Sunday, February 25, 2007

Movies watched, week of February 18-24, 2007

Short Cuts * Robert Altman * 1993

In this film, Robert Altman weaves together various Raymond Carver short stories (and one poem), linking them where they weren’t linked before. For example, the waitress in “They’re Not Your Husband” becomes the driver who hits the little boy with her car in “A Small Good Thing,” while the couple in “So Much Water So Close To Home” attends a dinner party with the couple in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, and so on. While Carver is one of my favorite short story writers, I’m not a purist; I understand that it’s necessary to change aspects of books when adapting them to the screen. However, I’m not sure that there’s any logic or purpose to the way in which the characters are linked. The film is, essentially, a portrayal of the everyday lives of a group of Los Angeles residents who may or may not realize the small, subtle ways in which their lives are connected. One has the feeling that Altman connected the stories somewhat arbitrarily; but then, life is pretty arbitrary, events occurring at random. Our lives don’t have a narrative arc.

Nashville, another Altman film that (more successfully, I think) involves a series of vignettes, portraying a large cast of characters and their seemingly random associations, the characters are all tied together by the ending, when they all gather for an outdoor concert in the park, which seems to be the reason they’re all in Nashville to begin with. Short Cuts attempts the same thing by producing an earthquake that all of the characters are affected by in some way, but it feels somewhat contrived.

Lonesome Jim * Steve Buscemi * 2005

Steve Buscemi’s directorial credit was what attracted me to this film, which, judging by the description on the back of the DVD, sounded like a bad romantic comedy under the guise of an “indie film.” I actually found that it was better than I’d anticipated, though certainly not a masterpiece. (It still falls prone to some of the pitfalls of the bad romantic comedy.) The character, Jim (Casey Affleck), reminded me somewhat of Asbury from Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The Enduring Chill”—the character who’s obsessed with the idea of a bohemian lifestyle, living in poverty in the city and fashioning himself as a writer (because that’s what writers are supposed to do), and ends up moving back home when there are no other options, other than starvation. Jim is a bit more likable than Asbury, but not a great deal more.

The film is pretty depressing, but, naturally, ends on a redeeming note, as all romantic comedies must. Jim is getting ready to leave home again, this time for New Orleans, and his love interest (Liv Tyler) and her son are heading to the bus station to bid him farewell. As the bus pulls out, I half expected him to be standing behind it with his bags, and was thrilled when he was not. However, it seems that he changed his mind and got off at the next stop—still pretty cheesy, if you ask me. If he’d gone on to New Orleans, he wouldn’t have learned anything about life, which is what makes it a movie, but it’s also what makes it predictable and boring. If he’d gone to New Orleans and failed at life all over again, that, to me, would have been a more satisfying ending. But maybe I’m just mean.

Army of Shadows * Jean-Pierre Melville * 1969

I have to admit, my knowledge of history, particularly of the French Resistance, is sorely lacking. Thus, I feel as though I'd have more to offer if I'd had a better idea of what was actually happening throughout most of the film. (But that's my own fault, now isn't it?) I appreciate Melville's use of dark humor, even when the characters are in dire moments. For example, after Gerbier escapes the Gestapo, running down the streets for his life, he dashes into a barbershop in hopes of hiding there. When the barber asks him what he wants, Gerbier, out of breath and sweating, replies matter-of-factly, "A shave." What strikes me most about this film is the lack of melodramatic action scenes that most directors of spy thrillers would be inclined toward. The lives of these resistance fighters prove grim, populated by vague triumphs, ethical compromises, and the constant risk of arrest. One wonders what they're actually accomplishing through all of their efforts. (More often than not, it seems, their efforts are mostly pooled toward rescuing their captured comrades.) On the whole, though, this film's recent rediscovery is well-deserved. It definitely merits another viewing on my behalf.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Movies watched, week of February 11-17, 2007

Village of the Damned, Wolf Rilla, 1960
Children of the Damned, Anton Leader, 1963

These two
films aren't exactly direct sequels to one another. In fact, the only similarities concern the mind-controlling evil children of questionable origin—as in most cases, the original is the stronger of the two. In Village, the children come into existence when the village of Midwich, England, collectively passes out for about an hour. All the women become pregnant and deliver eerily detached-looking blonde babies who mature at an alarming rate. Their purpose is somewhat vague, but it appears that they seek to ultimately take over the world (and probably can, as they possess superior intelligence). Either way, they seem to have a clear-cut purpose, and are methodically and mercilessly driven to reach their goal.

In Children, however, the children are born all over the world —they aren't all blondes like their predecessors, though they do possess the same detachedness—brought together by government intelligence testing that places them light years ahead of the average human. They band together, taking young Paul's aunt hostage, and more or less squat in an abandoned church. (This setting lends itself toward a much darker, gothic atmosphere, though in the end I think the earlier film is creepier.) When asked what their purpose is, they reply, "We don't know"—somehow, that just doesn't seem very scary. Yes, they've killed a few people with their minds, but they're just kind of improvising—they don't have a master plan, which significantly dilutes their wickedness. They meet the same end, ultimately, as those in Village, but here, it seems to be implying a political message, that we mere mortals are trigger-happy cretins, all too eager to mindlessly destroy what we don't understand. (Maybe this is more accurate than I'd like to admit.)

Dial M For Murder, Alfred Hitchcock, 1954

Not my favorite Hitchcock film, though certainly superior to most films in existence, it presents another case of "the perfect murder" gone wrong. There's a hint of meta-fiction at play, in that one of the characters is a murder mystery writer, who, like Hitchcock, is also drawn to the paradox of the perfect murder. (In no way am I trying to say that that character is supposed to be Hitchcock.) This is one of Hitchcock's first color films, and he makes brilliant use of this new feature (for example, Margot, played by Grace Kelly, appears in white with her husband, and in red with her lover; throughout the film her clothes grow darker in hue), something that most directors don’t consider nearly enough. Most of Dial M For Murder takes place in the same room (as one might suspect, it is based on a play), creating a degree of claustrophobia that enhances feelings of anxiety and suspense in the viewer.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer
* Thom Andersen * 1975

I'm fortunate enough to live within walking distance of the Jacob Burns Film Center, which might be just about the only thing in Westchester that makes it worth living there. The Burns Center recently screened a rare print of Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, a documentary on the titular pioneer of moving pictures (if you're at all interested in film history, you've undoubtedly seen the series of photographs he shot of galloping horses), as part of a series they are currently running called "Frameworks: Art on Film." Lucy Oakley, head of Education and Programs at NYU's Grey Art Gallery, provided a brief lecture and Q & A.

This print, one of the filmmaker's two personal copies, has not been restored, deteriorating as one might expect over the last 30 years, with the predictable crackles and spots of dust, not to mention a slight lavender tint. (Both the lecturer and curator apologized for what they called the "purple haze," though I barely noticed it.)

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer is a student film, albeit one that was worked on for ten years. While the subject matter is engrossing, the film itself is not particularly unique or noteworthy. Andersen's technique consists of filming still photographs and zooming in on a section to create the appearance of movement, and, at times, tension. The voiceover narration, provided by Dean Stockwell (who has acted in countless films and TV shows since the 1940s, his diverse oeuvre including Paris, Texas and Blue Velvet as well as episodes of Wagon Train and Quantum Leap), recalls the type of monotone narration one might stereotypically expect of dull science lectures and slide shows.

Muybridge moved to San Francisco from England and began his career in the 1860s as a nature photographer. Perhaps one of the most fascinating moments in these early stages (and one of the few aspects of his personal life that the film divulges) came when Muybridge discovered that his wife had a lover. He tracked the man down and shot him, and was tried for murder but exonerated because, incredibly, the crime was considered "justifiable homicide." A photograph of Muybridge at the time depicts a troubled, brooding man. Once the film arrives at the project that placed him in the annals of movie history, Muybridge himself is almost wholly removed from the story, perhaps insinuating that he devoted his life to his work. He appears once at the end in one of his own animations, an old, haggard-looking (and, yes, naked) man, his hair grizzled and wild, quietly walking across the screensomewhat of a poetic, poignant moment.

Muybridge's most famous and ongoing project began as an attempt to prove that when horses galloped, all four feet were off the ground. He succeeded, and continued to record the movements of horses, using a series of fifty cameras arranged along a track, each of the camera shutters controlled by a trip wire that was triggered by the horse's hooves. Later on, as Muybridge became more and more consumed by this projectperhaps an obsession, eventhe horses expanded into other animals, such as bison, boar, and elephants, and nude women, men, and children.

Judging from the breadth of images in Muybridge's body of work, he seems most interested in people on the margins of society: a contortonist, an amputee climbing into a chair, an obese woman trying to stand up. Nude women are portrayed leisurely reclining, smoking cigarettes, their hair cropped short; for a woman to pose naked was taboo enough (and still is), but Muybridge's models revel in their nudity, expressing a degree of contempt for the social mores of the day.

The second half of the film is the more engaging half, in which Andersen animates many of Muybridge's photographs by fading from one image to the next, or with a kind of strobe light effect. It was pointed out by Lucy Oakley in the lecture portion of the evening that we were not actually seeing what Muybridge's audiences saw when he originally screened his work; his zoopraxoscope, a projector-like device he created to animate his images, distorted the proportions of his photographs, so Muybridge used disproportionate color drawings based on his images. But Andersen's use of the actual photographs isn't really a factual error, because as far as I can tell, he never actually states that what the viewer is seeing is what Muybridge showed to his audiences.

Andersen concludes his film by saying that Muybridge is "in no sense" the father of modern cinema, that he really had no impact on film history. Admittedly, his animations were very short, only a few seconds long, whereas others were simultaneously creating films that lasted several minutes. But Muybridge's zoopraxoscope predates the first Lumiere camera by 18 years, and Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope by 10 years. In fact, it is said that the zoopraxiscope, while flawed, was a direct influence on Edison. Moreover, Muybridge's animations were, in effect, the first moving pictures ever recorded. So to say that Muybridge is "in no sense" responsible for today's cinema seems troublingly misguided, especially coming from the man who dedicated ten years of his life to create this film.

According to Oakley, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer is available at the New York Public Library's Donnell Media Center for in-house viewing only, and, most likely, a few other similar institutions. For now, it is essentially unavailable, and while Andersen's skillful animations of Muybridge's photographs are invaluable records of film history, I don't foresee its availability becoming more widespread.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Movies watched, week of February 4-10, 2007

A Scanner Darkly
, Richard Linklater, 2006
Probably the best film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, to date. (Blade Runner is great but the clich├ęd voiceovers and happy ending tacked on by the studio kind of ruin it for meluckily, the director's cut is now widely available.) It captures the darkly funny, drugged-out atmosphere, and the acting (for the most part) is spot-on. Keanu Reeves, unfortunately, seemed like a rather poor choice for the roleI couldn't tell if he was being serious or sarcastic most of the timebut then, he may have been a poor choice for every role he's been cast in, with the exception of the Bill and Ted movies. (Ouch.)

My biggest issue with the film is the rotoscoping. I wouldn't have minded its being animated if it were actually drawn in an interesting style, but what's the point of filming actors and then transforming them into cartoons via computer? Why not just use the live-action shots? I suppose it was easier to portray the scramble suits this way, but it would have been more interesting and challenging to try and do this with real actors, perhaps using stop motion techniques, or fading shots of different people from one to the other.

The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach, 2005
I overheard a co-worker talking about how much he hated The Squid and the Whale, that it was one of the most depressing films he'd seen of late. While I don't think a dismal atmosphere inherently makes for a bad film, this eavesdropped snippet was cause enough for me to slip it into the DVD player when I got home. I found that my memory had not deceived meI still like this film. All of the characters have their faults (some more than others) but that's life, no? Perhaps my co-worker did not bother to see it through to the finish, which ends on a redeeming note.

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, Thom Andersen, 1975
More on this later.

The Pink Panther, Shaun Levy, 2006
Steve Martin was amazing in The Jerk, but he has nothing on Peter Sellers, at least in the role of Inspector Clouseau. I'd only seen the original 1963 Pink Panther film, but I'll always remember one of the funniest moments occurring when Sellers walks into the room and accidentally kicks up the rug. None of the jokes in this recent addition to the Pink Panther dynasty are nearly as subtle.

An Unreasonable Man, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, 2006
This intelligent, well-constructed documentary on Ralph Nader left me wanting to move to Canada. But then, I guess that's sort of missing the point, as Nader is one of the few politicans who really believes in the ideals of the American dream, and wants to see them put into practice. This may be one of the most appropriately titled films I've seen in awhile, referring to a George Bernard Shaw quote stating that "all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Movies watched, week of January 28-February 3, 2007

Nashville, Robert Altman, 1975
Eric Idle's Personal Best (Not really a movie, per se, but a selection of Monty Python sketches)
About Schmidt
, Alexander Payne, 2002
Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman, 1957

I also caught about a minute of Andy Warhol's Empire (1964), which is currently being screened on a loop (well, a two hour segment of it) at MoMA. I pretty much got the gist of it though—actually watching the whole eight hours might only make sense if you want to be able to say you've seen it. Or maybe if you've lost a bet. Now that I think about it, it might be interesting to see while fast forwarding through it (at the fastest speed possible), illustrating the passage of time and the activity (or lack of it) occurring, but at a much more watchable rate.