Comment

A Film Like Any Other (1968)

As the twentieth century progressed, societal agreements for productivity in the Industrial age, like the 40 hour work week, became normalized; they became pillars, they became scripture. At the outset of the twenty-first century, things that may have been viewed as temporary circumstances during the early days of the industrial revolution have been in place so long that their validity is rarely questioned by the masses, the working class that Godard's student characters are so concerned over. Godard's students on screen are doing what has been the role of the student ever since; not only to learn but to question everything about the world around them. Today, this kind of query is seen as a right of passage, a necessary purging of rebellious tendencies that needs to be allowed a safe space to express itself, but never bear fruit. We want the youth to question, but we don't want them to take action. We want the youth to become politically active and engaged, but we want them to shut up and get a job before any of that action has any lasting effect on the older, established class. Godard's film captures the futility of this philosophical questioning as well as detailing its greatest hopes, aspirations and ideas. We are actively engaged at every moment in A Film Like Any Other by revolutionary ideas and musings, stock footage of protests and political activist groups, a cinematic stirring of the pot. What we also see is a group of faceless students talking in circles around one another, unable to organize even their small group into something effective of the kind of change they are capable of imagining. Many of their ideas for action revolve around gumming up the works of the great machine that keeps the rich rich and the poor poor. Their dreams of sticking a wrench in the gears of the establishment are reflective only of their disenchantment with current society, knowing ever what they want to avoid and what they want to end, never a concrete notion of what they want to create.  

Contradiction forms the basis of the discourse here. The students lament Debord's Spectacle, the vapidity of films shown on television, yet admit to becoming "bored" and watching them, citing that they do not "know what else to do". The conundrum of the West, the citizen of the first world in the twentieth century; all this education and nothing to do. Bored and lethargic, but just smart and educated enough to know there is something better out there you could be doing with your time, if only you could figure out what it is. They didn't teach you that part, did they? Godard's student circle concludes that any society that exhausts personal autonomy and individuality to the point where one is vacant the moment they stop working on an assembly line is toxic. If we get out of our wage-earning rut, the circle well-tread into the floor by our daily pacing in it, and look around us, the emptiness in our educated minds becomes so burdensome that we tune out, switch off and succumb to boredom. In a land of plenty we are either fat, bored and lazing, or being forced to labor and bitching about it. With A Film Like Any Other Godard is perfecting his form of what he referred to as cinematic essays, but what is really seen here is more a cinematic painting where blending bits of found footage, a simple conversation shot impersonally and a mixture of unvarnished Leftist thought process and anecdotes from recent events blur together to form the tapestry. In a way it is a collage piece, but Godard's well-handled mixing process keeps the film fluid at all times, always in motion as we flow through a current of the times. It's said that Godard included a note to the projectionist when he sent the prints out instructing them to 'flip a coin' to decide what order to show the reels in.  Astonishing is the end result, a film that seems to live and breathe in the moment as it is existing in front of our eyes, a film that, like much of Godard's work, feels far more alive than most cinema. In Godard's filmmaking, each frame gives birth to the next, seemingly in real time. 

Godard, here and always, gives defining lines to the clouds that hover over society and the world at large. Through his cinema he renders the invisible, visible. The inherent contradictions of the 20th century lifestyle, the itching to dismantle what has been assembled, the boredoms and the comforts and the fact that it is more attractive to sit in a field smoking cigarettes and discussing revolution than it is to build the world after the revolution. It is more attractive to tear it all apart than it is to try and live within it. The underlying image we are left with is not one of revolution, of protest, or of violence, we are left with figures seated in a circle locked in discourse, how different the film would be if they eventually got up at the end and threw a trash bin through a window or something, but they don't. It is difficult to walk away from A Film Like Any Other and not feel stimulated, the ideas Godard is presenting are timeless questions that all organizations and organized societies will need to face at some time or another and so they are valid questions to ask. We also cannot walk away from it feeling that nothing has been accomplished by the film, but so what, honestly? The film is a document of great validity for its summation of its content and context, why should it need to inspire us to revolt? Or inspire us at all? To exist, we must go on existing. To revolt, we must be revolting.

Comment

Comment

Persona (1966)

Life and its dimensions. The mind and Its questions. We exist in one place and one time, yet how many of us do exist there? Cinema and its dimensions. Its assertions. We exist as form, replicated on the screen, replicated in infinity and for an infinite number of times. When do we show face? What is the face we show only to ourselves? Does life, as it flows forward, cause us to lose our grip on the masks we wear and the face underneath, the personas we inhabit and the one that truly inhabits us? Do we pose? appeal? How can we be sure? For Bergman, the answers lie at the heart of his ultimate work, Persona. The answers are woven into the celluloid itself, they are between each frame and around each corner, they are on the tip of his characters' tongues and linger just out of view in the back of their mind, and their collective mind, just outside of their field of vision. When Bibi Andersson's Sister Alma chooses to take on care for Liv Ullmann's Elisabet Vogler, she first acknowledges that a battle of wits is about to take place. She fears, in this early sequence. that she may not have the mental strength necessary to withstand Elisabet's sharpened intellect, the life force that exists inside an artist of great genius and great feeling. From this moment onward, how are we to interpret Alma's actions? Are they the genuine actions of a young, and slightly naive, nurse whose openness and impressionability causes her to become helpless, enamored with a patient that she herself proclaims as a brilliant artist? Or are they calculated performances to coax her patient out of her hiding place, the shell that Elisabet has placed around herself, the cocoon of silence that is now her world? Could it be that the difference between the two shifts at such a rapid rate inside of ourselves, every minute to every other minute, that we lose track of it all? We can scarcely say who we are, or what we've intended with our actions. Can we truly say where they came from, or from whom?

Bergman opens Persona with the ignition of a film projector lamp, the celluloid moves, the reels turn. This happens every time you screen a film in a theater, this happens behind the scenes, part of the show you're not meant to see. The film counts down and Bergman splices in a frame of a closeup on a penis. The film jitters and jumps, we cut in an out of various elements, a lamb slaughtered, a closeup of a hand during a crucifixion, what appears to be a dead body until she opens her eyes. Our director's medium is having a breakdown, perhaps the projector itself is remembering its own past. As we go through our own psychological breakdowns, we can dive back into our past through memory, or split our own psyche into fragmented personalities. The young boy, perhaps the son who is oft mentioned throughout the film, reaches out to touch the face of his mother, but he cannot discern if it is Alma or Elisabet. Neither can we. The human mind can experience life in a myriad of sensitivities, mindsets, moods and perspectives. We can be vulnerable, open, a quality usually aligned with youth and naïveté and yet, through our own mental breaking down and building up, the young mind can return to us at moments throughout life when we least expect it. The mind is not like the body, it does not age in a linear progression, although it responds in synchronicity to the body's state of being. When we are strong, we operate from the place in the mind that is willful, forthright, calm and in command; a quality associated with age and maturity is that of a "think skin", a kind of numbness or shield against becoming affected by life's hardships too greatly. It can be seen that perhaps the mind of the actor or actress, with the constant mental strain put upon the psyche by method acting, using the painful memories of the past (or the pain of others) and feeding off of it to inform ones' work, cracks under the weight of the craft easier than most minds would. It's as if the actress builds herself to break. Alma, as nurse, builds herself to heal. The caretaker persona, whose every action is to nurse the wounded spirit back to full strength again. We administer care to ourselves in our time of need, when we are weakest and most vulnerable. Therein lies the game at play in Persona and the endless questions surrounding when our players are on and off the field, and are they on and off at the same time? Perhaps one of them is silently playing without the other noticing in a time of vulnerability. In a dose of some of Bergman's best writing of his career, Alma monologues about a deep secret, an orgy with "young boys" who are themselves sexually vulnerable to the more experienced women in the tale, naive and sensitive. Elisabet takes it all in, perhaps she is aloof to it, perhaps comforted, or perhaps she is still in work-mode, feeding off of her young nurse's experiences, her deep emotions and pain to inform her own work. Is Elisabet Vogler the actress or Elisabet Vogler the human being present in these rooms? Is there a difference? Alma begins her introduction to Elisabet by praising her and her craft, professing her admiration for artists. Is this genuine? Does Alma feel these things or is this a trick of the trade for nurses? An attempt to set up a good relation and bedside manner with her patient? Perhaps. 

By the film's third act, Bergman opens up the field of vision on what was previously an enclosed chamber piece. As their time in the house goes on, the women begin to haunt one another. As spirits in celluloid they drift about the screen, never revealing their true intent to one another or to the audience. Does Elisabet enter Alma's room at night and caress her? Or was this just a figment? When questioned she shakes her head, just as Alma would never reveal her intentional leaving of the broken glass for Elisabet to cut her foot. We don't reveal such deep, dark things, and even when we do, we regret it. Alma feels used when she realizes her revelation of the orgy is received callously. The third act reveals the apparatus yet again as the film reel begins its breakdown, eventually screening another monologue by Alma relating to us, not her own past and interior thoughts, but Elisabet's. The angles shot for the sequence are not revealed in shot-reverse-shot cutting, but in separate presentations, once seeing Elisabet's reaction shots and again seeing Alma's delivery. It serves to further break down the film to its essential pieces, revealing the scene's construction to us in one sense, but overall serves a larger thematic purpose as well. The monologue is cold and harsh and deals with hatred of one's own offspring, the statements are sharp and hurtful, difficult to hear, at least the first time. When we, the audience, are vulnerable to their piercing hostility the first time we hear it, it can be difficult, even painful, to listen to. When we hear it a second time, however, we are immune. We've heard it before, we're prepared for it, it has little effect. Bergman has sent us through our own transformation of vulnerability and callousness. The film concludes in the reverse of the way it began, the light of a projector dying out. Have we witnessed a dream that the projector is having? Bergman reveals to us the dimensions of human identity, the masks we inhabit, even toward ourselves. As Alma looks into the mirror, showing face to herself, she has a deja vu of Elisabet's hand caressing her hair. At the same time Elisabet is snapped out of a trance on the set of her film. Bergman has crafted the most pure expression of the medium that we have. These two cinematic entities, haunting one another's thoughts, for as long as the projector stays illumed, and then suddenly, they are no more. 

Comment

Comment

2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) - Reactions to the 70mm 'Unrestored' Screening

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

Kubrick's 2001 seems borne from beyond the infinite. Not a single cut is wasted, not a single shot that doesn't pulsate with the blood of meticulous planning, and not an instant that feels as anything less than divinely inspired. In Kubrick's dichotomy we linger for languid shots of great hulking triumphs in man's material construction, spending most of our screen-time in a landscape of technological precision, and yet the film's core is a vibrant abstraction. Kubrick has crafted a visual journey of consciousness itself, in this case our consciousness, the human being, as we grew from our moment of dawning to our moment of transcendence into higher planes of existence; The entry point and exit point in the story of man's manifest in the material world. 2001's strengths are its universalities, its simplicity, its wordless communication. At no point are our thoughts contained, our imagination hindered by any box, 2001 is a canvas for our mind to paint with and Kubrick's cinematic journey is the paint kit. How telling that he pinpoints the 'Dawn of Man' as being that moment in which we developed the inclination to use tools to accomplish our goals; the moment we first looked at one thing and saw its potential for becoming something else. How telling, also, that the potential we saw was to turn it into a weapon. Kubrick no doubt, fresh off the production of Dr. Strangelove, saw that bone-turned-bludgeoning-club as man's relationship with nuclear energy and the atomic age; before we thought of any other use for it, we first thought that we could kill with it, exact revenge, acquire the resources we need for the people of our tribe. Man, scraping in the dirt, hairy mammals grunting and bleating at one another for control of the watering hole and prey to beasts who outmatch them. Suddenly, with the deafening song of those screaming human voices, somehow hellish and angelic at the same time, we see it: the monolith; Kubrick's visual representation of inspiration itself. We first are drawn to it, then fear it, cautiously nearing it and then backing away, but eventually, we fall under its spell and are changed forever. 

The 'Dawn of Man' segment itself contains all that we ever needed to know about 2001, a beginning chapter of the story as well as a microcosm of all we'll come to see throughout. The monolith, that blank canvas for our imagination, divine inspiration, the spark of creative energy, transcendence, the source of all life that we reach for and perhaps never touch. How haunting is the image of the old man in his dying breath extending a hand toward it, toward the mystery of life as it towers over him, somehow benign and menacing all at once. The monolith is the catalyst for rapid evolution acted out in front of us. It is the sheer scope of Kubrick's storytelling that give 2001 its power. Its prologue and epilogue taking up similar lengths of screen time, its center section is enraptured by details both micro and macro, in fact not seeing a difference, in tune with the sub-atomic as much as the galactic. Man, over the eons, has developed the creation of tools beyond merely repurposing and has transcended into synthesizing. Creating the ultimate, a moment of closing the circle, an artificial human mind. Where the central point of Kubrick's spinning of the mysteries of existence for us, in this interplanetary tapestry, lies is his demarcation line between creator and created, where he chooses to fold this cinematic ink blot: the ambiguity of the machine intelligence HAL 9000. HAL is shown to be flawless in its operation, containing all the knowledge and strategy of the human race combined with the power to process it at a rate far outpacing a human mind. The ambiguity comes from the emotion, not the intellect, the unnamable, intangible elements of organic consciousness that HAL may or may not possess. Where does intelligence end and consciousness begin? What are the limits of a life form? What parameters define it? HAL is objective-oriented, displaying the capacity to emote in pursuit of its aims when drawing up a crew psychology report on Dave. One of 2001's central mysteries (one where Kubrick, as in the rest of the film, wisely leaves the answers in our hands), lies in whether HAL's coup and resulting offensive toward the crew represent a genuine drive toward self-preservation or whether it has calculated that the death of the crew is the only way to serve its prime directive and carry out the mission. Kubrick does tip his hand more in the nature of self-preservation as murdering the hibernating crew members would have been unnecessary otherwise. 2001's most haunting scene results from HAL's deactivation, once again leaving us to wonder if the display of emotion is objective-based fabrication or some genuine fear of death (or the closest facsimile of death a machine can experience). HAL's reboot back to his earliest memory just before he expires blurs the line even further between machine and organic intelligence, HAL's life flashes before its electronic eyes. In the act of death that springs forth from of our creation, we learn something deep about ourselves. By contrast, the human figures in our film are entirely enamored with their creation and seek to emulate it. Such a love they have for the tools that they themselves constructed that they even wish to be like them and mimic their attributes in pursuit of competing with them in a contest of efficiency. The humans in Kubrick's film seem to believe that the key to the next evolution of their species lies in their left brain. The astronauts and scientists we encounter are cold, emotionless, calculating and trying their damndest to behave as machines. Kubrick's epilogue, however, shows us the error of their assumptions. 

As we plunge past Jupiter, becoming one with the monolith itself and following it 'Beyond the Infinite' we see the true nature of the next evolution of mankind: right brain intuiting rather than left brain logic. Dave is assaulted by all manner of visual abstraction, stimuli that his mind cannot process, becoming one with the limits of his own self and the higher plane he can now access. In an instant, in a baroque living space, we witness the life of man, seeing himself, some hinting at the mystery around him interrupting his supper, dismissing it just as quickly to return to his feeding. All those moments of avoiding the void coming to a climax on the death bed itself, reaching out for it when we can no longer dismiss it. How tragic the life of mortal man. Kubrick shows us, in a ballet of the cosmos, of man and machine, the life cycle of a species and its eventual rebirth. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, energy and consciousness are not destroyed, but reborn. Kubrick's film reaches a point of intersection between the finite and eternal, the major and the minor. The great mechanical inventions of the human race adrift in the cosmos, all set to the greatest symphonic works that a human mind has conceived. Kubrick's dance in the stars is concluded by man becoming one such celestial body. We've watched as the planets and spacecraft rotated and travelled among the stars, now we see Dave reborn as a new being in deeper harmony with the universal movements. Kubrick's film responds to those movements as well, a grand intersection of man's creations set against the stars, the story of a species, the great mysteries of existence. 2001, like no other film, is in tune with the mysteries of beyond, of life itself, and of the harmonies by which eternity rotates.

10

Comment

Comment

Twin Peaks: The Return

David Lynch's return to television, and to filmmaking, is at its halfway point. An incredible work thus far, Twin Peaks: The Return is the full-circle evolution of what Lynch and Frost began 25 years ago, as well as what Lynch has spent an entire career crafting. Linear and plot-driven, yet never afraid to take the plunge into pure visual art, The Return has been a methodical dive into the unknown. As of the conclusion of Part 9, we've seen Lynch unabashedly follow his instincts and ideas into their fullest form at every turn, yet with the constant nagging feeling that the work has yet to become untethered from restraint and may never. This is Lynch bound by his own parameters, taking what would be risks for any other filmmaker and making them seem like we're playing it close to the chest. The Return's refusal to engage with most of the previous installments' tropes is a clear-headed decision at a time when Lynch could, and possibly should, be throwing caution to the wind and creating a slam-bang mind fuck out of Twin Peaks. Instead he plots his moves carefully and crafts a slow burn. 

What The Return truly has going for it is the reinvention of the classic Peaks' tone. When the original seasons aired, part of the charm was a straight-faced, yet wildly over the top, rendition of the kind of shows that littered the television landscape (soap operas). The Return is just that as well, a straight-faced yet wildly over the top rendition of the dark, gritty mystery drama that elicits oohs and ahhs from critics and audiences alike. The new season borders on parody of slow-reveal shows and cable dramas by playing into their touchstones and taking it to the next degree. The art crowd had an easy time of laughing at the low-brow soap opera tropes while feeling that the show was intellectually superior to the trite teleplays. Here, however, Lynch is roasting the tropes of critical darlings and doing a damn fine job of it.

However the next half of the season ends up, The Return has been a deeply satisfying journey back to Twin Peaks, here's hoping the conclusion can do the impossible and pay off, not only the original work and Fire Walk with Me, but somehow outdo the left field first half. Defying expectations and outdoing what came before by sidestepping it entirely has been bold, and to do it again before the conclusion plays out here would be an even bolder stroke of genius. 

Comment

Comment

L'Avventura 1960

In a meditation on all things temporary, Antonioni found the language of cinema in a way that it was itching to be spoken. More than just a tale of love and loss, L'Avventura is a study on connection and disconnection, his every frame painting for his audience a new depiction of the fleeting moment. Nothing stands still in this picture, all is moving, swirling like waves crashing against the rocks, like the endless search for something or someone, like the rise and fall of the sun over the water. The amorphous and changing nature of the human mind, subjectivity and lies, even the lies we tell ourselves and want to believe so earnestly that the lie is like a promise to the heart, "I won't tell if you don't". At the center of it all is Monica Vitti, her far away eyes and that hair blowing in the wind, her entire body choreographed with the rhythms set forth by the narrative, skipping through life like all the rest, resisting the senseless highs and then never wanting to come back down. Antonioni does not simply show us his characters, he shows us their aura, the way they linger in the psyche even after they've left the frame, we can still see fragments of them reflected in mirrors, staying for just a moment in our eyes and mind. Ana, whose presence haunts the film long after she has vanished from us, is everywhere from the first frame to the last preserved in memory and the minds of Sandro and Claudia. Even Vitti's final statement in her performance, to simply touch her lover's hair resembles the way that Ana used to touch him. Antonioni hits at something deep here, the way we bleed into one another, the way we become inhabited in some way by those around us. In L'Avventura all is in transient motion, and we can no sooner grasp something as it has vanished forever. Like a sunrise, we'll see many in our lives, yet we'll never see this particular one ever again.  

Here, crafted, is a different kind of love story; a story of the emotion itself and its permanence through life as a feeling. Though this particular love is as the days in our lives; we'll see many, we'll never have this one again.  We're introduced over and over to the lies of human interaction that play more like a solitary game with ourselves as the opponent. How cold we treat what seems permanent, how precious it seems when it vanishes. Claudia and every character onscreen is swept away as the waters on the island, resisting the current until the moment she's pulled in, and just like that the wave breaks and all she wants is to be swept away again. We're left, of course, without any answers to the mysteries. Was Ana swept away? There is a moment in searching when the camera explores a dark space between the rocks, the water crashing in all direction inside, is she down there somewhere? Antonioni's camera seems constantly in motion, even when it stays still, and that's the magic in L'Avventura. The tide moves in and out, in our private worlds we grapple with the questions of why and how it carries us where it does, but the unavoidable fact that we're being moved about by the world around us remains. We're moved by the waves created by others, or perhaps Claudia just is. The strong personality of Ana, the impressionable nature of Claudia, the predator in Sandro. Could it be that in all the time he was being dominated by her that he eyed the delicate figure who orbited on the fringes? Claudia, out the window, as Ana orders him into bed. Water takes the shape of that which contains it and the rocks are hard and immovable. Deep waters hide a mystery, a shark? The rock is safety, solid ground where one can rest. The thing that wears away at the rocks and erodes them over time is the water. It is Antonioni's penchant for playing each of these elements as equals in the scene, leading his audience to consider each in its own characteristic and manner, that holds his cinematic language? Ana, Claudia, Sandro, the rocks, the water, the sunrise, the ever-encroaching modern world that would cut tunnel through rock and sail about the waves on yachts. So intricate a construction is L'Avventura that we barely notice its construct, its seams or its mortar. Much is made of the artist and the wealth class, eating up the terrain, leaving broken hearts and waste in their wake, pouring ink over the artist's sketches. It is simultaneously the talking point of the pseudo-intellectual, the sexual draw for the wealthy female and the envious object of deserved destruction for the wealthy male. Is it the intersection between full, living, breathing humanity and a bored and overfed inhuman class of consumers? Claudia, untainted, walks among them, playing pretend and dancing to pop music, letting the spectacle of modern life and the strong personalities fill her plain existence. She wears a dark wig, like Ana, remarking with pleasure that she looks like someone else. When she dances to that song, she exists in each frame whether she is physically present or not; we see her in reflection, even her shadows seem to cast their alluring spell. Perhaps Sandro remembers a time when he himself was that way, before Ana, and like all parasites, seeks the vibrant life of a new host. 

The adventure here is life itself, and like the best of cinematic poetry, Antonioni makes a grand and sweeping adventure out of the mundane. He also makes little attempt to reign in the sprawling mystery of it all. We follow our instincts, we move impulsively, we look at each other rather than into the mirror, rather than into that swirling darkness in deep waters. For Sandro, by those final moments, Claudia's eyes which once held a new and exciting escape have now become one such mirror. For Claudia, the feeling she resisted for so long cannot dissolve quickly. As she reaches out, Antonioni leaves us with the final image. On the one hand, a brick wall, on the other an endless horizon, and a dormant volcano. Each carefully crafted image of beauty must cut to the next, eventually we must fade to black, L'Avventura's dreamy exploration of transience swells with the music and is extinguished. Our characters continue to grope in the dark, looking for another to hold onto, an answering bell tower across the city. There seem to be mysteries lurking here, mysteries so deep and existential that they dare not speak of them for they fear to even conjure the thought. L'Avventura may, in many ways, be the summation of life as avoidance, indulging ourselves in the warmth of what we do understand when the questions prove too deep. Always looking for what we want to find, ignoring what we do find. Time ticks away, the sun rises, we fall in and out of love, we find out slowly that some answers are not for us to know. Those among us closer to the mysteries can conjure a shark in our imagination and then vanish right before our eyes. What L'Avventura is truly about, we never see on screen, because we've never seen it in life either. It can't be photographed. L'avventura is about the mysteries. 

Comment

Comment

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

During the 1970's, Robert Altman would direct a series of films unpacking the American mythos, examining each element and telling the story of what makes a culture tick. The peak achievement is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Here, Altman deconstructs, not only the genre of the western, but the legend of the American west itself. Here we find would-be legend John McCabe riding into the small mining town of Presbyterian Church.  The church and religion are merely a faux preoccupation as Altman illuminates the pillars that the town is actually built on; gambling, prostitution, drugs and racial segregation. The church's minister is rarely seen, practically an outcast after McCabe comes to town. We've little hint as to what the town was actually like before his arrival, but McCabe is a bigger fish than any in this small pond. He is followed then by bigger fish Mrs. Miller as the two build an enterprise out of their saloon and brothel. As the town becomes prosperous, still bigger fish begin to descend in the form of a corporate mining monopoly attempting to buy out the frontier businessmen who hold property for a nominal price. So it goes that the American story begins and the cycle of predatory capitalism that exists to this day is given a proper introduction. The characters, beside the minister of course, have no intention of creating a sustainable community, merely opportunistically using the town and its resources to amass a fortune so that they can leave Presbyterian Church and start a new life elsewhere. As Leonard Cohen's musical narration reminds us, "Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another". With their eyes on the dough, both McCabe and Mrs. Miller seclude themselves, keeping their fellow human at a distance and turning to whiskey and opium respectively as their sole source of comfort. The American way of life is born. 

Legends are created through rumor and hearsay in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. McCabe rides into town and is instantly pegged as a gunslinger who "shot Bill Roundtree" and his holds-all-the-cards behavior only serves to strengthen his legend (we only later find out that it's entirely false). He uses this perception to his advantage without ever addressing it, de-throning the town's leading business owner Sheehan and pressuring the people of the town into working for him while he provides them with a cut-rate saloon. Mrs. Miller introduces the next level of the racket when she implements a more luxurious establishment with more exotic women, then builds a bath house and demands that the men pay to bathe before being allowed into the brothel. Business deals find their equivalence in gambling, and McCabe's luck runs out when he finally attracts the attention of those more skilled at the intimidation game. Altman spins his tale of perceptions incongruous with realities and the difference between talk and action, the American ratio of brute force to politics. McCabe eventually turns to the help of a lawyer with his eyes on a Senate chair and the comedy is fully illuminated. The lawyer spouts classic American rhetoric, the narrative of the courageous "little guy" set against the elements, building his life with his own bare hands, painting a picture of the free-enterprise system. McCabe, in over his head at this point, responds "actually, I just didn't want to get killed". It is this collection of rugged individuals, each with their eyes firmly on their own brand of prize (personal glory in some way, no matter the scale), that make up the ensemble of the film. It unites preacher, businessman, businesswoman, gun slinger, politician and worker. It is the driving force behind the enslavement of entire groups of people. McCabe goes from a dealer of cards to a dealer of human beings via the brothel. The film's lone black couple can be seen joining with the town for solemn funerals or town emergencies, but never partake in the barroom antics at the saloon. Presbyterian Church has an oft alluded to, but rarely seen Chinatown of its own, where the population is kept to itself and kept in check via drug addiction, indulging vice in the opium dens. It is remarked that their life has no value, and it makes cost effective sense for large businesses to deal with the negligible fines for killing them when thinking of how profitable they can be for clearing mines with explosives. The people rush to save the church as it is engulfed in flames near the film's climax, yet its state of operation just before the fire breaks out clearly shows that it has never been used for a proper service, while the town's other establishments have long been completed and in use. As Altman deconstructs the Western mythos, the film deconstructs itself with each passing scene, showing the falsity of what came before it. Revealing its characters' frailty rather than building up their legend further, revealing their convictions to be fueled by insecurity rather than bravado. The true power stemming from institutions and partnerships, the bad men here are not a posse of individual bandits, but a team of hired assassins working for corporate powers, dealt out and getting paid for their services like everyone else. As the curtain falls, McCabe's desperate bid for survival ends alone in the snow as the town once again joins together under the church, Mrs. Miller retreats to the comfort of fellow outsiders, everyone plays the part in the charade of being what they are not. The more simple and honest characters meet their end in random, senseless confrontations. 

A raw and rugged west, where there are no champions. Altman displays his characters as those who would face the wild frontier as lost souls looking for comforts. Cohen, our narrator, again reminds they're "looking for a manger". When one manger dries up, they'll go looking for the next best thing, they'll repeat it on and on until they depart this world. The finale's hypnotic and peaceful retreat, away from harsh realities and into comforts wherever we can find them, are the final statement. Human life is cheap and can always be vended for greater profits. Altman finds that this has always been the American way, even as time passed and our ability to find comfort grew, the same notes played on and on. The warm glow within the brothel, a place for the stranger to hang his hat between trains, a journey alone in the wilderness. As McCabe's life slips away and Mrs. Miller's mind slips as well, the orange glow of the comforting interiors contrasted with the harsh white of the outside, we find the film's ultimate combination of images that speaks for it all. America is a search without a true destination, just a vague feeling, an idea.  Like the stranger in search of shelter, it departs in fear of the comfort as soon as it attains it. As real as the legend feels, it can only last an instant.

Comment

Comment

La La Land (2016)

Effervescence over substance is where La La Land excels, yet struggles to stay there as the film moves along. Eventually, the entire production succumbs to the very same fate as Chazelle-proxy Ryan Gosling's character. Is it really all about carrying the torch for an art form that the world has turned its back on? Or is it about everyone else realizing that your self-indulgences should be viewed more like martyrdom? What's the difference? What begins as a champagne cocktail in a shaker that won't stop eventually takes a sip, gets lost on telling a tangential story, then downs it all in one gulp when the lights come on and the club is closing. The opening act is a cinematic revelation of sound and color, breezy camera work and just enough plot to tie it all together. As Stone exits that house party, all around her moving in slow motion, only to have our whirling cinematic eye jump in the swimming pool, an entire theater's collective heart skips a beat. It's the kind of film that stirs applause from a film audience. What eventually follows the rousing opener is scene after scene of cinematic joy. It's Pierrot le Fou, Un Femme est un Femme, Young Girls of Rochefort and all the rest in equal measure. Thrilling to see Demy and Godard's flame kept alive in the opening act, the attentive detail, bursting at the seams with new ideas at every turn. This is a cinema that lives and breathes, it's alive in ways most films aren't. Then, suddenly, a forced conflict here and a self-deprecating wink or two by Chazelle stumbles its way to the closer in a Stone-solo number at her audition that's written so tone-deaf to the rest of the film that we wonder where it all came from. 

Much of La La Land comes out of left field. Part of its charm and its eventual pitfalls. At its core it has something to say about attitudes toward artistic movements in the 21st century. To digress, it remains to be seen whether the arts and design will have as much influence on the culture at large in the 21st century as they did in the 20th. The 20th century was inordinately affected by cinema, music, fashion and installation, personal expression and self-reflection became the mark of the over-class rather than a fringe of starving artists. Financial success as an artist became a one-way ticket out of a plebeian existence and into the capitalist incarnation of royalty. The best and brightest minds saw the power for cultural impact and social engineering offered by engaging in television, cinema and music; in a society where the pillars of religion were crumbling, song lyrics and film quotes became scripture. The millennial generation is coming of age and films aimed at them will be, and has been, the norm for some time to come.  It's a generation that has known nothing else, and dreams in naïveté of stardom like their ancestors dreamed of sainthood; it is simply the highest ideal they can conceive of to achieve. If Chazelle is layering all of this on top of La La Land, he plays the cards so close to the chest and pantomimes millennial gushing so readily that the two blend together. On the one hand, like Gosling, the film is strictly adherent to parroting techniques and tones used in films of the 50's and 60's with only the slightest attempt to update or change them in any way. This is, after all, not a film about Los Angeles, it's a film about La La Land and the film's blissful ignorance of reality lurking outside the millennial bubble is palpable. Until it isn't. Enter the film's second act when success starts up for Gosling and it strains his relationship with Stone. This is neither a stark contrasting reality being injected into a film that was all sugar, nor is it a fanciful and self-aware parody of spoiled millennials experiencing first world problems. Race comes into play as Gosling's white male longs to return to the days of the past, do things in the tradition of the 20th century and resist change. John Legend's black male longs to shed the past, move forward into the 21st century and leave tradition behind. Again, the film suggests such observations without fully acknowledging them as such. We are left with Stone's final solo about Millennial dreams and angst; up until this point in the picture I had assumed she'd be singing a song about what her relationship with Gosling has meant to the two of them, she who has a way with words and writing can express through lyric what Gosling can only express through piano, being unable to share his feelings any other way. Perhaps it would lead to their relationship bearing creative fruit as she writes lyrics for his music and they grow closer once again. Nope. Chazelle once again attempts some form of 'crushing' reality as their relationship dissolves and we're left with a what-could-have-been montage to close the film out. 

John Cleese once said the biggest problem with this generation is that they believe that if they don't become rich and famous that their life is meaningless. Like Steinbeck's observation of 'temporarily embarrassed millionaires', it's a generation of 'celebrities in the making', each day in their lives is fodder for a documentary retrospective. Somewhere in La La Land is this story itching to tell itself, it just never comes through. The technical achievements here cannot be overstated or downplayed, as the pure direction of the picture is a feat rarely matched. This puts Chazelle on par with Quentin Tarantino as a master of the craft without a terrible lot to say. Chazelle's films are about being an artist, the dedication it takes to be a great artist, thoughts on artistic tradition, Nouvelle Vague films, etc. The film's show piece sequences are a marvel to behold and are unequaled in skill. As a film, rarely do the strings tie together. La La Land is largely reflective of 21st century Hollywood, which is increasingly a confused blend of nostalgia and spectacle. 

Comment

Comment

La Dolce Vita

Fellini weaves a tapestry of a film. Sprawling odyssey overtakes the notions that we might linger for a bit longer with any one of our trysts, and they are each romances in one way or another. La Dolce Vita becomes Romantic stones along a path, stopping to relish in each facet of Marcello's life just long enough to glimpse some beauty, then it's off to the races again. Passion and obligation ring counterpoint, interwoven are strands of family, work, friendship and all seem to fall away when arriving at the right hour of night, that hour just before sunrise, when all souls seem to sleep, when all actions seem a secret and a mystery. Fellini relishes living in this hour for much of the film, always leading his scenarios there, his characters seeming to fear sleep, fear losing touch with this world. A fear of stopping the rush of Earthly delights and experiences. What begins with the helicopters flying with God made material in tow ends on a sand beach outside the city; as Marcello looks on at one whom he made an impression on, we get the feeling that Marcello has lived many of these sweet lives since last seeing her. He can't remember the past, that chapter is closed, and like all things to we, the people of today, he shrugs it off and goes back with the group to continue the entertainment. The film does not fade out before she looks to us as well, the viewer peering in, does she wonder if we remember her too? La Dolce Vita is, like all great works of art, unable to be summarized, merely lived inside of and responded to. The odyssey unravels, finally coming to its darkest hours just before its final epilogue sequence, bathed in white, like Marcello's new jacket, a narrative sunrise, the film following the same trajectory as each of Marcello's restless evenings.

Each night, a new life unto itself in La Dolce Vita. Dancing flames attract our attention, entice the senses and mesmerize us. Fellini effortlessly beckons us in, joining with its characters in an attempt to reach out, take hold of a flame, instantly finding it impossible, even singeing our fingers. The world stood fascinated at each spectacle and the press was there to carve life up and feed it back to them with plenty of spice. Cannibalizing life itself and human experience into processed and easily digested bites; this was the method by which all meaning was drained away. Life and experience became cheap commodity, and Fellini was there to capture its early roots. The Paparazzo character is the new Italian, the new man, running forward without regard, only tied to his sense of attaining and possessing what he can capture, without meaning or purpose, just an eye for what will gain attention and sell. Marcello becomes our own surrogate sense of fascination with the mystery, fascination with what fascinates other people. What is there to these larger than life figures? The movie star, the religious symbol, the human beings who populate the worlds around these objects of desire and give them critical mass to become such objects, is anyone really fascinated? Or just wondering what all the noise is about? We wonder about what interests other people. La Dolce Vita blurs all lines in the truly relativist sense; impossible to say who in Marcello's life is loved and who is a fascination, who is true and merely an epigraph of truthfulness. We rarely see life outside of the glow of an evening drink. Marcello's humoring of his father's surprise appearance, only to break down in a plea to stay as his frailty is made known. Just as Marcello projects an imaginary scenario where they will really spend some time, good time, as father and son, if only he would stay for one more day, a taxi honks its horn to take his father away, out of town. This is life in our day, somehow, the world projected to us as narrative, our mental images that our world could mimic these narratives, if only we could have the time to do so, and life moving ever forward, somehow the images are just out of reach, we almost had them. How sweet life would be if it would simply conform to our imagination of it. All around are others, seemingly living this life, and we are but grasping at it, holding on when we've got it for a moment, all is transient, all seems to slip away. People and faces dance in and out of life, a ballet of personalities in La Dolce Vita. Maddalena, who seems his only true lover in all of the film, a disembodied voice is in his mind finally reaching out, is caught up in a new affair of her own at that very moment. And so, Fellini weaves the world of those who chase the spectacle, an admonition in many ways and deeply understood pardon of those who fall victim to it. Fellini, as the best of all artists, shows us his autobiographical tale without making excuses for himself and so can show us weakness as well as judgement. The sun rises on each scenario showing a hazy clarity to the events that preceded it, Why did Marcello chase all night only to come up seemingly empty handed when all is said and done? As we move onward, it seems to be that chasing the ability to be involved in the chase is truly the goal, and so where does it all end up? The thrills are endless, as the old clown leading a troupe of balloons around the room, as the mediums contact the dead simply to hear what they have to say. The chase will never be through and we will never see rest, even in death. That's the beauty of this confusion. 

Fascination that stems from communing with those outside of our world, and the carelessness with which we treat those inside of our world. The desire to bring those outside in, and the complacent notion that losing those who are already in won't matter to us at all. La Dolce Vita, like no other film, captures the sense of selfish loneliness that permeates all, and increasingly does so as the years go on. To be alone is by complete choice, and to chase those who we cannot tell the difference between our own desire and the perceived desire of the 'public'. To gather in the rain and follow the children who have seen the Madonna, hang on their every word and somehow it alters our own thought process. Fellini leaves us with the modern confusion; that chasing the divine and the hedonistic always end up feeling like the same thing. If we have to honest with ourselves, perhaps we feel the same regardless of which it is. All through this odyssey, we find those with a distinction between the two, and all that most of us can do is shrug, and follow the group back inside for more entertainment. Fellini has succeeded in both, we are entertained and deeply moved, we are deeply changed and even more aloof. In the best sense, we've felt what makes all life continue. We've felt the chase. 

Comment

Comment

Nashville (1975)

Structurally, Robert Altman's Nashville displays a perpetual convergence that only reaches its collision point in the final frames. I suppose it could be said that it exists in an endless series of convergence and dispersal, the characters somehow all descend on the same location only to retreat back once again to their private worlds, private quarters. This ebb and flow, its rhythms and cycles, with the rhythms and cycles of popular country music, election cycles, days, weeks, etc. strikes at something indescribable about the late 20th century American experience. With Nashville, Altman achieves, like all great works of art, a cathartic moment where all life seems to fall into place and in the instant we attempt to verbalize it, it's gone. With Nashville, through a sprawling canvas made up of seemingly inconsequential moments, Altman is able to constitute the truth that all moments in life share the duality of being entirely irrelevant while carrying deep meaning. The centers of attention, be they celebrities or politicians, and those who vie to be among them, one of them, intermingle around all of the other sights and sounds, the faces, the lives. In Nashville we see an ensemble caught in their own personal streams of thought, occasionally becoming entwined with another, never realizing the consequences that each of their actions will have, good or ill, on the people around them. Mostly self-interested types populate this world of vanity, those who aren't live with an honesty and sense of self that the others can only parrot and mimic. 

If there's one thing Altman captures so well among all else it's the sense of desperation in the American psyche that we still retain to this day, clawing at life in an attempt to transcend it and some day reach the Shangri La of the VIPs in whose presence the masses can merely sit, watch and applaud. From all sides, some are down and out, some riding the upward mobility, most are trapped in a state resembling the country at the time, a moment of pause to reflect on the bicentennial with the thought of "now what?". The opening scene of an energetic gospel choir cross cut with the somber march "we must be doing something right to last 200 years", it's a nation transfixed by its own place in the world, looking for meaning in a consumer world. Capitalism, our greatest strength and true national religion had left the populace with little more than "clorox powder and plastic flyswatters with red dots on 'em".  The characters do their best to make sense out of it, but their general ignorance of anything outside of popular culture is apparent, what more is there in the land of Coca Cola and McDonalds? The role of the commentator is taken on by the outsider, Opal, a BBC journalist who, like the rest, wanders in and out of the film remarking in wildly off-the-mark generalities in an attempt to poetically dramatize the bizarre hodgepodge that draws the world's attention. The US, as a country, is having the same sort of confused mental breakdown in the spotlight that Barbara Jean embodies, singing songs of simple, down-home logic while living none of it in her current reality. The collective downside of rampant exceptionalism comes to a boil as Sueleen Gay performs for an all male crowd of buttoned-up, would-be donors at a political fundraiser. Their instant disgust with her lack of singing talent quickly spirals into a mob of degradation as they regard her only use as entertainment to be performing a striptease. It's this deep vein of the culture that Altman pierces with sharp observations; the person who receives the coveted spotlight is instantly dehumanized and fodder for the teaming masses in the crowd to unleash scathing attacks, a brief and necessary outlet for their general dissatisfaction with American life that underscores their daily existence. Altman's greatest strength has always been in prompting the viewer along to these realizations with deceptively simple scenarios and characterizations, the complexity is all between the frames. When Barbara Jean hits the peak of her mental breakdown on stage with a series of unrelated tales of her childhood, the response of the audience is unforgiving. After all, they paid good money to see a show. It recalls Gene Youngblood's observations in his book Expanded Cinema, released a few years prior, that any culture so desperately in need of escapist entertainment from their art is the result of "a socioeconomic system that substitutes the profit motive for use value [and] separates man from himself and art from life". Nowhere is this better summarized than in Nashville's parade of trite musical performances, that of a culture in decline feeding off of the brief respite provided by a genre of music that attempts the grand task of crafting the cultural identity for the world's mightiest super-power. 

Various social circles, class distinctions, religious denominations and races, in America the only commonality is the lack thereof. One nation, under God, whose only unifying force is their malaise, their interest in popular entertainment and their disinterest in "politics". Secular groups who rarely interacted at first, coming out of their own small world to cross over the lines for perhaps the first time. If the 60's were a wakeup call, the 70's may have been that first sip of coffee, trying to orient oneself and reconcile between the world of dreaming you just left and the world of the waking you're now in. Nashville is one of those perfect films, created exactly at the right place in the right time. The picture it paints reverberates to this day, it's the brief, but fleeting, moment of clarity and sobriety that comes along every so often in an otherwise self-deluded world. Like all performers, the nation does its best to put on a good face, march out on that stage and sing one to the rafters, rarely pausing to ask that most functionally useless of questions; "why?". There is no more sublime convergence than the finale, as Barbara Harris is finally heard by the crowd she dreamed of, "You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me".

Comment

Comment

The Main Vent

Boxer
Jake LaMotta
Why I oughta
Missed your invite
Threw me
In the ring
float? 
jab?
Round 1 ends in a knockout
round number two
Two a round number
Speaking fist
For show
Batting eyes
Batting 1,000
On foot, work the fighter
One of the champs
Elysees
Off feet, work the fighter
Even when fight's over
Jake the flake
Swinging at the air  
Send me higher
Higher!
Raging bull
1980
Question mark
Pool shark
Quotation mark
B&W, contrast, dark
Chat Noir
Speak to me
Alley cat
Kiss me in the train stop
Fuck you in the bathroom
Disappearing act
least affective
Now see you
Wit Eyez clozed
Nice spelling
Ring the bell

Comment

Comment

I, Streaming

Knowing the language of myth
Relations with the dead and 'hello' new clock
Listening in on the worst conversing
We inversely proportion our share
And share alike with sun spotted eyes
In the mind we see past
Future dream in daytime
Memory paste spilling closed eyes
All we see is all we saw
Drawing upon self experience
Scribbling upon printed text
For self expression pressed against you
Your ass is dancing your feet don't move
Scultping masterpiece each step precision
Perfection in form my gloss my polish
Weather happens sands away
Dust spills polish fade
Shape is left forms untouched
Newly roughed and poorly kept
Scratched and broken becomes you
Time has finished what we tried to perfect
Essence and matter goodbye control
Goodbye spelling the language devolution
Goodbye my smooth surface
Tried to make it be me
the broken more beautiful
My smudged lens sublime
My tears my stains my dirty surface
How can the language explain
More love to the weathered
More joy in the pain
My suffering beauty
My torn fashionista
Wrapped up in yesterdays blanket
Old fabric still strongest
Running from mass production
Gold the oldest living paper
Only records wear away
Skipping music they still play
Hear it? An improvement
Congratulations your work is loved

Comment

Comment

In Celebration of Twin Peaks

This site is devoted to film and filmmaking, but also to the visual language as a whole. Examples of work that move the medium forward and craft the language can be found anywhere, but rarely are they found on television. TV is a storytelling medium where the writer and actor (and frequently, anyone at all) are filtered through a camera as a functional mechanism of delivery, not necessarily as an instrument and not necessarily with regard or concern at having a reflexive relationship with its own existence, more or less chiefly concerned with increasing the potency by which consumer and creator can become more drugged up on it. Television's instinctual drive toward more television, increased streams of Audio/visual information at more rapid paces with increasingly prevalent attitudes of 'who gives a shit?' is a perfect approximation of life in the 21st century, so much so that I would call it brilliant were every television channel and program originating form one singular mind. I'd say it had its finger on the pulse. I make no bones about my distaste for the box, and the damaging effects it's had on filmmaking as well as human beings in general. That having been said, it's been co-opted in interesting ways over its 75 or so year history as America's favorite piece of furniture.

Despite a childhood spent with near-daily contact with the thing, as well as years earning the rent working on its programs, I feel starkly out of touch with what it is. A distant memory that can still be recalled from early life, a feeling that it was once enjoyable, but trying to relive that enjoyment in the present results only in nausea; like fast food or cigarettes or any other other of the myriad curios one must suck it up, grow up and move on from. Cessation from any vice is a strange experience, but after 10 years without a television it's not something I notice on a daily basis. 

Enter Twin Peaks. 

Yes, the point of this ramble. It was also 10 years ago, coincidentally, that I first laid eyes on this lone gem of television, inarguably in a class of its own. Something like this rips through the fabric of the status quo feed of information and will never allow it to return to its former legitimacy. Twin Peaks will return in exactly one year's time after a 25 year gap between season 2 and 3. Unprecedented and a miracle that it's truly happening. 

It's the best thing that ever aired on television because it's not part of the rat race of television programming, it's a distorted Fun House mirror being held up to television and reflecting our world back at us, with a dose of spirituality and soap opera. It fulfills the classic check list of what makes great TV with an engaging plot, incredible dialogue and memorable characters and somehow also provides none of them in the classic sense. If you try to judge it against another show it won't compete because it's playing on a different field. Twin Peaks created its own arena that many have tried and none have succeeded at playing in.

The Pilot is a work of art, though I don't recall initially falling in love with it. In fact, the whole show is a confusing jumble of various genre tropes and mixed emotions; the magic doesn't start to take hold until a few episodes into the first season when the seemingly scattershot construction can be seen for the deft balancing act the show is actually achieving.

Season 1, by and large, is good. It's not pushing itself into greatness, but it sets the stage and grows itself nicely.

Season 2 is where the first season comes to fruition. For the most part it is better on all levels. Gone is even the hint that the show is random or oblique in any way, the series is finally revealed for the deeply unsettling and deeply felt journey that it truly is. Well, until it "peaks" with its seventh episode, Lonely Souls. Here, the series hits its high note, one of the most profoundly affecting swatches of time in any visual medium.

In the second season's eighth episode, the turn for the worst begins. It's still the show you know and love, but something is different. Gone is the depth, the profundity, the connection you've been building over the course of it all. Everything seems, well, scattershot again, confusing bits of faux comedy crop up that lead nowhere, you're suddenly questioning whether the show had a point to it in the first place. The creative team waste no time shuffling plot lines and shoving necessary characters onto the back burner (or off the screen entirely). Bad decisions abound, the show becomes literal in a way it was never meant to. Within a few episodes it's an absolute bore, you're wondering how something could go south so quickly.

The rest of the season goes no better, in fact, it continues to miss the mark. The unfortunate part is, the mark was created by the first 14 or so episodes of the series. If there's one offensive bit of Twin Peaks, it's that it creates the thing you crave and then deprives you of it, creates its own standard of quality and then royally screws any attempt to reach it for the rest of the season. Watching the show pantomime itself is disappointing at first and eventually embarrassing.

Then the finale of season 2 arrives. Suddenly, the show you knew and loved returns for one incredible moment. You're not sorry for waiting while the show fumbled and stumbled, botching literally everything it had taken so long to get so right. The finale of the second season is worth all of the God awful nonsense that makes up episodes 9 - 21.

Looking forward to writing more on the topic beyond this in the year ahead. 

Comment