Monday, August 29, 2005

Conversations With My Mom: Toronto



Mom: So, tell me about the friends you'll be in Toronto with.
Me: Well, let's see. Doug is a graphic artist who works at Cal Tech and lives in Los Angeles; Darren is finishing up his PhD in English literature, and will be a lit prof soon — he lives in Knoxville, Tennessee; Rob, from San Francisco, is a computer whiz but I think he's going to be a full-time writer of fiction one day; and J. Robert is a film critic from Chicago. And if we're lucky, a friend from Brooklyn may fly in too.
Mom: And what about your friend who sent us the gift of those great Ozu movies that your dad and I have been watching?
Me: Acquarello — he lives in Washington DC, and is a space engineer at NASA. He won't be in Toronto though, he'll be in New York instead.
Mom: So, where will you stay?
Me: We'll all be together at the same hotel.
Mom: What will you eat? Are there Indian restaurants in Toronto?
Me: Yes, Mom, there are. And I like Western food a lot too, you know.
Mom: Try to be good, okay? [she means "no alcohol" — it's a Hindu thing]
Me: Okay, Mom. [shame on you, lying to your own mother]
Mom: How many movies will you watch?
Me: I'll probably see about thirty. Like three or four a day.
Mom: Won't that make your head spin?
Me: No, it's great fun, although it takes a day or two to get into the rhythm of the thing. It's actually such an intense jolt of movie-watching and socializing that the week after the festival is brutally depressive.
Mom: Will you get a chance to go to the jazz nightclubs like you usually do?
Me: No, but I'm excited for a rock concert we have tickets for.
Mom: Tell me, do they show any Indian movies at the festival?
Me: Very few. Perhaps a couple of high-profile Bollywood films but they don't usually interest me.
Mom: What about New Cinema movies?
Me: Alas, almost zero. No Mrinal Sen or Shyam Benegal or Mani Kaul or Aparna Sen. Which is a drag. But on the plus side, they screen something like 300 films, and I'll be lucky if I can squeeze in a tenth of those.
Mom: Well, don't watch too many movies. Your eyes'll go bad.
Me: Mom, we're not discussing that again.
Mom: Okay, but make sure you eat well in Toronto. You're a growing boy.
Me: Mom, I'm not a growing boy.
Mom: But you're skinny, you need to eat.
Me: Mom, I just remembered something. I gotta go.
Mom: Yes, that's what you always say.
Me: Do I?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Alternative Comics

A few years ago, I fell under the spell of two very different films directed by Terry Zwigoff.

One of them, Crumb (1994), was a documentary about the legendary alternative cartoonist; and the other was a teen film made from a comic book by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World (2001).

I felt like I had just discovered a great American art-form that had been hiding under a rock — the world of alternative comics. I spent several months reading nothing but alt-comics. [More on that obsessive period later].

From last year, here's a virgin stab at trying to hand-make a little alt-comics strip.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Conversations With My Mom: The Red Circle



Mom: Do you remember when you were a little boy, your dad's best friend owned a movie theater, and we lived next door to it?
Me: Do I ever.
Mom: The ushers were instructed to let you in for free whenever you came by.
Me: Those were the days.
Mom: I don't think you even liked movies until that point.
Me: Really?
Mom: Yeah, the theater — it was called the Globe — played mostly old Tamil and Hindi movies, and once in a while they'd show a classic foreign movie or some kung-fu film. Soon, you were slipping off and going to the movies several times a week. Unbeknownst to us, of course.
Me: Do you remember some of the movies?
Mom: Well, there was the time — you'll get a kick out of this — you saw two shows daily of this one movie, all week long. You must've seen the movie ten times. And then, we found out — to our horror — that it was a blue movie!
Me: Hmm.
Mom: We had to spank you, of course.
Me: Of course.
Mom: And I remember the first foreign film you ever saw. It was a little gangster movie from France called Le Cercle Rouge.
Me: I fell in love with that thing. I think I even drew a little comic book about it.
Mom: The local newspaper didn't print film reviews in those days, it was all word of mouth. We didn't know anyone who had seen the film but we read your comic book one evening, and the movie sounded like it might be fun, so your dad and I went to see it.
Me: Did you like it?
Mom: It was beautiful. It had almost no dialogue, it wasn't like your usual gangster movie at all, it was really quiet, and because there was so little dialogue you got all hypnotized by the pictures, by the visuals...[dreamy pause]...I haven't seen it since then, have you?
Me: [thinking fast] No, I haven't.
Mom: Is it on video or DVD?
Me: Nope. [bare-faced lie]
Mom: Let me know if it ever comes out on DVD, okay?
Me: I will, but I wouldn't hold my breath. You know, there are many many great movies that will probably never make it to DVD...
Mom: What a shame...[sighs, then heads for the kitchen to feed the dog]
[I watch her until she turns the corner, then I step over to the computer and fire up Amazon. It's been two weeks of hell looking for the right birthday present for my mom, and would you believe it, this one fell right into my lap].

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Comfort Movies



"Anyone else got a pile?" asks Darren.

Right now, my night-stand contains a pile of books: Emily Dickinson; alt-comics artist Jaime Hernandez's Locas In Love; Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory; and Donald Barthelme's Not-Knowing: The Essays And Interviews. In addition, there are two piles of DVD's. Here's why:

It's late. I'm awake but I know I'll be sleeping peacefully within the hour. I put down the book I'm reading and reach for a DVD to ease into oblivion with. Two choices here.

• DVD pile #1: Canon Movies — great, amazing films, all of which I've seen before and love but could see a dozen times more. At this moment:

  • Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris
  • Max Ophuls' Lola Montes
  • Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt
  • Alain Resnais' La Guerre Est Finie
  • Chris Marker's La Jetée
  • Alexander Sokurov's Mother And Son
  • the John Cassavetes box set.
• DVD pile #2: Comfort Movies — wonderful films that are proudly unguilty pleasures. I've seen these too often to disclose — it would be almost embarrassing. Right now, they are:

  • Steve Kloves' The Fabulous Baker Boys
  • Hal Hartley's Surviving Desire
  • Whit Stillman's The Last Days Of Disco
  • Wes Anderson's Rushmore
  • Ernst Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle
  • Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman Is A Woman
  • Jacques Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday
  • Howard Hawks' Hatari and The Big Sleep
  • To be added this week: the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers box set

Comfort movies serve an important purpose in my life. For a recovering insomniac, they lay down a plush ambience for me to drift off in. And when I'm gone, they keep me clear of nightmares or anxiety dreams. It's quite funny — I mean, is there no end to the service that we call upon art to perform for us in our lives?

So, your comfort movies?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Conversations With My Mom: Auteur Theory



Mom: Your dad and I just watched Ball Of Fire and Crime Of Passion, both with Barbara Stanwyck. Have you seen them?
Me: Just Ball Of Fire. It's great.
Mom: How come you haven't seen the other one? I thought you liked Barbara Stanwyck.
Me: I love Barbara Stanwyck. Ball Of Fire is by Howard Hawks, one of my favorite directors. But Crime Of Passion is...by some obscure guy [Gerd Oswald].
Mom: So, even though you love Barbara Stanwyck, you wouldn't see a movie just to see her in it?
Me: No, not always.
Mom: But she's wonderful in everything she does.
Me: She sure is.
Mom: So, why are you so gung-ho on directors?
Me: [pause, bracing myself] It's something called...[ahem]...the "auteur theory".
Mom: [cocks an eyebrow] Come again?
Me: Here's an example: All the movies by Hawks tend to be similar, have a certain style, a certain attitude. They repeat ideas and characters and themes...
Mom: Is this the guy who directed those two movies you made us watch last week?
Me: Yeah, Rio Bravo and El Dorado.
Mom: But they were both really the same movie!
Me: Yeah, wasn't that great?
Mom: No. Why would you want a director to repeat himself, make the same movie all over again?
Me: [defensively] Well, Mom, they're not exactly the same, there are cool little differences....But the big reason why they're so great is because every one of his movies is a Hawks movie....It's like every movie he makes has his fingerprints all over it, you know? His unique way of seeing the world, it's in every one of his movies....[trailing off]
Mom: [pauses, then smiles mischievously and throws in a word she has recently picked up from American television]: Whatever.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Outta Here



I've been on sabbatical and haven't stepped in a classroom in nine months. The last several weeks have been spent prepping for the new semester which looms ever closer. Before it arrives, I need one final escape. I'm packing it in, entrusting my golden retriever to my humoring parents and heading north to join the long, snaking, slow-moving post-9/11 line of cars waiting to cross the border into Canada. My couple of days in Toronto will be spent:

I've been vigorously updating and expanding my links list lately, so click away — you never know what you'll find.

Stay cool, peoples. I'll see you Thursday.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Anime

I know pitifully little about anime. My friend Doug, whose versatility ranges from being a Bresson expert to an animation connoisseur, turned me on to Hayao Miyazaki a while back. So far, I've seen Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Most recently, I watched his 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro and was captivated, puzzled and a bit unsettled by it. (This, I have come to realize, is a typical and appropriate response to Miyazaki).

Two sisters, eight and fifteen, move to the countryside with their father, an anthropology professor, and make friends with a Totoro, a large forest spirit, that lives in a camphor tree. (Their father never questions or disbelieves them). Meanwhile, their mother is dying, probably of TB — this being the 1950's — and the girls adapt and adjust to their new rural home. The plot is not earth-shaking, and the movie is the better for it. In the most exciting scene, the sisters simply wait at a bus-stop in the night rain for their father, their colossal furry friend by their side. Overall, it's a far cry from the adrenalinized ride through the average American toon.

The way I see it, Nature is the central Miyazaki preoccupation. Not a cuddly-happy, big-bosomed-mother-nature utopia but instead Nature as a vast, mysterious, threatening, sometimes indifferent, sometimes cruel, but beautiful and vital living thing. Moody sky, wet fields, gleaming tadpoles, mountainous trees, creepy underbrush, growling lightning, kindly ghosts — these are the vivid images that Miyazaki wants to leave you with in lieu of elaborate plot and complex psyschology (though these latter elements are not absent).

In addition to Miyazaki, I've seen two films by Mamoru Oshii. One of them, Ghost In The Shell II: Innocence, is my favorite anime. I simply love its Godardian perpetual digressiveness, and it made me cry whoopee both times I saw it.

So, your favorite anime films and directors? And why?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Konichiwa

Dear reader — The traffic to this site has been trending up steadily over the summer and I am truly touched that there are people who actually want to read my ramblings and then...come back for more!

I'd like to offer you, as a token of my gratitude, a mix CD I just made. It's called Konichiwa, and it even sports some hand-drawn artwork to go (pic at left). If you're interested, I'd be glad to send it your way. You can drop me an e-mail and let me know a snail-mail address I can send it to.

The idea for this mix was born when I first encountered the song "Konichiwa Bitches" by Swedish teen-pop singer Robyn, flat-out one of the funniest, smartest tunes I've heard in months. The album remains unreleased in the U.S. but I scored the song from Fluxblog earlier this year. As for the Konichiwa mix, it is mostly a melange of indie-rock and hip-hop with a dash of jazz seasoning:

  • "Konichiwa Bitches" (Robyn)
  • "Venus" (Chris Stamey & Yo La Tengo) orig. by Television
  • "Dying In Stereo" (Northern State)
  • "What's On Your Mind?" (Eric B. & Rakim)
  • "Dream Girl" (Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto with Baldwin Brothers)
  • "Don't You Want Me?" (Future Bible Heroes) orig. by Human League
  • "Little Digger" (Liz Phair)
  • "Inside And Out" (Feist) orig. by Bee Gees
  • "The Girl I Can't Forget" (Fountains Of Wayne)
  • "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" (Decemberists)
  • "Nothing Is Cool" (McEnroe & Birdapres)
  • "Get It Through Your Heart" (Robert Palmer)
  • "What Cha' Gonna Do For Me" (Chaka Khan)
  • "Know That" (Mos Def)
  • "Hear The Wind Blow" (Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips) orig. by Mazzy Star
  • "Fools Fall In Love" (John Pizzarelli)
  • "Harvest" (The Shins) orig. by Neil Young
  • "The Nearness Of You" (Ricky Nelson)
  • "Moody's Mood For Love" (Urbaniak)
  • "Moody's Mood For Love" (King Pleasure)
  • "Something Good" (Caetano Veloso)

Thank you for continuing to come by!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Conversations With My Mom: Gandhi


Illustration by Keshav

Mom: Your dad and I want to buy you the Gandhi DVD for your birthday.
Me: Hmm....no need for that.
Mom: But we want to.
Me: That's okay, mom.
Mom: Why? Don't you like Gandhi?
Me: I love Gandhi.
Mom: [pause] Are you talking about the movie or the man?
Me: The man.
Mom: What about the movie?
Me: The movie's fine.
Mom: But you don't think it's...great?
Me: It's fine.
Mom: It's a great movie about a great man.
Me: It's a movie about a great man.
Mom: Why isn't it a great movie?
Me: I don't know...it has good intentions, but it's a bit conventional.
Mom: [pause] Do you want a movie to be unconventional, or do you want it to touch and move and inspire millions of people?
Me: [searching] Hmm....
Mom: So, it would please your father and me if you had a copy of the movie in the house. You could loan it to friends, maybe even show it to your students.
Me: [long pause] Will it make you happy to give me Gandhi, to know that I had it?
Mom: Yes.
Me: That's settled, then.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Too High, Can't Come Down

Jessica Williams is probably my favorite living jazz pianist. So, it's a little weird to discover that you can even get her to play in your house ("sorry, no uprights"). While rock icons regularly sell out arenas, what does that say about the economic health of jazz as an art-form?

Oddly enough, jazz and movies are about the same age. In 1895, when the Lumière brothers were making the very first movies — their minute-long actualités — in France, Scott Joplin had his first two ragtime pieces published as sheet music in Texas, simultaneously sowing the seeds of jazz.

Jessica's playing is cinematic in that you can almost see in its panoramic sweep the entire history of jazz piano from Joplin to the present. 1920's stride, 1930's Teddy Wilson, 1940's bop, 1950's hard bop, 1960's free and post-bop — it's all in there, filtered through her own strong personal style.

• Before there were blogs, before the online film mag down under, cinephiles roaming the web were sure to find themselves sooner or later at the door of Acquarello's vast museum. For his quiet devotion and longtime dedication to international cinema, he's darned difficult to beat. Last week, he commented earthily on the Antonioni segment in the omnibus film Eros: "I was really hoping that Antonioni was turning over a new leaf with this film, but when that Kenny G.-like makeout music played again in the background to the sex scene, it felt more as though he were still stuck in that same randy old man vibe of Beyond the Clouds...". I couldn't agree more.

• My computer, large though it is, contains but one Britney Spears song. But what a little masterwork "Toxic" is — the tightly coiled string sample and hair-raising chord changes, the acoustic rhythm guitar (how wonderfully absurd in the hyper-processed context of the production), and that monster three-note electric guitar line. Especially for about 30 seconds from 0:55 to 1:25, it takes absolute and lethal possession of your brain.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Director Commentaries



Truth be told, I don't make it past the first few minutes on most DVD director commentary tracks. They often tend to dwell on the minutiae of casting, shooting and production that can, frankly, bore me to tears. Neither am I a fan of those that explicate in relentless demystifying detail every frame and every symbol in a movie — it can be murder by dissection. Even the prodigiously articulate Atom Egoyan (poor guy) sounds positively pained while administering a Cliff Notes treatment on the Speaking Parts DVD.

But take The Ninth Gate, a ho-hum movie with a fantastic commentary track by Roman Polanski. He is erudite, relaxed, witty, and with a mysterious edge to him (no surprise there). His comments never descend to navel-gazing detail but instead float far and free from art to philosophy to culture and beyond. It feels like you're hanging out with Roman in your den, having a couple of beers with him, getting to know an interesting artist with a rich personality. Now that's an all-too-rare experience.

Another reliable favorite is Robert Altman, who has fortunately recorded a goodly number of these things: 3 Women, Nashville, MASH, The Gingerbread Man, Gosford Park. His tone is low-key, humble and casual but don't mistake it for perfunctory — he might be, to my mind, the closest thing to what Renoir might have sounded like on a commentary track.

So, here are a few favorites:

  • Guy Maddin, in speech (no exaggeration) among the most dazzling of all directors. Unfortunately, he gets bogged down a bit by his co-writer and former professor George Toles on the commentary to Careful and Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs, but is at his best when flying solo, like on Tales From The Gimli Hospital.
  • Wes Anderson on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.
  • Todd Haynes, best by himself, not saddled with cast or crew members.
  • Claire Denis in conversation with Kent Jones on Friday Night.
  • Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs on The Limey.

Director commentary tracks you like? And why?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Tout Le Monde

Me And You And Tout Le Monde

• I haven't thought of high-school physics or the cover of The Dark Side Of The Moon in a very long time. And then I caught up with Miranda July's Me And You And Everyone We Know, the best thing I've seen in the theaters so far this year. With most new filmmakers, it takes the audience a couple of films to nail down their sensibility, scan their preoccupations, begin connecting the dots that define their aesthetic identities. But Miranda July's mind has all the lucidity of a crystalline prism. The outside world goes in, and then emerges, refracted, rendered mystic yet concrete, through her magical, melancholic sensibility. Her tone and touch are so assured and her vision so fully developed that it's hard to believe that this is only her first feature film.

• Sometimes the maddening movies stay with you — and yammer into your mind's ear — longer than the perfect ones do. Elia Kazan's Splendor In The Grass is squeezed tight into a pressure cooker of sexual repression. The teenage hormones dribble off the screen while you squirm in your seat. Parents are utter monsters in this movie, and every girl and boy (including Warren Beatty) is bursting with uncontrollable sex fever. Everyone except the madly angelic Natalie Wood, who happens to have a heart as big as the torrential waterfall that opens the film. When she suddenly stands up in her bathtub, outraged at her mother and wearing not a stitch (this in a 1961 movie), the audience feels no titillation, just a heartbreaking chill. Visually, the movie is drop-dead gorgeous, full of Edenic lap-dissolves, and was shot by Boris Kaufman, brother of Dziga Vertov.

• What an inspired site this is. (Thanks, Jim!)

• Other than being tenured profs, I'm not sure how much Powerprof and I have in common. (The other day, she opened a post with: "I'm 18 days late....did I not say that things would get interesting?"). And my life definitely does not have the soap-operatic sweep that hers does.