Monday, January 30, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Jan. 23, 2012 - Jan. 29, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The list of films I saw this past week might have been longer had Saturday not been so beautiful a day that even thinking about seeing four films that day, as I had initially planned, filled me with a kind of existential despair. So, impulsively, I decided to nix the last two films I had planned to watch and went up to celebrate a friend's birthday at the Dave & Buster's in the Palisades Center Mall in West Nyack, N.Y.

Boy, that mall is huge! And flashy. See?

Plus, there's a Ferris wheel in it!

Thankfully, there were no telekinetic people lurking in the mall a la Robin Sandza from Brian De Palma's The Fury, threatening to send that wheel flying into oblivion.

As ever in my life these days, I'm not so much trying to balance work and play as trying to strike a balance between the different kinds of play at my disposal.

Anyway...the log!

John Cage


Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh), seen at AMC Loews 34th Street 14 in New York
Maybe I went into this in the wrong frame of mind? Going into Steven Soderbergh's previous film Contagion, I was prepared enough for his by-now-typical aloofness that I found the experience of watching it strangely comforting, for all the disease, selfishness and industrial-toned imagery on display. Perhaps, then, I should have expected that he'd try something similarly cold and theoretical in what, in other hands, might have made for an overblown Hollywood action extravaganza. Soderbergh seems to deliberately suck the thrill out of seeing MMA star Gina Carano kick righteous ass, playing everything for drab "realism" as if he felt that was the only way he could approach such a banal script (written by Lem Dobbs). And yet, every once in a while, his detached approach yields disturbances—shots of Mallory's father (Bill Paxton) staring with a vaguely stunned expression at her daughter beating up on someone; overhead shots of duplicitous Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) panicking in the midst of certain doom—that puncture the sleek surface, adding interesting complications to the straightforward genre material, none of which Soderbergh or Dobbs bother to explore in any depth. Mostly, Haywire is as crushing in its general sense of indifference as Carano's fighting abilities are to her opponents. As for Carano: she doesn't set the world on fire as an actress, but she is indubitably an impressive physical performer and a suitably memorable presence. Maybe next time around, she'll have a more emotionally invested filmmaker directing her?

Come Back, Africa (1959, Lionel Rogosin), seen at Film Forum in New York
A valuable historical document of South Africa in the age of apartheid. It's a bit less successful as drama, and its final plot turn makes an unconvincing sudden lurch toward melodrama. But there are still some fascinating bits of documentary footage here (Rogosin shot this covertly on location using nonprofessional actors), and there is one keeper of a scene involving a bunch of black Africans arguing over politics and philosophy that interrupts the heady conversation with two musical numbers sung by legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. (Seeing this reminds me: I still need to see Rogosin's previous film, the New York-set semi-documentary On the Bowery (1957).)

Rosetta (1999, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne), seen at IFC Center in New York
This is the one post-La Promesse fiction feature from these Belgian filmmaking siblings that I had not seen; now that I've seen it (as part of this retrospective of the Dardennes' work), for me it places at or near the peak of their achievements (their subsequent feature, The Son (2002), runs it close). Unlike many other recent American indie films (Ballast and Frozen River are two films that immediately come to my mind) that are content merely to rub our faces in the misery of protagonists of Rosetta's kind—working-class, barely scraping by, struggling to make ends meet—Rosetta, while hardly stinting on depicting the unpleasant particulars of its main character's existence (constantly looking for a job, trying to support herself and her alcoholic mother), emphasizes her struggle to maintain her dignity and self-respect in spite of it all. The whole thing culminates in an astonishing 10-minute stretch that vaults the Dardennes' astonishingly physical directorial style into the realm of the spiritual; Rosetta's effortful progress with a gas tank suggests a modern variant of Jesus Christ's stations of the cross, trying to maintain composure even as Rosetta/Christ bears mockery all around her/him. Its destination is humane, transcendent, hard-won and genuinely inspiring without a hint of sentimentality. Why this wonderful film has still not made it to Region 1 DVD is beyond me.

"David Cronenberg," all films directed by David Cronenberg and seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y.
Transfer (1966)
From the Drain (1967)
They Came from Within (1975)
They Came from Within—which is often referred to by its original title, Shivers—was David Cronenberg's first feature, and already he was making his obsessions with sexual body horrors apparent in ways that are as deliriously visceral as they are disturbingly clinical. The scenario—an apartment building in Montreal becomes Ground Zero for an infestation of parasites that turn their victims into sex-crazed "zombies"—is merely a springboard for Cronenberg to play around with all sorts of variations on the idea of sex as being akin to death. (The parasite is given an explicitly phallic look to it, and the ways in which they enter and exit hosts suggest all sorts of sexualized penetration—emphasized most memorably when one of these penis-shaped creatures propel their way into Barbara Steele's vagina while she's taking a bath.) Later films of his have arguably explored similar themes in a less overtly hysterical and reactionary manner; still, there are sparks of invigorating transgression here that horrify and exhilarate in the moment.

Before the feature, Museum of the Moving Image screened a couple of Cronenberg's 16mm student shorts. Both of them are rough around the edges and mostly pretty negligible, but they do suggest some of Cronenberg's later thematic interests. Transfer—with its goofy take on psychoanalysis as a patient tracks down his analyst, who is hiding away from the world—is interesting to see in light of his most recent film, A Dangerous Method, while From the Drain—with its vaguely Samuel Beckett-ish scenario of two characters with barely hinted-at traumatic backstories conversing while sitting in a bathtub—climaxes in a bout of bloodletting that could be seen as an apt curtain-raiser for They Came from Within.


Bilingual (1996, Pet Shop Boys)
Nightlife (1999, Pet Shop Boys)
Release (2002, Pet Shop Boys)
Fundamental (2006, Pet Shop Boys)
The songs in Release suggest this British pop duo settling down into something approaching domesticity, with its surfeit of lyrical ballads and general de-emphasis on their usual gay iconography. It may also be my second favorite Pet Shop Boys album after Behaviour; I guess that's a testament to just how gorgeous some of those ballads are. The whole album is pretty lovely, really—especially "The Night I Fell in Love," the only cut that explicitly deals with homosexuality.

"Sounds Re-Imagined: John Cage at 100":
Program I, seen at Peter Jay Sharp Theater at The Juilliard School in New York
The Juilliard New Music Ensemble is celebrating the 100th birthday of revolutionary 20th-century composer John Cage with this week-long series of free concerts—and being that they were free (always a good thing for this 20-something New Yorker trying to save as much dough as possible!), I decided I might as well take some chances, having not heard Cage's music at all but knowing his reputation, and check out some of the programs. (I have a ticket for one other program tonight and will most likely try to get into another, sold-out performance later in the week).

For those who haven't heard of John Cage (no, folks, not the Mortal Kombat character) or his music, the best way I can describe his impact is this: He changed the way many people thought of "music," challenging traditional notions of what music could be and where it could be found. If composers like Arnold Schoenberg and the rest of his Second Viennese School peers were exploding conventional notions of tonality in the early part of the 20th century with their twelve-tone method and other innovations, Cage dared to obliterate tones altogether. I mean, who before Cage had ever thought of "composing" a piece like 4'33"—in which a pianist basically sits down and does nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds, opening up the possibility that whatever noises manifest themselves within that block of time could be the actual "music"? Or what about Imaginary Landscape No. 4, one of the pieces performed at the opening Friday night program, a work scored for twelve radios with volumes and frequencies adjusted according to Cage's instructions? No notes, simply whatever came on these radios whenever Cage indicated.

Such an openness to the music inherent in our everyday lives led Cage to eventually embrace the idea of "chance music"—music more dependent on the inspiration of performers than on the composer setting out fixed notes on a page. That's not the same thing as improvisation, however: Cage offered guidelines in these "chance" compositions but expected the performers to use them as a guide to fashion a composition of his/her own and rehearse it before a performance rather than come up with one on the spot. A good example of this is Theatre Piece (1960), also part of Friday night's program, and a work whose "score" consisted mostly of instructions to performers based on given nouns and/or verbs as well as numbers indicating volume levels and so on. Thus, each performance of such a piece could conceivably be different. The possibilities are endless!

Not all of Cage's innovations were quite so radical; sometimes he was content to simply be playful. Witness yet another work of his on Friday night's program Living Room Music, a brief 1940 four-movement piece featuring performers making rhythmic music out of kitchen utensil, books and so on. Apparently Cage quietly anticipated Stomp 50 years before that percussive musical troupe was even formed!

There's a lot more to say about John Cage's singular art, at least on the basis of both what I've read about him and on this one performance. So for now, I will just say that I found Friday night's concert to be a thrilling, sometimes funny and altogether revelatory experience. I'm eager to hear more of what came out of Cage's puckish, mischievous and outside-the-box musical mind.

For now...well, here's proof, via his 1948 piano piece In a Landscape, that Cage was also capable of more traditionally harmonic music of great beauty:

Friday, January 27, 2012

Maurizio Cattelan: All: A Multi-Media Post-Mortem

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—If nothing else, the work of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan—whose work was recently the subject of a near-complete retrospective, titled Maurizio Cattelan: All, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, one which ended Sunday (yes, as with the Museum of Modern Art's Willem de Kooning retrospective, I waited until the last minute to see this)—more often than not provokes us into an internal conversation as to how serious this guy actually is.

The "layout" of the exhibit itself clues you in as to Cattelan's sensibility:

Instead of the usual stately art-hanging-on-walls approach, Cattelan decided to "hang" all of his art from the Guggenheim's ceiling. A mere gesture of "look-at-me" irreverence, or something more deeply subversive? Considering that much of Cattelan's art has been site-specific in nature, his approach to All suggests an attempt to radically decontextualize his work and allow the viewer to determine how his work stands up by itself.

Perhaps this accounts for the extreme unevenness of the art on display. Works of bracing surreal creepiness—much of his taxidermy, for instance (are there other modern artists who have worked so extensively with taxidermy? I ask as an art novice, mostly)—and even occasional beauty alternate between other, thinner visual conceits that smack of an artist having a private joke of our expense. But perhaps some of the latter works resonated more within their original surroundings?

Still, there is something to be said for the kind of exuberant bomb-throwing spirit that was on display at the Guggenheim in this exhibit. At the very least, give me this kind of provocation over yet another boring still life any day!

I'll let these photos speak for themselves, from here on in (hardly an exhaustive selection, but some of the most memorable pieces, to my mind:

Untitled (2009)

La Nona Ora (1999)

Ave Maria (2007)

L.O.V.E. (2010)

Untitled (1995)/Not Afraid of Love (2000)

Stephanie (2003)

Mother (1999) [left]/Charlie Don't Surf (1997) [center]/Frau C. [right]

Him (2001)

And finally, some video of the experience! Two shots: one of Untitled (2001), which is not much more than a miniature elevator; the other taken at the top of the Guggenheim looking down into the morass of Cattelan art.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Jan. 16, 2012 - Jan. 22, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I don't have much to say about this past week beyond what I consumed artistically, so I might as well just get right into it.

Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)


"Bresson," all films directed by Robert Bresson and seen at Film Forum in New York
Une Femme Douce (1969)
L'Argent (1983)
Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
A Man Escaped (1956)
Holy shit, Four Nights of a Dreamer! It's as if Robert Bresson had seen into my soul and made a film out of what he saw. A Man Escaped, Pickpocket and Au Hasard Balthazar might be "better" films, but Bresson's take on the same Dostoyevsky story that Visconti turned into Le Notti Bianche (and that James Gray unofficially adapted into Two Lovers) shows the French filmmaker at least partially surrendering to his romantic impulses, and the result is, to my mind, as sublime as I was hoping it would be, especially in the lovely new 35mm print I saw Thursday night. Folks, I am that "dreamer"; I really don't think I can be even a little bit objective about this film, so thoroughly did I identify with its main character, for better and for worse.

Camera (2000, David Cronenberg), seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y.
At the Suicide of the Last Jew of the World in the Last Cinema in the World (2007, David Cronenberg), seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y.
These two short films—the latter a contribution to a larger anthology series called To Each His Own Cinema—were screened as part of a live conversation with the great Canadian filmmaker on Saturday. I hadn't seen Camera—which he made for the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000—before then, but it's actually a rich and wistful little meditation on cinema and aging. The second short is less rich—more a brief lark in which Cronenberg imagines himself standing at the precipice of the declining movie-going experience, waving a gun around and putting it in his mouth as television announcers do play-by-play of this momentous event—but it's amusing in its own black-comic way. Both are available to watch online, the former here, the latter here. More about the event itself below.


Introspective (1988, Pet Shop Boys)
Behaviour (1990, Pet Shop Boys)
Very (1993, Pet Shop Boys)
I mostly have Cantopop singer Prudence Liew to thank for inspiring me to get into The Pet Shop Boys; she did a cover of the British electropop duo's 1987 hit "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" (a cover that substituted some of the synthesizer lines with actual horns—for those who care). I'm generally enjoying their music; there are always genuine emotional undercurrents coursing through the ostensibly upbeat, glitzy arrangements and through Neil Tennant's fey singing voice. The one that I found myself responding to most positively—ecstatically, in fact—however, is Behaviour, which has a mournful, dreamy quality to it that I viscerally respond to in something like...Four Nights of a Dreamer, actually. It also has "My October Symphony," which apparently was inspired by Dmitri Shostakovich's Second Symphony, entitled "To October." When's the last time you heard a pop song inspired by Shostakovich?

Very is also quite good, though I don't feel quite the same affection for it as I do Behaviour; still, their Village People's "Go West" is oddly affecting.


Catch-22 (1961, Joseph Heller)
I wrote a bit about this literary classic here; I finally finished it—after having to endure a week without it after having accidentally left my copy of it in a friend's purse—and its conclusion brings it all home in a rather beautiful, lightly existential and exhilaratingly irreverent way. Catch-22 fully deserves its reputation.


"Maurizio Cattelan: All," seen at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York
As a result of the ton of photos I took at this exhibition, I think this warrants a whole separate post; perhaps then, I'll pool my rough impressions of this alternately invigorating and frustrating show. Stay tuned...


"A Conversation with David Cronenberg," seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y.
I don't have much to say about this event, really; it wasn't exactly heavy on revelatory insights into his fascinating body of work or his working methods. (Honestly, I'm already forgetting about a lot of it, a mere day or two after the fact.) Still, it was nice to be in the presence of a filmmaker as articulate about his own work, and as formidably intelligent, as Cronenberg is. His demeanor is fully in tune with the films he's made: clinical in its fascinated gaze toward ideas and images that most of us normally wouldn't want to contemplate.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Jan. 9, 2012 - Jan. 15, 2012: "Robert Bresson Immersion" Edition

NEW YORK—As you could probably glean from the log below, this past week in artistic consumption was dominated mostly by Robert Bresson, as a complete retrospective of the legendary French director's work rolls along at Film Forum. A fuller consideration of Bresson's singular art perhaps awaits here on this blog; for now, I'll just offer these two observations/thoughts:

  • Apparently Bresson pretty much had, if not his style, then his thematic concerns figured out right from the get-go with his first "official" feature, Les Anges du Péché, with its nunnery setting, its anti-psychological approach and its preoccupation with themes of spirituality and religious transcendence. But the difference stylistically speaking between that film and The Devil, Probably—the latest Bresson feature I've seen thus far—is vast indeed.
  • So far, my favorite Bressons of the ones I've seen are two consensus faves, Au Hasard Balthazar and Pickpocket. To my surprise, though, the aforementioned The Devil, Probably is, as of now, not running too far behind. I'm still not entirely sure what to make of its take on one youth's societal disconnection, but at the very least, I found it more consistently engaging and fascinating to ponder than Lancelot of the Lake (great in its own way, though I admit to finding some stretches rather tedious). Plus, it has this brilliant piece of montage in the middle (though its brilliance might make more sense in context and with more than a passing familiarity with Bresson's late style).

The other major highlight of my week? Seeing the Brooklyn Art Song Society perform all 114 of Charles Ives's 114 Songs in one four-and-a-half hour marathon. It's quite a rich collection of tunes, ranging from Americana to settings of French/German poetry, playful little ditties to reflective religious meditations, and from tonal melodies to dissonant impressionistic evocations. Thankfully, there's enough variety in these songs to make those four-and-a-half hours pass by fairly quickly. I had never heard of the Brooklyn Art Song Society before hearing about this event through New Yorker classical-music critic Alex Ross's Twitter feed; I will have to investigate their music-making some more, after this well-wrought feat.

Oh...and the Golden Globe Awards were mostly a snooze. I didn't watch Ricky Gervais's controversial hosting job last year, but I guess I missed out on an edgier performance than what he offered last night. Plus, there weren't a great many surprises in any of the film categories. And that's all I have to say about that.

The log, please...

Pickpocket (1959)


"Bresson," all films directed by Robert Bresson, seen at Film Forum in New York:
Les Anges du Péché (1943)
Lancelot of the Lake (1974)
Pickpocket (1959)
The Devil, Probably (1977)


High Time (1971, MC5)

Please (1986, Pet Shop Boys)
Actually (1987, Pet Shop Boys)

Charles Ives: 114 Songs, performed by Brooklyn Art Song Society at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, N.Y.


The 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards, seen on NBC in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Literary Interlude, "Film Critic's Statement of Purpose" Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Recently, I decided to finally start reading some of the criticism of the late British-Canadian film critic Robin Wood...and right on the first page of his prologue introducing Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond, I came across this passage that instilled me with utter delight with its insights and eloquence:

I am a critic. As such, I see my work as in many respects set apart from that of theorists and scholars (though it is of course frequently dependent upon them). The theorist and the scholar are unburdened of any necessity to engage intimately and on a personal basis with any specific work; they can hide behind their screens of theory and scholarship, they are not compelled to expose the personal nature of their work because they deal in facts, abstract ideas, and data. Any critic who is honest, however, is committed to self-exposure, a kind of public striptease: s/he must make clear that any authentic response to a work of art or entertainment is grounded not only in the work itself but in the critic's psychological makeup, personal history, values, prejudices, obsessions. Criticism arises out of an intense and intimate personal relationship between work and critic. If it is the critic's duty to strive for "objectivity" (in the negative sense of avoiding distortions), s/he knows that it is an objectivity that can never be fully achieved, because even when one is convinced that one "sees the work as it is," the relationship to it has still to be established. I have not the right to say, for example, "David Lynch makes bad movies": many people for whom I have great respect admire them, and they can certainly be defended on grounds of imagination, accomplishment, originality, strong personal commitment. I do, however, have the right to say, "I find Lynch's films extremely distasteful; my sense of value repudiates them."

The critic, it follows, must never set him- or herself up as some kind of infallible oracle. The relationship between critic and reader must always be one of debate. One might invoke here F. R. Leavis's famous definition of the ideal critical exchange: "This is so, isn't it?" / "Yes, but..." All interesting criticism is founded in the critic's beliefs and values, political position, background, influences, and these should be made explicit or so clearly implied as to leave no room for ambiguity. The theorist and scholar can (up to a point) conceal any personal commitment behind a cloak of objectivity. The personal element will always be there (in such matters as choice of material to be pursued and analyzed, choice of premise from which to work), but it can only be exposed with precisely that "reading between the lines" that the apparent perfect objectivity is there to deflect.

—Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond (2003)

As someone who, even now, still considers himself a student of cinema (and film criticism) rather than an authority on the art form by any means, Wood's explication of the role of a film critic especially resonates with me. I am only one voice, and I can only bring my own personal experiences and emotional makeup to bear on assessing the value of a work of art. Whether my voice is of any value to anyone is, I guess, up to the individual.

Naturally, I hope that my critical voice is of interest to someone out there...which is partly why I'm finding Wood's politically minded brand of criticism to be so refreshing and even important—possibly a model to aspire to. I want my criticism to matter, dammit!

Sorry. After the firing of veteran film critic J. Hoberman from the Village Voice last year, I can't help but reflect once again on how best to forge ahead in this film-criticism path I'm trying to navigate. Maybe I really need to just drop out of the daily grind altogether and just return to academia or something. I don't know. I suppose 2012 will be the year I figure all that out.

Until then, perhaps I should frame Robin Wood's words above and absorb it as a mantra. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to the more specific insights he has in store for me in the rest of this and other books of his.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Jan. 2, 2012 - Jan. 8, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—What at first looked to be a fairly quiet weekend in artistic consumption became a much more active one when, on Thursday, I received an email from the Museum of Modern Art reminding me that its blockbuster retrospective of Dutch-born Abstract Expressionist artist Willem de Kooning was ending Monday (today). That's all I needed to hear: I had to carve out time this weekend to go check it out.

Thus it came to be that I found myself wandering around MoMA's sixth floor on Saturday. I'm glad I went, finding the experience of touring through the various stages of de Kooning's artistic life positively head-spinning; the effect of seeing so many challenging works of art in one space is enough to give an attentive viewer a headache—a "good" kind of headache, I'd say. Boy, that de Kooning sure didn't stop experimenting, did he? Even his later, sparer works from the 1980s—at least in the context of this eye-opening exhibit—bear the signature of a man who, even in ailing health, remained restless in his creativity and expansive in his vision.

You know who else had as expansive a vision as de Kooning? Gustav Mahler—whose valedictory Ninth Symphony I got to see performed live that same day by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of music director Alan Gilbert. It was a less illuminating affair (Gilbert doesn't challenge Leonard Bernstein in the dynamism department when it comes to Mahler), but it was nevertheless a satisfying performance, with Gilbert showing moments of liberating interpretive freedom in some of this work's wilder passages (especially in its inner movements).

The other noteworthy highlight of this past week in artistic consumption: being so stunned into submission by my first-ever viewing of Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar—the opening film in a near-complete Bresson retrospective unfurling right now at Film Forum—that I felt unable to speak to anyone else after the screening. And yet how is it possible that a film with such depressing content can have the power to inspire its viewers to maybe be nicer to one's fellow man? I am already looking forward to seeing what other revelations Bresson has in store for me in this series.

Here's this week's log:

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)


Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim), seen at Film Forum in New York [second viewing]

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson), seen at Film Forum in New York
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945, Robert Bresson), seen at Film Forum in New York

Almayer's Folly (2011, Chantal Akerman), seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y.


Kick Out the Jams (1969, MC5)
Back in the USA (1970, MC5)

Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (1984, Herbert von Karajan & Berlin Philharmonic) [umpteenth listen]
"Mahler's Ninth Symphony," performed by Alan Gilbert & New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in New York

"Heroes" (1977, David Bowie) [second listen]
Just because it was Bowie's birthday yesterday. And because I wanted to make sure I didn't underrate this one in light of its predecessor, Low (I concluded that I didn't). Plus, the title cut is still pretty awesome.


"de Kooning: A Retrospective," seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Literary (and Photographic) Interlude, New York at Night Edition


I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

Again at eight o'clock, when the dark lanes of the Forties were five deep with throbbing taxicabs, bound for the theater district, I felt a sinking in my heart. Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligble gestures inside. Imagining that I, too, was hurrying toward gayety and sharing their intimate excitement, I wished them well.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

I had completely forgotten about this evocative description of New York at night until I heard it recently in the context of Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service's brilliant word-for-word stage dramatization of Fitzgerald's great American novel. In this one passage, Fitzgerald vividly describes the nocturnal New York of not only my own perceptions, but also of my dreams. (What that suggests about my dreams...well, I'll leave that to you all to consider.)

What Wong Kar-Wai did with images for Hong Kong in Chungking Express and (especially) Fallen Angels, Fitzgerald apparently accomplished about seven decades earlier with words for New York in The Great Gatsby. "Oh the night is my world..."

[Yes, I did just quote a line from that Laura Branigan song, "Self Control." What of it?]

Speaking of the night, here's a photo I snapped on Sunday of the night sky overlooking Union Square (taken while I was alone, naturally):

Monday, January 02, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Dec. 26, 2011 - Jan. 1, 2012

NEW YORK—Happy New Year, friends!

As I anticipated in last week I ended up not being able to find much time to annotate this latest artistic consumption log, what with my year-end review over the weekend plus other New Year-centered events (including a failed attempt to wade into the Atlantic Ocean in Coney Island on New Year's Day yesterday with the rest of the Polar Bear Club-ers).

So here's a barebones log for what was a relatively light week for me in artistic consumption.

The Cameraman (1928)


The Cameraman (1928, Edward Sedgwick), seen at Film Forum in New York

A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi), seen at Film Forum in New York [second viewing]

War Horse (2011, Steven Spielberg), seen at UA Court Street Stadium 12 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan), seen at Cinema Village in New York [second viewing]


Ravel: Complete Music for Solo Piano (1992, Abbey Simon)

Sunday, January 01, 2012

2011 in Review: My Favorite Films, New and Old, of the Year

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—2011 was indeed a great year for cinema—at least, if you knew where to look and were willing to explore beyond the increasingly paltry Hollywood offerings of the megaplexes.

It wasn't as good a year for me as far as my rigor in catching up with 2011 releases go. As I'm sure I've mentioned on this blog before, now that I'm living in New York—2011 was my first full year as a New Yorker—I'm even more spoiled for choice than ever. For me, that meant that, when presented with the choice of taking a chance on a new release versus catching up with cinema history by seeing an older film, I often found myself going with the latter least until I came back from my San Francisco vacation in late October, when it seemed like I suddenly felt less of a desire to keep up the same torrid theater-going pace as I managed before. (That may be about to change with Film Forum's upcoming Robert Bresson retrospective in January—Bresson being a major filmmaker whose work I have barely seen, outside of maybe five minutes of A Man Escaped.)

All of that is my roundabout way of saying that the following list of my 10 favorite films of 2011 is by no means complete, and is subject to change once I actually do catch up with some of my major blind spots this year—Of Gods and Men, To Die Like a Man and The Arbor are three that immediately come to mind. Maybe, when I catch up to those, one or all of them will end up bumping a title out of my current Top 10.

For now, is my list (based on a large pool of films that received a release of a week or longer here in New York):

10. Heartbeats. Xavier Dolan's glamorous love triangle certainly had style to burn, but behind the swoon-worthy Wong Kar-Wai-ish aesthetic was an intelligent examination of the way we all tend to deceive ourselves in the game of love.

9. Melancholia. With his last film, Antichrist, Lars von Trier kept telling the world about how his film was meant to be an expression of the deep depression he experienced while making it. Maybe the after-the-fact clarity of that experience helps explain why Melancholia seems so much more powerful in that regard. It's not only a visually stunning end-of-the-world saga, but also one of the most vivid dramatizations I know not only of one person's depressive state of mind, but of the effect of her state on those surrounding her.

8. Beginners. Perhaps someday I'll work on that piece I've been meaning to write about the similarities between this film and my No. 1 pick for this year (what, you think I'm going to spoil that for all of you now?). For now, all I'll say is: "insufferably quirky"—a common charge lobbied against Mike Mills's second feature—is the last thing that came to my mind (other than the dog subtitles, I suppose); instead, its melancholy, reflective, almost fragile vibe is what came across most movingly for me in this essayistic exploration of people who still seem to be discovering things about themselves and the ones around them even in adulthood.

7. A Separation. Asghar Farhadi's devastating film is a richly drawn humanist drama that obliquely suggests the complexities of life in Iran in its gripping, evenhanded exploration of one couple's titular separation and the effects it has on many other characters.

6. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Even more so than in his previous documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog—working for the first time in 3D, no less—finds the awe in nature, in history and in humanity as his camera probes around the oldest-known cave paintings in the Chauvet caves in Southern France.

5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest meditation on the intersection of history and memory is as warm and formally mesmerizing as it is quietly profound—in short, the Thai director working once again at the height of his powers.

4. Certified Copy. Abbas Kiarostami goes international for his latest film, but he is still as concerned as ever with the bridge between reality and art. Thankfully, as was the case with his 1990 masterpiece Close-Up, his intellectual concerns never get in the way of the human drama at the heart of this increasingly surreal chronicle of a couple falling apart and reconnecting. But wait—is what we're watching "real" or not? What is real in the film and what isn't? Most importantly: In the search for greater emotional truths, how much does "reality" matter, in the end?

3. Love Exposure. Love, sex, family, religion—Shion Sono's grand, mad epic has it all, and somehow manages to sustain both narrative interest and thematic richness over a four-hour span. Ever since it played to great acclaim here in New York two years ago at the New York Asian Film Festival, I've been dying to finally see this film; it was completely worth the wait.

2. Margaret. Kenneth Lonergan's passion project finally made it to theaters after years of legal struggles, and even in less than its creator's ideal form, this is still a dazzling, insightful and profoundly moving film that seems to contain years of life experience in its chronicle of a young woman's guilt and maturation after her involvement in a tragic traffic accident.

And finally.............

1. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick attempted to encompass no less than the entirety of existence in this head-spinning folly, but the most surprising thing about The Tree of Life is how its grand, humbling ambitions don't dwarf the wrenching familial drama at the center of it all. The Artist? Bah! It's cute and all, but it's got nothing on this awe-inspiring piece of cinema, folks.

Other 2011 film releases I especially liked (in alphabetical order):

13 Assassins, Takashi Miike
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Andrei Ujicâ
Bellflower, Evan Glodell
Contagion, Steven Soderbergh
A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg
Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard
House of Pleasures, Bertrand Bonello
The Interrupters, Steve James
Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog
Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin
Mysteries of Lisbon, Raúl Ruíz
Petition, Zhao Liang
Poetry, Lee Chang-dong
The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar 
Tabloid, Errol Morris
Tuesday, After Christmas, Radu Muntean

Special honorable mention: the belated theatrical release of Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (1991) in a new restoration courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation.

Finally, here are 10 older films—plus one special honorable mention—that I discovered this year that hit me the hardest (again, in alphabetical order):

A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan)

A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes)

All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

Deep End (1970, Jerzy Skolimowski)

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

 Handsworth Songs (1987, John Akomfrah)

I Only Want You to Love Me (1976, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Le Rayon Vert (1986, Eric Rohmer)

Re-Animator (1985, Stuart Gordon)

Seven Chances (1925, Buster Keaton)

Honorable mention:
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983, Tsui Hark)—mostly because it was probably the most exhilarating action picture I saw all year (and yes, that includes The Adventures of Tintin and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol)

Here's to another year of cinematic discoveries and explorations!