Thursday, January 31, 2008

January Films

Wow - it's been 2 weeks since I posted anything, other than a space filler... I shall try to make up for that. I have seen some nice films in that time (and all through this month) - not as many as I thought I was going to, but still... so to get back in the swing, here's a kind of round up-new-movies-seen-post, covering most of the month.

I don't know where to start, so start at the top: There Will Be Blood arrives trailing hype and accolades and delivers. It took a couple viewings to completely sell me, but it did sell me. More than just an allegory of the modern republican party - oil men and religious freaks in a poisonous alliance, taking turn abusing each other: god-botherers subjecting the oil men to bizarre ritual humiliations - in exchange for which the oil men rob them and their followers and everybody else blind.... For all the epic scope of the thing, it's almost a chamber drama, fathers and sons and brothers, real, imagined, symbolic - watching it the second time, though, the themes, the parallels, the underlying methods and patternings come forth - details, in the filmmaking, in the story, come out - it delivers on all that PT Anderson has been promising. The Andersons - Paul Thomas and Wes - have, for the last decade or so - been clearly to the champions of this generation of American filmmakers, and this film solidifies that once again.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: why did I skip this when it came out? Was I just so disappointed with 3:10 to Yuma that I figured another artsy western would be a waste of time? was it just the length? were there bad reviews? It was a mistake, whatever it was. Thank goodness it came around again, a recap of some touted films from last year, and I got to see it - it's really good. It's long, not much seems to happen, sure, but it does happen - it makes you wait, as the characters wait - it's structured around the delay of the inevitable: the title lays it out, and you wait for it - the characters wait for it - everyone, it seems, quite aware of what is going to happen, just a matter of how. (Though the how - basically a series of people getting shot in the back of the head.)... A fine, elegant looking film, with some slick performances - Pitt playing off his star power, Affleck weird and squirrelly, and Paul Schneider giving a fascinating supporting bit as someone who's dumb as a board, but a tick smarter than the rest of them... Maybe not quite on par with Zodiac and There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men - but another excellent genre film given an art film twist....

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: a nice adaptation - some interesting choices. Depp can hold the screen with anyone, and here he has Rickman for balance (who makes a better villain?) Bonham Carter and Spall make fine second bananas, and the juvenile and ingenue are cute and bland as one expects. The music is fantastic, of course.... When it came out, I saw a few comments calling it "inert," complaining about the lack of movement... That's not far off - though it shouldn't exactly be criticism. First - because of the way Burton shoots it - he uses static shots - it looks like he's shooting storyboards. He does that a lot - his style, in most of his films, is more like a comic book than a film - the shots seem to have a kind of self-contained quality: they do what they do because of what they look like, rather than what happens in them, or how they link together, exactly... Second - and this is criticism - the "third act" ("development" as Bordwell and Thompson might have it, corresponding, I think, to the first half of the second act of the musical itself) - is inert. The rest (parts 1, 2 and 4 - the "setup", "complication" and "climax") is dramatic - the story is enacted; but this part is not - it is all summary. "Todd became a murderer and Mrs. Lovett baked the bodies into pies." There are three or four songs - but this part of the film does nothing but make an excuse for those songs. It's plot role is summed up in the summary. The film sags, until the boy finds the girl and things start moving again...

Persepolis - handsomely animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical comic. Great looking - beautiful black and white, silhouettes and cutouts that are handled with great subtlety and flexibility - nice to see a full length animated feature that uses the art to expressive effects. The story is about what you would expect - a feisty girl growing up in Iran before during and after the revolution - the themes, of liberal hopes for change dashed by the mullahs, and the continued efforts to civilize the place, to maintain one's dignity and self-respect in the face of various forms of oppression - are fairly common in Iranian films... This being made in France, they are perhaps more explicit than in films by people like Jafar Panahi or Darius Merhjui...

Charlie Wilson's War - amusing, hilip Seymour Hoffman is spectacular - not sure what more to say about it.

Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story - thoroughly silly music movie spoof, probably only a couple jokes, though they stay funny throughout... there are a few outstanding moments - the Beatles bit, say - and all of it is diverting... probably nothing special, but I still find myself quoting it, though no one else seems to have seen it. "It's called Karate!"

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I Return, Sort of

Let me try this. It has been a long week. A good friend of mine lost his father (who I also vbery much liked) last week, and that has had all my attention. It certainly changes how one might react to something like Heath Ledger's death - sad and disturbing as it might be, it's too remote to register when you're mourning someone yourself. Still a shame. He was young, he was good, he seemed to be on the way to something like greatness.

Otherwise, there's not a lot going on. I owe Piper a dinner with someone - I'll get back to it, someday, I swear. I had an idea - my dinner with Joe Breen? I could blame him for Eli Roth and American Pie and feed him a ration of crow and lament the taming of Warren William. That might still work, though I missed most of the series, in the end...

Larry Aydlette is gearing up for a whole month of Burt Reynolds - 29 posts in 29 days! woo hoo! [which reminds me of my neighbors, who are raising hell - there's a party going on! way too much thumping and stomping and whooping and hollaring. That's neither here nor there, but it explains the hour of this post, for it would be the acme of folly to try to sleep. Instead I'll type away while I wait for the fun to end, listening to Six Organs of Admittance in anticipation of tomorrow night: looks like the second concert I'll attend in less them three months! it's like it's 1988 all over again!]

So back to the post - don't forget - Edward Copeland is running another poll - best acting Oscar winners. I have to do that, too... I have a lot to do, actually. Hopefully, I'll get some posts up in the next few days...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Val Lewton Notice

Stopping in mid-week to note the ongoing Val Lewton blogathon, being hosted by Michael Guillen at The Evening Class. There is a wealth of material there and throughout the blogosphere, devoted to one of the undersung masters of film.

I have to admit, I came late to Lewton's iflms. People talked about them, they sounded good, but I hadn't seen any of them until the middle of last year, when I found a cheap copy of Cat People - very impressive. And later, I got the I Walked With A Zombie/Body Snatcher DVD, and that really did it. They're the type of films you can live with - stripped down and simple, in some ways, but with ever shot, every detail infused with intellegence and mystery, revealing something new every time you watch them. And thematically sophisticated - with complex patterns of guilt and innocence, interesting, ambiguous, motivations and results. Look at the way culpability is passed along from character to character in the Leopard Man, or the way good comes out of evil (Karloff the Body Snatcher directly leading to the cure of the little girl, etc.) in other films....

Coming at the end of the second contemplative cinema blogathon, it's intriguing how well the Lewton films fit. The stripped down style, the atmospheric style, working through suggestion and indirection, their treatment of plot (shifting protagonists, delaying revelations of characters' or events' significance, and so on), even some of the specific devices - mutism and silence; use of shadows, etc.... The links are pretty straightforward, too - Pedro Costa speaks of remaking I Walked With a Zombie in Casa de Lava; Tropical Malady draws heavily on Cat People. You can see the influence, and certainly, filmmakers are clear about the influence of Lewton and Tourneur (in particular.) They are wonderful films, and it's great fun reading about them.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Notes on Variations, Mostly

As the second contemplative cinema blogathon comes to a close, I want to write up some thoughts on "parametric" explorations in contemplative cinema. I am not sure what this means, if it means anything. I suppose I start from the notion (outlined in my previous post on this) that "contemplative" cinema is a refinement of the "art film" - that it derives its style mostly from that tradition, and shares most of its concerns, and its orientation toward reality, human subjectivity, expressiveness, and so on, with the art film. That is - style and content are, usually, aligned - silence and stillness and ambiguity in contemplative films, like in art films, are meaningful - they express either the subjective experience of their characters, or of the filmmaker. This is one of the points where they differ from the "parametric" film - the "modernist", or maybe "formalist" film. These are films where elements of the style function on their own - the style still conveys the experience of the characters and ideas of the filmmaker, but they take on other functions as well.

So how do these kinds of formal play work in contemplative films? I can't pretend to answer that - but I will offer some observations on a couple films that do play with those kinds of ideas. Particularly Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century...

Syndromes does some parametric things. It is split in half, and the two halves are related in a number of ways: same actors, playing the same (or similar) characters; both set in hospitals; the second one starts in a new, modern hospital but later moves into the basement, which uses the sets from the first half. It's structured as two sides of a love affair (or anticipated love affair) - in the first half we follow a woman doctor, her affairs, or non-affairs; in the second, a man, and the end of an affair, rendered with great subtlety. The plot turns on this continuity - both stories are about one of these characters not falling in love, or falling out of love, with someone else. And the two halves echo images and ideas - repeating or reversing them. The most powerful, probably, the pairing of a solar eclipse in the first half with a long strange shot of a piece of machinery, a hose or lamp or something, which, like the eclipsed sun, fills the screen with a huge black circle....

Repetition and parallelism are common in art films - and contemplative films. Hong Sang-soo, for instance, usually builds his films around repeated scenes and stories. But Weerasethakul seems to be handling this a bit differently, here and in Tropical Malady (the two of his I've seen so far - though with luck, I'll see Blissfully Yours next week). Hong naturalizes the repetitions - he tends to repeat scenes as they are experienced by different characters: so in Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, for example, we see the same story from the two main characters' points of view. Syndromes and a Century may be doing something like that, but not exactly - because it is creating a different story world, where different things happen. It is not the same story seen two different ways, with differences that can be attributed to varying memories and attitudes: it is a different story.

This moves it closer to what Bordwell calls "parametric" films. It highlights the act of telling a story even more than usual for art films. It is not presented as multiple versions of the same story, but of multiple stories with a related purpose. It plays, then, like two passes through the same material, running the changes on the basic stuff of the story. In this, it recalls Ozu's films - the way he kept reusing his actors, his story situations (a daughter marrying, usually), character names, family relationships - but arranged differently, as if trying out all the possible permutations. This begins to suggest a way of considering these films different from Bordwell's. Bordwell focuses on narration, on how the story is told, on the relationship, in a film, between the telling and the story world being created. But while there are stylistic variations in Syndromes and a Century, the main changes are to the story world - the "fabula". This creates a different dynamic - one that calls to mind Brian McHale's characterization of post-modern fiction as being driven by ontological concerns. McHale argues that modernism was driven by epistemological questions - what can be known about the world? how does ones subjective experience of the world shape it? Post-modernism, though, is driven by ontological questions - what is real? The distinction is neatly illustrated by comparing Hong's double narratives to Weerasethakul's. Hong's films show a stable ontology from multiple points of view - his films are about point of view, memory, individual interpretation of events. Syndromes, though, shows two different possible worlds, linked by various elements - characters, actors, situations - but they don't create the same story from two angles. They create different stories.

Bordwell, as it happens, covers something similar to this in his new book. One of the chapters discusses forking path films: Run Lola Run - Too Many Ways to be Number One - Sliding Doors - Blind Chance.... films that explicitly pose varying possible futures. Syndromes and a Century doesn't present itself explicitly as an alternative future film, but it is similar. In some ways, it might be more radical - it doesn't rationalize its style as fantasy or science fiction or explicit options or allegories. It just tells 2 similar, but not identical stories about similar, but not necessarily identical characters, in similar, but not identical worlds, populated by similar, but not identical people. Using similar, but not identical locations, images, conversations and so on. Which if you're a bit of as formalist like me is just endlessly fascinating....

Getting back to the question of contemplative cinema - this sort of formal game play may seem to be at odds with the expectation for muted narrative, blankness, silence and so on, but it's not unknown. Divided stories turn up quite often in films of this sort. Some, possibly most, follow the fairly conventional art film patterns of Hong Sang-soo's films: exploring different points of view, following different characters in turn, etc. is common enough. But this can be linked to some degree and type of parametric storytelling as well. Sometimes safely within the "fabula" - Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry, say, is structured around three variations of one conversation... Sometimes by imposing formal strangeness on a relatively stable story world - as in Tsai Ming-liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, with its parallel stories, each centered on a different Lee Kang-sheng character.... And sometimes, films push the variations quite far into the realm of style. In Vanda's Room, Pedro Costa alternates between scenes shot with Vanda and her family and friends, and scenes shot with a group of men, living (mostly) in a condemned, abandoned, room. All of them share the basic look - digital camera, natural light, long takes, etc. - but there are significant stylistic differences as well. He has said that he looks at the scenes with Vanda as theater - the men as cinema: he films her in her room, usually on her bed, holding forth, quite often, with her family or friends, fairly vocal, very performative. The bed is a stage - he frames and shoots to emphasize the stage, the frontality of the room. The men, though, are cinema - which emerges in the way he shoots them. While the camera is fixed in any given shot, he shoots from a much greater variety of placements; the room has much more of a sense of 360 degree space. There is a stronger sense of offscreen space as well, with sounds coming from the street, with visible doors, people coming and going, and so on. Vanda's room tends to be closed in: it is what you see (though not always what you can hear.) I'd even say that the variation extends to the type of drugs they use: the women smoke heroin - the men shoot it. I don't know what that means - but in the film, it serves to create a kind of structural, formal pattern. Its meaninglessness, in fact, emphasizes its formal functionality - it slides toward being a purely formal device. Which, again, pushes the film toward "parametric" filmmaking....

Saturday, January 12, 2008


I see the news is going around that Vampira, the great horror movie hostess and sometimes star, has died, ae 86. Nice tributes are starting to appear, not all from the film blogging world - this one from PZ Myers at Pharyngula is where I first saw the news. One notices such things - an iconic figure who played a part in an iconic film... I can't say I paid much attention to her otherwise, until I started seeing the tributes to Plan 9 and Ed Wood - where she was invariably the most charismatic and interesting figure to be seen. May she rest in peace...

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Contemplative Films as Art Films

The second annual contemplative cinema blogathon is up and running, with some good reading already up. I have to say - I like this idea: I like the chance to go back to something every now and then. Especially big, open ended topics, like this one, or things like the recent film endings or opening credits blogathons - things that are likely to hit you at intervals.... It's nice to swing back a couple times.

But now... there's no lack of things to write about contemplative cinema - the poetics, the history, the individual films - the criticism, which is getting some attention this year. What catches my interest, though, is pretty much the same as last year - the question of what "contemplative cinema" is - where it came from, how it relates to other kinds of films: the questions of style and history that I usually end up with, when I start trying to be serious... I keep coming back to them, because I really don't know the answers. That may be my point - that defining CC may be impossible - it has too many sources and lines of descent, the formal and stylistic devices that mark it are neither exclusive to it nor adequate to define it. Which isn't to say that there aren't identifiable films we can describe this way - it's just that we can't find one line of descent for them, or a completely stable set of features...

The fact that I'm reading David Bordwell's latest, The Poetics of Cinema, certainly encourages those questions. One chapter reprints an essay from the late 70s on the "art film", with new comments, bringing some of the arguments up to date. (He also extends this, with examples, in Narration in the Fiction Film.) I think it's reasonable to consider "contemplative cinema" as a refinement of Bordwell's "art film." These films (per Bordwell) emphasize realism (both external and subjective) and authorial expression: they operate through ambiguity (both in what happens, and how it is presented), psychological exploration; they are usually loosely plotted, deemphasizing causal connections, character motivations - they often have drifting, observing, passive protagonists (lots of journalists and prostitutes) who encounter events and whose story is more their perceptions and experiences than their goals, met and missed. Art films downplay the tight explanations and strings of causality that classical cinema emphasizes, both in what they tell (what a good Russian would call the syuzhet), and what happens (the fabula - the story world).

Contemplative films follow that pattern pretty closely. They are, perhaps, an "intensified" version - the art film's tendencies and structures extended: ambiguity, passive characters, emphasis on mood and tone, etc., lack of obvious story, elision of the plot at the level of the telling, all taken that much further. The new material in Poetics of Cinema discusses developments of the art film since 1980 or so, describing many of the stylistic features of contemplative films: long takes, longer shots, quietness, planimetric compositions (arrangements of people or objects in a row, along a plane parallel to the picture plane, often against a neutral flat background), etc. Bordwell also considers the history of art films: the development of art films out of neo-realism, first in Europe in the 40s and 50s, then, following similar patterns, in several other areas - notably Iran, China and Taiwan, Africa, Turkey, etc. It's still a valid question how to characterize CC's development of the art film: is it an extension? a refinement? a branch of the art film? a departure? I'm inclined to look at it as an extension and refinement - a tendency within art films that has evolved and thrived...

The wild card in this, though, is another type of film Bordwell discusses - the "modernist" film, or the "parametric" film. I'm tempted to call it the "formalist" film - though that might require another post or two to define. (It's got it's own chapter in Narration in the Fiction Film.) This type of film is marked by a split between the style and the storytelling - the style and the meaning. It is a film that gives style, structure, formal elements non-signifying functions - functions that do not mean anything. The classic examples are who you would expect, I suppose - Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Tati - Godard and Eisenstein in some modes - the tradition today is continued most obviously in Wes Anderson (all those frontal compositions and odd cuts and angles, none of which has any obvious meaning - it doesn't convey anyone's perception of the world, it doesn't really comment on the world or the stories - it's an arbitrary, graphic patterning meant to be enjoyed for its own sake). Bordwell contrasts art cinema with both classical, narrative cinema, and "modernist" or parametric cinema - not exactly splitting them into three types of films - more positing them as three modes of films, that might combine in different ways, in given films. (My Life to Live, say, might be read as an art film, if you concentrate on the story, on Nana's passage through life - or as parametric, if you concentrate instead on Godard's methods of staging and shooting and editing scenes, as he passes through a series of possibilities, that are not directly related to the story and its psychological meaning.)

Now: it seems to me, that given this scheme, contemplative cinema is mostly firmly within the tradition of the art film. Firmly enough that most examples of CC are more than adequately described as "art cinema" - as adequately as L'Avventura or Breathless or Shame might be. They might represent a particular type of art film, but they don't depart from the model in any fundamental ways.

Except when they do - or - when elements from CC start to migrate into more classical narrative films, or to parametric films. Or - when what are mostly "art films" incorporate elements of parametric film-making. This is when things get really interesting. But I think this is where I have to start a second post, maybe a third. Because there seem to me to be quite a few interesting examples of both types of film - "classical" films that have incorporated devices from contemplative cinema; contemplative films working with "parametric" devices. The former - take any of several excellent 2007 films: the way No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, say, both strip down the dialog, eliminating it, or reducing it to formula (Plainview's repeated sales pitches).... or the way those films, or Zodiac as well, dissipate their plots - moving significant events off screen, leaving things unresolved, and so on. They are, then, art films, in the older sense - but often through devices seen in contemplative films.

On the other side - this definitely will require a further post - but consider the parametric structures of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films - specifically their bifurcations - their repetition of stories, events, etc. in different registers... this seems to me to change the way the films work, somewhat - complicating the idea of what a contemplative film might be...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Moments of 2007

I am getting to the end of my Year in Review Posts. I'll have to start coming up with real content again... Hopefully, the second annual Contemplative Cinema blogathon will inspire - it should... Anyway, in honor of the old Film Comment "moments in time" feature, currently living at MSN movies, here are a few of mine - I'll stick to a simple list of 10 or so...

1. The little kids rolling a tire in the background of the shot of the brothers chasing a train in Darjeeling Limited. Though of course Wes Anderson makes films that come as close to being one long moment of the year....

2. Anton Chigurh flips an ordinary quarter in No Country for Old Men.

3. The Beatles in Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story.

4. The end of Syndromes and a Century - a lamp, then a cut outside, to a city full of people - a kind of inversion of the end of Antonioni's L'Eclisse: the characters gone, but the city alive and well...

5. Anton Ego's flashback in Ratatouille

6. Margot chasing the bus at the end of Margot at the Wedding.

7. Pretty much every minute Philip Seymour Hoffman is on screen in either Before the Devil Knows You're Dead or Charlie Wilson's War. I couldn't work up the courage to see The Savages, but guessing from the trailers, he's just as good in that. If I had to single something out - the way he goes in and out of the room the first time he meets Wilson...

8. "I'm Finished" - There Will Be Blood.

9. Zoe Bell hanging on for dear life in Grindhouse.

10. "why don't you do some of your older stuff?" in I'm Not There.

Meanwhile - great moments don't all come from good films: consider - Peter Dinklage signaling his intention to blackmail in Death at a Funeral; or Jesus Christ, living it up in Mexico in The Ten (bet you all forgot that existed, didn't you? unless you saw it, in which case you probably just wished you could forget it) - Justin Theroux demonstrating his comedic chops. Or John Malcovich making Colour Me Kubrick worth seeing, or Eddie Izzard doing his thing in Across the Universe...

And finally, as a bonus - some particular moments from older films I saw for the first time in 2007. It was a really good year for that - bunches of Bela Tarr films, Rivette, Pedro Costa, etc. I'll try to keep myself to one per filmmaker, so this doesn't turn into a shot by shot description of Satantango or Vanda's Room.

1. Celine and Julie disrupting the old melo and saving the girl in Celine and Julie Go Boating.
2. The Dance in Satantango.
3. Alberto Sordi, paying back his debts to the mafia in Mafioso - meeting Hugh Hurd on the street in New York.
4. The African western, with Danny Glover, in the middle of Bamako.
5. The execution of the Hungarian who was talking with the nurse in The Red and the White - the most intense of the long takes, with their depth of field, multiplane compositions and stagings, people moving between planes, and so on.
6. The not quite dying paterfamilias, getting up from his sick bed to go to the bathroom, trailing farts, in Ozu's End of Summer.
7. "You aren't a man - you aren't even a very good sample!" - Barbara Stanwyck telling off her useless husband in Ten Cents a Dance.
8. In Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow - a particularly magnificent shot after Barbara Stanwyck leaves Fred MacMurray, Fred staring out a rain streaked window while Rex the walking talking robot boy tramps across the frame.
9. Vanda offering medical advice in Vanda's Room.
10. Karloff seduces/murders Lugosi in The Body Snatcher (one of a bunch of Val Lewton films I finally got around to watching this year. In time for next week's blogathon!)

And I suppose I should note one more thing - a long immersion in WC Fields films providing more quotable lines than I know what to do with: from all the names, to the phrases he builds routines around ("stand back and keep your eye on the ball" or "ain't a fit night out for man nor beast!") to the dialogue ("is this a game of chance?" - "Not the way I play it") - right up to the great catch phrases: "You can't cheat an honest man - never give a sucker an even break, never wisen up a chump." I had a good year of movie watching...

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Music 2007 records

And tonight, continuing the end/beginning of the year roundup, we turn to music. Music top ten lists are a different matter than films. While I could never see all the films in a given year, even all the films I ought to see - I usually have a pretty good idea what I have missed. My favorites of the year bear some resemblance to what was actually there to see. But music? I can't even begin to crack what's available. And that's assuming I get around to listening to everything I buy... The iPod (for all its benefits) has made that even worse - I put everything on there and hope for the best - I barely play CDs at all anymore. So what it means? this is a really tentative list, and while I'll stand by the quality of what I like, this is very explicitly a list of favorites. Any resemblance to the best of the year is pure coincidence. But will that stop me? will it even slow me down? What do you think?

1. Boris & Kurihara - Rainbow: Boris' usual thundering din, married to songs, and Kurihara, the world's best guitarist right now, in a setting that lets him rip. Probably a contender for the best of the decade.

2. Grinderman - Grinderman: Nick Cave's stripped down outfit - howling and throbbing and thrashing. The older I get the more I like Nick Cave and everything he does.

3. Sigur Rus - Hvarf/Heim: This is one of the main beneficiaries of my project to listen to only 2007 music over the last month or so. Every time one of the songs from this record comes up on the iPod, it surprises and delights me. Beautiful soaring melodies, fine musicianship, and I have grown to love Jonsi's vocals. They've been around a while, I've half accepted them over the years, but not quite. This record, for some reason, has convinced me.

4. White Stripes - Icky Thump: What can you say? For all the hype and rock nonsense around them, they never seem to disappoint. This is another great record - probably their best since White Blood Cells (which is a contender for best of the decade.) This may not be a contender for best of the decade, but it's first rate anyway. Never gets old. If records you plan to listen to in the future are a criteria of value - this is a given.

5. Six Organs of Admittance - Shelter from the Ash: Just got this, so I'm not sure how well it will really turn out to be - but so far, it seems to be a fine piece of work by one of my favorite artists. Coming soon to a club near me! I might see my second concert in less than 3 months (instead of the usual 3 years.)

6. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer?: This came out early, and I have been listening to it almost all year. At first, trying to figure out how much I liked it, but now, I think I know - the more I hear it, the more impressed I have been, by more of the songs on it than I imagined at first. I don't know if featuring a 12 minute song that name drops Bataille is a recommendation or not, but it's damned impressive.

7. Son Volt - The Search: Another major beneficiary of the all 2007 program on the iPod. I didn't listen to it much at all before that - lately I have, and have been impressed. Jay Farrar makes an odd comparison with Jeff Tweedy: Tweedy has continuously changed, styles, sounds, personnel - while Farrar has basically worked the same style for the last 18, 20 years. Yet everything Tweedy does sounds old and worn out - been there, done that - while everything Farrar does sounds fresh. Originality is overrated sometimes - better to do something right than to do a bunch of things less than right.

8. M.I.A. - Kala: I don't know if I like the whole record or just a handful of songs from it - but some of the songs from it (Bamboo Banga, Paper Planes, Mango Pickle Down the River) I can't get enough of. Maybe not as much as from her first record (a near classic) but still, really good.

9. PJ Harvey - White Chalk: This one will grow on you - ethereal songs, vocals and pianos, stripped down and haunting, PJ's voice strange and keening. I suspect, though, this will suffer a bit from the iPod - if I were ever to get back to listening to whole records, I think this might be served better. You need to immerse yourself into records like this, to really get them.

10. Ghost - In Stormy Nights: I am always happy to have a new Ghost record to listen to. This one has a couple really great rave ups - Caledonia, notably - and some long form freakouts. Not as good as their previous record, but still working at a high level.

And - using, Will I ever listen to this again, as a criteria: most records have a song or two, promoted in iTunes (3, 4 5 stars) - the following (plus the ones above) are records I'm likely to listen to whole, down through the years...

Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down the Thunder Canyon [hit or miss, but great when it's on]
Bishop Allen - Broken String [the 2007 shuffle has sold me on this, even if Atrios keeps promoting it]
Dungen - Tio Batar [not far off the top 10]
Earth - Hibernaculum [very reliable at what they do]
The Fall - Reformation Post TLC [still quite fine - I haven't followed them regularly through the years, but maybe I should]
Iron and Wine - the Shepherd's Dog
New Pornographers - Challengers [pretty close tot he top 10, probably]
Interpol - Our Love to Admire [I still haven't done this justice, though when songs come up I like them...]
Boris & Merzbow - Rock Dreams [fulfilling the noise requirements for the year]
Wilco - Sky Blue Sky [though I'll probably fast forward to the guitar solos]
Linda Thompson - Versatile Heart [still in marvelous voice]
Damon & Naomi - Within These Walls [that's three Kurihara records in the top 20 - no accident...]
Spoon - Ga ga ga ga ga [I can't entirely buy them, but they are pretty reliably interesting]

That's not all - I like the Thurston Moore record, Einsturzende Neubauten - the only thing wrong with the Liars, Melt Banana, Deerhoof, Richard Thompson records is that their other stuff is better, and I have plenty of it...

Anyway - there's no point denying the power of the iPod and its effects: songs make more impression than albums these days - so here are 10 songs, one per artist, that I will keep in rotation in the coming years...

1. Rainbow - Boris & Kurihara
2. Bamboo Banga - MIA
3. Grinderman - Grinderman
4. Hafsol - Sigur Ros
5. Caledonia - Ghost
6. Prickly Thorn but Sweetly Worn - White Stripes (it's not all guitar wanking on this list - sometimes, it's bagpipe wanking)
7. Mon Amour - Dungen (but there is a lot of guitar wanking)
8. Systematic Abuse - The Fall
9. Parting of the Sensory - Modest Mouse (about the only thing worth repeating - not a bad record, but a huge disappointment - what's the point?)
10. Tonado Yanomaninista - Devendra Banhart

Leaving out Mutiny, I promised You (New Pornographers), A Plague of Angels (Earth), Dad's Gonna Kill me (Richard Thompson), The Past is a Grotesque Animal (of Montreal), Keep the Car Running (Arcade Fire), Coming to Get You (6 Organs), Circadian Rhythm (Son Volt), Impossible Germany (Wilco), Mexican Guy (the Stooges), This Song (Meat Puppets), and quite a few more... But that's enough for now.

The video choice is obvious: Rainbow, live:

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Blogathon List - 2008 Onward

As we move into the new year, it is time to start a new list of blogathons. Maybe I will start breaking these out by year. Added as I find them. This is mostly for my own use, to keep track of them (even if after the fact), but I hope this is useful to people...

October 26: 1984 Blogathon - in honor of the 25th anniversary of the release of Terminator. Entries collected here.

OCtober 19-31: Italian Horror blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Contributions collected here.

October 5-9: Double Bill Blogathon at Broken Projector.

September 7-16: Brian De Palma blogathon, at Cinema Viewfinder.

July 6-12: Sprit of Ed Wood blogathon at Cinema Styles. In action, here.

June 28-July 4: Michael Mann week at Radiator Heaven.

June 21-30: Claude Chabrol blogathon, hosted by Flickhead. Main page here.

June 15-21: Wildgrounds hosts a Japanese Cinema Blogathon. Main page.

June 15-19: Pauline Kael week, at The Cooler. Index here.

January 12-23, 2009: Early Hawks, hosted by Ed Howard at Only the Cinema. I suppose that's a 2009 blogathon, but there you go.

Dec 28-31: second annual Endings Blogathon, at JD's Valley Dreaming.

November 4-9: Politics and Movies blogathon, at The Cooler.

November 5-7: James Bond blogathon at Piper's.

October 24-November 16: Another James Bond blogathon at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-scope. Bonds everywhere!

October 3-6: Tension and Suspense, examined, at Mystery Man on Film.

August 22-24: Goatdogblog hosts a Movies about Movies blogathon. Home Page here. And my contribution, on King Kong (mostly).

July 20-26: X-Files blogathon at South Dakota Dark.

July 25-August 1: Kiyoshi Kurosawa honored at The Evening Class. Starting here, and continuing. My (premature contribution is here.

July 14: Celebrate Bastille Day at Vinyl Is Heavy!

July 9-13: Self-involvement blogathon from Culture Snob.

July 7-14 (approximately): outside the film world - John Holbo at the Valve hosts a discussion of Douglas Wolk's excellent Reading Comics.

June 29-July 3: a New York Films blogathon, at 12 Grand In Checking. And here it is.

June 23-25: I don't know why I even link to this idiocy, but here's another Bizarro World Blogathon from Lazy Eye Theater - bound to be dull, humorless and mean to great and significant Artists like Michael Bay and Rob Schneider. Somewhere, Doug Piranha is smiling.

June 12-15: RC hosts a Dads in Media blogathon at Strange Culture. Main page.

June 12: though not precisely a blogathon, this is Brian Darr's date for beginning this month's Film of the Month Club discussion, on Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 film, The Golden Chance. Collected here.

May 16-23: How did I miss this exactly? Ali Arikan hosts an Indiana Jones Blogathon. Already underway!

May 19-25: Production Design Blogathon at Jeremy Bushnell's Too Many Projects Film Club.

May 19: the starting date for the Film of the Month Club discussion of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On.

May 4-10: Ferdy on Films hosts a Dance Movie Blogathon. It's Here!

April 14: Film at 11 Hosts a blogathon devoted to Andrew Sarris and The American Cinema. Here is the Home Page for this blogathon.

February 1-8: Celebrate the bright lights and shiny colors, at the Deeply Superficial Blogathon at South Dakota Dark. And here's the blogathon proper.

February is also Black History month, being celebrated by Odienator at Big Media Vanadalism with Black History Mumf.

February is Burt Reynolds month, at Welcome to LA.

January 14, 2008: Michael Guillen at the Evening Class hosts a blogathon dedicated to the great Val Lewton. It begins on the 14th, and runs all week to match TCM's Lewton programming and new documentary from Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese. The festivities are underway - with a wrap up post here.

January 6-13: At Unspoken Cinema, the blogathon that never really went away returns - another go at considering Contemplative Cinema - the continued consideration of the plotless, minimalist branch of art cinema. Opening announcement is up.

January 1-5, 2008: Start the year with the Opening Credits Blogathon, at Evan Burchfield's Continuity. Already in progress!

For previous blogathons - here my list; there's also a fine compilation at Unspoken Cinema. A lot of other people keep track of these tings - I will link to them as I find them. This is one of those constantly updated posts...

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

My 2008 Movie Posts

Index of film posts at this blog for the year. This allows a bit more classification and commentary than tags.

Essays and Long form:

Two for the Contemplative cinema blogathon: contemplative cinema as art films; and parametric variations in contemplative films
Jose Luis Guerin retrospective notes.
3/25: Manoel De Oliveira retrospective.
5/14: Comments on Blogs and Criticism.
5/20: Production design blogathon post - Princess Raccoon screen shots.
5/24: More production design - a number of favorites: The Pornographers, The Apartment, a couple Ed Wood films (Ed Wood?), and Inland Empire.
5/25: in association with the Film of the Month Club, discussion of some of the themes and devices in Kazuo Hara's films.
5/28: And authorship in Hara's films. (Cross posted to Film of the Month Club.)
6/15: Make Way For Tomorrow and Tokyo Story essay.
7/19: Essay on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Retribution. A week early for the blogathon - another link.
8/7: Double Bills.
8/24: For movies about movies blogathon - King Kong (mostly) - and spectacle...
8/30: Dr. Smith's Back to School Quiz. (Original quiz here.)
9/8: Holy Grail Meme. (Original, and continuing commentary at The Dancing Image.)
10/4: Ozu's camera movements - geometry, the Crane shot.
11/7: Alphabetical list meme.
11/16: Poetry as film, featuring Ozymandias.
11/22: Things I love about Old Movies photo-post.
12/30: Professor Kingsfield quiz, from SLIFR.

Occasional Posts:

Best of 2007.
Blogathons of 2008.
Moments of 2007.
Vampira obituaries
Val Lewton Blogathon notice.
Kon Ichikawa obit.
Oscar picks and guesses.
Funny Games controversy.
4/6: Charlton Heston obit.
4/14: Sarris blogathon begins.
4/14: Links and so on - Cannes, etc
5/4: Links, blogathons (dance movies, production design), etc.
5/6: 2007 Retrospective top 25. 5/7: Top Tens by decade (revised from last year); 2000s Top Tens by year.
5/10: More in a similar vein - the 1990s, by year, and overall.
5/11: West Side Story clip.
5/17: Links - blogathons, Film of the Month Club notes, Speed Racer.
6/9: Spring Quiz, from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
7/16: Links, a mid-year list, etc.
7/24: Chahine Obit.
8/5: Parallel Universe Film Guide link.
9/27: Paul Newman in the Hudsucker Proxy.
10/27: Minelli announcement.
10/30: Links, Ebert's 8 minute review, Bordwell on political narratives, and more Minelli.
12/9: Oshima series note.
12/11: Oliveira turns 100.
12/18: Lots of notes and links - Oshima teasers, Alison Bechdel's film rule; Absolute Beginners, Cairns n Brazil, etc.


1/31 - Roundup for January: There Will be Blood, Assassination of Jesse James, Sweeney Todd, Persepolis, Charlie Wilson's War, Walk Hard
3/11 - DVD review of Adventures of Robin Hood.
3/24: Big Roundup - 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days; Michael Clayton; Diary of the Dead; Witnesses; Be Kind Rewind; Band's Visit; Taxi to the Dark Side; Still Life; Paranoid Park; CJ7.
4/2: another roundup of reviews: Don't Touch the Axe; Abraham's Valley; Princess Raccoon; The Black Pirate.
4/9: More mini-reviews: Married Life; Leatherheads; Monkey Warfare,; The Bank Job; Sea Hawk.
4/14: Short reviews: Contempt, All For Free & Fairbanks X 2: Mark of Zorro and Don Q.
4/29: 3 Reviews: Flight of the Red Balloon, My Blueberry Nights and The Visitor
7/19: Retribution on DVD.
9/3: Vicky Cristina Barcelona disappoints.
9/16: Edward Yang/Wu Nien-jen comments, part 1.
9/28: Yang/Wu Part 2.
10/12: Ohayo at the Brattle.
12/1: Synecdoche, NY review.
12/11: Rachel Getting Marries and A Christmas Tale, reviewed.

Best of 2007 (Films)

Happy New Year! Time to post a list! I'm not one to post a best of the year list in the middle of December - it's barely soon enough now. Certainly too soon to do justice to films made in 2007 - just in the next week or so, There Will be Blood and Persepolis and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days will be coming out - I'm too dependent on commercial releases, I'm afraid, to get any head start on those lists... so for now, stick to what got released, in a commercial theater, for the first time (as far as I know) in Boston in 2007, whether I'd seen it before or not. Which is why the #1 film is 30 years old, and has been a fixture on my all time lists since I saw it, 8-10 years ago at some art house or other.... Without further ceremony:

1. Killer of Sheep - Charles Burnett - not that it got a very good release - but it did appear in theaters, finally, and I am going to put it where it belongs. A masterpiece.
2. Syndromes and a Century - Apichatpong Weerasethakul - this didn't get the best release either, but did play here and there - haunting and beautiful, telling stories with the subtlest of indications.
3. No country for Old Men - Coen Brothers - a fine return to form; a genre picture that in some ways might be as radical and strange as the two films ahead of it on this list - the way everything at the end is indicated and not shown, though it's clear enough what is happening. How people decide to face death...
4. Zodiac - David Fincher - Somehow, this has been forgotten already - how can that be? as inventive and surprising and great looking as No Country for Old Men, working, like the Coens' film, completely within an established, mainstream genre.
5. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Julian Schnabel - what threatened to be uplifting schlock (an inspirational story of a paralyzed man triumphing over the odds to write a book), turns out to be something genuinely wonderful - Schnabel finds a really amazing formal means of telling the story; and shows complete control over the medium, using it to tell the story, to communicate Bauby's point of view and first person narration, and to inflect the story with emotional detail: like the way the camera moves outside his body, moves to integrate him into the environment as his ability to communicate integrates him into the environment and his imagination comes to encompass the world around him.
6. Brand Upon the Brain - Guy Maddin - somehow managing to get weirder than the usual Maddin fare, with terrible family secrets, polymorphous perversity, distressed film and all manner of montage tricks, voiceover narration by Isabella Rossellini, a symphonic score, orphan choirs and a boy soprano... that's the distributed version - the original version, with the music and narration done live, might be too much...
7. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone - Tsai Ming Liang - Lee Kang-sheng turns up in Malaysia, playing two people, a homeless guy and a paralyzed guy, attended by a Malaysian worker and a girl;all suffer terribly - this might be Tsai's most depressing film - until the end, when the homeless guy, the girl and the worker end up floating together on a mattress, in their own little utopia.
8. Triad Election - Johnny To - Louis Koo and Simon Yam compete for head of the triad societies in the usual ways - murder, torture, kidnapping and the like. Rather elegant and restrained for To, underplaying even the nastiness (which is extremely nasty).
9. Into Great Silence - Philip Groning - contemplative cinema in the most literal sense, a long slow meditative film about meditation and the flow of time.
10. Darjeeling Limited - Wes Anderson - Armand White said in a world with Wes Anderson, Sidney Lumet should be put in jail - the problem is, if that's your standard, most directors should be doing time. Even a lot of films that might actually be better films than Darjeeling Ltd seem infinitely smaller than anything Anderson does. He is distinctive, has a sensibility, and even the criticism of his films is aimed so much higher than anything anyone to the mainstream side of him is doing (except maybe the Coens and, this year - finally - David Fincher) that it just proves the point, again - that he is one of the great directors. If this is the worst he's likely to do, and maybe it is - he's competing with David Lynch and Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis and Kiyoshi Kurosawa - he's up with the big boys. Even more than the Coens. Overall, I suppose this is a modest, rather generic film, pleasant enough, but nothing all that new, in the story - but it is made with such assurance and skill, even as a story, but especially as a work of filmmaking, that it utterly transcends the great mass of films made - knowing that it exists in the world makes watching films like Juno or Lars and the Real Girl or 3:10 to Yuma - perfectly well made, entertaining pictures - almost painful. Why do they bother? can't they give me something to look at? You will note the films ahead of it on this list are, in fact, all extraordinary looking - in different ways, to different purposes, but they all do something with the form.

And now , that out of the way - here's another, say, 15 films, to give us 25: all very good films - this won't exhaust the decent films released this year. I don't know what order these are in; it's not important.

Tears of a Black Tiger - Wisit Sasanatieng
Offsides - Jafar Panahi
Bamako - Abderrahmane Sissako
The Wind that Shakes the Barley - Ken Loach
12:08 East of Bucharest - Corneliu Porumboiu
Eastern Promises - David Cronenberg
Election - Johnny To
The Host - Bong Joon-ho
Away From Her - Sarah Polley
The Case of the Grinning Cat - Chris Marker
Grindhouse - Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Red Road - Andrea Arnold
Climates - Nuri Blige Ceylan
Margot at the Wedding - Noah Baumbach
Vanaja - Rajnesh Domalpalli

As for performances and such - keeping the list short:

Actor - Christian Bale, Rescue Dawn
Actress - Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding (though a close run from Amy Adams in Enchanted)
Supporting Actor - Javier Bardem, I suppose, is the default winner, though that's a kind of 1A role... Jeremy Davis and Steve Zahn in Rescue Dawn have more conventional supporting parts, and keep up with Bale, no easy task. And James Marsden ought to be a dark horse for Enchanted.
Supporting Actress - Cate Blanchett, again, is the obvious choice, getting Dylan down pat - Alison Janney in Juno is the more conventional supporting choice...
Ensemble - Darjeeling Limited
Script - Guy Maddin and George Toles, Brand Upon the Brain - why not? stranger is sometimes better. Though Charles Burnett probably deserves it more...
DP - while mildly tempted to pick the "automavision" nonsense Lars von Trier was touting for Boss of it All - I'll go for Harris Savides for his DV work on Zodiac
Director - I have to say that it was a director heavy year - all the high films are director's films: there aren't all that many films that sneak in on their scripts or performances... making singling out the best direction harder than usual. I think I'll take the Coen brothers, though, since they brought in everything to make No Country for Old Men the success it is - they are auteurs in the fullest sense (even if it is an adaptation), creating the script, directing the film, getting the outstanding performances they got, making it look the way it did - a first rate effort, so why deny it?

And now - an early cut at the best films made this year. This will be greatly eroded as early as the end of this month, so we will have to revisit it over time. But now:

1. California Dreamin' (Endless) - Christian Remescu - I've heard rumors of a regular release for this film, an unfinished posthumous Romanian effort - if so, look for it again in 2008.
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Zodiac
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
5. Darjeeling Limited
6. Eastern Promises
7. Away From Her
8. Grindhouse
9. Margot at the Wedding
10. Vanaja - in a year full of unwanted pregnancy films - this and Waitress were far and away the best. They should have gotten the attention that Knocked Up and Juno get....

A decent crop, even for now. And finally - what was the worst film of the year? Well, I'm sure there were quite a few worse, but for my money - 2 films stood out: Southland Tales was a long silly boring mess, though there were some fine moments - I won't give up on Richard Kelly quite yet. But the real stinker was Across the Universe - again, it had moments, and even in its bad moments, you could glimpse something thrilling hiding behind it - but that thrilling film isn't on the screen, except during the second half of the trailer.... I'm a bit more likely to give up on Julie Taymor, though I don't want to...

[if anyone notices: I've come back and corrected the more egregious spelling and typo problems - never hurts to proof-read.]