Monday, December 23, 2013

twenty thirteen: the year we made hot chocolate

         Originally the first 10 here were ranked in order of preference, but in the interest of getting less hierarchical in my thinking about movies, I've dropped the numbers. I still haven't seen Museum Hours, Inside Llewyn Davis, Viola, Nebraska, Like Someone in Love, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Night Across the Street, Blue Jasmine, Behind the Candelabra, Stories We Tell, Faust, Stranger by the Lake, the Chinese cut of The Grandmaster (I was not hugely enamored of the Weinsteined cut), The Bling Ring, All the Light in the Sky (Swanberg's growing on me), An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Sun Don't Shine, and probably six others I'm forgetting, so this list is likely to undergo some revision down the line. That there were this many movies I loved/liked/begrudgingly admired without seeing the above bespeaks the richness of the year.

What I Liked:

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski):
         A cosmic comedy disguised as a gimmicky lark that along with the second movie on this list made me as hopeful for the future of independent film as I've ever been. I've written on it already, but a subsequent viewing revealed it to be more tightly structured than I'd thought at first pass, which diminished its moment-to-moment WTF factor (on first viewing it really is an experience of near-constant surprise), but not its thematic richness. It cleverly evokes a hyper-specific milieu and moment in time, but opens generously out to include the present and a sublimely weird future. The difference between it and mumblecore, which its detractors have labeled it as, is that I've never seen a mumblecore movie that made me feel afterward like I'd just a received a warm hug from the Buddha.

The Unspeakable Act (Dan Sallitt):
         I find myself slightly embarrassed by my initial praise for The Unspeakable Act, because I characterized both Sallitt and his primary inspiration, Eric Rohmer, as "literary," which, although I didn't mean it pejoratively, I realized after a recent, long-overdue return to Rohmer couldn't be further from the truth. Sallitt and Rohmer alike are after something that only cinema can do, which so many are afraid to do for fear of being labeled "stagy" or "talky," namely give us strong, precise images of people talking with one another. With the image comes mystery. Jackie (Tallie Medel) verbalizes her bizarre emotional life in intricate detail, yet as shot and performed, she maintains (to lift a phrase from an essay I wrote in college which I probably stole from somewhere else) a threshold of unknowability. You know, like a person.

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel):         ....klugklugklugscreeeeeeeeeeeeechkchkckwshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaamrrrpaaahwoooooooshplunkglogloglogblpblupblupblupchachunkchachunkchachunksplooosh...........................................................................zzzzzzzzzzz.....................rrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaschlipschlipschlipbonnnnnnnnnnnnnghuminahuminaskriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitch........caw......caw.......caw....caw...

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen):
     "[A]n arthouse exploitation gift to masochistic guilty liberals hungry for history lessons, some of whom consider any treatment of American slavery by a black filmmaker to be an unprecedented event, thus overlooking Charles Burnett’s far superior Nightjohn."--Jonathan Rosenbaum
         Maybe it is functioning that way for that particular demographic, some of whom doubtless believe a black filmmaker's never made a movie about slavery before, but what is it doing for the rest of us? How's it working for black audiences? For conservatives? For some white kid like me who considers himself of the Left, but finds the mixture of guilt and sentimentality with which mainstream liberalism often regards American history to be finally insufficient for reckoning with its complexity? I don't feel 12 Years a Slave is a particularly enlightening history lesson, per se, but its attempt to countenance the historical reality of slavery, free of the usual Hollywood adornments and compromises most treatments of the subject on film have been marred by, is tremendously moving and politically substantive, insofar as it doesn't simply present slavery as visceral you-are-there experience, but examines its toll on the psyche of everyone involved, a toll which still resonates across our present political landscape. It's also Steve McQueen's best movie in a walk, I think, because his interest in bodies under duress has found an ideal subject, one whose political implications he can't avoid like he did in the otherwise very impressive Hunger (2008), and whose sheer historical gravity can't brook the overwrought showboating that made Shame (2011) mildly embarrassing. This has led to complaints from one quarter that McQueen the formalist has largely gone into hiding, and complaints from another that when he does appear the results call too much attention to themselves. I generally lean formalist, but after Shame I started getting suspicious about McQueen's particular brand of formalism, which felt there a little too arthouse-gloom-by-numbers, with extended takes that seem to congratulate themselves on their own daring as they unfold. There are still extended shots in 12 Years a Slave, but they don't preen; they're always subordinate to drama and theme. The whipping of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is captured in one mobile take, but the camerawork is so effortlessly in tune with the emotional progress of the scene, and the scene itself so upsetting, that the technique becomes nearly invisible. The lengthy wide shot of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging by his neck from a tree, his feet barely touching the ground, is somewhat more noticeable, but if we recognize the artist our attention is quickly shifted back to what he's showing us, how abject human suffering became just another banal detail of plantation life. As to whether unflinchingly staging and filming acts of brutality ipso facto constitutes exploitation regardless of the intentions or artistry of the filmmaker, it's a dicey, complicated question that deserves to be treated as such. Maybe Burnett's Nightjohn (1996) is the better movie, I wouldn't know, but I'm certain there could not be a wider gulf between 12 Years a Slave and something like Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971).

A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke):
         Speaking of dicey, complicated questions: Is it possible to effectively employ action movie tropes to critique capitalism? Action, after all, is the most lucrative and expensive of cinematic genres, each big-budget spectacle a kind of conspicuous production whereby its country of origin flaunts both its literal and economic firepower. A Touch of Sin features some exquisitely framed "badass" tableaux during its scenes of violence that wouldn't be out of place in a spaghetti western or wu xia. These types of images are old hat in Asian cinema, but there's an initial dissonance in seeing them in a movie by Jia, who for the most part works in a social realist mode, albeit an idiosyncratic social realism that mixes fictional and documentary elements. One can look at it cynically and view this as a commercial compromise on his part, yet it's hardly a sell-out. If anything, what Jia does here is defy most of the pleasures of the genre. There's no one hero combating and eventually triumphing over a concrete foe; instead, we have four central characters who are driven by economic circumstance and/or personal proclivity (one of the four is a genuine psychopath) to acts of desperate violence that do nothing to change the system that helped bring them to that point. Jia doesn't order the stories in terms of escalating spectacle: the story with the most extensive and stylized violence comes first; the last story contains the least violence and ends with a sickening thud. Pretty despairing stuff, and blunt as hell (at one point Jia's wife and longtime onscreen muse Zhao Tao is smacked repeatedly in the face with a wad of cash for what feels like a solid minute), but the sheer breadth of territory Jia covers, not only in terms of geography but also the amount of visual information he packs into his laterally-mobile frames, makes for a frequently exhilarating experience.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach):
          For Greta Gerwig, whose motor functions are totally fascinating. For the enraptured way Noah Baumbach's camera regards her, even when she's peeing off the edge of a subway platform. For the way Adam Driver's hat compliments his Adam's apple. For Baumbach knowing not only which scene to steal from Mauvais Sang (1986), but why he should steal it. For the Truffaut homages being only intermittently annoying. For Hot Chocolate.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine):
         As I've thought about and revisited Spring Breakers since writing a little thingawhatsit on it back in July, my reservations have mostly fallen away, or at least come to seem a little tiny in comparison to the formidable achievement of this psychotropic dupstep deathdream. I don't think it's the Film of My Generation, but Korine has mapped out a new space for artful filmmaking in a part of Gen Y's cultural experience that's largely been relegated to (and partly conjured into being by) music videos, reality TV and internet porn.

The World's End (Edgar Wright):
         Another very enjoyable and sneakily layered comedy from Edgar Wright. Not his most immediately lovable (that would be Shaun of the Dead) or his most inventive (that would be either Hot Fuzz or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, depending on how irritated by aspects of the latter I am on a given day), but by far his most emotionally complex to date, with a resonant melancholy underlying the intricate, rapid-fire gags and exhausting man-on-robot melees.

The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher):
         Nothing else this year confounded me quite like this, a disarmingly whimsical exercise in structuralist filmmaking. Some names pop into mind--Tati, Bresson, Akerman, Haneke, Straub/Huillet--but first-timer Zürcher's style is already wholly distinctive, characterized by an emphasis on gestures and objects over legible character psychology and an extensive use of offscreen space, which have the combined effect of making us experience a series of mostly quotidian events as surreal non-sequiturs.

Bastards (Claire Denis):
         See here. Or, alternately: in a year when everybody from Jia Zhangke to Martin Scorsese (so I hear) to Gore Verbinski (!!) launched broadsides at capitalism, Claire Denis was the nastiest about it, but also the most palpably anguished at how money and the status it confers can enable people to get away with anything. But while it isn't subtle, it also isn't a blunt object; it's mostly sinuous and hushed in the usual Denis mode. And it's another movie this year whose impact would be considerably lessened were it not for Hot Chocolate.

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth):
         I tend to prefer my cinematic visionaries more right-brained than Shane Carruth, who probably has a spreadsheet somewhere in which he's mapped out the significance and visual logic of every moment here with mathematic literalness, but credit where it's due. This is a mesmerizing movie, and one of the more narratively and stylistically adventurous works of cinematic speculative fiction in quite some time.

Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas):
         See here. This semi-autobiographical account of teen radicalism post-'68 is too honest about the movement's blind spots and failures to reignite anybody's revolutionary fervor, but it doesn't quite fall into defeatism or complacency, either. And, being an Assayas joint, it also has the best soundtrack of the year.

Breaking Bad: "Ozymandias" (Rian Johnson):
         In its two-part fifth season, Breaking Bad shifted into a more overtly pulpy register. Walter White having more or less completed his transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, this made a degree of structural sense, but it was still a slight comedown from earlier seasons, which struck me as having a bit more going on psychologically. But its antepenultimate episode reached a pitch of tragic intensity that had few equals on the bigger screen, and which I'd really have to grasp to find a precedent for (Buffy's "The Body," maybe?) in the several TV series I hold nearer and dearer to me than this one.

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet (Alain Resnais):
         For about 20 or 30 minutes this was my favorite movie of the year, but once it settled into the play that makes up its bulk, I kept waiting for Resnais to go further, to add another layer of metafictional derring-do, which never quite happens. We mainly get the play, not a bad play but not a great one either, filtered through a couple ingenious pomo devices that eventually exhaust their novelty. But, on balance, another eccentric, lovely gift from one of the youngest 91-year-olds in the world.

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick):
Terry, Terry, what are we to do with you?
You're "image-mad," that gadfly blogger Fred Nietzsche would say;
"Mr. Wackadoodle," esteemed philosopher Jeff Wells has dubbed you.
Cinema Scope's shooting spitballs at you, and that one fellow at TMZ doesn't know who you are.
How have you fallen so?
Must you wander so far from Syd Field into a forest of romantic abstraction?
Must you insistently employ images that remind us imaginatively impoverished capitalist subjects of Cialis commercials?
Must you couch your centuries-old metaphysical queries in banal language that's so easy to feel superior to?
("When people express what is most important to them,
It often comes out in cliches. That doesn't make them laughable;
It's something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach
What's most personal about them they could only
Come up with what's most public."--You, 1973)
What's the deal with your production method now, juggling all these projects? 
Are you filming every day? Does Emanuel Lubezki crash on your couch?
It all feels so contingent, Terry. I think that's finally what's bugging people.
Movies aren't supposed to feel contingent, 
Like they could be put together a million different ways, 
Like clouds that could take any shape but took this particular one just on some cosmic whim.
They're supposed to feel compact and shiny and immediately useful, like a new credit card.
Shape up or ship out, amigo. I won't warn you again.

P.S.: Thank you for realizing Ben Affleck is an axiom.

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas):
         An incredibly beautiful and mysterious movie of the sort I tend to go for. What holds me back slightly is an overriding sense that Reygadas's image-making is ahead of his meaning-making. The poetic force of his images is sometimes mitigated by the fact that what they appear to be signifying is problematic, when not outright stupid. What's otherwise the movie's single greatest (and gruesomest) shot is one of the worst offenders in this regard. Still, as pure sensory experience it's got a lot going for it.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous):
         I originally rated this much higher, since it nigh-on leveled me, but on reflection I find it hard to fully embrace. Oppenheimer, et al, dive headfirst into the murkiest waters of documentary ethics, and the results are mind-boggling and emotionally devastating, but finally indeterminate. There's also an amorphous bagginess to its construction, even in its shortened theatrical cut, which makes it a more tortuous sit than even a movie on this subject really needs to be.

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski):
         See here. But also: the modern blockbuster is an inherently schizoid form, so why not own up to that and see how much weird you can get away with?

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, French title: La Vie d'Adele)
"For La Jalousie, there were only 5 hours of rushes, and the film runs 1:16. I'm far from Kechiche's 600 hours of rushes for La Vie d'Adèle. His film is better than mine, but is it 100 times better? (laughter) I'm pleased that the French cinema has been saved by La Vie d’Adèle."
--Phillipe Garrel, trans: Richard Brody
         See here. Either an admirable failure or a very mixed success. I started my piece on it leaning toward the former, ended it leaning toward the latter. Whatever it ultimately is, may Adele Exarchopoulos go on to conquer the universe.

Fait Accompli: "Episode 1: Caused" (Craig Keller):
         Is it sci-fi? Is it mumblecore? Is it a Rivette riff? Is the sound supposed to be doing that? Is this rambling half-impenetrable conversation ever going to end? Am I wasting 90 minutes of my life? But if this is just navel-gazing, why does it have so much of the world in it? Is it some kind of a diary? Is it all about the image, and what digital can do with it? Da fug? Am I just sleep-deprived or is this scene as good as I think it is? Why do I feel like I'm watching Film Socialisme (2010) all of a sudden? Is this the future? When's Episode 2 coming out?

Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron):

Asia Argento's Vinebox (Asia Argento):
         My favorite recent source of new media ephemera. The amphetaminic cutting suggests a life lived headlong. Visual expresso. Highlights: "It hurts so bad," "I want you with Abel," "I got a hole in my lungs in my muthafuckin lungs," "Get us a whale shark at once."

Something I Didn't Like:

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)
         Dissed it here. Refn isn't quite top offender in the case of The Post-Tarantino Fanboy Auteur as Evolutionary Dead End, but one more like this and he'll dethrone Robert Rodriguez.

Best Things I Saw This Year, Period:

Floating Clouds (Naruse, 1955)
L'Argent (Bresson, 1983)
Zero for Conduct (Vigo, 1933)
Hi, Mom! (De Palma, 1970)
David Holzman's Diary (McBride, 1967)
Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988)
The Silence (Bergman, 1963)
Rome, Open City (Rossellini, 1945)
Menilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)
Culloden (Watkins, 1964)
The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, 1962)
Trust (Hartley, 1990)
Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955)
Very Nice, Very Nice (Lipsett, 1961)
L'Amour Existe (Pialat, 1960)
A Nos Amours (Pialat, 1983)
Punishment Park (Watkins, 1970)
Regular Lovers (Garrel, 2005)
Gang of Four (Rivette, 1988)
The Devil Probably (Bresson, 1977)
Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (Rivette, 1971)
Night at the Crossroads (Renoir, 1932)
Edvard Munch (Watkins, 1974)
Noroit (Rivette, 1976)
Journey to Italy (Rossellini, 1954)
Antoine and Colette (Truffaut, 1962)
Barres (Moullet, 1984)
Out 1: Spectre (Rivette, 1974)
The Servant (Losey, 1963)
En Rachachant (Straub/Huillet, 1983)
Nenette and Boni (Denis, 1996)
Lucifer Rising (Anger, 1972)
The Sleeping Beauty (Breillat, 2010)
Dazed and Confused (Linklater, 1993)
Nadja in Paris (Rohmer, 1964)
Sisters of the Gion (Mizoguchi, 1936)
The Ravishing of Frank N. Stein (Schwizgebel, 1983)
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, 1988)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, 1953)
Scarface (Hawks, 1932)
Deep End (Skolimowski, 1970)
La Notte (Antonioni, 1961)
Corridor (Lawder, 1970)
Titicut Follies (Wiseman, 1967)
High School (Wiseman, 1968)
Hahaha (Hong, 2010)
Claire's Knee (Rohmer, 1970)
Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer, 1972)
The Aviator's Wife (Rohmer, 1981)
The Green Ray (Rohmer, 1986)
Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004)
Modern Romance (Brooks, 1981)
A Town of Love and Hope (Oshima, 1959)
Night and Fog in Japan (Oshima, 1960)
Boy (Oshima, 1969)
Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshida, 1969)

Friday, November 22, 2013

cannibal bunny ferox

         Laying eyes on the unpromising poster for Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger (2013) in the lobby of my local cineplex about 8 months ago, I turned to my companions--whom I think I'd just seen Spring Breakers (2012) with--and said: "It's a plot. They're trying to turn it all into the same movie." Yet another moribund property that wasn't doing no harm to nobody had gotten sucked up into the Viacom-Disney-Bruckheimer-ComicCon vortex and was soon to be spat out into theaters in some vaguely recognizable and eminently forgettable form. A not unreasonable assumption, given the State of Things in Hollywood Today, but one which sitting through The Lone Ranger confounded, since it really doesn't play like anything else this year.
         Now, this is not to say it doesn't play like other movies, since it's basically an antic patchwork of Western tropes, with specific references made to Dead Man (1995), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Little Big Man (1970), and easily three dozen others, the frenzied action sequences and surprisingly high nastiness quotient evoke Temple of Doom-era Spielberg, and Gore Verbinski's own Pirates of the Caribbean movies have the same everything-the-kitchen-sink-and-a-giant-stonking-octopod approach to narrative. But unlike the Pirates movies or the Robert Rodriguez fanboy wank fiesta of the month, it uses its overflowing box of borrowed parts to make a statement about American history that's halfway coherent if you look at it from the right cockeyed angle, essentially giving us a depiction of capitalism as a psychotic organism, a vampire squid that spread its rail-tendrils across the West, suffocating all that was weird and good in the landscape and native peoples only to later resurrect them as sad, farcical carnival attractions. Which bitter truth is then refracted through the prism of tragicomic madman Tonto's (Johnny Depp) fevered brain as he narrates his and the legendary title character's early adventures from inside one such sad farcical carnival attraction, an otherwise static historical diorama, to a doe-eyed kid in a Lone Ranger costume. And the whole thing might just be that kid's fantasy or hallucination, considering Tonto's Golem-like presence makes little logical sense, and that, judging from the size of the kid's peepers, he may have consumed some peyote-laced cotton candy just before wandering into the movie.
         The message is nothing new, and despite the semi-clever metafictional element, this is hardly the most sophisticated rendering of it thus far presented to us, but encountering it in a $250 million blockbuster produced by the Walt Disney Company is nonetheless bracing. Many were quick to call hypocrisy, but now that the movie's acquired the status of a film maudit (critically lambasted and financially disastrous,* this year's (more or less pre-)designated whipping boy for the excesses of Hollywood), it's a little easier to reconcile its anti-capitalist message and its bloated, wasteful production. The dissonance isn't resolved, exactly, but it now has the kick of spending a profligately expensive and debauched night out on the boss's dime, the boss in this case being Mickey Mouse.

         It's a dicey position to be in, making movies on this scale and actually wanting to communicate something. Christopher Nolan tries, but tries so hard and with such humorless bombast that the fact that his movies are Saying Something eclipses whatever they're actually saying,** which reached its nadir with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), a half-assed salad of culturally-loaded signifiers adding up to absolute zilch. Verbinski takes us to some serious territory here, but he never gets drunk on Significance. He makes his point and moves on to the next booth at the geek show. This can be jarring, but I find The Lone Ranger's much-pooh-poohed schizophrenia of tone--which at its most extreme takes us from outrage and grief over a Commanche tribe massacred by gatling gun (which basically functions in the movie's schema as stand-in for the entire Native American genocide) to a weird sight gag about a horse in a tree in about a minute of screentime, to be far preferable to Nolan's relentless dourness. I think my preference has something to do with that famous line from another iconic duo, Deleuze and Guattari***: "A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch." 
         Nolan is Hung Up, see: there's the dead wife complex; the flat left-brain tidiness of his images and concepts; the logorrheic self-explication (whether it's in the form of exposition or clunking subtext-as-text thesis statements); the way his movies hype themselves up trailer-style with quick spatial-relations-who-needs-'em crosscutting and a near-constant assault of booming, brooding music. Both he and Verbinski like convoluted narrative structures, but Nolan needs his structures to be perfectly symmetrical and clean and for the most part doesn't seem to care much about making the people wandering around inside them have the full, messy presence of organic life. Verbinski's structures are allowed to evolve more organically and teem with life--weird, messy, funky life, from snaggle-toothed henchmen who like to dress up in nighties and bonnets to menace their captives, to cannibal bunnies,**** to something as simple as a gross closeup of a desperado's urine streaming voluminously into a cuspidor.
         Certainly there's an element of the mechanical in his work. His crazier action sequences can play like some nightmare Rube Goldberg would wake up from in a cold sweat, gasping "What have I wrought?" But the mechanical is always overlapping with the organic, the big CG displays punctuated by gags from the Buster Keaton playbook (sometimes from some throwaway appendix of BK's playbook, but still fully in the tradition), the actors never quite becoming weightless puppets despite the touch-and-go relationship with earthbound physics, Armie Hammer always retaining his essential Armie Hammerness even as he and his steed (Silver here is reconfigured in a typical Verbinski touch as some kind of mystic destiny horse prone to erratic behavior) gallop down the length of a CG train speeding through a CG mountain range to the strains of the William Tell Overture, which climactic sequence made me feel ten again for a few fleeting minutes.
        All of this is not to suggest that I am as over the hill for it as some of its other defenders. A few of the gags and one-liners are kind of lame, and while I admire the degree to which the romantic subplot depends on glances and implication, it's still a bit anemic. But I can get behind Verbinski's gonzoid M.O., and that counts for a lot. His stuff is the closest thing we're going to get to cinematic anarchy on a nine-figure budget, at least until people who know and care about movies-as-movies are back in a position to greenlight them in mainstream Hollywood again.

* Though it still made enough money to fund 4000 Computer Chesses.
** His stuff reminds me of the way you'll sometimes find "deep themes" or "mature storylines" on the features list on the back of a videogame box, just above "17 Awesome New Power-ups."
*** Deleuze: The Lone Ranger. Guattari: Tonto. But I will listen eagerly to arguments for the inverse.
****Another sticking point for people, and yeah, one could make the argument that they're a good example of the downside of Verbinski's excess. But having the coming of the railroad and all it portends actually drive the fauna insane extends the movie's critique of capitalist greed to an elemental level. All of which is gotten into at greater length and depth in this lovely exegesis by Ryland Walker Knight, one of the reasons I watched this thing in the first place.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

repleteness, or four minutes of Frederick Wiseman


         Initially, it seems we're supposed to be aghast that she's not teaching them Wordsworth or Tennyson. That might well have been Wiseman's intention, but the scene exceeds it. Sure, it's a hokey attempt to make poetry hip, and the prospect of her having them break the song down into "setting" and "thematic words" to determine what Simon and Garfunkel "want to say about our lives" is eye-roll material, and probably all too familiar to anybody who's taken English classes in an American public high school in the last 5 decades.*
         And yet the lyrics considered as poetry aren't all that bad, not outstandingly original by any means, but certainly possessing enough grist for a productive classroom discussion. Wiseman takes up the lyrics for his own purposes, to comment obliquely on the problems High School (1968) diagnoses. The many scenes where the faculty is too incompetent or mindlessly authoritarian to forge meaningful connections with the students are given an analogue in the the ennui and disconnection of the song's couple. Is the sum total of these students' experience in the public education system going to resemble that of an unfulfilling relationship, in which communication has degenerated to the level of such bourgeois banalities as "Is the theater really dead?" So we're still to some extent in the realm of critique. But when she starts up the tape recorder, the scene becomes, as do so many scenes in cinema that prominently feature a piece of pop music, about time. The most obvious cue is a closeup of a watch on a young man's arm, followed one cut later by the lyric "in syncopated time."**

         But time is also brought to mind by the succession of closeups, each an indelible snapshot of human beings existing at a particular moment. Of course that could be said of many scenes in High School, but the combination of elements here--the tender, slightly cornball tone of the song, the biting melancholy of its lyrics, how the closeups thrum with present-tense aliveness (the handheld camerawork slightly unsteady, most of the students in repose but never quite entirely still)--casts us--casts me, anyway--into the sort of reverie a certain Marcel would wholly endorse.

         And then, the song still going, we cut to a girl standing out in the empty hall: boredom, loneliness, dejection, abandonment. Or, alternately: that air of expectation that used to hang in spring gardens inhabited by nymphs and faeries, but is more often found today commingling with B.O. in the corridors of American high schools.

* While I'm absolutely in favor of nursing the critical and interpretive faculties of people from the earliest age possible, the way literature is usually taught in public schools is a bit like trying to do thoracic surgery with a buzzsaw. 
** Another resonance Wiseman plays with: the preceding lyrics "Like a poem poorly written / We are verses out of rhythm / Couplets out of rhyme" are not at all an inaccurate description of what it feels like to be your average sexually-hypertrophic adolescent spazoid.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Put your love in me / Babe / I need you now and forever

         There are plenty of film artists who demand a more active spectator than conventional narrative cinema does. What makes Claire Denis a standout among them is the degree to which the spectator, in filling in for themselves some of the connective narrative tissue between her images, is actually assumed into the machinery of the movie. Of course, this is true to some extent for most movies--the process is called "suturing" in film theory--but the kind of suturing that takes place with a Denis movie is both more complex, and (if you're willing to roll with her languid rhythms and almost total eschewal of exposition) more intense. The viewer's input is an essential part of her movies' completeness as cinematic objects. If you're more inclined to stand back and view a movie as a tidily-constructed thing-in-itself, her stuff will probably frustrate the hell out of you. But she doesn't make "puzzle" movies. Each image in a Denis movie possesses an affective resonance that extends beyond whatever function it might serve when its narrative significance is gleaned. As she said in a recent interview, "When you have a little space, it’s not for the audience to think, it’s for it to GO with the film." If you're willing to GO with Denis's movies, they can take you to sublime places, as well as deeply unsettling ones. The degree of complicity an active spectator has in the construction of a Denis movie makes the ones where she delves into the dark side of human nature especially disturbing. Much of her work has a degree of darkness (e.g., I Can't Sleep (1994) involves a serial killer who targets the elderly, but the movie surrounding that plot thread is so colorful and vibrant that it bears no resemblance to a horror movie), but Trouble Every Day (2001) and her latest movie, Bastards (2013), can safely be categorized as her Dark Ones. Trouble Every Day (2001) takes what seems like an outlandish B-movie idea--that there exist people who are driven to commit acts of cannibalism when sexually excited--and grounds it in a realist conception of human desire, so that the dividing line between kissing someone and biting their face off becomes discomfitingly blurry. Bastards has been called a noir, and it has the shape of one: a convoluted story about the deviant horrors concealed behind the slick surfaces of upper-class normalcy; deep, dark shadows, deepest and darkest around the eyes of Michel Subor, the most iconic embodiment of pure evil I've seen in cinema in some time; a character (Chiara Mastroianni) who turns out to be something like a femme fatale; a palpable-at-every-second sense of moral rot. But what it really is, at bottom, is a cry of disgust that the structure of power capitalism has created enables the well-off to get away with all manner of depravity without repercussions. It's blunt in its intentions from the title on down, which has led to complaints that it lacks her usual grace and nuance. The contentious final scene, where Denis shows us a video recording of the sickening act (inspired by the most infamous scene in Faulkner's Sanctuary) that kicked off the plot, has been called gratuitous and an empty provocation. It doesn't tell us anything we didn't know already, and by ending things there, she leaves us both harrowed and unsatisfied. It will make most viewers feel like they've been had. But I don't think Denis simply wants to provoke. If provocation was the chief goal, she could have made it more explicit than it already is, and the shot choices less impressionistic (really, for an amateur recording, the scene sure looks an awful lot like a Claire Denis movie). And what of the attention paid in several shots to Lola Creton and Laurent Grevill's faces, which seem to register emptiness, resignation, and tenderness simultaneously? The scene is shocking, but it's not only shocking. Nonetheless, while Bastards contains nothing as hard to watch as a couple passages in Trouble Every Day (everyone who's seen it knows which I'm referring to), it is her bleakest, toughest, least forgiving piece of work. Trouble Every Day at least has a scene where Tricia Vessey cuddles a puppy.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

certain tendencies

         In criticism, the takedown has a particular mystique. Unloading one's rhetorical firepower against a hated object has its satisfactions, and makes for really juicy copy. An especially nasty pan in a mainstream or at least relatively popular venue is likely to get far more eyeballs than a passionate, sincere paean to the Romanian New Wave. Moreover, if the scorn is organized into polemical argument, it can actually have lasting impact on the discourse surrounding the artist being pilloried, or even the way the art form itself is discussed.
         Take, for example, Jacques Rivette's Cahiers du Cinema review of Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapo (1960). Rivette's moralistic condemnation of Pontecorvo's decision to move the camera during a violent moment had the effect of initiating a entire strain of criticism that's lasted for decades; a problematic strain at that, but one which nonetheless compels us to ask some worthwhile questions about how movies represent atrocity. Or take Vincent Canby's takedown of Jean-Luc Godard's Nouvelle Vague (1990). His dismayed proclamation that "the party's over," in The New York Flippin' Times no less, seems to have made it officially okay for a whole swath of film writers to stop taking Godard's recent work seriously (even pans of his King Lear (1987) tended to include something to the effect of "this is the kind of bad movie only a genius could make").
         Godard's always been a divisive figure, but in the last 20 years or so, most of those who aren't crazy about him have resorted to the same reductive narrative to justify their distaste: that he was brilliant for about 7 years in the 1960s, got tangled up in Mao, and has produced empty, lifeless, irrelevant, cranky, incomprehensible, and possibly/probably anti-Semitic work ever since. And with every new Godard movie this narrative is regurgitated again, larded with only the most obvious details of the current movie. Which details, on first viewing, are admittedly the only things most people could use to describe a later Godard, unless they're already on his wavelength and fairly familiar with whatever corners of his vast frame of reference he's chosen to draw from.
         But instead of just admitting that what he's doing has escaped their grasp,* a sizable bloc of the critical establishment pronounces that there's no there there, and impugns Godard's character and the motives of anyone who happens to have found the movie in question to be a worthwhile experience that might be worth a closer look-see. It's aggravating, not only because it's a cop-out, and insulting besides, but because it's a move beneath the intelligence of some of the writers who've made it. Canby's review of course isn't solely responsible for this,** but it appears to have inaugurated this particular trend.


         Andrew O'Hehir's vitriolic pan of Ridley Scott's new movie, the Cormac McCarthy-scripted The Counselor (2013), isn't aiming for any grand polemical point, only juicy copy, and that's just as well. O'Hehir is a clever, engaging writer who's pitched many an out-of-the-way, oddball movie to's readership in his day, so I have respect for him. I won't say much about the review on the whole, except that he makes The Counselor sound more interesting than anything Scott's made in 30 years, though a lot of it reads like O'Hehir is auditioning for a column at Cracked. But one line really irks me: "But despite its location photography and lustrous design aesthetic, 'The Counselor' has a puritanical devotion to boring and frustrating the audience that rivals the mid-‘90s video work of Jean-Luc Godard." 
         Which prompts a number of questions: Which of Godard's mid-'90s video works has O'Hehir seen? (Histoire(S) Du Cinema (1988-98)? 2X50 Years of French Cinema (1995)? Je Vous Salue Sarajevo (1993)?) Why do these sometimes quite emotionally direct movies suggest to him a puritanical devotion to boring and frustrating the audience? Does he think that's really Godard's intention? Why the '90s and not the '70s, which is when Godard began experimenting with video, and to largely more difficult and esoteric ends than in the '90s? Why single out the video works? Why not the features? Why not Godard's work with the Dziga Vertov group, which I'd consider the first half of that sentence an accurate description of? And most importantly, why bring up something as culturally marginalized as Godard's mid-'90s video work--some of which is almost impossible to see in the US outside of bootlegs and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's current Godard retrospective--in your snarky review of a multimillion dollar Hollywood production if you're just going to describe it in such unappealing terms? Does the average reader of Salon need more reasons to never check out Histoire(S) Du Cinema? Because that's essentially all that line will do for most who read it. And that's unfortunate, because maybe one or two or ten of those readers would find Histoire(S) Du Cinema as hypnotic, beautiful, funny, and moving as I and a number of others do. That far more egregious and dismissive things have been written about Godard by prominent film critics in recent years doesn't mean that this passage isn't complicit in the sidelining of his late work.


         Takedowns, even takedowns with lines like "This is more like having Alice Waters and Mario Batali labor in the kitchen for a while and then serve you a gray-green burger on Wonder Bread, with what looks like somebody’s pubic hair stuck to it," have their place in the wide weird world of criticism, but higher up the totem pole of critical responsibilities is building a bridge between difficult but rewarding work like Godard's and its potential audience. Even some Godard partisans (Godardisans?) just rhapsodize about how epochally amazing he is and never stop to consider that his methods and worldview have to be acclimated to.
         My first exposure to Godard was certainly unique in my experience of cinema up to that point, but it was hardly revelatory. Breathless (1960) was entertaining for a while, but sagged big time in the back half. Band of Outsiders (1964) was just okay. (I was 18. Such was my vocabulary.) Alphaville (1965) mainly made an impression for having one of the most perversely irritating soundscapes I'd ever heard. Contempt (1963) was gorgeous, though some of Godard's formal decisions made me feel as though I was watching a melodrama conceived by Martians. But then came Pierrot Le Fou (1965), so vibrant and playful and entirely alive moment-to-moment that it made me genuinely enthusiastic about seeing more. I saw Week End (1967), the first movie I'd ever found at once absolutely, self-evidently brilliant and a near-total ordeal to sit through. I don't think I saw another Godard after it for a couple years, but I did end up getting several of the ones I'd seen already on DVD, and they opened up considerably on a rewatch.***
         The pivot point in my transition from Godard agnostic to Godard acolyte lay in an extra on Criterion's Pierrot Le Fou DVD, wherein Godard's onetime collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin discusses the first 20 minutes of the movie, and unpacks the many levels on which it operates, most of which had never occurred to me. The real clincher was this, on the opening sequence, where Godard has Belmondo quote a text about the painter Velasquez over a series of images of a tennis match, Belmondo browsing for books, and a twilit view of the Seine: "Are we listening to the quote? Hell no!" I realized that part of what had put me off in Godard is the sheer density of verbiage he throws around, from thick theory to advertising copy to cryptic aphorisms. We carry into movies the assumption that we are meant to fully and immediately comprehend every line of dialogue, and so upon encountering a Godard movie where obscure references, polysyllabic words, and sentences that take 4 or 5 subtitles to encompass are tossed about so cavalierly, it can feel pretty intimidating. Manny Farber indelibly summed this feeling up: "No other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass."
         Farber's piece on Godard is one of the best things ever written on him, but that line gives the wrong idea about how one should approach and process his body of work. The greatest pleasure of Godard, I've found, lies in the flux of images and sounds and ideas, the collagist juxtaposition of a variety of materials, and that's even more true of the later work, where the flux is more intricate and the materials more diverse. Of course, the meaning of it all matters and sussing it out is a pleasure in itself, but one shouldn't get hung up on the meanings that slip by. Once a degree of perplexity is accepted as part of the package, Godard becomes much more accessible, lively, and funny. Even though Histoire(S) Du Cinema spends a significant amount of its four and a half hours meditating on the cinema's failure to properly respond to the Holocaust, the central image in it--Godard alone in his house, puffing a cigar, pronouncing the titles of movies and books with stentorian seriousness as he uses a typewriter and futzes with an editing bay--is as comic a self-portrait as any of Hitchcock's droll cameos.
         Now, not everyone will have my Road to Damascus moment. How you feel about Godard does depend to some degree on your political leanings, your feelings about modernism, your patience with certain veins of French theory, and your convictions about what cinema should do for the spectator. There are elements of his thought that I don't care for (his belief that cinema is now a moribund art form, for starters, and the way he makes it too easy for his pro-Palestinian position to be construed as outright anti-Semitism), and I don't like some of the movies that lean heavily on those tendencies, particularly For Ever Mozart (1996). But the least he deserves, like anybody else, is to have his work evaluated on the terms it sets for itself. For once, I'd like to see a dissenting take on Godard that does just that.

*I had a miserable time with my first later Godard movie, In Praise of Love (2001). It bewildered and bored me. The few moments whose meaning I did grasp had an angry edge that I found off-putting. But it didn't once give me a sense that I was staring at the work of a charlatan who had nothing to say and was taking refuge in obscurantism to cover it up. Every image and line and music cue was clearly communicating something, it just wasn't communicating much to the cine-literate but not particularly well-read 21-year-old watching it. It's not that I didn't have the arrogance that tends to fuel Emperor's New Clothes-invoking attacks on avant-garde art (If I don't get it, nobody really does); I had loads of arrogance in me, still do. But on some maybe not entirely conscious level I got the sense that I simply didn't know as much about the world as a French-Swiss intellectual six decades my senior who has reinvented the art of cinema about a dozen times. After watching more of his work, reading some criticism and Googling a couple names Godard tends to drop, I came back to it and liked it very much, though the moments that bugged me the first time bug me still.
**Also in play is the fact that Godard is a experimental filmmaker whose historical significance and enigmatic allure is such that his work ends up being reviewed by people whose sensibilities are calibrated toward more conventional fare. Among other factors.
***The first viewing of a Godard is often just prelude to the first rewatch, the increase in comprehension+enjoyment is that exponential.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

one shots (10/18/13)

Given that I've done this a few times, it's probably worth saying here that I do these one sentence reviews partly as a stylistic exercise, to see how much I can pack in without destroying the sentence as a grammatical unit. Sometimes the exercise comes off and flows well enough, and sometimes it's an ungainly, reader-inconveniencing mess. Hopefully the below skews more towards the former.

The only British film of the '70s to be directed by a woman, Jane Arden's The Other Side of the Underneath (1972) is likely the most accurate depiction of a schizoid mindstate in cinema history, and as such is a valuable, sui generis document, even if much of it is extremely hard to take, an assault of jolting cuts, unnerving fish-eye imagery, some of the scariest sounds in existence, and long (some argue misguided and ethically dubious) scenes where the actors from Arden's Holocaust theater group, in the throes of clearly quite heavy LSD experiences, weep and ramble incoherently (at Arden's on-camera urging) about mommy and daddy and "archetypal oppression," the claustrophobia leavened slightly in the back half by a pastoral interlude at a Welsh gypsy commune before the screeching strings and blood- and nudity-intensive performance art setpieces ramp up again, all of which adds up to both a miasmatic jumble that confounds any dichotomy you might try to plug it into (fiction or documentary, success or failure, exploitation or liberation) and a significant cinematic outgrowth of second-wave feminism and the anti-psychiatry movement, though finally too grotesque and intractable to serve as a particularly good ambassador for either.

There was an assumption on the part of many, including myself, that when Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (2011) was released on Blu-Ray/DVD last year, the extended cut included in the package would prove wholly superior to the truncated theatrical cut, and while for the first half of its 3 hours that looks to be the case--in that several wonderful sequences cut from the theatrical version are left where they belong, and the themes at play are given more time to breathe and develop--eventually certain formal decisions Lonergan makes start to chafe a little, like his promising experimentation with irrelevant background chatter on the soundtrack, which doesn't have another knockout scene in which to realize itself after the incredible cafe scene in the first half, and so is just distractingly there, ditto the long cityscape shots, which have contrapuntal purpose but drag unnecessarily, and the alternate edit of the operahouse finale, which adds another intriguing layer by focusing more on the performers onstage, but in the process diffuses the scene's overall emotional impact; nonetheless, in any version, Margaret is one of the most extraordinary movies ever made about several of the many, many things it is about: city living; adolescence as a state in itself as well as in relationship to adulthood; the atmosphere of post-9/11 NYC; and a tough fact of human subjectivity which pro forma three-act screenwriting tends to deny or obscure, namely that everyone who's right on one hand is probably wrong on the other, and while it might sometimes appear otherwise to us, the wider world doesn't much care either way; the world's only business is spinning, and all else is opera.

I had a degree of trepidation going into Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), since from the title to the iconography from it that has infiltrated pop culture, I was expecting a heavy dose of dated gender politics in addition to the expected Hawks charms, but I should have known better, as the movie actually presents a world in which men are gullible fools (with one exception), and its two protagonists are another strong-willed, witty Hawks woman (Jane Russell, who gets one subversive musical number, "Aint' There Anyone Here For Love," in which Hawks essentially assumes the female gaze) and a woman whose dimbulb blonde routine belies genius-level situational intelligence (Marilyn Monroe, a much better actress than she's sometimes given credit for), their complicated and thoroughly plausible friendship the source of much of the movie's sneaky depth (one definitely sees where Jacques Rivette found Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) in here--the movies thrum with the same estrogenic energy, and undercut their male characters in much the same way), though how 'bout those expected Hawks charms: he shoots in impossibly yummy three-strip Technicolor; pulls off the segues into and out of musical numbers with exquisite timing and elegance; gets away with all manner of naughty innuendo and implication; and lets even ostensibly one-joke characters give hints of an inner life (exhibit A: Henry Spofford III, pictured).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

easy ready-to-use no-mess formula for the recognition and appreciation of Great Cinema™

         People often come up to me at picnics or sock-hops or petting zoos and say something along the lines of: "Hey, you're the guy who likes movies a bunch, right? How do you know you've seen a great movie that will live on forever and ever? Also, what's the last great movie you saw?" To the latter question, I always answer Crank 2: High Voltage (2009), though I haven't seen that since it came out. To the former question, lately I've found myself rattling off a list of seven qualities I've noticed every great movie possesses in some capacity. This has the effect of both satisfying their curiosity and reducing the intimidating narratological/sociopolitical/phenomenological complexity of a movie to a manageable set of concise nubbins, which go as follows:

1) First off, a great movie should probably be a series of images projected at a succession rapid enough to convincingly approximate motion. The sounds of human speech, tires screeching, babies crying, dogs barking, and John Cassavetes exploding will sometimes be included, as well as music by Bernard Herrmann and the song "Night Shift" by The Commodores.

2) A great movie has at least one character with memorable hair. Doesn't matter what actor's body the hair is on or where the hair is on that body, it just has to be memorable. 

3) A great movie either contains or at some point compels me for whatever reason to recall the line "I'm a fiend for mojitos."

4) A great movie will have Walter Brennan in it. If the movie was made after Walter Brennan's death, it will either have M. Emmet Walsh in it, or one of the rooms in the movie will have a corner where the outline of Brennan's ghost can be glimpsed, grinning or frowning at whatever is happening in a given scene.

5) A great movie has a party sequence of at least 30 minutes in length. The movie's greatness increases in direct proportion to the extent to which said party sequence lingers beyond strict narrative necessity, and the number of middle-aged Hungarians with accordions who are present. 

6) A great movie will make me feel like I'm going insane as I watch it. There's some nuance to this one. If everyone else in the theater suddenly seems 15-20% more like a lizard than they did before the lights went down, great movie. If I start to hallucinate that the actors onscreen are bleeding from the eyes for no diegetic reason, I may only be watching a holiday-centric Garry Marshall production.

7) A great movie ends with someone cracking open a beer or a captive pigeon flying out a window or a woman we've never seen before roused from a daydream by a gunshot across the street.

         Of course (as I then remind my interlocutor if they have not yet backed away slowly), my standards are not everyone's, but I like to think my formula has a degree of objectivity.

Monday, October 7, 2013

floaty people

         Alfonso Cuaron's been getting Stanley Kubrick comparisons since he chose to employ several audaciously long and logistically complex shots in Children of Men (2006), a very, very good dystopian action movie, and those comparisons have ramped up further with Gravity (2013), an even more technically sophisticated thriller that occurs almost entirely in zero-G, and so inevitably must be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Reactions to the movie have been mostly very positive, though its failure to match 2001 in metaphysical reach and structural originality is a common refrain. I don't think it has to be, because beyond the fact that Cuaron wants to impress with technical gambits, his sensibility could hardly be less Kubrickian. While Kubrick during his lifetime was the subject of far too much tut-tutting about chilliness and misanthropy, the man was no humanist. Cuaron is, and that changes everything:
  1. His stories are driven primarily by the agency of his characters, rather than the operations of social/technological/metaphysical systems to which his characters are subject. 
  2. His movies originate not from a grand abstract idea, but a high concept with an immediate emotional hook.
  3. The acting is naturalistic rather than baroque, stilted, or caricatured.
  4. He mainly uses music to complement or underline the emotional content of a scene rather than provide ironic counterpoint to it. 
  5. There's a realist earthiness to the way he and DP Emmanuel Lubezki film actors and environments. This quality is less manifest in Gravity due to the sheer amount of CGI involved, but it's very much present whenever we're given a closeup view of the actors, especially Sandra Bullock (seemingly half the movie happens on her face). And the last shot of the movie is nothing if not earthy.
  6. His virtuosic long takes work in sympathy with his protagonists, alternating between following their movements and assuming their point of view, whereas when Kubrick is following a character with his camera, he often does so with such mathematical precision as to create a sense of otherworldly displacement.
         If we simply compare Cuaron to Cuaron, there's some cause for legitimate disappointment in Gravity. Both it and Children of Men are survival stories, but the latter is also an emotionally convincing if not especially coherent allegory for the endurance-against-all-odds of leftist-humanist hope during the Bush administration, thick with all manner of loaded if undergraddish cultural signifiers (Abu Ghraib, a T.S. Eliot citation in the end credits, the pig balloon from the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals, John Lennon's "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)," Jarvis Cocker's "Cunts Are Still Running the World," much religious iconography). Gravity has no such allegorical ambitions, and politically Cuaron limits himself to a couple easy One World-type gestures (a postcard Rublev in the Russian space station is doubled by a Buddha statue in the Chinese one). The dialogue is cliche-heavy and relies a bit too much on cornball astronaut humor, the musical score is tin-eared and intrusive, and the emotional meanings are way overstated.* Bullock's character has the exact same Tragic Event in her past as Clive Owen's did in Children of Men, and it felt much less like a cheap shortcut to character depth the first time around, maybe since it dovetailed more neatly with the movie's premise.
         But I far prefer it to James Cameron's Avatar (2009), both because it's shorter, simpler, and never quite flat-out idiotic, however improbable Bullock's last-second escapes get, and because Cuaron is venturing slightly outside the expected visual grammar of mainstream cinema in search of a grammar better suited to 3D. A movie getting an audience in a megamall theater to sit in silence for over ten minutes watching a single shot unfold is a sign of some kind of progress, even if half of that shot involves things going zip and woosh and boom. The society of the spectacle has produced much worse.

*At one point, while Bullock's character, grief-stricken for some time over the loss of her young daughter, is trying to keep George Clooney's character from drifting out into space and certain death, he says to her, "You need to learn to let go." Aaaand boom goes the metaphor.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


1. If you watch the English version of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983) several times, you will begin to believe that if thought itself had a voice it would be Alexandra Stewart's.

2. The ending of Claire Denis's Beau Travail (1999) makes a fairly convincing case that the cinema was invented for the redemption of horrible music.

3. Title for an academic study of Hong Sang-soo: "Towards a Metaphysics of Soju."

4. The problem with Christopher Nolan is he makes movies as if he has never farted.

5. Bresson in black & white is sublime. Bresson in color is really scary.

6. One might be tempted to call the second half of Birth of a Nation (1915) cinema's Original Sin, but I think it came twelve years earlier, with Edison's on-camera electrocution of Topsy the elephant. All we should require of a movie is that it not make us ask "Topsy died for THIS?"

7. Chaplin's "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot" is a lovely formulation, though I guess he never saw a Mizoguchi movie, where life just gets more tragic in long-shot.

8. Funny how the death of cinema happened just as those who announced it reached an age where one's own death begins to feel like less of an abstraction.

9. The next New Wave is going to be a series of neo-realist superhero movies shot by teenagers with stolen Handycams on the streets of Ciudad Juarez.

10. After we take care of world hunger and economic inequality, our next priority as a species should be to project Hideko Takamine's face onto the moon.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fading flowers in her hair / She's suffering from wear and tear / She lies in waterfalls of dreams / And never questions what it means

         Olivier Assayas returns to his formative years for the second time with Something in the Air (2012, better French title: Apres Mai). What distinguishes it from his first go-round with the era, Cold Water (1994, maybe his best movie), is first a more direct countenancing of the political situation in France in the aftermath of May '68, kept mainly implicit in the strained relationships between the generations in Water, and second a diffusion of focus. The main thread is the evolution of the Assayas surrogate Gilles (Clément Métayer, a dead ringer for Ziggy from The Wire if there ever was one) from high school radical to politically disengaged artist, but the movie roams promiscuously into the lives of various other characters in Gilles's orbit, and Gilles's own path takes a few detours. If Water is akin to a tightly constructed short story or novella, Air is more like a discursive memoir, and indeed Assayas has also written a memoir of sorts about this period in his life, A Post-May Adolescence. This has led some to complain that Air's second half is too scattered, but the scatter is what Assayas is going for. The movie is very much about how the collective dream of revolution went to pieces and left many of its young proponents chasing individualized dreams of self-actualization. A more legit complaint you could lodge is that Gilles as Metayer plays him is a little too recessive and inward for the movie's own good. Assayas's best films tend to pivot on a great performance, from Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (1996) to Edgar Ramirez in Carlos (2010) to Virginie Ledoyen in Water; Métayer is just kind of there. But Assayas's ability to pull his viewer into an entirely plausible world, through a combination of dead-on detail, masterful orchestration of space and movement, and brilliant soundtrack cues, is undiminished, nor is his intellect.  He's clear-eyed about the failures of his characters, the naivety and arrogance underlying the Marxist rhetoric they routinely spout, yet gazes on them with great tenderness, and in the coda, set to Kevin Ayers's "Decadence," imparts to them a kind of grace.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

besties ('67-'87)

         Pretty much the same deal as '88-'12, in terms of rules/intentions. A few fallow years, but '67, '68, '71, '74, '83, and possibly '84 are among the best years for cinema in the 20th century. '67-'74 is the single most fascinating period in cinema, for me, in that right as Godard peaks and recedes into Mao the impact of his innovations begins to be felt all over the world, with many exciting experiments in self-reflexive and political filmmaking coming out of the US, Britain, Japan, and elsewhere at an astonishingly rapid clip. We also have the flowering of the New Hollywood, which inherits some of the energy of the various New Waves and broadens the range of tones and subject matter available to mainstream movies. What follows this period in the US is, from one perspective, an increasingly precipitous descent into pervasive corporatized spectacle, which descent we seem to have reached a terminal phase of. But for someone like myself whose imagination was colonized as a child by said spectacles, '80s Hollywood at its best remains a richly evocative pop dreamscape.

1. Week End (Jean-Luc Godard)
2. Playtime (Jacques Tati)
3. Wavelength (Michael Snow)
4. David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride)
5. La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard)
6. Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
7. Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman)
8. Belle de jour (Luis Bunuel)
9. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard)
10. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
11. Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker)
12. La Revelateur (Philippe Garrel)
13. Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Nagisa Oshima)
14. Point Blank (John Boorman)
15. La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer)

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
2. Faces (John Cassavetes)
3. Death By Hanging (Nagisa Oshima)
4. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves)
5. High School (Frederick Wiseman)
6. L’Amour Fou (Jacques Rivette)
7. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
8. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)
9. L’Enfance Nue (Maurice Pialat)
10. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)
11. Je T’aime, Je T’aime (Alain Resnais)
12. Hour of the Furnaces: Part I (Octavio Getino, Fernando Solanas)
13. Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg)
14. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Nagisa Oshima)
15. Joy of Learning (Jean-Luc Godard)

1. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
2. My Night at Maud's (Eric Rohmer)
3. Boy (Nagisa Oshima)
4. Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida)
5. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
6. My Girlfriend’s Wedding (Jim McBride)
7. Katzelmacher (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
8. Law and Order (Frederick Wiseman)
9. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger)
10. Dillinger is Dead (Marco Ferreri)

1. Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski)
2. Hi, Mom! (Brian De Palma)
3. Claire's Knee (Eric Rohmer)
4. Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles)
5. Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni)
6. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
7. Husbands (John Cassavetes)
8. The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Nagisa Oshima)
9. Even Dwarfs Started Small (Werner Herzog)
10. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)

1. Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (Jacques Rivette)
2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)
3. Punishment Park (Peter Watkins)
4. W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev)
5. Beware of a Holy Whore (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
6. Critical Mass (Hollis Frampton)
7. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
8. The French Connection (William Friedkin)
9. The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima)
10. Macbeth (Roman Polanski)
11. And Now for Something Completely Different (Ian MacNaughton, Terry Gilliam)
12. Whity (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
13. Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg)
14. The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper)

1. Pink Flamingos (John Waters)
2. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel)
3. We Won’t Grow Old Together (Maurice Pialat)
4. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
5. Love in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer)
6. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
7. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog)
8. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
9. Tout va Bien (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)
10. Winter Soldier (Winterfilm Collective)

1. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache)
2. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
3. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
4. Badlands (Terrence Malick)
5. Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg)
6. The Last Detail (Hal Ashby)
7. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy)
8. The Exorcist (William Friedkin)
9. The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
10. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)

1.  A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes)
2.  Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette)
3.  Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
4.  Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins)
5.  Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
6.  The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
7.  F for Fake (Orson Welles)
8.  Out 1: Spectre (Jacques Rivette)
9.  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah)
10.  Lancelot Du Lac (Robert Bresson)
11. The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)
12.  The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
13.  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
14.  Female Trouble (John Waters)
15.  Sweet Movie (Dusan Makavejev)

1. The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky)
2. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman)
3. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)
4. The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)
5. Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles)
6. That Most Important Thing: Love (Andrzej Zulawski)
7. Numero Deux (Jean-Luc Godard)
8. Love and Death (Woody Allen)
9. The Devil’s Cleavage (George Kuchar)
10. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones)

1. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
2. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes)
3. All the President’s Men  (Alan J. Pakula)
4. Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May)
4. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicholas Roeg)
5. Anatomy of a Relationship (Luc Moullet)
6. Noroit (Jacques Rivette)
7. The Tenant (Roman Polanski)
8. A Real Young Girl (Catherine Breillat)
9. Carrie (Brian De Palma)
10. Ici et Ailleurs (Jean-Luc Godard, Anne-Marie Mieville, Jean-Pierre Gorin)
11. In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima)
12. Duelle (Jacques Rivette)
13. The Omen (Richard Donner)
14. Up! (Russ Meyer)

1. Eraserhead (David Lynch)
2. The Devil, Probably (Robert Bresson)
3. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel)
4. Martin (George A. Romero)
5. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
6. Annie Hall (Woody Allen)
7. Suspiria (Dario Argento)
8. Opening Night (John Cassavetes)
9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)
10. A Grin Without a Cat (Chris Marker)

1. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero)
2. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick)
3. In a Year With 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
4. Halloween (John Carpenter)
5. Empire of Passion (Nagisa Oshima)
6. Fingers (James Toback)
7. The Fury (Brian De Palma)
8. The Game of Death (Robert Clouse, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Bruce Lee)
9. National Lampoon’s Animal House (John Landis)
10. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)

1. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
2. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
3. Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raul Ruiz)
4. Manhattan (Woody Allen)
5. The Third Generation (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
6. Alien (Ridley Scott)
7. The Brood (David Cronenberg)
8. Being There (Hal Ashby)
9. Life of Brian (Terry Jones)
10. Escape from Alcatraz (Don Siegel)

1. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
3. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)
4. Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
5. Bad Timing (Nicholas Roeg)
6. Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa)
7. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner)
8. Loulou (Maurice Pialat)
9. Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma)
10. Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker)

1. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski)
2. The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer)
3. Blow Out (Brian De Palma)
4. Le Pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette)
5. Modern Romance (Albert Brooks)
6. Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)
7. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis)
8. Escape From New York (John Carpenter)
8. The Howling (Joe Dante)
10. The Entity (Sidney J. Furie)

1. L’Enfant Secret (Philippe Garrel)
2. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
3. Passion (Jean-Luc Godard)
4. Burden of Dreams (Les Blank)
5. Expectation (Edward Yang)
6. The Thing (John Carpenter)
7. A Good Marriage (Eric Rohmer)
8. On Top of the Whale (Raul Ruiz)
9. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper)
10. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling)

1. L’Argent (Robert Bresson)
2. Sans Soleil (Chris Marker)
3. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
4. A Nos Amours (Maurice Pialat)
5. The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
6. First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard)
7. Three Crowns of the Sailor (Raul Ruiz)
8. The Family Game (Yoshimitsu Morita)
9. City of Pirates (Raul Ruiz)
10. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones)
11. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima)
12. Zelig (Woody Allen)
13. Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky)
14. Cracking Up (Jerry Lewis)
15. Breathless (Jim McBride)

1. Love Streams (John Cassavetes)
2. Once Upon A Time in America (Sergio Leone)
3. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme)
4. Repo Man (Alex Cox)
5. Barres (Luc Moullet)
6. Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)
7. The Terminator (James Cameron)
8. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
9. Gremlins (Joe Dante)
10. Full Moon in Paris (Eric Rohmer)
11. Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen)
12. 1984 (Michael Radford)
13. Top Secret! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker)
14. Amadeus (Milos Forman)
15. Body Double (Brian De Palma)

1.  Brazil (Terry Gilliam)
2.  After Hours (Martin Scorsese)
3. Come and See (Elem Klimov)
4.  Day of the Dead (George A. Romero)
5.  Ran (Akira Kurosawa)
6. Lost in America (Albert Brooks)
7.  Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph)
8.  My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears)
9.  Hail Mary (Jean-Luc Godard)
10.   Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader)

1.  Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
2. The Green Ray (Eric Rohmer)
3.  The Terrorizers (Edward Yang)
4.   Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax)
5.   The Singing Detective (Jon Amiel)
6.  Aliens (James Cameron)
7.   Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)
8.   Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch)
9.  Manhunter (Michael Mann)
10.  The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)

1.  Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
2.  King Lear (Jean-Luc Godard)
3.  Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes)
4.  Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow)
5.  Robocop (Paul Verhoeven)
6. My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (Eric Rohmer)
7.  On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski)
8. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (Sam Raimi)
9.  The Untouchables (Brian De Palma)
10.  Predator (John McTiernan)