Thursday, November 17, 2005

Daryl Hall kicked me and stole my taco while John Oates pointed and laughed

The last couple of weeks' viewing material that wasn't just an escapist retreat from the crushing disappointments of my current financial situation:
I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira) 83 minutes of detail and experience, zero minutes of melodramatic bullshit.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese) Some of the talking-head interview footage is a useless fetishization of nostalgia, but Dylan's own words and the archival footage put the attention where it belongs: the songs, the creative process, the irrelevance of fame, and the humanization of Dylan the man.
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach) A comedy that's funny. Some flaws, but who wants to see a perfect movie? Not me.
Keane (Lodge Kerrigan) This is already gone from theaters after a ridiculously brief run, but don't worry. You still have three hundred more chances to see "The Legend of Zorro" and the eight million bio-pics that infest theaters every Oscar season. I think biographies of famous people are replacing the disabled and terminally ill as actor's choice of Oscar-bait. You want to learn something about Johnny Cash? Listen to his fucking records. That will tell you all you need to know. God, those movies are cinematic dogturds.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The erotic reawakening of Porkchop Mountain's younger brother Purvis, or how Stella got her lube back

This week, I liked Top Hat (Mark Sandrich) a hell of a lot, but I've got nothing of interest to say about it, so I'll move on.
I don't have much to say about Platform (Jia Zhang Ke), either, mostly because I don't think I fully understood it, either intellectually or emotionally, but I think it's worth seeing so I'll give it a shot. It's about a Maoist theater troupe in a small town in China, living in the anachronistic culture freeze of Maoist Communism c. 1980. Western influences and capitalistic compromises are slowly creeping in, but the town looks like postwar Italy, the kids are just starting to wear bell bottom jeans, and they regularly attend film screenings of what seem to be American and Indian escapist genre movies from the 1930s and 1940s. In what could be a subtitling error but is most likely another example of their cultural isolation, the kids refer to the movie theater as the "television." It's hard for a Western audience, or at least this Western audience member, to get a fix on what decade is being represented. I assumed the film was set in the early 1960s until a song sung one-third into the running time revealed the 1980 setting. The kids in the troupe and their Maoist rhetoric-spouting director/manager seem adrift, treading water in a stagnant culture. Things don't improve when Westernization and capitalism are tentatively added to the mix, the troupe now privatized and transformed into the hilariously titled Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band but still disconnected from their culture. I'm an ugly American bonehead when it comes to foreign politics, so I feel like I'm missing out on a great deal of context, content, and nuance. However, much of the film is also concerned with the evolving relationships between the group members as they move from their teens into their twenties and, obviously, a knowledge of Chinese politics isn't going to help you much there. Additionally, the film is shot in a way I admire, a way in which a lot of my favorite directors work. Point of view is shared between many characters, closeups are eschewed in favor of long and medium shots so we as an audience have more freedom to think instead of being forced to identify with one character in favor of another, and takes are long with a relatively still camera. If all movies were shot this way, it would be a bore, but I respond to this style more than I do any others.
I have some misgivings, but overall, I think The Son's Room (Nanni Moretti) is a really good movie. More conventional and a bit less visually interesting than the other two Moretti films I've seen, it's still the work of a singular artist and far from sentimental, excepting a couple of scenes. Even if it didn't work, I would have admired it for attempting to deal seriously with grief, particularly in the case of the death of a young person, without trying to wring out a bunch of easy tears and wallow in fake depth. I can't remember if it was Hitchcock or Welles who said (I'm paraphrasing here), "It's easy to make an audience cry. Just kill a puppy." A lot of people think a movie is great if their emotions have been exploited (just like a lot of people think a movie is important if it's based on a true story and a lot of people think drama is more artistic than comedy), but I don't agree. Emotions are easy to manipulate. Turn on any junky television drama or trashy soap opera right now, watch it for ten minutes, and feel yourself getting emotionally attached to the characters, even against your better judgment, even while part of you smirks at how stupid it is. It's no great artistic achievement to play an audience's emotions like a xylophone. It's easy. Unless we're autistic or deranged, we are empathetic animals. Our brains put us in other people's shoes constantly, whether we're watching "The OC," the World Series, Monday Night Raw, or a cat stuck in a tree. Needless to say, most movies about grief make us get to know a dying character, string us along for a few hours, then kill the character off while we cry ourselves out of the theater. I mean, while you cry yourself out of the theater. Crybaby. Naturally, there's a lot of meaning and symbolism in the saintly character's death, and a lot of hoohah about the great meaning inherent in each of our impending deaths. This movie is smarter than that. It recognizes that death is arbitrary. Random, unfair, symbolism-free, something that happens to us, not about us. The kid's there, then he's not. What happens to his family after that? This movie is about how a handful of people cope with grief. It's not concerned with showing us a bunch of people crying for two hours, though of course they cry some (however, even when, where, and how these characters cry is largely contrary to crying scenes in most films). (On an oddly related tangent, I've noticed something strange about myself. I almost never get bored watching a movie. I'm endlessly fascinated by moving images, and I could probably enthusiastically watch a three-hour film of a guy staring out the window, but I get ants in my pants during any scene of people crying. I squirm, I look at the clock, I'm bored as hell. I am bored by crying. It is boring to me. Your tears fill me with inertia.) Don't get the wrong idea. This movie is also full of humor and beauty and some nice little digs at religion and psychiatry. A scene in which the family sings along to the radio during a drive made me cringe from its lazy manipulation, but it's a minor quibble, especially when one of my favorite Brian Eno songs is effectively used later. Maybe I'm a softie, but I liked this one a lot.

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