November 27, 2009
PODCAST: John Hillcoat (The Road)No stranger to mining lyricism from bleak landscapes, The Proposition director John Hillcoat (here working with screenwriter Joe Penhall) has poignantly visualized the burnt-out, grey wasteland of The Road—the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men:
"John Hillcoat'sThe Road is an honorable adaptation of a piece of pulp fiction disguised as high art; it has more directness and more integrity than its source material … Viggo Mortensen plays a father—he is referred to only as the Man—wandering a post-apocalyptic world with his son, the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). This is a world in which the unthinkable has happened, although it's never specified exactly what the unthinkable is: All we see are the effects. All animals have apparently died, and plant life is on the way out, too. Cities and towns lay abandoned and crumbled. And the roads, once so carefully built by man as the connective tissue of civilization, are now trolled by marauding redneck cannibals who have lost every vestige of humanity ... The Man isn't just teaching his son how to survive, foraging for food and the like, but teaching him to preserve the very things that make him—that make us—human." (Stephanie Zacharek, SALON.com) Tucked away in a corner of the Soho Grand Hotel, Hillcoat and I discussed the real-life father and son who appear in The Road, how the hell he distilled Cormac McCarthy in under two hours (his original cut ran four-and-a-half hours), and what most people don't know his long-time collaborator Nick Cave does two or three times a day. To listen to the podcast, click here. (15:49)
[WARNING: Minor book spoiler!] Podcast Music
INTRO: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, "The Road"
OUTRO: Nouvelle Vague, "Road to Nowhere" [The Road is now playing in theaters everywhere. For more info, please visit the official site.] Related: Flavorwire interviews John Hillcoat on Cannibals, Product Placement, and the Apocalypse.
November 25, 2009
THESSALONIKI '09: Begging That Questionby Ronald Bergan
November 23, 2009
Ain't No Party Like a Holocaust Partyby Eric Kohn Anti-semitism lurks in unsuspecting places, but only to those who seek it out. Defamation, Yoav Shamir's provocative documentary, released in select theaters last week, conveys at least that much. But Shamir goes one step further, arguing that awareness of the eponymous offense is buried in a confusion of past and present. Adopting an intentionally naïve outlook, he cheerfully follows members of the Anti-Defamation League on missions to spread the international battle against Jewish hatred. Simultaneously, his camera trails a group of Israeli high-schoolers traveling to Auschwitz for a class. In both cases, the Holocaust engenders a peculiar backwards logic that Shamir knowingly assaults: He believes that battles against anti-semitism are too often defined by earlier infractions. If "Holocaust," "Nazi" and "Anti-semitism" remain the key buzzwords in a battle against shadows, then the purpose of Defamation is to turn on the light. Shamir explains that the ADL, led by tough-minded Holocaust survivor Abraham Foxman, operates on a budget of more than $17 million each year, allowing for a wealth of resources and the motivation to use them. As one rabbi—hesitant to reprimand the ADL, as if it were Big Jewish Brother—concludes, Foxman "has to create a problem because he has a job." But what really irks Shamir is the sense of entitlement that appears to guide contemporary views of anti-semitism. He's not arguing that the ADL has no value as an organization, but rather that it traffics in anachronisms. Shamir hits on this problem when he films the Israeli students watching concentration camp footage set to solemn music, projected off a laptop in the classroom. The students look alternately uncomfortable and bemused, searching for the intense feelings of dismay expected of them. It's this presumption of gravitas, I suspect, that automatically catapults dismissible Hollywood encapsulations of Holocaust grief—I'm looking at you, The Reader—into the realm of sacred documentation. The pity party has become aestheticized. That's not to say that misperceptions and hurtful xenophobic perspectives no longer exist. Shamir follows reports of anti-semitism to Brooklyn, notes that many of the allegations there involve African Americans, and stops a few on the street to get their opinions on their Jewish neighbors. His energetic sampling comes off pretty well until one member of the group references The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that notoriously shameful piece of anti-semitic literature published in the late 19th century as if it were a Jewish plot to take over the world. But the reference is convoluted and the complainer sounds clueless. He's not a crusader looking to spread anathema, nor does he sound like somebody in favor of another attempt at genocidal elimination. He's simply operating under a misperception that dominant mainstream perspectives rejected long ago. He's bought into a blatant delusion and that makes him an idiot. Duh. Holocaust movies, however, suffer from a different sort of misdirection, one that many continue to take for granted. (In fact, Shamir could have strengthened his argument in Defamation by using sample footage from some examples in this trend.) The route to sentimentality in Schindler's List is paved in guilt, generating a cinematic trope that percolates throughout countless entries in the genre. And while that film certainly has its share of powerful moments and deserves a spot in the canonization of Holocaust representation in cinema, there's an implicit danger in the Schindler's List effect. The movie, which quickly became the market standard for Holocaust narratives at the end of the 20th century, moves from the end of World War II to the present day with the ease of a quick scene transition and the introduction of color. With no added context, the finale places the selfsame Holocaust trauma into modern consciousness. It's an admirable effort, but also an unrealistic one. (Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, which consciously remains in the present and refuses to show any explicit imagery, suggests the proper alternative approach.) The Holocaust, terrible event that it was, does not haunt contemporary Jewish identity as it did for the generation that experienced it firsthand. Yet it continues to define the efforts of modern attempts to suppress anti-semitism, and has become the royal passage to brooding discontent on the silver screen. But the situation has started to improve. Last year, the Holocaust genre reached a fever pitch with The Reader, Valkyrie, Defiance, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Good, and Adam Resurrected delving into the topic as if it were the guiding edict of a blockbuster mentality. But only The Reader connected with a good amount of audiences and—thanks to a classic Harvey Weinstein coup—managed to sneak in a key role at the Academy Awards. Since then, Stuart Klawans called for a moratorium on Holocaust movies, and the industry appears to have paid attention. This year, the dominant Holocaust movie involves a bunch of Jewish soldiers gleefully scalping Nazi captives and ultimately changing the outcome of World War II. The Academy's shortlist for documentaries, which almost always includes an obligatory Holocaust entry, contains not a single one (although the ultimate progressive stance would have been to put Defamation on there). Society seems to have engaged in a shift from the need to retell the same story ad infinitum to a point where the freedom to deconstruct its significance holds more weight than simple redundancy. At this point, telling the same events over and over again runs a greater risk—bored audiences—than figuring out what comes next. Shamir's argument makes more sense than any given studio product, save perhaps for Inglourious Basterds. Storytellers stand a better a chance at coping with crimes of the past not by dwelling on them but by crafting fresh narratives out of old ones. In doing so, they can still evolve and—to borrow an overwrought term—never forget. [Defamation is now playing in limited release. For playdates and more information, please visit the official site.]
November 21, 2009
PODCAST: Michael ShannonIf you know actor Michael Shannon by name, chances are it's because of his searing, Oscar-nominated performance as head-case John Givings in last year's Revolutionary Road. Yet the Kentucky-born Brooklynite has brought his towering presence and curious intensity to dozens of projects, most notably Bug, World Trade Center, Shotgun Stories, and Werner Herzog's upcoming My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. (Click here for my podcast with Herzog for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, in which Shannon has a small role.) The actor's latest, which premiered at Sundance this year, is the post-9/11 noir thriller The Missing Person:
Writer/director Noah Buschel's third feature stars Michael Shannon as John Rosow, a private detective hired to tail a man, Harold Fullmer, on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Rosow gradually uncovers Harold’s identity as a missing person... [Plot spoiler redacted]. Persuaded by a large reward, Rosow is charged with bringing Harold back to his wife in New York City against his will. Ultimately, Rosow must confront whether the decision to return Harold to a life that no longer exists is the right one.Sitting down with Shannon to discuss The Missing Person, our conversation segued to the first time music made him cry, a certain auteur's fake food, and the delights of being in Kangaroo Jack. To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:50) Podcast Music
INTRO: J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton, "Missing Person"
OUTRO: The Jesus Lizard, "Boilermaker" [The Missing Person is now playing in New York, and opens in Los Angeles on November 27th. For more info, please visit the official site.]
November 19, 2009
DVD OF THE WEEK: The Exilesby Jeffrey M. Anderson
directed by Kent MacKenzie
1961, 72 minutes, USA
Milestone Films Most people have probably never heard of Kent MacKenzie's historically and culturally essential film The Exiles (1961). Some clips of it surfaced in Thom Andersen's exceptional 2004 cine-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself—about the The City of Angels as depicted in movies—but unfortunately, most people have never heard of that film either. Andersen included it prominently because it managed to find vivid corners of the city that didn't actually look like set dressing. Now, thanks to Milestone Films (who also gave us the 2007 re-release and 2008 DVD of Charles Burnett's extraordinary Killer of Sheep), The Exiles has been released uncut on an outstanding two-disc set—presented by Burnett himself. It's difficult to argue the film as an artistic masterpiece; it seems to be influenced by the French New Wave films of the time, but also seems to have been put together in such loose-fitting fashion out of a sheer lack of resources. MacKenzie often repeats certain shots, and the audio doesn't always match the movement of the actors' lips. But the movie has an undeniable emotional punch and its historical place in cinema is indisputable; there's still nothing else quite like it. Shot in black-and-white, it begins with Edward Curtis photographs and introduces rock music by the Revels. We then follow seven American Indians over the course of a night. One man, Homer (Homer Nish), drops his pregnant wife Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) at a movie, while he and a buddy go off to play cards. Tommy (Tom Reynolds) and another pal pick up two women at a diner and go for a drive. Eventually, everyone ends up at the top of a hill for a late-night powwow, complete with drumming and chanting and incessant drinking—mainly Thunderbird wine. The three protagonists occasionally narrate with observations, thoughts and dreams, which MacKenzie recorded beforehand and synced up to the images. The men admit that they're mostly looking for happiness, or at least a good time, while Yvonne longs for some kind of simple stability. Beyond her beautiful, babyish face, she is by far the most fascinating character; she simply hopes things will be better for her baby. As for herself, she seems heartbreakingly caught between naïve acceptance and vague dissatisfaction of her place in life. Most revealing is the movie she chooses to watch: a 1957 Sterling Hayden western called The Iron Sheriff that is filled with white faces—and from what we can tell—no Natives. Imagine how she might have felt if she could have been dropped off to see The Exiles instead. Aside from the gorgeous new transfer, Milestone's two-disc DVD comes with a generous selection of extras. Author Sherman Alexie (Reservation Blues, screenwriter of Smoke Signals) and critic Sean Axmaker provide an illuminating commentary track. There are clips from Los Angeles Plays Itself, a theatrical trailer, stills gallery, and MacKenzie's student film Bunker Hill 1956, which inspired the feature. The second disc features three more MacKenzie short films—A Skill for Molina, Story of a Rodeo Cowboy, and Ivan and His Father—as well as three other shorts: Robert Kirste's Last Day of Angels Flight, Greg Kimble's Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal, and the 1910 silent-era gem White Fawn's Devotion, considered to be the first American Indian film. There's even a selection of DVD-Rom bonus features, including the screenplay. Sadly, director MacKenzie died in 1980 and never saw his film get such a generous restoration.
November 17, 2009
PODCAST: Werner Herzog
Nicolas Cage plays a rogue detective who is as devoted to his job as he is at scoring drugs—while playing fast and loose with the law. He wields his badge as often as he wields his gun in order to get his way. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina he becomes a high-functioning addict who is a deeply intuitive, fearless detective reigning over the beautiful ruins of New Orleans with authority and abandon. Complicating his tumultuous life is the prostitute he loves (Eva Mendes). Together they descend into their own world marked by desire, compulsion, and conscience. The result is a singular masterpiece of filmmaking: equally sad and manically humorous.In my third annual chat with Herzog, we sat down to discuss the importance of self-irony, playing homage to Klaus Kinski, what he's looking for in applicants of his first-ever Rogue Film School seminar, and why he has yet to bring his distinctive voice to an audiobook version of his filmmaking diary Conquest of the Useless. To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:31) Podcast Music
INTRO: Nicolas Cage, "Love Me Tender (from Wild at Heart)"
OUTRO: Schoolly D, "Signifying Rapper"
November 14, 2009
PODCAST: Jason SchwartzmanIn director Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox (read Vadim Rizov's "Film of the Week" review), 29-year-old actor Jason Schwartzman—who began his screen career working with Anderson as the overambitious teen hero of Rushmore, then co-starred in and co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited—lends his voice to the role of Ash. A runty young fox who longs for the attention and affection of his father Mr. Fox (George Clooney), Ash spends most of the story in a quiet jealous huff over his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), who seems to be better than him in just about every sport—including the art of romance. Sitting down with Schwartzman before Fantastic Mr. Fox's limited release, we discussed the film, familial competition, his hilarious new HBO series Bored to Death, his band Coconut Records (did we mention he was a musician before he was a thespian?), and a somewhat unusual vice. To listen to the podcast, click here. (15:30) Podcast Music
INTRO: Georges Delerue, "Une petite île"
OUTRO: Coconut Records, "Saint Jerome"
November 12, 2009
FILM OF THE WEEK: Fantastic Mr. Foxby Vadim Rizov
November 10, 2009
DVD OF THE WEEK: Spread
directed by David Mackenzie
2009, 97 minutes, USA
Anchor Bay Films Maybe it's a misnomer to hail an Ashton Kutcher indie vehicle the week's highest recommendation (the case certainly won't be made here that it's more or less worthwhile viewing than Up, Lake Tahoe or Ballast), but Scottish director David Mackenzie and writer Jason Dean Hall's clever, pruriently entertaining satire about a sociopathic hipster grifter deserves a better shot at exposure—no pun intended—after the damning reviews it's had since Sundance. It's a film that's easy to misread and dismiss as superficial pap simply because its characters are prone to repulsively opportunistic behavior. Playing both into and against type, Kutcher is surprisingly quite compelling as chiseled stud Nikki, a former Midwesterner-turned-L.A. scenester with no home or job, except for his well-honed ability to bed rich single women in exchange for a free ride. He meets them at parties, woos 'em quickly, moves in a few days later, and suddenly has unrestricted access to their posh pads and platinum cards. It's less American Gigolo than it is American Psycho (and other plastic-wasteland tales by Bret Easton Ellis), complete with Kutcher's guttural, Christian Bale-like voiceover smugly and indifferently detailing his misogynistic hustler tricks: Make an ass of yourself to put women at ease. Flash a sleepy smile to be able to stay much longer than the morning after. Don't fuck them too well the first night. The first half of the film presents an Entourage-like fantasy of casual sex and materialist binging: there's more gratuitous boinking here than Screwballs, and the City of Angels itself is appropriately shot like a luxury accessory, its neon glow and slick edges emphasized. Couched in all that, however, Spread eventually reveals a gloomy raincloud of a moral meditation about unhealthy lifestyles and self-delusion. Having already worked over sexy '40s-ish lawyer Samantha (Anne Heche) and finding himself the kept boy-toy in her $5-million hilltop home (it used to belong to Peter Bogdanovich, she sighs), Nikki predictably remains insatiable. When Samantha leaves on a business trip, he throws an enormous party to impress his friends and score more pussy, yet still takes his meal ticket for granted after Samantha comes home early, catches him with some bimbo, and decides to let him stay anyway. Nikki may be a predator, but he justifies to himself that he's being used right back, and it's that small hint of buried integrity (blink and you'll miss it) that illustrates he still has further to fall. Some have complained that the movie goes off the rails with the late entrance of Heather (Margarita Levieva), a pretty young thing with Nikki's same manipulative veneer—she, too, makes her living by conning lovers. Playing the part of the cold fish from their very first exchange at a coffee shop, Heather reluctantly warms to Nikki's goofy, confident charm. After practically yawning his way through a string of conquests, here is a girl that he can finally "be real" with, whatever that could possibly mean to him. A rather last minute subplot to the film (though most descriptions suggest otherwise), Nikki chases and sort of catches Heather while she keeps him wrapped around her diamond-digging finger, but he's neither smart enough nor emotionally prepared to realize she's a craftier grifter than him. Spread is not actually about a shallow manipulator gaining profundity through humility; it's something more aloof, modern and depressing than that old chestnut. The film is told through Nikki's narrow point of view, so the sneaky final punchline may have been lost on some audiences wondering why Heather's character hasn't been more fully fleshed out beyond her lusty, scheming temperament: Here is a movie about a narcissist getting distraught after falling in love with himself.
November 7, 2009
DVD OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: Wings of DesireIn celebration of Criterion's deluxe double-DVD and Blu-ray treatment of Wings of Desire, my Benten Films partner-in-crime Andrew Grant and I rewatched Wim Wenders' 1987 masterpiece (and pored over the bonus features) to discuss the film's elusive magic and why a work so specific to East-West German tensions has aged so gracefully. Andrew reminisces about spending time in Berlin around the era of the production, with other topics of conversation including They Might Be Giants, Nick Cave's inner thoughts, Peter Falk's unconscious plot hole, a rather unfortunate sequel, and how Wings of Desire almost ended with an pie fight. If you haven't already absorbed its pleasures (or, god forbid, you only know its atrocious H'wood remake, City of Angels), here's the Criterion synopsis:
Wings of Desire is one of cinema's loveliest city symphonies. Bruno Ganz is Damiel, an angel perched atop buildings high over Berlin who can hear the thoughts—fears, hopes, dreams—of all the people living below. But when he falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), he is willing to give up his immortality and come back to earth to be with her. Made not long before the fall of the Berlin wall, this stunning tapestry of sounds and images, shot in black-and-white and color by the legendary Henri Alékan, is movie poetry. And it forever made the name Wim Wenders synonymous with film art.To listen to the podcast, click here. (17:09) Podcast Music
INTRO: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "From Her to Eternity"
OUTRO: They Might Be Giants, "Road Movie to Berlin"
November 4, 2009
The Red Shoes: Relaced and Restored
"I first saw it when I was eight, and it stayed with me over the years. Even when it was shown on television in black-and-white every Christmas, we still had the magic of the film. Over the years, I began to realize it had more to do with wanting to create something artistically, and that drive. That's the thing that really carried me through the years, meaning, that's why I never get tired of the film. Then, of course, you add to that the beautiful way it was made. It's a pleasure to watch." Thelma Schoonmaker:
"Marty's daughter is going to be 10 [this month] so he had been waiting, waiting, waiting for her to get old enough to show it to her. And you know, Woody Allen brought his daughter, and she's 11." [On the aesthetic challenges of reaching a relative state of perfection:] "That was very carefully watched. We didn't want it to look like video which sometimes these things do, so we worked very, very carefully. It's about controlling highlights and contrasts and all kinds of things. We just had such a phenomenal team. Everybody who was in it loved it, and was giving much more than they should. The main thing was to make it look like film, and film of the period—not pump it up and do all the things they do with bad transfers these days. I've seen some horrendous transfers that just make me want to kill. [laughs] I saw one of a film David Lean made right after the war, and it looks like some modern movie. They just completely ruined it! We kept watching prints and making sure we didn't make a mistake." [On the future of film restoration:] One of the problems is that digital is not stable. I hope you've got that point. You would have to take this restoration and migrate it to either another drive or another system that's come along. Who's going to be there to make sure it's done right if I'm dead or Marty's dead? That's the thing that's so frightening. The digital thing is wonderful, but it is not stable." [On the film's personal value to her within Michael Powell's oeuvre:] "This one is so important because it's about the world I live in, the world of entertainment. It is so honest in showing the jealousies and ego clashes and all the things that go into working in the world of art. It vividly lays it down in such an honest way. It's so wonderful how you're always backstage. You're not seeing things from sitting out front, but you're in it. You understand the incredible love of it, and yet the sacrifices you have to make when you're in it, and we all do. Our personal lives suffer very badly, and this movie just nails it, doesn't it? It's also about being willing to die for our art, which my husband did. With Peeping Tom, his career was ruined. He died for that film. This happens to many, many great artists. It's such a beautiful symbolism of that. It's so real, and ballet dancers to this day still think it's the best portrayal of [that world], even though the dancing has gotten much better." James Toback:
"I see it every couple of years. It's always emotionally powerful. There are stretches of the movie that kind of flatten out, and then it has that jolt of tragedy at the end that never fails to get to me. It is very beautiful, the restoration. Love and death, music and high style are among my favorite phenomena in life and they're all on display. I think it's clearly the inspiration for Visconti in style—this sort of unembarrassed high emotion and operatic inflation without any self-consciousness. No one would do that today, and yet it works with great power." [Related podcast: Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones speak to GreenCine Daily from Cannes '09.]