Friday, November 25, 2005

Mr. Jealousy d. Noah Baumbach, 1998

No. Look: utter frustrating passivity is part of the curse, man. Noah Baumbach's sophomore effort (did I just write "sophomore effort?" Oh. Dear. God. Kill me now.) is right-on, really, about what it means to be inexorably jealous. Like Lester (Eric Stoltz), I suffer from debilitating jealousy. It's a nasty, nasty disease, in the same way that alcoholism, drug addiction, and being that guy that talks incessantly in your creative writing class are. That is, it's a self-inflicted/self-suffering thing validated as a disease because, once you get knee-deep, it becomes hard to slog your way back out.

Lester dates Ramona (the not very good, nor very magnetic (but I'll get to THAT in a second) Annabella Sciorra.) Per his contract with jealousy, Lester begins investigating Ramona's sexually viscous past. This leads to her ex-boyfriend writer, Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman.) Jealousy knows absurdity not, so it isn't very surprising - to the jealous viewer, that is - to see Lester join a group therapy session under the quasi-pseudonym of his best friend, the same group session Dashiell attends, only to seethe at any possible mention of Ramona. (Dear God, please don't allow this to be me in ten years. Or twenty. Or two.)

It's important to interject here the nature of true jealousy. It's not purely a love thing, as Lester so eloquently shows us. Ramona isn't attractive on purpose - I first found it a fault that Lester & Ramona's relationship didn't seem authentic, but then realized that - in jealous - it isn't really the love that matters, it's the assurance of supremacy. Lester's jealous of Dashiell not because Dashiell made love to Ramona, but because he can better describe the love-making. Follow me: Lester's an aspiring writer, one who so wants to be the "voice of the generation," but Dashiell has already been bestowed with such accolades. So it's not that Dashiell merely had sex with Ramona (merely? I shouldn't say merely.), it's the possibility that Ramona had sex with someone better than Lester. The idea that you're not the absolute best in every category that your significant other has seen is the fungus that eats at the heart of a jealous person. Add to this that Lester's plain jealous of Dashiell's writing skills. See, simple jealousy can be part of the admixture too.

Ok: the other thing is that this film is so clearly made for me (btw: self-aggrandizing solipsism tends to go hand in hand with jealousy.) Lester is an aspiring writer/cinemaphile/voracious reader/misanthrope. (I'm probably projecting that last part, but the basic units are there for the construction of an arguable thesis.) In addition, the film is made in a style recalling Mike Leigh & Woody Allen, and presciently anticipating The Royal Tenenbaums-era Wes Anderson. No wonder Anderson fingered Baumbach to co-write The Life Aquatic.

Finally, the climax is note-perfect: not with a bang, but a whimper. The whole melange of betrayal, doubt, and misunderstanding wells its way to the surface in the middle of a New York street. No raised voices, no honking cars, no suspenseful music - just a handful of people unable to understand the absurdity of each other. That Baumbach was able to rein the scene in, preventing the actors & editors both from overdoing it, shows a solid amount of skill at the helm.

The last scene - inevitable possible getbacktogetherness - is forgivable considering that Baumbach gives the viewer no real reason to assume anything beyond a one night stand. (No, the wedding setpiece is not a real reason.) And Baumbach's self-authored voice-over throughout - which at first seems to be crying out for sympathy - is, in the end, anthropologically adroit; it is the voice of a clinical documentarian, working through a case study of a neurotic jealous man. Sympathy is not the end result - a call to action, preventative or rehabilitative, is.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I saw the most abhorrent thing at the theatre yesterday

Well, not really, but it was pretty bad. I'm sitting in my local, crappy second-run theatre, getting myself ready to watch Grizzly Man, when up jumps a Jaguar commercial. Now, please, the whole bitching about commercials preceding a movie is tired. Just like the gas-price hike: we fought, we fought, we failed. Or maybe big business just screwed us over. Whatever - that's not the point. The point is this Jaguar commerical started playing. Usually I'm over this type of thing, but this commerical was the most ridiculous type of vapid, facadical (yeah, sure it's a word) dreck I have seen in a good long while. In case you haven't seen it - thereby being lucky - I'll outline it for a you.

A man with a stuffy British accent (nothing against the Brits - Bangers & Mash, God Save the Queen, Call Scotland Yard!, Bloody Awful Weather, &c.) details the meaning of the word gorgeous while a backdrop of beautiful cars, women, and jewelry plays on the screen. Now, not to sound like a prick, but I don't need some Union Jack explaining to me the meaning of gorgeous, my American Professors are doing a fine enough job, thank you very much. But - BUT! - far worse than this lame-ass pedagogy is what this fine automobile manufacturing company tries to pass off as gorgeous. Air-brushed bodies, unattainable vehicles, a slow-motion nightlife where everyone's make-up and dress stay in place in spite of the bottomless Cosmo loyally beside? And then phrases like (very much "like," in fact - I didn't write these buggers down), "Gorgeous looks gorgeous after waking up from a night of absolutely retarded, farcical partying" (Editorial liberty taken, of course.) Basically the message is thus: if you want to be gorgeous, you must look exactly like we do, drive the cars we do, and spend exorbitant amounts of money in the ways that we do. Granted, this isn't a very original bitching job either, but it's still something worth bitching about. In our days of celebrities who are celebrities for the plain fact that they're already famous (huh?), it seems more appropriate than ever that we maintain some semblance of, I don't know, anti-asininity. Thankfully, there was a collective laugh and boo from the commercial viewing audience, so at least we got that going for us.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

So I didn't come through with the Last Days review - and if you're holding your breath, you should probably stop for some oxygen while you have a chance, cause the wait will be awhile - but I did give you two other full-length reviews. Good enough, right? Here's a bonus: I promise (as if that has any more validity left) a Grizzly Man review sometime this weekend. Cheers.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Addendum to Dundee

Just to add that the new soundtrack is ludicrous. That uneven tone I talked about is due in good part to the soundtrack. Part militaristic, The Great Escape joviality, part Once Upon a Time in the West melodrama, part rote studio emotional tugging. In other words, the soundtrack might be largely possible for the feeling that the film is tugging one in a certain direction while never fully exploring the aim directed at. What a little tease.

Major Dundee d. Sam Peckinpah, 1965

"Peckinpah's Mitigated Epic." "Failure on account of the studio." Here, as is often the case in Hollywood, the truth is far more faceted than the legend would lead one to believe. The re-release of Major Dundee adds twelve minutes, a revamped score, and - as I understand - a slightly chopped narrative intended to limn more closely Peckinpah's original vision. The question begged: did Peckinpah's original vision assume a great film, or did it merely offer up one adequate?

On the whole, Major Dundee is a bit of a mess. A miscast Charlton Heston (at least in this version of the film, and let it be stated that I do not assume this to be Peckinpah's actual vision of Major Dundee. This is only a reworking, by a studio, of one of the great director's failed films - failed, supposedly, on account of the studio.) plays the eponym. Unfortunately, the character is a shallow sketch, hardly a fully realized figure. Heston is a great icon - fording seas, crushing stone tablets, et cetera - but he's hardly actor enough to pull off the density of this role. Major Dundee is man who thinks he's chasing something - kidnapped children - only to realize that he's chasing something else - justice against the Indians kidnappers – only to then realize that he is chasing something else again - vengeance, not justice - only to realize, far too late, that he is actually running away from himself. This pursuit is trashed by Peckinpah around halfway through the movie. Odd enough, because the first full 1/4 of the film is centered on gearing up for said pursuit. This is indicative of the primary problem is Major Dundee: the film has enough threads running to provide ample subject matter, but each is weaved too little to make anything out of the action.

Finally, in the coup de grace - and a true prescient harbinger of what's to come for Peckinpah - the film in ends in glorious balletic violence. In a film mostly devoid of meat - of the strong, focused thematic material that would so earmark the director's later work - it's nice to see terrific, perfectly staged eye candy.

Whether Peckinpah's fault or not, Major Dundee is a failure, even in its restored version. But it is an interesting failure. Pretty much all the themes that would haunt Peckinpah in the following decade and a half are present - male machismo, the nature of violence, the role (or lack thereof) of women, the death of an era - but all are presented in a tone far too uneven, and a manner far too scattered, to really have anything beyond the effect of passing fancy.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Pittsburgh Trilogy d. Stan Brakhage, 1971

Stan Brakhage saw his trilogy of Pittsburgh films as documents, not documentaries. The distinction being that a documentary comes prepackaged with some type of agenda. I imagine the extreme example of this would be Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, but many others - from last year's astounding Touching the Void to the early days of documentary, with something like Nanook of the North. Given Brakhage's view of his films as documents - and I believe it to be valid, considering the overwhelming objectivity (or - at least - as close to objectivity as a framed object can get) of the content - The Pittsburgh Trilogy might be the first film I would consider interpreting in terms of my reaction to the film instead of basing my ideas on the pure content of the image. What follows, then, is less of a review and more of my own personal meanderings on the meaning I found, piece by piece, in The Pittsburgh Trilogy.


Eyes, like most all of Brakhage's films (and the entirety of the Trilogy) is completely devoid of sound. In the film, the camera records images of a policeman's day. Arrests, emergency calls, book 'em dan-o's, &c. The way in which the policemen are portrayed impresses conflicting feelings of fear, disgust, and respect. Those uniformed are never shown in a negative light - excepting, possibly, the way in which one cop lights a cigarette while dealing with a man whose head is gashed open - but it becomes relatively clear (that is, it became clear to me) that the boys in blue are unapproachable figures. The camera always leering outside of their space, circled off somehow, while the cops do what they do inspires a "rally "round the wagons" disgust, but also an admiration for the community and - I guess - the pure grit that it takes to go to a job whose turf is the dirty streets of PA.

Deus Ex

Hospital footage of what seems to be a maternity ward and (maybe) a cancer ward. The blurring images of young and old - the recently birthed and the almost deceased - seem to comment on the relationship - close, I think - between life & death. Open-heart surgery is juxtaposed against a blooming flower, with the dissolves between the two alternating between ham-fisted and striking. But isn't that how death works? Death conquers all, the images imply, and there really isn't much difference between the neophytic and the dying.

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes

All footage being taken from a morgue, from actual autopsies, you can imagine how this one is hard to handle. Dread at the sight of a man measuring out body parts - the length between thumb and index, the width of a nose, the depression of the instep - turns, amazingly, to a sort of catharsis when the bodies are finally cut open. Fear is a big part of this: here are dead bodies, empty vessels now, and we see them reduced to meat, pieced out and discarded. The realization that there is some type of spark that magically keeps the body going, and that in all the digging done by the excavators the spark is not to be found, provides hope. Maybe not hope, actually, maybe dignity; a contentment with the realization that your own body could end up on a metal table, cleaved apart, and yet that spark - or whatever it was that made you go - cannot be damaged in all the unrest. This is a small piece of comfort, I know, but it's still a piece.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Check out the Short Cuts section. (To your right and down a bit.) Four new reviews (mini-reviews, but longish with regards to that sort): 3-Iron, A Very Long Engagement, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Ride the High Country. A full length review of Last Days is pending. Promise.