October 30, 2005

Notes from the Trenches

The year winding down means, later than usual this time, the curious Denver International Film Festival: a city festival misidentified in The Denver Post as a “regional” festival (I don’t know of anyone caravanning down here from Aspen much less the out-of-state “region”), and one that seems for whatever reason to emphasize volume over quality. I don’t think it’s a philosophical problem, not entirely anyway, but you have to believe that they have a harder time than some other, sexier festivals in getting titles.

When they first started 28 years ago now, Sundance was nothing, Telluride was in its infancy. . . in fact, before the anti-homosexuality Amendment 2 passed in Colorado, I seem to remember Redford mulling the Mile High City as a home for his now-monolithic fest – what I’m saying is that there was an opportunity for the DIFF at the beginning to carve their own niche (much like Aspen has with their spectacular shorts fest – or Vail, in only their second year, with gaudier stars earlier in the year). What’s happened though, I fear, is that in trying to compete with festivals that indeed found a fertile plot in which to plant themselves, the DIFF has tried to be all things to all people and, in the process, become almost like an afterthought while their peers thrived.

Where Telluride has the advantage of offering unofficial first looks in an (allegedly) non-industry setting (it’s slipping a little – I do wonder if in a couple of years, the last vestige of their elite philosophy is going to be a continued unfriendliness towards the press) – they promise not to divulge their films ahead of time in a weird handshake deal that guarantees them films with the semantic contract that those films’ North American “debuts” will still be at Toronto – and Aspen and Vail have the advantage of being ski resorts that are home away from home for talent and their guests. The problem as I always thought of it for Denver was that it (in October – they used to be in the Spring) was competing against Venice, New York and the Hamptons while being, most years, just a few days after Toronto.

Hence the move this year away from crowded October to the relative doldrums of November – its closing night just a few days before Thanksgiving. It’s the struggling sports franchise that finally decides to burn the house down and start again at the foundations. I wonder at the timing of this reorganization, though, because last year’s fest had reasonably strong films with guests like Morgan Freeman, Kevin Bacon, Jamie Foxx & Taylor Hackford, Albert Maysles and so on. In any case, the move hasn’t seemed to have helped in attracting prestige festival films and top-line talent that I think event organizers had hoped that it would.

Though the three featured pictures (Opening Night, Centerpiece, Closing Night) aren’t pictures that are going to open the Friday after their Thursday festival debuts (as White Oleander was a couple of years ago, and The Human Stain last year. . . was it last year? no, two years ago, last year was Ray - eh, who can remember) – none of them save, perhaps, Ang Lee’s Closing Night Brokeback Mountain are pictures that I was particularly interested in seeing. The new Anthony Hopkins flick The World’s Fastest Indian opens the fest (sans Hopkins who did show up in Denver for a festival once, but incognito and in a leather bar on Broadway nowhere near the festival’s venues. . . or so local columnists claimed) and the new Heath Ledger (the other new Heath Ledger) Casanova is the centerpiece presentation. The trailer looks dreadful which, I guess, is better than non-descript.

I’m sort of vaguely interested in the Eugene Jarecki documentary – and sort of excited to see Bob Rafelson introduce what’s supposed to be a new print of Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (never count prints before they’re projected – there’s been a precedent at this fest for prints arriving with the wrong subtitles, for instance, or not arriving at all and the films being shown on VHS). I always like Michael Winterbottom and his Tristram Shandy is coming (though he is not) – Neil Jordan and Cillian Murphy’s picture (Breakfast on Pluto) is coming (and so is Jordan). The key for me, though, is that looking over the schedule I can honestly say that not a one of them makes me nervous.

The President’s Last Bang is fabbo, sure, another wonderful film from South Korea – but it’s hard not to comment on a few of what seem to be the major omissions:

Park Chanwook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Laurent Cantet’s Vers La Sud
Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence
Michael Haneke's Cache
Sturla Gunnarsen’s Beowulf & Grendel
Steven Soderbergh's Bubble
Phillippe Garel's Les Amants Reguliers
Richard Grant’s Wah Wah
Cristi Puiu's The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu
Shinya Tsukamoto's Haze
Stanley Kwan’s Everlasting Regret
Mary Harron’s Notorious Bettie Page
Song Il-gon's Spider Forest
Eli Roth’s Hostel
Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy
Abdellatif Kechiche's Games Of Love And Chance (L'esquive)
Takeshi Kitano's Takeshis
Hou Hsiau-Hsien's Café Lumiere and Three Times
Dardenne Brothers' L’Enfant
Terry Gilliam's Tideland
Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War
Kim Ki-Duk's Hwal
Hur Jin-Ho’s April Snow
Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun
Liam Lynch’s Sarah Silverman’s: Jesus is Magic
Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven
Baltasar Kormakur’s A Little Taste of Heaven

The tribute this year is to Japanese cinema which doesn’t appear to include new pictures by some of Japan’s top filmmakers (Beat Takeshi, Shinya Tsukamoto, Takashi Miike). Neither does it have a whisper of a Kurosawa (Akira nor Kiyoshi), Kenji Mizoguchi, the recently-deceased Nomura Yoshitaro or Ichikawa Jun’s Tony Takitini which has played everywhere, it seems, except for Denver.

And therein lies the problem for me, I think, because there’s no joy in poking at the DIFF – they’ve asked me to be on their juries (still the only internet-based goon in 28 years that they’ve bestowed this honor upon), invited me to program and introduce a favorite film, and I could honestly say that I like every single person working for the Denver Film Society. But it troubles me that I’ve never read one article vaguely critical about the festival when it occurs to me that if you really care about a thing, you should care enough about it to want it to be better. The silence isn't for a lack of problems, any festival this sprawling has problems – I think that it might be for a lack of respect: I think that we never expect the DIFF to fall too far out of a prescribed range and so just we just keep on keepin’ on, as they say. Then again, on a macro and micro basis (from a critical perspective), there's a whole lot of justifiable "what's the point?"

As for me and my silence, I think I’ve been worried about losing the respect and access that they’ve given me (and injuring my relationships with the people who work so hard on it every year) at the expense of what is, hopefully, the kind of candor and – yeah – anger that earned their respect in the first place. It’s the problem of becoming friendly with that which you’re enlisted to cover – you let it go long enough and you get forgiving about the warts. Worse, though, is apathetic and, until this year, I never was. Ironic.
So, look, I have a hard time wrestling with a festival that boasts of its size and scope (hundreds of flicks, ten days, dozens of countries) in an annual press release, but doesn’t get films like Beat Takeshi’s Takeshis, or the two Hou Hsiau-Hsien flicks that’ve been released since Millennium Mambo (and still don’t have a distributor) – or the new Kim Ki-Duk who, I thought, was at least becoming a critical darling in the United States even if he’s still under the radar for most people. Not even talking about the Dardennes, the Vinterberg, the Gilliam, the Sokurov, the Park, the friggin’ Soderbergh: it’s hard, in other words, for me to believe that they didn’t ask. They must’ve. Complicating things, though, is the certainty that roughly 90% of the Denver festival audience doesn’t give a ghost of a shit one way or another, and then we’re thick into another gray area: thick as soup.

There’s possibly no other way to see these films projected in this region if not at festival – these titles that I look forward to seeing from the moment I hear a whisper about them early in the festival season. (Too often, I end up buying Korean bootlegs so I don’t have to wait the three-four-five-more years before they find their way to the United States again.) They’re festival films, naturally, and their migration routes are limited and dwindling. Without a few fruitful back alleys, why venture there just to get knifed in the gut and kicked to the curb: poorer and disillusioned? There’s merit (and exhilaration) of course in unearthing gems – it’s just that past experience has taught me that there aren’t all that many left to unearth after a year’s festivals (and festival-goers and critics) have already methodically, obsessively sifted this loam in search of the dark horse to champion. Looking back at the four years now that I’ve covered – fairly extensively – the Denver festival (this is my fifth, maybe last, year); I can claim just a handful of treasures from out amongst the unknowns-for-a-reason:

Hybrid: Montieth McCollum’s astonishing documentary about his grandfather.
Roger Dodger: Dylan Kidd’s smash-up.
Bloody Sunday: Paul Greengrass’ blurring of the documentary line.
Dragonflies: Marius Holt’s disturbing love triangle in the wilderness.
Dallas 362: Scott Caan’s amazingly accomplished hyphenate debut.
Noi Albinoi: Michael Tolajian’s complicated look at teen life in Iceland.
Kontroll: Nimrod Antal’s dip into the subterranean.
Tradition of Killing Lovers: A surreal Iranian fairy tale from Khosro Masoumi.

8 films over four years (four that subsequently found distribution) and roughly 120 pictures screened. It’s a lot of work and I was glad to do it, but the prospect of doing it again this year is weighing on me pretty heavily. If I do it again (and I’ve already looked at eight festival films), if I should screen thirty+ flicks for this year’s iteration in search of the two gems to shine – I can’t imagine that another year will restore my will to the point that I’ll want to do it again. That’s not the DIFF’s fault – maybe it’s 2005’s.

The weakness of this program is indicative of an institutionalized lack of respect from the people whose job it is to decide which festival gets what, and which festival is just over-exposure at this point in the year. (It’s one thing, viewer-fatigue, that makes the date change a bad idea – I don’t know jack, but if you asked me, I’d wonder if it wouldn’t be more advantageous to move the fest earlier in the year to trump other fests, rather than later, for instance, when assholes like me already have a list made up in their heads.) What it boils down to is that I’m not going to get to see what I want to this year at my local festival: and I’m upset about it.

Maybe, too, I just got off on the wrong foot with the thing because the festival’s theme this year is the cringe-worthy “Be Your Own Critic”. With the state of modern film criticism being what it is (with most everyone already believing that film critics are superfluous and not uniquely qualified for their positions – and hell, maybe they’re right) that sort of thing doesn’t help. Maybe it’s too late to make any difference one way or another anyway. And, more, maybe the DIFF has it right in shifting the balance away from cinephiles and towards the bulk of festival-goers (dilettantes and socialites); a make-up that marks festival audiences as just as blinkered and maddening as mainstream crowds. The only thing separating the air up there from the rabble everywhere isn’t discriminating taste – just more money, just enough education, certainly arrogance. “Be Your Own Critic” could be a mandate to shake shit up – an ideological Bastille. It could be a way to empower audiences to actually wonder why they’re not seeing the best that this year’s festival circuit has to offer.

At least it could somewhere other than here.

The only thing I dislike more than sitting in a crowded, hooting, free-to-the-public screening of a film based on a video game is sitting in a mindlessly adoring, self-satisfied, smug festival audience that will adore something because it’s French, cost a couple of dollars more than a mainstream picture to see, and is in an “artfilm” venue that they couldn’t see fit to support with their self-congratulatory, mean-to-the-volunteers, sense-of-entitlement, liberal-arts-education selves the other 355 days of the year.

For all that, the truth is that I hope as the festival unfolds that it uncovers a bounty of gems; a “mystery screening” or two revealed to be stellar (and not just I Walk the Line); some surprise, astounding last minute guest (as Francis Ford Coppola was a couple of years ago);

what I hope is that they make me eat every single word of this on a platter: cold, sideways, and with crow, besides.
Quick breakdown: industry screenings of Sam Mendes’ expert and expertly disappointing Jarhead (a film about nothing that honors its subject – I liked it anyway, I guess); the amazingly uncomfortable Three. . . Extremes; the excellent Palestinian film Paradise Now (the second suicide bomber flick of the season after the good but less-successful The War Within); public screening of The Weather Man (well-behaved, with six lucky walkouts); couldn’t make a screening of Saw II (that I’ll catch in a couple of weeks in the second-runs), and skipped a screening of Prime and Chicken Little (it was on a Saturday morning, the morning of my kid’s birthday). Chicken Little will screen again this week. Also saw Shopgirl which I don’t anticipate writing on – Bill’s capsule from Toronto says it all and in about 800 words less than I would’ve. Two best films this week? Lodge Kerrigan’s extraordinary Keane and Paul Etheridge-Ouzts beautifully-executed “gay slasher” flick HellBent.

Keane’s about a guy who has lost his kiddo and gone off the deep end: shot like the Dardennes’ The Son (another flick about a loss of a child) and in four-minute takes. Reading too much into it, four minutes is the same amount of time as title character Keane left his daughter alone the day of her abduction. Damian Lewis: superstar in the making. Mark my words. Talking with Mr. Kerrigan later on this week. HellBent on the other hand, does something amazing to the slasher genre: it comments on it with fluency, it honors it with high proficiency, and it makes itself over in re-figuring the sexual transgression tropes of traditional slashers into self-actualization moments. The guys make themselves targets at the moment that they’re the most satisfied/confident/happy - or, at the least, the most self-aware and naked – a strong, devastating statement about queer as folk in these United States.

Fruitful discussion of Robert Wise’s The Haunting at the Gilpin County Public Library – not a great film, through careful – sometimes frame-by-frame study of it this weekend amongst a very bright collection of film-lovers, I’ve come to a new respect for its use of mythology and “Lewton-isms”. The Medusa head turning, turning on the doorknob of Theo’s (Claire Bloom) room, for instance, echoing a remarkable moment in Eleanor’s (Julie Harris) boudoir wherein the pattern on her bed’s canopy spreads behind her head like a nimbus of snakes. The idea of beauty corrupted by sex and made monstrous and forbidden – echoed again in the strange statuary of the greenhouse and the repeated images of seraphim and, even, mirrors. It’s a lesbian hysteria piece first, of course – but if that walks there, it doesn’t walk alone. Next week: The Sixth Sense.

DVD queue? Save the Green Planet and the Martin Scorsese Executive-Produced Frankenstein.

Not much time to read this week or shuffle the shuffle, still going through Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Here’s this week’s capture – another win by Captain starts us over at one (#6/7):

New Reviews:
Chicken Little
Save the Green Planet!
Paradise Now and The War Within

October 29, 2005

Lewton Family Val-ues part 1

In honor of some anniversary or another (or maybe just in honor of the release of the box set), TCM last week did a Val Lewton retrospective that covered all the titles in the must-have, five-disc collection for one, affordable, basic cable price. Not to say that this won’t be the first thing I splurge on when I can find a fence for my food stamps, but for the time being – just having my own dubbed-off-the-tube copies of The Leopard Man, Bedlam (one of my favorite films of all time), and the almost never-seen The Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim is good enough to spackle a few psychic gaps. It at least soothes the disappointment from most of the mainstream prestige pics that I’ve seen so far (including Mendes’ center-less Jarhead). The prints varying according to the shape, obviously, of available negatives – this marks the first time that I’ve ever had the chance to look at some of this stuff that I’ve been reading about for years. DVDs, boy, bless their pressed little hearts – and Simone Simon, naturally, has never been more adorably feral.

Start with Cat People (1942), a film that owes its atmosphere to Lewton, sure, but at least as much I like to think to the great Jacques Tourneur* who’s responsible for other Lewton masterpieces (The Leopard Man, I Walked with a Zombie), the great Mitchum noir, Out of the Past, and also one of the greatest single episodes of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone”: a little gem called “Night Call” wherein an old lady gets a series of whispery crank calls before discovering that her phone line has actually been severed and that the end of the wire lies across the grave of her dead husband. Yep. It’s awesome. The way that Tourneur shoots virginal (and exotic) Simon as Irena, a woman haunted by bad genes and a certain fairy-tale malady of tending to turn into a monster when she’s sexually aroused (something sort of hilariously fumbled by Paul Schrader’s remake if explored with verve in Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves), started a revolution in monster cinema: ironically relegating it (along with Tod Browning’s big-budget boondoggle Freaks) for all time into the realm of low-budget production I think, but also introducing the idea of “less is more” when the Universal Monster cycle was threatening to make it’s own Van Helsing sixty-some years before it actually did. Simon is wonderful, of course, but it’s Tourneur’s direction that makes every shadow from Central Park to a bus stop haven a menace, and its references to Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” pop and crackle. No mean feat.

Shot on the set of The Magnificent Ambersons for a pittance (less than 150 grand), it grossed over four million dollars – demonstrating something that still seems like a surprise to people (see Blair Witch Project): that if you tap into the zeitgeist – and genre pics are particularly able to do just that – you can make not only a mint, but a piece with lasting cultural significance. From there, go to The Leopard Man (1943) – actually the third Lewton/Tourneur, but one, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, that finds itself most closely allayed to the themes of sexual repression introduced in Cat People. Its centerpiece a brutal attack of a young woman on her doorstep as her mother, from the inside, tries desperately to undo the bolt to let her in – the picture misses the wide-eyed foil of Simon’s forbidden fruit and the tragedy of unrequited love and the sins of the fathers. It’s good, in other words, with its serial killer one of the earliest iterations of the species in the mainstream “Code” flick (of course M was much earlier) – it might even be a classic – but it’s no Cat People. But I Walked with a Zombie (1943) might be. The second of the three Lewton/Tourneur collaborations, it reminds me an awful lot of Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea in its suffocating atmosphere and feeling of encroaching, inexorable dread. A zombie film that is, like the best of ‘em, about something else. It’s empirically obvious that zombies – especially just one zombie – don’t really pose any kind of threat to us (something that the end of Shaun of the Dead lampoons hysterically), that they can’t catch us – the traditional kind anyway – and once catching us, they seem to be able to be shaken off fairly easily.

And yet they do catch us – and they do injure us and, worse, they convert us when they do. I’ve spilled a lot of ink on what I think are the similarities between zombies and the Christian myth – but without getting gory again, best to say that there’s something at work here in I Walked with a Zombie (the title a play on the Christian walk, perhaps?) that’s thorny and elegant. It’s scary, too.

Next up, the two flicks that Robert Wise did with Lewton (Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher) – as well as Bedlam which, in its double and triple dissolves, sets a new precedent in the language of horror. Will do a little dance about The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship - hopefully just in time for Halloween.

Sunday Feature
Ira Sachs

October 28, 2005

Ottawa Does Not Believe in Cheers, or, What's So Good About Feeling Bad?

Apropos of nothing, I saw two completely divergent Canadian films in the last couple of days. There was the recent, Anglo, and hilariously awful Desolation Sound; and there was the 1981, Quebecois, and awesomely brilliant Les bons debarras. Almost nothing linked the two: the first was standard Eng-Can time-killing about murder and repressed houswives in a chilly rural setting, and the other extraordinary Francophone cruelty by a wilful and manipulative 'tween (in a chilly rural setting). But though the self-doubting hausfrau and the self-absorbed thirteen-year-old had nothing in common, they illustrated the two poles of a very Canadian conundrum: that of the essential destructiveness of desire, and the problem of what to do about it.

Desolation Sound takes the austere high ground in the debate. Its protagonist is the uptight Canadian bourgeoise of legend, here played by Helene Joy, who lives out in the woods and draws bad illustrations- when she feels like it. She's bored with her husband, her daughter, her life, but of course, she'll live to eat her words. When her "friend from childhood" (Jennifer Beals!) comes back to be sexy, drink, behave badly, and say highly punishable things like "it takes courage to be selfish", it's like an invitation to divine retribution: they naturally squabble when Beals shtups Joy's newly-perked-up hubby, resulting in Beals falling off the roof and croaking.

But the death doesn't break the evil-fun spell. Simply wishing Beals' presence into the household is worthy of Old Testament wrath, and so the newly-kaput free spirit reaches from beyond the grave: after burying the body in the rose garden, Joy starts assuming her "friend from childhood's" identity, which threatens to tear the very fabric of her life apart (i.e., she sleeps with Ed Begley, Jr.). The film then tries to keep the crime a secret while Joy tries to purge her newfound Beals-ness, presumably in the name of God and the Her Majesty, the Queen.

What's important here is not that wanting certain things is bad: wanting anything is bad. Desire itself is suspect- if you want more than you've got, you're a sinner who will cause irreparable harm. And this is one of the quintessential patterns of Canadian film, one that we inherited from the hated John Grierson and never purged even when we threw him by the wayside. If you are not conventionally productive, or better yet, lying still, you are out causing harm. No middle ground.

Les bons debarras counters with a messed-up family that satisfies its desires all day, every day. Chief amongst them is Manon, the pubescent spitfire who loves her mother possessively and constantly tries to isolate her from other influences. Manon hates the cop who's sleeping with Mother; Mom's feeble-minded brother (who deals with his isolation by downing endless two-fours of Molson's); school; being interrupted by reading; etc. Daughter wants mother all to herself; Mom wants to coddle her by giving in (though Manon drives her crazy); Brother wants to deal with his sexual frustration by cutting out at all hours to get pissed; and various townies and ex-lovers of mom vent their spleens and libidos in loud and obnoxious ways.

No doubt about it, this is one painful movie. But instead of raining moralistic ash on the central, monstrous Manon (who does things that ennoble the word "selfish"), the film holds on her with something approaching awe. Manon is merciless, but attractive- her total lack of superego makes her destructive, but it's the kind of scorched earth you like to watch Godzilla leave behind. And when this movie ends, [*spoiler warning*] it's not with just desserts for the holy terror: she hangs up a tragic phone call, crawls into bed with mom, and the movie ends. She is a destroyer, but destruction hangs around her like a nimbus.

Yet, in its inverted sort of way, Les bons debarras agrees with Desolation Sound: it says that to succumb to desire is to succumb to selfish destruction. Even the hapless brother, whose thwarted sex drives end up in drink and harrassment, acts out all over the place and winds up causing havoc. It doesn't judge him, but it comes to the same factual conclusion, simply approaching things amorally rather than with righteous wrath. (Manon has enough of the latter for all of us).

And though I'd expansively say that Les bons debarras is the finest Canadian film and one of the 50 or so best films of the '80s, it still holds the seeds of the Great Northern Problem. You either live in moral misery, or glorious destruction; there's no compromise that might solve the problem, that might regulate desire and release tension at the same time, that might exert the give and take of id and superego colliding to form a fully-functioning self. And it's here that Canada starts to seem as simplistic and black-and-white as the Southern neighbour it so loves to decry.

I propose that Canadian filmmakers (and intellectuals in general) had better start working out this master plan. We can't decide how to organize society if we can't have the one we want- if we define wanting something better as selfish arrogance and gratification as instant destruction. As Peter Wollen wrote, to achieve any change, one has to be able to desire it; and to desire it one has to see desire as an attractive quality. Anything else is to succumb to smug frustration and deny the root of our oft-denied internal problems.

October 27, 2005

Madonna Complex

Like most hetero sons of the '80s, I'm a closet Madonna fan. Once, on a whim, I asked a burly hot dog vendor to name his favourite Madonna album; he shifted uncomfortably and started wiping his grill. Then, after an eternity of pretending he didn't hear the question, he nodded in agreement with himself and said: "True Blue". There's really no getting around the fact that she's the contemporary Elvis, having surpassed iconic status to become a pop-cultural default setting; and she's as pointless to hate as bad weather. (Cue the "Twilight Zone" theme: Madonna's birthday and the anniversary of Elvis' death are one and the same, August 16th.)

Being a moviehead, though, the main reason I like Madonna is that she's made some incredible videos with some incredible directors--videos, moreover, that have avoided translating her music into images, choosing instead to call its bluff. My personal favourite is David Fincher's "Bad Girl," which interprets the seemingly endless refrain of "Bad girl drunk by six/Kissing someone else's lips/Smoked too many cigarettes today/I'm not happy when I act this way" as a death wish. Instead of imposing moralistic change on Madonna's glamorous businesswoman, Fincher rewards her self-destructive behaviour by perching Madonna next to the Angel of Death (Christopher Walken, natch) on a one-way crane to Heaven. Heck, I even prefer Mary Lambert's sticky video for "Material Girl" to the sequence it purloins from Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes--and before you cry blasphemy, remember that Hawks left that film's musical numbers to second unit to clean up. You can, for what it's worth, watch virtually all of Madonna's videos by going here.

Unfortunately, her latest video--for "Hung Up," the first single from Madonna's forthcoming "Confessions on a Dance Floor"--is another in a recent line of disingenuous attempts (see: "American Pie," "Music," "Ray of Light") to turn untouchable Madonna into a woman of the people. As Madonna does warm-ups in a deserted, '70s-era dance studio to the beat of her new, ABBA-infused track, director Johan Renck (who previously helmed Madonna's kabuki-inspired "Nothing Really Matters" clip) intersperses footage of everyday folk--street performers, the busboys and patrons of a Chinatown greasy spoon--overcome with a desire to breakdance. (Or prove they're double-jointed.) Three minutes in, Madonna hits the night scene, but that doesn't change the fact that this is largely a Kuleshovian exercise in ghetto-by-association: she struts down a street, and Renck cuts to a contretemps inside a subway car; in other words, Madonna + proletariat = Madonna's keepin' it real. Not. Madge is then seen literally bending over backwards in a dance club to avoid intimate contact with anybody but the giant boombox playing her song, which she rides like a mechanical bull. By carefully quarantining Madonna from her newest fascination (krumping), all this video succeeds in doing is casting her, perhaps unfairly, in a paternalistic (or, at least, anthropological) light.

Of course, as a showcase for Madonna's absurdly well-preserved physique (in the highlight of the video, she peels off a baggy jumpsuit to reveal Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect), "Hung Up" passes with flying colours.


I like to think of myself as a reasonable sort of person- someone who doesn't get angry unless seriously provoked, someone who doesn't engage in pointless in-fighting, someone who doesn't become sadistic and hurtful for any reason. But the person who wrote that insane screed against Walter from a couple of days ago was absolutely none of these things. He was a bitter, vengeful, heartless prick who gave in to half-thought-out motives and complete selfishness in order to degrade someone who clearly deserves better.

Why did I do it? Really, I'm not someone who walks around with a chip on his shoulder- at least, I didn't think I was. I didn't have some horrible hurt or unbearable stress that forced me to lash out. I didn't have any extenuating circumstance that would perhaps explain my using Walter as a whipping boy. My life's good, I'm relatively calm, I'm doing fine. So what the hell was the point of my absurd fury?

I didn't think this was it at the time, but I think it boils down to jealousy. Jealousy over the following that Walter has. And there's no real reason for that, either- I have my outlets, I'm not wanting for attention. But some essential greed in my nature that I hadn't acknowledged made me want more, more, more- and the result was that inexcusable rant, where I accused Walter of many the things for which I was myself guilty.

I'm shocked at myself for my arrogance and cruelty. And I'm horrified to have hurt Walter, who despite my incoherent ravings does a great job at FFC. He deserves his following, and if that got a bee in my bonnet that should have been my problem. But now the damage is done, and I'm completely ashamed.

I've sent you an e-mail, Walter, but I figured I should say publicly as well: I'm sorry. I wish I could make it up to you. And I'll never cross you again on such trivial bullshit or for ludicrous spiteful reasons that I should work out for myself before blowing up.

October 23, 2005

Notes from the Trenches

Sooooo, as is so often the case, once I bitch about something good and hard the bilge-hole is cleared for a minute and I rediscover for a couple of seconds the sense of urgency that I used to have all the time. In that brief blue burst, pursued and was rewarded two interviews this week: one with writer/director Ira Sachs for his film Forty Shades of Blue (Keith Uhlich of Slant Magazine mentioned the film to me some time ago – he’s got an interview up with Sachs there that I haven’t read yet for fear of cross-contamination), and another with writer/director Noah Baumbach who, ten years ago, did a film I really liked called Kicking and Screaming (with Olivia grrrrrowl D’abo and Eric Stoltz). Kicking and Screaming sort of comes off as a neo-Hal Hartley back when Hal Harley looked like he was going to rule the roost. I still love his Trust – one of the great American flicks of the 1990s. His new flick, The Squid and the Whale, is fantastic. I want to talk more about his mother, former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown and his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, but as I haven’t done the introduction to the interview yet, I wonder if I shouldn’t see if I don’t need some of that stuff for it. I will say, though, that Ms. Brown’s thoughts on Kim Ki-Duk’s Samaritan Girl guided me through a lot of my analysis of her son’s Squid and Whale flick. If all goes well, there’ll be fresh Sunday Feature’s the next two weeks – a lot depends on how lucid I can stay – the best-laid plans, and all. Here’s what the title of the Baumbach film is referring to: a diorama called “Clash of the Titans” at the New York Museum of Natural History.

Medium-busy screening week for a change which was a nice break from the feast/famine cycle of the last month or so. Saw Doom at a public screening where two middle-aged ladies talked to one another through the whole goddamned thing (“ohhh, that was stupid!” “Look out, I don’t think he’s dead!”) – but it’s Doom, right, so how much did I care? I, Seuss-like, did not over-muchly. Nor did I care over-muchly about the ten or eleven text messagers, the pair of cell phones going off, nor the children screaming in fear and asking their parents - in not so many words - why it is that this of all films would be the instrument of their scarification. Saw industry screenings of Marc Forster’s unfortunate Stay, Niki Caro’s unfortunate North Country, the harrowing Three Extremes, and the abovementioned Squid and the Whale.

What I like is this none-too-subtle attempt to make Theron some sort of literal saint in the PR art:

Eh, it's probably just my imagination.

On the record already for most of these, wanted to say that Three Extremes is uneven as is to be expected, but because the DP on all three shorts (by Fruit Chan, Takashi Miike, and Park Chanwook) is the great Christopher Doyle, there’s a certain visual elegance constant to the piece. (An interesting way to inject cohesion.) Fruit Chan’s short is the most provocative – reminding if only in theme – of that "South Park" episode where Christopher Reeve shucks and slurps fetuses to give him the full benefit of stem cells. Almost unwatchable and another fascinating Chinese picture about repressive societies and the toll of a very specific kind of traditional misogyny on the gender relationships in the biggest friggin population concentration on the planet. Heard that Fruit’s short was trimmed down from a 90-minute feature to fit the format of this anthology picture – it shows in a certain inexplicable abruptness in its transitions, emotional or otherwise. My favorite of the three is Park’s self-knowing, self-deconstructing meta-flick that demonstrates exactly how stupid Saw was by using a similar premise and injecting fury and intelligence (and a point). Speaking of which, now they’re screening Saw II for the crix and I’m not going to be able to make it anyway. Oh well. Miike’s piece is extremely formal – looks like the lost segment of Kwaidan in some parts, but reminds me mostly of a Masato Harado picture called Inugami

from a few years back.

It’s beautiful, yeah, but it falls to pieces. Mmmm, Patsy Cline.

I’m a fan – a middle-to-big one of Joe Lansdale – the cult writer that a lot of folks know of as the author of the source for Don Coscarelli’s fabulously melancholy bit of Americana, Bubba Ho-Tep. (Bill had a chance to talk to Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell in Toronto a couple years ago.) He was at the forefront of a “weird west” revolution a decade or so ago; a melding of genres that brought splatterpunk and the supernatural to the traditional Zane Grey oater. His early short story collections (first of his I read was in a now defunct horror quarterly digest called “Night Call” I think – the title, not the place) featured tiny print runs, almost every copy signed, and cover art by photo-surrealist J.K. Potter. In addition to the card-covered chapbooks I tried to collect, I managed first editions of his first five or six books – and then he hit the big time so to speak – graduating from Kensington Press to Bantam and Doubleday. Waters choppy again after the “failure” of Nightrunners (still his best novel – it’s just fucking astonishing and it’s out of print in every format, naturally), Lansdale’s been leaping around between various smaller and independent publishers like a tick on a griddle. When he’s right, though, he writes genre fiction that isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever read – well, maybe I’ve read that kind of ferocity in Donald Westlake’s stuff, but he doesn’t do the gore. What I’m saying is that Lansdale’s one of a kind and a prodigious talent, but I do wonder after reading his most popularly acclaimed novel, The Bottoms, now for the first time (released the same year as a superior collection of his work called High Cotton) if he isn’t doing the Dan Simmons/James Lee Burke dive into mediocrity: publish or perish, am I right?

The Bottoms, see, opens with what would have been a magnificent short story – scary as all hell, Depression-era Texas story of two kids and a crippled dog in a wheelbarrow being pursued by the devil in a tangle of mud and bramble. I wondered if I’d have to sleep with the lights on. Then it becomes sort of an Alienist conceit with a To Kill a Mockingbird civil consciousness (complete with Atticus and Scout figures), told from a child narrator’s point of view. This results in a lot of contrivances involving the kid fortuitously eavesdropping on key conversations, and taking a lead somehow in solving a serial murder case complete with little artifacts left in the victims’ wounds a’la every serial killer story since Thomas Harris started defining the subgenre. Its politics are unassailable and so what’s the point? The writing is clear, but it’s in love with its conceit and so manages to be neither a good update of Flannery O’Connor nor, even, a good example of Lansdale himself. Repetitive, too, I should add. Extremely minor stuff – by the time it’s over, I was impatient for it to be over for a good fifty pages. I don’t want to say it’s bad.

On the bedside table now: Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Introduced/discussed the first of five films in my new series for the Gilpin County Public Library with a spiffy new television in their meeting room no less, that should make all future series an absolute joy (not that they weren’t already). The atmosphere at Gilpin is exceptionally cozy. With a permanent population up there of around 3,000 people, turnout is generally light (about twenty or so), but people bring baked goods and popcorn and it feels like a community. The discussions are lively and interested and at one show a retired primatologist related to me a story of a chimp kicking a drum root that mimicked Charlie Chaplin’s cigarette trick at the prison gates in City Lights. It’s there, too, that a woman whose father owned the horses and land on which Hawks shot Red River told her recollections of the drinkin’ and carousin’ and spending that the Hollywood boys lavished on their family during their stay there. No juicy Montgomery Clift stories, though, but a priceless afternoon nonetheless.

The film was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents – as fine a dissection of the toll of sexual repression on the young and the imaginative as any – co-written, of course, by Truman Capote, in the middle apparently of his unholy obsession with the slaughter of the Kansas Clutters. Arguably, the picture’s the best ghost story ever shot. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s scary as hell with Freddie Francis’ astonishing deep focus, B&W CinemaScope cinematography a genuine marvel on its new aspect ratio-correct transfer. Next week is Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Not a favorite of mine, it’s something that should be included in a ghost series and worth a discussion all the same.

Realized with a little shock that my favorite poem by Robert Duncan is not Google-able – call this a public service for your friendly neighborhood web-crawler, and scroll on down past it. The surprise of it is that although it sounds a lot like a poem of the Blitz, I think it was written in the late thirties (’38 or ’39 most likely):

Passage Over Water

We have gone out in boats upon the sea at night,
lost, and the vast waters close traps of fear about us.
The boats are driven apart, and we are alone at last
under the incalculable sky, listless, diseased with stars.

Let the oars be idle, my love, and forget at this time
our love like a knife between us
defining the boundaries that we can never cross
nor destroy as we drift into the heart of our dream,
cutting the silence, slyly, the bitter rain in our mouths
and the dark wound closed in behind us.

Forget depth-bombs, death and promises we made,
gardens laid waste, and, over the wastelands westward,
the rooms where we had come together bombd.

But even as we leave, your love turns back. I feel
your absence like the ringing of bells silenced. And salt
over your eyes and the scales of salt between us. Now,
you pass with ease into the destructive world.
There is a dry crash of cement. The light fails,
falls into the ruins of cities upon the distant shore
and within the indestructible night I am alone.

On the queue – working like a dog on a review of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool and have been for the past, oh, 30 hours or so – a movie that I’ve worked like a dog on before to zero results. My deadline for this little stillbirth was about five days ago. At the rate I’m going, by the way, I should be done sometime in the middle of August, 2007. Occurs to me that the film is more discussable than reviewable and damned if it doesn’t just keep getting more relevant: year by year – all the same, it buggers critique. I’m gonna’ get this bastard, though, one way or another. Finished a 3,000-word review of "Desperate Housewives" Season One as well – color me ambivalent. First half good, next half meh. And of course it’s best to assume I’m still wading through "X-Files" mythology episodes until I say otherwise or you hear the shotgun blast. Began this week, too, to wade through some of the screeners that the upcoming Denver International Film Festival has been sending to me – no signs of life yet. . . Will do a mini-post in the next couple of days on stuff I’m watching for fun: a bunch of Val Lewtons, a Robert Wise, an old Italian horror film about killer snowmen, and a couple of Asian gangster flicks (Fulltime Killer and Branded to Kill). Afraid to peek at next week’s openings – I think there’s a Meryl Streep flick, another Nicholas Cage, and sequels to Zorro and Saw. Y’know – I think the second Star Wars flick is better than the first, ditto the second Babe and Godfather and Mad Max films. I really like the third Mad Max film, I should say – I wonder if it’s not the best of the three. (Sounds like Alex liked the second Breakin’ flick better, too, with a groovy rationale for why first sequels are “freer” to boot – doesn’t explain the second Children of the Corn, though.) Sequel I’m looking forward to coming up next month: Harry Potter 4. What I’m saying is that I’m not certain that Saw II is going to suck – just that it’s gotta’ suck particularly for it suck harder than the first.

Mystery capture #5/7:

On the shuffle:

Dickon Hinchliffe - Laura
Dar Williams - Comfortably Numb
Bjork - Who Is It?
Daniel Johnston - Impossible Love
Angelo Badalamente - Jitterbug
Editors - Open Your Arms
Patsy Cline - I Fall To Pieces
Radiohead - Fake Plastic Trees
Death Cab for Cutie - Dream Scream
Sufjan Stevens - In the Devil’s Territory
Elvis Presley - Mystery Train
The The - Sodium Light Baby
Bessie Smith - Honeyman Blues
Pedro the Lion - Rapture
Elliott Smith - Somebody That I Used To Know
Throwing Muses - Bright Yellow Gun
Devo - Girl U Want
Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones
Asie Payton - I Love You
My Morning Jacket - It’s About Twilight Now
Nick Cave - Let It Be
OMD - If You Leave

New Review:

Forty Shades of Blue
The Squid and the Whale and The Weather Man
The Legend of Zorro

October 22, 2005

Apologies in Advance

Just a quick note that I've been forced to institute "word verification" for comment-posting, because some computer-generated spam has started to creep in among the wonderful conversations we're having here. Sorry for the inconvenience, but I really don't want this place to get clogged-up with unsolicited advertising.

October 21, 2005

The Hanging Munchkin Redux

Seriously, is nothing sacred?

A featurette on Warner's upcoming Three-Disc Collector's Edition of The Wizard of Oz finds the techies behind the film's new digital restoration risking neck injury to fellate themselves for a job well done, and while I have to admit that the scrubbed-penny look of the transfer is suitably impressive, I'm left scratching my head as to how these would-be art forgers can in good conscience toss out watchwords like "fidelity" and "organic" in describing their painstaking efforts after having corrupted what might very well be the key image of the film.

I'm not an obsessive fan of The Wizard of Oz like some, maybe because once you ask yourself why the Wicked Witch of the West keeps saying "I'll get you my pretty!" to a stock-still Dorothy in lieu of actually, y'know, getting Dorothy, you've eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak. But the bloom will never be completely off the film (just as it will never be off Blade Runner despite the allegory-deflating issue of why Deckard doesn't just stake out Tyrell's place and wait for the replicants to show up), and one of my favourite eureka moments from childhood was when I figured out exactly where The Wizard of Oz makes its impossible transition from b&w (they hadn't yet restored the prologue to its intended sepia in those days) to colour. Now this shot of Dorothy opening the door of her house to a Technicolor Oz-scape--which I've always imagined inspired the indelible beginning of John Ford's The Searchers--has been altered so that it actually is what it seems and not something that relies on the generosity of the subconscious: instead of starting out in colour before Dorothy even opens the door (something we barely notice because the house's interior is a shade of brown and Dorothy is almost in silhouette), the shot has been desaturated in-computer, the colour seeping back in as Oz comes into view. For one thing, it looks like the kind of effect you could create by adjusting the tint on your television; for another, the timing is off: the contrast between Kansas and Oz shouldn't dawn on you, it should smack you upside the head.

Given that a Warner VP claims within the aforementioned featurette that today's viewers are distracted by mono and thus need their old films to be remixed in 5.1 (a practice I find mostly inoffensive so long as the original soundtrack remains on board, as it does here--albeit under "special features"), no surprise that some shmo couldn't resist trying to perfect this famous sleight-of-hand. But aside from the ominous rhetorical question of "what next?", I think it's important that we not blame on "today's viewers" in the same knee-jerk fashion for these acts of sacrilege, because you have to be conditioned to hate the old school, no?

October 16, 2005

Notes from the Trenches

Relatively light screening week this last week coupled with my not having a Tuesday night speaking gig at the Denver Public Library for the first time in a month left me with a little spare time to head out for a discussion of Vertigo at the Starz Filmcenter, facilitated by my friend Tom Delapa of the Boulder Weekly and the Denver Art Museum. Found the experience to be mostly frustrating, I have to admit, with a lot of folks testing the waters for the first time and liking the temperature, to be sure, but resetting the conversation at the beginning, I fear. I like, lately, to think of Vertigo as three problems with Midge: the problem of her glasses, the problem of her order, and the problem of her painting. I think if you look close enough at that Barbara Bel Geddes girl Friday, you hold in your hands the keys to one of Hitchcock’s most enigmatic works. This week is Psycho. I think I’m going to stay home. It’s not that there isn’t still profit from tapping that vein – just that public discussions of Hitchcock seem to me now to be a little retrograde if I’m not moderating them. (Not suggesting that my discussions are less basic, just that when I’m talking, I’m doing something.) All things being equal, though, better to have an opportunity like this in a central location in our little two horse town than not. Starting my Ghost Story series with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents this coming Saturday at 1:00pm at the Gilpin County Public Library: it’s free with free coffee, pop, and popcorn; just 45 minutes outside of downtown.

I did see Capote, however, at an industry-only screening, and found myself sort of fascinated by the way that P.S. Hoffman seems trapped in his body the same way that Capote was trapped in his persona. There’s a real live boy in there and, a lot like Charles Laughton from a film generation or two ago, he’s leading man material crammed into the body and mug of a character actor. I’ve read him bristling a few times at being described as “chubby” – I think it hurts him more than you’d think to be thought of as an “ugly” guy when it seems clear that he’s gifted enough (unlike, say, Paul Giamatti who I still don’t get), to be something really special. When Capote makes a speech (a manipulative one) in the film that people often judge him by his appearance and come to the wrong conclusions – I had a hard time separating the actor from the ghost. Ditto his brief (too brief) turn as sainted critic Lester Bangs: dealing with similar identity/appearance issues. We talk a lot in “chick flicks” about the appearance of women (the gorgeous Toni Collette has made a cottage industry out of being “ugly” in them), but we don’t spend enough time I think with the extent that the male ego is attached to attractivity. It’s certainly not as important for a man to be gorgeous as, say, rich and influential – but I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a moment in Ocean’s 11 where I didn’t look at Pitt and Clooney in their awesome suits and have a neon-hued reminder of just how cruel – and sharp – is the ol’ pecking order. Anyway – there’s a lot of pain in P.S. Hoffman’s performance and I think I’m leaning towards a positive review of Capote because of it. The film itself is suspect from the start.

Progress on my DVD queue involves me crawling through old “X-Files” episodes at a pace so slow that I fear my aversion is showing. It’s not just straight seasons of the hoary old show, but Chris Carter’s new “Mythology” box sets that cut out the good stuff to focus on the stuff that just doesn’t make any goddamn sense. “Colonization,” “Black Oil” – the very things that turned people off the thing – that have made the show the one-term cautionary tale applied to stuff like “Lost” (and after three episodes of Season Two, I’ve made a vow not to go back to the island until the gala series finale) – is making the going rougher still. I remember as a kid making up dramas a lot like this: breathless, lying on my side with a jump-rope as a climbing cord, imagining all manner of intrigue and illogical scenarios while invisible girls wept pitiful tears at my plight and my awful courage. Nothing wrong with prepubescent passion plays. Nothing, that is, until they become the overarching master-plot of a beloved television series. All would be well if its failure were the end of it – but here come these box sets that give it another go. Frustrating and bordering on offensive that Carter would even try to pull this shit again.

Screening this week, too, of Martin Campbell’s The Legend of Zorro - a sequel to a film that I honestly can’t remember anything about except that there might have been a scene where Antonio Banderas semi-undresses Catherine Zeta Jones with a sword. Watching the new one unfold, it comes clear that it's everything that you’d expect a PG-rated action film to be, complete with oodles and oodles of slow-motion “consequence” shots where the bad guys are shown to be all right despite terrible falls from great heights or calamitous explosions. (I refer to them as "A-Team" shots, to put not too fine a point on it.) All the mayhem, none of the violent loss of life and grieving families – that is until the conclusion where a pair of villains are dispatched in extraordinarily gruesome ways and an entire battalion of Confederate soldiers is dispatched by a guy with a bottle of nitro in his pants. This doesn’t appear to count, of course, and the audience responded to the sadism with brio and bonhomie. A trio of good guys who are killed in cold blood by the baddies early on which I guess excuses the sociopathic actions of the heroes in the final reel. The whole thing, hate to say, seems to be a remake of Once Upon a Time in the West. Can’t say I hated the flick, though, because I think that “already weary of it, sight unseen” is the more accurate term.

Also took in Joe Wright’s surprisingly good Pride and Prejudice (which is also sort of surprisingly cruel, and again with no real consequences, but then when did I become the old maid?) – and saw Charlize Theron and Niki Caro’s North Country which is just not very good. Full of mixed signals and the kind of happy horseshit that passes as activism nowadays, who knew that Norma Rae was so good? The best part is how the same kind of macho bullshit that torments our heroic girl miners is used against an evil witness for the defense, begging the question of when it is, exactly, that being a bully and questioning someone’s sexuality is good, and when is it bad. It takes a complicated issue and makes it the martyrdom of St. Theron (her character has no flaws, as far as I can tell, making this “woman’s” film about the redemption of four men)– people who play in Oscar pools, here are two shoo-ins for Best Actress nominations (Theron and Knightley, the latter of whom has already gotten Roger Ebert’s magic thumb) this year – as well as another two strong contenders for Best Picture consideration. Mind you, I’m not saying they deserve it, just that they smell like the kind of film that gets attention this time of year. It’s a movie directed by a woman from a book by two women – but the screenplay adaptation was written by a dude. Better than the directed by, written by, adapted from a book by dudes ratio of women’s pic The Hours, but no great shakes in any event. What movies this year were directed by American women, anyway?
Watched Jan Svankmajer’s astonishing Alice back-to-back with the Dennis Potter-scripted Dreamchild - the former only available in a full-frame, dubbed DVD and the latter out of print in any format – played in conjunction (Henson’s Creature Shop provided beasties for Dreamchild) the two form a grand double bill. Svankmajer, Czech stop-motion animator extraordinaire (the inspiration for the work of The Brothers Quay amongst others), fashions from Carrol’s twisted tale a surreal exercise over-interested in scissors and writing desks. My dreams afterwards were dark, grotesque things. Really an amazing film and required viewing especially now that we’ve been primed by Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit. It goes places, does Alice, that you wish it wouldn’t. A prime example of what happens when archetype is accessed through an intimate understanding of source material and the perverse machinations of the lizard brain. A sequence with the caterpillar imagined as a room full of holes created by ravenously burrowing, phallic worms – and our Alice carefully taking off her shoes before entering – is nightmare territory and one of the only true evocations of the displacing surreality of Carroll’s prose and prosody. Dreamchild on the other hand, is a wonderful portal to Potter’s own pop surrealism that finds the nostalgia in Carroll’s pedophilic reveries. What is pedophilia on one level but an appreciation of ephemera? There’s menace in Dreamchild’s pitch black whimsy – the script, it goes without saying, is above reproach. Ian Holm, by the way, is the perfect Dodgson.
I’m interested as hell in Wes Craven’s announced adaptation of the terrifying Alice computer game – anyone hip to the progress of the project?

Caught a dollar-theater showing of The Dukes of Hazzard, I thought I’d mention apropos to nothing. It’s just about as good or bad as you’d expect but, surprisingly, it didn’t herald to me the end of human civilization – just another shot across the bow at white southern males. Again, the key emotion while I was watching it was an almost total disinterest coupled with no little impatience. Sort of like getting caught in a conversation with someone with whom you have no interest in having a conversation. Meant to go out and catch a civilian show of The Fog 2005, but by the end of the weekend, realized that if I just waited another week, I could probably catch it for $2.00 down the street.

Finished reading Pete Dexter’s fabulous Train - one of the best of its kind that I’ve read since James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential - a dark, gritty, patios-filthy noir that sings of dirty-Faulkner and the only good book Walter Moseley ever wrote. A line: “She was pitiful in a way, but not in a way that Norah pitied.” captures a lot of the joy of the novel. It’s written from the point of view of an African-American caddy with a green thumb and a friend in a punch-drunk, blind boxer named Plural – taken under the care for a time by an enigmatic cop named Packard and his new wife Norah. Deceptively simple and without anything like a plot, the book is instead a startling piece of historical sociology and by its open-ended ending, I was left with this feeling that I’d been somewhere. I was sorry to see it end. On my bedside table now, Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms.

Here’s this week’s (week 4) mystery capture - it's a relatively easy one so hurry, hurry:

(The contest so far embroiled in a four way tie between Ian, The Captain, Asokan, and Earnest)

On the shuffle:

Afghan Whigs - If I Were Going
Buzzcocks - Ever Fallen In Love
Talking Heads - Psycho Killer
Cat Stevens - Here Comes My Baby
Ruby - Hoops
The Fiery Furnaces - Bird Brain
Ani DiFranco - Untouchable Face
Sidney Bechet - Blue Horizon
The Smiths - There is a Light that Never Goes Out
Broken Social Scene - Our Faces Split the Coast in Half
Sonic Youth - Stalker
Cat Power - Back of Your Head
Sparklehorse - Sea of Teeth
Beck - Cold Brains
Simon & Garfunkel - America
Tanya Donelly - Life Is But A Dream
Cocteau Twins - Cherry-Coloured Funk
Kronos Quartet - Already It Is Dark
Stevie Wonder - Blame it on the Sun
Bad Religion - No Control
Tom Waits - Yesterday Is Here
The Cure - Fascination Street

New reviews:
Dario Argento's Trauma and The Card Player
Hellraiser: Hellbound, Boogeyman (1980), Return of the Boogeyman, The Fallen Ones
Stay and Doom
North Country

October 15, 2005


A little recreational viewing.

Watched the truly dreadful The Country Girl tonight while recording my Colorado Avalanche getting beat in a shootout by the Chicago Blackhawks – the NHL looks really different this year; so far, daddy likee – it’s a much-praised (and much-lauded – 7 Oscar nominations) George Seaton-directed film from 1954 that finds Grace Kelly (wasn’t she also in Rear Window and Dial M for Murder this year?) in her only Oscar-winning performance as domineering stage wife Georgie to down-in-the-dumps and fresh-on-the-wagon actor Frank (Bing Crosby), herself apparently a recovering alcoholic and, therefore, a howling harridan eternally on the ass of poor, hangdog Frank. William Holden plays Broadway director Bernie Dodd who gives Frank his chance at a comeback and handily walks away with the whole damned thing with a performance as complex and haunted as his seminal turn in Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.. I love William Holden – not least for his turn in The Wild Bunch - the man could act. . . at the least, he could act better than Bing Crosby well into his twilight as a lush and Kelly who, wow is she pretty. Major disappointment with this TCM presentation is that it’s shown in 1.33:1 when it was actually projected in 1.85:1 – mirroring the flaw with the DVD’s transfer, making me wonder if this is in fact the only negative available. I rail about that in principle, of course, but I don’t think I’m going to ever look at this movie again.

It’s bad in the way that a lot of these issue pics are always bad – even Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) only escapes datedness (somewhat) by being essentially a horror film complete with psychedelic bat attack – at the dawn of Freud’s wide popular acceptance, here you have a lot of long monologues about the return of the repressed. Kelly is outmatched by this material, leading to a lot of controversy, I think, when she beat Judy Garland out for her identical turn in A Star is Born - truth is, I think that Dorothy Dandridge should’ve beat both of them for Carmen Jones (or, at the least, Kelly should have been nominated for Rear Window instead). Overlong at 104 minutes, the action is cut in three by extended musical sequences with Crosby crooning away in his dead-eyed fashion as precious life tick, tick, ticks away. The cinematography of the film, though, by first-timer John F. Warren is fantastic – garnering him his only Oscar nomination: an award he rightfully lost to Boris Kaufman’s amazing work on On the Waterfront. It’s based on a successful play by Clifford Odets which, in a lot of ways, says all you need to know about it. Also watched the surprisingly great Mr. Lucky (1943) - an all-but-forgotten Cary Grant flick in which he plays a character close to his heart: a guy who refused to go fight for his country during WWII. He brings to the swindler Joe (sort of a proto-Sky Masterson – knowing, of course, that the Damon Runyon collection upon which the musical is based was published in 1932) a real pathos that underlies the classic Grant screwball moments of his trying to learn how to knit and, of course, doing that ol’ Archie Leach shuck-and-jive of making the girls think you’re groovy while, all along, being a bit of a rascal. (The use of Cockney rhyming vernacular predicts the “Voodoo/hoodoo” shtick of the far better known The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer.) Loraine Day appears as the “Sarah” of the piece, the woman of virtue and charity who falls for the rapscallion with a heart of gold. It’s true, Joe is a professional con man with gangster friends who is convinced by the virtue of a good woman to use his evil powers for the benefit of the war effort. A piffle? Perhaps, but it’s a piffle with a load of subtext and one of the only times, I think, that Grant in a non-Hitchcock performance was asked to dredge the deeps of his oiled charm and ease with unctuousness. Currently unavailable in the DVD format, it’s not worth an extended VHS search, but I’d pick it up on DVD when it finally comes home properly. God bless Gladys Cooper, by the way.

Next on the recreational viewing list:

Two for the Seesaw (1962) - Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine in a Robert Wise bodice-ripper.

October 09, 2005

Notes from the Trenches

So against all expectations I like “Desperate Housewives.” It reminds me of “Soap” a great deal in that it seems to understand all of the twists and conventions of trashy WE-Network prime time soaps and packs them into a sort of ironic parcel replete with gorgeous women, hot men, and sordid situations. If I have a major problem with it, it’s that it doesn’t seem to have the chutzpah to be utterly shameless instead of just sort of kitschy shameless – more preening in its self-awareness than actually nasty in any indicting kind of way – it’s the kind of drug that approves of you enjoying it in a detached, intellectually-removed fashion. What I appreciate is the show’s willingness to solve its problems and present new ones: revealing identities, resolving the central mystery of the season’s first half even as it unfolds the intrigue that I presume will drive its second half – all with an arch, airy tone that hasn’t yet gotten shrill in my ear. It could have something to do with all the shots of Eva Longoria in bra and panties, sprinting up and down stairs. And then again, I’m only on episode 12 out of 23. What I can say at this point is that by midway through “Lost”, I was ready to put it in the fireplace. (Or I was until they gave us another Terry O’Quinn-centered episode that made it all worthwhile for another “week” or two.) The real star of “Desperate Housewives”, though, is the great Felicity Huffman – still looking for a real show since “Sports Night”, but until she finds one, this one (at least so far) could’ve been worse.


So, er, just finished watching episodes 13 and 14 and the whole thing's fallen on its own sword. Forget I said anything.


Tuesday last saw me at the last of the Denver Public Library’s road series: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 summary/introduction North by Northwest - a 135min. (or so) picture that squeezes discussion time afterwards at the library (it closes at 9:00pm for a few more weeks until such time as the library once again opens seven days a week, but with shorter hours and a cast of librarians commensurately boned) – so through the magic of my new DVD recorder (under $100.00 at K-Mart, a $300.00 machine on blue light special. God bless America), I was able to prepare a DVD of scenes to discuss to grease the process of post-flick stop-start. Even still, security kicked us out before we got to the little montage of the three Saul Bass title sequences he did with the Master. Lots of people see the building that the crossed lines resolve into in the opening of North by Northwest, I tend to see lines of a ledger that feeds into this bitterness in the piece about money, numbers, and people reduced to the same. I have a theory that the financial failure of Vertigo and The Wrong Man fed the subtext of
North by Northwest a lot more than that it’s Hitch’s most conventionally accessible picture. Don’t let its breeziness fool you: there’s at least a week’s worth of material in the film. Just its chronological placement between Vertigo and Psycho speaks volumes to its sneaky complexity.

Sad to report that someone stole the library’s best digital projector a couple of hours prior to the show along with a couple dozen Cokes and a few Snickers bars. Some homeless guy has a new stool, is what I’m thinking, or is trying his level best to hock a digital projector inscribed with “Denver Public Library” at the ARC. Quick-thinking salvaged the night, but Jesus man, call me old-fashioned but there’s got to be a special room in hell reserved for jackholes who steal from libraries and museums.

Heavy screening schedule last week with industry shots at In Her Shoes, Elizabethtown, Separate Lies, The War Within, Prime, Paradise Now, Wallace & Gromit, and Domino - plus, screeners for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Hellbent, and The Future of Food were circulated, leading me to muse a twofer with the latter and the similarly outraged Darwin’s Nightmare for possible publication this week. Working meanwhile on a five-fer mega-piece on five direct-to-video horror/slasher flicks that will cut into my backlog considerably (believe it or not, except for a lot of “X-Files” and “Green Acres” to watch, I’m not all that far behind anymore) – I don’t hardly know what I’d do with myself without the panic and terror of getting chewed up by the machineries of my own procrastination and manic depression. Probably ease up on my meth habit a little now that my sinuses have started bleeding. (HA, a junkie joke – who snorts meth anymore! HA! Ridiculous!)

Already on the record with
In Her Shoes and Wallace & Gromit, let’s just say that I can’t imagine that I’ll see a worse film this week than Elizabethtown. What a mess. Supposedly chopped down from an epic 135min runtime at Toronto (some have placed that time as fictional, too), it’s the kind of movie that has a conversation about who “They” are as in the “they” of “they say that…” – and has a line that goes something like “I’m impossible to forget but hard to remember!” This without even mentioning the eulogy that Susan Sarandon delivers (and can we have a dialogue about when it was decided that her character would even fly to Kentucky? She just sort of appears there when it seems about time that she should) that includes a boner joke and a tap dance to “Moon River.” I wonder if anyone remembers anymore what “Moon River” was all about in the first place.

As I managed to avoid going to any public screenings this week that were anywhere close to packed, I also managed to avoid any notable instances of audience rudeness. I did like the intense security scrutiny at Domino, however, it’s always the absolute worst pictures that get the most security. I tried to strike up a friendly patter with one of the ladies wanding my privates for recording devices to no avail. Could be the old Chaw charm doesn’t work on women wanding my privates. So is this a none-too-subtle commentary on what it is the studios think we’re most likely to want or surprisingly-humble commentary on what the studios suspect people will only want to see at an extreme discount (if at all)? Either way, it smells a little like evil.

Watched Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart’s 1955 The Man from Laramie on TCM this afternoon just before settling back to watch my frustrating Denver Broncos win a squeaker from the over-rated Washington Redskins. There is no better between-films spit bucket for me than professional sports live or on television – I tend to watch as much as I can. Online, bought a bootleg DVD of an Anthony Mann/Barbara Stanwyck western called The Furies (1950) for ten bucks as a booby prize splurge for my tape of three obscure Carl Dreyer films snapping while I was transferring it to disc. Didn’t work: still hurts.

On my bedside table this week: Pete Dexter’s grueling, hard-as-nails, and all-around great Train.

Here’s this week’s mystery capture. Running tally:

The Captain – I
Earnest – I
Asokan – I

Music Addendum

By the by, in rotation now:
New Pornographers - Testament to Youth in Verse
Neutral Milk Hotel - Ghost
Patty Griffin -Kite
Nina Simone -Since I Fell For You
Richard Thompson -I Misunderstood
Rachels -Southbound to Marion
Lisa Germano -You Make Me Wanto Wear Dresses
Decemberists -Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect
Arcade Fire -Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Billy Nayer Show -The Skinned Rabbit
The Beach Boys -God Only Knows
Rilo Kiley -Hail to Whatever You Found in the Sunlight that Surrounds You
Bjork & the Brodsky Quartet -Unravel
And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead -All White
Smashing Pumpkins -This Time
Cat Power -Rockets
Radiohead -Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin
Unit 4 + 2 -Concrete & Clay
Curve -Doppelganger
Fiona Apple -Oh Well
P J Harvey -Driving
Sufjan Stevens -A Good Man is Hard to Find

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Just in case anybody missed it, we actually have a new Sunday Feature this week, Walter's interview with Mike Mills and Lou Pucci, the director and star, respectively, of Thumbsucker. It's a beaut, methinks.

Currently jammed on a review of House of Wax (v3.0); I really can't get over how incredibly sadistic it is--and this is coming from the guy who thought the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was too tame.

October 04, 2005

Notes from the Trenches

Busy day Monday with no less than three screenings, plus a courier visit that brought with it five screeners for next month’s Denver International Film Festival – more, the mailman delivered the latest batch of DVDs for me to put on my desk for consumption somewhere down the proverbial road including the first season of “Desperate Housewives.” I’m dreading it. It looks terrible. First two screenings (Separate Lies & Good Night, and Good Luck.) industry-only at Denver’s historic Mayan theater which didn’t stop some yay-hoo’s cell phone from going off during the afternoon show of Good Night, and Good Luck.. It’s not that mistakes aren’t made, it’s that the guy let the phone ring five or six times and then ring again to signify a message on the voicemail. I wonder if he thought that nobody would notice – I wonder if he hasn’t read the instruction booklet – and I wonder, too, if he’s just that big of an asshole. Maybe just deaf. I’ve gotta’ find a different job – this one’s been pretty bad for my blood pressure lately.

An idea that I’ve been kicking around with a colleague out here is one of a “looking at the critics” radio show or podcast that, every Monday or something, would look at the worst offenders among the week’s most pandering and/or worst-written film reviews as well as the best, most-balanced, perhaps definitive reviews of the films each week. The idea of definitive reviews for a film is an intoxicating one to me – not that there’s an end-all, but that there’s a review that touches on all of the salient points in a picture with enough agility to inspire discussion and a further unfolding of the text. (Like Pauline Kael’s take on Bonnie & Clyde for instance, or Roger Ebert’s on Pearl Harbor.) If I thought I was unpopular before. . .

The screening this evening of Domino was a public one at one of our nicer mall cinemas – but with an audience of only about thirty people, no bad behavior to report. The security, though, was a little out of hand – wanding, night vision, walking up and down the aisles – I was surprised not to get a pat down and a cavity search. All this for Domino - Tony Scott’s new motion sickness vehicle with a screenplay by Richard Kelly – the guy who wrote Donnie Darko for god’s sake. I don’t know the chronology of this project, but I expected a helluva lot more from the guy’s sophomore effort. To be fair, though, I couldn't see any moment of it well enough to even gauge the quality of the writing. It's a lot like Spun - with more guns.

Which brings up the question of fatigue. Writing fatigue, watching fatigue, fatigue fatigue - I wonder a lot if that last dip in the well isn't the last dip in the well. I heard an axiom somewhere sometime that a writer always reads more than he writes if he wants his writing to stay healthy and I try to live by that, but there are times that I'm acutely aware that I'm beginning to cannibalize myself. I think I've written something like, I dunno, a million words or so in the last several years - all on the subject of film - and there's an inevitable overlap. I find that I don't recognize things I've written even from a week ago on the rare occasion that someone quotes me back at me. The oddest sensation. I recall, too, an old friend and colleague of mine who told me that he knew it was time to get out of the game when he found himself sleeping through at least part of every single movie he saw now - reminds me of that old "Dick Van Dyke Show" episode where Dick gets in trouble with the law when his alibi is that he slept through a drive-in feature of The Guns of Navarone. Believe me, it's possible. And what's more alarming is the idea that I watch so much stuff that on the one hand I lose any kind of inspiration to write with any kind of heat on the mundane while perhaps giving too much attention to something just because it's novel.

What I do know is that I've been dreading going to the movies a lot lately and it has nothing to do with the movies.

Tuesday will find me at an industry screening of In Her Shoes followed by a speaking engagement at the Denver Public Library for the last of their road trip series: North by Northwest. The quintessential Hitchcock film if not necessarily his best (it’s a little long, let’s face it), find therein queer subtext, wrong man, trains, protean heroes, femme fatales, and Cary Grant. It’s got Eva Marie Saint as a sexpot in red and black (there’s a Lloyd Cole and the Commotions song called “Rattlesnakes” that says “She looks like Eva Marie Saint, in On the Waterfront" - I know just what they mean), and James Mason and Marty Landau as an oily pair of microfilm smugglers. With titles by Sal Bass, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and a script by Lehman – well, there you have it. Looking forward to it – it’ll be my last gig at the DPL until/if they ever get funding to do more stuff like it down the road. I’ve already been on this soap box.

Speaking of music, though, this is on my IPod this week:

"This Must Be the Place: Naive Melody" (live) - Talking Heads
"Pot Kettle Black" - Wilco
"Tangerine" - Led Zeppelin
"Sweet Thing" - Van Morrison
"Teenage Wristband" - Twilight Singers
"I'm Deranged" - David Bowie
"In Ohio" - Joseph Arthur
"Time of the Season" - The Zombies
"Cross Bones Style" - Cat Power
"Darkside" - Tanya Donelly
"A Fond Farewell" - Elliott Smith
"Hoist That Rag" - Tom Waits
"Ten Believers" - Latin Playboys
"Recoil" - Ani DiFranco
"Six Different Ways" - The Cure
"Labour of Love" - Frente
"Love is the Shit" - Spearhead
"Pale Blue Eyes" - Velvet Underground
"All Is Full of Love" - Bjork
"Lonely Lights" - Tarnation
"Happiness is a Warm Gun" - Beatles
"Stolen Car" - Beth Orton

And, while we're at it, on my bedside table for a second go-round is Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Separate Lies is what you’d expect from a Tom Wilkinson/Emily Watson flick: superb performances, stuffy flick - Asylum II: Gothic Boogaloo. I’m almost as tired of high-falutin’ scheissen like this as I am of low-falutin’ scheissen like Domino - but something like Good Night, and Good Luck. presents something of a different problem. It’s good, I guess, but it’s astonishingly lightweight – there’s almost no substance to it which is something of a shocker. You get what Clooney and co. are going after here: this attack on civil liberties and so on, but without any sort of context for its specific story, all it seems to be is an allegory that holds no particular rewards for its deciphering. It casts something of a pall on my optimism for other stuffy fall biopics like Capote and Walk the Line. After seeing the trailer for Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for like the umpteenth time this weekend, too, I’m starting to hate it sight unseen.

Oh – and was sort of roundabout offered an interview with Dakota Fanning which I think I’m going to pretend that I didn’t see.

Here’s this Trench’s mystery pic. Easier than last time but not yet simple. The tally, remember:

Earnest – I
Captain – I

Good luck.


Elizabethtown is a spectacular failure. Really, this ain't no run-of-the-mill bad, you've really gotta have been trying to do something to flame out like this.

New Reviews: Serenity, Oliver Twist & Kings and Queen, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, In Her Shoes