Monday, April 30, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, April 23, 2012 - April 29, 2012


Götterdämerung (1871)


Tribeca Film Festival, all films seen in New York
Cut (2011, Amir Naderi), seen at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea
The Fourth Dimension (2012, Harmony Korine/Alexey Fedorchenko/Jan Kwiecinski), seen at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea
Death of a Superhero (2011, Ian Fitzgibbon), seen at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea
Jackpot (2011, Magnus Martens), seen at AMC Loews Village 7
Rubberneck (2012, Alex Karpovsky), seen at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea
I reviewed Death of a Superhero and Rubberneck for Slant Magazine, wrote a bit about Cut in a recent blog post, and will try to say something about The Fourth Dimension and Jackpot in an upcoming post. So watch this space, as the young kids say...

The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo), seen at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York
Before seeing this film on Tuesday before Götterdämerung at the Metropolitan Opera House (more on that anon, naturally), I had not seen anything by the much-acclaimed Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo. (Non-cinephiles won't care about that, but hardcore cinephiles might.) What I can glean from this lovely if slightly confounding 80-minute feature is that Hong has a romantic streak to offset his introspective side, combined with a penchant for lightly handled narrative experimentation and behaviorally observant long takes. In the end, it doesn't really matter if what we're seeing in the main character's sabbatical from filmmaking is merely a few days in his life or, say, a year (Hong deliberately blurs chronology into despairing abstraction); it's this palpable sense of existential melancholy-shading-into-terror that comes across potently.

The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, Robert Bresson), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
For this take on the story of the 15th-century French martyr, Bresson basically went back to the trial transcripts and fashioned much of this 65-minute film out of them, having his actors deliver the on-record lines in his usual unemphatic manner. In some ways, this is perhaps his most concentrated and straightforward work, in which he most directly lays out his spiritually inclined thematic concerns—his search for God within the most mundane of details. The Trial of Joan of Arc probably isn't the film to win new fans for the filmmaker, and some will surely object to the dryly affected manner (Florence Carrez is certainly no match for Renée Maria Falconetti as Joan in Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, but I hardly think she's meant to be). For me, though, the film eventually builds up to a concluding immolation that carries a certain sobering charge all the same.


Götterdämerung (1876, Richard Wagner), seen at Metropolitan Opera House in New York
That feeling I got after the curtain fell on the same blue projection that opened Robert Lepage's new production of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle was akin to the feeling of seeing the end of a beloved television serial: sadness that there would be no more adventures in this mythical world of gods and humans. It has been a fun ride, spending four nights at the Metropolitan Opera House, immersing myself in this universe, basking in the glory of Wagner's beautiful music. As for the much-disputed Lepage production: Though I might have had reservations about it in Das Rheingold, by Siegfried I had become used to "The Machine," creaky noises and all; you could say I developed a certain affection toward the contraption. So I don't feel like complaining too loudly about Lepage botching the supposed moment of wonder Siegfried encounters at the top of the mountain before reawakening Brünnhilde in the third act of Siegfried, or his underwhelming visualization of the climactic immolation and destruction of Valhalla at the end of Götterdämerung. For me, the successes—especially with most of the scene-setting video projections and the way Lepage had his singers interact with them—far outweighed the duds. As I suggested in my comments on Das Rheingold in this previous artistic consumption log, I don't begrudge the cranky classical-music critics that have leveled withering criticisms at this production; they have far more context than I do when it comes to assessing Ring productions, I'm sure. But, for the most part, I was fine with the Lepage Ring. Maybe this is yet another case of critics assessing a work of art based more on its cost ($16 million, which apparently is prohibitive in staged opera production?) than on what is actually onstage; maybe this Lepage Ring will one day be considered the opera equivalent of Heaven's Gate (1980) and Ishtar (1987)—films that were greeted with scathing press upon its disastrous theatrical releases as much for their costly productions as for the films themselves. Or maybe I'm just trying to justify the whopping $700 I paid for this experience. Whatever; to me, these were good times.

The Lyons (2011, Nicky Silver), seen at Cort Theatre in New York 
A friend of mine offered up an extra complimentary ticket to see theater legend Linda Lavin in this new comedy playing at a theater right around the block from the Wall Street Journal office; having come across generally positive press for it, I raised my hand, so to speak, first and ended up being that friend's +1.

At least I didn't have to pay for an expensive ticket to see this.

Am I just getting tired to dysfunctional-family comedies/dramas in general? Where much of the spectacle lies in seeing family members being as unpleasant to each other as possible in ways that are, I guess, meant to be shocking, amusing and/or provocative? After I got home from seeing this on Wednesday night, I tweeted that Nicky Silver's new "comedy" struck me as a lesser variation on Tracy Letts's August: Osage County, swimming freely in one-quirk-per-character caricatures where, by comparison, Letts at least managed to ground his screwed-up characters and dark humor in believable situations and nuanced dialogue. The Lyons mostly just struck me as a blast of unrewarding nastiness—not without laughs, but wholly bereft of anything approaching genuine insight into family dysfunction and the ways one generation's meanness can be passed down to the next. It's too busy being "outrageous" to, you know, get at anything real.

But if this kind of thing appeals to you, rest assured that there are some wickedly funny one-liners sprinkled throughout, and that Linda Lavin is the expected force of nature as the gleefully selfish matriarch. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Few Dispatches from Tribeca Film Festival



So far at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, I've seen five films. The closest that has come to blowing me away is Yossi, the latest film from Israeli director Eytan Fox; I explained what I liked about it in this House Next Door review. Unfortunately, there are no more screenings of the film scheduled at the festival, so you fine people will have to wait for either a future theatrical release or a subsequent home-video appearance to see it. But it's definitely worth your time.

Your Sister's Sister, the latest film from Humpday writer-director Lynn Shelton, is also worth your time—at least, up until its third act, which becomes a bit too plot-heavy and melodramatic for my taste. But all three of its lead actors are terrific, and there are other admirable aspects to it, as I tried to explain over at Slant Magazine here.

Less worthy of your attention is Postcards from the Zoo, a terminally boring hunk of whimsy from an Indonesian filmmaker who goes by the name of Edwin. One-and-a-half stars to go along with this Slant Magazine review? I think that's the lowest star rating I've given at that site!

Two films I've seen at Tribeca which I didn't review, but which are of varying degrees of interest: Sleepless Night and Cut. The former is a French action thriller that, like the recent Indonesian film The Raid: Redemption, has generated a lot of positive buzz since its world premiere at Toronto last year. Gareth Evans's film offers up an abstract ballet of violence and choreography; Frédéric Jardin's film, however, features actual human interest underpinning its fiendish plot complications and twisty morals. Both are enjoyable in their own ways (and I wrote so about The Raid when I saw it at South by Southwest last month), but given the choice between the two, I would opt for Jardin's film without question.

As for Cut, Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi's brutal Japanese-language poison-pen letter to cinephilia—well, the film leaves me with deeply mixed feelings, but as frustrating and sometimes grueling as the experience of watching it was, it still sticks in the memory, for better and for worse. As a bitterly ironic riposte to recent nostalgic old-movie valentines like Hugo and The Artist, it has a certain crude, pummeling effectiveness. As Roger Ebert said about The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, I can't quite recommend it, but I wouldn't discourage you from seeing it.

More to come at Tribeca...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, April 16, 2012 - April 22, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The Tribeca Film Festival is in full swing, so I will have to leave this past week's artistic consumption log as a barebones one this time around. Naturally, Robert Bresson and, perhaps most of all, Richard Wagner provided the highlights.

Siegfried (1876)


Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tribeca Film Festival, all films seen at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea in New York
Your Sister's Sister (2011, Lynn Shelton)
Postcards from the Zoo (2012, Edwin)
Sleepless Night (2011, Frédéric Jardin)
Yossi (2012, Eytan Fox)

Yossi & Jagger (2002, Eytan Fox), seen at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.


祝你幸福 (1972, 鳳飛飛)
出外的人 (1983, 鳳飛飛)
不知怨 (1983, 鳳飛飛)

Music from Big Pink (1968, The Band)

Nashville Skyline (1969, Bob Dylan) [second listen]

Trans-Europe Express (1977, Kraftwerk) [second listen]


Siegfried (1876, Richard Wagner), seen at Metropolitan Opera House in New York

Monday, April 16, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, April 9, 2012 - April 15, 2012: "No Films? Seriously?" Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—If you look at the log below, you might notice something missing: Where's the usual "films" section?

Believe it or not, I ended up not seeing any films this past week! I didn't plan it that way; it just ended up being the case. The way my mind works these days, I'm almost tempted to tout this fact as a point of pride: I didn't see any movies this week. See? I don't need movies all the time to keep me satisfied!

I am positive, being that Tribeca Film Festival is a mere two days away and I'm slated to cover at least six films in the festival for Slant Magazine, that will not be the case this coming week.

In the meantime, enjoy this current log!

Die Walküre


Different Class (1995, Pulp)
This Is Hardcore (1998, Pulp)
We Love Life (2001, Pulp)
So no, I didn't join most of my fellow film/music brethren in seeing a reunited Pulp live at Radio City Music Hall this past week; I was too busy trying to catch up with their albums in the first place. It's intriguing to hear the progression from Different Class—which, it appears, is commonly considered Jarvis Cocker & co.'s peak—to the introspective moodiness of the ironically named This Is Hardcore (if by "hardcore" you mean "hard and fast rock," then that album has none of that) to the all-over-the-place We Love Life ("Wickerman" was one of the Pulp tracks British choreographer Michael Clark used in his Whitney Biennial commission Who's Zoo?). Count me as a new-minted fan (and, as ever, behind the curve when it comes to big-event reunion concerts).

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (1988, Leonard Bernstein/Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam) [umpteenth listen]
The only reason I listened to this classic recording of Mahler's First Symphony was because, on Wednesday night, I answered a friend's invitation to go to Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday morning to see an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic—led by current Dallas Symphony Orchestra Music Director/former Concertgebouw concertmaster Jaap van Zweden—leading an upcoming performance of the work. Based on that rehearsal, it sounded like a reasonably rousing if fairly unremarkable rendition...but then, perhaps anything might sound safe and conventional after Bernstein's still vivid and freshly characterized account. (No one has dared to take the third-movement funeral-march parody as briskly as he, and the more I listen to it, the more I warm to the approach.) Maybe Van Zweden picked up some elements of his interpretation—not to mention his flamboyant podium manner—from performing the work under Bernstein; like the American maestro, for instance, he also races to the finish line in the work's closing bars and adds an extra bass-drum thwack at the end where Mahler marked only one for the penultimate note. Either way, they both make it work, at least if you're not a super-literalist when it comes to musical interpretation. (The New York Philharmonic session also included a rehearsal of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with 24-year-old Chinese prodigy Yuja Wang; alas, because of my day job, I couldn't stay to hear that.)

Wild Honey (1967, The Beach Boys) [umpteenth listen]
And the only reason why I listened to this underrated Beach Boys opus again? Eh, that's a personal thing that I will only divulge to you in private if any of you really want to know. But yeah...this is an underrated album, as I wrote previously on this blog here.


Die Walküre (1870, Richard Wagner), seen at Metropolitan Opera House in New York
Same story with Das Rheingold at the Met, really: an uneven production that still, for me, didn't wreck the brilliance of Wagner's music and the resonance of its story and themes.

In the opening scene of Das Rheingold, the despairing Alberich decides that, if he can't find love among those three Rhine maidens that callously mock him, he'll renounce love altogether, steal the gold they guard and create the fabled magic ring that will allow him to rule the world. In a sense, Alberich decides to cast off all human emotion in his quest for power. To my mind, all of the other conflicts that arise between the various characters in these first two Ring operas are variations on that old Nietzschean conflict between Apollo vs. Dionysus, intellect and emotion; in Die Walküre, this is most potently conveyed with the ideological conflict between Wotan—the ruler of the Gods and a man who still feels bound by traditional notions of masculine authority and heroism—and Brünnhilde, his forward-looking Valkyrie daughter and a more impulsive type. This clash of temperaments is what eventually leads Wotan, in the final act of Die Walküre, to cast Brünnhilde off to a long slumber after she disobeys an order that he himself has made unwillingly; it's telling, then, that Brünnhilde argues, in her defense, that she was acting as Wotan secretly wished rather than what he actually commanded.

There are certainly more layers there to unpack, but it gives one an idea of just how deep Wagner's achievement is already proving to be based on these first two installments in this monumental opera cycle. And what else can one say about the music itself? The third act of Die Walküre has some of his most affecting writing, especially down the stretch as Wotan is forced to give up his daughter and soaring strings express all the regret that Wotan himself is perhaps unable to fully express. When even the occasionally trying stretches of clumsy exposition still manage to work up musical interest...well, surely we're in the hands of some kind of musical genius.

As for Robert Lepage...well, alas, he almost spoils the third act of Die Walküre with some of his more laughable touches: planks moving up and down in a simulation of horse-riding, with the Valkyries sliding down planks as if going down a theme-park water slide; a snowy-mountaintop projection during Wotan's long confrontation with Brünnhilde that randomly breaks out into cheesy-looking avalanches; and so on. And yet, the final moments of Wotan, with the help of fire god Loge, lighting a pyre around a now sleeping Brünnhilde, still manage to be as majestic as Wagner surely intended. The production is still a mixed bag, but Wagner is still Wagner.


An Afternoon With Actor John Cho, seen at Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, Conn.
A friend invited me to accompany her down to Yale University to see John Cho, the Korean actor of Harold and Kumar, American Pie and Star Trek fame, do a question-and-answer session on the broad subject of Asian-American leadership. I'm a fan of Cho's, and since I didn't really have any pressing plans on Saturday, I figured I might as well go. The session turned out to be shorter than I was expecting—about an hour, as opposed to the two-and-a-half that had been advertised—but even in that one hour, he still managed to offer up some incisive and inspiring tips and anecdotes of what he thinks about the representation of Asian-Americans in the media, how to try to break through the so-called "bamboo ceiling," how his desire to do so has informed his own acting choices and so on. Some of it hit close to home for me; I guess I'm still trying to break through a "bamboo ceiling" of my own at my company. Maybe I should work harder on that. Thanks, John!

Monday, April 09, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, April 2, 2012 - April 8, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Wow, I consumed a lot this past week, artistically speaking. And, wait...I actually found time to annotate this log? Enjoy it this week, because who knows if I'll have time for it next week, what with the Tribeca Film Festival starting soon and all.

Seconds (1966)


The Long Day Closes (1992, Terence Davies), seen at Film Forum in New York [second viewing]
This seems to be the week in which, film-wise at least, I've revisited films that I technically watched previously but during which I may not have been fully alert the first time around. I saw The Long Day Closes on DVD (though not Region 1; it's not available on video here in the U.S.) a couple of years ago and—being that it was just my first or second Terence Davies film at the time—I was immediately stunned into submission by what I perceived to be a strikingly personal and poetic sensibility. It was certainly not like many other films I had seen before then. But it took this second screening, in a beautiful new 35mm print, for me to truly fall in love with this autobiographical fantasia of a lonely boy growing up in a British surburb, comforted by the cinema and relying on God for possible solace. It's soulful and entrancing. It also seems to be considered by many Davies fans to be a lesser achievement than his previous film, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). That's a great film, too, don't get me wrong—but I can only report how I felt, and I felt more of a sense of elevation while watching The Long Day Closes. So I guess I do like it more. (A friend theorizes that those who prefer The Long Day Closes do so mostly on account of its many film references, the implication being that most critics are suckers for movies that, whether intentionally or not, flatter the inner movie nerd in them. Being that I only really identified one snatch of movie-related audio—from Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—in the film without any help, I will say that that has pretty much nothing to do with my affection for the film whatsoever. Even if that was a part of the film's appeal, it's only a small part, really; The Long Day Closes is hardly just a mere love letter to cinema like, say, Martin Scorsese's Hugo. So, um, no.)

Girlfriends (1978, Claudia Weill), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This film was screened as part of a series at BAM curated by Lena Dunham as part of the lead-up to the premiere of her new HBO series Girls—and really, if you want to get a sense of Dunham's inspiration, see this film, then watch the HBO series (which premieres on April 15) and compare notes. Thankfully, Weill's film—which Stanley Kubrick reportedly loved, and which film critic Robin Wood definitely found of interested, at least based on his mention of it in a chapter of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond—has more of standalone interest than the Dunham connection; it's one of the more sensitive depictions not only of female friendship, but also of personal insecurities, adult compromises and the struggles to make ends meet in a city like New York.

Seconds (1966, John Frankenheimer), seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York
This film was also screened as part of a series, this one curated by artist Cindy Sherman. Considering Sherman's artistic approach—the way she often cosmetically distorts her face for her photographs, for instance—and her focus on images and identities, it's easy to see why she'd choose a film like Seconds, which hinges on a character's cosmetic transformation in order to escape a previous humdrum existence. Beyond that...well, I don't really have much else to say about this film except that yeah, it's pretty great: a gripping and ultimately tragic meditation on life and living, especially with the knowledge of inevitable death. Its final moments left me stunned, devastated, sobered.

Get Out of the Car (2010, Thom Andersen), seen at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York [second viewing]
This 35-minute appendix to Andersen's majestic 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself takes the form of a free-associational series of shots of signs and billboards, all of which magically coalesce to form a multifaceted, melancholy, bleakly funny portrait of urban decay.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Leo McCarey), seen at Film Forum in New York [second viewing] 
McCarey's film is an exemplar of nuanced, hard-earned patriotism, in which a British butler (Charles Laughton) goes through all sorts of cultural and internal clashes in order to finally figure out who he is and who he wants to be in this great land of opportunity we all know as the United States of America. The scene where Ruggles recites the entirety of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in a saloon to a bunch of Americans who can't recall what Lincoln said in that address is one for the ages.


Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun, seen live at Spike Hill in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Nice name for a band, huh? A friend of a friend is the pianist for this local group, and they're not bad, with a modestly scaled, vaguely-Radiohead-ish sound that's pleasant enough—except for that one moment where they suddenly turn into a salsa band for a minute or two. Did I mention how cool the band's name was?

Varèse: The Complete Works (1998, Asko Ensemble / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly)
Having been dazzled by hearing Edgard Varèse's Amériques live about a week ago, I figured I might as well hear the rest of this France-born composer's fairly meager output. Most of it conforms to the template of Amériques: seemingly arbitrary noises, by turns savage and tender, with rhythmic patterns often idée fixes in sight. John Cage would go beyond Varèse's atonal noises and free us all of even having to think about music in terms of notes. Varèse also experimented with electronic music, as in works like Poéme electronique and Déserts; here, I would guess, is where later composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen would find inspiration. So his music has certainly been influential. Is it any fun to listen to? If you're willing to let go of any preconceptions of music as carefully structured entities with tonal centers, then Varèse's music can be electrifying in its sheer unpredictability. It also could be said that his sometimes harsh sonorities are best experienced a little bit at a time; immersing oneself in a marathon of this kind of stuff could eventually become wearying to the ear. But it's absolutely worth hearing, if you're game for it.

又見秋蓮 (1979, 鳳飛飛)
Yeah, I'm mixing in some vintage Taiwanese pop into my listening explorations these days; it's been a while. Feng Fei Fei was apparently hot stuff back in the '70s and '80s, known as much for her fashion sense—her hats, especially—as for her songs and voice. She's also my mother's favorite Taiwanese singer—which is why, when she informed me recently that she had passed away in January, I raided her CD collection during a weekend back in East Brunswick, N.J., and found a few digitally remastered CDs of some of her albums. So I've been listening to some of them here and there. I can't say she's replacing the glorious (and still living) 蔡琴 (Tsai Chin) in my affections any time soon—for one thing, Tsai Chin has a sultry alto voice, and it seems I have a thing for singers with deep alto voices (see: Anita Mui)—but Feng certainly has pipes and some lovely tunes to her credit. She also likes to sing about springtime a lot, based on the four albums of material I've heard. Well hey, it's springtime now. Works for me.

His 'N' Hers (1994, Pulp) 
See the Who's Zoo? entry below to get an idea as to why I'm suddenly interested in this British band. The sound may be glam rock-ish, but Jarvis Cocker's voice makes me think of a mix between The National's Matt Berninger and Arcade Fire's Win Butler—except British, I guess. Anyway, the songs here are rhythmically propulsive and sonically voluptuous enough to add life and color to Cocker's self-involved lyrics. I enjoyed listening to this and look forward to hearing more from Pulp.


Das Rheingold (1869, Richard Wagner), seen live at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York  
Yes, the 24-plank machine-controlled set is a rather ugly and distractingly noisy thing. Yes, Robert Lepage's production suggests someone reliant more on momentary inspiration than on grand overarching vision. And sure, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra's performance under Fabio Luisi mostly seemed blandly competent rather than inspired. All of this may well start to bug me more in the later, longer installments of Lepage's new production of the complete Ring cycle, if not corrected. For the relatively trim Das Rheingold, however, there were just enough moments of visual splendor—the planks contorting to create a distorted stairwell, for instance, as well as some of the video projections—to satisfy me. And, of course, the opera itself is glorious; its thematic elements—its skeptical view of man's folly, the damaging effects of unchecked power on the human soul, etc.—still come through amidst Lepage's technological gimcrackery, and the music is still as brilliant as ever. For a novice of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung live, this was fine. Not transcendent, not thought-provoking, and not especially affecting, but fine. We'll see how the rest of this new Metropolitan Opera production shakes out.


Who's Zoo? (2012, Michael Clark), seen at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
One of my friends was actually picked to be a volunteer dancer for this newest work from British "bad-boy" choreographer Michael Clark; that was pretty much the only reason I went to see it in the first place, having not heard of Clark before his residency was announced as part of this year's Whitney Biennial. I'll say this for Who's Zoo?: Despite its chilly futuristic feel—the video projections, the costumes, the occasional mechanized movements—this 45-minute work features some of the more sexually suggestive movements I've ever seen in a live dance. If nothing else, this was worth seeing just to see a male dancer do some strange things with a stool. I'm not sure what it all added up to—again, my relative ignorance of dance is probably showing right now—but hey, for the most part, I had fun watching it.

Oh, and Jarvis Cocker was there too, performing live some of the songs Clark had chosen as the score for Who's Zoo? Two of those songs were from his years as lead singer of Pulp; thus His 'N' Hers above.

Fine Art

Line: A Drawing Show, seen at The Cell in New York
A friend of a friend had a sketchbook that was displayed as part of this small exhibit of, you guessed it, line drawings. If anything, the sketchbooks were the most interesting part of this exhibit: It's rare to see an artist's rough first thoughts given its own platform this way. Still, among the "official" works of art, there were some memorable ones, including an impressionistic landscape that seemed brought off simply by virtue of a few pencil smudges. Spare, minimalist—I like it!

David Lynch, seen at Jack Tilton Gallery in New York  
Yes, New Yorkers, David Lynch has an exhibit of his recent artwork on display at the Jack Tilton Gallery! It's a pretty good collection too, I think. For all the usual Lynchian darkness on display, these works are always grounded in something that feels emotionally real, for all their surrealistic flights of fancy. For me, that's the way Lynch's best films function: they're weird but rarely just for the sake of being weird; they express something definite, if not always easily describable. Anyway, this exhibit ranges from oil paintings to photographs to a 42-second video, encompassing a variety of different subjects and moods. It's worth checking out—and hey, it's free!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Laundry List of Links

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This post will basically be a collection of links to my recent published work outside of this blog—and these days, the great majority of the writing I'm doing is admittedly outside of this blog. Of course, those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter will have, I hope, encountered these pieces already; nevertheless, in the interest of self-promotion, I like to collect all those links here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second because hey, they are part of my life, after all!

Where to begin, then? about South by Southwest?

Tchoupitoulas (2012)

Yeah, I went to Austin, Texas, for SXSW again this year...and truth be told, because I had already done this last year, I admit that I was perhaps inevitably less than overwhelmed by the experience this time around. Plus, I found the selection of films I saw, at least, to be wildly mixed in quality: very little that I'd consider actively terrible, but also very little that left me feeling flush with an exhilarating sense of discovery. Two films came closest to inducing such euphoria in me: Tchoupitoulas, the latest documentary from the Ross Brothers, the sibling duo behind the terrific 45365 (a Roger Ebert favorite; he programmed it at Ebertfest last year); and Keyhole, the latest Guy Maddin dreamscape/love letter to classic Hollywood cinema. Oh, and I should probably give a special mention to 21 Jump Street, which received a raucously enthusiastic reception at its world premiere at SXSW and which comes closer than any recent Hollywood comedy I've seen to approximating the anarchic spirit of Airplane! (1980). It's pretty consistently hilarious, even if it's never quite as smart as it thinks it is. (But hey, at least it never turns irritatingly snarky like Drew Goddard/Joss Whedon's overpraised horror-deconstruction romp The Cabin in the Woods, which was SXSW's opening-night film.)

Anyway, here are links to the five House Next Door posts I filed while I attended SXSW:
No. 1: Girl Model, Tchoupitoulas and Killer Joe
No. 2: Keyhole and The Raid: Redemption
No. 3: Compliance
No. 4: Girls and Sleepwalk With Me
No. 5: Under African Skies and Last Call at the Oasis

While I was in Austin, my review of Gerhard Richter Painting—an intriguing and sometimes beautiful documentary about the German painter—was posted at Slant Magazine.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)

When I returned from SXSW, I was immediately thrown into another film festival: New Directors/New Films, a collaboration between Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center in its 41st year this year. Of the 29 feature films that screened during ND/NF this year, I reviewed three of them for Slant Magazine:

Goodbye, the latest film from imprisoned Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof (here)
Generation P, Victor Ginzburg's ambitious Russian epic about advertising in post-Soviet society (here)
Twilight Portrait, Angelina Nikonova's sometimes inscrutable female-centered character study (here)

None of those three films, for all their virtues, approached the highs of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, the debut feature of New York-based filmmaker Terence Nance and a heady mix of self-analysis, postmodern self-reflexivity and cinematic experimentation that was, head above shoulders, unlike anything I saw not only at ND/NF, but at the movies all year long. I do hope it eventually gets picked up for theatrical distribution. (Alas, I ended up being unable to see Oslo, August 31st—Joachim Trier's much-lauded follow-up to Reprise—at ND/NF, so who knows if that film might have bested Nance's as the highlight of the festival?)

And I think that brings me up to date as far as links go. For now, I'm taking it easy on the writing and mentally preparing for the upcoming maelstrom that will be the Tribeca Film Festival.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, March 26, 2012 - April 1, 2012: Breather Edition

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This week felt like a mild breather for me after the past few weeks of seemingly nonstop writing and moviegoing and so on. No major writing assignments, no press screenings (or at least, no press screenings I absolutely needed to attend)—I was thus free to just explore things.

And so I did. As a result, I discovered: a fascinating new cinematic voice in a young African-American New York-based filmmaker named Terence Nance, at least based on his endlessly inventive debut feature An Oversimplification of Her Beauty; the wonderfully cacophonous musical chaos of 20th-century composer Edgard Varèse; a virtuosic theater artist named Rick Miller who has the uncanny ability to go from one Simpsons impersonation to another in a split second; and the legendary photographer Cindy Sherman, whose visions are so distinctive and imposing—sometimes unnervingly so—that they make you look at the human face in a refreshing light.

That will pretty much be it as far as critical commentary goes in this log. Alas, yes, this will be yet another barebones one. Maybe one day soon I'll be able to find the time to annotate these things again.

Untitled (1981), Cindy Sherman


New Directors/New Films 2012, all films seen in New York:
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012, Terence Nance), seen at Museum of Modern Art
Fear and Desire (1953, Stanley Kubrick), seen at Museum of Modern Art
Breathing (2011, Karl Markovics), seen at Walter Reade Theater

Deadly Prey (1987, David A. Prior), seen at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.


Cage: Song Books / Cowell: Synchrony / Adams: Absolute Jest / Varèse: Amériques, performed by Joan LaBarbara, Meredith Monk, Jessye Norman, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Michael Tilson Thomas & San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall in New York

Ives: Three Places in New England / Ruggles: Sun-treader / Piston: Symphony No. 2 (1970, Michael Tilson Thomas & Boston Symphony Orchestra)

月朦朧鳥朦朧 (1978, 鳳飛飛)
一片深情 . 春寒 (1979, 鳳飛飛)


MacHomer (1995, Rick Miller), seen at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York 

Fine Arts

Cindy Sherman, seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York

Sunday, April 01, 2012

White Elephant Blogathon 2012: Preying for a Trash Masterpiece

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—[This is my contribution to the White Elephant Blogathon. What is the White Elephant Blogathon, you may be wondering? Well, here are some details.]

After accidentally missing the deadline to submit a title for last year's edition of the White Elephant Blogathon, I made it a point to participate this year.

Considering how many people have or have not wasted their time watching crappy movies assigned to them for this blogathon, why did I want to commit myself to it this year? Probably because I got a doozy of an assignment two years ago when I contributed to this online event, a film directed by Death Wish auteur Michael Winner called Scream for Help (1984), and one so bad in so many genuinely fascinating ways that, yes, I would actually go so far as to place it in the "so bad it's good" pantheon reserved for other legendary pieces of celluloid waste like Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space. (I'm serious when I say that it really is something to see; I refer you all to my review of it here.)

I was hoping that lightning might strike twice this time around, that I might get a chance to cut my teeth on something that was dreadful in ways that might actually inspire something like actual critical analysis. Did it happen?

Well...yes and no—mostly no, I'm afraid, though it does have one moment towards the very end that almost makes sitting through the rest worth your trouble.

This year, I was assigned to watch an action film called Deadly Prey (1987). You can tell this is from the 1980s right from the get-go with a wide shot of a silhouetted figure running up a hill and pumping a gun in the air, which leads into an opening-credits sequence that intercuts title cards with shots of all manner of weapons being loaded one at a time. 

An opening suspense sequence sets up the premise of director David A. Prior's film. A bunch of mercenaries—led by jacked-up sunglasses-wearing second-in-command Lt. Thornton (Fritz Matthews)—are hunting after some random chubby guy, looking to kill him. They eventually accomplish their mission, but not after the guy resourcefully knocks out one of the mercenaries; Thornton eventually kills this member, presumably for his failure to measure up to this covert army unit's high standards.

The next scene fleshes this opening scene out some more. We are introduced to Thornton's superior, Col. Hogan (David Campbell); we learn that the chubby guy was some random dude picked off the street for, essentially, target practice for these mercenaries-in-training. Now they need a new victim for their game. That's where our hero, Mike Danton (played by Ted Prior, David A. Prior's brother), comes in.

Before we get to Danton, however, allow me to draw attention to two things I noticed in these first two sequences:

1. Was some of the dialogue of this film recorded in post-production and synchronized after the fact? It sure sounds like it to my ears; there is a disembodied quality to some the line readings that sounds like something I usually hear in, say, old Italian films, when post-synchronized sound was the norm. So it may not just be the acting itself that's bad. (Was the budget for this film so low Prior couldn't even afford to record sound directly throughout the whole production?)

2. There's nothing technically wrong with the editing in the opening suspense sequence...and yet, strangely, the filmmaking still feels like pure amateur hour. There are barely any shots in which the predators and their prey occupy the same frame; for all I know, Prior could have shot the mercenaries and the chubby guy in two entirely different parts of this forest. Heck, even I've done that! Years ago, back when I was living in central New Jersey, I picked up a video camera one time and tried to make my own slasher flick, discovering quickly that, on a budget of zero dollars, all I needed to do to suggest someone getting killed was just juxtapose a shot of a sharp object with the pained expression on a victim's face. (And because I was under the influence of the Friday the 13th films at the time, I destroyed a fair amount of strawberries to simulate blood splattering.) It's the Kuleshov effect at its finest! It would be miraculous if it turned out the auteur behind this film and Killer Workout (1987) knew who Lev Kuleshov was; alas, when you see mercenaries shooting at the chubby victim and, in the next shot, hear no gunfire as the victim falls to the ground in pain, you realize that perhaps there are limits to Prior's grasp of continuity after all.

All right, back to Mike Danton.

Danton is introduced as an ordinary man struggling to get out of his bed (a water bed, by the way; people actually sleep on those things?) and taking out the trash before he is randomly kidnapped by two of Hogan's men for this deadly venture. Naturally, though, these men have no idea what they've just gotten into; Danton, it turns out, is a Vietnam veteran who has a way with, say, turning tree branches into weapons and staying alive by eating worms and cooking rats.

In essence, he's John Rambo redux, and Deadly Prey could be seen a low-rent variation on First Blood (1982), even if its good-versus-evil setup places it in more of an uncomplicated Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985) mindset than in the more intriguingly ambiguous mold of Ted Kotcheff's original. (There's one shot of Danton pointing a machine gun up in the air and firing off a bunch of rounds that recalls a similar shot towards the end of Part II, except without Stallone's howl of testosterone-fueled frustration while he does it.) And just as Rambo's last name reminded Pauline Kael of his "namesake" Arthur Rimbaud, Danton's last name recalls Georges Jacques Danton, the Frenchman who is often credited for being one of the pivotal figures of the French Revolution. You could say that the Danton of Deadly Prey initiates his own revolution against Col. Hogan, Lt. Thornton and the rest of this sadistic band of mercenaries—though this Danton is hardly the more morally ambiguous Danton of French history (Georges Jacques was eventually convicted of financial corruption and killed by guillotine).

Beyond all that, alas, there isn't a whole lot to say about the rest of the film once Danton begins to fight back against his captors, one by one. There's little sense of geography or continuity underpinning the action sequences, and thus precious little in the way of coherence or sustained suspense; Danton just seems to materialize whenever and wherever he wants in that forest. Deadly Prey has the requisite macho action-movie misogyny, featuring a mere two female characters—Danton's helpless wife Jaimy (Suzanne Tara) and mercenary super-bitch Sybil (Dawn Abraham)—both of whom eventually meet ignominious ends.

It also features two legendary Hollywood actors among the cast: Actors' Studio veteran Cameron Mitchell, as Jaimy's policeman father; and former teen heartthrob Troy Donahue, as the rich backer of Col. Hogan's mercenary operation. Putting aside the predictable and not particularly interesting question of why these two actors bothered to appear in this junk in the first place, I would like to point out that, though the role these actors play in Deadly Prey both amount to glorified cameos, both are given top billing in the opening credits! Not even Glenn Ford was granted that honor when he appeared in the 1981 slasher film Happy Birthday to Me! Mitchell and Donahue do have one scene together, in which Mitchell delivers a speech decrying Donahue and the rest of his rich, inhumane ilk before blowing him away; maybe David A. Prior found the prospect of putting these two famous actors together exciting, but unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot in that scene worth writing home about, other than the fact that Mitchell brings more convincing emotion to that scene than Ted Prior brings to any one line reading as the hero.

And onward to that aforementioned one memorable moment of Deadly Prey. Should I spoil it? Let me put it this way: This may be the only film where you will see a man's arm being used as a bludgeoning weapon after it has been dismembered from his body. It's the only time in this cheesefest that I found myself laughing out loud, and possibly the only bit of inspired awfulness in what is an otherwise just plain bad, bad movie—and not even all that fun bad, either.