.............................................................TRAPPED INSIDE A WORLD UNDER LEAGUES OF OCEAN........................................................

Thursday, December 29, 2011

now reading: the glamour of the snow

one of my favourite tales from algernon blackwood, and one i felt like revisiting this afternoon when finally we got our first dusting of snow, a thin layer that will be gone by morning.  nothing like reading it from the book, but if you don't have it handy, you can read it here.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

freedom rides: creature skateboards halloween

i love this so much. true to my contrarian nature, it's not very "seasonally appropriate", but fuck it - everyday is halloween in the coelacanth's lair. enjoy.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

movies: my dinner with andre (1981)

Dir: Louis Malle
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory

You must excuse my ignorance, but I had never, up until this evening, seen this fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking, and ultimately life-affirming film. I feel like I'm a late-comer to the party, especially since this movie has been out on DVD for quite some time (although out of print until recently, and fetching exorbitant and altogether ridiculous sums on Amazon and Ebay).

While watching this wonderful film, I was thinking of the horror of trying to recommend this to the average customer. Yes, indeed, a one hour and 40 minute film almost solely comprised of two men at a dinner table talking about life seems like a tough sell. At the same time, I thought of several people in my life, quite close to me - though in different ways - to whom I felt I needed to recommend this, if they hadn't seen it already. Try to watch it - you'll either be bored out of your skull after the first 10 minutes or completely hypnotized. And if you're one of the latter, I'd like to think I can count you as a friend. The incredibly sly, but unobtrusive way director Louis Malle frames the entire film is a marvel.

The recent Criterion re-issue is superb with a second disc of lengthy interviews with principles Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory nearly 30 years on. Really, I cannot stress how much of a revelation this film was to me, and when Wallace Shawn's lips offer forth the word "inconceivable" at the 3/4 mark, a disbelieving smile came to my face, and my mind was truly blown. This will remain on my Film Buff East staff picks shelf for quite some time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

movies: stake land (2010)

Dir: Jim Mickle
Cast: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis

Jim Mickle's Stake Land shows us an America perhaps in the not-too-distant future wherein vampires have begun to dominate, and society has essentially been splintered into small bands of survivors, with two clear cut camps: religious fundamentalists and the sane.  In these days of Tea Party hysteria, this is all too uncomfortably familiar.  More a road movie than a vamp flick, Stake Land reveals that, in an age of fanaticism and intolerance, vampires are the least of our worries.

The story has a man ("Mister") and a boy ("Martin")joining forces in order to get to a safe haven in the north known as New Eden.  However, it is unclear if this refuge will even provide solace, as the boy is warned by a store clerk that they'll need to watch out for the cannibals one they arrive there.  Along the way, Mister and Martin pick up a ragtag band of survivors, whose only link is that they share a respect for human life regardless of race or creed.

All of the actors, to a person, do a fantastic job of creating realistic characterizations out of what could very easily have been caricatures.  Kelly McGillis' nun, "Sister", is particularly affecting, for even though she wears the cloth, she is not so lost in fundamentalist beliefs or irrationality to realize survival trumps all when belief and urgent pragmatism clash.  Nick Damici, who wrote the script for Stake Land (as well as Mickle's previous film, the wonderfully grimy and similarly humane Mulberry Street), plays Mister, a brooding antihero who softens over the course of the film, and becomes more and more compassionate, learning that looking out for number one may keep you alive, but it will ultimately have the more damaging effect of total alienation.  Martin doesn't have much to say, but provides the voice-over narration that nudges the story along at an easy pace.  Sean Nelson, Bonnie Dennison, Danielle Harris, and especially Michael Cerveris as Jebedia Loven, the personification of the idea of Christian Fundamentalism taken to a terrifying extreme, all contribute solid work in slightly smaller roles.

The pacing of the film needs mention, as it is neither fast nor slow, but sort of flows like a languid river, free and easy, never slowing or hastening, and always staying the course.  The whole thing felt very natural, very real, and even tangents in the plot acted more like swirling eddies rather than highway off-ramps, deviating for a brief moment of pause before once more giving in to the pull of the water.  In fact the whole film has a very naturalistic feel.  Kris mentioned before the film that he had been speaking with one of the MM programmers and was told that Stake Land was like if Terrence Malick had shot a vampire film.  That idea stuck in my mind as I watched the film, and it is not a poor description at all.  Shades of Malick, David Gordon Green's earlier work (man, what happened to him?), Lance Hammer's Ballast, and, to come full-circle, fellow Glass Eye Pix alum Kelly Reichardt's naturalistic films.  In particular, I saw similarities between Stake Land's characters and the small, touching and very human interactions in Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy.  Pretty deep stuff for just another "vampire" movie.

But that's just the thing - much like Glass Eye Pix founder, Stake Land producer, and renaissance man extraordinaire Larry Fessenden's own Habit, Stake Land is really a vampire film in name only, using the vampires as a vehicle to deliver a more important message, a message that perhaps would be criticized as being ham-fisted if it had been wedged into a traditional drama.  However, that is an area where horror excels - because of the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoying the films, an urgent message can be the driving force of a film and not come across as forced.

The camera work is stunning in Stake Land, and for every gory money shot, Ryan Samul's camera lingers over wintry landscapes, reeds, rushes, trees, streams.  There is a very familiar sense to these landscapes, the purple and blue hills of the Catskills and beyond, not only because I've traveled through them, but because the frosty woods and icy brooks mirror our very own landscape.  This familiarization of the setting helps convey the message, but I don't think it would isolate viewers from a different geographical region, though it might make the film a slightly less personal experience. 

Jeff Grace contributes a compelling score that draws as much from symphonic work as it does from early Americana and Smithsonian Folkways recordings.  In the Q&A after a screening of the film, Mickle spoke of how the score moved backward in time, almost as if the characters were heading back into pioneer days, evoking old ghosts and decaying dreams.  In fact, the film felt very much like we were witnessing a societal de-evolution, a return to primal needs and fears, where survival is not a right, but a privilege, and the score at times reinforces this idea, and at times juxtaposes it, all to great effect.    The score acts almost like another narrative device, in the same way that the camera, the narration, and the plot all have us floating down the river at the same pace.  The way that all these elements seamlessly mesh and play off each other is nothing short of cinematic excellence, and really showcases the power and importance of the "director".

Back to Malick - Mickle mentioned in the Q&A that he was heavily influenced by Days of Heaven while shooting Stake Land, and it shows.  From the child-like voice-over narration, the score and the naturalistic cinematography - even the small group on the run - Days of Heaven is prevalent here.  Which, I suppose, is why Stake Land comes off less like its similarly-themed but completely different feeling contemporaneous celluloid peers Zombieland and The Road, and more like, well, a really good film, a piece of cinema rather than just a movie.  Stake Land, while having the potential to be overly sensationalistic, is expertly helmed by Mickle and the fine production touches by the Glass Eye Pix crew bring it all home.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

movies: an occurrence at owl creek bridge (1962)

Dir: Robert Enrico
Cast: Roger Jacquet, Anne Cornaly

Filmed in France in 1962, the look of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (La riviere du hibou) is more akin to that of a D.W. Griffith effort. In fact, knowing nothing of the film beforehand, I was under the impression that it was the product of early American cinema. However, once the movie began, I began to notice some very strange camera techniques. The use of sound in bizarre ways completes the surreal feel of the film. Then there is the repeating theme, "Living Man", which punctuates the absurdly tragic outcome of the prisoner.  But let's start from the beginning...

The film is based on a story by American satirist, ex-Civil War soldier, and later, Pancho Villa's right hand man, Ambrose Bierce, in which a treasonous member of a Union regiment is set up to be hanged at the titular span. As the man falls, however, the rope breaks, and after a series of close brushes with death, he is on the road to freedom, and back into the arms of his sweetheart...or is he? To say more would be a disservice to the film's unique structure, visual tone and sound design. Truly a virtuoso work that draws as much from Griffith as it does from the French and Spanish surrealists.

Watch it now - you can probably even find it online somewhere. If you can, see the original, although the Twilight Zone-edited, Rod Serling-narrated version will do just fine. You'll get more out of this film's 25 short but dreamlike minutes than you will from watching another rerun of Two and a Half Men.

Monday, October 24, 2011

movies: [rec] (2007)

Dir:  Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Cast: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza

As in [Record]. Another film that mines the increasingly common gimmick (in horror) of the first-person shaky-cam narrative. Man Bites Dog, The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, etc, have all used this conceit - that what we are watching is actually happening, or the faux-documentary. And now (or, at least, 2 years ago) along comes this little Spanish horror flick doing the same dance. Thing is, this one's good. Really good. This is what Romero's Diary of the Dead coulda and shoulda been.

We start with Angela, a news reporter, doing a kinda fluff-piece on the lives and habits of firemen. After a bit of familiarizing us with both herself and a couple firemen, an alarm comes in, beckoning the firemen to an unknown crisis at a Barcelona apartment building, Angela and cameraman in tow. What begins as a fairly routine call turns into a very confusing and frightening descent into harnessed chaos. While ostensibly a zombie film, [Rec] is more about the interrelationships of people kept against their will in close quarters, and how bonds are formed and emotions are frayed when people are forced to act without a safety net.

The filmmakers cleverly play with the viewers' senses and sound and lighting are used to expert effect, showing just enough, but not too much. The film takes a bizarre turn in the final 10 minutes, but if you can go along for the ride after what seemed to me like a bit of a stretch plot-wise - and one that admittedly comes out of left-field - then the final scenes are incredibly frightening.

Yes, some think it's silly or puerile to revel in films categorised as "horror", especially with the world's economies crumbling before our eyes and truly terrifying environmental threats that dwarf any cinematic ones, but I think what the genre at its best can offer is a mirror of the pressing issues of today, without having to conform to any kind of constraints of traditional dramatic cinema. [Rec] is kind of a frenzied hybrid of Night of the Living Dead and Cloverfield, and if you dug either of those, you'll probably find something very intriguing and surprising in [Rec], which touches on strained relationships, bio-horror (think The Host), and religious obsession all in an economical 76 minutes (even though the box claims the running time is 89 minutes. Extra long credits?).

Be forewarned - the R1 Seville DVD has a default English-language audio track (a la Let the Right One In). Be sure to change the settings to the original Spanish with English subtitles for maximum enjoyment. Also, avoid the American remake Quarantine, which stumbles badly out of the gates by foresaking subtlety of character for blunt-object head trauma.

it could be

Sunday, October 16, 2011

movies: batman vs. dracula (2005)

Think about it: BATMAN. VERSUS. DRACULA. It doesn't get any better than this. Well of course it does!

Batman vs. Dracula is certainly neither profound or thought-provoking, but it is incredibly entertaining and retains a wonderfully fast pace throughout its economical 75 minute run-time. Yes, it is ostensibly a "kids" movie, but no more so than Batman Forever/Batman and Robin. If you subjected yourself to those atrocities, you at least owe it to yourself to check this out.

A very cool take on the Joker, a darker version of the Penguin than the cartoons usually show, and above all, the Dark Knight versus the Prince of Darkness, a match-up that was bound to happen sooner or later. Virtuoso animation that would make Frank Miller proud, a surprisingly atmospheric score, and some very interesting and often frightening (given the target audience) interpretations of both Batman, Joker and Dracula.

Recommended for the open-minded who won't scoff at "children's fare". Fits together quite well with last year's shamefully overlooked Batman: Gotham Knight. Really, how can you not love a cartoon that references both The Shining and Jerry Maguire? BOOM goes the dynamite!

movies: hated (1994)

Most of us know Todd Phillips as the director of frat-coms Road Trip, Old School and Starsky & Hutch, but there is a different kind of comedy that marks the director's debut film, the enthralling and disgusting rock-doc Hated. Enjoyment of the film is not entirely dependent upon your liking (or even knowledge of) GG Allin, but it helps to know what you're getting yourself into prior to the viewing. This is not some Don't Look Back wannabe, but a doc that focuses on one of the most notorious figures in the punk underground. GG was famous for self-mutilation, physical crowd abuse, and defecation (followed by the smearing of said shit on himself and flinging the remains at the crowd) during his shows, which are well-documented here. There is enough poo, blood, vomit and degradation for several lifetimes, but GG and his fans revel in the whole spectacle. And that's exactly what it is (or was). 17 years after his death, the show remains spectacular. Something I was simultaneously repelled and attracted to, and I can only imagine (thankfully - I have no real desire to have my nose broken and possibly contract hep C and e. coli poisoning) the terror and excitement of the adrenaline rush provided by attending one of the live shows. Truly an unmatched visceral rush, I'm sure.

The film follows GG's life in roughly chronological order, from his messed up childhood to his early attempts at starting bands, to his jail time, up to the then-present formation of the Murder Junkies, his band. The band itself is one of the more intriguing aspects of the whole shebang, and they act as the yin to GG's yang. There is no real weirdness there, except for hilarious and well-spoken brother Merle's penchant for fake beards, and drummer Dino's (who seems like he took a wrong turn during a peyote trip) preference for playing in the nude (matching GG's most oft-used stage costume). Other than that, they are relatively low-key, and almost a non-presence during the shows, as everyone is transfixed by the rabid performance of GG. The band merely gives Allin a canvas on which to paint, or more accurately, a toilet in which to shit.

Another cool thing about the film is its investigation of GG's fans - what sort of person is drawn to this type of spectacle? Predictably, perhaps, we see a rogue's gallery of freaks and weirdos, drunks, junkies, angry loners, social outcasts - in short, those who believe, rightfully or not, that there is no place for them in society, and have adopted GG as a kind of leader or god. There is also discussion in the film of GG's visits to and adoration by John Wayne Gacy. To be a fly on the wall during those conversations...

There is also footage of a rather bizarre appearance on Geraldo, and interviews with GG himself, who is visibly worse for wear in latter interviews, years of self-abuse and an increasing dependence on alcohol and heroin having taken their toll. GG was famous for claiming that he was going to kill himself on stage, and probably take a few audience members with him, but, as the doc notes "he died like a rock star, overdosing on heroin." The recently released special edition DVD has some good features, including a very lengthy interview with the present day Merle (still with it) and Dino (who seems like he's gone further down the rabbit hole); however, it was long rumoured and promised that this edition of the film would include footage from the final show, the night GG died. I was kind of morbidly curious, but was let down when the footage was absent. There is additional footage of the funeral, which is, sadly, very ordinary.

An extreme original, in the same way that Charles Manson was, it's cool to see people like GG exist (or existed), kicking against the pricks and with clearly no regard for authority of any kind and with very clear goals. It's also quite comforting to know that they're dead, or behind bars. There will be another GG, though, the world needs, and thus creates one every 20 years or so. Three years to go...

"My mind's a machine gun, my body's the bullets, and the audience is the target" - GG Allin

Monday, October 10, 2011

movies: the midnight meat train (2008)

Dir: Ryuhei Kitamura
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Vinnie Jones

Adapted from the second short story in volume one of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, The Midnight Meat Train is, for the most part, a ferocious descent into hell and madness. If you want to go along for the ride, you'll follow one man's downward spiral from aspiring art-photographer to a butcher forced to kill in order to feed a sect of older-than-humankind monstrosities. Um, yeah.

Although he wrote the short story upon which the script was based, and had a hand in the film's production, Barker himself did not direct. That role was left to Ryuhei Kitamura, probably best known for his 2000 effort Versus and less so for the hugely underrated 2004 flop Godzilla: Final Wars. In the film, we follow Leon (Cooper), an art-photog on the cusp of breakthrough as he begins to stalk and photograph a man who he believes is killing people in the subway. Leon begins to lose both his perspective and his grip on reality, and becomes obsessed with the butcher Mahogany (an incredible, wordless turn by Vinnie Jones).

Once it is revealed that Mahogany is indeed a killer, the film becomes less about the hunt and more about the quickly shrinking mental/physical divide between he and Leon. In the end, Mahogany is dispatched by a now near-mad Leon, who is then unwillingly handed the role once occupied by the recently deceased butcher - that is, he is now charged with harvesting the meat supply for the creatures who live in the abandoned subway station.

The story sounds completely wack, but it actually works for a few reasons. One is the performances, or rather, performance - Jones is chilling as the tongueless butcher and carries far more menace here than in his "enforcer" roles in the Guy Ritchie films. The other characters aren't as strong, but they do a serviceable job. Two - if you sympathize with Leon's slow melt into insanity, you'll appreciate the film much more than if you don't care. Without that, it's simply a bloodbath. But what I find sets Barker above other schlock-meisters is the depth of his characters, and his complete willingness and unafraidness to go deeper and deeper still - sometimes there isn't a happy ending, and sometimes, when you hit rock bottom, you don't climb back up, but instead burrow further - recall Hellraiser, Candyman, even Lord of Illusions (I count myself as one of three people who actually liked that film), all of which deal in much more complex and mature relationships to the self - to sex, to death, to pleasure and pain and ecstasy - than your stock "horror" film. And three - Kitamura, along with Max Payne lensman Jonathan Sela, employs some incredible camera work and displays an incredibly dynamic visual sense. The camera is always moving, zooming, panning, swooping, and seems very much a character itself, as cliched as that is.

Barker's obsessions, even from this early story, are evident here - rough sex, twisted personalities, the real and the imagined, and the base, dumb physicality of meat. While not his best work (or adaptation thereof), The Midnight Meat Train is an intriguing film in its own right, and a solid addition to the Barker cinematic oeuvre. And it takes place largely in a subway, which automatically gains it a pass in my book (see: The Warriors, Jacob's Ladder, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, etc...). I've got this thing about subways in film...

The R1 Lionsgate DVD has a few nice extras in which Barker talks about his painting and writing and breaks down his philosophy of art, and also an "Anatomy of a Murder" feature, in which various cast and crew explain the behind-the-scenes workings of one of the film's subway murders. Not for everyone, but if you dig Barker's work or subways, then I say, "All aboard....the Midnight Meat Train".

movies: the quare fellow (1962)

Dir: Arthur Dreifuss
Cast: Patrick McGoohan

My only previous experience with Patrick McGoohan was through a well-worn VHS copy (taped off TV in two parts) of the fantastic Pryor/Wilder vehicle Silver Streak. My best friend Mark Sampson and I watched it at least once a week, without fail, from age 8-11. We could recite the movie by heart, and often did, even the blurred out curses, making it suitable for TV broadcast and safe for our young ears. We always got a kick out of McGoohan's Roger Devereau (I didn't even have to look that up), and looking back I realize what a restrained and wonderfully sinister performance he gave in the film. McGoohan's character was not a blustery supervillian, full of sound and fury, but instead displayed a restrained and calculated criminality.

It is with that as my sole reference of McGoohan that I went into his much earlier and different work in The Quare Fellow. Based on a play by Irish playwright Brendan Behan, the film is a superb exercise in realist acting and cinematic humanism. Unlike many theatre to screen adaptations, The Quare Fellow does not suffer from stagey direction, and has just enough in the way of sets and locations to keep it real, but not too much so as to distract from the central premise. McGoohan plays Thomas Crimmin, a newly appointed guard or "screw" at an Irish prison. We see him go through a major change in the film, from thinking justice is black and white to realizing that there exists a far greater grey zone than he ever believed. Throughout, we see McGoohan struggling to reconcile his theoretical ideas of justice with the very real lives he sees wasting away in front of him.

The film runs an economical 85 minutes and is very much worth watching for both the involving story and the excellent performances from not only McGoohan but also Walter Macken, Sylvia Sims, and a group of Irish actors who do a wonderful job portraying the inmates with a fatalistic black humour necessary to create a sense of realistic incarceration. The recently released Kino DVD is an excellent transfer, though the sound mix is a little raw. For a film that is relatively obscure and nearly 50 years old, it's a flaw that is easy to overlook. There are scant, though nice, extras, including a short doc called "Behan's Dublin".

movies: blood tea and red string (2006)

Dir: Christiane Cegavske

Well, this was a delicious treat. Apparently 13 years in the making, Christiane Cegavske's Blood Tea and Red String is an enchanting "fairytale for grown-ups", that could just as easily be enjoyed by children. The lovingly handmade creatures and meticulous stop-motion animation recalls such classics as The Wind in the Willows and Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas. There is a very visceral, tactile sense to the film, and you quickly become drawn in because of the realization that you are watching something that someone has actually MADE, manually.

Each frame of film is beautifully rendered. This is not a digital experience, or some cold, detached exercise in life-like CGI - the viewer is very aware of the obvious limitations of the puppets and the scenarios; but rather than a hindrance, this is very much an endearing quality and creates a very human warmth, even if we are watching fox-crows, devious, arrogant mice, and a frog-wizard...

The story goes like this - a group of aristocratic mice appears at the home of the Creatures Who Dwell Under the Oak, who are talented craftsmen. The mice commission the fox-crows (that is what they resemble, so I will call them such) to create for them a beautiful doll. A deal is reached and the doll is made, but the fox-crows become attached to the doll-lady, and when the mice return to pick up their product, the fox-crows return the mice's money and shoo them away, for they have no other desire than to hold onto the doll, who by now has become somewhat of an idol that the fox-crows seem to worship. Later that night, the mice come and steal the doll-woman, and when the fox-crows awake the next day, they set out on a Baggins-worthy quest to bring her back. Along the way there are drunken woodland waltzes with a frog wizard, a bartering black widow, and an epic, absurd card game in which the mice become drunk on blood tea...

This is a fascinating, hilarious, altogether gorgeous film that exudes the love of its creator. There are also some very intriguing elements of pagan ritual in the film, so it is not merely a surface experience. Some may be turned off by the prospect of a 75 minute, dialogue-free (but accompanied by a magical, creepy woodwind score) stop-motion film, but they will be sorely mistaken if they choose to ignore this wonderful little piece of ART.

The Cinema Epoch DVD is fairly shy of features, but does have a few short, insightful looks at early character sketches and set photography. Well worth seeking out. And it's a film that Robyn and I both enjoyed, so that's saying something huge right there...

Check it.

movies: the wrestler (2008)

Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marissa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Much ballyhoo'd return to grace for Mickey Rourke, it is everything the hype machine claims it to be, and more, for cheap quotable praise is too easily given away these days.

The wrestler and the stripper are symbols, as obvious as it may seem, for those who rely solely on their bodies for their living and as their bodies begin to fail them, so goes their worth in the world. As each grows older, and the form is stripped away, all that is very apparently left is the soul and the innate need to be loved, wanted, needed, simply not to be alone. Aronofsky eschews all sentimentality, though, in favour of raw emotion, of small lives laid bare and lived large, of characters who are legends in their own mind, but who ultimately come to the terrifying, soul-crushing, and ultimately redemptive - and profoundly human - realization that this...is...it. Facing the void, but too stubborn or too dumb to turn away. This small spark is often all we have and we must clutch the spark, protect it, never let it go out. As long as we have that tiny spark inside of us then the soul of man can never die.

Instead of throwing in the towel, the characters soldier on, absurdly and beautifully. The final scene alone is worth the price of a million bleeding hearts, and the rest of the film is just as good.

The Wrestler breathes, it bleeds, it weeps; it is broken, it sins, and it forgives. It simultaneously revels in the absurdity of human life and shows why that life is worth living.

movies: paranoid park (2007)

Dir: Gus Van Sant

Two words: Severed Corpse. No, it's not the GWAR song, but what is ostensibly the crux of Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park. What Van Sant is really interested in here, though, are not the gory details (and they are surprisingly VERY gory) of the death, around which everything in the film revolves, but once again, the faces, backs and showering bodies of high school teens. Actually not as creepy as that sounds.

In PP, he mines the same territory and style he explored in the superb Elephant and the underrated Last Days, though Van Tarr gets a bit lost in this one. I don't know if it's the script, or the oft-horrendous non-actors' non-acting, but the film feels a bit flimsy. As usual the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are some beautiful instances of soundtrack and film meshing synchronously. But overall, fans of the director will probably feel cheated by the threadbare plot and what feels like two movies in one: the first half's experimental-film feel cut with grainy slo-mo super-8 footage of skaters riding "Paranoid Park" (actually Portland's Burnside, and what are seemingly outtakes from Fruit of the Vine, Northwest, and Tent City); and the second half, which focuses more on the murder mystery, the implications of which are sadly hard to care about.

If he had have picked one side and ran with it, there could have been an excellent film in there; as it stands, Van Sant has made a mildly interesting, but frustratingly flawed one.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

movies: one scene: drive (2011)

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Carey Mulligan

In a small scene, and through an even smaller gesture, Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston author what is one of the more moving and darkly humourous sequences I can recall having seen in the past months.

Cranston's Shannon, hapless as ever, finds himself bleeding out in his own garage after a pre-ordained meeting with the keen side of Bernie's (Albert Brooks) straight razor.  Protecting his protege, The Driver (Gosling), Shannon refuses to tip his hand with regards to his knowledge of The Driver's whereabouts, and dies. The final sounds his ears register are the strangely calming assurances of his killer that everything's fine, it's done. The Driver finds Shannon a few minutes later, life drained away, sitting in mock repose against the rear bumper of a classic car.  The Driver crouches and observes his dead friend, then slowly and deliberately extends an arm and gently tilts the corpse's head to the right.  There is neither an exploitative nor sentimental quality to the action, but it somehow conveys a tremendous sense of sadness.

Even though Shannon is a nobody, I was affected by his death, and experienced an almost overwhelming sense of sympathy at that moment.  Such is the mark of a master filmmaker who can deal in pathos without most of the audience even knowing it.

That The Driver then stands, opens the trunk of the car and lifts the bag full of Bernie's money - the money for which Shannon, mere moments ago, lost his life - seals and stamps one of the most unassuming perfect scenes, and one that's stayed with me for the past week.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

movies: antonio gaudi (1985)

Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara

The last four years have been very good to Japanese art-house darling Hiroshi Teshigahara. Unfortunately, he's been dead for the last ten.

Until July of 2007, the name Hiroshi Teshigahara meant nothing to me. However, that month Criterion released a superb trilogy of films (Face of Another, Woman in the Dunes, Pitfall) by the Japanese director. It was then that I realized what I had been missing. I watched the three films rabidly and pored over the special features and the bonus disc included in the set. Still, I wanted more.

In March of 2008, Criterion again stepped up to bat and released another long out of print Teshigahara classic, Antonio Gaudi. While not as essential a work as the former three, it is nonetheless a playful and contemplative film that does justice to both Gaudi's sculpture and architecture, but also - and perhaps more pointedly - it distills Teshigahara's filmic vision down to its essence.

In viewing this film, I realized that this was the perfect pairing of director and subject, however unlikely that may seem for those familiar with both artists' work. Although Teshigahara and Gaudi reside at opposite stylistic poles, and come from incredibly different artistic backgrounds, the clinical, though not cold, eye of the director lingers over the sensual, simultaneously earthy and alien forms of the architect, and we feel that we are exploring new ground. The long takes and slow pans that Teshigahara employs force the viewer to see what the director wants us to see - perhaps the perfect example of the power of cinema to hold and arrest the gaze of the audience. Teshigahara approaches the works of Gaudi with a reverential eye, and not only highlights the stunning forms, but also goes on to create his own sort of art. By showing in close-up the sinewy and undulating forms of Gaudi's work, he removes them from their immediate context and renders them abstract, forcing us to reconsider not only what we are seeing directly on screen, but their place within the larger work.

Teshigahara's preference for narrating a film with imagery rather than dialogue is again on display here. In fact, the few brief instances of a character speaking in the film are rather jarring. The end goal of both architect and filmmaker is to speak through images and forms, light and shadow, solid and void - in this sense, Teshigahara, like Gaudi, succeeds wonderfully. And by contrasting certain scenes at the film's outset - Spain's deeply religious rooting is shown through church frescoes and sculptures, and Spaniards dancing in the town square, eating, working, dealing in the market and generally going about their daily lives presents the secular way of life - Teshigahara effectively describes a cultural background rich in both the sacred and the profane, the cultural background which deeply influenced the work of Gaudi.

Throughout Antonio Gaudi, we see many recurring visual motifs, such as the spiraling, shifting, snaking shapes that so entranced Teshigahara as well as the entomologist in Woman in the Dunes. The director seems genuinely captivated by the architecture as would be any tourist, and even though we have seen the buildings before, whether in pictures or on-site, Teshigahara's wonder of discovery translates beautifully and we feel as if we are seeing Gaudi for the first time. Teshigahara's is a foreign eye discovering and revelling in the forms that surround him. If you also keep in mind the difference of the Japanese and Spanish artistic traditions, Teshigahara's austere, minimalist filmmaking compostions layered over Gaudi's everything-in-the-mix aesthetic is all the more impressive. Imagine John Cage or Philip Glass recording an album of Beck songs and you see where this could have gone terribly wrong.

And speaking of music (what a segue), the film's otherworldly score that sounds like it could have been created by Herzog faves Popul Vuh mixes with classical compositions to set up the works on display. There is often a sense that we are being taken on a guided tour of a spaceship, or through one of the many rooms in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

I began wondering, about 60 hypnotic and awe-filled minutes into the film, why exactly is it that we are drawn to architecture? Not only Gaudi, but, to use an example with more currency and relevance to us, why have the newly finished ROM and AGO structures caused so much hoopla in town? Is it the superstar architects themselves? Is it simply that we like to look at pretty things, and consequently feel better about ourselves for living in a more "beautiful" city? Bragging rights? I came to realize that Gaudi's work, and as the utmost extension of that, architecture, sculpture and art, allow me, personally, to see and touch mankind's capacity for creation and desire to dream. In gazing upon these finished structures, these living dreams, we can see and feel those fleeting intangibles, the manifestion of which eludes all but a tiny portion of us. Teshigahara's film allowed me to realize that, and I am grateful for the experience.