A little switch-up, if you will, because I couldn’t watch a 1961 Cannes film at pace, but will get to it soon enough. So 1961 and 1962 have been flipped, after which the order shall return to normal…
Luis Buñuel’s triumphant return to Spain after many years working in Mexico was short-lived but unequivocally rabble-rousing. The lone film he produced was as provocative a film as the world has ever seen. 1961’s Viridiana won the Palme d’Or, was rapturously received by critics, and revolted the Spanish government right from under their noses. The production was, charitably, pure havoc, subject to rigorous and ruthless censorship, and produced with the help of tricks and masquerades on Bu>ñuel’s behalf. It is one of the quintessential works of world cinema, by all means, but it came with a toll. Jagged knives aimed at the Spanish government, it seems, couldn’t but get a little blood on Buñuel’s face. Continue reading
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
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
It is from time to time the case that a deliberately pretentious film snob such as myself may emphatically defend a film for its ambitions, for its aspirations to discuss cinema, or even for its accidents and failures, and casually wash away its alienating disagreeability in doing so. I am not, frankly, sure that Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control applies here, although I am about to emphatically defend it for all of the above. I am not quite sure it says anything about cinema, however, so much as it says something about Jim Jarmusch, and about nothingness. Watching it is an experience in willful alienation, an auteur constructing a film for his own interest more than anyone else’s. It is a peculiar, obtuse curiosity. It is also an important one, although not necessarily for its ambitions.
Largely because, depending upon your view of the film, it may be either the very definition of “ambition” or its very antithesis, which is the central dialectic around which The Limits of Control circles. Jarmusch is just about the most willfully difficult English-language filmmaker working today, and The Limits of Control may be his most distant film. It boasts none of the playful cryptic diabolicalism of something like his masterpiece Dead Man, a disassembly of the Western genre and all fiction at a core structural level. The Western as social theater, it was, and his aesthetically sensuous films have followed suit until then. Decconstructive aesthetic, sure, but aesthetic nonetheless. Continue reading
“Best” Oliver Stone film is a big fat question mark, and it is doomed to stay that way. How does one even judge an Oliver Stone film in 2015? Tightest narrative? Best characters? Highest quantity of subversive edits? Most provocative? That which, pardon my french, stirs the most shit? So much of Stone’s lineage is tied into his public opinion to the point where he may be the only living director (Lars Von Trier excepted) for whom “ability to mess things up” is a genuine metric with which to judge his films, regardless of whether they work when detached from their social impact. So much of Stone’s vision is fundamentally tied into kicking up some dust and maintaining his enfant terrible status that it may be the metric that most accurately captures who he is as a filmmaker. Conventional analysis may be a moot point; his films live and die on their own terms.
Even though Platoon, JFK, and Born on the Fourth of July may be Stone’s most cohesive, sharpest productions as far as conventional narrative goes, they lack the verve and madman-alone-in-a-room quality of his most characteristic slices of social anarchy. In what we do we compare his most “perfect” films, that is the ones which most succeed at accomplishing that which they set out to do without flaw, with his most audacious works where “perfection” is an anti-goal and live wire experimentation and sheer quantity of numbing techniques trump perfecting any one technique in and of itself. In the latter camp, no Oliver Stone film shines more brightly, for good or ill, than Natural Born Killers. It represents a director who, having achieved the heights of his popular success, decided to throw himself back at his audience with teeth sharpened and mouth wide open. It is not the best Oliver Stone film, but it is probably the Most Oliver Stone film, and for a director who is notable primarily for the way in which he is himself, that has to count for something. Continue reading
The 1980s were, with all due respect, the worst time in history for cinematic drama. Cinema as a whole trucked along on a surfeit of fantasy and science fiction films that primarily operated on cruise control but could stumble upon a certain breezy ingenuity when need be. But cinematic art – cinema that sought to say something about cinema and/or explore the art form in a way that doubled as a commentary on the society that would use cinema as a tool of creation and destruction – was at an all-time low. It is telling that what many consider the great American drama of the 1980s (Raging Bull is the only film as consistently revered and awarded, and that was really more of a ’70s film that forget to come out in its proper decade anyway) is most famous for the fact that it was almost never released.
Throughout the 1980s, Terry Gilliam was one of the few who stood in defiance of complicity and convention, and Brazil almost killed him for it. A brutal, lengthy production battle saw the film destroyed and cut-down to size to save whatever commercial potential it had, and, watching the finished product, it’s easy to see why: this is a relentlessly weird motion picture, recalling cinematic styles and tones with its own jazz-like sense of improvisation and cavorting between surrealist asides an hoarse reflections on the grim fandangos of the decade in which it was produced. Whatever the waiting game that was cinema in the 1980s signified, the fact that Brazil was a genuine upset for the producers that funded it says all you need to know about its undeniable artistic merit.
Update 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.
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.
Two Midnight Screenings were originally intended for publishing this week, but they got a little long individually and separating them seemed more appropriate. Besides, more than any other film I can think of, this week’s entry stands on its own.
Sometimes you wander into the wilds of film land and come back a changed person. Sometimes, however, a film grabs you kicking and screaming into the wilds and you aren’t even afforded the privilege of returning a changed person, and the challenge of writing about such a film dumbfounds and exercises the mind beyond its safely mechanical, utilitarian qualities. Ladies and gentlemen, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House.
Released in 1977, the perplexing and ever-inquisitive House (Hausa in its native Japanese) defies expectation and thumbs its nose at common sense, knocking down the pieces of classical Japanese Kabuki ghost stories before it even sets them up. Obayashi’s “horror” doesn’t begin until the audience is well within the film’s vortex, entrapped in its visionary milieu. Well before anything that even rumors to chill the spine, Obayashi has already lulled us into his alarmingly postmodern variation on everything from irrepressible teenage determinism and heightened melodrama to Harlequin romance to the backstages of film production.
Sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off most readily, you know? A few non-actors. A cabin Woods. Two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might. A story that can be summed up as “those non-actors in that cabin face off against those two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might and have their asses handed to them”. Thus is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, such a simple and elegant horror film it doesn’t need to explicate a damn thing. There’s a book. It unlocks some demons. And it’s in a cabin. Why does the book do this, and what are its limits? Who cares. All that matters is that it is the most direct and unworried clothesline upon which Sam Raimi can absolutely tear not one but two genres a new one, and tear down the whole idea of genre as a construct in doing so.
It isn’t really saying much, considering its competition and the positively dreary state of American film during that particular decade, but Evil Dead II might be the battiest, most zestily-directed American film of its decade. Now I recognize this as hyperbole, but Raimi invites hyperbole, and the film earns it. Goodness gracious, the camerawork alone does whirlwinds around anything else being released around the same time, damn near earning the title all its own. Raimi’s whiplash maelstrom never knew a finer shelter than comedy-horror, and it never did the genre prouder than here. The things this camera does need to be experienced, so I’ll refrain from discussing specifics. Let’s just say the man chooses the most inventive position possible for almost every shot and pinwheels his tormented meat-bag humans around his camera like Damian with his first rodent, and he partakes in the mischief every chance he gets. The camera lurches about from space to space, doing almost literally everything it possibly can to simultaneously involve us in the action and elevate us above the action, separating off Raimi’s characters for mockery.
After noticing all my “Film Favorites” pieces were from decidedly older films, I decided to incorporate a few new ones to the mix for balance, starting with a couple under-seen modern films from the most recent year I don’t cover in my “newer films” section, 2007. Both of these films are desperately under-seen and subversive masterpieces of modern cinema in wholly different ways.
Guy Maddin has made a career out of recreating early silent and sound cinema. His films approach us as documents of a long-lost time, alien products of our own making. They feign documentaries, but they test the line with a sort of fragmented operatic grandiosity. However, if My Winnipeg is a document, it’s hard to say to what, or in what form. Is it a reflection of the ’20s as it was lived, or as films from that period depicted it? It’s both, in fact, and much more, bleeding together art and life with rambling, rambunctious, disharmonious, elliptical force and playing around with cinema and its relation to life in some of the most unexpected of ways.