Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 30 First Time Viewings of 2014

The first 10 have some brief notes, the remaining 20 are only images. In many ways I prefer these types of lists to best of the year top 10s. For me, this is a marker of where I came from and where I'm going in terms of tastes, interests, and identity. In more ways than one this list represents who I was in 2014, a year dominated by the works of Godard, Ferrara, Farocki, Paul W.S. Anderson, and so much queer porn. If you've made a list like this I'd love to read it.

1. New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara, 1998)

Easily among the best films I've seen in years and one of those rare experiences where while watching for the first time I know it's already become one of my favorites. It moves like a piece of music, following moods the way other films follow plot threads. The way Ferrara balances genre convention and the lamenting jazz free form is truly the mark of a singular talent. Ferrara's technique is perfect for William Gibson's material, which has always saturated techno-babble in highly affective points of view (and vice versa). When the film gives way to its final chapter of X (Willem Dafoe) hiding from his pursuers and reliving the entire film's events that have lead to this point, New Rose Hotel becomes something else entirely: it becomes one of the most mesmerizing narrative explorations of memory. In this way, it felt more like Marker than anything.

2. Erkennen und verfolgen (War at a Distance, Harun Farocki, 2003)

This year was, for me, largely defined by Farocki's presence: his untimely death and catching up on his written and filmed works (Speaking About Godard co-authored with Kaja Silverman is highly recommended). And like Godard, Farocki's late period works had already reached a fever-pitch of critical brilliance and formal experimentation. I'm consistently baffled by how two old fogey's like Farocki and Godard have consistent out-classed their younger contemporaries. Erkennen und verfolgen illustrates a transformation of the essay film style, re-inscribing the necessity of boundary-crossing forms in an age of commercial genre ossification. Yet Farocki's death, along with Marker's two years ago, casts a shadow of doubt on the future of the essay film. Very few filmmakers seem engaged or interested in this style (and Nora Alter suggests the form is migrating to the installation piece, which Farocki certainly did before his death). Erkennen und verfolgen illustrates the dire need for such works as its subjects are unnervingly prophetic when viewed in 2014, the apex of drone warfare from a distance. Farocki's works consistently peeked behind the obscured connections of industrial manufacturing, warfare, and corporate bureaucracy and this one in particular is among his best. I'd place it right next Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges, if not beyond.

3. Vlčí bouda (Wolf's Hole, Věra Chytilová, 1986)

Chytilová has the distinct misfortune of being known mostly for a single film. And while Daisies is magnificent (and easily my favorite of the Czech New Wave heavies), where her work went from that opening chapter deserves more critical attention. Or just any attention at all. Vlčí bouda showcases her uncanny ability to transform simple locations and objects into dreamlike, otherworldly experiences through a deft command of camera work. Comparable to Zulawski's treatment of blue filters and steady cams (where a few discordant tunes go a long way), the techniques at play are so simple and effective its surprising more filmmakers don't rely on them. Chytilová here effortlessly melds comedy and horror within an allegorical package that makes genre distinction rather useless. But its not just the blending that make this interesting; her ability to rapidly shift tonal gears is anchored by an unmatched ability to maintain a consistent feel.

4. Capitalism: Child Labor & Capitalism: Slavery (Ken Jacobs, 2006)

Jacobs' stereoscopic films transform archival photos into living indictments of the present moment. The discomfort of the strobing motion grants these single image films a nightmarish power that is lost by too much Ken Burns effects that crystallize them in some bygone past that has been surpassed by Progress! Likewise, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker tell such complex stories of human experience and social significance from just one image. That alone is perhaps its most radical choice, in an era where images are as cheap as talk itself.

5. Notre musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004)

Picking a favorite Godard is more or less a mug's game, especially when I watched so many great ones for the first time this year: Nouvelle vague, Allemagne Annee 90 Neuf Zero, Histoire(s) du cinema, not to mention Adieu au langage. So it comes down to recall, for me. The moments I so vividly remember in Notre musique: the opening montage of war that I watched and re-watched more than any segment of any film this year; the water filmed from behind the trees, Godard's lecture on Hawks, and the people of Sarajevo digging through piles of books. I often can't remember which recollections go with which film for Godard, but I see this as a strength, like my delirious confusions with Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Rossellini, Godard has a singular universe that each of his films is a new window to peer into.

6. My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)

Among Ford's best and right up there with Fort Apache and Stagecoach among my favorites. While there is certainly a narrative coherence that makes this close to a 'perfect' narrative film, it is also a film of profoundly stirring moments. Alan Mowbray's reciting Hamlet in the saloon and watching Henry Fonda take notice of the reactions of Victor Mature's; the first meeting of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday at the bar; Wyatt's conversation with his brother's wooden tombstone. It's unfair to compare it to other films (even if the subject matter is the same) but it's worth mentioning how Cosmatos' Tombstone attempts many of the same scenarios, but in a rather trite manner in comparison to the effortlessness of Ford's direction (especially the use of Shakespeare). I still enjoy Tombstone though...

7. Wu Lang ba gua gun (Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Chia-Liang Liu, 1984)

I'm slowly beginning to realize that Chia-Liang Liu is among the greatest filmmakers of all time. The number of rock solid masterpieces that this guy has directed is formidable. Dirty Ho and Legendary Weapons of China are works that shattered my reluctance to take Shaw Brothers cinema seriously (yes, sadly, I was once that person). Pole Fighter is practically non-stop motion, with every subtly of character and machination of plot conveyed through balletic movement and dramatic gesticulation. I can't think of too many filmmakers that can handle this much movement and never repeat sets or sequences. It has the sensation of a rapidly flowing river.

8.  Vakantie van de Filmer (The Filmmaker's Holiday, Johan van der Keuken, 1974)

van der Keuken's ability to mix completely unrelated threads together and still make a cohesive film is matched, perhaps, only by Varda or Mekas. He creates a cosmos within small, intimate spaces that makes the worldly and the intensely personal inseparable. Trying to recall what this film is about exactly is like trying to describe the plot of one's memories. The Filmmaker's Holiday makes family home movies, music documentary, and essays on post-war trauma so much a part of each other that to separate them would seem violent and incomplete. I've long admired van der Keuken as an unsung master filmmaker, but I've only actually seen a handful of his work. New Years resolution: watch more van der Keuken.

9. American Dreams: Lost and Found (James Benning, 1984)

I've never been so delighted in being utterly overwhelmed by stimuli. There are so many things happening at once in American Dreams that there is no way to focus on them all at once. At times I was deeply entrenched in the scrolling diary ticking across the bottom of the frame, at others I was hanging on every word from the sound track and forgetting exactly what I was looking at. I'm hard pressed to think of a similar immersive experience that both creates a specific feel for an historical moment and gives you so much room to choose your own adventure. It left me wanting more period pieces like this. If Benning simply remade this film for every decade I'd be just as engaged.

10. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Nicolas Gessner, 1976)

The best modern day homesteader western I've seen, maybe even better then Straw Dogs. Gessner's treatment of space, and of bodies moving through that space, give the film a fluid momentum that carries the lean picture through to the end. But it's the performances that really drive home the suspense, particularly Martin Sheen as the pedophile and Foster as the lone homesteader. There is absolutely no fat on this one.

11. Resident Evil: After Life (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2010)

12. Handsworth Songs (Jon Akomfrah, 1986)

13. Ni tsutsumarete (Embracing, Naomi Kawase, 1992)

14. Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001)

15. They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

16. Strike Up the Band (Busby Berkeley, 1940)

17. Runaway Train (Andrey Konchalovskiy, 1985)

 18. Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981)

19. TerrorVision (Ted Nicolaou, 1986)

20. Porcile (Pigsty, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)

21. Navajo Talking Picture (Arlene Bowman, 1985)

22. Post Apocalyptic Cowgirls (Maria Beatty, 2008)

23. Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)

24. Bam gua nat (Night and Day, Hong Sang-soo, 2008)

25. We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)

26. Herr Arnes pengar (Sir Arne's Treasure, Mauritz Stiller, 1919)

27. Looking for Langston (Isaac Julien, 1989)

28. Score (Radley Metzger, 1974)

29. The Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924)

30. Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Notes on Boyhood + American Dreams: Lost and Found

I've been sitting on these notes since seeing Boyhood back in August. The comparisons I makes here have some significant gaps, but I didn't want to scrap the idea. I also didn't want spend more time developing it, so here it is.

Perhaps it's because I watched both Boyhood and American Dreams: Lost and Found in the same day, or because Gabe Klinger's recent documentary Double Play puts Linklater and Benning in the same sentence, but I can't separate the two films in my thoughts. American Dreams: Lost and Found provides the structural basis for Boyhood.

The experience of watching American Dreams almost demands that one parse out the distinct elements that comprise the film. While any film is more than the sum of its parts, American Dreams encourages this kind of contemplation because of the clear visibility of each component. It has three main elements:

1. The visual: photographed ephemera (primarily Hank Aaron baseball cards).

2. The sonic: recordings that bear the texture of historically and geographically specific pieces (alternatively political recordings and radio singles).

3. The textual: scrolling handwritten text of the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who shot Gov. George Wallace.

There are also two other elements that are crucial to the film's totality:

4. The descriptive text that appears to contextualize the audio.

5. The mat-black background that the images and text appear over.

With the exception of the descriptive texts that come and go, these elements are constantly in play in equal measure for the duration of the film, although not every element can be consumed at the same time. For a moment you may be more engrossed in the music or the content of the political speeches and for others you might be hanging on every word from Bremer's diary (occasionally an overlapping white frame makes the scroll difficult to read, but this has the effect of making the words even more enticing).

Each element has its own set of rhythms and contours, like a jazz piece. The audio recordings are of widely experienced historical events, broadcast nationwide through the latest media technology, mixed with a carefully curated historiography of radio singles, from the Del Vikings to Donna Summer. The photographed ephemera are almost exclusively baseball cards of Hank Aaron, producing a photographic archive of one specific historical and cultural figure. And the scroll is the idiosyncratic thoughts of an individual who lived through the historical moments collected here, but who only became widely known (that is, an historical figure like Elvis or Richard Nixon) because of his assassination attempt of a widely-known public official. Thus, we experience the private, anonymous thoughts of a figure before they became a figure, with the film climaxing in the moment when Bremer transcends obscurity and is thrust into the public/historical stage, retroactively transforming his private diaries into the ephemera of celebrity.

The elements intersect in interesting ways. The scroll writes about Richard Nixon, whose press conferences are among the film's audio selections which also include an interview with Hank Aaron and the film's concluding audio of Aaron hitting his 500th home run. There is also the prominent convergence of the scroll detailing the plans to assassinate Wallace, which culminates in the news audio recording of the shooting.

Boyhood shares much of this basic elemental structure. The film features three dominant elements:

1. The fictional narrative structure which allows for the documentation of the actual aging of the performers (perhaps this is two elements).

2. The photographed documentation of the visual textures of the period, primarily video games like Halo and Pokemon, but also widely seen televised news events.

3. The soundtrack that functions as a historiography of radio singles (Coldplay, Soulja Boy) and political speeches (Obama, Bush).

Clearly, there is no 1:1 comparison, and my arguments will most likely fall apart on closer examination, but I think it worth while to ponder the similarities. The fictional narrative of Boyhood, while dissimilar to Bremer's diaries, does present the private documentation of personal transformation over the course of the film's production. Naturally, this production was made with the intent of being released as a finished product, but in a not too-dissimilar fashion the subjects of the film are transformed from anonymous performers (sans the stars) into public figures largely because of the documentation of their ephemeral existence. Their childhoods are public now, but they are not child stars, since they will never perform as children again. How can they?

More appropriate for comparison is the meticulous documentation of the mainstream cultural landscape of a decade. Where Benning reconstructed the 1950s to the 1970s, Linklater constructs the early 2000s to the mid 2010s. This landscape is preoccupied with visual textures (largely those associated with masculine youth) and a ubiquitous audio palette.

Interesting in both is the absence of counter culture, but both transform homogenous popular culture into something radical through the framing and presentation.