Monthly Archives: August 2010

Love Stalker: an Unromantic Comedy

My friends and fellow Columbia Film School graduates Matt Glasson and Bowls MacLean are shooting a feature film, Love Stalker, in St. Louis next month. The film is an adaptation of their award-winning short of the same title. The short, a darkly funny musical about a loser who stalks his favorite bartender, calls to mind the work of Roman Polanski and David Lynch. It can be viewed in its entirety on youtube and I highly recommend taking the time to watch the whole thing; the film’s final thrilling minutes dramatize some kind of psychic rupture (a la Mulholland Drive) that must be seen to be believed. Check it out:

Matt and Bowls are currently looking for donations to help defray the cost of production on the feature. Every penny counts and supporting independent filmmaking is a very worthy cause, folks. I donated $25 myself and I recommend anyone who enjoys the short to do the same. The plot of the feature will apparently differ substantially from the short. You can read all about it at indiegogo where you can also make a donation:

Now Playing: Around a Small Mountain (36 Vues du Pic Saint Loup)

Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup)
dir. Jacques Rivette, 2009, France/Italy

Rating: 8.3

The bottom line: A worthy coda to an extraordinary career. See it on the big screen and pay your last respects.

Now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center is Around a Small Mountain, the latest and, according to some reports, last film by 82-year-old French New Wave master Jacques Rivette. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film, at least for Rivette fans, is the film’s atypically brief running time; for a man whose best known work includes experimental endurance tests running between 4 and 13 hours in length, it is perhaps both unusual and fitting that his swan song would clock in at a very lean and audience-friendly 84 minutes. This framework allows Rivette to tell a charming, wise, deceptively simple story that calls to mind the mature simplicity of the late masterworks of such disparate artists as Jorge Luis Borges, Henri Matisse and Robert Bresson.

The story of Around a Small Mountain centers on Vittorio, an Italian businessman (Sergio Castellitto), who crosses paths with the performers of a low-rent traveling circus in the Cevennes region of France while en route to an appointment in Barcelona. Vittorio doesn’t seem to be in a particular hurry as he ends up spending the better part of two weeks hanging out with the troupe, becoming further and further drawn into the lives of its performers until, inevitably, he too becomes part of the circus. Central to Vittorio’s fascination with this troupe is his romantic attraction to the mysterious, absentee circus owner, Kate (the magnificent Jane Birkin), a middle-aged beauty with a tragic past who has only recently become reunified with the other performers.

As with most Rivette films, Around a Small Mountain is also a mystery, albeit one that unfolds at a very relaxed pace. Little by little, Vittorio learns the dark secret of Kate’s past and, like a Hollywood film noir hero of the 1940s, concocts a scheme to have her confront this incident so that she may free herself from the chains of a terrible memory and learn to truly live again. As trite as this may sound, the film’s plot is really only an excuse for Rivette and his regular screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer to explore the nature of performance and how art and life are inextricably bound. Delightful scenes of jugglers, acrobats and clowns performing are intercut with the main story until it becomes unclear where the performance ends and life begins. A good example is the long-take scene, reminiscent of John Ford, where Kate delivers a theatrical graveside monologue to a former lover. Few film directors are as attentive to actors as Rivette has been throughout his career in general and to Birkin specifically here.

Around a Small Mountain also calls to mind Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds, another “late film” about a troupe of traveling players on the verge of packing it in, and Parade, Jacques Tati’s modest, shot-on-video final film, which was likewise set primarily within a circus. Like Ozu and Tati, Rivette clearly feels an affinity for the camaraderie of characters within this milieu, which he undoubtedly sees as analogous to the relationships between cast and crew members on a film set. The highlight of Rivette’s movie, however, is a scene of Kate by herself, in which she tests the waters of circus performing for the first time in many years. Alone in an empty field, suspended several feet above the ground, the sixty-something Birkin successfully walks a real tightrope. Figuratively speaking, one could say the same for Rivette.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
2. The Prowler (Zito)
3. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
4. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger)
5. Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu)
6. Le Samourai (Melville)
7. Scarface (Hawks)
8. Women of the Night (Mizoguchi)
9. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
10. White Heat (Walsh)

In Defense of Benjamin Button

The first official review of David Fincher’s hotly anticipated The Social Network, a film about the founding of Facebook, has appeared online and it’s a doozy: Scott Foundas, respected critic and New York Film Festival selection committee member, has given it an unequivocal rave at the Film Comment website. He calls the film “splendid entertainment from a master storyteller” and compares it to The Great Gatsby both in terms of plot and as a kind of cultural bellwether. Unfortunately, he also uses the occasion to take a swipe at Fincher’s previous film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as mawkish and insincere.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the only David Fincher movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and the only one to be released in a deluxe edition on home video by the prestigious Criterion Collection. Its pioneering use of digital special effects is undeniable and, impressively, the service to which those effects are put is the form of a crowd pleasing melodrama (albeit one haunted by the specter of death); rare among Fincher’s films, Benjamin Button was a big commercial success on a global scale. And yet, as Foundas’ comments testify, from a certain critical perspective it has also always been an unfashionable movie to love. It has been the subject of articles dubious of its anointment as an “instant classic” at the hands of Criterion and it even made one journalist’s list of 10 films that Hollwyood never should have greenlit. But the biggest bone of contention for most critics has been the film’s similarities to Forrest Gump, with which it shares a screenwriter in the person of Eric Roth. So much critical ink has been spilled over the superficial similarities between Button and Gump in terms of story, with the harshest critics claiming that the two are essentially the same movie, that I won’t bother to rehash the comparisons here. Instead, I’d like to point out how the films are crucially different in the far more significant areas of ideology and aesthetics.

Forrest Gump is reactionary in that it martyrs a man for not questioning authority and always doing what he’s told. Forrest is a simpleton who puts all his faith in what God, Mama and Uncle Sam tell him, fights in Vietnam and is rewarded with wealth and fame. A parallel plot involving his girlfriend, Jenny, sees her do the opposite (she joins the counter-culture, protests the war and experiments with free love and drugs) and then punishes her with AIDS and death. There is a sense that the success of Forrest Gump, including an actual win for Best Picture, is the result of its function as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for viewers who would like to triumph over history without doing any hard work. On the other hand, Benjamin Button is the tragedy of a man who lives through history, making tough decisions and taking responsibility for his actions at every turn. Just think of the heartbreaking scene where Benjamin decides to leave Daisy so that she can raise their daughter without him.

In contrast to the high-key lighting and Disneyland-vision-of-the-South art direction employed by Robert Zemeckis in Forrest Gump, The dark, brooding beauty of Fincher’s digital mise-en-scene in Button perfectly complements the film’s melancholy obsession with the passing of time. This is most obvious in the astonishing sequence near the beginning where scratchy, old-movie-like footage of World War I is run backwards, an expressionist device corresponding to the desires of Elias Koteas’ clockmaker character. More importantly, where Forrest Gump always calls attention to itself in its use of digital special effects (“Hey look, it’s Tom Hanks interacting with real documentary footage of some famous historical figure!”), the use of CGI in Button is always subservient to the story, just as it was in Zodiac. (Whenever I point out to students that there are over 200 CGI shots in Zodiac, the most common reply is, “I didn’t notice any.” Exactly.) And although audiences are well aware that computer technology is what allows Brad Pitt in Button to age in reverse, I’ll bet you it’s the last thing on all but the most jaded minds of the viewers who are actually watching the movie.

Finally, where Forrest Gump offers naïve optimism, Benjamin Button is a profoundly moving, and, on occasion, a courageously “feel-bad,” study of aging and death. The concept of showing someone age in reverse is a completely novel way to constantly remind the audience of those themes in a way that could not have been done by showing the character age normally. After all when you see a senior citizen, you don’t automatically think of that person as having only X-amount of time left to live. But when you see Benjamin Button at the age of six, you certainly do.

A South Korean New Wave Primer

Below is a chronological list of 21 key S. Korean New Wave movies (with commentary) that I compiled to hand out at a Facets Multimedia screening of Save the Green Planet earlier this year. Below the list is a link to a video of the lecture I gave prior to the film.

Christmas in August (Jin Ho-Hur, 1998) – Exquisite melodrama about the romance between a terminally ill photographer and one of his clients.

Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999) – This outrageous action movie is basically one long chase between two cops and a killer. An early scene where an assassin plies his trade to the strains of the Bee-Gees’ “Holiday,” amid yellow autumn leaves and a gently falling rain, is unforgettable.

Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999) – Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon-ho, 2000) – Wonderful offbeat comedy/romance and an auspicious debut from one of the most significant Korean directors of our time.

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-soo, 2000) – Erotic melodrama about the subjective nature of reality, gorgeously shot in black and white.

Chunhyang (Im Kwon-taek, 2000) – Folk opera/musical from one of the “old masters” of S. Korean cinema.

JSA: Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000) – The absolute best place to start exploring the S. Korean New Wave; ingeniously plotted political thriller and invaluable history lesson.

Failan (Song Hae-sung, 2001) – I defy you to see this unique gangster movie/melodrama hybrid and not weep by the time it’s over.

Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002) – Comedy/drama about a young man’s quest for love that marries the formalism of Antonioni with the naturalistic performances of Cassavetes.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002) – The first entry in Park’s essential “Vengeance trilogy” is also the most austere and tragic.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, 2003) – Like a Korean Zodiac, this tells the riveting true story of a police investigation into a series of unsolved murders.

Save the Green Planet (Jang Jun-hwan, 2003) – The story of a blue-collar worker convinced that his former boss is an alien intent on destroying the human race, this outrageous and provocative black comedy reflects political anxieties dating back to South Korea’s pro-democracy protests in the 1980s while also serving as a prescient ecological fable on a more universal scale.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-woon, 2003) – Mixture of psychological and supernatural horror that effectively conjures up an atmosphere of dread from the first frame to the last.

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) – Excellent freak-out revenge movie with a supremely ironic “happy ending” that lingered in my imagination long after it ended.

3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) – A nearly silent love story that starts out as a work of realism and then slowly, almost imperceptibly, enters a world of purely poetic metaphor. Hypnotic and amazing.

The President’s Last Bang (Im Sang-soo, 2005) – Black comedy/political satire that tells the incredible true story of the assassination of President Park Chung-Hee.

Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005) – The sublime third installment of Park’s vengeance trilogy combines elements of the first two (very different) films and throws intriguing philosophical/religious reflections into the mix.

The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006) – The Spielbergian/Hollywood family-in-peril adventure movie formula is subversively used to express some anti-global/capitalist sentiments in this outrageously entertaining monster movie.

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006) – Hong Sang-Soo’s funniest ode to romantic folly. You’ll be humming the catchy score for days.

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007) – A widow moves with her son to the hometown of her recently deceased husband only to encounter further tragedy in this thematically complex, novelistic character study from the great writer/director Lee Chang-dong.

The Chaser (Na Hong-jin, 2008) – A generic serial killer plot is given a refreshingly original spin by adding an abundance of expertly executed foot-chases in this superior thriller.

And the lecture:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. I Sell the Dead (McQuaid)
2. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (del Toro)
3. Zodiac (Fincher)
4. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
5. Some Came Running (Minnelli)
6. A Prophet (Audiard)
7. Silver Bullet (Attias)
8. A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz)
9. Early Summer (Ozu)
10. What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu)

David Lynch: Walk with Me

In August of 1992, shortly after my 17th birthday, I attended the first annual “Twin Peaks Fest” in Snoqualmie, Washington. Like many David Lynch aficionados, I was fairly devastated when Twin Peaks, the television show, had been cancelled the previous year and was likewise ecstatic when I learned that Lynch immediately planned to make a feature film prequel to the groundbreaking series.

The film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, received its U.S. premiere during that first Twin Peaks Fest and the above photograph is of me and Mr. Lynch strolling and chatting after I ran into him by chance outside of the hotel where we both happened to be staying. I told Lynch that I didn’t want to bother him but that I was glad he had decided to “bring Twin Peaks back” and that his movies had given me a lot of pleasure over the years. He thanked me and then said in his loud and very distinctive nasal voice, “Take care of yourself, man.”

This encounter took place at probably the lowest point in Lynch’s professional career. Although the first season of Twin Peaks had been a hit, the second season was ignominiously cancelled and Fire Walk with Me received the worst reviews of Lynch’s entire career. (Dune had been a critical disappointment too but that wasn’t really considered a “Lynch film.”)

I didn’t listen to the critics and managed to see the movie five more times in the theater during its brief run. I was and still am impressed by the simultaneously darker and goofier direction in which he took the movie. I loved the hilarious interactions between Chris Isaak’s FBI man and the local-yokel small town sheriff played by Gary Bullock. I loved the full-blown surrealism of the brief scene involving David Bowie. And most of all, I loved how personal it all felt; Lynch’s bitterness over the show’s cancellation was palpable and could be immediately felt in the opening image of an ax destroying a television set.

Upon returning home I wrote a letter to my local paper, the Charlotte Observer, offering to provide them photographs and anecdotes from the Fest in anticipation of the film’s local release. The Observer‘s film critic wrote me back to suggest I try a horror fanzine like Fangoria(!) instead.

18 years later, David Lynch is considered by many to be America’s greatest living filmmaker. His 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, recently topped many critics polls of the best films of the decade, including prestigious polls in France’s Cahiers du Cinema and Film Comment in the U.S. Fortunately, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, has also undergone a critical re-evaluation; it is now considered a cult classic and has been cited by none other than Greil Marcus as one of the best American films of the 1990s.

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