Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lorna's Silence

By now the departures of Lorna’s Silence from the Dardennes Brothers template have been well-documented: The partial abandonment of the filmmakers’ trademark following shots, the switch from super-16 to 35mm film, the reliance on crime-drama plotting, even the introduction of a few seconds of extradiegetic music. Since its debut at Cannes last year, the Dardennes’ latest has seemed to get it from both sides, damned simultaneously both for the above-mentioned changes—particularly the heavier reliance on narrative, seen in some quarters as a move towards the middle—and for being yet another closely observed, tension-riven drama about a working-class character stuck in a set of precisely defined social circumstances and seeking some sort of redemption—in other words, another Dardennes Brothers film.

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

New Releases: Funny People and The Cove

There's no shortage of interesting films hitting New York screens this weekend: Import/Export, Lorna's Silence (check back for review on Friday), You, the Living, Thirst (which, come to think of it, wasn't very interesting at all), and two films I covered for Slant and The L Magazine respectively, Funny People and The Cove.

Monday, July 20, 2009

New Releases: California Company Town, Loren Cass and Off Jackson Avenue

My latest reviews for Slant Magazine cover California Company Town, Lee Ann Schmitt's excellent cine-tour of deserted ex-industrial villages dotting the west coast landscape and Loren Cass, Chris Fuller's intriguing, but only partially succesful, debut feature, both opening this week in New York, as well as John-Luke Montias' less accomplished Off Jackson Avenue, currently playing at Manhattan's Quad Cinema.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


A live performance is only as good as its audience – especially when that audience is called on as an equal participant in the show. Such is the working principle behind Parade, Jacques Tati’s final completed picture, a 1974 video project that finds the filmmaker returning to the live performance of his pre-film roots. Following his run of four movies featuring and eventually exhausting the possibilities of his comedic alter-ego M. Hulot (which along with 1949’s Jour de Fête comprise the entirety of the director’s features), Tati channels his music hall background, staging a variety show of pantomime, music, sleight-of-hand and rodeo both in front of and in tandem with an approving crowd, comprised of both passively observant audience members and ringers in the form of actors and performers.

The film’s privileging of the audience’s role in the comedic process is highlighted from the start when, before the show begins, Tati’s camera follows a group of motley-clad young theatergoers wending their way into the building. One wag picks up a traffic cone and places it on his head to the amusement of both his friends and, presumably, the film’s audience. Picking up his example, another theatergoer follows suit. So when, after the crowd is seated and we’re treated to an opening musical fanfare, Tati makes his first appearance as master-of-ceremonies and announces, “It is our great pleasure to introduce a show which everyone is invited to participate in. The performers and clowns, and you and I,” we've been well prepared for this communal approach to the creation of comedic spectacle. In fact, we've already seen it in action.

The audience’s participation in the performance runs the spectrum from privileged private moments which unfold undetected by the “official” performers (as in one gag where a man removes a motorcycle helmet obstructing the view of another spectator only to reveal a more obtrusive mass of red hair) to complete co-option in the staged spectacle (a sequence where audience members are called on to tame a bucking mule in the ring). But the meat of the project lies in a middle-ground in which members of the crowd become “spontaneously” involved in the planned performances, even as the interventions are clearly staged by Tati.

As the action unfolds on stage, the filmmaker repeatedly cuts away to the audience in close shots of such intimate proximity that we can make out the private asides spoken by the individual viewers. A group of audience members emerge as actual characters; the frequency of their appearance and the pride-of-place given to their reactions mark them out as being equally central to the film as their on-stage counterparts. Eventually these men, women and children become involved directly in the spectacle. In one memorable scene, a group of stage magicians hilariously botch a disappearing act. Cut to the audience, where a muttonchopped young man shows ‘em how it’s done, wowing the crowd with his far more successful feats of legerdemain.

Still, Tati himself, as the grand homme of French comedy, remains a privileged figure throughout, never interrupted by the audience. As he performs his legendary pantomimes – mimicking a tennis match or a round of boxing – the crowd laughs respectfully, but always keeps its distance. (The exception: in the tennis sequence, the audience members, unbidden on-screen though clearly cued, move their heads back-and-forth to follow the imaginary volleys). And where the other acts are shot in such a way as to suggest the proximity of audience and performer, Tati films himself against a far more distant backdrop, the crowd becoming little more than a mass of indistinguishable faces.

But it’s the audience – and particularly its youngest segment - that has the final word. After the show ends and everyone – performers and audience alike – has cleared out, two children who've been prominent members of the audience take the stage for a final romp, suggesting both the continuation of the comic tradition – Tati was nearly 70 at the time, his moment nearly passed – and the final democratization of the performance space, fulfilling the director’s working principle that, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his essential essay on the film, “amateurs and nobodies… are every bit as important, as interesting and as entertaining as professionals and stars.” As performer, Tati remains every inch the star as he commands the stage, but as a filmmaker he generously cedes the spotlight to clowns, musicians and viewer alike, thus re-thinking the essential relationship between not only Parade’s on-screen performance and on-screen audience, but between the film’s movie-going audience and the spectacle that Tati has arranged for them and, at least on the metaphorical level, invited them to participate in.


I was recently asked to participate in a survey at The One-Line Review, in which each contributor was called on to make a personal list of the 50 greatest films, the collective results then tabulated. For my list, I limited myself to one film per director, with two exceptions. I included two films directed by Leo McCarey because Duck Soup seems to me more of a Marx Brothers picture than a McCarey picture and I included two Dreyer films because there was no way I could leave off either The Passion of Joan of Arc or Gertrud. The list can be found here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Post-July 4th Link Round-Up

My latest set of links covers an uninspired romantic dramedy opening only in L.A. (Weather Girl) as well as two faves playing on the N.Y. rep circuit, Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud and the film that gives this blog its header background, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tony Manero

Tony Manero (film and character) is just as ugly and nasty as you please. But then again so was life in Pinochet’s Chile. Shot in a hand-held 16mm whose extreme graininess mirrors its squalid milieu, Pablo Larrain’s movie follows a middle-aged thug who murders and steals his way through late ‘70s Santiago while nursing a rabid obsession for Saturday Night Fever whose lead character - John Travolta’s boorish disco champ, Tony Manero - becomes his model of behavior. Thus cultural imperialism and fascist brutality unite in one markedly unremarkable individual.

Actually, Larrain’s is a film largely uninterested in analysis, political or otherwise, confining its ambitions to cool observation of its central figure. Looking more like Tony Montana (albeit lacking every ounce of Al Pacino’s charisma) than Tony Manero, Raúl Peralta (co-writer Alfredo Castro) spends his days sitting in a near-empty cinema learning Travolta’s lines by heart, when he’s not overseeing his small clan of would-be dancers at a local bar or plotting to trick out said bar with glass floors and a disco ball. Of course these things cost money and it’s not long before Peralta begins his campaign of murder/theft, beginning with the brutal beating death of an elderly woman, Larrain treating these moments of extreme violence throughout with a matter-of-fact detachment.

The parallels between Peralta’s pursuits and that of Pinochet’s government are unmistakable – the random and brutal assertion of murderous force in pursuit of personal power – particularly in one scene where the would-be disco king tries to shake down a drug dealer before the army shows up and beats him to the punch, thus neatly aligning personal practice with that of the military government. Similarly the film shrewdly aligns American imperialism with Peralta’s fascist tendencies through the acute influence of the Hollywood cinema. (Just as the CIA helped Pinochet rise to power, so the United States continues to assert its influence in Latin America, albeit in a less overt, more insidious manner.) Finally, the film smartly observes the way in which the most ordinary, unexceptional individuals – Peralta barely talks and is repeatedly glimpsed lounging around in his slightly soiled underwear – are those capable of the most brutality.

But none of these are points that Larrain and his co-screenwriters are interested in pursuing in very great detail. The film is more concerned with wallowing in its own decrepitude, even as it never overplays the impact of its brutal episodes. If Larrain’s goal is to create a calculated unpleasantness, then he’s certainly succeeded – the scenes of debasement quickly stack up: Peralta smashes a movie projectionist’s head against his projector, Peralta forces an underage girl into a graphic sex act, Peralta shits on a rival’s white suit – but apart from their immediate visceral impact, these moments serve little purpose, unsupported as they are by much in the way of accompanying social analysis. Despite some tantalizing hints of a wider cultural understanding, Larrain seems content to observe that Pinochet’s Chile was brutal and then leave it at that.

Only in the film’s concluding set-piece in which Peralta struts his stuff on a local television program in full Tony Manero regalia – the absurdities of cultural appropriation brought vividly to life – does the film begin to suggest a more interesting context in which to read its character’s behavior, but by then it's probably a little too late. Still, what Larrain’s film lacks in insight, it makes up for in unpleasantness, though, of course, that can scarcely stand as much in the way of a recommendation.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

New Releases: The Beaches of Agnès and Lion's Den

New releases this week include The Beaches of Agnès, Agnès Varda's playful, elegaic look back at a life in films which I reviewed for The L Magazine and Pablo Trapero's pointless mother-in-prison exercise Lion's Den which I covered for Slant Magazine.