Monday, August 20, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 13, 2012 - Aug. 19, 2012: "RIP Tony Scott" Edition

NEW YORK—I was going to post this earlier in the day, as I usually do...but then, as I was trying to finish up this log late last night, news reports started coming in that Tony Scott had jumped off a bridge to his death.

Tony Scott, left, with Denzel Washington during the making of Déjà Vu (2008)

Despite a recent attempt in some critical circles to make a case for this filmmaker as a real auteur, not just a slick Hollywood craftsman (or hack, as some may more uncharitably label him), I'd never had an especially strong opinion either way on the films of the director of films as varied as Top Gun (1986), True Romance (1993), Enemy of the State (1998), Déjà Vu (2008) and many others. I remember hating just about every minute of Domino (2005), with its relentless ADD aesthetic and desaturated color palette, at the time, though I had read enough interesting defenses of the film that I was always curious to revisit and reassess. I loved his most recent film, Unstoppable (2010) (I expressed my giddiness toward the film here). And, for all its misogyny and nihilism, I've always harbored a sneaky affection for The Last Boy Scout (1991), a detective noir in the guise of an overblown Lethal Weapon-style action extravaganza. I still haven't seen either True Romance or Déjà Vu, two titles that many of the critics/cinephiles I read/follow on Twitter are citing as among his finest work. And whatever one may think about Scott's films, there's no doubt that, even as he continued working on a big, mainstream scale in his last decade, he remained as adventurous a filmmaker as ever, unafraid to challenge himself and push his style in new directions (for better or worse).

Details are still pouring in as to the circumstances surrounding his suicide. Whatever they are, though, this was really shocking and devastating to hear. My thoughts are with his family and relatives (especially his brother/fellow filmmaker Ridley).

RIP Tony Scott.


Nocturna Artificialia (1979)


Nocturna Artificialia (1979, Stephen & Timothy Quay), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This Unnameable Little Broom (1985, Stephen & Timothy Quay), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y. 
Naturally, after seeing the Quay Brothers exhibit at Museum of Modern Art, I was curious to catch up with their short films, to see how all the designs and props featured in the exhibition were used in context. So, one night this past week, when I found myself with nothing else I was interested in doing, I watched their two earliest stop-motion-animated shorts, Nocturna Artificialia and This Unnameable Little Bloom. Actually, the latter film's full title is much longer: Little Songs of the Chief Officer of Hunar Louse, or This Unnameable Little Broom, Being a Largely Disguised Reduction of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tableau II.  (Who knew the Quay Brothers had beat Fiona Apple in the extremely-long-title contest years before When the Pawn Hits blah blah blah...) No matter; I wasn't hugely taken with that one anyway. Nocturna Artificialia, on the other hand, is both confounding and haunting in its wordless, Surrealistic evocation of a man—given an appropriately gloomy-looking countenance—stuck in a rut while dreaming of leaving his home on a newly built tramline going through his town. More Quay Brothers shorts to come; until then...

Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog (2004, Yôichi Sai), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This Japanese film got a small belated release here in New York a few months ago; I missed it then, but, thanks to a kind of screener-exchange program in which I'm participating with some of my fellow Slant Magazine contributors—with the purpose of filling in blind spots before best-of-year lists are due towards the end of this year—I finally caught up with it sometime this past week. 

As the title suggests, Quill charts the life of the titular dog, named "Quill" as the result of a birthmark he bears which looks like a quill feather. The U.S. title makes it sound like a nonfiction film; it's not, but it suggests the intriguing approach director Yôichi Sai takes with the material. Especially in the way the film is dominated by voiceover narration—first from the woman of a couple who trains him during his first year of life, then from the daughter of the blind man Quill eventually helps—the film ultimately comes off as an odd hybrid of educational documentary, Au Hasard Balthazar and Ikiru. Sometimes the approach is refreshing in its resistance of easy anthropomorphizing; about as often, however, Sai can't resist hitting sentimental, tearjerking notes hard. The thin characterizations don't help either, especially when the film gestures that we're supposed to be emotionally affected by what happens to these people/creatures towards the end (the rather insistent score by Kuricorder Quartet is the worst offender in that regard). Nevertheless, Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog—a film that is as much about making something meaningful out of one's life as it is about a cute guide dog who changes a stubborn owner's life—does have its genuinely affecting moments, and its sheer earnestness does count for something.

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966, Harold L. Warren), seen with live commentary from Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 in New York
As someone who never watched Mystery Science Theater 3000 during the 1990s, and thus was not intimately familiar with the episode that introduced a whole new generation to the awesome terribleness that is Harold L. Warren's Manos: The Hands of Fate, I thus had no intention of seeing a theatrical transmission of the three MST3K guys—now doing their schtick as "Rifftrax"—doing a live encore Thursday of one of their most popular acts of snarky movie commentary. But then, on Thursday, one of my co-workers—who has quite the taste for trash cinema, and has talked about Manos every so often—mentioned that a friend of his had bought a couple of tickets to the event and now needed a +1. I didn't have any plans that night, so I figured, why not? Turns out, though, that this friend of a friend not only had bought four tickets, but also couldn't go himself—so, in an email, he asked me and another of his friends if we'd be willing to take the tickets off his hands. The other guy couldn't do it, so, in what I assume was a fit of desperation, he basically decided just to give the tickets to me, free of charge.

Hey, free tickets! Who wouldn't take advantage of that, right? Honestly, though, I did have my hesitations—not so much because I ended up not being able to find three people with whom to go see this (but then, I've had so little success soliciting company for just about anything on social media that I didn't expect anyone to bite from the outset, especially on such short notice), but because, after being mostly kind of bored by that supposed '80s trash classic Miami Connection when I saw it last month at New York Asian Film Festival, I had concluded that maybe fetishization of bad cinema just wasn't something I was into. Why would I want to waste my time watching a movie that I knew was going to be crap going in when I could be watching something that had a better chance of being at least interesting and possibly great?

But I eventually decided to go...and I guess being in the presence of Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett—all part of the MST3K cast back in the day—making all manner of wisecracks over a film as blatantly inept as Manos: The Hands of Fate will make the experience of sitting through even the junkiest cinematic trash heap tolerable. And boy, is this baaaaaad. Terrible acting (was John Reynolds's goofy limp as The Master's villainous henchman Torgo supposed to be, like, menacing or something?) with even worse post-synch dubbing of all the actors, a music score that's unbelievable in how inappropriate it is for a "horror" movie (think '70s hardcore-porno cheese), and some of the most incompetent bits of continuity editing I've seen in quite a while—yes, Manos really is as awful as its reputation. The brilliance of some of the MST3K boys' jokes lay in the ways they wittily highlighted why certain moments were bad rather than just indulging in above-it-all snark; to my surprise, the commentary actually did add a weird sort of value to the whole experience. But I guess that was what Mystery Science Theater 3000 did best.

Manos: The Hands of Fate is indeed the worst film I've ever seen (and by the way, no, I still haven't seen anything by Ed Wood). In that sense, this was some kind of landmark of sorts. More to the point: I actually enjoyed watching it! But then, I had a lot of help in making the experience of it enjoyable. Maybe I need the MST3K guys to provide voiceover commentary for every bad movie I see. Well anyway, moving on to good movies now...

Cosmopolis (2012)

Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg), seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York
And yes, this adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2003 novel of the same name is quite good—to my mind the most vrai Cronenberg film since he went "accessible" with A History of Violence back in 2005. That said, for those of you who may have been put off by the overly talky nature of his last film, A Dangerous Method, you won't find much relief here...and if you don't warm to the oddball cadences of Don DeLillo's highly stylized dialogue coming out of these characters' mouths, you may find parts of Cosmopolis to plod as much as A Dangerous Method occasionally did. This, however, is a much more surreal picture in its details: The rear-projection Manhattan glimpsed during the first interior shot inside Eric Packer's (Robert Pattinson) limo, coupled with the utter lack of background noise other than the sound of the actors' voices, indicates early on that this won't be taking place in any recognizable "reality" by any means. And as Packer makes his long, strange trek across town just so he can get a haircut, the episodes get—to borrow a Lewis Carroll-ism—curiouser and curiouser.

Here, finally, are the glints of Videodrome-era madness that I thought had been near-subsumed by the more "respectable" Cronenberg of his recent films. But all of his usual themes are here: the war between total intellectual control and darker inner emotions, bodies turning on the humans housing them, and so on. To those themes, Cosmopolis adds heavy doses of deadpan black comedy and a financial-crisis-allegory angle; as Packer experiences the meltdown of his financial empire in the back of that limousine, the world around him—which he barely recognizes in his singularly insular existence—seems to be falling apart in a sea of Occupy Wall Street-ish anarchy. All of this builds up carefully to a final confrontation between Packer and a former employee of his (Paul Giamatti) that is one of the most gripping sequences I've seen in a movie all year.

So overall, I liked Cosmopolis; it's quite possible I may fully love it on a second viewing. Oh, and how is Robert "Edward Cullen from Twilight" Pattinson in this, some of you maybe wondering? Well...let me put it this way: He can certainly do dead-eyed soullessness quite well.

Le Jour se Lève (1939, Marcel Carné), seen at Film Forum in New York 
Ah, Jean Gabin: so masculine yet so sensitive, a man's man with the heart of a romantic. Of course, the world doesn't always operate the way the characters he plays in movies like this or, say, La Bête Humaine and Grand Illusion think they should. So it goes with François (Gabin), the metals worker who falls for one woman, Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent); carries on an affair with another, more experienced and world-weary woman, Clara (Arletty), even though he still has his heart set on Françoise; and finds himself opposed by jealous Valentin (Jules Berry), the unsavory MC who runs a dog show featuring both Françoise and Clara, and who has carried on relationships with both of them. Quite the series of romantic entanglements, that! Within the complicated plotting, however, Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert—both more widely known for teaming up to make Children of Paradise (1945)—successfully manage to evoke all sorts of nuanced emotions and broader themes underneath the surface melodrama. It's a deeper film than it at first appears—and it's all capped off by one hell of a final shot uses gunsmoke and a ray of sunlight to beautifully evoke the bleak "daybreak" of the title.

In My Head (1985)


Slip It In (1984, Black Flag)
Loose Nut (1985, Black Flag)
In My Head (1985, Black Flag)
None of the songs on these three albums match the sheer blazing energy of Damaged (1981), but that assumes that Black Flag intended to make the same kind of album as their debut in the first place. Actually, as Henry Rollins, Greg Ginn & co. waded deeper into the 1980s, the tempos became slower, the songs got looser (giving Ginn more opportunities to simply improvise and riff) and the lyrics became more introspective in nature. I can't say that I'd play these albums as much as I would Damaged, but there are plenty of fine moments in all of them, especially in those two '85 albums.

Rise Above (2007, Dirty Projectors)
After my detour into Black Flag, I finally decided to listen to this album of covers of 11 Black Flag songs from Damaged. None of these covers sound anything like the originals, so give Dave Longstreth & co. points for at least being imaginative. But why does "Depression" sound so damned happy? Why does "Thirsty and Miserable" sound anything but? Those are among the many questions this album inspires. An, um, interesting try, I guess, even if it mostly left me baffled. Oh well; Bitte Orca—the Dirty Projectors album everyone seems to know and love, anyway—is up next.

William Baziotes's The Beach (1955), featured in Whitney Museum of American Arts' Signs & Symbols exhibition


Signs & Symbols, seen at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
Oskar Fischinger: Space Light Art—A Film Environment, seen at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
I found myself with oceans of free time on my hands on Friday afternoon, and since I found myself in the Upper East Side at the time, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to wander over to the Whitney and check out whatever exhibits I had missed since the last time I was there. Mostly, I wanted to catch up with German-American artist Oskar Fischinger's trippy three-screen multimedia projection Space Light Art (1926), which initially caught my interest not so much for its visual qualities as for the snatches of Edgard Varèse's Ionisation I heard coming out of the screening room. Ionisation is actually a fitting piece of background music for Fischinger's work; like Varèse's blast of nonmelodic percussion noise, Space Light Art works on a purely abstract level, blasting its bright colors and ceaselessly reconfiguring geometrical shapes at you in a 10-minute loop. It's a pretty cool experience if you're willing to fully submit yourself to it.

Space Light Art also fits in well with the exhibit right next to the screening room on the second floor, a large-in-scope show entitled Signs & Symbols devoted to showcasing the work of many post-World War II American artists—heavyweights like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Louise Bourgeois, among plenty of others—who dealt with visual abstraction partly in response to the rampant consumerism of the 1950s. But this isn't just another exhibit devoted to Abstract Expressionism; there are also works by other lesser-known American artists that show off a more concrete sensibility—like William Baziotes's ocean landscapes, for instance, or the Asian-language-inspired pictograms in the work of Bradley Walker Tomlin. Regardless of historical context, the exhibit, taken as a whole, is intriguing enough to the eye to sharpen one's awareness of the awesome power of suggestion symbols have in evoking all sorts of different meanings and connections.

I did also spend some time on the third floor checking out this show devoted to a previously unknown-to-me artist named Sharon Hayes. I'm a bit hesitant to say too much about it now, mostly because I feel a repeat visit might be beneficial to my formulating a more completely informed take on her work based on the exhibit. For now, then, all I'll say is that I found her multimedia explorations of the political and the personal to be intellectually intriguing (there are film installations, audio installations, pieces of performance art, photographs and even signs and posters included in this show) and sometimes genuinely poignant, and, based on what I've seen, I'd say it's worth a visit. More details later, I hope.


Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

Tony Scott was a bad director, but it's sad that his life ended this way. (I have a soft spot for TRUE ROMANCE because of the quirky duo and a great scene with Hopper and Walken; but the real credit for the scene should go to Tarantino's writing and the actors' acting.)

Now, if Michael Bay were to jump off a bridge...

Kenji Fujishima said...

Two things:

1. I assume you're joking about the Michael Bay thing. At the very least, I'd like to think I'd feel the same sense of tragedy if Bay were to do the same thing Tony Scott did. That said, maybe if I actually got around to watching most of his films, I'd feel differently; I hope not! (I've only seen The Rock and Armageddon. I actually like The Rock!)

2. You'll read more about this next week, but I actually got around to watching Scott's 2006 film Déjà Vu and...I think with that and Unstoppable he was on his way toward maybe positively refining that ADD aesthetic that so drove me up the wall in Domino. We'll never know now, obviously. (Have you seen Déjà Vu? It's actually really good, as is Unstoppable. Also, I think, for all its surface flash, his skill with directing actors has been unjustly ignored.)