Thursday, January 29, 2009

German Film History (and 2 examples)

I have fulfilled at least one of my resolutions for 2009 - signing up for a film class, at Harvard Extension. "Masterpieces of German Cinema", it's called - which reminds me of an odd fact about my experience with German films. I have seen a pretty strong representation of the masterpieces of German cinema - certainly, most of the (non-Nazi) films featured in this class. But I have seen very little else from German films. Even the auteurs - other than Herzog, maybe Murnau, it's thin going - 8-10 Fassbinders (what's that, a week's production?), half dozen Wenders, only a couple of Lang's German films, and not much else. And not much German film that isn't sort of a "masterpiece" - a handful of films in the last decade or so, though not many even there... Compared to French films, or Japanese, or Chinese - even Italian - it's well behind those countries, not just in how much I've seen, but how widely I've seen them. No German equivalent for any of the genres I've sampled in other countries (Giallo, kung fu films, anime or Samurai pictures, etc.) I haven't really even read about German films that much - less than French, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Indian, African, Iranian, Italian, even Spanish I suspect.... So I hope, even if the screenings are standards, the reading, the lectures, the clips and shorts we cover will significantly expand this knowledge.

Anyway: the class got off to a rousing start, with screenings of the 1913 Student of Prague and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The latter of course is one of the founding text of Canonical German Cinema - the former is a clear precursor of expressionism, horror films - a doppelganger story derived from Poe, featuring some neat double exposures to allow Paul Wegener to play himself and his reflection... it's both a Faust story and a doppelganger story - a sorcerer offers Wegener's student (of Prague) 100,000 marks for any one thing in the student's (very studentlike) room - a good deal! the sorcerer takes his reflection from the mirror - who, as in Poe's William Wilson, or Dostoevski's The Double, (not to mention Rob Lowe) starts showing up at inopportune times, doing terrible things that the student probably thought of first... The student pursues a woman, of course, neglecting, of course, the Poor Gypsy Girl who stalks him... all this ends in tears, and - you can read William Wilson if you need the rest... Caligari is famous enough, I'll skip the long recap - we have a mad scientist, a somnambulist, two friends in love with the same girl, a string of murders, an old book of magic and a diary, flashbacks, and a possibly misbegotten frame story - and a revolutionary and still rather radical design sense.

Though one of the things that struck me watching these two films is that Caligari (made in 1920, already showing a fair amount of understanding of classical cinema codes) looked more archaic, "primitive" than the earlier film. Not because of the sets, which are still dazzling, or the design,but because it does seem to be moving toward that classical style, but using archaic means. It has picked up on the ideas of centering and controlling the image, of creating identification with characters and holding it there - it picks out the important elements of the shot, makes most of its meaning from shot to shot, rather than within shots - all classical conventions. But it still has the older tableau style staging - fairly long shot lengths - and it doesn't really use editing to construct the story. It uses lighting - and irises and other masks, where later films would cut (or wipe or what have you.) It looks odd - creating montage like effects without montage....

Student of Prague, on the other hand, looks surprisingly modern. Part of the reason for this is that it's aesthetic has reappeared - mostly in art films, new wave, etc. It's shot mostly in long takes, usually in fairly deep spaces, and uses a lot of the "tableau technique" David Bordwell has discussed. Decentralized framings, multiple planes of action, a certain freedom in the frame - things happen that seem unrelated to the story. In class, this was used to illustrate pre-classical structures - the dispersal of action in the frame, vs. the concentration and control of classical cinema. True enough - but it's also controlled quite well. The filmmakers do a fine job of directing attention - and of shifting attention, or creating multiple points of interest. The opening sequence is a fine example: Balduin, the student, comes to a cafe - but he is broke and bored and sits apart from his friends, though they try to get him to join the party. The dancing girl (who has an eye for him) dances on a table, but he doesn't care. Finally - Scapalini the sorcerer turns up and he and Balduin share a table and a chat. Balduin wants a lottery ticket and a woman - Scapalini says he can do that. They leave together....

All that is one shot. It's a big open space, a cafe - though the cafe is ranged around the back of the shot. There is a table in the foreground... The filmmakers use this space wonderfully. The cafe is full of people - all in the back of the shot though - there is an open space in the left foreground. Three students enter from the bottom left of the screen - focusing our attention on them. But they lead us back into the crowd - except one of them, Balduin, circles through the cafe and comes back into the foreground, in front of the rest of the people, and sits at the table facing us. This creates two levels of space - the bustle in the back (decentered, dispersed, etc.) and Balduin, alone, in the foreground. HIs friends come and talk to him, connecting the two, but he ignores them - they go back and the girl emerges, climbs on a table and dances - intensifying the division of our interest. Balduin ignores her - she dances - a spectacle to us, but she is staring intently at Balduin all the time... And then - a wagon comes through the frame, cutting off the background all at once, as effectively as a curtain falling. Scapalini gets off the wagon and sits beside Balduin. The wagon rolls off - now the cafe behind them is empty, expect for the girl. And the filmmakers continue their use of multiple points of interest - as Balduin and Scapalini talk, the girl creeps up on them, trying to seem or hear - they never notice her, but we are very much aware of her. And finally, when the men leave, she creeps after them, still unnoticed.... It's a fine piece of stagecraft - and filmmaking - using the camera compositions to define the staging - using on and offscreen space, but through stagecraft (like the horse) and camera movements, or just entrances and exits. It carefully modulates our attention from foreground to background, from the crowd to he characters, and between the characters... The rest of the film, though less brilliant, probably, is similarly handled - a consistently fine use of space, staging, the borders of the camera's frame, multiple planes within the shot, use of doors and internal frames to expand and contract the space of the shot, and so on.

It looks modern because much of this has been picked up by art films (primarily) - and it looks less outdated than Caligari because later films tended to pick up these devices fairly straight. Staging and composition is staging and composition, especially within long shots - the means of editing have changed quite a bit since 1920 (let alone 1913) - but a long take of a more or less coherent space is a long take now... It is interesting to see how certain strands of film history get picked up, half a century or so later (and then off and on since then)...

Monday, January 26, 2009


Che is one of those films that comes with expectations - at least, anticipation. I was certainly excited to see it turn up. The screenings themselves felt like Events - certainly the method of its release, the "roadshow," contributes - creates a sense of excitement, of the movie as an event, as The Place To Be, at least once... There are movies I feel obliged to see - I feel like I owe the director or the star or the subject my time - I've felt that way about some of Soderbergh's films in the past... This was more than that - I went in with the sense that there was a decent chance of seing a genuinely good film.

And was happily rewarded. It is Oscar season - people talk about this years' nominations, no one seems happy - me, I think the dullness of the nominations reflects the mediocrity of the films released. It was a boring year, especially in Hollywood. And it comes after a year when a host of fine films came out of Hollywood - ambitious, well made, intelligent films; mostly genre films, mostly guy genre films - but in the best tradition of the best of Hollywood. The one film in 2008 that matches those '07 films (all those grim, artsy films about men doing unwise things, from Zodiac to There Will Be Blood to No Country for Old Men to Darjeeling Limited to The Assassination of Jesse James...) is Che. It is such a relief to see a film that delivers on its possibilities.

It is long - though not that long. I would say, it should be seen as one film - but a lot of films released as two, should be seen as one. It reminded me a bit of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima films: seeing Letters from Iwo Jima alone, I was not all that impressed; seeing if back to back with Flags of our Fathers, I thought both became far more effective. There are a number of films like this - matched war films - that rather often follow the rise/fall trajectory Che shares. Eastwood's films are an ambiguous match - Flags is almost as much a downer as Letters... Kon Ichikawa's magnificent pair of war films, Burmese Harp/Fires on the Plain, embody the structure at its purest. The first, about redemption, reconciliation, going home - the second about damnation, disintegration, death, far from home... That's Che all right. It's Rivette's Jeanne la Pucelle, too - which (like Che) is divided into two parts that follow the pattern, and names them - "Battles"/"Prisons" in the Rivette film. (Che has a lot of Joan of Arc in him: great hero/doomed martyr - more than a bit of a loony, absolutely committed to the voices in his (her) head...)

Onwards! The movies... Part 1 is about Cuba. Framed by scenes in NY, 1964 - an interview, Che at the UN, Che interacting with the high and low. All this filmed in grainy black and white, cinema verite style. From this beginning it flashes back to Mexico (shot in grainy DV) where the Cubans plan the revolution - then to Cuba (now, gorgeous lush, high definition video) for the revolution. Which we see, in a series of somewhat disconnected scenes - things happen, then other things happen. The events are shaped by the flashforwards, which remind us where it is leading (and sometimes undermine the material we see - or reshape it), how it will all turn out. The scenes themselves are not so coherent by themselves, but they have a shape. We see the war through fairly conventional looking scenes - guerrillas march through jungle - they meet and make camps and engage in minor power struggles; they fight, win, lose - Che cares for the sick - he gets an independent command - he wins some, loses some, faces challenges within, etc. All of this looks conventional enough, but the links are missing - or rather, imposed from outside. We see people moving around, doing things - we see people come and go, meet, talk, go - people appear, always introduce themselves - and then - stay, leave, reappear.... Except it is shaped - by the flashforwards, and their occasionally direct narration of scenes; by the sense of progress, hinted at in the dialogue - they go to one place; then they go somewhere else; they move on - everything we see, even the setbacks, take them a step closer to their goal. And as we watch it - following Che in his disconnected actions - he gains a command, he loses a command, he regains a command, he meets a girl, he unites disparate forces, he runs a campaign - it falls into a pattern. The beginning - Che staggering up a hill, wracked by asthma, men tramping aimlessly through the jungle - becomes more and more focused until the climax, the battle of Santa Clara. This is rendered in great detail and precision - specific actions, breaking through walls to get at a snipers' post, people moving through the streets, a train ambush, all carefully shown. (And subtly: one of the strangest things about it all is how Soderbergh works indirectly, even in this vast epic film. Details, precision, economy: the way, for example, he shows the ambush of a train in Santa Clara - breaking the overall process into pieces, separated by other parts of the battle - implying things that happen: like - we see a bulldozer driving toward railroad tracks, but don't see the bulldozer do anything - later some men are ordered to an address - we see other men attacking a train, which starts to move - we see men running through the streets (and have to recognize the man who took the earlier order to know who they are and where they are going) - then we see the train, the men - and finally, what the bulldozer did.... He makes us work, Soderbergh does, in a most satisfying way....) And finally? The war is won - everyone heads to Havana - though not before Che rebukes some of his men for stealing a car...

Part 2: Bolivia. Here, again, the film starts framed - but not as a flashback. We see a title scroll telling us that Che has disappeared from Cuba. We see Fidel Castro giving a speech - reading a letter from Che, resigning his positions. (We see this on TV, of course.) Then we see him back in Cuba, in disguise - before long, he is off to Bolivia. Through customs - a night in a hotel - then off to the hills.... At the beginning, we see a title - Day 1 - and the date. After that, though Soderbergh continues to put the days on screen from time to time (Day 67; Day 100, etc.) we don't see the date again. We see some place titles, not consistently. (This contrasts with the first part: where similar cards kept us constantly appraised of where Che was and what the date was. Time is marked in the first part - a steady progression - in part 2 - it's a string of days...) Once the film gets proper going, it may jump between parts of the story (from Che to other guerillas to the army fighting against him), but it never leaves the story - there is no narration, no frame of any kind, the time and place markers are abstract, there's no sense of progress. The outside world is erased, the context is erased...

The story in part two is similar to part one - Che joins the guerrillas from outside, talks the same game, wears the same clothes - but everything is different. Nothing gets going. Che and company sit around, then head out on a training exercise, then run for their lives, but they might as well be running in place. Everything that happened in part one has a counterpart here, but it's reversed, it fails. (And the failures shown in part 2 reveal the structure of part 1 - the inertia of the group in part 2 reveals the direction and progress made in part 1.) Where in Cuba the rebel factions overcome their reluctance and make deals with each other, in Bolivia, Che's faction quickly breaks from the communists and other groups. Where the rebels quickly bonded with the peasants in part one, they never win them over in part 2. (It's notable, I'm sure, that the only relationship these good communists can build with the peasants is to pay them for goods - pure commerce.) Meanwhile, the government is ready for them - they have CIA backing (Cubans!) - they soon have him on the run. And once the chase starts, it turns into a long slog - Che and company marching around in circles in the hills and jungles, never going anywhere, two groups of rebels seeming to chase each other through the jungle without finding each other, harried by the army every inch of the way. And finally, like the first part, the film ends with a battle - Yuro Ravine, also rendered very carefully, though there's never any doubt about the outcome. And then? Che is caught - slapped around - and shot and dies....

I'd say - this should be seen as one film. The two parts balance each other. There is a distinct split in style between the two films. The first has those multiple styles - the B&W NY footage, the lush Cuban footage, the video Mexican footage, using various lighting styles, though mostly beautiful, wet, green, in Cuba. The camera is fairly steady - maybe not motionless, but the compositions steady, the style lucid and clear. Part 2 sticks to one style - but it's a more disruptive one. Cool, bright DV, with both shakier camera work (lots of handheld) and quite a few long, neutral, distanced shots. Some of the opening moments, especially, look a lot like Herzog - it's certainly likely that Herzog is one of the references points for this film. The style is, then, both more objective than the first - cold and detached - and subjective, with more point of view (including Che's end.) The structure and style giving the first the feel of heroic march - the bad times will only make you stronger; they march from victory to victory - and we are constantly reminded of where it will go, to Che the celebrity, Che the international power - the end is never in doubt, the scenes are always woven into that end. The second part reverses that - the film looks more dismal, less hopeful; there is no contextualizing frame, and no sense of progress - we are kept close to Che's experiences, and his experiences get smaller and smaller - watching the guerrillas marching in circles in the woods. They keep coming back to the same places, keep doing the same things, keep having the same conversations, making the same plans, facing the same problems. Until they are pinned down on the side of a hill completely surrounded by soldiers. (Soderburgh quoting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at that point.) All this, as well as the fact that Soderburgh only shows the failures (even their victories are small and weak and serve no purpose), and of course what we know of the ending, turns it into a kind of pure disintegration. It all comes apart.

And so? It's a terribly satisfying movie. It is satisfying to see a big sprawling epic made with such control and care - it is immersive, it does not falter. It doesn't falter in part because of the grand patterns at work - but they are patterns that Soderbergh manages to enact from shot to shot as much as from film to film. He tells you more than you see - he twists expectations. (Bringing in a girl to hang around with Che at the end of part one - you expect Romance! - but there is no romance - they just go on with their business. But in fact - there was a romance! he married her! but Soderbergh leaves that part out, until part 2, when we see them part....) It's a grand art form, a pretty convincing historical epic, and a remarkably good war movie. It's quite an accomplishment.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

We made it. At noon today we get a new president. That alone is a reason to celebrate. It is astonishing to contemplate the depths of failure we have seen from George W. Bush and his administration. They leave the country in shambles - the economy ruined (with the safeguards against economic ruin weakened), the world more dangerous, for America and everyone else; 2 wars still going, both failures; the constitution undermined - we run gulags! we suspended habeas corpus! warrantless wiretapping! It's horrible. The only relief is that in his second term, he's failed in his domestic policies as well as abroad - imagine, if you will, the state of this nation had Bush managed to privatize Social Security! Here's wishing Bush and Cheney and the rest of that gang of thugs a quick trip to The Hague.

All right. That's out of the way. Next comes fixing it all. Obama comes with very high expectations and hopes - I don't know how many of them he can reach. But he can't make it worse, and I'd say the odds are he will make it better. Health Care reform, rebuilding infrastructure, both the physical infrastructure (roads and bridges etc.) and the social/economic infrastructure, getting the hell out of Iraq while maybe trying to stabilize Afghanistan, finding some more grown up approach to Iran, North Korea, the middle east, maybe even finding some way to stop some of the trouble in Africa - there's an endless list of things he has to fix.

But that too can wait. Right now - I'll end with the simplest, most obvious, but in a lot of ways, the deepest significance of this day. A Black man has been elected president, and will take the office. The son of an immigrant, an African, married to an American white woman: those things should not be taken for granted. That is what America is - that is our National identity: we are not a Nation based on ethnicity, language, religion, culture - we are a Nation based on the fact that we all came from somewhere else, but now we believe we all belong. It is a fact, of course, that we have never lived up to that - we murdered the people who were here first; we kept Africans enslaved for hundreds of years; after we freed the slaves, we systematically oppressed them and excluded them from full membership in the nation for another 100 odd years, and only in the last 50 years have made a fairly sustained effort to change that. Even now, plenty of Americans try to keep some of their fellow Americans out of the Nation. But - for all that - it has changed. And, to our credit, over the long course of history, almost all the change has been for the better - people come here from other places, with their own backgrounds and languages and religions, and - slowly and fitfully, yes - become Americans. And do it without completely letting go of their languages, cultures, religions. We don't all become the same - what we are is made up of all the things we are.

So - today we get a president who represents THAT. All of it - our shameful history with race and out belated efforts to repair it; our fundamental history of being immigrants; our National identity of being mixed. It's good. At the top at least, we are exactly what we should be.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Andrew Wyeth

Though the deaths of Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan are more film related, it's Andrew Wyeth's death that is haunting me this week. I am not sure what to make of him - I took him for granted in the days before I thought much about art, accepting his fame as a mark of his importance, then, after reading a few critical dismissals, maybe accepting them as the critical line... But when I did start caring about art, and trying to judge works on their merits, neither of those earlier attitudes helped... But then - I don't think I have been able to see much of Wyeth's work. In books, but that doesn't count. (Unlike his father's work, which was made to be put in books, and thus comes through quite nicely on the page - I have seen enough of his work to rank it near the best illustration I know of. Not Mervyn Peake, but the next best thing.) I don't remember seeing a lot of Andrew Wyeth's work up close - but I need to, to judge it. What I know of the controversies just underlines this - the pictures are pretty enough, but pretty pictures area dime a dozen. What happens when you see them for real? My guess is - they work. But I've never proved it. I very much want to - I don't know how I've missed him through the years - maybe his popularity led me away from the work, when it did show... I don't know. I do know - he seems to relate to the strand of art I particularly like - the developments after Homer and Eakins, through Hopper, maybe Scheeler - eventually (I'd say) Rothko, Still, etc. - nature (though also buildings, etc.), increasingly simplified and abstracted into shapes and fields of color - I don't know if that's right or not: it's what Christina's World looks like, quite a few others I have seen, reproduced - many of the images featured on his web site, for instance. But I don't know how much of the effect holds up on close examination. (It holds up very well on examination of Hopper, for instance - in person, the paintings exhibit a strong tension between the picture and the forms - the shapes, colors, the compositions: they are like representational and abstract paintings somehow layered on top of one another. After seeing Hopper - Rothko (say) starts to look like Hopper magnified, like one of his walls or windows viewed from very very close...)

All of which is to say that Wyeth is an artist I want and need to look at, in person. Reading of his death gives that desire a good deal more potency...

And finally - doesn't the composition of Christina's World remind you of this? A painting I have seen many many times,a nd one of the highlights of American art....

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hall of Fame

Jim Ed is in! Along with Rickey Henderson. As a New Englander, the first is a terrible thrill - who didn't love Jim Rice growing up? And a kind of relief - that generation of Red Sox players was wasted. Some scattered abroad - Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Cecil Cooper - a lot of them burning out, fading before their time - Lynn, Rice (who was done by 35 or so), the Eck, as a starter anyway, burning out young... Those teams should have been a dynasty, but organizational incompetence stranded them. Another of the many reasons people like me are so amazingly grateful for how things are going now - the organization is not going to waste its talent playing poor mouth - thank god! Anyway - Rice was a force of nature when he was on - it is good to see him get his due.

As for Rickey - between Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, there was no one better. (Only Schmidt and Morgan were close.) Far and away the best player of the 80s.... Mays is the best position player ever, Bonds top 5 - Rickey may not be in that company, but he's not far off. And absolutely as much fun to watch as anyone....

Early Hawks Blogathon

Can't miss this: Ed Howard is hosting a blogathon on Early (pre-Bringing Up Baby) Howard Hawks films. From today through the 23rd, he will be working through the films he can find, and linking to any other posts on the subject. Things have gotten underway with A Girl in Every Port. More to come, much more to come!

Sunday, January 11, 2009


(Cross posted to Film of the Month Club.)

I want to try to develop some of the issues raised in comments about who actually exists in Bad Influence. Not so much because I think it matters who exists or not - but because the way film hints at the possibility, and then does not resolve it, raises points about information in films that I find fascinating.

So who is real? The film sets you up to wonder about Alex, especially - even raising the point explicitly. Pismo says the cops won't believe he exists - and that's the plot in the last third or so - how can Michael (and Pismo) prove that Alex exists, and that he did these things, not Michael? That's what happens in the last act - they chase down evidence that Alex exists - finally trapping him on the Manhattan Beach pier.... But what's interesting about the question is that the film doesn't resolve it. It maintains its ambiguity to the end. In fact, it probably raises more questions about what is real, without answering them. What about Pismo? He's even more ambiguous than Alex, if you think about it. We don't see anyone interact with him other than Michael and Alex. What's more - his function in the plot is as a kind of return of the repressed. He's more Michael's physical double than Alex (a fact the film plays with, from his introduction on.) He shows up at MIchael's door, asking for money, paranoid about an old drug conviction, or later, telling Alex he has "the fear." Which prompts Alex to ask Michael what he is afraid of, what he wants.

The question of what is real isn't all that important in itself. The symbolic links among the characters are obvious enough, and don't depend on their literal identity. What is interesting is how the film handles the possibility, and how it fits with other aspects of the film. How does the film handle it? By hinting at it - then raising it explicitly, and setting it up as the point of the story - then seeming to resolve it - but, rather pointedly, not resolving it. Most of the hints, in fact, are more about the symbolism than the reality of these characters. Alex doesn't really seem to be anything but a slumming gangster of some kind when he first appears. He plays tempter - plays Faust - though he also seems to be acting as Michael's id, or enabling Michael's id. The characters are linked - most clearly in Alex's first appearance in the bar. We see Michael at the bar drinking a beer - we see him in a fight, getting pushed around - then we see a closeup of a hand, breaking a beer bottle on the bar - then we see Alex. But that hand breaking the bottle - it's certainly edited to make us think for a second that's Michael... But even this is just a symbolic link - and symbolism isn't ontology.

Once Alex's existence is named as a problem, though, this manipulation of information becomes significant. You realize that the film has not shown us who beat Patterson, who killed Claire, you realize that no one has seen Alex except Michael (and Pismo and Claire, but one is as reclusive as Alex, and the other is dead). No one but Michael has talked to Alex on the phone. It is possible to put Michael and Alex in the same place for any of the important moments - and possible to rationalize Alex's presence (as Michael's imagination) at places where there seem to be witnesses (like the fiancee's party.) Episodes like the robberies are played ambiguously - we see Alex's face, but Michael wears a mask, and acts completely dissociated from the crimes, enough to make us question the point of view they represent. And everything that might count as evidence - the videotape, even the pictures we see at the beginning of the film, before Alex meets Michael - have disappeared, been destroyed, etc. Now: by naming the question (of Alex's existence) in the film, it sets you up to expect a resolution. The film never plays the story as if Alex didn't exist - everything is structured as if it were a mystery to be solved. And indeed - the ending of the film seems to solve it: Alex's confession is on tape - then he is shot....

And yet the film maintains its ambiguity. Alex's body doesn't come to the surface - no one actually watches the video footage. Michael walks off to talk to the police - but Pismo lags behind, and we don't actually see Michael meet the police. Nothing is resolved.

I think this is important. It does a couple things: one is, I think it links it to another branch of films, to art films - Antonioni and the like. It shares some of their aesthetic - the stark, urban landscapes, the blank white walls, the fascination with photography and video; and it shares their ambiguity, and interest in ambiguity. The unanswered questions of who killed who, or if anyone killed anyone, of Blowup or Terrorizer or a Michael Haneke film. I don't know how much connection there is to those films, probably some, though even without direct links, many of the ideas and images were in the air in 1990.

It's also important for foregrounding the question of evidence, in the film, and for film watchers. What constitutes proof that something is "real" in a fiction? Most of the time, we take it for granted - if the filmmakers put someone on screen and show something happening, we assume it is actually happening, within that fictional world. So why would we doubt that? Why would we ask if 2 characters are really the same person? Why would we ask if something was a figment of someone's imagination? and if the problem comes up - how do you decide, in the film, what is real and what is not?

How does this film suggest that Alex is not real? I'd say: 1) his introduction, that ambiguous cutting around the bottle; 2) by foregrounding the story templates, doppelganger stories, Faust stories; 3) by manipulating what we see and don't see - and then foregrounding the manipulation, so we notice that the film seems to have arbitrarily skipped something like Patterson's beating. 4) And finally - by making it an explicit problem for the plot - by having Pismo and Michael realize that they have no way of proving that Alex exists.... Or - how does the film prove that Claire (for instance) is "real"? Well - as I said in a comment: she's on tape - other people see her on tape. That's how we know Michael is real. We see people that we can't reduce to Michael's perception, and those people react to him: thus we know he "exists." And that evidence is missing for Alex - and for Pismo. Alex does not appear anywhere Michael is not, or if he does, Michael's independent existence can't be proved; there are no pictures of him (and he has no intention of letting anyone get any - they won't knock over a convenience store, it has cameras), no one hears his voice. Same with Pismo - again - only Michael and Alex see him, except at the club - which we could read as "really" Michael. (I think there's enough time to at least pretend Michael's trip to get the gun is not simultaneous.) No pictures of him, no one else hears him talk. And when there is a real chance of two of them being seen (as when they are trying to dispose of the body, or even at the end), Pismo conveniently disappears when people come along (or the film stops.)

But likewise - how would we prove that Michael and Alex are the same person? Well - the film could tell us, explicitly (as in Fight Club.) Or we could imagine a final scene - Michael telling the cops how Alex did what he did, showing them the tape - and we might see the tape, and see Michael confessing the crimes... Or we could see the cops coming to the end of the pier and see that what we thought was Michael was Pismo - and then see Michael's body in the water. There are undoubtedly more subtle ways of making the point - but of course, the film does none of them.

Anyway: that is all for now. By rooting through all this, I don't mean to say that the characters really are the same person, or that the question of whether they are or aren't is all that important. What I think is important is the fact that the film does not resolve the question - and that it does raise issues about knowledge and reality in film. The ways it relates those questions to technology - might be another essay...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Housekeeping Post Ho Hum

Nothing special to say this Saturday night. Stayed in all day, writing about poetry. This again. Distracting me from writing about Bad Influence - I have a post lurking, half finished, though still scattered across 2-3 notebooks and a couple computer files. My usual method. About doubles, ambiguity, and evidence - what counts as evidence in demonstrating something is real in a work of fiction? I hope that's what it's about.

Between worrying about Dylan Thomas, I have been poking about various bits of my online real estate, making tweaks. Spent an hour or so this morning trying to rationalize Google Reader. Figure out a good way to handle the sheer flood of information that comes in there. It's a strange balance: there is no way to read everything that comes through - and I suppose a lot of the blogs I subscribe to, there's no reason to read every post - but every blog I subscribe to comes across once or twice a week (if they post that often) with something worth reading. How do I catch that, without being swamped by the sheer volume? while giving the time I'd like to to the blogs I consistently like? I've been using RSS most of the last year and I can't say I've figured it out yet. This evening, I have turned to a simpler task - trying to spruce up this blog. Not much to do - I'm happy with my Imamura/Hardy Boys/Captain Beefheart theme, I see no reason to change. So add a couple blogs on the blogroll, drop a couple that aren't much updated, attend to some housekeeping. No one will notice.

What else? I think I shall write up a 2009 Resolutions post - though I think I'll post it on Film & Discussion. We're showing life over there! I miss the give and take.... A 20 Actresses post? I posted a list in comments there - I've been meaning to do the thing proper here, pix and all, but... hopeless!

Maybe some bloggage? a link or two? The new year is starting out well at the HFA - Alexander Mackendrick this weekend; Yousef Chahine, Max Ophuls, Paul Shrader, Albert Serra, William Friedkin coming up - the live ones all in attendance, also Laura Mulvey and Ken Jacobs and more... I still intend to write something more about the Oshima series last December - it was bloody magnificent, though it made for an exceedingly hectic month. Add it to the list....

Oh yeah - another episode of Left Behind: The Movie at Slacktivist. Good stuff!

Good night.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Bad Influence and Neo (Not so) nNoir

Cross-posted at the Film of the Month Club.

One of the interesting features of neo-noir, probably following in Chinatown's footsteps, is the use of light, in place of darkness. Bad Influence follows that trend -light plays a key role in its look, throughout. It begins in darkness, and certainly, shadows and dark are significant in the film - but it is remarkable how much emphasis there is on light.

Its key spaces (Michael's workplace and his apartment) are bright, airy places, with white walls, bright lighting, windows, white decor.

When he moves outside, much of the story takes place under the brilliant LA sky:

Meanwhile, as the deeds grow darker, darkness enters the film, as well - though light remains significant. The robbery spree the men go on leads them through dark streets, but the actual crimes occur in the light.

And light itself is a significant part of what is seen. The light of the TV screen is a recurring motif, the TV and camera are integral to the plot; plot points also depend on a tail light, the light of a refrigerator door opening, etc. Even incidental details like the dance routine at one of the underground clubs are built around lights:

And here is darkness, framed in light:

It's a strong pattern throughout the film, and helps establish a theme, maybe: that light hides our bad impulses - darkness reveals them. That may overstate it - the film does fascinating things with what it shows and hides, puts onscreen or off... but its use of light (and whiteness, and glass, surfaces, etc.) is quite remarkable.

...One more thing (added here, not the FOTMC, since this is not a completed thought) - the look of Bad Influence reminds me of certain high modernist films, Antonioni, Edward Yang. It does not present itself as an art film, but it really is - the decor, the modernist spaces, the clean lines, the whites and light, the glass and steel - and the ambiguity of the story. For it is a very ambiguous story. Exactly how many characters are there in this film? A question to be asked! a hint of posts to come!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Music, 2008

And tonight - music! The best of 2008! the best I bought in 2008, anyway - which this year seems to have dropped a bit. 22 records was it? oy. I listed 20 favorite records last year - that's all I got this year...

The odd thing is - it didn't seem all that impressive a year for music. Same as movies, I guess! I don't know which direction it moves in - I bought less music so heard less I liked? or bought less music because fewer records looked essential? I don't know. It's odd anyway - a lot of what I got were bands I have long liked - that's no different than last year, but this year they didn't seem as rewarding - or not as many of them were. Or maybe fewer of my favorites released records - which would explain some of the thin going. I don't know. I will stop complaining and make a list:

1. Earth - The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull: actually, that's Earth with Bill Frisell - which is to say, 2 of my favorite guitar stranglers. Slow echoing strangulation, but gorgeous - tone and sound and deceptive melodies...

2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science: maybe not as wonderful as Cookie Mountain, though no slouch - more songs running through my head this year than anyone else... "the lazy way they turn your head into a rest stop for the dead..." -

3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig Lazarus Dig: a good record a year more or less, bless him. More in the raucous vein established by the Grinderman record. "What an enormous and encyclopedic brain!"

4. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes: gorgeous folk songs run through Van Dyke Parks - beautiful record.

5. The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely: Jack White, too, can be counted on for a good record a year, in one of his 12 different bands.

6. Sigur Rus - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust: they continue the folkish turn they took with Hvarf/Heim and their movie... I rather prefer their previous post-rock style, but this is still quite extraordinary.

7. The Melvins - Nude with Boots: more (mostly) slow motion pummeling, from the masters. I have only this year really pursued the Melvins - I've had a couple of their CDs but didn't pay much attention until now - thank Boris...

8. Boris - Smile: speaking of whom... not as immediately and completely enthralling as last year's Rainbow, or even some of the earlier records (Pink, say), but still first rate guitar wanking and drony noise.

9. Keiji Haino & Tatsuya Yoshida - Urfasudhasdd: it can't all be happy pop! though truth is, this is remarkably happy music - Yoshida, especially, is always witty as well as virtuosic - Haino gets in the spirit, and offers up everything from almost normal rock guitar to avant garde noise, with both of them yelping away...

10. Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh - S/T: more beautiful avant-garde folk. I managed to see them this year, playing with Damon and Naomi - one of the 2 concerts I made it to. Which these days, is a pretty good year!

After that - still some good stuff - one good thing about only buying 22 records is you're less likely to get anything bad. There were a couple disappointments - I don't know why I bothered with the latest REM record.. nothing bad, just boring... more surprising - the new Mercury Rev record was quite underwhelming, and I never really got into the new Bloc Party or Of Montreal records... Others - Beck, Stephen Malkmus, Deerhoof, the Kills, were pretty good, if not overwhelming.

And so? Video for my favorite songs of the year:

TV on the Radio, Halfway Home:

Nick Cave and company - Dig Lazarus Dig!

And Fleet Foxes, doing Sun it Rises:

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best Films of 2008

This is a more difficult post than usual. This was a disappointing year. Not so much in terms of films I saw - it was a spectacular year for rep series: Manoel de Oliveira, Jose Luis Guerin, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lee Chang-dong, Joseph Losey, Edward Yang, Vincente Minelli, Lucrecia Martel, Claire Denis, Nagisa Oshima - and that's just at the HFA. With Guerin, Weerasethakul, Lee, Wu Nien-jen, Martel and Denis in person. Nor was it a bad year in the cinemas - mainly because 2007 seems nearly inexhaustible, and many excellent foreign pictures arrived in our theaters this year... It's for the best, since the brand new films have been remarkably underwhelming. Some nice ones - but after last year? Part of the problem is obviously that 2007 was a great year for American films: so a bunch of superb films had already come out by the end of the year. (Zodiac, No Country for Old Men, Diving Bell and Butterfly, Assassination of Jesse James, etc.) The American prestige pictures that have come out this year have been quite underwhelming...

Enough complaining. This is my list of the best films to get a (more or less) legitimate commercial release in Boston in 2008:

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days - from last year's class
2. Flight of the Red Balloon - 2007 again
3. Christmas Tale - this one, though, is new - hooray!
4. Exiles - this year's superb rediscovery and rerelease.
5. Don’t Touch the Axe - another 07 film
6. My Winnipeg - an 08 documentary, sort of - a theme!
7. Encounters at the end of the World - another 08 doc - told you there was a theme.
8. Man on Wire - see?
9. Romance of Astree and Celedon - last year of course
10. Chop Shop - another 07 film
11. Up the Yangtze - and another documentary
12. Ballast - an 08 film, that keeps rising in my estimation
13. Burn After Reading - very entertaining Coen brothers comedy, though nothing special
14. Momma’s Man - another nice 08 indie
15. Married Life - another 07 films, one that seems to have dropped off the earth
16. Rachel Getting Married - 08, nice film, nice return for Demme, though in the end, just a nice film...
17. Happy Go Lucky - another new film, pretty good, not sure how good though
18. A Girl Cut in Two - another 07 film by an old Frenchman
19. Speed Racer - look, if you're going to go overboard on the CGI, Go Overboard on the CGI!
20. Paranoid Park - last year's Gus Van Sant
21. Milk - this year's Gus Van Sant - pretty good itself
22. Witnesses - another 2007 French movie, Andre Techine this time
23. Curious Case of Benjamin Button - looks great, less filling
24. The Wrestler - nicely made film, but as cliched and predictable as a wrestling match
25. Operation Filmmaker - another documantary

And now - the best films made in 2008, whether they were released here or not: an okay list so far, though the film at the top is outstanding. Nothing wrong with these films, just very little else that seems like a timeless classic.

1. The Headless Woman - Lucrecia Martel
2. A Christmas Tale - Arnaud Desplechin
3. My Winnipeg - Guy Maddin
4. Encounters at the End of the World - Werner Herzog
5. Man on Wire - James Marsh
6. Ballast - Lance Hammer
7. Burn After Reading - Coen Brothers
8. Momma's Man - Azazel Jacobs
9. Rachel Getting Married - Jonathan Demme
10. Happy Go Lucky - Mike Leigh

My 2009 Movie Posts

The roundup, with notes.

Essays and Long Forms:

1/5: FOTMC: Bad Influence - Not-so Noir.
1/11: FOTMC 2: Ambiguity.
1/29 - German Film History: Student of Prague and Caligari
2/20: Modern Dancers - Mabuse and Faust and Modernism.
3/17: Dekalog - vs. Dan Schneider.

April Film of the Month Club Entries on Mabuse the Gambler:
4/1 - Introduction
4/9 - Mabuse and his World
4/20 - Doubles and Series in Mabuse
4/30 - Pacing in Mabuse
5/2 - Wrapup

4/11: Fifty Years of Nouvelle Vague & Breathless - for the blogathon.
Several posts for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon:
6/16: Cinematography sampler #1.
6/17: Why I love Ozu.
6/19: Cinematography #2 - Kurosawa Akira edition
6/20: great brute of an essay on Early Spring and Tokyo Twilight
7/8: The Disappearing Floor - for the Spirit of Ed Wood blogathon.
8/7: Writing the City - contribution to the Film of the Month Club
10/10: (Too late for the double billathon proper) - Riefenstahl vs. Eisenstein. Eisenstein wins.
12/17: Pictures missing from my Nazi Cinema class final paper.

Occasional Posts:

Best of 2008, First cut.
2/12: comments on Three Cabelleros, The Class, Rio Bravo, Nosferatu, Mabuse the Gambler, plus.
4/11: Link to FOTMC and TOERIFC.
5/13: Retrospective best of 2008.
5/26: Links to various.
5/30: Upcoming blogathons.
6/4: Favorite Film books.
6/10: more links - to blogathons, new FOTMC, etc.
7/6: Links roundup - blogathons, film of the month club (Hands Over the City), etc.)
7/28: Reply to Memory meme from Joseph B - slides and Bening's RR.
8/5: Severus Snape Summer Quiz.
8/18: Another Quiz, from MovieTone News.
8/27: On not seeing Inglourious Basterds yet.
9/20: Stuart Street Theater plus some comments on Cinemension, DVDs and dubbing.
9/29: Contra Polanski.
10/5: Various - Pixar Week at HND, a double bill blogathon, baseball and more Polanski.
11/7: Making fun of Dan Schneider.
11/7: Hollywood vs. Lisandro Alonso - on the virtues of small films.
11/13: Friday Thirteenth - Cairns on Vertigo; Cozzalio vs. Schickel; Ebert on a gate crashing genius.
12/2: Beyond the Canon reaction.
12/5: Quiz time.
12/20: Best of the Decade.


1/26: Che reviewed - at length.
2/2: Various - FOTMC comments; Light Sleeper, Blue Collar, HUsbands and Wives
3/1: mostly a roundup - Gomorra, Secret of the Grain, El Cant dels Ocells, Waiting for Sancho, Deconstructing Harry - plus comments on theater, etc.
3/8: Two Lovers plus comments on M's legacy, Alphaville, etc.
3/28: Three Films: Sita Sings the Blues, Watchmen, Hunger
8/23: Short reviews of Thirst and 24 City.
8/29: Inglourious Basterds review.
9/23: Bandwagon.
9/15: Whale roundup, mostly - plus Extract.
10/26: Antichrist.