Saturday, November 13, 2010
The shadows are really convincing, I think...
And here we are enjoying our leafy neighborhood.
Our Thanksgiving mission is to see The Pee Wee Herman Show on Broadway. Whether this happens is up to the TKTS fates, whom will invoke the morning of.
To prepare, we rented the original Pee Wee Herman Show - the HBO special from when the show was at the Roxy in L.A. It occurred to me that this was the very first video my family ever rented, when we got our first VCR, and that I hadn't seen it since.
If you want a wave of nostalgia, watch Paul Reubens jump through that puffy jagged door, around 25 years old, and commit every ounce of his energy to a character that few people had yet seen or heard about. You instantly know why he was a hit. It's not just how funny and original he was- it's the energy. He's dancing a comical little ballet, painting each emotion with the full extent of his body. It's infectious, it's full of truth, and you can read it from the back row. The audience almost sounds like they're laughing too much, but they probably couldn't help it.
While I'm here, I need to tell you about a film I saw a few weeks ago: Half Moon. I have to admit, when I picked up the box and saw that it's a festival darling about Kurdish musicians making a bus journey through Iraq to get to a gig, I had certain expectations right away about the style of it, the message, and so on. These assumptions were mostly incorrect. There is a refreshing element of chaos in this film, and it enhances it in every direction- it makes richer the unfolding of the story, it brings mystery and realism at once to the experience, and it binds closer the characters who must negotiate it. I doubt that you will guess how this film ends. You might guess some of the events, but the way they happen, and the way it will make you feel- you won't anticipate it, and you'll want to talk about it later.
Jamie brought up some excellent points about Half Moon:
1. The bus is awesome. It has wood benches. And it's painted with images that mean something to the characters but not so much to us- one of many ways that the film reminds us we're only peeking in on these people's lives and we're not allowed to (nor could we) know everything about them.
2. We love Kako, the bus driver. His character is so big, and dominates so much of the first act, that we assumed the film would center on him. He becomes less essential as the film continues and we began to miss him.
3. Even though the story takes us across cold mountains, Half Moon has a warm feeling, coming from the cozy bus, from the family huddled together inside it, and from the personalities of the characters- watching Kako placate his angry wife was the moment I knew I loved this. You might say that this film gives you a Thanksgiving feeling. It's about strength in family and in togetherness. Have some hot apple crisp handy, as we did.
Thanks, Jamie, for finding this clip. We see here the old musician walking into a village of exiled Iraqi female singers. The woman of his dreams lives there- she has a voice with no equal, he is convinced- and he needs her for the performance. Notice the ominous cloud eclipse (best since Bonnie and Clyde).
Monday, November 1, 2010
...and the resulting shadows in the room.
And now, a look back.
On Halloween of 2002 I wheeled a clunky tv many blocks through Fort Greene so I could watch The Exorcist with Jamie, my future wife. It was the one-year anniversary of our first meeting. We probably made beans and things from the French grocery and had a floor picnic with wine. (There wasn't much furniture.)
A few years later, in Philadelphia, we began our annual tradition of a Halloween film festival. The first was modest- Repulsion, Halloween, and Vertigo- but it established a rule that the films do not necessarily have to be considered horror films- anything macabre, or suspenseful, or dark in some way is good for the mix. The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, has excellent horror elements, but might not be found on the same shelf as Sleepaway Camp at your video store. Or "thrillers" like the original Stepford Wives or Alien, which really should be called horror. Or Batman Returns, which will just make you want to put on a costume.
This year's series was prodigious and perhaps the best yet. Here now are our Halloween movie adventures of 2010:
Drag Me To Hell
Easily one of the best films of 2009. This was our second time. Sam Raimi has a strong identity as a filmmaker, but you wouldn't know it if you'd only seen Spiderman. Compare him to Tim Burton, a stylist who mostly succeeded in bringing his own ideas into the mainstream. Evil Dead fans wonder why Raimi's ideas should be less adaptable- where in his current work can we find a trace of that horror/comedy blend that launched his career in the first place? As if in reply, Drag Me To Hell reminds us that he's still here and he can still blow our minds if he wants to.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space
This will make you nostalgic for HBO in the 80's (along with Innerspace and Overboard. Hey, that itself sounds like a good film series idea...) Deserves every ounce of its cult status. I really admire the creativity of the premise, as well as the fascinating special effects. (My neighbor informs me that the film was made by brothers who had worked as special effects artists.) Jamie has good memories of watching it along side her sister when they were... probably too young even for this. Adrienne remains a devoted fan and owns the film. I loved seeing the chamber inside the spaceship before and after it got filled with cotton candy pods. And, of course, the shadow puppet scene. That would be legitimately cool in any movie.
Children of the Corn
What walks behind the rows? What the hell was it? We saw this one with the neighbors, who are well-versed horror fans. Not the best selection of the year. Despite a couple of good scares, it seemed to have unrealized potential- especially the supernatural element that came out of nowhere at the end.
By the way, when you google "children of the corn image" this is what comes up:
Return of the Living Dead
Now this is what I'm talking about- this movie has everything! What a riot of horror ideas crammed into one busy plot! The opening sequence is the best part, though- it builds to the precipitating incident in a gradual and often oblique way that seems to presage Tarantino's entire career. There are of course zombie films in every flavor, but I'll bet this is the most playful and delightfully wacky of the lot.
Let Me In
Powerful from beginning to end. The emotional complexity of the film is more than I even want to deconstruct. I'll just call it brilliant and let it live as a raw experience. We saw this one at the spooky throwback "Entertainment Cinemas" at Fresh Pond, under a full moon, part of a most excellent Friday night date.
The Worst Witch
We usually find a place on the program for this gem. Inflatable skeletons, pink pentagrams and hopeless green-screen special effects with no irony in sight. I dress as Tim Curry's character and sing and dance along. We treated the neighbors to this spectacle (some dancing, too) and they were surprisingly appreciative. What I realized this time around is that I love the attention to detail - when the girls are in potion class, there's a poster behind them with formulae explained in pictures; in the hallway, there's a sign with a broom crossed out (no flying in the hallways).
The House of the Devil
After The Worst Witch, the consensus was that someone needed to die, brutally, in the next feature. A search through Netflix brought us to The House of the Devil. This, in spite of the excellence of Let Me In, wins first prize in our little festival.
As we watched the opening minutes of The House of the Devil, it began to sink in that I was watching a scary movie- an actually scary movie, Hitchcock scary, Kubrick scary. Nothing scary at all had happened so far in the film, but still... there was a hushed yet unmistakable skill in how those first moments were handled, and when you see that, you think, if we're in the hands of craftsmen who can do that, what else can they do?
As it turns out, it seems that they could probably do anything. This is one of the most suspenseful and intelligent horror movies I have ever seen. The plot is simplicity itself- it's the delivery, which mounts the terror so patiently, not playing a single note that hasn't been earned, that is so exquisite. Even in a group of people joking and laughing all the way through it, the tension was almost unbearable.
Finally, Jamie and I made our way to Kendall Square for a matinee of Kuroneko, a 60's Japanese ghost story (samurai and such), perhaps not as masterful as Ugetsu but worth checking out. Kuroneko means "black cat," and apparently the Mexican title of the film is El Grito del Sexo, which Google translates for me as "The Scream of Sex." Now that is a good movie title. Why don't we have movies like that in the American multiplexes? Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in... The Scream of Sex.
When a character named Raiko showed up and told a story about how he'd slain a demon, Jamie started jumping up and down- she'd recently read the legend to which the film was referring. No fair, I want to be told something I know about. It's exciting, right?
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Yet, I consider this a fair opinion- I believe that it reflects the true feelings of its author. (And I often enjoy Mr. Hanke's flights of language, like his description of Bad Boys II: "...(erupts) every few minutes with overblown action set pieces as if they were some kind of cinematic flatulence.")
A good example of an unfair opinion (pertaining to Paper Heart) can be found further along: "...twee animated segments featuring paper dolls, which should fill any right-thinking person with disgust" (Jake Wilson, The Age). I must object, sir. You cannot tell me that my failure to be put off, nay, disgusted by Charlyne Yi's puppetry is a summary indication of my general incorrectness. It is quite possible that we may disagree and both be sensible and delightful people. (And even both be correct.) I am reminded of John Hurt's quote about The Elephant Man, in which he played the lead role: "If you can get through this film without being moved, I don't think you're a person that I would want to know." That's borderline. It just feels hostile, like he's warning me not to disagree with him. Here's an older and much more egregious example, from the Chicago Post, about Kahlil Gibran's book The Prophet: "… If there is a man or woman who can read this book without a quiet acceptance of a great man’s philosophy and a singing in the heart as of music born within, that man or woman is indeed dead to life and truth." Thank you, Chicago Post. Now I have to read it thinking how if I don't like it, you think I'm an asshole.
Paper Heart was okay. It was a whole lot of wide-eyed sweetness. The only moments that make a true impression are the several interviews of non-actors, each of whom has something important, and not banal, to say about love. Many of their statements are hauntingly simple truths that are not articulated often enough. It is never explained how these people were located, but the filmmakers were happily welcomed into their homes and workplaces. It seems to me that either the footage represents the best of many hundreds of people who were approached on the streets of the heartland towns Yi visited, or that maybe it's easier than you think to find people whose brains you can pick for this kind of excellent material, and it's just that nobody ever does it.
PS: Come to think of it, this movie may have actually achieved its goal completely. Watching this with Jamie was indeed romantic. If I were on a second or third date with someone, I would want a movie like this- dreamy and naïve, and not too intense.
Friday, August 13, 2010
The funniest part of the program was “I, an Actress.” As Kuchar explained, a young woman in one of his classes at the San Francisco Art Institute once told him of her acting aspirations, and he encouraged her to do a screen test for him. He wrote a scene for her to read and set another student up with a camera. The film is simply the 400 feet from that camera.
The screen test begins with the young actress pacing around and shouting like an early Diane Keaton (but far less assured, and perhaps nervous). Just when she seems to find a bit of focus, Kuchar begins a series of director’s interruptions. In each of these, he enters the frame and demonstrates what he wants. What he wants is so ridiculous that the actress, who makes every effort not to laugh, is transformed from a shaky but determined starlet into a raving lunatic.
The rest of the evening was short narrative subjects, and as inescapably amateur as they were, it became difficult to ignore the many moments of clearly deliberate, Warhol-like subversion of the language of film. During the often-praised Hold Me While I’m Naked, these moments are particularly strong, as is the final line. At some point, it seems not so naïve anymore: self-aware, and maybe even greater than its parts.
Because the program included pieces in widely different formats, there were dead spots for equipment changes. Kuchar, whom the audience was surprised to find was lurking around the gangway of the theater, filled these silences by volunteering more information about the films from wherever he happened to be standing. These stories usually ended with a punchline that set us all roaring just as the next film was beginning. In reference to a scene of a raging inferno we had just seen at the end of one of the films, he recalled how for some reason, he had been denied permission to use his original fire footage. “So I needed another fire, and then one day, the house across the street went up in flames, and so I ran out with my camera and got my fire.”
Kuchar, as became increasing clear, is an unstoppable storytelling machine. His filmography is famously long, and includes not only films but untold hours of video documentary. During the Q and A session, which was the best I have ever been a part of, he explained how a neighbor might ask him to make a documentary film of a dying pet, in commemoration, or any number of other requests he’s had (and has happily granted). There was no question the audience could ask that would make things uncomfortable (which is not usually the case at Q and A sessions). Kuchar was so sweet and generous, and used each question as a springboard for a slew of stories and memories from his wide-ranging life. Someone asked if his film The Naked and the Nude had ever been seen by Norman Mailer, whose work it appears to parody. “No, I don’t think so, but I met him once. He was like a baked apple. Hard of hearing, too.”
Another astonishing thing about him- perhaps astonishing only to my generation- is the way he refers to pornography as just another part of cinema and of daily life (including his own life, and his own cinema). Part of what makes his films like Hold Me While I’m Naked so enigmatic is the way they incorporate sex (is it there to challenge convention, to tittilate, to shock, some combination of these?), and his casualness in discussing it only deepens the mystery. He told numerous stories of amateur porn filmmakers and actors he’s been connected to over the years, and they seem to have been his friends and neighbors. “There wasn’t any shame in it. Porno was the way to break into the movies back then. And back in the 70’s, everybody was good looking.”
Monday, August 9, 2010
I don't know Ray's work very well, and I supposed that the various flourishes I noticed in this film were his signature. Yet in spite of the many personal touches, Ray was making a film that lived happily and entirely within an alternate universe that the Hollywood studios had already established. (Example of Ray falling in with the canon: Gloria Grahame is never shown in close-up or even medium shot without a filter, which makes no sense, because she was already smoking hot.) When I watch a Hollywood film from the 40's (give or take a few years), I may not know all that will happen in the story, but I have an excellent idea of how it will make me feel, what the mood will be like. Certain conventions of this period- and of the genre of "noir" in particular- are so reliable that they define a universe, and to watch a film of this period is to return to that familiar and comfortable place. This is particularly exciting if you haven't seen the film before- you get a cocktail of the familiar and the not, kind of like a dream in which you discover a room in your own home you simply failed to notice all these years.
I enjoy movies like this, but their function is to comfort, not to challenge. Yes, it's easy to swoon at the elegance and clean storytelling of those classics. But the era had to end, for the health of the medium. When Charles Laughton made Night of the Hunter, he wasn't trying to give people a comfortable evening out at the pictures. His work wasn't that of a craftsman working within the limits of a universe, as Ray's had been. He was out to dismantle the basic notions that were making the movie house such a cozy and dependable place to visit. That's the kind of film I actually love.
Following the feature was a television episode- I think it was GE Theater- directed by Ray, and starring Joseph Cotten. The plot was about a Dr. Moreau type in the Amazon, whose hut is discovered by an explorer separated from his party (Cotten). The armed resident, attended to by natives, forces Cotten at gunpoint to read Charles Dickens out loud to him for years, never allowing him to leave his compound. It occurred to me that the television drama represented a somewhat weaker, yet more greatly restricted, example of a universe- as a medium, its needs and restrictions were even more tyrannical, and the episode might as well have been directed by anyone. Ray's hand was all but invisible.
But building a universe is often an excellent idea. This occurred to me later still, while watching Ashes of Time, a film by Wong Kar Wai. Who else is excited just to be alive at the same time that Kar Wai is making these movies? The disorienting editing, the playing around with speed and frame rate, the unreliable narrators, the dreaminess, and not a little bit of noir revival- you always know when you're watching one of his films, even when it's Ashes of Time and it's about ancient China. His films could be about anything, but they all live in his universe, and it's full of alienation, energetic individualism, joyful and painful solitude, and boozy sexual longing, and that's what you're going to get. What is consistent is the feeling he evokes, and he does it with the whole environment of the films, much like what Warner Bros and Columbia once achieved with their brand. Kar Wai has in a sense boxed himself in, and the weaker My Blueberry Nights suggests that he may yet need to dismantle his own vision in order to progress. But the last 20 years of his work (if you haven't seen Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love, get your act together) are a reminder that knowing what you're going to get isn't necessarily a bad thing, that the same universe can be visited any number of times, and that such a ritual has as much potential as it ever did to deeply satisfy us.
By the way, Ashes of Time is incredible, even though the fans of the original version, which I never saw, are lamenting the changes made for the redux edition. The battle scenes are ferocious. A good overview can be found here:
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Even if Eco didn't breathe much life into these characters, the film version shows that at least a really great cast can do it. When I write "great cast," I don't mean they're all big names or even particularly gifted actors. They're just amazing to watch because they're all so physically startling. Apart from the two familiar principals Connery and Slater, every face in the cast is singular and grotesque, and I loved looking at the bunch of them crowded together. The atmosphere and design are also, joyfully, perfect. So as an escape to a different reality, it truly succeeds.
Yet it reaches nowhere beyond that. Eco said he suspected the director Jean-Jacques Annaud wasn't making a Hollywood version of his book. It may not be off the Hollywood assembly line, but by the end, it has indulged in its own set of evasions and bits of melodrama, including one particularly unnecessary crowd-pleasing bit of violence (involving F. Murray Abraham). Yeah, I liked that part too, but it would have been more at home in, say, a Child's Play or a Maniac Cop. The book and film are both frustrating: both have impressive openings that hint at greatness, but it never quite happens.
I must add: Ron Perlman is so much like Tom Waits in this movie that you have to suspect Perlman was called at the last minute to replace him, after he went missing because he... (fill in a story about Tom Waits going on an adventure; include at least 2 of the following: a) a Filipino floor show, b) a Caribbean-Chinese loan shark, c) a blind dog companion, d) an empty fifth of Ballantine's in a snowy wheat field, e) a rusting pile of tools.)
Friday, July 23, 2010
I would like to thank Justin for writing the song and providing some of the key ideas, and thanks also to my wife Jamie for encouraging me and giving me another artist's perspective. Some day I may actually incorporate her advice into something I do, somehow. For now I just smile and nod... no, heh heh, just kidding my persimmon!
Anyway, it feels very good to stick a fork in this project. This is the first major thing I've made since the invention of Youtube, so hopefully it will have legs.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
To my dear wife,
Our Netflix copy of Holy Mountain has been buried, between the DVD player and "Religion for Dummies," half-watched and unloved, for some time now. It is time to power through the rest of it or send the ridiculous thing back.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
In one moment I thought suddenly of Todd Solondz- no, it's not really as obsessive, nor is it ugly or even despairing, ultimately- but like Solondz's work, it can startle you by shifting among sadness, horror and humor, all in a small and quiet moment. The moments are the key here- this is outstanding neo-realism, built of its very strong moments (but with a true narrative thrust as well, and a creeping sense of danger).
The way Ana plays the record of "Porque Te Vas" over and over in this film- look at how angsty she is in this clip, mouthing the words- I instantly remembered Enid listening to Skip James in Ghost World.
You can't tell for the compression in the clip above, but this is one of those 70's films with a hushed, delicate brown palette and close-ups with intense shallow focus... gorgeous. What a great find this is.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Ararat. This came and went 8 years ago. Conversation with the video store clerk: "Oh, do you like Atom Egoyan?" Me: "Well, I don't... um, no." But I still wanted to give it a chance.
Well, what a mess! It's about a genocide, so all the emotional chips are in and I feel bad criticizing it, but honestly it's exasperating. I'm not going to make a laundry list. Here's what bothers me the most: why are so many movie villains made into unfathomable monsters? People who do bad things are fascinating because of how similar they are to everyone else, not because of how alien or inhuman they are (or so we try to make them). The scenes of genocide in Ararat are presented as a movie being made within the movie, and its principal antagonist is an officer commanding the Turkish forces who commit the atrocities. Why did they make him a Bruckheimer-grade redneck version of a mustache-twaddling bad guy (not unlike that guy in The Rock who mutinies against Ed Harris)? In a movie with this subject matter, why does there seem to be zero curiosity about evil itself? About how anyone from anywhere is capable of this kind of campaign of executions, rapes and dismemberments- how when no one is watching and there seem to be no consequences involved, this is actually what human beings tend to do?
A friend of mine who teaches English said that his students laughed when told about Nazis hurling babies into ditches. And I thought, sure, that is funny, simply because you can't imagine it. The more you try to understand a tragedy, the more affecting it becomes. You achieve this with sympathy, not with glossy fantasy and stereotypes. (The best example of the former I've seen is United 93.)
The best part of Ararat goes by quickly: we occasionally return to the studio of Arshile Gorky in the 1930's as he works on his famous painting of himself and his mother, and in these fleeting moments we get to watch the French-Armenian actor Simon Abkarian portray the artist. It is a silent performance, and Abkarian is fascinating to watch. (Did you see Casino Royale? He played the contractor who finds the bomb specialist for Le Chiffre, the fish-looking guy, and he puts up his Aston Martin in the poker game, and then they run to the Miami airport, and... etc. See that movie, it rocks!)
Sunday, July 11, 2010
My expectations were unusually specific going into this film. I knew about the premise, the grown son protecting his mom from the new suitor- and I had seen two other movies that the Duplass brothers had participated in, each of which unfolded in some way that I didn't anticipate. But Cyrus never did. I don't want to say that it was predictable- that wouldn't be fair, because the characters really were multidimensional and there were small surprises along the way. But, the basic outline, the Cliff Notes version of this, you could come close to writing before even seeing it.
Basically, I think the plotting gets in the way. This movie is totally alive in its first act, when it takes more of an interest in the funny pedestrian details of its performances. The attraction between the leads feels completely genuine (a rare accomplishment, come to think of it), perhaps in part because, while the characters are required by the plot to fall in love, the plot has not yet truly arrived.
The plot, of course, is Cyrus- he is the Tartuffe, the incarnate difficulty, the very premise of the film- and once he arrives, there is an opportunity for the modest universe of the film to become yet richer, but the needs of the plot soon take over. I felt a little stranded- I kind of wanted to go back to the party in the first act and see what other interesting people I could find there.
The strangest moments in the film are when the conflict between the two men of the house turns to angry verbal confrontations, all of which are played for laughs. These scenes attempt an uncomfortable balancing act- both characters must maintain their reality, yet to serve the film's concept and in the name of comedy, must also be reduced to cartoons. I was a bit stunned that the sweet John (John C. Reilly) was so hateful, and I ended up not really believing it. Then late in the film there is an excellent scene in which John lets Cyrus really have it. At that moment, at least, the anger came into focus for me. I finally believed it when the actor just belted it out like he really meant it.
Cyrus can at least claim better acting than The Puffy Chair (an earlier Duplass brothers film), and better characters with more potential. I would definitely watch a sequel about the further adventures of these people. Yet I prefer The Puffy Chair, and I also prefer Humpday, a film starring Mark Duplass that I have assumed for some time was also made by the Duplasses, but is not. (I haven't yet seen Baghead). These films each build to something, the kind of ending that movies should have- the catharsis that you don't completely anticipate. Humpday's climactic sequence in a motel room was worth the entire partially-baked first and second acts- it had more thought-provoking dialogue than many films manage in their entirety, yet at once it felt alive and energetic, like sketch comedy. And The Puffy Chair, as much as the characters have gotten on the nerves of nearly everyone I've seen the film with, contains scenes of lover's quarrels that make so much sense to me, I still replay them in my head. Somehow, Cyrus seemed less ambitious. But I enjoyed it, and it was still miles better than most romantic comedies. Bottom line, what I respect most about the Duplass brothers is that they want to tell love stories that hinge on people resolving their differences after falling in love, not about people who gradually discover over the course of two hours that they have a mutual attraction.
(Correction: A previous version of this post referred to the film Humpday as a Duplass brothers film. Incredibly, it is not. It was written and directed by Lynn Shelton, who must be related to them or something.)
(p.s. Don't you love saying that expression, "hump day?" You don't? Okay, I'll stop.)
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Last night's feature was The Legend of Billie Jean, which Jamie's been pressing me to watch for a while now. Jamie had seen it long ago, first time for me.
Main thoughts: complete foolishness, and truly evocative of summer.
What is there in life to comfort us as reliably as 80's cinema can? What other flavor of film is so familiar, so consistent, and has so many titles with boxes that stare at you at the video store, trip after trip, for years, that you never rent but that one day you finally do, and what you see ends up being so completely what you get?
Biggest revelation: Keith Gordon is in this movie and he actually comes off as kind of hardcore! He has this bookish vibe, which he also had in Back to School and Dressed to Kill, but in this thing he also actually seems confident, smooth, and even dangerous. Whoa!
His is also the only character in the film who recovers quickly from getting kneed in the crotch by Billie Jean (he wears a Halloween mask while receiving the infliction). Knee-to-ball emasculation by attractive ladies is a theme running through all of 80's cinema, and it is also employed without reservation here. I believe Peter Coyote and Christian Slater make it through the film without getting kneed in the crotch, but I could be wrong about that.
Back to Keith Gordon- our next stop was imdb, where my eyebrows went up again- he was the writer and director of A Midnight Clear, a very solid flick from the early 90's that I haven't thought about for a long time. And he directed Mother Night- heard of it, never saw it. That is now on the queue. We love discoveries!