Author Archive for



27
Jul
09

Cold Fever

Cold Fever

I randomly picked Cold Fever up at the video store a few days ago. It is about a Japanese man who ends up traveling deep into the wilds of Iceland after his parents’ accidental deaths there. The blurb on the back compares it to Mystery Train by Jim Jarmusch and it definitely does have a lot in common with that film in terms of tone and subject matter, but I’m not sure it’s quite as successful.

The movie really emphasizes the atmosphere of the place, which is portrayed as a surreal, icy landscape populated almost entirely by eccentrics and the occasional mystical elf. While it definitely has its moments of humor and beauty, there were some holes in the structure of the film that bothered me a little. For one thing, it is never really fully explained what his parents were doing living in Iceland and when you realize how far out into the wilderness they were, it becomes difficult not to see it as a fairly elaborate plot gimmick. Considering that his parents’ deaths are the whole impetus for this epic journey in the first place, it seemed odd not to understand the circumstances or really the full background of their relationship.

Secondly, a major running plot device is built around the rickety frozen car the main character randomly buys to help him get to his remote destination. I don’t really understand though how he wouldn’t realize in advance how far out he would need to travel and why he wouldn’t have rented a decent car in the first place. He also ends up getting lost trying to get to Reykjavik in the beginning, boarding some kind of tourist bus by accident when he arrives in the airport. It seems somewhat unbelievable that a successful Japanese executive, even one has young as him, would not have at least made a few preliminary arrangements before arriving in a foreign country. Of course, the movie is really intended to be much more about mood and atmosphere and there’s a nice rhythm to the narrative, but it was hard for me not to get tangled up with these little inconsistencies in the plot.

24
Jul
09

Bound

bound

Continuing in the cult movie vein, I saw Bound for the first time a few days ago after meaning to get around to seeing it for years. For as long as there are video stores, this is one movie you’ll always be able to find for the infamous sex appeal between Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. Their relationship has become a classic in some lesbian circles and no doubt a favorite amongst legions of straight men. With that said, there has also been a fair amount of controversy about whether the film is a feminist-leaning subversion of traditional gender roles and heteronormativity or whether it is just another male-fantasy, lesbian-exploitation film with some clever twists on the noir genre. Honestly, I feel some ambivalence about it.

One of the things that first made me like cult movies was how much more playful they can often be about gender, race, and sexual orientation, with a deeper interest in subverting categories and spoofing Hollywood conventions than most mainstream popular films. This is a characteristic of cult films that has clearly followed through from the older, pulp classics of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s and straight through Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. This is very much present in Bound too. I am, in fact, a big fan of Jackie Brown in particular, where Pam Grier does such a great job of bringing her refreshingly three-dimensional character to life. The characters in Bound are definitely not as sensitively developed here and are more like something out of a pulp novel, like old-time lesbian classic Beebo Brinker, or a B-movie noir.

Jennifer Tilly’s Violet is a sort of Mae West, gun moll type and Gina Gershon’s Corky (ahem, I really almost couldn’t get past how ridiculous her name is) is James Dean by way of K.D. Lang. Is it over the top? Undoubtedly. Does their first sexual encounter seem pretty stilted/tawdry? Definitely. Is it still super entertaining? Pretty much. The best thing about the movie and the reason that it deserves to haunt video stores from coast to coast is that it’s a pretty cleverly written little noir, where nothing goes as planned, but the main characters still somehow manage to keep on going. In comparison to the mega-overblown scripting of the Wachowski’s next series of films, (The Matrix series), it is nice to see the little indie film they started with which wraps up so neatly and has a lot of similar lovable touches to it that have always made the Coen brothers films such masterpieces.

For another thing, SPOILER ALERT, it is really nice to see a movie where the lesbian leads get a happy ending for once, in comparison to so many of the other lesbian-themed films out there (typically the ones written by honest-to-God lesbians) which are crushingly depressing. For all its cheesiness, this movie is really fun to watch and is good for what ails you if ye olde patriarchal hegemony is getting you down.

21
Jul
09

Constantine & The Prophecy

constantine

I was excited to catch Constantine on TV a few days ago since I remembered it getting decent reviews when it originally came out and, contrary to how it may seem based on the movies I have reviewed on this blog so far, Horror and Cult movies are really my first love. Fair warning, I’ve never read the comic book for this one so I have no idea how much of the film was built around the source material and I realize some allowances must be made when a film is trying to do justice to a pre-existing work. I will say, from the Google imagesearch I did of the Hellblazer comics, the drawn Constantine looks a lot more like a noir-ified version of Kiefer Sutherland’s character from Lost Boys than a Matrixified Keanu Reeves and I’m sure the fans were less than thrilled with the casting here. Like many of the lead characters in the Vertigo pantheon, it seems like Constantine is intended to be more of a dark anti-hero with a troubled past, which doesn’t fit with what we see of his character in the film.

This movie was definitely overstuffed with plot and I feel like it lacked a lot of background exposition which could have made some of the plot progression less confusing. The audience does not have a clear sense of Constantine’s abilities/personality or the rules governing the world of the movie until fairly deep in. While some of the visuals were cool, I also thought the action in the film was too heavily emphasized over the horror aspects. Lastly, it was a touch disappointing to see Rachel Weisz’s character be little more than a pretty, useless tag-along for most of the film, despite supposedly being a tough, city detective. I think if her relationship with Constantine was more balanced out, more akin to an amped-up Scully/Mulder dynamic, it could have brought a lot more charm and interest to the movie. In general I think one of the biggest deficits in some recent action movies, Constantine included, is that they lack the sense of humor which has made other action films like Die Hard, so much more fun to watch. More of a tongue-in-cheek attitude works much better, especially if what you’re expecting the audience to follow and buy into is really over-the-top like in this movie.

In terms of the positives, I will say I was pleasantly surprised to see Tilda Swinton playing Gabriel, who of course steals all the scenes she’s in and I wished there had been more of her throughout the movie. Her level of acting ability and charisma in comparison to Keanu’s weak lead is kind of ridiculous. Even Pruitt Taylor Vince, who is a great character actor and plays a minor side role, has more life to him than Reeves. As an aside, Gavin Rossdale is also in the movie (making his acting debut here as one of the villains) which I found kind of bizarre and random. Anyway, overall the movie was pretty bad and made me have an intense craving to watch cult classic, The Prophecy again, which is a similar concept with a much stronger execution.

the prophecy

I always think of The Prophecy as being like Christopher Walken’s Silence of the Lambs. Even though he is the villain of the series, he really captivates you every time he’s onscreen with some great lines and a kind of jokey, crackling menace that is wonderful. There is actually a lot of good acting in the film though, with Eric Stoltz, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Hytner, and Adam Goldberg all doing a good job in their supporting roles and only the two leads coming off a little wooden.

In contrast to Constantine, there are some genuinely tense parts in The Prophecy, in addition to some dynamite action sequences and the script is well-written enough to keep you engaged. The movie offers enough background about the characters and the main conflict for you to basically understand what’s going on, without giving away the plot twists that keep the movie hurtling forward. There are also a lot of nice, unexpected details to the script, such as how Gabriel stalls begrudging, unfortunate souls from crossing over so they can operate as his servants to great comedic effect. And there is interesting playfulness with Christian mythology in the kernel of the story, which raises the idea that angels might be jealous of humans for their souls and for being God’s best loved creation. It’s definitely a cult movie worth picking up at your local video store if you’re in the mood for a horror/action movie with some off-beat touches or just for Christopher Walken being awesome.

19
Jul
09

In A Lonely Place

in a lonely placeThis weekend I also saw In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, which is a classic noir about a reclusive screenwriter with an anger management problem and a potential murder rap haunting him. It’s an interesting bit of IMDB trivia to learn that Ray was married to Grahame at the time and they ultimately broke up during the filming of the movie. Apparently the producer was worried enough about the situation to force Gloria Grahame to sign a contract stating “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” One has to wonder how much the tension between Ray and Grahame may have contributed to the tension in the film as Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, grows more and more uneasy about her boyfriend’s violent temperament.

The script is packed full of wry, lightning-quick dialogue and there is well-balanced chemistry between Bogey and Grahame, who is more droll and less va va voom than Bacall would have been in the role. In comparison to the protagonists in so many modern movies, there is a crackling intellect about both leads here that is very enjoyable to watch. Like any noir though, the movie takes a much darker turn and does so fairly abruptly.

Although I enjoyed the movie and I do recommend it, I thought a few things might have enhanced it’s underlying themes. For one thing, I found it curious that as Bogart begins to lean toward the Mr. Hyde half of his personality, we become more distanced from his character and it is left ambiguous whether he really recognizes how inappropriate his behavior is and how scary he must be to the people around him, despite his supposed genius-level intelligence. In fact, the movie gradually shifts from following Bogart’s character to following Grahame’s character in a somewhat awkward dodge, meant to ramp up the doubts of the audience. After Bogart wounds his agent and oldest friend he only hesitantly, barely apologizes to him and he is unwilling to directly address how his erratic behavior is effecting Grahame after another major episode. I wonder how different the film would be if the narrative stuck with Bogart instead and his character more directly engaged with this demon inside himself. I was half-expecting something like this to come through in a closer view of the script Bogart is working on in the movie, but nothing like that ever actually materializes.

dvdlonelyhands

SPOILERS AHEAD. Apparently, in the movie’s original ending Bogart actually kills Grahame instead of almost killing her, but Ray felt that ending made the picture too bleak and Bogart’s character too monstrous. I wish that it had ended as it was originally intended because it would have brought out the full dramatic irony of Bogart’s former innocence and it would also have made more of a statement about how violence can lead to more violence and what kind of atrocities we may be capable of against our better natures depending on the circumstances.

Instead, the parting message of the film is murkier, with the ironic weight being placed on the relationship’s seemingly unnecessary demise. After seeing what happens when Bogart loses his temper, it’s hard to be satisfied by that ending. Whether or not Grahame suspected he could be capable of murder, his character did in fact seriously injure a former girlfriend and it seems inevitable that she was bound to become afraid of him when something else she did set him off later on. The audience is supposed to see this ending, where the two lovers are torn asunder, as unhappy and we’re given the oil tanker of a parting line: “I was born when he kissed me, I died when he left me, and I lived in a few weeks while he loved me.” In reality though, this ending is only truly unhappy if your sympathies rest primarily with Bogart. It actually seems like fairly good fortune to me that Grahame ultimately gets out of the relationship with her life and her freedom.

When looked at in this sense, the movie is almost a time capsule of societal attitudes of domestic violence at the time, with a subtle implication that if Grahame could have just trusted Bogart and stood by her man, things wouldn’t have escalated into the messy violent breakdown of the climax. Instead, Bogart is provoked again and again by the white lies she makes while she tries to extricate herself from the powder keg she finds herself in. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to really go along with the reading the film draws the audience into since it is so clear that most of the problems in their relationship are not about the unsolved murder hanging over their heads, but about Bogart’s inability to express his emotions in healthier ways and Grahame’s inability to talk openly with him out of fear for her own safety and her traditional feminine position in the relationship. Considering that Ray also directed several movies which perhaps more effectively questioned gender roles and sexuality like Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar, it’s interesting that Ray did not more directly question the crisis of masculinity that Bogart’s character somewhat embodies in In A Lonely Place.

19
Jul
09

500 Days of Summer

500_days_of_summer-zooey_deschanel-bus

So, I wanted to review a more mainstream movie for the blog finally, so I went and saw 500 Days of Summer this weekend. A couple of the reviews I read on Metacritic made some sweeping claims about this movie being the Annie Hall of the younger generation and I will say such claims are wildly exaggerated, or at least I would hope that they are. There is a very similar tone and narrative structure in this movie to that in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a few years ago, with much of the movie being flashes forward and backwards in time with some stylistic, music video-esque touches here and there. I’m not sure if this was an intentional knock-off or what, but I have to say Michel Gondry is better at playing with the visuals, Charlie Kaufman wrote a much more interesting, meaningful script, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet imbued their characters with a lot more humanity.

With that said, I think the script is probably the biggest culprit here. Zooey Deschanel was doing her quirky charming thing full force and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did such a fabulous job in Brick and The Lookout recently, I feel like he probably did what he could with the material. Many critics have been talking about how Deschanel’s character, Summer, is too much of a blank slate, but I would say both characters are underdeveloped. Due to the clever/gimmicky structuring of the narrative, I think it was an extra challenge to make the characters feel like real people and to make the interaction between the characters feel real. We don’t see a lot of personality flaws in either character and we see a lot of cutesy dates (including a weird scene almost entirely built around a product-placement that made me pretty queasy), but very few awkward moments or arguments so that you don’t really understand the sour side of the relationship. Without a fully developed negative side to the relationship, it feels like a shallow, glossy magazine version of romance and unfairly suckers the audience in a contrived way.

Additionally, SPOILER ALERT, the movie could have at least had a more realistic, powerful ending if they had left it at the scene where the movie begins, but instead they add this cheesy, ridiculous ending on that feels like a total cop-out for whatever emotional truth it was trying to dredge up. In Eternal Sunshine, you really understand both sides of the characters and their relationship with each other. You see the attraction, but also the boredom and annoyance, which are the familiar accoutrements of most long-term romantic relationships. The ending is full of pathos because you understand that the main characters can’t escape either the attraction or the inevitable discontent that develops between them and you feel the full poignancy of the can’t live with them or without them nature of love. By comparison, 500 Days of Summer doesn’t hold much water.

What really bothers me about 500 Days of Summer though has more to do with a certain type of quirky, indie-lite female character which seems to be coming up more and more in the mainstream movie business these days who is sometimes charming and sometimes cloying. She seems to be a recurring phenomena, arguably starting with Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn and morphing into the kind of character Winona Ryder used to play all the time, that Natalie Portman played in Garden State, Ellen Page played in Juno, and that Zooey Deschanel now plays all the time. I have mixed feelings about this recurring character, who on the one hand avoids the sex-bomb airhead female stereotype which so dominates the movie business and who can often be funnier and more intelligent than the traditional female lead.

I think the big difference between the versions I like and the ones I don’t is who is doing the writing. Namely, I think when there is a woman writing these characters, they often hold up a lot better than when men are writing them. For example, I think Juno was good, because for once you could see how the quirky, pluckiness was actually just the surface of a three-dimensional, though very young woman and not her whole personality. For another, she wasn’t just some fantasy girl of endless charm, she was sarcastic, self-deprecating, and whip-smart. I felt the same way about another movie, which fits the quirky label, The Waitress by Adrienne Shelly which has a black humor and sensitivity that adds up to a brilliant screenplay and a fantastic protagonist. Interestingly, the Winona Ryder characters that I liked so much when I was younger from Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Mermaids, and Reality Bites were also all written by women.

In contrast, Zooey Deschanel’s characters are often written by men and are so fucking sunny and one-dimensional it kind of makes you want to murder somebody. And Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, written by leading man Zach Braff, has to be one of my least favorite female characters of all time. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in some upcoming quirky movies whose trailers were of course shown before the screening of 500 Days of Summer that I went to, Paper Heart and Whip It.

15
Jul
09

Paris, Texas

paris_texas

I don’t know how I feel about German director, Wim Wenders. I saw Wings of Desire a few years ago and felt deeply ambivalent about that film and I had similar feelings after watching Paris, Texas.

The movie places a lot of emphasis on the Texas and California landscapes that dominate and almost dwarf the understated characters. This is not really anything new, with the desert/red rock country being a major feature of most Spaghetti Westerns, if not just Westerns in general, but of course Paris, Texas focuses on the aftermath of emotional/psychological violence between outcasts as opposed to the commission of violence between outlaws. The desolation of the empty desert and the emptiness of the blank Los Angeles suburbs mirrors the benumbed emotional and mental life of the main character, Travis, played masterfully by Harry Dean Stanton (who is certainly one of the most underrated contemporary actors). As someone who grew up in the west, I’m very familiar with the power and beauty of that unique landscape and I can easily see how this aspect of the film alone captured the imagination of many when the film first came out.

Beyond the cinematography, Wenders does create an entrancing mood of mystery, loneliness, and memory, with dramatic tension that builds in a natural, consistent arc toward the ending. The viewer has an eerie, dream-like feeling almost the whole way through as you become more and more enveloped in the story and the unraveling of what is haunting Travis, especially when we glimpse the former bliss of the little family he once had and the developing relationship between him and his son, Hunter.

But in a certain way, I feel like maybe Wenders does a little too good a job of setting up the tension and the sense of mystery in the film for the resolution we are ultimately offered at the end of the picture. Cue spoiler alert. In the culminating scene of the movie, Travis finally talks to his former lover and Hunter’s mother, Jane (played by Nastassja Kinski), and this conversation fills in all the missing pieces of what went wrong between them for the audience. Mother and child are ultimately reunited and Travis rides off into the proverbial sunset, seemingly too damaged by his history with Jane and too worried about his Hunter’s future for the full reunion the audience hopes for.

The film is an extended exercise in understatement, with the audience inferring the deep emotions that are too powerful for any of the battered, regret-laden characters to directly address for a full 90% of the movie. Travis is in so much pain at the beginning or has at least been so extremely adverse to remembering that pain, that he does not seem to remember how to talk or who is brother is. To me, this pushes things too far beyond the balance. It is like being given a close-up of just a weight-lifter’s face right as she raises the barbell, with all its pain, misery, and concentration. You’re likely to imagine such a terrible burden that when the camera zooms out and you see the banal, literal weight she’s lifting, you’re bound to be disappointed.

After the tremendous build-up and atmosphere established in the beginning of the film, it is vaguely unsatisfying, bordering on inconsistent to have the story boiled down to the all-too-familiar plagues of the modern American family- alcoholism, poverty, and domestic violence. That which had seemed so loaded with existential power and meaning dissipates into the dry, Texas air. Wenders gives us no flashbacks of the family’s destruction which could concretize and dramatize these demons, but does give us enough of a blank re-telling for almost all our questions to be answered. I can’t help but wish that Wenders gave the audience either a little more or a lot less.

And it certainly feels like less than a happy ending, not just because Travis melts into the background, but also because Hunter is taken from a happy, loving middle-class household and left with a mother who is no doubt still poor, still single, and still emotionally stunted as far as we can tell, since she’s now been reduced to sex work to make ends meet. Supposedly Travis has righted his former wrongs and restored order to their lives, but seen in another light, this ending seems like more pain for everyone involved on top of everything they’ve already been through.

It isn’t clear to me if this ending is intentionally unhappy or not, but it definitely left me unsettled. It particularly bothered me since Hunter is not allowed to even say goodbye to the only parents he remembered up to that point. Perhaps such a scene would have disrupted the arc of the film’s emotional tension, but to me it felt too distortive of reality. For Travis’ character to deprive his brother and sister-in-law of at least a goodbye after having raised him for the past 4 years, he would have to be not just ungrateful, but almost totally heartless. Harry Dean Stanton portrayal of the character really draws on your sympathies up to this point and this moment of cruelty felt unnecessary and out of place.

Overall, I found Paris, Texas very compelling and definitely worth seeing, but not quite the magnum opus that some people seem to think it is. I’m aware that aside from the close analysis that can be done of the film’s plot, the movie is also meant to be a broader allegory about what it really means to love someone, to be a good husband and father, and to be an American after waking up on the wrong side of the American dream. I think part of the failure of the movie is that it takes itself far too seriously and seeing the answers to the questions it raises as being deeper or more ground-breaking than they really are. I feel like Wings of Desire suffers from exactly the same problem. In a weird way, the understated tone overemphasizes its subject matter and it doesn’t quite feel right.

14
Jul
09

At the Movies

Siskel and Ebert

Since I was a very, very young kid, every single weekend my family and I would go to at least one movie, if not three or four after a marathon Saturday. My parents always went to those movies that got three or more stars in the local paper and occasionally a two star one that was getting some buzz or tickled my mom or dad’s particular interest.

We didn’t always watch “At the Movies,” because it was on at weird times during the weekend, but anytime we did happen to catch it I remember really loving it. I also remember how, whether we watched a particular episode or not, there was always such a huge mystique about Siskel & Ebert and their all-knowing thumbs. There was a time when any movie that managed to get the elusive “Two Thumbs Up” undoubtedly wrote that in huge letters on the box when it was released to video. It’s very weird to me to think of a younger generation growing up now who has no idea who Siskel was and no memory of their show in its glory days, since together they were the most prominent movie critics in America.

Anyway, I happened to Google Ebert recently because I randomly remembered him being very ill with cancer a few months ago and wondered how he was doing. I was pleased to learn not only is he recovering, he has a ridiculously active and extensive blog which not only includes reviews of all the latest movies that have come out, but a lot of feature articles about great movies of the past and a write-in movie trivia column that fans send in questions to. Even better, I learned that all of the old tapes of Siskel & Ebert have now been archived at: http://bventertainment.go.com/tv/buenavista/atm/.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to actually watch the full episodes. Instead, the reviews are listed by film titles and you can also browse through by year. I have been really enjoying going back and watching some of their old reviews lately, especially considering that when I first watched them I was 14 years old or younger and I have a much greater appreciation for the nuances of their opinions these days.

I love all things nerdy and there’s nothing that scratches that itch in a more intense way than to watch two ridiculously nerdy guys like Siskel and Ebert, who are both ultra opinionated and obsessively into film, spar like maniacs about whether a movie was a total train wreck or just barely worth watching. It’s nice to know that even though Siskel is no longer with us and Ebert has stopped doing the show, you can still go back and see what they thought of a ton of the older movies and enjoy their total vigor for hating it, loving it, even just vehemently meh-ing it.

I was also very touched to find out just how passionately they both went about their job as film critics. Siskel actually did a few shows via telephone while he was hospitalized and apparently, after being put out of commission for a while due to health problems a few years ago, Ebert is now actually going back and reviewing every movie that he missed. For all their often inflammatory debates, both reviewers shared a real zealotry about the art of having a strong opinion about a movie that I still find intensely great.

12
Jul
09

Mississippi Mermaid

Mississippi MermaidTonight I saw Mississippi Mermaid by Francois Truffaut, which I’d wanted to see for a while since I’m into noir and I just finished a book by Cornell Woolrich, whose work inspired both this film and another Truffaut movie that I very much enjoyed, The Bride Wore Black. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a clunker. It’s intended to be a sort of fable about a love story gone off the rails, beginning with an exotic island wedding and (Spoiler Alert!) ending in a poisonous Swiss blizzard, but it never quite manages to work up a steam.

For one thing, Jean-Paul Belmondo is kind of laughably far from being the hyper-masculine, hardened leading man which is such a common feature amongst most noirs and which would maybe make better sense in this role. Despite his star-making turn in Breathless, he just doesn’t have the charisma to pull it off and the audience at the screening often giggled during his wooden speeches, he so badly fit the dialogue and the character. For another thing, the chemistry between Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve was badly off, with the love story never building up the appropriate level of tension and magnetic energy which the movie needs for the plot to work. At best the romance achieves a sort of cheesy eroticism and at worst the lovers seem glaringly mismatched, nothing compared to the star-crossed loves from great noirs like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

To make matters worse, there’s something very weird about the pacing of the film. The movie starts as a thick largo familiar from other films with a post-colonial setting; there are lingering shots of the jungle, the massive plantation house, and the local culture. But then it ultimately speeds into a headlong rush with the two hopping from place to place and filing in the gaps in the middle with rambling exposition. The transitions feel very patched in and ultimately, it feels like the film could stand some massive editing.

A move like this should roll forward like a roller coaster climbing up a hill, with the audience being drawn into the luminous essence of the affair while also being well-aware of the big fall closing in every moment. It should be lean, tight, and sharp with a natural momentum built in at the center of the action. Instead, there’s a rambling uncertainty about the whole thing: as though Truffaut can’t decide if he wants to make a real noir like The Bride Wore Black or an obtuse, slice-of-life musing on the illusory nature of love like in Jules and Jim. Altogether, a surprising disappointment from a darling of the French New Wave.

11
Jul
09

The Beaches of Agnes

les-plages-d-agnes-the-beaches-of-agnes-17-12-2008-1-g

Last night I finally got the chance to see The Beaches of Agnes by Agnes Varda, which I have been absolutely dying to see since it first premiered in NY a few months ago and then immediately sold out before I even realized it was here. Varda is far and away my favorite director of all time and it was such a tremendous treat to get to not only see a new movie from her, but a stellar autobiographical one at that. It is also wonderful to see her getting some more press in the States since she’s relatively unknown to most people here and massively underrated, although her fan base has been growing a bit more since the release of a Criterion Collection box set of her work in January of last year. Her lesser works, Les Creatures, Lions Love, One Sings The Other Doesn’t, Mur Murs, Documentuer, etc. remain almost impossible to find in America, something that aggravates me to no end and I’m hopeful that this new movie may nudge some of her other works toward being re-released here.

Getting past my rambling fangirl hyperventilation, her latest film is really great. I can imagine for someone who is not familiar with her work, it may not be quite as enjoyable as it was for me, but there is still a lot to like about it even without the context. For one thing, it is a refreshing change of pace to get a window into the life and thoughts of a successful female artist in her 80’s. Plenty of movies and endless buzz and fuss are made about the big contemporary male artists, directors, writers-cum-hipster deities (Bukowski, Pollack, Warhol, Godard, Kubrick), but so few of the great female creatives ever get their due and its ironic this film comes from the artist herself. It remains all too true that unless women artists do the often messy, awkward work of glorifying themselves, few others will.

The list of women artists whose works have often focused on themselves is suspiciously long, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, and Sylvia Plath being just the tip of the iceberg. About a year ago, when I attended the “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” exhibition at MOMA (also available as a book, if you’re interested), it was amazing to see what a high percentage of the works incorporated images of the artists themselves. Since historically women have always been forced to play object to men’s subject, muse to their artist, a logical step in the development of many female artists has been to grapple with this paradox head-on by blurring that boundary. This was especially true during the big re-emergence of feminism when consciousness-raising was encourage so many women to question their roles and the self they wanted to choose for themselves. It’s a complicated process though. Even as women artists take control over the image of themselves that they produce, on a certain level they are still offering their image up to the gaze of the viewer which leaves it open to interpretation, titillation, appropriation, colonization, etc. At the artist’s most powerful moment of self-assertion, self-expression, self-invention, they are potentially also at their most vulnerable.

What I appreciate about The Beaches of Agnes, is how gracefully Varda remains in control while walking this line. With a tone of playfulness and aplomb, she manages to create an autobiographical account of her life and her works that both entertains and moves the viewer without being heavy-handed, narcissistic, or cringe-inducing. Instead of talking heads and old photo montages, she glues the movie together out of little stories and asides, artistic whims, silly reenactments, and movie clips with an overall effect that feels true and intimate without being overly revealing. She eschews a linear, chronological progression and focuses more on a landscape of memory with a cat glued in here, a friend or two stuck in there, and a generous sprinkling of humor. She’s edge-of-the-knife intelligent and a passionate observer of people, places, and times and you leave the movie being jealous of her colorful history. Just check out this picture of her in her youth at Cannes when Cleo from 5 to 7 debuted:

Young Agnes VardaShe is like DARING you to question her awesomeness.

Anyway, all this gushing about Agnes Varda and getting a glimpse of her inspiration for different movies makes me want to do a mini-retrospective of the rest of her works (at least the ones available in the U.S.), so be on the look-out for some other posts about her over the next few weeks.

11
Jul
09

Princes and Princesses & The Adventures of Prince Achmed

princesses_1

I came down with a terrible cold over the 4th of July weekend, which definitely put a damper on my celebration, although it did have the upside of causing me to seek out a good, old-fashioned comfort movie to take my mind off my misery. Whenever I have a bad cold for as far back into my childhood as I can remember, the only positive thing about being sick was getting to stay in bed watching the most charming, soothing movies possible. The Princess Bride, any of the Muppet movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000, you know the kind. This time around I was restricted to what was available via the internets, and since I am a late hold-out against the onslaught that is Netflix (I could write a whole ridiculous, curmudgeonly post about that), I did not have a ton of options with the caveat that I recently found out about the glorious website: The Auteurs, which allows you to watch a ton of old, foreign, arty type movies on the internet for a mere $5 a pop.  Princes and Princesses by Michel Ocelot was one of the few animated and non-Svankmajer films available on the site, so I gave it a whirl and it was exactly what I needed. Compared to the whizz flash of most modern American animated films, it’s sort of mind-blowing to me that Princes and Princesses was made as recently as 2000. It feels like a much older movie from a more innocent cinematic time, way before 3d and digital color and talking sidekicks, a time when kids were satisfied with straight-forward fairy tales.  The stories in the movies are wonderfully crafted, with fantastic twists and funny dialogue, with a silhouette-visual style which lends an elegance often lacking in animation. I also think the silhouette format is brilliant because in a world of constant  stimuli bombardment, this is one movie where the children watching have space to imagine the details for themselves. They can create the character’s expressions, the colors of the clothes, the fantastic settings in their own minds for once.

Naturally this movie reminded me of one of my favorite animated features of all time, which also happens to be credited by many as the first animated film ever made, The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger:

PrinceAchmed

This movie was also done in the silhouette style, but if you can believe it, each and every character, every set, every frame in the hour-long masterwork was painstakingly cut out by hand by the director back in 1926. On a pure, visual level, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more artistic, stunningly detailed, mindblowingly-intricate piece of film-making. Even if you had to watch the film without any of the dialogue, it would be completely worthwhile to see it. Even better though, it’s based on stringing together various stories in The Arabian Nights into one, long beautiful tale that includes everything you could want in a fantasy movie. Needless to say, I recommend you go rent it if you ever get the chance, although it can be a little tricky to find. If you can’t, Princes and Princesses is a fitting modern tribute 74 years later.