December 30, 2008

Other Lists

So with the Top Tens on the horizon - how about a few other lists? Like a bottom ten, for instance, or a ten auteur flicks that failed, or a ten worst film moments in 2008?

Consider that for worst it's best to avoid stuff that's obviously atrocious like Mamma Mia or Mummy 3 or, really, 90% of Universal's output. What's the point, really, of going after those targets? Better choices are things like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Defiance or, gasp, Valkyrie...

For failed auteurism, factor in the heartbreak of movies by filmmakers you couldn't wait to see their next film and then, their next film was. . . Pineapple Express? Or stuff that played like self-parody like Spirit or Paranoid Park or that Harmony Korine movie about Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe.

And for ten worst film moments. . . the last fight in Revolutionary Road - any five minutes from Mamma Mia - the 2001 steps in Wall-E?

Go get 'em.

December 25, 2008

Winners of the Orange Prize

Hey, everyone—

Honored to be invited here as a guest-blogger. For a first shot, I thought I'd try picking at some ideas currently stuck to a brain too desk-like already with gum and graffiti. (That I was only able to wrap this post up by Christmas Day suggests I’ve got all the timing of a young Jon Heder.) Let's say the class started when I caught the new Britney Spears video.

The biggest shock initially was the extent to which it rips off "Never Again", the video for Kelly Clarkson's single from last year. Apparently, they are directed by the same guy. (I mean, of course they are.) Both tell the story of a hound pursued by a fox, where being caught means being tossed back in with the bathwater. Both videos also employ suites of images which are pretty much identical. They’re alike in every way, except for their ideological content, which is strictly opposed. The lesson learned here, I guess, is that you don't have to squint your ears very hard before Ibsen starts sounding like Strindberg.

The difference begins with the evidence against the defendant, and ends with a message about what constitutes a female exemplar. The target in the Clarkson is a genuine malefactor, whose guilt finds proof both in the witnessed act and in the remorse-flavored mental pudding he becomes. It is also for the most part a localized triumph. Clarkson's heroine and the blonde interloper fail to forge the dread female dichotomy, as there is simply too much talented and solitary about the one and too much doubt about the other. What is commendable about Clarkson's character ultimately is her critical faculty. Compare that to the Spears. Her mark does nothing worse than check his planner at breakfast; that he flirts with Spears as she’s got on different wigs is less sinister than her own plot, as she's out to burke him. It’s the decision to have Spears play all the women that’s the drag, and what makes the video’s politics something mustier than the slang of the title, itself disinterred from the abandoned disco hall that had been its tomb.

By making Spears their proxy, “Womanizer” implies that women are psychopaths, whose sole path to empowerment rests in acting sexy in public, luring a man around until he’s in the bedroom, where he can be made into toast. It's a joke which begins in a kitchen styled after a Korova Milk Bar and ends in the molestation and deletion of some nameless catalogue model: the only plausible way to market Spears now is as a crazy thug; the only way to market her as a crazy thug is by attempting to normalize the idea that women are crazy thugs; and that, as a seriously arrested person addicted to fame and lacking a meaningful conception of privacy, her moral agency may as well begin and end at the fact of each performance.

Basically, it is important that Spears be marketed, as it is the view of the consensus that that is the only time she acts rationally. Her compromised state should be considered a sign of grave damage, not that we’ll ever know its true extent or all those responsible, as that would lead to hassle and diminished profits. Too bad, as I think her profiteers likely committed some real atrocities against her, a suspicion that stirs with the Rolling Stone article and other anecdotes. One example is my music instructor’s explanation (backed up by Wikipedia) that the Spears vocal coaches taught her as a teen to sing in a way designed to sound "sexy," a method that was guaranteed to ruin her voice. What do you even call that, the vocal equivalent of foot-binding?

In context, the whole idea of Spears’s comeback makes a similar impression as the Kubrick version of Clockwork: endless violent childhood followed by a period of distinct suffering, followed by society offering the reward of doing it all over, with the caveat that what offended be done next time with more discretion. Meanwhile, there's nothing left in the body to make you an adult, and no help in that direction either. It’s us failing, again, to mark the difference between civility—which are manners—and decency—which are morals. (See here, for the popular explanation by Blumenthal, or here, for an example of it being put to important use.) The distinction is important, because it necessitates the concept of private space: the domain for behavior that is regarded as decent, but which cannot usefully be made civil. In the same way, abolishing privacy (say, by a lifetime of perpetual fame, or by a belief in a particular conception of G-d) can lead to the conflation of the two concepts. See also how privacy is eroded by consistently attacking a group's moral agency.

When I consider the difference between the concepts of public and private space, I can’t help but think the answer might involve the idea that only one of them contains children. It would make sense, as motherhood has always appeared to be an important trigger for confusion about female agency. Sarah Silverman got in trouble for a joke she told at the VMAs in which she says that the Spears kids "are the most adorable mistakes you'll ever see." (The gossip at the time was that Spears had told her kids they were mistakes in a flash of anger.) The word “mistake” in that lexical category should offend, as it impugns the worth of guiltless people based on choices made by a second party, thus implicitly endorsing the removal of that choice, to protect the lives of the innocent. It’s sexist. What should happen afterwards but that the routine be scrubbed from youtube to protect Spears’s two children: an act which essentially neutralized Silverman’s agency to tell a joke targeting a term that endorses the neutralizing of female agency, so as to protect Spears’s two children. It’s quite funny, and makes me wonder if it was Spears who used her agency to call for the scrubbing, though I doubt it, as the universe has not yet committed the final headdesk of collapsing in on itself.

Another trigger, I’d argue, is the act of performance itself. Walter’s review of Jesus is Magic has always bothered me, mostly for his assumption that there’s some ambiguity regarding the artifice of Silverman’s persona (there is??), and his ire in response to a character break:

"Yet protesting her innocence defuses her subtext, doesn't it? In this mad desire to not be taken seriously, suddenly Silverman comes across as ignorant and run-of-the-mill crass. It might be in that shift in paradigm that her jokes are suddenly toothless, replaced by uncomfortable silences and bursts of nervous laughter."

My problem, I guess, is that I don’t understand what exactly separates Silverman from that other popular comedian who says horrible things, and who also happens to break character all the time, to the enormous and obvious delight of his audience. Without that distinction clearly expressed, all I’m left with is a queasy feeling I associate with bearing witness to the act of confusing art with nature. (It’s a feeling that's become familiar, ever since the Emmys decided that the actors on The Wire don't deserve awards because they all must truly be drug dealers from Baltimore, even Elba.) It particularly disturbs me because it’s also something I’ve been guilty of, thinking this counted as the most tolerable of Spears’s output and not the most heinous. That it manufactures such a plausible posture for Spears results in me forgetting all the evidence that Spears doesn’t actually regard fame with anything resembling a jaundiced eye. In its deftness, it has me denying her performance, even as I suspect that's all she's got. What an asshole, right?

But more thoughts on Sarah Silverman later.

December 16, 2008

Question for the Readership

Is anybody seeing the latest update at the mothersite? (Step Brothers and The Heartbreak Kid.) The site was recently moved; my own ISP hasn't found the new DNS servers yet, so I'm still seeing "last updated: 04:15 PM(EST)" and starting to get concerned.

UPDATE: Back in business. Fuck yeah!

November 28, 2008

Bond Upon the Brain!

It's funny, you know--I finally got around to seeing (or, maybe, worked up the courage to see) Synecdoche, New York and, to be expected, it just kicked my ass all over the place. The typical rounds of self-doubt and serious introspection followed, but in the end I'm still thinking about James Bond.

Of course, it probably doesn't help my state of mind that 1967's five-director pile-up Casino Royale should be the first film I see after Synecdoche, New York. How's this for a mindfuck: seven characters carrying the title of James Bond, 007; Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd; Orson Welles playing Le Chiffre as a jolly magician; the testicle torture replaced with a face-eating acid trip co-starring Peter O'Toole; and Woody Allen. The most I can take from this two-hour-long non sequitur is that the denizens of Swinging London already knew how fucked up they were and, moreover, didn't care. How about putting Casino Royale on a double bill with Blowup? If anything, they're self-aware enough to prove that the era didn't need a dick-filled haranguing from Austin Powers. (Even when he was relevant, was Mike Myers ever relevant?) In fact, let's just go nuts and stick Synecdoche at the end of that and make a triple bill about the follies of unfiltered creativity. Now there's an interesting haranguing, considering the ineffable passage of time in Kaufman's opus is roughly analogous to the time that has already passed since 1967. All three of these films share love-hate relationships with beautiful women that go unrealized until it's too late--and how can you not link Caden Cotard to Thomas' eternally-distracted quest to find the body that may have never existed?

For all of its proselytizing bullshit and seizure-inducing action sequences, I
liked Quantum of Solace--liked what it was saying about the responsibility to protect the masses, placed in direct opposition with the desire to simply kill the people who cause trouble. But beyond that, I fell in love with the spectacle that surrounded it: I loved the title, I loved the poster, and although "Another Way to Die" was pretty horrible, I've watched the title sequence on YouTube a few more times than I'd care to admit--if only to hear those first few notes, which really did represent the throwback at which the filmmakers were grasping before it all went south. From the moment I saw Quantum's ludicrous single-letter lapel pins, I fucking wanted one. I'm not immune to the iconography, and frankly, I don't want to be. I just don't want to be shackled to it--I was genuinely surprised that Quantum of Solace's olive branch to the die-hards wasn't enough to please many of them. Why is the gun barrel sequence at the end of the movie? Why is it so fast? The reasons are obvious, but the infallible tradition outweighs such revelations. Needless to say, I'm worried about Bond 23.

But who am I, and what are my intentions? I should probably mention at this point that it was Bond who lured me into cinema. I can still remember the first time I saw Pierce Brosnan walk through the gun barrel sequence on the big screen, after about a hundred iterations passed through my VCR: the moment, I think, when I realized how different the movies were from any other form of entertainment. I knew that the movies were larger than life from the moment I first laid eyes on them, but it wasn't until that little white orb shot across the theater that I understood that fact. For all of my intellectual desire to see popular culture turned on its ear, how often do I strive to relive that moment of clarity through safe, familiar images? More than ten years later, on top of all the ideas that it forced me to confront about my life and the people in it, Synecdoche, New York reminded me that I still have a lot of preconceived notions about how art should intertwine with my life. So Casino Royale '67 brings up an interesting thought: is it really such a weird, obtuse film, or am I merely put off by a property that would dare take something so famously formulized and mold it into something that is, indeed, entirely without formula or even the most rudimentary sense of logic?

So with all of that in mind, I took the opportunity to revisit another icon of my early cinematic education: "Mystery Science Theater 3000"--or, at least, its modern incarnation, RiffTrax; more specifically, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy's take on Casino Royale '06. I've been somewhat back and forth on how I feel about this brand of entertainment as an adult, but after sitting down and listening to this track (and a few episodes of the old show, for good measure), I wasn't outright offended by the very fact of it. It's just that these guys are... not really all that funny.

I mean, I have no qualms about ripping on A View to a Kill, as my college chums and I did on many-a drunken night. We all loved Bond movies, but from the moment Roger Moore lets loose with his first protracted moan of impending pain--out of, like, five--you're through taking the movie seriously. (Unsurprisingly, we rarely bothered to finish the film.) And forget the fact that they're turning their cannons toward a great film--I'm even on board to make fun of Casino Royale, considering that you should be willing to skewer your own sacred cows every now and then to keep your sensibilities in check. But there's something fundamentally wrong about being spoonfed by such a secondhand source, isn't there? Doubtful that I would have the same cinematic curiosity if it hadn't been for "Mystery Science Theater 3000"--which in all likelihood served as my introduction to Japanese cinema and, yep, the mod '60s, too. I laughed at the awful jokes thrown out by the hosts because it's all I knew. But there comes a point when you've seen enough movies on your own and you have to know more. Context, personal boundaries. "MST3K" and RiffTrax are indiscriminate and oppressive in their simpleminded snark: there's no real feeling of camaraderie between Murphy and Nelson, who are so carefully scripted as to make the exercise moot. They're not funny, and they're not defiant. They simply are.

Sure, I'll find it superficially impressive that you can find appropriate moments to name-check both François Mitterrand and Heike Kagero from SNES classic "Super Punch-Out!!"--but the people who would get those references should be too old for this shit anyway. Who, exactly, are you trying to please by simultaneously decrying Casino Royale as being too silly while berating it for not kowtowing to each convention of the Bond series? There's something a little pathetic about trying to please everyone at all times, and it's ridiculous to try and pretend that it still has merit when you're ten years out of the gate. Genuine subversion is a lot easier to swallow when you realize that art isn't about everything that you want. I like to think that I'm learning that. At any rate, I still love James Bond, and I'll always get a little quake from the gun barrel sequence--but I'm not thinking about it when Sean Connery retrieves his money clip from a mad assassin with infinite disdain; when Roger Moore empties his Walther into a defeated billionaire's midsection; when Daniel Craig cradles a betrayed friend in his arms before tossing him in a dumpster. It's an introduction into this world of cinema, not its alpha and omega, and I've already had my turn--so who am I to cling to it like a jealous ex?

November 21, 2008

Mon Meme Alphabette

Doing this without being tagged--do we have an antisocial rep? Probably--or tagging others (then it becomes too reminiscent of a chain letter, if you ask me), in large part as a weekend stopgap. I first heard about this "meme" over at THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR; apparently it originated at BLOG CABINS. Everyone here is welcome to counter with his or her own list, link to a favourite, or trash mine.

Rather than choose my favourite film from each letter of the alphabet, as the rules dictated, I decided to be a rebel and pick some also-rans that in a few cases haven't gotten much play around here. (Besides which, this seems to have rapidly become an Obscure-off in which no one is being truly honest with themselves.) I suspect, as Nick Davis said of his friend, um, Goatdog, that some of my choices will take even close friends by surprise. Sometimes a title just never comes up in conversation.

Also, I cheated on the letter "x."
Alice in the Cities (Wenders)
The Baby (Post)
California Split (Altman)

Danger: Diabolik (Bava)
Explorers (Dante)
F for Fake (Welles)
The Girl Can't Help It (Tashlin)

Hamlet (Branagh)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (Arnold)
The Jerk (Reiner)
Kurt & Courtney (Broomfield)

Lisa (Sherman)
Modern Romance (Brooks)

The Nutty Professor (Lewis)
Onegin (Fiennes)
The Public Enemy (Wellman)
Quest for Fire (Annaud)
Return of the Dragon (Lee)

The Sterile Cuckoo (Pakula)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch)
Under the Volcano (Huston)
Videodrome (Cronenberg)
The Wrong Man (Hitchcock)

Pola X (Carax)
Young Frankenstein (Brooks)
Zoolander (Stiller)

November 15, 2008

Quantum Feedback (Updated)

Well, we did one for Crystal Skull and we did one for WALL·E; might as well do one for the new Bond. Consider this your Quantum of Solace talkback.

(11/17): Walter's review of the flick is live at last.

November 08, 2008

... in my giddyup

It speaks somehow to what I suspect is an interesting sea change in my life here as, in revisiting a few of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, I’m finding that I like them now in a way that I didn’t used to before. It’s not that I knew that I was more respecting a picture like Rear Window for instance, than liking it, it’s that now, freed of feeling like I had to respond to it in a certain way, I discovered that I responded to it like a motherfucker. Curious about that, I popped in his remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much to discover, to my delight, that a film I’d always sort of disdained was, in fact, tight as the proverbial kettle drum and, more, with a few years under my belt, emotionally affecting as well. My fave Hitch is still 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, Hitch’s first truly “American” film, his only collaboration with Thornton Wilder, and starring faves Joe Cotten and Theresa Wright – but I’m coming around to the idea that what I’d always considered to be “light” late pictures in the Master’s oeuvre are not so easily dismissed. No wonder Truffaut sounds like a fawning sycophant in that interview he did with him.

Lists being what they are, I’d still like to offer up my top ten Hitchs:

Shadow of a Doubt
The Birds
Strangers on a Train
Rear Window
The Lady Vanishes

Oh dear – that leaves off a great many, doesn’t it? Frenzy and North by Northwest and The Wrong Man and I Confess and The Lodger… where do they fit?

It’s also led to a couple of other skylarks nagging at the back of my head – like what, exactly, the term “Hitchcockian” means outside of specific context?

And which is the Hitch you hate the most to love? Me? Family Plot.

I’m doing a series upcoming at a local library system of “Forgotten Classics” – we’ll be showing, as Saturday Afternoon matinees, Ace in the Hole, Seven Men From Now, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Late Show, and Being John Malkovich. Better title might have been “Classics in the Rearview”. Next month, I’ll be doing a Marlene Dietrich series with the Denver Public Library.

Will be doing minor coverage of the Denver Film Festival in the next couple of weeks and catching, I hope, at last a screening of The Wrestler – the last real film I’m interested in seeing this year.

October 26, 2008

Whoa is Me Redux

Will the poster by the name of "Dan C." please step forward and claim your prize? (E-mail me - Life's too short to drag this out any further. Those caps came from Witchfinder General, The Butcher Boy, and Road Games, by the way; surprised no one got the third one, since I assume the film is quite popular around here as an '80s horror movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis. (I hadn't seen it, ironically, until excerpts from it in the terrific Aussie exploitation doc Not Quite Hollywood inspired me to rectify the situation. Truthfully? I was kinda disappointed, especially as an ardent fan of Richard Franklin's other Hitchcock shrine, Psycho II.)

One other bit of business before I scram: Walter Chaw's interview with Charlie Kaufman just went up at the mothersite, and I'm tempted to say it's the best thing we've ever published. Not to overhype it. And talk about landing the whale--where do we go from here?

October 19, 2008

Whoa is Me

I have a Blu-ray copy of The Ultimate Matrix Collection I'm willing to give away to the first person who correctly identifies the sources of all three screencaps below. North American residents only, please.

Dunno when I'm gonna get around to reviewing the damn thing, for what it's worth, but in short it's demo material through and through, just a great showcase for the format. And you actually get The Animatrix in full 1080 for the first time on next-gen.

Also wanted to take this opportunity to go on record about the status of this year's book. While there won't be a Film Freak Central 2008 Annual, there will be a Film Freak Central 2008-2009 Annual, which we're hoping to release in the first quarter of next year. It's going to cost a bit more but it will also be twice as thick. (That's what she said. (Speaking of which, how great was Thursday's "The Office"?)) More details to follow.

Seaquest out. Good luck!

October 08, 2008

Politics Politics Politics

So, uh, who here has seen Michael Moore's latest film Slacker Uprising, graciously offered as a free gift to residents of the U.S. and Canada? Spoiler alert! It's about how Michael Moore singlehandedly won the youth vote for John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential election. (You're welcome.) It really is a sight to see, so watch it for free while you can--formerly, and more appropriately, titled Captain Mike Across America at last year's TIFF, Slacker Uprising may be the film that cements his long-term relevance to the art world and emphasizes his newfound irrelevance to everything else. You want a movie that can definitively link Moore to Leni Riefenstahl--so definitively, in fact, that it makes the comparison embarrassingly obvious? Well, here it is: a 62-city rock-the-vote tour that finds Michael Moore energizing enormous, faceless crowds of "slackers" (read: college students) who seem less interested in his message than his presence, which is given extra weight by fawning introductions from Joan Baez and R.E.M.

Predictably, Moore also takes the opportunity to a lodge a hypersensitive defense of Fahrenheit 9/11, wagging a finger at the media for their own propagandistic tactics and refuting the guys who call him a communist without seeing his work. Apparently, Moore tells us, 44% of polled Republicans who saw the movie felt that it offered a fair portrait of the President. In presenting that little tidbit, it seems brazenly prickish (and, it goes without saying, enormously self-centered) to dare right-wingers to picket his tour, and to keep his camera solely focused on the lunatic fringe--the folks who admit their ignorance to the issues but will vote for the guy who has a personal covenant with the man upstairs. I realize that it can be more than a little disconcerting--this idea that no matter how batshit insane or ridiculously uninformed you are, you can vote so long as you're not a convicted felon--but, um, isn't Moore essentially enabling a whole new crowd of scary voters with his indiscriminate bid to get warm bodies into the polling booths? Fight fire with fire, I guess, but I don't know if it's possible to see Moore's crusade against George W. Bush as anything less than a personal vendetta: it's not specifically about the war or the 2000 vote anymore--he wants to hurt this motherfucker, bad. The so-called Slacker Uprising chronicles nothing of the sort; it's just a paean to its own creator and a sissy-slapfight waiting to happen. I'd say that Moore just wrote his own pink slip with this film--but let's wait for the election, and Oliver Stone's W., before we can come to any concrete conclusions.

Imbued with a slightly masochistic desire to watch documentaries about self-centered jackasses, I went to see Religulous over the weekend. Honestly, there isn't a whole lot to say about it, except that I wish that Bill Maher would spend more time talking about the bizarre attempts to reconcile faith and science and less time trying to discredit their interviewees with sarcastic subtitles as they fumble for the right words. In fact, let's say that I wish that Maher had spent more time implicating himself as a member of the human race, instead of placing himself smugly above it--what else can you say about a man who says that he thinks you're smart and rational until faith enters the equation, upon which time he declares that you have a neurological disorder? Oh sure, he drops little hints of his own brushes with faith and religion, but even as a kid, he was too smart for that shit.

If history has taught us anything, it's that fear and passion have a fucked-up effect on the human psyche, but what Religulous taught me is that we can avoid obliterating ourselves with a self-righteous mushroom cloud if we were more like Bill Maher; if we were to adopt his sense of all-encompassing doubt and, perhaps, his messiah complex along with it. Dare we imply that arrogance is one of the reasons why religion has helped steer us onto the path of self-destruction? "Everyone in America needs to see this movie," someone behind me remarked as the end credits rolled, and it's that kind of reaction that I fear most from Religulous, this belief that watching it will endow each and every one its viewers with some mystical sense of self-awareness--more likely, it will convince its own holier-than-thou choir to adopt a sense of apathy to world events, convinced that they're not a member of the unwashed masses. I mean, I dunno, what do you think: when you're discussing something as ostensibly universal--yet so intensely personal--as faith, how distant can/should a director/host remain from the action?

I tried my damnedest to sneak into An American Carol shortly after I saw Religulous, but no such luck--while seventeen of the multiplex's nineteen theaters could be found on the second floor, An American Carol was on the ground floor alongside Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, presumably because they are the films at highest risk to be populated by moochers. You win this round, fall releases not screened for critics! So I pays my moneys and watch the movie with seven other people present in the theater--two of whom walk out about a half hour in. I somehow managed to stick it out and, frankly, I'm still waiting for David Zucker to pop up out of nowhere and throw a pie in my face.

There's one particular scene that leads me to that flabbergasted conclusion: Before a pair cops can search a couple of middle-eastern guys, a cadre of literal zombies representing the ACLU barge in, moaning about the Fourth Amendment. ("I'm premenstrual!" the token female zombie adds. Ha ha! Bitches, man--am I right?) "Thank Allah for the ACLU," one of the Middle Eastern guys mutters, shortly before George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer) jumps in and blows them apart with a twelve gauge. We never actually get to see the bomb in question before Patton blows them to kingdom come, and... just... no. You can't possibly expect me to see this as even remotely acceptable. My own sense of doubt tends to take over during moments like these, attempting to convince me that I've missed something important. Call it cathartic fantasy if you want, but no one can possibly be this ignorant, no one can be this much of a balls-out hypocrite.

Could it be that An American Carol is actually a subtle, complex satire of partisan bickering? Hell, there's even a scene in which Dennis Hopper, playing a federal judge, takes a gun and fires wildly into a crowd of those ACLU zombies before they can take the Ten Commandments off the wall and--gasp--enact gun control! Shoot 'Em Up was a little too obvious to be truly effective, but I was willing to play along, and I thought I sensed something along those same lines here. Patton takes anti-American filmmaker Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) through vital moments in world history to demonstrate where war has been necessary (the Munich Agreement and a hypothetical modern America where slavery was never abolished)--but wait, I thought the George Clooney analogue was there to demonstrate how we shouldn't belabor the past, what with his irrelevant films about Nazis and Joe McCarthy! Malone expresses ignorant surprise that members of the Military went to college--but wait, I thought colleges were hotbeds of anti-American subversion! And so on.

Slacker Uprising more or less confirms that Michael Moore is an almost obscenely easy target, too obvious to ignore. Between the cheap fat jokes, An American Carol attempts to gain mileage by mocking the very idea that he is a documentary filmmaker--not because he routinely fudges the facts or that he's relentlessly self-aggrandizing, but because nobody watches documentaries, and maybe he's just not good enough to make feature films. Finally, after Malone undergoes his Dickensian conversion, he becomes a patriotically positive filmmaker who finally gets to make the narrative that he apparently always wanted to make. I want so badly to believe that it's all an elaborate prank--any film that acknowledges Riefenstahl as an integral building block of the Third Reich just has to be aware that the moving image carries immeasurable power in all its forms. But that little coda finally forces me to abandon any thoughts that the joke is on anyone but me: enforcing the same old ass-backwards belief that movies only exist as an escape, and that feel-good fiction is infinitely preferable to a possibly bitter reality. Maybe it's just too frightening to take seriously at first, wondering if anyone could believe that An American Carol is telling it like it is--almost as frightening as the possibility that Sarah Palin could be anywhere within twenty feet of any big red buttons.

Coming soon from yours truly: an incendiary yet logical interview with Ballast director Lance Hammer, and a leap back onto a certain wagon of insanity that I've owed you all for way too long.

September 28, 2008


This year marks the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death – and the fifth year that I haven’t properly mourned him. No time, no time, no time cries that little white rabbit in my head and it’s to the point now that it’s physical – something lodged in my existential craw. After Dark Knight, I physically could not write a thing for a couple of days; something I couldn’t squeeze around anymore. It’s when I realized that I wasn’t writing to journal anymore. That my shit had gotten impersonal. So I made a decision to get personal again. It’s taken a bit to get gears used to static on the go again and if you can feel the creaking, there’s the reason, but I’m back, bitches, hope I’m not gone long again.

Paul Newman’s death is shaking. I was more personally traumatized by the death of Roy Scheider, though, and I think that it has a lot to do with my not understanding Newman until I got a little older and got ahold of Hud and The Hustler and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - all those movies where he played fags and rapists and long-time losers that facilitate their girlfriend’s rape and suicide. Hardly matinee idol stuff, but that was Newman, right? One of the two or three most beautiful people to ever flicker on that luminous scrim and choosing to play assholes and miscreants (Cool Hand Luke, Hombre, and his Lew Archer and on and on and on) – that’s integrity. His films are the tumult and displacement of the sixties; he’s the sixties. Forget about bullshit like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting - Newman was fucking steel, man, the s’truth unfiltered.

Anyway, I didn’t get Newman until I was well on my way to becoming an old guy. I got Scheider right away. Jaws, French Connection, 52 Pick-Up, Sorcerer, I understand Scheider – even Romeo is Bleeding, right? But Newman? Newman had to wait until I got smarter so what I feel now is intellectual. Still hurts, though.

Here’s a hypothetical. If you could have had the chance to ask Newman five questions in an intimate sit-down. No follow-ups, no groundwork, you’re in a terminus station and that guy’s waxing the floor and half the lights are off and holy crap, it’s Paul Newman in the overstuffed opposite. Five questions. Make ‘em count because it looks like he’s waiting for that eternal coachman to offer him a leg up into the coach.

Now here’s the other hypothetical – same situation with, say, Charlie Kaufman, what the hell.

Anyone here read Joe Lansdale’s The Drive-In? Movie prospects?

Suffered goddamn Nights in Rodanthe the other night – I swear to god that in between stuff like that I fool myself into believing that the world isn’t packed to groaning with assholes that like Nicholas Sparks. I really wish Lane would be in more stuff like Unfaithful and not stuff like Under the Tuscan Sun. Am I alone, too, in really liking Richard Gere? Best Gere film? That Ed Norton thing where he really, seriously, hits it out of the park without stealing the hog Ed’s carrying off to the truck.

Listening now to Loose Fur and these Radiohead b-sides that I found floating around the ephemera – anyone tried out that “Reckoner” thing on iTunes that lets you mix the song to your own tastes? Crazy.

September 27, 2008

Little by Little, the World Changes...

Paul Newman is gone.

More to say when we can.

September 25, 2008

Revenge of the Talkback (Update)

We did these pretty regularly for a spell, and with the mothersite generating a lot of content lately, now seems as good a time as any to revive the Friday Talkback--especially since everybody's pretty well-represented this week.

Review roundup:

More coverage of this week's theatricals may trickle in; until then, have at it.

UPDATE (09/28/08): Well, your enthusiasm seals it: that's the last time I try to revive this shit. Anyway, a heads-up that our Festival Index has finally been not only updated--I can't believe there were no umbrella links to Alex's Sundance coverage before this--but also overhauled; you can now find links to every scrap of coverage we've written about various film festivals since the site's infancy, a makeover project that was long overdue. (I myself tore my hair out in frustration just trying to find some of this stuff.)

Now to fix those Links and Bios pages!

September 14, 2008

Mute Witness

As threatened, a few stream-of-consciousness thoughts on Charlie Kaufman's latest...

When Synecdoche, New York premiered at Cannes, I remember being annoyed by how feeble the critical coverage on it was. But I get it now. This is a film I'm hard-pressed to describe, let alone review in depth, after just a single viewing. I can say that I see why Kaufman kept this one for himself rather than entrusting it to Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry—it's so dense and cryptic that it would be nigh uninterpretable by anyone but the source. Kaufman is a pretty meat-and-potatoes director, all things considered, but there are so many idiosyncrasies built into the material that it's stylish by default.

The film itself suggests an X-ray of a self-loathing artist's soul (he wrote without any intention of qualifying it). A miserable theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) receives the MacArthur Genius Grant and what he does with it transcends mere navel-gazing: he erects an exact replica of his life in a cavernous warehouse, eventually hiring actors to shadow him and his inner circle. (Synecdoche, New York reaches some mad crescendo when the boundaries between representative and actual realities have blurred such that doubles for the actors themselves start cropping up.) Once Kaufman started taking his games off court, so to speak, for instance by casting Emily Watson as Samantha Morton—the two are often mistaken for each other offscreen, and are certainly doppelgangers here—I found myself wondering if even Kaufman/Hoffman was a planned coincidence. That’s the kind of insanity this movie breeds.

The term “Lynchian” is bound to come up a lot in reviews of the film and for once it's not inappropriate (and moreover not an insult to Lynch). Yet I suspect it will still be misapplied to Synecdoche, New York's surreal humour when it more accurately describes its existentialism; the picture is nothing less than a distaff Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire, climaxing in a quiet apocalypse worthy of Week-End's closing title declaration: "END OF CINEMA / END OF WORLD." This is not to accuse Kaufman of making a pastiche—indeed, he might be the only other American filmmaker to whom these nested narratives come naturally.

Bottom line: Synecdoche, New York is hilarious, heady, intoxicating, heartbreaking, and more than a little maddening.

I saw another film at this year's TIFF that I feel woefully unprepared to write about without a second look, Astra Taylor's Examined Life. A rebuttal of sorts to What the Bleep Do We Know!?, it may be too broad for its own good (Taylor literally asks a handful of noted philosophers (Cornel West and Judith Butler among them) to spout ten minutes of arbitrary rhetoric apiece and calls it a documentary), but it's as compulsively watchable as its animated counterpart, Richard Linklater's Waking Life. It's also so linear and compartmentalized that it feels like the first filmed blog, with viewers destined to take its scene transitions as unconcious prompts to complete the cycle of interactivity in public forums afterwards.

(This post dedicated to the memory of David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008.)

September 07, 2008

TIFF File (Up Up and Away'd)

The stars don't tell the whole story, of course, but for quick reference purposes, here's a rundown of everything I've screened so far @ this year's TIFF, followed by brief commentary:

    • Gigantic (d. Matt Aselton) - **
    • Synecdoche, New York (d. Charlie Kaufman) - ****(?)
    • Adoration (d. Atom Egoyan) - *
    • The Wrestler (d. Darren Aronofsky) - ***1/2
    • Not Quite Hollywood (d. Mark Hartley) - ***
    • Examined Life (d. Astra Taylor) - **1/2
    • Two Legged Horse (d. Samira Makhmalbaf) - **1/2
    • Rachel Getting Married (d. Jonathan Demme) - **
    • 35 Shots (d. Claire Denis) - ***1/2
    • Gomorrah (d. Matteo Garrone) - ***
    • Lorna's Silence (ds. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne) - ***1/2
    • The Girl from Monaco (d. Anne Fontaine) - **
    • Derrière moi (d. Rafaël Ouellet) - **1/2
    • A Christmas Tale (d. Arnaud Desplechin) - ***
So far I appear to be in the minority on Rachel Getting Married (the praise-by-way-of-Altman comparisons must have Altman turning in his grave) and Lorna's Silence (pretty much said it all in my capsule). On the other hand, I'm slowly coming around to the positive consensus on Cannes Grand Prix winner Gomorrah: its title a play on the Camorra, better known as the Mafia, the picture is about the trickle-down effect that organized crime has had on an industrial Italian city not unlike "The Wire"'s Baltimore. But if "The Wire" too often betrayed its gritty authenticity with platitudes and contrivances (in the show's defense, I think viewers ascribed a documentary realism to it that the creators themselves, telling a modern Greek tragedy, never actively pursued), Gomorrah is told at such a clinical remove that it actually made me feel a little sociopathic for how frequently disengaged I was by it all. And yet, I'm finding it has a half-life greater than almost anything else listed above. Go fig; just wish I could find a way to articulate that paradox.

Feel free to discuss "True Blood" in this thread, by the by; seems to be the non-TIFF highlight of the week. Viva Anna.

August 29, 2008

September Song

Just a heads-up that I've begun posting my capsule coverage of this year's TIFF; the plan is to keep updating it throughout the long-weekend so check back periodically for new reviews. Feeling a little rusty, but hopefully by the time I've burned through this stack of screeners from the kind folks at VK the gears will be good and oiled.

As an aside, the Kill Bill Blu-rays docked at FFC HQ today, and good news: they look great.

August 13, 2008


Apologies that updates have slowed to a crawl at the mothersite. Regular operations should resume next week or before.

If you're looking for something of substance to read, check out Rosey's latest column on the many paradoxes of "the director's cut."

July 31, 2008

so i herd u liek dark knight?

 In case you haven't seen it over at THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR, Keith Uhlich's review of The Dark Knight caused a bit of an uproar with the trolls at Rotten Tomatoes, who apparently spend their days scouring for negative reviews and blasting their authors accordingly. Now, I don't want to sound too dramatic about my own reaction to The Dark Knight--I've seen it three times now, and I'm seriously contemplating four. I pretty much fall in line with the "masterpiece" argument, although to tell you the truth I've been more interested in examining Harvey Dent than in even trying to decipher the Joker. (I really hope that Aaron Eckhart's wonderful performance isn't ignored in the long run of Ledger memorials.) But what I can say at this particular moment is that the film has forced me to rethink my general perspective on superhero movies. I've been meaning to post this beautiful parody of Iron Man for a while now, but I think it's more relevant now than ever:

I stand by the fact that I liked Iron Man: it's a clever political allegory about selfish imperialism, masked as an altruistic act--chronicling the story of a weapons developer who, upon realizing what a bastard he's been, transforms himself into a human bomb in exclusive service to saving face. (My favorite shot of the film, I confess, is when Iron Man Mark I takes a torch to all of the weapons printed with "Stark Industries.") Considering the popular response to the film, however, I suppose what I'm worried about is that not enough people will bother to understand why Irod Bad! is such a marvelous work--it satirizes the typical reaction to summer blockbusters and, moreover, what we expect summer blockbusters to be.

What I'm getting at is that I'm becoming bored with the cinematic promises of the season, that my comic book geek twinge will be fulfilled with every new capes-and-tights picture. While The Incredible Hulk is pretty godawful, I have to admit that I liked the Tony Stark denouement that essentially announced to the world (i.e., those who didn't stay through the end credits of Iron Man) the intention to follow through with an Avengers film. It interested me, anyway--this concept of dropping in these little teasers with each successive Marvel property, alluding to something bigger than all of them. Bigger than a superhero? Preposterous, intriguing. Now, after seeing The Dark Knight (or perhaps more specifically, after seeing The Dark Knight after seeing The Incredible Hulk), I'm just kind of apathetic to the whole thing. The Incredible Hulk was terrible because it was so desperate to please the nerd contingent with loud noises and big motherfuckers pounding the crap out of each other. Everything that you wanted, right? (PAKOO! PAKLOWAWOW!) I do understand why most people don't like Superman Returns, and I also understand the argument that weighty, existential interpretations suck the fun out of superheroes, but I take the opposite stance--that by not exploring them, we're keeping ourselves in a state of arrested development, and we're making superheroes boring by forcing them to conform to our expectations. Nothing wrong with getting excited about a great popcorn flick, but shouldn't we also want to explore why we're attracted to such extreme personalities? How they relate to us? Why we see them as gods? I want to be amazed by superheroes, not pacified by them. I want to believe that a man can fly. The real miracle will be if the Avengers film somehow doesn't end up an incomprehensible clusterfuck.

Such is my puzzlement with the rabid fanboyism surrounding The Dark Knight--captured in microcosm in the comments section of Keith's review. My problem isn't the sputtering, ineloquent anger at negative reviews (which is just all too common on the web) as much as it is the attempt to find out why, exactly, these people are so gung-ho about a film that they aren't willing to defend. Over at THE HOUSE, Travis already pointed out the essential ridiculousness of padding out various death threats and eff-yous with the de facto tagline why so serious, but even beyond that, by using it as some kind of cutesy anti-critical stance you're subtly implying that Nolan doesn't--and furthermore shouldn't--take his own scenarios seriously. How does that work, exactly? The Dark Knight is hardly shy about expounding on the themes it attacks: on very simple terms, it forces you to contemplate whether you would have the strength and moral fabric to stand against the chaotic storm. "It's a comic book, dude - not Tolstoy," one commenter says, and, I mean, Jesus, really? How can we pretend that we're still at that point in time? This is one instance where I simply cannot understand the desire to ignore a critical look at a film, to see it as pure escapist entertainment. Are the questions it poses too big and scary? And even then, if you don't want to think about what The Dark Knight is saying about human nature in relationship to morality, why the fuck do you love it so much, why are you so willing to curse out anyone who disagrees with that sentiment? (I may disagree vehemently with Keith's review, but he recognizes and tackles the forces at play.) Of course it was breathtaking, but surely the singular sight of a semi flipping on its back can't have carried you for two-and-a-half hours.

Furthermore, what can be considered "properly" complex in properties like this? As it is wont to do, the internet is going ga-ga over Joss Whedon's latest eye-rolling circle-jerk, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. As ever, Whedon has a keen eye for casting--Neil Patrick Harris' nervous delivery is, simply put, incomparable, and Nathan Fillion is always a delight to watch. But I've always been turned off by the self-conscious cleverness that permeates his work (excessively literal examinations of popular axioms; oh-so-irreverent asides), and it manifests here by rehashing the same level-one sarcasm that passes for subversion in most parodic superhero enterprises--evil laughter as part of a voice lesson; superficial do-gooder he-men imagined as selfish sissies; drastic signifiers like "good" and "evil" relabeled as simple nine-to-fives. And they sing about it and isn't that just the wackiest thing? This isn't much better than the mentality that Irod Bad! is railing against, or what any of the more mind-numbing superhero blockbusters are peddling--simply because it isn't subverting our expectations, it's congratulating us for recognizing what we know about the genre and regurgitating a series of wouldn't-it-be-funny-ifs that we've contemplated countless times before. I don't mean to sound like a humorless prick about it, and I fully realize that there are different audiences and approaches in mind here, but the saga of Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer just seems kind of jejune when compared to Nolan's Two-Face--a self-aware white knight who always possessed an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and "fairness," whose violent downfall throws into question the very idea of a moral crusade. Sing-Along Blog ends pretty tragically, but it still doesn't take things very far. Simply presenting a supervillain with feelings shouldn't really cut it anymore.

So a simple question: where can we locate a proper balance? Where will Zack Snyder's Watchmen land in this argument?

And, a bonus: where can Nolan's Batman go from here? The Dark Knight's a tough act to follow, and we're quickly running out of viable villains for this enterprise. Eckhart says that he would reprise Two-Face if given the chance, but that would be cheating; and Nolan might not want to do the Penguin, even with Philip Seymour Hoffman--so who's left? My guess is, if Batman Begins is about fear and The Dark Knight is about chaos, then the third film would be about a battle for the mind, and the attempt to intellectually evolve from the primordial soup--so maybe the Riddler and the Mad Hatter would make for good opponents. Particuarly if inspiration is taken from their animated series incarnations: a cerebral egotist and a self-loathing stalker, respectively.

July 24, 2008

Double Dare

A tip of the hat to Tim Lucas for drawing attention to this at his blog: the British film periodical SIGHT & SOUND recently polled 52 critics or programmers on their idea of a great double-bill and put the results online as a downloadable .PDF. Lucas himself picked Eyes Without a Face and The Manster but admits that in hindsight he wishes he'd chosen A Tale of Two Sisters and The Double Life of Veronique.

I've had some pretty heady double-bills in my day, some by default of my rental choices (Jungle Fever and Barton Fink? Surprisingly complementary--and they both feature John Turturro), some thanks to the auteur-minded programming of rep cinemas (a wearying Roman Polanski twofer of Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby), some by serendipity (with a few hours to kill before a screening of Crumb, I ducked into a Chinatown theatre just in time for a showing of John Woo's Bullet in the Head).

Anyway, the article got me thinking that this hypothetical doesn't have to be the exclusive domain of these cats, many of whom, for what it's worth, will be unfamiliar to readers on this side of the pond. Some of their choices are frankly so unimaginative (The Searchers & Rio Bravo--c'mon, man, try harder than that!) that I suspect we can do as well or better. Let's hear it, then: I give you the keys to a movie theatre and carte blanche to program your own double-bill--what do you choose? And, I guess, why?

July 09, 2008

Fuck Yes

David Cronenberg and Howard Shore make an opera out of their operatic 1986 masterpiece The Fly.

I was thinking about this flick recently anyway for two reasons:

1. because Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy II plays like an opera, too, thus unlocking Del Toro's films for me in a different way.

2. because I'm also in the middle of reviewing 1986's Blue City with Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy, reminding me that while 1986 was one of the best years of film in that decade (and many others - Blue Velvet, Down By Law, The Mosquito Coast, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Sid and Nancy, Aliens, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Fly, Big Trouble in Little China, Something Wild, Mona Lisa, Night of the Creeps) it also hosted that trilogy of Brat Pack suck: this one, The Wraith and Wisdom.

June 29, 2008

WALL·E Talkback

By not-so-popular demand, a WALL·E talkback. Because my own opinion of the film falls squarely in line with the status quo, it's not really worth regurgitating. I did love it, though, and I think it's pretty obvious that Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird are the brightest of Pixar's bright lights.

June 24, 2008

EW indeed

I let my ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY subscription lapse a couple of years ago largely because of their increased reliance on stunts like this. Anyway, curious to see what the consensus around here is for their list of the 100 Best Films of the Past Quarter Century. (The "New Classics," they're calling it.) The Top 10 reads like this:
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)
3. Titanic (1997)
4. Blue Velvet (1986)
5. Toy Story (1995)
6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
7. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
9. Die Hard (1988)
10. Moulin Rouge (2001)
If you think Moulin Rouge is a real say what, honky?! choice, you haven't seen the rest of the list, which ranks Napoleon Dynamite above Back to the Future and There Will Be Blood, thinks bizarrely highly of Casino Royale, and would draw most laymen (that's who this is for, right?) to the conclusion that very few films have been made outside the United States since 1983.

June 11, 2008

The Other Blu-Ray Reviewer

Just a heads-up that today marks the first FILM FREAK CENTRAL review by Bryant Frazer, who'll be joining me on the increasingly unwieldy Blu-ray beat. (The nice thing about getting in on the ground floor of a new format is that because the screener pool isn't yet spread thin, the studios send you everything. The downside? The studios send you everything.)

Readers of this blog have long heard me sing the praises of Monsieur Frazer and his excellent website DEEP FOCUS. As a fan of his work, it's an incredible honour to be working with him in this capacity; he's a true-blue cinephile who will undoubtedly only improve our street cred.

Join me in welcoming him aboard. Bryant's first review for us, The Other Boleyn Girl, is online now--and be sure to check out his own formidable archive of reviews while you're at it.

June 01, 2008

Mothersite NOT Down

Hey all,

Apparently a transformer exploded in the vicinity of our webhost and some important transmitter-type stuff was burned to a crisp, so FFC and its attendant e-mail server will be down until further notice.

This blog will remain unaffected.

UPDATE (06/02/08): Back in business.

May 22, 2008


Walter's review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is finally live. (We forgot it opened on a Thursday.) Anyway, if we did a talkback for X3, we should surely do one for Indy 4, so: bombs away.

Also, what's your fave entry in the series? Really, that one?! Whatchu talkin' about, Willis?

P.S.: Be sure not to miss THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR's appreciation of the OT, "Smitten with a Whip". Between Matt's and Keith's apologias for Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, respectively, I felt like Indy in the thrall of Mola Ram.

May 07, 2008

DVD Cover of the Decade?

They don't make B-movies like they used to, but bless 'em for pretending they do:

April 29, 2008


Full review upcoming, but after watching it again late last night, I peeked at Roger Ebert's review and was brought up short, as I am about 30% of the time with the Rog's reviews the last ten years or so, with one paragraph that contains two factual errors.

The leaning high-rise contains Beth (Odette Yustman), who Rob feels duty-bound to rescue from her 49th-floor apartment near Central Park. The others all come along on this foolhardy mission (not explained: how after walking all the way to Columbus Circle they have the energy to climb 49 flights of stairs, Lily in her high heels). Part of their uptown journey is by subway, without the benefit of trains. They're informed by a helpful soldier that the last rescue helicopter leaving Central Park will have "wheels up at oh-six-hundred," begging the question of how many helicopters it would take to rescue the population of Manhattan.

She's on the 39th floor, see, and Lily's walking with her high heels in her hand. Also, this is a pretty major league spoiler. More on that later. The tone of the review is generally snarky which, obviously, I endorse whole-heartedly - yet when you're writing this kind of review, I feel pretty safe in saying, you'd better be pretty nailed down on your facts.

And I'm not talking about casual errors; I'm talking about Ebert making mistakes about what he remembers of the film and then making a wisecrack about it. Two of them. But he's misremembered, see? And mocking something for something that it hasn't done is really a problem - it's a bad thing for the film because the film's only rebuttal is itself and, presumably, if you read Ebert, you might not give it the chance (Ebert's review of The Rules of Attraction was so factually inaccurate, in fact - at least before it was revised without asterisk in the archive - that I'm medium-convinced that it single-handedly doomed the picture upon release). And it's a bad thing for Ebert because it obliterates his credibility. By extension, right, if Ebert is the voice of film criticism in the modern era it obliterates the credibility of this whole mess as a profession engaged in by serious professionals. Listen - again - it's not a tiny factual error, it's a serious, big-ass, dumb-ass error. And he does it twice.

Let me revise, too, my stance on spoilers not mattering the least - spoilers matter when they're just tossed out there to fill up column inches. Ebert's review gives the specs on the monster, on one particularly nasty surprise of its biology that I liked quite a lot, on what happens to the "narrator", on what happens to all the characters, on and on - and he does so not to set-up his analysis but to just, you know, tell you what happens. That's irritating. I get it, now. Let's say that spoilers are bad when they're just used to spoil for lack of anything better to talk about.

I'm pissed. And I'm disappointed. What kind of moron must I be for it still to be possible for me to be disappointed with this dude? I got a few emails after Ansen revealed his buy-out blaming "me" (I'm presuming the collective me of Internet-based crix) for his demise. Well, man, I blame Ebert. Then again, if "we're" responsible for this kind of garbage going the way of the dodo then: guilty, and thank you.

April 13, 2008

The Trench

Brief thoughts on a Sabbath night:

I don’t really understand – and don’t really like, and certainly don’t respect – anyone who doesn’t think that No Country For Old Men is a great film. I feel badly for people who don’t like Tarantino; worse for people who don’t seem to understand Malick or Nagisa or Kim Ki-Duk; but I’m sympathetic that there are opposing viewpoints, y’know. See – the basis for this critical debasement is the dangerous idea that there are no absolutes in the liberal arts. It’s what’s made it all such a fucking mess, it’s arguably what’s caused Nathan Lee over at the NY Post and David Ansen at Newsweek to lose their positions (everyone else is next save St. Ebert) recently, this democratization of opinion. Everyone has one. Like an asshole. Get it? The irony of it is that you make any kind of consideration a matter of “well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion” and suddenly nobody needs yours.

By making this thing of ours accessible to a wide, wider, widest audience; my colleagues have politicked themselves out of a job and, before long, out of an entire frickin’ profession. I met David Ansen once – we sat on a panel together at the Vail Film Festival talking about, primarily, the state of modern film criticism (Godfrey Cheshire moderated – he having lost his job a long time ago) – and he struck me as a smart, moral, well-versed critic: a film-lover who’d given a good deal of thought to what was happening at newspapers and magazines. Now, about two years later, he’s taken a buyout offered him and from what I understand, will close out the end of the year before another major outlet, his, closes for good to film criticism.

So the thesis is this: that allowing for people to disagree about the quality of No Country For Old Men is symptomatic of why there’s a dearth of good criticism in the United States. I remember in this Milton seminar I had back in the day that someone piped up that they didn’t think that Milton was very good and, y’know, I have this to say to that. Shut the fuck up. You’re allowed not to like Milton, you’re not allowed to opine that Milton was inept and, more to the point, no one’s asking. At a certain level, with certain films, it’s not about good or bad, it has to be about how and why. You can hate Hitchcock – you can’t say that he didn’t make his handful of masterpieces.

Criticism without knowledge is a zero sum game. Everyone’s an asshole who does it.

There are absolutes in the liberal arts. There are things that are absolutely black and white. Find your place of gray within that or find yourself keeping company with that idiot couple behind you in the theater that wishes the Coens’ had given Chigurgh a backstory.

Lots of frustrations otherwise in the trenches these days – difficult anniversaries and just when I’m getting back in the saddle for the first time in what feels like a couple of years, the whole clan comes down with some kind of flu that sends my two-year-old to the emergency room for an IV. Missing a lot of screenings as a consequence; here’s hoping karma hangs on a pendulum.

Working now on a series with the Denver Public Library on classic westerns and a series with Gilpin County on dystopias (I’ll finally get to lecture on Planet of the Apes; timely for the passing of Heston); hoping to get a major writing project off the ground as well covering the films of Val Lewton. Gearing up for a career retrospective of a favorite director ‘round these parts as his latest film is poised to hit the home video shelves (it never made it here theatrically) – and still waiting on a few of the big arthouse pics to have their cup of coffee in the Mile High City. The only solace to me being out of the game this season so far is that this season traditionally sucks; all the more so for backwaters like this one in a time for the profession when I don’t actually know but one or two of my colleagues anymore when I get out to screenings. Who knew that seven years makes you a senior critic?

Been thinking a lot on two topics lately in the quiet hours: the best instrumental scores; and the best movie posters in terms of provocation, implication, and/or artistry…

A couple of picks for score just in the last decade or so? Clint Mansell gets a couple of nods for his work with Darren Aronofsky: The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream (with Kronos Quartet). I love Alexandre Desplat’s work on Birth, Jonny Greenwood’s on There Will Be Blood, Jon Brion’s on Punch-Drunk Love. My fave all time? David Shire’s piano rags on The Conversation. Yours?

Also – been haunted of late by this poster for the first of Lynch's two late-Hitchcock identity shrines:

Talk back.

April 07, 2008

Saturday Morning Nihilism

I hope I haven't sent anyone into Nicolas Cage withdrawal lately. Rest assured that I'm going to see the series through--I've just been awfully busy these past few weeks (presently finishing up a piece about the execrable "Bionic Woman" for the mothersite), and a few major points in a discussion about The Rock have to be rearranged now that I've finally gotten my hands on the Criterion edition with the attendant commentary featuring Cage himself.

Anyway, on to less pressing matters. I've been trying to wrap my brain around this live performance of "Duck Hunt" from Anime Boston 2008 that's been making the rounds on YouTube:

If you owned the old "Super Mario Bros."/"Duck Hunt" NES cartridge back in the day, I think it's impossible not to succumb to a smirking nostalgic twinge when that music blasts through the auditorium and that dog jumps into the grass. Now, I'm not particularly versed in anime, but I've watched enough Cartoon Network to recognize the characters contained herein; the general tone of the sketch and the reactions from the crowd teeter uncomfortably between laughter at basic recognition and cheering with base satisfaction when notoriously obnoxious characters are shot. It opens up a line of discussion concerning one's personal sense of sophistication: the testosterone-laced "Dragon Ball Z" seems to be a target of ire for its repetitive nature (and, I suspect, for coloring perceptions of anime as childish nonsense in the eyes of nonbelievers), but what can you say about a commentary on the perceived puerility/immaturity of certain properties when the basic argument boils down to "I wish that I could shoot the fictional characters who annoy me so they'll shut up"?

What bothers me most about this sketch, however, is how these jokes build up to the final rimshot, a full return to "Duck Hunt" that ultimately serves to emphasize the uselessness of the whole thing. Any comprehensive parody of the game is obligated to shoot the dog, the genesis of that joke being that everyone who has played this golden oldie for more than five minutes has attempted to do so. It's also the intrinsic problem with this exercise, and invites the question: we already know everything there is to offer here, so why we are even talking about "Duck Hunt" at all? I think there's something to be said about giving voice to a video game player's frustrations (find the time to sit down and watch Super Profane Mario Bros., which is actually kind of brilliant for its presentation of the fruitless search for internal logic
), but coupled with the anime non-references, I daresay there's something actively dangerous about this sketch and how it doesn't bother to challenge how you feel about anything. It's something somehow better and worse than the "Family Guy" ethos--it doesn't just feed into an empty sense of nostalgia, but attempts to regurgitate the very experience of "Duck Hunt," the very idea of being an anime fan, for your approval, by conforming them to the desires and opinions that you're supposed to have.

However, once again I'm forced to throw the spotlight onto my own dubious tastes, because I've recently discovered the phenomenon known as YouTube Poop: videos haphazardly edited together from various found-footage sources into a loud, annoying mess, sometimes lyrical but more often incomprehensible. Saturday morning cartoons from the early '90s are a popular target ("Super Mario World," "Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog," "Dexter's Laboratory") along with viral video standards ("Chocolate Rain," Chris Crocker) and clips from Philips' disastrous CD-i games based on the "Legend of Zelda" and "Super Mario Bros." series.
The moments closest to coherence usually arrive in the form of very obvious pseudo-jokes about sex and shit; the bottom line is that they're childish, but more often than not I laugh myself blue when I see one.

Here are a few typical examples. Part of the "appeal" of these videos lies in randomly mucking with the volume as well, so I strongly suggest you practice caution in watching them so that you don't blow out your ears and/or speakers.

To wit: a lot of screaming, slow motion and fast-forwarding at random, scenes rendered as infinite loops, and bits of dialogue bleeped out to sound like curse words. So what's the difference? Don't these videos constitute the same form of generic hostility to be found in that "Duck Hunt" video--stuck in a state of nostalgic arrested development, obsessing over the flaws in something that you don't even like, conforming entertainment to an objective standard, and repeating the same ancient jokes ad nauseam? (How old is that "SNL" Butabi brothers sketch, anyway? Fifteen years?) Perhaps so, but somehow these videos are a lot more confrontational about your responsibility as a (non-)discriminating viewer, placing themselves on precisely the same level of entertainment as the targets of parody.
It doesn't matter that YouTube Poops don't make sense--all the better for it, really, since you're probably not patrolling YouTube looking for anything substantial. Why, exactly, are you still watching the same shit that you watched more than a decade ago as a child? The only point behind YouTube Poop seems to be that we freely ingested a lot of crap when we were children, that we freely ingest a lot of crap now, and the unstoppable advent of YouTube has more or less offered all of us the opportunity to wallow in that same crap with a conscious disregard for quality control. They're nihilistic, generally hopeless in an Idiocracy kind of way, and not something that I can really agree with, all things considered--but I can't help but laugh at the defiant absurdity of it all, even in the face of copyright.

So I ask you: is nostalgia an inherently worthless venture? At what point does snarking at "bad" media become self-destructive? How much can/must comedy rely on the familiar in order to be successful? Did Superhero Movie somehow contain a few jokes that were actually funny?