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: