August 30, 2010

PODCAST: Vincent Cassel

Vincent Cassel, star of MESRINE

As if there needed to be physical proof that he's one of France's most versatile actors today, Vincent Cassel (La Haine, Irreversible, Eastern Promises) won a César for playing the titular role in director—and fellow César winner—Jean-François Richet's two-part underworld epic Mesrine:

MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT charts the outlaw odyssey of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), the legendary French gangster of the '60s and '70s who came to be known as French Public Enemy No. 1 and The Man of a Thousand Faces. Infamous for his bravado and outrageously daring prison escapes, Mesrine carried out numerous robberies, kidnappings and murders in a criminal career that spanned continents until he was shot dead in 1979 by France's notorious anti-gang unit. Thirty years after his death, his infamy lives on.

Mesrine was helped along the way by beautiful and equally reckless Jeanne Schneider (Cécile de France), a Bonnie to match his Clyde. Mesrine made up his own epic, between romanticism and cruelty, flamboyance and tragedy. Both a thriller and a biopic, KILLER INSTINCT explores the man behind the icon.

In MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY No. 1, the story continues Mesrine's incredible life of crime while manipulating the media, the government and the police. He plans his last and greatest escape, hoping to leave France, and the character he has become, behind forever.

Before the film's opening, I met up with Cassel to discuss why making the film was an endurance contest to be conquered, the most Bonnie & Clyde-like moment he's ever had with his real-life wife Monica Bellucci, and which filmmaker he believes is "the closest we have to a modern Buñuel."

To listen to the podcast, click here. (13:28)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Rim'k (feat. Lino): "L'instinct De Mort"
OUTRO: Marco Beltrani: "Jacques Mesrine"

[Mesrine: Killer Instinct is now playing in NYC and Los Angeles, and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 opens on September 3. For more info, please visit the official website.]

Posted by ahillis at 8:39 PM

August 28, 2010

DVD OF THE WEEK: Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

by Brian Darr

Underworld

The Criterion Collection lives up to its name, having in the past twelve years released over five hundred DVDs and box sets, generally with the best available image and sound quality, lovingly lavish packaging and supplemental features, a body of product containing a large proportion of the most noteworthy films in world cinema history. However, for every Jean-Luc Godard or Akira Kurosawa whose filmography has been well-served by Criterion's curatorial mission, there's a whole cinematic realm in which the company falls short. Films directed by women are few and far between, as are films from Asian nations other than Japan. Nothing at all has been released from South America or Africa, unless one counts Europeans' excursions there, such as Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus and Gillo Pontocorvo's The Battle of Algiers.

Surprisingly, the entire silent era, representing over three decades of moviemaking history, has yielded only a handful of dedicated Criterion DVD releases thus far: Nanook of the North, Passion of Joan of Arc, Haxan, Pandora's Box, King of Kings, and now a box set collecting three of auteur Josef von Sternberg's few surviving silents: Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York. Setting aside the appearance of John Ford's early Bucking Broadway as an extra on the recent release of his Stagecoach, with this Von Sternberg set Criterion has just quadrupled its catalog of silent features made in Hollywood (previously, only DeMille's King of Kings fit in that category), a territory the company has largely ceded to other imprints like Kino and Flicker Alley.

Underworld Josef Von Sternberg seems the ideal figure to launch such an expansion around, as Underworld, The Last Command and The Docks of New York must be three of the most visually compelling dramas made in the American studio system, in this case by Paramount. The same studio for which Von Sternberg would later make six icon-building talkies with Marlene Dietrich starting with Morocco in 1930 and ending with The Devil is a Woman in 1935, Paramount has been perhaps the most reluctant of all the Hollywood majors to release its silent-era heritage on a digital format. There's been vocal disappointment amongst home video aficionados that the studio's licensing deal with Criterion forbade a simultaneous Blu-Ray release. Those of us who haven't become totally spoiled by the HD-video revolution, however, could hardly ask for a better visual presentation of these films. Underworld looks very good playing on a laptop screen, a standard television, or digitally projected. The Last Command looks better, and The Docks of New York better still.

Though the director's backstory is presented nicely in Geoffrey O'Brien's liner-notes essay, and in the video supplements through both Janet Bergstrom's video essay and a 1966 Swedish television interview, it's worth sketching out a few details here. Jonas Sternberg was born in 1894 Vienna, and was shuttled back and forth with his family between there and New York twice, by a father who was often absent and never financially secure. As a teenager in Fort Lee, New Jersey, he entered the motion picture business at the very bottom rung, apprenticed to a cleaner of film stock. Working his way up the ladder in all capacities, by 1924 he was in Hollywood with a new name reminiscent of his hero Erich Von Stroheim's, and had raised $4,800 to independently produce his first film as a director, The Salvation Hunters. Hailed as an instant genius by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, among others, Von Sternberg encountered the frustrations of aborted and unreleased projects typical of a true artist trying to make his way within the industrial Hollywood system, but in 1927 he was allowed full control over the film which would become the foundation for his reputation as a masterful movie-maker (and as an *ahem* stern taskmaster on his set), Underworld.

Underworld Though gangsters had been prominent characters in previous films starring Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney, Harold Lloyd and others, Underworld has often been called the "first gangster film," perhaps because it contains so many of the elements we associate with the 1930s gangster film cycle: chiaoroscuro photography of urban streets and alleyways, well-dressed brutes and molls in slinky dresses, inter-mob rivalries expressed in violence, and thrilling but not-quite-heroic confrontations with the police. With a ripped-from-headlines scenario written by Ben Hecht, the first screenplay of a long and successful Tinseltown career, the only thing missing from the film seems to be the rat-a-tat of the tommy gun.

With Von Sternberg's visual sense powering Hecht's script (the latter made off with one of the first ever writing Academy Awards despite his dissatisfaction with the director's changes to his story, fully reprinted in the Criterion booklet), we don't miss these familiar sounds. As Megan Pugh wrote of the film for the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, "Von Sternberg shunned flat and wasted space—he wanted images that were thick, teeming, layered, and emotionally significant." Emotionally significant the film is, as it portrays a poignant love triangle between George Bancroft's bombastic boss Bull Weed, Clive Cook's alcoholic attorney Rolls Royce, and Evelyn Brent's glamour girl Feathers. Janet Bergstrom relays Brent's account that the cast was obligated by Von Sternberg to watch the daily rushes, which may be the only reason they did not outright rebel against his perfectionism on the set; they were able to see how the details of their performances were to contribute to a fully-envisioned work.

The Last Command The Last Command envisions a world far away from the tough Chicago streets we see in Underworld, but not a step away from the place where Von Sternberg created this simulacrum—and it was a simulacrum, fully created on the Paramount lot, as the director always maintained he loathed shooting on location, a claim belied only by the use of San Pedro Port in The Salvation Hunters. For The Last Command, Von Sternberg carves a Russian nesting doll of Hollywood within Hollywood. The film tells of a deposed Czarist general (Emil Jannings), now a shell-shocked film extra employed by his former revolutionary opponent (William Powell)—now an émigré director—for $7.50 a day. The story, based on a discarded idea of Ernst Lubitsch's, is the quintessence of irony, and its execution often makes its rather obvious role-reversal feel like the most elegant conceit imaginable. The opening pair of intertitles announces: "Hollywood – 1928! The Magic Empire of the Twentieth Century! The Mecca of the World!" But this is not how Von Sternberg shows his industry. Later, prefacing shots of extras swarming for their costumes, a title card reading "The Bread Line of Hollywood" seems closer to the mark, but for Von Sternberg, Hollywood is multifaceted. Both a paradise for illusionists, and an assembly line of ignominy, the town deserves both words of its nickname "Dream Factory."

Along with its philosophically complex illustration of the movie-making process, The Last Command contains a simplified, if not entirely sanitized, illustration of the Russian Revolution, revealed in the extra/general's extended flashback to his rivalry with Powell's Bolshevik for the affections of the beautiful Natalie (Evelyn Brent). Between the romantic and political intrigue, and opulent production design by frequent Von Sternberg collaborator Hans Dreier, it's this 1917 segment which most evidently prefigures the Marlene Dietrich pictures: Dishonored, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress, etc. But the film's most impactful moments are found in the Hollywood bookends. Von Sternberg's final shot, a dolly revealing the picture-making apparatus, is one of the most apropos camera flourishes in his entire career.

The Last Command While Underworld and The Last Command were commercial and critical successes that helped put Academy Awards in the hands of Ben Hecht and Emil Jannings (who won the first Best Actor trophy for both The Last Command and the now-lost Victor Fleming film The Way All Flesh), The Docks of New York was largely ignored in a now-talkie-obsessed America. Its stature was higher abroad, as in Japan—where, in 1930, it was voted the Kinema Junpo magazine's top foreign film of the year. Docks has the most streamlined story, and is perhaps the most formally perfect film, of the Criterion set. Burly George Bancroft plays a steamboat coal-shoveler with one night of shore leave he’s determined to make the most of. No sooner does he arrive on dry land, than he finds himself back in the ocean to rescue a drowning prostitute played by Betty Compson, an actress then in the midst of a celebrated second Hollywood comeback. These two cynics find an unlikely night of romance in the dive-iest of wharfside bars, only to wake up in the morning unsure of just what was real in the previous night's merriment. Parting seems inexorable, but is it really?

In a film about individuals finding their true natures after meeting a kindred spirit, it makes sense that Von Sternberg uses reflections as a major visual motif. The silky shimmer of the East River provides the first reflected glimpse of Compson's character. The mirrored walls of the sailor bar reveal constant activity within the space, and make several long tracking shots seem all the more impressive. Among other stunning camera effects is a bleary-eyed point-of-view shot that, removed from its context, might be mistaken for pure abstraction. After viewing this film, there's no question why Von Sternberg of all Hollywood directors became a favorite of many avant-garde filmmakers, including Jack Smith and Guy Maddin. One of the first book-length studies of his work was written by Herman G. Weinberg, who made the landmark experimental film Autumn Fire. But perhaps the preeminent silent film historian and populizer Kevin Brownlow put it best when he wrote: "Docks of New York was one of the finest achievements of a period when fine achievements were commonplace."

The Docks of New York More compelling evidence for the greatness of each of these films is found in one of the supplemental features, a visual essay created by Tag Gallagher for this Criterion release. For example, Gallagher shows how Von Sternberg adeptly uses close-ups and multi-character shots in his visual language, how Underworld was influenced by Von Stroheim's Greed, and even the varying functions of the many cigarettes in the three pictures. Written essays by Anton Kaes and Luc Sante, and an excerpt from Von Sternberg's provocative autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry round out the extra features in this set. Which brings me to the musical scores, the only element of this Criterion release that could be termed "a mixed bag," bearing in mind that taste in silent film music can be even more personal than silent film itself, and that many cinephiles will be thrilled to be able to play these discs with the soundtrack disabled, either in silence or with their own musical instruments or home-made "needle-drop" scores put to use.

It's always appreciated when a silent film DVD release contains multiple options for the music track, one of the technological features of the digital era that cannot be replicated in a theatrical screening. However, for someone who has been spoiled by the experience of seeing Underworld and The Docks of New York in cinemas, masterfully accompanied by pianists Stephen Horne and Judith Rosenberg, I can't help but feel that each of the two soundtrack options on each of these two DVDs comes up short in some way.

The Docks of New York Underworld's muscular jazz-age images and rapid-fire montage may require more lightness than Robert Israel's stately chamber and orchestral arrangements can provide. Similarly, the Alloy Orchestra's largely synthesized score seems inappropriate to such an of-its-time film. The Alloys are currently perhaps the ideal accompanists for a science-fiction film like Metropolis, or an extremely modernist work like Man with a Movie Camera, and can even suit the action thrills of a film like The General or The Eagle, but I'm not sure they're quite cut out for a drama like Underworld.

The Docks of New York presents a peculiar challenge in that much of the film takes place within diegetic "earshot" of a barroom piano that we can see onscreen, yet it contains scenes of such emotional heft that to ignore character psychology in a soundtrack would do a disservice. Israel's solution is to alternate between solo piano and ensemble arrangements, but I found the transitions between these timbral palettes to be very distracting. Pianist Donald Sosin provides the second score on this DVD, and his jazz-influenced playing seems generally well-suited to the pre-Prohibition milieu Von Sternberg has recreated in the film. I'm still unsure about his intermittent incorporation of vocalist Joanna Seaton, singing lyrics of her own devising, into the score. Again, it was something of a distraction, though perhaps after a few repeat viewings with this score I'll find her contribution a more natural one.

The Docks of New York Whether because it's a grander film, or because it's the only one I've never heard a live accompaniment for, I felt that within the confines of this box set, both the Alloy Orchestra and Robert Israel provided their most well-judged scores for The Last Command. Israel uses a full symphonic sound for much of the film, and incorporates familiar Russian themes quite effectively. It's straightforward, but well-researched and stirring.

Ken Winoker of the Alloy Orchestra has described the synthesizer as the late-20th/early-21st century equivalent to the theatre organ, in that both instruments allow a single keyboardist to generally mimic the voices of a true symphony orchestra, though not so well that a discerning ear would be fooled into thinking it was hearing the "real thing." He's right, but often the Alloys' melodic sound rests on far fewer synthesized timbres than an accomplished organist might use. Still, The Last Command contains scenes with the sweeping, epic feel that plays to the percussion-heavy trio's strengths. And there's something appealingly appropriate about the Alloy synth's ersatz horns playing a Russian anthem while Emil Jannings staggers around William Powell's set, at least momentarily fooled into thinking he's back in his homeland and not California. It seems to underline an idea I'm sure Von Sternberg would've signed off on: that you have to be crazy to think Hollywood fabrication is real.

Posted by ahillis at 11:19 AM | Comments (2)

August 25, 2010

CONTEST: Win a DVD of THE SQUARE

The Square Former stuntman-turned-filmmaker Nash Edgerton makes his feature debut with his brother Joel (who co-wrote and stars) in the Australian thriller The Square:

A stylish, twist-filled film noir, THE SQUARE centers on an adulterous couple whose scheming leads to arson, blackmail and murder. Escaping the monotony of a loveless marriage, Raymond Yale becomes entangled in an affair with the beautiful and troubled Carla. Ray's moral limits are tested when Carla presents him with the proceeds of her controlling husband's latest crime. This is their chance: Take the money and run... If only it were that simple. The seed is planted and Ray, fearing he will lose his love, engineers the plan. Hiring the professional arsonist Billy becomes a fatal error, and the plan goes horribly wrong. Alarm bells sound and suspicions are raised but, miraculously, the dust looks to settle. After all... Nobody knows. Then the first blackmail note arrives.

As the film finally hits DVD shelves this week, GreenCine has a free copy to give away! There are two ways you can enter to win, social media style:

1. The Facebook Way

Join our official Facebook group. Then, write a pithy comment on our wall that includes the words "the square"—written as the hashtag #TheSquare—in a sentence. For example, "I prefer to put my round pegs in #TheSquare hole," or "Jim J. Bullock for the block? Circle gets #TheSquare." Our favorite sentence wins the DVD. Only one Facebook entry is allowed per person, and must be posted by Monday, August 30.

2. The Twitter Way

Follow us on Twitter. Again, including the hashtag #TheSquare, write an even pithier comment that incorporates that hashtag in your sentence, i.e. "I'm telling you, Huey Lewis' song is not called 'Hip to Be #TheSquare,' you fool." You don't need to write @GreenCine since we can track the hashtag, but you must be following us to be eligible. You may enter via Twitter as many times as you like, but the winning sentence must be tweeted by Monday, August 30.

The winner will be mailed a DVD on August 31. Good luck!

Posted by ahillis at 6:32 PM

August 24, 2010

They're All Dog Days

by Vadim Rizov

The Expendables

As summer ends with The Expendables effectively rendering the competition (sorry) expendable, it's worth eulogizing, just briefly, the much-derided Worst Summer Ever. With a slate of rehashes, sequels, 3D quickies and some outright fiascos, little was expected from the season where Americans of all ages, locations and proclivities convene to watch especially expensive things converge and explode, loudly. The big movies that actually generated some excitement were Iron Man 2 (assuming you really, really like Robert Downey Jr.), Toy Story 3, Inception and The Expendables. (If demographically appropriate, add Twilight: Eclipse.) As for everything else, it's doubtful that people will really remember Shrek Forever After existing, or spend future years reminiscing over the rebooted Karate Kid.

Jonah Hex What emerged was as bad as predicted, a nearly unbroken stream of mediocrities broken up by the undisguisably disastrous. After Iron Man 2, there wasn't a single big-budget actioner of comparable stature that attempted to deliver some basic setpiece pleasures. Instead, there was the incoherent and cut-rate Jonah Hex— generally ignored by the masses—which was theoretically designed to be seen as the newest franchise hero but felt like a recut pilot.

That summer thrill of seeing money lavishly spent was denied in a remarkably cheap-looking set of movies all around. Trips abroad were brief and limited to the likes of Killers (which somehow cost $75 million and must've served as a tax shelter), as well as the unanimously derided Dubai section of Sex and the City 2, the film that made global contempt a game everyone could participate in. "Plutography"—the Tom Wolfe-coined word for the graphic depiction of wealth and the wealthy—was hard to find, and decried as in bad taste on the few times it popped up.

Inception Whatever Inception may be, it does throw the entire budget on-screen, in a way that few movies bothered to this summer. If Christopher Nolan wanted to announce with an opening shot of waves crashing in slow-motion that he's made his masterpiece (which, no), he also delivered an un-cheap summer film, whatever its definitive merits. The mega-expense there is fun, as opposed to the ladies of SATC, precisely because it's for something less tangible and more desirable than a pair of shoes: our soothing leisure, not someone else's obnoxious materialism.

Perhaps that was the exception. A more paradigmatic success was The Karate Kid, which represents a canny return on investment: shot with tax breaks in China, it grossed $300 million on a $40 million budget, validating the quaint idea that moderately budgeted films can still make money. That idea—one increasingly ignored in previous summers until economic reality caught up with the industry—was finally endorsed by audiences. The Karate Kid The summer began with Mickey Rourke and ended with Dolph Lundgren (and Rourke again), with pit stops at the Cold War (Phillip Noyce's Salt was all Russians vs. Americans without blinking), an enormous hit that quasi-resembles 1984's Dreamscape, and pretty much exactly the same comedy Adam Sandler's been releasing since 1995—the same year of the first Toy Story.

Ethos-wise, the films of summer straggled all the way from 1984 to about 1995, and then stopped cold, keeping the budgets relatively conservative on the way. That's not a terrible thing: it was a quieter summer, a break for the eyes. But hopefully next Memorial Day, the big, communal blockbuster will return in a form less self-important than Inception.

Posted by ahillis at 2:29 PM | Comments (7)

August 19, 2010

Supergood: In Defense of Michael Cera

by Vadim Rizov

SCOTT PILGRIM himself, Michael Cera Screen comics tend to have shorter and shorter life cycles, as their one schtick gets overexposed, leading to their quick relegation to supporting parts and, eventually, the scaly world of direct-to-video. Thus went Chevy Chase (decried as lazy and contemptuous of his audience), Pauly Shore (no need to recap the obvious) and now Michael Cera, whose commercial and critical track records are flatlining. Ever since Superbad, his career has consisted of movies practically calculated to irritate people who think "hipster" is the most insulting pejorative ever (Juno, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Youth in Revolt, Paper Heart and now Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), lest we also forget the whole Year One fiasco. The animosity he arouses in critics—or at least bloggers—is remarkable, and terribly misguided.

"Michael Cera annoying" is its own Google auto-complete entry. Negative reviews of Scott Pilgrim have decried Cera’s "singular note of tiresome twee-ness," which is a concise way of synopsizing the charges. Michael Cera, scandalously toplessWhat anti-Cera haters decry is his (presumable) lack of range and his tendency to (for lack of a better term) play man-boys. So, apparently, we're not only drowning in a culture of men who play cute to avoid responsibility (John Krasinski gets accused of this all the time), but his routine is tiresome and sub-adult. That raises a few questions: is Cera's range that narrow, is he really that un-self-aware, and is what he's good at worth doing?

Cera's undoubtedly been playing small variations on the same basic tone for a while now. His voice rarely changes from a monotonic timbre and his facial expression is permanently immobilized. He freaks out over trivialities and handles emergencies with no visible response. One of his most amusing tricks is being disproportionately enthused over something utterly routine: one of the best, smallest lines in Scott Pilgrim is him getting e-mail. "The computer says there's a message for me!," he beams. All that adds up to a lot of nervous energy, and the potential for mining comedy from awkwardness that's rarely exploited: Cera gets to be a self-respecting guy while displaying traits that would normally make him mockable.

Jesse Eisenberg in ADVENTURELAND In his wiry build, lack of vocal inflection and jittery vibe, Cera resembles and is frequently compared to Jesse Eisenberg, who is rightly perceived to be the better actor. Eisenberg has the same knack of generating comedy through mere presence, but in his most comparable part—the Cera-esquely awkward guy who gets the girl in Adventureland—he displayed flashes of plausible anger and aggressiveness, something Cera's never attempted. Eisenberg's upcoming turn as billionaire asshole Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network should only widen the gap. Still, lack of range shouldn't be held against Cera: one persona with small tweaks has worked well for many people [ed's note: look to his Year One cohort Jack Black], and Cera's joke is worth repeating.

The real question is whether he realizes that he's playing a very specific new mold, a post-90s line-straddler trying hard to be non-offensive but still interesting. Many people find that kind of self-consciousness/-paralysis intensely cloying and solipsistic, but that's calibrated into Cera's performances: he always has to learn to be a little more communicative and self-assertive by the end of the movie, even if it's uneasy to tell by his surface mannerisms.

Michael Cera vs. the World Scott Pilgrim pushes that arc further than any of his past vehicles, requiring two new things of its young Canadian star: that he be a guy notorious for messy relationships and lots of cheating (which, given Cera's celebrity, is perfectly plausible no matter what you think of his persona), and that he conduct fight scenes in which he convincingly defeats people with Nintendo combos disproportionate to his actual strength. Cera accomplishes both and explicitly "earns self-respect," which is about as direct an answer to his critics as could be made. But his peculiar calm also helps ground what would otherwise be an otherwise unendurably hyperactive display: he (and costar Anna Kendrick, natch) calm the entire movie down.

What Cera ultimately does is constructive, embodying the bad behaviors of the male twenty-somethings in his generation (passive-aggressiveness, an inability to be sincere, et al.) and renders them non-stereotypical and funny. It's not self-congratulatory comedy, and subjectivity be damned, it really is funny. That it irritates some is part of the point: that kind of exasperation only comes when someone's really touched a nerve, and Cera's done just that.

Posted by ahillis at 12:53 PM | Comments (4)

August 16, 2010

PODCAST: Aamir Khan

PEEPLI LIVE producer Aamir Khan

If filmgoers on these shores don't recognize actor-filmmaker Aamir Khan (producer and star of the Oscar-nominated Lagaan) as something akin to "the Tom Cruise of India," it's because the Indian film industry is so prolific that it's hard to keep up unless you're a bona fide Bollywood nut. For first-time filmmaker Anusha Rizvi's Peepli Live, Khan wears his producer's hat to bring this bittersweet satire to theaters around the globe:

On the eve of national elections in the Indian village of Peepli, two poor farmers, Natha (Omkar Das Maikpuri) and Budhia (Rahubir Yadav), face losing their land over an unpaid government loan. Desperate, they seek help from an apathetic local politician, who suggests they commit suicide to benefit from a government program that aids the families of indebted deceased farmers. When a journalist overhears Budhia urge Natha to "do what needs to be done" for the sake of their families, a media frenzy ignites around whether or not Natha will commit suicide.

For a superstar entertainer who rolls with an entourage and bodyguards, Khan proved to be a rather engaged and humble man in our sit-down interview. We discussed the farmer suicide epidemic, the ridiculousness of real life versus satire, the stigma of an "A" rating, and why he hasn't yet sought any Hollywood projects.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Podcast Music
INTRO: Indian Ocean: "Des Mera" (from Peepli Live)
OUTRO: Anudhara Sriram: "Lagaan... Once Upon a Time in India"

Posted by ahillis at 8:17 AM

August 11, 2010

PODCAST: Terry Zwigoff

LOUIE BLUIE and CRUMB director Terry Zwigoff

Just because filmmaker Terry Zwigoff has collaborated with graphic novelist Daniel Clowes twice (Ghost World, Art School Confidential) and is best known for his eccentric and tragicomic doc portrait of an underground artist (Crumb), he doesn't want you to think his entire career is ink and panels. This week, the Criterion Collection has released a special edition DVD and Blu-ray of Crumb, and even more excitingly, they've given their canonizing treatment to Zwigoff's amazing 1985 feature debut, Louie Bluie:

Crumb director Terry Zwigoff’s first film is a true treat: a documentary about the obscure country-blues musician and idiosyncratic visual artist Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, member of the last known black string band in America. As beguiling a raconteur as he is a performer, Louie makes for a wildly entertaining movie subject, and Zwigoff honors him with an unsentimental but endlessly affectionate tribute. Full of infectious music and comedy, Louie Bluie is a humane evocation of the kind of pop-cultural marginalia that Zwigoff would continue to excavate in the coming years.

In honor of Criterion's must-see new discs, I called Zwigoff in San Francisco to discuss his accidental stumble into filmmaking, awkward running times, strange coincidences, why a man who doesn't like commentary tracks recorded two of them for one project, and—as mentioned above—why he shouldn't be pigeonholed... or should he?

To listen to the podcast, click here. (21:17)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Louie Bluie: "State Street Rag"
OUTRO: David Boeddinghaus: "Ragtime Nightingale"

Posted by ahillis at 9:38 PM

August 10, 2010

A Bright Future (Measured in Lumens)

by Vadim Rizov

Projections about projection?

When permanent technological changes are predicted to rev from 0 to 60mph in the next five years, it's best not to hold your breath. With digital projection, things haven't just progressed but apexed in record time. In 2005, early adopter theaters would tout their brand-new digital projectors as a special attraction. Now, seeing a movie in 35mm in Manhattan—if you want to be a super-purist—requires considerable cunning and advance planning for mainstream films, and may not even be possible. (That goes double for 3D movies: if you don't want to pay extra and want to watch the flat version, you had better act fast.) The rest of the country hasn't quite upgraded yet (and the arthouses are even slower), but just wait: the digital revolution, after years of excitable hype, is finally on the ground, with 16,000 screens worldwide (15% and counting, but far more noticeable in metropolitan areas).

Projections about projection?For the most part, this is a welcome development since technological process—for once—hasn't been a bummer fraught with complications. This is the first year digital projection has not just been up to speed, but ahead of the game. If, for example, you were interested in seeing Sherlock Holmes, The Informant! or any other digitally-shot movie released in 2009 by Warner Bros., you'd have been well-advised to make sure your theater was projecting it digitally: their 35mm prints, for whatever reason, have been prone to undesired artifacts (the glossily shot Sherlock Holmes became overly dark and muddy, while The Informant! lapsed into unfortunate video blotchiness). In these cases, film was an active downgrade.

BUBBLE director Steven Soderbergh You could track the evolution through Steven Soderbergh's work alone. In 2005, Bubble—an experimental, all HD-shot thriller released to theaters by Mark Cuban's Magnolia into Mark Cuban's Landmark theaters, keeping all the technology in-house—still had trouble with greys and blacks, glitching out like a defective webcast. By 2008's Che, everything was up to speed, flawless on its own, mildly plastic-looking terms. Warner Bros. may struggle, but outside the big studios, Soderbergh's work has completely resolved any early-adopter trouble.

And now digital's indistinguishable from film for all but the most expert eyes. Look at Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon for proof. Its digital black-and-white is sharper than anything film can do since labs are no longer skilled at B&W processing without looking freakish. Trying to figure out the shooting format while watching a movie is a hot new game for the geekiest of film geeks, and there are increasingly few giveaways left. Properly restored, digital projections of older films—like a recent MoMA screening of Claude Autant-Lara's Four Bags Full—come shockingly close to shimmering like nitrate rather than being an obligatory, second-best alternative.

The White RibbonThe only unreplicable thing that'll be missed about prints is an artificial imposition: the circular, changeover cues ("cigarette burns" for Fight Club fans) that used to appear in the top-right of the screen to indicate that another 12 to 16 minutes had passed and a new reel was either spliced in or ready to go on a second projector. It was a casual way of feeling how much time was passing at regular intervals, an internal clock for cinephiles that sped by almost unnoticed in good films, tediously in bad ones. It's the only analog hiccup that was unexpectedly helpful for viewers, but losing it—which becomes disorienting if you're used to it—is a minor trade-off, and sometimes the only reliable visual indicator you're not actually watching film.

The improved quality of digital projection is suddenly justifying the upgrades not merely for pragmatic reasons (cutting back on the outrageous costs of developing prints, trafficking and so forth) but aesthetic gains, too. The potential for projectionist error has greatly decreased: once the focus is set, there's little chance a film will be improperly framed ever again, microphones no longer lowering into the frame to crack up an audience. Maybe odd, hieroglyphic-looking errors will appear up top, but they're less distracting than mics and/or scratches on overused prints, macro-blocking and similar flaws pretty much being the worst to happen barring data corruption or power failure. That makes multiplex film-going a substantially less hit-or-miss proposition, leveraging the gap between different tiers of theaters. The decline of union projectionists led to all kinds of horror stories about unnatural screenings of films being run backwards or with the lights on by barely-skilled teenagers—no more.

The Dirty Dozen... in pinkAs for repertory exhibition—if it survives in more than a few token cities—tomorrow's viewers won't ever see a pink print, which is what happens when the only copy found is old and unpreserved. (The Dirty Dozen, for instance, only seems to be screenable with a pinkish hue; the DVD itself has a faint tinge, super incongruous for a Charles Bronson movie.) Once all the digital restorations become an accessible library, future generations will have exactly the same flawless viewing experience when it comes to revival screenings. It will be possible to literally watch the exact same movie decades apart without the current cycle of decay and restoration. Digital's onward march is much less grim than a future of, say, endless post-production 3D conversion: its ultimate implications have to do with permanently syncing up viewing experiences across time. It's far from a sure thing, as technology has a nasty habit of speeding up so fast that people forget to write manuals on how to use the old machinery (leaving data permanently inaccessible), but the digital future really does look sharp and clean.

Posted by ahillis at 12:20 PM | Comments (10)

August 4, 2010

Electric Light-Cycle Orchestras

by Vadim Rizov

TRON: LEGACY composers Daft Punk

To considerable Internet excitement, cues from Daft Punk's soundtrack to the forthcoming Tron: Legacy were finally unveiled last week for public inspection. [UPDATE: fake leaks?] Out of context, they didn’t necessarily add up to much: it's not quite the Hans Zimmer Inception drone that has had people geeking out for weeks, but the rising minimalistic motifs—cut off and restarted just as they’re reaching maximal tension, perpetually delaying payoff—confirmed the musical future is way simpler than it was nearly 30 years ago. The cues don’t really "work" without context, although if you turn them up loud enough, even the simple act of making coffee can seem immortally heroic. Despite their vague reserve, they’re totally melodic, a regression from Wendy Carlos' analog-cum-digital score in 1982's Tron.

Wendy Carlos The original film's a blast for the nostalgically inclined, but the Jungian symbolism's a bore, the visuals wonky (colors were rotoscoped after-the-fact) and the whole thing's more a time capsule than watchable entertainment. The music is fantastic, however, arguably the culmination of Wendy (formerly Walter) Carlos' most intensely productive period. From 1968-82, she basically invented one version of how the future might sound, traveling 400 years through one instrument. 1968's Switched-On Bach translated (yes!) Bach to the Moog synthesizer and quickly went platinum. For the next 15 years, Carlos would arguably be the highest-profile Moog exponent (not exactly a high-competition position), elevating its status further in public consciousness more than her mentor Vladimir Ussachevsky.

Electronics in film scores were nothing new: the theremin had popped up as early as 1945's Spellbound, and 1956's Forbidden Planet generally gets credit for having the first all-electronic score, an eerie sequence of disorienting, primitive noises (labeled "electronic tonalities" as a sneaky way to avoid paying music guild fees). But in that 15-year-run, Carlos pushed further by simultaneously running forwards and backwards through time. Her Bach work, while iconic, is now mostly a curio for many listeners, which isn't fair. For anyone wanting to hear polyphony rendered with each part clear and sonically distinct, it surely delivers, even if it initially sounds like a set of standards reworked by novelty synths. (The problem is that not enough people really care about Bach to begin with, much less rendered as a chilly technical exercise.)

Tron Her work on A Clockwork Orange—even when using the exact same methodologies as in her solely recorded work—genuinely is iconic, as were her similar classical tweakings for The Shining. The music's no different from the records that catapulted her to fame, but context is everything. The rare exception is Tron: the music's ahead of the movie, and it’s probably her most complex work. The '80s were drowning in synths (thanks, Tangerine Dream), but Carlos doesn't use them for pure (and hence quickly dated) ambiance, or simply use the shock of new sounds to recast well-known classics. Some is chromatic formalism—check out the scherzo, which bends an unusual melodic line into a recognizable fugue—and some is complex in more unexpected ways, but it's all of a piece. Specifically, it sounds like 1982 in the best possible way, which is to say it's complicated and often non-melodic in ways you don't hear much in movies anymore. It could be classical music for academics, the tail end of a time when movie scores didn't have to have tunes.

Tron: Legacy proposes to be a total blast, in part because the technology's finally here to render the fictional world inside a computer viscerally rather than conceptually. The trailers conjure up a gigantic rave, and the soundtrack fits. Still, in purely technical terms, the visuals have become more complicated while the music less so. Complete original scores are a dying breed in many respects, but those that are comfortable with dissonance and offer a lack of respect for melody are the rarest of all.

Tron: Legacy Not to discount her classically-inspired work, but Tron may well be the best thing Wendy Carlos ever did; its complexities, paradoxically, date it. That's true of pretty much all electronic innovations: the further ahead the technology, the quicker it'll be outpaced and firmly timestamp itself, at least until sounds become retro and genuinely futuristic again. In weird ways, the unreplicable Bach oddities A Clockwork Orange linked to images forever are now, once again, ahead of their time. Daft Punk's score will undoubtedly be energetic fun, and the movie will strobe itself onto more retinas than the original could ever have dreamed of. Visuals have expanded, but sound's contracted.

Posted by ahillis at 8:02 AM | Comments (3)