Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, Nov. 14, 2011 - Nov. 20, 2011

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Late again, I know...but at least I'm producing content, right?

The Crowd (1928)


The Crowd (1928, King Vidor), seen at Film Forum in New York [third viewing]
With this third viewing of The Crowd—and my first time seeing it in a (brand new) 35mm print with live piano accompaniment—I finally confirmed that King Vidor's masterwork does indeed have a place in my personal cinematic pantheon (I previously pooled some brief thoughts on it at my blog here). The only revelation I experienced this third time around, really, is a more acute realization of just how bitterly ironic this film actually is about its main character John's self-delusions and the American dream in general. The Crowd is a genuinely wounding film in that regard...which is not to say that it doesn't exude a deep empathy for these characters. The brilliance of its final shot—the camera dollying away from John, Mary and their son laughing in a theater to reveal their insignificance within the larger crowd of doubled-over spectators—is that it's a happy ending with a deeply pessimistic undertone. John hasn't become the great man his parents raised him to think he would become—but at least he now understands his place in society and can go on living with a sense of hope going forward. It's better than nothing, one could rationalize. Where is this film on DVD, seriously??? It's one of the great American films!

Sons of Shiva (1985, Robert Gardner), seen at Film Forum in New York
Forest of Bliss (1986, Robert Gardner), seen at Film Forum in New York
Sons of Shiva is a reasonably engrossing half-hour look at a four-day ceremony held in India celebrating the titular Hindu god, but it's utterly conventional compared to the evocative and haunting Forest of Bliss, in which Gardner drops voiceover narration altogether and takes a more mosaic-like approach to depicting life in Benares, India, a harbor town that seems to exude death at just about every corner. There's not much else to say except: watch it and bask in it.

House of Pleasures (2011, Bertrand Bonello), seen at IFC Center in New York
This hasn't been released yet; I saw this at a press screening on Friday. But when it begins a theatrical run here in New York at IFC Center this Friday, I urge you all to check this out. This is one of the most gorgeous-looking films released this year (Josée Deshaies's cinematography has a silken, velvet-y beauty to it with its brown-ish interiors), but its surface beauty belies a fascinating and evocative look at not only the titular brothel that is close to the end of its existence at the turn of the 20th century, but at the sometimes porous intersections between memory and history.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson), seen at Park Avenue Screening Room in New York
This hasn't been released yet, either, and thanks to an embargo imposed by Focus Features, I can't say too much about it until its official theatrical release on Dec. 9. For now, I'll just say that it's pretty good—superbly acted and astonishingly well-directed, if hardly the most electrifying of its genre around.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989/2011, Guy Maddin), seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York
This, Guy Maddin's first feature—and my first Guy Maddin feature—was screened in a revised version and a brand new live score commissioned by Performa 11, a performing-arts biennial that has been running here in New York since Nov. 1. After sitting through its 65 bizarre minutes, I'm certainly interested in seeing how this differs from the version that is currently available on Kino Video DVD. The film itself is enjoyably unhinged, even if resonance remains rather thin at the end. Basically, it's a nonstop parade of increasingly wild dream imagery, a film that often recalls the straight-from-the-id quality that characterizes David Lynch at his feverish best. Maddin's main distinguishing feature is a certain affection for old-movie tropes: flickering black-and-white cinematography with moments of color tinting, a post-synch soundtrack that is nevertheless mostly dominated by live-orchestra accompaniment, etc. But Tales from the Gimli Hospital isn't a wallow in silent-era nostalgia like Michel Hazanavicius's recent The Artist; Maddin's sensibility somehow manages to feel distinctly personal and modern even with the silent-film hallmarks. I look forward to catching up with the rest of his oeuvre eventually.


Volta (2007, Björk)
Here, Björk expands her musical gaze internationally, with cuts that feature African drums, a Chinese pipa and various other worldly instruments in addition to a prominent horn section. Internationalism even seems to be one of its major themes, made especially explicit with its second track, "Wanderlust." Even when her experiments don't always come off—"The Dull Flame of Desire," for instance, drones relentlessly on for seven frankly dull minutes (form following function?)—I continue to find Björk's restlessness refreshing; the hit-or-miss Volta is no exception, even if it is no Vespertine.


The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer (2009, Michael Sturminger), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This past weekend, John Malkovich came to town and performed on the stage of BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House in this theatrical work as Jack Unterweger, an Austrian serial killer who became a cause célèbre among many intellectuals and politicians who campaigned for his early release during his first prison term when it seemed like he was a successful example of a rehabilitated prisoner. Not so, as it turned out when he moved to Los Angeles, became a journalist and killed some more women (he was later caught again, and soon afterward committed suicide in prison).

How were so many people duped into believing his rehabilitated act? Was he really that magnetic a personality? Michael Sturminger's theater piece—a strange mix of stage play and opera—refuses to say. The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, it turns out, is less interested in Unterweger himself than in using his story as a springboard for a kind of Brechtian meditation on celebrity, with Unterweger resurrected for an apocryphal book signing in which he divulges some details about his personal life and corrects some misconceptions, but otherwise mostly seems to just dick around while he has a great big joke at our expense onstage ("ha ha, you folks don't really know me after all!"). While Unterweger fools around with us in the audience, two female opera singers frequently interject with Baroque and Classical opera arias (by Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven and the like) that contradict his self-proclaimed "expertise with women"; through these opera selections, these women could be said to collectively express, through old melodramatic forms, the pain of his victims.

All of this sounds conceptually intriguing on paper...but the experience of watching this stretched-thin joke becomes dull and wearying, with no illumination to greet us at the end of its seemingly endless one hour and 45 minutes. The opera scenes go on and on, and there's only so much self-reflexive ribbing I could take before I was tempted to yell at these people to put the damn fourth wall back on. And sad to say, Malkovich only makes things worse. Where's the magnetism that supposedly lured both his victims and an unsuspecting public to side with him? This is just Malkovich being his usual oddball self, sporting a pretty terrible-sounding Austrian accent this time around. (Maybe his casting is basically the performance?) Did Sturminger intend for Unterweger to be so unappetizing from the start that there would be no other conclusion to draw from his life other than that the public at large—and perhaps, by extension, we in the audience—were all dunces for being taken in by this con man? Such bloodlessly intellectualized smugness might be easier to accept as revelatory if the deck didn't feel so stacked from the start.

The Infernal Comedy might be a failure, but I will grant that it at least is an interesting, ambitious failure. But if you're looking for a fourth-wall-breaking take on shallow celebrity...well, might I suggest Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson, which is, at the very least, far more enjoyable to watch?

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