Monday, December 31, 2007

It's All Over - Go To Work!

As usual, I've waited to the last possible moment to come up with something for a blogathon - in this case, the Endings blogathon, being hosted by Joseph Judge - in fact, looking a bit closer, it's worse than that: he ended it on December 30, not 31 - I missed it. Well - not to be helped, without a working time machine. Since this is also an opportunity to finally say something about the big Imamura series that played at Harvard last month, I am going to post it anyway.

I want to write something about his 60s films - Pigs and Battleships, Insect Woman, Intentions of Murder, especially - which have truly remarkable endings. Of course, most of his endings are damned good, though it took him a while to figure out how to do it. The early films tend to take somewhat minor key endings - little codas: the college boy and younger sister heading off to Tokyo in Stolen Desire; the local kid and his girl commenting on the story in Endless Desire - Pigs and Battleships is the first to really step it up. And it does so in style, and in a way that really brings out his overarching philosophy. The climax - a huge gun battle, traffic jam and pig stampede that ends with the hero expiring with his head in a toilet - is strong enough: but it's followed by shots of the heroine walking through the train station, headed to Kawasaki, to take a job in a factory. This ending - a young woman going to work (instead of going to fuck an American, like the women she passes on her way into the station), is given a thunderously heroic treatment - musical crescendo, a soaring crane shot, telephoto shots of the girl crossing the station like Mifune.... And not a trace of irony in it: this is what it means to stop waiting for someone else to save you, to stop trying to weasel a living out of the Americans - she is heroic, and basically carries the fate of her country with her.

It's interesting that Imamura's great theme, those tough, unsentimental films about tough, nearly indestructible women, is really only on full display in three or four films he made in the 60s. In Pigs and Battleships, she's the second lead (though she gets out alive) - in Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder (and in the documentaries) she's the main character (or characters, since both mother and daughter have it in The Insect Woman). After those films, his attention usually turns to men, surrounded by tough women, but still... Insect Woman has two endings, in a way: it's the story of a woman from the country, who came of age during the war, and fights her way through life after the war, rising and falling over time. She has a daughter, whose life follows a similar pattern - though she (the daughter) bails out of the cycle as soon as she gets the money, and goes to work on a farm. The ending? it's complex, covering both women - first, we see the girl driving a bulldozer, then talking with her lover - she is pregnant, but he's worried it's not his - she insists it is, though we probably know better. And then her mother comes plowing up the hill, coming to visit, hoping to lure the girl back to Tokyo... both of them plowing on, doing what they do - though again, it's the girl who's more heroic, taking what she can, and stepping out of the cycle of dependence - looking to make her own life on her own terms, through hard work. A figure, maybe, of moving on - in the post-war period, maybe, Japan simply had to survive, and staying alive was heroic in itself, no matter what you had to do to do it. But in the 60s, it's time, maybe, for something more - it's not enough to survive, it's time to get to work.

Anyway - Intentions of Murder is a bit of a change from this. The heroine, Sadako, is less of an agent than any of the women in the other two films: though the story is, in fact, the story of how she becomes an agent of her own fate. The story is - she is the miserable mistress of a librarian, who has somehow never gotten around to marrying her, and whose parents somehow accidentally (cough) registered her son as their own... While her husband is out of town, a thief breaks in to rob and ends up raping her - he becomes infatuated, and keeps coming back. She can't tell anyone; she can't get rid of him; she can't kill herself. Things are terrible. But as the film continues - she starts acting: she tries to buy him off, she tries to run away with him, she tries to kill him, never quite managing it. But she does manage to file suit to be registered as the librarian's wife, and the mother of her child - she does manage to get around to learning to use a knitting machine, and later to start giving lessons on the machine. And all this builds to what has to be the happiest ending in any Imamura film: she gets the registrations changed, the family moves to the family farm, where she starts raising silkworms, giving knitting lessons and making things, making money - she beats them all. It allows, too, for a lovely joke.Everyone else in the film think she's a stupid, weak, lazy fool - her husband constantly calls her stupid, useless, and lords it over her with his education and erudition. But she runs rings around them - even early in the film, when we see that she's been making almost as much money as he does from her knitting, or when she corrects his math when he does the finances... though the best scene is at the end, when he receives the notice that she has filed suit against him and his parents to be registered as her son's mother. He and his mother whine and complain - she says she's sorry, if they want she could try to stop the suit - she never thought it would ever get to trial, she says. Never mind, says the husband, it's too late now - you can be so stupid sometimes.... comeuppance is seldom so sweet...

And so it goes. He kept ending films right after that - Shoichi Ozawa floating out to sea to end the Pornographers; the swarm of witnesses, cameramen, clappers ending A Man Vanishes; Ken Ogata's bones freezing in midair in Vengeance in Mine; The Bomb in Dr. Akagi; the snake-man in his section of September 11 (11'09'01) - "is being a human being so disgusting?" - but those 60s endings get it all.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Review of Juno

It's been an interesting month for films (December that is). Not all that deep a month, for new releases - I've seen 6 new films, including the David Lynch documentary, and only one is really extraordinary - but even the less successful films have been very interesting. I've been sitting on a couple of these reviews for a while, and it might be time to get them posted, whether I have run out of things to say about them or not. With luck I might get a couple more of these out before the year (at least the week) is up... for now -

Juno - Every year, there seem to be two of three films like this. (Lately - say, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Little Miss Sunshine, maybe Half-Nelson, Knocked Up, Lars and the Real Girl (in a very minor sense) - a partial sampling.) They seem to come out of nowhere (a few months before they are released) - they play Sundance or Toronto or something and people gush. And the moving chattering classes (pro and am) start to shiver in anticipation. The hype builds - and then they arrive... And the reviews are - call it mixed. Call them normal, like this was just another film.* You'll see some good notices - some bad - and then you start to see a backlash: the haters come out. And the anti-haters come out. Maybe a think piece or two appears (like this one, after Katherin Heigl took some shots at Knocked Up [richly deserved shots, one has to say.]) And so - even if you see the film opening weekend, you have seen it go through about 5 stages of critical reaction. And what might have seemed like a sure thing 3 months before, and a disaster the week before, now - could be anything on the planet. So you go, and you hope for the best, or for something surprising and then -

Some of them work (I think Little Miss Sunshine is a pretty good movie, or 2/3 of a pretty good movie, despite all the hating) - but Juno, not so much. My main reaction is one of deflation. It's enjoyable enough, but even watching it, I felt it getting away. Hoping it could turn around but fearing the worst. And thinking about it for a couple weeks now, the disappointment has just grown more convincing. The problem is simple: I don't believe a word of it, from beginning to end. Juno herself comes off like a reasonably convincing human being - but I don't believe the story. And worse - the filmmakers never convinced me that they believed a word of it, and don't do a thing with the unbelievability of it. It's not a parable or fable or any of those things (like the infinitely better Waitress is.) The filmmakers are conventional mainstream Indie filmmakers, and can’t imagine anything outside conventional mainstream indie realism. Everything is contrived: they have no obstacles in the way of the kid having an abortion, so they have to make like the Phantom in Inland Empire, and hypnotize you - they chant some mumbo jumbo and she runs away. Then they set up the adoption family and again - contrive a story out of it. People defend these films where characters who should (and would) have abortions don't by saying things like "there's no story if she has an abortion” - no kidding, but here - there's no story if she doesn't have an abortion either. So they have to manufacture one: if the adoptive couple weren’t fuckups, you wouldn’t have any jokes, you wouldn’t have a plot - she’d go 9 months, have the kid, maybe get back together with the boy, end of story. Instead they gin up a plot - a plot that is obvious the minute Juno walks in their house, and gets drilled in all over again when she talks to the husband - and play it out by the numbers. They don't do a thing you can't see coming from the beginning. Now - if Vanessa got cold feet, or Juno got creeped out by Vanessa's stalkerish behavior in the mall - it would at least be interesting. But this is stupid, predictable, and as false as the non-abortion. And it's frustrating, because the performances are good, and a lot of the moment to moment writing and characterization is solid, and it does try to take the POV of the girl. The plot fakery stands out.

And so.... there's still plenty to like - it's funny most of the way through, quite a few of the characters are charming enough. There are complaints about Juno being too pop culture savvy, though I don't quite see it - nothing ever goes away anymore, with DVDs and the internet, so 16 year old Mott the Hoople fans should be no surprise. The problem with the pop culture name dropping is how transparent it is - they name check the Stooges and the Melvins and Patti Smith and Mott the Hoople like wearing buttons. And none of that musical taste is reflected in the film - the characters may claim to love the Stooges and the Melvins, but we hear the Moldy Peaches... I guess Ellen Page suggested using them, but I don't know if that excuses it; they make for bad soundtrack music, turning the mood "cute" every time they play, and using them (instead of the Melvins or Nirvana or the Stooges) underlines how music is used as a label to signify characterization. It isn't quite true that these characters should be defined by their musical tastes - this isn't High Fidelity. But their tastes, in this film, carry no weight: they are labels. The musical conversations are just name dropping - I can believe a 16 year old Iggy Pop fan; I can't believe a Melvins fan who doesn't love the Stooges.

I suppose I'm overstating this a bit. Or, having let this post cook for 2 weeks, I'm having second thoughts about my second thoughts... because I admit: this isn't necessarily unconvincing - that is how people talk about music - they compare tastes by naming names; they make rash and excessive judgments - "Sonic Youth is just noise!"; they try to surprise and impress the other person... I've been there, done that - conversations about music, especially with people younger or older than yourself, tend to look like those pokemon card games - "you've played your Stoogemon, but that's no match for my Blue Cheeronator!" That's especially believable in Juno herself - I can believe her tastes,** and how she uses them to try to impress the husband. Playing "All the Young Dudes" as though you didn't think he'd have heard it before.... So I must temper my abuse - though it still plays like shortcuts to character in the film, and the talk doesn't match what we hear on the soundtrack...

* I should add - this particular process seems most common with indie crowdpleasers. There might be plenty of hype for art films (There Will Be Blood, say) or blockbusters, but when they arrive, the reactions are different. Blockbusters sink or swim at the box office - the rest is pretty much irrelevant. And with art films, the arguments are much more substantive, moving away from the hype. This is perhaps because art films actually try to look like something - indie comedies all look alike. There's nothing to talk about except the story, so if the story doesn't shine...

** With the internet and DVDs and CDs and oldies radio and VH-1 classic documentaries and god knows what else, pretty much all pop culture for the last 100 years is out there to be found - I know too many 10, 12, 15 year old Beatles and Elvis and Ramones and Judas Priest and Feelies fans, too many Disney experts, anime nerds, Three Stooges fans, comics readers, to say otherwise - I could cite the two kids sitting in front of me at the Blade Runner show yesterday, discussing, in minute detail the entire frigging run of Star Trek, Pike to Voyager.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Endings Begin

Welcome back! or,wait, how should it go? Anyway - here I am, back from another festivus celebration. Were grievances aired? were there feats of strength? did Rudolph save christmas? did I eat too much chocolate? yes, yes, yes, and god, yes... Anyway, as we move into the last weekend of the year, I can start working my way up to the Making of Lists - just in time for a bunch of films I've been desperately waiting for to appear...

In the meanwhile, of course, I remind you all that Joe's Movie Corner has a Movie Endings Blog-a-thon going: a fine way to ring out the year. And don't forget the Opening Credits blogathon at Continuity, to open the new year...

And me? all those end of the year lists are coming - and I hope some movie reviews. And now, to fill the space - here's another 2007 Random Ten list, cause - you know...

1. Devendra Banhart - Lover [it's the disco song...]
2. Liars - The Dumb in the Rain
3. Thurston Moore - Frozen GTR
4. Melt Banana - Blank Page of the Blind
5. MIA - $20
6. The Fall - Scenario
7. PJ Harvey - Dear Darkness
8. Linda Thompson - Blue & Gold [what a voice]
9. Iron & Wine - Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog) - [another nice record I haven't done justice to yet]
10. Deerhoof - Matchbox Seeks Maniac [this one two - I like them, but this seemsa bit less inspired than some of their other records - I don't know if I have judged it too quickly or not... it's good anyway]

Video? Here's a nice performance by Mr. Beam and company, on Letterman...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Midwinter Random Songs

Happy Solstice! I don't know how much more we'll see here for a while - the holiday season is in full gear, as we make offerings to the gods of retail... I should at least try to come up with some christmas jokes, but you know how it goes. I'm off to the mall! But I think I can toss off another go through the Songs of 2007, randomly arrayed...

1. New Pornographers - The Mutiny I Promised You
2. Arcade Fire - Keep the Car Running - go Canada!
3. Devendra Banhart - Saved - fake gospel, a neat little song, for all that.
4. PH Harvey - The mountain - a gorgeous, soaring tune, she’s singing at the edge of her ability, and beyond - “since you betrayed me so”.
5. Thurston Moore - silver>blue: here’s a question - why have I only heard this song from this record - and heard it twice now? Strange stuff. But this is a nice song - pretty - sounding more like the New Pornographers or PJ, acoustic, strings - great stuff. Longer and more adventurous than anything any of those bands try: interesting point there.
6. Dino Jr - We're Not Alone - J goes C&W - this is the best song on this record so far - though has that irritating drum sound, that I like, but not that much. A sloppy cool guitar solo comes in. Neil Young would be proud.
7. White Stripes - A Martyr For My Love For You - much better than almost all these other bands: Jack writes first rate lyrics - interesting songs: he’s absorbed the old zep style, blues/pop/rock style, mashed together, with strong riffs, strong melodies, interesting dynamics. He’s the most convincing rock star in the world, when you get down to it.
8. Wilco - Leave me (like you found me) - it's the eagles, without the singing talents.
9. Interpol - Who Do You Think - good lord, it’s like old new pornographers!
10. Boris - You Laughed like a Watermark - yes. And wait for Kurihara to weigh in. There it is - those little flicks and fades, halftones and slides, that tone. Oh. The second solo is even better, smearing those notes all over the place, twisting around and around - melodic and abrasive at the same time - amazing.

Video? I don't have time to dig, so let's give a shout out to our neighbors in the great white north (who know what winter really is!) with a single off the New Pornographers record:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Film about Living in the World

I almost forgot this: a blogathon, for It's a Wonderful Life. More like, almost forgot it was set for today... we are talking, after all, about the greatest movie of all time. An opinion I've held firmly for a decade or more - though I admit to having doubts lately. Mostly under the pressure of a steady diet of Ozu films, which cover much the same ground, but without the need to end happily every single time. (That is a vital point, to understanding Ozu or Capra - that things can go either way. Ozu got to retell stories with different endings and configurations - Capra did the same thing, but felt he had to always end them well. This makes some of his endings feel very strange - they are very arbitrary. Sometimes, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, naming one, the "happy" ending is almost pure rhetoric - what really happens is far more complex... which is one reason that film remains a serious contender for the top slot....) But this is time to praise It's a Wonderful Life: and praise we shall.

There is much to praise: Capra was among the 2-3 best filmmakers ever (stories aside) - this is no exception. Cinematography, acting, handling of actors, staging, sound, story telling, is all utterly masterful. He gets short shift these days, on purely technical matters - that is criminal. His peers are Hitchcock, Godard, maybe Kurosawa, Imamura - directors who used everything cinema had to offer at the very highest level (as opposed to equally masterful filmmakers who chose more limited palettes - Ozu and Mizoguchi, Renoir or Bresson, maybe) - and he got there first.... Or taking more specific felicities - his manipulation of time, say - the "real time" of the film is about what - 20 minutes? we start with people praying for George - flashback to tell his whole life up to that point, then an extended dream sequence, then one last reel in the present. And the flashbacks are expertly paced: Capra lingers over every episode, taking his time, then shooting off like an express train. Look at the way he plays out George and Mary's courtship - all the hesitations, false starts, false turns, the comings and goings and shifts of tone and emotion in their love story, then - once love is declared, cutting straight to the wedding. It's like that throughout - episodes played out in detail, but strung together at a breakneck pace. (This is something TV totally ruins: commercials cutting up long sequences and taking the shock out of the ellipses.)... Or take it's literary references and lineage: obvious stuff like Dickens, a comparison it earns, for its willingness to show the harshness alongside the melodrama, for its handling of characters - the deeper, rounder characters at the center, surrounded by types... Though this is also, if not an allusion to the Confidence Man, an excellent example of Melville's notion of the "original character" - the way a central character can reveal everyone around him. Though too - they reveal him - representing the ways he could choose to live, by becoming (like them) adequate to his role. They represent options, some quite attractive, but all of them limitations: Mary's stability and her will to transform their small scale life into a kind of fairy tale; Potter's rapaciousness; Sam Wainwright's goofball selfishness and enthusiasm; Violet's easy hedonism, etc. Good or bad, all of those characters have settled - they are what they are, and George is not. (Though it's worth remembering that we see George from outside too, at least a couple times: the scene with the schoolteacher's husband, particularly - he takes a crack at George, and rails at him, and everything he says makes sense - he's right, and George knows it...)

It's that, I guess, that in the end, makes this film what it is. It's that doubleness, to everything - how every good thing is, in some ways, a limitation. How you have to live within the limits of thw world you are in, the choices you make, the person you are - but you don't have to be happy about it, and the minute you get too happy about it, you are stuck with it. And George's world is a bitterly ironic world (bittersweet, of course): everything cuts both ways. What is this film about? The way a community (a town, a family, any community) sustains and traps its members. About the necessity of both self-determination and fulfilling ones obligations to the community. It is about the ways no one is ever alone, and how one is always alone. It is about how our strengths trap us, how our best instincts lead us to do things that hurt us. It is about how we can never break out of the systems we live in, and how we can never simply accept those systems. About the necessity of constant self-invention. It's a film about contradictions, that can't be resolved. Yes - the ending fudges the issue a bit, but not enough to obscure it: anything George did, assuming he was as decent about it as he is in the film, would have made something in the world a better place and something else would have suffered. To be true to himself he would have to sacrifice something of himself - that would have been as true if he had gone away and become Robert Moses as it is if he stayed in Bedford Falls.

Everything in the film is double-edged. Everything that happens has at least two meanings. Everything is built on sudden reversals. Everything is built on the ways George's intelligence and ambition forces him into a position that (seems to?) thwart his ambition and intelligence. There are times (the courtship scenes, say, or the wedding night) when the contradiction becomes almost unbearable. He loves her - of course he loves her, why shouldn't he? But he knows that marrying her will trap him there; but he knows he's trapped whether he marries her or not. And their honeymoon: Mary's whimsy and imagination, turning their troubles into a dream, is coupled with the frustration of comparing the reality of their poverty, their responsibilities, to their dreams of travel. The scene is a tribute to their strength, their resourcefulness, their ambition and decency - but it's also a parody of his dreams, and it's a lie to pretend it's not cruel.

It's that constant pressure that links Capra to Ozu - they both pose individuals against communities (families, social obligations), and both refuse to resolve the conflict. They never let their protagonists off the hook - American films usually find a way for the hero to couple up and still be free - Japanese films all too often insist that happiness (and self-fulfillment) requires serving the group. Capra and Ozu, though, don't make it so easy: true individuality almost always involves social obligations - which almost always choke our individuality. Love, friendship, families - fulfill us and frustrate us.... Ozu was more free to explore this - so that one film can end badly, another less so - while Capra felt obliged to end happily throughout his career. (Or convince us that the end was happy, whatever it looks like.) Though those bell ringing, auld lang syne singing tear jerker triumphs Capra kept putting on screen are a bit more than just unconvincing. Because, first - they aren't really unconvincing. For all the pissing and moaning people do about the way It's a Wonderful Life ends, it's a pretty believable ending. If a popular and well respected man is in trouble, his friends probably will take up a collection for him - if he has rich friends, they will probably raise enough to buy what he needs. What's arbitrary about it is not the happiness of the ending, it's the idea that it's an ending at all. It's worth remembering that the ending of It's a Wonderful Life is a direct steal from a scene in the middle of You Can't Take it With You. The only thing different at the end of It's A Wonderful Life is that George sees himself a bit more clearly.... His life? he won't go to jail, but he's still not rich, he's still going to have to go to work on boxing day, with the same problems he had before. Will he understand things a bit better, having seen himself through Frank Capra's eyes? What more can we ask for?

Random (2007) Music

The weather, this week, has taken a definite turn for the wintry. Though being December in Boston, the snow has turned to rain, which will turn to ice, which will make things ugly, uncomfortable and dangerous for the next couple days. Great. We'll see how much the opportunity to loaf about leads to increased posting: there's plenty to write about, from awful, terrible, bad baseball players, to magnificent films, to - who knows what... No lists though! not until the year actually ends...

For now though, let's talk music. Continuing to leaf through this year's releases, thanks to the iPod... though first a dig - all those poor saps who paid god knows what to see Led Zeppelin - and all the millions more who tried to pay god knows what to see the zep... yeah. Cost me 12 bucks to see Boris, and Boris is undeniably a better band, and Kurihara is a better guitarist than Jimmy Page (at this point - I say that as an unabashed, though sometimes apologetic, Jimmy Page fan). I don't get the attraction at this point. They are old; they have not been playing together for 30 years; John Bonham is Still Dead - that's Jason on the drums, not John. This is a cover band - sure sure, some of them are the same guys, but they're covering songs they did 30 years ago! 40 years ago! Christ! I won't gainsay them, in their prime - I can't pretend bands like Boris or careers like Kurihara's would exist without the Zep (with their unapologetic musicianship, their LONG guitar workouts, their love of the RIFF, their amplifier worship, their willingness to jump around from style to style to style) - but why settle for a shadow of the real thing when other bands are, in fact, still doing the real thing? Oh well - until Jimmy gets around to pissing on the party, much video of the show can be found on YouTube, like this performance of Stairway to Heaven, largely shot off the TV screen. I'll also note that I saw a new Zep phone ad at the movies the other day - someone must need some money! That helps explain this concert.... Now though - on to the randomizer!

1 Of Montreal - We were born the mutants Again with Leafling
2 Meat Puppets - This Song - one of the better songs on the record, pretty with some nice dynamics and guitar work...
3 Boris - My Rain - slow, short, atmospherics...
4 Devendra Banhart - Tonada Yanomaninista - Devendra rocks out!
5 Dinosaur Jr - Been there All the Time - I see why Buffalo Tom got called Dinosaur Jr. Jr. This sounds like dinosaur jr jr jr...
6 Damon & Naomi - Cruel Queen - nothing like an old folk tune for some undiluted nastiness...
7 Devendra Banhart - Samba Vexillographica
8 MIA - Bamboo Banger - definite contender for the best song of the year...
9 Son Volt - Circadian Rhythm - forgot this record came out this year... all the time spent trying to convince myself to like the Wilco record, I should have been listening to Jay Farrar. Very nice song - I have to listen to this a bit...
10 Einsturzende Neubauten - Alles wieder offen -

Video:speaking of the best guitarist in the world... here with Damon & Naomi...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


A recent post at Girish about Jonathan Rosenbaum's list of 1000 essential films prompted some self-criticism from the crowd, confessing their most shameful omissions from the Great Film Canon... I have been saving one of mine for this post: Ingmar Bergman's Shame. (Actually I could count quite a bit of Bergman - though there isn't a lot of Bergman on Rosenbaum's list. Bergman churned 'em out regularly for hundreds of years, it seems - maintaining a fairly high level of quality for most of his career... there's a lot to choose from. I've seen a dozen or so, which doesn't start to do justice to his production...) I hadn't seen it - then last week, it played a double feature with Hour of the Wolf (another one I hadn't seen, though a bit less talked about), so I had my chance.

Shame is a superbly made film, handsome looking, acted impeccably, gritty at places, with some nice use of sound, especially in portraying the confusion and dread of wartime. The story conveys that confusion, that dread, and shows as well the steady erosion of human decency and humanity itself in times of war. There are gestures as well toward the matter of fact will to survive, though these are clearly subordinate to the dehumanization of war... It is unsentimental and biting - but it didn't carry the weight it seems meant to carry.

The problem, I think, is that it abstracts War too much - it strips out information about the warring factions, the politics, the course of events. There are no direct references to real world events - and in the the fictional world, we do not learn any of those details either. Indeed - we don't really see details in the fictional world: explosions, dead bodies, killings and beatings, are all offscreen (with a few exceptions) - the war is indicated, with lights and sound - very effectively - but abstractly.... This, it might be said, universalizes the story - but the universal is usually best seen in the particular.... taking out the particular (whether in references to real world events or to details about the film's world) turns the film into an exercise... Abstraction, in war films - turning war into a series of gestures and signifiers of war - tends to only really work (in this way: carrying the kind of moral impact Shame aims for) when it is rooted in real world events (however vaguely glimpsed they may be.) The Red and the White (which Shame resembles in some ways), Devils on the Doorstep, Tarkovsky's war films, do this - they tend to strip out the details and certainly the political background of war; they show war as a kind of death stagger where only survival matters (though that is never actually true). But they do it, and they give it weight and consequence, by keeping in the back of our minds that this is something that really happened, that had real consequences. Shame, and films like it (Flandres comes to mind), lose those consequences - their abstraction makes the choices they show abstract; the choices don’t matter - all that matters is what the filmmaker wants to subject the characters to, and the points the filmmaker wants to score. The detail - the political, historical detail of wars - whether real or fictional - are what give it moral weight: if that is not in the film (if the film deliberately elides the politics and specificity of the war itself, as all these films do), then it has to be in the war the film is about.

Now - it's not to say that a film can't work at this level of abstraction. There are moments in Shame that reminded me of Weekend, or of Donald Barthelme's "The Indian Uprising" - the absurdity, the odd juxtapositioning of horror and banality, getting together for music - the torture chamber in a schoolroom... and most of all, precisely the things I have been talking about: the artifice of the war; the explicit discursiveness of the war - presented through signs: lights and sound; archtypical characters and situations; references to other texts.... But Godard and Barthelme seem more than willing to follow through on the implications of those devices: they are thoroughly "presentationalist" - the story and film are explicitly acts of discourse, not trying to show a world that has some kind of independent existence - created in the act of telling, asking no suspension of disbelief. Their morality (and they are moral works, I think) is itself discursive, without apology: we don't really see characters as moral agents to be identified with - but as signifying elements that mean something....

Maybe I'm overstating this. I don't know. But it does seem that films like Shame (or Flandres) seem more didactic (in the bad sense - that's this week's discussion at Girish's place) than Weekend (which is unapologetically didactic, or at least essayistic), and much less moving and morally profound than films like The Red and the White, that keep contact to history itself. The moral choices is Shame don't carry the weight they carry in real world films - arguing about the meaning of Jan's treatment of Jacobi, say, is diminished by the sense that the situation is set up and manipulated by Bergman for our edification. A straight up lecture on the subject would seem less manipulative and evasive, I'm afraid....

Though none of this should take too much away from the genuine excellence of the film - Bergman was no slouch with a camera, and a master of staging, and always got the best from his superb casts. It is a moving and morally serious film that just sometimes seems a bit stale... (And, I suppose, there's no denying the fact that it had to compete with the 7 Imamura films I saw over the weekend: not many directors can hold up to Imamura - Bergman doesn't come close.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

December 8

Feel an irresistible urge to post this today....

...reasons to love YouTube part several thousand...

Friday, December 07, 2007

Friday Musings

I have little important to add to the sea of discourse, but I shall contribute a few drops. A solemn moment in memory of Pearl Harbor. A reminder to check out the Short Film Blogathon at Ed Howard's or Culture Snob's. A few more coming: It's A Wonderful Life gets a day on the 16th; end the year with a Movie Endings blogathon and begin 2008 with opening credits Blogathon. And as always on Fridays, you should be dropping by Left Behind Fridays on Slacktivist. Last week, Buck flirted with Chloe! This week, Captain Steele witnesses to Hattie! don't miss a thrilling moment of bad prose and implausible plotting as the tribulation marches on!

And finally - music: continuing last week's theme, drawing randomly from 2007 records:

1. Grinderman - Get It On - some kind of nonsense about rock star misbehavior, but they know their business, Nick and co.
2. Dungen - Ett Skal Att Trivas - guitar wanking and 70s style half-prog half pop rock... which is kind of a formula for success, as far as I'm concerned. They may not be great art, but they're a consistent pleasure to listen to
3. Bishop Allen - The Rain - clever pop, nice wordplay, "if it's ever gonna get any better, it's gotta get worse for a day"
4. Meat Puppets - Vultures - kind of a mild mid-tempo soft rock song with some noisy noodling on top... more noodling and less soft rock might be better, but this is a start
5. Of Montreal - Suffer for Fashion - I am coming to particularly like this record...
6. PJ Harvey - Broken Harp - another extraordinarily beautiful song...
7. Otomo Yoshihide, Bill Laswell & Yoshida Tatsuya - Fudge - I think this is new, just added it a couple days ago - full on jamming...
8. Wilco - Side with the Seeds - like most of the record, they might as well be the Eaglkes, except for the guitar solos, which do have their merits.
9. Sigur Rus - Hafsol - took a second to figure out who it was, what with all the "post-rock" type stuff I have on here - though the vocals come on and they are unmistakeable. This is a very beautiful song, building and building and releasing - really great.
10. Modest Mouse - Fire it Up - coming on right after that magnificent Sigur Rus piece brings up the weakness of this - Modest Moiuse used to be cool - now - they're a competent, but very very bland, indie rock band, like all the other indie rock bands. Blah.

Video? Live Sigur Rus? I believe this is called "Von" on the new record...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Quick Notes on Recent Films

I've been way too lazy this fall, with posting and all. Not posting. Except about the Red Sox. Which won't start up again, I sort of promise, at least not until they make a deal for Johan Santana. I'm not having much louck finishing any substantial posts - heck - starting any... so let's try some quicker hits. Maybe coming back to films a couple times over the course of a couple weeks will get more accomplished than procrastinating writing full reviews or essays....

So: as Joseph B puts it - with talk of No Country for Old Men still "whirlwinding" around the internet - let's revisit... not at length: just one or two things. The way the story is told, say - it is a model of economy - actually, 2 models of economy. The first half (or 2/3, or whatever it is, literally) is a chase film, almost silent, cutting between chased and chaser, interested as much in how they do things, from locating a fugitive to surgery at home to dispatching an angry dog to crossing the border. Clean and sharp, without much talk, the attention to what happens. Then - Woody Harrelson comes on screen, and there starts to be a lot more talk: he talks a lot, we get some more scenes with Tommy Lee Jones talking, we even get Bardem and Brolin talking. Meanwhile, as the film gets talkier, the narration gets even more elliptical, though without leaving anything out. In the last third or so of the film, we don't see things happening anymore: the killing occurs off camera, often completely elided; Chigurh appears in rooms he shouldn't be in, without all the detail of how he got there we saw in the first part of the film. But what gives this its kick is that it's all been set up: having seen how Chigurh operates, do we need to see him break into a high rise? do we need to see how the scene with the accountant or the chicken truck driver will end? The Coens have shown us the type of man we are dealing with: they can shift their attention - the story remains coherent. And the shift has an interesting effect - at least for me: it focuses our attention on the way the people live, not how they die. How they face the end - begging for their lives, not begging for their lives, doing a good deed or not - it focuses attention on the value of their lives, period. There is more of this in the Coens' work than they usually get credit for: there's a bitter sympathy for their losers and fools, that hangs around despite the (seeming) jokiness of the violence.

Next - totally unrelated (except in that Fernando Croce piece I linked to a couple weeks ago) - I should try to add a few more words about Southland Tales. It was not that impressive when I saw it - and a couple weeks to think about it haven't helped. I suppose some of it is sort of amusing - lots of pop culture parody, which tends to work better the less is made of it - things like Jon Lovitz simply appearing in the film get more laughs than a lot of the jokes... It has moments, though now, the only ones I can remember involve The Rock - playing himself, basically, sending himself up, mocking his attempts to act, his paranoia, going over the top. He is fun to watch, and the film is almost interesting when he's on screen. Granted, in a more coherent film, the character might not work - if the film wasn't so awful, he might not be so amusing... but I'll take what I can get. The rest - if there were jokes, I've forgotten most of them; the story is useless, a dumb pastiche of Brazil, La Jetee and 12 Monkeys, with some self-conscious, and botched, David Lynch moments throughout. It's too bad - you sense something of value lingering in there somewhere, but, just not on screen.

And finally, since I haven't mentioned it yet: Margot at the Wedding was a treat. Not as good as The Squid and the Whale, but still fine. I like what Jim Emerson said about it - calling it a horror film: a monster comes into a house and devours everyone within it.... It's like that. Nicole Kidman pulls it off - her madness has no redeeming features, it is simply sad - and she gives it that sadness. The ability to make it clear that she hates no one more than herself, and just turns it back on people. The film shows this , especially later on - the way she will hold something for an extra beat, something someone says, as if weighing it, considering what she should do - then coming back with something harsh, to stop whatever it was cold. And the horror film structure holds to the very end, when she puts her son on a bus, and watches him go away - he's almost free - but at the last minute, the Monster comes running up and jumps in beside him... Scary!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Keeping a Toe in

The weather outside is frightful, but blogging is delightful, no particular place to go, let it snow etc. Be glad this is not a vlog, or you would be hearing me croon away... yes, that is a horrible thing to contemplate. But - resolving, once more, to try to post more often, here we are, on a Monday, with nothing in particular to blog about, so we shall blog about everything. The weather is frightful indeed - sleet, snow, cold; the power has been blinking on and off the last couple days. Twice this evening, making using the computer something of a gamble. Overnight last night - though I have programmed by brain and body too well, and woke up at my usual time even without an alarm. Bloody thing.

Anyway: don't forget the Short Film Blogathon at Ed Howard's place and Culture Snob.... I, however, have to settle for some long film blogging - for it was a productive weekend on the moviegoing front: Dylan and Imamura... While I hope to come back to Imamura, especially, let me offer up some quick thoughts...

I'm Not There is getting a lot of praise it seems, and I suppose it deserves some of it - it's intermittently inspired, maybe brilliant, but not so much taken as a whole, I'm afraid. All the hype about Cate Blanchett seems right - the film comes alive when it switches to her, or to the kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) - it goes flat when it switches to Heath Ledger or Christian Bale (despite the presence of Charlotte Gainsbourg - hey! when's the Serge Gainsbourgh biopic coming?) - I have no idea what Richard Gere and Ben Whishaw were in the film for. It's one of those films that flips back and forth among a bunch of stories for no particular reason, except, I suppose, to avoid the necessity to work any of them out. I guess it doesn't pay to think too much about it. It's enjoyable enough to watch: and the music is outstanding. It's Dylan, so it's got a leg up - but the performances are worthy of the music (unlike that misbegotten Beatles movie that blighted the world a couple months ago.) But other than the Blanchett parts, there's nothing here really worth seeing again.

That was good and harsh! Whatever virtues the Haynes film had, they were blotted out by the mastery on display later that day.... An Imamura double bill - Vengeance is Mine and A Man Vanishes. The former is one of Imamura's better known and easily available films - it's on DVD, people have seen it. Ken Ogata stars as a petty crook, a con man, I guess, who turns violent - killing a couple ex-co-workers, then going on the run, impersonating randy professors and lawyers for profit, only to end up killing his benefactors, since he can't kill the ones who actually hurt him... This story, told out of sequence for fairly good reasons, is intercut with flashbacks to his childhood - a bullied minority! turned delinquent! a mama's boy! - and very Imamura-esque home life (his wife takes up with his father, under mom's nose - maybe...) pre-crime spree. The centerpiece of the film is the time the villain spends at a seedy inn, seducing the madame, and facing down her mother, an extravagantly tough old bird, just out of the clink herself, where she'd served 15 years for murder - here, Imamura gets into his element, with sex and violence and primitive instincts for survival - and the chance to indulge in some maginifent filmmaking: one shot, where the killer and his mother seem to pass each other on the stairs, and Imamura shifts from one inn to another without cutting, is as glorious as it gets...

Meanwhile... A Man Vanishes is, perhaps, a documentary, about one of Japan's 91,000 (adult) runaways (I think that's the number cited by an expert toward the end,though by that time, things are well out of control; 5,000 a year, if I remember the Takeshi Kaiko story right) - it is a strange documentary, starts strange and gets stranger, and becomes something quite different from a documentary. The "plot" so to speak is this - Imamura and crew start looking for a man named Tadashi Oshima - the point people in this search are an actor and Oshima's fiancee, Yoshie (known as the rat) [no, really - that's what the crew calls her: part of the manipulation is the way we hear the crew talking about the woman they call the rat without naming her - that could be a trick of the translation I suppose, but I don't think so - I don't think they name her until later...] - as they pass through several months (it seems) of unsuccessful investigation, Yoshie starts to fall for the actor... and suspect her sister of murder. Leading to a scene where Yoshie and a fishmonger who saw Oshima and the sister together confront and accuse the sister - who flatly denies it. This eventually brings Imamura himself into the conversation - he lectures them a bit on the nature of truth then has the crew strike the set. Then the gang of them adjourn to the street [or - appear to adjourn to the street: like any movie, this could have been shot at any time - it's only the vestigial traces of documentary rhetoric that even suggests that this is literally just outside the sound stage where the previous scene was shot] where, well - a couple experts come in to talk about the 91,000 Japanese runaways, more witnesses argue and speculate on what happened and what it meant, and eventually Yoshie and her sister and the fishmonger get back into it, yelling at each other and carrying on. All of this, of course, is being filmed by three or four cameras, with sound gear everywhere - a kid keeps running into the shot with a clapper - Imamura mixes the sound and visuals here, as throughout the film, in strange, provocative ways. (There's a post to be written about the sound design of the film: I may, if I ever get any energy.) And then, it ends, with a flourish: a kid laughs - someone askas Yoshie what she will do now and she says she doesn't know - and Imamura freezes on the clapper...

I can't do it justice, not here, not tonight. It's still one of the most disruptive, surprising, strange films I have ever seen. That - I should note - works perfectly well as a documentary about a man who has disappeared without a trace... and as an Imamura film (complete with tough, strange women, possibly fighting over men, maybe killing men, and flatly denying what they may or may not have done - worth noting that the actor is the male lead of Intentions of Murder, which also features a woman murdering a man and flatly denying it in the face of overwhelming evidence - coincidence?)... and, heck - as a parody of L'Avventura... It's very hard to track down, but it's a film that needs to be seen.

Finally - one more Imamura: Profound Desire of the Gods... I can't describe it, so I won't. I have heard people call this his masterpiece - I can't buy it. It is gorgeously shot and made, but it's pretty damned silly, when you get down to it. It's full of mythical stuff - brothers and sisters marrying and founding races and the like - all very sordid, and I suppose that's part of the joke, the depiction of the beginnings of Japan itself as a bunch of inbred hillbillies - but still.... I also fear that this marks a kind of turn for Imamura, where those tough, earthy women he idolizes start to get too symbolic, and too mythological. The earlier ones are tough, independent, and always protagonists - in control or fighting like hell to be in control. But in this film, they become a retarded sex fiend and a plot device: Nekichi's sister/lover, Ryugen's priestess/lover. They are symbols, not characters. This turns sour - this film ends up being misogynist in ways not even Mizoguchi (if you insist on reading him that way) managed: Mizoguchi's women were always agents, one way or other - as were Imamura's earlier women. The women in this film are not, they're just embodiments of Imamura's ideas about what women represent...

That proved to be more substantial a post than I expected coming in, though there is a lot more to be said about any of those films.... There are more Imamura's coming - I hope I can write them up as well, maybe work out a more coherent treatment of some of it. He was one of the great ones, and the run of films he made in the 60s stands with anyone.