Wednesday, May 9, 2018

April 2018 viewing diary

Bouncing back from a lean March, April has been full of good and interesting films for me. Unfortunately, I did NOT plan accordingly and ran out of time to write up my thoughts. Note to self: jot down thoughts immediately if I plan to write about a given film...

I. Zama

What's the deal with passages and doorways? I'd like to find out. Zama is constantly having difficulty moving through entryways, which are never quite framed in an accessible manner. He passes through rooms and moves from interior to exterior all while being watched. The enslaved servants are almost entirely speechless, but are always looking back at their colonizers. It feels a deft move to deny these performers linguistic speech, but given the primacy of the gaze I wonder how much can be communicated through looks? Oh, and just one more thing: the oscillation between still wide shots and claustrophobic moving camera work makes this an unpredictable film. It recalls for me Bartleby, the Scrivener or The Metamorphosis in its deft handling of absurd bureaucracy that might erupt into violence at any moment.

II. MCU rewatch

I rewatched a number of MCU titles with my wife in anticipation of Avengers Infinity WarCaptain America: The First Avenger (2011) exemplifies white America's founding myth in the narratives of World War II, and not those of the Revolutionary or Civil War. Imperialist culture scavenges these narratives in contradictory and paradoxical ways. The fight against fascism always leaves out American white supremacy, from the KKK to actual American Nazi parties; the inspiration that Hitler and company drew from uniquely American forms of racism like eugenics and zoning ordinances; and the anti-black racism of the U.S. military during the 1940s as well as the concentration camps for Japanese Americans. One could also include the poaching of Nazi scientists at the end of the war and the U.S. occupational force's preference to keep UFA Nazi's in the film industry rather than risk commie's shaping visual culture. Some of this pops up in Captain America: The Winder Soldier, but only as toothless winks to historical complexity, the very DNA of patriotic slop. The Avengers is a uniquely Obama-era fascist work (and one of the shoddiest MCU films). The image of Captain America commanding the police, who ask why they should listen to this guy, only to fall lock-step into command after a flashy display of Olympian force is a perfect distillation of the Ayn Randian politics of contemporary Marvel. The Avengers also extends the Obama drone policy ideologies of the Iron Man films: a celebration of weapons that only kill bad people. The venal tragedy of "surgical precision" that functions as a cynical euphemism that erases the murdered innocents at the hands of Obama's drone war. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is one of the few well-crafted one of these things, flips (or flops) into a somewhat critical commentary on Obama's foreign policy regarding drones. Emerging from the film's attempts to feel like a serious post-Watergate political thriller, Robert Redford plays a Kennedy-esq bureaucrat with giant drones and a literal kill list of targets. In a common mode of cognitive dissonance, the fascism threatening America values is posed as an outsider: it's Hydra! Captain America becomes a center-right libertarian who wonders what happened to the romanticized America he knew from World War II. And just like audience members who ask themselves this question, he was asleep for the decades that would provide an answer (where's the MCU film where Cap engages in a Foucauldian genealogy of American imperialism?). Avengers: Age of Ultron continues this central fixation on drones, the Bush Doctrine, and Randian libertarianism. Another Joss Whedon hack job with such egregious and retrograde gender politics that one wonders how he was ever mistaken for a feminist. Age of Ultron presents another Frankenstein's monster born out of an amalgamation of technocratic power and billionaire tycoons. Elon Musk meets Eric Holder. Avengers Assemble! Captain America: Civil War brings these simplified frameworks into a poorly framed contention. The rugged freedom-loving libertarian heart of Captain America's benevolent right-centrism goes head-to-head with the techno-fascism of the Musk-Holder-Obama Doctrine. Political readings of films are also incoherent as films are never ideologically coherent texts. Drone warfare is beloved by liberals and libertarians, who both struggle over the right to hold the flag for their imperialist enterprises. But as always, these editorially mandated events in Marvel Comics are never true clashes of ideology, but hoaxes and elaborate misdirections at the hands of Hydra or some other villain. In this case, Baron Zemo emerges as one of the MCU's many twisted appropriations of the consequences of the imperialism that they celebrate through the primacy of the image. Terrorism is fueled by the aftermath of drone strikes, and this adds some heady political complexity, but the villains are always villains. Zemo, like Killmonger, is politically correct, but within the Byzantine politics of these films becomes partially muted. Like The Watchmen and The Incredibles, the registering of superheros is a popular libertarian fantasy exposed in the shoddy plots where a society screams at the heroes, blaming them for collateral damage despite saving the world from annihilation from Loki or Ultron. In the real world, there is no Loki or Ultron, only fascists desperately trying to justify their violence by making Palestinians or Iranians seem like world-ending super villains. Much like the homesteader gun loving death cults, conservative ideologies in narrative form always require the constant threat of non-existent fantasy villains to justify their trauma-response hyper vigilance, which might be why these Avengers films always features hordes of faceless henchmen.

III. Some Capsules
* = rewatch

Theatrical viewings:

Selena (Gregory Nava, 1997): I saw this for the first time in a theater packed with its fans. People sang along, wept, and talked back to the screen. I felt honored to be in the presence of its admirers, but also like I didn't belong. Selena wasn't on my radar growing up, but was formative to so many people in my life. The film is fast, moving forward without looking back. It celebrates Selena's life and music and never positions her murder as an act of fate; as something that her life was moving toward, but rather as an abrupt and shocking snuffing out of her light. It also presents the father as an asshole patriarch, but a loving and complex character, which is not something you see done so well that often.

Far From Vietnam* (various, 1967): to me this is a Chris Marker film, made in the montage, and its interesting to see him try out tricks and techniques that would be put to better use in The Grin Without A Cat and Sans Soleil. The claims that this is too diffuse and never coheres are outrageous. How can one capture the sentiment and proportionality of Western opposition to Western imperialism in a single mode? Such cultural and social fracturing requires a fractured approach; the subjectivity of the filmmakers placed within networks of meaning. Its refusal to be one single thing is a political act, one that I wish there were more of in contemporary filmmaking.

Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018): who goes to a Spielberg film for the politics? Every one of his films is problematic liberal schmaltz (just like John Ford), but that's not why we love him. RPO might be a masterpiece of the mutogenic cinema, of layering transformations through detached CGI camerawork and layers of reference. Why criticize the references? It's not like this Family Guy. It's the landscape we live in. Although this doesn't hold a candle to The Lego Batman Movie.

Home viewings:

Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks, 1965): this has a kind of laxness that gives way to an expansive emotional cosmos in a similar manner to The Quiet Man and Donovan's Reef. I'm not quite sure yet how to describe it, but these late masterpieces from classical Hollywood auteurs who began with silents is definitely a big mood and one that I'm invested in exploring more deeply. The film eschews plot, genre, and even coherence at times to map the mutating trajectories of a community built on constantly transforming relationships. This is weird cinema that moves from a sort of documentary style action photography blended through montage with an uncanny studio artificiality that is almost dull. Those hotel rooms feel like a sleek poverty row cinema. I can't stop thinking about this one.

Mur Murs (Agnes Varda, 1981): there is a passage from Chuang-tzu's The Inner Chapters that has stayed with me for years: "let the stream find its own channels." Don't force the development. I've long thought of how a film could be made from this philosophy without ending up a rambling mess and Mur Murs seems to capture it somehow. Varda and her crew move weightlessly through a type of snowball method, connecting one person and image and story to another by association. Varda is one of the great essayists because of how she simultaneously centers herself in her film, but does not force the construction or connections of the material. Of course, her authorial hand is doing this labor, but the sign of a master is to make it seem effortless, natural even (another tenant of Chuang-tzu's writing).

Lost Highway* (David Lynch, 1997): [adapted from my Letterboxd entry] When I first saw this as an undergraduate I was mesmerized by it, but I didn't really understand it. Seeing it through the lens of Lynch's professed fascination with the O.J. Simpson trial and with a better grasp on Lynch's features as Hollywood genre cinema, it is much more coherent emotionally, but I struggle to maintain interest in it. I don't find Lynch to be a mysterious filmmaker, and I balk against the bastardization of "Lynchian" to be a lazy catch-all for weirdness in the same way that "surreal" has become. His work is far more straightforward in terms of noir tropes, but he places an emphasis on intuitive mood and emotional structuring than through narrative coherence (i.e. exposition). Lynch achieves this through cinematic tricks that push the boundaries of what can be captured in the medium that he is working with. The biggest problem for Lost Highway is pacing. This is really slow and it lacks the bold and inventive mood work of Lynch's better films. It seems stranded between Lynch's exploitation of the limitations of celluloid to create effect and his later exploitation of digital cinema. Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive do what Lost Highway does so much better, both in terms of narrative beats and style. This isn't to say that Lost Highway is a total wash. Patricia Arquette is phenomenal and I can't totally dislike a film with a track from Bowie & Eno's Outside, Rammstein, porno Marylin Manson, and peak 1990s nostalgia for the 1950s.

I also watched and loved the phenomenal short films Shuffle (Gakuryu Ishii, 1981) and Cry When It Happens (Laida Lertxundi, 2010), both of which I watched several times. I revisited The Time We Killed (Jennifer Reeves, 2004), a masterpiece of a kind of bygone personal feminist/queer filmmaking that is more at home in the 1980s. And my mind was absolutely blown by Gold Diggers of 1935 (Busby Berkeley, 1935). That lullaby sequence!

IV. 2018 rankings

1-5 are films I loved

Happy viewing,


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

March 2018 viewing diary

Late! Late! Late! March was a lean month for movies, so I'm trying a different format for fun and because I didn't watch enough to justify the categories I've been using in the past two months. Here are some highlights from my March viewing.

I. Unsane.

Unsane recalls expressionist silent films in a networked digital production. Murnau's blue filters become re-rendered in inky Facebook blues. The uncomfortable framings simultaneously exploit the limitations of the iPhone to produce a style of an intrusive surveillance state. The film's stalker  emerges as a golem at the synthesis of social networking surveillance and the structural sexual abuse that movements like #MeToo seek to expose. The stalker knows everything about you and hides a brutal sexual violence behind a nice guy beta male facade. The structural sexual violence that enables him is equally frightening: Sawyer's "normal" boss who tries to establish a sexual liaison immediately after complimenting her work and the corporate-denial-machine administrator who defends her position amid the outpouring of evidence that she is at best an enabler, at worst a con. Trapped in this maelstrom is Sawyer, a woman who is somewhat unlikable, makes sloppy mistakes, and toward the end becomes a disturbing figure (the sacrifice of Violet for her own freedom is repugnant). But what I love about Unsane is how it allows Sawyer to be this way. The frightening world of male surveillance disallows women to just be and the only solution, brilliantly expressed through Matt Damon's cameo, is to embrace fear and drop off the grid. But even when Sawyer embraces the solution of this man she is still plagued with same ambient threats to her existence and well-being. Her personality is reshaped by the world that the stalker and his enablers create for her.

II. Tessa Thompson.

Tessa Thompson became a recurring theme of March. While researching online pornography I found a pegging thread that was initiated with this repurposed GIF from Thor Ragnarok:

I'm into it.

Thompson also featured in the ecstatically queer Prince-dipped music video for Make Me Feel by Janelle Monáe. While this video dropped in late February it's been on constant rotation throughout March. Both the song and the video manage the impossible: the playful suggestion of the queer pop tradition and the explicit pronouncements of contemporary pop culture. I'm really into it.

Thompson was hands-down the best part of an intriguing yet mediocre effort from Alex Garland, the "serious" science fiction auteur. Annihilation was not without its pleasures, playing like a Resident Evil video game plot by way of Tarkovsky's STALKER, but its strained seriousness frequently undermined it's most compelling sequences (of which there are many) and exacerbated its clunkier set ups (of which there are many more). Take for example the Demon Bear in the house. The trope of one of the crew going nuts and tying people to chairs came out of nowhere other than genre-land (and was somewhat set up early on), but the moments that followed were among the most disturbing I've seen this year. Thompson's characterization was understated and communicated almost entirely through expression and body language, which stands out even more in a film of serious mean-mugging and contemplative stares.

III. Cutter's Way.

A long anticipated re-watch of Cutter's Way. The film gives no indication as to whether the conspiracy in question is a point of fact or the workings of Cutter's traumatized mind. It's startling how the film maintains this to the very end, never once turning around to openly vindicate its underdog heroes. Its dramatic final shot is pregnant with this unresolved doubt. In a mesmerizing twist, the film draws in the viewer's own participation to grant weight to its plot. The post-Watergate cynicism, or even just the probability of these types of crimes where plutocrats throw away the lives of poor women, makes it entirely possible. The corruption of corporate politics, boss politics, and murderous patriarchy are such common-sense realities that Cutter and Bone are almost automatically framed as folk heroes. To question them makes you cynical; to believe the possible innocence of a wealthy politician becomes the real paranoid delusion.

IV. Unknown.

As I move through the work of Collet-Serra I stopped to re-visit Unknown, which has been solidified upon a second viewing as my current favorite of his films alongside The Shallows. What follows is a major spoiler of an incredible twist, so bail out now while you still can. Skip ahead to PaprikaUnknown is a Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller, where the twist is that the wrong man is actually the right man. The revelation is that Liam Neeson's Dr. Martin Harris is not being gas-lit or the victim of a global criminal conspiracy, but rather is an actor in a separate global criminal conspiracy who's lost his memory in a car crash. This framing becomes the most succinct and cohesively stylish rendition of Collet-Serra's themes of past and memory. Collet-Serra's figures (often played by none other than Neeson himself) are locked in an accelerated real-time, a perpetual present, where their past lives and past dreams come to bear on the choices and realities of their current predicament. This is also true of The CommuterRun All Night, and The Shallows. I've yet to see Non-Stop, Orphan, or Goal II. House of Wax, which I watched this month, does not have any of these features and it mostly bland, except for the brilliant finale set-piece. Here, the past life is both a forgotten and fabricated one, where the fabrication was in direct service of who Martin Harris was. A freak trauma becomes a saving grace, presenting him with the opportunity to choose the future path of his life and identity. On a final note, Unknown boasts some incredible supporting performances: an understated Bruno Ganz and a sinister Frank Langella share one of the best scenes in the film, and January Jones and Aidan Quinn make for a hypnotic pair of stone-cold assassins.

V. Paprika.

My first Satoshi Kon. I don't have much to say at this point beyond professing my love for this film! I cannot wait to see Perfect Blue (or everything else by him). Some obvious points: the way it moves through dream and reality is so effortless. The fat-phobia is gross and the gendering of desire is a little bit basic. I can't get the image of the final battle out of my mind: the giant naked man and the giant naked girl and the robot genius. I hope this never gets a live-action remake with Scarlett Johansson, but nothing can touch this.

VI. Legend of the Mountain.

A masterpiece of slow-burn cinema. A film that wanders for an hour before settling into its location. King Hu takes his time carefully revealing the players and the game itself. It unfurls like a fern, but with so much beautiful slack that it never once feels calculated. This is a playful cinema, full of a magician's bag of tricks, like a Georges Méliès program. The sense of magic and action emerges from what Hu and his team do with practical camera tricks, and the film sells it through withholding the real fireworks until the contours of this universe have been allowed to emerge organically in time. It shares a joyous sensibility with Rivette, of gamesmanship and sheer cinematic obsession.

VII. 2018 rankings update

I realize after making this that Phantom Thread is way better than both Red Sparrow and maybe Annihilation, but I often rank them based on immediate satisfaction.

Also saw in March: Tomb Raider, Red Sparrow, and A Wrinkle in Time.

happy viewing!


Sunday, March 4, 2018

February 2018 viewing diary

I'm back baby. Four days late. This is not a pre-Oscars edition. For the first time in years I couldn't be bothered to try to catch up on Oscar nominations. I still haven't seen Darkest Hour, Call Me By Your Name, or Three Billboards, and frankly, I have no interest to. It feels absolutely freeing. I am a free woman!

In Theaters

I saw Black Panther twice. Again, I'm blown away with Coogler's ability to step into a constrained franchise, hit all the rote requirements, and turn out something fresh; something driven by character. The way it moves through so many obligations organically is astounding, but what really struck me is how T'Challa/Black Panther is never framed in isolation for over half of the film. He's always touched and connected by those around him. It's a fascinating take on the MCU formula, which is dominated by libertarian lone-gunmen. T'Challa's power is spread across his family and colleagues, his rule is not absolute, nor is his power as a superhero. I also love how the characters interact as intimate familiars, supporting, criticizing, clowning, and flirting. The politics are, of course, complicated. I'd like to write more, but for now I'll settle for this: the discourse on the film seems to be one of narratological interpretation versus reading strategies. That is to say, the position of the characters in terms of plot is what defines their representation for the narratologists, whereas an emphasis on reading strategies highlights the ways that viewers co-produce meaning. This later approach involves a taking and leaving of various elements, disrupting a 1:1 ration of narrative plot to cinematic meaning. Yes, T'Challa is a royalist who aligns with the CIA to fight a revolutionary whose politics are rooted in lived experience. But Coogler is doing more with Killmonger despite the MCU's demand to make all villains two-dimensional as thugs or madmen. Killmonger remains the most morally and emotionally complex villain in all of the modern comic book films. His pain and his arguments linger and are given so much space to breath in this film that I find their curt dismissal to be rather simplistic.

The rest of my February theater experiences were a bit rocky. I purchased advanced tickets for a 35mm screening of The Love Witch, only to be snowed in by a blizzard! I didn't expect much from The Shape of Water, and I've already forgotten most of it. The new Eastwood was a bit of a let down; The 15:17 to Paris has some really interesting ideas at work and a handful of searingly memorable images, but it feels under-cooked as a second pressing of Hereafter and American Sniper (two of my all-time favorite films). The biggest let down was undoubtedly Kiarostami's 24 Frames, which was a film I walked out of in frustration. It felt like a collection of experiments posthumously repackaged as a feature film, in the way that Go Set a Watchman was sold as an unpublished novel rather than a rejected manuscript. I wrote some angry words about it here, which upon reflection reads more like a bitter subtweet directed at those who championed the film. I stand by some of my critical points, but I think I can do better in the future. Still, it's hard not to be perplexed by its critical reception.

Non-theatrical 2018 films

I'll have to start a new subheading for direct-to-Netflix films from this year. I'm looking forward to watching A Futile and Stupid Gesture and Mute, but so far I've only managed The Cloverfield Paradox, participating in the marketing hype of immediate consumption without any word regarding its quality or relevance. It has some interesting science fiction ideas, but it's a real mess. I'm somewhat fascinating by how the vast majority of Netflix features that I've seen are downright terrible, worse than most DTV rentals from the 1990s that I used to consume like a fiend. Off the top of my head, Sandy Wexler is the only great film to emerge from this platform and Deathnote is grossly underrated (consider that I know nothing of the source material).

2018 rankings

For those playing along at home:

Shoah + Sangsoo + Jodie Mack

I started the month with a whole bunch of Jodie Mack films. I wrote about them here. TLDR: watching the experimentation evolve over the course of her filmmography is insightful, and a couple films stand out as some of the best things I've seen this year: Posthaste Perennial Pattern and the Unsubscribe series in particular.

I finally got around to watching Shoah, a film I've put off because of how emotionally excruciating it seemed to be. It's a mesmerizing work, if such a term can be considered appropriate given the trauma of even watching it. It's a total philosophy of time and memory and documentation. The fact that no archival footage was used seems like a marketing gimmick when you read about it, but experiencing the work as a treatise on reconstructing history and the situatedness of memory could only be visualized in this manner and in this duration. I could have watched several more hours. I must admit that the final fourth was less interesting to me than the first three segments, but this could be due to the sudden introduction of new people and subjects. Yet the entire work is constantly doubling and trippling back on itself, forging a memory palace of the mind. This is one of the greatest works of cinema.

I had a mind to revisit my top ten list of 2010. I did a project on that year some time ago (the index can be found here). I always get out of control with these yearly viewing projects. I always want to wander about in the far recesses of film and not limit myself to a predetermined list of films that I have to see (I've been doing a 1970 viewing project since November of 2016 lol). I'm trying out a more streamlined side project. I want to revisit some favorites that I haven't seen in seven or eight years as well as catch up on some glaring omissions. I revisited Resident Evil: Afterlife only to discover that I liked it far less that I recalled. A recent conversation about the RE films lead me to claim that the first and Retribution are easily the best. I also watched the two Hong Sangsoo films from 2010, Oki's Movie and Hahaha. Both are masterpieces, but Oki's Movie is the clear favorite. Sangsoo's framing of time and the uncertainty over whether scenes are playing out in real time or being reconstructed by a narrator is absolutely brilliant.
The multi-cultural gang in William Lustig's Vigilante functions in much the same way as the one in Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. Vigilante tries to be everything for everybody: white supremacist vigilantes murdering hippies, feminists, Lantinx and black people and Black Panther Party militant retribution against white drug lords. It's simultaneously extra-legal and critical of government while also venerating the police force. Each scene, each shot, belies a different film, a different set of ideological formulations. It's mercurial form elides immediate ideological coherence. I've been working on a short post, so keep an eye out for that one.

Resident Evil: Vendetta is essentially a feature length cut scene from an RE game. It's not very good, but I was fascinated by its visualization of sexual dimorphism. Multiple pairs of feminine and masculine characters emphasize a visual spectacle of enormous masculine presence and petite feminine build. I'm deliberately referring to gender and not sex here, because these images can totally be read as queer and trans*. The plot and its scenarios were filled with bondage imagery; of tops and bottoms and sexualized injections. Perhaps it constitutes some strange trans cinema. I wonder if I'll encounter GIFs and Webms of animated pornography from Vendetta in the course of my research...

Stalled auteur projects (Collet-Serra + Murnau)

I dropped the ball on working through Collet-Serra's filmmography, but I managed two more Murnau's in my ongoing project, representing both ends of the spectrum. Der Gang in der Nacht was quite unremarkable. All of the pieces are there, but uninspired in their construction. Tartuffe, on the other hand is among the master's best, although I have to say I prefer the The Finances of the Grand Duke as far as his short comedies go.

Dustin Stacks of Movies

Working through the fat stack of DVDs that my buddy Dustin lent me. This month I managed four new-to-me films. Jackie Chan's Police Story is a stone-cold masterpiece. I can't stop thinking about the opening and closing action set pieces. It was like the first time I watched Buster Keaton. I was in awe of the physicality, the choreography, the work put into the spectacle. Johnnie To's PTU was solid, but it didn't grab in the same way Sparrow did (so many of his movies recycle the same plots and devices and it's a matter of which ones pull it off for me). I also watched To and Wai Ka-Fai's Mad Detective, which was a disappointment. The mirror-finale was all sorts of Wellesian The Lady from Shanghai fracturing, but the rest was difficult to care about. I wouldn't call it bad, though. Finally, there was Chor Yuen's Death Duel, which I hardly remember a thing about except the gorgeous studio-bound photography.

Blu-ray sales

I took advantage of a number of boutique label blu-ray sales taking place throughout February. All of these are known commodities (i.e. favorites) except for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which I've never seen. I'm particularly excited to revisit Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, which I haven't seen since my undergraduate film school days when I had big hardon for Peckinpah. I still own most of Peckinpah's filmmography on grimey SD DVDs (including Cross of Iron!).


March is gonna be a big month. My wife defends her dissertation! and I turn 32. I'm looking forward to a number of upcoming films: a new Wes Anderson, Spielberg, and DuVernay, as well as a handful of rando action films that might yield something good (although I dread seeing Red Sparrow, which the wife wants to see so I'll shut up and go). I'm also hoping to catch Time Regained and Far From Vietnam at the Gene Siskel. The later would be the first time I saw anything by my favorite Chris Marker in a theater on film!

Happy viewing!


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Jodie Mack viewing notes

Two Hundred Feet (2004)

I first heard of Jodie Mack in 2014 when Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (2013) was making the festival rounds and generating a positive buzz on social media. I've yet to see that one, but last year I had the opportunity to see Wasteland no.1: Ardent Verdant (2017) and it was one of my favorites of 2017.

I hadn't realized that many of her earlier works are available for free on her website and her Vimeo page. What follows are some viewing notes on fifteen of her films that I watched while sitting in my hotel room in New London, Connecticut.

There is an exquisite pleasure in watching Mack's form and technique evolve over the course of these early shorts and experiments. Two-Hundred Feet (2003) plays like a Brakhage film if Brakhage were fun and bright. Her work with shapes and even scenarios emerging from a primordial slop of abstraction increases in its complexity from film to film. At other times, her early works recalls for me Pat O'Neill in the way they established patterns of shapes and movement that will increase steadily in their complexity as the film goes on. The sheer joy of creation on display makes each film a treat, even the ones that feel more like arts and crafts projects.

Posthaste Perennial Pattern

Of these works, the best are those that establish clear visible parameters in the material that they are working with. Rad Plaid (2010), Posthaste Perennial Pattern (2010), and Unsubscribe #1: Special Offer Inside (2010) all indicate a finite body of raw materials that the films then abstract through perspective, repetition, and montage, which function to create movement in what is essentially still photography. My favorite of these (and of everything I watched here) is Posthaste Perennial Pattern, which juxtaposes artificial nature, handmade floral patterns on furniture, with raw audio of an outdoor spring scenario: bird song and passing cars in the distance. It's abstraction is grounded in a diagetic personal experience. While all of Mack's films are reflections of her daily life in some manner, Posthaste Perennial Pattern exhibits this without description or artists statement and contains a depth (perhaps through the audio) that moves it away from a fun catalog of shapes.

Unsubscribe no.2: All Eyes on the Silver Screen 

I was also taken by the entire Unsubscribe series, which reveals Mack at her most confident and experimental of the works I viewed. #1: Special Offer Inside makes a sub-atomic universe from junk mail envelopes (it recalled a much later/lesser film that I watched last year, Where You Go, There We Are (2017) by Jesse McLean). Unsubscribe no.2: All Eyes on the Silver Screen (2010) utilizes a stunning use of split screen images composed through practical collage effects. Something about its color and old movie fascination reminded me of Peter Tscherkassky's great Coming Attractions (2010). Unsubscribe #3: Glitch Envy (2010) continues this work of manifesting digital new media representation through analogue materiality, creating glitches through collage art and guttural human sound effects. The fourth in the series, Unsubscribe No. 4: The Saddest Song in the World (2010) is more in tuned to her musical/music video type work and recalls the queer zine girl group fascinations of Sadie Benning's bedroom films. I hope these references do not diminish Mack's stature, I offer them only as my own means of navigating her versatile style.

Yard Work is Hard Work

As of this posting I feel I need to give Lilly (2007) another spin. It was intriguing, but this and Yard Work is Hard Work (2008) were the least interesting of the films I watched. Both were created between the early proto-Brakhage experiments and the absolute mastery of her 2010 output. Something about the use of narrative doesn't quite land. Yard Work is Hard Work is perhaps the only one of these fifteen works that I didn't care for at all. It's twenty-seven minute running time didn't help (compared to three and six minute shorts), but it was shaped by my dislike of the typical Broadway musical style. The collage work is impressive, as always, but I found the overall effect to be grating and basic.

I also watched A Joy (2005), All Stars (2006), Mannequis Harlequin (2006), Harlequin (2006/9), Screensaver (2009), and Twilight Spirit (2009).

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 2018 viewing diary

way back in July 2016 I tried out a monthly viewing diary, summarizing some thoughts on the visual culture I experienced in that month. I fell off, as I often do. But it's 2018 and I'm back baby!

In Theaters

It's become something of a tradition to start the year by going to see something I'm not at all interested in. 2017 began with Hidden Figures and 2018 began with I, Tonya. Chalk it up to family diplomacy ("we always see what you want"). They're not wrong. I scrapped a post on I, Tonya. Suffice to say I think it's getting trashed without due attention to how it deals with American poverty, specifically the notion of white trash. As someone who grew up in a trailer house in the country, I'm particularly invested in the ways the structural violence of poverty is depicted on-screen, how it follows you through life, regardless of how Tonya blames everybody but herself. The Current Tonya Harding Moment aside, this film mostly gets it right, at least for white poverty anyway.

Most of what I've seen has been a disappointment. The Post is Spielberg's weakest since The Terminal;  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is fun, but wastes its own talent in some bizarre ways; Phantom Thread was an obnoxious bore; and Proud Mary was absolutely heinous. I also saw The Commuter. See below.

I managed a single repertory viewing: The Crime of Monsieur Lange. I hadn't seen this since fall of 2004 in my History of Cinema course at Columbia College Chicago. We watched a VHS copy that was so washed out we could barely read the (white!) subtitles. The film is absolutely majestic in its deft movement from orbiting individuals into communal life. It's also a brilliant catalog of sexuality, from radical free love to the horrific possessiveness of rape.

2018 Rankings

This also means my 2018 ranking has begun in earnest. A compulsion I both despise and enjoy way too much. Here's a snapshot of January:


I've made an effort to catch up on the films of Jaume Collet-Serra. The Shallows took me by surprise and ended up being one of my favorite films of 2016. This month I watched three of the four Liam Neeson vehicles: Unknown, Run All Night, and The Commuter. The Commuter is an incredible work of fluid, economic action thriller genre, but it's Unknown that is the best of the Neeson collaborations so far (still need to see Non-Stop). It has a Hitchcockian wrong-man flavor, but it's also the tightest of these works. Run All Night is a fun play-for-play mirror of Road to Perdition (a Mendes I actually love); an Irish-American mob sins-of-the-father narrative. I'm excited to catch up on House of Wax and Orphan, both of which I ignored completely for reasons unknown.


I've also been playing catch-up with the works of Murnau. Despite considering him an all-time favorite and endlessly professing my love of Faust, Nosferatu, and Tabu, I've never explored his lesser-known and early works (apart from The Last Laugh). Most of these have been from the Masters of Cinema Early Murnau set. I've posted about a few: Phantom, The Finances of the Grand Duke, and The Burning Soil (not in this set). I also watched The Haunted Castle, which was pretty dull.

Region-Free Blu-ray baby!

After my old Philips region-free DVD player died last fall I was forced to upgrade to a region-free blu-ray player. Thanks to my lovely in-laws who bought me one as a gift (so I guess I can't complain too much about having to see shit like Hidden Figures or Jumanji). I inaugurated it this month by finally getting to my Masters of Cinema Vertov boxed-set. Man with a Movie Camera has long been a favorite, but I was absolutely blown away by both Kino Eye and Enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is such a fresh and radical film that exists in a league of its own. If I'm being honest, I think I prefer the early sound experiments of Vertov over Eisenstein, although its really pointless to compare the two masters. I'm finding that I respond to his other works much more than Man with a Movie Camera. And as a Chris Marker devotee, it's fascinating to see all of the tricks and techniques of Marker's essay films present here in the influence of Vertov. I wrote a bit about this back in 2016 here. Up next will be long-awaited rewatches of A Touch of Zen and The Passion of Joan of Arc, both of which I picked up on MoC blu-ray and have long been two of my favorite films.

Known Unknowns

My best friend lent me a stack of DVDs that he's getting rid of. Most are films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, Thailand, and South Korea. There are some that I'm familiar with and have been meaning to get to, like Police Story and PTU, but many of them are entirely unknown to me. It's really exciting to be able to throw on a movie and know almost nothing about its context. This is a rare and cherished experience that takes me back to my pre-film school days when practically everything that wasn't mainstream was an unknown commodity. This month I got to two films that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into: Cops and Robbers (Alex Cheung, 1979) and Final Justice (Parkman Wong, 1988). Both problematic hokum in service of a reverential obsession with police, but damn fine action films. Cops and Robbers moves from a kind of saccharine sentimentalism to an intense and shocking nihilism. It's pathologized ableism is a bit hard to stomach, but I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit to how much I enjoyed both as action films.


Looking forward to February I plan to continue my Collet-Serra and Murnau explorations. I also have big theatrical plans: Black Panther, a new Eastwood, and the opportunity to see The Love Witch on 35mm and 24 Frames in the same day! Neither of which I've seen. There's also a 35mm showing of Full Metal Jacket, which was a formative experience for me back in the days of VHS. I own the old standard DVD, but I've never seen a quality version of this old favorite. I'll also be spending some time traveling to Connecticut to present on my research, which means I'll be alone in my hotel room with a hard drive full of unseen movies!


Der brennende Acker (Murnau, 1922)

My experience with The Burning Soil was mildly unpleasant. Ripped from an unknown source, it was murky and constantly deinterlacing, mutating every flickering figure into a pixelated ghost from a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film. A 4K transfer on blu-ray would undoubtedly have made this more visually arresting, but I doubt it would have made me love the film any more. To be frank, The Burning Soil is pretty boring. Much like The Haunted Castle, it reveals early Murnau as an adept stager of scenes, an otherworldly creator of images, but lacking the depth and electricity of his cannon of greats.

What grabbed me in The Burning Soil is the near-excessive use of written letters. One could complain that this chains cinema to the devices of Victorian literature, which is constantly framed by correspondence. But Murnau renders these letters as artifacts, conjuring a future archival cinema. I thought about the books in Farocki or the baseball cards in American Dreams: Lost and Found.

The letters could be the only actualities here: real documents. The players are merely re-enacting the historical events that the letters suggest.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (Murnau, 1924)

A man of means, who is also a master of disguises, frequently veers The Finances of the Grand Duke into Fantomas territory. Outwitting plainclothes pursuers and seemingly having a hand in every correspondence that crosses his path. But how long have tiny little dogs trailed packs of big dogs for comedic effect? That is the question I was left with after one of the funniest fake-out set ups I've seen.

At a first glance I thought I accidentally threw on an early Lubitsch film. The lightness of touch; the economy of narrative and excess of style; the ephemeral nature with which it deals with romance, economic distress, and plutocrat-funded revolution against royalty.

No one filmed the sea quite like Murnau, especially tall ships on the water. Docks, coastlines, harbors, and cityscapes  are framed with a frankness that emphases the quality of the images as actualities, but the tinting, the montage, the mood renders them simultaneously expressionistic landscapes of dreams.

Nowhere near as jaw-dropping as Nosferatu, but The Finances of the Grand Duke is a worthy comedic counterpart to Murnau's early masterpiece. It is these qualities that recall for me the silent-cinematic fantasias of later-period Catherine Breillat (An Old MistressBluebeard, The Sleeping Beauty) which know the power of the tinted still actuality.

Everything in cinema has already been achieved by the silent masters, even if by accident. This tracking shot on the boat crashes into the doc. It inserts a fluidity akin to a GoPro or when Michael Mann cuts from a hand on the gear stick to the side-view mirror of a sports car.

We're in an Eisenstein film now!

Quit the opposite, in fact. The Finances of the Grand Duke romanticizes its royalty, even when critiquing capitalists but also the industry so essential to communism (have you seen any Vertov?). Murnau loves dichotomous notions of nature as pure and unspoiled. Edenic nature. Perhaps the revolutionaries had real cause to overthrow the Grand Duke because they were denied access to the very Eden the Grand Duke sought to preserve. They were, after all, sleeping in a fucking boat on the shore. Nature as bucolic salve is only a privilege of the rich: that strange opening of the Grand Duke flinging his money into the sea where naked boys splash about to recover it. This is strangely in opposition to other Murnau films that render poverty virtuous through its closeness to the soil (Sunrise is the obvious reference here, but see also the much, much lesser Der brennende Acker aka The Burning Soil).

Last, I wish to highlight this sequence of the Grand Duke himself imagining his nation transformed into a wasteland from a proposed sulphur mine: