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.