31 December 2006

...checking it twice.

Much to Andy's dismay, I'm sure, I'm doing not one, but two lists this year. The first--the one you'll see below--is for the Senses of Cinema World Poll, which should be out sometime in January, I think. This comes with a deadline of 31 December, so seeing as the list of very good films is shorter than the list of ones I still want to see, I'll be doing a better, more complete list sometime in January when I've watched a few more films. That one will contain a short write-up on each film. But, until then, here you go.

1. United 93 (Paul Greengrass)
2. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom)
3. Moartea domnului Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles)
5. 13 (Tzameti) (Géla Babluani)
6. Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
7. An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim)
8. Water (Deepa Mehta)
9. The Illusionist (Neil Burger)
10. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)

19 December 2006

leaving, on a jet plane



Remember kids, if you happened to miss the yearly airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), it's available on DVD, so there's no reason whatsoever to miss it.

I'm flying to Maine early tomorrow morning where, from the looks of things, the film choices are quite slim. But, I've loaded up on DVDs from some of the year's best-reviewed films, so all is not lost.

Even though Andy Horbal isn't as fond of them as I am, I'll be weighing in soon with a "Best of 2006" list, two of them, actually. One for the Senses of Cinema World Poll, which has a deadline of 31 December. Seeing as most of my time is spent in Pittsburgh and Maine, this prevents me from including some of the late contenders, so I'll probably do another, more "official" one in the middle of January. Even though last year I waited until 17 January, I missed out on what would have been my #1, La Meglio gioventù (2005). Such is life.

In the meantime, That Little Round-Headed Boy has some up already.

Tonight the plan is to see Babel (2006), and perhaps if I get inspired on the plane, I'll do a write-up on it.

01 December 2006

Your own worst critic



For the past couple of days, in the process of writing a screenplay, I've been researching the French auteur Jacques Rivette[1], specifically his debut feature Paris nous appartient (1960). The film is virtually impossible to find on this side of the Atlantic, which is making my research more difficult, but, more to the point, it has me thinking about the French New Wave and that group of critics that changed the cinema forever.

Rivette, along with Truffaut, Godard, and the rest of the New Wave filmmakers, cut his teeth as a film critic, writing for Cahiers du cinéma under the supervision of legendary theorist André Bazin. It was here that François Truffaut came up with the Auteur theory.

Of course, if you're the type of person who reads entries in a Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon, you probably knew that already.

What we sometimes forget, though, is that the New Wave did a lot to further blur the line between the critic and the filmmaker. Many of them stayed with the Cahiers du cinéma for a time, even as their films were taking the world by storm. This had been done to some extent by the late James Agee, a multi-talented writer who just happened to be a film critic, and later perhaps played a small part in Roger Ebert's forays into screenwriting in his earlier days. But few, if any, did both to the extent of the French New Wave.

Until now.

The last couple of years have seen the internet reach a point where it's much more amenable to the "filmie" mindset. Before, there were sites dedicated to film, sure, but they were rather hit or miss and run by a few people with a love for programming code. But, with the creation of the blog universe, where anyone with even the smallest amount of computer savy can weigh in on pretty much whatever they please, film criticism or, rather, the minor leagues of film criticism has exploded. There are hundreds of highly intelligent people writing thoughtfully on pretty much any film you could ever hope to read about, even uber-obscure films like Paris nous appartient. This, in and of itself, is fantastic for a number of reasons, the chief being that it gets people thinking critically about film who might never have done so.

Over on one of the other internets, we have YouTube, fueled by the suddenly affordable cost of cameras and editing equipment. There's a ton of videos on there, and most of them are terrible, but if you dig around, you can find some really interesting stuff. The major media outlets are paying attention and snatching up what they can, finding talent in places they might never have looked.

So how are they related? Well, combine all these qualities and you've got the potential for a second coming of the French New Wave. People who spend half their time writing film criticism (in whatever form) on their blogs and the other half running around and making short films. The two feed off each other. When you have to explain in detail why a film does or does not work, it makes it somewhat easier to recognize those same qualities in something you've created. You can look at your short and imagine what you might say if you were panning it, something that might be nigh unto impossible without the experience of doing it to others. It makes for better filmmaking, and it makes for better film criticism, as it tends to add a degree of compassion toward the filmmaker where previously there might be none.

But, more importantly, it's a fertile training ground that may just give us the next Truffaut or Godard, something we'd all love to see.

*************
[1] In case you didn't know, Rivette is best known for the films Va Savoir (2001), La Belle Noiseuse (1991), and La Bande des Quatre (1998), among others.


** Don't forget the Lovesick Blog-a-Thon right here on 14 February 2007. **

21 November 2006

Robert Altman

A sad day in the film universe, as the iconic Robert Altman has passed away. I don't have the words to do this justice, but there's a bunch of tributes being collected at GreenCine.com, and you can read my review of his latest, that delightful A Prairie Home Companion (2006) here.

I'm going to celebrate his life with a 6-pack and a viewing of some of his work, but I leave you with images.

PHC_01459R







19 November 2006

On Writing

In case I don't write anything of substance on here over the next 2 weeks, here's my excuse (in the interest of full disclosure):

I've been, for the past year, picking away at a complete overhaul of coffee stains, the screenplay I adapted from Matt Reed's poetry chapbook and was unable to adequately film. But the story, I felt, remained a good one, even if it didn't get completed, so I kept telling people I was going to still do it, only I didn't particularly want to film the script I had. It wasn't bad, but I knew it could be better (and there was no reason for it to not be better), so rather than continually tweak, I tossed the whole thing and started from scratch, the theory being that it would then be easier to avoid repeating the first effort. Anyway, long story short, with November being National Novel Writing Month, I decided to spend the month finishing the first draft. As of 1 November I had 20 pages. As of 18 November I have 71. It should clock in at around 100-110.

So far, I think it's better the second time around, but we shall see...

The trick right now is not getting stuck.

16 November 2006

3rff: Notes From a Festival 4

Johan
(Nicole van Kilsdonk, NR, 97 min, Netherlands)


Johan en Evy op de tribune

We finish a survey of the Three Rivers Film Festival with Johan, a cute little romantic comedy from the Netherlands. Michiel Huisman stars at the titular Johan, youngest of the eleven Dros boys. His father has an unhealthy obsession with futbol (hence the eleven boys), which he has successfully passed along to all of his children except Johan, who wishes to be a singer. He meets a girl (Caro Lenssen) and falls in love, only to see her stolen away by his brother Johnny (Johnny de Mol), the most talented of the Dros brothers. He tries to escape his family, but finds it difficult, since all ten of his brothers are professional futbol players and splattered all over the tabloids. Of course, he cannot get over the girl, and hatches a plan to get her back.

The resulting film is a lot of fun. The ceiling for these types of romantic comedies is naturally not all that high, but Johan gets pretty close to that mark. It reminds me a lot of the film Fever Pitch (2005) could have been (and the British version was much closer to), and you could do a hell of a lot worse for a date film or even just an enjoyable way to spend 100 minutes at the end of a rough week. I have a hunch that if Johan can get any sort of an American release, it'll find a great deal of admirers. It's nothing but a pleasant trifle of a film, and sometimes that's a good thing.

14 November 2006

3rff: Notes from a Festival 3

Cinematographer Style
(Jon Fauer, NR, 86 min, USA)


4549

Essentially an educational film, Cinematographer Style interviews 110 of the world's best cinematographers, including Gordon Willis and Vittorio Storaro, on the specifics of their art form. It's a fascinatingly rare look at all these minds, who aren't often placed under the lights themselves, and they don't disappoint, stressing to the audience the value of story over substance, of working within your budget, and of the value of saying no. Many of the older cinematographers, who've clearly done a significant amount of teaching, take the time to teach the crew that's filming them--fiddling with the lights and practically demonstrating lenses and shadows and such.

If you're the type of person that finds cinematography interesting, it's a wonderful way to spend 86 minutes, which is not to say the film doesn't have problems. Director Jon Fauer is clearly enamored with his subjects and feels a debt to them for taking the time, so he makes a conscious effort to include all of them in the film. Naturally, this ends up being a bit of a sensory overload, as we're constantly cutting back and forth from talking head to talking head, with some of them repeating what the previous one had just said. A more focused approach would have done wonders, as it would have been wonderful to hear more from Storaro and Willis and less from, say, the guy who shot Armageddon (1998). I pick on John Schwartzman, not because his opinion wasn't of value (in fact, he was very informative), but because of a symptom of one of the film's bigger problems--it was often difficult to figure out who was talking and what they had done. The film opens with a barrage of people saying their names, which essentially helps you pick out the ones you recognize, but for most of the film you find yourself saying "what film is this guy talking about?"

Word is there's a DVD box set being planned which should alleviate many of these concerns, as they plan to show longer, if not full, interviews from many of the greats, allowing the audience the maximum opportunity to soak up their wisdom.

11 November 2006

3rff: Notes from a Festival 2

Delwende
(S. Pierre Yameogo, NR, 90 min, Burkina Faso)


DELWENDE465

Delwende is a relatively simple film. In the midst of a epidemic, a small Burkina Faso village believes the recent rash of deaths is tied to witchcraft. They set up their version of a divining rod, which indicates the witch is none other than Napoko (Blandine Yaméogo), who just happens to be the mother of Pougbila (Claire Ilboudo), the young woman we've conveniently just learned has been raped. They run Napoko out of town, which naturally angers Pougbila, who takes it upon herself to track down her mother and clear her name.

It's a simple plot for what's ultimately a simple film that aims to expose the injustices dealt to women in a primitive culture. It's hard not to think of the Salem Witch Trials or even the vastly superior film Water (2006). The fact remains, though, that there just isn't all that much talent on either side of the camera. A better editor could have easily trimmed this down a good ten minutes without sacrificing a bit of content, and the script is either heavy-handed or poorly translated, but that hardly matters, since the performances are haphazardly directed. Is it important to shine a light on this part of the world? Sure, but it couldn't hurt to have a better flashlight.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
(Stephen and Timothy Quay, NR, 99 min, Germany/UK)

splash_l

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is an intriguing, yet awkward title, but it's fitting for this intriguing, yet awkward film. The latest from the Quay Brothers involves a piano tuner (César Saracho) who's hired by a strange doctor (Gottfried John) to tune seven automata, devices I never quite understood. Somewhere in there is a recovering opera singer the doctor is trying to help in some way and a whore, who wanders around and looks seductive.

In the end, I think the film is about art, about how artists create, how they exist, and how they are perceived by the world, but no other explanation would surprise me. Hell, if you told me it was about aliens, I wouldn't be shocked.

In it's best moments, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is a baffling, hypnotic, enigmatic masterpiece. The problem is, those stretches are all too short. All too often, you get the idea the Quay Brothers are far too deep into their own imaginations. The film is produced by Terry Gilliam, and at times echoes him at his most obtuse and self-indulgent. To say it can be frustrating is an understatement. The festival program promises that it "resembles little else in cinema", but to me it felt a lot like early Jeunet, and while I can't place the plot, I'm sure I've seen that before. If it were at least ten minutes shorter or ten percent more coherent, then this could be a very good film, but as it stands now, it's just...um...well...I have no idea.

09 November 2006

3rff: Notes from a Festival

13 Tzameti
(Géla Babluani, NR, 86 min, France)

13tzameti

13 Tzameti, the feature-length debut from Géla Babluani, is a taut, engaging thriller that begins simply enough before transforming itself into an unexpected treatise on morality and luck. George Babluani, the brother of the director, stars as Sébastien, a construction worker who overhears his employer's plot to earn a great deal of money for only one day's work. He steals, then follows the elaborate instructions, not realizing the police are following him closely. The work in question: a suicidal, high-stakes game of Russian Roulette that he cannot escape.

The easy comparison here is Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's Intacto (2001), but Babluani films in a stark, gritty style that invokes the French New Wave and the best in 16mm short films. The tension is undeniable and the result is a film that after a slow start gets very cool during the second act and, then, oddly enough, somewhat profound. It's not a great film, but for a low-budget first film, it's as good as you can hope for.

4
(Ilya Khrjanovsky, NR, 126 min, Russia)

ebbc5fc0

There's nothing quite like seeing a film you know nothing about in a festival setting. Zero expectations, coupled with the tendency for festivals to have a less-than-rigorous selection process (since the goal isn't box office, per se, there's sometimes more focus on an ill-defined sense of "art". This is not always a good thing.) Collections of shorts are great in this regard because the films are often either brilliant or terrible (and sometimes both at the once), yet none of them are quite long enough to make you regret coming. There's almost always something worthwhile. Features, however, can be scary, especially if you're like me and hate to walk out, no matter what.

Which brings us to Ilya Khrjanovsky's 4, in which three people meet in a bar, lie about who they are, and leave. It's a compelling, nuanced scene composed of long, steady shots. Polished isn't the right word, but it isn't far off. Then, the film devolves into some sort of statement about the conditions of modern day Russia, full of rotting meat, wild dogs, and long, long, long scenes where old women wail and eat and get drunk. Tedious is exactly the right word. It's pretty clear the contrast between the lies we tell and reality, which is generally the film's main point, but that's a point made clear before the end of the first hour. Apparently the Russian censors wanted to cut an hour from the film, and I can't say I blame them. There's a line where a film ceases to be a cryptic, beautiful mess and becomes nothing short of a clusterfuck. That's the line 4 crosses. It's the type of art film that turns people off art films.

This would be enough if the projectionist didn't improperly frame the vast majority of the film, including two reels framed low enough to make the subtitles nearly impossible to read. I find this happening more and more. Projecting a film properly isn't complicated and screenings like this make me long for the day I can download the film and just watch it at home, where I can at least be confident I'm actually seeing the film I'm supposed to be watching.

06 November 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

borat

starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, and Pamela Anderson
written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, from a story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips
directed by: Larry Charles
R, 84 min, 2006, USA


Jagshemash!

A quick perusal of the universally glowing reviews for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan will yield one undeniable conclusion: film critics cannot, for whatever reason, refrain from referencing the mangled dialect of Kazakhstani TV personality Borat Sagdiyev. Why is that? Is it because we feel some sort of camaraderie with him? Is it the result of a latent anti-Semitic worldview? Nah. It's because, quite simply, we can. Most critics are, at heart, creative people, and a constant filing of reviews can, at times, get somewhat repetitive. So, when a moviefilm as gleefully irreverent as Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan comes along, it gives critics a license to indulge their inner creative soul. Simply put, it's fun.

As you might have gathered from the reviews, so is the film. Provided you have a certain level of tolerance for content that pushes the boundary of the MPAA R-rating, there's a great deal of comedic genius on display. Whether or not the bulk of the comedy will survive the ravages of time remains to be seen, but in late 2006 this is a very, very funny film. Is it, as some have claimed, the funniest film ever made? No, but you already guessed that. It is, however, the funniest film of the year, and for the price of a movie ticket, you can't ask for much more than that. It's a film that plays better on the big screen, in a crowded theatre, which bodes well for the film's box office haul.

So does the fact that the glorious nation of Kazakhstan seems unable to get the joke, going to such lengths as taking out full-page ads in the New York Times and funding a $40 million period epic aimed at counteracting Borat's indications that Kazakhstan is a backwards nation struggling to keep up with the rest of the world. In fact, they've done such a poor job responding to the film that one almost wonders if they're actually in cahoots with the producers of the film.

On to the film itself. Borat is sent by the Kazakhstani government to tour America in order to help bring the country into step with the rest of the world. Once in America, he goes around mortifying innocent (and not so innocent) civilians with his unique brand of journalism and quickly falls in love with Pamela Anderson, convincing him that he must travel across the country and make her his wife. And...that's the plot. Along the way, he pushes every boundary of good taste known to man. I'll avoid details for the simple reason that it's a film that benefits from a lack of knowledge. Try, if you can, to know as little as possible going in.

The thing is, Borat hasn't a clue his actions are so offensive. Much is made of his views, the misogyny, the anti-Semitism, the homophobia, but these are beliefs ingrained in Borat's personality. He knows nothing else. Much like the targets of his jokes, Borat lacks the perspective and exposure to different viewpoints and ethnicities necessary to be a well-adjusted member of society. But Borat has an excuse: he lives in a former Soviet republic with a cow in his bedroom. His targets, however, live in the richest country in the world. They live in a melting pot. Even deep in the Bible Belt all they have to do to encounter people different from themselves is walk down the street. They have no excuse for holding the views Borat so quickly exposes. They've willingly placed themselves in a society that's not all that different from Kazakhstan. They've chosen to become as boorish as Borat, so when they encounter him, they recognize a kindred soul and the floodgates to their prejudices open wide. This is the sort of social statement that you rarely see outside of academia. It's often noted that to get a honest look at a society, you have to approach it from the outside, so it's fitting that it takes a British comedian posing as a Kazakhstani TV personality to show us something true about ourselves.

One of the pleasant surprises in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is the performance of said comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, who has added levels previously unseen to the Borat character. This is a Borat terrified of an old Jewish couple, mortified to learn of Pamela Anderson's sexual past, genuinely thrilled to learn of the death of his wife, and, at his most vulnerable point, pushed to the edge of collapse. Cohen handles all of this with aplomb and total dedication to his character. It's rare you even see such devotion to a role in any film, much less a broad comedy. Cohen owns the role, his transformation is complete. It's honestly one of the best performances of the last couple of years. If Johnny Depp can score an Oscar nomination for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), then it would be only fitting for the Academy to recognize Cohen. I doubt they will, but they should.

As should be evident from the trailers and commercials, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is not for everyone. Much like South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999) it requires a disregard for certain cultural taboos, but if you can look past the hard R, it's well worth your time. You've never seen anything like it. Or, to quote Borat, "Great success!"

A Blog-a-Thon

As long as cinema has existed as an art form, filmmakers have been using it to figure out their love lives. Whether it's Charlie Chaplin or Jean-Pierre Léaud or Ethan Hawke, there's a long history of characters struggling in their pursuit of a romantic ideal. At times, it almost seems as if a film exists solely as a form of relationship therapy, as a futile attempt to figure out women.

Or, as Thom once wrote, "Maybe that's why we invented cinema: to share our complete lack of understanding with each other?"

Which brings us to 14 February, commonly known as Valentine's Day, but also the date of the brand-new Lovesick Blog-a-Thon, hosted right here at 100 films.

I'm hesitant to give too many restrictions and guidelines, because part of what makes the Blog-a-Thon interesting (at least to me), is the various odd turns a topic takes in the recesses of people's minds, but the general idea is how filmmakers use the medium to relate to their love lives (or, better yet, justify them), or even love in general. If that means a discourse on Tom Hanks romantic comedies sneaks in, so be it.


Other upcoming Blog-a-Thons:
Unspoken Cinema, 08 January
Film Criticism, 01 December-03 December
Alfred Hitchcock, 15 November

03 November 2006

more moose footage

In the interest of transperancy, I'm posting an assembly edit of some of the moose hunting footage, partly because I'm still trying to figure out if there's a film here, or just a bunch of footage. Keep in mind this is just a rough edit of part of the footage (the part where the moose dies). The music something temporary I tossed in as a placeholder (it's actually Matt Reed), while I wait for the real stuff to show. Anyway, enjoy.

30 October 2006

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

An entry for the Vampire Blog-a-Thon

abbott

starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney, and Bela Lugosi
written by: Robert Lees & Frederic I. Rinaldo & John Grant, based on characters by Mary Shelley & Bram Stoker
directed by: Charles T. Barton
NR, 83 min, 1948, USA


There's a truism in film that given the opportunity, a Hollywood studio will revisit a franchise until they've wrung every ounce of blood from it, until the franchise itself has become such a parody of itself that people forget why it was so successful in the first place. In television, they call it "jumping the shark"[1]. Rocky V (1990) is a good example[2], but the film that is perhaps cited the most is the epic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where not only does Universal insert two comedians into the Frankenstein legacy, but combines it with Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man. A Monster Mash, if you will. Of course, this was not the first time the studio had tweaked the Frankenstein storyline, as we'd previously been given Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, where...uh...Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein (1944), where the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man are all revived for the purpose of revenge, and House of Dracula, a reciprocal home game for Dracula. Later, they gave us Van Helsing (2004), where I spent 132 minutes wondering if being un-dead might make things somewhat enjoyable. But, in 1948, seeing as Universal had run out of monsters, they opted to turn the proceedings into a comedy. It sounds like a terrible idea because, well, it is a terrible idea, the sort of thing that only a Hollywood studio could come up with after a heavy round of drinking.[3]

But here's the part that makes you question the existence of karma: it worked. Instead of being a complete trainwreck, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a hit. And not a medium-sized, go figure hit, but Universal's second-highest grossing film of the year. Not only that, but Universal then did the unthinkable--they ended the series on a high note. So it goes.

Enough history. What about the film? How exactly do Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein?

Here's the thing...they don't. As any astute fan will tell you, the green guy with the bolts in his neck is not Frankenstein, but Frankenstein's Monster. Frankenstein himself--that mad doctor with the hunchbacked assistant--is long dead. We have his writings that conveniently detail his experiments, but the man is no longer with us, and therefore unable to meet that most famous of comedy teams.

Anyway, here's the plot: our heroes work as some type of baggage handlers. While on the job, Costello receives a call from London where Larry Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney), asks him not, under any circumstances, to deliver any packages to a local house of horrors. But the owner (Frank Ferguson) insists, so with nary a thought to the warning, they deliver the packages. Lo and behold, they contain Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange), a fact that Abbott refuses to believe, despite Costello's insistence. Later, the Wolf Man arrives to stop Dracula from his dastardly plan of reviving the Monster by using Costello's brain. And, well, that's pretty much it. Throw in some subplots about Costello's girlfriend being a doctor in cahoots with Dracula and Abbott being accused to trying to hurt the owner of the house of horrors, and you've got enough of a plot to justify the rest of the proceedings.

Because those proceedings--the scenes where Abbott and Costello flex their comedic muscles--are easily the best parts of the film. And, some might argue, are among the best in their hallowed career. Take the scene where Costello discovers that Dracula is alive. With Abbott out of the room, he begins to read the legend of Dracula. This triggers Dracula's slow, creaking emergence from his coffin. Costello gets scared and calls for Abbott, and Dracula ducks back into the coffin. Naturally, Abbott doesn't believe him.

Abbott: I know there's no such person as Dracula. You know there's no such person as Dracula!
Costello: But does Dracula know it?
**************
Costello: You know that person you said there's no such person? I think he's in there... in person. I was reading this sign, Dracula's Legend. All of a sudden I heard...
Costello imitates a creaking noise
Abbott: That's the wind.
Costello: It should get oiled.

The film's grand irony is that Dracula and his accomplice, Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lénore Aubert) have hand-picked Lou Costello as the brain for their planned transplant. It's not as if they choose the one conveniently at hand. No, she has befriended Costello well in advance of Dracula's arrival for the sole purpose of using his brain. Of all the men she could have used, for some reason she opts for Costello. The audience realizes that his is not exactly the the sort of intellect that changes the world or, as he puts it, "I've had this brain for thirty years. It hasn't done me any good!" Of course, as well all know, a thinking Monster is a potentially dangerous one, so a superior intellect may not be the best fit. Come to think of it, Dr. Mornay is probably counting on it.

Effectively, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is two films jammed into one. There's the plot-heavy film that's an extension of the previous Frankenstein films and the parallel Abbott and Costello comedy that just happens to be occurring on the same sound stage. In reality, they have little to do with each other, save for some forced machinations added to justify the mash-up, but the strange thing is they work together. Most of the Frankenstein films, save for Bride of Frankenstein (1935)[4], tend to be stretched rather thin, as do some of the Abbott and Costello films. So, to combine them into one film is to ensure neither half of the equation is forced to carry more of the film than it can handle. Who cares that there doesn't seem to be any reason for them to be in the same film? They compliment each other well, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters.

****************
[1] A reference to the Happy Days episode where the Fonz--leather jacket and all--does, in fact, jump over a shark.

[2] It's probably safe to assume the upcoming Rocky Balboa (2006) will fit in this category as well.

[3] Like Kazaam (1996).

[4] Which just happens to be in the 100 films series. Here's my less-than-stellar entry.

26 October 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion or: fun with YouTube

Turns out YouTube is a better tool for the starving artist filmmaker than I had previously realized. Here's the latest (and hopefully final) edit of L'Attente (2006). Enjoy.

25 October 2006

This Film Is Not Yet Titled

I'm not sure if there's actually a film here, but here's a look at it anyway...

The Death of Bullwinkle

There’s a review of Marie Antoinette coming. Perhaps even today. But, until then, a summary of the moose hunting trip:

I’d never flown with my camera before, and after much research discovered that Northwest’s policy is to check it. So, I loaded it into the case that could survive a nuclear attack and took it to the airport. They directed me toward the TSA’s oversized luggage area in the Pittsburgh airport, where the guy looked it over (but not nearly enough for my comfort. Let’s just say there could have easily have been something illegal inside that he wouldn’t have caught. There wasn’t, but he wouldn’t have caught it if there was) and let me lock it. I wandered over to security wondering if I’d ever see my camera again.

But, while sitting at the gate, something occurred to me. With security at airports being what it is, it’ll be awfully hard for a baggage handler to just wander off with the case and the lock is such that the type of things needed to destroy it aren’t allowed anywhere near luggage to begin with. This made me feel a lot better.

I got to the Portland airport just fine (after a quick change in Detroit–perhaps my favorite airport) and sure enough my camera was there as well. My mother and my brother’s fiancé picked me up, and we headed north.

Wednesday: I’d ordered some tapes from Amazon and had them shipped directly to my parent’s house, but they had yet to arrive, so until I had something to record on, I drove around Camden looking for a place that could rent me a shotgun mic for the week. I couldn’t find one, but they directed me to a couple of places in Portland.

Thursday: Went to Portland (like an hour and a half away). First place had all theirs out on loan, second place rented for nearly $300 a week, third was around $60 for a week. Naturally, the $300 one is going to be significantly better, but since I wasn’t going to be using a boom or anything, I decided to go with the $60 one, since I likely wouldn’t have been able to utilize much of the difference in quality. That night I helped my brother run his basketball practice (he coaches our alma-matter).

The plan for the film involves getting interviews from the key people to try and create a sense of the context in which the hunt will exist. I’d mentioned this, but unfortunately I couldn’t find the time to do it before the hunt. So...

Friday: saw The Illusionist. Quite good. Edward Norton is a fantastic actor.

Saturday: Still no tapes. This is a problem. They should have arrived days ago. So, I drive to Augusta and spend $70 at Circuit City for fewer tapes than I bought online for $30. This is the problem with midcoast Maine. If you desperately need electronics, your options are limited. I remember now why I never shop at Circuit City. Now that I have tapes, I meet up with the rest of the family and we head to Bath for my cousin Blaine’s wedding. Blaine is going on a moose hunt Sunday, and I had originally planned to film parts of the wedding, but he’s going on a different hunt, and with a crew of one, I decide the logistics of the whole thing just isn’t worth it. Too many releases to have signed, etc., for something I probably won’t be able to use. Had he gone on our moose hunt, well that’s a different story.

The ceremony was quick–5 minutes total–but the key moment came when the minister asked if anyone objects and on cue the dog (who was the ringbearer) starts howling. I have actors who don’t have timing that good.

Sunday: Up at 4:30. Drive 3 hours north to the vast woods of Northern Maine. Once there we drive around on logging trails “scouting”, which basically means we look for either moose, or signs that moose have been there recently. There are a surprising number of people doing the same thing. Some have found spots and are camping out in the woods.

We then go to my relative Leslie’s camp (near our hunting camp) where Edwin (who is related to me somehow) has been living since his wife kicked him out. He’s installed solar panels and a satellite dish. We watch the Patriots game and he mentions that he’s seen a number of moose in the immediate area. So, we scout that area and find a spot. Unfortunately, with the Patriots game playing in the background, I don’t film this exchange, as there are more rights issues there then I care to deal with. By the time we get back to the camp I’m exhausted. I fall asleep at 8:30.

Monday: First day of season. Up at 4:22 a.m. I’m the last one up. A quick breakfast then we’re off, driving in pitch black toward our spot. We’re set up at 6. It’s so dark I have to turn the gain on my camera all the way up in order to see anything at all. The plan, as I understand it, is this: my father and my brother will set up in our spot and try to call a moose in (that’s where I’ll be). George will sit in the car just down the road with a radio to see if a moose is coming from the one direction we can’t see so well. Alex and his son will drive around the are and try and spot one.

6:13: Start of moose season. Sunrise isn’t for another 15 minutes. I can’t see a damn thing. My camera is having trouble holding focus. I’ve got the auto focus on in case I have to move quickly.

6:19: Dad’s phone rings. Alex has spotted a moose just outside Leslie’s camp. Ryan (my brother) takes off running. Dad and I follow. We get over there and sure enough there’s 3 moose about 200 yards away in a clear cut. We have a bull (or whatever) permit, but he’s standing directly in front of the cow, so we have to wait until he moves enough that the shot won’t go through him and injure the cow.

We wait. I hold the shot.

6:28: Ryan calls George over to see if maybe there’s a clear shot from where he’s standing. I swing the camera around to get this and a shot goes off. I swing the camera back to the moose and he’s on the ground. He doesn’t get up.

Edwin wanders out of the camp with a cup of coffee. He offers us the use of his 4-wheeler, and after some rudimentary cleaning, the moose is on the 4-wheeler and then on Alex’s truck in roughly an hour. The moose died maybe 50 yards from another road. I’m told it’s not uncommon for it to take 8-9 hours to get a moose out of the woods.

Weight: 700 lbs. Rack: 49 inches. Back on the road by noon. By 4pm the moose is in a tree at my parents house being cut up.

While looking at some of the footage, my camera eats a tape, meaning the gears have to probably be replaced. I get none of the context footage I need. This is not good, but considering how little hunting footage I have, I may have to just make it really short anyway. We shall see. Anyway, right now I’m in the process of looking over the footage to see what it is I actually have.

03 October 2006

current cinema: La Science des rêves

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starring: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, and Emma de Caunes
written and directed by: Michel Gondry
R, 105 min, 2006, France


Shy and introverted by day, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) uses his dreams and imagination as his chief form of expression. The dreams--elaborate fantasies that exist in a world dominated by arts and crafts--allow him to escape reality in favor of a world where he hosts a nightly TV show, is seduced by co-workers, writes an acclaimed book, becomes something akin to Antoine Doinel[1], and is generally beloved. Only, Stéphane often confuses his dreams with reality, so when he woos Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a similar soul who lives next door, he has trouble reconciling the girl in his dreams who loves him and the actual girl who might, if given the chance.

This is not a healthy habit for Stéphane to indulge, but in Michel Gondry's La Science des rêves it is neither a shortcoming nor a virtue, but rather a fundamental part of who he is, a necessary by-product of a misunderstood creative genius. Or perhaps he is a genius who has not yet begun to reach his potential. I'm not sure which.

Not that it really matters. We know Stéphane is far from normal, and that is enough. He fashions himself an artist, but he finds his disaster calendar series to be a difficult sell after his mother gets him a job cutting and pasting letterheads. Without creative stimulation, his mind wanders and his work becomes secondary to his imagination, just as life is often secondary to his dreams. When that happens, Stéphane is effectively paralyzed.

Fittingly, this is similar to the character flaw he projects on Stéphanie—that she can’t finish anything, despite a lack of evidence. To Stéphane, the fact that he believes it is enough to make it true, reason be damned.

Reason is a low priority here, but, even with that in mind, there are times where La Science des rêves feels like a series of filmed ideas, half-realized dream sequences that do little to advance either the plot or the characters. One wonders if Gondry occasionally falls in love with images at the expense of the film's greater whole. It's in these moments where his direction, which in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was so deft, wanders, stumbling around for a bit while he searches for a narrative thread. This is due, in part, to the nature of the story Gondry chooses to tell. Managing the chaos La Science des rêves embraces is a Herculean task, to be sure, and Gondry very nearly pulls it off. It would hardly warrant discussion if he hadn't done it before, but he has, and comparisons to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are inevitable. Done correctly, they are also helpful. La Science des rêves struggles where its predecessor soars--on the page. What's missing is the unique genius of Charlie Kaufman, the ability to be at once quirky and melancholy. Gondry is by no means a bad writer--in fact just the opposite--but he's no Charlie Kaufman, and it may just be that he's a better visual artist than he is a storyteller. Ergo, the film's chief flaw: a threadbare narrative that's unable to plumb the depths required to match the level of everything else.

Much of the film hinges on how well the audience responds to the visual artistry. So if you, say, loathe Gondry's music videos[2], you'll likely have trouble connecting beyond a surface level to La Science des rêves. Such is life.

That’s not to say you won’t love the ride, for it would be difficult not to enjoy La Science des rêves which, in addition to the wonderful flights of fancy, is wickedly funny from beginning to end. All told, La Science des rêves is a thoroughly entertaining trip through Gondry’s imagination, even if it doesn’t prove to have any real weight behind it, vanishing almost as quickly as it appears. Still, it’s one hell of an experience, sort of like a lucid dream.

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[1] Doinel is the main character in François Truffaut’s series that began with Les Quatre cents coups (1959) and culminated in L’Amour en fuite (1979).

[2] He's done videos for Björk, Beck, and the White Stripes, among others.

28 September 2006

On the Trail with Boris and Natasha



Next week, in my never-ending, unintentional quest to have the oddest filmography possible[1], my trusty camera and I will board a plane for the great state of Maine to document a real, live moose hunt and, hopefully, the culture that surrounds it.

Certainly, moose hunting is an odd choice for a film, especially for someone like me who tends to keep his distance from firearms and isn't exactly Grizzly Adams. My family, on the other hand, is littered with hunters and fishers and other various types, so much so that it effectively defines a large portion of who they are. Hell, half of my extended family has either been a game warden, tried to become a game warden, or majored in wildlife management (which is how you become a game warden, I think). Suffice to say that if I were to become a vegetarian, it wouldn't sit well.

According to the State of Maine webpage, the moose population is estimated at 29,000, which qualifies as a slight over-population problem[2] that's potentially of danger to the surrounding community, since in a battle between a car and a moose, both the car and the driver inside will likely lose. So, the state holds a lottery every year for moose permits (2,825 issued in 2006), and the lucky winners get their shot at an animal that can yield 1,000 lbs. of meat. Naturally, that amount of food will easily last the winter, so pretty much every hunter in the state applies. Once you get a permit, you're ineligible for the next two years, and every year you don't get picked, you get an additional entry for the following year.

This brings us to my father, the Susan Lucci of moose permits, a man who'd faithfully entered 27 years in a row before finally seeing his name drawn this year. Friends of his had been drawn multiple times, but this year is the first he's ever won and, as he puts it, he may not ever get drawn again, assuming this pace holds.

In my family, this qualifies as a big deal, so when Dad asked if I wanted to come along on the hunt, it seemed like the natural choice to say yes. It was actually his idea for me to film it, reasoning that this is exactly the sort of rare opportunity that makes for a good documentary subject. So, film it I will, even if I really don't have any real sense of what exactly I'll want focus on or how I'll want to film it. There's no opportunity for a crew, so effectively it'll just be me and the camera and what I can carry, a definite limitation, but one I've dealt with before.

If anyone has any suggestions, fire away.

Oh, and my cousin is getting married the day we leave for the hunt, as in we're leaving directly from the wedding and changing in the car on the way north. Rumor has it he's actually going on a moose hunt (not ours, a different one) the day after his wedding and no one finds this strange, which should tell you a lot about how people think up there.

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[1] Thus far: yesterday (2001): a short student film about suicide, window shopping (2003): an odd, risky short that attempts to be poetic and fails completely, Reclaiming Our Past (2003-2005): three documentaries about the civil rights movement, guard duty (2003): a verite short about old men cooking potatoes, L'Attente (2006): a french film about coffee, Il Matrimino (2004): a sort of wedding video on steroids that I don't officially claim, some corporate HR videos, and various other aborted projects.

[2] Partly because the moose's natural predators are now rare in the state.

23 September 2006

a review is in...

from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"The longest and strongest of the three and perhaps the only one that's really a play...The tall Shawn Smith plays Frances with comic presence and a tumult laced with bewilderment. It's a treat to watch him turn a cell phone into an object of emotion. Todd Betker is the hapless Galvin, more aware but less explicable. Lucas McNelly directs briskly for Cup-A-Jo Productions."


Considering this is the first play I've ever directed, I'll take anything that isn't negative. It's so easy to say "oh, I don't care about reviews" until they, you know, exist.

21 September 2006

R.I.P.



Sven Nykvist, Academy Award winning cinematographer, died today. He, of course, is best known as Bergman's chief collaborator who worked with him on Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973), Viskningar och rop (1972), Persona (1966), and Nattvardsgästerna (1962).

No one did natural light better. He will be missed.

19 September 2006

Death on Flagler

two photos from tonight's rehearsal:

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directing a play, for better or worse

Some of you may be aware that over the last month or so I've been directing a play for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, a showcase for one-act plays from around the country that has the dual purpose of hi-lighting local theatre talents. I am not local theatre talent, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and I was asked to direct, partly because I am a local film talent, and partly because I had an opening in my schedule[1].

I'd never directed a play before, but I was happy for the opportunity because it allows me an chance to get better at directing actors as well as direct something I didn't write, which I believe is an important step in the maturation of any director. Being a writer/director is all well and good, but I think to truly become a filmmaker, you have to be able to interpret someone else's script just as well as you can interpret your own. Speaking strictly in terms of directing, it's harder, as you only have what's on the page as reference. You know little to nothing of the backstory or genesis of the work beyond what you can glean from the script and whatever extra information you can get from the playwright himself.

Also, there's a rather large chance that the script may be below your normal standards of writing, especially in a format such as this, where the pool of available plays is limited and largely mediocre.

Thankfully our play, Lucas Levya's Death on Flagler, was better than most of the plays in the festival. Brimming with coarse language (by our count, one character says "fuck" 136 times in less than 30 minutes) and a cameo appearance by a buffalo, it fell out of favor with certain directors (one of whom is also in our cast) and fell to us with the 12th pick. Not bad for the play we had ranked 5th. At least, that's what we thought.

What you have to understand about the New Works Festival is that of the 50 or so scripts available, there were only eight or nine I would have even considered doing, so to be ranked 5th in that group isn't as impressive as it first sounds. The problem with Death on Flagler, besides the title, is that it works very hard to undermine itself multiple times in the third act, something that wasn't readily apparent on first glance[2]. So, it took some work to maintain a dramatic build in spite of these roadblocks, but that's precisely the type of challenge I was looking for: working with actors to find an optimal way to present a script, even if that meant tweaking lines for a better effect. Thankfully, our cast is probably the most talented in the festival.

What's a little scary for me as a director is the lack of an editing process. I'm so used to being able to tweak things in post-production that I'm a little flustered at times when that isn't an option. Take, for example, something as simple as the lights up at the beginning of the play. We have music[3] playing over house lights, which go to black, then the play lights come up and the music fades out. This would take me maybe an hour to do on film and I'd get the exact effect I wanted every time, but now I've got to rely on two people in a booth. For a perfectionist like myself, this is not an easy adjustment. There's also the tendency of actors to do things differently from one performance to the next, which is part of the appeal of theatre, but again not something you can fix in post.

But the most important adjustment? Yesterday I'm in the booth for a tech run and after a minute or two into the run yell "cut!", only to find myself looking at several bewildered stares. Turns out in the theatre you don't say "cut", you say "thank you". My response? "Check the gate and run it again."

Anyway, all of this is to say we open on Thursday and run through Sunday downtown on 9th street. So if those of you in Pittsburgh want to see a play with a motherfucking buffalo, feel free.

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[1] More the latter than the former, I think.

[2] To be fair to Levya, this play hasn't been performed before and the problem is the type of thing that often doesn't manifest itself until the play is on its feet. This is all part of the organic theatre process that those of us in film find hard to understand at first.

[3] Mostly the Roots, which will be a surprise to people who watch my films. When in Rome.

11 September 2006

current cinema: Lü cao di

mongolian2

starring: Hurichabilike, Dawa, Geliban, Badema, and Yidexinnaribu
written by: Ning Hao, Xing Aina, and Gao Jianguo
directed by: Ning Hao
NR, 102 min, 2006, China


It's difficult for an American audience to imagine a place as remote as the grasslands of Mongolia--a land so vast, so barren, that one can travel an entire day in one direction, stand on the highest point, and still see nothing but miles upon miles of grass. A place so isolated that the difference between it and the Gobi desert is the color of the ground. A place where the nearest city is roughly the size of a small town in Arizona. To us, the middle of nowhere is a place where the towns are forty miles apart. In Mongolia, they might refer to that as being too crowded.

Such is the setting for Ning Hao's Lü cao di[1], a quiet little film in which three small children find a ping pong ball floating down the river, and never having ventured far from their home, haven't a clue what it is. They know only that it must be special, a theory confirmed by Bilike's (Hurichabilike) grandmother, a senile old woman who tells them it's a glowing pearl sent to them by the gods for good fortune. Sadly, it isn't, and when they eventually discover the identity of their treasure, they also learn that ping pong is the national sport and the ball--their ball--is the national ball. The mind of a six year-old being what it is, they assume the nation must be worried about the whereabouts of the national ball, so they head to Beijing to return it, oblivious to the fact that Beijing is hundreds of miles away.

Like many Asian dramas, Lü cao di operates at a pace decidedly slower than your typical Hollywood fare. It develops slowly and organically, seemingly unconcerned with theatrics in the goal of drawing an audience into this deceptively simple story. Hao is content allowing his camera to linger on a shot, as if it has all the time in the world, and while the film could probably benefit from a some small cuts, the overall pace is a good one. When you live in a hut far from civilization, life moves at a different pace, and Lü cao di reflects that without crossing into boredom.

Part of what holds the audience's attention in scenes where nothing is happening is the cinematography of Jie Du, who does a masterful job filming landscapes with what seems like nothing but a tripod and the sun. It's hard to image he's using anything other than natural light and the camera moves perhaps four times in the entire film, but Du makes the most of it, creating some beautiful static shots full of contrast and drama where otherwise there would be none. There's a shot near the end of the first act where Du casts the actors in silhouette against a bright orange sky in a frame that's exactly large enough to hold the pertinent movement of the scene. Hao wisely holds this shot for the entire scene and just lets it play. If there's any justice in the world, Du's work will get bandied around in the Oscar discussion, but unfortunately there's a better chance of the film becoming a blockbuster.

It's interesting to note that Hao's decision to employ static shots with little editing is primarily used by filmmakers who have a great deal of trust in their cast. A prime example would be a film populated by actors with strong theatre backgrounds. But Lü cao di is a film with three children in lead roles who don't appear to have any acting experience whatsoever. All three of them are playing characters given their actual names, and there are moments early in the film where the acting ability of the children is mediocre at best. Consider, though, that these are children who have likely never acted before in their lives, who may very well be natives of the Mongolian grasslands, and the end result of their performances becomes impressive. Add to that the fact that Hao is unable to cobble together a better performance in editing, that the characters play the majority of the scenes without interruption, and both the performances and the direction veer on remarkable.

By the end of the film, Lü cao di transforms itself into an enjoyable little drama--poignant at times, comedic at others--that knows exactly what it wants to do and strives for exactly that, nothing more. Hao shows himself to be a Chinese director with a great deal of potential for showing the poetry of everyday life. That he has the restraint to not just use a single, static camera but also never show us the actual sport of ping pong, is the sign of a director with maturity and confidence.

As for the all-important national ball, it never does make it to Beijing[2], but it accomplishes something much more important. It exposes the children to the larger world around them while conveying the importance of a small, fragile object. Honestly, how many small children could carry a ping pong ball around for an extended period of time without destroying it?

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[1] According to the IMDB message boards, this translates to "green pastures", but is being released internationally under the title Mongolian Ping Pong, probably because ping pong is much cooler than pastures.

[2] If by chance you think this is a spoiler, then you must be insane.

06 September 2006

current cinema: Little Miss Sunshine

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starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, and Alan Arkin
written by: Michael Arndt
directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
R, 101 min, 2006, USA


Six family members, all with their own quirks and foibles, embark on a road trip in a VW van. Such is the premise of Sundance favorite Little Miss Sunshine, an endearing indie comedy where bickering relatives learn to come together as a family, despite their differences. It sounds like the theme to any number of films because, well, it's a story as old as the art form itself. Dysfunctional people have been learning to get along on screen from the days of W.C. Fields to the modern-day epics like National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tennenbaums (2001). Along the way, it's been done poorly, it's been done exceptionally, but above all it's been done. So, to paraphrase my old writing professor[1], if you're going to tell that story, you have to find a way to put a different twist on it and make it your own.

In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, much of the responsibility lies with first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt, who takes a cast of characters fraught with potential pitfalls--including a suicidal gay Proust scholar (Steve Carell), an aspiring motivational speaker (Greg Kinnear), a heroin snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin), a teenage son (Paul Dano) who's taken a vow of silence thanks to Friedrich Nietzsche, and a little girl in a beauty pageant (Abigail Breslin)--and very nearly avoids all of them. With so many ways this could collapse under its own weight and become the sort of trainwreck sitcom that gets cancelled after three episodes, it's impressive that Arndt simply pulls it off. That he makes it actually work, that the end product will likely be on the fringe of the Best Original Screenplay discussion is a feat that's not to be overlooked.

In accomplishing this, Arndt employs an economy of words, eschewing the long, angry tirades that tend to surface in these types of films and allows the actors to do most of the heavy lifting through a litany of raised eyebrows, sideways glances, and piercing glares. Beyond that, each character has their own unique and competent voice, which gives the screenplay a feeling of authenticity. In other words, Arndt has an ear for honest, believable dialogue that keeps the film's more ludicrous moments from absurdity. But it's the choice to make the sullen teenage completely silent in pursuit of a life's goal that's the most inspired. Too many films resort to showing a teen's intelligence by giving them an "adult" book to read[2] as some sort of poorly conceived prop. However, Paul Dano's Dwayne is silent in response to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), the work in which Nietzsche began to lay out his famous "Will to Power"[3] philosophy, as a means to achieving his goal of enrolling in the Air Force Academy. Of course, this makes Dano's role one of the film's more difficult, and his performance is one of the most nuanced of the year. Dano, who came to prominence in Michael Cuesta's L.I.E. (2001), does more with a small notepad than most actors can wring from the complete works of Shakespeare.

The film's other breakout performance belongs to Abigail Breslin as Olive, the little girl chasing a Miss America dream. She effortlessly holds her own in numerous scenes with her more experienced co-stars, but its in the talent portion of the Little Miss Sunshine competition where she shines with a dance routine that's at the same time horrifying and hilarious, but made all the more sweet when viewed in context of the pageant, which the film portrays as something akin to all nine of Dante's levels of Hell[4]--combined.

It's a harsh commentary on the culture of pageants, to be sure, but it isn't exactly the most difficult thing to ridicule, especially in a society recently reminded of the JonBenét Ramsey tragedy. It's an easy target, a symptom of the film's main flaw. At points, Little Miss Sunshine only bothers to scratch the surface, skipping over what might contain some real depth in favor for an easy answer, quick joke, or convenient resolution. Thankfully, such moments are brief, and often composed so well by first time feature directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris[5] that few, if any, audience members will notice. Probably because they're too busy laughing.

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[1] Dr. S.S. Hanna, author of The Gypsy Scholar: A Writer's Comic Search for a Publisher.

[2] Kurt Vonnegut is a popular choice, especially Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (1969).

[3] Wikipedia describes it thusly: "living things are not just driven by the mere need to stay alive, but in fact by a greater need to wield and use power, to grow, to expend their strength, and, possibly, to subsume other "wills" in the process." The Nazi's took this idea and ran with it.

[4] As outlined in Dante Alighieri's epic poem The Divine Comedy, written between 1308 and 1321. While none of the circles are places you'd want to vacation, the ninth one seems to be the worst.

[5] They're best known for commercial work, specifically the Volkswagen ad that famously featured Nick Drake's "Pink Moon".


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A note on the formatting tweaks:

Loyal readers may notice a slight change in the way titles are now presented. The answer is that several members of the film blog community got together and have decided on a standard by which we'll all try to adhere. Details can be found here.

01 September 2006

100 films: ostre sledované vlaky

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starring: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský, Jitka Bendová
written by: Bohumil Hrabal and Jirí Menzel, from Hrabal's novel
directed by: Jirí Menzel
NR, 91 min, 1966, Czechoslovakia


Latest in a long history of people who's chief ambition is to get through life by doing as little work as possible. young Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) prepares for his first day working in a railroad station by recounting his family's heritage, from his father's penchant for laying on a couch all day and collecting a pension to his grandfather the hypnotist and his futile attempt to stop the German troops through hypnosis. At the station he befriends Hubicka (Josef Somr), the resident Cassanova, who advises him on the process by which he can lose his virginity to his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendová), a conductress on one of the trains. His attempts in that regard prove to be far too eager, and a distressed Milos, thinking something must be wrong with him, tries to kill himself.[1] Meanwhile, Hubicka's latest seduction comes under scrutiny from the German military.

Despite the ongoing war, director Jirí Menzel portrays Czechoslovakia as a country obsessed with sex. War is but a minor inconvenience. Even when a bomb destroys the photography studio of Masa's uncle, it has little impact on the characters or the narrative and Menzel spends as little time on it as possible, opting instead to move immediately to Milos' suicide attempt. And why not? When you're in a remote railroad post in the middle of Czechoslovakia, where nothing happens except the passing of trains, it's easy to find the terrors of love much more troubling than the horrors of an abstract war. It's only when the war comes a little closer to home, when the bombs actually destroy the building you're in, that it even warrants a mention.

That's not to say Milos and Hubicka are ambivalent about the whole thing. On the contrary, when the resistance comes to their door, they are more than willing to help out, even if that means blowing up one of their closely watched trains.

But ostre sledované vlaky isn't about war, it's about Milos coming into his own as a man. Václav Neckár plays Milos as a boy who's sexual inexperience informs everything about him, from the way he does his job to the way he relates to people around him, both male and female. Neckár's Milos is timid and unsure, an innocent terrified of the world around him. He so wants to become a man that when he fails on his first attempt, he assumes the failure to be a sign that he will never be able to perform and goes to a bordello where, instead of employing a prostitute, he cuts his wrists in the bath. He is so despondent that it isn't until a doctor informs him that premature ejaculation is perfectly normal--a symptom of being "too healthy"--and that he should practice with an older woman of ill repute and think of football.[2]

When he does find one, finally and after asking nearly everyone he encounters to set him up, he emerges a new man, composed and assured and confident. Suddenly he fills the screen. Jirí Menzel enhances the transformation, equating him to his mentor by evoking shots early in the film where Hubicka enjoys the memories of his latest conquest. No longer does Menzel continually put Milos in the bottom of the screen where he can be easily dominated by the other characters. Instead, Milos is given equal billing, existing on the same plane as everyone else--a sure cinematic sign of maturity.

What Menzel does in his Academy Award winning film[3] is infuse every frame with a virginal eroticism that mirrors the preoccupation of his hero. Seen through Milos' mindset everything is sexual, yet nothing advances past a certain point. There is no sex education for Milos, who is continually stymied in his quest for knowledge by a hastily closed curtain or an urgent telegraph or some other interruption. But it's not just Milos who sees everything as sexual. There's Hubicka, to be sure, but also their boss, Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorská) the telegraph operator with whom Hubicka has a particularly explicit fling, and virtually every other character in ostre sledované vlaky. This begs the question: why is everything sexual in Menzel's film? Is it because Milos is preoccupied with sex, or is it because Menzel is trying to make a certain statement about the futility of war? Or is it a combination of the above?

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[1] Naturally, this is a foolish thing to do, but is even more so when you consider how beautiful Masa is. With a girl like that, you try again.

[2] I'm no expert on the medical profession, but I imagine this isn't what they tell people to say in medical school.

[3] Winner of Best Foreign Language film in 1968, where it beat out Claude Lelouch's Vivre pour vivre (1967), Chieko-sho (1967), Skupljaci perja (1967), and El Amor brujo (1967).

22 August 2006

100 films: Un homme et une femme

a man and a woman

starring: Anouk Aimée, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Pierre Barouh, and Valérie Lagrange
written by: Pierre Uytterhoeven & Claude Lelouch
directed by: Claude Lelouch
NR, 102 min, 1966, France


A chance encounter leads to a tentative romance in Claude Lelouch's Academy Award winning[1] Un homme et une femme, a sublime exploration of a love between two people with enough emotional baggage and personal demons to inhibit their chances at happiness. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Jean-Louis Duroc, a semi-famous race car driver, who by chance meets Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée) at the Deauville boarding school both of their children attend, and offers her a ride back to Paris. They are each single parents coping with the tragic deaths of their spouses, although in their initial meeting, Anne gives the impression that her husband (Pierre Barouh)--a movie stunt man--is still very much alive.

Jean-Louis arrives at the truth quickly enough to offer Anne a ride back to Deauville the following weekend, where they and the children go on a double date of dinner and a boat ride. Thus begins the process by which they fall in love, slowly and organically, through held gazes and lingering hands. And whereas many films would make the jump from the dinner table to the bedroom, Lelouch expands on the flirtation, delaying the payoff and layering the relationship with his character's backstories, the means by which they've come to this place. He shows us the untimely death of Anne's husband and the suicide of Jean-Louis' wife after a particularly gruesome crash, but more importantly he shows us a long montage of Anne and her husband completely and totally in love, accompanied by the enchanting sounds of Barouh singing "Samba Saravan"[2]. At first it seems like an indulgent flourish by Lelouch that takes the audience away from the romance on screen by showing in detail a past love, but it later gains more resonance as Jean-Louis and Anne grow increasingly closer and Anne attempts to rationalize this move away from a man she loved so dearly, even if he is long dead.

All this culminates in the famous scene where after Jean-Louis successfully completes the grueling Monte Carlo Rally, Anne telegraphs him from Paris to tell him, finally, that she loves him. Without delay, Jean-Louis jumps back in the same car he's driven across Europe and speeds toward Paris, telling himself that when a woman sends a telegraph like that, you go to her no matter what, even if that means driving thousands of miles without rest. He reaches her, and they make love for the first time, but as they are, Lelouch cuts to images of Anne and her husband, indicating that while her body is with Jean-Louis, her mind is still devoted to someone else. She's even still wearing his ring. Eventually, Jean-Louis figures out that he's effectively making love by himself and they go their separate ways. It is at the same time bittersweet and beautiful.

The story of Un homme et une femme is an endlessly fascinating one, made all the more interesting by Claude Lelouch's narrative choices. At numerous points, he eschews dialogue in favor of flashbacks, montages, music, and race commentary. This accomplishes several goals (in addition to making the film more financially feasible). It allows the audience to more easily project themselves into the characters, as an image of two people talking with music replacing the dialogue draws us into the interaction between the characters, rather than distracting us by what they're saying. We naturally assume that what they're saying to each other is similar to what we would say in that situation. As a result, we become more invested in the relationship. It also gives the film the feel of a fairy tale romance, thanks in large part to the enchanting score of Francis Lai and Baden Powell. Take, for example, the scene at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club where Jean-Louis receives the telegraph. Lelouch puts a camera on a balcony and films it in an uninterrupted long shot as Jean-Louis reads the message, excuses himself from the table, and leaves the ballroom. We hear none of this, but it's clear enough that's what he's doing. Most directors would have either cut to closer shots and given us the dialogue or eliminated the scene altogether, but neither choice would have been as effective. It's a vital part of Jean-Louis' character arc that he leave immediately, and the uninterrupted shots convey that perfectly, but it's also unnecessary that we hear what he says. In fact, it's better that we don't. Lelouch's choice is a perfect balance.

The more celebrated choice of Un homme et une femme is the mixture of scenes shot in color with those shot in black and white. Much has been written about what Lelouch meant to convey with this device, whether the black and white serves as quotation marks or the color is meant to be a somewhat different version of reality or some such thing. The answer, however, is almost disappointingly simple. The budget for Un homme et une femme was not large enough to film the entire thing in color, but the potentially lucrative American market required color and an investor was willing to supply more money to the project if the film could play the American market. So, Lelouch filmed his interiors in black and white, as planned, and used color for the exteriors. The compromise is a practical one that people have been reading into since the film was released, and may have been a factor in Lelouch's Best Director nomination. It'll surprise no one to hear that the mixture has influenced many a filmmaker since, but had the project been able to raise more funds, it wouldn't have even existed. And for that, we're all thankful.

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[1] Winner of Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Anouk Aimée) and Best Director.

[2] The music itself is composed by Baden Powell, with lyrics by Vinicius de Morais. I haven't a clue who either of them are, and I don't care enough to look it up.

16 August 2006

Fishin' in Maine (a wicked long trip report)

With lots of pictures!

Last year, my roommate Josh and my buddy Nate accompanied me on a fishing trip to Maine where we spent a great deal of time in the woods, hung out at the Lobster Festival, and generally had a good time. So, the plan became to do the same thing this year, only Nate had to drop out roughly 2 weeks prior and Josh pinched a nerve in his neck, like so:



So I was on my own, and realizing that I wasn't in the mood to stay in Pittsburgh when I could be fishing, and since I'd recently given my car to charity, I decided my best course of action was to rent a car and ignore the costs. So that's what I did, handing Enterprise my credit card and heading east on that beautiful highway



a camera and a pile of CD's at my side and doing my best Neal Cassidy



Naturally, one of the most important parts of a solo road trip is the music selection. You have to strike that balance between songs that reflect the "zen of the road" and songs that basically help you drive faster. Personally, I like to accomplish the former with stuff like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson ("On the Road Again" is mandatory), Wilco, the Jayhawks, Red House Painters, and My Morning Jacket--stuff that you can almost zone out to and just drive, getting lost inside the experience. But, a steady diet of that is no good, as you may fall asleep, so I like to alternate that with Arcade Fire, the Danielson Famile, Architecture in Helsinki, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Broken Social Scene, and other such stuff.

With that in mind, I flew across Pennsylvania, making very good time in some sort of Chevy that seemed to be getting very good gas mileage. For the bulk of PA and NY, I dodged apocalyptic skies that constantly seemed like I was about to drive into "end of the world" weather, but somehow I avoided it all--a lucky bit of karma, I suppose--and hit my first real stop of Foxwoods in roughly nine hours.

This was my first trip to Foxwoods since they opened the new poker room, which is quite impressive. My first game--10/20 Hold 'Em--broke after a half hour, so I sat at 5/10 until a seat opened, where I then proceeded to play for 14 hours and left the next morning somewhat tired.

Not being smart enough to sleep for an hour in the Foxwoods parking garage, I got back on the road, only to have to sit in traffic for a half hour while the police cleaned up an accident. It quickly occurred to me that I was exhausted, so I stopped at a Starbucks and told them to "give me the drink with the most caffeine possible, regardless of how bad it may taste." That did the trick, and I was soon in New Hampshire, where in line for a toll booth I saw this car:



followed quickly by the most embarrassing sign on road for us Mainers:



An entire state reduced to one lane. Sigh.

It being summer, there were many more cars wanting to enter the state than leave it (this is reversed in the winter):



But I was soon over the bridge and into the Pine Tree State.



I drove home and collapsed on my parent's couch. The next day I went to my family reunion for the first time in maybe 10 years, and since very few people showed up, I fell asleep on a blanket and got burned to a crisp. But enough of that. Monday morning I headed north toward Aroostook County and my family's hunting camp deep in the woods, picking up my childhood friend Ben along the way. We drove in off the interstate to the quaint little camp built near a brook full of trout.



The camp has no running water or electricity and has been there for at least 40 years.







It operates as a quiet place where you can really unwind. A place where your major concerns are deciding when and where you want to fish, what type of beer you want to drink next, what time to eat, and how it might be possible to do all those things without getting up from your chair. It's a rough life.

We spent the first evening doing exactly that, downing a couple of beers each and cooking some chicken breasts over the fire. Here my buddy Ben works on building the fire:



The next morning we fished down the brook a bit. I caught 2 nice trout and a bunch I had to throw back and Ben drowned some worms and let some fish go.





But sadly all good things must come to an end and the third day we had to head back so Ben could attend to a family crisis situation. Not to be deterred, I went back to my hometown of Waldoboro, which is big enough to have it's own Information Center[1],



and got the keys to my parent's summer camp, so that I might resume my vacation in peace.



The camp is still under construction and should be a modest little place on an inlet to some lake who's name I can't remember.







I spent a couple of days there doing a little bit of writing, some kayaking around (I'd never done that before, and highly recommend it), listened to Red Sox games on the radio, accidentally caught a 14 inch bass while messing around with a fishing pole, and drank the Lobster Ale and Blueberry Wine I found in Waldoboro's new high(ish) class wine store.





As the week drew to an end, I got back in the car and headed west.

I saw no films and spent no time on the internet and pretty much did nothing all day, every day. We all need to do that from time to time, though, in order to keep our sanity.

Oh, and as I approached Pittsburgh, my brother called to tell me he had just gotten engaged mere hours after I'd last seen him. So now I can drink to that.



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[1] Yeah, that's the sum total of the Information Center. Waldoboro is also the home to the somewhat famous Moody's Diner, where I worked during my formative years.

11 August 2006

current cinema: A Scanner Darkly

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, and Woody Harrelson
written by: Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick
directed by: Richard Linklater
R, 100 min, 2006, USA


The secret to a successful viewing of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is not to put yourself in a drug-addled state, regardless of how many other benefits that may have, nor is it to ready yourself for another one of Keanu Reeves' sci-fi films or to listen to the new Thom Yorke album on repeat or read as much Philip K. Dick as you can get your hands on. The secret is to get used to the animation as quickly as possible.

The entire film, as I'm sure you've heard, was done using rotoscoping, a technique by which animators draw over live-action footage--one frame at a time. The result is a surreal image that allows for whimsical flourishes, a cheap and effective way to alter what's on-screen, and some cool special effects. It's the same process Linklater used to great effect in Waking Life (2001), his trippy rumination on dreams.

Waking Life was the first feature film done entirely with rotoscoping, and while the images were at times spectacular, they were also crude--a natural result of any emerging technology. The intervening years have allowed rotoscoping guru Bob Sabiston to refine his art form and what he's produced in A Scanner Darkly is an animation that looks cartoonish, yet at the same time feels more real than some of the live-action films you'll see this summer. Gone is the feeling in Waking Life of a protagonist floating through life, replaced by the feeling that what you're seeing is life altered by a couple of degrees. Such is the potential of rotoscoping that I imagine Sabiston could achieve both these effects using the same core footage.[1]

And just as the animation served a narrative purpose in Waking Life, here Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is a few clicks off his equilibrium in large part thanks to Substance D, a designer drug that, among other things, promotes paranoia. Arctor, along with his friends (Rory Cochrane, Robert Downey, Jr., and Woody Harrelson) is addicted to D, yet his job is part of a task force investigating whether Arctor is dealing D out of his house. All this is possible because the task force wears scramble suits to protect their identities. The suits, which project an ever-rotating litany of identities, make it impossible to determine who someone is. They also give the animation a chance to shine, working in ways that live action coupled with CGI never could.

The plot falters, as most futuristic films do, when attempting to provide some historical context and "feel" like the future. And while Linklater wisely downplays that angle, there's still the nagging sense of a story about the future written in the past[2], complete with all the projections of what the future entails. Sure, there are no flying cars and Linklater keeps the story grounded in the present-day as much as possible, but the feeling is still there, hovering in the background. If it sounds like I'm nit-picking, it's because there's something about A Scanner Darkly that just misses the intended mark and my best guess is that the problem lies somewhere in the source material. Having not read the source material, I can't be sure what that problem is exactly. I can only make rough assumptions. It's just that the majority of the problems in A Scanner Darkly are problems with story--the ending, for example, is a little too convenient--and we've seen enough of Linklater's storytelling to know that what doesn't work here isn't found in his other films. It feels like it comes from a different world-view. Ergo, it's probably from the novel.

For the most part the actors do a serviceable job, even if they appear at times unsure how to play a scene that'll later be animated. Reeves, in particular, seems to be compensating in places, and Robert Downey, Jr. plays his character with a full-fledged abandon that occasionally goes too far, but his portrayal of paranoia is as good as you'll find in film. Likewise, Rory Cochrane gives a very good performance as a man deeply addicted and struggling with demons that may or may not be real.

But in a film like this, nothing's actually "real". Everything is limited, in one way or another by perception--by what we think we see, by what everyone else thinks they see, and what the scanner sees. For these characters, though, what's most important, or at least of the most immediate concern, is what they think the scanners see. Such is the curse of paranoia.

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[1] It should be noted that Sabiston was replaced during production due to issues surrounding the amount of time it was taking for the animation to be completed. Still, the ideas and software are his.

[2] 1977, to be exact.

10 August 2006

5 things that may or may not be about avant-garde cinema

Preface

I'm far, far behind in my entry for the acclaimed Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, which you can learn about here. My internet's been out of commission for the past week, so I'm just now getting back on-line.

Anyway, I'm not exactly an Avant-garde expert, but I like to participate, so here goes. My method is simple. I did a tiny bit of research. Then, I went fishing in Maine for a week and wrote the bulk of what you'll see below. When I got back to civilization, I checked for spelling and accuracy and finished it up. So, there's a large element of flying blind, but hopefully it'll be interesting all the same. And if it isn't, I'll claim that I misread it, and that instead of writing about Avant-garde cinema, I wrote an Avant-garde blog entry about cinema. Or something.

Quick note: uses of the words "weird" and "normal" and the like aren't intended to be derogatory. It's meant to reflect what someone who knows virtually nothing about the cinema arts would think of something.

1. How Jean-Pierre Jeunet did a film involving the avant-garde without once being "weird".



The Googlist in me, when beginning to formulate an entry for the Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, turns first to his favorite search engine for information on the topic at hand, so as to not look like a damn fool on the worldwide web. In doing so, I learn that the term itself derives from the French for vanguard, which is "a small troop of highly skilled soldiers, explores [sic] the terrain ahead of a large advancing army and plots a course for the army to follow."[1] This sort of tidbit, while only slightly helpful in real life, is pure gold for a Googlist, as it is at the same time obscure, pretentious, and interesting.

But in applying the information, my mind jumps not to an examination of how this relates to the art form itself, but to a French war film, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004). The film takes place during WWI when Audrey Tautou's one true love goes off to war and is later assumed dead--news that everyone accepts as true except Tautou, who believes deep down her love is alive. The whole thing is romantic and melodramatic and a bit sappy in places, but the battle scenes border on brilliant. Jeunet uses the same stylistic flourishes that were cute in Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001) and finds a way to make them show the horrors of war.

The film itself is somewhat underrated on this side of the Atlantic, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it isn't Amélie. It is, however, a perfectly enjoyable way to spend two hours, assuming that you're the type that finds two hours of subtitles enjoyable (and if you're reading an entry in an Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, that's a pretty safe bet.) It isn't avant-garde in any real sense (other than a historical one), but these are the fractured paths my brain takes.

2. The time my French film was the only "normal" thing playing.

L'Attente16

I'll admit that my experiences with avant-garde cinema is limited. I reviewed Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929), which I found fascinating, and I have a copy of Koyaanisqatsi (1983) somewhere in my apartment that I haven't yet watched. The only other purely avant-garde cinema I've seen that I can pinpoint[2] is local works that have shown at functions I've attended.

And as someone who fully supports all local art, let me just say this: it's been pretty much terrible. But what you have to realize is that virtually all local art--mine included--is terrible. If I see twenty plays in a year and more than three are pretty good, then that's a great year in local theatre. Hell, I've pulled out my iPod during plays. Most local films are only tolerable if you know the people involved or are drinking heavily. Local music is better, but that just may be that I'm biased toward singer-songwriters. The best local films are ones I can watch more than five times without being bored out of my mind, and none of them have been avant-garde. One was somewhat experimental--Rue Snider's The Bar is a Beautiful Place, but it had some really good music.

The two avant-garde pieces that stick out were the ones that accompanied my films in the February 2006 Film Kitchen[3]. One of them consisted of three 30-second that were meant to show alongside a performance artist. There was a popcorn kernel popping and a quarter spinning and something else, each given the evocative title, Untitled. They looked cool enough and they were well done, but they didn't accomplish anything. They served no purpose whatsoever. They were just, "artistic". Horay.

The other film on display was a mixture of low-grade film and video footage from this guy's trip to Africa to attend a wedding. There was very little editing, just a bunch of footage from this guy's trip, essentially the sort of home movie someone would take of their trip to North Carolina. Where the footage was interesting was mostly in a National Geographic sense, where we were able to learn something about the customs and rituals of this wedding, but other than that small bit of info, it was awful. Just an endless stream of boring raw footage, done with little to no purpose or direction.

But that's not why I bring this event up. He also showed a much shorter, "finished" film that was clearly aiming for the avant-garde. It closed with a 30-second shot of an insect crawling out of a small circle of pebbles--by far the most interesting 30 seconds of all his footage. Afterward, someone in the audience asked him about the significance of the shot, assuming that it must have some meaning, but the guy just shrugged his shoulders and said, "I thought it would look cool." And therein lies my problem with the bulk of the second-tier avant-garde cinema: I can't shake the feeling that most of it exists purely to "look cool", which is about as self-indulgent as a filmmaker can be. If the goal isn't to experiment, to attempt to advance at least the filmmaker's skill, then some consideration should be given toward the audience. But, too often (and this is also a problem with second-tier narrative films, but to a lesser extent) what we're watching is either art for art's sake or something that looks cool. Either way, they're made for an audience of one. And if that's the goal, to do stuff you think is fun, then by all means, go for it. But if you're going to be showing it in front of an audience, then you have to try and consider what they might enjoy. Otherwise, you're like those people who show you two hours of their summer vacation, nearly all of which is their kids running around on the beach. No one wants to see that.

3. Joe Castiglione as background music.



Being a narrative guy, I tend to view the avant-garde in light of how it might come to serve the methods of storytelling. Sure, it's interesting when Luis Buñuel cuts an eye, but what does that really do? Can we use it to advance our common film language? Does it show us a new method to be used in other ways? Maybe. I don't know that without the Buñuel film Kieslowski thinks to use those haunting shots of Juliet Binoche's eyes in Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993) or that J.J. Abrams uses the close-up of an eye to open the pilot episode of Lost. It's impossible to tell, really.

But what interests me most about the avant-garde (which, yes, I need to explore more than I have) is when it's used for dramatic effect in a "normal" film, often in ways we never notice. And for that, I submit for your approval Todd Field's use of Red Sox radio broadcasts as ambient noise in In the Bedroom (2001).

There's been a great number of films set in the great state of Maine, but few (if any) have been smart enough to use Red Sox broadcasts as background noise nearly as effectively as Field did with his expert portrayal of murder in a small Maine town. Part of it, I suspect, is that it's easier to just use normal music. But as anyone who's spent as much as a week in midcoast Maine in the summer can tell you, the familiar voices of Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano are as much a part of the atmosphere as pine trees, ocean breezes, and the accent. Those games, formerly broadcast on Coast 102.5, could be heard nearly everywhere you went. Whenever I'm back in Maine, it's one of the first things I listen for, it's one of those things that never go away, one of those things you don't realize until you're gone. Yet, you almost never hear them on film. Why?

The simple answer (and probably the most accurate) is that conventional film wisdom says that something like a baseball broadcast can distract from the action in the scene. Yet, in some of the tensest scenes, Field has that radio going, letting Joe and Jerry fill the space like they do all so often. It isn't a distraction at all. Instead, it keeps the film grounded in a tranquil reality, even as people are held at gunpoint. There's something about baseball on the radio that has a calming, almost therapeutic effect, as anyone who's listened to Vin Scully will tell you.

Consider that Tom Wilkinson's character, while in the process of avenging his son's death and "solving" the problem of the killer being out on bail, tells him to turn on the radio and find the game. Is he that devoted a member of Red Sox Nation that he absolutely has to know the score? Of course not. He's nervous as hell and looking for something, anything, to take his mind off what he's doing. So they listen to the game and let all that tension just sit there between them. Few directors would let them do that.

4. How Buster Keaton, Francis Ford Coppola, and Richard Linklater are more avant-garde than anyone will admit.

awakecover30

If the real goal of avant-garde cinema is to push boundaries and open new lines of cinematic thinking, then why is it that the label is never applied to the filmmakers who do so within the context of a larger project, where the risk is theoretically greater? Is not melding an avant-garde technique into a larger project a boundary in and of itself? Otherwise the experimental accomplishes nothing.

Therefore, is it not avant-garde when Coppola uses garbled sound in The Conversation (1974), showing us a stunning sequence where several hidden microphones struggle to record a simple conversation? The technique had been done before, sure, but rarely to such a dramatic effect. We hear bits and pieces and that's enough to send our man Gene Hackman after the truth, but some of the most interesting scenes in the film are the ones where we watch him clean up the audio.

More impressive than that is Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (1924), perhaps one of the most amazing uses of jump cuts in all of cinema. No doubt influenced by the work of Eisenstein, Keaton shows us a scene where the hero finds a scene changing as he exists in it. Each cut puts Sherlock in a completely different world, be it a desert or a safari or a snowbank. The whole thing is so seamless (done with surveying equipment and the naked eye) that you'd almost swear there was at very least rear-projection at play. But there isn't. Instead, it's an application of Eisenstein's jump cuts for comedic effect.

The most recent (and probably easiest to spot) is Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), the first feature film to employ rotoscope animation. The technique of drawing over live footage is nothing new. Disney animators had done it years earlier and animator Bob Sabiston's Snack and Drink (2000) had used it as well, but none had ever used it as extensively as Linklater did. The jump from a 4-minute short to a 90-minute feature is a large one, and the success of Waking Life paved the way for Linklater's Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006).

The point is that all three of these films employed avant-garde cinema in the purest sense of the word, incorporating new art forms and techniques into mainstream films, which is really what the avant-garde is all about.

5. An important film can be terrible, and that's perfectly fine.

I'll make this short: the real value in something like avant-garde cinema lies not in how good the film is, but in how good it makes the films that follow it. Like those French forces, the cinema exists to push boundaries, to scout out new terrain so that the larger army might benefit. But if the avant-garde isn't moving forward, isn't exploring the terrain, then it's pretty much worthless. To stay with the military theme, it's AWOL or, as some might point out, it's just artistic masturbation.

Really, it makes no difference if an important piece of avant-garde cinema is one of the worst things ever put on film, as long as it's exploring that new terrain. Otherwise, why bother?

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[1] Source: Wikipedia.

[2] I've seen some "hybrid" stuff, for lack of a better term, and some things I don't remember enough of to be able to figure out what they are. Oh, and I saw the Luis Buñuel film with the eye. It made me sick. I have a weak stomach.

[3] Film Kitchen is a Pittsburgh showcase for local cinema.
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