Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Kimberly over at Cinebeats has some lovely screenshots from the new Godard DVD, PIERROT LE FOU! If you never buy DVDs, this is the DVD to buy this winter. It will fill you with the glorious summer and discontent of... shit man, I aint feelin' well today, so go to Kimberly's site and let her fill you in on its goodness.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Oscar is over - as always it's exciting and relevant while it happens and the minute it's over seems to drift into who cares-ishness.
Some Acidemic highlights--
a. The deadpan "Salute to Periscopes and Binoculars" draws only nervous titters from the irony-deficient audience. A small but glorious instance of humor too dry and abstract for the common masses being allowed to stand.
b. The orchestra assumes older, taller, louder Glenn Hansard is speaking for both himself and demure, younger, smaller Marketa Irglova and burst into cues and commercials right as she's stepping to the mike. We figure Oscar moves ahead two squares for indie power but back three for maintaining the young boy network status quo, BUT then Irglova actually gets brought back after the commercial and is allowed to really speak up on behalf of the indie underdogs she and older boyfriend Glen Hansard represent. I was stunned!
c. Josh Brolin clearly wincing having to mouth dated tough guy lines when co-presenting actually apologizes for doing a bad Jack Nicholson impression, then looks down to the front row to apologize directly to Nicholson! It was a fine moment of off-the cuff connection that caught Nicholson clearly off-guard. The Oscars have always tread in a weird murky water where the artists pat themselves sore over their own tired catch phrase cliches, killing them deader than dead in the process. Here, Brolin partially transcends smarmy Hollywood onanism by addressing the original speaker directly. A small and not particularly successful gesture, but a testament to Brolin's willingness to risk face in the name of "keeping it real."
d. The condescending, wordless smirk of Ethan Cohen
a. Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee" of the forgotten and non-nominated "Bee Movie" gives out an award, bores us with hackneyed antics and offers a "bee" montage that comes too little too late after the spectacular "Salute to Periscopes and Binoculars." Someone over at Dreamworks PR must really be givin' up the Academy payola.
b. In a similar vein, what's up with "Get Smart" theme music for the arrival of Ann Hathaway and Steve Carell? Pretty shameless plugging for a film not even released yet that's bound to get no Oscar notice next year. Someone slipped money to someone somewhere... that's for sure.
c. All those damned ENCHANTED songs, but on the other hand, they didn't win. At least there was no Robin Williams.
d. The condescending, wordless smirk of Ethan Cohen.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
I'm mildly afraid that BE KIND REWIND wont "reach" some Americans, the hipster ironics in particular, who may be wrapped too tight to admit they're wrapped too tight. Gondry's got the same playful in the moment spirit as Godard, and it's best exemplified in a scene from the film I will now describe.
In this scene, old man proprietor Danny Glover grabs a tough guy black kid bully and forces him via a half-nelson to go over to a monitor and look at some footage of Fats Waller, to "teach him" a lesson. "But what does this have to do with my lesson?" the kid asks after the bit of dubious footage passes by. "We changed the subject," Glover answers.
Exactly! That's the initial key to playing with children, to playing in general, to life... how fast can you let go? Let go of what? Exactly!
William S. Burroughs once described it in terms of a pretty poisoned helium balloon attached to a string, someone gives it to you to hold and you instantly start rising. As the safety of the ground below you exponentially vanishes, how soon does it take you to let go? Most "adults" will keep hanging on, until they're as bedraggled as the dance marathon contestants at the end of THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY?
The sad thing about the dance marathon is just this ridiculous level of elevation. The couples who drop out early are the smartest. To admit defeat is sometimes to win. The long-term players suffer from long-term investment obsessiveness, the very thing that kept us in Vietnam so long, that keeps us in Iraq so long, the very thing that emotionally cripples so many adults--the very thing Gondry and Godard try, in their way, to rescue us from.
As Gig Young notes in HORSES as the brilliantly modulated MC, "Isn't that what America is all about?"
Or as I've been saying all week in the dog run when Inga steals someone else's ball, "Drop it!"
Thursday, February 21, 2008
For Black History Month this year I'd like to talk a bit about the great Clarence Muse. You can read on Wikipedia about his life and work in theater and TV and in films such as BROKEN EARTH and WAY DOWN SOUTH.
However, I don't know Muse from those films. At the risk of stepping into deep waters, I'd like to talk more about the films I know Muse from, which tend to be hoary old UHF monster movies, in several of which he played a butler, coachman, porter and preacher. From a historical standpoint as well as to do justice to the efforts of these early actors, I think it's important to make the effort to peer past the broad caricatures these sorts of roles sometimes are pigeonholed as, and see the finer shadings. To dismiss all butler roles as racist is to fall victim to an easy sort of reverse prejudice. The fact is, Clarence Muse brought a lot to each of these potentially demeaning roles. Even in such hoary stuff as Monogram's THE INVISIBLE GHOST (1940) or the Halpern Brothers' WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), Muse lent his stock parts such dignity and quiet strength that the entire film benefits. Muse doesn't kill the "fun" or "make a statement" - he simply does his work with a level of grace and intellect that anchors the sketchy hamming around him. No matter how bad the rest of the film is, when Muse is onscreen, you believe .
So this February, as we rightly celebrate African American artists of the past and present, let's not forget thespians like Dr. Clarence Muse, pioneers who slowly, quietly, steadily chipped away at Hollywood's racist stereotype machinery from within, weakening the structure so it might one day topple in a glorious explosion of Poitier and Cosby-style intellectual energy.
Monday, February 18, 2008
It's thrilling to see this last gasp of the old order so brilliantly alive. As in Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME, Lubitsch's musicals dance and play even as the Titanic sinks all around them, so to speak. Merry as the scene is, you can feel the end here like you could feel it in the desert dust on John Wayne's shoulders at the end of THE SEARCHERS. All the royal gallantry and guffaws, the servant systems and serfdoms, would reach their zenith in the Lubitsch froth and then recede gently backwards under the rushing tide of the onrushing world-wide wars. Before all that though, we have time to laugh and sing and thus Lubitsch enters the age of sound with high European style. The wittiest and most decadent traits of silent cinema are brought along: grand castles, marching soldiers, attending maidens and matrons, sexy yet abundant costumes; but with sound comes Eugene Pallette's marvelous croak, singing dogs and their bitches, and booming canons!
And yet, even without modernism looming uber alles, something's amiss here, hidden in the closeted gayness of 1931's MONTE CARLO (included in the Criterion Eclips box) is the perpetually grinning British stage crooner (a Chevalier replacement) Jack Buchanan.
While Chevalier coasts into the sound age on his instinctive sense of absurdity, the by-the-numbers Noel Cowardice of Buchanan comes off as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN-style denial. He is sooo gay, in other words that he doesn't seem to be believably taken by the girls in the film. Instead it just seems like he channels his frustrated desire for men into the aggressive pursuit of Jeanette MacDonald and what's the fun in that? When Chevalier leers at MacDonald in her negligee it comes with the sense of his being much-laid and genuinely into her as a gal. By contrast, to see the way Buchanan looks at her--his ghoulsih smile plastered on as if permanently painted--is to see lavender burlesque leering at its creepiest.
To a 21st century audience with some idea of gay culture, it's fairly easy to see he's taking out his closeted frustrations in an absurd acting-out; he's playing the straight with all the bitter sarcasm he can muster, all to prove himself "a man" to his fellow closeted queer pals (Tyler Brooke and a doe-eyed hairdresser hunk played by John Roche). When this gay threesome sings "Trimmin' the Women" the double entendres become triples, and the fun dissipates. Instead of a delightfully sophisticated froth, Buchanan's tenacity as MacDonald's wooer stagnates like the obsessive stalker's toad-like algae-covered mental swamp, like when Robert Stack talks too close to Bacall in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, staring at her moving lips like a bad actor, seeming as if he might suddenly pounce, Renfeild-like, at a fly on her lower lip. Imagine Edward Everett Horton crossed with Nosferatu and there's Buchanan --fine in a horror film but not so much as a romantic lead. We in the audience might titter occasionally, but we can't relax, anymore than the families of the repressed cowboys in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN can.
I offer this observation more as a flashlight on the invisible elephant rather than a condemnation. The films in this Criterion Eclipse set are still an unmitigated delight, even if MONTE CARLO is a wash-out. Jeanette MacDonald, for example, regularly shines with Criterion-cleaned, Klieg-lit goddessliciousness even in MONTE; Lubitsch never lets a shot of her go to waste - she's always framed, Mouscha-like, around long drapes and ornate bedposts. So regardless, here's some kudos to Criterion for including MONTE CARLO in this set, and letting us peer in at some of the old pre-war closets.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
I'm nearly done reading Simon Callow's second volume of Orson Welles bio: "Hello Americans."
It's raining out, all day.
I can't get motivated to edit my own film-in-progress.
A friend of mine is off the wagon again...and it all conspires to fill me with woe. While pilfering google for the above shot, I read Atlantic Monthly's review of "Hello Americans." In it, Benjamin Schwartz says this:
"This volume, in fact, attempts to answer “the most persistent question asked about Orson Welles: what went wrong after Citizen Kane?” In so doing, it chronicles the years in which one of the most extraordinary American lives utterly and permanently changed direction. And, concomitantly, it traces what David Thomson, the great film critic and historian, calls “one of the small tragedies of the 20th century”: the terrible fate of Ambersons."
Ah, one of the century's small tragedies indeed. Of course the guilt on Welles for crumbling in the final stretch time after time must have been tremendous. Now all of us cineastes look back on the shambles that is Welles' post-Kane output and wonder, of course, when Criterion is going to grace us with definitive attempts at DVDs of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and MACBETH.
Alas, Banquo, it's all too much for me. First, Orson looks just like my dad (especially old Orson). Second, I'm a lot like Orson myself, in ego if not talent. Third, why are we always looking back at what could have been? Will I as Erich of the future regret not doing more to pull my off the wagon friend back from her abyss of choice? Her talent is, perhaps, even closer to Welles's then my own! She could be "the one"!
Creative genius comes with thorny, poisoned tentacles attached. Cut the thorns off and the rose grows listless. Welles, I wish I could roar back in time and awake you to the task at hand - to cut your Brazil trip short and race home to save AMBERSONS, to stay in Hollywood long enough to finish editing MACBETH! Woe to us mortals still thumb-tacked to the corkboard of existence! All that juicy footage is forever lost; the entirety of the famous ballroom tracking shot exists now only in the manufactured memories of replicants.
Four, when I last fell off the wagon, some 9 long years ago, dear listener - I watched Welles's MACBETH over and over for three or four straight days--nights--bleeding into one another, the gray light of six o clock, was it AM or PM? You get the picture--and my half-murdered by its own hand soul was bonded to that movie, bled into it. The title that cannot be named! MACBETH! There, I said it! Why run? MACBETH, Thane of Cawdor!
The magnetism of Welles is strong to this day. I'm sure I'm far from the only one with an Orsonesque dad or ego; we're all drawn to him as a larger than life signifier of our own unfulfillable aspirations. Unfulfillable or just too hard? Battles are not made to be won any more than a treadmill is meant to be a marathon. Artistic endeavors have a habit of dissolving into meaninglessness when the big void looms. It's almost like the hand of fate gives you a bitch slap warning to settle down and dim your wattage. Drift into obscurity and live forever or else get mowed down by the angry scythe that's kept American artistic evolution stunted for so long now, cutting down the high-rising blooms like James Dean, Monty Clift, Marilyn, and now Heath Ledger, and sending others, like Welles and Nina Simone, into the gardens of Europe to hide.
Did I mention I vant to move to Berlin?
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Roy Scheider died Sunday night... I heard about it yesterday. He was 75. He was a great presence and power of example as an actor: not a show-off, nothing to prove, no chip on his shoulder - the panther-like grace with which he moved in ALL THAT JAZZ or as Jane Fonda's smooth pimp in KLUTE was just how he was, or could be. There was no "Love me! Love Me!" grandstanding with this man.
L.A. scribe Kim Morgan has written a fine eulogy:
"Even with his dazzling, womanizing, pill popping triumph in All That Jazz and that iconic showdown with the world’s most famous shark, I can’t think of any bells and whistles and "I’m walking here!" moments associated with Scheider. He typically wasn’t a scene chewer and chose to mark his territory with a unique, subtle (and uniquely subtle) power that was so world-weary and frequently moving (even when playing a psycho) that he resonated with a curious mixture of timeless recognition and absolute mystery."
Damn right. I could write a 30 page paper on what the climactic "Bye Bye Life" number in ALL THAT JAZZ meant to me as an alienated 14-16 year old. But this is time to remember Roy Scheider, not my own grandiloquent teenage melancholia. Let's leave it at this: Scheider's generosity of spirit in that role was such that he reached down and handed me a path out of my self-absorbed depression. If he could be that cool, calm and collected while singing a joyful adieu to his own life in tight pants and open chest hair glitter shirt, then who was I--with my whole life ahead of me--to be cowering inside at home in a haze of self-centered fear and free-floating anxiety? In other words, watching Roy Scheider, I learned to dance.
Like a great older brother or cool father, Scheider showed strength without bullying, grace without mincing, and style without pomposity. Most of all, in those tired eyes we saw a reflection of what's best in ourselves--a hard-won universal love--and his Cheshire cat grin, which only got wider even as he danced the mashed potato into the hungry jaws of death. All who needed sustenance were welcome to follow his warm light through the darkened terrors of the deep. We did, we do... we will.
Friday, February 08, 2008
This is a still from Jessica Alba's new movie, THE EYE. It's the story of a blind violinist (Alba, pictured) who gets second sight when she gets an eye transplant, courtesy a dead grown-up version of the Osment boy in 6TH SENSE.
Yeah it's not supposed to be very good and yeah, I have no intention of seeing it, but there's something very "acidemic" about this picture above. It's no big mystery how foxy violin virtuosos all put themselves on their classical album covers in order to sell more more more! What is it about the mix of bombshell sex appeal and high-fallutin' classical music chops that makes for such a dizzying high-low combo of attraction and art?
Here's a confession: I'm incredibly attracted to these foxy violinists. I don't buy their albums, but when I see their CD covers as I walk past a display, I have to make a concerted effort not to fall to my knees in a mix of envy, adoration, longing and resentment.
Be that as it may... we know Alba is no real life virtuoso violinist, but I would willingly hush hush and tut tut the bloggers who relish badmouthing her. She's perfectly fine as a b-movie actress, and that in itself is not an easy stunt to keep pulling off. Movie sets can be hurtful, dull, maddening places. It takes more discipline and patience than most of us have to keep your head above water. Alba's no worse than most and better than quite a few bombshells in Tinseltown's bombshell busting history. What she is, I'd guess, is consistent and reliable, and that's not easy. Sometimes having less acting talent may mean survival as opposed to psychotic druggie breakdowns ala the underused and misunderstood bombshell geniuses like the Monroes and Lohans we are so collectively fond of stoning with our bloodthirsty tabloid righteousness.
Of course that's all easy for me to say, since the only film I've seen that Alba has appeared in was 2005's INTO THE BLUE, but that was at a press screening on a hot summer's day, and need I add that film has JOSH BROLIN?!?!?!?!?! I LOVED IT! And If it wasn't for Scott Walker I might even watch it again... but I wont, not ever, because he dumps a whole kilo of cocaine into the water rather than let Scott Caan have it. What a douche. (2010 Postscript - Turns out I bought the blu-ray after all, so there you go!)
Thursday, February 07, 2008
"I approach each thing for the sake of itself. I wish I could do in my life what I can do in my work, which is to really live in the moment. In my life, the past frightens me, the future frightens me. When I'm working, I'm all there." - Sidney Lumet
Perhaps it's age, perhaps it's a few years of living without television, but lately good acting in a film gets me drunk as wine. Sidney Lumet's 1962 film version of Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is something I'd heard was fantastic, but loooong, and set at the turn of the century, and all talk. I had to wait until I was old! OLD!
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT's dialogue flows like mad poetry jazz out of the mouths of his hopped-up Irish American intellectual alcoholics. I'd heard from somewhere that the only person who could compare with Brando in the original run of STREETCAR was ROBARDS in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. Damn! I wish I wrote down who said that, so I could say: "You were right!"
Robards doesn't knock it out of the park, he eats the park and then starts chomping down main street, then he stops and shifts to sublime pathos and suddenly the park is back where it was and he's gentle as a flower - just like the real life drunks you know and love and then hate and fear and then love again. But in the movie version it's not just Robards who's a big drunk sensation it's a calm young Dean Stockwell as the consumption-stricken mystic poet younger brother; Ralph Richardson is also superb as the miserly father, an Irish actor (O'Neil's real-life father got rich touring with THE MASTER OF BALLANTREE) warped into self-defeating behaviors by childhood memories of poverty. And Kate Hepburn. Oh god what a fantastical monster-dragon of an addict she becomes! She nails it pinning and screaming to the floor (I'm having a panic attack as I write this in her honor), she disembowels it and strips the meat off for soup and then reincarnates (stop panicking, Erich). Okay, roll the picture.
I suppose this means in order to be truly brilliant you have to be insane or alcoholic or both. It also means you are a lot of the times merely annoying as you drift off into the same soliloqy as the night before... but then there's a flashing moment of brilliance or sensational warmth that keeps your co-dependent family and friends smeared to your side. It's a continual dance of deception that, illuminated in the powerhouse text of O'Neill, begs the question: what is art but the smoke and mirror conjuring of alcoholics and dopers wishing to make their living room elephant "magically" disappear?
Monday, February 04, 2008
One of the reader blurbs you find on the imdb.com page for Godard's PASSION (1982) is Eliot Gordon's: "Turned off VCR midway - no interest." The word VCR is, perhaps, key here as the film is world's better on DVD, remastered as part of the new Godard: Director's Series set which includes DETECTIVE, FIRST NAME: CARMEN and OH WOE IS ME. Along with the "Zero stars" ratings are Godard champions over there, of course, who cite that art shouldn't always be "fun." What? In the right mood this film is frickin' HILARIOUS!
My Argentine ex-wife raved about PASSION for years so when I bought her the VHS back in the late 1990s I was really expecting something. Instead I was totally turned off; the reason probably had a lot to with the picture being murky and badly cropped. In the intervening years I've learned a lot about Godard and years of therapy have made me much more open to modernism. I'd use a Zen enlightenment as a metaphor here: Godard's Brechtian "fourth-wall" self-reflexivity functions perfectly as a koan, the unanswerable riddle by which the student can free themselves of entrapping mindsets and let themselves dissolve into satori.
Of course as a cinema fan you invariably come to a Godard film with pre-set responses to cinematic iconography. Godard assumes this and intentionally screws with your expectations. The issue is, how dogmatically do we adhere to the "rightness" of these expectations? When you adhere too closely to predetermined narrative formulations, you have cliche' -- when you deliberately screw with them, you have modernism.
Here's what I mean: you see a knight on a horse trying to scoop up a naked, running maiden--thunderous classical music on the soundtrack, hoofbeats, her frightened panting and shrieks--this generates a certain preconditioned response: will you see this chick being abducted? Will you see the hero ride to her rescue? Where is this hero? Your stomach might clamp in suspense. You fear and hate the knight and want to save the maiden, without even knowing the story (maybe she's a demon in disguise, who knows?) Suddenly the horse pulls up short so it doesn't bump into a moving camera, and the naked maiden runs off set and hides behind the cameraman then she goes climbing up into the lighting rigging so the knight can't reach her, so he dismounts and goes to have a smoke.
There's two ways you can react to all that: one is to be angry or frustrated, to think you are "missing" something. Are they filming a movie within a movie here, or is this real? Why is she still running if she's not on camera? Who's filming this second movie about making the movie? The other is to grasp the ambiguity, the modern art/Zen response Godard is creating, and thus to laugh at your own predisposition to get so absorbed into narrative that you fight its cessation. For this second response, you are freed by realizing that the meltdown between the film and the film-within-the-film is intended to provide this response. Can you let go of your expectations, your obsessive need for character arcs, story lines, and dramatic resolution? If you can, you begin to see the ways film tricks you. Can you stand to watch stock characters and cliche types get melted down into meaninglessness? Will this technique frustrate you beyond endurance, or set you free from your steel trap mind?
Another example of Godard's humor involves a very young Isabelle Huppert as a a rhetoric-spouting worker on roller skates, a sort of loose riff on Agnes Varda's VAGABOND, who disrupts life at the factory at which she is employed. Michel Piccoli owns the factory and refuses to pay her back wages so she hangs around and is chased by cops. In one scene, she's rollerskating around the factory floor as others are working and discussing with the director how "films never show people working" and then adds "The factories won't allow it." The ironic joke here (obviously there is a camera filming her saying this in the factory surrounded by workers) is not stated, not spelled out in big American letters, you either grab it and move on or not. Godard is not going to stop and underline the script for your with a yellow marker, you American fascist swine!
Perhaps one needs a firm sense of the deadpan and absurd (watch some Marx Brothers or Police Squad movies beforehand) to appreciate PASSION's wry humor. If you get a headache from it, maybe you're holding onto your cinematic signifiers with the tenacity of Margaret Dumont; you have to just let them go. It's only then--Godard implies--that you can begin to see that all the world's a cave and all your presuppositions merely shadows on the wall. Be aware of your brain's trickery, its constant bending of the chaos of life into a 3-act structure, and stroll out of the cave. PASSION is a finger pointing towards the exit. If you just look at the finger you may well be bored out of your mind, but if you follow the direction, you might finally get to see the sun. A lot of folks are so afraid of that sun they deny it even exists. But it does, so drop your crucifixion shears and hobble along to PASSION!
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Like the serial killer case file it depicts, ZODIAC eats away at the mind months after you've seen it. Thoughts of politics and union make me contemplate the way San Francisco unites against one common, invisible foe. Like Reagan hoping for an alien invader that would unite the U.S. and Russia, the Zodiac Killer unites San Francisco into one colossal detective force. The professor couple who are casually able to solve the cryptic puzzle, for example, and later Mark Ruffalo risking his job to slip Jake Gyllenhaal tips to keep the investigation alive. Was this the last gasp of "citizenry" as far as everyone feeling connected to the political machinery of their city? Was it the encore for a long performance of citizenry and government in perfect union that had died during Vietnam? Politics now has no room for casual professor couples or cops who enlist cartoonists to their brain trusts... and serial killers? Who even has a chance to learn their names anymore? The news seems to pick out of a hat which murders, accidents, traumas, hit-and-runs, robberies and rapes of the day to make a federal case of. A Zodiac could be going on right now, unnoticed until he's finally in the room.
That's why it's so interesting to have not only ZODIAC, but Jodie Foster in THE BRAVE ONE (my take here) in the same year, one that marks the official "shit hell of a long time" year of the Iraqi conflict. The 1970s are back, sort of, but the important question is, which way are they moving? We need another 1967. We could do without another 1980.