Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Moving On Up

 I want and need to keep writing, but the impulse to be productive, even in a way that is personally fulfilling, feels like I'm forcing myself to fit the Protestant work ethic. O lucky man am I.

  More to come, eventually, somewhere (maybe not here)

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Lil Stabs

Stray notes on a few experimental short films I watched online a few weeks ago ...

Peter Gidal's Clouds (1969), at least as viewed via Vimeo, prompts us to scrutinize our sense of direction on and with the screen. Even as its repetitive 'action' of following the flight of a plane from left to right in the lower third of the screen anchors us in a sense of profilmic spatial reality, we might wonder, "how are we seeing so many plans in such close sequence?" and "when and where does Gidal move his camera back to the left, or up?"

What can we say about Little Stabs at Happiness (1959-1963)? I think it's a very moving film, but in a weird way. It all seems to go nowhere and its gestures all seem tiny, from Jack Smith's oral play to the on-off rhythms of bright light and soundtrack in the latter part of the film. People try out different postures and Ken Jacobs draws in chalk on the street with some neighborhood kids. It feels trivial in the best and freest sense, like a morning stretch or the kind of full-body dance that children do.

Su Friedrich's Scar Tissue (1979): something happened, or is happening, but what? Repeated shots of women walking in heels and men walking in three-piece suits accumulate and provide a sense of scale, at least in part through a tricky of economy (not just similar types of shots but some of the same shots themselves are very obviously repeated) as if to underline something about the bustle of this maybe-urban space. There's a police barrier visible in the center background of one of the repeated shots. The high-contrast grainy b&w is extremely pleasant.

Monday, April 06, 2020


I admit Carnal Knowledge took me by surprise: it wasn't quite what I expected from a film directed by Mike Nichols, nor a Jules Feiffer screenplay. It has some of the topography of what I think of as 'Neil Labute territory,' Labute at his strongest, which is an approach that might wear thin or stray too far away from mundane truths in search of ever stronger shocks. But Carnal Knowledge is good because it doesn't push too hard to deliver summary or conclusion; and yet it doesn't hew so close to its insular mid-20th century male psyches as to overlap entirely and be indistinguishable from them.

It's a very difficult film to sit through, but that is not a mark against it; it's a phenomenon that I associate with a lot of movies about trapping and gaslighting, e.g., My Name Is Julia Ross, Bigger than Life, of course the Gaslights.

It's so good at sketching out just how terrified everyone is, but the people aren't terrified of the same things, nor to the same degrees or ends. Furthermore, the characters lie to themselves as well as each other, and perhaps never more than when they try to tell the truth. Nicholson (in a great Nicholson role) is the kind of guy who doesn't worry about explanations. Garfunkel always plays like someone seeking permission. Carol Kane's immortal face! Ann-Margret is almost like a symbolic lever of a certain kind of woman onscreen moving from the Technicolor era into the age of MPAA frankness, and it's why her physical performance feels so uncanny, I think.

And let's not forget Candice Bergen's laughter ...

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Little Death

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 1970)

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Best Pitcher

Until recently, I'd never seen Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984), and what struck me upon finally viewing this lengthy Best Picture-winner was how freewheeling it seemed. It's enjoyable. I always had a vague impression of it as a bit more lumbering and respectable, something closer to the stereotype of a Merchant-Ivory film*, but it's clear that it aims to be "fun," a little irreverent, with tweaks that are anachronistic or at least which run with the grain of 1980s fashions. Immediately, also, the Oscar for Best Picture going to Shakespeare in Love fourteen years later makes even more sense: these two films are very similar. I'm sure people have pointed it out, but I don't recall seeing it.

In both cases the films are gregarious, they have a loose attachment (at best) to the illusion of the actors' performance styles emulating a real historical time and place. (That's more a task for the production designers.) Loosen up, enjoy the in-jokes and the silliness, they say. But at the heart of both films is also a romantic gesture, shared by Dead Poets Society and plenty of other films, in a kind of liberal arts college faith in the power of art. Art transforms, it moves, it represents the best and boldest of our ambitions, and with a bit of luck, it perseveres. This isn't a vision of art as all-consuming, intractable, critical, or even really eccentric. It is, instead, a coding of something Deep and True and Wild that exists in its secret spaces or its happy cages. It is a romantic artsiness for the teacher, the parent, the graphic designer, the project manager, the person who contains the impulse while paradoxically inviting and celebrating the feeling of that same impulse being incessant, insatiable, and in fact uncontainable.

Side-note: I enjoy representations of people working through and appreciating scored music, perhaps because to my own musical ignorance is so great; I still remember Binoche's character in Kieslowski's Blue, talking about her late husband's scores and corrections ... it's like magic to me.

* Merchant-Ivory films are often not, or at least more than, the stereotypes of the Merchant-Ivory film, too. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Contingency Plans

Joanna Hogg's films, which I've been thinking about and trying to write a little bit about for the past few years, off and on, are great for a lot of reasons but one of them is that they know how to embed ambiguous causality. It's easy to see potential reasons for characters' actions, but difficult to nail down precisely why they make a particular gesture or behave in this or that way. She's also absolutely incredible at composing images, whether in the natural world or in built environments, that hold some kind of mystery--pregnant with possibility, withdrawn, evocative of time before and after the image.

(from Exhibition, 2013)

(from Unrelated, 2007)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Long Shots

Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson, 1990) exhibits big landscape shots, often with less sky than you might imagine, and re-enacts colonialist expedition by means of pictorial drama and slideshow. This becomes literal with the scene of theatrical re-enactment for a British public. There are other points of interest, too ... the fantastic 'after' shot of an injured Burton, for one thing. Or the scene (echoed later in the movie) where Burton inspects his future wife's nude body by candlelight, which manages to be painterly and yet mundane, intimate at the same time: a rare feat.


As I age, I find it more and more difficult to rank films that I love. I'm increasingly sensitive to the contingent, circumstantial aspects of watching movies. What if I'm tired, what if I'm distracted (all too true these days), what if ...? I can often project some sense of myself when I realize I'm not watching something in the optimal way--i.e., I can think, "I know myself well enough and I have seen enough films to have a quite reasonable sense that if I watched this movie (that I'm not really grooving with now) in a different headspace, with a slightly calibrated critical matrix, at a different time, I can see clearly how I'd appreciate it more."

It's one reason why filmmakers who can often be divisive in film culture, such as the Coen brothers, are challenges for me. I can see exactly why people love them, hate them, and everything in between.  Occasionally this multiplicity of responses is external: I have my own responses to a work, but I can see and comprehend different responses. Sometimes, however, I have more than one response myself and vacillate between two or more emotions, two or more interpretations, two or more criteria. Consequently I will have my own range of responses that run this gamut, and they will all feel equally genuine.

Now in my late thirties, I've accepted that this is just part of who I am. My twitter picture is the famous duck-rabbit:

And when it comes to keeping lists of favorites, whether for personal records or to contribute to a poll or something, it gets to be difficult. It's almost impossible for me to come up with a list of, say, my top ten films of the 1970s anymore.

Speaking of the 1970s, I've been watching some movies lately, including some from the master of Italian political narratives, Elio Petri. Todo modo (1976), based on a Leonardo Sciascia novel, explores the hand-wringing and factional in-fighting of the Christian Democratic party as they hole up in a stony, minimalist bunker while an epidemic starts to spread across Italy.

Petri's final film, Good News (1979), which meanders in mundane unpleasantness and uncertainty, prefigures the Peloton wife and presents sanitation breakdown as a matter of background detail, seems lighter than Todo modo, but more resigned.

Good News imagines life and political collapse as a kind of spectatorship (which is what it often feels like today).

Screens punctuate the film: hucksters, newscasters, pornography ...

... and then there's the slow build of things that go missing, like the trace of blood on a hospital bed that signifies a character's death.

And like Giancarlo Giannini's character in the film, I find sometimes that I might consume too much. It's possible to do. Since I have a job and have a "life," sure, I'm not a recluse who only watches movies, reads books, and listens to music. But I also do try to fit a lot of kulchur in the cracks of my precious leisure time. My backlog of "things to get to" is immense and insane and impossible.