Friday, October 29, 2004

Tender Buttons

My friend Joey Keenan, who is a poet, has been urging me to read Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons for ages. When I finally did, it was mind-blowing--a total "paradigm-shift" experience.

Tender Buttons shockingly tosses narrative overboard, and chooses to concentrate on language--its rhythms, sounds and textures. Stein wrote it in 1912, after she had moved to Paris, then the epicenter of the art world. She loved Cezanne's paintings and constructed her prose poems with repetitive phrases and sentences the way he built up his paintings with self-consciously repetitive brushstrokes.

It's pretty clear now that the course of twentieth century art would have been radically different if not for Cezanne. Both Picasso and Matisse (the two leading artists of the first half of the century) have said that neither cubism and its heirs nor abstraction in art would have resulted the way they did, without Cezanne.

In Cezanne's view, art needed to transcend its chains to slavish realism, to "merely imitating nature". Art, in other words, needed to reconstruct reality, not merely reproduce it.

Gertrude Stein said about Cezanne: "He gave me a new feeling about composition. I was obsessed with this idea of composition. It was not solely the realism of the characters but the realism of the composition which was the important thing."

Here are a couple of typically incantatory, digressive (not to mention non-sensical) sample-fragments from Tender Buttons:

"Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men."

"A blue coat is guided guided away, guided and guided away, that is the particular color that is used for that length and not any width not even more than a shadow."

I mean, how can one read that and still try to make conventional realistic "sense" of those sentences?

Gertrude Stein's publisher, the poet Donald Evans, nailed the book brilliantly:

"The last shackle is struck from context and collocation, each unit of the sentence stands independent and has no commerce with its fellows. The effect produced on the first reading is something like terror."

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Neko Case

I appear before you today to trumpet two things:

  • Neko Case's superb record Blacklisted. If you've never heard Neko, you will never believe her combination of gigantic pipes and miraculous phrasing.

    Neko's first album, The Virginian [above], was sharp alt-country, and included confident covers of Patsy Cline and Queen(!).

    But Blacklisted is a far distance away. It is moody and haunted, sung by the light of a chilly desert moon. The sound on the record is tinged with an unusual instrument, the tenor guitar, and members of the eclectic band Calexico are in attendance.

Says Neko: "I hate the Internet. I'm going to get famous the old-fashioned way, one person at a time."

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Truffaut & Fuller

Francois Truffaut died twenty years ago today. He was 53.

Truffaut was my introduction to the idea of a movie as art, shaped primarily by one person--the film director.

As a teenager in India, the film personalities I was most interested in weren't directors but stars. Like Raj Kapoor, Gregory Peck, Amitabh Bachhan and Audrey Hepburn.

And then I saw Shoot The Piano Player, which struck me with the force of a typhoon. After that, every film I saw was somehow marked by the traces of that experience, by the lessons I learned from it.

Truffaut was a movie-lover extraordinaire, who reputedly saw over ten thousand films in his (short) lifetime. He wrote passionately about movies, in particular American directors unappreciated in their own homeland.

I've always had this belief that the great American directors were often intuitive geniuses who tended, unlike their European counterparts, to not be very analytical or explicative about "the art of cinema", leaving that task to others.

I am reminded today of a few words from Truffaut on one of my favorite American filmmakers:

"Samuel Fuller is not a beginner, he is a primitive; his mind is not rudimentary, it is rude; his films are not simplistic, they are simple, and it is this simplicity that I most admire. We can't learn anything from an Eisenstein or an Orson Welles, because their genius makes them inimitable, and we can only make ourselves ridiculous when we try to imitate them by placing the camera on the floor or on the ceiling.

On the other hand, we have everything to learn from those American directors like Samuel Fuller who place their cameras "at the height of the human eye" (Howard Hawks), "who don't look, they find" (Picasso). It's impossible to say to yourself, faced with a Samuel Fuller film, "It should have been done differently, faster, this way or that." Things are what they are, they are filmed as they must be; this is direct, irreproachable, "given" cinema, rather than assimilated, digested or reflected upon."

Fuller films often beggar any attempt to describe them in (mere) words, but if the above Truffaut passage makes you curious about seeing more Fuller movies, it has done its job.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

So Many Movies...

My friend Rob, who is a film critic for Paste magazine, has bravely pointed out something that we movie-lovers are usually too self-conscious or embarrassed to admit--that there are just too many good movies out there for us to really wrap our arms (and heads) around.

If you'll indulge me some navel-gazing on the challenges ("glass half-empty") or fortune ("glass half-full") of being a cinephile:

Like Rob, I probably see at least a couple of hundred films a year, all told. When I performed a quick informal statistical analysis on this recently, I found that over the last few years, a full third of the films I've seen are ones that I've seen before. In fact, the work of some directors all but demands repeat viewings (e.g., Resnais, Godard).

I've seen what is perhaps Resnais's most complex film, Muriel, just once, and it is pretty much just a pleasant mosaic-like blur in my mind. I travelled hours to catch Godard's epic-length opus Histoire(s) Du Cinema but it's almost like I walked away with merely a sense of it--such is its complexity and density. One viewing barely gave you a lay of the land.

And then there are the films of directors whose work I find so rich and delightful, humane and lyrical, that I rush back to spend time with them again and again every chance I get (e.g., Lubitsch, Renoir or Wong Kar-Wai). So, in addition to all the great movies I've never seen, I also find myself itching to get back to seeing old ones all over again.

Being an "auteurist", when I see a film by a director I feel an affinity for, I feel like going out and immersing myself in their movies for weeks or months. There was a time when I was younger (and more zealous) when I used that immersion approach a lot (and it was often revelatory, for example, with the films of Fassbinder or Ophuls in my case). But looking back, it seems downright obsessive behavior--even more obsessive than your garden-variety cinephilia. These days, it seems more fun to mix a film-week up thoroughly and improvisationally to allow for unexpected connections and unconscious serendipities.

I've slowly come to the self-realization over the years that I particularly value being "open" to a broad spectrum of work--ideally, all periods of film history, all countries, all genres (well...almost--my tolerance for the horror film has plummeted over the years). I like to give movies and directors a real chance, try to figure out where they're coming from, and see what they have to offer me.

I admire Rob because when he talks or writes about movies, he does so with precision, specificity and lucidity. And yet he often leaves room (in an "open" fashion) for revisions and refinements contingent upon the possibility of re-visiting a film again (and again) in the future. It is a model approach to learning and growing as a cinephile.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Discovering Ozu

Being an extreme movie-lover, I think there are some filmmakers whose work I feel I should know. One of them is the greatly admired Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

The way cinephiles spend their time might shock "normal" people.
Case in point. I think I've seen over 25 films by the much lesser known Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, and I know I've taken in pretty much every film by the prolific Fritz Lang (both German and American).
But as for Ozu, I'm ashamed to say that my feet are barely wet. Of his movies, I've seen only Tokyo Story (his most famous; pictured above) and Good Morning.

But I didn't plan it that way. I certainly didn't go out of my way to avoid his movies. In fact, I've always looked forward to the opportunity of seeing them.

Inspired by conversations at my friend Doug Cummings's site FilmJourney, I resolved to begin remedying this cine-defect in my character. Last night, I watched Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

It was such a thrilling experience that I feel like I could babble away for pages about the movie. But fear not, gentle reader, I'll be brief.

What really struck me about An Autumn Afternoon was that:

  • it is marvelously, cleansingly, minimal.
  • it makes the average film look hyper, hurried and overstuffed.
  • the movie's use of color is careful and controlled, not unlike Hitchcock's films of the same period.
  • it is a film that is constantly surprising--like in its razor-sharp cuts and its scene transitions; and
  • it is very funny--in a mature, wise, yet satirical way.

All the time I'm thinking, "There's no way this movie could have been made by someone under fifty". (Ozu was sixty at the time, and it was his farewell film).

I really should take that little Ozu road trip I've been considering, later this week.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Hooked On Audioblogs

Man, there are entire worlds out there that I've been completely clueless about.

Like the world of mp3 audioblogs, which I recently discovered through stories in Newsweek and Rolling Stone.

After living in the audioblogosphere for a few days, please allow me to lay on you a short list of personal faves:

  • Oliver Wang's Soul Sides, which favors soul and hip-hop.
    Recommended: pretty much everything here is a winner, e.g., the hilarious and rasta-toasted "AK's Groove" by the Mental Giants.

  • Cocaine Blunts & Hip-Hop Tapes. Keeper of hip-hop's hidden and unjustly obscure treasures.
    Recommended: "Represent" by Kaotic Style (irresistible chorus: "Leave your nines at home/and bring your rhymes to the battle").

  • The Naugahyde Life. Eclectic and tasty.
    Recommended: June Christy's classic "Something Cool" or Teddy Pendergrass's sweet-smooth title ballad from Alan Rudolph's 1984 movie Choose Me.

  • Silence Is A Rhythm Two. Superb taste and enlightening commentary.
    Recommended: Bomb the Bass' acid house/breakbeats cover of Burt Bacharach's "Say A Little Prayer" had me grinning like a little kid.

  • The formidable West African music audioblog, Benn Loxo Du Taccu.
    Recommended: Alpha Yaya Diallo, singer-guitarist from Guinea.

  • The elegant French site La Blogotheque, which can help you brush up on your French-language skills, but provides English-language text if you don't want to.
    Recommended: an obscure gem--a delicate, waifish cover of Lee Hazlewood's "By The Way (I Still Love You)" by Cagney & Lacee, a side-project of Luna's Dean Wareham.

  • Copy, Right?, featuring a delicious menu of covers.
    Recommended: Innocence Mission's poignant version of the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer jazz-pop standard "Moon River", from Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Tunes typically remain available for a limited time, usually a week or two.

A good-sized directory of audioblogs can be found at Blogorrhea.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Irma Vep

Ever been addicted to a movie that you've returned to over and over again? For me, that would be Irma Vep, which I've probably seen more times than any other film.

Irma Vep (1996), by Olivier Assayas, is one of the great movies about the making of a movie. In it, a burned-out New Wave veteran director, played by Truffaut icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, attempts to remake the classic 1915 French crime serial Les Vampires, with Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung playing the lead character, Irma Vep.

The movie most obviously recalls Truffaut's Day For Night, but it doesn't wear its romanticism on its sleeve as much as Day For Night does. Irma Vep's tone is much darker, much more night than day.

There are two movies hiding inside Irma Vep. One of them, which is easier to see, records the bustling business and petty back-biting on and off a movie set. The other, not-so-obvious component of Irma Vep, is about how wretched confusion and outright breakdown can sometimes lead, unexpectedly, to great art.

Olivier Assayas infuses Irma Vep with a thorough, thrilling global flavor. Maggie Cheung, who speaks perfect, British-accented English, is a Hong Kong action diva making a film in Paris. When a new director steps in to replace the emotionally unstable Leaud, he is played by Colombian-born actor Lou Castel, the unsavory film director in German filmmaker Fassbinder's Beware The Holy Whore.

Assayas has always had an unparalleled ear for pop music, and he peppers the soundtrack with marvelous sounds like alt-rock band Luna's cover of Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie & Clyde", Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure's Talking Timbuktu, and his perennial favorites Sonic Youth.

In the maelstrom of mercenary hijinks and crazy delusions which Irma Vep documents, the serene center is Maggie Cheung, who observes this madness with bemusement. Assayas films her with the attention and glow of a director clearly in love with his lead actress. [They were later married, briefly].

Monday, October 11, 2004

Love & Happiness

I once saw Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander play at a small, makeshift jazz festival. He used a large Labatt's Beer box for a bench and his piano was rickety and untuned. No matter--he sounded heavenly.

Thanks to that erudite house of immaculate taste, the Tofu Hut, we can hear some prime Monty.

This is a haunting cover of Al Green's "Love and Happiness" that he did with the great reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin. I love all his electric-piano stabs of lovely, thick, sweet-and-sour chords.

It's not jazz, it's not soul, it's not reggae, and it's all of them and more.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

New Shoes

A visit to the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto inspires some new, though impractical, shoe designs.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


Sometimes, when you watch a movie that doesn't quite work though you want it to, you want to reach into it and extract like a pearl the great movie that you think might be hiding inside. I felt that way about Michael Mann's Collateral, the thriller which stars Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.

The great film that Collateral has in it would consist only of Los Angeles at night, shot by Michael Mann on high-definition video in gorgeous super-saturated colors--pulsating reds, smearing oranges, tart yellows, and blues that you can actually taste on your tongue.

It would be a nocturnal city symphony, with no need for dialogue or for its thriller plot. It would have, as Mann himself has said about the movie, "the feel of a lifeboat making a night-time odyssey through the city."

As Mann's dazzling eye guides us through this sprawling, glowing, genuinely exciting city, who needs the fake excitement of drug deals and hit-men?

Monday, October 04, 2004

Hal Hartley

People don't smile in Hal Hartley's movies. He doesn't allow it. "It's an easy win," he says, "too easy."

People are young and romantic and troubled in Hal Hartley's movies. Their parents are old and bitter and doomed.

People are chaste in Hal Hartley's movies. Often, they fall in love but don't sleep together during the course of the movie.

People speak in Hal Hartley's movies like they're making music--precise, percussive music.

Hal Hartley movies that are dear friends of mine: The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1991), Simple Men (1992) and Amateur (1994).

Friday, October 01, 2004

A Warning Note

Jonas Mekas--poet, Lithuanian immigrant, and legendary figure of American experimental cinema--founded the film column of the Village Voice almost five decades ago.

I love movies, which is why I'm drawn to this hilarious and passionate example of "movie love", a short piece Mekas wrote in the Voice in 1969:

"This is an open warning note to the projectionist of the Museum of Modern Art: Last Thursday I sat through a beautiful, old, silent Russian movie, and while I watched it silently--and two hundred other people watched it, silently, you couldn't hear a needle drop--you, there, a rotten, no-good, stinking, cowardly, snickering, stupid, squirming, yellow bastard, you were there talking in your projection booth at the top of your stupid, creaking, ugly voice, providing to the film the most horrible soundtrack the devil could ever invent; you, who are supposed to love films, whose bread and life is films, whose profession is the projection of films--how come you hate them so much, how come you have so little respect for the films you project and for the people whom you serve, who pay for your bread? I am still so disgusted with you that I don't want even to hear your answer. I have only this to tell you: WATCH OUT! If you plan to do the same again, that is, if I catch you again destroying films with your horrible yapping, remember this: Watch out, on your way home. I'll be there in the dark street, waiting for you, with a heavy hot splicer in my hand, and you should begin to count your seconds by the time you leave the projection booth. I am not going to reveal what I'm going to do to you, it will all depend on how angry you make me again, you horrible creature, destroyer of old beauties of cinema, watch out, this is my first warning!"