Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Movie a Day: Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, 2009)

I don't want to say much about this film, except that it's the most emotionally involving I've seen all year. I'm especially vulnerable to films about children that don't play down the realism of their situation, and are able to get great performances out of the kids in question. It's a tough sit in parts, but this is a really exceptional film.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Movie a Day: Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen; 1989)

I have a real problem with Woody Allen's films. I like them, quite often an awful lot, but the Woody Allen character annoys the hell out of me. His character is the forerunner to all the irony-laden, undercutting films that have populated the cinematic landscape for too long, wherein any attempt to express something true and personal has to have a joke tacked onto it. Sometimes there's something there; sometimes we as people have trouble expressing ourselves, and when we accidentally let something slip, we can't help but cover up our embarassment with an attempt at humor. But this is never the case with Allen - he never presents his jokes as evasion, he presents them as jokes, often with time built in for a laugh.

This dichotomy is at the heart of Crimes and Misdemeanors, and by and large it works to have the film split between two stories of moral compromise. Allen's character is refreshingly restrained, and Martin Landau is characteristically wonderful, although his story is by far the most contrived (especially when it came to the wiseguy angle...certainly a forerunner to the first draft's Allen's been turning into full-length features over the last few years). But I was willing to ride with it because it was exploring important issues and asking meaningful questions.

Until the end, where Allen decided to literally discuss the underpinnings and themes of the story. Everything that was built into the film up to that point was suddenly spoken out loud, a clear reach to the back row of moviegoers who might have just barely caught onto what the film was all about, but needed to feel justified by having someone legitimize their thoughts. Woody, buddy, it's enough to get people to ask questions; if that's not enough for them, leave 'em.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Latest Example of Passive Sexism in Entertainment News Reporting

The male-dominated entertainment websites have been all up in arms over the last day or so claiming the news of a Barbie feature film is the worst idea ever. Ain't it Cool News even went so far as to call it "The Next Stop on Our Descent Into Hell." And yet, these same websites (AICN being only one of many) go into a masturbatory ferver over the slightest word on such properties as Transformers and G.I. Joe, which are really just as fundamentally vapid and pointless as a Barbie movie.

It's the same thing that happened last year when Sex and the City, Mama Mia, and Twilight came out, and dudes everywhere scoffed and made fun of the girls who stood in line and were totally amped for them before proceeding to the ticket counter and saying, "Ah, yes, um, one please for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? The midnight showing please? Yes, thank you very much."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Movie a Day: The Foot Fist Way (2006)

Until at least the end of October, I'm endeavoring to watch a movie every day. Typically, it will be a movie I've never seen before, although there might be the rare occasion that I rewatch something.

There's something kinda broken inside Jody Hill and Danny McBride. And I like it.

Admittedly, I came into each of their careers a bit backwards. The first thing of Hill's I saw was Observe and Report, which I generally liked but felt was really uneven. The first thing I saw McBride in was Pineapple Express, a movie I love, but didn't understand why Seth Rogen and Will Ferrell couldn't stop talking about how funny Danny McBride is. I just didn't see it.

Then I saw Eastbound & Down. And all that changed.

I won't go into the genius of Eastbound & Down; that's not what this is about. This is about The Foot Fist Way, Jody Hill's first film and Danny McBride's first lead. Hill seems to be on a streak of towing a very interesting line. His films (and Eastbound & Down is a film, just broken up into parts, Fanny and Alexander style, and directed by different people, Paris, Je T'aime style) are easily the most morally reprehensible comedies that I've still enjoyed. All too often crudeness is used for its own sake, just to get a cheap joke. Hill always starts with a character, and whatever comes from them, comes from them. That may include, as in this film, telling a man of large carriage that he'd probably be raped in prison. Y'know...maybe.

Hill also has a clear handle on something very few directors do - the comedy of mise-en-scene. Purely by his camera set-up and staging of the action, he can create a joke. Whatever problems Observe and Report had, it wasn't Hill's aesthetic, and even working with almost no budget in The Foot Fist Way, it'd be hard to top the shot that opens the credit sequence.

And Danny McBride...I am his follower now. I'll even see Land of the Lost, I don't care. There are some people, in life and in film, who can make you laugh by doing nothing in particular. Just their pressence seems funny. McBride is among those few.

P.S. I know I said this wouldn't be up today, but the Bright Star screening was way more full than I thought it'd be, and I figured it'd be better to wait 'til it opened on Friday than contend with a crowd that looked a little on the rank side. Never mind whatever awful seat I'd end up in.

Relatively Docile Men

Well, the mail is late to deliver my Netflix, and I have to get to a screening of Bright Star in about an hour and a half, so no Movie a Day today. That hasn't really ended up being the daily feature I expected, but when you factor in a review of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, I've gotten pretty close. I have been at least WATCHING a movie every day, but if they're in theaters I tend to write about them as more official reviews.

ANYWAY...the whole feature also got bumped because I was caught up in finally catching up with the first season of Mad Men, which is just the best thing...well, the best television drama since we lost The Sopranos (I love Lost, for the record, but let's have no illusions about that). It's not perfect, I have to remind myself that. It hardly leaves a stone unturned, for example - very rare is the one-off subplot that isn't resolved in any way (and, from the "spoilers" I've heard about the second season, many of the unturned stones will not remain docile for long). It also indulges too frequently (read: at all) in anacronisms for anacronisms' (try pronouncing that...I dare you) sake.

This kind of humor is, to me, the absolute lowest, as when they introduce an electronic typewriter and the latest piece of technology and we're all meant to chuckle at "oh, gosh, how quaint things were back then." For Almost Famous fans in the house, it's the "it only takes eighteen minutes per page" moment.

But, of course, it also lets modern people off the hook when viewing the bounty of racism and sexism and...other forms of bigotry on display (never mind such socially unacceptable behavior as bringing a gun to the office). We can look back and pat ourselves on the back, marveling at how far we've come. Obviously the problem here is the balance between placing us in a context in which these things were said and did happen all the time, and thus must be a part of the show, and indulging in it. For the most part, though, that sort of stuff didn't bother me at all.

What strikes me about the show, structurally, is a) that it basically stole its entire rhythm from The Sopranos whole cloth, and b) that a great many scenes have a very similar set-up. It follows as such: one of the main characters will be confronted with someone able to open up and be completely honest about him/herself, and his/her intentions, but because of repression or expectations of politeness or whatever else you want to label it, the main character is unable to reciprocate or even move the conversation forward in a positive way, choosing instead to change the topic entirely or excuse him/herself.

What might be even more fascinating is that this never seems to get old. In film school you're told again and again that conflict is everything, conflict drives the piece (the extent to which I buy into that can be discussed another time, but in short...yes, that is one way to tell a story), and so often lazy writers, actors, and directors will take that to mean characters have to fight, that opposing points of view have to be laid to bear. It's, frankly, exhilarating to see so much conflict ignored, suppressed, and just completely shoved beneath the surface.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the series is much more aesthetically assured than the majority of films I saw this year. There are almost no handheld shots, and it was never (to my recollection) used in the most lazy way - to tell us that there's conflict. "Whoa, that camera's going everywhere, anything could happen!" I feel a deep need in me to set fire to the movie theater every time they take the camera off the tripod for the sole purpose of telling us that conflict is happening.

Ahem...onto season two!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Movie a Day: Gun Crazy (1950)

Until at least the end of October, I'm endeavoring to watch a movie every day. Typically, it will be a movie I've never seen before, although there might be the rare occasion that I rewatch something.

I’m quite fond of the lovers-on-the-run film. This is not an unpopular opinion to have, to say the least. For my part, I’ll take Pierrot le Fou or Badlands over anything, True Romance after that, and Bonnie and Clyde if I absolutely have to (that’s a topic for another day). Like a lot of people, I totally get the appeal of leaving it all behind and letting out on the road for a life of romance and escape. And like a lot of people, I get to the end of them and remind myself why I should never, ever do that. But I’m a romantic at heart, so I keep coming back to be heartbroken all over again.

Gun Crazy, supposedly the forerunner to Arthur Penn’s landmark film (based, if nothing else, on the stunning similarities in attire between the female protagonists), is exactly what you would ask for in a B movie from the 1950s that is considered a great work of cinema today. From the “social problem” angle to the broad acting to the hopeless melodrama to the absolute flawless, unbelievable camera work (there’s a one-shot bank robbery that’s one of the most exhilarating pieces of cinema I’ve seen all year – at home or at the theater). This is both the film’s strength and its weakness. While some have a proclivity towards these sorts of films, I find them alternately awesome and a total drag to watch.

Don’t get me wrong, when it’s lively, Gun Crazy is positively alive. But whereas Peggy Cummins (that’s her name, no “g”) gives the sort of broad (forgive the pun) performance that whips around the curve and comes back as truly exciting, John Dall, as the film’s protagonist, gives a performance as bland as his name. He comes alive early on in the film, but as soon as Bart (Dall) and Laurie (Cummins) let out together, something inside him just dies. Granted, this is a character-based decision, but bored and trapped has been done better, even in 1950.

The biggest problem the film has is not selling us on the Bart/Laurie romance. We get what he’s in it for – it’s hard finding people with similar interests – but she only wants him when he’s acting like a completely different person. I’m fine with her being turned on by this, but less so that the film follows it as though it goes deeper than that, and I didn’t buy it.

That said, there are few films I’ve seen from this era more infused with life and passion and spirit than this.

Tomorrow...something completely different.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Movie a Day: Blast of Silence

Until at least the end of October, I'm endeavoring to watch a movie every day. Typically, it will be a movie I've never seen before, although there might be the rare occasion that I rewatch something

In the essay accompanying the Criterion Collection’s release of Blast of Silence, Terrence Rafferty notes that the film was both behind its time, in that it was released after the noir craze in the United States, and ahead of its time, in that Pulp Fiction would revitalize the public’s interest in hit men thirty-odd years later. Oddly enough, the film itself straddles this timeline. Its plot is very similar to anything from the noir period – tough-as-nails criminal tries to do a simple job, and in the process gets mixed up with a girl and old friends from a life he thought was long gone. But running alongside this is a very knowing narration done in the second person, a stylistic flourish that wouldn’t be too out-of-place in the post-Pulp Fiction landscape.

In fact, had this film been better known, it’s not unlikely it could have had the same impact as Breathless, a film in many ways the Pulp Fiction of its day, and shot the same year as Blast of Silence. It’s that big…well, almost. There’s no question that Breathless is one of the most important films ever, and it even now it feels revolutionary (which tells you something about how little the film industry learns over time), but Blast of Silence is also a very American thing, relying on very American ideals and attitudes.

Take, for instance, that everything that happens to Frankie outside of work could just as easily happen to the thousands, maybe millions of Americans who travel on a weekly basis for work. Perhaps that wasn’t as big a trend in 1961, but like Rafferty said, the film was ahead of its time. The cultural significance of Christmas is a recurring topic; it’s important to note that Christmas has no religious affiliation in the film, aside from a mention that Frankie’s target went to church that day. Christmas is viewed in very American terms – the willingness of near-strangers to take people in, the loneliness, the memories that crop up for good and (in Frankie’s case) bad. I knew a girl once who hated Christmas because of a few bad memories (which, like Frankie, she never explained); couldn’t escape them every year, and it totally prevented her from enjoying the season. I thought of her quite a bit while watching the film. How, as people, will all carry guilt, offense, troubles, hatred, and concerns with us, some which date back so far we don’t even remember how they began. I thought of how we try to escape them, sometimes literally, sometimes in our own privacy. I thought about how sad that is.

It takes a lot to inspire this kind of thought in us. And while I had some problems with the film (Allen Baron – very fine director and writer, not such a fine actor), it’s a pretty stunning accomplishment, especially for its time.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

SORT-OF REVIEW: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

The Looney Tunes series of cartoons were made for adult audiences. Animation geeks love to point this out (I should know, I count myself among them). But this simple statement goes beyond being an interesting bit of trivia, and cuts to the core of why they don’t make great cartoons anymore. They make great pieces of animation, but there’s nothing as silly, pointless, formally brilliant, ceaselessly inventive and creative, and completely unhinged as the original Looney Tunes pieces anymore. Hell, I’d settle for Tom and Jerry.

The reason is the institution of modern cartoon making has decided that these are for kids, and, worse, movies for kids have to have a message, a moral, an emotional arc for a conflicted but ultimately righteous protagonist, and a three-act structure so sturdy you could build a house on it. And a lot of celebrities on the voice cast who may or may not have the capacity for voice acting. And that’s why films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which is by far the best cartoon I’ve seen in years, possibly since The Emperor's New Groove, are so frustrating. Here’s a film completely stuffed to the brim with imagination and wackiness, but the container in which it sits is insufficient, and some of the best stuff was left out.

What really upsets me about this is that kids don’t need a lesson or an emotional arc or even a three-act structure. There were a group of kids a couple rows in front of me jumping up and down at the beginning of the movie, physically reacting to the dazzle of the animation, trying to reach out and take hold of the 3-D image. They settled way down when the third act kicked into gear.

By comparison, most Looney Tunes cartoons were about acts of revenge against barely-competent antagonists who really, truly don’t deserve what comes to them, or the foils of completely incompetent aggressors attempting to change their lot in life. Bugs Bunny is a sociopath if you looked at him on paper. I’m at once incredibly surprised and deeply thrilled that kids today still take in, and are allowed to take in, the anarchy of classic Looney Tunes, and even more aghast that there doesn’t seem to be a single studio today willing to give kids what they want the most.

For the record, just so there’s no confusion – Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a really good cartoon for the limitations it’s working with. My girlfriend is always quick to insist that the guidelines of the production code should not be held against the films of mid-1930s through the late 1960s, and I suppose we should accept the same of modern cartoons. It’s still too damn bad, though.

A Movie a Day: The Grapes of Wrath

Until at least the end of October, I'm endeavoring to watch a movie every day. Typically, it will be a movie I've never seen before, although there might be the rare occasion that I rewatch something.


I don’t really know what I was expecting from The Grapes of Wrath. I guess high drama, an engrossing story, some sort of message for the people. Visual beauty, that’s for sure. Well, it is beautiful…don’t you just love when great directors work in black and white? You really get something special from it.

What I wasn’t expecting, and what I responded most to, is just how acutely it spoke to what’s going on in America today. It goes beyond economic collapse and a tremendous number of people…falling on hard times is such an understatement. But it goes beyond that.

I had trouble with Italian Neorealism at first. The movement was marked by films like Bicycle Thieves, portraits of individuals struggling to attain the most basic of needs, suffering greatly, and unable to get ahead in the end. I found them, and Bicycle Thieves specifically at the time I saw it, needlessly downtrodden and a little melodramatic. Thankfully, a professor had the good sense to point out that these films were made after World War II, a war that pretty completely decimated much of Europe, leaving European citizens without some pretty basic needs, never mind a sense of place in the world. The films were, then, important for the Italian people, cathartic in a way we can never understand, watching them now.

I imagine The Grapes of Wrath felt very much the same for audiences in 1940. That’s a pretty important achievement in and of itself. But the miracle of the film is that it spoke to me, yesterday, in 2009, watching it on my laptop. The film is ultimately about the hopelessness of being cast out by a system, the rage and anger one feels towards something that feels like a person, but is not the province of one man. There is no one person for the sharecroppers to look to when they’re forced off their land, and the guy who’s coming by to give them the bad news is really in the same position they are, just trying to get by. Now, it’s pointless to get mad at the tax man or the eviction notice or the bank teller or anyone you could ever talk to on a hotline. Sure, there are heads of these institutions, but as they say, everybody reports to somebody. So you’re stuck in a situation forced on you by a system so large and beyond your furthest grasp, that trying to enact any real change on your life is impossible.

We think of the early, pre-1960s America as a simpler time, and in some ways it was. You either had your land or you didn’t; you had a job or you didn’t. Now you have to factor in credit cards, cell phones, Internet access, and other conveniences that have become necessities. But there was then, as there is now, the system, a system that goes beyond government to the very foundation of modern society (another way the film reflected modern times – the government comes up with a rock solid idea that would help out a lot of people, and the people in the private sector with power try to shut it down and label it “Communist”).

It goes without saying, as one of “the people,” that I loved this movie deeply.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Movie a Day: The 'Burbs

Until at least the end of October, I'm endeavoring to watch a movie every day. Typically, it will be a movie I've never seen before, although there might be the rare occasion that I rewatch something.

I hate that this is the first entry in this, but I have to keep this short because I have The Grapes of Wrath queued up and just barely enough time to watch it - the day just kind of got away from me. I especially hate it because I really loved The 'Burbs, a movie I probably wouldn't have watched if not for the unfortunate passing of Henry Gibson, but man do I love to watch Tom Hanks in a comedy. Any comedy, really, but it's probably telling that my favorite Tom Hanks movie is Joe Versus the Volcano.

Anyway, The 'Burbs is one of those perfect little movies that could have only come out in the 80s, reasserts Tom Hanks as one of the great leading men of cinema, Bruce Dern as one of the greatest supporting actors, and you know what...you can say whatever the hell you want about Joe Dante. The man may not reach far, but he's a true believer, and if horror films and comedies are (largely) missing one thing these days, it's that you don't really get a true love of cinema itself. Dante's decisions as a director aren't always strongly motivated, but you can just feel the excitement he has in making them. Truffaut once said that he's only interested in films that express the joy or the agony of making cinema, and for his sake if no one else's, I give you The 'Burbs.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

RIP Henry Gibson

It's impossible to overstate how god damn cool Henry Gibson is. I was first introduced to him...well, I first perked up and said "who the hell is this guy" when I saw Magnolia, in which he takes a pretty interesting role and just spins gold with it. When I was writing my piece about the scores of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, I ended up watching a lot of his scenes over again, and that guy never ceases to be the most captivating, infuriating (jn a good way) aspect of that scene, this weird little character on the edge of the film who, in so many ways, makes the film. Really. Much like Ricky Jay's narration at the beginning and end, Magnolia would not be Magnolia without Henry Gibson.

That's to say nothing of the fact that he played, and wrote all the songs for the role of, Haven Hamilton in Nashville, which is...look, all the main players in Nashville are great characters, but the fact that basically his last line in the whole movie can put the character in a totally different perspective is astounding. That's good writing, sure, but if Gibson didn't sell it, we'd be left with a guy who's a self-centered ass, nothing more. Instead...just see the movie if you haven't already, it's amazing.

Oh, and he was the head Nazi in The Blues Brothers (which is really the first time I saw him), so, y'know...win.

He was 73. A much larger overview of his life can be found here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What it Felt Like: The Virgin Suicides

I was watching The Virgin Suicides a few weeks ago for the umpteenth time, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since. And what really stood out to me was a section that hadn’t before, which is the final one. Needless to say, spoiler alert for The Virgin Suicides, but I cannot shake from my mind just how incredible that final section is, everything from after the girls kill themselves. When I first saw it, I identified tremendously with the boys, aghast at their parents’ behavior and total lack of understanding, but I assumed what I felt was a young man’s reaction. Of course I thought the parents were being absurd, I’m just a kid.

What the film does so well, and what struck me when I first saw it even if I only barely glimpsed it, is telling the story from a very teenage mindset. That’s why I actually ended up showing the film to a bunch of friends, guys and girls, on Valentine’s Day during our senior year of high school. True, we were all single and, even if we didn’t admit it, slightly bitter about that fact, but none of that matters, because the whole Trip Fontaine section, from his introduction all the way through the end of the Homecoming Dance is, for my money, the best, most emotionally honest representation of high school romance. When you’re in high school, EVERYTHING is monumental. Everything is tragedy, comedy, or conquistador-level victory. Nobody’s felt the way you feel about anything, be it love or death or sports or math.

Which, in turn, is what makes the ending so powerful, and ultimately much more tragic than it would be had the story been told from any other perspective. It’s the boys who have the unfortunate task of trying to comprehend and make sense of what happened to the Lisbon girls, because they’re the only ones emotionally incapable of NOT doing this. Of course their parents tried to shuffle the whole thing aside, make jokes, and just generally move on with their lives. That’s a totally rational reaction to something as monumentally tragic and wholly indefinable as the tragedy of the Lisbon girls. It’s a sad thing to grow up and not be that emotionally vulnerable – necessary, perhaps, but I’d give anything to feel the way I felt about everything in high school.

And that’s what’s so powerful about watching the film now, removed not only from the high school mindset but from college as well, is that I realize how acutely it grasps the high school experience, not just in a theoretical, nostalgic way. The film doesn’t “take me back” by playing a favorite song or creating characters I particularly identify with. But watching The Virgin Suicides evokes what high school FELT like. The very texture of the emotional landscape that is high school is tangible in every second of the film; almost nothing that happens in the film happened to me (I usually went to dances stag, to start with), but it’d be a short leap to realize that I would feel that way about all of it if it had.

Monday, September 14, 2009


The obsessive-on-the-verge-of-complete-breakdown is a genre on the verge of tired. As predictable as a romantic comedy, you can’t help but see every scene and go, “oh, man, things just get worse and worse for this guy…oh, that’s not gonna help his eventual mental collapse.” I mean, you KNOW where it’s going. Where’s the fun anymore?

Robert Siegel is a guy very accustomed to finding the fun in tired subjects. Most articles on The Onion, the fake news source Siegel served as editor at for seven years, basically call out some mundane activity we’re all familiar with and dissect it to the point of absurdity, and there’s the humor.

To call Big Fan fun would be sort of missing the point, and drastically incorrect. But it is far livelier than I expected, exactly the sort of shot in the arm required to make a movie with this sort of set-up. Siegel’s directorial debut (he previously wrote The Wrestler for Darren Aronofsky) is the story of a guy, Paul (Patton Oswalt), who lives for the New York Giants, far beyond the point where their victories are his victories and their losses are his. Siegel takes that personal identification common to so many things (I’ll plead guilty to it when it comes to certain directors) to the absolute extreme, to the extent that Paul is willing to sacrifice his personal well being for the sake of the team.

Siegel, wisely, never probes to figure out what makes Paul tick, but remains fascinated by watching the way the watch works. Oswalt, for his part, keeps us right along with how Siegel wants us to feel about the character without every truly injecting him with something all his own, something that would’ve been appropriate given the surprising, hidden layers within Paul.

The more I look into this film, the less I see, but it’s hard to fault a film as subversive and personal as this clearly is. While it’d be tempting to read the film as some sort of indictment of fandom, I think Siegel’s far more compelled by the lengths a person will go to, and where they choose to draw the line, in protecting something personal to them. For all his family lectures him on how pathetic his life is, it’s telling that the answers they provide – settle down, raise a family, get a career – are not the answers for everyone, and certainly don’t seem to be things that would make Paul happy. Some, like moving out of his mother’s house, probably would, but it’s exactly that nobody has the answers for even their own lives, much less the lives of those around them, that makes this film real and honest, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Music is Cinema: Scoring Paul Thomas Anderson

I was graciously invited by Daniel over at Film Babble to participate in his Soundtrack September blog-a-thon. The following represents my contribution.

At first glance, music and film seem so terribly disconnected, joined together more by the convenience of having to keep an audience entertained on multiple levels than by the feeling that music and images simply belonged together (and just to get our terminology correct, a “soundtrack” for a film is ALL the sound going on in a motion picture, not just the music). Now, of course, the idea of music existing totally separate from a moving image is archaic – any major musical creation requires an accompanying video. Similarly, it’s rare to the point of nonexistent for a major motion picture to exist without music. In our modern conscience, the two are of a piece, though rarely regarded as such.

When Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood came out, a surprisingly large number of critics found fault in the overwhelming nature of Jonny Greenwood’s score. I found that it enhanced the picture tremendously, leaving us teetering on the edge of, ideally, our very sanity, certainly our hold on reality, a struggle familiar to Daniel Plainview. Its dissonance reflected and created the uncertainty and fear Anderson laid the groundwork for. More pointedly, it represented a continuing development in Anderson’s work that is often discussed film-by-film in a sort of throwaway sense (“oh, and the music’s great”), but, to my knowledge, never considered as essential to his oeuvre from Boogie Nights onward – for Anderson, music isn’t there to simply enhance or underline something created separately in the film; music is as essential to the image in the creation of cinema itself.

To be sure, this didn’t come to fruition until his last two films, but his understanding of it was clear in Boogie Nights, a period piece that takes place in the 1970s and 80s, but couldn’t be more of a piece with 90s cinema. Certainly taking many visual cues from Martin Scorsese’s incredibly influential Goodfellas, Anderson expands upon and deepens the way Scorsese used music in his film to create so many different things in Boogie Nights. Many of the musical moments we remember – the explosive opening and “Best of My Love,” the pool party set to “Spill the Wine” that reaches its climax visually and musically when the camera follows a girl underwater, or the wildly diametric “Sister Christian”/“Jesse’s Girl” two-shot that is absolutely essential to the most tense scene in the film – are, like so many other musical moments in cinema since Goodfellas, lifted from pop music. True, these are among the best applications of the form, but uses of popular music, and our familiarity with those pieces, to create something that isn’t there otherwise is now such a crutch that, with the exception of the “Sister Christian”/“Jesse’s Girl” stand-off, most of the music, and the ways it’s used, date the film far more than the 70s clothes and hairstyles ever could.

But about forty-five minutes away from the film’s end, wrapped around a sequence of Jack Horner surveying his crumbling empire, is a slight piece of music by the film’s composer, Michael Penn, that does more to create the overwhelming, penetrating sadness of this moment than a similarly-toned track from the 70s could never have accomplished. The hopelessness and depression these characters face isn’t epic, and hardly profound – it’s melancholic.

The warring impulse between the created score and the insertion of popular music came to a head in Magnolia, oddly appropriate for a film as scatter-brained and dissonant as Anderson’s 1999 near-masterpiece. The film opens with Aimee Mann’s cover of “One,” which will set us up for Mann’s voice to accompany us through this journey, to the point that a full-on musical number to one of her songs will provide the bridge at a key emotional turn in the film. And, indeed, Anderson's use of her music almost exclusively is one of the more inspired uses of pop music in film, as it at once creates those moments we love so much while still keeping the film personal. In the end, the film seems to belong to Mann as much as any cast member; she becomes a second narrator. Further, Strauss’ "Also Sprach Zarathustra,” better known as the theme from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey will accompany a revelation and a sex seminar, and Supertramp will introduce us to an environment in which unrequited love is felt more desperately than many of us would be prepared for.

However, I remain fascinated most with Jon Brion’s heartbreaking accompaniment that rises and falls, but is always pervasive, as Stanley refuses his call to an absolutely decimated Jimmy, Donnie begs for some outlet for his love, Jim thanks God for one opportunity before squandering another one, Claudia settles down for a familiar night, Phil anticipates the completion of a nightlong quest, Frank conquers a created foe, and Linda finally snaps all over again. It’s a long sequence, and a long piece of music that might begin much earlier or end much later (the music is that locked in with the film), but when one thinks of Stanley’s final declaration, Phil turning around to hear Linda arriving, or Frank storming down the hall as Anderson's camera brilliantly falls in and out of focus, separating these elements from Brion’s work is impossible.

This accomplishment was clearly on Anderson’s mind as he went into Punch-Drunk Love, the epitome of what I’m getting at here. Various uncited sources claim that Brion began working on the score at the screenplay stage, so that throughout production, it would be the music that would unite the film thematically and emotionally. Throughout the film’s preparation and formal production, Anderson would hum little tunes he felt appropriate, and Brion would work from those. Like I said, these are uncited, but while viewing (and listening to) the film, this collaboration is palpable.

Indeed, the film plays very much as a musical without lyrics (save for the “He Needs Me” sequence) or dance numbers; certainly no characters break into song. If Anderson’s earlier films feel connected to Scorsese or Altman, Punch-Drunk Love is pure Jacques Demy, the director of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. In Cherbourg, music is so pervasive that every line in the script is sung. The music in Rochefort isn’t quite as pervasive, though unlike many musicals, the song-and-dance numbers don’t feel like separate creations inserted into a story. They feel instead as though they arise naturally, are truly part of the total cinematic experience.

So it is with Punch-Drunk Love. Though a character actually breaking into song would feel a tad forced, the music is as much the film as the cinematography, the performances, or the dialogue. Listening to the score on its own (an easy practice to fall into), you can feel the film happening around you, and if the film has its intended effect, the score is largely responsible. It can be melancholic, overwhelmingly frantic, joyful, pleasant, even a little jazzy, all emotions created inside the film, often through the music. Jean-Luc Godard once said, “To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.” Never has that quote meant as much as it does when reflecting on Punch-Drunk Love.

Ingmar Bergman said that Cries and Whispers started with the image of women dressed in white standing in a red room, and the rest of writing and preproduction was spent figuring out why they’re there. Music and the moving image represent the same creative process. They both start with an idea – an image or a sound that flutters by our consciousness. From these humble beginnings, films can be made with a single camera with no cast and a crew of one, or by a team of thousands. Music can be created by the simplest of instruments or the largest of orchestras. In most cases, each requires that initial, singular vision to be carried out by a team of people working towards a similar goal – the move its audience. It’s not so unnatural, then, that cinema and music be as intertwined as they now are, that the collaboration between the two forms could reach the heights it does in Anderson’s films.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Round Up

Random thoughts and comments on recent developments in the film world.

IFC and Criterion have signed a deal wherein Criterion will handle the DVD and Blu-Ray distribution for select titles under the IFC Films banner. There’s been a lot of grumbling about Criterion releasing more and more contemporary films at the expense of lost classics, and while I do lament the general state of classics on home video, I also love that Criterion is living up to the "contemporary" side of their mission statement. Besides, when those films include Summer Hours (hands-down the best film I've seen all year) and Che (hands-down the most ambitious, and one of the most fascinating films I saw last year), it's hard to complain too much.

As of right now, the Northwest Film Center, probably the most important establishment for cinephiles in Portland, has a screening of Bright Star scheduled for September 23rd, but only for members. Bright Star played at the Cannes Film Festival and is being released in New York on September 18, but there's no word on any larger plan, and the distributor doesn't have a web site. My guess is it will make it out here, as the film has been tossed around as an Oscar contender, but this waiting period always makes me nervous.

Anne Thompson's onto something here without quite coming out and saying it (also, as a director, there's nothing challenging about John Lasseter - he does what he does very well, but challenging audiences is not his wheelhouse). Oddly enough, I expected myself to come away swinging, but instead agreed - The Limits of Control is kind of a mess, in spite of its aims. But while Coppola may have earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants, the movie still has to earn that (which, for the record, I think Tetro does, even if it doesn't stick the landing).

I don't hate The Boondock Saints the way a lot of cinephiles do. I just don't care about it at all, and it's aged really poorly. And it has the philosophy of that guy who sat a couple seats down from you in high school who was always flipping through weapons magazines and had a weird fixation on German culture. Willem Dafoe was pretty amusing in it, though...until the end. What the hell happened there? But, y'know, here's the trailer for the sequel.

Top Five films I'm desperate to see this fall/winter, but my access to them is uncertain:
Wild Grass
Red Riding Trilogy
Everyone Else
Tree of Life
The White Ribbon

I feel pretty good about Portland getting Tree of Life and The White Ribbon...Wild Grass sounds so damn nutty, it's hard to say, and the Red Riding Trilogy is...well, it's three films. They couldn't even release Kill Bill all at once. Though it will be on IFC OnDemand, God's gift to far-flung cinephiles, and a system that should be mandatory for every niche distributor (I'm looking right at you, Sony Pictures Classics). Everyone Else seems almost impossible, unless a distant chance pans out and I'm in New York for the end of the New York Film Festival. The only one of these I would actively travel to further than Seattle to see is Tree of Life. I'd fly to New York if I had to.

Don't Look Back in Anger - Summer 2009

Let’s say, for all intents and purposes, this last summer began May 1st with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a title barely acceptable in comic book form, but unrelentingly dumb for a movie. Now, I did not see this film because, apparently, it really sucked, and any way you slice it that’s a rather poor start to the summer. And considering that the rest included Transformers: ROTFL, Terminator Salvation, Star Trek, Bruno, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and considering that pop culture has deemed District 9 the most exciting thing to happen all year, well…from the outside, it seems a little depressing, especially in the wake of last year (Speed Racer, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Pineapple Express, Wall-E). Even studio-funded art suffered – for awhile there, the only art to come out of the studio system was Michael Mann’s latest failure of visual-narrative form, Public Enemies.

So it’d be easy to, yes, look back and scorn the powers-that-be for inflicting upon us another summer of nonsense, but that would be to look past the truly awesome Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the only blockbuster all summer that carries a true directorial vision) and The Hangover, for my money the best of the major summer films, near-great films like Up, interesting-but-highly-flawed works like Funny People, and a slew of independent and foreign films ranging from the truly incredible (Summer Hours, The Hurt Locker) to the exceptional (The Girlfriend Experience, Goodbye Solo, The Headless Woman, Humpday, In The Loop, Lorna's Silence) to the pretty good (500 Days of Summer, Moon, Three Monkeys, Paper Heart, Away We Go) to the absolute messes (Cold Souls), all the way to the always interesting reaches for greatness that never quite get there, but you gotta give them credit for trying (Tetro, The Limits of Control, The Man From London).

And of course…Inglourious Basterds, a film so apart from the rest in every way, and one of the most important films of the decade, though too flawed to be one of the best.

Now, when you look at THAT list…this summer turns into something different altogether. It shows that apart from some of the more hyped films, some truly interesting, original voices were heard. So, no, I will not take the easy way out and look back disappointed that Hollywood could not produce an action film worth getting excited about all summer (although we did get Crank: High Voltage earlier this year, so it’s not a total loss), tempting though that may be. I will remain thankful that these voices remain, and are more accessible than ever – I saw The Girlfriend Experience and The Man From London through my cable box. In HD no less! It’s been a damn good summer, just not in the way it often is.