MEMORIES OF AUGUST (OR, THE BACKLOG CONTINUES)-The aforementioned Gahan concert (as mentioned in my last summing-up) was preceded by a foray to Painted Visions from India and Pakistan, Past and Present The Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition of Indian and Pakistani art, earlier in the day. What struck me about most of the pieces (at least the centuries-old ones that were the main attraction of the show): The simultaneous formality of the figures and the situations in which they’re depicted, the uniqueness of the materials and the vividness of the colors. Graphically, they were very pleasing, and the systematic symbolism of much of it (the figures in some of the paintings were different sizes in proportion to their “importance,” for example), and the cultural contexts and history of Hinduism were made more interesting to me than I imagine any number of books probably could.
-One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder’s Cold War comedy starring James Cagney as a Coca-Cola official in West Berlin shortly after the construction of the wall. I caught my first tantalizing glimpse of this when it was cited in Scorsese’s Personal Journey Through American Movies, and I was excited to watch it. It was broader than I thought it would be, but that makes it even more surprisingly irreverent when one thinks of it in the context of its time. It has the Wilder trademark of being quickly paced and light on its feet, with jokes and asides ping-ponging everywhere; you don’t feel a single moment passing while you watch it.
-Paper Moon. As a huge fan of The Last Picture Show, I couldn’t wait to experience Peter Bogdanovich’s other famous black and white film for the first time. I wasn’t disappointed; the Depression-era story of plucky orphan Addie Pray (played, of course, by Oscar-winning Tatum O’Neal) and the con man (Ryan O'Neal, otherwise known as "Tatum's father") who unwittingly and haplessly takes her under his wing is funny, nicely acted and very entertaining. The O’Neals make a cute comedy team, Madeline Kahn’s unique talents are highlighted, and little P.J. Johnson gives a memorable performance as Imogene, a laconic black maid with a precociousness that generously complements Addie’s.
Bogdanovich’s own story is fascinating, but not pretty; of the signature filmmakers of the seventies’ American golden age of cinema, he’s probably the one who’s been most disgraced (or, depending on whom you ask, the one who’s most disgraced himself); he fell even farther than Coppola. I now feel rather compelled to give What’s Up, Doc?, Bogdonavich’s other “good” one from the Picture Show/Paper Moon period, a whirl. I’ve avoided it, probably because of my aversion to Barbra Streisand, which must be a gay thing; there’s a certain generational line after which we resist the Garland/Davis/Crawford/Streisand thing as too stereotypical, oppressively categorizing, though of course the discerning among us see that it’s infinitely preferable to and much less mindless than the more current Abercrombie/Elton John/Clay Aiken thing.
-The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (novel by Heinrich Boll) and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (film by Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta, once Germany’s answer, with more modern sexual equality in their creative process, to Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina). Ostensibly a story about a young, independent, single working-class woman who lives her life freely and with integrity, and finds herself involved with an even more independent-thinking man who is presumed by the German government to be a terrorist (more on that later). Actually, though, it’s the story of how such a person is suspect to some of the more influential people in a bourgeois society. Boll’s documentarian novel has a satirical edge; it’s hard not to see the ironic predictability of everyone’s behavior. Boll’s Katharina, something of an admirable cipher in both narratives, comes off as the hero(ine) simply for not following the usual corrupt/greedy/self-righteous path of her social “betters” (yes, in addition to the cultural consiousness, there is also quite an astute class consciousness at work here).
Schlondorff and von Trotta’s film has a stone-faced style complementary to Boll’s, but where his resulted in humor, the film is actually more unsettling; the graceful, mysterious Angela Winkler doesn’t have the kind of face one wants to see suffering, and when that face displays both the spirit of Katharina Blum and her systematic crushing by a society which, for all its espoused liberalism, doesn’t suffer fluctuations from the norm, it bespeaks a very immediate human element that the printed word (or at least as printed in Boll’s novel) can’t quite get at.
An interesting side note to Katharina Blum as revealed in the DVD supplements: Both the novel and the film have much to do with the cultural climate of mid-’70s Germany, with its disaffections embodied by the exploits of the Baader-Meinhof gang (something those Luke Haines fans among us are well familiar with through his excellent 1996 concept album about the same). The Baader-Meinhof flames were apparently fanned by a German tabloid magnate called Springer (hence the line in one of the songs on the album, “Springer says/Must be the mood of the times”).
Schlondorff and von Trotta’s deceptive dryness is on further display in Coup de Grace, this time an adaptation of a novel (by Marguerite Yourcenar) I haven’t read. It’s another instance in which the politics of the thing sneak up on you. They sneak up on von Trotta’s character, too- she plays the countess of a clan that’s part of the dying breed of German aristocracy post-World War II, and her affections are torn between her love of a militantly counter-revolutionary officer defending the way of life to which she’s grown accustomed, and her principles, which have only ever come from books. The resulting conflict and final decision are quite the Brechtian example of didacticism, and it works; the rending climactic scene seemsto me to have been a strong influence on a film like Safe, using physical distance, pacing, and proportion to parodoxically provoke empathy. Coup de Grace derives its power from Schlondorff’s insistence on showing evil in (forgive me, Hannah Arendt) all its casual banality. Dubya could never begin to find the comprehension for this one. Valeska Gert has a profoundly unsettling presence as a gargoyle of an unsettling, batty, sickly old aunt whose blue-blooded senility seems in itself reason enough to join the Bolsheviks.
Schlondorff’s really great adaptation, his 1979 film of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, was available on DVD for the shortest time a few years ago and is now offered on eBay for ridiculous sums. I’m crossing my fingers for a Criterion edition or, barring that, just a nice suggested-retail-price re-release. Enough of this “collector’s item” crap; I demand Schlondorff for the masses!
-Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence.
Bergman loosely, almost offhandedly called these three films a trilogy, but the idea does hold, thematically speaking. They were recently released in a deluxe Criterion box set (see the lovely packaging above).
If a point of crystallization could ever be found in Bergman and the perception of Bergman (two very separate things, more often than not), it’s in these three films, and in their spiritually kindred Persona (Through a Glass Darkly was from 1961, Winter Light from ‘62, and The Silence from ‘63, with Persona following in 1966 as a sort of fruition or distillation of what these three films are building towards). Bergman had been working towards austerity and brevity for some time before this (you can see it coming even in Wild Strawberries), but these films bravely teeter on the fence dividing pretention and profundity, and they’re excellent examples of why Bergman films have their reputation as sacred art for secular minds.
Through a Glass Darkly depicts the faith- since love exists in the human world, we have a “reprieve” from our “death sentence”- that’s battered out of a family by mental illness and spiritual anguish; Winter Light stares that faith down and watches helplessly as it shrivels away at the first sign of doubt; The Silence isolates a little boy, his sensous mother, and his cerebral aunt in a hotel in the middle of a completely unknown, forbidding city (perhaps it’s Bergmans vision of the New, Modern World, unmoored from religion and tradition?) to pose the question: In the face of this discredited faith, how can human beings give and get what they need from each other without twisting themselves into emotional contortions, warping what should be soothing and healing into psychological weaponry? You have to look pretty deep to find anything terribly affirmitive in Bergman’s answer to that question, but he does have a graceful way of equivocating without really waffling (he’s through equivocating by the time we get to Persona in 1966, and ever since I read Susan Sontag’s great essay on that film in her book Styles of Radical Will, wherein she asserts that The Silence is a segueway from Bergman’s spiritual- meaning religious- preoccupations to a more austere, humanistic, and profound themes, I’ve thought it the most astute way to think of the Bergman filmography).
The films get progressively stronger; Winter Light, which I’d never seen before, was particularly impressive in its unrelenting focus and intimacy. It’s the shortest and tightest of the three, spanning only a few hours of one afternoon during which a priest, who’s already turned his back on messy human love and ensconsed himself in a sterile, barren, not a little smug ivory tower of religious ritual, experiences a crisis of faith. The amazing Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s perennial cinematographer, outdoes himself here; I think this one and Persona constitute the finest work in an almost incomparably fine career.
Also included in the box is a five part documentery by Vilgot Sjoman (years before he made the I Am Curious films), Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. It follows the making of Winter Light from inception (the scriptwriting, the casting) to preparation (the blocking, the costume design, the location scouting) to shooting to the premiere. It contains a goldmine of interview footage with the famously reclusive Bergman. This, along with Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies and Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography, falls into that rare “indispensable” category as a nuts-and-bolts guide to filmmaking. Something like this is, frankly, much more illuminating in an objective, general way about the process of filmmaking than a director’s audio commentary could ever really be, though those are much better at giving the viewer specific details of interest about the film you’re watching at the moment.
-American Splendor. I described this to my friend Jamie as “working-class Woody Allen film.” It’s the true-life story of underground, R. Crumb-associated cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who’s played here by Paul Giamatti... and and an animated caricature... and himself. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini do a very smooth job of blending styles; in a way, it’s sort of Rashomon-like, with its modernist self-consciousness and shifting perspectives. It is, of course, much funnier than Rashomon; it certainly demystifies the “fame” of the underground, reluctant-Letterman-guest cartoonist, one that still has to work his day job as a file clerk. In a way, it reminded me of what it’s like to have one’s freelance film/music/book reviews published by the sound and shrewd alternative press; gratifying without a doubt, but you don’t really get to feel like you’ve “made it” in any way. In fact, it’s the most perfect lesson on the elusive and finally mythical concept of “making it” I’ve ever had. The effortless, serendipitous rise to fame makes for a compelling fantasy, though, even when you can’t really believe in it. Anyway, American Splendor is sweet and rather gracious in its way about this reality.
-Le Divorce. I always find myself on the defensive about Merchant-Ivory films; I’ve found most of them that I’ve seen to be fair to good efforts (particularly A Room With a View and Maurice), and I’m convinced that their reputation as stuffy, arid filmmakers comes from the undue attention given to the period precision of their art direction, which I think gives the uninitiated (and I think those people, the ones who’ve been too afraid to actually see a Merchant-Ivory film for themselves, make up the bulk of the detractors) their grounds for rejection. The other “contemporary” (sort of) Merchant -Ivory film I’ve seen is A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, which was a fine movie (hell, I even liked The Golden Bowl, so shoot me).
The same cannot be said for Le Divorce.
I’d heard bad things about this one from the get-go, but the allure of Naomi Watts, who gave the performance of the millennium so far in Mulholland Drive, drew me in. Watts did breathe life into her rather static character, and Kate Hudson had enough joi de vivre to make me understand the appeal she seems to hold for the celebrity press. What ruined the film was Merchant-Ivory’s indulgence in exactly what the detractors have accused them of all along; a sort of smarmy “elegance,” a bourgeois obsession with lifestyle and, um, trappings. We’re exposed, if you could even call it that, to a Paris of dilettante imagination. I can’t remember a single authentic or interesting location in the entire film; the climactic action scene (for which Merchant-Ivory are unable to find a tone) takes place on the Eiffel Tower, for god’s sake! I can only imagine what the Parisian passers-by thought of the vulgar Americans with their film crew, shooting yet more footage of the Eiffel Tower. Even the self-reflexively airbrushed, candy-colored Amelie had a more varied, interesting view of Paris (and for many other reasons is a much, much better film). The most interesting thing about the film was counting the similarities of Glenn Close’s character- a sophisticated, conscientious and intellectual expatriate American writer- to one Susan Sontag. Charles Taylor, in his withering Salon review, called her hair a “Susan Sontag wig,” which to me seemed about right.
Le Divorce also reminded me of two great lines from Pulp’s Different Class album: “Everybody hates a tourist,” and “Take A Year in Provence and shove it up... your... ASSSSS.”
Watts got a much more plum role in Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu’s (Amores Perros) 21 Grams. I don’t think I’m at liberty to say anything much about it yet- the press screening invite warned strongly against reviewing it until on or near November 21, its day of release- but it wouldn’t be going too far to call it the best movie of the year. Details closer to release day.
-Revisited Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey, which is another somber, thoughtful success for him (you just can’t imagine him- or Todd Haynes- making a comedy, or at least the kind that’s just for yuks). Based on William Trevor’s novel, it further indulges Egoyan’s inescapable obsession with dislocation, disintegration, alienation, and, most importantly, the extremely ambivalent and frustratingly selective nature of memory. Bob Hoskins reminds us that he is actually a damn good actor, and Arsinee Khajan, Egoyan’s spouse and a featured player in all his films, gets her best role yet, as a long-gone cooking-show host of yesteryear whose gleefulness echoes in some very unsettling ways. Many echoes of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, but without the fun of sardonicism (coming from the Kael School, that would be a criticism, but since it’s coming from the School of Me, it’s merely a neutral observation; I think the dead-serious anti-frivolity works very well here).
I also revisited Egoyan’s last film, Ararat, which I found to be quite disappointing when I saw it upon its release late last year. I still feel it’s the messiest of Egoyan’s films, but I’m more aware now that this was perhaps inevitable given the enormity and complexity of what he was trying to get a handle on, and its personal nature for him.
Ararat is about the making of a film. The film being made is a historical epic about the brutal genocide instigated against Turkish Armenians by the Turkish government in 1915. The film (Egoyan’s) juggles many characters and time periods to explore the ways in which the genocide has affected several generations. It touches on the different and sometimes conflicting mechanisms we use to deal with the grotesque, absurd tragedies that can be visited upon us- whether as a nation, as a minority group, or as individuals- and the slipperiness of language and art as tools of expressing the “truth”- even a part of the truth- of that. Egoyan’s conclusion seems to be that such a project is slippery and fraught with peril, but that trying is better than nothing, and perhaps a diversity of viewpoints that frustrates our urge for definite, complete resolution, for “pure” good and evil, is the only way to go about it. That description does sum up precisely what Ararat is, and I think it’s what I may have misinterprated as a sort of wish-washiness or underconfidence, which I’d never seen before from Egoyan. On the second viewing, it was easy to see that Ararat is actually a bold extension of his finely tuned skepticism, and proof that it’s hardly synonymous with cynicism.
My deepest Egoyan-related disappointment is still that his highly anticipated (by me) planned film of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin- a book written to be filmed by Egoyan if ever there was such a thing- was scrapped long ago. I’m still carrying a torch for it.
-Coup de Torchon, Bertrand Tavernier’s noir-comedy based on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. The entire police force of a French-African colony is one very dark-spirited buffoon (the aptly named Phillipe Noiret) whose moral and philosophical angst could not possibly be comprehended by his nagging wife, his “brother-in-law,” who’s suspiciously close to his “sister,” or his Machiavellian mistress (Isabelle Huppert). His soft, cowardly, nice-guy-that-finished-last exterior veils a flinty ultra-realist who will kill at the drop of a hat, but who longs to believe in something; he just can’t find anything in the world he lives in that can support any sort of faith.
That sounds very, very French-bleak, but this is actually a very funny film, one I imagine the Coen Brothers took to heart; some moments amid the angst and bloodshed are straight out of Seinfeld or Strangers with Candy, with the characters’ casual, outrageously immoral behavior stemming from nothing more than the sort of everyday self-involvement we can all relate to- whether we like it or not- in a setting where those instincts require rather more aggressive action than most of us ever need to take.
The look of the film is worth commenting on, too; this is the only Tavernier film I’ve seen, but its early proficiency with the Steadicam puts him in a very small group, along with Stanley Kubrick and Brian DePalma, that were plunging bravely forward with this new technology at the time (DePalma’s Dressed to Kill and Kubrick’s The Shining, their big Steadicam films, came out in 1980; Coup de Torchon was ‘81).
-Urbania. A gay film noir that was praised to the rafters for being better than your usual gay film (which, frankly, isn’t saying much). Dan Futterman, as an anxiety-ridden man searching through the sexually charged night-world of a city, Eyes Wide Shut-style, for something revealed gradually in flashbacks, and Matt Keeslar, as his angelic (ex) boyfriend, make for a sexy couple, but in the gay-movie ghetto, that doesn’t count as any kind or originality; quite the opposite. What is supposed to be original here- the brooding, the darkness- is, I think, ruined partly by screenwriter Daniel Reitz’s (who also wrote the stage play) unwillingness to take the brooding beyond a sort of I-have-it-so-hard-I’m-gay self-pity; there’s not much actual insight or soul-searching here, and it’s no fun when your hero spends approximately 2% of the time contemplating himself and all the rest lashing out at the most smugly moronic straight people he can find. The rest of the blame goes to director Jon Shear’s extreme stylistic indulgence in modern-noir cliche; I was expecting some sort of restraint, but Shear’s camera puts us in sub-Oliver Stone territory for most of the picture. Despite Alum Cummings’s brief, simultaneously flamboyant and arresting performance, this one is probably even more of a disappointment than My Beautiful Laundrette.
-The Kid Stays in the Picture. Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s documentary, based on the autobiography of the always, always larger-than-life producer Robert Evans (Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Chinatown, Love Story and, disastrously, Coppola’s The Cotton Club). It’s really just a lot of clips with Evans narrating from his autobiography, but he is a poet of vivacious, self-mythologizing Hollywood hyperbole, and his story is juicy and riveting. This movie just flies by.
-Last Tango in Paris. Bernardo Bertolucci’s landmark film of sex and despair. Brando plays an American in Paris who, after his wife dies, works out his grief with a young French girl who’s ambivalently engaged to a Godard-like filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Leaud, who should know). The two meet by sheer accident while she’s apartment-hunting, and they try to find an island, a place protected from the outside world, in this apartment where meet for their sexual encounters, which they try to keep as anonymous as possible.
For me, this film, along with I am Curious... (Yellow) and The Night Porter, represents something that’s more important culturally than accomplished as a work of cinema. These films broke down important, unfair, small-minded barriers to content, and for that I’m thankful, but they couldn’t help being placed in this cultural vacuum, where any indulgence in graphic or disturbing sexuality necessarily put the creator in a position of reacting, which I think is the cause of the crippling self-consciousness about their taboo-breaking dates these nicely crafted, beautifully photographed movies rather severely in parts. Other vintage Bertoluccis- Before the Revolution, the great The Conformist- don’t have the same staleness, and much more highly recommended.
-The Pony Club’s “Single,” off their album Home Truths. This song would’ve been a perfect addition to The Soundtrack of My Life, 1998 through 2001, but even though it came a bit late for that, it rolls exhilaratingly over the end credits of a movie I have in my head. “I, I can stay in/‘cos I’m single/and it’s raining...” The Pony Club is apparently some smart-ass Irish kid named Mark Cullen whose music Morrissey fancies. Which, as anyone who knows me will already have figured out, is usually enough for me. The album also has a sample from Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies!!
-Last but not least, check out Jamie's interesting perceptions on the uneasy relationship between being postmodern and the straight pleasures of melodrama on his Confessions of a Pop Fan blog. He also talks about the very uninteresting Sting, to whom I'm not even going to bother finding an "I Hate Sting" link.
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