February 2007

Beyond Inland: Searching for great films shot on video

One of the reasons I posted my conversation with Antonius Block on Inland Empire was to hone in on one of my misgivings about the film:

I like your descriptions of the video imaging a lot. At the same time I can’t help but be a little resentful that your account supports my general suspicions that both this video feature and video as a respectable medium are suddenly getting all this acceptance because of the name above the title. If it was anyone else (and there have been many artists using this medium for years, doing work even more off the deep-end than this, and no one’s lining up to watch them several times over to parse out the meaning of their works…)

Antonius, gracious as always, wrote back that he’d appreciate any recommendations of great films shot on video. And sheepishly, I can’t think of many!

I still stand by my argument that there is video work as fascinating and challenging as Inland Empire but doesn’t benefit from the name brand to make it fashionable viewing.

But maybe I need to have my memory jarred. So if anyone can recommend great narrative films shot on video or HD format, and especially those that make good use of the rough and tumble aesthetic prescribed by Lynch, please mention them here.

Help me fight spam and loneliness

In the past week I’ve had over 100 incoming comments come into my moderation queue — and all of them are bogus spam messages linking to pages selling Cialis, Viagra, Oxycotin, heroin…  It wouldn’t be so frustrating if I actually had some real messages from real people once in a while.
The last message I’ve received was a week ago from my friend Jesse, who earlier had told me a couple times he couldn’t leave a comment on the blog.  I’m wondering if others have had the same frustration?

So I just want to do a check with anyone who happens to be reading this — could you try leaving a comment on this blog entry?  If you want to let me know what you think of the blog so far, what you like about it, what could be improved, that would be great. You can talk about anything, except Cialis.  In fact I’m wondering if I should block this post for mentioning Cialis.

If you experience difficulties while leaving a comment, please feel free to write me at alsolikelife@gmail.com and let me know what happened.

Thanks Girish and Jesse for being among the few who’ve given me feedback here on the blog, and several others who have written me emails to the same effect. Your comments are encouraging and most welcome!

My anthem

Hopefully it won’t be hard to see what this has to do with cinema:

Infinite is the Glory, and infinite the ways to sing praise

Infinite are the deeds, and infinite the gifts

Infinite is the seeing, and infinite the hearing

Infinite are the workings of the Mind

Infinite is the variety of forms

Infinite are the edges of the universe

How many weep and yearn to find the limits

But these are not to be found

The end euldes all

The more it is expressed, the more is yet to be found

God is great and high in station

Yet higher still is the Name

If we could ever reach that height

Then only would we know the Highest of the high

Expansive as It is, That One alone can know Itself

Nanak says we are graced with the gift of the Gaze.

- Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Japji Sahib, stanza 24

Cellphotography #2

February 25, 2007 – Taiwan Union Christian Church in Astoria NY – ordination and installation of my friend Marianne. My first visit to a church in two years.

“He wrote me that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory”

I wanted to post this conversation because I’ve found it fascinating to see one of my friends processing Lynch’s Inland Empire from screening to screening, and I love his interpretation of the plot (moreso than I enjoyed watching the film).  Hope this conversation continues as he intends to watch it yet again…

He wrote me that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible
by Antonius Block (Mon Feb 19 2007 13:31:51)
Ignore this User | Report Abuse Reply
UPDATED Mon Feb 19 2007 13:56:12

…memory, insane memory. [Why couldn't that fit?]Inland Empire (2006) –David Lynch
In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460829/
As I was stumbling out of the theater after my first viewing of this beast of a film, one thought kept playing through my mind like a broken record: The cinema is dead. Long live the cinema. Continue Reading »

Bamako (2006, Abderrahmane Sissako)

viewed Saturday February 24 2007 on DVD in Brookly NY IMDb third viewing

My review can be found on The House Next Door

#910. There’s Always Tomorrow (1956, Douglas Sirk)

Screened Wednesday February 21 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #368 IMDb

My first instinct in evaluating this film is of course as a Douglas Sirk movie. Imitation of Life (TSPDT#244) is one of my all-time favorites, though my overall opinion of Sirk hasn’t had as much unqualified enthusiasm. But as the film progressed, I took more interest in the fact that this was a reuniting of the stars of Double Indemity (TSPDT #108).

Wilder’s thick-lined characterizations risk drawing everyone in the film as a Dick Tracy cartoon — MacMurray is a stiff-necked jerk who tells bad jokes and tries too hard to be cool; he has no right to earn our sympathies and yet his lower middlebrow tackiness is endearing, perhaps because we identify more than a little with it; he’s us trying to act like a movie star and not quite succeeding. Or perhaps because his excessively explicit voiceover narration insists on crowding our headspace with his, like Robinson’s “little man.” Barbara Stanwyck, on the other hand, is movie star to the nth degree — she takes a rather thin femme fatale character and makes an Art Deco statue out of it — even in as plain jane a setting as a suburban supermarket, she has a way of looking down at you even when she looks up at you.

from my review of Double Indemnity

I wanted to reference this review to compare it with the duo’s acting in There’s Always Tomorrow – take for instance their first meeting:
[youtube]_44xTTfFLMY[/youtube]

Wilder’s movie is fine for its expressively iconic overstatement, but it’s miles away from the subtlety on display here.
MacMurray has taken his limited expressive capabilities, that hollow grin that he perpetually wears, and has turned them into the polite expressions of quiet desperation. Stanwyck, a self-made woman revisiting an old flame, possesses a tremendous warmth her past incarnation as a femme fatale would never have suggested. And yet she still has that kind of statuelike dominance to her demeanor — and yet there are slight hints of vulnerability, which will become more apparent as their affair unfolds. They wear the outward appearances of contentment within convention, but through a split-second pause in their lines or a brief distant look into a vacant distance (look at what MacMurray does with his eyes at the end) they convey an inner world of desolation.

.
Though Sirk is popularly perceived as a ironic camp subverter of the histrionic conventions of Hollywood melodrama, There’s Always Tomorrow, like his earlier All That Heaven Allows (TSPDT #245), is graced with remarkably understated performances at its center. Again, comparing with Double Indemnity, one can see an inverse equation of mise-en-scene at work. Wilder pits iconic characters within starkly banal backdrops (i.e. Stanwyck with those uberbitch shades standing in a supermarket) as a way to key into these characters’ anti-social arrogance. In Sirk’s film it’s the opposite — look at how vast and overdecorated this house is, how these characters move within it, how they draw closer then further as they navigate their way from one room to another, how the lighting cloaks them in private introspection then reveals them in public presentation in a matter of seconds. Here it’s the environment that’s in control, and all this unhappy couple can do is put their best face on and smile through.

It’s also worth noting how Stanwyck helps MacMurray take off his apron — the matriarchal role that his family has relegated him to due to their self-centeredness and demands. Everyone in this movie is like a vessel seething with desire, and the ones who are loudest about expressing what they want are the ones in control, while more ingratiating types like MacMurray get stuck with their dreams deferred. As a function of everyone being driven by their own desire, everyone gets objectified by everyone else within narrow roles of parent, child, sibling – and anything that can’t be categorized – like Stanwyck – is a threat.

Of all these roles, the one that is most prominently showcased is that of MacMurray’s father, Clifford. It’s remarkably refreshing how this film transposes the stereotypically feminine attributes of masochistic melodrama upon a patriarchal figure, one that (in a reversal of gender associations) becomes objectified as everyone else’s object of desire. Clifford’s wife seems content to let him go about his own business outside the home as breadwinner and leave her to tend to the kids — don’t most wives dwell in jealous insecurity when their husbands are out all the time? The kids, especially Clifford’s son, are let down if he does anything that may remotely compromise his perfect dad status — isn’t it usually the parents who are let down by their kids’ misconduct? But the cruellest blow of all is when Stanwyck’s Norma Vale ultimately rejects him, convinced as she is of the imperative for him to uphold his role within his family, just as she is convinced that such a life could never be hers. Perversely she loves him because he represents everything she cannot have, and thus for the very reasons that she cannot have him. Driven by the projections of her own insecurities, she can’t see him any other way and ends up objectifying him as much as everyone else. Their entire love affair has been proven false, a gradual thawing of personal desires, but no true ability to perceive the other. In the end they fail to see beyond their own solipsistic needs.

However, Sirk doesn’t necessarily portray Cliff’s family unsympathetically. Joan Bennett as Cliff’s wife is completely oblivious of her husband’s needs, but Bennett plays her with a workaholic dignity that is as respectable in its middle-class ethos as it is chillingly ignorant of anything outside its domestic worldview. Cliff’s son Vinnie, played by William Reynolds as a minor riff on the brooding James Dean iconoclast, is his father’s primary antagonist in trying to unearth the secret of his relationship with Norma. But who can blame him? His most compelling moment comes when, confronting Norma, he shudders that he found his father and her talking “so intimate.” In other words, it’s an intimacy he’s never witnessed between his own parents, and that’s what rips his world and his childhood assumptions of love and family from under him. And as my girlfriend pointed out, his bickering with his own girlfriend about his father’s suspected infidelity forms a parallel narrative to Cliff and Norma’s. Ironically, it is Norma who gives him a much-needed maternal scolding that purges him of his insecurities and allows him to embrace his own ideals of love more firmly, even as she consigns his father to a life of romantic unfulfillment.

.
Such a bitterly ironic twist, typical of Sirk, is what keeps the film tonally off-balance like so many other Sirk films. He can go from being blatantly didactic to subliminally understated within the same moment. Barbara Stanwyck’s lecture to Cliff’s kids, to treat their father more lovingly, feels like a telegraphed moral, and judging from the original New York Times review by Bosley “subtext? what’s that?” Crowther, was what audiences at the time focused on. Scenes like that make the movie itself feel like a veneer of moral and aesthetic convention, yet another way of reflecting the society depicted onscreen, and against which Sirk is fighting to find genuine conflict and feeling.\

.
There’s no question that the ending – one of the most bitter Hollywood happy endings of all time, is meant to stick as a subversive lump in the throat. But it’s not like he’s trying to score points at these people’s expense. As his treatment of the Cliff character bears out, he does care for them too much to treat them sardonically as object lessons in middle-class hypocrisy and compromise. Well, sometimes. Other times it feels like he just can’t resist thumbing his nose at the bratty kids and domestic pettiness on display. To watch these films is like standing with each foot on a separate pontoon while floating down a river, it’s never stable. Which I suppose is true to how many of us see society, when we’re thoroughly unresolved about our place within it.

One thing that certainly is not in dispute is the film’s visual richness, and in many ways it does the most to anchor the film’s fluctuating tonal approaches to scenes upon a bedrock of light and shadow:

“The film’s lighting, design and camerawork brilliantly support Sirk’s overarching thesis. Although the hearth of the fire in the Groves’ home is always lit, and every detail of décor reinforces it as a “normal”, upwardly mobile suburban residence, it is crowded with shadows, cramped spaces, frames within frames, panes of glass and mirrors, and clusterings of furniture that suggest both the family circle and the separation of bodies into slightly compartmentalised spaces. This interior space is vast enough to allow characters to move relatively freely through it – and for the routinely despicable children to both escape from and spy on their father – but not so much so that these characters can’t also constantly impose their dominating and censoring presence vocally or sonically throughout the house (it is this, amongst many other things, that reinforces the sense of Cliff’s ultimate entombment).”

From Adrian Danks’ review for Senses of Cinema

[youtube]hPj9InfMGGg[/youtube]

Michael Walker, quoted on this Russell Metty tribute page, goes so far as to suggest that Metty’s contribution is what distinguishes the film’s visual depth, even from other Sirk films. He does this by comparing the visual sense in There’s Always Tomrrow with that of an earlier Sirk film, All I Desire:

“The difference between ‘All I Desire’ [1952-53] and ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’ [1955] in terms of mise-en-scène is not the compositions – Sirk’s visual sense is equally stunning in both movies – but the lighting. Whereas Carl Guthrie in ‘All I Desire’ executes Sirk’s shots faultlessly, Metty in ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’ transforms them, with his nuances of lighting, into dazzling examples of a cameraman’s art.”

Douglas Sirk biography on Senses of Cinema Great Directors site

Oscar Predictions

for the fifth year I’m running the pool on IMDb Classic Film. This time with the help of Google Spreadsheets I’ll be tabulating the results live. Here are my predictions:

Best Motion Picture of the Year 50 pts
Babel (2006): Alejandro González Iñárritu, Steve Golin, Jon Kilik

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role 30 pts
Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role 30 pts
Helen Mirren for The Queen (2006)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role 30 pts
Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls (2006)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role 30 pts
Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls (2006)

Best Achievement in Directing 30 pts
Martin Scorsese for The Departed (2006)

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen 20 pts
Little Miss Sunshine (2006): Michael Arndt

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published 20 pts
The Departed (2006): William Monahan

Best Achievement in Cinematography 20 pts
Children of Men (2006): Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Achievement in Editing 20 pts
Babel (2006): Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione

Best Achievement in Art Direction 15 pts
Laberinto del Fauno, El (2006): Eugenio Caballero, Pilar Revuelta

Best Achievement in Costume Design 15 pts
Marie Antoinette (2006): Milena Canonero

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score 20 pts
The Queen (2006): Alexandre Desplat

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song 20 pts
An Inconvenient Truth (2006): Melissa Etheridge(“I Need To Wake Up”)

Best Achievement in Makeup 15 pts
Laberinto del Fauno, El (2006): David Martí, Montse Ribé

Best Achievement in Sound 15 pts
Dreamgirls (2006): Michael Minkler, Bob Beemer, Willie D. Burton

Best Achievement in Sound Editing 15 pts
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006): Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman

Best Achievement in Visual Effects 15 pts
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006): John Knoll, Hal T. Hickel, Charles Gibson, Allen Hall

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year 20 pts
Cars (2006): John Lasseter

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year 20 pts
The Lives of Others / Leben der Anderen, Das (2006)(Germany)

Best Documentary, Features 20 pts
An Inconvenient Truth (2006): Davis Guggenheim

Best Documentary, Short Subjects 10 pts
The Blood of Yingzhou District (2006): Ruby Yang, Thomas Lennon

Best Short Film, Animated 10 pts
The Little Matchgirl (2006): Roger Allers, Don Hahn

Best Short Film, Live Action 10 pts
West Bank Story (2005): Ari Sandel

A nos amours (1983, Maurice Pialat)

screened Monday February 19 2007 on Criterion DVD in Brooklyn NY IMDb

Maurice Pialat, you are a virus that infects your cast and crew, your films, your viewers.

Well, anything goes all of the time
Everything you dream of
Is right in front of you
And everything is a lie

Look me in the eye
And tell me that I’m satisfed
Look me in the eye
Unsatisfied
I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied
I’m so dissatisfied
I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied
I’m so unsatisfied
Well, I’m-a
I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied
I’m so dissatis,dissattis…
I’m so

The Replacements

Random thoughts:

- I think the extras DVD on this film is possibly the best Pialat primer in existence and one of the valuable set of extras to be found in any Criterion package. A feature doc on the film and its reputation, a moving interview with Sandrine Bonnaire, two admiring interviews on Pialat with Catherine Breillat and Jean-Paul Gorin, and best of all, audition footage that gives you a taste of what a volcano of salt and vinegar Pialat must have been like on the set.

- The film itself – not quite as great as Van Gogh in my opinion, perhaps because I didn’t watch it as closely… but something about the domestic scenes struck me as a bit off, or not as layered as his best work.

- The much feted dinner scene — more interesting to read or hear about than to watch — it felt like the climax of dinner mystery theatre to me. Sorry, but I have to call it as I see it.
- But that dimple scene — Priceless. Quintessential Pialat — fast on its feet, brilliance here and gone in a flash. And much more nuanced and alive than Robert DeNiro’s disgusting riff in Cape Fear.

- Bonnaire’s acting debut – YES. Pialat lucked out big time.

- Pialat’s acting debut – YES. Pialat lucked out big time.

- this won the Cesar for Best Picture the same year that Terms of Endearment won the Oscar. Talk about a study in cultural contrasts…

- Rock on, Nick Pinkerton – go ahead and touch that live wire!
- And please people, no more comparisons to Cassavetes – the man deserves his own space to be understood, DAMMIT!

yes (#6 for 1983 between TRADING PLACES :shrug: and PAULINE AT THE BEACH)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957, Jack Arnold)

screened Monday, February 19 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY IMDb
This film is a study in phases of cinematic storytelling, reflecting different stages of a man’s progressive stages of physical degeneration and spirtual evolution. Once it gets past the talkative, expository setup, there’s some rather compelling dramatic scenes where a surprisingly emotive Grant Williams plays out an impressive range of male frustration over his shrinkage. As his character becomes so small that he literally falls out of the view of his wife and friends, the male melodrama gives way to a more purely cinematic and action-packed storytelling mode, only intermittently intruded upon by his voice-over; human ego fulfillment gives way to sheer survivalism, battling against a cat and a spider. But even after those challenges have been surmounted, they are proven to be Pyrrhic victories… and then the film elides into an ending of unexpected transcendental splendor [spoilers]:
[youtube]oH88FM4WaUQ[/youtube]

I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet – like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

YES (#7 for 1957 between A KING IN NEW YORK and WHAT’S OPERA, DOC?)

Next »