been "scared to death," and pulls a leathery, foot-long caterpillar out of her torso. That’s how it feels, as anyone guesting the suicide hob will tell you. For them, the prospect of even Vincent Price performing surgery on their skull to remove the bugbear manually would come as a world of good news.
From my memory and also from the outside looking at suicides’ actions in extremis, it seems that among this haunter’s characteristics is an imparted sense of procedural imperative – the thing has to be done, it will be done, as if there is something the suicide has to prove, to the world and themselves, a postulate he must render as either authentic or worthless. No matter how long you contemplate the action – even decades – it persists in your consciousness like a chore you absolutely have to get around to, a nagging last item on a lifelong agenda. As with finalizing a will or buying cemetery plots, procrastination is a common mitigating factor. Of course, the provable point or goal or feeling of determination isn’t the individual’s but his or her possessor’s, passed to the host like bacteria that involves the hapless victims in ideas they should logically never have, and insistently encourages them to do something no one would do if left to their own bad decisions or sour moods or blackest humors.
Even so, in experience it is not an act of emptiness or uselessness or woe, it is an act of ferocious will. It would have to be – consider yet again Virginia Woolf, who somehow resisted the instinct to remove the rocks from her pockets as she sank. Or 1930s semi-star Lupe Velez, whose voluptuously arranged nude-on-the-death-bed tableau of flowers and candles was spoilt once the Seconals she took sent her vomiting to the toilet, which is where she was found. Or contemporaneous non-starlet Peg Entwhistle, who drove all the way up Mount Lee to the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, climbed the last D’s three stories, and then jumped. Or Chris Allen, a quiet, tall, goofy acquaintance of mine from grade school who, I’d heard sometime during college, had joined the Army, lost a girlfriend and pressed the barrelhead of his service rifle against the roof of his mouth, and fired. Or anyone, really, who actually, finally, makes the cut, pulls the trigger, steps from the ledge, or sits on the tracks. It’s a fiercely intimidating show of resolve, at least compared to our daily efforts at life. We may see the act as the loss of a mortal struggle, but for the individual confronting his or her "completion," it isn’t surrender but achievement, a summoning of nerve long in the coming. Opinionated pronouncements to the effect that suicide is a cowardly choice are, at best, wholly clueless.
Like Gray, I had had a car accident – a common trigger for suicidality, apparently, a cranial trauma that acts as a seismic event, apparently scrambling one’s bearings and somehow introducing the suicide idea to one’s mental environment much as a carpetbagger will magically appear to exploit a neighborhood turned upside down by earthquake or war. I was sitting beneath the hatch in my friend Chris’s two-seater Mercury sportster when it fishtailed, probably due to my extra weight, into oncoming traffic on a four-lane route in the woodsy darkness of north-shore Long Island, a few days before Halloween 1983. I have no memories of the collision itself; I never have had any. I do have a faint memory of lying on the shoulder, mere inches from passing tires, subtly adjusting myself on the asphalt to ameliorate bone pain. The car was three lanes away; I had apparently been popped into the air, like a baseball. Next, I awoke in the hospital – it was morning — apologizing to my stricken mother, leaning over me (I had just recently learned to drive, and everybody had been waiting for something like this to happen). When she told me I hadn’t been driving, I suddenly had no worries in the world. Just a morphine drip.
A week later I was home, my dozens of fractures sealing up, my dislocations mending, my deflated lung pumped, my face stitched. Two weeks later, restlessly, I managed to drive my car, a last-legs ‘68 Cutlass, back to school. Sometime soon after that, it appeared – just an idea, a black mote in the back of my skull, offering up the notion of self-destruction, as if it were a horse tip. How, why, when – these were all issues to be decided later, after the idea had made itself comfortable and moved in its stereo equipment and futon and lava lamp. It was a scary manifestation at first, but of course the more I tried to push it from my consciousness, the firmer it held its ground, and the more familiar it became. I woke in the morning, took a split-second to scan my mental horizon – and there it was. There it remained, all day. Sleep and alcohol were the only sanctuaries, both temporary and whimsical.
I did what you would do – I slogged along carrying it around like a drug habit, heaving its weight like a sandbag on my neck and shoulders. It was a burden, a spectacular irritant (having already survived that which kills off so many American teenagers, didn’t I earn a trouble-free senior year? Didn’t I deserve a little joie de vivre?). But it wasn’t completely miserable – I never self-pitied, never wept, never felt mired in absolute woe from which "there was no other recourse." It wasn’t sadness as I’d known it before and as we normally know it; it wasn’t even "depression." It was merely an inhabiting spirit, a malevolent whisperer acting of its own accord and according to a private program.
Over the next month, heading into Christmas, it grew, of course, grew in size and intensity, bullying the rest of my conscious activity into entertaining, inevitably, the first coherent thoughts about how and why and when. I was in no hurry – given my dread of making large decisions, I was comfortably secure in the knowledge that the logistical debate could go on for years. In the meantime, I compulsively sought out suicidal literature, feeling most comfortable with Plath, Sexton, Berryman and Schwartz – their poetry as well as journals, letters, semi-autobiographical fiction, and memoirs written by those left behind. I wrote heavily influenced poetry, too, published it in the student literary magazine (I was the editor), and creeped out everybody who read it. I began to hesitantly tell my friends about what was going on inside my cortex; being men-in-the-making, they reacted concerned but unperturbed, as if they that had every confidence that I’d figure my way out of such a fix before something truly disastrous happened. I did tell one girl – a fabulously bosomed, ropey-haired, freckled English major with whom I happened to be in love, who happened to be halfway through a long term relationship with another, much shorter fellow, and who happened to marry me less than a decade later. She’d be loathe today to be reminded of her reaction: she bolted from the room in self-preserving terror. I forgave her her uncharacteristically callous response on the spot, and haven’t regretted it.
But talking about it, and hunting for collaborative experience among our middle century’s bumper crop of imploding poets, didn’t stem the viral spread. It felt as if nothing would – it was its own thermodynamic law, a throbbing vacuum, isolated from input and intercourse. I did not seek out psychiatric assistance – had I done so, my subsequent path might’ve been different, but I have no reason to believe it would’ve prevented or deterred what seemed predestined, or to believe it would’ve made me feel much less burdened. Anyway, I wasn’t any better at articulating the sense of it than anyone else similarly plagued. I’ve tried here, using probably too many metaphors, to evoke the sense of it, but I’ve inevitably failed. Every brain’s chemical stew is different, and there is no doubt that this possession – and in fact it’s easy to imagine the uneducated in preindustrial eras interpreting the footprint of suicidal lust as the internal invasion of a malignant spirit – often accompanies genuine depression, tragic circumstance and neurological imbalance. But my suspicion, based on personal experience just as we can generally understand others’ headaches, root canal agony, scratched-back contentment and drunken incapacity, is that the urge to end one’s life is a separate and distinct creature. Born of a physiological hose-kink or psychological entropy or some combo therein, I cannot tell you. I can say that approaching it as if it were a symptom of a larger situation, or a condition with logical roots in thus-far documented medicine, is folly.
By all reports, Spalding Gray harbored this secret lodger in his consciousness for nearly the entirety of his life – he had entertained suicide, he had said, even as a child. In this view, his is a spectacular success story: dodging the doom salesman for over five decades and living in the meantime through several marriages, several children, scores of friendships, a unique and thrilling and appreciated career, and a lifetime of fruitful self-examination. But of course this is glib: leaping into the nightened Hudson in obedience of a lifelong death wish cannot have been pleasant. But who could doubt that with the hellfire came fierce blooms of cleansing relief and even traces of courageous self-satisfaction? No one who’s heard the back-brain drone, certainly. I’m talking about the leap only – then came the actual drowning, about which no one knows anything and about which we speculate at our own risk.
The abeyance of my journey to the center of the earth came that spring, March of 1984, unceremoniously and sudden. I wish I could tell you why, how, details about that treasured day’s weather or world news or circumstantial details. I’ve forgotten what had transpired the night before – my carwreck-mates and I had found a party or parties somewhere on our green suburban campus, and had somehow absconded with a metal keg half full of woeful St. Louis beer, smuggling it into the dorm. I had been good and goddamned soused, and therefore thankfully oblivious, if only for a few hours, to the vampire moldering up the far corner of my consciousness. I awoke alone in my room that morning, hungover to some degree or another, and surveyed my befogged mental landscape – where was my patient, fanged little consort? It wasn’t there. For some reason or another – a mere remixing of neurochemical cocktails? – the creeper wasn’t there waiting and nodding like a devil reminding you, yes, your soul is sold and your days are being counted down. I went to my mirrored medicine cabinet, expecting the festering thought to wake up at any microsecond, shake its head and reestablish its talon-grip on my membranes. The walk to the mirror, broken up into a Zeno-like infinity of smaller and smaller moments, took an extraordinarily long time – where was it? I was actively hunting the dirty sucker down, searching for him like a lost pet, just so I wouldn’t become suddenly joyous with liberation and then be just as suddenly keelhauled down to new depths when it did suddenly reappear. Staring into my weary reflection, the seconds passed, and I realized it was gone. I dared even to conjure suicidal thoughts – maybe I pictured myself leaning off the Verrazano Bridge, holding on with two fingers – but they did not hold and instead evaporated instantly. Nope, it was gone, gone not just for the moment or for the day, but gone for good, even more mysteriously than it had arrived. I don’t know why, but it did not occur to me that it might return, tomorrow or next year; I had somehow lost it, irrevocably, as you lose innocence. It did not occur to me that I’d somehow poisoned and killed the fucker with drink; even then, I knew that, if such a thing were possible, suicides, which had always routinely climaxed decades of Burroughsian substance abuse, would be as rare as two-pound pearls. Could it have just been the coming of spring, the burning glory of sun-warmth on the vampire’s vulnerable flesh? I virtually skipped down the industrial-carpeted dorm hall to my friends' room and the keg, and then began that year’s spring in earnest, my suburban Elysium of sun-soaked beer bashes, devoted comrades, girls of sugar-wheat hair and braless elan, and days so long and open and promising they felt like miniature dawnings of some utopian history, too personal and too easily subjected to rapturous irresponsibility to ever be documented.
20 years since, the idea has never resurfaced, and I expect to die a content old man by means natural or otherwise happenstantial. Its coming and going remain an enigma, but more importantly its nature remains unaccounted for, its existence an inexplicable thing of nearly supernormal essence. That’s how it felt, of course – it could, I suppose, have been a simple matter of synaptic imbalance or a microscopic neurological burp, and my internal interpretation of it was an intensely subjective cyber-experience I cannot gain distance from, as when a scientist pokes an exposed cerebellum and the awake, oblivious patient feels nothing but suddenly smells roses and hears church bells. You cannot tell that open-skulled citizen that he is not actually hearing or smelling – because, in reality, he is, just not with his ears or nose. So maybe, like so much else, the occupying imp of suicide, however terrifying and fatal, is actually just a minuscule physiological occurrence, in reality trite and inconsequential but blooming in a mad, Mandelbrot-like spiral into impressions, actions, consequences and, finally, often, death. Wouldn’t that be devastatingly ironic, that the early exits of all those geniuses, poets, artists and rock stars were all the product of a serotonin misdrip, an inter-nerve-ending subspark? This conclusion seems inevitable, particularly as the micro-march of scientific query pounds forward. Physiochemistry and psychopharmacology are becoming so all-encompassing today that researchers are on the verge of a model of the human brain that suggests all of our achievements and cataclysms – science, religion, democracy, totalitarianism, the Enlightenment, the Holocaust – are the result of our cranial bouillabaisse, of the volatile or serenely nourishing elemental mix therein. (Social misfits are no longer mere social misfits, but victims of the autism scale’s milder fringes.) This all might answer the question for the pragmatists, and might even present a cure for the suicidal. But it wouldn’t explain the crepuscular mystery of the experience, or why such an organic imbalance translates to us, as it’s happening, as the fulfillment of a medieval superstition, the visitation of a conniving parasite, chanting the unthinkable.
Is our behavior merely chemistry? Maybe. Maybe because we are what we are, because we are too proudly human, because we believe everything we sense and will go to our graves almightily convinced that what we think is true although that truth may be just an acidic gurgle or cellular eruption-reaction in the brainpan’s furthest, moldiest corner – because of this, everything we are and have and know can be occasionally tossed to the winds of empty tragedy. Maybe. But that’s not the way I remember it. I remember it as a stranger upstairs, unevictable and insistent that my life would end a certain way, at a certain time, and that I’d eventually be convinced to do the ending myself. That he was wrong is not evidence of anything but my own pointless fortune.
Thanks partly to the proliferation of movie-crit blogs, and partly to the steamrolling irrelevancy of professional film criticism (or, one could say, the perpetuation of movie review irrelevancy, a view in which the Agees, Farbers, Sarrises and Hobermans have been the freakish exceptions in a century-long sludge-glacier of bad writing and cinematic illiteracy), a film like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales can actually get released to theaters, in an age when a smaller number of films get screen time than ever before, and, thanks to stunned reviewers, get seen. Every positive review of the film chalks up points for its audacity or ambition or hubris, which it has in gratuitous supply; if only hubris were enough. It may seem to be nowadays, because contemporary movies are more than ever the work of machines, not people, electronic machines as well as marketing-research tabulators and neo-liberal economic machines that aren’t interested in producing entertainment (or art) that audiences might enjoy, but rather in producing consumables designed down to their pixels to squeeze every discretionary penny possible from an overhyped populace. So Kelly’s utterly sophomoric nonsense seems, despite the readily acknowledged failure of the film to cohere or express a complete thought or tell a good joke, to be an event, a refreshing auteurist blast of textual irreverence that is, at the very least, the recognizable sound of one egomaniac’s hand desperately clapping.
But Southland Tales is a disaster, and a damningly dull one at that. Far be it from me to condemn it on the basis of bad taste or narrative experimentalism or flagrant risk-taking or allusionary recklessness or failed ambition, all of which are Pynchonian things I tend to go misty and swoony over in movies, from Freaks to I Am Cuba to Marketa Lazarova to Chimes at Midnight to The Mother and the Whore to Our Hitler to Once Upon a Time in America to whatever else. No, the problem with Kelly’s film is simple: it’s incoherent, not in a broad view, which is easy to take and sometimes easy to enjoy, but within virtually each and every scene. Most of the "plot" is told to us via the nearly context-less narration, affecting pretentious connections and significances to things and incidents and characters that otherwise demonstrate none. When that doesn’t do, Kelly throws in swatches of video-news exposition, which would be semi-fine if the narrative supposedly being revealed didn’t seem absolutely arbitrary, as if it were made up as it went along, by three or more writers who weren’t talking to each other. The scenes themselves are almost universally full of dead air, the actors standing around or sitting on couches with no apparent clue as to what the dramatic thrust of the set-up in question is supposed to be. The ideas Kelly is ostensibly dramatizing, or at least tossing in the air, are high-school-graffiti stupid: "neo-Marxism," a merely talked-about rip in "the fourth dimension!", the idea that Armageddon, or something, will befall us if "two identical souls shake hands," etc. Honestly, this is Ed Wood country. Some elements – the rise of porn actresses to primetime pundits, say – await a screenplay with some comic wit; others (a script written by an action star that predicts the future? yet another addictive designer drug that has no apparent affective properties at all except grogginess? a coterie of fey, evil scientists caked with makeup, bad wigs and space-age couture?) cannot be saved. The only sequence that has a cohesive energy to it, not surprisingly everyone’s favorite, is Justin Timberlake’s faux-music video fantasia with a Killers song; by even old music video standards it’s pretty uninspired, but in the middle of this shambles, it feels shockingly, pleasurably juiced and convincing.
Needless to say, I’ve seen the released version, some 17 minutes shorter than the "work in progress" that bored audiences at Cannes, and for once it seems the Cannes-goers had a relevant point to make. (Honestly, the film practically begs to be called Pynchonian, but for an honestly Pynchonian film experience, look for the hard-to-see Cuban film The Mists in the Palm Trees, or, hopefully coming our way soon, Guy Maddin’s new majesterially quasi-autobiographical "docuasia" My Winnipeg.) But the larger point is not that the accolades – all deserving, I think – for Donnie Darko have allowed Kelly to think any gout of uncooked ideas that pops into his skull is the work of genius, but that so many critics, blogging, publishing and otherwise, have agreed with him, that the landscape of movies in 2007 is so arid, so depleted of oxygen and protein and brain candy, that Southland Tales feels like an achievement to so many. I think perhaps getting it into multiplexes and brainwashing the cognoscenti is the true achievement; consider seriously for a moment what reaction Kelly’s film would’ve garnered had it instead been shoved out onto home video, and been seen in our living rooms. The movie’d remain the same, but instead of trying to rationalize its pitfalls, viewers would be turning it off not long into the second hour.
I’m addressing "David," the maniacal neo-con cretin who keeps commenting on my blog, even on entries that have nothing to do with his argument, as if he is imagining my half of the debate in his dreams; the first volley this time is a comment, must-reading, under "Crazed Fruit," below. Now I respond.
First off, though I’m touched by your concern for my psyche, I want to make it clear that I do not hate myself, I hate you. I’m not completely in love with myself, nor am I exempt from a common measure of insecurity and regret, and if you’re really interested I’ll tell you all about it someday over drinks (you’re buying), but I am not self-hating. It’s you I hate, what little I know.
Your latest post is otherwise devoid of real-world matters – if you read anything beside Norman Podhoretz, you’d know that al-Qaeda is only one (loosely-knit) player in the Iraqi shitstorm, which we began and which we maintain by, ahem, illegally occupying the country. Try this: rationalize how bombing Baghdad to begin with, and killing more than 3,000 civilians (probably more, but who cared enough to count?), none of whom were al-Qaeda or "insurrectionists," how was this "trying to stop" the sectarian violence that hadn’t yet had cause to begin?
I’m glad you cited your source for your rabid misinformation: TROP is a screaming, xenophobic propaganda campaign against Islam, using outrageous photos and skewed stats to try to convince the world that the religion itself is the root of all evil – when, statistically, its current surge of violent incidents around the world represent the work of approximately .001% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. The victims, so carefully enumerated on the TROP website (every time a handgrenade goes off in Afghanistan, it’s a "terror attack," regardless of context), still do not rival the amount of people we’ve killed with our biggest-military-force-ever bulldozing, by any standard. Your "1%" shot in the dark is absurd; in 2005, the Iraq Body Count and the Oxford Research Project estimated that, modestly it would seem, that 9,250 Iraqi non-combatants were killed by coalition forces, so by the tail-end of 2007, it’s safe to say we’re beyond 12,000. This doesn't count the more than 60,000 now dead in the civil war we essentially created, and for which we — well, OK, you — must take responsibility. These figures are all suspect as underestimations anyway, because the U.S. bureaucracy has made it clear they will not count dead Arabs, and will obviously do what they can to minimize the estimations in any case, as does any invading force in relation to the mothers, kids, grandparents, babies, etc. they might blow away by the score in the process of invasion and occupation.
But the numbers are, truly, irrelevant; that you’re nitpicking about how many Iraqis we decimated, instead of whether or not we should’ve, tells us all we need to know about you. Really, if we killed 50 Iraqi civilians in our pointless imperialistic venture, which is what it is, because every statement made otherwise to rationalize it in the war’s build-up has been publicly demonstrated since to be a big fucking lie, then every nutlog who believed a word out of Dick Cheney’s mouth about "helping" the poor Iraqi people should have to pay for those lives, in blood or children or cash or land. That means you, Mr. Moral.
(A contextual note: I do not, for the record, "respect" Islam, anymore than I respect any other deistic religion, or anyone's "right" to believe in reincarnation or Oz or the boogeyman; respect is mine to give, once I see it is earned, and I see nothing but hogwash, homicide and delusion coming from every major faith aside from Buddhism, which is functionally a discipline anyway. We can always go to Mencken, thus: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." But painting Islam as an inherently destructive doctrine is historically idiotic, because the last millennium or so is only a litany of Christianity laying seige to Muslims, and topically bigoted, for the statistical reasons already given.)
This quote I enjoyed: "Beneath the public moralizing, it appears that anti-war groups have an underlying political agenda that is not always in line with their purported motives. Although operating under the cover of compassion, the success and welfare of the Iraqi people is of secondary concern to America’s failure." There’s that self-hate thing again. Only a brain-baked trog would use such a spurious, meaningless, vacuous concept to support his entire international-politics worldview. Go shopping for a new idea, please.
Then there’s this hand-wringing over America being "demonized" – which is hardly a surprise, since if ever a poor Third World society needed an excuse to demonize the world’s wealthiest nation – wealthy because it strip-mines and oil-digs and hyper-develops and market-dominates countries like Iraq, leaving the native populations to scrounge for roots and kill each other over ancient grudges – then we gave them one. Let’s see, we invade, occupy, kill thousands, destroy the infrastructure, install thousands of unaccountable mercenaries, build the biggest military base in the history of civilization, continue to patrol their neighborhoods and kill them in their homes, barrage them with rhetoric about God being on our side in our "crusade," etc.... Gee, I’d demonize us, and so would you; if you tell me you’d lie down like a happy sheep on line at the slaughterhouse, you’re a liar as well as a fool.
Thanks to the writer’s strike, my deadlines loom a little less imposingly, and so I blog anew. Aphoristic money-line movie reviewing, for consumables viewed late October, early November:
The Descent (2005): Sensational display of creeper-jeeper mechanics, if all that proves in the end is that gotchas are much easier than mustering the slightest semblance of a convincing line reading from an action-figure cast.
Casshern (2004): Greenscreen meta-anime chaos, shamefully overlooked here, and far more bedazzling than 300 or Sin City or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Zazie dans le Metro (1960): Was child molestation ever this fall-down unfunny? Read more!
You Kill Me (2007): Unfinishably smug film-school-screenplay tosh, with Tea Leoni deigning to screw alkie assassin Ben Kingsley because, apparently, they live on Lemnos, and he’s the only man alive.
Redacted (2007): DePalma doing post-Blair Witch combat mock-doc in Iraq?! DePalma doesn’t do realism, folks. The only thing real-seeming about this ham-handed Casualties of War remake is the ordnance.
Manufactured Landscapes (2007): Photographer Edward Burtynsky shoots massive industrial waste-scenes, filmmaker Jennifer Baichal dollies around shooting him do it, who’s the expressor? Is Baichal expanding the art or just chronicling it? If, say, Billie Holliday paid such high stakes for her art, what did Diana Ross pay when playing her in a movie? If Holliday is worthy of a sentimental, teary movie of her life because of her singing, why isn't Ross? If Ross gets her biopic someday, who will sing Ross singing Holliday?Sixty Six (2006): If the director of Leonard Part 6 and City Slickers II can still snag, and immolate, new projects like this soft-soap Yiddishe drischla, you can, too.
Beaufort (2007): Recalls The Desert of the Tartars, soldiers hanging out on an ancient but very real Mid-East fortress and waiting. But without the existential chill.
Starting Out in the Evening (2007): Conventional NY lit stuff, but Frank Langella believes in it. Pretentious doctoral students belong under cars.
What a Wonderful Place (2004): Predictable Israeli remake of Crash. Or Alila.
Our Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977): Like a mastodon finally lumbering out of a time machine doorway, Syberberg’s bad boy finally hits the everyday slipstream – and keeps dreaming. More on this later.
Into Great Silence (2005): Monks, not talking. Rorschach blot doc, with a double dose of Accupril.
Lady Chatterley (2006): What the fuck? Literally. She’s less "awakened" here than trapped in the mouth-breathing mind of an incurious preteen, and he’s a mopey ape, and the vaunted sex was better in Brokeback Mountain.
Nuit Noire (Black Night) (2004): German brooder Olivier Smolders essentially remakes Eraserhead, but with large and weird European bugs.
Sicko (2007): He’s annoying only to those soulless goldbrickers who don’t care that’s he’s right.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007): Is Sidney Lumet even Sidney Lumet? He hasn’t been since 1990, at least (since then, A Stranger Among Us, Guilty as Sin, Night Falls on Manhattan, Critical Care, Gloria; before that, we were blessed with Garbo Talks, Power, Family Business, The Morning After... oy gevalt). Here, a typical Arriaga-shuffle newbie script carries the load, the actors fume and spume and sweat, but there’s at least one moment – the shot of Marisa Tomei at the door as she dares to leave – that even Michael Winner would’ve been ashamed of.
Lust, Caution (2007): Lugubrious? Maybe, but also serenely crafted, with 50% of the plot work executed via glances and eye lines. And the sex looked real to me.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980): Only halfway through – is there a way out of this madness?
Killer of Sheep (1977): The best American film of 2007, all '70s-loving irony intended? Betcha!
Because things can get so lost in the bowels of Blogistan, I thought it might be helpful, if only to me, to catalog my years-so-far of weekly IFC columns. Disregard this entry's inception date; I'll be updating it perpetually. Thus:
10/30/06: Down to the Bone, Hands Over the City
11/06/06: Wordplay, The Fountainhead
11/13/06: 49 Up, Pocket Money
11/20/06: The Wild Blue Yonder, Pandora’s Box
11/27/06: Tribulation 99: Alien Anamolies Under America, the vintage Superman serials
12/4/06: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, the Wim Wenders box
12/11/06: 4, Lubitsch in Berlin: The Wildcat, The Oyster Princess, Sumurum, etc.
12/18/06: The Conformist, 1900, Little Miss Sunshine
1/8/07: Street Fight, The Weeping Meadow
1/15/07: La Moustache, Mouchette
1/22/07: Robert Mitchum, Kenneth Anger
1/29/07: Idiocracy, Sherrybaby
2/5/07: The Science of Sleep, Vibrator
2/12/07: 13 Tzameti, The Invisible Dr. Mabuse, The Return of Dr. Mabuse, The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse
2/19/07: Lunacy, Apartment Zero
2/26/07: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Profondo Russo
3/5/07: Early Hitchcock: The Manxman, The Ring, Murder!, The Skin Game, etc.; Quiet Flows the Don
3/12/07: The Burmese Harp, Un Chant d’Amour
3/19/07: My Country, My Country; Bloody Reunion
3/26/07: Re-Animator, The Perfect Crime
4/2/07: Radio On, The Bridesmaid
4/9/07: Flannel Pajamas, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
4/16/07: Sombre, Notes on a Scandal
4/23/07: Al Franken: God Spoke, Hacking Democracy
4/30/07: Old Joy, The Elusive Corporal, Le Testament de Docteur Cordelier, Nana, etc.
5/7/07: Comedy of Power, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman
5/14/07: Deliver Us from Evil, David and Lisa
5/21/07: Regular Lovers, Sansho the Bailiff
5/28/07: Able Edwards, Black Test Car
6/4/07: Tears of the Black Tiger, Viva la Muerte, I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse, The Guernica Tree
6/11/07: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2006), Sweet Land
6/18/07: Raining Stones, The Call of Cthulhu
6/25/07: WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Sweet Movie, Heavy Petting
7/2/07: Climates, Isolation
7/9/07: Woman in the Dunes, Pitfall, The Face of Another, Missing Victor Pellerin
7/16/07: Malpertuis, Tideland
7/23/07: Five, Avant Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954: Venom and Eternity, etc.
7/30/07: Factory Girl, 20 Million Miles to Earth
8/6/07: Wooden Crosses, Les Miserables, Popeye the Sailor 1932-1938
8/13/07: They Live by Night, Act of Violence, Where Danger Lives, etc., Zodiac
8/20/07: Inland Empire, Puzzlehead
8/27/07: Broken English, The Young One
9/3/07: The Castle, Horrors of Malformed Men
9/10/07: On the Silver Globe, the Rudolph Valentino Collection: Moran of the Lady Letty, The Young Rajah, etc.
9/17/07: The Wind that Shakes the Barley, From Beyond, The Return of the Living Dead
9/24/07: The Boss of It All, Red Road
10/1/07: Green Chair, Cinema 16: European Short Films: Before Dawn, World of Glory, Six Shooter, The Man without a Head, etc.
10/8/07: 12:08 East of Bucharest, the Kenneth Anger Collection Vol. II
10/15/07: the Roger Corman Collection: Gas! Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, etc.; Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film
10/22/07: A Cottage on Dartmoor, Casshern
10/29/07: Into Great Silence, Adanggaman
11/5/07: Sicko, Basket Case 2
11/12/07: Berlin Alexanderplatz, Killer of Sheep
11/19/07: I Am Cuba, Manufactured Landscapes
11/26/07: Our Hitler: A Film from Germany, The Freethinker
12/3/07: Innocence, Drunken Angel
12/10/07: Two-Lane Blacktop, The Way I Spent the End of the World
12/17/07: Once, Feed
12/24/07: The Best Non-Theatrical/Straight-to-Video Debuts of 2007
1/7/08: The District, Chameleon Street
1/14/08: Kz, Klimt
1/21/08: The "Saved from the Flames" orphan film set, The Kingdom 2
1/28/08: Los Muertos, Quiet City
2/4/08: Rocket Science, Right At Your Door
2/11/08: The Films of Sergei Paradjanov, El Cid
2/18/08: Pierrot le Fou, Helas pour Moi
2/25/08: Walker, The Draughtsman's Contract
3/03/08: Kilometre Zero, the Lubitsch musicals (The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour with You)
3/10/08: Her Name is Sabine, Terror's Advocate
3/17/08: George Melies DVD sets, Khadak
3/25/08: Moolaade, Daisy Kenyon
4/1/08: The Ice Storm, Melo
4/8/08: The Night of the Shooting Stars, Diva Dolorosa
4/15/08: Lars and the Real Girl, The Dragon Painter
4/22/08: Hannah Takes the Stairs, The World According to Shorts
4/29/08: The Guatemalan Handshake, Lois Weber's Hypocrites
5/6/08: Bamako, the films of Morris Engel (Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops, Weddings and Babies)
5/13/08: I'm Not There, La Roue
5/20/08: La Chinoise, Le Gai Savoir, silent Ozu: Tokyo Chorus, Passing Fancy, I Was Born, But...
5/27/08: the "delirious fictions" of William Klein (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, Mr. Freedom, The Model Couple), All You Need Is Love
6/3/08: Variety, Come Drink with Me
6/10/08: the films of Chris Marker (The Last Bolshevik, The Case of the Grinning Cat, Remembrance of Things to Come, etc.), Boarding Gate
6/17/08: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Diva
6/24/08: Derek Jarman's Glitterbox (with Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, The Angelic Conversations and Blue), Heavy Metal in Baghdad
7/1/08: My Blueberry Nights, The Free Will
7/8/08: Sunflower, Napoletano Carosello
7/15/08: Times and Winds, Chop Shop
7/22/08: Satantango, Eagle Shooting Heroes
7/29/08: Wholphin No. 6 (and Wholphin-ing in general), Flicker Alley's collection Perils of the New Land
8/5/08: Joy House, The Witman Boys
8/12/08: the films of Larisa Shepitko, A Throw of Dice
8/19/08: Lech Majewski and The Garden of Earthly Delights, Brand upon the Brain!
8/26/08: Please Vote for Me, Primo Levi's Journey
9/2/08: Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Television Under the Swastika
9/9/08: Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis; It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
9/16/08: The Forsaken Land, Team Picture
9/24/08: Aki Kaurismaki's "proletariat trilogy," and Jerzy Kawalerowicz's 1956 Shadow
9/30/08: Jellyfish, Snow Angels
10/7/08: Boy A, The Unforeseen
10/14/08: Melville's Le Doulos and Le Deuxieme Souffle, Murnau's The Last Laugh
10/21/08: Paris vu par... (Six in Paris), Arch of Triumph
10/28/08: Flight of the Red Balloon, Mystery Science Theater 3000
11/4/08: Billy the Kid; No Mercy, No Future and the ignored corpus of Helena Sanders-Brahms
11/11/08: the Budd Boetticher box (Ride Lonesome, The Tall T, Comanche Station, et al.), Sembene's Camp de Thiaroye
11/18/08: the Nippono-camp satires of Minoru Kawasaki (Executive Koala, The World Sinks Except Japan, etc.), Keaton's The General
11/25/08: Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
12/2/08: Jia Zhangke's Still Life, Roberto Rossellini's Era Notte a Roma
12/9/08: Assayas's Irma Vep, the eco-doc Flow: For the Love of Water
12/16/08: Fuller's White Dog, and Herzog's Ballad of the Little Soldier
12/23/08: My Father My Lord, Takva
12/30/08: Woman on the Beach, Operation Filmmaker
1/6/09: The Wedding Director, Powell's A Matter of Life and Death
1/13/09: Blind Mountain, Inheritance
1/20/09: The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, The Order of Myths
1/27/09: Patti Smith: Dream of Life, The Deal
2/3/09: Our Man in Havana, The Singing Revolution
2/10/09: Luis Bunuel and Simon of the Desert, W.
2/17/09: I Served the King of England, The Whole Shootin' Match
2/24/09: Moving Midway, The Midnight Meat Train
3/3/09: F.T.A., The Kaiser's Lackey
3/10/09: The Pervert's Guide to Cinema; Synecdoche, New York
3/17/09: Hiroshi Shimizu (Ornamental Hairpin, Mr. Thank You, et al.), Visconti's L'Innocente
3/24/09: Dear Zachary, Poil de Carotte
3/31/09: William Wellman's Forbidden Hollywood (Other Men's Women, Wild Boys of the Road, etc.), The Believer's album of Godardabilia, JLG in USA
4/7/09: Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde 1947-1986, Microcinema's Experiments in Terror 3 (including a Kuchar and a new Maddin!)
4/14/09: The Kite, The Broken
4/21/09: The Wrestler, House of the Sleeping Beauties
4/28/09: Cargo 200, 13 Most Beautiful... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests
5/5/09: Wendy & Lucy, A Grin without a Cat
5/12/09: Momma's Man, Of Time and the City
5/19/09: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Tarkovsky's Tempo di Viaggio
5/26/09: Philippe Garrel's Emergency Kisses and I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, and Antonioni's Zabriskie Point
6/2/09: Suzuki's Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Lang's Man Hunt
6/9/09: Cronenberg's M. Butterfly, Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe
6/16/09: In Love We Trust, Une Femme Mariee
6/23/09: Waltz with Bashir, Flirtation Walk
6/30/09: Last Year at Marienbad, Los Bastardos
7/7/09: Tokyo!, Alice's House
7/14/09: Amos Gitai's One Day You'll Understand, and the Belgian road comedy Eldorado
7/21/09: Godard's Made in U.S.A., and the old Barrymore silent Sherlock Holmes
7/28/09: Polanski's Replusion, plus Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
8/4/09: Loose Change and 9/11 conspiracy docs, plus samurai pulp classic Sleep Eyes of Death
8/11/09: London to Brighton, Azazel Jacobs's The GoodTimesKid
8/18/09: Cassavetes's Husbands, the Azerbaijanian fairy-tale-farce Absurdistan
8/25/09: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and Andrzej Wajda's Katyn
8/31/09: Jonas Mekas's rare, huge home-movie portrait of the '60s Walden, plus Trouble the Water
9/7/09: Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light, and Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition
9/14/09: Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching and Rembrandt's J'Accuse, and Rene Clement's Gervaise
9/21/09: Sally Potter's Rage, and the Kazakh hit Tulpan
9/29/09: Frownland, Aventurera
10/6/09: Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Princess
10/13/09: Dusan Makavejev Man Is Not a Bird, Love Affair or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator & Innocence Unprotected, plus Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie
10/20/09: Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's Karl May and Ludwig, plus the Karloff creaker The Walking Dead
10/27/09: Fear(s) in the Dark, Il Divo
11/3/09: Sam Fuller's Shockproof, Scandal Sheet, It Happened in Hollywood, etc.; plus Wings of Desire
11/10/09: Lance Hammer's Ballast, Don Siegel's The Lineup
11/17/09: Park Chan-wook's Thirst, Kent MacKenzie's rediscovered The Exiles
11/24/09: Luis Bunuel's never-remembered Death in the Garden, and Michael Ritchie's acidic '70s honey Downhill Racer,
12/1/09: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys, and the philosophical mega-doc The Ister
12/8/09: The historic doc event The Battle of Chile, plus Kino's Avant-Garde 3
12/15/09: Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues
12/22/09: The annual Best-Films-to-Go-Straight-to-Video-and-Why-Is-That-Not-a-Legit-"Release" megalist
12/29/09: Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, plus a shout-out to Facets' new disc of Alexander Alexeieff animation
1/5/10: (500) Days of Summer, Miss Mend
1/12/10 : Roy Andersson's You, the Living, plus Duncan Jones's Moon
1/19/10: the Dardennes' Lorna's Silence, Craig Baldwin's Mock Up on Mu
1/26/10: Pontypool, Import/Export
2/2/10: Wholphin 10, and W.S. Van Dyke's White Shadows of the South Seas
2/9/10: Korean indie Daytime Drinking, and "bad girl" noirs (Two of a Kind, The Killer that Stalked New York, One Girl's Confession, et al.)
2/16/10: The first ever Holocaust film, 1948's The Last Stage, plus Downloading Nancy
A critical thumbnail for October so far, as post-reviews:
Nue Propreite (Private Property) (2006) If this nail-biter isn’t about incest, real, imagined or postponed, what’s it about? The dangers of spoiling your children after divorce? Or is it just Huppert, who if she played my mother in a film about my uneventful suburban youth would make it roil like Flaubert?
Eastern Promises (2007) Likely to be the most overrated film of 2007, and this coming from a Cronenbergian; with A History of Violence you had the clear sense Cronenberg was half-satirizing the violent melodrama, especially after William Hurt showed up. Here, he just makes it seem mechanical, and overstructured, and posed. I found the Russian gangsters in We Own the Night more convincing.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) The greatest British film until Brief Encounter? Anthony Asquith’s hyper-silent, making up for the lack of sound with visual electricity Hitchcock would’ve given up a few dinners for, is a revelation.
The Last Winter (2006) Larry Fessenden’s eco-spookfest takes inconvenient truths head on, landing at a small oil-company outpost in the Arctic on the verge of excavation, and gleefully watching as the warming elements, and whatever primeval force is released from under the melting permafrost, takes down the Stagecoach-like crew one by one. The best actors (Kevin Corrigan, James LeGros, Connie Britton) juggle Fessenden’s sometimes leaden lines, the less-than-best (Ron Perlman) drop them flat, and Fessenden makes great hay with his icy locales and frozen corpses. Both the F/X and the sermonizing are a little groan-worthy, but the mood is helpless and apocalyptic.
The Notorious Bettie Page (2006) Imagine, making midcentury S&M pin-up porn dull. As a woman Page couldn't’ve been this empty-skulled, this naive, this uninterested in sex and men.
The Bridge (2006) Necro-doc about the Golden Gate’s suicides that is, in its own way, appalling. Should the filmmaker have been watching patiently from the ground for jumpers, or somehow stationed himself near the railing and tried to interview the poor bastards?
Ou Meli-melo (Mix-Up) (1986) Jonathan Rosenbaum is apparently under the impression that this French doc, which recounts how two English women, now fully grown, were accidentally swapped at birth, how everyone discovered the mistake years later and decided to do nothing about it, except more or less treat the other family as relatives, is one of the greatest films ever made. It’s very interesting, if a bit pretentious in its mocked-up direct addresses, but proliferating dualities and affected script "readings" do not an earth-shaker make.
Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (2006) Juicy, multiple-POV surveillance melodrama, hard to resist in the viewing (if only American films dared to verbalize so little of what is actually happening in the story), and easy to forget afterwards, except that its happy ending to the Stasi reign smells a little Schindler’s Listy to me.
We Own the Night (2007) James Gray makes the same movie a third time, but these are interiors, crowds, real city homes and working-class environments we haven’t seen since Forman’s Czech days. Moral: don’t run a nightclub?
Michael Clayton (2007) The only thing I dislike about this thoroughly meaty and precisely judged character study/legal mystery is its wrapped-up, tell-it-to-Tilda ending, which of course is no triumph at all because Clooney’s hero, already wasted from the worst month in his life and a career that’s destroying him from the inside out (all of it humdingerly portrayed), now faces his own company, to whom he’s in debt and who will certainly see him swing. So I don’t really dislike anything; if only every screenwriter would try for the Paddy Chayefsky Jr. seat like Gilroy did.
Not to take anything away from the achievements of the Romanian New Wave, but the fact that these sublime, modest, inconclusive, off-the-cuff, on-the-shoulder movies are currently considered the global-fest cat’s meow is, I think, indicative of how far mainstream cinema has strayed from anything substantive, engaging, convincing or resonant. Only in contrast to the dominance of all-digital superheroes, all-digital war epics, all-digital pubertal-sorcery franchises, abbreviated AVID-edited syntax, endless TV show reincarnations, ad infinitum, in other words, the continued evolution of movies from a three-dimensional art form to an infantilized content stream fit for house pets, only in contrast to this could the Romanian films, as adroit and wizened as they may be, cause a cultural buzzquake in the world’s film festival coverage. Covering the moment for The Boston Phoenix, I’ve seen Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough, Cigarettes and Coffee and of course The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (just out on DVD), Christian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days (coming theatrically in January), Christian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ and Marinela from P7, Catalin Mitulescu’s Traffic and The Way I Spent the End of the World (due to us in some form in 2008), and Radu Jude’s The Tube with a Hat, and I’ve come to think that without the context of a hypercommercialized mainstream to backlight it, the "wave" would’ve made a mild splash at best; indeed, if it had emerged in the ‘60s, beside the French, the Czechs, the Polish, the Hungarians and the Soviets, we might not’ve heard about it at all.
This doesn’t detract from the films, necessarily – several of them are among the recent best, and all are rigorous and adept and sober, as well as being appallingly eloquent about their culture’s time and place. The Romanians have studied their Rossellini, De Sica, early Godard, Cassavetes, American New Wave hits, late Hou, late Loach, mid-90s French film, and Lucien Pintille. And make no mistake, I’m thankful they exist, and that they exist now. But where’s the masterpiece? Who’ll proclaim any of the filmmakers, with their handheld imagery, slice-of-dire-life scenarios and mild sense of invention, to be the next Rivette, the next Wajda, the next Jancso, the next Kiarostami? Are we just agog at any new film that seems to visually portray contemporary life with a righteous and unsentimental sense of accuracy?
I haven’t come to honor the Romanians – everyone, including me, has done that elsewhere – nor to bury them, but to consider perhaps if in fact the grade curve for an international "new wave" isn’t a little busted, if in fact we love the Romanians not so much for what they are, but for what they aren’t – they aren’t 300 or Wild Hogs or Next or Across the Universe (or even Curse of the Golden Flower or Babel or The History Boys or My Best Friend, etc.). New waves have always, I think, thrived on proving antithetical to the commercial pap, but the dynamic may be experiencing its clearest test case, its defining moment, when the films need do little more to catch the breath of cinephiles than stand in the middle of a lower-class kitchen and record the light honestly and the people without bullshit.
This week, I’ve endured with overinflated expectations the underinflated teen odyssey of Superbad, which for every sweet-spot moment (mostly achieved by the genuine deftness of the cast) let splooge with five or more repetitive, straining profanity wads, relentlessly cock-pussy-tits-vag from beginning to end, which is not only not how American male teenagers really speak (when I was a teen as well as now, very much detailed blather in hetero circles about your own package was and is questionable at best), but is not terribly interesting, either; been underwhelmed by Johnnie To’s Triad Election (as well as being royally fed up with disproportionate comparisons of virtually any crime movie with more than three characters to The Godfather, which is in any case still safe and secure from being overshadowed); hunted in vain for another new release worth paying to see; revisited Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter; had idle thoughts – in a Godardian way, breaking up the cine-memories into images and gestures – about the long-legged way Christopher Walken grabbed for Meryl Streep’s bridesmaid dress as she ran out of the bar in The Deer Hunter; wondered how old I’ll be when my list-compulsion wanes; decided to ignore the rabid ‘Nam-apologist/Joseph McCarthy avatar posting comments on my previous entries for fear of boring everyone in sight by regurgitating basic reported facts about the last half-century of American foreign policy; and become bewitched by autumn all over again.
Which leads me to my present matter: the release this week (or availability, anyway), of my new book, Flickipedia: Perfect Films for Every Occasion, Holiday, Mood, Ordeal and Whim, co-written with my lovely wife Laurel Shifrin, and published by Chicago Review Press/A Cappella Books. Having presumably lured a certain kind of cinephile to this blog, let me say this right off the bat: Flickipedia is not a crazy, sophisticated filmhead enterprise. It is instead something devised for the average filmgoer, people who have busy lives of which movies are merely one cultural facet. Hardcore cine-nuts can take no prisoners in their love for Godard and Hou and Antonioni and their disdain for anyone who’d pass up a chance to see Out 1 and would instead attend their child’s soccer game or go fishing or read poetry. This book is not for them (my next book, Exile Cinema: Filmmakers At Work Beyond Hollywood, coming in 2008 from SUNY Press, kinda is). Flickipedia is about movies and life – how they intersect, interact, cross-pollinate. Basically, it’s a renter’s guide for a certain habit of filmgoing, a habit I’ve indulged among others over the years: the desire to see a movie that accentuates, corresponds to or expresses a life moment, be it the coming of autumn, Christmas, Halloween, Memorial Day, the Superbowl, an anniversary, the purchase of a new house, childbirth, Opening Day, a road trip, a family vacation, nostalgia for the ‘30s or for your own high school days, ad infinitum. Having exhausted favorite movies in this way over the years, Laurel and I have wanted such a book ever since we took up quarters together two decades ago, and so eventually we wrote it ourselves.
Does anyone else watch movies this way? Every springtime brings to us a fierce desire to watch A Room with a View yet again; every July beggars A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and, in homage to my preadolescent matinee trial by fire, Planet of the Apes. What's better viewing on a windy, dark autumn day than a black-&-white '60s British psychodrama, and what could answer the demands of an authentic sick day better than The Godfather parts I & II? Christmas movies can get beat up over time; we’ve hunted down some alternatives (though we may return to It’s a Wonderful Life, discovering new things in its fabric, routinely). Because some inspired local New York broadcast programmer back in the ‘70s played King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young every Thanksgiving, that’s what I – and now our kids – watch instead of football. Laurel even discovered, through trial and error, the perfect film to watch while enduring labor pains: costume romances.
Anyway, I’ll finish my earnest pitch for Flickipedia here (right of this page lies the book's website, and Amazon links), and bid ye all the blithe freedom of your own moviewatching impulses. Thank you for your patience.
The current state of my head, in regards to the woeful, incontinent bitch that is cinema: there are so few movies being released these days that film seems to barely qualify as a cultural force anymore. I wonder if Asian minimalism hasn’t played itself out, as well as Russian maximalism, semi-wry zombie horror, post-Weinstein Euro-treacle, YA blockbusters, superheroes, retro-Cassavetes-ian indies by and with slumming stars who smoke and drink too much and are proud of it, comic-book greenscreenisms, and the tolerance of passionate gore-film cultists as an exploitable demographic instead of a class of worrisome psychotics. David Fincher’s Zodiac was a fascinating big-studio experiment in historical inconclusiveness, while Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn seemed only Herzogian, to this most dedicated of Herzogians, when it was thieving from Herzog’s other films. Miss Potter was preferable to my last colonoscopy only in that it involved Ewan MacGregor and Emily Watson and not a grizzled 58-year-old oncologist wearing a rubber glove. Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963) was, contrary to what I’d read about it since I was a child (chiefly, in the late Philip Strick’s majesterial Science Fiction Movies, from Octopus Books), an absolutely lunatic and quite awful blip in its director’s tarnishing-with-retrospection career. The new disaster indie Right At Your Door is a fabulous, L.A.-set virus-fallout-contamination nerve-tester that worked like a microdot on me because I saw it while in L.A., a general situation that seemed not unlike Dante itching to get off the Seventh Circle. Les Revenants (They Came Back) (2004) is like a hit of dopamine, while the Nicolas Cage-pisses-on-Philip-K.-Dick bomb Next felt like 90 minutes spent during an irritating episode of insomnia. Finally sat down to Joe May’s Asphalt (1929), which provided my west coast sojourn with a badly needed case of dark Old World sincerity. Paulo Branco’s Coisa Ruim (Bad Blood), new to DVD, only proves what we might’ve suspected all along: that the last thing Portugese cinema needs is a jump on the J-horror bandwagon. Raoul Walsh's Big Brown Eyes (1936) has to be the most ill-prepared and absurdly misjudged film in Walsh's volumnious canon, and Cary Grant's, and Joan Bennett's, and even Lloyd Nolan's. Park Cheolsu’s Green Chair (2005), also new to DVD, is upon a second viewing thoroughly screwy, but also just as headlong, sweet, realistically sexy and heartbreaking as I’d remembered when it first played at the New York Asian Film Festival. James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma feels so expertly written and executed that, no matter how ordinary it may feel as a genre exercise now, I suspect that in some years’ time it’ll be reseen as one of 2007’s best, partly for its modesty but mostly for what is unspoken in it, as so much is unspoken in the westerns of Mann, Boetticher and Eastwood. The New Zealand grue-farce Black Sheep is, despite a few funny images, a squeezed bladder of very bad jokes; Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley is typically, classically, paradigmatically fine Loachian work... but when will this most admirable and incorruptible liberal master make a masterpiece?
When did Charles Krauthammer show up? This idiotic screed is perfectly typical of conservatism’s thinking: hold a child’s opinion of right and wrong in world politics, and then apply it selectively while kneeling before a bust of Teddy Roosevelt. Sure the aftermath of the American-Vietnam War resulted in helacious civil misrule and horrible postwar reprisals. What would a rational person expect after years of slaughter? Would we expect the Vietnamese, who have been fighting off invaders for centuries, to simply lie down and get trampled? Would we expect the Iraqis to do the same? Clearly somebody did in the ‘60s, and someone made the same mistake today. But that's strategy; what we really need to attend to is ethical reason – as in, you don’t kill hundreds of thousands or millions of citizens in a poor Third World country for no viable reason at all, and expect everyone to forgive and forget when you pick up your toys and go home. The best case scenario is, of course, not to set the forest fire to begin with. But we keep doing it, and we keep doing it because the people who wage the war, like Bush etc., don't pay its price.
Anyway, "Stalinist" is one of those buzzwords, labeled upon any people’s revolution with a Communist base (forget that there was nothing remotely Communist about the USSR by the time Stalin took power; it was pure totalitarianism, for which Marxist ideology had only use as population control, and again everybody knows this already today except the blinkered neo-cons for whom "Communist" is still a word that’s easily equated with "devil"). You’re actually trying to blame French universities, too, for training the Khmer Rouge in holocaustic Marxism – but if you’d lay off the McCarthy-era jargon, it’d be easy to see that poor colonial-exploited nations, after a century or more of oppression, struggle to return their country’s resources and infrastructure to the people via a Communist agenda, and meet gargantuan resistance from western states who know that a Communist country, even a Socialist government like Allende’s Chile, will not play obediantly with western corporations. So they fight, are murdered in massive numbers, and soon enough they’re seemingly faced with the choice of destroy their enemies or perish. I know, being Martin Luther King would be nicer, and perhaps even more productive, but something tells me you’d be tossing grenades at your neighbor if he'd helped the Viet-minh invade your neighborhood and butcher your family.
Anyway, the "mass liquidation" you’re referring to had already happen, thanks to U.S. forces, which dropped 500 pounds of explosive ordanance for every man, woman and child in Indochina. It doesn’t rightly become a counting game – whose worse, those that kill 200,000 or 4 million? – but rather a cause-and-effect historical template: if you obliterate and ruin their world and kill their children and burn their homes, they will exact revenge on those that helped you do it, justly or not. You would do the same.
Which was my point about Bush’s asinine suggestion that we hadn’t already destroyed Vietnam but by leaving when we did we allowed the real atrocities to take place. Horrible as it was, what the Viet-minh did to South Vietnam in the ‘70s was a petty afterthought, generally speaking, to what we’d already accomplished with the entire subcontinent. True enough, Iraq will likely become a blood-soaked no man’s land when we do finally withdraw, but we’ve already killed over 650,000 civilians – we started it, we made up the reasons to start it, we bombed the cities and invaded, they’re our debt to pay. Yours, too, if you pay taxes. So when the politicians decide they’ve had enough and pull our forces out, what do you expect to happen? And how is that ensuing bloodbath not our responsibility, too? And didn’t we officially support the Khmer Rouge?
Bobble-headed fools like you shouldn’t be righteously pronouncing that those protesting the Vietnam and Iraqi wars – which inevitably ignited whatever debacle followed or will follow, which is not a "pedagogy" but as much a fact as a boulder rolling down a mountain – "couldn’t care less" unless you’re ready to pay back the Indochinese or Arab citizenry with some children and blood of your own. And I’m not talking about being a wounded vet; I’m talking about sacrificing your child like Abraham. Go ahead, tough-talker.
A perfect example of what I thought of then as Benning's Calvinist urge to punish the audience before ushering it to grace. Yet usher to grace he does—since what's mainly revealed, even within these harshly demanding parameters, is that the camera necessarily "sees" things differently than we do. Example: for the full duration of the shot the focus never changes (always set at infinity), yet typically, in an identical "real life" situation, our eyes would be refocusing constantly, depending on subliminal intent: it's nothing we've any control over, just the way our biological system functions. Or another example: without some deliberate intervention, the camera simply stares fixedly ahead; yet our own eyes are forever darting around, changing informational venues: we're not forced to look at any particular thing—in fact, holding the same uninterrupted gaze for minutes on end may not even be possible. Also, from a sensory-deprivation angle (or maybe it's a case of Stockholm syndrome!), there's a kind of emergency mise-en-scene you start inventing in your head: look, here comes a Ravenswood train down the opposite track ... closing in, closing in, then suddenly a "whoosh" as it glides right past, almost like a phantom. But how much of this is self-invented and how much something we've been primed to discover? Whatever the answer it's still a terrific rush ... and to think that if we'd actually been sitting in an el car watching (or more likely not watching) these logistics playing out, we'd probably be bored to tears. But Benning was always aware of what he had in mind; it's the rest of us who had to catch up."
Just when you thought you’d heard it all, the smirking Barbary ape we have as a president attempts to rationalize and excuse his imperial campaign in Iraq by way of historical context – normally a reasonable method to suss out the unpredictable dynamics of sociopolitical tumult, that is, if you demonstrate the slightest clarity and honesty in regards to that historical context. Nobody could believe it this week when Bush had the nuts to explicitly summon the American-Vietnamese War as a corollary for his causeless war – didn't we all say that six years ago? Our ears screamed in disbelief when we heard him assert that not pulling out of Indochina later than we did was the reason for that genocidal action’s failure. Did the President just say that? Who else but the 20th century’s docket of totalitarian maniacs could’ve come right out as Bush has done and say our so-far greatest national shame should’ve lasted longer, culled hundreds of thousands of more lives, obliterated more countryside, and spent billions more of taxpayers’ money?
It should be plain to a middling middle-schooler that Bush’s view of history – or, rather, his speechwriting teams’ – teeters on the cliff-edge of nonsense, by virtue of a single ridiculous supposition: that, say, the slaughter of the Khmer Rouge after the U.S. dis-employment was a direct result of that dis-employment, not a direct result of the previous years of bombing, slaughter, maiming, occupation, and, not incidentally, the U.S.-bought-&-handled 1970 coup, which installed puppet ruler Lon Nol. We assisted the Khmer Rouge in their ascent and mayhem not by avoiding a fight, but by beginning and waging one to begin with. And it’s a fight we begin and wage over and over, in various sovereign nations and for obvious corporate-economic reasons; I can only measure the stunning frequency with which this dynamic gets implemented against the stunning reliability of the media to not recognize it, but instead regard each and every case as new, unique and only analyzable in its procedural details.
The strategy used by Bush’s team is as old as the hills, and is contingent on another dynamic, without which no imperial power can survive: the use of its citizens as cannon fodder and the propagandistic battery of philosophies that enable that use, which include personifying the conflict and its purposes with soldiers alive and killed in action. The face on the Iraq War, as with the Indochinese wars and every limb-scattered intervention before and after, from the Phillipines to Libya, shouldn’t be the pimply, beloved mug of Jimmy Q. Couldn’t-Afford-College, and his weeping mother and young pregnant wife. The face of the wars we see should belong to the men that cause them. You want to personify the Iraq conflict, to know how to feel about it? Ignore the military mugshots of hometown boys now coming home in shreds. Look instead at the dead-eyed faces of the perfidious white millionaires who have the meetings and make the calls, and who correctly believe they live in a kind of demigod’s paradise, where they can throw lightning bolts at will and never be held responsible for mass murder.
Long Take Hall of Fame Part IV: a non-heirarchal itinerary of some of my favorite long-take sequences, trying as I am to eschew the obvious:
~ From the magic-hour year of 1927 comes Hindle Wakes, a forgotten, plaintive working-girl melodrama that is arguably the greatest British movie of the silent era – at its heart is a nearly-two-minute pan over a surging ballroom crowd of dancing vacationers, undulating with the spotlights and confetti like a stormy ocean. The mournful arpeggios of the DVD soundtrack, by In the Nursery’s Klive and Nigel Humberstone, gestalt-up a moving movie experience. It feels like it may never end, and you hope it doesn’t.
~ Amos Gitai’s Kippur (2000): alone in the man’s perversely apolitical (or, at least, politically ambivalent) filmography is the shot here of two Israeli soldiers attempting to rescue a third, who may or may not be already dead, from a Dantean wasteland of intractable mud. Minutes pass, and they never seem to be any closer to sanctuary.
~ Park Chanwook’s Oldboy (2003) – the great tracking-brawl shot, natch.
~ In Ilya Khrjanovsky’s 4 (2005), a grand mess of improbable takes and psychotic metaphors, the shot that lands beside the grave of the fourth Vovchenko sister in the poisoned outlands of ex-Soviet peasantry, and follows the hag-parade of mourners back through the ruins, for over two-point-five minutes.
~ The aforementioned seven-minute take in the bordertown flop-room where psychotic tramp Faith Domergue and a concussioned, losing-consciousness Robert Mitchum wait for a Mexican truck ride, culminating in Domergue pummeling her wasted lover ostensibly to death, in John Farrow’s When Danger Lives (1950).
~ Sarunas Bartas’s Freedom (2000), in which the brooding long-take Lithuanian goes to Morocco for a Beckettian death-play in the desert – but getting there means watching a North Atlantic smuggling trip go awry, in a single, distantly-observed take in which a coast patrol ship fires away at the illegal boat while both nearly capsize in rough seas.
~ the roving, opening tracking shot of Christopher Petit’s 1979 my-generation road movie Radio On, limning out the shoddy flat of the hero’s brother on the occasion of his suicide – all set to Bowie’s "Heroes," in English and German. Thus is going-nowhere England freeze-dried on the dusk of the punk era.
~ Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 41-minute digital wonder Worldly Desires is filled, typically, with ridiculously beguiling long takes, several of which repeat, beguilingly – chiefly, a single, distant-POV shot of a pop chanteuse and three backup dancers shooting a music video in the Thai jungle at night, running through most if not all of the infectious song under the mega-lights, over and over again.
~ Someone mentioned it: the final, three-minute-plus denouement shot from Peter Fonda’s beautiful The Hired Hand (1971), beginning on Verna Bloom’s ambivalent face and tracking around the porch 360-degrees and more, to a final homecoming.
~ Patience: just when you thought nothing would happen at the film’s very end, the zoo peacock in Gu Changwei’s Peacock (2005) finally unfolds it tail for the camera, after the humans have left the area.
~ You say Angelopoulos, hands go up for Voyage to Cythera, The Travelling Players, Landscape in the Mist, The Suspended Step of the Stork (the river wedding!) and Ulysses’ Gaze, but what about the uncut, nine-minute scene of epic community disruption that begins with an impromptu beer-hall dance and climaxes with a death, in his trilogy-starter The Weeping Meadow (2004)?
~ The funeral march in Kalatosov’s I Am Cuba (1964), naturally, but also his The Letter Never Sent (1959) – any one of several breathtaking tracking shots following the film’s lost scientist team as they scramble through untold acres of burning Siberian forest. Whew.
~ Someone said the last, unknowable shot of figures in the distance from Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, but that was an echo of the last shot from And Life Goes On..., its preceding Koker film, less a romantic mystery remaining unexpressed than a confirmation of humanity among the ruins – the stalled car on the hill road...
~ Everyone will have a Godard choice, and I join the club stumping for, over Week-End’s traffic jam, the Madison from Band of Outsiders. Addiction comes no sweeter.
~ An all-time favorite, if no surprise: the third shot in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), beginning in the clouds and panning awesomely down the mountain. If any one take could be said to have converted me, at an impressionable age, to essential cinephilia, this was it.
~ Alright, the last hovering scan of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975); a propos of Paul M.’s taxonomy below, here’s a good example of a long take the purpose of which is not to reveal and encompass dramatic action clearly, but to channel our perspective away from the drama, so it literally happens outside of the frame. We’re left with Antonioni questions, which are far cooler.
And so, the Long Take Hall of Fame Part II, which should of course reference the precedent of the Daily Film Dose reader’s poll this May, complete with YouTube clips, and which garnered scads of commentary; thus, from Girish:
"Michael, please pardon the gauche self-linking, but you just reminded me that I did a post on this last summer and lots of folks chimed in with their favorites." Fabulously worth examining, both threads, but I’m looking for the overlooked examples, and for the why of it – why do the long takes, whether they perambulate, fly or just sit still, fascinate us?
Girish’s theory: "A personal, idiosyncratic reason that will likely sound kooky to everyone but me: Much as I love the dazzlement of film artifice (conjured in a million ways), there's nothing I crave more than confirming that not only are films "about reality," they are an intensification of that reality in that they feel more concentrated and affecting than the reality that surrounds me everyday. Long takes facilitate that intensification for me; quick cuts (or even 'seamless' cuts as in classical film grammar) seem to wrench me out of that screen-reality before it has had a chance to build and strengthen (i.e. intensify)... As for my most recent favorite in the long-take department, let me nominate the four-and-a-half minute shot in Preminger's Fallen Angel with the cops and witnesses manuevering around in Linda Darnell's cramped apartment, all done without shot/reverse shot cutting."
Jonathan Lapper sez: "After reading Michael's comments above and the numerous comments on girish's post of last year I feel that all my choices have already been taken. I saw a mention of Short Cuts on girish's post but I don't believe I saw any mention of The Player, which humorously mocks the very concept of the long shot while doing it. The two characters in the long shot are in fact discussing the long shot and mention Welles shot in Touch of Evil." But: "The low, low-budget filmmakers of the fifties and sixties reveled in the long shot because they couldn't afford numerous camera set-ups. Among my favorite would be Eros's explanation of Solaranite in Plan Nine from Outer Space. That's a long shot that could have been a helluva lot shorter... And finally I like the omelet preparation scene at the end of Big Night. Because we see such a simple, everyday event of life (making a breakfast) happen in its entirety it elevates the final moments of the film for me, giving it a sense of reality that approaches the ideas of "Pure Cinema" that Bazin discussed (as elaborated on by Girish in his piece)."
Michael Dempsey exhumes two faves: "The lengthy craning-tracking-panning shot in The Molly Maguires (directed by Martin Ritt, photographed by James Wong Howe) along elaborate, rickety-looking coal-mining structures that culminates with a slow movement toward the dark maw of a subterranean pit, from which an explosion at last erupts. This image is brilliant and thrilling for how it generates epic resonance as well as suspense... And the shot in "Barry Lyndon" (directed by Stanley Kubrick, photographed by John Alcott) that begins by tracking along an ornate porch in a Marienbad-like 18th Century manor past Barry (Ryan O'Neal), who is sure that he has lost all his illusions about love at this point. As the film's narrator (Michael Hordern) heralds the arrival of Barry's future wife (Marisa Berenson), slowly escorting her wheelchair-bound husband and her young son, and then details her lineage as well as her wealth, the still-moving camera gradually closes in on the group across an ornate lawn, shifting from long to medium shot, and follows the sad woman, the sick old man, and the devoted boy; in the meantime, the narrator intones (note the resonance that he imparts to the phrase "the Countess of Lyndon"). The camera's seemingly inexorable movements and focal changes in this image and how everything interacts with the stark dryness of the narrator's voice and words generate the most concise and emotional visualization of Fate that I have ever encountered."
Ernesto Diezmartinez: "Not a long shot but some lengthy shots in the begining of The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950), when Gregory Peck is in the saloon talking to Karl Malden. A small film, a neglected filmmaker, and a famous moustache..."
tb: "The last shot of Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand is both one of my favorite long shots and one of my favorite endings to a movie ever. And I also heartily endorse that "Molly Maguires" shot cited by Michael Dempsey."
Chet Mellema: "Two Michael Hanake shots immediately come to mind. The first is the unforgettable scene in Funny Games when the four leads are in the living room area of the cabin when the husband is shot and the violence is taken up a notch. Hanake's refusal to turn away from the actors is literally suffocating. The second is the penultimate shot in Cache when we witness the young Majid being taken away in the car... The omnipresent guilt we've felt throughout the film to that point is finally realized. Also, Roy Andersson's Songs From The Second Floor. Every scene is a static lengthy single take. The camera actually does move once in the film, but otherwise it's locked down..."
David Lowery: "Always a worthy topic! I'm obsessed with long takes, particularly in the recent Pan Asian stylings of Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I wrote a short essay on this particular cinematic trope for the Contemplative Cinema Blogathon back in January." The piece, entitled "A Child's History Of Long Takes," can be read here: www.road-dog-productions.com/cgi-bin/2007/01/a_childs_histor.html.
Paul Duane: "I'll go for a favourite moment from a half-brilliant movie, Preston Sturges's The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. In the opening scene, Diddlebock is summarily dismissed from the clerk's job he's occupied for twenty years, and before he leaves the office, he takes the luminous Frances Ramsden (the future Mrs Sturges) aside to tell her, very circuitously, that he loves her – but as he's loved and lost each of her many, many sisters in the same office over the previous two decades, this doesn't come as a great surprise to her. It's a gloriously written scene, and Sturges' decision to let it play as a lengthy 2-shot, cutting only to a slightly tighter 2-shot towards the end, speaks of a confidence in words, actors and acting, that I would love to see more of in Hollywood comedy."
John: "The final shot of Lucretia Martel's the Holy Girl probably lasts no longer than 45 seconds, but its serene observation of its two adolescent girls reestablishing harmony makes for one of the gentlest endings I've ever seen."
Robert Keser: "Anyone alive to the pure interplay of time, space and movement must treasure Kiarostami’s sublime long take (in Five) of ducks parading in orderly single file across the screen from left to right, until an offscreen disturbance changes everything, making the column pivot and march back in the reverse direction but with renewed urgency, bringing a curiously transcendent closure to the sequence. For traveling shots, there’s In Harm’s Way with Preminger’s thrillingly dynamic track alongside John Wayne and Burgess Meredith as they disembark at a pier, stride across the terrain, enter a quonset hut headquarters, and then emerge back into daylight again, all with nary a pause nor a camera adjustment nor so much as a single cut."
Brandon Harris: "Although I'm hard pressed to name an all time favorite, the most effecting long take I've seen recently is the Saddam Hussein execution. In the realm of cinema, two 360-degree pans come to mind – a stunning black revolutionary encampment shot in Godard's Rolling Stones experiemental doc Sympathy For The Devil and the central shot in Reygadas's Battle In Heaven."
By central, do we mean the mid-coital journey out the window?
Mark Asch: "The drinking game in Tian Zhuangzhuang's Springtime in a Small Town remake is beautifully, subtly lit, drifts gracefully, and is very attentive to the continually shifting relationships between the characters involved. It was shot, unsurprisingly, by Mark Li Ping-bing, which seems as good cause as any for me to mention my surprise that nobody has yet invoked Hou – it'd be difficult to find a shot in Flowers of Shanghai, Millennium Mambo, Cafe Lumiere, or Three Times that doesn't fit the bill. (I'll take the pool scenes from A Time for Love.) Staying in that stylistic family tree, out of all Jia Zhangke's long takes, I'm partial to the opening shot of The World ("Does anybody have a band-aid?"). How about the Short Long Take, which is a kind of brief single-take scene I've just invented as a category so that I can bring into this discussion the thirty-or-so-second scene in Rebels of the Neon God in which Lee Kang-Sheng rollerskates to, sweartogod, New Edition? Anyway. If I was a better critic, I'd try to dig up Robin Wood's extraordinarily deep close read of Ingrid Bergman's crescendoing expository monologue in Under Capricorn, which is very good about the aesthetic, narrative and (inevitably given the author) sociopolitical implications of the framing, blocking, etc., which might be an interesting place to go once we're awakened from our rapture..."
You mean A Time to Live, a Time to Die?
Peter Nellhaus: "There is an amazing long, travelling shot in the film Who's Camus Anyhow. Also, I recently saw Johnny To's Breaking News, which has an amazing seven minute shot that goes back and forth, up and around."
John M.: "My hunch is that only a few directors – and most are mentioned here – shoot ONLY single-setup master takes with no coverage. (Meaning the entire scene is covered from one angle, with no options, not even wide ones.) Edward Yang immediately comes to mind, maybe because I watched Yi Yi last night. I doubt many directors in the Hollywood studio system have been allowed to shoot in this fashion – Wyler, Keaton, and Welles? Yang, though, among contemporary filmmakers, feels awfully close to a traditionally Bazinian ideal. Hou shoots wide frames (with a longer lens), as well, though he's branching into something a bit looser, less concerened with dramatic unity – he's taking Bazin to the extreme, trying to capture the rhythms of life in as unobtrusive (and effortless) a fashion as possible. He's going for something that feels (to me) almost purely organic. Would you call Hou a formalist? I guess you could – but he doesn't feel as deliberate as that term might indicate – he's not calling attention to the form, is he? With Hou (and Yang), we're not necessarily meant to question the frame (as we often are in Godard, or Kiarostami, or Antonioni), or our place in this world – the borders are not a prominent issue. And we're not asked to search within the frame, as we might be with Tati or Kiarostami or Tsai – our attention's usually quite focused (hence the long lenses). We're simply invited to see...."
I'm straying a bit, but some kind of Sarris-style taxonomy might be in order. (Of course, the more categories, the more fruitless-seeming the endeavor – especially since someone's probably already tried this.) Here's how I see it: FIXED-POINT CLASSICAL MASTER TAKES – a style that suggests options, covering an entire scene from one angle. Wide framing, often encompassing all players from a scene. Used specifically within classically structured films, and is the PREFERRED VISUAL APPROACH OF THE DIRECTOR; i.e., if they can keep it wide, they will. Wyler, Welles, Renoir, Sturges, Keaton, etc. Recent sometime purveyors: Yang, Pakula, Farrelly Brothers, Kubrick."
Farrelly Brothers? John, maybe continue – the destiny of your point seems far-off and hard to suss, and I don’t see the necessary relationship between master shots and the long take, which could be and has been used every which way.
David: "Beyond every Preminger, Ophuls, and Jancso scene, and my own favorite, the Gun Crazy heist, two under-sung examples: a long tracking/traffic shot in Akerman's From the Other Side, as dusk falls, and the grungy rural highway becomes a mass of little lights against a rusty-red sky. And a much-hated scene in Out 1 in which a family sits in the living room as one guy drones out about ethnographic studies, and the family (if I'm remembering this correctly) pretends to listen; meanwhile a pet (a dog, I believe) and a baby, completely unaware of the scene's pretense, notice the camera and crew. It's that sort of documentary revelation that strips away, Brecht-like (but without any gimmicks), whatever artifice is there. And is really entertaining."
David Ng!: "How about the virtuoso tracking shot that opens Michael Haneke's Code Unknown? A busy Parisian boulevard, a frazzled Juliette Binoche, racial tension about to explode. On the French DVD (released by MK2), Haneke does a complete scene analysis (in his native German with French subtitles only – though the movie does have English subtitles.)"
Josh: "Just wanted to mention the enthralling last shot of Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees, which will hopefully be available on R1 DVD some day. (Thanks, Miramax!) And that seemingly endless point-of-view shot of Pedro running to save his wounded partner in Alex Cox's underseen Highway Patrolman."
Iranianmovies.com sells so-so copies of Through the Olive Trees at bargain prices.
The more movies you see, the deeper into the aesthetic issues of cinematic eloquence you plunge, the more likely you are to come around to see the long shot – tracking or otherwise – as a kind of ur-cinema, a fundamental, uniquely filmic and matchlessly expressive and experiential movie manifestation no cataract of fast cuts, Avid foofaraw, montage theories and digital pyrotechnics can encroach upon. Casual filmgoers rarely understand when the serious filmhead waxes rhapsodic about a long traveling shot – the assumption is that our awe is derived from noting the degree of difficulty and the production skill employed, two matters which most movie viewers correctly assume are beside the point of their viewing experience. Of course, the assumption makes an ass and an umption out of everyone; note the calisthenics though we may, what we are truly transfixed by is the quintessentially cinematic experience of time, space, action, depth, drama and contemplation that occurs naturally like alcohol in a long shot’s fermentative process. Long shots can evoke and present an entire four-dimensional world, not just a commanded, puzzle-piece fraction of it. This is not a new sense of things, God knows, but given the way most Hollywood films are made today, it’s still an aesthetic idea that has yet to bust out into the popular consciousness.
Maybe we should initiate, you and I, a cinephiles’ Long Take Hall of Fame – we all have our favorites, beyond the celebrated examples (Murnau’s marsh walk in Sunrise, Welles’ bordertown swoon in Touch of Evil, Kalatosov’s street funeral in I Am Cuba, Godard’s traffic jam in Week End, Antonioni’s summary courtyard circle in The Passenger, Scorsese’s Copacabana hustle in GoodFellas, Sokurov’s Winter Palace tour in Russian Ark, etc.). Any consideration would land soon enough before the busts of Mizoguchi, Jancso, Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos and Tarr, but what about the long shots we’ve forgotten about, or never heard praised? How about the astonishing seven-minute climactic motel-room faceoff between a concussioned Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue in John Farrow’s Where Danger Lives (1948)? The Balint Kenyeres one-shot short Before Dawn (2005)? The diner scene in Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973)? The ultimate patient shot, climaxing with a peacock finally unfolding its tail for the camera, in Gu Changwei’s Peacock (2005)?
Let’s say this: no digital suturing allowed. I’ll be happy to quote-post comments, so show your passion.
I’d like to use The Bourne Ultimatum as a stick with which to beat modern American movies – which may not be completely fair to Paul Greengrass’s movie, mildly mature and refreshingly nitty-gritty summer-actioner that it is. But there’s something wrong on display here, something essentially amiss with the basic syntax of contemporary moviemaking as it has evolved in Hollywood – and, yes, I’m talking about camera style, which in this case (as in The Bourne Supremacy and countless other new films) suggests nothing so much as what a movie would look like if it were shot from inside of a high-speed clothes dryer. Forget the valid but easily dismissible old-fogey naysay about the handheld shaky-cam effect being simply irritating – it is, to the extent that I and everyone I know had to look away from the screen occasionally, so as to avoid motion sickness or migraine. No, let’s just consider this extremely popular movie as an act of visual storytelling – the yardstick by which most of film culture’s great old lions (Renoir, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Ford, Welles, Keaton, etc.) gained their eminence. Any five-minute hunk of Greengrass’s film would serve as an illustration: storytelling – clarity, eloquence, rigor, substance – is an irrelevancy in this movie world. You watch, but the camera smooshes are so constant and extreme you can’t focus on anything at all, much less follow an action narrative visually. You’re just looking at white noise, and listening to pounding quasi-African music, waiting for the filmmaking to settle down after many minutes of tumult to inform you where you are, and what had just happened. It’s not exciting in itself – we’d have to see it for that to occur. What it seems to be as a simulacrum of cinematic excitement – a faked impression of chaos, designed to make us feel the action rather than experience it on our own as observers. It’s a feint, a magician’s diverting maneuver – not even the trick itself. America might love this, but as movielover I cannot tolerate being made to feel anything. This is Spielberg’s legacy, after many a fashion, a fascist-style agenda that intends only to dictate to the viewer what his or her experience will be, shot by shot, smudge by smudge.
It goes without saying that this is the exact antithesis of the storytelling mise-en-scene that made the great filmmakers great (one cannot imagine any filmmaker, even Spielberg, be revered in years hence for this smash-&-shove brand of cinema, and Greengrass will surely only be remembered for his much more astute and patient docudramas). The old argument used to be montage vs. mise-en-scene, Eisenstein vs. Murnau, a combat that Murnau and his many sons and daughters had decidedly won, in the heads of attentive cinephiles if not in the kill-a-Saturday-night market at large. But now the fight seems to have evolved into visceral effect (Eisensteinian montage included, plus the new digital-editing achievements, plus whatever) vs. visual experience (meaning, having the experience of seeing things actually happen) – the difference between spinning in circles and falling down, and skiing down an unknown mountain. One is childish distraction, the other, potentially, transformative and substantive and profound. Cinema, even popular cinema, is not, I dare pontificate, indistinct chaos and high-speed blurriness, but the pleasure of actually seeing, say, Buster Keaton ride a motorcycle’s handle bars across a speeding train’s path, or Anna Karina dance the Madison, or Joey Wong sail through the fake HK air, or Clive Owen hustling through a war-torn city block and up multiple flights of stairs, following a baby’s cry. Or, insert your own favorite.
Another thunder lizard falls – over a half-century after what has come to be known as "the art film" emerged onto postwar American screens, the Greatest Generation (semi-irony siren, please) takes another hit with the passing of an 89-year-old Ingmar Bergman, at once a dinosaur, a one-man New Wave, a mammoth formal influence, a pioneering pop existentialist, a despot in his own nation of cinematic currency, an unexploitable navel-focused artiste who did not bow to the world’s entertainment will but instead made it bow to him, an unestimable provider of cultural fuel to the rise of college-educated counter culture between 1959 and 1980, and, let’s face it, an astonishingly adventurous sensibility that embraced virtually every stripe of expression available to him, from melodrama to the world’s most overt symbolism to gritty realism to epic pageant, farce and avant-garde psycho-obscurism.
Still, he hasn’t been missed much – today, of the Art Film era uber-auteurs, Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa and Bunuel remain potent currency in one form or another (new work, old scripts, reissues, docs, tributes, etc.), but Bergman seems to have faded dramatically from view. Clearly now, the respect he received was always on the verge of dissolving into contempt; going back as far as the 1968 short De Duva, things "Bergmanesque" – bald-faced psychological symbology, brooding seriousness, spiritual crisis, Scanda-angst – have been remarkable grist for farce. (Saturday Night Live, Second City TV and Johnny Carson all had their sport back in the day, and there’s no counting the Bergman citations in the history of The Simpsons.) For people who never cared to know from imported cinema, Bergman represented the self-aggrandizing absurdity of Euro-film, even more so, remarkably, than Fellini – perhaps because Federico’s excesses exuded a carnivalesque pandering toward the eternal low-brow. Bergman always aimed high and deep, philosophical and God-searching and proto-Freudian, and his doggedly literal questions were more vital to him and his devoted audience than Yankee ideas of showmanhip. His only competition for Bullgoose Depressive was Antonioni, but Antonioni had the advantage of modern Mediterraneanism, cool-hip visuals and urbane desolation. Bergman had only the dayless winters, the Svealand plains and a seemingly neverending supply of Protestant guilt. Today, we are aswarm with Antonioni imitators, but no one seems to want to be the new Bergman.
So, as much as the grim Swede may have seemed in his meridian to be an indomitable voice, his pantheon status has been as fragile as an eggshell. In today’s cultural market, he’s been a nowhere man. Still, as cinephiles with memories know, fashion will not win in the end, and Bergman, a classical giant with modernist ordnance, will eventually reemerge as essential for all ages. Whereas the iconic dream symbolism of Wild Strawberries, Sawdust and Tinsel, The Seventh Seal, The Magician, The Devil’s Eye and Hour of the Wolf can still curdle, and those films remain powerful and fascinating despite, not because of, their famously distinctive Bergmanesqueries, Through a Glass Darkly strikes a dazzling balance between familial psychodrama and spiritual upheaval, The Silence is almost a piece of Soviet science fiction, and Persona remains a masterful layer cake of psycho-diegetic pastry, vulnerable to dozens of readings and satisfying none (though it still seems to me to be a pas de deux between the psychiatric patient-filmmaker, craving connection and vomiting his secrets into the abyss, and the therapist-audience, who sits silently and judgmentally and gives nothing back). Shame is a blistering, world-beating, non-specific portrait of domestic warfare that didn’t need Death on the beach or handless clocks. If Cries and Whispers seemed Bergman redux (and amped up with self-mutilation and unsettlingly gorgeous color cinematography), then Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and Autumn Sonata resound still with determination to squeeze every drop of blood from broken hearts. Fanny & Alexander, of course, is exactly the kind of rich, timeless, cautionless magnum opus we can only receive, like benedictions, from artists who’ve paid their generation’s dues of sweat, risk, tears and honesty (the film’s iconography, from household spaces made menacing to ghosts and suggestions of God himself, virtually catalogues Bergman’s ‘50s-‘60s filmography). The earlier films are perfectly appointed genre dramas; the latter, indulgent self-examinations (that goes for the last, family-biographical screenplays, too). But nowhere, not even in the gradually reevaluated The Serpent’s Egg, is there a lazy, unambitious or unoriginal directorial moment. It doesn’t happen every day that we lose one of an entire art form’s aboriginal movers. When will he reenter the pantheon?
Again I must, against my natural instincts, join with the roaring crowd, this time about Once, John Carney’s tiny, modest little-Irish-movie-that-could, which thoroughly bewitched me with its simplicity, its grown-up assumptions about adult behavior and history, and most of all the music, which had a sincere, keening urgency to it that I’d never encountered in a musical before, or even rarely on Fordham’s WFUV. It may be a film that’s impossible to dislike, despite the fact that it’s formally and visually the cruddiest movie released to American screens since Chuck & Buck. But as with Miguel Arteta’s film, it hardly mattered – the honest glimpse of lost humanity did the work. It’s also, for what it’s worth, a perfect answer to what-happened-to-the-musical: instead of attempting to reconstitute the naive tropes of the 30s-60s musicals, tropes which were themselves leftover constructions from vaudeville, Once integrates the songs into the action realistically, not only with the timeworn-but-sensible let’s-put-on-a-show numbers, but also otherwise – as with the exquisite long travelling shot of costar Marketa Irglova, playing a down-trodden version of herself, walks home through Dublin at night listening to a song by her new friend (Glen Hansard, also a sorry version of himself) on earphones and singing her own lyrics to it as she goes.
You pick the film apart if you like, but it seems clear, even objectively, that the raging bulk of the film’s sympathy and modesty far outweighs filmmaking particulars or even a distaste for weeping folk songs. But, on the other hand, am I responding to the film or the music? Is there a difference? Without those songs, with some other singer-songwriter’s songs, Once might’ve been a forgettable ditty – but can’t we say the same thing for a Isabelle Huppert performance, a Vittorio Storaro camera job, or an Ennio Morricone score? Actually, I suspect that I might not have cottoned to Hansard and Irglova’s songs at all had I heard them independently, sans the film’s context and the stars’ terribly likable, endearingly sad on-screen personas. The movie may be song-dependent, but the mesh of a movie’s experience comes in a vast variety of densities and textures and fibrous ingredients. Why would the songs of a musical be not, as they say, essentially cinematic? I had the experience, and I’d rather not be a piker and tear it up.
Another experience I’ve had, barreling through the upcoming DVDs: Balint Kenyeres’s "Before Dawn," a 13-minute Hungarian short featured on the due-in-September Cinema 16 set European Short Films. Call it a stunt if you like, but Kenyeres performs a Kalatozov/Jancso/Tarkovsky/Angelopoulos/Tarr/Sokurov triumph in surveying the pre-sunrise events in a grassy Magyar valley, trucks and refugees and police and helicopters and hidden surprises, all in one stupefying 35mm shot. A beautiful balls-of-your-feet immersion in real time, the film is, of course, like the features of the long-shot mentors mentioned above, also about our viewing anticipations and desires, a questioning of our usual viewership omniscience (and, frankly, laziness). You come to know that valley as you know few filmed locations, and in under a quarter-hour. The DVD set has 16 shorts altogether, ranging from the fabulous to the pleasantly gimmicky. But Kenyeres’s stood out like a peacock.
In other news: my review of No End in Sight in this month’s In These Times.
Though it may be uncouth to do in Blogistan, I’ve pasted in below this comment to an earlier entry of mine because it offers that rare opportunity to bitch-slap the historically illiterate logic that often enough fuels neo-conservatism in this country (at least, the neo-con-ism of the unpowerful, who need rationalizations that politicians and CEOs generally do not). First, from Josh, verbatim:
"When your country is attacked there can be no such thing as an ‘anti-war’ movement. Protesters against America's war on terror, are not peaceniks, they are America-haters and saboteurs, and they should be treated as such. Mike Atkinson is what I call a traitor of the heart, someone who shares with Osama Bin Laden the belief that America is the Great Satan and who would aid and abet any enemy, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein — it really doesn't matter — before he would embrace his own country and its defense. This is the creed of the sick Fifth Column in this country, whose base is the pc university and whose intellectual gurus are Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. To call these wretched people Benedict Arnolds would be an insult to a man who did betray his country but did so, at least, in behalf of a tolerant democracy. These post-modern traitors do it in behalf of murderers and fanatics, do it in behalf of nothing more, really, than a blind, fanatical hate, which is really a self-hate.
"Let us respect their right to express themselves, but let us not make the mistake of respecting them.
"Progressives killed 100 million people in the 20th Century, in peacetime; the societies they constructed created poverty on unimaginable scale; their economic systems didn't work. Has any of this caused them a second thought? Or look at the current war to overthrow a monster in Iraq and give ordinary Iraqis the freedom to vote. So-called Progressives have done everything they could to save Saddam's bacon and prevent Iraqis from achieving even minimal freedoms. The same people who used to get enraged when the United States supported dictators are now attacking Bush for overthrowing one. Why? Because in their melodrama America is the global oppressor, the Great Satan, and therefore, can never do anything right. That's why one can only understand Progressivism as a religion."
It takes your breath away. Of course, I might be of exactly the same opinion if in fact I were completely, absurdly ignorant of the fact that (a) Iraq never attacked the U.S.; (b) progressives didn’t kill 100 million people, totalitarian dictators did; (c) as any Russian or Ukrainian or Belorussian can tell you, the poverty created by post-USSR capitalism is markedly worse than that during the Republic’s day, and neither are nearly as crushing as the poverty that neoliberal economic policies have inflicted on huge populations in South America, Central America, Africa and South Asia; (d) as far as is known, progressives haven’t killed any Iraqi civilians, but military force and years of U.S. government sanctions and bombings have murdered around 2 million of them (maybe 60% of them would’ve been happy voters; the rest were just children); (e) Saddam, it’s hard to believe needs reiteration at this point, was a U.S.-supported dictator, and his largest body counts, years before the invasion, were enabled by U.S. tax dollars and blessed by the U.S. government; (f) Benedict Arnold was treasonous out of greed and spite, hardly out of misguided democratic fervor. Not hard-to-find info.
But of course it’s likely that no number of hard facts – like numbers, of bodies – would detour this kind of driverless train once it’s moving, which is why, inevitably, declarations about "hate" are bandied about by our Republican politicians and their sheep. You don’t have to support "hate" or an accusation of such with evidence; you just feel it and, well, hate it. But "hate" – and that goes for "self-hate" – is an emotion, and I don’t remember allowing Josh or Charles Krauthammer or any other seething moron access to my alpha waves lately, however touching it is that they’d care to speculate on them. This is someone's idea of responsible citizenship and political analysis — "hate"? It’d be better, generally, if we all just did the math, attended to state actions, and followed the money, rather than surmise that we know or could even guess about others’ feelings. I have no clue as to Josh’s state of mind, and I don’t want to know. Perhaps he finds my conclusions irrational, as opposed to his own, and so therefore they can only be motivated by "hate" – but all I’m doing is counting, and exercising my healthy suspicion of authority, and not confusing my country or its people with whatever goldbrickers happen to occupy the Hill at the moment. It’s the least we should all do.
First, repeating/expanding something from the Comment pit – a reader was inquiring about one of many TCM-broadcast hieroglyphs, W.S. Van Dyke’s Eskimo (1933), which he deemed extraordinary, and about which I could only find one mention, brief as could be, in Paul Rotha’s 1949 revision of The Film Till Now, where he described it as "a synthetic Nanook." Nanook was, it would seem, synthetic enough (though not recognized widely as such in the ‘40s), but Eskimo remains, for those of us now waiting for it to reappear on TCM’s celestial rotation of lost solar systems, a phantom body. If anyone has any info on it, feel free to feed the chipper.
Second, I’m delighted, because I did not have the opportunity professionally, to comment on Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. I’ve been a Bongiste since 2000's Barking Dogs Never Bite, but there was something about the universal celebration of The Host that gave me cause to worry about an effort at Hollywoodization – all those digitals, all those monster-movie reflexes, all those goddamn-good-monster-movie accolades from commonly clueless critics. Did Bong simply please the entirety of the South Korean citizenry (over $68 million in b.o.) with a Roland Emmerich cloning? The commonly clueful critics loved the movie, too, of course, and it turns out that everyone, including South Korea, was right, just as it turns out that American audiences, forking over only around $2.5 mil for tickets, proved once again so close-minded, so terrified of change afflicting their Happy Meals, so thoroughly indoctrinated to a certain narrow spectrum of formulized entertainment beats and rhythms, that what might simply be the best and most imaginatively executed pulp movie in years has passed them by.
What’s different – or shall we say, unAmerican – about The Host is specifically what makes it Bongian, and spectacularly entertaining: the scent of narrative risk; the nutso tenor of the social satire, which as always with Bong can spike and nova in the middle of a serious scene so suddenly you’re left rubbing your eyes in shock; the beautiful unpredictability of the screenplay story; the explosion of Korean emotional blitzkrieg in uncomfortable places and often to discomfiting degrees; the weird and possibly unquantifiable attainment of genuine pathos amid a torrent of goofiness, grue and farcical hyperbole. How does Bong do it? – the screaming brawl in front of the lost girl’s memorial photo, the layering in a classical-style etude over the climactic chase-with-Molotovs, the breathcatcher when the film’s dysfunctional family pauses in their monster-hunt to eat pilfered food, and the little girl they’re looking for – or, we understand in the next scene, their imagining of her – walks up and lets them calmly feed her.
It’s that ludicrous, idiotic, neurotic family, of course, that provides the film with its structure, and represents exactly the kind of screenplay thinking no American studio would allow within a square kilometer of an expensively digitized movie monster. But despite their cartoonishness they acquire, somehow, between the lines, an iconic resonance. This may partly derive from Bong's principle of allowing for the possibilities and likelihoods of off-screen action and event; at least 30% of The Host happens outside of our perspective, and any lover of Asian art film (Ozu to Hou, Tsai and Hong Sang-soo) is intimate with the power and almost cosmic empathy that kind of filmmaking can create. Usually, it’s not accompanied by mutant snakehead-fish behemoths. Bong’s film is a goddamn wonder, and I didn’t even touch on its helter-skelter satiric assassination of Korean and American governmental response to disasters, which is virtually Chomskiian in its unblinking portrait of kneejerk crisis-exploitation and public poisoning. Whew.
For a definitive examination of "The Bong Show," pre-Host, see Ed Park's essay featured in my upcoming book from SUNY Press, Exile Cinema: Filmmakers At Work Beyond Hollywood, coming in '08.
Thanks to my late father-in-law, I have a mountain of VHS recordings from TCM, now piled in a separate corner away from the already excessive "library" of video’d films I’ve amassed on my own over more than a decade of film reviewing and home-video reportage. It’s a blessing, of course, but also a cautionary tale to cinephiles: when do you stop acquiring? How many films can you see, and then see again (the only reason to own, right?)? Guy Maddin once bemoaned to me his acquisitive achievements after a gracious run through The Criterion Collection’s freebie closet: "How much life do I have left?" My father-in-law saw only a fraction of the films he so conscientiously recorded and indexed, well into his ‘70s, and crating them up and moving them all (alright, not all – I left hundreds for his widow, not my wife’s mother, to toss in the trash), along with all of his books (many of which he could not have read, either), has been chastening. They remain boxed and stacked in my house, hundreds of pounds of raw recrimination. I no longer record off of cable (my area only recently got TCM in any case), I no longer buy DVDs, and am very stingy about buying books (whereas I used to be a slut). I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see and read everything I already have.
But I’ve recently begun to dip into my father-in-law’s collection, finally seeing William Dieterle’s hauntingly sad The Last Flight (1931), some 30 years after reading about it in a piece by Tom Shales in an AFI book I stole as a kid and still have, The American Film Heritage, and also seizing the chance to watch Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1959), not because it was in fact much worth watching on its own, but to answer a recent controversy about "the tracking shot in Kapo," a single camera movement deemed revolting and amoral by Cahiers du cinema critic Jacques Rivette (the filmmaker, he opined, "was worthy of the most profound contempt."), and made famous in an anthemic essay by critic Serge Daney, who hadn’t even seen Kapo but only read Rivette, which for him was enough. As it should be for us all. But who has seen Kapo since? Not many of us; why would we need to, when we have Rivette? But in the June ‘07 issue of Sight & Sound a Swede named Jan Aghed slammed into the estimable Jonathan Romney and his discussion of Daney et al., claiming that Rivette has misremembered the shot, which doesn’t in fact exist. Well, I’ve seen it, and it does: about 75 minutes in, the camera catches a shot woman falling onto barbed wire and nudges forward just a smidge to reframe her figure, just as Rivette had said. It’s not a long tracking shot, just a lurch, really, but it is nevertheless just as Rivette had described it. Our faith in Rivette, Daney and Romney can continue unshaken.
Also pulled from the pile: Lewis Milestone’s Edge of Darkness (1943), a bald-faced propaganda piece about a small Norweigan town (filled with American actors) covertly resisting Nazi occupation, that, largely thanks to a screenplay by Robert Rossen, fairly seethes with a sense of tense, robust community. It’s a quality Renoir perfected and which old Hollywood was often good at (Ford, Capra, Hawks, Borzage, Sturges, etc.), and here, in a stunning 8+-minute scene in a crowded Protestant church in which more than a dozen characters debate their future – rise up or bide time? – while they’re ostensibly attending service, the movie takes on bewitching breadth and depth, in a way that is uniquely cinematic. Even polished hero Errol Flynn is merely a mediating figure in a thick, thoughtful crowd, including laissez-faire doctor Walter Huston, his rebel daughter Ann Sheridan, hardline innkeeper Judith Anderson, pacifist pastor Richard Fraser, bookish codger Morris Carnovsky, testy farmer Art Smith, etc., each given time and room to act and react and contemplate moral relativities. The bullnosed flag-waving ("If there’s anyone who doubts why this war is being fought, look to Norway!" the coda narration bellows) and even outright Wagner soundtrack thefts notwithstanding, it’s a disarmingly rich experience, not just another Flynn rabble-rouser, a studio subgenre that has traditionally garnered only disrespect.
What's au courant: in The Boston Phoenix, my review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and a survey of the Boston French Film Festival.
In the haughtily 'Net-stingy Modern Painters, an article on greenscreen cinema, including David Lee Fisher's fascinating remake/"remix" of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005). And, in GOOD Magazine, a summary intro to the prickly, masterful career of beloved (by me) outcast Peter Watkins.
Imperialist dudgeon comes easy these days – nursing a nauseous ire over the abject crimes of the Bush administration in 2007 is not unlike finally cursing a Biblical flood in its 39th day and night. As of this week, we have only a minor but infuriatingly frank example (Bush commanding his ex-staffers to defy Congressional subpoenas) of the brand of lawless megalomania that has its lockjaw on our nation’s systems and resources, finally exposed to daylight after remaining at least partially hidden for the best part of seven presidencies. But it’s all been said, right?, many times and by waggier tongues than mine.
Not really, and Charles Ferguson’s new film No End in Sight exemplifies what’s missing from the public equation: a sense of justice, a conviction that men who lie and thereby kill, maim and destroy on a federal, governmental level should be held accountable in, at minimum, the same manner in which such a criminal would on a personal, social level. Kings and czars have had their heads on pikes for as much, and rightly so. The Hague operates on this dictum, and every nation in the world respects its process except us. Ferguson’s film, however righteous and furious accusatory toward Cheney & Co. (Bush is regarded largely as an idiot prince, a 2000 sense of things that nothing in seven years and perhaps more than 110K dead has done to obviate), ends up pulling a Nixon-era cop-out – no one’s really responsible for the dead civilians and wasted landscape, culpability isn’t discussed, so let’s just argue about Bush’s moronic mantra of "victory" and whether it’s smart or not to pull out now or later. It’s not usurious homicide that’s in question, but just hubris and incompetence. It’s 1972 all over again, echoing another costly, horrific nation-rape that began with Presidential lies, and one would’ve thought that just a few years later and for decades to come, we would’ve learned our lesson. (The Reagan administration sure did, running all of their nightmarish Central American offensives underground, a policy shift JFK didn’t need to choose and which at least Noam Chomsky credits for killing substantially fewer people than if the Reagan chieftans, Cheney and Bush I among them, had been allowed by public opinion to just invade and napalm the subcontinent into dust.)
But we haven’t learned a thing – go to yesterday’s or tomorrow’s New York Times or Washington Post or NPR or CNN, and all you’ll hear is debate about what to do next, what’s the best strategy, what’s the best timetable. These are discussions that must happen, but they’re also absolutely ubiquitous because no one wishes to or is willing to say what should be said first: that the men responsible have to hang. I mean literally, like Joachim von Ribbentrop at Nuremberg.
It’s an unsayable, I realize, and the fact that it is – that you can’t publish a word in America about prosecuting and executing, or at least imprisoning, the standing President for easily demonstrable crimes against humanity, while Manuel Noriega, for instance, still sits in a Florida prison, and unstatistic-ized millions sit in corporate-run prisons because pot was found in their pockets, and nameless, numberless nobodies sit in Gitmo awaiting the government to gather its nerve with an actual criminal charge – is all the empirical indication you need that we’re hardly living in a functional democracy, and that the Bush administration has achieved what it’s achieved by dint of the collusion of all the mainstream media, of political scientists and scholars of all levels, of you and me and every taxpayer. So, perhaps that’s the secret reason why the imperative beheading of Dick Cheney et al. is cognitia non grata – we’ve all blood on our hands, snearing at the bumper magnets on our way to dinner and more entertaining lines of thought.
So, here is my inaugural blog-gout, sent spraying into an abyss already crowded with free-falling voices, yowling and yelping (in too often incomplete sentences and reckless and subliterate opinionation) for a readership that may not, probably won’t, often shouldn’t, come. Several years too late, I come yelping myself into the void because whereas I was for over a decade a diligent weekly writer for a single publication (The Village Voice), and already enjoyed a regular forum and was paid for it, too, now I am, octopus-like, writing in scores of different venues and forms, and suddenly see the helpfulness of a blog to help me pull it all together, and to coordinate the tendrils not only in terms of craft but also concept and exposure. Suddenly, I’m all over the map, writing for up to a dozen publications semi-regularly (in various cities and countries), writing and publishing several books (and kinds of books) at once, and venturing further than I already have into the mysterious bowels of television and feature writing. Zero for Conduct, then, will be my home base, for all intents and purposes.
So much for exposition; here’s the state of my head in regards to cinema, right now. I’m equally stunned by Edward Yang’s death and Werner Herzog’s autumnal triumph in semi-wide release. I’m a recent convert to Helmut Kautner, and away from Dusan Makavejev. 1408 is a lusciously anxious dream film the Surrealists would’ve lunched on; Ratatouille is nearly as rich in heebie-jeebies (the absence of laughter may’ve had something to do with the visions of scuttling vermin, surely igniting an ancient dread in our tribal brain). Stranger than Fiction, Missing Victor Pellerin and Isolation, all caught up with on DVD, were several times more humdingery than I’d been led to believe. The new Criterion box of Teshigahara will, I hope, awaken American cinephiles to the tempestuous-yet-analytical gloriousness of Pitfall (1962), unreleased here but surely that year’s greatest directorial debut (which inches out, arguably, Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, also newly Criterionized).
Out of the 14 films I saw in covering the Boston French Film Festival for The Boston Phoenix, only one authentically dazzled me in my shorts, and I say that in full acknowledgment that the film in question – Bruce Cauvin’s Hotel Harabati – belongs to a burgeoning French subgenre of metaphoric-anxiety thrillers (think Lemming, Cache, La Moustache) that to me begins to fulfill the discomfiting potential of Euro-cinema that has gone largely wasted since the death of Luis Bunuel. So I am predisposed towards its upsetting mysteries, and toward Laurent Lucas, modern cinema’s Joseph K. Contemporary French film otherwise on the whole – and that includes Bruno Dumont’s Flandres – I cannot make much claim for. I’ve seen Isidore Isou’s Lettrist underground classic Venom and Eternity (1950), and thought it horrid – if not in fact a savage send-up of art-movement narcissism. Who can say? La Vie en Rose is such an accomplished biopic in its way that I never want to hear Edith Piaf again. (A Gallic restorative may be in order – Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal again, perhaps, recently DVD’d in that giftable Lionsgate box.) Tony Rayns might be right about Kim Ki-duk, vis a vis The Bow and Time. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has as much punch and existential cause as any fifth-film-in-a-series; meaning, I’d rather see Blondie on a Budget. Rewatching The Fallen Idol recently, this most overlooked of the Team Reed-Korda films seems to me to loom over The Third Man, and therefore, most films of its generation. Having no need to see Transformers or Live Free or Die Hard or Evening, I shall instead visit a Pagnolian dockside cafe in my dreams.