Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Is Being a Human Being So Disgusting?

Shohei Imamura has died. One of my favorite directors, very possibly my favorite living director over the last 7-8 years. I saw the retrospective of his films that toured in 1998, and came away more than a fan. Right up to the last thing he did, his section of the 11'09''01 film, itself a mini-masterpiece. He set it at the end of WWII -a returned soldier thinks he is a snake, crawls around, eats rats, and finally crawls off into the jungle... it struck me then as being to Imamura's career what David Lynch's piece in Lumiere and Company was - both for being a stunning short film in the middle of an inconsistent, though interesting, project - and for being a distillation of their work: "is being a human being so disgusting?" Well - no, not when some people make films like he did.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Fr- no, Saturday 10 (plus)

Here I am. Managed to let a whole week go without posting again - good job! It was a strange week - I saw some films - Fred and Ginger on the big screen! Fred sans Ginger, not quite up to those high standards... In between movies, suffered some plumbing troubles - a burst pipe or two - nothing quite so delightful as coming home to find the bathroom full of steam with water spraying out of the walls. Great fun. An excuse to take a day off work and go see Fred Astaire - and do some random shopping on the way. A bunch of new music out - Racanteurs, Gomez, Danielson, Scott Walker, Mission of Burma, even Tool (I am not immune to the occasional bit of prog-metal wanking....) Will any of it show up on the old Random Ten? We shall soon find out! And hopefully, it will not be another week before I post again - I have films from Fred and Ginger, Luc Moullot, Australia! (x2!) to write about, and hope to do so soon.

1 Red Krayola - Stil de Grain Brun
2 Postal Service - Such Great Heights
3 Acid Mother's Temple - Daddy's Bare Meat
4 Decembrists - We Both Go Down Together
5 Tom Verlaine - Shadow Walks Away (that's the closest we're getting to the new stuff)
6 Blind Faith - Presence of the Lord
7 John Cale - You Know More than I Know
8 REM - 9-9
9 Devendra Banhardt - Chinese Children
10 The Clash - Wrong 'em Boyo

Friday, May 19, 2006

Random 10 for Friday

1. Pere Ubu - Busman's Holiday (live, from Apocalypse Now)
2. The Kinks - I'm not like Everybody Else
3. Richard and Linda Thompson - Walking on a Wire
4. Joy Division - The Kill
5. Damon and Naomi - Tanka (live, with Kurihara)
6. Liars - Steam Rose From the Lifeless Cloak
7. Husker Du - Dreams Reoccurring
8. The Kinks - Who'll be the Next in Line (it's a Davies extravaganza!)
9. Can - Halleluhwah (there goes 17 minutes - but as well spent a 17 minutes as you can ask.)
10. Sigur Rus - Untitled 6 (from the () record) (another long, but lovely piece)

There you go.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Art School Confidential

I know this is an odd choice of a film to expand on in its own post, but I've been interested in art lately, so, I might as well write about it.

Ebert's review starts off with one of the foundational lies of western culture: "I am not sure you can learn to be an artist. Artists are born, not made". It's a lie films like this sometimes give some play to, though the confusion may arise somewhere else. Great artists are most certainly not born - art requires skills that you don't pick up without training. One might ask how useful college is to artists, though. But Clowes and Zwigoff are mocking the conceptualism of art school, the theorizing, the emphasis on ideas over skills - that is, they are attacking the results of thinking that you can be an artist by being clever, not by executing certain physical actions particularly well, in a way that moves other people.

It's a disappointing film - which is different than just being bad. It is bad, I have to reiterate that - the stories (Jerome chasing the girl; the serial killer stuff) are dreadful. Cliches wrapped in gimmicks... the whole thing loses momentum, sinks down into tedium and whining and everything interesting disappears.... But the world is full of bad films: the world is less full of bad films that should have been good films, and this one should have. It started well enough - it sets itself up to have a great deal of fun, taking some shots at art school, the art world, probably the comics and film world while you're in there, Clowes and Zwigoff generally being up for self-criticism...

I liked that it didn't make anyone perfect, perfectly good or bad. Almost everyone is a target for the satire - and almost everyone has something to offer, or gets some kind of moment of grace. Take Malkovich - he's cynical, a careerist, bitter, and even his better moments tend to come in the service of his cruising - but he has some connection to the kids, and what he says - particularly his advice to Jerome - "you're 18 years old - what do you want with a style?" - is pretty much dead on. Jerome has skills - he doesn't have much personality - he shouldn't be thinking about what he has to say, he should stick to perfectly his abilities. The rest, if it's going to come, will come. And Malkovich isn't the only one like that - Broadbent, obviously, is not a good person - he's a dark cave of nihilism, a miserable failure indeed - but he's funny; he punctures the pretensions of the other artists; and he isn't half bad as an artist himself. (I pass in silence over the rest of it - I wish the movie had passed in silence as well - he worked quite well as a poisonous Charles Crumb figure - tarting that up was stupid.)

And of course, Jerome. The story betrays him, turns him into a stock figure indeed - but he's an interesting character while it lasts. It is to the film's credit that he is not all that interesting an artist - he's good, he's got skills, I say, maybe more than his classmates - but he doesn't have much personality, his art is nice, but doesn't stand out. He makes it worse by constantly trying to define himself, to please others, and denigrate them for not being him. If he could do his thing, perfect it? or if he took Malkovich's advice, and applied his abilities to every style he could think of, without worrying too much about doing anything unique? he might be all right... This, along with his squabbles with the class, and their personalities, gives the film its kick - an odd, muted kick - but... it is interesting to think about: Jerome takes positions - he's more willing to attack his classmates (which invites them to go after him) - the dynamics are fascinating, and recognizable. It makes it more interesting to think that Jerome might not be all that good - might not really know what he is talking about. He's presented as if he's the voice of reason in the film, but he doesn't seem all that better off than the rest of them - especially as the film goes on, he seems to counter their groupthink with his own unthinking reaction. His judgment isn't all that convincing - and though he's the POV character, I'm not sure how much the film really takes his POV.

All of this leads us around to the other maverick aspiring artist in the film, Jonah. Jonah's big colorful cars and tanks play an interesting role in the film. Jerome invests them with everything he says is wrong with art school, and Zwigoff and Clowes let Jerome get the last word - the rest of the kids sound like the sheep they are talking about Jonah's art. But there are the pictures on the screen - and to be honest, there's nothing else in the film half as good as those paintings. They aren't original, obviously - but they aren't junk, and (despite the clamor of the kids), they aren't really naive either. Unless this is a world without Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. And they jump off the screen at you - the moment when Jonah's car appears on the screen is the first, and one of the few, moments when art in the film really catches your eye. (Broadbent's art has that too, even without its plot significance.) I don't know how important it is that Jonah's paintings are credited to Dan Clowes - probably not irrelevant.

This also brings us back to Ebert: Jonah is the closest to the demonstration of the great lie - he's untutored, natural, and he does, indeed, make the best art in the class. At least everyone says so - but that's the point, and what might have been very worthwhile in the film: what if everyone in the film was right about Jonah? Yes the film is set up to make Jonah's art seem bad and Jerome's good. But why not? why not make a film that uses narrative conventions - the lead character is right; the lead is the best artist (in a film about artists), his judgments are right; the maverick, the one who goes against the group is right - why not use those conventions, but counter them? The popular kid, the villain in any standard high school film, turns out to be, first, the real outsider - second, the real genius, the one who has real talent - why not? That's the most interesting idea the filmmakers came up with - assuming they actually came up with it. I'd guess the odds are pretty good, actually.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Recent DVD Watching

I suppose I should post this - a pretty flat roundup of DVD's I've watched in the last few weeks. I need to try to write something up - but I'm thinking I want to do it a bit differently. I had been taking a class, and ended up writing about Cindy Sherman - specifically, about her film still series, and how she uses cinematic space (especially, offscreen space) in those stills. That got me looking through my DVDs, looking at specific examples of how films arrange space, and people in space. And then I started reading Bordwell's Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging... (And looking through his new Hollywood book.) So my head is full of staging, composition, activation of off screen space, the play of on and offscreen space (reading Metz and Burch, as context for the Sherman paper), the elements in a shot that draw your attention off screen - all that stuff. It's exciting! And a few of these films, listed below, are particularly excellent objects of examination. The way Altman's camera prowls the room in Secret Honor, creating his own level of affect to the play... or the gorgeous deep spaces and deep focus shots and widescreen compositions and stagings in The Apartment - I watched that a couple years ago, and liked it okay, but didn't feel exactly overwhelmed - but this time, paying close attention to what I could see - good heavens, what a beautiful film. Anyway - I might pursue some of those ideas. We'll see. For now, capsules...

Secret Honor **** - comments above. pretty awe inspiring movie. Altman is superb - and Hall gives a performance of many a lifetime.

Mr. Jealousy *** - nice film; I need to see Kicking and Screaming again - I saw it when it came out, liked it enough, but nothing more - but now, having seen this and the Squid and the Whale - and liked both fo them very much - I need to see K&S again.

The Apartment **** - see above for some of it. Wilder can be deceptive - sometimes his films are so well written they almost erase their appearance; when I was looking at this for the Sherman paper, slowing it down, looking at individual frames, I noticed just how fantastic it looks. Almost as if the words get in the way of the pictures. Take away the words and you see the pictures.

Marie and Julien **1/2 - recent Rivette; gorgeous looking film, all those weightless tracking shots, but a rather hopeless experience, since the DVD was badly fucked up. I don't know why Rivette films are not released theatrically in the United States, just as a matter of course. There should be something written into international law that Rivette, Rohmer, Godard, at least, should have their films shown as a matter of course. I should not have to try to pry something watchable out of Netflix.

Oasis **1/2 - strange but rather interesting Korean film about a dim-witted thug who falls in love with the daughter of a man he killed in a hit and run - who (the girl) happens to have cerebral palsy. This doesn't go all that well, but there you go. Some ill-conceived fantasy bits, but well made...

Forty Guns *** - finally got around to watching this; bought it at Christmas, and let it sit on the shelf since. (I bought 2 copies at Christmas: I was buying cowboy movies for my brother and was thrilled to find this, Winchester 76 and Seven Men From Now on DVD; I was more thrilled to find 2 copies of this - if I hadn't I'd have had to find something else to get him.) Finally righted that wrong a couple weeks ago - was not disappointed. She's a high riding woman with a whip all right.

Broadway Melody
** - another DVD I bought some months ago, and has been sitting on the shelf... very early talky, with intertitles explaining scene transitions - odd. Some okay music, very theatrical staging. Melodrama about 2 sisters, one pretty and talented, the other named Hank. Whatever they thought in 1929, in 2006, Hank is the only character with an ounce of life in her, but she suffers. Men prefer her sister's legs. Anyway, mostly interesting for the history, though a pretty well made film for all that.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Today's Bad News

Updating my last political post - Think that's bad? Look at this! I suppose it's a comfort that it's being talked about - ABC? USA Today? I hope it translates into action - maybe it will. Even my mother, loyal republican through the years, was griping about the spying. Of course, the odds are that George W. Bush will take the rap, in the end - the GOP will survive. Though possibly they will abandon some of their evil ways. Maybe....

Meanwhile, the lesser devil's are sending up trial balloons... "If it took the Germans less than four years to rid themselves of 6 million Jews, many of whom spoke German and were fully integrated into German society, it couldn't possibly take more than eight years to deport 12 million illegal aliens, many of whom don't speak English and are not integrated into American society" - lovely. This desperate ploy to find enemies - on one hand, the sense that they are flailing, the fact that the public is not really responding, is encouraging - on the other - depends how desperate they get... And whatever happens to the government, the stirrings among the kinds of fools like this Vox Day character can generate violence, intimidation... We live in interesting times.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Recent Film Viewing

It's been a while since I have posted anything about movies - all the way back to when I saw the The Notorious Bettie Page - that was a while ago. (I'll leave you with Stephanie Zacherek's Salon review - maybe more positive than I would give, but no harm in that.) I haven't seen an awful lot of films int hat time - fortunately, I have been able to see a couple good ones... So let's see if we can round things up.

Three Times **** - the new Hou Hsiao Hsien film. Three love stories starring Shu Qi and Zhang Zhen, set in three different eras, 1966, 1911, 2005, shot in different styles, that evoke his earlier films from similar times. The first story has the lovers shooting pool in 1966 - he's just been called into the army; she works as an attendant at pool halls. Hou returns to something like his classic, 80s style - the long, fairly static shots (though the camera tends to float these days) from a limited set of positions, often with doors or windows opening up to the outside world in the back of the shot. The boy comes back on leave, looking for the girl, and when she is not there, goes looking for her, riding around Taiwan trying to find her. All of this to a series of pop songs - "Smoke gets in Your Eyes", "Rain and Tears" - in place of dialogue... Romantic and simple and very affecting... The second part, in 1911, is set in a brothel, like Flowers of Shanghai, and adopts that's film's rich colors and gliding camera, as well as its restrictions - everything occurs within one set, the 2-3 rooms where Shu Qi's courtesan lives. She's in love with a rich married revolutionary who disapproves of concubines, though he's willing to help one of the other girls when she gets pregnant - thus unintentionally crushing "his" girl. This section is also "silent" (no diegetic sound, just music) - it's a strange effect, the silent movie conventions combined with the colors and camera style. But it's effective, conveying the claustrophobia and inevitability of Shu's circumstances, as well (I suppose) as the political hopelessness of the Zhang's Taiwanese patriots.... The third section is set in contemporary Taipei, and looks contemporary - the crowded streets, narrow, dank apartments, noisy clubs, electronic pop music, computers and phones and beepers - shot in long takes, camera skulking around through these spaces, light and sound blurry and encompassing... Hou has used this style for most of his contemporary films - Millennium Mambo, Goodbye South, Goodbye, the modern half of Good Men Good Women, Daughter of the Nile... The three sections, revisiting as they do, different parts of his career, different subject matter in his career - and different filmmaking styles - make an interesting survey. Hou's reputation is immense - but it seems sometimes critics have some difficulty getting their minds around what he has done. He doesn't quite have a recognizable style - or rather, he has 2 or 3 recognizable styles, on display here. And he has been moving between them for the past decade or so, exploring how to tell stories, how to examine the spaces of the stories, how to relate space to story... It's an adventure.

I am a Sex Addict **1/2 - Caveh Zahedi's latest, an amusing sexual autobiography of sorts, concentrating on his addiction to prostitutes and the damage that did to his relationships. It's a neatly constructed film, with its direct address to the camera, slipping in and out of fiction and documentary modes, commenting on the processes of filmmaking, especially no budget filmmaking and the rest - it's funny and smart, but it tends to overstay its welcome. Not that it gets boring exactly, it just stops surprising you at some point.

Art School Confidential * - The reviews have been bad. They were right. It starts out okay, a fairly conventional geek goes to college routine that makes a nice starting point for skewering the art world - unfortunately, after half an hour of amusing comedy about artists and art school, the plots start to kick in. The hero is one of those high school losers who never made it with the ladies - so he worships the symbolic girls, and soon enough manages to meet one, only to suffer fresh humiliations - this is complicated, not in a good way, by a serial killer plot. The hero, Jerome (played by Max Minghella), doesn't get the recognition he wants so steals it - from the wrong person... Whatever. The whole thing sinks into misery and cliche, which is a shame - there was some bite at the beginning - John Malcovich is around to embody a mix of cynicism, self-promotion, self-pity and predation, plus intermittent flashes of sympathy; and Jim Broadbent is on hand as an old, drunk madman, mean and depressed, but still talented - Charles Crumb in the flesh. He's fascinating, and deserves better than the fate he suffers in the film.

Badlands **** & Days of Heaven *** - Should I complain about the weather? It has been raining - a more or less uninterrupted downpour since Friday night. So it is good to spend at least one day in the shelter of a Terence Malick double feature. I hadn't seen these two on a big screen before - video, and Badlands on TV, a few times - though apparently always the very beginning or the end - I had completely forgotten about the interlude in the woods. Badlands really is a great film, justifying Malick's reputation. Malick's an odd case - he can tell a story, though he does it obliquely, getting the story info across, but dwelling on other things. In Badlands, he dwells on the characters and the world they live in - in later films, he starts to dwell more on the look of things. So Days of Heaven, though gorgeous to look at, and efficiently enough told, comes off static, abstract - there's no time in the film - no duration, no spaces - scenes don't develop, there's no dramatic development, no chance for people to emerge as anything more than ideas. I don't want to make too much of that - for one thing, it works a lot better on the big screen than video - seeing it on film once more opens up the spaces of the film. But still - Malick's other problem, on display in Badlands, a little, and The New World a lot, is that the stories he comes up with are just a bit too generic - and because he abstracts them so much, their blandness serves as a kind of void in the images - the beauty becomes weightless because the stories are weightless....

Friday, May 12, 2006

Friday Random Ten

Yes it's that time again... and actually on Friday still! triumph indeed...

1. Butthole Surfers - Jimi
2. Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Beams of Heaven
3. Sonic Youth - Pattern Regonition
4. Van Morrison - Beside You
5. Iron and Wine - Cinder and Smoke
6. Mercury Rev - CLose Encounters of the 3rd Grade
7. Outkast - Last Call
8. Black Sabbath - Lord of this World
9. Tom Verlaine - The Sun Gliding (from the new record)
10. Grant Lee Buffalo - We've only Just Begun (from the Carpenters tribute record...)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Villainy Indeed

On reason I haven't written much about politics since the 2004 elections is the simple point that there is very little to say. Somewhere back in 2003 or 2004, the government passed all limits of what I can accept from an American government - and since then, has just kept repeating the same note over and over again. Note? "Think that's bad? Look at this!" Or, put another way, "Think that's is bad? Look at this!" Over and over again. Here, today - we just have to grind it out and hope that things turn. It's not as if this government was particularly strong - they can't run anything, accomplish anything - anything they do they fail at. So we can hope, can't we, that if We - you and me the voters, the citizens - and our representatives - can take responsibility and hold these incompetent liars and petty wanna be dictators accountable we can, in fact, do it.

We'd better. Though if anything were going to do it, you would think this would be it.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Return of Friday Random Tem

Yes, I've been amiss*. But today - it's early! Here goes - 10 songs, random, off the iPod:

1. Rolling Stones - Yesterday's Papers
2. Leonard Cohen - Suzanne
3. The Cars - Bye, Bye Love
4. Son Volt - Drown
5. Jane's Addiction - Stop
6. Pere Ubu - 30 Seconds Over Tokyo
7. De La Soul - Tread Water
8. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - Who's Loving You
9. Damon and Naomi - Beautiful Close Double
10. Minutemen - Sell or Be Sold (Hey! the most played song on my iPod! One of the strange effects of the history of the machine - though not an unwelcome one. The Minutemen were very very cool.)

*Update: did I write this? "amiss"? It must be early... "remiss"! Boy!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Midweek Update

I need to get something in here, been a while. I have been remiss in my movie going, if not my movie watching. Finally got around to watching Forty Guns, which I found back before Christmas - 2 copies, actually! bought them both, one as a Christmas gift, one for myself.... But then it sat on the shelf...finally righted that wrong. Wil I review it? Sooner or later, right?

Not now though. Sitting in starbucks: a bit of a zoo, actualy. A host of eager youth being trained in the jargon of coffee making - a "red eye"? how to make 2% milk? how to mark down the more appalling concoctions - non fat mocha chai with raspberry... something. My head. Meanwhile - 2 people sharing a table, having 2 separate conversations on their phones, in 2 different languages - not English! makes you proud to be an American in the 21st century!

I could blog about politics. Look over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, where you can find a cornucopia of bad ideas being swatted down. (With or without wildly inappropriate metaphors.) If only we could invade Saudi Arabia and seize their oil fields! then there'd be no gas crisis! But you damn liberals would call that "imperialism"! (That's Glenn Reynolds, more or less.) Or - if only we had the will to kill everyone who moves in Iraq! then we could win! (That's a good deal of the right blogosphere, Jeff Goldstein being singled out.) It makes you wonder. It makes me wonder - what would actually be a victory in Iraq? Some of the comments at LGM mention this - that no one seems to quite know what winning means. (This is partly because winning in a war means achieving your political goals - but those have never been defined to anyone's satisfaction, have they?) As far as I can see, this is a war that wwe can't win, because the only political goal we can come close to articulating is that we leave it stronger and more secure than we went in - there is no way we could have accomplished that. Iraq never posed a problem for us (not since 1991) - the only way they could hurt us would be if we invaded them, and made their problems ours. Done and done.

It strikes me that there are basically two outcomes that could be, in fact, won or lost. 1) The establishment of a client state, with not regard to its domestic policies; 2) the partition of Iraq into a series of states, without a civil warm, and with some of them, at least, clients of the USA. These are outcomes that could be achieved (or not) - but neither are poltically viable, really. First - either would almost certainly lead to prolonged bloodshed and chaos. It is hard to imagine either outcome appearing without a long period of violence. Second - is either of those better for us by any standards than the pre-invasion status quo? Let alone the main objection: would it be possible to wage this war (at all) for those ends? and would it be possible to achieve those ends without the kind of commitment we don't want to make (that is to say, The Draft, first and formost.)

That reminds me: anyone who talks about "will" or "toughness" and does not start with the necessity to bring back universal conscription is not worth listening to. It is notable how many of these arguments are in fact quite explicitly about how to avoid making any actual sacrifices, or showing any actual will. Calls to nuke Iran are not calls for national will - they are calls for a way to accomplish some end without any risk to ourselves. Start with a draft and the assumption of years of war, gas and oil rationing, etc., and maybe you have a right to be heard. Otherwise - how can you even pretend to take these people as anything more than cowardly sadists? There's not much more dangerous, I have to admit, than people unwilling to run any risks who insist on the importance of willpower and strength.

I am not in the mood to get into too much of this, though having started... I will leave it. Confuse my poor innocent readers, thinking they'll find more Roger Clemens hagiography, or maybe something about Barry Bonds or the Clippers. Sorry! Politics! duck!