Friday, March 30, 2007

Small Yet Giant Deliverances in Killer of Sheep

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Not much to report on my life, really---thesis-writing (almost to the promised land of completion!) and class assignments (a cinema studies seminar presentation coming up soon, a newsletter page to lay out) are keeping me busy. But I wanted to take the time to reprint an article of mine that was published yesterday in the Inside Beat---a review of Charles Burnett's rarely-seen 1977 indie classic Killer of Sheep, which is only now getting a proper theatrical release. I saw this film for the first time during Spring Break at a press screening, and folks: it's worth a trip to the city, not only because the film is such a beautiful achievement, but also because you're not likely to see a truer---or at least more authentic-seeming---or more poetic depiction of ghetto life in movies today. Makes me want to check out more of Burnett's work (I hear The Glass Shield is supposed to one of American cinema's more honest depictions of racism in society---but then, anything's probably more honest than Crash).

Anyway, I'm reposting the review because I was planning to get it published in today's edition of the Pulse---remember, that weekly entertainment section of the Home News Tribune for which I wrote a few articles last summer?---but apparently I was too late in letting the editor know about the article. So, to make up for my tardiness, I'm posting it here.

There's a lot more I would have liked to say about the movie had I been allowed more space---its editing of its various episodes struck me as particularly interesting in its own free-associative way---as well as going into more detail about a couple more scenes that intrigued me. But, because I'm such a busy man (something some friends of mine simply don't seem to understand!), I'll just post what was published in yesterday's Targum. Enjoy!

Unknown Gem Finally Gets Proper Recognition
by Kenji Fujishima
Published in the 3/29 issue of Inside Beat

Long available only in worn-out 16mm prints and, even then, only shown on rare occasions at film festivals and museums, Charles Burnett’s 1977 low-budget independent film Killer of Sheep — beautifully restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive — is only now, 30 years later, getting a proper theatrical release, starting a run at the IFC Center in New York and at various theaters across the country.

This is certainly a big deal, but not simply because of its rarity. It isn’t even a big deal simply because of its induction into the prestigious National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1990. No, the real big deal about Killer of Sheep is, most simply and eloquently, the film itself, which is one of the most grittily realistic yet strangely poetic looks at ordinary life in a small, predominantly African-American ghetto.

One can get a sense of that gritty realism right on the surface. From its deliberately unassuming — and, in this 35mm blow-up, noticeably grainy — black and white cinematography (Burnett shot the film himself) to its authentic location settings, and from the fairly amateurish performances of its mostly nonprofessional cast to its episodic plot — all of these elements serve to give us the feeling of real life taking place right in front of our eyes.

The real life of this film isn’t particularly glamorous, either: its main character, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), works at a slaughterhouse for a living — thus the film’s title — and goes through much of the film palpably disillusioned by the depressing reality of his lower-class existence in his Watts, Calif. community. In its interest in capturing the harsh realities of the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, Killer of Sheep works in the great tradition of neorealism, the famous post-World War II artistic movement that attempted to render real life on film as authentically as possible with documentary-style techniques — handheld camerawork, outdoor location shooting, etc.

But Italian neorealist classics like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves or Roberto Rossellini’s Open City aren’t great just because of its documentary-like realism. Like De Sica and Rossellini, Charles Burnett has both compassion and a poetic — yet fiercely unsentimental — sensibility to go along with his sharply observant sense of lived-in realism.

Thus, no one is made out to be exaggerated caricatures in Killer of Sheep — not even the two show-offy “rich” guys who are first seen stealing a television set, and then are shown asking Stan to participate in a murder for money. Even scenes like those, Burnett suggests, are an unmistakable part of life in an African-American ghetto; you do what you feel you have to do in order to get by in such dire surroundings.

And even in the midst of Stan’s sense of despair, Burnett is still able to find, and poetically convey, moments of indelible beauty and joy. Perhaps its most touching moment comes in long sequence in which Stan and his wife (Kaycee Moore) share a silent slow dance in their apartment to the tune of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” It’s all in one unbroken shot, and Burnett’s camera simply sits there, observing the wife’s attempt to try to reach out to her emotionally distant husband. When the song is over and the dance ends, everything seems to be back to (dreary) normal. Within Killer of Sheep, however, those small gestures — and there are many of them at unexpected, isolated moments — have the power of giant deliverances.

EDIT (March 31, 10:58 a.m.): I forgot that I actually had good-sized photos to go along with the published piece in Thursday's Targum! I'll post on here, just for fun. Thanks to Milestone Films for the picture.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Life Update No. 13: Boy, this thing is turning into a straight-up diary, isn't it?

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I think the title says it all. Sorry readers, but it looks like right now, My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second is turning---well, maybe "degenerating" is the more appropriate word---into just your usual boring diary of one-thing-after-another events. In other words, it's turning into the verbal equivalent of a typical biopic (albeit one without Oscar pretensions---'cause blogs don't win Oscars, dummy!). Booooooo!

I promise, I kept telling myself I'd update this thing sometime during my Spring Break last week. I kept saying to myself, I am going to find time to make some nice, cool, thoughtful entries to this thing, and maybe try to reclaim whatever fanbase I had before life kept throwing things in my way. Nope. Didn't happen quite as I hoped.

And it's not like I was super-busy during this break either. Going into my break, I was planning to try to get at least a good majority of my Godard-versus-Tarantino thesis done. That didn't work out quite as planned either. True, I do have a little under 13 pages at this point, which is something---but it's not really close to done, and considering how slowly I write, it probably won't be done unless I somehow find it in me to awaken that long-dormant devil-may-care side of me and just keep on writing, writing, writing 'til I have a first draft finished.

At least, though, it looks like I might actually have enough to go past the minimum 25 pages. I know, I know: quality, not quantity. But I was talking to one of the State Theatre ushers sometime last week, and when I told her about the 25-page minimum, she said, "That's not a thesis! That's, like, a paper." Perhaps she was joking (she has that lightly-joking kind of personality). She later qualified that statement with, "Well, as long as it counts as a thesis, that's all that matters."

Look, I know I probably shouldn't be complaining so much about my thesis project only because many other seniors are probably struggling with 60- or 100-page theses they have to write. Hey, it's in my nature of worry at least a little bit, even about something that maybe I shouldn't worry so much about. Is it a good thing if I still find myself doing a little bit of research, reading through books and such? Seems like I should have been done with that stuff months ago. Meh.

Whatever. Today, at least, I finished up my projected second section of the paper. Two more sections to go.


Meanwhile, my backlog of films that I've seen but haven't written about for this blog is growing. Let's run them down, shall we?

There's Breach (*** out of ****), that based-on-real-events thriller about Robert Hanssen that isn't particularly distinguished visually, but generates a few indelible suspense moments and has a great performance by Chris Cooper as Hanssen. Cooper is so good at conveying the tortured inner soul of the character that he suggests the great movie this could have been. Instead, the film sets Hanssen up as basically a sympathetic villain for Ryan Phillippe's relatively boring young agent to catch. (But then, Phillippe's pretty boring in nearly anything I've seen him in---including Flags of Our Fathers. Maybe that's why Reese Witherspoon left him.) Writer/director Billy Ray laudably keeps Hanssen's motives vague---there are suggestions of resentment on Hanssen's part toward the relative lack of attention he received for all his years of service---but, like his previous docudrama, Shattered Glass, Breach is more honorable than memorable. (Tak Fujimoto's grayed-out cinematography is slick at first but gets monotonous after a while, although I suppose it's an appropriate choice given the relatively mundane, dull surrounding in which these events take place.)

Same for The Lives of Others (*** out of ****), the recent German Oscar-winner that tells parallel stories, both set at the same time during the existence of the oppressive Stasi in 1980s East Germany. By far the more compelling of the two is the transformation of Stasi member Gerd Wiesler from mere foot soldier with occasional bouts of conscience to full-blown human being with a full conscience. Here's another fantastic performance, from Ulrich Mühe as Wiesler; the moment where he first hears the "Sonata for a Good Man" as he's surveilling the artsy couple he's spying on is memorable for Mühe's facial expression, which literally seems to melt at hearing music of such beauty. The Lives of Others---far from being just another version of Francis Coppola's great The Conversation---is really about the possibility of creating art in the midst of a regime that represses the voice of artists, and on that level I suppose I developed a loving attachment to this movie as I watched it, partly because it confirmed my idealistic sentiments about the possibility of creating transforming art even in less-than-ideal circumstances. It's only afterwards that I realize that the movie itself is rather prosaic and safe aesthetically, although again the cinematography is impressively gray and serves its purpose. A movie about the power of edgy art that is itself an aesthetically safe, humdrum piece of work? Kind of a paradox there, I'd say. But I admit, it did move me in the end, and its lunge toward Oscar-baiting uplift at its conclusion struck me as fairly honest and genuine. It's not bad...

...but even better is David Fincher's surprisingly excellent Zodiac (***½ out of ****). A friend and I actually braved the nasty winter weather on Friday night to go see this movie, but I think it was worth the effort (although we were probably nuts to chance it in the first place). I can imagine some people finding its 160-minute length rather excessive for what is essentially an extended police procedural. But I was riveted every minute. This is an obsessive movie about obsessive characters searching for the elusive Zodiac killer---and it turns out that the most obsessive person of all is a cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal, well-cast), who refuses to let the case go years after many of the other detectives and journalists had given up on it as a lost cause. So whether or not every detail is important is secondary to the fact that, for many of these characters, God really is in the details---even at the expense of personal attachments. Zodiac is a classic example of style being the movie's substance: perhaps not every single detail of the movie is important, but it's there, haunting these characters to the point of absurdity.

Of course, why are these characters so obsessed? Why does Graysmith become obsessed? Hitchcock arguably captured the mania of obsession more powerfully in Vertigo, but, while Fincher isn't known for being a psychological director (although one could certainly interpret his cult hit Fight Club as one long twisted journey into one man's frustrated mind), here he's at least trying to tone down his TV ad style here in order to focus on character and plot. To its credit, the movie has enough integrity not to beat us over the head with thuddingly obvious "explanations" for these characters' behavior. For all I know, Graysmith couldn't let this go simply because he, as puzzle-minded as he is, simply wasn't wired up to rest until this particular puzzle was solved, at least to his satisfaction. In some ways, I see Zodiac as sharing a mild thematic kinship with Michael Mann's Miami Vice: all the cops in both movies are so immersed in their jobs that their personal attachments---whether to a person or to their job---suffers. In Zodiac, some are able to walk away; some are not.

For those who don't know much about the Zodiac case, it's probably a good idea to know beforehand that technically no one has ever been caught in the case. So what Zodiac, with all its meticulousness and attention to detail, amounts to is a gigantic case of frustrated expectations---Fincher shapes his film so that you're expecting the fairly tidy resolution of, say, a typical CSI or Law and Order episode, and then...well, Graysmith might get a certain kind of closure at the end, but it's not the sense of absolute truth that one gets from the usual CSI episode, where the rightness of the solution is rarely in doubt. Then you realize, of course, that life doesn't always lead to such easy answers, and that policework can be a long, arduous process. The skillful way both of those points are made are what distinguish Zodiac from its other police-procedural peers.

And finally---Zodiac is another high-definition video movie, but, as with the case with Ed Lachman's work for Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion last year, I could hardly tell that Harris Savides' work here was high-def video, except maybe for its lack of grain. In Miami Vice and Collateral, Michael Mann made no concessions as far as trying to make his digital video images look like film---at certain points in both films, he leaves in the video grain, and both films in general have that undefinable video "look" to them. Not Zodiac. Fincher's feature apparently never saw a foot of film or videotape: the whole thing was stored onto a hard drive and, I guess, edited from there. More interesting than that, however, is why Fincher decided to shoot a movie that is set in the late '60s through early '90s in a format that is pretty much associated with the new millennium. Hmm. Well, maybe Fincher was merely interested in creating a long-running visual counterpoint: for a film that is very much about the characters' fuzziness about the truth, even the clarity of the digital images seem to taunt them.

Zodiac, thankfully, isn't merely distinguished on the basis of technology. Fight Club fanboys---and personally, I'm on the fence on that film, at least until I see it one more time---might find this a disappointment, perhaps, but for me this is---to indulge in ad-copy hyperbole a teeny bit---the first near-great film of 2007 that I've seen.

Finally, oh yeah: Fast Food Nation(**½ out of ****). Richard Linklater's adaptation of Eric Schlosser's muckracking bestseller is pretty much a wash as drama---its rampant didacticism ensures that it's pretty much received as polemic first, drama way way second. (Linklater has never been much of a visual filmmaker anyway---which is probably why Waking Life, with its playful, pleasurable rotoscoping animation, is probably his best feature to date.) Still, as polemic, it explores some interesting areas outside of those disgusting meat factories, especially regarding political idealism in all different walks of life. The most cutting scene, for my money, isn't the concluding graphic footage of cow slaughter. Instead, it's the few scenes where those action-oriented high school/college kids decide to stage a symbolic protest---by letting all the cows loose---only to realize how ineffective it is, because the cows simply aren't, by nature, smart enough to leave. It looked powerful in theory, but in practice it turns out to be a disaster. It's one of the more thought-provoking depictions of political idealism gone awry I've seen recently.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Brief (Probably Not) Life Update No. 12: Learning, Partying, and Learning About Partying

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Isn't it ironic how it seems like I'm updating less this semester even though I have less credits---14---compared to last semester, when I had less free time with 17 credits on my figurative college plate? Don'tcha think?

I have a bit of free time right now by virtue of the only computer lab on College Ave. with the desktop publishing program Quark XPress being currently occupied by a class, so I figured I'd let all of you readers---whoever's left of you, anyway---in on what's been happening in my life since my last post.

Well, let's see. Last week I prepared my tail off for a midterm in my Cinema Studies seminar on Thursday, March 1. Oh, you might say, it's a film class---shouldn't that be easy for you? Ah, but complacency is a big enemy of mine: I always try to resist the urge to get too overconfident lest I come crashing down with a disheartening thud. So yeah, I spent about three days in various College Ave. computer labs---away from my Rockoff apartment, where I often have trouble getting serious work done with all the distractions (and odors---don't ask)---working up a personal study guide---8 pages long!---for the test. The test turned out to be straightforward and fairly easy, if long (it took me nearly the whole period).

This week my attention is focused on a quiz in my Desktop Publishing class that I have tomorrow---not much to worry about, really, except for the promise that the quiz is going to have a section in which I basically have to create something from scratch on Quark XPress. Uh-oh, I need to practice!

And also, good news on the senior thesis front: I actually have some solid written pages! Not much---an introduction lasting for about 3½ pages---but it's a start, and at least I'll have something to show my thesis advisor when I meet with her tomorrow. (I suspect I probably won't get much more of it done today, but we'll see.)

Looks like this upcoming spring break is going to be very nearly all thesis writing, all the time. It sucks, but it's not like my previous spring breaks have ever been breathtakingly full of lavish, sun-drenched, girls-gone-wild incident.


Ah, but enough about school stuff. What about the fun stuff?

This past Friday night, I had one of my rare days off from doing any ushering at the State Theatre---nothing was scheduled for that night, apparently. So I decided not only to catch up on Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation at our local film festival (more on that in a subsequent entry, perhaps), but also to do something that I hadn't done in a long while---catch up with an old friend and get drunk on a lot of beer.

The old friend was my old freshman-year roommate from when I lived on Quad I over at boring old Livingston Campus. Cool guy, fun to be around, and the occasion for our meeting was a 22nd birthday bash he was throwing at his house over on Senior Street. Apparently there was a theme to this party: everyone was supposed to wear short shorts---so NBA-style shorts for guys and short shorts or miniskirts and a lot of exposed cleavage for the gals. I knew about this going on, but I had no short shorts, only some boxers---and I wasn't about to go out in 30° weather with only boxers on. No sirree, Bob! But he was cool about it---I guess he was just happy to see me.

And I guess I was really happy to be there, because it only took about one cup of beer for me to start feeling buzzed.

There's not much to say about the party itself, except that I apparently (I feel like I'm using that word a lot in this entry) loosened up so much that I left quite a big impression on not only my friend's housemates, but also on a few of the females I talked to, some of whom decided thenext day to add me as a friend on Facebook. I don't know if I'd ever get into relationships with any of them---not that I'm looking that hard for one at this point anyway---but at least I talked to them, right? As opposed to not just sitting around wishing they'd talk to me.

One of the things I often end up doing at college parties of this sort is to simply sit around like a wallflower and watch other people dance around instead of getting up and moving myself. Somehow, though---I guess it was the alcohol---I got the courage to actually get up and start shaking my ass a little bit. I think it's inhibition---even when drunk---that hampered me over the years---I've never been much of a dancer, and I always feel like I'd look stupid next to girls, many of whom always seem to know how to move a lot better than I do. But Friday night, I guess I must have said to myself, Who cares about all that? I probably looked like a total fool doing it, but hey, I was doing something to try to have fun, and everyone around me seemed to respond.

And thankfully, throughout all this, I didn't get so drunk that I either a) blanked out for a lengthy period of time, or b) threw up. (Did I ever tell you about my wine-and-cheese party experience, readers? To sum it up if I haven't: I basically drank too much wine and not enough cheese at an Inside Beat gathering and eventually found myself lying in my bed with bits of barf on my pillow, having forgotten most of what happened that night. I was told later that a friend and I went to another party and I threw up on some girl's jacket; then that friend had to basically drag me all the way back to Rockoff because no bus, seeing my immensely drunken state, would take me back. It's not so much the fact that I got sick that disappoints me; it's that I got so drunk that I barely remember what happened, because I'm pretty sure I was probably at my loosest that night.)

Supposedly I left such a favorable impression on my friend's housemates that they're already talking about inviting me back for some future house party. In fact, one of those housemates recognized me as I was walking toward the computer lab where I am now and said something to that effect. I guess I should be happy about that, right?

Don't worry, though: I'm not turning into a fratboy or anything. Girls---or, in this case, a fairly shy Asian guy with an acne problem---just wanna have fun.


Well, that's it for this life update. I was going to talk a bit more about some of the recent new movies I've seen (including the aforementioned Fast Food Nation, which isn't much as drama, but is actually fairly interesting as agitprop), as well as briefly touch upon both the boredom that was much of Oscar 2007 as well as my recent explorations into the uniquely funky, eclectic soundworld of the Talking Heads (thank you, DC++, for allowing me to illegally download More Songs About Buildings and Food, Remain in Light, and others). But I think that'll wait for another entry---coming hopefully sometime soon. Don't go away just yet!