27 February 2008

We've Still Got Time

Once is my film of the year. And not just because Marketa Irglova is so cute!!!

(I may or may not be spelling "Marketa Irglova” correctly—I have seen such a variety of spellings and accents that I can only give my best guess. I like to think mostly of the proximity of Marketa and the meerkat on the cuteness scale.)

So there are other 2008 movies higher on my all time list: No Country for Old Men, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly for two, probably Control when Netflix sends it to me. But this film was the most. I haven’t felt sparks that hard since Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not. It’s a big statement but I’m speaking of films where the romance moves from narrative to a physical need.

It took me six minutes after the credits finished to leave my seat, and then only bent over chair backs, hobbling for the exit. That piano pan out the window, the bricks down the street for a too fast ending, the thought oh fuck this is NOT an American film. Rare—and how do you get on that plane Guy? How do you get on that plane? How do you get on that plane?

He was in love not five minutes in—we were—when she said she would bring the vacuum. The way she lifted her voice into the moment of asking. They meet and seem so innocuous heading into the piano store. And start into “Falling Slowly.” In the collaboration over that song I realized, hair standing all over my arms, that I would love this film intensely for years. The looks of disbelief on the actors’ faces at how good they sounded mirrored my own look of disbelief at how much I cared. I know people who absolutely hate Glen Hansard’s music in the film but cannot deny the power of the first version of “Falling Slowly.”

I remember Anthony Lane saying it was a good film but how vital can a movie be that is basically about “recording a mixtape”? I love Anthony but, really, what the fuck else is more significant about your average feature film? The joke of this is, for the legions that immediately went out and bought the motion picture soundtrack for Once, the songs aren’t even a fraction as good outside the context of the film.

The romance is repressed throughout the film until Irglova throws Hansard The Look and states a heart-melting offer of some “hanky-panky” (you really have to hear her say it). These are the reasons the world goes around. I cannot overstate. This film is just a line of why we have songs-films-poems-words-people-life. Through Once I recall each element of that evening: the brown-checked table cloth at dinner, the fantastic gnocchi in red sauce, the gold shoes we browsed over at Mint, the thought, looking at the film poster on the way in, this is going to be really good. And once I was right. No Country never made me feel like someone was sitting on my chest, Diving Bell couldn’t have convinced me that I was in love with the person on the aisle. I drove home doing a Jewel sing-a-long and I would have been meant for anyone in the other seat. Amazing.

And I see Marketa and Glen are now together—about damn time. I say to them, in the best possible way, “you have broken me all the way down.”

23 February 2008

This Is Not Fair

“This is not fair.” What else is there to say to yourself when, like Jean-Do, you only have the use of one eye and a gorgeous speech therapist is demonstrating how to swallow with her tongue?

And there are many other beautiful things in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly that are simply not fair. To be flashback to the brunette back of your lover’s head, hair snaking in the wind. As he does expertly throughout the film, Schnabel holds this moment so there is the corresponding ache for what has been lost. The first sequence painful in a different way—our eyes get tired watching the static camera blink through red, white and yellow blurs. Though he loosens this initially total subjectivity of the lens (making the film easier to take than, say, Bogart’s Dark Passage), Schnabel often leaves the camera prone, as when Jean-Do tools through Paris in the Jag convertible that is always already a gurney—the trees and rooftops, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumphe all pass dizzyingly above.

The music, despite a totally unwanted appearance by The Edge, matched the film—Tom Waits and Lou Rawls would be the first two people I’d ask for songs relating to a stroke victim completely paralyzed besides one eye. The classical piece is shared with Hannah and Her Sisters, connecting to this film through harsh romantic choices and startling, strong performances by Max von Sydow (nothing in this life and death film is as nerve-racking as Jean-Do shaving his frail yet commanding father, von Sydow).

I first chuckled then came to understand the Hospital’s Cinecittà: Jean-Do was wheeled out to a strip of concrete with a view to anything, land, sea, lighthouse. This was a flawless metaphor. He had the use of an eye and his memory, all he needed to recreate the film of his life.

Everything is too beautiful—each therapist at the hospital, the mother of Jean-Do’s children, his children, his lover, the imagined 19th century woman at the hospital with the perfect blue satin ruffles to match the perfect waves of the sea. Recursive, lovely crosses hanging from almost every female neck. But Schnabel does not let all this beauty go totally unchecked—Jean-Do’s Helena Christensen-esque lover Henriette is banal, buying a horrible Lourdes virgin lamp; the red light it casts is a damning commentary on their relationship. And when we see her at the end of the film in a flicker, claiming she was “always there,” we know it to be true in only the worst way.

Finally, it seems to me everything in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a more attenuated version of the writing process. In our imaginations, we can free-float in our most lush memories, every color as superbright as those in this film. But to write them out is brutally difficult (the rhythm of a sentence vs. the rhythm of a camera pan). So as Jean-Do squeezes out his few sentences a day I kept thinking, that’s a pretty good output. He even requests a book by Graham Greene, the model of writing diligence, who produced 500 words a day or bust. In the end, Jean-Do makes a slender, vivid and moving book in less than a year. Or a book I assume to be vivid and moving—I just watched the movie.

19 February 2008

We Belong Together

I wanted to ensure that I don’t completely turn my back on poetry—as such, I give you Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” Theoretically she writes her own lyrics (in this case she “composed” the song with seven other parties).

Look—Mariah Carey is not here because I am blinded by her beauty—recalling her epic MTV Cribs appearance, I liked the shiny walls in her apartment but was alarmed at her unacceptably ill-behaved pets.

A few weeks ago I posted a g-chat message to the effect that “We Belong Together” had, shockingly, become my favorite M.C. song. My unimpeachable sexuality took a few shots across the bow but my emotions did not waver: liking Emancipation of Mimi Mariah does feel like cheating. Shouldn’t I prefer the less-airbrushed, flannel-nymph of the “Dreamlover” era?

But allow me to present a close reading of “We Belong Together.” First, the piano plink opening that would almost have to be ironic—schmaltzy even for contemporary pop. This segues into an unremarkable first verse: the narrator stupid, foolish and lying to herself—we’ve all been there. “Oh, what I wouldn't give to have you lying by my side,” etc. But after an above average chorus we get this second verse:

I can't sleep at night when you are on my mind
Bobby Womack's on the radio saying to me:
"If you think you're lonely now"
Wait a minute this is too deep (too deep)
I gotta change the station so I turn the dial
Trying to catch a break and then I hear Babyface
I only think of you and it's breaking my heart
I'm trying to keep it together but I'm falling apart

I'm feeling all out of my element
I'm throwing things, crying
Trying to figure out where the hell I went wrong
The pain reflected in this song it ain't even half of what I'm feeling inside
I need you, need you back in my life, baby

These lyrics are surprisingly concrete—we have specific references to other musicians, even quoting Bobby Womack’s “If you think you’re lonely now” (I wish I knew what radio station would play Bobby Womack late at night around here). How nice to (mentally) contrast M.C.’s mellifluously-modulated voice with Womack’s low growl. And then Babyface stands in for every saccharine ballad that would push anyone over the edge in Mimi’s tragic, lovelorn condition. Then, beginning with “I’m feeling all out of my element,” M.C. starts throwing her voice around until it starts to bounce like Ani Difranco’s in “Both Hands.” It makes me feel all hectic inside then the chorus comes crashing through again and I am compelled to whole-heartedly sing along. I might even dance with my shoulders at a stoplight. This is a modified twitching motion.

In case you can’t listen to the song RIGHT NOW, here is the video link, featuring an odd shoe choice by Wentworth Miller and Faizon Love’s most inspired acting appearance since Blue Crush:


12 February 2008

I Need to Get Right with God

I find The King a truly fascinating and overlooked film from Milo Addica, who we learn plays a very convincing pizza delivery manager. William Hurt is a shiny-shirted, creatively-bearded Reverend Sandow who once knew a black-haired Yolanda. Ergo Gael Garcia Bernal’s Elvis, fresh off the good shop Athena, a washed-out boy off to find his father. His immediate, pure malevolence plainly contrasts the true preacher’s son, Paul Dano, in what I imagine was his first role as a young religious zealot.

The King’s Corpus Christi, Texas is made of the same colors as the summer Detroit suburbs of The Virgin Suicides—faded peach and scrubby white—even the church lawn greens are shocking, sickly. Preacher’s daughter Pell James (Mallorie) is not quite there but in the vein of young Sissy Spacek, opening her green eyes at the spookiest times. She is led down the path by Elvis with a line so clichéd it’s perfect:

“I have a car.”

Her answer, “What kind?” takes us to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” without the unfortunate presence of Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Dern and, especially, Treat Williams. The inevitable Elvis-Mallorie relationship is minimally spoken—like Badlands Malick we go from her “Do you believe in God?” to “Water is so beautiful” to dripping-hem-school-girl-skirt sex.

I was moved most by two absolute showstopper scenes. In the first, Mallorie puts a fresh-cut deer head and a handful of purplish entrails into a bucket (animals WERE harmed!) and mops up with Cinderella-rote motions as her brother gestures to his bow: “don’t touch this.” In the second, the revelation of the incestuous nature of Elvis and Mallorie’s sex has opposite effects on the couple, sitting in a dilapidated burger joint: Elvis calmly folds placemats to make himself a crown and we pan to Mallorie, muttering an empty: “we’re going to hell.” Elvis merely closes his eyes and bows his head as if receiving a divine gift. And, in the wide-loving scope of his heart, Reverend Sandow invites Elvis into his home.

I particularly like that, as Elvis ingratiates himself into the family, as the narrative becomes almost unbearably perverse, the comedy is ratcheted up. We have the nicely domesticated Elvis weeding the backyard, padding to his half-sister’s room in suede slippers, generally hilarious. And after his last act of malice he walks into his father’s office and tells the man exactly what his Christian ears need to hear:

“I need to get right with God.”

09 February 2008

English Period Woody Allen

There are these sorts (perhaps many such sorts) who say Woody Allen has lost it. And in the Jason Biggs-era I had to agree with them. But now I feel something stirring. As things have gone astray on the comedic side, he has just increased the body count. He takes a handsome men or two and one full-lipped beauty that acts at being a terrible actress and makes them murder each other. Watching Match Point, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream in succession I felt so comfortably 3½ stars about everything. Sometimes it is enough to like films.

The films I’m calling the English Period Woody Allen are more attempts than accomplishments, but I love the ping-pong banter of Johansson and Rhys meyers in Match Point, almost up to speed with Stanwyck and MacMurray in Double Indemnity (a very aggressive game—someone needs a spanking).

And if it doesn’t take we can look at Scarlett again in Scoop going after some young Hepburn gee-gosh-golly.

And a jaw dropper or two. 90% of the dialogue in Allen’s English Period could have been written anytime between the 30’s and the present day, making the images all the more impactful. Some of the anachronisms here are delightful. Scoop is a film that asks the question: in the history of the cinema have there ever been more patently unneeded eyeglasses? I can only think of Cary Grant’s specs in Bringing Up Baby as competition.

Not to focus only on the distaff side I’ll say I found Colin Farrell in Dream and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point both sexy and brilliant. Farrell’s problems mount on his eyebrows, Rhys Meyers’ on his lips.

I took in Cassandra’s Dream (a mediocre name for a film but a hell of a name for a greyhound) with relish—the slightly scratched title music, the left-slanting title O’s. Beforehand I’d heard mostly about how the leads’ accents were “wrong.” This kind of inane criticism vexes me—like when all I heard about Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke didn’t look enough alike to be brothers. It’s a film for Christ’s sake—it is actually made up for our entertainment and we walk outside into a world where Hoffman and Hawke are not, in fact, brothers. But back to the Woodman’s latest. In the Scarlett (sex) role we have Hayley Atwell who, as it turns out, does not look exactly like Diane Keaton in a tie.

I wish I had more of a full profile view—that tie more closely resembles a toddler’s legs hanging off a high chair. But the first vista of Atwell is sheer classicism from Woody—the woman under the hood of the car on a summer’s day. Everything irresistible. She has less to say than Keaton ever did but this picture could just as well be silent—at this point Tom Wilkinson gets out bed looking like he is devising a murder and McGregor and Farrell emote like they’re trying out for The Passion of Joan of Arc.

But I liked the film for the same reasons I liked the others—pith, English country landscapes, heaving breasts.

And I’ve already heard murmurings of a “Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson sex scene” in Woody’s Spanish venture, which is a strong indicator that I might just find the time to see the film. Though critics will probably say Scarlett’s accent is all wrong (if not Cruz’s and Bardem’s—my God what if they are more Andalusian than Catalan? What will we do??).

But there might also be more of timeless moments, as in Scoop, when Woody tells Hugh Jackman that he heard Scarlett drowning and, “I finished my cup of tea and came right in.” That reminds me of a 40+ Michael Jordan hitting his iconic turnaround jumper for the Washington Wizards. Old masters still move me.

02 February 2008

Drawn from Nature

I began my research of John James Audubon shortly after receiving a Christmas card of his cardinals and reading Anne Carson’s poem “Audubon,” which begins: “Audubon perfected a new way of drawing birds that he called his. / On the bottom of each watercolor he put “drawn from nature” / Which meant he shot the birds / And took them home to stuff and paint them.” In this rare instance, my research went beyond the Wikipedia and the Google Image Search and into a museum of “history and industry.”

Behind those wood-grained double-doors I learned that Audubon was a sensationalist. I witnessed static rattlesnakes coiling around a mockingbird’s nest, peregrine falcons desiccating a duck corpse and king snakes opening their mouths to end the life of a chuck will’s widow (some of the vines are red with blood-drop-blossoms). The melodrama continues even in his less impressive quadrupeds of America—the river otters rear and snarl. The leopard marmot is sly, just as I would imagine in a Wes Anderson-Big Lebowski sense.

But the birds. The birds are lush color and small and life-sized in the reproductions of his original double-elephant-sized printing. A complete set of Birds of America brought down $8.8 million at auction “recently” (I learned this watching a VHS-grain recording—nice that the PBS from the 80’s already has its own crackly, classic patina). One of Audubon’s major breakthroughs was hiring a 13-year-old assistant to do the background branches. J.J. solved the main problem of natural bird painting by shooting them and taking them home but I guess he needed a sketchy little friend to recreate exactly where stuffed birds last twittered.

The most important Audubon quote: “I want to comprehend all that I see.”
Quite a bar to set for oneself but he did make the Birds of America more awake than I had expected. I think it is somewhere in the detailed underside of those feathered throats—I’m dumbly impressed with their texture as if they are still swallowing air below those bright shiny eyes. More Anne Carson (if only she were available to write this whole post for me):

he built flexible armatures of bent wire and wood
on which he arranged bird skin and feathers—
or sometimes

whole eviscerated birds—
in animated poses.
Not only his wiring but his lighting was new.

Audubon colors dive in through your retina
like a searchlight

I spent a long time over his fastidiously detailed whip-poor-wills. The leer out, beaks gaping, in choice between moths and caterpillars patterned in 70’s browns, oranges and white that exactly matches the birds’ own feathers. Beautiful, cannibalistic fabric swatches.

Audubon believed in his shadow-less epics so much that he went on a double-elephant tour, peddling the Birds of America in Edinburgh and farther afield:

this Haitian-born Frenchman
lit himself

as a noble rustic American
wired in the cloudless poses of the Great Naturalist.
They loved him

for the “frenzy and ecstasy”
of true American facts

And here she reaches it—regardless of where he was born, we love Audubon because he brought us American truth, which is always separate from natural truth. Rattlesnakes might not slither up trees to eat mockingbirds that cast no shadow, but I saw a print of it that was beautiful.