Saturday, November 27, 2004


Thanks to Darren, I recently discovered YMDB (Your Movie Database), where you can make up your own top 20 favorite movies list for others to view and comment on. Catnip for a list-maniac like me.

As befits this parlor game, I'd just like to say that my intention is not to offer some canonical "greatest" list, but simply a collection of 20 films that I personally feel closest to. Whether they are well-known or obscure, I can only vouch for the fact that they are all personal, possibly eccentric but nevertheless passionately felt choices.

Okay, so here goes:

  • AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (Robert Bresson, 1967, France)
  • THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (Jacques Demy, 1966, France)
  • RULES OF THE GAME (Jean Renoir, 1939, France)
  • VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, USA)
  • ORDET (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, 1955, Denmark)
  • RIO BRAVO (Howard Hawks, 1959, USA)
  • BELLE DE JOUR (Luis Buñuel, 1967, France)
  • PATHER PANCHALI (Satyajit Ray, 1955, India)
  • BLUE VELVET (David Lynch, 1986, USA)
  • DEKALOG (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1987, Poland)
  • PERSONA (Ingmar Bergman, 1966, Sweden)
  • THE MIRROR (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975, Russia)
  • TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932, USA)
  • CONTEMPT (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963, France)
  • VOYAGE TO ITALY (Roberto Rossellini, 1953, Italy)
  • THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS (R.W. Fassbinder, 1972, Germany)
  • LE SAMOURAI (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967, France)
  • THE PUPPETMASTER (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1993, Taiwan)
  • BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, 1999, France)
  • DOGVILLE (Lars von Trier, 2003, Denmark)

Not shockingly, I discovered that my list finds several points of contact with those of Doug and Darren. I find this reassuring and flattering because frankly I'm awed by their taste.

A brief word on the upper slopes.

Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort is a deliciously bittersweet billet doux to fleeting love and eternal art. It is an ageless and unimaginably beautiful film.

And as for Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, it is a searing, divine work--a convulsive parable of existence, comprised of an entire spectrum of tones from brutal to tender. If the sublime ending of this movie leaves you unmoved, all I can do is borrow from jazz writer Richard Cook: "Tear up your organ donor card--they can't transplant hearts of stone."

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Other Peggy Lee

I'm totally nuts about jazz singers. And for me, the last great golden age of jazz singers was the 1950's.

Artists working at peak, phenomenal form during the 1950's included:

Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Wiley, Julie London, Chet Baker, June Christy, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, Chris Connor, Billy Eckstine, Sue Raney, Jeri Southern.

But for me, the two greatest of them were Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

Peggy's singing is intimate, intelligent and "unemotive"--she reminds me of the dialogue delivery from a Robert Bresson film.

When I hear this lack of overt emoting in her voice, it pulls me in, intuiting the emotional world of her song and projecting my own feelings into its narrative. And isn't that what great interpretive singing is all about?

Peggy Lee from the 1950's sounds so utterly original that it is difficult to pinpoint any other singers who might have influenced her. You have to go way back to the early 1940's to a budding Peggy in Benny Goodman's band to hear in her the two great formative influences of Billie Holiday and Lee Wiley.

Similarly with Sinatra. Frank's 1950's Capitol records are so sui generis that it is impossible to guess that he adored Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday.

Peggy's voice--its cool dreaminess, its pastel minimalism--is best heard on a record like Beauty and the Beat, recorded live with the George Shearing quintet.

Duke Ellington dubbed her "The Queen".

And when she sings Ellington's "All Too Soon" on the above live record, she calmly reduces you to mush.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Fritz Lang

My friend Darren at Long Pauses has been perusing long lists of great films, and musing about genre cinema.

I don't know if it's because I grew up in a movie-mad culture (India) on a steady diet of genre movies, but I have a great affection for genre cinema.

That said, most genre movies are pretty darned bad.

But in the hands of a great "auteur", they can become revelatory.

I've been elated this week because Fritz Lang's silent-movie thrillers, Spies and Woman In The Moon, have just come out on DVD. And they are hugely expanded, thoroughly cleaned-up reincarnations of these terrific movies.

Fritz Lang worked in almost nothing but genre cinema all his life. And yet to call him a genre filmmaker would be like saying that the Beatles wrote catchy pop songs. Sure they did, but they did a lot more than that. They used the pop song form as a convenient vehicle for their prodigious creativity and relentless sonic experimentation. And they ended up reconfiguring the frontiers of pop music, becoming an inescapable influence on all future popular music.

Though Lang worked in many genres, his films have less in common with other genre films than they do with other Fritz Lang movies.

His version of Wagner's Die Nibelungen (1924), made in Germany, is an amazingly unconscious sibling to his film noir The Big Heat (1953), made in Hollywood thirty years later with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. They are both great movies about the exact same subject--the dehumanizing toll of revenge.

Lang's movies give me a visual kick like nobody else's. Every shot, every mise-en-scène decision, every cut, every camera movement--is all at the unified service of Lang's world-view, his themes, his obsessions. Fate, morality, authority, greed, mania, the cruelty of society--these are his perennial subjects.

And yet this grave, scalding vision of life comes clothed in the comfortingly familiar context of genre cinema. How wonderfully subversive.

Luis Buñuel--himself a pantheonic art cinema icon, and no great fan of genre cinema--tells the touching story of having decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Lang's Destiny in 1925. Fifty years later, he went to Hollywood to accept an Oscar for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and met an 80-year-old Lang for the first time. Buñuel found himself uncharacteristically reduced to a fanboy, doing something he had never done before--asking for an autographed picture. Interestingly, when Lang pulled out a photo of himself as an old man and got ready to sign it, Buñuel hesitated, then blurted out, "Could I have a picture of you from the 1920's, when you made Destiny?"

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Peggy Lee

Wascally Weaselly Chanteuse-Hound.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Lisa Jarnot

Blogs can sometimes exert a weird, personal, voyeuristic fascination.

There is a small list of blogs that I ritualistically check every day. It's part of an ongoing process of peering through a window into someone's mind, and discovering a gradually unfolding person and personality.

My friend Joey, whom I've mentioned before, has long been a fan of the poetry of Lisa Jarnot. And when she started a blog, he followed it raptly. Like in any body of work, themes and motifs started to emerge, all contributing to a complex, evolving personal portrait.

When Lisa Jarnot starred in an acclaimed avant-garde film this year, he and I were eager to see it.

And so we bundled into some warm clothes and hit the road to Canada earlier this week.

The Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto screened Jennifer Reeves's film The Time We Killed, with Jarnot, and Reeves even flew up from New York to present the film and do a Q&A afterwards.

The Time We Killed is about a mentally troubled woman (played by Jarnot) who shuts herself up in her Brooklyn apartment, afraid to go out. Reeves presents, through a 90-minute collection of virtuosic images, the interior state of this woman--her nostalgic childhood memories, recollections of her ex-lover, and her impressions of the world, both real and unreal.

9/11 hits. She stirs out briefly: "Terrorism got me out of the house...but the war on terror drove me right back in."

The most amazing thing about this film, its knockout punch, is its ravishing high-contrast visual texture. Shot on a variety of materials--digital video, 16 mm and super-8, all using the unifying principle of high- contrast--the movie also weaves into Jarnot's voiceover several of her wonderful, swirling, mesmeric poems.

Over the years, Reeves took her Bolex with her on trips around the world, and filmed animals, landscapes, and people. She then ingeniously folded this footage into The Time We Killed, in essence creating, as she put it, "a home movie for a fictional character."

A little personal observation from the film. Lisa Jarnot has long, slender, beautiful hands and fingers. A small physical detail such as this would probably never register in a conventional, narrative-driven film (which is too busy propelling the story forward to privilege such detail), but here it leaps right into the foreground of the film.

But art is also artifice. It turns out that both Reeves and Jarnot have physically similar hands and though we don't realize it, the film uses footage of both Reeves' and Jarnot's hands--an old movie trick.

Jennifer Reeves said that she met Lisa Jarnot on a "blind friendship date" initiated by Stan Brakhage, who knew both of them well. Reeves later put out a casting call for this movie, received hundreds of actress head shots, and then decided that she'd rather cast a friend in the part than some professional actress she didn't know as a person.

The film has been a great success at film festivals from Berlin (where it won the international critics' prize) to Vancouver. But probably because it is something anomalous, a feature-length avant-garde film--most avant-garde films tend to be shorts--it is still without a distributor.

[There is an interesting, in-depth interview with Reeves in the new issue of Cinema Scope magazine].

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

One Thing I Can Do

In the woeful aftermath of the election, I've been racking my brain for what little I, personally, can do.

I can think of one thing--show movies to my students.

I'm a college prof who teaches business students--undergraduate and MBA--who traverse a curriculum ingrained with the worship of the profit motive.

A useful tool to shake things up a bit in the classroom might be the use of movies for consciousness-raising.

I'm thinking of some recent films, mostly documentaries, which might fit the bill--like The Corporation, The Yes Men, Stephanie Black's Life And Debt, and Ken Loach's The Navigators.

From what I know of my students, few of them watch independent or foreign films, which might be a hurdle for my project.

But I can think of one film that might break the ice.

The Yes Men is a hilarious piece of "satirical activism" (cool phrase--I'd never heard it before).

In it, two activists set up a website that mirrors the World Trade Organization (WTO) site, and get accidentally invited to business meetings and conferences around the world.

They take full advantage of this delicious error to impersonate WTO officials and make sharp Powerpoint presentations of their own devising. At one conference, they argue for the re-establishment of slavery. At another, they unveil a gold-lamé body suit with a giant phallic appendage which has a computer terminal, used to control slacker sweatshop workers in real time around the world.

The weird thing about all this is that the business audiences at these presentations accept and applaud these presentations as if they were serious!

Which proves The Yes Men's point that these outrageously fascist proposals are actually quite in accordance with both current and future business thinking! (Scary).

We all know that laughter is one of the world's great disarming devices. I can see my students cracking up over the shenanigans of the Yes Men, rendering the class perhaps more sympathetic to the political arguments of the film.

There is something moving about the resolute manner in which the two activists go about their performance-art pranks. The film captures, straight-faced, their strong spirit of absurdist subversion. Luis Buñuel would surely have approved.

If you have suggestions about films I might show my students, I would be most eager to hear them. Please drop me a line.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

What Can I Do?

For half of us, it has been one long dark night this week.

I ask myself: what can I, personally, do?

Should I stop doing all the things I now spend my time on, and see how I can devote myself to becoming actively, productively, engaged?

Meaning, should I cease my "frivolous" pursuits--my steady movie-watching and music-listening, my hours spent piano-playing, my therapeutic activity of drawing, and all my vain little scribbling on the impossibly oceanic subject of art?

My head says, "Yes--in the grand scheme of things, these are pretty frivolous activities..."

But my heart says, "Wait a second--don't you see? You do what you are."

And what I am, when it comes down to it, is someone who believes that art, in all its many wonderful forms, makes life worth living.

Art embraces and includes all--humanity, truth, beauty, God, the cosmos.

So one might say that the passion for art is a worthwhile calling.

Something more than frivolity.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Living Poor, Voting Rich

Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in the New York Times, says a few things about the Democratic Party that might make us wince, but they seem to me to have a sad and pragmatic ring of a truth to them. Here is an excerpted, edited version of his op-ed piece.

They [John Kerry’s supporters] should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting - utterly against their own interests - for Republican candidates. One of the Republican Party's major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires.

"On values, the Democrats are really noncompetitive in the heartland," noted Mike Johanns, a Republican who is governor of Nebraska. "[The Democrats'] elitist, Eastern approach to the party is just devastating in the Midwest and Western states. It's very difficult for senatorial, Congressional and even local candidates to survive."

One problem is the yuppification of the Democratic Party. Thomas Frank, author of the best political book of the year, What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, says that Democratic leaders have been so eager to win over suburban professionals that they have lost touch with blue-collar America.

"There is a very upper-middle-class flavor to liberalism, and that's just bound to rub average people the wrong way," Mr. Frank said. He notes that Republicans have used "culturally powerful but content-free issues" to connect to ordinary voters.

One-third of Americans are evangelical Christians, and many of them perceive Democrats as often contemptuous of their faith. And, frankly, they're often right. Some evangelicals take revenge by smiting Democratic candidates.

"The Republicans are smarter," mused Oregon's governor, Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat. "They've created ... these social issues [opposition to abortion, gay-marriage] to get the public to stop looking at what's happening to them economically."

"What we once thought - that people would vote in their economic self-interest - is not true, and we Democrats haven't figured out how to deal with that."

Bill Clinton intuitively understood the challenge, and John Edwards seems to as well, perhaps because of their own working-class origins. But the party as a whole is mostly in denial.

To appeal to middle America, a starting point [for Democrats] would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups.

Otherwise, the Democratic Party's efforts to improve the lives of working-class Americans in the long run will be blocked by the very people the Democrats aim to help.

The entire piece can be found here at the New York Times (subscription required).

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Four More Years

The last time it felt this helpless and hopeless was on 9/11/01.