Saturday, March 28, 2009

3 Recent Releases

Another 11 days between posts - terrible. Anyway - today, outside, we have an unmistakably spring day - what a joy! Kiju Yoshida retrospective playing in town - that will be good. These things keep me occupied and in a good mood, though they are perhaps not the best incentive to write.... So once more, some quick notes on some recent films, to try to maintain the illusion of being a blogger...

Sita Sings the Blues - *** - a neat animated musical adaptation of the Ramayana - inventive, funny, smart, a fine film all around. I'm not sure I have much to say beyond that - don't suppose I need to say much. Very enjoyable....

Watchmen * - I suppose I have something to say about this.... I didn't plan to see it, actually - considering it completely pointless. But there it was, and there I was, and so... It could have been terrible - I feared it would be terrible, but it was not. For all the slowmo and attempts at spectacular imagery, it's a remarkably conventional looking film. The fancy shots are all static - probably because they are copied from the comic book. It's an object lesson in a problem with adapting comics - films exist in time and space, comics just in space: the film uses a lot of the look of the comic, but the comic can plaster the words on top of the images, alongside the images - the film has to play the words over the images, in time. And that forces the filmmakers to find something to do while people are yapping away - and what Snyder does is what every B movie director since the invention of sound has one - he cuts back and forth between the people talking in a perfectly normal series of shot/countershots. Which is not quite a criticism - classical filmmaking has lasted all this time because it works very well. It is legible - and this film, dull as it is most of the time, is utterly legible. Now - things get a bit dicey during the action scenes - still legible, but also even more dull than the dialogue. Though here and there Snyder tries to get creative - show something from a distance, in a longer take, something like that - which just exposes the lame handling of the action itself. The actors can’t fight - the violence is slow and boring and unbelievable. There’s a reason modern American actions films slice up the action and blur it and confuse matters - they don’t know how to stage or perform fights. Snyder doesn’t either. The result is something that looks like an old Republic serial. Anyway - one reason I went was to find out if the film had anything interesting to say about adaptation - the answer is mostly no. The film removes most of the critical material from the comic - its exploration of the comics form, its attention to the media world, its relentless focus on signs and meanings, on reading - all gone, and not replaced by anything that could be considered a film equivalent. (And there are no lack of films dealing with those kinds of issues, from Fritz Lang to Frank Capra to Godard to the better Batman films.) All that’s left is the story, which is exposed as being very thin indeed; and the world - which has lost most of its depth, but is still pretty interesting. That’s about all that save the film, that and Snyder’s surprising B movie style eptitude...

Hunger **** - now this is an extraordinary film. About the death of Bobby Sands, but starting elsewhere - starts with a prison guard, showing his routine on the way to the jail - then a prisoner, Davey, who is brought in and introduced to the life - only slowly picks Sands out of the rest of the prisoners, getting a particularly bad beating. Continues to develop, slowly, showing the prisoners fighting, losing - finally building to Sands (and others) starting their strike. With the decisive moment shown in a central sequence - 20 plus minutes, including one very long (17 minute) take - of Sands and a priest discussing his plan. It’s a riveting scene: it might seem stagy, but it is not at all - the balance on the screen, two men in profile smoking and talking, on increasingly serious matters, while the light changes and wreathes their heads in halos - is utterly powerful, and what film was invented for. (And probably a reference, at least in part - at least reminiscent of - the train ride in La Chinoise - though more serious, and more balanced.) The rest shows Sands starving to death, sometimes in the same objective observational style, but sometimes with moments of subjectivity - as he loses control and slips into hallucination. Extraordinary film.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Longish Post about Killing

Given how rarely I've been posting lately, it's almost a shame to devote a post to someone being wrong on the internet - but, given how rarely I've been posting lately, maybe I should grab at anything that gets me to write something....

Last week, Dan Schneider, sometime clogger of the Unspoken Cinema blog, recently took on the Dekalog. Things have taken an interesting turn - as is his wont, he devoted a big chunk of the review to declaring that The Critics Are Wrong - even when they agree with him... this review was unusual for naming names - including David Sterritt, who apparently saw the google alert and turned up to point out the error of Dan's ways. I doubt anything good will follow - Dan's first reply already concedes defeat - he's quoting the dictionary.

I should leave it alone - but I have been thinking about this review all week, since it popped up in Google Reader. Why? The films are a towering achievement of 80s cinema, and any extended consideration of them has to have some value - but Dan Schneider's views might be an exception. But this is a fascinating review, because it has a quality Dan has rather often - especially when he is lukewarm about great films. Most of his reviews are just in praise of great films - and for all his efforts to denounce the ignorance of critics, he usually sticks pretty close to the general line on the accepted classics. Nothing wrong with that - they are considered great films for a reason - but his reviews are far too vague and pompous to say much new about the films he reviews. Once in a while, he will attack a great film - Vertigo, Godard being frequent targets - those reviews - can get ugly... But in the middle - like this review, or another of Diary of a Country Priest, at the same site a week or so ago - he sometimes does things that are surprisingly illuminating. Perhaps he is obliged in such cases to be more specific in why the film fails to be a great film - he can't attack it from the word go, he has to work out the differences between what is good and bad - he has to get down to cases. And when he does -

Well - the problem is - in explaining the things that are wrong with these films, he almost always illustrates something crucial to the way they work. I will get to cases myself: one of the weakest episodes in the series, he says, is Episode Five - Thou Shalt Not Kill. Which I suspect is generally seen as the best of the series. I'd certainly say it is. The fascinating part is that Dan's reasons for disliking it are almost exactly backwards. To quote at some length:
Attempts to mitigate the youth’s crime, by showing his cowardice and tales of his sister’s tragic death years earlier simply ring false. In fact, one might cynically assume this is a pro-death penalty film if KieĊ›lowski was not so adamant that it’s against death- murder and capital punishment. This is because the youth is so reprehensible and his crime so brutal that even ant-death penalty people must feel squeamish when confronted with the sort of reality the film portrays.

Isn't that as absolutely wrong about the film's logic and rhetoric as you can get? So far as it is about the death penalty (and that's not an unfair claim, though seems incomplete), the film seems to be making a moral argument against it. It is not making a legal or political case against the death penalty (except secondarily) - it is making a moral case against it. And the moral case against capital punishment has to account for the worst possible circumstances - if capital punishment is wrong, it must always be wrong. (That, again, is not necessary to making a legal, political, social case against the death penalty - those kinds of arguments proceed on other grounds: our limits of knowledge [and the chance of killing the innocent]; the possibility of redemption, of the killer becoming something better. This episode does not make those arguments - it is making a moral argument. Though the series as a whole is greatly concerned with the fallibility of man; and this episode's references to Dostoevsky at least raise the issue of redemption.) So we do not see anything mitigating about the killer: he is guilty - he is cruel - there is nothing redeeming about him. But we do not have a moral right to kill him - and if the state kills him, we are morally complicit in his death.

Now: that's just the theme of the episode. But that's basically all Dan deals with. The film itself offers a good deal more. It is the most striking looking of the series - the bleached out colors, the distorting lenses, the overall sickliness of the cinematography. It is one of the least talkative episodes - the parts devoted to the boy and the taxi driver are almost silent - two miserable men go about their business in bitter solitude until they meet. We see both killings in detail - the murder is ugly, cruel, messy, long drawn out... the execution, though not so gruesome, is presented with similar matter of fact explicitness. Both bring out the seriousness of what is happening - people are being killed: we are made to face the horror of what is being depicted. It's a harsh, efficient, brutal film on an important subject, organized with care and Kieslowski's characteristic sense of dramatic shape - the parallels between the killer and his victim, between the murder and the execution, the references to Dostoevsky, the explicitness and efficiency of the argument - it is a masterpiece.

The truth is - there's a lot more in that review that works the same way. Dan takes exception to something - in a way that makes you realize how important and effective the thing he objects to is. He quotes Stanley Kubrick, disapprovingly - Kubrick says: "These films have the very real ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.…They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart." - Dan answers: "One of the very reasons this series fails the ‘masterpiece’ litmus test is because there are too many times you can see exactly what is coming." But this makes me think - Kubrick said "ideas" - not "plots" - knowing how Episode 1 will end tells you almost nothing about either how it will get there, or what kinds of ideas will be raised along the way. And much of the effectiveness of the series is the way the plots and ideas play off one another - the way the questions about determinism, fate, the limits of knowledge and types of knowledge play out in the first episode, to name one - the way those themes interact with the explicit foreshadowing of the plot. Something like that - those themes, certainly - what we can know, and how we should act, given that knowledge (or lack of knowledge) - is operative in most of the series. We're let in on the stories early - to let us watch more carefully how the characters react...

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Spring Forward

As I pass through another week, plus, without a post - I have to do something. Daylight Savings Time means I'm up and half awake at nearly midnight - the balmy weather meant I wandered around town today, like yesterday, in no hurry to get inside. My neighbors were making a din when I did get home, though I locked myself in and read Strindberg, which is not something I would do without a class to force me... I have no idea what I think of Strindberg - I shall let that pass.

David Cairns remixes Hitchcock - that's almost too wonderful to stand. Why don't more people do this? with films of all sorts? It's a beautiful thing...

I have seen some films this week: M for the German film class, which is, of course, one of the Greatest Films Ever Made - a fact confirmed and reconfirmed every time I see it. And Alphaville - part of an ongoing Godard series; Godard in the 60s - one of the two or three greatest decades any filmmaker has ever had (there's Capra and Ozu in the 30s; there's Ozu in the 50s - and there's Godard in the 60s; with Hou in the 80s, Imamura in the 60s not too far off)... But as I mentioned at Ed Howard's blog - it's frustrating that Godard in the 60s gets all the programming love. By now, I have seen these films many times - I own a lot of them - I know what they are. But his later work - I don't know what they are. I know some of them are available on DVD< but a DVD is not a movie. No matter how good his 80s films (say) might be, how can a DVD of First Name Carmen or Detective compete with a nice new print of Pierrot le Fou or Vivre Sa Vie? They can't.

And I saw Two Lovers - people keep trying to say James Gray is a top notch director, but his films - they're not bad, really - they feel like movies, all the way down, and that is worth something - but holy crap, this is boring. A very old and very tired storyline - poor artistic depressive Joaquin Phoenix is maneuvered into a relationship with nice Jewish girl Vinessa Show, while pining for the blonde loser played by Gwyneth Paltrow who is waiting for Elias Koteas to leave his wife. Neither woman has much personality - Phoenix' character is a sad sack who never gets to be much else but a sad sack. Isabella Rosselini plays his mother, and remains many orders of magnitude more beautiful and desirable than the two lovers put together... It's annoying - because Gray has something - the film, the story, and the film, flickers into somethign interesting from time to time, but never gets there... god, at times it reminded me of - I don't know - Edward Yang - how can a film remind me of Edward Yang and be this boring? One fo these days Gray will hit it: he will make a film that convinces me. But now - this is like watching all those David Fincher films in the 90s - I say, this guy has something, but these films suck... but sooner or later, it will work.

Probably by remaking M. With its letters to the press, its false leads and clues, its media savvy, its double world of cops and criminals - is the template of serial killer films to come, and most especially for Zodiac - with its newspapers and publicity seeking murderers and unreliable witnesses and double world, here of cops and newspapermen - follows the template closely and well...



Though with nothing to compare to Lang's way with images, or Peter Lorre.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

In Like a Lion...

With a big storm coming through... I am thoroughly tired of winter... We are into March - we ought to be getting some relief... right? any day now, right?

I cannot blame the weather for this blog's complete stagnation in February, though. I suppose I can blame the classes I'm taking. It is probably relevant that they both directly compete with blogging - both have weekly assignments that are virtually blog posts in themselves: a page, 3-400 words, whatever, of comment on that week's assignment. I could probably post the assignments here and no one would notice the difference... Indeed - last week's modernity post is almost a mash-up of the two papers I wrote that week... I don't really want to take over the blog with this - but I might. One of the things I have always liked about taking classes, maybe especially when I'm taking them mostly for the plain pleasure of it, is that they create habits of thinking and writing, and provide material to write and think about. Writing spawns writing. But this year, all that writing has been aimed at those two classes, and none of it at this poor blog. But that is because I have not been posting all that material here - maybe I will start. Or more likely - I might try using this as a runoff. 3-400 words on Hamlet or The Blue Angel is not a lot - a lot of the effort of writing those papers is cutting them down, sticking to one idea: that can generate a lot of discarded ideas, that I ought to be able to turn into blogging...

And finally - there are things that come up, in one class or another, or, like those comparative modernities, between the two, that don't quite belong in the classes, but are interesting enough to think about. I am always fascinated by issues of adaptation, for example - into film, primarily, but in fact, in any medium. Plays to films - history to plays, films, novels, things like that - fascinate me. And I am fascinated by the idea of the "theatrical" in film - whether the presentation of performance (as in Blue Angel), or the use of performance in a film, either story or style (as in Mabuse the Gambler) - or even in negative terms, like the staginess of very old films (Caligari and Student of Prague, say). These issues come up - especially viewing films of plays, adaptations of Hamlet, say - the ways filmmakers play the theatrical against the cinematic, or the ways they try to hide one or the other.... For example, the drama class watched parts of the 1957 adaptation of Oedipus Rex - an attempt to film the play as the Greeks might have staged it. An interesting game, but whatever merits the staging (with masks and highly formalized movements and so on) might have had is lost because the filmmakers insist on cutting it to fit conventional standards. So it is cut, and the camera is placed inside the action, and it is edited to fit the story - big speeches get closeups, there are shot/counter shots - sure sure, it's not exactly Hitchcock, but the filmmaking basically erases the effect of the "traditional" performance and staging... A strange, counterproductive, decision...

Okay: that's all of that. Since I am posting once a week at best these days, I might as well make this one worth while - movies seen? stars provided as substitute for analysis....

Gomorra - *** - terse, brutal gangster film set largely in a ghastly apartment block in Naples... a network narrative, with five stories winding around the gangs and building - it's being sold as an expose of sorts, but the film itself has very little exposition - nothing is in context: we see the violence and cruelty and stupidity as a kind of natural condition of things...

Secret of the Grain - *** - a story about a group of Arabs in a dying port city in France; the paterfamilias is laid off - he gets the notion to buy a derelict freighter and turn it into a couscous restaurant, featuring his ex-wife's fish couscous. He is aided in this largely by the daughter of his current lover, though relations are strained there since he is working with the ex... the film traces his efforts to get this place going - though it also devotes much of its running time to his family, his friends at the lover's hotel (musicians, particularly), and so on. In the end, the sins of the sons are visited on the fathers, while the various women almost carry the game off... It's a surprisingly good film - the kind of film that can go either way, and this goes well. Amusing, sad, moving, very smart.

El Cant dels Ocells - ***1/2 - Albert Serra's film of the three wise men. Three Catalan peasants walking around the Canary Islands. Stunningly beautiful - gorgeous landscapes, the play of light and shadow, clouds, rocks, lines and shapes, composition and textures, the human figures in this world. And a fascinating way of telling stories, with the familiar text, almost completely eliminated, reduced to the human behavior between significant events. Serra called it "flat" - saying he was trying to flatten everything - the imagery (black and white, DV, shot to break depth cues), the story (actors as bodies, with no idea of the significance of their characters), and the characters themselves (the wise men as icons - people we know nothing about, except the gifts they brought). It's marvellous. Compared to Pasolini in the Q&A, but reminding me as much of Olmi's Cammina Cammina, which of course plays with the same story in similar ways...

Waiting for Sancho - ** - documentary shot on the Birdsongs shoot by Mark Peranson, editor of Cinemascope magazine and actor playing Joseph. It reveals much of the method of Serra's work - shooting people in spaces, using DV to take hours of footage, to be pored over to create the film later - showing the backstage camaraderie on the shoot, the process. Nice film. (Two stars, by the way, is good - any stars are positive, 2 is good, 3 very good, 4 great - that's my scheme.)

And on DVD - more Woody Allen: Deconstructing Harry - **1/2 - mid-90s Woody, and pretty good stuff. Here Woody plays a writer who is a sex fiend and a jackass and puts his life in his books - he's got writers block (I won't tell you his whole name), and he's having visions - film alternates between Harry's "real" life and reconstructions of his books - then starts alternating those with flashbacks to the real people - then starts confusing the two.. contains a somewhat silly plot of Harry going to be honored at his old college, bringing along a prostitute, a friend and his (kidnapped) son... though like a lot of Allen's films, it degenerates into self-congratulatory self-pity, it is pretty amusing, and contains some genuinely witty visual tricks, like the out of focus actor. Things can sometimes freeze up on screen, but there is some nice use of space, and Woody leans hard on jittery editing, lots of jump cuts, which can be pretty funny in themselves. But overall - not bad, not bad at all....

And finally? a couple bits of bloggage - nothing big.... a nice discussion of VHS at Tractor Facts... (And Anthony Kaufman's article at Moving Image Source)... Ebert of Saint Agnes of Montparnasse - Agnes Varda...

And goodbye, Paul Harvey... a radio personality who seemed to have always been there, at least on the stations my father listened to through all these years...