Monthly Archives: January 2015

Film Favorites: 3 Women

Update 2018:  How I do love this movie. If Altman’s oneiric fluctuations and clouded, evasive truths are as wonderfully resistant to crystallization as always at the beginning of 3 Women, they eventually sour into full-on psychotropic nightmare by the conclusion. By the film’s end, Altman holds life in a Janus-faced state of simultaneous free-fall and resting haunt. It won’t be for everyone, but catching this film’s wave-length is uniquely rewarding precisely because it is so slippery, its mind so hauntingly unquiet, ever-still but always subtly shifting with a frightening lack of clarification.

What’s so fascinating about 3 Women is that it retains so much of Altman’s typical sensibility, from his evocative sense of place to his shaggy, non-committal attitude toward the forward push of narrative, but it twists those features into an entirely different, slantwise milieu. To wit, 3 Women elastically mobilizes Altman’s typically wide, expansive canvas, for instance, not to conjure a community-spanning horizontal weave, as in Nashville, but to probe the psychological lonelines of two women locked into a particularly demented pas de deux of self and other.

Compared to Altman’s typically wistful realism, then, 3 Women is a more mannered vision, a West that doesn’t shuttle us into the chaotic instability of the social world so much as stage a difficult, near-unfathomable tableau for us to parse, one where the fractured, contorted intimacy of two women is more than enough to disorient our conception of selfhood. Like several of Altman’s earlier films, this is still a vision of a dilapidated West. And this “West” is no less a canvas for the self, no less a place where people go to find themselves, even more than 75 years after the “death” of the “real” Wild West. But in Altman’s wonderfully misshapen variation, the West, and Western fiction, is also where identities blur and bleed, where spectral figures wander across the land and seem to diffuse into space itself, where one’s sense of self is tested not against the might of an unforgiving landscape but against the soul of another. Call it McCabe & Ms. Ullmann (and Andersson). 

Original Review:

Robert Altman is not about to be forgotten. The man directed a proper handful of esteemed classics in the early ’70s and surged back into the limelight in the early ’90s with a pair of brusquely bitter late-period highlights. For good or ill, however, the greater film community tends to look sideways whenever a good portion of his lengthy, dense filmography is on trial. Say, for instance, anything between 1976 and 1991, a period in which the director made almost a baker’s dozen of fresh films for dissection, many of them rightfully moved past but quite a number truly audacious, brash, deeply personal, and worthy of analysis in their own way. It’s strange to call Robert Altman “underrated”, but the man made a lot of films, and sometimes it seems as if those who love him think time got lost between the early ’70s and its twenty-year later counterpart, the early ’90s.
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Film Favorites: The Wind

It is not a new or interesting argument to rain down laurels upon silent cinema for its vigorous, transformative sense of cinematic self-exploration. No time in cinema history matches the medium’s earliest years for pure ecstatic inventiveness and unbridled, unhinged storytelling experimentation. No time has seen directors and cinematographers and editors, and even producers for that matter, ever so consistently transfixed by the potential of exposing the cinematic mind by pushing it to its breaking point and moving beyond the grip of narrative storytelling to look for new and exciting ways to freshly portray the limits of fiction on screen. No time has ever been as hungry, or as invested in film for the sake of film itself.

It is also not a new or interesting argument to look to 1928, the last year of silent cinema’s monopolistic dominance in the medium, as the pinnacle of the form’s artistic exploration. Although no one work may equal the heights of what FW Murnau achieved with 1927’s Sunrise, the sheer plethora of major and minor classics, from Dreyer’s luminous The Passion of Joan of Arc to King Vidor’s cityscape tone peom The Crowd, to Josef von Sternberg’s hazy, mystifying The Docks of New York, proves that drama was in fine form as a selection of unarguable masters looked to close out the history of silent cinema on a high note. Of course, they may not have known it was coming, but we auteurists are no less guilty of assuming intent in our individuals than anyone else (we’re perhaps more guilty, if anything). Continue reading

75th Anniversary Film Favorites: Fantasia


phaseIn honor of their seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, I present a pair of reviews for my two favorite Disney animated releases, both released in the same year, 1940, and both far more challenging and transformative than any feature film the company has yet released since. The two introductory paragraphs of the reviews are identical or nearly identical, but the meat of the reviews are film-specific.

Fresh off of reinventing cinema with the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney and his band of merry auteurs certainly made enough money to rest on their laurels and produce what would have assuredly been a hugely successful similar film. Another princess, another band of silly sidekicks, another all-time expressionist cinematic villain, you get the deal. Things would have gone down smoothly, and Disney and friends would have been laughing all the way to the bank.

Except for one thing: for all his grubby corporatism and power-hungry megalomania, Walt Disney genuinely loved film, and he genuinely loved testing the waters for what film was capable of, and no one, not even the corporate masters he answered to, was going to tell him otherwise. He was a man of boundless vision, a child in a cinematic toybox, a person driven by ego and pulsing personal joys and for whom his company was a means to immortalize his dreams and nightmares on celluloid for everyone in the world to see. He made films because he wanted to watch them, and after Snow White, he didn’t want to watch another princess story. He was hungry, and having changed things forever, he wanted to do it yet again.
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75th Anniversary Film Favorites: Pinocchio


pinocchioIn honor of their seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, I present a pair of reviews for my two favorite Disney animated releases, both released in the same year, 1940, and both far more challenging and transformative than any feature film the company has yet released since. The two introductory paragraphs of the reviews are identical or nearly identical, but the meat of the reviews are film-specific.

Fresh off of reinventing cinema with the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney and his band of merry auteurs certainly made enough money to rest on their laurels and produce what would have assuredly been a hugely successful similar film. Another princess, another band of silly sidekicks, another all-time expressionist cinematic villain, you get the deal. Things would have gone down smoothly, and Disney and friends would have been laughing all the way to the bank. Except for one thing: for all his grubby corporatism and power-hungry megalomania, Walt Disney genuinely loved film, and he genuinely loved testing the waters for what film was capable of, and no one, not even the corporate masters he answered to, was going to tell him otherwise. He was a man of boundless vision, a child in a cinematic toybox, a person driven by ego and pulsing personal joys and for whom his company was a means to immortalize his dreams and nightmares on celluloid for everyone in the world to see. He made films because he wanted to watch them, and after Snow White, he didn’t want to watch another princess story. He was hungry, and having changed things forever, he wanted to do it yet again.
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After Midnight Screenings: El Topo

topo4Update upon another viewing in 2017:

Is El Topo pointless then? Or rather, is it depoliticized? Or is chaos and ambiguity political and purposeful in an age of order? Simultaneously earthy and beyond the grave, the characters of El Topo do not effuse logic or purpose or even desire, but they do implode with the chaos of uncertainty, of the crushing weight of their totemic status as archetypical figures bounded by unclarifiable laws of desire and need and want they are unable to do anything about. They wander through a mass of centrifugal emptiness, never for or to or from anything; such liberal teloses hold no sway in this anti-rationalist mindspace that reveals, conclusively because of how vague and inconclusive it is, how arbitrary various masculine desires are. Or rather, how a life governed by the compulsion to complete goals is so often defined through the runaway assumptions of capitalist conclusiveness where one finishing line is the starting pace for an even faster act of running in circles. Most Westerns create male spaces of desire, empty and virginal worlds ready to be deflowered by a male character’s conquering, ordering phallic motion through space linking the edits and giving reason to this world. A contrapuntal riposte, there’s nothing to fill up in El Topo, nothing to complete, no oasis of purpose to stretch thinly across the randomness of the world in hopes of masquerading. In this sense, if the film dodges conventional meaning or any normative point, it also explodes the oppressive certainty of a social order which bounds and demarcates meaning to that which can be conventionally construed through only that order’s logic.

Original review:

Writing about Mulholland Dr. recently, I began with an explication on the film’s wonderful arbitrariness, its cluster of contrarian images and sounds which existed for no reason other than to bemuse and titillate, to enrage and befuddle, and to please David Lynch. I then spent most of the review coming to terms with the fact that my opening paragraph, all praise for Lynch’s film existing for the sake of itself, wasn’t really fair: the director’s 2001 anti-film does nothing simply for the sake of itself, for it had more to say about film as an object of corporate culture and voyeuristic gaze than any film of its decade. It is not an arbitrary film; it is replete with intentional, textured meaning, and it is a masterpiece of commentary on film as object of invention and sociology.
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Film Favorites: Mulholland Dr.

David Lynch knows his way around a controversy, and if he is often contrarian for contrarian’s sake, knocking him for this does a huge disservice to the simple beauty of the act of being contrarian. It denies the cantankerous danger and dreamy nightmare-like quality of something that is so elementally arbitrary, so devoid of meaning, so ruthlessly anti-sensical. It does a disservice to the idea that something can simply exist for itself and the joy of being itself. It is in this region, despite all his other narrative pretensions and the very real sense of specific, pointed, subversive purpose to each and every shot in each of his films, where David Lynch skulks about. His films do not really exist purely for their own sake – there is a clear through-line and object of critique in each of his films, but they come closer to pure lunacy, to pure invention for invention’s sake, than almost any director since the era of silent film. In the world of today, if we limit ourselves to American directors, he has more to say about how film is made, and how images and sounds move beyond theme and story and into pure effect, than any other director. He’s having a hell of a lot more fun than anyone else while he’s at it too.

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Film Favorites: George Washington

It’s not a new point to discuss David Gordon Green’s sellout hackwork middle career stage, but his recent “return to his roots” phase is fresher still and only recently of this Earth; thus, it provides a far more welcome object of inquiry. The hackwork phase has been written about on end, and while I happen to think Pineapple Express is a fairly nuanced redirecting of Green’s trademark hush for the purposes of a stoner comedy, there’s nothing more to be said about his duo of 2011 misfires. Far more interesting are his recent efforts, epitomized by his 2013 release Joe. Many have taken to considering it a return to form, and while the film is strong and textured in many exciting ways, I cannot join the train. Owing more to post-Green works like Winter’s Bone, his recent films retain the social realism of his earlier works but run dangerously close to recreating the trees at the expense of the forest. The honest characters and hard-hitting drama mostly follow through, but the poetic post-Malick haze and thoughtful melancholy of Green’s abstracted reflection of everyday human activity has been lost to time. Continue reading

Another List I Say!!!

Hello all,

It turns out I’ve produced another list for Taste of Cinema recently, on Japanese Horror this time no less. Included are short commentaries on a variety of films new and old, from Gojira to Kwaidan to Onibaba to Audition to Tetsuo to A Page of Madness. Hop on over and take a look: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2015/the-15-best-japanese-horror-movies-of-all-time/

Review: The Act of Killing

Edited

The most shocking thing about The Act of Killing is that it is not a documentary about the governmentally sanctioned mass murder of suspected Communists between 1965-66, at least not in the strict sense. In fact, the entirety of Joshua Oppenheimer’s searing documentary is about these killings, but it is about them as they exist today, and in the mind. Oppenheimer’s modern-day film tasks men who took part in the killings with recreating fictional variations on their most heinous acts, and in doing so it ever so slightly shifts its focus away from the killings as they happened and onto the killings as an experiential concept, how the men who took part in them relate them to the world of fictional film, and how we as an audience interpret the act of cinema viewing in relation to the violence done by cinema-goers in the real world. It is about the violence of the mind, and the violence of cinema. The Act of Killing is a nasty, harrowing work about the past, but it tells a far more timeless, more undying tale about the relationship between humanity and fiction. In doing so, it not only explores the past and the present with a brutal eye for wicked human depravity, but it manages some of the most forward-thinking cinema of its decade.  Continue reading

Film Favorites: Thief

With Michael Mann’s Blackhat underwhelming critics all around the land, I’ve decided to take a look back at the neon nightscape urban painter’s greatest film, a shockingly underrated work of crime fiction with an impressionist tint. From 1981, Michael Mann’s Thief. 

Michael Mann tore down the ’90s with three films of varying qualities that all are nonetheless championed as, at the least, lesser classics of the modern filmic world. The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider vary on the surface, but their strengths are uniform and typically Mann: a poetic variation on hard-edge grit (or a gritty take of impressionism, if you prefer), a focus on problem solving and realist process rather than sentimental characterization, and a deconstruction of masculine identity equal parts grimy American New Wave and the more clinical, cryptic European New Wave. The films vary in quality (I for one have never had much use for the flubby, indulgent Heat), but they capture Mann trading subjects without ever sacrificing his identity. Yet that identity came to fruition much earlier, on a much less famous film, and a work that matches and exceeds any of the three in quality: 1981’s Thief. Released at the very end of the American New Wave where dramas were going out the door in favor of genre exercises, Thief finds the best of both worlds in perfect, jagged harmony. It is a true pity that most of Michael Mann’s adherents haven’t seen it, for it is one of the few American crime films that seems truly interested in coming up with a new filmic language to explore its pet themes.
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