Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year's End

Best 20th century relics I saw this year? Before all else, A-number-one, The Best of Ernie Kovacs (2-disc DVD), and then such treasures as Senso (Visconti, '54), Beware of a Holy Whore (Fassbinder, '72), Talking to Strangers (Tregenza, '87), Metropolitan (Stillman, '90), Le Cri du hibou (Chabrol, '87), Berlin Horse (Le Grice, '70), Das Kino und der Tod (Bitomsky, '88), Treasure Island (Ruiz, '85), Dirty (Dwoskin, '65), Sur un air de Charleston (Renoir, '27), The Phenix City Story (Karlson, '55), and various others.

Some honorable mentions for favorites from the Aughts that I only caught up with this past year: Eros (2004, Antonioni’s segment most of all, but Wong’s is a strong honorable mention; Soderbergh’s is the dud in the bunch but, at least, cute), Histoire de Marie et Julien (heartbreaking, no?), Triple Agent (another beaut from a New Wave master I only, sheepishly, just saw recently), Cantico das Criaturas (Miguel Gomes, 2006), and perhaps also Young Adam, which had the virtue of both seeming inevitable, neat, elegant and being completely unpredictable, meandering, organic.

I don't know if I saw a great 2009 film, but that's largely because I saw not-that-many films. If one's counting Two Lovers then I'd argue there was at least one masterpiece released commercially in US theaters this past year. (Assayas maybe has a claim as well...) The most sublimely idiotic 2009 release I saw was Law Abiding Citizen. Again, though, I saw relatively few new films, as usual.

Below: images from my '09 viewing. Some are reminders of impressive films or good scenes; some are striking images; some just indicate the workaday aspects of watching lots and lots of a/v material ...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Quote of the Day

The endless stream of detailed studies filing past the eye, unread and undesired, sometimes gives one the longing to hold a diatribe on the limits of what is worth knowing. But it is only one's own feeling of not being able to master the whole world of history that inspires such annoyance. The frontiers are not in the material itself, but in the way it is used. The most parochial historian with a small group from whom his theme constitutes a vital question forms a full-fledged historical cult. Outside that small group his subject evokes only a very weak interest, if any. With a better treatment of his minor question the frontiers of its significance will expand to a broader circle of interested persons. On the other hand, an all too detailed treatment of a "generally important" subject can easily kill the question's significance for most people.

—Johan Huizinga, "The Task of Cultural History"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Recently Seen


The International is one of those vaguely inter-multi-transnational Hollywood affairs that trafficks in crossed borders, easy access, and cheaply suggested local color disguised as cosmopolitanism. Like Babel (which I still haven't brought myself to watch all of), Syriana, Michael Clayton, or The Interpreter, it's this weird mush that purports to be a bit smarter about The System than other Hollywood films. (I don't want to knock those films by grouping them together: the ones with Clooney have merit, perhaps Clayton particularly. More than just particularly if your name is Sallitt.) But virtually every character in this film, The International, is an absolute idiot. What is offensive about feature films that expose a vast system of corruption, violence, and intrigue is that they so frequently throw in successful mid-career positions characters who somehow have made a fine go of it, professionally, without ever having learned the facts of life about how their institutions work ... all the while retaining their commitment to 'truth,' 'justice,' etc. And the films try to reap a great deal of their pleasure from the extended frustrations of this Crazy Woild where such ideals matter not. (Again, Michael Clayton is something apart here, and if I recall, Syriana does boast that fun scene where the lawyer throws a tantrum and explains that "corruption is why we win!") One of the merits of The International is outlined by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: "The International is made by people who believe they know how the world works. The end credits sequence, the most essential in recent memory (and this is at a time when the end credits have taken on the role of "exit music"), confirms this: we see the events of the film unfold as they would in newspapers -- just the sort of stuff that would get a paragraph or two in the business pages of a major daily."


Taken, which I first saw a while back, has been playing a lot lately on HBO/Encore (part of the cable package that comes with our apartment, an appreciated component of the rent when Curb Your Enthusiasm comes on). Literally, it seems that one out of every 2-3 times I channel surf, Taken is playing. It was a big hit for not much money, and an English-language "Europudding" movie. Have you seen it? It's gloriously bad, but rewarding inasmuch as it's a well-oiled machine of a revenge narrative. (And I cherish good payback narratives.) The key is to make Liam Neeson an absolute dolt ... except when it comes to his job, in which case he's both a genius and blessed with good fortune and loads of free time. He tries to rescue his sweetly innocent spoiled brat of a daughter before the window closes (correct down to the last minute) before she's "lost" forever. First it's indicated that her being lost is literal, that authorities won't be able to track her down, and she'll be in a limbo of Europe's floating world of white slavery. (Extreme, but...) As the plot moves on, however, everything becomes a race against time to prevent her defloration at the hands of a slimy, shady underworld kingpin. Where The International strives to be "smart" (smart like the readers of USA Today), Taken is satisfied with being merely functional.


One frequent difference between prestige films and genre films today is that the former put the force of their aesthetic weight behind the establishing shots, the sweeping vistas, the longer takes, the décor. The latter work with the cut because they rarely have a budget, or an imagination behind the camera, to do something really interesting with sets, props, and people. Consider the Guggenheim shootout in The International, which is not about form or even feeling, but about the imagined presence of a gunfight in this place (just like Istanbul, Milan, and so on). While Taken, too, acts as a bit of a tourist brochure, its "good parts"—the parts I nudge my fiancée to look up for when she's around and I'm channel surfing—are about swift cutting, the kinetic visceral satisfaction imparted by a swift motion, a thud on the soundtrack, the utility of a series of quickly timed cuts.


James Cameron isn't the King of the World so much as the King of the Bad Middlebrow Sublime. And I, occasional acolyte of Ado Kyrou, do try to look for the sublimity in "bad" films. Cameron indeed has the makings of a respectable genre artist at work in the industry: just imagine if the man behind The Terminator had been in the studios in 1951. Unfortunately he exists in the blockbuster age, which gathers him into the spotlight and then celebrates him for a lot of the things that are both quintessentially "him" (as powerful author-figure) and monumentally stupid. (He's not permitted, or at least not encouraged, to be a termite.) Aesthetically, Cameron hits his highest points, and they're only minor, when he's working on a modest scale or he doesn't take his something too seriously. Avatar takes itself very seriously, but it's also such a brazenly shameless Frankenstein monster of 10 or 20 other movies (Starship Troopers, FernGully, Cameron's own Aliens, various Miyazakis, Dances with Wolves, et cetera) that I kind of enjoyed it anyway. It's a bit of an inversion from Romero's masterpiece Knightriders ('81), which is a ludicrous concept played so seriously that a certain beauty of the images and purity of (il)logic emerge. Avatar is so ridiculous, but so emphatically, colorfully so (and well-composed as 3D; as an exercise in space I preferred to it Coraline), that the completely pointless action-adventure hippie "theme" doesn't necessarily impinge on the purely kinetic Epcot aspect of the spectacle.

I'm tempted to locate a copy of Vachel Lindsay which, scandalously, I don't own, to continue here ...

Friday, December 04, 2009