February 2008

We love Bae Doo-na; how ’bout you?

Michael Kerpan informs me that the 2006 article he and I had hocked unsuccessfully around the film magazine circuit before finding a home at Subway Cinema is no longer on Subway’s site. So I’m re-adopting it here for anyone’s enjoyment This article dates from before the release of The Host (which didn’t offer the big breakthrough role we were hoping it would for lovely Doo-na, but was a thrilling movie all the same). Michael can probably fill us in on our lady’s career since then (I haven’t seen or heard anything in the past year)…

We love Bae Doo-na (even if Korea doesn’t)

by Kevin B. Lee and Michael Kerpan

 

Like a rat I want to be beautiful

Because there is a beauty that cannot be photographed.”

- the opening lines of The Blue Hearts’ “Linda Linda Linda”

 

It may sound offensive to describe Bae Doo-na – possibly the most talented young actress in the world – as being beautiful like a rat. It certainly does nothing to capture her obvious charms: expressive eyes seemingly stenciled from a manga comic, supermodel-length limbs, a moon-shaped face poised to blossom into a smile with enough electricity to light up the Inchon peninsula. But beneath her beguiling exterior lies a persona that’s as paradoxical as a beautiful rat. In her newest film, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda (2005), she’s a Korean exchange student recruited as a novice vocalist for a Japanese high school band. On the day of the big show, she performs the title song with hair bedraggled by a rainstorm from which she just escaped, her pale, unadorned face squinting into harsh auditorium lights. Her hands clutching the microphone like a lifeline, she belts the song out awkwardly yet defiantly, straining to project each word in an alien tongue. And yes, she’s utterly beautiful. Continue Reading »

I’m not sure if I should link to this…

but if you want to hear what I’m like on Oscar night after three cocktails, a beer and three bourbon shots, here’s a sampling from a post-Oscar roundtable podcast conducted at Keith Uhlich’s pad. I don’t think I could sustain a thought beyond two sentences… though I remember making an insight on Robert Elswit and the cinematographic integrity of the long shot in There Will Be Blood, that, sadly, didn’t make the final cut of the podcast…

It was a lot of fun at the moment, but listening to this now, with this in the back of my mind, makes me cringe at what a film geek I am…

i love how they gave him a free beer at the end

This film critic actually gets paid to flaunt his film illiteracy?

I grew up in San Francisco reading the film reviews of Mick LaSalle. He’s reviewed films for The Chronicle for the last 20 years, writes in a pleasing, conversational tone, and his taste in films is respectable if not adventurous. At least that was my opinion until recently, when my brother forwarded me this rather embarrassing article cum confessional in which LaSalle admitted to having not seen several canonical American films and then proceeded to review a few of them for the first time. In light of the project of this blog – as well as the fact that LaSalle was one of the film critics I looked up to in my youth – I felt it necessary to comment.

First, here’s a couple of key paragraphs from the article in which LaSalle defends his having not seen recognized classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey (all of which I had seen by the time I graduated college):

Film critics see a lot of movies. But most film critics actually like movies, so that’s not so bad. In my leisure hours, I often watch movies, but those leisure hours are precious, so when I do watch a movie, it has to be something I really want to see. There are plenty of classics that I want to see, plenty that I’m excited to see, but then there are titles that seem merely obligatory – and it’s very easy to postpone seeing the obligatory ones, and to keep postponing them indefinitely.

There’s another thing. Everyone who watches movies prefers one genre or actor over another. Critics are no different, but just in the course of doing our work, we end up seeing movies in all genres. I’m not particularly fond of action movies, but I’ve given lots of good reviews to action movies, simply because I can tell a good one from a bad one. But that doesn’t mean that, in my leisure time, I’d put on a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin picture. Likewise, if science fiction isn’t a favorite, you could easily end up going years before strapping yourself into a seat to sit through “2001: A Space Odyssey” – especially if you’ve been warned by just about everyone (including people who like it) that it’s the most boring movie on earth.

His arguments here strike me as fairly reasonable – it’s safe to say that every cinephile has their own blindspots. Last summer, in the wake of the brouhaha surrounding Jonathan Rosenbaum’s diss of the late Ingmar Bergman, Rosenbaum admitted to not having seen one of Bergman’s most lauded works, Fanny and Alexander. (He later corrected that oversight, though he was unimpressed by the film). There were definitely phases that I’ve experienced where I would avoid – consciously or unconsciously – a certain film or a director’s work as it seemed that I had already absorbed all that I needed to know about it from second hand sources. But sooner or later I’d get around to seeing it, whether out of a sense of completist duty or compulsion, a feeling that many cinephiles out there know too well. I’m just surprised that Mick LaSalle isn’t one of them. When we think of our favorite film critics, how much do we assume that they have a certain breadth of literacy, that they’ve seen all the films we think they need to see to have an informed opinion on any given film? And just what are those films and how many of them are there? Would it be the AFI 100 American films? Or the top 100 from They Shoot Pictures?

And if breadth of movie viewing is an issue, then how about depth? LaSalle picked five classics that he neglected to watch and review for the first time. Here’s a sampling of his comments:

“To Kill a Mockingbird” strikes me as a movie classic that has outlived its shelf life and is maintaining its classic status based on false memory and reputation.

“Young Frankenstein” (1974): As is typical of Mel Brooks, this movie is a mix of dumb jokes that aren’t funny, dumb jokes that are funny and brilliant, inspired bits that are classic and nothing can diminish them.

“An Affair to Remember” (1957): I liked this a lot more than I thought I would, and it was not quite the sappy indulgence that I expected.

“Blade Runner” (1982): I never saw “Blade Runner” when it was in theaters because I wasn’t much of a sci-fi fan, and I didn’t see it later because I didn’t know what version to see. Having consulted aficionados, I decided to watch the latest version, which people tell me is the best. It’s an excellent movie, and if I were reviewing it I’d have to give it the highest rating. At the same time, it’s not what I look for in entertainment, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it so much as intellectually appreciate its virtues. It’s eerie, beautiful to behold and an impressively realized imaginative universe.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968): virtually unwatchable, a boring, impenetrable experience that I’m glad to finally have behind me.

His opinions notwithstanding, what strikes me is the level of insight – these look like comments one would typically find left by users on the film profiles of IMDb. Really, anyone can perform this level of film criticism. So what’s to distinguish LaSalle as a leading film critic in one of the largest metropolitan areas of the U.S.?

It’s sad, because there are lots of great critics around the country who are losing their jobs in this current wave of mainstream media consolidation and syndication – and a critic like LaSalle is not helping their case. What’s just as sad is that, while you can find thousands of amateur film reviewers on the web who could give you as interesting a review as LaSalle’s, there is also a much smaller and more outstanding number of hardworking and thoughtful young critics whose writings you can find by the bushels online, who have seen these and probably dozens more films than LaSalle had at their age (doubly sad given that by my calculation LaSalle wasn’t even 30 when he got the Chronicle gig), who are more than willing to watch anything and everything (and give a damn about it) and are therefore more qualified to do his job. I’m sorry to call LaSalle out on this, but frankly he did it to himself with this arrogant confession.

Graphics are of the “Little Man” whose various states of reaction accompany each film and theater review in The Chronicle.

random primary prognostication statistic from the New York Public Library

number of holds in the NYPL online catalog for Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: 148

number of holds for Obama’s The Audacity of Hope: 120

number of holds for Hillary Clinton’s Living History: 0

Video Essay for 907 (48) The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang) with guest commentary by Girish Shambu

Special thanks to Girish for his insightful participation in this video essay:

907 (48). The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang)

screened Wednesday January 16 2007 on MGM DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #654 IMDb Wiki

Edward G. Robinson scampers like a lab rat through a maze-like noir narrative, written by Nunnally Johnson and envisioned by Fritz Lang as a twisted moral experiment in male self-actualization. When Robinson’s middle-aged college professor meets a dream image of a woman in the flesh (Joan Bennett), it’s a subtle tip-off that his subsequent dalliance with infidelity is largely a projection of his suppressed desires and fears come to life (underscored – with perhaps a bit too much emphasis – by the twist ending). Every moment that follows indulges testosterone fantasies of violence, sex, and evading the eye of authority, as well as countervailing fears of shame, punishment and public ruination. Robinson is marvelously self-contained in his display of neuroses, leaving Lang to express the desperate fatefulness of his protagonist through an elaborate mise-en-scene of clocks, mirrors, doorways and windows. Perhaps the most expressive and entrancing narrative signifier is Bennett’s performance, which draws from multiple personae – gamine, whore, damsel in distress – to register Robinson’s evolving disposition towards her.

Want to go deeper? Continue Reading »

Valentine’s Day with Jonathan Demme and Harold and Maude

The Demme-heads at The House Next Door asked if I could videotape Demme giving the intro to Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, which was Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Young Friends of Film’s way of celebrating Valentine’s Day:

Video Essay for 906 (47). Tobacco Road (1941, John Ford)

Full entry on film here

906 (47). Tobacco Road (1941, John Ford)

Note: Tobacco Road screens Saturday February 16 at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of the Museum’s ongoing Ford at Fox retrospective.

screened Wednesday February 6 2008 on Fox DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #727 IMDb

Video essay

Expectations were high for John Ford’s screen adaptation of what, at the time, was one of Broadway’s most successful stage plays. The film was a flop; while it, alongside The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, formed a trilogy commemorating the everyday struggles of the working classes, the bawdy hick tenor of Tobacco Road couldn’t be further removed from the dignified grandeur of those two Oscar-winning classics. In Grapes and Valley, Ford strives to lift the working man from the soil and exalt his persevering human spirit; in Tobacco Road Ford seems gleefully insistent in rubbing his characters’ faces in the dirt – in fact, the wanton Gene Tierney is caught literally writhing in the ground in an attempt to nibble on her brother-in-law’s radish (literally and perhaps figuratively).

Central to the spirit and tone of Tobacco Road is Charley Grapewin’s oversalted performance as Jeeter Lester, in which his wheezy Roscoe P. Coltrane-esque ramblings outdo Walter Brennan for beef jerkiness. (When my high school history teacher screened The Grapes of Wrath to our class, he paused on a frame of Grapewin as Pa Joad to remark how the actor deserved a citation for worst scenery-chewing in what he otherwise considered a masterpiece). Even Ford biographer Joseph MacBride laments the film’s condescending hick vaudeville as an embarrassment to Ford’s career, particularly in its performances: “William Tracy’s hideous screeching as the moronic Dude Lester and the embarrassing spectacle of Ward Bond and Gene Tierney writhing toward each other in the dirt to convey sexual passion are among the lowest points in Ford’s oeuvre.”

And yet amidst this grating crudity lies some of Ford’s most interesting work. The redneck shenanigans of rock chucking, radish chawing and grand theft jalopy give way to occasional moments of grace, when the characters take a moment to wonder at the immense inscrutability of their outcast fates, with Ford bathing them in multiple layers of light and shadow, giving their characters visual dimensions that their limited thought and speech couldn’t take them. The rhythm of the film is littered with unexpected shifts of tones – in one remarkable sequence the film goes from comedy to social melodrama to lyrical romance to slapstick. There’s a rangy freedom in this film that seems to blow raspberries at the exalted impeccability of The Grapes of Wrath and especially How Green Was my Valley. His achievements are limited by Max Steiner’s rather obvious score, that draws thick pencil underlines to every shade of mood that Ford establishes.

Ultimately for me the film raises questions about just what is the “best” way to make a movie about the poor – a line of inquiry that I think are implied in Ford’s direction. Whether he’s struggling with finding the right level from which to regard his proletarian subjects (highbrow? lowbrow? anywhere but the mediocre middle), or deliberately issuing their bad behavior as a provocation against propriety, Tobacco Road is nothing if not dull. As he would do later with The Quiet Man, Donovan’s Reef and many other films, Ford constructs a micro-community with its own set of logic and customs, that can come off as either charmed or obnoxious, sometimes both at once.

Want to go deeper?

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