Monday, December 24, 2012
"The telegraph resounds at every post. It is a harp with one string—The first strain from the American lyre." —Henry David Thoreau, Journal (February 14, 1854)
"And the lines of telegraph poles— / Lyres of iron song—will adorn / Your magnificent shoulder blades!" —Arthur Rimbaud, "What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers" (1871)
Thoreau wrote those words in his journal the year Rimbaud was born. He was nearly thirty-seven at the time, the age at which Rimbaud died.
Images: Thoreau in '54; Rimbaud in '71
(I wonder if likening telegraph wires to a lyre was cliche by the time Rimbaud got around to using it... "What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers" was, after all, a parody.)
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Above: Alexander Sokurov near the end of Knut Elstermann's One Last Breath, a documentary about the filming of Russian Ark (the latter film is famously comprised of a single unbroken take lasting more than ninety minutes). After the second attempt at filming Russian Ark proves successful, Sokurov, in tears, says "cut", and someone comes up and wraps a coat around him like he's a boxer leaving the ring after a fight.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
This isn't at all systematic. I just made up categories to fit whatever popped into my head.
Favorite Theatrical Experience of the Year:
After the Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike (2011) was over, a ten or eleven year old girl sat crying effusively, totally devastated throughout the entire closing credits. Once her father noticed she was crying, he reached out and held her in his arms, whereupon she wrapped her arms around him in return. They sat that way for a long time.
It was moving to see someone so young connecting with the film on such a deep level, and doubly so to see what unfolded afterwards. The fact that this took place because of a film made by some of the most humane, empathetic filmmakers around made it all the better. Such a thing overrides all the moments this year when the films I saw were ruined by talkers and texters.
A quick note on the film: I don't recall the Dardennes using music before, so I was surprised to hear it in The Kid with a Bike... The short musical cues made it explicit just how much the bigger-than-life moments in most films—saving someone from a burning building, shoot outs, etc.—are completely undramatic and artificial in comparison to the emotions surging through a work like this. The moments that make up The Kid with a Bike would be considered "small" by Hollywood's standards, yet they're powerful enough to cue an infinite number of instruments without ever feeling a bit dishonest or sentimental.
Favorite Blog of the Year: The Last Psychiatrist.
Not because it's a new blog or because it's markedly better this year than in previous years, but because this is the year I started reading it. One of the Internet's best text-based bloggers, TLP is iconoclastic, searing, insightful, funny, thought provoking, and with a point of view you're unlikely to find anywhere else.
My favorite post from this year was probably If You Liked The Descendants, You Are A Terrible Person. (I'd post an excerpt but then I wouldn't know where to stop.) And since my readers are likely to be disproportionately interested in movies I'll also recommend What's Wrong With The Hunger Games Is What No One Noticed, and its follow up, The Hunger Games Is A Sexist Fairy Tale. Sorry.
A New Favorite Director: Lionel Rogosin
I first heard of Rogosin in Cassavetes on Cassavetes:
And elsewhere Cassavetes said:
"To tell the truth as you see it, incidentally, is not necessarily the truth. To tell the truth as someone else sees it is, to me, much more important and enlightening. Some documentaries are fantastic. Like Lionel Rogosin's pictures, for instance; like On The Bowery. This is a guy who's probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time, in my opinion."
Thankfully, Milestone Films recently restored On The Bowery (1956) and Come Back, Africa (1960)— both of which I was able to see at a film festival earlier this year. They also released Good Times, Wonderful Times (1965) on DVD, which I later rented. I recommend all three films highly, Come Back, Africa and On the Bowery especially (the links above go to trailers).
Here's a great description of Rogosin from Milestone's website:
"For songwriter Woody Guthrie, his guitar was a machine that 'kills fascists.' For Lionel Rogosin, the weapon of choice was a movie camera and his first battle was waged on the streets of New York City."
Book of the Year: Building Stories (Chris Ware)
Brilliant. Some of the comics in this work—the ones that aren't books, anyway—are designed so that they can be read in almost any direction, wherever your eyes might take you (though Ware usually gives hints as to how they're "supposed" to be read). It's fun and illuminating to look at how some of the smaller, folded comics can be read from side "A" to side "B" or side "B" to side "A", yet still remain perfectly clear in their telling. One of the physically larger works—the front side of a folded up piece that's reminiscent of a board game—is perhaps the best example of this kind of creative reading.
Worthwhile: Monkey Dust (season 1)
Especially episodes 1 - 3, and 6. Unfortunately episodes 4 and 5 have a sketch in them that doesn't work, and another one that isn't very good. (The creators must have realized this because it's gone in the 6th episode.)
Monkey Dust has been on region 2 DVD for awhile, but it made this list because I recently took a chance on it when I ordered The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb and noticed it on my wishlist at a very cheap price. (The advantage of having massive wishlists you can categorize by price? 6 DVDs for $39.00.)
This 2003 show from BBC Three bounces around from various sketches and creates an interesting effect through its repetition. The show doesn't actually get better or funnier as it goes (it's more humorous than funny anyway, at least to me), but the "here we go again" format gives the already bleak and absurd situations an almost cosmic feeling of hopelessness. The loneliness of the characters, the futility of their lives, is multiplied ten-fold—which is the only way hopelessness is ever rendered humorous.
Favorite Older Book: The Jokers (Albert Cossery, 1964)
"What would happen to the world if all the revolutionaries repented and reformed? It seemed to him that a light, somewhere, would go out."
|Cossery, the idle anarchist|
"That a starving beggar would refuse to be seen as an employee: what an insult to posterity, which only recognizes those who make careers of following the rules! History's full of those little bureaucrats who rise to high positions because of their diligence and perseverance in a life of crime. It was a painful thought: the only glorious men the human race had produced were a bunch of miserable officials who cared about nothing but their own advancement and were sometimes driven to massacre thousands of their own just to hold on to their jobs and keep food on the table. And this was who was held up for the respect and admiration of the crowd!"
I began a post related to The Jokers back in June, but it got too bloated, so I abandoned it... (I might still do something with it in the future.) In the meantime, the first chapter of the book—which could be a self-contained short story in its own right—will give you all you need to know to determine whether or not you'll enjoy it.
Best Film from Last Year I Didn't See Until This Year
Favorite Comedy of the Year: The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)
When I went to see this with a friend there was an event in the city that made it all but impossible to park close to the theater. And of course it was raining. We ended up finding a spot nearly a mile away so we had to run, jog and then finally walk quickly (I never was good at long distance) in order to make the showing. Once we got there, we were completely soaked. But this turned out to be an oddly fitting condition under which to view this oddly uncomfortable film.
Film of the Year: Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Holy Motors is for those who appreciate film as a medium of rhythm, dance, bodies, sensation... Denis Lavant, as anyone who's watched him move in Mauvais Sang, Beau Travail, or Les Amants du Pont-Neuf can attest, is one of cinema's foremost poets in this vein. He's also, along with Carax, the other half of one of the great actor/director pairs in cinema.
Re-issue of the Year: Liberty Or Love! and Mourning for Mourning (Robert Desnos)
Before @tlas press re-issued these works in November, copies of Liberty or Love were going for over $100, and Mourning for Mourning was all but impossible to find.
Favorite Online Find:
The punk rock kid raging against beer in the first two minutes of this video:
Tuesday, December 04, 2012
Monday, December 03, 2012
I wanted to give a nod—a small salute, really—to stop-motion animator Dave Borthwick, who died about a month ago. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), which Borthwick wrote, directed, and animated, was among the first films I purchased online, and it's been a favorite ever since. Borthwick wasn't particularly prolific, but, having made this original film, it hardly matters.
Upon hearing the news of his death, I dusted off my old VHS copy—one of the few tapes I've elected to hold on to over the years—and watched the film again, probably for the fifth or sixth time (though it was the first in many years). Still every bit as good as I remembered, if not better.
Thank you Borthwick & Co. for this darkly humorous and humane nightmare.
ADVERTISEMENT: The region 2 DVD, which I recently purchased, is currently going for a mere $5, and it includes a neat short called The Saint Inspector. (Various blurry versions of Tom Thumb can of course be viewed on YouTube.)
The Saint Inspector (1996):
Monday, November 26, 2012
The short film Requiem 2019 is based on an experience Rutger Hauer once had in a canoe:
I literally looked straight into the eye of a whale. It is something that every man on Earth should experience. We must not be allowed to destroy these beautiful creatures. The consequences would be enormous. This is how we got around to the theme for Requiem 2019. Sil and I simply had to make something to stop people hunting down these wonderful creatures. I can’t go along with Sea Shepherd during their campaign. It’s better for me to do what I do best, and here it is!
With such good intentions, it's a shame the result is so terrible! That aside, what I find most interesting is that a much better version of Requiem 2019 already exists, though it's hidden within a much longer film. Aided by loud, melancholy music, two men come face to face with a fake whale (man-made in one film, computer generated in the other). And in a similar contrast of styles, the (human) viewer is left to do the thinking in Tarr's film while in Requiem 2019 the CGI whale "does the thinking" for us (it displays images on its body, alerting us to what it is we're supposed to be contemplating).
How fitting that the image from Requiem 2019 that most evokes Werckmeister Harmonies is a mirrored one.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Dumont possesses the uncanny ability to film humans as though he were a National Geographic photographer on safari. And like the wildlife photographer, he's particularly interested in predatory relationships, whether they be physical or emotional (see above). The sex in his films has the detached feel of the ethologist's lens, and it's often—just as it is in the animal kingdom—linked closely with domination, violence, and rape.
I've never seen a film that so readily embraces the view that human beings are motivated by their basest desires (men especially), and that we're nothing but animals in the worst sense of the word (Dumont would likely counter that his view is a neutral one). Considering that the course of human history probably more easily and readily supports Dumont's view than it does various other more inspiring and optimistic alternatives, and considering that I'm constantly struggling in my own life to avoid falling into contempt and misanthropy by trying to focus on what's best and most beautiful in us as a species instead of dwelling on what's worst, the fact that Dumont so openly and forcefully reminds us of our animal origin—and then proceeds to rub our faces in its eternal inescapability—makes Twentynine Palms, for me, the most disturbing and terrifying film ever made.
Friday, November 16, 2012
If the moving images in any of the films on my list speak for themselves, it's the images in Begotten.
I won't try to describe the film to anyone who hasn't already seen it. Wikipedia offers a plot summary, though, like most descriptions, it gives no sense of the feel or form of the film. With that in mind I've decided to offer a "summary" constructed from a few extracts from Pierre Guyotat's 1971 novel Eden, Eden, Eden. (If Guyotat's "unthinkable" book were ever to be adapted to film, it seems to me that the only way it'd have a chance at success would be if it were to be done in the language of Merhige's Begotten.)
"...blood haunting bedroom, dry powdered blood running in butcher's inner ear throbbing with nightmares... jissom, milk, squirting... woman's hand palpating... woman rising from bed, walking, barefoot, through garden... kneeling, huddling, pressed back down into corner... worker, with foot, laying youth flat out on tile: crouching down, pressing two fists together onto torso, elbow digging into sexual cluster between thighs— separating, slow, cool, revealing grimy sweat in folds of groin; fists delving under torso, forcing spleen, kidney, intestines: contracted head of youth groaning, crystalline, with each compression; hand of blond worker digging down... head, mute, vibrating; whereupon, same hand, clenched, moving up over torso, forcing serrated muscle, other hand jerking, groping—fingers spread, half-closed, spread, joined—, towards source of cry, reaching aortic arch, blocking cry... nomad, hands pressed around middle of pole, pushing ... [his] inert body away from outcrop of rock: blood pearling over spear-head between curls; nomad pulling youth back onto rock, spearing body... nomad, kneeling... walking towards fire... squatting beside woman; her feverish fingers, pink over embers, diffusing blood into cinders; woman, wrinkles fixed on forehead, hand drawn out of embers covering half-open vulva, crammed with oily wet seed; ... darkness alternating with bursts of light..."
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
The scariest movie of 1995 according to Wes Craven and one I consider to be among the best of the 90s, Safe is a complex film that proves much too elusive for summary. If pressed I'd say it's partly about a person, Carol (Julianne Moore), who's playing a role: mother, wife, "woman." She's someone who has no real identity, no core, and therefore floats through life trying to hit all the established marks, doing what's expected and aiming to please. During a scene in which Carol is having her hair dried at a beauty salon there's a dissolve that illustrates this automoton-like aspect of her "personality" perfectly (robot-evoking headgear aside):
"With her pink clothes and porcelain skin, Carol blends into her surroundings like a suburbanite chameleon, an expensive, mid-eighties accessory among many, or an Ibsenesque doll made to be seen and, as she stutters and stumbles through most of her dialogue, determinedly not heard." [X]
Contrary to the impression Wes Craven's remark might give, Safe isn't scary in a traditional "horror film" sense. It's discomforting, unsettling, cold, even subversive. Whoever called it "a horror film of the soul" came up with a very apt description.
INTERVIEWER: Many films don’t allow much room for the viewer to enter into them.
HAYNES: They don't want that narrative process interrupted. It's a perfect system, let's not mess with it. But it's exactly at that place where we unfortunately find ourselves identifying in stories and messages that re-affirm the world exactly as it is, in its worst aspects. And that's where I find narrative film to be the most frightening, because it's so powerful. It's hard to find an equivalent in other art mediums, for me at least, that has such a symbolic impact on the way we think about the world and about ourselves. Films reflect and instruct us at the same time, and that's strong stuff. So I do delight in the idea that by playing around, tinkering or upsetting that process of identification a little bit, people have to think more about what they're seeing, who's telling them what and why. A viewer has to ask the question: where's this idea coming from? Without losing all the pleasure that's part of that process. [X]
Haynes' own description of Carol from the DVD liner notes gets at what's most complex and interesting about the film:
"Carol White is established as a character whose entire sense of self is provided by the external world. She moves through the patterns, the routines, the immediate material goals which define her existence. She is, in effect, presupposed by her environment. But it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong, both with Carol's body and the pervasive world around her —but how to change either one is too overwhelming a task. Instead the task at hand becomes controlling each one's exposure to the other; in other words, disengaging the body from its environment. This is not easily achieved and is experienced in Carol as a crisis in identity."
Saturday, November 10, 2012
I re-watched Angst yesterday to make sure I still wanted to include it on my list, and I wasn't quite as taken with it as I was when I first saw it a few years ago... Still, it's a striking film with an unsettling and off-kilter feel due not only to its central performance—Erwin Leder fully embraces the role of a murderous, narrating protagonist—but also (and especially) due to its floating camerawork.
As a slasher film, Angst might be the best I've seen; it certainly deserves a place alongside the much better known and appreciated Black Christmas (1974) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Here's what Gaspar Noé wrote about the film in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll:
"A great lesson in visual imagination but also in psychopathology. This film, still poorly known film in Anglo-Saxon countries, was my perpetual point of reference while shooting Seul Contre Tous. It’s the most emotional film about a murderer that I’ve ever seen. I had a VHS dubbed into French that I showed my friends about 50 times."
(Don't be discouraged from seeing Angst if you loathe I Stand Alone / Seul Contre Tous ; I do as well.)
Thursday, November 08, 2012
One of the most subversive horror films, Innocence uses convention and expectation in a way that dupes the viewer into being the film's true antagonist.
While watching I thought to myself that Hadzihalilovic is probably the only director capable of bringing Henry Darger's Realms of the Unreal to life.
For those who haven't seen the film, what follows are two very helpful Netflix reviews.
1.) "I love Cotillard and foreign films, do not watch this for those reasons. The French love escargot and this moved at a snails pace and they even showed some snails at one point to prove that point. I kept waiting for a plot but I never got one. It's okay if you want to listen to French spoken because at least they did that well."
(A complaint of "no plot" is a gold standard indicator of interesting cinema.)
2.) "The movie is simply sick. In additional materials, I was able to see, that Lucile Hadzihalilovic has huge teeth as the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, with which she shamelessly ate up 2 hours of our precious lives. She was able to create a movie which was simultaniously sick, scary, boring, pretensious and stupid. One star - thank you very much. I think that those who gave it more stars (and awards) deserve whatching this movie on regular basis as a punishment for suffering of the others. I am really happy, that this is the only movie of hers, hopefully the last one."
(Anyone who complains about the appearance of a film's director—especially when combined with various spelling errors—provides the best gift of all: a full-proof barometer. If they liked the film, never watch it. If it was the worst movie they've ever seen, blind buy it. Because their vapidity is flagrant to the point of being boastful, you know to do the opposite of whatever it is they say.)
Once you become an expert at reading such things, you'll learn how to determine what type of negative reviews are more reliable than any praise.
NOTE: The region 1 DVD of this film is awful. Opt for region 2 if you can.
Tuesday, November 06, 2012
Ken Burns' staid formula is somehow transformed into macabre poetry.
Based on Michael Lesy's book of the same name, James Marsh's quasi-documentary uses photographs, recreations, and old news reports from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to bring to life the various strange and morbid events that took place in Black River Falls, Wisconsin at the turn of the century. From time to time the short, select snippets of narrated newsprint are reminiscent of Felix Feneon's piquant Novels in Three Lines, especially when Marsh plays up his own wry sense of humor.
One of the most under-appreciated films of the past twenty years.