Saturday, February 24, 2007

(Long Overdue) Brief Life Update No. 11: My Own Big Scoop/Oscar

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The over two-week gap between this entry and my last one may be the longest gap in the history of My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. For all those faithful readers out there, I apologize for the long delay. If there are any of you out there who are actually fuming over the fact that "Kenji didn't update his friggin blog for over two weeks! He doesn't care about his readership!"---well, I guess the following will suffice as an explanation. (If it makes any of you feel any better, believe me when I say that I was genuinely intending to update this thing earlier in the week. For what that's worth.)

Over the past two weeks, I've been tied up not only with my usual classwork, but also with a rather exasperating---well, challenging, to put it more optimistically---reporting project for my Desktop Publishing class in which I basically had to try to track down as many Rutgers University alumni/journalism major grads as I could that were currently working at the Wall Street Journal, whether as reporters or editors, whether for the actual print publication or for either its online version or the Online Network, the latter of which includes such potentially useful Web sites such as and, among a few others. I had to find them and interview them---all of them---asking them questions about how they got to where they are now, how their Rutgers education helped them, what they like about working for the Journal, etc. The story, once it's all finished and laid out and such, is going to be published in the upcoming edition of AlumKnights, the Rutgers journalism department's alumni newsletter. (We lucky Desktop Publishing students, by the way, are in charge of laying out the whole thing.)

I ended up interviewing five people from the Journal, four of them people whose names were provided for me by one of my Desktop Publishing professors (we have two for this class). The fifth one was referred to by more than one of my interview subjects, and I was thankfully able to get the fifth one---the so-called Deputy Managing Editor of the online Journal---for a relatively short phone interview; apparently he's a very busy man---so busy that he's the one that called me for the interview, not the other way around.

I would think five people would be enough for any article; most of my Desktop Publishing peers only had to interview one or two for their stories. But I spent most of this past week fairly irritated when I found out indirectly that I was supposed to try to track down all the Rutgers journalism alums at the Journal. All? Are you kidding? Most of the people to whom I complained about this agreed that this was a bit much; heck, even one of my interview subjects, when I called her to ask a few follow-up questions, said the same thing. In the end, though, I wrote up an initial draft based on my five interviews...and I think that's where I'm going to draw the line. Besides, one name who was mentioned by one of my interview subjects turned out to not even be in the paper's employee database, and another hasn't gotten back to me after about three e-mails and a message left on her work number. I guess I should try to leave another message...but really, I'm for the most part done with this thing, man.

Besides...I have a goddamn thesis I actually have to start writing! Remember, that thing comparing Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino? The thing that's due in about, oh, a little over a month???

So actually, these past two days I've been taking it easy after handing in my first draft of my Desktop Publishing story. In fact, I've been taking it so easy that I've basically been sitting around in front of my computer either playing around with Windows Movie Maker---using Mozilla's handy Video Downloader 2.0, downloading various Youtube clips, converting them to .avi files and stitching them together in true stream-of-consciousness collage style---or delving deep into the world of Youtube vlogs. (Sidenote: I should probably devote a whole future entry to discussing Youtube and, I guess, trying to elucidate its appeal, especially when it comes to vlogs. Besides, I've discovered some pretty cool, interesting vlogs on Youtube, and I'd like to share some of them with you readers sometime soon.)

Of course, shouldn't I be doing, like, homework or something? Well, I think I deserve a bit of a break...just to brace myself for another fairly tough week coming up. I have a midterm in my Cinema Studies senior seminar coming up this Thursday, and of course I'm probably going to attempt to get started on thesis stuff. (A friend of mine is also working on a thesis this year; supposedly she set herself a goal this past week to try to get 25-30 pages of it written. When I talked to her online on Monday, she said she had already gotten 10 finished. My internal reaction to hearing this was, Damn! It probably takes me more than one day to get 10 pages finished; how do I expect myself to get 30 done in a week? Well, at least 30 pages might be my whole thesis right there; that friend of mine is working on something much longer. Perhaps I could take heart in the fact that I was actually able to get my entire five-plus page draft for my Desktop Publishing story done in one day---although that's probably because I had all the notes in front me from which to refer as I wrote it.)


In the meantime...tomorrow's Oscar night!

Actually, I'm not as excited about it as that exclamation mark may suggest; I'm fairly cynical about the Oscars, since I don't see it as much other than a self-important orgy of Hollywood self-congratulation, one that can hardly be said to be worth much as an indicator of actual quality. Maybe of "quality"---meaning what passes for "serious" prestige filmmaking in Hollywood (like this year's Best Picture frontrunner Babel---although again, I think Babel overall is preferable to last year's blunt-instrument-rather-than-movie Crash). But hey, in the right frame of mind, I suppose it can be fun as merely a pageant...and tomorrow night, I'm going to try to have some fun with it with a few good friends (one of whom takes the Oscars a bit more seriously than I do).

A few random thoughts about what multiple host Billy Crystal once sang "Oscar, Oscar":

I still believe Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is the best film of the nominated five. It's not the most aesthetically daring of the lot, but, in its fresh and serious contemplation of issues of honor and morality in war, I think it'll end up the most lasting and memorable of the lot.

It may well be Martin Scorsese's year to finally win the Best Director Oscar he has long craved, but if he wins, to me it'll clearly be one of those make-up wins (a la Paul Newman for an earlier Scorsese picture, The Color of Money), an acknowledgment of a distinguished body of work rather than an award for his work in The Departed. It really is about time---although I wish he'd have won it for a better movie.

I'm guessing Pan's Labyrinth (** out of ****) is the favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But I saw the film a couple of weekends ago and I'm not sure I get the immense positive hype for it. Yes, its fairy-tale fantasy sequences are enchanting, scary and memorable, and its ambition to try to blend childlike fantasy with brutal reality is laudable. But an "end-of-childhood [elegy]," as one critic wrote about it? Really? If anything, the movie, in all of its visually splendid triteness, is a confirmation of childlike naiveté---with clearly drawn good guys and bad guys (let's face it, there's not much nuance to speak of when it comes to the intensely fascist Capitán Vidal, who engages in ruthless murder and torture even though he perhaps realizes that his cause is nearing its end)---and an at best clumsy intermingling of fantasy and reality. The rather blank 12-year-old heroine doesn't really grow in wisdom about the real world throughout the movie, and by the end...

(spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the film)

...she's actually died and gone to some kind of heaven, confirming her belief in the weird (and admittedly wonderful) creatures she sees and interacts with. And political allegory? Where is it? Fascism was a terrible thing, no doubt, but the film's aura of political depth---accomplished simply by making the atmosphere violent and heavy, as well as by trafficking in black-and-white instead of dealing with any kind of complexity---struck me as disingenuous. In all, Pan's Labyrinth is not only purely escapist, but it's also a celebration of escapism as a way to get away from the rotten real world. (Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander might have seen things through a child's innocent eyes and imaginative mind, but at least it also seemed to recognize the emotional complexities of the adult world surrounding Alexander.) Maybe others don't mind seeing a movie like that as much as I do (or maybe I've just gotten so pretentious myself that I've lost touch with the common moviegoer or something).

It's fairly obvious that Jennifer Hudson is going to win for Dreamgirls, but aren't people going ga-ga over her powerhouse singing and forgetting that she's perhaps serviceable at best as a dramatic actress? Her best acting is in her singing---which, I suppose, is good enough for a musical, but I wonder if, down the road, she takes on a purely dramatic role and feels a lot of pressure to impress especially to justify that Oscar statuette sitting on her mantle.

And finally, one major snub: Laura Dern in Inland Empire, for basically anchoring David Lynch's richly fucked-up vision to some kind of human footing. (Did Academy voters even bother to see Lynch's movie---or, I guess more accurately, digital video? Probably not, I suspect.)

Oh, and as for the ceremony itself: I'm pretty immune to whatever charms people see in Ellen Degeneres---I've usually rolled my eyes at her comic blandness whenever I've chanced upon her daytime talk show---so I'm not expecting a whole lot of comic gold out of her tomorrow night as host, to be honest. Maybe she'll surprise me. Last year, Jon Stewart started off kinda rocky but managed to come up with a few good pieces of ribbing as the show went along.


One more thing: to make up for not even feeling the motivation to post this on Valentine's Day, here's a video for fans of one of Jean-Luc Godard's great muses, the eternally gorgeous Anna Karina, to drool over. Does anyone have any idea how to obtain a copy of Anna, the French TV-movie from which the following clip appears?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Brief Life Update No. 10

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - It seems like this blog is becoming more of a weekly than anything else, since I seem to have time only to come up with one update a week. And this weekend I didn't see any films in a theater, so I can't even write about that!'s my life been going? Okay, although it looks to be getting busier this coming week, with a first quiz and, yes, another layout assignment (hopefully one which won't take forever to finish like the assignments I had in Editing & Layout last semester).

Good news on the senior thesis front: I finally put together a decent outline for the project off of which to work. Hopefully I can get started writing soon. My thesis adviser alerted me to this fascinating book by Robert Stam entitled Reflexivity in Film and Literature which is all about the ways some novels and films---Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote being examples of the former, nearly any Jean-Luc Godard film (thus my personal interest in it) or Fellini's 8 1/2 examples of the latter---flaunt their own, uh, novel- or movie-ness in trying to expose the inherent artificiality of fiction, get us to think about our reactions to them, and---in typical scholarly terms---"lay bare the device." It's been very instrumental in giving me a focus point for my thesis, which in part examines reflexivity in terms of the cinema of both Godard and Quentin Tarantino, and what each filmmaker's version of reflexivity means to both. I hope to get started actually writing the damn thing soon---kinda have to, since it's due by the end of the semester! (I don't expect mine to be too lengthy: the Livingston College Honors Program minimum is 25 pages, and that's what I've been instructed by my thesis adviser to shoot for.)

It might be hard to get started right away, considering I'm in the midst of working on a rather hefty feature story for my Desktop Publishing class. My Desktop Publishing class is in charge of putting together AlumKnights, the journalism and media studies department alumni newsletter, and I---perhaps stupidly, in hindsight---decided to tackle probably the most involved story assignment offered by the professor: I have to interview about four or five Rutgers alums who are currently working at the Wall Street Journal and put all their information together into one big story. Most other students only need to make contact with one or two people for their stories; not me. Aren't I lucky? Anyway, I think I've made decent progress so far: I was able to interview two people so far (both were very nice to me in addition to sounding fairly attractive over the phone---yes, I'm talking about females, not males), got in contact with two others (one of whom I'm not sure I'm going to interview anyway, since I'd say four people is enough for any story), and still need to track down one more. This is due in about two weeks, so I can't really afford to slack off. (Of course, this is probably going to cut down a little bit on my ability to make serious headway on my thesis in time for my next scheduled meeting with my adviser in two weeks...)

Not much else really. I'm probably going to try like heck to get stuff done early next week just so I can settle in on Valentine's Day with my great love: movies! How about a romantic Wong Kar-Wai/Hou Hsiao-hsien double bill? Chungking Express followed by Three Times? Two excellent films, both on the subject of love. Hey, I think it's worth waiting for, don't you?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

In Love and War

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This past week, NJ Transit allowed students to ride on their trains for free. They do this for one week every semester, so this wasn't some new thing (and sadly, it isn't permanent either). But this may have been the first free ride week which I took advantage of to the fullest. Last Monday I went to see Letters from Iwo Jima at AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street in New York City, and this weekend I took two more trips to NYC to see two more films: my second viewing of Hou Hsiao-hsien's beautiful Three Times (***½ out of ****) at the IFC Center, and my first viewing (finally) of Jean-Pierre Melville's highly acclaimed 1969 feature Army of Shadows (***½ out of ****), which was released for the first time in the United States last year and thus found its way into many a end-of-year Top 10 list. (Sidebar: oh yeah, wasn't I supposed to attempt one of those?) The latter played twice on Sunday at Symphony Space way the hell uptown (95th Street and Broadway).

Interesting thing about my experience with Army of Shadows: for most of the film, I found myself oddly frustrated by the thing. For some reason, I found much of it rather confusing on a plot level---I only figured out afterward when I discussed the film with someone that Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) was already a leader of the underground Resistance movement of the title when he's arrested and thrown into a prison camp at the beginning of the film. Is that a fault with Melville's storytelling, or was I just not in a particularly sharp and receptive mood on Sunday? And once again, detachment was pretty much what I felt throughout much of the movie. I guess it's intentional: these people are so dedicated to their fight that they've somehow become nearly automaton-like in the way they go about planning and executing---as if they've already been beaten down psychologically by the moral costs of being a French patriot during Vichy France in WWII. But that still meant that I barely felt I knew any of these people---if anything, it felt more like Melville deglamming the heck out of genre archetypes---the noir-ish narrator, the loyal sidekicks, the strong woman of many disguises, etc.---transplating them into this historical environment, and using a economical yet occasionally lyrical style to do the job of characterizing them. For Melville, so it seems, it's all about the looks the characters give to each other.

And then...bam! Something happens at the end of Army of Shadows---the same bam! I felt at the end of Fritz Lang's M (1930) and Francis Coppola's The Conversation (1974), two other films whose greatnesses only revealed themselves to me with a final sequence or image---that somehow puts a powerful spin on everything that came before. It's a gutwrenching, morally suspenseful finish that both shocks you and somehow sums up its themes and gets you to reflect deeply. I don't want to spoil it too much for anyone who hasn't seen the film yet: suffice it to say, the characters make a tough decision, but you're startled as to how quickly and near-affectlessly most of the characters (with one exception) seem to come to that decision. Even fighting for a winning cause, Melville seems to be suggesting, has its moral and personal costs; what's so different and devastating about the ending of Army of Shadows is precisely the realization that perhaps these people have already suffered that cost even before the movie begins. Most movies that tell this kind of story might try to dramatize some kind of arc; Melville seems to be going more for a regretful, elegiac tone suggesting that humanity has already been leeched out of these people. That's challenging---and it challenged me so much that I was deep in thought for a solid hour-and-a-half after the film had ended, and as I got onto the subway and made my way onto an NJ Transit train to make my way back to (snowy) New Brunswick.

What I definitely do know now is that I need to see this again. Perhaps a second viewing would reveal to me the meaning of little throwaway moments that Melville throws into the film. In one sequence, Gerbier, who is in England, walks into some dance hall, and Melville gives us point-of-view shots of Gerbier looking at the beautiful ladies in uniforms talking to other guys. What's profound about this seemingly arbitrary sequence is how suggestive it is: juxtaposed with shots of Gerbier himself, standing alone, looking at these women with his usual stoic look, you get the sense that perhaps Gerbier sees some kind of civilization that he's no longer a part of anymore. Maybe the whole film is about the death of this particular kind of underground civilization; I mean, it's pretty obvious in hindsight that none of these characters have really been a part of regular civilization for a while now. Perhaps there are other moments in this movie that, through something as simple as a mere image, implies waves of regret; I just wasn't able to pick them all up in my first viewing. Maybe, of course, that's a measure of just how much of a masterpiece Army of Shadows is. Hey, I think I'm starting to like this film more and more as I write about it...

No such ambivalence---at least, not as much of it---with Three Times, which is almost as much a meditation---albeit on totally different subject matter---as Melville's film is, but much more formalistic in nature. I saw this a couple of months ago on DVD, so this was my second viewing---but I had to put up with a solid but un-enhanced transfer on DVD, which of course made the film seem a lot smaller than it is. So when I found out that the IFC Center in New York was bringing both this film and the (effective but slightly overrated) Death of Mr. Lazarescu to its screens for a nine-day engagement (sorry readers, it ends tomorrow), I jumped at the chance. And, as I expected, the experience was near-revelatory.

I complained about the extravagant formalism of Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower detracting from the humanity of the characters onscreen, getting the uneasy sense that it felt like Yimou was more interested in creating pretty visual effects than with using form to express feeling. (Wow, don't those assassins flying through the air look cool? Wow, doesn't the blood splashing on yellow flowers look elegant?) Now, I won't deny that some of the characters in Three Times don't feel just as remote from us as the character's in Zhang's film does---heck, Hou Hsiao-hsien dares to shoot his whole second section as a silent movie (and a claustrophobically-blocked one at that), so perhaps a certain remoteness is inherent in such a fascinating artistic choice. But the difference between Hou's emphasis on form above character and Zhang's is that Hou's visual choices seem to organically come out of the characters and their respective milieus---it isn't sumptuousness for its own sake. That second section of Three Times---set in 1911 as the Taiwanese are fighting for independence from the Japanese---emphasizes the claustrophobia of its sets and the beauty of its costumes to suggest the cramped feeling its female character, a prostitute named Ah Mei (Shu Qi) who yearns for freedom, feels on a consistent basis as she remains quietly attracted to a self-proclaimed reformer (Chang Chen) who seems more interested in focusing on political reform than he is on helping the one person who loves him. Even its silent-movie conceit seems appropriate in this regard: none of the characters in Three Times are big yakkers anyway, relying more on looks and body gestures to express their yearning or disappointment (much like Melville's band of underground Resistance fighters do, in some ways), so taking out dialogue altogether forces us to pay more attention to those small gestures: the way Ah Mei looks at Mr. Chang, for instance, or the anguished moment when she realizes that she may be trapped in her societal position forever.

For those who haven't heard much about this movie: Hou tells three different stories---the first one set in 1966 in Kaohsiung, the second in 1911, the third in 2005---using the two same lead actors (Shu Qi, Chang Chen) and exploring similar themes: love, politics, history, the possibilities and barriers to human connection. Essentially, it's an anthology movie (one that, according to critics who have more experience with Hou Hsiao-hsien than I admittedly do, uses previous films like The Puppetmaster (1993), Flowers of Shanghai (1998), and Millennium Mambo (2001) as fairly obvious reference points), but it wouldn't benefit the viewer to simply see Three Times as three different films in one. What fascinated me, seeing this film a second time, were the thematic and imagistic connections among the three stories---example: when a pool-parlor girl reads a letter in 1966, it's framed the same way as when Ah Mei reads a letter from Mr. Chang in 1911; so it is with the various cell phone messages in 2005. But, of course, the differences are just as interesting to parse out as the similarities: if the 1966 story is infused with nostalgia (a nostalgia which borders on Wong Kar-Wai-ian, although Wong is much more operatic and stylized with his romantic mores), the 1911 story nearly beats you into submission with its sheer claustrophobia, and the 2005 story comes off as aimless as the gray modern society it depicts. Maybe love remains the same throughout the ages, Hou seems to imply, but the ways we do it in certain societies may be more different than we'd like to admit.

Three Times is not going to be for everyone, and I'll admit, there were moments in the second and third segments especially in which I yearned for characters to actually give voice to their obsessions much more than they actually do. And that constant pejorative "slow"? It applies here, even with three consecutive stories being told instead of one. If you check it out on DVD sometime soon, you're going to need a certain amount of patience, as well as a receptiveness to Hou's emphasis on small moments to tell big stories.

But a funny thing happened when I saw this film on DVD the first time: a few days later, I found myself actually thinking more deeply about love---how we fall in love, and whether Hou is right in suggesting that we do it in different ways, depending on different circumstances, whether political or personal. I don't know if I've experienced true love yet (ladies, I'm still unattached---wink wink), but Three Times comes close to suggesting, through its impeccably spare technique and fascinating performances, what it might feel like to be in love.

And its first segment is just so darned magnificent---an ineffable depiction of the stirrings of some kind of love, whether or not it's really true love or just one soldier's desperation to feel something romantic in a time of war---that it's gotten me thinking of the Platters' "Smoke Gets Through Your Eyes" pretty much every minute of every day these past few days. Since I'm not writing for a print publication, I think I'll indulge myself in a moment of movie ad-happy hyperbole: this may be my favorite film of last year other than Inland Empire.