February 23, 2010

Return to Oz: A History of Australian Cinema (1969-1989)

by Roderick Heath

The Cars That Ate Paris

Part Two: 1969-1989

1. Engines of Change

Continued from Part One

Few explanations for the almost unprecedented resuscitation of Australian cinema between 1969 and 1975 are immediately satisfying. Perhaps the most important changes were the most difficult to quantify, but it is easy to see that 1968 was one of the most important years in contemporary Australian history. A popular referendum gave equal citizenship to indigenous Australians after decades of excision from the communal dialogue. Demonstrations over a visit by Lyndon Johnson, and against Australia's follow-the-leader involvement in Vietnam, illustrated the rise of a new, protest-based counterculture, and a popular objection to the idea of the United States take Britain's place in dictating Australian international policy soon expanded into a new thirst for self-definition. The same year also saw the foundation of the Australian Council for the Arts, a federal panel for sponsoring cultural projects, after a sustained demand for aid in combating the apathy generally dubbed the "cultural cringe" that disdained home-grown art and entertainment.

Such events indicated a new attitude to issues long caught in stagnancy during the highly conservative government of Sir Robert Menzies, which had lasted from 1949 to 1965. The wave of political and cultural agitation rolling worldwide in this era coincided neatly with this reinvigoration, and a powerful nexus arose that fused renewed intellectual and artistic energy, and embraced both old and new versions of the national character. In any event, the close government interest in cinema Raymond Longford had pushed for in the 1920s to so little effect now became institution.

Australian Film Commission

National and state-sponsored bodies to develop, fund, and teach the craft of cinema were instituted first under the influence of Prime Minister John Gorton, heir to but not mimic of Menzies' hegemony, and then the decisively energetic Labor government of Gough Whitlam. Trickles of finance now dispersed to anyone who showed half an ounce of talent and dedication to making movies. Institutions associated with the revival included the Australian Film Development Corporation, formed in 1970, and its reformed successor the Australian cinema, formed in 1970, and its reformed successor the Australian Film Commission, and the Australian Film and Television School, opened in 1973.

What all this boiled down to was that aspiring filmmakers now had access to finance and facilities long withheld to them, and they also had a new, potentially attentive audience. The result: over a 130 features were produced in the 1970s, nearly as many as in the entire period prior to that vital decade. Of course, this was hardly necessarily indicative of quality, and a large amount of dross accompanied the popular and well-regarded films. What is undeniable is that what had been a barely relevant and almost deceased film culture had resurged in the likeness of a genuine industry, and Australian cinema abruptly blossomed anew.

2. New Wave to The Last Wave

Skippy and The IntrudersThe revitalization was clearly in action as early as 1969, even if the scene wasn't entirely populated by new faces and ideas: Lee Robinson, for instance, was able to direct his final feature, The Intruders, in that year, although he would later produce and write several more films of the coming avalanche. Ken G. Hall was expressing his cynicism over the revival as late as 1977, when he published his memoirs. The ripple effect of Michael Powell's They're a Weird Mob's success at first stimulated some familiar reflexes, as co-productions with American and British companies saw imported stars and directors working in Australia again. The expanded confidence and ambition of some figures working in television, coupled with the unimpressive quality of programming, now saw film as a worthy alternative cause.

Reg Goldsworthy (1920-1981), a former radio actor and then TV soap star, formed Goldsworthy Productions, to work in collaboration with an American company, Commonwealth United Corporation, to produce a handful of bland thrillers, including It Takes All Kinds (1969), starring American actors Robert Lansing and Vera Miles, Color Me Dead (1970), with Tom Tryon, and That Lady from Peking (1970), with Nancy Kwan. All three of these films were directed and co-written by US TV director Eddie Davis (1907- ).

Such pulp aside, two of the most important films of the early '70s were likewise directed by visiting filmmakers: Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, and Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright, retitled Outback for international release, were both made in 1971. These two films looked beyond the seaside cities to the mythic landscape of the sparsely populated interior, but in a dark and penetrating fashion that evoked, in a fashion very different to earlier films, the defined limits of western civilisation as discovered on the edge of the outback. Walkabout's diffuse, alien-feeling narrative, as purveyed through Roeg's finely textured filmmaking - it was his first film as solo director - depicted two teenagers (Jenny Agutter and Lucien John), stranded in the desert after their suicidal businessman father (effective and popular actor John Meillon) burns their car and shoots himself, who are then rescued by a wandering Aboriginal boy, played by David Gulpilil (1953- ), a former dancer credited here as "Gumpilil". The indigenous boy's innate understanding of nature and capacity to survive in the outback contrasts the endangered civility of his two charges, and the disconnection turns tragic when the girl rejects in fearful misunderstanding the boy's mating dance, causing his suicide.

WalkaboutKotcheff's film detailed the travails of a British schoolteacher (Gary Bond) terrorised to the point of psychological collapse and reversion by yokels in a rural hamlet. Kotcheff, a Canadian who has since said that he was drawn to make the film as it made him reflect on a similar strain of crude redneck culture in his homeland. Nonetheless, the specific evocation of its Aussie variety was sufficiently strong meat to make the film as derided as it was acclaimed upon release, so that while it went on to alert world cinema patrons to something new happening in Australia, it was long neglected at home. Wake in Fright even featured Chips Rafferty, in his final feature appearance before his death that same year, and also provided the film debut of an actor who would practically replace him as a singular icon of on-screen Aussie masculinity, Jack Thompson.

Walkabout and Wake in Fright, whilst being groundbreaking in their approach to style and story in an Australian setting, nonetheless still retained a production model close to that of the '50s films, financed by overseas studios, featuring British actors and helmed by established foreign directors. The same can be said for Tony Richardson's unfortunate 1970 attempt to film the Ned Kelly myth, starring an embarrassing Mick Jagger. Genuine local filmmaking was slower to flourish and less sophisticated when it did. Amongst the handful of other features released in 1969, one, David Cahill's You Can't See 'Round Corners, being the adventures of a young Vietnam veteran and renegade, was rough and basic, but it hit enough of a nerve to inspire a subsequent television series.

Another '69 effort, Two Thousand Weeks, notable chiefly for being the first stab at feature directing by Tim Burstall (1929-2004), a former journalist and documentary maker who had formed his own firm, Eltham Films, in 1959. Two Thousand Weeks was an attempt to establish an antipodean answer to European art cinema - Burstall claimed inspiration in Fellini's 8 ½ - but the film's impact was more one of raised expectations than popular success.

StorkBurstall soon, however, became the closest thing Aussie cinema had known to a reliable hit-maker since Ken G. Hall. His Stork (1971) and Alvin Purple (1973) were sticky, trippy hipster sex farces that both satirised and exploited the fading influence of suburban moralism in the face of new age mores, doomed to date swiftly and badly in both tone and technique, but genuinely popular at the time. Burstall soon expanded his horizons to make Petersen (1974), taken from a work by wunderkind playwright David Williamson (1942- ), a comedy-drama about a working class man uneasy in an academic environment. End Play (1975) was a tolerable thriller, and the spurious period bawdiness of Eliza Fraser (1976) featured Susannah York and Trevor Howard. Burstall's last film of the '70s was his best, the macho drama Last of the Knucklemen (1979), which explored with taciturn humour a team of miners working on an outback site, cursed by endemic boredom, who are subject to occasional power tussles between alpha males, settled in ritualised fist-fights.

The early '70s saw filmmakers grasp onto any material that might provide a base of existing popularity to build on, and this produced some shoddy adaptations of popular TV series like Number 96 (1974) and The Box (1975). Barry Humphries (1934- ), a comic writer and actor, had gone to Britain to work and had become involved with the famous satirical group that founded the magazine "Private Eye". Humphries had created for that magazine a comic strip about the classic Aussie ocker, in the character Barry McKenzie. He returned to Australia to star in John B. Murray's The Naked Bunyip (1970), playing another of his stock characters, suburban matron Dame Edna Everage, in what was essentially a sex comedy, mixing fiction segments and documentary footage that hid graphic images under a floating cartoon bunyip (that's a kind of aboriginal mythical Bigfoot). Bunyip made substantial money, and did much to bolster the arbiters of the Revival's claims of an untapped waiting audience.

The Adventures of Barry MckenzieSoon Humphries' cartoon creation became the subject of 1972's The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which also served as the first feature of Bruce Beresford (1940- ). McKenzie, detailing the adventures of wide-eyed young Barry's (Barry Crocker) in England, provided a slapdash framework for Humphries' caricature of the post-colonial culture clash. It inspired as much cringing as it did laughter for its unabashed celebration of the cruder aspects of Aussie beer-and-burp humor, but it was one of the biggest hits of the era precisely for unleashing a clichéd cultural archetype. Beresford, Humphries and Crocker repeated their success two years later with Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.

Beresford's talents however were more diverse than could be expressed through such material. Beresford had been involved in film production since he was 13, when he had photographed a short film, Time of Crisis, for a friend. After making several more shorts and documentaries himself, including a short stint working in Nigeria, he had become, at age 26, head of production at the British Film Institute, turning out reportage on an array of subjects.

After his two Barry McKenzie successes firmly established him as a feature director, Beresford made Side by Side (1975) in England, built around the glam rock craze of the mid '70s, with Humphries again, before returning to make Don's Party a year later. Adapted from David Williamson's strong play, Don's Party returned to that epochal year of 1968, portraying a group of young lefties who gather on election night to watch yet another defeat for the Labour party and fight out their own various sexual and emotional crises. Beresford followed it quickly with a pair of wilfully disparate films: The Getting of Wisdom (1977), adapted from a novel by Henry Handel Richardson, about life in a girls' boarding school early in the century, and the genuinely punchy crime flick The Money-Movers (1979), establishing him firmly as Aussie cinema's most versatile figure, possessing a rare touch with actors. Beresford's deliberately tackling a diversity of material, including the genteel, feminine world of The Getting of Wisdom, perhaps summarises what is often perceived as indicative of a swift, reactive counterbalance to the crudities and caricatures of the Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple films.

Picnic at Hanging RockBeresford's chief rival for prominence in the era, Peter Weir (1944- ), produced his first feature, The Cars that Ate Paris, in 1974, after a set of short subjects that had promised a strong if unruly talent. Cars, anticipating later works like Mad Max, with its borderline sci-fi and exploitation of Aussie car culture, also kicked off Weir's genuine fascination with the theme of invasive irrationality and destructive forces assaulting civil stability, a theme that he would take on next with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), adapted from a novel by expatriate author Joan Lindsay. This proved a defining work which announced in international terms the robustness of the Aussie "New Wave". Often cited as the single greatest Australian film, Picnic was a canny choice of subject on Weir's behalf, dramatising as it did the unease of an imported European culture in an unfamiliar landscape that demanded adaptation or promised annihilation.

This was dramatised by a story which was supposedly, although not actually, based in a real event (an aspect of the film's success which anticipated the gimmicks that made a hit of similar The Blair Witch Project many years later) in which a trio of adolescent private schoolgirls disappeared on a picnicking expedition with their classmates and teachers on St Valentine's Day, 1900. The truth of what has happened to them isn't clearly defined, but it becomes apparent that some mystical force has claimed two of the girls: the third turns up, amnesiac and bedraggled, when a young Englishman (Dominic Guard) braves invisible barriers to locate her. The event shatters the school the girls attended and drives its fearsome headmistress (Rachel Roberts) to suicide. Weir's success was in making the tale, in essence a glorified Twilight Zone episode, feel both intensely allusive and elusive in nature with his intricate use of sound effects, and glaze of artful menace.

Weir followed it with The Last Wave (1977), the tale of a Sydney lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who uncovers a long-hidden indigenous prophecy of apocalypse. This was a more explicable exploration of a new-age anxiety over natural calamity and the resurgence of repressed forces, rooted clearly in the notion Aboriginal culture might have possessed insight into the state of the world that eludes the invading white world. Not quite as well-received initially, it looks today slightly more satisfying in both filmmaking and narrative shape than Picnic, providing a truly chilling coda.

To continue reading "A History of Australian Cinema (1969-1989)," click here.

Posted by ahillis at 11:20 AM | Comments (1)

February 18, 2010

DVD OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: Revanche (Gotz Spielmann)

Gotz Spielmann, REVANCHE

Just released on DVD and Blu-ray this week, courtesy of the Criterion Collection, is Götz Spielmann's riveting neo-noir Revanche, which was Oscar-nominated last year for Best Foreign Language Film:

A gripping thriller and a tragic drama of nearly Greek proportions, Revanche is the stunning, Oscar-nominated international breakthrough of Austrian filmmaker Götz Spielmann. In a ragged section of Vienna, hardened ex-con Alex (the mesmerizing Johannes Krisch) works in a brothel, where he falls for Ukrainian hooker Tamara. Their desperate plans for escape unexpectedly intersect with the lives of a rural cop and his seemingly content wife. With meticulous, elegant direction, Spielmann creates a tense, existential, and surprising portrait of vengeance and redemption, and a journey into the darkest forest of human nature, in which violence and beauty exist side by side.

Sometime last May, I sat down with Spielmann to talk about "the first Buddhist thriller" (as he recalls an L.A. critic describing it), the role nature plays in his life, why he doesn't believe in loneliness, and who he deems the most underrated filmmaker in history. Because natural sound is so important to the artistry of Revanche, we conducted our podcast outside on the crowded Manhattan streets, for better or worse.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (16:05)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Revanche: "Music Man"
OUTRO: Billy Joel: "Vienna Waits For You"

Posted by ahillis at 10:47 PM

February 16, 2010

Return to Oz: A History of Australian Cinema (1896-1968)

By Roderick Heath

Soldiers of the Cross

[editor's note: Heath's unbelievably comprehensive primer on Aussie cinema will be posted in its entirety on the GreenCine main site, but here at the Daily, we'll be excerpting a little from each of its three parts.]

Part One: 1896-1968

1. Pioneer Spirit

Filmmaking technology first came to Australia in the hands of Maurice Sestier, one of the Lumiere Brothers' [Wikipedia] many globetrotting cameramen, who arrived in Sydney in 1896, not a month after the first exhibition of films by Carl Hertz in Melbourne. Sestier shot several short travelogues of such edifying spectacles as Sydney Harbor and the crowds filing onto ferries and trams, and opened the Salon Lumiere on Pitt Street specifically to screen them, making him both Australia's first filmmaker and professional exhibitor. Sestier's film was too slow to capture the racing horses at the Melbourne Cup later in the year, so he settled for shooting the crowds instead. Sestier decided there was no future for cinema in Australia and auctioned off his camera two years after arriving, leaving for France with all his films. Nonetheless his work had made an impact, inspiring a small number of followers who made documentary shorts and news reels which proceeded to tantalize crowds.

Of course, random shots of commuters and bushland were never going to fascinate paying patrons for very long. The idea of creating a fiction feature film may have been in many minds, but the man regarded as the first to accomplish it was an unlikely figure: Major Joseph Perry of the Salvation Army's Magic Lantern and Photographic Department. Perry, an Englishman residing in Melbourne, had shot a few short documentaries, and his first stab at a new kind of cinema was part of an early multimedia experience, with portions of his film shown in alternation with slides, sermons, and hymn singing, as part of a religious lecture. This movie, entitled Soldiers of the Cross, was essentially a series of illustrative sequences portraying the grisly fates of early Christian martyrs.

Soldiers of the CrossPerry's opus was shot on the tennis court of a Salvation Army girls' home in Melbourne, utilizing hastily made sets and costumes, and, by all accounts, some clever trick photography. The first advertisements for the exhibition of Soldiers of the Cross appeared in newspapers on September 14, 1900. Perry not only helped invent the concept of the feature film, for his work, at 900 meters, was more than three times as long as The Great Train Robbery, made three years later, but he also helped define the historical religious epic. Still photographs from Soldiers, all that remains of that vanished work, reveal images of the Roman decadence that readily prefigure the likes of Quo Vadis? and Ben-Hur.

By the time The Great Train Robbery was produced, Soldiers of the Cross had already been exported to the United States and shown across that country. Australia, even more so than the US, was an extremely young country ripe to be colonized by a new idea and mode of communication. In fact, it wasn't even actually a country yet, being a year away from Federation when Perry's film was released, and an anything-goes openness to innovation was immediately apparent in Aussie cinema. Six years later, another defining work arrived in the shape of The True Story of the Kelly Gang, a prototypical western about the infamous, egomaniacal Irish bushranger Edward "Ned" Kelly and his band of fellow bandits. This would-be epic was produced by two theatrical entrepreneurs, brothers John Henry Tait (1871-1955) and James Nevin Tait (1876-1961), and written and directed by a third brother, Charles (1869-1933).

The True Story of the Kelly GangTheir film, which took over six months to produce, was mostly shot on location, on a property outside Heidelberg, Victoria, belonging to Charles' wife Elizabeth Veitch, who also got to play Kelly's sister Kate in the film. Victorian Railways were nice enough to let them tear up a section of rail and endanger a real engine to recreate one of the gang's escapades. The resulting motion picture reputedly ran for two hours, the longest movie made anywhere until that point, and to keep the audiences interested, actors were employed to speak dialogue behind the screen during screenings.

Apart from fascinating snippets portraying Ned Kelly's final, armour-clad rampage and downfall, The True Story of the Kelly Gang is, like Soldiers of the Cross, today a lost film, and so whether or not it was more than a landmark of running time is impossible to judge. These hand-made productions, both of which had used family and friends as cast and crew, as well as taking cues from the theatrical culture of the era, were probably typical in their combination of amateurish and professional reflexes. In the next few years, the first of several versions of the popular novels Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, and For The Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke, appeared on Australian screens. Both initial adaptations of these were the work of Charles MacMahon (1853-1917), another theatrical personage. MacMahon and John Gavin (1875-1938), a stage actor who turned to directing action-adventure films like Moonlite, Ben Hall and His Gang, and The Drover's Sweetheart (all 1911), helped define, in following the Taits, a recognizable domestic genre.

The True Story of the Kelly GangThese were romanticised versions of rugged incidents and periods in Australian history, which can be handily described as, in essence, Aussie Westerns, springing from the soil of a new nationalism and idealisation of the conquest of a difficult continent, accompanied by a fascination for rogues and outlaws who fought against the police and symbols of authority. This reflected a history defined by a quiet but very real schism between imported Imperial authority itself, and the settlers who came with their blessings, and a necessary identification with the flag and ethos of the British Empire, and the convicts, social outcasts, resentful Irish, and of course the native Australians being squeezed out and decimated by the colonial process, who also composed the populace of a nascent nation.

The chief archetype that arose to synthesise these disparate personas was of a dry-witted, no-nonsense, instinctively decent masculine hero. These were the types celebrated by popular writers like Charles "Banjo" Patterson, Henry Lawson, and Tom Collins in establishing a national mystique immediately before and after Federation. At the same time, the possibility of other cultural influences were being edited out of that mythos with the same purpose as they were being edited out politically, thanks to the adoption of the "White Australia Policy" after Federation, severely limiting any migration for all but, in essence, immigrants from Britain.

The real-life inspiration for 'Moonlite' Early Australian history offered plenty of material for filmmakers: mythic realms of convicts, outlaw rebel figures, stockmen and farmers and loggers and all the other brawny supermen of the colonization, with the odd threatened female and threatening aboriginal thrown in for flavor. Three-quarters of a century later, when the film industry revived from a long slump, and the cyclical fascinations of the public returned to an interest in national heritage, such subjects would again hit the screens in films like The Man from Snowy River (1982). But a government ban on films about bushrangers imposed in 1912 hurt the young industry in general, and film production began to rapidly shrink, a decline hurried along the entry of Australia in the First World War.

These cinematic pioneers had little subsequent impact on the course of Australian cinema. Joseph Perry remade Soldiers of the Cross as Heroes of the Cross in 1909, and would later resign from the Salvation Army to move into film distribution. Charles MacMahon died in Britain after moving there in 1917. John Gavin would move to Hollywood a year later, acting there in Westerns and comedies, before returning to star in his directorial swan song, Trooper O'Brien (1928). The Taits, after forming their own production company, Amalgamated Pictures, in 1909, eventually returned to theatrical ventures.

[To continue to the full version of Part I, click here.]

Posted by ahillis at 3:01 PM | Comments (1)

February 10, 2010

PODCAST: Al Jarnow

Al Jarnow, Cosmic Clock

Beginning in 1969 and for the next three decades or so, Brooklyn-born artist and animator Al Jarnow created over 100 short films that have been seen by tens of millions of people worldwide... chances are you know his work, even if you didn't know his name. This Friday, February 12, an hour-long showcase of his films (plus a short documentary) will be screened at the 92Y Tribeca (NYC), and again February 19-20 at the Gene Siskel Film Center (Chicago). Additionally, The Numero Group will release Celestial Navigations—an impressively packaged, deluxe DVD of his films, transferred and remastered from the original 16mm prints—on February 23:

Curled up on our couches in the wee hours of the morning, in reruns, and nostalgic You Tube forwards, filmmaker Al Jarnow has touched our lives and changed the way we look at the world without us ever knowing. Beginning with his work for a certain public television show that featured a big yellow bird, Al Jarnow captured life's scientific minutia and boiled it down for easy consumption between cookie eating monsters and counting vampires. Coupling time-lapse, stop motion, and cel animation with simple objects found in every day life, Jarnow deconstructed the world for an entire generation.

From the third floor of his Long Island gingerbread home, his mind wandered beyond the confines of educational programming. Delving into New York's avant-garde film scene alongside Harry Smith, Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, Jarnow created a body of awe-inspiring films that remain in the collections of MOMA and Pompideau Center.

I phoned Jarnow at said home in Long Island to talk about "digital films made by hand," new perceptions he's had about his work in the YouTube era, why he no longer considers himself a filmmaker, and the baffling reason why an animated yak was once rejected from Sesame Street.

Note: Al Jarnow's Celestial Navigations is now available to rent on GreenCine.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (16:38)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Cookie Monster: "C is for Cookie"
OUTRO: They Might Be Giants: "Older"

Posted by ahillis at 12:28 PM | Comments (2)

February 9, 2010

Slow Criticism: Overcooked Ideas in an Aptly Named Crock Pot

by Vadim Rizov

Slow Criticism: Overcooked Ideas in an Aptly Named Crock Pot One of the many pleasures of reading Sight & Sound comes in the two pages of book criticism at the back. It's here that I often get to learn about ideas and buzzwords making the academic rounds that might someday percolate down into the broader critical world. Often these remind me precisely why I'm not in academia, which is some kind of service. It was in the March 2009 issue, for instance, that I read Catherine Wheatley—in an aside about a critical anthology of Mark Cousins' writing—noting that Cousins admits he works from a "masculine" urge to "praise or excoriate." Wheatley continued: "I'm not sure that I myself don't prefer the alternative: a 'feminine' form of criticism that opens up a film's potential by refusing to read it as this or that, rather than closing it down through sheer force of rhetoric." I bow to the flawless conceit that academic theory can somehow take us back to the old stereotypes—men grunt while women talk, men judge and women empathize—and come out richer for it.

Whether "feminine" criticism takes off remains to be seen, but for the moment, there's something more interesting in the air: Slow Criticism. When I first heard the term, I assumed it was some kind of critical equivalent to Roger Ebert's beloved slow rice cooker, with thoughts steeped in years of reflection, put out at leisure, with no regard for what's trendy or driving site traffic. As someone who blogs every day, I can't say I don't appreciate the promise of a different path, a brighter day somewhere. Indeed, in her introduction to the second issue of Filmkrant's second annual stab at Slow Criticism (capital letters and all), editor-in-chief Dana Linssen promises us nothing less than "a counterbalance to the commodification of film journalism [...] a refuge for rebellious and imaginative thinking, which is too often considered to be too personal, philosophical, poetic or simply not appropriate for day-to-day journalism." How nice.

Rotterdam Tiger Award winner ALAMAR Any movement needs some spleen to get it going, and Linssen (like so many of us in the day-to-day film writing grind) gets hers from a press release: an admittedly stupid notice from the Rotterdam Film Festival that directors will be visiting the festival. Linssen goes on to excoriate the festival for stacking its panels with "opinion makers, museum directors, ex-politicians and rabbis" rather than bona fide critics, for surrendering the stage to making movies "issues" rather than aesthetics-centered. And she's going to fix that.

That must be most heartening for her and all involved. So who are these rebels? Out of 12 participants, five (Diego Lerer, Caroline Mercado, Christoph Huber, Neil Young, Pamela Biénzobas) are jobbing critics of one sort or another; the rest work in journals or academia. That's not a judgment, just an observation: the crisis Linssen's reacting against (an explosion of jabbering voices all trying to get traffic with redundant takes on the exact same material) is very real and can be attacked on any number of fronts. I'm all for critics and academics linking arms and singing "The Internationale" if that's what it takes. But even before I delved into the writing, I was bothered by the smugness of Linssen's tone, the absolute cocksureness that there's the outside world and then there's this brave little band of brothers, trying to nudge us back onto the path of righteousness.

Ne Change Rien So what's in this issue? Some of the pieces are very good indeed. Adrian Martin has some eloquently expressed (if overly familiar) thoughts on the commoditization and cooption of past revolutionary art as ossified standard-bearers; Jonathan Rosenbaum looks at Ne Change Rien in terms familiar to anyone who reads him regularly, at the kind of length the Chicago Reader presumably can't afford anymore. Pamela Biénzobas and Eva Sancho Rodriguez both provide excellent reportage and context on recent movements in South America, though it is, in fact, exactly reporting and context; aside from the fact that most periodicals aren't champing at the bit for news from those parts of the world (and shame on them), I'm not so sure what's "slow" about this.

There's the asinine stuff too: academic Patricia Pisters offers up not-particularly-convincing comparisons of Avatar to 2001 and Homer with nothing less than some jargon-y hyperbole. Diego Lerer gives us "Fast Criticism: An Installation," by which he means screengrabs of a few Twitter feeds that have been neither retweeted nor replied to. I'm not sure what this is supposed to prove, except that Twitter is Satan but Tumblr is a force for good, which would be more convincing if some of the links—to the intriguing FBI memo about why It's a Wonderful Life was flagged as Communist propaganda, for example—weren't quite intriguing and every bit as "digressive" as the movies Gabe Klinger talks about in his essay. If anything, Twitter's a force for cross-pollination of ideas and serendipity; taking snapshots of its inanities proves no more about Twitter than porn does about the internet as a whole. There's also an entire Facebook argument about recent Peruvian films that includes the deathless line "Hi Caroline, how's the reading going?" I presume this is supposed to remind us how technology mediates conversations and time and leads us to reflect on the subject further, but mostly it made me think a little editorial intervention would've heightened the sophisticated arguments on display.

Avatarded Then again, what's an uncut Facebook conversation about a recent film doing in this world of slowness? Or possibly the dumbest piece I've read on Avatar thus far? It seems that Slow Criticism is a self-righteous catch-all for "Writers We Like" rather than thoughts and emotions recollected in tranquility. But let's say I take this exercise at face value; that means I still hate it. For one thing, there's an assumption that we don't actually need on-the-ground festival criticism, which is moronic. Sure, we don't need one-paragraph blurbs or tweets (bottom-line criticism is a drag), but we do need someone out there monitoring the circuit, alerting readers with adventurous tastes to films, talent and ideas they should be looking out for. Also, who set up the idea that you can't be "rebellious and imaginative" in real time? It's precisely talking with colleagues, reading other pieces and all the rest of the task of criticism that hinders an unmodified response. First thought best thought? Probably not, but there's a value to that all the same. Furthermore, who decided only critics get to talk about films? Accidental insights and perspectives lie all over; I'm sorry the Rotterdam festival has failed to properly enshrine the critic as the top arbiter of worth, but trust me, they'll get a word in soon enough.

What "Slow Criticism" would logically lead to is the assumption that the movies will find their champions somehow and float to the top, which is not how the world works. Yes, we need thoughtful, long-form considerations produced at the pace needed to get them right—often arriving at moments when they're "irrelevant" to the trend-obsessed many—but we need this other stuff too to even start the conversation. There's a snobbishness here towards pragmatism, both for the films and the careers of those writing about them, that baffles me. I'm inclined to blame people who have the liberty of being safely ensconced in academia and/or in periodicals: not the most lucrative market, certainly, but a more stable one, where the terms of the conversation are already set. The task, at the end of the day, is always at the service of the actual films; "Slow Criticism" implies the cinema will take care of itself. Without people willing to work fast and thoughtfully, there's no groundwork.

Spider-Who? Sorry, "Slow Criticism." Anything that brings about the death of EXCLUSIVE ADVANCE PHOTOS OF SPIDER-MAN 4 is cool by me, but there's a difference between an approach and a corrective. A catch-all by any other name is still a catch-all, no matter how grandiose the rhetoric, and exclusionary approaches like this—especially with incoherent starting points—aren't going to help any film or anyone.

Posted by ahillis at 4:28 PM | Comments (1)

February 3, 2010


Whip It

Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore
2009, 111 minutes, USA

Whip It It should be prefaced that this week has oodles of recommendable discs—including The House of the Devil (podcast), A Serious Man (interview), Bronson (review), and Eleven Minutes (podcast)—so here's a plea to those who might've sadly ignored Drew Barrymore's directorial debut last week simply because, well, it's Drew Barrymore's directorial debut. The former Charlie's Angel hasn't exactly developed a distinct style and vision to canonize her as a great American auteur or anything, but in her capable hands, a potentially hoary coming-of-ager about a small-town Texas high schooler who finds empowerment through an all-girl roller derby league proves to be an infectious, emotionally credible dramedy with a decidedly postfeminist ideology. More movies deserve to focus on the kinds of progressively written female characters Whip It offers in teams, but almost as important, it's a kick-ass entertainment, too.

Whip It Adapted by Shauna Cross from her semi-autobiographical novel "Derby Girl," the film tracks young Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page, shaking off her snark and precociousness) as she longs to escape a dead-end waitress job and the beauty-pageant career inflicted upon her by an obsessive mother (Marcia Gay Harden. After Bliss and best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) sneak off to a hipster slice of Austin to discover the loyal sisterhoods and fierce competitions of derby (and dreamy indie rocker Landon Pigg, but that's a later subplot), the girl power is contagious enough for Bliss to dig out her childhood Barbie skates and start practicing to become one of the "Hurl Scouts." If the familial conflict that comes next seems predictable, what redeems a familiar youth-in-revolt arc is that nobody gets a one-dimensional vilification. Mother and daughter clearly love each other, as does Bliss' football-loving goof of a dad (Daniel Stern), but a warm-hearted tone doesn't make Mom's overbearing nature any less of an obstacle between a teenage dreamer and her passions.

Whip It You'd be to correct to guess that the truly choice material comes from the sport itself. The thrills are visceral as we watch Bliss evolve into a speed-skating superstar with the nom de plume "Babe Ruthless." Unlike the ADHD headaches of cross-cutting that ruin so many action flicks today, frequent Wes Anderson cinematographer Robert Yeoman's lensing of the derby auditions and matches has a straightforward visual clarity without losing its kick. Then the zipping, whipping and taking hits becomes more engaging once we're introduced to Bliss' de facto family of tough chicks, from ditzy "Smashley Simpson" (Barrymore) and New Zealand badass "Bloody Holly" (Zoe Bell) to veterans like alt-mom "Maggie Mayhem" (Kristen Wiig) and feral arch-rival "Iron Maven" (Juliette Lewis)—who, again, is not a singularly malevolent figure, even if she makes sinister faces outside the arena.

Whip ItIt's a spot-on ensemble (let's also hear it for Andrew Wilson and Jimmy Fallon) across the board, and Barrymore gives almost everyone a chance to carry a scene, sweetly subverting the very underdog clichés she adopts (the big game, the love interest, the best friend falling-out). Actors-turned-directors are regularly praised for filching fabulous performances through personal experience, but Barrymore's greater strength (with compliments to Magnolia editor Dylan Tichenor) is in capturing the spontaneous minutiae of her cast's work. All the ad hoc gags, single-take reactions and left-in actor impulses would feel just as at home in a loosey-goosey comedy like Dazed and Confused or Rock 'N' Roll High School—you know, the kinds of films whose flaws only charm you into watching them again.

Posted by ahillis at 6:54 PM | Comments (3)

February 1, 2010


Terribly Happy This Friday, Oscilloscope Laboratories will release Danish filmmaker Henrik Ruben Genz's Terribly Happy in New York, with more dates to follow in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver and more. From the official synopsis:

Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen police officer who, following a nervous breakdown, is transferred to a small provincial town to take on the mysteriously vacated Marshall position and subsequently gets mixed up with a married femme fatale. Robert’s big city temperament makes it impossible for him to fit in, or understand the uncivilized, bizarre behavior displayed by the townspeople. Quickly spiraling downward into an intense fable reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men, Terribly Happy displays a unique, often macabre vision of the darkest depths to which people will go to achieve a sense of security and belonging.

GreenCine Daily has 5 pairs of tickets to give away to see Terribly Happy at the Angelika Film Center in New York City. To enter to win, you must live in the NYC area (okay, New Jersey and Connecticut, you can play, too). Below the jump are screenshots from three Oscilloscope titles in which nobody looks too terribly happy. The first 5 people to identify all three films will win a pair of tickets. Good luck!


Send your answers to cinephiliac [at] gmail [dot] com with the subject line "Terribly Happy" and please include your full name and mailing address... Good luck!

Posted by ahillis at 9:50 AM