Friday, August 31, 2007

Journal of a Working Boy

Labor Day weekend is upon us! The year is 2/3 over - a time to take stock? What kind of year has it been for films? pretty good in the theaters, though spottily - great films here and there, long stretches with nothing to see; not so good just counting new new films. September is going to be a good month, with Syndromes and a Century and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone coming - not to mention City Lights, Fallen Angels, Pierrot Le Fou, getting extended runs at the Brattle. And regular releases tend to get better in the fall... Wait! I feel a list coming on!

Best new releases, 2007? - do I get to count Killer of Sheep? if not -
1. Brand Upon the Brain
2. Zodiac
3. Into Great Silence
4. Triad Election
5. Tears of the Black Tiger

Best new new films?
1. Zodiac
2. Away From Her
3. Grindhouse (Though Death Proof, by itself, might be the best new film of the year)
4. Hot Fuzz
5. Sicko

And that sort of reminds me that Sicko was the last film I reviewed on this blog - and thus an excellent transition into self-criticism. I've made a bunch of sort of promises I should try to keep: from a non-bizarro review of WC Fields (specifically You're Telling Me, his best so far), to something about the Chinese action films that should have been nominated for the foreign film poll (a sort of penance since I could have voted for them, and didn't...), to some more on theatricality and theater in films, to, maybe, a defense of Death Proof as contemplative cinema. (Which blog Harry Tuttle and I have started hijacking back from Dan Schneider's [not Little Ricky] endless reviews.... Peter Green and Thumper's mother keep me from commenting further on Mr. cosmoetica.) Plus there are a bunch of films I've seen this summer I want to comment on: the Election films; a Barbara Stanwyck/Douglas Sirk double feature, and Stanwyck with Capra in Ladies of Leisure. And more besides. I don't know when I am going to get a chance to do all this writing - though the paradox is, the busier I get, the more I get done: it's coming home and sitting in front of the TV watching the Red Sox that keeps me from posting anything worthwhile. We'll see where things lead...

And finally, since it is Friday, and the iPod is working (it's getting iffy - it's conked out a couple times now, and it's not just me forgetting to turn it off and killing the batteries. I'm trying to milk every second out of it, cause I don't want to buy anything significant until next year if I can help it. It's not looking good though...) Random 10!

1. Shonen Knife - Top of the World ***** - really, though, what more can you ask?
2. Bikini Kill - Speed Heart
3. U2 - Exit *** - halfway decent song, from U2's worst period - no, I'm not a Joshua Tree fan, no...
4. Pylon - Look Alive **** - the only Pylon record I've been able to find, but damned good
5. Pink Floyd - Chapter 24 *** - some kind of hippy nonsense outta the i ching, but a neat song anyway...
6. Pavement - Jackals, False Grails: the Lonesome Era **** - we're doing well today
7. Minutemen - Cut - no ranking, but that's deceptive as the starting point for the Minutemen is around 3.5...
8. Rolling Stones - Carol(live - Get Your Ya Yas out)
9. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Rock of Gibraltar *****
10. Don Byron - Bar Mitzvah Special - playing the music of Mickey Katz

And of course something from YouTube: how about the next best thing to Shonen Knife? The Carpenters themselves, with Japanese titles!

Oh god. I can't help it. Here's a Japanese karaoke rendition of Superstar, with what looks like footage from the Defender video game...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Jokes on Me Sam, Wrong Jug

Lately I have been working my way through the works of WC Fields. What a joyless, tedious endeavor. What’s so funny about a man putting on a hat? Or taking off his socks, getting pieces of paper stuck to his fingers, getting a parking ticket, trying to hit a golf ball - were audiences in the 1930s that desperate for entertainment? Did they have the minds of infants, or cats that could be distracted for hours at a time by a bit of light on the wall? And besides that, the stories themselves are depressing and drab: a henpecked husband, no moral exemplar himself - a layabout, a drunkard, an incompetent businessman, rude to his customers, dishonest to his employers (a grown man pulling the old “my mother in law is dead” gag to get off work!) - who after an hour or loafing about doing nothing is magically rewarded - that’s the plot of film after film! I have nothing against old comedy, indeed, can anything be funnier than a pie in the face, but there is no comedy here, just meanness and gags too “subtle” for anyone with even the smallest trace of a brain. And did I mention the violence of these films? Not redeemed by the absurdity of slapstick, it’s just violence as violence - kicking a woman when she’s down and complaining because her corsets hurt your great toe! It's shameful. I’ll never get these hours back, or the hours to come, as I force myself to watch the rest of the available Fields disks. This is almost as painful as the time I was forced to attend 5 consecutive Marx brothers films, in a theater no less! That gave me nightmares for years. I still can’t pass a mirror without weeping.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Guitar World

Just dropping by on a Friday afternoon, playing hooky from The Job, about to go see the first really interesting looking new film in a couple weeks, the Julie Delpy film.... Music! random 10! videos! the iPod randomizer was in a 6 string frenzy this week....

1. Wire - The Other Window - not quite a harbinger of what is to come, being light on the prototypical Wire, um, wiry guitar parts and... but....
2. Fugazi - Walken's Syndrome - this is more like it - a band that is about the guitar....
3. Madvillain featuring Stacy Epps - Eye
4. Sonny & Linda Sharrock - Miss Doris - my second favorite 70s husband and wife guitar hero/singer combo - Linda wails, Sonny waits, it's 6 minutes in before he lets loose but it's worth the wait, a first rate piece of avant-garde soloing....
5. Tom Verlaine - Balcony - from his recent solo instrumental record...
6. Johnny Cash - The Ways of a Woman in Love - anything with Luther on it is going to contribute to the world of the guitar
7. Buck Owens - Together Again - lighter than some Buck Owens on the tele parts, but some fine steel guitar,a nd a very nice song...
8.Richard & Linda Thompson - Georgie on a Spree - my favorite 70s husband and wife guitar hero and singer combo, though less of a guitar workout than the Sharrock's offer, or the Thompson's could give. Though I suppose that's part of why they're my favorites over the Sharrock's - songs....
9. Sonic Youth - Sympathy for the Strawberry
10. The Fall - Kicker Conspiracy... speaking of husband & wife singer guitarist teams... the Smith's, um, kick it, in, um, this one....

Video? not the song, but the same album, and with Linda Thompson having a new record out, a good time to feature her. This is pretty close to absolutely perfect.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Never Meta List I Didn't Like...

Or puns apparently.... But seriously: the Foreign Film Poll has set off a flurry of bloggy activity - lively conversations in many many places - Scanners, Cinebeats, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Self-Styled Siren - to name a few.... It's hard to follow them all, and harder still to participate: so I am going to join the parade, and try to sum up some of my meta-list thoughts in one post here....

1) There have been quite a few remarks about the "warhorses" on the list - not to mention the influence of the Criterion collection - with the attendant sighing about lack of marginal films... But I think it is inevitable that the same bunch of films keep getting named in best of lists. There is a reason they keep coming back. As soon as you accept the idea that one film can be better than another film, or that a person can like one film more than they like another, you will find that people end up liking and praising the same films. Loosely, of course - but when you aggregate opinions, you will tend to get the same films over and over. Because whatever criteria we use to pick films for a list like this, we weren't born with them: we learned them. We learned them from somewhere - other people; the films and art itself. And the things that make films great, or make people love them, are, in the end, precisely the things that people share - great films show us the world in a way we respond to: they are great because of their ability to evoke that response. Films we love - it's the same thing. It's the ability to connect to us that makes films great and loved - so it follows that we who love them will also connect over what we love. Art is about what we share (including, of course, the fact that we are all unique.) I find the tendency of any such vote to end up with the same films normal, and basically a sing that it works. A feature, not a bug.

2) On the other hand... first: 25 films is an impossibly small sample. Michael Kerpan's comment here on the last list frenzy, that there are a couple thousand masterpieces in the world, is just about right. (Do I have a thousandth favorite film?8 1/2? probably an accident of the database, but the point: I've seen a lot of films, but lots of people have seen more - and I cam make a list of 1000 films and not come close to finishing the films I consider more or less essential viewing....) Makes voting an agony. A problem that is further confused by the question of auteurs and genres and such. Auteurism covers a lot of things, but one of the basic ones is this: that the director [and not necessarily just a director] brings a distinctive style, worldview, personality to the work, that makes the class of films - films by Ozu, Godard, Imamura, etc. - take on a value of its own, apart from the individual films. It creates a problem for voting - how do I choose, first of all, among the best films by a favorite director? I could pick 25 films from Ozu, Godard, Mizoguchi and Imamura that would be as good as the list I did submit. (And not just those four: any 4-5 of my favorites, that I've seen enough of would work - Renoir, Naruse, Kurosawa, Herzog, Bresson, Hou, Suzuki, Ichikawa, Wong Kar-wei, Rivette, etc.) At the same time, it seems odd to treat 4 Godard films as 4 films (or 8, which wouldn't have phased me in the least) - I see them as linked: as inseparable - in a way that shouldn't preclude putting 7 other films on the list. It's as if - I don't see M, say, as being the equivalent of 8 Godard films: I see M as being the equivalent of any of 8 Godard films.... Something like that....

3) All of which actually does have a point beyond second guessing my ballot. Certainly another theme of the conversations about this list is the lack of some commenters particular hobby horse. You can certainly see traces of that in my own comments on Chinese action films - which indeed I feel more strongly than I let on. Yes, I know I could have voted for A Touch of Zen, Peking Opera Blues and Project A II (which would be my indispensable three) - still, I was hoping someone would bail me out, the way they did by nominating Bresson and Suspiria and the like.... And I certainly find it troubling that directors like Hou and Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf didn't make it, or Eisenstein, or Olmi, or Ichikawa or - etc... or that Iranian films were stiffed (how did that happen, anyway?) or Indian (Ray's misfortunes have been much analyzed) - or Korean films; or African, middle European (not that I can help, Czech films and the like being a big hole in my viewing), or South and Central American. Even just the richness of genre films from Japan, Italy, China etc. - all very much under-represented.

Now - the problem should be pretty obvious. Never mind voting for films on their individual merits, or even auteurs - I just listed 8 or 9 types of films, plus some 11-12 directors (some overlap, maybe) that should have been represented (or were underrepresented) - even granting that I can't help much in filling in Czech or Hungarian films or Brazilian films, that's around 20 votes for types of films or directors alone.... Which gets back to the fact that 25 is not even close to a canon (though the 122 that were nominated, or the 400+ that received votes, comes closer) - but I think it also points to something important about canons. Last year, after Paul Shrader took a stab at naming a canon of films, I posted a comment somewhere about the difference between parameters and perimeters in canon formation. (Probably at Girish's or Andy Horbal's old site, somewhere.) Shrader dismissed filmmakers, genres, national cinemas, time and place as criteria of value in canon formation - but that is wrong. I think - that is what should underlie canon formation. Canons should be determined by their parameters: by the categories and types of things that are valuable. Not perimeters - by a list of things (films, since that's what this is about) that are in the canon, vs. those out. Now - applying this to a poll is not easy: you vote for films, as films.... But for the resulting list to be valuable, or to help form a viable canon, it should outline the types of films that are important. Which is to say, all films... But what this leads to - is seeing this list, these films, as the best examples of the types of things that have been done. What is important here is not a list of the best films - but a list of the best examples of types of films.

The best Ozu films; the best Kung-fu films; the best Bollywood films; the best contemplative films. That, I think, it where the process should lead. And in fact - that is where much of the conversation has gone - toward looking through the things that were missed by the first round of votes: listing all the types of films overlooked and the best films to represent those films. A very good thing. One hopes some more lists, or easily referenced posts come out of the conversations...

4) Finally, getting to mechanics: first - I wonder if the nominations would have been more improved by explicit vote trading? I'd have happily traded a vote for Youth of the Beast for a vote for an Imamura; someone surely could have come up with a Pather Panchali vote if they'd thought about it.... second - I hope we see a full list of all the films to get a nomination - I think that would do a lot more to expand the canon than the final winners will.... to that end, it might be interesting to run a similar vote on the films that explicitly did not make the final cut...

UPDATE: Yes, we will get a ful list - in comments at Copeland's place.

Site Updates

I wanted to mention a couple things.... I poked at the blogroll again - added a couple sites I've been reading for a while - Cinebeats; Talk to me Harry Winston (which I could have sworn I added a couple months ago... I don't pay as much attention to the mechanics of this place as I should)... and a couple new sites, from people I've known online for a long while - Mike Doc at the Bargain Matinee, and Erik at Blackstad. Some of us have been trying to talk them into blogging for years - I look forward to what they have to say...

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Big World

Having gone a couple weeks without a poll to argue about... we have a new poll to argue about! There was a good deal of sentiment, in the wake of the Online Community poll that was compiled a month, that Kids Today don't see enough foreign films. And so - another poll has been organized, devoted to non-English language sound fiction feature films. Hooray! or, getting in the spirit of the thing, Totemo Omoshiroii! Miscellaneous figures ranging from the exalted (Jonathon Rosenbaum? Annette Insdorf? Amy Taubin?) to the lowly (that would be me) submitted nominations, which have been compiled into a list, which can be found at Edward Copeland's blog. Part 2 of the process is at hand: readers are invited to vote on 25 films from the nominations... the deadline is September 16. Further details can be found chez M. Copeland.

UPDATE: This is, of course, being discussed far and wide. Linking to all of them may be impossible, certainly at 7am... I do want to point to Scanners, where Jim Emerson is hosting a collection and discussion of individual lists. A good place to see the contributing lists (and a lot of reactions) in one place...

In any event - we've got a month to think about it, and with any luck, I'll milk a few more posts out of it... Right now, though, I am going to posts lists of my own. First - a list I did NOT submit: I considered doing what Jim Emerson did, limiting myself to one film per director: that stretches the list without really diluting it, since the reason for all the Godard and Ozu is usually something like, I can't really choose between them.... I didn't, though, partly because, after that Online Film Community thing, there was so much talk of vote splitting - I panicked, lest, you know, Early Summer and Late Spring both end up with only 2 votes - if only I'd voted for both! (As it happened, Early Summer didn't make the cut - or My Life to Live, my top Godard pick. The rest of my multiples made it, more or less...) But if I had stripped out the doubled auteurs - these films would have made the list (starred films made the finals):

Mouchette - 1967 - Bresson, Robert - France
Camera Buff - 1979 - Kieslowski, Krystof - Poland - [lots of Kieslowski made the nominations, but nothing before the Decalogue - which seems exactly backwards. Camera Buff and Blind Chance are the best features I've seen by him. His later films are good, but seem far less inventive than the early ones. Except White, which barely made the list and is set in Poland... ]
*Yi Yi - 2000 - Yang, Edward - 960
Germany Year Zero - 1948 - Rossellini, Roberto - Italy - [Open City made the list. This is what I mean by vote splitting, though I doubt this would have gotten 3 votes anyway. Paisa might: maybe I should have voted for all of them.]
*400 Blows - 1959 - Truffaut, Francois - France
*Blue Angel - 1930 - Sternberg, Joseph von - Germany
*Satantango - 1994 - Tarr, Bela - Hungary
Touch of Zen - 1969 - King Hu - China Hong Kong - [This is an area that annoys me. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon made the list. Why? What the hell is that? Of all the Chinese action films that could make the list, why that one? oh - it's released in the US! blah. How can you pick that over any of the other possibilities? all the King Hu, Chang Cheh, John Woo, Jacky Chan, Brigitte Lin films to choose from... annoyance. And guilt - I never end up voting for those films in these polls, but hate myself for it. It's just too damned hard to parse out what criteria you're supposed to use, so I usually stick with the films I love that get talked about like Serious Art. Still - this film (along with Peking Opera Blues, Swordsman II and the best Jacky Chan films, like Project A II) makes it on all the merits, and it's just the fact that 25 is a very small number of films that keeps it off. And in this case, paranoia about vote splitting...]
*Cleo from 5 to 7 - 1961 - Varda, Agnes - France

In the fact: I submitted this list (starred again...):

* M - 1931 - Lang, Fritz - Germany
*Rules of the Game - 1939 - Renoir, Jean - France
Early Summer - 1951 - Ozu Yasujiro - Japan
My Life to Live - 1963 - Godard, Jean-Luc - France
*Seven Samurai - 1955 - Kurosawa, Akira - Japan
Pornographers - 1966 - Imamura, Shohei - Japan - [another irritation. I have 2 Imamuras on here, and 3-4 more that are just as good - but none made it - nothing made it! crap! were these votes being split? I guess this means that Imamura is one of the all time underrated dierctors - because he was as good as anyone, and not even film geeks with real cred rate him.]
City of Sadness - 1989 - Hou Hsiao Hsien - China Taiwan - [another annoying, though understandable, omission. Hou did not make it at all - weird!]
*Late Spring - 1949 - Ozu Yasujiro - Japan
*Aguirre Wrath of God - 1973 - Herzog, Werner - Germany
*Gospel According to Matthew - 1964 - Pasolini, Pier Paolo - Italy - [It makes me very happy to see this on the list of nominees.]
*High and Low - 1963 - Kurosawa, Akira - Japan
*Playtime - 1967 - Tati, Jacques - France
*Tokyo Story - 1953 - Ozu Yasujiro - Japan
*Ugetsu Monogatari - 1953 - Mizoguchi Kenji - Japan
*Breathless - 1959 - Godard, Jean-Luc - France
*Mystery of Kaspar Hauser - 1975 - Herzog, Warner - Germany
Sun's Burial - 1960 - Oshima Nagasi - Japan - [Not that I expect it - but Oshima deserves some love.]
*Pierrot Le Fou - 1965 - Godard, Jean-Luc - France
Pather Panchali - 1955 - Ray, Satyajit - India [The great victim, I guess - a bunch of people voted for Ray films, but none of us picked the same ones. Oh well, I tried.]
Insect Woman - 1963 - Imamura Shohei - Japan
Alphaville - 1965 - Godard, Jean-Luc - France
Late Chrysanthemums - 1954 - Naruse Mikio - Japan - [not on DVD, might as well not exist, huh?]
*Celine and Julie Go Boating - 1973 - Rivette, Jacques - France [though sometimes: this is very gratifying. I only got to see it this year, but was utterly charmed...]
Ivan the Terrible I - 1941 - Eisenstein, Sergei - USSR [this didn't make it: strange]
Osaka Elegy - 1936 - Mizoguchi Kenji - Japan [This didn't make it - less strange. Story of the Last Chrysanthemum did - which is equally deserving and gratifying. Though I was disappointed when I realized that was the film on the list and not the Naruse film above...]

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Weekend Music Placeholder

Back again with another Friday random ten post, on Saturday as usual. I will spice this one with an extra random movie comment or two: like - is every summer this lousy a time for the movies? It's been weeks since there's been a new movie out I had to see (12:08 East of Bucharest, that would be) - nothing spectacular since Brand Upon the Brain, back in June, no thrilling foreign films tucked into the slow late summer months like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu last year, or 2046 and The World and The Beat that my Heart Skipped the year before that. (I mean - there's been Flandres, but really...) Even the quirky little indies have degenerated noticeably, from last year's Little Miss Sunshine and The Oh in Ohio, or the year before's Junebug and Me and You and Everyone We Know - I've been reduced to the likes of Rocket Science and am considering Death at A Funeral - yikes. Even the mainstream stuff seems small beer - Knocked Up was vastly overrated, which has dampened my enthusiam for Superbad, and nothing seems to promise the campy fun of Telledegha Nights or Snakes on a Plane. So - I dunno. Things do get substantially better next week, with the arrival of Election and Triad Election at the Brattle - and Teorema at the MFA. But tomorrow, I may have to sit home and watch Zodiac (which I skipped in the theater, but turns out to be a hell of a film - David Fincher isn't a hacque!) and Inland Empire again. I mean - I saw The Ten last week! I'm desperate!

Music, on the other hand - well - it's different. But the iPod seems to be fine (I think I forgot to turn it off and the battery drained), there's a new Linda Thompson record to listen to, and I can put Boris in heavy rotation and be happy. And now - ten songs - heavy on the Mojo compilations and the epic drudgery, it seems....

1. Charlie Parker - Bongo Beep
2. Stereolab - International Colouring Context
3. White Stripes - I fought Piranhas
4. The Alarm Clocks - No Reason to Complain
5. Lipps Inc. - Funkytown (Long Version) **** - that's not an honest rating. That might work for the single, but the long version well outstays its welcome. Camp does not suit itself to extended versions.
6. Lloyd Price - Stagger Lee
7. Sunn0))) & Boris - Blood Swamp
8. Buffseeds - Sparkle Me - more Mojo, very forgettable, unlike the Alarm Clocks and Lloyd Price, who, mojo or not, are pretty good songs
9. Don Byron - Prologue: "...shed no tears before the rain" - from the Music of Mickey Katz album - 2 jazz songs in one week - very good.
10. Tom Waits - Cemetery Polka

Video? Along with all the film obituaries this month, we should take time for a musical passing: Tony Wilson, man of many parts. And so - here's Steve Coogan impersonating him and the almighty) in 24 Hour Party People:

And the man himself, interviewed, discussing Joy Division, and Manchester:

(Part 2):

Monday, August 13, 2007

Last Week's Argument Today!

This is last week's argument, I suppose, but what can you do. I want to add a couple things to all the controversy about Jonathan Rosenbaum's take on Ingmar Bergman. It's been much hashed out on the blogs: here's Harry Tuttle on Rosenbaum, and Part 2. And Jonathan Lapper's rather similar response. Also see Girish, Scanners, (several posts, including quite a few comments from JR himself), Elusive Lucidity, and nearly everyone else on the planet. Including this, David Bordwell's comments on Rosenbaum on Bergman (and Antonioni, and Scorsese and Woody Allen on their favorites...) The Bordwell post gets at a couple things I've been thinking about - first, the constraints of space on Rosenbaum's argument - the fact that it really doesn't amount to an argument at all, but the summary of an argument, referring to things (Dreyer's use of space, to name one) that have inspired whole books. And second - he starts to address some of the terms of the debate: what did Bergman do, stylistically? There have been claims made about Bergman - he is too theatrical, he is not cinematic enough, he is not formally innovative - but these claims tend to be just laid out there, without much detail or definition. What do you mean, cinematic? That sort of thing is worth thinking about....

As for me - I don't have a lot to add to the debate. A couple notes, nothing too profound.... First - given a week or so to think about it all - I think the problems with Rosenbaum's article come down to three things: (1) space and format: he only has time to lay out what an argument would look like, not to make the argument. (2) the premise - that the best way to assess the value of an artist in in comparison to other artists: thus he writes an article that seems really about why Bergman is not as good as Godard or Bresson or Dreyer. (3) The rhetorical problem of presenting a comparative argument (Bergman is not as good as Bresson, etc.) in absolute terms (Bergman is not good.) That doesn't follow. It seems to me - the criteria you could use to show that Bergman is not as good as Bresson or Godard would still show that Bergman was damned good. In later comments, Rosenbaum seems to be saying that (see his comments at Emerson's place.) But the NYT article gave the strong impression that he was dismissing Bergman, a good deal more categorically.

And - moving on: thinking about these debates has gotten me thinking about some of the terms being thrown around in the middle. Like "theatrical." Some variation on the term comes up in a lot of this conversation, from Rosenbaum's article (claiming Bergman's cinematic innovations came from "his skill and experience as a theater director [rather] than a desire or capacity to change the language of cinema in order to say something new") onwards - but what does it mean? What does it mean when people answered that Dreyer or Rivette were as theatrical as Bergman? It's tempting to ask if it means anything - but I resist that temptation, and suggest, instead, that it can mean a bunch of things - that the term tends to function by pointing to certain elements of the theater that are relevant to the claims being made. Which better sound vague and obscure, because it is. At least shifty. But that's the point. The term is used to indicate any number of things associated with the theater (and its relationship with film), which can be quite incompatible with one another.

Such as? Theatrical can mean, looking like a play: the unity of time and space, the emphasis on the stage, specifically on the framing of the stage - limited audience point of view, maintaining the line between audience and action.... or, having almost nothing to do with that - Theatrical can refer to acting styles - projecting to the back of the room, outsized gestures, etc. - Warren William as Julius Caesar!... or - Theatrical can refer to a kind of notion of human nature - seeing human behavior as dominated by performance, the adoption of roles.... Etc.

Yet: to lump these types of things together raises all kinds of problems. The third example describes Renoir rather well, I think - but Renoir's use of space, the camera etc., has nothing to do with the first type of "theater." Or take "theatrical" acting - take Warren William if you want: how is his performance as Julius Caesar (in DeMille's Cleopatra) not cinematic? It fits the character certainly - he's Caesar! he's supposed to dominate the room when he comes in; the "theatricality" of the performance works within the film.

And more than that (building on a comment I made on Girish's post), in some ways, "theatrical" elements in films are more formally innovative and challenging than "cinematic" devices. Restricted use of space, emphasis on frames, on the proscenium arch, excessive acting styles, certain kinds of stagings and framings, inclusion of performances within the performance (a la Cassavetes or Rivette, or quite a few Bergmans), all create the formal breaks in the illusion that generate certain types of art. I'm thinking of Noel Burch, here - he wrote about the difference between presentational art and representational art. The latter attempts to make people forget the medium: to see the story being told. Presentational art, on the other hand, constantly calls your attention to the act of putting on a show. For Burch, conventional Hollywood continuity was representational - whereas primitive cinema, for example, was much more presentational - making the act of putting on a show manifest.

Enough... one of the things holding this post up has been that I don't have any of these thoughts worked out very well. And am cramming 2-3 different ideas together.... I want to think more about what makes something theatrical - what is meant when people call something "theatrical" - I'd love to see a kind of anatomy of things that can be called "theatrical" in films. And beyond that is the consideration of Burch's point: the ways theater can function in film, however we value them. The difference between presentational and representational art is an interesting one - and I find that a lot of the debate over Bergman is tied to issues like that. Or to the difference between expressionism and formalism - an even knottier set of definitions and categories that I shouldn't mention, though I think I mean by it something like what Zach Campbell wrote in comments to his piece:
My impression of Bergman is that he was always going for effects, conclusions. To put it very crudely, because I can't find a more articulate or eloquent way of stating it, when I'm moved by Bergman--unsettled, saddened, uplifted--I feel like this movement is the calculation of form, that the form did what it was "supposed" to do. This isn't a sin, but neither is it the pinnacle of film art as I experience it and choose to think it. Whereas in Dreyer, I am constantly challenged, shot-to-shot sometimes, by the frictions and (im)balances and of shots, pictorial compositions, cuts, camera movements, etc. I don't feel like Dreyer is leading me to conclusions at all; there's a richness and a weirdness to shot combinations or spatial articulations that just doesn't exist in most of what I've seen in Bergman.
Form can either signify, or resist (delay, complicate, exceed, etc.) signification. Formalism, presentational art, resists signification - forces attention on the act of signification. And - well, we all have our preferences, and that's where mines runs.... But I'd better leave this for now.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Random Friday Music with bonus Hardware failure

Crisis! maybe! soon! Looks Bad! What, pray tell, have you in mind, you ask? I mean - after 2 years of service, my iPod is Giving Up the Ghost. Showing signs at least, making unhappy faces and refusing the synch. Though a few well timed threats later... we shall see. Or - since this weekend is Tax Free weekend in the commonwealth, well - of course that gets me the same deal I'd get from Amazon, but hey...

Anyway, no reason not to put up a Friday shuffle post:

1. Led Zeppelin - Over the Hills and Far Away (live, from How the West was Won) **** - what always surprises me about the zep is how tight and efficient they were, musically, at least when they were within some hailing distance of sober - other than some of their fake boogie woogie and Page's violin bow waking, there's surprisingly little waste on their music, even the jams. This song is pretty tight and to the point by any standards, of course, but still... other than Plant's bleating and their lyrics... which got better later, though byu that time, they coulnd't fit Bonzo in the studio, and Page couldn't support the weight of a guitar any more....
2. Muddy Waters - Tom Cat - from Electric Mud... Pete Cosey! Muddy does his part, and Cosey's sort of tacked on top of it - but I'll take it.... I better give this some stars too... *** I think.
3. Ruins - Black Sabbath Medley Reversible - I see this has not played on the computer since September 2005 - wild... that aside - this is extremely cool. At least iTunes is compensating me for my suffering....
4. Robert Johnson - I Believe I'll Dust My Broom - I guess so. Another record I have never bothered to rate - how do you choose among them? I have also found that Johnson and similar acoustic acts don't always sound all that good on the iPod - which is why it's nice to hear this one through the computer's speakers. Works better, on the whole. (The fact that I'm doing this in real time is tending to drive the format - lot more comments than usual. Metacomments! comments on the metacomments! The usual method is to play the iPod on the way home from work, and type in the last 10 to play....)
5. Audioslave - Exploder - hm. Another way to look at today's playlist is that it's going back 2 years, to when this iPod was new - Ruins, Zep, Audioslave, stuff I was listening to 2-3 years ago, more than now... Oh! There's Morello's solo - that's all you really need to listen to this stuff for.
6. Nick Cave & Bad Seeds - There She Goes my Beautiful World *** - Abattoir Blues had just come out about 2 years ago, I think...
7. The Stooges - Mexican Guy - *** the new record... "maybe I should listen to doctor Phil" - cheap and tinny sounding and a lot more catch than the bulk of the record. BUt even at this late date, there's a lot of life in the old fools. Though this one sure sounds like mid-90s butthole surfers....
8. Nina Simone - Little Girl Blue... what can you say? let's give this ****
9. Come - Sad Eyes... I saw them once; I saw Live Skull too, though I believe Thalia Zadek was almost too drunk to stand. A sour scene - technical troubles with the sound, delays, the band came had plenty of time to stew. The Come show I saw was one of the last concerts I went to before deciding it was a waste of time. Kind of too bad - the record is pretty good actually. They were opening for Buffalo Tom - who just put out a record. I am getting old.
10. The Soft Machine - Fire Engine Passing with Bells Clanging....
Bonus! for no good reason but I love the song (and I'm reading the latest Left Behind update from Slacktivist, while it plays): Steely Dan - Reelin' in the Years *****, of course...

And video? because this is bloody amazing: Ruins Alone -Tatsuya Yoshida just tearing it up, all by himself...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Links and Such

A big week for baseball records - Barry Bonds hits number 756 - Tom Glavine wins #300 - Alex Rodriguez hit his 500th home run at age 32, youngest ever to reach that number... It's all impressive. Controversial of course, at least Barry - I myself am not too offended by his (alleged) cheating. True or not, it seems to have been extremely widespread in the 90s and early 00s, and the game as a whole condoned it - even encouraged it, really - and I mean fans as much as owners, players, executives. Sosa and McGwire were the toast of the country in 1998 when they were going after Maris, and who thinks that was steroid free? I'm not all that excited by Bonds hitting 756 - it doesn't change his place in history: he was going to be one of the top 5 players of all time anyway, this makes him top 3, which is probably right anyway (Ruth and Mays get 1-2, I say.) I cared a lot more when Bonds set the single season record. I was always annoyed that McGwire broke the record - I wanted a real player to do it. Griffey would have been very cool; I could live with Sosa... when Bonds did it I was thrilled. I feel something like that now - whether Bonds played fair or not, it is right that the best player of the generation should hold the records. Ruth to Aaron to Bonds - with Mays not far off - sounds about right.

Speaking of records - there's lots of talk (like in the link above) about Glavine being the last 300 game winner. That, I say, is nonsense. I think it is more or less certain that at least one other player active today will win 300 - some set of the host of good young pitchers are going to stay healthy and pitch into their 40s for perpetual contenders (Josh Beckett? Verlander or Bonderman? Philip Hughes? Peavy or Sabathia or King Felix?) and win 300 - I'd say it's a safer bet than saying any active player will catch Bonds (and A-Rod is a good bet to catch Barry.) I'd say it's more likely that 2-3 active pitchers get to 300 than that none do. They'll do it like Don Sutton, but 300 is 300.

Meanwhile, back on the Film Front: Item! Camille Paglia declares the Art Films Dead! Oh no! Her evidence? She hasn't been to an art film in 35 years! Can't argue with that logic.... I admit, I am a little relieved - perhaps this means Bruno Dumont is a bad dream. Though I was looking forward to seeing more Pedro Costa....

What else? Don't forget Damien Arlyn's 31 Days of Spielberg (now at The House Next Door as well.) Jim Emerson asks Who Matters? Girish hosts a long discussion of Bergman and Rosenbaum. David Bordwell lauds Edward Yang, and Charles Wang, co-head of Salon Films, supplying film equipment in Asia. And again - a John Huston blogathon without many contributions is a John Huston blogathon waiting for contributions!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sympathy for Beat the Devil

Okonheim, at the Sophomore Critic, is hosting a blogathon this week devoted to John Huston, renaissance man. And he was, Mr. Huston, just that - writer, actor, director, part of a family doing impressive work from the late 20s to the present - a major figure of American film.

For all that, though, he can be hard to get a handle on. He was one of the first directors I picked up on, when I started watching classic films - but it didn't take long for me to decide I like Hawks better. Why? Part of it might be plain inconsistency; another part might be that in all his films, even his best ones, there are moments where the seams show - where he seems to be laboring. Those low angle shots of Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon - he's trying too hard. And, I think, it can be hard to get a grip on his themes, his concerns as a director: there doesn't seem to be the thematic consistency you see in Hawks or Ford. But I am less convinced of this objection than I might once have been - and it is what I want to consider here: some of the themes you can see in his work.

What better place to look for a director's themes than a parody of his films? especially if he directs the parody himself. It's hard to think of anyone taking the piss out of themselves more than Huston does in Beat the Devil. (Taking shots at a host of other adventure films in the process, of course.) You can find some nay-sayers, but I love it - it's a hoot, packed with quotable lines ("I am going upstairs and read my bible"), an absurd plot, ridiculous characters, and a host of actors turned loose on the material with no restraints. And boy do they make a meal of it, every last one of them trying to steal every minute of the thing, every one of them given a wealth of material to work with. It's a blast.

But along with the comedy, there's something else. Huston mercilessly mocks Robert Morley's band of "brilliant criminals", but they are a bit more than parodies of the crooks and adventurers in his "straight" films. They are played for laughs - but what they are, and what they do - a bunch of dumb, greedy, desperate schemers, dreaming bigger than they have any business doing - is consistent with most of his career. Failure is almost a trademark for his characters - and even the best of them come in for a trace or two of the mockery heaped on Peterson and company.

It's a recurring theme in Huston's films: reaching too high, getting swatted down. High Sierra - The Maltese Falcon - The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - The Asphalt Jungle - The Man Who Would Be King - all offer men who go after something just a bit too far (or a lot too far) and fail, either ridiculously or tragically - usually a bit of both. And the mechanics of their failures - which occur in Beat the Devil as well - are repeated in many of those films. The way they are brought down by bad luck, a stray bullet, a rusty fuel pump. But not just luck - all these guys go in with their eyes open, and keep plowing on, in the face of everything that goes wrong, and keep going, past that last warning sign, playing their hand to the end, even when the hand has obviously lost...

It gets played for laughs in Beat the Devil, where the crooks are clearly dumber than usual - but builds on the rest of his work. All these characters do themselves in, at some level - Gutman refusing to give in or take the safe way out until he knows if he has the Falcon or not; Dobbs and Curtin hanging around for that much more gold, then turning on each other; Doc Riedenschneider eying the ladies just a few minutes longer; Danny Davot deciding he really will be king.... But fools or not, Huston can't quite condemn them. He always maintains some distance from them, turning a sardonic eye on them (even the heroes, even the Sam Spades - who are usually just a hair or two away from the rest of them - compromised and ambiguous, and if they get out alive, it's usually because, at some crucial moment, they see the abyss and pause, and let the rest of the gang go over. Sometimes maybe giving them a push...). He watches them, sometimes disapproving, but not quite condemning, sometimes sympathetic, but never quite endorsing them. And he allows all of them (maybe even Peterson and company, though obviously not as much) to register at least some of the depth of their hopes and desires. This can take many forms: from Sidney Greenstreet's bitter charm and rueful acceptance of failure, to the ridiculous tragedy of Bogie's Fred C Dobbs, to Sam Jaffe's resignation and Sterling Hayden's genuine pathos in The Asphalt Jungle.

It's a style that approaches tragedy, but doesn't quite make it: it is too ironic, too absurd to work as tragedy. It becomes, in a sense, a character actor's cinema: not built around heroes, stars, who either save the day or die spectacular cathartic deaths - but around characters doomed from the start, but who know how to make us feel it. All these things might help explain why Beat the Devil, proto-camp though it may be, seems as much an emblem of Huston's style as a parody of it. The foolish, blinkered, self-destructive, self-deluding losers here and the compromised, wobbly, self-destructive, self-deluding hero, are exaggerations of the characters in so many of his films. It makes things plainer than usual - including making the performances, the individuality of the actors, the very meat and drink of the film.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Last Time this Happened I was Crawling Under a Bed

Lists lists lists! Death! Controversy! Cheap shots! A blogathon that so far only Edward Copeland seems to have remembered! (But that gives me some time to work on something myself...) What's to be done? Why not another list?

The Guardian's list of 50 Favourite Comedies (gotta have the spelling right) came out a couple weeks ago, and didn't seem to get the play their 1000 films to see before you die did. I guess that list was comic enough that the next one was superfluous. Anyway - Joseph B. saw it, and posted a list of his favorite comedies, and I, rashly, sort of promised I'd do the same. Well - I suppose two weeks of procrastination is a small thing in the larger scheme of things: so here it is...

Now - I say up front: ranking comedies makes very little sense to me. I don't know what I mean. It doesn't quite mean, films that made me laugh the most - there's more to a good comedy than laughing - there are grinning comedies, smiling comedies, smirking comedies, comedies that make you laugh but you don't want to let people know - so no, not that. And it's not the Best Films that can be called, Comedies. That isn't it either. Though it's involved. It's - both, and a few other things too, when you get down to it. Whatever it is - here goes. These should be considered in order, though after #1, the order is approximate and gets wobblier the further down the list you go. It's a lot more English than my usual listmaking - but comedy requires the real words, all the tones and overtones of the words - and the culture - and... so... Stephen Chiao suffers more than Jacky Chan or Tati... and, in the end, there are a lot of laughs in a lot of films not included, but sometimes you gotta name names...

Duck Soup
The General
His Girl Friday
A Night at the Opera
Bringing Up Baby
Doctor Strangelove...
Some Like it Hot
Twentieth Century
Our Hospitality
Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail
Blessed Event
I Was Born But...
Trouble in Paradise
The Awful Truth
Lady Eve
Sherlock Jr.
Gold Rush
Bride of Frankenstein
The Producers
Life of Brian
Palm Beach Story
A Hard Days Night
This is Spinal Tap
Top Hat
O Brother Where Art Thou
Platinum Blonde
Seven Chances
Golddiggers of 1933
Good Morning
The Gay Divorcee
Project A Part II
Love Me Tonight
The Freshman (Harold Lloyd, not Matthew Broderick, though that's a very underrated comedy itself)
Celine and Julie Go Boating
It Happened One Night
Modern Times
Young Frankenstein
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Girl Shy
Safety Last
Beat the Devil
Evil Dead II
Jour de Fete
The Shop Around the Corner
City Lights

Friday, August 03, 2007

Musical Interlude

Why it's Friday again - the end of that rarest of cats, the Busy Week chez The Listening Ear. But not so busy as to preclude another pointless bunch of songs off the iPod! yay!

1. The Iguanas - Flame On (from a compilation of live tracks from this years NO jazz festival)
2. Devendfra Banhardt - This Beard is for Siobhan
3. Serge Gainsbourg - Requiem Pour un Con ***** - have I mentioned how much I love Serge Gainsbourg?
4. DNA - Action
5. Bad Brains - I love I jah - at their reggae proggiest
6. The Fall - Industrial Estate
7. De La Soul - Can U Keep a Secret?
8. Badfinger - Apple of My Eye - pop perfection, yes.
9. Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five - Muskrat Ramble **** - I spent most of 1992 listening to the hot fives and hot sevens tapes. Come home, put them on every night....
10. Derek Bailey - Play 4 - from one of the Wire Tapper compilations.... I like Derek Bailey.
11. Rocket From the Tombs - Transfusion - had to include it - and that de la soul song is just filler, really. so there you go. yes.

And now, video: a lovely piece by Derek Bailey. That should shore up my snob cred....

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Online Film Community Top 100 Handwringing

This is going to be what - 4 posts in a week? man! it's sad that it's taken the icy hand of death snagging too cinematic giants to do it.... that and Danny Ainge having one of his infrequent genius flashes....

But enough of that, right now, I want to note the dissemination of the Online Film Community's Top 100 Movies list, hosted by CinemaFusion. This is a project hatched in response to the AFI's updated 100 greatest American films, polling miscellaneous bloggers to compile a list, meant to - what? "convey the average movie enthusiast’s thoughts"? Well, it's up: I looked at it at a couple places, saw The Godfather and Citizen Kane at 1-2 and figured it was a rehash of the AFI list and thus less interesting than any of the contributing blogger's lists.... But now, reactions are appearing - I read Ted Pigeon's post on the list, and took a closer look.

It's tempting to just light into it - it's got some problems. Pigeon says it is as "arbitrary and homogeneous" as the AFI list - I'd say, it's a good deal more homogeneous (and probably arbitrary) than the AFI list. It lacks the strangeness and twists big compilation lists usually have - instead, it almost looks like one guy could have made it. And I certainly mean "guy" - it's a young man's list (a point noted by commenters everywhere, notably at Edward Copeland's site.) The comments there zero in on it - 51 male contributors, 4 female, notes one; - "anything that can read feminine did poorly: musicals, melodramas, almodovar" (quote Nathaniel R of Film Experience.) The films added to the list are mostly science fiction films, action films, horror films, recent comedies - plus a particularly anemic crop of foreign films (the anointed classics, plus some goo, like Cinema Paradiso.) The films taken off....

I have seen a couple remarks about the emphasis on genre films - but what's more interesting is the balance of genre films: the AFI list, for example, has plenty of genre films - but quite a few different types of genres. This one strips off everything but the anointed classics and the action/sf/fantasy/horror films. Compared to the AFI list - quite a few of the westerns were cut; a great many noir and older crime/adventure films are gone - Bogie's contributions have been pared back to the essentials. Almost all of the musicals are gone. The melodramas and romances are gone - Gone With the Wind is gone with the wind! There are plenty of comedies (some very good ones), but the focus is changed: most of the old comedies are gone - the fucking Marx Brothers are gone! (An unpardonable sin.) The social problem films have been cut back - a couple are hanging around, but just as many are gone.

In place of those films? more science fiction, action films, fantasy... some foreign films - 10, actually - a miserable number indeed. Very few art films, and those films that, usually, fit just as well as action films - Aguirre Wrath of God, say. No Godard, Bergman, Antonioni, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Sternberg - nothing with women in it, except The Passion of Joan of Arc, which presumably the contributors read about somewhere...

Okay... tempting as it is to slag on it - it's also tempting to try to parse it a bit. For example - it probably is a good snapshot of film culture today, what's in fashion, how people look at films, at the aesthetics and history of films. Though one of the most depressing aspects of the thing is that it shows that history and aesthetics are right out. However this list got generated, the result shows very little interest in film history - the films on the list are heavily skewed toward the present, what people watch and talk about now, and films that led directly to what they watch now. It shows no interest in going back looking for things that are out of fashion - which is one of the points of this kind of exercise, I would think. It's one of the themes that has come up in the comments on Bergman and Antonioni this week - people like me, who took them for granted or relegated them to the sidelines, so to speak, have to think about them - think about their place in history and their value, their relationship to the rest of film history. YOu want that from lists - it is a major reason to monkey around with lists: to confront what you haven't thought about in 5 years; to reassess Eisenstein or Blade Runner after not thinking about them for a while....

The other sticking point is the lack of interest in aesthetics: in art films. In anything challenging. This online list, oddly, came out every bit as middlebrow and safe as the AFI list - maybe more, since there's less sign of different constituencies pushing different films. (That is actually a very strange feature that I don't know how they managed: most compiled lists will tend to be predictable toward the top, where everyone votes for Citizen Kane and The Searchers and The Wizard of Oz, but gets weird further down, where the individuals and partisans of types of films start to have an impact. You can probably see that in the AFI list - you can imagine films supported by generation, maybe by gender, actors vs. critics vs. technicians... that probably accounts for some of the "arbitrariness" of the list. That's mostly missing from the online list, which surprises me - usually, you find some bloc of voters pushing something - some auteur, some national cinema (people like me pushing Japanese films), genres - that make some impact ont he list. I don't see it here.) It's odd - it's very hard to imagine making a list of 100 films without Godard, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Antonioni turning up - even back when I was on AOL, and getting involved in list making projects, often involving quite a few real live high school boys - there were always blocs of Tarkovsky and Malick fans around - and all of that, all those directors, are missing here.

So - does all this mean anything? I suppose if this is representative of the online film community - especially if it's an online film community that considers itself better than the general public - it's kind of depressing. Comparing it to those high school kids I used to know on AOL - it's depressing - they managed a good deal more ambition and adventurousness than this poll did. It's depressing that a survey of world cinema could only come up with 10 foreign language films, including Run Lola Run. It's depressing how easy this group seems to be with their ahistoricity. I might also suggest that when people vote for subjective reasons, they usually end up more conventional and like everyone else than when they vote like eggheads: probably because "subjective taste" is mostly a social value, much more about belonging to a community than about interacting with an object (a film, say). But for all that - it's also harmless. It's also not really representative of the online film community I read. It's not really representative of the individual contributions to the list that I read. Individual lists are always more interesting than the finished product, and this project generated a lot of them, which is good. And it's probably normal that a social project like this film poll should end up emphasizing social values - it did what it's really supposed to. So bitch though I may, I'd as soon see more of these things, rather than less. It's fun.

Though any list without Duck Soup doesn't count.