Tuesday, October 31, 2006

L'Argent


Speaking of Max Ophuls, I feared for the first ten minutes or so of L'Argent that the film would unfold like La Ronde--that the counterfeit bill that sets the film's events in motion would pass from person to person and that the movie would simply follow the bill. The gimmick works just fine in La Ronde (which some, David Thomson maybe, have proposed as a demonstration of the transmission of venereal disease), but, as a Bresson movie, L'Argent turns instead to the implications this sequence of events has on the minds and souls of a few people. I don't know why I'm forcing this comparison but, where Ophuls uses giddily superficial trappings to expose the abject emptiness of people's interactions with each other, Bresson employs his typical bare-bones style to massive, punch-in-the-stomach effect.
Bresson's minimalism has a deliberateness and depth that few have paralleled: I think, especially, of a repeated sequence in which a paddy wagon parks, the driver opens the back door, some cops empty out a few pieces of luggage and then lead prisoners out by a kind of leash attached to each set of handcuffs, as each prisoner picks up a bag and is pulled out of the frame. It has an eerie ritualistic quality and, I don't know, it got me.
In my snoopings around the internet (my room is freezing, I have a library school paper to finish, and am losing my shit slowly and surely), I'm surprised that few critics seem to note how much this film is about work: its necessity, the body's motion and the seeming alienation of various body parts while engaged in labor, the relationship people have with their money and where it comes from, etc. So many scenes--whether in the camera store, in the prison, or in the countryside at the movie's end--involve both major and minor characters doing their jobs, from cops to mail censors to an old woman responsible for the upkeep of a household. What to make of this in a film about something like the need for purging "sins" through the ultimate acceptance of responsibility for one's actions? I'm sleepy and uncertain.

There is a good piece about this at the Masters of Cinema Bresson page, by the by.
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Current affordable snacks of choice: saltines, cuticles.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Top Hits of the 1990s

Last spring a bunch of us decided at brunch (a BRUNCH of us? ha! ha!) that the '90s are next. I believe this referred mainly to an inexorable desire to jam Slant 6, and indeed, autumn 2k6 has heard a lot of Rodan, Unwound, Killdozer, and the Melvins (and, uh, Lifetime) chez moi. No surprise, thus, that in the past 24 hours alone, I have conversed about "Da Dip," heard a song by the Toadies, and received an e-mail from my friend and most frequent movie-watching buddy Ben, listing his Top 10 Movies of the 1990s. Naturally, I had to make a response list. It's nothing too special--and, for the record, overlaps with Ben's gangster-heavy list by only one movie--but here it is.
Top movie: Naked
Other 9 in no order:
Raise the Red Lantern
Happy Together
Dazed and Confused
All About My Mother
Unforgiven
Maborosi
La Promesse
Beau Travail

and I originally had The Celebration here and Hard Boiled as a runner up, but I might switch that around.
Notes: While I was scoping out other lists of top '90s movies to try and figure out what came out then, I realized that I'm not terribly familiar with many of the Great cinematic works of the 1990s (I've seen nothing by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and very little by Takeshi Kitano, for instance). Also, I forgot that the Voice picked Todd Haynes's Safe as the best film of the decade, a movie I do not even consider "good."

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Letter from an Unknown Woman//An Eternal Question


The other day I told some poor, perplexed individual that my favorite directors are Robert Altman and Max Ophuls. I realized at the time that it sounded a little peculiar, but look, here I am discussing a Max Ophuls movie, having quoted a different one of his movies in my last post and discussed Robert Altman earlier, so there you go.
Funnily enough, Letter From an Unknown Woman has a few bits that--to stretch slightly--foreshadow Altman; in one scene, for instance, the lovely young Joan Fontaine and her horrid mother and stepfather meet two men on the street. The camera pulls back and moves to reveal hustling and bustling and the boring how-do-you-do conversation recedes beneath a layer of street noise, horse carts, other chatter, and so on. How protoAltmanesque!
Anyway, as in other Ophuls movies, this film's fairly straightforward, weepy plot about a woman who falls in love with a pianist who keeps taking up with her and then forgetting about her is saved from approaching the conventional thanks to a slew of classy cinematic techniques and persistent psychosexual weirdness (at one point, the slimy Louis Jourdan moves next to Ms. Joan, puts his arm around her, and murmurs, "Tell me about your father."). I know at least a few people who've had to watch this in Film Studies classes, so I won't ramble ignorantly about the ingenuity of the letter as narrative frame or p.o.v. shots or whatever. As someone who spends a lot of time reading and watching movies about upscale old-time ladies who enmeshed in a certain kind of trouble, though, I would say this is about as good as that stuff gets.
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I didn't want to write about music in this blog but then I thought I should write about records I bought since they're things I bought, and then I thought, "but I haven't listened to THOSE yet, let's talk about what I am really&truly listening to now." And thus, the eternal question; brace yourselves.
HELLO BASTARDS or JERSEY'S BEST DANCERS
????????
One acceptable correct answer:
NEITHER, HOW CAN YOU LISTEN TO THAT SHIT?! but I'll ignore you for now.
Here's my two cents. Smarter minds than mine have pointed out that HELLO BASTARDS sounds tougher and reflects a more distinct influence of reputable bands (HUSKER DU, whom they cover, RITES OF SPRING, et.al.), and that its songwriting holds up better over time. Basically, it's a superior work of the "melodic hardcore punk" (thx Wikipedia) tradition.
But I like JERSEY'S BEST DANCERS better, although it is stupider and clearly foreshadows the abysmal poppy emo and pop-punk that would bear its influence, probably because I heard it first, and because it is perhaps the thing in the world that most represents what my life in high school was not. Anyway, thoughts? and if you're the kind of person who owns these records but is embarrassed about it, get in touch, because Ned might want his CDs back someday.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Movie Weekend: The Departed, Tenement, Decision at Sundown

In one of my all-time favorite films, Max Ophuls's The Earrings of Madame De... one of the characters criticizes his friend's affection for a woman by saying something like "But she is so superficial!" to which the friend responds "Ah! She is only superficially superficial," which is one of the smartest things ever uttered in a motion picture. That, I guess, provides some kind of context for the three movies I saw this weekend, Martin Scorsese's The Departed, Roberta Findlay's Tenement, and Budd Boetticher's Decision at Sundown.

I think I will handle The Departed in note form.

I. This film will entertain you consistently for two and a half hours. Ultimately, one finds oneself thinking "that was too long," and yet, I can't think of a moment in which I was bored--although there definitely were bits that could've been omitted (the mortifying scene with the Black prostitute and snowfall of coke and Jack Nicholson saying "Don't move until you're numb" leaps to mind, holy shit).
II. Between this movie and Invincible, Mark Wahlberg is Actor of 2006. I felt emasculated after listening to him berate and fake-fart at Leo d.C. for ten minutes.
III. Excess--a glut of symbols, cinematic trickery, overly purposeful editing, and son on--has always been a Scorsese trademark, right? It works to stunning effect in Goodfellas--a superficially superficial movie--and mostly works in other efforts. In his past bunch of films, though, he has seemed abjectly lost in his own need for epic amounts of mise en scene and Meaningful Shit. A key aspect of Hong Kong action movies' greatness, in contrast, lies in their ability to go entirely over-the-top, but have that very over-the-top-ness seem part and parcel of the film. What would The Killer be without flocks of doves, Chow Yun-Fat's five weeping scenes, or the blind girlfriend? In The Departed, Scorsese manages to own his own tendency towards excess by taking cues from the Hong Kong movies upon which he based this film. For instance, the final shootout and creepy scene with the Asian gangsters do not really resemble scenes from American action or gangster movies. In their combination of absurdity, style, and effectiveness, they're total Hong Kong.
IV. Despite being handed some atrocious dialogue, Leonardo di Caprio does a good job.
V. Because Martin Scorsese is, you know, an auteur, one expects that this movie should make some kind of grand statement about America or masculinity or something. Does it? All the hokum about fathers and sons, identity and success is persuasive at an emotional level, but I'm not sure if it succeeds as a great statement.
VI. Don't let anyone tell you it's a great movie--it's very good, though.

Tenement


Spencer rented this exploitation-stravaganza (a.k.a. "Slaughter in the South Bronx" or "Tenement: Game of Survival") about a rundown Bronx apartment building beset by an inexplicably evil, drugged, crazed, and sartorially questionable gang who torment its inhabitants. Based on that sentence, one could probably write the plot of this movie. It's bad. In the vein of many truly bad films, though, Tenement has perplexing, oddly affecting moments, like when the woman who'd been prostituting herself to support her now-disemboweled junkie boyfriend's habit takes the hand of a man whose wife's neck has come to resemble Mt. Vesuvius-in-ketchup and tells him, "I know how hard it is."

Decision at Sundown

This movie (a '50s "psychological Western") relies so heavily on the audience's knowledge of the Western trope that it leaves out key plot elements that it knows you know. What exactly HAS John Carroll been doing to the town of Sundown ever since he arrived that has unleashed so many troubles? The movie doesn't say, but you understand. One might say "DUH, this is a B-movie that's but 77 minutes long," but since it's all about, you know, repression and emasculation, its ability to leave things unspoken--and when it speaks, to use some pretty worn cliches--makes a whole lot of sense. Moreover, the film takes place primarily inside a barn and a saloon, has no heroes, and Randolph Scott, its main character, rides off into the sunset in the company of a corpse, having discovered that the woman whose honor he was trying to avenge didn't have much honor anyway. WHAT? Yeah. Unfortunately, it seems like you can only watch it on bootlegged-off-TNT video, complete with commercial breaks, which is a legit bummer.
*The dudes at Senses of Cinema have written about this movie, probably in less ignorant a fashion than myself.
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In other news, I succeeded in acquiring a non-boring (read: cardinal color) coat. Little consumption can take place between now and WFMU record fair, though, so if anyone has important tips regarding cooking with expired canned goods, let me know.

Friday, October 20, 2006

"Celebrity" Sighting #1




Malan from Project Runway spotted early yesterday evening on 14th St. between 5th and 6th Aves, looking fey as fuck and casting disdainful glances at garbage and passers-by.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

California Split


For no particular reason, I want to describe the very 1970's color scheme of Mr. Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT as "rueful browns and golds;" I don't think that's precisely the right adjective for the kind of it's-not-the-'60s-any more-bummer look I mean, but let's leave it at that. I once knew the technical reason why movies from this era have this particularly grainy, muted palette but presently forget.


In any case, CALIFORNIA SPLIT (which I saw--alone, pleasantly enough--at Film Forum yesterday) is a wonderful and rueful movie, with a vague narrative trajectory that brings Elliott Gould as a motormouthed huckster obsessed with "finding the action" together with George Segal, a taciturn journalist with gambling and attitude problems. They sort of seek the proverbial "big score," but mostly they drift from bar to casino to boxing match to racetrack, winning and losing big, getting beat up, and being and not being friends. Gould and Segal have a weird chemistry brought about by equally striking yet totally contrasting performances. Myself, I'm down with that-which-is-'70s-Gould, sarky and motormouthed and pathetic with a sketchy-Jew vibe that's fantastically reminiscent of the oral surgeon who took out my wisdom teeth with his scrubs unbuttoned to mid-chest to reveal his giant star of David medallion. Segal's performance is withdrawn and weird: he speaks few complete and totally sensible sentences in the film. Instead, he acts via this strange, overenthused smile that takes a little to long to stretch out on his face, an expression induced only by Gould, gambling, and this girl he wants for about five minutes. Early in their friendship, the pair does a drunken song-and-dance number in a dark parking lot (shortly before getting mugged and beat to shit) that has become one of my all-time favorite Altman scenes.


One review I read described CALIFORNIA SPLIT as a "love song to gambling," which seems completely off-base to me. Yes, the film certainly portrays the "action" as a great, dizzying swirl of sound and movement. The opening sequence--usually described as "bravado"--takes place in a great expanse of poker tables, with impeccable Altman sound-editing and camera movement capturing the games' jerky rhythm and picking out Gould and Segal while situating them within this world. We know movies can "do" gambling, though, (see one of my favorites, Demy's La baie des anges), so a great deal of its interest comes when it steps outside for a minute to show the strange lives of Gould's prostitute roommates, or Segal going to beg a friend (who reveals that Segal has been abandoned by his wife) for a loan. While most are funny, these scenes are also pretty stark, though not as stark as the film's final scene, when Gould cuts the crap for just a sec--even his voice changes--and you ask yourself "oh, fuck, was this about EMPTINESS?" and then the movie's over.
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Things I would like to purchase, Oct 19, 2006
-A winter coat, wool but sufficiently warm, which will last me for a while but isn't boring-looking.
-Face moisturizer
-The Susan Christie cd that is "on sale" at Kim's for $17.99
-Lunch (bagel?)
-Boots without holes, although I also totally want these dark orange and gold ballet flats the girl across from me on the subway yesterday was wearing.
-A discman. Craigslist?
-Personalized hoop earrings (TALYA or COOP). Actually, just one would do. This will only happen if I find $100 on the sidewalk, but maybe someone has a hookup.
-Kale
-A bottle of whiskey
-A bulletin board (tangible, not e-)