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

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Damn, Antonioni, too?

Look out, Alain Resnais.

As with Bergman, I turned my back on Michelangelo Antonioni, another classic world cinema titan to pass on 30 June 2007. (Again: damn.) Unlike with Bergman, I’ve more or less recanted. Pauline Kael’s in/famous “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Party” – in which she slaughtered La Dolce Vita, Last Year at Marienbad and Antonioni’s La Notte in one foul swoop – had a sizeable effect on my budding cinephilia, and I wrote Antonioni off as a trendy little operator without even having delved much into his oeuvre. (And what’s more, really liking what I had seen: L’Avventura and Blow-Up.) Frankly, I’m still a bit iffy on La Notte, The Eclipse and Zabriskie Point, particularly the latter’s stiff, uncharismatic non-pro leads and borderline-comical, lip-smacking hatred for the U.S. And you thought he hated Europe. (The original planned ending was to have a plane skywriting, “Fuck You, America.”)

It took The Passenger, with Jack Nicholson wanting no more than to shirk all responsibility, to re-convince me of his style -- namely, that it overwhelms all, by design. One of Antonioni’s niftiest tricks was to take a genre plot – a disappearance in L’Avventura, a Hitchcockian murder plot in Blow-Up, a proto-Robert Ludlum page-turner in The Passenger – and let the narratives fade into the ether. It’s ironic that these gradually listless films twice ended with a literal bang – the climactic detonations in The Eclipse (seen here) and especially Zabriskie Point (seen here) would make Michael Bay cream his shorts. (Where did the “repeating explosion from multiple cameras” schtick come but from Antonioni?)

As noted almost verbatum, his characters typically desire connection in an increasingly isolating world. But it’s their battle with their surroundings – be they urban or rural, or the oppressive fusion in Red Desert – that really caught his eye, literally and figuratively. No one could frame an alienating shot like Antonioni, depicting his characters – thinly designed, often ciphers, but sometimes deeply, if remotely cared for, as with Monica Vitti or Nicholson in The Passenger – struggling to contend with their environment. Sadly, Antonioni only worked in cinemascope once. Naturally, it – i.e., Zabriskie Point – isn’t even on DVD.

It’s really too bad that Antonioni leaves us with The Dangerous Thread of Things, his nudity- and dumb line-laced contribution to the omnibus film Eros that plays like a devastating parody of a pretentious art film you’d see on SCTV. Antonioni wasn’t afraid to be pretentious, but his films were, for the most part, never bad.

Yet to see: Story of a Love Affair, Le Amiche, Il Grido, The Mystery of Oberwald, Beyond the Clouds


Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Me and Ingmar Bergman have a checkered past. Like Fellini and, to an extent, Truffaut, The Brooding Swede™ was a gateway filmmaker I eventually forsook. My earliest memories of cinephilia -- and surely I'm not alone on this -- involve marveling over The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Silence, which I then congratulated myself for "getting." (Sort-of, in the latter case.) His stark images, starker ideas and starker still monologues, whose bluntness I too often confused with honesty, were intregal in making me feel hardcore about loving cinema, just as he was intregal to the popularity of world cinema in the '50s. There's no doubt that without him -- or Fellini, or Truffaut, or anyone else I watched at the time -- I wouldn't have found Godard, Buñuel, Bresson, Ozu, Teshigahara, Imamura and onto the Tarrs, Assayases, Denises, Weerasethakuls, etc.

But I also don't want to give you the wrong impression.

The truth is that I often find Bergman more than a little bit insufferable. I appreciate his contributions and innovations, and even like them from time to time. I would even say I generally "like" Bergman. But at least half of what I've seen of his work strikes me as juvenile and onanistic, and not in the good ways. Not long ago, I wound up in a bizarre bar-set debate over Toy Story vs. The Seventh Seal. Don't ask. Both, weirdly, have similarities. Each deals with an existential crisis -- Woody vs. his sudden irrelevance in the face of a new, flashier toy; Max von Sydow vs. mortality itself. And I totally came down on the side of Toy Story. While The Seventh Seal deals with life and death in stark terms, using undeniably iconic imagery, I realized that the superficially lighter Toy Story actually explored its crisis more thoroughly. (Actually, it's Toy Story 2 that plums really deep.)

Would Pixar even have had the cajones to wrestle with such Big Ideas had Bergman not first made it chic? Possibly not. But there's respect and there's genuine appreciation, and the twain shouldn't necessary meet.

The weird thing is I'm not alone in my blasphemy. Once upon a time, or so the story goes, Bergman was the toast of Cinema -- appearing on American talk shows, getting all (or most) of his films released stateside, having his name associated with intellectual restlessness. Nowadays, you get Dave Kehr lambasting Criterion for kicking off their budget-priced Eclipse label with early Bergmans -- this out-of-fashion auteur. I don't think this is a minority opinion. With the DVD revolution making cinema literacy even easier, budding cinephiles don't need to subsist on just La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, Jules and Jim, Day For Night and the collected work of miserable old (dead) Ingmar Bergman. Why delve into Eclipse's Early Bergman when there's Late Ozu to be had? Those with regionless players can watch seven hour Béla Tarr movies or Jeanne Dielman, fer chrissakes. What's the point in trawling through that plodding ode to mortality, Cries and Whispers?

I'm not sure myself, and in typical Bergman fashion, I feel a pang of guilt for writing him off, no less because when he's good, he's pretty dang kickass. I have little use for some of his work, but I still don't mind being among the breathless throngs when it comes to Persona, Scenes From a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. I can even somewhat rationalize away the plainness with which he presents his ideas -- you know, just having people stand there and talk about them? The bald theatricality of his staging and the plainness with which they're filmed -- actors talking without moving in a static frame -- has an otherworldliness that can be pretty infectious. It's like his films go from cinema, past theater and back into cinema again. (They've also clearly inspired no less a passionate fella than Arnaud Desplechin -- surely Bergman's polar opposite in temperament. Kings and Queen steals Bergman's idea of having dead people simply strut on up to the living and chat them up, as well as the whole notion of having people reading their letters to the lens.

And let's not forget that he's a whizz with atmosphere, particularly in creating a sense of menace. Even as straightforward and clumsy a film as Winter Light has a hushed, depressive sense of dread that's palpable. Even as overloaded and fussy a film as The Silence has a hothouse atmosphere that Tennessee Williams would lap up, and a rampant weirdness that no doubt did a number on David Lynch young, impressionable self. And then there's the no-stops-pulled climax of 1966's Hour of the Wolf, which still sticks out as unmistakably Bergman amidst all the other psychdelic freak-out set pieces of the era.

I doubt I'll ever come around to the work of his that I don't much care for. (Sorry, Cries and Whispers.) But his passing makes me suddenly interested in going back to fill in gaps that I probably wouldn't have otherwise bothered filling. (Last year when I watched Hour of the Wolf, I was mildly appalled that my last new Bergman was about four years before.) I can't help but wonder if his death will give his rep the kick it might almost deserve.

In the meantime, here's five films of his I heartily endorse:
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
The Silence (1963)
Persona (1966)
Scenes From a Marriage (1973)
Fanny and Alexander (1983)
(a boring list, now that I look)

But just things aren't too reverent, here's five I could...well, not do without, but you know:
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Winter Light (1962)
Cries and Whispers (1973)
Autumn Sonata (1978)


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

YouTubing-To-Obscure-Shameless-Self-Promotion Wednesdays: Like Anna Karina's Sweater

In honor of me finally owning a not just decent but brilliantly sharp DVD of Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou, here's the film's second go at a low-rent, on-location musical sequence. (Listen to the outdoor noise, the fuck-ups with singing, etc.) Sigh, Anna Karina.

In the PW I did a Six Pack on art house movies where the characters actually enjoy fucking eachother (and without dropping the f-bomb, no less). Also, five scattered caps for the second week of the Philly Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, as well as Rep.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

YouTubing-To-Obscure-Shameless-Self-Promotion Wednesdays: Sly Wants to Take You Higher

Ten minutes of Sly & the Family Stone, from Woodstock:

The Weekly. Lotsa stuff this week, starting with nine caps for the descending Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, including the revival of Gus Van Sant's debut, Mala Noche. Also, a longish interview with Zoe Cassavetes, son of John and director of Broken English, as well as another one with Steve Zahn, on the occasion of him working with Werner Herzog on Rescue Dawn. HerzogMania™ continues with a short list of his most awesome antics and a review of Dawn, where you can also find me weighing in on Broken English and Lady Chatterley. Lastly, Rep, whose big draw is a Bastille Day screening of Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Phew!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Halftime Report '07: Cinema is Alive!

Usually around this time of year, I'm pretty blah on the fare released in the last six months. The second half tends to be better, what with studios saving their loftier fare for Oscar season, Cannes films finally seeing the light of day (unless they win the Palme d'Or, in which case they invariably take a year to hit Philly) and the combination of January dumping grounds and two months of financially burdened summer fare. So color me a sheepish optimist, because I think 2007 So Far has been pretty fucking amazing.

Hell, I don't even mind ordering the list so far:

01. Zodiac
02. Regular Lovers
03. Grindhouse
04. Knocked Up
05. Offside
06. Black Book
07. The Host
08. Woman on the Beach
09. Hot Fuzz
10. Bamako

Simply in terms of arbitrary grade ranking, that's eight (8) films I've given an A- or higher. And two (2) I've given higher than an A-. I wish most years were this good, let alone the first half of most years.

Of course, if you want to be a stickler, a number of those debuted -- internationally speaking at festivals or in other countries -- last year. That would mean stricking from the list nos. 2, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10.

Altogether now: Yeesh. But don't fret, because a "pure" list -- released for absolutely the first time anywhere in the last six months -- would be if not as tasty, still pretty tasty. Like so:

01. Zodiac
02. Grindhouse
03. Knocked Up
04. Hot Fuzz
05. 28 Weeks Later
06. Black Snake Moan
07. Ratatouille
08. Tick Tock Lullaby
09. Vacancy
10. In the Shadow of the Moon

I can get happily behind all of those. And keep in mind I have yet to see the following: Alexandra; Boarding Gate; 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days; Go Go Tales; Joshua; The Man From London; A Mighty Heart; My Blueberry Nights; No Country For Old Men; Paranoid Park; Sicko; Silent Light; or QT's expanded version of Death Proof.

Bring on Half the Second in my opinion.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

YouTubing-to-Obscure-Shameless-Self-Promotion Wednesdays: Apparently It's a Holiday

One of the more inexplicable missing items from DVD is Storytime, an eight minute short Terry Gilliam made in 1968, just before Monty Python. When Gilliam's first non-Python feature Jabberwocky was reissued in the late '90s, this multi-part deluge of cut-out madness was attached; when Jabberwocky was released on DVD shortly thereafter, the disc was missing this. I've long been searching for this on YT, and it finally looks like someone had the good graces to throw it up. Kudos, someone.

The ol' PW A Six Pack on food movies, which gave me a chance to mention Dusan Makavejev's just-Criterioned Sweet Movie as well as the obscure '80s horror pic Motel Hell. Also, Rep.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Fuck. A. Duck.

Online Dating

Of course, it's all a ruse to get you to go some net dating site. (In fact, don't click on the link.) Still, I was hoping for at least an NC-17.