Tag Archives: abstract concrete

Un-Cannes-y Valley: Othello


Othello
should not exist. Not William Shakespeare’s venerable play, one of the great tone poems to dueling egos and wanton desire filtered not through hero and villain but split personalities tearing each other apart until neither can have what they want. But Orson Welles’ Othello, a work of ramshackle, stitched-together genius if ever humankind has produced one. It isn’t Welles’ greatest film, but it is likely the surest explanation of his unmatched gall, of his unending sweat, and of the limits, or lack thereof, of his genius.

Of course Welles the poster-boy wunderkind of Hollywood splendor, given full control over the powers that be to unleash his vision on the world, could release a masterpiece. Citizen Kane, Welles’ first film, and the first of many to serve as parables of his own brilliance and folly, was practically bred to be a work of unparalleled craft. It was almost an ordained masterpiece from its very inception; Welles had the hounds of Hollywood at his feet. An achievement, sure. But with Othello, he unfolded a masterpiece in piece-meal fashion, without anyone’s help, desperately working to clot the blood of a film barely stapled together with odds and ends over years of stilted, stuttery production. Nothing more could showcase the singular auteurism, the singular genius, and the singular madness of Orson Welles. This film is his ultimate statement of “my way or the highway” determination.  Continue reading

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Midnight Screening: Sunshine

This week’s pair of Midnight Screenings will return us to the far-flung past of 2006 and 2007, a more innocent time in film history …

It was only natural that Danny Boyle would direct a science fiction film, and probably no less a given that he would render hard science fiction through his peculiar and particular brand of frothy-icy, sensory style-as-substance. By 2007, he had taken on horror and family cinema, as well as the venerable mid-’90s drug-trip cottage genre, and arguably no genre breeds more fertile ground for a natural visualist than science fiction. Recasting the writer of his own 28 Days Later for a similarly mercurial screenplay, Boyle’s film follows a collection of American and Japanese astronauts in the near future on a quest to drop a payload of nuclear devices into the Sun, which is dying and presumably taking Earth along with it. The narrative twists to a point, but Sunshine is more an experiment in color and space as an avenue for human psychology than a narrative proper. Which is exactly the sort of science fiction that has been sent out into the wild and left waywardly wandering for the past several decades of cinema, and exactly why Boyle’s triumphant take on that mood of the genre is so refreshing. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Stalker

Update 2018: Such an old, out-of-date review from my youth, and so little time to re-review. But after watching Stalker again, I’m still floored by its meditations on apocalyptic time, and the way it seems to persist with the weight of eternity and the pressure of stillness yet still evoke a diaphanous, ever-fluctuating quality. The film visualizes experiences that temporarily illuminate before us and yet constantly seem to be shuddering apart before our eyes.

It’s Tarkovsky, so Stalker is tinged with a dose of the Burkean sublime, but never before or since did his quest for transcendence seem so embattled, so threatened, so clearly aware that achieving sublimity isn’t a linear motion toward another realm of physical being but to another way of thinking, another form of consciousness aimed not at stringing together life narratively – looking for the accruals, the goals, the definitives – but toward noticing the fluctuating states of being around you. The sublime, in Tarkovsky’s framing then, is a poetically doomed project, where one reaches new temporary truths only to confront how partial, provisional, and ephemeral they are. Obviously rebuking Soviet modernity’s mechanical modernities and reconnecting Russia to a long-lost mysticism, Tarkovsky’s film has much in common with earlier Russian radicals, reanimating their spirit much as his closest American contemporary, Malick, rekindled the currents of Emerson and Whitman. Both filmmakers resist definitives in their search for cosmic connection, observing nature with a spectral fluidity that moves from the majestic to the terrifying but always remembers the friction in the moment, treating each image not as a statement but a constantly-perusing question, a verb, an unresolved mosaic. His films are about finding a world elsewhere and living with the knowledge that this elsewhere is forever unfinished.

So many sci-fi films from the late ’70s play with eldritch horrors and far-flung futures but never truly explore their capacity for touching the unknown. In this morass, Tarkovsky’s Stalker is uniquely in touch, not only with the cosmic implications of its claims to visualize new truths but the fallibility of those implications, the sense in which the sort of unmediated truth another film might seek is hopelessly static and abstract. Comparatively, while Stalker may seem abstract on the surface, it attunes, rather singularly, not only to the desire for transcendence but the ground-level rhythms of searching, stumbling, falling, and getting back up necessary not only to get there, but to realize that these rhythms of failure are the cadences of humanity, that transcendence is not a fixed state or a destination but a path forward. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Werckmeister Harmonies

Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies opens with an ebullient, maddening, playful, oblique, and altogether disconcerting cinematic treatise on chaos and order in the modern age: a group of men in a bar tentatively organized into a disassembled, flat-footed ballet that approximates with gusto and drunken flair the orbiting of the planets around the sun. It is a fully alive, alert gesture of cinematic visualization, and a humble one; for the maddening questions Tarr is known to cryptically tackle, he lays his meditation bare in this opening scene. The universe, he wants us to know, may be fundamentally chaotic, may be fundamentally ordered, he doesn’t know, and he wants to find out. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Syndromes and a Century

Apichtapong Weerasethakul clearly has his own idea of what cinema ought to be, and arguably more than any currently working director, he is ready to shape the medium to his whims to achieve that vision. Who are we to tell him otherwise? Syndromes and a Century, bizarrely commissioned for Vienna’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amandeus Mozart’s birth, has only the most tentative connection of Mozart – indeed, it may not even recollect who Mozart is, largely because it doesn’t seem to exist on an Earth where Mozart himself existed. But it remains Weerasethakul’s masterwork. Continue reading

Class of ’99: Eyes Wide Shut


Eyes Wide Shut
was Stanley Kubrick’s final completed feature film, and fittingly for a director who did more to redefine and test narrative cinema than arguably any other director of the 20th century, it feels like the summation of his decades-long quest to test how Machiavellian cinema could be. It feels like the completion of his life quest, but it also feels pointedly incomplete, like a work that remains alive and growing to this day. A work that refuses to be batted down or defined. A work that always has something to say to us, that invites discontent and disagreement, and a work that shows a talent still learning new tricks right up until his final moments. Kubrick was a director who always seemed both wise beyond his years and too young, too reckless, and too much of a social provocateur to fit in with the supposedly mature, normative adult world of cinema. Eyes Wide Shut, inviting both the age of wither of a great old-school fable and the heedless, impulsive, devil-may-care gravitas of an unformed New Hollywood bad-boy, is the culmination of all the contrasts that made Kubrick himself. Continue reading

Pop!: Point Blank

Reviewing the quintessential Euro-cool movie of the 1960s gave me the idea to add on a little bonus review of perhaps the most European of the “cool American” films of the decade, a truly great work of experimental pop from the master of not deciding whether his film would be amazing or awful, John Boorman…

It is easy to reduce John Boorman’s Point Blank to its functional qualities. A man (Lee Marvin) is double-crossed by his partner-in-crime, left for dead, returns, and seeks vengeance on those who did him wrong. But it is the John Boorman secret that, generally, the quality of his films – and as we all know, a John Boorman joint is the definition of fulfilling a quality, be it positive or negative – was determined by his ability to strip his works down to their bare essentials. Generally, the more mired in screenplay complication and their own self-serving jargon-esque philosophical mumbo-jumbo, the more we arrive at trash like Zardoz and The Exorcist II: The Heretic. The more the screenplay was nothing more than a functional idea for Boorman to engage in pure, unmitigated craft, the better the film. And Boorman the startling, sleek, stripped-barren craft-person is one of the great modes of any filmmaker in cinema history. He lost his way time and time again, but he was always there with another genuinely great classic waiting under his belt. He just had to keep John Boorman the writer in line so that John Boorman the director could have a day at the races.
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