Wednesday, March 2, 2011

time of the wolf (some screenshots)

Trying to get back into the habit of capturing screenshots as part of my viewing practice. These are from Michael Haneke's piece of post-apocalyptic European grimness, Time of the Wolf:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

yi yi (a one and a two) by edward yang

the trailer

what people thought

"My first impressions of Yi Yi were general ones, of visual beauty, narrative complexity, and quietude. Since I was familiar with Yang’s previous work, the complexity, and particularly the beauty, came as no surprise. Few modern filmmakers use the frame so precisely, with such a firm grasp of all its expressive properties—light and color but also scale, proportion, distance, containment, concealment. Among its many other qualities, Yang’s is a cinema of luminosity, his painterly eye dedicated to getting the exact tone of city life." (Kent Jones, at the Criterion site)

"The late Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s poignant wedding-day drama A One and a Two … understands better than any film I can think of the ideal relationship between the camera angle, the subject, the shot’s duration, the shot before, the shot after, and the emotion of the scene." (Nick Jones, at Sight and Sound)

"This is view of contemporary urban life as plausible and comprehensive as any cinema has to offer, its elements of soap opera and melodrama integrated as skillfully as its sense of the interconnectedness of things.” (Tony Rayns, also at Sight and Sound)

what I thought

what's next

Yi Yi's emphasis on family life and physical malady (specifically the difficulty of caring for a relative in a coma) has led my Film Club collaborator Tiffanny E. to choose The Safety of Objects (2001) for our next film. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

orlando, by sally potter

When we last convened, we watched Brand Upon The Brain!, a film deeply fascinated with the mystique that androgyny, er, engenders. From there, it wasn't much of a leap to Sally Potter's Orlando, from 1992, a film for which gender (and the conturbations surrounding gender expectations) are even more central.

In this particular film, androgyny is embodied in the form of Tilda Swinton, playing the title character, an effeminate young man in the during the 17th century. Swinton's always excellent, and it should surprise no one that she's utterly striking in this role:

This strikingness—the strikingness of Swinton's / Orlando's androgyny—is not just there to delight the audience: it is, in fact, the motive force for the entire narrative, For it is Orlando's beauty that attracts the attention, of Queen Elizabeth I (played, in a sly bit of casting, by Quentin Crisp):

And it is Elizabeth's attention (perhaps envy) that causes her, like some folk-tale gypsy, to place a benediction / curse on Orlando: specifically, that his beauty shall never fade. This has the effect of eliminating Orlando's aging process, effectively converting him into an immortal. And Orlando's progress through the centuries thus comes to form the armature upon which film's narrative is structured, following him through various historical episodes, including an entertaining comic stint as a political ambassador in North Africa:

But the movie has a lot more up its sleeve than simply being a collection of entertaining episodes through history. What follows is a spoiler, I suppose, although it's also a major component of the movie's conceptual thrust, and there's virtually no writing on the film (including the Netflix summary-blurb) that doesn't reveal it. Perhaps it's best to just say it simply: halfway through the film Orlando's biological sex changes. "He" simply wakes up one morning and discovers "himself" newly female.

Many of us would likely be alarmed by such a development, but Orlando takes it completely in stride, declaring "Same person. No change at all. Just a different sex." This puts the film pretty squarely in line with contemporary theorists and medical professionals—beginning with John Money and Anke Ehrhardt in 1972—who distinguish between sex and gender, with "sex" referencing the anatomical apparatus of a given individual and "gender" referencing the performance (or lack thereof) of certain sets of social behaviors associated culturally with one's sex. Orlando has changed sex, but initially she seems determined to carry on as before—to proceed with the performance of an essentially androgynous gender.

In a perfect world, this might have been possible, but in our world (as theorists like Judith Butler or Mia Consalvo have pointed out), an individual's ability to "author" one's own gender is constrained by institutional and ideological practices. This is true today and is, of course, no less true in the early 1700s, when Orlando undergoes this transition. Put another way: she may want to stay the same, but social norms of the time demand that women engage in a very different set of performances:

Watching Swinton navigate around in an unwieldy dress is good for a laugh, but institutional practices involving gender don't simply begin and end with the strictures of fashion, and before long Orlando is learning that they are reflected and codified in the practice of law. At this point, things grow deadly serious, specifically around the issue of whether it is legitimate for the transformed Orlando to retain property.

The film's great merit, ultimately, comes from the way it represents, in very pointed fashion, the rather diabolical repressive network that emerges when state networks use sex as a justification for regulating gender performance and legal status. It may, however, lack the force of some its convictions: it refuses, for instance. to represent what would be the likely result of the wrath of this repressive network coming down on Orlando with the full brunt of its ideological force. But maybe that's to the good: I'd rather watch the scene we're given, including a lovely one of Tilda Swinton and Billy Zane indulging in post-coital snuggling—

—than watch a scene wherein Orlando dies a penniless Dickensian death in the gutter. Asking why that might be is a question I don't intend to meditate on today. Instead, I'll point out that, happily, Swinton's post-Orlando career has been pretty sunny: loads of films, from Michael Clayton to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, seem to have supporting roles that are well-suited for a "Tilda Swinton type." But I haven't seen her as the lead in a film since this one. This is the situation I intend to rectify with next week's pick, Julia, a 2009 crime drama in which she plays the title character.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

brand upon the brain, by guy maddin

So it's been a while since I've updated the Too Many Projects Film Club blog. We'd convened a little less frequently than normal because of a couple of busy months, but it looks like we might be getting back to some sort of a regular schedule right about now.

We left off back in April [!] with Johnny Got His Gun, a film which dwells on the horror of a young person's radical facial disfigurement. We followed that up with my pick, Eyes Without A Face, a surprisingly ghoulish French film from 1960, which centers around a psychotic doctor's disquieting attempts to repair his daughter's own facial disfigurement. Here's the trailer, which gives some sense of the film's creepiness:

The imagery of that trailer is pretty much all sinister labs, diabolical parents, and vulnerable young people, which leads quite neatly to our newest pick, Guy Maddin's marvelously unhinged Brand Upon the Brain (2006).

Like Eyes and Johnny, Brand Upon the Brain is obsessed with the beauty of the young. Brand, in particular, is interested in the particular androgynous beauty of adolescents:

This concern fits well with Maddin's career-long fascination with the "look and feel" of early film. Here he seems especially interested in recreating the capacity of the silent cinema to evoke a nearly otherworldly glamour. (Watching this film, I was reminded of filmmaker Maya Deren's remarks that early film stars constitute "a mythology of gods of the first magnitude whose mere presence lent to the most undistinguished events a divine grandeur and intensity.")

It's not unusual, of course, for a film to be enamored with the appearance of the young: we can see this everywhere from (say) Larry Clark's Kids to, I don't know, National Lampoon's Van Wilder. What makes Brand a little more interesting (and less prurient) is that it seems especially interested in making its viewer inhabit the subjectivity of the young, specifically this kid here, who is our protagonist:

The movie's greatest merit is perhaps located in the way it ends up being a spot-on recreation of the confused fever dream that is existence on the cusp of puberty: a welter of strange adventures, intense infatuations, and erotic pleasure / confusion made all the more bewildering by the fleshy horror involved in the actual realities of carnality.

Of course, to a sensitive child, everything that is disturbing about carnality is most literally embodied in the form of any given adult, and so it follows that the adults on display in the film should be appropriately monstrous, a mix of repressive attitudes, undecodable rituals, and grotesque physicality:

It doesn't give too much away to say that since youth is, by its very nature, fleeting, that the pleasures of youth to be found in the film are also presented as fleeting (see also: Krapp's Last Tape, Film Club XXXV). It comes as no surprise, then, that every single adult character in the film is to some degree concerned with recapturing their youth, eventually driven to the extreme of consuming the young, both metaphorically and/or literally (!). Great stuff; thanks to Tiffanny for her pick.

We followed up by pursuing the idea of androgyny, and just yesterday we watched Sally Potter's Orlando (1992). I hope to have a write-up of it ready soon...

Friday, April 17, 2009

johnny got his gun, by dalton trumbo

So this week for Film Club, we continued our string of films about restless minds trapped within radically damaged bodies, watching Dalton Trumbo's anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun (1971).

People who are around my age and who share my basic bank of cultural references may know Johnny through the Metallica song "One," a song written from the point of view of Trumbo's protagonist, Joe. The video for this song goes so far as to incorporate pretty substantial chunks of the film's footage:

I include it here because does a good job of presenting the basic narrative conceit of Johnny: a young man, in the prime of life, gets blown literally to pieces by a mortar shell, losing his arms, legs, and facial features, as well as his capacity to see, hear, and speak.

The film opens with Joe getting wounded, and being taken to reside permanently in a convalescent hospital. Opening your film this way presents a certain amount of screenwriting difficulty in that it sets up a situation wherein the protagonist—the character who, in a classical screenplay, would be the primary active agent driving the narrative—is specifically defined by a near-absolute lack of agency. He's silent, mostly immobilized, and literally under wraps:

It's fruitful, at this juncture, to compare Johnny to last week's pick, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That film opens nearly the same way, and so faces this same problem. Diving Bell's director, Julian Schnabel opts to solve this problem in a fairly classical way: he introduces a desire on the part of the paralyzed protagonist (specifically, the desire to dictate a memoir). Joe also has a desire—he wishes to be put on display as a cautionary spectacle—and, as in Diving Bell, this desire requires that the protagonist communicate effectively with the outside world, which necessitates the development of an ingenious means of non-verbal communication. But whereas Diving Bell shapes this into an (admittedly slender) narrative through-line, Johnny lets this desire crop up only intermittently, and it really only takes shape as a coherent problem around the exact time that he comes up with the solution.

So we might be forgiven, at this stage, for thinking that maybe the Metallica video is actually the appropriate format for this story: it delivers the payload of the ghastly concept and the arrestingly creepy key visuals without needing to be burdened with the necessity of trying to develop a story around this character. It's win-win!

Except... well, the primary way Trumbo attempts to fill up the run-time is by presenting us with the phantasmagoric weirdness that's unfolding in Joe's head: a mish-mash of hallucinations, memories (often of psychosexually-charged interludes), and fantasy sequences. This is the stuff that gets discarded when you reduce the film to a music video or an anti-war soundbite, and really, more's the pity: it represents some pretty whacked-out filmmaking, somewhere between engagingly weird and just plain addled. This dimension of the film can maybe best be illustrated by this shot of Donald Sutherland, portraying Jesus the Locomotive Engineer:

Or perhaps by this interlude, which is the type of sequence for which the word Fellini-esque was coined:

Or the sequence in which Joe hallucinates his former girlfriend, lost in a kind of Neoclassical nightmare landscape, of the sort that only 1971 can really deliver:

I'm choosing images that have a bit of camp value, and that's not by accident: it must be said that the film doesn't always stay on the safe side of that line. Often the sequences threaten to collapse into the simply laughable. But at their best, these sequences are actually oddly mysterious and compelling. (Which is not also to say that they're not also totally bonkers.)

The whole film's like that, in a way, even its more celebrated passages—the actor who plays Joe, Timothy Bottoms, has a willowy softness to his voice that often seems at odds with Trumbo's weighty dialogue: a seeming mis-match which threatens, again, to skew the proceedings into camp. But then it goes around the bend and becomes affecting again: after all, what is it the film wants us to look at if not the suffering that war visits upon the people least equipped to bear it?

There are other movies that look at that same point, and I considered choosing some of them for the next Film Club pick, but ultimately I was more intrigued by the theme of disfigurement, and the aspects of personhood that cohere around our recognizable features, a line of thinking that led me to choose Georges Franju's Eyes Without A Face (1960).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

the diving bell and the butterfly, by julian schnabel

So here's this week's Film Club pick, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Netflix summarizes it thusly:

"In 1995, author and Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke that put him in a coma; he awakened mute and completely paralyzed. Mathieu Amalric stars in this adaptation of Bauby's autobiography, which he dictated by blinking."

That should maybe have a spoiler warning on it, since these two sentences encapsulate the central narrative arc of the film, from beginning to end. (The movie fleshes out its run-time with some stuff about Bauby's relationship with his wife, mistress, father, children, and friends, but the dictation of the book is the strongest through-line, and the one granted the most classical resolution.)

So, even if you only know that much, you essentially know the entire story. And then Netflix's summary goes on, revealing the film's theme and overall tenor: something about it being a "poignant film about the strength of the human spirit." This doesn't really constitute an additional spoiler because "the strength of the human spirit" is a cliche, and if we're going to be watching a film about a paralyzed guy who writes a memoir by blinking, the only way it's not going to be about the strength of the human spirit is if it's made by the Kids in the Hall.

None of this is to call out the poor Netflix synopsis-writers; I'm sure they have more serious things to worry about. It's to make the point that this film faces a real dilemma at the outset. We know how the story ends, and we know that the central thematic motif of that story is, well, "shopworn" is putting it kindly. So the challenge becomes: how can you take a film that in synopsis sounds like a Lifetime TV movie and pitch it to an art-house audience—an audience that (at least theoretically) is supposed to be more adventurous in its narrative and thematic tastes?

Well, the film's French, which probably helps.

But to find a more serious answer, we have to turn to an appreciation of the film's craft. Having been trained as a fiction-writer, I often approach films from the perspective of analyzing what works and what doesn't in the film's narrative. But the director of Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, is trained as a painter, and so a more appropriate method might be to try to appreciate the film's "painterly" qualities. In this regard, the film is not a series of stale cliches, but rather a smashing success, especially in its opening scenes, which masterfully manipulate focal depth, color, and light:

There's something else that Schnabel does from a craft perspective, and it involves an exceptionally canny control over the usage of point-of-view, at least for the first third of the film. Bear with me for a minute while I explicate...

After his stroke, protagonist Bauby suffers from something they refer to in the film as "locked-in syndrome." Schnabel perceives a relationship between locked-in syndrome and cinematic spectation: like Bauby, we, the film's viewers, can perceive things, but are prohibited from interacting with them. To cement this relationship, Schnabel chooses to present the majority of the early portion of the film in first-person POV shots.

This sort of extended use of the first-person POV has been experimented with in the past rather dubiously— see: Lady in the Lake (1942) —but that was a film which promised to put you "in the action," which feels awkward in a passive medium like the cinema (it works great in an interactive medium like video games, though not when those video games are translated back into first-person film experiments). Schnabel's film, in effect, promises the opposite: it puts you in "the inaction," which works surprisingly well (perhaps most viscerally in a striking, memorable sequence in which Bauby has his right eye sewn shut to prevent infection).

Schnabel cheats a little, breaking from a strictly naturalistic POV by using effects like jump cuts (which could arguably be said to have a rough analogue in the way our vision works, but it'd be a stretch), and by bringing people so unnaturally close that they'd practically have to be bumping noses with Bauby. This is maybe plausible when it's his wife:

...but a bit less believable when it's his doctor:

These deviations have their effect, though: they contribute to an overall sense of disorientation and invasive presence, both of which help to get the viewer into Bauby's head (and body) better than a strict adherence to first-person POV might have done on its own.

Eventually, the film quietly begins to move us out of the subjective POV and into an objective, third-person POV. We start getting shots like this:

...which increase in both frequency and duration throughout the first third of the film. As a viewer, attuning yourself to your consciousness' flow into and out of Bauby's body is an odd experience: it is as though you are some kind of restless spirit. Adding to this are the moves into and out of memories (via flashbacks) and into and out of Bauby's imagination (via fantasy sequences)—it's safe to say that the film strives to get its audience to be aware of itself as a living perceptual apparatus, which is a damn sight more interesting than getting its audience to be aware of the "strength of the human spirit." It's also a generous approach to filmmaking, one that—at its (unsustained) best—invites comparison to avant-garde work which goes further with drawing attention to the audience's status as perceptual agents (Stan Brakhage's work is the best example I can summon to mind).

Schnabel shouldn't be faulted for not making an avant-garde film, though, especially when he's able to use his manipulation of POV for such striking narrative effects. One notable effect is that Schnabel navigates us through over a third of the film before we ever get to see what our protagonist looks like, in the present—this is something that most films, of course, provide within the first few minutes. By the point where we finally get an unobstructed view of his face we've already become familiar with him as a lively, handsome man in flashbacks and fantasies, and seeing him with the distorted features of the stroke victim comes as a vivid shock, even if you're expecting it. At this moment—which essentially constitutes the "turning point" that most films put at the end of their first act—the film chooses to move us suddenly outside the consciousness of Bauby himself, and abruptly into the consciousness of someone who knows him from before and is experiencing the shock of seeing him transformed. (It fits, not least because the middle third of the film is largely occupied with the changing relationship between Bauby and his network of loved ones.)

So. As a story, not that compelling, but it's a finely-wrought piece of cinematic art. This might lead to an interesting follow-up question—something about the decision to transform someone else's suffering / disability into a beautiful aesthetic object?—but let's hold off on that until next week, when we look at a very different portrayal of disability, Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1971).

Monday, March 2, 2009

best films of the 1980s

So in my spare time lately (I'm underemployed at the moment) I've been tinkering a lot with my Film Viewing database.

Basically what this means is "doing data entry"—entering and rating more and more films. It's fairly tedious work but somehow it's also engaging and engrossing. And the database as a whole is starting to get "robust"—it's starting to reach that sweet spot where I can command it to produce certain types of output, and get results that I feel are reasonably accurate. For instance, just as a test, I asked it to show me all the movies from the 1980s that I've given a rating of 8 or higher to (out of ten). I'm pretty pleased with the results, a list of 30 films which I think I could defend as the "best films of the 1980s."

Anyone want to have a good-natured argument about it? Anything I've left out? Anything I've wildly over-rated?

I chose the 80s more-or-less at random, and will happily present the results of a different decade upon request.