Monday, May 31, 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Freedom's Just Another Word

RIP Dennis Hopper - of all the terrific, weird films made around the edges of Hollywood in that magic moment of the early 1970s, I think The Last Movie may be the best one I know. He worked with a lot of interesting directors on a lot of interesting projects, and along the way did some iconic work, of course.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Office Killer

Office killer for Constant Consumer magazine, a factory for the production and finessing of content - director Cindy Sherman here finds an intriguing way to present office space, sad, yellow-brown, "cubicled" even when there aren't literal cubicles in sight. (In a place like this, the sign of having made it is the killer office.)

This movie has a horrible critical reputation (not unlike Suspect Zero, actually), but it too is a bit too hermetic, a bit too imbued with personality, to deserve such quick dismissal. (A moment's Googling finds a handful of appreciative onlookers, however.) Of course "personality" is an amorphous concept and anyway there are plenty of bad films with personality. But (pace hitman Jules) personality goes a long way. The cramped spaces that feel both intimate and institutional, voyeuristic and commonplace, are a rare effect - and I think more deftly achieved, more admirably self-aware, than when Indie takes out its own subscription to Constant Consumer and becomes a catalogue of "things," cf. the near-self-defenestration-inducing antics of Rachel Getting Married. (I think that this tonal balancing act is part of what Craig Keller addresses in quoted words below, and what one can link to various other parts of Sherman's art.) In another direction, i.e. on one facet, Office Killer's closest cousins may be Tom Noonan's amazing films What Happened Was... and The Wife. In certain ways these modest indie films are busy writing a particular sub-history of the present, and are forgotten before they're released (it seems), but live in. Cinephilia lives on just likes these movies, but it's now a modest, downbeat gnosticism. Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing for some kind of cinephilia to shed its masculinist obsessions with completion (etc. ad infinitum) and become an utterly decentralized network like in a Rivette movie. Nobody sees everything, nobody knows everything, and the moment gives you glimpses of amazing things.

* * *

All this being said, something's missing, too, in Office Killer. It's a sad film, sad in the same way Fritz Lang's Hollywood noirs are sad, — reasons that have nothing to do with their plots. Sherman's picture, and those of Lang, are films (and remember, now, we're not speaking at all of a 'meta' tone) about their genres, in an elegiac mode, that is, not elegiac about the past and possibilities of their own genres (and, again, now, mind you I don't believe there's any actual thing as 'genres' in pictures, but this distinction is part-and-parcel of the discourses of both the films of Sherman and of Lang, which are rooted in surmising a commercial climate), but about what their own films are not as a result of being formulated within that idiom which their producers ($) or supposed ($) public would comprehend as 'such-and-such set of locutions.'

(from here, as Mr. Keller writes what I imagine, unresearched, is the best that's been written about Office Killer)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Image of the Day

Suspect Zero

Not so easy to find the sort of low-budget genre films today that might make a latter-day Manny Farber rhapsodize ... at least, not without heaps of psychological explications, gilded lily bouquets of atmosphere. The cheap films these days are so often just bloated with self-awareness of their own potential powers. It seems one must inevitably make this compromise. Suspect Zero (2004), starring Ben Kingsley and Aaron Eckhart, is a cheap, "dark" serial killer film, much of it cribbed from Se7en and elsewhere, with all the typicalities you'd expect. The "antagonist" lives in subterranean lairs where his bizarre OCD habits belie some deeper virtuosity, some deeper truth he represents in almost mystical conjunction with our protagonist. (The nature of this connection is soon apparent.) And: Moooooood music. Quick cuts from dark to darker images. This was helmed by E. Elias Merhige, after all, the man responsible for grotesque experimental film Begotten ('91) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000, shamefully, unseen by me), as well as a few Marilyn Manson videos, for crying out loud.

What differentiates Suspect Zero from the mumbo-jumbo it's already fated to half-be, are (1) the sheer material-tactile pleasure the film seems to have in all the suspect's paraphernalia (sketches, numbers, collages); like certain shots in Se7en, when one appreciates the singleminded craftsmanship of Kevin Spacey's re-sewn composition notebooks; this detail extends into other elements of the production design, like an old, worn-in suburban home with a mom wearing tights on her way to a PTA meeting, not (I think) played for "provincial" laughs; (2) there's a pervasive loneliness about this film and its cross-country wanderings, one that really does seem to sketch at something like a dark heart of America. A lot of the standard ominous-mysterious mood plays well because, I think, Merhige is himself a believer in occult/paranormal stuff (if you believe his Wikipedia entry), and respects religiosity in ways that a lot of filmmakers don't. There is a beautiful apropos-of-nothing black church scene where the congregation sings "And He Walks with Me." A lot of foreboding dark cloudy skies: a choice of effects that is dime-a-dozen but here works quite well (the tones, the colors, seem absolutely right in a way that oncoming storms rarely are in Hollywood ... the much-maligned Twister actually seems to me to be a respectable example in this department). Pixellated surveillance-style footage stands in for the psychic flashbacks and flashforwards the characters experience: not an inspired decision in itself, but pulled off with gusto (a b&w close-up of Kingsley has black holes for eyes, deep chasms).

There are bad choices too, hackneyed ones: a character walking down the street in the rain to show the depths of his alienation; Carrie-Anne Moss' character in general is utterly superfluous: she's played merely & blandly as a composite of every thinkable female second fiddle that might appear in a role like this in a movie like this (maternal, professional partner-friend-lover).

In short, though, there's enough invention here, and the film takes itself seriously enough on these modest terms, that Suspect Zero warrants a look from anyone who is interested in the legacy of B-films in today's commercial genre releases. Though everyone's decided (and not wrongly) that Zodiac represents the great American serial killer film of the past decade, and this film is anything but close to that kind of superlative, something like this is worth a few attentive glances from intrigued parties, before it plunges into serious obscurity forever.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cobra Camp Sublime

A pristine archival Technicolor print of Universal's Siodmak-helmed camp exotica arrived on the shores of Lake Michigan to play to a few scores of people. I tend to be sensitive (oversensitive?) to audiences laughing campily at an old film, but Cobra Woman is so insistently and robustly itself that laughing at it just makes it stronger. Mesmerizing, possessed of a weird logic all its own, this is a film that is too serious a fever-dream to be anything but taken seriously as just that. (And an entire huge facet of the postwar North American avant-garde now seems more legible...) It is no facile paradox (by which I mean merely an unsound suggestion of paradox) that this is both a bad movie and a wonderful one. The colors in the print we saw, which no images I can find online even approximate, are astonishing.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bergman Soap

I hadn't seen any of these commercials before.

Friday, May 07, 2010


"Who's Joe?" they ask in Only Angels Have Wings. Joe - forgotten - is never really forgotten. He haunts the film, he is honored by people in their own ways, even among a people who do not explicitly honor memory. Poor Manny in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, on the other hand, is precisely the opposite kind of forgotten man: victim of a bureaucratic oligarchy (which is what we live in in the US - not a 'democracy'). Explicitly remembered by those around him, he is quickly made to be missing by the powers exerted by bureaucracy (silence, procedure, leverage). He vanishes for a while, a living phantom.


Dear comic-book blockbusters,

If you are going to be 'ironic' about pathos or 'self-aware' about sentimental plot machinations, please do not just immediately, directly, and shamelessly fulfill the conventions you are being 'ironic' or 'self-aware' about. At least pretend that you're going to do something else. Make the effort to fake us out even if it doesn't work. As it stands, one can see the stilted writing on the screenplay page: "Hit Girl smiles wryly as she blah blah blah."

Also, I would appreciate it if one would either be honest about it, or at least do a better job hiding the fact that your film is really a preview for your next film. Bald, shameless promotion in itself is almost refreshing because it's rare ... everyone (like this movie Kick-Ass) has to dress up their bullshit in layers of sonic rapture & slo-mo.

The fact that you made a movie that so deeply involved an 11-year-old girl in bloody violence is, however, commendable.



Wednesday, May 05, 2010