Monday, May 31, 2010

Short note on a short film: Preceding his first feature by four years, Laissé inachevé à Tokyo, Olivier Assayas' third short (he was 27 when he made it) begins, like a later Assayas, in an airport. It's interesting how, in middle-age, directors often get around to realizing the ideas and dreams of their youthful films, impulses they might have neglected for the first decade or so of their filmography in an effort to be treated as "mature." And in its invocations of silent and early sound cinema -- Vertovian confusion / substitution (an electric fan recalls an airplane propeller), Sternbergian shadow-shapes (a gambling den), Feulliadian intrigues (a slow chase through a railroad switchyard) -- it suggests, more than, say, Disorder or Cold Water, that O.A. will eventually direct Irma Vep (the use of video-taped footage -- in a black & white film, no less -- points to the surveillance state of demonlover; the woman-on-the-run -- who eventually disappears via a simple dissolve -- is Boarding Gate).

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Drvengrad, a village in Serbia designed by Emir Kusturica. In 2005, Kusturica was awarded the Foundation pour L'Architecture's Philippe Rothier Prize for European Architecture for the town.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Geronimo (Walter Hill, 1993)

At the last crossroad I shall meet you, Peer;
Then we'll see--whether -- ! I say no more.

Peer Gynt
(Henrik Ibsen; translated by R. Farquharson Sharp)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chromatic Diffusion

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone, 2007)

Though it played for a week at the Siskel last year, I didn't get around to seeing Severed Ways until recently, so of course now I'm kicking myself, because there are few things I would've loved to have seen first in Theater 2 than this cross between Los Muertos, the last reel of Last of the Mohicans, Rossellinian film-teaching, Denisian sensation and Straub's "nature has ten million times the imagination of the most imaginative artists" maxim. In short, the film Werner Herzog would make if he had any balls. There are a few Herzogs I like, but his P.T. Barnum all-bark-no-bite shtick, while entertaining press conference / interview fodder, can't really hide his paucity of ideas about form (not to be confused with style; the most radical -- and moral -- ideas about form have come largely from directors uninterested in imposing a "personal style" on their films). Tony Stone, on the other hand, is as expressive and imaginative with form as can be, and as likely to cross cine-action and "contemplation" (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) as Takashi Miike. The color of the video images ranges from hyper-saturated second-half-of-In-Praise-of-Love paint to home-movie flatness to Mystery of Oberwald dream monochrome, the sound from field recordings to heavy metal to dubbed-in mono Old Norse, the camerawork (emphasis on the work) from Agnes Godardian handheld to Moonfleet, Jr. tableaux, all in the strangest of formats, MiniDV 'scope.

Anyway, since this is essentially the story of two badass dudes / close friends traveling around North America in the 11th century, it's interesting that Stone treats this emotional material chiefly through physical sensation, like Howard-Hawks-if-Howard-Hawks-was-Naomi-Kawase (meaning: a little like Michael Mann), and that the "educational" thrust of the narrative (how a tree is chopped down, how a chicken is killed, how Vikings felt about Christianity) is largely there to provide a framework for Stone's very serious playfulness. The Big Sky meets Hallelujah the Hills (big surprise: Stone studied under Adolfas Mekas at Bard). The tragedy of the plot is very Michael Mann, two people on the brink of being obliterated by history: as Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) puts it, their goal isn't to get back, but to get back and have their story "put in stone."

I dig Stone's completely unironic anachronisms (like the long take where the director / screenwriter / editor / co-star headbangs to a song on the soundtrack after chopping down a tree), but what I like even more is a certain approach, very Rohmer in some respects, about trying to portray a past era the way its people perceived it: the movie has some great landscapes, but it's very pre-cartographic and pre-geographic in its thinking, shot mostly in close-ups with an emphasis on the leaves on the ground and the strange animals crawling around over the real lay of the land. Stone's lost Vikings don't have to say that they have no idea where they are; we can see it. And for a movie that's pretty sparse on dialogue, it has a real respect for oral tradition; the most beautiful sequence begins when Volnard starts to tell a story, and his voice dissolves to make way for a dialogueless / narration-less sequence that recounts the story in rough and tactile images, as though we were simultaneously experiencing his memory and what Ord (Stone) imagines.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (Patrick Tatopoulos, 2009)

The problem with the Underworld movies -- besides their campy humorlessness -- is that no one seems to have directed them. They've got screenplays, casts and a lot of production design, but no direction. And for all their arty detail, they kind of look like crap: not a single shot seems to have been framed, just lit and focused; the movies don't seem put together, just edited. No big surprise, then, that Len Wiseman did props for Roland Emmerich (duh) before he got into directing, or that Patrick Tatopoulos is one of the most successful monster designers in the special effects business.

So why complain about a bunch of movies that only aspire to look as cool as Diablo II cutscenes, or about some directors who only wanna be as good as Stephen Norrington? Because though they've got a lot of problems, these Underworld movies have their pleasures, too, like actor / screenwriter Kevin Grevioux (his bullfrog basso profundo sounds dubbed-in even when he's giving interviews) and the fanboy seriousness of their backstories, which overtake the films to the point where they become all exposition (these movies consist almost entirely of the characters discovering and explaining the plot). If only they'd get Neil Marshall -- or at least Michael J. Bassett -- to direct.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lou Diamond Phillips in The Dark Wind
(Errol Morris, 1991; photographed by Stefan Czapsky)
The defining moment of cinephilia is uncanny juxtaposition: the recognition of an element in one film from one's memory of a radically different one. Watch three or so movies in a row, and they will appear to form a pattern, even if that pattern consists of little more than the way establishing shots are framed, or the same make and model of car appearing again and again, or the way one actor resembles another. At its core, cinephilia is the divining of obvious logic from the contradictions of cinema as a whole. It is in cinephilic observation (versus critical observation) that mise-en-abyme manifests itself, because these recursions and similarities do not serve obvious critical functions, though they are often a window into an idea from which a critical meaning can be extracted.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Currency issued by the German occupation government in Guernsey.
The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be invaded or occupied by Germany during World War II. They were not liberated until the end of the war.

Currency issued to prisoners of the Theresienstadt "model" concentration camp.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Seberg's Swimsuits

Jean Seberg is always ready for a swim in Bonjour Tristesse, and always in a different swimsuit. The red one brings out her girlishness, the blue one the color of her hair, the yellow one the tonalities of her skin. In fact, she rarely wears the same outfit twice throughout the movie; Mylène Demongeot, on the other hand, is intexricably linked to the few items of clothing her character is given: the blue-and-white dress, the ridiculous red swimming outfit she wears when she gets sunburned.

It's not quite as staggering a feat of customing as the 46 cheongsams Maggie Cheung wears over the course of In the Mood for Love (an average of one new dress every two minutes), but it has the same effect. If Wes Anderson in his movies teaches us to learn the character by learning their clothing, by seeing the same scarf or jacket just as often as we see their face or hear their voice (through "the clothes they are"), then Preminger and Wong want us to understand Seberg or Cheung not through the clothes they wear, but through the way they wear clothes. The thought is no longer "Man, that swimsuit looks good on her," but that swimsuits, whether yellow, red or blue, fit her so well to begin with.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Brief Note on the Ass

Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney, 1964; photographed by Joseph Biroc)

Besides being the simplest and most abstract of all of the Elvis movies and imagining Las Vegas as a city built by Oskar Fischinger and not Bugsy Siegel, what Viva Las Vegas has going for it is that it contains one of the most sublime shots of a woman's behind in the history of cinema.

Because it is located at the back of the body and not in the front, and below the waist and not above, the ass does not accidentally find its way into the frame, the way a neck or a bare shoulder or cleavage does. As one always consciously frames a face, one always consciously frames an ass. I'm not talking about those shots of asses that are given motivation by either dialogue or the excuse of a "character's point of view." The ass, like the Citroën DS, the donkey and red couches, has a special place in cinema, and as the presence of Citroën DS, a donkey or a red couch is often the mark of a good film, so the ass, photographed shamelessly and for the sheer pleasure of its shape, often represents the most nakedly honest moment of a film (I remember an advance screening audience bursting out in laughter when the camera panned down as Kate Beckinsale bent over in Whiteout, probably the only moment anyone enjoyed in that movie).

"There's nothing like the movies ... Usually, when you see women, they're dressed, but put them in a movie, and you see their backsides," Godard has Michel Piccoli quip in Contempt. And of course Godard himself was instructed to shoot extra footage for the film by his producer to make use of Brigitte Bardot's willingness to show her ass. Breasts and chests are dead serious: they have a history in painting, sculpture and literature that makes them respectable subjects for an image, even when they're not. But it is in filming asses, whether men's or women's, that filmmakers most obviously give themselves away.

Key Sounds of 21st Century Cinema #1

Excerpts from Carlo Crivelli's score for Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, 2009)

Vincere is the story of a person who tries to grab hold of life by way of history, and in the end is left with her paltry existence. And even that gets snatched away from her. I never got to finishing a piece on the film, but I'd like to talk about it for a little bit here. The music is part of the key to the film: Vincere is a tragedy, but not a political one, and the massed voices of Crivelli's choir are not the voices of The People, but the voices of people like Ida Dalser, the heroine, people who find themselves pitted against history simply because of their lives, and lose. Mussollini challenges God, and by extension, history in the opening scene; Dalser merely challenges Mussollini, but ends up fighting history.

Mussollini, the man whose supporters capitalized pronouns that referred to him. Achille Starace, the war hero who was dismissed for incompetence and unpopularity from nearly every post possible in the Fascist government, when confronted with a firing squad and the corpse of Mussolini, the man who had rebuked him over and over, shouted: “He is a God!” What can “she” do against “He?” The person who struggles against the man who claims to have conquered (and thereby taken the place of) God is, in effect, struggling against God herself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

trailer for Izo (Takashi Miike, 2004)

"This ambitious collage-approach brings to mind some major works of 20th-century Western art: Eliot’s "The Wasteland," Picasso’s Guernica, the epic symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich, all of which combined elements of high and low culture to create monumental forms that encompassed both. And like these Modernist touchstones, Izo all but requires the viewer to feel a little dumb: Not every reference is meant to be understood, nor is the logic connecting various scenes. What’s important is the overall density, which forces the viewer to really concentrate on the film, to put aside other thoughts for a while and contemplate some big ideas. (Takashi Miike, speaking more modestly, has said of Izo, “I want people to watch [it] in a daze and just let it flow.”)"
--Ben Sachs on Izo

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dolly-in on a singer from The Plough and the Stars (only John Ford could have directed this, 1936)
Gun Fury (Raoul Walsh, 1953)

First observation: Hollywood needs one-eyed directors again, because they seemed to make the best movies while working in 3-D. Maybe it was because they just made movies, and weren't trying to find justifications for pictorial effects. Also, Gun Fury is a perverse name for something with so few guns in it (but Horse Fury sounds stupid and Desert Fury and, even better, The Fury were already taken).

Second observation: "All women are alike, they just got different faces so you call tell 'em apart," sez Leo Gordon. A film where women are forced to find their place in a world dictated by men who speak entirely in cynical aphorisms. The two female leads (Donna Reed as the displaced Southern belle, Roberta Haynes as the spurned Mexican lover) are caged and kept, though it takes them until the end of the film to realize it. Image-of-the-film: Phil Carey drags Reed behind his horse with a rope around her waist; 40 minutes or so minutes earlier in the movie, they were dancing, his hand afraid to touch her in the presence eyes of her watchful fiancee.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Stills from the webcam sequences in The Girl on the Train (Andre Techine, 2009)