Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hidden Figures (Melfi, 2016)

My first theatrical experience of 2017 was an interesting one. I wasn't all that interested in seeing Theodore Melfi's adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly's nonfiction work of the same name. Hidden Figures sits at the nexus of my least favorite strands of contemporary filmmaking: Award Season prestige and the "based on a true story" historical drama. A higher ratio of crap is generated by these intersecting modes of movie-making because the bar is so low; so much dreck is tolerated in favor of inflated white liberal's sense of importance at seeing such films and because the "true story" label is used as a crutch to add a dramatic weight provided by the audience. Historical dramas of this sort tend to fetishize pre-consumed media moments. All one has to do is insert the requisite Spielbergian shot of wide-eyed wonder at having witnessed Crucial American History in the Making. Complex periods of time become reduced to pop songs and magazine covers.

I was wrong on a number of levels. Melfi's historical true story drama is a rare one that actually does some filmmaking. While its still mired in the novelty of period-nostalgia and the requisite comparison of performer to historical photograph, the film avoids the pitfalls of its genre. For one, the use of archival footage in the rocket launches is inspired, crafting a sequence the manipulates texture and time into a sequence that mostly emerges from the narrative, rather than disrupting it or making simplistic claims to history.

Melfi has a keen sense of space and orientation and tells most of this story visually. The framing of access and status is more often built into the style than constant verbal explanations of the racial and gendered politics of the space and time. This is most apparent when Taraji Henson's Katherine Johnson enters into a new work space with Kevin Costner's obligatory NASA-man performance situated inside of an elevated glass office. Melfi and company emphasize these orientations and the traversing of distances to establish the quotidian racist system (to borrow Sharon Patricia Holland's term from The Erotic Life of Racism), which has the effect of implicating every single figure within this system. Racism is a system imposed upon all and practiced by all, as Holland argues, as is not the isolated actions of some bad white people nor the sole historical burden of black bodies. This is a crucial problem of White Hollywood films on Civil Rights, which always allows its white audience to identify with at least one good white person who functions outside of this system.

It is entirely possible to see Costner in this role (I'm thinking of the moment when he hands Henson the white chalk stick like the passing of a baton), the open arms embrace of allowing black women into the American Imperial Project contextualized by the Cold War. The audience in attendance certainly did. They loudly applauded the moment when Costner knocked down the metal sign that read "Colored Women's Restroom". They did not applaud the agency of the black women, the brilliance of any single moment featuring Henson, Octavia Spencer, or Janelle Monae.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ohayô (Ozu, 1959)

My first film viewing of 2017 was a long overdue rewatch of Yasujirô Ozu's Ohayô aka Good Morning. The fuzzy, compressed transfer of the Criterion Collection DVD takes me back to a very specific time and place when I "discovered" Ozu, Japanese cinema, and the very idea of auteurism, which shapes my tastes and attitudes today. It was in my first moments of film school, in August of 2004, when I had just moved from small town rural Michigan to Chicago to attend Columbia College's Film & Video program. Before any classes I sat in a lecture hall for the orientation process. Sitting crossed-legged at the front of the room was a figure straight out of a Christopher Guest film. He was, of course, talking about movies, and he said with the assurance of a stock-broker, "Citizen Kane is out, Ozu is in." Kane I'd seen, but the second was an unknown commodity. To this day I cannot tell if the instructor was sharing his own cinephilic sensibilities or if he was tapping into the zeitgeist of the moment. It was around this time that the old fogeys were rearranging their short list of twenty films from before 1980 that constitute the Greatest Films of All Time, and for the first time in decades, Citizen Kane was being inched out by a quieter, calmer film called Tokyo Story. In February of the following year (2005) Halliwell's  released The Top 1000 Movies of All Time and Tokyo Story was number 1, while Kane was number 6.

Sitting in this lecture hall with about twenty other incoming film freshman I felt woefully behind. They enthusiastically bandied about names with the instructor: Solondz,Tarkovsky, Fellini. One kid had a form-fitting t-shirt with 8 1/2 printed in giant typeset. My friend's referred to him as "Fellini guy", not because of his shirt, but because of his penchant for announcing "My father force-fed me Fellini". It was a strange new world and here I was with my Kubrick box set (which we all had, by the way) and some assorted Spielbergs. When I returned home for the Winter Break I handed to my mother, upon request, a list of movies that I wanted for Christmas. She was very insistent on having a list so as to avoid "wasting money on movies that you don't like." Among the haul of art house classics was a copy of Good Morning. It's still considered a "lesser" Ozu, a type of list-making cinephile distinction that I find to be absolutely worthless. It is a precious film, if only to show Ozu's mastery of the passage of time and the changing of cultural climates. All of themes are present, but with a sense of levity that his heavier, seasonal films often lack. It looks a feels like a Disney short cartoon, the kind where Goofy or Donald Duck go camping. It is a tonic of a film, where everyone's choices have consequences and the resolution signals a small, imperceptible sea change in society. I'm still awed by the profundity that Ozu achieves through simple repetition.

There is one other connection that I wish to make. Over the Christmas holiday I was given a report by my aunt-in-law regarding some distant cousins that I don't know all that well. She had Christmas dinner with her brother and his family, which included some very spoiled grandchildren who spent the majority of their time on their phones. Of the three, the youngest boy (an eighth-grader I'm told) was given an Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset as a present. He proceeded to pout and refused to speak because his sisters had a larger number of presents, regardless of the cost of his. I cannot help but view this scenario through the lens of Ozu: a seemingly major shift in technology rendered as an imperceptible change filtered through ideas of generational differences. Kids these days.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Year in Review: Favorite films of 2016

 Top 15

1. Sully (Clint Eastwood)
2. Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)
3. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
4. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice Extended Edition (Zack Snyder)
5. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)
6. I Want a Best Friend (Andrew Infante)
7. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Jonathan Demme)
8. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)
9. The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra)
10. Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)

The Second Night (Eric Pauwels)

11. The Second Night (Eric Pauwels) 
12. The Mermaid (Stephen Chow)
13. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
14. Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
15. Cafe Society (Woody Allen)

I saw roughly 50 films this year. Here are some others that I loved and greatly admired:

Lemonade (Beyonce, Kahlil Joseph), A Train Arrives at the Station (Thom Andersen), The BFG (Steven Spielberg), My Beloved Body Guard (Sammo Hung), Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin), Allied (Robert Zemeckis), O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman), 31 (Rob Zombie), SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang), 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Michael Bay), Three (Johnnie To).

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year in Review: Top 30 Discoveries

In the name of posterity here are my favorite 30 film 'discoveries' of the year. For scale, I watched roughly 200 films this year. I'm not crazy about the idea of ranking such diverse cinematic experiences, so I wouldn't take the numbers too seriously, but the three tiers more or less represent the memorability of these films for me. I've ranked them based on how persistent they are in my thoughts and how much their affective qualities linger within me. And also something or other about shaping my views of cinema. Happy New Year!

1. The Quiet Man + Donovan’s Reef (John Ford, 1952 + 1963)
2. Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947)
3. The Chameleon (John Leslie, 1989)
4. California Company Town (Lee Anne Schmitt, 2008)
5. Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs, 2011)
6. Sparrow (Johnnie To, 2008)
7. Real (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)
8. Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)
9. Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 1946)
10. Manhattan Baby (Lucio Fulci, 1982)

11. Princess Yang Kwei Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1955)
12. The River (Jean Renoir, 1951)
13. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)
14. Spies (Fritz Lang, 1928)
15. The Opening of Misty Beethoven (Radley Metzger, 1976)
16. Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991)
17. God Told Me To (Larry Cohen, 1976)
18. Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (Hiyao Miyazaki, 1979)
19. The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
20. The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959)

21. The Yakuza Papers (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973-1974)
22. Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970)
23. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
24. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)
25. Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)
26. Description of a Struggle (Chris Marker, 1960)
27. Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)
28. A Hero Never Dies (Johnnie To, 1998)
29. Q: The Winged Serpent (Larry Cohen, 1982)
30. I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (Bill Viola, 1986)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Peaches and Cream (1981)

dir. Robert McCallum (Gary Graver)

From the jump drive inserted into my bluray player I conjured the pulsating images of a compressed AVI file, diligently ripped from a rare VHS tape by a collector. This film is brought to you by the digital monks of The Order of the Low Cultural Texts. PEACHES AND CREAM appears on the screen, sandwiched by two vertical black bars, formatting the square image. The title is a non-sequitur; I can’t recall that it references anything whatsoever other than evoking genitals and fluids. A woman named Sunny, played by Annette Haven, sits on a couch at what looks like a swinger’s party. She’s deep in thought and the next cut makes this a memoryfilm. We’re back on the farm. Its Murnau’s CITY GIRL by way of 70’s Malick, if he used the saccharine theme from LOVE STORY, but only until the drunk stepfather stumbles out and opens his mouth. Fumbling through a performance that recalls film school acting classes: acting tough in scenarios you’ve never experienced but the kind that prestige films adore. It just might have worked too, if not for those damn shot-reverse-shots, which really accentuate the limitations of the performances. Thankfully, this is only a staple of the farm scenes and a much needed stylization emerges in The Big City parts.

The pigtailed Cinderella (Haven) leaves her wicked stepfather for a nice young man in an old pickup truck who takes her to a romantic field where god bless him he can’t fuck to save his life. Through the haze of compression-flattened colors the farm boy slobbers Haven’s nipples. It has the kind of prolongation that suggests the inexperienced hesitation of a first high school fuck. Their bronze skin blends with the golden wheat; their body’s sinewy, muscle striations visible under the toned flesh of their golden bodies, even through the fog of a low quality format transfer. He fumbles with a condom. They make love. A spurt of semen and we fold time back to the present: the swinger party.

A room full of paintings: Picasso for sure, maybe that’s a Wyeth. It looks like CHRISTINA'S WORLD, but without Christina. Perhaps the pixilation acts as a kind of techno-camouflage of the sort found in Hideo Kojima games. Wide-tied business types talk business, deep necklines hint at breasts and it’s still unclear what this function is. The crowd, who I’d thought would be deep in the throes of a group-grope by now, remains seated on sofas and standing against the walls. Cue the casual racism: two black women enter the room (one being the onscreen debut of Sparky Vasc), both tall, thin, greased up, and butt naked. They move to the sound of drums, the kind whose audio file would be titled “tribal dance.” Another trope of the Golden Age, black bodies and rhythmic drums and white audiences watching them move (for further reference catch BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR). They perform for the crowd: gyrating, grinding on each others bodies, rubbing nipples and labia. Like the farmfuckinthewheat their bodies are sinewy; their musculature the real object of desire. Eventually their routine ends and a horny oil executive chases after them, possibly the sire of Will Forte. Their ensuing three way is rapid, cut like an assemblage of coverage and scored to a more cosmopolitan sound of a funk bass line, disco strings, and Pink Floyd synthesizers. All the music sounds vaguely like something I’ve heard before, but can’t quite put my finger on it.

This is where my memory of the memoryfilm fails me—blame the two gin and lime La Croix that I poured down my gullet while my cat Butch and I swayed to the video file’s pulsating rhythms. At some point we learn that Sunny is now a high class call girl – Ah, I remember! First we witness another moment of casual racism as Sunny drives up on a black male pimp assaulting a poor white waif blockaded inside of a telephone booth. You know the scene: “give me my money!” and other top hits of jive stereotypes from the 70s. Order now. The pimp tires and walks off into the night, never to be seen from again, and Sunny takes the Street Walker in. She rescues her by bringing her the fold of a kinder, whiter pimp, a real hipster in the classic definition of the term. A white guy jazz aficionado. A racial poseur. He’s a real character too—next to the oil execs this is starting to feel like a Paul Thomas Anderson film about The Decade: arthouse patience and comic book figures. The meditating jazz pimp takes the Street Walker in after looking over her tits and pontificating about percussion.

We start moving around a lot. Sunny and the Street Walker share an apartment and a bed. We get a brief glimpse of them caressing and going down on each other. We're at a therapists office—a another favorite scenario of Golden Age films, but here there’s a clever twist. After Sunny confesses her attraction to the Street Walker’s dependence on her, the shrink says “gee it’s great to talk about you for a change” and pulls out his cock. She sucks him off and cups the semen in her hand. As it begins to dribble we jump forward again and the memoryfilm begins to play like its missing some scenes; a little connective tissue here and there. Sunny returns to the farm and to the weak acting and clunky shot-reverse-shot blocking. In a frame ripped out of one of those Post-Kubrick linearity obsessives she’s facing off with a smarmy porn producer, bathed in red a la the Sam Fuller Party from PIERROT LE FOU and his latest dirty picture is projected directly behind them. A frame within a frame. As a rule of thumb, the porn within a porn is usually bad, poorly lit mechanical pumping. It's all very meta. She’s on a beach with Jazz Pimp. They go their separate ways. Back at the apartment the Street Walker is working a john, some blond haired Euro type. She tells him how hard his cock is and he seems to like the reassurance. We watch this play out for a moment until Sunny slips in, all covert like, and even lays on the bed without their taking notice. They all fuck and the film ends. The lucid memories, the rescued Street Walker, the oil execs and the jazz pimp, the wicked stepfather died by the way and possibly raped Sunny (it's not clear), they all vanish back into the compressed file like a genie in lamp. Something is missing and I wonder if I pirated the full version. Is this the entire film? The “A+ Golden Age Classic” I was lead to believe? Imperfect memory is an uncertain download. Gaps in the narrative remain, but the brief glimpse of the oil office stands clear. Images that I have seen before.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Perspectives

The onscreen introduction of each costumed hero is framed through a specific point of view; each is obscured at first glance and requires processes of clarification. For Batman, Superman takes the longest and Wonder Woman the shortest (the re-assemblage of pixels on a screen).

I've now seen BvS several times in both incarnations (I prefer the Ultimate Edition). The film is unique for me in that I generally loath Snyder's body of work (perhaps I should revisit Man of Steel) and yet its first half is among the most complex things I've seen this year. It's second half remains flat and uninspired, not the ending, mind you, but the Doomsday fight. Still, this is one of the best cinematic explorations of emotional and psychological perspectives that I've seen; Sully being another 2016 master treatise on the subject.

The film is more about trauma and how it shapes one's hermeneutic processes of perception and interpretation than it is about "justice"; it's barely a superhero film at all, which is probably why I love it so. Both titular figures are post-traumatic subjects navigating a precarious landscape of shifting allegiances. For better or worse, Wonder Woman remains an erotic enigma. My problem with the film's second half is rooted in this concern. Luthor and/or Doomsday should be given the same consideration for their perspective instead of being mustache-twirling loons (see my initial thoughts here), a problem made more apparent by the deliberate depiction of Batman as a fascist goon in need of redemption.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

NBC Coverage of Men's Springboard Qualifiers

Notes from watching the Men’s Springboard qualifying on NBC live (8/15/16) 

NBC does not show all of the athletes. They show only two other countries and the U.S. athletes. These other two countries are not simply the highest ranked during the qualifying process, but they are Russia and China. Throughout the coverage, athletes from Mexico held the second and fifth spots; higher than either of the U.S. athletes. The narratives were focused on Russia and China. These national athletes became surrogates for the two most discussed countries in the US election-crazed 24hour news cycle. One could make a compilation of Trump alone speaking these names: Russia, China, Russia, China, Russia, China, Russia, China. However, the Russian and Chinese athletes are among the best in the world.

Drama was created by the conditions of the outdoor diving pool. Diving pools are typically indoors, but in Rio the pool is outdoors. On this day they were facing 40 mile per hour winds. This had a dramatic effect on the diver’s performance. At one point a Russian diver was blown into the diving board. Perhaps it was a plot! The CIA pressured the Rio Olympics committee to build the pool outdoors so that their athlete could humiliate Russia and China on the world stage; to make American Men’s Springboard Great Again.

The NBC coverage immediately framed this as a “battle of the minds” wherein the wind is said to play tricks on the diver’s minds, causing them to make mistakes. NBC interviewed a coach for the American team who said that wind plays tricks with the mind and the US team practiced to not have wind affect them. NBC then cut to an expert commentator who reiterated this line of thinking. She said that wind has a mental effect on the divers, and sometimes can have an effect physically as well. As in 40 mph winds could possibly impact the direction of your dive but that the US athletes trained to not let this affect them through the sheer power of will.

NBC cycled through the coverage of these five athletes: two American, two Chinese, one Russian. When these athletes were not on the diving board NBC cut to commercials featuring the US athletes selling liquid dish detergent and bank finance options. Thus, the NBC coverage alternates between two things: selling the superior stock of its white male athletes against the precarious mental states of its largest economic boogeymen and selling consumer products.