Saturday, December 30, 2006

War as Theater

Saddam Hussein has met his just reward. Richly deserved at any rate. Whether this actually makes any difference in the world - no, not likely. Josh Marshall calls it what it is - "tawdry, cheap acts ... [dressed up as].... papier-mache grandeur -- phony victory celebrations, ersatz democratization, reconstruction headed up by toadies, con artists and grifters". It's shabby political theater, which is about all the Bush white house has been able to muster all along. Attacking Iraq was a sideshow from the beginning - a war chosen, I say, because it could be turned into theater - there was no danger that Iraq could actually prevent us from taking them over; the odds are good that no one really thought Hussein had any means (WMD, I mean) to make the victory genuinely painful to us. We could win easily, we could prop up a puppet government, put a few villains on trial, and use it for photo ops. When you think in terms of the visuals, the photo ops, the capacity for history to be used as propaganda, you are not likely to think of what will actually happen: it is not surprising that the planners of this fiasco did not foresee the obvious (years and years of low level mayhem, and the US trapped, unable to stop the violence, and unable to leave without turning loose a full throated bloodbath.) Disgraceful.

Killing Saddam Hussein does us no good. Probably can't do any more harm than we've already done, but that's the best I can say about it.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Year End Music Post

It's Friday, and time for a Random Ten - but wait! It's the last Friday of the year - and that means, time for a List. Music! What did I like this year? How much? I backed down on my buying this year, but still got a pretty good lot to choose from - and found plenty to like. So here goes.

1. TV On the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain: a breakout record, as far as I am concerned, bringing everything I like - avant-garage, soul, jazz, experimentation, epic sprawl (a la Mercury Rev) - great songs.... it's a contender for the best records of the decade.
2. Six Organs of Admittance - Sun Awakens: a band that's been growing on me since I discovered them a couple years ago. They're evolving from weird folk to weird folk avant garde prog something - remaining hypnotic and addictive. I'm a sucker for an obnoxious bleat of electric guitar and they provide it, along with clattery percussion (I'm a sucker for that, too), acoustic drones....
3. Scott Walker - Drift: this is one of those records that would normally suffer from the iPod - except it's the CD I've had in the stereo for the last couple months. So it's one of the few records on this list I have actually listened to from beginning to end more than once. Anyway - a stately, menacing work of great power, and to be honest, that goes as much for the individual songs as for the record as a whole.
4. Decembrists - The Crane Wife: this, on the other hand, benefits greatly from the iPod - fine as it is taken as a whole, it is full of songs that really do leap out at you when they come up on shuffle. Crane Wife #3, When the War Came, Sons & Daughters, Summersong, have all gotten into my head for days at a time - really beautiful music.
5. Pere Ubu - Why I Hate Women: when I got it, I wasn't completely sold - even now, I don't think this quite matches their best work. But it grows on you - grows on me anyway. Worms into your brain. They are, David Thomas is, the most reliable band of the last 30 years. Everything they do is worth hearing, and most of it gets better every time you listen to it.
6. Yo La Tengo - I am not Afraid of you and I will Beat Your Ass: did I mention I was a sucker for anobnoxious bleat of electric guitar? I don't think there was anything on record this year better than "Pass The Hatchet, I think I'm Goodkind" - 10 minutes of Guru Guru style wanking - what more could anyone ask? The rest of the record is also quite good, though nothing else quite lives up to that promise. But they are another band that you can count on - they can't do anything less than enjoyable.
7. Liars - Drum's Not Dead: another one that takes some time to work its way into your head, but it does. Stripped down version of the percussive post-punk of their last record, haunting where that was abrasive.
8. Mission of Burma - the Obliterati: so the Liars managed to sneak in here. An actual contemporary band rooted in 80s post-punk/indie rock - alone, among a host of actual honest to god post-punk/indie bands from the 80s (or Beyond!) bands. Mission of Burma went away after one record, long before their time, but have come back in the 00s and now made 2 very good new records. Who needs the Strokes when you can have Mission of Burma?
9. Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped: what did I just say? another band that can be simply counted on to provide value.
10. Outkast - Idlewild: I suppose this is coming a bit out of left field, among all the old indie rockers, but really - they are good. And branching out all over the place here - still rap and hip hop, the soul styles they were trying on the last record, now jazz, jump jazz, Funkadelic style guitar jamming (A Bad Note, say) - they're great. What can I say? Why didn't I see this movie though?

And some honorable mentions - quite a few more I could add - the only really lame record I got this year was the new Who record. But I'll stick to the ones that I could see myself putting on the list some other day...

Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood [as good a voice as there is in rock music]
A Hawk and a Handsaw - The Way the Wind Blows [god bless the Ottoman Empire!]
Mars Volta - Amputechture [more prog guitar heroics]
Scissor Sisters - Ta-dah! [you can look them up under "infectious"]
Danielson - Ships [a bit hit or miss, but some great stuff]
Raconteurs - Broken Toy Soldiers [not as good as the best White Stripes records, but full of fine songs, played with gusto]
Miho Hatori - Ecdysis [mellower than her Cibo Matto days, but very nice]

And finally - an inline video. Has to be the best band of the year. Live clip of Dirtywhirl - not great video, but pretty good sound....

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas! (and a sad, fond farewell)

Just checking in, amidst the holiday cheer and confusion, the piles of chocolate, the turkey, taters, eggnog and cookies, the happy little tots with their iPods and game boys and j-pop CDs (I have an odd niece)... And one bit of very sad news: James Brown? We shall have to put up a video. which shall have the contradictory effect (I would hope) of making all who see it Happy - how can you listen to James Brown and not be Happy?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday Random Music Again

It's Friday again, time for some random iPod fun... This week, maybe the next couple weeks, we'll draw from records that came out this year - call it our end of the year special! Here goes....

1. Mars Volta - Day of the Baphomets [12 minutes of it...]
2. Liars - It's All Blooming Now Mount Heart Attack
3. Six Organ of Admittance - Bless Your Blood [strong song from a really outstanding record - one of the 2-3 best of the year.]
4. Thom Yorke - And it Rained all Night
5. Danielson - Bloodbook on the Halfshell
6. Scott Walker - Buzzers ["polish the fork and stick the fork in him, he's done boys"... Another of the year's prime records]
7. Scissor Sisters - Lights [I think I like these guys - more every time I hear them. Like the beegees if they knew they were supposed to be funny.]
8. Jeremy Enigk - Wayward Love
9. Sonic Youth - Do You Believe in Rapture?
10. TV on the Radio - Snakes and Martyrs & Wash the Day [back to back? who can complain though - the best record of the year, easily.]

And for video? First - a plug: I've been meaning to put a link up (not just 'cause he name checked me when he started it...) - Moviezzz runs a nice little feature, Forgotten Video Friday... he's got Sean Penn up today... A neat idea...

And here? Let's try one that didn't come up, though the record did: Scott Walker, from Drift. This is "Jesse".

Monday, December 11, 2006

Inland Empire

It's a bit difficult to write about Inland Empire. Not because the film itself is strange or hard to figure out - shoot - that's what makes it so easy to write about... But because it's only playing a couple places (NY and LA, for the Oscar season, and Cambridge Massachusetts - that I know of.) It will open in January in the wide world, I guess - this creates a dilemma. It's a film you have to take in full, in a way - to say much of anything coherent, you should probably get into the guts. But it's also a film well worth seeing in as raw a state as you can - navigating through it blind, at least once, is a pretty important step.... So - I'm not sure spoilers are quite the term for this film, but... there might be some. I imagine most of the plot of the film [snicker] will be well known by the time it comes out - still - I suppose I should make some kind of disclaimer before starting....

So what do we have? A Woman in Trouble. Laura Dern, in the role of Nikki Grace, an actress, playing a woman named Sue, in a melodrama about adultery, costarring with Justin Theroux as a rake, playing Billy, who's rich, and a rake, and... we get a bunch of movie set stuff, scenes from the movie in a movie, scenes of the actors hanging around, Harry Dean Stanton being very funny. There were some hints - rabbits on TV; an old Polish woman telling stories; flashbacks or scenes from a movie or a radio show set in Poland - and then things start to loop, and once they start, they never quite come back to anything resembling a stable storyline. There are dark secrets; there are morality tales; there are whores and corridors and dark streets in Baltic regions; there are dance routines. Also lamps, furniture and a crying girl. Mostly though, there is Laura Dern.

I imagine people will soon be trying to figure it out. Trying to parse what's "real" and what's not, trying to map the ontological levels of the thing. That seems a waste of time. Even more than Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire seems rigorously devoted to the logic of a dream - to the mechanics of dreams. Not just the swirl of imagery, the unconscious, bad conscience and the like - but the mechanics. The way dreams stitch images and places together. The way any image or place or thing in a dream can lead to any other place or image or thing. Films can do that too, though they don't all that often. It’s too easy to claim this film is incoherent or has no plot*: it may well be true that there is no plot as such, no ontological grounding, but it remains internally logical. It operates by the fairly simple principal that syntax precedes semantics. - that the logic of how things happen is more important than what, in fact, happens. Lynch maintains the syntax of films - shots/reaction shots, editing on actions, keeping the direction of motion the same, etc. Actions flow - if you go through a door you are in a different room; you go around a corner and you see something; you go around a corner, there is a cut to someone coming around a corner; you look through a window, there is something out there. But what you see isn't determined by what you just saw. The other side of the door isn't determined by this side of the door. Lynch keeps a coherent syntax - but constantly changes the semantics. Every cut can reinvent the world. There is no reason why a shot-countershot sequence has to cut between the same things. So Laura Dern and a lamp can become Laura Dern and a roomful of hookers. Or you can step into “Smithy’s house” and step out in Poland or the rabbit sitcom.

Dreams work like that. You walk through the house you grew up in, go through a door and are in your grandmother’s house. Or turn right and you’re at your job, turn left and you’re on a boat. Dreams do yeoman work of constructing something like narrative out of this flow of images - Lynch gives you a similar flow here. Dreams tend to keep throwing up the same images - a lot of the links in dreams come from some object or place or person who keeps recurring in the dream. That is certainly how Lynch works. He keeps a fairly stable group of places, faces, phrases, objects, actions - he keeps cycling through them, changing their position in the story - changing names, the way someone (actor, character, name) acts, what a door can lead to. All of it is anchored by Dern, passing through - though she is hardly playing a stable character: she might be the actress, might be the role, might be the actress playing the role, might be a hooker on the street, in LA, or Poland, or.... She is, though, always Laura Dern, though even that - she is a remarkably pliable performer, changing her face, her voice, her posture, her demeanor from scene to scene.... lazy reviewers will whine that of course she did, they made it up on the spot and stitched the film together afterwards. I will note instead that that is probably why they made it up on the spot - to get that kind of protean performance.

Still.... that's the story, so to speak. Then there is the film as an object. It is absolutely stunning looking. Not in a classically beautiful film way (which Lynch is a master of), but Lynch goes very deep into the textures and effects of digital photography. He revels in its look - the blurring, the crappy colors, the graininess of it, the way light and shadows react to the video, the way it gives light and darkness a kind of thickness. He revels in the different qualities of light - cutting between these milky, blurry shadowy shots and clear, sharply lit shots, or the brilliance of natural light. He takes advantage of the lowlight capabilities of video. Light itself, frankly, is close to the main subject of the film. If not light itself, then lamps - the quality of their light, the shape of the light and shadows they throw on walls and rooms. He seems to love everything about the video camera. He exploits the size and focal qualities of the video camera - shooting faces in extreme close-ups with wide angle lenses to get them all in - but leaving half the screen empty, but in focus - so your eye is drawn back and forth between the distorted faces the open spaces behind them. He loves the mobility of the camera, its size - he pushes it into some strange places. All that, applied to shadowy corridors, icky looking rooms, decrepit stairways, mysterious doors, and christ knows what else - beautiful!

All told - it's a masterpiece. David Lynch is the man.

* Two comments on the plot - more likely to cause a breach of the spoiler police than the rest...

1) the plot of the movie in a movie is in fact fairly clear. A rich man, Billy, with a wife and kids, has an affair with a poorer woman, possibly a cleaning lady (Sue) - the spouses find out, and actions have consequences, and they will be dark and inescapable. Roughly the same plot occurs in the Polish sequences. These stories are, however, fragmented, incomplete and discontinuous, and of course confused by the way people seem to keep moving around among the stories...

2) Under all the dreamscapes and Freud and moralism (and there is a lot of moralism, when you get down to it), it might be possible to take the film, Inland Empire, that we see, as an almost direct attempt to show the process of making films. The discontinuity, the lack of sequence, the repetition here all echo the process of actually shooting a film. It’s a denaturalization of the acting and filmmaking process - stripping out all the transitions, not providing the overall story, just presenting the on-the-ground, in the moment experience of making a film, out of sequence, playing a character and living as yourself.... This isn't that farfetched a reading, I don't think - the film repeats its emphasis on Dern’s performance, on all her roles - TV and theater and movies and radio are all major metaphors - and well - it ends with what looks like a wrap party, doesn’t it?

Quick Reviews

This is something of a throwaway post. A couple films. If this was tomorrow, I would have more for you. Something longer, something more substantial. But today, just a couple reviews, part of what I saw this weekend. The rest, we may see tomorrow.

History Boys - I needed to kill a couple hours Saturday, and this was playing at a convenient time. No other reason to see it. I shouldn't be too snide. It's not bad, I guess, but really. Here, it's a bunch of lads, the clever lads, at a Yorkshire school studying to get into Oxford and Cambridge. They are guided in this task by an ignorant headmaster, an old biddy on loan from one of the Harry Potter films, a young ambitious teacher recently out of Oxford or Cambridge or something like that who Teaches To The Tests, and Richard Griffeths offering a less threatening (and less poignant) rendition of Uncle Monty. They are the only inhabitants of Yorkshire, possibly England, except for a cute secretary and a nosy crossing guard. Despite (or possibly because of) this depopulation, much of the film is consumed in discussion of sex, or at least lust, the rest in vague debates about whether to teach to the test or not. All right, all right - it's not that bad. It's a nice brainless way to pass a couple hours, and does serve to clear the mind for more challenging fare. (Note the foreshadowing! what challenging fare could that be? will there be rabbits? lamps? Nina Simone? Tune in tomorrow...)

F*ck - half the planet is interviewed about the title word, which I, surely, would never print in so many letters here on this humble blog! In fact, this is a pretty good film, a nice amusing documentary about the f bomb. Clips and songs and cartoons, linguistic discussion of the word, its innumerable uses, its history (from 1475 at least; gaining popularity in the 20th century, especially during the world wars, when it spread to become the main form of cursing in english.) Discussion of the bird. The legalities, the politics, the FCC, on TV, in movies, HBO, and so on. It's interesting enough.... The talking heads are generally fairly bland. Maybe it's a function of the film's own biases, but the right wingers come off a bit better than the lefties. The film itself, basically, takes the pro-fuck side - the pro-vulgarity interviewees don't have to do any heavy lifting. The prudes, however, have to make the case against the word, and a few of them try. Pat Boone is witty and self-depreciating; Miss Manners plays her part; even Michael Medved comes off almost half-sane, nowhere near as obnoxious as his usual persona. The filmmakers, though clearly on the other side, generally let them say their piece - they get to make the case, and a couple of them make it as well as you can make such an inherently weak argument. And oddly enough, the best case, the most consistent, complete ann coherent case against the f-word comes from Alan Keyes - Alan Keyes! What the hell? Thankfully, there are a couple lobbyists for the censorship business, who act as smug and stupid as one would expect - and Dennis Prager, radio host, bigoted fool, comes off as every bit the santimonious cunt* you would expect. Blathering about Civilization and the Barbarians, as if he were the civilized one. No no, no one is fooled there!

And Bill Plympton cartoons! whoo hoo!

(And yes, the word does occur a few times in the other film, due for review tomorrow. A couple times. Here and there.)

*Which Drew Carey says is the real offensive word. You'll have to do a documentary on that next! he says.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sport! Music! Friday!

Here I sit, watching the Celtics Suns game. Suns coming off a double overtime, 161-157 win over New Jersey. 133-133 in regulation? Well. C's should do that - they can score when they try, and few teams are better at letting the other team score. Looking at the Sun's roster though - they may have 4 players I would take over anyone but Paul Pierce, and Diaw's not far off (given his age and his complete game - 14 assists last night, more than Nash) - Nash might be a little old, and needs the scorers to be completely effective, but still... (Marion and Stoudamire are no brainers. Legitimate big guys? No question.) And Bell has game, and the bench - Barbosa, even Kurt Thomas - are not slouches.) This ought to be fun anyway....

Friday Random 10, then - with stars, when I've rated them:

1. Gene Vincent - Race with the Devil
2. Don Byron - C'Est si Bon [From his wonderful Klezmer record]
3. Pere Ubu - Wheelhouse (***)
4. Bad Company - Movin' On
5. Butthole Surfers - Gary Floyd (****) [yeah...]
6. Decembrists - Leslie Ann Levine
7. Killers - Somebody Told Me [not bad, but more derivative sounding than some of the other 80s revival acts of the 00s...]
8. Al Stewart - Merlin's Time
9. Stooges - 1970 ***** [out of my mind on a Saturday night...]
10. Rage Against the Machine - Snake Charmer

Video: as nice as the Buttholes are - let's go to the source - here's Gary Floyd with Black Kali Ma:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Quick Reviews

A couple new movies, and a very rare old one....

Ten Items of Less - bit of a slow week for regular new releases - this is the only one that seemed al that appealing. And it lived up to it. A neat little two hander between Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega (of Sex and Lucia fame - one of those unjustly neglected gems: Julio Medem is an unjustly neglected gem). Freeman plays an actor who is damned near himself - he is in a slump, or something and researching a role for his sort of comeback in an indie film. He gets dropped off by a stupid PA at a barren supermarket, and starts wandering around, and soon takes notice of the smart angry girl in the 10 items or less lane. His ride doesn't come back, so when she goes off duty he goes with her, but she has a job interview in the afternoon, but not before fighting with Bobby Cannavale, cornering the market on asshole roles. They take her gremlin and go shopping at Target, get Arby's and go to a car wash. All that is in the trailer, and it's the plot, but there you go? It's modest, but it nails it - the filmmaking is clear and simple, unshowy without being invisible... And the leads are superb. Freeman is able to be as charming and funny and wonderful as he is capable of - and he is capable of a lot of it. HIs character is a bit out of it, counting on his ability to charm his way through anything, but also endlessly curious and generous... Vega's character is young and pretty and smart and wants to get along in life on her own power. They play well together. It's shocking to see something like this from Brad Silberling, maker of the atrocious City of Angels. This is another Capra riff, by the way - but a good one, more in tune to the early, lighter ones, complete with jokey out of tune songs... (Speaking of which - I notice I didn't mention seeing Platinum Blonde and Bombshell last week. This isn't Platinum Blonde by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not far from a stripped down Broadway Bill.)

Piano Tuner of Earthquakes - new from the Quay brothers. A gothic nighmare of a film about a singer kidnapped by a mad doctor Droz who brings in a piano tuner to tune his automata. There is also a housekeeper and the girl's jilted lover, also played by the actor who plays the piano tuner. Things go roughly as expected. Handsome and strange, with some moments of great animations, but generally rather tedious. Plays like a sedated and slightly out of sorts Guy Maddin film.

Enthusiasm - 1931 Dziga Vertov film, made in industrial Ukraine (the Donbasse region) to celebrate/advertise the first five year plan. In fact, a sensory battering - images, sounds coming at you with great force... (The woman introducing it told a story - at the London premiere , Vertov himself took over the sound controls, and turned up the volume to "ear=splitting" levels, despite the shouts and pleas of the audience.) Vertov hauled a monstrous sound camera to the Ukraine to make the film - he was after Truth, and considered himself part of the five year plans - he considered making films as valuable a kind of work as any other... No lack of actual physical labor involved... The film is about work: most of it set in coal mines and factories, showing the workers doing their jobs - it's about technology, machines - including the camera. The mill images get this the best - startinmg with abstract images of mills, lots of camera tricks, editing tricks and so on, then moving to the workers - he shows their actions actions fragmented, taken out of context - no sign of where things were coming from or going, what men were doing - a series of images of men working, at strange, repetitive tasks - prodding fires - throwing coal into a furnace (that made sense at least), a man grabbing a long thin piece of molten metal and twisting it around him. All this shown from various angles, including some radical overhead shots - accompanied mostly by natural sounds. Culminates in an almost ecstatic shot of molten metal lines twisting around on the screen, forming genuinely abstract patterns - very beautiful, very strange. It has an odd effect - he cuts up the actions, shows it from all angles, though never quite as a whole. It's interesting that a lot of the shots are perfectly natural - showing us what the workers see - they are absorbed into their specific tasks, and that is what we see. No one sees the steel coming together, no one sees the process whole... He does that - breaking up the overall process into its pieces, only tentatively bringing them all together at the end. It really is a spectacular, exhilerating film. Makes you want to go exceed a quota!

Monday, December 04, 2006

5 More Books....

This post is an addendum to yesterday's criticism post, specifically to the 5 books listed at the end. I'll stand by those, as my favorites, or the best criticism I've read - but today, I was thinking about an ever so slightly different set of criteria... Those five books all take a pretty narrow subject: three are devoted to single filmmakers, a fourth is by a single filmmaker - the fifth about a very small group of films. They are focused - detailed considerations of a limited group of films. Their value is depth. Today, at least briefly, I want to celebrate breadth. And some other things - but mainly, I want to note some of the books that have served me as guides to watching films....

1. Andrew Sarris - The American Cinema: this is the bible, no? at least for pre-1965 or so. (The old testament, maybe.) What is there to say? this is the place to start if you want to figure out what happened in American film through the 60s. Quick, thoughtful outlines of all those directors' careers, lists of their films, loosely ranked. A guide, without being so demanding in its judgments that you can't choose to disagree - it almost seems to invite you to argue. Great stuff.
2. Audie Bock - Japanese Films Directors: it lacks the scope of Sarris' guide to American filmmakers, but does a similar job of taking the important filmmakers and summarizing their careers, their work, their importance. As good a place as any to start on classic Japanese cinema.
3. Stephen Teo - Hong Kong Cinema: a survey of its subject, covering the history of Cantonese (mostly) film, its aesthetics, its genres... Another excellent introduction to one of the world's major film industries.
4. Hitchcock by Truffaut - this is going in a different direction, but wouldn't it be nice if every great director got something like this? the chance to sit down with a sympathetic critic, maybe one that had made a couple films himself, and go over his career, start to finish? Shouldn't Robert Altman and PT Anderson have found some time to have a good long conversation while they were making Prairie Home Companion? of course, they don't all talk like old Hitch could...
5. And finally, going off on a tangent - I want to put in a word for James Sanders' Celluloid Skylines - a book about New York City in the movies, and about place and architecture and cities.... And that's a pretty fine web site it has, too...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

On Criticism - What and Who are Near and Dear

I have to get this posted - this is a blogathon near and dear to my inner graduate student's heart - it would kill me not to say anything. It's not easy though - I didn't pay attention tot he dates - and look what's happened. When Andy announced it I thought, hey! I can work something up about Paul Schrader and the Canon! or the essay on Heretical Empiricism I've wanted to write since 1999! but then I forgot about it until last week, in the throes of turkey overdose, and then procrastinated all this week, foolishly thinking I could find halfway presetable versions of one or another of those essays - I find (rather seriously) that I have never taken good notes on the film books I've read. I didn't take notes while reading the books - and most of the comments after the fact were either applied to films (so touching obliquely at best on the critics) or were in the form of a kind of argument with the critic.... it's frustrating, because some of them - Pasolini, Stanley Cavell, Ray Carney, David Bordwell and Noel Burch - have had a profound effect on me.... But in terms of what I have put to paper (let alone to silicon, which is where it really needs to be if I'm ever to see it again), almost the only references I have to them are when I've used one of them to write about a film.

Which leaves me, at this late hour, without much but a kind of sketch of the critical issues that interest me. These interests crop up in the things I write - you'll find comments on genre, film poetics, history and literature (not as much as I would expect) in my reviews and essays - most of them have fairly clear sources. I will take this opportunity, I guess, to name some of the critics I admire and keep returning to, arranged around the elements of film I find most fascinating.

1) The poetics of film - by which I mean, the devices available to films, the formal elements of films. Shots - space - the things that are photographed - photography itself - light - time - the syntax of film, the sequence of shots - or just of things shown on the screen. Duration. The position of the camera, all the formal stuff. I love this. I want to read books that talk about this, in just about any way - and those that do tend to be my favorites. Bordwell, Burch, early Christian Metz. There are filmmakers who get into this a lot - Eisenstein of course (probably the first film theorist/critic I read a lot of), Godard, and Pasolini (a particular favorite, especially as an essayist - as a filmmaker he can be a bit trying [though he certainly made a few masterpieces] - as an essayist about films, he is very inspiring. I really do want to work up a longer piece about his film writing - I've written about his films, for classes and on the net, but I'd like to write something about his essays.) I am also happy when writers who might be more thematically oriented are willing to get down to cases - it's one of Ray Carney's strong suits - he gives you concrete details from the films, bases his comments in what gets on the screen.

And here I have to add, Scott McCloud - he writes about comics the way I wish more people would write about films. Burch and Metz have done some of this - creating anatomies of film devices: types of cuts; types of offscreen space. McCloud is superb at that - and at analyzing the ways comics (in his case) create their effects through those devices. He’s so good at it he offers a model for writing about films.

2) Genre - probably more as a concept, the processes by which we create or define genres, more than actual genres, but all of it interests me. This comes from outside film criticism - Northrup Frye and Tzetvan Todorov mainly (Frye for the archtypes - Todorov more for the ways genres work in an art form). Among film critics, I am particularly impressed by Rick Altman's work.

3) I read litcrit before I read film crit, and I am still interested in the broader issues of literature - of fiction, in any form. Plot, character, theme - narrative, ways of telling stories, ways of relating stories to other things, to philosophy, politics, psychology, etc. Here I fall back on Bakhtin more or less constantly - he is probably the single most important critic there is, when it comes to analyzing fiction, in whatever medium it appears. Todorov figures heavily here, especially in terms of the poetics of narrative. There are certain film critics (or critics writing about film) that seem to use film as a specific instance of a more general concern - Stanley Cavell comes to mind, as well as Ray Carney. They were certainly instrumental in bridging my interests in literary criticism and films, and are both exemplary in ways of integrating an interest in film with interests in broader issues of philosophy and art.

4) That leads to another thing that fascinates me - the ways media relate to one another. I have always been interested in the idea of fiction, as something that can be done in different media. Took a class to the effect once, a nice enough class, though not formalist enough for me, in the long run.... It's fascinating to look for the common threads of fiction or narrative in film and novels, in art, in comics, TV, music... I think looking at what is common to narrative across media helps illuminate the specific devices of each medium. I am intrigued by the problems of adaptations of novels to films - or the relationships between history, novels, films. One of the most interesting papers I ever wrote in a class was about The Good Earth - the film, the novel, and the actual, historical conditions of China ca. 1900-1920 - the way those things interacted, and interacted with other forces, from the politics of the 30s to Hollywood’s orientalism, etc. I was a historian before I was anything else - and this stuff gets me.

The best book I can name that gets at something like this is Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s book on Kurosawa: he moves back and forth among a multiplicity of approaches - history, intellectual history, formal analysis, genre analysis, auteurist analysis, thematic analysis. That is a great book - one of the most satisfying and comprehensive books of its sort I know of.

So there it is. I suppose all that's left is to make a list - my 5 favorite books of film criticism.

1. David Borwell's Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema - available as a PDF from a link on that page... the most comprehensive, detailed book about a filmmaker....
2. Yoshimoto's Kurosawa book. The second most comprehensive...? In fact, it's quite a bit different from Bordwell - a broader range of concerns, as suggested in 4, above...
3. Stanley Cavell - Pursuits of Happiness - the hollywood comedy of remarriage, examined.
4. Ray Carney - American Visions - his Frank Capra book. He does a good job in all his books of integrating his broad interests (philosophical, artistic) with the formal properties of the films themselves - he is interested in the themes, but he is attentive to the poetics.
5. Pier Paolo Pasolini - Heretical Empiricism. Yes, it seems to be back in print! I spent years looking for the thing... it's a very interesting book - he brings all his many talents - a poet, a novelist, a critic, a theorist, a filmmaker, a political radical - to bear on his subjects: so when he writes about films, he is comfortable talking about types of shots, lenses, theories of montage, as well as free indirect discourse, linguistic theory, the metalanguage of the script, and so on. And from the perspective of one who has used these ideas in actual works of art - it's a unique and extremely valuable perspective, and this is a first rate book.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Film Criticism Blogathon

... at Andy Horbal's place. Going on all weekend! which may give me a chance to get something posted - December has come early this year (the middle of September, judging by the temperatures the last couple days.) Anyway - go, read, argue! There's good stuff to be found.

Friday, December 01, 2006

You're Much Too Fat and A Little too Long

Friday again, and so, after a week off, it's time for another random ten! I think the iPod missed me - some very nice stuff coming up.... not all of it rated, though things like Sinatra and Billie Holiday are basically default 4-star songs, whether they're rated or not. (The ratings are, to be honest, as much a device for sorting what comes up on playlists as an actual measure of how good the song is - and 5 star songs are also songs I will Always Listen to All The Way Through, irregardless of mood...) Here's to it:

1. Blood Brothers - The Salesman Denver Max
2. Pere Ubu - Where's the truth
3. Waterboys - Red Army Blues
4. Billie Holiday - He's Funny that Way [with Lester Young]
5. Erase Errata - Untitled [neat little blast of racket....]
6. Mercury Rev - Hercules ***** [and one of the things lost when CDs replaced LPs as the default way to listen to music was the side - all the things sides could do - the grouping and pacing of songs, opening and closing tracks, etc... And one of the things lost when CDs give way to MP3 players is the idea of the openign and closing track itself. I mention this because no one, in recent years, can match Mercury Rev for putting a CD together - their opening tracks (Chasing a Bee, Meth of a Rockette's Kick, Empire State, Holes, Dark is Rising, Secret for a Song) are off the charts. The closing tracks have some, um - odd moments (Girlfren?), but at their best - Very Sleepy Rivers, and especially Hercules and Delta Bottleneck Stomp - are as good as it gets.
7. The Who - Mike Post Theme [this was a sympathy buy - the who have been away so long! so I bought the record. They should have retired a long time ago.]
8. The Rolling Stones - Loving Cup [this should be rated - I don't know how much. I am not as much of an Exile on Main Street fan as many are - a good record, but not up to Beggar's Banquet or Let It Bleed, maybe not up to some of the earlier ones.... oddly, though, I find that the songs from Exile, when they come up alone, always hold up very well. Better than the record as a whole. That is odd.]
9. Frank Sinatra - I've Got You Under My Skin **** [Live version, Sinatra in Paris. There are better versions of the song by the man out there, but it's still - amazing how many tones he can get in there - the shifts from the beautiful crooning to the tough guy, the Jersey accent, the sharp, hard rhythms, the swagger, that can turn on a dime back to tenderness. Christ, what he could do with his voice.]
10. Spirit - Animal Zoo ***** [on any list of All Time Underrated Records, 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus has got to be there...]

And a Bonus Track! whether to make up for the short Erase Errata or that lame Who song...
11. Franz Ferdinand - Dark of the Matinee ***** [this really is an antidote to that Who song. Townshend's lyrics these days - mewling about getting old, dull platitudes (young lovers kiss, they fight and die) just pissed me off when it came on... then, 2-3 songs later this comes up. I'm not a really big FF fan - they're good, a bit too much like the rest of early oughts indie music, songs like this, it takes a good deal of real effort to guess whether it's them or the Strokes or some imitator... But maybe that's because I didn't listen to the words all that close. Cause this - it certainly purges ol' Pete's feeble abstraction quite away. The precision! the detail! this would make a great novel, a great film - it's got a clear narrative, vivid scenes, and sharp wordplay - "not to look you in the shoe, but the eyes find the eyes..." - "so I'm on BBC2 now, telling Terry Wogan how I made it and, what I made is unclear now, his deferences and his laughter is, my words and smile are so easy now.. yes it's easy now..." - delivered in an amazingly expressive drawl over tight, jittery post-punk.... Songs with recognizable stories, people, events, this clear, this concrete, are a fucking godsend. Damn. I am going to have to relisten to those records a hell of a lot closer. This is just a Great song.]

So to recap: the 2 greatest pop singers of the 20th century. My favorite band of the last 15 years (Mercury Rev). My favorite band of the last 30 years (Mr. Thomas et al.) One of the top 5 or 10 pop songs of all time. The rolling stones. A washed up genius. A neglected gem. The godfather of all those big band folkies (what don't the Decembrists or Arcade Fire or whoever owe to Mike Scott?). Not one but TWO bands you could call American's answer to Melt Banana! And a revelation by a band I should pay more attention to after all - well, what can I say? Right now, iTunes is on shuffle, and just kicked up the Sugar Cubes and The Feelies. Keeps right on going. Husker Du!

Anyway, today's video is a live clip from Glastonbury a few years ago - Franz Ferdinand getting thousands of people to sing along about the joys of whatever it is they have in mind to do in the dark of the matinee...