Friday, September 13, 2013

catching up #1

         The surface of Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess (2013) is very deceptive, and the handful of negative or middling notices it's received reflect either an inability to see beyond it, or a recourse to first impressions after being flummoxed by what's actually up there on the screen.* What begins as a mockumentary shot on bleary, antiquated video about a computer chess tournament (in what's either the late '70s or early '80s) reveals itself to be a far more unpredictable work of experimental fiction-making, whose narrative is less a straightahead story than a program, originally intended as a delivery system for narrative information, that goes progressively haywire as the movie unfolds. Its real foundations aren't mumblecore, Christopher Guest, or the "found footage" genre, but Jacques Rivette (narrative ruptures, proliferating mysteries, radical open-endedness), Robert Altman at his wiggiest (it creates a teeming and very American social world, with surrealism lurking around its edges), and David Foster Wallace (despite playing out on a much smaller canvas, the movie gets about as close to the comedic sensibility and structure of the latter's Infinite Jest as any movie in memory). The strongest American movie of the year thus far, and among the strangest.

         But the smartest American movie I've seen this year, and the most genuinely sweet, is film critic-cum-filmmaker Dan Sallitt's The Unspeakable Act (2012). That it winds up being so affecting is one of its biggest surprises, given that the plot revolves around the potentially seamy topic of a teenage girl (Tallie Medel) longing incestuously for her brother (Sky Hirschkron), and that Sallitt's rigorous style is initially distancing. From the get-go his compositions (realized in a high def digital that refreshingly doesn't try to look like film) are mathematically exact, his soundscape so sparse as to seem almost unfinished (there's no musical score and Medel's narration is mixed unusually), and the movements and line readings of his actors just a couple shades more naturalistic than those found in the work of Hal Hartley. Within this slightly regimented framework something extraordinary happens, or rather several extraordinary somethings: the unfolding and transformation of one character's singularly bizarre pathology in a relatable, acutely observed, and often very funny way (its funniness often proceeding from its acuteness); Medel's riveting and entirely believable performance as a hyper-articulate teen wrestling with a transgressive obsession; and Sallitt's emergence as a rare bird in our independent cinema, a filmmaker drawing inspiration not from the flashy end of the Nouvelle Vague, the 90km/h pathos of Truffaut or the helter-skelter modernist experimentalism of Godard, but its more contemplative and less (immediately) sexy side, that of Rohmer, and insodoing is a yet rarer bird, an American filmmaker who is literary in the best sense of the term.

         The Lords of Salem (2013) is the third Rob Zombie movie in a row to be at once a failure by the metrics we usually apply to horror movies (even the particularly disreputable ones Zombie's been trying to emulate) and more funky and distinctive than any other recent movie in the genre. The plot is routine, the dialogue consummately atrocious, the acting almost entirely awful, and the pacing and editing more off than they've been since Zombie's amateurish debut feature, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), as a result of all of which the proceedings are hard to grok as one groks the average spookfest (gut-level viewer involvement is unlikely). And yet there are many elements here to enjoy: several undeniably creepy moments (e.g., a hideous apparition hovering motionless in a kitchen, unseen by protag Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie, still not any good)), an affectionate and detailed portrait of a musical subculture, audacious hallucinatory sequences full of wild blasphemous Ken Russelloid imagery, and a nutty finale that comes very close to the Z-movie poetry Zombie's always aspiring toward, and which he's only completely achieved in The Devil's Rejects (2005), about as close as the last decade's exploitation revival came to a trash masterpiece. It remains to be seen whether he will ever again conjure the front-to-back discipline to make another movie as exquisitely appalling. For now, stick a few moments from this in that steadily expanding file, Rob Zombie as Potentially Great Horror Auteur.

         After a disastrous attempt at a pseudo-documentary anti-war polemic in Redacted (2007), Brian De Palma is back in territory more amenable to his strengths with Passion (2012), a remake of Alain Corneau's corporate espionage thriller Love Crime (2010). The movie's essentially a teasingly sapphic game of cat and mouse between corporate honcho Christine (Rachel McAdams, absurdly miscast) and upstart underling Isabelle (Noomi Rapace, marginally less absurdly miscast) that appears to take place in an Apple Store decked out with ersatz noirish lighting by some Eurotrash branch manager. The first half is ludicrous in a pretty dull way--for one thing, the kinkiness quotient never escalates as high as the setup suggests it will--but when De Palma tightens the proverbial screws with an impeccably realized split-screen sequence, which is probably the best "pure cinema" moment in a De Palma film since the opening of Femme Fatale (2002), things quickly become ludicrous in a highly engaging way. For all of the screens within screens that suggest another iteration of De Palma's perennial theme of voyeurism, the movie's secret theme is the inherent mix-and-match absurdity of the kind of international co-production it represents: a French-German-Spanish-British production of a remake of a French movie, directed by an American and starring an American and a Swede. It supposedly takes place in Germany but really takes place in no place, a generic simulacrum of Europe, all anonymous surfaces. Looked at this way, the movie might make an intriguing double bill, if one is inclined toward impossibly esoteric double bills, with Godard's King Lear (1987), an international coproduction that also takes place in no place (which for JLG may or may not be near the Kingdom of France). Passion raises the question of what significance a "classic" De Palma movie possesses now that he's no longer making them in Hollywood. One of the things that makes some of his earlier work vital and interesting to me is how his stylistic rapture and exuberant rejection of narrative plausibility constitutes an intervention in mainstream cinema. The tension between engaging a mass audience and indulging in a kind of fetishistic delirium is the energizing force of much of his best work. Passion is essentially an insular doodle for his loyalists and people who want to see McAdams and Rapace make out (the latter being admittedly a larger demographic). Which is just fine. But what would be more than just fine is if he took advantage of his more marginal position in the world of commercial film to make another movie like Hi, Mom! (1970).

*Roger Ebert's posthumous two-star review, for instance, dismisses Computer Chess as a technically impressive lark, and appears to have been written with substantial input from Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds. (But given the circumstances in which he probably saw and wrote about the film, I can't really blame him for not finding its tricky wavelength.)

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