Monday, January 31, 2011

A Human Ape Fritz Lang?

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Here's a taste of the kind of weird connections the visual side of my brain is wont to make when it comes to the movies.

On Saturday, I took in a double bill of Fritz Lang's Human Desire (1954) and The Big Heat (1953), the first two films being shown in Film Forum's "Fritz Lang in Hollywood" series, in which all of the great Austrian director's Hollywood films are being screened. I had seen neither film previously, by the way; both turned out to be terrific, especially The Big Heat, which still carries a shocking, brutal charge decades later in its pull-no-punches depiction of a whole system of corruption, on both sides of the law. But Human Desire is quite good, too; it's an adaptation of the same Émile Zola novel that Jean Renoir adapted into La Bête Humaine (1938), and in some ways Lang's chilly determinism suits the material better than Renoir's warmer humanism. one point in Human Desire, there is a shot of Glenn Ford lying on a bed smoking, in a contemplative state of mind:

This composition looked rather familiar to me. Then my mind turned to this:

Yes, folks, that is Kevin Bacon from the original Friday the 13th (1980), enjoying a post-coital cigarette, completely unaware of the arrow he's about to get through his throat. Doesn't the mise-en-scène in that shot seem at least somewhat similar to that shot of Ford on the bed in Human Desire? Was Sean S. Cunningham possibly paying tribute to Lang with that shot?

Or is it just me?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You Know You're a Cinephile When...

NEW YORK— start to have dreams about movies...even ones you haven't even seen yet!

Last night, I dreamed that I was on the countryside, and that I heard about the midnight screening of a film that I had heard about as a kid but had never seen. So I tried like hell to make this midnight screening...but then ended up getting there way too late. I think it was about this time that I woke up from my dream.

The film I was trying to catch? Considering that this came up in a dream, maybe it's fitting that that film was...

...Frank Henenlotter's 1988 horror film Brain Damage. It's yet another one of those horror titles I referred to in this post whose VHS covers I frequently passed by at a local video store, and whose box art—plus a three-star capsule review from Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide—always tantalized the heck out of me. But no, I still haven't seen it yet.

Now, thanks to this dream, I feel like diving into the work of Frank Henenlotter. Maybe I'll finally get around to Basket Case (1982)?

Or maybe even Frankenhooker (1990)?

Apparently even my dreams give me movie recommendations!

What about all of you, dear readers? Have you ever dreamed about a particular film? Have you ever dreamed you were in a film? What are all your movie-related dreams like? Do tell!

Look At Me, Ma! I'm in a YouTube Video!

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—On Friday night, I was in Brooklyn celebrating the birthday of a friend of mine who lived just around the corner from me in East Brunswick, N.J. back in the day. We hadn't seen each other in many years, so this was a reunion of sorts.

Since I last saw her, in high school, she has, it seems, become a pretty well-known celebrity on YouTube, with a comedy/vlogging channel she maintains with a dear friend from her college years. And on Friday night, she was filming her birthday party from her computer's webcam and live-streaming it on Ustream.

This partly explains how I found myself making a brief cameo in their latest video (see 1:16 onward):

I know, I know: big deal, right? I'm in it for about five seconds, if that, and am not really doing anything special other than just standing around. But hey, if being active on social media like Facebook and Twitter have taught me anything, it's that any kind of exposure—well, maybe more positive than negative—helps, and that you might as well promote it as much as possible.

Plus, this might give some of you faithful My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second readers an idea of where I've been the past few days, and why I haven't been as prolific with the blog posts as I usually am. I guess you could call what I've been doing "living it up." In any case, I've been doing things other than sitting alone in the dark watching movies all day long...and honestly, I've never been happier. (I still managed to squeeze in two films this past weekend, though—Zhao Liang's sprawling but effective and enraging documentary Petition; and The White Meadows, the wondrous recent feature by Mohammad Rasoulof, aka the other Iranian filmmaker to be jailed recently, along with Jafar Panahi—so it's not like I'm in the process of swearing off the cinema or anything. Far from it!)

Oh, and speaking of promotion: By all means (and take with a grain of salt, perhaps), feel free to check out the rest of the 200-some videos on the GracenMichelle YouTube channel. Their personalities are bubbly, and their videos generally quite enjoyable. I guess you could say, to borrow their parlance, it's "totally t1tz." (They even have their own website, here, for further exploration.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Playtime: Does It Get Any Better Than This?

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Every so often, people ask me what film I consider my favorite of all time. In the past, I've usually responded that I have a handful of titles in mind that I really love above most others, but that it was too difficult for me to narrow it down to one single favorite.

But folks, I went to see Jacques Tati's Playtime in 70mm on Saturday afternoon at the reopening of the Museum of the Moving Image up in Queens. Having finally seen this 1967 masterpiece projected in a theater, I think it's probably safe for me to go ahead and declare this to be officially my favorite film ever (at least, until I see another film that overthrows it in my affections).

When it comes to those handful of films that I prize above all others (Playtime, Vertigo and Fallen Angels are among that select few)...well, I don't really have any set criteria to make such a determination. As with a lot of my reactions to films, it's mostly a gut feeling, one that will eventually (hopefully) be buttressed by some kind of critical/intellectual content. In the case of Playtime in 70mm, that feeling manifested itself in the big smile on my face and a familiar lightheaded feeling that I get only from certain great films—a feeling Roger Ebert might call "elevation"—neither of which dissipated for all of the film's 124 minutes. (Only a maniacal elderly laugher sitting two seats to my right threatened to derail my blissful savoring of the experience, intruding as he did with horse-like top-of-his-lungs laughter that made one of my viewing companions want to strangle him.)

What is it about this particular film, though, that inspires me to proclaim it as the one I prize above all the others I've seen in my (admittedly relatively brief) lifetime? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, within its deep-focus compositions, its de-emphasis on central characters and its ceaseless comic imagination, I sense a full expression of my own way of looking at the world.

I remember the first two times I watched Playtime, seeing it first on a tube television set while still a college student at Rutgers, then later on a plasma-screen TV at home after having received the updated Criterion DVD edition as a birthday present. Back then, my trips to New York City were far more infrequent than they would later become...but every time I would travel into midtown Manhattan, I would stare up at the tall buildings surround me and always think back to the skyscrapers and various other pieces of city architecture in Tati's Paris, and how overwhelming and coldly industrial they can all seem to an outsider. Then I started commuting into Manhattan regularly for my job, and gradually that sense of wonder dissolved, as it inevitably will once familiarity sets in.

So seeing, once again, that group of American tourists traveling through Paris—with occasional detours into the side adventures of Tati's own M. Hulot—helped reawaken that initial sense of wonder at experiencing the big city for the first time. But, having felt like I've lived a bit since the last time I saw the film, Playtime reawakened a lot of other familiar feelings. Its opening scene, for instance, set at the Aéroports de Paris, perfectly catches the sometimes bewildering hustle and bustle of being at an airport, and Tati is able to convey this not by taking one character's point of view and following his/her progress through an airport, but by basically taking an omniscient perspective and inviting us to observe all sorts of people interacting in this one unmistakably modern environment—and, in this film, Tati is so generous with giving just about every character something amusing to do that there is always something to look at, in just about every inch of its widescreen frames. (That kind of attention is detail is the reason why this film works better projected big in a theater rather than on a much smaller TV screen.)

It's that generosity, in the end, that moves me the most about Playtime. By de-emphasizing central characters, Tati is thus free to roam around all the various spaces in his (recreated Parisian) metropolis, to look not only for comedy wherever he can find it—whether in the sounds made cushioned chairs, or even in the droop of a model airplane in a restaurant with too much heat—but also for the possibilities of human connection in the potentially alienating modern milieu he so pitilessly captures. It's the same kind of generous spirit I'd like to think I embody in my own life: an embrace of humanity, in all its variety and mystery; an openness to all the world has to offer around me; and a willingness to forge personal connections wherever possible, especially in a highly populated metropolis such as New York. (That last part can sometimes be frustratingly difficult, as I've come to discover in the past few weeks...but I persist nevertheless, because you never know what sparks may fly in a chance encounter.) It's that curiosity about the world, and especially about the people who inhabit it, that I expect from any great artist and any great work of art; Playtime gives that cherished philosophy possibly its most sublime cinematic expression. 

For all the talk over the years about the film being about big-city alienation, Playtime is ultimately an exhilarating, enlivening and genuinely inspiring celebration of life. Even as, during its euphoric second hour, a fancy restaurant experiences one mishap after another, the people dining in that restaurant manage to find ways to look past the mess and enjoy themselves anyway. (Seriously, every weekend for me in New York should be like that extended restaurant sequence, dammit!) And then there's the gift that M. Hulot's gives to the pretty young female tourist (Barbara Dennek) as she is about to head back to the U.S. It doesn't even necessarily matter what it is he gives her; the point is, even though he realizes he may never seen this young woman again, he has nevertheless made a connection that may well be remembered for the rest of both their lives.

I live for those kinds of connections. And I live for movies like Playtime. Films like that are why I love this art form as much as I do.

Oh yeah, I saw other stuff this past weekend. I'll get to those. For now, though, allow me to just bask in the afterglow of Tati's masterpiece.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Blue Eyes

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Starting today, I have three days this weekend, rather than the usual two, to catch up on films, socialize (I hope) and just generally enjoy life outside of my day job. I already have my Saturday set, for the most part: The newly designed Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is re-opening tomorrow, and among the films being screened on its first day jumping back into New York cultural life? Jacques Tati's Playtime and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey—both in 70mm! I will be seeing both, even though, honestly, Playtime—one of my five favorite films of all time, even though, up 'til now, I've only seen it on tube and widescreen TVs via DVD—is the one I'm more excited to see in its original format. (I admire 2001 a great deal, don't get me wrong...but it's probably my third favorite Kubrick film overall, behind Barry Lyndon and Dr. Strangelove. Of course, I don't discount the possibility that may well change tomorrow, seeing it on what I hope is a laaaaarge screen.) Also planned for this weekend: the new 35mm print of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin at Film Forum—a classic of the cinema which, to my shame, I have not yet seen; and catching up with one or two of the newer releases. Somewhere within all that moviegoing will be a stage performance and, I hope, a TV on which to watch the Jets take on the Patriots Sunday afternoon.

In the meantime, though: some catching up from last weekend.

In addition to The Leopard—which I do plan to blog about, but not until I can get my hands on a copy of the Criterion DVD—I finally caught up with Derek Cianfrance's highly praised Blue Valentine (2010) this weekend. Let me sum up my reaction this way: I was far from unimpressed, and occasionally I was moved, but I'm not convinced it fully realizes its grand aims either, for all its incidental beauties and obvious depth of feeling.

Blue Valentine—along with that other celebrated relationship drama of 2010, Maren Ade's Everyone Else—attempts to dissect a relationship going south. Instead of Ade's chronologically linear behavioral observation, though, Cianfrance cuts back and forth between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy's (Michelle Williams) sour current reality and the relationship's more innocent beginnings. In that way (and this is not meant to trivialize the film, by any means), Blue Valentine plays like a far less playful, more serious-minded (500) Days of Summer, where one cut between past bliss and present disillusionment can pack a devastating emotional punch. Cianfrance adds to the contrast between past and present by shooting Cindy and Dean's courtship sequences on a markedly grainier film stock and with a more vibrant color scheme than the present-day scenes, with its slicker look and duller, earthier tones.

For all the non-chronological slicing and dicing, Dean and Cindy's relationship follows a fairly familiar trajectory. They meet while Cindy is in college, and Dean—working for a moving company at the time—sweeps this ambitious, career-minded woman off her feet with a banjo and an earnestly sung tune (which, not too subtly, is called "You Always Hurt the Ones You Love"); she becomes pregnant from a previous relationship, though, and after she finds herself unable to go through an abortion, they decide to get married. But, of course, that original romantic spark doesn't last in married life. The film itself opens in the waning days of their marriage, and later on, we see Dean—a house painter, bearded, given to fits of alcoholism—making one last desperate attempt, in a futuristic sex-hotel room, to rekindle the heat missing in their union.

Within this familiar story, however, Cianfrance and his two lead actors manage to locate moments of messy emotional truth, most memorably in those lengthy scenes in that sex-hotel room. As Dean and Cindy circle each other, awkwardly trying to rouse each other to some kind of romantic passion, these sequences gradually take on a John Cassavetes-style power—a sense of raw, unadulterated life being played out in front of a closely observing camera.

And yet, for all these impressive moments, by the time the movie was over, I found myself struck by how little I felt I actually knew these two characters. Basically, what you see—what Cianfrance wants to show you within the moments he chooses to film—is what you get; the result is that Dean and Cindy feel more like sketches of character types—Dean seeming like a wannabe-bohemian type, Cindy an ambitious go-getter type—than fully fleshed human beings. Maybe Cianfrance is aiming for universality by deliberately blurring his characters' specifics...but the skin-deep characterizations might explain why, for me, the ending doesn't quite pack the emotional gut punch that it clearly aims to evoke (unsuccessfully aided by attendant fireworks in the background as one character walks away from the camera and another walks toward it).

Not even the undeniable virtuosity of its two lead actors are enough to transcend the script's psychological gaps. Williams does the most creditable job with her part; the long-suffering Cindy ends up being the one that elicits the most sympathy. As for Gosling, though...well, now that I think about it, this may well be the first time I've actually seen him act onscreen (no, I haven't seen either The Believer, Half Nelson or even The Notebook), and based on his performance here, I'd have to say that I find his technique—his way of twisting and shading line readings in ways you never quite expect—interestingly suggestive at best, merely show-offy at worst. He's never not watchable as Dean, to be sure...but, for all his wannabe-Brando mannerisms, you're always aware of Gosling's mental gears turning underneath rather than his character's, with almost every gesture feeling calculated for the camera rather than lived-in.

Of course, maybe Gosling is merely compensating in his own way for a character that ultimately seems more sketched in than completely imagined...and for a film that, in the end, feels more like a superficial gloss on broken relationships than an emotionally draining immersion in one.

Blue Valentine is, all in all, not a bad film, really. But this weekend, I know I'll be seeing better ones!

To Jupiter, and beyond the infinite!

(Oh, and go Jets.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Video for the Day: Looking for Company in New York

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This weekend was a relatively quiet one for me...a bit too quiet, for my taste. With the exception of Friday night—when I ran into some people I knew at a screening of the (stunning) new 35mm print of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard at Film Forum, and ended up hanging out with them at a bar across the street afterward—I spent most of it either hanging around in the apartment by myself or going to movie theaters by myself. (So instead of watching the New York Jets surprise the Indianapolis Colts on television with friends on Saturday night, I ended up returning to my Brooklyn apartment and listening to it on the radio. Old school, isn't it? Thankfully, the thrill of its last minute of play came through.)

For the most part, then, it was a pretty solitary weekend...and this fact brought to my mind this number from Stephen Sondheim's Company:

This number—just one among many brilliant numbers from maybe the only truly great musical I've had the privilege of seeing performed live onstage (with another Sondheim classic, Sweeney Todd, giving it close competition)—beautifully encapsulates life in a big city to a T: how a city like NYC can be so populous and fast-paced, yet so full of emotional disconnection. We're all headed somewhere, often not stopping to take in all the various people and settings surrounding us—dwarfing us.

Such an awareness can be a double-edged sword, though. Sometimes it's fun just to sit around, observe the lives happening in front of you and wondering about the people living them. And sometimes, doing that just makes you feel even more alone.

In which case, then...time to reach out and connect/reconnect! Maybe next weekend will be more successful in that regard.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Quotes of the Day, Courtesy of Asian Mothers

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—From "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," an essay by Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor, that was published on Saturday in The Wall Street Journal's Review section:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

This, to a certain degree, was my mother's reasoning for pushing accounting on me during my first two years at Rutgers: that despite my vocal and emotional resistance to spending my four years of college studying something I had no passion for, eventually I would "learn to like it" (her words) if I kept at it.

Of course, why did my mother think the study of accounting was the best path for me in college? Chua suggests it in the last paragraph of this article:

Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

One of the reasons my mother often cited as her justification for foisting accounting on me was that becoming an accountant right out of college would keep me financially secure, in contrast to all those others out there desperately living paycheck to paycheck—a state in which she dearly wished never to see me. In her highly practical mind, this was a "right" major, in contrast to "wrong" majors like, say, English.

In spite of my frustrations, I always tried to give her credit for good intentions. That, I think, is why I struggled for so long—to the point where I became an emotional wreck during the spring of my sophomore year and actually had to see a therapist for a bit—before deciding to pull the plug on my Rutgers Business School accounting studies just before my junior year began.

But you know what? All of that is in the past, and while it has taken years for me shake off all the resentment that built up from not only this accounting-major disagreement, but from plenty of smaller annoyances in my younger years (like not being allowed to watch any movies except during lengthy school breaks, and even then rarely in a movie theater), now that I live away from home and don't have to be reminded of all those resentments on a daily basis, I'm not inclined to dwell too much on all that anymore.

And then comes this rather gloating essay, which managed to bring back back some not-so-fond memories of the kind of "tough love" that I suffered through during my years at school—not to such an extreme as what Chua recounts about herself, but nevertheless, there are aspects of the parenting style she describes that I recognize in my own personal experience. The only thing this essay made me wonder, in the end, is what Chua's own kids really think of her strict parenting style: whether they are swimming in gratitude or secretly hating her guts.

Surprisingly enough, even my own mother found Chua's model to be, well, a bit much. When I forwarded this article to her, this is how she responded via email (I've made only minor edits to this, by the way):

Regarding that article, this is a very extreme case. I do not agree that some mothers have the right to deprive the kids completely of the intrinsic right to pursue happiness.  There is no right or wrong; if the kids are happy and have no complaints being scheduled and manipulated as instrument machine, so be it. This is nobody's business. If the kids enjoy playing, enjoy the ensuing success, why not. The mother is the hard pusher. You know what they said, "Behind the success of a man, there is a successful woman (or women)." Some kids are pushable and can be helped. Most are not. If you try to push, you are looking for trouble. You are fighting against gravity. You have taught me a lesson. I have learned my lesson. I have also learned that the parents should inspire, not manipulate. You know and you witness too many pushy parents. There are pluses and minuses. How to balance is a real challenge to the parents. To be an excellent instrument player is not the only way to measure success. It also does not guarantee happiness. I start to realize the golden rule: to do what please you and be pleased what you are doing and have fun and happiness. Know who you are and maximize your potential. You will be a winner in life.

Mom, after all these years, I think I can honestly say that I agree with you 100%!

And yet...there may be more to Amy Chua's essay than meets the eye! It's apparently an excerpt from a new book of hers that will be published tomorrow. Go take a look at the front cover of the book, on its Amazon page. It says, "This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old." Maybe this essay is not telling the whole story about Mrs. Chua's relationship with her children. In which case, then why publish that particular, and perhaps misleading, excerpt from it???

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Baadasssses: My Last Film of 2010 and First Film of 2011

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The last film I saw in 2010? Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown (1946), the last film the German director completed before he died in 1947.

Lubitsch's work—often celebrated for its generally high level of wit and sophistication—remains one of my many cinematic blind spots, so, thanks to a new 35mm print of Cluny Brown at Film Forum that was screened throughout last week, I was able to take one small step toward filling in that particular gap. What I discovered was a comedy of manners that cloaked a slashing satire of class differences in elegant manners, witty dialogue and warm humanity.

The two main characters here are both outsiders: Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) is a Czech writer who has taken refuge in the U.K. to escape Nazi clutches on the eve of World War II, while Cluny (Jennifer Jones) is a vivacious amateur plumber whose uncle—complaining that she "doesn't know her place" in society—sends her off to work as a maid in a wealthy country estate owned by the Carmels. A woman who is an amateur plumber? In high British society, that's not only something that isn't seen every day, but is also something to be actively hidden and suppressed, it seems. Too dirty a vocation for a "proper" woman, perhaps? In the vision of high society Lubitsch conjures up in Cluny Brown, many things are frowned upon beyond all reason other than blind acceptance: Servants, for instance, are not allowed to mingle with those they serve, much less become romantically involved with them. Even in Cluny herself, a battle rages on between her expectations of a settled life from Wilson (Richard Haydn), the boring nasal-voiced pharmacist; and Belinski, the outsider who encourages her to give in to her passions.

Throughout Cluny Brown, Lubitsch delights in tweaking our expectations of characters. Belinski, for instance, is considered a hero by the Carmels' son Andrew (Peter Lawford)—but while Andrew worries loudly and often about whether he's doing enough to combat the impending Nazi threat, Belinski himself barely seems bothered by all that. And the script (by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, based on a novel by Margery Sharp) adds another romantic relationship to the mix—Andrew's chasing after the chilly socialite Betty Cream (Helen Walker)—that acts as a kind of reflecting mirror of the Cluny/Wilson relationship, one borne more out of societal/personal expectations than deep passion.

Lubitsch's bite is sharp, for all the surface urbanity...but, most importantly, it is also deeply empathetic as well. There's real pathos, for instance, in the way a scene in which Cluny dines with the Carmels ends in something like heartbreak when the Carmels slowly realize they have been eating with hired help and turn off their affectionate stance towards her; apparently, eating with servants is considered beneath them. And, of course, there's the disappointment in Boyer's voice when he hears about Cluny's tryst with Wilson—though Belinski, ever the gentleman, hides his romantic feelings and supports her anyway. Of course, as with most romantic comedies, the two leads finally do come together in the end—but thankfully, their consummated love feels less like preordained formula, and more like an inevitable union of confidants trying to navigate their way through the puzzlements of a society that can't help but seem somewhat alien to their romantically impulsive selves, however much they try to conform within it.

Cluny Brown is funny and romantic, sure...but it is also packed with wisdom and deep feeling. It was a wonderful way not only to introduce myself to Lubitsch, but to close out a very fine 2010.


Then 2011 hit. And what was my first film of this new year? It wasn't Blue Valentine, which was sold out at the screening a friend and I were aiming to catch Saturday evening up at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Instead, after dinner with another friend from out of town, my buddy and I decided to go over to Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater for a screening of yet another classic neither of us had seen 'til then: Melvin Van Peebles's groundbreaking blaxploitation firestarter Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Firestarter? You bet! Even 40 years after its release, the film still manages to pack an incendiary wallop, politically and cinematically. From an opening title card dedicating the film to "all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man" to a closing title card imploring all of us to "watch out" for Sweetback coming back to eventually "collect his dues," Van Peebles's film—made quickly and on the cheap, and looking bracingly raw and ramshackle as a result—pulses with anger at the injustice blacks suffer at the hands of whites.

After filling in Sweetback's backstory—featuring a scene in which a young Sweetback (played by Melvin's son Mario, who would later chronicle the making of his father's film in his 2004 film Baadasssss!) is seen having sex with a much older woman—the film basically becomes a series of episodes in which the mostly silent character (played as an adult by Melvin himself) witnesses police brutality, fights back, hides out, runs away and gets help from his black brothers through it all. The film's sense of agitation extends to its guerrilla filmmaking style: handheld camerawork, whizz-bang montages and a soundtrack featuring a funky/gospel-tinged/jazzy Earth, Wind and Fire score, cues from which Van Peebles sometimes overlaps. Viscerally speaking, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song often seems to coast simply on the energy of its balls-to-the-wall technique. And even though Van Peebles's sense of visual play isn't quite enough to transcend a certain creative fatigue that sets in during its last half-hour, the film, at the last minute, rallies for a shocking, gruesome and hilariously liberating final jab involving a skinned dog.

If Cluny Brown is about people who long to embrace their, um, badass sides, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is about people who have decided they're not going to take it anymore and embrace it to the point of righteous violence. Longueurs and all, it's still one hell of a movie...and an invigorating start to another year of movie-watching.


Monday, January 03, 2011

My Year in Things Other than Film 2010

NEW YORK—One of the more obvious selling points of moving to New York, of course, was the easier access I would have to its art-house and repertory film scene. Certainly that has proved to be the case, and I have tried to take full advantage of it, taking in screenings after work on some weekdays without the expectations of having to come home at a "reasonable" time.

But a funny thing has happened to my movie-going habits since moving here: In some ways, my movie-going has taken something of a backseat to my interest in expanding my full range of cultural and social experiences here in New York. In other words, since moving to New York, I find that my life no longer revolves quite as obsessively around movies as it did when I was still living at home in East Brunswick, N.J. These days, I'm more interested in striking some kind of balance between various artistic disciplines: film, music, literature, theater, visual art and the like—because, as my mother has reminded me time and time again, movies aren't everything. (Of course, I have a feeling she had more practical things in mind when she has issued that reminder to me every once in a while.)

For that reason, I feel that no personal year-end summary would be complete without acknowledging some of my more memorable non-cinematic discoveries in 2010—a lot of them coming in the last four months of the year, after I had moved to Brooklyn. In music, literature and theater:

Top Music Discovery of the Year:

Bossanova (1990), Pixies

I had heard much about this Boston-based alternative rock unit over the years, and a friend of mine in East Brunswick had previously introduced me to parts of their second album Doolittle (1989). This year, though, I was reminded of the group when I went to see French filmmaker Olivier Assayas's third feature Paris at Dawn (1991)—screened as part of Brooklyn Academy of Music's Assayas retrospective in conjunction with the official U.S. theatrical release of Carlos—and witnessed one of the film's stars, Judith Godrèche, dancing in a club to "Debaser" during one scene. So when I went to this year's WFMU Record + CD Fair in October and saw CDs of both Doolittle and their first full-length album Surfer Rosa (1988) available for $5 apiece, I decided to pick them up and start exploring.

Most people seem to cite Doolittle as their best album, and in some ways, I suppose it is: more stylistically varied, but with arguably more memorable melodies than in their debut. Compared to that one, their third album, Bossanova, sounds slicker and more consistent in style and tone. And yet, this is the one I find myself returning to over and over again, from its apocalyptic cover of the Surftones' "Cecilia Ann" to its lyrical closer "Havalina." Lyricism, in fact, is one quality Bossanova manages to exude even at its most hard-rocking, with atmospheric melodies buttressing lead singer Black Francis's obsessions with women and outer space. We all knew the Pixies had attitude from their first two albums...but who knew they also eloquence in them, too?

Other notable music discoveries:
Aquemini (1998), OutKast
Berlioz: Requiem (1959), Charles Munch & Boston Symphony Orchestra
Court and Spark (1974), Joni Mitchell
Have One on Me (2010), Joanna Newsom
Listen to My Heart (1995), Nancy LaMott
Mozart: Le Nozze di figaro (1955), Cesare Siepi, Lisa della Casa, etc.; Erich Kleiber & Vienna Philharmonic
Pet Sounds (1966), The Beach Boys
Plastic Ono Band (1970), John Lennon
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978), Devo
Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003), The National
Vampire Weekend (2008), Vampire Weekend
尘缘 (1984), 蘇芮

Top Literary Discovery of the Year:

Ulysses (1922), James Joyce

Much has been written about this masterpiece of modern literature, of course...but all those dry exegeses of Joyce's intricacies of language and numerous literary, historical and cultural references obscure just how fascinating it is to actually read the darn thing. It's not an easy read, to be sure; Joyce doesn't always make it easy to comprehend what is actually going on in his "narrative," so to speak. But does it necessarily matter, in the end? What Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus get involved in in the course of the book's narrative is fairly mundane: They eat, drink, reminisce, sin and feel guilt like the rest of us mortals. The thrill of Joyce's restlessly experimental prose, though, comes from the realization that here is a true artist of words transforming ordinary experience into something beautiful, and reaching all the way down to the Greek epic tradition to do so. In one grand masterstroke, Joyce not only pushed the boundaries of literature, but also managed to imbue common human experience with a nobility that many writers seek but few successfully achieve. I don't normally collect books, but Ulysses was an exception; I already can't wait to read it again.

Other notable literary discoveries:
The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West
Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, Ed.: Robert Polito

Top Theatrical Experience of the Year:

Angels in America, Signature Theatre Company

Tony Kushner's two-part epic about humanity, politics and spirituality during the AIDS crisis in the '80s was revived by the adventurous Signature Theatre Company this fall, and while this new production overall feels more like a respectful, if still startlingly effective, reiteration than a bold reimagining of by-now familiar material, the drama still packs enough of a wallop over the span of its seven hours that it hardly matters, in the end. I'm biased, though: Being that my first experience with this play was through Mike Nichols's HBO miniseries adaptation, I am just grateful for the opportunity to see it performed on a stage in my lifetime—because, as good as the miniseries is, Angels in America feels much more revolutionary on a stage. And the material is still revolutionary, even as its topical immediacy has somewhat faded. It remains one of the great works of modern art, in any discipline, and still powerful in its theatrical daring and deep humanity.

Oh, and this new production has Zachary Quinto in it—the man many of you might know as young Spock from the recent Star Trek reboot, or as Sylar from the TV series Heroes—playing the guilt-ridden Louis Ironson. He's quite good in it, too. And he also took this photograph with me:

Other memorable theatrical experiences:
The Break of Noon, MCC Theater
Our Town, Barrow Street Theatre

As you can see from my relatively sparse literature and theater lists, and the absence of a visual-art list, there are still major gaps in my overall cultural enrichment. So: read more books, see more theatrical productions, and go to more art museums. Those all sound like good New Year's resolutions to me!

Here's to another year (no, not the Mike Leigh film) of wide-ranging artistic exploration! I hope you'll all be along for the ride!