Monday, March 27, 2006

The Blackout

The first time I saw Abel Ferrara's The Blackout (1997), it struck me as high-pitched, overwrought and phony. I reacted to it as I would in knee-jerk fashion to a hysterical melodrama. My next viewing was late one night, when I was exhausted from a long day, and my defenses were down. Suddenly, it didn’t feel melodramatic at all, but made of pure and true emotion—wrenching, disturbing, and most painful of all—disallowing of cathartic relief.

More than with any other filmmaker that I can think of, Ferrara's cinema is one of wondrous messiness. You see it seconds into this film, when Matty (Matthew Modine, in a role written for another Matt, Dillon) comes to Miami to spend time with his French girlfriend Annie (Beatrice Dalle). She’s sitting at a table, chatting with other actor types, when he walks in and practically lifts her off her chair. They kiss, slowly, clumsily, noisily, lips and tongues and teeth completely unchoreographed and uncoordinated, the messiest kiss you ever saw. And it goes on and on to the point when it makes you uncomfortable. Then you realize that Ferrara could never have scripted the details of that kiss—it had to have happened in the actors’ improvisation. It also reminds you of how damn clean (and untrue-to-life!) were the last thousand kisses you saw on a movie screen.

Much later, after Matty has joined AA and moved in with his clean and wholesome art dealer girlfriend Susan (Claudia Schiffer), Ferrara shows you another kiss. This one is whispery-soft, affectionate, lips barely touching, and Matty strokes Susan's cheek at the end as if he were kissing a child, a daughter perhaps. It is a gentle, anomalous moment—a peaceful interlude that feels unnatural and thus temporary.

Most interestingly, the “messiness” of Ferrara’s vision is mirrored in Dennis Hopper, who plays filmmaker Mickey Ray (named for Nick Ray, and in a role written for Mickey Rourke). Mickey makes pornos and his set looks as chaotic as (I’ve read) Ferrara’s does. He’s got five video cameras going at once, capturing all manner of improvisation and accident. When two actors have a marital spat off-camera, he barks (as Ferrara well might in real life): “Make this work-related…Use it, use it! Don’t spew it all here!”

Mickey is a strange hybrid of Ferrarian method and hack-like venality. He is remaking Emile Zola’s Nana as a skin flick set in Miami. And he’s a bit hazy on details. Of the cinema’s capacity for truth, he declares: “Godard says 24 frames a minute….or is that a second?” If Godard made films about prostitution, for Mickey they are one and the same: financial backers of his film get to have sex on-screen.

One of my favorite cinematic low-cal after-dinner mints is Jonathan Demme’s Married To The Mob, but each time I watch it, I’m reminded of how colorless and dull Modine is in it. Ferrara pushes hard against Modine’s bland boyishness in The Blackout. By making this blond, clean-cut, terminally genial actor a coke-sniffing, booze-swilling, self-destructive debaucher, Modine’s performance ends up being truly troubling because of these tensions.

Finally, Ferrara’s strategy of having several cameras recording simultaneously on the set is complemented here by his recent discovery of AVID. This is a movie with dozens of lush lap dissolves, layering sometimes four or five images together to give form to Matty’s crowded nightmares—or to his waking moments by externalizing his subjectivity. When he gets in the back of a limo and takes a ripping snort of coke, we dissolve to a sunburst as the lens catches the sun (and Matty catches his high).

Last fall I saw Ferrara’s new film, Mary, at the Toronto film festival. It was the very last of my 35 films there and maybe because I was tired, it really frustrated me. Then I remembered that my response to it was almost identical to the first time I saw The Blackout. (Like Hopper’s half-hack, half-auteur in The Blackout, Matthew Modine plays a filmmaker who's half-Mel Gibson, half-Ferrara.) I consciously remember liking the few calm, collected, “unmessy” sequences in the film, in which Forest Whitaker as a TV show host interviews various theology experts. But right now, after coming to love and appreciate The Blackout, it’s the rest of Mary, emotionally messy and tortured, that I feel like revisiting.

The FERRARA-THON also includes, in alphabetical order:

Friday, March 24, 2006

Drawing Restraint 9

Until now, I had seen only bits and pieces of Matthew Barney’s films and so his latest, Drawing Restraint 9, was my first real introduction to his work. It was made in collaboration with Björk, who both appears in the film and composed its soundtrack.

I’m still pondering the film and Barney’s aesthetic, but here are a few preliminary impressions. The "narrative" goes something like this. On the deck of a Japanese whaling ship, 25 tons of hot liquid vaseline are poured into a mold, the shape of which is apparently a recurring Barney motif called a “field emblem” (see my doodle). Meanwhile, two “Occidental Guests” (Barney and Björk) arrive at the ship on separate vessels. In an elaborate ritual, they don furs and other accouterments and then sit down for a formal Shinto-style tea ceremony below-deck. An electrical storm breaks out, the vaseline starts to disintegrate and melt above-deck, and two flensing (whaling) knives make their appearance at the ceremony….I will stop here and let you see the rest on screen.

A few thoughts:

  • The film takes place in an anti-realist and visionary space. I’m not exactly sure what Barney’s vision is but clues abound. For one thing, he loves ceremony. Nearly every scene is staged slowly, deliberately, ceremonially. (And did I mention that the film has only a half dozen lines of dialogue, all in one scene?) The camera appears to have one function in this film: that of recording ritual. This serial ritualism is signalled in the very first scene, when a pair of hands fastidiously gift-wrap a fossil for several minutes, accompanied by Will Oldham singing lyrics drawn from a letter written by Japanese fishermen to General MacArthur. (Sounds wacky on paper but works quite well in the movie.)

  • Some googling revealed that the Drawing Restraint series was created by Barney when he was still a student at Yale in the late 80’s. The idea was born when he learned about the phenomenon of muscular hypertrophy: when you exercise a muscle, you are breaking it down so that when it grows back again, it does so a little bit stronger than before. Resistance and restraint build strength, by metamorphosis. Initially, Barney would tie or suspend himself from difficult angles (for example, from wall or ceiling) and attempt to draw in these physically demanding (“restraining”) positions. But later installments of the project—including this film—are less literal and more metaphorical.

  • This is going to sound kooky, but my favorite “character” in the film was not Barney or Björk or even the colossal whaling ship but the beautiful 25-ton petroleum jelly sculpture mold. It is a large, sensuous, textured object and when it cools and sets during the voyage, its surface resembles that of a frozen ocean. (It reminded me of the photograph on the wall that is the climactic destination of the “zoom-journey” in Michael Snow’s Wavelength.)

  • The “field emblem”—the shape of the above sculpture—is a sort of creative energy field, with the bar across the center representing a kind of obstacle. Removing the bar does three things: (1) It destroys the “form”, thus resulting in (2) Slow disintegration, but also (3) Making the way for the regeneration of a new (and improved and stronger?) form.

  • This three-stage ritual I’ve described could also be applied to the metamorphosis that Barney and Björk undergo in the film. In fact, the editing strategy of the film is built upon this very idea. Barney generates a sustained cross-cut rhythm to underline the parallel. (The last time I saw this much cross-cutting was in a D.W. Griffith film.)

  • There are things here that I’ve never seen before in a fiction film, specifically the use of scientific metaphors. Biological life-cycle processes, material transformations, mammalian physiology, marine life and fossils, chemical production processes, physical processes of liquefaction and crystallization—these are all woven into the (private) mythological and cosmological space of the film.

  • A word about Björk’s music. It’s not in the pop vein of her Selmasongs for Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark, but instead much more experimental, closer in its abstraction to Medulla. She employs unusual instrumentation (like harp, harpsichord, celeste, choir) and the sound is—like the “field emblem”—very textured, much more so than is customary in a piece of pop music. She also uses electronic instruments but does so subtly, in “folktronic” fashion, by eschewing strong beats. The music is evocative and moody on film, but I’m curious about how it might sound on the home stereo, divorced from the images.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

New York Journal 3.

Acquarello is to filmblogging what (ahem) Iggy Pop is to punk rock: ancestor and trailblazer. I remember sending a gushy fan e-mail to Strictly Film School in the late nineties. We started corresponding, and Acquarello urged me to start writing about film for Senses Of Cinema. I had never written about the arts at all, and was terrified, but the encouragement nudged me into doing it.

And so it was delightful when we finally met in person on Saturday at the Whitney Biennial. We wandered through the show and then watched an avant-garde film program which included Michael Snow’s WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time. Originally 45 Minutes, Now 15!). In 2004, Snow took the 45-minute film that he made in 1967, divided it into thirds and superimposed them on to each other. In addition to the Snow film, the program also included: Jeanne Liotta’s Eclipse, Louise Bourque’s L’Eclat Du Mal, Christina Battle’s Buffalo Lifts, and Martha Colburn’s Cosmetic Emergency.

The next avant-garde program of the afternoon featured just two filmmakers. I found David Gatten’s The Great Art Of Knowing utterly fortress-like and impenetrable but Lewis Klahr’s Two Minutes To Zero trilogy was a charmer. In it, he takes comic-books and photographs them in extreme close-up—every Benday dot looms large—and uses lightning pans to move from objects to characters to landscape, constructing a story all his own from this found material. The icing on the cake is the collection of obscure but killer 60’s pop tunes he plays in their entirety to accompany his narrative. A feast for eye and ear.

After the Klahr films ended, I went down to the Whitney lobby to rendezvous with experimental filmmaker/curator Jennifer MacMillan of Invisible Cinema, whom I'd never met before. Fumbling around in my pockets, I realized I had forgotten to bring her cell phone number. There must’ve been a hundred people milling around for the Biennial in the lobby, and though I had a (small) picture of her, she didn’t have one of me (not one that would help anyway). I called my friend Gordon in Buffalo, had him log into my email account, retrieve her number and read it to me so I could call her, a few feet away (ah, la vie moderne…). We took the train to Union Square for a lovely dinner. I promised to make her a hip-hop mix CD with Missy Elliott on it.

Sunday was my last day in New York. I met up with Acquarello at Lincoln Center and we went across the street for a dynamite sushi meal (memo to myself: scour Toronto for good sushi restaurants) and caught a double bill at Rendezvous With French Cinema. Serge Le Peron’s political-historical docudrama I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed was informative, well-intentioned and workmanlike. There were flashes of a greater promise when Jean-Pierre Leaud appeared on the screen, alas too infrequently. He played the director Georges Franju—who made Eyes Without A Face—as kin to the touchingly cuckoo filmmaker Vidal of Irma Vep. I could've seen an entire film devoted to Leaud/Franju; he had an odd but captivating appeal.

The other film was Brigitte Roüan’s Housewarming. It's about a lawyer played by Carole Bouquet—she was the cooler of the two actresses playing the same character in Buñuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire—having her apartment renovated by a group of butter-fingered Colombian illegal immigrants. It’s a light comedy complete with musical interludes and anarchic pratfalls but played at a breakneck speed and edited with an elliptical knife. The jokes are many and quick, but the film never waits for a response to them—it simply moves on briskly to the next moment. There's something modest and endearingly self-effacing about that. Though the less “lofty” of the two films in terms of subject, it was the more interesting example of cinema.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

New York Journal 2.

I’m not Catholic—or even Christian—but I’ve always had the special gift of guilt. Having given sixty grad midterms last week, I brought them on vacation with me, resolving to grade for an hour or two each day. On Wednesday I discovered that the tests were still untouched at the bottom of my suitcase, so I dusted them off and spent half the day making a good bit of headway.

Feeling a bit lighter, I headed to the Guggenheim in the afternoon to see the exhibit by sculptor David Smith. Here’s one cool idea I picked up that's probably common knowledge but was new to me: Apparently, one of Picasso’s great contributions to sculpture was to envision it as an “open construction”—meaning, a sculpture didn’t have to imply a central mass of solidity which was then “carved” to create the work. Instead, a sculpture could be open and airy, without leading us to think of an “absence” at its center. Pretty neat notion.

That night, I fully intended to head uptown to a jazz club called Smoke for “Hammond B-3 Night”. But I found myself tucked in at 9 pm, knocked out from the recent flurry of recreational exertions. Thursday morning, Aaron and I went to a New Directors/New Films press screening of Quinceanera, a Sundance award winner that turned out to be a modest but conventional Latino teen-focused drama that didn’t make a huge impression.

Since the screening was conveniently at the MoMA—the first time I’ve been there since the museum moved back to Manhattan from Queens over a year ago—I spent the rest of the day seeing the Edvard Munch exhibit and an interesting contemporary art show called Take Two: Worlds And Views. In the latter, one piece remains hard to shake: a nine-minute animated film called Felix In Exile by South African artist William Kentridge. Here’s how he made the film: he drew with charcoal, positioned a camera at the other end of the room, snapped an image or two, then walked over to the drawing, erased part of it and drew over it, and walked back to photograph it once again. Hundreds of times. So, the single drawing he was left with at the end of the process of making the film was…the very last image of the film.

In the evening, I met up with Zach and his friend Ryan at Anthology Film Archives to catch Alexander Kluge’s The Middle Of The Road Is A Very Dead End (1974). Afterwards, we went out to a Japanese restaurant in the vicinity of Kim’s Video. Inebriated by all the movie-talk (Blake Edwards, Robert Mulligan and Andre de Toth swirled in the air)—not to mention plain inebriated—I took the train uptown instead, ending up in strange and unfamiliar territory in the middle of the night. Back to Brooklyn without incident.

Friday, to the IFC Center to see the excellent documentary Darwin’s Nightmare. (Planes carry hundreds of tons of fish caught in Lake Victoria daily to Europe. Meanwhile, the people who live all around the lake die of famine, disease and poverty. The most pointed and intelligently made documentary on the ill effects of globalization that I've seen; I need to order the DVD for my college library as soon as it comes out.) In the evening, Filmbrain and I went to a press screening of the new Matthew Barney film with Björk, Drawing Restraint 9. Afterwards, I mentioned that I’d never tasted Korean food, and soon we were in the heart of the Korean district on 32nd Street, at a barbecue table with soju and a large spread of small dishes, including kimchi. Thanks to the 'Brain for this unforgettably delectable rite of initiation.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

New York Journal 1.

A blast of fun Monday night. Met up with Filmbrain and Aaron for dinner at a French place in their Brooklyn neighborhood. I was curious about how our easy on-line social dynamics would translate to (gasp) actual face-to-face meeting, but the moment I shook hands, the question evaporated from my mind. We fell in like a band of thieves, and moved our non-stop movie-talk to a late-night watering hole before walking back through the empty stillness of Brooklyn several hours later.

Tuesday morning, I showed up in Greenwich Village to rendezvous with yet another highly companionable cinema savant, Zach. People milled about; we had to call and describe ourselves and specify our exact locations; we spotted each other and made contact. Then to Thiru’s, a South Indian food stand that Zach has raved about on his blog and mine. I can see why. The masala dosa was among the yummiest I’ve ever had. Our chat was great fun but too brief since Zach was on his lunch hour. We’ll be trying for a more leisurely meeting later in the week over a movie and a drink.

From there, uptown to the Met to catch the Robert Rauschenberg exhibit. I’ve been intrigued by him since I read Calvin Tomkins’ The Bride And The Bachelors: Five Masters Of The Avant-Garde, the first art book in which I remember underlining and scribbling all over. (It’s both highly accessible and rich with ideas—also a great book to gift, I’ve discovered.)

In the 1950’s, Rauschenberg invented the idea of the “combine”, a combination of painting, sculpture and collage. What a great big difference it is to only look at art in books, and to stand a foot away from it. Take for example “Monogram”(1959), which is made up of a horizontal flat board, collaged and painted, with a stuffed angora goat sitting on it, a tire around its middle. Or “Bed” (1955), which consists simply of Rauschenberg’s unmade bed, mounted standing up on the wall—pillows, sheets and comforter—and half-caked with paint.

These works were made fifty years ago, and have passed into textbooks. But what on earth does this art possibly mean? I’m not exactly sure, but to me it starts to acquire meaning when we see it for its place in the flow of art history. The 50’s were the decade of the abstract expressionists like Pollock and De Kooning who rejected the “recognizable world” and made art that was about itself. They were in part reacting to the old Renaissance view of art as a “window” on to a world: we could peer into that world (which was not exactly the same as our world—it was more “ideal” than ours) and recognize objects and shapes and things from our world in it. In Pollock’s paintings, you don’t recognize anything from our “real world” except paint and canvas.

But Rauschenberg rejected these exclusively formalistic notions of the abstract expressionists, and reintroduced the real, recognizable world into art. But this world wasn’t meant to be idealized in the Renaissance manner—it was meant to be ordinary (a bed), though not documentary (a goat with a tire around its middle?). Take away this “narrative context” provided by art history and his art—a lot of art, not just his—might look just plain bizarre.

A few more thoughts:

  • Rauschenberg didn’t invent the collage (Picasso did, in 1912) but by fusing it with painting and sculpture, he erased boundaries between media, which was prophetic—think of the explosion in multi-media art in the last fifty years.

  • In prints and in textbooks, his art appears random and haphazard. Up close, it’s anything but. I realized for the first time that he uses grids, though they’re disordered—they float, slide, hang askew. Check out “Bed” above: the top half is chaotic, the bottom half is quite ordered and grid-like.

  • So many of his works are human-sized and vertical, which means we see them almost as if they were mirrors, reflecting in human scale. Perhaps they invite the viewer to step into them, rather than just peer into them like we would through a window (a Renaissance window into another, more refined world)?

  • I noticed that the curator’s notes on “Monogram” allegorized the goat to be a satyr, a phallic symbol. But frankly, Rauschenberg himself might be a little horrified at the easy literal-ness of that interpretation. He intended his work to not have symbolic value. (If something symbolic caught his eye while he was painting, he took it out.)

  • There are odd and surreal juxtapositions in his work but they never feel like variables in a calculus of cause and effect. The objects in his art have been put there simply because they are from the real world, and of it. “I don’t want to change the world,” he once said about his art, [italics mine] “I just want to live in it.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Spring Break

Don’t laugh, but I moved 10,000 miles from Calcutta to Buffalo because I thought it was a suburb of New York City. (They’re awful close on the world map.) But considering I live in New York State, I should be taking way better advantage of my proximity to the Big Apple. Instead, I only go there once every few years. So, I hereby resolve that every spring break, when my students fly off to warmer climes, I shall go spend a week in NYC. Beginning this year. Which means next week.

A few things I’m looking forward to doing on this trip:

I’m taking my iBook with me, and Filmbrain has tipped me off to a wi-fi spot a block away from my B&B in Brooklyn, so time permitting, I hope to resurface here at some point. If you have suggestions for arts events happening in NYC next week, please feel free to comment or email. Stay warm, peoples.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hong Sang-Soo & Korean Cinema

A few days back I traveled to Toronto to catch a double bill by Hong Sang-Soo, often called the leading auteur of present-day Korean cinema. He’s made six films since his debut a decade ago, and I saw his two most recent, Woman Is The Future Of Man (2004) and Tale Of Cinema (2005). Double bills, especially by the same filmmaker, are always fun to examine for their mirrorings and continuities and it was especially the case here. I started to enumerate the connections between the films, then ran across an article by Akira Mizuta Lippit in Film Quarterly which characterized Hong's films far better than I could ever hope to:

Each film returns to a set of familiar features: a young male protagonist, usually an intellectual or artist, once successful, now in steady decline; ambivalent friendships; unrequited affections that generate triangulated romances; infidelity; some type of journey, not far in distance but invested in symbolic value; chance encounters that turn out to be overdetermined, seemingly predetermined, and, from a realist narrative standpoint, implausible; a frustrated and frustrating inability among the characters to communicate directly, or rather to communicate successfully; which leads in turn to scenes of sustained drinking often followed by violent sexual intercourse.

The two movies I saw were both tantalizingly doubled. Stories were told twice; events were echoed; mistakes were repeated; a perpetual déjà vu was in effect. To kick this up a notch, Hong’s movies seem acutely aware of the duality of art and life: both films contained male characters who could be alter egos—or critiques—of the filmmaker/artist. Tale Of Cinema actually contained two such figures, one “in film” and the other “in reality”. The apparently casual geometries of his films seem in fact to be very carefully created, though with a light and unmelodramatic touch. These are deceptively simple movies, requiring—demanding—repeat viewings.

Which reminds me that my viewings of Korean cinema have been embarrassingly sparse. Not that there’s a reason for it. After all, I’ve read every word Filmbrain has ever written on his blog since he started it, and Korean film has recently gotten the kind of attention that Iran and Taiwan did in the eighties and nineties. In addition to Hong's, I’ve seen one film by Im Kwon-Taek (Chunhyang; liked it); two by Kim Ki-Duk (Spring, Summer, Fall… and 3-Iron; preferred the former—the latter was a bit too Tsai-like, but interesting); and nothing by Park Chan-Wook (I know, I know...).

So, this novice looks to you for recommendations of Korean movies. I'd appreciate any suggestions you may have.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

That Cold Day In The Park

The Robert Altman style we know and love was born not as much in his first studio feature film, Countdown (1968), as in his second, That Cold Day In The Park (1969). It strikes me as the first film of a loose “female subjectivity” trilogy, later to include Images and 3 Women.

What we have here, at least nominally, is a psychodrama with some suspense-thriller elements. Sandy Dennis is Frances, a thirty-ish spinster who sees a young man getting soaked by rain on a park bench. She invites him in to dry off and clean up; he does so silently; she assumes he’s mute; he goes along with her assumption. He spends the night in the guest room; she locks him in and makes him her prisoner. He quietly makes away through the fire escape, but returns to continue “playing her game”. One thing leads to another, and soon we’re in gothic-land.

The true star of the movie is the signature audiovisual strategy that Altman puts into place here, fully-formed, for the first time. He uses a potent combination of: (1) fluid, prowling pans, (2) zooms, both in and out, and (3) constant play with in-focus and out-of-focus. In the opening shot we watch Frances take a winding path home. The camera keeps up with her—steadily panning and zooming, but not moving—catching the sun and exploding briefly with a lens flare, but doggedly following her without cutting. Fifteen seconds into the film, you already know it’s going to be a visual treat.

Minutes later, she sets the table for her elderly guests and serves them dinner but her attention keeps wandering over to the young man she sees through the venetian blinds. (I believed that film noir had exhausted the possibilities of venetian blinds until I saw this movie—they’re ubiquitous and ominous here, and not just as instruments that provide effects of light and shadow.) At first the blinds are in perfect focus through her POV, like black shiny blades. Then the zooms begin and the blinds turn soft, becoming fat horizontal bars (confining her in her subjectivity?) until finally they turn into large foggy smears on the screen. The boy comes into focus at last; the rest of the image swims in milky out-of-focus. This blending of distinctness and indistinctness in the image somehow makes you feel a bit queasy.

Much of the movie takes place in the oppressively brown and beige apartment, and this is where Altman has a field day, lavishing care on shooting both people and objects, or often shooting people through objects. Unexpectedly, we discover the optical properties of glass-block, mirrored tables, gently swaying candle-flames, translucent plastic panels, and shiny cutlery. It's also interesting to witness how each of these objects is transformed—even expressionistically charged, one could say—with abstraction when examined in luxuriant out-of-focus for extended periods of time.

In one scene, Frances and the boy feast on pot brownies and play an erotically loaded game of hide-and-seek with blindfolds. In a wonderfully perverse touch, Altman shoots the scene, despite their altered state, with no visual effects. The zooms and other visual devices are used, rigorously, only to connote Frances’ instability. They (wisely) don’t belong in this scene, which finds her at her most blissful. The scene ends oddly with the boy escaping into his room, and Frances peeking through the keyhole and then swooning limp by the door, exactly as Jacqueline Sassard did in Chabrol’s Les Biches the previous year (coincidence?). Also reminiscent of Chabrol’s films of that period—which were scored by Pierre Jansen—is the modernist music by Johnny Mandel, all spooky tone clusters played on solo piano, and a world away from Mandel’s gorgeous orchestrations of “Suicide Is Painless” in MASH, Altman's next film.

Which brings me to the use of sound, which in this movie is not quite as radical as the visual aspects but is nevertheless unmistakably Altman. There are numerous ingenious instances but the one I’ll never forget takes place at a gynecologist’s office where Frances waits for her appointment and we hear numerous overlapped women’s voices all around her (as in Dr. T & The Women). And did I mention that the entire scene is shot from outside the building, through venetian blinds? When we watch her meeting with the nurse, it's a dead ringer for the shot of Alan Rudolph’s pitch to Tim Robbins, also seen through venetian blinds, in The Player (Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate, remember?).

One final example: An elderly man invites himself into Frances’ apartment, and declares his love—or more precisely, his lust—for her. She finds him repellent, but she doesn’t stop him as he drones on about making love to her. As she watches him catatonically, Altman abruptly cuts to the gynecologist’s table, Frances’ legs spread, as the doctor unsheaths a terrifying metal instrument. Meanwhile, the man drones on in the soundtrack. It's every bit as creepy as anything in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, twenty years later.

Around the time he made A Wedding, Altman was asked about his old movies and if he ever looked at them. He replied, "I look at them. And there's nothing I'd change in any one of them. They're finished works, reflecting a specific film experience. To change them would be like doing plastic surgery. And, honestly, I like 'em better than I did at the time. I looked at That Cold Day In The Park recently and I wanna tell you, that's one hell of a movie!" Not perhaps an objective viewpoint but I think he's right. And yo, distributor-man: put the darned thing on DVD already.

This post is part of the Robert Altman Blog-A-Thon masterminded by Matt Zoller Seitz.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

David Lowery's Short Films

I’ve been reading David’s blog regularly for over a year but only recently did I mosey on over to watch—and enjoy—his short films. Especially for someone so young, they’re remarkably wide-ranging in subject and style. Among others, there’s an “illegal music video”, a film about a pregnant woman (make that two films—a motif becomes visible!), and an ode to film-loving. Maybe my favorite of the shorts I’ve seen is Some Analog Lines, a first-person essay film about filmmaking. It is publicly unexhibited as of yet, but I’ll link to it when it becomes available.

Among the films viewable on his site is the 20-minute Still. It is instructive to watch it and then hear David’s commentary because he has such strong mixed feelings about it. (He is too hard on himself and the film!) We watch the movie the way it turned out and then, to the accompaniment of his unsparing critique, imagine a glimpse of an alternate film.

A great moment from Still: A man and a woman ring their neighbors’ doorbell. No one answers, though they could’ve sworn someone was home. They turn around and leave. As they do, the camera pans upward on the exterior of the house and our eyes get ready—conditioned by a hundred movies—to search the windows for someone watching them leave. But the pan is (purposely) interrupted by a straight cut before that can happen: The man and woman are now in bed. She looks over at him. Cut to a close-up of her caressing hand. Cut to a longer shot of them far apart in bed; she’s not touching him at all. Cut once again to an intimate moment.

The first time I saw this I was startled by what I thought—me of little faith!—was a continuity error. But it’s a nice example of using the formal means of cinema in the midst of a small moment to make meaning by posing (silent) questions: Are these close-ups flash-forwards? Or might they be quick flashes of “subjective cinema” in that we are seeing her “wishes” preceding “reality”? Such little moments that one comes upon and uncovers in the interstices of a movie have been occupying me a lot lately.

On a related note, here’s wishing the best to filmmaker-critic-blogger extraordinaire Matt Zoller Seitz on his feature film "Home".