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)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Certain Women (2016)

dir. Kelly Reichardt
Film Science, Stage 6 Films,
IFC Films, Sony Pictures Worldwide

A long static shot of a train in the Midwest—Montana it is—and that cinematic refrain at once recalls the names Lumière and Benning. Its quality is decidedly ‘actuality’, the passage of time and all that. It is slow. This is slow cinema. Turn the camera on and see what happens. But perhaps that is an unfair reduction of Reichardt’s prowess as a sometimes auteur and part time tripod operator. I adore the actuality in the avant garde, but when woven into the fabric of the Indie Festival Drama it is rendered damn near insufferable. Shall I mirror the attempts to feel authentically blue collar and Midwestern? I should say pert near insufferable. This slowness, this quality of the actuality, is window dressing for mannequins, short hand for something deep to gussy up the performances, which don’t it need it by the way, but when stripped of the faces of Dern, Williams, Gladstone, and Stewart, it reveals the utter lack that defines CERTAIN WOMEN. We move from the train to shots of the town, still and silent but screaming: Midwest! The iconic sort from Hopper paintings used as jacket designs for Sherwood Anderson paperbacks. We wind up smack dab in the center of that other perennial staple of the IFC-Sundance Stank: wordless, alienated sex, or rather alienated post-coital moments. Again, framed like a Hopper: two bodies in separate fields, different lines of vision, both within frames within frames. Laura Dern slips on some clothes, grins, and pauses for Reichardt’s camera, letting us transform the lumps and crags into a landscape of the face, a beautiful moment of respite amid the doldrums of Reichardt's meanderings.

We move to the office, just enough shots to hint a whole world. Attempts to capture the locale’s rhythms but reduced to more static shots. There’s no rhythm in their cutting together either. No, movement won’t make an appearance until the third Certain Woman shows up; the part of this episodic adaptation that should have been cut loose from the dead weight that drags it down. Eventually we arrive at the dramatic bits, the fucked-over working class hero who’s also a chauvinist, difficult to see as anything other than an abstraction of the proletariat. There’s a gun, a hostage, some marginal figures that suggest the Midwest is far more ethnically diverse than the Anglo Saxon settlers, all in the predictable flattening of pace, momentum, or sensuality. It’s never in tune with its moments, always alienated from them; that critical tedium for art’s sake. It is in these moments, the cops at night outside the office building, the strangeness of the whole affair on full display, that I am struck by the profound desire to read these stories that are adapted here. I bet they’re magnificent. My fingers begin to compulsively hit the timeline button on my remote to orient myself to how much time is left. The images on the TV screen reduced to background ambience as I check Twitter on my phone.

The second Certain Woman materializes in the woods in early morning. The light in the trees and birdsong. I readjust to give this one a chance. Michelle Williams is as interesting to behold as Dern. Subdued performances that hint at great depth, unspoken complexity like the best of short fiction. Interest quickly evaporates. We move through molasses, waiting for the film to catch up with me—I’ve already gotten whatever its giving and I’m lost again in thinking about what other films I want to get through before the year is out: CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR; RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN. Should I rewatch LEMONADE before I finalize my top 10? Can these things ever be final? My fingers flirt with the fast forward button. I’m no longer plugged in; I’ve foreclosed uncritical experiences but sure that I won't miss anything.

The third sequence starts, again compelling in the facial expressions of Lily Gladstone, a performer so talented that they move the needle on this film form forgettable to interesting. The uncertainty, the mesmerizing brilliance of performing shyness. God damn, I bet these stories are superb. There’s a rhythm to this one: the repetition of the barn and the classroom and the diner. The stark beauty of the flat snowy plains. The movement of the horses, unscripted, unrehearsed. I could look at their faces all day, despite my frustration with watching millionaires play blue collar Ordinary People. As phony as Stalinist paintings, every movement calculated. Stewart’s use of the rolled up napkin like Brando’s glove in ON THE WATER FRONT. Empty contrivance grasping at naturalism. Method acting be damned.

A radical cinema would be filming poor, rural queers in something other than this slow, static, boredom. A cinema of stares as indexes of deeper meaning. IFC-Sundance is to working class rurality what Hubert Bals and the E.U. are to the "Global South": they’ll throw money at your project but under the condition that you excise all pleasure, all sensuality, juries like to see misery or at the very least coldness.


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.