Back in the good old days my brother and I would go to the local cineplex on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and watch as many as five movies in a five hour stretch. Typically we’d see one film in its entirety, bracketed by random snatches of other films that we didn’t pay to watch but were easy enough to sneak into. It was our way of sampling as many movies as we could for our money; the cinematic equivalent of the all-you-can eat Asian buffets that my value-obsessed mother compulsively takes us to.
So when BAM unleashed the latest of what has become an annual tradition, the BamCinematek All Night series, I took it as an opportunity to relive a bit of my moviegoing past – and best of all, I didn’t have to break the law. As part of its sprawling CinemaFest still going on now, BAM opened up all four of its theaters from 11:15 to the early dawn, each playing as many as three features back-to-back. The films were programmed to a different theme for each screen: Diana Ross, Scientologist actors, marijuana-inflected narratives and 2000s arthouse cinema, respectively. Fueled by a 16 oz. Red Bull (pictured below) I spent five hours hopping from one theater to another, just to see what kind of impressions and comparisons would come up. Here’s how it went down (I only wish I had thought sooner to take photos of the screen to illustrate my points):
Screeened June 21 2009 on MGM DVD in Brooklyn, NY
Ingmar Bergman stumbles out of the ’60s, his most creatively expansive and emotionally exhausting period, with one final attempt to channel New Wave stylistic vitality into his foursquare obsessions with individual angst. As with the other entries in his “Island Trilogy” (including Shame and Hour of the Wolf), it’s fractured, dissonant and despairing. The sensual glow of Sven Nykvist’s cinematography (in their first color film) blazes into a vision of apocalypse, rife with animal slaughter, tortured fornication and a marriage verging on homicide.
Max Von Sydow plays an unassuming island yokel who’s emotionally corrupted by three Bergman regulars: his neurotic wife (Liv Ullmann), a neurotic adulteress (Bibi Andersson), and a controlling patriarch (Erland Josephsson). Von Sydow’s slide into a flailing rage at modernity is mirrored by Bergman’s slapdash employment of self-conscious techniques: interviews with the cast about their roles, voiceover narration by the director, a dream sequence explicitly referencing Shame. The interviews are especially unsatisfying, suggesting a dynamic interrogation of the space between actor and performance that’s left largely unexplored.
The film is most successful in its project of mining for the ugly truth when it’s simplest: two extended, soul-baring monologues by Ullmann and Andersson that stare down the camera. These moments complicate Bergman’s characteristic misogyny, daring the viewer to call out these naked displays of emotion as so much female wiliness. They also point to the maturity of the more modest, person-to-person realism awaiting Bergman following his late 60s creative burnout.
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screened Tuesday June 9, 2009 on Warner DVD in Brooklyn, NY
It’s easy to criticize this Western musical comedy retelling of the Rape of the Sabine Women as an unapologetically sexist defense of American Manifest Destiny principles set to song and dance. More interesting is the class logic behind the narrative that drives a band of backwoods brothers to abduct women from a neighboring town to become their spouses. The men, having been trained by their sister-in-law in the ways of civility, first attempt to court these women through the societal ritual of a barnraising. The underhanded trickery of rival courters from the town provoke them to violent outrage. The guileful townsmen represent civilization as corrupt; the resulting abduction of the women amounts a righteous revolt against class abuse. In the end, the two sides are hardly reconciled; the frontier (i.e. the brothers) takes only as much from civilization as it needs (in the form of these women) to perpetuate itself. The abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying resolution of a shotgun mass wedding caused by the perception of widespread fornication is the film’s final raspberry at the laws governing civility.
Given how much the film implicitly doesn’t give a damn about most of civilization, it’s startling to witness Stanley Donen’s scene-for-scene focus on how human beings relate to each other in a given space, physically as well as dramatically. For a film that celebrates the frontier, Donen treats virtually every scene as a closed space; when he utilizes tracking shots to reveal new spaces, it only brings a heightened sense of claustrophobia (as when Jane Powell deflatedly discovers her in-laws, one by one). The brothers’ magnificent frontier house is host to a parade of configurations that explore the dynamic between characters: Powell singing at her bedroom windowsill with husband Howard Keel perched on a nearby tree branch on their wedding night, while the brothers are lingering in the hallway.
In true MGM studio form, there’s no shortage of talent involved: the physically magnificent ensemble; Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s script and Johnny Mercer’s songwriting that do their best to sell frontier chauvinism with ruddy charisma; Cedric Gibbons’ vibrant sets. And of course, the groundbreaking choreography of Michael Kidd, most notably in the immortal barn raising sequence, where he orchestrates an unprecedented display of footstomping physicality into a harmonious symphony of force and grace. But it’s Donen’s endless playfulness with space that animates all these pieces into magical motion.
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Many thanks to Jan Olsson, Professor of Cinema Studies at Stockholm Univeristy, Sweden, for his many insights that contributed to this video.
Click through for the full transcript
Screened June 4 2009 on Criterion DVD in New York, NY
This autobiographically intoned life account of America’s most genteel philanderer amounts to a series of paradoxes: a World War II production touting an unheroic, passive cad; the director who practically invented Hollywood urbane sophistication and suavity applying his trade on quaintly mannered, occasionally rustic Americana; and the famous “Lubitsch Touch” applied so gently here as to be almost touchless. The three paradoxes are linked by Lubitsch’s desire to make a film both celebrating and sending up the moral absurdities of his beloved adopted country while having to toe the puritanical line of the Hays Code. It amounts to a celebration of obliqueness, where the offscreen shenanigans of Don Ameche are perpetually alluded to but never shown, leaving the portrait of this Gilded Age Casanova vaguely sketched. We can’t tell to what degree he’s successful at his romantic pursuits, or how much of it is a vain attempt to inflate his ego. Of course Lubitsch is all about reading between the lines, but almost too much here needs to be inferred by verbal references and the reactions of characters to unseen events. In other words, it’s the first Hong Sang-soo movie ever made.
All the same, there’s plenty of fun to be hand in the innuendo of Samson Raphaelson’s screenplay (“Here was a girl lying to her mother. Naturally that girl interested me at once”). And they find a priceless visual counterpart in two moments where Lubitsch lets his actors’ eyes do the describing of what they’re seeing, and the spectator watches through them with heightened emotion. There’s also a pleasant musical incorporation of sneezes, coughs and hiccups that convey the inner states of characters where words can’t. Generally Lubitsch moves the proceedings in an ambling, almost plodding style that saps the film of forward momentum; on the other hand seems to anticipate the static, almost non-narrative tableaux of late Carl Dreyer and some Terence Davies. It’s a rhythm that seems to resist moving forward, which fits a film that’s about a man gently coming to terms with his advancing age, the futility of his sexual exploits, and the eternal embrace of family love.
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Best of the Decade Derby resumes, hopefully with more frequency now that I’m settled in Brooklyn – and surrounded as I now am with dozens of cinephile friends and colleagues, I hope to have many of them over to watch and discuss more of the best films of the past 10 years.
Unfortunately, one of my favorite cinephiles and critics is moving out of New York today. Although I’ve only known Mike D’Angelo personally for about a year, he’s meant a lot to me for many years, as he has for many online cinephiles. When I first explored the internet for helpful writings on film, his voice stood out on his website The Man Who Viewed Too Much, long before the blogosphere cluttered the landscape with voices. Once you read him, it’s hard to forget his hard-edged style, his knack for an incisive turn of phrase that can raise both a chuckle and an eyebrow, and his more-than-occasional ruthless ass-ripping of a movie, including not a few golden calves cherished by myself or others (I’ll never forget how he invoked the “cry of the fishmongers” line in Barton Fink to leave John Sayles’ Limbo all but discredited.) Mike became more or less the first to leverage his online writing into a career as a professional critic, with gigs at Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York and Esquire, which made him the envy of not a few young, aspiring critics, myself included. I remember going to a screening of Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep at Film Forum after reading Mike’s glowing review, and being annoyed by several young guys in the row behind me talking loudly. They were discussing Mike’s review.
Perhaps it was because his voice held so much sway that I eventually felt the need to rail against it, which I did in this post on the Rotten Tomatoes forum (I’m still rather proud of my opening line: “New York City, where models swing their hips and critics sling their quips” – and I find Mike to be the fastest quipslinger in the Western Hemisphere). In this post I accused Mike of being unwilling to meet a movie halfway, which I feel has blinkered him against certain treasures in world or experimental cinema (cf. his review of Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures: ” Those who get off on movies that serve primarily as sociological legends will have a field day with it. You hardcore Jia fans know what to do.”) I also called him “notoriously impatient,” an accusation that finds support in his well-known penchant for walking out on films with great frequency (though in fairness, he sees a lot more films than just about anyone – including titles I couldn’t be bothered to watch – so for him there are bound to be more worth walking out on). This blog, in fact, was in some ways conceived by an un-D’Angelo philosophy: that with the films in Shooting Down Pictures I’d try to go as deeply and as generously as possible into articulating what’s interesting about each film, even at the sake of challenging my initial snap judgments.
A few online cinephiles stopped corresponding with me because of what I said about Mike on Rotten Tomatoes, I guess due to a feeling of loyalty to Mike along with resentment that I had vandalized their own sacred cow. Apparently Mike didn’t seem to mind, since he links to this critique on his own website, where he labels me “one of my most discerning critics.” I find it somewhat ironic, perhaps even sobering, that I’ve started writing for Time Out New York, D’Angelo’s old platform. Just yesterday I told a filmmaker friend visiting from Japan that I was now writing for Time Out, to which he responded, “Wow, you’re going to be like Mike D’Angelo! He’s a great writer, even though he wrote a hateful review of my movie!”
I’m only a few reviews into my stint and I’ve already come to realize how much my writing for this publication invokes that old D’Angelo snappiness. I feel that my writing runs a risk, the same risk that I’d complain about with Mike from time to time: to cut a movie down for an easy punchline rather than get to its center. But ultimately I do love writing in this voice, especially when it reflects a passionate, energetic and infectious concern for these films and for film in general – in other words, Mike’s writing at its best.
I made sure to make Mike the first of hopefully many invitees to the Brooklyn Best of the Decade Derby, just days before his departure. We settled on Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a fitting choice in all too many ways. Not only is it one of Mike’s very favorite films of the decade, and possibly one of mine as well, but it’s about a man who’s spending what may be his final hours in New York City. And it’s about the bonds between guys who have a longstanding regard for each other, a bit of contentiousness mixed with concern. My screening with Mike had little contentious to it whatsoever, just a lot of great insights from one of the best critics around, which I’d now like to share.
Here’s the play by play, with Mike’s comments in blue:
0:00 – MD’A: This always struck me as an odd way to start a film – you hear beating sounds and the whimpering of a dog.
KBL: In hindsight it could represent how the studio treated this movie.
MD’A: Yeah the studio all but buried this picture. Even this DVD package is pretty bare bones; it doesn’t have much to it. They just didn’t know what to do with a movie like this.
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This has been up at Film in Focus for some time, and I’ve been meaning to embed ever since – but getting settled into my new digs in Brooklyn has taken up much of my May. But since I just had another “Best of the Decade Derby” liveblogging screening (more on that tomorrow), I figured I’d better get this one up now. Presenting my second video essay for Film in Focus, on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, featuring on-camera commentary by frequent collaborator Matt Zoller Seitz. Watching this film with Matt it became very apparent how simply amazing and rich this film is, from its ingenious construction that demands multiple viewings, to its provocative questions about the emotional vagaries and ethical dilemmas that spring from love gone wrong. This almost certainly has a place in my top 10 of the decade – I only wish I had been able to put more time and preparation into this video so that it might reflect the complexity of its source. But I love this little video ditty anyway for its warmth and goofiness, and for Matt’s insight and sincere affection for this film. Enjoy.