Thursday, December 21, 2006

Taking Ignorance to Magnificent Heights, or, Apocalypto


Seemingly sprung fully-formed from the mind of a 14-year-old boy who's fallen asleep face-first on his world history textbook, Apocalypto is the second-funniest movie of 2006 (I pronounced it the funniest until I remembered that Jackass Number Two came out this year). As it evokes everything from Home Alone to Italian cannibalsploitation to Ringu to 19th century American painting (the motif of the noble savage retreating to his fate off the side of the canvas), Apocalypto merits the adjective phrase "totally fucking bananas" like few other movies. It makes a point of showing an espcial amount of blood during a birth scene (mmhm, a BIRTH SCENE); it has few shots that last longer than an instant; it features the best facial tattoos of any movie in a while. As a former anthropologist, I found it so shatteringly offensive and retrograde that, after about ten minutes, I no longer paid attention (til the ridiculous end) to that aspect of the movie, which aside from not getting pre-Columbian cultures, does not know how THE SUN works. It would be like getting on your high horse about the wanton destruction of bison in your average round of "Oregon Trail." Really, this movie is all but a mid-90s P.C. quest-style game ("help Jaguar Paw make it home before it rains too hard--and destroy morally bankrupt civilization IF YOU CAN!").
In sum, the longest sequence in Apocalypto involves someone's face getting ripped off by a jaguar.
(finally, I know Mel Gibson has some bullshit answer to this, but honestly: why is this movie called APOCALYPTO?)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

El Topo and Jules et Jim, or, Possibly Smart Movies


A first viewing of El Topo relies on a viewer's gut reactions to the film's imagery and increasingly bizarre twists; although I did not really know what to expect before I saw it for the first time, on a grainy bootleg VHS on a sweltering afternoon in Texas, I almost wish I had not seen even a single image from the movie, so as to be fully open to the shock and amazement the movie can provoke. Unlike The Holy Mountain, El Topo has a geniuine narrative (though divided into about five chapters, it really has two parts: "I am God" and "I am not a God"--a hubristic gunman seeks glory, fails, seeks redemption, fails) that propels the film as a whole forwards, but does not necessarily matter in individual scenes, each of which depends, entirely and confidently, on the power and singularity of their images to leave an impression. Of course, it revels in psychedelic excess, but attains genuine profundity as well, both in moments of extreme sensory overload, and in instants when he cuts away quickly from a moment that matters a lot (the death of a child, the benignly executed suicide of a master gunman who has thrown away his gun). I mean, this movie is totally fucking ridiculous and self-indulgent, but I feel like discounting it as a massive acid trip, as some folks who have "grown out of it" tend to do, does it a disservice. Since you can finally see El Topo legally on a big screen, at IFC Center through the end of the week, you probably should.


Another movie people think they grow out of, Jules and Jim, is also playing this week (at Film Forum). I definitely saw it in the height of my "I am a junior in high school yet so sophisticated beyond my years I rent from the 'foreign' section of Blockbuster" phase, enjoyed it enough, and proceeded on with my life, remembering mainly how cute Jules is, how nice Catherine's stripey outfit is, and how charming their happy bike expeditions seem compared with the "dull" adult-y business of love and jealousy and death the fills the film's last half. Kids who watch it, though, miss the crushing, inexorable (<-this is my favorite word, have you noticed?) force of history, which makes this a film as much about people before/in/after a war as it is a film about people falling in and out of love.
Truffaut also makes Jeanne Moreau's character marvelously weird; you can't LIKE her, you can't HATE her, you can't sympathize with her, really, but you can't blame her for anything, either. Casting her really makes the movie because, as always, she doesn't bowl you over with her beauty but she does have the precise sphinx-like quality that the part demands.
Further of note: sick Georges Delerue score, killer theme song, lightness of tone and deliriousness of cinematography that mask the film's depth.
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In other news, my parents presented me with a garlic press and I'm really, really bummed to say that the naysayers are right: way not as great as you might think.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

All of them witches: some great traffic with evil forces

I've just finished a fantastic book, Joris-Karl Huysmans's La-Bas (translated on my Penguin Classics edition as "The Damned," but I'm pretty sure the new crisp New York Review of Books edition goes by "Down There"). It's a fin de siecle novel about several different things: a man writing a biography of Gilles de Rais and his struggle, as an author, to understand the mind of a long-gone age while cobbling together archival sources; ideas about faith and evil and the fate of modern man; sketchy matters of the heart; delicious food; and, you know, Black Masses and all. Huysmans can write a stunning sentence, and his character de Hermies's monologue on dust may be the best thing ever written on the subject.

So then I was thinking about witches, and since about the most exciting thing doing at the library is a busted microfiche carrier, I thought I'd offer an annotated list great witch-y cultural moments, in no particular order.

1. Black Sabbath-Black Sabbath


DUH. There are songs about witches and witchcraft, but nothing seems as genuinely, terrifyingly ensorcelled as this (although I advise you all to seek out the EVEN SLOWER version of "Black Sabbath" from their Peel session).

2. Lolly Willowes-Sylvia Townsend Warner


A quaint, deft 1920s or 30s feminist novel about a spinster who escapes her awful family and massively boring lot in life to move out to the country and find herself in a village which (spoiler whatever), we come to learn, is peopled by folks who traffick with Satan. This books takes care of the "relatively cute herbal tea-type witch" entry for today.

3. Wide Sargasso Sea-Jean Rhys

In this literary classic, the amazing Ms. Rhys relocates her usual preoccupations (female sexuality and death, Britain and its relationship to the colonies, how those 2 relationships are sometimes similar, you know) to the Carribbean, where a vibrant young woman morphs into, well, the "madwoman in the attic." Voodoo is crucial. For more New World hijinks see the J-FIC novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a favorite of mine ca. 1994.

wait, why am I talking about books?

4. Day of Wrath (d. Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Everyone's favorite film textbook author David Bordwell has a nice essay about this film's ambiguities on his website , in which he points out the peculiarity of the film's narrative structure. One expects to sympathize with two women accused (unjustly, you think) of witchcraft--but then, one realizes that Dreyer has left open the question of whether, indeed, the two women possess otherwordly powers. More female sexuality/power-type themes prevail, alongside Dreyer's typically penetrating questions about faith and mind-blowing b&w cinematography.

5. The Devils (d. Ken Russell)

Abject insanity, based on the no-less insane true incident of the "possession" of an Ursuline convent at Loudon, France, with Oliver Reed playing a decent if all-too-human bishop and Vanessa Redgrave as the crippled nun whose lust for him, combined with medieval French political intrigue, naturally leads to a grand-scale scene of masturbating nuns, a lengthy burning at the stake sequence, and this crazed hippie-looking witch expert who is seriously one of the weirdest minor characters of cinema. A Czech move I've been aching to see, Mother Joan of the Angels tells the same story.

6.Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm (d.Michael Reeves)

This movie--not a Hammer film, but very much in the Hammer Films mode, with gratuitous nudity, cut-rate Middle Ages costumes and sets, and Vincent Price--actually disappointed, but has an interesting, politicized take on witch hunts, and hey, Vincent Price stars as true-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins (read his 1647 treatise "The Discovery of Witches") and there's gratuitous nudity.

7.The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (d. Raoul Ruiz)

Not properly about witches but rather about sinister worship, this completely BEWITCHING, Borgesian film pieces together a puzzle concerning a ritual that may be depicted in the last in a series of several paintings--which is missing, stolen, or may never have existed. An supercilious intellectual and an unseen narrator attempt to untangle the story for you, via a series of tableaux vivantes portraying the extant paintings, which the camera explores and in which you're supposed to find clues. Its intellectual view of the darker side of things reminds one of the aforementioned La Bas. Totally great.

8. The Holy Mountain (d. Alejandro Jodorowsky)

Apparently Jodorowsky himself has legitimately mastered the tarot and has cred in the circles who deal with these things. In this movie, he plays a sorcerer-seer-drug addled film director,etc., flanked by naked babes with kabbalistic symbols tattooed on their bodies and leopards, who can quite literally turn shit into gold. More on Jodorowsky after I go to see El Topo tomorrow.

9.
Thinking about Endora from "Bewitched" reminded me of this bizarre, oft-overlooked Bible story in 1 Samuel 28, when a terrified, depressed, and crazed King Saul (who has banned the practice of magic) sneaks off to Endor to get a witch to summon the wrathful spirit of the late prophet Samuel. The part in the King James trans. when the witch says "I saw gods ascending out of the earth" is one of those terse, chilling moments that make the O.T. a pretty good read. I imagine a cinematic recreation of this would sort of resemble the brief, affecting scene with the medium in Rashomon.

10. Rosemary's Baby (d. Roman Polanski)

While there are plenty of witches I would love to talk about (how many nightmares did you have about Ursula from The Little Mermaid? How astonishing is that medieval mechanical hell in the beginning of Haxan? How many British folk-rock bands sang creepy ballads about witches? Will I ever find out what happens in the last 5 minutes of Black Sunday or will I be interrupted every time?) let's end at home in New York. A few thoughts: my mom is particularly fond of the part when Ruth Gordon gets angry at someone for spoiling her floor by throwing a knife at it; the poor man's muppet Satan is one of the least scary beasts ever to appear in a movie; the thought of witches living on the Upper West Side sort of redeems that neighborhood in my mind. I love this movie.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

World's Greatest Lunch

To be fair, although in real life I talk about food incessantly, this blog post is inspired by Dark Forces Swing, the excellently-written and totally intelligent blog about music, movies, and snax, written by this person Hank whose hand I think I shook once, and whose hand I would shake again, for his blog introduced me to taquitos , the greatest thing on the internet since Corey Cryer decided to produce a blog.

ANYWAY. The world's greatest lunch is the whole wheat bagel with tofu spread and tomato, what we in this parts sometimes refer to, modestly, as "the talya," since I have probably consumed at least 500 of these things.



I hope never to learn precisely how many calories this giant among lunches contains, although rest assured tofu spread cannot be good for you (as far as I can tell it mainly consists of severely mashed up tofu and oil). That's ok for two reasons, though: one, one deludes oneself that the whole wheat of the bagel provides a healthy counterbalance (I also don't care if that is really true). Two, part of the point of downing this shit is that it FILLS YOU UP, for no more than $2.75 or $3.25 usually. You can go for hours, sometimes a whole day, on a ww/ts/t sandwich without feeling the weird lethargy you sometimes feel after scarfing any other kind of bagel sandwich. The tomato contributes in that respect, I think, and also adds the necessary juice and flavor otherwise totally lacking from this sandwich. Somehow, the individual ingredients which might seem, honestly, kind of gross on their own (the tomatoes in bagel joints seldom excite), combine to create THE BEST LUNCH IN THE WORLD.

If you want to get excessive, Murray's Bagels on 6th Ave and 12th St. has WHOLE WHEAT EVERYTHING BAGELS, which I usually avoid just so I can make them a treat for bad days.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Conformist/Consumption Stymied



For some ridiculous reason, I have not seen a movie in an eon (thanks for nothing, school. Today, though, the New York Times DVD New Release column informs me that, at long last, Bertolucci's The Conformist has made it to DVD.
There are movies I describe as "the greatest thing ever," and there are movies I go to see twice in the theater in the span of less than a week, dragging a friend along the second time because I need someone to bear witness, with me, to something that reaffirms what cinema can do. The Conformist, for me, falls in the latter category.
Hopefully you saw it when it showed for a million years at Film Forum two summers ago, but in case you didn't, run out and rent it today. Few movies I've seen manage to capture the grotesque comedy of, well, human existence the way The Conformist does, blending surreal, dreamy scenes with moments of gut-wrenching, inexorable horror, portraying the stupidity of romance as well as it does the terrible idiocy of Fascism. I guess I should say, it's about a man, Jean-Louis Trintignant (who acts with this sort of laconic proto-Bill Murray demeanor that seems sort of scarily appropriate for the character he plays) so afraid of certain repressed tendencies and memories that he joins the secret police in Fascist Italy and gets sent to assassinate an old college professor in Paris. The film asks not just "what makes someone a Fascist?" but things like "what makes a person's character shallow or deep?" and does so with peculiar, unforgettable imagery (Trintignant's insane father looking like a Greek philosopher, swaddled in a blanket outside an asylum; Trintignant's seduction of his beautiful wife in a train car lit by a sunset as she describes her seduction by a dirty old uncle; I could sort of go on like this for a while).
Anyway, see it.
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As far as consumption goes, things have been bleak due to the onset of consumption season, its attendant soundtrack of indie-rockified Christmas songs, and this overwhelming dull sense I get sometimes, usually at the record store but lately everywhere, when I find myself perplexed and disappointed at my inability to find anything I want, that forces me to question if, in fact, I like ANYTHING at all; this naturally leads to a creeping malaise and I wonder, if everyone else can blithely find things they want and expend hard-earned cash on them, what's my damage?
I did get a few birthday records, and a sweater from that store UNIQLO whose tiers of impeccably-folded sweaters, any of which would be as good as another, all equally desirable and undesirable, probably precipitated this silly (ignorant?) state I'm in.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Fans of non-ignorant art forms, take note

Although letsgetignorant attempts to focus heavily on me me me, I make an exception today, since I am near-gleeful about this bit of good news.
Imagine my utter delight to open nytimes.com this morning when I should have been finishing a bibliography due a month ago and see a photograph of the stretching form of my dear and talented friend and former roommate of a million years, Ms. Ana Keilson!



(Front row center.)

In addition to having her picture in the paper, Ms. Ana deserves congratulations for getting in with this amazingly prestigious Bill T. Jones company and for the rave review (I think? I don't know anything, not a thing, about dance) that accompanies this nice picture. So, if I have any readers who happen to be wealthy dance fans, probably you should go see this.

Monday, December 04, 2006

1980s American Movies: A List


Nothing quite matches the sensation of looking away from your computer for a second and abruptly realizing you have been working for hours (and haven't realized it) and that, wow, suddenly your paper on the contentious issue of Library of Congress Subject Headings has filled 11 pages long and while you have not particularly made an argument yet have SO many more thoughts on the issue, you can perhaps wrap things up soon. I reward myself with a nice bowl of oatmeal (query: how do they make quick oats quicker than other oats?) and, you know, a blog post.
So, I forget when or why, but on the subway a while ago Ben and I decided to make TOP 10 (NORTH) AMERICAN MOVIES OF THE 1980s lists. Here's my "provisional" list, which I have a few questions about:
1. Do the Right Thing
(next in no real order)
Down by Law
The Empire Strikes Back
Raging Bull
Sherman's March
Videodrome (Canadian)
Paris, Texas (note: financed by foreigners but whatever)
Blue Velvet
Evil Dead
Hoosiers

So, the first problem goes as follows: is Evil Dead in fact superior to Evil Dead 2? I'm not sure!
Next, I have some trouble figuring out the story with world cinema in the 1980s. A quick scan of Palme d'Or winners reveals nothing spectacular; all I can think of, really, is the Hong Kong action scene, which I would like to investigate further, and Eric Rohmer, whom I would not. Maybe the whole Kiarostami/Makhmalbaf situation started in Iran? Or was that not til the early '90s?
Also, the '80s present a weird problem because so many all-time favorites that aren't necessarily, you know, "good," come from that decade (it pains me a little to omit O.C. and Stiggs and Repo Man). I know some dudes would go all out and say, ok, well a top 1980s movies list made by someone born in 1983 really demands the inclusion of Ferris Bueller or some such, but does it? What else am I forgetting?
Last, Woody Allen made some wonderful things in the 1980s, I think, and I have a hard time remembering which ones I prefer. JEWS: let's go see The Purple Rose of Cairo on Christmas (AND, shit, Walkabout) at Film Forum on Christmas, ok?