Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ashes (digital)


 (Apichatpong Weeresethakul / 2012)

Can it be said that every film is concerned with desire or memory or both? Ashes presents a lens on existence that blurs the distinction between desire and memory as well as the very human process of capturing / constructing both through mechanical processes. The film itself is a rendering of subjective experience; of lived realities that collide or run concurrent with a never ending process of remembrance. Family photos, posters of the disappeared,  the act of screening and making images, recording cellphone video to signify a moment. All this and the lives that exist in and around them.

* Currently Ashes can be viewed on Mubi for free.

Dirty Ho


(Lan tou He / Chia-Liang Liu / 1976)

Dirty Ho traffics in the tightest fight sequences around, all of which are set in intimate environs or crowded public spaces. Similar to Hitchcock, the human relationships and political intrigue develop within these public spheres, surrounded by the unknowing public, which makes the combat ever more intimate through its deft concealment. And whenever our heroes can find brief repose in private, it is quickly invaded by their ceaseless pursuers.

A sobering look at class politics emerges, never fully rearing its obscene head until the final frame, when a handful of unnerving remarks about royalty and slaves is suddenly made manifest, stopping the narrative in its tracks and thrusting a time bomb of class anxieties into the viewers lap to deal with.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The River


(He liu / Tsai Ming-liang / 1997)

Something an acquaintance said after a Pedro Costa screening has always staid with me: that contemporary cinema seems content to press record and whatever is captured can be called poetry. While I disagree with this dismissal, there is a kernel of truth in his criticism. Part of what makes a film like The River (or Costa or Weerasethakul) is the dangerous act of discovery, of wonder. An essential part of this process is an unknowing (or non-knowing) engagement with a piece. There is a chance that what is being screened can never hold any significance to those who didn't make the images, but is this not how great poetry works? The more personal, the more subjective, the closer to the edge of the incompressible articulation of experience the artist gets, the greater chance there is of a individual being shaken by the work. But conversely, the chance of seeing nothing increases along with it (if you're bored, peruse the Netflix user reviews of any Min-liang film, particularly The Wayward Cloud).

But back to my acquaintance. His concern was likewise couched in a fear/rejection of the loss of formalism, which constructs a false dichotomy between DIY anything goes and learned structures of style. While Tsai Ming-liang's films give the appearance of pressing record and seeing what happens, the actuality is he couldn't be more formal and structured! And it is this bizarre recombination of digital experiment with classic structures that make his work (particularly The River) such a marvel to behold. The River plays like a Greek Tragedy and a meandering ethnographic study. The bizarre realities of the subjects takes up most of the frame, but every shot is bursting with queer desires and subversive political engagement.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dean Spanley


(Toa Fraser / 2008)

I encountered this film because my family adores it and I was happy to watch something they enjoy for a change. Although it is a 'legit' film, it bears all the hallmarks of a made-for-TV movie: it is overly dependent upon a bombastic score, the internal logic behind the shots seems to be the conveyance of information only, most scenes lack any deliberate atmosphere, and it leans too heavily on a few accomplished actors to provide gravitas (Peter O'Toole, Sam Neill).

However, there is a facet of the film that is quite mesmerizing. There are a handful of sequences where a man (Neill) lucidly slips into memories of when he was a dog in a previous life. These moments are handled with a strange delicacy that seems out of place for a film like this. There is no signifying moment; no 'effect' or motif that indicates when Mr. Spanley shifts into dog mode (except the regrettable doggie flash backs). Clearly these are the film's centerpieces. If the rest of the film was as intriguing as these spellbinding moments, it would be a decent film.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Water Margin


(Shui hu zhuan / Cheh Chang / 1972)

The larger context of this sweeping epic is somewhat lost on me as I'm unfamiliar with the source novel and its famous characters. Yet while the film is constantly pausing to inform you of which actor is playing which role (even non speaking walk-on roles 40 minutes in) the momentum is never upset. In fact, this seems to be Chang's fertile playground, crafting elegant fight numbers emerging from complex political plotting, which is never just a MacGuffin. The film achieves a rare balance of epic scale and intimate interaction, something only a handful of filmmakers ever mastered. Personally, I prefer the smaller films with fewer elements, but a unique feeling emerges from the grandiosity of the whole piece that places the actions of individuals within a massive complex story that never truly begins or ends. The catalyst in a Chang film is never incidental, but the outcome of many cosmic strands crossing paths, all of which occur in the opening 20 minutes or so.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Into the Night


(John Landis / 1985)

Landis at his most Bressonian, if that can be said with a straight face. Into the Night is slow, plodding, deliberate, dry. It can lull you into a hypnotic state, that is, if you're picking up what it's laying down. It can also be a bore. It's the kind of analogue hallucination you should watch on a sweltering summer night, unsure of whether you've fallen asleep or not (and watching it on VHS certainly enhanced this experience).

It's a meta-film of the variety that flourished in the 80s as society sucked up into its individual bedrooms and headspaces, where even though a recession plunged countless into poverty and homelessness the collective images of the nation were of suburban middle class banality reaching out for some kind of mystical, spiritual, and sexual fantasy. Into the Night is akin to Verhoeven's Total Recall, except without the tertiary hints that what we are witness to is a fantasy. However, Into the Night moves with the swift forward motion of a dream, or rather, works that create a dream-aesthetic (Traumnovelle). This is male fantasy cinema with quite a few mommy issues in the margins. Notice how every woman is the catalyst for adventure through her greed / lust, which is necessary for both Ed Okin's pleasure and his pain (this is a film of sex and near death experiences to the tune of late night B.B. King). Though to be fair, it does handle Ed's wife's infidelity in an unconventional way: Ed's a total bore and Diana insists her affair may be romantic.

There are two other motifs worthy of further exploration that I'll touch upon here. The film conflates a fascination with dreams and cinema in a manner that is unusually subtle for a post 1930s Hollywood outing. Most noticeable are the scores of director cameos (Cronenberg, Vadim, Siegel, Bartel) as well as a brilliant set-piece that is, well, a set-piece that pulls off some great prop gags that in any other context would be groan-inducing. Second, it conforms nicely to a pattern of 80s mainstream films that helped plant the seeds of contemporary Islamophobia. Like Back to the Future (the Libyans!), To Live and Die in L.A., or The Delta Force; within both children's adventures and maverick cinema exists Arab contingencies running amok through the films landscapes. It's no different here, except that Landis has a strangely specific context and one of the most disturbing and violent climaxes in a 'comedy'. The rated 'R' genre-blending Apatow outings of today could learn a thing or two from Landis (structurally that is, we could do with out the contempt for women and hatred of Arabs).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bad Lieutenant


(Abel Ferrara / 1992)

Regardless of the environment every scene is structured by feelings of entrapment, similar to Kafka’s sense of place in Amerika. Each set-piece is governed by different sets of rules, which the Lieutenant navigates savagely. Even in the spaces where he is able to exert considerable power over his subjects (typically those unsure of their proximity to safety) his authority is still built on sand. At any moment it can be swept away, making his continual short term successes all the more uncanny—though this is of course set against a backdrop of total chaotic unraveling.

A sequence of note: when the Lieutenant harasses the young girls driving without a license. What’s striking is that Ferrara’s focus is almost exclusively on the Lieutenant’s face as he jerks off watching the girls. It may sound trite, by Ferrara makes this sequence infinitely more disturbing by a. not having a graphic fellatio sequence (which is the scene's logical evolution) and b. only cutting to the girls enough to convey the information of what’s happening.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Heaven and Hell (Shaolin Hellgate)


 (Di san lei da dou / Cheh Chang / 1980)

Cheh Chang's style is a seven degrees of separation (of sorts) as his films (at least the few I've seen) begin embedded deep in one realm and swiftly find their way into others by constantly following any and all action. Chang's skill in this regard is comparable to Bunuel's, particularly in The Phantom of Liberty. Heaven and Hell leans heavily on it's audience's familiarity with characters and places (which are unfamiliar to this viewer) but the film's momentum and rapid shifts between astral planes, historical realms, and contemporary urban musical sequences makes this lack of familiarity a non-issue. While some of the particulars of the fight sequences are flimsy, it's the sweeping movement from one character to another, from one set piece to another, that makes Heaven and Hell a phantasmagoric spectacle.


Is it just me, or does Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez  from The Sandlot share an uncanny resemblance to the iconic 'tongue' boy from Salo?


Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez


"Tongue Boy"

Monday, June 11, 2012

Still Life


(Stilleben / Harun Farocki / 1997)

There is a strong Marxist (read Hegelian) dialectic taking place in this meditative video essay, particularly in regards to the (complex) theory of commodity fetishism. Yet Farocki allows this to swirl around the undercurrents of the work, leaving a hypnotic visual experience that isn't bogged down in dense philosophy (it's definitely there, mind you). For as much information that is conveyed in the analysis of Dutch Renaissance paintings, Farocki is a master of duration. The footage of consumer product photographers at work is powerful because of how much time we spend with them. Their actions are not reduced to symbolic meaning, but strangely humanized. The dense social consequences of their work is balanced by the banality and tedium of their craft.

This would make an interesting triple-bill with Czech Dream and John Berger's Ways of Seeing, particularly the oil painting episode that tracks the rise of the medium with the rise of consumer capitalism in the West.

Torn Curtain


(Alfred Hitchcock / 1966)

Despite being pretty weak Hitchcock (unfortunately coming off the winning streak of Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds) there are still magnificently constructed moments that make this an essential viewing. The farm sequence with the protracted and grisly murder of Gromek, Paul Newman and Julie Andrew's performances, and the unnerving depiction of Communist East Germany as a pretty normal place not unlike Hitchcock's America (the difference being the police stand in for organized crime and secret societies). Another interesting element is that of the despair of the communist subjects rendered in typical capitalist fashion: the only real complaints seem to regard the lack or quality of consumer products (the eccentric Polish woman and her cigarettes).

Mostly the film suffers from a lack of perspective. While the dual stars do well in their roles, the film becomes uneven when it jumps from one viewpoint to the other, breaking up the singular worldview that is key to the success of late Hitchcock's masterworks (even the ones where he effectively pulls off this balance).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sleeping Beauty (Leigh)


(Julia Leigh / 2011)

Something seems to be absent from this otherwise brilliantly constructed piece. The classical primitivism* of the compositions and the allusive nature of the structure gives the film an element of mystery that is hypnotic. Like much of contemporary cinema that explores the way we live today the central character is immeasurably frustrating, something that is underscored by the film's refusal to offer any explanation or psychological short hand to justify. Sleeping Beauty explores a dual sickness within its universe: a patriarchal society that is startlingly comfortable and a heroine who lacks all scruples or political loyalties. There may be a hidden critique of some of the Third Wave of feminism in here: a sexually liberated woman who is still in the service of male desire. The articulations of the dangers buried in the most sublime forms of domination are where this film soars. And the simplicity of the compositions are layered with glimpses of a world beyond the sex work that this girl engages in for seemingly no reason (she even burns some of the money). The constant awareness of an outside world of community forces us to assume that this totally a choice on her part. The gnawing question of why may be the film's central thesis, but even that is cast in doubt.

Still, I can't quite place what about this film strikes me as missing. As my partner put it, I'm not sure what the big 'so what?' is. Leigh is certainly a filmmaker to watch and my admiration for Sleeping Beauty has grown considerably over the days since I've watched it. As much as cop-out as this sounds, I'd like to see it once more before I feel comfortable about my feelings on it, which is something worth noting about any cinematic experience.

* I've never felt comfortable with this word, but for the sake of brevity I use it. What I mean is a style reminiscent of silent film composition with long takes in tightly framed compositions that convey a totality of information without cuts or movement. I am thinking of the styles of Roy Andersson, Manuel de Oliveira, or even Apichatpong Weerasethakul to name a few.

Friday, June 8, 2012

9 Songs


(Michael Winterbottom / 2004)

I’m not sure why I continue to watch Winterbottom’s films. Like Oliver Stone or Danny Boyle I keep coming back, hoping that each new film will be the skeleton key to their aesthetic, but alas, I’m consistently disappointed. 9 Songs is overburdened with stylistic flourishes that amount to nothing. A certain type of intimacy emerges that borders on the indecent—as if Winterbottom is attempting to display the limits of photographing human experience. We are aware that the sex is un-simulated, we can assume the expressions of pleasure are genuine, but we can never feel what we are seeing, no matter how close we are to the action—this is the character's memory, not ours. This fractured mood is doubled by the rock venue sequences which play out as generic concert footage (the kind that is acceptable if you dig the music, but if you don’t it’s totally worthless). Like many films that revolve around un-simulated sex, the filmmakers don’t seem to know what to do when the actors aren’t fucking, making the sex a mere gimmick. Perhaps if Winterbottom was a more daring formalist this might work, but it comes off as gonzo porn sutured to direct to DVD concert footage of some band you may not give a shit about. There is nothing to distinguish between Winterbottom's images that evoke media over-saturation and actual media over-saturation.

The One-Armed Boxer


(Du bei chuan wang / Yu Wang / 1971)

It’s almost entirely motion; even closer to ballet than most. It's a masterpiece of economy where the only things present are absolutely essential in keeping this well-oiled machine in motion. I find it more interesting, however, to view the work among the greatest articulations of a nationalist ideology—boiled down to absolute necessity but never crude, always lyrical. This is most apparent from the opening, where the attempted theft of a bird in a diner involving three groups of people becomes the catalyst for a war among once-peaceful schools of martial arts. National foundation myths underscore even the most superficial elements.

The film’s heroes are never in doubt, but it is the hierarchy of villains that is most alluring. The master of the bad guy school is less a villain for wanting to defend his honor (however misinformed), but for allowing foreigners into the country when he recruits mercenaries from distant Asian lands to destroy the good guy school. And even among them, the Japanese are by far the worst; their Judo master is quite literally a demon. Also of interest are the black-face Yogi and the backwater spiritualism of the Tibetan and Thai warriors. Not only is The One-Armed Boxer fantastic cinema, it is an indispensable almanac of mainstream Taiwanese/Chinese social geography.

*A good friend lent me a spindle of classic and favorite martial arts films (a serious blind spot for me). So you may see a inordinate amount of these popping up around here over the next couple months.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dirty Dancing


(Emile Ardolino / 1987)

I love 1980s formalism in Hollywood cinema as a kind of neo-classical rejection of 1970s docu-realism and grime (a mode that dovetails with pop music of the period). Much of this movie moves like a 1950s (generic) musical, and even if it can't quite live up to the rigor and spectacle of such films, it survives by having its own thing going on, born of the queer anachronisms that collapse time and space without interfering with the story.

The film is entirely dependent on Jennifer Grey's ability to convey desire (if you don't believe it than the film seems hokey, but only for those who cannot move beyond the reality that cultural artifacts are dated). What is less believable, even though the sentiment feels genuine, is the film's desire to reconcile stark class differences. While the lame ending places everyone on the same humanist level (the dance floor) it softens the harsher realities that Dirty Dancing excels at conveying. But endings don't undo or negate everything that precedes them, even when they try to rationalize the status quo and bring everything back into balance.

*** I recently picked up a VCR and a stockpile of films on VHS. My intentions are to make found footage works but it will probably end up as a nostalgia machine. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kaneto Shindo, 1912-2012


For me, Kaneto Shindo will always be synonymous with global / digital cinephilia. His works were among the very first 'discoveries' I made with my region-free DVD player, specifically the Masters of Cinema releases of The Naked Island, Onibaba, and Kuroneko, years before Criterion made them available in the U.S. I've been sitting on copies of Children of Hiroshima and Edo Porn for some time, and I cannot think of a more appropriate way to pay tribute to a filmmaker then by giving myself over to their work.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The House is Black


(Khaneh siah ast / Forugh Farrokhzad / 1963)

Great documentaries are spiritual, embracing mystery while considering a great Doubt. When filmmakers are unwilling to be humbled or at least consider the unknowable of their own subjects is when their films descend into the murky realm of objective pomposity; the bane of secular thought that is convinced of its own neutrality.

Farrokhzad, in the most conventional informational film sequence, situates leprosy as a problem of social injustice (poverty and indifference). This moment is enveloped within the ethnography of the leper community that lingers on the ritualistic faith of the lepers, or rather, the ritualistic actions of them (the schoolroom segment undermines the concrete reading that the lepers believe everything they participate in). The subject's are humanized and exploited. Farrokhzad understands that the two are mutually dependent, but the extent to which she navigates this polarity is unrivaled.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Beast Cops


(Yeshou xingjing / Gordon Chan + Dante Lam  / 1998)

The tonal shifts and seamless genre amalgamations are what make this Hong Kong action film such an unadulterated good time, but what I love most is how it functions as a straight-up 90s sex comedy complete with garish neon production design (at times) and a Friends-like irreverence for condoms, hook-ups, and confident sex partners coming into contact with traditional prudes. Chan and Lam have a way of choreographing fights where their heroes really get the shit knocked out of them (Officer Mike barely gets by without his gun) while maintaining a fluid progression in the sequence. The moral ambiguity that is born of the proximity of police to traditional triads (perhaps too romantic) is fascinating without ever being too on-the-nose. In fact, it barely registers if you're not paying attention.