Monday, January 30, 2006


If you’re a blogger, I urge you to consider throwing down with us at our two upcoming blog-a-thons. If you don’t know what a blog-a-thon is, please go here. (See: didn't that look like fun? Trust me. It was.) And if you're not a blogger, this is an excellent reason to start that blog you know you've been meaning to.

On Monday, February 13, we’ll be blogging Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000). For details, please see the comments to this post and this one; Flickhead has an announcement about it too. So far, ten of us are writing about the film. More, merrier.

Monday, March 27, is Ferrara-thon Day (see comments to this post), when we’ll be doing the movies of Abel Ferrara, whose filmography includes: King Of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, Body Snatchers, The Addiction, Dangerous Game a.k.a Snake Eyes, Ms. 45, ‘R Xmas, The Blackout, The Driller Killer, etc.

I'll be including a list of links to everyone's posts in my own blog-a-thon posts, so if you decide to join us, please drop me an email or leave me a comment and I'll be glad to add you to that list. Okay, I'll let you go now; perhaps you're headed to...Netflix?

Friday, January 27, 2006

First Movie Memory

Wartime London. A bachelor flat. An unopened bottle of whisky sits on the side-table next to the telephone. The man—a recovering alcoholic—walks over to the window and opens the curtains. He doesn’t see the street, or the cloudy night sky: just the whisky bottle reflected like a bright lamp in the window. Suddenly he is standing by the bottle, which has now become the epicenter of the room. The man has a wooden leg.

All we hear now is a loud clock. The man starts to sweat, and he starts to shrink. A deep close-up of the innards of the clock—it looks like some robotic predator, breathing loudly, its mechanism emitting not one sound but several metronomic lines, intertwined in industrial counterpoint. Meanwhile, the clock is expanding to fill the frame, crowding the man to the edge.

Overlap dissolves of clock and man now coming harder and faster, the soundtrack swelling. The wallpaper, previously innocuous, is now replaced by neatly arranged patterns of black bottles. Next, with a thunderclap, the walls are transformed, every inch paneled with a phalanx of clocks, just clocks, in a deafening roar. The man is now on the brink of derangement. He looks up, and finds a giant monster in the room, standing as tall as the ceiling. It is the looming, lumbering whisky bottle. He stands stunned for a few seconds. Then, instead of being cowed by the bottle like you would expect him to be, he hobbles over to it and starts raining feeble blows on it with his fists. The bottle starts to tip in his direction, getting ready to crush him completely as it falls.

This is the first movie scene that I can remember from my childhood. For the longest time, I could recall just stark black-and-white images and clock-music, until I returned to it as an adult and filled in the details. It's from a beautiful thriller by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger called "The Small Back Room" (1948).

So, if you feel like reminiscing: The first film (or scene from a film) that you can remember?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Brian Eno's Diary

I’ve long been an admirer of Brian Eno, and have lately been having a blast with his diary, "A Year With Swollen Appendices," which he kept in 1995. During the course of that year, he worked as producer with Bowie, U2 and James, in addition to his own musical projects, and found time to daily record his reflections—personal, quotidian, philosophical, unacademic, intuitive, autodidactic, humorous, and always interesting. I thought I’d collage a few choice ones:

April 17: [About his two little daughters] The girls naming their dolls: Irial comes up with names like Barassiwa, or Sharamooshala, or Ilazia Ha, all of which have very obscure pronunciations, whereas Darla’s are carefully considered permutations of Flower, Love, Heart And Beauty (such as Heart Love, Beauty Flower, Beauty Love Flower, etc.)

June 7: We all went to see Peter Gabriel in the evening at his enormous new/semi-derelict house in Holland Park. What a project to embark upon! He's a born DIY-er, but on a sort of cosmic scale…His interesting qualities are vision and stubbornness in about equal mixture—he’s so tenacious to his ideas. I give them up as soon as there's the least resistance, and try to find another way. He's like an army, unstoppable; I'm a guerilla, avoiding the main roads and looking for a good spot to snipe from.

We went for a coffee, and I asked him for a dress for Pagan Fun Wear. He had the idea to make something like a table worn as a dress, with gold cutlery, plates and serviettes on it—a meal served. Great idea, but very hard to get made in the time (especially since he wants to approve it first).

August 2: [On art] Trying to make things that can become better in other people's minds than they were in yours.

September 8: One history of music would chart the evolution and triumph of noise over purity in music. The Renaissance looked for clear, pure tones and coherent, stackable voices. Since then it has been outside all the way, with composer after composer looking for more raspy and complicated timbres. Indeed, if one measured noisiness of instrumentation on a scale of 100, the classical palette would stop at about 50, but the rock palette wouldn’t even start until about 30 (and would then continue all the way out to about 90—a figure constantly rising).

Distortion and complexity are the sources of noise. Rock music is built on distortion: on the idea that things are enriched, not degraded, by noise. To allow something to become noisy is to allow it to support multiple readings. It is a way of multiplying resonances. It is also a way of "making the medium fail”—thus giving the impression that what you are doing is bursting out of the material: "I'm too big for this medium."

October 3: Bowie called from a distant American hotel room to relay the O.J. verdict to me as it was delivered, describing the scene in court etc. Then it was on our TV too, so we were watching it together. I don't know what city he was in—Detroit, I think. Incredible tension, with Ito slowly going over all the rules. Then the verdict—and the beautiful sad face of Marcia Clark, outwitted by shysters.

March 22: Home early. Cinema: The Madness Of King George—betweeen so-so and OK. Like most movies, I shall probably never think of it again.

October 19: Reading Boorstin’s The Creators: what a bastard Beethoven sounds—arrogant, paranoid, disagreeable. Why am I still surprised when people turn out to be not at all like their work? A suspicion of the idea that art is the place where you become what you'd like to be—Peter Schmidt’s "more desirable reality"—rather than what you already are?

October 24: Interviews in the morning and visit to VH1 to do a chat show with J. D. Considine and others. Everyone talks ten-to-the-dozen and has immediate and passionate opinions about absolutely everything. This is TV passion—instant, intense, forgettable. I feel like a tweedy egghead snail—slow, careful.

[A letter to Dave Stewart of Eurythmics] A few years ago I came up with a new word. I was fed up with the old art-history idea of genius—the notion that gifted individuals turn up out of nowhere and light the way for all the rest of us dummies to follow. I became (and still am) more and more convinced that the important changes in cultural history were actually the product of very large numbers of people and circumstances conspiring to make something new. I call this “scenius”—it means "the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene". It is the communal form of the concept of genius. This word is now starting to gain some currency—the philosopher James Ogilvy uses it in his most recent book.

One of the reasons I'm attached to this idea is that it is capable of dignifying many more forms of human innovation under its umbrella than the old idea of genius, which exemplifies what I called the “Big Man” theory of history—where events are changed by the occasional brilliant or terrible man, working in heroic isolation. I would prefer to believe that the world is constantly being remade by all its inhabitants: that it is a cooperative enterprise. Folk arts and popular arts have always been criticized because they tend to exhibit evolutionary incremental change—because they lack sufficient “Big Men” making shockingly radical and unpopular steps into the future. Instead the pop scene carries much of its audience with it—something the fine arts people are inclined to distrust: the secret question is, "How can it possibly be good if so many people like it?"

I think I've always been fascinated by diaries and journals (pre-blog blogs), and the latest addition to my collection is Kurt Cobain's, which is very smart and very funny—highly recommended. Feel free to recommend any of your favorites in the genre if you like.

Monday, January 23, 2006


I saw Michael Haneke’s Caché (“Hidden”) in Toronto, and then again this week. What seemed like a strong movie just got stronger, although it’s not my absolute favorite of his films (that would be Code Unknown [2000]). Caché’s been extensively written about and so I shan’t “review” the movie here. Instead, I thought I’d throw together a small grab-bag of ideas, mostly those of others which happened to resonate with me.

Basic plot: An educated middle-class couple start receiving surveillance videotapes which suggest that they are being watched. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) is a TV literary show host (do we even have such a genre in the U.S.?), and Anne (Juliette Binoche) is a book editor. This leads to the unlocking of repressed memories of Georges’ childhood when he may have lied about an Algerian boy living with his family, thus having the boy sent away. The family attempts to find out: who is sending the videotapes, and why? I’ve tried hard to include no spoilers in this post, although if a discussion sprouts in the comments, they may be impossible to avoid. A few points:

  • The movie is amazingly, intricately layered. It’s an art-thriller, a family drama, an excoriation of bourgeois hypocrisy and myopia, an allegory of the post-9/11 world, and a film about personal and national conscience.

  • It is a thriller that is a critique of thrillers: It avoids use of any of the techniques we associate with the genre. There are no fast or hand-held camera movements; instead, the camera observes quietly, motionlessly, almost icily. There is no music soundtrack to cue us into feeling scared or uneasy. There are no odd and flagrantly subjective camera angles to enhance suspense, and there is no “exciting” editing to whip us into a frenzy. Haneke scrupulously eschews these blatantly manipulative effects.

  • Robin Wood’s excellent article on the film in Artforum is alas not on-line. Here he is comparing and contrasting Haneke and Hitchcock:

    Haneke’s acute awareness of Hitchcock is beyond question. But what he has taken from Hitchcock amounts to little more than basic plot features, from which he embarks on journeys fundamentally different in aim and nature: The murder in Benny's Video (1992) recalls Psycho (similar placement—about a third of the way into the film—similar abruptness and shock, followed by a cleanup sequence); Funny Games (1997) relates obliquely to The Birds, which Hitchcock said was about complacency (Haneke’s young killers remain as inexplicable as the bird attacks and the elder is even credited with having supernatural powers); and the mother-daughter relationship in The Piano Teacher (2001) bears a strong resemblance to that in Marnie. Caché is clearly linked to Rear Window, with “watching” replaced by “being watched,” the story now told from the viewpoint of the spied-on, though the “crime” is of a very different nature and its perpetrator couldn't be arrested for it...But in all other respects Haneke can be seen as the anti-Hitchcock . Hitch’s frequently expressed aim of "putting the audience through it" was consistently linked to identification techniques. The spectator of his films is drawn, helpless, into the narrative by enforced and intimate identification with the key character (James Stewart in Vertigo, Janet Leigh in Psycho, Tippi Hedren in The Birds); we see everything from a single viewpoint. Haneke, in direct contrast, forbids identification altogether; we look at, not with, the characters.

  • Here’s a terrific Cinemarati discussion of the film. Included is this incisive observation by Acquarello:

    ...Haneke operates as a scientist, not as a humanist (although one is not mutually exclusive of the other)...Another one in this filmmaking vein is Shohei Imamura; they both have a very clinical view of society as an organism, and their approach is a variation of scientific method: introduce a catalyst -> observe the organism’s behavior to the catalyst -> record results.

  • Paul Arthur in Film Comment:

    According to Haneke, his films are intended as “polemical statements against the [unthinking] American cinema in its disempowerment of the spectator.” In place of what he sees as simplistic explanations, a “clarifying distance” will transform the viewer from “simple consumer” to active evaluator: “The more radically answers are denied to him, the more likely he is to find his own.” In truth, this prescription for battling psychic evils associated with the Hollywood system—slow the pacing, deny subjective identification, refuse to tie up loose ends—has had numerous proponents; at times Haneke sounds like an anti–humanist version of André Bazin, champion of long-take perceptual ambiguity as practiced by Renoir, Welles, Bresson, et al.

  • A.O. Scott wrote: “The initial shot of the movie is answered by the last, which demands close attention and contains the intriguing suggestion that the real story has been hidden all along - that it has been driven not by the noisy public conflict between Arabs and Frenchmen, but rather by the quiet, perpetual war between fathers and sons.” Soon after my first viewing, I thought that the question of who was sending the videotapes was a MacGuffin, a pretext, and also meant as a send-up of thriller formulas which use pat surprise endings for effect. I was wrong: Though I do think Haneke is critiquing thriller formulas, I think the question (and answer) is important.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Steely Dan

Pearl Of The Quarter

My first full-blown band obsession was Steely Dan. Ironically, I discovered them at the moment of their break-up in the early eighties, and spent a couple of years committing their seven records to memory. It’s easy to love melody (ever met anyone who didn’t?), and 20th century popular music enshrined rhythm (the backbeat of rock n’ roll; the all-important “swing” in jazz), but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for harmony (chords). And to my ears, Steely Dan’s chord progressions were rich and flavorsome like nothing I’d ever heard before. I didn’t realize at the time how much they owed to jazz.

A few elements of the Steely Dan sound:

  • A bohemian, sarcastic, slightly weary take on the world. Both Becker and Fagen went to Bard College and their hipster literariness shows. Their songs could be satirical but deep down they were poignant. "I cried when I wrote this song," Fagen sang on "Deacon Blues", "Sue me if I play too long."

  • Masterful use of the recording studio as a sort of grand musical instrument. Two years after it was formed, the band stopped touring, devoting their time exclusively to the studio. Their albums are fastidiously arranged, immaculately recorded. The southern California production (e.g. spending days getting the snare sound just right), which sounds fetishistic and sterile on other people’s records, inexplicably only adds to the intelligence and sophistication of Steely Dan's records.

  • Sorry, but some of the music labeled as jazz-rock fusion of the early 70s sounds a little masturbatory to me, possessing neither the elegance of jazz nor the vitality of rock n’ roll. But Steely Dan figured out the alchemical formula to blend jazz with pop music forms by somehow keeping the "best selves" of those two musics intact and making them resonate off each other. Perhaps they did it by remembering that jazz once was pop music, in the swing era, when it relied on economy of form (its material consisted of the songs now known as the Great American Songbook) and creative large-group arranging with a rich instrumental palette.

  • The influence of jazzy Hollywood arrangers which can be heard, for example, in occasional guitar-bass unison lines that stand up and walk right over from Mancini’s Peter Gunn. Steely Dan had a penchant for un-rock-like elaborate charts employing scores of session musicans who came in and (yikes) sight-read their parts. Not exactly the “three-chords-and-the-truth” paradigm, but looking back, the well-known fussiness of the band's recording process appears to have been a sound long-term choice. Today, the records sound gem-like, lovingly wrought, still fresh.

A word about the song: "Pearl Of The Quarter" is tucked away into a corner of their second album, Countdown To Ecstasy (1973). It's an outwardly dry but secretly touching love song to a New Orleans hooker. I vividly remember that the first time I heard it, I found a tear in my eye; I have no idea why. Maybe it was Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's pedal steel fills.

So, your first band obsession?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Passenger

A new semester begins. I have a hundred names to memorize in the next week or two (I’m uncomfortable pointing to students in class — and using first names always works like magic) and I have two master’s classes rather than my usual one, which’ll mean a lot more work. But Duke Ellington once pointed out that he wouldn’t have written a single piece of music if it wasn’t for a deadline and so I’m happy for my new burdens — they’ll force me to manage my time better, and if I'm lucky, learn more.

A few days ago, I saw a sparkling new print of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and I really should record something about it before my semesterly cares start to nudge it out of my mind by week’s end. There are three things I’d like to say about this movie:

  1. Over the years, I’ve become progressively more director-centered (and slightly less actor- or performance-centered) in my movie watching. I still appreciate and enjoy good acting but I’m more likely to do it within the larger context of a director-driven work, and I rarely seek out films solely for the quality of their performances. The Passenger is ultimately and clearly a director's movie but I have to say that Jack Nicholson’s performance in it is a thing of wonder: it’s scrupulously minimal, completely instinctive, and you could write a small book about its profuse subtleties. I could not take my eyes off him. The prematurely receding hairline, the quaintly ugly seventies attire, the miniscule amount of dialogue — none of these come close to detracting from his charisma. Suddenly, I realized the great potency of his speech inflections, the effortless precision of his body movements, and the size of his repertoire of fleeting gestures and facial expressions, all of which he wields spontaneously like a musician’s never-ending bag of licks. But it took this willfully spare and languid film to make them stand out in relief, and speak with greater power than they might have in a more conventionally story- and dialogue-driven film where the swirl of narrative dust might have clouded their encyclopedic nuance.

  2. The movie’s most famous detail is the seven-minute tracking shot with which it concludes, the camera moving through a hotel room, then (impossibly) through the bars on the window, into the sandy courtyard, floating there awhile, then doubling back slowly from whence it came. Maybe it’s because I was raised Hindu, but a curious thought popped into my head. P. Adams Sitney has talked about the camera in Stan Brakhage’s “lyrical films” operating like a first-person consciousness (the camera-eye and the artist fuse into one), and here it seemed like the consciousness belonged to a spirit slowly detaching from a host body, gliding away, hovering about, and casting one last glance at this just-shuffled-off mortal coil before proceeding along its fated trajectory (of reincarnation?). Perhaps Gus van Sant caught sight of a similar spirit (albeit through a “third-person” camera) at the conclusion of Last Days; I was certainly reminded of that film.

  3. Setting and place hold a supreme importance in Antonioni’s films: the rocky island in L’Avventura, the desolate Rome of L’Eclisse, the chemically despoiled Red Desert. And in The Passenger, which begins in the scorched Chad desert, moves to London, Munich and Barcelona before coming to rest somewhere near Gibraltar. The solidity, expanse, and indifference of these physical contexts seem to only exaggerate the rootlessness, indecision and malaise of the humans who wander through them. There’s a funny paradox operating here: the landscapes and physical environments appear so much more awe-inspiring and resolute than the humans, even when the structures are (as in the case of the Gaudi buildings in Barcelona) human-made. Let alone nature, even what we make with our own hands somehow transcends and dwarfs who we are.

Monday, January 16, 2006


I was raised on Bollywood cinema and one reason I watch very little of it today is that I developed a bias against it at some point. Ours was a humble middle-class Indian home: a small glass of milk was rationed to us kids each morning; we owned no stereo, just a small radio that we all huddled around; and my dad home-made our class notebooks from scrap paper each term. The day was spent in vigilance of every rupee in our pockets; though millions lived below the poverty line (and we didn’t), we weren’t that far off from the edge. Bollywood movies never showed us our own reality; they swept us into faraway non-existent realms. I enjoyed this at first, then started taking umbrage (“Are our day-to-day lives so unimportant and wretched that filmmakers don’t want to go anywhere near them?”). So, when I encountered the anti-escapist Indian "New Cinema" of Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal as a teen, it was like stumbling into a pool of water in the Sahara.

Naruse’s Repast (1951) moves me because of the insistent way in which he focuses on the petty details of “balancing the domestic books” that each day demanded in a household like our own. Naruse accords money the miserable respect it deserves. Bills change hands in close-up; people lend and borrow specific, carefully recorded amounts; salaries are discussed in unblushing detail; and a wife stares at a sheaf of unaccounted-for yen notes sticking out of her husband’s pocket as he sleeps after a long night of drinking.

These may seem like banal, uninteresting details but I could relate to the paramount importance they held in our own home, and their too-rare appearance in movies has always puzzled me. In India, the days of our lives were spent maintaining the delicate balance of solvency. When I moved to the States and went to a supermarket for the first time, I was stunned that I could actually buy a gigantic gallon of milk for a dollar eighty-nine — no more rations. It’s this feeling for the import of money in our daily lives (something separate from greed and acquisitiveness) that Naruse seems to have a keen appreciation of.

Repast (a.k.a. A Married Life) is told from the point of view of an unhappy wife trapped in a marriage to a dull and uninterested man. (Since the woman is, you know, Setsuko Hara, the husband’s indifference is baffling). His coquettish runaway niece arrives to stay with them and shakes things up a bit — when asked what kind of occupation she has in mind for herself, she politely announces that she wants to be a stripper. As time passes, the wife gradually considers leaving her husband.

There’s a lot more going on in this film than money, so let me point out a few other aspects. The film opens with a black screen and a terrific epigraph (I’m a sucker for those) from the writer of the original novel, Fumiko Hayashi: “I like the simple lives of simple men and women in the limitless universe.” Before I had seen a single image, the film had me by the lapels. There is a superb essay on Naruse in Phillip Lopate’s eclectic collection Totally Tenderly Tragically (the title comes from a profession of love Michel Piccoli makes to Brigitte Bardot in Contempt). Lopate says:

One of the charms of Naruse’s art is his earned pessimism. It takes for granted that life is unhappy; therefore, we can relax in the possession of sadness, acquiesce from the start to the fate of disenchantment, the only suspense being which details Naruse will use to bring it about. In American films and novels, it often takes the characters three-fourths of the plot to win through to the insight of unhappiness, whining and kicking all the way. We can see it as a trade-off: American art has a dynamism and energy generated by its optimism, Japanese art a serenity and grace by its acceptance of the persistence of suffering.

I caught the film in the company of the Siren and there’s a shockingly familiar street procession scene towards the end that made us both exclaim, “Voyage To Italy!”, but Rossellini didn’t make his film until two years later. After the curtain went down, the Siren went home to relieve her babysitter and, contemplating the long dark drive home from Toronto to the States, I almost decided to ditch the second film of the evening and hit the road. So glad I didn’t — it was a beaut. But I should save that for next time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Jaime Hernandez

When Matisse did a portrait of his wife with a green stripe on her nose, they said: But people don't really look like that. When Duchamp painted a nude descending a staircase, they said: But people don't really walk like that. When Sirk made an ardently emotional soap opera about a white actress and a black maid, they said: But people don't really talk like that.

Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) reminds me of the movies of Douglas Sirk, especially his voluptuous farewell to Hollywood, Imitation Of Life (1959). Here's the key to both films: glorious artifice, and blithe rejection of verisimilitude. They cry out: Down with realism!

Both movies are melodramas, and make stupendous use of color. They are made by Europeans who started their careers at home and then moved to Hollywood. Sirk worked mostly in the melodrama genre, but Verhoeven, like Fritz Lang before him, is drawn to thrillers and pulp. What all three share — and being a foreigner, I keenly empathize with this sentiment — is a certain distance from America and an abstract vision of this endlessly fascinating and maddening country. In Imitation Of Life and Showgirls, Sirk and Verhoeven take simple stories with solid, uncomplicated outlines and, having cleared away the clutter, proceed to focus with precision on their grand American themes of choice: race and class for Sirk, ambition and show business for Verhoeven. A few other observations:

  • Showgirls has a wonderfully push-and-pull dialectical strategy going for it. Eszterhas pares down the story and avoids any great character development. He consciously erases character background and depth ("Where're you from?" "Back East." "From where back East?" "Different places.") Verhoeven takes the opposite tack, cranking up the visual extravagance and style, out-Vegas'ing Vegas. Both Eszterhas and Verhoeven contribute, separately and in diametrically opposing directions, to moving the film away from realism.

  • Has the transactional basis of our market-driven society (and more specifically, the entertainment biz) been translated to personal terms as bluntly and tersely as this? "You are a whore, darlin'". "No, I'm not." "We all are. We take the cash, we cash the check, we show them what they want to see." And then, in the same companion key, this lucid piece of anti-hypocrisy: "I'm not a whore." "No you're not. You're going to be a big star."

  • The movie works as camp but only partly (try watching the horrifying rape scene in that mode.) It is also a show biz satire with a dark ending: Nomi is a character we are forced to identify with (isn't she in every single scene of the film?) and yet she's unsympathetic and mercenary, qualities that only propel her onward and upward. Now there's a morality tale for you.

  • This ice-cold melopornorama, remarkably un-erotic for all the flesh on display, withholds pleasure from the audience. Could this refusal of pleasure be another reason why the film is hated so? And sex is not the only cold activity in the movie. So is its analogue, dancing. In fact, they both sound interchangeably unexciting: "Higher! Not that high. Stay in sync. One-two-three! And thrust it, thrust it, THRUST IT, COME ON, THRUST IT! AH! Ok, that's enough! Thank you, ladies."

UPDATE: The SHOWGIRLS BLOG ORGY also includes, in alphabetical order:

Monday, January 09, 2006

Writing About Film, Part 2: Process

And now: nuts and bolts. Or, some aspects of the blog post life-cycle from watching a film to hitting “publish”.

For years, I’ve been hooked on the Paris Review Writers At Work series. These extensive and intimate interviews are without parallel in the world of literature, and their appearance on the web is cause for celebration. I’ve always found the process-related minutiae of a writer’s life and habits fascinating.

Today I thought I’d apply that idea to the blogger’s life and habits. In that spirit, I thought I'd share a few personal process details, hoping you’d like to perhaps do the same. So, here we go with some quotidiana:

  • First off, the single biggest influence on my writing over the last year has been...tendonitis. It’s forced me to write more concisely because, frankly, being long-winded hurts. Buying my first iBook three months ago was, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, life-changing. Because my fingers are shot, and will probably stay that away, I can’t use a regular keyboard at all, and the iBook low-impact keyboard is a godsend. Using bullet points rather than writing long-form essays hurts less too.

  • Little yellow pads: I can’t live without them, and they’re scattered all over the house. I outline a lot (probably a holdover from the dissertation days), and almost never just sit down and bang out a post extemporaneously on the keyboard. I know it probably contravenes the spontaneous spirit of blogging, but there it is.

  • I never take notes in the theater during a movie if I’m seeing it for the first time. I know lots of people who successfully do, but it interrupts and wrenches me out of the flow of the moment. It’s different on DVD; I can pause the movie, jot down thoughts, and back up the movie a bit before resuming. If I lived in a large metropolis, I'd see many more films on the big screen, but right now, film festivals excepted, I watch most films on DVD, sprawled in bed with bad posture, big golden retriever curled up at my feet moaning in vain for exercise.

  • It’s odd. When I’m at a film festival for a week, watching three or four films a day, I don't take copious notes. The movies don’t all blend together like you'd think they might, and even weeks later I still have a reasonable memory of them. Not so when I’m home. I saw The Ice Harvest over the weekend, and if I hadn’t scribbled a few notes about it afterwards, it would seem a bit distant right now. Maybe it has to do with a certain fantasy-world vividness that seems to exist in the vortex of the film festival experience: every last daily worldly care evaporates, leaving only the movies in bright view.

  • Sometimes the films you love best are the hardest to write about. I still haven't mustered the courage to blog about my single favorite filmmaker, Robert Bresson; perhaps this year I will. Also, it’s impossible to predict in advance whether a movie will be easy or hard to write about. It all comes down to the “angle of attack”. If one doesn’t present itself, even the best-loved movies sit on the blog shelf of your mind, gathering dust.

  • Gone are the days when I ploughed through several films a week. Now, if I watch two a week, I'm happy; three is prolific. And I find it difficult to see a film and then turn around and immediately write about it. It helps to let it incubate for a few days (occasionally even a few weeks). At some point it feels ready to hatch, and tumble into the blog.

Your watching and writing habits? Share if you like.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Writing About Film

The new issue of Cineaste features an interesting symposium of international film critics. Among them is the Australian Adrian Martin. The symposium pieces are not on-line, but here is an excerpt from his:

The idealistic part of me believes that writing film criticism is all about (a) encouraging people to see (or seek out) films they might not normally see, to help incite that desire; and (b) encouraging people to think a little differently about whatever films they see. Film criticism is all about 'finding an angle,' suggesting a context, and illuminating the film in a way that is not the most immediately apparent way.

For me, any film review (whether a short piece in a newspaper or a long essay for a journal) should be a kind of story fashioned from ideas, bits of description of the film at hand, indices of social and historical context, and whatever else can be jammed in there. I do not feel that either extremely positive or extremely negative criticism 'brings out the best' in a critic. It all depends — sometimes a strong passion for film can bring lucidity, and sometimes just murky assertion; sometimes the 'kick 'em till they bleed' mentality can offer a powerful polemic, and other times it merely demonstrates the critic's own narrow-mindedness. I do not ask for a spurious 'balance' of positive and negative in a review or essay; but I do ask for logic, argumentation, and back-up — not just 'gut reaction'.

Reading this today prompted some self-reflection: As time passes, it’s becoming harder for me to write straight “film reviews” (whatever they are). Looking back at reviews I wrote five years ago, I notice how hard I tried to scrub them clean of “personal” traces (personal experience, subjectivity, any visible “signs” of myself). I was striving for a neutral, third-person “invisible objectivity”, not realizing that (1) such a thing doesn’t exist, and (2) I didn’t feel comfortable writing in that mode anyway.

Not unlike a film, a piece of writing about a film has embedded and embodied in it the writer’s choices of form and style that are fused inseparably with its content. I’m becoming more conscious of this with time. Martin’s ideas above may not be all new, but I like his succinctness and clarity. And “jamming into” a review anything and everything from life that seems to productively inform one’s experience of art: personally, that makes good sense to me.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

House Of Bamboo

My favorite Hollywood decade is the 1950's. Filmmakers working in peak form during this period included: Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Samuel Fuller.

Fuller famously appeared in a party scene in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou and pronounced his credo: “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. one word, emotion." He wasn’t kidding. For Fuller, the central metaphor for life was war, which he once called “the world’s oldest profession, not whoring. It is as important as breathing.”

House Of Bamboo, which Fuller made in 1955, was Godard’s favorite of his movies, and the first Hollywood production to be shot in Japan. Robert Ryan plays a brutal ex-Army officer who runs an all-American crime outfit in Japan that extorts money from pachinko parlors (gaming joints). Fuller's war metaphor also translates to the paramilitary-model organization of Ryan's gang: they use military language, gesture at maps with pointers, and talk about "battle fatigue". They're applying lessons of war in the civilian world. A few observations about the film:

  • Fuller’s most fertile period lasted from his debut I Shot Jesse James (1949) to the glorious The Naked Kiss (1964). Of the seventeen films he made in this period, a third of them dealt with the Asian-American culture clash. In House Of Bamboo, Ryan recruits dishonorably discharged ex-cons for his Tokyo gang, “fine-looking ex-GI’s to mix with the politest people in the politest nation in the world.” (Imagine Ryan's most malevolent voice here, drenched with contempt for the Japanese.) Fuller throws the cultural differences into relief by contrasting the brutishness of Robert Stack (a new recruit to Ryan’s gang) with the elegant and courtly Japanese women he encounters at every turn.

  • Here’s another precious Fullerism that Jim Jarmusch has quoted: “If the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on, throw the goddamn thing away.” Minutes into House Of Bamboo, we get a fantastic money shot: the boots of a dead American GI framing and cradling...Mount Fuji! Both an eye-smacking visual composition and a powerful symbol of the clash of two cultures, it is an unforgettable image.

  • The movie is a remake of William Keighley's Street With No Name (1948), in which Richard Widmark plays the gang boss. Widmark's shiny face opens up like a swiftly slit piece of fruit each time he smiles. A human lizard. With asthma. Fondling his inhaler. He's the best thing about the movie, but the original can't hold a candle to the Fuller remake, possessing neither its visual imagination nor its take-your-breath-away boldness.

  • I'm used to Japanese interiors being shot in a particular fashion — I involuntarily picture them the way they're captured in Ozu, with a low camera that hardly moves. Imagine my surprise when the first domestic interior shot in this film begins with the camera perched on the ceiling (!), the crane pouncing down parabolically to the door to coincide with the entry of a kimono girl into her home, followed by Robert Stack who attacks her and pins her to the ground. It's enough to rock you back on your tatami mat. Later, Stack and Mariko, the girl, become lovers. (Fuller's lovers never meet cute, only hard and violent.)

  • Ever the canny engineer of aesthetic collisions, Fuller — whose "shock cuts" have always reminded me of both Eisenstein and Ghatak — stages a trembling love scene: Robert Stack and Mariko, separated by the slats of a bamboo partition, lying in their beds late at night, gazing silently into each other's faces, a continent (and a bamboo curtain) away. It's so tender, it's shocking.