Monday, February 27, 2006

Film Soirée

I work at a private liberal arts-based college that is composed of three different “schools”: arts & sciences, business, and education, with several departments within each school. One of the problems with this compartmentalization—quite typical though it is in academia—is that one doesn’t always have the chance to get to know and interact with colleagues in other departments. So, a few years ago, I began doing a campus-wide faculty film soirée each semester. I pick a film, write a bit about it, and then turn it over to the college administration to publicize the event, send out invitations, and order the food and wine.

On Friday, we did The Battle Of Algiers. I made some brief introductory remarks and then we watched the projected DVD. Afterwards, the group (which also included spouses, friends, etc.) adjourned to eat, drink, and chat about the film. Almost no one had seen it before, and it was fun to circulate and listen to the various pockets of conversations about the movie.

Much remarked-upon was the “even-handedness” of the film. Of course, Pontecorvo’s sympathies are clearly with the Algerians and the FLN, but the French are not caricatured, and the commanding Colonel is richly-shaded. Something I noticed this time around: kids and cops. The early terrorist attacks are sometimes carried out by kids, and they shoot cops in the back. Pontecorvo doesn’t show us the faces of the cops, and thus wards off our empathy. The accompanying music in these scenes—by Ennio Morricone and Pontecorvo himself—is sphagetti-western-flavored, with echoey electric guitars. The scenes almost look like they could belong in an action-suspense thriller, thus distancing us from the deaths. Then, the French plant a bomb in the Casbah, and dozens die in the attack. This scene is deliberately staged not as thriller but as tragedy. Strings swell as wounded or dead children are carried out of the smoky rubble—it’s a moving scene, and makes a strong play for our empathy.

But to complicate our response later, a bomb goes off at a racetrack. The angry French crowd turns and seizes a young Arab kid selling cigarettes, and a French cop puts himself in danger by jumping in and saving the kid’s life. The film is constantly complicating the simple opposition of the French and Algerians with such grace notes. And for a movie that uses, Eisenstein-like, a "collective hero", remarkable attention is paid to individual characters.

My colleagues seemed to appreciate the film and enjoy discussing it, but they made it clear to me that next semester I should perhaps think about following up The Battle Of Algiers with its opposite: an (1) American, (2) comedy, (3) in color. Animal House came up in our conversation as a possibility.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)

If you’re going to watch this film, get prepared to listen to some Bach. No, seriously....let me explain. Most composer biopics are interested in “dramatizing” the life of the artist and its struggles, and scoring that drama to the composer’s music. The opposite happens here: Bach’s life story is intentionally “de-dramatized” and the music is placed upfront and center, and occupies most of the screen time.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the directors of The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach, stage some 25 Bach pieces or extracts, each of them as a single-scene long-take. What’s more, the camera’s often static, and soon you realize that there’s nothing to do but immerse yourself in the music and its flow. By not breaking up a musical performance into multiple shots, they preserve the unity of each musical piece, not allowing the music to devolve into a merely “accompanying” function.

What I find most interesting about this film is that it’s simultaneously both documentary-like and self-consciously artificial. By embracing these two (seemingly) diametrically opposed natures, the film finds one nature in the other: documenting involves artifice, and vice versa.

Documentaries purport to “document”. This movie goes one step further: it documents by means of documents. The greatest document that Bach left behind was his music. We see “authentic” period performance renditions of Bach’s music, juxtaposed with other documents: title pages of sheet music, notated scores, letters, citations, formal decrees, engravings and paintings of the period, city maps. Not all these documents are necessarily “authentic”: Anna’s diary, which is the basis for the voiceover that runs through the film, is fictitious, but constructed from letters and records of that period.

And yet, consciously complicating this documentary fidelity is an overt and forceful artifice. The musicians are shot from unusual angles that call attention to the framing, and even though musical performances begin with static shots, the camera suddenly tracks toward or away from the perfomer(s) as the scene ends, disrupting our calm “observation” of the performance. Compositions jump out at us with their slashing diagonals, and as a wonderful affront to the most basic demands of verisimilitude, Bach never visibly ages through the entire film.

Reminiscent of Bresson is the deliberate withholding of drama. Anna’s voiceover is matter-of-fact, evenly reciting events and details so that the banal and the tragic are shockingly juxtaposed. (She bore Bach twelve children; eight of them didn’t live past age five.) Discontinuity is commonplace, disrupting any dramatic arc we might wish for. At one point, a door bursts open and a boy announces: “The vice-rector has committed suicide.” It is the first and last time we ever hear of this “vice-rector”.

One of my peeves in movies is the way (non-)musicians are shown lazily faking it. I’m no literalist, but I think there can be something dignified and graceful about the work of playing music, especially as expressed through (1) human hands, and (2) the human face. When Sean Penn leans back on a bed and picks out “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in Sweet And Lowdown, or when Romain Duris makes a nervy stab at a Bach toccata in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, their body language and movements and yes, fingerings, feel true, even though we know that the actors are non-musicians who were coached to get the passages right.

Some of the most satisfying moments here are watching Gustav Leonhardt's hands move as he conducts the ensemble, or his fleet fingers at the harpsichord, or his feet and hands as they control the pedals and stops of an organ. It reminds us of the labor of music performance. Ravel once nailed the sound of the harpsichord (“two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”), but watching Leonhardt play it—as opposed to just hearing him play it—adds a new subtlety of appreciation to the experience I wouldn’t have thought was there.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Unseen Cinema

Today, some cinephilic fun and games.

There are a few filmmakers whose body of work I’ve pretty much been able to see in its near-entirety—like Hitchcock, Satyajit Ray, Bresson, Truffaut, Lang, De Palma, Rohmer, Sembene. There are others I love deeply and have tried to see whatever I can, but I’m still missing some key films in their oeuvre, for example, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Hawks’ Road To Glory, Renoir’s Toni, Cassavetes’ Love Streams, Resnais’ Providence, Godard’s Numero Deux, Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac.

A funny thing happens when films you’ve pursued for years suddenly become available on DVD. Once, you would’ve jumped in your car and driven a few hours to see them. But when they’re sitting right there at Netflix, batting their eyelashes and flaunting their availability, your urgency withers. Don’t get me wrong: when you do get around to watching them, they often turn out to be every bit as rewarding as you imagined they’d be. But sometimes it just takes you a while.

So, let me ask you to name:

(1) One film, unavailable on video/DVD, that you would love to see.
(2) One film you’ve wanted to see for a long time, available on video/DVD, that you haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

My own picks:

(1) Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1955), made during the amazingly fertile late-career period when he turned out one masterpiece after another from '55 to '59 (All That Heaven Allows, Written On The Wind, The Tarnished Angels, A Time To Love And A Time To Die, Imitation Of Life). The film is also on programmer James Quandt’s top 10 favorites list.

(2) Jacques Rivette's Céline And Julie Go Boating (1974): Everything I’ve read convinces me that it’s a guaranteed blast, and yet there it sits neglected in my local public library. I resolve to watch it pronto.

So, over to you.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Two Of Us

The Beatles (1970)

Aimee Mann & Michael Penn (2001)

I know I’m flirting with dangerously high levels of un-hipness by posting the Beatles. (They will always be hip; it’s only declaring our love for them that risks squareness.) My excuse is that it’s happy-sappy Valentine’s week, and today’s pairing seems apropos.

“Two Of Us” is the first song on the last record released by the Beatles, Let It Be. It was written by Paul for Linda, but is performed as a sort of love duet between Paul and John. They sing it together—there’s no clear delineation between lead vocal line and harmony vocal line. The recording is like a comfortable pair of baggy pants, frayed and loose, and begins with a goofy spoken-word announcement by John. And I like the bare-bones arrangement, which favors toasty acoustic guitars. There’s not even a sign of a bass in it; George simply plays a few low notes on the electric.

Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, wife and husband, hew close to the original. (It's on the I Am Sam soundtrack.) Their recording is cleaner, every hair in place, and thus perhaps a tad less spontaneous. But they blend their voices together in the same manner, each vocal line trying to hide self-effacingly behind the other. The arrangement gives the illusion of being identical to the original, but isn’t; it’s quietly expansive. (And what is that sustained accordion-y tone? It adds a nice touch.)

The best part, and the reason I’m writing this post, is the bridge. Aimee sings it solo (just as Paul does), and her voice is like a clear and calm laser-light. It's the high point of the tune, and it's over too soon. ("You and I have memories/Longer than the road/That stretches out ahead"; she sings it twice, at 1:20 and 2:05.) In December, Ben recommended an iTunes-only Christmas EP that she made. I didn’t get around to downloading it until well after the holidays, and then drove my friends crazy by playing it non-stop in late January. Her ascetic take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is the best version I’ve heard of that song. My own dream-project wish is an Aimee revisionist jazz standards record with Magnolia-style Jon Brion arrangements.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Code Unknown: An Auto-Dialogue

A: So, as you know, I saw Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown recently.

B: But you’d seen it once before, right?

A: Five years ago. I remember being a little dazed by it, especially its loose structure: 27 scenes, almost all shot in single takes without any cuts, ending brusquely by going to black screen, sometimes in mid-sentence. I realized later that Haneke isn’t interested in simply working on one level (the personal) but simultaneously on several (familial, social, ethnic, political, moral, philosophical), which the amorphous structure of the movie seems to accommodate with great ease.

B: Yes, but the multi-stranded narrative structure isn’t necessarily better at this accommodation than a more defined, even familiar, thriller-genre-derived structure, as in Caché.

A: True. And that speaks to Haneke's versatility and skill. In Code Unknown, despite its structural singularity and sprawling, fragmented narrative, a remarkable coherence emerges. Haneke has spoken of his first three films (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance) as being his “emotional glaciation” trilogy, but it is clearly a theme that runs through his entire body of work. The idea is that human life in the industrialized Western world is narcotized and frozen. We live our lives separated from reality, without confronting the truths (personal, social, moral) that we should be alive and alert to. The media help maintain us in this frozen state, giving us the bogus “illusion” of truth by pretending to keep us “well-informed” about the world’s realities.

B: Yes. A good example of this glaciated state is the scene in which Anne (Juliette Binoche) is ironing her clothes to the accompaniment of “noise” spilling quietly out of the TV. She hears loud voices, an altercation, a child’s cries, turns off the TV and listens—breaking momentarily out of this glaciated state—but when the neighbors fall silent, she spends a few seconds in quiet thought, then turns the TV back on and resumes ironing. The scene ends the way it began.

A: But what does it take to finally break out of that emotionally sealed-off state into a state of awareness and engagement?

B: Well, in her case, the film shows several “attempts” to rupture the ice curtain, so to speak. The first is the street confrontation at the beginning of the film that unsettles her a bit. Then we see a “false" rupture of her equanimity in front of the camera when she is locked into the room of death. But this occurs in a performance context, which is again sealed off from her real life. What it really takes is the arrival of the letter about an hour into the film. The event is a turning point of sorts for her; she begins to question her actions, and those of Georges. The supermarket scene follows. Then, the laughing fit during the dialogue dubbing scene, a sort of hysteria which indicates that she is no longer able to keep her real life and her performance apart. The rupturing process is underway. Then: the scene in the subway which completes "the melting". (Ice turns to water: she cries.) Anne emerges from the Metro, walks straight home, changes the code. Hopefully, a new (and more alert, aware and sensitized) life begins.

A: Interesting that the arrival of the video in Caché (the rupturing event, and the equivalent of the letter in Code Unknown) occurs at the get-go. Haneke is getting down to business sooner: introducing the alien substance, spending the rest of the movie observing its effects. Once again, the couple in the film are named Georges and Anne…

B: What about the film-within-the-film, The Collector? She describes it to her friends at dinner as a thriller. Is it a by-the-numbers genre film or is it a stand-in for a Haneke film, a sort of Funny Games?

A: It’s possible that Anne thinks it’s a straightforward genre film—an impression supported by the casual, light manner in which she recommends it to her friends—but the words of the serial killer are tellingly spoken by the director behind the camera: “Show me your true face,” he says. (“ton vrai visage.”) This could easily be Haneke initiating the rupture of the character’s composure to obtain, in effect, a "genuinely human" response.

B: Of course, Haneke is also attempting to do to the audience exactly what he is doing to his characters. This is perhaps more viscerally apparent in his other films, like Funny Games, Benny’s Video or Caché, which deliberately assault the audience and break through our coolness and complacency and the separation we feel between our lives and the comfort of what is “just a movie”. He wants his films to disturb us, so that we carry them out of theaters and into our lives like a wound we can’t conveniently forget. But sometimes—and this is not true of Code Unknown—I sense that Haneke derives a little sadistic relish from inflicting this punishment upon us, which bothers me a little. But I guess I admire his films enough to try to overlook this aspect. But: back to Code Unknown. What about the role of the media?

A: Yes. The media is a reliable Haneke bête noire. He worked in television for fifteen years and reserves for it his choicest vitriol. All his films feature TV sets pouring soothing, sedating drivel into homes. And Georges, who works for the media as a war photographer, is frozen-up in his own unique way. “I’m unfit for life in peace,” he confesses, and when a moment of personal reflection about his war experience and his return to “civilization” crops up at dinner with friends (potentially breaking the frozen surface!), it’s quickly interrupted by Anne leaning in and asking for (!) a dentist recommendation. There’s the end of that conversation. And to show Georges’ indifference to the carnage in Kosovo, Haneke juxtaposes his voiceover reading a banal letter home with his horrific still photo images. In Paris, he jerry-rigs his camera to take secret pictures on the subway, a displaced act of aggression, a certain kind of rape, you could argue, a perversion like Erika’s sadomasochistic affliction in The Piano Teacher.

B: Speaking of The Piano Teacher, civilization (Schubert) and barbarism (S&M) go hand in hand in Erika’s life. The room of death in Code Unknown is, let’s not forget, a wood-paneled, acoustically perfect music room. And Time Of The Wolf erases civilization in one quick stroke, leaving only barbarism.

A: We still haven’t talked about the big one: Communication.

B: Yes. Every single household in the film is stricken with communcation struggles. Georges and Anne’s only attempt at communication takes place in the physical space of oppressively ordered and suffocating material objects—the supermarket. The attempt is, not coincidentally, doomed to failure. The film begins with deaf children signing, and ends brilliantly with their reverting, along with their teacher, Amadou, to a pre-verbal state of pure, ecstatic communion/communication using the sound and rhythms of tribalistic drums.

A: Haneke banishes speech, returns to zero, and posits an optimistic building of the future by…children. A happy ending if I ever saw one.

B: I agree. But can I bring up one thing that’s always bothered me a wee bit about Haneke?

A: Uh-oh.

B: Don't get me wrong: I think he’s among the great living moviemakers, but that doesn’t make him “immune to skepticism”, right? Here's my point: Haneke is an old-fashioned European moralist. He makes didactic movies that he feels perform a useful social function. (Code Unknown is my favorite of his films partly because it appears to me his least overtly didactic.) This also means that often, after I’ve seen his films a couple of times to untangle their narrative complexities and apprehend their raisons d'existence, the films feel to me like they've...served their purpose, performed their function, exhausted themselves. Further revisits yield—as the economists might put it—“diminishing marginal returns”. The fact is, Haneke’s characters seem like illustrative creations, intended by this stern grey-bearded martinet to teach us cautionary lessons, albeit important ones. This fact will always keep me at a slight remove from his (cold, cerebral and pedagogical) movies, while continuing to admire and appreciate them. Just being honest here.

A: And meanwhile, for your movie revisitation fix there’s always…

B: For one: Jean Renoir—no less true or complex than Haneke but having the unbeatable advantage of being an arch-humanist of the cinema. Renoir will always mean more to me than Haneke, the anti-humanist, ever will.

A: But don’t you see: Haneke makes us swallow the bitter pill because he is ultimately a humanist, even if his means (as in Funny Games) are anti-humanist. Above all, he wants us to see the errors of our ways…

B: Oh shut up.

A: Okay.

The CODE UNKNOWN Blog-A-Thon also includes, in alphabetical order:

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Martin Amis

Like open bags of candy that you dip your hand into each time you walk by. I’m talking about Martin Amis’ essay collections; I bought one set for home and one for work. There are three books in all—"The War Against Cliché", "Visiting Mrs. Nabokov And Other Excursions", and "The Moronic Inferno". I read only a few paragraphs at a time (can’t bear to exhaust them too soon) but have been dipping into them daily for several weeks now. There are essays here on literature, politics, culture, music, film, sports, damn-near-everything. I thought I’d slap a couple of brief passages up here, one on a British poet and the other on "the fillet of the crime genre" (as Jeff Daniels patronized him in "The Squid And The Whale").

Philip Larkin was not an inescapable presence in America, as he was in England; and to some extent you can see America’s point. His Englishness was so desolate and inhospitable that even the English were scandalized by it. Certainly, you won’t find his work on the Personal Growth or Self-Improvement shelves in your local bookstore. “Get out as early as you can," as he once put it. “And don’t have any kids yourself.”

All his values and attitudes were utterly, even fanatically “negative". He really was “anti-life"—a condition that many are accused of but few achieve. To put it at its harshest, you could say that there is in his ethos a vein of spiritual poverty, almost of spiritual squalor. Along with John Betjeman, he was England’s best-loved postwar poet; but he didn’t love postwar England, or anything else. He didn’t love—end of story—because love seemed derisory when set against death. “The past is past and the future neuter"; “Life is first boredom, then fear". . .That these elements should have produced a corpus full of truth, beauty, instruction, delight—and much wincing humour—is one of the many of great retrievals wrought by irony. Everything about Larkin rests on irony, that English speciality and vice.

[on Elmore Leonard]: [He] possesses gifts—of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing—that even the most snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet. And the question is: how does he allow these gifts play, in his efficient, unpretentious and (delightfully) similar yarns about semiliterate hustlers, mobsters, go-go dancers, cocktail waitresses, loan sharks, bounty hunters, blackmailers and syndicate executioners? My answer may sound reductive, but here goes: the essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.

What this means, in effect, is that he has discovered a way of slowing down and suspending the English sentence—or let’s say the American sentence, because Mr. Leonard is as American as jazz. Instead of writing “Warren Ganz III lived up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County”, Mr. Leonard writes: “Warren Ganz III, living up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County." He writes, "Bobby saying", and then opens quotes. He writes, “Dawn saying”, and then opens quotes. We are not in the imperfect tense (Dawn was saying) or the present (Dawn says) or the historic present (Dawn said). We are in a kind of marijuana tense (Dawn saying), creamy, wandering, weak-verbed. Such sentences seem to open up a lag in time, through which Mr. Leonard easily slides, gaining entry to his players' hidden minds.

More: The New York Times archive page on Martin Amis; An interview with Robert Birnbaum; A Tingle Alley reference to his Nabokov worship.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


"Disappointed" (1992)

"For You" (1996)

It’s been a blistering half-week at work, and the mind and body yearn for a rush of pop pleasure. Let’s get some.

Electronic is Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr. It's a British super-group formed from two of the strongest bands to come out of the 1980’s, New Order and the Smiths; both are from Manchester. The group blends together two key musical strains of the decade: (1) synth-based dance pop, associated among others with New Order and Pet Shop Boys, and (2) the post-punk, guitar-based, “pre-alternative” rock of the Smiths. Electronic might lack the heft of these bands, but they make a breezy, melodic, hybrid-textured pop that has aged nicely.

Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, my single favorite 1980’s band (expect a full-regalia celebratory post soon), occasionally joins Electronic. In fact, he sings “Disappointed”, which is a creamy slice of techno-pop iced with Marr’s signature, wondrous rhythm guitar playing. Check out his vamp which kicks in around 1:35; at first it appears he’s using a delay (echo) unit, but it’s just his rapid-fire yet precise right hand we hear. The song appears on the Cool World soundtrack.

“For You” is a Marr-fest, stacked with guitar overdubs both acoustic and electric. Bernard sings, and the song veers far away from techno-pop—the drums are, atypically, live and not programmed. Marr has a way of playing superlatively without really calling attention to himself. He solos very rarely, doesn't usually bury his guitar in blankets of distortion, and allows the instrument to ring out—he's a throwback to the sixties in this respect.

Bernard’s no slouch as a guitarist either. He’s not in the same league as Marr (who is?) but he can be marvelously spare and tenacious. I can’t make him out much on the Electronic records—Marr handles most guitar parts—but his New Order and Joy Division rhythm guitar style has had a lasting influence over the years. To illustrate: let’s close with Gwen.

Gwen Stefani: "The Real Thing" (2004)

Fifteen seconds into the song, Greg Collins' electric guitar enters and I could swear it has Bernard’s mark on it—a minimal repeating figure, simple and steadfast, with little vibrato, distortion or other pedal effects, the notes attacked full frontally with little or no sliding around. The backing track, with its propulsive synth-bass line, would have felt at home on a New Order record circa 1989. (I checked the musician credits on the CD just now—Bernard sings backup and Peter Hook plays bass. It all makes sense.) I know Gwen’s album has sold a gazillion copies and been overexposed, but it’s still my most-played pop record of the last couple of years.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Artforum has to be the heaviest magazine I subscribe to—we’re talking pounds here, not ounces. Fortunately, not all of it is reading material, or I’d never get through it. The majority of each issue is given over to large and visually striking ads for art shows, and they provide hours of doodling inspiration. The articles on art and film, relatively few though they might be, are usually quite solid, and I end up ripping out and filing many of them. (I wonder: Do other bloggers also have a penchant for collecting writing? I have a filing system in my basement made up of vinyl-storage crates, with files indexed by director and a few national cinemas. While much of it is from print-only media, there’s a fair amount run off the Net, because it’s often more convenient to read it in paper form, mark it up, etc.)

In the new issue of Artforum, there are two terrific film essays. J. Hoberman writes about Mexican director Carlos Reygadas and his second film, Battle In Heaven. There are many blunders one can make at a film festival and my doozy in Toronto last year was to head back to the hotel for a snooze while my friends Darren and Rob headed over to see this film. I don’t remember how good my nap was but I can tell you it probably wasn’t worth it. Thankfully, the film is now being released here. Hoberman’s piece is not on-line but here’s how it begins:

Made forty years ago, Andy Warhol talkies like Vinyl and Beauty #2 remain the reductio ad absurdum of behavioral direction, a technique that requires non-actors to cope, with negligible instruction, while the camera grinds relentlessly on until it runs out of film.

Orchestrating a Warhol is never easy, but ambitious directors have intermittently experimented with this form of situational performance. Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), for example, are each predicated on a setup designed to cue on-camera improvisation. And the thirty-four-year-old Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas has recently established himself as a Warholian impresario who, working without a screenplay, creates existential conditions under which nonprofessional actors are compelled to expose themselves—sometimes cruelly—on camera.

Related: Dennis Lim on Reygadas in today's New York Times.

The second essay is on the films of Guy Debord, now available on DVD thanks to a project headed by Olivier Assayas. Keith Sanborn writes:

The Society of the Spectacle is a feature-length film essay—Debord's own adaptation of his renowned work of cultural and political history and theory. Debord not only speaks about the spectacle—he himself reads the incisive voice-over that occupies most of the sound track—but redirects the spectacle's own weapons against it, a strategy the Situationists call détournement. Debord puts into service feature films from "East" and "West," newsreel footage, ads that look like soft-core porn, and soft-core porn that looks like ads. He makes innovative use of subtitles and intertitles to problematize reception. For the spectacle, as Debord reminds us, "is not a collection of images, but a relationship among people mediated by images." In the highly distilled and allusive reflections presented and in their presentation, a complex critical apprehension of the relationship between image and text, individual and society is produced.

When I renewed my subscription recently, they threw in a year’s worth of Bookforum for free. Again, most of the articles in the new issue, like Kent Jones on Marshall Fine's new book on Cassavetes, are not on-line. But here's an interesting essay by Tom Holert on Edgar Morin, who made, with Jean Rouch, the pioneering cinema-verité film, Chronicle Of A Summer (1960).

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Lost Highway

Antonio Carlos Jobim: "Insensatez" (mp3)

Years ago, when I first saw David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), it left me disappointed and confused. It didn’t have the clean contours and indelible characters of Blue Velvet, or the circumscribed concentratedness of Eraserhead. It defied attempts at neat explication, bypassed psychological realism, and its structure seemed perversely baffling. The film felt remote and cold; I wasn’t ready for it.

I returned to Lost Highway this week and found an entirely different film waiting to meet me (a different me to meet the waiting film). The structure now seemed purposeful and original—perhaps it took me Mulholland Drive to see that—and the deliberately abstract quality of the movie and its characters made the rejection of realism a virtue. A little treatise could be (or perhaps has been) written about this movie; here is simply an observation or two.

Lost Highway is a Moebius strip movie—its beginning and ending are tied together, but at their point of meeting, they don’t complete a tidy circle. Along the way, this celluloid/highway strip of a movie has twisted, and turned itself inside out.

Here are the two elements that make up the Moebius strip:

(1) Bill Pullman, a saxophonist who suspects his wife is having an affair. A few minutes into the film, we see him go to work at the Luna Lounge. For one electrifying minute, Pullman blows the most anguished and scary free jazz solo you ever heard, all wails, blares, squawks, and squeals, with a thunderous rhythm section behind him.

(2) Balthazar Getty, an auto mechanic who lives with his working-class parents. A few minutes after we meet him, he’s in his backyard on a sunny afternoon looking over into his neighbor’s yard at a small pool with a toy boat and a floating ball with a frisky dog hanging about. It lasts just a few seconds but it’s the only optimistic moment in the entire film. On the soundtrack is “Insensatez” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. A little later, he hears a blast of free jazz on the radio; he turns it off.

As we travel down this strip, we see a stream of doubles, like pairs of headlights flashing by: two women, one blonde, the other redheaded—two Patricia Arquettes; the two-named gangster; two pairs of cops shadowing their quarry. The film itself softly fractures in two at one point.

What happens at this mysterious point where the Moebius strip twists? We’ll never know. Getty's dad, Gary Busey, knows. But he can't bear to tell his son and just shakes his head; he’s got tears in his eyes. He could almost be a stand-in for Lynch, but the reason Lynch is silent is that there is nothing "to know". What we have here is simply a structural pretext on which to build a beautiful edifice of echoes to house an unwaveringly subjective cinema.

So, I ask you: Ever run into a film (or films) that took you a second viewing, years later, to appreciate?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


I’ve received a few inquiring emails lately about the doodles that I post here and I thought I’d respond with a post.

I started drawing fairly recently—in the last two years—and it happened when I discovered alt-comics. At first it was trying to capture Snoopy (though Schulz is a mainstream figure, he is a god in the alt-comics universe—think of post-punk power-pop being impossible without the Beatles). I found that I was pretty bad at doing that, but it gave me an excuse to give up doing copies.

I draw mainly because of the ritualistic nature of the process. I do it everyday for a half-hour or so, usually at the coffee shop, and I’m not sure why but it’s the most calming part of my day. I’ll begin with pencil, followed by inking with a sharpie. Occasionally, fine-tipped Micron pens are handy for detail. Sometimes, I’ll experiment with one of those marvelous Faber-Castell brush pens that you can pick up for two bucks at the art store (It’s a pen with, yes, an actual brush for a tip; you can vary the line thickness with it). But I still don’t quite have the hang of how to use it right.

My big pet peeve is: rulers. I never use ‘em because I like the wonkiness and imperfections of free-handed lines. I’m ridiculously low-tech and luddite about the computer bit too, and never manipulate the image after scanning. But I do reduce it significantly. (The originals are usually a full 8 ½ by 11 size.) Which tightens up the image and renders most of my mistakes and mess-ups invisible when I finally post it.