motion picture, it's called

Friday, April 22, 2005

More Movies Noted

Here's what I've seen in the past few days:

Thunder Road (Robert Mitchum, Arthur Ripley, 1958)
Saboteur (Hitchcock, 1942)
The Girl from Monday (Hartley, 2005)
Der Untergang (Hirschbeigl, 2004)
The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, 1960)
Forty Guns (Fuller, 1957)
Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)
Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (Bruce Conner, 1976)
Mass for the Dakota Sioux (Bruce Baillie, 1964)
Begone Dull Care (McLaren, 1949)
All My Life (Bruce Baillie, 1966)
Lipstick & Dynamite (Ruth Leitman, 2004)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Martin Scorsese’s Trip Through American Movies

Martin Scorsese produced a 4-hour documentary with the British Film Institute on the history of the American cinema up until the 1970s. Upon initial viewing, the documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, appears to be a good and sometimes even provocative introduction to the history of the American cinema. Upon closer reflection, I find Scorsese’s documentary inherently flawed and that it even begins to highlight the reasons for Scorsese’s recent career difficulties.

1. There is very little attention of the American comedic tradition. Chaplin is barely mentioned and Keaton gets one short clip. There is literally very little discussion of Frank Capra’s comedies, and even less of Preston Sturges. Billy Wilder does get more attention, but mostly for his Cold War satire One, Two, Three. Scorsese does not discuss the genre of the screwball comedy (one of the most popular genres in American film history), whereas his discussion of Westerns and gangster pictures is extremely extended. For Scorsese, the heart of American movies seems to be the Western and gangster genres.

2. In addition, though Scorsese highlights a few of the films, there is no explicit discussion of the American melodrama. He does discuss All That Heaven Allows, and some of Stroheim’s melodramas (particularly The Wedding March) as well as Murnau’s Sunrise. But, overall, his discussion of the American melodrama is even more fragmentary and incoherent than his discussion of the American comedy.

3. There is literally no discussion whatsoever of the American experimental or independent film.
Scorsese seems to see American film as primarily an existential journey through a solitary male psyche. The primary themes for Scorsese are male alienation, outsider/insider dynamics and the negatives of human society versus total independence (as exemplified by the lone cowboy and the lone gangster outside of society). Many of the movies he highlights are driven primarily by game theoretic stand-offs between completely self-interested heavily armed males . Appropriately, the bulk of the movies Scorsese examines in depth are from the 1950s (when game theory was invented as part of the Cold War military effort).

The most notably examined movies (and the more unusual choices) within the documentary are Allen Dwan’s Silver Lode, Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, I Walk Alone, Howard Hawks’ Scarface, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront and Fuller’s Forty Guns. There is a heavy predominance of heavily plotted Westerns, film noirs and gangster movies.

More about this topic shortly.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Caveh Zahedi interview

Caveh Zahedi is one of the most interesting American directors around, and hardly anybody knows who he is. If you need external verification of that, Richard Linklater has praised Caveh and put him in his Waking Life. (Caveh has acted in a number of independent films as well as directing). Ray Carney loves Caveh as well. Yet another reason you should sign up for Greencine over Netflix is that Greencine has most of Zahedi's movies available for download (while Netflix has jack).

BrainTrustdv has an extensive interview with Caveh, and you should look at it closely:

Thursday, April 14, 2005

More Movies Noted

Gawd, another week flown by and the following movies seen:

The Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951)
Millions (Danny Boyle, 2004)
The Trouble with Harry (Hitchcock, 1955)
Abschied von gestern (Alexander Kluge, 1966)
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)
Laura (Preminger, 1944)

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Films Noted

Ok, what have I seen this week?

Allegret's ZouZou (1934)
Roy Rowland / Dr. Seuss' The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)
Jan Hrebejk's Horem Padem (2004)
Linklater's The Newton Boys (1998)
Chabrol's La Femme Infidele (1969)
Berthold Bartosch's L'Idee (1932)
Leger / Murphy's Ballet mecanique (1924)
Oskar Fischinger's Wachsexperimente (1927)
Payne's Sideways (2004)

Yeah, I watch too many movies. The big surprise was Bartosch's L'Idee, which is the best animated film I've ever seen, though I ran into it accidentally at a showing of early German animation. The big disappointment was Payne's Sideways, which just wasn't as good as the praise made it out to be.

Odd Obsession: Go There Now!

I also want to highlight great film enthusiasts of my current residence, Chicago. A great video store in Chicago is Odd Obsession, which I've heard other people praising for a long, long time but which I never have visited - until yesterday night, that is (a bus I was riding just happened to go by the store).

Odd Obsession turned out to be a really fabulous store. The fact is, most video stores suck because they have the same exact merchandise as everyone else, whereas nobody has the stuff you can't get (so, what's the point? just order all your stuff from Netflix). Brian Chankin, the owner, is a real obsessive nutcase - so he goes out and finds the really good stuff. Why am I talking like Chankin is dealing drugs? ( is a drug, don't get addicted, keep your kids off film). I walked in and found, within a minute, a bunch of movies that I'd literally been dying to see.

There are TWO store cats (both relatively friendly), as well as store birds and reptiles (there may be some other store animals as well, but I was too busy drooling over the selection). On a huge TV set, Chankin was playing Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and later on, an episode of "Get a Life" - the "Handsome Boy Modeling School" episode that was the foundation for the brilliant 2 CDs produced by the DJ group Handsome Boy Modeling School (i.e. Dan "the Automator" Nakamura and DJ Prince Paul). Chankin is clearly a man of (twisted) tastes.

Anyway, I suggest you run, not walk, over to Odd Obsession at 1659 Halstead. They've got more Godard than you thought possible (no, really, it's true).

Friday, April 08, 2005

The First 2 Minutes and 15 Seconds of Linklater’s The Newton Boys

The Newton Boys begins with a most unusual opening credit sequence - a sequence that has been rarely remarked upon. The Newton Boys is a highly mis-understood movie, partly because it crosses so many genre boundaries. For example, viewers have believed the movie to be, variously, a Western, a gangster movie and a crime/caper movie. Though, to some extent, it does partake of all of these genres, The Newton Boys systematically undercuts all genre expectations. Though the main characters are Texans robbing banks in the West and MidWest, the movie is set long after the archetypal Western and repeatedly focuses on technological developments (and even organizational developments of business and government). Though the main characters are gangsters, the movie portrays them more as a set of comedians than criminal-minded (the only person they ever seriously injure is a mistaken shooting of a fellow gang-member). More saliently, the traditional gangster movie follows a rise and fall narrative schema - which The Newton Boys openly flaunts, since the Newton gang (though they eventually are imprisoned for a very short period) is shown not as falling, but enjoying extended happy old ages (the movie closes with interviews of the Newton brothers well into their eighties). Cutting against the crime/caper genre (which often centers upon the intense difficulty of pulling off the theft), the Newton gang’s thefts seem comparatively easy and mostly a comic lark.

The film’s opening sequences are very unusual. After the obligatory current Twentieth Century Fox logo, the screen goes entirely black, while spritely Dixieland jazz begins to play. Again, this is heralding the difference between this movie and Westerns, which usually begin with old country ballads or Morricone music (usually pretentious and portentous, while Linklater chooses lively dance, almost comedic, music). Quite properly, since The Newton Boys is set in the 1920s, many decades after the archetypal Western - and much more accurately than The Wild Bunch, set in 1913 but whose opening sequence has anachronistic music.

A placard appears announcing that "Twentieth Century Fox presents" in an elaborate old-fashioned type on an ivory-colored card framed with an almost Art Nouveau border. Notice that Linklater uses the old corporate identity of Twentieth Century Fox almost as it would have been in the 1930s and does not identify Fox as a NewsCorp company.

A title card announces the title of the movie. Underneath the title, there is script reading "Passed by the National Board of Review". The National Board of Review (NBR) was the US de-facto censorship board from 1916 into the 1950's but has not had that function since then. This interesting sentence functions on several levels:

1. Any film from the era of the 1920s or 1930s would have had this very script attached to it, so Linklater is encouraging a sense of nostalgia.
2. Conversely, The Newton Boys would likely have been difficult to make under the NBR since it’s plot makes the Newton gang extremely attractive without much punishment of their criminal activities. It certainly would have been near-impossible to do so in the post-1934 Hays Code era. Therefore, the movie is announcing it was made in (or honoring) the period between 1916 and 1934 (the late silent and early sound era).

After the title card, soon appears a card announcing "The Players...". Then we are shown short black and white individual vignettes of the stars of the movie. Interestingly, the stars of the movie, though gangsters, are nearly all shown as pleasantly smiling at us, the audience (two even tip their hats directly to us). Except for one of the gang and the police officers, all the gang members are exceptionally attractive and well-groomed, friendly, and quite well-dressed in their vignettes. Except for the menacing gang member, none of the others are armed. The gang members are posed against differing modes of transportation, one against a train, another upon a horse, another in front of a car, another walking. Again, this cuts directly against the Western genre, where we are often initially confronted with a dirty, poorly dressed, poorly groomed, often menacing or surly hero usually mounted upon a horse (this distinction is also played up in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, whose clean-cut, well-dressed, well-mannered hero appears first on a train). Also, we are being alerted to the centrality of technology and modes of transport, which play critical roles in the movie. This players sequence is very theatrical and also harkens back to the silent movie era.

After a number of other placards announcing the directors, writer and other crew, a placard appears announcing that "This is the True Story of the Most Successful Bank Robbers in the United States". This placard reminds us of the opening verbiage sequences to many of the great gangster movies of the 1930s, but directly undercuts them as well. 1930s gangster movies usually had a segment of text introducing the story - but the text usually floridly condemned the evil of the gangsters (especially in Scarface, for instance). Here, Linklater opts for a very neutral and understated sentence, which can be seen as even slightly positive towards the Newton gang, since it praises them as the "Most Successful".

We next see an iris shot asymmetrically focusing on a black-and-white shot of a man walking. Iris shots are most notably seen in films from the late silent era. To begin with such an iris shot, Linklater is again harkening back to this era of film-making.

What does the opening sequence add up to? Linklater repeatedly, throughout the movie, sets up genre expectations, only to gently knock them down. This process begins with the title and opening sequence - a Western announced by jazz music and with automobiles, a gangster movie with friendly and polite gangsters and a very modern movie with many elements harkening back to early elements of the cinema (and even theater). Linklater’s title sequence tells that the movie is already beginning to explore its themes precisely by returning to and interrogating the very era where the genres Linklater is working both with and against were established - the late silent and early sound eras.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Manhunter: Michael Mann's Transformations

The point of Thomas Harris' entire life-work was to force us into the process that his serial killers themselves are undergoing (at a much more disturbed and transgressive level, of course). We are intended ourselves to transform (in idea only, to be sure) into people who can begin to understand, however much we ourselves fear and loath the transformation, how Harris' serial killers think and feel.

To some extent, we are beginners on the same path that Will Graham is farther along upon, that Clarice Starling starts upon and that Dr. Lektor, Dollarhyde, etc, are unspeakably far along upon. The narrative of the Harris books is a vortex upon which more and more people, beginning down that transformative path (sometimes with the best of intentions), do, in fact, transform from humans into something other than human (except for Will Graham and Dr. Bloom).

Where Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon all fail is that these three movies continue to keep us at a distance. We are not convinced that we ourselves could become victim to the vortex by these three movies. Partially, this is a function of Hopkins' over-the-top performance and improper displacement of the actual focus of Harris' trilogy: Harris focuses upon the agents, Graham and Starling, who begin the transformative process but end transforming in highly divergent ways.

Moving from book to screen, the necessity of Harris' vision entails that the film-maker begin to transform us from pure observers or watchers into beginning to transform ourselves, to begin to fear our own attraction to power, to horror, to transgression. Michael Mann is able to do this, while Demme/Scott/Rattner are unable to do so, by the things in Manhunter that so many commentators hate: instead of plotting the movie solely as a police procedural (as the three other movies are), instead Michael Mann turns the movie primarily into a sinuous, constantly cryptic, meandering journey through the experiences (which we share) of Graham and Dollarhyde. The plot is irrelevant, the importance is that we draw ever-closer to becoming Dollarhyde.

The driving music, the inherent attraction of Noonan's Dollarhyde (who has excellent taste in clothes, architecture, music and is himself a film-maker of sorts) are not superfluous as many believe but very much the essential core of the movie. We gradually become attracted to Noonan's inherent coolness, and identify ourselves with Reba McClane, the blind girl who begins an affair with Dollarhyde.

This identification leads to what I believe is the central scene in the movie: when McClane rubs the fur of a drugged tiger. We, along with McClane, begin to feel, admire and even long for the power of the tiger. We, on some level, wish to transform into a tiger, into something other than human. We take the first steps of becoming Dollarhyde. And that is what is truly frightening about Manhunter.