Monthly archives of “April 2007

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The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

Wow, what a revelation. I should say at the outset that the story here is, to put it mildly, not without melodrama. But if you’ll indulge it, it will repay.

Bogdanovitch’s eye-level shots lend a flatness to the point of view in the picture that’s perfectly in keeping with its mood and geography. An endless variety of human emotions and an endlessly expanding Texas landscape radiate out from the camera in all directions, yet somehow no one seems able to change anything or go anywhere. The compare/contrast film for a double-bill would have to be American Graffiti, another rueful picture about the end of innocence and high school, but a very different one. If American Graffiti were left out to bleach and crack in the Texas sun for a hundred years, you’d get something like The Last Picture Show, perhaps. In Lucas’s film, the characters move through an Oddysean geography of episodic adventures; in Bogdanovich’s the characters are stranded forever on Circe’s island. In Lucas’s film, all the characters tremble with anticipation and anxiety about the possibilities of the future; in Bogdanovich’s, the characters are forced to confront the fact that they already know full well what the future holds. Put more succinctly: American Graffiti is about desperately wanting to get laid for the first time; The Last Picture Show is about the day after you get laid for the first time.

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Gaza Strip, James Longley (2002)

Heroic cinéma vérité documentary filmed in several locations in the Gaza Strip in early 2001. No authoritative voice-overs or experts interviewed in their offices at universities, just on-the-scene footage and interviews with average Palestinian people, with a particular focus on children. Longley occasionally indulges in unnecessary special effects — slow motion, solarization, etc. — to increase the drama. As if that were necessary. The film’s most revealing moments are the accidental ones. A pickup truck being towed along the beach by a horse. A daughter’s careful preparation of tea as her mother tells the story of the family home being bulldozed.

Longley’s interviewees aren’t unpredictable. They condemn Israel’s depredations, vow to fight, weep with frustration. Some are more eloquent than others. For me, the film’s impact isn’t at all about what the people say, it’s about what we see. No words or stories, however affecting, could have the impact of the footage of the utter chaos of a Gaza emergency room during a rocket attack, or of a group of school kids standing around, looking only vaguely interested, while heavy machine gun fire rages just behind them.

Longley’s so concerned to appear nonpartisan that even in the director’s commentary he talks about alleged this and alleged that, even as you’re watching footage of kids who’ve been shot for throwing stones.

I don’t know what else to say. It’s massively sad, and makes extremely clear the monstrous disproportion between Palestinian and Israeli violence.

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The X Files, Rob Bowman (1998)

The alien virus being propogated by a shadowy international cabal at a secret underground research station slash spaceship at the North Pole makes perfect sense to me, but c’mon, that bit about running out of gas at just the wrong moment? Totally unbelievable.

Also, “Rob Bowman” sounds like a pseudonym.

I think I need an HBO intervention.

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The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin (2006)

God help me, I signed up for HBO for a month so I could watch the final (and, so far, crushingly dull) episodes of The Sopranos, and now I’m sitting here breathing through my mouth watching tripe like this and, way worse, kind of liking it. The plot is basically that of an ABC Afterschool Special; it involves peer pressure and maladjusted teens. Also, a special kind of car racing, as opposed to the other kind.

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When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Spike Lee (2006)

This is a terrific documentary about Hurricane Katrina’s effects on the residents of New Orleans. It’s not about storm surges and categorization systems and engineering failures (though those things come up); rather, it’s about the people. The people who came home to find their mothers drowned in their kitchens; the people who were put on planes and flown helter-skelter to all corners of the country with no idea of where their families were; the people at the convention center who waited days and days for fresh water.

This is also a terrific documentary about the way money and power work in the United States. Lee shows us–clearly, irrefutably, calmly–that while the storm was bad, the real tragedy was–is–America’s utter failure to respond to the storm with anything approaching efficiency or sufficiency. We weren’t there the day after the storm, and we weren’t there a year after the storm, and, for thousands and thousands of people, we’re still not there.

Is it impossible to rebuild New Orleans? Of course not. Is it impossible to provide the residents of New Orleans with food, water, power, and sewage? Of course not. So why isn’t it happening? None of our politicians can explain it. It takes a pop star.

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Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem (2007)

I keep a list of CD’s I want, and once or twice a year, or when the list gets too long, I buy a dozen at a time. By the time the big box arrives, I’ve been anticipating its contents for a pretty long time, and developing, in the back of my mind, certain expectations about its potential effects and uses. My last batch purchase matched these expectations perfectly–Erroll Garner made me swoon with swanky nostalgia, Fela provided the perfect springtime driving-with-windows-down jam session, my new early-morning walk to school soundtrack comes courtesy of the infinitely tender New Buffalo, Ellen Allien scratches my ugly late-night Teutonic microhouse fetish to the point of excruciation, etc.–with one exception. What the hell to do with THIS?

How can one record bring to mind the Human League, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, early Talking Heads, Jim O’Rourke, Tears for Fears, The Chills, 1974 Brian Eno, Silver Jews, Beck, King Crimson, June of 44, Yeah Yeah Yeahs . . . I could go on and on. It’s old and new, nostalgic and futuristic, ironic and sincere, digital and analog, all at once. In short, sublimely confusing and confusingly sublime. I love it because I don’t understand it. How many cultural products have you come across in the past year that you truly didn’t understand?

Here’s a taste, but be advised that every track sounds different.

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Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks (1941)

Sublime. Hawks directs, Wilder wrote, Cooper and Stanwyck star, plus — icing on the cake! — S.Z. Sakall! and, even better, Dan Duryea as the small-time hood Duke Pastrami! It’s really just too good.

A group of seven old professors (think hi ho, hi ho) and one young one, Cooper, are holed up in a NYC townhouse are writing an encyclopedia. They’ve got two problems: their funding’s running out, and their isolation from the outside world has left them fatally uninformed about the realities of contemporary life. In other words, they’re professors.

Meanwhile, Stanwyck (as Katherine ‘Sugarpuss’ O’Shea), has problems of her own: the bulls are after her. The solutions are as elegant as they are absurd: the professors/dwarves give Sugarpuss/Snow White refuge, and she gives them a thrilling education in up-to-the-minute slang.

Hawks and Wilder get all that set up in about fifteen minutes, leaving them free to spend the next hour to revel in the possibilities, like Stanwyck looking around at the professors’ library and saying, “Whee, that’s a lot of books! All of them different?”

Needless to say, Stanwyck winds up wanting the square but sincere professor more than the flashy gangster. A movie to bring hope to every nerd who’s ever lost out to a bad seed.

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Der Untergang, Oliver Hirschbiegel (2004)

A long slog through the final days in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. The movie manages to feel both hyperactive and gruelling, which seems right: Hitler, brilliantly played by everyone’s favorite Himmel über Berlin Bruno Ganz, oscillates between full-blown grandiose Nuremberg rages and sad beaten old man mutterings. A few characters in the bunker — the unctuous Goebbels and his Jim Jones of a wife, for example — come across as true believers; a few others — the cagey Speer above all — as cynical calculators. But most, including the housepainter himself, are fully three-dimensional without becoming anything close to sympathetic, which seems something of a miracle. It’s possible, for example, to be revolted by Himmler, or Eva Braun, and yet feel bad for them at the same time. I’m not sure how Hirschbiegel does that — some ungodly brew of smart writing and extremely skilled acting, I suppose.

Also starring the lovely Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara as Traudl Junge, Hitler’s ingenuous young secretary. She doesn’t do much here, but I like watching her stare doe-eyed into space, pretending that she’s experiencing tremendous internal turmoil. We’ll be seeing a lot of her in the American press later this year, I’m guessing, as Francis Ford Coppola gave her a big part in his forthcoming Youth Without Youth.

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The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder (1945)

On the one hand, a melodramatic catalog of every alcoholic cliche in the book, from the aspiring writer pawning his typewriter for a bottle of rye to pleading with the local publican for just one on the house. But on the other hand, flashes of terrifying accuracy. Ray Milland escapes by night from the drying out ward at Bellevue, waits outside a liquor store for the owner to arrive and open up, and when he does, looks him in the eye and just takes the bottle of rye he needs. You’d be hard pressed to find a scene of greater intensity. It’s good to see a movie that shows the darkness in the bottle. Makes you realize how alcoholism is usually made to seem comic or cartoonish in the movies.

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The War Within, Joseph Castelo (2005)

A genuinely grownup movie about the ambivalence of American Muslims. No car chases, machine guns, or wild-eyed Orientalist madmen; just a mild-mannered engineer driven by tragic happenstance to believe that he has to commit violence in order to maintain his integrity, and his best friend who is uneasily trying to live the American dream of assimilation. What’s remarkable about the movie, in addition to its lack of spectacle, is the great seriousness and complexity of its characters. No one here is one-dimensional; everyone is beset by pangs of regret, doubt, and conscience. At times the movie drags a bit, since it is a bit too in love with the long, portentuous, “actor stares into space contemplating deep questions” shot. That aside, this is a solid, moral, thoughtful, and engrossing story, a million times more utile et dulce than your typical hysterical post-9-11 terrorism movie.

P.S. What a pleasure to see Sarita Choudhury again. A beautiful woman and an extremely talented actor. I can’t resist mentioning: I slept in her bed once! (It sadly goes without saying: she wasn’t in it at the time.)