Wednesday, January 26, 2005

America's Most Idle

We're in a bad way. Three people - one a two-step has-been, the second with a vocabulary syncoped at two syllables, and, finally, a high school dropout - stare, scrutinize, and demoralize the person that stands in front of them. A normal, average, quotidian person. What did this person do wrong? Sing poorly? Of course (of course!), I am talking about American Idol, that bastion of entertainment/democracy for America. During late winter and early spring the folks at Fox (another entermocracy bastion) air this Golden Calf and we - America's Most Idle - tune in. Do we not realize the moral vapidity at work here? A young woman walks upon the stage in front of the faces of Simon, Randy, and Paula. She sings - poorly - and the triumvirate laughs. The woman, unable to contain herself, storms off stage right, crying. My point is not sympathy - honestly, and as callous as it sounds, I could not care less about the feelings of this young woman - my point is arrogance. This is the worst type of self-inflated bullying there is - corporate and anonymous - and we, the People, participate in it just as much as Simon, Randy, and Paula. American Idol in and of itself is not bad, and neither are the actions of the judges, but they indicate something much worse - a malignant loathing of ourselves and of our faults. This is our entertainment? Watching a person clearly incapable of holding a tune* make a fool of him or herself on national television? What are we? Is it that we are so insecure in our own ability to do anything that we, from afar, laugh at the game-hunters picking off the weak and callow? I would hate to think this is true, but I see no evidence proving otherwise. For those thinking that, no, this is just innocuous entertainment allowing a laugh or two, I petition you: give it a second thought. Or a third, if you need. This is sad, hollow, and morally reprehensible through and through.

*And - once again - of course I am not talking about the folks that go on American Idol with either the knowledge that they are indeed terrible, or the folks that go on with aspirations of fame and fortune. I'm talking about the middle-class of the show, the functionals that are railed upon with insult after insult.

The Cinema. Et Cetera. 1,000th Hit Party

Hey everyone, uh, come on in. There's vegetables and dip and some generic cola in the fridge. Help yourselves. Scott, you know Quack. And this is Dan. Matt's a little shy - I hope you don't mind. Umm..and, I guess, here's everyone else.

So, yeah, 1000 hits. Woo.

Anyone wanna play spin the bottle?

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Battle of Algiers Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965

Have you seen that film Pepe le Moko? The one directed by Jules Dassin with Jean Gabin, set in France's Casbah? Both Gabin and the Casbah gain extreme heights of romanticism, washed in layers of mystery and sensuality. The dense compositions morph the Casbah into a dreamscape alive with hollows, secret passages, and intrigue. The chiaroscuro lighting frames Gabin as the singular protagonist, the last of a kind. Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers is also set largely in the Casbah. But his Casbah is hardly the same place as Dassin's.

Frankly, I was not in any way prepared for Algiers. The gritty, cinema verite quality of the camera work and film stock was de rigeur - the film is a textbook example of the quasi-documentary. What I was not prepared for was the surpassingly gritty subject matter. The Battle of Algiers stands as a document, to some extent preserving the history of guerrilla warfare between the Algerians and the French in the mid/late 1950's. On some level the film sympathizes with the Algerians - our "protagonists" (I use the term loosely) are largely Algerian, they're shot in a more humanistic style, they have personality when juxtaposed against the faceless French. But that isn't to say that the film is not at least somewhat balanced. First and foremost, this is a film about the atrocities of war, ethnocentrism, and a power-based bureaucratic system. The French air-raid the Algerians, destroying entire blocks of houses located within the Casbah. The Algerians respond with public bombings of cafes, bars, and airports. Which is more (or better yet, less) humane? To that question there is no answer. When a horse track is bombed by the Algerians, the French in the stands turn on an Algerian boy selling candy. They cry, "You'll pay for the others." The Slaughter of the Innocents, Part Deux.

Pontecorvo went to great lengths not to romanticize the war, or any of its participants. He rejected a first script written for Paul Newman. Newman was to be an imbedded journalist covering the war who eventually sympathizes with the Algerians, abandoning his journalistic duty. Pontecorvo then rejected a second script, written by Yacef Saadi, leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front (and on whose book the final script was based.) Pontecorvo maintained that Saadi's version was mere propaganda. Pontecorvo's camera (via cinematographer Marcello Gatti) is a mostly passive medium, recording events like the impartial machine it is. (Although, as mentioned before, some of the footage of the Algerians is more humanistic - the composition and lighting natural and not as a mechanistic and cold when compared to some of the footage of the French.) What Pontecorvo made was a dramatic film that could easily pass as a documentary - steadily, and increasingly, focused on the horror of war.

Why is the Casbah different in The Battle of Algiers? Replacing the dreamscape of escapism is a prison-like trap. The Casbah becomes a ghetto of sorts, a confines in which the Algerian nation is sequestered. And, unlike Dassin's film, there is no Pepe le Moko - no great liberator - to come free the people. The film ends - five years after the main action has taken place - with the freedom of Algiers, and the beginning of the Algerian nation. The narrator, and even the film itself, is baffled as to how this liberation occurred. And rightly so - the liberation is not the point. The point is the war and turmoil-fraught path that lead to the Algerians' liberation. The point is to show what happened, so it need not happen again.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

2004 you were so kind.

I've put this off for long enough. The last two weeks have been a mad dash consisting of my consuming the film of 2004 on dvd in the hopes of streamlining a Perfect set of lists. I now realize that this task is impossible. Some day I'll happen upon on a great film I missed, but for now, this'll do, pig. So, yeah, this is my list of 2004 as of right now, January 15th. Enjoy. The music list will be up in a week or two.

And you'll still be able to find my dynamic Top Ten of 2004 here. It'll change with my whims.

Top Ten Films of the Year

10. Kill Bill Vol. II
d. Quentin Tarantino

Not as much fun as Vol. I, but still a true hoot. QT, love him or hate him, is a master. The guy has no business being as good as he is. The only relevant criticism is that he has nothing original up his sleeve. But isn't that the point?

9. Before Sunset
d. Richard Linklater

A real time discussion between two former lovers, seeing each (by chance, kinda) for the first time in years? Boring, right? Yeah, I thought so too, and I dig this type of stuff. Amazingly, it isn’t boring. Rather, this is the most hopeful love story (sans schmaltz) of the year, steadily gazing at love, not *LOVE*. This is the love of real life – caustic, forgetful, and horribly (sadly) disposable. Hollywood won’t touch this subject anytime soon.

8. The Incredibles
d. Brad Bird

Dear Mr. Bird (and the rest of the folks at Pixar),

Thank you for restoring my faith in the animated film.

Michael Kanbergs

7. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring
d. Kim Ki-Duk

Easily surpasses its own genre (the admittedly tiny Life-Cycle Buddhist film), by portraying a heartbreaking universality - life & death. S.S.F.W...a.S. is a film that causes one to realize that all good films really are coming-of-age films. We never stop learning, or at least we never should. Meditative (or slow, s'il vous plait), but never overbearing. Pensive, but never cerebral. Brimming with life lessons, but never didactic.

6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
d. Wes Anderson

Hidden among the fantastic set design and almost irritating cleverness is a film about redemption, regret, and coming to terms with the end of something/one loved. All this while being real damn funny. Zissou marks a slight turn for Wes Anderson - a step toward a more somber, reflective film style. (And a step toward a film style that doesn’t genuflect before the altar of baby pink.) Like a cop directing traffic, I say, "Go for it."

5. I [Heart] Huckabees
d. David O. Russell

Probably would have made my top ten if it were just a smartly written, off beat comedy. Instead, Russell takes it one step further, humorously vamping on the absolute terror and fear of modern life. The best line of the year (and maybe the most heartbreaking) occurs when Lily Tomlin refers to the disaster of 9/11 as "that September thing." Pay a little bit of attention and you might be moved.

4. Closer
d. Mike Nichols

A dreadful picture in the fullest sense of the word. It kills to watch Closer, but it's worth the work. The quartet of players turn a nasty dance, leaving a circular, mimetic swirling eddy of lust in their wake. Nichols development of a stage play into a film is spot-on (as to be expected from the director of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Patrick Marber's screen adaptation of his own play hits all the right notes. I don’t understand the outcries of "stagey" - this is about as acerbically realistic as it gets.

3. Primer
d. Shane Carruth

Blooms upon repeat viewings. What looks like a really clever (and well made) sci-fi turns into a dissection of money & power and its inverse relationship with trust. Frighteningly apropos in our Enron society, really. Remarkable without any knowledge of the production process, Primer is amazing when one considers that it is A) a first feature B) a film made on a $7000 budget and C) Produced, Written, Directed, Edited, & Acted by Carruth. Get to studying, boyos.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
d. Michel Gondry

Completing the quartet of fantastic love/anti-love films this year (Birth, Before Sunset, and Closer being the other three), Eternal Sunshine is King God in the category. Not quite as sweet as Before Sunset, not as contrived as Birth, and not nearly as acerbic as Closer, Gondry's film is placed perfectly in the middle. Oh yeah, but with 10x the creativity. All his optical tricks were performed in camera. How astounding is that? I don’t know whether my faith in love is bolstered or deflated by this film, but I do know that I connect with it. A brilliant piece of filmmaking.

1. Dogville
d. Lars von Trier

Well, what to say that has not already been said? Dogville is a three-hour film that passes like Brett Favre. The most easily discussable film of the year, with layer upon layer of readings. The allegations that this film is antihuman are spot on, but why is that a detriment? The mimetic terror of Dogville is extremely difficult to watch, but absolutely necessary. For that reason alone (not to mention the technical prowess shown), it is the best film of the year. Full of invention, but lacking that nasty ickiness of gimmickry, Dogville is one of the most outstanding films of the 00's thus far. LvT has outshined himself in every way imaginable.

Worst Five Films of the Year

I managed to avoid some of the really terrible (or so I've heard) films of the year: Van Helsing, Alexander, The Chronicles of Riddick, Man on Fire, The Alamo, etc. Nevertheless, I saw some pretty terrible movies, including one the worst films I have ever seen. Revel in my misery.

5. The Passion of the Christ
d. Mel Gibson

This is sad, really. There was so much potential here for a truly moving and well-made film. Instead we are left with this: Jesus' death meant something because it hurt so bad. I don't know about you, but I don't need to see the cross being turned over, with Jesus attached, three times, in S L O W motion. The result is sensationalism. Regardless of your beliefs, this is callow and reprehensible filmmaking.

4. Open Water
d. Chris Kentis

Entirely amateur. Oh yeah, the red filter shot of the ocean means that there are blood-hungry sharks in the water. Don't worry, we got it. So pathetic that they had to put an entirely unnecessary nude scene in the film. Who greenlighted this floater?

3. The Stepford Wives
d. Frank Oz

Really, I cannot remember a whole lot about this film. Something about sexism, maybe. Possibly a bit about technology. The true reason it's one of the worst films of the year is because of the overwhelming mediocrity of the thing. Oz could have done something of value with this, and he didn't. And to think: this was the guy who brought us Yoda.

2. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
d. Adam McKay

This is supposed to be funny? Outside of some of the work by Steve Carell, there is not a single moment of humor in the entire film. Ferrell can, and has, done really good work. Not here though. The scary part is that he had a hand in the script. Time to stop with the blow, my good man - it's affecting your work.

1. Twentynine Palms
d. Bruno Dumont

The single most reprehensible film I've ever seen. Up until the last 20 minutes the film shows distinct signs of OK, even a little bit of promise. Then Dumont, with a hand full of shit, slaps the entire film-viewing population in the face. Replete with violence, sex, and death for no apparent reason, this is a truly deplorable and wretched piece of filmmaking.

Best Documentary

In such a great year for documentaries (Tarnation, Super Size Me, Riding Giants, In the Realms of the Unreal, et cetera) it would be a crime not to say a few words about the best of these.

Touching the Void
d. Kevin Macdonald

It pushes the envelope of what is or isn't a documentary (its totality consists of two men recalling their harrowing climb and descent of Silua Grande, and dramatic reenactments of said event), but, regardless of category, Touching the Void is a phenomenal, gripping film. The actions in the film are less important than the feelings experienced by the two climbers, Simon and Joe. Coming to terms with dying, and the powerless feeling that accompanies that, is Joe. He faces death head-on and, rather than turning to a higher power or recalling his loved ones, he analyzes the act of death, focusing on minutiae to keep himself going. Rather than being a film of hope, it turns on itself, becoming a documentary about the smallness and fragility of man.


Actress: Nicole Kidman, Birth
Runner Up: Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Actor: Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Runner Up: Paul Giamatti, Sideways

Supporting Actor: David Carradine, Kill Bill Vol. 2
Runners Up: Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Mark Wahlberg, I [Heart] Huckabees

Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, Coffee & Cigarettes
Runner Up: Virginia Madsen, Sideways

Breakthrough Performance: Bryce Dallas Howard, The Village


Director: Lars Von Trier, Dogville
Runners Up: Jonathan Glazer, Birth
Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Original Screenplay: Lars von Trier, Dogville
Runner Up: Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
David O. Russell et al. I [Heart] Huckabees

Adapted Screenplay: Patrick Marber, Closer
Runner Up: Alexander Payne, et al. Sideways

Cinematography: Harris Savides, Birth
Runner Up: Dong-hyeon Baek, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring

Editing: David Wharnsby, The Saddest Music in the World
Runner Up: Valdis Oskarsdottir, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Design: Mark Friedberg, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Runner Up: Dan Leigh, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Musical Score: Alexandre Desplat, Birth
Runners Up: Jon Brion, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Mark Mothersbaugh (and Seu Jorge), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Best Moments of Film in 2004

1. The ECU of Nicole Kidman at the symphony in Birth.
2. Bryce Dallas Howard, with blind trust, waiting for Joaquin Phoenix's hand, and the ensuing slow motion shot in The Village.
3. Young Jonathan Caouette's soliloquy in which he becomes Hillary, a battered, trailer park wife, in Tarnation.
4. The tour of the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
5. The rather lascivious verbal exchange between Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Closer. (You know the one.)
6. The dinner table scene in I [Heart] Huckabees.
7. Paul Giamatti sipping Chateau Cheval Blanc from a Styrofoam cup in Sideways.
8. Elastigirl caught in the automatic doors in The Incredibles.
9. The young monk carving the characters out of the floating monastery in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. (Honorable mention for the old monk using the cat's tail to paint said characters).
10. Lars Von Trier's final, lucid speech to Jorgen Leth in The Five Obstructions.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

In the Realms of the Unreal Directed by Jessica Yu, 2004

Jessica Yu's documentary examines the life of Henry Darger - supposed mental invalid, employed janitor, and closet artist. Darger died in 1973 at the age of 81 and left behind three photos of himself, a tiny disheveled apartment, and a trove of his own drawings, paintings, and literary works. The magnum opus of the lot being a 15,000-page novel titled In the Realms of the Unreal. The novel concerns the plight of a large group of children held slave by a large group of adults, the Glandelinians. The children, led by the seven Vivian Girls, rebel against the Glandelinians, sparking an arduous, elongated war.

The beauty of the film lies in the balance employed by Yu. Equally represented are Darger the Artist and Darger the Recluse, and the line between the two is often blurred. For Darger the work was a catharsis, and even he often blurred the line between his two lives. He embedded his life, and the lives of those around him, into the narrative of the story. Names, faces, and personalities bubble up as a way for Darger to exalt friends or excoriate enemies. His childhood, a tormented, fatherless hop from orphanage to mental institution, comprises the foundation of the novel. The narrative wavers between euphoric and vitriolic - an idealized heaven and a vengeful hell. His means would have even been reprehensible if not for the fact that he never seemed interested in pursuing publication. It is made clear that Darger was not necessarily mentally insane, just misunderstood. He was lucid regarding life - he could work, pay bills, and function in the same manner as any normal human being. Surely he must have recognized that his was, at the very least, unique. In the Realms of the Unreal portrays a private life, a life not necessarily meant to be seen. At points in the film the viewer feels a sense of guilt - seeing and hearing things that Darger composed for himself and God alone. It is equal parts unnerving and compelling.

Even though the subject matter alone is worth the price of admission, and potentially overwhelming, Yu succeeds in making a quality film, not just a film about quality subject matter. The visual work done to Darger's own illustrations - care of David Wigforss - brings an animated life to his drawings, something akin to the work done by Paul Crowder on 2004's Riding Giants. Yu also refrains from passing judgment on Darger's work itself. There are no critics, pundits, or experts to deem Darger either a genius or a farce. The viewer is left to her own thoughts, but, really, those types of thoughts are irrelevant. The point is not whether Darger was brilliant or mad, but that he was a person clearly divided between public and private life. His work constitutes a complete, documented life. The private life of a private man.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


So: it looks like (somehow - God knows) I got linked up at GreenCine. Anyone got an idea how this happened? (If so, drop me a comment.) The point of this post isn't to brag about how many hits I'm getting (ahem - 56 in the last hour alone, almost twice as many as the largest daily amount I've been dinged with), but to point all you GreenCine regulars in the right direction. According to the article, you have an idea that you're being directed to a top ten, but where is this promised top ten? Well, if you come back in about 2 weeks, it'll be right here (with a bevy of comments affixed to each film.) For now, in it's abbreviated form, you can find it right...about...myeh. But: scroll all the way to the bottom. That'll set you firmly at, the Year of Our Lord, 2004. Bon Appetite.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Closer Directed by Mike Nichols

The accusations that Closer is full of ugly people are right on, and chances are anyone having a problem with this misanthropic also found something to complain about in the antihumanity of '04's best film, Dogville. To those that find the script stagey and unrealistic, I can only say congratulations - if you've never experienced something akin to this in real life, even second hand, you're in luck. Essentially, those are the two gripes concerning Mike Nichols' Closer, and two that I can understand, but disagree with entirely.

A lot of the power found in Closer can be linked to the idea of routine, or repetition. Endgame, Glengarry Glen Ross, and the works of Francis Bacon are just a few examples of the great works of art that have been produced out of the concept of routine. We humans are creatures of habit, cycling away at tasks that, while menial in the large scope, are intensely important to our immediate wellbeing. The four characters in Closer - Dan, Alice, Anna, and Larry (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen, respectively) - like normal humans, are also creatures of habit. They use the same pick-up lines over and over, fall in love in the same manner, and revert to habitual pet names and inside jokes. Nichols reinforces this with repetitive music cues (the intro to Cold Water and The Blower's Daughter, both by Damien Rice), an elliptical narrative-arc, and a very clever use of time that jumps months & years at a time with very little change to be found in our habitual lead characters. The rub: tied into that need for routine is the equal, and opposite need for change. The two couples - Dan & Alice and Anna & Larry - get locked into their routine of pet names, inside jokes, and predictable sex. As the saying goes, the hand you hold is the hand that holds you down. Inevitably, a large amount of deception - resulting in two messy separations - occurs. These people are caught in a bitter Catch-22, wherein they need the routine of their other, but cannot keep the equal need for another quelled. This is like that whole blanket thing from I [Heart] Huckabees ("Everything's the same and everything's different") injected with a healthy dose of bile.

As far as the dialogue being stagey - it bites, yes, and bites hard, but by no means is it unrealistic. Dan and Larry's desperate, foolish need to know the truth - no matter the brutality of it - is seated so deeply in the human (or least my) psyche, that, as hard as I'd like to, I cannot deny its reality. As Dan says to Alice, "This will hurt." And he's right, but it does not hurt in a way that allows the viewer to keep the pain at arm's length. The characters are complete people, full of both positive attributes and flaws, and in them we see ourselves. In that respect, the relationship to Bacon and Beckett is apropos - Closer is mimetic in the same way that the works by those artists are. They are made not only to entertain, but also to reflect something back at the viewer that he or she would not have seen, or would not have chosen to see. The lasciviousness of Closer would be a money making gimmick if the sexuality were not used as a bargaining tool for people to get what they want. These characters are shallow, empty, and full of device, but also sympathetically human. This is the reflection that Nichols was looking for - an image of people desiring someone to depend on but unable to remain content with that someone. For them, and for us, sex has turned - it has become a device, or a tool, to manipulate for personal gain. This makes Closer a difficult film to watch, and an even harder one to enjoy, but it also makes Closer a film of great importance.