Sunday, November 26, 2006

Who The $#%& Is Jackson Pollock * Harry Moses * 2006

“Fairy tales start with ‘once upon a time,’ but a truck driver’s story starts with ‘you ain’t even gonna believe this shit.’”

So begins Who the $#%& Is Jackson Pollock, the story of Teri Horton, a foul-mouthed dumpster-diving grandma and former trucker, and the “ugly” painting she bought at a San Bernardino thrift store as a joke to cheer up a friend. (The asking price was $8, but Horton haggled it down to $5.) Neither she nor her friend had room to store the large painting (“We were just gonna throw darts at it”) so Horton ended up trying to sell it in a garage sale, where a local art teacher told her it resembled a Jackson Pollock painting (to which she remarked, “Who the fuck is Jackson Pollock?”) After learning how much Pollock’s paintings sold for (as much as $100,000,000) Teri decided to hold onto it, to see if anyone could tell her what she really had, thus initiating the series of events that led to the creation of a documentary film.

Since she doesn’t have a provenance, and cannot trace the painting back to Pollock through a paper trail (that and the thought of finding a Pollock painting at a thrift store seems ludicrous) no one will take Horton seriously. Those who inspect the painting turn it down immediately, saying it simply “doesn’t feel like a Pollock.” Besides, “She knows nothing. I’m an expert. She’s not,” as Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, states after examining the painting in a rather exaggerated manner, bending down and twisting his head around, finally pronouncing it “dead on arrival.” The art world wholly rebuffs Horton, which only further drives her ambition to prove its authenticity, to show these snobs that they don’t know anything either.

No one will believe the truth, so Teri, ever the character, conjures up the bizarre, incredibly far-fetched yarn that she was given the painting by “Pops,” an elderly California bar owner. According to Pops, the bar was frequented by movie stars, and one winter night, Pollock, along with Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and that “interfering bitch” Joan Crawford, were snowed in during a blizzard and all decided to paint pictures to pass the time. (According to Teri, Pollock signed the painting with his dick, “as he often did.”) Unbelievably, people believed this story more than that of the thrift store find, one gallery owner even claiming to have known who Pops was.

The story takes an unexpected turn when Horton’s son enlists the help of renowned art world forensic expert, Peter Paul Biro, who uses a scientific approach to prove the authenticity of paintings. He discovers a fingerprint on the back of Teri’s canvas, and though Pollock did not have an official fingerprint on file, as he never served time in the army or in prison, was able to find a fingerprint embedded in a paint can on display inside Pollock’s Long Island studio, to which even his wife, Lee Krasner, had limited access. The two fingerprints were exact matches. Upon further inspection, Biro found that the microscopic gold particles (from a can of spraypaint used on another Pollock painting) found on the floor of Pollock’s studio also appeared on Teri’s painting. Finally, Biro compares a swatch from an official Pollock painting, “No. 5,” to a swatch of Teri’s painting; not only are the colors a close match, but it’s hard to tell which one is the official Pollock and which is the one in question.

And yet, the response of the art dealers is to the effect of, “Science is fascinating, but in this case, it really doesn’t prove anything.” If one’s fingerprints are found all over a murder weapon, that’s enough to sentence them to a life in prison, or even death, yet not enough to secure the authenticity of a painting? It seems absurd that, despite several counts of forensic evidence, the art world is still discounting its legitimacy because, to them, it “doesn’t feel like a Pollock, doesn’t sing like a Pollock.” Can one really disregard scientific proof over gut instinct? Or, perhaps more disconcertingly, they would rather risk missing out on an important new discovery by one of the 20th century’s most influential painters than bestow upon Horton the accreditation she deserves. As the director, Harry Moses, told the New York Times, the film is “a story about class in America.”

While somewhat infuriating (not the film’s fault), Who The $#%& Is Jackson Pollock is fascinating, and at times hilarious. My only gripe (besides the soundtrack, which at times reminded me of the music they play on the Weather Channel) is the filmmaker’s attempts at comparing Horton to Pollock, which, while they both drank heavily, is kind of a stretch.

Teri’s painting, to my knowledge, is still for sale, after she turned down a $9,000,000 offer. Clearly she’s not after money, but the satisfaction of having been taken seriously by the condescending, pretentious art world elite; knowing that Pollock’s “No. 5” recently sold for $140 million, she feels that that day has not yet come. She still lives in a trailer, surviving on Social Security checks and by digging through the trash and scouring the thrift stores and garage sales for bargains, although I wonder how much her lifestyle would have changed had she taken the 9 mil. I think, or would hope, that even as a millionaire, Teri would still hang out at the local dive bar, nursing a beer with her friends under a thick haze of smoke, cursing and telling stories and laughing over that ugly painting she found.

Movies watched, week of November 18-25, 2006

Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945
Vidas Secas, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963
Repo Man, Alex Cox, 1984
Strange Parallel, Steve Hanft, 1998
For Your Consideration, Christopher Guest, 2006
Dancer In The Dark, Lars von Trier, 2000

Monday, November 20, 2006

Stranger Than Paradise * Jim Jarmusch * 1984

In an effort to expound upon the origin of this blog’s name—and to discuss one of my favorite movies—I figured this was an opportune time to revisit Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film, Stranger Than Paradise.

As the film opens, egotistical self-styled Lower East Side hipster Willie complains to Aunt Lottie that his Hungarian cousin Eva’s impending ten-day stopover at his apartment on her way to Cleveland will force him to put his life on hold—however, we soon observe that his life consists of sleeping, watching TV, and playing cards, not to mention long periods of staring at walls. Moments later, Eva is seen lugging her swollen shopping bags down the graffitied run-down streets, while Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” plays from a tiny handheld tape player hooked between her fingers: the catalyst looms closer and closer to the reactant.

Throughout her stay, Willie constantly gives Eva a hard time, telling her she can’t come with him to hang out with his friend, Eddie, whose welcoming but naively clueless quality well-complements Willie’s, criticizing her for not embracing American customs—more on that momentarily—and berating her when she scoffs at his warning not to wander south of Clinton Street: “You don’t know what’s going on with this city, you’ve never been here before…you think you’re so motherfucking together!”

Willie derides Eva for her inability to grasp the concepts of American staples like TV dinners (“It doesn’t even look like meat”) and football (“I think this game is really stupid.”) In one of my favorite scenes, Eva asks for a vacuum cleaner so she can clean the dirty apartment. Willie tells her that the phrase “vacuuming” is too formal, and that if she really wants to speak like an American, she should call it “choking the alligator.” Eva smiles, though it is uncertain as to whether she has been duped by this feigned act of kindness or she is simply amused by his creative attempts at fucking with her, repeating, “I am choking the alligator.”

Willie is embarrassed of his Hungarian descent to an irrational degree—perhaps it was the subject of derision for him when he was a child, or he is terrified that it will somehow make him un-cool. He repeatedly implores Aunt Lottie and Eva to speak English, and, it turns out, has changed his name from Bela to the more American-sounding Willie. He has shed every ounce of his Hungarian heritage, completely assimilating into American culture, so that upon meeting Eva, Eddie says to Willie, “I didn’t know you were from Hungary, or Budapest or any of those places. I thought you were an American!” Willie shoots back, “I’m as American as you are!” Despite all of Willie’s attempts at hipsterdom, it is quite clear that Eva is infinitely cooler, especially since she doesn’t have to try so hard. (She wins extra points after the line, “It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and he’s a wild man so bug off,” in response to Willie’s objections to the music she’s listening to.)

Willie eventually warms up to Eva after she brings home some food that she apparently shoplifted. (Willie: “I thought you didn’t have any money.” Eva: “I got this stuff with no money.” Willie: “You’re all right, kid.”) In a gesture partly in apology, partly out of self-importance, Willie presents Eva with a dress he bought for her, imploring her to put it on, as she “should dress like people dress here.” She reluctantly wears it out the door on her way to the train station, but pulls on some pants once she’s outside, removing the dress to reveal another shirt underneath. “This dress bugs me,” she tells Eddie as she passes him on the street. (Once upstairs, Willie brags to Eddie about the dress.)

Now that Eva is gone, they return to sharing a beer in silence, staring at each other, not knowing what to do with themselves. They don’t even seem to have anything to say to one another. She has been the single most interesting event to come into their lives in some time.

“One year later,” as we’re told by the stark white lettering on the black screen, Willie and Eddie are leaving town to visit Eva in Cleveland after being caught cheating at cards (by none other than Rockets Redglare, former bodyguard of Sid Vicious and Jean-Michel Basquiat, in a cameo appearance), though Willie claims the two events are unrelated. Eva is ecstatic to see them, especially when they agree to take her with them on the next leg of their trip to Florida. It seems as though they’re rescuing her from her dreary mundane existence working at a hot dog stand, staying with crotchety Aunt Lottie, who treats her “like a baby”—probably not the exciting vision of America she expected—but once in Florida, Willie reverts back to his old self, forbidding Eva from leaving the motel room while he and Eddie go to the race tracks.

Disappointed and isolated, Eva wanders alone by the barren beach, waiting hours for her travel companions to return. In a subtly humorous scene, she, wearing sunglasses and a floppy hat she bought at a gift shop, is stopped by a man wearing goggles and a woolen hat with earflaps (played by rapper and graffiti artist Rammellzee) who, clearly mistaking her for someone else, dumps a wad of cash in her hand and stalks off, exasperatedly announcing, “You tell Romero I ain’t down with this no more!”

By now completely disenchanted with America and fed up with her cousin’s erratic behavior, Eva takes her newfound fortune to the airport, where, inexplicably, the only flight to Europe leaving that day is to Budapest. However, it seems she’s not quite ready to go home just yet.

This is not a plot-driven film; rather, it is more about capturing a mood, an impression of understated beauty and bleakness. Shot in grainy black and white, the film’s high contrast quality generates a number of poignant scenes, namely when Eva, Willie and Eddie, go to Lake Erie during a heavy snowstorm. The three figures, clad in black so as to nearly resemble silhouettes, gaze out at a vast white expanse of nothingness (Eddie proclaims, “It’s so beautiful”), the jutting lines of the fence post they are leaning against their only separation from the void. Upon arriving in Florida, there is a similar scene on the beach, the sand and white-capped waves under a haze of fog replacing the snow.

Jarmusch’s films are marked with a distinctive visual and narrative style. In Stranger Than Paradise, there is very little camera movement, no cuts, only a series of long sequence shots, with several moments of blackness to separate scenes—the editing process consisted of putting the shots end to end. On one hand, this technique might be a result of necessity, or lack of experience—the film is Jarmusch’s second feature film, after Permanent Vacation in 1981, and the aspiring filmmaker may simply have not had the means or know-how to go about filming another way. Or, perhaps it is quite deliberate: the long shots create a feeling of slowness, accentuating Willie’s and Eddie’s stagnation, their laziness and lack of direction.

While in Cleveland, Eddie casually says to Willie that, “You know, it’s funny. You come to someplace new and everything looks just the same.” This, it seems, is a rather revealing insight into the film’s thesis, embedded in a seemingly insignificant, offhand remark. All three characters have traveled the country—in Eva’s case, the world—in search of change, excitement, “something new,” as Willie says, but neither has found what they were looking for.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Movies watched, week of November 12-18, 2006

Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola, 2006
Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch, 1984
Out Of The Blue, Dennis Hopper, 1980
Who The $#%& Is Jackson Pollock, Harry Moses, 2006
Stranger Than Fiction, Marc Forster, 2006

Monday, November 13, 2006

Marie Antoinette * Sofia Coppola * 2006

When I think of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, I picture an enormous, decadent cupcake iced with inches of thick pink frosting and sprinkled with silver nonpareils. Perhaps this is due in part to the abundance of towering desserts throughout the film, coupled with the prominence of hues of pastel pinks, greens, and blues over darker tones. The film’s overall impression is one of extravagance and excess—a sugary, delicious, gluttonous bite of cake.

The film is a departure from the hazy, subtle dreaminess of Coppola’s two previous films, a garish display of grandiose interiors, debaucherous parties, and credit card-maxing shopping sprees (the historical equivalent, at least.) But one cannot entirely blame Marie Antoinette for her behavior—her high spiritedness and youthful energy are stifled by her environment, exemplified when her attempts at applauding the opera—“It was wonderful, clap!”—are initially responded to with indignant stares. She does not have an appropriate means of expressing herself, instead indulging in lavish parties and fancy shoes. Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette’s ennui ends up rubbing off on the audience, as the constant parties and displays of excess become somewhat repetitive, and, well, boring.

Much fuss has been made over Coppola’s use of 1980s pop songs on the soundtrack, but I found them to be highly effective; such modern touches, though anachronistic, humanize the characters, so that one can relate to them on a personal level, rather than as distant, historical figures, on a higher plane of existence than our own. Moreover, the music of bands like New Order and The Cure captures a certain romantic spirit that succeeds in creating an impression, a feeling of what it was like to be these people.

Coppola attempts to present the film from a personal point-of-view, that of Marie Antoinette as a young girl coming of age under trying circumstances—particularly her arrival in France, when she is forced to strip before dozens of strangers in order to shed her Austrian belongings, and her difficult marriage to the disinterested Louis-Auguste (brilliantly portrayed by Jason Schwartzman). Thus, the political context, while present, is just below the surface, barely hinted at. While I’m not an expert on the subject, I imagine that Marie Antoinette led a rather sheltered existence, out of touch with reality and unaware of the significance of the events that were occurring beyond the grounds of Versailles. Thus, when the outside world ultimately comes crashing through her proverbial bubble, in the form of an angry mob storming the palace, the result is jarring and unexpected. Perhaps it was experienced in much the same way by Marie Antoinette—as a total shock.

The final scene of the ruined palace bedroom is rather affecting, but I wonder if the film would have been more powerful if it had delved deeper into the events that followed: the family’s placement under house arrest in Paris, the beheading of Louis XVI—it is said that Marie Antoinette fainted upon hearing the crowds cheering at the sight of his severed head—the imprisonment and ultimate death of their eight year old son, Louis Charles, and the beheading of Marie Antoinette herself. The extreme contrast between their sheltered, pampered lifestyle—marked by cute puppies and fuzzy lambs and wealth beyond my comprehension—and their brutal end would most likely have been quite moving. However, it was Coppola’s intention to tell a different story, and perhaps her omission of the beheading was a wise choice. Ultimately, I’m pleased that she does not give in to the viewer’s morbid curiosity.

I did find the film’s portrayal of the passage of time to be somewhat confusing. Until I researched some of the historical facts after watching the movie, I hadn’t realized that so much time had passed throughout the course of the film; it was seven years before Marie and Louis consummated their marriage—I had imagined it was more like a year or so—the film encompassing about 20 years on the whole. Several major events are quickly glossed over, such as the death of their oldest son, Louis-Joseph, which is briefly gestured at with a scene depicting Marie Antoinette clad in a black veil, gazing despairingly at a small coffin. (In fact, they had a fourth child, Sophie Beatrix, who, as far as I can remember, was not mentioned at all.) Such decisions were surely made for the sake of time, although with a running time of 123 minutes, it seems that there could have been some cuts in the baroque party scenes in favor of more exposition.

Though a divergence in style from The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette is thematically consistent with Coppola’s previous works, focusing on the female protagonist’s sense of isolation, as she is immersed in a world that cannot truly appreciate or understand her. While it may be flawed, the film is nonetheless beautiful, a refreshingly unique approach to the historical period piece.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Movies watched, week of November 5-11, 2006

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Martin Scorsese, 1974
Paris Nous Appartient (Paris Belongs To Us), Jacques Rivette, 1960

I just started a new job this week, thus the amount of time allotted for movie viewing has been drastically shortened. Maybe next week I'll be able to budget my time a little better.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Tideland * Terry Gilliam * 2005

I had such high hopes for Tideland. Terry Gilliam’s latest, I had been planning on going to see it at IFC Center on Saturday, only to discover that not only was that the last day of its run, but there was only one showing, at 11:40 p.m. This information was somewhat discouraging—especially when, after a full day of wandering around the city, starting with the WFMU record fair, I was beginning to yawn around 9:30—but I decided to wait it out and see the movie, despite the inevitable resulting 2:30 a.m. bedtime.

Gilliam’s brief introduction—in which he states that “many of you are not going to like this film,” and instructs the viewer to “forget your prejudices, fears, and preconceptions that you have developed as an adult,” to watch the film through a child’s eyes—was the first indication that I had made an error in judgment.

Usually when everyone seems to hate a film, it only drives me to like it even more; conversely, when everyone seems to love a film, I tend not to have much interest in it. So the statement that “many people are not going to like this film” didn’t really bother me; it was more the presence of the disclaimer itself. I don’t like being told how to view a film; there’s always more than one way to look at art. Gilliam clearly has in mind a specific mode for perceiving Tideland, but that doesn’t mean he should provide the audience with instructions. If a film is successful, that intended way of seeing should be self-evident; if Tideland is meant to be portrayed through the eyes of a child, then the viewer should understand that simply from watching the film.

Based on the novel by Mitch Cullin, Tideland follows the plight of Jeliza-Rose, a 10-year-old girl whose job is to cook up daddy’s heroin so he can take a “vacation.” When her shrill, caricatureish mother, who often sounds like she’s coughing up a lung, violently O.D.s, her dad takes Jeliza-Rose to his mother’s dilapidated (vandals have spraypainted the phrase “fucking shithole” on the wall, perhaps a more appropriate description) farmhouse somewhere in the Midwest, where he proceeds to take a permanent vacation in an easy chair.

Left alone in the middle of nowhere, Jeliza-Rose, apparently oblivious to her situation, frolics in the wheat fields surrounding the house, playing with her deformed-looking severed Barbie doll heads, and later her freakish and only neighbors, Dell (an amateur taxidermist obsessed with bees) and Dickens (Dell’s semi-lobotomized mentally challenged brother). Gradually, she slips further and further from reality, conversing with squirrels that live in the walls, and imagining herself swimming in an underwater kingdom. (Eventually, we begin to hear the dolls’ voices when Jeliza-Rose’s mouth is closed, perhaps implying that the girl is experiencing auditory hallucinations.)

Perhaps my most significant problem with this film is that Jeliza-Rose shows no emotion, no fear. She barely reacts to anything that happens to her, no matter how horrific, appearing totally oblivious to the fact that her father is rotting in her living room. Instead of grieving, she climbs onto his lap, despite the flies and his blackish-purple tongue, and asks him why he won’t talk to her anymore. It makes sense for her to retreat into a fantasy world as a defense mechanism—but not completely. This film would have been more moving and sympathetic if she expressed at least some fear for her situation, and, moreover, grief for her parents. A ten-year-old knows what death is—I know I did. Thus, this ostensible lack of understanding (or perhaps acknowledgement) of her parents’ death does not compute.

In general, the “innocence of children” aspect was overplayed, to the point of ineffectiveness. Jeliza-Rose’s naiveté does not allow her to comprehend the gravity of what has befallen her. And yet, her apparent precociousness makes it hard believe that she is as innocent as she is acting. Towards the end of the film, she has decided that Dickens is her boyfriend, resulting in a few kisses (albeit quick pecks) and vaguely unsettling sexual references. The people involved don’t understand what they’re saying (they think that wiggling your tongue around in someone’s mouth is silly, or funny), and yet there’s something about Jeliza-Rose that seems more adult, seductive. She tells Dickens that if he shows her his "special secret" she'll love him forever, laying back on his bed tauntingly, most likely in imitation of someone, perhaps her mother.

The film does possess stunning cinematography—though the falling down the rabbit hole sequence is a little clichéd and cheesy, what with the floating syringes—and oddly beautiful imagery, such as Dell wandering around looking like Death in her black beekeeper’s outfit, her dance around the burning beehives, the train crashing through the wheat fields. On the clichéd end, most of the camera shots are tilted at exaggerated angles—while Jeliza-Rose and her father are traveling to the farmhouse, it looks like their bus is falling through space—with extreme close-ups of the actors’ faces. (Okay, I get it; the movie is told through the eyes of a child—enough already!)

This film had so much potential for greatness. If Gilliam had held back just a little, exercised some subtlety or restraint, I might have felt differently about it. Instead, it overdoes everything, from the acting (the portrayal of a mentally challenged man is fairly exaggerated, and Jeliza-Rose’s fake Southern accent is awful to the point of grating) to the mode of storytelling. Paradoxically, as the story becomes more and more outrageous, it also becomes more and more boring. For me, this was an utter disappointment.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Movies watched, week of October 29-November 4, 2006

The Departed, Martin Scorsese, 2006

Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman, 1960
In The Year of The Pig, Emile de Antonio, 1968
Eyes Without A Face, Georges Franju, 1959
I Vitelloni, Federico Fellini, 1953
The Shop On Main Street, Ján Kadár, 1965
Tideland, Terry Gilliam, 2006

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Eyes Without A Face * Georges Franju * 1959 * France

In honor of Halloween, I decided to watch Georges Franju’s 1959 horror film, Eyes Without A Face. Ghastly yet poignant, the film tells the story of the controlling, obsessive Dr Génessier, who attempts to restore the face of his severely disfigured daughter, Christiane. He is driven by both guilt and hubris; it is implied that he caused the car wreck that mutilated her face, yet at the same time he seems hungry for fame and power, and ultimately desires to be known for performing a miracle.

Génessier’s methods are rather unorthodox: his assistant, Louise, lures young blond women off the streets of Paris to Génessier’s mansion on the outskirts of the city, where he knocks them out and attempts to graft their faces onto Christiane’s. Strangely sinister carnival music plays whenever Louise appears on scene, cultivating an unsettling mood.

The creepiness is further amplified at the doctor's home, a secluded Gothic mansion with winding staircases and maze-like hallways, revolving walls, and hidden operating rooms in the basement. As soon as the doctor pulls up to his driveway, the viewer is met with sounds of barking dogs in the distance (more subjects of Génessier’s experiments), which are constantly heard throughout the film.

However, it is the horrifying yet angelic image of Christiane that leaves the deepest impression. Her face is never shown, except in one shot when Edna, one of the kidnapped girls, briefly awakens to see Christiane gazing down at her. She appears blurry, likely owing to Edna’s drugged state, but one gets the idea that she looks like a monster; Edna's response is a high-pitched scream.

Most of the time, Christiane wears a mask that her father has fashioned for her, doubtless far more disturbing than her actual face. The mask is stoic, expressionless, and causes her to appear unnaturally serene, even when she is crying and wishing she were dead. At one point she says, “My face frightens me. My mask frightens me even more.”

Christiane eerily resembles a fragile porcelain doll, with her smooth white inexpressive mask, perfectly combed hair—which oddly resembles a wig—and pouffy dresses. She wanders through her house like a ghost, making silent phone calls to her ex-fiancée just to hear his voice. At other times she looks like a ghostly Snow White, an ethereal, delicate figure walking off into the darkness, birds perched on her fingers.

Eyes Without A Face is an anguishing story, as Christiane’s hopes are continuously raised, then crushed by her brutally undeterred father. Following a seemingly successful operation, we are shown a sequence of photographs, commented on by Génessier from off screen, depicting the gradual breakdown and ultimate death of the transplanted skin; with each new photograph, Christiane’s expression grows increasingly hopeless and despondent. Beyond the obvious abhorrences--i.e. the abduction and mutilation of anonymous blond women--an even deeper cruelty is revealed.

Perhaps what is most troubling is that the film falls uncomfortably within the realm of the plausible. There are no supernatural occurrences, only the cruel fixations of a dementedly heartbroken individual. The film is gruesome yet beautiful, surely surpassing its B-movie status.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I just started this tonight on a whim. It will focus on film, with reviews of current screenings of both new and old movies, although I plan to start with Franju's Eyes Without A Face, which I just watched tonight on DVD. I have a wide range of tastes, some favorites including Francois Truffaut, Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Ingmar Bergman, etc., and this blog will reflect that.

Now I'm going to bed.