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.

10 July 2011

Variety (1983)

Friend: You gotta hit the streets honey. Go out there and work; I mean you're skinny, you're pretty, you could sell clothes. Go to 5th Avenue.
Christine: Oh, 5th Avenue?
Friend: Yeah.
Christine: You know people wait in line for those jobs.
Friend: Truly? Amazing.
Christine: People will do anything ... for work. Including me. I don't know, man. If I don't get a job soon, I ... I don't know what I'm gonna do.
Friend: Really?
Christine: I really don't. It's ... it's uh ... getting bad.
Friend: Well, I do know of a job Christy, but I don't think you would want it. I really don't think you're the type.
Christine: Sure.
Friend: I don't think it's for you honey.
Christine: Look, I'm interested! What is it?

Variety is a film from 1983, set and filmed in New York City. It's also the name of the erotic theater where Christine (Sandy McLeod) works. Christine's trying to carve a path for herself through life.

Will Patton, Luis Guzmán, Tom DiCillo, and John Lurie receive early film credits. Christine Vachon was a production assistant. If you IMDb Luis Guzmán, you can see director Bette Gordon had the vision to cast him in a speaking role at a time in his career when he was playing roles like Gypsy Cabbie, Goon #1, Gang Member #2, and Bystander (uncredited). He, Luis Guzmán, as Jose, has one of the best dialogue scenes in the movie:

Jose: Oh - okay. The guy that be sitting in the front row. Yeah, right up on the screen.
Christine: Yeah ... well I don't know where he sits, Jose ...
Jose: Honey I don't know about that guy I'm gonna tell you right now ...
Christine: Do you know who I'm talking about?
Jose: Yeah yeah yeah. He be having the price tag be sticking out of his suit, man, 275 for a suit, man, that guy must be sick coming in here, (tsk), damn.
Christine: Jose, I don't know what you're talking about ...
Jose: You don't know ... that guy took his mother to Coney Island and left her on the Cyclone for thirty years, man ...
Christine: Jose ...
Jose: He went back and she still was on the ride.
Christine: I don't want character analysis. I wanna know if you've seen him.
Jose: Well, I haven't seen him honey. I tell, I'm gonna tell ... and he is funny. But, eh, why you wanna go see funny guys when you can see a guy like Jose, you know, like ... Friday night - me and you go have some cuchifrito, gonna do some, some ...
Christine: Jose ...
Jose: Some meringa dancing ...
Christine: It's been great seeing you ...
Jose: You know what I mean ...
Christine: I'll talk to you later.
Jose (as Christine walks away): Just, just, you don't like to tango. Okay. Hey. Can't take a joke, don't be showing up here early, alright. (to himself as he sweeps the theater floor) Gotta warm up this woman, really now. Jesus Christ. Try to be a nice guy and look at how they treat you.

Some great cinema. Certain scenes are anecdotal and expose aspects of the person speaking; they reminded me of Richard Linklater's Slacker. A crucial late scene used "The Diary," performed by Little Anthony and the Imperials, like Azazel Jacobs used "Damaged Goods" in The GoodTimes Kid. The camera's love of beauty and lights reminded me of Wong Kar-wai, and Variety is kind of like if Christopher Doyle had shot Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver or Paul Schrader's Hardcore. It's the older sister of Lee Kang-sheng's Help Me, Eros.

Bette Gordon's film and I share the same tastes. It's into urban cultures and lifestyles, perversity, seedy underworlds, truer visions of the downtrodden, pop art, John Lurie's jazz, lights, and the dark heart of the city. In this movie the camera loves neon like I love neon in real life. Gordon also searches out aesthetic layers that occur naturally in a modern society.

Love that the JumboTron is playing a video of a space shuttle launch. Other shots have home televisions, and several scenes take place within Variety while a porn movie plays. Often shots are set up around mirrors or glass. These visual textures suggest a society with a densely complex personality, and as Christine learns more about this society, she learns about herself.

09 July 2011

Vigilante Force (!)

Vigilante Force begins with some manic fucking hellraising. Within the one minute mark, while the credits are still rolling: guns are fired from the bed of a moving truck, a man is dragged down the length of a bar by another man in a cowboy hat, a high-heeled woman in a bikini dances on a pool table for cash money, a roulette wheel is spun, there is a bar fight which escalates to gun violence - and then all out pandemonium (guys being thrown onto tables and stuff), and for what appears to be completely unrelated reasons (unrelated to the bar fight) a man is thrown out a window in a coffee shop, followed by a police car being set on a fire (with a fucking torch) and shot at until it explodes.

This is followed by an early morning robbery getaway sequence. Three men with guns, and either a woman accomplice, or a female hostage, flee to their car while exchanging bullets with the police. Two officers, and an elderly bystander, are shot.

The town is overrun by criminal behavior.

Residents don't feel safe walking down front street anymore. Harry, the sheriff, can't be everywhere at once. He's losing men. Ben Arnold (Jan-Michael Vincent), a young tractor salesman and local, has a Vietnam vet brother, a "genuine war hero," whom he offers to contact for auxiliary police protection.

Aaron Arnold (Kris Kristofferson) agrees to the arrangement on the condition that he can bring with him four friends, friends he promises are war vets and/or ex-police. They're sworn in and issued guns, badges, and handcuffs.

Vigilante Force was written and directed by George Armitage (Miami Blues), with production design by Jack Fisk. It was produced by Gene Corman and released by United Artists in 1976. Kris Kristofferson plays a softer, but not much softer, Kurt Russell type. He controls the criminal population in order to cheat the town himself, and the movie is about his betrayal of the trust offered to him.

This means a cycle of corruption, violent action, and town drama. It's my opinion that no one in the movie is interesting except Kristofferson as Aaron. But he's pretty interesting. The film first made me lose my shit when Aaron breaks up a cockfight by pistol shooting the roosters dead in front of the crowd of betters. "You're all under arrest" is his line.

The problem is Armitage doesn't make me care about anyone, so who gives a fuck about his outrageous, ridiculous southern anarchy narrative. It's tedious and drags itself through a slow middle half that's only punctured by Aaron shooting two roosters. Except, at the end, the movie take off. TAKES OFF. It's the end of the movie I want to describe, and part of the ending's charm when watching the film is its surprising pay offs, emphasis on surprise, and I don't recommend you read the next section or look at its pictures unless you've seen the movie. BUT I also recommend you do check out the next section, even if you haven't seen the movie, if your position is still that you don't think you should watch this movie, because you totally should.


Evil Aaron and his evil friends disguise themselves as a marching band and intend to use their small arsenal to rob something I forget what.

Ben has assembled a vigilante group (earlier, around a pick-up truck, he'd been like, "I'm the one that brought you here, and I'm the one that's gonna run you out," to a topless Aaron, who'd been saying stuff like "Now you listen to me I didn't volunteer for this").

Ben tries yelling down some threats. There's a stand off. It's intense. Aaron tests Ben's seriousness.

Ben is very serious.

Hell breaks loose. It's insane. They just don't make pandemonium like they make pandemonium in the US south. Guns are fired, things explode, people are given hell, people take cover.

In one instance ...

a woman with a Molotov cocktail ...

throws the Molotov cocktail ...

at a man ...

whom she hits ...

who presumably dies a horrible, painful, fiery death.

The action heads to the nearby ghost town, where things are settled the only way these things can be settled.