Friday, July 20, 2007

Can I still blame my laziness on the summer? I'm trying to catch up here, so please bear with me...

Movies watched, week of June 24-July 7, 2007

Belle de Jour, Luis Buñuel, 1967

Severine is a woman torn between two worlds, working as a prostitute from two to five and returning to her role as dutiful wife by the time her husband comes home. Buñuel seamlessly hints at the psychology behind her actions through brief flashbacks and surreal dream sequences—fleeting memories of sexual advances from an older man and refusing Communion, and daydreams of horse-drawn carriage rides ending in various forms of erotically charged acts of degradation. Severine feigns disgust at her customers’ sexual fetishes, yet she sought out the place—she must enjoy it on some level, yet isn’t willing to entirely abandon her role as prim and proper society woman.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Sam Peckinpah, 1974

When a piano player named Bennie learns of a reward placed on the head of Alfredo Garcia (whom his hooker girlfriend knows a little too well, if you catch my meaning), he tries to outrun the bounty hunters who are also after the elusive Alfredo, who we never get to know below the neck. The gradual breakdown of Bennie’s sanity is compellingly accomplished, as he begins to talk to the rotting, fly-infested head in the passenger’s seat, but I would have loved to see even more surrealism employed, the head beginning to talk back to him.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch, 1999

Jarmusch’s subtle sense of humor is in full display in this tale of a mafia hit-man who communicates by homing pigeon and models himself after a samurai warrior. His best friend, a Haitian ice cream vendor named Louie, speaks only French, while Ghost Dog speaks only English—throughout the film, the two unwittingly utter the same phrases in their own language, my favorite running joke.

Hype!, Doug Pray, 1996

I watched this documentary on the "Seattle sound" only for the Dead Moon footage. As expected, there was a lot of fast-forwarding going on, through awful performances by the likes of Gas Huffer (ha) and Crackerbash (?).

The Bridge, Eric Steel, 2006

A film crew spent all of 2004 taping the Golden Gate Bridge from various angles, capturing the 24 suicides that occurred that year—that’s one every couple of weeks, which, to me, is astounding. (For those who challenge their ethics, the crew notified authorities whenever they suspected someone of planning to jump, and actually prevented a few). What’s particularly disturbing about many of these moments is the nonchalance that seems to surround them. The jumpers appear to be casually making their way across the bridge, going about their business—and then suddenly they’re climbing over the railing and leaping to their deaths. One man spent the last minutes of his life on his cell phone, even laughing at one point. Perhaps he’s saying his goodbyes, but he looks so casual, that when he hangs up and moments later is hurtling into oblivion, the unexpected turn of events is startling.

Supervixens, Russ Meyer, 1975

This gloriously raunchy, campy movie is quintessential Russ Meyer, featuring a psychotic cop, big breasted vixens (hence the title, all of their names begin with “Super”), and a ridiculously over the top electrocution scene. After he’s falsely pinned for his wife’s murder, Clint Ramsey flees town and is attacked by voluptuous, horny women the whole way—the poor schmuck’s not even interested half the time. His dead wife, Super Angel, begins to show up again, covered in blood but looking sexy as ever, usually perched on top of a mountain and laughing derisively—it’s ambiguous as to whether she’s a ghost, a hallucination, or something else entirely, but an explanation isn’t really necessary.

George Washington, David Gordon Green, 2000

Somewhat reminiscent of Killer of Sheep, particularly in its scenes of children playing, this impressive debut is alive with striking colors and images—George in his superhero costume, Buddy reciting a monologue in an alligator mask—generating an elegant, dreamlike embodiment of youth.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Gates of Heaven * Errol Morris * 1980
Vernon, Florida * Errol Morris * 1982

These early documentaries by Errol Morris were two of Werner Herzog’s picks for his nonfiction series at Film Forum this past May. In addition to suitably complementing Herzog’s own oeuvre, there’s a deeper connection between the two directors. As the story goes, when Morris was a young film student, Herzog told him that if he actually made the project he had always talked about—a movie about pet cemeteries—he would eat his shoe. When Morris answered his bet with Gates of Heaven, Herzog honored his end of the bargain. The meal is documented in the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, directed by Les Blank.

Neither film is about one thing, but rather a miscellany of rambling digressions and false starts that revolve around a unifying theme, be it pet cemeteries, or a northwestern Florida town. Gates of Heaven begins as somewhat of a battle against the evil rendering company, contemptuously described by the Foothill Pet Cemetery’s paraplegic proprietor as a kind of animal holocaust, with gas chambers and mountains of half dead “little pets.”

While it is undoubtedly an unpleasant business, the representative from the rendering company is far more amusing, as he laughs incredulously at humans’ sentimentality for animals, his attitude falling along the lines of “Get a load of this, people actually get upset over dead animals! One lady quit and she never saw or smelled anything that went on, it just bothered her mind! Can you beat that?” In this and many other scenes, Morris displays an instinctive comedic ability, with his use of timing and cutting to generate laughter out of an otherwise ordinary statement. That and he seems drawn to offbeat characters—or perhaps they’re somehow drawn to him.

The film features some genuinely touching moments from bereaved pet owners. A sequence of graves bearing epitaphs for the likes of Tippins and Caesar, accompanied with images of departed poodles and kittens and so on is heartbreaking in itself (at least if you’re a sucker for cute puppies like I am). Many of the markers display such warm pronouncements (although a bit saccharine for my tastes) as “I knew love; I knew this dog” and “Dog is God spelled backwards” (sorry, but that last one cracks me up a bit).

One woman ponders over her lost pet, “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”, expressing, through her own grief-stricken observations, the core of one of mankind’s greatest mysteries—the nature of the soul—an extremely complex notion pared down to its raw essence. Of course, there are also moments in the film that portray the degree of insanity that pet owners can exhibit, perhaps best represented in the woman who accompanies her Chihuahua in a high-pitched squealing duet.

A bit of controversy arises when the Foothill PetCemetery loses its lease, forcing the remains of 450 pets to be exhumed and transported to the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in nearby Napa. The owners of these unfortunate creatures, disturbed from their apparently not final resting places, are outraged.

While interviewing an elderly woman named Florence Rasmussen about the removal of the dead pets, Morris catches a sprawling, incoherent monologue that seamlessly drifts from the topic at hand to complaints about her immobility and ill health (although she later says “people my age as a rule don’t get around like I do”), her insolent grandson who never visits her even though she bought him a car (well, actually she only gave him $400), how he won’t have kids or get married (except he was once married to that tramp and involved in a paternity suit), and so on, contradicting herself every step of the way. Instead of cutting her off as I imagine most filmmakers would do, Morris brilliantly decides to let her run with it, including the entire conversation.

Rasmussen’s speech is somewhat of a segue—a portal, if you will—between the stories of the two cemeteries. Now there is a whole new set of idiosyncratic characters, namely the Harberts’ sons, who are preparing to take over the family business—one a former insurance salesman who tries to organize his office in order “to display the maximum trophies,” the other a mustachioed hippie named Danny who plays guitar in a hammock, daydreaming of becoming a rock star (there’s a great scene where he plays electric guitar on top of a hill with the volume cranked, so that his music can be heard “all over the valley”). Danny has an air of melancholy about him, alluding to lost loves and impossible goals, but one can’t help but laugh a little at the earnestness of his philosophizing—for instance, “the pill has led to a pet explosion” and “a broken heart is something that everyone should experience.” Both sons project a feeling of defeat, as each has returned home after failing to succeed in their own aspirations, falling back on Bubbling Well as a last resort.

Vernon, Florida, released two years after Gates of Heaven, opens with a truck slowly trudging down the street, emitting a billowing cloud of smoke—a comical sight, this slow-moving entity leaving a foggy haze in its wake strikes me as an apt metaphor for the town and its inhabitants.

The film is a character study, surveying various “specialists”—the town’s foremost experts on turkey hunting (this man has the feet and gobblers—”beards,” as he calls them—of his prized kills proudly mounted above the door of his trailer home, each with a story behind it), New Mexican sand (they’re convinced that it is growing*), opposums, turtles, and other animals (“I’ve been bit by everything there is in the country. Wild game, you know. Except a rattlesnake. I was sure enough watching for him.”), and so on. Morris layers these scenes together to create a collage of oddball witticism, a lyrical portrait of a remote corner of the world. In all of his films, one can see that he’s interested in people’s obsessions, particularly if they’re fixated on eccentric or out of the ordinary subjects—like pet cemeteries, turkey hunting, or quantum mechanics (as in A Brief History of Time). Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which focuses on an elderly topiary gardener, a retired lion tamer, a man fascinated by mole rats, and a cutting-edge robotics designer, might be the best example.

From the film’s portrayal, there are, ostensibly, no kids and few women in Vernon—though, logically, this statement must not be true, it’s somehow believable. Morris has an eye and ear for odd characters—from watching his movies, you’d think that the U.S. is populated entirely by freaks. Most of the Vernon inhabitants we meet are old men who speak with heavy, hard-to-decipher accents; their seemingly rambling speech, when printed on the page, has an oddly poetic quality. One man sits on a bench, examining a jewel he has sent away for in the mail: “I don’t know what I’m looking for. What does a jeweler look for? You know, those guys, when you go into a jewelry store? If you want something examined, they look through a lens. What are they looking for?” And in the instance of the owners of the jar of New Mexican sand: “And now, you see, my jar is nearly full. It grows. It crawls. It crawls up the side of the jar, you see?”

My favorite of these characters is the preacher delivering a sermon on the word “therefore,” which Paul used 119 times in his writing—therefore it must be significant (look, even I’m using it!). Most amusing is his winding journey through the dictionary, each new entry initiating further study, another word to look up: “I found the word to be a conjunction. Now, I had long forgotten what a conjunction was…Webster’s Dictionary said that a conjunction is an indeclinable word that connects two thoughts together. And so I said, What does this word ‘indeclinable’ mean?”

As in Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida recalls the types of ethical questions I touched on in my review of Fred Wiseman’s Hospital. Is Morris ridiculing these people? Are we meant to laugh at them? In this instance, it depends on the viewer—essentially, it’s in the eye (and ear) of the beholder (please forgive the cliché). Morris certainly isn’t laughing at them—he seems to genuinely love these characters, though he doesn’t deny that they’re a strange lot. In a lecture entitled “The Anti Post-Modern Post Modernist,” Morris says of the film: “Like a lot of my projects, Vernon, Florida came out of my failure to do what I had set out to do, which was a story about insurance fraud [the community had a freakish number of “accidental” amputations] which I wanted to call Nub City…Instead, I stumbled on these amazing characters, who I remain very, very fond of.”

While these two films lack the visual sophistication and intricate soundtracks of later films like A Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, they are nonetheless representative of his distinct style and thematic propensities—unmistakeably Morris's films.

*From “Sand That Grows and Other Stories” by Liam Lacey:

Recently, says Morris, he was speaking at Brandeis University about the capacity for self-delusion in connection with a number of his films. He mentioned the couple in Vernon, Florida: “The one thing we know about sand is that it doesn’t grow.”

A man in the audience pointed out that the “sand” from that part of New Mexico was gypsum which can absorb water.

“So I started thinking: They took this sand from the desert and came back to their humid Florida town, and they open it from time to time and the humidity gets in and is absorbed by the gypsum. I realized I was the one who was deluded.”

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Movies watched, week of June 17-23, 2007

Halloween, John Carpenter, 1978

After seeing the trailer for Rob Zombie’s forthcoming remake of Halloween, I decided I really needed to check out the original, which I’d managed to overlook until last week. While it’s undoubtedly a great classic horror movie, it suffers the usual genre-inherent dilemma: the villain is more interesting than the victims. I found myself rooting for the creepy masked psycho, cheering as he silenced another screechy, annoying airhead with the plunge of a butcher knife—which kind of diminishes the scariness.

Whereas I’ve shunned recent remakes like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in order to avoid seeing these movies ruined, I’m actually curious to see Zombie’s Halloween. Instead of a straight remake, it features original material that addresses many of the questions I had about Michael, spending more time exploring his character and psychosis. While that could potentially ruin the mystique, I’m interested to see what he comes up with.

Hostel, Eli Roth, 2005

I’m not a particularly big fan of modern horror movies, preferring Hitchcockian thrillers and 70s slashers, but Roth’s Thanksgiving trailer in Grindhouse roused my interest in his previous work. The premise (college students backpacking through Europe fall victim to a murder-for-profit ring in which people pay upwards of $25,000 for the privilege to kill a person in any way they like) is intriguing but poorly executed. And as described above, the fact that I couldn’t stand the frat boy types I was supposed to be identifying with detracted from the degree of terror I might have experienced. While there is a lot of fake blood employed (enough for one of the killers to slip on it and drop a chainsaw on his legs), this seemed pretty tame compared to the gruesome scenes I had braced myself for.

Factory Girl, George Hickenlooper, 2006

I’m speechless at how appalling this movie is. Having read Jean Stein’s Edie, I know that there’s definitely a compelling story behind the Sedgwicks, but for some reason the filmmakers decided to force it into a clichéd Hollywood cookie cutter, reducing Edie’s life to something along the lines of “pure, good girl with a dark past comes to the big city and is destroyed by the evil artists.” The plot concentrates on a couple of minor footnotes in Edie’s life and glosses over more significant aspects—her affair with Bob Dylan, which is represented in the film as a major milestone, takes up about two of Edie’s 430 pages, and is considerably skewed from actual events. The film barely touches on the Sedgwick family history, excepting brief mentions of Edie’s brother Minty and how her father supposedly molested her, drastically oversimplifying the complexities of her family dynamic.

The stiff, stilted dialogue (“I think Warhol’s paintings are changing the world!”) is particularly cringe-worthy, as are the low blows directed at Warhol’s work and his associates.’s review accurately conveys the degree of disgust I experienced as this mockery unfolded before my eyes, perhaps better than I could have said it myself: “Factory Girl isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a 90-minute insult to the culture it pretends to be capturing.”

The City of Photographers, Sebastián Moreno Mardones, 2006

This documentary, featured in Lincoln Center’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, chronicles the legacy of a group of photographers working under the Pinochet regime, who courageously took to the streets to document the horrors of Chile’s military dictatorship. Their work, which is not only politically enlightening but aesthetically beautiful, aided in making the rest of the world aware of the Chilean people’s plight through the distribution of photographs to the foreign press.

In addition to heightening public awareness, the photographs put a human face to the statistics. In particular, one photographer is shown at work creating a mural comprised of family photos of the dead. Instead of 3,000 anonymous victims, we’re presented with people on vacation at the beach, enjoying a beer, smiling with loved ones—3,000 real people with their own experiences and memories that were abruptly silenced, adding a chilling, deeper layer to the horror.

, Lars von Trier, 1987

In Lars von Trier’s second feature film, a screenwriter and director (played by Epidemic’s screenwriter and directorthe postmodernism is already evident), lose their 220 page script entitled The Cop and the Whore due to a computer error that erases the document. They can’t remember enough of the plot to recreate it, so they work day and night on a new script, with only days to complete it. What they come up with is a medical thriller about a horrifying disease of epidemic proportions. The protagonist, Dr. Mesmer (also portrayed by von Trier), tries to treat the disease but inadvertently ends up spreading it. Epidemic blurs the lines of fiction and reality, as the plot of the film within the film begins to bleed into the outer frames (it seems that the script’s creators are also unintentionally spreading the disease in real life).

Epidemic is a kind of microcosm of von Trier’s work as a whole, showcasing the wide range of his aesthetics. He employs gorgeously arranged shots for the film within the film, while the framed story about the writers is shot in grainy black and white with hand-held cameras and natural lighting. Many of the themes explored in von Trier’s later works are present (hospitals, for example), as are his writing methods and style of humor.