Sunday, September 29, 2013


Friday, September 20, 2013

On the Way to the Sea - dir. Gu Tao
An Archaeology of Architecture - dir. Xu Ruotao
Yumen - dir. J.P. Sniadecki & Xu Ruotao

Three short, artsy, independent documentaries from China shown at the Performing Garage, home of the Wooster Group, curated by a young critic named Xin Zhou in an evening entitled "Ruin Tourism." These were all documentaries in the lyrical/poetical/high art mode. Not informational documentaries, of course. Not examples of the super raw on-the-spot realism that is a significant trend in contemporary independent Chinese documentary.

The first, On the Way to the Sea, was an impressionistic montage piece by a Montreal-based Chinese-Canadian filmmaker about his hometown, which was partially destroyed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It was moving, featured some excellent contemporary academic music by Canadian composers, and was financed by various Canadian arts institutions. O, Canada!

The second, An Archaeology of Architecture, was consisted of three episodes, the first forgettably showing the artist's studio, the second exploring an abandoned medical facility specially created for SARS epidemic patients, and the third and most interesting consisting of an interview with a former prison convict. The prison convict is filmed shirtless behind plate of glass dripping with moisture. He talks about prison life and the layout of the prison in which he was held, tracing a map of the prison on the plate glass with his forefinger. A hand on the opposite side of the glass (the camera's side) follows the convict's finger with a white maker, so that a sketchy map of of the prison emerges on the glass. The nature of the staging made it unclear whether the man was still in prison. Were they filming this in a studio? Or in a prison, the plate glass being not an artistic contrivance but a security barrier in a prison interview room? It gave a sense of the inner life of the inmate. When you're confined, the rest of the world exists as a kind of mental map, sketchy but detailed. The repetition conveyed a feeling of monotony. The technique--tracing--had a certain metaphorical weight, evoking trauma, lingering wounds. The plate glass as cinema screen, cinema screen as memory screen--it captured the way that documentary, as a genre, on the one hand objectifies subjects, frames them, pens them in, holds them at a distance, but also has potential as a medium for the self-expression of subjects.

The third film, Yumen, consisted of footage of people poking around a mining ghost town in Western China. Hopper-esque landscapes filmed beautifully on color 16mm with very little dialogue. One man makes paintings in the ruins. A woman recalls when the town was still active. It was a lot of Man and Woman Alone in the Desert, at times making me think of Jorgen Leth's The Perfect Human or the Twilight Zone in which Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montogmery play soldiers from once-opposed armies walking around in the ruins of a society destroyed by war.

I am aware of ruins being a kind of trope in some contemporary Chinese art. They are impressive to look at and easy, import-laden metaphors for social and historical change, the destruction of Old China by Communism and capitalism, the decay of/melancholic nostalgia for socialism, etc. Wang Bing's magisterial West of the Tracks and Jia Zhangke's Still Life and 24 City spring to mind. Some of Ai Weiwei's sculptures using historical ceramics and wood or his Zodiac heads sculptures might also be relevant.

From the Great Wall to the the Three Gorges Dam, Chinese infrastructure is the most massive and melancholy thing in the world. No one with a camera can help from marveling at it. Even Johnnie To's recent action film Drug War was preoccupied with it. Whatever we are individually, infrastructure embodies what we are collectively. Because infrastructure is in essence about movement, only film can really capture it. Its monumentality and its impersonality are troubling. What if it is not an expression of us, but we are an expression of it.

Pale Flower & Human Desire

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pale Flower - dir. Masahiro Shinoda, Anthology Film Archives

Hip Japanese existentialist noir about a yakuza's (Ryo Ikebe's) brief spell out of jail between two murders, during which time he resumes a life of aimless gambling, has a briefly rewarding friendship with a new protege, and falls for a death-driven younger woman (Mariko Kaga).

Shinoda's a demanding filmmaker. You remember the endurance test that was the last quarter of his Double Suicide--the movie we saw at MoMA the night me and my friends decided to go to Japan. What impressed me most about Pale Flower was how it tested my visual attention.

There was often lots of negative space in the frame, with the main object or person of interest often in a far corner or the side of the frame. The sense of isolation this created was intensified by the extremely shallow depth of field. Often, when two people were in the same frame talking  to each other, only one would be in focus, even if they were standing just a few feet away from each other. It creates a feeling of alienation: atomized individuals suspended in void, each trapped in their own two-dimensional planes.

Shinoda almost never shows the same shot twice. If two people are having a conversation, the camera will be placed differently with every shot. The same character is rarely ever shown from the same angle, elevation, and framing more than once. In this way, the characters become multifaceted but also mysterious, fragmented, "given in adumbrations" as phenomenologists say. Every character is fighting for his or her life, for coherence, against the fragmenting tendency of the cinematic mechanism. It's not just that, like many New Wave films, this film violates the grammar of Hollywood continuity editing. It had its own kind of anti-grammar. The 180-degree rule was reversed: instead of keeping the camera inside a 180-degree arc between shots, the camera usually moved at least 180-degrees with every shot. Moreover, it did this without keeping people in the same position in the frame, which would produce a more coherent sense of space, like in Ozu, for instance, who did not use the 180-degree rule, but maintained an orderly sense of space by keeping his actors centered in the frame, at very clean angles in relation to the camera. Pale Flower has an aesthetics of opposition, opposed spaces and perspectives creating a vibe of social opposition, friction, antagonism. I am tempted to say that this aesthetics reflects the uncomfortable position of our protagonist, fresh out of prison, in a hostile world, but I think what the film is doing is too radical to be confined to be made sense of in terms of identification. It is more about constructing a milieu, an underworld.

The creation of this vibe depended upon exceptions. After all, if the film was all wild, fragmentary, non-continuity editing, then these techniques would not necessarily have created the poetic connotations I described; they would just be the way the film shows things (which they also are). The film's restless construction of a shifting, fragmentary milieu finds anchor points in two characters who are repeatedly shown in similar compositions, usually in eye-line match cuts from the point of view of the protagonist: Mariko Kaga, who is repeatedly shown centered in the frame, in profile, in an eye-level close-up; and the dangerous junk addict/double-murderer Yoh (Takashi Fujiki), who is repeatedly seen in similar mid to close shots skulking in a corner of the gambling den frequented by the protagonist. In both cases, the repetitions cast a spell of desire and fear on the protagonist and audience, and in neither case is the protagonist's (the camera's/the audience's) gaze reciprocated: Kaga is shown in profile and Yoh is always looking off in the distance with the cool, contemptuous, zero-fucks-given sneer. The dialectic between the continuity editing and the more experimental, fragmentary editing pays off at the emotional climax of the film, when Kaga shows up at Ikebe's apartment to say goodbye to him before he goes off to do a hit that we all know will end him up back behind bars. When she arrives, we get a pair of eye-line matched shots of Kaga and Ikebe looking directly into the camera/at each other, a construction that combines the spatial coherence of the eye-line match cut with the 180-degree oppositionality that has mostly dominated the film. I don't know, maybe that's a bunch of bullshit, but I feel like it happened.

The characters in this film are interesting. They are unusually reflective, and their relationships with each other are surprisingly (for organized criminals) earnest and emotional.
- Ikebe is far too thoughtful to really be the kind of simple, cynical thug he claims to be. I can't tell if this is a fault of the screenplay or a virtue.
- The head of the gambling den seems at first like an intimidating, sunglasses-wearing Cool Guy but is gradually revealed to be more just an amiable fuck up.
- Ikebe's protege seems at first to be a Japanese variant on the Angry Young Man. The first time Ikebe meets him, the kid tries to kill him--it turns out the last man Ikebe killed was his mentor. In their second encounter, the kid drops by Ikebe's apartment to give him his finger, which he has cut off to apologize for trying to kill him earlier. Now the kid is bright and happy as a puppy. Ikebe reluctantly takes him on, and they develop a sincere senpai/kohai relationship that is really the only reliable, positive relationship Ikebe has in the whole film.
- Ikebe's boss is an old man with an effeminate face whose style of rule is more maternal than paternal. He gets people to do his bidding indirectly, not by invoking his authority and just commanding them to do what he says, but by manipulating them with affection and suggestions so that they volunteer to carry out his will. He subtly forces Ikebe to volunteer for a killing by insisting, at clan meeting, that anyone but Ikebe take the job. After Ikebe volunteers for the job, the boss makes a show of encouraging Ikebe to take his time, to settle his affairs before he does the job and is inevitably sent back to prison for it. The boss lets his impatience be known by telling Ikebe not to rush. What makes the boss such a bad guy, in this universe of emo gangsters, is that he does not appreciate the sacrifices his underlings make for him.
- Kaga's irresistible death babe comes off as much more authentically dangerous than Ikebe's tough guy. In one particularly moving scene, Ikebe and Kaga argue about heroin. Ikebe's violent aversion to drug use of any kind reveals how his stoic, gangster persona disguises neurotic insecurity, even a kind of chastity. Kaga's attraction to boundary-pressing drug experiences--and to the nihilistic drug dealer, Yoh--bears the mark, beyond rich girl irresponsibility, of an invincible will to die. She is ultimately too much for Ikebe. He can kill others, but not himself. It makes for an interesting narrative choice that, rather than walk this love story down the road to double suicide, the script keeps Ikebe and Kaga's relationship platonic. At the end of the film, an imprisoned Ikebe learns that Kaga went ahead with her destiny, acting out with Yoh the sordid, death-bound melodrama we thought we were going to see between her and Ikebe.

Jesus, I almost forgot two of the coolest things about the film. First, an awesome, menacing, Modernist, electro-moan film score by Toru Takemitsu. Second, the intensely ceremonial gambling scenes, which came off more like religious rituals than games of chance. People played some incomprehensible game that involved flipping over small cards featuring finely etched images of flowering trees while a dealer incessantly incanting what sounded like a cross between a Buddhist funeral chant and old-fashioned cattle auctioneer nonsense.

Human Desire - dir. Fritz Lang, BAM

Noir adaptation of Zola's La Bête humaine from Lang's Hollywood period. It is a story about the oppression of workers by industry and the oppression of women by men. The plot is the most interesting part of the film, so I will describe it in more detail than usual.

Rail yard foreman and fat slob Broderick Crawford is wrongfully fired just before retirement because the boss is a capitalist pig who doesn't want to pay his pension. Crawford asks his suspiciously sexy younger wife, Gloria Grahame, for help. Grahame's mother used to be a maid for some sort of Big Man who has sway with the company. Crawford asks Grahame to use her feminine charms to get the Big Man to help him get him his job back. "You said he always used to like you," says Crawford, and from Grahame's terrified reaction, we can tell exactly how the Big Man liked her. But somehow Crawford can't. His dialogue is so thick with innuendo, it is all but clear that he's asking his wife to prostitute herself. And yet from the expression on his face, he really does not seem to get the hint when Grahame says that she couldn't possibly trouble the Big Man for a favor. The contradiction between our understanding of Crawford's words and his apparent understanding of them is undecidable.

Anyways, Grahame relents. It is implied that she sleeps with the Big Man. Crawford gets his job back. It all goes smoothly--too smoothly for Crawford. Only now does it dawn on him what his wife had to do to get his job back, what he asked her to do to get his job back. But instead of blaming himself or just being grateful, he gets angry. He smacks her around and forces her to promise that she will help him kill the Big Man.

Crawford and Grahame's relationship is an amazing portrayal of male chauvinism, of the imperceptibility of male chauvinism to men. Crawford made his wife prostitute herself in order to get him his job back in order, ultimately, to repair his self-image. Crawford's desire to kill the Big Man is also a matter of repairing his own self-image, not primarily of avenging his wife's honor. Did he really not realize that he was pimping out his wife? Was he so narrowly concerned about himself that he couldn't realize it? Or did he just not care?  Perhaps the opacity of Crawford's psychology is the point. Intentions are not what matter, only the reality of male domination, of male narcissism, of the moral blindness of men. Men do not see what they do to women because they are always just looking at themselves.

So Crawford and Grahame kill the Big Man on a train one night and set it up to look like an accident except that Crawford's coworker, train driver Glenn Ford, catches Grahame red handed right after the murder. It's love at first sight for Ford, so when the police make an inquiry, he keeps schtum. Ford is a pure-hearted, All-American, hardworking Korean War veteran. A protective, caring, sensitive man, precisely the kind of man Grahame needs in order to get away from the bullying, abusive, increasingly dissipated Crawford. So, Grahame leaves Crawford for Ford, just as she once left the Big Man for Crawford. We come to see her as a prisoner of gender, a woman who, having been treated like a sexual object all her life, found her best option for survival in making herself into a seductress. And while Ford is ostensibly the Good Guy, he ends up using her just like every other man has used her. The rest of the details are not so important. Things end badly.

It is thanks to Zola that the basic story of the film achieves a remarkable synthesis of psychology and sociology: you see both the individual characters acting and, simultaneously, larger social forces acting through them. Fate is encoded in the character's life experiences and social positions, but Chance is what brings them together in the particular combinations that will ultimately undo them. Thinking about it makes me want to go back to Zola and renews my appreciation for what realism and the novel were once capable of as technologies for representing and understanding life in the age of industrial capitalism.

The film itself is not so terribly great. One cannot watch Lang's Human Desire and not spend the whole time thinking about Renoir's superior 1938 adaptation, La Bête humaine, starring Jean Gabin in the role played by Glenn Ford. Visually, Lang is stark and graphical, Renoir is lush and impressionistic. Narratively, Renoir's adaptation is quite a bit dirtier. Renoir's version is the canonical train-entering-tunnel-as-visual-metaphor-for-fucking film, and it uses this imagery so often, so obviously, so obscenely that it almost ceases to be a metaphor. In the Lang, Ford and Grahame have their first hookup in a railyard shack. As they smooch, Ford grab's Grahame by the hair with both hands and the lights of an oncoming train flood the shack. It's powerful, aggressive, but nowhere near as tawdry as in the Renoir, where the couple slips away to bone during a rainstorm and after they enter the shack the camera pans away to show rain gushing out of a gutter into an overflowing barrel. The most significant difference between the Lang and Renoir films is in the characterization of the protagonist (the Ford/Gabin character). In the Lang, Ford is an infallibly decent apple-pie kind of guy. In the Renoir, Gabin is his usual soft-eyed sensitive self with the added twist that he has some sort of bullshit congenital madness that every once and a while makes him black out and turn into a sex-murderer. You can guess how that changes the ending of the film.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I Was A Male War Bride

Saturday,  September 14, 2013

I Was A Male War Bride - dir. Howard Hawks. 1949. Museum of the Moving Image.

French army captain Cary Grant falls in love with American army lieutenant Ann Sheridan after some tiresome battle-of-the-sexes antics and then moves to America with her under a law providing for the immigration of war brides. Half-hearted cross-dressing and repetitive "But you're not a lady!" jokes ensue.

As bad as it sounds. Intended to capitalize on the success of Bringing Up Baby by repeating the same formula but with a less charismatic actress and a script that was merely shitty as supposed to sublimely unbearable. (I don't think I've ever seen a more exasperating film than Bringing Up Baby. It is right up there with Godard's Maoist films in terms of being a finely tuned anti-enjoyment machine.) There was not even the possible pleasure of Cary Grant playing a Frenchmen--he just sort of plays stiff and boring, with no accent and no attempt at national caricature.

Hawks is not without artistry, even in something as dull as this. The film often looks very good, and there is humor that is so formalistic it is almost hard to describe. For example, two times in the film, Cary Grant is accidentally lifted up into the air by very banal machines operated by hand cranks. The first machine that lifts Grant into the air is a moveable road barrier in front of a train track, and we don't just see him get lifted up all at once like we might in a cartoon, but instead glimpse it in flashes through the spaces between the passing train cars. The second machine that lifts Grant into the air is a retractable awning which he happens to be standing on top of because... it doesn't matter. The point is, what a weird joke to repeat.

Some of the film was shot on location in Heidelberg, Germany. The program notes said that Hollywood royalty were eager to shoot in Europe after the war after having been confined to California for the past decade. Plus, a conquered nation makes for a cheap film shoot. The same sort of bombed-out ruins that serve in Rossellini or Resnais as scars of a civilizational trauma here serve as the backdrop for frivolous and unfunny romantic comedy. It's obscene.

Soft in the Head

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Soft in the Head - dir. Nathan Silver, 2013. La Di Da Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives.

An alcoholic slattern (Sheila Chavarria) is kicked out by her abusive boyfriend, goes on a bender, alienates her friends, and is saved, more or less, by a beatific old man (Ed Ryan) who runs an informal homeless shelter in his apartment.

You know I was almost in this movie? The director is a friend of a friend of my roommate. The opening scene was shot in my living room. I was cut from shooting at the last minute, though, which was a good thing. Silver's films don't need actors: they thrive on real people, the crazier and broken the better. I suppose I'm too close to the film, then, to give it a fair assessment. Silver is a talented and intelligent filmmaker, and I am enjoying watching his development. His last film, Exit Elena, was great. That one was more Fassbinder--deliberate pacing, a well-packed 4:3 frame, a heavy emphasis on class--and this one more Cassavettes--tight shots in a wide frame, an improvisatory vibe, a preoccupation with human immediacy and (in)authenticity.

Silver's films are highly personal in method rather than content. (Fuck autobiographical mumblecore bullshit.) Exit Elena starred his then-girlfriend (Kia Davis), his mother (Cindy Silver), himself, and a family friend (Jim Chiros). In that film, Cindy Silver played, with cruel comedic genius, an overbearing, meddling creep who tries to set up her son with grandma's live-in nurse. Anyone who can make his own mother look that monstrous, even if she comes off as loveable by the end, is deserving of our attention. Soft in the Head stars a number of people who are friends of the director, and I believe the lead performer actually crashed on Nathan's couch for a while during filming. (I did the same for a play once--it's actually a marvelous way to work.) But what's most exciting in Soft in the Head are the strangers: the freakshow assemblage of lost souls that populate Ed Ryan's homeless shelter. I don't know where Nathan found those guys, but he struck gold.

The drawback of the film--here I have hard time separating my knowledge of its production from my watching it in a theater--is that in its preoccupation with spontaneity and the experience of intensity, it is at times a little uncritical. At its climax, Soft in the Head somewhat manipulatively kills off an ugly, possibly retarded homeless man for no real reason than to create a cathartic experience for its young, attractive female protagonist (a flattering point of identification for the audience, even with all her faults). The ending image of the film suggests that the protagonist is 'saved' from her self-destructive lifestyle by the awakening of her maternal instincts. Contrast this with the modest criticism that Exit Elena brought towards issues of domestic labor: it was about a female domestic worker exploited along gender and economic lines by the family she serviced, and the film ended with her gaining a sense of confidence and leaving them behind.

There's more to come from Nathan--he just shot his third feature, Simian. Look out for it.

Le Joli Mai

Friday, September 13, 2013

Le Joli Mai - dir. Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme. 1963. Film Forum.

A documentary about Paris and its inhabitants in the month of May, 1962. Consists entirely of man-on-the-street interviews interspersed with philosophical voice-over by Simone Signoret and Yves Montand over heartbreakingly beautiful cityscape photography. It's a slice of life, a symphony of a city, etc.

A major portion of Film Forum's audience consists of non-French speaking Francophiles who love nothing more than to fantasize that they live in Paris in 1962, so this was the perfect film for them--or so it seemed at first. It starts off as pure Paris porn. Fucking Champs-Élysées, Eiffel Tower, yé-yé bullshit. Slowly, it becomes something more political.

The trajectory of the film is to start with squares and conformists and gradually drift to the left, as it were. The first person interviewed is a likeable but complacent petit bourgeois who runs a menswear store. He bitches about how hard he and his wife work, about how thank god they have a television so that there's something to distract his wife from nagging him when he gets home. When asked what's important, he says, "Money in the till and my children's health." When asked if he likes movies, he asks whats in the theater. Marker says Last Year in Marienbad. The man recoils. "I'm a simple guy," he says. "Why pay money to have to figure something out?" Good point. Asked about politics, he gets cagey. One shouldn't talk about politics, he says. Why not? Because it shouldn't be important. Politics is about living well, he says, and I'm living well under de Gaulle, so I don't want to trouble about politics. Some may say that I'm selfish, he says, but get a few million selfish Frenchmen together and that's politics.--This is where the film starts.

Next it heads to the stock market. A man objects to Marker interviewing an adolescent stock market page, so Marker pulls the man into the film and then all his old square stock-broking pals join in. Then the film drifts slowly into public housing complexes, where Marker interviews the white working class. There is an intermission, during which Yves Montand's version of the song "Le joli mai" plays, and then the film comes back hard, backtracking to the murder of eight anti-war protestors by police in February 1962. Then protests related to the sentencing in May 1962 of one of the generals from the Algiers putsch. Then we meet an African immigrant, an Algerian immigrant, a female prisoner, and a priest who left the Church to become a Communist militant. We see de Gaulle at some public ceremony, and we see a few young troublemakes being dragged away by police.

The film is exuberant throughout, even when it gets serious. When I saw Pierre Lhomme speak at Lincoln Center, he said that when he watches the film, he sees primarily the joy of a young filmmaker exploiting a new technology--portable synchronized sound cameras--to try and find a new relation to the world, to truth, to other people, as though discovering all these things for the first time. He's right: it shows, and it is sort of infectious. Excepting its slightly heavy-handed finale, Lhomme and Marker exercise admirable restraint. They probe but don't bully--they invite. Lhomme said, in a very French way, that he met "the Others"--meaning the racial minorities--through this film. Certainly these interviews are the most interesting. The petit bourgeois of the first interview has remained unchanged decades later. More complex is what has and hasn't changed in the position and experience of people of color in Europe from the days of colonialism to the present.

Army of Shadows & shorts by Chris Marker

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Army of Shadows - dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969. Lincoln Center.

A film about a Gaullist French Resistance cell, circa 1942. A hard, gritty tale that begins in media res and which ends long before the end of the German Occupation.

I saw this film as part of "An Evening with Pierre Lhomme" at Lincoln Center. Lhomme was the cinematographer of Army of Shadows, and he is best known as the collaborator of the New Wave documentarian Chris Marker. I can't even begin to go into Army of Shadows. It's too big, too heavy. I will gloss.

The thing you have to say is that this came out in France in 1969, four months after the resignation of Charles de Gualle, and that it was so unanimously hated by French critics for being a flag-waving Gaullist piece of shit that it went undistributed in America until a restoration in 2006. People are very apologetic about this now. They--critics, Lhomme himself during the Q&A after the film--all say that it was a matter of bad timing: it's a masterpiece that was poorly received in its time because it happened to clash with the political climate in France.

That is a total cop out. Films are historical documents, and they should be treated as such. Especially films about history, especially about recent history, especially about recent history which is contested, especially when said contest is politically charged in the present. In no fucking way is de Gaulle and the religious myth of the Resistance that served as a continual source of legitimation for his rule in anyway separable from the political climate in France in 1969. Melville doesn't get a pass just because he was in the Resistance (even though it makes him a better man than I or most people will ever be).

And this film has got a huge fucking boner for de Gaulle. So huge, de Gaulle himself, or rather an actor playing him, actually shows up in a scene, his face tastefully obscured by shadow ("You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above..."), to pin a medal on one of the protagonists. One character says that, during a period of privation, what kept him going was his love for the Leader. The Gaullist protagonists are a fictionalized Greatest Hits compilation of Resistance heroes but Communists and left-wing Catholics--the other major Resistance contingents--are given short shrift: The film starts in a POW camp where our main protagonist is incarcerated with a communist youth and a dying priest whom he refers to as "lost souls." Watching this film in France in 1969 would be like watching a movie in America in 2009 about how George W. Bush really pulled the nation together after 9/11.

I asked Lhomme during the Q&A after the film,whether he thought about the political connotations of the film while he was making it. He said no. He was too close to the work and too preoccupied dealing with the tyrannical Melville to be critical about what he was making. Melville seemed to believe that people had to be unhappy in order to work: He was barely on speaking terms with the lead actor, and he went out of his way stifle the a friendship that began to develop between his two assistant directors. Only after getting some distance from the experience of making the film was Lhomme able to make out its political contours, which left him "disappointed."

Six days after Army of Shadows came out, Max Ophül's The Sorrow and the Pity, a documentary about French collaboration, was released. I have not seen the latter film, but it seems like a necessary corrective. The fact of their near-simultaneous release illustrates why one can't ignore the politics of Army of Shadows just because it's a 'masterpiece.' Indeed, the fact that it is 'masterpiece' makes its politics all the more insulting.

As to the film itself: This is a film about sacrifice. French patriotism rendered with the passion, masochism, and guilt of Catholicism. It is unrelentingly grim. In the whole film only one Nazi dies, but Frenchmen die in scores--some of them snitches who are killed by our protagonists. Signing up for Resistance is signing up for death, for meting it out to others and preparing yourself to receive it. The cyanide capsule as Communion. Torture is not just something Nazi's do to Resistance fighters in luxury hotels: it is a way of life. A way of life to which one submits, joyfully, in service of a Cause, an Ideal, incarnated in a Great Man whom, we pray, will redeem us.

The dominant color is black. Black, black, black, back, black. Such dark, velvety, pitch-black blacks. The grays are black. The blues are black. The browns are black. The fires are black. Black and blue and brown and gray and a dark marine teal. God, and in that darkness, such bright, luminous lights! When Lhomme was asked, during the Q&A, whether any special chemical treatment was done to achieve this amazing, desaturated palette, he said no. What you see was pretty much just what was in front of the camera, and the film's astonishing color scheme was primarily the work of brilliant costume, set, and art design.

One can see why American critics loved this film so much when it came out here in 2006. It is easier to like a film about a national resistance movement, with its white middle-class heroes, than a Marxist or anti-colonial one.  Americans love Big, Important Things, and while Melville is by no means a maker of modest films, this is his Biggest and most Important. There's submarines, skydiving, POW camps, Nazis, National Salvation, and a great bit fucking War. Melville's movies are the essence of cool, and here that coolness leaps out of the Hip into the Historical.

Be Seeing You (À bientôt, j'espère) - dir. Chris Marker, 1968.
Class Struggle (Classe de lutte - dir. the Medvedkin Group , 1969.

I find that the better a film is, the less I have to say about it. These were two fine, short documentaries about workers' struggles in France. The first was about union activity in a textile factory in Besançon. We see the factory, the protests, and the homes of workers. It is a humane film with a sincere interest in its subjects. There as an emphasis on asking workers to describe the processes by which they had become politically active. There is a strike that wins some minor concessions but mostly fails. The message is that class struggle is a long-term process, a process of learning and subjective transformation. Victors and defeats are both opportunities to learn, and you learn by participation. The workers are no more defeated in this strike than they were victorious in a major strike in 1966 that won them more significant concessions.

The only thing that bothered me about the first film was an interview with a mansplaining worker and his wife. The wife hardly said a word. Her husband kept talking for her. Marker did not really do much about it. This was corrected by the second short, which was primarily about the wife. She was radicalized in the interim between films and became a union leader. She was punished by management, which tried to isolate her and push her out by constantly reassigning her to various thankless, tedious, solitary jobs in the factory. She thinks about leaving to find better work elsewhere, but decides she is too dedicated to her fellow workers to give up the fight. The second film was made the Medvedkinn Group, a collective of film technicians and factory workers overseen by Marker. The credits indicate some unspecified involvement of Godard and Joris Ivens.

Pierre Lhomme proved to be charming, intelligent, thoughtful, and lovely man during the Q&A. He seemed pleased to be there, to share his thoughts and stories. He was generous to the intelligence of questioners, even when the questions were poor, and tried hard to make sure he's answered the question. When asked questions that off-topic, he resisted in a way that turned the attention on himself--"But that is a different world! It is hard for me think about that!" He had a fatherly ability to deal with patiently curious young people. He would often struggle to find the correct English words to express what he wanted to say, and every single time the words he was looking for were cognates of the French words he was thinking.

Lhomme continues to talk about the recently deceased Chris Marker in the present tense, and described his relationship with him as one of the most important in his life. Marker, he said, really cared about the people whom he filmed. When a questioner stated in passing that Lhomme was not associated with the New Wave "per se,"  The strongest statement Lhomme made that night was that the association of the term "New Wave" with only five or six directors is "the biggest, fattest lie" in film. For him the New Wave was a historical moment during which dozens of directors came of age, extending and expressing in cinema the larger generational, cultural, and political transformation of French society. Refreshingly, he was neither apologetic nor despairing about what had become of left-wing movements of that time. "All the dreams of this period remain dreams," he said, "but I think it was fascinating, is fascinating: the human being."

Rancho Notorious & The Spoilers

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 

Rancho Notorious - dir. Fritz Lang. 1952. BAM.

An urban crime drama disguised as a Western. In order to revenge the rape and murder of his wife, Arthur Kennedy must infiltrate the culprit’s hideout, a ranch/outlaw commune run by Marlene Dietrich.

-- Juicy, pulpy nihilism that reminded me a little of Sam Fuller, only the vibe is more silk than muscle. Hard, saturated colors just as expressive—and Expressionist—as noir chiaroscuro. The characters reminded me of poisonous snakes, with their bright, deadly colors and oily shine. These aren’t the strong, silent, stolid, mountain-of-a-man Western types. They’re all crooks and freaks. Kennedy is a lean everyman gone bad who just keeps getting skinnier as the hate eats away at him. The rapist is a normal-seeming psychopath-next-door type by William Fawley, best remembered as Fred Mertz, the next-door-neighbor in I Love Lucy. Kennedy infiltrates Fawley’s hideout by winning the trust of Dietrich’s beau, the slick, romantic criminal “Frenchie Fairomont” (Mel Ferrer). The hideout is populated by a perverse preacher (“Praying for Mammon has ever been my infirmity.”) and another implied serial rapist, played, creepily enough, by television’s Superman, George Reeves, whose baby face is blighted by a phallic facial scar which may or may not have been inflicted by one of his victims. And of course there is Dietrich.

-- There is a sinister relish of death and violence in this film. There is the blunt theme song/recurring musical voiceover narration, with its thudding, unrhymed chorus, “Hate/ Murder/ and Revenge.” Death by hanging is described by one character as “a clean way to die, and quiet as eating a banana.” After Arthur Kennedy kills a man in a shockingly violent fist fight—filmed in a hard-hitting close-up with a camera so mobile it feels hand-held—the autopsist rattles off a litany of the victim’s injuries—broken this, severed that—to conclude, almost admiringly, “In other words: he’s real dead.”

The rape/murder of Kennedy’s wife, Gloria Henry, exemplifies the film’s seediness. She dies in a routine robbery gone wrong. The criminal enters the general store where she works while she is alone. He demands at gunpoint that she open the safe. She takes him to the back and starts unlocking the safe, but then she pauses and looks at the him (at the camera, which happens to be occupying his point of view) with such wide-open, terrified eyes (perhaps borrowed from Peter Lorre in the climax of M) that we know what’s coming next. A movie character doesn’t get that scared, or rather that kind of scared, just because she’s being robbed. She knows that the safe is empty, and what’s more, she knows that the shot of the empty safe, followed by the shot of anger and lust awakening in the robber’s eyes, is going to be the gross visual metaphor that will seal her fate.

Exterior shot of the store: We hear a scream, then a gunshot, and then see the criminal run out and ride away. Some one fetches Kennedy and he rides back to town with his back to the sun, his silhouette pitch black, to the sound of thundering drum and brass. He arrives at the store, pushes through the horrified crowd gathered inside, and the doctor breaks the news to him, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but they didn’t spare her anything.”—this being, of course, just about the worst way to tell him. A euphemism that, like all euphemisms, masks not so much what it describes as the obscene delight one takes in imagining what it describes. As the doctor tells Kennedy this, we get a close up of a look we’re going to see a lot of from Kennedy: face tightened in anger, bugged-out, hateful eyes burning like sulfur (what eyes in this film!). The next shot is tawdry indeed: a close-up of wifey’s lifeless face panning down to past her torn blouse collar—another lurid visual euphemism—and then down her arm to finally rest on her curled, claw-like hand (also borrowed from Lorre), frozen with rigor mortis and a still dripping with the blood of her attacker, a harrowing image of futile self-defense.

-- Alongside all this morbidity, weird romance. Kennedy first encounters Frenchie in jail. When asked how he, such a well known and savvy criminal, got himself caught, Frenchie says he couldn't resist going into town to buy perfume for Dietrich. When Kennedy and Frenchie break jail and are fleeing from town with the law on their tail, Frenchie pauses to smash the window of the parfumerie and take what he came to town for. The death-bound quality of their romance echoes in a strange bit of romantic dialogue: "Time holds us together. And time's stronger than a rope." She is his Older Woman, and he is her Pretty Young Thing.

-- Dietrich does all the things Dietrich does: night club croons, wears pants, sits in chairs backwards, cocks her eyebrow like a pistol, generally dominates the men around her with the poise of a lion tamer. Her outlaw queen character is appropriately named “Alter,” reflecting not only the queerness of her persona but what she does to the film. Prior to the film arriving at Dietrich’s ranch, most of the outdoors scenes actually take place outdoors, on studio lots and occasionally on location. When we arrive at the ranch, however, many of the outdoor scenes are noticeably filmed indoors. There are shots where you can actually see the corner of the studio wall or creases in the background painting. Kennedy and Dietrich start to develop feelings for each other (or are they just using each other?), and the closer he gets, the weirder the film starts to look. Their romance climaxes in a sunset scene on a desert mountain filmed in a garishly painted, orange and pink set full of weird, geometrically-shaped rocks.

-- Dietrich’s weird outlaw commune is called Chuck-a-Luck, an awkward name from a roulette-like gambling game involving a large, vertical wheel that I suppose is meant to evoke the Wheel of Fate. The place reminds one of the society of criminals in M. There is a utopian dimension to it—they all live and work and break bread together in this autonomous pirate enclave where the only rule is that you don’t get nosey about anyone’s past. And yet, at they same time, they are all pretty bad dudes. There is not a rehab center: Marlene gets 10% of every heist. The utopian community remains structured by exclusions. Dietrich says that everyone who stays at Chuck-a-Luck has to do their part. But some parts are bigger than others. We never really see the outlaws do any ranch work—they just spend their days practicing shooting and their nights partying and gambling away their booty with Marlene. The real ranch work seems more the responsibility of the group of Mexican and American Indian hired hands Marlene keeps around in order to maintain the front of a legitimate business. One of the hired hands confides in Kennedy that they work under constant threat of death: one worker was disappeared after drunkenly letting slip a word about the true nature of the ranch in town. Chuck-a-Luck symbolizes the two sides of the conquest of the West: on the one hand a chance to start anew, a utopian realm of freedom and social experimentation, but, on the other hand, all achieved through a process of primitive accumulation, racial domination, and exploitation.

The Spoilers - dir. Ray Enright. 1942. BAM.

Corrupt officials try to claim-jump John Wayne during the Klondike gold rush in more ways than one, going after both his mine and his old flame, saloon gal Marlene Dietrich.

Set in Nome, Alaska. It must have been pretty uncomfortable for the actors to wear all those layers in the 70-degree California studio lot they were clearing filming in.

A libertarian fantasy. Everything seems to be just fine in Nome. People manage on their own in a society organized by the market. Until the forces of Law and Order come to town in the form of a crooked judge and a gold commissioner. Government is portrayed as a cartel of powerful, connected individuals set on wrecking the harmonious, lawless, market society by using legal trickery to steal away what humble gold miners have theoretically won through their own hard work. The miners get together and boot the corrupt officials out.

The above clip is the culmination of the excruciatingly racist comic relief provided by Dietrich's house servant, Idabelle (Marietta Canty). In scene after scene, Canty is forced to dutifully listen to Dietrich complain about her unsatisfied cunt and to recite dialogue about how, I shit you not, they ain't no watuhmelon in Alaska. Southern states are name checked--It sho' is colder in Alaska than Georgia! They ain't no coluh'd boys neither an ya gets tired uh pree-tendin' that them Eskimo boys is from Vuhginia!--because that's where black people are from, do you get it?! John Wayn robs a bank in blackface--I guess they were out of pointed hoods--and, wouldn't you know it, this clever way of disguising his identity is so convincing, even Idabelle is fooled!

The racism is not just textual, but a reflexive part of its visual storytelling. At one point Idabelle is sent out of the room to fetch some refreshment. In her absence an extravagant fist-fight breaks out between John Wayne and the gold commissioner. The following shot is thrown in as a joke: Idabelle walks in on the fight, goes bug-eyed, and drops the plate of refreshments she had had been sent to fetch. This is the funniest thing a Negro can do: fuck up at serving white people.

I'm rarely offended by what I see at the movies, but I couldn't abide being subjected to the laughter of long-dead racists. The reaction of the audience at BAM was unfortunate. It was mostly old white people. You can only give a dry, ironic laugh at this kind of antiquated, racist nonsense for so long until your laugh starts sounding not so dry, not so ironic, and the racism starts seeming a bit less antique. This is the second film I've seen at BAM with Surprise Blackface. Enter the Fat Dragon also had a white man in blackface dressed up like Jim Kelly from Enter the Dragon. It's all the more shocking to see at BAM, an institution that devotes a significant portion of programing in cinema, theater, dance, and music to black American and African artists. Not that BAM is to blame. Maybe it's just part of the risk of repertory cinema programming. You never know what bizarre and offensive things might be buried in these old, obscure films. The real test is in how one reacts to it, and I'm not sure we passed.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The night I didn't see The World's End

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I went to BAM to see the new comedy by that clique of British comedians centered around director Edgar Wright and writer/performer Simon Pegg. You'll remember their films Sean of the Dead, the zombie comedy, and Hot Fuzz, the Straw Dogs/Wicker Man/Bad Boys II mash-up that starts out as a small British parody of buddy-cop-action films and ends up as a great buddy-cop-action film  parodying British smallness. The screening of The World's End was in the smallest theater at BAM. There was no one in the theater but me, in the third row, and a couple three rows behind me. What the fuck was I doing watching this major commercial film in this tiny, empty, self-congratulatory theater? Why wasn't I in front of a huge screen with a noisy crowd and popcorn at Court Street? I got up and left and didn't ask for my money back. It was my fault.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rio Bravo

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rio Bravo - dir. Howard Hawks. 1959. Museum of the Modern Image.

Sheriff John Wayne and deputies Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan have their jailhouse laid siege to by hired guns trying to jailbreak the incarcerated brother of a powerful rancher. Smoking hot Angie Dickinson threatens to break John Wayne’s concentration.

I don’t have the knowledge base to talk about this film with much insight. I much prefer film writing that emphasizes historical context rather than the kind of thematic analysis on which I am about to embark. All I can really say is, this film is great and Howard Hawks is a genius and John Wayne is amazing. The opening scene is as striking as any in cinema, introducing the characters in a breathless and mostly dialogue-free, rapid-fire confrontation of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Hawks has an oddball sense of humor that always takes one by surprise, both in its timing and its content, like Wayne clobbered with a two-by-four the very moment you first see him, or like in a later scene where an argument between Wayne and Brennan ends with Wayne teasingly kissing the bald pate of Brennan’s old coot and then getting retributively slapped in the ass with a broom. The film is superbly well written, its dialogue ranging from the terse, antiquarian, Western man-speak of Wayne’s scenes with his old pal Pat Wheeler and the very modern, clipped cadences of Wayne and Dickinson’s romantic sparring.

This Western is not set on the open desert or the high mountains or the rolling fields, but in a hotel and a jailhouse and occasionally in the street that connects them—one domicile for Capital and one for the State, both strictly short-term occupancy only, connected by a public space that’s for moving through rather than for congregating in. The town is a portal the West. A checkpoint for flows of people and goods. Keep it movin’ folks. The drama of the film is that of congestion—what happens when people and things that are supposed to keep on moving get stuck in place. The main plot: Wayne is unable to transport a prisoner out of town because, as Wayne repeatedly gripes, the prisoner’s affluent brother has the whole town “bottled up” with hired guns. Wayne’s plan is to wait for the US Marshalls to arrive and unclog the system. The romance sub-plot: Angie Dickinson passes through town on the stagecoach, wanted as an accomplice to her now-dead gambling cheat of a husband. She’s supposed to be on the run from the law, but instead she falls in love with it in the person of John Wayne. She refuses to leave town, despite Wayne’s repeated efforts to put her on the next stage out. And another subplot: Ricky Nelson and Pat Wheeler are supposed to be passing through in a caravan escorting a shipment of dynamite further West, but Wheeler ends up murdered by outlaws and Nelson has to stay for revenge.

The only characters who do live in the town do so because their innate itinerancy has been hobbled—literally, in the case of poor, crippled Brennan, whose character, named “Stumpy,” hardly ever even leaves the jail house. Wayne ended up in town when he got “too lazy to keep selling [his] gun all over the place” and decided to sell it to just one place. Alcoholic Dino is compared to a tumbleweed—an aimlessly drifting piece of social detritus—but also to something one keeps tripping over in the street. I guess he’s the gunk that clogs your arteries.

The only characters who do have relatively organic relationship to the town are the Mexican couple who runs the hotel. For all that is of its time about how these characters are drawn—a comical, diminutive, Mexican sidekick and his fiery Latin wife—perhaps there is (maybe) a kind of respect for their (I hate to use the word) authenticity in the use of Spanish throughout the film: in the nickname of Dino’s character, “Borrachón;” in the title of the film (the Mexican name Rio Bravo as opposed to the American bastardized term Rio Grand[e]); and, most prominently, in some Spanish-language verbal comedy that goes unsubtitled and untranslated.

Wayne and his men have cloistered themselves in the jailhouse, besieged not only by outlaws but also by sex. Their West is not just a geographic frontier, but a social one, a new land awaiting a new, homosocial society to founded on and governed by manly virtues like honor, strength, and self-reliance, striking a balance between mutual respect (“Every man should have a taste of power before he’s through”) and the hierarchies that naturally emerge in a society founded on strength. It is a society of civic virtue where life would be oriented toward public duty rather than private interest, which is associated in Wayne’s mind with women and the domestic. When Wheeler offers to let Wayne borrow a few of his men to guard the jailhouse, Wayne turns him down, saying that wheeler’s’s men would only be a liability: in a firefight their heads would be full of thoughts of their wives and children while the outlaws would be thinking only of money. We see what women do to a man in the prodigal Dean Martin, a recovering alcoholic whom we learn used to be Wayne’s deputy long ago but left his job when the wrong woman came along, broke his heart, and reduced him to drink. The film is, in part, the story of Dino’s rehabilitation, symbolized (of course) by him overcoming the shakes to re-master his pistol. John Wayne rewards Dino by returning to him the fancy clothes and gun belt that Dino sold off long ago to fund his alcoholism. Wayne bought back the items and fastidiously maintained them, waiting for the day Dino would return—one of many touchingly maternal gestures by the Duke, whom we forget is as much, if not more so, a fussy old woman as a patriarch. Just as Dino is the Duke’s Younger Man, so the Duke was Brennan’s Younger Man once. Now that Brennan has become old and enfeebled, the Duke takes on the role of Brennan’s younger, caretaker wife.

The specter of sex first rears its head not in Angie Dickinson but Ricky Nelson, a supposedly great gunfighter who wants to join Wayne’s band but whom Wayne turns down for reasons that seem specious. Perhaps Wayne is troubled by Nelson’s soft face, his dreamy, boyish looks, his tender blue eyes, the golden tenor of his voice, the way that his gun belt, draped over his pelvis, frames his cute little ass and modestly bulging cock. Wayne finally takes Nelson on but only to make Dino jealous, a bit of reverse-psychology aimed at forcing him to pull his shit together on the verge of a relapse and reclaim his rightful place as Wayne’s Special Boy.

And then there is the woman. The romance between Wayne and Dickinson begins when he apprehends her on suspicion of having cards up her sleeve at a poker game. Dickinson flirtatiously insists that he search her, one of the many times that Dickinson insists Wayne prove his desire for her by punishing her. Like I said, she’s not just in love with Wayne, but with the Law. Their scenes together deteriorate over the course of the film from very funny back-and-forths between Wayne and Dickinson to just hysterical monologues by Dickinson in which she projects all sorts of sexist attitudes on Wayne that he does not actually express (“You don’t want me to wear these stockings, do you?! Is it because they show too much of me?!”). Dickinson’s character knows what movie she’s in—she’s seen that stony, skeptical look on the Duke’s face before, she knows that it means. She’s so totally internalized the problem she represents to the Homosocial Frontier that the he doesn’t have to say a word. She says that she put the stockings on so that the Duke would know “what kind of woman” she is (the slutty kind), a phrase that she repeats throughout the film. Although, aside from the stockings, however, there is never any concrete indication that she actually is “that kind of woman," she knows that, in this social context, every woman is “that kind of woman.” The Duke finally gives in and says what she wants to hear, “I don’t want you to wear those stockings because I don’t want anyone to see you in ’em but me.” But when she hands him the stockings, he throws them out the window, where, in the closing shot of the film, they are recovered by his true loves, Dino and Stumpy.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

About this Letter to a Friend

I am trying to write this all like it’s a letter to a friend—not to be too precious about my words but also to work on them. In fact, it is a letter to a friend, a friend who's off in India training to be a sherpa. He can't go to the movies, but he can read this instead. Others may read it--I hope they do--but it is with my friend in India in mind that I write.

All cinephiles are auto-didacts. Most have little or no formal education in film, and those who do get the bulk of their education outside the class-room anyways. As a result, conversations about film are often marked by the wounded defensiveness and bullish competitiveness that often characterizes the discourse of auto-didacts. I will try to be a little less self-conscious than that. It’s okay to make mistakes in analysis or in taste. In fact, I am going to try to make a lot of mistakes.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Passion - dir. Brian De Palma. 2012. Lincoln Center.

A pretentious boardroom-and-bedroom thriller in which ‘high-powered advertising executive’ Rachel McAdams plays sick sexual and professional power games with underling Noomi Rapace.

Vile De Palma retread garbage. A throwback to his Hitchcock rip-offs and the days of the Erotic Thriller. A film that may be misperceived by those hungry to rationalize their enjoyment of it as “critical” of any number of things to which it merely makes reference: capitalism, surveillance, corporate culture, the gaze etc. Pino Donaggio's flattering, lubed-up score removes whatever possibility for critical distance from the film's images there might have been. That said, it is not without occasional insight.

McAdams gives a spot-on portrayal of the kind of high-functioning psychopath whom we are told live among us in large numbers undetected and are especially numerous in the upper echelons of the business world. Her character is a kind of female Patrick Bateman, only whereas Bateman was an artistic conceit who alternated between realism and satirical excess, McAdams’ character seems more like a symptom of the above-referenced pop-sci discourses about the Psychos Among Us, discourses that medicalize the social pathologies of late capitalism rather than politicize them.

The film perspicaciously presents business and sex as spheres of activity where it is socially acceptable to behave in an amoral manner. (Is it perspicacious or just symptomatic? Is there a difference?) The film’s big obvious statement about capitalism comes when McAdams wins a promotion by taking credit for Rapace’s idea for a successful marketing campaign. McAdams tells Rapace not to resent her for being strong, clever, and amoral enough to take credit for her ideas. “I saw my chance, and I took it. There’s no backstabbing here. It’s just business.” To make sure we get the message, the film has Rapace repeat these same words back to McAdams when she gets her payback. McAdams might as well have said, “It’s just sex,” for the same amoral philosophy reigns in the bedroom. A love triangle develops between McAdams, Rapace, and McAdams’ lover/business partner Paul Anderson, with all three parties using the other two ruthlessly for their own self-interest. McAdams is supposed to be some kind of a kink queen, and if the evidence—lace blindfolds, handcuffs, anal beads, strap-ons, dog masks, leashes, a mask molded on her own face for her lovers to wear while they please her (Do you get it?!)—all seems a bit 90’s, that just shows how quickly mainstream notions of permissible sexual behavior have expanded in recent years. The moral attitude taken towards sex has been applied to the realm of economics, or is it the other way around? Anything goes and the only ethical obligation one has is actualize oneself—to pursue one’s desires to the fullest, desires to be fulfilled, in the main, through the domination of others.

There is something parodical about the corporate-speak dialogue of the film. It is the pure, almost abstract form of bullshit. "Did you see the numbers in the latest report?! And the revisions?!" "You're right they're full of shit!" Not the slightest effort is made to tailor a single line of dialogue to the particularities of any character's voice. There is no difference in the way that any of the characters think or express themselves. Any line of dialogue could just as easily have been said by one character as another, or by a computer for that matter. The dialogue and the characters are totally flat, unindividuated. One scene is set up by McAdams telling Rapace, "See that guy over there, the bald guy with his nose in his drink? He's a very big fish for our company. You land him, you can run the account." It sounds like text on a PowerPoint slide for the role-playing segment of a corporate training seminar. It makes me shudder to think that any human being would find this generic expression of a generic situation the kind of relatable, high stakes dramatic situation they would pay money to have represented and glamorized for them by a motion picture. In scene after scene, it is as though the screenwriters wrote a summary of the scene and then put that summary, verbatim, in the mouths of the characters.

It will not spoil anything to say that Rapace enacts vengeance against her tormentor and that this vengeance leaves Rapace broken and insane. In the end, the underling is punished--by the film--for her revolt, a revolt which the film depicts as doomed to fail, not because the system was against her (for to depict her failure as the consequence of systemic injustice would still be a critical gesture--see Soderbergh's similar but far superior Side Effects), but because she was weak. The film sides with McAdams and the corporate Nietschean superwomen of the world.

Lincoln Center was the worst place in the world to watch this film for it is the one place in the world where the audience would take it seriously.

The Grandmaster, again

Thursday September 5, 2013

The Grandmaster (American Cut) again, this time at BAM’s Harvey Theater.

Better the second time.

The main figure is rotation: of bodies, cameras, time. Rotation of wrists, fists, ankles, feet, hips, whole bodies in whirling kicks and flips. Twisted necks, craning necks—there is hardly a glance in the film that does not come from the shoulder, and that applies to the camera as well. Fighters suck each other, and the camera, in like whirlpools, in a centripidal, dervishing dance, like two galaxies orbiting each other closer and closer, exploding into indistinct shapes—limbs blurring, centers of gravity wildly shifting—as the kaleidoscopic frenzy of forces pulls them apart, until the final ecstatic moment of collision. Ip Man and Gong Er literally fall in love when, in some crazy maneuver, he throws her cartwheeling in the air, and camera spins and rotates too, on all three of its axes, so that neither he nor she seems stably in place, but both are rather rotating on the axis of the desire circulating between them, pulling them together even as it sends them flying apart, turning their worlds upside down. In the catastrophe of love, it’s not just your head that’s spinning, it’s the whole world that’s disoriented, that centrifuges out until its only you and your lover clinging to each other as you tumble spinning into the abyss of the stairwell. (I’d call it a revolution, but this would just be a stupid pun. Nothing in Wong Karwai’s world admits of this idea. For him, change, history, are geologic: there are sudden eruptions and slow erosions and when things are gone, they are gone forever and leave only the finest traces of what used to be, like great cliffs ground down into beaches by the waves.) So violent is this love/fight scene that its spatial contortions echo in time. Ip Man and Gong Er do not see each other again for 15 years, through which time we first follow Ip Man’s story and then double back to cover Gong Er's.

Seeing a movie at the Angelika is hardly seeing a movie at all.

Invincible Shaolin & Enter the Dragon

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Invincible Shaolin - dir. Chang Cheh. 1978. BAM.

A general plots to destroy the Shaolin warriors by exploiting internal divisions.

A homoerotic reverie. All brotherhood, manly honor, and glistening, beautiful, half-naked men admiring each others bodies. You could say this about any kung fu film, of course. (Prodigal Son had interesting homoerotic content, for example: the protagonist fell in love with what he thought was a female opera performer but turned out to be his future kung fu master.) But here the homoeroticism is not subtext but text. It’s not a matter of using one’s knowledge that the director was gay to impose a psychological reading of the film. Nor of insistently decoding the images through the prism of psychoanalysis. It’s a matter of delectating in the spectacle of the open secret. A man trains with a staff by thrusting it through ever smaller (tighter) dream-catcher like hoops, twirling it around inside for good measure. Another man does sinuous pushups over a well that look a lot like he’s humping some great terrestrial anus. Another training exercise is basically just bondage play. The special skill of two of the Shaolin warriors is to drive their hands into their opponents flesh. Staves get thrust through lower abdomens and broken off, but they characters don’t die, they just walk around with these blood-spewing wooden hard-ons. Warriors spot each other in the streets through certain tale-tell, teasing signs legible only to members of their community and then have thrilling, anonymous, one-time encounters. “What a man. He never even told me his name.” It is a film about the erotics of submission: submission to mastery (an erotic education), submission to duty (to a homosocial ideal) fulfilled in ecstatic death.

Enter the Dragon - dir. Richard Clouse. 1973. BAM.

Bruce Lee, John Saxon, and Jim Kelly team up to defeat a nefarious human- and opium-trafficking Chinese Dracula at a martial arts tournament held on a decadent, Orientalist Xanadu of an island fortress-cum-brothel.

A good laugh. An incoherent mess held together only by the reliable rhythms of on-screen violence and the omniscient narration of Lalo Schifrin’s searing 70’s funk-infused score. It’s one of those film scores that does not accompany the action of the film but incarnates it. It’s like Looney Tunes or Vertigo—the music is the main narrative engine.

This being a Hollywood appropriation of the kung fu craze, the chasteness of Hong Kong cinema is replaced by unsavory, anything-against-women-goes misogyny of American cinema. There is a very distasteful flashback to the attempted rape of Bruce Lee’s sister, who was one day set upon by henchmen on shore leave from the main villain’s island. Why they should attack her when the island fortress is fully stocked with sex slaves is given no explanation: it is simply natural, I guess, that macho men want to rape women and that every women everywhere, every moment of her life, is a potential rape victim. Bruce Lee’s sister cannot prevail against fate by either fight or flight, and we are invited to take the same pleasure in the watching her defend of her maidenly honor as the cat takes in toying with the mouse. When finally cornered, she commits seppuku with a shard of broken glass—a weird bit of Orientalist miscoding. Just before she stabs herself, we got a real whopper of a close-up of the menacing, phallic glass shard, seen from the apparent point of view of her stomach. The bad guys don’t get to rape her, but the film does.

Bruce Lee, John Saxon, and Jim Kelly are all seemingly plucked out of different films and thrown together in a James Bond movie. Bruce Lee starts off in something more dignified and heady, like one of King Hu's wuxia films. John Saxon is a Vietnam vet and high-class hood in deep with the sharks who should maybe be plotting a casino heist instead of entering a martial arts tournement. Jim Kelly's Blaxploitation subplot is the most interesting. We first meet Kelly, a war buddy of Saxon’s who must have been radicalized when he got back from the front, at what appears to be the black nationalist self-defense school. He flees America when a stop-and-frisk with racist cops ends with him kicking their lights out and stealing their car. Can I watch that movie instead?

Prodigal Son

Monday, September 2, 2013

Prodigal Son - dir. Sammo Hung. 1981. BAM.

Awesome. A touch of authenticity was brought to the screening by the lousy projection at BAM. The film broke about halfway through. A dismayed woman in the audience shouted in Cantonese at the screen. Later, the, I don't know what you call it, the alignment of the frame was off, such that the bottom of the image was at the top and the top of the image was at the bottom, with a big black line between them. Took minutes to fix. Is this what it was like back in the day of the Chinatown movie circuits, when every Chinatown in the country had cheap theaters playing kungfu films all day?

Enter the Fat Dragon

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Enter the Fat Dragon - dir. Sammo Hung. 1978. BAM.

A parody of Way of the Dragon in particular and Brucesploitation in general, by and starring the pudgy kung fu choreographer, director, and performer Sammo Hung.

Very funny. But occasionally one did not appreciate the audience's laughter. Granted, Enter the Fat Dragon is a comedy. But sometimes the audience's laughter seemed more derisive than participatory. Laughing at, rather than with. The same was true with Way of the Dragon. I was reminded of an article about the danger of watching things "ironically." I don’t think the problem with “ironic” viewing is that it is disrespectful to art or to artists but that it is disrespectful to oneself. There are ways of laughing at films and making jokes at them that increase our investment in them and enhance the experience of watching them, just like how shouting at the TV during a sporting event makes us care more about who wins, or how the ritual of prayer deepens our piety. But there are also ways of laughing at films that hold us at a distance from them. If you spend the whole time saying to yourself, “They can’t possibly be serious,” then you will never take anything seriously. People laugh “ironically” because they are afraid, afraid of something that is different or foreign to their experience, something they don’t know how to make sense of and which therefore makes them feel inadequate. It’s a matter of insecurity. “Ironic” laughter defends one against the experience of difference by rendering the hostile, foreign entity homogenous with the rest of one's experience, categorizing it something as “funny” or “ridiculous” or “absurd” or “laughable,” something one has already got figured out.

Way of the Dragon

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Way of the Dragon - dir. Bruce Lee. 1972. BAM.

Bruce Lee goes to Rome to fight off the gangsters who are trying to coerce a Chinese family into selling their restaurant. Ends with a fight against Chuck Norris in the Coliseum.

I'd never seen a Bruce Lee film before. I didn't expect it to be so funny. Particularly amusing was that, although the film is set in Rome, the gangsters are clearly American street thugs, not Italian Mafiosi. "Don't you speak English?" one of the gangsters says to Lee. Lee is not much of a filmmaker but he is a storyteller and an entertainer. Lee's fresh-off-the-boat protagonist is endearing and recognizable. The attention lavished on a stray kitten that witnesses the final showdown between Lee and Norris is humorous and sweet. Bruce Lee ripping out Chuck Norris's chest hair and blowing it in his face is sublimely hilarious, and yet the same scene ends with convincing solemnity as, in a wordless exchange, Norris chooses to die in battle against Lee rather than live with the disgrace of defeat. (Norris, clearly already beaten, sets up to attack Lee. Lee shakes his head, "No," but Norris attacks anyways, forcing Lee to kill him. Lee honors Norris by covering his body before running after the rest of the fleeing bad guys.)

As compared to Sammo Hung's films, which I saw later that week, the choreography in Lee's film is both more visceral and more narratively compelling. In Lee's first fight with a group of American thugs, you can see the calculation behind his moves. He never attacks but instead baits the Americans into coming at him just the way he wants so that he can deliver a devastating counterattack. Reflected in this choreography is the moral posture of Lee's violence, which is defensive not only literally but also in its social context--Lee is the little guy, a working class immigrant, up against a predatory system of exploitation. It also suggests that beating the bad guys is not (just) a matter strength and skill but also of cleverness. Finally there is an element of ethnic pride. The Americans rely on brute strength and firearms to dominate others and mock "Chinese boxing" before the fight. Their underestimation of kung fu--and by extension, of working class minority community they exploit--proves to be the direct cause of their undoing, as in when one character knocks himself out in a clumsy attempt to use a nunchuck.

As much as the film is a feel good, populist story, there are dissonances left admirably unresolved. We do not get the satisfaction of seeing the head bad guy punished. Instead of death, he gets arrested at the end of the film in the first an only appearance made by the police. The kindly old man of the restaurant, Uncle Wang, ends up betraying his fellow workers, literally stabbing them in the back as he gives a speech about how honest, working people can never get ahead and how cooperating with the mob is the only way to elevate himself out of a life toiling in low-level jobs abroad to support a family back in China whom he never sees. This occurs near the end of the film, and Uncle Wang's speech is never refuted. His death (he is shot by the police) feels incidental rather than like a proper comeuppance. No sooner are the bad guys eliminated than Lee is called away to help a different family, and he does not seem to notice the heartbreak of Uncle Wang's niece at his departure.

The Grandmaster

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Grandmaster (the American Cut) - dir. Wong Karwai. 2013. Angelika.

The life of the martial artist Ip Man from the 1930's through the late 1950's, covering his ascendancy in the world of martial arts, the war with Japan, and his exile in Hong Kong. Parallel plot about his star-crossed, long-distance, strictly emotional love affair with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the eponymous grandmaster, and her struggle as a woman in the martial arts world to preserve her father’s legacy and avenge his (spoiler alert) murder.

I asked my friend Axel, who saw the international cut of the before me, how it was, whether WKW had sold out. Axel said, don't worry, "It's about feelings." He was right. A lovely film, occasionally moving, occasionally poetic, mostly just entertaining.

WKW is a sensualist, a stylist, an expressionist, a romantic, all frills and fireworks. His films are so spectacular, so saturated, they work best when there is a tension between form and content. Otherwise they can be a bit exhausting. His films can make small things seem monumental and makes the world-historical poignantly personal. At their best, their style does not simply express, in some simple or one-to-one way, the interior states of the characters but stands in dynamic relation to them, trying to draw out and amplify what the characters conceal. This is what makes In the Mood for Love, a story of repressed love, more interesting than Happy Together, a story of a love so hot it burns itself out. In the former, the film magnifies the tiniest cracks in the facades of two characters doing everything in their power to hide the way they feel. In the latter, the film acts as a megaphone for the already larger-than-life emotions of the two lovers.

This being the case, the heart of The Grandmaster is not Tony Leung, who has little to do besides smile beatifically and act like a gentleman, but Zhang Ziyi. The whole film around her is singing a fucking aria of emotion, and she is as cold and hard as an ice statue--and just as liable to at any moment break into a thousand pieces.

The Patriot Game

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Patriot Game – dir. Arthur MacCaig. 1979. Lincoln Center.

A documentary about the conflict in Northern Ireland from a militant Marxist perspective.

capsule review of the film in the L Magazine points out that the film's main achievement was to reframe the conflict for a sizable public as a rebellion against imperialism instead of as a religious war. This is a good point, although having been raised Catholic, I am always wary of the death-cult mentality Catholicism brings to everything it touches.

Prior to the screening, the son of the filmmaker read a communiqué circulated around Britain's embassies instructing diplomats how to react to the film as it made its way through various international film festivals. The communiqué was obviously one-sided, but its critique of the film's one-sidedness had moments of truth. Not that the Unionist point of view deserves equal consideration, but the film's enthusiasm for the rebellion struck me as at times more libidinal than intellectual. I was resistant to its use of music to manipulate my emotions. I appreciate rebel songs--their propaganda value, their poetic and aesthetic value, their historical interest as the cultural expression of an oppressed people, the "soundtrack" of a moment. But I'd rather watch footage of people singing than have their singing dubbed over decontextualized footage of police brutality.

There is something adventurist about the documentary, which was MacCaig’s final project for film school in France. The voice-over narration emphasized that the IRA "usually" issued evacuation warnings to locations that they were bombing and that their tactics focused on the destruction of property rather than lives. But in instances where lives were taken, the film is somewhat glib. A bombing in which a number of civilians were killed is called a "tragedy," which comes off as insincere since the film declines to examine how this supposedly exceptional event occurred and what its ramifications were. The voice-over describes how in one bombing campaign "there were virtually no civilian casualties"--does that mean that the few deaths or injuries that did result were merely virtual? Another film that played in the Lincoln Center’s “Cinema of Resistance” series, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a documentary about a 1990 standoff between the Canadian military and First Nations warriors over disputed piece of land, was similarly superficial in its passing reference to the death of a police officer in a firefight. My problem is not that I am a pacifist—on the contrary. From my point of view, the Mohawks at Kanehsatake did one thing right—they killed a cop—and then suffered a series of defeats. Maybe the IRA should have killed more people. What does the fact that they didn’t say about their strength, political will, and popular and international support? I suppose I just want to see a more thoughtful consideration of political violence, a more honest confrontation with the act of killing, a militant discourse on murder that would be something other than a sentimental reduction of politics to ethics.

Radical News Reels – dir. various. Lincoln Center.

Two radical news reels from the 1960’s critical of Lincoln Center. The first, a general discussion of the displacement by eminent domain of some 20,000 poor and working class people, primarily Latinos, by the construction of Lincoln Center. Afterwards the curator apologized for accidentally showing the Spanish-dubbed version of the newsreel instead of the English-dubbed one--unnecessary apology, since showing the Spanish-dubbed version was a more effective subversive gesture. I imagine many people there felt like me: put in my place as I strained with my middle-American’s Spanish—that mix of half-forgotten high school lessons and precious cognates kept half alive through the years by the half-unnoticed currents of Spanish print, media, and conversation that are always there in this city, just beneath the surface of English-language cognition—to comprehend the language of the people who sustain and are excluded from the world of luxury in which I dwelled, if only in my imagination, if only for an evening. The second newsreel documented a group of hipsters who protested a trash disposal crisis affecting poor neighborhoods in the city by dumping trash on the Lincoln Plaza. “The old left wanted to solve problems: we want to extend them.” It’s amazing how similar leftist hipsters today are. Then a short film by the Red Channels about occupying Wall Street, Staten Island, made about a month before the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Rife with allusions to Badiou, Tiqqun, communization, and other extremely theoretical strands of negationism and anarchism—interesting as art, seductive rather than persuasive as politics. Then two of Jem Cohen’s newsreels documenting the Occupy movement, probably the most touching and valuable cultural artifacts of that precious moment. One in particular never fails to move me. It captures with a terrible authenticity what it felt like to be there, then—the patience, the placidity, the anxiety, the levity and the weight and the grace. Next was a charming video by and about the people with the high-powered projector you saw everywhere during Occupy, here seen being hassled by the cops in a naked, petty act of politically-motivated bullying. The evening ended with some execrable excerpts from Zoe Beloff’s insipid, self-regarding, site-unspecific public stagings of Brecht’s The Days of the Commune, followed by a feeble Q&A with the various filmmakers that was so goddamn boring I had to walk out.

Far from Vietnam

Wednesday August 28, 2013

Far from Vietnam - dir. Joris Ivens, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, & Agnes Varda, 1967. Lincoln Center.

An omnibus documentary film about America's war in Vietnam by an all-star assemblage of French New Wave directors. Rarely screened in America and currently unavailable on home viewing formats. Shown in a digital restoration at Lincoln Center as part of the amazing "Cinema of Resistance" series curated by John Gianvito, whose Far From Vietnam-inspired omnibus documentary Far from Afghanistan, now struggling for distribution, is essential viewing.

Far From Vietnam is a major French New Wave film deserving of greater recognition in the canon of that movement. Different episodes are seamlessly woven together by supervising editor Christ Marker. Segments cover protests both for and against the war in the United States, reportage from both the American and North Vietnamese sides of the front, an interview with the widow of a man who self-immolated in front of the Pentagon to protest the war, a film essay by Godard about his failure to obtain authorization to film in North Vietnam, an interview with Fidel Castro, and a fictional segment by Alain Renais. The film begins with an ice cold Marxist analysis of the war. The voice-over tells us that what is at stake in the Vietnamese struggle is not just Vietnamese independence but whether poor people have the right and the power to organize their societies independently of and against the interests of the rich. This film is a crystallization of a a crystallization. It captures the way that the war in Vietnam was perceived as history happening in the present tense, a symbol of all anti-capitalist struggles everywhere in the final round of the struggle against capitalism. No war has had such symbolic significance since--perhaps in this "post-historical" period, none can.

The analytical confidence of the film begins to wobble in Renais's segment, a ten-minute long monologue by an insufferable and insufferably handsome fictional French intellectual to his silent, reclining, predictably smokey-eyed and hot girlfriend about his feelings about the war in Vietnam. It is introduced by the voice-over narration as "a portrait of bad conscience." The scene is a kind of parody of mansplaining intellectuals and those who would listen to them, a self-reflexive critique of the film and its audience. What the Man says is not without truth. He talks (and talks, between sips of red) about his conflicting emotions towards Americans, who once liberated France and are now the Nazi's of Vietnam. He rues that Vietnam plagues his conscience while so many other, less "fashionable" armed conflicts around the world don't. He mocks the hypocrisy of a France that unanimously opposes American colonialism in Vietnam but, ten years earlier, fought a war to preserve its own colonialism in Algeria. It is a portrait of the political paralysis, of self-cannibalizing critique. You want to tell him to just shut up and do something--but then what can one do as a Frenchman in 1967 about America's war in Vietnam?

What Resnais parodies, Godard enacts. Godard's monologue relates how the North Vietnamese government turned down his request to film there, presumably because he could not be relied upon to make the kind of straightforward propaganda, like Iven's remarkable 17th Parallel, that was needed. Godard mulled over alternate ideas for segments he could shoot in France, like documenting a factory strike or describing the effects of napalm over footage of a naked woman, before deciding to make a film about the dilemma he found himself in, on the one hand not able to make a film about Vietnam--since he cannot not go there--and on the other hand not able not to make a film about Vietnam--since he has to, after all, and also because he cannot help but see Vietnam in everything he does. He decides that what his has to do is wrestle with his "personal Vietnam," the specter of Vietnam that haunts his everyday life. Godard has a poignant mediation on what today we'd call cognitive mapping: he says that the gap that separates him from the Vietnamese, with whom he sympathizes but is so distant from, is the same as that which separates him from the French workers, whose cause he tries to support with films that they never see, which is the same as that between the all French and the Vietnamese. Trying to make sense of these gaps, to negotiate them, transcend them, or even just conduct parallel actions on opposite sides of the gaps towards a common goal—collectively this is solidarity, individually this is one's private Vietnam.

Godard’s segment marks a pivot in the film. After his segment, we hear less analysis and more reflection, less third person and more first peron. The film’s intellectual orientation is more latter-day existentialism than burgeoning post-structuralism.

French philosophical agonizing finds its trans-Atlantic compliment in the implosion of American society captured in William Klein’s footage of conflicts between pro- and anti-war demonstrators on the streets of New York City. The obscenity of the pro-war protestors, their arrogant, barbarous lust to conquer and kill poor fucking peasants and shit on their fellow countrymen, was shocking. Greasy young stock bro-kers scream at those protesting the involvement of Chase Manhattan and Bank of America in South Vietnam: “Bomb Ha-noi! Bomb Ha-noi!” and “Bomb their Village!” (The latter double entendre, if it is disgusting as it applies to Vietnam, is at least a clever insult as it applies to the presumably East-, West-, and Greenwich Village-based protestors.) The anti-war protestors deserve credit for being ahead of the curve relative to most of America—this is pre-Tet Offensive—but have no coherence as a group. One hears the same kind of compromised, inconsistent opposition that is repeated today: support our troops by bringing them home, fight the enemy only on our own shores. Black militants and conservative non-interventionists talk past each other. Rarely is it expressed that it’s not just America that’s wrong but the Vietnamese who are right. Heated exchanges between pro- and ant-war camps take place at lowest level of discourse: “Do you think it’s right or wrong?!” A dirty hipster appears to speak in tongues: “Nnn-nnn-nn-nn-n-nnaaaaaa-naaaaaa-naaaaypaaaaalllllm! Nayaayayayapalm! Napalmnapalmnayyyyypaaaaallm!” A crowd gathers, probably out of concern for the terrified, fair-haired child holding the hipster’s hand. As though awaking from a spell, the hipster is suddenly lucid, articulate. “Do you know what it is? It’s gasoline jelly. They drop it on children like this one and burn them up for no good reason.” Scuffles break out here and there. There is an ethnographic quality to it: a portrait of savage America, a country of braying neurotic messes about to tear each other apart and themselves in the streets. But what a lively scene! The same internal struggle—the private Vietnam—exists on both sides of the Atlantic, hot and coarse in America, frigid and refined in France. When the Vietnamese finally won, they set us all free—everyone except themselves, as things turned out.