Thursday, February 15, 2007

Examining the Umpire - Deconstructing Waves of Illusion and Reality in David Lynch's Inland Empire

Dear Readers: this piece of writing is a work-in-progress...I'll make a formal statement when it is "done"...I'm working on it for a publication, but wanted folks to be able to access it in the meantime. When it is published, I'll send a notice - and keep a copy of the final draft here as well.




I believe David Lynch to be one of the very finest (read: challenging) directors working in American cinema today and he deserves an audience for this film. It seems he has been unable to find a distributor for the movie, which is more a symptom of America's lack of intellectual curiosity rather than the film's merits. So, like many of DIY artists today, he has taken the responsiblilty of ditributing the film himself. It is rare that a film-maker would show so much faith in his audience. He expects a lot from us, but he gives a lot in return.

Some intital comments

No film-maker has represented the labyrinth of the unconscious in cinematic terms more successfully than David Lynch. In his newest effort, Inland Empire (IE), Mr. Lynch has taken his own personal evolution of film narrative a step further than in his previous work. In IE, Lynch calls on and surpasses the surrealists' attempts to register the many fleeting fragments of image and thought that influence and construct our consciousness.

Inspired by the critical and financial success of Mulholland Drive (MD), Lynch seems to have gained the confidence to pursue the furthering development of a narrative structure that he has been working on for over 20 years. The films from his oeuvre most concerned with this development starts with Blue Velvet (BV) and include Lost Highway (LH) and MD. All those narrative roads seem to lead logically to Inland Empire. While the other films (Eraserhead, Elephant Man, etc.) link his thematic interests as a whole, I will be focusing primarily on structural concerns in this discussion.

For the moment, I'm going to refrain from commenting on the early works at length and get to the point at hand - trying to make sense of IE (I'll save the larger overview for the final draft). Since MD is most closely related to the new film, I may reference it from time to time.

In MD, Lynch presented a very clear delineation of the dream world (the first two hours) and "reality" (the last 20 minutes). Everything leading up to the final set of sequences, where Naomi Watts awakens from her Hollywood fantasy was the stuff of dreams - a dream charged with the guilt of having hired an assassin to kill her lover out of jealousy and rage.

In IE, you don't have the clear delineation of waking and dreaming consciousness – the narrative doesn't read as "now she's dreaming, now she's awake". Instead audiences find themselves constantly working through the labyrinth of a woman's consciousness in pursuit of liberation.

In IE, Lynch is primarily wrestling with a question that vexed the existentialists: "what motivates us into action?" – In IE, this question drives the film from beginning to end. IE explores the ways that television, movies, pop-song mythology, memories, dreams, family members, friends, and the fantasies and illusions we project in and out of our states of consciousness, all come together to help the individual negotiate how best to act in the present tense. As individual human beings with experiences unique to our own personal mythologies, we are always assembling a mass of information that comes from these sources (both personal and societal) in order to be who we are (which is not unlike acting in a movie based on what you know about your character).

Narrative Summary

As usual, the set up (the movie you think is being made) is pure illusion – all the power and wealth are pure projection and fantasy. Laura Dern appears to be married to a man who is wealthy and has powerful connections. Her journey throughout the film is to uncover the artifice of her dreams, break free from the abusive man she is living with, and strike out against her neighbor in order to free a young woman who has been held captive in a prostitution ring under his supervision.

Laura Dern's character serves as a guardian for Caroline, the victim described above. She seems to have psychic abilities, and may be using those powers to project the action on to a screen (a film within a film), which moves through the labyrinth of her unconscious in order to free her.

In this case, the action is murder as liberation. This is expressed in the film through the "action" of a movie that is being made. This young woman is watching a film that is being made in order to determine whether or not she will be liberated from her spiritual prison. She is often crying while viewing the action on screen, for she is never certain, even until the last fatal moments of the movie, how the "film" will turn out.

Who is really directing this film? - The young girl? - The film director played by Jeremy Irons? - David Lynch? - Is the "film" really the narrative of her consciousness? - Are the parallel story lines that Laura Dern navigates merely the projection of this woman's hopes? How is the character played by Laura Dern aware of Caroline? When exactly does she become aware of her? If she is aware of her, how is she aware of her? Or better yet, when does she truly become aware of her and decide to take action into her own hands? - These seem important questions to consider when viewing the movie.

Unlike some of the critics and friends who have claimed that the new film is merely a meandering wash of nonsense, there is a strong narrative at play here - its structure is that of a labyrinth of the unconscious (IE is Lynch's most Jungian effort). The numerous dark hallways that Laura Dern moves through represent that labyrinth. Consequently, there is no excess - every image, every sequence is part of the puzzle and must be taken into consideration. Since the film runs a little over three hours, there is a lot of information to digest, perhaps too much information for viewers who are used to being hand-held by traditional beginning-middle-end (problem-development-resolution) film structures.

Lynch provides all the information the viewer needs to piece together the meaning of the story but the viewer has to pay close attention to assemble it. The opening image is one of a recording - an old school turntable that is playing a recording of a "radio broadcast". This image could represent that what is to follow is a recording, or a document of something that happened in reality, that occured in real time. The image of the record player fades into a bright light, which will guide the characters and the viewers to the film's final destination.

The first scene with actual characters could be seen as superfluous. For the next hour, there isn't much to connect them to - so it seems irrelevant. But this scene sets up the central problem that drives the action. In this first short episode, a man and a woman who are speaking Polish (their faces are obscured from view) are about to enter a hotel room. Once inside the room, it appears the man has hired the woman for sex. The woman asks what the man wants, and he responds by telling her to take her clothes off, and that she will find out soon enough. The silent male domination of this female (and others like her) is the central problem of the film. There is both meaning in this duality; in telling her to shut up and do what's she's told, and also in that he doesn't express directly what she is to do.

There are a few scenes that take place in a room with characters who are wearing rabbit costumes. Apart from the humor that plays in these scenes (and the reference to TV sitcoms and how they inform the cultural landscape, the message of these episodes is important. A family (the central family of the story) is disguised: we don't know who they are and we do not learn who they are until the ending sequence when they are reunited after the mother's liberation. The room they occupy is connected to a large palatial space (left over from the days of the Russian "Empire"). This setting is important: it informs us that the family is connected to the old world/empire (Poland, in this case, not Russia).

The pimps that import the empire to America are also disguised. We are told in one scene (by the man we assume is Laura Dern's husband), that they are circus performers. This lie is kept in place to disguise the whereabouts of the young woman who has been kidnapped and to obscure the truth that these men are criminals (all you have to do is look at them to know what they're up to). Later in the film we see the main pimp confront the young woman on the street one cold wintry evening (this scene is a predecessor to the opening hotel sequence described above).

David Lynch is dealing with a very real problem in this new film, despite the mass of illusions he has piled on his subject. For over a decade, many young eastern European and Russian women have been lured to America with the promise of honest work, only to find that the employment in store for them once they arrive is "the oldest profession in the world". Given that many of these ladies come from strong families and have old-world pride and cultural conditioning, they are often too ashamed to write home and tell their families the truth of their situation. So they remain enslaved in these rings, occasionally sending money home to their families, while furthering the impossibility of escaping their fate.

Now that the principal plot line has been charted, let us examine the surrounding artifice. The film jumps from the room occupied with the rabbit-people to southern California. A strange woman with an eastern European accent calls on Nikki (Laura Dern's fantasy projecting of her "true" self) in order to introduce herself ("one should know one's neighbors" - an important statement, as we will see later).

The dialogue, as goofy and Lynchian as it can get, is important: she tells a little fable about a boy who crosses the threshold and enters a world of evil. In the second part of the fable, a young girl "enters the marketplace" (as a commodity, as it turns out). She askes the young actress that a murder is part of the story, and despite Dern's refusal that murder is a part of the film, still in its planning stages, she informs her that "oh yes, brutal fucking murder" is a part of the story that will unfold.

As it so often happens in Lynch films (MD, LH), the set-up, or the movie you think you are watching, is all illusion. Laura Dern's "real" character is not an actress. She is not married to a overtly wealthy and powerful man. She is not even married, but rather, she is living with a man that is connected to an empire, but it is a dark and illegal empire that occupies the distinctly non-glamorous landscape of Pomona (not Beverly Hills or Bel Air, as one might imagine from these opening sequences).

Lynch continues by creating the illusion that Laura Dern has been offered a very important part in a movie - a role that could "save" her career (in reality, it will save a young woman's life, her sanity, and her family). Jeremy Irons and Harry Dean Stanton are making the film, along with a stable of producers that hover in order to protect their interests (a mirror-image of the strong arms who protect and camouflage the central pimp). You can tell by the flippant way that Lynch handles these two characters that they are mere cardboard cut-outs. The assistant director played by Stanton is constantly borrowing money from the cast and crew (just as in "reality", Dern's imaginary wealthy husband is actually a poor and desperate man willing to do anything to get his wife back). The director of the film, played by Irons is always about to do something to get things going, but that something never really happens.

From the start, suspicion abounds that Laura Dern and Justin Theroux (the two principal actors that are in the film that is being made within the confines of Lynch's movie) will transit from actors who are making a film about a couple that is having an affair, to married adults having an affair. The adultery seems to have taken place between Dern and Theroux in the film's reality, which motivates Susan Lynch (Theroux's wife) to stab Dern with a screwdriver in one of the ending sequences.

Adultery serves as a sinister plot device, but it also serves as a central metaphor: the allegiance to family and the destruction of the family through the act of "errant sex" is especially important in IE. The cinematic family has its doppleganger in the "family" that runs the prostitution ring, as well as the Polish family that is being torn apart by that same squad of hustlers (is there such a word as triple-ganger??? - my German is clearly over-taxed here...).

In the central section of the film, Laura Dern is led by a mysterious chalk-drawn symbol to a house - this is when the empire proper begins to be revealed. In chalk, the letters: ax xon are scrawled. The phonetic realization of those letters could spell "action"...

She meets other women there - women who have been duped by a man who controls them. It is assumed that this man is either Justin Theroux, or the husband of the actress played by Laura Dern (as in MD, Lynch uses one actress to play two different roles - a reversal of the technique Luis Bunuel used in That Obscure Object of Desire). There are some funny and heartbreaking scenes in the house as Laura Dern (and the audience) begins to see what is really going on there...

Once she meets the girls, the film begins to focus more on the central problem and less on the artifice of movie-making. After talking to the girls and discovering that she may also have been deceived by "him", she arrives disoriented at the home of affluent Justin Theroux, and confesses her love for him in front of his family. This is one of the defining moments of the true relationship between Theroux and Dern.

After finding herself stranded on the streets and in fear that she is being stalked (by Theroux's revenge-seeking wife), she makes her way into a strip-joint, where she moves upstairs to tell all to a silent confessor. This nameless man, who may be the manager of the strip-joint, is connected to the prostitution ring; he reports to an unseen caller that, "yes, she's here now". Dern's confession reveals some of the plot and allows viewers some much-welcomed narrative clarity: we learn that she isn't really an actress at all, but really the victim of an abusive husband who seems to be carrying on with some shady characters. She doesn't know what exactly they are up to, but she knows murder may be linked to their intrigue. Several people around her talk about a murder - the viewer is held in suspence for long stretches of time because you assume the murder is going to happen any moment. She reveals that "he" has beat her, and she is frightened, but is ready (and capable) to castrate him if necessary to free herself from this dark bondage.

She ends back on the streets with the prostitutes, but Theroux's wife finds her this time and stabs her on the sidewalk. While she lay dying on the sidewalk, a few street urchins examine her. One of the homeless women that watches over her tells of a friend that works in a whorehouse in Pomona. Dern loses consciousness and dies and the "film" that is being made and at this point that movie comes to a close.

Dern gets up disoriented and wanders into the final labyrinth, where she confronts her nemesis and kills him. As in other sections of the film, Lynch uses music from the closing murderous sequences in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining when Jack Nicholson goes on the rampage with an axe. Lynch pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey in a similar fashion. This is yet another way that Lynch accesses movies to inform the viewer of the importance, or meaning of a sequence in his film.

As a result of the murder Laura Dern has committed, like the killing of some errant warlock who has psychic control over a village of peasants in a fairy tale, the young woman becomes freed and is able to leave her confinement and join her family. The screen fades to black, but the film isn't over yet. There are other themes to resolve in the final moments of the movie.

That's it for now. I'm going to see the film again in the next few days to iron out some of the other plot lines in order to develop this piece further. If you are interested in seeing the film, just know it is not one of those movies where you can digest everything in one sitting. There is so much information operating here, that viewers with a taste for mainstream cinema will likely be overwhelmed by the onslaught of cross-stories and plots.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Top 10 Films of 2006

Top 10 Films of 2006

1) Brick
2) Science of Sleep
3) Bobby
4) Little Children
5) The Queen
6) The Notorious Bettie Page
7) A Scanner Darkly
8) Quinceanera
9) Fast Food Nation
10) An Inconvenient Truth

Re:Honorable Mentions
Thank You for Smoking, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, Inside Man, The Departed, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Little Miss Sunshine, Half Nelson, Curse of the Golden Flower, l'enfant

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows steals the re-mastered honors for 2007.

Rebel Sammurai at the Balboa; Janus’ 50th Anniversary, Mizoguchi, Ousame Sembene, Mother Russia at PFA; 70mm Festival at The Castro Movie Palace

Top 5 classic films re-released this year on DVD

Re:Great Directors 2007
The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Seven films discussed

Top 10 Films of 2006

1. Brick
Cast from the die of The Maltese Falcon and transformed into a post-noir gem set in the vicinity of San Clemente, Brick casts Joseph Gordon-Levitt (evoking Humphrey Bogart/Sam Spade) as Brendon, a high-school student who discovers his ex-girlfriend’s corpse and must infiltrate a swarm of shadows to uncover her killer’s identity. Miles Archer (Spade’s partner who meets an early end) is re-imagined as Emily Kostich, Brendon’s unrequited love and femme fatale. The lightning rod guiding viewers to the heart of the crime is not a jewel-encrusted falcon, but a tainted brick of heroin. The script inhabits a dreamtime particular to Southern California that is riddled with heroin pushers, muscle-boys, jock-strap junkies, parking-lot slackers, aspiring actresses and an over-accommodating mom wielding corn flakes and Orange Tang. One of the film’s finer achievements is director Rian Johnson’s re-imagining of snappy noir dialogue, transposed into a contemporary youth-speak that takes effort to decode but eventually yields to a marvelous wit. Destined to be a cult classic in the tradition of River’s Edge, Brick is a clever whodunit staged in the terrifying country of drug-addled teens.

2. Science of Sleep
Gael Garcia Bernal leads this dizzying fable about a young man who has difficulty negotiating the boundary between his dream world and his everyday existence while Charlotte Gainsbourg lures him in and out of these states with muted playfulness and curiosity. Fantasy and lucidity are further explored in the two main characters (Stephan and Stephanie), played by Bernal and Gainsbourg, respectively. As Stephan slips further into dreams, Stephanie seems to have the keys to the door that divides the two states of consciousness. Writer/director Michael Gondry has fun dramatizing the giddy states people occupy when contemplating love while revealing that much of what we court when we are attracted to someone is often the projections that emerge from our unconscious. The Silence of Sleep is a comic blush of a film that explores the revolving door of adoration, fantasy and affection.

3. Quinceanera
This coming of age journal presents a girl preparing for her Quinceanera, a traditional Mexican celebration that announces a young woman is ready to enter into society. Along the road to this anticipated ceremony, Magdalena (played by Emily Rios) will discover her emerging sexuality, be forced out of her home and come to terms with her brother’s lifestyle while learning how death can tear a family apart but also reconstruct it. While not a perfect movie (some of the opening scenes feel awkward), the film slips into a natural narrative and the characters and their struggles will likely linger with audiences long after departing the theater. Quinceanera is as much about East Los Angeles and its gentrification as it is about the people that live there and must find their own humanity and humility in the face of the loss of innocence and a rare miracle.

4. Little Children
Little Children was an excellent suburban journal by Todd Hanes (In the Bedroom), a director who has delivered real depth of human emotion to the drama genre over the past few years. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy) lead the excellent performances, exploring the possibility of adultery to alleviate their internal strife. Little Children is a sober-eyed view at varying stages of decay in today’s current edition of the American dream.

5. The Queen
This British import managed to get me really interested in the scandal surrounding Princess Diana’s death – a subject that has rarely occupied my thoughts in any meaningful way. Helen Mirren and her cushy lot at Buckingham Palace held me breathless for the two-hour teeter-totter act that plays out between Queen Victoria, her public, the Royal Family and newly appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair. See the film for Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, which should stand as one of the great performances by an actor in the history of film. The Queen balances a juxtaposition of class and cultural values in the midst of a crisis while managing to display the foibles and glories of its characters with humanity and grace.

6. The Notorious Bettie Page
Decades after the sexual revolution, Americans still find themselves minding the gap on what constitutes pornography and the boundaries of appropriate/inappropriate sexual behavior. In The Notorious Bettie Page, filmmaker Mary Herron examines America’s politic on sex and bondage in the midst of the McCarthy era trials while enabling Gretchen Moll to occupy the soul of Bettie Page; a young woman who, in spite of her fervent belief in Christianity, became one of the most widely photographed S&M pin-up girls of the 1950’s.

It is fascinating to watch Moll bring a distinct air of innocence to what was once and still is considered inappropriate sexual behavior. Page’s power to seduce came from her unique ability to make sexual deviance taste like mom’s home cooking – a spell that continues to ignite the deep-seated fear of the patriarchy who remains largely in charge of setting laws for sexual conduct, both in the bedroom and in the photographer/filmmaker’s studio. The Notorious Bettie Page is a look at one woman’s courageous attempt to express the natural beauty of creation with the image of her body and the search to find her own sexual identity in a highly-repressed culture.

7. Fast Food Nation
Many critics failed to see the beauty of Richard Linklater’s recent gem, Fast Food Nation by expecting him to accurately reveal the mass of information in Eric Schlosser’s excellent book. To do so would have taken 16 hours of documentary footage, but Linklater (w/Schlosser as screen writer) chose to take the central theme of the book: failure – and course it through a few of the socio-political problems illustrated in the best-selling paperback.

If you’ve read Schlosser’s unforgettable rant you know how powerful the meat industry is and how much lobbying influence it has in Washington D.C. and beyond. With that in mind, it seems astounding that the film could be made in the America we live in today. Depictions of corporate cover-ups, toxic food manufacturing, the meat industry’s blatant disregard for the lives and safety of their employees (the same “illegal” immigrants that politicians and the bigoted citizenry love to hate), questionable slaughter-house practices, and the deep apathy that has cast a hypnotic spell on today’s corporate-driven suburban landscapes all populate the crowded world of Fast Food Nation.

Mr. Linklater’s film (like the book it is based on) reflects just how far we have fallen from the American Dream that ushered in drive-up service and neatly packaged suburban charm. If Americans find FFN hard to digest it is because they are getting a close look at not only what is in the beef, but also the willing subject devouring it. Far more complex than a mere poke at flesh as food, Fast Food Nation presents contrasting viewpoints on what it is to be an American in our culture of rapid convenience.

8. Bobby
It may be the result of being a child of the 1960’s, but I felt this film did an excellent job of evoking a moment in time when one politician in particular seemed deeply sincere in his quest to represent the feelings and values of progressive people in America. Bobby is the final chapter in the assassinations of three individuals that dared to address toxic levels of racism in America and our participation in the war in Vietnam. Robert F. Kennedy’s death came at the end of a string of assassinations that included Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and his older brother JFK - four tragic acts that heralded a decline in American ethics and morality - a condition that right-wing Christians and other over-zealous moralists seem to have failed to successfully address with Just Say No rhetoric and an ever-increasing brutality. The film takes place at a tipping point in our history, a moment when optimism was not yet considered passé or naïve; a time when peaceful negotiations and compassionate debate seemed not only possible but the reasonable thing to ask.

Bobby uses a Grand Hotel approach (surely it is a tribute of sorts to Grand Hotel) to display a microcosm of the era. Respect to Emilio Estevez (!!!) for his powerful script and finely-tuned direction. Estevez juggles multiple thematic threads and weaves them together to make a powerful statement about the loss of innocence of an entire generation through the death of one of its finest sons. Election politics aside, Bobby is a film about people who are passionately in pursuit of their existential goals, an act which seems revolutionary by today’s standards.

9. A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly is a tribute from filmmaker Richard Linklater to Philip K. Dick, author of the largely autobiographical sci-fi novel on drug addiction, paranoia, mental illness, the loss the self and the loss of personal freedom. Scanner starts with a premise devised by Samuel Beckett in his novel Molloy: a detective goes in search of himself – although Linklater’s agent winds his way through jangled passageways of surveillance, mind control, high-tech drug enforcement, deteriorating relationships, and betrayal - all while cruising doped out in a meta-being costume. As in Beckett’s meandering existentialist yarn, it is possible to discover the detective was not acting on his own free will; other beings close at hand (and carefully disguised) may have been the real operators at the controls.

Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder are perfectly acceptable thanks to Linklater’s technique of painting animated images on digital film (the same process he used in his meta-philosophical romp Waking Life). Rory Cochrane, Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson steal the side-show with unbridled comic routines. A Scanner Darkly captures the disassociation of the psyche that occurs in the sleep-deprived world of speed freaks and is an excellent portrayal of the Nixon era (the book is set in this period) while predicting questions of our right to privacy raised by Homeland Security and The Patriot Act.

10. An Inconvenient Truth
I kept wondering how it was that this film played for so long in so many theaters. I kept wondering if it would have happened that way if someone beside Al Gore had made the film. I kept wondering when I would finally get around to seeing this film. I kept wondering if Al Gore was going to run for President in 2008. Once I did get around to seeing it, I was most thankful to Mr. Gore for making it and for making sure it was available to Americans. Mr. Gore has had his eye on critical evidence that charts the decline in the Earth’s icecaps, and has traced the evidence that our globe is warming at an alarming rate. In addition to doing an excellent job of presenting the information in a clear and concise way that anyone could understand, Mr. Gore offers us hope that we can make real changes before we destroy the future of the planet’s natural resources. An Inconvenient Truth offers ways that we can address these much-needed changes. Kudos to the man who was once “the next President of the United States”; it’s a real shame we ended up with the other guy.

Re: Honorable Mentions – 2006
1) Thank You for Smoking
2) V for Vendetta
3) Little Miss Sunshine
4) Inside Man
5) Half Nelson
6) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,
7) Babel
8) Curse of the Golden Flower
9) Children of Men

2006 seemed like a year with an abundance of films that were good but it offered no real masterpieces – there were lots of decent movies in fact – it’s a little hard to discern which films belong in the top 10 and which may have occupied the second-string selection that you are about to peruse – I never mean to imply the numeric ordering as “good, better, best” – it’s all just tossed out there for you to check out – so here comes a quick blast on the rest of the lot…

Thank You for Smoking was a deftly funny yarn about corporate spin politics that flowed down as easy as two dry martinis – V for Vendetta deserves a nod for bringing a good revolution flick to the screen in a time of mind-numbing apathy and for giving Natalie Portman a chance to remind us what a talented actor she is when she has something to work with – Little Miss Sunshine made us laugh uncontrollably at things long left for dead – Inside Man was a solid Spike Lee caper with fine performances from Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster – Half Nelson posed some questions about the rhetoric of education but got too comfy in the stoned-out heroin sequences, which tended to bore rather than intoxicate - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was another surprisingly funny and fresh post-noir flick with a performance that will rock Robert Downey Jr fans – Babel was much better than previews led us to believe, it had some real depth in spite of the overly detached atmosphere – Xian Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower was a perfect film (astounding visuals!) until the last 10 minutes dove into what the movie had so successfully avoided up until then: an over-abundance of spectacle – Children of Men offered great performances and a chilling look at the future, but failed to fully flush out the clever ideas that drove the story - l’enfant was the newest effort by the Dardem brothers, a sober yet harrowing film about a young man whose existential decline (and eventual reckoning) occurs when he sells his newborn baby.

Re: Re-Release - Top Lost Treasure of 2006
Army of Shadows, by Jean-Pierre Melville
Melville’s taught masterpiece of suspense and intrigue during the Nazi occupation of Paris is a perilous journal through the final days of the French Resistance.

Re: Discoveries
Rebel Sammurai at the Balboa; Janus’ 50th Anniversary, Ousame Sembene, Mizoguchi, and Mother Russia at PFA; 70mm Festival at The Castro Movie Palace

The Top 5 classic films re-released this year on DVD are all from the Criterion Collection. The films range from an early silent masterpiece by the great director G.W. Pabst to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s meditation on identity.

1) Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst – 1929)
2) Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle – 1957)
3) Viridiana (Luis Bunuel – 1961)
4) Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okomoto – 1966)
5) Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski – 1991)

Pandora’s Box is silent screen siren Louise Brooks’ greatest roles/performance, the Criterion Box set features a great booklet, rare interviews, and four soundtrack options – Elevator to the Gallows is Louis Malle’s remarkable debut as director and features Jean Moreau in one of her early roles along with Miles Davis’ haunting soundtrack – Viridiana is Luis Bunuel’s reckless tale of a nun that leaves the church to visit her uncle; a journey that ends in disaster (the film was banned by the Catholic Church, creating the usual scandal for Don Luis) – of the recent samurai classics released by Criterion, Sword of the Beast is the most relentless in its depiction of a man mysteriously possessed by his sword and features a knock-out performance by Mikijiro Hira – Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Vernonique is the first feature film by Poland’s great poet of fate and offers us a one of a kind performance by cinematic angel Irene Jacob.

Phillip Greenlief
Oakland, CA

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Alfred Hitchcock

Re: Great Directors
The Films of Alfred Hitchcock - Seven masterpieces discussed
The 39 Steps
Strangers on a Train
I Confess
The Wrong Man

It’s hard to know where to start when it comes time to write about Alfred Hitchcock. So much has already been written on his work, not to mention his often misunderstood (and often bizarre) personal life. Nevertheless, it is hard to overlook a director that found time to make 66 feature films and invent many innovative camera movements still associated with contemporary film narrative, all while mulling over countless scripts and novels in search of the next idea to bring to light. It was difficult to determine which films to discuss so I neglected a few of the widely-praised Universal films like North by Northwest, Rear Window and Vertigo in order to spout off on a few overlooked gems. The movies cited below tend to focus more on Hitchcock’s quieter psychological obsessions as opposed to his more opulent visual spectacles.

Hitchcock’s first film was Number 13 (1922) and his last film was Family Plot (1972). Along his 50-year journey as filmmaker he forged a bold visual style that had the admitted influence of Sergei Eisenstein. The director’s first jobs consisted largely of visual design work (for film), so it is clear he had already begun to train his eye in early apprenticeship. His famous sketchbooks reveal that he drew every image that would be seen in a film before he started shooting. His technical understanding of all aspects of the craft of filmmaking was rarely rivaled and many great cinematographers of the 1940s and 1950s acknowledged their debt to him. He was a different director with every actor and technician that he worked with – seeming to be able to zero in on any personality and know how to use it to serve his purposes.

One thing not commonly known is how much Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife, who collaborated with her husband on nearly all of his films) was responsible for the consistency and eye for detail in Hitch’s films. Hitchcock met Ms. Reville while working on some of the first films he served on as art director and she served as camera assistant. Her contribution was an essential element of the realization of all of his films up until 1962 when she passed away. She read and praised or declined scripts (Hitchcock never veered from his high opinion of her ability to visualize whether or not a script could be well-realized on film) consulted on all aspects of “continuity” (from pre-shooting to post-production) a title that she is most commonly credited with in his films. Hitchcock’s other greatest collaborator was Joan Harrison, who began working with the British émigré shortly after his arrival in 1940 and continued on with him until his death. Hitchcock put most of the responsibility of producing his popular TV series in the hands of Ms. Harrison, who also worked closely with Ms. Reville and Mr. Hitchcock on developing treatments of novels that would eventually be handed over to screenwriters (Rebecca, Spellbound, Lifeboat, The Birds, and many others). It seems ironic considering the flack that Alfred Hitchcock has received over the years from feminists when it turns out that two of his two most steadfast collaborators were women. Of course feminists could easily retort that those women were probably happy to be working (in such well-paying and prestigious positions), even if it meant propping up an old misogynist’s ideas.

The 39 Steps
It is perhaps fitting that The 39 Steps is Hitchcock’s first masterpiece. It presents an essential theme that drives several of Hitchcock’s successive films: a wrong man is unjustly accused of a serious crime (usually murder) and must go to great lengths to prove his innocence. Mr. Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) learns from a dying secret agent that an important government secret is about to be handed over to enemy hands and is wrongly accused of her murder in the process. Like other successive Hitchcock narratives (the sappier Saboteur, the intelligent but patriotic to the point of operatic Foreign Correspondent, but eventually realized to perfection in North by Northwest), our hero must find the source of intrigue and travel cross country to bring it to light. Along the way, the director presents a host of comic routines, innovative camera moves, fast-paced chases and narrow escapes to entertain and fascinate his viewers. Donat rustles up sexual tension with Madeline Carroll, who adds comic appeal to the film and the two learn that they must join forces to stop the spy network for a happily ever-after. Deftly balancing humor, romance, and suspense, The 39 Steps illustrates one of Hitchcock’s great formulas for entertainment at a snappy pace that set the standard for numerous imitations.

Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant ignite one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements as they criss-cross two of the director’s favorite themes: romance and suspense. Bergman’s intelligence and vulnerability make her a prime suspect to infiltrate a Nazi organization in South America led by Claude Rains and enters enemy waters with the keys of romance, much to the chagrin of co-operative Grant. Beautifully photographed and as finely balanced as a troupe of high-wire acrobats, Notorious is a baroque masterpiece with high marks for erotic and psychological tension.

Shot entirely in the confines of a lifeboat, this experimental gem is a taught psychological study of war. Talulah Bankhead is the centerpiece of this small ensemble of actors that serve as a microcosm of the conflict between the Allied and German forces during WWII. Hitchcock originally worked with John Steinbeck on the script but was unsatisfied with the finished product and hired two successive writers to strengthen the narrative before retrieving the reins and polishing the script to meet his needs. The goal of Lifeboat was to enable Hitchcock to make a statement about the contrast between the philosophies and work ethics of the Allied forces and their Nazi counterparts. After several survivors make their way to a lifeboat after being bombed by a German U-Boat, they pull an enemy soldier out of the water and offer him refuge. The script illustrates the lack of direction and listless ideals contrasted with the enemy’s ability to point the boat in the direction of a German supply ship and fool his hosts.

Today’s audiences may see a distinct parallel to the constructs of today’s bi-partisan shuffle between right-wing Republicans, who seem very adept at articulating and realizing their agenda, and the House-dominating Democrats, who talk a lot about political reform, but don’t seem to have be able to articulate a clear agenda on how to actualize their liberal platform.

Strangers on a Train
This film begins with one of the more memorable sequences ever filmed: the opening credits roll as we watch two cars pull up to a train station. Two separate pairs of shoes step out of the cabs and make their way through the station, onto the train and into a passenger car, where they bump into each other as their subjects are seated. A ridiculous plot is hatched between the two strangers to swap murders, so ridiculous that one of the subjects goes along despite the absurdity. A few days later, after a murder occurs in an amusement park, the killer comes to call on his partner to fulfill the completion of the plan. From that point onward, a dizzying game of cat and mouse ensues, leading to one of the great climactic moments in the history of cinema: a dazzling sequence on a merry-go-round that spins out of control while populated with children, courting teenagers and the two suspects that battle desperately to prove their innocence. Strangers on a Train is vintage Hitchcock with an unusually clouded psychological texture and riveting suspense.

I Confess
Montgomery Clift plays a priest who overhears a confession of a murderer and must keep his vow of silence even if it means assuming guilt for the crime. Known for his thoughtfulness regarding locations and how they best serve the film’s narrative, provincial Quebec seems the perfect place to create a claustrophobic urban atmosphere set in place with narrow streets and towering gothic cathedrals. Montgomery Clift offers one of his best performances in I Confess, his clipped emotional range and brooding silence seems perfectly suited for the role of a priest. The original script followed the play by Paul Anthelme, which had the priest hung for the murder only to later discover his innocence. Studio executives balked, and the director changed the script to have the priest proven innocence after the court case was settled (he was acquitted, but when faced with a hostile public, the wife of the killer spills the beans). Mr. Hitchcock was obviously free to comment on the church, but not the death penalty. Regarded by director Peter Bogdonovich as one of the great director’s most personal films, I Confess is an examination of the ethics of faith.

The Wrong Man
Alfred Hitchcock casts Henry Fonda in one of his greatest (and perhaps most overlooked) performances as a musician who is wrongly accused of a bank robbery and almost loses his family and his sanity in the process of proving his innocence. Hitch’s well oiled plot device of cornering an innocent man is wholly reconceived in this calm depiction of the disintegration of a post-war nuclear family. Hitchcock’s ability to hold the film just this side of controlled hysteria is only mildly derailed by Vera Miles, who loses her balance in a few scenes and pushes her character over the top. Regardless of a minor mishap in an otherwise fine performance by Ms. Miles, The Wrong Man is a fine example of one of Hitchcock's principal themes delivered in an unusually restrained direction in order to portray a greater sense of tragedy in the collapse of one man’s family due to mistaken identity.

Set in the American West, Alfred Hitchcock tore the covers off the murderous undercurrent of our country’s new-found suburban veneer and in the process posited one of the most influential classics of the horror genre in this portrayal of a man who murders in order to calm his tortured inner matriarchal voices. Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates, an icon of cinematic terror and killer transvestite if there ever was one. Janet Leigh’s performance as Marion Crane captures our desperate desire to flee the 9 to 5 once and for all, but fails to realize the potential of her sex-appeal on unsuspecting motel merchants. Ms. Leigh’s murder in the shower remains one of the all-time terrifying moments of cinematic history; the impact of the camera spiraling out of her open eye delivers a lasting nightmarish image that overwhelms the viewer with death’s ineluctable ability to put an end to all our desires and maneuvers. Vera Miles and John Gavin march on to uncover the trail of Marion’s killer and sacrifice Martin Balsam to mark a path of breadcrumbs that leads to the wicked old witch who dwells silently in the blueprint for Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

Mr. Hitchcock used a standard television crew to shoot Psycho for about $400,000, allowing Universal Pictures to make a lot of money over the years while earning him a great deal of creative control for future projects. Psycho is a murderous shout of a movie that ushered decades of imitations and tributes; a desperate scream for help that continues to echo long after the director’s death.

Re:A Closer Look - Hitchcock Top 20
1) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
2) The 39 Steps (1935)
3) The Lady Vanishes (1938)
4) Rebecca (1st film in America 1940)
5) Foreign Correspondent (1940)
6) Saboteur (1942)
7) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
8) Lifeboat (1944)
9) Spellbound (1945)
10) Notorious (1946)
11) Rope (1948)
12) Strangers on a Train (1951)
13) I Confess (1953)
14) Rear Window (1954)
15) To Catch a Thief (1955)
16) The Wrong Man (1956)
17) Vertigo (1958)
18) North by Northwest (1959)
19) Psycho (1960)
20) Frenzy (1972)

Phillip Greenlief
Oakland, CA

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Paradise Found - Paradise Lost - The Heartbreak of The Boys of Baraka

The Boys of Baraka is a documentary about a dozen boys that are invited to leave a crime-ridden neighborhood in Baltimore and spend a year at a special school in Kenya. The boys and their families are interviewed throughou film and they discuss the lack of resources and the inability to conceive of a healthy future given the options and the overwhelming statistics at hand. One of the principal claims that drives the film is that only 25% of African American males in the neighborhood graduate from high school.

The boys travel to the Baraka School, which is located in an environment that defies most Americans' definition of rural. Their living quarters have no televisions, no electricity during certain hours, limited running water, no local "conveniences", etc. The boys can walk short distances from their living quarters to observe zebras, hippos and other forms of wildlife. After an initial adjustment the boys begin to flourish, and many reach honor roll status by the end of the year. The film shows certain conflict resolution the Baraka School uses that are familiar to programs like Outward Bound, which place inner-city kids in nature in order to have them manage their feelings and behaviors against rugged natural elements and tough physical challenges. Many of the boys lose their desire to fight - since they themselves are nearly all they have to remind them of home - and many begin to cherish each other's friendships and develop new-found respect for others and themselves.

The film does an excellent job of not forcing an obvious point: that once removed from the perils of their inner-city environmnet, the majority of their negative behaviors change and they acheive a variety of success in a relatively short period of time (one year). Viewers are left with some tough questions on how we can change the dynamics of the urban jungle - or the dynamics of the urban classrooms that have failed so many of our children. What is painfully clear is that we are failing the children of improverished neighborhoods when we offer them so little and expect so much in return.

The close of the film ushers a new wave of frustration over the problems that plague the children. When the escalating war in Kenya threatened the security and safety of the boys, and after the closing of the U.S. Embassy, the Baraka School was forced to shut down and the boys were not allowed to return. The families who were offered a glimmer of hope that they might have found a way out of the ghetto for their children were left to their own devices to carry on. While the disappointment was considerable, some of the boys carried on with newfound inner discipline and strength while others fell prey to the usual suspects: drugs, violence, and the self hatred and self destruction that so often accompanies abject poverty.

The Boys of Baraka is a wakeup call for anyone who believes schools have all the money they need and that we as a nation are meeting the challenges of educating ALL of our children. It seems fairly clear that the kids we ignore every day who fall prey to circumstances beyond their control are so often the children who long to be challenged and inspired and who rize to the occasion when they are given the opportunity. Viewing the film may inspire viewers to hold our local, state and federal governments accounable for educating our children, and that it is not a privilege to receive a decent education in a safe environment, but an inalienable right that all children deserve.

The Boys of Baraka is playing in Berkeley at The Act 1 & 2 (I believe), and in San Francisco at the Lumiere. There weren’t too many people in the theater when I saw it and that usually means that with independent documentaries like this, it will probably leave theaters soon.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Deserted, but Overflowing

Somehow I must have missed Ali Reza Raisian's hauntingly beautiful Deserted Station, which was released in its native Iran in 2002, but was only recently distributed in America. If it played in theaters it must have been a short run, which is a shame because it is one of those rare films that stays with you for days after you've seen it.

Deserted Station is available on DVD at some of the local video stores, which is cause for celebration. The story was written by acclaimed director Abbass Kiarostami (Ten, A Taste of Cherry, etc.), and tells the story of a married couple who get stranded in the desert while the husband is searching for landscapes to photograph. While he goes off with a man that promises to help fix their vehicle, the woman is left behind in a village that is mainly populated by children who have been abandoned by parents who have gone to work in the big cities. Since the mechanic is also the teacher in the small village, the woman takes his place and forges an unforgettable relationship with her students that evolves through the course of a single day.

The film starts slowly but gathers its narrative steam naturally until it leaves viewers breathless with its final heartbreaking sequences. Shot in a natural style and filled with the stark beauty of simple human kindness and compassion, Deserted Station is a charming oasis captured on film.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Top 10 Films of 2005

Due to a severe lack of free time this year, I have minimalized my descriptions and refused an introduction. Having said that, and realizing that this could easily be misconstrued for an introduction, I will step up and list ten films that caught my attention this year. Are they really "in order"? I never know. I do know that Downfall resides firmly at the top.

1) Downfall
2) Broken Flowers
3) Saraband
4) Grizzly Man
5) El Crimen Perfecto
6) Pretty Persuasion
7) Nobody Knows
8) Kung Fu Hustle
9) I (heart) Huckabees
10) Ballet Russe

1) Downfall (Der Untergang)
For a more complete view of this modern masterpiece, go to "previous posts" and locate Going Down with Der Untergang.

This is one of the finest films to be made in years, so if you missed it on the big screen, try to catch it at home on the box. Bruno Ganz leads an impressive stable of actors through the course of Hitler’s last days in the bunker during the fall of Berlin in 1945. Rather than portay Hitler as a mad-dog, as other efforts have portrayed him in earlier films, Der Untergang achieves greater depth and pathos through establishing Der Fuhrer as a complex and even sympathetic human being. You’ll look long and hard to find a film that boasts better direction, and the palpable performances throughout descend the viewer into the decaying world of one of history’s most powerful individuals.

2)Broken Flowers
Bill Murray offers one of his most satisfying minimalist efforts as a man who is encouraged to take a long look at his romantic past. Critics have stated that the stars of the film are really the women that surround him, but to insist solely on the pace and thematic summersaults that the women lend the film would be to lose the pristine balancing act that Murray manages on the other end of the scale. Broken Flowers is a highly satisfying, albeit sad film about a man searching the course of his folly by meeting face to face several women he has disregarded for greener pastures. Jim Jarmusch continues to refine his vision while remaining steady on the trail he has been blazing since his opening gambit, Permanent Vacation(1980). The pace may read too slow for many American audiences, but if that's your only consideration then you're missing the point. (Think on it: you can't rush a good long look at yourself...)

3) Saraband
After retiring from cinema some 25 years ago (in order to focus on writing and direction for the theater), Ingmar Bergman has released another of his probing chamber dramas based on characters from his monumental Scenes from a Marriage (a 5-hour series made for Swedish television in the 1970’s and later released in a 3-hour theatrical version). While you won’t find a glut of material that is new from Bergman in this rewarding return, Saraband nonetheless rests firmly alongside some of his earlier outstanding character studies: Persona; Through a Glass, Darkly; or Winter Light. The switch here is that the focus is turned on characters who are dealing with Bergman’s familiar existential queries while isolated in the introspective landscape of old age (while charting different themes than his earlier masterpiece Wild Strawberries).

For Bergman lovers, Saraband is essential viewing; for the uninitiated wanting to better know his work, this entry may not be the best place to start – the depth of inquiry into madness, incest and existential decline may seem overly harsh and unflinching to the point of excess. Instead, go back to some of the earlier classics (Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring, or his epic masterpiece, Fanny & Alexander). All critical concerns aside, there have been few filmmakers who can match Bergman’s intensity without approaching the country of the absurd or declining into overwrought melodrama. Somehow that chilly Swedish homeboy knows how to keep it real…

Finally, to rediscover Marianne and Joseph (principal actors from Scenes from a Marriage, played to perfection by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson) in this late stage of life, and to learn of Marianne’s mastery of her self in this closing chapter, Saraband perhaps offers his more faithful viewers a note of resolution at the close of a long career of fierce psychological inquiry.

4) Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog has had an illustrious and celebrated career dodging the stylistic and narrative concerns posited by his fellow colleagues of the New German Cinema. In Grizzly Man, he uses found footage from the home movies of Timothy Treadwell to launch his documentary on an individual that tried to exist in harmony with grizzly bears in the Arctic Wilderness (along with a ghost partner that anonymously photographed the bulk of the experiences). See this remarkable film by one of cinema’s greatest madmen about one of America’s most unlikely protagonists – Grizzly Manis the 2005 wild card of the year that you won't want to miss.

5) El Crimen Perfecto
This unexpected Spanish chucklefest broadcasts the story of a department store manager who loves to woo women on the job. Eventually greed outweighs his libido and leads him to move beyond passion and into some rather messy crimal activity. When a downtrodden female employee discovers a resultant secret, the tables turn and a thin veil of patriarchal order collapses. Perfecto is riddled with original sight gags, comically absurd situations (ala Amaldovar), clever plot twists, and an unbridled humor that could urge some of our more jaded viewers to gush with laughter.

6)Pretty Persuasion
Evan Rachel Wood’s performance knocks it out of the park with her portrayal of a young girl who, while not finding the proper inroads to Hollywood stardom, decides to enlist a few friends to bring sexual harassment charges against one of their teachers in order to gain fame and popularity. Pretty Persuasion has the wit of earlier teen-satires like Election, but is a much darker portrait of the cynicism of today’s privileged youth and they price they pay when convenience offers everything at a moment’s notice.

7) Nobody Knows
This sober portrait of three siblings living in Tokyo after their unreliable mother disappears will likely take audiences by surprise. Try as they might to retain a sense of normalcy, the children's closed society caves in on itself, all without a hint of moralizing by way of filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu. Viewers are offered a close look at the effects on the psyches of unwanted children and the social and emotional perils that accompanies the abandoned youth of today. Based on a true story, the film, which took 15 years to make, has a universal message that may leave viewers haunted long after the final credits have faded to black.

8) I (heart) Huckabees
Could existentialism, or the search for it, be considered quintessentially comedic? This absurd comedy on a theme of figuring it all out faces off with strange bedfellows – an ecology advocate and an advertising executive – and strips them of some of their socio-economic trappings to reveal similar truths that lurk beneath their wildly divergent surfaces. Remnant of the brand of humor that exists in films like Being John Malkovich, Huckabees plays with the ridiculous notion of putting the search for self in the hands of “existential detectives” (played to delirious perfection by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman). The perfectly cast company moves effortlessly through this modern farce and blends in with the landscape of Los Angeles to reveal a sublime resonance for anyone that has spent time in that city of swollen dreams.

9) Kung Fu Hustle
The blurb on the DVD label for Kung Fu Hustle reads: “Kill Bill meets Wile E. Coyote”. While that gives an inkling of the physical pyrotechnics of Stephen Chow’s newest work, it doesn’t nearly reveal the originality of the direction and stylistic brilliance, nor does it hint at the desire to waylay evil western influences with (post)modern-day communist zeal. Power to the people!

10) Ballet Russe
The Ballet Russe, a band of mostly Russian refugees stranded in Paris after their exodus from Russia after the October Revolution, is the center attraction in this breathtaking documentary that traces the further development of one the greatest artistic expressions of human movement. Far from a stuffy documentary about what many may feel is a snobbish artform aimed at the cultural elite, Ballet Russe is a treasure chest of fascinating characters (many of the original members of the company are not only still alive, but have never realized that they have slipped into old age), a bird's eye view of the evolution of contemporary ballet, an intriguing story of how several bold individuals fought to stand at the helm, and a poignant look at a moment in time when art was a vital aspect of everyday society (take a look at the thousands of fans lined up in NY city, Paris, or London to catch a performance). See it if for no other reason than to witness the achingly beautiful archival footage of the great artists of ballet working their magic (Danilova, Markova, Toumanova, Fokine) along with the great artists that collaborated with the company to realize some of their finest masterpieces (Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Ravel).

The list above is a desire to represent as many styles and themes as possible. Here are some other films that really made a nice impression as well.

Capote surpassed my expectations, and the credit was mostly due to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who resisted the obvious urge to play Truman as a charicature in order to allow the groudbreaking writer the complex reading he deserves.

Syrianna was a really admirable film as it refrained from trying to sum up an extremely complex set of problems (the situation in the Middle East today)in a neatly packaged mainstream film. Instead, while remaining in the tradition of Soderberg's earlier Traffic, a series of vignettes unfold where opposing ideologies can co-exist in a way that allows a more complete critical perspective. Viewers that complained the film was hard to comprehend as a whole missed the point - there is no absolute truth in such situations, and to pretend such a truth existed and could be portrayed in this format is guilty of trivializing all the anguish, deceit, death, and honor that has been at stake in the Middle East over the past few decades.

Good Night and Good Luck was most enjoyable, and I would hope that anyone who sees it would become painfully aware of how far short we have fallen from the promise of television broadcasting at the dawn of its conception.

The Assasination of Richard Nixon allowed Sean Penn the chance to descend into the deep end as Samuel J. Bicke, a salesman who lunges at the American Dream but slides into oblivion instead. After losing it all, his desperate attempt at existential salvation is to make an attempt on the life of the 37th President of the United States. Rather than merely offering a morbid reimagining of Death of a Salesman, the film expands into the wider arena of the Watergate era and gives us a spot-on reading of America at the onset of a moral and political crisis that remains with us today.

Favorite Re-releases to hit the theaters:
The Passenger (Antonioni)
Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle)
Classe Tous Risques! (Sautet)

Favorite DVD (re)releases of 2005
Hari Kari (Kobayashi)
Ugetzu (Mizoguchi)
Story of a Prostitute (Suzuki)
Man Who Fell To Earth (Roeg)
Andrej Wajda – Three War Films (A Generation, Kanal, Ashes & Diamonds)
Au Hassard Baltazar (Bresson)
An Angel At My Table (Campion)
Bad Timing (Roeg)
The Exorcist: re-mastered & re-edited (Friedkin)

Favorite Revival Picks/Series:
PFA’s Far East Film Festival
The Castro Theater’s 70mm Festival
The Castro Theater’s Godzilla Festival
The Balboa Theater’s Samurai Festival

Things to Look for in 2006:

Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques has been remastered and may just show up at your local rep-theater (or video store) this year. If it does, check out this great French noir with a unique slant – an anti-hero tragedy with lots of heart.

The Criterion Collection is set to launch one of Luis Bunuel’s Mexico City masterpieces: Viridiana has a release date of late February 2006 – it should hit your local video stores soon after. Also coming soon on Criterion’s new releases list is Akira Kurosawa’s polished gem The Bad Sleep Well.

Review: Eveline Glennie – Touch the Sound

Eveline Glennie is a percussionist, born in Scotland in 1965 and has played throughout the world with many great musicians, orchestras and chamber ensembles. What is unique about Ms. Glennie is that she is extremely hearing impaired and relies on a varieties of other senses to guide her musical effort.

I saw Touch the Sound recently and thought it not up to the level of Rivers and Tides, Thomas Riedelsheimer's film on Andy Goldsworthy (in terms of clarity or erudition), but it was enjoyable nonetheless. One of the most intriguing scenes, where Glennie is talking to a student and they are discussing the relationship between dynamics and touch was something I wish she had commented on more. For me, that was something totally unique to her experience and yet it was left (for the most part) unexplored.

The few performances in the film were nice. The autobiographical fragments were OK but drifted a bit. I especially liked her performance on snare drum in Grand Central Station - a captivating scene!

As much as I enjoyed the film and wished there were more like it out there, I couldn't help but feel the film lacked a clear focal point (I think more attention to the element I mentioned in the 1st paragraph would have allowed the film to succeed on this level).

Upon further reflection, I wondered if the tone and pace of the film was trying to pull the viewer further into Ms. Glennie's world - a world that may read a bit un-tethered due to her hearing impairment. I can appreciate this desire on the part of the filmmaker (if indeed he considered it), but the final product may not have succeeded having made that stylistic distinction/decision.

But hey, how many films can you say are made about great, off the beaten path musicians? I'm glad I saw it and would encourage anyone on the list to check it out. I hope it did well enough to keep Thomas Riedelsheimer's in good favors with film financiers; he certainly deserves to keep at it (and you know how fickle film financiers can be). I caught it at the Balboa (one of the last great low-key rep theaters in SF with superior programming), and there were only a few folks in the audience.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Yasujiro Ozu

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Yasujiro Ozu

Relatively unknown in America, but an acknowledged master and influence on nearly every major Japanese director of the 20th century, Yasujiro Ozu has created a unique body of work that rivals the works of William Shakespeare in its examination of the motivations common to our human species. Ozu seems to have invented his very own blend of social study with comedy that allows people to chuckle at issues that touch our more vulnerable emotional states.

Ozu’s style is simple and perhaps well-known to his audiences: the camera sits roughly three feet off the floor and seldom moves, giving the distinct impression that you, the viewer, are sitting on the floor with your ever-changing panorama of hosts and hostesses. The metaphorical restaurateurs that populate Ozu’s films serve up the microcosm of family and all that comes with it: birth, growing pains of childhood, the plight of education, easy and uneasy transitions into adulthood, gender issues, marriage (to be or not to be), bustling careers, failed dreams, separations, alcoholism, tragic suicides, easy deaths, tender reconciliation and the age-old questions that come with old age and the inevitable confrontation with death.

Here is a short list of some of the films that I would recommend without reservation:

1)Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) A potpourri of Ozu’s themes all woven together in a satisfying tale – a great place to start for Ozu initiates.

2)Tokyo Twilight (1957) A tragic tale of a disintegrating post-war family that features a fleet of masterful performances that will melt the coldest of hearts.

3)Good Morning (1959) A tale of two adorable kids who take on a vow of silence because their parents won’t buy a TV – a great introduction to Japanese film for kids.

4)An Autumn Afternoon (1962) Ozu’s last film tenderly reveals a father facing old age as his daughter contemplates marriage – more great performances from the Ozu stable of actors!

5)What Did the Lady Forget? (1937) FUNNY story of a liberated young woman that visits her fairly conservative aunt and uncle and sets out to break their exalted social taboos.

6)Early Summer(1951) This spacious film features a great performance by Setsuko Hara a dutiful daughter whose family is trying to find a husband. While the theme may be familiar to Ozu fans, the performances and the subtleties of emotion and psycological understanding are the reasons this director has carved out a place that is unique in the history of cinema.

7)Tokyo Story(1953) One of Ozu's most highly acclaimed works, this film presents an elderly couple visiting some of their children in Tokyo, only to find themselves not particularly welcome in their fast-paced urban lives. The couple return to their country village at a time of tragedy that brings the family together at the film's end in a heartbreaking and unforgettable way.

8)Floating Weeds(1959) Shrouded in Ozu minimalism, this film tracks the movements of a band of traveling actors who have settled temporarily in a fishing village. While stranded without work, the actors in Ozu's film give the great director lots of personalities to explore and merge in dramatic and non-dramatic conflict.

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Akira Kurosawa

The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

For those that have heard of Akira Kurosawa but have never seen any of the great director’s work, here is a list of essential classics. Acknowledged as the creator of not one, but many undisputed masterpieces (Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Ran, Rashomon, High and Low, Dersu Uzala, Stray Dog, Red Beard, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, The Idiot), Akira Kurosawa helped to revolutionize Japanese Cinema while providing inspiration for other directors (George Lucas: Star Wars, John Sturges: The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars). Kurosawa was particularly successful with adaptations of great literature, using works by Shakespeare (Ran, Throne of Blood) and Dostoevsky (The Idiot) as a springboard to create some of his more compelling and complex narratives.

1) Seven Samurai (1954)
This film has rightly earned unanimous international acclaim since its release in 1954 for providing us with a complex story rich in historical overtones handled with absolute technical brilliance and superbly realized by a notable cast that features some of Japan’s finest actors from the period.

Desperate farmers hire seven samurai (who wander the land after the fall of warlord feudalism in 16th century Japan) to defend their land from bandits who pillage their village. The samurai organize to train their meager army of not-so-innocent peasants, create a plan of defense, and enact one of the greatest hand-to-hand battle sequences ever conceived and delivered on film (the final battle sequence occupies nearly 1/3 of the movie’s total 3 ½ hour duration). Seven Samurai is an outstanding allegory of social reconstruction conceived in post WWII Japan and has inspired countless imitations but few rivals. (The film served as a blueprint for The Magnificent Seven, and is thought by many critics to have revived the Western genre in American cinema).

2) Ikiru (1952)
Kurosawa’s heartbreaking chronicle about a man searching to give meaning to his empty bureaucratic life once he discovers he has stomach cancer. The first half of the film focuses on the principal character as he wanders the seedier side of Tokyo nightlife. The second half of the film takes place at his funeral, where many members of the community gather to debate his greatness and/or folly. Finely sculpted characters, a unique narrative structure, an inquiry into what constitutes our individual identity, and an unparalleled performance by Takashi Shimura make Ikiru an unforgettable film event.

3) Rashomon (1950)
Rashomon features several breakthrough ideas on film narrative and structure. The movie opens amid the ruins of Rashomon, a palace once occupied during the great era of warlords. The beggars that find shelter there swap stories and we become the audience of a tale of the rape and murder of a princess. When the suspects appear at a trial, the story is told through the multiple perspectives of its participants.

4) Ran (1985)
Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Kurosawa has his great warlord divide his province between his three sons to fatal consequences for all. Ran is perhaps one of Kurosawa’s most well-known film by American audiences and received several academy awards for its stunning art direction and costumes.

5) Yojimbo (1961)
Great music and comic action drive this follow-up to Seven Samurai, and forms a companion piece to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962). Fans of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven will find the original model to retain all of the psychological intrigue and action of its western-styled descendant.

6) Stray Dog (1949)
Kurosawa often instigates his more successful character studies by turning the world of his protagonist upside down. In the unforgettable Iriru, the central character discovers he has stomach cancer and will enjoy precious little remaining time on earth. In High and Low, a rich businessman’s life careens toward disaster when his son is kidnapped by greedy corporate extortionists. In Stray Dog, a young detective (played by Toshiro Mifune in his first film with Kurosawa) leaves a crowded streetcar on a miserably hot day only to find his gun has been pick-pocketed. As in Ikiru, this existential crisis forces our hero to hit the seedy streets of Tokyo in search of his weapon, or his symbolic identity. Echoing noir classics like The Big Sleep, once detective Murakami penetrates the criminal underworld a whole new swarm of crimes unfold as Mifune descends further and further into psychological and social chaos.

7) Throne of Blood (1957)
This powerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in the tradition of Japan’s Noh Theater may be one of the greatest readings of the bard’s oeuvre. Kurosawa re-imagines Macbeth as Isuzu Yamada (acted miraculously, as always, by Mifune), a brave knight fighting to protect Spider’s Castle. While returning to from battle to receive a medal of valor, a forest spirit foretells his future and the rest is the stuff of history – warrior kills king and becomes king only to be killed by another warrior who takes the throne for himself.

Brilliant photography exploits Kurosawa’s insistence on shooting the majority of the film in extreme fog, which ideally underlines the idea that the land itself is closing in on the mad warrior. The final scene, where arrows rain down on the dying warlord, is one of the more celebrated (and imitated) endings in cinema.

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Luis Bunuel

Re: Great Directors

The Films of Luis Bunuel
Bunuel’s movies are rarely easy to summarize or categorize. His career as director scans several decades and due to the strikingly original nature of his work, many are considered without compare. It would be hard today to find a film that could be confused with Exterminating Angel, L’Age D’or, or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisies. Luis Bunuel is acknowledged (along with Andre Breton and others) as being one of the founders of surrealism – a style that informs all of his work in unique and unpredictable ways. Bunuel’s writings, while not widely read, range from surrealist fragments to insightful expressions of criticism for film and the theater along with his autobiographical musings. Highly influential and yet rarely imitated (successfully), Bunuel’s movies were created in many countries, as the maverick filmmaker seemed to find it difficult to call anywhere his home for very long. Financial support for his work varied from year to year and from place to place, and yet he was able to make strikingly original movies on several continents for comparably far less money than many of his more celebrated peers.

1) Un Chien Andaldou (1929)
Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali proclaim the death of rationality in this short film that has earned its rightful exalted place at the dawn of the surrealist movement. One of the most oft-quoted works in the history of film, movie-goers have seen many of the famous images without ever seeing the work as a whole. Eyes are sliced open by razors, flowers and stigmata appear in the hands of angels, and buildings burn to ash with the same detached level of observation. The editing allows the images to move quickly, as if a great host of scenarios were passing on a speeding train of light.

2) Los Olvidados (1950)
Los Olvidados stands as one of the most visionary of all Bunuel films, and is one of several undying masterpieces from his Mexico City period (1940’s – 1950’s). A viewing of the film today reveals its influence on an entire new genre of movies that might include Amores Perros, Ratcatcher, George Washington, Elephant, and City of God.

Translated to English as The Forgotten Ones, Los Olvidados received scathing criticism from the Mexican film industry. Friends close to Bunuel also complained of the portrayal of impoverished youth struggling to create social order and resist a criminal life on the streets of Mexico City. In a style remnant of Italian neo-realism at one turn and, during the nightmare dream sequences, producing effects that recall his surrealist collaborations with Salvador Dali, Bunuel handles the children’s violent deeds while refraining from romanticizing or criticizing his subject. He refuses to answer the questions that accompany the social problems inherent in the movie, which frees the film from unwanted moralizing or the urge to provide a happy ending.

Bunuel is said to have spent a great deal of time in the capital city’s slums befriending the criminal youth (Stephen Hart – Bunuel’s Box of Subaltern Tricks ©2004), and the result is not unlike Larry Clark’s 1995 shockumentary, Kids. 54 years after its creation, Los Olvidados haunts us with images of children relying on little other than their courage to survive life on the streets.

3) The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955)
On the eve of the Mexican Revolution, young Archibaldo de la Cruz believes that he has wished the death of his nanny while contemplating his mother’s music box. Moving to “the present”, the film hovers from flashback to present tense, where Senior de la Cruz is confessing a myriad of imagined crimes, all tenderly illuminated by Augustin Jimenez’ crisp photography and shuffled along with some of Bunuel’s most deftly satirical and comic romps. The music box becomes Sr. de la Cruz’s principal fetish, which accompanies, (and re-kindles) his penchant for murdering women. Will he conquer his obsessions and get the girl? If so, how do we define “get”…check it out and see for yourself.

4) Nazarin (1959)
One of the most beautifully photographed of all Bunuel films, Nazarin captures the harsh Mexican landscape for a tale of a turn-of-the century wandering cleric who has shed his priest’s garmentsin hopes of comforting the poor, free from the Church’s chastising shadow. He is accompanied by two desperate women and an assortment of life’s outcasts. His is a Christlike effort, to wring charity out of a peasantry locked in the absurd cruelty of their environment, but also locked into the very material reality of being human. (PFA guide)

5) The Exterminating Angel (1962)
This film holds a special place in my heart as it is the confessed all-time favorite film of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beffheart). The cream of Mexican society gather for a meal only to find themselves mysteriously held captive by nothing other than their own inexplicable anxieties in this utterly unique meditation on class and meaninglessness.

6) Belle du Jour (1967)
Catherine Deneuve descends into the subconscious of the upper middle-class and turns idle afternoons into a foray of prostitution and sexual perversion in order to exorcize a few of her formative demons in this hypnotic examination of power and sex. An obvious influence on films like Barbet Schroeder’s Maitrese, Polanski’s Repulsion and many others.

7) The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
In Luis Buñuel’s deliciously satiric masterpiece, an upper-class sextet sits down to dinner but never eats, their attempts continually thwarted by a vaudevillian mixture of events both actual and imagined. Fernando Rey, Stéphane Audran, Delphine Seyring, and Jean-Pierre Cassel head the extraordinary cast of this 1972 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. (Summary: The Criterion Collection)

Cine Mexico at Film Forum & PFA

Cine Mexico
Featured at Film Forum (NYC) Summer 2004, and at Pacific Film Archive (Berkeley) Winter 2004.

Many American viewers are unaware of the great tradition of filmmaking in Mexico and how that industry has reflected its society’s idealism and proud cultural heritage from its historical origins to the present. Cine Mexico showed moviegoers that Mexican cinema has paralleled many of the stylistic penchants that have driven countless Hollywood classics – from “western” styled folkloric pieces to Peliculas Romanticos, and absurdist comedies that rival the adventures of the Marx Brothers.

Here is a short list of some of the memorable films I caught at Film Forum and PFA. Many of these are available on VHS, but have not ye**.3*t made the transfer to DVD. I borrowed a few descriptions from the PFA reader’s guide and those entries are marked accordingly.

1) That’s the Point (1940)
This is the film that established the comedian Cantinflas as a superstar – the Charlie Chaplin of Spanish-language films. But where Chaplin used silence, Cantinflas’s urban vagabond, the pelidito, confronts the arrogance and hypocrisy of the Mexican middle-class with words – lots of them, brilliantly woven into a web of semantic confusion. (PFA)

2) Tender Little Pumpkins (1948)
A botched suicide attempt leads to a veritable conga line of comic events in this delightful musical starring Tin Tan – the Mexican equivalent of Jerry Lewis. (PFA)

3) Aventurera (1949)
Moody melodramas known as rumberas were, like their heroines on screen, socially condemned by the middle class only to become forbidden pleasures for their cult following. Aventurera is considered the epitome of the genre and features a dynamic performance by the Cuban rumba dancer Ninon Sevilla, the queen of the cabareteras, cast successfully against Andrea Palma. (PFA)

4) Miroslava (1993)
Miroslava is about a woman whose life was so much larger than the life she had to be a movie star. Considered one of the most beautiful actresses in Mexican cinema history, Miroslava acted in about two dozen films before committing suicide in 1955 at the age of 25. (PFA)

5) Frida (1984)
I much preferred Paul Leduc’s Frida to Julie Taymor’s recent effort. Where Taymor rushed you through her smorgasbord of color, image and flesh, Leduc allows you to float effortlessly in Frida’s interior worlds. Subtlety and grace are the operating principles in illuminating the serious detachment needed for Frida Kahlo to find her unique and delightfully disturbing vision. (PG)

6) Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1954)
One of Luis Bunuel’s Mexico City chronicles, Illusion posits a revolutionary manifesto as two streetcar workers hijack one of their repair subjects and give unbridled service to the sprawling metropolis. A cleverly funny look at the absurdity of bureaucracy, Illusion takes the neo-realistic aims of the Bicycle Thief and couples it with a logic that would have pleased Eugene Ionesco. (PG)

7) Danzon (1991)
Set in Mexico City and Veracruz, Maria Novaro’s 1991 dreamy tale is a road movie led by an unlikely heroine. Maria Rojo plays Julia, who leaves Mexico City to search for her long-term dance partner, Carmello. Inciting a delicate character study that would satisfy fans of Central Station, Danzon casts Julia to the dancehalls of Veracruz, where she meets characters that could have easily graced the early films of Pedro Almaldovar (but without the forced hyper-anxieties). Filled from end to end with exquisite music, most of which is performed by groups on screen, Danzon is an endearing character study packed with compassion for the human experience and the subtle epiphanies of a woman in pursuit of liberation and self-discovery. (PG)