Sunday, September 21, 2014

it squelches

         Fitting that Hard to Be a God (2013), the movie Aleksei German spent most of this century making (he died late in the editing process, age 74), and several decades before that dreaming of, takes place on another planet, considering that his penultimate work, Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), makes Stalinist Russia resemble a rundown colony on the barely-terraformed third moon of something-or-other. In fact, that's vastly understating the strangeness of a movie where, to pick one inexplicable moment out of several hundred, a small dog in a cage zips through an apartment on a wire in the blink of an eye, to the surprise of no one in the scene; a movie whose baseline for dialogic normality is "Boys, come over here and piss on my dog" (another dog in a movie of many dogs, canine and otherwise, this one scalded by "the whores"--or were they gypsies?); an often hysterically funny movie which also features a scene in which the protagonist is horrifically violated in the back of a prison transport; a movie in which almost nothing makes sense until the last reel, when suddenly everything does; a movie that could make you believe every one of those tired "In Soviet Russia, [noun] [verb] you" jokes actually happened to someone under Stalinism; an impossible movie and an essential one, because it lends a whole new resonance to the sentence, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

         When Stephen Dedalus speaks those words in Joyce's Ulysses, he hasn't bathed in a while. While Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), the central figure of Hard to Be a God, is allowed the privilege of bathing, most of the people around him don't look like they've ever bathed, or even so much as thought of it. Rumata is fully enmeshed in the nightmare of history, but it isn't his native history. He's a historian from Earth living on Arkanar, another planet that developed in much the same way as ours, save that its history remains mired in an interminable Dark Age, prolonged by the slaughter of artists and intellectuals (Stalin's purges come to mind). Rumata would like to snap awake, but unlike Dedalus, he can't stand at an intellectual remove from the nightmare. He's forced to accept its terms, to be as barbaric as everyone else in this world where so much shit fills the streets there are devices bolted to the floors of houses for scraping it from one's boots.

         Hard to Be a God is a septic masterpiece, containing images so repulsive you either can't quite peg what they are or wish you couldn't, but not one of them in all its three hours feels gratuitous, and they're interspersed with many images that astonish. Sometimes they pop up in the same shot: a track through rotting corpses hanging from a scaffold gives way to a fog-shrouded vista straight out of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966); a sequence shot begins with a close-up of the giant penis of a donkey, pans upward as the donkey trots off to reveal a man stepping out of a latrine, then alights on a girl whose beauty registers in this squalid context as a visitation. The plot and dialogue are frequently impenetrable, but German's vision is far too consistent, too thought-through, for the movie to feel incoherent. When we lose the thread, it's because the world he's painstakingly invented is so stubbornly, grotesquely alive that it can't sustain the illusion of a clean, straightforward narrative. German makes Swiss cheese of the fourth wall, with characters constantly looking into the camera as it passes by, which simultaneously recalls the political docudramas of Peter Watkins, and the uncanny way NPCs turn to look at the player in certain video games,* as well as that line from Chris Marker's film essay, Sans Soleil"Have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?" 
         Why isn't Hard to Be a God, a long, grody swim in the muck, unbearable to sit through? Why could I watch it again right this instant? Besides the fact that its sheer visual density would be the envy of Terry Gilliam and Erich von Stroheim, there's German's sense of humor. Maybe to some "Your grace, somebody saw a dude with gills in the creek," won't register as the funniest line of the decade so far, but that's their loss. Then there's the constant sense of non-sequitur from which much of that humor arises, and which functions as an implicit rebuke of any attempt to boil the movie down to a condemnation of the bestial ugliness of humanity. We might be nasty, venal creatures one missed Renaissance away from rolling around in our own excrescence, but you never know what we're going to come out with next.

*There is actually an Hard to Be a God game, based on the same 1965 novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, as well as another movie adaptation from 1989 by Peter Fleischmann, neither of which bear much resemblance to what German gives us here. The game looks like a sanitized snooze (judge for yourself), though a Metacritic user avers that while "you will find a game that is first very confusing," if you "keep on playing... the storyline unfolds to reveal a plot that rivals neverwinter nights one," so it's maybe not nothing. And I must concede the Fleischmann version has a superior theme song.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


         Early this year, I wrote, shot, and edited most of the above short film about my friend Nick, a fellow cinephile with whom I co-chaired the unofficial (read: technically illegal and chronically underattended) film club at St. Mary's College of Maryland for two years, and Lusby, the suburb in Calvert County where he lives. This is the second time I've made a movie with Nick as the protagonist. The first was my student film, All My Little Words (2013), a 33-minute pseudo-Godardian exercise in which he said a total of two words. In this second one, he says nearly 2000 words in 20 minutes. I was inspired to make it by his droll descriptions of his life in Lusby, which sounded like something out of a Jim Jarmusch or Hong Sang-soo movie. Some of the text comes almost verbatim from said descriptions. Other parts are, shall we say, embellished. That Lusby is something of a tabula rasa, even to people who live there, gave us some imaginative leeway.
         I don't want to preempt any criticism, but I do want to say that as acidic as some of the jokes are, the last thing I want anyone to think is that my sole purpose in making the movie was to run Lusby down. I would have quickly tired of the whole thing if that was the case. I wanted to evoke, however cheekily, the ambivalence that people of a certain cast of mind who live in hazily-defined, near-anonymous places like Lusby may feel toward their surroundings. They can feel like the dullest, shittiest places in the universe one day (or, in Lusby's case, most days), and strangely beautiful and charged with significance on another. I hope this comes through, and the movie doesn't play simply as a fish/barrel-type deal.
         One last thing: we made Destination: Lusby! (2014) with a DSLR, a camera-mounted shotgun mic, a rickety plastic tripod I've been using since I was 13, pirated nonlinear editing software, some free tracks from the Vimeo Music Store and one from the Library of Congress archive, and a couple six packs of beer. It took four days to shoot: three in January; one in June. Nick was the only crew member. I can't say our limited means don't show, in the clumsiness of some shots and the messiness of the sound recording, but I think the movie also shows what anybody so inclined can do now, anywhere, for nothing. When I briefly put the rough cut up on YouTube several months ago, somebody who liked it told me they too grew up in another place called Lusby. While it would be gratifying to me if a lot of people saw Destination: Lusby!, what I would like most is if someone from that Lusby, or another similarly out-of-the-way place, made a movie in response to this one.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

catching up #2

         Every time I watch Matias Piñeiro's Viola (2012), I understand more and less of it. It inspires a pleasant kind of vertigo. It's the kind of movie you immediately want to write a poem about,* or draw maps of, like Gilles Deleuze did with Jacques Rivette's Gang of Four (1988), to luxuriate in the tricky elegance of its construction. One could map individual scenes, the way the actors--mostly women, all of them fantastic--move through space, at once naturalistic and sinuously choreographed. I'm thinking especially of the long scene where Cecilia (Agustina Muñoz) seduces Sabrina (Elisa Carricajo) under the pretext of running lines for Act 1 Scene 5 of Twelfth Night. They run through the scene several times, and as they do, they move around the room, drawing close, turning away, lying down on the couch, getting up, encircling and cornering each other, Piñeiro's camera gliding in sync with them in a lengthy take. There might be a cut somewhere, but after three viewings I've yet to notice, much as it's hard to pinpoint where one thought fades into the next when daydreaming. After a certain point, the text loses its meaning, becomes pure speech, then regains its meaning and develops new dimensions. It's disorienting, hypnotic, playful, and erotic, and makes up about 10 of Viola's 62 minutes, 62 minutes that are dense with words, gestures, implications, enigmas, but never in an undue hurry, like a midafternoon stroll taken with the most interesting people you know. Comparisons can and have been made to Rivette, but Piñeiro puts his camera closer to his subjects, and the mysteries he generates are more localized, less sinister. It might be more useful to consider it in relation to contemporary American microbudget cinema, with its slender length, twentysomething neo-bohemian characters, and lack of capital-D Dramatic incident. I won't say Viola is "better" than what's been happening on the low-/no-budge circuit up here, as there's a lot I haven't seen and several I've seen that I like just as much, but I think we could all learn a great deal from it, as Piñeiro seems to have internalized Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium** more thoroughly than any other young filmmaker today.

*I gave it a shot:
Your way is to conjure me
And you'll begin with the women of Buenos Aires
Who weave through space and into being other worlds
With the Bard's words or their own,
Both equally likely to slip abruptly into couplets.
Traces to be found here of the Phantom Ladies and the Gang of Four,
But the schemes of Piñeiro's ladies are more earthbound,
Less loaded with ominous metaphysical implication
(they care more about Love, less about Conspiracy).
Small movies in a big world aren't small at all
Provided they know what boundaries to stand astride
(fiction/nonfiction, dream/reality)
And which interstices between adjacent worlds get the most light.
**Lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, consistency.

         Like Someone in Love (2012) is Abbas Kiarostami's horror movie, or at least suggests he could make a great one. Almost nothing outwardly horrific happens in it (actual physical violence is withheld until the very last second) and stretches made me want to crawl out of my skin. It's largely a matter of what's in the frame and what's out, of what information he chooses to foreground and what he leaves on the backburner. He keeps the one menace in the story, Akiko's (Rin Takanashi) obsessive-abusive boyfriend (Ryo Kase), in the background for much of the movie's length, and places heavy emphasis on the nattering babble of metropolitan life--inconvenient phone calls, obnoxious monologues by nosy neighbors, an endless series of painfully sad voicemails from Akiko's grandmother--which don't so much diffuse the threat as heighten it, make it an implicit presence in even the most innocuous occurrence. The effect is somewhat like Haneke, and better, since Kiarostami's meanings aren't so boldfaced and scolding. The difference between Kiarostami's other work and Like Someone in Love is much like the difference between the two versions of Jacques Rivette's Out 1: Kiarostami's other movies open Out; this one closes In. We are as entrapped in it as Akiko is in her call-girl job and awful relationship, and sense palpably the void that yawns beneath the city, beneath language, beneath love, which exists here only in semblances and simulacra, save maybe in the connection that develops between Akiko and her ostensible John, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), though what binds them is finally too ambiguous to be easily classified as anything but itself.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


         Frederick Wiseman picks a piece of the world and films the hell out of it. He picks it because it's interesting to him, not because it's "relevant." "Relevant" being whatever corporate media thinks the public should find more important than other things at a given moment. "Relevant" acknowledges why a movie about Berkeley might be important right now, but doesn't see why such a movie has to be so long or include lengthy discussions of poetry, time, and astrophysics. ("Relevant" will have no truck with reflection or metaphor. "Relevant" is a Brueghel canvas seen through a keyhole.) "Relevant" is likely why At Berkeley (2013) aired on my local PBS station two months ago in a timeslot (11pm-3am) prohibitive to everybody but diehard cinephiles and insomniacs, slightly less of an insult in the age of DVR (which I don't have), but only slightly. "Relevant" is also why Wiseman has never been nominated for an Oscar, and why Netflix won't answer his letters. All of this is not to suggest that he's an embattled or marginalized figure (he has, as is frequently noted, become something of an institution himself) but his work represents a mode of thinking about the world that's highly unfashionable in the age of Upworthy and its like.
         Sure, At Berkeley has a more obvious bearing on the zeitgeist than his last movie, Crazy Horse (2011), a study of the Parisian burlesque club of the same name, but its "relevance" feels unforced and organic, discovered rather than imposed or assumed. The problem with some social issues-type documentaries is the filmmakers seem to know already more or less what they're going to say, and making the movie is just a matter of collecting facts and scintillating footage to support what the initial thesis is. Not that there isn't a place for that kind of documentary, but it tends to make for flat, primarily informational experiences, exhausted of their riches after a single viewing. At Berkeley makes a definite argument about the state of higher education in America, but that argument isn't immediately apparent. Instead, it's emergent, largely assembled from long blocks of time in lecture halls and meeting rooms, in which conversations between subjects are allowed to ebb and flow, as conversations do. These scenes are often fascinating in themselves, both for the heady intelligence of the discussions and the immanent quality of Wiseman's images (he seems incapable of filming a person without making one aware of the complex interweaving of historical and biological forces that have molded them into what they are). But when the scenes are juxtaposed with each other, further levels of meaning (echos and linkages, running themes and subthemes) gradually accumulate, forming a complex and cohesive statement. Perhaps due to Wiseman's spurning of the usual viewer guideposts (narration, interviews, identificatory chyrons), or the slowness with which At Berkeley builds, one feels Wiseman is unearthing his argument at the same time you are.
         I don't agree with all aspects of that argument. While the student protests that take up about an hour of the movie's second half may have been as inchoate and abortive as Wiseman suggests they were, and the administrators might be the entirely decent, principled and well-meaning people he depicts, I nonetheless found myself wishing Wiseman would sacrifice his umpteenth study in faculty meeting inertia for a scene among students discussing their hopes, worries, and longings without the mediation of an authority figure. But that one reservation aside, when At Berkeley ended I felt newly awakened to the polyphonic complexity of this grand, wacky circus we call civilization. At three in the morning, no less.*

*Which is actually when most such epiphanies occur, so maybe there was some higher logic to PBS's scheduling than I was willing to concede.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

my life in movies: a digest

         1-6: Movies are there more or less from the get-go. Disney, of course: The Jungle Book (1967), Robin Hood (1973), Fantasia (1940), Beauty and the Beast (1989), then Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) as they come out. Monsters lurk: Universal's old stable, though less in the actual movies than in derivative merchandise (a Frankenstein jigsaw puzzle, a coloring book featuring the whole gang); Godzilla reliably squaring off against King Kong/Mothra/Mechagodzilla on many a Saturday afternoon. Jurassic Park (1993) at age five is the first real memory of theatergoing, or at least a better foundational theatergoing memory than Beethoven (1992). Primal traumas, Spielberg-Lucas presiding: Elliott searching the bushes behind his house at night and finding ET, whose shriek of terror is the wellspring of a couple years of nightmares (ET of course turns out to be friendly and relatively docile, psychic transference thing aside, but my subconscious distrusts the narrative's trajectory and sticks with my first impression); the trash compactor at the Death Star (horrible dreams of loved ones compacted thusly), Han's body frozen stiff in a block of carbonite slamming to the floor with a jolting thud, Luke's fight with the Rancor so scary I leave the house and sit on the curb out front till it's over, so scary I don't need to see it to know it's beyond some kind of pale; hiding my face in a pillow for the heart-ripping in Temple of Doom (1984) and the Penguin biting that guy's nose off in Batman Returns (1992); more fascinated than freaked out by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia, like an early glimpse of a party I will one day be old enough to attend, but badly scarred by the demise of the dinosaurs at the end of The Rite of Spring, scarred by its swiftness, its implacability; an episode of the Discovery Channel's Movie Magic about horror movie FX introduces to my first-grade self the Hellraiser and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, plus The Exorcist (1973), Altered States (1980), and Day of the Dead (1986), showing some of their most graphic scenes almost unexpurgated, sparking after the shock wears off a quest to see them and their sequels and spinoffs, surreptitiously if necessary. My parents, sensing my nascent interest in SFX, fill a whole 8-hour VHS tape with episodes of the show, which I watch sometimes when home sick (or "sick") from school. Erol's Video on West St., then Blockbuster on Ritchie Highway, which in the early '90s has an amazing horror selection (particularly fond of/terrified by the malicious bleedy faces on the box of Lamberto Bava's Demons 2 (1986)). Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) early one morning before school and not being bored by it at all, not even confused by Dave turning into the Star Child, which just seems a natural progression of events. Certainly capable of being bored, though: I last through maybe 30 minutes of Citizen Kane (1941), then go upstairs, leaving Dad to watch his boring snowglobe movie.

         7-12: Come home one night from Cub Scout camp to find my parents have rented me Alien (1979), which leaves me surprisingly untraumatized, though the shadows in my room seem deeper than usual afterwards. Aliens (1986) is more harrowing on first go, but I quickly become so enamored with it I convince my parents to rent it for me at least half a dozen times, and I sometimes watch it twice a day, till I know every line, every detail, by rote. Aliens might also be where I discover the word "fuck." (What is this nicely percussive word the Space Marines keep grunting and blurting that upsets my mother so?) Memorize the speech Bill Pullman gives near the end of Independence Day (1996), recite it to much amusement at familial gatherings. Die Hard (1988) and its derivatives (Air Force One (1997), Die-Hard-on-a-plane, gets a lot of play when that hits VHS; memorable evening watching Con Air (1996), Die-Hard-on-another-plane, at the house of a friend whose family is the sort of family that owns a lot of movies like Con Air). The first two Terminators. The Dirty Dozen (1967), whose lengthy climax seems to play on an endless loop somewhere on cable and which marks the first time I see John Cassavetes (the second is Rosemary's Baby (1968) when I'm a little older). Siskel and Ebert. Foreign cinema, beyond the odd dubbed Toho creature feature, enters my consciousness when Kurosawa dies and Dad rents Rashomon (1951), Dreams (1991), Throne of Blood (1957). He buys me The Psychotronic Video Guide To Film at a used bookstore, which I pore over at night, furtively as though my reading it wasn't sanctioned by its being purchased for me. I sometimes read online parental viewing guides like Screen It!, as a means of indirectly experiencing the juicy parts of movies I'm not yet allowed to see, and find myself marveling at the fact that not only is there a mysterious word that can only be written on a family website as "c**t," but that there exist movies in which it is said as many as five times. I become aware of camp and its attendant snark industry with MST3K and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), which I MST on my own. Monty Python comes in around this time to colonize my sensibility, as it does that of so many other dorks. Begging my mother in Blockbuster to let me rent the wicked-cool-looking Starship Troopers (1997), her relenting only when the pimpled blueshirt behind the counter tells her I'll be okay so long as I'm an "advanced" 10-year-old. And I do turn out okay, but I'm not advanced enough to not absorb the movie's piss-take fascism credulously, as though it were the real article and as though the real article isn't something to recoil from, but surely by then I've seen the camps, the bodies stacked like kindling, in a TV documentary or two, and the tape in the back row of VHSs whose sharpie'd flank reads SCHINDLER'S LIST has acquired a haunted aura, only augmented by the eventual discovery that the tape is blank. Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968). Watch Braveheart (1995) the summer between fifth and sixth grade and ID way too hard with Mel Gibson's martyrdom complex, rewatch it regularly throughout sixth grade, bawling every time William Wallace is castrated and decapitated in that quintessentially Gibsonian variation on the sentimental ending. Flipping through Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide, 1999 ed., as our rent-a-car putters from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is currently playing at Grauman's. The Guide introduces me to a number of movies which in a decade or so will be among my holy texts, and gives most of them two stars. Mom rents me The Shining (1980) and like a good Irish Catholic fast-forwards through the bathtub scene, repeating "I don't remember this part." A short time later I get suspended for absentmindedly writing REDRUM on anti-drug pamphlets in the principal's office. Not a good idea to begin with, a worse one not even a year after Columbine. My first real inkling of what an auteur might be (after Hitchcock, anyway) is my realization that the Stanley Kubrick who made The Shining is the same Stanley Kubrick who made Dr. Strangelove (1964) and 2001. This leads me to the conclusion that I might want to see more of the movies this Stanley Kubrick guy made, since he has clearly got it figured out, whatever "it" might be. My family begins going to the movies about once a week, seeing pretty much whatever has a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Last major cinematic trauma: the assaultive flash-cuts of torture and goo in Event Horizon (1997). First R-rated movie in a theater: Gladiator (2000). I finally see Day of the Dead and hate it.

         13-18: Ebert and Roeper. More parental vacillation at Blockbuster, this time Dad wondering if The Evil Dead (1981) will decimate my psyche. It doesn't, as the extremity and cartoon artifice of the gore is impossible to take seriously, but then again it does: I become, officially and, for a spell, helplessly, a gorehound. The Horror Geek Speaks. Stephen Hunter in the Post, who I later realize is a lunatic. Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide, 2003 ed. Make Your Own Damn Movie by Tromauteur Lloyd Kaufman, which I read the same summer I take a filmmaking workshop and emerge with the desire to be a filmmaker. The first of many youthful efforts: eibmoZ (2003), a 20-minute zombie picture that I haven't seen in a while, but which I'm sure holds up as a vital contribution to cinema worthy of Fulci, or at least Wiseau. "It's the Same Old Song" at the end of Blood Simple (1984). First imported DVD: Dawn of the Dead (1978), from South Korea. Army of Darkness (1992), ft. My Personal Hero Bruce Campbell. QT soon lands like a neutron bomb. Asian cinema, psychotronic division. Leone. Coming around on Day of the Dead. The Annapolis Film Festival, the old one. First Netflix rental: Battle Royale (2000). Several hundred pages of unproduced screenplays, mostly sophomoric parodies and QT imitations, adding up mainly to an unflattering portrait of my emotional life during that year I thought the Matrix trilogy was profound, and that other year I thought Oldboy (2003) was the cinematic embodiment of the torments and longings of my secret soul, which is also the year I review movies for my high school paper and manage to get Takashi Miike's name in print on at least two separate occasions, really that whole period when I think callow nihilism is liberating, exciting, to be encouraged in others. A Clockwork Orange (1971), of course. Getting my computer privileges revoked in the school library for reading Outlaw Vern. Film Freak Central, whose Walter Chaw's erudite outrage encourages me to think and write like an asshole, too. Alex Jackson, who I know from the beginning is a lunatic, and that's why I read him. Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. 8 1/2 (1963), Gummo (1997). Goodfellas (1990) every Friday night for at least two months. The ending of Blade Runner (1983) inspires what may be my first genuinely adult thought about mortality. Then college, where I finally meet some people who like what I like.

         19-24: Not coincidentally, it's around this time I begin to feel a bit uneasy about some of what I have heretofore liked, begin to feel (there is of course a crypto-religious aspect to the cinema bug, don't let anybody tell you different) a touch of Guilt.
(--Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.
--What brings you here today, my son?
--Movies, father, I've seen movies. These movies, I don't even know where to start.
--Are they adult movies, my son? Pornographic in nature?
--Not especially, no. A lot of them are just horrible. They're horrible movies, Father, and they won't leave me be.
--Perhaps you should watch better movies.
--It's not that simple, Father, because some of them are actually pretty good.
--I don't follow.
--Well, can't a movie be technically well made and maybe even redemptive on some level and still leave you feeling like you've been walloped with a meat tenderizer for a couple hours?
--I suppose.
--Because I want to keep those around. I'm fine with those. But I've seen a lot that are irredeemable, too, and I don't know what to do with myself now that they're in my head. How can I really, truly, unmitigatedly enjoy Joyce or Pharaoh Sanders or coitus or any elevated experience in life when I've seen Cannibal Holocaust (1980) three times?
--I'm not entirely sure how I can help you.
--Three times, Father. Why did I do that to myself?
--I don't know, my son.
--I don't know, either. Can't you, like, absolve me of this, somehow, so I can at least feel I can go forth and become an upstanding citizen of the world instead of, I dunno, some wastoid vampire?
--Please, Father. I know it would just be symbolic, but it would help me. Really, it would. Father?
--Just a moment, my son. I'm trying to step outside this thicket of pathology you've led me into, so as to determine if there's a sin I can actually absolve you of. Are you Catholic?
--No, but I don't see what that has to do with anything.)

         Magnolia (1999), Requiem for a Dream (2000): a freight-train cinema of big, hysteric gestures. The Rotten Tomatoes General Discussion Forum. Film classes: Altman, Bunuel, Griffith, early Spike Lee. Faces (1968) on TCM. Pauline Kael, J. Hoberman, Andrew Sarris. Who is this Godard guy and what does he want from me? Children of Men (2006). Three, four, five movies from Hollywood Video at a time. Mounting Spielberg ambivalence. The botched robbery at Rahad Jackson's pad. The House Next Door. DFW on Lynch. Zodiac (2007), twice in theaters; There Will Be Blood (2007), five times in theaters. Jonathan Rosenbaum. The Bens--Christ, does anybody remember the Bens, how bad the Bens were? Based on the strength of my writing on forums, I'm asked to write for an up-and-coming website, and proceed to write much less fluently there than I do on said forums. Scott and Phillips, thank God. A subscription to Film Comment. Manny Farber. Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and Week End (1967): Oh, so that's what Godard wants from me. Alain Resnais. Arnaud Desplechin (How many heads does he have? How many hearts?). Dreyer, Mizoguchi, Bresson. The sublime goof that is Love Exposure (2008). The cinema of duration: Tarr, Hou, Tsai, Tarkovsky. Andrei Rublev (1969) and The Mirror (1975) in NYC. Edward Yang, Claire Denis, Hong Sang-soo. "What is the 21st Century?" Another college now, a shift in academic concentration from Film to English, though cinema is still my extracurricular jam. Jacques Rivette, Nagisa Oshima, Pedro Costa, Leos Carax, Mikio Naruse, Hal Hartley. Lemire and Vishnevetsky. First head in the door at the first-ever meeting of what becomes perhaps the strangest film club in human history. A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), Histoire(S) Du Cinema (1988-98). My undergraduate thesis is a 160 page screenplay that attempts to synthesize my college experience, literary modernism as represented by Joyce and Faulkner, and cinematic modernism as represented by Godard, Resnais et al, with what we'll call "mixed results." Hang on another year for a film minor and make a student film, my first notable cinematic effort since 2009: All My Little Words (2013), a goof, but one in which I start to work out how I might go about making movies and what I might make them about. Out 1 (1971) in the summer. Not Unlike Jean Yanne's Sideburns.

         25: Eric Rohmer, Frederick Wiseman. Destination: Lusby! (2014), another goof, but a better one, I think. "The Tracking Shot in Kapo."

possible follow-ups: my life in books, my life in videogames, my life in music, my life among others

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

the ambivalences: southland tales

PROPOSITION: It is possible to not be a fan of a movie, but nonetheless be a fan of its existence.

E.G.: My tortured relationship with one Southland Tales (2006), the vomiting-forth of seemingly every idea that passed through the mind of its writer-director, Richard Kelly, between the release of his cult classic and emoid dorm room staple Donnie Darko in 2001 and the late stages of Tales' postproduction. A gonzo satire partaking in Dickian/Pynchonesque paranoia and entropic narrative proliferation, it sounded like my jam. Then I saw the thing. While the results do come closer to Dick and Pynchon's likeminded fictions than most movies outside of actual adaptations of their work, I found Southland Tales a deflating experience on the first go-round: more ideas per minute than most movies have in their whole runtimes, but many of the ideas just don't play, or are simply vacuities cloaked in some hazy nimbus of idea-ness. It's a hugely ambitious, personal movie mounted on a scale that's only intermittently been possible in America since the '70s, and was only possible in this case because Kelly hit a nerve* the first time out, and it reveals, more than most, the limitations of the creative intelligence that birthed it. Kelly comes on here like an undergrad in a writing seminar who writes "weird" stories that are really a thinly-veiled attempt to prove to his classmates he's read more and done gnarlier drugs than he actually has.

          Take his literary references: his characters quote the Book of Revelations, the world's #1 go-to source for counterfeit portent, T.S. Eliot** and Robert Frost, conveniently the two poets that kids who skipped English to get stoned in the 3rd floor bathroom with the window are likely to know the names of. Frost/Eliot is also the Republican presidential ticket in his alternate 2008. Some of the movie's supporters made Godard comparisons, but a Godard movie would likely evince some awareness that Frost and Eliot have totally different sensibilities, and their juxtaposition would constitute a critical comment on both. With Kelly the names just hang there, signifying nothing. Ditto the moment where a homicidal policeman (played by Jon Lovitz, because why not) ominously intones "Flow my tears..." to a character (Seann William Scott, because why not) who happens to have the same surname as the protagonist of Dick's Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Geddit? Kelly's read Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Good on him, I guess.
          It's also absolutely hideous for long stretches: flat, indifferent cinematography with a color scheme that resembles a rack of pastel-hued T-shirts slathered in sickly blue light; production design that's very elaborate and clearly going for a graphic novel vibe but feels chintzy, cluttered and uninspired. But then sometimes there's an Honest-Ta-Gawd Image, or even, duck and cover kids, a Succession of Images, which suggest there is indeed a semi-lucid consciousness piloting this here vehicle towards some kind of destination, however abstract and theoretical that destination may be. I'm thinking mainly of Iraq veteran and narrator Pilot Abilene's (Justin Timberlake, see above re: why not) drug-induced musical number, wherein he strides through a boardwalk arcade, accompanied by high-kicking, white-wigged femmes (his own private Busby Berkeley dream), eventually giving up lip synching to the shitty Killers song and just pouring beer over his head and staring into the camera, numb to the world, a sequence Tsai Ming-liang or Philippe Garrel might conceivably appreciate if you got them drunk enough, but I'm also thinking of the movie's final forty minutes, which nearly achieve the dreamy, Lynch-inflected, apocalyptic delirium Kelly's aiming for.

         I suppose that's why I've seen Southland Tales more times than L'Avventura (1960) or Sansho the Bailiff (1954) or Zardoz (1974) or any number of more consistently enriching, non-irritating filmed entertainments: a hope that at some point those moments which seem to be gesturing toward a better movie will contextualize the null-node inanity surrounding them in such a way as to make the whole thing thrum and sing, as it apparently does for its proponents. Which would be more masochistic of me if those proponents didn't make such an attractive case, and if subsequent viewings didn't suggest that, whatever my aesthetic objections (I haven't even gotten into some of the acting, yeeesh), there's something to be said for it as a reflection of the modern mediascape, in which politicians and reality show stars are elevated to the same level of cultural importance, to the point where the distinctions between them start to collapse in all sorts of weird, funny, terrifying ways. In order to appreciate Southland Tales' prescience as an objet d'art, you have to come to terms with the fact that most of Kelly's attempts to comment on this new reality are as shallow and embarrassing as his characters' media personae. (A TV headline reads "The Internet Is The Future." No shit. A Republican victory in Congress is represented by a clip of elephants mating. Hardeehar.)

         As was noted by several critics when Tales came out, Mike Judge's Idiocracy (2006) is a far more effective satire of the aspects of American culture Kelly takes on here: the jokes there land, and stick. But what Southland Tales has going for it that Idiocracy*** doesn't is first the extent of its mimesis of the American Spectacle circa the aughts, maybe a dubious achievement but an achievement nonetheless, and second an undercurrent of sincere pop spirituality that's absolutely ridiculous on one level, infectious on another. In those final forty minutes, Kelly's massive cast of characters, most of whom haven't gotten past being funny names attached to inexplicable behavioral tics, assemble in and around a giant zeppelin. After they engage in some cryptic shenanigans (involving not one but three music-driven set pieces, and enough bald exposition to sink the climaxes of four other movies), the zeppelin is blown up with a rocket launcher by a proto-Jesse Pinkman (Lou Taylor Pucci) standing atop an ice cream truck that's levitating above Los Angeles, an absurd-on-about-fifteen-different-levels event Kelly characteristically imbues with leaden cosmic inevitability. Meanwhile, the world is ending several feet below him in the rear of the truck, with a handshake between quantum doubles. I won't say it's hard not to love this, because for the vast majority of human beings loving this is and will always be pretty difficult, but when Timberlake-as-narrator utters the final iteration of a sense-negating catchphrase, we smash-cut to back, and the tacky credits sweep us out of this pageant of glittering nonsense to Blur's "Tender," something moves in me. "He was a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide," isn't quite "yes I said yes I will Yes," but it's pretty much the same sentiment, when you get right down to it.
         Does that render everything that leads up to it worth wincing and facepalming and restraining the odd overpowering desire to punch a hole in the nearest swath of drywall through? Not exactly. But, dammit, this awful movie will never leave me completely alone. I greatly look forward to the day I can dandle a ruddy-cheeked youngling on my knee and speak to them the words: "There once was a two-and-a-half-hour episode of Mad TV that aspired to be Mulholland Dr...."

*A side effect of which was making the first wave of YouTube users aware of another song besides "Lux Aeterna" that might jibe well with their Buffy/Angel tribute video.
**Kelly inverts Eliot's whimper/bang line and has characters repeat it several times in the course of the movie, which inversion only becomes sort of clever if you read it as a sex pun.
***An even uglier-looking movie than Southland Tales.