Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Face It

When I lived in Philly, I had a memorable conversation with a clerk at Beaux Arts Video about the Up documentaries (56 Up arrives at the MFA in Houston in two short months). The fellow- he and I were both somewhere in our twenties- had so far avoided seeing any of the series, in which a group of people have aged in real time in films that have been faithfully released every 7 years since the 1960s.

I thought this an injustice. I tried my best to convey to the clerk what a transformative experience these films can be- each is a masterpiece of editing that reaches back across time and jigsaws a story out of moments chosen carefully from every stage of the subjects' lives, unearthing truths about, among many other things, how we change, what shapes us in our journeys, and how we remain the same people we always were.

Yet the clerk was resolute. He explained that he was living his life as a young person and had no interest in coming to terms with whatever he might find in such a project. In fact, he admitted that he was afraid of the possibilities in such a film, how it might shake him, like getting bad news on a visit to the doctor.

I thought back to my own first encounter with the films- in college, I had watched them in a carrel at the library- and I realized I understood his point of view. In particular, the 28 Up and 35 Up films had profoundly shaken me, because these were the ages at which many of the subjects realized that doors seemed to closing, that life decisions needed to be made with finality, that the spinning cloud of possibilities and opportunities they'd been mesmerized by- or terrified by- through their young adulthood was starting to fade into a memory. They were saddled with mortgages, stepping into roles as mothers and fathers, and starting to consider the needs of their aging parents, and it was all happening, to my viewing eyes, much too rapidly. 

Now that I am actually 35 and find myself living out all of these eventualities- albeit with an amazing wife by my side- I consider none of it to be the slightest bit depressing. And perhaps I won't ever truly comprehend my own mortality, but the fact that I can watch the Up films now without getting nearly as frightened as I first was- not to mention watch films like Biutiful and Amour, and read this (spectacular) article by Tim Kreider in the New York Times without getting terribly upset- must represent progress.

So now, I actually want to find more films to give me the kind of jolt that the Up films once did, because I'm starting to understand that of all the wonderful things cinema can do, the most impressive thing of all is how profoundly it can bring us in touch with life's coldest realities and actually help us face and accept them. I don't think I'd be going too far to say that Biutiful by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Amour by Michael Haneke, two tragic films Jamie and I have seen recently, each in their own way improved me as a person.

The world of Iñárritu's Biutiful might seem too tragic and a bit too romantic to be considered a confrontation of reality, but it has a powerful message and it succeeded in selling it to me: there is nothing in life that is wonderful that is not inextricably connected to difficulty, pain, sorrow, and/or destruction, and conversely, there is no misery that doesn't tow something beautiful in its wake. For example, Uxbal, the protagonist, has only one great romantic love in his life that we ever learn about, and they sway heartbreakingly from enemies to lovers and back; we see what they could be as a couple, but then we see the poison that will never let that happen.

For me, this film was the experience of drifting toward this realization about beauty, about simultaneously with the protagonist, Uxbal, who also drifts toward it, and reaches his greatest moment of understanding and acceptance in a strip club. And that is a mind-bending and gutsy scene; it happens right on the heels of a tragedy, and the proportions of that tragedy, and the evening activities Uxbal chases his feelings with, both fairly test the limberness of the audience's imagination. Or, perhaps, they test our understanding of the film's premise itself: that we can experience no joy in life, and no beauty, until we accept that we're just going to have to be miserable at the same time that we're happy.

But it really is a beautiful film- in the film's signature shot, captured in a still on the movie poster, Iñárritu's camera follows Uxbal (Javier Bardem) as he shambles through Barcelona traffic on foot, onto a bridge, and- in an undoubtedly unplanned moment- reacts poignantly to a flock of birds that wheel over his head. There is a passion here, a force compelling the tellers to tell this story and make us understand.

The same could perhaps be said about Michael Haneke's Amour, currently an awards-season sensation that has somehow earned less than $1 million in the United States. Yet beauty is hard to come by in the world of Amour. Come to think of it, I don't think the audience ever takes a step outside for the entire film- we mostly just shuffle around the apartment of the old Parisian couple, helpless, doomed to witness the misery of the wife's slow decline and what it is doing to the husband. Now this is sad, and it's about as tough to face as anything I've ever seen in a film. But even the grim assignment of watching Amour has made me a more complete human; I have not truly experienced the events in the film, but I am closer to understanding them than I ever could have been otherwise. Nothing other than a movie really works this way.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Slow Viewing

When I lived in Brooklyn, my roommate and I watched The Maltese Falcon over the course of about five evenings, about 20 minutes at a time, mostly because he was so busy. Breaking it up into chapters allowed me to actually understand the story. We would have brief discussions about what we'd seen so far, the major events, a map of the characters, and what was motivating each person and what they'd probably try to do next. Although I'd already seen the film several times, this was the viewing when I mastered it.

Somehow, I forgot how much fun that was until recently. Jamie and I watched The Seven Samurai over three nights. I'd never had trouble with the plot, but I realized something else about parceling a movie: it makes the experience more like reading a book. One of the greatest aspects of the experience of a novel is when you put the book down and go about your day while the characters continue to live and operate in the background of your consciousness. The anticipation of returning keeps you suspended between the book's universe and your own. Television shows have a similar effect, but their indefinite nature can be a diluent; their stories march not to a denouement but to an ever-receding horizon, and instead of the intense anticipation of a great book's climax and the heartbreak of its last page, we are most often simply cajoled until our interest fizzles.

The experience of a movie in chapters, therefore, is a unique thing, with the same opportunities to think and discuss as what a tv show gives you, but with more of a novel's structure. I see now that I haven't done this with nearly enough movies. Some would work much better than others, I suspect. It worked to great effect with Seven Samurai.

P.S. Mifune forever!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Where Art Thou, Indie Rentals?

It's a scattered world these days for the hapless movie renter. Now that I'm in Houston, I realize I've been spoiled these last nine years since I left New York: all the cities I've lived in since then have had good-to-excellent video stores within a short walk from wherever I was living.

Providence had two possibilities: Esta's Too on Thayer Street (is it still holding out?) and the superior Acme Video near Wickenden.

Philadelphia had the motherlode: Beaux Arts Video on Spruce Street, where trundled-away plastic bins on the floor were crammed with dusty, disorganized boxes for movies nobody ever rented (I would often pick something at random out of these bins. "Okay, we're watching 'I Love You, Alice B. Toklas' *cough sneeze gag*); TLA, just like the ones in New York; and Video City on 20th. All great.

Cambridge has just one such video store, Hollywood Express (not to be confused with the "Hollywood Video" chain), but it is truly outstanding.  

But here? I'm still looking, but it's grim here in Houston, a wasteland. No sign of so much as a mildewy basement with a passable "employee's picks" rack.

Oh sure, there's Blockbuster, but that place has changed: 100 copies of some new release, and an odd handful of token "Classics," a rather patronizing way to refer to, I guess, "Good Movies."

What else is there out there? Redbox is like a slot machine. You could hit it big- I rented Terri out of one of those boxes, after all- but it is the most strangely curated little menu of movies you'll find anywhere, and I never have interest in 90% of them. 

You've got the Netflix streaming options, but those remind me of searching through tv guide in the 80's to see what was on HBO (Let's see… InnerspaceOverboardTransylvania 6-5000OverboardTransylvania 6-5000InnerspaceInnerspace…) The mailing service is great, actually, but it's a dance of scheduling, delayed gratification,  and the conflict of what I think I'm going to want to watch three days from now vs. what I'm actually going to want to watch three days from now.

There will be a day when it's easy to see anything you want at home, as soon as you want it, cheaply. And legally. I realize there's this "bit torrent" thing, but the one time I tried to figure out how that works, it just made me feel old, and a little pathetic.

What I'm getting at is, the independent brick-and-mortar video store- a species declared extinct not less than 4 years ago, with much pageantry, in the magnificent Be Kind Rewind- is sorely needed as a bridge to that future date of total instant access. In today's landscape, it is the one legitimate option for someone who takes movies seriously and wants a decent selection at their fingertips- not to mention the opportunity to chat with a clerk who probably has a graduate degree and who also takes movies seriously, very, very seriously, in fact.

So my search for a good place to rent in Houston is a real mission, a personal mission. Cactus Music, a local vinyl institution, once rented movies, but when I visited and asked their staff they said that ended some time ago. They also said that the independent places- all of them- have folded, as far as they knew. Although there was one place- what was it called? A murmur ran through the space behind the counter. Oh yes, it's called… Audio Video Plus. Of course! They're still around, right? Don't they still rent movies?

This is an ad I found for Audio Video Plus. As you watch it, imagine me getting really, really psyched.

Houston comes through after all! A wonderland of half-inch nostalgia!

But I called, and as of just a couple of months ago, they stopped renting videos.

Can you not feel my agony, people?!?


Monday, November 5, 2012

Our Texas Halloween

Thanks for a great Halloween, Houston. The pumpkins we carved at The Orange Show are long since collapsed. I can't let any more days go by without journaling out the rest of our cinema experiences during this, our favorite time of the year.

On Wednesday night we wrapped up our annual marathon diet of horror with a screening of A Bucket of Blood at 14 Pews, a microcinema/community center in a former chapel in the Heights with a beautifully kept interior (rich wood from floor to ceiling). The programming looks really interesting- Q&A sessions here are just as likely to be with neurosurgeons or beekeepers as with filmmakers. Sometimes I think you can keep searching in Houston and never stop finding great places like this.

We loved Bucket of Blood. Something about its design- slasher movie with a beat artist theme- suggests a Tales From the Crypt episode, but it transcends its B-Movie trappings with a startling sophistication. The actor Dick Miller, who plays the lead role here, has had over a hundred bit parts and relatively few roles with substantial screen time. He's one of these lifer character actors who we always yearn to see in bigger parts (I especially love him in Gremlins 2. "What do you mean you heard it too? Of course you heard it too!").

His performance in this film as busboy Walter Paisley (a name that has re-emerged throughout Miller's career) is a knockout. It's big and broad, but there's no room for subtlety if we're going to believe a story this ridiculous, and to my surprise I completely believed it. Miller's pleading, screwed-up face never lets us forget his total enslavement to his most basic emotional needs: he desires friends, validation, and external approval, not to mention female companionship, which he views as the ultimate provision of the former three. The film worms into our psyches by making Walter repellent while asking us the upsetting question of whether we aren't all really just like him- whether he's anything more than an unchecked human being. Artists routinely explain that great art is made to satisfy the soul of its creator, not to gain the approval of others, and professionals across the spectrum of human endeavor often make analogous claims; but we have to wonder at their sincerity when we confront Walter.

Other films we got to this year:
Kaidan- A rather dull samurai ghost story. We bailed on this after about forty minutes. Probably needed to get the original.

The Sentinel- A late seventies supernatural thriller, too hammy to sell the elaborate fantasy it spins. In spite of the effort and imagination, there were no chills here. It's kind of lovable anyway- the supporting cast is full of surprises (Jerry Orbach, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D'Angelo, Christopher Walken... maybe this guy on the right is an unbilled John Hurt?)

Army of Darkness- Something occurred to me, while watching this film for the first time in at least a decade, about the history of movie special effects- something that I'd forgotten and that this movie illustrates better than any other I can think of.

Army of Darkness came out in 1992, a year after Terminator 2- the first film to make heavy use of CGI- and a year before Jurassic Park, which was the single greatest catalyst for the CGI revolution. Major advances in the art of movie special effects had occurred before, of course, but each new technique and innovation had been an addition to the craft- a contribution to the box of tools and tricks, to the discipline that had kept growing richer from its first days, a field of old pros who could make anything happen through pure engineering. The way that special effects changed in the nineties, suddenly, was different: the computer replaced over half the toolbox, and it was the only time this has ever happened. Veteran technicians, people like Richard Edlund, with his resume full of blockbusters and awards, were suddenly living in a world in which many of their skills were obsolete.

When we watch Army of Darkness today, and we see the rear projection and the animated skeletons, and we see that it was made around the same time as Jurassic Park, we might assume that Sam Raimi was being consciously retro and willfully analog in his choices. We may forget that at the time, these were simply practicalities; that as late as 1992, there really wasn't any kind of special effect you could use that would be considered old fashioned. Low budget, maybe, but not retro. Stop motion animation, a technique that had seen numerous cosmetic improvements but hadn't fundamentally changed in decades, was still good currency in a Hollywood film.

So was this the last gasp of analog special effects? Not really- decent looking CGI was unaffordable for another ten years, so most 90s films had either awful CGI, or some combination of awful CGI and bad analog (see John Carpenter's Escape from L.A.).

The Eye-
American horror films never stray from their primary objective of scaring the audience; the horror itself is always at the center, and everything that happens is shackled to it. That's why I'm so surprised when I see a Hong Kong film like The Eye, in which some pretty effective horror is woven into a story that seems a lot more like a romance or a drama. The love story made the film seem not so menacing or bleak as horror films often are- yet the feeling of being pursued by ghosts certainly stayed with me later.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors-

Speaking of analog effects, it's hard to think of a better showcase than this film. It's already been written that it's full of imagination, amazing sets and brilliantly twisted dream sequences, and I agree- I would add that the chilling music, by Angelo Badalamenti, is first rate. Some of the plotting is a little lazy, but there's still a tremendous amount of love put in here, and there was never a moment when I wasn't invested. It's a tough call this year, but I think Dream Warriors takes the blue ribbon.

P.S. When we were in L.A. we made a point to visit the Elm Street house. The people who live there now probably hate tourists doing this, but our friend took Jamie's picture in front of it. It was a great picture, but later, it vanished from the memory card, and everyone swears they didn't delete it and had nothing to do with it.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Abramović- Like an Old Friend

It seems like a lifetime ago that Jamie and I took the bus through Greenpoint and on to PS1 in Queens, where a dozen or more old films of performance art, mostly by Marina Abramović and Ulay, echoed through the nearly empty halls. I couldn't stop talking about what we'd seen, especially this:

I can't think of a constructed situation that is simpler and more jolting. It exhilarates, while making me suppose that old suffering is being exorcized from the performers. It also suggests a deeply intimate relationship between them, which famously was the case, but I had no idea. (You should view it without the soundtrack, which shouldn't be there.)
Nearly a decade later, we trekked to MoMA for Abramović's big retrospective. The show was a success (an understatement) because its audience played such an important role in its realization; the live performances, all but one, had been done before, but never with hordes of Middle America streaming past. For me, the intensity came from the juxtaposition of the naked, frozen performers, vulnerable and seemingly yearning to make contact, and the anonymity of the crush of visitors. This was an event in itself, not just a look back at the work of an artist.

Of course, the new piece, "The Artist Is Present," performed by Abramović herself, involved the audience more directly. The description of the contact she sought to make with each visitor who sat across from her, and the place that experience held in the larger show, was probably the most valuable thing for me in the new documentary Maria Abramović: The Artist is Present. Jamie and I saw this film with out-of-town friends at the theater at the MFA, the Houston version of the Harvard Film Archives, where you can frequently hear a film scholar speak to introduce a film. (I especially liked a presentation I saw there once of Fellini's I Vitelloni that was preceded by a funny speaker whose explications clearly enhanced for us the humor in the film. Fellini can be hilarious, but it takes an informed viewer to translate his humor into English and understand it in its context. For proof of this, see Roma on video. If you're watching the older VHS release, you'll laugh twice as often as if you're watching the newer DVD, which is a different translation that completely misses some of the funniest lines.)

What were we talking about? The Abramović film: it is bittersweet, fascinating, and often distressing, but mostly because its subject is plainly all of those things. My main problem with the film is that it has actually two subjects: the artist and the show, and they are hardly synonymous, as becomes more apparent toward the end, when the show kind of spins out of control and becomes something bigger than Abramović herself. I don't question that getting to know the artist is essential to understanding the phenomenon of the show, but Marina's life and times are not presented as mere background material; she is the apparent subject of the film for most of its running time, and yet as the audience at the MoMA show make the piece their own through their participation, Marina herself recedes like a train, and the only intimacy with her we are afforded is through the sometimes moist eyes of the lucky museum patrons who got to sit across from her in the floodlit square, destined to become an icon in performance art and perhaps in the general history of museums. (My wife finished an art history survey course by showing her students images of the performance, and how the participating audience was affected- the perfect image of art being created in the moment it is beheld, by both artist and beholder.)

The film is an invaluable document, and it does a little bit more than simply bear witness; in particular, I value that it brings the show and all of its emotions back to vivid life, so that we can remember, or see for the first time, just what made people respond to it as they did. But as a whole feature, it might have had the kind of cohesive story that made other recent films about artists such knockout punches.

By the way, if you're going to the MFA and you haven't seen City Glow, Chiho Aoshima's short animation that stretches across several plasma screens, it's mounted permanently outside the cafe. I recommend having a seat and watching the entire film. This kind of experimentation with the experience of cinema is sadly a rare thing in these times.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Horror: It Begins!

The essential Halloween plans are coming together. After this weekend it's going to be time for decorating, carving pumpkins and baking treats. We may be displaced in Texas, and the signs of fall may be sorely lacking around here, but there's no getting around Halloween. It's the most fun thing that happens all year, even here in Houston. This is where all my kid memories of Halloween come from, and if the fact that over 4,000 tickets have now been sold for the zombie walk through downtown is any indication- not to mention that there actually seems to be more than one major zombie walk here- these people know how to get into the spirit of it. 

Notice that there's already someone camped out in line,
two hours before a midnight movie. Does every screening
in L.A. sell out?
We are easing into our horror film series this year. It officially began with friends in Los Angeles, at the Silent Movie Theater, where they're having their own October festival of horror: each night of the month they show a different film, all of which were banned in the U.K. (mostly in the seventies and eighties). The curators have sequenced the films in order of increasingly poor taste; the final selections include I Spit On Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust. Most of the films in the series are the kind of camp that cluttered the horror shelves at the video store 25 years ago; I particularly remember the box for Visiting Hours, with the image of a hospital building at night, in which the lights in the windows make the image of a skull.

The film we ended up seeing was Dario Argento's Inferno. It was as incoherent as any horror film I've ever seen, and I'm not the world's greatest Argento fan, but for a midnight movie packed with merry strangers it was just about perfect. I'm not sure I would have appreciated it outside of that setting (apart from a particularly outrageous scene involving a sack full of cats).  

More recently at home, I enjoyed The Innkeepers, although not as much as Ti West's previous feature, The House Of the Devil. In HOD, West drove the audience halfway to madness with the fear that comes with anticipation (what is fear but the work of the imagination, and what spurs it like a payoff that could happen at any time?). In The Innkeepers, he has intentions that are slightly different but no less interesting: he wishes here to slowly establish a stage and its characters, and even a feeling of safety and a kind of sweetness, before revealing the menace we know is coming. It reminded me of The Haunting and the original Stepford Wives, which work about the same way, and often make me wonder why more films don't try to do this.

The payoff here, however, feels perfunctory. After all the groundwork, I wish there might have been some ending that wasn't so anonymous with respect to who these characters are. Or perhaps it's simply the case that West, wishfully, left too much up to our imaginations. The ending could have been the perfect time to reveal something, not to complete the puzzle but to give us just enough to think about later, just something to rattle in our heads at bedtime.

This year's winner is out there somewhere, I have no doubt! Onward!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives At Home and A.O. Scott

Watching Cyrus, by Jay and Mark Duplass, it bothered me that its concept kind of strangled it and held it back, although I didn't have a clear idea of what it should have been, had that potential been realized. I wanted the pedestrian chaos and loose energy of the first act to keep unspooling, but where that might have led that could be satisfying I had no idea.

Their more recent film, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, answers that question: not only does it recapture that energy, it has a brilliant idea of exactly what to do with it. I really love it- it takes big risks, especially when it asks us to care about its somewhat cartoonish leads, and especially at the end, which somehow managed to sincerely move me.

I say "somehow" because I am not A.O. Scott, who seems to know just how this film works. It frustrates me to no end when I fail to deconstruct my own feelings about a film, then I read an A.O. Scott review, and it turns out that he's practically doing it for me. He often gets to the truth first and best. I can even see his face there on the page, chuckling evilly at me behind bookish glasses.

Of course I'm not lockstep with his opinion. But this amazing review is chilling in how sharply it cuts to my true feelings about this film that I couldn't articulate for myself.

Come to think of it, I enjoy what he writes even when I don't agree with it so much; one of my favorite articles he ever wrote, which was about the Sideways phenomenon, takes not only the film but the general response to it and guts the whole thing like a fish, laying out every piece on the table. It's the forcefulness of the writing that makes me pay attention. I just hope it doesn't occasionally hypontize me into agreeing with him as well.