Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Paste-eating philistines

For those of you who helped Failure to Launch and The Shaggy Dog become, respectively, the number one and number two grossing films of the week, thanks for your dedicated efforts in the fight to make the United States of America the dumbest fucking country on earth. When you decided to go to either of these movies, did you look through the paper and weigh your options? Did you decide that, yes, "Failure to Launch" and/or "The Shaggy Dog" truly rises to the top amid the sea of cinematic possibilities available in the area this week? If you went to one of these two movies, did you enjoy it? Why did you enjoy it? I'd like to know. Honestly. I don't understand you very well. Help me understand. We need to reach some common ground, average American moviegoer, because right now I feel like I hate you. I wish you ill. I don't like feeling that way. I don't want to feel ill will and hatred. I'm really a positive guy, believe it or not. There is much in life I hate, but I am glad to be alive. Are you glad to be alive? If you are, you're sure sending mixed messages. Was your ticket purchase at the multiplex a cry for help? Have you hit rock bottom? Do you no longer care how you spend your time? Do you just wander around, dazed, spending money where you're told? Do you have a hard time distinguishing between information and advertising? Have you ever sought out anything on your own? Do you hate yourself? Is art something that is other people's business? Is the coddling, patronizing familiar your preferred way of life? Are you devoid of a brain, a heart, a penis, and/or a vagina? If I smashed your head open with a baseball bat, what would come out? Straw?

All is not lost. I've seen some great, great things in the last three weeks, and some good things, too. I've seen two of the best films I've ever seen, I Fidanzati and Under the Roofs of Paris.
"I Fidanzati" (Ermanno Olmi) is fresher than every rotting corpse stinking up the multiplex now and forever. It takes advantage of the possibilities of film editing in ways that are continually ignored by the plodding televisionisms or graceless displays of thoughtless technique of most mainstream movies. This film is structure, content, form, and the thoughtful connection of achronological images causing each viewer to construct his/her own narrative. It's so instinctively right. It isn't a waste of labor and energy.
"Under the Roofs of Paris" (Rene Clair) is one of the first of that group of films, mostly clumsy, that marked the transition from silence to sound. It isn't clumsy. It's graceful, beautiful, funny, sad, and other adjectives that have been drained of their meaning by being thrown around on undeserving work. Its studio-built replicas of Paris streets create a dreamy, melancholy atmosphere in which the city is a continuous, living organism. It is a musical, in that the music, like the city, is also a continuous, living organism, passing from background score to a hummed tune on the female lead's lips to songs sung by the actors to a phonograph playing in a bar, and on and on. The camera glides gracefully over the fake city, and then becomes completely still. Dialogue is accentuated, then dropped out completely, overtaken by the music, then brought back again. We observe characters through windows and glass doors, then up close, then the camera retreats again. And the guy doesn't get the girl in the end, unless he does.

Two recent films seen on the big screen excited me, obviously because I thought they were good, but also because they seemed to me a clearer picture of the America we actually live in than the billboard/infomercial/catalogue-photo America of shit like almost every mainstream American film, "independent" or Hollywood. If you see them, and still prefer "Failure to Launch" or "Star Wars" or "Crash" or "Traffic" or any other diverting lie, we may not live in the same country. In all honesty, I haven't seen "Failure to Launch" or "Crash," so I'm mostly talking about their trailers and how they've been marketed and/or reviewed, but, when it comes to Hollywood filmmaking, what's the difference? Also, I'm talking about Academy Award "Crash," not the great David Cronenberg "Crash." Anyway, the two American films about the America we actually live in are Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Michel Gondry's Dave Chappelle's Block Party.

Coming soon to Can-Smashing Robot: A tale of small-town life that turned into a tale of American life in general, featuring Dave Chappelle, $50 million, Americans' reactions to both, Devolution, freedom from choice, how city Americans are just as lazy, complacent, and curiousity-free as their small town counterparts, and is it just me or does our country keep getting batshit-fucking crazier and crazier and stupider and stupider? Also, money is bullshit! Thank god you can trade it in for art.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Self-Indulgent Ramble Series, Essay 1: The Canon

It’s a constant source of irritation to me that most people, especially wonderful people who are a lot smarter than me, never see the films I love the most. Additionally, a lot of these smart people think movies are either irrelevant or dead. The mass audience seems to think of movies as a pleasant, forgettable diversion. They also seem to think there is no difference between seeing something on video and seeing it on the big screen, that art is a boring chore, and that subject matter or plot dictates a film’s interest to an audience. It is also a source of irritation that more people, even casual filmgoers, don’t know who is directing the film they are watching and how that film fits into the director’s body of work. This probably makes me sound like an elitist prick, but most people know who performed the music they listen to, who wrote the books they read, and who painted the painting they’re staring at on the gallery wall. Knowing who is responsible for the art you respond to helps you make better choices and avoid a lot of dogshit. Somehow, a lot of people who make informed choices about the other art and entertainment in their lives approach film from such childish perspectives: “I like boxing, so I’m going to see ‘Million Dollar Baby.’ I’m interested in the Holocaust, so I’m going to see ‘Schindler’s List.’ I like dinosaurs, so I’m going to see ‘Jurassic Park.’” That is how children pick their entertainment. Do you listen to James Brown because of an abiding interest in hot pants? Did you buy The Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs” because you were a big fan of love? Do you see stand-up comics because of an intense curiosity in the way people speak into microphones? With the exception of the hot pants question, I hope the answer is no. We all love hot pants, but I wish we could all agree that art is good or bad because of how it does its thing, not what its thing is. Somehow, movies are treated like disposable whores. I believe film is an art form equal to any other (though music is probably the best), but not many people see the films that justify my claims. So, I’m starting this series by offering up a partial canon of my favorite directors and examples of their body of work. I’m generally more excited to see a bad film by a director I love than a good film by a jobber because I’m interested in their body of work as a whole, but I’m restricting my examples to a handful of great films per director. If this list inspires anyone to see any of these films, I’ll be happy. I’ll be even happier if you like them. Some of them are immediately accessible, while others take a lot of work, but I think all of them contain enough mystery to warrant multiple viewings. If possible, see them on a big screen. No fat chicks. Just seeing if you’re still paying attention. Fat chicks are also welcome.

Dr. Mystery’s Canon of Cinematic Gold

John Cassavetes: almost everything, but particularly Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams

Charles Burnett: To Sleep With Anger

Howard Hawks: His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, Hatari!

Robert Bresson: Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Au Hasard Balthazar, The Devil Probably, L’Argent

Charlie Chaplin: City Lights, Monsieur Verdoux, A King in New York, One A.M.

Barbara Loden: Wanda

Buster Keaton: most of the silent shorts

Mike Leigh: Bleak Moments, Meantime, High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Naked

Marx Brothers: Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup

Preston Sturges: The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve

Roberto Rossellini: Stromboli, Voyage in Italy, The Flowers of St. Francis

Vittorio De Sica: The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D

Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The American Soldier, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Lola, Berlin Alexanderplatz

Tom Noonan: What Happened Was, The Wife

Nicholas Ray: In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause, Bitter Victory, They Live By Night

Werner Herzog: Fata Morgana, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek, Even Dwarfs Started Small

Jacques Tati: Playtime, Mon Oncle, M. Hulot’s Holiday

Yasujiro Ozu: Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Floating Weeds

Ingmar Bergman: Persona, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Fanny and Alexander

David Cronenberg: Rabid, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash, A History of Violence

Elaine May: Mikey and Nicky, The Heartbreak Kid, A New Leaf

Jim Jarmusch: Stranger than Paradise, Mystery Train, Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Aki Kaurismaki: Ariel, The Man Without a Past

Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Andrei Tarkovsky: Stalker, The Sacrifice, Solaris

Gus Van Sant: Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days

Carl Dreyer: Ordet, Gertrud, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Parson’s Widow

George Romero: Night of the Living Dead, Martin, The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead

Harmony Korine: Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy

Frank Capra: It’s a Wonderful Life

Edward Yang: Yi Yi

Wong Kar-Wai: Chungking Express, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, 2046

Monte Hellman: The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter

Wim Wenders: Kings of the Road, Paris Texas, Wings of Desire

Robert Altman: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, California Split, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women, Short Cuts

Wes Anderson: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Jafar Panahi: The Circle, Crimson Gold

Abbas Kiarostami: Close-Up, Life and Nothing More, Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, Ten

Kenji Mizoguchi: Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff

Takeshi Kitano: Fireworks, Zatoichi, Sonatine

Sam Peckinpah: Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Su Friedrich: Sink or Swim, The Rules of the Road

Chris Smith: American Job, American Movie

Shirley Clarke: Portrait of Jason

Dennis Hopper: Out of the Blue

Luis Bunuel: Viridiana, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty

Lionel Rogosin: On the Bowery

Jean Renoir: Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, Picnic on the Grass

Terry Zwigoff: Louie Bluie, Crumb, Ghost World, Bad Santa

Todd Haynes: Safe, Superstar: The Life of Karen Carpenter, Far from Heaven

Erich Von Stroheim: Greed, Foolish Wives

F.W. Murnau: Nosferatu, Sunrise, The Last Laugh

Lars Von Trier: The Kingdom, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, Dogville

Paul Thomas Anderson: Punch-Drunk Love

Jean Vigo: L’Atalante, Zero for Conduct

Claude Chabrol: Le Boucher, Les Bonnes Femmes, La Ceremonie

Francois Truffaut: Stolen Kisses, Shoot the Piano Player, The 400 Blows

Jean-Luc Godard: Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Contempt, Weekend, Passion

David Lynch: Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive

Martin Scorsese: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, After Hours

Hou Hsiao-Hsien: The Puppetmaster, Goodbye South Goodbye

Ermanno Olmi: Il Posto, I Fidanzati

Alan Clarke: Scum, Made in Britain, The Firm, Elephant, Rita Sue and Bob Too

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne: La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son

Steve Buscemi: Trees Lounge, Animal Factory

I’m going to stop here. There are many, many others.

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