Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Paris-Manhattan (Lellouche)
2. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio)
3. Sinister (Derrickson)
4. Viridiana (Bunuel)
5. The Last Time I Saw Macao (Rodrigues/Guerra da Mata)
6. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
7. Citizen Kane (Welles)
8. Hannah Arendt (Von Trotta)
9. L’atalante (Vigo)
10. Mauvais Sang (Carax)


Django Unchained and a Certain Trend in Contemporary Hollywood Movies

Django Unchained
dir: Quentin Tarantino (USA, 2012)
Rating: 5.9


The following piece contains spoilers about the plots of Django Unchained, Skyfall and, I suppose, even Lincoln.

After seeing many Hollywood films at the end of 2012 and in early 2013 that run between two-and-a-half hours and two hours and 45 minutes in length, I’ve concluded that movies have just grown too damn long. It’s not that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with lengthy running times: after all, I’ve gladly, in the past, sat through many movies even longer (one of my all-time favorites, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, runs seven hours, and I’d gladly watch that again right now). The problem is that the new Hollywood movie does not justify its length – there are invariably too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary subplots, a climax that feels too protracted, and, worst of all, too many endings (a trend that I would argue began with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a movie I otherwise like). For me, the most egregious offender of this new crop of films is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie I was prepared to like but ended up feeling sorely disappointed by. I have no problem with the “morality” of Django (e.g., I am not offended by Tarantino using the “n word” 100+ times or using the historical tragedy of slavery as a backdrop for a juvenile pop entertainment). These criticisms are really no different than the ones that were leveled against Inglourious Basterds, another film I quite like. Rather, the biggest problems with Django are with its pacing and structure, problems that seem unforgivable at a bladder-bursting two hours and 45 minutes:

1. Django and Broomhilda are, at best, the fourth and fifth most interesting characters in the film (following King Schultz, Calvin Candie and Stephen-the-House-Negro). Intellectually, I get the idea that Django is supposed to be a black version of the stoic/Clint Eastwood/”Man with No Name”-type but the Man with No Name himself was only ever upstaged by Eli Wallach’s Tuco (and, even then, only for brief stretches). Throughout their travels together, Schultz is both a much more interesting character and a more magnetic screen presence than Django. You can’t take your eyes off of Schultz, and this is a big problem when your movie is titled Django Unchained. It’s no wonder Christoph Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar last night. He’s the film’s true star (and his character has the good sense to die just before the movie takes a turn for the terrible).

2. The love story between Django and Broomhilda is ill-defined. We don’t know much about these characters, and we know even less about their relationship: How did they meet? How did they get married? Why are they even attracted to each other? I’ve heard some people say that it seems revolutionary for a Hollywood film to show a black man rescuing a black woman but, if their love is supposed to be the “engine” that’s driving the entire story, it’s by far the weakest aspect of the script. I think the love story is really just a flimsy excuse for Tarantino to indulge in the violent shoot-outs and all of the other things that he really wants to show us. I suspect one of the main reasons why so many people have found the last act of the film problematic, even if they haven’t articulated it this way, is because this is where the love story/rescue part really comes to the forefront.

3. In general, the pacing and structure of the film are awkward and bizarre (even though individual moments within it are obviously quite compelling). Because I think Schultz and Candie are the highlight of Django Unchained, it seems to me that the movie dies when they do – and everything afterwards is just tedious. I wonder why the big Candyland shootout, where both of those characters die, couldn’t be the actual climax of the film. Why does Django need to be captured, then granted a reprieve by Stephen, then sold to an evil mining company, then talk his way out of captivity, and then return to the plantation just to kill off the rest of the denizens of Candyland and rescue Broomhilda? Why couldn’t he have killed all those people in the earlier gunfight and rescued Broomhilda back then (which would’ve been around the two hour mark)? The last 45 minutes are pointless, they introduce new characters who are completely irrelevant, and they drag the film out unconscionably.

All of the above problems could have been considerably smoothed over in the script-writing stage. (I have some other problems with the actual editing of the film but that’s a whole other can of worms.) Tarantino, like Terrence Malick (albeit in a different way), has unfortunately reached that stage where no one is going to tell him no. Inglourious Basterds made so much money worldwide that he probably got the $100,000,000 budget for Django just based on its high concept alone (i.e., “Inglourious Basterds set in the antebellum South!”). As a piece of storytelling, Django is the sloppiest, laziest thing Tarantino has ever done. Because it has won multiple Oscars and is now poised to be his highest-grossing movie ever, this does not bode well for his future work.

As I indicated in my opening paragraph, Tarantino is hardly alone. Here is a brief rundown of other recent Hollywood movies that are too damn long:

The Dark Knight Rises (two hours and 45 minutes): This suffers from the typical action-franchise problem of trying to outdo all of the previous entries. Too many subplots, too many characters (two sidekicks, two love interests, two villains, etc.) and too many damn endings, especially a final copout ending that revises the daring ending that preceded it. Christopher Nolan might as well make another one and add Batgirl to the mix while he’s at it.

Lincoln (two hours and 30 minutes): I had a whole host of problems with this movie but, from a structural standpoint, the ending is particularly terrible: Lincoln leaves the White House to attend a play at Ford’s Theater. We see a shot of his iconic, stovepipe-hatted figure walking away in long shot. This is reminiscent of the ending of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and would’ve been a perfect place for the film to end. But no: we then have to see a scene taking place in another theater, where an announcement is made about Lincoln having been shot. Then we see a scene of Lincoln on his deathbed. Then, worst of all, we see a flashback to Lincoln, alive, giving a rousing Schindler’s List-like speech as John Williams’ treacly score swells on the soundtrack.

Skyfall (two hours and 23 minutes): I actually liked this movie on the whole but most of its best moments come in the first half. The climax is way too protracted: first, James Bond is battling the bad-guy invaders, Straw Dogs-style, from inside of a Scottish mansion, then the action moves outside where the characters continue their gunfight on a frozen lake, which, inevitably, involves them crashing through the ice, then they end up finishing the gunfight inside of a nearby church. By the time M’s big death scene finally rolls around, which has been teased since at least the courtroom-assault scene 45 minutes earlier, it’s hard to care. A perfect case of how more can be less.

The Hobbit (two hours and 49 minutes): This is arguably the most poorly structured film on the list. It has too many beginnings, including a lengthy double-prologue, before settling into a theme-park ride structure of one action set piece after another (interrupted by a bizarre and lengthy dialogue scene that feels like an excuse to shoehorn in characters from the previous franchise), and then it abruptly stops just when it starts to get interesting. I’m in full agreement with the critic who said, rather than an “extended edition,” this would benefit from a contracted version on home video.

The Hobbit Rating: 4.7


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. 17 Girls (Coulin/Coulin)
2. The Cameraman (Keaton)
3. Le Havre (Kaurismaki)
4. Slap Shot (Hill)
5. The Taste of Money (Im)
6. Seven Chances (Keaton)
7. Street Angel (Yuan)
8. Queen of Hearts (Donzelli)
9. Heartbeats (Dolan)
10. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)

Oscarology: 2013 Edition

It’s chocolate? Now I want one more than ever!

Late 2012 saw what looked like an unusually competitive Oscar race shaping up. At various times, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln were all being posited by somebody, somewhere, as Oscar front-runners (with Django Unchained lurking in the shadows as a tantalizing unknown). Now that the ceremony is less than a week away, the dust has settled and it is clear that we are looking at a three-way race between Lincoln, Argo and Silver Linings Playbook. Here are my thoughts on the race:

The main contender: Lincoln

Late last year, the smart money was on Lincoln to win big at the Oscars. Consider all of the superficial things it has in common with the typical Best Picture winner – it’s a period piece, it’s based on a true story, it stars British acting royalty, it features a pedigree of highly respected talent that includes many former Oscar winners, it’s aimed at adults, and it was both a critical and commercial success. More importantly, Lincoln makes Americans feel good about themselves and America. It’s typical Spielberg in the way that it offers, in the words of Chicago Reader critic Ben Sachs, “reassuring patriotic sentiment.” It’s about a U.S. President who healed a deeply divided nation, and it can appeal to virtually everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike. Lincoln himself is the closest an American President has ever or will ever come to sainthood. His efforts in ending the Civil War and passing the 13th Amendment are universally regarded as heroic. As in most of his period films, Spielberg invites us to project ourselves back in time and imagine that we would be on the “right side” of history (in this case by supporting the President) if we were in the shoes of his characters. We are invited to scoff at backwards 19th century attitudes regarding racial and gender inequality, personified by the foppish Fernando Wood, and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come as a nation since then. Lincoln has lost momentum in the Oscar race, however. Since Argo was a surprise winner at the Golden Globes last month, Ben Affleck’s movie has gone on to sweep the Guild awards and establish itself as a clear front-runner at the Academy Awards.

The front-runner: Argo

Argo has the true story/period piece credentials of Lincoln, as well as the reassuring patriotic sentiment. I think Argo is also the more crowd-pleasing film; Lincoln is a talky history lesson that feels like a filmed stage play whereas the more overt comedy and suspense of Argo should make it more accessible and entertaining to Oscar voters. While it has made less money than Lincoln (which some see as a strike against it), Argo‘s still a certified smash with a gross of well over $100 million dollars. But here’s Argo‘s secret weapon: it’s a film about the ingenuity of Hollywood (just like last year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist) and we all know that Hollywood loves to “vote for itself.” Plus, George Clooney produced it, and everybody loves that guy. The fact that Ben Affleck has not been nominated for Best Director is causing some to single-handedly write off Argo‘s Best Picture chances but I’m going with the conventional wisdom and saying that Argo will take home the top award. Spielberg will have to settle for Best Director (since Lincoln was a long-delayed pet project, we’ll call it his “Quiet Man prize”).

The dark horse: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook isn’t entirely absent of problems for me: for one thing, it dubiously suggests, Benny and Joon-style, that the best cure for a mentally ill person is to fall in love with another mentally ill person. But, as I recently watched this formidable rom-com for adults, I felt, with each passing scene, that my usual critical reserve was gradually falling away and I was eventually won over completely. Watching the awesome dance montage set to the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version of “Girl of the North Country” was a magical – even soul-thrilling – moment, and by the time the film reached its inevitable-but-still-immensely-satisfying conclusion, I have to confess that I even shed a tear or two. Some pundits have this pegged as a potential Rocky-like spoiler. In its favor: David O. Russell, unlike Ben Affleck, actually has a Best Director nomination, and the movie has also been nominated in all four acting categories – a big-time rarity. But I’m thinking that, among the major categories, Silver Linings Playbook will probably only be snagging the trophies for Best Actress and, less certain, Best Supporting Actor.

The long shot: Zero Dark Thirty

In contrast to Lincoln and Argo, Zero Dark Thirty is anything but reassuring. It has drawn intense criticism from both liberals and conservatives (a sure sign that it’s doing something right). It’s a dark and disturbing film about a secretive organization, the CIA, waging an invisible war on an ill-defined adversary using a variety of technology that is mostly beyond our comprehension. It invites us to have a dialogue about the efficacy of torture and the toll of war in the 21st century, and asks Americans to question who they are and where they’re heading as a country. Its contemporary relevance has made it both a lightning rod for controversy as well as something of an important cultural event. ZDT actually won more year end critics’ awards for Best Picture than Lincoln or Argo. But remember what happened the last time a dark, critical favorite/zeitgeist movie went up against a more populist, feel-good period drama at the Oscars? That’s right – The King’s Speech TROUNCED The Social Network in all of the major categories. The only real question: is the torture-controversy backlash against ZDT so strong that Jessica Chastain will lose out on the Best Actress Oscar she deserves to either Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook or Emmanualle Riva for Amour?

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-genre-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Django Unchained

I suspect Quentin Tarantino will take home the Best Original Screenplay Oscar though. Django has simply made too much money for him not to win this.

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-foreign-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Amour

If there’s one thing that’s a sure thing about this year’s Oscars, it’s that Amour will win Best Foreign Film. It seems to be a new tradition that a single “foreign film” is designated as one that will sweep all of the awards (from the critics’ groups at year’s end through the Oscars in February) so that a specific filmmaker can be feted by Hollywood for a few months. Last year it was A Separation‘s Asghar Farhadi. This year it’s Haneke.

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-indie-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A carpetbagger rewrites Hurricane Katrina so that FEMA are the good guys and New Orleans a racial utopia? The images and narration are a sub-Terrence Malick imitation by way of a Levi’s jeans commercial. The music’s pretty good though.

I’m indifferent to seeing The Life of Pi. I would rather put a lit cigarette out in my own eye than watch Les Miserables.

Here are my final predictions:
Picture: Argo
Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis): Lincoln
Original Screenplay: Django Unchained
Actress and Supporting Actor: Silver Linings Playbook (Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro)
Supporting Actress: Les Miserables (Anne Hathaway)

Here are my personal numerical ratings for the Best Picture Oscar contenders:
Zero Dark Thirty: 9.8
Silver Linings Playbook: 7.6
Django Unchained: 5.9
Lincoln: 5.6
Argo: 5.4
Beasts of the Southern Wild: 5.2
Amour: 4.9


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The More the Merrier (Stevens)
2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
3. Brief Encounter (Lean)
4. Spaceballs (Brooks)
5. Laura (Preminger)
6. Nosferatu (Murnau)
7. Kitty Foyle (Wood)
8. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
9. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
10. Silver Linings Playbook (Russell)

A Sound-Era Soviet Cinema Primer

This is meant as a companion piece to my silent Soviet cinema primer from last year. It covers Soviet films from the beginning of the sound era – which, even more so than in most European countries – began much later than in the U.S. – through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As with most of these primers, I am limiting myself here to only one film per director. I will soon have a separate primer for movies made in Eastern Bloc countries outside of the Soviet Union that cover the same time span.

Enthusiasm (Vertov, 1931)


Dziga Vertov’s follow-up to the revolutionary Man with the Movie Camera was also his first sound film and, while less well-known than its predecessor, is in many ways just as astonishing. It begins with a memorable sequence in which a woman is listening to the radio on headphones; we hear a cacophony of music and sound effects that rhythmically interact with a series of documentary shots of urban Soviet life that feel almost as if they could be outtakes from Man with the Movie Camera (though the aggressively anti-Christian nature of some of the images mark it as a more explicitly propagandistic work). What eventually emerges is a celebratory portrait of Stalin’s first five-year plan, focusing specifically on coal miners and factory workers in the Donbass region (the film’s subtitle is literally translated as Symphony of Donbass). Vertov’s silent movies featured pounding editing rhythms but the addition of literal sound in Enthusiasm arguably leant his art a greater, more symphonic complexity. An essential work by one of cinema’s great avant-gardists.

Deserter (Pudovkin, 1933)


It seems somewhat curious that Vsevelod Pudovkin, a great director and film theorist, is less famous than Sergei Eisenstein (whose career spanned roughly the same time frame). In both the silent and early sound eras, Pudovkin showed just as much of a flair for associative montage as Eisenstein but, unlike his more theoretically-minded countryman, Pudovkin was more interested in wedding his radical editing techniques with traditional approaches to characterization and story construction. The story of Deserter, Pudovkin’s first sound movie, concerns Karl Renn, a German shipyard worker who “deserts” his striking co-workers and is consequently sent to the Soviet Union so that he can observe the virtues of proletarian solidarity firsthand. The use of sound is primitive (the film is often completely silent until an important sound effect or line of dialogue is required) but its implementation is still more creative than the strictly realistic use of sound being employed concurrently by Hollywood. Also notable for containing scenes that take place in Germany and feature German characters, unusual given the widespread anti-German sentiments in Russia at the time.

Outskirts (Barnet, 1933)


Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

Aerograd (Dovzhenko, 1935)


The Ukrainian Aleksandr Dovzhenko was arguably the greatest narrative filmmaker working in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s and this early sound-era propaganda piece is one of his finest works. The plot is about the construction of an air field in remote far east Russia and, more specifically, the conflict it engenders between modern-day Bolsheviks and the rural and backwards “old believers” (read Orthodox Christians) who are being spurred on by Japanese saboteurs. But you don’t watch Dovzhenko for the plot, much less the propaganda. You watch him for his famed passages of incredible – and purely cinematic – lyricism: a briskly edited scene of a Russian sharpshooter chasing Japanese spies through a dense forest, beautiful nautical and aerial photography (including a thrilling climax involving paratroopers), and even quiet moments like the radiant smile on the face of a Chinese woman after she’s given birth to the son of her Russian-pilot husband. Operatic and sublime.

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Eisenstein, 1944-1958)


Sergei Eisenstein’s final movies were the first two parts of an unfinished trilogy about the life of the 17th-century military leader who crowned himself the first tsar of Russia. The films deal with Ivan’s attempts to unify his homeland while fending off both foreign invaders and would-be usurpers within his own inner circle. This has all of the virtues of Alexander Nevsky (spectacle, pageantry, a poetic view of history-as-myth, and a stirring Sergei Prokofiev score), minus the earlier movie’s more dubious pro-militaristic elements. Plus, in the second part (the release of which was delayed by a decade due to Stalin’s personal objections), there is a beautiful color sequence that resembles early two-strip Technicolor, and even a proto-campy musical number. This has my vote for being Eisenstein’s finest achievement.

The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov, 1957)


Veronica and Boris are young lovers in Moscow whose lives are interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He is drafted and sent to the front while she becomes a nurse and is pressured into an unhappy marriage with his cousin. This film, a kind of bleak Russian cousin to King Vidor’s The Big Parade, was groundbreaking in terms of form and content: the extensive use of handheld camera was revolutionary for a pre-Nouvelle Vague narrative feature, and it is not only remarkably propaganda-free but also taboo-busting as a social document of life during wartime in the Soviet Union. If one wants to understand Andre Bazin’s theory of the relationship between long-take, deep-focus images and “realism,” this masterpiece from the legendary Mikhail Kalatozov (Salt for Svanetia, I am Cuba) could handily serve as “Exhibit A.” The title refers to shots of birds in flight that bookend the film but it might equally refer to the epic crane shots that Kalatozov employs throughout, which give the film an awesome sense of fluidity.

Hamlet (Kozintsev, 1964)


As much as I admire Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh’s versions (not to mention Michael Almereyda’s underrated postmodern take), Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 adaptation remains far and away my favorite film adaptation of Hamlet. It strikes me as being the most realistic as well as the most cinematic: the action is captured almost entirely in long and medium shots via beautiful black and white ‘Scope cinematography and, combined with the stunning locations (including a real beach and a massive castle set that took six months to construct), they conjure up a gloomy, atmospheric mood perfectly suited to the story. Interestingly, Kozintsev stages Hamlet’s soliloquies as internal monologues; the “To be or not to be” speech is presented as voice-over narration as Hamlet wanders alone along a barren, rocky shoreline. This is also in many ways a uniquely Russian production: the script is base on a lauded 1941 translation by Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago) and the great original score was composed by none other than Dmitri Shostokovich.

Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1966)


Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a mere boy overseeing the arduous process of the casting of a giant bell. The boy saves himself from government execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that feels like a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to create his greatest works.

The Color of Pomegranates (Parajanov, 1968)


Sergei Parajanov’s biopic of the 16th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova is probably the least conventional take on its subject one could imagine. This might be better referred to as a work of poetry in its own right rather than a film about poetry – a series of fragmented, lyrical, incredibly beautiful scenes from the life of the famed poet (played by actor Sofiko Chiaureli, who also plays four other roles) that employ a purposeful, symbolic use of color, and contain barely any dialogue. This was, unsurprisingly, heavily censored (and even retitled) by Soviet authorities upon its initial release. The homoeroticism, religious imagery and overall abstract nature apparently made them very nervous. But you can’t keep a good film down: the uncut version of The Color of Pomegranates was re-released to wide acclaim in the 1980s and is a frequent staple on the “best of” lists of many critics and cinephiles.

The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, 1975)


A lot of the films on this list are dark, heavy, serious and slow-paced dramas (especially those immediately preceding and following this entry). This is partly a reflection of my personal taste and partly due to the way Russian and Ukrainian art films have always tended to receive wider distribution internationally than the movies that have been more popular domestically. I am, however, delighted to include at least one crowd-pleasing comedy on this list, Eldar Ryazanov’s legendary The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!. This feel-good, sentimental rom-com is paradoxically both Russian-to-the-bone and universal in its broad appeal: the screwball premise is that Zhenya, a shy doctor, is about to be engaged. After binge-drinking with friends on New Year’s Eve he ends up passing out in an apartment in Leningrad that he mistakenly believes is his own Moscow apartment (it looks the same and even has the same street name and number). Hijinks ensue when the apartment’s true tenant, Nadya, comes home and discovers this strange man in his underwear in her bed. The confusion engendered by this “compromising position” causes problems for not only Zhenya and his fiancee but Nadya and her fiancee as well. What starts off quite farcical (who knew that the uniformity of Brezhnev-era architecture could yield such comic gold?) slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into a moving romantic drama. I’m told that this still plays on television in Russia every New Year’s Eve, holding the same beloved place in their culture that It’s a Wonderful Life does in America.

The Ascent (Shepitko, 1977)


Larisa Shepitko was a director of enormous intelligence and integrity who tragically died in a car accident at the young age of 40 (with many more great movies undoubtedly ahead of her). The final film she completed before her death is this harrowing, indelible masterwork about the persecution of partisans in Nazi-occupied Belarus during World War II, which some feel is the finest Soviet film of the 1970s. In adapting a novel by Vasili Bykov – about the two Soviet soldiers and their futile mission to find supplies in a bleak, snowy landscape populated by Nazi collaborators – Shepitko has crafted an experience so austere, and infused it with so much Christian symbolism, that she makes Tarkovsky look both secular and populist. The drastically different way that her two protagonists meet their fates allows for Shepitko to engage the viewer in a dialogue of uncommon moral complexity. For sheer intensity, this wartime drama is topped only by her husband Elem Klimov’s Come and See from eight years later (see below).

Come and See (Klimov, 1985)


Veteran director Elem Klimov’s final testament, Come and See, is the single most disturbing, and therefore effective, war movie I have ever seen. This tackles somewhat similar terrain as The Ascent, the final film of Larisa Shepitko (Klimov’s late wife) in that it concerns the conflict between Belarussian partisans and their Nazi occupiers during the height of World War II. What makes this film so unsettling and unforgettable is that all of the events are seen through the eyes of a little boy, a Belarussian peasant who joins the partisans and thus witnesses horrors that no one should ever have to face, least of all a child. Before the horrors begin however, there is a mesmerizing, almost unimaginably lovely sequence in which Florya, the protagonist, witnesses a young girl dancing on a tree stump in the rain, as well as a surreal coda in which images of Hitler’s life are shown in reverse order from adulthood all the way back to when he was himself a child. Without these bookending sequences, the film’s depiction of unending suffering might well be unwatchable. Klimov said he lost interest in making films after Come and See, stating, “Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” He’s not exaggerating.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Casablanca (Curtiz)
2. The Apartment (Wilder)
3. Wild Boys of the Road (Wellman)
4. The Navigator (Keaton)
5. Os Canibais (de Oliveira)
6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
7. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
8. Two Stage Sisters (Xie)
9. In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang)
10. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)

Personal Video Consultant Interview: Miguel Martinez

Miguel Martinez just ended a tenure of eight-plus years in the legendary Rentals Department of Facets Multimedia in Chicago. He and his girlfriend are moving to Seattle to pursue their film/media dreams. So I thought now would be a good time to interview the man who coined the term “Personal Video Consultant,” which Facets has adopted to describe its employees. There is no phrase more fitting to indicate the kind of invaluable face-to-face interaction with a true expert that only going to a good old brick-and-mortar video store can provide – an experience that, needless to say, can never be replicated when streaming/downloading movies online. Miguel and I recently had coffee and chatted about the ever-changing culture of home video.


MGS: The reason why I wanted to talk to you is because, as you know, I worked in Facets Rentals for years but only during the VHS era. You’ve worked there for years but only during the DVD era. So between the two of us I figured we could fruitfully discuss the culture of home video – its past, present and future. First of all, you’re moving to Seattle in 12 days. Are you going to apply for a job at Scarecrow Video?

MM: (laughs) That’s on the back burner. I’ll probably send an introductory e-mail and tell them I worked here at Facets and this and that, and hopefully they’ll say, “Yeah, we need part-time help.”

MGS: How did you first start working at Facets?

MM: I worked at the Landmark Theater for about three years and the first time I ever got a debit card I went straight to Facets because I’d been reading about the place for a long time. I think I first read about Facets in a Leonard Maltin book. Then, I read about it in Roger Ebert’s book – talking about all these obscure videos. A friend of mine, who used to work at the Virgin Megastore back in the Nineties with me, was working there. So he kind of hooked me up with free rentals. Since I was an employee at the Landmark we got free rentals there (as part of a reciprocal program that no longer exists – MGS). And then, almost exactly a year later, I lost my job at the Landmark and I was hired by one of the managers I became friends with at Facets. That was in 2004. I’ve definitely seen the end of VHS, the beginning of mainstream DVDs being released, and I’m seeing the beginning of Blu-ray, the beginning of downloading, and now I’m leaving when everything’s at its peak . . .

MGS: You’re getting out at the right time. (laughs)

MM: I’m getting out at the right time. They just decided to close down 300 more Blockbusters.

MGS: I read that. That announcement was made today. I think there are 800 now so there are only going to be about 500 after they close those 300. It’s probably only a matter of time before those are all gone too.

MM: There are only four or five left in Chicago.

MGS: I can’t even think of where they are.

MM: I think two are on the north side, two are on the south side.

MGS: I can tell you where a bunch of empty storefronts are where they used to be. (laughs) So when you started at Facets in 2004, they carried DVD at that point?

MM: Yeah, I still remember the first week or two I was there, Kill Bill came out on DVD. It was like number 65000 and the DVDs started at 60000 so that was like the 5000th DVD. They started collecting DVDs maybe a year or two prior.

MGS: Right. And that was fairly late in the game for DVD. Because I worked at Facets from ’95 to ’98 when It was all VHS. I quit in the spring and I bought a DVD player in December of that year. And I was the only person I knew who had one. I paid an obscene amount of money – like 300 dollars. And you couldn’t rent DVDs from anywhere. I would go to the Virgin Megastore and they had a pretty small selection of DVDs for sale. I would comb through it and I would just buy whatever they had that I really liked. I always say if you owned a DVD player in the Nineties, it meant you were a hardcore cinephile. Ironically, the same is now true if you still watch VHS.

Anyway, I never went back to Facets for years after quitting so I was a little unclear on how they made that transition.

MM: The first time I heard about Facets back in the mid-Nineties, I bought a laser disc player off a friend of mine. And there was a laser disc store right by Facets. I was like, “This place is cool.”

MGS: I used to rent from there all the time! I would leave Facets with VHS tapes and then go to the laser disc store down the street and rent a laser disc.

MM: That started the whole idea of going to Facets but I was never able to get a credit card. To this day I still can’t get one. My identity was stolen five years ago and that prevented a lot of stuff from happening. There are a lot of Miguel Martinezes all over the country . . . It’s a big headache.

MGS: Right. I have the same problem ’cause I’m Michael Smith. I can’t check in online for a flight because I guess there’s somebody who has my name who’s a wanted criminal. I have to do it in person so they can make sure I’m not “Michael Smith the fugitive.” (laughs)

MM: I tell ya, with these very straight names that are popular – like Michael Smith or Miguel Martinez – it prevents us from doing anything . . .

MGS: Exactly. If I ever have kids I’m gonna name them something totally fucked up.

MM: Oh yeah, I’m gonna name them something like Chantal. Give ’em a French name or something.

MGS: Like Chantal Akerman?

MM: Or Chantal Goya.

MGS: Yeah, right. So is it safe to say you first fell in love with movies because of home video? Describe the process of how that happened.

MM: Well, I grew up with VHS. I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies at home (I would tape the censored versions of movies from TV since we didn’t have cable). My cousin and I would rent videotapes for a buck and rent six movies at a time every Saturday and watch them at my aunt’s place. We watched everything. All horror, all the time. Then I really got into martial arts films (hand-to-hand, wuxia) because every Sunday here in Chicago, on WGN, was Samurai Sunday. They showed nothing but old school kung fu movies. The rest is history.

MGS: That’s funny. In Charlotte, North Carolina, where I grew up, it was called “Kung Fu Action Theater” and it was on every Saturday; I grew up on Shaw Brothers’ films dubbed into English.

I think you and I both feel strangely optimistic about the future of home video but I know you also stream and download a lot. What role do you think brick-and-mortar video stores have to play in the wake of this new technology?

MM: That’s a tough question to answer because every video store has its own set of customer tastes. Its role is to serve the community but it all depends on the community it’s in. If you have a “meat and potatoes” kind of city like Chicago, it’s tough. There are still video stores here but a lot of them survive on Adult titles.

The one advantage video stores have over Netflix and Redbox is that they really don’t have to abide by the “release window” set by the studios. In other words, no exclusives. Indie stores can carry what they want and can satisfy a customer’s new release fix every Tuesday. Some stores even break the release schedule and put out DVDs for rent Monday nights, which is a big no no in this industry.

MGS: Well, I also know you’re an advocate of Blu-ray, like me, even though a lot of other cinephiles I know seem reluctant to embrace the format. Hopefully, Blu-ray will bring more people into the remaining video stores.

Miguel, thanks so much for your time and best of luck in Seattle!


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