July 2007

Video Essay for 924. The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

On the 41st anniversary of the death of Montgomery Clift. With special guest commentator Cindi!

PS: “Shoot his right profile!”

Me and the ex-Mayor, fellow film critics

Last week I had the honor of interviewing former Mayor Ed Koch, on the occasion of the release of his new book Buzz: How to Create it and Win With It, published by the company I work for. Hizzoner is still spry and charming at 82 and offered an animated interview mostly regaling his thoughts on managing one’s public persona.

He eagerly shared one of his current endeavors: writing movie reviews. He distributes them through email as well as through The Villager, a weekly publication out of Lower Manhattan. Perusing the archive of reviews, I found them pretty off-the-wall at times, and it became interesting to compare my reactions to his. Some choice pull quotes:

Once:

This film wasn’t Irish enough for me, but it is good and will have to do until the next one is made which I will rush to see. I saw it at the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street in Manhattan. The majority of the people in the audience, mostly in their 20s and 30s, applauded when it ended. I snapped my fingers.

Lady Chatterley:

When I was in high school, the pornographic novel that was supposed to be a sex manual was “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D. H. Lawrence. But the book was not available to us, because the post office would not allow it to enter the country. So we just thought about it and imagined the carnal scenes. A boy’s imagination is incredible, especially when his hormones are surging.

As for the film itself: “There is lots of sex and female and male full frontal nudity, but the film is so static, so innocent, so lacking decadence, it was a huge disappointment.”

28 Weeks Later:

Save your money. The movie is absurd and totally devoid of any pleasure or insight. For the $11 admission price, you can buy a good meal in Chinatown and have a far more interesting evening.

(Hear hear! At least about the Chinatown part.)

Children of Men (one of my favorites of last year)::

“I found the entire exercise unbelievable and the unending battle scenes between the Army and the revolutionaries finally became boring. This is a sci-fi film and the pictorials are fine, but the script and dialogue leave much to be desired. I don’t recommend it to you.”

Battle in Heaven (another one of my favorites):

“This is a truly outrageous film, degrading to women and disgusting to men. If it had been made 35 or 40 years ago, I believe the distributors would have been arrested as pornographers for the indecent sex scenes on the screen.

The three principals are Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), his wife (Bertha Ruiz), and his mistress, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz). Marcos and his wife are so fat and disproportionate in body build that they resemble the sculptures of the Latin American artist Botero that were displayed on Park Avenue a number of years ago. As sculptures, they were divine; as real bodies, they are crude, gross, obese, obscene and a total turn-off when it comes to sex. The intimate scenes between the obese couple are almost painful to watch, even to the point of nausea.

I never thought a movie could make coupling distasteful, but this film does. It is porn with pretension, religion trashing, and it appears to excuse kidnapping and accept prostitution.”

Lost in Translation:

“It is hype, pure hype. There is no comparison to the movie it allegedly resembles, Brief Encounter. That movie of over fifty years ago, starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, still resonates with great meaning when its name surfaces. This current movie devoted to loneliness and connecting with another lost soul will not be remembered next year, let alone fifty years later.

Hi five on that last one, Mayor!!!

Choice Cuts: the newest Reverse Shot symposium

The latest edition of the regular series of symposiums from Reverse Shot is now online. Following up from last year’s symposium highlighting memorable single shots in a variety of films, this time they asked writers to focus on a single cut from a film:

“The cut could be anything—a mundane scene transition, a simple invisible shot/ (ahem) reverse shot, a disorienting jump cut, a dissolve, fade—any transition from one shot to another. The difficult part is in the reckoning: Is the cut expressive of an idea or emotion, political or moral standpoint, or is it merely a means of conveyance (with all the conceptual baggage that classical editing implies)? What does this cut tell us about the narrative or the author? What is this cut revealing or eliding?”

It was my pleasure to submit a piece on one of my favorite films, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen. I had also included a video clip of the cut to go with my essay. It didn’t seem to have made the final cut of the symposium, so I’ll embed it here for your reference.

Video Essay for 930. Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie / The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, Wojciech Has)

Text review and webliography

I picked the densest stretch in the film to talk about – it was no picnic but I think it worked out, and I had a little bit of fun with it, as you’ll see:


Transcript available after the break: Continue Reading »

930. Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie / The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, Wojciech Has)

screened July 15 2007 on Image DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #834 IMDb

Commonly referred to as Jerry Garcia’s favorite film (he put up much of the funding for the film’s restoration in the 1990s, but sadly did not live to see its completion), this 1965 adaptation of a precociously formalistic 19th century novel by Jan Potocki is a mindbending succession of people telling stories within other people’s stories, going several layers deep (not counting the fact that the film itself is a cinematic telling of Potocki’s story). Two opposing soldiers make peace when they happen upon a book recounting one of their ancestors’ adventures in Spain, hectored and seduced by a hallucinatory pair of Muslim sisters. This plot thread has an almost tangential bearing for the middle stretch of the film, involving a loquacious gypsy’s convoluted recounting of encounters with other yarn-spinners.

If Potocki’s novel was a playful send-up of the prevailing literary picaresque cliches of its time, one of the pleasures of Has’ film is its irreverent subverting of the period prestige picture (even if it suffers a little bit from the stiff direction endemic to the genre). One may either indulge giddily or else be overwhelmed by the onslaught of aristocratic duels, costume intrigues and chamber seductions, none of which seem to lead to any consequence. If Quentin Tarantino grew up watching Masterpiece Theater nonstop during his formative years, he’d probably make a film like this one. But unlike Tarantino’s better efforts, the characters in Saragossa Manuscript don’t seem to have much of an interior life and function little beyond their caricatured roles to advance the densely convoluted narrative. And while the elaborate design of the story can be puzzled over and savored in hindsight, the act of watching the film fails to entirely satisfy — not merely because it’s nearly impossible to follow upon an initial screening, but because in being wrapped up in its storytelling acrobatics, the characters and moments of the film don’t quite get to breathe. As frustrating as it can be, it offers more than its share of formalist fascinations.

Want to go deeper?

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929. Ceddo (1977, Ousmane Sembene)

screened Sunday July 1 2007 on New Yorker Video VHS in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #576 IMDb

In the same year that George Lucas released Star Wars, Ousmane Sembene, who passed away last month, offered his own tale of rebellion and liberation, depicting a Wolof-speaking African kingdom’s capitulation to Islamic rule. While Lucas’ film made a ton of money and changed mainstream cinema forever, Sembene’s film was banned in its own country, allegedly for misspelling its one-word title — a perversely fitting fate for a film that scrutinizes the politics of language and the erosion of an orally-based culture while under the rule of the Koran. Given the influence of Islam in Senegal, it’s not hard to see how this film was banned, and it would be just as incendiary today if it were to be released (assuming that people would pay attention to an African film not involving Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie).

It’s hard to say for sure whether this film is anti-Islam, as it makes equally dour observations of European colonialism and Catholicism, and most stunning of all, the complicity of Africans in their own subjugation, trading their own children for guns and liquor. The overall vision is one examining and decrying power plays from both without and within that threaten to extinguish the culture of a people. To enact that culture on screen, Sembene uses a unique declamatory style of dramatic dialogue that seems to invert the Straub and Huillet “text to speech” approach; here, following the oral customs of African tradition, speech has the weight of text – that is until the imposition of Islamic rule silences the village under the edict of written law.

Perhaps the film’s most brilliant aspect is its use of anachronistic gospel and other contemporary pan-African music underneath scenes of Africans being forced into slavery or religious conversion, collapsing past and present into one eternally persistent vision of political struggle.  Though the music is vibrant, it does anything but provide catharsis to these scenes of ancestral brutality; if anything the music seems to provide a analytic counterpoint that asks forces viewers to connect the sounds of one era with the silence of another, such that both gain immensely in a highly charged sense of history – not just of a people, but of its capacity to express itself in words and sounds, and the forces that have shaped it over time.  It’s really one of the most unique and provocative uses of movie music I’ve seen.

Featuring its fair share of duels, beat-downs and uprisings, the film in its own way is as action-packed as Star Wars, though its violence – especially the blazing girl power finale that might even get the likes of Tarantino interested in African cinema – is far more unsettling in its implications of what the preservation of African culture today may require.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (1989, Eric Zala)

screened Friday July 6 2007 at Anthology Film Archives, NYC IMDb

It was a sold-out screening at AFA for this legendary video remake of Steven Spielberg’s epic (TSPDT #247), made by director Eric Zala, actor Chris Strompolos and cameraman/FX wizard Jayson Lamb when they were twelve years old and finished seven years later. I think you have to be a fan of the original to appreciate just how much knowledge, meticulousness and sheer enthusiasm these three kids put into their version. And the big revelation for me (other than reaffirming what wonders can be wrought by the largely untapped potential of youth) was just how much appreciation I had for Spielberg’s Raiders. I haven’t seen the film in at least ten years but every single shot in this low-res Betamax remake rang clear as a bell with visual memories that were burned into my memory as surely as that crystal medallion burned into the hand of evil Nazi Toht.

The original Raiders is the second film that I saw on the TSPDT 1000, back in 1981 with my father. I saw it repeatedly on television after that and for years Indiana Jones was my favorite movie character (only to be supplanted upon adolescence by Holly Martins and T.E. Lawrence). My first directing experience was in third grade when I choreographed the opening jungle sequence with three classmates (who I recall eventually mutinied from the production once they realized that I was playing Indiana Jones). When I started taking flights to college, as I packed my luggage I would flash to the image of Indiana tossing his bullwhip and pistol on top of his open suitcase.

What’s beautiful about the adaptation is how in paying tribute to all the little touches, and archetypal images and moments packed into the Spielberg version, it really raises one’s esteem of the original, the intricacy of its construction and the sheer ebullience of its storytelling. Of course the film suffers in its condescending stereotypes towards Middle East culture, which, as much as the film relishes the familiarity of these cliches and playfully tweaks them, makes it a problematic film to regard in today’s context. But it was just great to be reminded of a time when all that you wanted of a movie was to be entertained; on that score the film is overwhelming in its effort to do so.

Ed Halter wrote a great feature on the Raiders Adaptation for the Village Voice.

927. Voyna i mir / War and Peace (1966, Sergei Bondarchuk) – Notes on Part II

screened Thursday June 28 2007 on Image DVD in Weehawken NJ

Read about Part I

Picking up from the scenes of domestic recuperation that concluded the battle-heavy Part I, Part II opens with a triptych shot, recalling Abel Gance’s Napoleon, of Russian and French forces convened to negotiate a truce in 1811.

From there the story swings into a completely different direction: “The actual life of real people, with its concerns of health, sickness, work, rest, and the interest people take in thinking, the sciences, poetry and music, love, friendship, hatred, passion, went on as usual, independently and outside of the political issue of friendship or war with Napoleon Bonaparte.”


Part II is told largely from the point of view of Natasha Rostova, who over the course of 96 minutes goes from being a naive debutante to the dishonored ex-fiancee of Prince Bolonsky. It is a purposeful counterpoint to the masculine-themed narrative of men in war that dominates Part I. Comparatively low key and interior in tone, this section is largely successful in inhabiting a female perspective to early 19th-century aristrocratic Russian life, situated in stately chambers, ballrooms and daily domestic excursions.

Critical to Part II is the performance of Russian ballerina Lyudmila Savelyeva as Natasha Rostova, and she plays her part like a demure variation on Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. She plays her moods broadly, pretty much telegraphing her expressions to the camera, while her voiceover fills in any leftover bits of intrigue concerning her thoughts. Despite its limitations, her transparency becomes one of the charms to her performance, as it enables us to inhabit her sense of wonder and fear towards the world as it opens up to her.

Bondarchuk proves to be as virtuosic in presenting the spectacle of a high society ball as he is with an epic battle, choreographic hundreds of costumed dancers around his camera, while dramatically focusing on Natasha’s anxious debut and introduction to Prince Bolonsky.

Throughout Part II Bondarchuk utilizes split screens to depict parallel action, such as in contrasting the separate conversations of Bolonsky and Natasha with their respective confidantes following their encounter:

Bolonsky and Natasha agree to a one year engagement and Bolonsky goes off to war. There is a long interlude where Natasha takes front and center. She visits her uncle’s rural estate, and here the narrative basically stands still, which might be deadly for some viewers. But it’s worth appreciating what Bondarchuk may be up to here. With long sequences devoted to hunting wolf and folk dancing, there’s an ethnographic bent, as if the film is subtly presenting what is at stake for preservation with all this fighting (even if at this point the war scenes feel as far away as another movie). There’s a remarkable range of moods that pass through this section, largely reflecting the sensation of living in wintry seclusion in the Russian countryside, from festive dances to wistful, slightly melancholy conversations in dark rooms.


These longueurs, as beguiling as they are in their shifting tonal registers, don’t lead to much of anything – eventually Natasha returns to high society, only to be seduced by an officer possibly as a way of disgracing Prince Bolonsky. The ruse works as Bolonsky breaks the engagement. These events turn the film in a more conventional, melodramatic direction towards the end, and the epic begins to resemble more of a stately but perfunctory TV miniseries than as a complex interpretation of Tolstoy.

It still isn’t clear at this point if overall this is largely an overbloated prestige production or a visionary work that integrates its overabundant ideas into a seamless whole. All the same, it is apparent to me that much thought and feeling is invested in this film, scene for scene. There is a stunnng array of cinematographic virtuosity on display, along the lines of a more stately version of Kane/Ambersons-era Welles, reflecting the variety of characters and moods that pass through the screen. And with that, we take it to Part III…

Two New Films for the Fourth of July

Away from Her (2007, Sarah Polley)

screened Wednesday July 4 2007 at the Quad Cinemas, New York NY IMDb

Perhaps the best way to appreciate what’s great about Away From Her is to imagine what it would be like as a Hollywood production, where generic, amber-toned scenes of domestic comfort give way to histrionic displays of private anguish (yeah I know, histronic and private seem contradictory, except where an audience is involved) and melodramatic recriminations shouted in public as droopy-faced nurses and doctors look on.  You’ll find none of this in Sarah Polley’s stunning writing-directing debut.  Even the outdoor scenes of marital happiness are shot in harsh, overexposed daylight.   No conversations feature raised voices, just careful, defensive language where the guilt seems to twist around like a wrought-iron gate.  Julie Christie is all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination for playing a woman whose agency becomes every more mysterious as her Alzheimer’s progresses – her Mona Lisa smile alone carries layers of emotional frailty both alluring and heartbreaking.  But I think Gordon Pinsent carries the film as her steadfast but suffering husband, whose ritualistic visitations are but a helpless forestalling of his own confrontation with his past marital infidelities and neglect, recalling the frail masculinity on display in the best Clint Eastwood films.  The behavior on display is bracingly adult, going way beyond simple morality to both deflate and reinvent notions of true love.    The ending is a bit too ambiguous for its multiple meanings to resonate with clarity, but perhaps a repeat viewing will reveal much more.

YES

Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird)

screened Wednesday July 4 2007 at the Ziegfeld Theater, New York NY IMDb

When a film has you dancing in your seat, what more is there to say?

YES

Manufactured Landscapes (2006, Jennifer Baichwal)

screened Tuesday July 3 2007 at the Film Forum, NYC IMDb

A film of often hypnotic power and unsettling visual beauty, this high-art documentary accompanies photographer Edward Burtynsky on a tour of industrial China. Nothing in the film quite matches the opening, a breathtaking minutes-long tracking shot across an entire cross-section of a Chinese factory floor lined with hundreds of workers. Intentionally or not, the shot can’t help but announce itself as a contemporary update on traditional Chinese scroll painting, surveying the work of so many alienated laborers with a eerily commanding sense of panoptic authority. It’s not entirely satisfying that the film largely prefers to keep its distance from those people, insisting on portraying them as the helpless (and mostly faceless) pawns of capitalism. For the most part, this detached observer schtick is watchable even while hiding, like its subject, behind an “I’m just a messenger” alibi of impartiality. Nevertheless Baichwal and ace cameraman Peter Mettler can’t help but lay in some editorializing, cutting from Burtynsky’s fussy request to move an entire column of workers during an outdoor assembly to enhance his composition to the distressed discussion among one of those columns about their lackluster performance review. In making this contrast the filmmakers also expose the limitations of their own sweeping macro-level scope as they hop from one wasteland site to another.
yes

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