Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Woman, Her Men, And Her Futon

Christ—is this what I’m reduced to? Writing cinephilic mash notes to late-night Cinemax softcore? Appears so, my friends. To explain, let me make A Woman, Her Men, And Her Futon my humble offering of a blurb: “I came for the prurience, but I stayed for the art!”

Seriously though—this is a kick-ass little movie that I encountered years ago on cable one insomniac night when the moon was high and the neighbor’s mutt wouldn’t shut up. (If I wasn’t such a dog-lover, I’d have dialed up Elaine Benes for ideas long ago.) The morning after, first thing, I scribbled the movie’s name in my journal (not that there was any chance of forgetting it) and rediscovered it recently on DVD.

This film, from 1992, is written and directed by one Mussef Sibay. Opening shot: Mid-orgasm (his, not hers). Basic set-up: Jennifer Rubin is Helen, a recently separated married woman with an obnoxiously jealous boyfriend she can’t bring herself to ditch and a studly no-strings-attached lover on the side (Grant Show from Melrose Place). Most interesting, and at the center of the movie, is her relationship with a filmmaker-friend, Donald (Lance Edwards). He wants her to help him write his next movie—which sounds a lot like the movie we are watching, only from his point of view, not hers—but in point of fact, is really interested in worming his way into her futon, and also (secondarily) into her heart. Of course, she is perfectly aware of this—this movie is very lucid about how the characters view themselves—but isn’t sure if that's what she wants.

We are treading some ground here that is all-too-common in life and yet doesn’t get explored very much or very well in movies: the limbo zone between a fully platonic friendship and a fully sexual relationship. Helen doesn’t have much to her name—apart from the futon—and Donald invites her to move in with him without any strings attached. But once she does, he weasels his way into a sort of steadily ascending makeout curve consisting of: holding, cuddling, petting, fondling, kissing, and finally, a desperate bit of Could-you-please-just-take-your-top-off-I–promise-I-won’t-ask-for-more-and-I-swear-this-won’t-affect-our-friendship-and-we’re-both-a-little-drunk-and-you-know-you-want-to-a-little-bit-anyway, etc.

Because she is taking advantage of his hospitality (his home, his offer to work on his movie), she wants to relent. Mainly, she is insecure, coming out of an unappreciative relationship, and wants to feel wanted. This is some fertile territory for a psychological study of power relations in romantic relationships and this movie is unhesitatingly down with it. (Not formally but thematically, there are faint echoes of Fassbinder.) None of the characters are outright “good” or “bad”—everyone, as the old cine-adage goes, has her or his reasons. Helen is a character created with great subtlety and compassion, but we also see her lie, deceive, mislead and act passive-aggressive, all of them in small—not grand—ways. As in life.

Manny Farber lamented in his 1957 essay “Underground Films” that the masters of the male action film and of male characterization (Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, Anthony Mann) were under-appreciated. One could take the obverse view here and say that it is rare for a male-directed film (meaning, what, over 95% of movies made?) to be truly woman-centric in its perspective. Which this film admirably tries to do.

The single most interesting thing about this movie might be Jennifer Rubin’s (non-?) performance. Is this “acting” or “being”? I have no way of knowing. She never tries to “emote” and has a near-blankness which (oddly) seemed very naturalistic to me. (One Amazon commenter slammed her performance as “comatose”; one might almost construe that as a compliment in this case.) Francis Bacon once said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not a strangeness in the proportion.” And Rubin, despite her supermodel looks, has an odd, almost awkward gait, both arresting and gangly. It’s a small detail, but this physical trait humanizes her even more, adding to her character’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. She was (imdb says) the original model in the Calvin Klein Obsession ads, had a small part in The Doors, and is currently a hostess at a TriBeca restaurant.

* * *

Continuing with today’s futonic theme, let us celebrate the Isley Brothers’ lubricious booty jam, “Between The Sheets.” (If you’re a hip-hop/pop freak, yawn and click away now, because nothing that follows will be news to you.)

“Between The Sheets” from 1983, off the album of the same name, has got to be one of the most sampled tunes ever. This bedroom ballad is an instrument of seduction not just in the lyrics (rhyming “receive me” with “release me”; “moaning” with “groaning”) but even in its musical structure. In a surprise touch, it abandons the verse-chorus pattern entirely at 3:25 and literally (but discreetly) initiates a bout of love-making to the accompaniment of the same musical figure repeated over and over (tension/release/tension/release….) until it fades out two minutes later. The synth bass and melody lines are simply delicious. No wonder people have been biting them ever since.

On “Big Poppa,” Biggie and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs quicken the pace of the Isleys sample, and Biggie delivers, with his usual authority, flow and (matchless!) cadence, a virtuosic bit of rapping. Since this is hip-hop, the usual parental advisories apply. (Which is my way of advising my parents—please do not download this song!)

Gwen Stefani on "Luxurious" goes in the other direction, slowing down the speed of the sample and putting a thick honey glaze on it. The subject is both sex and success (“champagne kisses/hold me in your/lap of luxury” or “Egyptian cotton…rollin’ in cashmere”). The opulent production, by Nellee Hooper and Tony Kanal, is candy. Each snare hit sounds like it cost a thousand bucks. So worth it.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Two Italian First Films

The first shot of Bertolucci's first film

Lately I’ve been renting DVD’s in pairs as a sort of exercise in putting together potentially interesting double bills and seeing what resonances might emerge. Most recently I watched, back to back, two Italian debut films from the sixties: Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Commare Secca (1962) and Marco Bellocchio’s Fists In The Pocket (1965). Both were on Criterion discs and included interviews with Bertolucci that were brief—just ten minutes apiece—but very helpful in understanding socio-cultural and aesthetic context. I must confess that I’ve had some trouble with Bertolucci’s post-Conformist films and so it was heartening to see and hear him in the present day, lucid and down-to-earth, marbles perfectly intact.

To begin with, some quick backstory: Pier Paolo Pasolini made his first film, Accatone, in 1961; Bertolucci served as assistant director. Pasolini then wrote a script called La Commare Secca, but lost interest in it as he became occupied with his second film, Mamma Roma (1962). Bertolucci—just 21—stepped in to direct La Commare Secca. (The title translates as “The Grim Reaper.”) The same year, he won a prestigious award for his first book of poems.

No offense to poets and littérateurs, but La Commare Secca doesn’t feel weighed down by words. (Proposition: In a pinch, cinephiles prefer carefully wrought images to carefully wrought words.) The “poetic effects” in the film (see still photo above) are visual. Bertolucci insightfully says that since the story, character and settings were already handed to him—via Pasolini’s script and its “Pasoliniano genre”—he needed to counter them by bringing something of his own sensibility to the conception of the film. Pasolini was a non-cinephile influenced by early Tuscan painting and its frontality of composition (e.g. Sassetti), evoking the sacred by filming his images as he might an altarpiece. Bertolucci rejects this Renaissance static frontality in favor of flowing and lyrical (and poetic) moving camera shots.

With interlocking flashbacks, the film tracks the last few hours in the lives of a few characters—mostly petty criminals, pimps, and street-wise youths—before the murder of a prostitute; they are all suspects in the crime. The dialogue, far from being “literary” or “poetic” is instead (marvelously) made up of casual and “unimportant” exchanges. When the movie ends, you don’t remember the words but instead the bodies, gestures and clothes of the characters/actors. A big accomplishment: we lose interest in who-dun-it, so de-emphasized is the genre element of the story. When the murder scene is finally shown, Bertolucci seems so distanced from it that he lays soft and meditative finger-picked guitar (!) over this brutal scene. A great touch.

One terrific sign that Bertolucci was already—despite his youth and his literary roots—thinking like a filmmaker: the accounts of the suspects, told in words to the interrogating police detectives, serve as voiceover to the images of those accounts. But the images contradict the words—the suspects are often lying—but it is, intuitively, the images and not the words we end up believing as the "true" account of what happened. Quietly, Bertolucci signals the primacy of image over word.

How’s this for symbolism? In Marco Bellocchio’s Fists In The Pocket, we have a provincial middle-class family raging with ailment and dysfunction: epilepsy, mental illness and incest. And the mother is stricken with blindness. The protagonist is Alessandro (or Ale), the epileptic son played by Swedish-born actor Lou Castel, whom I’ve seen twice before, both times in the role of scuzzy film directors—Fassbinder’s Beware Of The Holy Whore (1970) and Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996). Ale, simply, wants to rid his family of its embarrassment of debilities by means of….collective suicide and murder. Considering the film was made a couple of years before the student revolts of the late sixties, the impulse to “blow up” the sick and ailing bourgeois family unit was surely not coincidental. (Bellocchio even shot the film in his own mother’s house in the provinces!)

“The great advantage of first films,” Bellocchio has said, “is that you’re nobody and have no history, so you have the freedom to risk everything.” Fists In The Pocket is pugnacious (the title is a translation of “I Pugni In Tasca”), full of tonal swerving and shifting. Bertolucci theorizes that the difference between his films and Bellocchio’s might have something to do with their hometowns. Bertolucci is from Parma (elegant, refined, aestheticized) and Bellocchio from Piacenza (hard-edged, enshrouded in grim weather).

This deeply sardonic film appears anti-humanist at first glance but that’s not true at all. Bellocchio constructs Ale not simply as a psycho-sociopath but as a complex character in whom he invests great sympathy. Ale twitches (physically, emotionally, mentally) in constant restlessness with the status quo. Suddenly, the camera might abandon what is happening in a room and plunge to a close-up of his hands running slowly across a table-cloth, caressing it creepily. (Body movements as a chart of psychic perturbations.) Gestures and events erupt unpredictably, making perfect sense in hindsight: At his mother’s wake, he sits by the body, then suddenly swings his legs and stretches them on the coffin, parallel to his mother’s. (Sacrilegious, funny.) Ale and his sister hurl their mother’s furniture and possessions into a bonfire, and the anarchic charge of the scene calls to mind the pillow fight in Vigo’s Zero De Conduite.

Castel’s mercurial performance is central to the movie. He resembles Brando from some angles, and his sister—remember I mentioned the icky undercurrents of incest?—even has a picture of Brando tacked to her bed. Castel’s de-stabilizing performance fits perfectly with Bellocchio’s risk-taking, incendiary tone. In his comments on the film, Bertolucci applies Pasolini's dichotomy of a “cinema of prose” (=Bellocchio) and a “cinema of poetry” (=Bertolucci). But Bertolucci's theory sounds too pat and clean to me. Fists In The Pocket is rough and raw and rancid—and that doesn’t make it any less poetic than the bits of torn newspaper floating preciously in the wind in the opening shot of La Commare Secca. Poetry comes in many flavors, tones and colors; not all of them taste sweet, sound lyrical or look beautiful.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Every Man For Himself

In our mind, we tend to associate Jean-Luc Godard with Paris in the 1960’s at the center of the exciting cine-cultural swirl that was the nouvelle vague. But Godard is Swiss-born and grew up splitting his time between Switzerland and France. He moved to Switzerland for good in the seventies and has lived in the small rural town of Rolle since. When he made In Praise Of Love (2001), it was, incredibly, the first time he had shot in Paris since Masculin Feminin (1966).

After his nouvelle vague period, which ended with Weekend (1967), he (further) radicalized his cinema, beginning with the cerebral pedagogical gem Le Gai Savoir (1968), moving on to his demanding and obdurate Dziga-Vertov period. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident, he was nursed back to health by Anne-Marie Miéville, with whom he began to work on films. (A musical analogue that leaps to mind are the legendary “Big Pink” sessions recorded in Saugerties, New York, made in fortuitous collaboration by Bob Dylan with the Band after his motorcycle accident in 1967.)

In 1980, in continued collaboration with Miéville, Godard made Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), a.k.a Every Man For Himself. Remarking on this return to cinema after working in video for several years, he called it his “second first film,” a rediscovery of the classical story values of Breathless: “I feel like I’m landing for the first time after twenty years in movies, in this beautiful country of narrative.” I saw Every Man For Himself during the titanic Godard retrospective that James Quandt put together at Cinematheque Ontario four years ago, loved it, and seized the chance to pop down and see it again at George Eastman House recently.

This film is a shotgun marriage of the brutal and the beautiful: Sex and Money constitute the former, Nature the latter. The plot—its location in the "beautiful country of narrative" notwithstanding—is wonderfully loose and episodic, sketch-like. There are three main characters, the autobiographical and utterly unsympathetic Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), his girlfriend (Nathalie Baye), and a prostitute, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert).

We begin with the beautiful: credits over a burst of blue sky with wisps of cumulus; I was reminded of the lactic whorls in a black pool of coffee—the universe in a cup in Two Or Three Things I Know About Her. The brutal arrives soon after, brought by humans. Prostitution has always been a crucial metaphor in Godard, but it’s used a bit differently here. In Vivre Sa Vie, we were drawn to Anna Karina’s Nana, sharing in her everyday roamings and reveries when she was not working, accompanying her to the movies to see The Passion Of Joan. We learn little about Isabelle here: she exists only to sell her body, floating from one john to the next with complete affectlessness. When her own sister wants to become a hooker, Isabelle flatly demands a share of her take. If prostitution was a structuring principle for Vivre Sa Vie as a film, it is so for all of society here.

Godard’s view of male sexuality here is at his blackest. Paul (creepily) complains to a friend that mothers get to be familiar and intimate with daughters but fathers are never allowed to. The scenes of Isabelle with her clients are disgustingly cold, and make Vivre Sa Vie look positively romantic. Remember Fritz Lang filming the Odyssey in Contempt? Instead, here we have a commercial film producer and his assistant who hire two prostitutes for sex and stage a ridiculously regimented—not to mention demented—tableau as though they were shooting one of their own disposable films. The resulting orgy scene is both appalling and bitterly funny: is this Godard’s vision of the death of cinema?

Late Godard is often referred to as his “transcendental period” and this movie is where that period begins. In the most heart-stopping scenes, Nathalie Baye bicycles around the Swiss countryside, surrounded by rolling hills, manicured farms, backdropped by picturesque sky. The camera seizes mid-rapture, and the images hurtle into a stuttering succession of freeze frames; it’s not quite slow motion, but a sort of freeze-frame motion. (Perhaps this is where Wong Kar-Wai first encountered it.) There’s something transporting about these shots which are sprinkled throughout the film—they feel like visual music (as in “all art aspires to the condition of music”). Which is probably why the opening credits say: “A Film Composed by Jean-Luc Godard.”

Postscript: Funny thing about France—so many of the film stars are also gifted singers. Françoise Hardy, who is surely one of the most attractive women I’ve ever laid eyes on, isn’t a film star but she had a bit part in Masculin Feminin. I’m a huge fan of her singing (clear, direct, cool—comme son visage) and would like to leave you with two of her songs: “Puisque Vous Partez En Voyage,” [mp3] a duet with movie star Dutronc (the Godard figure in Every Man For Himself), and another one with Iggy Pop, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” [mp3] both off her 2000 album Clair Obscur.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Toronto International Film Festival: Dialogues

Cannes is here, which inevitably starts one looking ahead to Toronto in the fall. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) thinks of itself as a sort of “anthology” fest, collecting the best films from other festivals in addition to premiering new ones. (It even used to be subtitled “The Festival Of Festivals” for many years.) It’s large—upwards of 350 features—with many programmes running simultaneously.

One (unfortunately) less-attended programme is called “Dialogues,” in which filmmakers show up at the cavernous Cumberland theater and screen a favorite film, speak about it afterwards and engage in conversation with the audience. In 1999, the first year I attended TIFF, Tim Roth presented a powerful Alan Clarke film called Elephant (1989), and talked eloquently about it afterwards. (The film's title is also the basis of the name of the Gus Van Sant film.) Too bad there was only a handful of us there; it’s been my experience at TIFF that new and current films are often much better attended than older ones.

So, for a little divertissement, I've culled, from TIFF programme books past, a few examples of filmmakers and the films they chose to present, followed by a few words on why they chose these films:

  • Atom Egoyan—Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life Of Archibaldo De La Cruz, 1955. “Before Travis Bickle, before Norman Bates, before Henry, there was a portrait of a very unique serial killer….As an examining doctor sums Archibaldo up: ‘He’s a typical man of our times….a bit moody.’”

  • Jonathan Demme—Glauber Rocha’s Antonio Das Mortes, 1969. “Long before the invention of the Steadicam, and without the aid of cranes or dolly track, Glauber Rocha was ecstatically challenging the limits of just how much information, movement, theme and suspense could be crammed into a single shot.”

  • Guy Maddin—Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll, 1936. “[It] is a revenge story, a prison-break actioner, a shrinking-people sfx horror movie, a comedy, a tearjerker, a father-daughter concealed-identity melodrama. It features taxi-drivers, laundry-maids, homicidal toys, a blind mother, the Eiffel Tower, and Lionel Barrymore in drag. My favorite quote: ‘It might have been safer to take him downstairs and make him small.’ Let’s all find, or make, some more movies as inspired as this.”

  • Claire Denis—Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, 1971. “Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul would be my other choice; it is always on my mind when I’m making my own films. But Sweet Sweetback is something special, and in many ways it is not so far from Ali either.”

  • Errol Morris—Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, 1945. “Here is my candidate for the most uncompromisingly bleak movie to come out of America—with Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow running a close second.”

  • Tsai Ming-Liang—Wong Tin-Lam’s The Wild, Wild Rose, 1960. Here are Darren’s thoughts on the screening.

  • Peter Greenaway—Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad, 1961. “[It] is perhaps the only truly film-film that cannot be anything else; not a text, though it came from Robbe-Grillet; not a painting, though it visually quotes paintings; not a play, though it visually and aurally quotes a play twice. This is true intelligent cinematic manipulation, and no poor mimetic transference of some other language. Like cinema itself, it exists to play games…I have been trying to re-make this film ever since.”

  • Jean-Luc GodardRob Tregenza’s Talking To Strangers, 1987. “There is a great tradition in solitary America of being in love with reality, from Thoreau through Man Of Aran and Faces. And Rob Tregenza belongs to this tradition—that of speaking of and listening to our daily reality. Not simply of loving life—not the candid camera, no, a reflecting camera.”

  • Olivier Assayas—Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, 1983. “Faith no longer exists, idealism seems meaningless, nothing transcends the actions of humanity. All that is left is a cold material world, a desolate land where humanity wanders in bondage to diabolical evil….L’Argent is the testament of a director in his 80s. It is also a film of a radical young man, which dares everything, without compromising with the taste of the time.”

  • David Cronenberg—Tod Browning’s Freaks, 1932. “We are part of a culture, we are part of an ethical and moral system, but all we have to do is take one step outside it and we see that none of that is absolute. It’s only a human construct.”

  • John WooJean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, 1967. “Melville understands that Jeff, the Alain Delon character, is doomed to be killed because he is a killer himself, that the way he is bound to die is built into the way he lives. When he chose his life he was embracing his own death. He achieves redemption at the end by accepting his fate gracefully. To me, this is the most romantic attitude imaginable.”

  • Michael Almereyda—Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack, 1971. “[It] remains fascinating for its surprises and contradictions. A macho fantasy with with a feminist core. A melodramatic seventies western powered by the ideals of sixties pop politics.”

  • Richard Linklater—Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971.

  • Hou Hsiao-Hsien—Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, 1949.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Martin Arnold

Mickey Rooney and Faye Holden in Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy.

Gas prices being what they are, I shouldn’t be taking movie road trips, but some unmissables have presented themselves lately, and you can’t put a price on great cinema, right? So I drove up recently to George Eastman House in Rochester for an avant-garde program curated by Jim Healy called “Tampering With The Image.” When I got there, Jim waved me in, saving me the price of a ticket (what a guy).

Am I glad I went. There were a number of strong films on the program, but for me the revelation of the evening (of the year, even?) was the work of Austrian filmmaker Martin Arnold. No overstatement: An electrifying experience. I haven’t been able to shake it for several days. And I can think of no better way to affix the memory of seeing these film-gems than….telling you about them.

Martin Arnold, I’ve discovered since, has a formidable reputation in avant-garde film circles, based predominantly on three experimental short films, each about 15 minutes long. He takes found footage from old Hollywood films and manipulates it by means of a home-made optical printer, frame by frame, using no digital means. An example: he might take a frame, freeze on it, and then slowly rock back and forth to frames ahead of it and behind it. First, this immobilizes the image and allows us to look at it carefully. Then, it takes minute gestures or micro-elements of a gesture, and dilates them so that every small movement in that gesture is writ large. Subtexts—of gender, family or sexuality—that were previously invisible suddenly rush to the surface, often with horrific humor.

For instance. Arnold’s first film, Pièce Touchée (1989), takes an 18-second segment from a B-movie with Gary Merrill called The Human Jungle (1954) and expands it into a film forty times its length. In the original, a wife waits at home for her husband, reading a magazine in a chair. He opens the door, enters, kisses her, and they both get up and leave the room. End of segment. In Arnold’s film, the wife taps her finger over and over again, fidgeting spastically as she waits for her husband—Arnold plays the frames repeatedly to cause this nervous twitching. The door takes forever to open—bit by bit, opening then closing, the frames stuck in a loop, inducing a sense of dread (who is trying to get into the house?). When the husband finally enters, he leans over his wife’s chair to kiss her, but the approach to the kiss becomes a Herculean, long-drawn-out exercise, repeatedly intiated then aborted, reaching Buñuelian levels of frustration. He stands (dominant) while she sits (subservient) and when he moves, she responds to his motion, like a puppet. And this sudden foregrounding of gender politics never feels like an academic exercise; instead it's grotesquely, uncomfortably funny.

Passage À L’Acte (1993) takes a brief scene from To Kill A Mockingbird in which Gregory Peck, his son, daughter and a woman neighbor are at the breakfast table. The boy gets up to leave and Peck orders him to sit back down and finish his breakfast. Arnold chooses specific sections (consisting of one or more frames) and repeats them, making them stutter. When Peck jabs his long forefinger at his son’s breakfast plate, we see it not just once as in the original, but dozens of times. When the boy leaves and the screen door shuts, it reverberates like a machine gun repeating deafeningly, endlessly. What we have here isn't a family kitchen but a conflict-charged battlefield.

The third and possibly the most radical of the films is Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998). It combines clips from three musicals starring Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Faye Holden. What seems like an innocent trio of characters (boy, girl, boy’s mother) turns into a devatasting oedipal triangle. Rooney kisses his mother quickly from behind, his fingers giving her arms a little squeeze. Perfectly normal and ordinary, right? But when Arnold’s done with it, slowing it down, playing it frame by frame, rocking it back and forth, it looks like a positively scandalous, unmistakeably erotic, outrageously ecstatic moment.

There are many traces of truth hidden in Hollywood films: truth about power relationships between men and women, the family as a microcosm of conflict, and the role and potency of sexuality in everyday relations, not to mention the unspoken rules in place for the representation of society and individuals in Hollywood movies. Many of these traces are veiled by swift narrative, camouflaging dialogue and quick accretion of event. By slowing down the film to the level of single frames, and “sampling” these frames like a hip-hop DJ might sample a “break,” these hidden traces, these invisible gestures, come to life. The unspeakable is thus spoken. Revelation results. To me, this is what Arnold's films are about.

You can view a Quicktime clip of Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy at Martin Arnold’s site here.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Movie-Watching Time

Mushroom-picking in The Man Without A Past

A couple of hours ago, I finished up my final exam grading, punched all the numbers into the spreadsheet and assigned course grades. I won’t actually file the grades till tomorrow; I always like to sleep on them and run through my decisions once more in the morning. There’s one more ceremony to attend tomorrow evening and the semester can be put to rest. (I apologize here for stooping to a moment of shameless self-promotion—can I blame my mom for badgering me, sweetly, into doing it?)

And now to breathe a sigh, take a few days off from work and devote them to a small spell of—what else?—devoted movie-watching. I have discs from Netflix and Greencine on my night-stand, radiating guilt each time I look at them. And I have several newly bought DVD’s lining the shelves, unopened. So, here’s what I’m looking forward to:

  • Some films that I should’ve seen by now but haven’t: Robert Mulligan’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees film, Head.

  • A small stack of films by the contemporary filmmaker I find most repeat-watchable, Aki Kaurismaki.

  • Albert Brooks’ classic Modern Romance, which I’ve been awaiting on DVD for years.

  • A couple of 1990’s films I like a lot that I’ve been meaning to return to: Kelly Reichardt’s River Of Grass and James Toback’s Black And White.

  • Atop my Netflix and Greencine queues, waiting to be shipped: Monte Hellman's Cockfighter and Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer.

  • Others: Allan Moyle’s teen film Times Square, Jean Epstein’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and, um, Mouse Hunt.

So, if you feel like it, let me ask you: movies you’re looking forward to or thinking of seeing in the next few days or weeks, in the theaters or on DVD?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Meme Time

I've been tagged by Walter at Quiet Bubble, and the timing just couldn't be better:

  • I am procrastinating grading final exams.

  • I want it to be September in Toronto.

  • I wish Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane had made a dozen records together instead of just one.

  • I hate a cell phone going off in class.

  • I love Stan Getz’s tenor sax playing on Jobim’s “Só Danço Samba”. (It's probably my favorite sax solo.)

  • I miss my parents and family in India.

  • I fear that I get really defensive when people attack things I cherish. (e.g. Howard Hawks movies, Liz Phair records, Elzie Segar comics).

  • I hear Lady Sovereign’s “Fiddle With The Volume” on my laptop speakers.

  • I wonder if my students know that I have a blog. (I divulge zero personal detail in my classes.)

  • I regret that I didn’t take music lessons as a kid.

  • I am not a handyman.

  • I dance to Peggy Lee’s “Dance Only With Me”.

  • I sing bass lines to songs around the house. (I am single—this is not a coincidence.)

  • I cry at the end of Aki Kaurismaki’s Drifting Clouds. (Three times and counting.)

  • I am not always good about staying in touch with friends after I move. (I feel bad about this.)

  • I make with my hands a rice pulao of which my mom would approve.

  • I write first thing in the morning, warm cereal at my elbow and warm pegster at my feet.

  • I confuse titles and plot details of Ozu movies.

  • I need to dial down my daily Internerdery. (A tad.)

  • I should cultivate the discipline to make the gym a part of my daily routine.

  • I start every semester with all the ambition I can muster.

  • I finish every semester with an inventory of all the things that didn’t go as I had hoped. (There’s always next semester to fix old mistakes and make fresh ones.)

  • I tag Darren, Michael and Sacha.

  • Sunday, May 07, 2006

    Grant McLennan: RIP

    Via Brad, the shocking news that Grant McLennan is dead at 48.

    McLennan, with Robert Forster, led my favorite-ever Australian band, The Go-Betweens. It is famously said that when the Velvet Underground released their first record in 1967—the "banana album" produced and designed by Andy Warhol—it wasn't a big success but every person who bought it started a band. McLennan originally wanted to become a film critic, but musically fascinated by the Velvets, formed the Go-Betweens with Forster in the late 70's. Their first single was "Lee Remick."

    In the early 80's they moved from Brisbane to England, arriving in the right place at the wrong time. The landscape was aglitter with colored-haired "New Romantic" synth-pop bands, and their sparse and ungimmicky guitar-based sound wasn't going to set the marketplace on fire. But they caught—and kept—a strong critical following all through the 80's, making a succession of superbly-written and tastefully-arranged records. (You don't often hear violin and oboe in rock arrangements.) They broke up at the end of the decade but then reformed in 2000.

    Some nice examples of McLennan's work:

    • "The Statue" off Go-Betweens' Oceans Apart, one of last year's best records.

    • "Haven't I Been A Fool" from McLennan's solo album Watershed (1992). A good example of both his clear tenor and his trademark romanticism.

    • "Right Here" off Tallulah (1987), the Go-Betweens record I've played most often.

    Now to return to spinning more Go-Betweens on this sunny sad spring morning.

    Friday, May 05, 2006

    Bela Tarr

    The Hungarian Bela Tarr has made just three films in the last twenty years—Damnation (1987), Satantango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)—and his huge reputation rests predominantly on them. They also happen to be the only Tarr films I’ve seen.

    I caught up with Damnation this week; the film’s style strongly prefigures its two successors. The story is wonderfully—ridiculously—minimal, banal even, in its archetypal contours. A man loves a married woman, and plots to have the husband sent away on a smuggling assignment so that he can spend time with her. That’s pretty much all there is to the story—a skeletal abstraction from a familiar noir template.

    But it is the form of this film that is truly revelatory. It’s made in black-and-white—as are the other two Tarr films I mentioned above—and it uses long, hypnotic takes. (The film runs about two hours and contains just 50 shots.) But the camera is often not stationary. It tracks, with delicious slowness, revealing, reframing, and often surprising. I was (perhaps absurdly) reminded of the black-and-white alt-comics of Jaime Hernandez, who structures his panels such that as your eye travels from left to right and top to bottom within a panel, a quiet little dramatic arc results, accompanied by small, nearly imperceptible pops of surprise.

    The choreography of the camera is astonishing but its impact is multiplied by Tarr’s sense of place. The Hungarian mining town is forever gray, drenched with torrential rain, the ground caked with swamp-like mud. Curiously, looking long and intently at this decomposing, godforsaken place draws it nearer to you—it mesmerizes you with its concreteness. You start to pay attention to every small detail in the frame because you have the time to. In trying to make sense of this, I ask myself: is it (1) the physical, topographical set of characteristics of the places and people’s faces, or (2) the manner in which Tarr looks at them, that makes them mesmerizing? How is it that he can spellbind us with a long-held shot of a decrepit wall with peeling plaster? I am utterly engrossed by it in a Tarr film, but would I be so in real life? If not, why not?

    Gus Van Sant’s recent films have been hugely influenced by Tarr. He has said perceptively about Tarr:

    Cinema started as simple, single-shot, full-length proscenium compositions resembling theater, the only thing it could find to reference to commercialize itself. By the next twenty years, there was a new vocabulary. The closeup, montage, and parallel storytelling fragmented the continuity of the previous proscenium-encased static-frame full-figure images. Separate fragments were now placed together to form meaning; the director could play with time and cinematic space. It was exciting. Was this an inevitable direction or just one road cinema chose to take?....Somehow Bela has gotten himself back there psychically and learned things all over again as if modern cinema had never happened.

    So Tarr makes you feel like you are refocusing your attention on the real and ordinary details of the world. But the world in his films is not quite the real world. It is a visionary world, made by Tarr with a conscious awareness of artifice. He has often pointed out the elements of this artifice: sets and entire buildings are constructed; the ever-blowing wind is manufactured by wind machines; the wild dogs in the street are carefully released into the frame at the right time. Even the horrific “cat scene” in Satantango is one that was carefully staged; the cat was drugged and a vet was present on the set. Using black-and-white, he has said, is another step in moving away from naturalism.

    Tarr’s first three films—Family Nest (1977), The Outsider (1980) and The Prefab People (1982)—were described by Jonathan Rosenbaum as “socialist realist cries of rage, much of their style influenced by John Cassavetes.” Tarr admires Cassavetes but denies the influence (“This is [Rosenbaum’s] mania…”). After a TV version of Macbeth (1982), which Rosenbaum considers a transitional work (Tarr disagrees: “I have to tell you, for me, no turning point…no break.”), he made Almanac Of Fall (1984), which inaugurates the second and more momentous phase of Tarr’s career. Interestingly, one of his first champions in the West was Susan Sontag, who called him one of the world’s leading filmmakers in the original version of her essay “The Decay Of Cinema” in 1996. Rosenbaum points out something curious: when the essay was published in the New York Times, the original version was altered to drop Tarr’s name (and also that of some other international filmmakers) and add Coppola and Schrader, perhaps "to mainstream" the essay.

    Now comes news from Facets that arriving on DVD—following the recent releases of Damnation and Werckmeister Hamonies—is Tarr’s seven-hour Satantango. I have mixed feelings about this. Satantango is one of the cinema events of recent times, a theatrical experience like no other. I remember the appropriately gray and drizzly day around Thanksgiving five years ago when I saw it with thirty or forty others at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. I’m glad the film will be on DVD but I’m not sure I’ll rush to see it in this format anytime soon. It might be fun to take a road trip to revisit it “live” somewhere, though I have a feeling that the chances of theatrical exhibition will likely diminish now that it'll be widely available on DVD. (From a few months ago: Zach has a typically eloquent post on the matter here.)

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    Zoe Beloff

    When I was a kid, my parents took me regularly to witness two spectacles of illusion and performance: (1) the magic shows of PC Sorcar, and (2) the movies. The two are forever linked in my mind, and I’m reminded of this when I watch the movies of avant-garde filmmaker Zoe Beloff.

    Images, in Toronto, is one of North America’s leading avant-garde film festivals, and it was there that I first encountered Beloff’s work a few years ago. This year, she returned to the festival, and also stopped here in town at Hallwalls, to present her new 40-minute 3D experimental narrative film Charming Augustine. The film is inspired by photographs and texts published by an asylum in Paris in the 1880’s. Augustine was a young hysteria patient who heard voices and had hallucinatory visions. Her doctors kept transcripts of her attacks and also took accompanying photographs.

    The film starts out as a clinical medical documentary but then slowly morphs into an operatic melodrama. It’s almost as if the point-of-view changes from that of the observing doctors in the first half to that of Augustine’s interior in the second half. Though the story of the film is told in linear fashion, the effect is one of circularity since we are seeing the same Augustine from two different vantage points in the two halves of the film.

    It's interesting to learn that the term “hysteria” was abolished by the medical profession in 1980—it is now subsumed under multiple personality disorder and dissociative disorder. The film wants to explore the theatrical aspects of Augustine’s hysterical fits. It does this by recreating the archival photographs and texts using actors. And it is this performative element of hysteria that particularly lends itself to being cinematic. (Depression, on the other hand, is a disorder less overtly suited to such cinematic performance, being directed internally rather than externally.) Beloff is using cinema, one might say, to make altered states visible, to capture spells of deliria as they unfold, during the moment of their performance.

    The film is set at an interesting point in time. Pioneers like Muybridge and Marey were using cameras to conduct studies of human and animal bodies in motion, and their investigations would soon result in the birth of cinema. Augustine’s doctors used the same cameras to not record the body but instead to probe the human mind.

    Though movies had not yet been born, audiences of the day did not lack for cinema-like spectacle. 3D (or stereoscopic) photography was invented in the mid-1800’s, and the magic lantern, which was the forerunner of the movie projector, had been around for much longer. Victorian ghost shows and phantasmagorias used a combination of these devices to conjure up likenesses of people, conduct séances and mount horror shows. 3D presentations were especially effective because live performers would interact dramatically with hand-painted slides projected on a screen. (There is an entertaining account of this bit of cinematic pre-history here.)

    By choosing to use 3D, Beloff has filmed the story of Augustine the way it might have been filmed at the time, if cinema had existed. She has said: “My project for some time has been an attempt to awaken the past buried behind the present, behind the illusions of progress, by studying its scraps and remains, outdated buildings and fashions, the landscape of the everyday that has been discarded, overlooked.” In addition, she uses here a vertical, door-like aspect ratio, common at the time but discarded once standardization arrived in the cinema. It reminds you that the early years in the evolution of a form are often marked by exciting experimentation, which ends up being quashed as standards get created and adopted.

    Also on the program were two short films that influenced Beloff. In D.W. Griffith’s The Painted Lady (1912), Blanche Sweet plays a woman afflicted with delirium who speaks to people who aren’t there. Griffith was known to strive for authenticity and it is said that Sweet’s performance is close to descriptions of hysteria patients of the time. The other short film was made by a psychoanalyst in Pittsburgh in the 1920’s, and documents a woman elaborately performing her various multiple personalities. It had the strange effect of making even the operatic bits in Charming Augustine look documentary-like.