30 September 2011

Three Times: Drive

Three early details that made me an immediate fan:

1. Drive starts with the sequence that first teased all of us on #TeamGosling. While enjoying the anonymous Impala cat and mouse game a thought kept creeping through my irrepressible sports fan head. Gosling repeatedly turns up the volume on the basketball game and it doesn't make sense because no one in the history of the world has been that interested in the outcome of a Clippers/Raptors game! I tried to tell myself that the radio was just reinforcing the passage of time but I remained vexed, distracted by the mental image of a sweat-drenched Chris Kaman. This anxiety only abated when--a ha!--a Staples Center parking lot becomes the key to Gosling's escape (he even puts on a Clips hat to blend in with the crowd, a move so insouciant it dropped this jaw).

2. Where many directors would try to squeeze in as many pieces of back history as possible into the first act, Nicholas Wending Refn layers Gosling's Driver with automotive details. Not only does he go from getaway to stunt to neighborhood driving, he chews a toothpick with grooves like tire tread and sleeps in room 405--his home is a freeway.

3. When introduced to Carey Mulligan and son, I was distracted by all the crap they had on their wrists. Only after the third or fourth time they appeared did I recognize them as Silly Bandz, a realistically low budget collection and subtle talisman of their bond.

Three favorite faces (as studied via Refn's devotion to close ups):

1. Bad Guy Division: Ron Perlman wins for Nino, whose consistently mentioned Jewishness is overshadowed by his more obvious Easter Island moai-ness (with a nod to runner up Albert Brooks and his saurian neck).

2. Diverting Lady Division: While Carey Mulligan is content to stick with the steady-gaze-of-frozen-pain look patented by Michelle Williams, Christina Hendricks lights it up as Blanche, Driver's less-than-reliable partner in crime. Mad Men fans will note her somewhat trashier Cleopatra-eyed glamor in this film but she still stops traffic in a long shot against a pawn shop wall. Her time onscreen ends all too soon at the worst motel I've seen since No Country for Old Men (if not Twentynine Palms). Tangentially, I have to note that Anthony Lane threw a huge spoiler in his Drive review when he mentioned "a crime against nature" that fells a character. In a film featuring Ms. Hendricks, there's exactly one person who's death could be called a crime against nature (but don't worry Anthony--I still want to be you when I grow up (and I don't care about spoilers either)).

3. Matinee Idol Division: Six years after starring in Half Nelson (earning him the much-coveted WTT Best Actor of the Decade award), Ryan Gosling is finally a dominant figure in cinema. He's a hugely appealing movie star, sly-smiling though films as different as Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Drive, with The Ides of March in the wings as further Oscar fodder (it's a better run of form than, say, James Marsden's). He's inspired lyrics as insipid (yet catchy!) as "you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero" and YouTube comments as stirring as "I jerk off with driving gloves now."

Three funniest Carey Mulligan Drive facts:

1. In this film she is mother to a child called "Benicio."

2. Ms. Mulligan is given the only straight up joke in Drive and it's also name-related. Legend has it that when she was introduced to her husband, Standard, she asked him, "Where's the Deluxe version?" Har har har. I actually found this to be one of her more effective moments in the film--the hesitant smile she wears in the retelling speaks to the small humor of the story being eclipsed by the idiocy of her subsequent choices that evening.

3. Irene is employed by Denny's Diner. My least favorite chain restaurant is depicted as a disgusting dead end for all involved! While Irene is (at least) the one millionth weak female role in a Hollywood film, it was good to see Mulligan in something I didn't find completely objectionable (after An Education, Public Enemies and Wall Street 2).

Three things I rolled with as a Refn-Gosling fanboy that others might reasonably contest:

1. I've read several people who claim Refn (a Dane) doesn't "get LA" but I enjoyed the way Drive jumbles up our idea of California on film. I'm indifferent to the helicopter shots of the skyline and zooms into those ubiquitous strip malls but his treatment of nature felt original. At the concrete end of Los Angeles River, Driver, Irene and Benicio enjoy themselves amidst beige and sage eucalyptus trash. We glimpse forlorn palm trees in the rain through less-than-clean apartment windows. And the beach, when it finally appears, is a midnight vision of doom. All things I hadn't exactly seen before.

2. I'm attracted to gratuitous things. For Driver's strip club shakedown of an ill-fated minor mobster there's gratuitous violence AND gratuitous nudity. To watch Gosling swing an angry hammer against a tableau of preening strippers is to not know where to look. A Pollockian blood spatter decorates saline-enhanced breasts and satiny white scorpion jackets alike.

3. For sheer contentiousness, I love that Refn put in the elevator scene (so well set up by recurring, more naturalistic, elevator shots throughout the film). People say, "really, the lighting dims from regular to romantic?" I say, I loved the brightening and darkening of shots in Tom Ford's A Single Man and I love it now. People say, "what's that, like, the longest elevator ride EVAR between five floors?" I say, but we switch to slow-mo mode for the kiss, no? People say, "it's just a cheap contrast between smooching and ass-whooping." I say, Refn's always about the high and low, operatic camerawork and American History X-esque sound effects. It's all out "This.Is.Cinema." grandstanding. Gimme more.

20 September 2011

Real Country Rain

I'll remember my four years in Seattle as an introduction to near constant rain and and what, in the parlance of Crazy Heart at least, might be called "real country" music (note: this preference for "real country" is not totally hard and fast). The most satisfying of my dissatisfying Seatown day jobs involved sitting in a room entering information into spreadsheets while listening to six or seven hours of Pandora radio (to be fair, this job also involved unlimited free caffeinated beverages and daily MarioKart Wii tournaments). While I've crafted rock, hip hop and electronica stations, the country one always gets the most play (despite the algorithm's unquenchable desire to include an hourly John Denver track). Now, as a song by Billy Bob Thornton plays, I give you the Seattlest songs I've thumbed up...

Brandon Rhyder "I Love the Rain"

This one is pretty embarrassing. The absurd personification of a natural phenomenon. The obvious choices in rhyme. The improper use of the subjunctive tense. The presence of actual rain sound effects. For these reasons I first resisted liking the song and waited, in that paradoxical Pandoran way, to hear it again before succumbing to the thumbs up button. I'm still impatient with Brandon but that second verse and the lines "she reminds me of a woman I knew / how she would brood over little things," give me that ideal mixture of nostalgia and regret--the ultimate achievement of any country song. (And this video obviously gets a bonus point for the presence of a wet Gosling.)

Steve Earle "The Rain Came Down"

Steve Earle is a more acceptable real country figure and this song is right in his wheelhouse. Listening to it I can embrace the vague sense of my family's agrarian past while also drumming on my desk. I loved imagining defending my 300-square-foot studio from the Man--"you ain't takin' my land!" This workmanlike tone made Earle playlists the best for washing dishes as well.

Patty Griffin "Rain"


From the number of incorrectly ascribed YouTube versions of this song, apparently Patty Griffin sounds just like Norah Jones. But clearly the animated guitar lady above has red hair and is speaking directly to me about irreconcilable differences. I can't think of a more recursive line for my time in Seattle than "I don't wanna beg you baby / for something maybe you could never give." I just want another chance to live (in a somewhat drier climate).

30 June 2011

Three Times: Norwegian Wood

Three reckless assumptions made while waiting in line to see a film about a Haruki Murakami book I hadn't read:

1. There will a man who suffers because his beloved is missing/dead/spectral. It's the only way Murakami does things. In Anh Hung Tran's Norwegian Wood, Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) loves from early adolescence Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), a quiet girl unavailable to Toru until the suicide of her boyfriend Kizuki (Kengo Kora). So Toru goes on pining for Naoko, who winds up ensconced in a remote psychiatric ward with really poor patient oversight (there's a lot more hand jobs than I've observed in contemporary American facilities).

2. The man will be unable to act with any agency. Toru spends most of his time away from Naoko in his college dormitory. During one downcast luncheon he meets Midori (Kiko Mizuhara, created by some genetic alchemist for maximum cuteness and wearing enough carefully selected barrettes to make Style Rookie jealous). Despite her well-developed skills in flirtation, this Pinkerton dreamgirl cannot shake Toru's loyalty to Naoko.

3. The film will be filled with jazz. Here I was way off, and not just because the story obviously involves the title song. Somehow the Radiohead fanboy news did not trickle down to me that Jonny Greenwood was scoring the film. I scribbled in my notebook that the sounds are like "mournful glaciers" and the music was, at least at Seattle's Egyptian, bracingly loud (grumbling sidenote: this is the same theatre management that turned the volume all the way down for Malick's The Tree of Life, to the point that subtitles would have been helpful).

Three favorite visual details:

1. Norwegian Wood, particularly in the opening sequences, is loaded with quickly sketched, memorable images. Toru spends his only pre-sanitarium time with Naoko in the lavender light of her apartment, with background lilacs and hydrangeas emphasizing her delicate nature. When they embrace, their bodies run down the frame diagonally to create more tension than your average sex scene.

2. Charmingly, late 60's Japanese university students carry their books strapped together in belts, which are often complimentary to their outfits. What's more, these outfits often involve brightly patterned sweatervests! At times there's such a giddy display of Japanese prep on screen that I had to stop myself from clapping.

3. Later in the film, Tran supplies a great metaphor for the nature of letter writing. Toru's missive to Naoko is interrupted when he starts to pick at a barely healed scab in the palm of his hand. This action is interspersed with shots of nettles from around Naoko's sanitarium--all of that thorny past drawing blood.

Three secondary characters with surprising impact:

1. Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) is Toru's playboy college chum, with hair never less than carefully-coiffed and a closet full of rakish turtlenecks. He's the man that makes you ask yourself how rad was college in Tokyo in the 60's? He encourages the caddish side of Toru and why not--he's constantly hooking up with ladies in swank apartments that are decorated indistinguishably from an Anthropologie store.

2. Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune) is Nagasawa's long-suffering girlfriend, totally peripheral for all but one sequence, when she hosts a dinner party. As she gives Nagasawa a tongue-lashing for his unapologetic girl swapping, the camera bears down on her and we have one of the most extended closeups in the film. She's wearing clear-beaded necklace that makes it look like her head had been reattached to her neck. Hatsumi's turn in the spotlight even ends with a cab ride straight out of In the Mood for Love.

3. Reiko (Reika Kirishima) is Naoko's roommate/guardian/music teacher for most of the film, though she eventually gets to know Toru much better (through a kind of sexual grieving familiar to Murakami fans and Chazz Reinhold). She performs an aborted acoustic version of "Norwegian Wood" early on--only to drop out for almost an hour--and returns at the very end for logically confused reasons. I suppose she promotes melancholy.

Three notes on the relationship between Tran and Murakami's work:

1. I felt that Tran did well to make his own Norwegian Wood though he could not resist a quintessential Murakami passage. Midori, on the topic of dessert:

"Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortcake. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortcake out to me. And I say I don’t want it anymore and throw it out the window."

There's the author's theory of love in four short sentences.

2. Tran generated more drama than I expected in a Murakami adaptation with his aggressive use of sound. Besides Greenwood's sometimes punishing score, there's a lot of anguished wails from Naoko that rip through all Toru's gentle affections. No matter what else I think about her acting, I acknowledge that Rinko Kikuchi can make some really loud noises.

3. Tran draws closer to Murakami with his choices in cinematography. There's a recursivity of long tracking takes that follow characters at a distance, like the lovely one in which the camera starts with Toru and Naoko on a forest path, winds with them a while, then loses them in the trees. Lengthy scenes like these reminded me of Jun Ichikawa's tidy Tony TakitaniBlind Willow, Sleeping Woman). Murakami works are not fast-paced and I'm thankful that Tran used deliberate compositions instead of an over-reliance on voiceover narration. A few weeks after seeing Norwegian Wood, I'm just as nostalgic as I ought to be.

18 June 2011

Six Summers Ago I Was 22

[I started last summer’s reading with “I Like You More Than Friends” by Cord Jefferson and had the idea to write something similar. It’s only taken me a year to do so! If you need to set a mood for this longread, put on Tegan & Sara’s The Con, which they were kind enough to record for this period in my life. The whole album and “Nineteen” in particular, which I can’t listen to at all unless I listen to it twenty times in a row.]

Six summers ago I was 22, looking out the window of the cafeteria at Bennington College and asking myself who is that Cuban woman who’s always outside smoking? 

The act of dragging on a cigarette accentuates cheekbones in a way that’s always appealed to me and I was not unmoved by this humid, noirish scene: a young lady, puffing away under a streetlamp adjacent a dumpster.

There was (perhaps) a Cuban in the writing program that I had (perhaps) not met at first-termer orientation, that monument to stilted conversation.  It was days later when some helpful soul, no doubt judging me for ogling this girl out the window, said her name was R and that she was the youngest person in the program, just 20.  This was upsetting because I’d thought I was the youngest (and, therefore, the most precocious) writer. Though I can assure you I still looked like the youngest writer.

When I was finally introduced to R it turned out I’d made that most common of errors: mistaking a Jew for a Cuban.  Her profile was Roman and it turned out she was just kind of tan. If we’re being honest her haircut was, if not a purebred example of the species, at least in the mullet family. But nicely highlighted with a quarterhorsey sheen, resting on her wide shoulders.

My reading in this era was mostly confined to high Modernism so my mental catalogue of R must have also included Hemingway’s description of Brett Ashley, her “curves like the hull of a racing yacht.”

Longtime readers of WTT know I have just the slightest tendency towards cynicism and this was in full force as I listened to the program director’s oft-repeated spiel about how the Bennington Writing Seminars were a vortex. The first week of the residency was more like a tepid whirlpool of mercilessly unseasoned vegetarian meals eaten with disapproving middle-aged women. I was all eye rolls and afternoon naps until the final weekend in Vermont, when it got really fucking hot.

On a sweltering night (perhaps the evening after my constant shit-talking induced a four error debacle from Tom Bissell in the poetry vs. prose softball game) I stepped into an even swelteringer barn to hear Frank Bidart deliver a 75-minute long reading. “The Third Hour of the Night” is a life changing artwork that, amongst various murders and buggeries, is about Benvenuto Cellini boiling every piece of metal he can find to forge his Perseus. When the windows to his workroom burst into flame in the poem I looked up at the windows in the barn, wondering if they’d do the same.

Wandering back dormward that night I thought long and hard about the profound sacrifices one must make for one's art and whether or not I could still sneak into the cafeteria and get some more Moose Tracks ice cream.

A day or two later, before my lunchtime Moose Tracks ration, I was alone at the end of a long laminate table, eyes downcast to avoid another round of beginning writer conversation filled with phrase, “my work,” when R appeared and asked if I might eat with her. I don’t remember how I replied but there wasn’t any decision-making involved. I’m highly suggestible.

R’d been so perturbed by her classmates’ critique of her workshop essay that she’d stayed up all night and rewritten the piece to the satisfaction of Phillip Lopate (in 2005 parlance: P-Lo). I’ve always been impressed by people who do things—in my five Bennington residencies I wrote precisely nothing. Of course I’d like to read the piece I said. Yes right now.

My memory elides any events between reading her essay (I’m sure I found it quite good) and the last evening of residency, as the party for graduating MFAers wound down. I discovered R was upset again, this time because a student had claimed to hate her, “for being so fucking talented and so young.” At the time this seemed like a silly reason to hate someone, and I told her so. I added that the hateful woman had fled my workshop crying when her (not even terrible) poem about a barn fire was being analyzed.

To be fair, most of us were basketcases by the end of a residency: depressed, horny, tearful, belligerent. I think Bennington authorities limit sessions to ten days because any longer and there’d be too many homicides. It’s a wonderful place.

My conversation with R moved to a nook outside my corner room in Swan (Swann’s) dorm. The picture window at our backs, the folded quilt underneath us, the wall sconce amber lighting all around—these objects straddle a before and after in my life.

R startled with her perception and intelligence and I tried to follow in a feverish, dehydrated way, saying anything to keep pace. Then as now, I’m often short on amusing biographical material. R was not.

She piled personal details that I wouldn’t then have dreamed fact checking. She described undergrad years at Sarah Lawrence—addictive, I still think of the letters in the name of the college formed from lines of cocaine. She described her broken engagement—charming, crazy kid stuff. She described her health—grim, despite all appearances. She described her family—Tenenbaumian, with at least one autistic-genius brother and a figure skating mother.

The best thing about writing poems and having long one-on-one conversation is that you really get to stare at something. At a reading earlier in the week, our director Liam Rector ended his poem “Song Years” with the words, “the cruelty of it overwhelmed me.” I could take the conspiratorial shape of her eyebrows, the directness of her tiger’s-eye colored eyes (perhaps—I’m notoriously bad at remembering eye color) and the vicious white of her teeth. But the pink definition of the bow of her upper lip is just cruel.

In the second hour of the conversation I noticed R starting to throw out some subtle signals: “I knew the next person I’d fall in love with would have long hair.” I looked over my shoulder.

I remember the negotiation was tense as to whether we could kiss. I’ll eat lunch with whomever but I’m no pushover when it comes to making out with beautiful women—you can’t just force me into it. I demurred, as one sometimes does when one’s intuition and one’s pants are pointing in opposite directions.  Only after more compelling arguments were made did I solemnly agree we would make out. But certainly not until after I’d brushed my teeth. The hard water out of the tap.

I smelled of whitening toothpaste and deodorant (I had reapplied and made a joke of transferring some from my underarms to hers). R smelled like the whole day. We walked from my building to hers (the smokers dorm!), which overlooked something called (and I’m not making this up) the End of the World. We had to go there because her room had “a real bed”—that is, one with a grownup, non-plastic mattress. We slapped at late night mosquitoes and sometimes our hands trailed behind resolute shoulders long enough to bank into each other.

Here’s the part you won’t believe. Her room was lousy with fireflies. She’d left the window open and the screen was mostly holes and there were green streaks all around. I’m not even sure the room had a light. We took laughing hold of as many bugs as we could, insect bodies bumping gently into our closed fingers as we threw them into the hallway, where they mostly wandered back while we went for more. There were always more. Fireflies are very stupid creatures.

R hadn’t lied—her bed was a real bed. The first residency you don’t know to bring your own sheets so your skin suffers the low thread counts you’d expect from a down at heels mental institution. The sheets were one of several excuses I used to explain the fact that I couldn’t stop shivering. I feared I was revealing a lack of worldly experience because, even in the dead of night, it couldn’t have been less than 80 degrees out.

R’s blue-striped halter-top, paired with rather surprising leopard print knickers, and the onslaught of oxygen-stealing kisses didn’t help me regulate my breathing. I was embarrassed in an undershirt and disintegrating gym shorts. These were my younger and more vulnerable years—picture Linus and his blankie.

The lucky thing is that people who are great at something can help others to raise their game. “Mmm, you’re fun to kiss.” There were further requests and not a few close calls but I preserved in maintaining my honor. I even, unconscionably, slept for an hour or two.

R was up early for a workshop (we were here to become writers?) and I walked the dewy path back home. Waiting for the shower water to warm I contemplated myself in a pained, baked-contact gaze: raccoon eyes, suffering skin, and disastrously puffy hair (my god the humidity!)—I had forgotten I looked like that.

I’d brought Tender Is the Night for comfort reading and picked it up to forget for a while longer. The best is young Dick and Nicole, so in love, staring off the sanitarium verandah at those Swiss cities below, braceleted in white light. Never to be seen again.

09 June 2011

Best Friends' Weddings

I'm one of the world's biggest (admitted) fans of the 1997 Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend's Wedding, which makes it less surprising that I reflected on the film fondly while watching Kirsten Wiig star in Bridesmaids. The most obvious connection is at the end, when our lavender-garbed heroines come to terms with losing their best friends to their best friends' spouses. Whether it's the dashing Rupert Everett or the doofy Chris O'Dowd, said heroines are then consoled by someone with an accent originating in the UK. And, given the frequency of glittering helicopter shots, Bridesmaids' Milwaukee is almost as glamorous as MBFW's Chicago.

Otherwise, it's surprising how much successful Hollywood comedies have changed in the last 14 summers, starting with the stars themselves. MBFW is cast in the classic structure: romantic leads (megastar Roberts and rom-com stalwart Dermot Mulroney) and supporting characters (up-and-coming Cameron Diaz and suave homosexual Rupert Everett). Bridesmaids, however, follows the Apatow-Phillips ensemble-casting-over-top-line-star formula with Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kamper and, to an extent, Rose Byrne recognizable first as television actors. Though Wiig co-wrote the film and appears in almost every frame, I could almost as easily imagine any of the aforementioned women as leads.

IMDB says Bridesmaids is only 20 minutes longer than MBFW but it felt much longer to me. Roberts is locked safely in a decades-old formula, with each sequence (slapstick, musical, dramatic) tied up in a bow and cut. Wiig's film is unrulier, with higher quantities of both madcap and slack scenes. We don't just have the suggestion of gastrointestinal distress, we have characters vomiting on the heads of characters who are vomiting, a woman shitting in the sink, a woman shitting herself in the street in a wedding dress. (This necessitates a fashion tangent: one thing I always notice in MBFW is Julia's anachronistic high-waisted black jeans. 1997 must have been about the last moment you could get away with wearing such a cut without appearing deliberately unfashionable. They're something closer to what McCarthy wears in Bridesmaids.)

For me the most gripping moment in Bridesmaids is a downbeat scene the morning after Wiig's character hooks up with O'Dowd's cop for the first time. She wakes up to find he's purchased a ton of kitchen equipment so she can bake for him all day. We're meant to think this is a sweet idea that she can't get into it because of her commitment issues but it seemed to me like a fucked up, "get in the kitchen!" moment. She's justified in rejecting his offer regardless of the "baggage" from her previous failed baking venture (ruthless Wisconsinite graffiti artists changed the Cake Baby moniker on her closed shop to "Cock Baby").

But, even more than dick jokes, the Apatow-Phillips era is defined by lines are often improvised or appear to be improvisational. Bridesmaids peaks on the girls' airplane trip when Wiig gives her inspired, zonked out riff on the snottiness of more or less everyone on board, from friends to flight attendants. My favorite line in the film is probably Rose Byrne dripping (from her first class seat) that there's more "sense of community" in coach. The fakery required for everyday socializing is then delightfully eviscerated each time Wiig emerges through the curtain to first class. Roberts does any number of deplorable things in MBFW but she would never allow herself to be so big a mess. Our comedies grow untidier by the day.

25 May 2011

What the Eyes See in Black Narcissus

Thanks to SIFF I was able to get a-twitter about all those Powell & Pressburger closeups that allowed me lengthy gazes into the eyes of each character in Black Narcissus.

It struck me as an even better film on the big screen, as the human portraits proved just as vivid as the matte painting vistas of the Himalayas (contained entirely in Buckinghamshire's Pinewood Studios).

Because these things never really interest me in films, I'll set aside whether the film is really a commentary on the failings of colonialism or the triumph of misogyny or consequences of big game hunting (Sabu's snow leopard coat!). Just as they do with art itself in The Red Shoes, Powell & Pressburger employ Black Narcissus as a metaphor for the overwhelming power of memory.

We see Deborah Kerr (before she was Sister Clodagh) fishing in an impossibly beautiful jewel of a lake in Ireland and hear Sister Phillipa (her hands covered with callouses) movingly explain how she has to get away from Mopu's vistas before she loses her sanity.

The problem for the nuns, stuck up in the high winds and crystal skies, is not a loss of faith. It's that the setting makes their clarity of vision, their remembrances of things past, too sharp to bear--deep focus stares search the horizon for things that will never appear again.

21 May 2011

A Review in Verse for Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog's Love Letters (in 3D)

There is not art tonight
But that of memory.
Yet how much room for painting there is
In the tight passages of Chauvet cave.

There is even room enough
For the drawings of my forefather's forefathers,
32,000 years ago,
That have been locked so long
In a slide-sealed limestone cliff
That are etch-edged and fresh,
And liable to shock as Pollock.

Over the great carpet of calcite crystal
Steps of cave man and cave bear.
It is all lit by invisible red flames.
It trembles as rhino limbs rushing through time.

And I ask myself:

“Are your eyes strong enough to bear
these species that are but echoes:
Is this camera strong enough
To carry a wild horse back to its source
And back to us again
Belted over with stars?”

Yet I would lead my grandson by the hand
Through millennia we'll never understand;
And so I stumble. And the crystals drip into stalactites
With such a silence of forgotten dreams.


(All apologies to Hart Crane, both for this poem and for the existence of James Franco.)

16 May 2011

2011 SIFF Preview

SIFF 2011 is here and I've frustratedly skimmed the web and print editions of the calendar to find the gems. SIFF.com has an excellently named but, for me, unhelpful tool called SIFFter to wade through the 422ish films showing this year.

#1 category SIFFter needs to add: "This film is by a legitimate director who you should probably care about and not just by some dude." I need to press that button and get 25 or so results. When I try to sort that way myself I get about eight. And don't think that category is an absurd comparison to those actually used in SIFFter. There's one called "Love Me, Do!" and I want to know why not "Love Me, Do Me!"

But I would hate for the complaints to run longer than the actual preview! So.

Alluring film NOT showing at SIFF:

The Tree of Life. Damn you Cannes Film Festival. The Thunder to our Sonics yet again.

Alluring films showing at SIFF:

Submarine. Good-looking teen romance, 97-minute Belle & Sebastian video, both? Dig the Godard fonts and color palette anyway. (MAY 20 or 22)

The Trip. You've seen the Coogan-Brydon Michael Caine Accent-Off, right? A whole film of that! I'm not a Winterbottom fan but it seems unlikely he can fuck this one up as profoundly as he did The Killer Inside Me. (MAY 21)

Black Narcissus. Not new (probably showing as a nod to the doc Cameraman screening at the fest) but it's Powell & Pressburger at a literal high point in their careers casting Sister Clodagh into the Himalayas with the wind freeing everyone from their sanity. Perhaps my favorite setting for any film and featuring not only Deborah Kerr at her least annoying but also an absolutely ridiculous Jean Simmons as an Indian strumpet. (MAY 21)

Beginners. I don't really want to see this film (subtitled dog alert!) but you should watch the trailer because Christopher Plummer has the same reaction my mom did when first exposed to house music. It's unclear whether he too will go on to refer to it exclusively as "home music." (MAY 24)

Steam of Life. You might think I want to see a bunch of naked Finns because I have a longstanding secret crush on Teemu Selanne. But you'd be wrong--I just love saunaing! I hope that, like the trailer, there are no subtitles so the philosophizing doesn't obscure all that Finnish junk. (MAY 25 or 26)

Mysteries of Lisbon. This will require some bravery (it's four hours long and the screening costs $16) but I do love me some long movies. Raul Ruiz cinema is so Proustian that he directed Marcel Proust's Time Regained (and I really enjoyed the parts I saw while awake!). I'm impressed by the swooning and hauteur of the trailer but Mysteries would really be can't-miss if someone promised a Cristiano Ronaldo cameo. (MAY 28)

The Interrupters. This is an easy sell--a new documentary by the maker of Hoop Dreams. I'm only worried because each subsequent viewing of Hoop Dreams has left me more depressed and the first adjective used to describe this exploration of Chicago's gang violence is "heartbreaking." (MAY 28 or 29)

On Tour. WTT's favorite non-Gosling actor, Mathieu Amalric, directs this film about a traveling burlesque show and...who cares? Mathieu Amalric=must see. (JUNE 9 or 11)

Norwegian Wood. Tran Anh Hung is one of those legit directors. The Scent of Green Papaya won loads of those Frenchie awards in '93 and Cyclo is a personal favorite because it felt like '60s Godard scored by Radiohead. And OMG it's from a Haruki Murakami book! Gonna be a Seattle scene for sure. (JUNE 11 or 12)


Any local followers (or luminaries flying in for SIFF!) are encouraged to check these out with WTT--I'm very good at standing in line while holding an umbrella and thinking of unflattering things to tweet.

15 May 2011

Throw the Dice

Mostly I read things because smart people compel me. My happy visit with Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband comes from a post by Katherine Hill.

But, in a larger sense, I like to think I also read things because they reconcile irreconcilable parts of my life. This morning The Beauty of the Husband has also done that.

I still find Carson's Autobiography of Red more affecting overall than TBOTH (perhaps it's worth noting that, biographically speaking, I'm more familiar with mythic unrequited redness than the truthful complications of marriage) but, thanks to a recent viewing of Bright Star, I had better occasion to gasp at this Keats-centric book.

The reminder of why I read poetry came in the book's 22nd tango, "Homo Ludens." Carson's plainspoken thunderbolt:

If a husband throws the dice of his beauty one last time, who is to blame?

For years I've tried to wrap my head around seemingly illogical romantic leaps made by family, friends, exes, etc. and I've never known how to put it until reading that line. They're throwing the dice of their beauty and, finally seeing that, I can draw a fresh breath. I've always enjoyed watching craps anyway.

(Next week I hope WTT will return to the cinema. But, after all, May is National Poetry Month, right?)

09 May 2011

Unpublishable Poetry: Turquoise & Silver

Turquoise & Silver

I needed her to leave so I could see
weather-ringed eyes in morning or evening
riveted fingertips that find the seams the cotton
snarl over her sun-spiced hip her chest piece

phoenix raised by needles and madness to match
fingers of smoke and motorcycle choke clutching
a tomahawk rosary chain chinked from her teeth
a smile going away up one side of her mouth

I was young and allowed my imagination
these malignancies strung across her brain
as real as a turquoise-collared tank top
the summer storm she’s always been running

us down the blue mess of our wrists banked together
semiprecious stones veined with cigarette ash
she’s lasering off the wings and I go with them
to listen to the silver sound of keys erasing

my mistakes my rages meteorological
I’ll never see her restored
skin dimpled as mail a mainline wedding
invitation its envelope licked and postmarked blue.

25 April 2011

My Life Last Night

Last night it occurred to me that my life is just like Sam Worthington's. Not like his life in Avatard (because I'm not in a wheel chair, obvs.) but more like in Last Night. I roll home to my apartment and all of its expensive faucets and focus on finding a free outlet to charge my cell phone. But my wife, Keira Knightley, is in kind of a foul mood and has stripped down to a rather combative white tank top. Regrettably, I make an exacerbating comment about the deleterious effect a third glass of wine has on the missus (that one never works). She re-tousles her hair in frustration and questions whether we should be married at all.

Keira (in my head I always over-enunciate it: "Keyyy-raaahhh") is one of those blocked writer types always letting the ash grow too long on her cigarette (which she's not supposed to be smoking!) and layering more clothes over her spindly frame. Maybe she can't write because she finds herself trapped in Massy Tadjedian's Last Night instead of the "Last Night" of a far better author, James Salter. And, just in case Keira isn't self-conscious enough, her leonine French "friend" arrives to ask her at least three times, "but whyyy aren't you wriiiting?" To be fair, there's a moment at the end of Last Night when Keira forces out a surprise tear that made me gasp and say aloud, "that was good," as it slid down her cheek. I couldn't tell if she was acting.

But Sam Worthington-Me has his own problems. I want to be faithful to my wife Keira even though she overindulges in spirituous beverages but there's the problem of my coworker, Eva Mendes. She's physically attractive in a totally different way than Keira. We go on a business trip to Philadelphia and while some boring guy does all the work with the clients we flutter our eyelashes at each other. We share a long scene in a well-lighted bar that resembles the best sequence in Out of Sight except not quite as good. I'm all alone in a hotel pool with a hot Latina--her perfectly calibrated backstory of heartbreak, her damp underthings. What can I do?

And what can I tell Keira, if anything? Maybe we'll just rent Out of Sight (do they have DVD rental shops in SoHo?) so she can learn something about editing and I can learn something about chemistry.

14 April 2011

Joe Wright's Gift

Is Joe Wright the best director we have for first acts? If you sat down for only a half hour of Atonement or Hanna you'd think you were in for a masterpiece (WTT will give Wright a break and pretend The Soloist never happened).

His self-possessed little friend Saoirse Ronan (the catalyst Briony in Atonement) certainly helps Wright engage an audience. And Hanna, this quaint parable on the pleasures and perils of homeschooling, is refreshingly kinetic from its blood red opening credits.

The first 30 minutes overflow with memorable detail. An Andy Goldsworthy-worthy shot of ice floes in the shape of an eye. A close view of Hanna's painfully chapped lips. The contrast between Hanna and her father (Eric Bana, doing his best to play a badass Erik with a K) target-practicing antlers in the forest and antagonist Marissa Viegler (Cate Blanchett) vigorously employing electric dental tools before the wooded wallpaper in her mod apartment.

In her first brush with civilization, a shocking bit of violence (and its resulting spray) gains Hanna some very tastefully done blood freckles. As she continues her escape, the rock'n'roll Chemical Brothers score kicks in and the camera slides 360 degrees around black site tunnels.

Popping up through an unexpected manhole cover, Hanna still matches the landscape, her snow white furs exchanged for desert orange prison scrubs. She meets a charming young lady from England who immediately compares the speechless Hanna to M.I.A. and asks if she's from Sri Lanka too. The film's first misstep follows: a heavy-handed sequence in a Moroccan flophouse where Hanna is overwhelmed by an electric teapot, a fluorescent light and a television. That is to say: MODERNITY.

And then...increasingly confused plot points, unmotivated characters (e.g. German Tom Hollander wearing eyeliner), and an orgy of sub-Bourne chase scenes (we're living in a Paul Greengrass world, might as well accept it).

They say Hanna might be a franchise but I think Wright's next picture should be the start of three more projects, presented at once.

31 March 2011

Three Times: Jane Eyre (2011)

Three introductory statements on my ignorance of Jane Eyre:

1. I haven't read the book because I'm not a girl (j/k!). I read Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea instead of Jane Eyre because presently American universities are overrun with post-colonialists (not j/k!). Nor had I seen any film adaptations (though now I kind of need to see Orson Welles go ham as Rochester). But what I enjoy about Jane Eyre, and seemingly all British classics, is that they're stories of captivity. Come to terms with it or die trying to escape. 

2. Charlotte Bronte's language is delightful. My favorite lines regard Jane's drawings, her "accomplishments," of which she says, "I'll save them until they're wanted." Ah, to believe that. And how could I have lived this long without hearing the heartbreaking way Jane asks of Rochester's proposal, "are you mocking me?"

3. There's a nice physicality to the piece, beginning with the way young Jane is whacked across the face with a heavy volume on birds. That's literature as I like it: concussive. 

Three helpings of praise for the lead actors:

1. My crush on Michael Fassbender is well-documented. In Jane Eyre, he has to hold back on his smolder a bit. To emphasize the fact that he's supposed to be a somewhat ugly, director Cary Fukunaga's camera backs away and Rochester recedes into dark corners. Though I was able to purr a bit at the cuddly red brocade robe he wore when locking his wife back up in the attic.

2. I've missed the films that have brought Mia Wasikowska to this stage but she's good as Jane. The series of poorly fitted dresses that droop around her shoulders help accentuate the sturdy neck into which her chin is often pointed. Wasikowska's best moments come when Jane checks herself for a moment before saying something really vicious. The scornful looks shot over teacup brims from her brown eyes are savory indeed.

3. Fassbender and Wasikowska together are able to remain coltish while falling for each other. "All governesses have a tale of woe," and "beauty is of no consequence," and "you transfix me quite," etc, etc. I got all the way to the end of the film wondering if they might hate each other just as easily as love each other. So the actors accomplished their main objective.

Three unfortunately curtailed sequences in Jane Eyre:

1. As a filmgoer, I like to linger but Fukunaga seemed to lack the trust to hold shots long enough. Right from the start he sets the camera casting after Jane as she flees over the moors. Just as I was starting to enjoy the way her blue and grey plaid matched the rain and rock, she's whisked away to safety. Fukunaga doesn't have to be Reygadas but I'd encourage him to move more deliberately through his set pieces.

2. At the height of Rochester and Jane's romance, the film moves outside on a day with a bit of actual sunlight. It's a sequence reminiscent of Pocahontas out of pocket amidst the topiary in The New World but without Malick's intuitive brilliance. Fukunaga has the lyricism but not the poetry.

3. After Jane leaves Thornfield and settles into even greater isolation, there's shot of her one room schoolhouse being snowed under. How sad that it lasts about three seconds--the mounting powder could have worked as the best symbol in the whole film. It's a wild, wild shot but gone before you can really see it.

Three reasons to be hopeful for the career of Cary Fukunaga:

1. He's excellent in the small details. After we see Bertha Mason locked in her attic framed with thick cobwebs, there's a quick cut to Jane rapidly unraveling the ties to the dress she wore for her aborted wedding. I also admire an earlier shot where a young girl's hair caught is incidentally caught in a bouquet of flowers--it helps underline the naturalism of this retelling.

2. Fukunaga gives a rack focusing master course for the sequence when Rochester throws a party for his rich neighbors and forces Jane to sit with them. Thanks to busy lensing, the two classes are never seen in focus at the same time. Jane is forever separate and we practically hear her resentment hissing.

3. I don't know many non-horror films with such an emphasis on the skin of its characters. Exploring some black passage of Thornfield, Jane comes across a portrait of a nude figure and brings her candle all the way up to the oil, showing darker layers of paint under the pink outer flesh. Especially in shots of Judi Dench and Fassbender by the hearth, the flickering light plays on their sallowness in a most unflattering way. Fukunaga thoroughly examines even the porcelain countenance of Jane, ready to expose any flaw.

23 March 2011

Inspired Pairings: Enter the Void and "All of the Lights"

The first two minutes of Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void:

Hype Williams' "All of the Lights" music video:

I love the idea that Hype and Kanye went to an independent movie theater to watch Enter the Void together and came out with the idea for their font orgy music video (did they perhaps share a bag of Sour Patch Kids?). I find it a much better piece of work than Kanye's more celebrated "Runaway" "film" (for which Mr. Williams served as a "writer") but that's probably just my prejudice against the depiction of white slaves. It's amusing to consider that Mr. Williams is perhaps even more adventurous than Noe with the overlay and movement of his titles.

As shown by the YouTube comments for the Enter the Void sequence, there's considerable cross-pollination between Kanye and Noe fans here, which I find artistically encouraging (as we must always try to move into aesthetic concerns beyond Rihanna's own inspired pairing).

14 March 2011

Anxiety and The Adjustment Bureau

I attacked Inception because the dreams that comprise the film were directed by Michael Bay, not by you or me. I laughed again at Hollywood's inability to capture nightmares. So I was shocked into real anxiety by how closely the events in George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau match the twists of my own recurring dreams.

Without getting too far into the film's deeply silly plot, suffice to say: senatorial candidate David Norris (Matt Damon, still running all over the place but in less comfortable shoes than he wears in the Bourne franchise) wants to be with Elise (Emily Blunt) but is thwarted at every turn by fedora'd "angels" (for lack of a better word) who insist that she is not part of his preordained life plan.

In The Adjustment Bureau and my dream, you're trying to find someone. You're late. You're lost. You start running. Dangerous obstacles get in your way (cars crash violently on a street you're about to cross, the floor falls away and there's a vertiginous drop right in front of you). You go through doors, find you're in the wrong place, go back out the door and find yourself in a third location, also wrong. You're panting, frantic, hopeless. Naturally, things work out better for David in the film than for me in my dream, perhaps because my sense of direction is so bad (and I'm never wearing a magical hat that gives me superpowers).

David eventually gets a little help from the angels, and this is the rub with The Adjustment Bureau. He learns, for instance, that the angels can't read his thoughts when it's rainy (David Denby joked that the protagonists should have just moved to Seattle (the joke is especially apt now, in March, the wrist-slittingest month of all, weather-wise)). Anthony Mackie (as Harry) and John Slattery (as Richardson) give cool enough performances but their constant presence necessitates too many laughable lines of shouted, angel-related dialogue: "You've hit your ripple limit!" or "Anyone in a hat is a threat!" Plus the library where all the angels hang out is not as architecturally appealing as the one in Wings of Desire. The angelic exception is Thompson, played Terence Stamp (check his A-MA-ZING scarf with complementary patterns on either side) who flexes real power and menace.

I know that for big studio producers Philip K. Dick stories=good movies but I would have moved this film in a different direction (and, from what I've read, the Dick story "Adjustment Team" differs substantially  from the movie version). The narrative tension suffers because we know in the first 15 minutes that David is fighting against a huge conspiracy and will do so for the rest of the film. I would have allowed room for the idea that the angels are just part of David's paranoid personality, part of the larger understanding many people have that our whole lives are being controlled by a shadowy god and/or government.

I'd also like to see Matt Damon and Emily Blunt star in another film, perhaps one in which they aren't being harassed by malevolent angels the whole time. There's too many Damon and dude conversations and not enough Damon and Blunt--unlike 95% of Hollywood films this millennium, these two romantic leads actually seem like they want to have sex with each other. And that's why The Adjustment Bureau is worthy of netflixing.

11 March 2011

In Love for the Mood of In the Mood for Love (or Something)

I'd recommend Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love anywhere, any time, from iPhones to plasma TVs meters across but, after seeing it in theater last week, I recommend it most of all on film stock. In cinema I prefer the love in my comedies to be requited and love in my dramas to be unrequited. ITMFL, with the so-quiet-it's-almost-nonexistent courtship between Chow (Tony Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung), falls in the second category.

Another way to summarize the film, from my other great discovery of the week: movie barcodes.

That white stripe in the middle is a fade out we see after an image that captures the incredible layering and precision of WKW's art. In this viewing, I noticed for the first time the complexity of the shot where Maggie Cheung centers the frame in her least densely patterned dress of the film: a daffodil print. She stands looking out a window fringed with foliage, next to floral curtains and in front of a sofa emblazoned with leaves. On her glass: more painted flowers. Floating at the bottom of her beverage: tea leaves. WKW's vision is total--he's left nothing out.

I paired my viewing of the film with Ming Wong's "In Love for the Mood" video installation at the Frye Museum. I can't pretend to unravel all the levels of meta- at work but to take a stab: Ming's piece is a multi-language, single gender reenactment by a white actress of a scene from ITMFL in which Chow and Su Li-zhen are not being themselves but are instead pretending to play the roles of their own unfaithful spouses. Postmodern confusion aside, it was fascinating to be in a room with the installation looping on three flatscreens with languages echoing around from surround sound speakers.

In more ways than the title, Ming's video loops seem an inversion of WKW's film. Rather like Godard's hidden earpiece technique with Anna Karina, Ming gives the actress her lines as she's speaking and her phonetic pronunciations are full of mistakes. Whereas Su Li-zhen breaks off speaking because of emotional devastation, the actress in the Ming's piece breaks off and giggles because she doesn't speak Cantonese. Despite precisely recreating the visuals of a scene from In the Mood for Love, "In Love for the Mood" feels offhand, less serious. WKW is notorious for the number of takes he requires, demanding that his actors' voices match an exact cadence he has in mind. Perhaps Ming's "first rehearsal" art reveals some of the sweat that's required to make WKW's frictionless celluloid machines.

28 February 2011

Forget the Oscars, Let's Dance

Last night I watched James Franco with a grimace then a smile as he deep sixed his status as Hollywood's It Boy.  All the while I was thinking: by god, there's not enough dancing at the Oscars this year.
This is probably because I'd just enjoyed two recent films that prove closing with a dance number can be a brilliant gambit. (Close confidants already know I have a soft spot for this guilty pleasure.)
But in the current cinema, check out Giorgos Lanthimos' excellent climax to Dogtooth:

Like many of the emotionally deadpan sequences in the film, this starts out tittering and finishes sinister. And that's before the next scene, in which the older daughter (the sister who dances longer) uses a barbell for something other than its intended purpose. The static long shots emphasize the way the camera (and the viewer) can't seem to turn away from the bizarre machinations of this family.

Next we have Andrea Arnold and her (I'm using this word in all honesty) breathtaking finale to Fish Tank:
Here's two more sisters that need to get out of dodge. Mia, in her standard monochromatic clothes, centers the screen and is brought for the last time between her colorful mother and younger sister. It's rather silly to post it in this space, of course, with no other context from the film. But you must see it or see it again--Fish Tank is The 400 Blows in our time.

22 February 2011

Have You Seen...? #3 (The Last Days of Disco)

If you haven't already, see Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco for the beautiful title alone. The rocking tonic of it puts you at ease straight away. And Stillman is never less than at ease (be sure you see Metropolitan too), somewhere in between the delirious romantic comedies of the 30's and self-contained worlds of Wes Anderson.

I'm a pretty even mix of prudish and voyeuristic impulses so The Last Days of Disco gives me an ideal heroine: Alice (Chloe Sevigny). With her new best friend she embarks on a life as a slush pile reader for a stodgy publishing company, unhappy shotgun apartment resident and devotee of a Studio 54 stand-in referred to only as The Club. In the course of the film Alice becomes increasingly disillusioned but never less than demure. You'll be beguiled by Ms. Sevigny's beauty and try hard to push from your mind the overwhelming image (from Brown Bunny) of Vincent Gallo's semen trickling out the sides of her mouth.

The great regret of the film is that Alice's catty friend Charlotte is played by Kate Beckinsale and not Parker Posey. I picture her in filtered images like the one above, where you can squint and imagine the star of The House of Yes. For advanced viewers, familiar enough with the cadence of her voice that hearing it is second nature, turn down the volume and imagine that Ms. Posey is delivering Charlotte's hard-edged words under those dark forelocks (e.g. "Anything I did that was wrong, I apologize for. But anything I did that was not wrong, I don't apologize for.").

All of Alice and Charlotte's potential mates are cads, but the most extreme is Des, (Chris Eigeman, not seen nearly enough), the consistent Oscar Wilde figure in Stillman's work. All his lines feel clever and offhand, such as, "I'm going to turn over a new leaf in Spain. I'm going to turn over several new leaves," but Des is always sucked back into his nebulous job at the Club. There he runs into various exes, who are upset when they learn that he's not gay after all (Des' game is to break up with women by claiming he's just realized his homosexuality).

I appreciate Stillman most for employing heightened, well-enunciated dialogue that is disarming, perhaps not strictly believable, but actual good writing. As opposed to the mumbling "authenticity" of a certain genre of indie cinema at present, the forces that have conspired to present us Greta Gerwig as a star.

I firmly believe that The Lady and the Tramp debate scene, a close cousin to the Smurfs sequence in Donnie Darko, should be canonized. Des' somewhat less caddish lawyer pal Josh (Matt Keeslar) holds forth on the hidden meanings of the animated canines. A taste:

There is something depressing about it, and it's not really about dogs. Except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types, which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond Cocker Spaniel with absolutely nothing on her brain. She's great-looking, but--let's be honest--incredibly insipid. Tramp, the love interest, is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind--an oily jailbird out for a piece of tail, or... whatever he can get.

Precisely! I knew there was a reason I never liked that Disney offering.

I figured I hadn't seen a Whit Stillman film since The Last Days of Disco because of my general ignorance but it turns out I haven't seen a new Stillman film because he hasn't made one in 13 years. IMDb says he's filming a certain Damsels in Distress right now but, unconscionably, without Chris Eigeman.

Still, The Last Days of Disco lingers with the recursivity of the dance floor--Alice's everlasting shyness, looking away as her arms go up. The camera stays in a long shot, showing the community of dancers, not just the stars. And, as proven by countless wedding parties, the sweetly schizophrenic Josh is right: disco is forever.

19 February 2011

My Life Story as Written by Walker Percy in The Moviegoer

I'm only on page 3 but this is relevant to my interests:

  After the movie Linda and I stood under the marquee and talked to the manager, or rather listened to him tell his troubles: the theater was almost empty, which was pleasant for me but not for him. It was a fine night and I felt good. Overhead was the blackest sky I ever saw; a black wind pushed the lake towards us. The waves jumped over the seawall and spattered the street. The manager had to yell to be heard while from the sidewalk speaker directly over his head came the twittering conversation of the amnesiac and the librarian. It was the part where they are going through the newspaper files in search of some clue to his identity (he has a vague recollection of an accident). Linda stood by unhappily. She was unhappy for the same reason I was happy--because here we were at a neighborhood theater out in the sticks and without a car (I have a car but I prefer to ride buses and streetcars). Her idea of happiness is to drive downtown and have supper at the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel. This I am obliged to do from time to time. It is worth it, however. On these occasions Linda becomes as exalted as I am now. Her eyes glow, her lips become moist, and when we dance she brushes her fine long legs against mine. She actually loves me at these times--and not as a reward for being taken to the Blue Room. She loves me because she feels exalted in this romantic place and not in a movie out in the sticks.

Except I would have driven, naturally.