Monday, March 29, 2010

Adventures in Filmmaking: Back to the Drawing Board?


It's been only a week since I was hit by filmmaking inspiration while walking around in New York on a lovely Saturday, and already I feel like I've made some progress in the process.

Not that you'd know it by the actual physical results so far.

I still have no script to speak of; all I have, as of today, is a treatment that I quickly wrote up in the heat of that inspiration. And even that treatment is about to be trashed, with my original idea in the midst of transformation.

What brought this change about? Basically, the change came about because of comments made by one friend of mine who recently went to the New York Film Academy and told me, explicitly and directly, that the idea I pitched to him was pretty much the same idea he has seen "manymanymanymanymany" other students try to shoot as a short film of theirs. This disappointed me at first—but, as others reminded me later, a lot of times in art, it's what you do with an idea that can be more important than whether the idea itself is breathtakingly original.

This friend made another suggestion, one which also rubbed me the wrong way at the time: he suggested that I simply throw out the downbeat ending I had originally envisioned and turn it into an upbeat one. My friend is perhaps more naturally optimistic and joyful than I am, so at first I chalked this up to simply a clash of worldviews. But then I started to do some minor soul-searching: Does the kind of downbeat ending I had thought of in the first place truly express my own worldview? Does it feel honest and personal, or is it just a pose of some sort—negativity in place of hard truth? I don't consider myself what most people might think of as "happy-go-lucky," by any means (and I know how to drive a car—nudge nudge wink wink, Mike Leigh fans), but I certainly don't think I'm so depressive a personality that I'll wallow in so much sadness that it crowds out the moments of happiness I feel, say, at a film screening upon seeing something great passing through my field of vision. My moods tend to swing pretty wildly, but in the long run, I think I'm a fairly positive person. Maybe it would be more interesting to make a film that genuinely reflected what I see as the way despair and ecstasy can bunch up against each other—because, as I perceive it, that's life.

So I guess you could say, I've more or less gone back to the drawing board on this film project. I may simply revise my original treatment or just throw it out altogether and come up with a new one. In any case, I don't take this as a setback, by any means. Surely revision or plain rewriting is a part of any creative writing process. And since I'm not bound by any deadlines, I'm taking this new development in stride and proceeding accordingly.

Thus, my first week.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Big-Screen Mania

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—A funny thing has happened in my moviegoing habits recently: I've begun to gravitate more toward revival film screenings, and have started to not make it as much of a priority to keep up with the new releases as I used to.

I guess I have both Jean-Luc Godard and Jia Zhang-ke to thank, or blame, for this. As I wrote here, seeing his great 1964 film Band of Outsiders at the IFC Center was a totally unexpected revelation; sure, I had always loved the film for its charm, playfulness and sense of melancholy, but I had never been deeply moved by the film—especially by the way Godard gives near-mythic size to his utterly ordinary trio of characters—until I saw it projected theatrically. And then the Museum of Modern Art programmed its Jia Zhang-ke retrospective this month, and I experienced two more revelations at screenings of The World (2004) and Platform (2000); I didn't warm to either film on DVD, but somehow I connected with them more readily on a big screen.

In the cases of the Jia films, perhaps familiarity played a part in my more enthusiastic second reactions to those two. Issues that might have bugged me the first time—the off-putting emotional detachment of Platform, the world-as-theme-park metaphor dwarfing human drama in The World—either bothered me less or fell completely apart.

So while Platform still feels somewhat alienating in its distance, what felt like mere dullness on my 42" LCD TV at home came off on the comparably larger dimensions of a movie screen like a profound sense of aimless historical drift, in which 10 years of Chinese modernization, from the late '70s to the early '80s, gradually lead up to a finale which vividly illustrates that familiar saying, "The more things change, the more things stay the same." Certainly, I didn't feel a chill in my spine on TV that I did in the theater with the film's final shot, which, thanks to an impeccably placed musical crescendo on the soundtrack that's almost Pendereckian in impact, powerfully exudes a feeling of dreams dashed, of lives mired in a dead end that the characters barely seem to perceive.

As for The World: Jia still relies a bit too much on his grand metaphor to carry the film forward, but somehow this didn't bother me quite as much this time around. (Having Jia and star Zhao Tao introduce the film certainly didn't hurt the experience, as I briefly documented here.) In fact, I found myself more engaged with the human dramas playing out among the backstage characters, and more intrigued by the film's implications about how globalization and modernization paradoxically cuts people off from the wider world—how, to put it more simply, the world seems to get smaller even as its boundaries expand. It also seemed a funnier movie than I had remembered it on DVD, with Jia finding innumerable fresh and often hilarious ways to stage and frame his characters amidst these world-landmark reproductions. (Maybe the presence of an audience heartily laughing at some of Jia's funnier visual gags enhanced this impression.) Even its much-disputed tragic ending made some kind of instinctive sense to me (though I'm not sure I can really explain why except to say that there is a line of dialogue early in the film that anticipates it).

How could it be that seeing these two films in a theater made them play that much more vividly than seeing them on home video? Maybe only now am I truly realizing just how important high-resolution theatrical projection can be not only for the sake of image detail, but for bringing us closer, physically and spiritually, to characters and ideas. That can especially be important in a Jia film like Platform, in which the director deliberately makes us aware of the (historical) distance between us and his characters by generally eschewing close-ups and choosing medium or wide shots to tell his story. Granted, that feeling of being kept at arm's length might come across in a home-theater set-up—but Jia pays as much attention to detail in his frames as he does to the length of his takes, and the inherent minimization of detail in even the most immaculate set-up is thus automatically doing an injustice to at least one facet of his art.

That, and just seeing a film projected big can be an overwhelming feeling in an of itself, especially with the widest of aspect ratios. This I especially felt with The World—though perhaps a part of that was because I was seated in the second row of the theater. (At theaters like Film Forum and MoMA, I have started to make it a habit to sit as close to the screen as possible—especially at Film Forum, where the screens are relatively small compared to the standard multiplex screen.)

There is another reason that I've begun to crave seeing more older movies in theaters. Simply put: I haven't been able to find enough time to be able to make much progress with my Netflix queue. These past few weekends, I always seem to find myself wrapped up in other practical matters I need to attend to (income taxes being one of them); also, my work schedule makes it so that I pretty much have no time to sit through feature films on DVD in the evenings. All in all, I think it's been almost a month since I last watched a DVD from Netflix. A month! And because I'm often in New York at least one day of my weekends in order to catch up on theatrical releases, I find I can only fit in one DVD a week, if that.

For a cinephile as hungry as I am, that's akin to starvation!

Taking all that into consideration, then: You know what I did this past weekend? Instead of seeing new releases like Bong Joon-ho's Mother, Marco Bellocchio's Vincere or Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, I instead decided to check out Fei Mu's 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town and Joseph Losey's 1951 noir The Prowler, neither of which I had ever seen. They are both wonderful films—the Fei full of beautiful emotional complexities, the Losey rich in human complexities of a far darker, seedier kind—and the feeling of satisfaction at having these first experiences at a theater was, I think, worth the ticket price. (I hope to say more about those films than that, but I'll do so at a later date.)

My reasoning is: Hell, if I'm spending so much time and energy trying to catch up with the latest in art-house theatrical releases, why not go all the way and take in the latest art-house revivals as well? Even with stuff that is technically available on DVD (though admittedly, The Prowler is not)? That's the way the directors intended for their films to be seen anyway, am I right?

Of course, the downside is that I am falling way behind in new releases. Lourdes, The Art of the Steal, the 1980 and '83 installments of the Red Riding trilogy (the '74 episode is gripping and devastating stuff, I must say), Green Zone, the aforementioned Bong, Bellocchio and Baumbach films—all of these as yet unwatched by me. In previous years, this might have vexed me; these days, though, I shrug my shoulders and take them in stride. Hey, I see what I can. (Not everyone can go to free press screenings, you know.)

So now, I open it up to all you fine readers of this here blog: Have you been left cold by a film on home video only to find that seeing it theatrically opened your eyes, or maybe even made you dislike it even more? Has the inverse happened? Has a theatrical experience made you do a complete 180 on a film? Above all, though: Am I crazy for choosing to pay to see older films in theaters rather than sticking to new releases? (You can tell me I'm crazy. I can take it.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Film By...Kenji Fujishima?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Over the years, a few friends of mine have insisted that I should try my hand at making a film of my own, that getting the experience of doing so might enhance my criticism in some way. I always listened to these people with a twinge of guilt. Deep down, I knew that there was certainly something to be said for what they were suggesting...but the truth is, I don't think I've ever really come up with any idea that I felt confident about trying to shoot and edit into some kind of movie. Furthermore, I don't think I've ever really felt a strong desire to put in the time, effort and money to make my own film; I guess, for a long time, I've felt content to merely watch, think and write about movies rather than getting my own hands dirty.

Until this past weekend, on Saturday, that is.

On Saturday, I went to see the last two screenings in the Museum of Modern Art's Jia Zhang-ke retrospective, which paired his 20-minute short Cry Me a River (2008) with Fei Mu's classic 1948 Chinese feature, Spring in a Small Town, the latter of which Jia has cited as an inspiration for his short. I was dazzled by both: Spring in a Small Town is a beautiful film full of wonderfully complex emotions, and the Jia short acts as an affecting modern elaboration on its themes of romantic yearning and regret amidst social and environmental change.

Walking out of MoMA into the bright sunshine, I found the rueful melancholy of Cry Me a River sticking to me pretty closely. The fact that I was by my lonesome in taking in this pair of films only increased that feeling, one I felt even more acutely than usual on a gorgeous 70°F day. I wanted to share my soaring feelings of ecstasy with someone, and found no one at my side with which to share them. I often tell myself I've become used to solitude over the years...but that day, I thought, Oh, who am I kidding? Company is a nice thing to have, especially on a day like today.

And then an unexpected thing happened, one that, in all my years of cinephilia, I've never experienced to the degree I experienced it Saturday afternoon: I started to feel a strong desire to pick up a camera and turn some of these emotions into a film. Inspired mostly by Jia Zhang-ke's long takes and careful framing, I started to map out camera moves in my head that I wanted to execute, and shards of a possible storyline started to come together. I thought maybe this desire might be merely a passing one...but then I saw more fascinating long takes, in a far different context, at Film Forum with a newly restored 35mm print of Joseph Losey's great film noir The Prowler (1951). As I walked out of that theater, that compulsion reared its head again as I walked up to the W. 4th St. train station to head home.

Only the next day, however, though, did I feel my mental engine really revving up to this idea. You know what?, I remember thinking. Maybe I should actually follow through on this. It's about time to perhaps get some experience in doing some filmmaking of your own. You're feeling a strong desire to express yourself in some way other than my own writing, and you know you've been thinking about doing this in the back of your mind. But you've never felt the full strength of inspiration hit you. Now you have. Act on it! Or you may well regret letting that flame of inspiration pass by.

Later that day, I started working on a treatment. And during my lunch break at work, I walked up a block from my office and just stood by a ledge, mentally parsing through visual and aural details, mapping out images and shots, considering details of mise-en-scène, and so on.

I think that mental vehicle is off and running.


I don't plan on doing anything overly ambitious for what I'm thinking will end up being merely a few minutes long. In fact, I don't even think it will have much of a story. Instead, feelings are what I'm interested in capturing. I do have some mild formal experimentation in mind, though nothing Stan Brakhage-like or anything (but of course; I don't have any film to manually distort).

Mostly, though, I'm thinking about doing this for the experience of making a film. And dammit, I could use such experience! When I was contemplating aspects of my film over the weekend, I couldn't help but reflect on just how little I actually know about the filmmaking process, for all that I crow about how much I love the cinema. And in thinking about what I might have to do in order to be able to get this thing successfully shot—buying equipment and editing software, rounding up friends, hiring some actors/technical hands, maybe even appealing to a producer for funds—some of that old reluctance started to kick in.

But no: I intend to not let skittishness get in the way of this effort. Besides, these days, I could use the feeling of accomplishment that completing such a project might inspire.


So I'm posting this for a few reasons:

1) Posting this on a public forum such as my blog is perhaps a good way to keep up my motivation in hopefully seeing this project through. You readers will be the ones keeping me honest!

2) If you find me blogging a bit less than usual here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, then this is the reason. Thus, consider this a fair warning.

3) This is a direct appeal to all of you reading this who may or may not have filmmaking expertise: Any help in this adventure I plan to embark on would very much appreciated!


P.S. Though this would be my first attempt at fiction filmmaking, this isn't exactly my first film. Almost two years ago, when the family dog Dusty died, I made a short video to his memory. It's not much: With the help of iMovie, I stitched together a bunch of cellphone pics and scored it to the transcendent concluding bars of Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. But I'm still proud of the way it came out (even if the one asshole who gave it a 3/5 rating on YouTube disagrees).

If you haven't seen it, here it is:

Friday, March 19, 2010

Video for the Day: Fashion Changes

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—To all the female readers of this blog out there, forgive me while I indulge a bit in my, uh, sex-starved manly side:

I don't really know why memories of introducing myself to the above video—an advertisement for a weight-loss dietary supplement named SyneDrex—at the Web site five years ago, and watching it quite often for a few days afterward, suddenly popped back into my head earlier this week. Maybe I'm just that much in need of a love life? In any case, now I'm having trouble getting it out of my head again; it's just so damn sexy, building to a punchline that kinda knocks me out. Oh, and the song that plays on the soundtrack is quite catchy, too, with a classy orchestral vibe that makes it sound like a tune from the 1940s or '50s (me loves the clarinet very much).

Anyway, on the theory that I'm not the only person out there who gets turned on by this kind of tasteful eroticism, I figure I'd share it with you all. Enjoy! (And if I've ruffled any feathers...well, I apologize, but also, too bad.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Personal Versus The Impersonal

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—What makes a film personal or impersonal? Or is there really such a thing?

I've been kicking this question around in my mind in part after film critic Vadim Rizov posted this evisceration of the criterion of "personal" and "impersonal" in assessing Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island over at IFC's Independent Eye blog a few weeks ago on the eve of that film's release. In responding to some of the early reviews of the film that accused the film of being "impersonal," Rizov notes:
It's telling that the most popular Scorsese films remain, after all these years, "Mean Streets," "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" -- the Italian-American trifecta, with "Taxi Driver" more respected than loved. That's because mooky violence is an easier sell than, say, Edith Wharton or the temptations of Christ. And, armed with the information that Scorsese was an asthmatic child in a neighborhood full of belligerent Italian-American males, it's easy to correlate his greatest successes with "personal filmmaking."

The logic of this argument seems to be that "personal" films correspond to biographical information.... This is why you see people refracting Polanski's entire career through his time hiding in the Warsaw ghetto and his exile to Europe, and why Soderbergh haters always claim he's making "cold," "technical" experiments. He didn't give them any meaningful biographical information! The jerk!

You did not see this kind of nonsensical criterion being raised 20 or 30 years ago, which speaks to the increasing luridness of full-disclosure writing permeating every last field, the blogospheric assumption of the importance of the "personal" that's surely going to keep trickling down. And it's careless thinking. You think "Mean Streets" is personal and "The Aviator" isn't? Try again: "Mean Streets" is fantasy wish-fulfillment to make up for a sickly childhood, while "The Aviator" is a swooning love letter to the medium that dominates Scorsese's life. I just made a "personal" argument. Are you convinced yet?
As you can see, Rizov was directly addressing critics who he believed based their charges of "personal" and "impersonal" on what they knew about the filmmaker's own life. For me, however, he raises some broader questions on what makes a film feel either deeply personal or deeply impersonal to a viewer—and perhaps whether that should even matter in assessing a given film.

Now, I happen to think that Shutter Island, far from being just a genre exercise, is in fact an impassioned expression of something deep within Scorsese's being. But, as I tried to articulate in my review on this blog, I don't feel this way because I presume to have a deep knowledge of Scorsese's past history that might help illuminate what might have driven him to make his latest film. Mostly, I'm basing this on the sheer visceral intensity of the expressionistic horror imagery he wrings from the material; the dream sequences and flashbacks strike me as too haunted and mournful for its visual extravagance to register as merely pro forma. To put it in layman's terms: it feels like Scorsese is really into it—and that feeling thus translates to me as deeply personal.

But then, that begs the question: personal for whom? The director, or just you? Obviously, my opinion that Shutter Island is a work of tortured personal expression is not one that is universally shared; as an example, Rizov cites a takedown of the film by Elbert Ventura at the online magazine Slate in which Ventura calls the film "silly and impersonal." I wouldn't want to put words in Mr. Ventura's mouth, but maybe that just really means that he couldn't get into it, that maybe he found himself feeling emotionally detached from the whole thing, and then figured that that detachment was Scorsese's fault.

Is it possible that there really is no such a thing as a personal or impersonal film? Well...perhaps I wouldn't go that far in calling for a ban on such labels in film criticism altogether. (Heck, I went so far as to damn Scorsese's The Departed as "impersonal," if only for the feeling I got that Scorsese had told this story before, and with far less detachment than I felt watching this latest iteration. So I won't pretend that I'm above all that.) Maybe there are such things, but that's entirely dependent on how a certain viewer feels a certain film rather than on any "objective" measure such as biographical history. Because surely every film a director makes has a certain measure of personal investment to it, even if its simply a matter of making a script play as functionally as possible on a movie screen.

And yet, there's no denying that some of the best films ever made are celebrated in part because there is a palpable intelligence guiding the material, a sense that a filmmaker is telling this particular story, exploring these particular characters or throwing up these specific images for a compelling reason.

That kind of compelling reason is something I dearly missed in Jacques Audiard's widely praised A Prophet (2009), which, after a strong opening half hour, basically devolves into a generally unremarkable prison-survival saga, with a blank cipher of a lead character who never seems to exude much in the way of inner life. What makes its first 30 minutes so strong compared to the rest is the measure of moral suspense Audiard injects into the proceedings. In trying to make good with a ruthless Corsican mob kingpin named César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), an imprisoned French Arab named Malik (Tahar Rahim) reluctantly decides to kill an informant for him, leading to a sequence that is as brutally messy a movie killing as, say, that brilliantly agonizing murder scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966) or, more recently, a similarly excruciating killing in Ang Lee's (highly underrated) Lust, Caution (2007). Has something snapped in Malik as far as his moral compass is concerned? Unfortunately, the rest of A Prophet seems to barely acknowledge that question, disappointingly letting that hovering morality slip away as the rest of his story drags on and on, seemingly losing a sense of purpose with every new development. Notwithstanding a handful of nifty suspense setpieces, by the end of the film, it's difficult to get a handle on why Audiard felt he needed to tell this particular story.

But would I call it "impersonal"? Probably not. Obviously, Audiard felt a desire to make a movie about this character in these situations in the manner that he did; I have my doubts as to how successfully he has been able to convey those intentions in his filmmaking, but nevertheless...well, hey, the movie exists, doesn't it?

In the opening moments of Alice in Wonderland (2010), director Tim Burton provides us with some clues as to why he decided to revisit and update Lewis Carroll's famously surreal universe. This grown-up Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a frustrated young adult living in a boringly proper environment, on the verge of being forced to marry into a life that doesn't appeal to her one bit. That feeling of restlessness is, I imagine, something Burton understands deeply, based on a passing familiarity with the exaggeratedly grotesque style and thematic substance of some of his previous work (films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994), both about misunderstood outsiders, pops immediately to mind). But, of course, that is only a guess on my part. In any case, it's a feeling that I know all too well: As someone who still feels, every once in a while, like I'm merely doing the bidding of my own mother, I can somewhat relate to Burton's Alice.

This sets the stage for a venture through Wonderland—or, rather, "Underland," as Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton sneakily call it—that is meant to play as a journey of actualization for this burgeoning feminist Alice. It's, alas, a journey that is less than bursting with the sense of wonder than one might expect from this director and this material; Burton's Wonderland is, disappointingly, too mundane and dour-looking to dazzle on any level other than the prettily pictorial (the 3-D effects don't add very much to the table, either). Woolverton's script does reassert that feminist angle at the end, though in a fairly risible manner (who knew Lewis Carroll's Alice was a genius about creating trade routes to China?).

Nevertheless, the film isn't without its moments of visual brilliance, and some of the actors—most memorably Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen—manage to inject some life into the material. And whether or not you respond ecstatically or indifferently to Burton's reimagining of this time-honored material, it's still evident that this enthusiastically imaginative filmmaker has something he wants to express, even if one might not feel he has brought his usual inspired A-game to the project. It's no less "personal" than A Prophet...

...or The Ghost Writer (2010). Roman Polanski's latest film (an adaptation of a novel by Robert Harris) provides the most interesting of these three cases regarding personal versus impersonal films: Is it merely a light thriller, or does that lightness mask something deeper?

The first thing to be said about this film is that it's consistently engrossing and beautifully crafted. The film's central mystery never really carries the doom-laden life-or-death feeling of, say, Chinatown (1974) or The Ninth Gate (1999); instead, Polanski seems to mostly be taking pleasure in his own mastery, filling his film with a wealth of idiosyncratic visual and literary touches that lend its relatively humdrum plot a welcome off-kilter quality that makes it considerably more gripping than it might have been in less confident hands.

But even if The Ghost Writer has a feeling of low stakes compared to other films of its type, does that make it a less deeply personal effort than, say, more overtly serious films like, say, The Pianist (2002)?

In his review of the film, Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez suggests some ways in which The Ghost Writer ties into Polanski's own personal traumas:
...the struggle of McGregor's character is hauntingly reflective of Polanski's lifelong traumas, from his surviving the Holocaust to, well, his surviving the murder of Sharon Tate and their unborn child. Holed up inside Adam's island manse, subjected to all sorts of security checks, his every behavior scrutinized, McGregor's ghost writer becomes not unlike, yes, a ghost. His is a particularly nerve-jangling existential crisis, and it's one that...could not have been conceived by anyone other than a man that has moved throughout life from one prison to next, many of his own construction.
Of course, this is perhaps the kind of biographical correlation Rizov rails against in his IFC post, and certainly not every viewer will necessarily bring that kind of knowledge into the film. I would certainly say that it's not absolutely necessary to have Polanski's troubled history in mind in order to enjoy it. Nevertheless, looking at the film itself and at some of the films Polanski has made in the past, one can sense in The Ghost Writer hints of a consistent personal vision—in other words, an auteurist perspective.

Consider its main character, and note that he is never actually given a name. Instead, this nameless writer, who reluctantly agrees to ghostwrite the memoirs of an under-fire British government official, lives up to the film's title by hovering on the sidelines of the corruption he gradually uncovers. He's a relative nobody who gets caught up in political intrigue the depths of which even he can't quite believe. In that sense, he's a spiritual successor of Chinatown's Jake Gittes, the gumshoe who eventually uncovered corruption both political and, most devastatingly of all, personal. In that film, Polanski, taking his cues from the film noirs of the 1940s and '50s, treated Gittes's dawning realizations with a bleak solemnity that The Ghost Writer doesn't try to replicate. That lack of solemnity, however, doesn't quite obscure a palpable cynicism about human nature at its heart—a cynicism confirmed by the abruptness of its absurdist ending, in which all the paranoia with which Polanski so expertly infuses this seemingly low-stakes mystery comes rearing its head with an image that acts as a distorting mirror to a shot much earlier in the film. You could say it's the ending of Chinatown played lighter—but that doesn't make it less shocking.

Point is: The Ghost Writer may seem impersonal on its surface, but one can certainly dig for personal meaning if one bothers to look. As with most critical yardsticks, then, "personal" and "impersonal" are criteria that can't be objectively measured; it all comes down whether you sense deep involvement in the filmmaking or not. Or maybe, it really all just comes down to whether you enjoy the experience of a particular film or not. Because, at the end of the day, is that not essentially how we all base our judgments of a given work of art? All other critical analysis, whether based on biographical info or not, is basically justifications for said enjoyment.

Or so I think. What say you all, dear readers?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Odds and Ends for the Week Ended March 13, 2010 (And a Bit Beyond That)

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—It looks like I just naturally pick the really nasty inclement-weather days to trek out to New York.

Before Saturday, I had heard all the warnings about heavy rain and wind possibly causing flooding on the roadways. But who would have expected that all that heavy rain and wind would not only cause flooding, but would also knock out power not only throughout half of East Brunswick (and elsewhere, of course), but also throughout the NJ Transit train system, thus forcing the whole damn system to shut down for hours on end? Seriously, who predicted all that?

Naturally, yesterday was the day I picked to go to the Museum of Modern Art to finally see Jia Zhang-ke's Platform (2000) on the big screen!

A replay of that towed-car disaster in mid-December during that big blizzard? Thankfully, it wasn't quite that bad...but it was still pretty bad.

The trouble started after Platform's final credits finished rolling. I turned on my cell phone and got hit with two text messages: one from a friend I had met up with earlier in the day for lunch texting me to alert me to problems with NJ Transit, and the other from NJ Transit itself saying service on various rail lines, including the Northeast Corridor (my line, duh), was temporarily suspended "due to signal problems." Another NJ Transit epic fail? But then I discovered that someone had left a voicemail in addition to these two texts. The voice message turned out to be my mother informing me that the power was totally out not only at home, but throughout parts of East Brunswick, including many traffic lights.

Needless to say, this didn't sound like a simple NJ Transit epic fail after all...

After getting stuck in the MTA subways for a longer-than-expected time thanks to another power-outage problem, I finally returned to a frenzied Penn Station to discover that alas, Northeast Corridor trains were still not running at all. How the hell am I gonna get home?, I wondered in a momentary panic.

Then I remembered that there was a Suburban Coach bus line that departs from Port Authority Bus Terminal and stops, among other places, in downtown New Brunswick, close to where my car was parked. So I took a subway up to Port Authority and discovered, thankfully, that that particular bus line was still running. My excitement dimmed when I finally got up to the departing gate and saw a massive line for this one bus. Of course, I had to get home, so what other choice did I have except to stand on my own two feet and wait as long as I needed to wait in order to catch one of these buses? Even if that meant forgoing dinner altogether in order to ensure my place on that line.

I eventually did get on a bus, though it took a little over an hour of waiting to do so. That lengthy wait, of course, was surely preferable to waiting for a seemingly endless amount of hours at Penn Station for train service (which, according to an alert I got this morning, only finally got restored at around 7 a.m. Sunday). But tell that to my stiff legs! (I woke up Sunday morning feeling that stiffness big time; I had to put some Bengay on an area on my left leg to curb that stiff feeling.)

Being that this was rain and not snow, I got back to New Brunswick—with Rt. 27 unusually dark thanks to street lights having the power knocked out of them—and thankfully saw my car intact and, above all, untowed. So I rode back home to the eerie sight of Rt. 18 more or less completely dark thanks to the power outage. But my adventure back to 4 Oliver Ct. was not over yet.

Because of the non-functioning traffic lights, intersections were blocked off by cones—a problem for me, because I have to cross an intersection in order to get from one side of Rt. 18 to the other to get to my house. I thought of another route to take, but yet another blocked-off portion on a certain road on that route threw me off. More momentary panic ensued: What the hell was I going to do now? (Believe it or not, even though I've lived in East Brunswick for over 18 years, I still don't know it enough to be able to summon up a mental map of the whole city.)

I guess I got lucky: Somehow, after wandering for a few minutes around some residential roadways, I eventually found my way to the other side of that blocked-off portion of Summerhill Road and navigated my way back home. (Whew! So at least the parts of East Brunswick of which I can summon up a mental map eventually did help me out.)

And, when I finally got back home, the power was still out at my house...including our router, which meant no Internet access for me except via my cell phone, which itself was already on the verge of losing battery life, thus limiting my usage. Is this how it felt like living in the Dark Ages—with only candles providing illumination? (As I jokingly tweeted through my phone last night: "Where's John Alcott when you need him?"—Alcott being the cinematographer who got such sumptuous images out of mere candlelight for Stanley Kubrick in his 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon. On Twitter, Jim Emerson—he of the always illuminating Scanners film blog—responded to this tweet saying, "Sorry, you're in Gordon Willis world." Oh, in my house, it was probably even darker than what the cinematographer for the Godfather films wrought from low light!)

All in all: It took maybe two hours longer and more agita than usual, but I eventually got home from New York safe and reasonably sound, without having to force my long-suffering parents to drive out to pick me up somewhere. But man...what a storm! The results of it were still being seen Sunday morning, when I had to drive through heavily flooded areas of Rt. 18 to get to New Brunswick in order to get to work. Even on my way home from work on Sunday evening, parts of Rt. 18 northbound were still closed off. (This better not seriously impact my commute this morning!)

But once again, bad weather almost always seem to turn commutes back home into an adventure for me. (Yeah I know, it's moving time already.) Beware the ides of March indeed!

The burning question through all of this is: Was seeing Platform on a big screen ultimately worth all the hassle? Ultimately, I say yes. For one thing, the ending of the film, which left me rather indifferent to the whole on DVD, is even more devastating than I remember. I've increasingly began to marvel at just how different a big-screen movie experience can be compared to a home-video one. But then, that might not be anything new to most people. In any case, I will have more to say about this (and The World) in a future post.


For now, I'd just like to toss off a quick recommendation for a film that begins a five-day run at the Museum of Modern Art today that I saw and was quite dazzled by at last year's New York Film Festival.

The film is called Ghost Town. No, it's not that David Koepp supernatural romantic comedy/drama with Ricky Gervais and Téa Leoni (though I do highly recommend that film as well). It's an immersive three-hour documentary from Chinese filmmaker Zhao Dayong that digs into the nooks and crannies of Zhiziluo, a town in China's Yunnan province that was once an important town to the Communist Party, but which has been abandoned by the government and essentially left to fend for itself. With utmost patience, curiosity and attention to detail, Zhao follows various characters in this town, spanning the generations, as they try to negotiate living in this desolate town, seemingly cut off from anything we might recognize as the modern world. It's perhaps a bit too sprawling, and some of the personal stories Zhao chronicles are more interesting than others (its second hour does sag a bit). But the film is so eye-opening and generously humanistic that the film, warts and all, engages the heart and the mind even through the occasional longueurs of its 169-minute running time. Ghost Town is a uniquely affecting epic about people who carry forward in the face of gradual disintegration. China may not care about a town like this anymore, but, for the people in Zhiziluo, they persist with their lives and traditions; they quite possibly know of no other choice.

If you have the time to devote to this rewarding tapestry, I strongly urge you to do so. (See MoMA screening info here.)

Here's a trailer for the film:

Also, for a bit of context regarding Zhao himself, here's an interesting New York Times article about him and other Chinese "guerrilla filmmakers," published on the eve of the film's lone New York Film Festival screening in late September.


And finally: Peter Graves has died at the age of 83.

I don't really know his work, whether on "Mission: Impossible" or elsewhere, well enough to be able to offer any meaningful remembrance. Honestly, to me, he'll always be Captain Clarence Oveur from Airplane! (1980), the guy who most famously says to a young kid in the film, "Have you ever seen a grown man naked?"

Also, this classic bit of wordplay:

RIP Peter Graves.

Friday, March 12, 2010

First-Person (Video) Shooter


My latest piece for The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog is an interview I did with both filmmaker Kristian Fraga and First Lieutenant Mike Scotti regarding their film Severe Clear, a first-person account of Scotti's experiences as a soldier in Iraq during the invasion in 2003. Yes, Scotti more or less filmed his whole time there with a miniDV camera on hand, and Fraga edited that footage down to 93 fairly compelling and eye-opening minutes.

I had to do quite a bit of editing myself to get this piece down to a more, um, "manageable" length; Fraga and Scotti were thankfully quite generous with responses, but that left me a lot to reluctantly hack away. Thus, I couldn't fit in Fraga's deeper discussion of documentaries in general (prompted by me asking whether he had seen the Sundance fave embedded-in-Afghanistan documentary Restrepo at the time of the interview), nor could I include Scotti's discussion of a charity for Reserve Service veterans for which he is a member of the Board of Directors. Nevertheless, I hope what is left is sufficiently scintillating.

And yes, the movie itself—interesting as much for its formal qualities as it is for its first-hand war-time account—is definitely worth seeing.

Here's a trailer, to give you a taste:

P.S. That aforementioned charity is called Reserve Aid, and, the way Scotti described it to me, it sounds like a very worthy cause: helping veterans out when they come home and find themselves in dire financial straits. You can read more about it at its Web site here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

It's All About Text and Subtext


Shutter Island (2010; Dir.: Martin Scorsese)


1. Apparently I am one of the few on Earth who didn't guess the film's big climactic plot twist within the first 15 minutes of the movie or so. Whether that makes me an extremely naive and gullible movie viewer is something I'll leave that up to you, dear readers, to decide. But I figured I might as well put it out there, to provide one reason as to why Martin Scorsese's latest film worked wonders for me. Also, I have not read the Dennis Lehane book on which this film is based (Laeta Kalogridis adapted it).

2. I think one of the main reasons I've been having trouble writing a coherent review of Shutter Island—why I am resorting to this point structure—is that the film is so much a visceral experience, with Scorsese putting all his cinephilia and masterly technique at the service of astonishingly vivid evocations of foreboding doom and, in some the extravagant dream sequences, deep personal sadness and grief. I could try to describe it, but no amount of words can quite do justice to the feelings the film inspires. And, of course, merely describing my own impressions wouldn't necessarily convince the film's many detractors. If I feel the heat of Scorsese's absolute commitment to this material, and someone else doesn't, then, really, what can be said? If you don't feel it, you just don't feel it. I felt it, big time.

3. One thing I feel I can effectively articulate: that Big Twist everyone's talking about in this film? Far from being an M. Night Shymalan-ish narrative trick, I think it's an absolutely necessary storytelling maneuver for the full impact of the film's vision of troubled humanity to register. And I think it works in context because it genuinely deepens our understanding of the dark psychological forces at work in this picture; its final scene, in one telling line of dialogue, pushes that understanding even further.

4. In some of his previous films, Scorsese has often explored the ways flawed male characters handle the violent animal inside them. Sometimes, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), they struggle to bottle up their anger before it explodes; others, like, Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), try to find some kind of absolution for the violence they commit in their daily lives. Still others, like the amoral mobsters in Goodfellas (1990), get off on their violent whims until they get caught—and even after they pay a significant price for the destruction their violence causes, they can't help but want to continue to do it anyway.

Shutter Island continues this theme, though in a way that is arguably more mournful in tone than any of those films. At the center of it is a man who has become so disturbed by the violence he has both witnessed and committed that he has essentially tried to dissociate himself from personal responsibility by reimagining himself as a U.S. federal marshal in a blatantly exaggerated riff on 1950s Universal haunted-house horror films. Not that you're supposed to know the nature of his psychosis right off the bat; Kalogridis's script—taking its cue from Lehane's book, by all accounts—plays this as a late-inning revelation rather than letting us in on this character's mental imbalance from the very beginning. Would the film have been more effective if we in the audience had known from the start? I wouldn't know for sure; that's not the movie Scorsese has delivered. And of course, it's not like the film ever takes place in a grimly realistic world to begin with. From its Murnau-like opening shot—of a boat materializing from a mist, almost like out of thin air—onward, it's evident that something is askew in this environment, something deeper than merely the crazies on Shutter Island. As with any great film, its opening teaches you how to watch it.

5. The first time Scorsese presents us with a flashback to the main character's memory of liberating survivors at Dachau and gunning down Nazis in cold blood, I admit, I thought of the "exploitation" criticism fleetingly. And yet, at no point does Scorsese diminish the horror of the Holocaust by evoking the Holocaust so explicitly; instead, it feels, especially in hindsight, like a perfectly valid injection of real-world horror into one man's extremely cinematic delusions. He doesn't, however, dwell on those horrors either, preferring to explore it strictly through the main character's pained recollections. It's not meant to make a direct statement on the Holocaust. Because, I mean, really, what else is there to say about the Holocaust that hasn't already been said? Surely we all realize by now that the Holocaust was a human atrocity of stunning proportions. What matters is that, as ever in Scorsese's world, there are no clear distinctions made between heroes and villains—not even when there are Nazis involved.

6. Scorsese's passion for the cinema is well known by now, both in his films and in public; you can sense that passion in Shutter Island with the delight he takes in recreating classic horror-movie tropes. The pleasures throughout much of the film, many critics would probably agree, are primarily visual, with cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti doing some of their most expressive work in bringing Scorsese's ominous visions to chilling life. It's telling, then, that, when Shutter Island finally reveals its Big Twist, it does so in the most prosaic manner possible—as if Scorsese was shaking the character, and, by extension us in the audience, out of his nightmare, forcing us to confront the cold, hard, gleaming truth of his situation. By the last scene—filmed in broad daylight, by contrast to the relentlessly but voluptuously gray doom-and-gloom that had enveloped the prison island—Scorsese suggests, through visual terms, that his character has finally confronted his fears. He making a decision about the course of his life that only seems like a continuation of his madness at first, but which is in fact completely rational—and more thought-provoking because of it.

None of these visual choices strike me as merely artisanal or impersonal in the least...which leads me to wonder: Could Scorsese be making a stealth statement about the cinema here? At his best, he has used cinema as a means of exorcising his own demons, going all the way back to that famous image of Harvey Keitel tempting fate by holding his hands above church flames in Mean Streets (1973): one of his most direct expressions of Catholic guilt. That's basically what the main character of Shutter Island is trying to do by mentally splitting himself into two. But is it exorcism or merely escape? Perhaps Scorsese is subtly confessing to us all that not even using the cinema of his childhood as his means of expression is enough to confront his own demons. Perhaps cinema simply isn't enough for anyone, really.

Am I reading too much into it? As The New Yorker's Richard Brody has pointed out, the title does have the word "shutter" in it...

7. Shutter Island is smashingly effective as a psychological horror genre piece, but I can't say it's necessarily a movie that unsettles me in some long-lasting way. (Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (2001) was perhaps the last horror picture to inspire that kind of reaction in me, and I introduced myself to that one four or five years ago.) I don't hold that against Scorsese or the movie he's made, however; perhaps I just don't get frightened that easily these days. Nevertheless, I feel that there are despairing depths to this film that are worth taking seriously, not dismissed as merely a supposedly once-great filmmaker straining to find an entry point in genre hackwork. Scorsese's images are too full of tortured conviction for me to agree with that view. I hope, through this disjointed review, I've provided some talking points for further discussion of a film that I think is the richest new release I've seen so far this year.


Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965; Dir.: Russ Meyer)

Here's a much older film that's just as rich in subtext than Shutter Island, albeit in a more unabashedly trashy surface. Russ Meyer's 1965 exploitation classic indulges in the male gaze at the beginning, only to gradually subvert it as the film bounces along ebulliently in its chronicle of violence, depravity and reversed gender roles.

The three strippers at the center of the mayhem are dominated by angry dominatrix Varla (Tura Satana), spilling boobs and all; the other two (played by Haji and Lori Williams) show, er, more nuanced brands of feminism, to put it lightly. After Varla kills a man (Ray Barlow) out of frustration and kidnaps his girlfriend (Susan Bernard), they all hide out in a secluded ranch owned by a lecherous wheelchair-bound old man (Stuart Lancaster) and his two sons, one a macho archetype par excellence (Dennis Busch) and a more sensitive type (Paul Trinka). All sorts of sexual power games ensue, climaxing with the image of Varla trying to ram her car into the silent macho son: a richly suggestive moment of female sexual domination.

Surely Quentin Tarantino had this, among many other trash classics, in mind when he deconstructed the chicks-hit-the-road genre in Death Proof (2007), which also climaxed with a violent image of women asserting their dominance over a fallen icon of male virility.

P.S. I was finally able to see this film, in a startlingly fresh-looking print, at 92Y Tribeca a little over three weeks ago thanks to the film series hosted by the blog Not Coming to a Theater Near You (which also brought Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself to 92Y Tribeca in November last year). That said, it might have been a bit of a mistake to precede the film proper with trailers for some of Meyer's other films (including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), with its Roger Ebert screenplay). I haven't seen his other work, but Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is, by all accounts, his mildest in terms of raunchiness (no full-frontal breast shot in sight, for one thing). As brilliant as this film was, I also spent much of its running time pining somewhat for the even more over-the-top sexuality suggested in the trailers for, among other films, Mudhoney (1965), Vixen! (1968) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979). It's as if those trailers were setting up expectations that this particular Meyer film wasn't quite willing to fulfill. That's no, um, "knock" against the film itself, mind you; I'm just being honest, is all.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Jia Zhang-ke and Zhao Tao In The House!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I had initially planned to finally take in Jia Zhang-ke's Platform (2000) on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art this afternoon before heading over to an Oscar party in Park Slope tonight. But then, I took a look at the size of the bags I would have to carry all around New York before going to this party—a backpack, a bag of clothes for work tomorrow (I'm planning to sleep over my host's pad) and most likely a bag of some kind of food (it's a potluck)—and decided it'd be much easier to just go straight from New Brunswick to Park Slope. Thankfully, MoMA is showing Platform again on Saturday, so I'll plan accordingly.

The big draw for going to see it this particular afternoon would have been to see Jia in person and hear him introduce the film. I'll be missing him, alas...but no big deal, because I already saw him: on Friday night, with his leading lady Zhao Tao, introducing The World (2004)! I even took a couple of snaps with my pocket-size Canon PowerShot SD400:

Pictured in both: Jia, middle, and Zhao Tao, right, still sporting that short hairstyle from 24 City

According to Jia, he was sporting those glasses as protection for his eyes, having strained it after long hours editing. Too bad...and yet, who knew that Jia could do a mean Wong Kar-Wai impression?


I have more to say about The World itself, but I'll save a more detailed consideration for another post. For now, I will say that my suspicions were confirmed: I found the film considerably more engaging on a big screen than I did watching it on my 42" LCD TV at home. It still may not quite challenge Still Life (2006) as my favorite of his features (sans Xiao Wu (1997), which I haven't yet seen), but it seems a lot richer, funnier, more beautiful and more affecting than it did the first time. Here's hoping for a similar revelation with Platform Saturday!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Welcome to the First Annual Fuji Oscars!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Tomorrow night is the big night: Oscar night!

As I have said before, I don't really care much about the Oscars beyond an occasion to get together with friends and possibly get drunk...but if Hollywood feels the need to pat itself on the back in an overlong televised pageant for what it considers the best and brightest in cinema in 2009, to the general eye-rolling consternation of cinephiles everywhere—then I might as well take the opportunity to do my own personal back-patting.

Welcome, then, to the First Annual Fuji Oscars! Today, I will forgo all Oscar hype and bestow honors on my personal favorites in some of the award ceremony's major categories. All that was released theatrically last year is fair game—so no arcane rules disqualifying worthy candidates, and no undue emphasis on American films over foreign ones.

Winners will take home a miniature golden statue in the shape of me trying to pose like Buddha while standing up:

Which distinguished actor, actress, producer and/or director wouldn't want that in his/her trophy case, am I right?

Because I don't believing in blowing this award ceremony up to overly Brobdingnagian proportions, let's get right into it:

Best Performance By an Actress in a Supporting Role: 
Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Granted, she's probably more a leading actress than a supporting actress...but, if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hadn't overlooked her in the first place, I have a feeling she might have been lumped into the supporting-actress category. So I will follow suit. Either way, she's...well, dynamite; Quentin Tarantino fetishizes her accordingly (thank you, David Bowie!) while still respecting the deep anger and pain she evokes. In short, she provides a much-needed emotional center to the film's canticle of mayhem and movie love. Plus, her ominously laughing "face of Jewish vengeance" illuminates the movie image of the year, bar none.

Best Performance By an Actor in a Supporting Role:
Saul Rubinek, Julia

My apologies to Christoph Waltz, who really is quite great as the charismatically amoral Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, but Rubinek gets my vote for pretty much one reason: that heartbreaking monologue he delivers to a massively hung-over Tilda Swinton in which he recounts his own personal experience of how he endangered and drove his family away with his alcoholism. Frankly, he more movingly suggests the personal tragedy of alcoholism in about five minutes than an endlessly showy Swinton does in the film's 145. To me, that's nothing to sneeze at.

Best Achievement in Directing:
Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum

Time to do something Armond White has never done regarding his reversal on The Hurt Locker and confess a change of heart: in hindsight, Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum should probably have been my No. 1 of 2009 instead of Olivier Assayas's still pretty fantastic Summer Hours. If I'm going strictly by Roger Ebert's "elevation" criterion, then I probably felt a bit more of it in Denis's poetic and lyrical sensibility than in Assayas's relatively more prosaic style. Under her direction, so much is suggested simply through images and gestures that it occasionally boggles the mind. So yeah, she would get my vote in this category. Plus: "Night Shift." 

Best Performance By an Actress in a Leading Role:
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

You remember those famous lines Warren Beatty uttered in Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971): "I got poetry in me"? Well, Gabourey Sidibe has got poetry in her, and she shows that remarkable soulfulness amidst Lee Daniels's miserablist freakshow, elevating exploitative trash into something occasionally quite moving in spite of itself. I'm genuinely curious to see what she does next as an actress.

Best Performance By an Actor in a Leading Role:
Tom Hardy, Bronson

Certainly the most thrillingly ferocious performance of last year, Tom Hardy imbues his portrayal of notorious British prisoner Michael Peterson, also known as "Charles Bronson," with a brute theatrical force that very nearly gives real substance to Nicolas Winding Refn's otherwise shallow conception of the character. This is a man who courts public attention with a rip-roaring sense of entitlement; Hardy, with charisma and imagination, makes you feel that in your bones without ever condescending to the character.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
(tie) A Serious Man & Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds was probably the most fun I had in a movie theater last year (though I still maintain that the film cuts much deeper than its entertaining surface might indicate). But the Coen Brothers' latest speaks deeply to the way I tend to view the world. I guess I value A Serious Man more—but really, I can't choose between the two. So I'll choose both and call it a day.

A few other awards:

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach, Fantastic Mr. Fox

Because I'm a bit less enthused than many others by some of the creative-obscenities-passing-for-wit in the otherwise slashing In the Loop (yeah, it's cool that a character uses Love Actually as a way to shut someone up, but so what?), I'll give Anderson & Baumbach's adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book a nod here—if nothing else, because Anderson transforms Dahl's book into something, well, distinctly Andersonian.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino has always been acclaimed for his dialogue, sure, but his effervescent way with words is put to perhaps his most focused and purposeful use yet. Also, a film critic as British soldier? My mind boggles at the audacity.   

Best Documentary, Feature:
24 City

Jia Zhang-ke's film is actually a blend of documentary and fiction, not a straight-up documentary, featuring as it does professional actors like Joan Chen and Zhao Tao alongside real-life factory workers. But it's a fascinating, provocative blend, one that fulfills some of the expectations of the documentary form while subverting and questioning it. Not totally a documentary, you say? Hey, I told you I was playing by my own rules here! 

Best Foreign Language Film:  
35 Shots of Rum (France)

See above, in the "Best Director" category.

Best Animated Feature Film:

What can I say? For all its lapses into cutesy pandering, Up touched me deeply. I'll let my end-of-year blurb on the film do the talking.

'Til next year...

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Distant Voice, But Not a Still Life


Starting tomorrow night, the Museum of Modern Art will be running a retrospective of the films of the highly acclaimed sixth-generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke. In my latest contribution to The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog, I briefly discuss some of Jia's long-running thematic interests and filmmaking style, and then offer brief descriptions of some of his films. I wish I had been allowed to attempt something more critical in nature...but hey, the Journal already has its film critic—one who has, to his credit, lavished praise on Jia's recent work (putting Still Life—still my favorite film of his, by far—on his 2008 ten-best list, for one thing). So I guess this is the next best thing—anything to shine a light on arguably the most important filmmaker of the past decade.

As I note in the article, Jia is supposed to be in New York throughout this weekend, introducing the films being screened at MoMA. Tomorrow night, he and his leading lady, Zhao Tao, will be introducing tomorrow's opening-night feature, his 2004 sci-fi film/globalization parable The World. I aim to be there, and I also will perhaps try to see his 2001 epic Platform Sunday afternoon (just before the Oscars, natch). Truth be told, both Platform and The World are films I admire more than actually love—so, at the very least, this retrospective will offer me a chance to see them projected theatrically, to see if I warm to them more on a big screen.

You can see details about the MoMA series here.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A Placeholder, With Two Videos

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Someday—someday soon, I hope—I will get around to mounting a defense of Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island, which I genuinely think is a near-great film, quite possibly his best in over a decade. Certainly, it feels to me like his most deeply personal work in quite a while, with thematic and emotional depths—including links to his past films—that connect with its feverishly expressionistic visuals to move beyond its pulpy psychological-puzzle aspects into something more haunting and thought-provoking. In other words, it's more than just a brain teaser with a big twist; alas, that seems to be the only level at which a lot of the film's strongest detractors seem willing to engage. The dismissiveness of some of those dissenting opinions kinda frustrates me, to be honest...but, hey, if you don't feel it, you don't feel it. All I can do is just shrug my shoulders and try to set forth my reasons for liking it—which I aim to do...someday soon.

In the meantime, I'll direct you all (if you have not yet read these pieces) to Glenn Kenny's review of the film at his blog Some Came Running, Ryan Kelly's at Medfly Quarantine, and Richard Brody's series of posts on the film at his New Yorker blog The Front Row for critiques that strike me as the most perceptive on the matter of Shutter Island. And if any of you would like to try to engage me on the film, please feel free to do so in the comments page of this post, or on Twitter (@kenjfuj). I'll try my best to match up to the reviews above in depth and insight.


For about a couple more YouTube videos? I got two for you today.

1. A while back, I finally got around to acquainting myself with late '70s/early '80s American new-wave band Devo's first album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! For the most part, I was pretty bowled over by it, but there's one song on it in particular that I connected with: "Mongoloid," a metaphorical song about how even someone with a major disability can go through life seemingly unnoticed in American society. As someone who every so often feels like an intellectual lightweight masquerading as normally functioning adult (yeah, I'm sometimes deeply insecure; what of it?), the tune resonates, in its own geeky-freaky-totally awesome way.

Here's Mark Mothersbaugh & co. performing it on French television in 1978 (though at a tempo much quicker than the one on the album):

2. It must have been because today was such a nice spring-like day, but "翩翩飛起" (roughly, "Handsomely Flying," as implied by Babelfish), a lovely Taiwanese pop tune from 1985, popped into my head and stayed there. The singer of this tune is 王芷蕾 (Jeanette Wang), who quite possibly had the most sheerly beautiful voice in Taiwanese pop during the 1970s and '80s. If you want to know what an angel might sound like, just listen to her. Seriously.

Or watch this video:

Again: I know only I and a select few others really care about this Asian pop music...but I repeat: it's my blog. I do what I want in this joint, beeyotch! Take from it what you will.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Brighter Star

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Looks like I spoke too soon!

For about a day, my favorite theatrical cinematic experience of the year-to-date was my revelatory umpteenth encounter with Godard's Band of Outsiders at the IFC Center Saturday. But then I found myself in a packed house at Walter Reade Theater the next day for the unveiling of the World Cinema Foundation-funded restoration of the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang's 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day, as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center's Film Comments Selects series. Having never seen any of Yang's work—not even his highly celebrated Yi Yi (2000)—I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

After four mesmerizing hours in the dark, Yang proceeded to knock Godard out of the park.

With the richness of a great novel, Yang, in A Brighter Summer Day, weaves a densely interwoven human tapestry set in Taiwan in 1961. Apparently, even over a decade after the Chinese Communists' victory on the mainland in 1949 forced some of those Chinese to flee to Taiwan, the country was still in something of a transitional phase in '61, an unsettled state reflected by the complex emotional, familial, interpersonal and political ties Yang so precisely and patiently details.

Much of the focus is on the children in this particular town, who, as a title card explains early on in the film, have resorted to forming street gangs in order to curb their insecurity and lack of control. That insecurity and confusion manifests itself most acutely in Xiao Si'r (Chang Chen), who, being raised in an environment filled with violence, the threat of violence and general unruliness, experiences crises of moral, religious and even sexual bewilderment that gradually build up to an explosive act of violence at its climax.

Xiao Si'r could be considered the film's central character, but the film focuses on a such a wide array of characters around him that it ultimately feels far wider in its purview than that one character. In fact, so detailed is its milieu and so telling are its characterizations that A Brighter Summer Day creates an entire immersive environment, one which becomes as familiar to us over its four hours as it does to the characters within the film. But Yang is as attentive to micro details as he is to the bigger picture; his preference for medium- and long shots and lengthy takes observes this world with an intimacy that is often breathtaking.

The result is a film that astonishes with Yang's depth of vision; his dizzying attention to literary and visual detail; his empathetic warmth toward his characters, and above all, his wisdom about human nature, especially under the stress of forces—be it historical, political, societal or otherwise—far beyond his characters' control. A Brighter Summer Day is a film of epic scope that amazes not with its grandeur but with its intimacy. It's rare that a film is so masterfully composed and closely observant that, by the end, you'll have not only understood that a character arc has occurred, but have also felt it in your gut, and gotten a vivid sense of the forces behind such a change.

I don't even think I have even begun to do justice to this monumental film. Suffice it to say, I was held in Edward Yang's grip for all of its four hours, never bothering to look down at my watch once (usually a good sign, in my book), rapturously held by the human dramas playing out onscreen, and marveling at the nearly pristine quality of the newly restored print. After the final credits rolled and the lights came up, I walked out of Walter Reade feeling as if I had just been in the welcome presence of a warm and wise man, eager to impart hard-earned wisdom about humanity, yet not so much interested in pushing that wisdom on us as allowing us to arrive at it through oceans of personal experience (Yasujiro Ozu is the only other director off the top of my head whose films inspire similar impressions.) I'm already eagerly awaiting another chance at this grand panorama; there's so much one can learn about the world around us from a film like this, and the only way to glean its insights may well be to see it as many times as possible. A Brighter Summer Day may be specifically about a year in the history of Taiwan, but its implications and emotions are absolutely universal.

A Brighter Summer Day isn't available on commercial DVD; you can, however, purchase a (by all accounts decent-quality) laserdisc rip here. But by all means, keep your eyes peeled for a theatrical screening; it's worth experiencing its feel of real life magnified on a big screen.

Here, as a teaser of sorts, is the first nine minutes of the film, thanks to an intrepid user on YouTube: