27 December 2011

The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse

During an early The Adventures of Tintin sequence Snowy, the dog, chases a cat through Tintin's apartment and knocks over various things, including a model ship. The model ship hits the ground, one of its masts breaks, and a scroll in a grey tube falls out from inside the mast. Tintin, returning the model ship to its place, knocks the tube further beneath a cabinet with his foot, oblivious to the scroll's existence.

I knock scrolls beneath cabinets, sometimes, when I see films. My attention is in a different place, the vital components are mysterious or unknown to me, and my life continues. Sometimes I am like Tintin and encounter clues that alert me to my ignorance. Because I live in real life, sometimes not (perhaps mostly not). Steven Spielberg doesn't make films without explanatory keys. They are 'easy' films. They give you things - emotions, experiences, stories, meanings, messages, visual cues, etc.

The Adventures of Tintin, overall, gives you little else but action and excitement. The Unicorn ship is the mystery. Tintin isn't meant to have mystery. The furthest developed character is Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis); we learn about his family history and encounter his problems of drinking and self-doubt. The scroll, in metaphor, says something like "be cool, have fun." The second time I saw Tintin I followed the story closer and more things connected, but, if you can believe it, understanding the plot elements didn't make the film better, but empowered me to further appreciate the nonplot elements. Think about when you attend a party with nervous anticipation because you don't know some people and wonder what they're going to think about you and you worry that maybe some of them are superior to you or whatever but suddenly at one point during the party the other guests reveal themselves enough or you get smashed enough or whatever that you realize or remember the fact of universal human imperfection and fallibility and cut loose and stop giving a shit about what everyone else thinks and just have a good time. I continue to be disinterested in the story elements, but I feel okay about having fun with everything else.

Amazing to me is the fluidity of the camera, the film's delectable candy-colors, and the extraordinary ways Spielberg choreographs camera actions and character movements. Tintin is animated, but Spielberg directs it like live action. I submit that if you can feel the camera or the camera makes you feel, its actual existence is irrelevant. The long, dazzling chase sequence after the shattered glass case scene, involving motorcycles, cars, sliding buildings, and multiple characters, is a glorious and paramount example. A recent video essay introduced the term The Spielberg Face into the lexicon of cinephilia. The Spielberg Face is an example of how Spielberg works with the camera, doing some type of emotional or narrative lifting with each shot. Each shot gives something to the audience, manipulates us in some way.

War Horse section - I reveal some of the film's outcomes, see movie first:

War Horse's scroll, in metaphor, says something like "love strong, love long." The majority of the relationships in War Horse are loving ones, including love between Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and horse Joey, Albert and his father Ted (Peter Mullan), Ted and his wife Rose (Emily Watson), Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and Joey, Joey and Topthorn (horse), Emilie (Celine Buckens) and Joey, Emilie and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), rivals turned friends Albert and David (Robert Emms), and various members of the German and British armies and Joey. Joey is love's center.

Spielberg wants to overwhelm us with love, and by depiction of overwhelming love, encourage us to love more. The emotions of the film are purposely bloated, carefully developed to bloated excess. Sometimes, I think, the film's emotions are like nails on a chalkboard. In several instances Spielberg 'protects' us from the blunt impact of radical misery: rats in the British trenches appear in one shot and vanish in the next, Topthorn's body mysteriously vanishes when the German tank appears, which would run over Topthorn in reality, and Emilie dies in words spoken by her grandfather. The vision is narrow, it's Spielberg's magnifying glass pointed at love, and horrible pain and tragedy are only allowed to lurk on the outer edges, or become beautified and transmuted into tenderness, such as the death scene of Captain Nicholls.

But after we accept that this is what the film is, we can see that the film does these things well. Audience members openly sobbed during War Horse. The untruth of the screen sometimes agitated, bored, or offended me, but also sometimes I felt moved, compassionate, or joyous. My favorite sequence follows Joey's escape from the German tank: he hurdles the British trenches, bombs bursting in air, runs parallel to them for a while, tries to jump to the other side, doesn't make it, falls into the trench, runs through the trench for a while, and then runs into no man's land, trapping himself in barbed wire. WWI is happening and I am amazed by a running horse! Oh, Spielberg, you sorcerer.

22 December 2011

2011 Recap and The Sitter

These are films I saw multiple times in 2011, theatrically, ordered in a way that reflects the intensity of my feelings about the films as of right now:

Enter the Void Director's Cut, Gaspar Noé (3x)
Poetry, Lee Chang-dong (2x)
The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick (2x)
Melancholia, Lars Von Trier (2x)
Shame, Steve McQueen (2x)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasthakukal (2x)
Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan (2x)
My Joy, Sergie Loznitsa (2x)
Hugo, Martin Scorsese (2x in 3D)
The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg (1x in 3D, 1x in 2D)
Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos (2x)
Rubber, Quentin Dupieux (2x)
The Last Circus, Álex de la Iglesia (2x)
Cold Weather, Aaron Katz (2x)

It seems both easy and honest to say these were my favorite films of 2011.  The list of films I saw once and loved would be longer and hard to trim down, harder to order.

My favorite film from 2011 that I did not see theatrically but saw on a television is Jodie Foster's The Beaver.

I kind of almost missed The Sitter during its theatrical run. It left the Arclight, the closest theater to where I stay, after a week and a half, in order, I think, to make room for The Adventures of Tintin, or maybe In the Land of Blood of Honey, or maybe both, but anyway it was booted. I made a special trip to a theater I'd never been to in order to see the movie.

The Sitter is about people trying to be themselves and then, being themselves, trying to be friends and have relationships with others. In every way this is what the movie is about. Karl (Sam Rockwell) is the leader of a gang of probably-gay weight lifters, and the doorman of his lair/gym is a probably-gay rollerskater named Garv (Sean Patrick Doyle). Garv is Karl's #3 best friend. I believe Karl's #2 best friend is Julio (J.B. Smoove), though it may not be explicitly stated. He seems to literally be Karl's #2 man: he encourages hugs and 'sword fights,' and is always with Karl.

Noah (Jonah Hill) is in a position to be in Karl's top ten of best friends, but the friendship is complicated when one of the children Noah is babysitting, adopted Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), a Salvadoran, steals from Karl a painted dinosaur egg filled with cocaine. Noah, Rodrigo, party girl Blithe (Landry Bender), my favorite of the kids, and anxious, closeted Slater (Max Records, of WtWTA) spend most of the movie searching for a way to obtain $10K to pay Karl for the painted dinosaur egg filled with cocaine, although the adventure began because Noah was promised sex by his gf if he bought coke (from Karl) and brought it to a party. Along the way Noah makes friends, after misunderstandings, with some people in a bar, a couple of these people having appeared in previous scenes. One of these people, the gorgeous Roxanne (Kylie Bunbury), is Noah's future romance; the others, including Soul Baby (Reggie Green), are his future saviors.

The Sitter is directed by David Gordon Green. It's a warm and humorous film that treats its characters affectionately, despite, or because of, how eccentric, flawed, and weird they are. Because the film is about friendship and self-worth and because DGG loves all his characters and because all the characters are different from each other, I always felt good during the film, was never bored, and was often delighted.

11 November 2011

Highlights from AFI Fest 2011

My friend Joe Peeler and I spent most of yesterday waiting in line outside the Grauman's Chinese for a chance to end 2011's AFI Fest with the North American premiere of Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. We were excited about attending a high-profile premiere and anticipated the thrill of seeing and being among Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Neither Spielberg nor Jackson attended the premiere, but Jamie Bell did, and he introduced the film. I kept forgetting who Jamie Bell is, no offense Mr. Bell, when Joe would remind me I would feel bad I had forgotten. Joe and I sat in seats off to the far right and Joe thought he had child-sized 3d glasses.  The movie was sometimes dazzling and my memory of it is warm; Joe and I agreed it was a nice end to the festival, although neither of us were sure what the plot had been, and discussed our slight mutual annoyance at having to follow plots. It's fair to say that I approached the film with a calculated emphasis on my youthful side and sense of wonder and curiosity and that this side of me was often rewarded with sequences of action and fun.

The movies I saw during this year's fest were Haywire, The Color Wheel, The Day He Arrives, Law of Desire, With Every Heartbeat, The Kid With a Bike, The Forgiveness of Blood, The Turin Horse, Carré Blanc, Shame, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Attenberg, and The Adventures of Tintin. Thirteen movies. I fell asleep for short periods during three; twice due to tiredness and disinterest, and once due solely to tiredness. During Attenberg I periodically wished I was sleeping, or outside, or somewhere anywhere else.

Wednesday November 9 was a spectacular day: The Turin Horse, Carré Blanc, Shame, and Beyond the Black Rainbow. Each of these films was distinct from one another and had a pronounced personality that distinguished it from most other films in general. Seeing them all together reminded me - a wonderful reminder - of the diversity and potential of cinematic art.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is an interesting film that traffics in unique sectors of our feelings and thoughts. The writer/director, Panos Cosmatos (son of Cobra director George Cosmatos), answered an audience question regarding symbolic intention in BtBB by explaining that the film doesn't have symbolic motivations and that he (Cosmatos) wrote the script in a stream-of-consciousness manner and that any symbols in the film were a product of his own unconscious. This great and honest answer helps explain the ineffable experience of watching BtBB, and also helps articulate the difference between, say, BtBB and Shame. BtBB aids us in making discoveries about parts of ourselves that do not fit tidily into narrative or character frameworks: it's all neon and synths and disorientation ('black rainbow,' wtf, right?). I perceive Shame's artistic flourishes as complimentary and integrated and tools that bring you closer to Brandon (Michael Fassbender), and I prefer this because I prefer character based cinema.

Shame would typically not be compared with Beyond the Black Rainbow, but seeing these thirteen movies together initiated a process of differentiation. On Wednesday, owing mainly to temporal juxtaposition, I observed that although BtBB is a visual (and thus visceral) film, the major difference is the range of emotions conveyed. BtBB's range is a fascinatingly abstract sector of ourselves; Shame probes the core of our being. It is my opinion that Shame could likely be appreciated, understood, and enjoyed by a person unfamiliar with film and human emotions, and that by viewing the film this hypothetical person would know something about the human experience. Before one begins to dissect the film, inspect its themes, evaluate its performances, etc, I believe Shame has already worked, on purely visual and visceral levels. Certain aesthetic qualities - composition of frame, color palette, shot selection and variety, locations, music, etc - create an experience that bores into the heart and mind of the viewer a truth that transgresses the screen. Shame is a film of emotional alchemy, and its magical quality is the art of cinema.

Béla Tarr's The Turin Horse was another Tarr film that seems difficult to compress my feelings about into words. It's like the film isn't about an emotion, the film is an emotion. I would like one film that I am involved with to have a shot as immediately and immensely engaging and affecting as The Turin Horse's first shot. This first shot is a long tracking shot of the horse pulling the cart.

Carré Blanc intermittently kicked my ass and rocked my world. Jean-Baptiste Leonetti's dystopian tale reminded me of a novella I read recently, Benoît Duteurtre's Customer Service, in that I don't fully understand every narrative decision, but understand that perhaps the intention is not understanding but questioning. Like, by altering our pov of a subject (bureaucracy, technology, modernity), and by heightening our analysis of narrative particulars with distorting dramatic technique, the artists attempt to instigate personal reflection. Carré Blanc was a dense, intelligent, abstract investigation into the way society hurts us and the way we hurt ourselves by belonging to and engaging with society. It is also a Love Conquers All movie, in a fascinating, bleak way. I enjoy formal, axis-shifting narrative exercises, and felt this was a successful one. By comparison, Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg was also a formalistic experiment, but it did not grip me. Attenberg was a coming of age story, but I felt unable to sense what was coming or aging, and had a hard time registering the film's intentions. Or rather, I felt unable to register how those intentions were growing or further revealing themselves over the course of the film. Also by comparison, I feel that by examining Tintin's golden unicorn story I'm not rewarded with knowledge of myself, but feel that I am rewarded by examining Carré Blanc and even Attenberg.

Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel and Hong Sangsoo's The Day He Arrives were a great back-to-back experience. These two films deal with the loose-ends and unsortable complexities of our emotional makeup. I like how The Color Wheel was disinterested in untangling the confused emotions of its characters; it was enough for the film to admit their existence. Sangsoo continues to depict human interactions in a way that feels unique and honest and smart and funny, i.e. feels like 'being.' The Day He Arrives has flashes of great beauty and terrible sadness, sometimes in shared moments.

For the sake of tradition:

Four Star Movies
The Turin Horse

Three and a Half Star Movies
Beyond the Black Rainbow
The Day He Arrives

Three Star Movies
Law of Desire
Carré Blanc
The Adventures of Tintin
The Kid With a Bike
The Color Wheel

Two and a Half Star Movie
The Forgiveness of Blood

Two Star Movie
With Every Heartbeat

One and a Half Star Movies

Disclaimer: There are many movies I'm sad I missed. I started to make a list of those movies but it was too long and made me too sad.

06 November 2011

Tower Heist

I couldn't compile a substantial list of good reasons for seeing Tower Heist before I went to see Tower Heist. Most reviews and word of mouth were negative. The people who did say a couple positive things about the movie sounded like they were on party drugs, like they could only say it had been a 'good time' without clear evidence of why it was a good time. I went to see the movie anyway because I wanted to see the movie.

I laughed out loud approximately seven times during the movie. This is a high number for me, especially since I saw the movie stone sober at 12pm on a Saturday. There were two other people in the theater; for whatever reasons our laughter was never synchronized. Sometimes one other person repeated back lines at the screen, moments after the line had been spoken, a phenomenon I've encountered before which completely boggles me. I have done it (repeated a line), but I can't think of what the reason was, and whether or not I had a good one.

The first time I really laughed was when Special Agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni) and Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) share some drinks and Claire drunkenly says she will take a 'crab' home. I laughed so hard. Leoni did a great job playing drunk. Why is she not used more? Has no one seen Flirting with Disaster? Téa Leoni is funny. The second time I laughed really hard had something to do with Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) I'm pretty sure. Can't remember what exactly*, but I enjoyed Broderick's nebbish, anxious Mr. Fitzhugh. Broderick is great at comedic subtlety, and this would be his best performance of the year, if his best performance of the year wasn't in Margaret. There was also a scene in which robbery intel was interrupted by a conversation about lesbians. I thought the scene was executed seamlessly and for hilarious effect. "A gauntlet of lesbians." Eddie Murphy is in the movie too. He is very funny.

The narrative is ridiculous and should not be taken seriously. Not all narratives need to be taken seriously, it's not a big deal. The only problem, as other reviewers have mentioned, is the third act heist is too long. I speculate the third act heist feels too long because the dramatic beats interfere with the character moments that are the best part of the movie.

Tower Heist has an ADD narrative and that's great. Some scenes were so short and ended so abruptly I almost felt like the joke had been omitted. *I just remembered the Mr. Fitzhugh joke - it's when they're putting the team together and Kovacs asks Mr. Fitzhugh if he's in and Mr. Fitzhugh says "come back to me." Kind of reminds me of an Of Gods and Men scene.

It's my belief that films should subvert narrative conventions whenever possible and move at whatever speed they deem necessary. The idea of slow films being superior to fast films is an idea, and I don't believe ideas are rules. People who try to make rules for art are bad critics, not artists, and also not good critics. The speed of a film should be dictated by the needs of the narrative and by the director's perceived effects of speed upon the audience in relation to the intended experience. I'm not saying Tower Heist is great because it moves quickly, and to tell you the truth I haven't heard anyone criticize the movie for moving quickly, I'm just soapboxing because my opinion is the movie moves quickly and not only is this fine but it's great. I almost cried during Tower Heist, twice.

No one is hated by cinephiles like Tower Heist's director Brett Ratner is hated by cinephiles. No one. Because he's so hated it makes me view him as an outsider in mainstream filmmaking. Here is a filmmaker who many people think shouldn't be making films. Supposedly he's an arrogant womanizing asshole who is talentless, dilettantish, and stupid. Ratner will always have the last laugh, however, because he doesn't take himself too seriously. This is the thing people don't get that gives him his bizarre power. So in my eyes he's a wickedly flawed, potentially misguided, contentiously effective filmmaker. To me that sounds like the Hollywood filmmaker archetype, and in my mind it's a suitable personality for a creator of comedies. I'm not saying he's the best Hollywood filmmaker, but I am saying that I don't regret seeing Tower Heist.

16 October 2011

Stewart Raffill and Standing Ovation

Last night I showed my nieces Standing Ovation, a musical comedy by Stewart Raffil. I had seen the movie 1 1/4 times previously. It was their first time. At first they weren't excited. Multiple times they asked me how I had heard about the movie. They seemed to find it interesting, perhaps even alarming, that a) this movie existed b) I knew this movie existed because I had seen it before.

Stewart Raffill's career strikes me as enviable. He specializes in films made for children. I speculate that making children's films for a lifetime could result in a lifetime of endless fun. Exhibit A: In 1974 Raffill made his feature debut The Tender Warrior. This is the synopsis for that film, taken from IMDb:
The sheriff of a small Georgia town on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp does nothing to stop a family of white-trash moonshiners from trapping and killing defenseless animals. But Sammy, a young swamp-boy, takes matters into his own hands. Assisted by his pet chimp, Chuck, Sammy launches a campaign to free the trapped animals. "Pa" Lucas and his idiot sons don't take kindly to Sammy's scheme of beating them out of butter-and-egg money, and are soon chasing Sammy and Chuck over swamp and quagmire. As if young Sammy didn't have enough troubles eluding the Lucas family, he soon finds himself being hotly pursed by a leopard, an escapee from a circus.
As of today The Tender Warrior has an average IMDb rating of 4.5, which is a fairly typical average for Raffill, whose films have low averages on IMDb. His average rating on IMDb shouldn't be important to him, because he's making movies for fun, and having fun making movies, and making movies for kids. His highest average is 6.3, for 1974's When the North Wind Blows, his second film, the follow up to The Tender Warrior (NB: I'd like to encourage my friends to nickname me The Tender Warrior). His lowest average is 2.9, for 2010's Standing Ovation, his eighteenth feature film, and the film that started me talking about Raffill today.

Raffill isn't only the director of these wonderful (?) children's movies, he's also wrote many of them. I wouldn't have guessed, judging by Standing Ovation alone, that Raffill was the writer of at least sixteen prior features. But I'm happy to learn. Tammy and the T-Rex is my favorite title within his filmmography. Mac and Me is his film that I've heard of the most, though I often encounter, and considering purchasing, the The Ice Pirates dvd. I'm 75% sure that I saw his movie Mannequin: On the Move on cable when I was a child; my memories of this movie are fond. By far my favorite poster for one of his movies is:

I would hang the High Risk poster over a desk I planned to work from, and every day it would bring me inspiration and motivate me to travel further into my imagination.

My nieces were reluctant to watch Standing Ovation because the Netflix average user rating was 3 stars. I told them my star rating would be higher and not to worry. Briefly they considered watching Tangled for an eighth time, but either I convinced them to try something new, or Olivia did not want to watch Tangled for an eight time even if Claire did so there was going to be no watching Tangled and why not watch what Uncle Shawn wants us to watch.

Immediately they commented, to my genuine surprise, that some of the acting in Standing Ovation is bad. They made this observation within the first couple minutes of the movie, and repeated it throughout the movie at irregular intervals. Sometimes they recoiled in their seats and commented on how a thing happening in the movie was bad or awful or ridiculous or was I serious. My surprise was due to the fact that I had watched some Disney Channel shows with them, and had considered the acting in those shows bad, but had never heard them say so, although during Standing Ovation they said so many times. This is probably because the "bad acting" in Standing Ovation is actually a complex mixture of bad acting, bad writing, bad staging, and bad directing. My nieces knew when something was wrong, but, owing to the recentness of their sense of critical awareness, were not always able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong.

Early into the movie I had to pick up a third niece from her high school homecoming dance. The trip took about ten minutes. When I returned it was the scene in the movie when The Five Ovations are eating at the same place as The Wiggies. I could tell my nieces were now hooked because when I entered the room Claire told me "I love Joei!" The song in this scene, Soup to Nuts, went over really well, and the nieces kept repeating "Sit up straight, or you get no food," even after the scene was over. We were perhaps howling with laughter and slapping our knees or something, can't remember, but it was definitely good times at this point.

We all four of us let go and began to really (?) enjoy the movie. Letting go is something you have to do when watching a movie like this, and when you do a kind of magical thing happens. Not sure I can describe it - something to do with how "good" or "serious" movies require you to be "good" or "serious" during them, while during a movie like Standing Ovation you can be yourself. I think something about the film's flaws ultimately makes the movie easier to watch, which perhaps sounds ironic, but isn't. Think about how perfect seeming people are sometimes harder to talk to than people you can easily relate to and feel you share a handful of traits with.

Joei was a huge hit, as was her purse of bottomless surprises, of course. She was probably their favorite character, followed by Alanna Wannabe. Strong characters and personalities can be really important, whether it's a good movie or bad movie. Joei and Alanna are terrific characters because they're so expressive and funny and interesting. They're two smart roles to write for kids because kids want to be larger than life and centers of attention. If there's a character you can connect with and enjoy seeing, however ridiculous the movie, you are more likely to want to keep watching the movie.

I hyped up the final musical number, Shooting Star; like I told them "this is my favorite dance scene in the movie" before it began. It has a great opening that they appreciated, "I am D2, intergalactic space traveler with a female interface. Make. Me. Dance." And then Alanna is like "woo-ooo-ooo" in a high-pitched dreamy voice. Strong opening. When the energy began to dip Claire asked me something like "so what's the big deal" and I said "here he comes" because I had seen the movie and it was true that right then the little boy came out and said "I am D3, intergalactic space traveler with a male interface. Make. Me. Dance." and then he does all those dance-jumps and they my nieces were like quiet and totally into what was happening.

That night when they, my nieces, were going to bed, I told them that I hoped they danced in their dreams. I'm pretty sure they knew what I meant, because we had just watched Standing Ovation.

11 October 2011

Margaret (Finished 2006, © 2008, Released 2011)

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is a massively impressive but imperfect depiction of a massively imperfect but impressive character, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin). I saw the movie twice in two days and was more affected by the blemishes of both the movie and its lead character on the second viewing. My dissatisfaction was either heightened by or a product of the fact that two friends of mine shared my second screening as their first. I had told them it was a very good movie, and I had told them it made me laugh and cry within single narrative moments. With their eyes I tried to look, and I kept wondering "what are they thinking?" and either because I kept wondering and worrying about their thoughts, or because of the movie itself, or because of a little of both, I was less captivated by the movie, overall, the second time, and in fact fell asleep for a short period. Still, the next morning I found myself unable to stop my thoughts from returning to Margaret and how it further complicates my thoughts on the already complicated relationship between imperfect narrative and imperfect character. 

Even if you think the narrative is flawless, which you probably don't, it's still another matter to consider the ways possible for liking and disliking Lisa Cohen. She is frustrating to various degrees. Andrew O'Hehir wrote that "she belongs to a constitutionally irritating class of person — the overprivileged New York private-school teenager — about whom no more movies need to be made, by anyone, ever. (I live in New York and don’t want to know anything about those people. Perhaps, though, they are more tolerable viewed from afar.)" O'Hehir's compulsion to issue a blanket judgment on Cohen's personality type is in fact a terrific testimonial to the necessity of this film's perspective, which O'Hehir would see if he wasn't being such an asshole. That I think O'Hehir is being an asshole in his review doesn't mean I think he is wrong about Lisa, just like I don't disagree with everyone in the movie every time they are mean to Lisa. I do think he is wrong about the movie; specifically, as he admits, his perspective on the movie is narrow and limited, and his ridiculous qualifier is so obviously the real truth that it's absurd to mention it glibly. Yes, Mr. O'Hehir, art wishes to endure, and the view is from afar - either from outside NYC at any point in time, or from outside the moment of now from any place. Lisa's view is limited, but the audience member's view needn't be.

Similar to Lee Chang-dong's Poetry, a movie superior to this one, my inability to wholy appreciate, understand, or enter the life of the protagonist doesn't interfere with my admiration for the filmmaker's dedication to a narrative of comprehensive and specific nakedness. Narrative sacrifices for the goal of full disclosure are beneficial for the film if the narrative sacrifices are meaningful distortions of dramatic traditions and favor the realities of the protagonist. In the instances of Poetry and Margaret, the filmmakers chose for the narrative's angle of vision a porthole from their protagonists' souls or emotional selves, and just as it'd perhaps be preferable to stand outside a ship and have a panoramic view of the surrounding area, rather than use the porthole, the reality of the porthole isn't wrong, it's its own distinct, unique reality. Do you see what I'm saying about portholes? A.O. Scott wrote that towards Margaret's end "[t]he dialogue becomes louder and rougher; the scenes screech to a halt (or else just keep on screeching); and the sense that anything is really at stake, or that anything even makes sense, dwindles before your eyes." The criticism is equally relevant to the protagonist's journey as to the film, viz., the criticism attacks a part of the film that is an essential component for understanding Lisa Cohen. The film's last hour tracks the transference of the dramatic stakes from objective and outward principles to emotional and interior ones. Earlier in his review Scott noted this when he wrote that "Lisa’s subsequent attempt to make sense of this trauma — to figure out how it counts as something that happened to her and to assimilate it into her developing sense of the world — is at the center of 'Margaret.'" Scott saw both these points at once, but for obscure reasons didn't connect them. That's odd. Let's say you (real-life you) dedicated yourself to a cause, with total vehemence and conviction, and at the tail end of your efforts experienced drastic disillusionment. I'd expect the emotional and personal value of your original dedication to equal your subsequent disillusionment, in your eyes, for separate but vitally important reasons, as they're both transformative episodes.

What Margaret doesn't do is fix Lisa, or attempt to sublimate her quest into dramatic edibles. Owen Gleiberman wrote that Lisa "makes the accident about her, which is why she must learn that it wasn't. The trouble is, it's a lesson we grasp all too early on. Margaret may be the longest film ever made about the moral education of a selfish, annoying princess." Gleiberman's criticism connotes a personal superiority that should remain independent from Lisa's experience. His criticism wants to deny Longergan the right to grant Lisa the right to a) be who she is, and b) learn her lesson as herself. Gleiberman's desire for back-seat driving is an inhibitive response - filmmakers needn't avoid excruciating or agonizing particulars of individual existence. I believe it's perfectly acceptable for a filmmaker to point the narrative mirror at the protagonist, to contemplate from the protagonist's viewpoint, even when that viewpoint is less refined or mature than his own, even when it's tedious. Sometimes life is tedious. If some films want to forget or ignore this reality, that is fine, if some films wants to mention or depict this, that is fine too.

Some of the potential faults of the movie are addressed as topics within Margaret. For example, an early conversation between Lisa and Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon), about attempting to be interested in things one would not regularly be interested in, seems to prepare the audience for its confrontation with Lisa's quest. There seemed to me to be many conversations within the film that foreshadowed and echoed the film's events, instances I'd like to explore more thoroughly after repeated viewings. One unmissable instance is the movie's final scene, which seems to demonstrate the potential value of the film and art in general. As Margaret and her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) have a moment of catharsis during an opera, we the audience are inspired to have our own moment of catharsis, and also to come nearer an artform, as they do. We share feelings with the characters. This is possible only because Lonergan has made a promise to the audience to always tell the truth about his characters' feelings. If Margaret is sometimes heavy, as life is sometimes heavy, than that heaviness contributes to the powerful lightness of the final scene. Though Lonergan sometimes depicts Lisa at a level of truthfulness that damages the film's accessibility and enjoyability, his unwavering faithfulness to his characters means that we the audience can't help but sometimes have a distaste for these characters, but also can't help ourselves from loving them, despite themselves and ourselves. I'd argue that the hate and love we experience during Margaret as an audience is more like how hate and love operate in real life, compared to other dramatic performances that perhaps favor embedding love and hate in dramatic traditions.

What about, however, me falling asleep and being bored and kind of restless during certain scenes on my second viewing? Valid problems, like bad acting moments, lines, and scenes, are present. They are disruptive to the viewing experience. I wonder about Lonergan's editing problems and the film's delayed release. I wonder if sometimes a scene is bad because in real life the scene would be bad, if that's what Lonergan wanted. How can I know? Sometimes in real life I'm a bad actor, and it's painful to experience, painful for me and the persons present. Sometimes my life is poorly written. Sometimes I'm given good advice in broken, unpolished ways. Sometimes I give and receive good advice for bad reasons, or bad advice for good reasons. If I seem to have avoided confronting these weaknesses in Margaret, it's because my thoughts are overrun by the depth of deliberation, feeling, and honesty that Lonergan invested in his film, and because the film itself is ponderous about the complexities of perspectives and opinions and personalities. Margaret says these things exist in life, and has a kind of self-consciousness that makes me feel like the movie implicitly confesses to these problems within the film. One of Lonergan's requests for us as an audience is to puncture the surface flaws. Why can't an artist ask this of us? If I want to tell you something, but admit I don't know the perfect way to say it, should you not listen to me? I believe the character of Lisa is a symbol of this request. Margaret is a film of deep convictions and desperate questions, it is that above all else. It has material worth talking about beyond dramatic form, and for that reason alone I lament how it has been overlooked upon release. I've seen films play every note right and come close to perfection and be meaningless, while I consider Margaret's imperfections immensely meaningful.

27 August 2011

Bellflower (2011)

From, "As important as the operatic assault at the movie’s end are the scenes of Woodrow scouring the fields in slo-mo with his flamethrower—it cannot be an accident that he is compensating for emasculation with a fiery phallus. That said, Glodell’s awareness about the thoughts of Woodrow doesn’t change the fact that the actions of Milly make no sense. Great art has to contain the perspectives of multiple people, even when one person’s emotions are a raw wound. Bellflower is the work of a director bravely admitting that he doesn’t understand how to relate to women. It would be a better movie if he understood women."


I think Mesh confuses his perception of the imperfections of the characters with his perception of the imperfections of the narrative, and I don't think he took the time to separate the intentional from the unintentional, nor did he grant the film the potential complexity of these qualities being intertwined. The movie's characters are flawed, all of them, and none are explained. The film's goal isn't explanation.

I think the moment you make a rule for art is when you begin to misrepresent it and shape it in your image. In this case, if the movie understood women, it would literally be a different movie. By withholding permission for the characters (and creator) to not understand women, Mesh is wanting to correct the characters, to shape them into other, perhaps better, perhaps stronger, but other, different characters.

The reason this bothers me is it perpetuates the creation of art that untruly reflects reality. It's like if you had a city with dirty streets and you made a film in which all the streets were clean - when you went outside, the city streets would, of course, still be dirty. Only the window was clean. I simply don't think you should demand that artists say the streets are clean in all places when they are not. Plus, maybe no one else will ever make a film about the city, the only record of it will be a false one, and no one will ever be able to know what the streets were really like.

I concede that Bellflower's ending disappointed me (and that I almost walked out during it), but, then, it may have been appropriate for its characters, and, by the way, I wouldn't want to be the people in the movie. I could relate to them because I knew guys like that growing up, and I would hang out with them sometimes, but usually feeling remote, and they'd probably hurt my feelings and I'd go home and write Young Adult Poetry (while they made flamethrowers and had sex with women who were probably impressed by the manliness exhibited by making fun of me - it's a culture I escaped from). I have different limitations and fixations, that's all, not better or worse, and I will always defend an imperfect movie when its imperfections further develop its imperfect characters, because for me the pairing continues to make a lot of fucking sense.

26 August 2011

Teen Wolf ('85) and some Standing Ovation

Teen Wolf begins with a great sequence: Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) approaches the free throw line. His team, the Beavers, are being crushed by rival team the Dragons. I can't remember if he makes his shot, probably not, but what I remember is the sweat on his face and the intensity of the moment. Heart beats may have been emphasized on the soundtrack as well, but if not then, definitely later in the film. Coach Bobby Finstock (Jay Tarses) wants to forfeit the game, but the Dragons' coach doesn't allow it, since this game will increase his players' league stats. The Beavers get womped! Seriously, they lose so bad, and Scott even misses his buzzer-beating final shot.

This is a movie that gets going right away: during the first sequence you know Scott will become a werewolf. Because the titles begin the movie, but also because he growls at archenemy Mick McAllister (Mark Arnold). You're like, whoa. It surprised me to learn that director Rod Daniel came from television! Teen Wolf's cinematic touches made this film way more enjoyable than, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Rod Daniel knew how to have fun. Stephanie and I were cracking up during his movie, and I think maybe high-fived a couple times, and once, I swear, she said, while watching Teen Wolf, "This is why I love movies," or something like that, maybe "The only movie I'll ever love from here on is Teen Wolf. Oh Teen Wolf, you have won my heart and it is yours forever." I can't remember the exact phrasing.

When Scott's eyes turn red and he speaks in his wolf voice to demand a keg of beer, the movie entered my heart. It's such a silly, perfect scene. I believe the keg scene is directly followed by Rupert 'Stiles' Stilinski (Jerry Levine) surfing on top of the moving van. At that point I was really getting excited and was having thoughts like "Don't make 'em like this anymore," which is a thought that made me think I need more movies like Teen Wolf in my life - maybe they still make them like this, where are they, please let me know.

I watched Standing Ovation recently, and that was a lot of fun. I don't think it's the same thing, however, because when I recommended it to a friend he texted me, "And why am I watching standing ovation? Im 7 minutes into it and am more confused than ever why you thought of me. Im gonna try to sit with it." I'll have to recommend Teen Wolf; I really don't think this person could say the same thing about Teen Wolf. But maybe, there's just no accounting for taste.

One thing I was confused about was Teen Wolf's message. In the movie Scott decides to be his human self and not showboat his werewolf side, so I guess the movie is saying he should like himself for who he is and not for who people want him to be, but he is actually a werewolf. In the movie he's actually a werewolf. So why shouldn't he be a werewolf all the time? Doesn't that mean the message is really that we should accept mediocrity and never reach for higher aspirations because doing so may affect the status quo and possibly shatter our complacency? There's also something about how becoming a werewolf gives Scott confidence but he learns by the end of the movie that he doesn't need to transmogrify in order to have confidence. And he ends up with his friend Lisa 'Boof' Marconi (Susan Ursitti), the girl who liked him all along and liked him for him, not for werewolf-him. That still seems like the message is things are fine the way they are and we don't need to ask for more or want alterations in a life that's livable as it is.

That's stupid. Personally, this movie made me want to be a werewolf. I think that's a perfectly fine message to send to kids, and I don't understand why the movie wanted to complicate things in the end. Other evidence of normalcy brainwashing: when Stiles (pretty much the coolest guy in the movie because people seem to really like having him around and he brings genuine joy with him, and he wears sunglasses in a lot of scenes) gets back a D- test grade and he shows it to someone with a bit of pride, presumably because it's not an F. I guess the movie had to cut into him like that and imply that he's a person of limited intellectual depth, because it supports the subplot about his opportunism, but also because it reinforces the central motif about normalcy being the best option. It's like, he can't wear the brightest and best shirts and be a smart guy, no way, this movie wouldn't allow it. This sensibility flatters the Normal Kid who sees Teen Wolf in the mall or wherever, and Normal Kid leaves the theater thinking he's perfectly cool the way he is. Teen Wolf is like, yep, just be Normal Kid, you're fine, get out of here (buy some soda on the way out). I just think the better message is about not being afraid of change and exploration of your internal and external possibilities.

Sure they win their final basketball game due to inner powers, but that's not realistic, that doesn't usually happen, and if it does it's an unusual circumstance and becomes some Yahoo News headline. They didn't even have to work to become better at basketball. There were no practice montages, and I don't think Chubby (Mark Holton) ever went on his diet, not really. That tells kids miracles occur, it goes full-throttle on a stupid movie miracle, so why not on a great movie miracle like lycanthropy. Have werewolf Scott eat a kid's head, who gives a fuck?

Of course, you can forgive the film for this conservatism because of its great scenes, like the wolf dance during prom.

You can also forgive the film for having actors in their mid-20s play high schoolers, no suspension of disbelief required: they're all in their 20s; they've stuck to high school because they don't believe there's reason to move on or go forward, life has nothing special to offer them. Their lives are frozen. Then, Scott turns into a werewolf, and they all begin to believe, and you know they're on the cusp of graduation into adulthood and an acceptance of unlimited possibilities. See, that makes the movie even more magical. And if you want to see Michael J. Fox nearer the correct age and in high school, there's always Class of 1984.

25 August 2011

Kes vs. Terri

I woke up in today's early morning hours with a thought on my mind: it seems fair to compare and contrast Ken Loach's Kes with Azazel Jacobs's Terri. I terribly wanted to return to my sleep and consider the matter again at a later time, but I could not fall asleep again and remained restless. Similarities and dissimilarities kept popping into my mind, and the cinematic kinship seemed so urgent and important that I felt a little rush of excitement in even considering it, which was counterproductive to falling back asleep. I also could not pinpoint, to my satisfaction, the fundamental distinction.

Sorry, but I still don't have the answer.

Part of me thinks that Kes is a more authentic film because of its relaxed dramatic structure and use of more non- and semi-professional actors, but another part of me thinks I can't make this claim without having lived and breathed in its time and place, and also because the film has a lyrical and sometimes literary quality that prohibits it from being completely naturalistic. It's based on a book; adapted by the author, Barry Hines, with credited contributions by director Ken Loach and key collaborator and producer Tony Garnett.

In these two films filmic technique and thematic intention are intertwined - each necessary for the other's full shape. It doesn't seem fair, despite the use of more professional actors, to accuse Terri of being more artificial. Both films are composed of dramatic sequences, and though the sequences are breathing, and wish to capture the feeling of reality and being, the fact is that deliberate dramatic tools are used to achieve this, and I don't think in one film more than the other. Both films temper their dramatic forces with sprinkles of characters who and moments that represent oppositional or clarifying elaborations - part of a structural design that takes additional steps to avoid on-the-nose-ness. I won't give away specifics, but, to address crucial final moments, it's true that both films depict tribulations of powerful emotional importance that are achieved by film-long buildups to catastrophic moments.

Some characteristics that I considered are difficult to give relative values. I like that Kes is bereft of a sentimental love subplot, but I like that Terri includes a troubled, complicated love subplot. In my opinion, Billy Casper (David Bradley) from Kes is simply a more lively and interesting kid, his environment has more beauty, and training hawks is more captivating than killing rodents. But then, that's to say that Kes is really a film about sometimes escaping and always wanting to escape harsh conditions, and Terri is a film that meshes misery and hope. The components of Terri that are awful or boring or ugly are part of the film's chemistry, and to remove them would be to falsify, ruin. In Kes there is terribleness too, but the strength of Billy's spirit is so radiant, so like pure and gorgeous, that it's him we remember most of all. Does that mean Terri is the more honest film then, or does it mean that Kes is the better film, or does it mean something else or nothing at all?

13 August 2011


Lately, more and more, I've been wanting to talk about movies that I like. I think it's because, although you can come up to me and we can chat about Cowboys & Aliens, the truth is that a little part of me dies when this happens, that's just the truth. Not because of what Cowboys & Aliens is, because I think all types of films should be made and co-exist, but because of who I am, and because in order to appreciate the things that other people like I sometimes have to silence the voice that is mine. Heartbeats is a film I saw during PIFF, and about it I wrote, "No one could decide if The Woods was more self-indulgent than Heartbeats, but Heartbeats won me sometimes with its sincerity, because sincere self-indulgence is still sincerity," and I gave it one and a half stars.

Most cinephiles can probably relate when I say that you can tell when you were right or wrong about a movie, months after you made your judgment, based on whether you'd watch the film again or not. And the fact is that right now I would watch Heartbeats again. Preferably with someone who might like the movie (during PIFF I saw it with a person who hated it so much that he felt completely justified in checking his wristwatch - which required a light button to view - multiple times during the screening, including one 'double-take').

I've seen those around me make fools of themselves in holy, blind tribute to the art they love, and if twenty-two year old Xavier Dolan wants to make a film that makes a fool of himself in order to pay holy, blind tribute to the art and beauty that he cherishes, I see no problem, and I encourage all 22 year olds to be exactly this way, and not to care about what mean spirited or envious people say, or even what loving and nurturing people say, like Cannes, or Sundance, or whomever, and to love to the fullest the things you love, right or wrong.

Which is what Heartbeats does:

It's on streaming. I wish it was on blu-ray. Also, I would not want to rewatch The Woods. So that settles that.

10 August 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Redux)

It's an accident that my second attempt at writing about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is so near the one year anniversary of its theatrical release (my first, dated 8/14/10). Last night I watched Scott Pilgrim, which I don't like very much, for the fourth time (w/trivia track), which must mean that I like this movie very much. It's a compliment when I say that in my opinion Edgar Wright's films are the easiest popcorn films to watch - I've seen all of them multiple times and have written about Shaun of the Dead multiple times as well.

"You broke the heart that broke mine. Now get ready to Chau down." - Knives Chau (Ellen Wong)

But still I struggle over what it is exactly that I get out of them. They're infectious, they're fun, perhaps the acme of modern escapist fantasies, but they haven't stimulated me on deeper levels. His films haven't rattled my insides, and I can't find a reason why they should. For me it's telling that reshoots were required for Scott Pilgrim's ending and that focus groups and O'Malley's final volume were necessary for Wright to find the film's emotional denouement. Here is a filmmaker who, largely through self exhibition, is well-known to be meticulous, but it may be that he holds his microscope to dramatic and filmic design, and struggles to give his characters more than a filmic depth.

(Michael Cera) Scott's fight sequences are best considered from a symbolic pov, as allegorical treatments of what would be emotional confrontations in real life. He's not The Bride, and he's not really killing; he conquers the idea of evil exes. The duels to death, as called by Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) through e-mail, involve no real deaths, but page-turning moments of maturity. Edgar Wright says he "tried to make it so that [Scott's] emotional story is consistent throughout [the film] and even the way he fights the exes is, in some ways, a reflection of his emotions." Most viewers probably make this switch without putting it into words. If the battles are taken as literal, Scott is a murderer, kind of, or whatever people who turn other people into coins are called.

Either way I don't understand why Scott Pilgrim reserves judgment for boy on girl violence, and I continue to see the implication as being that some forms of violence are acceptable. Wright has said that when Scott "gets to ex number four [Roxy Richter] he doesn’t really even want to play anymore and tries to opt out of fighting because he’s just had it," and it's true that Scott and Ramona are in conflict when this fight occurs. What we hear from Scott is "I don't think I can hit a girl. They're soft," and Ramona's response, "You don't have a choice." Other instances of boy on girl violence are given specifically negative contexts (all except the [accidental] boob punch), and are singled out from other violent acts committed in the film. The first time is when Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh) punches the highlights out of Chau's hair, and it's meant to be an example of how Todd is a rockstar asshole. The last time comes after Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) utters "let's both be girls" before kneeing Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) in the balls. Gideon backhands (double checked in slow-mo) Ramona, and as he does a BAD!! graphic flashes on screen, and as he kicks her down the pyramid's stairs more BAD!! graphics flash on screen.

If the film wanted to express an ethical point it might have considered violence charged personalities from a more objective pov, but instead it makes the easy, obvious comment that girls should not be hit by boys, and chooses not to explore the complexity of the problem of boys hitting boys, or violence in general. The film behaves like Scott Pilgrim. All instances of this moral judgment, against boy on girl violence, which contradict the phantasmagorical circumstances, are clouded by narrative material - Scott is tired, Todd is an asshole, Gideon shows his teeth - but the fact is that not a single instance of boy on boy violence is given this type of treatment.

Scott Pilgrim's double standard on violence has also always bothered me, it's present there in my first response to the film. It's lame that the film would draw one line and not other, harder to draw lines; it's lame that Scott would. To me it indicates that the film's focus is not on philosophical or fundamental inquiries, and only considers essential questions from its narrative and temporal pov. Scott's pov, during the early 2000s or whenever the film is set. And Scott is a purposefully imperfect character, he's: immature, selfish, insouciant, and nearsighted. At least. A damaged protagonist can be more interesting than Edgar's Scott Pilgrim (I've never read the comic books, I should mention). Scott is a dull, limited lead for a movie. Worse, Edgar hopes both to give Scott flaws and to forgive them, which ideology I don't traffic in, because it seems contradictory to the point of having flawed characters.

The fear of female sexuality by males is very real. Though I think the film fails to offer rich expressions of intimacy between Scott and Ramona. Why she loves him is a complete fucking mystery to me. It's not that I doubt that a person could fall in love for no good reason, it's simply that I think the good reasons, and bad reasons, are way more interesting to explore than no reason. In the interview I keep quoting, Edgar laughs about this, laughs, saying "man, I’ve told girls I’ve loved them without knowing anything about them (laughs)." Okay, he's told a girl he's in love too early, but does he know the difference between telling a girl you love her and really loving a girl? I can't tell by the film.

This may be why Edgar didn't know how to end the film - he didn't know why anyone cared about anyone else, and he wasn't sure how seriously to treat their feelings. Emotional satisfaction is like sexual satisfaction in the Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman) battle, a matter of opportunity. Edgar may have been unsure of their final moment because he hadn't asked himself vital questions about his characters.

Scott's confrontation with the lesbian character Roxy is handled by Ramona herself fighting (battle hammer vs. razor belt), then puppet fighting for Scott. How she is defeated, though, is by Scott touching her erogenous hotspot, a place below one of her knees. She explodes in an orgasm, or something. What bothers me is the fact that this transgresses the simplest principle of lesbian intimacy, namely that a woman is stimulated by other women and not men. It makes sexual pleasure a matter of purely physical logic, activated by anyone given the knowledge and opportunity, and not a matter of more meaningful emotional intimacies and loyalties. I call bullshit. I too have an erogenous hotspot, located between my legs, but I don't explode in orgasms when anyone touches it. I explode when the right person touches it. That's because my penis is romantic (as love should be, please?).

The final fight, between Scott and others vs Gideon, is a process that is exactly the same as all the others + w/more people. If Scott had really gained the sword of self respect he might have immediately put the sword on the ground and realized his fights against other people were misguided and the real fight existed in an interior realm. I think one fight is with ourselves, one fight is authentically personal; and either Scott was wrong about the final fight with Gideon, or he was wrong about all the previous ones. Scott shouldn't have to destroy the hipsters or Gideon in these battles. When the real battle arrives, the one with Nega Scott, a joke about french toast is made (foreshadowed when Knives and Scott play Ninja Ninja Revolution and Nega Ninja appears: "I can never get past that guy," Scott says, to which Knives replies "Don't beat yourself up about it." I see this as more implicational evidence that Scott views everyone else as the problem).

It's knights and damsels programming, ("about him trying to win the heart of this fair maiden"), the same cultural wiring as always. The film's reluctance to probe violence from a fundamental level is for me symptomatic of a larger problem of emphasis on the superficial. All the worse that the violence is PG-13 neutered by a lack of bloodshed and profuse videogame flourishes. It's violence for kids, and it's glorified. All the worse that it echoes the most dramatically pleasing aspects of violence, without considering the reasons behind violence's dramatic dominance.

Edgar's Shampoo joke holds no water for me. It may be that Universal wouldn't have allowed the downbeat ending, in which Scott ends up with neither girl, but this undermines the gravity of Scott's flaws and his need to face them. It makes the dirtiest Hollywood lie there is: that the process of personal growth fits neatly into some manufactured narrative. I hate the way Edgar emphasizes how the film's end is a question mark, "a symbol to the audience that you gotta figure the rest of it all out," because he really means it's a question of who Scott will be with. That's the major riddle. Will Scott become an evil ex? To me that's an ambivalence that sidesteps harder questions about Scott's hubris.

The "hidden" elements in Scott Pilgrim, many of which I know better thanks to the trivia track, are unimpressive and reveal little more about the characters. Most things are simply complimentary on an aesthetic level; for example the inclusion of numerical clues to the exes (practical ones around ex number one, twos around ex number two, etc.), and heart shaped lights for Scott in relation to Ramona, and ex shaped lights and objects in relation to Scott in relation to Ramona's exes. That's information already available in the narrative. The film's surface and subsurface are so simple and smooth that the film can be watched and rewatched ad infinitum. It's designed that way, and "the essential love triangle should be easy."

07 August 2011

Tabloid (Errol Morris)

Last year's documentary Catfish was about a woman who wore a robe of lies with many loose strings which were slowly pulled until the robe came unraveled and the woman stood naked before the gawking filmmakers. There was discord between the wishes of her heart and the realities of her world, and the film's tragedy was in the revelation of that great divide.

But Tabloid is about a woman, Joyce McKinney, whose lies are inseparable from her construction of reality, and whose secrets are buried in the deepest chambers of her heart, which she guards with all her strength. If you've seen the movie you know she even places a guard dog, a literal guard dog, between the outside world and herself, and when the dog dies she clones it, and there come to be five guard dogs that protect her secrets. Each secret that could potentially destroy her love's integrity she protects with conviction relative to the extent the love's integrity is necessary for her existence. But is it really a love for Kirk Anderson, or is it a love for self?

Because I thought also about how Joyce McKinney referred to her years of dramatic training - she said she summoned her dramatic abilities for her court appearance on the matter of her notorious sex in chains scandal (rope, perhaps, but chains sound better, as one teller says). What I thought about was how the degree to which we expose ourselves to the tradition of drama and dramatic structure and dramatic interpretation warps our visions of ourselves: we cast ourselves as major players in the drama of our lives.

And good drama, in the traditional sense, is fueled by conflict. For some, I believe, conflict is the engine of a lifedrama which is indivisible from a personal conception of a meaningful life. I worry about this all the time because I watch so many movies and read some books - I talked about it a little in my entry on the melodrama - what if I harbor a desire to ink spectacular stories for my life? What if I attempt to fill my life with great drama because I incorrectly equate great drama with great importance?

Joyce McKinney is a US southerner as well, which links her narrative with that region's tradition of willed self-identity and bubbles of private fantasy. Her story's foundation of perpetual and romantic self-construction and idiosyncratic and homespun belief systems is the foundation of so many other memorable US south tales. Although I've always admired California as the birthplace of lifestyles, the truth seems to be that lifestyle ideology has always existed. I point to the US south as evidence.

And of course if you believe yourself to be a free-spirited self-styled wide-eyed individual like Joyce McKinney, it may very well be that it is not secrets you are guarding at all. Many theater goers were saying mean things about Joyce as the end credits were rolling, about how she was full of shit and all that, but most of us compose our lives from tiny lies which we do not even know to be lies. Isn't that the similarity between us and Joyce and the world of Mormons? She refers to herself several times as something like a good ol' American girl. Well, that's her Mormonism.

In a way everything about the film including the film itself is a lie. As sometimes happens to people thrust into the limelight, I do not believe Joyce ever stopped hungering for attention, and I believe her thoughts continue to dwell in the limelight. The film was another stage for her. Did she not seem to be working herself into tears at certain points? But if her life is a drama she creates, than the drama becomes her reality, and if her tears are symbols of a lie that constitutes her core being, then the tears are both real and not real. Joyce McKinney's personality is large, and forceful, and magnetic. Couldn't I categorize this documentary, a documentary of her life, as a melodrama?

05 August 2011

The Melodrama

This is my first official, my first labeled, entry on the melodrama genre. I have been going through something of a melodrama phase lately. And by phase I mean the figure of melodrama has taken shape amidst the immensity of film history, and whispered in my ear sweet things about Max Ophüls's Caught, André De Toth's The Other Love, Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory, and Michael Curtiz's Flamingo Road. Flamingo Road came recommended to me by the dead, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who listed the film as one of his favorites.

The functional melodrama works because of an agreement between the heart and screen. It is a visual, visceral secret shared with a person by a film, and the greater and braver the truth of this secret, the more the film works. Honesty is achieved by commitments from the filmmakers and actors - they must fully believe in the material and invest in it a seriousness and purpose to match the extreme heights of the human emotions conveyed.

Human emotions are conveyed with the utmost sincerity in a melodrama, even when the utterly absurd occurs. This is why melodramas from Hollywood are dazzling, and specifically, dazzling from Hollywood in the 1930s through 50s. During this period the craft of populist and sensationalistic filmmaking reaches for the highest peaks of the human heart, and the two, craft and heart, ignite and explode before the teary eyes of the audience. These movies are hot messes. The hotter and messier the better and bigger the film.

It takes a large, powerful personality to lead a melodrama, someone like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Elizabeth Taylor. It takes a sensitive and keen filmmaker to create a melodrama. The latter seems more interchangeable than the former: certain actors cast long shadows over the melodrama genre, while the filmmakers they worked with are more numerous, and truly great melodrama filmmakers, like Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk, are as rare as truly great melodrama actors.

I have always been attracted to the melodrama genre, but tend to have consumed it in small doses. This is because the films destroy me, viz., they wreck my heart. I wonder what it is about the melodrama that attracts me to it; is it desire for purgation, contrition, catharsis, escape, masochism, or other, or all? Do I want to suffer and does the film help glorify my suffering? Do I want to fantasize my life as some thing of great importance and terrific emotional scope? Do I want to pretend to be rich, or pretend to be a servant? I cannot know for sure. If the answer is simple, the film isn't good.

29 July 2011

Exciting Moments in Modern Cinema

Alamar Pedro González-Rubio, 2009
The Holy Girl Lucrecia Martel, 2004
Blissfully Yours Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002
A Snake of June Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002
Distant Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002
Unknown Pleasures Jia Zhangke, 2002
Police, Adjective Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009
Take Care of My Cat Jeong Jae-eun, 2001
Kings and Queen Arnaud Desplechin, 2004
Friday Night Claire Denis, 2002
Sparrow Johnnie To, 2008

Each of these is a thoroughly modern film; the list expresses my preference for a broad range of styles, thematic interests, and modes of representation. I confess that I favor a cinema of minor revelations and quiet epiphanies. The purpose of this entry is to nakedly recommend all of the films listed as examples of some of my favorite movies. This list is intended to provoke curiosity about under-exposed films and not to echo a thousand wonderful things that have been said about other modern greats*. My first draft was longer - this one is 100% business, so much so that it's even arranged in my suggested order, and the final two are candidates for a rapturous double-feature. I also confess that these filmmakers have other great films that should have made the list, perhaps even over the ones that did, depending on my mood and yours; other countries and regions should be represented, for example there are zero declarations of love for certain Scandinavian, Middle Eastern, and English speaking films, that I in fact do love (#12 is probably A Somewhat Gentle Man, 2010, dir: Hans Petter Moland), but there's only so much a list can express, and I don't even think this list demonstrates my expansive appreciation for the national cinema of countries that are represented, because for example I flip out over many more Romanian New Wave films.

I'll make it a goal to write about all of these, as at this point only Police, Adjective has an entry.

* But, okay, even though it's not my goal to write about or expound on my love for the following movies, which at this point I think have already been well-received and analyzed, I also want to make another list, so here are movies that already have critical and/or popular validation that I also love (perhaps the way that I demarcate this distinction is arbitrary and/or biased). This list is not recommendation ordered but preference ordered:

In the Mood for Love Wong Kar-wai, 2000
Enter the Void Gaspar Noé, 2009
Talk to Her Pedro Almodóvar, 2002
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Cristian Mungiu, 2007
Caché Michael Haneke, 2005
Poetry Lee Chang-dong, 2010
The Son Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002
Revanche Götz Spielmann, 2008
Carlos Olivier Assayas, 2010
The Protector Prachya Pinkaew, 2005
Gomorrah Matteo Garrone, 2008

I confess that this list leaves out so many great films and filmmakers, and that I didn't reuse a director previously mentioned, although that means well-established directors from the previous list with other great movies were omitted. There's so much to see, what can I say? I also confess that I couldn't decide on which list or due to which film Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Andrea Arnold, Roy Andersson, Ulrich Seidl, Hong Sangsoo, Tsui Hark, or Lars von Trier should be merited inclusion, among others. Also also I confess that, actually, for example, I prefer Lynne Ramsay to Andrea Arnold (and I'm waiting to see what Steve McQueen does next: and holy fuck because they each have new films coming), but my favorite Ramsay is Ratcatcher, which is beyond my self-enforced 21st century boundary, as are my favorites from other important 21st century filmmakers, for example Jafar Panahi's The Mirror. And, really, these lists are hard for me.

23 July 2011

Destiny (1921)

In a way I travel time and trot the globe when I watch movies, but, in reality, of course, I remain fixed in my time and place. Although the way in which I do travel when I watch movies is sometimes stranger, sometimes more interesting.

When I watch Destiny I place parts of my mind in Berlin in 1921, where and when the film was seen for the first time. We, the audience, are uprooted from the ordinary; in a way, to travel back to Berlin in 1921 to watch Destiny would be to immediately leave again, but through the screen. Destiny, written and directed by Fritz Lang (and based on a dream he had), motivates willing hearts and minds to contemplate the wonders of physical and spiritual existence, and always present is a sense of expansive realities and surrealities. Its story provokes one to consider oneself as a unit within a tremendously vast and exciting network of people and places, lives and moments.

Death visits a town. He buys, with gold coins, some land intended to be used as the cemetery's annex. Around the land he builds a massive, towering wall, with no entrances that anyone can see.

Death takes, from the world of the living, a woman's husband. The woman confronts Death. She tells Death that love is stronger than death, and she asks for her husband's resurrection.

Death has his woes, too - the German title's literal translation is Weary Death - and he tells the woman that it's hard for him to carry the burden of hate for obeying the commands of god. He explains that he can't bring someone back, it's simply impossible, irreversible. But the woman is persistent, will not believe what she is being told, and forces Death to demonstrate the truth of his words. He offers to resurrect her husband if she can prevent the flames of three others from going out.

Three trials begin, staged in separate places, outside the barriers of time, and as fantastic experiences. In the above, a hookah is smoked from on a rooftop rug during a starry night.

Then, just as quickly and as easily, and for no apparent reason, we, the audience, are in Renaissance Venetia, experiencing a cock fight. The fantastic, the imaginative, and the romantic are framed within this quest by a woman that's a battle with death over the corporeality of her husband. Each of the three Stories of the Light is about wanting to defeat death, explicitly about this; and for me it's also about the death of time, and the impossibility of re-experiencing a moment.

Because time moves forward in movies as in reality. Running its natural course, as in a theater, and not at home with a remote control, movie time is fleeting, the gasp of a white light, sent through a lens, to give life to a celluloid image, that spans the room's length, where it dies, instantly, in a gorgeous collision with the screen, twenty-four temporal deaths a second.

If you're not still with me, I'm in China. Supposedly. I do not believe that this China ever existed, in reality or even in the imaginations of anyone else. The above image is the descent of a flying carpet into a royal court. The event's purpose is explained in a letter that's so perfect I have to quote it in its entirety:

Oh, Highly Venerable One,
Oh, thousand-year-old One,
Oh, leading light of wisdom,
Oh, precious jewel!

Tomorrow is my birthday and I have
ordered that there should be great
rejoicings throughout the Empire of
China. And for my birthday I ask
that you, oh pearl of all magicians,
should drive away my imperial boredom
with magical tricks such as were never
seen before, from the treasure-chamber
of your illustrious spirit!

With amiable greeting
Djin Schuean Wang,

P.S. If you should also bore me,
contrary to expectation, Oh Highly
Venerable One, I shall be forced, with
my deepest regret, to have you

The Above

For me there's the magic in the screen and the magic of the screen, and watching Destiny bridges them together.

20 July 2011

Queen Kelly

Queen Kelly is an unfinished film from 1929, story and direction by Erich von Stroheim, produced by and starring Gloria Swanson (also produced by Joseph P. Kennedy, father of JFK). It's unfinished because Swanson fired von Stroheim while shooting scenes for the film's final act. She objected to both her role in the material, as the madam of a brothel, and to von Stroheim's treatment of the material, e.g., requesting that an actor drool tobacco juice on her during a wedding scene.

If I understand correctly, and if my information is true, the film was not released in America in its time, owing to clauses in von Stroheim's contract. In 1931 Swanson directed scenes that ended the movie before the final East Africa sequences, and Queen Kelly, with its truncated 'Swanson ending,' photographed by Gregg Toland, was released overseas in 1932. Queen Kelly was, with perhaps some exceptions, not shown in America until after Sunset Boulevard had reached an esteemed place in movie culture, and then it, Queen Kelly, was shown on television, in the 60s.

The Kino version of Queen Kelly I saw used stills to piece together von Stroheim's intended ending, similar to their technique for Swanson and Raoul Walsh's Sadie Thompson. The difference is that Sadie Thompson was once complete. Large portions of Queen Kelly, intended by von Stroheim to be over four hours long, were never shot or performed, simply never had physical existences. Eighty years later I see the movie and wish they could have reconciled their differences and finished the film, somehow; and I wonder about the magnitude of the inner tolls that prohibited either Swanson or von Stroheim from compromising.

Queen Kelly is a silent psychosexual romantic tragedy period piece, among other things (e.g. wacky). It's a class act pre-code film: everything is powerful, memorable, and sensational, and no one looks back.

Queen Kelly's narrative flexibility and von Stroheim's attention to detail (the characteristics seem to compliment each other) are still relevant. The movie also has psychological material, i.e. character developments and insights, and, perhaps most impressively of all, von Stroheim fuses the interior with the exterior. This gives the film a tremendous scope, a richness of texture that's also very modern.

Von Stroheim paints his characters. He uses the sets, the art design, lights, and costumes: all things feel carefully considered. It feels, in every way, large. This bigness is like Josef von Sternberg; and there's a fluidity that's like Max Ophüls.

Von Stroheim creates sequences that unravel and captures feelings as they bloom. The meeting scene between Kitty Kelly (Swanson) and Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron) is graceful and charming. She throws underthings at him. He follows her on a horse. He's engaged to the queen. She's in a nunnery (she's out with the nuns during the scene). They flirt. They get to know each other. Von Stroheim captures the experience of two people from different worlds colliding, then conjoining. Our investment in their relationship is earned because we experience the sensations of its formation.

14 July 2011

The Killer Is Loose

Love the wallpaper, the backdrop for a deadly serious conversation.

The Killer is Loose, starring Joseph Cotton and Wendell Corey, shot by Lucien Ballard, directed by Budd Boetticher, was released on the 2nd of March, 1956; the same year, on the 4th of August, Boetticher's Seven Men from Now came out.

(Cotton) Detective Sam Wagner's crisis is engaging: he shoots the unarmed wife of Leon 'Foggy' Poole (Corey), while arresting Foggy, who is sent to jail, but breaks out for revenge. Corey convincingly portrays a snapped personality. I don't mind the dense dramatics, but, for me, the end was unsatisfying. Lots of false tension because what you expect to happen in a Hollywood movie happens.

12 July 2011

Paperboys and Deformer, two shorts by Mike Mills

Mills: So, Brandon, what do you think it's going to be like in ... twenty or fifty years for paperboys?
Brandon: I think that there probably ... might be a paperboy, I don't know. 'Cause th-you might, you might find out all the, like, defying gravity, and then there'd be like, cars that would be in air. So, I don't know (with shrug). That's kinda hard to tell. Um ... I think it'd be cool to have a car that could float in the air, 'cause then you could, (shrugs), I think it'd be cool. Um ... 'cause I've always wanted to know what it'd be like to fly ... and ... float in the air. Um ... I think ... that ... in fifty years ... the paperboys would probably have their, (shrugs), their own system, where you could just deliver to the houses by mail or something like that.

I found a lot to relate to in Paperboys, the 40 minute Mike Mills documentary about paperboys in Stillwater Minnesota. It connected with some of the things I'd been thinking when writing about Fear City, and it reminded me that I view the problem of conformity and the death of personalities from my perspective, and Brandon and his paperboy friends view it from a totally different perspective.

The paperboys, in the 11-14 age range, want to talk about their bikes, favorite sports, movies, television shows, videogames, cars they want, and the money they can earn. They're into rap music, gangster rap, like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Corporations they probably wouldn't list as enemies. They're trying to be good kids. They're wrestling with growing responsibilities and self-awareness, and Mills tries to allow them to speak for themselves (though he asks some of them the same leading questions).

Paperboys is curious about how we become ourselves and how our society becomes our society. Or, as put by Gary Davis, writing about Ed Templeton for the short Deformer, "Ed is a bundle, a bundle of nerves, feeling life. [???] all the slivers are bound together into a complete person: happy, sad, friendly, mean ... straight, strange, and of course supremely messed up. Like all of us. The way it's supposed to be. The way it is. Reality."

Mills was recently interviewed by Gus Van Sant for Filmmaker Magazine (Beginners press). In the interview Van Sant broached the matter of Mills being both independently minded, and a creator of corporate advertisements. Mills replied that he's sometimes torn over the issue, but it's complicated for him, and doing some advertisements allows him to continue to live the life of an artist.

"You go to Huntington High School and there's just - half the kids are fuck ups. They're all - tweaked in some way," Templeton says in a voice over. "It's more like: my life's supposed to be normal, I'm supposed to be a good kid, but I'm ditching. There's like, a full ... blanket, of like, secrecy."

Mills strikes me as a genuine person, someone concerned about the people around him. I like that he has more questions than answers. I think he tries to discover people, instead of making judgments about them; he tries to see them for who they are instead of who they're supposed to be. I worry that his reluctance to draw bigger conclusions inhibits the scope of his narrative films, as in Beginners, which I thought was flat, but that's not a problem in these two documentaries.

11 July 2011

Fear City

I'd have to update my blog to adult content just to talk about Fear City, which "was originally made by 20th Century-Fox, but they decided that it had too much nudity, sex, violence and drug references for them, so they sold it to the independent Aquarius Releasing" (although you have to be careful about believing what you read on IMDb).

Be great to see Fear City in high-def. The image quality is of course superior on my television, but it's still not blu-ray, and I think if there's a place that deserves the high-def blu-ray treatment, it's the interior of a strip club in NYC during the '80s.

This was the Abel Ferrara film that followed Ms. 45. Important early Ferrara collaborators were involved, including cinematographer James Lemmo, editor Anthony Redman, and screenwriter Nicholas St. John. Billy Dee Williams is a cop, Melanie Griffith is a stripper, and Tom Berenger is a bouncer. Berenger's Matt Rossi was a boxer who retired after killing a man in the ring; Fear City is about him conquering that guilt and reigniting the flame inside. His challenge, for the prize of self-redemption, is a serial killer who's targeting strippers from Rossi's own club.

It's a gritty, mean, icy cop film with a kung-fu narrative: there are training sessions, and the film culminates with a physical battle between Rossi and the serial killer (who is unnamed and the actor uncredited). But there's no glory here, no heroes, and no celebration of murder. The killings are nasty, repulsive, and unglamorous, and the killer's killer is confused and haunted.

Cinematically speaking, for me, NYC in the 80s has begun to challenge LA in the 70s, and London in the 60s, as centers of weirdness and awesome cinema. The 80s have great, weird NYC movies like Fear City and Ms. 45, Basket Case, William Lustig's Maniac, Scorsese's After Hours, Michael Schultz's The Last Dragon, Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper, and vibrant, independent, and personal films like Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Variety, Malle's My Dinner With Andre, John Sayles's The Brother from Another Planet, and 1980's Gloria, directed and written by John Cassavetes.

NYC has a well-known and rich cinematic history, and edgy, progressive, and talented filmmakers continue to come from the city. I'd like to see more weird ones. Aren't they running together, these days? My impression is that there's a great worldwide panic about the lack of weirdness in our modern lives. I think weirdness is being purchased and then processed by capitalistic logic. It's horrible to witness mass conformity take place. Culturally speaking, in America, corporations and businesses have a stronger impact on trends and lifestyles than politics, humanities, sciences, traditions, or histories (at least this is my impression, based on my extensive field studies, conducted without supervision, and under periodic intoxication). It's not the government, it's the corporations, and examples of corporations are movie studios. They have to behave like corporations, you are what your nature is, but, by the same logic, people should behave like people, not like corporations. Corporations want to be like people, they want you to think they are like you, and that they, too, if no one else, feels the same way. But that's just a lie. So we should continue to allow ourselves to be different, and continue to express our inner selves, and we have to keep changing and moving and exploring ourselves and our world, at least to stay ahead of the corporations.

This "information" is a millionfold inflation based on my projections rooted in specific paranoias and mistrusts. Probably not entirely though, because don't US multiplexes confirm what I'm saying? Fuck me if our theaters aren't boring now, and fuck me if US cinema hasn't lost its imagination. Like more and more things, the rest of the world is, right now, more interesting, more exploratory. We're importing, from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, etc. We're remaking the films we're importing. We're remaking our own films. We're rebooting our franchises. We're sequeling ourselves into cinematic hell, America, we're sequeling ourselves out of relevance.

I'm getting myself really worked up. Take it to the page, you should tell me; you should ask me to take it the page, and write movies, write screenplays, you should tell me to write movies and not whiny diatribes. Seriously will you please call me and say that to me.