Wednesday, April 10, 2013

R.I.P. Bigas Luna and Les Blank

This is a bad month for film. Directors Bigas Luna and Les Blank both died of cancer this past weekend. I have only seen two films each from Luna and Blank, but they were enough to make me a fan, and I'm looking forward to exploring the rest of what they had to offer.

Bigas Luna was sometimes called the Spanish Russ Meyer, which is unfairly reductive, but both men shared a lunatic visual invention, a great sense of humor, and an obsession with breasts. Luna was very much his own man, however, and I strongly recommend the two Luna films I've seen, Anguish and Jamon Jamon. Anguish, an English-language postmodern horror film from 1987, renders foolish anyone who holds up Wes Craven's Scream as an exemplar of meta-horror. Luna's film is a structurally ambitious commentary about how we watch horror films while never forgetting to be a great horror film (maybe even two great horror films), and it does it with more intelligence, humor, respect, excitement, visual invention, beauty, and affection than Craven's obvious, irritating smugfest. Jamon Jamon is an almost indescribable mix of dark comedy, light comedy, live-action cartoon, doomed romance, advertising satire, soap opera, tragedy, critique of Spanish machismo culture, and T&A sex comedy, with early roles for Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Luna films an epic fight scene in which both parties batter each other with generous cuts of pig meat, and another scene prominently features a parrot contributing to something I've definitely never seen in any other film. I'd also like to mention that both movies are massively entertaining and fun in addition to their artistic merits.
The two Les Blank films I've seen have Werner Herzog as their subject. The feature-length Burden of Dreams documents the tortuous making of Fitzcarraldo while the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe shows Herzog making good on the bet he made with Errol Morris that Morris would never finish Gates of Heaven. It's a testament to Blank's skills that the films are admired by both Herzog fans and detractors. Burden of Dreams is a particularly strong look at the folly, hubris, passion, insanity, and drive needed to create art in difficult conditions and a critique of some negative consequences of that drive on the indigenous population and environment. Besides his work about Herzog, Blank made documentaries about garlic, buck-toothed women, Southern music, beer, Creole cooking, and Huey Lewis & The News, among many other subjects.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Roger Ebert 1942-2013

I don't know how a guy like me from a town of 1,500 people in small-town Nebraska, four hours' drive from the nearest major city (Denver), became obsessed with music, movies, and literature when most of my peers were into sports, shopping, guns, sitcoms, blockbusters, racism, sexism, chewing tobacco, church, and top 40 radio (I'm being unfairly reductive here, but just a little unfairly reductive). I just don't know. I loved the arts from the second I could walk and talk, and this love was stronger than the pressure of a local environment that was either openly hostile or completely indifferent to anything diverting from my laundry list above.
I was fortunate growing up to have a mother and grandmother that actively encouraged my love of reading and curiosity about experiences outside myself. My father has never read anything voluntarily in his life, but he also never discouraged anything his kids loved. In one of Roger Ebert's best pieces of writing, an essay about his father called "My Old Man," he wrote beautifully about receiving that same encouragement from his father. I felt a kinship to Roger Ebert, besides our shared loves of books and movies. We both grew up in small Midwestern towns to working-class parents of German and Irish heritage. We were both raised Catholic, served as altar boys, and became agnostics. Ebert loved science fiction as a child, while I was obsessed with horror. We both received English and journalism degrees and wrote for our college newspapers. Ebert, of course, was professionally successful from a young age, while I have consistently failed in every professional endeavor I've tried, thwarted by unemployment, a bad economy, blown opportunities, my own depression and inertia, bitterness, inability to schmooze and network, and just plain bad luck (also maybe a lack of talent), but I've still got some living in me, and Ebert is a great role model for how to live well.
As a child in the 1980s, I became a regular viewer of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's television program. Pre-Internet, I had no idea they were newspaper reviewers. I just loved seeing two regular-looking guys debate movies on television. "These guys love movies the way I love music," I remember thinking. When I worked for my college newspaper as an Arts & Entertainment reporter and reviewer and copy desk chief, I would often hang out after my shift was done to surf the web and work on papers for my classes. It was there I started reading Ebert's reviews regularly. I never stopped. I enjoyed his unaffected, conversational style and his deep love of film. So many TV and newspaper film critics in this country approach film criticism with condescension, like the movies are a goof, a diversion, something to inspire pithy, dismissive one-liners or cliched superlatives. Siskel and Ebert were the only mainstream TV critics to regularly feature foreign films, lower profile independents, and classic Hollywood movies alongside the blockbusters, Oscar bait, and high-profile independents, and Ebert was one of the only mainstream newspaper critics to do the same.
Ebert was a gateway to wonderful things. His taste was populist enough to earn a large mainstream following, but open and curious enough to champion the likes of Werner Herzog, John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Terrence Malick, Yasujiro Ozu, Eric Rohmer, Bela Tarr, Dusan Makevejev, and Carl Dreyer. Ebert was also the first American critic to review Martin Scorsese and Mike Leigh, and he became a lifelong supporter of both filmmakers. History has vindicated his loud support of Bonnie and Clyde and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia at a time when most critics were trashing these films. And he got Do the Right Thing in a way most white critics didn't. Also, he co-wrote three Russ Meyer films, four if you count the aborted Sex Pistols movie that didn't happen because Meyer and Malcolm McLaren didn't get along. (The film eventually morphed into Julien Temple's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, which is pretty great in its own right.) He's probably the only guy who wrote a book about rice cookers and collaborated with Russ Meyer.
He wasn't infallible. I can only shake my head sadly at his negative reviews of Raising Arizona, To Sleep with Anger, Dead Man, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Romero's Day of the Dead, Husbands, The Chelsea Girls (the only non-narrative/experimental film he reviewed), Cosmopolis, Full Metal Jacket, Blue Velvet, Rushmore, The Passenger, and Abbas Kiarostami's entire filmography. (To his credit, he changed his mind about The Passenger upon its rerelease. He also came around on Tarkovsky and Blade Runner.) He praised Christopher Nolan, Oliver Stone, and "serious" Steven Spielberg too highly, and I don't know what he saw in Paul Haggis' Crash, his favorite film of the year and one of my least favorite viewing experiences ever. But that was part of the fun of reading him. He made you see what he saw for a few minutes.
He went into every film hoping to like it, without prejudice. I loved that. He praised The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive after disliking every other David Lynch film when most other critics would have given up on a director who consistently disappointed them. He was criticized for giving too many three-star reviews and liking too many movies. (My favorite moment of Siskel and Ebert: After Ebert gave the Burt Reynolds/cute kid buddy cop fiasco Cop and a Half a thumbs up, a stunned Siskel replied, barely able to contain his laughter: "Where's your hat and beard, Santa? You just gave these filmmakers a gift.") Maybe he was too soft on too many movies, but that was part of his kindness and openness. I've been accused by several friends of liking everything when it comes to music, as if that's a negative. Maybe I am a little soft critically when it comes to music, but it's the only thing in life I can't be cynical about. I love every genre of music and I'm loyal to every band I love even when they put out a less than stellar album, and I refuse to feel bad about that. Ebert went into every screening with an open mind, not a superior one.
Ebert was also a consistent supporter of his fellow film critics, even those critics who consistently criticized his own work. He led me to great film writers like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr, J. Hoberman, Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber, Robert Warshow, James Agee, and his website editor, Jim Emerson. In many ways, these critics are closer to my aesthetic taste than Ebert, especially in the last years of his life, but Ebert was the one who led me to them, and I'm forever grateful. In the last few years, Ebert gave essay space on his site to many of his regular blog commenters from around the world. He was that rare breed of strongly opinionated man who was deeply interested in the differing opinions of others.
His series of essays about his personal canon of the best films ever made, "Great Movies," is a wonderful place to get the fundamentals of a film education. I made it a point to see every one I hadn't already seen. There's a real poignancy about his final Great Movie, posted two weeks ago. The 1958 Japanese film The Ballad of Narayama is a Kabuki-style color film about a small village that forces its elderly residents to go to a mountain on the occasion of their 70th birthdays and starve to death.
Ebert lost most of his lower jaw and his ability to speak and eat due to complications of reconstructive surgery after his third bout with cancer in 2006. For a man who loved conversation and food, this could have been a death sentence. Instead, Ebert threw himself even deeper into writing. The number of movie reviews increased, but he also joined Twitter and started a blog, where he wrote the best work of his life. The essay about his father I linked to above is such a wonderfully detailed piece of writing, but so many other essays were just as inspiring, including several about his struggles with poor health and the strength he drew from his wife Chaz.
I don't know when Ebert slept. He found time to personally respond to many emails and blog comments. Several friends and acquaintances of mine have received a message from Ebert. He emailed me once about a comment I left on his site and responded to another one on his blog. When he trashed Dogville and claimed that most critics and audiences hated it, I wrote him with a defense of it, mentioning that two of his favorite critics, Kehr and Sarris, had praised the film and also relaying that my mother loved it. He wrote me back to tell me that I should be glad I have such an unusual mother. I loved that. I can't be sure, but I think he may have read this very site once. When I left the Dogville comment, I linked to this blog. My most recent post was a rave for Luis Bunuel's final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Shortly after he responded to my comment, he made That Obscure Object of Desire his Overlooked DVD of the Week pick. Coincidence? Maybe. For my own vanity, I'd like to think it wasn't.
Checking Ebert's site has been a daily habit for me. I'm glad Jim Emerson and Chaz Ebert have both mentioned maintaining the site. I'm sad about all the movies Ebert is going to miss, and I'm going to miss reading him. I'm only being partially hyperbolic when I say it feels like I lost a friend.

Friday, April 05, 2013

The return of the son of recent business

Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Kiarostami, one of the greatest filmmakers of the last half-century, left his native country of Iran shortly before his good friend and fellow filmmaker, Jafar Panahi, was arrested, imprisoned, and banned from filmmaking for 20 years on a fabricated charge. Formerly content to ban or censor its best artists' work at home while allowing distribution and exhibition abroad, the Iranian government's suppression of its artists has become far more sinister in recent years. Having never made a bad film, Kiarostami was hardly in need of an artistic rejuvenation. Nevertheless, his two fiction features made outside of Iran have been career high points, despite the sad circumstances leading to their existence. Kiarostami filmed 2010's Certified Copy in Italy with French and British leads (Juliette Binoche and opera singer William Shimell) and dialogue in Italian, French, and English. His new film, shot in and around Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast, is objectively distanced from its characters yet empathetic, and both seductive and unsettling. Taking place over the course of one night and part of the following day, the film follows a college student moonlighting as an upscale call girl, her unstable ex-boyfriend, and an elderly retired sociology professor, most likely widowed, and the strange yet strangely ordinary set of circumstances that bring them into each other's orbit. Despite a landscape and culture, and exterior and interior spaces, quite different from the Iran of Kiarostami's earlier films, most of his trademarks are here. Kiarostami remains the best director of scenes shot inside cars we have, but he's also great at showing how people look (and look past) each other and how they organize, understand, and move through physical space. Kiarostami's endings are always open doors, never closed ones, but even by his standards, Like Someone in Love concludes with a sharp apathy-killing jolt that has kept the film turning in my mind since the second it ended. This is the film of a free man, and I don't mean his geographical location or the political constrictions or lack thereof of its government.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Spring Breakers opens in a neon hell of interchangeable tanned bodies chugging beers, flashing body parts, and grinding and groping each other in a predetermined robotic debauch to Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" and ends in a hail of bullets. Korine, though his detractors will never admit it, is a skilled visual artist with a talent for creating images never before seen on a screen. Though Spring Break is well-trod territory, Korine manages to make it look as strange and ugly-beautiful as anything else in his filmography. With a color palette channeling Skittles and Starburst, Spring Breakers is a candy-neon incantatory art film with a beach party titties'n'guns exploitation veneer. Korine makes excellent use of repetition, as scenes are shown multiple times from different perspectives and dialogue is repeated and layered, chopped up and rearranged in different contexts. One particularly impressive piece of filmmaking captures a diner robbery in a single take from the perspective of the getaway car as the driver circles the building, but there are lots of other highlights. The ex-Disney girls in bikinis hook has already made Korine more money in one week than his four previous films combined, and he deserves it.

Stoker (Park Chan-Wook)
Park Chan-Wook ties everything in this post together. Harmony Korine has a cameo as a high school art teacher, and like Korine in Spring Breakers, Park in Stoker uses repetition of images and dialogue and the same events from different visual perspectives to create an incantatory effect. Like Kiarostami, Park is working in a country and a language he's never worked in before. The South Korean Park has made his first English-language, American film, and though he's working with a bit of an overheated screenplay by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, Park's stunning visual prowess elevates this one above its flaws. Besides the sheer virtuosity of many of its shots, Stoker contains several striking closeups of its actors' faces, with a particular emphasis on their sharp eyes. A Gothic thriller with nods to Hitchcock, Stoker takes place in an indeterminate time period that seems to exist in several decades at once, much like the otherwise very different films of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. Park has made the adjustment to American cinema without sacrificing too many of his strengths.

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