Thursday, August 28, 2008


[Editor's Note: This review is part of the Bosomania!: The Sex, the Violence, and the Vocabulary of Russ Meyer feature at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.]

In Mudhoney’s gallery of rural grotesques, none is more grotesque than Sidney Brenshaw. Amid toothless madams, popeyed rubes and limping preachers (whose physical perversions are emphasized in a series of wide-angle close-ups), no one quite compares to Brenshaw. As played by Hal Hopper, his leather face continually (and unnaturally) contorted into an oily hee-haw laugh or twisted into high-pitched howls of rage, Brenshaw makes for a suitably outrageous villain. Drunkenly swaying about town in a dirty suit and cowboy hat – and never seen without his bottle of corn liquor – he’s a man of pure libido, working his tongue slowly, horrifyingly across his lips whenever he gets aroused and then pouncing with jolting savagery onto any number of unsuspecting woman. If the film’s energy inevitably lags whenever Brenshaw’s absent from the action, his frequent onscreen presence ensures that the film rarely lacks for demonic force.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend Link Roundup

As the Summer draws to its (unofficial) close, there seems to be little in the way of worthy cinematic offerings hitting theaters over the next couple of weeks. Of the three films I've reviewed lately for Slant Magazine, I can't in good conscience recommend any. Opening this weekend in New York is Takashi Miike's spaghetti western pastiche, Sukiyaki Western Django while Claude Miller's irrelevant Holocaust film A Secret and Robert Cary's intriguing but disappointing Save Me open the following week. New York moviegoers would be better advised to take in the new digital restoration of Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath at the IFC Center or catch up with Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man at the Angelika.

Links to the reviews are below:

August 29
Sukiyaki Western Django

September 5
Save Me
A Secret

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Romance of Astrée and Céladon

In his Village Voice review J. Hoberman writes that Eric Rohmer's latest film, the 5th-century set The Romance of Astrée and Céladon "feel[s]... oddly contemporary," but for me much of the film's appeal is just how foreign it seems to a modern sensibility. Adapted from Honoré d'Urfé's 17th-century pastoral novel, the film not only transports us to a world of nymphs and druids and vast swaths of unspoiled land - which Rohmer films in a kind of quiet, contemplative rapture - but to a seemingly antiquated moral universe (although perfectly in keeping with the director's Catholic conservatism) in which love is capable of effecting true spiritual union and the love-play of the young consists primarily in a series of exaggeratedly romantic gestures.

In fact it's just such an exaggerated gesture that sets the film's narrative in motion. When Astrée (Stéphanie Crayencour), in a moment of pique, forbids her lover Céladon (Andy Gillet) from ever seeing her again, the young man immediately announces his attention to drown himself and proceeds to jump into the nearest river. Surviving his suicide attempt and determined to uphold the letter of his lover's law, he skulks about the outskirts of the country, spurning human interaction, forbidding himself to come into contact with his beloved. Astrée, for her part, believes Céladon to be dead and spends much of the film pining away for her absent beau.

For a film that spends so much time keeping its lovers apart, Romance brims over with a joyousness at the prospect of an unspoiled romantic consummation, a concept that Rohmer treats with dead seriousness and is unafraid to depict in lovingly sensuous terms. When Céladon stumbles across a sleeping Astrée, his eyes - and Rohmer's camera - move down over her exposed thigh, the whole thing played off with soft, bright lighting, granting the scene a sense of spiritual/erotic rapture. Then the two moments of embrace between the lovers - the first in flashback, the second the film's final reconciliation in which Céladon, disguised in drag, reveals himself to Astrée and the two come together in a gender-blurred finale - are unusually intimate, eschewing the measured precision that dulls most on-screen kisses. As Dan Callahan notes, the lover's embrace is "so private that it's almost embarrassing to watch." Embarrassing, perhaps, but undeniably moving.

Rohmer adds some gravitas to the otherwise joyous proceedings by intercutting a pair of moral/theological lectures into the narrative. In the first of these interludes, a druid priest gives Céladon a lesson in Celtic religion, which sounds surprisingly like a Catholic priest explaining the Trinity. Whereas Céladon believed that the different "minor gods" worshiped by the Celts were unique entities, the priest explains that they are all really just aspects of the one true God. While this segment seems to have little purpose apart from serving as further elucidation of the director's rather doctrinaire beliefs, another interpolated sequence - a disquisition on the coming together of two souls in romantic unity - seems more to the point. The discussion plays out as a debate between a committed couple of young lovers (Céladon's brother and his wife) and a debauched (and insufferably irritating) dandy who sings the praises of bodily pleasures and multiple partners. Rohmer may, as Akiva Gottlieb notes, "stack the deck in favor of his moral conservatism" by putting the dissenting argument in the mouth of an obvious "buffoon" but to insist on a nuanced dialectic is to miss the point. It may be difficult to accept such a seemingly outmoded romantic ethos, but Rohmer's commitment to presenting a moral universe in which a spiritual (as well as sensual) consummation is achievable should not be taken lightly. When Astrée and Céladon finally join together at film's end, the director's prior establishment of the intellectual grounding for their union provides an added emotional weight to the long hoped-for coupling. Accepting Rohmer's world on its own terms, we, along with the young lovers, are granted a taste of the sublime.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Mixed Bag: Henry Poole is Here and Hamlet 2

While Mark Pellington's loathsome Henry Poole is Here opens in New York this weekend - offending non-believing viewers by denying them any intellectual ground to stand on and offending everyone through its sheer inanity - next weekend brings better tidings in the form of Andrew Fleming's moderately successful comedy Hamlet 2, a film that gets great mileage out of Steve Coogan's lead performance.

Please click on the titles to read the reviews.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Man on Wire

For the jaded viewer, James Marsh's Man on Wire should feel doubly refreshing. It's a film about the Twin Towers with nary a mention of their demise (even if the specter of 9/11 inevitably hovers over the proceedings) and it's a documentary that actually seems concerned with establishing a coherent visual program, thus setting the film apart from much of its aesthetically indifferent brethren. Then, too, Marsh has the advantage of a wildly charismatic subject - tightrope walker (or as one bewildered-admiring cop puts it, "tightrope dancer - because you can't really call what he does walking") Philippe Petit, whose firsthand testimony is wisely granted pride-of-place in the proceedings.

Marsh relates the story of his subject - a Frenchman who felt compelled to conquer the Twin Towers since he first heard rumors of their construction (in his case, the conquering consisting of setting up a tightrope between the buildings and walking repeatedly back and forth) - through the usual assortment of talking heads, archival footage and reenactments. But invested in a certain commitment to visual variety, Marsh stages his reenactments in marked contrast to the archival segments. While the footage of Petit and his friends making their preparations is full of joyous optimism and shot on grainy color stock, the reenactments, which detail the nuts and bolts of the procedure - gaining access to the Towers, dodging security, setting up the wires - use crisp black-and-white photography to create a shadow-drenched atmosphere of perpetual danger and ramp up the narrative interest in a story whose conclusion is, after all, known to the viewer beforehand. When it's time for the actual performance atop the Towers, Marsh relies on neither reenactment nor archival video, instead intercutting interview segments with Petit's two closest colleagues, both moved to tears by their recollections, and a series of still photographs of the highwire act itself. Set to Michael Nyman's rousing score (repeated from a series of Peter Greenaway films, the subject of a small controversy stirred up by Godfrey Cheshire), the film's climax is nicely understated even as it threatens to bust open with raw feeling.

But for all Marsh's shrewd aesthetic calculations, there's little doubt that this show belongs to its central subject. Now in his late 50s, his blond-red shag faded into a dull yellow, Petit's palpable enthusiasm shows no sign of waning and as he situates his greatest accomplishment in the context of a lifelong yearning to "live on the edge" - the occasional arrogance of his speech offset by a sense of genuine conviction - his mission takes on the feeling of inevitability, even as the film is careful to show all the ways in which his Tower walk nearly resulted in failure at just about every turn. What we have here is a man creating his own mythology on camera - always an exercise that runs a high risk of viewer alienation - but given Petit's unshakable fervor, his great good humor and the sheer wonder and beauty of his enterprise, there's really little reason for the enchanted viewer to call Petit's account into any kind of question.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Pineapple Express

Among its achievements, Pineapple Express makes explicit much of the underlying homoeroticism inherent in the buddy movie. While films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hide the latent gayness of its central relationship beneath a carefully calculated surface of good-natured hetero tomfoolery (with female love interests as decoys), David Gordon Green's film places these concerns front and center. Which isn't to say that either of its principal characters is signified as gay—indeed Dale (Seth Rogen) is given an 18-year-old girlfriend while his drug dealer, Saul (a pitch-perfect James Franco), waxes poetic about "sucking on titties"—but through a series of increasingly unmistakable double entendres and a warm-hearted camaraderie whose occasionally crude guy-speak can't hide an underlying tenderness, the film brings to the fore the tacit assumptions of the buddy movie and winds up offering a useful critique of the genre.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to Slant Magazine.

Radical Alternatives: Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

An alternative history of the United States as seen through its monuments and memorials, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is at once an eloquent tribute to the oppositional figures (both the house-hold names and the anonymous toilers) who helped shape the country's authentic history and a lament for a time when such genuine opposition was possible. Taking his inspiration from Howard Zinn's perennial favorite A People's History of the United States, director John Gianvito travels around the country filming the gravesites of Zinn's canon of heroic American figures, along with plaques commemorating strikes, uprisings, and massacres. Lacking narration, the film's text consists entirely of the words etched on the commemorative signage, the plaques' writing constituting a corrective to the selective amnesia that eliminates scores of important figures and events from the historical record.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to The House Next Door.