Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Bacon double cheeseburger

This week, I'm excited about the Sirk/Fassbinder double feature the Austin Film Society is putting on tomorrow night as part of its 20th anniversary series, especially for the chance to see one of my favorite films, "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul," on the big screen. I saw some great stuff last week, too, on the lesser but adequate home video format.
Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin) is an underrated and unjustly forgotten film, though it's only four or five years old. Apparently, most critics didn't like it (except for the French), and it was poorly distributed. It's an odd movie, a little disjointed and awkward, and a few scenes don't work. However, as much as I hate siding with the French (they hate America and stink of cheese while forcing champagne down the barely developed throats of their infant children, don't they?), I have to wonder what kind of film-literate person dismisses this work. "Esther Kahn" is a flawed, fascinating, physical film (sorry for the alliteration--I hate alliteration) that is infinitely more interesting than any darling of the press I can call to mind. I don't know how to rave about an actor's performance without sounding like Peter Travers or a twat, so I'll just say that I could have watched Summer Phoenix's performance for several more days without eating or sleeping. I also think this film smartly handles the problem of convincingly portraying an artistic process by keeping it elusive and mysterious, shunted off to the side and obscured, so that it becomes the film's subject almost by accident. It's dangerous territory, full of deadening and stupid traps, but Desplechin knows how to move in it.
The Kid (Charlie Chaplin) Chaplin's first full-length film paired him with the then-unknown seven-year-old son of vaudeville parents, Jackie Coogan, who most of us know from his later years as TV's Uncle Fester on "The Addams Family." It blew my mind when I found that out. I love Chaplin. Of course, he wants to be loved, and sometimes he's pretty ingratiatingly vulgar about it, but I can handle the sentimentality and the mugging. There's some damn thing I can't put my finger on about his movies, some strange mix of order and chaos, elegance and poverty, comedy and tragedy that is still ahead of its time.
I also want to make a brief Halloween plug for The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O'Bannon). I've seen it three times, and it still makes me laugh. I think this movie should be taught to film production majors to show them what can be done with a tiny budget. The film is limited to three locations, practically a stage setting, and the camera barely moves, but there are few horror/comedies I like better. The script is witty and fun, the actors have great comic timing, and the zombie gore is completely satisfying. I have a soft spot in my heart for zombie gore. At ninety minutes, there is very little padding. This is a lean, economical, smart B-movie, and the fun the cast and crew are having is present on the screen. I'll take this goofy little zombie movie over whatever overhoopla-ed drivel makes it into the Oscar race this year, which probably will be 14 more goddamn bio-pics. Film biographies are like watching a Vegas impersonator fuck a stack of Cliff's Notes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Whoop whoop

This week I recommend Carl Dreyer's The Parson's Widow and They Caught the Ferry, conveniently on the same DVD. That guy knew where to put a camera.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The weekly plop

Before I get into the two movies I'm recommending to anyone who is exactly like me, I want to talk about a movie I watched last week that I think is a good movie but also a perfect illustration of the kind of art that means little to me personally and a lot to most other people who have some kind of artistic bent, and why I feel more disillusioned when I'm around people who strongly share my interests (they're the fucking worst). In short, I'm constantly uncomfortable, but at least I'm used to it. I grew up in a town of 1,500 people, for christ's sake, and I sure as hell didn't find salvation in the city. (I can't believe how many people have tried to empathize with me by saying, "Hey, I grew up in a small town, too." "Oh, yeah," I say. "How many people in your town?" "40,000," they usually say, or some similar figure. If only I could have been so lucky.) Anyway, the movie is The Virgin Suicides. It's an accomplished film. I think it achieved what it set out to do. Sofia Coppola is a natural filmmaker with an eye for detail and an understanding that film is a visual medium. It's surprising how many filmmakers don't understand that. I'm unable to call this a bad film. It's good. I enjoyed it. It just doesn't mean much to me, aside from an entertaining Friday night. Most art doesn't. It doesn't because most art is symbolic, metaphoric, and/or transcendent. Symbols, metaphors, and transcendence don't make me feel alive. They distract me from life. If I can figure out what the symbols and metaphors mean, there's not much left. The artwork has been used up. It has nothing left to reveal. It's a husk, a pelt. I don't see much difference between that artwork and a crossword puzzle. Once the puzzle is solved, what are you going to do with what's left? Use and dispose. Metaphors and symbols are games. Coppola's film is based on a metaphor, and though it's a subtle and clever metaphor, what can you do with it after you've deciphered it? If I return to films that depend on metaphor and symbol for their existence, it's because of details that aren't part of those metaphors and symbols. The way an actor delivered a line or moved his/her eyebrows. The way a tree looked in the corner of the frame for a few seconds. The way a joke made me laugh or the way a smile made me think about a terrible summer. Art, to me, is about the mysteriousness and frustration and finite brutality and joy of existence and the difficulty of communication and honesty and breathing in and out. It's about dirt, blood, bone, vomit, semen, saliva, skin, teeth, the growl of a stomach, the shift of an eyebrow, the difference between what the face shows and what the mouth says. It's about tonal shifts and fluctuations, about the infinity of experience, about how each person is a minority of one, about how nothing we do can ever be understood. I don't represent red-haired people. I'm not a symbol of western Nebraska, or German, Irish, or Czech-Americans, or white males, or Generation X, or lost youth, or one crazy summer, or the Ghost of Christmas Past. I'm one human being. When art is doing something to me, I don't feel larger than life, or entertained, or intellectually inquisitive, or transcendent. I don't even feel this way when I'm on drugs. I feel alive. My nerve endings are raw. I feel present, I feel mortal, and I feel finite and real. Good art doesn't make me feel like I'm hovering outside of my body, or living solely inside my head. It makes me feel like all I have is the present and I better do something with it besides jerk off to metaphoric crossword puzzles or work dead-end office jobs until I'm dead enough to retire. Here are the two movies this week that weren't dead ends for me:
Junebug (Phil Morrison) We don't live in red or blue states, just gray ones. It's hard to tell anyone, especially family and friends, exactly what the hell you mean, especially if you don't even know.
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai) Kar-Wai's movies are like songs. It's hard to tell where one scene ends and another begins. Take out one piece, or add another, and the whole thing falls apart. He's a master of instinct. His movies are felt, not thought out.

Monday, October 03, 2005

I need to update this site

I'm currently bogged down with an increasingly frustrating and hopeless job search (though I haven't regretted quitting the old one) and writing essays for a grad school application, but I do want to pick up a little slack on this site and do some more things with it. I don't think I'll go back to writing about every movie I watch, mostly because I watch too many goddamn movies and some are a lot better than others, but, for the time-starved present and near-future, I'll keep it simple. Every week, I'll mention the movies I watched during the week that meant something to me, that I would watch again, that do more than just pleasantly pass the time. Maybe some weeks I'll have nothing. This week was a particularly good one. I have five. Three on the big screen, two on video.
I got to see Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson) again, this time on the big screen. What a great experience. It's nice to forget about what a fucking mess I've made of the part of my life that makes a living and spend a couple hours seeing a great piece of art the way it was intended. It was a beautiful, sparklingly clear 35mm print, and no one in the audience showed up late, talked during the screening, or forgot to turn their cell phones off. Thanks, thoughtful citizens. (I blame our current, and, unfortunately, probably permanent, cell phone culture for the frightening increase in loudmouthery during live concerts and movies. Shut the fuck up, everybody. You're boring. It can wait. Why did you buy a ticket to this event? Etc. Too much talking and not enough listening. The world's an amazing place when you close your mouth and look at it. I'm not a Luddite. I thank the gods every day for the Internet, file-sharing, computers, cruise control, etc. I just hate cell phones, and I wish they had never been invented. A phone doesn't belong outdoors. I will always believe this. Even if I'm caught in a bear trap with nowhere else to turn. {I'm caught in a bear trap, and I can't walk out, because I love you too much, baby.} Hopefully, everyone gets brain cancer in twenty years. That'll make them shut up.)
A History of Violence (David Cronenberg). This is such a deceptively simple film. I don't even want to talk about this movie, because the reactions it caused in me are such personal ones that I want to keep them to myself. You should have plenty of your own if you watch it with the openness it demands. How does this film do so many contradictory things at once? I need to see this again, in a year or two. Then again, a few years after that.
Yi Yi (Edward Yang). Three hours and not a second is wasted, stretched, padded, labored. A lot of morons have convinced a lot of casual moviegoers that foreign films are pretentious, boring, and high-falutin' just because they're subtitled. A lot of morons on the other side of the spectrum pretend to love foreign films (and world music CDs) as a kind of high-culture affectation, a fetishization of novelty objects and a robotic display of politically correct, multi-culturalist attitudes currently fashionable among people who manage to convince a lot of other people (including their own real selves) that they're smart without having to go through all the bother of independent thought. The casual moviegoers are victims of our country's culturally isolationist entertainment distribution systems and their own ignorance. This can be overcome. The high-culture nitwits are dangerous, however, because they have good intentions. They truly believe they're enlightened, open-minded, artistically savvy, and non-racist. However, all their multicultural horseshit reduces individuals to boring group types. Instead of being a book by James Baldwin-individual, artist, and damn good writer, it's a book by James Baldwin-African American homosexual. Instead of being a book by Henry James-individual, artist, and damn good writer, it's a book by Henry James-dead, white male of European ancestry. Art is bypassed, and worse, ignored, by this affected group-lump of multiculturalism. If any of these people approached the art on its own terms--its style, form, and content-- instead of the important but not all-encompassing sociologic makeup of its creator, maybe something new would happen in their brains each day instead of wasteful atrophy. Whoah, I'm getting way off-topic here. I don't think I've even read anything about "Yi Yi" that takes that approach. I just get tired of all the good films getting wasted on pretentious douchebags, all the ceremony and reverence and self-congratulation and silly symbolic interpretation involved with the "art film" crowd, when real art films should belong to open, intelligent, living, humorous, non-affected people. Art is not a dirty word. It doesn't need to be delivered on a silver tray. It doesn't need to be respected. You can treat it rough, slap the shit out of it, laugh at and with it, live with it, put it in a headlock, give it a handjob. It likes that. Art is alive, comes from life. It's not good if it doesn't. It's not going to church. It's not an intellectual dinner party conversation starter. It's about human beings trying to connect with each other. Drop the self-important bullshit and let it connect. I just wanted to say "Yi Yi" is a great movie. To me, anyway. Maybe not to you, whoever the hell it is I'm writing to. Maybe it won't connect with you. Maybe you have valid reasons for that. I just hope you get a chance to see it. I hate how the guys with the money decided that most Americans are only worthy of shit like "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" without taking the time to ask any of us. Jesus, this paragraph was incoherent.

Oh yeah, I also got a lot out of Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay) and Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty).

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