Sunday, July 31, 2005

Wenders

Darren put up a Paris, Texas banner recently, and got me thinking about Wim Wenders. "The Yanks — they've colonized our subconscious," declares a character in Kings Of The Road, with both affection and bitterness. It's a statement that I resonate with deeply, having grown up geographically distant but culturally proximate to America.

Though not all of his films work for me, there is much that I admire about Wenders:

  • his notion of movies (and by extension, life) as temporal, thus making the passage of time a crucial element in his films

  • the need for his characters to capture and preserve images

  • the transience and travel in his films, which could all be road movies

  • his use of children, which clearly marks Truffaut's influence

  • his love of rock n' roll, and

  • his allusiveness that spans the range from Ford to Ozu

As for the films themselves, here's my record with them:

  • I love: Kings Of The Road, Alice In The Cities, Paris, Texas

  • I like a lot: The State Of Things, Lisbon Story

  • I like them but perhaps not quite as much as other people do: Wings Of Desire, The American Friend

  • I'm eager to check out: Lightning Over Water, Tokyo-Ga, Wrong Move

  • I checked out of: Million Dollar Hotel, The End Of Violence, Beyond The Clouds

  • I'm curious about: Notebook On Cities And Clothes, The Goalie's Anxiety At The Penalty Kick

  • I'm curious but daunted by their length: Faraway, So Close, Until The End Of The World

Your thoughts on Wenders and his movies?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Sunstruck



• The reason for my first attraction to the West wasn't cultural or social or economic: it was simply....air-conditioning. Scaldingly hot sweat-soaked days would find my friends and me stumbling towards the only cool oases free and open to the public in downtown Calcutta: the American Center and British Council library buildings. These organs of dissemination of Western ideologies knew how to reach the masses: first save them from sunstroke, then offer them, in plush cozy rooms, a little fluorescent biblio-paradise. Their hearts and minds will soon follow.

It's gratifying to discover that Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski frequented the British Council in Warsaw, where he saw films like Billy Liar and was swept up by their images, not always understanding the movies themselves.

I liked his sun-drenched new film, My Summer Of Love, more than I expected to, given the slightly mixed reviews. It's certainly no Morvern Callar, but to focus only on its plot and character development is to perhaps come away a bit disappointed. They are not why I was drawn to it. The one great virtue of this modest movie is the way it's shot — impressionistically, by a slightly tentative, darting camera that has the unquenchable curiosity of a child.

• Last night, I arrived a bit late at the nightclub to catch a local jazz piano trio. The only available seat was inches away from the pianist, who was clearly on fire. He ended the first set with Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" and let the final chord ring for several seconds while leaning into the sustain pedal. His left hand stayed on the keys but his right hand quietly dropped into his lap. As the chord continued to swirl in the air, he looked into the blue light emanating from his palm, checking his cell phone for messages.

• One of the most interesting things about making blog-friends, as I discovered last year when I started this blog, is that these friends have back-stories. I've been having fun digging into blog archives lately. For instance, did you know that Filmbrain's debut post was about The Passion?

Monday, July 25, 2005

Seduction By Subtitle

Lured

I've always believed, dreamily perhaps, that audiences for art are made, not born. When I'm asked by a curious neophyte to recommend, for example, a handful of albums of jazz singing, I might offer: John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman, Frank Sinatra's Songs For Swinging Lovers, Peggy Lee's Beauty And The Beat, June Christy's Something Cool. Not only are these among the greatest jazz vocal records ever made, more important, they are seductive, emotionally involving, utterly charismatic music. If none of these records work for you, frankly, I'm not sure any other jazz vocal music will. Put the genre aside for a year or two and return to it, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

So it is with foreign films. Most of my friends are not cinephiles like me but they are smart, curious, often aesthetically open people. I frequently get asked to recommend "good foreign movies". Rather than recommending all-time super faves, I try to choose, to start with, a few films on DVD that are (1) indisputably great, (2) accessible, (3) riveting, narratively or visually, and (4) emotionally compelling. In other words, films that will "hook" the uninitiated and begin the process of converting them to foreign film watchers. It's one way to slowly start building an audience for foreign movies, one friend or acquaintance at a time.

Here are some films on my list:
  • Truffaut's The 400 Blows
  • Chabrol's La Femme Infidele
  • The Triplets of Belleville
  • Bergman's Smiles Of A Summer Night
  • Wong's In The Mood For Love
Any other good candidates?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Chantoozie Boings Back



• The pegster went under the knife this week. A large benign tumor needed to be scooped out. She was stoical in the extreme, setting, every step of the way, examples for wimpy humans like me to follow. She was a bit dopey from the Mickey Finn for a few hours, but was soon back to her hellraising self in the morning. She pilfered and feasted on a bag of cookies and I was never happier to see her do it.

• I met Mike Slagor when, as student president of the cinema club at my college, he asked me to be advisor. We've always been pals though, never prof and student. He called me the other day from grad school in Illinois to tell me that his local indie/arts video store was having a giant VHS sale and did I want anything in particular? Well, duh. Max Ophuls, of course. Mike braved the mob scene, stood in line, and snapped up my requests: The Earrings Of Madame De..., Liebelei and Caught. It has been one of my standing resolutions to spend my life hunting down every Ophuls film I can find. The hunt is afoot, and thanks, Mike.

• Mark your calendars, set your timers. TCM is doing Douglas Sirk's sublime The Tarnished Angels on Sunday at 4 pm Eastern. Based on the Faulkner novel Pylon, it stars Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack. It's notoriously hard to come by, let alone in widescreen, so here's your chance.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

You Know, I've Never Seen That



It's hotter than July and I'm cranky. Today, I give you: biases.

I like my sci-fi movies doomy and dystopic (2001, Blade Runner), and not overly plot- and action-driven. I have a prejudice against lavish period epics both old and new. I used to think that violence in movies was cool, but now it seems such a bore — unless the filmmaker does something really interesting with it (Cronenberg, Woo, Peckinpah, Haneke). I don't just loathe corn, I fear it — Bollywood can do that to you. And finally, I don't get fantasy.

Self-Styled Siren has a large list of movies to be seen (and not seen). It reminds me that I've never seen the following:

  • The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
  • Any Star Wars movie except Star Wars, which I thought great fun at the time.
  • Willy Wonka. I didn't grow up in the U.S.
  • Fight Club.
  • Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.
  • Gladiator.
  • Forrest Gump. Not even Capra-corn, which is the one kind I like.

So, I ask you: What movies have you not seen that everybody else has? And why? And do you really really recommend any of the movies above?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Music Meme

Do you want to be a polyester bride?
Polyester Bride


Michael tagged me with this, but I'd like to pick up his music meme instead, if it's okay with him.

Though I blather mostly about movies here, I spend much more time with music — listening to it, driving to it, playing it.

1. Total volume of music files on your computer.

About 150 GB, split between two machines. I bought my first CD player in 1990, and have spent most of my discretionary income on buying CDs since then. Maybe it was the formative influence of the mad-collage Bollywood music that was my first listening experience as a tot, but I like most all genres (no speed metal, thanks). In terms of volume of music on my computers, the top three genres are probably jazz, hip-hop and indie-rock.

2. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.

Timbaland and Magoo, Under Construction, part II.

3. Song playing right now.

A cover of Television's "Venus" by Chris Stamey, with backing band Yo La Tengo.

4. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs).

All-time faves, this minute:

Miles Davis, "Someday My Prince Will Come".
Frank Sinatra, "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me".
LL Cool J, "Around The Way Girl".
Peggy Lee, "You're Blasé".
Liz Phair, "Polyester Bride".

5. Tag five people.

This meme's old and got whiskers, so I shan't do that. But feel free to swoop down and pick it up if you feel like.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

HHH

Michiko Hada sparks up an opium pipe in Flowers Of Shanghai
Michiko Hada sparks up an opium pipe in Flowers Of Shanghai


Here's the thing. I usually find it not very hard to watch a film and then put down some words about it, perform a little "close reading", point to a few of its aspects that interest me. But what I find fiendishly hard is to say about a director I like, in bullet form with some clarity: These are the precise reasons — bang, bang, bang — why I like his/her films.

And yet, I often feel like this could be an important activity, a distillation of an artist's appeal for you, lucidly articulated for yourself. Should lead to a clearer understanding of that artist in your mind, no?

Well, seeing as I've trumpeted Hou Hsiao-Hsien as my favorite living filmmaker, it's only fair that I try to do as much with him (or to him, the poor fella). So, here goes.

Some reasons why Hou's films truly....knock, me, out:

  • The long takes, with all manner of activity or inactivity in the frame, forcing you to (1) observe, (2) in real time.

  • A non-judgmental presentation within the shot that doesn't guide your eye away from the "less" dramatic to the "more" dramatic areas of the frame. In other words, drama is everywhere.

  • Ellipses. One of my favorite aspects of his work, in which time and events are passed over, elided, when moving from one scene to another, leaving "gaps" in the narrative.

  • This has the miraculous effect of disengaging the connection between cause and effect. Most Hollywood cinema is of course based upon tight linkages between cause and effect, in which all explanation and motivation is strenuously laid out.

  • He almost never uses close-ups. Instead, he keeps you at a distance, and you're craning your neck, leaning in, dying to get closer and soak in every detail, visual and aural. But he holds you back, on purpose. And your curiosity mounts because of it.

  • Most films cut or fade from one scene to another at a point soon after the dramatic arc of the scene has peaked. When Hou transitions to a new scene, it almost always floors me because he chooses a quiet, seemingly unimportant, "undramatic" moment and then (later, in your mind) makes you realize that in real life, any moment can be a dramatic moment if you're being mindful.

  • His attention to these moments of undramatic "dead time" ennobles ordinary life, yours and mine. What are 99% of our days if not ordinary? Hou shows us beauty and significance in the ordinary.

  • No matter what the story of a Hou film, it's also about history.

  • This one's close to my own heart: Hou never disparages so-called "low" culture. He's a lover of pop music and a karaoke addict, and has made both weighty historical films as well as teen movies (the wonderful Daughter Of The Nile) and techno-driven studies of modern life (Millennium Mambo).

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Just Play Them Two Bars Of "Stardust", Just Hang Out One Silly Moon



At this minute, the title of The Perfect Song belongs to "Fools Fall In Love". I've been listening to it and singing it non-stop, all week. At first it was the melody, and then the infection spread to the harmony parts, the bass line, the guitar solo and finally the horn parts. For years, the only version I knew was by jazz guitarist/singer John Pizzarelli. I noticed the songwriting credit on the CD (heavyweights Leiber & Stoller), but had no idea who else had performed it.

And then last week, I was quietly sipping my drink at the coffee shop and minding my own business when a killer version of it came over the speakers. I felt this mainline infusion of pure euphoria for three minutes. I rushed home to iTunes, and within a couple of minutes, had downloaded four different versions:

The Elvis is superb, the Katy Moffatt rollickingly likable, and the Dennis Brown sweet and laid-back, but the winner hands down is the Drifters. A little pop masterpiece, it turned out to be the one from the coffee shop.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Films By Women Directors



Personal faves, ten times two:

Your favorite films by women directors? Please deposit in comments vault. And if your memory needs a little nudging, I can recommend a peek into another vault.

Monday, July 11, 2005

An Anniversary


Mom's anniver-sari

My parents are visiting me. It was their wedding anniversary yesterday. I live twenty minutes from Niagara Falls, so we spent the morning there.

According to anniversary custom, they donned new clothes, and we set out. It was brilliantly sunny. After we got past the security cordon — the aftermath of the London bombings — I settled down on the grass by the falls, just out of reach of the flying spray. My parents scurried up and down the banks of the Niagara river like little kids. Occasionally, they paused along the railing, craned their necks, caught a blast of spray on their faces, and giggled. Meanwhile, I read and drew in my sketchbook, keeping them in the corner of my eye, making sure they were playing safely.

Back home, my dad made a heady Indian dinner, while my mom, oblivious to my vigorous protestations, descended to the semi-dark of the basement to do my laundry, pair my socks and fold my shirts. After dinner, we watched a soap opera together on the 24-hour Tamil station on satellite TV.

This morning, I was in a meeting. A colleague leaned towards me in her chair and whispered in my ear, "Nice tie, Girish,....and um....listen, I think you're wearing one blue and one black sock..."

Friday, July 08, 2005

You Never Know On The Internet


"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner.


John Seroff and I have been reading each other's blogs and e-mailing about music and movies since I first discovered his site last year. Recently, he guest blogged here on a film meme, and I doodled him a logo.

So, imagine my surprise when he mentioned me (scroll way down), bestowing upon me the female pronoun. "Hate to break your heart, babe," I felt impelled to drop everything and write, "but I'm a BOY!". I soon received his sheepish reply. "Whoops," he said, "Coulda sworn you had titties". Goes to show.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Truffaut

Le Caméra Stylo

The first filmmaker I felt like I discovered for myself was François Truffaut. (Satyajit Ray doesn't really count because I grew up with his films on television and in my head since before I can even remember, so I have no recollection of ever "discovering" him).

In my late teens, Truffaut gave me my first taste of auteur cinema, and I've been a director-centered movie watcher ever since. About the same time, I happened upon two amazing books: James Monaco's The New Wave, and Annette Insdorf's Francois Truffaut. They taught me that simply watching films and responding to them intuitively is fine, but when you read what good writers have to say about films, it opens up a world of ideas that you can bring to every other film you watch for the rest of your life.

I pulled them off the shelf today and noticed how frayed they are, inscribed with excited marginalia, streaked with hieroglyphic drawings, and generously paved with highlights and underlines.

I haven't revisited a Truffaut film in several years, and I'm a little nervous that what once seemed revelatory and magical in the flush of my young Doinel years will now seem a bit less so. To be fair to Truffaut, there is a tendency among cinephiles to disparage him at the expense of some other and deservedly more eminent filmmakers, but I wonder if some of that isn't due to the broad renown he achieved that those directors didn't.

I'm pretty confident that my favorites (The 400 Blows, Shoot The Piano Player, The Story Of Adele H., The Wild Child) will remain undimmed by time. About some of the others, I'm not completely sure. I need to risk shattering the movie raptures of my teen years by returning to them to find out.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Bullet hole in St. Moritz hotel window, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935)

Ah, the vicissitudes of time.

1935. England. Hitchcock makes The Man Who Knew Too Much. It gets great reviews ("exciting plot!....suspenseful pace!"). Soon, Selznick comes calling. Hitchcock moves to America to make Rebecca. The fifties arrive. He gets more stylistically ambitious, discovers color and widescreen.

1955. He remakes The Man Who Knew Too Much. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. The reviews are lukewarm. It turns out, they prefer the old English version ("literary quality", "plausibility, "restraint"). They don't like his casting choices (Doris Day? Singing in a Hitchcock movie? What's he going to do next, remake Mr. and Mrs. Smith?).

Time passes. It's the seventies. Twin missiles, psychoanalytical and feminist criticism, slam into film studies. Suddenly, the Jimmy Stewart-Doris Day version is rediscovered. It's really a film about the fragility of family, the balancing-act of marriage. And stylistically, it's operatic and gutsy — why couldn't they see that in the fifties? The casting of Doris Day is downright brilliant, she's a natural performer inside and outside the movie. And yet forbidden to perform for a living by her husband Jimmy Stewart. "Are we about to have our monthly fight?" she asks. In reply, he opens his medicine bag and gives her a stiff sedative.

Present day. We revisit them both. The 1935 original? It's not very literary after all (thank God, if literary means merely stuffed with clever dialogue). It's something rarer: a movie that tells its story visually. And with witty, jolting cuts.

But in the remake, quickly-drawn one-dimensional baddies from the original become complex, sympathetic figures. The Albert Hall sequence is mind-blowing. 12 minutes, 125 shots, not a single word spoken, concluding with a blood-curdling Doris Day scream and the mighty crash of a cymbal that saves a life. As for the above-mentioned feminist readings, it turns out they were sharp and prescient.

To sum up, no contest. "Let's say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur," Hitchcock told Truffaut, "and the second was made by a professional". Amen.

And now, over to you. Remakes you fancy? Duck into the comment cave below if you dare, or care.