Monday, February 13, 2006

Movement, part 2

Seeing Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (Jeff Margolis) last week, it pained me to think about how often he was wasted in bad films and how his MS seemed to be some kind of vengeful retribution inflicted by insulted gods wanting to punish an artist whose comedy relied, almost exclusively, on facial expressions, body language, mimicry, anthropomorphization, and constant movement. Mostly, though, I laughed and watched a great artist at work. Pryor's stand-up comedy depended on Pryor's performance and delivery. If one were to transcribe his comedy and read it, it might produce a few smiles or nods of recognition, but most of it would lay dead on the page. Pryor's jokes are funny because of his delivery, not what is being delivered. He is a performer, in the best sense of the word, scrunching his body into the shape of a question mark and hopping from side to side as he talks about getting beaten by his father, lying on the floor in a ball and punching himself in the chest as he tells the story of his first heart attack, turning himself into an old woman, a lying little kid, Muhammad Ali, a white man, a pet monkey who likes to fuck people in the ear, a German sheperd, the engine of a car, and on and on. Pryor the artist is a living pinball, constantly in motion, banking off the multiplicity of human experience. Like all the artists I admire, he is simultaneously tough and compassionate, loving people while never letting them off the hook, and he never exempts himself from his work. He's not making judgments from on high and passing them down to an audience, he is discovering things about himself while performing and forcing the audience into self-discoveries as well. I would rank him, as a stand-up, right up there with lots of artists I admire in his wildly exciting understanding of patterns of speech and behavior and how body language and movement can reveal hidden mental states, including John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Tom Noonan, Charles Burnett, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Elaine May, Howard Hawks, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, etc. If I'm making this sound too lofty, rest assured it is also funny as shit.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Movement and discomfort in performance

I've already written about the widespread behavioral tic of two men leaving an empty seat in between them in a movie theater. I would also like to bring up something that happened at the screening of Brokeback Mountain I attended. During the scene in which Michelle Willams' character sees the characters played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal kissing, inadvertently discovering that her husband is having a homosexual affair, the audience, largely comprised of middle-aged straight couples, laughed heartily, though the scene is hardly played for laughs and I doubt much laughter would have ensued if the kiss was the product of a heterosexual affair. In the lobby, after the movie ended, most of these couples were talking about how much they enjoyed the film. So why did they laugh? They laughed because they were uncomfortable watching two men kiss, and they didn't know what else to do. Judging solely from appearances and overheard conversations (I could be way off), the audience members were largely middle and upper-middle class, middle-aged, white Americans with mainstream, conventional taste and manners. These are people who are not used to being uncomfortable. Though I share a lot of sociologic background with this audience, I am almost never comfortable. If I were forced to tally a percentage of my social discomfort, I would probably find that roughly 86% of my social encounters in life have been uncomfortable, painful, and/or awkward. Since so much of my life is socially uncomfortable, I am very receptive to art that thrives on making its audience uncomfortable, as long as this is achieved without condescension or contrivance. When comfort zones are nowhere to be found, the audience is forced to participate, to act, to work toward new ways of understanding life, to think. This can, at its best, lead to personal growth. As much as I enjoyed "Brokeback Mountain," and I enjoyed it a great deal, it is a fairly conventional romantic western, aside from the novelty of a homosexual love story in a mainstream film. I don't consider it an uncomfortable film. It was a skillful, old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. However, a lot of the audience members have probably never seen two men kiss onscreen before. As much as their laughter bothered me, it also made me feel like these people were working through their discomfort, trying to get past it. Maybe next time, it won't make them so uncomfortable. They won't need to laugh. The fact that they were even there, and that they loved the movie, is a hopeful sign. If two guys kissing is no big deal, what else is no big deal? My friends, a whole lot of shit is no big fucking deal. We seem so afraid of our own movements and behaviors, so constricted and locked into our patterns, so afraid to be human, afraid of our own existence, embarrassed by it. A couple of movies I've seen in the last couple of months have made me think about the laughter in the theater, and the value of discomfort and its effect on physical movement. The first is Mike Leigh's first film, from 1971, Bleak Moments. If you read most critics, they'll tell you that Leigh is in the long tradition of British "kitchen-sink realists" and that his films are predominantly overtly leftist political tracts about the economic effects of the British class system. This misreading of his work is epidemic. Someone should tell this legion of megabores to watch his film with their eyes, not their mouths. Though many of his films are grounded in the everyday and bear many resemblances to realism, kitchen-sink or otherwise, and a lot of his characters talk about their economic situation, Leigh's films are about behavior, performance, interaction, movement, discovery, pattern disruption, connection, and disconnection, not polemics or cinema verite. He wants to find things, not tell you what he already knows or merely observe life. His filmmaking methods tell you that much. Leigh picks a group of actors. He tells each actor to create a character. He works with them throughout this process. When the characters are created, he writes a script using the characters created by the acting troupe. This has been the case for all his films, with the partial exception of his two period pieces ("Vera Drake" and "Topsy-Turvy") when the story ideas came first. "Bleak Moments" is one of his funniest films, but also one of the toughest to watch. Every character in this film is profoundly uncomfortable, and their interactions make the audience just as uncomfortable. They are pathologically shy, inarticulate, embarrassed, withdrawn, afraid, closed-off. Anne Raitt (it's a shame she hasn't appeared in many films--her performance here is one of the most quietly memorable I've had the pleasure to see), as Sylvia, finally makes tentative movements away from social paralysis, and it's simultaneously funny and sad to see her character, a passionate, sharply funny, intelligent but painfully shy woman stuck in a life she's too wonderful for, rebel against the constraints of her own physical space. Every performance in this film is a tiny masterpiece of dis-ease, whole planets of emotion revealed in tiny movements of the lips, eyes, and fingers.
Movement plays a huge part in the other film I want to talk about, "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert," but I'm getting sleepy, so I'll write about that one tomorrow.

Monday, February 06, 2006


I got a short thing about my favorite movies of the year published in the online Australian movie magazine, Senses of Cinema. Read it here, if you feel like it and have nothing else to do.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Dumb article written by dumbos about dumbshits

This is one of the dumbest things I've ever read. I don't have time to go over it, but pretty much every sentence is just about the dumbest thing ever. A few of the dumbest moments:

"From biopics to message films, audiences and creators alike seem to be drawn to 'reality'-based movies - both in content and technique, say those who teach, study, analyze, and criticize the film industry."

First of all, if biopics and message movies are your idea of "reality" (whatever the shit that is), you don't live on Earth. Secondly, if you were actually studying, analyzing, teaching, and/or criticizing films instead of the "film industry," well, you would be on the right track, but probably still making inane, irrelevant comments to the AP. We need a Vietnam War equivalent in academia, thin out some irrelevant, irrelevant motherfuckers quick.

"To some, Oscar night - and the movies it celebrates - has become a Rorschach test for a self-absorbed industry out of touch with mainstream tastes. Other culture watchers, though, insist that the cinematic tribute reflects, and even guides, America's collective direction and values."

Honestly, people like watching stars in purty dresses, and media hoopla tends to draw crowds. That's all it is. It can't be out of touch with mainstream tastes when nothing is more middlebrow and mainstream, and it sure as hell doesn't reflect and guide our collective direction and values. Thanks for inventing a fake story and commenting on it, "film industry" experts. Well, goodnight, everybody. I'm going to go back to my critique of the "music industry" now. Is it out of touch with Joe Schmoe, or does it guide, shape, and reflect his direction and values? What about whacking off? I study that, too. Listen to this vexing proposition. Is masturbation only for the hoity-toity, or is it also enjoyed by the hoi polloi?

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