Sunday, January 29, 2006

Last Life in the Universe (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003)

Well, it makes for a great trailer. And the "eloquent ennui drift of the new Asian youth" thing is catnip to me, especially if Chris Doyle shoots it. But none of the other movies I've loved this vibe in have coasted on that vibe alone, which is exactly what Last Life in the Universe does for the first hour or so. It's also a disappointingly lazy about the tropes it employs- the respective sterile and messy apartments/emotional lives of the characters; the jealous, brutish boyfriend who accuses his girlfriend of cheating while receiving a blowjob; etc. etc. Past the halfway point- once loose papers start swirling around, the spatial/temporal bonds begin to loosen, and the yakuza element introduces some retroactive development of the Asano character- we get to the movie that we should have been watching all along, one that takes the unexpected flights its narcotic atmosphere allows. And while that atmosphere is something to soak up, I can get it just as easily from the trailer.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday quickies

-This is, like, really good news that makes me feel better about things. Actually, although I'm not in any way qualified to voice an informed opinion on the subject, it may even be better than a straight theatrical- if it plays on TV (even on IFC), it'll reach people in locations in which "the new Hou" would never, ever play theatrically.

-In light of the discussion below on House of Bamboo, and since I recently watched The Mask of Fu Manchu (a movie that's almost too racist to be so racist it's funny) in advance of its appearance in Film Forum's Karloff series, here's The Orientalization of Myrna Loy. Keep in mind while reading: Myrna Loy was born Myrna Adele Williams, in Helena, Montana.

-Bryan Curtis (in a surprisingly geographically specific piece for a national thing like Slate) on the overrated art house experience; the grievances aired may sound familiar.

-I was trying to figure out something to say about Chris Penn's death, but I don't think I could say it as well as Matt Zoller Seitz does here, so I'll just second everything he says, especially the part about "Stop pointing that gun at my dad", which probably deserves a tribute all its own.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

House of Bamboo (Sam Fuller, 1955)

It's pretty well established by now that Sam Fuller's virtues as a filmmaker are inseparable from his flaws- what's so singular about his films is their cigar-jabbing vitality, and it's not as if he can just turn his bluntness on and off. So, we overlook (except when it's really not possible) the building block construction and appreciate the edifice as a whole. And there's plenty to appreciate about House of Bamboo, especially a knockout of an ending shootout at a rooftop amusement park, a final feather in the cap for cinematographer Joe MacDonald, whose color, 'Scope lensing of the film's Tokyo locations is the most textured element of the film.

Or, one of the most. The heavy in House of Bamboo, in the Sadistic Insecure Bad Guy role that put his kids through college, is Robert Ryan (who is, yes, my favorite actor). As the head of an American gang (I don't recall the word "yakuza" being used in the film) in Tokyo, he's casually brutal, increasingly fond of his top lieutenant, whom he calls "ichiban" (he calls the lieutenant's girlfriend that, too), plays favorites, and does more sulking than revenging when it turns out that ichiban- Robert Stack- is an undercover M.P. Speaking softly when in control and seething (one of the things he does best) when he's not, Ryan may be the only actor who could have pulled off a macho, self-loathing repressed homosexual mobster while speaking Sam Fuller's dialogue.

That the hero, villain, and most of the supporting cast of a movie set in Tokyo are American, playing out an essentially American genre film plot, would at first glance indicate another Hollywood movie that takes place in a foreign country but is really about white people. But Fuller's fixation on Asian culture is entirely genuine- the several of his films that are set in the Far East take, or at least attempt to take, their locations seriously. Fuller is aware that his characters are interlopers: Ryan's malevolent gang is made up of dishonorably discharged vets, and its robberies are organized like military operations, and the Americans are constantly struggling with the unsubtitled Japanese (only hero Stack attempts to learn the language).

It's just that he doesn't seem to realize he's an interloper, too. Whatever condescension there is in House of Bamboo is probably the result of Fuller taking his affinity for Japanese culture too seriously: Stack's Japanese lover telling him that "in Japan, girls are instructed from a very young age in the art of pleasing men"- probably not a verbatim quote- is obviously miscalculated, but it's in the service of an affectionate and, in Fuller's mind, equal-footing love scene. What is somewhat problematic is Fuller's treatment of racial suspicion, Stack's love interest having to deal with ostracism from other Japanese because of her white boyfriend is taken very seriously, while Ryan's gang members (including Stack) call their molls "kimonos" without any sense of irony. But that's the thing with Fuller: you take the good, you take the bad...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Japanese Cinema Wednesdays: Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Apologies for the inactivity this week; my viewing habits of late have been pretty wrapped up with movies I'll be writing about in future episodes of the L. And also episodes of Entourage. But now, as promised last week, a bit of a further discussion upon a second viewing of Stray Dog. (House of Bamboo tomorrow.)

Yusa is, quite obviously, Murakami's double in the film, the opposite side of the postwar coin (similar in biography, in appearance, etc). And while the film speaks, through Detective Sato, about the clear dichotomy between the two, the ambivalence of "good" Murakami's close link to "bad" Yusa isn't resolved through the film's "guns don't kill people, people kill people" resolution. (As is usually the case in which films close with a socially mandated moral, the final lesson doesn't overshadow the whole of the preceding text.) In class today, some people argued (if I'm reading them right) that the film makes too clear a separation between Yusa's destructive actions and Murakami's constructive actions (permit the oversimplified descriptors). I disagree: I think the potential for Yusa's anti-social behavior is present within the forces that he defies. Or, to put it another way, the crimes that Yusa carries out are committed with the Murakami's gun, the very thing that gives Murakami his legitimacy as a defender of society.

As I alluded to last week, I think that the destructive potential of the gun-dependent social order can be dealt with in gender terms. The phallic implications of Murakami's stolen gun are pretty obvious- aside from how basic a metaphor the gun/phallus thing is, take the shooting gallery gun/hooker confusion, or Murakami's impotence as a police officer without it and Yusa's impotence as a criminal once he runs out of bullets- and their joint post-coital panting after the end of their climactic fight, when all the bullets have been fired. (Additionally Yusa, variously referred to as a "stray" or "mad" dog, describes killing a cat in his diary; if you, like me, reflexively think of all dogs all male and all cats as female, this is a pretty clear parallel.) It can also be talked about simply in terms of a society founded on institutional violence. After all, the economic system Yusa circumvents throught theft (resulting, as a classmate observed, in the purchase of a Western-style dress for his girlfriend) was largely imposed and enforced by a military occupation. Here, as with Sato walking us through the moral, we have to consider what Kurosawa might not have been allowed to say by the American censors; as I see it, though, Stray Dog does all it can to express its doubts about Murakami, and what he represents, through his double Yusa.

Friday, January 20, 2006

This Book Is a Movie: Double Indemnity

(Note: this post contains numerous links to Vintage Crime/Black Lizard's portion of the Random House webpage, and I'd be remiss not pointing out a) what a remarkable catalogue they have and b) how fucking beautiful all those paperbacks are. Holy shit, it's better than porn.)

From about Tuesday morning to about Thursday night this past week, I was reading James M. Cain's Double Indemnity. Cain's narration over the book's 115 pages is remarkably swift (I wish I could say that I was slowing down purposefully so as not to miss the subtleties of his prose, but really I read it as fast as it allows, but in fits and starts), less hard-boiled than skeletal. He doesn't go in for the pretty-cynical turns-of-phrase or the soulless ruminations that pepper most noir stories; it's all plot, laid out as matter-of-fact efficiently as possible by a narrator, Walter Huff (as supposed to the movie's Neff), who can only dimly recognize the greater implications of what he's dealing with. Huff's not a paranoid schizophrenic a la Jim Thompson's feats of subjective narratorial pyrotechnics, but even so, Huff's miscalculations of planning and character judgment, and his recounting of his occasional emotions (described but insufficiently understood via grasped-for similes) provide ample psychological depth all the more effective for their submersion underneath the flinty, eloquent storytelling.

One thing the movie (directed by Billy Wilder in 1944, from a script by himself and that much more panoramically ambitious crime scribe Raymond Chandler) misses is Huff and Cain's monumental attention to detail: a large part of the book's appeal is in the extensiveness of Huff's planning (and, by extension, Cain's plotting), in which everything is accounted for. But, since, as mentioned before, Huff's outward actions are all he describes but a fraction of what he reveals about himself, the increasingly elaborate lengths he goes through to set up alibis become both amusing and suggestive of a greater paranoia. (Really, the iceberg principle applies to this book more so than almost any other book, even other noirs. Thompson charts the slow dissolution of Doc and Carol's marriage- the book is much more pessimistic about their trust issues than the Walter Hill-penned movie is about Steve and Ali's- and in The Getaway, but makes it into the central rather than subtextual theme of the piece. Cain is even more minimal- that Walter and Phyllis are driven apart by a necessity-driven lack of intimacy is an element of his book, too, but you have to squint to see it under the gears of the plot. There's almost nothing actually in Double Indemnity, but it's all there.) It's not that the movie is incapable of the kind of unreliable narration that the book provides- shades of it do remain in MacMurray's voice-over; it's more a matter, I imagine, of the movie deciding that the ironic disconnect between description and objective event wouldn't play as well for them as it did for Cain, and that the story itself would be a better fit.

This decision also enables the distinct advantage the movie has over its source. The book's subjectivity means that we only see Phyllis Nirdlinger (I imagine that Wilder changing her name to Dietrichson was done solely for the absurd pleasure of replacing one bizarre, arbitrary name with another bizarre, arbitrary name for no reason whatsoever) through Huff's eyes, and while his attempts to figure her out make for a fascinating window into his own state, the movie lets us see her through our own eyes instead, and, lo and behold, turns out she's Barbara Stanwyck. And her legendary performance slutty, predatory, vulnerable, enigmatic Phyllis elevates the character, despite the movie's deferment to Neff's narration, to being essentially a co-protagonist. The book isn't about Phyllis (and in fact reveals her, ultimately, to be a less complex character than she ought to be); the movie is.

I leave any possible what-literature-can-do-versus-what-cinema-can-do ramifications of the novel and film's respective advantages to the more adventurous out there.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dept. of Self-promotion

The L Magazine, volume 4, issue 1, is now online and in attractive orange boxes on New York street corners everywhere. The film section contains, among other things, my reviews of Joe Angio's How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy it) and Johnnie To's Breaking News, Michael Rowin on Eugene Green, and Steve Gartland on Spirit of the Beehive. I also have a review of a two-disc DVD set featuring Eraserhead and the Short Films of David Lynch, and what I can only assume is an uncomfortably personal Cinephile's Notebook entry on Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes.

I don't have very much to add to my reviews, although if I had longer word counts to work with the Breaking News review might have at least taken up an underdeveloped pet theory of mine about Hong Kong being the most tech-savvy cinema in the world- SIM cards, webcams, and digital editing programs play fairly integral parts in the plot of Breaking News, and their treatment is very matter-of-fact, as it is with, say, the cell-phone switches in Infernal Affairs. (Whereas American films still rely on hackers-ex-machina, as in the Italian Job remake.) Anyway, it's just a thought.
The one thing I didn't get to in the review of the Van Peebles doc (a skeptical mention of his performance of "Achy Breaky Heart" was cut for space) was the unmistakable scent of the locker room during the segment in the film dealing with Van Peebles's womanizing: it just came off as untentionally distasteful (the backslapping more than the actual fact of, really), and is unintentionally undercut when Van Peebles's daughter Megan sighs, "That's my dad." (The only one of his many vaunted conquests to appear is a Parisian girlfriend from the 60's, and while all three of his children are interviewed, his ex-wife earns nary a mention.)

And, since today is a light linking-to-reviews day, allow me to point you in the direction of Charles Taylor's review of the Cafe Lumiere DVD, the best review of that movie that I've read, one that takes a very practical look at the "how" of Hou's method, and makes efforts to unpack some of the emotional depth of the film rather than simply wax rhapsodic about it. The hardest review to write, at least in my experience, is one that manages to engage with a movie that you've loved and responded to on such a deep emotional level; reading Taylor try and quantify his affection for Cafe Lumiere helps me to love that movie even more than I already did.
(And, as this piece on a movie of particular interest to this blog also suggests, Taylor has a knack for this sort of thing.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Japanese Cinema Wednesdays

My Wednesday class schedule this semester features "Kurosawa" and "Japanese Cinema in the International Context", so for the next several months this will theoretically be a regular feature (although the latter class will alternate between Japanese and related non-Japanese films). At any rate...

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and Stray Dog (Kurosawa, 1949)

This was my third time seeing Rashomon, and the first time I remember feeling as if I was responding to the film, and not fulfilling an idea of how I was expecting to respond to it. I think a large part of it has to do with how I was watching it: the past couple times, I had gone in expecting that I would be confronted with the inherent unknowability of truth, and, indeed, the truth proved to be unknowable. This time, specifically setting out to track the complex relationship between subjective and objective narration that the movie relies upon, I was much more impressed an ambiguity far more dynamic than I had previously realized. (This will probably be nothing new for most of you, I realize.) The most obvious place to start is with the courtyard interrogation scenes: shot (for the bandit and the wife) with a static camera positioned where the unseen, unheard interviewer would presumably be. This places us, literally and metaphorically, in the position of the investigator, noting the ways in which the stories might not jell with the telling- Kyo's overtly seductive body language at one point makes an obvious contradiction to her account. (The camera takes up a number of new, fevered positions for the medium's account of the story; I tend to think that this is an attempt to impress us with the supernatural so that we're more prepared to take this narrative necessity as seriously as the other accounts.) All the accounts are, though unreliable, narrated in an objective (and stylistically consistent) style which we as an audience wouldn't question without the presence of other, equally omniscient accounts.

There are also a few points which seem to serve primarily a practical purpose. For one thing, the luring of the husband to the grove occurs only in the bandit's account and is neither repeated nor contradicted- presumably to avoid repitition, but perhaps because it's true? (The only account of the rape, too, is the bandit's: in it, the wife struggles initially and then embraces him. This is a more clearly subjective moment than the entrapment- isn't it?- and the weight given to its non-repitition and non-contradiciton may be a matter of eliding all sexual explicitness, but it's hard to tell narrative expediency and thematic purpose apart in this movie, if we should even try.) There's also the moment when the wife loses her hat in the bandit's flashback: it doesn't hapen within his vision, nor is it any of his concern. Such objective moments are a bit of a tease, suggesting that there is an actual truth to be uncovered within all the self-interest.

And until the woodsman's account, there would be. That flashback is there to underscore the fact that all three narrators have been casting themselves in the best possible light, and to make farce out of the social codes they claim to embody. It's also there to confound our attempts to double-source our way to the heart of the matter: so that the husband has been killed by a sword in a duel and a stab from a dagger an equal amount of times, for instance, or that the bandit and wife untie him twice each. But what is, for me, a flaw in the film, is that Rashomon doesn't go far enough in discrediting the woodsman, to the point where a handful of my quite intelligent classmates felt that his account was truthful. (This is discussed here.) I think Kurosawa does mean to question that account: why else have the woodsman be lying about the dagger? The problem is that the dagger doesn't really call into question the account itself the way that the prior three accounts contradicting each other does. Of course the woodsman, if he is lying (and, though my attempts to guess at Kurosawa's intentions aren't worth the paper they're not printed on should be taken for what they're worth, I do think we're meant to assume he is), is motivated out of self-interest too, painting this crime as an act of flawed people, for one thing, and creating a true account that resolves the contradictions of the other three.

Moving on... the conflict in Rashomon is less a conflict between individuals than a conflict between the individual and nature. The bandit is always slapping flies, and is caught after the stream he drank from has made him sick (and he even attributes his role in the event to a sudden breeze); the characters are either sweating profusely in the sun, or huddling up against a torrential rain (that lets up at the final moment of resolution). Throughout, the characters are engaged in an elemental struggle for definition. This is also very vividly true in Stray Dog, in which it's possible to track the emotional arc of every character based upon their comfort with the weather. There's a great scene early on, when Mifune is panting like the dog under the opening credits and an older, calming colleague turns his fan and gives the young hothead a few cooling strokes. The entire movie- sweat stains, fans running frantically or surely, popsicles at the ball game, mud on the villain- goes that way.

And, in a reading that I admit was probably influenced by the extensive feminist interpretation a classmate of mine gave of Rashomon: Stray Dog is really about the patriarchal social order's inability to control the destructive potential of its own phallus, isn't it? I've gone on too long already, but I'll return to this idea next week, when we watch Stray Dog for my Kurosawa class (this will, thankfully, be the only overlap), and House of Bamboo for International Context.
I'm really excited for House of Bamboo, by the way, as it's the only collaboration between one of my favorite directors and The Greatest Actor in the History of Cinema.) (I'm dead serious about that, by the way.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Round-Up

(Quick thoughts on recent viewings...)

Satisfaction (Joan Freeman, 1988) Thank you, M.C., because without your (rather adamant) intervention I'm fairly certain I would have lived my entire life in ignorance of this movie. I wonder if Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips ever talk about the fact that their respective creative peaks in the year 1988 were Today, and singing backup to "Knock on Wood" along with a bass-miming pre-Mystic Pizza Julia Roberts in a Justine Bateman vehicle?

Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005) "Disconcertingly honest"? (Scroll down about two thirds for the mention.) I can't quite get behind either of those two descriptors for a movie that undertakes all its tentative expeditions into the uncertain with at least one hand gripping its security blanket... I didn't find it grating, exactly, and July is fresh and inventive enough to bear watching, but I have a really hard time with anything so pleased with its own preciousness.

The Interpreter (Sydney Pollack, 2005) It's not quite as bad as I was expecting: it hits its thriller marks with assurance, moves very well, and is acted with appealing dryness. It's pretty humorless, obviously, especially if you thought Faye "spy-fucker" Dunaway was the best thing about Three Days of the Condor (which otherwise takes itself at least as seriously). And instead of Condor's paranoia, we get post-9/11 Munich-style handwringing over violence breeding more violence, only established through pseudo-tribal fabulatory fatuousness, all leading up to the soaked, idiotically drawn-out anticlimax in which a couple of white movie stars decide the fate of Africa.
More important than all that, though, is that Nicole Kidman's character appears to live in my favorite building in New York, 122 East 10th St, right across from the St. Mark's church at the edge of the Abe Lebewhol Triangle, where Stuyvesant and 10th meet.

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940) Yeah, I didn't find it that funny except for Tamiroff, either. For a satire, it spends a rather unfortunate amount of time expressing its righteous indignation (its graft-overseeing-party-functionary-turning-reformer morality might actually be inspired by Chester Arthur's Presidency). While the depiction of the political process's seedy underbelly is sufficiently brazen, it's a broad target (although discussions of the needless projects and contracts undertaken by McGinty as mayor might be taken as a jab at the New Deal; this article is open to that possibility, too), and Sturges's script appears content to depict graft rather than make anything particularly comic out of it. It must have seemed much bolder at the time (if last generation's Rex Reed can be trusted as an accurate barometer), but I wasn't particularly fond of it today. Anybody feel differently?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Centre Stage (Stanley Kwan, 1991)

The Goddess (Wu Yonggang, 1934; one of the headlining films at recent MoMA and Lincoln Center Chinese film centennial series, both of which salute the period in which Centre Stage takes place) is the only full-scale starring role I've seen Chinese silent film legend Ruan Lingyu in so far. In it, she acts in a daze, drifting across the screen as if underwater and playing even her most emotional scenes with a part of her mind seemingly elsewhere. Kwan's biopic casts Maggie Cheung, who's probably the Chinese actress with a presence most reminiscent of Ruan's ethereal glamour (and, especially in her roles for Wong Kar-wai, Ruan's aching romantic martyrdom); even so, Cheung is a far more grounded performer, and much more so than Ruan she seems conscious of what she's holding in reserve. It's Kwan and his collaborators who come closest to approximating Ruan's translucency: designers Pan Lai and Lau Sai-wan's rendering of early 30's Shanghai style is gorgeous and improbably untarnished; cinematographer Poon Hang-sang bestows upon Cheung an adoring warmth that suggests (as do her succession of cheongsams) a direct link between Centre Stage and In the Mood for Love. Kwan's involvement in Ruan's meteorically successful career, turbulent love life, and still-legendary suicide in 1935- she was 24- seems to operate at a lavish, numbed remove (my own incomplete knowledge of the period and a very poorly subtitled and possibly shortened DVD may very well have contributed to the impression of distance), hitting the major points of the subject's bio out of a sense of obligation to the historical record more than out of an organically developed narrative. In most biopics this is a problem, but given the nature of its subject, Centre Stage's episodic ebb and flow actually works pretty well.

Centre Stage is also noteworthy for a bit of casting which, as I was watching some of the films at MoMA's series and anticipating this one, struck me as rather astonishingly perfect: the other biggest Chinese actress of the day, Li Lili- the vivacious slightly vulgar pop-glamour counterpoint to Ruan's piercing tragedienne- is played by the eternally less-than-timeless Carina Lau, the most underrated of Hong Kong actresses (after a while, I stopped keeping track of how many 2046 reviews left her name conspicuously absent from Wong's parade of radiance) and at least as natural a fit for Lili as Cheung is for Ruan. It's a thoroughly fitting meta-second-banana-ing.

Cheung and Lau play out their respective reflective and giggly personae in their appearances, along with Kwan and others, in periodically interspersed scenes depicting interviews with the performers of the film and some of the real figures portrayed in it (including Li, who died last August). Kwan also inserts clips from Ruan's surviving films (memorably matching his and Cheung's restaging of a scene from The Goddess against the genuine article), and at one point pulls out of his depiction of the shooting of Ruan's death scene in New Woman to show himself directing Cheung. It's Kwan's attempt to link his film to the Chinese film industry of the 30's (many of the directors prominently feautured in the recent retros are significant characters in the film), but it's done too infrequently to provide any particular insight. Then again Centre Stage is, in its casting and aesthetic choices, so indebted to Ruan and her time that the extra push towards reflexivity isn't really necessary anyway.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Shelley Winters, 1920-2006

Friday, January 13, 2006

Fugitive from the Past (Repertory Screening)

Fugitive from the Past (Tomu Uchida, 1965) had its sole screening at MoMA's Early Autumn series on Thursday, January 12th.

It's a remarkably vital film, shot to shot- even Uchida's composition of characters within the widescreen frame feels infused with the moment's moral and narrative stakes to a really heightened degree. (It's kind of hard to explain: it's not a rigorously geometric tension a la Kobayashi; more of a pulpy charge aided by Uchida's fondness for Fuller-esque close-ups and occasionally switching between developed image and negative.) Structurally, though, the movie's a mess. Going roughly off of real incidents (as they did for Tasaka's A House in the Quarter, another Early Spring screening) Novelist Tsutomu Minakami and scenarist Naoyuki Suzuki set up what ought to be a great plot: in Hokkaido in 1947, the night of a typhoon that sinks a ferryboat and kills hundreds, three men, including two ex-convicts, rob and kill a pawnbroker and his family. As the authorities are assessing the carnage caused by the storm, it's discovered that there were two more corpses recovered from the water than there were accounted-for deaths from the shipwreck. Eventually, it's discovered that these two unidentified corpses are the bodies of the two ex-cons; Inukai, their accomplice has made it away with the loot. Ten years and three hours of running time later, Inukai (now going by the name Tarumi) is found.

And so, working off of such a potent premise (and title, for that matter), the filmmakers do the unthinkable, following the third man's escape and its aftermath for the first part of the film, and then jumping ahead ten years for the events leading to his apprehension in the second half. It completely severs the movie (which, given this fatal lack of accumulative sweep, can't justify its epic length), as does the shift in narrative attention onto the prostitute Yae (Sachiko Hidari) who aids Inukai's escape, and is the focus of the film on either side of its temporal rupture. As Inukai/Tarumi, Rentaro Mikuni's forceful, varied performance almost provides the movie with the kind of shape it lacks, but he's absent too long. The detectives investigating him on either end of the narrative (Junzaburo Ban and Ken Takakura) are equally dogged, but the very fact that there's two of them (Ban returns toward the end, but his momentum is gone) is another scope-botching mistake. Nor does it help that the murder investigation that eventually nets Inukai/Tarumi (clinging precariously on, I shit you not, a ten-year old fingernail clipping) is sufficiently poorly thought-out to completely undermine the gravity of the resolution.

It's possible that I'm being too harsh (expectations were quite high going in), and the terrific final scene does restore some sense of consequence to the whole ordeal; in any case, Uchida salvages some fine, dynamic moments out of this missed opportunity. His legacy is apparently inching towards rediscovery, and there's enough of value in Fugitive from the Past that I still hope we get the chance to see more of him.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Spirit of the Beehive (Repertory Release)

Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973) has an upcoming run at Film Forum. (This will be our last Film Forum-related post for a while, I think.)

Spirit of the Beehive, which apparently has a much better reputation in Europe than here (this excellent Derek Malcolm piece was written on the occasion in The Guardian's 100 best films of the 10th Century), gets childhood right in a lot of important ways, which is something relatively rare and exciting for a movie to do. For one thing, its nostalgia is largely implied rather than laid on. The opening sequence, for instance, of a print of Frankenstein being delivered to a village, and the public screening in a town building (it takes place in rural Spain in 1940), is nicely underplayed—the process of the ritual is laid out, and Erice's faith in the authenticity of his material works much better than the soppy romanticism of, say, the excruciating Electric Shadows (to name a recent cinematic take on public screenings in rural outposts). Neither are the kids in the movie particularly precocious or savvy, in relieving contrast to the preternaturally savvy moppets that dominate most movies about childhood.
And although the young sisters Ana and Isabel are the primary focus of the film and points of identification for the audience, Erice also grants his audience the privilege of insight into the secret lives of their parents. Father's beekeeping and mother's romantic life are vital elements of the movie, not just because the fill out the emotional life of the family but because the knowledge of what children don't know is vital to the movie's simultaneously romantic and reflective look at the past. (There's one great moment when Ana is looking silently at her father's glass beehive, a moment that beautifully sums up what she can and can't grasp about her dad's inner life.)
Spirit of the Beehive, like Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence and much of Miyazaki's work, is interested in the strangeness of childhood, of the potential for both fright and wonder at the world's as-yet-undiscovered corners. Erice and cinematographer Luis Cuadrad create some lovely moments—most strikingly, Ana watching Isabel and friends playing around a fire in the yard at dusk, jumping through it again and again. It's a beautiful shot, and exemplifies yet another of the kid-movie traps that Spirit of the Beehive avoids—looking back at childhood, it doesn't pretend to understand or explain it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

2005 in review: Retrospective Retrospective

The really great thing about my compiling gig at the L is, of course, that I know in advance and can plan around the schedules for the invariably fascinating series and retrospectives going on perpetually in the city. On the other hand, since I also write a column about said upcoming series, the gaps that I end up filling in my in still unbelievably spotty cinematic education end up being dictated by those schedules (granted, I have my pick of what to write about), and my exposure to the repertory scene is limited, with the exception of the occasional advance screening or screener, to what's readily available on video or at school (granted, I probably still see more movies because I have to write about them than I would otherwise).
In any case, this post will be about the most memorable repertory movies I did make public screenings of, and that aren't, to the best of my knowledge, readily available for home viewing. This is, as we shall soon see, a fucking travesty.

Out of a repertory calendar for the second half of this year that was basically a crash ourse in the entire history of Japanese cinema- Film Forum had their Summer Samurai festival and terrific Naruse retrospective; Mizoguchi had a brief run at BAM, the Japan Society ran a couple of interesting programs, and the two biggest at Walter Reade and MoMA (along with an increasing number of Japanese films put out by the Criterion Collection)- the two movies that you should write your congressman about getting DVD's of are:

Shonen (Boy) (Nagisa Oshima, 1969)

Based on true incident of a family that made their living from staging minor traffic accidents and extorting money from the drivers; the most frequent hit-and-run victim was the 10-year-old son. (Since this particular tabloid incident casts the Japanese family in the most unflattering light imaginable, it's not particularly surprising that Oshima was attracted to the material.) Rarely have characters been so mistreated by their director: Oshima mucks about with tinting, elides key incidents, and, most significantly, pushes them to the edge of his widescreen compositions, dwarfing them with their surroundings—even the movie of their lives is a struggle for definition against marginalization.
It's a furious piece of work, with much of the fury directed at the father, Oshima regular Fumio Watanabe. I tend to assume that Oshima liked working with Watanabe because he's an average-looking, blandly handsome guy; in all his roles for Oshima, his sleek everyman face is twisted into masks of waste, corruption, and here, a raging nightmare of fatherhood no less frightening for his impotence.
(By the way, in what's sort of an interesting year for this sort of thing, the 1970 Kinema Jumpo Awards honored Shonen for Best Screenplay, while the other major awards went to Shinoda's Double Suicide. The only other movie to pick up laurels was the first installment of the Tora-san series, Kiyoshi Atsumi inexplicably taking Best Actor over Watanabe. I may be the only person in the world who's upset about this.

Kuroi kawa (Black River) (Masaki Kobayashi, 1957)

Early, almost entirely forgotten effort from Kobayashi that snuck its way into Walter Reade's Shochiku series by virtue of it being one of the very first lead roles for Tatsuya Nakadai, as the purring, parasol twirling "Killer Joe" who runs a shanty town next to an American military base. (His adversary is Watanabe, himself at the beginning of his career, offering a kind of lockjawed virtue that probably would have defined his screen presence if Oshima had never got hold of him, and giving Nakadai plenty to play against.)
One of the things that defines Kobayashi's fimmaking is an incredible tension within the spaces of his films, a sort of teetering, dynamic equilibrium between fore-and background, both in the same frame and shot to shot. It's most evident in Harakiri and (its remake in all but name) Samurai Rebellion, augmented as it is by the panels on the screens of the interiors, the slow build-up to bloodshed, and Toru Takemitsu's music; it's present, too, in Black River, despite its ramshackle milieu.
Anyway, I really wish I was doing this last fall; I could have blogged by immersion course in the history of Japanese film as it happened. (Although, looking at my Netflix queue, I may still have the chance.)

And, one impossible-to-see-otherwise retro screening to mention in passing: Louis Malle's The Lovers (1958), which I enjoyed tremendously for its spry, one-shot asides on class difference and plot contrivance, and wanted to bring up for the overtly sexualized river journey (during Jeanne Moreau's then-scandalous nocturnal sensuous adventure), sort of a sexualized counterpoint to another natural/spiritual boat trip—Night of the Hunter. When people talk about the way Ozon quotes Night of the Hunter in Criminal Lovers, they're getting it half right: he's really linking Laughton's song of innocence to Malle's song of experience. Just a thought, anyway.

Special Bonus Links:

-Chuck Stephens, for the Criterion Collection website, in an appreciation of Nakadai that comes, for Stephens, uncharacteristically close to being played straight.
(Why stop at Nakdai, by the way? Let's see some 3,000-word appreciations for Watanabe, for Tetsuro Tamba ("the George Kennedy of Japan", according to Stephens, which doesn't seem quite right), Go Kato, Daisuke Kato, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo, Haruko Sugimura, Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, Kinuyo Tanaka...? Sorry, but another side affect of the past fall was learning all these names and, yep, I plan on spreading them around a little.)

-And this rather interesting tidbit.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Frankenstein & Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (upcoming repertory screenings)

(Note: Frankenstein will be playing as part of Film Forum's Karloff series in February, and is referenced in Spirit of the Beehive, also forthcoming there; Sweetback will play as part of their Van Peebles week. I know it's been awfully Film Forum-centric around here lately; these things tend to move in cycles.)

Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971)

As this article sort-of suggests, it's a movie more influential for the very fact of its production- by blacks and for blacks, outside of the conventional apparatus- than for what's actually onscreen. Which is not to say it's entirely without distinction— put together, especially in the second half, as more collage than anything else- all jumpy camerawork, Earth Wind and Fire groove, and narration-by-montage- it has a pretty distinctive urbanindie feel to it. (Although this makes the ending's famous statement of defiance somewhat anticlimactic; and Van Peebles's editing is rhythmic but mostly arbitrary—the inclusion of some shots baffles.)
Ideologically, it's once again the circumstances of its existence rather than its content that define the movie—it's hard to tell whether Van Peebles means to indict black institutions- especially organized religion- along with the white hierarchy. Then there's the astonishingly regressive sexual politics. From the opening credits, Van Peebles positions himself as some sort of supercock (it's really the only character trait Sweetback has), fervently pursued by black and white pussy alike (I'd call them women, if the movie would). It's an act of blatant self-aggrandizement, and plays right into the idea of Sweetback as a primitive sexual object that causes the white men in the movie to rally their wagons around their women.
But while that white reaction to black sexuality is at least a trenchant bit of commentary (one of the few observations that come across with any clarity in the film), it's worth noting that Van Peebles recoils from homosexuality almost the exact same way. In an early scene, the lights go out at a lesbian sex show, and once they come back on, Sweetback has replaced one of the girls. See, dykes are great to watch, but we know what they really want is the cock—it's arm's-length exoticism, homophobic to the same degree that other characters are racist.
But, say it with me now: he broke down barriers. Well, congratulations, I guess. And it was an important movie for the development of a black cinema. Again, and more sincerely this time, congratulations. But still...

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

For a movie that's only 71 minutes long, Frankenstein drags in places (and moves too quickly past others). There's also not nearly enough of Boris Karloff (whose monster is indeed, to parrot a popular observation, far and away the most sympathetic character in the film). And, weirdly, the movie feels like it's leading up to some kind of class conflict: the scientist's father, Baron von Frankenstein (played by Frederick Kerr as, for some reason, a blustery, half-senile Englishman) keeps muttering derogatorily about the servants and townfolk- and mayor-, and makes some comment about the beer that's keeping them all rowdy and festive at the celebration for his son's wedding; when a woodsman shows up, carrying the daughter killed by the monster that the son created, one expects the peasantry's beer-and-circus-fed energy to turn to anger at the gentry. Instead, they and Frankenstein end up going after the monster together, which feels like an abrupt veering away from complications.
Whale goes about his business very fluidly, getting great gothic (even in the laboratory) set design from Charles D. Hall and Herman Rosse, and satisfyingly larger-than-life shadows from cinematographer Arthur Edeson. It's probably worth checking out if you've never seen it (I hadn't), if only to see all these things- "It's alive" and "I've created a monster"; the plot and look of it; the fascination with and sensitivity to the monster- that have since seeped so deep into the popular culture that we forget what they looked like originally.

Monday, January 09, 2006

This Book Is a Movie: Blow-Up

(This the first installment of a hopefully semi-regular series on adaptations and their relationship to their literary sources, to be blessed with new installments as frequently as my reading habits allow.)

Today, we'll consider "Blow-Up," by Julio Cortazar, included in "Blow-Up" and Other Stories, an English-language collection of three shorter volumes originally titled "End of the Game" and Other Stories, and renamed, sensibly enough, after the most famous title. I've been reading, and marveling at, Cortazar's stories the past couple weeks, impressed equally by the contortions time and identity are put through and the manner in which they are. For one thing, it's the voice- sort of a congenial, snifter-swirling ruminating- that drapes the stories in familiar intellectual parlor game tones that disguise their incisiveness. Additionally, if there is a supernatural agent at work in Cortazar's stories, it's as likely to be empathy as anything else. Especially in "Axolotl", "The Distances", and the three-page metafiction "Continuity of Parks", the unnatural occurs when, and quite possibly because, the person it's happening to can conceive of it. In the former two, a character becomes someone else, someone whose thoughts they've been, or have presumed to be, sharing; in the latter a reader's immersion in a book either brings the book to life or transforms himself into fiction. In either case, Cortazar is there and elsewhere writing about the expansion of the actual world into what had previously been the realm of the merely conceivable.

In "Blow-Up" (originally titled "Las Babas del Diablo," or, roughly, "Devil-spit"), the narrator's tense shifts, first/third person mutations, and temporal confusion reveal a deep anxiety over his ability to arrange a story that conveys an approximation of actual events (or, really, the very possibility of such an arrangement), just as his photographic intrusion into a potentially sinister pick-up is, in his mind, an insufficient representation of and involvement in the moment. The ending of the story, at least as I read it, the narrator's despair at being able to do nothing with reality but reduce it down to his own size. (This is an at least limited, and quite possibly completely off-base, reading of it; at any rate it's element I think I detect that's most relevant here.)

Which brings us to Antonioni's film, which appropriates the story's central (very slender) thread of plot, its concerns about the nature of representations of reality, and not much else. (A caveat: I haven't seen Blow-Up in years, and when I did see it I was pretty heavily under the thrall of "Tourist in the City of Youth," Pauline Kael's savaging of it.) Looking at the two side-by-side, it feels like Antonioni is doing the opposite of what Cortazar's fiction accomplishes: if his stories strive to expand reality into what can be imagined, then the film is contracting the imaginable into concrete reality. Both stories are very distrustful of representation (as created both by their photographer protagonists and their author/director selves), but I don't feel like there's anything in the film to match the story's fevered attempts to circumvent his own limitations. Of course, the clinical diagnosis of the void that the film gives us instead is of a piece with what's probably Antonioni's most significant contribution to film, and Blow-Up is probably his most self-indicting work, but compared to the story (and especially in light of both Cortazar and Antonioni's other works), I find the film to be more closed-off, and somewhat less satisfying.

Although, as my friend M.C. will attest, the movie has a much better soundtrack.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Eugene Green (New/Repertory Releases)

From January 20-29, Anthology Film Archives will feature the "premiere theatrical runs" of two of the French (and apparently, though he now vehemently denies it, U.S. born) director Eugene Green's three feature films (his debut feature, Night After Night, will also see some weekend screenings).

Apparently shot in a part of rural France untouched by development but for a few medieval ruins (or at least shot in some accessible woods and matched to long shots of wilderness and abandoned castles lensed elsewhere), The Living World does something I'm always really happy to see accomplished in movies, putting faith in the potential for fantastical narratives present within the quotidian. It's that characteristic that I find most appealing about Walter Hill's The Warriors and Southern Comfort (a very similar work that's been completely overshadowed by its hipper, less direly ambitious urban counterpart), which seal off, respectively, the New York streets and the Louisiana bayou to make them into their staging grounds. The violence of Hill's vision aside, it's really a pretty childlike proposition to imagine the alternate reality possible under the same physical conditions as the actual, and it's the child's viewpoint that Green takes, introducing a couple of children early on in his story. We've already been introduced to the character of the "Lion Knight", Green regular Alexis Loret dressed in contempo-casual clothes (as the whole cast is), carrying a prop sword, and accompanied by a shaggy labrador. He shows up in a clearing where two children are playing- the older and larger one playing the part of the giant- and they immediately recognize him as the Lion Knight, without prompting and with absolute credulity. And then, a few scenes later, as they are still playing, they're abducted by an ogre.
The fact that the ogre is represented through the sound of grunts emitted offscreen and a pair of fur-clad human arms hasn't changed the fact that the children have been snatched by it. All these people who appear to have been acting out a child's fantasy of myth turn out to actually be participating in one, and so the Lion Knight and another knight (Green's regular leading man Adrien Michaux) set out to fight the ogre and free both his wife Penelope(!) (Christelle Prot) and the lady (Laurene Cheilan) he's been keeping imprisoned.
It's formally very impressive what Green does, staging this fairy tale in a style as deliberately unreal as possible. His direct-address framings, or the coyly obvious way he shoots around his self-imposed limitations- especially in the way the villainous ogre is only ever seen as those dressed-up arms or legs- bring out the studied unreality that he transcends. And aside from simply playing the plot straight (having, of course, set up the impossible conditions under which it's to be played), Green becomes a gradually more mystical director, creating some suggestively evocative effects out of, for instance, candle-lit faces in an otherwise unilluminated frame, or the (human, green-painted and moss-studded) arms of an enchanted tree caressing Michaux in the fading twilight.
In a pretty broad hint at his intentions, Green has one of his characters mention a "Lacanian witch" (yes, this is the kind of movie in which a reference to Lacan counts as a broad hint). To consider it from that perspective, The Living World is constructed from elements which are obviously signifiers- the make-up bruise of a "fatal wound" on one character's otherwise unblemished forehead, or the canned roars the soundtrack provides for the "lion"- which carry the full reality of the signified. Additionally, the power of words is a crucial element of the plot, as the characters talk of their intersecting entanglements as being "bound to [each other] by words", and mean it in the literal sense, becoming unbound when new words arise.
The Living World plays with Green's short The Word for Fire, starring Loret and Prot in a doctor-patient shaggy werewolf story informed by transformative wonder and frankly parodic disconnect between that intention and its cutely deadpan affectedness. It's not nearly as involving, but watching it first is an effective preparation for the unexpected flights taken by The Living World.

In Les Pont Des Arts, a character defines baroque (the style with which Green, also a respected theater director in France, is most identified) as the simultaneous truth of two mutually exclusive propositions— a definition expressed far more eloquently and surprisingly in The Living World than here. The artifice that was so effective there is in Pont Des Arts pretty suffocating, and the risks Green takes here, with multiple intersecting character threads in a specifically contemporary setting, and diversionary interludes into academia, theater and pop and classical music, remained stagily boxed off from one another, and the experience is a mostly frustrating one. Still, I'd love to see this extended run bring Green some attention. He's already been the focus of a BAM retro, a sidebar of the Village Voice's Best of 2004 series this past summer, so he appears to be picking up some momentum; I guess we'll see in a couple weeks.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Marnie (Repertory Screening)

(Note: Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964) was playing as part of Film Forum's Essential Hitchcock series; it, like almost all of Hitchcock's other work, is readily available on DVD.)

I'm still working through Marnie, and will need to take a look at Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films Revisited, less to defer to than to use as a jumping-off point, but my first impression is that a lot of the things that make it a particularly complex movie also make it a somewhat awkward one. For one thing, as was demonstrated pretty clearly with, say, Spellbound, dialogue compressions of Freud, flashback triggers (in Marnie, the color red; in Spellbound, vertical lines) and dramatic recoveries of surpressed memories are not necessarily conducive to smooth filmmaking (although the trauma in Marnie is uncovered more darkly, and with far less abruptness, than Gregory Peck's revelation in Spellbound).
This is, of course, a movie explicitly about psychology and sexual politics. And since Hitchcock- of all people- dealt with these issues at impressive depth even underneath the most genre-bound set-ups, Marnie is fascinating at least in part because there appears to be a fair amount of disconnect between the narrative and the storytelling strategies. For one thing, the re-conditioning of Marnie, though it's the ultimate happy resolution of the narrative, comes off as pretty cruel—there's a fair amount of tension between the fact that the reconditioning is a precondition for a satisfying ending (even for Marnie herself) and the very fact that she is entrapped and then trained (words used in the movie to align with the sustained animal metaphor) by Rutland. Often, the way she's buffeted about and shaped by the man she loves(?) is reminiscent of Vertigo, only from Judy's point of view. We can't help notice how callously she's being treated, even as we root for the treatment to be successful. The casting is crucial in this regard: Connery is more conspicuously charming than Stewart, and already with a cinematic repuation (as Bond) for conquest. As charming as he his (and he's very charming, and very conflicted, and really very good), there's a predatory (more animal words) edge to him. (Hedren, when she's not asked to do the impossible, is similarly at her peak.)
Additionally, the dialogue is treated with the period-appropriate, or even archaic, level of arch double-entendre, but it's not really disguising anything at all; all the sexual power struggle is played as close to surface as possible. That this traditional, safe delivery is coated over such overtly sordid material is, for me at least, pretty interesting.
To return to Vertigo, though (and I can't possibly be the first person to use the above analogy, can I?), I don't think Marnie is quite as devastating as that movie is; the casting of Connery, while right for the perspective of the film, doesn't implicate the audience the way Stewart (and, really, the entire narrative structure of Vertigo) does. I suppose it's the difference between empathizing with someone and realizing, with an unpleasant start, that I should have been empathizing with someone else.

And another thing, I'd like to add that the Film Forum audience at this screening ought to be another addition to the litany of complaints in this quite heated reverseblog discussion. I personally was sitting one (empty, for obvious reasons) seat away from the occasionally snorting overweight gentleman who slept through the first half of the movie (snoring: moderate volume, maddening consistency), and then proceeded to breath through his apparently direly clogged sinuses for the remainder, while also moving around quite a bit and at one point donning an old nylon winter coat removed from the crinkly Barnes & Noble bag on the seat next to his (this at a full screening). The laughter- and talking, Christ!- was pretty bad until people got into it; I can't imagine how much worse the guffaws at the subjectively rendered Freudian triggers and recalled memories would have been at the clumsier Spellbound. (Any reports?) Still worse, if last winter's Essential Noir screenings are any guide, must have been Shadow of a Doubt (and what was that doing in a noir series, by the way? Film Forum must have an irrational hard-on for that particular overrated piece of work), with all its proto hick humor (and not just at the parts that are, you know, supposed to be funny).
But the most ludicrous audience I've ever been part of was the opening weekend sold-out show of Brokeback Mountain. Comedy of the year apparently, especially when Michelle Williams finds out she's married a queer. Awkward! There's some pretty obvious psychoanalysis I could perform here if I hadn't already overdrawn on my sense of superiority.
(The length of this diatribe, by the way, was why I didn't just post in the comments section at reverseblog.)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

One, Two, Three (Repertory Release)

Coming to Film Forum for a week beginning on Friday the 13th, after the conclusion of their "Essential Hitchcock" series, is Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961). James Cagney's last role before his 20-year retirement is as an American Coca-Cola executive in Berlin just before the days of the Wall (it was actually in construction during the making of the film); he apparently didn't enjoy making the movie, for reasons that are pretty obvious onscreen. His normally impeccable- and plenty quick already- timing, pushing out words with his entire jittery body, is constrained and sped-up; he's made to stand still, wave his hands around, and bark out lines to Wilder's noisily insistent double-time "hup, two, three" (probably where the title came from). All rhythm and repitition, One Two, Three''s much ballyhooed "breakneck tempo" is paced by finger-snapping Cagney and his heel-clicking assistant, and scored to an Andre Previn arrangement of the "Sabre Dance" and a "Yankee Doodle Dandy" cuckoo clock (a particularly audience-flatteringly-obvious inside joke); laughing is an act of submission.
In the happily nasty first part of the movie, compliance comes easily enough. The best, loopiest lines out of the quick-witted torrent go to Arlene Francis and Pamela Tiffin, as Cagney's wife and his boss's daughter. Being the daughter of a Coke executive, Tiffin is naturally from Atlanta and naturally named Scarlett, and being the boss's kid she's naturally a harebrained 17-year-old nympho, so Wilder gets to work in a dinner-theater southern accent on top of the clownish German and Russian ones, and spray dischord in all directions. But then, Scarlett's impulse marriage to commie zealot pinup Otto (Horst Buchholz, overplaying wildly) occasions a plot to have Otto arrested by the East German police, and then another plot to rescue him, through a combination of those two great western virtues, blondes and cars. (The blonde is Cagney's pneumatic secretary Lilo Pulver; she does a striptease to entice some Russian bigwigs in a particularly brazen bit of "isn't it funny how those guys are slobbering over that girl while she dances on the table- hey, check out her ass.") Unsurprisingly after this not so subtle display of breathtaking capitalist prowess, the scenes of Otto's lickety-split capitalist reeducation, overt jingoism replaces implicit cultural imperialism as the operating principle (when Coke is selling the ideology it's one thing; when the ideology is selling the Coke it's quite another), and what had been the rarest of Cold War pieces- the equal opportunity offender, taking lightly venomous potshots at ugly Americans, nervous Teutons, and buffoonish commies- freezes up.
More to the point: that second half, for as it fast as its played, is really running in place. The frantic preparations for the unsuspecting in-law's visit, in which comrade Otto gets a shake, a haircut, and a crash course in the joys of consumption, are overburdened with business and a couple of underdeveloped, quickly dismissed subplots. And since farces, like sharks and relationships, have to keep moving forward or die, all of One, Two, Three's anarchic, amoral momentum dissipates by the final button: Cagney staring into the camera not in freeze frame, but an uneasy grimace, waiting for Wilder to go on and say "Cut" already.

Monday, January 02, 2006

2005 in review: Korean Cinema

(Note: this post contains the first instance of what I can only anticipate will be one of Bill Roundtree's most frequently undertaken endeavors, namely, making fun of Rex Reed.)

Aside from his accessible (but still pretty singular) Buddhist parable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Kim Ki-duk's movies have received lukewarm (or, in the case of a now-infamous Tony Raynes takedown in Film Comment last winter, outright hostile) reception; I think he's one of the more distinctive talents recently produced by the very recently (either in terms of its development or our interest in it) ascendent South Korean cinema. So, of course the first movie of his to open here this year was his earlier, self-derivative Bad Guy, a pimp/unwilling-prostitute romance that force-feeds its audience antifeminist cliches puffed up with an air of portentousness, and featuring Kim's least inspired use of his trademark nonspeaking protagonist.
None of which really prepared me for the quietly quirky 3-Iron, the only one of Kim's movies I've seen that I would recommend without reservations. Its apparent thesis- that the closest connection its two disaffected main characters can share is in their mutual anonymity- is a simultaneously comforting and distressing response to the ultramodern suburban milieu- all golf clubs, McMansions, and easy-listening CDs- that 3-Iron inhabits.
(Kim's Samaritan Girl, which precedes 3-Iron on his C.V., played at the New York Asian Film Festival but didn't receive any theatrical release here; it's now out on DVD. Be warned: it's another story of a prostitute. The Bow, his most recent film, played at Cannes this spring. If it has since picked up U.S. distribution I haven't heard about it; expect some cameo specialty festival appearances, at minimum.)

I'll dispense with the most currently visible Korean director quickly, mostly because I really don't have anything to say about Park Chan-wook. And while a lot of people whose opinions I greatly respect made better cases for liking Oldboy than I could make for not liking Oldboy, any chance there was of my rewatching it to see if I was wrong about it went up in smoke about a third of the way into Cut, his actively malignant contribution to Three... Extremes. Nevertheless, Park's most significant contribution to the year in movies, though a tad indirect, is not to be lightly dismissed: now, any time I don't like a Korean movie I simply shrug it off, all Rex Reed-style: "What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi?" Indeed, Rex. Indeed.

Jang Jun-hwan's Save the Green Planet! and Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, both of which saw bona fide theatrical releases in New York this year, are among the most accomplished examples of high-wired gonzo-comic pop weirdness and mainstream genre-fulfilling, respectively, that the country has turned out in recent years. As for the less visible efforts, this fall's New York Korean Film Festival had a program of the kind of mainstream fare that's less likely to get much notice here (unless it's a box-office-record-shattering success in its homeland, a la Memories of Murder or Park Chan-wook's JSA), except among devotees and expats. The two that I saw: Spider Forest (Song Il-Gon), a gorily well-composed subjective-memory murder puzzle (available on DVD from Tartan, who'll snap up any Asian movie that lingers over a corpse); and My Mother, the Mermaid (Park Heung-Sik), in which a girl travels to the village where her parents grew up and, in a quite resonantly nostalgic act of supernatural metaphor, arrives in the village's halcyon past and witnesses the budding romance between her teenage parents. (It's such an obviously promising set-up that the mistake Park makes, losing track of the daughter for chunks of scenes at a time, so that she barely interacts with her future parents at all, is pretty unbelievable.)

One of the three Korean films to play at the New York Festival this fall (Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Hong Sang-soo's Tale of Cinema- regrettably, I haven't yet seen any of Hong's work- were the other two), Im Sang-soo's The President's Last Bang is a satisfyingly pottymouthed sullying of the official record of the 1979 assassination of Korean President Park Chun-gee; its presumed significance comes from the idea that its caustic demystification represents an important humanization of history.
Which it probably does. But, despite that, the best Korean movie that I've ever seen (out of admittedly too few), Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy, takes exactly that reverent view of history, tracking backward through the socioeconomic ascendency and emotional plummet of a businessman, set against Korea's growing pains of the past quarter-century. And while history is the impersonal wave by which the characters can only be tossed around, it's precisely this unalterability (that old curse, "may you live in interesting times", come to life) that makes Peppermint Candy a much more vital, lasting consideration of the relationship of the individual to history than Im's behind-the-curtain revisionism.

Hopefully some fresher content in the next few days.

That was also the year that was: 2005 in review

More belated two-cent contributions to the year in movies...

Steven Spielberg deserves a fair amount of credit for Munich, I suppose. Politically, it's very responsible, even if the periodic bursts of rhetoric that lay out its position of moral ambivalence are essentially verbal compressions of the subtext present in all the action set pieces. But even if Munich is, ideologically, a very grown-up movie, I'm more impressed with its psychological maturation, as it presents a much more multifaceted treatment of Spielberg's Daddy issues (and I'm leaping once again onto a favorite hobby-horse of mine right now). On the one hand, Eric Bana is the typical moral pillar and family man, doing everything he can to protect his wife and child; on the other hand, he's acting under the presumed shadow of an influential yet absent father (and two insufficient surrogates, in Geoffrey Rush and Michael Lonsdale), trying to make decisions without Dad there to guide him. It's Spielberg's two major poses- "Don't worry, Daddy will take care of it", and "What if our parents don't know how to protect us?"- combined in one figure. Even if this still represents a pretty childlike awe of parental responsibility (to say nothing of the gender dynamic: where's the strain this puts on the "hero's wife" while her husband is on another continent doing God-knows-what?), it's at least noteworthy that Spielberg has discovered new shadings.
Munich also contains at least two of the year's most stunning, eloquent, economical moments: the early shot of the hooded Black September member on the hotel balcony, filmed from inside the hotel room with the famous image of him playing "live" on the TV in the room has more to say about history and the collective memory, the media and the cinema, and public and private lives than most movies put together; Bana being shown the black-and-white picture of himself to go along with the pictures of the men he's been hunting is a perfect linkage of thriller plotting and moral repositioning. But, it also contains quite possibly the single worst scene of the year- yes, that "sweaty flailing orgasm/massacre of Israeli athletes" montage, which I'd probably find painful to watch even if I had any idea what Spielberg was going for with it, a mystery that has proved similarly elusive to everyone who has taken up discussion of it (although no review that I've read has mentioned that Spielberg at least sets it up- every flashback Bana has to the massacre is preceded by an interaction with his wife- not that this makes it any better). And I'm pretty sure that anyone coming up with an entirely satisfactory explanation for why the hell Spielberg thought it would be a good idea would make the scene any more palatable.

On to a much less troubled consideration of the baser impulses: Frank Miller's Sin City (Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller), which proved that Robert Rodriguez, reverent fanboy, is infinitely preferable to Robert Rodriguez, D.I.Y. digital auteur. His devotion to the source material seemed to curb the tone-surfing indulgences that sank Desperado, which was an enormous relief. (It has been argued, and rather successfully, that the movie is masturbatory enough already, thankyouverymuch, even as a straight translation; to which I can only respond that I don't really mind, as long as the self-gratification takes the form of post-archetypal noir stylization and an embarrassment of movie-star riches.)

And now, to make a slightly more than token effort to run against the grain of this post... I just watched, on DVD, the Argentinian director Lucretia Martel's deeply rewarding (if not entirely gratifying) second feature, The Holy Girl, an oblique skewering of those two great human follies, sex and religion. Martel's dryly ironic God's-eye-view plotting welcomes such a reading; moment to moment, though, her elliptical, charged images and re-mystified character interactions are more concerned with offering entirely new configurations of intimacy.

That was the year that was: 2005 in review

My list of (drumroll...) the Top Ten Films of 2005, done for the L Magazine's year-in-review issue, is here, if you're interested and haven't seen the magazine. To continue with the discussion of the year in film- and to jump-start this blog with some relatively readymade content- this post will consider more of the year's notable movies; I'll do a couple more batches of these over the next couple days, and probably add more year-in-review posts as the clot of 2005 releases I missed works its way up my Netflix queue. Anyway, let the fun begin...

The World (Jia Zhangke) had the best opening shot of the year ("Does anybody have a Band-Aid?"), and the first hour or so is terrific, but the strain of working with such an enormous, oeuvre-defining metaphor as World Park- "see the world without leaving Beijing"- weighs down Jia, who was never a particularly subtle filmmaker to begin with. Although it's interesting that while the settings for his four films have gotten progressively more urban, his primary, provincial concern- stasis leading to stagnation, on the personal and national level- has remained largely the same. The characters in Xiao Wu were dreaming of Beijing; by The World, they've arrived there, but Jia isn't any more optimistic about the possibilities open to them. Anyway, it's a fascinating movie, and the most visually distinctive thing Jia's done so far- I really wish it played as well as it sounds.

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee) was actually on my Top Ten at one point, partly because the ending fools you into thinking it's a better movie than it actually is (as most movies with depressing endings do, really). What mostly got it stuck in my head for a couple of days after, though, was the way Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, et al, were neglected by Lee almost as much as by their husbands: the movie plays out as a feature-length version of the jolting speed-through of Newland Archer's life towards the end of Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, which dispenses with almost all of the elements of his official biography in a quick montage and a few lines of narration. Brokeback does kind of the same thing, pushing Ennis and Jack's "real lives" as husbands, fathers, children, friends, neighbors, etc., to the side in order to define them by the part of their selves most hidden. (And, to a much greater degree than The Age of Innocence, believes in the primacy of its version of events.) I'm not sure that my being most emotionally invested in the stuff that's not part of the movie speaks particularly well for it, but, then again, I'm still thinking about it.

I actually kind of liked Jarhead (Sam Mendes). It's a mess, and Mendes aestheticizes it into oblivion, but I saw it right after I saw Paths of Glory, and so I was pretty receptive to the idea that the true horror of war is what it forces people to become in order to survive (I'm quoting my own review of Paths of Glory there), an idea that the last five minutes of Kubrick's otherwise pretty insufferable macho anti-war screed seems to embody, and which I think Jarhead would have, if it had had any idea what it was actually about.

David Cronenberg made the cover of the Village Voice for winning their annual critics poll with History of Violence, which is a pretty respectable choice, I guess. I'm just still kind of cold on that movie, and maybe for the wrong reasons, namely, that it's too well constructed. Every single element of the movie has a very thought-out, very evident relation to its thesis, and while it's impossible not to admire Cronenberg's execution (and, as has been noted, Josh Olson's model screenplay), is it too much to ask for a little bit of asymmetry to chew over?
(But, as an aside, was anybody else really disproportionately pleased to see William Hurt show up looking and sounding exactly like Albert Brooks? I guess we're going to have to, um, reevaluate Broadcast News now...)

All right, that's more than enough for now. The dead horse of 2005 will be flogged yet more in the coming days.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Theoretical FAQ

Who are you?

Hi. I'm Mark Asch. I'm a senior at NYU, majoring in cinema studies. I work at the L Magazine (see the links section if you're curious, or pick one up- it's free), reviewing movies, compiling the "classics, indie, etc." portion of the film listings, and writing the "Cinephile's Notebook" feature on a currently ongoing series/revival/retrospective/what have you.

What is this blog?

This blog will consist almost entirely, I imagine, of me writing about the movies I see. The writing here will be for the most part different from reviews: I imagine I'll use the first person a lot more, for one thing, and write-ups will be less formal, more conversational, and, most importantly from my perspective, not bound to any specific word count. I'll try to write about every movie I see, or at least every movie about which I presume to have something of interest to say.

Why do I care?

There's no earthly reason why you should.

Happy New Year, everyone.