Thursday, September 17, 2009

Inglourious Basterds d. Quentin Tarantino, 2009

Consider play. Fun & jest; the action of participating in a game; a dramatic composition; space in which something can move. Now consider Inglourious Basterds. I found myself with two initial responses to the film: 1) That was fun 2) But was it moral? 2a) Yes, it was 2b) No, it was not 2bi) Wait, should that have been fun? Perfunctory readings of readings seem to indicate - more or less - that my response to the film follows a mostly typical arc. Only a curmudgeon would deny that Inglourious Basterds is compelling filmmaking - stylish without being overbearing, tautly written and tightly edited1, and filled with life-brimming characters. Response #1 stands: qua film, IB is an enjoyable time at the cinema

But the morality and ethics of the thing complicates this response. Like Dogville before it, the denouement recasts the heroes of the film as potential immoral butchers, applying a justice and vengeance that might not be theirs to serve to an audience2 that might not actually deserve it.

What saves Inglourious Basterds - and, frankly, the audience as well - from occupying an untenable position is this idea of play. In spite of Quentin Tarantino’s attempts to author the thrust of this film univocal3, Inglourious Basterds is very much playful, in absolutely every sense of the word. (Or at least those gathered above.) This is obvious, but it still needs to be stated: this is not a historical film. It's concerned, yes, with history and with injustice, but this is first and foremost a cinematic thought experiment taken to its logical end.

The viewer is repeatedly reminded of the fact that what she's watching is a film. Tarantino's movies are always rife with cinematic imagery, but they usually take the shape of constative indices - visual, audio, narrative, and casting cues that point back to the stuff found in cinema. Inglourious Basterds treads a different path altogether, pointing to the stuff of cinema. Outside of an early scene that recalls that final shot of The Searchers - where an august John Wayne's lumbering walk toward the sunset is cut pathetically short by a closing door - I failed to pick up on any other moments recalling specifically other films4. Here cinema is performative, its qualities, rather than its experiences, doing the heavy lifting: Lt. Aldo quips, "Watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies"; the finale takes place in a cinemaplex. To return, this puts the film and the audience in a cinematically charged frame, as opposed to the political and moral frame that one might approach a movie about WWII or the holocaust with. Which is not to say that the film is evacuated of ethics and politics, only that its political and ethical codes are not the same as those of the world outside of the film. Rather, and here we go again, the filmic space is one in which morality and politics can be put into play, ambling back and forth in an antipodean dance, refusing to cling to a single position. So, to speak of a univocal morality like the enumerated list in my first paragraph is to miss the whole point; the humor, excitement, drama, politics, and morality of the film are fluid and intertwined - extrapolating one from the other is to ignore the cinematic space of play.

The result of this play is a complex network of moments that stretch and pull at each other, threatening a breaking point, only to rebound and meet up again in the middle somewhere. Inglourious Basterds opens with an act of pure evil: Jews slaughtered by Nazis via machine gun fire rained down through the floorboards. It follows that the Nazis deserve their comeuppance, but when that comeuppance is brought down, the shots of the Basterds standing in the gods reflect both the Nazis slaughter of the Jews in the opening scene and the watchtower massacre perpetrated by Frederick Zoller. These moments that bind the Jews - especially the Basterds - to the Nazis occur throughout the film: Hitler tells Goebbles that the film-within-a-film is his finest work yet, while Aldo Raine proclaims, "This just might be my masterpiece", and Shosanna's hijack-film is eerily continuous with Goebbels', replacing one on-screen massacre with another. While I don't mean to imply that there is anything ambiguous about the morality of the Nazis - and there is not; that opening scene is a demonstration of pure brutality and evil - these connected images serve to nullify any pat reading that works to anchor the Basterds' action as moral or immoral. That sense of play in the film - the fun type - works with the tropes of vengeance and morality to create spatial play. The film bounds and rebounds between glee and justice, so much so that the two become inextricably intertwined; the mode of the film, then, is one of play, of constant movement between joy and despair, morality and evil, justice and vengeance. Rather than being a final word, an object that states HOW THINGS ARE, Inglourious Basterds operates as a conduit of interpretation, deflecting readings that seek to cement it in place and rewarding those that allow it to breathe.

1 Yes, even with its 2.5 hour runtime
2 Literally
3 The entirety of Tarantino's speech at the premiere, via Vulture: "So, are you ready to see some Basterds?" [Mild applause] "I said, are you ready to ready to see some Basterds fuck up some Nazis?" [Louder applause] "Yeah, motherfucker!" [Throws microphone on the floor]
4 Do bear in mind, however, that I'm only moderately well watched and that I also possess a terrible memory for recollection.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford d. Andrew Dominik, 2007

After seeing My Blueberry Nights - and, yeah, cribbing plenty of notes from Matt Zoller Seitz's (as always) whip smart words - and then seeing TAoJJbtCRF (should that b get capitalized?), I'm struck by the idea of the moment, of mood. MZS writes:

Wong Kar-Wai's films aren't just intoxicating; they're intoxicated. They deploy slow motion, fast motion, freeze-frames and other visual flourishes not to highlight pivotal narrative moments, but to italicize feelings -- some sorrowful or profound, others fleeting, playful, sensual

and then:

In place of a Syd Field-approved three act story, My Blueberry Nights offers a series of moments (some pivotal, others fleeting) in the lives of various, tangentially unrelated characters. The moments are threaded together via the experiences of a New York coffee shop waitress named Elizabeth (Norah Jones), who tries to get over a breakup by living and working in other cities, witnessing and/or participating in other characters' dramas. But Elizabeth's experiences less a dramatic through-line than an emotional echo chamber: a means for Wong to simultaneously explore one character's self-reckoning and a second character's reaction to it.

I'm not entirely sure that My Blueberry Nights succeeds, but its blueprint as viewed by Seitz - a series of moments and emotions threaded together by experience - is the great movie at the heart of the very good movie that TAoJJbtCRF is.

Simply put, the narrator hobbles TAoJJbtCRF. In what could have been an excellent scene, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) plays the chameleonic flaneur, essentially living, through James' garments, accoutrements, and things, the life of Jesse James. The visual narrative is coherent without being obvious, subtle without being abstract, but the V.O. operates as a sort of play-by-play announcer, describing for the impaired the image on screen and - this is the dealbreaker - ascribing concrete meaning to that image. The V.O. plays exactly what the film is not: a poor biographer.

A good biopic - Capote comes to mind (and not to say that the film at hand is necessarily a biopic, but the biographical elements are the same) - paints in (wait for it) the medium of moments and moods; it simply presents, without presenting judgment. (Actually, and clearly, this is the stuff of good storytelling and quality characterization period - good films pretty much always operate in a liminal space.) And this is exactly what TAoJJbtCRF does when the voice over is absent. Perhaps a bit too heavy on the young-man-peering-despondently-over-the-countryside trope, TAoJJbtCRF presents portraits - vignettes, really - of Jesse (Brad Pitt) and the sundry members of his gang. Only one hold-up is portrayed in the film, and even that is shrouded in mystery, hardly the clear procedural of the usual filmic robbery, train- or otherwise. The forthright title is routinely questioned in the film - was it cowardice that drove R.F. and was Jesse James such a monumental figure that his death deserved to be called an assassination? - so much so that the coda, in which the honor and character of Robert Ford is explored, is fully deserved. That is, deserved if one forgets the V.O.

Sans voice-over, TAoJJbtCRF resembles very much a Terrence Malick film or, digging into the archives of the western, Peter Fonda's excellent The Hired Hand. The pathos would be a bit unbearable at times, but the excellent cast, visuals, and script would more than make up for it. Instead, with the narration, the film splits itself in two, attempting to appeal to both the art-house set and Oscar-driven populace, satisfying completely, I imagine, neither.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Music: 2007: The Year in Review: Diving Off the Balcony

I paid attention in 2007, but not well enough. To be forthright, it is my opinion that it's pretty much impossible to truly pay attention to the contemporary music game. Things move so fast. If you got the indie rock thing dialed, then you miss whatever is going on in underground hip hop; if you got hip hop on lock, then you miss the noise/metal scene; if you got that thing covered, then you miss the decadent, gorgeously overwrought pop emanating from the pores of your radio's speakers; and if you skim all of those equally, well then you're staying completely on the surface, missing all that low-level goodness. And, to make this ridiculous, if you pay complete attention to contemporary music, you miss those great albums from yesteryear that are constantly bubbling up into the collective awareness. Consider that a caveat; what follows is my favorite of what I've heard and by no means definite. It'll change - certainly - by the end of next year.

Now, a few words on the subject at hand. 2007, especially following the very middling '06, has been a fantastic year for music. Not only has the stream of solid, competent, even excellent releases been steady, but there have also been a number - 5-8, by my count - of flat-out masterpieces, the kind of album that you speak about in hushed, reverent tones 10 years down the line. (This talk of the future is obviously speculative, but if I'm not listening to these albums 10 years from now, then I've either discovered some very excellent music indeed, or I've gone soft-headed. Consider this a time capsule.) Moreover, 2007 produced one song which I consider to be among the Top 10 ever created. Both a feat and coup in this modern climate. So, then: here, and with brief comments, are my favorite albums and songs (and other miscellany) of 2007.


25. Dirty Acres (CunninLynguists)
24. Weighing Souls With Sand (The Angelic Process)
23. Curses (Future of the Left)
22. In Rainbows (Radiohead)
21. Death Is This Communion (High on Fire)
20. Kala (M.I.A.)
19. Beyond (Dinosaur jr.)
18. Phantom Limb (Pig Destroyer)
17. Eater of Birds (Cobalt)
16. Planet of Ice (Minus the Bear)
15. Bambi's Dilemma (Melt-Banana)
14. Liars (Liars)
13. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Of Montreal)
12. Given to the Rising (Neurosis)
11. Boxer (The National)

10. Pilgrimage (Om)

There's something to the name of this band. Their music - just, literally, drums and bass - is repetitive to the point of, surface-wise, boredom. But it never actually induces boredom. I won't claim it induces a bodhisattvaic trance-like state, either - that'd be silly - but it is (spoiler: critical buzz word ahead) kinda meditative. Probably the ultimate stoner metal record, but don't hold that against it. This is what it means to lock into a groove and ride it 'til the runout.

09. You Follow Me (Nina Nastasia & Jim White)

Stunning production care of Steve Albini: the way White's A-G percussion meanderings dance with Nina's voice and guitar is simply perfect. What should be a straightforward record - just drums, vox, and guitar - is actually a slippery little thing. Both players dance around "typical" melodies and rhythms, skewing and splaying them across the surface; when it locks, when you are given that taste of perfect pop, it's that much sweeter.

08. Mirrored (Battles)

Potentially the year's best record, if only I understood it better. Music from twenty years in the future, maybe. Boredoms and Kraftwerk filtered through Ornette Coleman, but with more guitars.

07. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Spoon)

Probably the most consistent band ever. Britt Daniel is always the coolest guy in the room.

06. Untrue (Burial)

The aural echo of a dejected night's walk through a piss-drizzle of rain.

05. Ire Works (Dillinger Escape Plan)

Track three is titled "Black Bubblegum," and that's really the perfect figure for this album. DES don't so much drop their math-metal tendencies as they integrate Timberlake (!) styled croonings into parts of them. No joke. The result works surprisingly well, with the ultimate apotheosis being the Faith No More acolyte, "Milk Lizard." Its fence-sitting will ultimately insure that very few people actually like this album, but for those with an ear for both Pig Destroyer and Rihanna, this is about as close as one can get to a blissful marriage.

04. Strawberry Jam (Animal Collective)

The Animal Collective comes through with its most immediate and approachable album to date. I don't know yet whether it's my favorite - the last three have all been overwhelmingly good - but it sure is a stunner. "Peacebone" is essentially a summation of the Collective's career arc, arhythmic noise finds a beat, then a semblance of melody, then a hook, and finally a non-sensical, but catchy, refrain. Yeah, they've waxed pop, but that's certainly not a bad thing - when they meld their avant-meandering to a good hook, the results equal something approaching genius.

03. Person Pitch (Panda Bear)

Forget comparisons to Brian Wilson, talk of the samples, questions of authorship - the real deal with Person Pitch is those gorgeous, hummable melodies; the real deal is those washes of sound that layer up like a great dub record. I simply don't understand those that accuse this record of being inaccessible or odd - it's perfect pop. The various samples and percussions flowing with, bouncing off, or grinding up against each other; the sheets of melody and harmony that - even divorced from anything resembling sense - emote all over the fucking place; the swelling transitions, like that tiny bit of darkness that creeps into the end of "Comfy in Nautica" - this is the excellence of Person Pitch. Even in a year of several great and distinguished albums, Person Pitch stands apart.

I won't try to ascribe some deep, philosophical meaning to PP. I've read the lyrics (cause I certainly didn't understand 'em while listening), and they're definitely good, but this isn't a Leonard Cohen album. Neither will I try to ascribe some deeply personal meaning to Person Pitch - listening to it really loud while lying on my bed, drunk on Lancers, doesn't make me cry or ponder my being. All I'll say is this: Person Pitch is really great, really pure music, music whose surface is constantly in flux and always in the process of washing over and redefining itself. That's pretty much everything I want in music.

02. Colors (Between the Buried and Me)

This is the one that, while I was walking to my school's career center trying to figure out what do with my life (answer, btw: pizza boy), made me fall in love with metal. Not for everyone, obvs., but this album really is excellent music. There's the requisite speed-riffage, natch, but there's also the steady hand of an editor present. BtBaM temper their insatiable appetite for the riff with these perfect, and often beautiful, interpolations - e.g. the refrain in "Sun of Nothing," the breakdown in "Ants of the Sky," and the entirety of "White Walls."

01. Sound of Silver (LCD Soundsystem)

The way it's sequenced - the faux club-romp of "Get Innocuous" and "North American Scum" bleeding into the meditations on, respectively, loss and aging in "Someone Great" and "All My Friends" that finally coalesce into something resembling, simultaneously, elegy for past and affirmation of present in "Sound of Silver" and "New York I Love You, but You're Bringing Me Down" - is pretty much peerless, as albums go, in the last five years. It's the one-two punch of "Someone Great" and "All My Friends," however, that puts Sound of Silver over the top. James Murphy proffers one of the great opening lines ever in "All My Friends," "That's how it starts," invoking both an entire lost past and a sort of unavoidable, yet somehow mysterious, future. It's my favorite trope: finding the epic in the banal, with the result being that each subverts the other, leading to this weird space of simply, well, being. The result is an affirmation, with a great deal of trepidation, of being where you are, of this moment, right now


I don't really know singles too well, but here 'tis anyway.

10. "The Underdog" (Spoon)
09. "Peacebone" (Animal Collective)
08. "No Pussy Blues" (Grinderman)
07. "Bros" (Panda Bear)
06. "Fireworks" (Animal Collective)
05. "Umbrella" (Rihanna)
04. "Paper Planes" (M.I.A.)
03. "Year of the Pig" (Fucked Up)
02. "Titus Andronicus" (Titus Andronicus)
01. "All My Friends" (LCD Soundsystem)

n.b. the b-side to Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's "Lay & Love," - "Señor" - is really deserving of that #2 spot, but - for some weird reason - I've deemed it ineligible. Nonetheless, do give it a spin.


I meant to add this on first publish. Nobody will read it now, but that's ok. Just to show how transitory these things are, here's last year's list - as made last year - contra the same list from this year's vantage point:


1. The Drift (Scott Walker)
2. Orphans (Tom Waits)
3. Drum's Not Dead (Liars)
4. If You Come to Greet Me (Laura Gibson)
5. Sam's Town (The Killers)
6. Return to Cookie Mountain (TV on the Radio)
7. Fishscale (Ghostface Killah)
8. Sensuous (Cornelius)
9. Harmony in Ultraviolet (Tim Hecker)
10. 45:33 (LCD Soundsystem)

11. Hell Hath No Fury (Clipse)
12. The Body the Blood the Machine (The Thermals)
13. Citrus (Asobi Seksu)
14. Roots & Crowns (Califone)
15. Boys and Girls in America (The Hold Steady)
16. Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor (Lupe Fiasco)
17. Destroyer's Rubies (Destroyer)
18. Night Ripper (Girl Talk)
19. Carnavas (Silversun Pickups)
20. Taiga (OOIOO)

2006 via 2007

1. The Drift (Scott Walker)
2. Dead Mountain Mouth (Genghis Tron)
3. Drum's Not Dead (Liars)
4. Brother, Sister (mewithoutYou)
5. Blood Visions (Jay Reatard)
6. Orphans (Tom Waits)
7. Blood Mountain (Mastodon)
8. Hell Hath No Fury (Clipse)
9. Diadem of 12 Stars (Wolves in the Throne Room)
10. Boys and Girls in America (The Hold Steady)

11. Return to Cookie Mountain (TV On the Radio)
12. Fishscale (Ghostface Killah)
13. Sensuous (Cornelius)
14. Harmony in Ultraviolet (Tim Hecker)
15. 45:33 (LCD Soundsystem)
16. The Body the Blood the Machine (The Thermals)
17. Futuresex/Lovesounds (Justin Timberlake)
18. If You Come to Greet Me (Laura Gibson)
19. Sam's Town (The Killers)
20. King (T.I.)

Crazy, right?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

music, ought-seven style

This is probably pointless, being that roughly five people read this blog, and most - if not all - of them (of you, I guess?) I see or talk to at least once a week. I feel like procrastinating, so here goes anyway.

As you know, I like lists, and I'm putting a couple together, so what have you heard, music-wise, in 2007 that I should have heard? A quick rundown:

Sound of Silver LCD Soundsystem

A lock for spot numero uno.

Person Pitch Panda Bear
Strawberry Jam Animal Collective

These guys are teh hottness.

Weighing Souls with Sand The Angelic Process
Ire Works Dillinger Escape Plan
Colors Between the Buried and Me

Three "metal" albums that have slayed me over the last few weeks.

Untrue Burial

Ghostly dubstep-revival; the perfect soundtrack to walks on a dreary day.

There's more, natch:

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Spoon; Mirrored Battles; Pilgrimage Om; the new Radiohead, Liars, and Shellac albums; Mammatus; that new Boredoms platter; the Dinosaur jr. reunion-type disc; Pig Destroyer, Neurosis, and High on Fire; Sunset Rubdown, Parts & Labor, A Place to Bury Strangers; UGK, Beanie Sigel, Durrty Goodz, about a thousand Lil Wayne mixtapes, M.I.-fucking-A. Et cetera, etc., &c.

So, anyway, what have you been spinning?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie d. Shinichiro Watanabe, 2001

Not as successful, not to mention satisfying, as the show, which I very strongly recommend to anyone who can handle even a small taste of anime. The melange of tones and genres that the show so deftly pulls off is muddled a bit here. In terms of tone, especially, the film relies too heavily on a sort of quasi-profound pathos, the type that anyone who has been around a large group of indie-loving freshmen/sophomores knows only too well.

This is a good place to stop. I'm going to leave that up there unfinished. Two reasons: 1) Anywhere I go from there will be more comparison between the show and the film, which isn't particularly generous to the film 2) I don't have the desire, the interest, to devote the time and energy to the film that it deserves. Maybe; I'll clear that up in a moment.

So ends my November Thing, and - in terms of the work of writing something about every movie/television show seen - it has been a success. I still find myself unsatisfied, though. While I'm pretty happy with the style I've developed w/r/t television criticism - especially my bit on the Weeds finale - and various film reviews - my stuff on Chaplin, for instance, or the bits on Happy Together and Nikita, no matter how embryonic and typo-ridden they may be - the highlight of this whole experiment has been the Thanksgiving-weekend exchange between Ryland, Cuyler, and myself, and the ensuing spill-over at their 'blog. Plus, our professor even threw his hat into the fray, sending out a pretty robust email filled with lots of good things that pertained to the matter at hand. Which is to say, I don't know where I stand in relation to film criticism at this point. The critical stance I assumed in my Run, Lola, Run review (aha!) isn't where I'm at - and, honestly, never way; I'd like to think that type of flippant dismissal is a by-product of the constraints of the November Thing - but I can't fully glom onto the type of criticism posited by Ryland and Prof. Gutterriez.

Here's where the dissatisfaction comes from: I'm not sure I've found the right language to express my absolute love and excitement for certain films while also saying something important, intelligent, and relevant. Ryland makes a good point when he writes, and I paraphrase, that when you devote time to writing about something, you're already making a judgment call, already saying that the thing is worth writing about. But I don't think it's necessary, after that, to throw out hierarchies. For instance, I found Million Dollar Baby very much worth writing about, but I despised it as a film. I.e. it is not good; it is bad.

I think, actually, that Ryland and I are after the same thing, or at least something similar; in reading a bit by Manny Farber in Negative Space, I'm struck by how judgmental the language is. While Farber decries hierarchies and simple good/bad judgments, his writing is still rife with the language of judgment. I don't think this is bad thing, at all. Rather, it's the nature of the thing itself. The best writing on film is both critical and judgmental; it has a passion for film, that kind of ebullience that you feel after seeing a really excellent film, or even the kind of despair you feel after seeing something reprehensible. It avoids simple judgments - e.g. don't see this film, it sucks; this film is the best thing EVAR!!1! - but is filled with the adjectives that have judgment implicit to them - compelling, disgusting, etc. I don't think the excitement and love of film that's found in hierarchical judgment can be separated from truly great film criticism.

This is all a bit muddled, but so are my thoughts right now. Anyway, expect less writing - especially until Dec. 15, when finals are over for me - but, hopefully, the writing you find here will be richer, more alive, and more in love with film.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Nashville d. Robert Altman, 1975

How could I have gone so many years without this? Eventually I'll write something of substance about it - my refrain lately - but for now I'll just bask in that final scene, equal parts hope and sadness, captured in that last perfect, looking up, yes, but only to gray skies. Crushing.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sunnyside & A Day's Pleasure & Pay Day d. Charlie Chaplin, 1919/1919/1922

Real quick: I encourage everyone in the bay area to check out the Charlie Chaplin Mini-Retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive. It runs through Dec. 17 and, obviously, is a great time at the movies.

Three Shorts:

Sunnyside seems to be - and as intimated in the bio-doc, Charlie, might purposefully be - a work of a man tired of and by film. All signs point to rote monotony: the farmhand (played by Chaplin) works long hours, and does whatever he can to either shirk the work or make it interesting. Chaplin employs a good deal of his object transmutation, finding new uses for old objects. The intertitles can't even finish themselves, reading, e.g., "The farm hand, etc. etc. etc." At this point, to get biographical myself, the shorts Chaplin was doing for Mutual were becoming old hat, tired to the point where the audience wouldn't be at all baffled by the etc. repetitions. To get meta, Sunnyside operates as both the title of the town and of the film; the former, in its banality, operates as a mirror for the latter, and the farm hand as a figure for Chaplin himself, attempting to creatively navigate the daily grind of the film industry. N.B. There is a great paper to be written on the false escapism inherent to Chaplin's dream sequences.

A Day's Pleasure is a sort of familial precursor to Modern Times. An ostensibly day of fun turns into an unnecessarily complicated sojourn, made frustrating by the modern conveniences of cars, boats, and traffic. Plenty of American iconography is present, so maybe this is a - definitely light-hearted - poke at the USA?

Pay Day is the slightest of the bunch, but also features one of the best setpieces of the three: an elevator on a jobsite that plays a version of musical chairs with everybody's lunch. This short proves that even when Chaplin is dealing only with gags - that is, no real thematic - his films are still fantastically compelling.