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