Monday, December 14, 2009

List-O-Mania, Part 2: The Decade

The decade comes to a close, and we can't resist making lists. Here's The AV Club; the delightfully surly Michael Atkinson weighs in here; here's the aggregate Time Out New York list, with links to critic's individual ballots; Richard Brody of The New Yorker has a delightfully pretentious list here (even more so than my own); the online social networking/streaming video, and home of friend-of-this-here blog Ignatius Vishnevetsky, The Auteurs, has got a huge collection of links here and here; James Quandt and TIFF Cinematheque have a list compiled Indiewire style from a bunch of international critics, curators and programmers.

My participation in a list of the decade's best came about originally as a simple joint effort between myself and some close friends, under the auspices and benevolent editorial hand of Alex Dowd. As of now, the project has expanded to include writers for the relatively new film/music website In Review Online, home to Mr. Dowd and a few other friends. I've got no problem with this, although the inclusion of several new people has changed the eventual consensus Top 100 (coming soon!), which I'm also assuming will be eventually unveiled on their website. Contributors have been encouraged to release their own personal ballots, so here we go.
A few thoughts on list making: There is no 'Dark Knight'. Nor will you be seeing the Coen Brothers or Almodovar. You'll also notice a lack of documentaries and animated films on my list. With the exception of Pixar and a handful of anime titles, there wasn't a lot else to even begin to consider. In the end, I decided that offering a unique and artistic statement about our world using the building blocks of filmed reality were more important than mentioning, once again, how rad Pixar movies are. Call me an old fashioned Bazinian, but that's how it goes. At the risk of incurring further wrath, I'll also say that most straight forward documentaries don't particularly interest me, from an aesthetic point of view. This decade saw an impressive group of home grown, DIY docs about the war, 9/11, Katrina, corporate malfeasance, etc. I applaud their intentions, and am happy that they exist - these are truly important pedagogic utensils. Nevertheless, their polemic intent frequently overshadows any exploration of film as a medium; in other words, the camera is simply a means to an end. I'll also add that some of the films on my list do utilize documentary film techniques, blending them in fascinating ways with traditional narrative visual grammar. This intersecting of mediums is what interest me. I did make an effort to think globally, although their are no 'token' films present on the list - in other words, the Sembene film is not on here simply because I needed an 'African' film. There is also a lack of films from 2009 - simply put, there hasn't been, in my mind, enough time to fully live with '09 films, or to see them again. The way thoughts and feelings change over time and multiple viewings is very important to me, and as much as I value 'Serbis', 'Public Enemies', 'The Headless Woman' and 'Where the Wild Things Are', I simply haven't had a chance to revisit and test my initial responses. Incidentally, all of these films will appear on my 'Best of '09' list, and I have seen 'Public Enemies' more than once - but Mann has plenty of love on the list already. On that note:

1. Miami Vice (Mann; 2006/USA)
2. Werckmeister Harmonies (Tarr; 2000/Hungary)
3. Inland Empire (Lynch; 2007/USA)
4. Notre Musique (Godard; 2004/France)
5. Ten/10 on Ten/Five (Kiarostami; 2002;2004;2003/Iran)
6. Demonlover (Assayas; 2002/France)
7. The Intruder (Denis; 2004/France)
8. Millennium Mambo (Hou; 2001/Taiwan)
9. Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai; 2003/Taiwan)
10. Moolaade (Sembene; 2004/Senegal)
11. Exiled (To; 2007/Hong Kong)
12. Bright Future (Kurosawa; 2003/Japan)
13. Code Unknown (Haneke; 2000/France)
14. Morvern Callar (Ramsay; 2002/UK)
15. ABC Africa (Kiarostami; 2001/Iran)
16. The Uncertainty Principle (de Oliveira;
17. The Holy Girl (Martel; 2002/Portugal)
18. Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul; 2006/Thailand)
19. In the Mood For Love (Wong; 2000/Hong Kong)
20. 24 City (Zhang-ke; 2008/China)
21. Yi Yi (Yang; 2000/Taiwan)
22. A History of Violence (Cronenberg; 2005/USA)
23. Offside (Panahi; 2006/Iran)
24. L’Enfant (Dardenne’s; 2005/France)
25. Zodiac (Fincher; USA)
26. The Duchess of Langeais (Rivette; France)
27. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson; 2003/USA)
28. Regular Lovers (Garrel; 2005/France)
29. Ali (Mann; 2002/USA)
30. Bamako (Sissako; 2006/Mali)
31. Colossal Youth (Costa; 2006/Portugal)
32. Memento (Nolan; 2000/USA)
33. Russian Ark (Sokurov; 2002/Russia)
34. Children of Men (Cuaron/USA/UK
35. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry/USA)
36. The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson/USA)
37. Last Days (Van Sant/USA)
38. Invisible Waves (Ratanaruang; 2006/Thailand)
39. Esther Kahn (Desplechin; 2000/France/UK)
40. Los Muertos (Alonso; 2004/Argentina)
41. The Flower of Evil (Chabrol/France)
42. The Believer (Bean/USA)
43. Before Sunset (Linklater/USA)
44. The Proposition (Hillcoat/Australia)
45. Woman is the Future of Man (Hong/South Korea)
46. All the Real Girls (Green/USA)
47. Dogville (Von Trier/Denmark/UK)
48. Case of the Grinning Cat (Marker; 2004/France)
49. There Will Be Blood (Anderson/USA)
50. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik/USA)
51. Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinema (Godard; 2004/France)
52. Spider (Cronenberg; 2002/Canada/UK)
53. Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (Imamura; 2001/Japan)
54. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch/USA)
55. The Man From London (Tarr/Hungary)
56. Summer Hours (Assayas/France)
57. Kings and Queen (Desplechin; 2004/France)
58. The Son (Dardenne’s; 2002/Belgium/France)
59. Strayed (Techine/France)
60. Divine Intervention (Suleiman; 2002/Palestine)
61. Chekovian Motifs (Muratova; 2002/Ukraine/Russia)
62. Aporto of My Childhood (de Oliveira/Portugal)
63. Fat Girl (Breillat/France)
64. The Captive (Akerman/France)
65. Comedy of Power (Chabrol/France)
66. Nobody Knows (Koreeda; 2004/Japan)
67. Eureka (Aoyama; 2000/Japan)
68. Sparrow (To; 2007/Hong Kong)
69. 2046 (Wong/Hong Kong)
70. Still Life/Dong (Zhang-ke; China)
71. Three Times (Hou; 2005/Taiwan)
72. Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa; 2008/Japan)
73. Last Life in the Universe (Ratanaruang; 2003/Thailand)
74. What Time is it There? (Liang; 2001/Taiwan)
75. Tropical Malady (Weerasethakul; 2004/Thailand)
76. George Washington (Green/USA)
77. School of Rock (Linklater/USA)
78. Spartan (Mamet/USA)
79. Brick (Johnson/USA)
80. Half Nelson (Fleck and Boden/USA)
81. The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (Gianvito; 2001/USA)
82. Punch Drunk Love (Anderson/USA)
83. We Own the Night (Gray/USA)
84. Code 46 (Winterbottom/UK)
85. Paranoid Park (Van Sant/USA)
86. Sunshine (Boyle/UK)
87. I Heart Huckabees (Russel/USA)
88. The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro/Spain/Mexico)
89. Homecoming (Dante/USA/Canada)
90. 25th Hour (Lee/USA)
91. Marie Antoinette (Coppola/USA)
92. Primer (Carruth/USA)
93. Space Cowboys (Eastwood/USA)
94. 28 Days Later (Boyle/UK)
95. The Devil’s Rejects (Zombie/USA)
96. Black Book (Verhoeven/Netherlands/Germany)
97. Keane (Kerrigan/USA)
98. The Descent (Marshall/UK)
99. Vera Drake (Leigh/UK)
100. A.I. (Spielberg/USA)

Monday, December 7, 2009

List-O-mania, Part 1: DVDs

The decade’s best lists are rolling in by the truck load, but I’m interested in a different, yet equally important (to my mind) kind of list – this soon to be past decade has presented the most important development in film connoisseurship since VHS, the digital versatile disc, affectionately dubbed the DVD. The introduction of the video cassette and its effects of film viewing habits cannot be overstated. Not only enabling us film fanatics to posses, watch and rewatch our favorite films, over and over, (changing film scholarship, academic or otherwise, in the process), but allowing even the most casual viewer to procure a personal object. Obviously, this has engendered not only a huge shift in how we consume media, but also the business of consumption itself. VHS changed studio distribution patterns, regional and international release windows, international copyright laws and sales, created an entirely new revenue stream for studios and their corporate conglomerate parent companies, and forever altered how we interact with, and ultimately value, images – filmed or otherwise. DVD has heightened that phenomena, not only with an increased awareness of sound and picture quality, but more importantly, an increased awareness of aspect ratios. Those of us raised on VHS became accustomed to experiencing film on demand, but DVD became a bracing rejoinder that we recognize that what we were experiencing was not in actuality a home based phenomena. In other words, we became aware that watching our favorite movies in the comfort of our own homes was not in any way ideal. As far as I know, Michael Mann was the first director to demand that the VHS reproduction of his film ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ be presented in letterboxed format, virtually unheard of at that time. And while letterboxed VHS caught on as a niche collectors format, it wasn’t until the introduction of DVD that reproduction of original aspect ratios became not only accepted, but the norm (witness the gradual decline of fullscreen DVD, a practice not unrelated to, but which predates, the ascendance of widescreen TVs). People might not have any interest in the technical lingo of ‘scope and widescreen, 1:85 versus 2:35, or the classic academy ratio of 1:33, nor the preferred European ration of 1:66. Regardless, even the casual viewer now knows what those black bars at the top and bottom of their screen signifies. Simply put, it signifies artistic intent, and an increased awareness of how to best appreciate that intent.
Obviously, the home viewing experience is nowhere near unproblematic – the very great critic Fred Camper has an essential article on how viewing films on TV differs from film projection, and there has been numerous spats on what exactly constitutes a films original aspect ratio (most recently a heated exchange on Universal’s 50th Anniversary release of Welles’s ‘Touch of Evil’). Admittedly, it is entirely possible to project a film print incorrectly, and I’ve seen 35mm prints on the big screen that pale in comparison to my restored DVD copies. Even Mr. Camper capitulated at one point, and supervised a Criterion Collection set of Stan Brakhage films. There’s also those extreme restorations that have been carried out digitally, existing only on disc form and therefore circumventing the original format in which the object was created (film stock, 35mm or otherwise). This can be done with intelligence and erudition, ala the recent Coppola supervised restoration of ‘The Godfather’, or can be done ineptly, ala the recent Friedkin supervised restoration of ‘The French Connection’.
All of which is to suggest the multitude of complexities inherent in film viewing, either in a theatre or at home. Nonetheless, I’d like to single out my favorite DVDs of the decade – a decade that belonged, for better or for worse, to the rise of DVD, as both market force and collector’s choice. For the record, these choices are based on 1. DVDs that I own, not only that I’ve seen or know about, 2. I’m basically Region 1 locked. Sorry; and 3. A combination of quality of film and maximizing of the format’s capabilities. In other words, regardless of how much I value Hill’s ‘The Driver’, de Toth’s ‘Day of the Outlaw’, Ray’s ‘Bitter Victory’, Aldrich’s ‘Attack!’, or Universal’s Marlene Dietrich Collection (and how amazed I am that these films exist for my consumption at home on my couch), these discs don’t exactly epitomize what the format is capable of. Conversely, films like Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy use the format brilliantly, with exhaustive behind-the-scenes features and substantially different cuts of the films themselves. These novelties aside, additional bells and whistles don’t elevate the actual films from big budget novelties, and ultimately epitomize the darkside of DVD as pure marketing device – a special edition version of a film appearing just before its sequel hits theatres has become endemic.

Sony’s Budd Boetticher Collection: an essential revelation, and evidence of the format’s ability to resurrect a reputation, while introducing Boetticher to a new generation and allowing entry to the pantheon with Ford, Hawks, Mann (Anthony) and de Toth. Hopefully we’ll get a Region 1 Allan Dwan set sooner rather than later.

Warner Bro’s John Wayne/John Ford:
Fox’s Ford at Fox: two releases that finally give the master his due. Ford has quickly become one of the filmmakers best represented in the digital format, and we are all the richer for it. Accompanied by an exquisite hard back book and ample supplemental materials, this box set is easily the equivalent of a college course.

Universal’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection: Ditto. If I’m not mistaken, with the exception of ‘Under Capricorn’, every Hitchcock film is now available for home viewing. With the decline of repertory theatres, it is increasingly difficult to see the films of the masters on a big screen, so I suppose we’ll take what we can get. Minus his early British films, you get the full gamut here, from the acknowledged masterpieces to some lesser known gems to those eccentric, late-period oddities: Family Plot, Frenzy, and Topaz, all of which are underrated.

Tati’s Playtime: Jonathan Rosenbaum has famously quoted Noel Burch that Playtime might be the first genuinely ‘open’ film, fulfilling the dreams of Bazin’s fabled ‘democratic’, long-take based cinema, and a film which requires not only multiple viewings, but viewings from different seats in the same theatre. Home video might not be the best venue with which to put this theory to the test, but Criterion’s superior edition of the film at least gives us the chance to revisit Tati’s grand folly for the grace of its design, its production values, and the intricacy of its choreography. It might be blasphemous of me to suggest this, but I value Tati over Chaplin and Keaton – all three comedians are inherently modern, but only Tati seems to have bent celluloid to his own whims in so fearless a manner.

Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar: If I where cornered with a gun to my head, then I might have to admit that this is my favorite film of all time. I encountered it early on, totally unaware of Bresson as an artist, and while I could initially make neither heads nor tails out of what was unfolding in front of me, it felt new and special – unique in a way I had never encountered before. Half a dozen viewings later, I’ve decoded some of the films mysteries, but by no means all – Bresson remains, along with Dreyer, one of those opaque masters. Totally concrete – every composition and edit lands with force, and no gesture or glance is wasted - yet ephemeral, and threatening to float away at a moments notice. I was lucky enough to see the film twice on the big screen in ’99, but revisiting the film required seeking out a bootleg vhs copy - suitable enough, although it was not unlike trying to watch a movie through a window, from some distance, with the screen covered by various layers of cloth - in other words, the ghost of an image. Thanks to Criterion for removing at least a few of those distracting layers.

Fantoma’s The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volumes I & II: our favorite experimental phantom of Hollywood, and a grand alchemist cum fetishist, finally gets some respect. This is an essential starting point for any understanding of avant garde film. Tom Gunning: ‘Anger does it all, bending the essential stuff of cinema into works that transport a viewer even while the filmmaker strips enthrallment and enchantment of any alibi of innocence.’

Criterion’s John Cassavettes: Five Films: It’s not quite accurate to claim that Cassavettes invented the American independent film, but it is a useful short hand. One has to experience the exhilaration of his peculiar brand of emotional damage, a kind of manic nervousness that results in absurdity and comedy as much as it does violence. This box set includes the exhaustive, nearly three hour documentary ‘A Constant Forge’.

Criterion’s Contempt: available for ages only on a pan and scan, dubbed VHS release, Criterion unleashed the full force of Godard’s acerbic masterpiece with this beautiful restored disc, overflowing with bountiful extras (the conversation between Godard and Fritz Land is a revelation). Meanwhile, witness the eroding of a relationship in all its protracted agony, one of the most searing set pieces in all of film.

Eclipse’s Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu: perhaps no national cinema has benefited more from the digital revolution than Japan. We’ve gradually shifted from Kurosawa to Ozu, and then to Mizoguchi. Now, we can asses the contributions of Naruse and Shimizu as well.

The Big Red One: The Reconstruction: Or, a resurrection; bless Warner Bro’s for giving Richard Schickel the money to produce this DVD package. Not only is the film about 45 minutes longer than the only know previous edition, but even more importantly, key sequences have been reworked and expanded, deepening the film’s narrative and emotional range, and the psychological ramifications of boys at war. War is hell, but in Fuller’s world, it is also sometimes surreal, sometimes absurd, and occasionally funny.

Criterion’s The Complete Mr. Arkadin: something of a misnomer, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out in several commentaries. The complex history and travels of Welle’s orphan film are far to complex to be easily resolved into a definitive, final version. Instead, we are offered three different versions of the film, allowing those interested to study variation after variation – some minute, and some more drastic. Plus, we get an essential audio commentary on the ‘Cornith’ version, with Rosenbaum and the great James Naremore discussing Welles and the various iterations of Arkadin. Not only is this film history class in a box, but it suggests the archival possibilities of the medium.

Criterion’s By Brakhage: An Anthology: once you’ve made your way through those Kenneth Anger films, you can start on this set. P. Adams Sitney has claimed that Brakhage had the most astonishing career in the history of cinema, leaving a body of work consisting of over 400 films over the last fifty years, and I’m not about to disagree. Brakhage wants to change the way we see the world, not only as a photo chemical phenomena but deep into our central nervous system.

Chris Marker’s AK: this is actually an extra feature on Criterion’s two disc release of Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’. I wish I was as enthusiastic about Kurosawa as Marker is, but nevertheless his poetic, essayistic making-of film journal is a small masterpiece of the personal documentary. There’s an interesting number of very great films that have been packaged as ‘bonus features’ on discs for other different films. I suppose one should just be grateful that these films are available at all, but I fear that this ghettoizing suggests that these films are somehow less than important. See also ’10 on Ten’, attached to Kiarostami’s ‘Ten’ (Zeitgeist Video); Wender’s ‘Tokyo Ga’, on the second disc of Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’ (Criterion); Zhang-ke’s ‘Dong’, released with his ‘Still Life’ (the now defunct New Yorker Video).

Auteurs in a box: A brief appreciation of a particular phenomena – the grouping of otherwise disparate auteurist masterpieces into box sets dedicated to a particular star personality. I certainly understand studios trying to capitalize in any way they can on an easy, ready made, selling point. More often than not it results in us getting a group of films that might not otherwise ever see the light of day. Case in point, Warner Brother’s Film Noir series: my personal favorite is volume five, with films by Andre de Toth (Crimewave) and Anthony Mann (Side Street). The real gem is Nick Ray’s glorious directorial debut, the phenomenal ‘They live By Night’, the first (and best) version of Bonnie and Clyde, and an ideal introduction to this supreme master. Sony’s Cary Grant box set has got two (count’em) Howard Hawks masterpieces – the definitive screwball romance yarn ‘His Girl Friday’ and the tough-guys-don’t-cry action vehicle ‘Only Angels Have Wings’. It’s a combo that represents the long running Hawksian dialectic between action and comedy, the masculine and the feminine, and always that particular sense of mortality so prevalent in Hawk’s work. We also get Leo McCarey’s ‘The Awful Truth’ and George Cukor’s underrated ‘Holiday’. Rounding out the set is the ok George Steven’s ‘The Talk of the Town’. At least it’s not as lugubrious as Steven’s prestige, Oscar bait vehicles. Warner Bros’ Robert Mitchum box set offers us one of Vincente Minnelli’s greatest efforts, the family melodrama ‘Home From the Hill’. Mitchum is particularly fierce as an emotionally distant Southern patriarch tearing his family apart. Otto Preminger’s ‘Angel Face’ is one of the great noirs, with a deceitful Jean Simmons wrapping Mitchum around her little finger until he cracks. It’s one of Preminger’s darkest thrillers, with a mechanical precision leading inexorably to one of the great cruel endings of all time. There’s also that strange, auteurist odd duck – the Von Sternberg/Nick Ray mash-up ‘Macao. While both are great directors, neither sensibility translates much in this noir-ish little crime thriller. Some nice photography and a certain level of pessimism make it an intriguing one-off. Rounding out the set is ‘The Yakuza’, which boasts some of the finest credits ever (directed by Sydney Pollack, from a screenplay by Paul Shrader and Robert Towne) for such a tepid crime picture. Mitchum soldiers through it, stoic as ever.

Up next for List-O-Mania: the albums of the year, my 100 best films of the decade (in conjunction with Mr. Andrew Alexander Dowd), wrapping up 2009, and some abandoned fragments on both a great recent film and a great older film.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tsai's FACE:

It's difficult to know how to approach a film as strange and shocking as The River--Tsai Ming-liang's third feature… I want to start by labeling it a masterpiece, but in cases such as this that assertion seems more a gamble than a certainty, however much I'd prefer to pretend otherwise.

How to explain my lack of confidence? First of all, when encountering something as peculiar as The River, my first impulse isn't to assert anything but to ask, "What the hell is this?"…

That I regard The River as a masterpiece and the work of a master doesn't mean that I consider it fun or pleasant--terrifying and beautiful would be more appropriate. It's been a subject of dispute ever since it won the special jury prize in Berlin in 1997, and I can't exactly quarrel with those who complain that it's sick or boring; I can understand how one could have these responses, even though I don't share them

It’s been more than ten years since Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote these words, and not much has changed. ‘Face’ isn’t instilled with the same sense of foreboding doom as ‘The River’ or ‘The Hole’, nor the apocalyptic ‘The Wayward Cloud’, although it is not quite as gentle as 'Goodbye Dragon Inn' or ‘What Time is it There?’. But the same deadpan comedy laced with melancholic nostalgia that links all of his films is alive and well, superbly realized in what might be his most simple, understatedly beautiful film to date. To praise the film’s surfaces is neither a back handed compliment (resonance usually come later for Tsai’s films, after contemplation and further viewings), nor to suggest a lack of depth (ditto).
There have always been intimations of cinephilia in Tsai, in a way not as common to say, Hou or Yang. With ‘Face’, Tsai dives into the behind-the-scenes-of-a-film-shoot film, aligning himself to Fassbinder’s ‘Beware of a Holy Whore’, Godard’s ‘Contempt’, Assayas’ ‘Irma Vep’ and especially Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’. Tsai’s Truaffaut love has popped up before, complete with Jean-Pierre Leaud cameos, and while ‘Face’ is not full blown homage, it is a full fledged love letter/eulogy. Truffaut regular Fanny Ardant is the put upon production manager trying to manage quirky, antsy leading man Leaud, young ingénue Latetia Casta, and director Lee Kang-Sheng, who doesn’t speak a word of French. I hasten to add that even this minimal amount of plot is divulged slowly and elliptically, with Tsai’s penchant for long scenes that only reveal their meanings towards the end of their duration, or when coupled retroactively with forthcoming scenes. Both the film’s proponents and detractors have mentioned its sketchy nature, consisting of a series of moments strung together. It’s hard to disagree, although I would add that there is a cumulative effect of recurring motifs; Leaud’s attempts at communing with nature, first with a deer, then with a small bird (leading to as unique a funeral scene as one is ever likely to see); an emphasis on close ups of faces that encompasses three different long scenes of Casta putting black tape over windows and mirrors, and which eventually leads to her seduction of Lee’s translator in near pitch black; Ardant traversing various terrains in high heels, over dressed and clearly ill-equipped to deal with various pressures; the death of Lee’s mother and her ghost subsequently hanging out, keeping an eye on things. What holds it all together is Tsai’s mastery of the match cut, which effortlessly segues us from scene to scene, along with his seemingly innate ability to time out a scene. As always, time is of the essence in Tsai.

Visually speaking: one of the film’s most striking tableau comes late, with a camera mounted outside of a high rise building, its depth of field capturing both Fanny Ardent on a bed inside her hotel room, as well as a labyrinthine system of freeways below, with a sparse cityscape visible in the distant background. Tsai has been building to this moment in several ways – the extreme distances involved within the shot contrast his consistent emphasis on faces in close up, and the bustling traffic is visually and architecturally opposed to a general stillness that pervades the rest of the film. We hear Ardent on the phone discussing an actress who is refusing to play a role, an actress we at first assume to be Casta, although later scenes do not confirm this. As Ardent sarcastically proposes to simply play the role herself, we realize that the soundtrack is not in synch with the image - as the dialogue continues, Ardent approaches the window, revealing that she is neither holding a phone nor moving her lips. The past tense invades the present (the clarity of the window rhymes nicely with those scenes involving Casta blackening out any and all reflective surface – someone who does not want to be gazed upon, fearful either of her own reflection or of what other people might see).
If my good friend and fellow Tsai enthusiast Ignatius is correct, and the film is Tsai's sketchbook (including the blank pages), it is important to qualify that term, blank. Empty spaces are always monumental in Tsai – while directors like Denis or Mann use negative space within the frame to isolate characters and reflect certain emotional states, Tsai’s space is always charged with a sense of the potential; even in stillness there is a kinetic possibility. Face might be a simple compendium of specific personal obsessions on Tsai’s part (might being the operative term, since I’m not convinced that there isn’t more to it) – even so, there are few places I would rather roam around in than Tsai’s mind.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Kiarostami, Round 2:

I’ve been thinking about Abbas Kiarostami a lot lately, primarily because no else seems to be. With a new film on the festival circuit, the once unassailable front runner of the Iranian New Wave has been getting less press than the forthcoming GI Joe movie*. Perhaps this was always the case, as Kiarostami occupied a precarious space between critical accolades and mainstream indifference (see also: Godard, Zhang-ke, Hou, etc.). But it would seem that even that most reliable barometer of cinephile taste, Film Comment, has declared Kiarostami passé – Gavin Smith himself has stated that Kiarostami’s “moment has passed”. But is this a case of a once great filmmaker who has simply “lost it”? Or is it something else all together?
Maybe part of the problem is that we never really understood Kiarostami in the first place. Once it was decided that some kind of “new wave” was happening, there was an automatic context with which to place his films, and social/political issues could be trotted out as window dressing, obscuring a failure to grapple with the actual films themselves. So rather than following the filmmaker where he wanted to go, we’ve instead seemingly ostracized him for not doing what we want him to do, what we were already comfortable with. As I recall, his film ABC Africa didn’t make much of a splash, and his follow up feature, Ten, was actively loathed in most mainstream quarters. From that point on, Kiarostami has, for all intents and purposes, become an experimental filmmaker. Certainly, there was always something different there, even in his most blatantly narrative features – the based-on-fact recreations and mobius-strip narrative of Close Up, the real-life disaster back drop of Life And Nothing More… that snakes backwards to involve real players in his previous film, Where is the Friend’s House?, the Brechtian, video-shot coda of Taste of Cherry, and always the emphasis on location shooting and non-professional actors. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have seemed so radical that Kiarostami would shift to the extreme formalism of Ten, or the essayistic collections of miscellany that are 10 on Ten and Five (Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu). It is these last two features that interest me the most, perhaps because they don’t seem to interest anyone else.

Pace Jonathan Rosenbaum, the notion of a simultaneously “incomplete” and “interactive” cinema seems most instructive to what we might currently designate “late period” Kiarostami (here’s to many more years, and the hopeful potentiality that what I refer to as “late period” will eventually become “mid-period”). With regards to narrative, one can trace a line of increasing disinterest, from Ten to 10 on Ten to Five (Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu) to Around Five: The Making of… (I hasten to add that while dvd distributors have relegated 10 on Ten and Around Five to the margins of simple supplemental features, they are in fact important films in and of themselves, akin to Filming Othello, Scenario du film Passion, and even Histoire(s) du Cinema, ripe for discovery and inclusion into the canonical filmography proper). Yes, narrative has been largely replaced by actuality - Kiarostami has eschewed standard film grammar (the genius of the system indeed) for a new kind of narrative, predicated on real time and a kind of temporal naturalism. In other words, he has devalued that most basic unit of functionality – plot based storytelling – alienating large sectors of the critical community that rely solely on story to hang their hats.

* * *
“The disappearance of direction. That’s what is at stake: the rejection of all elements vital to ordinary cinema.”
“If anyone were to ask me what I did as director on the film (Ten), I’d say, “Nothing and yet if I didn’t exist, this film wouldn’t have existed.”
Kiarostami in interview

Ten is, as the title suggests, ten segments, each showing the same woman driving her car with a passenger. These passengers include her petulant son (who appears in four segments), a prostitute, an elderly woman, a female friend who she is going out to eat with, and a young woman (who appears twice, first going to, then returning from, a shrine). That our driver is a young woman, attractive, recently divorced and now remarried carries with it an implicit political and feminist point of view – the woman’s young son being an obvious stand in for an immature patriarchy that chastises her repeatedly for her unabashed expression of individuality.
Plot and political subtext aside, what irks most people is Kiarostami’s formal vigor – the film consists of two simple camera set ups, one pointed at the driver and the other pointed at the passenger. Kiarostami will occasionally cross cut between the two angles, although he’ll also allow long scenes to pass with only one view, while either passenger or driver exist only as an off-screen voice. A sampling of the critical derision this method garnered in the mainstream press, courtesy of that great barometer of middle brow taste, Roger Ebert: “Anyone could make a movie like Ten. Two digital cameras, a car and your actors, and off you go… but if this approach were used for a film shot in Europe or America, would it be accepted as an entry at Cannes? I argue that it would not. Part of Kiarostami's appeal is that he is Iranian, a country whose films it is somewhat daring to praise. Partly, too, he has a lot of critics invested in his cause, and they do the heavy lifting. The fatal flaw in his approach is that no ordinary moviegoer, whether Iranian or American, can be expected to relate to his films. They exist for film festivals, film critics and film classes.” That such a bold gambit would even be attempted in a European or American feature is debatable, and certainly no apparatus exists with which to distribute such a feature. But is it the artist’s fault that his work becomes ghettoized, relegated to the one place that can, however tentatively, express support for such a film? Obviously Ebert doesn’t think to question the system itself, and in the meantime manages to criticize said festivals, critics who might dare support the film (clearly in Ebert’s mind an affectation) and ever-elitist film schools. Never mind the construction of this hypothetical “ordinary” moviegoer, a dubious assumption on his part. There’s also an implied anti-intellectualism in the criticism, pitting “normal” against those fancy festival bound critics – in one fell swoop Ebert demonizes the fringe elements of his own profession (sorry Rosenbaum, Jones, Kehr, Martin, Hoberman, etc).
Such arguments have existed for as long as modern art, although one doesn’t suspect Ebert relating his reservations to similar bromides against Duchamp or Pollock or Twombly or Rothko (my kid could paint that indeed).

* * *

“What exactly is a documentary, as opposed to the other kinds of movies that we make? I finally decided that if you just attach the camera to the top of a bull’s horns and let him loose in a field for a whole day, at the end of the day you might have a documentary. But there’s still a catch here, because we’ve selected the location and the type of lens that we want.”

“making something simple requires a great deal of experience. And, first of all, you need to understand that simplicity isn’t the same as facility.”

One can hardly imagine Ebert’s ire at Five (Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu), if only he had bothered to see it (Rotten Tomatoes lists about 50 reviews for Ten, and only two for Five, compared to around 220 for Transformers 2). Consisting of five long takes (of course), Five delves even deeper into the murky waters of authorial signature, or the lack thereof. Even more so than Ten, this is a film in which Kiarostami seemingly does nothing, and yet it would not exist without him. We see a piece of driftwood laying on the beach, waves crashing around it. And the camera sits there, and we watch. Eventually the wood splinters into two pieces, one of which gradually drifts back into the sea. This process takes around 9 minutes or so. Another scene involves bystanders walking back and forth through the camera’s view for several minutes, followed by a scene in which a gaggle of ducks does likewise (a humorous symmetry). We also see a pack of dogs as they awake with the sunrise, while the image very gradually blows out to striking white. The final long take is an epic shot that defies a simple written synopsis. The camera appears to be pointed downwards towards a body of water. It is nighttime, and only the moon’s wavering reflection on the water’s surface punctuates the darkness. The reflection periodically disappears, although it is not clear if this is because clouds are passing over it, obscuring the light, or if Kiarostami is fading the image in and out. It eventually starts to rain, the drops forming fascinating patterns as they strike the surface of the water, and gradually the sun begins to rise. This is the longest of the five takes, and the gradual accumulation of details, revealing what it is exactly that we are looking at, as well as a dense sound design of ambient noises, creates a sense of total envelopment in the moment. In a perverse sense, each scene does have a kind of narrative logic, with a beginning, middle and end, as well as the occasional ‘climax’ – the drift wood breaking in two, the sun rise, an approaching storm. The film demands patience, but one is rewarded by the simple pleasures of natural beauty and a calming, meditative tone. Adrian Martin has written: “Of course, there is work, profound work, underneath Kiarostami's productions. But the 'exercise' of his capacity for art-making comes, as he puts it, from practising the act of 'seeing' – with his eyes, not in the first place with any representational apparatus. Kiarostami's laziness – tales abound of his ability to walk away from projects in which he quickly loses interest, or the 'squandering' of his best ideas by simply speaking and not writing them down, musing as he travels from one location to another – is a kind of openness, an 'availability' to the world. What he learns to see, to notice, can then be immortalised, swiftly and effortlessly, in the framing of a photo or the composition of a poem. Aesthetic time is, for him, a matter of captured moments.”

10 on Ten goes some ways towards explicating much of the process of 5, at last as much as it explicates Ten, and exists as a kind of Kiarostami primer. And what an invaluable little film, the very definition of a ‘sketch’, that allows us to spend time with a master – I can’t think of many other documents of its kind. Of course, suggesting that someone watch a film to explain another film might strike some as too much ‘heavy lifting’, but only if one refuses the notion that a filmmaker’s body of work is in constant conversation with itself. 10 on Ten follows Kiarostami as he travels the roads used in filming Taste of Cherry, while he speaks plainly about his process, from casting, writing and shooting, as well as his philosophical and political concerns. Clearly, his movement away from traditional narrative is a bold assertion of political purpose, freeing him from ‘the clutches of production, capital and censorship’. He also speaks rhapsodically about the advent of digital cameras, and reveals the gradual process of his adapting to them – an interesting aside, that the controversial digital coda of Taste of Cherry was originally shot on film, which was then damaged while being processed. The end of the film is actually video rushes they had shot before running the 35mm camera.

It has been mentioned more than once that Kiarostami’s recent work belongs in a gallery, not a movie screen. True, Kiarostami has dabbled with installation pieces, and the slow pace and formal rigors of Five, in particular, would not necessarily be out of place projected on the wall of the MCA. But what does it mean that we have to decide where to place the work before even beginning to deal with the work itself, on its own terms? And what does it mean that we constantly allow this to happen? Similarly, who decides, and at what point, what is ‘difficult’ and what is not? Clearly, it is inarguable that any film deemed ‘difficult’ becomes a kind of work, and is therefore no longer pleasurable. A silly syllogism, and one that reeks of anti-intellectualism, but I fear it is one of those self perpetuating ‘truths’. Perhaps one demands the context of a specific institution to provide an entry point to difficult films, when one really only needs the eyes with which to look. That, ultimately, is the value of a Kiarostami film - that he helps us reinvest importance to such a seemingly simple act as watching.

*I suppose this dated reference reveals how long this piece has been gestating, as well as my complete lack of working method and sporadic free time. Even more depressingly, I could have made reference to any number of other disposable by-the-numbers product that comes and goes, leaving nary a trace on the cultural landscape. Does anyone remember Whiteout? How about, I don’t know, Pandorum or A Perfect Getaway? And yet, for a brief amount of time, this stuff generated more words and more press in the process of disappearing than Kiarostami has in the last few years.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Abbas Kiarostami in Chicago:

A Kiarostami film will play on a big screen in Chicago for the first time since 2002, and I can think of nothing more important happening this weekend. I had hoped to have a decent length post up by now pontificating on the state of Kiarostami's reputation, as well as the factors that have led to its decline. Like some who believe that Orson Welles was a failed Hollywood director, as opposed to a successful independent director, there are some who treat Kiarostami as a failed narrative filmmaker, as opposed to a successful experimental filmmaker. His newest film, Shirin, plays as part of a double bill with his last 'commercial' feature, Ten at The Gene Siskel Film Center. David Bordwell has some nice things to say about Kiarostami and Shirin here, and my good friend Ben Sachs has got an intelligent appreciation over at the CINE-FILE. Kudos also to the Chicago Reader for giving a surprising amount of space to Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa's conversation on Shirin. One might consider it a brief addendum to the book length study of Kiarostami that they co-authored 2003, which remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only one of its kind in English. So go and see Shirin this weekend, and then come back here so we can talk about it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl:

The sketch is often approached as one of two things – a study, or practice for, an eventual painting (polished and final; heavy) or a scribbling, something done on impulse and then put away or passed over – a doodle. But the sketch can offer something more, a kind of energy, the very lack of refinement opening up the possibility of a less mediated dialogue between artist and viewer. I’ve always preferred Surrealist drawings to paintings, particularly Dali’s. And who can forget Rembrandt’s self portraits, or Giacometti’s furious, violent charcoal storms, gradually accumulating layers approaching the human face. I’m also thinking even more specifically of the Impressionists: Millet, Courbet, Degas, Pissaro, and especially Cezanne and Picasso. The looseness, the lack of self awareness are refreshing, the lines of the pencil alive with energy – “drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing – a study of even the swiftest sketch discloses the mind and nature of its author”. (Maurice Serullaz).
Film can do the same: Rivette has created his epic sketch (Out 1); Chris Marker’s essays have a similar quality, along with late period Kiarostami, Assayas’ Irma Vep and Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn. Video doesn’t immediately signify the qualities I’m thinking of, and one shouldn’t push the analogy too far, although we do have Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema and Mann’s Miami Vice. Manoel de Oliveira has switched back and forth for some time now, vacillating between the unprepossessing and the heavier, more concrete – my favorite de Oliveira, The Uncertainty Principle, is film with a capitol 'F', along with A Talking Picture, Magic Mirror and The Convent. The sketch films include two of his earliest features, Rite of Spring and Doomed Love (epic in the Godard/Rivette sense), the more recent Porto of My Childhood and I’m Going Home, and now Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl.
Clocking in at a mere 65 minutes (although brevity is not the sole signifier or even a pre-requisite for a sketch), De Oliveira moves with economy and broad strokes, the film’s opening scene announcing, literally, that a man has a story to tell about a woman, and that it will not end well. De Oliveira regular (and grandson) Ricardo Trepa is the heart broken man; he flashes back to the beginnings of his love affair, the great lengths he has gone through to secure his beloved’s hand, and the abrupt ending of their affair, shocking in its immediate finality as much as anything else.
De Oliveira has sometimes been accused of focusing too frequently on the upper class, but here he has snuck in a critique that barely registers until that ending – charting Trepa’s rise through polite society and jockeying for financial position, the film is ultimately not about doomed love but his own failure to achieve the status he desires. De Oliveira films Trepa’s introduction to his obscure object of desire through several layers of artifice, framed (accordingly) through windows. Sitting in his accountant’s office, Trepa chances to gaze upon Catarina Wallenstein and her Chinese fan. Catarina first parts a lace curtain to reveal not only herself, but a framed portrait of a woman hanging behind her. She then coyly obscures her face with the waving of the fan, before lowering a window shade. Now blocked from view by the shade, although obliquely visible as if seen through gauze, she moves behind the curtain and walks underneath the portrait, leaving the image’s frame. At this moment, she essentially becomes a ghost of herself, physically receding into an opaque mirage-image, and it is the moment that Trepa falls in love not with a woman, but with a portrait of a woman – an idea. It is not until the film’s end that she will reveal a part of herself, only to be violently rejected by her suitor. The “eccentricities” of the title is Catarina’s humanity, and it is a humanity that is spurned in favor of societal appearances and resentments. A sketch of a film, to be sure, but what a moving, complex sketch it is, as de Oliveira indulges tangents through a literary club, with a brief history of its founder, as well as a musical scene featuring a harp and a poetry recital (a poem, incidentally, bemoaning class warfare and resentment in favor of the simple pleasures in life). Yes, this sketch might be one of the master’s finest.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nick Ray: The Living and the Dead

We are once again in the midst of festival season, that bizarre, hectic period of time where thousands of films are screened and thousands of opinions are generated, more often than not before said films are even over. In this age of instant messaging, blogging, tweeting and constant 24 hour news cycles, the desire to "get there first" seems the be all end all of critical faculty. Never mind that the occasional reflection might change one's view, that notion that a new and unique work of art can grow and change in one's mind over time. I for one can't imagine sitting through a Pedro Costa film on zero sleep, having already seen a film or two and planning the next screening afterward. This is not the mindset with which to approach certain kinds of films (yes, I mean the slow ones - slow and contemplative).
With that in mind, I'm embarking on a series of profiles on whatever director I feel like writing about, with no concern whatsoever for what is new, "hot" or decisively controversial. Simply great filmmakers who I happen to find intriguing. Up first is Nicholas Ray, an iconoclastic maverick who got his start as a Hollywood melodrama artist and gradually built a body of work based on romantic disillusionment, replete with crushed dreams, dashed hopes and near suicidal doses of ironic fatalism. He's perhaps best known for "Rebel Without A Cause", although that film's enduring legacy is based more on the Dean performance than Ray's masterful direction. One of his greatest films, "Bigger Than Life",remains criminally unavailable on any home video format, along with "The Lusty Men", "Wind Across the Everglades" and "Hot Blood" ("The Savage Innocents" exists in a now out-of-print region 2 import. Snatch it up if you find it somewhere). "Party Girl" has recently become available thanks to Warner Home Video's unique (and somewhat ill advised) archive on demand service. So here it is:
Godard once remarked that “the cinema IS Nick Ray” – a dictum that requires few qualifications, not only with regards to what constitutes Ray’s cinema but to what constitutes cinema in general. Never one to conform to studio bound hegemony, Ray quietly navigated genre-bound assignments (careful to leave indelible marks wherever he went) to idiosyncratic tangents to full blown maverick outsider, ending, perhaps inevitably, as avant-garde provocateur. At the risk of sounding intentionally contrarian, We Can’t Go Home Again might be Ray’s masterpiece, a bold summation of virtually every subtext that occurs throughout his several decades as a studio outsider. Unabashedly lo-fi and a one-of-a-kind time capsule, We Can’t Go Home Again represents most fully a particular kind of (anti) social discontentment, a kind of unique surliness that expands upon, informs, and retroactively explodes Ray’s own genre-defining excursion into the youthful counter-culture-discontentment as self-actualization-cum death trip.

* * *

A heartbeat
tears my insides apart
And tears apart my dreams
in the whirling dark
I never got to go
I cannot make it
I never get to have my dreams
and I will not take it…
You can’t take and steal from this body…

They were supposed to be my dreams…
Gun Club, My Dreams

“This boy…
and this girl…
were never properly introduced into the world we live in…”
opening title scrawl of They Live By Night

“I was born when she kissed me
I died when she left me
I lived a few weeks while she loved me”
from In a Lonely Place

“I’m a stranger here myself”
from Johnny Guitar

“I kill the living and I save the dead”
from Bitter Victory

“love as ambivalent pathos,
the search for authenticity,
happiness existing if only by virtue that it can be destroyed”
notes I scribbled in the margins of a book while watching Bigger Than Life about 10 years ago

* * *

A “circle of pain” indeed; two more notes, written hastily while in the daze of an overwhelmingly emotional viewing of On Dangerous Ground (the viewer inevitably succumbing to Robert Ryan’s shattered sense of self) – cosmic inevitability and existential predetermination. Too lofty a philosophy perhaps, reeking of term paper bigness, but one feels the crushing sensation of smallness while watching a Ray film - smallness in the sense that everything around us – society, family, institutions - is simply too big, too awesomely grand (and awesomely corrupted) for one man to fathom. No mistake about it, Ray’s is a sensitive cinema, at least in the sense of undercutting and schizophrenically undermining traditional masculine roles. Sensitivity can’t help but come to the forefront (doomed love being a Ray specialty), only for that same sensitivity to be crushed under a boot heel (here is social criticism at that existential level). One is reminded of the unforgivingly violent landscape, prone to eruption at any given moment – the exploding hills in Johnny Guitar, the cold plains of On Dangerous Ground (even the title itself!), the frozen lands of The Savage Innocents, the arena of The Lusty Men (institutionalized violence, played for profit and sport), the war torn dessert of Bitter Victory (again with the title and a penchant for self fulfilling prophecy!), the perpetual unknowability and deadliness of the Florida swamps in Wind Across the Everglades, even the family unit itself in Rebel and Bigger Than Life (emotional strife located in the distorted geometry of the home gone horribly awry). The helicopter shot that opens They Live By Night surveys a vast, empty landscape, which will eventually host a series of violent encounters.

There is the addition of hopeless love – fatalistic more often than not. Potential violence is, apparently, much like emotional inertia – inescapable; note how many of his characters come together, only to be eventually ripped apart: Born To Be Bad traces the disintegration of not one but two relationships, one right after the other; Sal Mineo perishes for Dean in Rebel; the rivals of Wind reconcile, only for Cottonmouth to die of a snake bite while saving his once bitter enemy; Bogart and Graham find happiness and stability only to be driven apart by fear, rage and violence, as he returns to his lonely place; Crawford and Hayden walk away from the final confrontation in Johnny Guitar, but into an unknown future, as the frontier is becoming more and more civilized (civilization being corruption more often than not); Mason recovers from addiction in Bigger Than Life, but has exposed the dark underside of the nuclear family and its incubation of paranoia, dread and violence; the absurd futility of war is expressed through romantic rivalry in Bitter Victory, the current husband and former lover slugging it out on a grand scale, Burton eventually succumbing not to bullets or artillery but nature itself (that deadly landscape!) - etc, etc.

As Jonathan Rosenbuam has pointed out in his seminal essay “Circle of Pain”, Ray is fascinated by outsiders – rodeo men, gypsies, the blind, poachers, teenagers (especially teenagers), cowards, the poor – all on the fringes of proper society. It was perhaps inevitable (that word again), given his activism and liberal politics in the 30’s and 40’s, that he would be attracted to the counter-culture in the late 60’s. But that romantic fatalism rears its ugly head, and violence is once again located in the home, this time contextualized by a failing and fading revolution (this cements Ray’s similarity with Rivette). We Can’t Go Home Again traces the efforts of a film class, under the guidance of Ray himself, to make a collective film - that the film itself, although scripted, is essentially a document of its own making, is entirely part of the point; that the film disintegrates along with its protagonists is also part of the point. Ray and his students use all manner of equipment, whatever could be begged or borrowed, resulting in footage shot on 8mm and 16mm then being projected and re-photographed on 35mm.

The use of multiple images on the same screen is its own kind of simultaneous collectivity mixed with obliteration – they share the same space but cancel each other out, becoming a kind of white noise. Is there a more profound extrapolation of post ‘68 politics? It can be difficult to follow what exactly is going on at any given moment, and the use of multiple projections eschews any traditional standards of framing or cutting – the edit now exists between two or three or four completely unique images, not simple individual scenes. There is also ray’s fascination with everyday architecture becoming visual symbols of entrapment – lattice work or stair railings become bars, often ensconcing his doom laden last-romantic couple or self destructive individual (think Sternbergian bric-a-brac laden with masochism). The filmed narrative, what there is of it, reaches a kind of boiling point of accusatory disintegration, resulting in Ray’s onscreen death by hanging. That Ray intends to commit suicide, only to then change his mind, then accidentally hanging himself, speaks to something larger, I think. This is the personality that has given us so many catastrophic couplings destined for untimely ends that he perhaps felt he should save the best for last. It is an absurdity – tragic, certainly, but fundamentally absurd. As a bold final statement of purpose, Ray sums up a career of romantic contradiction: take care of each other and let the rest of us swing. This is sentimentality tinged with masochistic violence. This is sensitivity being crushed under a boot heel. This is the cruel romantic irony of Nicholas Ray.

Monday, August 24, 2009


The once-in-a-lifetime experience of planning, implementing, and then recovering from a wedding (along with miscellaneous computer problems) has managed to curtail most of my film viewing and writing over the summer (yes, honeymoon was totally worth it). But that all changes with this newest post over at the Tisch Film Review. This Hark/Lam/To pseudo-omnibus cum large-scale-exquisite corpse leaves much to be desired as a proper narrative (its structuring gimmick is more compelling than anything that the characters actually engage in on screen), but it does offer a unique movie going experience - three distinct visual styles buttressed up against each other, allowing very specific ruminations on some fascinating aesthetic variations. It doesn't hurt that the film goes out on a high point, courtesy of one of our greatest living filmmakers. Scoot on over and check it out, and as always please feel free to argue.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


"If there's one thing I think I'm sure of, it's the fact that I must marry... I'm pretty sure about this, I think. Yes, it is time I settled down, grew up. There's no choice really: not settling down and not growing up are killing me. I've got to quit it, being young, before it's too late. I must marry... and settle down and raise a family. I must be safe. Christ, safe sounds frightening. Settling down - that seems a bit adventurous, a bit precipitate, to me. Having kids! That's what takes real balls. To become a husband and a father: no you can't get much butcher than that. Yet nearly everyone shapes up to it in the end. I bet you have or will soon. I want it too, I think, in a way.
Of course, something is missing. Ah, you noticed. You are not blind. But it is missing in me, in her, it is missing, it will never be there. We are very well suited. We get along like nobody's business. I must marry. If I don't, I'll just die..."

Martin Amis, "Money"

Thursday, July 2, 2009

24 City

I've got a new post up over at the Tisch Film Review, this time on Jia Zhang-ke's "24 City". It's the second time I'm written on this particular film (my original essay can be linked to through the new post), and it has become increasingly clear (especially after a second viewing) that his films in particular simply speak to me. Anyone who's familiar with my writing knows that the seemingly tenuous line between fact, documentary (never to be confused with fact) and fiction are my favorite breeding ground for critical thought - the dialectical relationship between these modes seems to me the only genuine way to respond to our increasingly complex modern world, with all of its twists and turns being constantly extrapolated through the lens of our most popular artistic medium. The seismic flow of capitalism, which is seemingly in direct conflict with the natural flow of people, has repercussions for us all, and sticking our heads in the sand isn't going to solve anything.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Limits of Control

For some reason or another, The Tisch Film Review has allowed me to join their roster, so for the foreseeable future most of my writing will be popping up over there. First up is a piece on Jarmusch's most recent film, The Limits of Control. Despite popular opinion, I was quite taken with it - maybe the 3 or 4 of you who read this little blog of mine can swing on over and argue with me in the comments section.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Essential Reading:

There's a great interview over at The Auteurs' Notebook with one of my favorite filmmakers, Mr. Olivier Assayas. His most recent film, Summer Hours, is in theatres now, and is an absolute must see. I've also just seen his third feature, Cold Water, generally considered to be his first mature work, and it is a full blown masterpiece. I'm very seriously considering re-watching Boarding Gate - to my mind the least of his features that I've seen. But, as he mentions in the interview, it is very much a film that exists in conversation with his newest. Anyway, lots of food for thought from one of our greatest contemporary directors.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Another Year, Another Cannes

"...ten feet from my kerbside table the limousines moved on towards the Palais des Festivals between the lines of police and security men. Helicopters circled the Palm Beach headland, waiting to land at the heliport, like paramilitary gunships about to strafe the beachside crowds. Their white-suited passengers, faces masked by huge shades, stared down with the gaze of gangster generals in a Central American republic surveying a popular uprising. An armada of yachts and motor cruisers strained at their anchors two hundred yards from the beach, so heavily freighted with bodyguards and television equipment that they seemed to raise the sea..."
"...the film festival measured a mile in length, from the Martinez to the Vieux Port, where sales executives tucked into their platters of fruits de mer, but was only fifty yards deep. For a fortnight the Croisette and its grand hotels willingly became a facade, the largest stage set in the world. Without realizing it, the crowds under the palm trees were extras recruited to play their traditional roles. As they cheered and hooted, they were far more confident than the film actors on display, who seemed ill at ease when they stepped from their limos, like celebrity criminal ferried to a mass trial by jury at the Palais, a full-scale cultural Nuremberg furnished with film clips of the atrocities they had helped to commit."

J.G. Ballard - "Super-Cannes"

Thursday, April 16, 2009


“He is not a man for small talk but he is a remarkably acute observer so one always feels a little bit on guard. He can be extremely funny but it is a mordant wit that keeps one constantly on guard… I always felt that he had the very highest comprehension of beauty and that he had made a lot of sacrifices to preserve the purity of his vision. And there was also a sense, which went with this, of a monastic anger. But above all there was a tremendous integrity: a total commitment to his art.”
Mary Lea Bandy, Curator of Film and Media at MoMA, on Godard

Is there any filmmaker who continues to capture the imagination of the cinephile in quite the same way as Godard? A figure who’s importance, longevity, intimidating body of work and breadth of knowledge continues to intrigue, anger, and above all, stimulate? A figure who has engendered continuous debate, reams of articles, appreciations both scholarly and colloquial, books upon books of sifting, collating, numbering, schematizing – a constant trying-to-make-sense-of? A figure who encapsulates several centuries worth of literature, history, philosophy, and at least one century worth of our preferred art form – the film. Who else has bent the medium to their own will - a mysterious, enigmatic will at that - in much the same way? Perhaps the elusive filmography of Welles comes closest, although even that entails more detective work and conjecture that an actual investigation of available evidence. By which I mean to say, is there any filmmaker who’s work we’ve yet to grasp in all its complexity even though, hypothetically, it is available? After all, we’re not talking about the elusive, presumed non-existent versions of Greed or Ambersons.
This month brings a bevy of Godard ephemera and controversy – I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way. Up first is the “JLG in USA” dvd that is included in the most recent issue of The Believer (one of those token annual issues where clever writers who don’t know much about film purport to teach us something about it – all while being, you know, personal and entertaining. It is one of the many branches of the McSweeney’s publishing tree). The disk includes a 40 min documentary by Mark Woodcock entitled “Two American Audiences”, a 50 min collage film called “Godard in America” (basically a pastiche of Godard’s style, with interview footage and scenes from La Chinoise chopped together), and an 8 min trip down nostalgia road called “A Weekend at the Beach With Jean-Luc Godard (notable mainly for glimpses of Jean Pierre Gorin’s killer back tattoo, a shirtless Godard sporting his trademark shades and funny straw hat and an awkward Wim Wenders arriving on the sand in long sleeved shirt, baggy slacks and suspenders, as well as director/narrator Ira Shneider admitting that he had seen some of Godard’s films and found them insufferable, therefore treating his video portrait with a certain level of sarcasm). The real find is two thirty minute episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, featuring Godard in conversation with the obviously perplexed and increasingly uncomfortable Mr. Cavett (Cavett’s brief introductory remarks are interesting only inasmuch as witnessing a complete square stumbling over some of the more notable achievements of the New Wave – witness his inarticulate mumblings on the “jump cut”, or his inquiry as to why the French like Jerry Lewis).
Cavett and Godard are speaking on the occasion of the New York release of Everyman for Himself, usually regarded as Godard’s return to commercial filmmaking after the lost Dziga Vertov period (anyone who has seen the film knows that it is, as usual, resolutely un-commercial). Cavett asks about the nature of his comeback, or if one can indeed call it a come back. Godard: “in a sense, because I never went away – maybe I was pushed away. To me, I’d rather say, what is the reverse of comeback? Come forth?”
Other bon mots – “It is hard work, like any kind of work today (on prostitution).”
“I think woman are more natural today than men – I think they have better ideas”
“The problem with the man (Jacques Dustronc in Everyman For Himself) is he has no speed – one of the women is going too fast, the other one too slow, and the man is just not moving. And then maybe this is the despair.” When Cavett asks about distance, presumably referencing the Brechtian influence that most critics speak of in relation to Godard, he replies “I think much less (distance) now, I’m coming much closer, less distance. To look at things, you have to go very far for the possibility of taking a look of it. If you go too close, it is like advertisement – you are so close to the products, you don’t see anymore, you just have to name it …maybe I was too close in the beginning, then I went too far, and now it is more, there is more justice.”
“To me there is no real difference between image and sound, they are just tools… you have to listen to the image and look at the sound.”
“In movies, you ask to movie a certain amount of things, that you never ask to poetry, painting, music. I wonder why?” Cavett answers, visibly confused – “I don’t know.”
“The audience has more responsibility in the making of the movie, much more responsibility than the making of tv.”
Cavett: “You use slow motion in a way I find, unusual.” Godard: “I’m glad. On the use of this unusual slow motion: to slow it down, just to have the time to look, to have a look. To take your time to look at what you are doing. Then you discover, this movement, whether it can be a jab or whether a caress. And then, well probably I was not capable enough of doing it completely. The shot is too long, maybe should be a change of angles or timing. But I kept it that way…. whether too sentimental or too violent, and it had to be both.”
Godard on Jerry Lewis: “It’s a good sign, when good people go, have to go into exile from their country, it means there is something good in them.”

I’m not going to transcribe the entire hour long interview – that would be tedious for us both, and besides, you should just track down the magazine for yourself. There are some great bits that I’ve left out where Godard praises Scorcese, denigrates Hall Ashby and Woody Allen on his use of black and white in Manhattan, and praises Charles Bukowski (!) for his help in subtitling his most recent feature. Godard also mentions his desire for Norman Mailer to “present” his films, rather than subjecting them to the subtitling process (as we know, Norman Mailer would be at the center of Godard’s King Lear project just a few years later)

My interest in this material is largely to illustrate Godard’s constant traversing of binaries – identified most simply, and earnestly, with his deceptively simplistic maxim: all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun - the first set of twos. He is obsessed with Hollywood, yet rails against it. Image/Sound, Words/Symbols, Film/Video (Numero Deux or, the history of film as a video, as in the Histoire(s) du Cinema), filmmaking/prostitution (Passion), suburbia/prostitution (2 or 3 Things I know About Her), filmmaking/political activism, past/present (as in In Praise of Love, where, ironically, the past is presented as video), filmmaking/television (as in France/Tour/Detour/Deux Enfants, The Dziga Vertov Group films), left hand/right hand (perhaps a nod to Truffaut’s dictum on Welles- “he made films with his right hand and films with his left hand. In the right handed films there is always snow, and in the left-handed ones there are always gunshots”; see also: Godard’s lecture on shot/reverse shot in Notre Musique, as he passes pictures of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from his left hand to right hand and back again, which leads us to…), male/female (the mother/whore schema representing a duality within a binary opposition), and, inevitably, love/sex. (“the director is incapable of seeing the difference between a man and a woman”: Godard is probably describing Hawks, but is perhaps stating something that he himself strives for.) In a very real sense, Godard is a failed dialectician – he investigates dualities but cannot reconcile them (his own autobiographical film is called JLG/JLG, a repetition that is, in this context, highly suggestive). These dualities may be superimposed, a visual/philosophical technique that Godard has grown increasingly fond of, with the superimposition becoming a (advanced?) form of montage, and perhaps an attempt at forcefully obliterating these oppositions. After all, if we could, as in the above example, forget the differences between men and women, then there is hope in forgetting the differences between, say, Israel and Palestine or Modern/Developing/Third World countries. Is Godard the ultimate utopian pipe dreamer? Or a cynical, depressed old man who has grown weary of this world? Another duality, I’m afraid.

For further reading, check out Bill Krohn’s passionate defense of Godard in the most recent issue of Cinemascope. I haven’t read Richard Brody’s new book “Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard”, although I had planned to pick it up as soon as I could find a used copy and save a few bucks. But now I’m not sure – to read Krohn, Brody’s book is a hatchet job, painting the director as an anti-Semite based on mis-readings of his films and dubious research, what Krohn dubs “ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism”. Any biography attempting to grapple with such a legacy is bound to raise someone’s ire – I recall the mixed reviews and fierce arguments that sprung up around Colin MacCabe’s “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy” upon its release several years ago (a book, I hasten to add, that I found pretty informative, if at times dense with needlessly academic jargon). The collection “Forever Godard” sidesteps most of the issues that plague traditional biographies by virtue of being a more selective grouping of critical essays – as a result, one learns less about the man, but more about the work. It’s all food for thought, and in fairness to Brody, Jonathan Rosenbaum gave the book a favorable review a few months back in the Village Voice, although it was, as I recall, not ecstatic in any way. Unfortunately, I can no longer find it online for verification. In any case, I’ll be heading to the library for a free peek before adding Brody’s book to my Godard shelf.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Carax's "Merde"

Emerging from the sewers of Tokyo to the strains of Akira Ifukube’s “Godzilla” score, Merde is dirty, unkempt, with long, claw-like finger nails, a bizarre hooked beard and a dead, milky white eye – Denis Lavant strikes an impossible figure, his body capable of contortions and configurations seemingly not possible with regards to normal human physiology. His increasingly violent escapades range from stealing cigarettes and flowers to licking arm pits to, eventually (almost inevitably), fire bombing the Japanese populous with WWII era grenades. A cultural terrorist? The return of the historical memory or the repressed “other”? Lavant returns to his sewer abode, limping past a burned out tank and a strategically placed Japanese rising sun, only to reemerge as a force of pure anarchic chaos. The forces of law and order never far behind, Lavant is eventually captured by Tokyo authorities and put on trial. Coming to his defense is superstar French attorney Jean-François Balmer, who (mysteriously) shares Lavant’s crooked beard, pupil-less eye and mysterious language (a language based on grunts and violent gesticulations, which leads to a hilarious, minutes long, subtitle free conversation between the two – it is Marx’s Bros inspired lunacy). Director Leos Carax then embarks on a series of familiar pop culture tropes – religious cults spring up in honor of Lavant’s “Merde”, his image is plastered on posters and tee shirts in a striking, black and white print that resembles a generation of Che merchandise, action figures, etc. But Lavant remains incorrigible – unrepentant, he’s given the death penalty and hung, only to then be resurrected. The film ends with a joking text, a taunt of future installments – coming soon, “Merde in USA” (Godard would approve).

Merde as punk rock Jesus Christ? Perhaps it is Carax himself, returning from a decade in the wilderness to provoke once again. The victim of a series of follies – some of which might have been his own doing – Carax seemed to disappear after the hugely expensive, and commercially unsuccessful, Lovers on the Bridge, which led to a lengthy gap in production, before returning with Pola X, another commercial and critical flop (that Pola X might remain his masterpiece, a highly personal, dense experience full of weird symbols, codes, and genre mutations, all in the service of a main character literally dying for his art work, led some people to question Carax’s sincerity, if not his sanity. It remains their loss). A decade long separation for Lavant and Carax; it is difficult for me to separate the two, Lavant long Carax’s preferred on screen surrogate, and one who has gone from boy-like innocence in the throes of first love (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood) to a an old man (Denis’ Beau Travail), his body chiseled out of granite, his face creased with lines that seem the result not of aging but of a particularly brutal knife fight. Lavant’s initial rampage as Merde – a long, graceful backwards tracking shot down a Tokyo sidewalk, Lavant seemingly finding his feet for the first time; stumbling, but a graceful stumble – the movement, of the human body and of the camera, harkens back to Bad Blood - a jubilant, younger Lavant, in a moment of ecstasy, cart wheeling, skipping, jumping, running down a Parisian sidewalk, Carax’s camera barely able to keep up to this fierce explosion of pure energy, this little ball of fury that has a name. Carax himself seems drunk with the possibilities of the camera, indulging in long tracking shots, split screens, extreme close ups and more meditative wide shots – it is almost as if he is reacquainting himself with an old lover, this camera that he hasn’t seen, or touched or caressed in far too long. I look forward to Merde in USA – lets just hope it doesn’t take another decade before it happens.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Some News:

I don't plan on turning this little site into a clearing house for news, but several things have happened in the last week that seem worthy of discussion:

-after the news several weeks ago of New Yorker Films untimely demise, the first question on everyone's mind was what happens to their film holdings? With the advent of home video, people might forget that some companies still posses, and occasionally distribute, actual 35mm film. In point of fact, New Yorker Films itself was bought out some time ago by a larger company riddled with debt, which in turn used New Yorker's rich film holdings as collateral on loans. When the collectors called in their marker and no one had any money, said library became up for grabs. A recent post at Dave Kehr's site has details on the upcoming auction, in which films can apparently be bought individually or en mass. We'll see who steps up to the plate (or if any one actually has the funds to do so). In the meantime, I would assume that the company's dvds are, for all practical purposes, out of print, so snatch them up if you see them. Yes, they aren't exactly at Criterion levels of digital excellence, but sometimes the films themselves are simply worthwhile enough.

-more disturbing news for us beleaguered cinephiles - Kent Jones has resigned his position as associate director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I wasn't aware of any behind the scenes tumult until this news dropped almost literally out of the blue (Jones himself was recently posting on Dave Kher's site about an upcoming Robert Mulligan series that he seemed particularly proud of). According to Glenn Kenny, who has spoken with Film Comment (the magazine of the FSLC) editor Gavin Smith, the resignation will not alter Jone's status as the magazine's key contributor (sorry Amy and Olaf, but it's true). Here's the original Indiewire story, as well as the comments page on Kehr's site and Some Came Running. David Hudson's site also collates some related links, so go there as well.

-two articles over at The Moving Image Source: first up, critic Michael Atkinson eulogizes vhs. I assume that anyone roughly my own age got most of their film education through these little hard plastic rectangles, and I must admit I'm sad to see them go (I've still got a few hundred of them stacked up on shelves in my office). Anthony Kaufman's piece reports on the more pressing concern of films that get lost in the shuffle from one format to another. As I brought up in my last post on New Yorker Films, there is a persistent myth, brought about by ignorance coupled with studio logic, that anything and everything is available to the home viewer. Kaufman quotes Dave Kehr, that of the over 150,000 titles listed on TCM's list of American films, less than 4 percent are available in any format for home viewing. Dire straits indeed.

-a recent piece from Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent has, for lack of a more congenial term, really fucking pissed me off (it's my blog, and I'll curse if I want to). Macnab proffers the thesis that the French New Wave, on the eve of an academic conference celebrating its 50th anniversary, has lead, irreducibly, to decades of inferior films, filmmakers and insurmountable expectations. That is, new generations of European filmmakers are subjected to the standards of the New Wave and "found wanting", to which Macnab suggests a casting off of those standards - his deduction? That the young turks are now venerated old masters, therefore their railing against a "cinema of quality" has lost its validity. Really, go a head and read the article. It's here.

Back? Good. Pissed off? Me too.

I'm particularly fond of the following: "meanwhile, new French directors are burdened with a sense of expectation that they simply can't meet. Whether Leos Carax, Mathieu Kassovitz or the bearish old Jean-Claude Brisseau, these film makers are not simply judged on what they've done but their work is assessed (and ultimately found wanting) through the prism of the past." Poor old Kassovitz, who followed up his international breakthrough La Haine with a tepid Hollywood style thriller called The Crimson Rivers before jumping ship to America, where he has made two masterpieces in a row - the Halle Berry vehicle Gothika and the Vin Desiel mega-hit Babylon A.D. But perhaps these films failed not on their own (virtually non-existent) merits, but because they just simply can't live up to the expectations of the New Wave. Brisseau and Carax, on the other hand, seem to be making whatever it is they want, and on their own terms. Carax's bad boy reputation, obscure working methods and huge budgets have done as much to curtail his career as anything else, and unlike some of the venerated New Wave masters that he is indebted to, Carax's entire filmography is readily available on home video (we certainly can't say the same thing about much of Godard, almost all of early Chabrol and Rivette himself, the most underrepresented of the whole group). Brisseau, meanwhile, is producing film after film of pretentious art house soft core porn (although Secret Things and The Exterminating Angels, his last two features, are good for some titillation and inadvertent laughs).

Macnab sums up with a hell of an ending - "when all the academics assemble in London in March and April to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Nouvelle Vague, you just hope that they will spare a moment to reflect on the movements checkered legacy. Over the last half century, there have been many drab films made in the name of the New Wave... that everybody today still looks back to Godard and Truffaut suggests how bereft of ideas European filmmakers have been since the days of Breathless." You can almost sense the sneer on Macnab's face when he hisses the word "academic" - good to know that America isn't alone in its rabid anti-intellectualism. As for being "bereft of ideas", a heck of a large generalization, it seems to me that Techine, Assayas, Denis, Desplechin, Chereau, Nolot, Cantet, Noe and Breillat are doing just fine for themselves. Perhaps Macnab has simply never gotten over Truffaut's famous disparaging remarks about the British film industry, something along the lines of a certain incompatibility between the terms "cinema" and "British". To which we might now add, a certain incompatibility between the terms "intelligent criticism" and "British".

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The word began to spread last week, and was made official on Monday, that venerable distributor New Yorker Films was going under. It's hard to imagine the impact the company made in just its first few years, way back in 1965, well before the advent of home video and, later, dvd, when film was still watched in theaters and projected off of, um, film. They released a number of now established classics - films by Akerman, Herzog, Bresson, Lanzman, etc. Just a quick glimpse at my own video shelf reveals about two dozen of their cassettes, and about a dozen of their dvds (including films by Denis, the Dardennes, Resnais, Godard, Sang-soo, Zhangke and Kiarostami) . Indeed, the transition from video to digital perhaps revealed the first signs of an impending decline, if not out and out collapse - a number of their holdings never made the jump from one format to the other, either through lack of care, concern or rights retention. As point of reference, their video releases of Bresson's The Devil Probably and A Gentle Woman have not only not been released on dvd by them, they have in fact not been issued on dvd by anyone at all in this country.
Another sign of the times? Not quite - even before our current financial woes, distributors were going under left and right (Think Film, Palm Pictures, Wellspring, etc). More a sign, then, of the shifting tides of the state of film itself. As fewer and fewer companies release fewer and fewer films, even one financial disappointment can spell certain doom. Add into the mix higher budgets and increased advertising dollars for those few films, in addition to shrinking exhibition opportunities, and you've got a near suicidal business plan. So what's the concerned cinephile to do? Your guess is as good as mine. Smaller companies like the recently founded Benten Films are trying to carve out a little corner of the market on their own modest terms, more a labor of love than anything else, while Koch Lorber and IFC continue to release worthwhile films, although I fear to increasingly diminishing returns. While Washington fumbles about with its bailout plans and the bankers wait with baited breath, I'll be mourning (in private, with a minimum of fuss - a state that us increasingly marginalized film lovers are becoming more and more familiar with).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Oshima @ The Film Center

“The problematic nature of Oshima’s work arises from the question: what is the relationship between this me and the struggle out there?”
Noel Burch, “To the Distant Observer”

“Film critics, film festivals, film magazines - they are all too obsessed with the latest thing, the cutting edge, the most incredible new discovery. Retrospectives are disappearing from film festivals and slipping into the walled-up tombs of museums, archives, libraries and cinémathèques. You can't read about an old movie - not even one by Rossellini or Borzage - in an issue of Film Comment or Cinema Scope these days unless it either a. is touring in a roadshow, b. is the object of a fabulous print restoration, or c. has just been released in an expensive dvd box set. Meanwhile, the fashions flush in and out: Wong Kar-wai, Sokurov and Kiarostami are yesterday's news, as we greedily leap upon Gomes and a couple of Filipinos.
Adrian Martin, “Rank and file: The (re)discovery of William Klein”

I can’t bring myself to totally disagree with Adrian Martin and his above rant on criticism and the desire to turn learning into a marketable “event” – such is the nature of capitalism and commodities. I said something similar myself in the introduction to my end-of-year best list (a tradition that, in itself, seems to typify this desire to stay on “the cutting edge”). But I’m surprised by his tone – for one, my past experiences with Martin’s writings reveal an engaged, funny and above all optimistic critic, and second: that this kind of tirade does a certain dis-service to the magazines he singles out for derision. They happen to be two of my favorites, and, while both are guilty of the occasional hype mongering, both magazines, as institutions, have always struck me as the kind of film coverage we so desperately need more of. Furthermore, Martin’s dismissal of Film Comment doesn’t take into account their regular columns by Guy Maddin or Alex Cox, always dedicated to obscure past oddities that have been largely forgotten by the culture at large, or Cinemascope editor Mark Peranson’s peculiar blend of enthusiasm and anti-establishment curmudgeon (and since I'm unfamiliar with "Gomes" or these "couple of Filipinos", I'm looking foward to yet another avenue of untapped possibilities).
If the situation at “museums, archives, libraries and cinematheques” is really as dire as Martin would have us believe, thank god we Chicagoans have The Film Center. Their current retrospective of Nagisa Oshima is probably the first major event of the new year (woops, there I go) and indicative of the Center’s dedication to the oeuvres of key directors - about this same time last year saw a near complete retro of Imamura films, and their late-spring de Oliveira series was, while far from exhaustive, an indispensable primer for one of the major underappreciated figures in world cinema. Not coincidently, and perhaps further evidence for Martin’s discouragement, the de Oliveira series was accompanied by a lively essay in the pages of Film Comment by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Even more damning, the current Oshima series was preceded by a career assessing essay by, yes, Rosenbaum, in the pages of Art Forum. I happen to know that both directors are Rosenbaum favorites - he’s been writing about them in some capacity or another for years. It seems clear that it’s the magazines in question that needed some kind of up-to-the-minute, present tense reason for being interested in the careers of these particular directors. Regardless, anything that can drum up interest in films that aren’t The Dark Knight or more mindless Oscar predictions is all right in my book.

I’ve only seen three of Oshima’s features, and virtually no one can claim to have seen all of his work, which includes numerous documentaries and assorted television works (none of which, to my knowledge, are part of this series). I offer here some thoughts on two films encountered during the second week of the Film Center’s two month program, and hope to be able to catch at least six more by the end of February. Most critics familiar with Oshima agree that he is something of a stylistic chameleon, even if his thematic concerns (a kind of antagonistic, anti-social pedagogue) remains relatively consistent. Seeing Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976) back to back on a Saturday afternoon goes some ways towards validating this generalization. To my mind, both films present a soured, misanthropic view of society, which the two lovers of Senses struggle against - although in Flesh it extends to every character in the narrative. I’m not familiar enough with Oshima’s body of work to claim any kind of special insight, but I’m interested in several specific choices he makes in each film, and how those choices inform each other. Flesh is shot in a beautiful 2:35 aspect ration, the widest of widescreens. He alternates between wide open spaces that obscure characters with intrusions into the foreground, or, conversely, cramping multiple characters into one section of the frame, leaving the rest in a kind of negative space limbo. Whether obscuring an action or face, or creating a claustrophobic clumping of characters into clean, crisp straight lines (the protagonist’s modern apartment), both kinds of compositions hide something from the viewer while simultaneously revealing a character’s state of mind or physical condition. The contours of the plot are too outrageously convoluted to be fully revealed here (although in the film, it is repeated several times, almost as if Oshima is making sure late-comers will be up to speed), but it involves a teacher and his unrequited love for a pupil – he kills her rapist, who is trying to blackmail her family and ruin her good name. Once the deed is done, the pupil marries another man, sending our teacher into a serious funk. Meanwhile, he is blackmailed into concealing embezzled government money, which he must return once his blackmailer is released from jail. Our teacher decides instead to spend all of the money in one year and then kill himself before the embezzler/blackmailer gets out of jail. Anyone familiar with Vertigo will guess what happens next – he hooks up with women that resemble his lost love, showering them with money, gifts and fancy apartments. And that’s just the first thirty minutes or so.
In the Realm of the Senses is an entirely different beast, at least formally speaking. Shot in the relatively more cramped ration of 1:85, Oshima discards the horizontal emphasis of scope, along with the accompanying negative space – instead, we get something of a tableau style, with multiple figures “stacked” in space, their various movement choreographed to retain legibility within various levels of focus. Sidestepping the ever present “what is pornography?” issue, it seems likely that In the Realm of the Senses has become Oshima’s best known feature almost entirely due the controversy surrounding its explicit, hyper sexual content (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is probably the second best known, presumably because of the presence of David Bowie).
Senses can barely conceal its disgust at society – the two lovers abscond to a small room where hey indulge their every sexual whim, only occasionally venturing outside to earn money or buy food – eventually, their outdoor excursions simply turn into extensions of their love making. Other characters comment on their shocking behavior – clearly, Oshima is interested in a didactic kind of anti-moralizing. If the intense, non-stop sex in the film starts off as liberating, it eventually disintegrates into a kind of crazed dementia – each partner demands more and more of the other, and they threaten to consume each other. That the man concedes to his own demise, in fact making himself complicit in his own murder, is presented by Oshima as the only logical conclusion for two people who can no longer exist in this world. He leaves it open as to whether this world is worth existing in or not.
To reiterate, I’m no Oshima expert, and on the basis of these two films (I’ve also seen Taboo, but some years ago), I’m not even sure if he is the “master” that Rosenbaum, Burch and James Quandt might have us believe he is. There seems to me limitations to such an acerbic world view, not the least of which is a kind of anti-social belief that we are beyond hope – if the world is a horrible place, and always will be, then what’s the point? Senses apocalyptic ending is almost romantic, in a sick kind of way, but Pleasures of the Flesh is particularly unsatisfying in its final moments. Like a kind of twisted variation on a Twilight Zone episode, fate conspires against our teacher in an avalanche of ironic futility – he finds out that his blackmailer has died in prison, meaning he would never have to give the money back. Unfortunately, he’s spent it all already, just before his long lost love come crawling to him, desperate for a loan, ready and willing to subjugate herself to him. He’s then implicated in a murder that he didn’t commit, fingered by his old student and woman of his dreams, only to inadvertently confess to the murder he actually committed. Used up and empty, our protagonist has played his part in Oshima’s cosmic dance of futility. It is an interesting question, and one that critic Robin Wood discusses with some frequency – does violence erupt logically from the perceived break down of society, or do the two in fact inform and perpetuate each other? Or, to put it another way, do we in fact have the right to be violently angry? I look forward to delving deeper into Oshima, without any pre-conceived notion that these mysteries will be resolved/reconciled.
Coming up next, Cruel Story of Youth (1959) and Night and Fog in Japan (1960).Cruel Story follows a group of disaffected young people in a bombed out, post-WWII landscape, and critic Dave Kehr describes Night and Fog as a stylistic precursor to Godard’s Maoist period – color me excited.