24 July 2009

John Huston walks into a bar.

I have a vision from my youth of my grandmother's mother on a bed in a back room located somewhere in downtown Dayton. My great grandmother: immobile and moribund, pallid and silent, oblivious to my visit. It's no joke that Pet Cemetery was a horrifying film for me at that age, because I knew exactly what it was to have death's presence fill a room. And that was my central image of elderly living for a long time.

I think it'll be a goddamn miracle if I live into my 90s, 80s, 70s, or even 60s. I come from a cursed family, a cancerous family; bad luck and bad genes. Because there are real living people making these films I watch, and because I can learn about them, it matters to me that John Huston was 77 while filming Under the Volcano. It matters to me that he would die three years later. It even sort of matters that his previous film was 1982's Annie, a bizarre collision of tones that isn't overpowering.

I watched three late-Huston films recently: 1984's Under the Volcano, 1979's Wise Blood, and 1972's Fat City. The three of them weren't good by an old man's standards, the three of them were great period. Especially Under the Volcano and Fat City. Real quick some auxiliary talent contributing to these films: Fat City was shot by Conrad Hall, Richard Sylbert was the production designer, and the film stars Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, and Candy Clark; Under the Volcano is an adaptation of the Malcolm Lowry novel, was shot by Gabriel Figueroa, the production designer was Gunther Gerzo, and the film stars Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, and Anthony Andrews. Smart choices for both films. John Huston, a relic of the studio system, continued to make brilliant cast and crew selections, selecting not only talented people, but talented people whose specific qualities blended with the tone of the script and film. However much I enjoyed Under the Volcano, part of that enjoyment came from knowing it was Gabriel Figueroa behind the camera, someone I could think of as a legitimate tour guide into the bowels of Mexico (Huston too, definitely Huston too, who spent a great deal of time in Mexico).

Not only did he make great films late into his career, but these films are also virile, vibrant, and evocative. Stephanie would have liked a single happy ending between the three, but Huston was completely in step with his contemporary times, and downbeat endings were a prevalent feature of films from the period. They the three films are populated by anti-heroes thrust into morally ambiguous worlds without proper means for coping, and could be played favorably next to any Altman, Ashby, or Rafelson whathaveyou, Cutter's Way, etc. Huston's characters roam their narratives like cattle on the free range, and if there's a criticism I have it's that they have too little definition, especially in Wise Blood, which is why I don't think it's a truly great one.

Fat City is an episodic, backwards journey into semi-professional boxing in a 1970's city. It opens with half-retired professional boxer Stacy Keach entering a gym where a casual, spare-time boxer, the young Jeff Bridges, is working out. They engage in a spar and Keach compliments Bridges, telling him he's a natural athlete with a god-given talent. And in many ways this way will be the high point in a film that shimmers with the pains and joys of always being a contender, never a champion. The film is like if Rocky had started in the middle and spiraled inward to the beginning, and the end of Fat City is a direct parallel to the beginning of Fat City. The narrative has a double meaning ring structure: the ring of events as a symbol of the fighting arena, and the ring of events as a symbol of the human condition.

Under the Volcano is a darkly humorous and richly layered film that is undoubtedly the work of a mature filmmaker. In some ways it's the Key Largo I always wanted to see, and Albert Finney is the same kind of hard to like and hard to hate and probably impotent protagonist Bogart was in Key Largo, but Finney's character is not confined to the rigor of plot and decency Bogart's earlier film (with Huston) was. Huston and his crew match the inner drama of Finney's character with violent and macabre images of Mexico city. The opening is a stroll through a town on the Day of the Dead. Death haunts the picture, haunts Finney. Stand out scenes are Finney's entry into the church with his friend, to pray to the Madonna for his wife's return, the bull fight sequence, and the incredible final moments that are thoroughly sad, utterly miserable, and completely sick. In those final moments there's both the sense of the impending doom and the sense of completion, and I would say it's too precise an ending for a film that's been to this point unbound and spiritual. It feels a bit 'and the moral of the story is.' This forwardness is redeemed by Huston's skill as a filmmaker. What could feel too overdone plays out at a perfect pitch, and that's why the ending works when it shouldn't.

21 July 2009


It's not like I watch Tarkovsky all the time. Before rewatching Solaris recently, because a friend was interested in seeing it, I warned, "It's a film some might term 'slow moving.'" We all settled in for 2hr30+min of what exactly I couldn't remember. It'd been over five years since I last watched the movie. I remember calling it my favorite for months afterward. I falsely remembered long, slow-panning nature shots (they do exist, but my mind had sentimentally multiplied the frequency and duration). I had an inaccurate conception of the sequence of the narrative. I settled in with patience and skepticism. Everyone was going to hate it, and their antipathy was going to infect me.

You see there's about a thousand quicker, more aggressive and immediate genre films between me July 20 2009 and Solaris appx. Jan 2004. There was Stuart Gordan's From Beyond in the same week (an excellent, excellent sci-fi horror film that Lord willing I'll talk about next), the same crowd present. What would this film have on eye-socket-brain-sucking (how about islands of thought generated dream habitats suspended in a jelly-like color-shifting thought-producing and sentient extraterrestrial oceanworld? OK)?

I'm not attempting to correct the perception that Solaris is a boring and heady sci-fi film. I'm asking, does that criticism exist? It shouldn't.

Tarkovsky treats the camera as total consciousness, mental and physical. Sometimes he moves the camera and the actors in a synchronized, choreographed manner that is both deliberate and instinctual, that both stages the drama and intensifies the psychology. The psychology, by the way, is what drives Solaris, beginning to end, shot to shot, and all characters, events, and situations fortify the otherworldly-parallel ideology of the film. It earns its weirdness, its fiction, its mindwarp.

When I speak of the camera as deliberate, I also mean crisp, precise, and consistent. Solaris is one terrifying, suspenseful moment stretched across a lengthy running time. It's paralyzing. For example, the film begins with a warning, a description of a past bizarre encounter in Solaris. It's a a white-knuckle meeting between scientists, business men, and a pilot. The pilot is issuing a warning. The pilot, in the present, is sharing the story with a family. One member of the family is about to visit Solaris. He's going to make a decision about the fate of Solaris. Immediately afterward the man leaves for Solaris. This is our introduction, our context.

That's a great fucking set up. You don't even feel set up though, so meticulous and tenacious is Tarkovsky. So smooth is his narrative. So casual and mental is his camera. What is actually the story of a caged man, a kind of intellectual sci-fi prison story, is delivered with complete solemnity. Tarkovsky shows a video of clouds; fog in changing colors. His scientist enters Solaris without doubt, and his mission is to disprove the illogical.

Tarkvosky's own logic, in camera and narrative presence, is the counterpoint to the sensationalism of the story, and what keeps it from becoming too fantastic. The intrinsic anxiety and paranoia, present in every shot, and pulsing beneath every scene (this ship, forlorn and doomed, possesses a genuine eeriness), is kept bubbling beneath the surface. Tarkovsky's refusal to bring it to the surface is his great advantage.

The tranquility of the 'guests' and their disturbances is a feature of the story's impartiality. What functions as a movie-monster in Solaris is a living dead ex-wife who possesses all the qualities of the corporeal. She (the ex-wife in particular) has physicality. She has memory. She has tenderness, sensitivity, and reason. She defends herself. She fears for the protagonist. She is voluntarily self-critical and self-effacing. She's meant to pose a questionable threat to the protagonist.

It's great to see an old favorite and appreciate it in a whole new way. Because aside from being a great and beautiful movie from one of the all-time great filmmakers, I can now appreciate Solaris as a truly fantastic genre film as well. It expertly manipulates the audience in all the vital sci-fi ways, and, importantly, it has a clear, understandable question as its center, eloquently introduced by another scientist in the film when he asserts, "In the search for truth, man is condemned to knowledge." The question is, what is the ultimate value of that truth, and what role does it play in our life and in our happiness? Solaris attempts to articulate the meaning of the question and provide some kind of answer.

15 July 2009

Teenage Caveman.

Teenage Caveman is surprisingly another Larry Clark film in which teenagers take drugs and have sex with one another. In fact, Teenage Caveman is basically Kids in a sci-fi context, genetic mutations substituting for AIDS, a bio-tech complex instead of a random apartment, and rebel teenage outcasts from a small, post-apocalypse Seattle-based primitive-like culture as an allegory for bored, restless, fearless NYC kids. I admit the dramatic impact of Kids is far greater, specifically the now-famous AIDS revelation, but because there's nothing really beyond AIDS, and because Clark wasn't ready to up his cinematic sexual perverseness until Ken Park, exploding chest cavities work fine intermittently.

Because when you fuck in Teenage Cavemen there's a chance - a percentage - that your fucking will lead to your body twisting inward and all your viscera exploding outward. Not to mention the problem of an abundance of liquor (apparently stored for one-hundred+ years) and cocaine (one of the mutants synthesizes his own supply of cocaine). I don't know if I'm being straight faced here or not. I don't know if I really liked or appreciated this film or not. I know I liked it for a while, when I was simply processing everything I'm describing here. The problem is there's this long stretch after the introduction of these elements (and the actualization that not only is it a Larry Clark directed mutant-teenager film, but it's obviously a Larry Clark directed mutant film), and I mean after the group bath scene, the drug taking scene, the orgy scene, and the exploding body scene, after all that, in which you're meant to take the film and its plot and characters seriously. The film is front-heavy, save for the introduction of the monster at the end, which was about a five minute sequence.

As a remake of a Corman directed/Arkoff produced original, I admire the accomplishments of the film. It has a great degree of absurdity packed into a semi-coherent story (hell, the movie makes three times more sense than the other film I watched in the same day, Antoine Fuqua's Shooter), the dialogue is alright, there's narrative traction, and the characters weirdly, if illogically, develop. All the core ingredients are present.

13 July 2009

Ramin Bahrani.

When Stephanie calls Ramin Bahrani's films depressing, I know what she means. He knows what you mean. On the commentary track of Man Push Cart, Bahrani speaks of MPC as a filmic justification for suicide in the face of horrible, unchanging circumstance. He refers to the following inspirations: Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Boys from Fengkuei; in a magazine article he also mentions Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran, Steinbeck, and Dostoyevsky. On his commentaries (both Man Push Cart and Chop Shop have great ones) he dissects his characters, their origins, the films' themes, provides true-life parallels, and mentions more and more movies. He's kind of like an art house QT, I think, and what it would mean to be an art house QT has been on my mind lately.

How genuine are his films, specifically, is my question. Bahrani isn't just dramatizing intense and stark landscapes, he's also attempting social realism and some kind of didacticism. He's attempting to portray real pain, real people, and real situations. These qualities generally throw up red flags for me. I find that often times artists and filmmakers will use the pain of others as a way of soothing or assuaging their own guilt, or as a way of self-criticism, or as a way of self-dramatizing, or for vanity, or...etc examples of selfish reasons for exploring the true grit of humanity.

I don't believe that politics, governmental or social, in film work like they do in real life. In the physical world the initiator of the change will fade away but the products of his/her efforts will remain regardless of initial intention. All the King's Men stuff. In film, what you produce has to be a result of what you believe, to be totally effective and important. It has to be. You can believe whatever you want, and your beliefs can be outrageous and totally different from mine - I actually love that - just make a film out of what you really believe.

That's why I listen to Bahrani's commentary tracks. I don't have to, because the films are great themselves, but when I do I can begin to understand why and how they are important. Because that's really what the question of sincerity is meant to probe. If Bahrani's films are socially aware, as they are, and I am watching them, what is Bahrani attempting to make me aware of, and why?

I didn't know right away. Not after seeing all three, not after two commentary tracks and a handful of magazine articles. I was eating pizza when the answer came to me. I have seen these people (his film characters) now, and I know them. And that is all. Bahrani has introduced me to struggles outside of my own, made me feel them, experience them, guided me through them, and that is all he has done. What happened afterward was up to me, and that's what makes his films really great.

This is what makes his films really great: Bahrani doesn't offer you the significance of his character's existence. He shows you their lives; you learn about them only by how you respond. As if you were really just meeting them (to meet some of these people, how great that would be, how great is Bahrani's eye for character). It's the imposition of structure and moral codes that delimits the worldview of most films, and Bahrani intelligently offers as little of himself as he can. There are dramatic points in his films. Certainly there's rising tension and character development. I just love that these are movies where we don't really have to discuss all that. Each minor particular doesn't matter as much as the total sum of the experience of seeing these movies.

He speaks of erasing himself from Chop Shop, erasing the presence of the camera and the filmmakers behind the camera. And he does it masterfully. An expert at stylized absence (master of non-style style?), Bahrani is Ozu in the gutters and streets. During a tracking shot in Chop Shop, the d.p. Michael Simmonds refers to the Dardennes' Rosetta, about how he had rewatched Rosetta recently and the tracking shots were wider than he remembered, and Bahrani replies that his intention was to keep the camera as unobtrusive as possible. Where the Dardennes add emphasis, Bahrani does not. That's why you can approach a Bahrani film from any direction, and why you can approach the films as anybody.

I leave myself with a reminder of a stick being tossed off a cliff with a rising wind, and does it rise back? I don't know. That's great.

Jim Jarmusch.

Friday, December 5, 2008 from Moderate Revolt. Left unaltered:

I think I'll rewatch the eight Jarmusch films I haven't seen recently (having seen Night on Earth and Down by Law again recently, and Mystery Train and Ghost Dog pretty recently too but why compromise on freshness?). The thing that's great about Jarmusch's famously tenuous plots is that he's the sole filmmaker, to my knowledge, who has made an entire career explicitly dedicated to only the moments you never seen in other movies. I can spend hours reading his interviews in which he talks about this, in which he talks about Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, Nicholas Ray, etc. He's definitely in the top five of interesting filmmakers to hear speak/read interviews with, and the other four are definitely dramatic/genre filmmakers. You see what I'm saying? It took a completely original, daring, and patient person to make movies about what no one else was making movies about. Because if you think about, Jarmusch does great what bad filmmakers do bad.

Jarmusch's talent is in breaking down his influences, absorbing them, and processing an image from behind that screen of culture. Not of that culture, necessarily, but always from that culture. Not about his influences, but about him as he is influenced. He's also really funny and engaging, and it might be but shouldn't be surprising to know that he was accepted into NYU on the strength of his writing. Might be because he's so visually compelling some could think of him as a purely visual filmmaker. Might be because his films all basically lack a plot (but not action or movement).

I usually finish Jarmusch's stories for him, honestly. You didn't know this? That's because you were too busy also finishing his stories for him. He designs his stories to be finished by the audience. He designs his characters to depart from the screen and the story. It sometimes feels like they're headed to the story the whole time, or that they get to the story too late. In Down By Law there's a complete story of three criminals' arrest, incarceration, and flee. Jarmusch just leaves out the escape. That film still feels like an untold story; when Jarmusch decides to include story he'll often leave out resolution. He'll often leave out the drama. He does both of these in Down By Law. It's the breeziest jail flick of all, including women-in-prison films.

That dramatic restraint is also present in the films of Aki Kaurismaki. I find it amazing these two burst onto the global film scene at roughly the same time. Kaurismaki's films are often more dramatic and story oriented than Jarmusch's, but there's the same truncated expression and detached humor. For example, in a Kaurismaki film the following events will be given equal weight: driving a car, quitting a job, eating a cheeseburger, killing a man. In Down By Law, you feel the same when the men are in the prison and when they're out of the prison.

Andrew Bujalski.

Friday, December 5, 2008 from Moderate Revolt. Left unaltered:

Andrew Bujalski earns his epithetical relationship with John Cassavetes like Michael Haneke earns his Alfred Hitchcock one: not through a parallel filmic or narrative identity but from a similar fundamental approach to the material. Haneke in his revisions of filmic suspense, and Bujalski by his sincere and unguarded portrayal of relationships between people.

Bujalski's method is to measure out relationships without dramatic manipulation or narrative interference, and his strength is that the characters seem to grow without heading anywhere foreseeable. Events in his movies accumulate within the narrative because we have to learn more about the character, and because the characters keep living, while in a less honest narrative structure the events seem to happen within a plotted piece of fiction that has an ultimate goal, message, resolution, etc.

Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation both begin and end in medias res. Relationship and personal uncertainty and ambiguity similarly operate as motifs through both movies, but Bujalski doesn't allow these elements to solidify or delineate the massive canvas his films suggest. This makes him different from other independent filmmakers whose films are often plotless but obviously dealing with and articulating an emotional agenda. He's as interested in plots as Jarmusch is. Bujalski, though, lacks the boisterous and idiosyncratic characters Jarmusch has; he also lacks the emotional depth and internal mining of Cassavetes; the investigative magnification of Leigh; the moral core of Kieslowski; the social implications of Ke Jia or Yang; the dynamic lifestyle of a Schlesinger or Dumont character; the artistic probing of Tarr or the Dardennes; and even the story arch of Boden and Fleck.

This guy's got no style. Absolutely none. And it's so refreshing to witness. What happens sometimes is boredom, impatience, and distrust. It can feel arbitrary at times. What value does one scene have over another? Why does a character even make a decision? What's the point? This is why Bujalski needs to have and does have a conflict of interests/desires, both internal/external, and that's not him making concessions. It's him being a gifted storyteller, which he is, even if you can't see it until the end. His talent and vision is in what he refrains from, and that's why he also has a reputation of being without pretension.

In my mind the lack of structural foundation enhances his design. It allows him to do anything with his characters. Since there's no message or plot to exit or betray, there's no sense of contradiction or incongruity. The characters simply keep living. His approach also feels cinematically honest. Really fucking honest; by contrast many of my favorite films seem too concerned with film theory and too little with the human experience. There's always great discussion about how best to stimulate the emotional performance of a narrative - what shot evokes what feeling, what setting intensifies what tone, what color elevates what scene, etc, and Bujalski seems to me to be the first to effectively dismiss much of this tautological stylizing. His films could exist without any theory, could exist entirely alone. For that matter so could his characters, who don't rely on external momentum. They create their own.
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