Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tsai Ming-liang Plays Himself

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Hope all of you had a relaxing and stomach-filling Thanksgiving weekend! Despite the fact that I worked on Thursday (but eh, no big deal, I'm used to it by now, and at least we got fed something Thanksgiving-like in nature), my holiday weekend was quite fine. On Friday evening, I celebrated a good friend's birthday at a Japanese restaurant in midtown (the damage my dinner did my wallet, though, made my eyes pop out at the end of the evening; I definitely went overbudget, though I suppose it was worth it, in the end). And on Saturday, I saw two good-to-possibly-great films yesterday: An Education at an indie theater about half an hour away from my house, and Afterschool via IFC On Demand. I aim to say a few words about one or both of them soon enough.

For now, however, my film-review catch-up continues with a contrasting pair of films...

The Hole (1998; Dir.: Tsai Ming-liang)

After being puzzled and exhilarated by Tsai's Face six days earlier, I decided last weekend to take in another film by the fanciful Taiwanese auteur shown at the Asia Society (part of a rather incomplete retrospective programmed there): his sci-fi/musical fantasy The Hole. This wondrous film by no means dims my newfound fascination with this director.

Based on the three films of his I've seen—Face, The Hole and his 2006 Malaysia-set I Don't Want to Sleep Aloneit seems to me that Tsai is, at least in part, interested in articulating the wide-open gap between hidden and expressed desires. All three of those films have long stretches with barely any dialogue passing between characters, simply an intense sense of longing that both of them, for one reason or another, are only too careful about expressing too loudly. Tsai utilizes the kind of long-take aesthetic made popular by compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien, which might suggest that he's aiming for Hou's brand of patient realism. But Tsai alternates stretches of slow-burning realism with surreal, fourth-wall-breaking flights of fancy, boldly pointing up the vast differences between brightly colored fantasy and glum reality, and in the process suggesting, through such juxtapositions, the depths of his characters' wants and needs.

All of this can be seen in The Hole, in which Tsai turns a sci-fi premise—a deadly plague that strikes Taipei in the last days before the year 2000—into a romantic two-character pas de deux between Tsai's usual protagonist, Hsiao-Kang (played by Tsai's usual leading man, Lee Kang-sheng) and a woman downstairs (Yang Kuei-mei). The characters never quite fully articulate their thirst to connect with each other amidst the dreary, apocalyptic madness (it never stops raining in this world); perhaps they are too fearful of getting infected by the "Taiwan fever" to risk forming a human connection. But Tsai intervenes to articulate their desires for them: every once in a while, he throws in elaborately dreamlike song-and-dance numbers, music supplied by 1950s Chinese pop hits sung by Grace Chang, all cleverly connected to a certain physical and emotional moment.    

When they do finally connect, after a moment in which they both fear they have lost the opportunity to do so forever, the sense of joy—quietly expressed by a simple image in which one almost literally lifts the other from the depths into the light—is overwhelming; only another song-and-dance number can do it justice. I hope I have come close to doing some justice to just how wonderful a film is The Hole, in which Tsai Ming-liang—as seems to be his directorial métier—is willing to follow his instincts and risk absurdity in pursuit of deep emotional truths and sublime visionary beauty.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003; Dir.: Thom Andersen)

The splendors, such as they are, of Los Angeles Plays Itself are, by their very nature, cerebral rather than visceral; nevertheless, it must be said that Thom Andersen's 169-minute video essay on the depiction of the many facets of Los Angeles throughout cinema history does offer the immediate pleasures of epic ambition, a dizzying wealth of information and film clips, and assorted moments of revelatory critical insight. Alas, my interest in this oft-celebrated, rarely screened documentary more or less ends there.

Look, it's not that I find Andersen's aims totally unworthy. Fundamentally, he's trying to dig underneath what he sees as Hollywood cinema's misrepresentations of his beloved city geographically, historically, sociologically, or otherwise—in other words, trying to find the realities behind distortions about the city that we perhaps have accepted as close to the truth because they have been seen in popular and independent American cinema for so many decades. That's certainly the kind of goal I instinctively find valuable as a wannabe film critic—and yet, even so, it's one that I ultimately find myself less than wholly sympathetic with here. I mean, we're dealing with movies here; I would like to think that most of us recognize from the outset that what we see flickering on movie screens, even after all these years, through films like Chinatown, Blade Runner, Short Cuts, and even that trashy 1986 Sylvester Stallone flick Cobra, isn't necessarily true to reality. In seeming to prize more accurate depictions of Los Angeles in films like The Exiles and Killer of Sheep (certainly great films, both) over those of more blatantly fictional constructs like the ones mentioned above, it almost seems to me like he's going rather self-defeatingly against the grain of what is possible in cinema.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: I'm sympathetic to Andersen's interest in exposing the many truths about Los Angeles behind the cinematic fictions, and one could insightfully apply his methods to other major cities commonly represented in film over the years (Woody Allen's upper-class fantasy conception of New York versus the real New York, for instance). I suppose I just don't get as upset about those fictions as Andersen apparently does—certainly not enough to make, or sit through, a nearly three-hour documentary essay methodically (and rather dryly) subverting them. I'm not against truth; I just take the fictions in stride more than he does.

All that said, Los Angeles Plays Itself is admittedly still worth seeing and arguing over—especially in its third section, titled "The City as Subject," in which Andersen gets makes some fascinating political points about how fictions about Los Angeles class and race relations are created, and who has the power to create them (he suggests that it's the artists with money who create these alternate cinematic representations). Whatever you may think about whether what he's ultimately doing is actually worth doing or not, the film as a whole will offer new ways of looking at individual films and of cinema in general. In that sense, it succeeds as the kind of provocative film criticism that imbues genuine life into the field. And considering the way that the film-criticism field seems to be going these days—with high-profile critics jumping into film-festival programming, for instance—I suppose I shouldn't be too picky about deeply intelligent and well-researched works like this one. Maybe one day I'll be able to fully embrace it.

(Los Angeles Plays Itself was screened on Nov. 21 at 92YTribeca; there's another screening scheduled at New York University on Dec. 2. It's not available on DVD, but it's freely available as a torrent, if you're not a stickler about such things.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Merci to Art—and Love

NEW YORK - Before I tackle the next film in my film-review queue, I might as well briefly take stock in what exactly I have to be thankful for this year. It's that time of year again!

Everyone surely has something to be thankful for...but sometimes, in the ceaseless rush of daily life and the stresses of everyday living, it can be difficult to realize just how much you actually have. It's sometimes especially difficult for me: I think I'm just kinda psychologically wired to blow up the things that I think are missing in my life into a massive energy-sucking black hole. It is, in short, hardly a constructive way of living—to lament endlessly on the shortcomings in one's life—and I try to fight this ingrained tendency as much as I possibly can (even if I sometimes indulge in it just to get on my mother's bad side).

Thus, Thanksgiving comes at a rather necessary time in my life this year. As much as I may complain about my not-terribly-ideal living situation (living at home, far away from my preferred New York) and my lengthy commute, among other things, all of those drawbacks mean precious little in the face of the many forms of support, intellectual, emotional or otherwise, that I receive every day from both friends—both in person and online—and yes, family. (Friends and family, I do hope you feel the same support from me, in some way or another.) I am especially thankful for the constant indulgences of my parents, who provide so much of value for me these days—not least a roof under my head and a bed to sleep in—that I'm sometimes neurotic enough to feel I don't deserve their support, as if they're just handing privilege to me without a good reason why. (Frankly, the way I act towards them, I sometimes really don't.)

But the thing I'm most ultimately thankful for? Art. Great books, films, music, paintings, and the like. The intellectual and visceral pleasures afforded by art; the conversations great art can inspire. And I'm certainly thankful to have platforms and willing ears to hear me spout off on the works of art that really turn me on. Life is such an emotional rollercoaster, especially for me, that it's a relief to find in art something I can consistently turn to for relief and possibly even enlightenment (even when it's bad art).

In that spirit, here's another instance of me spouting off on something that turned me on recently:

Frontier of Dawn (2008; Dir.: Philippe Garrel)


Of the widely celebrated French auteur Philippe Garrel, I am only familiar with this film and his 2005 Regular Lovers. The thing that  fascinates me most about Garrel, based on these two works, is the degree to which he manages to infuse them with a sensuous, nostalgic romanticism while maintaining a distinct distance. The characters may be romantic in their natures, but the films surrounding them aren't necessarily embodiments of said romanticism. Even romanticism, Garrel seems to suggest, has its limits in the real world.

Youthful desire versus real-world disappointment was the great theme of Regular Lovers, a three-hour drama that gradually depicted, with unusual and revelatory vividness, the burnout of the fiery idealism that spread among the students who participated in May '68 in France. Frontier of Dawn is considerably less epic in scope, but it marries a similar visual style to an equally nostalgic yet intelligent and multifaceted look at pained romantic relationships among three young lovers: not just the ways they fall in and out of love, but, most poignantly, the ways the wreckage of a romantic relationship that has run its course can still haunt us long after the fact. (Its portentous-sounding title eventually turns out to be prefectly apt, being that it hinges on a character's after-the-fact awakening of romantic consciousness.)

When it comes to evoking the mysteries of romantic love onscreen, Garrel is far more sober in nature than, say, James Gray (whose wonderful Two Lovers traversed similar emotional terrain earlier this year). We don't easily grasp the characters' motivations in their three-way dance. Why does budding photographer François (Louis Garrel, Philippe's son) seem to suddenly lose interest in celebrity-actress Carole (Laura Smet)? Why inspires Carole her heartbreaking self-destruction, even as she ends her relationship with François? What attracts both François and the relatively more stable Ève (Clémentine Poidatz) to each other? Rather than providing simple answers, Garrel allows their actions to speak for themselves; he's more interested in the outward emotional effects of these characters' actions and what those effects reveal about their individual conceptions of love, and how those conceptions are shattered by reality. It's quite possible that not even these characters know what to do with the emotions welling deep inside them. All the while, Garrel bathes his film in deep tenderness of feeling and the rich textures of William Lubtchansky's beautiful black-and-white cinematography, which gives the film a kind of subtly doomy grandeur.

The surface beguiles, and the characters' inner psychologies fascinate—but, by its third act, as Garrel dares to venture into more mystical, ghostly terrain, Frontier of Dawn gradually acquires a weightier, more tragic dimension. Finally, one of the main characters jumps out of a window and a skull appears in a mirror. However the characters approach the volatile emotions of love, Garrel sees it all as a fragile landscape—not without its considerable joys, but one that ultimately leaves scars, psychic and/or literal, in its wake. Fatalistic, sure; but, as Garrel himself suggests by the low-key manner with which he sets out his vision of amour, c'est la vie.

(Frontier of Dawn will be released on DVD on Jan. 26, 2010; I saw this during a three-day revival run at Anthology Film Archives in New York.)

On a far more optimistic note: Happy Thanksgiving!

A Sense of Perspective, Courtesy of the Coen Brothers (On This Thanksgiving Day)


A Serious Man (2009; Dir.: Joel & Ethan Coen)


It was a minor shock to go from the gloriously skewed cinematic visions of Richard Kelly, Tsai Ming-liang and Werner Herzog (in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, which I saw at a press screening on Friday, and which I'm holding off writing about until its release at New York's IFC Center on Dec. 11) to the relatively more precise style of the Coen Brothers in their latest film, A Serious Man. But whereas The Box and Face, to borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael, "go mad on the potentialities of movies," the Coens in A Serious Man aim for something more subtle yet equally ambitious: their latest work is no less than a consideration of the existence of God and the cosmos.

Actually, it's much more complex and intimately scaled than it sounds, but it's a reasonable starting point in approaching A Serious Man, which, in some ways, feels more like a thematic summation than either The Man Who Wasn't There or No Country for Old Men. While those films steeped moral, spiritual and philosophical inquiry in idiosyncratic genre playfulness, howevee, A Serious Man makes no such outward concessions. The Coens take an unsparing look at the travails of its Job-like protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mild-mannered university professor who finds a whole series of unfortunate events seemingly happening to him at the same time, and who reacts to this avalanche of negativity by having a crisis of faith. Where is God in all of this? He had accepted His existence as fact up until this point, and, in his mind, had been living a good, decent life...and yet now, in a time of need, He is apparently nowhere to be found. But it's not just God that seems to have deserted him; it's a sense of purpose in his life. "I haven't done anything," Gopnik frustratedly proclaims on occasion, lamenting both the lack of fairness he feels in all that is happening to him, but also quietly bemoaning his lack of concrete accomplishments in his life (he may be up for tenure at the university, but, as he himself points out, he hasn't even published a paper yet). All he has to show for his hard work these days is a wannabe divorcée, ungrateful children and an overachieving Asian student who tries to bribe him for a better exam grade.

Gopnik, a mathematics professor, is, by nature, a rational-thinking fellow, and so he, a Jew, rations that visiting rabbis at local synagogues will help him find the answers he seeks. As it turns out, no such luck; the three rabbis he visits provide answers that fail to satisfy him. The first rabbi he visits seems to focus inordinately on the parking lot outside his window as supposedly heartening proof of God's existence; the second rabbi tells a compelling parable that merely ends up at one big question mark of a punchline; and the third rabbi won't even see him, being that he's too busy sitting around and "thinking." None of this is played for the kind of smug snark that Coen detractors consistently accuse them of; in fact, the Coens are too smartly aware of the nature of religious belief—indeed, too serious, in spite of their pitch-black comic sensibility—to lodge easy potshots at the rabbis' own ways of affirming their convictions. The lack of obvious answers, instead, deeply unsettles Gopnik—and us in the audience.

"Accept the mystery," one character says randomly in the film. The quote is a throwaway moment in context, but that, in a nutshell, articulates what A Serious Man is all about: being conscious of what we know and don't know, and understanding how people deal with things they aren't aware of. Some, like Larry Gopnik, look for answers until it nearly tears them apart; others may think about those big questions for a little while before eventually getting back to living their everyday lives. Maybe those in the latter group indeed accept that there are just something they may never know. When you think about it, that sounds very much like a universal human response to the unknown.

One thing I know for sure: the Coen Brothers, in A Serious Man, are genuinely committed to exploring the various facets of their protagonist's tortured soul in ways that are arguably more affecting than the thriller mechanics of their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. That said, both those films share a pronounced sense of daring about leaving in gaps in plot and character for all to see; this deliberate lack of closure is where No Country derived its tremendous kick. The Poland-set, Yiddish-language prologue of A Serious Man sets the stage: a husband comes home with a man his wife accuses of being a "dybbuk"; when she stabs him to prove her point, he gradually starts to bleed and staggers out of their house to an uncertain doom. We never quite know 100% if she indeed was right about him being a supernatural being; the scene simply ends with the camera observing them from outside their front door, wind and snow creating a positively ghostly, ambivalent halo. 

But its most daring gap comes at its very end...or rather, non-end. Those who found the conclusion of No Country for Old Men outrageous in its inconclusiveness will be equally frustrated by the way this film ends, or rather comes to a jarringly sudden stop. Yes, folks, the Coens have done it again...and once again, once the shock of it wore off, I could think of no other honest way conclude to a film that deals so insistently about the unanswered questions that hang over all of us. What the Coens do is literalize those unanswered questions with an impending tornado—coupled with Gopnik committing the ultimate immoral act (for him)—hanging in the balance as the film audaciously cuts to black. The end. What will happen to Gopnik and to his Midwestern community? Maybe, the Coens drive home with a vengeance, we're just not meant to know.

What I find rather profound about A Serious Man—and it is something that has run throughout the Coens' entire body of work, but which finally finds its most direct and affecting realization here—is something I think Paul Thomas Anderson tried, grandiosely, to get at with the plague-of-frogs climax in Magnolia: As much as we may magnify our own personal problems to near-apocalyptic dimensions, there are always forces greater than us that need to be wrestled with. A Serious Man may be explicitly about its inquiry into the knowledge all of us humans have and seek, but on a deeper level, it's a film about maintaining a healthy sense of perspective of one's place in the cosmos. We may feel like we're the centers of our own universes, but when it comes to the real universe...well, who are we, really? That may sound nihilistic, but I prefer to see it a statement of hard truth—and, in light of some of the mixed feelings I've had about my own place in life recently, an uplifting sentiment in its own way.

And on that note: it's Thanksgiving! If nothing else, be thankful for the momentary pleasures in life. For Gopnik, that's seeing his (high on pot, unbeknownst to him) son become a man at his bar mitzvah. For me, it's become blogging. And for those who are actually reading my recent barrage of posts, I'm thankful to you all...among many other things, of course.

(A Serious Man is currently playing in limited release nationwide.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Madness! Madness!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I still have a bunch of films in my personal review queue, but hopefully, with the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, I'll have time to play massive catch-up. For now...

Face (2009; Dir.: Tsai Ming-liang)
The Box (2009; Dir.: Richard Kelly)

In Psycho, Norman Bates famously said, "We all go a little mad sometimes." That certainly didn't help Bates's victims in that film, but in the cinema, creative madness can be quite the tonic. There's nothing like watching a talented filmmaker push the boundaries of the medium in order to put across a boldly original vision on the screen; even when that filmmaker doesn't entirely succeed in realizing his/her ambitions, sometimes the sheer exhilaration of his/her effort can be enough. One example of this type of shoot-the-works filmmaking is currently playing in theaters right now (though not much longer, it looks like): Richard Kelly's third feature, The Box. Another is Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's recent, Louvre-funded foray into France, Face. Both are deeply flawed and self-indulgent, but both hit on moments of jaw-dropping cinematic ecstasy that will frequently make you say to yourself, in awed admiration, "Where do these artists come up with this stuff?!!" Wherever these mad visions come from, you surely won't find 'em anywhere else.

Of course, over a week removed from the delirious high of seeing both these films, I'm now put in the (self-imposed) position of actually trying to write something substantive about them. Individual images and scenes from each float around in my head, and those memories make me smile—but when it comes to trying to form my varied impressions into a coherent take on what their respective auteurs are possibly up to, I find myself at a bit of a loss. It could be that their visions come out of something so deeply personal—from their subconscious, perhaps—that maybe they can't even explain it themselves. That's hardly a criticism, as far as I'm concerned; it's just that that elusiveness can make writing about them a bear.

This problem is very much pronounced in Face, which premiered at Cannes earlier in the year to mixed reviews, and which I saw at a free preview screening a little over a week ago at the Asia Society in New York. How to penetrate it? How to even describe it? Tsai Ming-liang's film has only the barest outlines of a plot: it has something to do with recurring Tsai character Hsiao-Kang's (Lee Kang-sheng) attempt to film a modern version of Salomé with an actor named Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud, magnificently reprising a world-weary older version of his star-making role in François Truffaut's The 400 Blows), Fanny Ardant and model Laetitia Casta as Salomé. And yet, despite what sounds like a classic film-within-a-film scenario, Tsai consistently blurs the line between the worlds inside and outside the film, never defining which is which. The idea of art-as-life becomes wildly abstracted here. French New Wave references abound: Antoine and Hsiao-Kang playfully exchange the names of famous cinema directors—it's the only language they both know, probably—as they both handle a bird Antoine calls "Titi"; Ardant and Jeanne Moreau sit around a fancy dining table as Nathalie Baye suddenly pops out from under the table looking for some jewelry; later, offscreen, we hear Moreau's famous Jules and Jim song being played on the piano, with Moreau saying something along the lines of "What have I gotten myself into?" And much of Face has a kind of art-exhibit feel, of artworks coming to life and slowly passing us by, providing an endless feast for the mind and senses. And as with most art exhibitions, Face leaves us to ponder the implications of these various moving artworks after the fact.

Tsai calls his film Face, and perhaps there's a key to this film: The film practically swims in images dealing with the human face. Laetitia Casta is seen taping up windows, as if she had gotten tired of her own reflection and decided to cover it up with black masking tape. (This is especially rich considering who she is in real life.) Antoine's first scene is a striking close-up of his face, leaning sideways to his right, with his eyes closed, as snow falls and the wind blows in his direction; much later, he's looking at his reflection and lamenting at just how much he has aged. At one point, Antoine is seen in an extended close-up with a towel covering his face; the image itself makes for an oddly affecting still life. And another close-up: that of Hsiao-Kang's grieving sister after the death of her (and his) mother, trying to suppress tears as she cleans up the mother's refrigerator. If nothing else, images like these, and many others in this vast cinematic fresco, suggest that Tsai was most interested in celebrating the ways human faces can be posed and lighted to achieve beauty in various forms and environments.

I haven't even gotten around to the out-of-nowhere Mathieu Amalric cameo, or Casta's modern-day version of Salomé's dance of the seven veils, sans music (not even Richard Strauss!), but with meat hooks and tomato sauce. And Tsai's shout-outs to his own previous work can't be of merely passing significance: the random musical numbers, his obsession with water (turned into a hilarious extended gag as a faucet in Hsiao-Kang's Taiwan apartment explodes in escalating comic mayhem), his evocation of loneliness and alienation. Face may be an attempt at a career-summarizing work, or it may just be Tsai self-indulgently basking in all of his usual thematic fascinations, in a foreign country and with the financial backing of one of the premier art museums of the world.

As you can see, I think I've spent more time describing scenes and images than coming up with a coherent interpretation of how they all fit together. Do they even fit together? More to the point: do they need to? Face is forbidding and impenetrable...but it has the heat of a visionary filmmaker throwing caution to the wind and spilling out his palpable joy in the medium onto celluloid. Perhaps the whole thing really is just Tsai indulging in his every whim. And yet, its images are so inspired and rapturous, and its seemingly bottomless mysteries so fascinating to think about, that I find it difficult to be too critical. What is the cinematic medium—heck, what is any art—worth if it constrains artists from being able to let it all hang out? All I know is, I'm very much looking forward to getting inside Tsai Ming-liang's head again. (That, of course, will depend on whether there's an independent distributor out there bold enough to give such an enigmatic film a theatrical run. What say you, Anthology Film Archives?)

In its eventual zeal to explain the mysteries it sets up, The Box proves to be much less of an enigmatic folly than Face, and thus ultimately less interesting to think and write about in the long run. Still, like Face, it is a film that is deliriously alive with bold inspiration. What starts out as an intimately-scaled morality play gradually morphs into a creepy horror film before its horrors begin to take on sci-fi, religious and philosophical flavors. As with his previous films, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, Kelly has no less than the fate of humanity on his mind, wondering whether humanity is indeed worth saving. Such grand ambition could easily have become oppressive in the soulless Dark Knight manner, but unlike Christopher Nolan in that film, Kelly locates a warm human center in his sympathetic central couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), thus cutting off any easy moral responses to the agonizing dilemmas they face at the beginning of the film and at the end. Meanwhile, Kelly's plot—based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button," which was adapted into a 1980s "Twilight Zone" episode—tosses in alien life forms, water monoliths, a 2001-style trip into the afterlife, and many more insane plot twists and visual coups. Kelly may have more chutzpah than intellect, really, but its visionary audacity is nevertheless blissful.

Besides, any film that is imaginative enough to have a car accident hinge on a hypnotized man in a Santa suit ringing a bell is all right in my book. As far as I'm concerned, such moments of what-the-hell invention constitute the height of cinema.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Behind the Scenes: The Ordinary Highlighting the Extraordinary

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I've just come off a full weekend of voracious cinephilia, in which I took in six films (all of them of the art-house variety, so no sexy vampires and werewolves for me) in the span of two days in New York. Lots of revelations to share with you all—but I find myself with a fairly healthy backlog of films I've seen in the past couple of weeks that I have yet to write about! As usual with me: so many movies, so little time.

For now, then, here are some brief thoughts on two films that are more thematically connected than you might think:

This Is It (2009; Dir.: Kenny Ortega)
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009; Dir.: Frederick Wiseman)

One focuses on the backstage rehearsals of a late pop star's never-to-be-seen-in-its-final-form stage show, while the other closely examines the entire backstage environment—the creative and business sides—of a ballet company. Two totally different worlds, yes, but the focus is essentially the same:  the sometimes arduous process of artistic creation. I usually find this kind of subject to be inherently fascinating, and these two films are no exception. Your mileage may vary.

For me, the Michael Jackson media freakshow long overtook the brilliant musical artist/showman in my mind before his recent death finally forced me to fully appreciate his considerable talent. The value, then, of Ortega's documentary tribute to Jackson is to brush off the tabloid cobwebs and train its eye almost entirely on Jackson the way he arguably ought to be remembered: as a tremendously hard-working and soulful entertainer first and foremost. In that way, I can't entirely get on board with the claims of "exploitation" that some critics have lodged against This Is It. I understand how some might see this footage as unsuitably morbid, and I suppose inherently it is. To me, though, the passion, imagination and attention to detail he exudes—his life force, in other words—even in this rehearsal footage presents its own argument. Even after all of his grotesque antics of the past two decades or so have been beaten to death by the media, here is Michael Jackson, ever the perfectionist, performing with nary a hint of world-weariness and creative burnout. His essential innocence—a quality that, even at less than 100 percent, still remains in his voice—seemingly remained intact until the end. (He even tries to pass it on to his stage collaborators, most memorably with a female guitarist trying to fill Eddie Van Halen's shoes in "Beat It.")

So yeah, I enjoyed This Is It. The performances, some of them undoubtedly rough around the edges, are generally invigorating as vocal and visual spectacles; and as a portrait of the King of Pop himself, it doesn't so much illuminate Jackson as it crystallizes some of his longstanding mysteries: how, for instance, he manages to be so close with his collaborators and yet remain so aloof and above them at the same time. For others, though, the film, with its worshipful "Chorus Line"-style interviews and lack of interest in touching on his troubled past, would most likely muster up all the cinematic weight of an extended DVD extra. Veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's La Danse would probably be more up their alley.

As usual with the ever-inquisitive Wiseman, La Danse takes a particular environment and digs deep into its nooks and crannies. His subject this time is the Paris Opera Ballet, but Wiseman's scope is far wider than Ortega's in This Is It. Dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, even down to costume designers and janitors: Wiseman observes them all in in his 158-minute film as they proceed through the processes of putting together an entire season of ballet performances. There are no mysterious and charismatic central figures here, and no direct interviews (both these non-attributes are Wiseman signatures, from his 1967 debut Titicut Follies onward); La Danse keeps a rigorous and immersive distance throughout.

What Wiseman, through his patience and curiosity, unearths is not necessarily groundbreaking. We all probably realize, in the back of our minds, that the process of artistic creation can sometimes be strenuously difficult, and the business of trying to fund a whole season of performances while maintaining a high artistic standard is about as hard. But when Wiseman presents the fruit of their labors on screen, the results—unobtrusively edited and beautifully shot records of seven lengthy dance selections, ranging from Baroque settings to spiky modern choreography—surely justify the immense dedication on all sides. And yet, in this particular cinematic context, the dance performances here feel less like creative climaxes than mere facts of life for these performers: This is what they do, and soon afterward they're back rehearsing something else. Perhaps the major achievement of La Danse is that it creates the feel of daily life being lived even as these dancers pull off wondrous artistic miracles on a regular basis. The extraordinary becomes ordinary, and yet the ordinary highlights the extraordinary.

(This Is It is still playing in theaters nationwide, while La Danse has been held over at New York's Film Forum.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Intellectual Versus the Visceral

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For once, I'm actually finding myself excited by the prospect of coming home from a long day of work to try to write reviews such as the ones I've been tossing off recently. If nothing else, it makes me feel like I'm, I dunno, making some progress in my attempts to, if not conquer the world of film criticism, at least grab a piece of it.

In that spirit, onwards to...

Antichrist (2009, Dir.: Lars von Trier)


Riding into its recent theatrical release on a gust of controversy, Lars von Trier's fever dream of psychotherapy, marital distress, and primeval violence promised, simply from the press it generated at its disastrous Cannes premiere earlier in the year, to be one of those divisive, love-it-or-hate-it propositions. Leave it to me, then, to stake out the middle ground on this one.

For me, Antichrist presents an interesting case of a film that impresses almost entirely on the strength of its images, by turns hauntingly atmospheric and brute-force blunt in the way they explore von Trier's ideas about guilt, sexual power and the nature of evil. I don't really find said ideas particularly interesting. Antichrist more or less adds up to a rather muddled treatise on the nature of feminine evil, not so much universal evil; basically, it's witchcraft through the ages, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, etc. Charlotte Gainsbourg's nameless anguished matriarch, it is revealed, has become dangerously obsessed with the notion, borne out of academic research, that women have been carrying inherent evil inside them throughout history; her obsession tips over into mania in its grand Guignol final act as she, among other things, smashes her husband's testicles; jerks off her husband's dick to a bloody ejaculation; and ultimately mutilates her own clitoris, out of fear of her own woman-ness, I suppose. So basically, all women are vengeful, sex-crazed bitches at heart? Um, riiiiiight. All of this is, presented in a pseudo-Christian light, and nary a hint of humane empathy, suggesting that such behavior is merely hearkening back to primal instinct.

And yet, while others have been able to laugh off Antichrist, dismissing the whole thing as just another one of von Trier's elaborate pranks, I find myself not quite being able to join that crowd. The film, for all its incoherence, affected me, if not emotionally, then purely on a visceral level. Anthony Dod Mantle's digital-video photography successfully captures a sense of Biblical portent amidst the environment the central couple ironically call "Eden," and von Trier eventually piles on the nightmare imagery. The image of the fox eating his own innards and saying, in a deep voice, "Chaos reigns," has by now become as much an object of ridicule as it is the film's calling card, but it actually plays quite unsettlingly in context, suggesting the hell about to befall their home away from home. (Even now, I still feel a chill remembering the image.) And its final act truly is horrific, for better and/or worse; it's been a long time since I've felt the urge to cover my eyes during a film.

None of this adds up to the kind of genuinely disturbing experience that von Trier seems to be aiming for in Antichrist (whether von Trier really did make this film in the midst of a major depression, as he has publicly claimed, it isn't readily apparent in the finished work)...but nevertheless, I can't wholly dismiss it. The sheer expressive power and dreamlike flights of fancy contained here suggest an artist possessed to bare all of his obsessions on the screen, and lay it all out there, leaving the viewer to figure out what to make of it—indeed, whether to take it or leave it. In that sense, I admire Antichrist. Intellectually, I don't find I have much use for it; but if we all agree that film is primarily a visual medium, on that level it's often startlingly vivid and effective. The choice is yours. (Currently playing at the IFC Center in New York)

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Lame Shaggy Dog

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I am sitting right now in a waiting room in Saint Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, having just received news that a stomach operation my mother had to undergo this morning---the removal of a benign tumor---has gone "better than expected." Not only is she pretty much cured, but she'll actually be able to eat normally! That's something her doctor here had not initially expected.

Music to my ears!

My mother will have to stay in the hospital for a few more days, so I'm waiting to see her for one last time before I head back home. In the meantime, though...I might as well actually fulfill a promise on this blog for once and toss off a few words on...

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009, Dir.: Grant Heslov)

The title of this film suggests a shaggy-dog story, and that's basically what Heslov delivers, with all the requisite weight of these kinds of fantastical anecdotes, that being very-little-to-none. Heslov can't even be bothered to work up any infectious comic outrage at the general silliness, selfishness and political maneuvering on display; the best he can do is affect the same above-it-all snarky attitude Mike Nichols cruised on in Charlie Wilson's War a couple years ago.

There's nothing actively irritating about The Men Who Stare at Goats; on its own modest terms, it's sufficiently amusing. And there is admittedly something rather cathartic about its climax, in which soldiers at an Iraqi army camp are seen tripping on acid, laughing uncontrollably and freaking out all over the place. But I can't help but shake the feeling that movies like this, the Nichols film, and Steven Soderbergh's exasperating recent "comedy" The Informant! are just taking the easy way out: evincing no particular point-of-view, content instead to score smug laughs at situations that ought to make your blood boil even as it makes you laugh out loud. (See this year's superior, if slightly overpraised, U.K. import In the Loop for an example of a hilarious satire that draws blood and inspires genuine anger.)

Coming soon: Antichrist and whatever else I get around to seeing this coming weekend (I hope the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man will be one of the films I get to finally see).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cinema, Meet Theater; Theater, Cinema

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm going to try to start a weekly feature on this (as ever poorly maintained) blog in which I basically just collect some thoughts on films I've seen over the course of a given week. I won't promise anything earth-shatteringly revelatory, but at least it will keep my writing muscles somewhat sharp.

So what'd I see this past weekend in the theaters (I'm sticking for now with theatrical experiences)? Let's go in order of viewing, starting with...

Bronson (2008, Dir.: Nicolas Winding Refn)

Well yes, the subject of this film is Michael Peterson, aka "Charles Bronson," a man with a reputation as Britain's most violent and notorious prisoner. But it's not really about "Charlie Bronson" in the sense you might expect from a so-called biopic. Refn isn't really interested in exploring the man behind the notoriety; this isn't really a character study. Instead, Refn focuses more on toying with the gap between Refn's self-created image and the utter emptiness at his core, an emptiness that his sheer, charismatic boldness of gesture can go only so far to camouflage. Perhaps that is the true essence of Bronson, then: It's a ceaselessly kinetic yet shallow movie, but only because, Refn and his very fine lead actor Tom Hardy suggest, the man himself was basically a shallow vessel filled only by his desire for attention at any cost. None of those gestures reveal anything about him, but maybe that's because there ultimately isn't anything to reveal. (Never does the man come off as a reflective fellow in the least.)

Telling, then, that Refn not only imbues Bronson with all sorts of theatrical gestures onscreen---dramatic classical music cues, skewed camera angles, even an animated sequence illustrating Peterson's artwork in his more recent prison years---but also incorporates a theater as an actual setting, with Peterson seen telling his story on a (figurative and surreally lighted) stage to an audience, and telling it with a wide variety of styles (he's seen with mime make-up at a few points). We're always aware of the events in the film as a sort of performance, with Peterson constantly angling for attention. And when he doesn't receive the attention he desires---especially in the scenes during his brief (and apparently apocryphal) release for "good behavior"---the scenes have the slight yet palpable feel of bad theater, noticeable mostly through the haltingly delivered dialogue.

All of this formal play could quite possibly be seen as a feature-length set-up for the film's final, gut-punch shot of our central figure. He's glimpsed, as the camera slowly zooms out, stuck in a very tight cell, nude and bloodied. And for perhaps the first time in the film, you see "Charlie Bronson" without the benefit of dramatic lighting, Peterson's voiceover narration or classical-music cues. The man you saw performing tonight stands before you as he truly is, behind the madness, writhing in some kind of pain. And the view is...well, ugly. And pathetic. And, in its own way, revelatory.

You might say that Bronson is an intriguingly empty movie. I'll leave it up to you, dear readers, to determine whether that's a good or bad thing. (Currently playing at Village East Cinema, though its run looks to be ending tomorrow.)

The Red Shoes (1948, Dir.: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

In a word: glorious. This was my first encounter with this much-celebrated British Technicolor masterwork, in a new 35mm print playing at New York's Film Forum---and boy, am I glad I decided to make my first acquaintance with this grand work of cinema on a big screen! The print is gorgeous, certainly: It's not enough to simply say the colors vividly pop, but also that the vividness allows one to appreciate just how imaginative Powell & Pressburger's deployment of such colors genuinely are regarding moods and settings scene-by-scene. (If it is possible at all for a film to feel both real and fantastic, sometimes in the same scene, Powell, Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff manage it.) Above all, though, there is the magnificent film itself: not only a wondrous, life-enhancing celebration of artistic creation, in all its joys and agonies, but also a tragedy with a heroine torn between her desire to continue her artistic pursuit and living a life outside of it. (It's a dilemma that I struggle with almost daily, though in far less melodramatic terms.) The way she ends up resolving this dilemma is both devastating and brutally poetic.

If nothing else, I just want to bask again in the film's centerpiece 17-minute ballet sequence, which pushes a ballet performance into the realm of the surreal and dreamlike in a manner that can only be described as sublime. It feels like art soaring into the heavens. You know that high you get after you think you've had a great artistic experience? You know what I'm talking about? Well, the ballet sequence in The Red Shoes comes damn close to visualizing that feeling. Awesome.

There's a couple more---The Men Who Stare at Goats and Lars von Trier's by-now notorious Antichrist---but I'm afraid, at this rather late hour, I will have to leave that for another day. Hopefully not a day too soon!