Rightwing Film Geek

Because I’m sitting at a bar with nothing better to do…

Let me pick a fight with a friend, Scott Tobias of the Onion AV Club, the man whose moniker for me wound up in my Big Hollywood bio blurb (“the only hardline Catholic moralist you’ll meet who loved (or, for that matter, saw) Irreversible“)

Anyhoo … I was looking at the AV Club a little bit ago to see whether he and Noel Murray had any festival walkup pieces (press screenings just started this morning). And saw that Scott had another in his Gateways to Geekery series, a fun premise that actually does fill a very important role — “where do I begin?”

This one is about one of my very favorite directors — Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer, the man who, as Scott rightly notes makes Ingmar Bergman look like Stanley Donen. And there’s a tradition of me writing impromptu posts about Dreyer over beer, so here goes…

Scott’s suggested gateway Dreyer drug is THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the medieval French saint’s trial and execution. There’s no way around the fact that Dreyer may well be the most forbidding and intimidating director in the canon, and so there are good arguments against any place a critic might wanna start. But I still think JOAN is the wrong film to recomment to the not-already-hardcore (the second-worst of his five major “late” films, ahead of only the snicker-inducing GERTRUD), and I will suggest two better alternatives as well.

I think JOAN would be a bad choice because of things Scott correctly notes in his piece. Because Dreyer is so intimidating, I think you want something accessible and as “comfortable” as possible, to ease the way in. For one thing, JOAN is silent, and that’s an immediate turnoff for (too, far far too) many. It shouldn’t be — silent films are their own aesthetic, they “lack” nothing. And the “Visions of Light” score on the DVD is an astonishing work and addition in its own right. But it is, and everything else equal, or even somewhat unequal, a sound film will always work better for a filmmaker with masterpieces on both sides of the 1930 breach. Second, JOAN is in many ways a baffling film even to wrap your head around — extremely spatially disorienting, filled with eccentric wtf-angles and pays no attention whatever to establishing shots or to the ABCs of continuity editing (indeed one would see it has a score of contradictory cues if he were to try to “figure them all out” as David Bordwell did). JOAN is, therefore an alienating experience if one isn’t overwhelmed by the sheer emotional power of it (which is, of course, the ideal response).

So I’ll make two other suggestion for entry-points into Dreyer. The first is the one of his five films that I think comes closest to conventional viewing habits — DAY OF WRATH. I’m paraphrasing Bordwell from memory. But I think he was correct in noting that WRATH marks a transition point between (to use hostile critical vocabulary) the earlier alienating stylistic eccentricities and unclarity of JOAN and VAMPYR and the staginess and stasis of ORDET and GERTRUD. Thus you get both “sides” of Dreyer’s late work without the excesses of either. WRATH also, Bordwell correctly notes, has more melodramatic appeal and conventional character-conflict than any of the other four films.

The other entry point I’d pick may seem a bit counterintuitive, given what I just said about silents. But it tickled my mind when I realized Scott hadn’t mentioned it at all. That film is MICHAEL, which Dreyer made for UFA in 1924 at the height of expressionism with such important German collaborators as writer Thea von Harbou, actors Nora Gregor and Walter Slezak, and cinematographers Karl Freund and Rudolph Mate. If you can get past the silent part at all (and a somewhat hammy Benjamin Christiansen in the lead role), I think MICHAEL is Dreyer’s most accessible and melodramatically satisfying film, period. It’s a straight-up “Vie de Boheme” story about an artist, his male muse, his female love and the jealousies between and among them and the vicissitudes of his career. If you could imagine Oscar Wilde as a filmmaker, you’ll get MICHAEL. Like DAY OF WRATH, it also served as a Dreyer career bridge but, also like a lot of films made in 1924 and 1925, it too marks a turning point from the beginning to the end of the silent era. Dreyer’s early silents like THE PARSONS WIDOW and LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK are excellent films, but allowances have to be made for them because of the technical primitiveness of the 10s and early-20s. Meanwhile, Dreyer’s later silents, most radically JOAN, pose stylistic challenges that the improved state-of-the-art allowed. MICHAEL sits balanced on the scale of time.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Shameless self-promotion

TORONTO — I make my debut today at the invaluable Andrew Breitbart and John Nolte site Big Hollywood (just a coincidence — the news peg came when it did). Riffing off the controversy over Jafar Panahi not being allowed to attend the Venice Film Festival, I take a look at Panahi’s career as an artist (mostly his three best films) and at some of the ways it dovetails with his “career” as a martyr. The piece is here.

One thing I wanted to mention but couldn’t find a way to do so elegantly (and the piece was already butting against Big Hollywood’s word-count suggestions) is that I saw Panahi present OFFSIDE in person here back in 2006, when he could travel abroad, though he was already skirting the edge of the mullahs’ tolerance. In his intro and/or Q-A (I forget which), Panahi mentioned that he was so afraid of regime censorship that didn’t even risk lab-development of the working materials in Iran, instead shipping the undeveloped film stock abroad (to France, if memory serves). Panahi said that all the material was safely outside Iran and that, while he was hoping that OFFSIDE would pass censorship and could play in Iran, he would not alter the film. The Toronto audience let out a spontaneous round of applause. God bless and be with this man.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

FilmfestDC — Day 9 grades

I, DON GIOVANNI (Carlos Saura, Italy) — 8
MADE IN HUNGARIA (Gergely Fonyo, Hungary) — 7

April 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

FilmfestDC — Day 8 grades

THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (Radu Jude, Romania) — 7
MEDAL OF HONOR (Calin Peter Netzer, Romania) — 9

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Filmfest DC — Day 7 grades

LOURDES (Jessica Hausner, France/Austria) — 9
BEYOND IPANEMA (Guto Barra, Brazil) — 3

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

FilmfestDC — Day 5 capsule


THE ARMY OF CRIME (Robert Guediguain, France, 1)

I will start at the end, because that is what determined a grade of such distaste as “1” — if the closing title card were removed and the facts it referred to altered in the film, my grade would probably be about a 4 or 5. I also add that if I misread or the subtitles mistranslated that ending, I will happily alter my grade.

ARMY OF CRIME is a French Resistance movie. It (also) begins at the end with a strong, incantatory reading of litany of about 20 names identified as having “died for France” to images of people in handcuffs that (we presume correctly) are the death honor roll. The first thing I noted was that many of the identified are not typically French and/or typically something else — Slav, Hungarian, Jewish and others. And that’s the key to what the movie’s about and ultimately why it nauseated me — this cell consists of exiles, mostly East Europeans, several Jews, most Communists. Which is fair and plausible enough — the makeup of anti-Nazi resistances would naturally draw on such groups, and there’s always been a cosmopolitanism streak in admirers of the French republic and muthos (“every man has two countries — his own and France,” an American Francophile president once said). And all the talk of proletarian internationalism and Popular Front and whatnot is certainly appropriate here. But this zeal causes Guediguian to cross a moral line I believe sacrosanct.

But even without those intellectual problems, ARMY OF CRIME would still strike me as an unspectacular and muddled film. The best through-line involves an Armenian poet who starts the movie as a pacifist but has to learn to lead a Resistance cell. ARMY suffers from comparison both with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (perhaps unfairly; Tarantino couldn’t care less about history and really made a film about cinema and about his own skill in constructing set pieces, a measure by which QT painfully outdoes Guediguian) and with THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (more fairly; indeed several scenes seem like precise parallels, including the unpopular fact that both guerrilla groups were ruthlessly broken). Compared to ALGIERS though, ARMY is much less hard-headedly realistic, morally complex on civilian bombings, and has nothing on Pontecorvo’s French colonel or Morricone’s primal-wail music. Serious urban guerrillas have always been willing to kill civilians — a fact Pontecorvo presented unblinkingly in his film’s most memorable and suspenseful scene. Here, we get a bomb raid on a German officer soiree called off in mid-attack because there were women (and good-looking young ones, we’re helpfully told) as if there could ever have been doubt on that score. I also will probably never be completely happy with the spell-it-out History Channel touches inevitably found in this kind of movie.

But then there was one bit of outright fraud that made me start to question the film. The guerrilla cell is led by an Armenian who’d already seen (and describes fleeing) one mass slaughter. Subtext received, and plausible enough. But I began beating my head against the back of the stadium-seating chair when the Armenian gilded the lily (or rather Guediguian gilded his script) by explicitly mentioning Hitler’s “who remembers the Armenians today” remark, (1) the authenticity of which is disputed and not merely by Turkish denialists; (2) *certainly* wasn’t reported until after the war anyway; (3) *certainly* was not in a 1936 Reichstag speech as ARMY OF CRIME states (or any other public rhetoric; its claimed origin is a dispute with Army men about conduct during the planned invasion of Poland); and (4) refers anyway to plans to annihilate the Poles for Lebensraum — an issue of doubtful relevance to the events in ARMY OF CRIME. To quote it in dialogue supposedly taking place in 1942-43 is a travesty and a pander.

And then we get to the closing title card, which caused me to snap and say something aloud (I forget what) to the screen. It is a quote from Guediguian himself, saying as close as I can recall (and was trying to read it in both Enflish and French simultaneously) that, “in order to tell this story in a way relevant to today, I had to alter some facts.” I instantly began spitting rage. No, Robert … you didn’t HAVE to — you chose to. What are the things you chose to lie about? Are they what I think they are — a desire to turn the French Resistance into a multiculti Benneton ad avant la lettre (a cause that would certainly serve the needs of today, in the eyes of some)? Who gives an airborne fornication to supposed relevance or needs of today? And if they are such that they cannot be served by the truth about history, are they really needs or even desireable? And most relevant to your film — now that you’ve acknowledged that the needs of today, as you see them, override truth (i.e., you’re a liar for political convenience’s sake) why should anyone believe a word of your film?

April 22, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Filmfest DC — Day 5 grades

THE ARMY OF CRIME (Robert Guediguian, France) — 1*

* I’ll elaborate later but I’d be prepared to reconsider if the final title card (film was about a 5 until then) doesn’t mean what it seems to say.
Also decided to bag AIR DOLL for its commercial release in DC during Dog Days of Summer

April 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

FilmFestDC 2010

The big local event of DC’s film year starts next week, FilmFestDC (contrary to what I told an out-of-town programmer friend with whom I went out last night — I really thought at the time that the festival began this week). The Opening Night film (a la-dee-da affair I’ve never gone to) is the Russian musical HIPSTERS, which I almost certainly will see at some point. And the Closing-Night film (which I have gone to once — Lukas Moodysson’s TOGETHER some years ago) is the (still undistributed — why?!?!) German feel-good food-porn film SOUL KITCHEN. There are programs of films from Italy and Romania, the latter of which seems more mouth-watering at this moment in history. There also seemed to be, though not a formal program, a large number of wedding films and music-related films.

These are the films playing here that I saw and (with one exception, that I will see again) reviewed at Toronto or Charlottesville last year:

AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 7)
I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 7) — my review here (2nd capsule)
IRENE (Alain Cavalier, France, 3) — my review here (3rd capsule)
SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY¹ (Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt, 5) — my review here, 2nd capsule
SHAMELESS (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic, 3) — my review here (4th capsule)
SOUL KITCHEN (Fatih Akin, Germany, 6) — my review here (4th capsule)
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE² (Cristian Mungiu / Ioana Uricaru / Hanno Hofer / Razvan Marculescu / Constantin Popescu; Romania) average: 6.6, directors not specifically matched to the shorts — my review here (4th capsule)
“The Legend of the Official Visit” — 8
“The Legend of the Party Photographer” — 7
“The Legend of the Chicken Drivers” — 4
“The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” — 6
“The Legend of the Air Sellers” — 8
VIDEOCRACY (Erik Gandini, Sweden, 2) — my review here (3rd capsule)

As to what I’ll be seeing … I haven’t purchased any tickets because, as I don’t think I can take time off work, I cannot be certain I’ll make every 630 show I’d like to. There’s a couple I will make certain I attend, but this plan is my wildest dreams:

Friday, 16 April
630 Gallery Place SILENT WEDDING (Horatiu Malaele, Romania)
900 Gallery Place FAREWELL (Christian Carion, France)

Saturday, 17 April
500 Avalon EL PASO (Zdenek Tyc, Czech Republic)
700 Avalon WILL YOU MARRY US (Micha Lewinsky, Switzerland)
915 Avalon 25 CARATS (Patxi Amezcua, Spain)

Monday, 19 April
630 E Street NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran)
830 Gallery Place THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania)

Tuesday, 20 April
630 E Street AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
845 Gallery Place THE ARMY OF CRIME (Robert Guedegian, France)

Wednesday, 21 April
630 Gallery Place AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inoue, Japan)
815 Gallery Place WHITE WEDDING (Jann Turner, South Africa)

Thursday, 22 April
630 Gallery Place LOURDES (Jessica Hausner, France/Austria)
900 Goethe Institute BEYOND IPANEMA (Guto Barra, Brazil)

Friday, 23 April
630 Gallery Place THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (Radu Jude, Romania/Holland)
830 E Street MEDAL OF HONOR (Calin Peter Netzer, Romania)

Saturday, 24 April
430 Avalon I, DON GIOVANNI (Carlos Saura, Spain/Italy)
700 Avalon MADE IN HUNGARIA (Gergely Fonyo, Hungary)
1000 E Street THE MESSAGE (Chen Kuo-fu and Gau Qun-shu, China)
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¹ FilmFestDC’s stated 186-minute running time for SCHEHEREZADE may be wrong; the IMDb and the Toronto Festival both list the film as 134 minutes, and I certainly don’t remember it being 3 hours.
² Marculescu is not credited at FilmFestDC page, though I don’t know whether it is correct or Toronto’s page is. The film itself had no director credits

April 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Weekly shards-1

May try to make this a weekly feature, Sunday night, of things noticed while dubbing movies and watching bits and pieces of them, but not really the whole movie. For this week, one of these movies is about filthy people who’ve defined their souls by what they’re willing to do for money. The other is THE WAGES OF FEAR:

THE WAGES OF FEAR (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1953) — Saw the beginning and the end of this one. A chivalrous director would  feel uncomfortable telling a woman to act in the first reel like Vera Clouzot does, i.e., like a bitch in heat. (Sorry, but not taking that back … that’s how she’s acting.) A man asking his own wife to act that way? Ick. They say Clouzot was the French Hitchcock and when it comes to women (see also here), I guess there too. Sorta like I said about HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, the utterly heartless ending of FEAR works as well as it does because of the context of the other films surrounding it — endings like this didn’t happen in 50s Hollywood thrillers, which gives this one an oomph that an identical ending today wouldn’t. Occupies a special place in my memory because it’s one of the few foreign films I’ve ever watched with my parents and had them enjoy as much as I did (my father at least apparently had seen it years ago).

THE LADY EVE (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941) — I wished Henry Fonda had made more comedies, as I like him better as a clueless Sturges male being eaten up by scheming Barbara Stanwyck than the goody-good-good he usually played. Like Graham Greene noted, Sturges knows that in the sort of movie, we identify with the schemers, especially when they’re as classy and well-bred and attractive as Stanwyck and Coburn. The scene of Jean’s directing the other women’s attempts to get Hopsie’s attention while looking in her own compact mirror is a metacinematic joy. And Sturges skates right up to the line again … “they all want Pike’s Pale, the Ale that Won for Yale / Well, tell em they can go to Ha-arvard.”

January 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Toronto capsules — day 10

(FOR NOW, rather than post nothing until I can get the last few capsules finished, and holding off on other stuff until I do … I’m gonna post the one capsule I have done and update both this post and add a top post linking here when the other four movies get done.)

PoliceAdjective

POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 8)

I’ve frequently said that if Friedrich Nietzsche could ever have seen Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, I am convinced he would have cried out — “there is my philosophy on film.” Similarly, if his acolyte Michel Foucault could have seen POLICE, ADJECTIVE, he would have had the same reaction. And there is no question that, even if I’m wrong about the specific influence, POLICE is intended to be seen and understood as philosophical discourse (cue Mike’s hissing). The bravura last scene, which radically recodes everything that had gone before, makes at least a rationale for what I acknowledge are the film longueurs. That scene takes the form of a Platonic dialogue, only here, the role of Socrates is played by Vlad Ivanov, back to playing someone as utterly pragmatic as he did in 4 MONTHS. But this dialogue is not primarily about the search for wisdom (or even “language,” per se) but more on that anon.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE centers on a working-class undercover drug cop named Christi investigating what may be a hashish ring involving some high-school students, who seem to be Romanian bourgeoisie. But he’s not seeing more than personal use, which he doesn’t think is really worth busting a couple of teenagers over and marking them for life with a lengthy jail term. Though it takes the form of a “policier,” these parts of the film are extremely slow-paced and action-free — entirely observing and following, with basically no confrontation or even much talk. I got a little frustrated at times, but POLICE, ADJECTIVE is ultimately a film about how discourse (what Foucault called power-knowledge) represses experience and shapes what an individual sees as his conscience. And so the pacing of the previous scenes have to “deliver the goods” to us in something more like “real time,” i.e., in the form that Christi experiences, rather than in the conventions of theatrical time, which is closer to “discourse.”

Besides the observational sequences, the film also has several scenes that drop hints the relationship(s) among discourse, words and power is the ultimate topic. The very first scene involves Christi refusing to let a fellow cop on the “foot tennis” team because “it’s a rule” that if you’re no good at soccer, you stink at foot tennis, to which the colleague responds “where’s that written?” In addition, Christi’s new wife is a grammar teacher who sometimes corrects his usage (“it’s what the Romanian Academy says,” she explains). And she also repeatedly listens to a song Christi doesn’t like, and Poromboiu plays it all the way through while the camera watches him eat dinner in the next room, and then restarts it. Christi complains that the song’s lyrics make no sense, an example of his taking a form of discourse (art) at its most literal.¹ Also, Porumboiu fills up the screen two or three times with pages from Christi’s police report and reads them aloud. The scenes feel inert as they impart no information we haven’t seen, and they also feel reductive and bureaucratically plain. But that’s their function in POLICE, ADJECTIVE: to replace the experience we’ve had with an official discourse about it that will become the basis of everything that follows. In that last scene, Christi refuses to set up a sting, saying his conscience won’t let him. And the Socratic debate, which centers on the meaning of words, commences. The effects of words are extended to the logic of images, in the film’s very last shot, a coda of sorts about what will happen next, and which we never see (credit to Tweep James Hansen for spelling it out in exchanges with me, though I did get it).

As should be obvious, my love with POLICE, ADJECTIVE is intellectual and retrospective, and I’ve acknowledged sometimes getting a bit impatient with it as it unfolded. “There’s too many shots of him eating soup,” my notes say at one point. Porumboiu’s first film, 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST, also had trouble with me early, though more as a not-terribly funny comedy than for slackly-paced emptiness, until (also like POLICE, ADJECTIVE) it became essentially a one-room talking scene, there a Romanian TV talk-show that would give Alan Partridge nightmares. I’ll need to give POLICE, ADJECTIVE a second view to see if knowing everything makes the buildup less tedious. But for now, after having discussed the film, argued on Twitter, reread my notes, and written this review, my memories of POLICE, ADJECTIVE are entirely pleasurable. Oh, wait …
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¹ I forget the specifics, but Christi basically does the equivalent of taking a line like “my love is like a red, red rose” and saying, “how? Does it have thorns or petals, does it give off a scent, what’s ‘red’ about it?” Which (1) couldn’t more miss the point on artistic discourse, and (2) sets up the understanding of language that will be used against him later.

AirDoll

AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 7)

text.

Hadewijch

HADEWIJCH (Bruno Dumont, France, 9)

text.

EnterVoid

ENTER THE VOID (Gaspar Noe, France, 4 — though really an 8 for style and 0 for content)

text

OngBak2

ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, Thailand, 5)

text

October 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Toronto capsules — Day 5

SeriousMan

A SERIOUS MAN (Coen Brothers, USA, 1)

After the happy accident of BURN AFTER READING, the Coen Brothers are back to their usual comic form with another snarky cartoon minstrel show, a contemptuous put-up job that looks down on its characters and the caricatured world they inhabit for no discernable reason, and here manages to add “profoundly stupid and borderline blasphemous.” Very early in my viewing notes (the previous scrawls refer to the next-door neighbors going hunting), I have it written “why am I so not liking this.” And on a few day’s reflection, I realized it was because of the tonal and plot resemblances to my all-time least favorite Coens’ film, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (the overdone minstrelsy, ending with a natural disaster that has theological implications), and the way that the central character, a Job figure, was too put upon for anything resembling believability, sense or even funny stylization — every person around him is one-note and played in an extremely shrill chord. And the Coens’ baroque writing and directing style manages to turn it all up to about 12.

The contempt oozes off the screen — the first thing we learn about a certain character is that he gets pus drained from his neck regularly (and sure enough, guess what he’s doing on first viewing); the daughter does nothing but complain about bathrooms but in a way that doesn’t want the bathroom just the complaint; one of the very first things we see is a doctor smoking (cue audience laughter, prompted by how the Coens have him play the scene); there are two Asian characters that had me thinking “you know, maybe Ryan was right about FARGO”; the next-door neighbor just glowers suspiciously and do nothing but act “Minnesota caricature” like deer on the car roof on Hunting Day (but with none of the sense they had in FARGO); there’s an enormous lecture-room blackboard filled to the edge with equations  “proving” the uncertainty principle that is 20-feet high (i.e. unusable); when the son walks into a family dinner, they are all slurping soup loudly (what Americans do that). Basically, I just wanted everyone on the screen to stfu.

Then we get to the film’s attempt at profundity, in telling a Job-like story set among late-60s Minnesota Jews, which manages to make Woody Allen look like a sage and almost makes me want to convert to Judaism so I’d have the right to spit on the Coens for dishonoring “our people.” There’s nothing wrong with the concept — the Job problem and the apparent absence of God will be with us forever — but the execution and resolution indicate the Coens just can’t turn off the snark. One rabbi tells the Job-hero a parable about a Jewish dentist so absurd in its premise (Hebrew characters carved into the inside of a Gentile’s teeth) that you can’t take seriously the supposed moral of the story (“try helping people, it can’t hurt”; and that the dentist eventually stopped looking). Another rabbi tells him “God doesn’t owe us answers, the obligation goes the other way,” which is warmer and in fact the final answer the Old Testament Job gets, but the Coens indicate they don’t take it seriously by having their “Job” essentially repeat the initial question. We also get a different and IMHO the real answer  to the “Job/theodicy” problem, where the hero’s brother flees to Canada with “Job’s” help and tells “Job” tearfully as he departs that God has given him nothing, but given “Job” everything. Or more colloquially, “the grass is always greener”; or more Christianly, we all bear the Cross but only feel our own). But then the Coens piss on that by having the Christian family next door shoot the two while hunting “great son … there’s another Jew, get him” and having it all turn out to be a dream. The film concludes but upping the blasphemy quotient by having the son’s go through his Bar Mitzvah ceremony through a drug haze and then getting to meet a hugely profound rabbi that won’t speak to the father, only to have the rabbi recite Jefferson Airplane lyrics to him (“when the truth is found to be a lie” … hmmm), and conclude “just be a good boy.” As anything that any serious man would say, “be a good boy” is profoundly stupid. Any serious man knows that this is one ginormous question-beg — it presupposes the actual answers religion and philosophy provide and which are the points in dispute — “what *is* good” and “*why* be good.” In the Coens hands, 5,000 years of Jewish thought gets reduced to a fortune cookie.

GetLow

GET LOW (Aaron Schneider, USA, 3)

It’s bad enough that a film is bad. But how can a writer-director making his debut produce something this staid, this calcified, this “late period“? Dan walked out and Jason and I both nodded off for a bit (neither of us missed anything; the film is that transparent and obvious). It’s a classic valedictory tale — old man sees death, and decides he wants to attend his own funeral and hear all the bad things people had to say about and then have his own say too (wanting to avoid a bad eulogy was the moral George learned in an episode of “The Jeffersons”). The minute you see Robert Duvall as an ornery old cusser who shoots visitors you know there’s gotta be some hidden wound, some secret heartbreak, some injustice at the heart of his ostracism. And when an old woman from the past comes into town from years away, whaddya wanna bet she has some connection with the old tiger and that he’ll turn into a pussycat around her (though there has to be a time of trial and quarrel before the cathartic revelation). The physical plant is well-reproduced and Duvall is never not good — but the direction lacks flavor, and the script is made of mediocre — basically an Identikit movie, made of plots and characters pasted in from other movies.

AliceCreed

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED (J Blakeson, Britain, 9)

To be perfectly honest, I fear I may be overrating this, as I had just seen two dogs in a row and hadn’t been having a good festival. And it is definitely in my aesthetic wheelhouse: plotty, tight, tension-filled and largely following the classic Aristotelian unities — TAPE meets A SIMPLE PLAN, I quickly IM’d a friend. The first words in my notes are “grabs you right away,” with a scene of two men shopping for a bunch of stuff, cut as quickly and methodically as their shopping. Then they set up shop and it quickly becomes clear that what they’re doing is setting up a kidnap plan, converting a van and an apartment into the perfect crime scene — buying yards of soundproofing material and then stapling it over every inch of the walls. The plan is as methodically worked out as the film itself; the film’s and plan’s styles are spare, but direct and blunt.

ALICE CREED basically a one-set, three-handed stage play (actually two sets — the action goes somewhere else, though just as enclosed and claustrophobic as the apartment, for the climax) between two kidnappers, jail mates out to commit the perfect crime and retire on the millions in ransom money, and their victim, who starts out (as she should … sorry, feminists) as basically an object, albeit a loud and uncooperative one but then becomes an agent and by the end, the drama’s fulcrum. Like TAPE, though with less nauseating handheld-in-an-enclosed-space camerawork, ALICE CREED is about two men competing for the loyalty of one woman. But it’s more than that , though I have to talk vaguely because the movie’s greatest pleasure is the twists and turns of its plot. ALICE CREED is also about the viewers’ loyalties and identification too — like most crime movies, it starts with the abstract criminal plan and thus with the criminals, then shifts ID to the victim when he becomes concretized. But what happens when the three begin to interact is that she becomes less sympathetic on a couple of counts and some reveals about events of the past recode what we see.

I can talk about the actors though — all three superb in their different ways. As the kidnappers, Eddie Marsan (whom I saw two people in line away from me later in the festival) and Martin Compston are well-cast and look right — Marsan’s weaselly face and aggressive manner, and Compston’s fresh-faced but wannabe-tough guy establish the dominant and recessive partnership right away even before some of the reveals. Compston has the same Glaswegian wit I loved from SWEET SIXTEEN (my favorite line in the movie: “wit can ah say; mah shite disnae stink”). So when a certain ironic event happens (it involves a bullet) and Compston collapses onto the floor and laughs in gallows irony, it actually works because of who he is, despite what I said re BIG DIG about not liking onscreen laughter. As for Marsan, he is capable of being more threatening than he was in Leigh’s HAPPY GO LUCKY without as much spittle. The title role is played by Gemma Arterton, and it’s impossible to say on this basis whether she can act with any subtlety — she only really is required to do two things and both in very high registers of terror — plead and be angry. But she does deliver. Literally.

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SOUL KITCHEN (Fatih Akin, Germany, 6)

This may sound like damning with faint praise, but SOUL KITCHEN is basically the world’s greatest 12-inch-single remix of episodes of “Alice” — which is both its strength and its limitation. The film even invites the comparison — I don’t know how consciously; it’s also the style of blaxploitation — by having the credit style and opening music conspicuously come from the 1970s. Seriously, this story about a Greek’s effort to run a restaurant in Hamburg so resembled “Alice” in the multiple character-plot strands that I began mentally ticking off real “Alice” episodes — Mel losing the restaurant in a poker game; Mel wanting to get out of the business and sell the diner, leaving Alice, Flo and Vera out in the cold; Mel being incapacitated by a back injury; the women learning to cook without Mel around; Mel hiring a new chef to upscale the menu; a private party wrecks the diner; threats to close the diner by health inspectors. Every one of those is an actual episode from “Alice,” plus such recurring themes as Flo’s romantic issues, a dessert made with an aphrodisiac, the motley crew taking on The Man and so on.

But as I say, I mostly mean this as praise, if limiting praise. SOUL KITCHEN knows it is derivative and sitcommy and has as much fun with its “remix” as you can expect with such a movie. The upscaling chef is a comic delight, and I wish there had been more of him particularly — we’re introduced to him at another restaurant refusing to heat gazpacho as a blasphemy against his cooking and he has a way of expressing himself with knives. The movie’s best scene involves him taking a simple diner-fried meal and before the owner’s eyes, repackaging just a fraction of it as haute cuisine that’ll sell for 45 euros (mixing mayo and ketchup was the capper). And don’t worry — everything turns out happily in the end, even after I wrote in my notes “this is basically a movie of defeat.” The film also works as “food porn” — luxuriating in the sight of banquets and meals being prepared and whatnot. Speaking of sex, the thread about a food aphrodisiac is the essential plot behind LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, a Mexican film from the early-90s that was one of the biggest foreign-language hits ever. And make no mistake, this movie also is a crowd-pleaser (I’ve overheard three strangers in lines or in audiences saying it was their favorite film of the festival. If SOUL KITCHEN is handled correctly by the right distributor, it will be (not “could be”; “will be”) the biggest foreign-language hit of whatever year it comes out.

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MY DOG TULIP (Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, USA, 3)

A couple of years ago, an estrangement began (there were later causes too) between myself and a Christian critic over the announcement that ZOO, based on a notorious fatal case of horse sexual abuse, would play at Sundance. I defended the notion that one could make a worthwhile film about excessive or obsessive love between humans and animals (not necessarily that Robinson Devor did make one — we were all operating in a critical vacuum, a key part of why I saw his post as sheer demagoguery). One of the films I cited was WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU, based on a J.R. Ackerley novel about a man’s dog whom his gay lover comes to see as representing him while he serves a prison term. So I was excited at the possibility of a film from another Ackerley novel on a similar topic. MY DOG TULIP is also set in post-war Britain, and also centers on an Alsatian and on its relationship with the owner, the narrator of the film. Christopher Plummer narrates very well, but in a way that’s too dry, charming and witty for the film’s eventual own good — more on that anon.

The animation was interesting in a low-tech kind of way; the drawing is resolutely two-dimensional and keeps the look of paper-and-pencil sketches (though it was actually entirely done on computers with no actual trees having to give their lives for this project). Indeed, the look is even more radically stripped down to a schoolboyish few lines on lined-paper for the several “imagination” scenes. The style is resolutely that of early 20th century Britain, appropriate to the setting, and reminding me also of the illustration style of the British kids books I had as a boy — Paddington Bear, Puffin editions of Milne or Edward Lear.

But what an unclean experience. The content of the two works really left me irked, and a programmer buddy told me his wife also loved WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU and sought out this book on that basis, and had the exact same reaction — that it’s nothing more than a very adolescent obsession with bodily functions. You could imagine Beavis and Butt-head being asked to write about owning a dog and producing something like this. Most of the movie (and I assume the book too), and I’m not exaggerating when I say “most,” centers on rituals surrounding peeing, crapping and mating — mostly the dog’s and the narrator’s fascination thereat, though we’re helpfully told of the epiphany of Tulip becoming as interested in his human urine. Nor is it simply the story, it’s also details in the drawing like showing a randy maid with two large curves under her chest or showing Tulip (a female) with eight such curves (the drawing is sufficiently stylized and low-tech that realism is no excuse). And when the narrator described using Vaseline to facilitate Tulip’s receiving the attention of a male Alsatian, I pretty much checked out of the movie. Not necessarily because of crassness or crudeness, because MY DOG TULIP isn’t exactly either — I am not an easily offended person and I might have enjoyed a bawdily-toned openly X-rated cartoon like FRITZ THE CAT.  But because the dry narration and understated animation, when combined with a schoolchild’s focus on clinical discussions of sex and waste, frankly creeped me out. Because the people making it are not schoolchildren. The book/film have the aura, not of watching a porn movie, but of looking at a flasher walk down the street waiting to strike or of sitting on the lap of an old man in a raincoat. You just feel more weirded out the more charming and apparently-witty the descriptions become, like how the subject of an unsuccessful effort to mate Tulip “is one that requires no further enlarging upon.” Enlarging? Huh-huh, huh-huh. Yeah … hehehehe … He said “enlarge.”

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Toronto grades — Day 4

MASS (Jesus Christ, from East to West, from age to age, 10)
DORIAN GRAY (Oliver Parker, Britain, 4)
VALHALLA RISING (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/Britain, 6)
THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, USA, 7)
BIG DIG (Ephesim Kishon, Israel, 8)

September 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Father Neuhaus

fatherneuhaus2I hope to finish up some lengthy movie-related content later tonight.

But here’s what I spent much of yesterday working on — an obituary for Father Richard John Neuhaus, which Times religion editor Julia Duin polished and updated in my absence this morning when, as expected, Father died. (He had received the last rites of the Church the night before.)

January 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

C’est moi, c’est Lola

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LOLA MONTES (Max Ophuls, France, 1955, 9)

I rented a VHS tape of LOLA MONTES from Blockbuster almost 20 years ago, and it was the first time I ever saw a video in the Letterbox (or Widescreen Video) format. The picture at the top of this piece is of LOLA MONTES’ first post-credits image(1); it practically popped my eyes out and sold me instantly and forever on letterboxing. I already well understood the geometry of the TV-screen shape and the widescreen shape but to have THAT be the first image was one of the unforgettable, seminal moments of my filmgoing life. How could I even think of looking at this film with one of those two chandeliers cropped out, or maybe both chopped in half? Or any other similar film. And since that dynamic first shot goes on for 3 or 4 minutes in a single track while a veritable circus of events goes on in the background, LOLA MONTES couldn’t have been better Providentially planned to tell me — “here’s what you miss if you don’t letterbox.”

I looked again at LOLA MONTES last week on a 20-year-old second-generation VHS tape over a period of several days, treating the film as the equivalent of bedside reading — watching as much as I could when I was tired, and stopping when I could no longer keep my eyes open. Not the ideal way to see the film, of course, but it underlined the film’s dreamy, episodic quality, and its status as a memory piece about discourse. But next week (and believe me, I’m counting the days), myself and other Washington filmgoers will get a chance to see LOLA MONTES the right way, as Rialto Pictures is giving the film a theatrical release (no doubt to gather publicity for an imminent DVD release, but I’ll take em any way they’ll give em). Here’s the trailer.

Several things about LOLA MONTES are obvious from the trailer even to someone who hasn’t seen the film (and since I have, there’s no “trailer fooling” me). First of all, that the film is a marvel of art and set decoration, of sumptuous excess, which the film gobbles up, thanks to director Max Ophuls’s near-constantly moving camera. Second, that Ophuls repeatedly uses multiple-level buildings, which in the film become social-climbing metaphors (e.g., action taking place on sets with multiple floors or a narrated trapeze act. The trailer shows the former but not the latter, my favorite scene in the film). Third, that lead actress Martine Carol is rather wooden in the noncircus scenes and trying rather too hard to “Act” in the circus ones. Her role is to serve as a doll or model at best, surrounded by a gaggle of supporting paraphernalia, carefully arranged and framed and layered, as here.

LOLA MONTES is a sort-of-biopic, structured rather like CITIZEN KANE in that both films start with a framing device — a “present tense” at the end of the titular character’s life that purports to tell about that life. These present-tense scenes weave themselves around and through a series of flashbacks to biopic episodes — with much tension between the present-tense discourse and the past-tense flashbacks. Unlike the newspaperman’s quest in KANE for “Rosebud,” LOLA’s “present tense” takes place at a single circus performance; it’s also more prominent in the overall film. I didn’t measure, but I’d estimate about 1/3 of LOLA’s running time takes place at that performance. The formerly-famous and scandalous 19th-century courtesan Lola Montes once had at her feet the men of Europe from kings to students, but now she’s been reduced to being the sort of circus act that people come to stare at and hear about. The flashbacks are her memories.

The curse on the film’s reputation has always been the performance of Martine Carol as Lola. As I said is clear above from the trailer, it is problematic to say the least (though Ty Burr of the Boston Globe dissents well here). Andrew Sarris famously called LOLA MONTES “the greatest film of all time,” though he backed off that later by saying, though not in a place I can find online, that Carol’s performance is simply too weak.(2) Andrew O’Hehir of Salon also measured his praise, though on different grounds, saying:

Lola Montes comes off in 2008 as an enormous and creaky artifice, tough for modern viewers to “get” without a laborious set of CliffsNotes. What was once original and confrontational about it has been swamped by later movies, and what remains seems grand and old-fashioned without being especially absorbing. …

Ophüls’ forward-looking technique is married to his perplexing fascination with the social rituals of 19th century Europe, and because of his total lack of interest in anything we would consider psychological realism.

I understand what O’Hehir is getting at, even stipulating that I have no problem per se with out-of-time irrelevance, and indeed, vastly prefer it, all else equal, to stabs at relevance in period movies.(3) I still think he misses why I think the film remained fresh and vital to me last week, even in the very unideal manner in which I saw it and stipulating Carol’s bad performance, which I think holds the key to how the film works. (Still … to think of what this film could have been if Ophuls could have coaxed Greta Garbo out of retirement, as he tried to a couple of years previously to appear in a proposed version of THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS … vjm weeps.)

My “gut” reaction was that the circus scenes were magnificent and worth the price of admission by themselves because of Peter Ustinov’s sheer virtuosity as the ringmaster and the spectacle he was mastering, while the flashback scenes, the ones depending most on Carol to deliver as an actress, were often rather flat. And the scenes among them that worked best were the ones most like the circus scenes, i.e., those that had an air of public performance about them. This gap is exactly what LOLA MONTES is about — the transformation through art of banal life material into a virtuoso spectacle.

Lola Montes lived a scandalous life as a courtesan, which the judgmental among us might call a glorified and perfumed whore. Her scandal won her fame and riches, but by the end all she’s got left is being a circus freak, turning her life into discourse, accepting an offer she rejected with contempt earlier. And yet that discourse about her life, the circus act with tales of sleeping around turned into acts of being grabbed by successive men on horses, is actually more gripping than the life itself. They call it “printing the legend” and all of that. There are shots in the trailer from the film’s flashbacks of people in “verandas,” in multiple “floors” looking out on a central “courtyard” and applauding, i.e., public performance. Is there a more-relevant and more-contemporary story in a world where “any publicity is good publicity” and where celebrity comes in layers and ranks, to the point where people make jokes about washed-up celebrities cannibalizing on their past stardom by playing themselves on reality-TV shows and the like? And yet the circus, the reality TV, where thousands line up and pay a dollar to kiss Lola’s aged hand through a cage, is what’s most gripping about the life of Lola Montes as represented in the film LOLA MONTES.

Which brings us to relationship between Ophuls and the material. He knew he was dealing with an actress he needed for box office, for name, for an attraction, but who couldn’t even act her way INTO the proverbial wet paper bag. In a review the trailer amusingly takes out of context, Stanley Kauffmann called Carol “a celebrity in today’s most-synthetic sense” and compared her to Zsa Zsa Gabor: she “never could act, and here she isn’t even pretty.” There are moments where the circus act shows us Lola’s limitations as a performer. One such moment is in the trailer — Lola dealing with the bars, set at a height that makes neither going under them or kicking up to them very impressive. The audience loves it because of the interest the ringmaster put into the circus act — in what he choreographs, in what he surrounds Lola with, in his narration, in his cinematic style.
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1 Though here it’s a screen-capture, so it’s blurrier and darker even than a good tape.
2 Replacing it with MADAME DE…, certainly a great film, and certainly one that doesn’t have the “Carol” problem, instead boasting three near-perfect ensemble leads.
3 To paraphrase one of Salon’s commenters, a great film needn’t make itself relevant to you, but rather make you relevant to it.

November 14, 2008 Posted by | Max Ophuls, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dith Pran dies

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dithpran.jpgDith Pran’s life and tale of survival under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government became a movie. That movie THE KILLING FIELDS became a worldwide success, its very name coming to symbolize that vile China-backed Romantic-Communist regime, and Dith Pran used his celebrity to educate the world about that regime and become a constant burr in its saddle (he was quoted in the AP’s Pol Pot obituary, for example).¹ Dith Pran died yesterday.

THE KILLING FIELDS was one of the few serious movies made in the West from the late-60s until the end of the Cold War that can unabashedly be called anti-Communist. It’s primary subject was a Communist genocide and it’s the only “Vietnam War” film I can think of (it’s certainly by far the most significant) that is about the hell that US withdrawal created despite the assurances of peace-loving liberals at the time that US leaving the field in the Iraq Vietnam War would bring end the bloodshed. Oh, there’s a couple of asides in the film where characters say, close as I can recall, “after what the US did to them, I don’t think the Khmer Rouge will be very forgiving” or “the US underestimated the fury that tons of bombs can create” — lamely trying to suggest that the US created the Khmer Rouge.²

But the events that Dith underwent, and the magnitude of the Khmer Rouge genocide, are simply too overwhelming to withstand such spin. Nobody who’s seen the movie will ever forget — I will be vague to keep the surprise — a scene of Dith falling into an irrigation ditch. Apparently, according to this Dith obituary from AP (that I edited down from 35 inches to 15 to fit a hole), it was Dith who invented the term “killing fields.”

It was Mr. Dith who coined the term “killing fields” for the horrifying clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.
“That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp,” Mr. Schanberg said later.

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March 31, 2008 Posted by | Communism, Dith Pran, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I have been too stunned for days

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… I don’t know how to react when the film I think the absolute best of the year wins the Oscar for best film. Not the year’s best American film winning, not the year’s best Oscar-bait film winning, not the best of the five nominees winning — the year’s best film winning. Only 2 1/2 of the 79 previous Best Film winners¹ was my favorite for that year and all of them happened only in retrospect, i.e., in the years from before I became a serious filmgoer: AMADEUS won for 1984 (23 years ago), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA for 1962 (22 years before that), and SUNRISE for 1927-28 (34 years before that). At that rate, I figure the coinciding of tastes should happen once more before I die.

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March 1, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

The end of 4 MONTHS

 

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In a discussion at the Arts & Faith discussion board, Steve Greydanus asked a question about the ending of 4 WEEKS, 3 MONTHS AND 2 DAYS (SPOILER warning), and a good one that speaks to part of what the film says and shows about abortion:

Is it Gabita or Otilia who comments in the final scene that “we must never speak about this again”? I remember it as Gabita but I’m not sure. Also, I don’t have the exact wording in my notes — anyone have it? Thanks.

Actually, that final line was spoken by Otilia, the women who arranges the abortion for her friend Gabita and whom the movie mostly follows. And the context is particularly damning. Here is the last exchange from my notes, which obviously are fallible in small details but not the ones I’ll emphasize. The pair are sitting down at a restaurant.

Gabita: Did you bury it?
Otilia: You know what we’re going to do. We’re never going to talk about this. OK?

Then a lengthy, lengthy pause and no words are exchanged between the women, until the film suddenly cuts to black.

Leading into that conversation, they had been served their dinner, and Steve describes it thus in his excellent review:

4 Months comes closest to commentary in the final scene, which finds one of the main characters sitting down to a meal in the restaurant of the hotel where the abortion was performed. A wedding reception is in full swing in the next room, but a fight has broken out in the party. The waiter brings a dish from the reception menu: beef, liver, kidneys, breaded brains. What happens when human beings treat one another as no more than this? 4 Months offers queasy but meaty food for thought.

Look at all the signifiers here: a wedding, the icon of sex, gone wrong; body parts served, as if in response to the “never speak of this again” answer; a lengthy shot of silence, as if absorbing the unspeakable. And then there’s that last question, thus prompting that answer.

The women had been told, quite pragmatically, by the abortionist not to flush the baby down the toilet (it’ll stop up the plumbing and prompt an investigation) and not to bury it (dogs will dig it up for food), but to toss it down a high-rise garbage chute (untraceable and probably never to be noticed). Otilia considered both these alternatives while carrying the towel-wrapped corpse; she even gets the attention of some dogs who can smell the blood in her bag. She did what the abortionist told her. But Gabita asks her “did you bury it?” The answer is unspeakable … and so, we’re never going to talk about this. OK?

February 8, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Romanian baby killers!!!!

This trailer for 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, which opened Friday in New York and expands at least to Washington this Friday is really one of the most expert ones I have seen in a long time. (I saw it at THE SAVAGES last weekend.)

It’s incredibly effective at selling the movie, without simply aping the movie (in fact, stylistically, it’s nothing like Mungiu’s film). The short shots, the sharp cuts, the sudden blackouts, the flash edits, the constant motion of both the camera and the things within the frame (amped up by the shortness of the shots) and the “zzzzmmmmppppp” sound effect really wind you up for a tension-filled thriller — what the film is, in many respects. But the trailer does this in the only way you can in 2 minutes. And then there’s hose musical thumps on the soundtrack that you realize eventually become … the sound of a heartbeat.

I’ll try to have something to say in the next few days about some of the reviews I’ve read. But in the meantime, here’s what I wrote back in September about 4 MONTHS, which I thoroughly recommend and would be perfectly happy to see atop my 10 Best list this time next year. (I see that Peter Chattaway and Steve Greydanus agree with me, so this isn’t a case of “Victor’s iconoclastic tastes setting him apart from other Christians.” Can there be a better recommendation for an abortion movie than that the Academy snubbed it for Best Foreign Film?)

January 29, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The start of an affair

greene.jpgA few weeks ago, I bought a book of film-criticism by a man, a famous literary figure, whom I’d heard had done film criticism (and later worked as a film writer), but never read any of it. It’s a single-volume hardback, first US printing, of “Graham Greene on Film,” which collects all (or nearly all) of the film reviews Greene wrote for the London Spectator from 1935 to 1940.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough — I bought it at a used book store and it’s available in several forms at Amazon; even the particular volume I got is available used from outside sellers via Amazon.

I exaggerate not when I say that not since my first readings of Pauline Kael 20 years ago (and there is no higher praise than Kael comparisons in Victorspeak), have I read a critic with whom I felt so simpatico, or felt so envious of. Whose sensibility seemed so tapped into mine. That’s not a coincidence — I really think Kael and Greene had a great affinity, at least in their critical sensibilities despite their surface differences (British-vs.-American, waveringly devout Catholic-vs.-secular Jew, dry-vs.-galloping senses of humor, sorta-left Tory-vs.-populist liberal, etc.)

Though the affinity doesn’t end with it, it does begin with the fact that both Greene and Kael wrote personally in their own voice, confident of their own judgments, reflected in each critic’s constant use of the first-person plural and the second person, indicating that the reader is expected to be in intimate communion with the critic, addressing you personally, as one of us. “The story doesn’t concern you too closely, so that you can leave the theater feeling fine and sad, as if your human nature had been paid a very pretty compliment. You have had a taste between [the newsreel] and [the cartoon] of the Soul, Love, the Point of Honor before the lights go on.” Which of the two wrote that?

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January 24, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

P.T.A. ♥ S.K.

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THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2007) — 9

Paul Thomas Anderson wears his influences and inspirations on his sleeves. His previous three films have all operated under the heavy shadow of Martin Scorsese (BOOGIE NIGHTS), Robert Altman (MAGNOLIA) or Jonathan Demme (PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE). His latest film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, though it has other antecedents, seems like Anderson’s attempt to do a remix job on Stanley Kubrick. Ya gotta say this much for PT — he only steals from the best.

And right from the very start. The very first shot of BLOOD plonks us into 2001 territory — a rocky landscape in untouched nature, accompanied by music that so sounds like Gyorgy Ligeti’s famously-strange dissonant modernism (You can hear it as the film’s Web site starts to load) that I was surprised to learn later that it was not Ligeti. Instead, the virtuoso score is all-original work by Jonny Greenwood, who just as often turned out themes in completely different styles like Bernard Hermann with the high-pitched fast strings here, Michael Nyman with the legato weeping-strings passages here and here, and some of Giovanni Fusco’s work for Antonioni here. (The soundtrack is an obvious steal at any price here.) Other sound touches that Stan the Man would have been proud of include the impressionistic use of silence on the soundtrack. The explosion that deafens a character in BLOOD reminded me of the deadness of space in 2001, and its blending into sound as Dave comes back into Being and re-enters creation on the Discovery.

Like in 2001, a lengthy, wordless sequence of maybe 20-25 minutes begins the proceedings, only instead of apes escaping nature through the discovery of tools, we see a man, Daniel Plainview, prospect for oil. He starts out as a tradesman, a genuine wildcatter before he really becomes a “businessman.” In this sequence, the basic threads, setup and motifs are laid out. The trailer at the film’s site gives you more of an impression that Day-Lewis is imitating John Huston in CHINATOWN. But that’s mostly voice — it gives no indication of either pitch or body language,where the primary influence is Jack Nicholson from THE SHINING, particularly when he cracks up near the end, something Noah Cross never does in CHINATOWN. And appropriately, Lewis in the dialog-free beginning also had more of Nicholson and also the feral quality of the 2001 apes. Kubrick always wanted Big, conceptual performances from his actors and Day-Lewis can do that without collapsing into caricature better than anyone today (I weep to think what he could have done under Kubrick’s direction). It’s no surprise to me than Dan Sallitt, with whom I’ve butted heads on “Kubrick acting” before, didn’t care for this movie.

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January 7, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia on My Mind

In a few hours, Scotland will play the game I have been dreading for the month since our victory over the perfidious French made qualifying for the Euro 2008 tournament a real possibility. It’s not the last game, at home against Italy. It’s a Wednesday afternoon game against one of those ex-commie countries that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

But before I get to fretting, here’s the highlights from Saturday’s glorious victory over another of those ex-commie countries that didn’t exist 20 years ago. (Though I’m sad to hear the Hampden Park PA system playing that awful Proclaimers song.)

Anyway, this afternoon’s game is against Georgia in Tbilisi and it’s being touted, for example in the Guardian, with such headlines as “Scotland confident of overwhelming weakened Georgia.”

This is exactly the kind of game Scotland have historically screwed up. It’s a longstanding pattern — win heroically against the big boys and fall flat on our face against the teams we should beat. Maybe the most-fabled victory in Scotland’s history was a 3-2 victory in 1967 at Wembley over the England team that had won the World Cup on that very ground the previous year. But it’s for naught. UEFA made two years of the former Home International championship into a 1968 European Championship group, and the English go through because we lost one game to to Northern Ireland and drew another against Wales.

stalin.jpgRight after the Ukraine game, the Scotsman was reporting that Georgia plan to field an experimental side, with a lot of young players, get them experience, etc. The Guardian report above details three minors that Georgia plans to play. But still … we needed an 89th-minute goal to beat them 2-1 in Glasgow.

I fear the worst.

Keep in mind … this is a country whose two most-famous historical personages are Stalin¹ and Medea.²

Yes, we are a bunch of dour Calvinists. Remember that scene in THE 39 STEPS on a Scottish farm. That was fairly good.
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¹ The only public museum and statue of Stalin in the world is in Gori, Georgia. My understanding is that Stalin is admired in Georgia not only on “local boy made good” grounds plus a traditionalist admiration for strongmen, but also on “local boy stuck it to the Russians” grounds.
² We should be lucky to get out alive. Let’s hope none of our players took along their kids.

October 17, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

Not by Lars von Trier

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THE KINGDOM (Peter Berg, USA, 2007, 7)

I saw this film in the company of a group of counter-terrorism analysts, the majority of whom have at least some facility with Arabic and in whose company I was probably the least knowledgeable person about Arabian and Saudi politics and society. It was a bit of an intimidating experience, albeit one much preferable to seeing it with such deep geopolitical thinkers as Kenneth Turan of the LA Times (“across-the-board portrait of malevolent Arabs [with a] … thematic similarity to those jingoistic World War II-era ‘Yellow Peril’ films”) or Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly (“[the] theft of images forever associated with the hideous killing of journalist Daniel Pearl … a decent person might look away in disgust. The sight of a masked gunman on a balcony evokes the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, but for no good reason.”)

The film promises to be great in its first two scenes — a historical montage and a terrorist assault on the American section of Riyadh. The former is as swift, direct and accurate as is reasonable to expect of a historical background primer (in this case, the history of US-Saudi ties) with just a couple of minutes to cover about 80 years. The latter shows Berg knows how to milk an action scene for both the suspense of preparation, the chaos of its violence, the swiftness of a suicide bomber, and the ultimate brutality of the whole plan, once revealed.

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Which is a pity, because the rest of the movie is really only OK, with occasional flashes of excellence. Or rather, when THE KINGDOM is about the machinations of doing business in the byzantine political and social worlds of Washington and Riyadh, it is very good. But once those labyrinths has been negotiated, it retreats into familiar police procedural/action film territory. Berg keeps the sequences clear and intelligible, but THE KINGDOM eventually just hunkers down into the kind of routine spolosionfest that Hollywood’s assembly line cranks out like Detroit’s used to. The FBI team is a Benneton ad’s worth of diversity — a black, a woman, a Jew and a redneck — and it’s hard to resist wondering about the smarts of an FBI guy (or a scriptwriter) who would handle such a politically-sensitive mission by assembling such a squad (or rather, two-fourths of it).

Still, there’s a lot to like. Everyone with whom I saw THE KINGDOM agreed is that it gets Saudi society right — an “otherworld” where Americans are always outsiders and never can be certain whom they can trust and whom they cannot trust. There is a scene of a video-game parlor, where the kids play first-person jihad simulators and, upon seeing Jamie Foxx, ask the grandfatherly cafe owner (in unsubtitled Arabic that I still understood and confirmed afterward) whether they should kill the American. Saudi institutions are not the legal-rational secular bureaucracy that America’s are, but those of an honor-based Muslim patriarchy based on loyalty and family — everything depends on who one knows, and all appearances must be upheld, including avoidance of appearing too complicit with the infidels. It looks to us very much like corruption. Before you can do anything, you must negotiate the right to do it, though this is rhymed with similar machinations from head righteous dude Foxx, of the Beltway-Journalism genre, to get the trip in the first place.

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There is also one very strong performance (Chris Cooper is good, but he can play this sort of good-o-bwoy in his sleep) — and that is Ashraf Barhom as the Saudi police minder for the group, the one character who has real depth and an arc. As for the rest of the Saudi police and functionaries and princes: they’re not really evil — just disinterested except when it involves saving face. A State Department functionary played by Jeremy Piven is suitably and realistically unctuous. A couple of people also said at dinner afterwards that the Arabic was correct, although there were some subtitle quibbles and a general consensus that, in the subtleties, it usually more resembled the Arabic of Israel or Lebanon than that of Saudi Arabia. But the greatest proof of this film’s worth and authenticity — Saudi Arabia has forbidden its importation.¹

The KINGDOM’s ending seems to traffic in moral equivalence — it’s revealed that two “death whispers” on opposite sides of the jihad were the same line. But in this context, it’s hardly supportive of the Peace Narrative. At some level, it’s useless to deny, “blowback” [sic] and “cycle of violence” [sic] are true. Or that all actors consider themselves moral superiors to opponents. But understand that this “blowback” and “cycle” are not the product of an optional war, but of a law-enforcement operation that is (or should be) supported by the sort of liberal who says he opposes the Iraq war because it supposedly distracts from the war against Al Qaeda (i.e., this kind of action). There is no getting around the fact that any war, just or unjust, wise or unwise, kills people and will leave behind family members who, cultural prerequisites existing, become bent on vengeance.

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¹ The country has no public movie theaters, but many wealthy Saudis have private screening rooms and films usually can be imported for this purpose. Also, DVD players and discs are as ubiquitous there as in other rich countries.

October 16, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Me and Max

max2.jpgAs great as were the justly-hyped new films by Andersson, the Coens, Reygadas, Maddin, Mungiu, etc. — the event at Toronto I was most looking forward to, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, was seeing Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING presented in the Dialogues program by Max von Sydow. SPRING is a very very good film obviously, but it’s not Bergman’s greatest by a long shot (not even in his Top 10, I’d say). Still … a month after the death of the cinema’s maybe-greatest director, to see one of his films presented by his maybe-greatest actor, with an onstage interview and an audience Q-and-A … no explanation is possible or necessary. It’d be like skipping your best friend’s funeral.

It was even better than I’d hoped.

I arrived as early as I could to make sure I’d get a good seat and got one in the very front row. (These fill up slowly even at the mostly-excellent TIFF theaters. At this one, the Isabel Bader, the screen is on a slightly-elevated live-theater stage, and back a bit, so there’s no neck-craning at all.) And I was just four seats or so in from the aisle — prime autograph-stalking territory. And just 20 feet away from where Von Sydow would be when introducing SPRING and then being interviewed afterward by festival director Piers Handling. While waiting in my seat, my parents called and I told them excitedly and breathlessly where I was and who I was about to see: “Max Von Sydow … THE VIRGIN SPRING … The Knight who played chess with the Grim Reaper? … in THE SEVENTH SEAL??” The person sitting next to me in the theater said: “try the priest in THE EXORCIST.” Well … THAT reference my father got.

When von Sydow strides out on stage, in very good physical shape for a man pushing 80 (born 1929), everyone gives a standing ovation, which von Sydow quickly joins, realizing it’s as much for Bergman as for him. When it finally dies down, I’m close enough to see the tears welling up in von Sydow’s eyes when he says of Bergman “I owe it all to him.” And then they welled up in mine, as if the event was no mere film screening, no … BECAUSE the event was no mere film screening, but a wake for Ingmar Bergman. With von Sydow as the chief eulogist.

After the film was over, von Sydow and Handling came down the aisle, but Handling went up on stage first as the stagehands were arranging chairs, a table, microphones, etc. That was the opportunity I was waiting for and had my festival guidebook deliberately marked at the page for THE VIRGIN SPRING. I quickly walk the 20 feet over to von Sydow, hold out a pen, and say “Mr. von Sydow, would you sign my festival book, on the VIRGIN SPRING page here? It would be a great honor and make my festival.” He does so quickly, and I leave him right as Handling calls him onstage to another standing ovation.

 

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Incredibly, I also got to ask von Sydow a question during the audience Q-and-A. This one didn’t go quite so well. Close as I can recall, what I said was “do you know whether Bergman, when casting his male roles, tailored them to your specific personality offscreen, and do the same for the offscreen personalities of Gunnar Bjornstrand and Erland Josephson and others?” He didn’t give a very good answer, saying in general terms without examples, that he did and that “once a part was cast, he would even rewrite some things to fit me, of course.” Not very illuminating, but that was my fault. What I was hoping for was confirmation or denial for a theory I have about Bergman’s whole body of male roles — that, to coarsely generalize, von Sydow played the tortured souls, Bjornstrand played the self-conscious skeptics and Josephson the post-Christians. And I was wondering whether that was deliberate and/or the result of roles being tailored to the men’s offscreen personalities. In my dreams, von Sydow might have even discussed his own religiosity. But asking it that way would have required a whole critical setup of the premises on my part, and thus my committing the cardinal sin of audience Q-and-As, the questioner making a speech of his own. I also didn’t want to be perceived as asking him too personal a question. So I decided to be short and tactful … and it fell flat. Though, with reference to von Sydow’s own religiosity, he may have revealed something in his word choice during his intro, saying SPRING was about religious clash, and how “there was still a lot of heathen beliefs” in Sweden at the time. “Heathen”?!?! Isn’t that a hate crime? Where were the language police? How did von Sydow ever escape the Soviet Socialist Republic of Canuckistan after committing such an awful Thoughtcrime??¹

Anyway, unlike most TIFF Q-and-As², this one was genuinely enlightening, partly because a prepared professional questioner had most of the time, and partly because von Sydow was trying to be as forthcoming as he could, and was Old-World gracious about everything. When he answered my question for example, he strode toward the part of the stage near where I was sitting, and looked me in the eye as he gave his answer. Later, when someone asked, “what are your personal memories of Bergman,” he responded slowly and sadly, without coming across as scolding: “I can’t talk about that. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Not now.” And surprisingly, while he called the approximately 10 years when he did most of his work for Bergman “the happiest time of my life as an actor,” he said his single favorite role of his whole career, was in PELLE THE CONQUERER.

criterion.jpgVon Sydow recounted his first encounter with Bergman — in the early 50s, as he was starting to make a reputation in Sweden. He and two actor friends wanted to be in one of this hot new director’s movies, and one of them got Bergman’s number somehow, plus wind that he needed to fill a few small roles in his next movie. “So we crammed into a phone booth and told him we were all interested. He turned us down, saying he had completed casting, and I had no contact with him again for several years” — until Bergman was casting THE SEVENTH SEAL.

Surprisingly to me, von Sydow said Bergman gave little explicit direction³, something to the effect of “he gave us general ideas and if we weren’t doing something right, he’d tell us.” But he was not a control-freak, which von Sydow said he liked. “Actors don’t like to be given orders. You want the sense of having some input and some control over what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s boring,” he said. Surprisingly, this was more or less the direction style of another of my favorite directors, but a man who doesn’t have Bergman’s reputation as a great director of actors — Alfred (“actors are cattle“) Hitchcock.⁴

Despite Bergman’s reputation as an expressionist, von Sydow said he tried to make things as realistic as possible in THE VIRGIN SPRING. It wasn’t simply eschewing directorial-tricks like underscore music in the climactic revelation to the mother of who the killers are. But Von Sydow said Bergman also didn’t like “dramatic shadows that had no reason to be there.” When Bergman saw the dailies one day, he realized Sven Nykvist⁵ had the killers casting ominous-looking shadows as they returned unwittingly to the family home. He said Bergman threw a fit … “why? It’s the dead of night,” and before there could be modern illumination. But there wasn’t time to reshoot, and the shadows stayed in the film. Von Sydow also said he didn’t like his performance in the last scene, a very long take which focuses on his post-murder penitential speech. He was shot mostly from behind (though over the course of the shot, it turns into a profile), which he thought was “cheating,” but it was what Bergman wanted. “He said I should direct myself toward God, not the camera,” von Sydow recalled.

Most of all, von Sydow came across as likeable, and as an Old World gentleman, and even his few difficulties with hearing and accented (though otherwise perfect) English contributed to that feel. When asked “what was the most difficult thing you had to provide Bergman,” he paused and gave a one-word answer “Quality.” And paused again before repeating the word and then elaborating a bit. When he was asked the sort of vulgar contemporary question about whether his VIRGIN SPRING character went ballistic against the killers because of “repressed sexual feelings for the daughter,” von Sydow handled it with class and simple directness: “No. Not at all.” When asked what he thought of the theory, he said “sounds like something somebody just came up with,” which I think is a to-Swedish-and-back-to-English translation for “pulled out of his ass.”

 

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But my favorite moment was (of course) a funny anecdote about shooting THE VIRGIN SPRING. In one scene, von Sydow’s character wrestles down a birch tree, to get branches for a cleaning sauna. As you can see from this still above, this tree was isolated and thus von Sydow’s actions more dramatic (he’s locked up the killers and is getting ready for his revenge) and thematically apropos (he’s alone). Von Sydow said “we sent location people all over, but we couldn’t find a usable tree.” The problem was not finding birch trees per se — there are millions of them in Sweden; it’s finding birch trees all by their lonesome, not part of a forest. “So,” von Sydow said, “we found a usable open field and decided to plant one we had just cut down.” When the crew and von Sydow went out there, a bunch of nearby farmers showed up and “couldn’t believe what these crazy people from Stockholm were doing, planting a lone birch tree in the middle of nowhere.” “There’s thousands of trees over there in that forest,” von Sydow recalled the disbelieving farmers as saying. So the team shoots the scene … an exhausting one for von Sydow. But the next day, they look at the previous day’s footage: catastrophe. Some light found its way into the camera and completely blew out the image. “The only things you could see were all-black and all-white,” von Sydow recalled, “since you couldn’t see me, you saw the tree shape fall over all of a sudden, for no reason.” So they had to reshoot. And go back to the same fields. To face the same farmers. Now doubly nonplussed at this bunch of picture folk who can’t even do their crazy games right.
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¹ In a similar vein, when introducing THE WALKER, Paul Schrader used even worse Hateweapons. He was referring to Washington’s (supposedly) being the only place in the US where homosexuality can be grounds for blackmail. He said “in Washington, it’s the sin that dare not speak its name; in New York, it’s the sin that won’t shut up.” SIN?!?!?! That is Badthought! Get that man in a re-education camp!! NOW!!!
² I will never forget the very first question I ever heard at my very first TIFF. It was a Dialogues showing of Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, presented by Canadian director Bruce Sweeney. The first question he had to field still holds the record for “dumbest question ever” — “so why couldn’t they leave the room?”
³ I recalled once having read/seen an interview with Liv Ullmann in which she said the only “character trait” Bergman gave her for Maria in CRIES AND WHISPERS, other than what was in the script, was “she’s the sort of woman who never closes the door after she enters the room.”
⁴ Doris Day, in her memoirs, said something almost identical about Hitchcock’s lack of direction of her in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I can’t find the exact quote quickly, but according to Wikipedia‘s paraphrase: Hitchcock “said everything was fine; if [Day] wasn’t doing what he wanted he would have said something.”
⁵ Throughout, von Sydow pronounced the surname of Bergman’s ace cinematographer, who von Sydow said was as great in his field as Bergman, as “NOOK’-vist.” Which sounds wrong to me (I want to say NIGH’-kvist), but he’s the one who speaks Swedish.

October 3, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 9 Comments

Another post about “Another Year, Another Rwanda Movie”

I haven’t seen SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL and probably will not, unless the buzz is much better than it has been (50 percent at Rotten Tomatoes as I write). But Peter Chattaway brought up an interesting point about the lead he’d planned to write for his review:

“Another year, another Rwanda movie.”
I actually considered beginning my own review of Shake Hands with the Devil that way, but I decided against it, out of a sense that it might seem too disrespectful to those who endured the awful real-life events depicted in this film. I see, however, that Scott Foundas begins his review for Variety that way. Ah well.

I really don’t think appearing disrespectful to anyone should ever be a consideration with a movie and for reasons worth unpacking.

The only people to whom a smart-aleck line like that would be being disrespectful are the makers of the movie, but they don’t get any immunity-by-osmosis from their subject matter. SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL is a movie; it’s not an act of murder or mass murder or genocide, and we as viewers can only react to it as a movie. HANDS might be good, bad or indifferent but you don’t get points in my book (nor should you in anyone’s) for the gravity of your surface subject matter. In fact, giving a film points, even if only implicitly by saying you shouldn’t mock it if it’s bad, is actually what trivializes historical events. It incentivizes the commodification of human suffering by turning it into, and judging it by the standards of, fictionalized discourse … (OK, let’s try that again) … it turns historical events into one mass of raw material for movies — with the bloodier being the better.

I admit I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t generally care for statement or “message” movies; I care more about cinematic and dramatic style than subject matter per se (though there’d better be subject matter). But to state the obvious, HANDS is the most spectacularly brilliant movie ever, it’s not gonna bring back to life a single Tutsi victim. If it’s the most craptacular ever, no Tutsis will die. It is a movie, not ontologically different from HOT FUZZ.

In fact, I’d argue the opposite — that to treat a movie with greater deference in the same way you would a murder or a mass murder or a genocide trivializes the latter. The more one believes that making a good movie about important subject matter is “ennobling,” then the more one must also believe that making a bad movie about that same subject has to be “degrading.” Which again a “no mockery” or “must show reverence” rule would undermine. With greater risk has to come … well, greater risk. As it turns out, Peter liked the movie moderately. But if SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL were a weak, rote movie, as Foundas thought, why isn’t *that* disrespectful toward the Rwandan genocide, trying to piggy-back on the subject matter, and thus doubly worthy of a “comme ci, comme ca” dis? A sliding-scale of reverence towards films based on their surface subject matter is not only bad criticism but also encourages bad movie-making. To show greater deference to a rote or indifferent movie about the Rwandan genocide than to a rote or indifferent movie about zombies only encourages craftsmen and/or hacks to try subjects beyond their ken (the APA calls this “the Stanley Kramer Syndrome”). We already have too many directors who might make good commercial comedies or thrillers or horror movies trying to Make A Statement. (Or gussy up action films with topicality; think BLOOD DIAMOND here.) I’m reminded of Joel McCrea in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, convinced that he only contributes by making O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU. And giving Big Subject Matter some sort of kid-glove treatment is, however mildly, incentivizing such bad ideas. And the movies mostly turn out to be bad anyway. To see how wrong even the greatest of film-makers can go when he tries to make “statement movies,” take a peek some day at Ernst Lubitsch’s BROKEN LULLABY (aka THE MAN I KILLED). Or don’t … trust me.

Much more to my taste is this priceless Mike D’Angelo diss on Polanski’s THE PIANIST, as

… populated by characters who seem to have wandered in from a contemporary Shoah seminar. “There are only 60,000 of us left,” one starving ghetto Jew explains, as his compatriots visibly resist the urge to pull out a ballpoint and start taking notes. “Originally we numbered 500,000.” Like, what, did the Nazis have a big McDonald’s-style sign on every street corner: “Over 439,000 annihilated”?

I had a similar moment as a budding critic for my college paper when reviewing some slasher movie (I forget which one; one of the HALLOWEEN sequels, I think) in which a character holds up a condom into the picture frame during the “let’s have sex so we can be stabbed to death together” scene. This was at the start of late-80s Condomania, and I had written something like: “Heaven forfend that a movie with dozens of motiveless, bloody murders might be perceived as teaching kids a bad lesson about unsafe sex. All that blood splashing around — someone might come down HIV-positive and die.”¹ My journalism professor called the passage “totally tasteless … AIDS is not a joking subject.” I said, “I’m joking about a ridiculous movie scene.” She wasn’t impressed and cut it out, and I’ve resented it ever since.
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¹ The Safe-Sex-Messages in movie of that era convinced me that entertainment-industry figures (or film critics) who say, when the subject is sex or violence or vulgarity or nihilism in the movies (or other entertainment media for that matter) that “movies don’t influence behavior” are either lying or spectacularly stupid.

October 2, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912-2007

It should be obvious, I hope, that Ingmar Bergman was a director I loved, who was in the front rank of my personal pantheon. That made writing about his work a pleasure (separate from considerations of the occasion for my doing so).

But not Michelangelo Antonioni. The other European 60s-art-house star-director who died apparently the same day (though it wasn’t reported until the next) and so will forever be linked with Bergman, was not a personal favorite. But still — appearances here sometimes aside, I don’t think sneering “over-rated” (as this twit did to Bergman) is very productive. And not simply on “speak no ill of the dead” grounds. You just don’t get to Antonioni’s canonical status without there being SOMETHING to your work, and too many critics whom I esteem considered him as great or greater than Bergman.

If you have a serious interest in film, you simply MUST come to grips with Antonioni and give him every chance to engage you, even if ultimately only for slamming rights. Eventually, you will find a canonized director whose films do little or nothing for you. But rather than sneer (as this twit did to Douglas Sirk) … why not consider that this is a blind spot of yours and a personal shortcoming.

So I’ve seen Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA and LA NOTTE at least six times each. And over the years, they did in fact grow on me somewhat. This picture above is from near the end of L’AVVENTURA and the one to the right is from near the end of LA NOTTE. Note how in both cases, the couples eyes show how they are miles apart even while right next to each other. Both films are about tired, alienated people just tediously going through the motions.

Antonioni was also so laborious in his story-telling technique that Pauline Kael championed L’AVVENTURA (she turend against Antonioni later) by comparing it to Henry James when “he chewed more than he bit off.” My bud Adam called him yesterday “an inaction director.” Most of the time, Antonioni develops his drama (not “tells his story”) not merely through indirection, but also through landscapes and compositions. He once, in RED DESERT, famously had a marsh painted gray because the color was how the protagonista felt when she looked at it.

It’s not simply (as Adam said) that Antonioni’s movies were harder to “get into.” No … I think at least in my case that my longtime resistance was simply seeing his early-60s movies for the first time at too young an age (about 24-26 in all cases, if memory serves). But far more than Bergman, Antonioni made middle-aged movies, rather than for “boys who have just heard that God is dead.” To overextend the metaphor, Antonioni’s movies are about people past caring about whether God is dead. About souls burned out beyond their ability to care. It was a view of life, an emotional state that I simply could not tap into in my mid-20s and I don’t imagine that many people can.

But then a couple of years ago, it finally happened. I saw the Antonioni movie that really sent me — the fall 2005 30th anniversary theatrical rerelease of THE PASSENGER.

“Do you speak English” are the first words in the film and a drier opening line has never been written. The first few scenes take place in gorgeous desert and you’re thinking “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA,” particularly when a man on a camel is seen at a distance. But instead of Omar Sharif’s famous entrance, the man simply passes by. A guide boy suddenly runs away from protagonist Jack Nicholson for no reason. We are quickly at sea in the world of human non-relationships and so journalist Nicholson finds a dead body and assumes his identity (for no particular reason beyond “why not”) and gets involved with his business. I think THE PASSENGER probably is Antonioni’s most-accessible movie because it does have and mostly retains a thriller-like plot — intercutting in a kind of “chase” between Nicholson’s assumption of his new identity and the people who knew him trying to track him down while he gets in deeper with these bad guys.

You could build a typical summer blockbuster around that narrative skeleton, but Antonioni is not interested in that. There’s some lumpy metaphor early on (a Land Rover trapped in sand dunes). But having this plot solved the problems that Kael and I at least had long had. Nicholson is as tired with his life as any of the characters in Antonioni’s early-60s Italian films. But his condition is not universal (there are people interested in finding him); he also does something about it (get another life). We thus get more of a sense of the kind of person he had been or could be, rather than pure existential defeatism.

There also was more humor than in his Italian films, like the African who says all white people look alike to him. The slipperiness of identity is also simply a much better theme than the slipperiness of reality (I really really REALLY could not relate to BLOWUP for that reason) There’s also the possibility of a real restart held out, in the person of Maria Schneider — shades of LAST TANGO IN PARIS. But most of all, I think, that I saw THE PASSENGER at 39 and already dreading next year. The theme of the man who wants to leave his life behind and start over — that now means something to me and can resonate with me.

I left THE PASSENGER feeling a sense of discovery as if I’d found a new great auteur to explore. Antonioni had finally “clicked,” and I made a mental note to give his other films a fresh look in light of THE PASSENGER. In fact, now we all have more reason than ever to do so.

August 2, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

I no longer have to think about the answer to the question “who’s the world’s greatest living director?” Eric Rohmer now has the title unquestionably all to himself.¹ Ingmar Bergman died Monday. Appraisals are already pouring in (including this pre-death one by, of all people, Joe Queenan) and I learned of this invaluable site.

More than any other director, Ingmar Bergman was the man who taught me that movies were, or at least could be, more than “just movies” or “mere entertainment.” That films could even be profound quasi-religious experiences. He was also one of the few artists who seemed to have a direct line to my soul — albeit in reverse overall, but while fitting near perfectly upon mine in certain details.

Bergman moved during the course of his career from being a tortured Christian to a tortured post-Christian. God was a constant character in Bergman’s late-50s and early 60s films, but He more or less disappeared after THE SILENCE. In that respect, Bergman played Virgil to my Dante.² Or as I put it here regarding him and Hitchcock: “both Christians who had enormous difficulty being believers.” In the latest edition of Crisis, Michael Foley writes:

There are, needless to say, a vast number of films that point to important truths about human existence without necessarily tapping into something that is quintessentially Christian or Catholic.
This can be true even of films that are bleak and godless — literally. If so many movies today are depressing and desperate, it is because they are an accurate (and hence instructive) mirror of the hell that is life bereft of grace or hope. As Pope John Paul II is reputed to have said, “We owe secular artists appreciation for showing us what the world without God looks like.”

It would obviously be a crude-minded injustice to reduce Bergman to an unintentional cautionary tale against atheism. Among other reasons, his films are far more complicated than that — partly because hell-on-earth cannot literally exist and partly because even though Bergman became an atheist, he was serious enough that he could never live happily with that thought.

The first two Bergman movies I recall seeing were the Medieval morality tales THE SEVENTH SEAL and THE VIRGIN SPRING, both of which I liked a lot. What was immediately obvious was that these movies were different — worth simply looking at and to think about. I also saw them, more or less, at the time I was recovering from adolescent atheism and reverting back to the Catholicism of my boyhood. I already knew of Bergman’s reputation for dark, brooding religiously-based Angst, but these movies spoke to my soul in a direct way.

In the early 60s, Pauline Kael mockingly described Bergman as appealing to “schoolboys who’ve just heard for the first time that God is dead.” But remember that “God is dead” was said by a man who saw that this was as terrifying as it was liberating. And that was exactly the appeal Bergman had. But when at the end of THE VIRGIN SPRING, a character makes a penitential vow, it somehow didn’t matter how relentlessly grim the rest of the movie was. The famous dance on the hillside at the end of THE SEVENTH SEAL works similarly — the last thing we see is the family in the background of the above image happily driving away to a few discreetly lyrical notes.

As I noted above, one of the fascinating things about Bergman’s whole ouevre is the way his films change as he ages. God hardly appears after THE SILENCE, except in the form of one or two one-scene faithless pastors, and in FANNY AND ALEXANDER. Thus, Bergman moves from the perspective of the Knight in THE SEVENTH SEAL to the Squire. Or rather, and this is what made him speak to me so specifically, he had moved to the perspective of the Squire who once was the Knight and wishes he could be again. Thus THE SEVENTH SEAL typifies why I like Bergman even when he poses challenges to my Catholic faith — that he is serious about the stakes in what Allan Bloom called “the most important question facing every man at all times — the religious question.”

Bergman doesn’t take God’s silence or even God’s cruelty as an excuse for smug posturing — he looks on the possibility with dread (Angst, even). Never forget that Heidegger, the man who gave us the current usage of Angst, began adulthood as an Catholic seminarian and that Bergman and existentialism were strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, to whom I was introduced by a fundamentalist Calvinist theology student.

Then, after a mystifying experience with PERSONA that cause me to dismiss the film for years as a mere exercise in cryptography, came WILD STRAWBERRIES. And the face of Victor Sjostrom. Very little, in conventional terms, actually happens during the film’s picaresque except the accumulation of flashbacks and events during the old professor’s car ride to receive an honorary degree. Some of these episodes are riveting in themselves as stand-alone sequences (the bickering married couple; watching the family gathering from his boyhood; the opening dream of clocks without hands, etc.). But Bergman famously said that the most interesting thing to photograph is the human face, and the whole drama in this film is in Sjostrom’s face. What matters is how Sjostrom reacts throughout to such moments as the two youths who debate God’s existence or the resemblance between the girl he picks up and his heartbreak of a lifetime.

WILD STRAWBERRIES was an surrealist/Expressionist visual stunner to be sure (the harsh lighting and silence in the opening dream sequence is a vision of hell without a single flame). But what has stayed with me for almost 20 years is that it was the first time I recall watching a film’s drama primarily through a psychological prism, through an actor’s face, through reactions and refractions, rather than action per se. This disposition, toward psychology and “the pilgrim’s progress of a soul,” is one I retain³ and WILD STRAWBERRIES was an early case of that sea change in my viewing habits. Like SEAL and VIRGIN, STRAWBERRIES ends with a moment of grace as Sjostrom lies back on his pillow to a few notes of music, like the Softened Scrooge of Sweden.

This pattern, of Hell drenched in a few cathartic final moments, continued throughout Bergman’s career. His famed Swedish TV mini-series SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (I’ve only seen the 170-minute theatrical cut; reputedly the five-hour version links the disintegration of the marriage to an abortion) is in no serious sense a “happy movie.” But its principal subject is love, and, in a perversely Existential way, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is actually a moving and romantic film about the subject because it shows how love can remain in the end, even when it is dead (“Love is Dead”?).

There’s nasty recriminations, abandonment, second marriages and even a hard-to-watch scene in which Erland Josephson beats Liv Ullmann and then screams at himself in a pitiless rage. There’s a rawness to the emotions in Bergman’s color movies that his black-and-white movies tended to politely and coolly intellectualize in that Scandinavian chamber-play way. I’m thinking first of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and even WILD STRAWBERRIES to some extent. And not just of SCENES among the color movies, but also Ullmann’s portrayals in FACE TO FACE and AUTUMN SONATA.

And yet. And yet — Johann and Marianne still love one another and still need one another. In their final reunion in the middle of the night in a dark house somewhere in the world, Ullmann cries out for him and the look on Josephson’s face as he rushes to her side says it all. They are forever part of one another and will be because even man’s best efforts can’t tear some things asunder. It’s even perfectly possible (although I don’t advise it, it makes the film less interesting) to leave SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, if uninfluenced by SARABAND, thinking “well, maybe they can or should get back together.”

We get a similar catharsis in another of those Bergman color movies. FACE TO FACE, where Jenny sees her grandparents with one another and learns what the doctor meant in the atheist prayer about becoming real and so rejoins the “army of crippled wretches.” And the last shots of the epiphany in this very dark and mercilessly oversaturated movie (a common Bergman trait in color) is in bright sunlight. By the mid-70s Bergman had pinned all his faith on human relationships, often as symbolized by the touch of another.

But in AUTUMN SONATA, we got something very different. Here love fails, because Ullmann’s character (Eva) is clingy and needy, making demands upon her mother Charlotte, played by Ingrid Bergman. Or as Roger Ebert put it (it doesn’t seem to be on his site):

“And Ingmar Bergman, standing apart from this material and regarding it with clarity and detachment, refuses to find any solutions. There are none, I suppose. A lesser filmmaker would have resolved everything at the end in some form of neat Freudian bookkeeping, but Bergman finds in his story only two people, each demanding love from the other, each doomed by the past to fall just short of the ability to love.”

The key to this is that AUTUMN SONATA begins basically identifying with Eva and her preparations for Charlotte’s visit. But in the course of two virtuoso scenes — one at a piano, the other a late-night quarrel — identification shifts to at least neutrality. Here’s the earlier and first-named scene, unsubtitled, but it hardly matters.

In the latter scene, Eva becomes less and less sympathetic as she becomes more and more damning and becomes more and more demonstrative (there is a lengthy take of pure acting genius when Ullmann chokes back tears on cue). The look on Charlotte’s face as she spits out the half-known, half-revelation “you hate me” is also genius, because it’s when the film definitively shifts identification, but never entirely over to Charlotte. The film fits and contains “both/and” precisely because Charlotte is shown as neglectful, while Eva is shown as a clingy whiner (Pauline Kael hated the film for the latter reason, wrongly assuming that the film totally sides with Eva). I put it this way once:

There’s a similar long take focusing on Eva’s curdling face while Charlotte demonstrates all of Eva’s piano-playing faults, and your reaction then is “poor Eva, Charlotte is a pig.” Now it’s “poor Charlotte, Eva is a pig.” Each is in her own way a pig, but not a mere pig — that is, the pigdom of each feeds off the pigdom of the other in particular unique ways.

And so the open ending is absolute genius and hard-eyedly realistic. They DON’T reconcile because, as Ebert notes, Bergman realizes that the past can’t be set aside because we ARE our pasts, that Eva is as deluded in the end as she is in the beginning. The last lines of the letter are a letter Eva writes to Charlotte (paraphrasing from memory) — “I will never let you out of my life again. Even if it’s all for naught and it’s too late. It must not be too late.” The wish is father to the thought; Eva wants it all to happen again. I mean, if you were Charlotte, would you even look at that letter when it came to you (and it’s obviously from Eva) given what happened in the course of film time? The husband actually gets the movie’s last shot and the look on his face as he puts the note back into the envelope tells us everything. He is the wisest character in the film — awake to both Charlotte’s and Eva’s flaws. And yet … since the surface tone of the last scene is not hopeless and it doesn’t take an imbecile to think that the quarrel may have been cathartic — you can see this same movie playing itself out again and again — hopeful beginning, tension building, demons reign.

Eventually, I did come around to considering PERSONA a masterpiece, and I did so when I stopped trying to “decode” it, particularly the famous beginning and the rhyming middle sequence when the film “breaks.” I eventually came to realize that the film must, by design, disintegrate after this because Eden has been destroyed by sin’s introduction. The idyllic world of the film’s middle section, the two women set apart, and the start of the film, with nurse and patient clearly delineated — they cannot contain the pain and the hatred that the shard of glass has introduced into that world. And done so directly, as opposed to through representation as with Elizabeth facilely watching the TV, say.

The glass also represents the disintegration of identification and role (“who’s the hunter, who’s the game,” in Patty Smyth’s opinion), and so everything that happens after that may or may not be a dream or a fantasy. But to try to definitively answer what’s what misses the point — as opposed to Fellini’s 8 1/2 which, as I say in the footnotes, is rigorously tied to one subjectivity but which is hence completely transparent. PERSONA, at least by the end, is not and cannot be. In other words, I had been trying to impose order where disorder must reign.

And of course, at that point, PERSONA does basically fit together. For example, the confusion about who’s whose husband (including in the husband), especially when contrasted with the erotic charge of Alma’s famous long monolog about the boys on the beach, become possible. The monolog’s very unseenness means it comes from a united subjectivity, while the threesome’s(?) explicit displayedeness crushes eros under the weight of chaos. As the interview book “Bergman on Bergman” put it about the end:

Torsten Manns: That’s when Alma begins to become schizophrenic; her speech disintegrates. She notices that the other woman is projecting herself into her. With her.
Ingmar Bergman: Yes, words cease to exist for her.
TM: But that’s part of the schizophrenic syndrome.
IB: As I see it, Alma’s aggressions in this dream situation take on such enormous proportions, she finds she can no longer use words. She becomes violently disturbed; loses her ability to express herself. She’s like a machine that has gone to pieces but just goes on turning madly, and her words, without any ordered context, just come tumbling out. Bibi found it frighteningly hard to memorize those word-series. To learn a totally meaningless series of words by heart is said to be about the hardest thing you can do.
TM: It’s to be found in Beckett’s Godot
IB: Yes, Lucky holds his long monologue – sentences all chopped up. He makes an endless speech based on fragments of sentences. But in Persona, there aren’t even two words that fit together.”

All the subject matter in the world wouldn’t make any difference though, if Bergman weren’t the stylistic virtuoso that he is and didn’t have the actors that he did. Even if one finds Bergman a pretentious ass, there’s no denying that he assembled one of the greatest stable of actors ever assembled in one guy’s body of work. And as I wrote here about Sven Nykvist, his usual cinematographer:

Nykvist was able to get the kind of images that … made Bergman Bergman — a bold chiaroscuro in the overcast pearl-gray Swedish light in the black-and-white movies; a mercilessly bright, decadent and pastel-free hues in the color ones. Two movies in that latter category — CRIES AND WHISPERS and FANNY AND ALEXANDER — won Nykvist his two Oscars.
For an example, look at this shot from AUTUMN SONATA.** As I said about the Thai director “Joe” having a distinctive look to his films based on the lighting near the Equator, the Swede Nykvist seemed to work best when working with soft, diffused light in nature and a harsh interior contrast. Every time I see CRIES AND WHISPERS (one of my 10 all-time faves), I get a physical chill down my spine and goose flesh all over when we get the outdoor scene that ends the movie — so different in feel, look, breath and ultimately hope from everything that went before it.

And look at these two pairs of images, all shot by Nykvist — the first pair is from FANNY AND ALEXANDER:

this latter pair is from CRIES AND WHISPERS:


Notice how in both cases, in one image the color is dazzlingly saturated, almost to the point of ugliness, while in the other it’s far more muted, to the point of poverty in the FANNY AND ALEXANDER shot. Without seeing the movies in question, it might look like an empty trick, but Bergman/Nykvist played with color and light for dramatic and even theological purposes. In the pair of images from CRIES AND WHISPERS, for example, one is a human-lit interior, of both a set and the human soul, while the other is an exterior scene with natural light shining down to grace us.

Despite all these great achievements (and I haven’t gotten to the greatest yet), Bergman’s critical esteem has been slipping in recent decades, to the point where he’s basically been supplanted in the cinephile pantheon category of Dour, Dark, Boring European Killjoy by Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky and Carl-Theodor Dreyer. There’s some history here. When the cinephilia bug bit me in the late-80s, all of Bergman’s best and best-known films were already on good-quality home video and relatively well-distributed at video stores. By contrast, Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Dreyer — to name just a few “difficult” or “arty” auteurs — were either mere rumors or available only in one or two films only in quickie or pirated or public-domain forms.

But not Bergman. Along with the considerably less-“arty” Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, his movies were easy finds at that time. And Bergman was himself a superstar, known to people who didn’t watch his movies (and would have hated them if they had). For about a quarter-century from 1955 to 1980, give or take, Bergman was the most recognizable “brand-name” art-house film-maker, and the knowledge of him lingers to this day. More than one person at work earlier today said he knew who Bergman was without having seen any of his movies. He made the cover of Time, back in 1960 (can you imagine Michael Haneke or Wong Kar-wai there today). Van Halen alluded to his works. SCTV parodied him. And the famous image of Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL was grist for comics from Woody Allen’s LOVE AND DEATH to BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY. I even recall a MAD Magazine parody of a Garfield strip as done by Bergman (“We are insignificant specks in the scheme of eternity. We should die,” Jon says to Garfield. Then Odie enters the strip.) There’s more here too.

One night in that period, after coming back from the video superstore (a new concept at the time) with several tapes, a couple for the whole family to see, and Bergman’s THE MAGICIAN to watch by myself. My mother asked (you have to imagine this conversation in Glaswegian “patter”): “what’s that other one?” I said, “oh it’s a Swedish film.” She said: “are you watching manky⁴ Swedish movies?” My father rolled his eyes and said “I don’t think it’s THAT kind of Swedish movie. Probably the kind of Swedish movie where they winge about death.” On another occasion, a Swedish co-worker at the newspaper in Augusta, Ga., asked me, when she discovered I was a film buff, what I thought about Bergman. I started to launch into a panegyric before realizing that Karin was not herself a fan. “We don’t like him. He’s given all us Swedes the reputation for being gloomy,” she said.

Part of Bergman’s low standing today among cinephiles, I am convinced, is simply backlash against this unprecedented adulation, plus the related contempt that such familiarity breeds. It’s far easier to laugh at an allegorical Death, because we all have, than to laugh at, for example, an allegorical Donkey.⁵ But part of it is also that Bergman’s nakedly- and selfconsciously-serious style does not play well in The Age of Irony. Nor does his God-hauntedness play well in an era of evangelical atheism that makes best-selling authors out of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Angst and the long dark night of the soul are simply not emotions today’s viewers can easily tap into.⁶

But that very topic, unfortunately, is the subject of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest achievement — CRIES AND WHISPERS, one of my Ten Official All-Time Favorite Films.

It’s a stylized period piece about the ultimate existential fact: Death. Or more so, Dying. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s not an easy film to sit through: in fact, CRIES AND WHISPERS may be the most emotionally grueling movie I’ve ever seen. But seeing it was an epiphany like few I’ve ever had, inside or outside the movie theater. Counterintuitive though it may seem, it’s the ideal depressing movie for times of depression.

Agnes (Harriet Anderson) is dying of cancer. She and the servant Anna (Kari Sylvan) are joined at the family mansion by her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Ullmann), for the last days. There are some flashbacks that reveal that the sisters have grown apart. The behavior of the two visiting sisters to their husbands is psychologically of a piece with what we see among each other in the present, and each has a husband they deserve: a prig and a cuckold, respectively. The only real love in the movie is between Anna and Agnes, exemplified in this famous Pieta shot (which has caused the crude to read lesbianism into the film). Only Anna prays in the whole movie, not even the film’s one pastor, who prays over Agnes’s body in the conditional tense.

Scene after scene plays with perfect, dream-like control, characters seeming to float slowly on the floor, talking in clipped, polished lines and remembering their pasts largely in enormous closeups. One especially great scene consists of Ullmann and Erland Josephson (the first picture above) looking into a mirror during a crude seduction attempt by Ullmann and, in one unbroken take, reading one another’s faces and seeing both the flaws in the other and in themselves as refracted through the other (as I said, the characters in CRIES get whom they deserve).

Then there is the ultimate and perfect Bergman scene IMHO to end with, and one especially poignant on this day. The present-tense drama is over: Agnes has died; her sisters have left the family mansion; Anna is left to read Agnes’s diary. And here’s the flashback to the end on YouTube, which I’ve watched so often that I know everything Agnes says, even though this Swedish clip only has Portuguese subtitles.⁷

I can’t watch this scene without tears welling up and physical chills coursing throughout my spine. The closing title-card words mean “and the cries and whispers cease.” Bergman has (kinda, after his fashion) come to terms with death by his character being “profoundly grateful” for the grace of life’s holy moments even in the midst of everything else. It’s a hope, but one that doesn’t come cheap or easily.

In the Criterion DVD of WILD STRAWBERRIES, one of the extras is a Swedish TV interview in which Bergman says he has come to grips with death being the absolute end. For him. But when he talks about his recently dead final wife, he refuses to believe that she is forever gone. Harsh judgment and existential authenticity is OK for himself, Bergman says, but not for others. But now, on this day, Bergman is one of those “others.” Who thus will never leave the rest of us. I doubt Bergman left the world on terms of friendship with God. Which makes all our prayers more needed than ever.
——————
¹Among those film-makers for whom it’s reasonable to surmise that we have their whole career or near-enough-that.
² Yes, I know that sounds horribly pretentious, even for me. But that really is how intimately I have thought to know at least Bergman-the-artist and my reaction to him over the decades.
³ The four films on the very top of my Official All-Time Favorite List — A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, TIME OUT, REAR WINDOW, and 8 1/2 — can all fairly be called that, in spite of the four films having virtually nothing else in common.
⁴ In general, this word means “filthy,” with the here-extended meaning of “pornographic.”
⁵ My readership is extremely unrepresentative on the point, but I’m still confident at least a sizeable minority don’t get that allusion.
⁶ The two persons who’ve expressed the most contempt for Bergman in my presence and drawn my ire therein are both not simply atheists but anti-theists.
⁷ Here is one account of the voiceover, which seems to follow the Portuguese as best this Spanish semi-literate can discern, and is certainly consonant with my memory: “Wednesday the third of September — The tang of autumn fills the clear still air but it’s mild and fine. My sisters, Karin and Maria have come to see me. It’s wonderful to be together again like in the old days, and I am feeling much better. We were even able to go for a little walk together. Such an event for me, especially since I haven’t been out of doors for so long. Suddenly we began to laugh and run toward the old swing that we hadn’t seen since we were children. We sat in it like three good little sisters and Anna pushed us, slowly and gently. All my aches and pains were gone. The people I am most fond of in all the world were with me. I could hear their chatting around me. I could feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought, “Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.”
—————————-
** Still from AUTUMN SONATA from Matthew Desem at The Criterion Contraption

July 30, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The Third Man

closeup.jpgAfter finishing his application process for his Ambulance-Chasing Apprenticeship, G-Money (can I still call him that?) returns with a strong piece on Harold Lloyd’s silent-comedy masterpiece THE FRESHMAN, and I know he’s seen a lot of other Lloyd films recently.

Both [Charlie] Chaplin and [Buster] Keaton made movies with comic sensibilities that more accurately reflect the tastes of modern audiences. Keaton’s emotional passivity (nicknamed “The Great Stone Face” by his fans) and over-the-top physicality predicted the modern action film; Chaplin’s deeply introspective approach, postmodern sensibilities, and ability to not merely balance comedy and tragedy but to show how the two concepts spill into one another, inspired a generation of highbrow comic filmmakers from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach. By contrast, Lloyd was resolutely a product of his age–his films are full to bursting with the sort of roaring 20’s optimism that some find hopelessly naive. Yet Lloyd was a more perceptive judge of the character of life than many give him credit for, and he is unparalleled as an architect of comic narrative.

Visually, of the Big Three, the “screen world” that Lloyd created has by far the closest resemblance to the “real” world. In fact, Lloyd can hardly have said to have “created” a world at all — he shot on available locations, his character was the least stylized of the Big Three, and he made the least use for such vaudeville conventions as the grease-painted heavy. 1928’s SPEEDY was one of the first post-WW1 films, after the US film industry had centered on Los Angeles, to be shot on location in New York and Lloyd uses it to conspicuous advantage (Coney Island, cameo by Babe Ruth, subways, the final chase).

Compared to the Tramp and the Stoneface, Lloyd’s “Glasses Character” was both more instantly likable and more clearly a realistic social ego-ideal. Steve Greydanus compares him here to Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks (and calls THE KID BROTHER an all-time favorite). His character also can be seen in several different guises, depending on social class. Lloyd is sometimes the poor-boy dreamer (GIRL SHY, SPEEDY), sometimes the eager-beaver middle-class klutz (THE FRESHMAN, GRANDMA’S BOY) and sometimes the callow self-absorbed aristocrat (WHY WORRY?, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE). He even made some films where the tension between these “sides” of the Glasses character is central (AMONG THOSE PRESENT).

Precisely by having similar sets of traits — go-go optimism, pluck, awkwardness — and playing them out in different social contexts, Lloyd gave the Glasses character a richness and shading that some critics wrongly said it lacked. Or to put it another way, his Glasses character was, if not exactly classless, so easily adaptable among classes (“social mobility,” one might call it) as to make Lloyd the quintessentially *American* comedian of the 20s. Chaplin and Keaton were both, though in different ways, more universally-inclined. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s also nothing wrong with embracing a national muthos unselfconsciously and thus, in the work of the best artists, embodying that muthos, which is what Lloyd’s Glasses character eventually did.

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To speak specifically of THE FRESHMAN, it has as much to say about the anxiety of the social climber and the pain of maturation as an outsider as any film of its era. It embraces the American muthos of middle-class achievement, but not uncritically or mindlessly. The image immediately above from THE FRESHMAN shows that Lloyd knew what he was doing, at some level. As Michael describes, Harold tries to be BMOC and popular socially through throwing parties, the closest analog to social mobility besides the thing itself. He’s “let in,” but only in order to string him along for the sake of a cruel joke by the real BMOCs. It all comes apart (literally) in the scene that Michael initially used to illustrate his post:

These fears [of social rejection] finally reach a breaking point at the massive dance Lloyd throws for the entire school, which descends into total chaos as his last-second tuxedo falls into pieces while he’s wearing it … and ends in the crushing realization that his massive efforts to become the school’s social king have gone to naught.

Besides being enormously funny as Harold tries six ways to Sunday to save face by having a tailor at the dance behind a curtain, the key to why this sequence works is something so archetypal it could hardly have been conscious. I don’t want to sound like Zizek here, but having one’s clothes come apart while wearing them is as close as a 1920s movie could come to one of the commonest dreams, and THE metaphor for humiliating social exposure — suddenly finding oneself naked in a public place. Considering that the tux was a last-minute order and stitched together — the metaphor hardly needs elaboration.

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There’s one other way in which Lloyd was THE 20s American comedian, and it’s a point I’m indebted to Richard Schickel for making (I did notice it some myself, though not as clearly as he did and I’ll swipe his examples). The early 20th century was the time where America made the transition from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. By the time of Lloyd’s 1920s, the two societies existed uneasily together, side-by-side. Lloyd himself, like many men born in the Gay 90s (1893) was raised in one world but by adulthood was living in another.

It’s not simply that Lloyd’s films record this fact, but they are utterly unselfconscious about it, while often making this contrast the very subject of his humor. One reason that the iconic image of Harold hanging from a clock in SAFETY LAST has become so famous is not just its technical difficulty and danger, but because so much archetypal meaning is packed away in it — the skyscraper as an image of material progress combined with dangling from a height / fear of falling. And it’s integrated into movie. The scene occurs because Harold has pretended to be better off than he is to impress his girl, but she now wants to marry and, through plot complications, his efforts to prove himself worthy forces him into this stunt — social climbing morphs into literal climbing. With the ever-present fear of falling, again made scarily literal on the skyscraper.

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To the 20s world of Lloyd, the automobile is also a status symbol, an icon of literal mobility, of upward mobility, of personal worth, and untold possibility. Including the possibility of being bitten in the ass. In HOT WATER (shown above), which untypically begins with a marriage, Harold tries to impress his new in-laws by showing off his new car. In a hilarious sequence of gags, the car completely falls apart like his FRESHMAN tuxedo, progressively and more-harshly humiliating him before the toughest audience a man faces in his life (his parents-in-law).

There’s a contrast also worth noting — one scene involves mishaps with a fire engine. Which is powered by a single horse. This exists unremarked-upon alongside a private automobile — like rabbit ears alongside cable TV; and dial-up alongside WiFi. But the clash between the two befuddles and humiliates Harold — the key to his great satirical theme.

One of Lloyd’s greatest films, SPEEDY, is about his efforts to save a horse-drawn tram line in New York City (yes … you read that right) from takeover by Big Transport at the center of the world. In the climactic chase scene of an earlier film, GIRL SHY, Lloyd uses a half-dozen means of transportation, some already obsolete or obsolescent, others of the latest vintage, and without ever commenting on this beyond using their advantages and disadvantages for gags (which is all we can be certain Lloyd himself was conscious of; like the greatest American artists, he never tried for Art).

This common thread runs through more than half of Lloyd’s features — a world the then-new fad called the automobile, and all it symbolized, shared with horse-drawn fire engines and even horse-drawn New York mass transit, and what they stood for. Lloyd may use it explicitly as story or just unselfconsciously use its facticity in the world for gag material, but it became his great theme — dislocation of technology. Schickel puts it “He was not writing on film an early version of ‘Future Shock.’ But it is there to see if one has the eyes to see it.”

Nor is this theme, though the 20s experienced it in the specific ways I described, a theme obsolete. Think of all the jokes (and how they are already obsolete) about people of my parents’ generation not being able to program their VCRs and the flashing “00:00.” And how they now apply to my generation and Generation Wired, for whom MySpace, cell-phone cameras and IMs are the only world they know. A 40-year-old fogey like me cannot blog “a link with no comment” but rather will go on and on, because he thinks of blog posting in essay terms, and for literary value and commentary. Technological society makes a person obsolete by a certain age because the world you know, and shape yourself in accord with, will never last long.

All these very qualities, of timeliness without explicit topicality, certainly “date” Lloyd’s films more precisely than Chaplin’s and Keaton’s, which certainly gives them greater “time capsule” value. But it doesn’t make them “dated” in the bad sense, and while time-capsule value isn’t everything, it’s not nothing either, and it becomes especially and increasingly valuable as the 1920s leave the world of living memory.

May 30, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Cannes winner controversy?

fonda.jpgHopefully, there won’t be a big stink in conservative circles over the fact that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS — a movie about a quest for an illegal abortion in Ceaucescu-era Romania — won the top prize at the world’s most prestigious and important film festival.

I fear the worst though, if there’s much knee-jerking or the word about this film gets out the wrong way. Especially given the headlines from the US press — CNN: “Cannes’ top prize goes to film about abortion” (complete with a picture of Jane Fonda granting the top prize and kissing the director; how many buttons could they push if trying); ABC/Associated Press: “Romanian Abortion Film Wins Cannes Prize”; Drudge (from Agence France-Presse): “Top Cannes award for harrowing Romanian abortion film.”

The film has been noted in the Catholic blogosphere — at American Papist, Catholic Fire and Creative Minority Report — and the common ground is sight-unseen suspicion without very good or even much-stated reasons, even of the kind that are justified sight-unseen. I certainly understand the suspicion to a degree, but VERA DRAKE a “rather mediocre” movie? I didn’t think so. Peter Chattaway didn’t. Jeffrey Overstreet didn’t. I asked Mike D’Angelo, who saw 4 MONTHS at Cannes, how he’d guess I’d react to the “abortion film.” Though Mike is, in his words, “a fairly devout atheist,” he knows my tastes and dispositions (including my religious beliefs) fairly well. This was his answer, cited with permission:

I can’t say, but if you don’t like it I doubt it’ll be for political/moral reasons. It’s an “abortion film” the way SAFE is an “environmental illness” film.

4-months.jpgSo I remain very optimistic that 4 MONTHS will be a good film in itself though, and it’s not simply because I had VERA DRAKE in my Top 5. I really liked THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, the last “harrowing” Romanian movie to come garlanded with Cannes prizes, and also dug 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST when I saw it last year.

There is neutral-to-favorable comment at Lifesite; (some AFP versions of the story even labeled the Cannes prize-winners as “death-obsessed”); nobody from Cannes that I’m aware of was calling 4 MONTHS a great blow for women’s freedom or against the fascist godbag patriarchy or any of the rest of that. And the comments from the director Cristian Mungiu in this Australian ABC article are somewhat encouraging, given the audience and the fact that he was speaking in a language not his own:

Because of the pressure of the regime, women and families were so much concerned about not being caught for making an illegal abortion that they didn’t give one minute of thought about the moral issue … [putting the baby onscreen] makes a point — people should be aware of the consequences of their decisions.

OK, not Father Pavone, but certainly no reason to be suspicious of his movie, which is for most, still sight-unseen. Given the reports the Cannes lineup was unusually strong this year, I am psyched.

May 28, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Muhammad Ali, senior citizen

Gawd, I feel old. My boyhood idol turned 65 today. Muhammad Ali obviously has been “old” for many years now, because of the Parkinson’s disease, but becoming Social-Security age is different. Particularly since if your boyhood idol is an athlete, what you value them for disappears with youth. Peter O’Toole can still get on the stage or screen at 75 and get all sorts of awards buzz. His age affects what roles he can play, sure, but it could still be meaningful to say that “O’Toole is as good as ever.” Not an athlete.

Ali in particular gave his fans a very painful reminder of advanced age in his last two fights — against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. The objective effects of age are underlined by the contrast with what made Ali stand out even beyond his boxing skill — that brash persona; the Louisville Lip, nominating the rounds he would KO his opponent; the poetry. I can still give myself gits and shiggles with “You wanna lose your money / Bet it all on Sonny” and “It’s gonna be a killa, a chilla, a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila.” And been known to give gits and shiggles to others with my imitation of Ali doing his boasting poetry. Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano may (MAY) have been greater fighters in the ring, but neither’s persona had the flamboyance that could be affected by age. They were already low-key, in other words.

But this is already feeling too much like an obit. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Muhammad Ali. The very fact that I was bookish meant that he represented the very opposite, everything I wanted to be because I wasn’t — the heavyweight champion of the world; the baddest man on the planet, etc. And he was brash and funny, too (that much I could at least reasonably aspire to). One of my most-treasured boyhood memories was watching Ali fight on TV and reading about him in books and magazines, even though I’m too young (born 1966) to remember Ali at his best. “His best” was probably this fight, in which he made short work of Cleveland Williams in an early title defense. Williams wasn’t Ali’s toughest opponent, but that fight was probably Ali at his absolute peak, cutting like a buzzsaw through Williams and making a legitimate contender and world-class fighter (whom Sonny Liston called the hardest puncher he ever faced) look like an overmatched schoolboy.

So, I only have boyhood knowledge of “late” Ali, though I’ve now seen most of his fights through endless reruns on ESPN Classic. But I remember like it was yesterday my experience of watching the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. The fight was on at about 1am or 2am in Britain. As I was only 8, I couldn’t stay up that late. But my father put me to bed early, and then got me up in time for us to watch the fight together. Here’s clips from WHEN WE WERE KINGS:

It’s easy now to think of Foreman as the avuncular fat guy hawking his hamburger grills with a smile on his face. At that time, Foreman was thought to be invincible, but my father was convinced Ali would win. He remembered the Sonny Liston fight and knew what Ali was capable of against this kind of opponent — the big-punching, clubbing bully who won most of his fights before the first bell rang through sheer intimidation. Who cause Howard Cosell to scream repeatedly in shock “down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” But Ali won the Foreman fight through attrition and psychology. Making Foreman miss, taking the punches on the arms and elbows, and leaning back on the ropes. If you watch Foreman, you see how amateurish his technique was becoming as the fight wore on — swinging arm-punches like a novice amateur; flailing around, from a mixture of fatigue and frustration. Foreman himself has said that at one point, he landed a clean punch, and Ali said “that all you got, champ?” Foreman said he said to himself “yep” and the fight was psychologically over at that point.

The other great fight from that era was the third fight with Joe Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila. This one I didn’t get to see at the time. It was not shown on British TV, but only via closed-circuit at movie theaters. It was the same overnight-in-Britain-for-US-primetime hour, and I think my father went by himself, probably not wanting a 9-year-old out at 3am on the streets of Glasgow. I’ve now seen it several times — the whole fight is available at YouTube, one round at a time.

What’s remarkable about the Thrilla in Manila is its sheer brutality, most obvious when seen in contrast with the first Frazier-Ali fight in 1971. Then, Frazier was clearly at his peak, and Ali was at his body’s peak age (though Ali obviously had ring rust from his period in exile). Both men were also then-undefeated. Here, in 1975, both men had been beaten, and were in their 30s. Still great fighters, unquestionably, but they had both lost a step and could be hit more easily, and Joe’s swarming style was not quite so fast and thus “handcuffing” of his opponent’s offense (Frazier was a great defensive fighter only in the sense that a great all-pressure offense can be the best defense). Ali-Frazier I might have been a better technical boxing match; but Ali-Frazier III was the greatest “gut-check” long-fight in history. And it folded out so neatly into three acts, with Ali, then Frazier, then Ali again each dominating for a 4-5 round period, until the end, when Frazier could hardly see and his corner kept him in his stool. Ali said of the end of that fight “was a feeling close to death.” Before the fight, Ali and Frazier put a $1 million side bet from their purses on the outcome in their trilogy’s rubber match, as if to emphasize that this fight was as much for the heavyweight championship of each other as for some sanctioning-group’s belt. When reminded of that after the fight, Ali waived the bet: “Joe don’t owe me nothing. We’ve paid all the debts we’re ever gonna owe each other.”

And that was a side that wasn’t often obvious about Ali — that he had more class than his arrogant public persona would have you think. For example, in a coffee-table book that I had as a teenager about the world heavyweight champions, author Henry Cooper said that Ali hated to be introduced to his opponent’s family before a fight. Cooper said he knew of several cases where Ali learned that the other guy’s kids saw him take a beating at his hands and that he sought out the children to have a few words with them afterwards. In the book, Cooper, a former British heavyweight champion who fought Ali twice, called himself “an Ali man” and said all the boasts “were all for the box-office. Boxing has never had anybody like him for promoting his own fights.”

But by 1996, and the spine-tingling moment when a shaky-handed Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, he had become as universally beloved as any athlete alive. On two separate occasions, I asked conservative Vietnam veterans why they thought Jane Fonda was still, decades later, hounded by veterans groups over her trip to North Vietnam, posing on the anti-aircraft gun and all that; while at the same time it was as if Muhammad Ali had never said “I don’t have nothing against no Viet Cong. They never called me nigger” and had never become, as much as any individual, the public face of draft resistance. I said “you can make minor distinctions about the details of their conduct, sure, but that can’t explain the size of the gap between the hatred for Fonda and the love for Ali.” Neither man disputed my point that Ali was loved by vets, but they instead offered explanations that had the following common thread: “Ali had the courage of his convictions and paid for them (implicitly: Fonda didn’t). Ali stayed out of the ring for years, the years of his athletic peak and lost millions of dollars (implicitly: Fonda didn’t).” One of the two, elaborating on Fonda’s privileged background, added words to the effect that Ali was helped by the point of fact the Viet Cong never did call him nigger. The resentment in a case like Ali is obviously going to be less than one like Fonda.

January 17, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Actors loved Robert Altman. When he died earlier today, the tributes came pouring in from his thespians. From Meryl Streep:

“Bob’s restless spirit has moved on. I have to say, when I spoke with him last week, he seemed impatient for the future. He still had the generous, optimistic appetite for the next thing, and we planned the next film laughing in anticipation of the laughs we’d have.”

From Tim Robbins:

He’s “a great friend and inspiration to me since I had the honor of meeting him in 1990. His unique vision and maverick sensibilities in filmmaking have inspired countless directors of my generation and will continue to inspire future filmmakers.”

From Elliot Gould:

Altman’s legacy would “nurture and inspire filmmakers and artists for generations to come … He was my friend and I’ll always be grateful to him for the experience and opportunities he gave me.”

From Tom Skerritt:

“No one can match the sense of joy in filmmaking he gave. I’m sure others who’ve shared the Altman experience have longed for an experience the equal of what Bob gave us, that only Bob could give us.”

Regardless of how good or bad Altman’s movies turned out to be, the first thing you notice about them is that he habitually assembled dream casts (sometimes they actually got away from him), because he made the kinds of “actors’ films” that everyone wanted to be in. An Altman film wasn’t something an actor did for money (Altman didn’t have those kinds of budgets). For one measure of how much actors loved him, consider that Cher agreed to wear red, which she famously never does in real-life, so she could appear in a cameo as herself in Altman’s triumphant early-90s “comeback” film THE PLAYER. Neve Campbell even returned to her girlhood love and, after a tutu-free decade, retrained and refashioned herself into a passable ballet dancer (at least for the eyes of a nonspecialist like myself; not so much someone like Missy) in order to make THE COMPANY with Altman.

Even a middling or downright poor Altman film will have its moments. That’s what being a lover of actors will do. More films are saved from outright worthlessness by an inspired performance or a “holy moment” from an actor than by any other element of the cinematic art.

I hated GOSFORD PARK, but Maggie Smith was wonderfully tart as a Feisty Old Biddy epitomizing the British aristocracy. Judi Densch plays the same role every time, but seldom with the wonderful dottiness and cheerful girlish ridiculousness that Dame Maggie had in GOSFORD PARK (both have the imperious importance and sheer force of personality). I also hated READY-TO-WEAR, but there was one genuinely great scene — of Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren reprising the famous striptease they had done 30 years earlier in DeSica’s YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW (could any woman other than Loren convincingly play a sex-bomb at 60). With a twist. THE COMPANY was pretty good overall but it had a least one great scene — the rain dance — and a memorable character turn by Malcolm McDowell as the world’s biggest ham in a profession full of them. DR. T AND THE WOMEN was wildly uneven and finally petered out, but there was one moment, a fleeting gesture that if you blink, you miss. But like the girl on the ferry for Mr. Bernstein in CITIZEN KANE, it has never left my head. Altman gives us a lengthy track through a kids party, and the family Hispanic maid is trying to cope with all of them. At the side of the frame, she suddenly grabs a glass of champagne and quickly douses her thirst and her frustration with a sigh, an eye roll and a forehead filled with relief.

DR. T (I’m deliberately picking a noncanonized film) also showed another of Altman’s strengths. He really got the texture of Dallas down quite well (although not without some really nasty sarcasm, one of Altman’s downsides): the ritzy malls and upper-class neighborhoods are spot-on; the way the city has made an industry out of JFK conspiracy-mongering; the sudden, violent downpours; the “style” of the pill-and-booze-sodden upper-class Texas society women played by Laura Dern and Farrah Fawcett, defined by rituals as precise as the 100 families in Edith Wharton’s New York. Whether it was a Chicago ballet troupe in THE COMPANY or the L.A. suburbs in SHORT CUTS, he successfully “Altmanized” every world that he chose to film.

Altman was thus one of those directors both in and out of the Hollywood mainstream. Actors loved him but studios didn’t, because he was so insistent in doing things his way and never “went along to get along” when he thought, rightly or wrongly, that a studio or producer treated him badly. He was nominated for five Oscars as best director, but, though he did get an honorary Oscar for career achievement earlier this year, he never won, tying him with Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor and Clarence Brown for the unwanted honor of “Most Often a Bridesmaid.” Apparently, he was being treated for cancer at the time and knew that PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, which was in the can for a release several weeks later, was probably going to be his last film. Indeed, if the time lines in the later-run obituaries are correct, he knew this while he was making the film. Garrison Keillor got bulldozed about the subject of this PHC, which is about a theater’s final show before its scheduled closing and is suffused with images of death, passing and obsolescence, closing with several actors looking into the camera as a Death Angel asks “Who’s Next.”

But his masterpiece is IMHO unquestionably NASHVILLE. What sets it apart is that it’s both dense AND sprawling — in its sound mix, in its performances and in the way the individual moments and characters add up. It’s also *filled* with those kind of holy moments that Altman specialized in creating. I’ll never forget the scene of David Carradine seducing Lily Tomlin with his voice, singing “I’m Easy” while she looks numbed into the camera, moved beyond moving. Then comes the morning after. Gwen Welles’ attempts to be a singer were lump-in-the-throat inducing, between the mixture of her pathetic voice and sincere, loving personage. It made her final gesture of contempt to her audience curiously moving and not the snarkfest that it might have been if mishandled (cf. the dog-shit or the final scene in READY-TO-WEAR).

NASHVILLE is, most distinctively of all, a triumph of architecture — it has the most unexpectedly perfect epic film structure I’ve ever seen. The film seems so jumbled for so long, just seeming to follow 24 characters that share nothing but a setting and a few glancing commonalities, like ships passing in the night. And then the last scene happens and we see what structure the film had been following all along. We had seen a real community in its very creation before it even knew it existed. Wow.

In fact, NASHVILLE may be among the most influential American movies of its era. It was the first big American studio movie to have the apparently-unconnected-but-really-connected narrative structure (that I can think of anyway — Altman’s previous films had mostly been exercises in would-be genre deflation). You can see NASHVILLE’s influence most clearly in Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA (more influenced by SHORT CUTS, obviously — Altman has used the NASHVILLE-structure several times since 1975) and Krzysztof Kieslowksi’s THREE COLORS trilogy, plus such recent award-garlanded or garlanded-to-be films as CRASH, TRAFFIC, BOBBY and BABEL.

In it dense sound mix, lack of a central protagonist, frequent musical numbers, and nonlinear and (apparently) unconnected narrative, NASHVILLE also anticipated the aesthetics of channel-surfing (it even starts out like a 70s TV show ad) and of multimedia net-surfing, long before any of those terms meant anything.

The Altman style from NASHVILLE also profoundly affected American television drama. In the years since NASHVILLE, there have been a score of large-cast ensemble dramas united by location or occupation more than by a single central character — think of LA LAW, HILL STREET BLUES, E.R. Large-cast “town” or “occupation” shows had existed before of course. But they had tended to consistently focus on one character or the same small group of characters rather than have a bunch of approximately equal characters with shifting focus from week-to-week. Also, they tended to have more tightly-focused plots, resolved in an episode, rather than the Altman-influenced technique of having “this week’s” plot off to the side, with the real point being how the characters interact and change over serialized time rather than episode time.

What Altman was probably best known for, style-wise, was what became known as “Altman dialogue.” It was present at the very beginning — in MASH — and at the very end — in PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. It involved people speaking in incomplete sentences or fully-understood fragments, finishing one another’s sentences, talking over one another, having simultaneous conversations — all in one sound mix. This had been done before somewhat (early Orson Welles comes to mind), but never with the extensiveness and conviction that Altman had. When Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin presented Altman with his Lifetime Oscar, they gave a clinic in how to do it. It’s the most eloquent tribute imaginable to a film artist and it was the high point of last year’s show.

http://www.video.simplystreepmedia.com/view/180/78th-annual-academy-awards-2006/

I can’t pretend that I’m the world’s biggest Altman fan myself. I am not, for reasons not really worth rehearsing on this day. But even at 80 in works like A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (where Streep and Tomlin play with that style to just as great effect), Altman was still capable of lighting a fire under young cinephiles who could see, even in his IMHO relatively mediocre works, that Altman was a director worth caring about. Who made his films his way and created through a recognizable world, all his own. That came to me earlier today, when, on a film buff’s discussion board, 26-year-old Brett Buckalew of FilmStew.com said (quoted with permission):

Whenever I re-watch any of his films–and I was fortunate enough to catch PRAIRIE HOME four times before it left theatres–I always at some point have the excited thought in the back of my mind that sometime soon, I’ll get to take yet another trip into his immaculately designed, complexly human universe. No longer, and though I’m a fan of the younger filmmakers who’ve used his influence to form their own particular voices, there sure as hell will never be a replacement.

That ultimately may be the most important thing. Even apart from the specifics of his films, Altman himself was an inspiring figure — the man who made the movies he wanted. The lead quote in the early versions of the Associated Press obits was from the last Oscars, where Altman accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award:

No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop.

This isn’t to say his career didn’t suffer for it, or that he didn’t endure several significant spans in the commercial and critical wilderness. But he stuck to his guns, made the movies he wanted, in the way he wanted to. And that’s inspiring no matter what age you are.

November 21, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment