Thursday, September 29, 2005
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
When I was a kid, I spent a few weeks each summer with my grandparents in Madras, a mere thirteen degrees north of the equator. This meant scorching days and sweaty nights, with no escape except for two hours of oblivion each evening in "The Tent" — a makeshift movie theater with a giant hood of thick gray tarp; hard, back-less benches for seats; and a beautiful white sheet of muslin for a screen. Upon this magic carpet would be projected old black-and-white flickers that seemed like they had been slumbering underground since Mahabharatan times.
All this to say that the texture of film upon its projection surface is something I've always responded to strongly. When I saw Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers recently on a giant screen, it looked as if a rich layer of chocolate-coated celluloid had been laid carefully upon that old crisp sheet of muslin. The voluptuous black-and-white texture of this movie is a thing to behold. Furthermore, it's filmed in the ancient Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1), which deepens the feeling that it is some kind of buried object, recently unearthed.
Monday, September 26, 2005
Conversation With Father John
One of my cinephile acquaintances in town is a Jesuit priest, Father John (certainly not his real name). I ran into him on the subway this morning.
Me: So, Father...seen anything good lately?
Fr. John: I should say so. The 40 Year Old Virgin. Have you seen it?
Me: No, I haven't.
Fr. John: Well, you should. Did you read what the New Yorker had to say about it?
Fr. John: They called it...dirty...and funny. And that's exactly what it is...a dirty, funny film.
Me: [clearing my throat] Yeah. [pause] Anything else you've liked?
Fr. John: The Aristocrats. I'm sure you've seen that.
Me: Actually, no.
Fr. John: Really, why?
Me: I'm being a wuss about it. See, I don't know the joke, and everybody's been telling me that it's the most horrible, nauseating joke ever, and that's just scared me off.
Fr. John: [downward wave of the hand] Ehh...it's not so bad.
Fr. John: Yeah, it's just a joke. It's offensive, but it's not that bad.
Fr. John: [pause] You know, I could just tell you the joke now, and then you wouldn't have to worry about it.
[Long pause, while I picture in my head the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hearing the world's most obnoxious joke from a black-clad-and-collared Jesuit priest on a crowded subway]
Me: Nah, that's okay, Father. I think I'll just see the film.
Fr. John: Good for you.
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Toronto Film Festival--"A History Of Violence"
Some movies, great though they might be, begin to recede in your memory in the days and weeks after you’ve seen them. Others inexplicably gain in strength and resonance, burrowing deep into your brain. This is definitely happening to me with David Cronenberg’s amazing new film, A History Of Violence.
Where to begin? There is a multitude of reasons why this movie is fascinating; here are just a few:
Personally, I have never liked the idea of art movies confined to their own little ghetto, cherished and admired by an elitist and incestuous cinephile community. A History Of Violence is that rare thing: a brilliant, canny hybrid of mainstream film and art film.
Another pet idea of mine: It’s exciting when art, like a subversive, saboteur virus, steals out of its ghetto and roams the world outside, infiltrating popular forms and making mainstream audiences stop and think every once in a while, “Wait a second, there's something funny going on here…”. If the mall crowd that goes to see A History Of Violence perceives it as nothing more than just a mainstream Hollywood thriller, the world will be no worse off. But, if the complexity of the film appeals to their intelligence and stops them short for just a single moment of self-inquiry, Cronenberg will have achieved his objective. And this is a prospect that thrills me.
One of the great things about this film is its tone — pure and steady and distanced and cool. The tone of a filmmaker often betrays his or her attitude toward the material by tipping it in a particular direction — think of the dark surrealism of David Lynch or the faint cynicism in some of the Coens’ movies. The miracle of Cronenberg’s uninflected tone is that it doesn’t cue us which way to go.
Like great pop music, this is a gloriously accessible film. But accessible as what? And to whom? These are the questions that Cronenberg poses to the audience.
For a movie with a sweeping, taxonomic title, very little of the screen time is spent on violence. Like every other thing in this film, the staging of the violence is downright brilliant. It occurs in brief staccato spasms, and is over in a flash, the way it is in real life. What really interests Cronenberg here is life lived before and after those acts of violence.
The violence struck me, by turns, as: horrifying, justified, tragic, cathartic, even occasionally comic-macabre. Cronenberg appears to be saying: Violence is a complex idea, and to do justice to it, you need to realize that it can provoke complex reactions from us when we witness it.
The movie implicates its audience, making it complicit.
The violence is shot intimately, in close-up. It’s not stylized or aestheticized or extended as in Sam Peckinpah or John Woo. Instead, it’s clinical and documentary.
Yes, the movie works powerfully as an allegory of post-9/11 America. This one aspect alone would make even lesser movies automatically interesting.
Cronenberg deadpans: “I think A History Of Violence can be seen as a red-state movie in a red state and a blue-state movie in a blue state.”
All my serious talk gives no clue about how darn funny this movie is. Its bone-dry absurdist wit would simply collapse into trivial hip irony in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. “I can’t believe you didn’t grow up in Portland,” says a character in the film’s funniest line. (Here is a sign of the movie’s sophistication: I would be at a hopeless loss to explain to you why this line is so funny. You’re just going to have to see it.)
I have already gone on too long. I just glanced at my yellow pad and realized that I’ve only touched on about half of my bullets. Here are some of the unfired ones: Rorschach; perversely idealized small town life; revenge western; body horror; graphic novel; two sex scenes, one a cheerleader fantasy and the other right out of J.G. Ballard; role playing; Millbrook, Indiana is actually Millbrook, Ontario; Norman Rockwell; and Robert Bresson.
Here’s what this long-winded post is trying to say: see the movie, will ya? And let’s talk about it in the comments section, okay?
Friday, September 23, 2005
I'm excited. It looks like I'll be writing semi-regularly about film for the Buffalo alt-weekly, the Art Voice. My first piece appeared in today's issue, pictured above; it was on the Toronto film festival. I'm also working on articles about David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence and Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, which will appear in the next couple of weeks.
Unfortunately, the articles won't be easily accessible online (they'll be in — yuck — pdf format), but maybe I'll post excerpts or even complete reviews from time to time.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Toronto Film Festival--"The Quiet"
So, I'm doodling at a restaurant table one evening last week, and Martin Donovan walks by all suited and booted. Now, I'm not a big celebrity watcher (or even a small one) but my antennae perk right up because I'm a big fan of the films he made with Hal Hartley. So I quickly check the schedule and sure enough, he's in an obscure little teen movie called The Quiet. I pull out my wad of tickets and decide to pass on Takeshi Kitano's ill-reviewed doppelwanker movie.
The Quiet turns out to be a wonderfully tart surprise. In addition to Donovan it stars Edie Falco and Elisha Cuthbert (both pitch-perfect), and is a suburban psychodrama with an eerie, hushed mood. A teenage girl (Camilla Belle) who has been rendered deaf-mute by the trauma of losing her parents comes to live with her godparents and their troubled daughter (Cuthbert) in a moneyed suburb. Rather than assuming, like so many suburban satires, an easy pose of glibness, the movie instead aims for atmosphere and disorientation. This has the curious effect of making suburban life seem unfamiliar and almost subterranean.
Much of the film is shot at night, blue light streaking across bedrooms through slashes of venetian blinds. The soundtrack feels like it was recorded under the ocean, perfectly simulating a foggy world devoid of hearing. All these touches add up to a creepily subjective view of what it might mean to be a damaged, disabled suburban teen living in a household where she might be the healthiest, sanest one.
When the film ends, and I am trying to imagine the admirably askew mind behind it, director Jamie Babbit steps up to the microphone to take questions. She is unpretentiously clad in rumpled T-shirt and hip-hugging jeans, cradling and cooing to a baby in her arms while she addresses the audience's bewildered questions. She seems, outwardly anyway, as normal as her movie is not.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Toronto Film Festival--"Three Times"
Hou Hsiao-Hsien, from Taiwan, is probably my favorite living filmmaker, and so his new one, Three Times, was unsurprisingly the movie that affected me most in Toronto.
Three Times contains three stories. In the first, set in 1966, young men and women languidly while away their days in pool halls, sipping beer while pop tunes waft in the air. In the second, set in 1911, personal and political dilemmas intersect in a brothel. The final segment (and the darkest) is set in teeming present-day Taipei among young bohemians, experimenting with sex and drugs, and adrift in transitory relationships.
I've seen it just once, but a few things fascinate me right away about this film:
The same actress and actor (Shu Qi and Chang Chen) play lovers in all three stories — it’s almost like they are “reincarnating” their roles over a span of a hundred years. (What a cool idea.)
In an interview, Shu Qi even made a quick reference to the Chinese belief of reincarnation: in each successive life, we are intended to “correct” the problems and difficulties of previous lives. Only, the opposite seems to be happening in this film — our lives seem more aimless and fragmented now than they were forty years ago.
The original Chinese title of the film is Best Of Times. Hou, like a popular musician, is drawing from his “discography” of films for these three stories. The first reminds me in look and mood of A Time To Live And A Time To Die or Dust In The Wind; the second is set in a brothel like Flowers Of Shanghai; and the third clearly recalls the modern neon-smeared interior spaces of Millennium Mambo. So, Hou has created a sort of compilation album, only he has “remade” the ideas and memories behind his previous films into new stories.
I have previously mentioned my interest in improvisation, so it’s delightful to discover that Hou had no real script for the film, simply a few notes that were given to the actors, who weren’t told exactly where to stand, sit or move about (no blocking), and didn’t know when the camera was rolling and when it wasn’t.
Shu Qi likened Hou to a professor. He would assign books, music and other materials for his actors to immerse in as they were developing their characters. She said (only half-jokingly) that he gave them “pop quizzes” during shooting.
Here’s how the film opens, in utterly intoxicating fashion: men and women gracefully and wordlessly play pool, in a luxuriatingly extended scene, to the strains of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. It’s one of those rare times I wished I could simply, quietly, slide out of my life and into the film, and live there forever.
I have always believed that cinema is conceived (especially by the truly great moviemakers) to be more “subjective” (and less literalist) than we realize or give it credit for. That opening scene I mentioned? Though it features the two lead characters (obviously in love), Hou has said that the scene bears no relation to anything else that follows. It’s not a flashback or a flash-forward — and it has absolutely nothing to do with the story. It’s simply there. And somehow, that’s reason enough for me.
Sunday, September 18, 2005
Toronto International Film Festival
In the last couple of weeks I caught about thirty movies and hung out with fellow cinemaphile pals. The screenings and the discussions and debates that ensued were both exhilarating and exhausting. I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation before I can re-orient myself to reality.
Toronto is a lovely city, especially in neon night-light, and it was a thrill to loll in cafés, sipping chai and people-watching, or roam downtown, looking for restaurants with good ethnic food (easily accomplished). And I even got a chance to dine at leisure with an impossibly elegant and erudite siren, which proved delightful.
As for the movies, here's a quick summary glance.
- Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan)
- L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
- A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, Canada)
- Caché (Michael Haneke, Austria)
- The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
- The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
- The Quiet (Jamie Babbit, USA)
- The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, Russia)
- Instructions For A Light And Sound Machine (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria)
- Les Amants Réguliers (Philippe Garrel, France)
- The Forsaken Land (Vimukthi Jayasundara, Sri Lanka)
- Entre La Mer Et L'Eau Douce (Michel Brault, Canada, 1967)
- À Travers La Forêt (Jean-Paul Civeyrac, France)
- Vers Le Sud (Laurent Cantet, France)
Good & Solid:
- Perpetual Motion (Ning Ying, China)
- Something Like Happiness (Bohdan Slama, Czech Republic)
- Manderlay (Lars Von Trier, Denmark)
- My Dad Is 100 Years Old (Guy Maddin, Canada)
- Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, USA)
Others — some interesting, some disappointing:
- Le Temps Qui Reste (Francois Ozon, France)
- I Am (Dorota Kedzierzawska, Poland)
- Mary (Abel Ferrara, USA/France)
- Shanghai Dreams (Wang Xiaoshuai, China)
- Ballets Russes (Dan Geller & Dayna Goldfine, USA)
- Gilaneh (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad & Mohsen Abdolvahab, Iran)
I'll post individual jottings on some favorite films over the next couple of weeks. That's about how long it usually takes for film festival hangover to subside.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
I'll be gone for a bit, after which a brief burst of busy-ness hits, so posting will be light to nonexistent for the next ten days or so. But I'll be back — with tidings of new movies.
I've spoken about John Seroff before. He has, after a little semi-hiatus, thankfully returned to blogland. I leave you with a chestnut from his archives. (John — you so funny).
Take care, peoples.
Sunday, September 04, 2005
Blues In A Major Key
Sometimes, the curve of a rich man’s mouth tells you everything there is to know about him.
As our collective shame unfolded last week, it did so globally. One of my first sources was writer Sonia Faleiro's blog, in Mumbai, India.
Last year, my friend Gordon and I wrote a short paper on how college faculty could apply principles of jazz improvisation in the classroom. We took the paper to a conference in New Orleans. It was my first trip there. I could not get over how similar New Orleans was to Calcutta — the gleeful heat, the musical ether, the vast waterfront, but most of all the masala-gumbo of humanity. The beignets at Cafe Du Monde reminded me of the rosogollas at KC Das on the Esplanade. Satchmo and Tagore seemed like brother-poets.
Last week, I happened to flash back to a deluged Calcutta afternoon of my childhood when my father abandoned his prized possession — his new car, submerged in opaque brown water — and swam home through the monsoon streets with me strapped to his back like a knapsack. The waters receded overnight and the city returned to its casual and customary disorder in about a week. How lucky we were.
Thursday, September 01, 2005
One Year Later
At the wheel of Grandpa's old black Fiat
I started this blog on my birthday a year ago at the urging of my friend Joey. After dinner and a few beers together, he set up a Blogger account for me and commanded me to draw and write something for my first post. I'm so glad that he did.
From the beginning, I hoped this wouldn't exclusively be a filmblog — although film will always be my primary interest, I suspect — but instead (and how narcissistic does this sound?) a blog that was sort of a mirror of my own self. Thank you, dear reader, for tolerating and humoring that notion over the course of the past year.
A word on the curious topknot above. I asked my mom about it and she said this: "When you were little, we lived in New Delhi for a couple of years. You were a sociable kid. Many of the auto rickshaw drivers were Sikh, and you liked to chat them up. One day, you asked me to tie you a Sikh-style topknot. It was a big hit whenever we went out. Soon, you refused to leave home without it. I think the topknot infatuation period lasted about a year."