Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Died And Went To Movie Heaven

As Ira Gershwin might say, it's beau travail if you can get it

Darren's got me looking forward to the Toronto International Film Festival and looking back in nostalgia. I just realized that it'll be my seventh year heading up north in the fall. Life has its uncertainties and its confusions but this annual trip has always remained the most reliably fun week of the year.

In the first few years, my enthusiasm almost got the better of me. I picked up press credentials and covered the festival at length, pushing myself to catch five or even six films a day. In this direction lay insanity (or at the very least, silliness). In the last couple of years, I've cut back to a leisurely three films a day with plenty of time in between to lounge in cafés with friends, stroll around downtown Toronto, and shop for used books and CDs.

The nostalgia I mentioned? Here it comes, a handful of random memories:

  • Watching half the audience walk out of Gus van Sant's Gerry, after which van Sant gets up and graciously apologizes for "boring" the audience. (A trancey and minimalist movie starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. I liked it a lot).

  • Witnessing filmmakers you admire introducing their newly born movie-babies, nervously, to their first audiences. Some of them are humble (Claire Denis, Tsai Ming-Liang, van Sant), some respond to puzzled questions from audiences by calling them a bunch of dolts (Bruno Dumont, 29 Palms), and others are so articulate that you think, that's not fair — they're North Americans too, how do they get to sound smarter than us (Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Guy Maddin)?

  • Realizing that the maker of films as intimidating and yucky as Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell is a gentle, soft-spoken, refined woman (Catherine Breillat).

  • Discovering a new director (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) hitherto unknown in the West, and seeing seven of his films, one every day for a week. Watching him evolve from making pink (Japanese softcore) films to thrillers to metaphysical horror films and sociopolitical allegories.

  • Running into an incredible movie, and elated, giving away your tickets for the rest of the day. Sometimes, one movie a day is all you can handle. (La Captive, Code Unknown).

  • Getting to the scene in the new Claire Denis movie (Beau Travail) with Denis Lavant on the dancefloor, and thinking, "This is ridiculous!" and then a couple of minutes later, as the scene continues, it dawns on you, "This is amazing!"

Monday, June 27, 2005

Teen Movies

Samantha Mathis in Pump Up The Volume

When I was a teenager, my parents, alarmed by what they saw as an unhealthy obsession with movies, attempted some good old-fashioned brain-washing. They took me to see a Tamil movie called Cinema Payithhiyam, loosely translated as "Derangement by Cinema". It didn't work. What was meant to be a cautionary tale of a film-fixated teen came across to me as a romantic — if slightly excessive — celebration of the power of movies to colonize the unconscious.

After I moved to the States, I was surprised to discover that the Hollywood movies that spoke to me most about the social, political and emotional truths of life in America were often not thrillers or family dramas or romantic comedies or gangster films, but teen movies like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Dazed And Confused, Clueless, Donnie Darko, Ghost World, and Elephant. And those that weren't quite in the above heavyweight class, but well worth it nevertheless, like Risky Business, Saved!, Freaky Friday, Mean Girls, and Can't Hardly Wait.

Recently, I caught up with a little gem that I must have let slip way back when, Pump Up The Volume from 1990. Christian Slater plays an anonymous pirate-radio DJ broadcasting to the teen community every night from his bedroom, eventually whipping them up into a frenzy of disaffection. Written and directed by a Canadian, Allan Moyle, it reminds me of the grandaddy of the modern teen movie, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause, in that the sympathies of the filmmaker rest entirely with the teens. They live in a compromised and cowardly world built for and by adults. Worse, the adults are like pod people, body snatchers wandering around anesthetized, their mission to instill (inject? infect?) "wholesome family values" in their kids. The teenagers in Pump Up The Volume stand — without really knowing it — for integrity, authenticity, and the spirit of constant questioning. And to top it off, the movie has a great, tough, open-ended, unsentimental finish.

And so, it would be fun to know: what are some of your favorite teen movies? Comment box below, shiny and new, gleams like a newly polished confessional.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bill Frisell

Candy-Striped Power Tool

Some reasons why guitarist Bill Frisell is so cool:

  • He sounds utterly like nobody else

  • This distinctive "voice" of his, it registers like some weird mercury ghost

  • As with Thelonious Monk, you tend to get the mistaken first impression that his playing is a touch naive and hesitant

  • Someone once called him the "Clark Kent of the electric guitar": gentle and self-effacing in person, and a fire-breathing dragon when his fingers are on the frets

  • Best of all, it makes no sense to imprison him in any one idiom (like jazz)

On his album Have A Little Faith, in all seriousness, he performs compositions by: Aaron Copland ("Billy The Kid"), Madonna ("Live To Tell"), Charles Ives, Dylan, Sousa and Stephen Foster. And they all sound like he wrote them.

Recently, his trio (acoustic bass, drums) played on the campus of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Frisell entered, in most unjazz-like fashion, with a yellow Telecaster slung around his neck. He positioned himself in front of a small army of low-tech effects pedals. He let a note ring, and like a mad scientist, twiddled and turned some knobs, stomping on the pedals once or twice. Soon, you heard the wheezy snarl of a loop echoing over and over. The bassist and drummer raised their eyebrows. Then they dipped their feet slowly in the water to test the temperature, and slid in. And the band was off.

An hour's worth of a glorious racket followed. Melodically, it was like roots music; harmonically, it was like jazz; rhythmically, it was like rock n' roll; and texturally, it was like nothing else, just pure Frisell. By the end, it became clear that the show had been almost entirely improvised.

Frisell returned for a quick encore. It was a sweet slow-burn version, finger-picked on electric guitar, of Burt Bacharach's "What The World Needs Now Is Love".

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


[Jaime Hernandez, "Love & Rockets"]

So far, I've been too chicken to turn on comments out of an irrational, luddite fear of a comment spam invasion. Pretty dumb, but there it is.

The comments section is now wide open, and I'd love to hear from you, whenever you feel the urge to holla back.

Also, the site syndication feed is now turned on and blazing, for those of you who use Bloglines and such.

Thank you so much for continuing to come by.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Live From Tofu Hut

It's a thrill to present guest blogger John Seroff of the eminent Tofu Hut. When the committee meets in Stockholm soon to award the inaugural music-blogging Nobel, they better be a shrewd bunch and foresee the rioting in the streets that is sure to follow if their pick isn't John. He is a scary-good blogman, assembling encyclopedic posts with faultless taste, scores of links and erudite commentary. Here's a Newsweek story featuring him, and here's a Tofu Hut sample post to give you an idea.

And now John takes on the currently circulating film meme.

1. Total number of films I own on DVD and video.

Not many really. I've had to move around quite a bit, which means that I've had to get rid of things I've accumulated. Probably only about forty DVDs (three seasons of The Simpsons, the Ultimate Universal Wolf Man and Deadwood Season One making up the bulk of that); I'm not even sure if I still have a videotape anymore.

2. Last film I bought.

Wow, I never buy films. I rent like a hardcore freak tho'; both via Netflix and through the New York Public Library. As a matter of fact, I just got back from the library with a copy of the Criterion Edition of Time Bandits; does that count?

3. Last film I watched.

Watched Hotel Rwanda with the girl last night and couldn't even get further than forty-five minutes into it. Very very weak film, very much an American gloss on a far too complex topic overweighed with constant exposition, hamhanded filmmaking and oversimplification. I'm glad to see anything bringing U.S. eyes to the atrocities going on overseas that we could have some impact on if our elected officials decide we consider it a priority, rant rant, etc. - but - this just
didn't make for interesting or informative watching. F'r chrissakes, prior to the first massacre there are dark storm clouds on the horizon. I'm sure there will eventually be some powerful films to come out of the Tutsi massacres; this isn't one of them.

4. Five films I watch a lot (or that mean a lot to me).

I've seen these films more than three times and at least once recently:

-- My Neighbor Totoro
-- The Seven Samurai
-- Happiness of the Katakuris
-- Goodfellas
-- Lagaan

5. If you could be any character portrayed in a movie, who would it be?

What a strange question! How about God in The Apple, the 1980 anti-music-industry Orwellian-dystopia/Jesus-will-save-the-music love-in by Menahem Golan?

As a movie watcher, I'm a bit of an obsessive: I try for about three films a week as a minimum and have a sense of having missed out if I go a week without; so far this year, I've probably seen about seventy or so. The last movie I saw in theaters was Howl's Moving Castle, which had a disappointing ending but was well worth the trouble; I'll likely go see a few Werner Herzog films and some stuff at the Museum of Modern Art along with Batman Returns in the near future.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Film Meme

Darren has fired off a film meme in my direction.

1. Total number of films I own on DVD and video.

About four hundred or so on DVD.
And about two thousand on video, obsessively taped off cable over a period of about ten years. I have an upstairs closet full of them, all (once again, obsessively) labelled and indexed. I hope to watch them all some day!

2. Last film I bought.

Last week I picked up Xala (1975) by the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. It blew me away when I saw it on the big screen a few years ago and I never thought it would see the light of DVD. Definitely the most under-hyped DVD release of a great movie this year.

3. Last film I watched.

Late last night I popped Sergio Leone's For A Few Dollars More into the player, thinking I'd fall asleep to its desert-sun Morricone. Two hours later, eyes bugging out, I was rooting Clint Eastwood on to plug Gian Maria Volonte in the final duel.

4. Five films I watch a lot (or that mean a lot to me).

The Young Girls Of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967) — The film I've seen the most number of times, upwards of twenty. It's a technicolor widescreen French musical with Catherine Deneuve and Gene Kelly. Three reasons why it's so damn amazing: Michel Legrand, Michel Legrand, Michel Legrand.

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) — Reminds me each time that cinema is a medium of pure hypnosis. Also, the greatest movie about romantic obsession that I know.

Frantic (Roman Polanski, 1988) — The most satisfying thriller I've ever seen. Harrison Ford is an American doctor whose wife Betty Buckley goes missing in Paris. Filled with all the Polanski trademarks — dread, absurdity and black humor. And it's carloads of fun.

Nenette Et Boni (Claire Denis, 1996) — Nobody, just nobody films the physical world and the bodies of men and women with the attentiveness and utter wonder of Denis. And her cutting is so beautiful and startling that it reminds me of a composer sustaining, for an hour and a half, an ever-surprising chord progression. I get all rapturous for a day or two after I've seen a Denis movie. How I wish this one was on DVD.

Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai, 1997) — Most people prefer In The Mood For Love, but I like this one best because it's Wong's darkest, most visceral film. And ironically, it's got visual lyricism to burn. Maybe I just like its feeling of deep displacement (Hong Kong lovers in Buenos Aires), maybe it's the Astor Piazzolla tangos, maybe it's the performances of Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung. This one practically lives on my night-stand.

5. If you could be any character portrayed in a movie, who would it be?

Since we're wishing, why not wish for something we know will never come true? I'm thinking of a pregnant Japanese girl named Yoko who lives in Tokyo, travels a lot, teaches Japanese, and spends her free time researching a modernist composer and the places he might have lived and worked. It's the quiet, contented, self-sufficient urban existence that I've always dreamed about. Except for the "pregnant" part.

This meme is now on its way to John and Ed should they feel inclined to receive it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Fifteen Reasons Why 1990 Was A Great Year For Music

  • Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet
  • Rosanne Cash, Interiors
  • Yo La Tengo, Fakebook
  • Lisa Stansfield, Affection
  • Pet Shop Boys, Behavior
  • Brian Eno/John Cale, Wrong Way Up
  • Lou Reed/John Cale, Songs For Drella
  • LL Cool J, Mama Said Knock You Out
  • A Tribe Called Quest, People's Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm
  • Pixies, Bossanova
  • Madonna, The Immaculate Collection
  • Red Hot & Blue: Tribute To Cole Porter
  • Queen Latifah, All Hail The Queen
  • Nick Lowe, Party Of One
  • Sonic Youth, Goo

Not sure why but my current-listening stack of CDs this week seems to favor what I was listening to in the late eighties and early nineties.

In 1990, Robert Christgau turned me on to hip-hop. If protest music assumed folk-music forms in the sixties, Public Enemy transplanted it to white-hot noise-rap in the eighties. LL Cool J, still just twenty-two, was already an old-school legend with several records under his belt. The jazzy and positivist A Tribe Called Quest thumbed their noses at gangsta rap. And the Queen Latifah record bristles with feminist no-nonsense and humor.

Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell split and she made the darkest break-up record I have ever heard. (Don't put it on late at night). Lou Reed and John Cale recorded a touching tribute to former friend and producer Andy Warhol. Both the Lisa Stansfield album and the Madonna compilation are gorgeous, intelligent dance-pop (a feeble and derogatory term that insults their quality). New Order notwithstanding, my favorite techno-pop songwriters Pet Shop Boys made a sonically punchy record thanks to guitars and Johnny Marr.

Brain Eno returned with his first batch of "songs" since 1977's classic Before And After Science. (His next song-oriented album, made fifteen years later, is being released today). Yo La Tengo dug up a handful of warm acoustic covers from their vast LP collections. And Sonic Youth followed up Daydream Nation by going major-label and delivering a perfectly good (and noisy) record that included a sweet, unironic tribute to Karen Carpenter.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Au Hasard Balthazar

[Illustration by Canadian alt-comics artist Seth].

Reason for jubilation. The favorite film of many a cinephile arrives on DVD, thanks to Criterion.

Its beautiful title, robbed of its internal rhyme, translates soggily into English as "By Chance, Balthazar", signalling that it could have been anyone's story, and only happens, this time around, to be that of this donkey.

A handful of reviews: Manohla Dargis, J. Hoberman and Roger Greenspun's from the Times, written in 1970.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Maud & Miscellany

  • Late to the party as usual. I've recently discovered that Maud Newton's blog is addictive. She marks her three-year blogging anniversary ("I think that equates to about 75 human years"). [thanks, Jim].

  • From several months ago, an essay Maud wrote on blogging in Maisonneuve.

  • Find of the week: the art/illustration blog Drawn.

  • And some cool new music releases to look forward to this summer. Mainly Brian Eno (his first vocal album in fifteen years) and Missy Elliott.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Funny Ha Ha

A while back, I was whining about Garden State, a movie that attempted to convey the uncertainties of twentysomethings. Well, here comes a movie about people the same age that gets it perfectly right: Funny Ha Ha by Andrew Bujalski.

There are several ace American filmmakers who have traveled this way before. I'm thinking of Richard Linklater, Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach, whose movies are all screenwriting-driven and dialogue-dependent. Smart, analytical, witty talk is at the heart of their films. In particular, Funny Ha Ha reminded me a bit of Baumbach's 1995 Kicking And Screaming, with Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey. But there is a key difference between Bujalski and these directors.

At Harvard, Bujalski studied documentary filmmaking, not screenwriting, and the difference shows. There is dialogue in Funny Ha Ha, but almost none of it is of the funny ha ha variety. Instead, he records the often silent, awkward and inarticulate moments that we all know so well from real life. It feels like we are watching a documentary.

And yet, the most interesting aspect of this film for me is that it is not a documentary. It is a deliberately crafted, carefully edited fiction film that applies documentary principles. It does not merely film a pre-existing reality the way a documentary might. It re-creates a reality, based upon a structured script. It is not an autobiographical film, the director has said, but instead a personal film.

Reality itself does not automatically make for art. Simply photographing reality does not create art. Reality needs to be selected, guided and shaped by an artist into art. Funny Ha Ha feels spontaneous, voyeuristic, and "real" and it's easy to think that Bujalski turned on the camera and watched while his non-professional actors played out their daily lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the director shot the film in 16 mm rather than video partly because film is inherently a more painterly medium than video and thus his movie will less likely be confused as an improvisationally-based "reality show".

And now to end with a customary gripe about the commercial state of film art in America. Bujalski has received dozens of ecstatic reviews for Funny Ha Ha and has just finished his second film. He still remains unable to make a living with his filmmaking and is current applying for a position to sub in the Boston public school system.

Doug has written a terrific review of the film.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Kings & Queen

Here's the film festival paradox.

On the one hand, spending a week watching films is tailor-made vacation fun-time. On the other hand, the best films at the festival are often those that are at the leading edge of cinema as an art form, going where no other film has gone before. In other words, they are demanding films that really make you work for your kicks. And to complicate things, there are few reviews to clue you in ahead of time because many of these films are brand new, the celluloid practically wet.

Last year in Toronto, after about a half-hour of Arnaud Desplechin's Kings And Queen, I was ready to throw in the towel ("what the hell is this?") but I'm so glad I didn't. It's not that the first half-hour was bad -- I just didn't get what the movie was doing.

Weeks passed, and I couldn't dislodge this maddening movie from my thoughts. And in my mind, it just got better and better with time.

Kings And Queen, which has just been released in the U.S., is a royal-size soap opera which bobs and weaves with relentless inventiveness. It turns its incredulous audience into tightrope walkers. There's no way he can keep this up, you think, and yet Desplechin does, for two-and-a-half hours. ("No more timid movies," he has declared in interviews).

All this thrilling recklessness is fine and great, but it wouldn't work without the director's compassion for his characters, which matches in size the crazy formal ambitions of this film. Desplechin, like Cassavetes, will go to the ends of the earth for his actors -- they are his most precious asset. He trusts them to keep pace as he surges forward, and they -- Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric -- oblige movingly. Not only does this film have dynamite performances, the film itself becomes a thesis about "performing".

I urge you to see it, and follow this one rule if you can: don't judge it till it's over, and even then, give it the benefit of doubt. The film, I promise, will reward in return.