Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movies watched, week of May 20-26, 2007

Zazie in the Metro, Louis Malle, 1960

In Louis Malle’s inventive adaptation of the Raymond Queneau novel, a foul-mouthed little girl—she seems a little younger onscreen than in the book—stays with her Parisian “Unkie” (who happens to be a cross-dressing dancer) while her mother spends a torrid weekend with her “loverboy.” Zazie is an unruly child, and soon wanders off to explore the city on her own, with disappointing results—she wants nothing more than to ride the metro, but the workers are on strike.

The film starts out as a slapsticky comedy, feverishly picking up momentum until it reaches a crescendo of insanity, teeming with absurd images, such as repeated encounters with a man wearing a polar bear costume (at the top of the Eiffel Tower, juggling fire in Unkie's performance, eating dinner in a restaurant). The over-abundancy of jump cuts and sped-up film add to the frenzied feeling. In one scene, as Zazie walks across a room to open a door, at one moment she's on one side of the room and in the next instant she pops up at the other end. While at times a little awkward, such gleeful cinematic rule-breaking is characteristic of the French New Wave, with which Malle is closely associated.

The Boss of it All, Lars von Trier, 2006

An office comedy isn’t exactly what one expects from Lars von Trierwhile it is indeed a comedy, his latest film is not unlike his previous efforts. Ravn is the president of an IT company who exploits his dedicated staff (one employee’s husband hung himself with a printer cable after Ravn fired him), blaming his unpopular executive decisions on an imaginary "boss of it all" so he won’t look like the bad guy. When phrased as such, the plot doesn’t really sound so cheery—and yet, the film’s comedic delivery and details subtly shift what could be a tragedy into a very funny movie.

The hilarity sets in when an Icelandic company requires the head of the firm to sign off on a contract—which, of course, is problematic, as the head of the firm does not exist. (This spurs a number of jokes about the apparently fierce rivalry between Denmark and Iceland, which proves rather amusing, but many of the references are probably lost on non-Danish and -Icelandic audiences). To resolve this dilemma, Ravn hires a self-important, out-of-work stage actor to portray the fictional CEO and sign the contract—but, of course, it doesn’t work as simply as that, and the situation spins out of control.

Von Trier breaks down the fourth wall a number of times, speaking directly to the viewer to reassure us that what we are about to watch is indeed a comedy, and not to worry, there will be “no preaching,” “just a cozy time.” This seems to deviate from what he's said in the past, that "a film should be like a rock in the shoe"—but as I’ve already hinted at, the rock isn’t completely missing, just a little harder to detect. It’s most noticeable in the film’s visual style and editing, which uses a process called Automavision. Essentially, the director chooses the best possible fixed camera position, then allows a computer to choose at random when to tilt, pan or zoom. The process renders the movie kind of hard to watch, with all the distracting cuts and color changes, but that’s exactly what von Trier intended. It’s a kind of witty attack on digital filmmaking—the advent of computers has made it far too easy to make a movie (von Trier once said in an interview that “all you have to do is buy a computer and you have armies rampaging over mountains”). In this instance, the computer has total control over the outcome, with conventionally adverse results.

Wanda, Barbara Loden, 1971

Barbara Loden’s sole directorial credit—in 1980, liver cancer abruptly silenced any future work (she reportedly died angry, crying out “Shit! Shit! Shit!”)—chronicles the tale of a housewife and mother who walks out on her former life with little explanation. Wanda seems to have no place in the world, aimlessly drifting from one man to the next, until she inadvertently teams up with Mr. Dennis, a criminal who involves her in his plans to rob a bank.

Loden at one point called the film the “anti-Bonnie and Clyde,” as it avoids sensationalizing the story. The action is muted, generating an understated grace enhanced by the grainy 16mm film stock, and beautiful washed-out colors. The use of handheld cameras, natural lighting, and a generally improvisatory approach evoke a cinema verite style.

Mr. Dennis meets up with his father at Holyland USA, a now defunct Christian theme park in Waterbury, CT, of whose ruins are still mostly in place (the catacombs were bulldozed when homeless people were discovered to be sleeping in them). Witnessing it as a functioning park with actual visitors was exciting for me, as I’ve only known it as a deserted ghost town of miniature buildings, populated by wayward youths and metal bands looking for sweet photo ops.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Movies watched, week of May 13-20, 2007

Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki, 2004

Mysterious Skin depicts how two people can handle the same traumatic childhood incident in radically different ways. The courses of the characters’ lives are shaped by this event, abruptly halted and forked irreparably, yet each heads in opposing directions.

Neil, the mischievous only child of a single mother, longs for attention. The star player of his Little League team, he’s somewhat confused when he’s singled out by his coach as an objection of affection, yet strangely honored, overjoyed that he finally feels loved by someone. His teammate, Brian, is a quiet, owlish boy whose father more or less ignores him—his neglecting to pick up his son from a rained-out baseball game is the impetus that sets Brian’s ill-fated encounter in motion, as the beefy, mustachioed coach, whose name we never learn, offers to drive him home.

Neil eventually becomes a 14-year old hustler whose cool, detached demeanor prevents anyone from getting close to him. When he moves to New York City a few years later he continues this line of work, with, unsurprisingly, more dramatic results than in Kansas—one experience with a customer who has AIDS particularly affects him, though the flicker of emotion on his face is nearly imperceptible.

Brian, on the other hand, has been traumatized by the incident, coping only by repressing the memories, though he’s not without a few side effects: frequent nosebleeds, bedwetting, strange dreams, and mental blackouts. He knows something happened to him as a child, but is convinced he was abducted by aliens. After recognizing one of his former Little League teammates from a recurring dream, he tracks down Neil, hoping to solve the puzzle that has plagued him for as long as he can remember.

The ending is quite strong: Neil and Brian have broken into the coach’s former home, and as Brian breaks down into convulsions, Neil trying to comfort him, Christmas carolers gather outside the door to sing. Throughout the story, Brian has seemed like more of a shell of a person, waiting to become someone; one senses that he’s finally on the way to coming to terms with his abuse and forming a personality of his own.

The Seventh Seal, Ingar Bergman, 1957

In this brutal rendering of the black plague, a knight returns from the Crusades, only to meet Death face to face (he looks more tired than sinister, but then, he’s been pretty busy these days). The knight is able to buy a little time by challenging him to a game of chess, but as he knows, death is inevitable, inescapable.

This is considered one of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films, and yet, in every scene featuring the weary, cape-clad Death, I couldn’t help but picture De Düva, a 1968 parody of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries directed by original SNL cast member George Coe. In De Düva (The Dove), an aging professor is on his way to a lecture when dove droppings splatter across the windshield. He takes a detour into his uncle’s old house, his mind wandering to a bygone family picnic, when Death arrived to claim his sister, Inga. Inga challenges Death to a badminton game; while they’re playing, a dove shits on Death’s cape, distracting him enough to miss the birdie, and he loses the game. The entire movie is spoken in faux-Swedish, which is kind of like English with –ska added to the end of every noun. When I watched Wild Strawberries again a few months ago, I wasn’t immediately reminded of shit-splattered windshields, so I imagine it must be something about this image of Death that hasn’t survived the test of time (now that I think about it, his character was parodied to a lesser degree in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which probably hurt this film’s durability even more than De Düva—I just can’t take this incarnation of Death as seriously as I should).

Brewster McCloud, Robert Altman, 1970

Speaking of bird shit…

This is my favorite Altman movie yet, so zanily absurd that it’s hard to succinctly explain the plot, but I’ll make an attempt. Brewster, played by the inimitable Bud Cort looking like a cross between Harry Potter and Waldo, lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome, hard at work building a pair of wings so he can fly. He periodically receives a supply of health food from Daphne, a pig-tailed girl who hysterically masturbates under a blanket while Brewster does chin-ups (he’s trying to bulk up for the big take-off, though from the looks of it, his efforts are somewhat futile). Meanwhile, police are investigating a series of murders in which the victims are found covered in bird shit (scatologists are brought in to inspect the feces).

Throughout the film, we encounter various birdlike characters. An eccentric-looking professor/ornithologist standing in front of a blackboard sporadically interjects with encyclopedic factoids about birds, and gradually begins to squawk and develop feathers. Then there’s Louise, a blonde trench-coated woman who has wing-shaped scars on her back (in one scene we catch her bathing in a fountain, mimicking the scene from MASH where Hot Lips is caught by surprise in the shower), who serves as a kind of protector and guardian for Brewster whenever he emerges from his lair.

Sexual desire is Brewster’s fatal flaw, his life spiraling out of control when he befriends Suzanne, a waiflike tour guide at the Astrodome. Suzanne seems kind of an oddball herself, though we eventually discover that she’s really a conservative wimp who fashions herself as a rebel (maybe Altman had some actual people in mind here). Despite her ultimately leading to Brewster’s undoing, I can’t help but love her character anyway (and besides, she’s played by Shelley Duvall, who’s kind of inimitable herself).

As in many Altman films, it ends on a postmodern note, alerting audiences to the fact that they’re watching a movie (see MASH, The Long Goodbye, The Player, etc). We’re only allowed a brief moment of grief for poor Brewster before the whole thing turns into a colorful circus ring, complete with a ringmaster, lion tamer, and so on.

How to Draw a Bunny, John W. Walter, 2002

This documentary about pop artist Ray Johnson begins as an investigative piece, with a policeman assigned to Johnson’s mysterious drowning. Once it begins to delve into Johnson’s history, it continues as an investigative piece, examining the person Johnson was. However, it seems that no one truly knew him, and at the film’s close, he remains a bit of an enigma. The testimony of various acquaintances (including Christo and Jean Claude, Chuck Close, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others) helps to paint a broader picture, but not a complete one. It’s clear that Johnson was quite eccentric; people imagined him as the type of person who trained himself to survive without food (in truth, he did subsist on very little). He ran with other eccentrics, such as Dorothy Podber, who notoriously shot a series of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe paintings between the eyes (inadvertently increasing their worth). His various apartments and homes were all similarly austere, starkly decorated with an air mattress and some shelves, but filled to the brim with collages and paintings—it seems as though he existed only to create art, which often crossed over into his everyday life. For instance, he liked to involve those interested in purchasing his art in a kind of performance piece, insisting on a series of complicated correspondences negotiating the price before coming to an agreement (in one instance, someone offered $1500 for a collage, though Johnson had asked for $2000; Ray agreed but gave the buyer a collagewith one quarter cut out, representing $500’s worth). Even his death has been speculated by some as a final performance.

I knew nothing about Ray Johnson before seeing this, which is interesting because I’ve read a number of books on his contemporary, Andy Warhol, and the 60s art scene in general, with no mention of Johnson to speak of. I was instantly enamored with his work (though not so much his later performance pieces, a medium that I overall dislike). His collages are humorous and innovative, and I love the concept of mail art, though it unfortunately didn’t help to get his vast oeuvre into museums, his art showing not in a gallery, but distributed by the U.S. postal system to one viewer at a time—which leads back to the fact that he’s missing from most books pertaining to that era of artists.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s something else (i.e. Lost), but not only have I not been motivated to do any writing, I haven’t really been watching many movies to begin with. The sunshine and warm temperatures have been beckoning, their hold stronger than my living room couch, but nonetheless, here’s a recap of April 22-May 12, 2007.

MASH, Robert Altman, 1970

Some critics argue that the practical jokes suggest an Animal House style of juvenile humor. While certain later works (for instance, the Porky’s series) might attempt to emulate MASH’s comedic tones, the Altman film is on a much deeper, more intelligent level—instead of dumb, horny frat house types, substitute doctors plucked from their regular practices and lives and shipped off to war. The hijinks and silliness is their way of dealing with the difficult circumstances. At times the characters can be harsh—but really, Hot Lips deserves it, doesn’t she?

Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006

This documentary is one of the most frightening movies I’ve seen in a long time. This particular group of evangelical Christians, led by Children’s Minister Becky Fischer, essentially brainwash their preteen congregants, claiming that they’re more apt to “learn” when they're young—in actuality, they’re more susceptible, easily persuaded. Thus, we have 11 year-old rat-tailed preachers, 9 year-olds awkwardly proselytizing unsuspecting bystanders at a bowling alley, young ballerinas worrying that they’re dancing “for the flesh” instead of for the Lord. One gets the impression that they don’t even really understand what they’re saying. “God is great” constantly flows from their mouths, but what does it really mean? No one ever delves any deeper.

The scene depicting young Levi’s home schooling is rather unsettling—his mother asserts that creationism is the only possible answer to “all the questions,” and asks if he got to the part of the reading assignment that explains how science is meaningless. (“Pretty cool, huh?”) Even more disturbing is the statistic that 25% of the U.S. population is evangelical (although I get the impression that not all of them are quite as crazy as this), and their ties to the Republican party, which they deny despite their worshipping of a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush (idolatry, anyone?), not to mention their rigid anti-choice stance, which seems to point towards a clear political aim.

Thankfully, there is a voice of reason, a breath of fresh air amidst the madness, in the form of Mike Papantonio, a Christian radio DJ who completely opposes the methods and viewpoints of Fischer and her cohorts. At one point he speaks to Fischer on the air during a call-in segment, challenging her on some very valid points, and, unfortunately, receiving vague, evasive answers.

There’s a scene in which Fischer comments that after seeing Jesus Camp, “extreme liberals” must be “shaking in their boots,” and I’m pretty sure that that’s the only thing I can agree with her about.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Alex Gibney, 2005

This might not have been the best movie to watch after Jesus Camp, in terms of affecting my already pessimistic view of the world. Instead of fundamentalist Christians who want to train their children for another Crusade, we’re presented with businessmen who are so greedy that they rejoice as California burns, since the state’s “energy crisis” is raking in millions of dollars for the company. To be honest, I still don’t quite understand what Enron did—trading bandwidth? What does that mean? When describing a company’s precise function to the average person becomes complex and hard to explain, that, to me should raise suspicion. That they also couldn’t explain where their money was coming from should have triggered an alarm, a wailing siren, signaling that further investigation was in order. This seems to be the film’s underlying theme: why did no one question them? How was this allowed to happen?

The documentary was released prior to the trial results, and it would be interesting to see an addendum to the story detailing this aspect.

No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese, 2005

This is the story of how Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, chronicling his formative years in Minnesota, his move to Greenwich Village, meeting his hero, Woody Guthrie, and so on, up until the point when he took an eight-year break from touring. The film sheds some sympathy on his reputation as bit of an asshole, detailing how people tried to pigeonhole him as a folk singer when he wanted to branch out. If journalists asked him dumb, cringe-worthy questions, he appropriately gave them smartass answers. (When asked how many protest singers there are, he replies, completely deadpan, that there are exactly 136.)

I’ve always been more of a casual Dylan fan; I hadn’t even realized there was such conflict among fans over his decision to go electric, which is a pretty good indication of the extent of my expertise. And I have to say, while his folk songs are great, I can’t identify with all the folkies who thought acoustic music was pure, and rock n roll a sellout (???)—I prefer my music loud and distorted, thank you. In the final scenes at the Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan says to his band members “Play it fucking loud,” I had goosebumps crawling up my arms. Here he is more or less uttering a big “fuck you” to his audience, to Pete Seeger, one of his idols, who said he would have cut the chords if he could. (Dylan did admit that he was heartbroken over Seeger’s words, but he nonetheless stood firm in his convictions.)

During the recording session of “Like a Rolling Stone,” he says there’s never been a song like that one, and wonders how people will react. While I like the song, I’d never thought of it as particularly groundbreaking or mind-blowing—and yet, in the festival footage, audiences were indeed freaking out, their minds blown. I came away from this film with newfound respect for Bob Dylan, wondering whether I would ever experience such outrage, confusion, or bewilderment over a simple song.

Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961

In this early film from Alain Resnais, a contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague (though not necessarily part of the movement), a man who we only know as X meets a woman named A in a vast, ornate mansion. X tries to convince A that they met a year before and made plans to meet again and run off together—she, however, says that he’s mistaken. What follows is a surreal, impressionistic exploration into the psyches of the two characters (the mansion’s endless mazelike corridors evoke the corridors of the mind), and by the film’s end we’re still left uncertain of the truth.

I didn’t love this film, finishing it more of out of determination than enjoyment. This is what the average person imagines when picturing a pretentious foreign film, replete with annoying organ music.

Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, 2007

I waited a little too long to see this; due to its labeling as a box office flop, every time I made plans, the theater where I had intended to see it was no longer showing it. Thus, I ended up going to Times Square, a tourist hub that I usually try to avoid at all costs. I had briefly imagined that seeing it there might enhance the atmosphere, as 42nd Street would traditionally have been the setting for a grindhouse double feature thirty years ago, but alas, it’s really not the same without the XXX theaters and homeless people ambushing your windshield with squeegees and buckets of nasty-looking water.

Grindhouse demands to be seen in a theater, as it’s really more about the experience of going to the movies in the 70s than the films themselves. I had the good fortune of being amidst an enthusiastic crowd, who cheered, applauded, groaned, and called out “oh shit!” at all the appropriate moments, significantly heightening the viewing experience. I also enjoyed the artificial flecks of dust, pops, and stutters, though at times it feels a bit overdone—one missing reel would have been clever, but one in each film, both accounting for a particularly sexy scene, seems kind of contrived. The fake trailers, however, were brilliantly over the top and hilarious. Among the highlights are Machete, an action film (mexploitation, if you will) about a Mexican assassin hired by the U.S. government, featuring Cheech Marin as a machine gun-toting priest (“God forgives. I don’t.”), and Thanksgiving, a holiday slasher film about a killer who dresses up as a pilgrim. Thanksgiving almost earned Grindhouse an NC-17 rating due to scenes depicting a cheerleader stripping while bouncing on a trampoline, and a decapitation occurring as the victim’s girlfriend performs fellatio on him.

Robert Rodriguez’s zombie flick Planet Terror, the first of the two features, accurately recalls the typical 80s horror movie, replete with a post apocalyptic feeling of perpetual darkness (these characters never see the sun), a wholly appropriate synthesizered score, and cheesy blood and gore effects. It features a wide array of horror elements, including a Texas barbecue joint (somewhat reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although the proprietor isn’t the villain), a military base as source of all the mayhem, a rich scientist (okay, the part about him wanting everyone’s balls was a little weird), and a heroine with a machine gun for a leg (she receives this awesome appendage right before a triumphant, climactic battle scene, a la Evil Dead 2).

Tarantino’s Death Proof is a bit of a 180; it’s a (winning) combination of car chase and serial killer flick, recalling the likes of Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Gone in 60 Seconds (the one from 1974, hello?). The homage is quite literal, as the characters actually reference these three movies repeatedly, the 1970 Dodge Charger from Vanishing Point playing a key role in the plot. Rarely, I’m sure, did the original grindhouse movies refer to other grindhouse movies; the fanboy aspect is glaringly evident.

One of Grindhouse’s flaws is that both movies are a little too long (the producers are fairly certain that its three hour-plus length is one of the major factors contributing to its flop status—that and people seem to be confused by the concept of a double feature). Death Proof especially has an odd structure. The film is pretty chatty, even for Tarantino, with a lot of extraneous dialogue. Way too much time is spent getting to know the first group, right before abruptly killing them off (albeit in a gruesome, creative, and unexpected manner). And despite the amount of time we’re subjected to the first group's mindless banter, the second band of girls is far more memorable and likeable. There's also a lack of symmetry; when our villain, Stuntman Mike, singles out his next victims, the audience becomes acquainted with them, but unlike the first half of the film, he never interacts with them prior to his attack. The plot would have been more satisfying if there were more of a balance, the variance occurring when the second group comes back for revenge.

Regardless, this was thoroughly entertaining, and completely worth fighting through hordes of gawking tourists and journeying all the way up to the sixth floor of an obscenely gargantuan movie theater.