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Happy Easter from White City Cinema

How do you like your cinematic Jesus? I prefer mine with a Marxist slant:

matthew
Happy Easter!

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Psycho (Hitchcock)
2. Metalhead (Bragason)
3. The World of Goopi and Bagha (Ranade)
4. Slither (Gunn)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
6. Deep Cover (Duke)
7. Night Moves (Penn)
8. Extasis (Barroso)
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (Von Trier)
10. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)


Now Playing: Nymphomaniac Volumes One and Two

Nymphomaniac: Vol. One and Two
dir: Lars Von Trier, Denmark/Germany, 2013
Rating: 9.0

nymphomaniac

The bottom line: as my man Nick Fraccaro says, it’s “Kill Bill directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.” Whatever impression the sound of such an incongruous mash-up makes on you will probably be a good indicator of how you feel about this batshit-crazy movie.

Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago as exclusive engagements — as well as via video on demand — are both parts of Lars Von Trier’s controversial four-hour epic Nymphomaniac. While the film generated positive critical notices in Von Trier’s native Denmark last year (where both volumes opened on Christmas Day), as well as at the Berlin International Film Festival in February (the site of the official world premiere of the full five-and-a-half-hour version), the response by both American critics and audiences alike has been strangely muted; the trade papers here have even referred to it as a “flop.” (Don’t blame me. I took a large class of college students on two separate field trips to see both parts.) Whether this has anything to do with prudish Americans being uneasy about the marriage of explicit sex and commercial narrative movies, as some commentators have speculated — at least as a theatrical experience; I have a hunch that the VOD returns on this are probably quite robust — the way the film has been curiously ignored in the U.S. is unfortunate: Nymphomaniac is, for my money, Von Trier’s best work since at least Dancer in the Dark in 2000. Among its many virtues, intellectual as well as visceral, Nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious. Well, at least the first volume is.

nympho

The premise: in an unnamed European country (let’s call it International Co-productionland), a middle-aged sad-sack named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) finds a bruised and battered middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying unconscious in an alley and brings her to his home to recuperate. After Seligman has provided her with a bed and served her a cup of tea, Joe recounts to him her sad and sordid life story, which Von Trier presents as a series of flashback vignettes revolving around her sex addiction (Volume One is broken into five “chapters” and Volume Two is broken into three). While Joe feels that each of these episodes illustrates that she is a “bad person,” Seligman, a seemingly asexual bibliophile, frequently rejects her claims by using his vast storehouse of knowledge to pose counterarguments. These framing sequences allow Von Trier to, among other things, draw correlations between sex and fly fishing and explore concepts relating to everything from math to botany to the polyphonic music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the delirium tremens experienced by Edgar Allan Poe in his final days. Amusingly, Nymphomaniac is not so much about sex then as it is about finding patterns in the universe, the nature of storytelling, and the need the human mind has to impose order and meaning. Seligman’s disbelief at a coincidence that occurs in Joe’s story towards the end of the first volume is very clever — and self-reflexive — in this respect: she actually asks him if her story would be better or worse without such a narrative contrivance.

nymphomaniac

Of course, this being a Lars Von Trier film, the second volume ends up meting out much punishment upon the already long-suffering heroine. (Neither those who claim Von Trier’s obsessive focus on female martyrdom marks him as a misogynist nor those who claim the same quality makes him a feminist are likely to change their mind about what he’s up to here.) But Volume Two also initially feels like an anti-climax (pun intended), largely because the surprising humor of the first part is gone: there is nothing in Volume Two, for instance, to compare with Uma Thurman’s hilariously melodramatic monologue as a housewife dealing with an unfaithful husband. (Was Thurman channeling some leftover/repressed rage from when former husband Ethan Hawke strayed? It’s certainly the best work she’s ever done.) Also, it must be said that it feels as though something in the film dies when the effervescent Stacy Martin, a British actress who plays young Joe in Volume One‘s flashback sequences, abruptly departs near the beginning of Volume Two, only to be replaced by the more dour persona of La Gainsbourg. And yet, in the days following my viewing of Volume Two, my appreciation for the achievement as a whole and its provocations has only increased. Have you ever heard a dirty joke with a very long set-up that leads to a very short, sick punchline? Nymphomaniac is a lot like that — only it gets funnier the more you think about it. The critic Keith Uhlich has rightly compared the denouement to that of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

nympho

In spite of all of Nymphomaniac’s excesses, and its deliberately sprawling and messy nature (Von Trier here is going Tolstoy-wide instead of his usual Dostoevsky-deep), neither volume ever feels overly long. This is perhaps because the film’s form, not just its nonlinear structure but its cornucopia of different visual styles, seems to take its cues from the unbridled and overindulgent personality of its protagonist. But what finally makes Nymphomaniac feel substantial, and not just an empty provocation like, say, Manderlay, is its obviously highly personal nature. While watching Volume One, I felt as if Von Trier had split his personality between Seligman and Joe and was having a long and brutally honest dialogue with himself about his sometimes-dubious status as Europe’s reigning provocateur-auteur. After watching Volume Two, however, I revised this opinion: the most fruitful way to approach Nymphomaniac, I think, is to view Joe as the stand-in for Von Trier and Seligman as a stand-in for Von Trier’s critics. (The tip-off, for me, came in the dialogue exchange about Joe’s use of the word “negro,” which Seligman cautions her is “politically incorrect.”) When viewed in this light, Volume Two‘s inevitably “shocking” conclusion resonates as more than a cynical twist: Seligman reveals himself to be a faux-intellectual wolf-in-sheep’s clothing — like the critic who feigns an air of fairness and objectivity but only to better position himself to fuck you in the end. I’m still chuckling just thinking about it.

You can check out the red-band trailer for Nymphomaniac via YouTube below. But first, just because I think it’s hilarious, I invite you to admire this poster of Udo Kier’s awesome “O face”:

udo


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. In the Time of the Butterflies (Barroso)
2. Afternoon (Schanelec)
3. Mr. Arkadin (Welles)
4. Renaldo and Clara (Dylan)
5. Blade Runner (2007 Final Cut) (Scott)
6. North By Northwest (Hitchcock)
7. Blade Runner (1992 Director’s Cut) (Scott)
8. David Holzman’s Diary (McBride)
9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
10. All the Women (Barroso)


Odds and Ends: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany, 2014) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 8.4

budapest

In my positive review of Moonrise Kingdom from two years ago, I lamented that something in me always “resisted” the films of Wes Anderson — even while acknowledging that I also liked most of them. I’m therefore happy to report that not only is The Grand Budapest Hotel my favorite Anderson movie to date, it’s also one that sweeps aside all of the prior reservations that I had about his work. While the director’s signature precocious “touches” are all over this (a confectioner’s approach to set and costume design, quick 90-degree pans from one perfectly symmetrical, planimetric composition to another, montage scenes accompanied by faux-Baroque music cues, etc.), The Grand Budapest Hotel devises an ingenious narrative structure that for once completely justifies even the most fanciful aspects of Anderson’s mise-en-scene: the film begins in the present where a little girl is reading a novel that was written in the 1980s by an author who based his fiction on an ostensibly true story he was told in the 1960s by someone who knew firsthand the story’s hero whose real-life exploits took place in the early 1930s. Got that? The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story inside of a story inside of a story inside of a story — with the different “periods” represented being cleverly shot in different aspect ratios that correspond to how we think of movies from those respective eras (i.e., the square Academy ratio for the 1930s, widescreen CinemaScope for the 1960s, and “1.85:1″ for the 1980s and the present).

The true subject of The Grand Budapest Hotel then is storytelling itself, as it also is in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (another recent film that employs an elaborate framing device that calls into question the reliability of the narrator). The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s chief narrative — a shaggy-dog story about a hotel concierge, one Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), and his trusty “lobby boy,” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), solving a murder against the backdrop of a fictional, war-torn European country — resonates through the decades like an absurd cinematic version of the “Chinese whispers” game. The other thing here that feels gratifyingly new is Anderson’s tone of moral seriousness: for all of the ridiculous humor on display (and Fiennes proves himself to be a surprisingly deft physical and verbal comedian), this tall tale grows not only unexpectedly dark but, as fascism ominously encroaches upon the characters, increasingly death-haunted as well. The protagonist of The Grand Budapest Hotel may be a rapscallion with an eye for wealthy older dames (by which I mean octogenarians) but he’s also a fellow of great integrity who understands what things in life are worth sacrificing oneself for. This moral-clarity-in-the-midst-of-screwball-chaos is finally what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel a worthy heir to the films of the great Ernst Lubitsch, its most important cinematic precedents. I can’t wait to see what Anderson does next.

Up to Speed — Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2012) – Streaming

uptospeed

If, like me, you’re waiting with breathless anticipation for the forthcoming release of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which recently wowed critics and audiences alike at the Sundance, Berlin and South By Southwest film festivals, here’s another recent Linklater project you may not be aware of to tide you over: Up to Speed is a quirky travel show consisting of six half-hour episodes created by Texas’s favorite filmmaking son exclusively for the Hulu website in 2012. The premise of the show is that unconventional historian and motormouthed raconteur Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch (still perhaps best known as the subject of the cult 1998 documentary The Cruise) serves as a tour guide of the “monumentally ignored monuments” of America’s greatest cities. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t direct my readers specifically to the second episode in the series, entitled Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood. This episode, which marks the first time Linklater has ever set down a tripod in my fair city, focuses almost exclusively on the history of Chicago’s considerable role as a leader in the national labor movement. Levitch, who dubs himself a “blue-collar historian,” recounts how Chicago, beginning in the late 19th century, had arguably the most organized labor force in the world and was instrumental in establishing such basic workers’ rights as the eight-hour work day. From there, Levitch — aided by a fair number of amusing “talking” buildings and props (not to mention snazzy animated graphics) — visits such important local landmarks and monuments as: the Haymarket statue, the Balbo monument, the former home of the Dill Pickle Club, and “Hobohemia” (home of both Bughouse Square and the infamous “Hobo College”). To watch Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood is to learn some fascinating, lesser-known trivia about the Windy City’s radical past, as well as, I hope, to be inspired to fight the powers that be (as Chuck D would say) in the here and now.

The full Up to Speed episode of Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood can be viewed online for free via Hulu below:


My Short Films at “Creating Justice”

My two most recent short films, At Last, Okemah! (2009) and The Catastrophe (2011), will be screening at Oakton Community College’s annual “Creating Justice” symposium on Saturday, April 12th in Des Plaines, Illinois. The symposium explores the unique possibilities for social transformation and creativity offered by the arts. Each film will be preceded by brief remarks by me and will be followed by a question-and-answer session. There will be many other artists at the event including Nicolas Lampert, author of A People’s Art History of the United States, who will deliver the keynote address. The event runs from 1:00 to 8:00 and admission is free. My portion, which will be held in Room 1625, begins at 4:30 and ends at 6:00. Any of my students who attend “Creating Justice” and write a brief report about the experience will receive 20 points extra credit towards their final grade. See your course website for details.

For more information about “Creating Justice,” including a full list of presentations, panelists and speakers, and directions to the venue, visit:

http://www.oakton.edu/newsevents/events/creating_justice.php

You can check out the trailers for my short films via YouTube below:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Amazing Catfish (Sainte-Luce)
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson)
3. Citizen Kane (Welles)
4. Chinatown (Polanski)
5. Under the Skin (Glazer)
6. Amer (Cattet/Forzani)
7. Melancholia (Von Trier)
8. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor)
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (Von Trier)
10. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)


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