Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Before Midnight (Linklater)
2. The Secret of the Grain (Kechiche)
3. The Shining (Kubrick)
4. Inquiring Nuns (Quinn)
5. The Smugglers (Moullet)
6. Vampir-Cuadecuc (Portabella)
7. Demons (Bava)
8. Mutants (Morley)
9. The Young One (Bunuel)
10. To Rome With Love (Allen)


Odds and Ends: Frances Ha and Evil Dead

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2012) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 8.5

frances

The title character of Frances Ha is a 27-year-old “aspiring” dancer and California-to-New York transplant played with warmth and great humor by Greta Gerwig. The film details Frances’ co-dependent relationship with her roommate and best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), which supersedes any relationships she might have with numerous would-be male suitors. So it’s a film centered on female friendship, which is rare enough these days, but one that is also memorably shot through with the same genuine feeling for the kind of awkward, embarrassing or just plain painful social situations that have always been the acidic stock-in-trade of co-writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). Frances is an endearing fuck-up, which is nowhere better typified than in the scenes depicting her spontaneous — and disastrous — weekend jaunt to Paris (“When did Puss in Boots start?”). This is fitting because, stylistically, the film is a valentine to French cinema (the freewheeling black-and-white cinematography, snappy montages, Brechtian chapter headings and hijacked Georges Delerue musical excerpts are all straight out of the 1960s Nouvelle Vague) as well as to its charming star; Gerwig is Baumbach’s leading lady in real life and his camera consequently frames her in loving close-up — but she is also, crucially, the co-author of the screenplay and thus never comes across as an objectified presence. In a similar vein, one gets the sense that the film’s wise moral about the importance of readjusting one’s dreams may not be one that either Baumbach or Gerwig would have arrived at independently of each other; most likely it sprang, serendipitously, from the creative symbiosis between them. Regardless of how their collaboration works, it is certainly refreshing to see a new movie that doesn’t bow to genre conventions — even typical “indie movie” formulae — but instead shows with great accuracy and sympathy the kind of big disappointments and small victories that most twenty-something Americans experience on this crazy merry-go-round called life. Frances Ha is ultimately about real people, real relationships, real emotions. And it’s hilarious.

Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, USA, 2013) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 4.4

evil

Shit.


A Golden Age for the Microbudget Indie?

upstream5

Anyone who’s purchased a digital camera and/or editing software package during the past decade knows that cinema’s digital revolution truly has democratized the filmmaking process. It has literally never been easier to make a movie (whether short or feature-length, fiction, documentary or animation) than it is today. Hell, even cell phones and iMovie have made auteurs out of people who would’ve never dreamed of trying to operate a 16mm Bolex camera or Steenbeck editing table. What was it that Francis Ford Coppola said about that “little fat girl in Ohio” being the future Mozart of the cinema? Unfortunately, anyone who’s ever submitted their independently made labor of love to film festivals knows that virtually every festival, big or small, is also receiving a “record number of submissions” for the same few slots year after year. So if you’re wondering why the glut of newly produced digital movies hasn’t translated into more independent features playing at your local multiplex, that’s largely because the distribution and exhibition of “film” are still primarily lorded over by a Hollywood old guard clinging to an ancient business model. In other words, while more independent movies are being made every year, it’s still mostly that same small percentage — the ones lucky enough to be scooped up by big distributors — that are actually being seen.

There are encouraging signs, however, that the culture of distribution and exhibition is starting to change. Forget momentarily about VOD and the internet as long-hyped sources for motion-picture exhibition; three of the very best films I’ve seen in the theater this year have been true “microbudget” indies (budget estimates I’ve seen for each have topped out at $50,000): Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act. Amazingly, the most successful of these three appears to be the self-distributed Upstream Color, which had an unusually lengthy run at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre and also turned up for a week at the recently restored Patio Theater. (Carruth has apparently been as successful at educating himself about the business-end of distribution as he was about the artistry of picture-making.) But, since I already wrote a long review of Upstream Color in April, I’d like to dedicate the rest of this post to those other two eminently worthy indies: Sun Don’t Shine was released by the innovative film and record company Factory 25 while The Unspeakable Act was put out by the ambitious distributor Cinema Guild. Both played at the Gene Siskel Film Center in recent weeks to crowded and enthusiastic houses.

sundon'tshine

Sun Don’t Shine is an exceedingly realistic, sun-baked neo-noir about a pair of down-on-their-luck white-trash lovers driving across Florida and desperately trying to dispose of the body in the trunk of their car. It represents the directing debut of actress Amy Seimetz (so good as the lead in Upstream Color) and stars the terrific Kate Lyn Sheil as an emotionally retarded bartender and single mother and Kentucker Audley as her partner in crime. The main selling point here is Sheil, probably the best American actress under the age of 30, who has an Isabelle Huppert-like intensity that seems capable of burning a hole right through the cinema screen. In her jealous/freak-out scenes, I could not take my eyes off of her. Probably made for a fraction of the catering budget of that movie about the man in the iron suit, Sun Don’t Shine was nonetheless impressively shot on real 16mm film, and the images have a bleached-out, pastel-colored quality that puts them in beautiful and ironic counterpoint to the downbeat story.

The Unspeakable Act is just the third feature made by film critic and director Dan Sallitt over the past three decades — though, because it’s being referred to as his “breakthrough,” one hopes he’ll now be able to pick up the pace a little. The story deals, sensitively and intelligently, with a 17-year old girl’s incestuous longing for her older brother while the latter acquires his first girlfriend and prepares to leave home for college — a double-whammy that fractures their formerly idyllic but unhealthy childhood-sibling bond. This is a bold, witty, nuanced and delightfully talky character study (the lead actress Tallie Medel is remarkable at handling dialogue both diegetically and via her copious voice-over narration) that is set in a deftly sketched upper-middle class Brooklyn milieu; the old wooden houses and residential-neighborhood feel put it in pointed contrast to the hipster-Brooklyn we’re used to seeing in contemporary movies. The result is, very fittingly, dedicated to French New Wave master Eric Rohmer. The Unspeakable Act marks Sallitt, now in his late-50s, as exciting of a “new talent” to watch as any American director half his age.

unspeakable

One hopes that the success of the new microbudget indie augurs well for the diversity of the kinds of American films that will be distributed in the future. One suspects that the recent success of companies like Cinema Guild and Factory 25 results from the fact that 1) digital exhibition means eliminating the formerly prohibitive costs of making and shipping film prints, 2) “social media” has actually made advertising, including crucial word-of-mouth publicity, easier and cheaper than ever before and 3) the popularity of downloading/streaming movies by the masses has made the DVDs and Blu-rays put out by these boutique labels highly desired collector’s items for those still interested in physical media (in much the same way that the popularity of vinyl has surged in recent years in the wake of the ubiquitous mp3). In the past few years alone, Factory 25 and Cinema Guild have been responsible for releasing such important titles as Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives and Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, as well as multi-film box sets by directors as disparate as Alexander Sokurov and Joe Swanberg. Let’s hope that other enterprising distributors will follow their lead in bringing good cinema fare to screens both big and small — and thus expand the number of refreshing alternatives to Hollywood’s never-ending onslaught of soulless “entertainment.”

Sun Don’t Shine Rating: 7.8
The Unspeakable Act Rating: 8.0


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Frances Ha (Baumbach)
2. Young Einstein (Serious)
3. Newsfront (Noyce)
4. Pieta (Kim)
5. Young Frankenstein (Brooks)
6. No Rest for the Brave (Guiraudie)
7. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Schepisi)
8. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir)
9. The Unspeakable Act (Sallitt)
10. Y las vacas vuelan (Lavanderos)


Inherent Vice: Ruminating on the Book, Speculating About the Movie

“Sportello. Try to drag your consciousness out of that old-time hard-boiled dick era, this is the Glass House wave of the future we’re in now.”

— Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Inherent Vice

inherent

I just finished reading Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent book and the only one of his seven novels that I hadn’t already read. Although I was something of a hardcore fan of the reclusive author when I was in my 20s (who was it that said Pynchon and Jean-Luc Godard find every new generation of college students?), my extreme distaste for his 2006 novel Against the Day turned me off of reading Inherent Vice when it was first published as an uncharacteristically quick follow-up in 2009. The recent news that Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation has started shooting (the first of Pynchon’s works to be adapted for the screen) made me curious enough to finally read the book. And I’m happy to report I found it delightfully daffy from beginning to end: Inherent Vice is a surprisingly accessible, shaggy dog-stoner-detective story that seems to be deliberately minor in scale — but I much prefer good minor Pynchon to failed major Pynchon. Having said that, it’s still somewhat surprising to see the author working in the detective-fiction genre. Although Pynchon has acknowledged literary genres before, even “lowly” ones, it’s usually in the context of an incongruous mash-up — as in Against the Day, in which the boys’ adventure, western and spy novel elements not only provocatively clashed but were put to the service of a pretentious thesis about World War I representing the global triumph of Evil Capitalist Interests. Inherent Vice, by contrast, not only sticks closely to its main genre but seems to have nothing more on its mind than spinning an entertaining mystery-yarn about a bunch of eccentric characters. Which is precisely why it just might make a great movie. Remember that when Francois Truffaut asked Alfred Hitchcock if he would be interested in adapting a Dostoevsky novel, the master of suspense sagely replied that he wouldn’t — because it wasn’t possible to improve on someone else’s masterpiece.

It ain’t a detective being put through the paces of this labyrinthine Chandler-esque plot. But a stoner who likes to bowl!
lebowski

Interestingly, Inherent Vice actually feels as if it may have been written with the intention of being adapted into a movie in much the same way that D’entre les morts, the source novel of Vertigo, was written by Boileau-Narcejac specifically for Hitchcock. This is not just because it is a remarkably concise and linear narrative coming from a master of the loose and baggy like Pynchon but also because the novel’s specific themes and story elements already feel familiar from other movies. The stoner-take-on-Raymond Chandler was of course perfected by the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski, with which Inherent Vice also shares the additional tropes of a kidnapping plot involving a billionaire, the clash between counter-culture characters and the “square world,” a southern California milieu, some not-so-scary white-supremacist types and, hell, even lingonberry pancakes. No wonder Warner Brothers (as opposed to Annapurna Pictures) is financing this one. They could probably smell its potential cult status — and the Lebowski-like residuals that might bring for years to come — from a mile away. What seems even more likely, however, especially given Paul Thomas Anderson’s deep affection for and friendship with the late Robert Altman, is that the whole thing will turn into an extended homage to The Long Goodbye, which was the original (and the best and the funniest) attempt to bring Philip Marlowe out of that “old-time hard-boiled dick era” and confront him with the modern world. Although it was personally much easier for me to imagine Robert Downey Jr., PTA’s first choice, as stoner-P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, I’ll be interested to see what the great Joaquin Phoenix does with the role. Phoenix has been doing “brooding and intense” so well and for so long that Inherent Vice should provide him with the welcome opportunity to show off some of the other, goofier colors on his impressive acting palette. If nothing else, we’ll get to see him wear some ridiculous disguises.

Philip Marlowe buying cat food? In a supermarket? That’s not right!
longgoodbye

Paul Thomas Anderson fans, who are accustomed to waiting five years between the director’s projects, are already rejoicing at the prospect of seeing Inherent Vice debut only one year after The Master. (As with that last movie, a Venice Film Festival premiere for Vice in the fall seems likely.) In addition to my own excitement about the film, I’m also grateful to Anderson for getting me to finally pick up the book. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll even take another crack at Against the Day; hearing my students talk endlessly about big budget comic book and video game adaptations, and the endless sequels, remakes and “reboots” they engender, has already convinced me that its anti-capitalist message will go down a lot easier the second time around.


A Decalogue of the Dopest Movie References in Dylan

In honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday on Friday, this year’s movie-related Dylan birthday post is the inverse of last year’s list of the best Dylan references in movies; I’d now like to highlight some of the most memorable movie references in the work of Bob Dylan (whether in song lyrics, poems or Dylan’s own films). Happy 72nd, Bob!

10. The appropriation of a joke from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera in the song “Po’ Boy”

night

In spite of its fame, true Marx brothers fans know that A Night at the Opera (1935), along with all the other films the brothers made at MGM, is inferior to the anarchic, truly batshit-crazy slapstick movies they had made earlier at Paramount (e.g., Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, etc.). The problem is that, while the brothers were always the star of the show in their Paramount films, they tended to be shunted to the side in their MGM vehicles, while some wooden young romantic leads took center stage. Still, A Night at the Opera has its share of zingers. One of the best comes when Groucho calls room service to ask, “Room service? Send up a larger room.” This joke found its way into a couplet on the wryly funny “Po’ Boy,” one of the best cuts on Dylan’s celebrated “Love and Theft” album (2001):

“Po’ boy, in a hotel called the Palace of Gloom
Calls down to room service, says, ‘Send up a room'”

Of course, almost as funny as the room service joke itself is the notion that a hotel would be named the “Palace of Gloom.”

9. The homage to Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in the poem “11 Outlined Epitaphs”

shoot

“there’s a movie called
Shoot the Piano Player
the last line proclaimin’
‘music, man, that’s where it’s at’
it is a religious line
outside, the chimes rung
an’ they
are still ringin'”

So ends “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the long poetic liner notes Dylan wrote for his legendary 1963 album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Truffaut’s seminal French New Wave movie Shoot the Piano Player (1960) doesn’t end with anyone literally saying that music is “where it’s at” but that is the general impression of the scene: after the lead character, played by Charles Aznavour (long one of Dylan’s favorite singers), loses his girlfriend in a tragic shootout with gangsters, he simply returns to playing the piano — the thing he knows how to do best (and a sentiment with which the ever-touring Dylan can probably relate). Dylan seems to have been influenced by watching many foreign-language — especially French — films in Greenwich Village arthouse theaters early in his career. He would speak of being influenced by Truffaut and Godard in interviews for years to come.

8. The description of seeing Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in the memoir Chronicles: Volume One

ladolcevita

Bob Dylan first arrived in New York City in January 1961. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) opened in New York only three months later and seems to have made a particularly strong impression on the young folk singer. Dylan name-checked Anita Ekberg, one of the film’s stars, in I Shall Be Free, the last track on his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and referenced the film’s title in the song “Motorpsycho Nitemare” one year later (see entry number two on this list). When Dylan met the German singer Nico a year after that, he claimed to remember her from her bit part in the film (when she was known by her birth name, Christa Paffgen). In his intentionally — and hilariously — inaccurate 2003 memoir Chronicles Volume One, Dylan used vivid language to describe seeing Fellini’s movie for the first time:

“There was an art movie house in the Village on 12th Street that showed foreign movies — French, Italian, German. This made sense, because even Alan Lomax himself, the great folk archivist, had said somewhere that if you want to get out of America, go to Greenwich Village. I’d seen a couple of Italian Fellini movies there — one called La Strada, which means “the Street,” and another one called La Dolce Vita. It was about a guy who sells his soul and becomes a gossip hound. It looked like life in a carnival mirror.”

Dylan then intriguingly adds that he watched La Dolce Vita “intently,” unsure of whether he would ever have the chance to see it again. “Life in a carnival mirror” is exactly how many have described Dylan’s best lyrics from the 1960s.

7. The use of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance as an “opening act” in 2010.

intolerance

Dylan puzzled many longtime fans in 2010 when the early shows of his fall tour began with the opening 30 minutes of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916) being screened via digital projection. In a neat coincidence, some of the theaters Dylan was playing were old movie palaces that had originally shown Intolerance some 80-odd years earlier. What kind of message was Dylan trying to send? Some commentators speculated he was comparing 21st century America to the decadent, ancient Babylon depicted in Griffith’s film. Whatever the case, Dylan, as usual, kept mum. Midway through the tour, the projection of Intolerance stopped just as mysteriously as it had begun.

6. The appropriation of dialogue from Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy in the song Seeing the Real You at Last

bronco

Dylan has long used movie dialogue — along with lyrics from folk songs, stray lines from other works of literature, etc. — as a source for his song lyrics. In the mid-1980s especially, he was apparently spending a lot of time with classic Hollywood films on VHS, the dialogue of which found its way verbatim into his songs. This list could have been much, much longer if I had wanted to point out film dialogue appropriated solely for the 1985 album Empire Burlesque. Instead, I’ll settle for highlighting a single line from Clint Eastwood’s highly personal 1980 comedy Bronco Billy that turned up in the song “Seeing the Real You at Last.” At one point in the movie, Eastwood’s title character, a Wild West show impresario, says, “I’m looking for a woman who can ride like Annie Oakley and shoot like Belle Starr.”

The verse in “Seeing the Real You at Last” goes:

“When I met you, baby,
You didn’t show no visible scars,
You could ride like Annie Oakley,
You could shoot like Belle Starr.”

Incidentally, the “no visible scars” line is a quote from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Almost every line in the song has been traced back to one film or another.

5. The homage to Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents in the song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”

savage

One of the unlikeliest hits of Dylan’s career is the drunken sing-along/nonsense song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” which originated as one of many such songs he spontaneously wrote and recorded with The Band in the legendary 1967 sessions that would form the basis of The Basement Tapes. Although nothing in the song’s lyrics corresponds very closely to anything that happens in Nicholas Ray’s underrated 1959 drama, it is generally assumed that the title is a reference to the protagonist of The Savage Innocents, an Inuit man played by actor Anthony Quinn. The song title itself would inspire yet another movie — the 1989 Jamaica-set thriller The Mighty Quinn, starring Denzel Washington as a detective.

4. The influence of Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise on the entire Rolling Thunder Revue-era

children

Along with La Dolce Vita and Shoot the Piano Player, another film that can be said to have had a major impact on Dylan’s career is Marcel Carne’s 1945 masterpiece Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). It isn’t known exactly when Dylan first saw this tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater but a revival screening at a Greenwich Village art house (with Suze Rotolo?) seems likely. At one point in the movie, the female lead, Garance, says, “You go your way and I’ll go mine,” which would form most of the title of a well-known song from Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. But Dylan clearly must have watched it again at some point in the early to mid-1970s because the film’s biggest influence was on the recorded music, live performances and film work Dylan was involved in from 1975 – 1978. Dylan’s bittersweet love song “You’re a Big Girl Now” from 1975 features the line “Love is so simple / to quote a phrase.” The phrase being quoted is a line from Children of Paradise, spoken by Garance twice during the movie. Dylan’s live appearances on the Rolling Thunder Revue tours of 1975/1976 saw him wearing “white face” make-up in what is widely regarded as an homage to Baptiste, the mime protagonist of Carne’s film. And Dylan’s own 1978 movie Renaldo and Clara, a fascinating four-hour experimental epic shot during the 1975 tour that mixes live performances with improvised fictional scenes, has several elements clearly inspired by Children of Paradise. In an interview to promote Renaldo and Clara, Dylan even cited the Carne film as the only one he knew of that could “stop time.”

3. The appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Titanic character in the song “Tempest”

titanic

Many Dylan fans were surprised when it was revealed in early 2012 that his forthcoming album, Tempest, would contain a 14-minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic. Even more surprising was when word leaked out that the title song included references to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack Dawson, who, in typically perverse Dylan fashion, is referred to by the actor’s name rather than the character’s name:

“Leo took his sketchbook
He was often so inclined
He closed his eyes and painted
The scenery in his mind”

Dylan fans are split on the song’s worth. Some find it overlong and monotonous while others have claimed it is one of the bard’s most extraordinary compositions. Dylan himself acknowledged the reference to DiCaprio in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Yeah, Leo. I don’t think the song would be the same without him. Or the movie.” What Dylan doesn’t say is that he was essentially repaying a compliment: DiCaprio’s character anachronistically quoted Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone in a line of dialogue in Titanic: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

2. The parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare”

psycho

Some of the funniest lyrics Dylan ever penned can be found in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare” from 1964. The song essentially mashes-up the plot of Hitchcock’s proto-slasher film with the old joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. In the Dylan tune, a farmer grants the narrator a place to sleep for the night under the condition that he doesn’t touch the farmer’s daughter and in the morning milks a cow. In the middle of the night, the farmer’s daughter, who looks “just like Tony Perkins” (a line that rhymes, hilariously, with “I was sleepin’ like a rat / When I heard something jerkin'”), wakes up the narrator and implores him to take a shower. This leads to a slapstick fight between the narrator and the farmer, from which the narrator is lucky to escape alive. The song ends with the farmer’s daughter moving away and getting “a job in a motel” and the narrator thanking his lucky stars that he’s not “in the swamp” (the fate of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho).

1. Myriad eferences to Henry King’s The Gunfighter in the song “Brownsville Girl”

gunfighter

One of Dylan’s very best songs is the 1986 mock-heroic epic “Brownsville Girl,” written in collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard (who was also, once upon a time, implored by Dylan to watch Children of Paradise and Shoot the Piano Player when he was hired to write scenes for Renaldo and Clara). The song begins with the line “Well, there was this movie I seen one time / About a man riding ‘cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck.” The song’s narrator tells the story of an ill-fated love affair with the title character that plays out in various locations across the state of Texas but he continually interrupts this narrative with reminiscences of seeing Henry King’s 1950 western The Gunfighter. The film indeed stars Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a famous gunfighter who is shot in the back by a “hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.” Ringo, on his deathbed, lies to the local sheriff, saying that it was he (Ringo) who drew first; his rationale is that he wants the kid to know what it feels like to have gunfighters out to get him. Dylan and Shepard get a lot of comic mileage out of having their narrator, who appears to be something of a coward (“I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran”), identify with Peck’s noble outlaw. When Dylan became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1997, the award was presented by none other than Gregory Peck who, amusingly, made reference to the song:

For more fun with Dylan lyrics and film dialogue, check out this great site: http://dylanfilm.atspace.com/

Dylan fans should feel free to post their own favorite Dylan movie references in the comments section below.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. My Bloody Valentine (Mihalka)
2. Twitch of the Death Nerve (Bava)
3. Walkabout (Roeg)
4. Wake in Fright (Kotcheff)
5. My Brilliant Career (Armstrong)
6. Cremaster 2 (Barney)
7. Cremaster 1 (Barney)
8. Kill Baby, Kill (Bava)
9. Blood and Black Lace (Bava)
10. Seeking Asian Female (Lum)


A Very Curious Sentence in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

leopard

So I recently finished reading The Leopard (or Il Gattpardo as it’s known in Italian), the great but sadly one-and-only novel written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. The book was originally published in 1958, exactly one year after the author’s death, and it is well-known today primarily for serving as the basis for Luchino Visconti’s opulent, Burt Lancaster-starring film version from 1963. To anyone with an interest in the movie — and you should be interested in it (although if you’ve not yet seen it you may want to bone up on reading about Garibaldi, the Risorgimento and 19th century Italian history in general over at Wikipedia first) — I would also recommend checking out the source novel: it will help you to understand the soul of the Sicilian people. Catholic hypocrisy, class differences, aging machismo, an elegy for the dying aristocracy, etc. All of that and more comes to life in Lampedusa’s beautiful and vivid prose.

I must admit, however, that one very curious sentence in the book caught me completely off-guard — a startling cinematic reference that the author casually drops into the middle of a scene taking place in 1860 when most of the novel’s action is set. Lampedusa describes the elation of Angelica (the character played by Claudia Cardinale in the movie) upon being asked to marry Tancredi (the character played by Alain Delon) by his uncle, the Prince of Salina (Lancaster’s character):

After this Angelica blushed, took half a step back: ‘I’m so happy . . .,’ then came close again, stood on tiptoe, and murmured into his ear, ‘Uncle mine!’; a highly successful line, comparable in its perfect timing almost to Eisenstein’s baby carriage, and which, explicit and secret as it was, set the Prince’s simple heart aflutter and yoked him to the lovely girl forever.

While one might expect this kind of surprising anachronistic metaphor from, say, Thomas Pynchon (who deliberately and hilariously peppers his “period” novels with this sort of thing), it is the only such 20th century reference that I’m aware of in Lampedusa’s entire novel — at least until the brief epilogue, which flashes-forward to 1910 (and that’s still 15 years before Eisenstein’s movie was made). As incongruous as it may seem, however, I think Lampedusa does have a point: Sergei Eisenstein’s baby carriage shots are perfectly placed within the Odessa steps massacre montage towards the end of Battleship Potemkin. One might even say that they serve as the climax of the film’s climax. The great Russian director, who edited his movies with almost mathematical precision, certainly knew a thing or two about timing — as did Lampedusa and, for that matter, Visconti.

potemkin

Both Battleship Potemkin and The Leopard are available in high-quality restored editions on Blu-ray and DVD, the former via Kino and the latter via Criterion (the Blu-ray of which is the greatest shit evah). My copy of The Leopard, the novel, was published by Pantheon Books in 2007 and translated by one Archibald Colquhoun.


Spotlight on South Korean Cinema: Park Chan-wook and J.S.A.

For the next few months I’ll be doing a “Spotlight on S. Korea” series, in which I discuss some of the most exciting films to come out of that country in recent years. First up is a look at Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area from 2000.

park

While recently suffering through a screening of Im Sang-soo’s interminable The Taste of Money, a ham-fisted melodrama whose trite sociological insights (money corrupts!) seem to only serve as a thin pretext for copious amounts of sex and nudity, I had to ask myself, “Is the S. Korean New Wave finally dead?” Is this really the best of the recent Korean movies upon which the likes of the Cannes Film Festival and IFC Films has to draw? Some would say that the death knell first sounded in 2006: that’s when the S. Korean government, as part of a new “free trade” agreement with the U.S., struck down a “screen quota” law that required theaters to show locally produced movies for at least 40% of the year. Yet great S. Korean films continued to be made over the next several years, even if they were less frequent in number than in the halcyon days of 2002-2005. It now seems, however, that the S. Korean cinema might really be going the way of the formerly mighty film industry of Hong Kong: among the top tier of Korean directors, several have recently tried their luck working outside of their native country for the first time (Kim Ji-woon with the poorly received Arnold Schwarzenegger-vehicle The Last Stand, Park Chan-wook with the superb but under-promoted Nicole Kidman-starring Stoker and Bong Joon-ho with the forthcoming international co-production Snowpiercer). Lee Chang-dong, arguably the greatest contemporary S. Korean director, has always worked at a slow pace, directing just three of his uniquely novelistic movies since his breakout success with Peppermint Candy in 1999. That leaves only the prolific Hong Sang-soo to keep the home fires burning with the dependable annual releases of his patented intellectual take on the rom-com. So now seems like a good time to look back at the remarkable burst of creativity that the S. Korean directors showed in the early 21st century.

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Whenever I am lucky enough to teach contemporary S. Korean cinema in a class, J.S.A.: Joint Security Area is always the movie I screen first, even if it might not come first chronologically among the films I’ve chosen to show. This is because J.S.A.‘s political-thriller plot lays out the entire history of the conflict between North and South Korea in a way that is succinct, accessible and informative without ever being didactic. It is also ideal because it was directed by Park Chan-wook, who is probably the single most popular and critically acclaimed director, on an international basis, to come out of S. Korea since the 1990s. Park was born in Seoul in 1963. He majored in Philosophy at Sogang University, where he also started a movie club (and many critics have seen a dovetailing of these interests in his highly regarded, philosophically inflected “Vengeance trilogy”). It was while in college that Park first decided to become a film director, after attending a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Upon graduation, he worked as a film critic, then as an assistant director before he made his feature directing debut in 1992 with a movie entitled The Moon is the Sun’s Dream. Both this debut film and Trio, his 1997 follow-up, were met with critical and commercial indifference. J.S.A., his third movie, was released in 2000 and quickly broke all box-office records to become the highest grossing Korean movie of all time.

J.S.A. tells the fictional story of a shooting at the “Joint Security Area” on the border between the two Koreas, an incident allegedly perpetrated by a South Korean soldier, that has left two North Korean soldiers dead and another seriously wounded. Because this event inflames an already highly sensitive diplomatic situation, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission sends in a Swiss Army officer of Korean descent, Major Sophie Jang (Lee Yeong-ae, the future “Lady Vengeance”), to investigate. After interviewing participants on both sides of the incident and hearing conflicting accounts of what happened, Jang quickly realizes that nothing is what it seems. But who is lying and why? This present day story is intercut with lengthy flashbacks concerning the principles involved in the shooting — in particular, North Korean Sergeant Oh (the great Song Kang-ho) and South Korean Sergeant Lee (Lee Byung-hun). Without giving too much of the plot away, Park gradually leads viewers to realize that what both sides are trying to cover up is nothing more harmful than friendship, which pushes the story in directions both ironic and tragic.

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One of the things that surprised me the most when I started exploring S. Korean cinema years ago was the degree to which its filmmakers expressed a desire for reunification and reconciliation with the North, a country with which they are still technically at war. J.S.A., a movie without precedent, was widely acclaimed by S. Korean critics as well as audiences upon its first release. In fact, the only sector of S. Korean society that seemed to disapprove of the film was the military (whose members objected to a sympathetic portrayal of the N. Korean “enemy”). The movie’s plea for tolerance and peace was clearly a message that resonated far and wide in a country whose inhabitants have been raised to hate and fear a neighbor they know little about, despite sharing a common language and culture. Yet because film censorship laws had only been relaxed in S. Korea a few years prior to J.S.A. being made, it was a message that would not have been possible any earlier. Fortunately, Park Chan-wook was well-positioned to deliver such a message in making J.S.A. (not only as a young ambitious writer/director eager to bust taboos but also as a member of the Democratic Labor Party, the most progressive political party in his country).

One of the central ideas in J.S.A., posited, as is often the case with Park, in mostly visual terms, is the tragic notion that borders are man-made and therefore arbitrary. The motif of borders, whether physical or psychological (sometimes the division is within a single character), is one that recurs throughout S. Korean cinema and Park’s movies in particular. The notion of “being divided” seems almost ingrained in the Korean consciousness and Park fully explores the concept here, occasionally with a dash of absurd humor, in the film’s many bifurcated frames. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the final shot of J.S.A., a doozy that haunts in its evocative ambiguity: in a flashback to an event that occurred midway through the movie, Park allows his camera to pan across and zoom in and out of — Ken Burns-style — a black-and-white photograph of all four of the film’s main characters in happier times; two soldiers from the North and two from the South, each standing on opposite sides of the border that runs through the Joint Security Area, are united together in the same frame yet separated from each other by a government-enforced line of demarcation — a moment that is frozen in time forever.

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J.S.A.: Joint Security Area is available in a serviceable edition on DVD from Palm Pictures. An upgrade to Blu-ray, a format on which all of Park’s subsequent movies are available, would be most welcome.


Confessions of a Film Festival Juror

100_2334The awards given out to student filmmakers at the first annual Goudy Elementary Media Arts Showcase

Last month I had the great pleasure of serving on a film festival jury for the very first time. While the Goudy Elementary School’s first “Media Arts Showcase” — featuring the work of students from grades four through eight — may not be the most prestigious festival in town, it could very well be the most important in terms of the influence it has on the participating filmmakers. Most of Goudy’s students live below the poverty line but they were nonetheless able to create movies at school using high-end equipment because of a grant that the school had applied for and won. The students’ media arts teacher, Ricki Proper, taught them how to use software programs like iMovie and GarageBand on Macbook Pro Laptops and iPads in order to create short narrative and documentary films. The resulting movies, written, directed, shot and edited entirely by the student filmmakers, were extremely impressive. This made my job, as sort of the odd man out on a jury of five local business and community leaders, extremely difficult.

The fourth graders created “Digital Storybooks,” which combined computer generated artwork with text and voice-over narration, the fifth and sixth graders created stop-motion animated shorts (some of which featured real people, some of which featured Legos) and the seventh and eighth graders created live action films, most of which were documentaries (bullying was a popular subject). When the jury convened to discuss awarding prizes, we decided that — because of the astounding creativity on display overall, as well as the broad range of the filmmakers’ ages and styles — we wanted to spread the wealth by awarding only one prize per movie (as the Cannes Film Festival jurors are encouraged to do). We also wanted to award at least one prize per grade. But because all five of our prizes (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Sound) were going to films from grades five through eight, this meant that the fourth grade would be left out. At the last minute, I proposed creating a new award for Best Screenplay so that our favorite film from the fourth grade might also win something. This prize ended up going to a digital storybook with an irresistibly amusing premise: a little boy has trouble falling asleep after watching a horror movie about a ghost named “Bloody Mary” . . . until his parents help him to conquer his fear by renting a parody film about the very same subject. How about that for a clever “meta” conceit!

All in all, serving on a festival jury was more difficult than I had imagined it would be but it also proved to be an immensely rewarding experience. These students, many of whom I would call natural born filmmakers, ended up making me feel good about not just about the future of cinema, but humanity as well.

Goudy School 1937 ChicagoThe Goudy School, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, circa 1937

Special thanks to Lisa Wagner for inviting me to take part in this event. You can learn more about the Goudy School’s innovative Media Arts program here: http://rickiproper.wix.com/goudymediaarts


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