Sunday, February 28, 2010

Critical Distance Redux


Yesterday I had perhaps the most memorable moviegoing experience of this year to date when I finally saw Band of Outsiders projected on a big screen at the IFC Center in New York. Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 film is among my top five favorite films ever, but my only exposure to it until yesterday was via DVD viewings on various-sized television displays. This weekend, however, IFC Center programmed it as part of a season-long series of French crime classics, and I figured, since I was planning to be in New York anyway to catch up with that French Oscar nominee A Prophet, I might as well take this opportunity to experience this film for the first time in a movie theater. Well, folks, Band of Outsiders not only still holds up as a masterpiece, but it's even more charming, poetic and affecting when its resolutely working-class trio, so full of romantic desires and mundane frustrations, is given the kind of larger-than-life projection they crave. Who knew that the film's final 20 minutes—as we witness Franz, Arthur and Odile's robbery plans fall disastrously apart—would not only be sad and unfortunate to watch, but also agonizing in its visceral impact? In short, it was truly a revelatory experience, making what I already knew was a great film seem even greater and more profound than I had even realized. After I left the IFC Center, I felt blissfully lightheaded, walking on air, with a big grin on my face. (You know that feeling, don't you? Treasure it whenever you can!)

Alas, that ecstasy was tempered by news of the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Chile early yesterday, a natural disaster even more massive in scale than the earthquake that rocked Haiti weeks ago. This catastrophe, in fact, hit closer to home for me than the Haiti disaster did. A very good hometown friend of mine has been in Chile this past week as part of his graduate-school studies; naturally, when I heard on NPR that an earthquake had hit the country, I immediately started worrying about his well-being. Thankfully, I later found out, from both him and his girlfriend, that he was alive and well—but of course, that doesn't even begin to make up for the unimaginable loss of life that has surely resulted from this latest calamity.

You wouldn't think the earthquake in Chile had anything to do with Godard and Band of Outsiders, would you? But there's a small yet precious throwaway moment tucked into the film that, in its own way, brought me back momentarily into the real world.

The moment comes as Franz (Claude Brasseur) and Arthur (Sami Frey) kill time as Odile (Anna Karina) stakes out her aunt's house for the money she says is secretly stashed there. At one point, Franz and Arthur are seen reading newspaper stories out loud to each other. They're having some fun with the "usual" extravagant crime reports, but then Arthur starts reading aloud a news item about massacres in Rwanda: "Hutus [sawing] off the legs of giant Tutsis, their former masters, to bring them down to size."

In this moment, and in many other instances peppered throughout the film, Godard pointedly injects real-world tragedy into an otherwise playful/melancholy work, implicitly wrenching these dreamers—and, by extension, us dreamers in the audience—out of their B-movie-inspired reveries. It momentarily wrenched me out of my own euphoria as well; in fact, seeing that scene play out again made me flash back to something I posted a few weeks back about the unease I felt with my admittedly rather distant reaction to the Haiti disaster. In that blog entry, I cited a moment from Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965) to help explain that detachment. Someone near and dear to me may have gotten caught in this latest natural disaster, but I still feel that same emotional distance, no matter that Chile's earthquake is even more serious in nature than Haiti's. And judging by the dispassionate way Arthur reads about "Rwanda's rivers" being "choked with the bodies of 20,000 victims," Godard seems to understand that distance all too well.

It'd be easier to just cut ourselves off from the tragedies that, let's face it, happen all the time around the world. But we are all a part of this world; in that way, then, we are arguably all responsible to at least be aware of what goes on in the world outside of our individual purview. Even in the movies, Godard lyrically suggests in Band of Outsiders, we cannot forget the occasional drudgeries and outright tragedies of real life; nor should we necessarily do so. For me, it's that real-world awareness is makes the film as gloriously enlivening and beautiful as it is.

I may have more to add about Band of Outsiders in a later post, but for now, my deepest thoughts and prayers are with all the victims in Chile right now. If anyone knows any way I can help, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Own Parent Trap

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Another compelling episode of the radio program This American Life worth noting here—and if you know anything about my relationship with my mother (and surely faithful readers of my blog will know about it all too well), you'll perhaps be able to guess why I found this one especially resonant.

Called "Parent Trap," it opens with an anecdote about a man still living at home in his late 20s who somehow gets ensnared by his mother to get him to attend a church fundraiser. The man has a sneaking suspicion his mother intended to set him up with a specific priest and somehow push him into the church; his mother, however, denies any ulterior motive.

Right off the bat, I sensed (admittedly rather loose) parallels here with my own relationship with my mother—and not only because I'm still living under her roof. I can't tell you how many times she says something that implies a particular way of thinking she expects me to adopt, and then, when I confront her about it, she backtracks. In fact, that has recently become a consistent source of frustration when it comes to my (sometimes roughly and insensitively voiced) desire to move out of my parents' house and my mother's approval of such a move: She'll say she's fine with me moving out, but she'll also add qualifications like "But you know you'll have to do your own shopping and cook your own food, right?" or "You know you'll be saving a lot more money living here at home, right?" or "Are you sure you can actually afford your own apartment? Especially if you plan to live by yourself?" Which of course makes me wonder whether she really is okay with me moving out. This frustration just becomes more acute when I challenge her on that point and get nothing but denials: "No, go ahead! Do what you want; I'm not going to keep you if you are so unhappy living here!"

For me, the parallels to my personal relationship with my mother only strengthened in the episode's first act proper, in which one mother's well-intentioned final act before dying—writing a slew of letters, one for each year for the next 10 years or so, to be delivered by her husband to their daughter on her birthdays—hangs over the father and daughter in ways far more detrimental than the mother surely anticipated. For the daughter, especially, these words from beyond her mother's grave created expectations for her life that clashed with the way she herself wanted to live...and while her father was able to accept her reasons for, say, casting off Mormonism and marrying outside of the family religion, her mother, of course, wasn't there to be able to listen to her daughter's reasons. Her words—and by extension, her expectations—stayed rigid and unyielding.

My own mother, obviously, does not speak to me from beyond the grave. But you know, some people seem to have no trouble thinking for themselves and acting whichever way they feel is best for them, no matter what anyone, including their parents, might think. My younger siblings seem not to have that trouble. Me, I care about what she thinks of me or my actions—maybe a bit less than I used to (either that, or I just complain more often), but I still can't help but agonize whenever my mother puts out a point-of-view that I disagree with. It's not only the stigma of parental disapproval that hangs over me, but that deep-seated fear: what if she's right, and I'm wrong and just genuinely don't have the foresight to see it yet?

So you could say that my mother's expectations constantly hover over my head, influencing my actions, sometimes forcing me to do or resist things I don't necessarily want to do/resist just because I expect she will complain if I don't do it. Those expectations can range from something fairly small—the numerous times, for instance, I've reluctantly decided to forgo staying out too late in New York after work just because my mother has once strongly complained about me doing so—to larger in scale—studying accounting in college, for instance, or co-signing on a house that I feel I was more or less pushed into buying.

Sometimes I manage to work up courage to defy my mother's expectations; for one thing, I did drop out of the Rutgers accounting program to pursue a journalism major (and considering where I am now, I think I made the right decision in the end). And yet, even some of those major victories have turned out to be isolated incidents. Essentially, I still feel like I'm living in my mother's shadow, with a perpetual fear of displeasing her even when I believe doing so will quite possibly make me happier, at least in the short term.

I'm grateful to my mother for a lot of things in my life so far; really, I am. But there can be such a thing as perhaps going too far beyond the call of parental duty—because the consequences might be more psychologically draining than one would hope for. (I know it's time for me to finally move out and live on my own, for example...but boy, I reflect on the anxiety I feel whenever I think about the prospect of living and struggling by myself out there, and I realize just how pampered I've been all these years. I feel quite unequipped for the real world.)

Thanks to this week's This American Life installment, I can take at least a wee bit of solace in the fact that there are other people out there struggling with some of the same issues I am, even if the circumstances are far different from mine. Of course, that doesn't really change my situation any...

P.S. Oh yeah, and there is a second act to the episode: a story produced by the science-related public-radio program Radiolab about an interspecies parenting experiment gone wrong. It's also a pretty compelling listen—though, alas, you will have to wade through Radiolab's typically irritating ADD reporting style to get to the heart of the piece. Seriously, Radiolab: You may think you're making potentially dry science stories more palatable by juicing them up the way Paul Greengrass or (latter-day) Tony Scott juices up action with epileptic editing—but, really, all you're doing is just annoying the hell out of those of us who, you know, actually want to hear talking heads without the "benefit" of cutting up their interviews into soundbites, and interjecting all sorts of cutesy music cues and sound effects.

You can listen to the program here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Odds & Ends for the Week Ended Feb. 20, 2010


My main regret from last week is not being able to find time to post a blog entry for this film preservation blog-a-thon hosted by two elite film blogs, Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, etc.

I had been planning to craft a spiel about one silent-era masterpiece that, as far as I know, has yet to be properly, and rightfully, restored: King Vidor's 1928 film The Crowd. Turner Classic Movies, that television haven for cinephiles, showed the film during primetime on Thursday, Feb. 18; I was going to post an appreciation for the film in correspondence both with the blog-a-thon and with that TV screening.

But last week, I was called upon to once again lend my copy-editing eye to the upcoming March issue of WSJ. magazine. Knee-deep in proofs and obsessively editing and fact-checking articles about all sorts of high-end lifestyles, hobbies, clothing styles and merchandise, I found little free time both during and/or outside of work to be able to write a carefully considered post about the film.

And now the blog-a-thon is more or less drawing to a close. Well, for what it's worth, at least I contributed monetarily to the cause of film preservation, making a tax-deductible donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation. That's at least one of the raison d'êtres of the whole enterprise, anyway.

I'll let the following boilerplate—or, part of it, at least—give you all an idea what this blog-a-thon is about:
The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.
Well, I for one think this is a worthy cause...not just for geeky cinephile reasons, but for important historical reasons. The United States was perhaps the most instrumental in pushing the motion-picture medium in its infancy into the realm of popular art; and so much of 20th-century history has been documented through motion pictures—not only through documentaries and newsreels, but even through fiction. What is 1940s and '50s film noir, for instance, if not an implicit reaction to the national anxieties and horrors of World War II, refracted through a genre framework? Heck, even the most low-grade American International Pictures flicks from the '50s and '60s can be said to give us an idea of what turned on American youth during the decades of the Cold War and Vietnam. If nothing else, it's worth saving these kinds of films not just as catnip for film completists, but as potentially revealing barometers of our national history.

So that's my plug—a bit late in the game, perhaps, but there you go.

Oh, and as for The Crowd: I had the privilege of seeing Vidor's film twice during my Rutgers undergrad years—both times on laserdisc—and both times I found myself moved and gratified by its deeply sympathetic look at its ambitious working-class main character trying to make a name for himself while raising a family amidst the anonymity of big-city living. Its view of the falseness of the American Dream may be bleak in many ways, but the film is ultimately not without a certain measure of hope in the end...even if that hope comes more from accepting one's given situation rather than striving like hell to rise above it.

Vidor's film isn't exactly a long-lost classic: it was nominated for an Academy Award in 1928, and it was picked for the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989. So it's pretty widely acknowledged as an important work. And yet, the film for some reason remains crucially absent on DVD, joining the company of such films as Greed (1924) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). If this blog-a-thon will somehow help even a film like The Crowd stay in the public eye, then yeah, I'm all for it.

(If you want to contribute to the cause of film preservation, DONATE NOW TO THE NATIONAL FILM PRESERVATION FOUNDATION.)


Yesterday, as part of its Film Comment Selects series, Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a program of rare Godard films and videos at Walter Reade Theater. Entitled "Godard Rarities," the approximately 90-minute program, conceived by BAMcinématek curator Jake Perlin, not only featured select short films/videos made by Godard and segments from other directors' films featuring the French New Wave legend, but also trailers for some of his features (including one for his upcoming film, Socialisme). It was a fascinating and provocative program, as Godard's work itself usually is. Another typical feature of Godard's work: it made me feel like I was endlessly playing catch-up to Godard's ceaselessly experimental and inquisitive aesthetic and philosophical sensibility. Godard is, for better and worse, a filmmaker for whom the phrase "ahead of his time" still feels startlingly true today.

There are two "rarities" from the program that I wanted to mention here:

1. Il Nuovo Mondo (1963): This was Godard's contribution to the omnibus film RoGoPaG (Roberto Rossellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Ugo Gregoretti contributed other segments), and it cheekily anticipates his 1965 "sci-fi" film Alphaville by conceiving a vision of the future simply by defamiliarizing the present. Paris is hit by fallout from a nuclear bomb 120,000 meters above ground, but the effects of this apocalypse are mental rather than physical; Paris still looks like Paris, not some bombed-out sub-Third Man-like ruin. Human emotion is the main casualty, as the nameless main character (Jean-Marc Bory) notices people acting more robotically and inexplicably ingesting more pills; this brief 20-minute film is thus appropriately arid and detached in style. Still, it's startling to see how eerie even the present can feel in a film that is ostensibly about some faraway future. Of course, Godard would run with that idea in Alphaville...and beyond. Because, I mean, what is a film like Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) about if not the broad idea of deconstructing and examining the environments in which we all live?

2. Lettre à Freddy Buache (1982): Having been commissioned to make a documentary film commemorating the 500th anniversary of Lausanne, Switzerland, Godard then came up with this 11-minute short, one which amounts to a "videotaped refusal" to fulfill the assignment. To the hypnotic strains of Ravel's "Boléro," Godard lays out his reasons for not going through with the assignment with an intriguing marriage of sound and image. Allowing his camera to roam freely over various landscapes, both scenically splendid and dreary, Godard, providing running voiceover commentary, ruminates on what he perceives as the shortcomings of the documentary form to truly dig deep into what makes Lausanne and its inhabitants tick. Perhaps, he ultimately concludes, fiction provides a better entryway into the essence of this town...because, as he says towards the end of this incredibly dense short subject, "cities are fiction"—merely a state of mind. (You can view Lettre à Freddy Buache on YouTube here.) 

And finally, here is a clip featuring Godard from Wim Wenders's 1982 TV film Room 666, in which Wenders, during the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, invited various directors to discuss their views on the future of cinema in front of a solitary camera set-up. This segment closed out yesterday's program, and it's startling how much of what he says is still pretty relevant today, especially his thoughts of film versus television. But I'll let Godard do the talking:


Though I've heard bits and pieces of Mozart's famous opera The Marriage of Figaro over the years, only last week did I finally listen to the whole thing, from start to finish, recitatives and all. It's pretty terrific, though my enjoyment of it doesn't stem so much from its undoubted human-comedy aspects. No, for me, it's basically all about the music, some of Mozart's wittiest, most lyrical and creative musical inventions.

Here's a video clip of perhaps my favorite number of all: Figaro's teasing mockery of army life in the closing number of Act I, "Non più andrai," here with Ruggero Raimondi playing Figaro, Frederica von Stade as the increasingly flustered Cherubino and James Levine leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, from 1985:

For those who are interested: I listened to the 1955 Decca recording with Erich Kleiber leading the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, featuring Cesare Siepi as Figaro and Hilde Gueden as Susanna. It's a wonderful performance—and not bad-sounding recording at all, considering its age. At mid-price, it's worth picking up.


And finally, on a more personal note: congratulations to Mike and Ally, a couple of Rutgers friends, both of whom recently got engaged to each other. But the road to that engagement was, um, not a smooth one, to say the least. So convoluted it was, in fact, that a friend of theirs (and also a friend of mine) put together a four-part video series detailing the twists and turns leading up to the engagement. I found this so entertaining that I figured it'd be worth sharing with all of you.

Here, in all four parts, is the "Most Epic Proposal Ever." I think it'll be worth your while. But being that friends of mine are involved in this, maybe I'm biased:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Martin Scorsese: "He Makes the Best F--kin' Films!"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—In honor of Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island, coming out in wide release today, here's a video of one band's, er, "tribute" to the filmmaker. (I tip my hat to a fellow co-worker at The Wall Street Journal, who shall remain nameless here, for introducing me to this.)

Ladies and gentlemen, from 1992, King Missile's "Martin Scorsese":

What do you all think: Does this at least somewhat encapsulate the experience of watching at least some of Scorsese's films? (This, by the way, is a censored version of the song; the actual version has about 13 times more uses of the f-word than this video's zero.)

I have not seen Scorsese's latest opus, by the way (I'm not that connected in the film-critic community...yet...). But the wildly mixed reviews I'm seeing for the film are increasing my anticipation. The trailer made it look at least visually dazzling...but then I remember his last film, The Departed (2006), in which Scorsese (to my mind, anyway) slummed big time and won undeserved acclaim, including many Oscars (one for himself), for it. Here's hoping Shutter Island will live up to my (guarded) expectations.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Everything May Be Connected, But Is Anything Illuminated?


Ajami (2009; Dir.: Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani)

Ever since I've started posting on my blog more regularly, I've been waiting for a movie like Ajami to come along. It's yet another one of these so-called "network narratives" (a term coined by film scholar David Bordwell) that crams several major characters into a feature-length film; gives each of those characters fairly equal weight; and spin multiple narrative threads with those characters, sometimes intertwining them. Robert Altman is perhaps the most famous employer of this form, in films like Nashville (1975), A Wedding (1978), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001); more recently, this multistranded narrative structure has been used in both American prestige pics—Traffic (2001), Crash (2005), Syriana (2005), Babel (2006) among them—and celebrated art-house fare—Elephant (2003), The Edge of Heaven (2007) and Gomorrah (2008) spring immediately to mind.

Not all of these films use the form to similar purposes, of course. Some may try to connect the various stories of a network narrative, while others deliberately leave them unconnected. Some may intercut the plot threads together, scrambling chronology as well; others simply divide them up into sections, with maybe a character or an idea binding them together. And, of course, some of these films use the form more revealingly than others.

This seems to have become uncool to admit in recent years, but I'll go ahead and say it: I like network narratives. Or, rather, I like the idea of network narratives—not so much because of the form's inherent implication that people are connected in certain ways (not something I necessarily believe, anyway), but because I think there can be something of value in a form that can be used to present different viewpoints on a similar situation or idea.

I work for a company in which, every so often, snafus pop up which demand that editors get to the bottom of what went wrong—and usually what arises from said detective work are complaints about how one department doesn't understand what another is doing, and how either miscommunication or lack of it lead to a major error being made. It's bureaucracy at work, yes, but to my mind it also encapsulates the way we all tend to react to many situations in life: not always doing so with awareness of a fuller picture; reacting only with immediate knowledge; always assessing something within one's own physical or mental space, be it cultural, philosophical or otherwise. I'm reminded of that classic parable of the blind men feeling the various parts of an elephant, each believing that he's touching something different; I see something like that played out almost every day.

In other words, I think, structurally speaking, the network narrative is a perfectly valid cinematic mechanism, with an ability to encompass a wide variety of perspectives to illuminate the truth of a given situation or idea. Whether the form is deployed effectively or even responsibly is, of course, another story. For every Nashville or Edge of Heaven—films that combine a vast network structure with attention to character detail to produce a work of genuine dramatic power and keen human/worldly insight—there are glorified public service announcements like Crash or Syriana that feel dispiritingly like third-rate dramatists arranging pawns on a big chess board. And then there are films like Babel that are somewhere in the middle of those two poles: well-intentioned network narratives that, for some reason or another, never fully add up to the sum of its parts, though some of those parts can be quite powerful.

Ajami, the Israeli film that was just nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, resides somewhere in the middle—though, upon reflection, I ultimately think it comes out more on the plus side than on the minus. An artistic collaboration between an Israeli (Shani) and a Palestinian (Copti), the film aims, through five disparate stories (divided up into "chapters") that eventually cross paths in a sobering incident of violence, to sum up the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict on macro and micro levels. I'm not convinced that the stories themselves are interesting enough to live up to its lofty aims: most of the plot threads are merely dressed-up variations on crime-drama mainstays—a tough-yet-sensitive cop avenging his brother's death; an inter-religious romance that receives parental disapproval; and so on—and for all its scrambling of chronology, sensitivity to character detail and fine acting, Ajami can't quite escape a feeling of treading familiar paths.

To its credit, however, the film mostly succeeds on the micro level: using mostly nonprofessional actors to inhabit these multifaceted roles, the filmmakers evince enough compassion for all their characters to invite us to respond to them as individuals. And through its deliberately rough handheld digital-video camerawork (it was shot by Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov), Ajami often exudes a palpably lived-in feel that grounds even the more overtly clichéd storylines in a realistic milieu. Even if the whole doesn't quite measure up to its parts, the whole thing is nevertheless distinguished by care and intelligence.

And in one important sense, the network-narrative structure wholly suits the film's view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an endless series of bitter feuds escalating to the point of utter meaninglessness. We see the aforementioned violent incident—a "drug deal" gone wrong, more or less—replayed through different perspectives, and through the various chapters of the film, we come to understand the complex, hostile emotions that have led up to this explosion of brutality. The film's carefully worked-out structure may inspire empathetic understanding, but it's put at the service of explaining an incident that seems rather petty amidst the larger forces—ethnic and class divisions, deep-seated familial loyalties, etc.—that Ajami touches upon in the midst of its two-hour tapestry. Maybe it's appropriate that the film comes to a full stop with a medium shot of one character, having escaped from the scene of the crime, looking around in utter bewilderment. How did he get here? Do any Israelis or Palestinians really know anymore how the long-standing conflict got to the volatile point it has today? If nothing else, the network-narrative structure in Ajami deliberately obscures as much as it clarifies.

(Ajami is about to conclude a two-week run at Film Forum tomorrow, but it will still be playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas after that.)

From Paris With Love (2010; Dir.: Pierre Morel)

Well, I had a blast at this. As with his previous produced-by-Luc Besson film, Taken (2008), director (and former cinematographer) Pierre Morel proves himself to be an efficient action craftsman, and much of the pleasure of his latest unapologetic B-movie actioner comes from the speed, imagination and coherence with which he puts together some pretty audacious action setpieces. But From Paris With Love also has a sharper sense of morality underpinning the action fireworks than Taken. The earlier film, through Liam Neeson's sheer gravity, made gestures toward a tough-minded awareness of the unsettling political/personal implications of this ugly American bulldozing his way through Europe just to save his own daughter; by the end, though, it mostly reaffirmed its solidly right-wing values. This follow-up isn't that much more enlightened in its politics, but along the way, it does offer some complications to our enjoyment of the blood being shed in Charlie Wax's (John Travolta) mission to squash a terrorist threat in Paris.

The key to this film's ethical quandaries lies in Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' character, James Reece, an assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in France who harbors dreams of becoming a spy of his own—dreams that he begins to reconsider once he witnesses Wax's swaggering swath of destruction. After a shootout in a slum apartment building, Reece is seen staring at his blood-splattered face in a mirror, looking genuinely flustered as he quickly cleans the blood off his face. It's an unexpected touch, but it's indicative of the tantalizing ways Morel, Besson (given a story credit) and screenwriter Adi Hasak, through this audience surrogate Reece, ask us to be as deeply aware of the ruthlessness of Wax's methods as we are exhilarated by his sheer ballsiness.

This is the kind of moral suspense that the television series "24" used to be good at before it became (its underrated seventh season notwithstanding) repetitive and overextended; it's also more politically nuanced than the equally topical-minded The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Even better, From Paris With Love rarely takes itself too seriously—which makes the moments when it does exude a certain moral seriousness all the more exhilarating.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Wong Kar-Wai Image Essay for Valentine's Day

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—As all you crazy lovebirds out there lavish affection toward each other on this Valentine's Day, this single man (one who is kinda/sorta looking for romantic company—ladies?) will do what he usually does February 14 every year: lavish his own affection on that cinematic poet of yearning (romantic or otherwise), Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai.

Wong's great modern-day cinematic duology, Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995)—the latter from which a still graces the banner of this here blog, for those who didn't already know—speaks to all manner of romantic connections, disappointments and rebirths. The characters' voiceover narrations articulate some of these, but the characters themselves don't, or cannot. Thus, the following image essay features characters from both these films in the throes of silent desire, many of them staring into space for intensely personal reasons we can only really guess at. You could almost call these images "spiritual," in their own purely secular way.

Chungking Express

After romantic heartbreak, what's next?

How low can he go? But then...
A femme sans fin mystérieuse 


California dreamin'?

Waiting for a salvation from despair that only he can put into motion

A dream that becomes reality

Fallen Angels

Desiring an idealized conception of someone

Satisfying her lust for that conception

The human being underneath the conception, contemplating his next move

 Heartbreak: in this case, a shattering of expectations

Finding a spark of connection...

...but is it requited?

Finding some warmth at last...

 ...from a fellow lost soul

Happy Valentine's Day to all who celebrate.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Japanese "Silencio"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Last night, I had my first-ever experience watching a silent film with live musical accompaniment...and it was a pretty cool experience, all in all.

The film was an early (1930) silent feature from Yasujiro Ozu, That Night's Wife. It was the concluding film of a brief three-film retrospective of early Ozu silents hosted by WNYC's John Schaefer at World Financial Center's Winter Garden; alas, it was the only one I was able to actually make it out to see. (Passing Fancy (1933)—available as part of Criterion's Silent Ozu Eclipse box set—and Woman of Tokyo (1933)—which is not—were the other two; That Night's Wife doesn't seem to be available on DVD either.)

That Night's Wife is ostensibly a thriller: Its plot hinges partly on a desperate father (Tokihiko Okada) who turns to armed bank robbery to help support his family, a sick daughter (Mitsuko Ichimura) in particular; and the cop (Fuyuki Yamamoto) who doggedly chases his tail. But after staging a well-shot heist sequence in the beginning of the film, Ozu slowly but surely begins to enlarge those genre conventions to encompass touching domestic drama and weighty moral complexities. Much of the 65-minute film, in fact, is set in an enclosed space, the family's tight apartment; within that space, however, Ozu uses the most telling of close-ups to create a humanist chamber drama in which, well, "everybody has their reasons," as Jean Renoir famously said in The Rules of the Game (1939). In its broad outlines, the film may sound like uncharacteristic Ozu, and certainly on a stylistic level That Night's Wife isn't nearly as austere and deliberately pared-down as he would become much later on. But even this early in his artistic career, he was already showing a distinct patience in exploring his characters' many facets and the milieus in which they live.

Last night, That Night's Wife—projected via a 35mm print courtesy of Janus Films—was accompanied by a generally intriguing musical score by Robin Holcomb, who performed on the piano along with a cellist (Peggy Lee), an accordionist (Guy Klucevsek) and a bassoonist (Sara Schoenbeck). It was a reasonably evocative, modern-sounding score that, like the film itself, focused more on creating a mood of underlying disorder—broken only by the father's loving interactions with his sick daughter, wherein Holcomb's score went fully tonal—than in ratcheting up tension and suspense. In short, Holcomb went for a more broadly contemplative vibe overall rather than merely ratcheting up suspense; as a result, the film itself seemed more slowly placed than the material might usually call for. Which is certainly no bad thing, in my eyes and ears, especially when performed as well as was done last night.

The Winter Garden, in fact, seems like a perfectly fine venue for more of these kinds of screenings, silent or otherwise; the fact that last night's screening was free just made it even better. More of these should be scheduled; I'd certainly go, on the right days!

That Night's Wife may or may not be a major Ozu work; either way, it shows traces of the wisdom and warm humanity that would fully flower forth in his later works. And, on a more general level, it immediately reminded me that there are still pleasures to be had from watching silent films, where much of the emphasis is indeed on visual elements like facial expressions to tell a story. There's a purity about them that feels especially fresh in this age of massive-budget eye candy like Avatar.

Here are a few choice clips from this early Ozu film, sans musical accompaniment, via YouTube, just to give you all a taste:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Link for the Day: "Generic News Report"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Just a fun little video I wanted to share with you all for now: a sharp and brilliant deconstruction of standard TV news reports. Maybe it's no surprise that this great piece of satire comes from the British. (For this video, I tip my hat to a fellow news assistant at The Wall Street Journal whose name I will not divulge here.)

Enjoy! (Here's a link to the Web site from which I first saw the video, if you're interested.)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Period Perfection in Mozart


I just wanted to chime in briefly to plug a wonderful set of Mozart's complete symphonies I've been listening to recently. They're performed on period instruments by The English Concert under the direction of Trevor Pinnock, and they are available on a budget-priced 11-disc box set on Deutsche Grammophon's Archiv Produktion label.

I'm admittedly far from a connoisseur of period-instrument classical performances, but neither am I staunchly against listening to classical-era works performed this way, with special attention paid to the performance practices and instruments of the day. Certainly, there are interpretive insights that could conceivably be gained regarding a particular composer's work if situated within a sound world more authentically of his time. One of the common knocks against this kind of historically informed performance, however, is that some conductors focus so much on period authenticity—on the right instrumentation and sound, on tuning, on note values and tempos—that they lose the heart and soul of the music. Instead, so the arguments go, the music is often performed in a way that feels less like a living, breathing entity, and more like a museum exhibit.

Happily, that is not the case with Pinnock's complete cycle of Mozart symphonies, in which warmth and energy are in full supply even in Mozart's later, more widely performed masterpieces. There is plenty of fire in the quick movements (witness, for instance, the whirlwind finale of Mozart's Symphony No. 39), but Pinnock allows plenty of space in slow movements for Mozart's lyricism to fully blossom forth (sample the second-movement Andante cantabile of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, his 41st and final utterance in the form). And the pleasures of the performances of the less familiar early symphonies—some of which already display moments of formal daring and youthful experimentation with matters of structure and sound—come mostly from listening to a crack authentic-instrument ensemble playing the music with the kind of utmost sensitivity and impeccable technical address that the best modern-instrument ensembles can provide.

Indeed, Pinnock's complete Mozart symphony cycle may well be as fine a choice for the first-time listener as any modern-instrument collection. Pinnock's performances may not necessarily be the last word in exploring the inexhaustible facets of these immortal scores—he's not what one would call an "interventionist" interpreter, generally preferring to let the music speak for itself—but never does historical performance practice take precedence over fine and often exhilarating music-making.

And, of course, if period instruments still turn you off...well, there's always Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic's pioneering vintage Deutsche Grammophon cycle from the '50s and '60s.

P.S. I've been exploring Mozart's music on-and-off for the past few months—his symphonies, his chamber music, his piano concertos, his serenades and divertimenti, etc.—and it still amazes me just how fresh and invigorating even his relatively trivial works remain after over 200 years. There's nothing at all dull or musty about these works, folks; the bright light of inspiration still shines. That said, I might as well also admit that there aren't very many Mozart works that I'd go out of my way to experience in a concert hall, especially since many of them have been so frequently played by various orchestras, amateur and professional, over the years. But then, I haven't yet gotten to his operas...or his Requiem...

Monday, February 08, 2010

Review Queue Burn-off, Part II

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—This should bring me up to date as to films I've seen in theaters in recent weeks.

A Room and a Half (2009; Dir.: Andrey Khrzhanovsky)


This ceaselessly imaginative and casually profound fictionalized biopic of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky doesn't entirely escape the trappings of standard-issue biopics: now and then, the film exudes a kind of de rigueur feel of a script merely ticking off events in his life. But the film, as a whole, strays so far outside of the realm of standard biopics in trying to capture the poetic essence of its subject that even its relatively duller stretches can easily be forgiven, because the level of invention is generally so high. Through its uninhibited mixture of historical recreations, archival newsreel footage, live-action dream and handcrafted animation sequences, A Room and a Half presents an artist looking back at the full range of his life, and attempts to draw connections between his life, his worldview and his art. Brodsky's, it seems, is a mostly apolitical sensibility that focuses more on the joys in life than on its horrors, of which he witnessed and experienced his fair share. Sorrow is never too far behind, however, especially in his later years, after his expulsion from the USSR in 1972. In the film's last 20 minutes, Khrzhanovsky invents a literal passage in which Brodsky—who may or may not be a ghost at this point—returns to his homeland, revisits his childhood home and interacts with the ghosts of his by-then deceased parents. The feeling of pained nostalgia this final movement evokes is deeply moving, accompanied as it is by a recitation of one of his poems. If nothing else, A Room and a Half makes me want to seek out Brodsky's words: an artist as universal, as forward-looking, as wise, and as self-aware as he is almost always worth cherishing.

Edge of Darkness (2010; Dir.: Martin Campbell)


Edge of Darkness, a feature-length American version of a 1985 BBC miniseries also directed by Martin Campbell, is yet another one of these revenge dramas which tries to have its blood-soaked cake and eat it too: aiming to satisfy our thirst for revenge while taking pains to try to complicate our reactions to said thirst. The film never really cuts very deep in that regard, mostly because the characters—particularly the so-called villains (headed by ultra-slimy Danny Huston)—are ultimately too thin to inspire truly complex reactions to their fates. Nevertheless, its ambitions deserve more respect than it seems to have received from many critics. Campbell's previous feature, the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, was as compelling a character drama as it was a fantastic action spectacle, and those same admirable traits surface here, with even more of an emphasis on character drama.

Mel Gibson—back on the screen after an eight-year absence, but garnering plenty of publicity, positive and negative, in the meantime—brings his usual credible slow-burning grief and rage to his role as Thoms Craven, a Boston cop whose daughter is brutally gunned down right in front of his eyes, and who works himself into a frenzy—one that gradually comes to seem useless and hopeless in the face of the forces he is up against—in trying to discover the corporate conspiracy behind her murder. But while Craven's tortuous quest dominates the proceedings, Craven himself is hardly the film's most intriguing character. That honor belongs to Jedburgh, a mysterious clean-up man played by Ray Winstone as a weary, resigned man who has long come to terms with the kind of dirty business he has consistently been tasked to do. Every gesture of Winstone's suggests a lifetime compromise and a desire to break out of the inhuman business he's in. If Craven runs the risk of losing his humanity in the process of finding his daughter's killers, Jedburgh recognizes that he's lost his humanity and is trying, in his own quiet way, to locate it again, however fleetingly. (And in the kind of cynical twist that wouldn't be too out-of-place in, say, The Departed—which Edge of Darkness co-screenwriter William Monahan penned—his one gesture of empathetic humanity gets him killed.) Winstone's performance doesn't so much steal the show as it does suffuse the whole film with a moral depth that the film perhaps doesn't fully earn; by the end of Edge of Darkness, one might even regret that the film hadn't focused on Jedburgh instead.

The Last Station (2009; Dir.: Michael Hoffman)

Michael Hoffman's film, a multistranded costume drama set in the last days of Leo Tolstoy's (Christopher Plummer) life, isn't much as cinema—it's pretty-looking in that impersonal Merchant/Ivory way that signals "GOOD TASTE" in block quotes—but it still offers some theatrical sparkle, most of it from Plummer and Helen Mirren, playing Tolstoy's long-suffering but devoted wife. There are lots of potentially interesting plot threads here, most notably Hoffman's attempt to explore the vast divide between the public's perception of Tolstoy as a spiritual figure—especially among a group of devoted followers who call themselves "Tolstoyans"—and the real Tolstoy himself, played by Plummer as a man who is aware of how he can't possibly measure up to the public's near-deification of him. But cluttered execution drowns out even the more promising themes, and the characters are never fully dimensional enough to engage our sympathies. Paul Giamatti's scheming Tolstoyan Vladimir Chertkov, for instance, seems to have been written straight-away as a snarling villain, and unfortunately that's how Giamatti plays him. In short: no nuance, no mystery, no cinema...but there are a lot of pretty pictures to look at, and its wide-ranging cast brings occasional flickers of life to the enterprise.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

This Just In: Google Pays Tribute to French New Wave Director in Super Bowl Ad

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Congratulations to the New Orleans Saints, who hung in there against the Indianapolis Colts and emerged victorious in Florida at Super Bowl XLIV! I have to admit, I was rooting for them to win, but it had nothing to do with any feeling that the city of New Orleans deserved a win like this in light of their post-Hurricane Katrina hardships. (Does that make me insensitive in some way?) Really, I just like to root for the underdog when I'm faced with two teams I otherwise would not care for in a championship game like this one. And Drew Brees and company pulled it out in dramatic fashion; as a friend of mine commented on Facebook when Saints cornerback Tracy Porter picked off Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to make the Saints' fourth-quarter lead just about insurmountable, who knew Manning would Favre the game away?

I didn't watch the whole game live; I was working in New York today (I work Sundays through Thursdays, for those who don't know by now), and in the middle of the game I was hauling my ass all the way back home to East Brunswick. So I didn't see The Who's halftime show until later (it was nowhere near as electrifying as their performance in The Concert for New York City), and I only now got around to catching some of the commercials that aired throughout the game on CBS. One in particular caught my attention: an ad from Google that detailed a whole courtship entirely through search-engine terms. If nothing else, my cinephile heart leapt at the Truffaut reference lodged in the commercial. But of course; his films are, on balance, far more approachable than Godard's. (But how about the recently departed Eric Rohmer? Now that would have been a brilliant shout-out, considering the kind of romance-related subjects he tackles in his Moral Tales.)

Here it is, for your enjoyment once again:

Review Queue Burn-off, Part I

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I once again find myself with a fairly sizable backlog of films I've seen in theaters but haven't written yet about. Let's see how many I can knock off on this lazy snow-day Saturday...

The White Ribbon (2009; Dir.: Michael Haneke)

Michael Haneke is yet another widely-discussed modern-day auteur whose work I have yet to catch up on. So The White Ribbon is my first Haneke film—and it was a not entirely unfavorable initial encounter. Broadly speaking, it's a mystery tale revolving around a series of strange incidents that befall a closed-off village in Germany before World War I; within that genre framework, however, Haneke paints a portrait of a town that, behind its idyllic exterior, seethes with petty resentments, religious fanaticism and patriarchal abuse. Haneke aims to show, carefully and dispassionately, the mechanisms in which evil can be passed down from one generation to another—how fear can lead to authoritarianism, and how that process can be repeated throughout history. It's a dry and chilly experience, and its view of humanity isn't exactly cuddly, to say the least. Still, it is far from a shallow misanthropic wallow; Haneke displays a pained compassion toward the good people—including a schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who provides the voiceover narration for the film many years after the incidents in the film has occurred—caught in the middle of these behind-the-scenes conflicts. And by deliberately leaving the film's central mysteries unresolved, its final image carries a richer, deeper resonance. On the surface, that final image is an interior wide shot of all of the village members crammed into the town church, with the children in the rafters singing; coming at the end of a film in which just about every character is seen with suspicion, however, it takes on a more ominous character, hinting at the dangerous depths that lie behind the unassuming exterior. As a sum-up of Haneke's view of the banality of evil, it reverberates.

A Single Man (2009; Dir.: Tom Ford)

Consider me yet another member of the Colin Firth fan club as far as his magnificent lead performance in A Single Man is concerned. The film follows Firth's character, an English professor grief-stricken over his male lover's death, in the course of a day as he contemplates killing himself; Firth's great achievement here is to chart his character's varied emotions—ranging from despair to joy to nervous fear—with beautiful, credible vividness of expression, so that it feels like a portrait of a full inner life in miniature. (He'd easily get my Oscar vote over the overpraised Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.) The film surrounding Firth's great performance—an adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel—has been garnering less acclaim, with many critics accusing director Tom Ford of focusing more on creating glossy fashion-mag pictures than making a movie. To which I say: well, to each his own, but for the most part, I think his visual choices—his changes of film stock to differentiate between past and present, his occasional use of rapid-fire montage to signal distraction—persuasively express, through entirely cinematic means, the unsettled, despairing mind at the heart of the film. In other words, I feel more commitment to the film's characters and themes on Ford's part than many of its strongest detractors claim, and that's why I ultimately found A Single Man more touching, and less show-offy, than I expected it to be. It's no masterpiece (its ending still doesn't sit right with me, for one thing; to put it crudely, it feels kinda stupid), and it doesn't break any new formal ground by any means...but at least it's trying, and Firth's soulfulness pulls it all the way through its glossier patches.

The Girl on the Train (2009; Dir.: André Téchiné)

This latest film from French director Téchiné is divided into two distinct parts. Its first half focuses on the "girl" of the title, a struggling young woman named Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne, best known for playing the titular character in the Dardennes' Rosetta) who allows herself to seduced by a wrestler, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), and moves in with him. Their affair takes a turn for the worst, however, when Franck eventually spurns Jeanne after a botched robbery attempt leaves him permanently wounded physically and emotionally. It is then that Jeanne, for reasons that the film never fully explains, decides to fake an anti-Semitic attack and bring the made-up story to the police; the national press, of course, gets wind of this and blows the story up to a national scandal. (The film is based on a real-life French national scandal in 2004 that also turned out to be false.) That's when The Girl on the Train shifts focus from Jeanne to a Jewish family, the Bleisteins, whose patriarch (Michel Blanc) is a lawyer who agrees to try to get to the bottom of this matter when Jeanne's mother (Catherine Deneuve) becomes suspicious of the veracity of her daughter's claims. In essence, Jeanne in the second half become increasingly more remote and less immediately sympathetic a character.

It's an intriguing shift in perspective, one that's typical of a director who, at least on the basis of this and The Witnesses (2007)—the only two Téchiné films I've seen—seems genuinely interested in exploring characters and situations from various human vantage points. What he uncovers about Jeanne and her implied need for attention throughout the events of the film may, in the end, lack the deep resonance of The Witnesses—in which a quartet of characters were forced to confront not only their fraught interrelationships, but also the onset of the AIDS plague in the 1980s—but The Girl on the Train is marked by a similarly keen awareness of the complexities of human beings. Téchiné may never quite get a full handle on what drives Jeanne to act the way she does, but he is at least intelligent enough to consistently complicate our reactions toward this rather slippery creature, as well as to all of his characters in this multilayered, formally playful chamber drama.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Going Gaga for Anita Mui

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I didn't watch much of Sunday night's Grammy Awards telecast; sure, I've heard of a lot of the nominated artists, and I've even heard some of the nominated songs, but my interest in today's American pop music is passing at best. (These days, I'm plowing through a complete set of period-instrument Mozart performances—which, I think, gives you a bit of an idea where my musical interests lie.)

But I heard from some of my friends on Twitter that the opening performance, a typically no-holds-barred Lady Gaga medley that eventually segued into a duet with Elton John, was one of the highlights of the night. I was a big Elton John fan back in the day, and still enjoy hearing his stuff; as for Lady Gaga—well, I initially simply heard hit tunes like "Just Dance," "Poker Face" and "Paparazzi" as standard overproduced electronic pop fluff until I read this essay at The House Next Door about her music videos and realized that people were indeed taking her whole package seriously as some kind of Warholian work of art. An astoundingly successful popular artist somehow using her fame and fortune to stage a mass meta-commentary on said fame and fortune? Call me shallow, but that sounded rather interesting to me...and day by day, I find my curiosity about her rising.

Well, I finally checked out that Lady Gaga/Elton John duet (the video of which is above), and it may have provided the final push to finally wade deeper into her music. Why? Because, simply put, the performance gave me honest-to-God chills...the kind of goosebumps that greeted my initial exposure to this artist:


That, my friends, is Anita Mui (1963-2003), the late, great Hong Kong pop star from the 1980s and '90s who was quite the obsession for me a year or two ago. Cinephiles, of course, will recognize Mui from such films as Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1987), Tsui Hark's A Better Tomorrow III (1989), a handful of Jackie Chan flicks (Miracles, The Legend of the Drunken Master, Rumble in the Bronx), Johnnie To's The Heroic Trio (1993), and others. But she was also the Cantopop sensation of the '80s, earning comparisons with Madonna for her flamboyant style and ever-changing public image—much the same way Lady Gaga is garnering serious criticism with her music and public persona now.

For all the flaunting of her sexuality and her extravagant stage manner, though, Anita Mui was, first and foremost, a wondrous singer, with a deep alto tone that could startle you and an emotional range that could knock you down flat. I remember the first video I ever saw of her, a live performance of a 1989 hit of hers entitled "夕陽之歌" (roughly translating to "Sunset Song"):

Under Mui's glorious voice, what could have come off as a bland love ballad felt instead like a searing emotional five-minute drama. As someone who barely knows Cantonese as it is, I didn't understand the words she was singing—but, on an intuitive level, I could grasp the deep, wistful emotions roiling underneath.

Here's Anita Mui tackling a more uptempo number (skip to 3:25 to hear the tune):

The song, by the way, is named "壞女孩," or "Bad Girl" in English. Looking at the way she moves onstage during that performance—yeah, bad indeed.

Why did Anita Mui cross my mind when watching Lady Gaga at the Grammys? Only one reason, really: Ah Mui could sing stunningly well live, even while doing all sorts of elaborate choreography and costume changes...and so, it seems, can Lady Gaga. I mean, I knew she had a fine voice based on hearing many of her hits, but that singing voice was often deliberately technologically manipulated for effect. Shorn of any technological safety nets, however? If anything, she sounded even better singing "Poker Face" live (it certainly didn't sound lip-synced to me). And—I didn't know this before seeing the Grammy video above—she can play the piano! And she did so with Elton John!

Anyone that can pull all of that off in six minutes of near-blissful stage pop spectacle automatically garners a certain level of respect from me. (Listen to Taylor Swift's off-key live Grammy performances by comparison—though, sure, being a mediocre live performer doesn't automatically make her an inferior artist or anything.) This new pop icon Lady Gaga, it seems, is also simply an immensely talented musician. Even if her current self-aware stage persona grows old—and inevitably it will—she at least has the technical chops to be able to do what Anita Mui (and, oh yeah, Madonna) did throughout her Hong Kong pop stardom in the '80s: become something of a chameleon, trying on different public images and stage personas, keeping her act fresh. Being a spectacular singer, like Anita Mui was, is certainly a good leg to stand.

Just for fun, here's a photo of a wax statue of Ah Mui that resides at Hong Kong's Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, which I took during my Hong Kong venture last year:


And, oh yeah...weren't Oscar nominations announced yesterday? Yes, they were...and again, I find myself at a loss to say anything of interest about them, feeling neither particularly enthusiastic about deserved nods nor outraged about perceived snubs. AMPAS's taste, at least based on their awards choices over 82 years, has almost always been generally safe and middlebrow, and I don't expect that to change anytime soon. No use getting all emotional over it; just enjoy the drinks that will inevitably flow come Oscar night!

Of course, that is not to say this will be my last word on the subject. Last year, during a brief stint with the general-interest Web site, I came up with a list of alternate Best Picture Oscar nominees for that year. Maybe I'll do so again this year. Maybe not. We'll see.

Actually, since I'm here, I might as well offer one personal observation: Remember those days in the early stages of awards season when Carey Mulligan was the front-runner in the Best Actress category for her "star-making" (according to many critics) performance in An Education? Funny how things change in a matter of weeks...and no, I still haven't seen Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. Didn't seem all that appealing to me when it came out. Guess I'll finally have to, now that it also scored a nomination in this year's pointlessly overstuffed Best Picture category. I may not take the Oscar seriously as an indicator of any sort of artistic quality...but I do like to keep up with the conversation. I suppose that's the journalist in me talking.