30 June 2011

The Scarlet Empress

Begin shot:

/End shot.
Cut to:
It's amazing not only how Josef von Sternberg moves the camera, but how he moves people and uses objects within the frame to compose new shots while moving the camera. Begin shot:

/End shot

In The Scarlet Empress, Sternberg's photographic composition is as lavishly ornamental as the decor,
and someone like Count Alexei (John Lodge) is overpowered by the frame,
secondary to Sternberg's cinematic art. Sternberg, who calls actors marionettes.
The only person whose humanity punctures the synthetics is Catherine II, Marlene Dietrich, whose powerful personality Sternberg amplifies, making her the most magnetic, interesting, and extravagant part of the movie, and wonderfully so.

27 June 2011

Tokyo Sonata

Foreground, middleground, background.

Diagonal foreground, middleground, and moving diagonal background (highway) (+city in far background) (+diagonal overpass).

Includes portion of lower floor in shot, escalator diagonals, janitors in uniforms.

Sometimes his visual layers make dialogue unnecessary, and the physical distance between two characters is always dramatically significant.

Fence, kids hiding in foreground, adults searching in background.

People in crescent moon shape on right, lots of empty space on left. Real simple and sweet visual representation of moment; the pool of light - you want to put it over him. Perfect.

26 June 2011

Dear Wendy

"It's either a one or a five," have you heard people say that? I've heard people say that. It means the person both loves and hates the movie. What kind of movie do you both love and hate? Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy is the first movie I've seen that I would rate either a one or a five.

Dear Wendy is about five or so pacifist teenagers who form a group, which they name The Dandies, in order to cultivate their romantic interest in firearms.

It's a Danish Southern movie: the movie takes place on a Copenhagen set that, in broad strokes, is a stand-in for West Virginia. I'm not sure how this image of the American south gestated in the minds of screenwriter Lars von Trier and director Vinterberg, but the films of David Gordon Green were likely influences. Star Jamie Bell had appeared in Green's Undertow the previous year. It's kind of a drunk Dane's American fever dream, and really the film takes place in, and feels like the product of, the imagination of its creators. This is the film's problem, and also why it's sometimes fun and sometimes works as a comedic satire. You just have to detach yourself from reality, in order to have a better look back on it.

Aside from Bell, whose Tintin performance I eagerly await, Alison Pill (Kim Pine in Scott Pilgrim, Anne Kronenberg in Milk) and Mark Webber (Stephen Stills in Scott Pilgrim) offer luminous performances, and Bill Pullman plays some kind of oblivious sheriff. But it sort of feels like none of them are acting in the same movie. I couldn't build real connections with them, or consider them as real people. Danso Gordon has a great role because his job is to express bewilderment at the ridiculous gun worshipping and strange ritualization.

Vinterberg and Von Trier want to probe delicate issues in outrageous ways. I'm not sure why. The film is darkly absurd, hyperbolically humorous. Bell narrates in v.o., reading from a love letter written to his gun, which is named Wendy. Dear Wendy = Dear My Gun. A moment of jealousy over the handling of Wendy initiates a conflict that ends with death.

Vinterberg (from dvd interview): "...it is possible to study weapons, and know all about weapons, and shoot in the dark against some targets, and become experts, to obtain knowledge of something, without getting violent. You can say, 'They do shoot policeman and so on.' Yeah, but they only do that because fear enters the picture. Clarabelle is dumb enough to shoot a policeman because she is scared. It's not until ... I mean you can see them as gunpowder, there must be a spark for it to explode. In its clean form, which is how The Dandies worship it, it is merely obtaining knowledge, just like when Lars studies how the Nazis lived and so on. I cannot see anything wrong with that. There is nothing dangerous in that. It is not until you mix it with impurities like lust for power, lust for enrichment, fear and emotions like that. Which are universally human ... feelings."

The Dandies, pacifists, carry their guns ("partners") for "moral support," and one of their rules is that their partners shouldn't be brandished. But the end of the movie is a shootout. Vinterberg gets to make his point and have his fun, and he's not ignorant about the contradiction (officially there is no agenda or moral). He knows the fun he has sabotages the seriousness of his movie, but he's fine with that. As a filmmaker he isn't tormented by human messiness or paradoxes. He makes big bets on the wrong hands - think of it like poker - he makes big bets on the wrong hands, and this causes all the serious players to be like "Hahaha" and "He's not very good," but Vinterberg sees poker as just a game and thinks playing by the rules is boring and means predictable results. He's lighting the Queen of Spades on fire and sticking chips up his dirty asshole. Some people are leaving the table. Vinterberg doesn't care about the table, or he doesn't take it very seriously.

Which is why I love and hate the movie. It's like, think of movies as like a party, you know how some parties are utterly boring and there's some too-drunk person who's making a big mess of things and you're personally thinking "Why did I even come to this party?" and the next day someone asks you about the party and you say "It was awful, so-and-so was doing..." and you describe intolerable, egregious behaviors. And a couple months later all you remember about the party is that one too-drunk person. The movie is like that I guess.

24 June 2011

Ten (2002)

Abbas Kiarostami, in Ten, as in his other films, directly engages material traditionally submerged by narrative. His themes lay about on the surface, sunbathing, while most filmmakers abandon their themes to darkness and eternal paleness.

The material substance of Ten is Mania Akbari in a car, mostly driving, often talking and often listening to a rotating ensemble of passengers, recorded by two dashboard mounted cameras (all the film's photography a product of this setup). The takes are long and the cuts few, Kiarostami prefers to hold on his characters for extended stretches, even when they are not the ones talking; this allows the audience to 'discover' the characters, rather than force the characters and moments into shapes through manipulative editing.

Often the things Amin Maher (Mania's real life son, who plays her son and frequent passenger in the movie) does with his face and body expose details about his relationship with his mother (though he'll tell his mother when she's begun to irritate him, you'll see it on his face first, or perhaps by the way he plays with his schoolbag) and his development as a person. He behaves like a child (squirmy, impatient), but not only like a child: Mania has divorced the boy's father as part of a greater effort for female social lib, so, natural for a boy in this situation, he also exhibits shades of adulthood. In his situation he must express his ideas (or echo cultural ideas he's been taught and not yet challenged for himself). It's a very specific role, the kind that comes from a confluence of real life particulars, and the mother/son dynamics are excitingly complex. In many aspects the boy is a foil to the mother, in some ways an antagonist, a multifaceted symbol of opposition, but always a son.

All other passengers are women, no two are duplicates, and each has her own idea about how to be a woman, how a woman is supposed to behave. Because Kiorastami so expertly grounds his characters in reality, and because in reality women are intricately specific and idiosyncratic, the dramatic action is as simple as developing conversations. When a new person enters the car the talk is at first light and circumstantial, then differences accumulate, unshared opinions collide, and eventually important, basic views become illuminated through dialogue.

Ten is kind of a highbrow essay film version of Taxicab Confessions.

Kiarostami's art is captivating both because of how simple it begins and because of how big and meaningful it becomes. Everything blossoms in his movies. Character revelations have a corollary relationship with an audience member's intelligence and curiosity, and for every one thing at first hidden that Kiarostami slowly reveals, two or three or more things should occur to the audience to consider, such that by the end of the film the audience member may carry tenfold the weight of narrative contemplation compared to films rich and dense in dramatics, but which chain, bound, maybe gag their themes in subtextual dungeons.

And all this produces this amazing and very rare extra layer, a Kiarostami specialty: the cinematic form is a kind of parallel to the film's interior themes. Think of a poem, it's like that, think of it on paper, the way it looks, think of its rhythms, the way it sounds, each part contributing to a total meaning. The way Kiarostami stirs the deeper parts of ourselves through selective and highly important filmic qualities, few (minimal) but important ones, mirrors the nature of Mania Akbari's desire for liberation from tradition. What Akbari wants is both complex and simple, her liberation a matter of choosing her life's path for herself, avoiding, when possible, boundaries imposed by exterior forces.

If it sounds confusing or heavy it's because words get in the way. Everything is crystallized in the movie. Two people talk to each other, shot by one of two cameras, while sitting in a car. That's it (and there's so much more).

06 June 2011

Deadhead Miles

Alan Arkin's Cooper is a playful and likable character who carries Deadhead Miles on his shoulders. A heavy burden for someone whose philosophical remarks are, for example:

"Yeah, I used to believe in Jesus. But then one night I wanted to make sure. I was getting this funny play in second gear, you know? So I took some clutch parts and I laid them under the rig and I went to sleep thinking, 'Okay, if you're Jesus you come on down, work on the clutch, maybe we talk a deal.' Next morning, all them clutch parts was gone and I was still getting that play in second gear."

This he says to Paul Benedict's Hitchhiker while Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah plays on the drive-in screen. He has what you might call Southern charm, very much like Kit it Badlands. The movie, infused with road scenery, snapshots of lifestyles and attitudes encountered en route, and always with folk music on the soundtrack, fits in its time. You could double-feature it with Schatzberg's Scarecrow.

The comedy is well-constructed and often works. Screenwriter Terrence Malick allows moments of curiosity (a woman tied to a stove by a long rope affixed to a belt around her waist), the supernatural (the legend of Johnny Mesquitero), the ridiculous, and zany. Cooper, again like Kit, stumbles through his unplanned and wayward journey with a large degree of indifference.

"You know, you're not going to believe this, but I saw Ethel Merman once at a state fair. In Kansas. 'Bout four years ago. She came out there, sang a song: four bars through it a hog, a hundred yards away, fell down dead on its side. I swear that's the God's truth."

At its best the film evokes the strangeness and absurdity of living and being human. The lack of a central theme sometimes causes the energy to dip. As the hitchhiker comments, "It's as interesting as you are interested."

04 June 2011

Monster Camp and some Zoo

8 Sampsonia Way on Google Maps is where I first learned about LARP. Its existence made complete sense to me. Then I encountered it in The Wild Hunt, the insane Canadian movie wherein the game and real life become confused. That movie introduced me to the structure of LARP performances, and I first heard LARP talk.

The documentary Monster Camp examines a chapter of the game in Seattle. It's actually one of two LARP documentaries streaming on Netflix (the other is Darkon). I like that they're both classified as Genres: Documentary | Fantasy on IMDb, and I really like the message board discussions about them, especially this post. To quote:

"Anyway, my opinion on LARPing:
I personally think it's a lot of fun, because I think of it as interactive improvisational theatre. You've got a costume, you've got a character and a setting, and everyone is contributing to a story and trying to make it as interesting as possible. =) However, I think it crosses the line when it becomes escapsim, or a sort of self-medication. If you seriously wish and desperately pretend to be your character, then there are almost certainly some real-world issues that are in need of remedy. But, as long as you're doing is as a fun aspect of life as opposed to a replacement, it's awesome. =) Just keep it healthy."

There are captivating dimensions to the game, and many of them are well-explored in Monster Camp. I think the concept of two people in LARP costumes fucking is rather interesting, just like I think furry sex is interesting.

I first learned about furries from the MTV documentary Plushies & Furries, and then later met director Rick Castro. He owns a fetish gallery in Los Angeles, the Antebellum. He also hosted a monthly fetish screening at the Egyptian in Hollywood. I attended Zoo with a group of friends and remember one question during the post-Zoo discussion about whether or not the zoos, animal lovers, were regularly penetrated by horses. Poor Rick Castro made a face, and I realized he'd been cornered into visualizing horsedick penetration. Then I realized I was also considering the logistics of horsedick penetration, and my friends had funny facial expressions too. Castro replied, quite seriously and not without disgust, that a horse's penis is too large for a human's anus (the documentary Zoo specifically concerns itself with an instance of deadly horse-in-human anal sex). What a relief. Afterward my friends and I discussed similar aspects from the movie, off and on, during a mostly quiet and weird ride home. You could say we both wanted to talk about it and not think about it; couldn't help think about it and couldn't figure out how to talk about it.

Monster Camp does not directly state that there is costumed sex, but sexual dynamics, in-game and real world, are discussed. None involving animals for your information. It's more like: one gameplaying couple's relationship is strained because within the game the girl is the mate of another male. On the flip side, she accuses her boyfriend's character (but not him) of being too flirtatious. Sometimes the roleplaying goes too far and feelings are stirred that linger beyond the weekend of LARPing. Two of the LARPers, at least two, have not successfully graduated from high school, although they're into their 20s, and if I understood correctly one of them still attends high school. It's his fifth year being a senior. It must be night school by now right? I probably don't have to tell you that some of them, including these two, play too many videogames. Some of them are parents, and some parents bring their kids.

One father, also writer of the game's plot (jealous), has an eight-year old daughter. He tells a story about his daughter complaining to him that he plays too much World of Warcraft, while he's playing WoW (he's both telling the story while playing WoW and the story itself is set during an instance of him playing WoW), and there's a look in his eyes and tone to his voice that makes me think the daughter lost that round, had lost rounds before, and will always be second in his life to videogames. His intensity reminded me of the man in Cinemania who assaulted the lady in front of him during a movie, and then finished the movie, knowing the cops were in the lobby waiting for him.

There are the game's sunnier sides as well. One lady in a wheelchair doesn't leave the house much and enjoys her interactions with the group of LARPers. She sews and designs costumes for them. At the events she sits behind a table and forgets for a little while how she is lonely and in a wheelchair. She does not forget to hand out the lizard zombie costumes.