Wednesday, September 7, 2016

38 Sentences

(With apologies to this post by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)

Like Clara Bow for It and Maria Falconetti for Passion of Joan of Arc, Alicia Silverstone will live forever because of Clueless While for Miyazaki, filmmaking is primarily emotional, even physical--measured in how many frames he draws personally, how much of himself he pours into the film--for Takahata, filmmaking is primarily intellectual; he’s always rethinking the way animation works, redefining its limits.  Sofia Coppola shoots hotel rooms better than anyone in the history of cinema.  Lightning McQueen & Mater = Bob the Tomato & Larry the Cucumber, particularly in Cars 2.  Are we approaching a point when we will no longer be able to speak of “human nature” because it’s too “essentializing,” too rigid and meaningless and even offensive?   The major problem with Stephen Curry is that he mispronounces his first name.  Terrence Malick has left the proscenium further behind than anybody in narrative cinema: we are constantly aware of a world around us, a vast space stretching in every direction (even the city is Big Sky Country).  The thing about the various (supposedly cuckoo) interpretations of The Shining (and I am not the first to point this out), is that the sundry clues and motifs studied by the movie’s obsessives (Native American imagery, visual nods to the space program, oblique allusions to the Holocaust, constant verbal acknowledgment of colonialism, conquest, and Westward expansion) are in fact really there, and can, moreover, be nearly all integrated into a single vision when we realize that the Overlook Hotel is a nightmare maze of History, where sins and crimes (y’know, ghosts) of the past swirl everlastingly and threaten to drag the present and future of humanity down with them into eternal cycles of power, dominance, violence, and cruelty.    Amy Schumer isn’t funny.  On Focus (2015): The camera glides along, the colors are pleasingly balanced, and everything is modulated to look “classy,” but somehow there’s not a single memorable image in the entire movie.   One of the central appeals of the apocalypse as a fictional trope is the way it shatters the postmodern confusion of the current world situation, bringing good and evil back into view and clarifying absolutes.  Appreciating art is mostly a matter of orienting oneself properly toward the aesthetic goal of the work--appreciating what it does well, not asking it to be something it’s not.   I bet I can think of over a dozen different TV shows off the top of my head that were directly influenced by or had their ways paved for them by Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there’s the obvious ones like Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, the WB fellows like Charmed, Smallville, Roswell, and Supernatural, plus others like Veronica Mars, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, iZombie, Jessica Jones, Russell T. Davies’ revival of Doctor Who, and even Kim Possible.  Lubitsch treated his scenarios, his characters, and his audience with unfailingly good manners, and it’s always good manners to keep your guests entertained and at ease.  Looking through these lists of things only ‘90s kids will get, a thought occurs to me: I really envy Baby Boomers’ ability to be nostalgic for things that actually happened.  Zack Snyder’s visual style is primarily influenced by comic panels and pulp cover art, and seems to be more concerned with bringing these still images to life than telling a coherent story--which, in the case of Batman v Superman, gives the images a weird sort of power; they feel so disconnected that the movie has a sense of a plunge into the void.  Malick sees philosophy, religion, and art as a continuum, and it is because of this that we can examine each of his films from the framework of multiple philosophical theories and theological stances and find illumination and worth through each of them.  If Grave of the Fireflies is Takahata’s neorealist film, and Only Yesterday and My Neighbors the Yamadas are his Ozus, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is his Mizoguchi.  Looking around at all his producing work, so focused on recreating the various undervalued genres and styles of his youth, one gets a sense of George Lucas as the square Tarantino.  Clichés in art: the problem isn’t that they’re false, the problem is when they’re lazy, when the artist doesn’t work to find the truth in the cliché which made it a cliché in the first place.  Scariest movies I’ve ever seen: (7) Psycho, (6) The Shining, (5) Alien, (4) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, (3) Pinocchio, (2) Dumbo, (1) Mickey Mouse in Runaway Brain.  Johnnie To’s signature images--crane shots and full-bodied medium shots of people standing on eerily-empty streets (that just might be sets)--remind me of nothing so much as 1940s MGM musicals, particularly those starring Gene Kelly.  What makes Girl, Interrupted interesting and genuinely valuable as a movie is the extent to which it is a direct ideological response and correction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In a ’50s Hollywood landscape hyped up on the Method, John Ford often stood out as a poet among dramatists.  Lana Del Rey = Nancy Sinatra + Joan Didion + lip injections.  Watching the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on stage recently (where the Athenians kick back and mock the players), I was surprised and overjoyed to discover that Shakespeare had invented Mystery Science Theater 3000 four hundred years early.  Amy Sherman-Palladino > Amy Heckerling > Nora Ephron > Eli Roth > Lena Dunham.  For Hitchock, the cinema was all about the temptation/repulsion of voyeurism; for David Fincher, it’s all about the terror/yearning of being watched.  It might not be out of place to consider Eyes Wide Shut in light of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Cruiseman Brown, as it were.  If sentimentality and brutality are linked, and they are, this might be a clue to the dark side of fandom and internet bullying: obsession and giddy investment in fictional relationships/melodrama/etc. can leads to lashing out with anger/hatred/violence at anyone who criticizes or takes it away.  Orson Welles once said of Jean-Luc Godard, “[H]is gifts as a director are enormous, I just can’t take him seriously as a thinker;” F for Fake can be read as Welles showing Godard how to use his style to think.  I find praise of Spike Jonze’s Her for its romanticism to be deeply disturbing; Her is a horror story or it is nothing.  Comic books ≠ superheroes of course, though the stereotype has been limiting to both the medium and the genre.  The reason many movie polls are so boring is the same reason Top 40 radio makes everything sound the same--they lack a motivating intelligence/sensibility, a sense of actual opinions being held that have a little risk and personality to them; instead, good movies/songs coexist next to bad ones with so little differentiation that it becomes one big stew of mediocrity.  If cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out, too often television seems to be a matter of what comes before a commercial break and what comes after.  Watch Thief and Blackhat back-to-back and you might think the latter is a high-tech remake of the former.  Miyazaki places his small moments among his large setpieces, Takahata places occasional setpieces among his small moments.  High aesthetic ideals for art sound great until you realize they don’t let you enjoy your disreputable favorites; might that tension be the point at which new critical tastes are formed?   

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

" "

Bad filmmakers (sadly for them) have no ideas.  Good filmmakers (it's what limits them) tend to have too many.  Great filmmakers (especially the inventors) have only one.  This idée fixe enables them to keep moving on, to take the idea through ever-renewing and ever-interesting landscapes.  The price to pay is well-known: a certain solitude.  What about great critics?  It is the same thing, except there are none. . . All but one.  Between 1943 and 1958 (the year of his death: he was only forty) André Bazin was this one.
--Serge Daney  

Monday, July 18, 2016

Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)

There have already been a great many significant deaths this year, but Abbas Kiarostami's hit me harder than most.  I do not have the learning or experience to write a great eulogy for him, and his major features have all been lauded far beyond my poor power to add or subtract, so instead let me here mention a film of his that I believe many have overlooked.

In 2013, to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the Venice Film Festival commissioned short films from 70 world directors, broadly suggested to be about the future of cinema.  The films were all a minute-and-a-half in length, and have been posted to YouTube on the festival's channel here.  I watched many of them at the time, and it is still fascinating to view them now, because despite their brief run-times they nearly all clearly reflect the sensibilities and concerns of their directors.  (Claire Denis is one of the few exceptions: her short appears to be the view of a cell phone inside of a cloth bag--incongruously scored to the Tindersticks.)

This is not always a good thing: Catherine Breillat's short is bitter and ideologically puritanical, as is her wont; James Franco's is pretentious, semi-ironic, and self-exhibitionist, as is his; and Todd Solondz's film is kind of funny and kind of ugly and mocking.  On the other hand, Atom Egoyan manages to evoke mono no aware while deleting pictures from his phone; Ermanno Olmi the nostalgist presents a brief elegy for the moviola; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates something remarkably beautiful out of a dashboard shot of windshield wipers, catching strange yellow light and sound that suggests waves on a beach.

Fascinatingly, Jia Zhang-Ke and Wang Bing provide two opposing views of modern China: Jia depicts young professional millennials watching the classics of Chinese cinema on phones, tablets, and projected in malls--yet being moved by the emotions of the films nonetheless.  The environments depicted are hyper-modern, and the short seems like it could be a TV commercial for the newest iPhone.  Wang shows us a few moments of a poor dirt farmer whose livelihood has likely been the same for millennia, and seems to have little need for or experience of cinema in any form.  Thanks to cinema, however, thousands of people around the world have now seen a small part of his life.

Yet of all these films, my favorite would have to be Kiarostami's, embedded at the top of this post.  Within this brief 90-second window, we find a surprisingly large number of the themes of Kiarostami's career: children, the relation between young and old, a documentary-like depiction of life, non-professional actors, minimal camera movement or editing, a careful parceling out of information to the audience, the capabilities of the digital camera, sound design which is just as important as the image, and above all, a concern with the nature of cinema and how it reveals truth.  Of course, none of this is intrusive or even assertive, and the film can easily be appreciated and understood by a child. (One is reminded of his early short films for children, though this is not nearly as didactic.)  With this short, Kiarostami puts his faith in the future of cinema; it is significant also that the boy-director he shows us is making a film that harks back to the slapstick values of early film: to move forward, it is still necessary to remember the past and take its lessons with us.

Let us hope the filmmakers of the future remember the lessons of Abbas Kiarostami, for we shall need them.

Friday, July 1, 2016

" "

Gutenberg and post-Gutenberg literature contains communal dreams, shared myths or archetypes.  And it is distinguished by the mythopoeic color of its creators, their ability to sense what already existed in the popular mind, rather than by any unique vision or ability in executive skills.  For this reason popular works of literature tend to pass immediately into the public domain.
. . .
As a matter of fact, one of the distinctions between popular and high literature can be made on the basis of this, as Edgar Allan Poe, in a review of James Fenimore Cooper, pointed out.  There is a certain kind of book, he wrote, which is forgotten though its author is remembered (High Literature); and there is a certain kind of book whose author is forgotten though the work is remembered.
. . .
It is a characteristic of popular literature that it changes its medium because it never really belonged to any medium to begin with.  Popular Literature is not "words on the page," as some critics would have us believe.  Like all literature, it is finally, essentially, images in the head.  Once its images pass through words (the text is transparent, downright irrelevant) into our heads, such primordial images, or archetypes, or myths . . . can pass out again easily into any other medium. . . . They still retain their authenticity and the resonance of feeling that was originally connected with them.
. . .
But in the realm of Popular Art, overt and conscious ideas could not matter less.  What matters is the stirring up of the collective unconscious, the evocation of closely shared nightmares of race and sex: the drama of protecting little sister against the rapist, whoever she may be and whatever color: Black/White, White/Black.  You can mix them and match them and it makes no difference in popular appeal.  Is it white innocence assaulted by black bestiality?  Is it black innocence assaulted by white brutality?  The audience loves it in any case.  And this leads me to my final point about popular culture:  It is neither good nor bad--it is beyond good and evil, as we define the terms, in whatever culture we may live.
. . .
Maybe, then, just maybe it is possible for us to say that the value of popular literature, like the popular arts in general, is that it joins together at the level of the unconscious people who are, on ever conscious level, in this post-industrial society divided.  Our religion divides us, our politics divides us, our attitude toward education divides us: the only thing that holds us together is Kojak, Star Wars, Rich Man, Poor Man. . . . All literature--all art--is the same. . . . When I think of the books I have loved best in my life, I realize that what I admire in them is what I love in pop art at its most gross, flagrant, vulgar, brutal and unrefined: the mythopoeic power of the author.  Never mind his ability to instruct and delight, to create beautiful, elegant, architectonic forms to teach those thins which we think are important for the future of mankind.  Instruction and delight are optional . . . What really moves us to transport--what Longinus calls "ekstasis"--taking us out of our heads and out of our bodies, out of our normal consciousness is the ability of all great books, great pop books, great elite books, to turn us again into savages and children; and releasing us thus from bondage not merely to the restrictions of conscience or superego, but to consciousness and rationality, which is to say, the ego itself.
--Leslie Fiedler, "Giving the Devil His Due"

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

" "

Art was the speech of the folk revival--and yet, at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all.  Rather, life--a certain kind of life--equaled art, which ultimately meant that life replaced it.  The kind of life that equaled art was defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion . . . the poor are art because they sing their lives without the false consciousness of captialism and the false desires of advertising.
. . .
When art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost.  When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people.
--Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Dylan @ 75

(image source)

Happy 75th Birthday to Bob Dylan!

When I type "bob dylan" into the search box in my iTunes library, I come up with 551 items (including covers, duplicates, and alternate versions). And yet I know that there are vast depths out there that I haven't even heard, much less own, and my silly boasts wouldn't impress any of the long-time Dylan fans out there who have lived with his music for decades and know obsessive details about every song he's ever released. But as a salute to one of the great American artists, I hereby offer my (as of this minute and sure to change) Top 25 Bob Dylan Songs:

1. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
2. Mr. Tambourine Man (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
3. Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
4. Ring Them Bells (Oh Mercy, 1989)
5. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
6. Ain't Talkin' (Modern Times, 2006)
7. Shelter from the Storm (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
8. Visions of Johanna (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
9. It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
10. Sign on the Window (New Morning, 1970)
11. Blind Willie McTell (The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991, rec. 1983)
12. I Was Young When I Left Home (The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, rec. 1961)
13. Every Grain of Sand (Shot of Love, 1981)
14. The Times They Are A-Changin' (The Times They Are A-Changin', 1964)
15. All Along the Watchtower (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
16. I Want You (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
17. Ballad of a Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
18. Love Sick (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
19. Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
20. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
21. Bob Dylan's 115th Dream (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
22. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Love & Theft, 2001)
23. Lay Lady Lay (Nashville Skyline, 1969)
24. When I Paint My Masterpiece [Demo version] (The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait, 1969-1971, rec. 1971)
25. Mississippi (Love & Theft, 2001)