Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year's End

Normally I include some lists at year's end—a casual reflection of what I saw, and what captured my imagination. But this past year has been my weakest film-viewing go-round in several years, and it included an abnormally large proportion of (a) second or third viewings, and (b) 'humiliation' films that I probably should have seen before 2008 anyway. So I wouldn't be able to give a very fun list with regard to old films. And I barely saw anything worth noting among new releases. This is not a reflection upon the year in cinema; it says everything about my own life and schedule and the fact that the whole second half of this past year has been a cramped and hectic one where I gave up much ground on my cinephilic duties. I did really like Jia Zhang Ke's 24 City, which is a notch or two below his masterful Still Life, but still pretty impressive ... and I think it probably counts as my favorite of the small number of 2008 world premieres I've seen.

What I will do, however, is give a few words on a film that I've chosen from what I saw during each month of this calendar year. These are not necessarily the best or most interesting films I saw in each given month. They're only meant to to pique curiosity, direct attention to interesting films, or perhaps vent a little snark.

January - Dr. Caligari (Stephen Sayadian, 1989) - Surprisingly there's little of interest that Googling brings up on this cult director who has a captivating style all his own. I'd love to see his other films, whether erotic expressionist comedy cult fantasies (1980s) or all-out hardcore pornography (1990s).

February - Lo foo chut gang / Tiger on the Beat (Lau Kar-leung, 1988) - I watched this (on VHS) because I recognized the name of the veteran HK action director. What I remember is Chow Yun Fat cracking a dozen raw eggs into a big glass and then cheerily downing the whole thing. There are also scenes of cops in their underwear out in the streets.

March - Doomed Love (Manoel de Oliveira, 1978) - I saw this sitting beautiful and inviting film with very esteemed company at BAM: an unforgettable culmination to an excellent weekend.

April - Fast Workers (Tod Browning, 1933) - The theme of this minor Browning, a non-horror film, is that "the lady is a tramp." All ladies, really. Still: the movie cuts hard and fast and I continue to remember the unusual tactility of the way it depicts high rise construction.

May - Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) - 2001: An American Apparel Odyssey.

June - The Frighteners (Peter Jackson, 1996) - A fairly good and solid, though maligned and forgotten, SFX genre film. I had not long before read Michel Chion (on sound and on, well, 2001) ... and something about Chion's way of analyzing films seeped into my head as I watched this and for a few hours I was convinced I would write something substantial about all the interesting little things this modest movie does.

July - When Willie Comes Marching Home (John Ford, 1950) - Olaf Möller has the best word on this: "whoaaaaaaaaaa." It's not top-drawer Ford but his well material is the stuff to make other directors envious.

August - Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008) - In the same month that I fell in love with Anna Faris' amazing performances, what good fortune to have found a comedic run to rival Smiley Face. Penelope Cruz completely owns this movie, which I think is dismal for the aggregative running time without her presence. But when she's on the screen ... "jeen-yoos"!

September - Pictures at an Exhibition (Chris Marker, 2008?) - If you watch this and/or if you read Borges' "The Library of Babel" and feel moved to tears, then you are a kindred spirit. There is something simultaneously sad and tempting about the unfolding of information into infinity, spreading out across time and the cosmos, and the fact that we can contemplate going down those rabbit holes ...

October - W. (Oliver Stone, 2008) - The most pointless movie of the year? I couldn't say but I suspect it's in the running.

November - Trop tôt, trop tard (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1981) - The NYC cinephiles—and beyond!—made it out to this "standing room only" screening of a very bad 16mm print of the Straubs' demanding but also hypnotic and beautiful film.

December - Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984) - For years I have put off seeing this film because I told myself I'd watch it on the big screen. After a number of missed chances, however, I finally bit the bullet and got a DVD. I have liked Leone films a lot before but this is a different level altogether: one of the very greatest movies ever made. With the exception of the casting choice of Elizabeth McGovern (which to me strikes a solitary and unnecessary dissonant chord in the whole giant opus) this is a blemish-free tour-de-force moving forward on all fronts.

I am not certain that I can think of another film that so completely marries classicism with modernism; cinema's dueling inheritances of literature, drama, painting, photography, and (hmmm) probably also the chalky residues of 20th century philosophy of mind; ironic skepticism with spectral, heartbreaking romanticism (in this its peer is Kubrick's best film, Barry Lyndon). I confidently felt this film would be a true achievement at the moment I realized Leone was going to let the phone keep ringing. This is a facility with symbol and metaphor that reclaims them for the cinema. That is, all the rich holdings that lit., painting, etc. have bequeathed to cinema simultaneously have acted as weights and shackles—to the point where it becomes somewhat embarrassing to even speak of metaphor or symbol because that channels back into the pre-cinematic prison house. In its handling of time, its evocation of memory, its transcience across space, the phone is resolutely "cinematic." At the same time there is absolutely no point in praising the employment of that ringing phone if one does not understand what it does, what it means. As far as I know there is a dearth of critical, analytical work devoted to exploring the frontier-space next to conventional and philistine wisdom in this endeavor. There are those who would believe it's all a matter of "form supports story or theme" (a sterile, boring, and wrong premise); and the alternative would invest itself into meaning without recourse to a pre-arranged system or to the invited stigma of "formalism."

(If I am not making much sense it is because I have not yet finished clarifying my thoughts!)

In 2009, I think & hope, EL will shake things up in its own humble nook of the film blogosphere by presenting some counter-arguments, some re-evaluations, and some cross-disciplinary reflections on the medium, the other media, and the world. For the sake of the readers of this blog, all of you whom I appreciate very much, I will do my best to make these further investigations interesting, provocative, informative, enjoyable, and fruitful.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Moving image art can ponder the indexical bearing of the human on a material/imagistic edifice; it can take it as a theme or a problem. The hand on the screen cannot communicate with a screen, but the screen itself communicates with the owners of the hand: can become a gun, figuratively speaking, and can rob you of your leisure and all that it's worth as surely as it can nurture with a gift, kissing you. (Godard understands this fact.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008


"The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."
—Apocryphal quote frequently attributed to Stalin.

A question posed by both Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Tavernier's Le Juge et l'assassin (1976): how to reconcile the law of the land which condemns murder when the society that is built upon, and enforces, such laws requires same in much larger numbers than any one individual can achieve?

What other films treat this topic?

RIP, Robert Mulligan

An excellent director whose understanding of the medium was fluid, inventive, well-applied. His work didn't have a recognizable style except to those interested in looking. As Dave Kehr pointed out, it has a lot to do with the subjective point-of-view. He was also an early chronicler of the young Reese Witherspoon's forearms, in The Man in the Moon. I wrote a few words about two Mulligan films here, in 2005.
(Blogging to resume this week ...)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sunday, December 07, 2008

More Christmases

More graffiti on the Four Christmases subway poster at my stop. "This Christmas ... think long and hard about Reese Witherspoon's forearms." "This Christmas disappear into the world between Vince Vaughn's thigh meat." "Obama 08."