In his moonlighting career as a director of steely, even mulish focus, the perpetually weathered, stern Tommy Lee Jones has taken the Clint Eastwood route of imbibing in the great American traditions, although he does not share Eastwood’s masculine commitment to the Sam Fuller get-in-and-get-out storytelling method. Jones imbibes so much, in fact, that he catches his nation’s favorite tradition, the Western, when the genre is looking the other way with its pants down. In his previous directorial work The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he pursued the sociospatial region of the modern American small-town – a space forever clinging to its past and stubbornly, cantankerously refusing to examine itself – as an avenue for comment on the history of the American imagination. Continue reading
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
Edited early 2016
Judged from an angle, and even most angles, Waltz with Bashir is a failure as a documentary. As a study in the 1982 Lebanon War or the long-brewing turmoil between Israel and Palestine, Ari Folmans’s attempt to recreate his lost memories of participating in the 1982 siege of Beirut is inconsequential. Add to this the fact that large portions of the film boil down to rote talking heads documentary conversations – par for the course in even the hackiest and adolescent of all documentaries – and you have a failure on your hands, right? Continue reading
In Victoria, Australia, on Valentine’s Day, in 1900, three female boarding school students and their teacher disappeared. Or so Peter Weir’s 1975 anti-genre classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, adapted from Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same title, shows us. It didn’t actually happen, but that doesn’t matter. It could have happened, and the literal truth of the tale is a red herring contrasted with the emotional truth of the tale. Plus, on the subject of “Western society making play with the world”, few films have spoken more emotional truth than Picnic at Hanging Rock. You might imagine the story on your own: a hard-hitting, grisly dissection of a mystery. A dissection that is very much not what Weir himself had in mind. But then, that’s why we are mere mortals, and Peter Weir is one of the great, underappreciated directors of the modern age. Continue reading
Stop Making Sense is, and this is not nearly as common and ubiquitous a statement as you might imagine, a truly singular film experience. Sure, there are great concert films; Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is very likely a superior concert film with more to say about the nature of music as it exists in the ether. But Stop Making Sense isn’t a concert film, at least in the traditional sense. It is a film about cinema, and about what cinema can do to transform the ethos of a concert beyond what a concert is in person. If this extends it beyond the realm of a concert, it also does more to make us think about what a concert entails as a realm for voyeurism and socio-spatial art. Stop Making Sense does not merely hit the mark for a concert film; it transforms it. Continue reading
This being the first of two new reviews of 1926 films for the National Cinemas month on German Cinema (replacing a much longer essay I had planned to finish the month off with, but since it has been many months since September now I decided to formally use that essay for another purpose and not align it with the National Cinemas project, which I can now put to rest).
Eighty-nine years later, I don’t suspect that anyone really needs to let you know how gorgeous Faust is – it’s a German fable-horror film from the 1920s directed by FW Murnau – it’s gorgeous because of course it is. Sometimes, however, a film reviewer likes to state the obvious. Faust didn’t revolutionize film like Murnau’s previous Nosferatu or The Last Laugh or his latter Sunrise (all released in a snugly period of seven years; am I the only one who misses when filmmakers actually did stuff like make films without taking five or six years off in between projects?). But “it didn’t revolutionize film” is not exactly a fair argument against a film, or else we’d pretty much just be talking about the 1920s and Citizen Kane from now on.
Update late 2018: After a Halloween rewatch, I stand all the more in awe of Fulci’s truly irrational editing scheme and his almost unholy skill not simply dropping us into an unraveling narrative but demolishing the presumption of rational sense-ordering in horror to begin with. The Beyond remains a truly scrambled, egg-beaten (or brain-beaten) perceptual experience, even in the already demonically playful realm of giallo-inflected fear, let alone the wider horror genre.
It is a truth undeniable that Lucio Fulci’s 1981 Grand Guignol The Beyond lacks a capable narrative or characters, but this is true only in the way that L’Avventura and Breathless lack much in the way of conventionally sufficient narratives or sensible characters. They are all anti-narrative, anti-character films, and the deficiency is fully intentional in each case. They are films precisely about the deconstruction of narrative, the characters intentionally maneuvering themselves through their worlds in contrived, abstract ways to illustrate a point about the artifice of narrative, the performative nature of human activity, and the absurdity of film and its relationship to the human condition.
Fulci’s vision is no different, although it is filtered through a different texture. Just as Breathless is about the artifice of ordered narrative and the triviality it instills in filmic storytelling, The Beyond is too about the way films define order and conventional narrative. Except while Godard’s works cheekily and cunningly ask us to read between the lines with finesse to explore the master manipulator ironizing the characters’ search for order, Fulci’s film takes the broadest brush it can find and cuts through the order with a giant blood-red stroke. While Godard’s work undermines order, Fulci’s denounces it entirely. Continue reading
If Italian cinema went high-brow with fine style, so too did it go low with head-first zest and no less rigor. If an argument is to be made for the 1960s as a golden age of European cinema, the undernourished portion of the claim is genre cinema. Not that genre cinema was at a low during the ’60s. Why in France alone we had Clouzot doing an all-time Hitchcock impersonation even as he ushered action cinema to the next level, Franju giving us grisly, poetically classy horror, Melville abstracting crime thrillers to their icy, cosmic cores, and even Godard and Truffaut dipping their toes in the water with their playful noir pastiches Bande a Part and Shoot the Piano Player, respectively.
But the crown jewel of ’60s European genre cinema cannot but be Italian cinema. The elephant in the room is Sergio Leone, elevating the Western by drawing out its cartoon core and emphasizing tactile feel over all else. Deeper still, however, we have a treasure trove of that most unholy of film genres: horror. Giallo would come in full force with the arrival of the glistening crimson reds and sickly yellows of the ’70s, but the ’60s saw no shortage of pristine, pitch-black Italian horrors, most of them admittedly directed by the master of the form: Mario Bava. Most famous for his color-first lurid later cinema that re-propositioned horror as a ballet of human motion and painted-on color, Bava got his start much earlier than we usually assume. In fact, his first film, and arguably his greatest, is a chiaroscuro masterwork fresh from the grave, a Hammer Horror pastiche that beat Hammer at its own game. I speak of course of the fiery death-drive of Bava’s Black Sunday.
It is not a new claim to compare Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida to the works of Ingmar Bergman. The inner psychosis, washed out black-and-white cinematography, quiet, haunted feel of the air around the film, and the contemplative characters are all Bergman down pat. Even better, the film’s clinical, dry exterior, carefully modulated framing, and highly static camera meant to box off characters at a distance for observation are all patented art-house techniques used piercingly well in Ida.
The shot selection is textured, operating form a well thought-out place of “show, not tell” and “show only what is necessary”. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous in a non-insistent, chilly sort of way that just sneaks up on you and envelops the story, as opposed to insisting on the visuals for their own sake as many art films do. It’s a calm film that hides deep internal dissonance and fractured soul, and that is what just about any Bergman film was in its refutation of narrative cinema for elliptical beauty. The sense that we never quite know what perspective the camera takes is very much present here. When it comes to pure craftsmanship, it’s a hard film to knock down. Continue reading
When today’s youth approaches the world of Japanese filmmaking, the most ubiquitous name is not Kurosawa, nor Ozu, nor Mizoguchi, but Miyazaki, the marvelous maestro guiding his Stuido Ghibli toward the clouds lifting up human imagination, and particularly childhood emotion, rendered sublime. It’s perhaps fitting that Miyazaki has taken up the mantel, for he combines the best of the past into a whole equal parts grandiose and sweeping (Kurosawa), spiritually elegiac (Ozu), and mournfully mythic (Mizoguchi). It seems inappropriate to discuss Japanese cinema without him, and it seemed inappropriate to not take the opportunity to review his two most achingly personal, most emotionally pure movies. That the two were released simultaneously in a theatrical double-bill, and that they are linked by so many diegetic features only to be as tonally opposite as any two films ever were, is an all the more fascinating testament to Miyazaki’s exploration of humanity at its most unrestrained and least affected.
My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro is at its best when it is at its simplest, which thankfully is every single frame of every single scene in the whole film. It is a deeply streamlined work, lacking superfluous event to the point where it is almost non-narrative in its impression of childhood amazement. The narrative mostly boils down to eight year old Satsuki (Hidaka Noriko) and her, for lack of a better term, adventures in the forest next to her new rural home. Continue reading