Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Seeking Consensus

I've long expressed frustration towards people who make a big show out of how much they do not care about the Oscars, largely because it seems that if they truly didn't care, they wouldn't say anything at all. For instance, I really do not care about, say...whale watching. Never talk about it. On the other hand, I really, honestly do love and care about the Oscars, so I talk about them all the time. But of the many, many statements made against the Oscars, the most pervasive one seems to be that many of the films that get nominated, and certainly those that win, won't be the ones we'll be talking about in twenty, thirty years. The speaker then lists whatever his or her pet causes are that year, because certainly those will be the ones we'll all remember, and thus these films are more valuable.

Aside from the false premise of a person assuming that even he/she will still be into a given film by then, let alone a large portion of cinephile culture, it's essentially using one consensus to justify the lack of attention by another. It's saying, "man, this group of 6,000 people don't get it, but this group totally does, so there!" Furthermore, neither really reflect the value of the film(s) at hand, and each discount the other's ability to even talk about the right films. The Academy might not highlight the greatest films of its generation, but every list henceforth will in some way overlook films from that same generation.

The history of cinema, and especially its representation, is too varied and esoteric to depend on "the conversation" to dictate the best there is, whether that conversation is happening now or in fifty years. For example, everybody can talk about Gone with the Wind at the drop of a hat, but increasingly few truly consider it to be among the best films ever made. Conversely, I've seen a couple of films on Turner Classic Movies that are now among my favorites ever made, but try to find more than a handful of people who are talking about It's Love I'm After or The Devil and Miss Jones (the former is available from the Warner Archive, the latter is coming out from Olive this year). They're still great films. The amount of conversation generated around any movie doesn't make it any better or worse, and is just as absurd a barometer to use to justify a film's value as any award, let alone the Academy Award (which, as it happens, has ensured we still talk about Around the World in 80 Days in some capacity).

So in the meantime, talk about the films that matter to you. Don't rely on others to pick up the slack.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Like Someone in Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

The disparity between a person’s public face and their private self is not one that many filmmakers even acknowledge, let alone let entire films spring from that, but then, Abbas Kiarostami is not a typical filmmaker. Feeling no obligation to hold his audience’s attention - he’s said that he prefers films that put people to sleep - the Iranian filmmaker has given himself an artistic license to catch his characters at their least guarded, drawing a sharp disparity between how they interact with one another and what they do when they’re “alone.” His latest film, Like Someone in Love, opens with a long sequence in which Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who we come to discover is a prostitute, cycling through several confrontations across space and time, as she speaks with her domineering boyfriend over the phone, her boss and coworker face-to-face, listens to message left by her grandmother, who had hoped to meet up with her during a day-trip to Tokyo, and finally her elderly customer, who gets a little less from their arrangement than perhaps he expected, but who the next morning seems no less pleased.

Akiko’s profession automatically leads one to a sort of comfort with the meaning of the film’s title - the hiring of a prostitute allows a person to behave “like someone in love” - but the allusion is more directly to the pop song written by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke, the Ella Fitzgerald version of which plays a couple of times in the film. The song is in most ways like any other 1940s standard, with its melancholy tune and romantic lyrics, but it expresses these things by equating the narrator’s actions to those he/she understands to be most commonly associated with love, as though those actions in and of themselves dictate his/her emotional state. “I find myself gazing at stars / Hearing guitars like someone in love / Lately, the things I do astound me / Mostly whenever you’re around me,” thus we must be in love. It’s reverse-engineering emotion - if action is most often dictated by emotion, then my actions must allow me to determine my emotion.

But Akiko doesn’t stop to at least say “hi” to her grandmother, even though she’s been waiting at the train station all day, updating Akiko as to her latest specific whereabouts and impending departure, and even when - most heartbreakingly - Akiko passes by the station and sees her standing, looking hopefully, she simply continues on her route. The way Akiko speaks of her grandmother, and her expression in seeing her stand alone, tells us how she really feels, but she simply continues on her way to see her client, appearing more than happy to be there upon arrival. If anything, Akiko’s actions reveal the exact opposite of her interior state. And that’s just the first twenty, twenty-five minutes of the film. She, like many people, is also in a relationship with a man she seems to hate, and who shows her little affection in return, and who assumes Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), the aforementioned customer, is Akiko’s grandfather, an illusion he is more than willing to uphold. This might seem a more blatant form of the public face/private self divide, but it’s one that’s complicated by the fact that him knowing Akiko’s secret - her profession - allows him to be much closer to her than her “real” grandparents, while their relationship has remained, apparently, uncompromised by the sexual interaction on which it was supposed to be based.

For all of Kiarostami’s talk of putting people to sleep, and the appearance of a “nothing happens” plot, it’s a sign of his mastery over the form that this was one of the more engaging films I saw at AFI Fest, even though, afterwards, I was very much ambivalent about my response. I was hardly swept away by it, but was carried along, gently, at every turn, never feeling as though things were particularly dragging. The film had since lived on, and in the ensuing months, scarcely a day went by that I didn’t consider it on some level, and getting the chance to see it again a few weeks ago very much hardened it in my mind and heart. It is in this way a more rewarding film than some with more outwardly appealing qualities, as it has seemed to last for months instead of the hour-forty-something of its running time.

See, Kiarostami’s preference for films that put their audience to sleep isn’t just a fun bit of baiting. In the rest of the quote, he states, “I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.” The unsettling qualities - the hints at subjects of alienation, emotional exile, and, to some extent, self-abuse - might not be immediately evident, so shrewdly are they disguised and so unadorned are they in their presentation, until one thinks back, or revisits it, and sees that the way the film culminates is not so unexpected, not so jarring, and not purely the result of a dramatic imperative to “do something” with a premise. Using the sound design as the foundation for this climax might seem at first to be a grand formal bargain to excuse a small budget, until one notices how thorough and considered the auroral environment has been all along. Like the actions the characters take, it’s just an outward expression of what’s been going on the whole time.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hey, They're New to Me - My Favorite Discoveries of 2012

This is a list I awaited assembling with no small amount of anticipation. Every year, if one is a persistent and dedicated cinephile, will reveal a whole new set of favorite films, directors, movements, and aesthetics, and this was certainly no exception. While it is inevitably born somewhat from my own particular tastes (that the 1950s are the best represented here doesn't come as much of a surprise), there are at least a dozen that were the result of what happened to be playing at TCM Fest earlier this year, or Noir Fest that same month, or assigned to me to review on DVD, or something that was selected by my girlfriend or one of my friends during our weekly movie night, or something that just happened to be playing at Cinefamily or the New Beverly or any of the wonderful institutions in Los Angeles. Cinephilia is as much an investigation towards one's own objects of affection as it is a revelation, one that is haphazardly curated by professionals, novices, and total blind luck. So while it's little surprise that Rumble Fish was probably my favorite film I saw all year, there's one film on here I might've put off forever had a girl my friend was dating not selected it one evening. And so it goes.

I didn't rank them. Aside from a few, it hardly matters. I'm pretty sure there are fifty films here, the fifty that meant the most to me, were the most resonant, or perhaps just the ones to which I most wanted to call attention. Who knows. I've placed them in reverse chronological order, largely out of a personal preference for the distant past, though it became interesting to see established modes of operation echo in achievements sometimes only a few years, and sometimes decades earlier. So there's no better place to start than...

Friday, February 1, 2013

Lady Killer (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)

When people like me say that the American cinema was never better than it was in the 1930s, this is exactly the kind of thing we're talking about. I mean, when you get that image above, what more could you ask for, really? But this is a movie that combines the low-class working-man picture with the gangster genre with the Hollywood satire, throwing in animal anarchy (seen above), car chases, shootouts, car crashes (and not the kind where they cut away!), and more star charm, via Cagney, in 76 minutes than most films give you in 120. The 1930s were really Hollywood running wild with a machine that refused to stop making money, and gave them license to do just about anything, especially in the Pre-Code heyday. So when the Film Forum in New York, upon announcing an entire four-week series dedicated to the films of 1933 (anyone want to put me up for a month?), calls it "Hollywood's naughtiest, bawdiest year," they aren't kidding.

Recapping the particulars of the plot would give away too much of the fun, but this is Cagney at his purest, giving the kind of slack only a recently-crowned star could have earned to totally cut loose, with all the bravado in the world. While he could play self-doubt with the best of them, there's nothing like seeing him on top of the world (so to speak), and this picture gives him at least two kingdoms over which to reign, never mind his overarching charm with the ladies. Immediately following his self-made jungle, we get a scene in which he takes the lady pictured above out to dinner, which is in turn followed by him taking her back to his place, and even them finding another woman in his bed isn't enough to turn the first lady off completely. At every turn, Cagney comes out on top, and even when he slips up, he can't stop laughing at the absurdity of it all. After all, he's a hustler, and he's hustled his way out of worse jams.

Lady Killer will indeed play at the Film Forum during its series, which is just welcome happenstance as I knew after seeing this picture last night that I'd write about it, and only happened to wake up to the Forum's announcement. It's on a triple-bill of Cagney flicks, including the also-enjoyable Picture Snatcher and the has-yet-to-be-seen-by-me-but-sounds-like-a-blast Hard to Handle. The three actually also represent a great opportunity to acquaint oneself with three of the best directors Warner Brothers had in its stable in those years - Lloyd Bacon (whose Footlight Parade, also playing there, is a joy), Mervyn LeRoy (whose Gold Diggers of 1933, ALSO playing, is one of my twenty favorite films of all time), and Del Ruth himself (who, in addition to this, directed Cagney in Taxi!, one of my favorite discoveries from last year). Like I said...anyone want to put me up for a month?