Monday, May 21, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, May 14, 2012 - May 20, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This was yet another light week on the artistic-consumption front...but when you're faced with the kind of weather New York had on Saturday—a beautiful sunny near-80°F day with not a cloud in sight—who would want to stay in a movie theater all day? Instead, I participated in a Brooklyn-based scavenger hunt in the style of the reality-TV show The Amazing Race with a bunch of friends—one of them being Odie Henderson, the esteemed film critic/blogger some of you may know as "Odienator." To wit:

In front of Brooklyn Academy of Music, complete with an attempt to replicate the wave-like structure above us.

In front of the silver-plated Brooklyn Botanic Garden sign, trying to jump for joy. One day I will actually go inside the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

You get the idea. It was a good way to spend a lovely Saturday.

Now...artistic consumption:

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)


Topaz (1969, Alfred Hitchcock), seen at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
If you missed my attempted, fairly mild, defense of this much-maligned late Hitchcock picture—written for the third-annual For the Love of Film blogathon (which is over now, but that doesn't mean you can't still donate money to the National Film Preservation Foundation; see the link on this blog's sidebar)—well, here's the link again. Or you could just scroll down on this blog's homepage. Either method works.

The Color Wheel (2011, Alex Ross Perry), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This independent film has garnered a lot of praise from critics—many of them around my age, for what it's worth—since it premiered to great acclaim at Brooklyn's own BAMcinemaFest last year, going so far as to place twelfth in Film Comment's "Best Undistributed Film of 2011" list. It finally has a week-long theatrical engagement at BAM that's currently ongoing; I finally saw it on Friday and found myself generally admiring it, with one major reservation that prevents me from being able to fully embrace it the way my colleagues seem to have done.

This, Perry's second feature (after Impolex, an idiosyncratic adaptation of a section of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow which I still have not yet seen), is a road movie with two maladjusted siblings at its heart: JR (Carlen Altman), an aspiring news anchor who is vain, needy, and not even all that talented as a news anchor; and her brother Colin (Perry), an aspiring writer who is too lazy to take the next step toward achieving his goals. After JR breaks up with a professor about twice her age, she forces Colin to drive her to the professor's house to pick up the rest of her stuff.

These siblings clearly don't like each other all that much; JR has pretty much become a family outcast, a fact Colin rarely fails to punt right back into her face. Their dialogue scenes are chock full of wittily acerbic barbs, impressively acted and directed with the rhythm of a screwball comedy. Some of it is indeed uproariously funny. At its best, though, the humor masks palpable pain and insecurity at the heart of both of these screwed-up characters; there are genuine undercurrents of humane empathy to offset the nastiness of what comes out of their mouths.

Perry's visual style adds a level of intrigue to the film. He shot this in black-and-white 16mm and isn't afraid to let the film grain fly rampant on the screen; the gritty effect somewhat recalls the psychodramas of John Cassavetes (call The Color Wheel Cassavetes filtered through Larry David's humiliation-based sense of humor), while the soundtrack features soul music from the 1970s to further the film's oddball retro vibe. The result has an odd hallucinatory feel to it; it's a movie of our time (these characters are basically even less sympathetic variations on the "post-graduate delirium"-infected Aura in Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture) that somehow feels outside of it.

The Color Wheel certainly has style to burn...but what of its misanthropic sensibility? Here's a film that has two self-absorbed jerks at the center of it, and then manages to make them relatively more likable simply by virtue of making just about everyone else around them even worse. That fundamentalist Christian motel owner in one of the opening scenes is problematic enough; the extremely broad caricatures reach its apex in an extended party scene towards the end in which JR and Colin find themselves surrounded by former high-school classmates who remain openly and passive-aggressively hostile to them in ways that, for me at least, strained both belief and credulity. Supposedly, the film suggests, these people deserve even more of our scorn than JR and Colin do because, unlike those fake bourgeois nitwits, these two siblings are at least honest about their issues. (Fittingly, the party scene ends with the discovery that a wheelchair-bound guest isn't exactly who he appears to be). If this is really the "experiment in identification" that Perry himself said he intended this film to be in this New York Times interview, then it seems to me he's stacked the deck in order to make it easier for most viewers to gravitate toward JR and Colin, for better or worse. It just seems too easy, and far less challenging than Perry wants you think it is.

To his credit, however, Perry reserves his biggest challenge at the very end, with a brilliantly done 10-minute single take that climaxes (in more ways than one) in a genuinely subversive manner that not only effectively sends shock waves through the last five minutes of the film, but reverberates emotionally and thematically with everything that has come before. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you all, so let me just say that Perry—who, by the way, wrote the screenplay for The Color Wheel with co-star Altmen—finds a deeply fucked-up way to show that, in a world in which no one seems to care about either of them, all they really have is each other. I'm still not sure how I feel about the way the film ends, but I will at least give Perry credit: on that point, he doesn't cheat, and leaves judgments wide, and disturbingly, open.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, Panos Cosmatos), seen at Cinema Village in New York
Here's another movie that affects a retro vibe—though, instead of American independent cinema from the 1960s and '70s, Panos Cosmatos's fever dream of a sci-fi picture evokes the '80s, right down to Jeremy Schmidt's evocative Vangelis-ian synth-heavy score. It makes sense in this context, though, because much of the film is set in 1983—though you wouldn't know it, judging by the fact that most of the action takes place in a futuristic commune named Arboria where Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) holds Elena (Eva Allan) captive.

Beyond the Black Rainbow takes its sweet old time revealing its narrative and character details, though to my mind, if you stick with it, it eventually goes somewhere rewarding. In its earlier stages, though, Cosmatos's film has the quality of a Stan Brakhage-like work of avant-garde cinema; there's a freedom in its visual invention that's so sensuous that it didn't take me long to simply surrender to the film instead of worrying about whether any of these scenes were connecting narratively or not. Honestly, I don't think I've surrendered so completely to a film this strange in quite a while (even with Celine and Julie Go Boating, it took me about an hour and a half before I finally felt comfortable in Rivette's meta-movie playpen). And much of this is just beautiful to look at, with cinematography and production design worthy of those in heavyweight sci-fi forbears like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Even now, I'm not even entirely sure I could tell you what Beyond the Black Rainbow is about, or how all its recurring images and symbols fit together. There are strong suggestions that this film is essentially a kind of parallel-rebirth narrative, with Barry and Elena the ones undergoing transformations of sorts. That's something I'd welcome an opportunity to chew on in a second viewing—and I will certainly approach a second viewing of this confounding and gorgeous trip with great pleasure.


Wagner: Das Rheingold (1959, Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti) 
Yes, I finally bought myself a copy of the legendary Decca recording of the first complete studio Ring cycle with Sir Georg Solti leading the Vienna Philharmonic and a cast of some of the greatest Wagner singers of the day (Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, and so on). Now, I never have to leave the world I had become so immersed in throughout April while seeing the whole four-opera epic at the Met!

The only observation I have to offer regarding this recording of Das Rheingold is that Solti—rather like Fabio Luisi, who led all the performances in April—is a Wagnerian of a highly volatile dramatic temperament compared to the meditative, long-breathed Wilhelm Furtwängler. That is not to say that Solti—unlike, say, Karl Böhm in his 1966/'67 Bayreuth live recording of the complete cycle on Philips—is unduly rushed; he gives as much attention to the lyrical moments (the opening of the second scene; the finale once Donner summons up the rainbow to Valhalla) as to the dramatic ones. It also has a memorably hateful Alberich in Gustav Neidlinger as a standout in an impressive vocal cast (Walter Kreppel's Fasolt and Kurt Böhme's Fafner, for example, have the appropriate imposing vocal stature next to George London's Wotan). Plus, the recording's risk-taking producer John Culshaw sure came up with a doozy of a sound effect of simulate Donner's hitting the ground with his hammer to summon up the thunderbolt that leads the rainbow-to-Valhalla to appear.

Obviously, listening to a recording of any Wagner opera—any opera, really, some might reasonably argue—isn't a substitute for seeing it live...but this will do until the next opportunity comes to see a different production.


After Dark (2004, Haruki Murakami)
This is the first of Murakami's novels I have read; I bought it cheaply from a street vendor in Greenwich Village a while back and only got around to reading it recently. Maybe this wasn't the best place to start. I assume his other, more widely celebrated novels (like, for instance, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) feel far more substantial than this one; Murakami's omniscient-camera gimmick—in which he periodically tries to evoke on the page the feeling of a reader witnessing these events through a lens directing our points of view—feels a bit half-baked.

Nevertheless, there are moments in which I can sense a keen insight into human nature, especially when it comes to lonely romantics. And once again, a novel set entirely during the nighttime that freely evokes the danger and mystery that nighttime can evoke—especially in a big city like Tokyo—can't help but lure me in immediately (again, now you have a partial understanding as to why I love Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels so much). After Dark certainly has enough in it that I still look forward to catching up with the rest of Murakami's output to date.


Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that many of the people who have written features praising Perry's film are either close friends of the director, or part of his extended social circle. How diverse a critical opinion can there be when this is the case?

Kenji Fujishima said...

That is entirely possible, yes.