4.29.2012

good night, starlite

it was the second anniversary of our starlite cinema series tonight.

and it was a bit of a bittersweet experience. we put up the screen at the crestland arcadium for the last time tonight. the smiths are moving, so this wonderful location that has been home to so much cinematic fun for us will be no more. fittingly, we close up this shop as we hit a milestone and with a perfect title, robert altman's the long goodbye (1973). it was a beautiful night out and i couldn't think of a much better way to go out than with one of my absolute favorites. as long as we're feeling wistful let's take a look at what we've seen together this year:

seven samurai (1954)
the adventures of prince achmed (1926)
the thief of bagdad (1940)
m. hulot's holiday (1953)
rope (1948)
acrobatty bunny (1946)
mst3k: here comes the circus (1946)
la strada (1954)
night of the vampire (2006)
to die by your side (2011)
thirst (2009)
holiday for drumsticks (1949)
food (1992)
home for the holidays (1995)
rare exports: a christmas tale (2010)
the dentist (1932)
the barbershop (1933)
county hospital (1932)
mush and milk (1933)
it's a gift (1934)
the three inventors (1980)
l'atalante (1934)
slick hare (1947)
the big sleep (1946)
the long goodbye (1973)

once again, we circled the globe to bring the world of cinema to our little corner of texas. this time around we visited japan, germany, france, italy, korea, the czech republic and finland. we had our first kurosawa, fellini and hitchcock, plenty of looney tunes, classic slapstick, fairy tales, luminous romance, seasonal madness and more innovative animation. it was a great year.

we are going to take the month of may off so that the smiths can settle in to their new home and the band can go out to west texas to make our new record. in the meantime, we are going to mull over our options for keeping the tradition of starlite alive. chances are we are going to have to move indoors so a new name will probably be in order. other details we will figure out. we will definitely be back, though. we really love putting these on and starlite by any other name will be just as much fun. we'll keep you posted as soon as we work it all out. thanks to everyone who came to the arcadium all year and we hope to see you at the new spot!

4.28.2012

slightly more carla

here we are again at the end of another installment of queue de grâce. everyone take a moment and say so long to our guest programmer for the week, miss carla shiflet.

an appropriate photo in both season and hue, as the list she provided me was red and blue and late summer all over. for posterity's sake, here is the full rundown of what i saw:

trouble in paradise (1932)
ball of fire (1942)
unfaithfully yours (1948)
pickup on south street (1953)
rififi (1955)
elevator to the gallows (1958)
yojimbo (1961)
black girl (1966)
mon oncle (1955)
pauline at the beach (1983)
women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (1988)
still bill (2009)
gimme shelter (1970)
the killing of a chinese bookie (1976)
in the mood for love (2000)
black orpheus (1959)
thieves like us (1974)
hands on a hard body (1997)
cave of forgotten dreams (2010)
daddy longlegs (2009)

i seriously overbooked myself and, as a result, our one week experiment stretched into two, but schedule delays and a back injury notwithstanding this was the most pleasurable queue i have done so far. i should have this list tattooed on me somewhere as a reminder of these halcyon days so that i have something to get me through in the future when one of you decides to do an all-lifetime tv movie queue just for kicks. i thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to everything on here. no irony, no torture, no childhood nostalgia being confused for quality cinema. this girl was yelling right down my alley - excellent films, a sustained tone evoking time and place and sequenced so that each film brought new things to light in the others. there is a contingent that claims she took it too easy on me but i am sure your bloodlust will be slaked sooner rather than later. for now i am going to bask in the afterglow of a list like i may never see again. 

a special surprise edition of the queue is slated for early may and i am terribly excited about it. details will be coming very soon so stay tuned. as always, if you would like to throw your hat in the ring for this business just let me know and i will add you to the ever-growing list. just be prepared to be very patient. thanks to everyone for following along and a special thank you again to carla. it was a joy.

slightly carla: day ten

after a slight delay here we are with the last pair of films that carla assigned me. we begin with werner herzog's documentary, cave of forgotten dreams (2010).

in late 1994 jean-marie chauvet led an expedition to explore a complex of caves in southern france and stumbled upon one of the most significant cultural finds in the history of human expression. throughout the caves there are hundreds of paintings, most of them twice as old as the oldest previously known, including representations of animals not found in any other ice age art and abstract techniques unlike anything else from the era. werner herzog and his crew were allowed unprecedented access to the cave system and over the course of six shooting days of four hours apiece created a document that could prove to be invaluable. access to the cave is strictly limited because of the adverse affects of human contact. touching the walls could eventually prove disastrous and even too much breathing can damage the delicate environment so this film is most likely the only way most of humanity can experience what are some of the oldest artistic expressions on earth. herzog's film was originally produced in 3D and i was lucky enough to see it in the theater in that format. it was the first legitimate use of the technology that i had seen and there were segments that were simply staggering. there is a section in which you move, virtually, through the cave as represented by a galaxy of laser-plotted dots of light. in two dimensions, it's brilliant. in three, it's breathtaking. the contours and leaping shadows that lend movement to these primitive drawings are best viewed that way. even just on my television, though, it was worth viewing yet again. it is full of wonderful moments. herzog and his team make an effort to document the utter silence of the cave and in that moment he almost takes us to another planet entirely, which is what the earth would have seemed like 32,000 years ago. his inimitable interviewing technique is also on full display, comparing the mapping of the cave to creating the manhattan phone directory and musing upon the four million entries - "do they dream? do they cry at night? what are their hopes?" i am so glad it was herzog that the french minister of culture permitted to film these caves. his sensibilities seem perfectly suited to investigate and communicate the oddly human need to make art and to put us in the best position to understand a discovery that is potentially so overwhelming. see it in 3D if at all possible, but see it either way.

and, finally, we close the show with josh and benny safdie's daddy longlegs (2009).

the safdie brothers' second feature is the jittery tale of lenny, a divorced father of two young sons living in new york. it chronicles the two weeks (or so) of visitation that he has with them and is equal parts heartwarming and nerve wracking - heartwarming in that lenny obviously wants nothing more than to make his kids happy for this two weeks, nerve wracking in that he is little more than an overgrown kid himself and commits a series of the most reckless parenting acts you can imagine, including sending an eight- and six-year old to the grocery store in new york city by themselves with $55 in their pocket. the guy is absolutely infuriating and how he talked a woman into having not one but two children with him is almost inconceivable to me. don't get me wrong. this is not a condemnation of the film. it is one of the more promising american indies i have seen in a while. the safdies are obviously heavily indebted to john cassavetes and, as influences go, you couldn't aim much higher in my book. i was worried at first when i saw this on the list that after all the great films i saw this week we were going to end on a down note with some bit of disappointing mumblecore but it is steadfastly not of that ilk. as opposed to post-graduate gothamite musings on why dating (or, as they so noncommittally like to call it now, "hanging out") is soooooo hard, the safdie brothers actually turn the tables and use a developmentally arrested manchild as a sort of trojan horse to sneak much more complicated adult themes into the proceedings, particularly the weight of their father's irresponsibility that these boys have to carry. at times - hell, maybe more often than not - they are the closest thing to a mature adult in the room. they certainly aren't as subject to their own selfish whims as often and they are both under ten. it is through them that we eventually see how painful and confusing it gets when lenny's twitchy charm wears off. the execution put me off a couple of times, but that may be because this comes so closely on the heels of the killing of a chinese bookie (1976). there was a moment or two where it seemed like they were kind of running the cassavetes playbook a little too by the numbers. when his camera went out of focus it was because he was struggling to keep up with what he was shooting and with his own brain. when theirs does it it almost feels like they said "hey, let's do that cassavetes-camera-out-of-focus thing here". these are minor quibbles, though. like i said, better to shoot for something so wild and uncontrollable than the navel gazing and fastidiously quirky art direction that passes for heart among american indies these days. i really look forward to what they do once they more fully integrate their influences instead of occasionally just aping them. they have the potential to do some really exciting and honest work.

and with that we are at the end. i will check in tomorrow to review the week (and then some) that was. thanks, carla. i hope you enjoyed it as much as i did.

4.25.2012

trailer tuesday

since i got all wrapped up in the queue and forgot to post a trailer yesterday i will give you a bonus today.

first, we have matt harlock and paul thomas' american: the bill hicks story (2009). this is screening this week as part of a mini-festival accompanying the moontower comedy festival. if you are attending the festival, don't forget that your badge gets you film as well as stand-up.


next, we have miguel gonçalves mendes' josé and pilar (2010). it is the story of the last few years of lauded author josé saramago's life and his profound love for his wife, pilar. it is screening tonight at 7 p.m. as part of the 15th annual cine las americas film festival, which runs through 4.29.12. don't forget, all screenings held at the emma s. barrientos mexican american cultural center and at st. edward's university are free and open to the public.

slightly carla: day nine

day nine adopts more of a provincial tone, starting with robert altman's thieves like us (1974).

it's the story of a trio of depression-era criminals that make their way across the south, periodically robbing banks, falling in love and/or getting tossed back in the clink. the focal point of the story is the relationship between keith carradine, the youngest of the crooks, and shelley duvall, the daughter of a gas station owner who is comprised of odd angles, inside and out. it is full of excellent period detail and good performances but, overall, this is very minor altman for me. it qualifies as such because it is one of the rare films in his catalog that held no surprises for me. there was a moment about twelve minutes in when the most senior of the criminals delivered a line and i immediately saw how the rest of the picture was going to play out. the line is irrelevant and i can't quite put my finger on what it was about it that made me feel that way, but from that moment on there was no longer any mystery to the film for me. it may be partially attributable to the familiar bonnie and clyde (1967) vibe or it may be that i already knew, and strongly prefer, nicholas ray's stab at the same source novel, they live by night (1949), though altman made several changes from ray's rendition. don't get me wrong, there are several reasons to recommend it. keith carradine practically made a mini-career out of playing these naive weedbenders in the early seventies. he is exceptional at it and this film makes a nice trifecta with emperor of the north (1973) and altman's own magnificent mccabe & mrs. miller (1971). he has an easy chemistry with duvall, herself awkward and halting. together they are dumb, lonely, needy, reckless when they should be circumspect and vice versa and hardly conventionally attractive - in short, very real. a number of altman's regular players show up in this, actually, and they all acquit themselves admirably. i have no trouble believing that none of these people are very smart and that a life of crime during the depression was hardly glamorous. these aren't handsome thrill seekers nor are they working class robin hoods. they're just taking a shortcut, perhaps a victim of bad circumstances initially, but too dumb or too lazy to right their own ship. the fact that you can still find sympathy for some of these characters is a testament to altman's ability to mine poetry out of common desires and his actors' ability to put it across. like i said, minor altman, but minor altman is still better than a lot of directors' best work.

next, we keep it real with s.r. bindler's hands on a hard body (1997).

every year, jack long nissan in longview, texas holds a promotional contest in which they give away a fully loaded nissan hardbody truck. they draw twenty-four names at random, those people put their hands on the truck and the last person to remove a hand wins. it's a simple premise, really, but a simple premise can tell you an awful lot about people.

this is a document of the contest they held in 1995 and it's a diverse cast of characters that shows up for this event, all with their unique motivations for participating. one girl plans to sell it right away if she wins to alleviate her debt. another guy will use it to work, as he sums ups succinctly here.

in fact, almost everyone involved in the contest seems to truly need this vehicle. for some, it almost seems like the outcome is a real make or break point for them and when you see them exit early you truly feel, or even fear, for them. only one man is here as what sort of seems like a lark, benny perkins. he won the contest in 1992 and acts as a sort of de facto narrator for us, guiding us through what the experience is like and how grueling and absurd it is. it is most certainly no picnic. sleep deprivation, hallucinations, delirious laughing fits and swollen, numb extremities all threaten to undo our contestants. they each have their own strategies for coping, be it prayer, music, smart breaks with proper nutrition or just a good pair of shoes. they all think they have the key. it's fascinating to watch the varying degrees to which those things work (or don't) and heartening to see a complete lack of enmity on the part of the contestants. for such an arduous, competitive task you see a lot of compassion for one another. even the one participant that gets angry ultimately points to the fact that she herself cheated and is leaving the contest because she didn't want to win it that way. other people that bowed out early on come back to support those still standing. eventually it gets down to two and it looks like it might go on forever until, in the seventy-seventh hour, the woman whose church had organized a prayer chain for her to win the truck raised both hands for a moment to praise the lord and lost the contest. god cost norma her truck. it is a truly fascinating document and a fantastic pairing with the other film. in this combination, you are led to understand a lot of things - truth is indeed stranger than fiction, what is a little thing to you may be quite vital to someone else and fable and myth are nothing more than an attempt to, sometimes quite unnecessarily, magnify the everyday.

and the films are an inspired pairing for reasons other than theme. i don't know if carla was aware of these things when she chose them (i am almost sure she was), but a feature film version of hands on a hard body was the last thing robert altman was working on before he died. also, keith carradine is starring in a musical adaptation of the film that opens at the la jolla playhouse on 4.27.12. funny how things work out.

ok, we are nearing the finish line. one more day to go. play us out, mr. hein.

see you tomorrow.

4.24.2012

slightly carla: day eight

that's right. day eight. for the first time ever, queue de grâce goes into overtime. when i get a list this good i am going to relish it. today is dedicated to sensory overload. our banquet of sights and sounds begins with wong kar-wai's in the mood for love (2000).

welcome to the most exquisite unconsummated love story of our generation. maggie cheung and vitagraph favorite tony leung portray next door neighbors in an apartment block in 1960 hong kong. similar schedules and similar arrangements with their respective spouses being away puts them in one another's orbit more and more frequently. they gradually grow closer, their bond strengthened by the suspicion, then confirmation, that their spouses are actually having an affair with each other. wary of gossip and staking a claim to the moral high ground, they do not act upon their feelings. it is a hollow victory, though, as the suppression of their passions leaves her as if a ghost and him burdened with a secret that he carries from hong kong to singapore to cambodia until he whispers it into the wall of a crumbling temple and seals it there with earth.

this film is very old hollywood. it takes the demureness, chastity and incredible glamour of that golden age and weds it to wong's contemplative sensibilities resulting in a visual feast that feels very much like falling in love. it is a 98 minute longing gaze, as almost every composition makes you feel like you are looking at something you can never have, through doorways, down corridors, between bars, around curtains. everything is claustrophobic, constrained, fraught with impediments and drenched in color that belies the protagonists' placid exteriors. theirs is a desperate, courtly melancholy which you will fully recognize if you have ever been in love. the soundtrack is built around a waltz refrain but it might as well be replaced by the sound of a quickening pulse, as the movie's foundation is the sound of that someone's voice on the phone, their newly familiar figure waiting for you on the street and their smell lingering on your clothes. it is a delicate reverie of things that can never be and it is nearly indescribably beautiful. on top of all that, (in a sentence you thought you would most likely never read here) maggie cheung's dresses are off the chain. i would not do the film justice if i didn't show you the color. can you imagine if this were the first color film you had ever seen? it might kill you.







a vivid riot of color, quietly raging hearts. an absolute must.

from there we travel halfway around to world to brazil for marcel camus' equally colorful but considerably less restrained black orpheus (1959).

it is camus' ultra-kinetic retelling of the orphic myth, updated to take place in a brazilian favela during carnaval. eurydice (the stunningly beautiful marpessa dawn), newly arrived in rio de janeiro, catches a ride on orfeu's trolley and the attraction is instant. there is just one problem, orfeu is engaged to the jealous, spiteful and violent mira. eurydice and orfeu forsake all else to be together and find themselves menaced by mira and the figure of carnaval reveler in the guise of death himself. they race through the streets of rio, amidst a swirl of never-ending drummers and dancers, attempting to avoid the wrath of lovers and specters until finally eurydice is cornered by the reaper. attempting to save her, orfeu accidentally causes her death and is wracked with grief. death takes her. orfeu descends into the underworld of the basement of the department of missing persons and takes part in a religious ritual which allows him to communicate with the spirit of his dead lover. it's not enough for the distraught orfeu and he must turn to look upon her, knowing that doing so will cause her to be lost to him forever. as night turns to day, he finally tracks down and retrieves her corpse and carries her back to his home. they arrive to find it engulfed in flames, set alight by the crazed mira. spotting her betrothed carrying his dead lover, mira hits him in the head with an immense stone, knocking the two of them over a cliff, killing orfeu as well. it is truly operatic. i am somewhat of two minds about this film. on one hand, it is an amazing showpiece. it throbs and writhes and overflows with color and music. while not the most polished production, its amateurish elements provide a sort of innocence, purity and earnestness. as a telling of the myth, it's like the most lavish school play ever imagined. carnaval provides unceasing rhythm and spectacle and is the perfect backdrop for all these inflamed passions. on the other hand, there is a slight tinge of exploitation. we see an awful lot of happy, exotic, dark-skinned people dancing and singing with zero acknowledgement of the poverty they live in or the real-life difficulties they faced on a daily basis. i know that may be a lot to ask from a film that's essentially a party/travelogue/haunted house, but it feels just a bit imbalanced because of that. it gets more of a pass, coming from 1959, i suppose. were it made in these more enlightened times, we might feel a bit differently about it. still and all, it provided a much-needed release from the corseted passions of the opener. that was one powerful, prismatic double feature. my eyes may need to adjust before i go on.

4.23.2012

slightly carla: day seven

day seven is devoted to a masterwork from my favorite director, john cassavetes' the killing of a chinese bookie (1976).

on the surface, it's a gangster picture. if i just describe the plot it sounds like something straight out of the forties - a nightclub owner, having just paid off a loanshark he was indebted to, racks up a $23,000 debt in a card game. by way of squaring the debt, he agrees to kill a rival of his creditors. he is led to believe the target is a minor crime figure but it turns out that he heads the chinese mafia on the west coast. he pulls off the hit but gets a slug in his side for the trouble. the gangsters who assigned him the job, never expecting him to survive it, double cross him and a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues. standard genre fare, right?

wrong. cassavetes is not one to play it straight. his cinema is an intensely personal one, almost as much to me as to him. there is no other single filmmaker whose work i feel is so tailor-made for me. sometimes, if you're lucky, you find an artist that makes you feel like whatever they made, they made especially for you. i love him because he was restless and fearless. i love him because he was confrontational and love was the only thing worth a damn to him. i love him because he was endlessly fascinated by people and never stopped examining them. watching his movies feels like he has put a hot wire into my heart and has galvanized everything that is great and terrible in me.

i know it won't be the same for everyone. most people, especially fans of more standard cinema, are probably going to find his work tough sledding, which is exactly why they should watch. this movie is perhaps the best example of what sets him so far apart from other filmmakers. by fashioning a genre piece, he underlines the stark contrast between what he does and what everyone else does. even with the inclusion of traditional elements like shoot outs and strippers, he manages to make something wholly unique. he's speaking a different language.

what do i mean? cinema has a language, one that you have been learning for as long as you have been going to the movies. there is a shorthand that you pick up on from the things you have seen before. for example, in horror films when you have a character standing in a room framed in the center of the screen that character is delivering exposition, most likely. if that same character is standing in the same room but is framed to the right or left of the screen that character is cannon fodder. you are now unconsciously tense, doubly so if an open window or closet door is in that empty space. something terrible may or may not be about to fill the unoccupied portion of the frame. the language of cinema is built out of thousands of things like this. a fade indicates a passage of time, a character shot from below is someone to fear and so on and so on. no one has specifically explained them to you but you understand the intent of every one of them. well, john cassavetes did not care about the language everyone else spoke. did. not. care.

the only way to adequately explain this is to just provide a demonstration. to that end, i offer two short clips.
the first is from tate taylor's the help (2011). i choose it because it was the single highest grossing adult drama last year. there were other more successful films, but every one of those was either a children's film or a special effects/action extravaganza. no film last year that told a story for adults and contained the potential for conflict and complication was seen by more moviegoers. this is what people want. embedding is disabled so please click here to view the clip before going any further.

that is the language everyone knows. the camera moves, the meandering piano, the ACTING. now take a look at this from cassavetes' film:

 he is never going to make it easy on you. six people talk at once, elbows are held in front of faces during monologues, the camera searches the room for the most interesting thing that's happening, rather than dictating to you what that is. all these things are going on and, without you even noticing, the acting becomes invisible. did i mention ben gazzara's character has a bullet in his side at this point? contrary to conventional commercial wisdom, cassavetes expects you to remember that instead of cutting to an insert that reminds you of it. he expects grown ups to perceive subtext. crazy, i know. he has a complete disregard for what you think a movie ought to be. in fact, he holds it in disdain. the result of his technique is that you had better watch everything. the result is that every character is a discrete entity, difficult and harboring the potential to be extraordinary. he demands that you carefully watch and consider each one. he demands that you do the work, and for that i love him.

4.22.2012

slightly carla: day six

a week with carla at the helm would be thoroughly incomplete without a healthy dose of music and today's program delivers a pair of excellent, diametrically opposed music documentaries. side A is damani baker and alex vlack's portrait of bill withers, still bill (2009).

the film takes up with withers at age 70, many years after he shunned the spotlight in favor of the pleasures of family life and not being famous. it's a decision that a good number of entertainers and athletes struggle with all the time, knowing how to quit while you're ahead. few seem to be able to manage it, but few possess the implacable calm of bill withers. the bulk of the film spends time with withers as he engages in conversation and celebration with friends and family and holds forth about the lessons he has learned growing up in the segregated south, overcoming a problematic stutter, serving in the navy and becoming a pop success at the age of thirty-two. it is quickly evident that the simple, soulful wisdom in his music isn't just artistic expression. it is that aspect of his personality that has seen him through all his trials and triumphs, from childhood to the present day. he comes across as honest, pragmatic, a loving father and husband and comfortable with where he has arrived. there is no evidence of the ego that frequently accompanies selling millions of records. he is well acquainted with the notion that even with the very famous there are still more people out there that don't know you than do and out of those that do a good number don't care. he sees himself as pennies in your pocket, content to be carried around and to be of use once in a while. the sections of the film i enjoyed the most were watching him go back to the town he grew up in and spend time with the people who have known him the longest. it probably appealed to me because i see a lot of similarities between him and my old man when i see dad with his brothers and old friends - loose, funny, down to earth, knows when to talk, knows when not to, completely at home in his own skin. i know a lot of reviewers have taken the film to task for the section where they shoehorn a conversation with cornel west and tavis smiley into the proceedings but i think it's pretty accidentally vital. it's easy to be homespun and genuine with the guys who have known you your whole life but it's an even more effective demonstration to watch withers sidestep the efforts to inject a false sense of high-mindedness into the film and just keep rolling, steady as she goes, dispensing truth and soul, giving you something you can use. i have faith that bill withers is the same man all the time, no matter who's in the room, no matter who's holding the microphone. it's one of the greatest compliments i can think to pay someone. he's not perfect, something he would tell you himself. there are flashes of some of the anxieties and frustrations that come with having an artistic temperament, but he seems fully in control of it all. he has succeeded in every facet of his life with modesty, humility and grace and his art is an accurate reflection of him as a whole. i admire the man very much.

our troubled B side is albert and david maysles and charlotte zwerin's gimme shelter (1970).

jesus, talk about catching lightning in a bottle. intending to make a simple concert film, the maysles and zwerin ending up documenting the one moment of violence that is widely acknowledged as having killed the sixties. the filmmakers are on board with the rolling stones in the waning days of their 1969 u.s. tour, at that point their first in several years. anticipation and expectations were high. the movie opens with footage of the show in madison square garden, a success by any measure. following that there are a couple of sequences documenting recording sessions at a muscle shoals studio that are among my favorite moments of the film. i thoroughly enjoy it when documentarians are confident enough to just record prolonged reactions. some of the most surprisingly profound, moving moments i have ever seen on film are of people just listening to someone or something. these are the last satisfied moments any of the principals have for the duration of the film. things get dark once the group gets to the west coast. the original venue for a huge free concert featuring the stones fell through and the event was moved to altamont speedway. logistics broke down on all fronts, the hells angels volunteered themselves/were pressed into service as ersatz security guards, bad drugs augmented the bad vibe and episodes of violence marred the event almost as soon as the gates were opened. by the time the stones took the stage, things were desperate and ugly and it all culminated in the murder of eighteen year-old meredith hunter by hells angel alan passaros. in gruesome detail, with the benefit of film editing equipment, we see hunter burst into the middle of the screen, an explosion of bright green suit brandishing an immense pistol. almost as instantly, he is set upon by passaros with an equally immense knife and stabbed twice right before our eyes. it is one of the most amazing instances of being in the right place at the right time with a camera that i have ever seen. the two things that stick with me from this experience are how much difference documentary film is capable of making and that people are sadly inexplicable to me. the events of altamont would have reverberated through the counterculture either way but the presence of the camera made it history. the altamont section of the film is such an immersive experience. it feels wrong from the moment we get there and that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach only grows as the film progresses. it is an environment that is so obviously out of control as to make you wonder how more people didn't die (four did total, the others being accidental/misadventure). everyone is on top of everyone else and people seem in pain or distraught everywhere you look. why anyone would want to go anywhere with 300,000 other people is beyond me in the first place. the massive administrative inadequacies were troublesome enough but things become criminally stupid when a young man dies because he was ridiculous enough to pull a gun the way hunter did. if this happens at a rock and roll show that was meant to be woodstock west and a gift to the people of the bay area, i am left to wonder what people would be capable of if they were faced with something truly grave. the maysles and zwerin didn't just turn out a movie, they produced an indictment - an indictment of the greed and ineptitude of the organizers and an indictment of the naivety of a generation that found its blood stomped into the dirt of a second rate speedway infield. bad news, good film.

tomorrow, things stay heavy with an entry from my favorite filmmaker ever.

crush my calm, you cassavetes.

4.21.2012

slightly carla: day five

day five reacquaints me with pedro almodóvar's breakthrough film, women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (1988).

i was in love with his movies in the late eighties when he started to break big in the states but i suspect at eighteen or so i was not so well equipped to understand them. one of the great functions of the queue is that it sometimes acts as a time capsule, allowing me to unearth things that i packed away long ago and see them in a new light. before this week i had not watched this movie since 1988 and it was a very different experience this time around.

it was an interesting choice to follow pauline at the beach (1983), as it takes the farcical elements so subtly present in rohmer's film and spins them outward in ever more dizzying loops.

brits couldn't have made this at all. they would have ended up with something more like the latest installment of the carry on series.

carmen maura stars as pepa, a voiceover actress whose rat bastard lover, iván has just left her. she is despondent, contemplating suicide, even going as far as to make gazpacho spiked with a ton of sleeping pills. she never consummates the act, though, as everything and everyone in her periphery quickly spirals out of control. her friend candela is ringing her phone off the hook, frantic that she has just discovered that she had been unwittingly dating a shiite terrorist. pepa's lover's son and his fiancée show up in response to her ad to sublet her apartment and soon two and two are put together concerning everyone's respective associations with iván. a lawyer is consulted who turns out to be iván's latest paramour. phone repairmen, curious police, insane pistol-packing wives and hijacked bikers round out the supporting cast and pepa is shuttled back and forth between these loony episodes in the greatest, most ridiculous taxi ever dispatched. and what do you do when you have a houseful of guests you can't seem to get rid of? serve them gazpacho, that's what.

i think what i enjoyed about this film so much the first time around was its absolute manic energy. it's easy to get swept up in it. the film looked and behaved like nothing i had ever seen before at the time. its stylistic flourishes must have reminded me of a similar experience i had had with raising arizona (1987) just the year before. in much the same way the coen brothers redefined slapstick for my generation, that was what almodóvar did for me with relationship comedies here. it seemed incredibly audacious and unique. over two decades and literally hundreds of films later, though, i see a couple of things i didn't see the first time around. i see that in 1988 i was probably responding subconsciously to the fact that these mad characters were women. i hadn't seen an ensemble like this up to that point that revolved so fully around interesting, idiosyncratic women. i certainly hadn't come across many american films that delved, even zanily, into the sexual and emotional turmoil of a 43 year-old woman. i also see a fair bit more sadness in it now than i did then. i certainly understand regret much more now, hence it allows for a much more nuanced reading than i would have been capable of giving it so many years ago. as funny as it is, the catalyst for the comedy is heartbreak and trauma and when we get confirmation of pepa's delicate condition just before the credits roll we realize, once we stop laughing, that she is in a tough spot. a lot of complicated decisions lay before this character once everything has died down. the last thing i see is other movies reflected in this one. there are flashes of fellini, buñuel and hitchcock if you're being generous/de palma if you're not. pretty rich and ambitious for a slightly wacky black comedy about the pitfalls of modern romance.

once again, an excellent choice and it was a nice lesson in how much a great film has to offer just by holding its worth as you improve as a viewer.

tomorrow we are graced by a visit from a solid dude if ever there was one.

sing along. you know the words.

4.19.2012

slightly carla: day four

slight is right. for the next several days my calendar is extremely full so i don't know exactly how much i will be able to get through between now and sunday. i will do at least one a day but i may have to extend the proceedings beyond my usual seven days. i definitely want to get everything in so bear with me.

today i begin work on filling in a shameful gap in my film knowledge with éric rohmer's pauline at the beach (1983).

éric rohmer has always been one of those i meant to get around to but for some reason just have not done it. there is even a copy of the aviator's wife (1981) just sitting here in my collection, mere feet away, that has been gathering dust since i bought it. i couldn't tell you why. the time has just never been right. now that i have experienced this film, though, i am kicking myself for waiting this long. i don't know how it compares to the rest of his work and i have no idea how fitting an introduction it is, but pauline at the beach is a seaside, sunlit revelation and a little difficult to adequately describe. if i had to subtitle it i would steal directly from raymond carver and call it what we talk about when we talk about love. what is magical about is elusive. if this is any indication, rohmer is more of an alchemist than a technician. one of rohmer's comedies and proverbs series, it begins with a quote from chrétien de troyes - "a wagging tongue bites itself" - laying out in five little words the essence of what will be chewed on and chased from beach to bedroom for the next hour and a half. fifteen year-old pauline and her older cousin marion are at the family vacation home on the normandy coast trying to get the last few sparks out of the dying embers of summer. an initial exchange in which marion delves into pauline's romantic history sets the tone for the rest of the film, exposing marion as the much more immature, though older, character and pauline as the pragmatic observer, wise beyond her years. as they while away their days on the beach their universe expands to take in pierre, an ex-lover of marion's who becomes infatuated with her all over again, henri, a womanizer only interested in living in the present with no responsibilities or confinements, sylvain, a local boy who strikes pauline's fancy and louisette, who sells candy on the beach. they each have a drastically different idea about the nature of love and are chasing their own tails when not chasing each others'. imagine if when anton chekhov was writing plays, instead of being a disillusioned doctor living amidst the rubble of a dying aristocracy he had been getting laid a lot. i exaggerate for comic effect and this is a far more sensitive, perceptive work than that but the image gets you pointed in the right direction, what with the constant dissection of desire and the elements of sex farce in the margins.

if brits had made this it would have been terrible.

which is odd for me to say because i often thought of mike leigh while i was watching this. the cast functions in the same lived-in, naturalistic manner as in the best of leigh's works and it's much more of an extended mood piece than a traditional narrative arc. and boy does it capture that mood. it is a vivid and acute distillation of late summer, so much so that you just have to experience it. that's the part of it that is nearly impossible to adequately describe. it is just a perfect evocation in so many ways of literal and emotional twilight coming on and how it will catch up to us no matter what steps we take to defy it, whether it's taking extra time with a cup of tea, talking until the sun comes up or engaging in ill-advised love affairs.

amanda langlet as pauline deserves special mention here. she has an almost supernatural wisdom about her. the understanding she communicates as she watches the adults in her sphere careen about, telling lies, deluding themselves and repeating mistakes is what i am going to think about a long time from now. her face has the softness of a young girl but when she smiles i think she is a thousand years old. she's onto all of us but it doesn't make her feel as if she's necessarily superior. she seems to understand more than all of us put together even as she is going through what will most likely be the most confusing time of her life. i can't say enough good things about her performance. i only hope the rest of rohmer's work is this wonderful and wise, simple and direct. thanks for insisting that i tend to that omission, carla. i feel as if i have been given a gift.

my apologies, but that's all there is for now. maybe tomorrow i can double up on today if i get hot.

we shall see.

4.18.2012

slightly carla: day three

day three finds us globetrotting, beginning with akira kurosawa's yojimbo (1961).

influenced by hardboiled fiction and passing that influence on to spaghetti westerns, kurosawa's study of this rootless samurai is one of my favorites of all time. i actually composed a piece about it for another assignment just a couple of weeks ago. so, for once, instead of just hastily jotting down a few impressions i can give at least one of these films something closer to the response that they all deserve. here is what i had to say:

when you spend your life chasing after cinematic thrills there are certain inevitable regrets. invariably, one of the biggest is that you are a prisoner of the particular era you inhabit. it automatically relegates certain experiences to the realm of scholarship, rather than just going to the movies. there are certain things i am only ever going to be able to see as filtered through the mists of time. much like many other contributors and readers here, i would give my eye teeth to be able to have certain experiences first hand - to experience the seismic shifts from silents to talkies and from academy ratio to widescreen, regular saturday afternoon matinees, complete with cartoons, newsreels and serials, ten cent movie tickets, being knocked from complacency by the french and czech new waves, and on and on - my list, probably much like yours, is endless. this is not to say that there aren’t rewards for making discoveries the way i have. i think i belong to the very last generation that had to really dig, do the work, read/make ‘zines and haunt libraries and repertory houses to find these things. we were the last generation that came of age before the internet made everything instantly available, taking away some of the thrill of the hunt. it fostered in me a true appreciation for the entire experience - the reading about, the tracking down, the viewing of milestone films - to borrow from warren oates, those satisfactions are permanent. still, it doesn’t quell all of the envy i feel for the people that got to stand in line and buy that ticket in september of 1961 when yojimbo came to town.
yojimbo was the first film by akira kurosawa that i ever saw and it was revelatory for me, even on television. my old man, the first movie enthusiast i knew, loves the leone/eastwood films and by the time i was nearing adolescence we had already watched those together numerous times. little did i know, that was paving the way for kurosawa to come along and kick my ass. the leone films were already pretty exciting stuff, what with their gunfights, gold and alien landscape (alien to a kid in small town oklahoma, anyway). discovering kurosawa, and specifically yojimbo, though, was something altogether different and it taught me many a valuable lesson. it was a coming of age. just about every kid, for a little while at least, is possessed of the silly and romantic notion that their thing (whatever that thing is) is the first thing, the best thing. yojimbo may have been the first time i was made aware that there is nothing new under the sun - not in a discouraging way, mind you, but more in the sense that there is a much larger continuum out there that all art is a part of and, if it wasn’t already, my chase was now most definitely on.
the film itself, you’re probably all acquainted with. toshiro mifune’s samurai-with-no-name plays both ends against the middle in a deft jidaigeki mixture of high noon sagebrush, film noir rough stuff and feudal japanese class issues and swordplay. the result is a thrilling and cohesive whole that people are still ripping off/paying homage to today. the one thing that none of the predecessors or imitators have, though, is mifune. i had never seen anything like him. i still haven’t. the human face has fifty-odd muscles in it. that’s approximately 3 X 1064 possible facial expressions. mifune is the only person on earth whom i believe is capable of making them all. the story is riveting but it is his fierceness and vitality that make this film still fresh and exciting fifty years down the road. for all the windswept streets, mulberry fields and lonely roads, the most important topography is that face. that’s where the whole story plays out. it is what i couldn’t take my eyes off of as a youngster and it is the thing that is going to make it a powerhouse fifty years from now. all that political shrewdness, earthy humor, cynicism and almost surreal violence bound up in one man, still so raw and intense, so entertaining. i thank the heavens every day for what technology affords us now, as cinephiles. i marvel at the fact that (if it were my only option) i can watch yojimbo on my telephone. we are alive in such an incredible time that we have access to film, and the ramblings of other film lovers, in ways never imagined half a century ago, but oh, what i would have given to be in the audience in 1961. it must have been like a bomb going off.
next, we go from japan to senegal by way of france with the first movie this week that was completely new to me, ousmane sembène's black girl (1966).

it is the story of diouana, a young senegalese girl who moves to france to continue on as governess for the wealthy white couple she worked for in dakar. prior to going, she dreams of leaving senegal behind for french shops and luxury, imagining her friends and family to be green with envy. her reality is a far different story, though. she soon figures out that the family was only really wealthy relative to most of the senegalese and now that they are back in france she is the only servant they can afford. she is cook and maid, as well as governess. her reality is the four rooms she works and lives in. no luxury, no shops, only what is essentially indentured servitude. as her spirit breaks, her white employers can only think to repeatedly ask her if she is ill, having no inkling of the psychological damage their manipulation is doing. theirs is the luxury of not having to care. they belong to the dominant class in this post-colonial setting and, as such, she is little more than property to them. her alienation and distress grows and when she can stand it no longer she commits suicide in their bathtub. it's an impressive work, born of desperation. it brought to mind a number of favorites of mine, either through tone or little bits of technique. i thought of how james whale had gloria stuart change clothes (the only character that does so) in the old dark house (1932) so that she looks like a white flame running up and down shadowy staircases, the one object we cannot look away from. sembène does a similar thing with mbissine thérèse diop here. once she arrives in france, she is immersed in nothing but sterile, light environments. her beautiful skin stands out in stark contrast with her surroundings, underlining both her isolation and the feeling that she has been institutionalized. the other filmmakers it brought to mind were american indies like john cassavetes, spike lee and jim jarmusch, specifically all of their first films. there is a lack of polish that they have in common that speaks to their absolute need to tell their stories, all feature films but shot with a raw documentary urgency. it's difficult enough in the u.s. to get films made. imagine how lacking in both filmmaking resources and infrastructure that senegal was in the mid-sixties. to get something like this done it had to be vital to you to tell this story. in that regard alone, it is something of a minor miracle, technically raw and rudimentary but rich with complex themes of post-colonial racism/slavery and alienation. this first new experience for me this week did not disappoint. it is a scant 56 minutes long but manages to be complicated and devastating all the same, provocative in a social context, inspiring in a creative one. excellent choice.

to end our day we go from antibes to suburban paris for our first entry in living color, jacques tati's magnificent mon oncle (1958).

perhaps more than any other filmmaker's work, tati's movies, for me, are just pure pleasure. tati's comedy, by way of his alter-ego monsieur hulot, gently appeals to the better angels of our nature and is so meticulously crafted as to look effortless. in this instance he plays the doting uncle of a nine year-old boy who lives with his rigid, status-hungry parents in a house that is a nightmare of modernity. they are consumed with consuming, slaves to their labor-saving devices and state of the art conveniences. hulot, with his awkward, halting gait, carefree wandering and ability to inadvertently turn the mundane into the exciting is the polar opposite of the boy's parents and provides him with a much-needed escape from their uninspired world. for the longest time, m. hulot's holiday (1953) was my favorite film of his, but i think as of this viewing mon oncle has edged into the lead. that is most likely due to the target of his affable satire this time around. focusing on the consumerism and materialism that was rapidly changing postwar france afforded him more opportunities to skewer the pompous while simultaneously incorporating a much wider range of the everyday rhythms of life into his comic routines than was possible in some of his other, more specific settings. as is common with tati's work, it is mostly free of dialogue. it absolutely does not depend on it. in its place you will find brilliant sound design built out of laughter, birdsong, snippets of conversation, neighborhood noises and the music of machinery. perhaps most importantly, he is still one of the most generous comedians i have ever seen. not every laugh has to revolve around him. peripheral characters get some of the best gags and his nephew's happiness is much more important than the execution of any piece of slapstick. we are just fortunate that he can do all of it at once. ultimately, his movies simply make me feel good. they are gently uncompromising, able to deflate our silly self-importance and the absurd things we cling to without making us feel badly about ourselves or sacrificing their own sense of wonder - a rare feat indeed. if i could live in tati's universe i feel like i would always be happy and content.

what a great note to end the day on. i think i will put it on again before moving on to the next film, hopefully fall asleep to it and dream tati dreams. properly rested, i will come out tomorrow with both guns blazing.

see you then!

4.17.2012

slightly carla: day two

day two finds us catching up on yesterday's work with preston sturges' exceptional unfaithfully yours (1948).

this week is full of my favorite works of some of my favorite directors. preston sturges was more than a filmmaker, he was a cottage industry, far ahead of his time. he parlayed his success as screenwriter into complete artistic control as a director, building a stock company of actors who were in tune with his sensibilities and turning out a body of work that is consistently marvelous, slyly hilarious and always forward thinking. it is hard to pick a favorite but unfaithfully yours ranks way up there. rex harrison digs into his role as alfred de carter with a zest that registers just this side of errol flynn. he is a universally renowned conductor deeply in love with his younger wife, played by the stunning linda darnell. his directions to have his wife looked after in his absence were misinterpreted, resulting in the engagement of a detective. the private eye's findings are troublesome but de carter initially refuses to have anything to do with it. slowly but surely, though, doubt begins to creep in and soon his imagination has spiraled out of control. convinced of her adultery, he entertains three elaborate fantasy sequences, all playing out in his mind in conjunction with three pieces he is conducting. these sequences really are virtuosic pieces of black comedy, the hypothetical tangents moving through from his wife's destruction to his masculinity's destruction to his own at his own hand. it is perhaps the funniest distillation of a man veering into jealous insanity ever committed to film and harrison just goes all out. it sounds like he could be over the top but i don't want to give that impression. he nails it. his lunacy pushes the film over into an uncomfortable territory that 1948 audiences were probably a little thunderstruck by. thinking they were buying a ticket to a wacky romantic comedy, they soon found themselves enmeshed in a web of paranoid, homicidal flights of fancy, only pulling out of a steep dive in the final reel. it's damn near perfect, consistently sharply funny all while taking sturges' social satire to frantic depths only hinted at in his other work.

and it is the perfect gateway from screwball/romantic comedy into our next block of films, which find us in the netherworld of crime and film noir. we start this section with samuel fuller's pulpy punch in the gut, pickup on south street (1953).

holy cats, this film is raw. richard widmark plays a contemptuous pickpocket who lifts jean peters' wallet in a crowded subway car. unbeknownst to both he and peters, the wallet contains some frames of film that she is unwittingly delivering to a communist spy on behalf of her ex-boyfriend. his poorly-timed crime throws a wrench in the works of an investigation that has been active for months and was on the verge of breaking wide open. this macguffin kicks off a series of misfortunes for everyone that crosses widmark's path. overall, the film lives and dies by its tabloid nature. the red scare business plays almost like an afterthought, for the most part, seemingly there for no other reason than to give 1953 moviegoers something easy to be afraid of. the real story revolves more around the relative honor among thieves and widmark's reformation, what little there is of it, thanks to the love of a not-so-good woman. these are ugly, small people trying to stay one step ahead of each other and the law, doing whatever they need to to carve a tiny space for themselves in a shabby universe. widmark sneers his way through crowded train cars and empty diners, making a religion out of looking out for number one. jean peters seems custom built out of the sexiest/trashiest pieces of themselves that other women have thrown away. jesus, she is incredible. you can practically catch the smell of her sweat and makeup coming off the screen. she is so gloriously, irresistibly cheap. and fuller's photography leaves you no egress. it starts in extreme close-up about half the time and then moves in. you and these characters are in each others' personal space from the word go, so that all their shifty dealings and jockeying for position psychologically jostles you the whole time. and if all that isn't enough, you get vitagraph favorite, the sainted thelma ritter.

she essentially played one character her entire career and raised it to a fine art. a scrapper but weary, matronly but not sexless, well acquainted with just exactly what her place was in this mean old world, the mother teresa of the bowery who might just give you up to the cops for a sawbuck because, hey, she has to eat too. she is fantastic in this as moe, the stool pigeon with the heart of gold and mother figure to widmark's insolent punk. it is one of crime film's greatest moments when she tells richard kiley, knowing full well he is going to kill her for it, "even a fancy funeral ain't worth waitin' for if i've gotta do business with crumbs like you". her murder is the true catalyst for widmark's redemption, moving him much more than peters ever could. in her, we finally find the thing that matters to someone to whom not much matters at all. it's best (and easy) to just ignore the communism angle altogether and focus on these lousy small-timers and the way they affect one another's orbits. that's the grubby heart of this picture.

from here, we move to the other side of the atlantic to france where every criminal is weary for jules dassin's most impressive statement made in exile, the seminal heist film rififi (1955).

for the longest time, i was the furthest thing from a francophile when it came to cinema. as i was growing up, french film seemed the most foreign of all foreign film to me. i resisted, bolstered by only really being exposed to the elements of it that were most easily parodied. then i saw rififi. it turns out i had just been watching the wrong french films that whole time. i just needed one made by an american expatriate to grease the skids. this one is so beautifully bleak and cruelly efficient. it's an ill-fated perfect crime story, maybe the ill-fated perfect crime story. jean servais is perfectly cast as shelfworn gangster tony le stéphanois. newly released from prison, he is making tentative steps to re-establish his life. his former girlfriend is now the chattel of a rival gangster and he is being prevailed upon by old friends to get back to work. initially, he declines to participate in a planned jewel heist but, after an episode where announces his return by whipping the message into said ex-girlfriend's back, his course becomes clear to him and he joins his comrades in the heist. their plan lacks ambition, though. not satisfied with their idea of simply grabbing window displays, he decides they will make a play for the safe. what follows is one of the first and best robbery rehearsal and execution sequences in film history. i remember when i saw blood simple (1984) being knocked out at the audacity of the coen brothers and marveling at them putting a twenty-minute section with no dialogue dead in the middle of their movie. then i saw this and learned where they had potentially cribbed that idea from. thirty years prior, jules dassin had done it. for one quarter of this film, no one speaks and you can't take your eyes off the screen. of course, as with all jobs that you can't pull on your own, someone lets down the side, lousing everything up because of a dame, and the final act is a beautiful unraveling in which numerous, inevitable bad decisions are made, violent revenge is had and dassin takes subtextual shots at those who named names before the house un-american activities committee. of course it was the french who first noticed the development of, and coined the name for, film noir. who else could have? the existential malaise of the criminal underclass and the inevitability of their bad end is practically their cinematic birthright and you will never see it done better than this.

and, finally, we take a step out of noir toward the new wave with louis malle's feature film debut, elevator to the gallows (1958).

ah, jeanne moreau and her perfect, tired eyes. she and maurice ronet play lovers conspiring to kill her husband, a subcategory of perfect crime whose rate of failure would be, you would think, enough to discourage anyone from even considering it. hardly. ronet enacts their plan - which is clever, i admit - only to forget one little detail. as we all know by know, that one little detail is always enough. he commits the murder and begins to make good his getaway only to notice he has left a piece of evidence behind. abandoning his car to retrieve it, he becomes trapped in an elevator as the security guard shuts down the power to the building in preparation to leave for the weekend. meanwhile, the girl who works in the flower shop, where ronet has left his car running, and her juvenile delinquent boyfriend decide to take a joyride. ronet's hasty mistake added to the kids' dumb decision doesn't just amount to an idiotic sum, but a deadly geometric progression, as the young hothead kills a pair of travelers, leaving ronet's car and belongings behind as evidence. in the meantime, moreau wanders the streets waiting for word from ronet in that way that only french women can. moreau's performance here feels like she is single-handedly building a bridge between more traditional, conventional forms and the new wave that was just on the horizon. malle splits time between expertly ratcheting up the tension in the elevator and navigating the haze moreau finds herself equally trapped in, using this snappy genre exercise to point the way to what's next. in addition to that, miles davis' iconic score blows through the film like the last trumpet on earth, a sentiment echoed by paris' oddly empty streets. it all makes for a perfect, lonely, unsettling world in which nothing is perfect, least of all the perfect crime.

well, that was a beautifully dark day. tune in tomorrow for a special treat:

color! what'll they think of next?

trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for william sachs' monsterpiece, the incredible melting man (1977)!

4.16.2012

slightly carla: day one

a couple of disclaimers before we get started: this week's list is a dream. all you jackals out there, all you bloodthirsty louts, you'll have to get your kicks elsewhere this time around. i know how much you enjoy watching me suffer and rip things to shreds during these li'l experiments. i just wanted you to know that there will be none of that this week. also, i have severely overbooked myself this week so this might extend beyond the usual seven days if i don't have adequate time to make it through carla's list.

that being said, here we go. day one was a program of effervescent classics beginning with ernst lubitsch's trouble in paradise (1932), the rosetta stone of romantic comedy.

if you don't know the work of ernst lubitsch then i recommend you rectify that as soon as possible. his films are among the most witty and elegant of hollywood's golden era and this pre-code jewel is probably the best example of what makes them so great. herbert marshall and miriam hopkins play a pair of thieves who fall in love while trying to swindle one another. realizing they are made for each other, they embark on a whirlwind, worldwide courtship, finally landing at kay francis' doorstep. they insinuate themselves into her household as confidante and secretary and put their plan into action to relieve her of several thousand francs. there's just one hitch - love rears its ugly head. it's truly brilliant. we are given a love triangle in which either option is equally viable, as opposed to the configurations we get today in which there is only one obvious, inevitable choice. at every turn, lubitsch gives us just what we need to keep the story moving briskly but in the least obvious manner. for example, we begin in venice, but instead of the standard opening shot of cityscape and canals imparting that information, we are offered a generic doorway and an overflowing trashcan. the contents are emptied onto a garbage scow that we learn is a gondola only as the shot expands to take in the city. in another instance we witness a pivotal romantic scene of the film with only a clock onscreen documenting the speed with which cupid works and offscreen dialogue. lubitsch never fails to find the least conventional way to tell the world's oldest story. he's never dull and never wasteful, every frame moving gracefully, fleetly along, always advancing the tale, beautiful to look at but never simply ornamental. the comedy itself is crisp and sexually charged, taking full advantage of freedoms that would be severely compromised before too long by the motion picture production code. the two female leads are only onscreen together twice but each scene crackles, their first meeting being a wry sparring match and their second being the inevitable showdown. it may be a little mannered and stagebound for some, but for the early sound era it is quite inventive and sophisticated and its influence is far-reaching. from this wellspring, we get everything from screwball comedy to gentleman thieves. it's lithe, lean and, most importantly, very funny. that lubitsch touch is on full display in this one.

next, we cut loose a little bit with howard hawks' ball of fire (1941).

on pedigree alone, this one is impressive. directed by hawks, written by billy wilder, starring gary cooper, barbara stanwyck, a young dana andrews and a houseful of the era's greatest character actors. cooper heads up a team of eccentric lexicographers who are stuck about halfway through the S's and to get the project moving again he goes out into the real world to do some research on his entry for slang. he meets nightclub singer and gangster's moll stanwyck who wields language like it was a thompson gun. she's the perfect research subject and, to avoid the pesky district attorney, she holes up with cooper and his fellow professors, a bawdy snow white to their newly-invigorated seven dwarfs, turning the house upside down while she teaches them the latest lingo. in the finest opposites attract tradition, cooper's straight arrow falls for stanwyck and counters the advances she made under false pretenses with a marriage proposal. she goes along with it, but only until she can marry andrews, which will relieve her from having to testify against him in court. wouldn't you know it, though? cooper's fresh-faced naivety wins her heart. as opposed to trouble in paradise, this one is more boisterous and offers no surprises. the plot is a bit silly but there are abundant pleasures to be found in the performances. gary cooper might as well own the patent on this kind of character. he can do it in his sleep but i'll be damned if he doesn't get me every time. his earnestness is disarming, his bumbling is adorable and if you don't pull for him then you must just be some kind of a jerk. stanwyck's performance is one of my favorites that she's ever put in, just the perfect mix and tough and sweet. she's a practical girl, and we all know how i like that, and their chemistry works well. best of all, the professors are a riot. you've seen their faces in the margins of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of some of hollywood's greatest films, but putting them all together in one house is a masterstroke. combine all that with dizzying linguistics and gene krupa playing a tiny drum solo with matchsticks and everything is jake.

there's a third film, perhaps my favorite of the bunch, that carla intended to be included in this opening cocktail and i am watching it as we speak, but there is no way i'll be able to finish and write it up tonight, as i have to be up for work at 6 a.m. i will include it in tomorrow's entry and then we'll take a walk at the dark end of the street.

keep one hand on your wallet and i'll see you tomorrow.

4.14.2012

that sinking feeling

after fifteen years of blissful ignorance, this week i wandered into my local theater to take part in the 3D extravaganza that is the re-release of james cameron's titanic (1997).

now, if you're a regular around here you know it's generally my editorial policy to not spend time talking about movies i don't like. it only really comes up during queue de grâce weeks when what i am watching isn't up to me. i don't do this for a living so i usually have the luxury of only focusing on things i am excited about and want to share and i like it that way. i only make this exception because my other filmgoing experiences this week stand in such stark contrast to cameron's film and illustrate what i find so great and perplexing about the movies.

leaving titanic sunday night, i wasn't feeling much. i didn't like it, but it didn't go much beyond that. i felt disdain for cameron but that's nothing new. i tried to find a way to judge it based on how well it achieved its own aims but i couldn't find very much to acquit it even then. the positives - i love gloria stuart. i have since 1932, figuratively, and it was nice to see her, leo's boyish charm was well-used, unlike almost every other role he's done in the last decade where he looks like a child playing dress up in daddy's overcoat, kate winslet was beautiful and her costumes were immaculate, and it looked expensive. i am not sure that that's an achievement, as it cost 200 million dollars to make, but you could see dollars on the screen. that's about it. walking out of the theater that's all i had - an impressive technical spectacle, perhaps, but little else. as the hours wore on, though, something else crept in. you could possibly chalk this up to only getting three hours of sleep between the movie and going in to work the next morning, but i began to feel worse. the more i thought about the movie, the more i felt, for lack of a better phrase, bereft of hope. alone.

and i can't even attribute that to the content or presentation of the film. like i said, it could have been sleep deprivation. it could have been low blood sugar. it could have simply been a long, dark night of the soul that coincidentally rammed into an existential iceberg. all i know is my mood took a drastic downturn and the catalyst for it seemed to be this movie. slowly but surely, though, everything else i watched this week filled the sick void that cameron left behind. the first thing i saw in the wake of this was michael r. roskam's excellent bullhead (2011).

ostensibly a crime film, it turns out to be something much more poignant. this belgian import begins as a tale about the hormone mafia in the corrupt cattle industry, but quickly reveals a damaged heart built on childhood trauma and the making of a human monster. the hulking brute at the center of the story is sensitive and intuitive, demonstrating instincts his criminal brethren don't possess and a desire for love that is impossible. ultimately, be it because of how he is perceived by others or the result of a life of steroid abuse, he is just too much of a blunt instrument to bridge the gap. the finale reverts to crime film structure, but even that is handled well, as the section is cleverly edited as if he were a literal human bomb. even though the character comes to an end that is inevitable, it was blessedly not obvious. raise a glass to movies in which you can't tell everything that's going to happen twenty minutes ahead of time. titanic could have been exclusively about the two radio operators on board, as much as it was telegraphed. i don't understand why people want to pay for the privilege of knowing everything that's going to happen. why bother? bless bullhead for reminding me that not every film is made with cookie cutters.

the next reinforcements arrived in the form of pjer žalica's fuse (2003).

this excellent dark comedy was part of the austin film society's essential cinema series focusing on films of southeastern europe. this latest program is our local offshoot of los angeles' SEEFest and the screenings on 5.15.12 and 5.22.12 will actually be hosted by that festival's curator, vera mijojlic. set in the years just following the peace accord between bosnia and serbia, it follows the efforts of a small bosnian town to prepare for a visit from bill clinton. tensions between the bosnians and their neighbor serbs, with whom they are forced to put on their best cooperative faces, are never far from the surface. the gift of this film that titanic didn't come within twenty thousand leagues of? subtext. we americans are, fortunately, 150 years down the road from our experience with civil war. as with any subject that far in the dear, dim past, its impact is lessened, its history romanticized. when you have bosnians and serbs appearing together in a political film dealing, even peripherally, with their conflict, the screen almost cannot contain the subtext. filmed just a few years after they were literally committing atrocities against one another, the things unsaid between the characters and the actors portraying them are nearly overwhelming. i am afraid, without such grievous wounds so fresh in our collective memory that we cannot completely comprehend everything this film has to offer. we can certainly give it our best, though. it was a complex and entertaining reminder that we, the audience, have an equal responsibility to rise to the occasion when filmmakers put everything of themselves on the screen for our benefit. it's a mutually rewarding experience. give me something i can dig this deeply into and that offers me something new to think about every time i consider it. it was the antithesis to cameron's blockbuster, in which the only thing below the surface was leo in the final reel.

finally, we go tragic for tragic with werner herzog's complicated rumination on the death penalty, into the abyss (2011).

much like everything herzog does, it is not your garden variety examination of the subject. instead of overtly politicizing the already volatile subject matter, he instead traces the course of pain reverberating outward from a triple homicide in conroe, texas. his approach succeeds where titanic absolutely fails - putting an honest, identifiable human face on extraordinary tragedy. as just one example, when lisa stotler-balloun, whose mother and brother were two of the three victims, recounts how her family was essentially wiped out over the course of six years it is heartbreaking. relating the simple detail of how she got rid of every telephone she owned because she couldn't take another call that was bad news was better than anything james cameron is capable of writing. titanic's dialogue was written on a level just above catchphrase, obvious and clumsy, truly terrible. the performances weren't much better. by pointing his camera at regular people and giving them room to tell their stories, herzog captured ten times the emotion and a raw honesty that cameron can only dream of. it's truly a shame, because the story of that ill-fated ship is fascinating and rife with potential but when you dilute your story to the point that it's geared to appeal to the largest number of people as possible what you are left with is so bland and dumb as to be embarrassing. confident storytellers offer something unique. if it's done well the audience finds themselves in it, rather than having everything spelled out. i am grateful for an artist that has enough faith in himself that he refuses to pander and enough faith in his audience that he sees no need in making his message remedial.

it was insisted to me that i would like titanic. all i can figure is that somehow, inexplicably, my friends still don't understand what i go to the movies for. i don't go to waste my time on the obvious. i don't go to just "turn it off" and kill a couple of hours being mindlessly entertained. i don't buy the myth that thinking and fun are mutually exclusive. it may have hit all the right beats and functioned just like a blockbuster is supposed to but why do you want that if it offers you nothing beyond expensive clockwork? i know i don't. i don't find obvious inspiring. as bad as cameron's extravaganza made me feel, though, my week was saved by artists doing complicated, challenging, entertaining work.

no thanks to titanic, my heart will go on.