Monday, October 29, 2012

Shelter from the (Franken)storm, with Musical Accompaniment

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Some of your sharper-eyed readers might have noted the dateline in my last post and wondered, "What is he doing back in New Jersey?"

Well, I am back home with my folks in New Jersey to ride out Hurricane Sandy, the major storm that's about to bear down on the mid- to upper part of the East Coast here in the United States and is predicted to cause some devastating damage. I made the choice to rush back home when New York decided to shut down its public-transportation system in anticipation of this massive weather event at 7 p.m. last night; because I was working until 7:30 p.m. yesterday, and because I'm supposed to be on vacation starting today (my trip to Amsterdam has been postponed until Friday night), I decided I might as well head back home, pay a visit to my folks and stay in their company as the so-called "Frankenstorm" increased in strength.

So, after nearly missing what I discovered only when I boarded a Suburban Coach bus at Port Authority Bus Terminal was the last Line 100 bus of the night before they shut down service completely (nice going in giving all of us advance warning, Suburban Coach!), I am now back in East Brunswick. The electricity here at home is still working...for now.

But boy, Sunday morning was already pretty ominous, as this video I shot with my iPhone attests:

The winds started to pick up last night—to the point where I could hear it howling outside while sitting indoors—and it has only gotten worse, as this other video I shot demonstrates:

And, as of now, Hurricane Sandy hasn't even touched down on land yet! This doesn't appear to be yet another Hurricane Irene situation like last year; this looks to be the real deal. So stay safe, everybody!

In the meantime...well, one ought to have a bit of fun even amidst a potential natural disaster like this one, so I've been thinking of some of the best depictions of storms in music. I came up with this playlist of five on Spotify:

I'd love to add more if anyone has other suggestions to offer!

Artistic Consumption Log, Oct. 22, 2012 - Oct. 28, 2012: Dance Party Edition

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—This may well turn out to be a crucial week for me in artistic consumption in one respect: It's the week where I feel like I at least came close to finally understanding dance.

I've seen my share of dance performances over the past few years—and have even put down some of my impressions on this here blog—but though I've responded to some more enthusiastically than others, I admit that, for the most part, I've always found the form to be somewhat difficult for me to grasp in some way. Maybe I've been approaching dance in too theatrical/cinematic a mindset, expecting thematic and character richness of a literary sort when really dance is all about the beauty of movement, whether purely for its own sake or for a higher purpose.

Anyway, I thought maybe I had reached my limit with dance during Astral Converted, that suffocating 55-minute Trisha Brown/John Cage piece that seemed to just go on forever and at random. But this past week, I saw two dance pieces—one a film, the other an actual theatrical work—in which I felt perhaps I was coming close to finally breaking down my resistance to dance.

Plus, I listened to some dance music of a very high order thanks to, well, New Order.

You can read about all that and more in the log, um, let's dance!

Girl Walk // All Day (2012)


Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (2012, Brad Bernstein), seen at IFC Center in New York
Girl Walk // All Day (2012, Jacob Krupnick), seen online at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
I'm reviewing both of these films for Slant MagazineFar Out Isn't Far Enough for The House Next Door, Girl Walk // All Day for Slant proper—so I'll link you all to those reviews when they're published. All I'll say for now is, Girl Walk // All Day—which is the dance film I briefly mentioned above—has a secure spot in my Top 10 list this year; it's that good.

The Paperboy (2012, Lee Daniels), seen at Quad Cinema in New York
Despite all the condemnation this film garnered at its world premiere at Cannes earlier this year, Lee Daniels's follow-up to Precious is neither an embarrassment nor an underappreciated trash masterpiece. Actually, my cumulative reaction to the film is more of indifference than anything else—the last thing you expect from a film that features not only Nicole Kidman pissing on Zac Efron, but also a crocodile being cut up with its guts spilling out in loving close-up. Occasionally, through the unapologetic bad taste on display in this late-'60s-set tale of racism and sexual repression in the deep South, The Paperboy evinces a welcome awareness of thorny historical, thematic and character complexities; the film is, in part, a portrait of not only characters in states of transition—most notably, the titular "paperboy," a pubescent young man who gets his first taste of sexuality and the messy realities of adulthood—but an entire nation in transition, uneasily trying to shake off its racist past. (The word "nigger," for instance, is made the focus of perhaps its most emotionally wrenching moment, when Efron's Jack Jansen calls a black male character that racial pejorative in the heat of the presence of the black maid (Macy Gray) for whom he has a lot of friendly affection.) If only Daniels, as a filmmaker, wasn't so promiscuous in sacrificing sense to sensation, its vision might have made more of a lasting impression beyond the lurid surface details. (I mean, as far as I'm concerned, did we really need to see those damn crocodile guts? That's as egregious as the rape-intercut-with-fried-chicken montage in Precious.) But no, The Paperboy doesn't strike me as entirely negligible.

Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)


Movement (1981, New Order)
Power, Corruption & Lies (1983, New Order)
Low-life (1985, New Order)
I'm finally catching up with the British synth-pop band that was once known as Joy Division before Ian Curtis died, and while Power, Corruption & Lies is indeed as great as its reputation...guys, I don't know about this Bernard Sumner dude. I didn't mind his mediocre singing in that album or in their previous album, Movement, because the beats, textures and lyrics were enough to compensate for Sumner's barely-in-tune vocals as the lead singer. But while the beats, textures and lyrics in Low-life are as virtuosic and memorable as ever, overall the songs seem to be trying for a deeper emotional affect than Sumner is even close to capable of delivering. I guess people over the years have given him a pass because the songs themselves are so catchy? Because, I mean, on a dance floor, who cares about great singing, right? Anyway, the best song on Low-life is, naturally, "Elegia," the one instrumental on the album; "Sub-Culture" is also quite good—intoxicating in its ominousness—but again, Sumner's rough singing comes perilously close to completely breaking its distinctive spell. (I guess Ian Curtis was no great shakes as a vocalist, either, but his deep tenor voice had a certain alien allure to it that was fascinating to hear however depressive his lyrics were.) Does Sumner somehow get better as a vocalist in subsequent New Order albums? I'll see. Maybe, in their best albums, it ultimately doesn't matter so much.

Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House stage before "...como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si...." This was, in fact, basically the whole set.


"...como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si..." (2009, Pina Bausch), performed by Tanztheater Wupperthal Pina Bausch at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
So seasoned dance critics aren't considering this one of legendary choreographer Pina Bausch's great works? Well, okay. I'm no seasoned dance critic, but for the most part, this was probably the most sheer fun I've had seeing a dance work maybe ever. Thanks to Wim Wenders's Pina, I went into Friday night's performance of Bausch's final work, "...como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si...," being at least somewhat aware of her innovative blending of dance and theater. But to see it up and close and personal was especially thrilling; for the first time, I felt as if I was actually getting dance in ways I never quite grasped before.

Based on Bausch and her Tanztheater Wupperthal's experiences and observations while doing a residency in Chile, "...como el musguito..." is essentially a plotless series of tableaux depicting the battle of the sexes, in interactions that are by turns romantic, creepy and funny. Considering how many of the female dancers proudly flaunt their feminine physicality/wiles to the men they playfully seduce, one can read an idiosyncratic vision of female empowerment into the work—but to my mind, both sexes are given just about equal praise/ridicule in the love games in which they enact. For me, though, much of the excitement in seeing "...como el musguito..." came simply from seeing dancers speaking dialogue, playing with props onstage, wearing extravagant fashions—in short, doing a lot of things I normally don't see in a typical dance piece. Like the best artistic experiences, I never knew what to expect moment to moment, and even as inspiration started to flag towards the end of this 2-hour-and-20-minute work, the sheer exhilaration of seeing what lovely/crazy things Bausch would come up with next for her dancers to do onstage kept me interested. Dammit, why am I only now discovering the work of this genuine visionary years after her death? (Rest in peace, Pina Bausch.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Oct. 15, 2012 - Oct. 21, 2012: Decompressing After NYFF Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I chalk up the light load of this past week in artistic consumption to my desire to take it easy after New York Film Festival. Good thing I made some worthy discoveries during this most recent seven-day stretch!

Le Grand Amour (1969)


The Sessions (2012, Ben Lewin), seen at Angelika Film Center in New York
I probably would not have even bothered to see this film if some critics I read regularly hadn't voiced enthusiasm for it; also, a friend of mine was interested in seeing it with me. As it turns out, this isn't bad at all. One might not expect much from a based-on-true-story chronicle of a 38-year-old polio-stricken paralyzed poet/journalist trying to lose his virginity; after all, something like this was recently mined for this jokey/mawkish Oscar-nominated fiction short. Writer-director Ben Lewin, however, takes Mark O'Brien's story seriously indeed, and with the help of his game cast, manages to persuade us to take it seriously as well. The result is far less cloying than one might expect—but then, as he is depicted in the film, and as John Hawkes plays him, O'Brien himself is the last person to give into masochistic self-pity, meeting the challenges of his paralysis with good humor and a genuine thirst for life. And as for the sexual aspects of this story, The Sessions treats sex with a maturity and forthrightness that is rare in most American films, mainstream or otherwise. I wouldn't make any grand claims for the film—aesthetically, it's generally pretty unremarkable—but it's sensitively and sincerely done, and the acting is very fine across the board (though Helen Hunt's exaggerated Boston accent may or may not be a distraction for some).

Heureux Anniversaire (1962, Pierre Étaix), seen at Film Forum in New York
Le Grand Amour (1969, Pierre Étaix), seen at Film Forum in New York
"Pierre Étaix?" some of you might be asking. "Who the heck is that?" And hey, before Film Forum programmed a retrospective of his films, I had never heard of the guy either. Born in 1928, he was a comedian who worked extensively with Jacques Tati on his 1958 film Mon Oncle before getting a chance to make his own films—none of which had been available until recently, in newly restored prints, all of which are screening as part of this series.

As an artist, one could describe him as a cross between his mentor Tati and Buster Keaton in his deadpan acting style, brilliance as a physical comedian and marked lack of sentimentality. Le Grand Amour—the 1969 color feature Film Forum is screening throughout the first week of this series—has all of these qualities in abundance, though not even Tati and Keaton were quite as bold in weaving so effortlessly between reality and fantasy as Étaix frequently does. Of course, the back-and-forth is appropriate for a film that depicts main character Pierre's (Étaix himself, as usual in his films) desire to escape the dullness of his current humdrum domestic existence with his plain-Jane wife (played by Étaix's own wife, Annie Fratellini) and continue the skirt-chasing ways he cultivated before settling down (he especially fixates on a barely legal secretary that works at his office). Pierre dreams about "free love"—a mindset very much in vogue at the time, of course—but does he have the actual guts to pull off such a lifestyle? An unsparing excoriation of male folly, a cutting satire of bourgeois manners, a comedy about the ways romantic desires mess with our heads: Le Grand Amour is all that and more, wrapped in a light, playful package that isn't afraid to delve into full-blown surrealism—most memorably, a dream sequence in which beds are turned into traveling vehicles on roads in the French countryside—to get at its greater emotional truths.

It's quite a discovery, Le Grand Amour—and the preceding 12-minute short, Heureux Anniversaire (which actually won a Best Short Subject Oscar in 1963), is even more impressive in its brilliantly escalating comic mayhem as the main character's attempts to get back home in time to celebrate a marriage anniversary with his wife are met with increasingly hilarious obstacles. I hope to be able to see more of Étaix's work before I go on vacation next week, because after these two films, I'm definitely intrigued.

The Loves of Pharaoh (1922, Ernst Lubitsch), seen with live musical accompaniment from Numinous at Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, New York
Ernst Lubitsch doing a lavish Cecil B. DeMille-style historical spectacle? Well, the filmmaker celebrated for such romantic entertainments such as Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner did it in his home turf of Germany in 1922 with his long-lost epic The Loves of Pharaoh, recently restored to something close to its original version by the same company, ALPHA-OMEGA, that handled the recent "complete Metropolis" restoration (there are still bits of footage missing, all of which are indicated either by explanatory intertitles and/or still images). For those viewers weaned on his American films throughout the 1930s and '40s, the darker tone of this much earlier Lubitsch work might come as a shock—which is not to say it's entirely free of that famed "Lubitsch touch." The Loves of Pharaoh is essentially a soap opera, centering around a love triangle that develops between Egyptian King Amenes (Emil Jannings), the Greek slave girl Theonis (Dagny Servaes) and the Egyptian laborer Ramphis (Harry Liedtke). But Lubitsch spreads his usual worldly wisdom all around the film, with the fickleness of crowds coming in for as much scrutiny as the ruthlessness of power-hungry rulers. Ultimately, though, it's amour that brings down King Amenes; by its final moments, rarely has a king's retaking of power felt so hollow, as he has lost the woman he loved to someone willing to throw away power for her sake. And rarely has a Lubitsch film been so devastatingly direct in its psychological insights.

I assume The Loves of Pharaoh will show up again—maybe with Eduard Künneke's original musical accompaniment? Not to take anything away from Joseph C. Phillips Jr.'s Alban Berg-like atonal score, a fascinating accompaniment performed live at the BAM Harvey Theater screening by Phillips's 18-piece orchestra, Numinous—but this seems like the kind of grand historical spectacle that lends itself to something more traditional than the disturbed, intimately scaled dissonances of Phillips's score. (Phillips might be the perfect man for coming up with a brand new Metropolis score—though the Alloy Orchestra score I heard when I watched the film most recently at Ebertfest last year was a stunning achievement.) But I do admit that the dissonances, at the very least, sounded quite pleasing to my ears in addition to getting at the more ironic, inward-looking undercurrents of the film.

My crappy iPhone photo of Fiona Apple onstage with her backing band at Terminal 5


Fiona Apple, seen live at Terminal 5 in New York
You all thought her songs were full of angst? Wait until you see her perform those songs live in concert to get a fuller measure of said angst! Onstage, Fiona Apple cuts a fascinatingly jittery profile, seemingly unable to stand still even in front of a microphone stand. The experience of seeing her live was akin to witnessing an artist expressing her own private emotions, with all of us in the audience as mere spectators to the display. "I just want to feel everything," she sings in "Every Single Night" (the first cut from her most recent album, The Idler Wheel...); perhaps that one poignant lyric is a key not to just this compellingly mercurial artist as a singer/songwriter, but as a stage performer as well, with every gesture nothing if not deeply felt in the moment—even the couple of moments where she stood next to a grand piano and, with her back toward it, gyrated like a pole dancer while one of the guitarists did an improvisation. In such a context, perhaps it makes sense that she barely seemed to acknowledge the audience except to say "thank you; I love you all" at the end of her 90-minute set; in fact, she never came back out for any encores. But the sheer spectacle of seeing an artist perform her music in ways you wouldn't get just from her record was enough; that's part of the exciting frisson of the live-concert experience in general.

因為愛你 (1987, 葉歡)
放我的真心在你的手心 (1988, 葉歡)
記得我們有約 (1988, 葉歡)
For now, at least, I'm back in a Chinese-pop phase...and I suspect Ye Huan will probably interest most of you even less than, say, 蔡琴 (Tsai Chin—remember, filmmaking giant Edward Yang's first wife?) or 蘇芮 (Su Rui—one of living Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke's favorites, as Platform and Still Life attest). As far as I know, Ye Huan didn't have connections to Taiwanese cinema or television...and yet, Warner Music Taiwan apparently saw it fit to re-release some of her late '80s albums on compact disc this year, so I guess she must be popular in some circles. Anyway, she has a beautifully lyrical voice—somewhat in between Tsai Chin's imperial richness and Su Rui's gritty directness—and most of the songs on her first three albums are solid-to-great (with the exception of one embarrassingly earnest plea for kindness throughout the world right smack dab in the middle of hte second album). (Plus, she's easy on the eyes.) Her debut album is the most consistent of the ones I've heard so far; if any of you are curious at all, feel free to sample it here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Closing the Book on The 50th New York Film Festival

NEW YORK—Since I'm not on Criticwire, I wasn't asked to participate in this poll rounding up critics' favorite, and not-so-favorite, films and performances in this year's New York Film Festival. So I figured, by way of a sum-up, I'd offer some of my picks in the various categories.

This year's festival was such an embarrassment of riches, for the most part, that naturally there were plenty of titles and performances that I regret leaving off because of the limit of five in each category, especially in the acting categories. Plus, in the "Best Nonfiction Film" category, I cheated and threw in the wondrous avant-garde shorts by Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, seen during the Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar two weekends ago. Hey, it's my blog and my list, so I can break the rules if I want!

Anyway, by way of closing the book on the 50th New York Film Festival, here you go:

Like Someone in Love

Best Fiction Film
1. Like Someone in Love
2. Holy Motors
3. Barbara
4. Mekong Hotel
5. Passion


Best Nonfiction Film
1. Leviathan
2. August and After/April
3. In the Stone House/New Shores
4. First Cousin Once Removed

Beyond the Hills

Most Disappointing Film
1. Beyond the Hills
2. Something in the Air
3. The Last Time I Saw Macao

Best Lead Performance
1. Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
2. Nina Hoss, Barbara
3. Denzel Washington, Flight
4. Tadashi Okuno, Like Someone in Love
5. Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi

Best Supporting Performance
1. John Goodman, Flight
2. Isabelle Huppert, Amour
3. Kylie Minogue, Holy Motors
4. Alessandro Nivola, Ginger & Rosa
5. Ronald Zehrfeld, Barbara

Notably missed: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, Night Across the Street, Berberian Sound Studio, and so on

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Oct. 8, 2012 - Oct. 14, 2012: "End of New York Film Festival and Beyond" Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I may have just set a record for tardiness with an artistic consumption log by posting this today, Wednesday, two days later than usual. For the handful of you who have been waiting for this with baited breath, my apologies.


Holy Motors

The 50th New York Film Festival, all films seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York
Ginger & Rosa (2012, Sally Potter)
Holy Motors (2012, Léos Carax)
 No (2012, Pablo Larraín)

Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)
This last week of New York Film Festival screenings was full of surprises. I mean, I expected great things from Léos Carax's Holy Motors and, as I expressed in this House Next Door review, found my expectations generally met.

The three other films, though, blindsided me. Ginger & Rosa, for instance, seemed to garner a fairly respectful but not ecstatic response at Toronto last month, so I didn't expect a whole lot going in; Sally Potter's latest film turned out to be arguably the best of NYFF's Main Slate trio of '60s period pieces (the others being Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air and David Chase's Not Fade Away): a film of intelligent nuances, subtle visual beauties and a welcome lack of nostalgia. As for No: I wasn't a big fan of either of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín's previous two films, Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010), but in his new film he drops the facile metaphors of its predecessors and goes directly for the jugular when it comes to depicting the process of, essentially, adopting the language of advertising to sell a revolution. It's less successful at human interest: Larraín's interest in René's (Gael García Bernal) home life mostly feels obligatory at best (though the warmth, however ironic, in those domestic scenes a relief after the perversities in Tony Manero and Post Mortem), but as a chronicle of process, it's engrossing. And yes, I would defend Larraín's visual perversity in shooting his new film on a Sony U-matic VHS tape, which matches the format in which the various political television commercials were shot, and which, though not always easy on the eyes, does have the effect of blurring (literally, in a sense) the line between TV and "reality" in a way that I find genuinely provocative in this context.

But Robert Zemeckis's Flight offered perhaps the biggest surprise of them all. I walked into it with no expectations whatsoever, and it didn't seem, among many colleagues I've spoken to, that there was necessarily a whole lot of excitement about Zemeckis's return to live-action filmmaking after a few years spent in a motion-capture wilderness with his last three films (The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol). All I knew was that it had something to do with a drunk pilot who somehow managed to land a plane. I thought that was the whole movie; I didn't think that that would only be, maybe, a third of the film and that the rest would focus on an alcholic's bumpy road to—well, some kind of recovery, at least. Flight turned out to be a surprisingly powerful experience, and it has one of Denzel Washington's finest performances, a terribly watchable spectacle of raw nerves and volatile self-loathing. This is the kind of film in which its character study is as tense as its obviously showstopping airplane-crash setpiece early on in the film—a Bruised Forearm movie of a far more inward, character-based sort. It ended this year's New York Film Festival on a strong note, as far as I'm concerned.

A fuller NYFF round-up is forthcoming...I think.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Lewis Gilbert), seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York [second viewing]
I suspect many of you are asking the following two questions as to what this title is doing in this log: 1) Why is a James Bond film playing at the Museum of Modern Art, of all places?; and 2) Why did I decide to see this one again, out of all the Bond films I haven't even seen (and my Bond blind spots are legion, starting with the Connerys—yes, all of them)? The answer to the first question is easy enough, answerable by this link. As for Question No. 2...well..."curiosity" is my only answer, really: to see how a film I had seen on television as a teenager held up for this older and supposedly wiser cinephile now.

I had forgotten how much The Spy Who Loved Me plays as romantic comedy, especially in its first hour, with Barbara Bach's rival Russian female secret agent offering genuine competition to 007. And only now was I able to fully appreciate the visual pleasures offered by Claude Renoir's cinematography—never more impressive as in the Egypt sequences early on in the film—and Ken Adam's production design. Overall, it's still pretty enjoyable, and Richard Kiel's silver-toothed henchman Jaws remains as memorably goofy a villain as ever. I have to admit, though, that, in light of the throwaway manner in which Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum's screenplay ultimately resolves the emotional thread regarding Agent XXX's vow to avenge her former lover's death by killing 007, the whole thing does seem a bit...well, inconsequential in ways that led me to find the movie more or less dissolving from my memory the instant I left the theater. This is considered one of the best Bond films ever, huh? Well, okay, sure, it's entertaining...but it's sure no Casino Royale (the Martin Campbell one with Daniel Craig, natch).

Looper (2012, Rian Johnson), seen at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 in New York
Maybe, in the end, it doesn't necessarily matter that the futuristic world Rian Johnson creates for this new film of his is basically little more than an amalgamation of off-the-shelf parts from renowned sci-fi predecessors (Blade Runner and RoboCop came immediately to my mind). The time-travel aspects are merely a framework for him on which to hang his more character-based, dramatic concerns—and it is on that level that Looper intrigues the most. This is basically a noir with sci-fi trappings: a narrative of a self-absorbed protagonist—or rather, in this case, two self-absorbed protagonists who are actually the same character, one 30 years older than the other—who gradually gains an awareness of a world outside his own immediate, narrow-minded purview. (This, by the way, was also a thematic thread running through another Joseph Gordon-Levitt-led film a couple of months ago, Premium Rush. Come to think of it, Wilee the delivery biker isn't all that different from Joe the looper: both extremely focused and fairly unreflective until they find themselves forced to actually consider and possibly act on behalf of others. It's almost Casablanca-like in that way, really.) When you have one of the main characters killing kids and staging a whole massacre just for the sake of keeping his own (future) wife alive despite the much larger threat of an imminent apocalypse...well, that's pretty risky material right there, offering a challenging critique of self-interest and indifference to the wider world around them. If none of this ever really transcends intellectual intrigue to my mind...well hey, intellectual engagement is certainly better than nothing, right?


Lola (1961, Jacques Demy), seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York
Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean), seen at Film Forum in New York
This past weekend in moviegoing turned out to have something of a romantic tinge to it thanks to these two classics, both of which I encountered for the first time.

After seeing Brief Encounter, I couldn't help but wonder if Jacques Demy didn't have David Lean's film partly in mind when conceiving Lola (his debut feature)? On the level of plot, granted, these are two fairly different films, Lola's multi-character mosaic contrasting with the two-character simplicity of Brief Encounter. But the two adulterous lovers in Brief Encounter find their dreams of happiness together dashed by the mores of bourgeois society, while many of Demy's characters find their own personal dreams of happiness hindered by the quotidian difficulties of their own daily lives. Spiritually, at least, these two films could not be closer together. And on a more detail-oriented note: In Lean's film, Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) ends up walking away from his affair to travel to Johannesburg for an indefinitely period of time, while in Demy's film, Roland (Marc Michel) ends up walking away from his great love Lola/Cécile (Anouk Aimée) to travel to Johannesburg as well. Surely, that isn't just coincidence!

I loved both of these films, by the way—especially Lola in the magical way Demy fuses his love of Hollywood fantasy with a sober awareness of the real world to produce a vibrant vision of life that refuses to deny his dreamers their dreams while recognizing the painful nuances underneath them. And...Anouk Aimée! I had no idea how disarming she could be based on , in which she played an angrier character constantly at odds with Marcello Mastroianni's philandering Guido—but, seeing her talk enthusiastically about keeping her hopes of seeing her former lover alive even with the odds overwhelmingly against her, you can see why Roland would keep his own flame of love for her alive in his heart. I mean, who wouldn't?

Oh, and wait...could it be...Anouk Aimée herself at MoMA? Why, yes, it is!


Diluvia (2012, Freelance Whales)
Once again, full disclosure: I'm kinda/sorta friends with the drummer of this band, and I'm happy for the success he's experiencing with this hot indie band. If I'm a bit less enthusiastic about their second album as I was about their first, Weathervanes, it's this sense that, as their sound gets bigger and more ambitious, it becomes even more evident than before just how derivative they always were. And, for me, their marked shift in emphasis on evocative soundscapes rather than hook-driven songwriting makes Diluvia, as a whole, sound as pretty as ever but also shapelessly amorphous and verging on whimsy overload, to my ears. Maybe it's fitting that its one immediately memorable cut, the quick-tempo rocker "Spitting Image," is the one that most recalls their debut (the "oh oh oh oh"'s recalling their opening salvo in Weathervanes's "Generator ^ First Floor"). Still, hats off to them for trying something new in their sophomore effort; I look forward to hearing what they do in their next album.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Catching Up With Some New York Film Festival Reviews

NEW YORK—I've been in a flurry of review-writing as a whole bunch of New York Film Festival assignments have converged in the past few days. Now, I have three more pieces at The House Next Door to show for it.

First up, here's my review of Like Someone in Love. Set not in his native Iran but in Japan, Abbas Kiarostami's latest film plays like a more downbeat companion piece to his last film, Certified Copy; in some ways, this might be an even richer achievement, though one that is admittedly more difficult to warm to on first blush compared to its airy, lovely predecessor. Nevertheless, this has a strong possibility of ending up being my favorite film of the festival so far.

A strong runner-up for favorite film of NYFF comes in the form of the melancholy blast that is Léos Carax's  Holy Motors, his first feature in 13 years. Many have pegged this truly singular work as a kind of middle finger to the digital era. Maybe, maybe not. I'm inclined to look at it less as a grand, pessimistic statement about the future of cinema as it is simply about an actor snatching personal victories from the jaws of a larger defeat. "In the midst of life, we are in death," as the famous Biblical saying goes—but boy, what life does Carax and his usual leading man Denis Lavant bring to the table! My review is here.

And then there's Michael Haneke's Amour and David Chase's Not Fade Away. The first feature from the creator of The Sopranos strikes me as a mostly negligible, if pleasant and genial, nostalgia trip. Haneke's film, however, is a trickier case. I don't necessarily see the "humanism" the film's many partisans see; especially with some of the late-breaking developments in the film's last half-hour, the Austrian director still strikes me as icy and finger-wagging as ever. And yet, when it comes to the kind of unflinching depiction of mortality that he's attempting here, maybe some emotional detachment isn't a negative attribute. Besides, I think Amour is ultimately less about death than it is about the struggles of the living to deal with an awareness of it, especially when they see it every day in a loved one. If nothing else, it's undeniably effective at what it sets out to achieve; what you, the individual viewer, get out of it is entirely up to you. You can read my reviews of both here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Oct. 1, 2012 - Oct. 7, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—My annotations for the log below are minimal as I am in the midst of writing up a few more New York Film Festival reviews for The House Next Door. So, um, enjoy what little I have to offer!

Nathaniel Dorsky's August and After


The 50th New York Film Festival, all films seen in New York:
Tabu (2012, Miguel Gomes), seen at Walter Reade Theater [second viewing]
First Cousin Once Removed (2012, Alan Berliner), seen at Walter Reade Theater
Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami), seen at Walter Reade Theater
Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach), seen at Alice Tully Hall
Not Fade Away (2012, David Chase), seen at Walter Reade Theater
Amour (2012, Michael Haneke), seen at Walter Reade Theater
20 Hz (2012, Semiconductor), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Tension Building (2012, Ericka Beckman), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Collections (2012, Peggy Ahwesh), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Interstitial Project 1 (2012, Matt McCormick), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Birthstone (2012, April Wheeler), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Kiss the Rain (2012, Lewis Klahr), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
The Street of Everlasting Rain (2012, Lewis Klahr), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Tokens and Penalties (2012, Talena Sanders), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Interstitial Project 2 (2012, Matt McCormick), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Circle in the Sand (2012, Michael Robinson), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
The Extravagant Shadows (2012, David Gatten), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
S P E C T R E (2012, Sarah Grace Nesin), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Phantoms of a Libertine (2012, Ben Rivers), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
The Room Called Heaven (2012, Laida Lertxundi), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Mekong Hotel (2012, Apichatpong Weerasethakul), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
In the Stone House (1967-70/2012, Jerome Hiler), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
New Shores (1970-90/2012, Jerome Hiler), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
August and After (2012, Nathaniel Dorsky), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
April (2012, Nathaniel Dorsky), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
The Creation As We Saw It (2012, Ben Rivers), seen at Howard Gilman Theater
Morning of Saint Anthony's Day (2012, João Pedro Rodrigues), seen at Howard Gilman Theater
Concrete Parlay (2012, Fern Silva), seen at Howard Gilman Theater
Walker (2012, Tsai Ming-liang), seen at Howard Gilman Theater [second viewing] 
The Blind Owl (1987, Raúl Ruiz), seen at Howard Gilman Theater
Whoa, some of you might be wondering. Why so many films listed this week? Did I suddenly go mad with moviegoing?

Actually, this past weekend, I devoted much of my energies to "Views from the Avant-Garde," the New York Film Festival sidebar devoted to experimental cinema both well-known (relatively speaking) and obscure. Avant-garde cinema has always been something I've been meaning to acquaint myself with in more depth—but of course, opportunities to see films by the likes of Nathaniel Dorsky, Ben Rivers, Michael Robinson and others are often limited to occasional festival and/or museum screenings. So a sidebar like this one (in its 16th year as far as of NYFF, by the way) offers a valuable service to a curious cinephile like myself. Thus, I decided to take as much advantage of it as possible—especially on Saturday, when I ended up checking out five Views programs in one day. Boy, did I feel burned out after that day!

Some of the highlights, in brief:

  • David Gatten's three-hour epic The Extravagant Shadows, which basically needs only various shades of paint, superimposed screen titles and a handful of music cues to add up to an evocative tribute to the lasting power of the literature amidst the passage of time
  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul's hour-long Mekong Hotel, a ghost story of sorts that finds this great Thai auteur in as gently profound and whimsically meditative a mood as ever
  • The beautiful short films of Nathaniel Dorsky (spiritual cathedrals of light and shade) and Jerome Hiler (shards of memory reconfigured into impressionistic flashes)
  • The late Raúl Ruiz's rarely screened 1987 film The Blind Owl, which turns a meta-cinematic premise into yet another one of his mad narrative juggling acts, wrapped up in a horror-movie atmosphere


Janáček: Věc Makropulos/Lachian Dances (1979/1971, Elisabeth Söderström, Peter Dvorský, Beno Blachut; Vienna Philharmonic; Sir Charles Mackerras/London Philharmonic Orchestra; François Huybrechts)
Well, I've already written about The Makropulos Case itself here, so I'll just quickly note the excellence of this 1979 recording—the work's first complete recording, and there hasn't been much competition since—and leave it at that.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Sept. 24, 2012 - Sept. 30, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I took in some truly lovely things this past week. Some of it was even profoundly moving.

Liebelei (1933)


The 50th New York Film Festival, all films seen in New York:
Caesar Must Die (2012, Paolo & Vittorio Taviani), seen at Walter Reade Theater
Life of Pi (2012, Ang Lee), seen at Walter Reade Theater
Leviathan (2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel), seen at Walter Reade Theater
Liebelei (1933, Max Ophüls), seen at Francesca Beale Theater
Though Friday night was technically the opening night of this year's New York Film Festival, press & industry screenings have been going on for the past two weeks now. This past week's highlight? Well, for me it was clearly Max Ophüls's wise, gorgeous and beautifully felt Liebelei. But putting that sidebar screening aside for now, of the Main Slate titles I saw last week, the best of them was Leviathan, a confrontational, formally stunning documentary that takes a mostly wordless, impressionistic approach to depicting the harsh realities of fishing on the high seas. Long take after long take astounds simply on the level of "how did the filmmakers get such footage?," while the rampant noise of the digital-video footage actually adds to the film's brutal beauty. As much a work of avant-garde abstract expressionism as it is an unconventional "issue" documentary, Leviathan adds up to a sobering vision of fishing as a kind of Hell on earth. If, while watching some of its more horrific images (the filmmakers are not shy about thrusting images of dead or carved-up fish into our faces), I sometimes wondered if the film's aesthetic virtues ultimately overwhelmed the human...well, on the other hand, sometimes there's something to be said for such a take-no-prisoners approach to raising awareness.

Liebelei is indeed easier to love...but of course it is. That swoon-worthy yet wise sensibility of later films like Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Earrings of Madame De... didn't come out of nowhere, as this early German film of his attests. Within the confines of an Arthur Schnitzler-based love roundelay (Schnitzler being a writer he'd return to in 1950 for La Ronde), Ophüls, through his usual elegant long takes and roving camera, meditates on not only the mysteries of love, but also the absurdities of established social orders (military ones, in this particular case) and the dangers of the past coming back to haunt the present. In short, Liebelei has a sneaky profundity to along with its surface romanticism—and boy, how beautiful those surfaces can be! A ride through a winter wonderland while two main characters talk about the concept of "eternity" is a particular highlight (that sequence itself could last an eternity and I wouldn't mind!). Such deep feeling, such rapturous heights, such devastating tragedies—in other words, just another Max Ophüls masterpiece.


Elysium (2012, Pet Shop Boys)
The glory days of "West End Girls," "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," "Left To My Own Devices" and so on seem long ago—which is not to say the duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe that make up Pet Shop Boys haven't still been churning out good music. Elysium is, I would say, their best album since Release (2002), but what makes this new one special is that there is a tone of personal reflection to it—especially regarding their professional careers as musical entertainers—that makes the whole thing unexpectedly moving in addition to being as witty and catchy as they usually are at their best. Really, you don't have to look any further than its second cut, the evocative "Invisible," to take the temperature of this album in general: mostly midtempo, lush, full of solemn undercurrents.

Janáček: Jenůfa (1983, Elisabeth Söderström, Wieslav Ochman, Petr Dvorský, Eva Randová, Lucia Popp, et. al./Vienna Philharmonic/Sir Charles Mackerras)
Back to film critic Robin Wood's favorite modern composer, the Czech Leoš Janáček—and could Jenůfa be my favorite opera of his yet? All three of the operas of his I've heard—this, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropulos Case—featured climactic apotheoses of varying sorts, but this is the only one that features a character that's basically elevated to a kind of sainthood at the end of it. How is it that the poor village girl Jenůfa finds it in her heart to forgive her family members for even some of their most brutal transgressions against her, including, of all things, infanticide? What at first seems like foolish naïveté on Jenůfa's part in the first two acts suddenly becomes a powerful force in the closing moments of the final act, inspiring her transgressors to redeem themselves and do good. A grim story of working-class squalor and violence transforms into a transcendent ode to the power of human empathy. Boy, I am now dying to see opera performed live on a stage someday (soon, I hope)!


Habit (2012, David Levine), seen at Essex Street Market in New York
Picture this: three actors in a three-dimensional set that resembles the first floor of a house basically acting out the same 90-minute drama on a loop throughout an eight-hour performance during a given day. The words that come out of the actors names are the same, but the actors' blocking and movements vary in each loop, and even the ending can change depending upon the whims of the actors in the moment. As for us in the audience, we are allowed to walk around outside the set and peer into various windows, but we aren't allowed to actually step onto the set and interact with the performers.

That is, in a nutshell, the concept that drives David Levine's theater/performance-art hybrid Habit, the latest experimental, experiential theater piece in the recent mold of Emursive's Sleep No More and Elevator Repair Service's Shuffle. For the spectator, we're given the freedom of roaming around the set, following different characters through the windows and just generally acting like Big Brother-style voyeurs in the unfolding drama of three loser douchebags prodding, goading and revealing awful secrets to each other. But Habit is as much an adventure for the actors as for the spectators: When they're reciting the same lines over and over again and have considerable flexibility as to how those lines are delivered, it's inevitable that each time they go through a loop, they'll uncover different shades and nuances to their lines and characters. If anything, for audience members, it's actually worth sticking around for more than one iteration of the 90-minute mini-drama itself, just to see what interpretive surprises in that regard the actors come up with next. (On Saturday, I stayed for three rounds of what is admittedly a pretty mediocre play in and of itself.)

My legs might have been tired as all get-out after standing on my feet for approximately three-and-a-half hours wandering about the set at Essex Street Market, but, as with Sleep No More, I left the space humming with the thrill of having the boundaries of theatrical performance expand right before my very eyes. (Its two-week run, alas, ended yesterday.)