a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

My Own Jolly Corner

Today I am thinking of Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee (2004), a remarkably raw, ejaculation of psycho-sexualism and purely Canadian fixations from the famed retro-stylist, that most gonzo of irrepressible movie fanatics-turned-filmmakers. Made during his intimidating 2000-2004 period when he was finally crawling out from under the rockpile that is obscurity (but still not quite emerging), this picture offers up an agressive army of repressed folks acting out their melodramatic and insane delusions for an already baffled audience. Maddin tells of himself (Darcy Fehr, who either is the filmmaker or just really looks like him), re-imagined as a hockey player in what is most likely '20s Winnipeg. Very quickly, he gets tangled in a murder plot hatched by an Asian femme fatale (Melissa Dionisio), who is seeking revenge for the murder of her father; to really set this aflame, she asks a crooked doctor (Louis Negin) to sew her father's dismembered hands (stored, like the son's heart in The Saddest Music in the World, in a jar) onto Maddin's so the symbolism of the murders can be concrete. Karl Freund, at least the Freund of Mad Love, would have approved of the movie's jarring surgical gimmick, espcially since the doctor, in a fit of laziness, went and threw the father's hands in the garbage pail, opting to paint Maddin's hands so they only look like they've been replaced. Freud, too, would have approved, in his own wacky way - it's worth noting that immediately after the "surgery," there's a scene where Dionisio has Fehr rub the hands over her body, fooled, of course, into thinking the hands originated somewhere else. "But Hands Have Memories!" goes one of the intertitles.

Indeed, sexual images are prevalent -- Maddin Sr., the hockey announcer, is often seen stroking a single ice breast; Maddin more than once cuts to a close-up of an un-clad penis; and why is the doctor, presumably while doing a little gynecology, not wearing any clothes? (This to address the concept of Canadian repression.) About halfway through the 60-minute film, Maddin swipes from one of the great tricks of silent-through-'30s films: when Behr is about to pleasure a female using his balled-up hand, he cuts instead to a shot of a hand punching the mouth of a horn. That filmmakers ever dreamed of actually showing these acts, rather than finding ways to substitute for them, is a deeply felt shame in this corner.

Unlike the Maddins from this era - the 5-minuter Heart of the World; the features Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary and the previously alluded-to Saddest Music -- Cowards possesses few, if any, connections for mass audiences. Its original design, in fact, was as an installation piece, with the gimmick being that patrons had to watch it through peepholes while bent on their knee (hence the title). Ironically, it's his most streamlined -- that is, if you can follow its ADD-infused, almost Simpsons-esque larks. Piece together the shards strewn about by the frenetic cutting and there's an unnerving portrait of servitude, and an ending happy enough to let most of its characters continue living even while one of them now must play hockey without hands. That, and it would make for an enlightening quadruple feature with Zardoz, Irreversible and Demy's Lola in a night of films that feature Beethoven's 7th. Anyone know of any others that do that?

Don't you now wish you read Film Comment?

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Today's Published Torrent of Words

I wish I didn't have to call this shameless plugs: in the Philly Weekly this, um, week, you can find me doing my usual quasi-column, waxing mostly historical on The Third Man (it's first one, even), and, in the interest of exactly seven (7) people, writing up a thing on the semi-recent DVD release of David Cronenberg's Fast Company (which also comes equipped with his early short features Stereo and Crimes of the Future...are you paying attention?). Along with expected descriptions like "chest opening up into a vaginal slit" and "human face dripping off his skull," there's also this one: "made during the days when his pulsating orifices remained suggested not shown." Sure to be mis-read, maybe gloriously so.

It's also the paper's Summer Guide, so here's a shout-out to Sean Burns' uproarious-as-usual Summer Movie coverage.

Lasly, Troy, the summer's official bloated star- and CGI-studded epic, turns out to be one of the best bloated star- and CGI-studded epics there ever was. Allegiances are always torn, anti-Bushisms (if kinda accidental, but still) abound, and there's no less than three great hams hamming the joint up. Also, yes, everybody, Brad's abs were quite impressive.

Sunday, May 23, 2004


During the thrilling conclusion to this year's Cannes FF, Quentin and co. perverted the rules of the planet's logic by handing not a wimple to Wong Kar-Wai's 2046. Was the spastic one, who helped to make a name for Wong in this country, voted down by his underlings -- even the great Tsui Hark?

Fortunately, at least for logic's sake, they chose the predictable runner-up: Michael Moore. Word has it that, as with most Moores, you'll only care for it if you agree with his politics. If you can't, however, contend with his bullying, his didacticism, his twisting of facts, and his occasional formal incoherence, you, um, won't. I'm one of the three good liberals out there who neither genuflect in his purported majesty nor detest him for preaching to the choir. I'm in the middle, though the guy bugs me -- it's as though he's just there to empower us, not with strong arguments but with simplified slogans and rants. Why do so many lefties seem to settle on him as the last word? He's clearly just there to stir up some shit and maybe, just maybe, plant the seeds of dissent in teenagers' minds. But I digress.

While Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy walked off with the Grand Prix ("Okay, this is fun, but it's kind of silly, no?," declares MD'A; good work, Quentin) and Exils's Tony Gatliff was clad in the Best Director trophy, Maggie Cheung, of Olivier Assayas' allegedly silly chick-rock pic Clean, finally got the Best Actress award she deserved four years ago. Irma P. Hall, quite sharp in The Ladykillers, tied for the Jury Prize with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Thai film Tropical Malady, the only film MD'A went bonkers over. (Sadly, the former was hospitalized in the U.S. at the time...and most likely still is since this occurred mere hours ago.)

Until these -- or most of these: two of the films in competition are or have been in theaters -- spread throughout the globe, we have but A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman and D'Angelo to count on. The latter was so underwhelmed as to flirt with existentialism. While you often have to bump a grade up a bit (or down) with him, there's no doubt as to his critical perspicacity; in other words, it's hard to predict that most of these will leave you (or me) with an indifferently pronounced "feh." (Maybe even the dreaded "meh.") If Cannes is the arbiter of what the rest of the planet's fest will be like, then this is going to be one blah year for fest-going. Yea.

Oh. And I promise to get out to some new releases if not today then sometime during the week. Coffee and Cigarettes, Super Size-Me, Troy, Mean Girls, Shrek 2 -- I know nothing about them.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Martin (1978, George A. Romero) + Effluvia

Like his far more esteemed Canadian colleague David Cronenberg, George Romero is a hybrid horror maven. It's not enough for the two for the two of them to give you some unforgettably -- and almost regrettably so -- sights or to engage you in some schlocky, lo-budget fun. They're also interested in other matters and, for them, cheapie horror movies are the best format for their form of queasy expression. Cronenberg has his history as a science major to lean on; Romero has satire. While the two were masters of squeezing their typically un-horror-film obsessions into the genre's strict borders, it was Romero who never grew tired of it. Thus, the lack of acclaim for Romero -- while Cronenberg was infiltrating drama with Dead Ringers, Romero was churning out Monkey Shines.

But Romero all but created Cronenberg. While his zombie trifecta is swimming in misanthropy -- not just Dawn with its undead mass consumers, but the original's assimilate-or-die m.o. -- it's 1973's The Crazies which makes it the most obvious. A wildly unhinged virus pic that's almost impossible to tack down -- the virus, stemming from a batch of nerve gas accidentally unleashed in a north-of-Pittsburgh town, turns some into stereotypes and others into zombies without motive or use -- it's little more than a cartoon, satirizing, in its 90-some minutes, the entirety of the '60s: priests set themselves on fire, hippie girls put flowers in rifles, little old women impale their victims on knitting sticks, etc. and et al. All the while the military is little more than useless, or incompetent; there's no physical way of telling who's infected and who's not, so havoc, predictably, breaks loose. As ever, there are no heroes, and those who could pass for a reasonable equivalent of course wind up dead. Romero's not subtle in his satire. But he sure does dose it out frequently and hilariously.

But this isn't about The Crazies.

Martin, the film he made right before Dawn, is less satirical. But what it looks in social graces, it makes up with misanthropy. A vampire movie by name only -- though we almost never hear it said -- it finds a modern-day blood-sucker who looks about 16 but claims to be in his late-80s. Luckily, all vampiric cliches are gone -- great if you don't want to be repelled by garlic or burned by crucifixes; not great if you now have to drug your victims and cut them with a razor instead of impale them with fangs.

Why is this? Something to do with suburbia, surely. Relocated to Pittsburgh to live with his elderly, suspicious cousin -- who wants to lock him in one room, forbids him to speak to his daughter and constantly stares at him while calling him "Nosferatu!" -- Martin whiles away his days as though they were part of one particularly tedious summer. He lends himself out for odd jobs, stares at the neighborhood kids and, when he's really desperate for human interaction, calls the local radio station, who look forward to his presumably insane confessions.

He also feeds from time to time, but Martin's hardly soulless. Romero stages the bloodsucking scenes like particularly unfortunate rape scenes -- they elicit sympathy for both parties. In the opening, Martin carefully slips into a woman's train compartment, only to awkwardly find that she's in the bathroom. When she emerges and sees him, he lunges at her with a syringe in his mouth, and the two wrestle for domination. Once he gets the upper hand, Martin -- in a rather unforgettable turn -- assures her he's usually quite good at making this procedure painless. After too long a stretch, the drugs finally kick in, she's out, and he rolls around with her, necrophilia-style, before slicing her arm clean open and sating himself.

On first glance, it looks like Romero's thesis is this: that the world has grown too mundane for magic. A scene late-in even has Martin dressing up as a classical vampire -- fake teeth and all -- while mocking his Transylvanian cousin, stating outright that the myths are all bullshit. A closer examination reveals something more: that it's always been this way. Romero constantly splices in flashbacks to his vampiric infancy, which look exactly like the films of Browning and Murnau. Martin is in his '80s, so his first brush with vampirism happened around the same time. Have his memories become interchangeable with those chairoscuro-heavy classics?

For Martin, his whole life has been one long, solitary experience. But the film -- while full of its long patches -- seems to represent the first instance where something, anything different has happened to him. It's an obvious metaphor for manhood: Martin even finds the joys of non-necrophiliac sex, becoming the fuck buddy of a bored and spurned housewife. Romero winds things up with a hilariously, and near-perfect, abrupt ending -- he could never live as anything but a bored teenager. Only Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day has this view of vampirism-equals-lust. But she has little of Romero's wit, and nor does it beat it in mood -- it has stronger photography, undoubtedly, but I'll take the gritty, hyper-edited, seemingly random style of Romero in a heartbeat.

Effluvia, as promised
Salon has an actual four-page ode to the great, wildly under-appreciated character actor Christopher McDonald. Unabashedly fan-ish -- it even concludes with an e-mail-ish stream of insults rendered in capital letters -- and it neglects to mention his penchant for playing greasy televison hosts in Quiz Show and Requiem for a Dream. Still, that there's an article at all is something. The Happy Gilmore line: totally right-on.

Also, and this is quite a redundant bitching, but is this the absolute nadir of pointless celeb gossip?

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Praise From Caesar!

Well, not "praise," per se, but a link -- and for my desperate self, that'll do. MuseMalade, whom all should admire greatly, has been kind enough to link from his far-more-traffic-heavy page to mine, representing (I believe) the first non-person-I-know link I've yet received.

To keep this from being completely FYI: the fine interviewers at the Onion A.V. Club (namely Noel Murray) have performed an interview on Guy Maddin, with typically spastic results (for Maddin, that is).

Inevitable Disillusionment at Cannes

Recently resigned from Time Out New York, of late derided by many for being too selective, Mike D'Angelo -- Our Man in Cannes -- claims exhaustion at this year's Big Fest. Comments have dwindled, ratings are improbably low for such a production, Michael Moore's latest hand grenade has been awarded a "40." Sad, if not downright pathetic, that Wong Kar-Wai's potential disaster is our last hope. (That is if MD'A is to be trusted, which, at least to a point, he is. Kiarostami's 10 on Ten, for one, sounds so horrifying that I can't wait for the kneejerk praises.) Does two floppy years in a row mean the death of cinema? Surely not. As we all know, and must constantly remind ourselves, the South-of-France-event isn't necessarily the arbiter of cinematic quality.

Anyway. This week's Weekly is up. So, time for shameless plugs. A piece on Arthur Penn's Mickey One (penultimate one down), reviews of the re-assembled Godzilla and (no, really) Breakin' All the Rules* are up, as is the usual song and dance.

*The printed grade is a "C-"; this site says it's a "C". The reason: grades are, when you get down to it, arbitrary. As I was wavering between the two, that represented that moment's mindset...it won't happen again.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Balthazar, the Court Jester

Arguably the greatest movie of all time, The Court Jester (1956, Melvin Frank & Norman Panama) might have been borne out of the simple desire to vehiculize* Danny Kaye, but, luckily, no one involved seems to have thought of it that way. An insanely over-plotted medieval romp, it finds Kaye as a forest rebel who, through a thick web of contrivances too vast and over-populated to recount here, winds up the jester to Cedric Parker's impostor king. Basil Rathbone's on hand to deliver menace, Glynnis Johns is around to convince Mary Poppins-viewers that she was once hot, and Kaye -- whom those who've only seen him in White Christmas, also written by the oft-dreaded Frank/Panama team, would consider a mere rancid pest -- decides to do, well, everything. Essentially, it's throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks time, but, in a most unprecedented move, almost everything does; once the (admittedly fatigue-inducing) set-up is over, it revs into high gear and never looks back, and gimmicks that would power an entire feature live for only sequences (if that -- see the metallic armour bit), dropping out of the pic once they've been exhausted. Patchy, self-indulgent, even occasionally surreal -- this things' obviously a masterpiece. Do not, by the way, listen to this, brilliant though the writer otherwise is. A

Au hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson), on the other hand, is only almost a masterpiece, though many will scoff. Robert Bresson's recently-resurrected donkey movie is just that: a movie whose protagonist is a donkey. Balthazar the Donkey is shuffled from owner to owner, one nice, one the devil, one a good-natured drunk, one a bitter old man. When the shuffling is over with, he croaks. Lazily, if not also stupidly, read by some as an ode to man's horribleness, that's not only wrong -- it's clearly man's indifference that Bresson waxes upon here -- but it simplifies what is in fact a shape-shifter. Though the aforementioned indifference links everyone, it's not as though everyone's a cypher. There are real moments of drama here, and though he may look at them through the eyes of pauvre, pauvre Balthazar, it is -- in a most ironic turn of events (I think) -- actually his most human film, filled with heart-breaking moments of such simplicity that they could pass right over your head. (The little girl dying in the first five minutes is easily one of them.) Transcendental in that usual no-frills Bresson way, not to mention -- almost inadvertently -- animal rights activists most and least favorite movie. A-

*Not a word, of course.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Samson Tobacco Tastes Like Ass

Well, it does.

First, many apologies to Jessica Pressler, whom I apparently offended on this very site last week. (The post is three or so down.) While it may sound insane when I say I meant the "rampant mean-spiritedness" line as a compliment (why "may"?), she didn't see it that way, and I've spent the last couple days following her puzzled e-mail feeling like the meanest of the mean. Also, she's good -- her gossip column, unlike most, isn't a cavalcade of celebrity ass-kissing; in fact, it's the opposite, with the added attraction of gobs of weird musings on the city at large. Also, what's wrong with being "mean" to Real World subjects? Patched-up now?

So, onto other business. Here's what I did this week:

Attack! (1956, Robert Aldrich) The "!" is apparently an add-on, as the title of the film is thrown onto the screen without it - as though it were more matter-of-fact than urgent. Still, it is urgent, seeing how colonel Eddie Albert is a big, honking chicken, afraid to send his own men to aid lieutenant Jack Palance when they're pinned down and being picked-off. (That, and everyone else calls it Attack!; who am I to light off on my own?) Anyway, a shape-shifting film, with the usual Aldrich soul-searching: nothing’s completely black and white and even Albert gets to look...well, not good, but not like some paragon of villainy. Besides, if anyone’s the villain, it’s that Lee Marvin fella. Friggin’ system... A-

Godzilla (1954, Ishiro Honda) The "new" version, reassembled and de-Raymond-Burr-ized into its original Japanese version, is still cheesy, and it's only more blunt. But what bluntness! The freighter-destroying opening is so much like the incident where the denizens of a Japanese fishing boat were contaminated by nearby American H-bomb testing that it seems like the strangest kind of exorcism: take that most awful of tragedies, turn it into a silly monster movie and rake in the bucks. As ever these days, tough not to read it in terms of our own country's meddlings. B

Mickey One (1965, Arthur Penn) Courtesy of star Burt Lancaster, Penn had recently been fired from helming the WWII actioneer The Train when he started making the Warren Beatty-produced Mickey. The results? Replacing director John Frankenheimer made one of his strongest films while Penn shot out his hands-down strangest. While the story has Beatty playing a second-rate stand-up comic running, Kafkaesque, from a nameless threat -- which may have something to do with gambling debt-collecting mobsters -- it’s rather obviously about the paranoia that crops up while working for The Man, a fear Penn both seriously punts forth and mocks at the same time. Beatty, truly being one of the coolest actors ever (really), is both Method-y and self-effacing, while Penn all but brags about being the first Hollywood stalwart to crib stylistic tricks from the French New Wave. Undeniably self-indulgent and not a little bit pretentious, but also breathtakingly inventive, quick to deflate its portentousness through sonic cuts, pixilation, oddball larks and other ADD-infused tomfoolery. It’s both grim and fun -- an odd mix, and one which few, if any, have been able to pull off. Still, can’t decide if it’s less than the sum of its parts, the other way around or, you know, leveled. B+

Bullet in the Head (1990, John Woo) Woo’s suds-’n’-blood at its zenith, I’d say, with the Hong Kong fave basically remaking The Deer Hunter and subsequently improving on it at nearly every turn. (Which isn’t much of a feat, I’d say, but still.) Thoroughly ridiculous, with Woo taking on Vietnam and not curtailing his beautifully choreographed carnage set pieces a little (opposite, really), but absorbing, thanks largely to its making-it-up-as-we-go-along storytelling style. Given its rep, didn’t disappoint. B+

/Night and Fog/ (1955, Alain Resnais) Hadn’t seen this since Media Arts 100 (i.e., 1997) and, well, oof! Pretty much a perfect being, which is to say it’s imperfect -- Resnais has no answers and just keeps asking questions, showing horrifyingly suggestive stock footage and having d.p.s Sacha Vierny and Ghislain Cloquet pan across the dilapidated concentration camps so they too can say, “yeah, this really can’t be explained.” Every holocaust film starts right here; none have beat it. A

The Fire Within (1963, Louis Malle) No less than the prototype for the French New Wave mood piece: slow, filled with quirky details, Satie sprinkled over the soundtrack, beautifully B&W, at least one scene of lovers in a bed, etc. Also a Suicide Film, though Malle never cheats: he has no answers, and even when he does -- as in the end -- it explains only a fraction of why he wanted to go through with it, suggesting that true suicidal types have reasons that go beyond comprehension, analysis or help. Could’ve done without the La Dolce Vita-inspired third act knock against the bourgeoisie -- not simply because it’s pretty thin, but because it feels out of place -- but otherwise haunting, a homerun from that most polished of French New Wavers. B+

Eddie Murphy Raw (1987, Robert Townsend) Yes, yes, yes, never saw it before. Mostly lives up to its infamy, though Murphy has a tendency -- like most SNL-ers -- to drive a bit into the ground through endless repetition, though this occasionally has its perks: the finale, especially, goes on forever but feels like a public exorcism; basically, he looks like he’s gone off the deep end and it’s half-blistering and half-affectionate. Otherwise, pretty much genius: I’ll go on pestering people by quoting, say, the Bill Cosby bit, the “bush bitch” section, and the ludicrous set piece about Italians after they see Rocky. Also, and inevitably: what the fuck happened to him... B+

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

If the Following is Incoherent, Mis-Spelled or Festooned With Sloppy Grammar, Then Know That It's Fucking Hot Out Today

That's right. Haven't checked the weather forcast, but it's probably 90 and muggy outside. Inside my apartment, it's probably hotter and muggier, and my central air is apparently on the fritz. Mark my word: I'm going to die a wretched, sweaty death.

In other news, the Philadelphia Weekly is on stands and on-line. Within, you can find my review of Guy Maddin's latest bugfuck, The Saddest Music in the World, as well as my usual deluge of Repertory Films. Not much to say about the latter except that I hope Sean Burns doesn't want to kill me with sticks.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

This Thingamajigger Was Looking Lonely and Neglected

Yeah, sorry about that. A trip home this weekend -- both for my sister's graduation (I am old) and pour la fete de mamans -- inevitably wound up sidetracking me, largely because I had, in a most bizarre turn of events, completed all my work before I left. As a habitual procrastinator, I require work; more specifically, I require deadlines. Otherwise, you see, I don't actually do anything. Anything.

That was just FYI. So's this.

On Graduation ceremonies: They are an abomination. At Shippensburg U. -- located in, where else? Shippensburg, PA -- the size of the graduating class was caught in an uncomfortable limbo: nowhere near as large as mine (5,600, I believe), but, at 1,100, not exactly small either. At my graduation, there were two ceremonies: the big one (where parents who paid the tuition got their money back via a speech from Bill Cosby) and numerous smaller ones, broken down by school. Even w/r/t my comparatively shorter show, the system of graduation ceremonies needs to be severely re-structured. Though we were promised a 70-degree day, tops, with clouds in the sky, we arrived on the (of course outdoor) football field to the tune of maybe 95, with no precipitation and, at least for me, no sunglasses. As I sat there through the speech and then the Warholian process of hearing 1,100 names read out, one by one, I quickly regressed to 8 years old: nothing could hold my attention, and so I took to annoying everyone around me with my petty complaints (erm, much as I'm doing now).

For my sins, I have received the most awkward sunburn: as I had a week-long beard at the time, only the top half of my face is bright red. But I ask you: though you're of course going to go agog when your loved one's name is called, you still have to sit through (or at least I did) 10,999 other names, every last one of them ones you don't know. Is there anything even remotely interesting, then, about this ritual? How could anything that is going on hold your interest? And even if one thing does -- like, in my case, hearing countless air horns go off limply; conspiracy? -- will it honestly continue to be fascinating after ten minutes or so?

In brighter news, the otherwise-relaxing weekend had some merit. The new Beastie Boys song "Ch-Check It Out" is a sharp little number (though Adam Yauch sounds like his voice is on its last leg; then again, that's what happens when you scream for 25 years, I suppose); I scored myself Prince's Around the World in a Day and Mission of Burma's OnOffOn; the clips I heard from the new Morrissey ain't bad; and I spent my train-ride home watching Robert Aldrich's Attack! on my laptop. Have I finally turned into the kind of person who does that? More on the movie itself later.

Oh, and I'll finally update my sidebar files. (That is, assuming anyone was paying attention. Or will, for that matter.)

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Gotham-Set Ego Implosion (+ Weekly Crap)

Okay, it's a fat day late, but still: Elvis Mitchell has resigned from his New York Times position, allegedly because the exponentially-superior A.O. Scott was named lead film cricket over him. Oh well. I've never been much of a fan of Mitchell's cutesey-pie, appeal-to-everyone prose style, while Scott never ceases to amaze. The question is: now what to do with this Stephen Holden chap? My dream is that MD'A, newly resigned/fired from Time Out NY, will be his replacement. Alas, he wants to finally become an auteur, meaning that the only way we can read his eloquent, brainy prose is to leaf through copies of Esquire while at Barnes and Noble. Should he -- assuming the Times wants him at all -- go after a career he only half-wants or enter into the maelstrom that is toiling in the film industry? (Worked for Skander, after all.) A moral connundrum, this.

Meanwhile, my own half-wanted career work is up in the latest issue of the Philadelphia Weekly. (The name-switcheroo -- to PW -- hasn't caught on with me yet.) Reviews of the largely excellent, if goofily-titled, Buddhist parable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, Lost Boys of Sudan, and the re-issue of Life of Brian are up for grabs. Unless my memory is failing me, this is the first time -- ever? -- where all my reviews have been glowingly positive. But at least I kept the ire up in my usual Repertory column. This week, I dig into The Emperor Jones, belittle Zorba the Greek, make light sport of those who would flock to a Sing-a-Long presentation of The Sound of Music, give Mervyn LeRoy a backhanded compliment for his work on The Bad Seed, and, finally, describe Seabiscuit as "sickening." All that, and a knock on the endless ubiquitiousness of Moby. I'm but a notch below the rampant mean-spiritedness of gossip columnist Jessica Pressler, I tell ya.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Three Short Features by Two Unsettling Filmmakers Named David

By "short features," I'm of course referring to films that are longer than my official cut-off point for shorts -- that being 45 minutes -- but aren't quite your standard feature length, and that would be somewhere around 78 minutes or so. Instead, these three pics hover around that abstract area of 45 minutes to 78 -- not quite long enough to be hurled in theaters but not short enough to play in a festival of shorts. But, yes, they're still features. Good. We're all on the same page.

The shortest of these is Industrial Symphony No. 1, a 50-minute (46 sans credits) TV pic made by David Lynch during the 1989-1990 period when he was shooting out material -- including Twin Peaks -- at a surely exhausting clip. In fact, Industrial is little more than a filmed performance -- a stage show/performance art piece with its focus kept conveniently small. (The stage belongs to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House.) Subtitled The Dream of the Broken Hearted, the piece, for lack of a better word, kicks off with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern adding an addendum to (let's assume) their Sailor and Lulu characters in that year's Wild at Heart; over the phone, Cage obliquely breaks up with Lulu, with the only statement close to explicitness being "it's not you, it's us." Confused and depressed, Dern immediately mutates into regular Lynch diva Julee Cruise, and the film turns to the stage. As much Lynch's work as composer Angelo Badalamenti's, the performance indulges in their usual schtick: Cruise sings songs that are an unsettling combination of '50s dreamy pop and minor keys (with jazz beats a la Peaks thrown in). Meanwhile, her solipsistic warbling is complimented by floating men, pyrotechnics, choking ammounts of fog, indescribably hideous beasties, television crews, falling dolls, and, as ever, Michael J. Anderson's dwarf. It's easily the most direct and simplified thing Lynch has ever done -- that is, apart from The Elephant Man -- but it's also his most sustained effort; you get what they're doing -- her sadness is invaded upon and exploited by the media and vaguely diabolical intruders -- but you feel it in your gut anyway. Count on Lynch to make performance art -- which I think is what it is -- look terrific.

As for the early features of David Cronenberg -- namely 1969's Stereo and the following year's Crimes of the Future, seemingly inexplicably released on the DVD set for his rarely-seen/-talked-about Corman-esque racing pic, Fast Company (which I'll get around to soon) -- they represent something like the rosetta stone for the rest of his work...but then every film is a rosetta stone for Cronenberg. All of Cronenberg's films appear to compliment eachother; if you don't see what's so hot about Videodrome, a viewing of Naked Lunch or The Brood (to randomly name two) might shed some light on the ways in which it waxes McLuhanesque on the TV Age, and vice versa. But, then, David Thomson exclaimed that Videodrome was in essence a lesson on how to watch his movies -- how to follow his bizarre structures, which follow through on theories he has on mankind wrestling with, and often being destoyed by, biological advances. (For me, it was Dead Ringers, but whatever.)

In Stereo and Crimes of the Future -- both of them staunchly underground films and both clocking in at the very odd length of 65 minutes -- Cronenberg is still tackling these advances on a psychological level. A wannabe-scientist turned wannabe-novellist turned filmmaker who wasn't a huge fan of films, Cronenberg was first obsessed with telepathy, only here his mind-readers don't indulge in the battles that crop up in Scanners. In fact, Stereo's not even remotely gory.

Disguised as an imitation of one of the medical research films of the era, Stereo focuses entirely on five of a fresh, and distincly larval form, of telepathics. Sequestered in one of Canada's icy college campuses for a study -- we're told that some of them have believed so much in the experiment that they've not only had their larnyx's pulled, but the part of their brains that produce words have been willingly removed -- the five subjects of his film undergo experiments with social life and even aphrodisiacs, with results both very awry and very clinical. It's a film of nothing but ideas -- literally: with the budget mostly regulated to the B&W 35mm stock, there's absolutely no diagetic sound, and what non-diagetic sound there is consists of people reading from their very thesis-paper-y theories on what has transpired. It's a rare, and very fatigue-inducing, kind of experience: long stretches of utter silence interrupted by sudden bouts of narrated platitudes. It's Marguerite Duras taken to a whole other level of uncomfortableness, only the material's heady, written by someone who's read abstract theories on science more he's gulped down other films. The lesson, of course, is: you don't need to have ever watched a film to make one.*

Meanwhile, I flat-out don't get Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg adds color stock, a dearth of goofy sound effects -- wheezes, buzzes, bleeps, other onomatopoeias -- and an actual storyline, though it keeps Stereo as a rough blue-print: the subject matter's generally the same and there's some attempt at crafting a mockumentary. This time, something called "Rouge's Malady" is the disease, though the only thing it seems to do is cause bizarre obsessions in its infectees -- like collecting socks. It's just as hypnotic as Stereo, but there's actually something going on here; there's even a boffo climax involving a cult of pedophiles who, in a largely woman-less world, want to impregnate a four-year-old girl who's entering puberty prematurely. What can I say? My closest guess is that it's a portrait of a future world that's gone quite a bit mad, with our protagonist on the lest leg of his sanity. Shrug. I need to do some research and watch it again -- even a viewing of Videodrome can't unlock this one. But at least I'm intrigued, which, come to think of it, is a stronger reaction than the one I had to eXistenZ and Spider.

Impenetrable or not, Future -- as well as Stereo -- has gobs to say about other Cronenberg films, especially if you're in the camp that thinks him no more than a purveyor of gore and shocks. It's interesting to think of Cronenberg the way that his early fans did. In his half-widdling book David Cronenberg: A Delicate Balance, Peter Morris talks of being blown away by these two decidedly non-gory films and cringing when Cronenberg informed him that he was making a straight-up horror film. That turned out to be Shivers, which took his abstract ideas and planted them in the epidemic genre. But doing the reverse -- i.e., looking at these early pics after seeing him work in the horror genre -- proves that his work is explicity heady, and that he just happened to find himself working excessively in the horror genre. Any genre will do; he's arguably the most radical thinker of all filmmakers. But that's pretty simplistic -- sort of like Cronenberg 101. With a taste for Cronenberg comes a wish to understand each of his ideas, to break them down and analyze them, even if that results in a college-level term paper. That's what seeing Stereo and Future does to you: it makes you want to turn into a collegiate. Be very afraid of us Cronenberg-heads.

Speaking of which, if some of us are still sulking over his aborted Basic Instinct II -- cringe ecstatically at the thought of what he would drudge up in the erotic thriller phylum, particularly when he's bragging that it would've been "awesome" -- his next film appears to be an adaptation of London Fields, scripted by Martin Amis himself. Again, cringe at the thought...

*Not a foolproof concept: no less a luminary than Agnes Varda debuted with 1954's La Pointe Courte, which, while often called the first French New Wave film -- or the one that inspired the rest of them anyway -- gained nothing from Varda being no more than a non-film-literate photographer at the time. In fact, it's like Hiroshima, mon amour as written by someone who's not Marguerite Duras** but is just as chatty. Also, Phillipe Noiret is in it; I don't like him.

** That's two Duras references in one entry. Can you boast such a feat?

Monday, May 03, 2004


The "we are all tied together" concept is, of course, a flaccid mainstay of folks like P.T. Anderson, Michael Cunningham, and New Age-ists in general. But for James Burke, a bespeckled middle-aged Britisher who wouldn't look out of place in a high school science lab, it's an idea worth taking literally, and one which he trotted out over three seasons of the science show/school-room fave (I hope) Connections. Over each lightning fast episode, Burke focuses on the impact of scientific/psychological/generally historical discoveries on other discoveries, the social fabric and and large-scaled events. For instance: the grotesquely accidental discovery of pennicillin eventually led to the invention of soda. For another: the bottle cap has something very concrete to do with the Hubbell Telescope. And WWII artillery is simply the nth-timed-removed progeny of the garden hoe.

"And that's something you wouldn't expect," quips Burke at points in certain episodes, but Burke's schtick is no mere schtick. In fact, as a historian, he's in the same class as Altman and Lester; he's a revisionist, viewing major world events as the result not of Greatness or something worthy of a statue*, but of accident, even stupidity. "A very boring man" is a description he often employs to describe these geniuses, while his trace of the discovery of pennicillin is so comic as to be terrifying: it wouldn't have been found at all had one medic not left a slew of petri dishes lying open for months, in the direct sunlight, with the car's window open just a bit...and then, he happened to idly glance at the one petri dish...and then happened to give it more of a cursory glance, noticing that the seemingly ordinary mold had destroyed all the bacteria around it. Though Burke later heads out on its trail of far-flung effects, it's sequences like this when Connections is at its headiest; in other words, it's not simply about the leftfield ties he can make between presumably random subjects, but that he knows so much about them, and has a sense of humor to go with them to boot. Saying it's Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty or Slacker as a science show may seem convenient, but neither of them can touch it's mind-melting qualities. Track down copies; study them; learn to adore the show's proudly geeky guide.

*At one point, he even treats one inventor's towering bronze statue to a visual gag.