This summer, for the third year in a row, I will be teaching a session at Facets Multimedia’s Summer Film Institute, a unique and intensive week-long film camp for teachers. The topic of my day long seminar is “Hollywood Masterpieces in the Classroom: How to Teach Classic Hollywood Movies.” During the day-long session I will be screening Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as well as clips from various other classic films. The Film Institute is aimed at high school teachers and affords the opportunity to earn 30 CPDUs although anyone is welcome to attend. My session will occur on Friday, July 26th. More information can be found here:
Monthly Archives: June 2013
The Last Ten Movies I Saw
1. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles)
3. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
4. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
5. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges)
6. The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher)
7. The Bling Ring (Coppola)
8. Dazed and Confused (Linklater)
9. Friday the 13th (Cunningham)
10. The Awakening (Murphy)
Spotlight on South Korean Cinema: Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder
Part two of my Spotlight on South Korean Cinema series is a look at Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder.
Bong Joon-ho is best known in the west as the director of the internationally successful monster movie The Host. Yet, as good as that film undoubtedly is, his even earlier Memories of Murder (the local blockbuster that made the monster Bong hit possible) still probably stands as the ideal introduction to this unique auteur‘s filmography as well as the S. Korean New Wave as a whole. It is certainly my personal favorite Korean movie of recent decades. Memories of Murder, like most of the exciting films to come out of S. Korea in the early 21st century, is a young man’s movie: it was only Bong’s second film, following the black comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000, and he completed it when he was just 33-years-old. Also marking it as a quintessential work of the new S. Korean cinema is the way Bong offers a refreshingly original spin on well-worn genre elements. In much the same way that Nowhere to Hide uses the action-movie framework as an excuse to stage highly experimental set pieces, or Failan begins as a gangster film before daringly transitioning into an unabashed melodrama, or J.S.A. adopts the form of a political thriller in order to express a plea for tolerance and a desire for reunification between the two Koreas, so too does Memories of Murder resemble a murder mystery but only as a means for conveying a far-reaching social critique of S. Korea in the past as well as the present.
Like many Hollywood films that came out in the wake of the success of The Silence of the Lambs, Memories of Murder is ostensibly a murder mystery about the exploits of a serial killer. As such, some of the most familiar aspects of the movie are the scenes depicting the tensions and hostilities between various members of a police department — most of which result from their differing crime-solving methodologies — in the small town in which the movie is set. Specifically, the plot details the investigation into a series of serial murders by two dumb local-yokel cops, Detective Park (the brilliant Song Kang-ho) and Detective Cho (Kim Roe-ha). Completely out of their element because they have no experience in such matters, the brutal, quasi-fascist tactics of these characters soon come into conflict with the patience and reasoning of Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyun), a cop from Seoul who voluntarily moves to rural Gyunggi province in order to help with the investigation. Memories of Murder is, however, perhaps most interesting for how it deviates from the murder mystery and police-procedural genres — Bong’s point is not to put his characters through the paces of a routine plot but rather to paint a trenchant portrait of life under a military dictatorship in the mid-1980s.
In one of the film’s most telling scenes, the local cops can be seen violently cracking down on a pro-Democracy protest in the rain. Detective Cho, in particular, can be seen stomping with relish on a hapless victim with his combat boots. (Elsewhere we see how kicking suspects with a shower cap stretched over his boot, so as not to leave incriminating marks, is Cho’s preferred method of “enhanced interrogation.”) Shortly afterwards, Detective Seo uses more logical methods to discover that the killer’s modus operandi is only to attack women wearing red and only on rainy nights. Part of the local law enforcement’s failure to apprehend the killer, however, stems from the fact that they have been spread too thin as a result of having to quell political protests. At the end of the movie, Detective Cho’s leg is infected with gangrene and has to be amputated below the knee — a clever way for Bong to show, symbolically, that a politically repressive era has finally come to an end (though the film’s haunting coda shows what scars remain). Another aspect of the film’s sly social commentary is the way Officer Kwon (Ko Seo-hie), the only female member of the police department, is routinely discriminated against and treated like a glorified secretary when Bong takes care to show that she has genuinely good instincts as a detective; it is Kwon who discovers that the murders have all occurred whenever a certain obscure song is played on the radio, and it is only she who is able to extract crucial information in an interview with a would-be victim. Her male colleagues, however, disregard her suggestions and treat her as only good for fetching coffee. In these and other scenes, Bong implies that the tragic murders are merely one symptom of a broader trend of S. Korea’s systematic abuse of its female citizens.
Yet Memories of Murder moves in unpredictable directions in terms of both its ideology as well as its story. Detective Park may be a clueless idiot (in a long line of such characters essayed by Song) but viewer empathy with this character strangely increases as the film progresses, just as it likely decreases for the city-slicker Seo. This is in part because of the way Song Kang-ho is always the most charismatic presence in any movie in which he appears, but also because of the way these two characters seem to gradually exchange philosophies: by the end of the movie Park has become closer to being the voice of reason while it is Seo who is more prone to use brute force to exact justice, the civil liberties of suspects be damned. Then, in an immensely satisfying coda, Bong boldly flashes forward fifteen years into the future where Park, now a salesman for a company that makes juicers, quizzes his teenage son at breakfast about whether he had stayed up all night playing video games; the portrait of S. Korea’s transition from dictatorship to western-style democracy is now complete. But Bong doesn’t stop there: he then has Park revisit, by chance, the location of one of the first murders, a powerful scene that single-handedly explains the movie’s title. Frustrated as some viewers may be by his “open” ending, Hollywood-style narrative resolution would actually be antithetical to Bong’s true purpose — to emphasize the lingering effects of his characters’ darkest memories of the past upon their present.
Memories of Murder is available in a decent-quality DVD edition from Palm Pictures and as a superb-quality region-free Blu-ray from CJ Entertainment.
Bong Joon-ho’s next film, the international co-production Snowpiercer, stars Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho and Tilda Swinton, and will be released before the end of the year. Check out this early trailer, which I think looks exceptionally promising:
The Last Ten Movies I Saw
1. Bad News Bears (Linklater)
2. It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (Linklater)
3. M (Lang)
4. The Golem (Wegener)
5. The Killing Floor (Duke)
6. Dead Hooker in a Trunk (Soska/Soska)
7. L’atalante (Vigo)
8. Before Midnight (Linklater)
9. Before Midnight (Linklater)
10. Waxworks (Leni)
Filmmaker Interview: Bill Duke
Dark Girls is a new documentary that uses interviews (notably the powerful testimony of many different African-American women) to confront the controversial issue of “colorism” — the notion that darker-skinned blacks face more prejudice. It premieres this Sunday at 10pm ET on the OWN network. Dark Girls was produced and co-directed by the great character actor and filmmaker Bill Duke. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Duke about the new film as well as his Chicago-shot masterpiece The Killing Floor and his criminally underrated 1992 crime movie Deep Cover, a staple in my Film Studies classes.
MGS: How did Dark Girls originate?
BD: It basically originated from us wanting to give a voice to the voiceless: us (growing up) as dark-skinned young men and seeing what our families went through — the young ladies in our families. We did a year and a half or two of research. And then after the research we began to put some film together and interviews. And then we contacted experts from psychiatrists, spiritual leaders and a lot of different people to really get a point of view on this subject matter — a lot of historians. And so we finally just put it together over a couple years.
MGS: When I was preparing for this interview I realized that the stigma that dark-skinned black women face is quite old . . .
BD: It’s also global. And I found something that’s interesting: skin bleach is one of the (best)-selling cosmetics in the world. It’s a multi-billion dollar business. In India for example, Indian men use skin bleach because they want to be lighter because any darker-skinned Indian man is considered a field worker. A lighter-skinned Indian man is considered an office worker. It’s a global thing.
MGS: Right. Does that originate with slavery, do you think?
BD: I think colonialism around the world, yes, that’s one of the things, and also caste systems, etc. But I think it’s something that unfortunately still exists and is impacting our children in a very negative way.
MGS: It seems like it’s still taboo to talk about it.
BD: Well, people don’t really want to talk about it because it’s painful. And one of the biggest things to happen after we screen the film is the Q&A after — because that’s when people (in the audience) really say what they really have gone through. And their question is, “What’s next? The film is okay but what are we going to do about it?” You know?
MGS: Right. Is that important to you, to use filmmaking to educate?
BD: Sure, because, you know, I screened the film three weeks ago at a high-school in L.A. And then, after the screening, these dark-skinned little girls are crying. We asked them why. They said, “Well, nobody invited us to our senior prom because they thought we were ugly.” This happened three weeks ago.
MGS: Hopefully, your film will go a long way towards changing people’s perception of that.
BD: I hope so. We’ve got to do something about it. I appreciate your support of it because it’s more than a film. People get, you know, the fact that it has some importance.
MGS: I’m actually going to make it an extra credit assignment for my students.
BD: Great, great, great.
MGS: You’ve always believed that movies should educate, right? Because your first real film as a director was The Killing Floor (about Chicago’s labor wars) from 1984.
BD: Yes. That is one of my favorite films of all time that I made, The Killing Floor.
MGS: Mine too. I think that is one of the all-time great Chicago movies.
BD: Thank you so much. I really love that movie. The great Moses Gunn was in that. I love Moses Gunn.
MGS: As “Heavy,” right?
BD: (laughs) Yes!
MGS: Why is that not available on DVD?
BD: I’m not sure, you know. It was a PBS-sponsored film. I’m not quite sure why they never made a DVD of it. I would love to know the answer to that question.
MGS: So PBS owns the rights to it?
MGS: So people should petition them then if they want a DVD release. The way you recreated Chicago from 1917 to 1919 was absolutely incredible.
BD: Thank you very much. We really enjoyed it. And we enjoyed being in Chicago in that time too ’cause Harold Washington (Chicago’s first black mayor) was elected the first week that we were there. Yes — political history.
MGS: I’m sure that felt auspicious for your film.
BD: Incredible, man. Incredible.
Damien Leake in The Killing Floor
MGS: I also wanted to ask you about Deep Cover. That’s a film I show in my Film History classes . . .
BD: Oh, really? Thank you for that.
MGS: Yeah, I show it to illustrate neo-noir. Are you a fan of the old films noir of the 40s and 50s?
BD: Yes, I am. Always have been. Always have.
MGS: And were you consciously trying to update the conventions for the 90s?
BD: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly right, yes. I studied it and wanted to see how I could leverage it in some way and it was really a great experience for me. It really was.
MGS: I think the chemistry between Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum was phenomenal in that film.
BD: I agree a thousand percent. I thought they did a great job, man. They really did. Great acting.
MGS: It seems like a lot of their dialogue was improvised. Was that the case?
BD: Um, it was based on the text but, you know, I let them kind of freestyle too ’cause they were feeling each other. So I let them do what they wanted to do. We had a great writer too. Henry Bean was a great writer.
MGS: It seems like you’re working more in television these days and it seems like a lot of ambitious filmmakers think that television is the best venue for serious films. Would you agree with that?
BD: Well, I created a documentary company (Duke Media) that makes what I call “edutainment”: you can entertain people but also you can deal with social issues. And so I have a documentary company. Dark Girls is one (film), we’re bringing Yellow Gals next and What is a Man? after that. So it’s really interesting to use documentary filmmaking to make statements and also explore issues that impact our community.
MGS: What were those next two films you just named?
BD: Yellow Gals, which deals with what light-skinned women go through and then What is a Man?, which deals with manhood from the caves to the present day.
MGS: Well, I look forward to seeing them. Thank you so much, Bill.
BD: I appreciate it, man. Thank you for your support.
Laurence Fishburne (in his last performance credited as “Larry”) basking in the red/blue color scheme of the awesome neo-noir Deep Cover.
You can learn more about Dark Girls at the official website for the film: http://officialdarkgirlsmovie.com/
Woodstock from Welles to Ramis: A Photo Tour
I recently drove 50-odd miles northwest of my fair city of Chicago to visit, for the first time, the quaint suburb of Woodstock, Illinois. The purpose of the trip was to take pictures for possible inclusion in Flickering Empire, the forthcoming book that I co-wrote with Adam Selzer about the history of early film production in Chicago. I specifically wanted to visit the former location of the Todd Seminary for Boys where Orson Welles, an alumnus, co-directed the film The Hearts of Age in 1934 when he was just 19-years-old. Although I knew the Todd School had closed in 1954 and that all of its buildings had since been razed, I wanted to see where it once stood and hopefully take photos of any surviving landmarks — such as a giant outdoor bell or a distinctive gravestone — that contributed to such striking images in the movie. I also knew that historic downtown Woodstock — standing in for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — was where Illinois-native Harold Ramis had filmed Groundhog Day in 1993. Since Groundhog Day is one of my favorite comedies and a movie I frequently show in film studies classes, I decided to try and visit prominent locations from that film as well. Below is a photo tour of my day-long expedition.
Here’s Orson Welles and his classmates in front of the residence building known as Grace Hall. This photo would’ve been taken sometime between 1926 and 1931. Click on the photo to enlarge it (Orson is the tall lad standing in the middle — his head is directly beneath the window on the far left side of the building):
Photo: Woodstock Public Library
No one knows exactly where The Hearts of Age, Welles’ debut film, was shot but it was almost certainly somewhere on the Todd campus. Here’s 19-year-old Welles heavily made-up as “Death” in a still I created from the DVD of the film:
Tragically, Grace Hall, the final building standing from the original Todd School campus, was razed in 2010. It was reportedly still in excellent condition when the owners demolished it in order to build new “duplex” housing for seniors:
Photo: Woodstock Advocate
Here’s the same location (318 Christian Way) as seen today:
Welles also performed at the famous Woodstock Opera House. Here he is (bottom left), with fellow summer-stock players Michael MacLiammoir and Louise Prussing, onstage at the Opera House in 1934:
The exterior of the Woodstock Opera House as seen today (note the Italianate bell tower, which probably inspired the climax of Welles’ 1946 film The Stranger):
Speaking of which . . . one of the many ways Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day character, Phil Connors, attempts to commit suicide in the film is by leaping from the tower:
Here’s a frontal view of the Opera House. Located at 121 Van Buren St, it also plays the “Pennsylvania Hotel” where Andie McDowell’s character, Rita, stays in the movie:
Phil, meanwhile, stays at a bed and breakfast known as the “Cherry Street Inn.” In real life, this gorgeous Victorian mansion is actually a private residence:
Here’s the Woodstock Theater, which plays the “Alpine Theater” in the film, as seen today. The address is 209 Main Street (sadly, Heidi II was not playing when I visited):
The “Tip Top Cafe,” where Phil has breakfast with Rita and Larry (Chris Elliot), is now a taqueria. It is located at 108 Cass St:
Woodstock Square, which plays “Gobbler’s Knob” in the film:
Some of the most memorable moments in Groundhog Day involve Phil’s repeated run-ins with annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky):
The same sidewalk as seen today:
“Watch out for that first step. It’s a doozy!”:
There are some very impressive Orson Welles celebrations planned for Woodstock in 2014 and 2015. You can learn about them on Wellesnet, the invaluable Orson Welles Web Resource, here: http://www.wellesnet.com/?page_id=5387
You can learn more about Woodstock and Groundhog Day here: http://woodstockgroundhog.org/pages/tour.html
Unless otherwise noted, all of the above photos were taken by me.
The Last Ten Movies I Saw
1. Berberian Sound Studio (Strickland)
2. Fast Food Nation (Linklater)
3. Tape (Linklater)
4. City Lights (Chaplin)
5. The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
6. The Newton Boys (Linklater)
7. Attenberg (Tsangari)
8. The Warped Ones (Kurahara)
9. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
10. Devil’s Island (Fridriksson)
Now Playing: Before Midnight
dir. Richard Linklater, 2013, USA/Greece
The bottom line: a love story for the ages.
Now playing in limited release is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third and presumably final chapter in the director’s much beloved “Before” series, following 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset. It is, against all odds (especially considering the sublime note on which the second one ended), the best of the three, which means it’s also one of the very best American films made by anyone in recent decades. When I first wrote a capsule review of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy in 2010, I posited that it may have been influenced by Before Sunset. However unlikely that seemed at the time, Before Midnight explicitly repays the compliment and arguably out-Kiarostamis Kiarostami by kicking off with a couple of long-take traveling shots through a car windshield that re-introduce viewers to Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine (both now an impossibly old 41-years-young and in a long-term relationship) as they drive and casually chat in Linklater’s trademark witty-naturalistic-philosophical-conversational style and, more importantly, end the film by engaging in a role-play scenario that daringly inverts the strangers-pretending-to-be-a-married-couple premise of Certified Copy.
In between these indelible scenes, we also have nods to Eric Rohmer and Roberto Rossellini (whose Journey to Italy, the ultimate film about marriage, played the Gene Siskel Film Center in a neat coincidence last week). But Linklater’s mise-en-scene, which captures gorgeous Peloponnesian landscapes and ancient Greek architecture in fluid tracking shots and epic long takes, is always gratifyingly subservient to the emotional fireworks between the couple occupying the center of the frame, and is also entirely his own; this rigorous sense of style (which the director smartly explicated — by way of Caveh Zahedi and Andre Bazin — way back in his 2003 feature Waking Life but has apparently only recently come to fully realize) contributes to a heightened sense of realism by allowing us to feel that these characters are inhabiting a real space in real time. It is a perfect marriage of form and content that allows the film to go places emotionally that most other directors can only dream of taking their viewers: Jesse may still be the pretentious-but-charming writer and Celine may still be the romantic-but-neurotic feminist, but Linklater’s camera observes, wisely and without judgement, how the necessary work that must go into any successful long-term monogamous relationship has shifted the dynamic between them in the nine years since Before Sunset. Also new is how an awareness of encroaching mortality has crept into their dialogue. I especially love the way the characters continually stop in mid-conversation to point out aspects of transient nature in their immediate environment (ripe tomatoes hanging on the vine, wandering goats, a barking dog, a sinking sunset), each marked by insert shots that break up the long takes and highlight Linklater’s uncanny feel for the ephemeral.
Credit, of course, also belongs to Hawke and Delpy for co-authoring the screenplay as well as poignantly imbuing Jesse and Celine with such deeply felt life experience. Thanks to the actors’ easy chemistry, it has never been easier to believe that the characters in a sequel (much less a sequel to a sequel) are those same damn people who we’ve met and cared about before (give or take nine or eighteen years). To see this film is to feel that one is hanging out with old, dear friends. Or at least that’s the way it feels for most of Before Midnight‘s charming first two-thirds, which establish it as a worthy companion piece to its excellent predecessors — in particular during a villa-luncheon scene involving characters who are clearly meant to represent younger and older doppelgangers of the romantic leads. But it’s the shocking verisimilitude of the final third, a hotel room argument that is as painful in the rawness of its emotions as it is psychologically acute (my wife and I marveled afterwards at how many of its sentiments we had ourselves expressed verbatim in conversation), that lifts this movie into the realm of the transcendental. Which I suppose is a fancy way for me to say that Before Midnight really touched my heart and that it made me cry more than any official “comedy” I have ever seen. If you care about cinema, you need to see this masterpiece on the big screen. If you don’t live in a town where it’s playing, I’d suggest driving to one where it is.
You can check out the trailer for Before Midnight via YouTube below:
The Last Ten Movies I Saw
1. The Embalmer (Garrone)
2. SubUrbia (Linklater)
3. American Mary (Soska/Soska)
4. White Heat (Walsh)
5. Mamma Gogo (Fredriksson)
6. Before Midnight (Linklater)
7. Pursued (Walsh)
8. That Old Dream That Moves (Guiraudie)
9. Movie Days (Fredriksson)
10. Angels of the Universe (Fredriksson)