Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2010 film diary part I

The first crop of 2010 films with my brief first impressions. As stated in a previous post, all films saw their debut (anywhere) in 2010. These are roughly in order of preference, although there's a significant gulf between the Kluge and Malice. I'm going with my gut over some numerical system, sorry I'm not very scientific.

Coming Attractions (Peter Tscherkassky)

Tscherkassky reworks black and white footage of commercials to create what is essentially a curation of several short films. In the manner of the presentation of multiple early cinema works, Coming Attractions is comprised of eleven segmented works, each with a title card. While much has already been said about Tscherkassky placing early cinema in direct dialogue with the avant garde by way of Tom Gunning and his cinema of attractions, the presentation makes this immediately clear as it felt like hitting play all on an Edison or Méliès DVD. Like Tscherkassky's Outer Space, the films create a universe that exists within the film elements and is constantly breaking down and exploding, sometimes creating moments of mesmerizing beauty and at others feeling like a hellish dimension of pain. Here, Tscherkassky uses mostly images of beautiful models trapped in some world of repetition, but there are also a few normal looking people and plenty of segments of sheer abstract wonderment. I enjoyed Coming Attractions without knowing anything about its production or the dialogues that it is engaging in, which has always been my attraction to Tscherkassky's work: they are just as enthralling seen cold.

Robinson in Ruins (Patrick Keiller)

Watching all three Robinson films at once illustrates how they function as all of a piece. Certainly the latest installment is the most different, being made after the death of narrator Paul Scofield and utilizing a different structuring device that presents the material as found footage. That said, Ruins is on par with the previous two films from the 90s and depending on your taste for this stuff, is just as incredible. While some of the environmental predictions may seem a bit pat in a post-Inconvenient Truth, post-Godfrey Reggio landscape, the intricate ways Keiller connects these dots with the centuries long rise of private property and capitalism in Great Britain is on a level of nuance that most any environmentally conscious filmmaking seems incapable of achieving (baring of course Miyazaki). These works create an interesting dialogue with the other British BBC-funded essayist, Adam Curtis. Both are engaged in a genealogy of English ideologies, but whereas Curtis often goes for the melodramatic, Keiller plays like a chamber piece. My only criticism is that unlike the previous two Robinson films Keiller here experiments with long, lingering takes that break up the flow of the narrative and images. Typically, these are shots of combines harvesting fields and they provide some thinking room to digest the complex narration about farmer's revolts and U.S. military installations, but they tend to run too long in my estimation and seem to really break up the final act. They feel like interlopers from an entirely different film.

How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders)

Perhaps I've been spoiled on too much Zizek and Halberstam, but computer animated children's movies immediately become exercises in ideology for me. The film suggests that barbaric warfare is the result of misunderstanding their 'enemy,' but the solution is not to stop fighting, but to transform said enemy into precision airstrike weapons to sift through what dragons can be utilized and what dragons must be destroyed. It certainly felt a lot like the drone rhetoric that has become ubiquitous in studio action films since this time period. But not that I can't enjoy them as films, and How to Train Your Dragon certainly leads the pack of many in the genre. What makes this a stand out for me is that the filmmakers first and foremost tell a story by thrusting you into the world they've created with minimal exposition on every facet of this fantasy world. My problem with so much of contemporary fantasy is it has no flair for pacing and movement, instead elevating drawn out explanation of mythos to the most privileged level. Dragon certainly avoids that as well as features some of the most visually compelling action sequences of any movie from its release year, particularly the final showdown in the clouds, which is a masterpiece of environmental textures and pacing.

Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike: Marx - Eisenstein - Das Capital
News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx - Eisenstein - Capital (Alexander Kluge)

Also known as the "theatrical" or "cinema" version, I'm not entirely sure how to classify this film as it's technically a short-hand cut of Kluge's massive 570 minute 2008 work of the same name and concludes with a plug for the DVD release of the longer film. This breezy 83 minute rendition strings together segments of radically diffuse styles that essay the idea of making a contemporary film on/about/of Marx's Capital, based on the notes written by Sergei Eisenstein of his film version that never materialized. Without much to compare it to, this version felt an awful lot like a more didactic Godard film, blending staged character interviews with low-quality found footage, the filmmaker playing a version of himself onscreen, and a playful approach to text (that sometimes became tedious near the end as it felt like watching a PowerPoint presentation). I'd imagine that the 570 minute version is profoundly insightful, but here many of the segments feel only tangentially related leaping from a consideration of colonial silk production to fake interviews with laid off workers, although Kluge's ability to move quickly through such dense material is quite impressive. Of note is the Tom Tykwer short film embedded in the middle of the feature that explores every material detail of an image through tracing its industrial history, which stands alone as its own complete work, as well as the section on how James Joyce considered only Eisenstein or Walter Ruttmann as capable of adapting Ulysses.

Malice in Lalaland (Lew Xypher)

Easily the worst film I've encountered since beginning this project. Parts of this Sasha Grey porn vehicle harken back to the 16mm adult films of the 70s, where plot and mutual pleasure where paramount to the film's appeal. But this is hack work even by the lowest of adult film standards. Attempting to create a sexy, dark Alice in Wonderland film, Xypher instead presents choppy sex scenes lacking in any erotic element broken up by long-winded sequences of characters walking through spaces. It's quite baffling how perfunctory and boring the sex in this film is. Essentially a chase film, Malice (Grey) escapes a mental institution only to be pursued through various dilapidated Americana locations by a hapless warden who we must watch fumble through horrific slapstick sequences. What's fascinating is how the chase sequences are so incompetently belabored, like kids making a movie with their parents camcorder in their back yard, yet the sex scenes are choppy montages of various positions punctuated by sterile 80s-style penetration shots. The filmmakers seem to have spent all of their energy and focus on the production design, which is pretty incredible, but merely shuffled their performers through boring plot sequences and even worse sex scenes. In more ways than one it reminded me of The Boondock Saints: a dip-shit fan boy desperately trying to make something "badass."

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