Monday, November 27, 2006

Robert Altman Remembered

Now that I'm back home, with my regular computer and all my notes, I have to write something more sustantial about Robert Altman. I'm not sure what I should say. His death does not have the emotional punch that the death of Johnny Cash or Charles Schulz had (2 artists who were, like Altman, icons, who I bloody well worshipped - all my life, really, especially Schulz), but culturally, it is similar. He was not my favorite director, or the one who most defined what I thought films should be (those would be Capra and Ozu, with Godard near at hand) - but he was possibly the most important filmmaker in my life. I said a great deal in my "Altman and Me" post during last year's blogathon - it is hard to overstate how important Robert Altman's films were in forming my interest in film. It's hard to talk or think about Altman without talking and thinking about myself - he was an absolutely crucial part of my intellectual autobiography. Like reading Nietzsche, or The Confidence Man, or listening to the Velvet Underground, or Louis Armstrong - his films were a catalyst, they changed how I thought about films.

His impact on me was certainly more intellectual than emotional. That is partly a function of Altman's films, I think - they can be profoundly moving, but they are also, usually, distancing - you don’t quite emotionally enter them, the way you can with Capra or Ozu, for instance. This makes him like Godard - he makes sure you keep a distance. I think he did that quite deliberately - the way his style keeps you outside the story, keeps you from sharing the experience of the main characters. All those overlapping voices and sounds, the way the films look, the long lenses and incessant zooms - you start outside the space and don't exactly enter it as you are brought closer to it. The spaces in his films - the mirrors and windows and doors and stairways, always keeping you away from the story, the characters, etc. It is always a cold place. You watch emotions, you don’t identify with them.

It always drove me crazy when people talked about him as if all he did was let a bunch of good actors act, and let the shooting take care of itself. That is so wrong! His style, especially in those great 70s films, is as recognizable and controlled as anything in Scorsese and Kubrick - the telephoto lenses, the zooms, the mirrors and doors and windows, the overlapping dialogue and sound design, the cluttered sets, the staging, deemphasizing individuals (except when it counted). Not to mention symbolism (take the circles and spires of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or the role of water and fire, wind, earth, or the blue and red light, their various associations with men and women - which recur: what about the pools, fishtanks, desert in Three Women?); or structural tricks, symmetries (scenes, or whole films, like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, with its sets of 5s and 10s, its mirrored mirrors, etc.), self-quotations.... Sometimes the style verges on self-parody: you notice it in his bad films, Quintet or Pret A Porter or what have you - when the story fails, the style can be overwhelming.

Though even at his worst, what gets put on the screen is gorgeous: even Quintet, as bad a film as anyone is likely to find, is stunning looking.

And so... Let us say goodbye. And note the possibility - not out of the question - that Prairie Home Companion might win an Oscar. I suppose it would be a nasty irony - but it would still be a nice touch. And frankly, there are not likely to be any other films in contention that deserve it more. It may not be his best, or even in the top 15 or so, but it's a pretty damned good film, and god knows Oscars aren't about picking the best films. So why not? He's the best American filmmaker this side of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, so he ought to have an award or two, even if only posthumously.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman

Robert Altman has died. I saw the news on TV - an odd experience, for a geek like me, seeing news like that on TV, hearing some newsreader running through his career, his films. Strange. I am, as might be apparent, a fan. And though there might be a director or two, still alive, whose work I like more (given that one - Shohei Imamura - died earlier this year, Jean Luc Godard better be careful), I don't think any of them were as important to me. (Check that "fan" link.) It is a sad day. I have a post in the pipeline that touches on Altman - it will be hard, around the holidays, to get to the net to write more, but I will try. He was one of my heroes - like Johnny Cash and Charles Schulz, his death is oging to hit me hard...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

New Movies, Quickly

Movie reviews. A habit I have to get back into. You know, every week. New, at least. And so -

Fast Food Nation: kind of a miracle I saw it, actually. The newspaper (or the paper's web site) listed the time as 12 noon - the sign outside the theater, however, said 11:40 - and the ticket said 11:45. As it turned out, the lights went down at 11:45, 15 minutes of previews followed (all of them but Reno 911 mercifully blanked from my mind), then the movie. Good thing I turned up early, I was thinking at the time, though the truth is, there were only a dozen people, if that, int he theater, so heck....

Where was I? Richard Linklater's second film of the year - a fictionalization of a muckraking book about the evils of fast food. Structured like Traffic or Babel - following three or four narrative threads (a group of illegal immigrants, a smart girl working at Mickey's (a fast food joint modelled on you know who, though not you know who), and an executive at Mickey's investigating their bad meat. These are more logically related than the stories in Babel, since they are all set around a meat packing plant in Colorado (thus more like Traffic); and Linklater has a looser, less insistent style than Inarittu or Soderburgh, sliding between stories without the attempts to link them with sounds and images and angles the way Inarittu does. Unfortunately, like Babel (and Traffic, I guess), the stories are just sketches - there are nice moments in each of them, but they all come off thin. It's too bad I guess - the performances are worthwhile - Kinnear is his usual likable everyman/audience surrogate, but doesn't really get to follow through, there are some neat cameos, and the kids playing the Mexicans and American fast food workers are pretty good... But the stories are predictable and not that interesting anyway, so... what can you do. This brings us to another thing it has in common with Babel - whatever faults I can find with it, it feels like an absolutely necessary film to see, because of the director. I find, at this point, that Richard Linklater is someone I want to pay attention to - somewhere along the line, I might take some time to think about some of the things he does as a filmmaker: it's interesting because his style is not really obvious, the main link between his films seems to be his sensibility and storytelling... but there are some things... I found myself noticing spaces in this film - the way he shot things to always kind of let your eye leave the scene. There are "openings" in what he shoots - doors and windows and blank spaces and holes that open the space. It looks casual, almost accidental, but I don't know if it is. It's not something I notice in every film I see. So - that might be worth thinking about somewhere down the line.

For Your Consideration: Christopher Guest and company take on Hollywood. Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey are the leads, perhaps - they are at least the characters imagining themselves up for Oscar consideration. The usual gang supports them - Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr., Guest and Michael McLean, Larry Miller, Bob Balaban, Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake - and more! with Ricky Gervais turning up in a few scenes, and plenty more... It's a straight movie this time - there's no pretense at making a documentary - though things like the EPK and a bunch of TV shows give plenty of opportunity for the kind of interview format Guest loves... Okay. It's funny, it's nice - but it's probably the least of Guest's films - it's amusing, but not as funny as the first two, and less poignant than A Mighty Wind (the Mitch and Mickey parts, anyway). Still good, just not up to his rather high standards.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Friday Music Stuff

Another simple one, 10 random....

1. Blondie - Heart of Glass (***)
2. Pearl Jam - Oceans (almost forgot I had this record on here...)
3. Elvis Costello - Chemistry Class
4. Cibe Matto - La Pain Perdu
5. X-Ray Specs - I Can't Do Anything
6. Elvis Costello - Little Triggers
7. The Decembrists - Summersong
8. Built to Spill - Stop the Show (***)
9. Eels - Novocaine for the Soul (****)
10. Rolling Stones - Let's Spend the Night together

A nice collection, if nothing quite essential....

And video? Best song of the week?The Eels, live - tres cool!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Two Films

There's hope, suddenly - assuming I get this post up here in a reasonable amount of time. (I don't know if watching the Celtics is helping or hurting. What a depressing spectacle. Again, they're teasing - showing signs - like a nice little run, a couple shots by Wally, a couple nice defensive stands - but wait a few minutes....) Movies! back to movies!

Stranger than Fiction: Will Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman in a likable metafiction that fails for various reasons - Gyllenhaal's character is a blank and hardly worth caring about; Thompson, on the other hand, is spectacular, but given nothing important to do; Queen Latifah is in the cast but does she play a character? I don't know.... the story itself is awkward and half done - it plays like a short story idea, stretched out with a bunch of fake Charlie Kaufman stuff to look like it matters. It's too bad - Thompson is so good, and Farrell is very good at this sort of thing - everything he does is so understated and guileless, and he plays everything so close to straight, even in his wilder roles. His "straight" performances never feel strained like Jim Carrey or Robin Williams do when they essay drama. A lot of opportunity is wasted, but it is wasted.

Scream of the Ants: so new (or obscure) it doesn't even have an IMDB entry! New film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and a very strange one. Two Iranians (man and woman) travelling in India, looking for a guru, the Complete Man, or, The Perfect Man. Along the way they find a chatty journalist; a cripple who is forced to act as a holy man, stopping trains; they talk about sex, and the man goes to a prostitute leaving the woman alone; they have an encounter in a taxi cab, then finally find the perfect man - who proves to be a Buddhist, basically - they are god, god exists when you believe in him - and you can travel the world and find god in a drop of dew; he's not enough so they then go on, and meet an old woman who wants to die in Banares and a German who has become an ascetic. They go to the Ganges - there is more footage - then the woman bathes (with a host of naked men), and the man attends a class - don't listen, smell.... then it ends.

Strange as it is, it's pretty consistent with Makhmalbaf's work. He's always had a surrealist streak, combined with his neo-realist streak, a combination fairly common in Iranian cinema (going back, say, to The Cow.) Here, it's as if Makhmalbaf has split himself in half, and stages a dialogue between his political, skeptical, secular side (the man), and his mystical, religious, humanist side (the woman). For all that, all the philosophical and political seriousness, it's surprisingly funny, contains moments of breathtaking grace (like the opening sequence - a couple kids tracing a shadow with rocks), as well as a good deal of political edge, and a certain amount of mystical nonsense - which is, in keeping with the dialectic structure of the film, treated like both mystical nonsense and a beautiful lie... And - full frontal male nudity, and almost full frontal female nudity - from the first shot, a woman's hair, it violates Iranian standards - and keeps escalating, eventually showing both a prostitute and the lead actress nude, and later, several Indian women. Given Iranian laws - very transgressive. That and its ecumenical approach to religion - which is both respectful and mocking - make it very radical for an Iranian film.

(Celtics, by the way, made it close, but gave it away in the last couple minutes. I could have written that an hour ago with complete confidence.)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Music on a Friday

Had a bit of a scare this morning - opened up iTunes, got an error message - and discovered that all my music files, between Deerhoof and George Harrison, had disappeared. Terrifying! But sa short lived terror - for I remembered the first rule of computer support: When in doubt, Restart!

Back to normal! so here we go (if rated, I'm including that)...

1. Cream - Deserted Cities of the Heart
2. Stereolab - Metronomic Underground (***)
3. James Blood Ulmer - Nothing to Say
4. Jimi Hendrix - Third Stone from the Sun (***)
5. Rocket from the Tombs - Life Stinks (***)
6. Rolling Stones - Connection
7. Outkast - N2U
8. Culture Club - I'll Tumble 4 Ya [good lord - should I admit it? but it is a pretty great song, really]
9. Rage Against the Machine - Settle for Nothing
10. Don Byron - Frailach Jamboree [from his Mickey Katz record]

And today's video treat is a bonus, song 11 - the iPod version was from the long version of Live at Leeds, but this is pretty close:

And a bonus bonus, the original music, synched to the film:

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Speaking of the Future...

Meanwhile, totally unrelated to that last post, and yesterday's rather wonderful election results - looks like some kind of blogger upgrade in the works. I do not pay much attention to the technical features of this blog - I take what blogger gives me, dress it up with an occasional cat


or cowboy


and go from there. Still - google has upgraded things, so we shall see what thet brings us. A brave new world of something!

A Brighter Future

Two years ago, I was down. Today, however, things are better off. We have had two years of continued Republican incompetence and villainy - I could not guess, back then, whether villainy or incompetence would rule the day - in the event, it looks like both struggled for supremacy for 2 years. Now, with congress back in the hands of the democrats, we see the administration starting to toss the sluggards overboard: Rumsfeld is on the pavement. More are likely to follow, as some take the opportunity to get while the gitting's good, and Bush/Rove/Cheney scramble to keep up a steady stream of sacrifices to keep themselves out of the dock. It will be something to watch them turn on one another.

Monday, November 06, 2006

This Week's Art Films


I need to get something up here - weeks have passed, months, and nothing! no movie comments - nothing! alas! This despite a pretty nice run of films lately, especially in the rep houses - Kieslowski, John Huston, Cocteau, Dreyer, Mizoguchi all turning up... One of these days I have to say something about those films - but for now, let's turn to the weekend just passed, which featured 2 very much anticipated releases. I bring you - Borat and Babel!

Borat: Cultural Learnings to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Khazakhstan - the title is, in fact, almost longer than the film. This has been much hyped, especially on the web, and there was, I suppose, a good deal of potential for disappointment. High concept acts like Borat don't always translate well to longer forms - it's hard to sustain the act, it's harder to put it together into anything coherent. And I suppose this is somewhat true of the film - the plotline is old hat (Borat comes to America to make a documentary, sees Pamela Anderson on TV and heads off to California to make her his wife), and just an excuse to string together a bunch of typical Borat sequences.... still, it works. This is partly because the scenes with the plot are almost as funny as the other bits (the plot gives us Borat and his producer Azamat driving across the country in an ice cream truck with a watch bear, wrestling nude in a hotel room, then chasing each other through the hallways and elevators and into a conference, and a wonderful sick sight gag at the end) - the whole thing keeps moving and stays funny, damned funny.

Borat's act is certainly a provocative one - he's a caricature of old world/third world grotesquery, with his misogyny and racism and virulent (and ridiculous) anti-semitism - he takes this persona into situations and sees what he can provoke. A lot of it is set up as a TV crew shooting a documentary - sitting down to interview someone, taking a camera crew into a bar or store or TV station, maybe a dinner party or a revival meeting. Borat starts by acting ingratiating, then starts making offensive comments, pulling bizarre stunts - drawing reactions from people. Sometimes getting them to go along with his offensiveness, as in the famous "Throw the Jew Down the Well" song - sometimes pissing them off, like the equally famous rodeo stunt. A lot of what he gets out of people comes from their desire not to offend him: watch this segment (reworked for the film - reshot, I think), of Borat with an etiquette coach, and at a dinner - everyone tries to remain nice, as he behaves like a spoiled child... It's tempting to freight it with significance, to think he's revealing something about the fundamental depravity of the people in these segments, but I don't think that is quite right. Especially since the bits are put together after the fact - the editing can hide the extent to which the audience is on the joke, exaggerate the reactions he wants to emphasize and so on. It's tempting, too, to wonder what's "real" and what's fiction - but the point is that what we see is all fiction. Baron Cohen is staging everything - the character, the cameras, the situations he creates are all fictional before they start. His act is more about the role of the media, of media as a function in everyday life - the presence of cameras, our learned expectations about how to act on TV, about media as a cultural force - than about the underlying prejudices of people. And his act doesn't so much use reality to make fiction as point out how reality itself is fiction - normal, everyday life is a kind of collaborative improvisation, shot through with political and cultural ideas and images, a culture than speaks us. Stephanie Zacharek's excellent review in Salon notes, for example, the way Borat's character, his morality, comes straight out of folklore, with its shape-changing Jews and Gypsy tears. Borat's point, I think, is that all behavior, all morality, is rooted in things beyond us - in culture, in stories, images, ways of thinking. He turns TV into a kind of folklore... (I also think that Zacharek's comment helps explain why Borat is so appealing, despite his bad behavior (and Baron Cohen's bad behavior as well - jerking people around like that, sometimes with real consqeuences, isn't exactly admirable) - he's a figure out of a folk tale, a trickster, and tricksters are always the good guys, no matter how bad they act.)

Babel - if I were feeling perverse, I would note how much Borat has in common with films by, say, Abbas Kiarostami, or Mohsen Makhmalbaf - the mix of reality and fiction, documentary, improv, and scripted bits... I say that to segue into a more conventional art film, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu and Guillerma Arriega's latest, Babel. Which comes from a different strand of art film - actually comes pretty much uncut from Kieslowski. Babel, like their previous films, comes off a bit like 3 or 4 of the Dekalog films crammed into one film - 4 interconnected stories, told in something less than exact sequence, edited to echo one another... parents and children, lovers and strangers, those who rise to the moral challenges put to them and those who don't. It all works because Inarittu is one of the most inventive and skillful of directors - but it still feels contrived and hysterical and a bit pointless. There is no discernable reason why the stories are told out of order, except as an exercise. The situations are distressingly close to cliches. The politics is obvious and lazy - white Americans act like bastards, unless they are movie stars, and then only when one of them gets shot. Everybody else is just trying the best they can.... And there's way too much Brad Pitt and nowhere near enough Koji Yakusho.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Music Again

Another simple list here. Stars and comments, when the spirit moves. Random Friday post:

1. Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues [One of the All Time Greats. On whatever short list I would be inclined to make, my friends.] *****
2. Bikini Kill - Tell me So [they can be sometimes a mixed bag, but this one really kicks]
3. Artist - Track 01... or, put another way: Cline/Shoup/Corsano - Lake of Fire Memoires [don't know where I downloaded this, but hey - not bad. Nice early morning eye opener, and today I needed one. Lots of squawking...]
4. Johnette Napolitano and Marc Moreland - Hurting Each Other [Carpenters tribute record, a nice cover in the usual style - feedback drone and someone singing it fairly straight]
5. The Kinks - Apeman ****
6. Carter Family - Where We'll Never Grow Old
7. The Clash - Spanish Bombs
8. Acid Mother's Temple - Hello Good Child
9. Isley Brothers - Footsteps in the Dark
10. Pere Ubu - Montana

I guess there's no real question what video to put up: Cash, from 59...