Monthly archives of “November 2009

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Tyson, James Toback (2008)

Thoroughly engaging documentary, thanks to Toback’s inventive but lucid style, and — mostly — to Tyson himself, whose narration of his own story is by turns heartbreaking, self-aware, self-pitying, deadpan, boastful, analytical, emotional, and strange. Fully discredits the one-dimensional Tyson-as-thug theory, but doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of his behavior.

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The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson (2008)

50% House of Games, 40% The Royal Tenenbaums, 8% E la nave va, 2% Harold and Maude, which last is a kind of honorary degree for having Cat Stevens on the soundtrack and an oddly 70’s kind of wistful loveless free-love “vibe.” Is it great? No. But it is a pleasure to look at, and it’s one of those films where you can tell that everyone involved was having a lot of fun. It probably took them all day to do a one-second shot of Rachel Weisz on a twelve-foot unicycle. You’ve kind of got to love that. Frankly, I’d wish Johnson would’ve tried less hard to make the plot make any sense. It doesn’t — at ALL — and there’s no reason it needs to: finally it’s just a distraction from what’s really on offer here, which is the sensibility. Wes Anderson understands this; young Mr. Johnson (b. 1973!) has lots of time to learn it. Still, he should be proud. This is a stylish little picture which I can see being big in France — ah! of course — it’s another 15% Jules and Jim!

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Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

I discussed Ginsberg’s “Howl” with my class of college juniors and seniors a few weeks ago. At one point I asked them if there existed a cultural product–TV show, movie, video game, book, play, poem, whatever–which speaks to/for their generational moment as “Howl” did for Ginsberg’s. Not only could they not come up with anything, they seemed not to really understand the question. One young woman said that everyone she knows has read the Harry Potter books. I said I wasn’t really talking about popularity per se; rather, I was wondering whether they could think of any works which they felt embodied the spirit of what it means to be a young adult in the first decade of the 21st century. Nothing. Then one student proposed that contemporary cultural products don’t really work like that anymore. There is no music everyone listens to, no movies everyone sees, no web site everyone visits. All marketing now is niche marketing. Some niches are larger and some are smaller, but none are universal. And perhaps artists have responded to that new reality by no longer trying to make “voice of my generation”-type works, since there’s no sense of generational unity anyway. I was impressed and pleased with the quality and subtlety of the argument and the ensuing discussion. Then one student said, “Fight Club,” and all the rest said, “Oh yeah. ‘Fight Club.’ ‘Fight Club’ is awesome.”

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The Day I Became a Woman, Marzieh Makhmalbaf (2000)

Simple but mildly affecting film consisting of three stories of three women in southern Iran coping with the constraints of a misogynist culture. What’s odd is the differences in tone between the segments. The first is a stick-simple realist tale of a girl who is no longer allowed to play with her male friend because she’s passed her ninth birthday. The second is as heavy-handed in its message but quite odd in its vehicle: a woman participating in a bicycle race is commanded to withdraw by her husband, who is on horseback. She refuses and he divorces her, without either of them dismounting. The last segment is a symbolic fantasy wherein an old woman goes about buying tons of consumer goods with money that she’s gotten from an unknown source. All the goods are put on rafts and go floating out to sea. I suppose this last bit is the reason the film’s compared to Fellini on some web sites I saw. But aside from some coincidences of imagery, this film isn’t anything like Fellini.

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Machine Gun McCain, Giuliano Montaldo (1969)

A strange, stylish, maudit mob picture from the assistant director on Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. (That’s saying something, by the way, since secondary scenes in that movie are perhaps the most brilliant ones.) The picture feels like it could be a Cassavetes; things move either in brisk shorthand or in emotional wrenched and wretched slow burns. Incredible cast includes Cassavetes, Britt Ekland, Gena Rowlands, and Peter Falk; how that happened I have no idea. Another “but for the grace of TCM” reason to have cable.

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The Bad Sleep Well, Akira Kurosawa (1960)

Wow! How have I never seen this? An epic picture, nonchalantly loitering on the filmography between The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yoyimbo (1961). The plot’s far too convoluted to recount at this hour, but the picture has everything you could ask for: social commentary (on Japan’s pervasive culture of graft), a near-Shakespearean web of family dramas and mistaken identities, and countless passages exemplifying the Kurosawa’s superb cinematographical skills. The man’s compositions are as exquisite as Giotto’s; I don’t think anyone frames shots as well as he does, except maybe Renoir.

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Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, David Mamet (1998)

“What comes from the head is perceived by the audience, the child, the electorate, as manipulative. And we may succumb to the manipulative for a moment because it makes us feel good to side with the powerful. But finally we understand we’re being manipulated. And we resent it. Tragedy is a celebration not of our eventual triumph but of the truth–it is not a victory but a resignation. Much of its calmative power comes from that operation described by Shakespeare: when remedy is exhausted, so is grief.”

“Drama doesn’t need to affect people’s behavior. There’s a great and very, very effective tool that changes people’s attitudes and makes them see the world in a new way. It’s called a gun.”

“The purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don’t think its purpose is to enlighten us. I don’t think it’s to change us. I don’t think it’s to teach us. The purpose of art is to delight us: certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It’s no more elaborate than that.”

“I don’t believe reaching people is the purpose of art. In fact, I don’t know what ‘reaching people’ means. I know what Hazlitt said: It’s easy to get the mob to agree with you; all you have to do is agree with the mob.”

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“The avant-garde is to the left what jingoism is to the right. Both are a refuge in nonsense. And the warm glow of fashion on the left and patriotism on the right evidence individuals’ comfort in their power to elect themselves members of a group superior to reason.”

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And many more bossy but glossy little gems.

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Stray Dog, Akira Kurosawa (1949)

Ostensibly a procedural about a rookie cop (Mifune, so young I didn’t recognize him at first!) whose gun is stolen, the movie’s as much or more about Japan’s effort to regain its self-respect. Terrific, near-genius cinematography; the camera itself behaves like an investigator. Featuring many wonderful sequences, including one at a baseball game and another at a cabaret on an unbearably hot summer night. The chorus girls run off stage and into their dressing room, where they all collapse on the floor, fanning themselves. Really top notch Kurosawa; I’m surprised I’ve never seen this before.