Nov 17, 2009

Scorsese Meditation

Today is the 67th birthday of director Martin Scorsese.
The following is one of my favorite moments from his engrossing documentary My Voyage to Italy (1999). In this sequence he discusses the films of Antonioni. In particular, I enjoy his ruminations on L'Eclisse. Scorsese's narration is so elucidating and personal ... his voice is calming and provides the perfect sound for a meditation on the art of film and its effect on the person who has the luck of experiencing a great work. Scorsese's passion for film is contagious and communicated, not in a delirious crushing professorial manner, but through intonations of soothing love.

Oct 2, 2009

Woody Through a Glass Darkly

Thinking of a film that I truly disliked at first viewing, yet found myself admiring today, was a difficult decision. There are plenty of films I did not like at first glance, but later liked them a bit more or understood them better or saw their "point" in the second analysis. George Roy Hill's Slap Shot came to mind ... a film I truly hated, then felt kinder toward. Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye was not to my liking initially; mostly due to what I felt was his dissembling my idea of Chandler's detective hero. However, that film is one of my very favorites today. Its deconstructing of the 40s detective aura is what, I see now, is its main strength and I love it for that very cinematic disemboweling. There are many films I loved as a child or teen and find not so ripe as an adult. As a lad, I loved the spoof version of Casino Royale. I thought it was a jaunty thrill and could watch it over and over again. The shine is tarnished a bit on that shiny 1967 movie windup toy. I see it for the mess it is, but it introduced me to the wonderful music of Burt Bacharach, screen sexual innuendos and delightfully daffy actors like Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. This was where I first discovered my favorite director and screenwriter; in this glorious technicolor, loud, fast moving mess of a movie. Thinking of that film made me think of Mr. Allen and a film of his that I felt so angry and bored after seeing on the screen; so cheated. Today I think it is a masterpiece.

Having watched many Woody Allen films before being exposed to Interiors, I had been conditioned to expect pure comic genius. His earlier films provided shining brilliant comedy that melded sight gags and comic dialogue and provided wonderful entertainment. You could see his talent burgeoning film by film; from the primitive reconstruction of a Japanese spy film with his own silly dialogue added to his science fiction parody Sleeper which reminded me of Buster Keaton in the future. Each film showed comedy muscles being strengthened and the pleasure of more and more intelligent comedy scripts. I feel it culminated in Love and Death, his Tolstoy Russian spoof, which showed the full blossom of what we would expect from this director/writer. That film perfectly blended the New York neurotic humor, his ideas about God, Life and Death and great physical and visual comedy. It was the cinematic bridge work to his masterpiece Annie Hall.

What would he do next?

Expecting more comedy, more cerebral humor I waited with great expectation. What the public received was a dark, deeply serious, Ingmar Bergman type film that delved into the psychological and emotional problems of a tightly wound New York City Waspish clan. I must remember that, at the time, I had never seen an Ingmar Bergman film, but I knew of Mr. Allen's love of the Swedish director. I had heard him talk of him with great admiration in magazine articles and television interviews. In Annie Hall, you can even spy the poster to a Bergman film outside a theater that Alvy and Annie stand in front of having a very aimless neurotic argument. Interiors is unrelenting in its drama and depression. I was utterly confounded by the story and what Woody Allen had in mind. What was this humorless dry pity party of a film about? I thought, "So, he got a couple of Oscars and now he thinks he is a serious filmmaker? This is an incredible bore ... Diane Keaton is staring out a window at the water and thinking of death? Where's the FUNNY??!!" Maybe I expected a spoof of a serious foreign art film. But, I shouldn't have ... Woody Allen was maturing and continuing the growth I had not really noticed at the time. Now I can see how perfectly he blossomed and continued to blend all the "funny" with the "tragedy" in his later films.

I call Interiors a masterpiece because it is masterful in its plotting, it's dialogue and visual construction. It achieves everything it wants to achieve. It seems quite snobby in its telling of these perfectly smart New York people and their problems. But it is a beauty to behold. You feel totally dropped into their lives and their problems. Most of all I love the look and sounds of the film. There is no music ... only street sounds, traffic, the wind, the waves on the beach. The cinematographer Gordon Willis has a steady camera that lingers on the emotion; it never pulls away. The set direction and art direction is perfect in the way it captures the coldness of this family. The colors of slate blue, icy gray, pale green, white, and taupe are constantly present. Only later, when a more vibrant character enters the story, do we get some reds and bold colors. There are shots in this film (see above photo) that are very similar to a Bergman film (and I have now seen many of that genius' works) but Woody Allen dwells more on madness, death, bitterness and the need to be creative, yet not feel adequate enough in that creativity. He repeats that theme ever so much in his later films ... even his recent Vicky Cristina Barcelona. When you see this film today, you can see the elements, themes and recurring character-types in every Allen film since 1978.

He asks many times in his work if we are ever to be happy or fulfilled or what Life is all about. One of the great pleasures I can attest to in Life is being able to see films.; especially being able to see a work over again and see it with different eyes and to be so impressed by its visual and emotional impact.

Apr 27, 2009

Don't Think

A recent post by The Passionate Moviegoer discusses the weekly fact that the highest grossing films are entertainments directed toward action lovers or teenagers or children. He then cites the rock dropping ticket sales for films that try to be adult entertainment or, at the least, have intricate or more complex plots ... in other words, "make you think" or engage your brain to follow a plot and be surprised. My favorite part of the post is this ending shot:

Note in Passing:

The weekend that "17 Again" opened, I happened upon Scott Mantz's enthusiastic review of the Efron film on "Access Hollywood." He also had a few positive words to say about "State of Play" but only in passing. (The focus of Mantz's piece was really "17 Again.") He ultimately commented that he couldn't get completely behind "State of Play" because - I'm paraphrasing him now - "you had to pay attention to it too much."

I'm afraid that says it all

This past Sunday I gazed at a local paper touting the big Summer releases. It was not very promising. Maybe two films peaked my interest. Most of the film descriptions included words like "magic", "fantasy", "robots", "CGI hamsters", "Transformers", more Seth Rogen and some Vanessa Hudgins.

Apr 14, 2009


I'm a regular reader of Filmbrain's blog Like Anna Karina's Sweater. Recently, he posted a video from a Bernardo Bertolucci film entitled Partner from 1968. It seems it was a largely experimental film on the director's part; mostly influenced by Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her. I've never heard of this film and it's fevered plot is mostly incomprehensible; a New Wave influenced film with doppelgangers, Ennio Morricone music and murder tossed in a film salad of vignettes. You can read about it here and allow Filmbrain to explain it further for you ... my main purpose is to reproduce this video he posted of a scene from the film that absolutely mesmerized me and spurs me to run it over and over. A dalliance between a male and female, resembling a detergent commercial that begins with absolute silence, introduces a pop song to accompany the images, insinuates a sexual potency and then progresses from foamy fun into dark deeds. If only more films today could treat us to such intriguing memorable visual moments.

Mar 24, 2009


One of my very favorite films released in early 2008 was Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park. It was a brilliant laconic meditation on a young man's ennui and the accidental murder in which he finds himself embroiled. Its story, also, in my opinion, knowing where Van Sant usually comes from in regard to his own sexuality, is a visual metaphor for the boy's emerging confusion with his own sexual identity. This, of course, can be debated, but that very act of inspiring argument on what the film really means is an invigorating result of such a beautifully realized piece of cinema. The same can not be said for Mr. Van Sant's Academy Award winning bio film Milk.

The story of Harvey Milk and his journey from closeted gay man to avid political activist for homosexual rights in 1970s San Francisco is brought to the screen in a very straight matter of fact Hollywood style manner. It's very forth right telling is as dry and mannerly as 1937's Academy Award winning The Life of Emile Zola, except with male kissing, of course. It is a complete by the book telling of a famous person's life with all the trappings of relationship problems, failure and success, inspiring speechifying, characters that are changed by the central character, and the eventual martyr's death. These are the ingredients poured into the generic Hollywood mold of the bio film. The only exception to this rule is the central figure and subject of the film; a subject never handled in those old style constructions, that being a historical character who was a homosexual. Van Sant makes sure we get over this hurdle (if anyone should have a bias about it) in the first scenes of male intimacy. The film, then, follows its cliche mannered steps to its sad, but inspirational conclusion.

This is not to say that the story of Harvey Milk and his rise to prominence as America's first openly gay politician is not interesting and educational in its significance to the sensational breakthrough it provided for gay rights in America. Van Sant is a visually interesting director. He is able to integrate newsreel footage and fictive recreation in beautiful swoops of fluidity and makes one feel the 70s in every frame. Some of his shots were truly wonderful. The use a metal whistle to reflect a scene between Milk and a policeman after a man is beaten to death, in the Castro section of San Fransisco, is beautiful to see; a Hitchcock touch reminiscent of the murder reflected in the fallen eyeglasses in Strangers on a Train ... horror or its aftermath presented in an imaginative symbol of separateness. A call out for support from other gay men in the area for aid in a rally is done in the style of the teenage phone call scene in Bye Bye Birdie; blossoming squares of characters responding to the call in colorful backgrounds replicated many times over around the central caller. A television plays in a character's home while Harvey Milk is interviewed on the screen; his head huge and dominating as Josh Brolin as Dan White watches; his own head reflected in the corner of the screen symbolizing his feeling of inadequacy and impotence as Milk's popularity increases and his feeling of worth decreases. Great directorial signatures.

The acting of all the participants is brilliant and engaging. Sean Penn was deserving of his Oscar win and he, again, immerses himself into a role and becomes almost unrecognizable. His performance radiates great joy and a lust for life that we don't usually associate with his usual characterizations. It would be wonderful to see him in a comedy role. James Franco, Josh Brolin and several supporting characters such as Denis O'Hare as the sermonizing Christian politician who becomes Milk's major nemesis are all superlative. The most amazing transformation, for me, was the job performed by Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones,a young hustler that becomes Milk's most ardent supporter and comrade in activism. Hirsch's ability to become this character of effeminate tics and mannerisms, with his curly mop and large framed aviator eyeglasses was hard to grasp after seeing him in Into the Wild and Speed Racer. He is truly a talented young actor. Penn's greatness in becoming the very person we see is expected. Hirsch's transformation was happily unexpected.

The acting and directing is above par as stated, so why the feeling of blandness after watching? The explanation is the script by Dustin Lance Black. Ironically, this script won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Its winning of this award can be explained, perhaps, to its message and timely production at this time in gay rights history; the current battle over same sex marriage proposals. In its construction the script is very paint by numbers and not very clear on why Harvey Milk becomes what he becomes. We see his beginnings in New York as a closeted "suit", his meeting of his soul mate and their transfer to San Francisco. Milk's activism raises its head in his new environs and he becomes very political in support of gay rights and strives to end the brutality and persecution of the gay denizens of the Castro district. The total immersion of Milk into the politics of community activism and eventual elected status as a city supervisor is depicted clearly, but Milk's passion in his motivations never becomes clear to me; suddenly he is so active and strident. At times, his political aspirations and dealings to get "what he wants" seem unappealing in a movie that clearly wants you to love it's central figure.

I fault Black for the blatant movie moments that reek of 1940s bio pics. Milk is called by a boy in the Midwest who asks for his help in escaping from his homophobic parents. After Milk tells him to just get on a bus and go, the camera pans back to show he is in a wheelchair; syrup poured over syrup. This made me cringe. I expect this from an old black and white feature, but not today ... and not from Van Sant. The idea that this boy calls and connects to Milk and later calls again, some time later, in a happier place due to Milk's advice, is quite hard to swallow. Another gulp is felt when Milk goes to a very bloody passionate opera depicting assassination the night before his own end. It seemed so cinema-sculpted and was made more so by his dying last look at the same opera house, through a window, before he expires into a bloody heap much like the dead operatic character. The film just felt very tepid and forced in its emotions and I never felt connected to these characters. Of course, I knew the story of Harvey Milk before I sat down to watch this film, but, even so, stories we know can be formed into new and exciting presentations and made more interesting when told over and over again. It didn't seem as adult as it should have, not daring for its subject manner. It felt safe, cliche and stale; only saved by its acting charms and flair of visual direction.

Feb 27, 2009

Vanishing VHS = Forgotten Films

The Museum of the Moving Image's blog and news source has a good article on the films that were on VHS that may be, now, seemingly lost to future video presentations. Mentioned, in this piece, is the now defunct Kim's Video which was, formerly, on St. Mark's Place in Greenwich Village. I had visited this emporium many times when visiting a friend in Manhattan. It was an incredible depository of rental films and retail dvds. The most obscure items could be found on their shoddy shelves. The place was not a sparkling clean palace of retail splendor. Downstairs was a cd area and upstairs was the video space. I purchased Pretty Poison, starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins, there 3 days before it was available for release on dvd. I found a dvd copy of John Huston's Fat City, which was out of print. I scooped it up for purchase. Many obscure Italian horror pictures were displayed in their own section; yes, Kim's had shelves devoted to Mario Bava, Giallo films, cult classics, famous directors, silent films and Asian martial arts films. It was wonderful. It made me dizzy.