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Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard (1967)

Early Godard begins with Breathless in 1960 and concludes with Weekend in 1967, with an astonishing run of eight or nine masterpieces in between. There are a lot of arty movies from this era that I learned to love in my yoot but don’t return to — I’m going to go out on a limb and wager that I probably won’t ever see Persona again in this life. But I do not get tired of these Godard movies. I think it’s because the sublimity is leavened with stupidity. Or rather the other way around. The beauty emerges in glimpses from the muck. It’s beautiful despite Godard’s clear commitment to making it ugly. No, that’s not it. It’s because they are hilarious. Maybe.

Imagine Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, but the diners are armed hippies who’ve just crawled away from car crashes, the menu is comprised of roasted bank manager and peasant-commune-slaughtered pig, and the soundtrack is a combination of frantic pop music, honking horns, and earnest readings of Mao and Saint-Just. Something like that is what you get here. We should screen this with Renoir’s Partie de campagne — that would be a hoot. If we could show them on a bedsheet at the site of Castro’s old camp in the Sierra Maestra and get J. G. Ballard to make the popcorn, that would be ideal.

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Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (2016)


Pretty good! As with Sicario, Villeneuve is able here to maintain genre conventions in such a way as to satisfy the casual consumer of action/sci-fi, while at the same time indulging in some more associative, lyrical, and thought-provoking passages. Neither are cinema for the ages, but they are solid and intelligent films. Notice too that both feature strong female leads (as did the movie for which Villeneuve is still probably best known, Incendies, which I actually haven’t seen yet). Indeed, in the case of Arrival, the men are really nearly irrelevant except insofar as they serve as obstacles for Amy Adams to overcome. I like this Villeneuve guy’s choices, and his style is very cool.

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The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir (1939)

A dangerous discovery: The University library has the entire Criterion Collection available to stream. Suddenly these quiet summer afternoons in the office seem like golden opportunities to revisit old favorites.

It’s too bad that Renoir’s Grand Illusion isn’t available through this service, because it’s the natural accompaniment to The Rules of the Game. Both films are about the fragility, or maybe the elasticity, of the conventions, taboos, and mores which govern civilized activities, whether social (in Rules of the Game) or political (in Grand Illusion). To live rigidly within those boundaries, like a cow keeping its wary distance from the electric fence, is to be doomed to dreariness: a frigid marriage, moronic jingoism. But to flagrantly transgress them is to risk chaos, alienation. The authentic life, then, is lived with one foot on either side of on an impossible and invisible line hidden beneath the snow, as seen at the end of Grand Illusion.

The Rules of the Game is an iron fist in a velvet glove. The main action takes place at a country estate, where a bunch of aristocrats are spending the weekend. On the surface it looks like a charming upstairs/downstairs melodramatic farce, with slamming doors, midnight rendezvous, stolen kisses, jealous husbands. But there’s a hard edge under the fizz. The party goes out for a hunt and Renoir subjects us to a relentless sequence of rabbit after rabbit after rabbit being shot dead in the dirt. And in the end, innocence itself lies down with them.

Renoir, famously, called The Rules of the Game a war movie, and indeed the alliances and enmities of the feckless aristocrats and territorial servants who populate the film are easily understood as metaphors for the pettinesses which were, in 1939, about to destroy a civilization.

All that, yes, but the movie’s no dirge; it’s French, and so is also filled with joy that literally makes me laugh out loud. And, far from least, this is the movie where one learns the proper method of making salade de pommes de terre. Crucial.

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Lacombe Lucien, Louis Malle (1974)

Lucien is a young farm hand in rural France, hardworking, not too bright. It’s 1944 and the Allies are advancing from Normandy. If Lucien hadn’t had the bad luck to live at such a fraught moment in history, he probably would have just gone on shooting rabbits, ploughing the fields, and been just fine. Alas.

Lucien’s little village is under strict and orderly occupation, but panic and hysteria lies just beneath the surface of every interaction. The Jews in hiding fear deportation, the collaborators fear their time is nigh, the resistance fighters fear discovery.

Lucien tries to join the resistance and is rebuffed on account of his youth. In an adolescent dudgeon, he unwittingly betrays the local resistance leader to the French auxiliary to the Gestapo. These latter craven and dissolute bastards take him on as a kind of mascot.

The exquisite subtlety of the story has to do with Lucien’s fundamental misunderstanding of how power works. For example, he thinks he has power over a girl, but when other guys can dance with her and he doesn’t know how, it confuses and enrages him.

His most dangerous misunderstanding concerns that girl and her family, who are Jewish and in hiding in the town. He thinks the power he has from the sanction of the collaborators enables him to force the family to do his will, but he also thinks he has the power to protect them.

The movie resonates at this historical moment, where we see a lot of people acting as if being in power at the moment entitles you to do whatever brutal and stupid things you like. Even things which in the long or not-so-long run are going to bring woe mainly to yourself.

Devastating but totally understated, with gorgeous performances throughout. Watch it.

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Ketchup

Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.

The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.

Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.

Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.

Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.

South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .

I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.

I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.

 

 

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Bande de filles (Girlhood), Céline Sciamma (2014) and La haine, Mathieu Kassovitz (1995)

Ah the banlieue, city of fluorescent lights in drab office buildings, mercury vapor lights in the courtyards of the projects, police flashlights shining on dark faces. I just watched Sciamma’s movie, and it led me to go back to Kassovitz’s, which I hadn’t seen since it came out — more than twenty years ago now! While Girlhood is pretty depressing (though not depressing enough; see below), I have to say that if we’re getting our news solely from these two movies, things seem to be a bit less dire in 2014 than they were in 1995.

There’s good reason not to trust that narrative, though; both of these films about the experiences of poor French of color from the projects by les honkies from film school. Be that as it may. If you categorically disapprove of privileged people writing disadvantaged characters, you’ll want to skip both these movies.

Sciamma creates a convincing world for a while, but then starts exoticizing and goes off the rails. She’s so enraptured by the beauty of these girls as they work their hustles and dance and party and catfight that she forgets to show us just how truly dangerous and dire their situations really are. A black teenager living on her own dealing drugs at street level is going to get hurt, and this movie’s fantasy that she’ll instead turn into some kind of inspired and empowered super hero is, in my view, irresponsible. But maybe I’m being too rough; check it out for yourself. And remember to watch Kassovitz’s movie, too, if you’ve never seen it. It’s like if Spike Lee was French. Sort of.

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A Hologram for the King, Tom Tykwer (2016)


I haven’t seen anything from Tykwer since The International (2009); I stayed away from Cloud Atlas (2012) because I liked the book too much to chance ruining it. This movie is in the classic Tykwer manner, both firmly pegged to reality and subtly fantastical. It’s small and quiet but quite beautiful. The sequence of Tom Hanks wandering the half-finished building projects in the Saudi desert should be read in tandem with the scene of Adela Quested in the Marabar caves. Our so-called global culture has a single god, Misunderstanding, and the Dollar is his prophet. The love story here is a total cop out and utter bullshit (which is also classic Tykwer), but since the love interest is Sarita Choudhury, all is forgiven.

P.S. One night in the early 90’s I slept in Sarita Choudhury’s bed. She wasn’t home; her roommate let me crash there. I tell this story every chance I get.

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Get Out, Jordan Peele (2016) & Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986)

Warning for minor spoiler alerts below.

There’s a particular type of scene that often appears in movies, where the protagonist, who has witnessed or suspects something absolutely unbelievable, goes to “the authorities” in one form or another, to tell her/his story, seeking assistance or solace. It would be fun to put together a montage of these scenes. Having seen what the protagonist has seen, we know she’s telling the truth. But usually, the jaded cop/teacher/counselor/parent/adult on the other side of the desk is deeply skeptical.

The tension in such scenes arises from the question of whether the powers that be (a.k.a. the system, the man, the patriarchy, the hegemony, the superstructure, political society, what have you) are going to help or hinder the protagonist’s struggle toward life, liberty, happiness, success, etc. Or will this particular movie instead propose a world where the detective says, that’s ridiculous, get out of my office, and the protagonist gets no help from the very institutions that supposedly exist precisely to help citizens in need.

Jordan Peele sets up a scene like this in the marvelously disorienting Get Out. The protagonist is in grave danger. His best friend has come to an outrageous, ridiculous, and entirely correct theory concerning the nature of that danger. He goes to the police, and relates his story: He believes liberal upper-middle-class white people in the suburbs are kidnapping and brainwashing black people from the city to take control of their bodies. The black female detective listens intently. There’s a pause. She goes and gets some colleagues and has the guy tell the story again. All three cops, all black, stare at the guy for another beat. Then, predictably, they burst out laughing and throw him out. But for just a second, I thought they were going to say, “Yes, that seems entirely plausible. Let’s go investigate.” That would have been funnier, and also way grimmer. Because Get Out’s power and pleasure derive from its constant flirtations with opposites and inversions: what’s unbelievable is probable, what’s absurd is reasonable, what’s comic is tragic. And black people are always ready to entertain the possibility that white people are up to insane stuff.

I’ve enjoyed Key and Peele’s TV show, but this movie is on another level altogether. Watching it, I kept thinking of Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” Not only do characters in this movie wear the mask, and in a sense find themselves forced to wear other masks; the movie itself keeps changing its masks so rapidly, we can never really feel sure of the expression or tone that lies beneath what we’re seeing and hearing. Many scenes seem both funny and horrifying, and in the theater, I many times heard laughter at moments that seemed to me heartbreaking. I’ve never really seen anything like this before. I would describe it as a work of social commentary, but the commentary is so ironic, complex, and self-reflexive, figuring out its “message” is like making your way through a hall of mirrors.

I just so happened last week to catch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on TV, after not seeing it in decades, and it’s maybe an interesting double-feature with Get Out, actually. Here too a guileless and handsome young male protagonist. Here too he has some set ideas about iniquity, but little substantive experience with it. Here too he discovers that the world he thought he had a reasonable understanding of, the world he thought was not necessarily fair but was at least reasonably stable and predictable, is in fact a thin veneer beneath which teems extraordinary chaos, violence, hatred, greed, perversion, and fear. The Get Out protagonist leaves the safety of downtown and almost dies in the suburbs; the Blue Velvet protagonist leaves the safety of the suburbs and almost dies downtown. Indeed if I was going to write a full comparison and contrast essay for EN 101, I’d probably start with how the two films end, with the Get Out survivors hightailing it back downtown, and the Blue Velvet survivors doubling down in the suburbs with sandwiches and lemonade. “Now it’s dark,” says Dennis Hopper, and truer words were never spoken. But which darkness is darkest? Hard to know for sure, but I think we usually believe it to be other one.

Wow, there’s so much more to say about both these movies; no time to do it.

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Amour, Michael Haneke (2012)

Haneke is one of my favorite directors, but he is mighty intense, and it’s not at all surprising that it’s taken me five years to get to this. In fact this DVD has been sitting on my shelf for well over a month as I avoided watching it!

It’s a masterpiece. The actors are superb. The light is out of the most melancholy Vermeer ever. The script is crisp and nuanced, pellucid and mysterious, relentlessly denotative and playfully connotative. I think Robert Frost would have appreciated it.

Beyond the movie’s particular accomplishments, it’s in principle just so moving — and so rare — to see aging and dying represented with clarity and honesty.

There’s a sub-theme which I think concerns the possibility that art is not a consolation in the face of mortality. I don’t really want to think about it.

So many amazing moments, and such terrific editing. At one point, we cut to a young woman housekeeper vigorously vacuuming the rug, and the shock of her energy, her vitality, after we’ve been watching old people struggle with their failing bodies, is just incredible. Never thought fifteen seconds of watching someone vacuum a rug could make me cry.

I finished this several days ago and I feel like I’m still living in its aftershadow. Shouldn’t have waited so long!

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Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

“What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who give your arguments a fair hearing and the simply persists in his lunacy?”

Well, sure, why not. I hadn’t read this since high school, and I’m a huge Orwell fan, so I thought I’d re-read it along with everyone else. Unsurprisingly, I found a lot of really smart ideas in here, but I was surprised at how dull the book is as a novel. The characters — especially women — are flat as pancakes, the plotting is glacial, the descriptions are relentlessly repetitive. But those disappointments aside, there are surely many incisive and prescient passages.

Winston’s job is to adjust the past to suit the ideological needs of the present: “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

Well, that sounds familiar!

Or: “Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.” Not far off from the methodology of Alex Jones or his fans.

I’d forgotten the whole thing about the government developing a new language (“Newspeak”) which would make the expression of dissent literally impossible. Thus “the Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect,” a terrifying idea and one worth considering in contemporary terms.

Retrograde attitudes toward women; embarrassing romanticization of “the Proles”; a somewhat obsessive need to follow every idea out to its logical extreme; but of course at the same time a work of terrific insight. I don’t at all mean to sound condescending when I say that high school was after all exactly the right time to read it first.