Wednesday, December 26, 2007

It's been a busy couple of months: I moved, went to San Francisco for a week, painted three rooms in my new house, and knitted a scarf for all of my co-workers. But now that the year is coming to a close, things are quieting down, and I have a brand-new hour and ten minute train ride to work in which to keep up-to-date on my blog entries. In other words, it's my New Year's resolution (haha) to have no more two-month long lapses on this thing. And now, without further adieu...

Movies watched, October 23-November 10, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited/Hotel Chevalier, Wes Anderson, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited is visually arresting, with exquisitely beautiful imagery and cinematography in almost every scene. It almost feels like it’s cheating to set the film in India, as everything there seems gorgeous and interesting and strange—for instance, the colorful and meticulously arranged objects on their dinner trays. Or perhaps that’s Anderson’s intention, to skew the eye towards the beauty of the country. Regardless, his characteristic attention to detail is present, such as when Francis (Owen Wilson) loses a shoe in the beginning and throughout the film wears an unmatched pair. The train itself is also used effectively and artistically. In one scene, the camera looks into two compartments, showing each character’s actions. Later on, we travel from car to car, for an intimate and somewhat whimsical portrayal of every character involved in the story.

And yet, The Darjeeling Limited is a little too much of the same. There’s a difference between having a trademark style and repeating yourself from film to film. There are, for example, way too many slow motion scenes here, rendering the technique ineffective. I can also sense an attempt to balance the whimsy with actual emotional conflict, but the result is maudlin and rather predictable. The brothers embark on an emotional journey and become closer as a result…how heartwarming. At the end, Francis (who had previously tried to hold his brother Jack’s passport hostage), now tells him to keep it. But Jack smiles and passes it back: “No, you keep it.” I could see that line coming from the beginning of the scene, but more importantly, it’s so boring and saccharine that it made me want to throw up. Seriously.

As for Hotel Chevalier, the short film that accompanies Darjeeling, while I didn’t particularly love it as a standalone story, it creates a nice effect while watching the feature film. The viewer, in a way, is remembering the experience just as Jack is; one can imagine what he’s thinking about whenever he gets a forlorn look in his eye, in a way that I can’t recall having experienced before while watching a film.

Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood, 1971

This prototype of the modern thriller is kind of predictable, though I imagine it seemed rather groundbreaking upon its initial release. It moved me enough to scream at Clint Eastwood: “It’s a trick!”, “She’s behind the door!”, and “Why haven’t you freakin’ changed your name and relocated already, dumbass!” In other words, the characters are not very smart and almost seem to set themselves up for trouble.

I did love seeing Jessica Walter (i.e. Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development) in her younger days. When she angrily calls Clint Eastwood “Buster Blue-eyes,” I’m pretty sure that I must have let out a little squeal of amusement. I’m also pretty sure that they must have parodied this film in the TV show at some point, which has inspired me to watch all three seasons again. Except I have to wait until I finish re-watching Lost in time for the Season Four premiere.

Julien Donkey-Boy, Harmony Korine (unofficially), 1999

Harmony Korine’s second feature-length film was created in adherence with the Dogme 95 manifesto, a filmmaking movement begun by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. The manifesto calls for, among other things, the use of handheld cameras, available light and sound, and props found on location—essentially purifying the filmmaking process, eschewing all of those unnecessary and bloated effects we so often see in modern movies.

Depicted from the viewpoint of a schizophrenic teenager, the film is murky and abstract-looking, with twitchy, jumpy camera movements and beautifully grainy colors. The family’s highly dysfunctional operations also add to the weird, uncomfortable feeling that’s conveyed. Julien’s sister (Chloe Sevigny) is pregnant and aspires to be a dancer, only to be debased by their father (Werner Herzog), who drinks cough syrup out of a slipper and plays mind games with his children. But much of the action takes place completely within Julien’s disturbed mind, so that it’s unclear as to how much of the film is “reality.”

While I love Werner Herzog, his portrayal of the father is somewhat distracting for me, since I find his voice to be so distinct that I can’t really imagine him as anyone other than himself. Thus, I was seeing Werner Herzog and not Julien’s father, which I felt significantly distanced me from the story. But that may not be such a bad thing, as theirs is not a family I want to get too close to.

Knocked Up, Judd Apatow, 2007

This was a lot sappier than I was expecting—while there are definitely some humorous moments, it’s more of a “warm and fuzzy” kind of movie. Entertaining, but not my favorite of the trilogy (okay, I guess it’s not really a trilogy).

Deathdream, Bob Clark, 1974

Bob Clark might have one of the most diverse oeuvres that I can think of—in addition to this Vietnam War-era horror film, his directorial resume also includes A Christmas Story, Porky’s, and Baby Geniuses. Go figure.

In Deathdream (originally titled Dead of Night but renamed upon its reissue) the Brooks family is notified that their son Andy is killed in battle—except that night he returns home, seemingly unscathed. The Brooks assume the message must be a mistake, meant for some other more unfortunate family. But Andy isn’t the same person, acting withdrawn and cold. His father suspects that something is up but his mother clings to the hope that their son is okay, even when it’s clear that his face is beginning to decompose.

A loose take on “The Monkey’s Paw,” Deathdream reflects the country’s views on the Vietnam War when it was actually still being fought. There’s an interesting parallel between the soldiers’ aftermath—some did, I’m sure, return home as a different person, zombie-like, their innocence lost. There’s also a not-so-subtle analogy between Andy’s use of a syringe to inject himself with blood to keep his flesh alive, and the increase in drug use among soldiers as morale waned. Deathdream is insightful and creepy—perhaps one could say it’s creepily insightful.

Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl, Kerri Koch, 2005

I’m not the biggest fan of riot grrrl—other than Team Dresch, who weren’t mentioned in the movie at all, I can’t think of any other such band I’ve ever really listened to. I’m all for girls playing music (I’ve been in bands on and off since I was 15) and generally getting out of the kitchen, but I can’t say I identify with feminism as a political movement. So while I admittedly went into the movie with a bit of a bias, I wasn’t really persuaded to delve deeper into riot grrrl either—mainly because it’s an amateurish documentary that, in my mind, barely scratches the surface of the complexity of this scene. From now on I’ll be steering clear of any film that includes the word “herstory” in its title.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Movies watched, week of October 6-13, 2007

Abre Los Ojos, Alejandro Amenábar, 1997
Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe, 2001
Usually the “it was all a dream” explanation seems like a cop-out, but while that is essentially what’s going on in Abre Los Ojos, it’s much more complex than the typical dream scenario. For César, a former pretty boy whose face was maimed in a car wreck, and who may or may not have been made pretty again through plastic surgery, it’s never totally clear as to how much of his experiences are a dream and how much is reality, or if any of it is reality at all. Sometimes he dreams that he’s dreaming, or dreams that he’s awake. With elements of a Philip K. Dick novel—Ubik, in particular—the bizarre, nightmarish dreamscapes of disjointed sequences of images become frighteningly real for César.

This is much subtler than the American remake; there are hints that something is amiss—for instance, the empty city streetscape—but in Vanilla Sky, you’re hit over the head with it. Crowe goes to great lengths to ensure that the viewer doesn’t miss the fact that things are not as they seem (i.e. Tom Cruise running through an empty Times Square and screaming to the heavens), sacrificing the film’s eerie, uncanny atmosphere. Then again, deserted Times Square is pretty damn eerie.

Labyrinth, Jim Henson, 1986
I love David Bowie, Jennifer Connolly, and modern fairy tales, but “Pan’s Labyrinth meets Ziggy Stardust” this ain’t.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick, 2006
Of the recent onslaught of documentaries being produced, this funny yet infuriating film about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its rating system is one of the more engaging and well-crafted ones that I’ve seen. Amidst interviews with “controversial” filmmakers (John Waters, Kimberly Peirce, Allison Anders, and so on) and a primer on the history of the ratings board, a story emerges in which the director hires a pair of private investigators (who also happen to be a lesbian couple…gasp) to identify the members of the ratings board, which is shrouded in secrecy.

Throughout the film the same question is asked repeatedly: why does the MPAA deem the cinematic depiction of graphic violence to be suitable for younger viewers, but not consensual sex (or even any hint of nudity)? It seems like a somewhat clichéd argument, yet there’s definitely some truth to it—we’re in many ways still living in Puritan times.

The MPAA seems to be pretty deluded regarding the effect that their ratings have on the life of a film. Their president, Jack Valenti, asserts that you can slap any rating on something and people will still see it if they want to, but this is obviously not so. If a film gets an NC-17 rating, it will never see the light of day. No distributor will carry it, forcing the director to either throw in the towel or alter the movie, to sacrifice the art. I’m left wondering about all the amazing films I never got to see due to some arbitrary decision made by people who know nothing about filmmaking.

Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski, 2005
Andrew Bujalski’s films are associated with a new wave of ultra low budget filmmaking (if there’s a name for it yet, I don’t know it) that I’m intensely curious about, yet have some mixed feelings towards. Filmed on a shoestring budget, much of the films are unscripted, or at least invoke an improvisational feel, as though you're just peeking in on a conversation, on people living out their lives. And I like this idea—in theory.

Shot in stark, grainy black and white 16mm, Mutual Appreciation reminds me a lot of early Jim Jarmusch films in terms of its look. But the similarities end there; it lacks Jarmusch’s wit and distinctive style. There’s a lot of talking, a la the French New Wave, but I find myself wanting out of the conversation. Maybe I just have a cultural bias—having lived in Williamsburg I’ve developed a bit of a distaste for the disaffected hipster type.

The film becomes more compelling towards the end, when an actual conflict arises in the form of a love triangle among the three main characters. This is achieved rather organically, subtly hinting at the aching sense of longing between Alan and Ellie. The foreshadowing comes through right from the opening scene, when they’re lying side by side in bed and Ellie’s boyfriend, Lawrence, walks over and gets in between them.

I have high hopes for Bujalski’s works to come, but I wasn’t moved by the saga of these hipster twenty-somethings’ awkward attempts at romance. They seem to be floundering in their acute awareness of the complexities of their emotions, trying to figure it all out—and I just don’t really care. Or maybe I just desperately don’t want to be them.

Love and Anger, Carlo Lizzani, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Marco Bellocchio, 1969

A collection of five short films by some of the leading European filmmakers of the 60s—which is pretty much proof that it’s near impossible to create a truly great short film, simply because of time constraints. These are definitely attempting to create something ground-breaking and innovative, but fall somewhat short. That and they feel extremely dated, particularly Bertolucci’s "Agonia", in which a dying priest is surrounding by members of New York’s Living Theater troupe (i.e. a few dozen hippies moaning and writhing around on the floor). It's an interesting compilation, but not essential viewing.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Back in March, I mentioned I would be writing about Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King and The Devil and Daniel Johnston in an "upcoming" Terminal Boredom column. Well, eight months later, it's finally available for consumption! Go here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Movies watched, September 25-October 6, 2007
The Landlord, Hal Ashby, 1970

Hal Ashby’s debut film is a social—and somewhat clairvoyant—comedy about gentrification, in which a spoiled rich kid buys a row house in Park Slope before it was chic (one of his neighbors correctly predicts how hip the neighborhood is destined to become). While he does assert that “everyone wants a home of his own” as he suns himself in the family pool, Elgar Enders never quite makes it clear as to why he’s chosen this particular place as his home. He seems to be feigning a personal rebellion against his stereotypically rich and brainless family, and while I suppose that having their son living in the ghetto could be a blemish on their name, he can’t seem to pull it off, can’t handle the consequences. He falls short of accomplishing any real defiance.

Elgar admits to the building’s tenants—who include a palm reader, Miss Sepia of 1957, and a Black Nationalist who’s married to Miss Sepia—that he eventually intends to oust them so he can knock out all the floors and install a “great big psychedelic spectacular son-of-a-bitchin’ chandelier.” However, he manages to establish a bond with them, albeit a brief one.

The film’s premise could easily have floundered near the surface of the subject, remaining predictably zany and sitcom-ish. But instead, it pushes the barriers of what a comedy can do, ever so subtly beginning to address the underlying implications of Elgar’s purchase—and our ways of thinking about race and social class.

Much of the film is rather surreal: in my mind, one of the most memorable scenes is the rent party that Elgar’s tenants throw for him (they gladly charge him a door fee). As the scene intensifies, the characters momentarily step out of their roles and begin speaking to the camera, describing to Elgar what it feels like to be black: imagine that you have a mole in the middle of your forehead that everyone is disgusted by, but then one day moles become fashionable and you’re suddenly the envy of everyone.

The Landlord is just as, if not more, relevant today, as developers are looking further and further into the outer boroughs of New York City, changing the faces of many neighborhoods and displacing lifelong residents due to skyrocketing rents. In one scene, Elgar, wearing a white suit and carrying a large potted plant, is chased down the street by his tenants. In a New York Times article, actor Beau Bridges, who played Elgar, recalls that “I looked up on the rooftops, and the locals were cheering and yelling ‘get that white.’”

Though Elgar seems to grow up a little throughout the course of the film, he’s bought the tenement as more of an experiment than anything else—and one that fails. He’s not prepared for the sociopolitical baggage, coming across as more of a vacationer than a permanent resident. Park Slope, for the time being, is not really his home.

Requiem, Hans-Christian Schmid, 2006

Not a straight-up horror film (as the cover would have you believe), but more of a psychological study of the effects of religion, social pressure, and illness on a college student. A strict Catholic, Michaela’s mother prevents her from blossoming into a modern, independent woman by constantly reminding her of her epilepsy (and thus her difference, her stigmatism). She disapproves of her going to college in a city, throws her fashionable clothes into the trash, and generally instills in her an immense feeling of Catholic guilt over her burgeoning sexuality, so that the girl eventually believes she is possessed by the devil. The film feels very naturalistic, with hand-held camera work and gorgeous, softly muted colors.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Judd Apatow, 2004

It had its moments, but Superbad was funnier.

Gummo, Harmony Korine, 1997

I’d seen this movie about eight or nine years ago and felt kind of indifferent towards it, but this time around I’m a little more open to its singular, grotesque vision. While there’s no coherent narrative arc, per se, this portrayal of a strange, dark region of America—the parts we like to forget exist—is bizarre, engaging, and, like a gruesome accident scene, commands one’s attention.

At the film’s opening, we learn that Xenia, Ohio was destroyed by a tornado in recent years—which immediately sets the mood and tone of the film. I love to think that the town and its inhabitants were once normal, and that everything went to hell, everyone went a little crazy, after this natural disaster—as though something else, like a curse, were swept through with the storm. The grainier segments scattered throughout come from actual documentary footage of people living in the town where Gummo was filmed. These people blend in with the fictional characters, speaking and acting just as they do—frightening, yes, but evidence of the film’s authenticity. And yet, much of it feels so surreal—for instance, the scene in which Solomon’s mother shampoos his hair while he eats spaghetti in the bathtub, a piece of fried bacon affixed to the tile wall, with severed doll parts decorating the soap holders.

People tend to react strongly to the scenes of cat torture, but while they’re extremely troubling and hard to watch, I take comfort in knowing that they weren’t using real cats. More importantly, these images capture the cruelty and ugliness that exist in the world, and particularly in the world of Gummo.

Wild Style, Charles Ahearn, 1983
This film is not so much about the story—which is somewhat nonexistent anyway—as it is about its footage of breakdancing, graffiti, and rapping, a document of a particular place and time. Like The Landlord, it also tackles issues of gentrification, depicting attempts by hipsters and rich (white) people at infiltrating hip hop culture. Most obvious is the bleached-blond reporter, portrayed by FUN gallery founder Patti Astor, who is seen throughout the movie attempting to interview people and generally act “down” with the New York hip hop scene. The rich woman supporting Zoro as he begins to produce work for a gallery instead of the side of a subway car (which kind of defeats the purpose anyway; public space as canvas is inherent to graffiti) echoes what was actually happening in the downtown art scene at the time (see Basquiat for another cinematic example).

Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog, 1970

In this film cast entirely from midgets and dwarfs (along with a few malformed barnyard animals), the inmates of a prison—which is strangely and rather cruelly designed to hold normal-sized people—wage a revolt, locking the director inside and taunting him as they gleefully set fire to their surroundings.

This rebellion, while extremely liberating for the inmates, eventually compels them towards annihiliation; by the end, they’re destroying for the sake of destruction, with no thought to their actions. Even the animals succumb to these cruel urges, as the chickens torment a one-legged peer.

Most memorable is the truck that seems to move by itself on an endless circular track—the dwarfs take joy in crowding inside of it, riding on the roof, and tumbling from the open back.

Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg, 2007

This started out as more of a conventional thriller—compelling yet somewhat unremarkable. I’m much more interested in the character of Nikolai than I am in Anna, and wish the plot had focused more on him. Instead of waiting until nearly the end of the film to bring in the unpredictable plot twists, they should have come in the middle, producing somewhat of a Psycho effect, with the female lead dropping out of the story midway through. But alas, that’s not how it's structured, and thus, what could potentially have been a great, noteworthy film is instead merely good, if forgettable.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson, 1998

I decided to watch this old favorite in preparation for The Darjeeling Limited. While it doesn’t necessarily produce the same excitement I felt when I first saw it, the film holds up with time. I still find myself saying “O, R they?” every now and again, even if it doesn’t really make any sense in context with what I’m responding to.

Jackass: The Movie and Jackass Number Two, Jeff Tremaine, 2002 and 2006

This brought me back to fond memories of my high school days, when my friends and I would gather around in someone’s parents’ basement to watch the new CKY video. I imagine those stunts pale in comparison with some of the footage in Jackass (especially now that they’re working with a bigger budget) but it’s all carried out in the same spirit. Some of the scenes are downright gnarly—I was actually left feeling a little queasy at the end of Number Two, having witnessed the (censored) consumption of cow semen, the placement of a leech on Steve-O’s eyeball, and so on. Some general highlights include off-road tattoo with Henry Rollins, and, of course, any segment with the raunchy old people (I’ll be forever haunted by the sight of “old man balls”).

Monday, October 01, 2007

It seems like every time I make a post I include some kind of disclaimer about how I’m behind on posting—well, today is no exception. I won’t go into all the details/excuses about how summer was too much fun, and that now work is too busy (well, not too many details at least), but as I’m almost two months behind, I’m going back to the good ol’ list format for this one, with brief commentary on selected films. Make sense?

Movies watched, August 12-September 15, 2007

Be Here To Love Me, Margaret Brown, 2004

Border Radio, Alison Anders, 1987

The King of Kong, Seth Gordon, 2007
This documentary about two men who seem to be polar opposites of one another competing to break the Donkey Kong world record is, ultimately, a battle of good and evil. The good guy is Steve Wiebe, an everyman (and somewhat of an underdog) who’s experienced a string of bad luck: most significantly, he was laid off the same day as the closing on he and his wife’s new house. As his good friend says, “I’ve never seen anyone cry as much as Steve” (which serves as a bit of unintentional foreshadowing). Newly unemployed, Steve decides to pass the time by playing Donkey Kong in his garage, in a quest to achieve the new world record.

On the other side of the country is the villain, “hot sauce mogul” (as the movie poster describes him) Billy Mitchell, who was a rock star in the gaming world in the early 80s, and has held claim to the highest score ever played in Donkey Kong since 1982. Unlike Steve, it seems like Billy has always had all the breaks, and he doesn’t hesitate to lord it over everyone (the cocky bastard). It seems Billy will stop at nothing to maintain his title as the top scoring Donkey Kong player in the world, from confiscating Steve’s game console, to suspiciously materializing an old tape in which he beats his own championship score, to refusing to drive the ten or so miles from his house to publicly challenge Steve (even though Steve has traveled thousands of miles to be there). It’s clear that he feels threatened by his new opponent (it seems he’s never really had one before), and rather than nobly facing the situation, he resorts to plotting and scheming, sending his obsequious henchmen in his place to scope out the situation.

Billy is such a stereotypical villain that it’s almost hard to believe. One could argue that his portrayal could be the result of clever editing, but dialogue like “He is the person he is today because he came under the wrath of Bill Mitchell” (he frequently refers to himself in the third person) cannot be faked. I like to think that he’s carefully cultivated this formidable, enigmatic persona, which his many fans/cronies/underlings have perpetuated.

Many people might find this movie hilarious simply because the thought of grown men still playing Donkey Kong and taking it extremely seriously seems so ludicrous—which, to some extent, is understandable. But I can (almost) relate to this, not because of any shared video game fanaticism (in fact, I don’t even like video games...gasp!), but because many of those closest to me are collectors of rare vinyl, another traditionally marginalized pastime; both hobbies involve expending a lot of energy and concentration on something that most would view as trivial or unimportant, something that doesn’t really matter in the long run. But you could say that about almost anything—so what does matter in the long run?

Lenny, Bob Fosse, 1974

Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, Jamie Meltzer, 2003
In the middle weeks of August I watched a number of documentaries about weird, esoteric music, from obscure blues records to pioneers in electronic music, Leon Theremin and Robert Moog. The most memorable by far was Off the Charts, a bizarre, comic, and at times heartbreaking look at the art of the song poem—that is, the end results of magazine advertisements inviting readers to send in their poetry as a means of getting their foot in the door of the music industry. These people would often receive notice that their work was worthy of recording by professional musicians, along with a proposal to do so in exchange for a fee. Eventually they would receive a copy of their song, pressed onto vinyl (or, later on, a cassette tape).

So many aspects of this strange practice are introduced in this 52 minute film, from the people sending in their writing, to those who actually create the music. A wide array of people are attracted to these advertisements, yielding many religious songs (“I’m devoted to TV so I have no time to serve God, so I dwell in confusion forever”), efforts at serious love songs, and others that are downright bizarre. “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” (I still sometimes get that one in my head) and “Annie Oakley” are among my favorites, the latter mainly because of the lyrics (okay, maybe both because of the lyrics), in which a young man channels his obsession with firearms into a nonviolent form of expression: “I have taken a vow of celibacy until marriage / However, if Miss Annie tempted me into her carriage / I might lose to Miss Oakley, it’s not funny / Annie is one of my historical honeys”). This is all quite amusing, until people begin to hint that they’re hoping to start a career in music, and they believe that this is the way to come out with a hit record. You can see both hope and unease in their eyes, as if they’re trying to remain optimistic, clinging to their dreams, and yet, the worry that all of their efforts have been futile remains.

It’s quite fascinating to witness the process of writing and recording song poems: the span of time elapsed between first reading the lyrics to recording a finished song is less than an hour. Everything is recorded in one take with machinelike intensity, churning out song after song after song. These musicians also have an air of sadness about them, regaling the filmmakers with tales of bygone days when they were hobnobbing with celebrities, “bygone” being the operative word here.

As for the songs themselves, their peculiarity is difficult to pinpoint. Regardless of how outlandish the lyrics are, there’s always something amiss—the songs mirror popular musical genres, but the nature of the songwriting is so bizarre that while the style might be familiar, there is nonetheless something vaguely alien about them.

Moog, Hans Fjellestad, 2004

Summer of Sam, Spike Lee, 1999
While I’d heard some unfavorable reviews of this movie, I decided to check it out after reading Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx is Burning, which allots a few chapters to the Son of Sam case—unfortunately, my expectations were exceeded. The depictions of David Berkowitz ranting in his sordid apartment and receiving visits from a dog that orders him to kill are incredibly cheesy, especially since Berkowitz eventually admitted that he’d made up the whole demon dog story so he could plead insanity. More importantly, people should refrain from making films about punk rockers when they know nothing about them. In 1977, New York punks did not look like they’d just stepped out of Hot Topic—you could make a case that there was one guy in all of New York who wore his hair in a stupid-looking mohawk and spoke in a fake British accent, but that is clearly not what the film is implying. This is just barely a step up from the Freaks and Geeks punk episode.

Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, 1990

Medea, Lars von Trier, 1988

Kramer Vs. Kramer, Robert Benton, 1979
Perhaps the quintessential divorce film, this story of how a man’s relationship with his son changes in the aftermath of his wife’s leaving him, and the bitter child custody battle that later ensues, impressively manages to avoid becoming overly sentimental and saccharine. This could so easily have been a Lifetime original movie (or the 1970s equivalent thereof), but instead is an engaging drama.

Theremin: An Electric Odyssey, Steven M. Martin, 1994

Desperate Man Blues, Edward Gillan, 2003

Thieves Like Us, Robert Altman, 1974

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Steven Shainberg, 2006
The concept of an imaginary portrait is intriguing; a straightforward biopic highlighting the major events of one’s life tells the viewer nothing about the character’s inner experiences, and is often flawed and inaccurate anyway. So why not take it a step further, using elements of myth and fairy tale to fill in the holes. The enchanting, carnivalesque imagery employed in the film is particularly appropriate to the subject matter of Arbus’ photographs. The ornate, winding staircase leading up to the mysterious masked—and very hairy—neighbor, the secret key that falls out of the pipe, and other such images evoke impressions of Alice in Wonderland, some of it a bit silly and over-the-top, though I didn’t really notice that until reflecting back on the film once it was over.

I’m now in the middle of reading Diane Arbus: A Biography, which has led me to think that Nicole Kidman’s performance didn't really capture the complexities of Arbus’ character. She’d been an artist long before she began taking these pictures, not just a bored housewife who decided to break out of her role (although that was true of her as well—did I mention she was a complex woman?). If you can get past the fact that the film is about a real person, and just regard it as fiction (which in many ways it is), it seems much stronger.

, Greg Mottola, 2007
I’d previously avoided movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, probably because I’m a snobby snob, but my love for Michael Cera’s character on Arrested Development piqued my interest in this comedy from the creators of the aforementioned two movies. While I hope this doesn’t reflect badly on Cera, he’s pretty much playing the exact same character—imagine George Michael Bluth a few years older than when we last saw him. Nonetheless, Superbad is hilarious and raunchy in the best way—highlights include the many drawings of penises (a little girl holding hands with a giant cock, a penis riding a torpedo like a bucking bronco, George Washington with a two-foot schlong, and so on), and every time someone referred to Fogell as “McLovin” in complete seriousness. I also loved the bored (and somewhat incompetent) cop characters, although they got to be a little bit over the top, even for this movie, in which they’re driving drunk and shooting at road signs.

I’ve actually watched The 40 Year-Old Virgin since then and while it was mildly amusing at times, it’s not on the same level as Superbad. I guess Knocked Up is next on the list.

Scanners, David Cronenberg, 1981

Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson, 1970

Borat, Larry Charles, 2006
Whenever a movie comes along that is so celebrated by my peers that I can’t enter a conversation without someone urging me to see it, it’s a surefire sign that I will avoid it like the plague. I finally got around to watching Borat over Labor Day weekend, and yes, of course it made me laugh—I enjoy a good dose of shit jokes now and again. But it’s kind of depressing that this is what is being hailed as comedic brilliance these days. The jokes are cheap, and the so-called political content is more or less nonexistent. I can see that Borat is taking a shit in front of the Trump Towers (ooh, the symbolism), and that masturbating in front of Victoria’s Secret mannequins could be construed as a comment on the voyeuristic nature of such window displays, or that the whole movie could be interpreted as a slap in the face at political correctness and American culture. But that seems a bit of a stretch: it’s really just a lot of sophomoric dick jokes and cheap laughs—not exactly fodder for genius.

Torment, Alf Sjöberg, 1944
Written by Ingmar Bergman early on in his career, this film is somewhat of a prototype of the modern prep school movie, with faint echoes of Dead Poets Society, right down to the cruel foreign language teacher (in this case, Latin) tormenting his students to the brink of insanity. The story is nothing we haven’t seen before—except it was actually pretty revolutionary for the time.

Loves of a Blonde, Milos Forman, 1965

The Call of Cthulhu, Andrew Lehman, 2005
Created by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society and modeled after a 1920s silent film, this movie does a remarkable job of capturing the look and style of the era, though it’s quite clearly not an old movie (the only way to really do that would be to use the same equipment used in the 20s, which wouldn’t be all that practical or accessible). The amount of detail is impressive, especially considering that everything was filmed on an extremely low budget—there’s a boat sailing in the ocean, an island inhabited by a monster, all created using cardboard, fabric, and ingenuity. Adapting this classic Lovecraft tale to film in this manner was a little stroke of genius, not only because it fits the period and spirit of the story, but because it’s an extremely forgiving form allowing for the lack of funds available; there are no fancy special effects here, but then, such technology did not exist at the dawn of cinema, rendering the film even more authentic.

Fletch, Michael Ritchie, 1985

Marathon Man, John Schlesinger, 1976

Little Murders, Alan Arkin, 1971

Alice’s Restaurant
, Arthur Penn, 1969

Okie Noodling
, Bradley Beesley, 2001

A Prairie Home Companion
, Robert Altman, 2006

Fear of a Black Hat, Rusty Cundieff, 1994

Friday, September 07, 2007

Hairspray, John Waters, 1988
Polyester, John Waters, 1981
Desperate Living, John Waters, 1977

Every summer, the Alamo Drafthouse, a Texas theater chain (and perhaps my favorite theater chain in existence), hosts a film series called the Rolling Roadshow, wherein a giant inflatable screen tours the country, showing movies in the spots that inspired them (i.e. North By Northwest at Mt. Rushmore, Escape From Alcatraz at Alcatraz Island, Close Encounters at Devil’s Tower, WY, and so on).

The closest stop to New York on the 2007 roster was a John Waters marathon in Baltimore, which I interpreted as a sign that I was destined for a road trip. My love for all things Waters started in high school when I saw Pecker and nearly fell out of my seat laughing as Memama proclaimed, "You're a mother, and a virgin, and you're all mine!" I was soon introduced to Pink Flamingos, despite the warnings I received from the introducer, and was hooked. Since then I’ve managed to see every single John Waters movie, especially thanks to the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2004 exhibit, “John Waters: Change of Life,” which included continuous screenings of Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles, and Eat Your Makeup.

And thus, I set off for Baltimore on Friday morning, with my boyfriend, Dave, and best friend, Jessica, who was also present for my first viewing of Pink Flamingos nearly ten years ago. (Around the same time, we began shooting a movie that was never finished called Roadkill, which was very much influenced by early Waters films, right down to the experience of rushing to finish a scene before cops arrived).

Somewhat disappointingly, the crowd was kind of sparse—not empty, but not nearly as packed as I had expected. Perhaps Baltimorians hear enough about John Waters that a marathon of outdoor movies isn’t quite as exciting as I think it is (or maybe the average person is generally less apt to care about the same things that I do). I think (or hope) it might have been more widely attended if there were scheduled themed activities, like the Repo Man scavenger hunt, the Deliverance tube ride, and other Roadshow events of summers past.

In lieu of such aforementioned activities, we decided to conduct our own tour of John Waters' Baltimore before the event. Our first stop, naturally, was the Prospect Hill Cemetery in the suburb of Towson, Maryland, the final resting place of Divine. Sadly, the headstone is rather defaced, covered in lipstick kisses and graffiti, none of which is very creative (if I were so compelled to leave a semi-permanent mark on someone’s grave, I hope I’d come up something a little better than “fucking fierce”). We paid our respects and left him some eyeliner, as a nice gift seemed more appropriate than tagging his headstone.

We also made a quick drive-by past the “Dreamland Studios backlot,” aka John Waters’ childhood home, located in a charming little neighborhood in the suburb of Lutherville. The house that occupies the address we were going by is a large building, adjacent to a huge lawn with picnic tables, resembling more of a bed and breakfast or unique apartment complex then a single-family home. (I loved the giant stuffed animal sitting on the front porch.) I don’t even know if his parents still live there (judging by the appearance of the grounds, I’d guess not), but it was interesting to see the origins of our beloved director.

The following day we took a walk past the Marbles’ residence in Pink Flamingos (and the house that Waters owned and lived in at the time of the filming), located near Johns Hopkins University. It seems that the current residents are well aware of what took place in their home in years past, hence the lawn ornaments and pink patio furniture in front of the house (either that or it’s a mighty awesome coincidence). We then took a detour to the corner where Divine ate dog shit, which is also in a hip
little neighborhood slightly west of downtown, populated by coffee shops and book stores. While this might not come as a surprise to some, I found it interesting that these early Waters haunts all seem to be located in the few nice areas of the city. I had expected to be taken into grittier locales, which makes me feel uncomfortably similar to Patty Hearst’s character in Pecker (“I want to see lowlife—show me 'down and dirty'!”). I also don’t know what these neighborhoods looked like 30 years ago—at the screening, longtime Dreamlander Pat Moran pointed out that the park that booted the Roadshow was once frequented by hustlers.

Shockingly—well, to me, at least—the event was moved to another location at the last minute, because the administrators of Wyman Park, where it had initially been scheduled, decided that the content of the films was too scandalous for the park’s patrons. The new location, Middle Branch Park in South Baltimore, was in a more rundown area; I guess the city doesn’t care about sheltering those residents as much—perhaps all too appropriate to one of the themes of Hairspray. There were a lot of families in attendance, some hanging in until the very end, which I loved to see—in particular, the two little kids who rode up on their bikes, bought a Badass Cinema blanket (it was pretty cold out, as you might be able tell by the photo), and seemed to be totally loving the experience. They left after Hairspray, but it was probably past their bedtime, so who can blame them?

The movies in the screening gradually got raunchier, which was probably the strategy—if you stick around until 2 a.m., you’re likelier more of a die-hard fan than someone who happened to be walking by and got curious about the free movie in the park. (The lineup originally included Pink Flamingos as the fourth feature, but it was cut due to concerns about noise restrictions. This saddened me a little, but I was likewise thankful to get to sleep earlier than I was expecting to.) The night began with the family-friendly Hairspray, Waters’ tribute to rock n roll “before the Beatles ruined it,” alive with pimply-faced teenagers with foot-high hairdos doing dances like “The Roach” and “The Madison.” While this might be one of his tamest films, his distinct style of humor and trademark filth are still present—for instance, the scene when Amber Von Tussle’s mother assists her in popping a zit, accompanied by over-the-top sound effects.

Right now it seems as though a mention of the remake is inevitable, but I've been striving to ignore it on principle (although not to much success, since I felt compelled to mention it just now). As with most remakes, it's completely unnecessary, and can't possibly capture the feeling of the original—moreover, the still images I've seen of John Travolta in drag are disturbing.

I already wrote a bit about Polyester when I saw it in Austin in June. While there are many great things about this movie, Edith Massey as Cuddles Kovinsky, the cleaning lady who inherited a huge sum of money, is unquestionably the highlight. Whether she’s complaining about all the lowly commoners (“God I wish I lived in Connecticut!”), impatiently waiting for her monocled chauffeur Heinz to open the limo door (“Hurry, Heinz, hurry!”), or practicing her detective work by flipping up her collar and hiding behind a tree (which barely begins to camouflage her), it’s a brilliant, endearing performance that only she could have accomplished. As before, I received an Odorama card, but this time decided not to use it, in an attempt to save this bit of ephemera (I’m a terrible packrat when it comes to saving movie ticket stubs, pamphlets, and other little scraps). Unfortunately, the card still stinks, even without the scratching and sniffing—maybe if I laminate it, that’ll seal in some of the odors (but let’s face, it I’m not going to do that).

Desperate Living is one of my favorite Waters films, next to Female Trouble. Except for Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, it’s the only one of the early films that Divine does not appear in, which gives the rest of the Dreamlanders a chance to exercise their style and flair for the dramatic. Mink Stole is great as Peggy Gravel, the wiry, insanely right-wing, anxiety-stricken housewife—her breakdown in the beginning of the film, in which she mistakes a fly ball accidentally sailing through her bedroom window for an assassination attempt, finds her son and daughter playing doctor and wails, “the children are having sex!”, and scolds the unfortunate sloppy dialer who calls her house ("How can you ever repay the last thirty seconds you have stolen from my life? I hate you, your husband, your children, and your relatives!”), is hilarious. (She can’t, however, outdo the cop with a fetish for women’s undergarments.)

Waters’ love for Disney villains is plainly apparent in this movie, as Peggy gradually transforms from hysterical to diabolical, later seen in a tight black outfit while stirring a cauldron full of rabies (yes, rabies). The wicked Queen Carlotta, whose tyrannical reign over the town of Mortville is rued by all of its residents, also echoes the evil queens of movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (except she's much dirtier). Mortville, by the way, is a kind of shantytown for the desperate, the downtrodden, and the out of place (Peggy and her maid, Grizelda, take up residence there after Grizelda accidentally kills Peggy's husband by sitting on him). It’s not too much of a stretch to find parallels between Mortvillians and Dreamlanders—without their evil queen, Mortville is a kind of paradise for freaks and misfits, a joyous haven of filth.

We met Susan Lowe, who played Mole, at the screening (she parked next to us). While I’d seen footage of how she looked offscreen, it was still a shocking contrast from her onscreen persona as Mole, the extremely butch lesbian with scars (and moles) on her face.

Seeing these movies in their natural habitat while surrounding myself with Baltimore culture and character enriched the experience, better capturing the feeling of the films than watching them on a TV in my living room might havewhich, I suppose, is the whole point of the Rolling Roadshow.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Movies watched, week of August 5 to 11, 2007

A Touch of Greatness, Leslie Sullivan, 2003

A tribute to what is increasingly becoming a rarity, yet so essential to building our capacity for learning: a phenomenal teacher. Albert Cullum, an elementary school teacher in Rye, NY, in the 50s and 60s, was an innovator in American education, emphasizing elements of play in the classroom and inspiring children to channel their “touch of greatness.”

Most memorable is the black and white archival footage shot by Robert Downey Sr. (quite a difference from Putney Swope) of Mr. Cullum’s students putting on Shakespearean plays. The performances transcend the typical grade school assemblies that I remember; these children demonstrate impressively haunting acting skills, especially for fifth-graders with little to no prior experience; the images of children in such serious roles (and taking the roles very seriously) is remarkable. But then, it’s remarkable just to see fifth-graders who are passionate about Shakespeare to begin with, which speaks to the effectiveness of Cullum’s approach.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, Stanley Nelson, 2006

While this PBS documentary about Jim Jones and the strange, disturbing legacy of People’s Temple may not p
rovide a lot of new information or insight into the tragic massacre at Jonestown, the archival video and audio footage, much of it only recently declassified, absolutely makes it worth seeing. The sounds of Jonestown’s final hours, of children screaming while Jones preaches, chanting “Mother, mother, mother, mother, please” and “Wheres the vat, the vat, the vat...Bring it so the adults can begin” are hauntingly devastating.

Jones is portrayed as a poor Indiana child born into a family of alcoholics and bigots, who
aspired to something greater. He would grow up to be a charismatic preacher promising a utopian community, free of prejudice, where people took care of one another. One was meant to devote their life to the cause, donating every last cent of their earnings (save a $5 weekly allowance) to the church—in return they would (theoretically) never need anything—food, medical attention, camaraderie, spiritual guidance, and so on. But, as we now know, the community was far from utopian—congregants were subjected to physical, sexual, and mental abuse, deception (for instance, Jones planted his secretary in the pews so she could be "healed" before the parishioners), and brainwashing.

One of the film’s most disturbing moments comes when a former member states that the Koolaid massacre had been rehearsed back in California, when Jones served what he falsely claimed to be poisoned punch as a test of his devotees’ faith—really, more of a test of his power, which he exercised on a level that paralleled Stalin’s. Congregants were compelled to turn in their own family members if they showed the slightest inclination towards dissent, essentially slaves to the increasingly deranged Jones.

It might have been interesting to interview psychologists in an attempt to provide more
insight into why people are drawn to cults (although, as one survivor eloquently points out, nobody “joins a cult”—they join a political movement, or a religious organization), and, in turn, how one man could influence people to such an irrational degree that they would put up with such cruelty and abuse, follow him across the world to Guyana, and, ultimately, pour cyanide down the throats of their own children. But then, it may be more effective to leave this for us to ponder, as a question that seems (and may be) unanswerable.

Deliver Us From Evil
, Amy Berg, 2006

As if I hadn’t subjected myself to enough disturbing material for the week, I decided to watch another documentary that takes a scathing look at religious figures, only where
Jonestown focuses on one strange (nut)case, this one takes on the whole Catholic institution. And just as Jonestown is about the abuse of power, this too exposes the corruption that even the Catholic Church, an institution that prides itself on its piousness, can succumb to as a result of its supreme authority and influence.

Father O’Grady, an Irish Catholic priest who relocated to Northern California in the 70s, was known by nearly all who came in contact with him as the pinnacle of godliness, someone worthy of their trust and respect—and yet, O’Grady has admitted to the sexual abuse of dozens of children (including a 9-month old) over the years. Shockingly (although not all that surprisingly when you think about it), after the first incident was reported, the Church hierarchy allowed this behavior to continue by taking every possible step to protect O’Grady and suppress the facts. Instead of de-ordaining him, or at the very least sending him off to a monastery where he would be far away from children, he was simply moved from parish to parish, more or less left to do as he pleased with the poor, unsuspecting parishioners.

The film claims that the rampant cases of pedophilia in the clergy exist largely because of the celibacy rule, which didn't always exist in Catholicism. But O'Grady is definitely another case altogether, as he admits that he's only turned on by children. His extensive onscreen interviews show him to be quite frank about his past activity, and he seems to be taking steps to contend with his unsavory predilections—or at least attempting to—but that does nothing to assuage the years of emotional devastation his many victims are still feeling today.

It’s particularly telling that the church declined to be interviewed for the film, maintaining silence on the issue just as they always have.

Hairspray, John Waters, 1988
Polyester, John Waters, 1981
Desperate Living, John Waters, 1977

More on this to come.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Movies watched, week of July 22 to August 4, 2007

Last Chants For a Slow Dance, Jon Jost, 1977

Underground filmmaker Jon Jost’s second film—and the first of Jost’s films that I’ve seen—follows a thoroughly unlikable character named Tom as he aimlessly wanders the country in his pickup truck, having abandoned his family. He meets various people along the way—a hitchhiker, a man in a diner, a woman at a bar—carrying on long, banal conversations. This series of meaningless exchanges lends the film a sense of alienation; Tom is trying to make connections with people, but not succeeding. The long takes and general lack of action contribute to the slow, crawling pace and muted feeling—one extended scene shot from the window of a moving vehicle depicts the road passing beneath, accompanied by silence. Moreover, much of the action occurs off-screen, just barely hinted at. The film’s only sex scene is performed with the TV on throughout, legs moving in the corner and faint moaning sounds serving as our only clues to what’s taking place. The film culminates in an act of violence that’s just as random as the rest of the plot, yet it doesn’t seem unexpected.

Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone, 1984

When Sergio Leone was given the opportunity to direct The Godfather, he declined the offer, as he was already at work on an epic mob drama of his own, about Prohibitian-era Jewish gangsters. But while The Godfather is often referred to as one of the greatest films ever made, Once Upon a Time in America is far less widely renowned. Perhaps this owes to the fact that the studio significantly reduced the five-hour original cut to a more commercial running time of just over two hours (even now, the circulating DVD version has only been restored to not quite four hours)—the American public never had the chance to experience its full cinematic breadth. Or perhaps The Godfather simply has more memorable catch phrases (“I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse,” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” and so on). I’d have to watch The Godfather again in order to offer my own take on which one is more deserving of praise—but then, this is kind of a silly argument to be perpetuating anyway.

One thing Leone’s film has going for it is the artistry employed in its transitions between eras; the film seamlessly moves through time (both forward and backward), from the 1920s, as adolescent Noodles, Max, and the rest of their gang form the relationships that will irrevocably forge the course of the rest of their lives, to the 1930s, to the 1960s. As an old man, Noodles peers into a peephole and sees his sepia-toned childhood; he steps through a doorway at a train station in the 30s, coming out the other side thirty years later—it’s as if there are time portals peppered throughout the world, and one has only to find one in order to visit another time in his life. (Not that Noodles experiences it this way, but it does evoke a sense of time as nonlinear for the viewer.) The film also boasts beautiful imagery—a man in a pillow factory wading through falling feathers as if in a snowstorm, and a child taunted by whipped desserts in the same way he is by the opposite sex.

The film opens and closes in a 1930s opium den. (A phone starts to ring incessantly, and continues to ring even through Noodles’ flashback, creating an unnerving sense of tension.) Many theorize that the entire film is the product of an opium-induced dream, as Noodles remembers his past and envisions his future. I can only hope this is not the case—the “it was all a dream” cop out might be one of the most disappointing resolutions to a film that I can think of. Otherwise, my only gripe is the soundtrack, which is borderline easy listening. The only appropriate forum for a string instrumental version of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is in a dentist’s office.

Fuck, Steve Anderson, 2005

This documentary dedicated to the mother of all curse words feels more like a VH1 special than a movie made for the big screen—well, maybe an HBO special, due to the rampant use of expletives. Featuring many talking heads, including Drew Carey, Hunter S. Thompson, Janeane Garafolo, and Pat Boone, Fuck has its high points, but quickly starts to repeat itself, restating the same basic sentiments in slightly different phrasings. I was under the impression that the film chronicled the history of the word and its origins, but it’s actually more of a comment on free speech and censorship—all well and good, but perhaps not quite enough content to fill a feature-length documentary.

The film includes some commentary from advocates of squeaky-clean language, but the general consensus is overwhelmingly pro-fuck—or, I should say, anti-censorship. Moreover, the naysayers seem unable to come up with effectively persuasive arguments, other than “years ago only sailors talked like that” and “we must protect the children!” (I am so sick of hearing about “the children.”) Pat Boone suggests that people start shouting “Boone!” instead of cursing, which Ice-T makes great use of later in the film.

The highlight, for me, was the inclusion of one of the most incredible quotes uttered by an American president that I’ve ever encountered. I’ll never think of Lyndon Johnson the same way again.

This Is England, Shane Meadows, 2006

While I was never a British skinhead in the 1980s (and so I can’t really say for sure, although I did hang out with a few American ones in the late 90s), this is the most authentic cinematic portrayal of skinhead culture to date. Based largely on Meadows’ own experiences, This Is England depicts the ordeals of a troubled 12 year-old who finds a sense of camaraderie within a gang of skinheads, just as the National Front is beginning to infiltrate the culture. What begins as a harmless group of friends performing minor acts of mischief quickly darkens when an old friend, Combo, returns from prison, hard-edged and eager to recruit his peers to join the National Front political party. It’s particularly telling that those who are most easily persuaded are also the most misguided and impressionable, the ones who lack confidence in themselves. Combo also seems to have some deeper psychological issues—he’s obsessed with a girl with whom he shared a drunken one night stand three years ago, and beats the hell out of someone he’s just professed immense friendship toward (and then freaks out immediately after doing so).

The soundtrack features a decent selection of oi and reggae tracks, such as Toots & the Maytals’ “54 46 Was My Number” and the UK Subs’ “Warhead,” but I would have liked to have heard more along these lines, as opposed to the melodramatic piano/string instrumentals that dominate many scenes.

Scarface, Howard Hawks, 1932
Scarface, Brian De Palma, 1983

A small-time crook with a scar on his face rises to the top, estranged from his disapproving mother and murderously jealous of anyone his sister, who wants in on his criminal lifestyle, attempts to date—these are about the only similarities between the original Scarface and its remake. The 1930s film takes place in Prohibition-era Chicago, closely following the story of Al Capone, while the 80s version is about a Cuban drug lord who flees to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift, when Castro emptied Cuba’s jails and sent the prisoners to Miami. The latter film has me seriously questioning Al Pacino’s acting abilities (first Scent of a Woman, and now this?)—I hope I’m not the only person who finds the fake Cuban accent to be ridiculously overacted. The gold chain-wearing, cocaine-snorting, cash flaunting, disco dancing atmosphere lends the film a cheesiness, and not in a fun, nostalgic way. You could say that it’s just reflecting its era, but that doesn’t make it any more stomachable.

I disliked both of these films, but I suppose if I had to pick one I’d go with the original. (At least it doesn’t have the godawful soundtrack of the De Palma film.) In its defense, while by today’s standards pretty tame, Hawks’s film was rather brutal for its time. I did have to laugh at some of the silly, gut-clutching, death scenes, almost expecting to hear Tony cry, “They got me!” as he staggered to his knees. It’s not the first film I’ve seen with a disclaimer at the beginning: “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty.” Etcetera. Thankfully, there’s no longer a censor board that requires such inane statements to validate any kind of unpopular social commentary.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Werner Herzog, 1998

The basis for Herzog’s recent feature film, Rescue Dawn, this documentary tells the story of a German named Dieter Dengler, who fulfilled his lifelong dream to be a pilot by joining the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. Shot down over enemy lines, Dieter was captured, tortured and imprisoned, weighing a mere 85 pounds when he escaped. Incredibly, Dieter recalls these harrowing events with a calm detachment, matter-of-factly describing what took place, offering no political context or opinion. Even as he somewhat perversely reenacts these events, having his hands tied and led through the jungle by Vietnamese villagers, he appears composed, although he does admit that his heart is beating a little faster. The villagers actually look more spooked, and Dieter has to remind them that it’s only a movie.

The film presents a number of parallels between Vietnam and World War II—Dieter grew up in ravaged post-war Germany, which had been “transformed into a dreamscape of the surreal.” In the same frank tone, he recalls how he would hunt among the rubble, tearing wallpaper from the remains of decimated buildings, which his mother would cook into a stew. Similarly, Herzog’s narration, concerning Dieter’s view from the plane, asserts that “even though it was all very real, everything down there seemed to be so alien and so abstract. It all looked strange, like a distant barbaric dream.” As in all of his films, Herzog provides remarkably insightful commentary regarding humanity, spirituality, and life itself.