Monday, February 27, 2006

Six Stations on the Way Towards (Mostly) Loving Terrence Malick's The New World, Which I Finally Got Around to Seeing This Weekend

1. I'm slightly uncomfortable with the use of indigenous tribes- "naturals," in the film- as a metaphor for some kind of idealized prelapsarian state; however pure Malick's intentions (or Sam Peckinpah's vis a vis Mexico, and so on), it's still a problematic, and faintly reductive statement to make about race. The first preview at the screening I saw was for Mel Gibson's Apocalypto; I rather wish that this didn't bear mentioning.

2. Talking about the purity of Malick's intentions raises a pressing question: So, um, do John Smith and Pocahontas fuck, or do they just nuzzle? Inquiring minds want to know, since the coy cuddling and grass-tickling of their intimate scenes suggests that Malick is finessing his way around something that could potentially complicate his whole enterprise. Both here and in Badlands, Malick has taken an ahistorical approach in making the real-life relationship between an adult male and a barely adolescent girl into a metaphor for a fleetingly achieved perpetual innocence. Is the man trying to return to an Edenic state through his relationship with the girl, only to see desire get in the way and mess things up? In that case, why not show him deflowering her? Except, I suppose, to spare audiences the site of Colin Farrell doing a love scene with a 14-year-old.

3. About Farrell, though. Watching Colin Farrell fall in love with a teenager is far less squicky than one might imagine. His fully committed performance has a lot to do with it, of course, but there's something to be said for the way that Malick's amorphous poetics envelop his actors, and let us forget whatever associations they might normally carry.

4. But good as Farrell is, Christian Bale is frankly amazing. When he's watching Kilcher (and what am I doing heaping praise on Colin Farrell and Christian Bale for their work in a movie that features a performance as revelatory as Q'Orianka Kilcher's?), his expression is one of reverent bliss, but he can't quite hold it in place. Everytime Bale looks at her, his face wears the (well-founded) anxiety that she isn't seeing the same thing in him as he is in her. It's a typical romantic set-up- there will always be a part of her that's somewhere else, that he'll never know, you know the drill- that's particularly resonant to the movie that's inspired the highest-ever number of reviews titled "Paradise Lost." (Unverified, but really now.)

5. In keeping with this notion of the not-quite-graspable ideal (I should probably have mentioned before now how indebted my understanding of this movie is to Scott Foundas's "every Terrence Malick movie is about the despoiling of Eden" formula, if that wasn't already obvious)- that is, with Pocahontas and America as the harmony that Smith and later Rolfe can only briefly (re?)discover- I wonder whether a useful frame for The New World might be Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? That the act of observing alters the observed, or, in the context of the movie, that the act of discovery involves a tainting imposition of the explorer upon his discovery?

6. And, finally, it's a beautiful movie (though the contrast with the squalid Jamestown- and the stubbly, mouth-frothing Jamestonians- is too obvious to make Virginia more beautiful by comparison). I didn't even mind the fluffy voice-over abstractions after a while, at least not while I was watching them. Really, it's a movie that demands full immersion from its audience: it's a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

On Watching Princess Raccoon Without Benefit of Subtitles

Mondo Kim's recently acquired a foreign region DVD (the official Japanese release, I believe) of Seijun Suzuki's Princess Raccoon. I'm not going to say much about the movie itself, because I don't feel up to describing it, except to say that I'd been anticipating the chance to see it for some time, and it was even more bizarre, even more incomprehensible, and even more intoxicating to look at than I had imagined. No amount of foreknowledge will have prepared you in any way for the actual experience of Princess Raccoon.

The translation of the English subtitles on the disc, though, was abysmal, pretty much incomprehensible. And actually, getting to watch Princess Raccoon without anything but the most rudimentary understanding of what the characters were saying was a pretty liberating experience. For as pleasurable as Suzuki is, I usually can't help but feel frustrated with his purposeful incomprehensibility , but without subtitles, which, for me at least, would have suggested the expectation of a traceable narrative logic, I found him much more accessible. It's not just that it was easier for me to enjoy his surfaces; knowing that I wasn't going to understand what was going on somehow meant that I could finally see the anarchy so essential to Suzuki- the complete and utter nonsensicality- as one of his chief pleasures.

Plus, I don't think I watch movies without subtitles (or without sound, if they're in English) nearly enough. I still worry that I'm too focused on the "what" (the narrative information conveyed in a film) rather than the "how" (the cinematic methods by which that information is conveyed), and- to make a not particularly original point here- watching a movie without dialogue is obviously a pretty good way of training oneself to recognize the cues that filmmakers use. (I'm starting to think about what movies would be most instructive in this regard; probably the Classical Hollywoods, no?)

As for Princess Raccoon, though: watching it without subtitles, so that I was completely dependent upon the audio-visual conveyance of narrative information, really underscores just how much Suzuki eschews cinematic logic. To bring back the Soviet montage arguments, his cuts don't collide into each other, they don't build on each other, they don't create association or juxtaposition: every cut, every camera movement, is an attempt to distance itself from whatever has come before. His movies accumulate, as any progression of images does, but they function by deconstructing the whole. He's seemingly determined to peel off a completely different strip of the movie in every seen, and Princess Raccoon does what it does because each strip is as vibrantly bizarre, and as bizarre different, as it could possibly be. And I guess it took an awful English subtitle track to make me appreciate it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Briefly: A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (May, 1972)

I've been meaning to post some thoughts on Elaine May that I couldn't fit into a recent piece on her (it ended up being 400 words on Ishtar); now, on the eve of her spotlight at Film Comment Selects (with a push from Hoberman), I guess I had finally spit them out, brief and disorganized as they may be.

So, remember Small Time Crooks? How Elaine May, blundering blissfully unaware through her punchlines, rescued Woody Allen's tepid script from complete ignominy? It's that kind offhand flightiness (which is precisely what Ishtar lacked) that she brings to A New Leaf as the oblivious irritant to Walter Matthau. When she casts her own daughter, Jeanne Berlin, in the same role in The Heartbreak Kid, she's more actively annoying, but when she's not written too broadly she's the best part of the movie. Her slide into pathos once hubby Charles Grodin has fallen for WASP ice queen Cybill Shepherd- on their honeymoon- is one of the few parts of the movie that isn't completely ruined by Neil Simon's smarmily broad script and Grodin's supremely grating, arm-waving mugging. It's such a waste- at its low ebb, particularly at the very beginning and very end, it's a quite effective depiction of the life-derailing things we do because we think they'll make us happier. It's not that it couldn't have worked as a comedy; it just doesn't work as a comedy this frantically pushy. Hoberman isn't hopeful about the forthcoming Farrelly Brothers remake (with Jason Bateman and Amy Poehler, which gets rid of the Jewish angle, unfortunately); I'm actually kind of looking forward to it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

(Believe it or not, I've never seen Seven Samurai before. And given how much has already been written about it, I'll try and confine myself to one observation.)

So: Seven Samurai, it's often suggested, is the progenitor and epitome of the modern action film. (The latter is more easily agreed upon, perhaps, than the former). And of the many accompanying tropes embodied in the film, one is certainly the conservative streak that's defined so many of its followers. With its emphasis on the values of domesticity (the life of the homesteader vs. the life of the gunslinger, to borrow the idiom of Sturges's remake, which revives the "we always lose" ending, and is even more explicit about its exaltation of home-and-family values), and in pulling the villagers inside their fences against the marauding outsiders, Seven Samurai is defining a very righteous, defensive notion of the action hero. It even divorces the violence committed in the name of self-defense from the community itself, by making its heros mercenaries whose lives the film clearly wishes to establish as less whole than that of the farmers.

But in a year when moviemuch discussion has centered around how successfully movies like Munich and History of Violence problematize the notion of reluctant self-defense so often prevalent in the action film, it's worth noting that complications were there all along. At several points in the film, Kuroswawa stages the death of a bandit as pathetic and maybe even sympathetic, as the villagers' spears fall hungrily on a bandit as he crawls through the mud to try and find safety. (Or, when the samurai kill two advance scouts and capture a third, and the townsfolk kill the bound captive in a fury of vengeance, Kurosawa's camera following the samurai as they reluctantly turn their backs.) In these moments, Kurosawa seems to be suggesting the potential abuses of self-defensive violence, by showing how eagerly the mantle is taken up. This vague unease boils over in the scene when Manzo beats his daughter Shino is punishment for sleeping with a samurai; it's abundantly clear in that scene that the fury with which we take up arms against outsiders ends up broadening our definitions of justification, with disastrous results.

The point I'm trying to make, if another Western metaphor is permitted, is that it didn't take George W. Bush to get filmmakers worried about what "circling the wagons" actually entails.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Because the Prospect of a Cool Runnings Blog-a-Thon Seems, at This Writing, Somewhat Unlikely...

The Winter Olympics are very nearly coinciding with NYU's Cinema Studies Department's annual student conference. Since this, obviously, cannot be mere coincidence, a panel discussion on the Turin Games seems to be the only logical solution. Descriptions of the topics on this panel might very well read:

"Throughout the games, mainstream media coverage of U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir has used words such as "outspoken", "outrageous", and most especially "flamboyant" to describe the athlete, in an ongoing, not-so-subtle winking towards his obvious homosexuality. For the sake of what hopeless naifs is this coy facade being maintained? And does the perfunctory nature of Weir's homosexual coding signal a shift, or perhaps even an endgame, in the manner in which cultural outlets have glossed over non-hetero sexual orientations?"

"In recent games, additions to the spate of Winter Olympic games have been largely newer, 'extreme' sports, with this year's addition of snowboard cross only the most recent example. In what ways do these events, which have originated in the U.S., appeal to U.S. audiences, and are especially in these early stages of competition dominated by Americans, reflect the hegemony of American consumer culture and aggressive foreign policy, even on such a theoretically pan-national stage as the Olympics?"

"Is 'Olympic Fanfare' the best piece of music ever composed by John Williams? A consideration."

"This discussion of NBC's Olympics coverage will address such issues as: Bob Costas and Jim Lampley- the comparative values of erudtion and avuncularity in a 'cool medium'; Jimmy Roberts' 'Olympic Moments' as expressions of a dominant conservative moral ideology; and the political reprecussions of not checking news websites all day because you don't want to have the outcome of tonight's broadcast ruined for you."

Extra Special Dept. of Self-Promotion

Bill Roundtree's increasingly sporadic posting schedule hasn't been (entirely) due to laziness, I promise: After a couple weeks in development, the spiffy new is up, with its expecially organic and dynamic events blog front page, as edited by Zachary Palmer and yours truly. It's actually a potentially pretty cool new site and you should read it religiously.

The reviews page features most of the film content for the latest (2/15) issue, including my review of inexplicable Oscar nominee Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The Cinephile's Notebook, which does not appear to be up online, consists of 390 glorious words on Ishtar, which is part of the Elaine May sidebar at Film Comment selects. I didn't have the space to talk about A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, so those of you eagerly awaiting my thoughts on those films can expect a post in the next day or two.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Japanese Cinema Wednesdays: The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003)

Actually reminded me (and Ted) of Fukasaku's Fall Guy quite a bit, in the way that it's played with a sort of heightened self-consciousness. Kitano's trying to put everything that might conceivably go into a movie into his movie: here's a childhood trauma, here's some slapstick, here's a sword fight, here's a shocking twist. It doesn't work nearly as well, though: between an overreliance on flashbacks and a narrative that doesn't keep pace with all its spinning gears, the movie is too busy to inspire the kind of engagement that his multifaceted spectacle requires.

I did like certain elements of how the movie's movie-ness played out. Theoretically, between the costumes the characters wear and the handgun one of them eventually draws, the movie is set in the mid-19th Century; watching it, though, it doesn't feel like it's set in any time, period. Best is the Stomp-style dance troupe that periodically shows up to do manual labor to non-diegetic techno music. And then they lead the way in a final, cast-encompassing dance number that actually goes a long way towards underscoring what Kitano has been after all along: yes, it was just a movie and a spectacle all along and now it's over. (Fall Guy does something like this; so, in a different way, does Coppola's The Cotton Club.)

Also, Tadanobu Asano is a really great actor. He's starting to remind me of Daniel Day-Lewis, actually, in the way that he takes what he doing with his body really seriously at moments when almost no other actor would be capable of keeping a straight face. His whole performance here could be an extension of the opening deer-hunting scene in Last of the Mohicans. I can't think of a better choice for the "terrific actor who randomly shows up in every movie made in Asia" title previously held by Tony Leung.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)

I occasinally describe Winterbottom's The Claim as "the best pan-and-scan movie I've ever seen"; much of the pleasure of that movie (and of Winterbottom's films in general) is in the textures picked up, in snatches, from the margins, and the slightly harried incompleteness of a full-screen VHS accentuates the sense that the story is being told through its un-smoothed-out offshoots and fragments. And it's that aspect of his filmmaking, more than his self-referential cheekiness (Steve Coogan informing us in direct address that he's being postmodern before it was fashionable), that carries his adaptation of Laurence Sterne's 18th century pre-postmodern novel. (Only the first volume of which I've read.)

The major conceit of the endlessly digressive book is that it's narrated by someone who's trying to tell his autobiography but can't ever manage to start it, what with everything else he has to mention first, and all the other things he has to mention related to them. And so the approach taken by Winterbottom (and screenwriter "Martin Hardy") to a book that so constantly acknowledges the process of its own construction is to make a movie that is similarly "open" about the process of movie-making, by being both an adaptation of selected fragments of the novel and a narrative about the production of the movie to which these fragments supposedly belong. Tristram Shandy in the adaptation-within-the-movie is played by movie star "Steve Coogan", who's played by movie star Steve Coogan. (The difference between the two is very important; Sterne was perfectly in control of his narrator's meanderings, and the people making "Tristram Shandy" are obviously creations of the people who made Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.)

It's a perfectly natural evolution of the material, one that's very in keeping with the tricked-out spirit of the book. The major flaw of the film, then, is that it devolves into a fairly stale Hollywood satire, jabbing at "Coogan's" leading-man insecurities and shallowness, and moving his character through a (24-hour) arc about overcoming his selfishness and learning to be a devoted boyfriend and father. It's disappointing to see a movie that's so structurally interesting resort to lazy jokes about about a leading man who hits on his assisstant and wants lifts in his shoes so that he can be taller than his co-star.

But here's where we get back to Winterbottom's offhandedness, his greatest virtue as a filmmaker. Most directors would shape their film around this primary storyline, but with Winterbottom it's just another sideshow, and "Coogan's" transformation plays out almost as briskly as the story of, say, costume designer Debbie, whose travails in dealing with the demands of period-accurate garb are dealt with via a few cutaways in scenes where everybody else is pursuing their own arc, too. (Winterbottom's camera chases after every one of them, if only for a little while before moving on to someone else.) It's the casualness of the movie that tickles, not the jokes. (Except for Coogan's delivery of "You are incredibly attractive, and your knowledge of German cinema is second to none", which is fairly hilarious.) There's always something going on that's more interesting than what's supposed to be happening- a distinction equally applicable to Sterne's book and Winterbottom's movie.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Japanese Cinema Wednesdays: Sanshiro Sugata (Kurosawa, 1943)

Even at the peak of his career, there's always something disjunctive about Kurosawa's films- the wipes, the willfully eccentric angles- and in his first film, a piecemel lesson in responsibility in the form of a judo student's development, the director's storytelling eccentricities are handled with neither the assurance nor the moral seriousness that he would later develop. It comes off a little sloppy, but likeably so (Johnnie To's homage feels, for once, about right). It's a vervy little cinematic spaghetti test; Kurosawa seems to be auditioning camera movements and framings for future use. Most notable: a climactic showdown on a deserted mountainside plain, wind whipping through the flossy glass. It works so well, Masaki Kobayashi would borrow it for both of his socially conscious samurai movies.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Best News Item Probably Ever

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Dept. of Self-Promotion

It's the middle of the week, which means that the alt-weekly writers in the movie blogosphere get to take it easy for a day and link to their shiny new reviews.

So: the film section for issue 4.2 of the L is up, featuring yours truly on the DVD for The World (in which I repeat many points I'd previously made here), and on Film Forum's Karloff retro (ditto). No new releases this issue, but given the slate of openings, I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.

Related: Elliot Stein has a much less compacted take on Karloff for the Voice (sorry, word-count-envy), and makes some of the same points, with a bonus lesson on How to Name-Drop Without Being An Asshole. (On a related note, Rex Reed has been absent from the Observer for about a month- anybody know what's going on there?)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Japanese Cinema Wednesdays: Ikiru & Battle Royale

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

-Nagisa Oshima's Night and Fog in Japan clearly takes its structure from the final section of Ikiru. In Kurosawa's film, the ceremony anchoring the flashbacks that cause the gathered bureaucrats to grapple- with increasingly false-ringing histrionics- to lament their misplaced idealism is Watanabe's wake; in Oshima's film, a bunch of former student radicals rub salt into old wounds at a wedding.

-Probably not a particularly original observation here, but I appreciated the way the film uses childhood as an expression of both irony and the hope of rebirth: Watanabe tells Toyo about his illness and resolves to build the playground to the accompaniment of a group of adjacent revelers singing "Happy Birthday" (in one startling low-angle shot, they appear to be serenading him), marking the beginning of a new purposeful phase of his life that's limited by his impending demise; the playground itself, once completed (especially the swings) serves a similar purpose.

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)

Which made a relatively large splash a couple years ago for pairing the two ultimate fanboy gratifications of excessive and creative violence and Japanese schoolgirls; and which I actually kind of think I loved, for its joining of two particular weaknesses/fascinations of mine.

I've talked before about how I really like certain movies that turn everyday ecosystems into hermetic battlegrounds. To put it another way, when I was a really little kid, one of my favorite pastimes was considering the space- backyard, elementary school, etc.- where I found myself, and imaging, "what would it be like if there was a battle here?" I have no idea whether this is a bizarre or immediately recognizable impulse; I imagine, though, that the excitement of carving out the most heightened narrative you could conceive of is a pretty basic urge within us as kids, and I'm not sure it ever goes away. (Oh, wait: earlier this month, I spent a weekend up in Westchester, where my roommates are from; we were hanging out at someone's house, a Nerf gun came out of the woodwork, and before too long, one of my roommates- old enough to drink, but not rent a car- was ducking down behind a mattress in the basement, finger on the trigger, shouting "I'm not gonna go back to jail! Not for you, not for anybody!" It never goes away.) The particular genius of Battle Royale is that it concocts its perfect scenario, invents a transparently flimsy justification for it (15% unemployment constitutes a dystopia? don't tell France—although "the not-to-distant future" is a pretty standby excuse for this sort of exercise), and sets its kids loose in it.

Because: could a movie that feeds our childhood narrative urges (especially the urge to think of oneself as an adult, which the battlers are immediately forced to do) so brazenly feature anyone other than adolescents? Which brings us to my other favorite thing about Battle Royale. It appeals to another particularly youthful but still lingering state of mind; like a few other movies I like much more than I should, it's a movie that tells us that high school really is the most important time of your life. Life really does end after graduation for these kids, and the parallels Battle Royale offers between the behavior of kids facing death and kids facing graduation (these kids have just celebrated the end of 9th grade) are kind of hilarious: long-bubbling rivalries boil over, cliques dissolve in fractious infighting, one kid impulsively travel all over the place just to see everybody one more time before they all have to go, and another is so desperate to get laid before it's over that he does something incredibly stupid. But all this really does affirm the impulse to view adolescence with as much romanticism as possible. The ending credits, after all, play over a sepia-tinted class photo while a strummy alt-rock song plays.

Which is why, for all the outre bloodshed and creative dispatches of secondary characters, the movie seems to wallow in sentimentality far more than in violence; it revives the romantic despair of all the best death scenes to an almost pornographic degree. And just as the movie validates our emotional investment in youth, it validates our youthful investment in narrative: playing every death scene for maximum pathos, Fukasaku isn't catering to a desire to see violence as much as a desire to be told, that, yes, everything we're watching really, really matters as much as it possibly can.