Hopelessly under the influence

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Future of Criticism

Here is a really insightful article on the future of film criticism by one of our most thoughtful film critics A.O. Scott.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Alphabet

An early short film by David Lynch from 1968.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Paris, je t'aime

For those not fluent in French, Paris je t'aime translates as Paris, I Love You. Love in Paris is a seemingly inexhaustible theme and here it is the thread tying eighteen short films together (with an emphasis on short: each film runs only about five minutes). One may suspect that, given all this fecundity the film would be uneven, but there are only a couple of shorts that feel unnecessary: the majority are remarkably engaging.

The contributors are a mixed bag of unknowns, screenwriters turned directors, and established names such as the Coen brothers, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Craven, & Alexander Payne. There are some familiar faces: Steve Buscemi, Natalie Portman, Gena Rowlands, Elijah Wood, & Nick Nolte all appear, but this isn't a film concerned with names or persona's. Sometimes it turns them on their head. For example, Wes Craven does not direct the short featuring a vampire (that's Vincenzo Natali) but rather a short about two lovers at the grave of Oscar Wilde.

Paris je t'aime represents an impressive cross-section of Paris: tourists, grandfathers, immigrants, mothers, actresses, nannies, and blind students are all treated with dignity and drawn with surprising complexity. The tone and mood of each short seems to vary: some are wistful, some are comic, and others deeply poignant.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fellini Satyricon

Last night I headed down to the Kentucky Theater to catch a showing of Fellini Satyricon as part of the annual Rosa Goddard Foreign Film Festival. In the five years since I had first seen the film I had only a few strong memories, most of which involved extreme decadence. This second viewing certainly confirms that those memories were accurate but my impressions this time around center on the remarkable atmosphere Fellini created. All of the visuals are spectacular, to put it mildly, but it almost seems that he found a way to embody the spirit of debauched paganism to such an extent that even as a self-conscious viewer you begin to wonder if you are glimpsing a real snapshot of life in the early Roman empire.

From what I’ve read, this is what Fellini intended, even going so far as to describe the film as a “science fiction film projected into the past”. If ever a filmmaker was perfectly suited to explore the primitive spirit of antiquity, with all of its pageantry, sensuality, and brutality, it is most certainly Fellini. Like the ancient text it is loosely based on the film is fragmented, and like much of Fellini’s work it has no real plot but is rather a series of fantastical episodes whose strands are gracefully tied to one another.

I suppose you could debate whether the film is a warning against hedonism or a celebration of it, but seeing as how Fellini’s work for the past decade had abounded in sensuality, and of the emptiness that is found when it is sought as an end in itself, that seems unnecessary. Granted, the film is a bit messy, and may be, as Ebert affectionately referred to it “a reckless gesture”. Yet, coming from a man so fascinated with stylish excess, could we expect anything less?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Manhattan, with its dramatic black and white images of iconic New York landmarks complete with a Gershwin score, was Woody Allen's love letter to the Big Apple. In press reports he's said that he wanted to do the same thing for Barcelona, and if the golden-tinged cinematography, Gaudi architecture, and Spanish guitar don't resonate quite as deeply, it's probably because the city is an icon that is a little less familiar to America. But that doesn't mean it's not a success.
Initially, I had my doubts about where the film was headed. The voice-over narration, placed sporadically throughout, struck me as unnecessary, and some of the dialogue sounded a bit unnatural: it was articulate but not really conversational. Eventually though, the film seemed to find its rhythm, and turned into an intriguing yet breezy reflection on love and desire.
As always, Woody and casting director Juliet Taylor assemble a strong ensemble. Rebecca Hall (as Vicky) and Scarlett Johansson (as Cristina) compliment each other nicely and are a near perfect contrast in temperament. Cristina is attractive, impulsive, and a romantic, whereas Vicky is elegant but pragmatic. Yet Vicky's development is one of the chief strengths of the film.
There is also the Spanish half of the equation. Javier Bardem, fresh off his dark turn in No Country For Old Men, effortlessly portrays Juan Antonio, an artist and a natural charmer. His ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), is a passionate though unstable artist seemingly adept at every artistic discipline. Her fiery presence in the film's second half is sure to generate a lot of Oscar buzz.
Somehow, these two American tourists get tangled up emotionally and physically with this Spanish couple, and though their escapades reveal Woody's deeply pragmatic (some would say pessimistic) views on desire, it stops well short of being any sort of morality play. While it carries some of the familiar Allen trademarks (affluent lovers, highbrow interests, urbane locales) it is fresh and lively, having a decidedly European tone, even for Woody. Roger Ebert has, I rightly believe, compared it to some of the works of French director Eric Rohmer.
Ebert also wonders if maybe we've taken Woody Allen for granted. Perhaps we have. This film is just another in a long line of remarkably consistent efforts. It may be under appreciated even by Allen fans who feel this film suffers by comparison to Annie Hall or Crimes & Misdemeanors. But I wonder that if years from now we'll look back and say, maybe with some surprise, "Hey, remember Vicky Cristina Barcelona? You know, that was a really beautiful movie!"

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

There's a scene in The Dark Knight where Alfred tells Bruce Wayne a story about a bandit he was trying to catch in Burma many years ago. The bandit stole rubies from a caravan in the forest and then threw them away. He stole, according to Alfred "because it was good sport. Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn." Bruce then asks how they managed to capture him. Alfred's response: "we burned the forest down."

If there is a superhero that embodies the conflict of our age it is most assuredly Batman, and The Dark Knight is a near perfect cinematic expression of the turmoil in which we find ourselves. Although the problem of dealing with dangerous men is very old, the opportunities they have to wreak destruction have multiplied in recent years. And this latest Batman excursion is an examination of conscience posing as a Hollywood blockbuster.

An enormous amount of credit must go to director Christopher Nolan, whose foray into Gotham has redefined what comic book movies can be. The opening sequence, a taut and deadly bank robbery, calls to mind Stanley Kubrick, and with the rest of the film Nolan poises himself to join the ranks of such elite company. An array of striking shots stick with you: a mountain of cash doused with gasoline and set on fire, the eerie clown masks at the film's beginning, lingering close-ups of faces, and oh yes, the Joker.

Much has been made of Heath Ledger's performance, and, in my opinion, every accolade is justified. The darting tongue, the unnerving laugh and jerky voice, and the anarchic and unexpected bravado leering at you behind a coat of face paint make this Joker one of the most memorable of all movie characters. After seeing his remarkably understated turn in Brokeback Mountain and now this, possibly his greatest role, his death really seems tragic. America has lost one of its best young actors at the height of his powers.

But above all is the specter of Batman lingering in the shadows, contemplating how to fight the chaos of Joker (and later on Two-Face). Gotham is in many ways post 9/11 America and that message is conveyed without being too preachy. The invasion of privacy and the problem of fighting evil with questionable methods resonate strongly in 2008. But these are timeless concerns too, and in a way The Dark Knight returns us to the moral conflict long present in the Batman myth but that has been absent from cinematic adaptations. Can bad means lead to a good end? Does the ruthlessness required to eradicate evil destroy the good in one's self? How just is the vigilante?

It's a curious state of mind that finds you leaving The Dark Knight. Few commercial blockbusters walk such a fine moral tightrope. There is no clear answer to the troubling dilemmas presented. What is offered is the faintest glimmer of hope that good may somehow prevail even as it is chased into a great darkness.

Monday, July 14, 2008


The love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one. They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore, they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people. Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be revealed is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives (prologue to Freaks).

While waiting for a midnight showing of Eraserhead to begin, an acquaintance of mine told me he had seen Lynch’s avant-garde debut in the late 70’s on a double-bill with another cult-classic: Freaks. Most of the audience were hippie types and were talking and laughing as Freaks began, not knowing what was in store. However, once some of the freaks are first seen, playfully romping in an idyllic clearing, everyone fell silent. For the rest of the movie, he said, you could hear a pin drop.

That Freaks was actually released by a major Hollywood studio in 1932 is astonishing. The reaction to the film was intense and so negative that it was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years and ruined the career of its’ director Tod Browning.

Hans, a sideshow midget, is seduced by the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra once she learns he has come into a large inheritance. Though she marries Hans, she continues her affair with another circus performer, Hercules the Strongman, and the two of them attempt to poison Hans in order to have his fortune. When the "freaks" learn about this they set out to exact a brutal revenge that leaves her the greatest freak of all.

The film used real-life "freaks" which were mostly performers from sideshows and circuses that showcase an array of abnormality and deformity. Pinheads, armless women, legless men, Siamese twins, the human torso, a hermaphrodite, a bearded lady, and midgets are among the societal outcasts that populate the film. They are mostly shown in mundane activities, thus reinforcing their interior "normality" and "humanity".

A common interpretation treats the film as a moral parable: the physically deformed are imbued with real humanity while the beautiful ones are revealed to be the true "freaks". The critique of appearances is a theme that can be found in works ranging from King Lear and Beauty & the Beast to King Kong, but a closer look at this film reveals greater complexity than is sometimes supposed.

Though Hans is seduced by Cleopatra, he has been attracted to her all along, and in order to have her he must reject the love of his diminutive (and genuinely good) fiance Frieda. Also, although nearly all of the "freaks" are portrayed in a sympathetic light, some of them exhibit a capacity for violence and brutality that is frightening. It is in the outcasts that the full range of humanity is most honestly depicted, where compassion and depravity struggle to coexist.

The film is not perfect. Most of the "normal" characters come off as caricatures and the ones that don't seem superfluous. Also, the ending (perhaps tacked on to make the film more palatable) is unsatisfying. Still, most of the film's brief sixty-four minutes are unforgettable. The documentary style approach to its subject matter, and the thinly veiled sexual undercurrent present in the film are worthy of further study and were years ahead of their time. Whether taken as a satire of the studio system or a commentary on society's treatment of its outcasts, Browning's film remains remarkably fresh and vital, one of the most unique viewing experiences one is likely to have.