Sunday, December 27, 2009

First Run Films Seen 2009

Here it is, the final tally: a list of all the films I saw this year that had their New York theatrical debut between January 1 and December 31, 2009 and played for at least a week (sorry Frontier of Dawn). Links to reviews follow where applicable.

24 City
35 Shots of Rum
(500) Days of Summer
The Blind Side
The Box
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Bright Star
Broken Embraces
The Brothers Bloom
The Girlfriend Experience
Julie and Julia
The Limits of Control
Lorna's Silence
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
The Lovely Bones
Made in U.S.A.
Me and Orson Welles
Medicine for Melancholy
Mock Up on Mu
Owl and the Sparrow
Paper Heart
A Perfect Getaway
Police, Adjective
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire
Public Enemies
Quiet Chaos
Rembrandt's J'accuse
Shall We Kiss?
Sherlock Holmes
Somers Town
Summer Hours
The Sun
Taking Woodstock
Two Lovers
Up in the Air
Walt and El Grupo
We Pedal Uphill
The Wedding Song
Where is Where?
Where the Wild Things Are
The White Ribbon
The Windmill Movie
The Window
You, The Living
The Young Victoria

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"One of Those Navel Gazers": On Critical Objectivity

In response to a recent review I wrote of Police, Adjective for Slant Magazine, a film for which I had a good deal of admiration, but ultimately found to be unsuccessful, I received, via my editor, the following e-mail from a disapproving reader:

Schenker's review is one of those naval gazers where the reviewers own attitudes toward the subject and disagreement with the film makers point of view causes him to wander way off the review reservation. Please remind Schenker a review is not about his agreement or disagreement with the directors philosophy, but to simply communicate the philosophy as well as the quality of the film making and acting.

Setting aside the writer’s obvious grammatical and syntactical infelicities and his vague notion of what constitutes a filmmaker’s “philosophy”, the response raises an interesting set of questions. Now whether or not my objections to Corneliu Porumboiu’s film were based on issues I had with his personal worldview is one that any reader can judge for himself by clicking on the link at the top of the page. (Personally, I think I objected more to the filmmaker’s methods, finding the way in which he shoehorned in a linguistic discussion at the movie's climax – despite the obvious precedents – far too academic). But is it in fact possible, or even desirable, for a critic to take issue with a film’s attitude toward its subject matter? Or must he try to remain as detached as possible and praise good work even if he disagrees with its fundamental premises?

First of all, I think we have to say that it’s useless to assume a stance of critical objectivity, since reviewers (like everyone) can only view work through their own specific worldview, colored as it is by their unique biases. But even if such objectivity were possible, would it not be harmful for a critic to overlook the assumptions (political, social, cultural) put forth by a potentially damaging piece of work? To use only the most obvious example, debate has long centered on the movies of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker who fashioned such works of pro-Hitler propaganda as Triumph of the Will. Can we separate Riefenstahl’s technical achievement from its nefarious politics? Many would say yes, including, most famously, a young Susan Sontag who wrote, specifically referencing Riefenstahl’s films, “we can, in good conscience cherish works of art which, considered in terms of ‘content’ are morally objectionable to us”. But Sontag came to re-think her approach, rejecting the separation of form and content that made her previous assertion possible and realizing that it’s useless to speak of “grace” and “sensuousness” in films that exist to assert fascistic control both aesthetically and through their subject matter. But it was perhaps the late, lamented Robin Wood, a tireless champion of films progressive in their treatment of social and sexual politics, who put it best:

The alleged beauty of Triumph of the Will is a fascist beauty, centered on dehumanization, mechanization, the drive to domination, militarism. If one does not succumb to the fascist lure, one can only find the film uniformly boring and repellent.

But surely everyone can agree that the Nazis were evil. What do we do about less extreme examples, films that either espouse a political view different from that of the reviewer (but one acceptable to mainstream discourse) or whose general way of looking at the world the critic finds difficult to accept? This is a particularly sticky issue, but one that can best be resolved by setting aside notions of strict objectivity. As a critic, I can only write about a film from my own unique perspective (as anyone who sees a film can only form an opinion on the work based on their own biases, whether they like to admit it or not) and if a movie espouses a conservative political position or a juvenile cynicism about the world, I am probably unlikely to accept it.

Fortunately, in my experience, a conservative worldview often leads to an aesthetically conservative piece of work which means that films partaking of such questionable stances are less likely to be of interest. But what about a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, a fiendishly clever director with a strong visual sense whose films trade in an adolescent understanding of life and rarely engage with any kind of world outside that of popular culture. Even when drawing on a period setting as Tarantino does in Inglourious Basterds, he simply uses the historical background as a means of putting forth his vile revenge fantasy. Yes, he may cleverly assert the power of movies to bring about a form of wish fulfillment, but this alternate history posited by Tarantino is little more than a reverse (and perverse) re-write of the Second World War in which Jews perpetrate the filmmaker’s trademark cynically humorous violence and Hitler burns to a crisp in a French cinema. So given my obvious distaste for Inglourious Basterds’ basic assumptions, if I were to review the film (I have not done so), should the gist of my review be that Tarantino cleverly achieves his ends and that the camerawork and acting are great? Hardly. It’s not so easy to tear apart form and content. Tarantino’s stylish flair is placed in service of a point of view I find repellent. His own filmmaking prowess (form) serves strictly to illustrate his film’s essential content (the positive power of film to change the course of history, i.e. exact bloody retribution). So how could any review I write of the film not address its fundamental worldview and discuss its form in those same terms. It couldn’t, but then again, what do I know? I’m just a navel gazer.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Year-End Polls and New Releases

Late December can only mean one thing in the world of film journalism: the annual proliferation of year-end lists and polls. The latest of these rankings to seek my participation are the Village Voice's annual survey (click here for my ballot) and The L Magazine's composite top 20 list (for which I contributed blurbs of numbers 16 and 18 and Independencia in the runner up section). Also for The L Magazine, I reviewed Terry Gilliam's latest The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, while Slant has re-posted my consideration of Police, Adjective, written during that film's run at the New York Film Festival.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mid-Award Season Roundup

Amidst the doldrums of the award season (biggest groaners: The Lovely Bones and Invictus), a few bright spots emerge - most notably Francis Ozon's flying-baby drama Ricky and A Town Called Panic, a madcap Belgian stop-motion whatsit.

A Single Man (Slant)
A Town Called Panic (Slant)
Ricky (The L Magazine)
Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (Village Voice)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Slant Magazine: Best of 2009

Slant Magazine's year end feature has now been posted. This year, we've opted for a composite top 25, drawing on the favorite films of seven critics. It was gratifying to see all of my top 10 make the final list (and all but one would have made it even without my vote). Never mind the naysayers, this was an exceptionally strong year in films (to echo Nick Schager's opening salvo) and despite my dislike for two of the top vote getters (A Serious Man and Inglourious Basterds), I think our selection really gives a sense of the diversity and richness of the last twelve months' offerings. I contributed blurbs for numbers 21, 15, 12 and 6. My complete list (along with honorable mentions) can be found on page 4.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Lovely Bones

If nothing else, Peter Jackson’s absurdly overwrought The Lovely Bones makes fellow award-season hopeful A Single Man look restrained by comparison. No mean feat, since Tom Ford’s film wraps its narrative of the last day in the life of a gay professor living in early ‘60s Los Angeles in so much aesthetic puffery that its characters are nearly swallowed whole. But after the first half-hour or so, Ford eases up just enough on the symbolic imagery and impressionistic montages to allow a finely etched story to emerge. First time director Ford seems determined to prove he’s an artist. The irony is that he is, but only when he doesn’t feel the need to insist on it.

The same can’t be said about Peter Jackson, or at least the Peter Jackson of 2009. As if unable to scale down from the epic heights of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Jackson’s approach to the human elements that his adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel demands is to bathe them in so much horseshit sentiment and dubiously manipulative montage that the inattentive viewer may just miss the gaps in the story and the hollowness of the project. Certainly the audience at the New York premiere – who rated an in-house Jackson a thunderous round of applause – seemed taken in, but then I guess it’s hard to resist endless beatific close-ups of 15-year old Saorise Ronan’s face, especially when they serve (vulgarly, pulingly) to emphasize the tragedy of her character’s untimely murder.

Yes, for those who don’t know the story, high school freshmen Susie Salmon (Ronan) is slain in her Philadelphia suburb by an underimagined generic creep of a neighbor, then spends the rest of the film in a CGI-purgatory where she has some vague communication with the living and tries to set things right, first through a thirst for vengeance and then by an acceptance of circumstance. Much of the film’s problems stem from the difficulty of crafting a narrative that simultaneously takes place on two planes of existence. Even as most of the action unfolds in the world of the living, Jackson needs to keep cutting back to the afterlife since that’s where his main character resides. Unfortunately, he does a poor job of defining Susie’s relationship to her former world. She’s able to appear to relatives and influence them to some degree, but after filling her father with an initial desire for vengeance and then providing him with a change of heart, she seems to have little active effect on the living, so the filmmakers just leave her in her purgatory, marking time until events resolve themselves.

The constant shifting between two worlds means that Jackson has to rely heavily on parallel editing –and The Lovely Bones has more cross-cutting than a D.W. Griffith festival – but in two sequences he uses the technique to particularly dubious effect. During the murder sequence, as Susie’s killer lures her to his underground lair, Jackson cuts back to the girl’s family sitting nervously down to the dinner table waiting for her to return, the filmmaker milking every ounce of sentiment and wait-for-it horror from his lurid set-up. Then, in a later sequence, he cuts between Susie watching from her perch in the afterlife and the murderer pushing a safe with her remains to a dump site. Relying heavily on slow-motion shots, Jackson elongates time, turning the dumping into an epic ordeal which, coupled with the slather of strings on the soundtrack, serves to signify rather than illustrate the high drama supposedly being enacted.

But even as these two moments are clearly singled out for their central importance, the whole film is basically pitched at the same level of dramatic intensity. Every scene is marked by a swirl of strings, slo-mo camerawork or at the very least, pointlessly dizzyingly cutting. In fact, following the picture’s one misguided bit of comic relief – an out-of-nowhere sequence in which poor Susan Sarandon is forced to play the sassy, boozy older woman – roughly half-way through, there really are no lulls in the film, the whole thing achieving a uniform level of aesthetic oversaturation that continually converts the narrative’s excessive morbidity into easy sentiment. Jackson seems at home only when crafting his, admittedly impressive, CGI-afterworld and when staging one late suspense sequence in which Susie’s sister moronically enters the killer’s house to poke around only for the killer to return midway through. But when it comes to handling the more conventional aspects of his soapy narrative, such as dealing with his characters, he seems either uninterested in or unequal to the task, falling back on both his technical expertise and a tendency to shoot for the audience’s basest emotions through his unabashed taste for mush. You would think any viewer so disrespected by a director would be ready to wring his neck should he dare, as Jackson did at the premiere, to parade himself in front of the audience. But instead they toasted him as the Hollywood royalty he is and went on with their evening, another bit of disposable entertainment safely consumed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Post-Thanksgiving Roundup

My latest batch of reviews covers a few (somewhat) high-profile misfires and some lower-profile gems. And some low-profile misfires as well. The highlight is probably Film Ist: A Girl and a Gun, the third part of Gustav Deutsch's series of found-footage films, which has a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives.

Me and Orson Welles (Slant)
The Last Station (Slant)
Loot (Slant)
Home (Village Voice)
Before Tomorrow (Village Voice)
Film Ist: A Girl and a Gun (The L Magazine)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New Releases: The Missing Person, Defamation and My Dear Enemy

This week's reviews cover a flawed, if ambitious post-9/11 neo noir (The Missing Person), a provocative look at anti-Semitism and its uses (Defamation) and a Korean post-economic collapse urban odyssey/romance (My Dear Enemy). Read accordingly.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

In the director’s statement included in the press packet for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, filmmaker Werner Herzog attempts to distance his film from its nominal source, Abel Ferrara’s 1992 classic Bad Lieutenant, defiantly challenging “film theoreticians” to locate parallels between the two works. “Go for it, losers,” he hisses. But actually comparison between the films can only work in favor of Herzog’s movie, which in so much as it has a relationship with Ferrara’s, serves as a refreshing deflator to the earlier movie’s look-at-me unpleasantness and self-serious religiosity. Whereas in the Ferrara, Harvey Keitel’s cop effects a new low in cinematic sexual humiliation, the far suppler parallel scene in Herzog finds the woman at least partially turning the tables on Nicholas Cage’s officer. And in an alteration that perfectly differentiates the sensibilities of the two directors, while Keitel's drug-addled anti-hero hallucinates Jesus, Cage's dreams up iguanas. On the whole, I prefer the latter.

As a nutso portrait of a cop living on the margins of functionality, Port of Call is all about its lead’s central performance. With his adenoidal junk-sick voice channeling Nixon by way of Frank Langella, his slumped posture and his propensity for insanely hammy outbursts, Cage is in full Cage mode, delivering his most invitingly over-the-top performance since he believed he was one of the undead in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss. Jetting around a wrecked post-Katrina New Orleans, Cage’s bad cop Terence McDonagh chases down the drug dealer responsible for a gangland style takeout of a rival, but he spends just as much time smoking crack lifted from the precinct’s prop room, ducking his gambling debts or bedding down with his call girl girlfriend. Soon the degree of his moral involvement becomes confused, as he strikes up a tentative business arrangement with the perp, his final intentions remaining largely unclear, even after he’s already acted on them.

“When is the audience allowed to laugh at a serious movie?” Jessica Winter began her Film Comment review of Port of Call by wondering, and it’s an important question to ask here, since much of the film seems deliberately pitched as comedy. As Winter points out, the screenplay is rife with actual punchlines, but beyond that, the very conception of character dreamed up by Herzog and Cage seems to be one in tune with a deliriously comic sensibility. Which is not to say that all this comedy negates the seriousness of the project. It is, after all, a humor borne of a hellish personal torment and Cage sells the torment as much as the deliriousness, but it’s the latter tendency that tends to dominate. Factor in some classic bits of Herzog surreality (a room-clearing shootout set to the closing theme from Stroszek, all those reptiles) and the film is more furiously exhilarating than it has any right to be. Only a puzzler of an ending in which, initially, everything seems to resolve itself too perfectly, seems to miss the mark, until we realize that the film’s perspective is tied to the unstable personality of its central character and that we can’t take everything we see too literally. It’s out of this shifting, unreliable world - which is also the world of early 21st century New Orleans - that Herzog has crafted his astonishing comedy of dissolution.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day Link Roundup

Two weeks of links covers a fair amount of territory, though not perhaps that much worth traversing. Highlights from recent reviews include Frederick Wiseman's latest look at institutional process, La Danse, and Scott Teems' southern feud drama That Evening Sun. Links below:

La Danse (Slant Magazine)
That Evening Sun (Slant Magazine)
Oh My God (Slant Magazine)
The End of Poverty? (Village Voice)
Dare (Village Voice)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

New Releases: Gentlemen Broncos, Storm and Turning Green

My latest reviews, all for Slant Magazine, cover a mixed bag of releases, among which the highest-profile (and arguably the worst) is Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess' latest assortment of weirdos arraigned for your (alleged) laughing pleasure, a monstrosity with the godawful title of Gentlemen Broncos. Hans-Christian Schmid's Storm, a legal thriller dealing with the aftermath of the Bosnian wars is a big step up from the Hess, but Turning Green , Michael Aimette and John G. Hofmann's Irish set comedy-drama is just as bad. Also up, a short piece on Roger Corman's The Raven at The L Magazine.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Vampire Week Round-Up

This week I reviewed not one, but two vampire flicks, Paul Weitz's Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant and Patrick McGuinn's gay-bloodsucker fantasia, Eulogy for a Vampire. But as much fun as the undead can be, audiences would be better off skipping the pair altogether and taking in Hong Sang-soo's Night and Day, catching up with Elia Kazan's 1960 masterpiece Wild River, playing in a week-long run at Film Forum, or Netflixing Shohei Imamura's new-to-DVD Black Rain. Also in review, The Wedding Song.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Serious Man and Capitalism: A Love Story

With A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers are at it again. I knew I wasn’t going to like this one when, ten minutes in, one of the filmmakers’ trademark rubes – this time a fat Jewish teacher’s assistant – waddles her way into a Hebrew school classroom. So we’re like, what, supposed to laugh? Amidst all the typical shtick, there’s something like a genuine moral inquiry here, but it’s hard to know just how serious to take it. Perhaps the Brothers’ blend of dark humor and investigation into man’s place in the universe just isn’t well suited to my sensibilities, but it’s hard to say exactly what the latter aims to accomplish in the face of the former’s cancelling cynicism. Michael Stuhlbarg’s hapless schlemiel, Larry Gopnik, is certainly an appealing enough creation, a non-hero trying to get access to an absent and very Jewish god when his 1967 suburban life goes to shit and the filmmakers’ evocation of a half-remembered, half-imagined Jewish community is a vivid bit of world creation. But what does it amount to? For all the Coen’s superficial creativity, theirs is ultimately a failure of imagination, an inability to see beyond their safely pessimistic boundaries. Not that pessimism is an invalid perspective, but to stack the universe so resolutely against its hero, so that the upshot of all his struggles is a terminal disease and a deadly tornado (in the film’s open-ended ending that’s not really open-ended), seems like the gesture of a frustrated adolescent, not a committed artist. And let’s not forget the film’s embarrassing low-point when an ancient rabbi delivers, not the words of wisdom expected from a man of his legend, but a few snippets of a Jefferson Airplane lyric. But I guess that should teach us how to take these filmmakers. You go in expecting revelation – or at least something more than cynical gags – and you emerge with nonsense.


A lot of people have criticized Michael Moore for giving us more of the same in Capitalism: A Love Story. I like to think he’s refined his approach. Which is to say, he’s mostly tossed out the stunts and kept to the facts - or at least the Michael Moore version of them. When he’s going good, as he frequently is here, the Roger and Me director is as skilled a rhetorician as there is working in film – playing stupid with his subjects, making pointed juxtapositions, or simply stacking available information in such a way to increase the impact of its presentation. Of course, he’s wildly unfair – and more than a little off-putting – but why shouldn’t he be? Someone has to counter the increasingly hysterical, increasingly mainstream voices of right-wing nutters who seem to get an awful lot of attention from the middle-of-the-road press. Still, Moore’s impact, especially now that he’s such a known quantity, is likely to be nil. He can be safely slotted into a harmless niche: you already know if you’re going to see his films or ignore them.

Capitalism is overlong, scattershot in its approach (why is he devoting so much time to the plight of airline pilots?), and covers material that’s already lost its freshness, but it’s also exhilarating. The film’s coverage of a Chicago factory sit-in, in which laid off workers simply refused to leave the building without their due concessions, is downright inspiring, although here Moore mostly effaces his own personality. In fact, this time around his trademark stunts are barely there (he tries to make a citizen’s arrest of leading financial figures and wraps the stock exchange in crime-scene tape) and they seem mostly like empty gestures, the filmmaker going through the motions. But that just allows him to spend more time outlining his central case against the capitalist system as it’s currently practiced as being antithetical to the ideals of democracy. Basically the achievement of Capitalism is to spell out the facts in such a way that they’re impossible to ignore. Nobody does it better than Moore.

Mid-October Link Roundup

Lots of time passed since the last roundup and lots of links in the interim. Not a whole bunch to recommend here, but some modest successes in the list (Trucker, Araya).

Trucker (Slant Magazine)
Adventures of Power (Slant Magazine)
New York, I Love You (Slant Magazine)
Food Beware (Slant Magazine)
Araya (Village Voice)
Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat (Village Voice)
Adela (Village Voice)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New York Film Festival: Independencia and Mother

My coverage of the 47th New York Film Festival comes to a close with two final reviews, both for the L Magazine. Independencia, one of the fest's highlights, is, as my editor described it, "a distributor-less postcolonial silent-film pastiche from the Phillipines," while Bong Joon-ho's latest genre-piece Mother is largely memorable for Kim Hye-ja's lead performance and a stunner of a finale.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

New York Film Festival: Around a Small Mountain and Ne Change Rien

My latest round of New York Film Festival reviews for Slant Magazine covers a pair of French language films, both thoroughly recommended. Around a Small Mountain isn't top shelf Rivette, but it's still one of the fest's more appealing entries, while Ne Change Rien finds Pedro Costa crafting a dazzlingly hypnotic film from singer Jeanne Balibar's rehearsals, recording sessions and performances.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New Releases: Where is Where? and The Horse Boy

For your consideration, a pair of films opening this week: Eija-Liisa Ahtila's split-screen art project, Where is Where? (reviewed at The Village Voice) and Rupert Isaacson's vanity project, The Horse Boy, about his quest to heal his son's autism (Slant). Neither is particularly recommended.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


What are the consequences of our culture’s increasing obsession with the video image, specifically the You Tube-style novelty clip and the more violent strands of pornography? Well, according to Antonio Campos’ thematically intriguing but fatally simplistic Afterschool, we have the perpetuation of bad behaviors learned from the video world, the blurring of the real and the virtual, a certain degree of moral numbness and, finally, a subversion of video (or film’s) truth-telling function by lying manipulations.

All of which may or may not be pretty heady stuff, but in Campos’ presentation, it breaks down into easy-to-digest thesis segments. Rob (Ezra Miller), a 10th grader at an elite prep school some miles outside of Manhattan, spends his time online watching porno or vid clips, while experiencing difficulty interacting with other students. His pent-up frustration comes out in occasional hot outbursts and frequent masturbatory sessions, but mostly he just walks around in silent passivity – a state mirrored by Campos’ awkwardly off-kilter framings which often leave the shot’s main subjects chopped-off by the screen’s edge. Since Rob can seemingly act only according to learned behaviors, when he finds himself in an intimate encounter with a young woman (while videotaping the whole thing, natch) he begins choking her - just like in! And when he’s faced with the film’s central tragedy, two girls dying in front of his eyes via coke overdose – also captured by the young man on video – he’s unable to react properly. Frozen at first in immobility, he only moves forward to helplessly observe, an extension of the camera’s passive function.

After the deaths, the film turns its attentions to the prep school’s official response, its misguided attempts to come to terms with the overdose. As put forth by an officious dean who verges on the parodic, this response consists of increased repression rather than any kind of emotional healing. (We also learn that the dean had repeatedly ignored warnings of the girl’s troubled behavior.) So, random room searches are instituted, the students are doped up on anti-depressants (an officially acceptable form of narcotic) and a memorial video is commissioned. Campos introduces this last development as a means of interrogating the role of video (and, by extension, film) as a device for recording truth – either on its simplest terms as a documentary function, or more importantly, as emotional truth. This second form of truth is brought into play when Rob concocts a memorial video that pays tribute to the young girls’ lives, but also gets at deeper ambiguities in the underlying set of circumstances. (This emotional truth is also, in theory, the type communicated by Campos’ film.) Naturally, the AV-advisor balks at his efforts – “it didn’t even have music,” he shouts in disbelief – and an uncontroversial, highly sentimentalized offering, which selectively edits out specific content from clips that we’ve already seen in their entirety, is substituted in its stead. In moments like these, it’s difficult to argue with the truth of what Campos is telling us, but it’s all too easy to object to the simplistic manner of its telling.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New York FIlm Festival: Sweet Rush and Police, Adjective

My second set of New York Film Festival reviews covers a pair of flawed titles from Eastern Europe. Polish legend Andrzej Wajda's Sweet Rush is slight, but enjoyable, while Romanian up-and-comer Corneliu Porumboiu's more ambitious Police, Adjective begins with promise, but gets fatally bogged down in its heady climactic sequence. Both links are to Slant Magazine.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Releases: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Irene in Time, In Search of Beethoven and Paradise

Amidst my ongoing New York Film Festival coverage (check back later in the week for more), I found time to review a few non-festival films. At Slant Magazine, I covered John Krasinski's David Foster Wallace adaptation Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Henry Jaglom's Irene in Time, at the Voice, the doc In Search of Beethoven and at The L Magazine, Michael Almereyda's scrapbook film, Paradise. Also up at The L, a short piece on Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang which screens tonight at BAM as part of the Juliette Binoche retrospective.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New York Film Festival: Wild Grass, Vincere and A Room and a Half

Slant Magazine's initial coverage of the 47th New York Film Festival has been posted. Among my contributions are reviews of the festival's opening night film, Alain Resnais' disappointing Wild Grass, Marco Bellocchio's skillful historical meditation, Vincere and A Room and a Half, Andrey Khrzhanovsky's fanciful look at the life of poet Joseph Brodsky. I also wrote the introduction for the feature.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New Releases: Fatal Promises and If One Thing Matters

In review this week are a pair of worthy docs, Kat Rohrer's sobering human trafficking exposé Fatal Promises, the occasion for my inaugural Village Voice contribution, and Heiko Kalmbach's portrait-of-the-artist If One Thing Matters: A Film About Wolfgang Tillmans, covered at Slant.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Saute Ma Ville

Like its more famous offspring, Jeanne Dielman’s precursor, the 1968 short Saute Ma Ville, locates a species of madness in the domestic rituals of female life. But whereas the eponymous heroine of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece at least initially seems to thrive on the order that these rituals provide, the younger heroine of the earlier film (as Akerman points out in an interview included, like Saute Ma Vie itself, on Criterion’s new DVD issue of Jeanne Dielman) seems determined from the start to smash them to bits. And yet the pattern in both films is the same: we see a woman go about the ordinary routines of domesticity, only to eventually detect cracks in the armor and to witness a final descent into violent aberration. That these fissures become apparent much quicker in Saute Ma Ville than Dielman is a tribute to the earlier film’s astonishing compression – 13 tightly packed minutes rather than the 3 1/2 equally necessary hours of the later work.

Actually for those familiar with Dielman, the differences to be encountered in Saute Ma Ville are apparent from the start. Beginning with several seconds of black leader over which we hear a few indecipherable rumblings in a high-pitched female voice, the film then opens on a rough black-and-white image of two drab high-rise apartments situated at the edge of a work zone. Panning across the rubble, DP René Fruchter then picks out another high-rise, this time much closer to the camera and tilts up the building. After a couple of more equally brief establishing shots, the rumblings return to the soundtrack, this time identifiable as the slightly cracked monosyllabic singing (“la la la la”) of a woman. Soon we see the woman herself (played by Akerman), a young brunette wearing a white hat, carrying a bundle of flowers and giddily entering one of the high-rise buildings.

Whereas for much of Dielman’s running time, everything in the daily life of its heroine is, at least superficially, structured and stable, in Saute Ma Ville, a certain sense of disorder is immediately registered. The 1975 film consists almost entirely of long, fixed shots that pin its characters to walls, parallel to the camera axis. By contrast, the 1968 short offers a much looser aesthetic, favoring a frequently moving hand-held camera, quick cuts and angled compositions to suggest a greater freedom of movement for its heroine. The disembodied voice on the soundtrack, which continues its singing intermittently throughout the film and which, although never identified as such, is easily taken to belong to the woman on-screen, hints from the beginning at a latent madness in the character, both through the maniacal quality of the vocalizing and through the dissociation of personality suggested by the audio/visual split.

Still if Saute Ma Ville’s aesthetic looseness (vis-à-vis Dielman) implies a greater mobility for its heroine, it’s more an emotional/spiritual freedom than a physical one. Although we’re granted a far less comprehensive understanding of her daily life, and although she’s not saddled (as far as we can tell) with a son and a part-time prostitution gig, the scope and constitutive activities of her existence seem nearly identical to that of Jeanne Dielman. In short, she’s confined for almost the entirely of the film’s running time to her kitchen. She cooks spaghetti, eats, makes tea, prepares to clean the floor. But even as we get a sense of her daily routine, we already notice signs of trouble.

At first, she seems merely eccentric – an impression created by the picture of a smurf saying “go home” hanging on her kitchen door and her obsessive lining of that door’s cracks with duct tape. But after dinner, things quickly disintegrate. She pulls a rain slicker from under the sink, puts it on and spills soapy water all over her floor in an odd, but still functional effort to clean the kitchen. Then she begins polishing her shoe; in her zealotry, the polishing extends to her socks and legs. Finally she squirts hand lotion onto her face – a mock cum-shot perhaps suggestive of some desire for sexual humiliation – and, starting a fire in the kitchen and turning on the stove to fan the flames, lays down her head and prepares for death.

This last section of the film makes increasing use of Akerman’s frenzied vocalizing on the soundtrack, culminating in a loud shout of “bang” as she effects her final preparations. Similarly, as the woman’s mental stability further disintegrates, the director films an increasing number of shots in mirrored reflection, culminating in the final “death” sequence which is seen entirely through the reversing prism of the kitchen mirror. Taken together, these two aesthetic touches (dissociated voice, mirror imaging) make palpable the heroine’s fatal displacement of personality. Demanding an explicit cause of such a dissociation is, in this limited instance, too much of a burden to place on so short a work. But, given the film’s inescapable association of its character with domestic routine, there’s plenty of room for speculation. This speculative freedom would continue seven years later, everywhere present in the director’s masterpiece, even as that film, much more so than Saute Ma Ville, situates itself explicitly outside its troubled heroine’s fractured headspace.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New Releases: Walt and El Grupo and Skiptracers

A pair of stinkers this week. My Slant Magazine reviews cover Walt and El Grupo, a doc detailing Walt Disney's 1941 South American goodwill tour that rigorously tows the company line, and Skiptracers, Harris Mendheim's manic, unfunny redneck comedy. Neither is recommended.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Glossary of Rock-and-Roll Obsession

In honor of Anthology Film Archives' upcoming Mondo Fandom program, a series of films treating the more extreme forms of rock-and-roll enthusiasm, I've compiled a glossary of musical obsession as a guide to/review of the different entries in the series. The program runs from Sept. 3 - 6. The glossary can be found at The L Magazine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New Releases: Liverpool and Tickling Leo

Opening this week in limited release are Liverpool, the latest offering from Argentinian minimalist Lisandro Alonso, which I reviewed for The House Next Door and Jeremy Davidson's less successful haunted-by-the-Holocaust drama Tickling Leo which I covered for Slant Magazine.

Monday, August 24, 2009

On the Interview in Film Criticism

While it won’t do to condemn wholesale an entire mode of film journalism, the undue emphasis on the director interview in contemporary criticism represents something of a troubling phenomenon. Of course the practice of a critic (or fellow lenser) sitting down for a tête-à-tête with a filmmaker is hardly unique to modern-day critical practice. But while classic and instructive examples of director interviews abound, and although the approach even at its most watered-down may yield some limited useful insights, when it becomes a substitute for actual criticism then this misplaced emphasis becomes more than a little worrying. (Even Cinema Scope, otherwise the most valuable print film journal of the day, loads its pages with so many interviews that I often leave half the magazine unread.)

Actually the real problem with the director interview – and particularly its most common form, the short-discussion-of-a-single-film – is that it presumes to place the filmmaker’s reading of his own work as the standard by which the final product ought to be judged. Joseph “Jon” Lanthier got at something like this quandary in a recent piece at the Bright Lights After Dark blog, although his discussion centered on the potentially damaging effects of the director’s statement provided in the film’s promotional packet rather than the interview. Lanthier based his argument on the horde of unfavorable critical comparisons of Carlos Sorin’s recent film The Window to Bergman’s classic Wild Strawberries, a comparison he found dubious but which was encouraged by Sorin’s own statement in the press notes. By taking up Sorin’s example, the critics judged The Window as an (unsuccessful) attempt to re-create something of the achievement of the Swedish classic, instead of judging the more recent film on its own merits. But as Lanthier correctly notes, “The role of the critic… should not be to didactically engage artists with respect to their "goals" -- after all, the best and most erudite of intentions does not make a great film.”

But such mistaken attitudes run deep, a throwback, as Lanthier suggests, to 19th-century romantic notions of the artist as godlike creative force. Bluntly stated by critics such as Barry Salt – who proudly offers “the degree to which the film-maker has fulfilled his intentions in the finished film” as one of his three criteria for the “objective” evaluation of movies and which renders his classic 1983 text Film Style and Technology as useless as criticism as it is valuable as history – this adherence to the myth of authorial intent finds its most widespread contemporary application in the prevalence of the director interview. Even a quick glance at a recent Q-and-A in the first rate online film journal Reverse Shot (no mere puff piece, this) reveals the ease with which the interviewer tends to seek out the filmmaker’s direct help in reading his work. Discussing the recent film Lorna’s Silence with the directors, the Dardenne brothers, Damon Smith asks the duo, “would you say that Lorna engages in an act of faith, then, when she decides to help Claudy- when she gradually comes to recognize his humanity?” a question that not only attempts to use directorial intent as the basis for interpreting one of the film’s key moments, but which plays neatly into the filmmakers’ well-known predilection for viewing their work in religious/spiritual terms. Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s thoughtful response to Smith’s question may offer new ways of looking at the film, but because of the false authority that tends to adhere to an artist’s direct word, such a line of inquiry ends by being far more damaging than it is useful.

None of which is to say that a film – or any work of art – should be viewed as a thing apart, untouched by a myriad of circumstances – economic, social, personal – that need to be taken into account in its evaluation. Nor is it desirable that the film be judged strictly on what flickers across the screen with no regard for any extra-textual criteria. Which is why the director interview may have some limited valuable application – so long as the interviewer scrupulously avoids any questions of interpretation. For example, it may be useful to obtain information about the material conditions of the production as well as the director’s working methods – a store of knowledge that can aid the critic in more accurately discussing how the director’s technical decision-making helps create meaning. It may also be useful to know if the filmmaker has drawn specifically on an outside text, familiarity with which may enhance the viewer’s understanding of the work. (This is not to be confused with Sorin’s statements about Wild Strawberries serving as a vague point of reference for his own film – I’m talking here about direct sources of allusion or adaptation.) Finally, the director might be able to fill us in on the historical circumstances surrounding the film’s narrative (provided it draws on a historical setting), although the curious viewer could just as easily look this information up. But even were the interviewer to stick strictly to this small list of allowable questions, it would still be extremely difficult to avoid moving from a useful probing into background information to direct interpretation, so thin is the line between the two modes of inquiry. And since the large majority of interviews start from the point of view that authorial intent is a valid basis for critical interpretation, there’s too often no effort to avoid crossing that line to begin with.

Monday, August 17, 2009

New Releases: Art and Copy and Sikandar

In review this week are Doug Pray's fawning ad-world documentary, Art and Copy and Piyush Jha's Bollywood morality play Sikandar, though both come up far short of the week's real keeper, Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, reviewed below. Also up: a short piece on Basil Dearden's 1962 gay blackmail drama, Victim.

The Headless Woman

An object for endless study, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is – though this doesn’t come close to exhausting its achievement – a remarkable experiment in controlled perspective. It’s like watching yourself inside a dream – uncomprehending, illogical – everyone’s looking at you like you’re crazy (and maybe you are you) but you’re not quite sure why. After middle-aged Argentinean dentist Verónica (María Onetta) hits a dog with her car on a country road (or is it a young Indian boy? – she doesn’t stop to check and the image we get of the dog is of uncertain perspective – whose point-of-view is this anyway?), her place in her comfortable world – along with the stability of her viewpoint (and the film’s) – begins to crumble. (You might say she starts to lose her cabeza.) But Martel’s always in sharp command, keeping us close to Veró’s headspace, even as we’re never permitted to penetrate her consciousness; keying almost every shot to her perspective, even as the filmmaker rarely offers up direct p.o.v.s. Instead a typical framing might go something like this: Onetta’s head wedged into one side of the 'scope screen, the background mostly out-of-focus or, when it isn’t, revealing a flattened space with characters neatly arrayed, whispering half-audibly. The whole thing’s disorienting, but it’s absolutely precise in its rendering of disorientation – an achievement enhanced by the audio mix which isolates certain sounds, mutes others and generally keeps things off balance.

All of which serves to chart Veró’s increasing distance from her husband, family and overall lifestyle which, Martel makes clear, relies on a bevy of impoverished Indians serving a small group of light-skinned masters, cooking their meals, washing their cars, delivering their plants. Is Veró’s growing insistence that she hit a boy with her car – despite initial evidence to the contrary – an expression of bourgeois guilt? It’s hard to say. The lead character’s mostly a blank - we may share her disorientation but not her thoughts. But what is certain is that the ass-covering reactions of her male relatives to the possibility of vehicular homicide are clear enough expressions of bourgeois irresponsibility. Either way, the question remains: what exactly did she hit? But maybe that’s the wrong question to be asking. In a film as calculatingly oblique as this one any sense of a stable actuality is nebulous at best. Especially given the ending, when just as Veró seems to be making some kind of readjustment to her (now discredited) lifestyle, her notion of reality slips away entirely and, in Martel’s fevered rendering, the world at last becomes a literal blur.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Second Sight

The ten films screening as part of Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming One-Eyed Auteurs series (with the possible exception of André de Toth’s Pitfall and Ramrod, neither of which I was able to see) offer only two examples of characters with missing or damaged peepers, both of them blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief. Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James finds a group of post-1865 Northerners lynching a one-eyed fellow who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders during the War, while in Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, Stewart Granger dispenses with an attacker by throwing a blunt object at his ocular organ, severely bloodying the socket and causing the man to fall off a cliff.

To read the rest of this piece, please continue to The L Magazine.

New Releases: Ponyo, Taxidermia, Cloud 9 and Earth Days

Of the four films I covered this week for Slant and The L Magazine, Ponyo was the most entertaining, Taxidermia was the most, um, vivid (see pic to the right) and Cloud 9 the most successful, despite its more modest claims. Also in review, Robert Stone's eco-doc Earth Days.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

You, the Living

A master of the comic-miserablist mise-en-scène, Roy Andersson stages some of the funniest and/or most despairing scenes this side of Buñuel (to name only the most obvious influence). Or rather stages tableaux, since his latest feature, You, the Living consists of a few dozen mostly static shots in which both the misery of the characters (always apparent to them) and the absurdly humorous nature of their plight (only discernible by the viewer) are built directly into the staging. Eschewing anything in the nature of narrative progression, Andersson trains his pitiless camera on a cross-section of a Swedish town’s overweight, underpaid, worn-down denizens suffering their daily humiliations, fixing them in medium or long shot against a backdrop of the drabbest color scheme (beiges, off-whites, faded yellows) imaginable.

In one scene, a character blows a solitary tuba while sitting on a kitchen chair, the gold of the brass instrument shining out like a rare beacon against the apartment’s sparsely appointed interior. His wife enters the room, screaming, but the man continues playing, undisturbed. The next shot finds his downstairs neighbor banging a broom handle on the ceiling to shut him up but only succeeding in dislodging a lamp and chipping away at the plaster. The comic pay-off comes in the third shot in the sequence where a neighbor watches from a nearby balcony. Taking in both of the previous scenes at once, the long view brings with it the comedy of futility as one man pursues his solitary means of enjoyment while alienating those around him, and another compounds his frustration with further reminders of his total impotence.

Our lone tuba player is far from the only musician in You, the Living where music becomes one of three potential wards against a total capitulation to misery. Many of the film’s male characters play instruments and several participate in various New Orleans-style ensembles and marching bands, while two of the female characters are granted vocal solos of their own. But despite the occasional coming together for the shared performance of music – the communality of which is undercut by a mid-coitus monologue in which one musician exposes band work as nothing more than a not-very lucrative job – the men’s playing is usually seen as a solitary activity that annoys their wives and neighbors, even as it brings them isolated moments of pleasure.

Another possible means of escape in You, the Living is through the medium of dreams. But there’s no guarantee that these dreams will be pleasant. One character relates a particularly vivid nightmare – which Andersson then dramatizes – in which his failed attempts to enliven a dinner party by staging the old parlor trick where he pulls out the tablecloth from under the dishes leads to his execution by electric chair. Again, the comedy is all in the mise-en-scène: the dull guests arrayed around the absurdly elongated table, our hapless man making several futile adjustments to the china before proceeding, everyone aware throughout the preparations of impending disaster.

But dreams may also serve a positive function, even as they provide but a temporary escape from reality. In an unexpected moment of sublimity, a young woman relates her fantasy – again dramatized by Andersson – in which she marries the lead singer of a local rock band, a man who in real life had jilted her and for whom she still pines. As the girl rests happily on the bed in her wedding dress, her man sits on a kitchen chair wailing away on his guitar and tossing smiles her way, the scene redolent of a genuine domestic bliss. Eventually we notice the scenery outside the kitchen window changing and we realize that their apartment is moving along tracks as if it were a train. When they pull into the station, there’s a crowd of people – comprised of most of the characters we’ve seen so far in the film – greeting them warmly, pleased to catch a glimpse of the happy couple.

For Andersson, the final means of coming to some sort of acceptance of a world of woe is to adopt an absurdist’s perspective on the proceedings. While none of the characters in You, the Living seem cosmically aware enough to pursue such an option – those with some self-awareness, such as a worn-out shrink, simply bewail their fate – the filmmaker himself takes up this viewpoint, boldly transmitting his perspective to the audience. To be sure, it probably wouldn’t seem very funny for a fabric salesmen to sell an elderly couple a piece of material while bemoaning a recent fight with his wife, but because the director frames him against a comically massive wall of samples and because we’ve just seen his wife expressing similar regrets in the previous scene, the set-up refracts the situation into something like a cosmic joke. In fact, this sense of humorous absurdity – along with a total commitment to his worldview – is what prevents Andersson’s undeniably bleak orientation from turning his film into a dismal wallow. Without this comic perspective, You, the Living would be little more than a work of pointless miserablism; with it, it takes its place alongside such wonderfully strange objects as George Lewis’ Homage to Charles Parker and Herman Melville’s Pierre, one of those rare and inimitable works of art.