September 2007

Toronto / New York Film Festival reviews on House Next Door and Slant

Press screenings have started in New York – great to see people like Ed Gonzalez, Keith Uhlich, Filmbrain, Vadim Rizov and S.T. von Airsdale from The Reeler, Sam Adams, Manohla Dargis, Amy Taubin, Steve Erickson, Jared Rapfogel, and who knows who else I don’t recognize all in one screening room!

This year I’m writing reviews for both Slant Magazine and The House Next Door.  As much time as it has taken this past weekend, I’m really enjoying writing them.  I already have five reviews up, including three of the films I saw at TIFF:

Slant:

The Man from London (Bela Tarr)

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong)

Useless (Jia Zhang-ke)

The House Next Door (also being cross-linked to Zoom In Online:

New films by Peter Hutton and Robert Beavers from the Views from the Avant Garde Program

Go-Go Tales (Abel Ferrara)

Tomorrow evening — The Flight of the Red Balloon!

Once (2006, John Carney)

screened Thursday September 21 2007 at the Landmark Sunshine, New York City IMDb

With apologies to Bujalski, Swanberg and especially Filmbrain (I’m going to watch LOL ASAP, ISOMMG), I sheepishly admit that I haven’t seen any of the mumblecore movies as of yet (I was really swamped when they came to IFC not long ago).  But Once strikes me as having pretty much all of the essential qualities of an exemplary mumblecore movie: an acting style that mixes awkward attempts at connection with disarming moments of unexpected camaraderie; grainy handheld video that alternates between being unattractively amateurish and bracingly direct in capturing moments of real-time splendor; and an overall ethos of unabashed emoting, in this instance a sincere yearning to resolve the equally seductive emotions of heartbreak and optimism.  The highpoints for me are the first number performed by the two leads (Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova, both wonderful) and the extended rehearsal sequence; they both have an authenticity to them that transcends the rather stereotypical storyline framed around them, thanks to the fly-in-the-wall camerawork and some resourceful editing.  The performances are as winning as they are unpolished.  Personally I think you have to be really good to pull off something that seems as simple as this.

yes

Tarr-ed and Feathered in Minneapolis

I’ve been pretty swamped with things to do following my getaway to Toronto (which explains why I haven’t responded to any comments in the past couple of weeks, though I am certainly grateful to hear from everyone), but I did steal a moment today to visit my old haunt the IMDb Classic Film, where I was delighted to read my friend Antonius Block’s detailed report of Bela Tarr’s decidedly cantankerous appearance at the beginning of a retrospective of his work at the Walker Art Center. Sounds like Howard Feinstein played the unhappy foil for Tarr’s contrarian genius act. I will say that Tarr was more ingratiating during the audience Q&A at the screening of The Man From London in Toronto that I attended, though he did seem rather wizened and melancholy compared to when I saw him at the MoMA four years ago… Anyway, here’s Antonius’s report:

There’s a scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. in which two mysterious figures known as the Castigliani brothers impose upon a casting decision in young, hotshot director Adam Kesher’s newest film. “This is the girl,” they tell him with deadpan finality, pointing to an unknown actress’ photo-resume. The focus of the scene is not, however, on the message being relayed, but on a cup of coffee. One of the brothers, who drinks espresso, is notoriously difficult to please, requiring a production assistant to heavily research the finest espressos in the world and choose a blend that is certain to satisfy the man. Nervously, the waiter brings him the espresso upon his request, goes back to fetch a napkin, takes a step back, and everyone in the room holds their collective breath as the Castigliani brother raises the cup, extends his pinky, sips, tastes, and then – inevitably – squints terribly and proceeds to let the contents drain out of his mouth onto the napkin, letting out only a single word: “Sh*t.”

This scene gushed back into my mind on Friday night as critic Howard Feinstein nervously conversed with Bela Tarr about his work at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. Much like the production assistant whose task of pleasing the Castigliani brother’s request for espresso is relatively impossible, Feinstein’s dubious honor of attempting to talk about Tarr’s work and get the acclaimed filmmaker to agree with even a single point he made was destined to fail, through no fault of his own. Just as the scene in Mulholland Dr. is ostensibly about a casting decision which gets turned into a surreal moment as the focus shifts to the tension revolving around pleasing a disagreeable man, the entire evening became less about Tarr’s work than it was filled with a palpable tension which itself became the focus, as Feinstein squirmed, stuttered, and struggled to find any common ground with Tarr, who seemed determined to grandly disagree on every single detail, no matter how petty.

The evening began on the right note, with a screening of Tarr’s magnificent 5-minute short film Prologue, an aptly titled single-shot extraordinaire that I’ve long felt is the perfect introduction to his work, ever since it premiered as part of the omnibus film Visions of Europe a few years back. Both socially engaged and aesthetically distinguished, it effectively summarizes his personal vision of the world: his concern for truth and the reality of the people around him, the human dignity he sees inside everyone, and a precise aesthetic – composed of long tracking shots, hypnotic music, and unadorned black-and-white footage – that uniquely identifies his work.

When Feinstein attempted to point out as much, after this clip or after several others, Tarr would, at best, turn to us and say, “There is just one thing I have to say,” and proceed to tell us something vague about his care for human dignity or the continuity of psychology (his term); at worst, he would flat out shake his head and tell Feinstein he needs to watch the movie again. At times Tarr would single out a word Feinstein had used – that the people he chooses to focus on are “marginalized,” that the father in Family Nest is an “autocrat,” that the hospital raid in Werckmeister Harmonies leads to a moment that is “metaphysical” – and tell us how much he did not like these words, placing them on an imaginary taboo list. Curiously, Tarr himself bandied about the word “ontological” in discussing Werckmeister, and more than once referred to other films of his as being like “film noir;” the kinds of words or allusions that I suspect Tarr would have vehemently rejected had Feinstein suggested them.

At his most obtuse, Tarr tried to argue that the hospital raid in Werckmeister that comes to a halt upon the image of the frail, naked man, a scene in which Feinstein suggested contains an element of the metaphysical, stops not because of anything metaphysical but because there is a physical wall behind the man and so they have to turn back. Feinstein, who politely suggested he should play devil’s advocate to this notion, asked Tarr if the swelling music starts up at this point also because they have run into a wall. Finally, Tarr admitted that yes, they stop because anyone who has any ounce of humanity in them could not go forward and destroy something that is already essentially destroyed, although he also qualified this by adding that this is how he wishes to see the world.

Feinstein, looking humiliated and trying to retain his own dignity in an unenviable position, got to the point where, even while introducing clips from Tarr’s work with the most basic, conservative comments, would quickly glance over at Tarr after each piece of information that could conceivably be disagreed with, finding a temporary reprieve if he could even get an approval on factual information – which most of the time he didn’t. Mentioning that Satantango was seven hours or seven and one half hours, he looked to Tarr who solemnly stated, “It is 7 hours and 15 minutes.” Or while introducing Damnation, which Feinstein claimed was from 1988, Tarr humorlessly corrected him that it was from 1987, a discrepancy which led to the biggest laugh of the night:

Feinstein: “Well it was made in 1987, but wasn’t it relea–”

Tarr: (cutting him off) “No, it is from 1987.”

Feinstein: “So much for using IMDb.com for my information.”

Tarr: (boisterous) “IMDb.com is sh*t!”

Tarr proceeded to tell us about something he had read about The Man from London that was listed by IMDb that was incorrect, which I didn’t quite get, but his remark was one of the few light moments of the evening that managed to puncture through the mounting tension. Later, when Feinstein opened the floor up to the audience, several questions were qualified by audience members with a “I swear I didn’t read this on IMDb, but I’ve heard…,” or a “Anyway, say whatever you’re going to say.” One question, which I was considering asking him myself, was asked virtually the same exact way I had considered putting it: “I’ve heard that you consider the constraints of 35mm reels to be a form of censorship, and I’m curious what your thoughts are on new technologies like high-definition digital video and whether you would ever considering using them.” The answer to that being a decided ‘no,’ that digital video is fine for those who want to use it, but it is not film, and should not be called or considered the same thing. A digital video-maker is not a filmmaker as he does not work on celluloid, which has a very different quality than digital video, according to Tarr. But he was humble enough to qualify his own opinion with a, “But perhaps I am just too old to embrace something new.”

All in all, this evening was more frustrating than enlightening. On the one hand, one might conclude from this that Tarr – who perhaps unconsciously channeled some of the things Tarkovsky had argued in Sculpting in Time (such as the importance of honestly transmitting one’s personal worldview rather than concerning oneself with how an audience will interpret it) – rejects much of the critical establishment’s mode of interpreting his work. But personally, I can’t shake the feeling that he was just being deliberately contradictory, which makes me feel unsure about taking what he did say at face value.

My Brother’s Wedding (1983, Charles Burnett)

screened Saturday September 15 2007 at the IFC Center, New York IMDb

From my friend Will:
“I saw My Brother’s Wedding on Friday at IFC and
Charles Burnett was there to introduce it. What an
incredibly humble, funny, gentle, smart guy. The movie
was interesting and funny, though (and he mentioned
this in his comments) the use of nonprofessional
actors was not as seamless as in Killer of Sheep… he
basically said that it takes a lot of time to work
with them, since they don’t bring their own plan to
the table, like professional actors. There was this
weird artificial feeling, like people were reading
their lines, that was a little distracting, even if it
was there on purpose.”

My reply
“Funny, Cindi and I saw My Brother’s Wedding last Saturday and we had a nice chat with Charles Burnett afterwards. At this point I have no reservations with calling Killer of Sheep my favorite American film of all time, so it was a real privilege and honor to meet him, and you’re right, he is such a soft-spoken and thoughtful man. In my interactions in the filmmaking community I’ve been inclined to believe that such gentle personalities can’t make it in such an aggressive, competitive environment, so his success (artistic at least) is really a cause for celebration and source of inspiration. He and his editor were talking about their new film which was shot in Africa (Namibia I think is the title) and is just now making the festival rounds.

Regarding the acting, I’m inclined to deem it a product of the limited resources he had, not just in terms of the non-actors he had to work with but also limited time. He shot Killer of Sheep over a year’s worth of weekends so he probably had a more relaxed pace with which to rehearse and get satisfactory takes. From what it sounds like, he was under pressure to get the film done within a deadline set by his German financiers, which eventually led to a 120 minute rough cut that became the final version for its short-lived inital release. Only through the recent funding of Milestone was he finally able to edit the film down from an HD master transfer of the original rough cut. (I wonder if he would have liked to have reclaimed some of the negative footage that didn’t make the rough cut).

But back to the acting – if one wants to describe it favorably, one could say there’s an almost cubist quality to the performances, like these figures seem to stand a little bit in contradistinction from their environs and the forced manner in which they enunciate their lines serves to underscore their innate qualities as individuals. You get this kind of affectation in filmmakers like Bresson and Straub/Huillet (not sure if Burnett studied them in film school). There was some of this affect to the performances in Killer of Sheep as well, though perhaps it was less conspicuous because Killer of Sheep is unusual in so many other respects that the acting just seems like one of several stylistic iconoclasms. It’s apparent to me that with My Brother’s Wedding he’s starting to inch towards a more conventional/commercial-friendly film language, a trend which becomes more obvious when you see his later films. In this light, Killer of Sheep really stands out as an unfiltered work of genius.”

yes (#6 for 1983 between Trading Places and A Nos Amours)

Ten from Toronto from top to bottom

I’ll try to write more about these titles in some format somewhere… in the meantime…

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Christian Mingu) – believe the hype. Best written, best acted, best directed film I saw at TIFF.

2. Useless (Jia Zhangke) – of his films so far this is perhaps the lightest on its feet, but by no means lightweight — a fascinating, shape-shifting look at the clothing industry in China that overturns your expectations every half hour.
3. Profit motive and the whispering wind (John Gianvito) – a conceptually simple and unexpectedly moving meditation on 400 years of of social progress in America (and by proxy, the world), visualized chiefly with shots of the gravesites of nearly 100 martyrs and activists across the country.

4. Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong) Cindi and I talked about this film more than any of the others. I have plenty of misgivings about the bad behavior-riven second half but the first half is a near flawless set-up. The acting is superb.

5. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin) one of Maddin’s more laudable efforts, containing some of the most inspired false memories of any personal documentary.

6. Eat For This is My Body (Michelange Quay) shockingly audacious visionary trip through a post-colonial Haiti of the mind.

7. The Princess of Nebraska (Wayne Wang and Richard Wong) – Wang’s attempt to understand contemporary Chinese America has a youthful infusion of energy thanks to Wong’s often inventive cinematography.

8. Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase) – Wonderfully observant first half gives way to less inspired and plot-driven second half. Acting is really great though.

9. The Man from London (Bela Tarr) – Tarr’s long takes are luxuriously sinuous as always, but film feels insubstantial given its genre trappings and lack of layers.

10. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wayne Wang) – good intentions, mediocre execution.

Last year Toronto was a revelatory funhouse; this year it was a welcome relief from the pressures of my current life and a much stronger signal that I need to steer my life to allow for more exposure to such environments. I really need to be involved in the world of professional cinephilia on a deeper level than I am now. In any event it was great to see many friends and acquaintances again — I was especially glad to meet for the first time: my longtime festivals editor Michelle Carey of Senses of Cinema, Adam Nayman of Eye Weekly, Girish Shambu of his much-feted namesake blog, Sean Axemaker of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and others I’m probably forgetting…

Tickets to TIFF – what I’ll be watching in only 3 days’ time

Cindi and I will be there from Saturday through Monday. Here’s what we definitely have tickets for. Admittedly a lot of this will be playing at NYFF but not a whole lot else really intrigued me:

Saturday:
Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase)
Man from London (Bela Tarr)
Useless (Jia Zhangke)

we’re also going to try to get into the Wavelengths program with new films by Ken Jacobs, John Gianvito and the final Straub-Huillet.

Sunday:
Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)

Monday is currently open. I was considering doing my 12-mile marathon training run this morning, but in all likelihood I’ll end up trying to catch 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or hanging out with people I wouldn’t have the chance to see otherwise.

anyway if you’ll be around shoot me a line if you’d like to meet up – alsolikelife@gmail.com

934. Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges) – video essay

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934. Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges)

screened Wednesday August 23 2007 on Criterion DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #844 IMDb

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Opinions vary as to whether this late Preston Sturges work (the second of three box office flops that effectively ended his career) merits inclusion among his masterpieces from the early half of the 1940s. Those (like myself) who cherish what Manny Farber called “the high-muzzle velocity” of his films may be frustrated by the relatively staid pacing of the proceedings, characterized by set-bound, dialogue-heavy, almost television-like long takes. Instead of his famously free-wheeling exchanges among a democratic array of vivid characters, Sturges focuses squarely on an imperious orchestra conductor played by Rex Harrison (in a suitably high-toned performance that’s more admirable than likeable). As Harrison’s Sir Alfred de Carter ponders the rumored infidelity of his wife (Linda Darnell, whose characteristic vapidity is put to intriguing use), the proceedings are reflected through his increasingly paranoid mind; if Sturges was the Shakespeare of screwball comedy, this is undoubtedly his Othello.

While the occasionally grating barrage of Harrison’s declamatory put-downs against those around him is but one liability of Sturges’ subjective character focus, it also results in a personal breakthrough of unprecedented interiority. The payoff is a 25 minute tour de force sequence in which de Carter conducts three orchestral pieces while his mind conceives three corresponding revenge fantasies, each vividly different in tone and moral resolution. Timed perfectly to the action, the soundtrack is a landmark in simultaneous diegetic/non-diegetic sound – simultaneously it is the music de Carter is performing and the music playing in his fantasies, expressing every nuance of his emotions. That his thoughts and the music so perfectly harmonize underscore his mastery of the medium, while also setting up a sharp contrast with his near-total disharmony with everything around him: first with his friends and family whom he regards with increasing distrust, then, in a painfully funny slapstick sequence, the household objects he attempts to utilize to enact his revenge fantasy. As a poignant study in a master of the arts’ loss of mastery over life, this film can’t help but resonate with Sturges, who by this point was losing his prodigious gifts for writing vividly cinematic vivisections of society, relegating himself to a bittersweet portrait of one man’s losing battle against solipsism.

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Video essay for 933. Evil Dead 2 (1987, Sam Raimi)

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933. Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi)

screened Sunday August 19 2007 on Image DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #783 IMDb

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In his follow-up to the Evil Dead (aka the quintessential film school horror movie), Sam Raimi and his immensely resourceful crew approach basically the same premise (Bruce Campbell & co. holed up in a cabin vs. zombies and assorted supernatural bullies) with ten times the budget. As a result the shock effects are more audacious and less crudely executed, though without losing the punky, do-it-yourself spirit of the original. At the same time, the possibly unintentional campiness of the first installment is now presented outright as a point of departure for a frontal assault on the line demarcating comedy and horror.

Critical to the formula is sheer overabundance: an exhausting array of round-the-corner scare tactics shot from every angle; ample moments of explosive physical comedy eliciting hysterical reactions to death and dismemberment; gallons of blood poured, squirted and splattered across the screen; and Campbell’s exaggerated reactions to all of the above. All of this is done to whiplash pacing fueled by the prodigious ingenuity of the creators’ perversions. The film itself plays like a blenderized cocktail of Three Stooges, Tex Avery, George Romero, Dario Argento (the film’s climax references Wizard of Oz, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi), but in turn its visceral effects have left their traces in Johnnie To’s Heroic Trio to Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, and many many films in between and since.

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