Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Road to Making Amends, or A Family Thing

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I was supposed to go camping with my mother, my father and one of my younger brothers in Pennsylvania somewhere this weekend, thus making it yet another weekend with minimal exposure to the big screen (and maybe some exposure to the small screen). But earlier in the week, I decided not to go.

Why? For one thing, I've discovered this year that camping outdoors is a pastime that fills me with more dread than excitement. I hate how long it takes to pull down/prop up our RV; I feel no sense of accomplishment in putting up a tent; and while I have nothing against spending time in the great outdoors, I feel no particular pleasure in spending time overnight in it.

Really, though, there is one overriding reason I decided to follow the lead of my youngest brother and back out of this camping trip: I dread the prospect of spending an extended period of time with my mother around. Faithful readers of my blogs over the years will be fully aware of our history, so I won't bother to explain it all here (but if you want a primer, let me know in the comments and I'll try to sum it up). Suffice it to say: Every time I am in her presence, all I feel is tension and buried resentment, and more often than not, I act on it in mostly ugly and detrimental ways—and my awareness of said ugliness just makes me feel all the guiltier afterward. This become so prevalent in recent months that I am only now actively looking to finally move out from under her roof, on the theory that maybe our relationship will improve with distance. Because when I begin to feel a sense of dread even at the thought of spending a mere two full days around her, you know something needs to change...and that change isn't going to come from her end.

On Wednesday night, though, I came across this latest Viewing Log from Vinyl is Heavy, the fascinating and compulsively readable blog of film critic (and friend, though admittedly not a close one) Ryland Walker Knight. In it, among other topics, he discusses his experience watching and discussing Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (2008) with his mother, and also talks eloquently about the subtle aesthetics of home videos, a topic inspired by videos of his own family he recently revisited.

And a funny thing happened as I read this post: I suddenly found myself experiencing a change of heart toward my mother. Not only did I feel ashamed of my recently intensifying (I have to be completely honest here) hatred toward her, but for the first time in a long time, I felt a strong need to at least make sincere gestures toward improving my relationship with her. If nothing else, I crave the familial harmony the post exudes.

Look, my mother will most likely always be, to my mind, stubborn, exasperating, micro-managing and judgmental, and I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable talking to her about deep personal issues. (When I first voiced my intention a few weeks ago to move, she freaked out, and I haven't really bothered to talk to her all that much about anything since.) But she is my mother; that will certainly never change. And she is a human being, as I am; no human being is perfect (Adam and Eve made sure of that). Does the good she has done for me over the first 24+ years of my life outweigh the bad? When all is said and done, I think the answer is "yes"—and certainly not just because she bore me in the first place. However insufferable she can sometimes be, everything she does comes from a sincere impulse, and I should probably recognize that more often than I do. Besides, it's the good I should try to remember when I'm around her, not the bad...even if sometimes it is very, veeery difficult to put aside the negative feelings.

All of this is just words, of course. But after reading Knight's Vinyl is Heavy post, for once I feel a great need to support that with some sort of action.

I've already made plans for this upcoming weekend, so I won't be able to start that process by going camping with her after all. At the end of next month, however, the whole Fujishima clan is planning to spend 12 days on the road driving all the way to Yellowstone National Park, camping there, and then driving back. I've been dreading it for the past few weeks, and I can't say I'm still all that enthused about spending such a lengthy period of time camping. Suddenly, though, I'm finding myself not dreading it so much. Perhaps I'm even feeling honest-to-God anticipation...?

Rest assured, though: This has not stopped me from looking for a place to live in New York. Not. One. Bit. That is just something my mother is going to have to live with, once it happens.

P.S. Knight's latest Viewing Log also features some commentary on Christopher Nolan's The Prestige—one of his better films, I think, and arguably his most visually distinguished—that is worth reading (as is pretty much everything he writes, really).


And on that note of reconciliation: I wish you all a very fine, joyful weekend! Let Jonathan Demme take you there:

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

What It Means for a Film to Be "Revelatory"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Sure, I love to be touched and entertained at the movies as much as the next moviegoer. But when I come across a film that, by virtue of its artistry, refreshes the way I perceive something in the world in which I live and breathe...well, that kind of film is, to my mind, something that deserves to be treasured above many others.

One of the many reasons that I love Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) as much as I do (even without having seen it in its original 70mm format, granted) is that, in his immaculate reconstruction of a modern metropolis, the great French comic filmmaker manages to construct a world so close to our own that he makes it all but impossible for us not to take notice of the looming skyscrapers and chilly modernist architecture whenever we find ourselves in a big city. I know that after every time I've seen this film, I always find myself walking around in midtown Manhattan and looking up more often to take in the sheer vertical majesty of the skyscrapers that loom above me.

(Courtesy of DVDBeaver)

This past weekend, I finally saw Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert, and only five minutes into it, with its opening blurry and non-blurry shots of factories and industrial waste enveloped in a fog, I knew that this would be another one of those kinds of cinematic works of art. Surely everyone has seen or perhaps even walked amidst an environment such as this: coldly industrialized, uniquely modern, bereft of humanity. But Antonioni, with his distinctive eye for landscape and architecture, visualizes his images in a way that snatches an unexpected grim beauty from the air of general dehumanization.

(Above three "screen shots" were captured from the Criterion Red Desert Blu-ray via the "Glenn Kenny method" of taking photographs off my LCD television monitor. Obviously, I do not yet have a computer with a Blu-ray drive installed.)

There is plenty more to Red Desert than mere visual beauty, of course: It is of a piece with Antonioni's previous examinations of spiritual isolation (L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse), but this time on a grander and more overtly expressionistic scale. But ultimately the factories, the landscapes, the architecture and Antonioni's ravishing use of color are what I cherish most about this film.

And Monica Vitti...of course.

(Courtesy of DVDBeaver)

One of the functions of great art, I firmly believe, is that it has the power to sharpen your senses and increase your awareness of what is around you. Now, I have a feeling that whenever I find myself looking at a factory or walking in an industrial area, Antonioni's eye-catching depiction of these landscapes in Red Desert, and the way those landscapes correspond with Monica Vitti's desperation for human connection, is the association I will make in my mind. Antonioni's way of viewing the world has been seared into my mind's eye. This is what I consider "revelatory"—perhaps more viscerally so than intellectually, but either way, it's profoundly beautiful.

If any of you dear readers of mine have films, or other kinds of artworks, that affect you in this way, by all means, shout out your praises for such works in the comments section of this post!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Brief Encounter on an NJ Transit Train


I'm usually the type of person that keeps to myself on my long commutes back and forth. I have my iPod loaded up with a new music album or podcast for the day; I've got a book in my bag to read; and when I'm not in the mood for either, I have my (increasingly all-too-frequent) penchant for falling asleep to rely on.

So it's rare that I get into many conversations with random strangers on trains...and it is even rarer that random strangers get into conversations with me. Most people on trains, at least in my experience, tend to keep to themselves as well, whether power-napping, reading, checking/talking on smartphones, etc.

But my commute home on Sunday night was different—different in such a way that I still haven't forgotten the encounter, more than a day after the fact. Nor do I necessarily want to forget.


It begins with a woman who decides to sit next to me in a two-person seat on the NJ Transit train car in which I was sitting. As I make quick glances in her direction, I notice that 1) she is breathing fairly hard, as if she had just ran to catch this train; 2) she is straightening out her jeans, perhaps in an attempt to make them feel less tight on her possibly by-now sweaty legs than they were before; and 3) she strikes me as a fairly attractive-, if older-looking, lady.

I have to admit, I feel an inkling of desire to engage this woman in conversation in some way, just for the hell of it. But I have a shy streak when it comes to total strangers, and as I said earlier, I usually keep to myself on long train rides back and forth. (Hey, I currently have James Joyce's Ulysses to plow through!) So the ride back to New Brunswick, N.J., begins with us in our own private spaces.

This is yet another hot and humid scorcher of a day...but really, you don't know "hot and humid" unless you're underneath New York Penn Station (and all New York subway stations, for that matter). It feels like a sauna down there compared to the climate above ground! Thankfully the train cars themselves have air conditioning...but that doesn't necessarily mean a whole heck of a lot when one of the train-car doors is wide open as the train is moving quickly through a tunnel—with the hot air from outside seemingly counteracting the cool air of the train car's a/c.

"Someone should close that door," a passenger sitting across from me says out loud. In my mind, I concur, but I look up toward the front of the car and see no one moving to do so. Noting this inaction, I get up, excuse myself to the woman next to me, walk up to the front of the car and close the door, to the vocal appreciation of the aforementioned passenger.

And then the woman sitting next to me speaks up: "If I had known that's what you were going to do, I would have gotten up and done it myself."

"Ah, it's all right," I respond. "I was hoping someone in the front would have done it."

"Nah. I guess people would rather suffer than get up," she says.

I chuckle at this...and then the conversation ends there, for the moment. In the meantime, I'm trying to get into Ulysses and finding myself nodding off while I notice, out of the corner of my eye, the woman next to me looking at her cell phone, audibly chuckling at text messages and texting back. I'm naturally curious about what in those messages is leading her to react so vocally...but I figure it's her business, not mine.

The train conductor comes around to collect tickets, and so I whip out my $361 monthly pass to show him; the lady next to me takes out a regular train ticket. When the conductor reaches us, he takes her ticket, glances at my pass and puts the appropriate train-stop markers on the seat in front of us.

"You must really have a long commute," she then says to me, apparently having noticed the fact that my pass has "NW BRUNS" written on it.

"Oh yeah," I reply. "And it's getting increasingly irritating by the month."

That is when the encounter becomes interesting. From there, we begin to converse on various subjects, many of them personal in nature. Among other things: I discover she has apparently walked all the way from 97th Street that afternoon down to Penn Station, a feat that astonishes even me, a committed Penn Station-to-News Corp. walker (though I've been slipping recently thanks to the heat). Later, she tells me she is an aspiring writer who used to write a lot of erotic fiction, but only got one piece of literature published; she says she currently has a screenplay she's trying to shop around in Hollywood based on her own romantic experiences with a cheating former husband whom she mostly refers to as "that son of a bitch" during our conversation. She even explains to me what those text messages she is responding to are all about: she says they are from a guy she once pined for, but who apparently hasn't reciprocated...until now? Currently, she tells me she is a freelance graphic designer, and that she is living with her parents.

That is far from an exhaustive accounting of topics covered, but the point is: I listen to all this with intense fascination, partly because her experiences seem so wildly adventurous compared to my comparably humdrum life, but also because she recounts it all with a spunky personality that I find utterly disarming and oddly charming. I honestly don't think I've ever come across anyone quite like her—certainly not on a train. Also, she seems to take a genuine interest in the things I tell her about my own life: my current vocation and my future career aspirations. The fact that she is apparently an aspiring screenwriter herself turns out to dovetail quite nicely with my interest in writing film criticism.

Alas, she gets off five stops before me, so our conversation ends up being cut shorter than I would have preferred. And though we have both exchanged our names, who knows if we will ever meet again?

But the feeling—the "afterglow," if you will—after I am left on my own again is not one of deep regret in the least. Instead, it's the kind of feeling I have coming out of a theater after having seen a great film: the feeling of having been privy to the mind and heart of another person for a privileged amount of time, seeing the world through someone else's eyes, and interacting with that worldview in your mind. In a way, the encounter reminds me just how richly fascinating and varied a species humanity can be—the kind of human interaction that truly makes me feel glad to be alive.

P.S. In the midst of our conversation, I brought up the fact that, a few months ago, I had been working on-and-off on a screenplay for a short film I myself had in mind to make. (No, folks, I haven't completely abandoned the idea...but other projects—like this blog, for instance—have gotten in the way.) In that screenplay, I envisioned a kind of meet-cute in which a man notices a woman's reactions to a film in a theater and thinks that perhaps he has found a kindred spirit of some sort...and then, as luck would have it, he gets a chance to engage this woman on a train in person and seizes upon it. Wait a second: That sound a bit like what occurred on Sunday night! How "meta-" can you get...?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Long Beach Island Idyll

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—This weekend was extremely light on film-watching; I didn't even see anything in a movie theater! Instead, I spent most of my weekend at home watching Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert for the first time; down the Jersey shore at Long Beach Island with hometown friends; and up in Brooklyn, N.Y., celebrating another friend's birthday. Overall, it was a whirlwind of a weekend, and much pleasure was had—even as I sweated buckets while walking around in both LBI and Brooklyn in the almost 100° weather Saturday.

I'll save the glories of Red Desert—easily my favorite of the mere handful of Antonioni films I've seen, and yes, I've seen L'Avventura (1960)—for another post; and I've been to Brooklyn's Park Slope so often that there's not much I feel I can say about it except that so far, I've found no reason to dispute New York magazine's recent ranking of the neighborhood as the city's No. 1 place to live.

That leaves Long Beach Island, an area I had never been to until this weekend, and which turned out to be a lovely, idyllic and charming place with an agreeably homespun feel. At the very least, it's much quieter, I imagine, than it would be at, say, Seaside Heights (especially now that that part of the shore has apparently been hit by Jersey Shore cash-in fever). In some ways, Long Beach Island, at least for this particular weekend, felt like the closest approximation to heaven on earth I've come across in my lifetime. Really. It's a wonderful place to relax.

Here's some visual proof, captured by yours truly:

I. Views from a Beach House


II. Views from (and of) the Barnegat Lighthouse

Friday, July 23, 2010

RIP Daniel Schorr (1916-2010)

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—A legend of journalism has died.

Obviously, I wasn't alive during Daniel Schorr's journalistic triumphs and controversies—an in-depth report on life under communism in East Germany in 1962, the reading aloud of Richard Nixon's notorious "enemies list" on TV (of which he was one), the trouble he got into by Congress and his network after leaking a secret report on illegal FBI and CIA activities in 1976, among other achievements—as a CBS reporter for more than 20 years. My only exposure to the man was as NPR's senior news analyst. Every time I had the radio turned to either All Things Considered or Weekend Edition I'd always perk up my ears whenever I heard Schorr's wise, grandfatherly manner stream through my radio speakers, talking about the news of the moment with wisdom, passion and refreshing (especially these days) evenhandedness.

Now, no more. A true legend of the field, he will be missed...yes, even by young folks like myself.

A Cinematic Convergence of Bags of Money, Senselessly Fought Over

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Just because I bought this recently...

"That bag full of money looks kinda small out there, doesn't it?"

On that note: Have a nice weekend, my friends—and try not to spend too much money!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Inside the Mind of a DVD/Blu-ray Collector...Or, At Least, This One


Barnes & Noble currently has a sale going on in which all Criterion Collection DVDs/Blu-rays are selling at a 50% discount, with an additional 10% off in-store purchases for B&N members.

Understand, all you non-cinephile readers of mine: This is a big deal. The Criterion Collection is one of the few home-video outfits in the U.S. committed to bringing the best and brightest of art-house and international cinema, old and new, to DVD/Blu-ray in the highest-quality editions possible, with immaculate digital restorations struck from the best prints available, and with comprehensive supplementary materials to further one's appreciation of a given film. Many consider The Criterion Collection the best in the home-video business, and they've certainly had a lot of practice; the organization first cut their teeth during the laserdisc era from 1984 onward.

Of course, as a result of the attention they lavish on the films to which they acquire distribution rights, their DVDs are priced at a premium; two-disc editions regularly go for an MSRP of $39.99, and sometimes that's the price of even a one-disc edition! Thus, any chance to grab these treasures of the DVD format at reduced prices is welcome.

But 50%, with an extra 10% for B&N members? That's a steal (relatively speaking)!

So yeah, it's a big well as the source of the possibly unwelcome temptation to do something my mother would surely disapprove: the temptation to splurge. On DVDs.


A selection of my personal home-video library

A few weeks ago, my mother was in my bedroom at home while I was sitting in front of my computer (I can't remember why exactly she was there in the first place), and out of nowhere, she blurts out: "I've been meaning to talk to you about this: Do you really need all these DVDs? You have so many DVDs, but do you actually watch them?"

I replied in my usual exasperated manner, "Yeah. They get watched. Believe me. I use them more than once."

Not that that swayed her, of course (though, to be fair, I imagine just leaving it at that probably wouldn't have swayed anyone). She went on along these lines: DVDs aren't good for keeping, they're only good for renting. You watch it once, and then return it. At least, that's what she does. Who needs to keep it forever?

"They get watched," I hopelessly insisted, and my mother then waved her hand, said "Okay" and dropped the matter.


Not that she would have understood the reasons behind my impulse to collect movies and TV series on DVD and Blu-ray. But what are some of those reasons? I've been thinking about that in recent days, and here is what I've come up with...for myself, at least:

1) I, for one, enjoy occasionally taking a DVD off my shelf and either re-watching the whole film or just revisiting favorite scenes/sequences. The latter, in fact, is all I did as a younger cinephile in high school with DVDs or VHS dubs of films as varied in quality as the first four Friday the 13th flicks, the Die Hard flicks, Mean Streets (1973) and Pulp Fiction (1994). (Yes, those were some of my personal touchstones back in the day.) Most of the time, I just re-watched to savor. I don't see anything wrong with that; imagine having to go to a local library repeatedly and re-renting a film just to see these favorite scenes more than once! But, of course, there are some movies that are rich enough to yield multiple meanings and angles of interpretation even after the umpteenth viewing.

2) Then, of course, there is all that supplementary material that some DVD packages cram into a two- or three-disc set. Thing is: Unless you are, say, a critic who reviews DVDs as part of his/her day job, who has that much time to devote in a single day to, for instance, watching an entire film again with a DVD commentary track, then wading through multi-part making-of features/featurettes, myriad trailers, critical video essays and the like? (Criterion even goes the extra mile and includes booklets with critical essays and such in their packages—thus giving you great material to read as well as watch.) I once tried to cram in as many of the exhaustive supplements on this older DVD edition of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) as I could in one day...and even after three hours or so, I probably wasn't even close to taking it all in.

Granted, you can certainly have supplementary discs delivered to you through Netflix; that would probably be the cheaper option. But what if you are someone like me and are constantly playing cinephile catch-up with your Netflix queue? Getting those extra discs just delays you from being able to get to that next classic of international cinema that you have been eagerly awaiting for weeks, months, or maybe even years to finally see for yourself. If you fall in love with a film hard enough that you really want to learn all the background there is to know about it, I figure, you might as well bite the bullet and buy the whole DVD package, so it'll be easily accessible when you actually do find time to explore.

3) As someone who every so often feels a great desire to capture a screengrab of a particular film frame in order to better illustrate a certain point or argument in my blog posts, I can't tell you how convenient it is to have that DVD right on my shelf for instant access to that frame. With Netflix or some other rental service, you'd have to wait a few days for the DVD to arrive in order to get that screen capture. I imagine those enterprising film critics dabbling in the critical-video-essay form feel a similar desire to have quick-and-easy access to certain clips.

4) Because I am generally pretty selective about what I decide to purchase for my private home-video collection, I see it as a kind of ever-transforming personal canon, reflective of my belief that the films I have chosen to include in the Kenji Fujishima collection are films that I believe will yield the most pleasure for me in the years to come. They are also films that define me in some way—films that often contain something in them that moves me, intrigues me, and/or makes me look at something in the world in a fresh light. An example: Goodfellas (1990) has a place in my collection because I value the ambivalence Martin Scorsese shows toward the gangster lifestyle he depicts so masterfully: you feel the glamor Henry Hill envies, but you also feel the senselessness of the tragedies it causes. I don't quite feel that same personal attachment to the first two Godfather films, classics though they are; thus, I haven't felt a driving thirst to purchase them in any format.

In the same way I consider my writing on film to be an autobiographical extension of myself, even if a piece isn't explicitly framed in that manner, so it is with the collection of films/TV series I've amassed on home video. You want to get a sense of my personality, my interests, my tastes? Peruse my collection of DVDs and Blu-ray discs. That might say more than I myself could ever tell you.

In fact, even though you aren't in my home, you can peruse that collection right here!


Well, those are some of the reasons I can think of for being as much of a DVD/Blu-ray collector as I am (my mother's admittedly reasonable skepticism be damned!). Of course, I don't presume to speak for everyone who makes DVD/Blu-ray collecting a hobby. What makes you decide to buy a film on DVD, even if—or especially if—you've already seen it in a theater? I'm curious.

Comment away!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beyond Inception This Weekend: An Unofficial Triumvirate

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Though it was by far the biggest box-office attraction of the weekend, Inception was hardly the only film I saw. In fact, the three other films I saw (I would have seen more—I was planning to catch up with both Winter's Bone (2010) and Alamar (2009) in addition to the rest—but social events, fatigue and minor computer issues prevented me from indulging in my usual weekend movie binge) could be said to form an unofficial triumvirate addressing what it is I missed from Christopher Nolan's mind-bending epic.

1. From Shadows (1959): a sense of humanity.

I'm finally making an effort to explore the work of legendary independent American filmmaker John Cassavetes, and in this initial encounter with his groundbreaking debut feature, I was surprised to find myself feeling more genuine exhilaration throughout this modestly scaled, wonderfully acted/improvised and poignantly evocative work than throughout the loud, graceless spectacle of Nolan's film. Obviously, comparing Nolan's narrative contraption to Cassavetes's low-key human drama is an apples-to-oranges comparison if I've ever seen one, so of course I won't say one is automatically superior to the other. But with Shadows, I felt like I was basking in a relaxing oasis of humanity after, merely hours before, sitting passively through an inelegant, if occasionally awe-inspiring, narrative machine. In other words: Wow, there are honest-to-God people in this movie that I actually care about!

2. From I Am Love (2009): a sense of visual beauty.

Wally Pfister once again does some handsome work for Nolan in Inception, helping to impart a sense of scale to the writer-director's grand visions with his shot selections and framing choices. But there is only so much even the most imaginative cinematographer can do in bringing a film to life for a filmmaker who simply isn't all that great at thinking in pictures. On the basis of I Am Love, Italian director Luca Guadagnino has what Nolan lacks: a distinctive eye for using images to tell a story. With the help of his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, he turns standard melodramatic boilerplate into one lush visual wonder after another: Settings glow and brood depending on the mood of the moment, Tilda Swinton's skin gleams in the sunlight in an approximation of visual afterglow, and the dully lit environment of the upper class contrasts vividly with the ravishing brightness of the outdoors. All of this isn't merely for the sake of "blowing your mind" with eye candy; it works beautifully in concert with the film's narrative of one repressed woman's sexual awakening. It's expressive, not just impressive.

3. From The Circus (1928): a sense of humor.

Not that I think Inception suffered from its general humorlessness; as Roger Ebert said in his most recent blog post addressing critical reactions to the film, he "didn't crack a smile while watching the film because Nolan didn't call for one." But when, in isolated moments, Nolan does see fit to inject some humor into the film—mostly from Tom Hardy's smart-ass master of deception, though Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page share one throwaway moment of comic gold involving an impromptu kiss—the momentary cracking of a smile feels almost like someone farting during a church service. It felt almost wrong to laugh amidst the solemnity.

Charlie Chaplin's films, of course, operate the other way around: They are designed to be funny and entertaining, but that doesn't prevent them from having their serious moments. Somewhat like what Nolan tried to do with the Cobb/Mal subplot in Inception, Chaplin introduces a romance-tinged emotional thread in The Circus to provide some pathos along the way: He falls in love with the stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy) of the circus troupe's abusive ringmaster (Allan Garcia), but then finds himself filled with jealousy when the stepdaughter becomes enamored with the new tightrope walker (Harry Crocker). I'll leave the sublime resolution of this thread for you all to discover for yourselves; suffice it to say, it involves an act of selflessness that is melancholy yet uplifting—in short, profoundly moving in ways Nolan can only, well, dream about.

Yes, folks, this is exactly the kind the movie in which, as the popular ad slogan goes, "You'll laugh! You'll cry!" And it's that kind of wide-ranging emotional experience that I often crave from the cinema. For all of its visual and narrative wonderments, that scintillating variety of emotions is something I sorely missed in Inception.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Trying to Reconcile My Two Minds on Inception



For better and for worse, Inception (2010) is probably the film its writer and director, Christopher Nolan, has been working toward his entire career to date—a folly comparable in ambition to, say, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) or Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), among others. It's the kind of shoot-the-moon effort that demands to be marveled, if nothing else, for the fact of its mere existence...and the even more astonishing fact that such an intellectually ambitious film exists as a big-budget, heavily hyped Hollywood summer blockbuster. A cerebral, philosophical epic exploring the intersection between reality and dreams, with whole sections taking place within mental landscapes? If Nolan hadn't scored such big hits with his two Batman movies, it would be hard to imagine that any major studio would have risked granting him $200 million to pull off such a cut-from-original-cloth, difficult-to-easily-summarize endeavor. But he did, Warner Bros. granted him the large budget, and now Inception—based on a script Nolan had been working on for over a decade now—is here for all of us to watch, contemplate and passionately argue over.

I know I'm still arguing about it...with myself.

In an attempt to try to evoke my experience of watching Inception at midnight Thursday night, allow me to explore the two minds in which the film leaves me.


Mind No. 1

As its characters kept delivering the mumbo-jumbo Nolan had written for them, I began to realize that the detractors of Inception have missed the point in complaining about the overly explanatory nature of the dialogue. For one thing, the people that are involved in this operation of trying to plant an idea into a billionaire's brain are professionals in their respective fields—so wouldn't it make sense that their way of talking to each other would be overly technical? Especially since much of the first hour involves master idea thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explaining the nature of his vocation to young mental "architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page)? Complain about the supposed woodenness of the dialogue all you want...but in context, it makes perfect sense given the situations and characters.

This brings me to a larger point about this film that some of those detractors are, I think, missing: Inception is not a "dream film," not in the sense that, say, David Lynch's frequent forays into his irrational subconscious are. For about an hour, at least, Nolan's film is meant to be a rather clinical deconstruction of the genesis of ideas and dreams, not necessarily an embodiment—a laying of the groundwork for the narrative blowout that follows.

And what a blowout it is! Its final act—in which Nolan juggles five different dream planes into one exhilarating cross-cutting mélange which might have made D.W. Griffith proud—is a stunning achievement of editing and narrative construction. But even during the set-up, there are plenty of instances of mind-blowing imagery to provide plenty of eye candy. (Ever seen a town literally fold upon itself, allowing its inhabitants to leisurely walk up and down the way Donald O'Connor ran up walls in Singin' in the Rain? Or what about people floating through zero gravity while engaging in combat? You'll see that here.)

Amidst the action fireworks, Nolan is aiming for both philosophical and psychological grandeur: He's trying to explore the ways dreams plant their way into human subconscious and fester, but he also wants to explore how human psychology affects the way people dream. It's a laudable ambition, especially for a major Hollywood blockbuster—and once in a while Nolan hits upon an idea that will resonate deeply. Perhaps its most successful thread, in that regard, revolves around Cobb's trauma over his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose death haunts him to degrees that causes causes roadblocks to pop up in Ariadne's carefully imagined dream worlds. As a visualization of the way people hold onto mental scars, unable to let go of the past, it's pretty potent, and it provides at least a signifier of emotion to latch onto in an otherwise antiseptic environment.


Mind No. 2

I use the word "signifier" above, however, for a specific reason: That thread may signify an emotional thread, but that doesn't mean it delivers genuine emotion. I found myself unable to emotionally connect much with, really, any of the characters in this film...and I highly doubt that Nolan did, either. Because, if his previous work is any indication, human emotion simply isn't in his artistic arsenal.

With the possible exception of his Insomnia (2002) remake, Nolan's films are generally concerned less with people than with narrative gimmicks and intellectual/philosophical allegories. They aren't really about the human experience—or, at least, if they are about humanity, they go about trying to access it in ways that end up shining a light more on Nolan's cleverness and pretensions than on anything you or I would recognize in our own daily lives. Nolan may have hit upon killer gimmicks in Memento (2001) and The Prestige (2006)—gimmicks that could be argued to support the human stories being told in both those films—but the limitations of his techno-geek approach to cinema became painfully evident in perhaps his most financially successful effort yet, The Dark Knight (2008). An utterly soulless affair, stubbornly lacking in resonance or poetry of any kind, the film presented a relentlessly conceptual allegory about chance and free will in a world seemingly without morality—one in which all the characters, however energetically performed by its actors, were imagined as mere stick figures in a glorified thesis paper.

Inception, alas, contains more of that same soullessness, but this time blown up to elephantine proportions. The thing about the Cobb/Mal thread is that while it contains some of the film's most interesting ideas about the connections between dreams and human psychology, it also exudes barely any emotional affect. In context, the thread plays merely like a calculated attempt by a clever filmmaker to provide an emotional through-line for the film; it never actually delivers the real McCoy. Because of that, the ostensible catharsis of its supposedly operatic climax never quite hits home the way Nolan seems to want it to do. And there certainly isn't much to latch onto with the film's other characters: they are barely given personalities at all, conceived as mere mouthpieces for Nolan's reams of technological/psychological babble.

Now, I don't demand that every single movie give me a reason to "care" about the characters in them. Stanley Kubrick, for one, was never particularly interested in giving you reasons to warm to the people he depicted onscreen; he left it up to the viewer to find something in these people with which to personally identify. But Kubrick took at least a passing interest in exploring the humanity of his characters; Nolan's chilliness seems less like a directorial strategy than a mere inability to imagine human beings in the first place...and when he tries to muster up some kind of genuine feeling, the results generally feel insincere and secondhand. Nolan's attempt to explore one man's grief over a lost wife in the context of his puzzle-box narrative here looks especially thin alongside Martin Scorsese's far more powerful look at deep psychic wounds in Shutter Island (2010).

And then there's the matter of Nolan's conception of dreams, which some have faulted for being too literal-minded to approximate the way dreams actually operate. I wouldn't presume to know better than Christopher Nolan how we all dream; dreams are such a beautifully mysterious thing that psychologists are still trying to explain it, decades after Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Mystery, alas, is the one thing that is missing in Nolan's linear, prosaic, puzzle-box approach to imagining his dream worlds in Inception; there is precious little of the wonder and illumination that dreams at their most feverishly unhinged can inspire in all of us (and that you regularly see in Luis Buñuel's or David Lynch's surreal cinematic visions). Nolan is too calculated and precise an artist to inspire a milieu of mental freedom...but then, perhaps that was never his aim. Instead, he has used the premise of dream worlds to add more layers to what is, when you get right down to it, a standard (read: clichéd) heist movie. Apparently, Nolan's subconscious consists entirely of a diet of James Bond flicks, with the occasional stray high-minded reference to Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930), Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and other superior reality-versus-illusion dreamscapes.


Neither masterpiece nor disaster, Inception is basically a big-budget rock-'em-sock-'em action picture disguised as an intellectual exercise. I can't say that I (yet) love it the way its most ardent defenders do; the experience of watching it left me more in a state of glacial admiration than anything else. As mind-numbing and unpoetic as it is, however, I think its intellectual substance is still worth taking seriously; plus, viscerally it works like gangbusters. There has certainly been nothing like this in megaplexes so far this year, and for that alone, it deserves to be seen and respected.

The right and left sides of my brain remain unreconciled...which is quite possibly more than I can say for the right and left sides of Christopher Nolan's artistic mind, which has always been more left than right.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Anthony Mann's Physical and Psychological Landscapes



Anthony Mann's Westerns have all the standard genre elements—cowboys and Indians, vast expanses of American landscapes, horses, shootouts, lawmen and lawbreakers, and the like. But they also have a psychological—and, in some cases, near-Shakespearean—intensity that is unique, exhilarating and sometimes profoundly moving. Instead of being bound by genre, Mann, with his mastery of action choreography and visual style, used those elements to explore the darkness in men's souls, and the possibilities of redemption in even the most troubled of characters.

Man of the West offers a good summary of the Mann Western. In this 1958 film, an aging Gary Cooper plays Link Jones, a former outlaw who struggles to escape from his past as a criminal, only to find that past catching up with him when he finds himself in the presence of another outlaw, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), whom he abandoned after he had grown up with him for years. It's a fairly standard plot—an outlaw called upon to do one last score—but Mann invests the film with a visceral sense of moral danger: Will Link surrender to the violent, bloodthirsty side of him that he is trying to transcend? There's an astonishing setpiece in the middle of the film in which Coaley (Jack Lord), one of Dock's henchmen, challenges Link to a fistfight that climaxes with Link humiliating Coaley—ripping off his clothes in a figurative diminishing of his manhood—in the manner in which Coaley humiliated prostitute Billie (Julie London) the night before. It's a feat of choreography, yes...but it is also deliberate in its refusal to make the violence appear superficially exciting in the least; it's severe, brutal stuff, and Mann painstakingly denies the viewer the sense of triumph one might expect in seeing Link give this vicious knave his comeuppance. This is, of course, the kind of violence that Link is trying to actively suppress.

It's interesting, and probably fitting, that it's Gary Cooper—generally a pretty recessive actor, known more for being stoic than dynamic—playing the reformed outlaw trying to go straight in Man of the West...because Cooper is, in a sense, playing a logical culmination of the even more troubled characters James Stewart played in his Western collaborations with Mann. With Stewart—in Winchester '73, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie (and also the 1952 Bend of the River, which I wasn't able to see at Film Forum's recent Anthony Mann retrospective, ending today)—you get a startling glimpse into the psychological and spiritual traumas from which Link Jones is trying to walk away.

Stewart, in general, was in a phase in his acting career where he was increasingly taking on roles that actively subverted the pre-WWII clean-cut American-boy image perhaps most exemplified in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)...and in his collaborations with Mann, you see some pretty dark notes emerging from the familiar Stewart persona. In The Naked Spur, for instance, Stewart's Howard Kemp sells himself as a sheriff looking for a wanted criminal, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Eventually, however, his true motives for pursuing Ben are revealed, and they are far from purely civic: He's going after Ben more for the reward money, with which he intends to buy back the land his ex-fiancée sold while he was away at war. Essentially, he's still obsessing over a past that he is desperately trying to get back.

Money is also the main concern of Jeff Webster, the antihero Stewart plays in The Far Country, set in Alaska during the Klondike gold rush. What's troubling about Webster is his rabid self-interest; he seems to not give a damn about anyone or anything unless it helps his quest for riches. Even when he finds himself amidst corruption and ineffectual law enforcement in the town of Dawson—where he intends to sell his cattle for a fortune in beef—he seems to care little for the townspeople's well being even when corrupt judge Gannon (John McIntire) rides in and usurps control over the town.

Revenge is also a major motivator in the Mann/Stewart Westerns. For all the narrative passings-of-the-torch in Winchester '73, the film eventually boils down to Lin McAdam's (Stewart) quest to avenge the death of his father at the hands of Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who, it is revealed, is Lin's brother. And The Man from Laramie presents another stealth vengeance narrative in which Stewart's Will Lockhart seeks the man among the Waggoman ranching family responsible for selling firearms to the Apache tribe—a move that he believes resulted in the death of his brother in the line of Apache fire.

In none of these Mann/Stewart collaborations are the main characters ever presented in a flattering light; Lin McAdam and Will Lockhart may be relatively more noble than Howard Kemp or Jeff Webster, but neither Mann nor Stewart make it easy for us to warm to them as straight-up heroes. There is always something mysterious about these characters—the sense that they may well be capable of anything, even harsh violence, in their personal quests. However charming their surface manner, their depths may frighten you. 

And yet, for all the psychological warfare on display in these films, Mann always allows for a measure of redemption for his twisted heroes.

Sometimes that redemption comes simply in the form of a hero successfully achieving his goals after great struggle. After all, in Winchester '73, Lin does achieve his revenge...though only after the gun Dutch steals from Lin—the titular Winchester '73—passes through various hands and deeply affects all the lives it touches. And in The Man from Laramie, Will does discover the identity of the man who sold the weapons to the Apaches—even if, in the process of his discovery, he helps brings down an entire ranching dynasty in the process. And of course, there's that pesky bullet he takes in his right hand...

But the road to redemption can be more complicated for other Mann protagonists. The Far Country's Jeff Webster experiences a moment that cracks his self-interested facade when Gannon and his henchmen kill his friend Ben (Walter Brennan); only then does he take it upon himself to violently re-establish order in Dawson. It takes a hard-hitting personal tragedy for him to find the heroism that perhaps was always in him.

The most grueling and transcendent redemption of all, though, comes to Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur, through Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the woman who accompanies Vandergroat after her father is killed during a robbery attempt in Abilene. Craving emotional stability from a male companion, Lina gradually becomes romantically drawn to Kemp as Vandergroat begins to more fully reveal his irrational side. But will Kemp ever be able to let go of the memory of Vandergroat's previous transgressions, even after death, to provide Lina the dependability she desires? Mann—in a conclusion that may well be the most profoundly moving passage in the Mann films I saw at Film Forum—eventually offers hope for Kemp as his thick macho armor gradually cracks in Lina's presence after Vandergroat has been killed, as you can see here:

The Mann hero, then, is neither completely villainous nor completely heroic; he may be driven by selfish and impure motives, but he has goodness within him that eventually comes out. In short, Mann's vision of humanity in these Westerns is anguished but ultimately hopeful—a hopefulness for people's capacity for change that feels completely earned in context because of how deeply he and his actors are willing to stare at the moral abysses underneath the characters' feet in the first place.

Alas, I didn't get a chance to see any of Mann's noirs, which I hear presents a bleaker picture of humanity (as noirs have a tendency to do). I did, however, see The Tall Target—a fictional retelling of one New York cop's (Dick Powell) efforts to foil a by-now-little-known plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the eve of his presidential inauguration in 1861—in which Mann resourcefully creates a down-and-dirty atmosphere that feels genuinely noirish (a refreshing tactic considering its historical basis). It's an exceptionally tight and gripping thriller—it runs a mere 78 minutes—but that is not to say that its content isn't worth considering.

The cop, named John Kennedy (yes, you read that right—though I don't think his middle name is "Fitzgerald"), is himself a bit of mystery for most of the film. At first, one assumes that his motives for pursuing his suspicions is simply professional. But then, at one point late in the film, Rachel (Ruby Dee), a slave who is onboard the train containing the assassination suspects, asks Kennedy about his interest in foiling the plot, and it is then that he recounts his experience shaking hands with Lincoln and feeling a general sense of hope.

You know what that sounds like? It sounds like the atmosphere that greeted the election of our current president, Barack Obama. Who knew that this crackerjack piece of suspense entertainment from 1951 would still be amazingly relevant today in the way that Dick Powell, in this one wondrous and chilling moment, expresses the kind of borders-defying sense of hope that was Obama's major calling card in 2008? Maybe in that sense, The Tall Target really does tie into Mann's later Westerns in its belief in the capacity for the good in people to overcome evil.

(All of these films—and plenty more by Anthony Mann—are available on DVD, though The Tall Target is available only as a DVD-R via Warner Bros.'s Archive Collection)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Music You Realize You've Heard Only After You've Heard It

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Every once in a while, in my music-listening explorations, I'll come across a piece of music that I recall hearing in a film I saw somewhere but remained unknown to me until hearing it at that moment—and that recognition would trigger a feeling of exhilaration along the lines of, I didn't know that was the piece of music used in such-and-such film! Awesome!

I experienced a moment like that a week ago while listening to a 1963 recording of Robert Schumann's 1842 Piano Quintet, with pianist Rudolf Serkin playing with the Budapest Quartet. I was hearing the work for the first time...or so I thought.

The second movement of the work begins with a solemn C minor funeral march that stands in marked contrast to the whirlwind close of its first movement. But then...wait a minute...what's that I hear in the movement's ethereal second subject? Could it be? Yes, yes it is...

It's the chamber music that so delicately opens Ingmar Bergman's 1983 masterpiece Fanny and Alexander, as Bergman literally draws a curtain open into the life of the Ekdahl clan, especially through the eyes of the titular two children. For some reason, I had always believed this was simply "the music from Fanny and Alexander"...and then, upon hearing Serkin and the Budapest Quartet perform this Schumann work, bam! Shivers of recognition running up my spine.

It was a beautiful feeling—hearing music that I realized I had heard only after I had heard it.

(Oh, and even before I saw Fanny and Alexander, I heard this piece of music in the context of Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)...though the less said about its sophomoric appropriation in that film, the better.)

Of course, this wasn't the first time I had such a musical encounter.

For example, the late Richard Stone—a composer who scored many of the 1990s Warner Bros. television cartoon series I loved growing up, including Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs—would every so often use a selection of Johannes Brahms's famous heroic big tune of the finale of his First Symphony in his various cartoon scores...and I didn't realize it until I finally heard Brahms's First Symphony in high school and had my eureka moment. (Not that that was a fresh stylistic trope; Carl Stalling, who famously scored a lot of Warner Bros. cartoons in the '40s and '50s, often incorporated music by Rossini, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov and others into his musical accompaniments for the adventures of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest. The difference is, I was fully aware of Stalling's homages at the time.)

Jean-Luc Godard famously peppers his films with all sorts of allusions to popular and classical music. In Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), for instance, Godard randomly uses snatches of Beethoven's string quartets...but only after listening to this complete box set of Beethoven string quartets was I able to put names to the seductive musical bits on the soundtrack. (I don't think it's absolutely necessary to know that it's Beethoven you're listening to on the soundtrack; the music's intimate grandeur speaks for itself. But it enriches your experience of the film quite a bit if you are aware.)

But it's not just classical music, of course.

Before my trip to Los Angeles, I gorged on the music of The Beach Boys, having not heard their complete albums, only their hits. Turns out, though, I hadn't even heard all of their hits...or, at least, I had heard all of their hits, but in some cases I didn't realize I had heard them until this recent diet of Beach Boys listening.

So when I heard their song "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)," from the group's 1965 album The Beach Boys Today!, I immediately recognized it from Look Who's Talking (1989), not having realized that director Amy Heckerling had used more than one Beach Boys song on the soundtrack (I had already known that "I Get Around" accompanied the film's opening-credit insemination).

And the song that plays over the million reconciliations at the end of Love Actually (2003)? "God Only Knows," from Pet Sounds, of course...though I didn't realize it 'til I finally sat down and listened to the complete album recently.

It's a familiar enough experience to watch a film or TV episode and get excited when you hear a piece of music you know and possibly love being used in a fresh context. But what about the tingles of excitement you might feel when you recognize a piece of music that you then realize you had already heard before without knowing back then what it was you were listening to? To me, such moments carry a kind of excavation-like thrill—as if you've happened upon a long-lost artifact in your own mental artistic landscape.

Does this feeling sound familiar to you, dear readers? (Or does this whole blog post merely expose how catching up I need to do in my knowledge of classical and popular art—a fact that was only emphasized yesterday with the passing of cartoonist Harvey Pekar (RIP), who I know only from the excellent 2003 film American Splendor?)

Monday, July 12, 2010

You Can't Stop What's Coming...In Theaters in the Second Half of 2010

NEW YORK—A quick bit of self-promotion: Over at the film- and music-review website In Review Online, I contributed a short blurb about Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain for a staff feature article previewing highly anticipated film releases in the second half of 2010. It's actually a very nice-looking feature, and it even mentions some tantalizing titles I hadn't heard about previously, new films by John Carpenter (The Ward) and Julian Schnabel (Miral) among them.

Take a look, when you can (and, of course, go see Around the Small Mountain, which I wrote about at the end of last week here. Because it's marvelous).

Short Take: Nimród Antal's Predators (2010)

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Technically, I saw four films theatrically on Friday in addition to Predators: an early Yasujiro Ozu silent film from 1935, An Inn in Tokyo, and two more Anthony Mann films, The Far Country (1954) and The Tall Target (1951). The Ozu, however, kicks off a months-long retrospective at IFC Center of which I would like try to keep track in monthly installments at this blog; and, of course, this week I'm aiming to round-up the handful of Mann films I've been able to see during my weekends at this three-week series at Film Forum, coming to an end this week.

So Predators, a reboot of the popular 1987 action/sci-fi/horror hybrid, is what remains of my weekend in the movie-theater dark...and actually, it's not bad.

For one thing, it has a promising idea underpinning the mayhem. Eight strangers are literally thrown into a jungle environment populated by two races of alien Predators, with the subtext-rich idea that these humans themselves are, in different ways, dregs of society: criminals, enforcers, gang members, combat veterans. Do they thus deserve to be hunted by these nameless aliens, or will the film assert their right to be considered human? And it has in Antal a skilled craftsman who brings a likable B-movie breeziness to the big-budget spectacle, with action scenes that are shot and edited with imagination and relatively classical precision (none of that Paul Greengrass near-incoherence here), and with actors who bring a wealth of memorable character detail to their two-dimensional roles. (Laurence Fishburne, for instance, is a scream as a lone human survivor on that island who has lived through 10 "seasons" of alien hunting.)

Alex Litvak and Michael Finch's script, alas, doesn't end up doing a whole lot with the humanistic implications of its premise, and Antal is less successful at building up genuine terror or suspense. In the end, it's just another stalk-and-slash movie. (But then, so was John McTiernan's 1987 original, to be honest, however skillfully made and spiked with machismo.) Nevertheless, it has some fresh ideas, fine acting, a few memorable setpieces—including an alien-vs.-Yakuza member swordfight that is a small masterpiece—and a final image that ends the film on an agreeably ambiguous note. Predators has its genuine cinematic pleasures; in a summer that hasn't provided a whole lot worth getting excited about in the megaplexes, especially in the action department, such pleasures are worth least before Inception comes along. Which, actually, is just around the corner...

Friday, July 09, 2010

Jacques Rivette's Play of Life

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I was going to post something on how the only thing Nimród Antal's new Predators (2010) has inspired in me is a strong desire to revisit John McTiernan's 1987 Predator—particularly its final showdown, which in and of itself is a small masterpiece of action filmmaking—but alas, my local library seems to have misplaced its DVD copy of the film at the moment.

I may revisit this at a later date, worry not, Predator fans; the movie will still get its due here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second! And who knows? Maybe I'll actually get around to seeing this new version.

In the meantime...let's talk a bit about Jacques Rivette, shall we?

Around a Small Mountain (2009), Rivette's latest work, begins a week-long run at the IFC Center today; I saw it a couple weeks ago at a press screening. It is my first-ever experience with the French New Wave filmmaking legend...and this introduction proved to be a highly complimentary one.

The film is set mostly among a circus troupe, and there are two main characters: Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), an Italian outsider who becomes obsessed with the inner workings of this performing company; and Kate (Jane Birkin), who has returned to her family's traveling circus after leaving it under mysterious circumstances years ago. Much of the intrigue of Around a Small Mountain revolves around the emotional mysteries surrounding Kate and Vittorio's attempts to penetrate the wall she has built around herself.

But on the edges of this slender but charming little movie is an affectionate depiction of the lives of artists—as surely even these circus performers are, in their own ways—that subtly enlarges into a rich inquiry into the dividing lines between life and art, and furthermore between theater and cinema. Thus, on the surface of Around a Small Mountain, Rivette alternates between circus performances and backstage drama...but his conceit goes deeper than that. He may be the omniscient observer of the dramas playing out in front of his camera, but every once in a while he will break the fourth wall by putting that camera right in front of the circus performers and just letting it sit there, recording while they do their thing; it's as if they're performing just for us in the movie theater. Is this merely filmed theater, or is this just as much a cinematic moment as the more conventionally dramatic moments in the film? Rivette allows both mediums to blur, suggesting that, to him, they're possibly one and the same.

Even more than that bit of formal playfulness, though, Around a Small Mountain gradually develops into something rather inspiring: an ode to the power of art as a regenerative force. Art, it turns out, is what allows Kate to face her former traumas and at least lead the way toward some kind of catharsis—as surely art at its best can do, whether for the artist or for the spectator. And with both Vittorio and Kate, Rivette examines the power of art from both of those sides.

Around a Small Mountain may or may not itself be a great work of art...but I got immense pleasure out of its airy visual textures—courtesy of cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky, daughter of the late, great William—and its warm feel for the play of life. I look forward to diving into more of Rivette's work to see what else his distinct vision has yielded; for now, I thoroughly recommend checking this one out. It's quite wonderful.

And on that note: All of you, enjoy yourselves this weekend on this grand stage we call Life!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Happy 150th Birthday, Gustav Mahler!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—On this day in 1860, the great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler was born.

Mahler's music holds a very special place in my heart, for reasons that are as much about nostalgia as about the extraordinarily rich, ambitious and influential music he gave the world. Throughout my high-school years, I pretty much couldn't stop listening to his symphonies, finding in these generally large-scale musical epics entire universes that spanned the entire range of human experience, from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. In short, it was music that spoke directly to my neurotic self. It still does.

For my money, the most representative of Mahler's music lies in one of his less popular symphonies: the Sixth, which I actually wrote about at length at The House Next Door here. The piece is often dubbed "Tragic," and certainly the work's despairing conclusion bears out its unofficial subtitle—but the Sixth is far more than relentless doom and gloom. It encompasses extremes of sonority and emotion, touching on sometimes straight-up bizarre notes of bitter irony and pastoral spirituality in its march to a sonic scaffold. Stylistically, too, it represents a clash between the late Romanticism of his early music and the modernist bent of much of his later work. (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and other Second Viennese School composers in the first half of the 20th century all publicly expressed admiration for the work, with Berg even going so far as to proclaim it "the only Sixth, despite [Beethoven's] Pastorale.")

If you want to experience Mahler at arguably his most unhinged, his Sixth Symphony fits the bill (though his even more forbidding Seventh runs it close). But really, all of his works are monuments of visionary imagination and passion for life in all of its splendor and gloom. They're truly something to behold and treasure—now more than ever.

For a taste, here is Leonard Bernstein—one of the most famous interpreters of Mahler's music, instrumental as he was in bringing them, especially lesser known works like the Sixth, wider exposure and popularity in the 1960s—conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the first movement of the Sixth in this filmed performance, shot by director Humphrey Burton in 1976 (and available on DVD here):

P.S. Fans of Shutter Island—of which I am one—might be interested to know, if you don't already, that the piece of music Max von Sydow's Dr. Naehring is listening to upon his introduction in the story is from Mahler's Quartet for Piano and Strings in A minor—his only known chamber work, written while in his mid-teens in 1876. Oh that Martin Scorsese, always having a knack for digging up these pieces of music and using them immaculately in his films!

Time Keeps Ticking...Ticking...Ticking Away

NEW YORK—It's funny, and perhaps a little sobering, how quickly a whole year can pass you by.

One of the things my long commute to midtown Manhattan, combined with my 11:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. work schedule, has forced me to do is to take a local (818) NJ Transit bus from East Brunswick to nearby New Brunswick in order to catch a Northeast Corridor train from New Brunswick to get me to New York Penn Station.

This morning, after waiting for five minutes in the scorching heat and humidity, I boarded my usual 818 bus at around 8:49 a.m. and encountered a familiar face driving it: the same female bus driver that had been driving it at that particular time regularly a little over a year ago, when I started working the 11:30-7:30 shift.

Not that this was a surprise; the previous (male) bus driver had alerted me last week that she was reclaiming her old bus route. But when he mentioned it, I had only a faint memory of who this former 818 bus driver was. When I stepped onto the bus this morning and started talking to her, light bulbs of memories started flashing in my mind.

Other thoughts that flooded into my mind at that moment: Have I really been in East Brunswick this long? I'm still here even after being forced to relocate my job to New York two years ago? And finally: What the heck am I still doing here? What with all the time I spend in New York these days?

I'm not sure if I should react to these realizations with disbelief or bemusement. But it once again reminded me of how time marches on, without a care in the world. What you do with those oceans of time, of course, is entirely up to you.

Time, for one thing, certainly won't advise you on how to live your life.