April 29, 2012

TRIBECA 2012: Critic's Notebook #2

by Steve Dollar

The Fourth Dimension

I don't care what you say; the cinema is richer because Harmony Korine exists within it. Hopes for The Fourth Dimension were calibrated, nonetheless. The only advance word on the new film, a three-director omnibus with vaguely Dogme '95 overtones, was that it starred Val Kilmer "as Val Kilmer," playing a motivational speaker, who rides a kid-sized bicycle and dazzles the faithful at Southern indoor skate arenas. I had penciled it in as part of the Tribeca Film Festival's freakshow trilogy, which included the stunt-casted Elmore Leonard caper Freaky Deaky (Andy Dick and Crispin Glover as playboy brothers) and Francophrenia (James Franco as "James Franco," playing a soap-opera character named Franco). It's much better than that.

Kilmer's episode, "The Lotus Community Workshop," opens the show, lensed by Korine in an extreme panoramic aspect ratio that seemed to highlight the flotsam-jetsam aspects of the director's beloved underclass milieu. Kilmer, who these days might be called "Fat Val Kilmer," rallies an adoring circle of devotees with a nearly incoherent rush of free-association and ecstatic positivity ("Cotton candy!" "Velvet Killed Elvis!" "Vibe jack!"), each phrase peppered with kooky sound effects supplied by the roller rink's DJs.

The Fourth Dimension

The banter is so bizarre, and Kilmer so committed, that you can pretty much sit there hypnotized, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Only it doesn't. The story cuts back and forth with the rest of Kilmer's evening. He meets his girlfriend (Rachel Korine, in wigger hair braids) and they rent a video game called "Kill Freak," encountering a pair of shirtless, older men on the way home—an occasion for Kilmer to share more of his philosophy. Interstitial title sequences fill in some blanks: Each episode is meant to follow a set of rules ("The hero must tell bad jokes... but they're good"), organized either to foster absurdity or thematic flow. Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko takes the second slot, telling the story of Grigory Mikhailovich (Igor Sergeev) and his mission: to travel through time using his invention, the "Chronoscope." The action unfolds in one of those quintessentially desolate Soviet apartment buildings, a 4th dimension all its own, a quality further emphasized by the actor's resemblance to a Tarkovsky character. In the end, Mikhailovich succeeds in his quest, but his jerry-rigged video screen only reveals things at obscure angles. His chronoscope is a bust. But in his failure, he finally melts enough to connect with a sexy neighbor (Darya Ekamasova) and together they fulfill one of Korine's mandates: they dance.

At the end of the third segment, a viewer in the row behind me complained, "Just what we need, a Polish hipster apocalypse." Truth! The closing "Fawns," from Polish director Jan Kwiecinski, is the best of the trio. A quartet of young punks, with an apparent thing for communal phlebotomy, wander a depopulated town raiding fridges and randomly trash humping, the camera peeping from many odd perspectives. Soon enough, it's revealed that some kind of natural disaster is on the horizon, and these overgrown children—three boys and a girl—continue to play until it's almost too late, a sense of dread gradually draining their ebullience as one of them goes missing and their afternoon takes a couple of unexpected twists leading to a climactic revelation. Kwiecinski's eye is improvisatory and alive with color, and shares a sense of the mordant magic in everyday life that most of us might associate with Kieslowski, and throughout this anthology is illuminated in balloon hues (Cotton candy!).


BEST COEN BROTHERS KNOCK-OFF: The Norwegian Jackpot (Arme Riddere). The next hot literary-to-screen phenomenon about to break out of Scandinavia is crime novelist Jo Nesbø (who also penned the novel adapted for the current, and highly recommended, Headhunters). He came up with the story behind this raucous (and absurdly violent) caper about four losers—employees at an artificial Christmas tree factory—who miraculously win a bundle of kroner betting in a soccer pool. That's the worst kind of luck for Oscar Svendson (Kyrre Hellum), who has to explain to the cops why he's the quartet's only survivor after he crawls alive out of a strip-club massacre. The flashback-driven plot is frantic and ridiculous, littered with corpses hidden in tanning beds, splattered brains and an unusually handy pig farm.

Postcards From the Zoo

BEST SUPPORTING GIRAFFE: Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun Binatang). The director's name is Edwin. Just Edwin. And he's equally concise about matters of dialogue and plot. This charming and hypnotic Indonesian film was one of the more visionary and unique Tribeca selections. It's a ‪ curious consideration of Jakarta's nearly 150-year-old Ragunan Zoo. Though it stars only a few of its 270 species of most endangered animals, many of them are human: in this fictional scenario, the zoo also hosts a colorful community of the homeless, who have turned the property into their own imaginary theme park, conducting tours and entertaining the visitors. Lana (Ladya Cheryl), a child of the zoo, grows up and has to leave this improvised Eden for the urban jungle—assisted by a cowboy-magician whose purposes remain vague. Blatantly obvious statements about natural beauty and the loss of innocence come into play, although given the film's‬ ‪ spare, almost wordless construction, it's hard to say if they are meant to be statements at all. Lana's ‬ beatific aura abides, lending the film a grace that rises above the elliptical narrative.‬

Certain People

BEST BIRTHDAY PARTY MELTDOWN: The American Caroline and Jackie had this prize locked until Certain People came along. The Swedish ensemble comedy, set on the island that Ingmar Bergman called home, is a deconstruction of pretentious, entitled bohemians who visit an elysian country estate to celebrate the birthday of the lissome Katinka (Mia Mountain). But there's an insane amount of tension about to crack the self-satisfied facade, which is doomed the second the host's prodigal (and drunk and freeloading) twin brother shows up. He's brought along a firecracker named Linda (Yohanna Idha), a playful sexpot whose combination of sexual charisma and lack of sophistication makes her a catalyst that exposes everyone's lies and desires. Levan Akin's direction of a colorful cast emphasizes pregnant pauses and dart-like glances, leaving an ample amount of breathing room—space that the audience can color in with its own interpretations of characters who are all an awful lot like certain people we know.‬

THE ‪DUDS: Elles, As Luck Would Have It, Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal.‬

Posted by ahillis at 2:01 PM

April 26, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Web of the Spider (1971)

by Nick Schager

Web of the Spider [This week's pick is inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe-themed horror-mystery The Raven.]

Not to be nitpicky, but it would have benefited Web of the Spider if it had something—anything—to do with a spider. Or, for that matter, a spider's web. It's likely that director Antonio Margheriti intended his title to refer to the sinister trap set in his story by a castle proprietor for an American journalist, but that's hardly a reasonable reason for bestowing this 1971 film with its chosen moniker, especially given that it's a remake of Margheriti's own aptly-dubbed (and superior) 1964 Castle of Blood. Nonetheless, this Italian horror throwaway's problems aren't relegated to name alone, as the saga of a haunted abode and its spooky inhabitants is defined by lame-brained incompetence, a fate made all the more frustrating by the fact that it has the inspired idea to cast the incomparable Klaus Kinski as Edgar Allan Poe. Kinski opens the film flailing about a tomb with a torch in hand, lurching and spinning about with frantic, sweaty drunkenness, and smashing open a coffin before bellowing a hilarious "Noooooo!" Cut to a pub, where Kinski's Poe is regaling the patrons with one of his macabre tales, though what he truly proves interested in is Yankee reporter Alan Foster (Anthony Franciosa), whose disbelief in the supernatural—spurred by Poe claiming his stories are all reality-based—is soon challenged by Lord Blackwood (Enrico Osterman).

Web of the Spider

Blackwood owns a nearby castle that he claims is haunted, and bets Alan ten pounds that he can't survive a night alone in the place. Alan gladly accepts this offer, yet it's completely baffling why Blackwood suggests it in the first place, since it happens to be the one night of the year when the castle's ghouls materialize and attempt to continue their evil existences by feeding off of human blood. In other words, Blackwood gives his demonic houseguests an opportunity (through Alan) to prolong their afterlives—something he shouldn't want to do—over a ten-pound wager, a deal that makes as much sense as director Margheriti's relentless close-ups, which are so numerous that they thrust the material into a realm of numbing ugliness. That Margheriti also shakes his camera about while focusing on his players' eyes, necks, and foreheads makes Web of the Spider even goofier. Still, it's the action proper that's the real problem, because there's no real action to speak of, given the film's fondness for sequences in which Alan wanders about the musty castle bumping into things, hearing strange noises, and then delivering one laughably extreme overreaction after another.

Web of the Spider

After much roaming around, playing a piano, and staring at some portraits, Alan discovers that one of the wall's paintings is in fact alive—and not just alive, but a buxom hottie to boot. Elisabeth Blackwood (Michèle Mercier) seduces Alan in the blink of an eye, and after a quick drink of whiskey (Elisabeth: "I hope you like it." Alan: "Yes, I do. It's excellent") and subsequent sex, they fall madly in love, despite the intrusions of Elisabeth's nemesis, equally buxom beauty Julia (Karin Field). Alas, Alan and Elisabeth's amour is complicated by the fact that she's dead—a situation made more perplexing to Alan once Elisabeth disappears and Dr. Carmus (Peter Carsten) appears to explain (via a decapitated snake experiment) that, when people are killed in a moment of intense emotion, their survival-instinct-spirit lives on. Or something to that effect. Trying to make heads or tails of Web of the Spider is pointless, since there's no rhyme or reason to its plotting or transitions, especially once the story segues into its torturous A Christmas Carol-style middle section in which Dr. Carmus shows Alan how each of the castle's undead residents perished.

Web of the Spider

Those fatalities are uniformly mundane, and preceded by all sorts of romantic entanglements that make no difference to the ultimate fate of Alan, who watches these scenarios with a look of astounded horror unwarranted by the nonsense on display. It's eventually suggested—by a few random neck bites—that the castle's ghouls are actually vampires, a notion furthered by their final cries to a cornered Alan that "Blood is life!" Alan gets out of this predicament and tries to drag Elisabeth into the daylight, leading to Margheriti's sole beautiful image, of Elisabeth twirling in slow-motion and vanishing before she hits the ground. As befitting such a disastrous endeavor, however, that sight is immediately followed by the film's most inane moment, in which Alan responds to Elisabeth's disappearance by clumsily stumbling into branches and around grave markers before collapsing on the ground in slow motion that highlights his raging eyes and screaming mouth. After a twist of fate thwarts Alan's attempt at escape, Poe arrives on the scene and laments that no one will believe this story to be true—the one moment in Web of the Spider that's utterly convincing.

Posted by ahillis at 2:39 PM

April 24, 2012


by Vadim Rizov


A minor Richard Linklater film is better than no Linklater at all. Bernie reteams Austin, Texas' finest with Jack Black eight years after their major-studio breakthrough School of Rock. Linklater's talent for normalizing potentially over-the-top material is very well-suited for mainstream fare; the key shot of School of Rock comes when Black yields to the kids in his class—all bugging him to perform for them—and launches into impassioned song. A hack would've cut constantly between Black's mugging and the students' goggle-eyed reactions, but Linklater reduces this scene to one simple shot. Black sings as the camera slowly tracks back down the classroom aisle, recording his performance without cueing the audience how to respond.

Rock was a hit, but Linklater's 2006 Hollywood follow-up, a remake of The Bad News Bears, was a bust. Since then, financing for the kind of modest films the director specializes in has dried up, and Linklater's talked with wistful frustration in interviews about leaving Texas for a second European career. His first narrative feature since 2008's Me and Orson Welles, Bernie reconstructs the true story of Bernie Tiede (played here by Black), a Carthage, Texas (population: 6,700) funeral home employee with a reputation for exceptional kindness. One widow who benefited from his attention was Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who'd alienated everyone in Carthage, TX with rudeness and stinginess. After her husband died, Bernie gave her his coat at the funeral and showed up a few days later to check how she was doing. He became her nearly-live-in companion, until her demands became too much and he killed her.


The story is juicy, but the film proves lethargic when focusing on Bernie and Marjorie's ill-fated relationship. Black and MacLaine are aces together, but when Bernie begins to show remorse (tears, sad music), the emotional impact simply isn't there. The framing device is what holds the story together, as local gossips weigh in via staged talking heads. Even if the title cards are a little too cute ("What you're fixin' to see is a true story"), said interview footage is so utterly convincing that it's hard to believe it isn't documentary footage. It's a peanut gallery of actual actors, albeit many of them in-the-know Texas residents providing character testimony for the accused by noting "he could remember your son was at Texas and your daughter was at A&M."

These kinds of trivialities loom large in small-town life. Sarah Palin did everyone a favor when she proclaimed there to be a "Real America," giving a label to semi-rural communities in which the ultimate proof of moral fiber is politeness to one's neighbors. The dark joke of the film is that Carthage rallied behind Tiede, even though his guilt was unquestionable, simply because Nugent was a notoriously unkind lady. Bernie is both a love letter to and repudiation of the kind of city that's colorful but reprehensibly judgmental in equal measure.


The dramatic segments are comparatively bloodless alongside all the idiomatic chatter. Bridging the two modes is Matthew McConaughey as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the only character who's both an interviewee and a narrative player. He nearly destroys everything by appearing to be mugging his way through an entirely different movie, possibly one directed by Christopher Guest. (For sheer authenticity, he's shamed by his real-life mother Kay as one of Carthage's cattier, cougar-like residents.)

Linklater has tidied up the quotes from the copious documentation on the case, including the Texas Monthly article by co-writer Skip Hollingsworth that served as the film's basis, in which one of Carthage's old biddies is cited as asking her delivery man (in 1998!), "Shall I introduce you as Negro, black or colored?" Many locals regarded Tiede as having atoned for his homosexuality by virtue of good community deeds. "That dog don't hunt," one notes during the film, while another says (straight out of Hollingsworth's article) that he was "light in the loafers." For whatever reason—and you could guess—the Carthage police department deemed it a necessary part of their investigation to find tapes of Tiede having sex with other men (although at least some of these tapes were German porn he financed, a detail left out of the film). At one point, Bernie nearly confesses his crime during lunch, asking a woman if it's possible for someone who's seemingly good to be a completely different person from how they're perceived. She instantly assures him no one cares what goes on in his bedroom—but, of course, all of Carthage actually does.


At least two of Nugent's relatives have recently written articles recalling exactly how nasty Nugent was. With his typical aversion towards strong villains, Linklater leaves out some of the more pungent details, but otherwise hews remarkably close to recorded dialogue and events. This must be one of the most faithful true-crime movies ever made, putting the lie to the director's bullet-point sales description of this being an "east Texas Fargo." Verisimilitude, in and of itself, isn't necessarily laudable, but as an exercise in seeing how close imaginative reconstruction can be to journalism, Bernie's ambitions are surprisingly as big as Tiede's personality.

Posted by ahillis at 10:41 AM

April 22, 2012

TRIBECA 2012: Critic's Notebook #1

by Steve Dollar

First Winter

The end of the world was just the beginning of this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Serious consideration of apocalyptic themes have permeated all kinds of recent cinema, perhaps gearing up in a timely fashion for the Mayan Shakedown forecast for 2012, so it was no surprise to note the opening weekend's selection of First Winter—which considers the events that immediately follow An Event. What surprised, however, was the film. It's a low-budget ensemble drama made by a group of young Williamsburg denizens—yoga hipsters, if you will—whose retreat at a remote farm upstate suddenly feels a whole lot more isolated when the power dies and a transistor radio picks up disturbing, cryptic static out of New York City.

Echoes of 9/11 can't entirely be ignored, which makes this a resonant selection for Tribeca, a festival that came into existence because Robert De Niro's neighborhood became the site of its own apocalypse. But if anything, this strikingly accomplished debut by writer-director Ben Dickinson represents something of a reboot for the fest, which opened its 11th annual edition last Wednesday. A new team of programming honchos, including Geoff Gilmore (a former longtime chief at Sundance) and Frederic Boyer (formerly in charge of the Director's Fortnight at Cannes), appears to have made an impact. One promising development, in particular, has been an embrace of "no-budge"—the kind of post-mumblecore projects that Sundance and South by Southwest take pride in discovering.

First Winter

As such, First Winter looks exemplary, in specific ways, of how that scene (or whatever you want to call it) is shifting. Though still grounded in the intimate and volatile dynamics of relationships in a small, incestuous circle of friends, the plot's sexual and psychological games—It's a polyamorous bunch whose vegan-ish ethics have nothing to do with carnal knowledge—are framed against a minimalist tableau, with sparse dialogue and an immersion with the natural landscape. The immediate absurdity of the shorthand premise (just what we need, another piece of entertainment detailing the privileged pretensions of Brooklyn's most over-mediated demographic) gives way into a complicated character study and a not-necessarily unfunny social critique. The beardos don't even know how to properly shoot a rifle. The tilt into genre is key, raising life or death stakes that add ballast to the narrative, and marks an ongoing trend that extends from creepy plasma-splashed "mumblegore" of the omnibus V/H/S to lyrical romantic noir of Amy Seimetz's Sun Don't Shine. Like the latter film, First Winter features Kate Lyn Sheil (in a smaller, but no less vocal, performance) and beautiful Super 16mm cinematography. It also aspires to something visionary, evolving over the course of 91 minutes into a Tarkovsky-themed meditation whose ambiguities linger.


The festival, which runs through April 29, has more to offer on its indie slate. SXSW everyman Alex Karpovsky makes his Tribeca debut with a shocking turn in Rubberneck. The tightly wound suspense tale of a workplace obsession gone wrong finds the former stand-up comic playing a Boston research scientist whose emotional well-being has been stunted by a family secret. Because of his endless string of performances in indie comedies, I naively assumed that Karpovsky wrote and directed Rubberneck as some sort of deeply twisted humor of excruciation. And I can tell you, that attitude made the first half of the film amazingly weird to watch. Once the plot pivots, though, there will be no confusion. (And for those who prefer the "early, funny" Karpovsky, there's Supporting Characters, a soft-hearted bromantic roundelay about indie film editors and their female troubles).

Lola Versus
The rom-com lives on, however, and more conventionally, another indie icon—Greta Gerwig—navigates post-breakup heartache in Lola Versus. Though the busy actress (Damsels in Distress, The Dish & The Spoon, To Rome with Love, Noah Baumbach's cable series The Corrections and so on) should probably be done with big dumb Hollywood movies (Arthur, No Strings Attached), the low-budge Lola serves as a bit of antidote to pre-fab multiplex comedies. It's still majorly fluffy, but as co-written by Zoe Lister Jones (Breaking Upwards), who plays Gerwig's horny sparkplug bestie, the dialogue zings with boisterous gynocentric wit. Along with Lynn Shelton's emotionally generous romantic farce Your Sister's Sister and Jay Gammill's Free Samples—all about Jess Weixler having a really bad day in an ice cream truck—these comedies suggest that happily ever after has more to do with getting your shit together than finding Jason Segal at the end of the rainbow (or fine, maybe Mark Duplass, Jesse Eisenberg or Hamish Linklater).

Caroline and Jackie

And, of course, there is indie film that comes with no mumblecore attached. Visually polished (if emotionally raw), Adam Christian Clark's Caroline and Jackie takes a dysfunctional sibling premise and flips the script a couple of times, using that old standby—the dinner party—as the stage for a long, long night of crazy. The ensemble piece about twisted sisters (one twisting, the other the twistee), familial bonds that abide no matter how frayed they appear, and the often transparent cruelty lurking behind good intentions could be thought of as a crisp, latter-day riff on Persona, set amid a self-satisfied Los Feliz tableau. Marguerite Moreau (Caroline) and Bitsy Tulloch (Jackie) play their yin/yang roles with a gleaming intensity as the story veers increasingly stranger and darker, a suspense flick lurking in the shadows of an ensemble comedy.

Posted by ahillis at 7:10 PM

April 20, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Phenomena (1985)

by Nick Schager


[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the female boarding-school chiller The Moth Diaries.]

Dario Argento's fascination with sight takes sexually anxious form in Phenomena, the Italian giallo maestro's surreal 1985 saga of boarding school maturation. That carnal awakening isn't overt in Argento's film, which is nominally about a serial killer stalking young females in a remote Swiss village, a spree that coincides with the arrival of Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous hunky movie star, at the imposing Richard Wagner Academy for Girls. On her maiden drive from the airport, Jennifer protects a bee from being swatted by hysterical Frau Brückner (Argento regular Daria Nicolodi), an act that's soon explained by the fact that Jennifer shares a telepathic bond with insects, thus making her a prime candidate to befriend local entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). McGregor is fascinated by Jennifer's relationship with bugs, which—as when she causes one to emit its mating call out of season—boasts a quasi-sexual nature that's further heightened by Jennifer's use of this human-insect connection to help find the area's psycho. Jennifer comes into direct contact with that lunatic during a bout of sleepwalking (a habit attributed by school staffers to "schizophrenia") that leads her to a ledge where, in a moment of shocking brutality, she witnesses a young girl stabbed through the mouth with a blade.


That weapon's phallic nature speaks to Phenomena's underlying portrait of youthful sex as potentially dangerous, a notion first suggested in the sterling opening sequence, in which a young Danish tourist (Argento's real-life daughter Fiore) is abandoned by her classmates and adult chaperones and, venturing into the woods, stumbles upon a house where a faceless maniac breaks free from chained captivity, strangles her, stabs her with a protruding knife (more phallic imagery), and then decapitates her and tosses her head into a raging waterfall. Sexualized violence against young women who've been deserted by men is a constant in Argento's film, be it Jennifer's roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni), who's been given baby food to eat by her absentee parents and is felled by the fiend after her paramour ditches her post-make-out, or Jennifer herself, incapable of reaching her father or his agent by phone and hunted by a killer while she attempts to understand her sensual rapport with buzzing flies and slithering maggots. Argento subtly enhances these undercurrents through camerawork that plunges into darkness and pans through spaces with sinister voluptuousness, creating a mood of dreamy menace that's rooted in the notion that female puberty is a process that one must experience alone, and that's fraught with lethal peril.


Argento's fondness for heavy metal, here highlighted by cuts from Iron Maiden, Motörhead, and The Goblins, further pushes the material into sex-and-death-fantasy territory, as well as gives it a persistent groove of electric malevolence. Argento regularly toys with expectations, beginning with the scene immediately following his intro murder that finds Professor McGregor admonishing his pet chimpanzee Inga—who's initially spied trying to get back inside their house—for playing with a knife, thereby suggesting that the chimp is the villain in question. It's one of Phenomena's many red herrings, as Argento's tale doggedly posits non-human creatures as forces of good and, more mysteriously, as in tune with pubescent children's development into adults. That association isn't clearly spelled out by the film but, rather, suggested in beguilingly oblique ways, and is given a bizarre semi-spiritual element by a haunting sequence in which Jennifer, mocked by her ice-queen headmistress and then taunted by bitchy classmates for her alleged link with insects, tells her tormentors "I love you all" with turn-the-other-cheek benevolence as swarms of flies amass outside nearby windows.


Last act revelations about the serial killer's identity layer the action with pseudo-Freudian shadings that further complicate the overarching stew of parent-child sexual tensions. However, it's via a hideously deformed little boy who covers mirrors in order to not see his hideous reflection that Phenomena fully taps into Argento's fascination with the vital act of seeing (and not seeing). That familiar preoccupation is also conveyed through the director's trademark employment of POV shots, not just for his murderer but for both Jennifer and her insect pals, whose perspective is visualized through split-screen imagery. While the director isn't able to meld his story's various elements into a completely lucid whole, that disarray contributes to the ominous sense of a world slightly unmoored from reason and sanity. It's an atmosphere that carries the film over its rougher spots, and culminates in a magnificently deranged climactic battle between Jennifer and a mommy dearest (with adult men relegated to powerless witnesses) involving a vat of human sludge and skeletons, a boat skirmish between a mutated tyke-monster and angry flies, a fiery lake baptism that finds Jennifer emerging from the water in a white gown, and a final showdown which argues that, even more than ladybugs or larvae, a preyed-upon girl's best friend is, ultimately, a chimpanzee with a straight razor.

Posted by ahillis at 8:56 AM

April 17, 2012

Hong Sang Two

by Vadim Rizov

Oki's Movie

2005's A Tale of Cinema inaugurated the second phase of Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's career (Hong 2.0), introducing basic components returned to and toyed with in every subsequent film: drunken directors who swear to change their lives before lapsing a scene later, women alternately being idealized/treated badly but granted final telling-off authority, events repeating themselves with no explanation, goofily inelegant zoom shots. Oki's Movie (screening in NYC through April 22nd) is an excellent introduction for novices, distilling and compacting the familiar elements of Hong's last seven years into 80 minutes, his shortest-ever feature by eight minutes.

The first of four parts is a short film by Jingu (Lee Sunkyun)—still a college student, but already filming predictive nightmares of his onscreen alter-ego being accosted at a post-screening Q&A by the angry friend of a woman he callously broke up with. The last segment is directed by his crush/fellow student Oki (Jung Yumi). Jingu longs for Oki—at inebriated length, with melodramatic, near Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" outbursts—but never realizes he's involved in a love triangle with his rival film professor/mentor Professor Song (Moon Sungkeun).

Oki's Movie

Oki's Movie is relatively elegiac compared to the broad, buoyant near-farce of Hong's previous three films Night and Day, Like You Know It All and Hahaha—all taking place in spring or summer to Oki's Movie's winter. In her titular film within this film, Oki breaks two mountain hiking escapades—with Song on Dec. 31st, and with Jingu on New Year's—into lists of what both men remarked on or ignored, if they went to the bathroom, what they ate. Her willingness to recount events head-on (in a way neither man can) is bracing as Hong literally directs, as he never has before, from a woman's perspective.

In Hong's The Day He Arrives (opening this Friday in NYC), it's still winter in Seoul, but this time in black-and-white, low contrast and joylessly washed-out. Inactive director Seong-jun (Yu Jun-Sang) has come from the countryside to spend a few days in his former home base. He has modest plans designed to keep him out of trouble ("go sightseeing and buy some books"), but predictably a solitary meal in a restaurant turns into a drinking session with friendly film students. ("No one should drink alone.")

The Day He Arrives

The group recognize Seong-jun, who doesn't want to talk about his professional career and reasons for inactivity, then invites them to join him at an awesome, undisclosed place a taxi ride away. When they get out at a fruit stand, Seong-jun stumblingly lights up; like dwarf acolytes, the students do the same in unison. "Stop copying me!" Seong-jun screams and runs away, giving himself too much credit: his followers are the same type of repetitively self-abusing drunk male, who don't need to study him to resemble him.

Recently, Hong has taken considerable care to frequently include the outdoor world and natural light, even within interior scenes, placing diners and drinkers near windows with a good view. In The Day He Arrives, every bar Seong-jun visits is framed (in tight close-ups) without any windows, shutting out sunshine's warmth. His daily street run-ins with an actress he hasn't seen in a while are refreshingly devoid of embarrassing, ill-timed sexual propositions—a Hong trademark. Seong-jun departs after both of this film's hook-ups, commanding both women to forget him, keep diaries and never text him, even on his birthday, for both their good. "I'm going to keep an eye on you," a flirtatious woman he doesn't hook up with says. "I'm going to watch how you change."

The Day He Arrives

This remark seemingly triggers a slow but crippling realization: Seong-jun can't come into the city without every female encounter turning into another opportunity for sexual self-laceration. The unremarked-upon fact that every day he and his friends go the same places, in the same order, without remarking upon any similarities assumes a sinister, purgatorial aspect. In Oki's Movie, Jingu berates a woman who photographs him passed out on a bench. When Seong-jun is stopped by a woman's shy look, he grumblingly consents to pose. The last shot is a slow zoom in on Seong-jun's face, stuck in sheer spontaneous terror.

The color-drained interior chill of The Day He Arrives may mark a cautionary-tale conclusion to Hong 2.0, whose next film Another Country—with Isabelle Huppert, his first Western star, in three separate roles—may mark yet another leap. This may be the bleak end of a cycle, about a filmmaker abruptly plunging from vivid-anecdote terrain into the self-aware hell of a waking nightmare.

Posted by ahillis at 2:23 PM

April 14, 2012

INTERVIEW: Jonas Mekas

by Steve Dollar

My Mars Bar Movie

I remember the first time I visited the Mars Bar. It was 1997, and a friend dragged me there very late one night. It was the kind of East Village dive, just a block off the Bowery, that seemed like a hallucination: dank, dark, walls covered in graffiti and gonzo artwork, lots of cheap canned beer, a jukebox stuffed with Stooges, Motorhead and local scum-rock acts, and a clientele from... Mars. There were only three people in the place, besides us and the bartender, a young woman who looked exactly like the kind of neighborhood siren who you saw, naked, in an R. Kern photo collection: a dwarf, a blind man and a Native American. Was this a Tom Waits song? Somehow two of them got into a fight. And then someone was forcibly locked into the bathroom. More drinks were served, and eventually everyone was back at the bar, a thick haze of cigarette smoke (ah, the '90s!) the ideal ambience for the murder beat lurching out of the juke's tinny speakers.

"You've been in that bathroom?" Jonas Mekas asked me after I told him the story, in a tone one might use when debriefing a refugee from the abyss.

Now 89, the New York filmmaker and archivist speaks from experience. Mekas has spent a third of his life drinking at the Mars Bar. The dive at the corner of Second Avenue and First Street opened in the early 1980s, when Mekas was busy renovating the future site of his Anthology Film Archives, a block away.

"We came into existence together, so it was friendship," he said, chatting over Lithuanian beer and vodka shots at the Anyway Cafe, one of several East Village bars he frequents more often since Mars Bar closed last June (and was subsequently demolished). The demise of the bar, a refuge for the neighborhood's old-school bohemians, artists and rogues, prompted the filmmaker to edit more than 15 years of casual video footage into My Mars Bar Movie, which runs this weekend at Anthology.

Mars Bar, in its heyday

You polish off a lot of tequila shots in My Mars Bar Movie. It almost looks like a daily ritual. Was it?

It became traditional that when any of the visitors [to Anthology] left, a traditional drink was tequila. It became the tequila bar, because there was always somebody coming and leaving.

It's not like anyone was probably looking for the comprehensive Mars Bar documentary, but it's worth noting that this is, like so many of your films, a scrapbook of your own peculiar experiences. "My" Mars Bar.

It's not a documentary. It's like a diary. It doesn't try to cover all aspects of it. I have my camera and I always film, or rather tape. So it's very personal.

I noticed that there are lot of daytime scenes.

Ten years ago they decided to quit [replacing burned-out lights]. There was practically no light. You couldn't film anything [at night]. There was no other bar like that. Other bars try to bring themselves up to date, become a bit cleaner. They didn't care. I'm for a little bit of dirt. Every city needs some messy dirty place where you can go and lose yourself and leave some of your dirt there. Paris has. Hamburg has. New York does not have it anymore. This area had Mars Bar. Now it's gone. Now New York is cleaner but not for the better.

I visited the bar on a few unforgettable occasions myself. It was like a time machine, fueled by rotgut whiskey.

When I moved into Manhattan from Williamsburg in 1953 to Orchard Street, and had an apartment for $14.95 a month, I walked along the Bowery toward the Village and there were many, many bars a little bit like the Mars Bar. Lionel Rogosin made a documentary called On the Bowery, but he chose a little bit cleaner bar. I don't know where else you can find anything like that.

Mars Bar, in its heyday

What did you like best about Mars Bar?

You felt very free. The drinks were cheap in price and very often cheap in quality. But you didn't care. It was very open. You always saw the same people, very devoted to the place. From South America, this guy Hamlet, who was always there. It made you feel a little bit like home. There was something like a family feeling.

How many filmmakers did you take there over the years?

Many. Many. Some are not known. Some are like Bela Tarr. Jim Jarmusch. One of the stills we sent to the press was me and Zoë Lund, of the Bad Lieutenant, and of course Abel Ferrara.

What did Bela Tarr make of it?

Usually, everybody found it a little bit exotic and not like anything else. Everybody liked it for that reason. It was still before gentrification, before civilization took over. Something left over from some dream of the past. Now something essential is gone. It's the end of an era. The customers are desperate where to go next.

Places like this often become romanticized. Anyone who drank there knew that It also could be scary.

Yes. There were fights, and stealing. You had to be very careful. But I have not seen any really bad fights there. Some arguments. Some voices. As I said, I have not spent so many late nights there.

Did anyone care that you were shooting them?

No. No one. We knew everybody. Even when that guys jumps on the bar and takes his pants down, he didn't care. He knew I was there with a camera.

Did you have any favorites?

In the early days there was this guy who did not talk. He cleaned the place. He was one of the characters. Everybody liked him and he was always there. But he couldn't talk. He was mute. But he could sort of sing. But I could not find the footage when we sang duets. There may be another edition.

Posted by ahillis at 4:37 PM

April 13, 2012

Beyond Here Lies Nyukkin'

by Vadim Rizov

The Three Stooges

The original proposed cast for the Farrelly brothers' feature was a dramatic power-house—Jim Carrey, Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn—that would've underscored every eye-gouge and double-slap with considerable darkness. After more than a decade of development delay, the resulting The Three Stooges is an angst-free 91 minutes, the zippiest Farrelly project since their '90s Dumb and Dumber heyday. Watching it is like being run over by a bus and liking it.

The Three Stooges have their admirers, but it's hard for anyone outside of 12-year-old boys to summon up much enthusiasm for them, your humble critic included. (Bob Dylan's a notable fan, for what it's worth.) The shorts repetitively cycle through permutations of pain on dingy black-and-white sets. Expanding this to feature length turns the Stooges into the Blues Brothers: raised by long-suffering nuns, they're forced to venture out into the world to raise $830,000 in 30 days lest the orphanage be shut down. The three-act plot is divided into a trio of "shorts" that more or less mimic the length of a two-reeler. Frequent location changes and the Farrellys' usual flood-it-with-flat-light approach literally brighten up the drab template.

The Three Stooges

The plot—such as it is—has Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos), Curly (Will Sasso) and Larry (Sean Hayes) falling out temporarily during their quest. Moe inadvertently ends up as Jersey Shore's newest cast member, while Curly and Larry pay a violent visit to the zoo before tracking down their pal. ("There are three of them?" MTV's producer grins.) In other hands, this would smack of pop culture-referential-desperation, but the Farrellys have been consistent in inviting mediocre mass-culture staples (Tony Robbins in Shallow Hal, Joy Behar and Kathy Griffin in Hall Pass) to show up without fear of mockery, and in any case watching Moe smack Snooki and JWoww around is satisfying enough to not be lame.

Like The Muppets, The Three Stooges dramatizes its makers/fans' fears that their adored youthful touchstone may not translate to a new generation. Much as Kermit and the gang raise money to fend off obsolescence, the Stooges' orphanage existence is a product of the (explicitly stated) "recent economic downturn," their clowning a now-welcome alternative to an infinitely scummier entertainment landscape. This isn't to say that the Farrellys are taking the high road. The gross-out gags have been brought along and somehow not cracked a PG rating, even with a CGI lion scrotum and baby projectile-urination fight.

The Three Stooges

There are no third-act lessons learned, but most won't notice since the jokes come flying at a furious clip. The pace compensates for the hit-to-miss laugh ratio, which looks uneven just on paper: a deservedly-left-for-dead comic staple, the pretentious and heavily-accented French chef, is inexplicably resurrected. The family-film format strips the Farrellys of their normal temptation to dilute punchlines with conspicuous displays of goodwill. Instead, they offer up something like Freddy Got Fingered for kids, with the Stooges succeeding in surreal style without actually doing anything right.

The Farrellys reserve the film's only attempted substance for their villainess Lydia (Sofia Vergara), a standard femme fatale who hires the oblivious Stooges to kill her husband, refocusing the boys' obliviousness towards the consequences of physical harm in a graver direction. Lydia's shown in bed reading conservative rag The Weekly Standard—not a stand-alone political gag, as there's later a brief but unmistakable assertion when one of the nunnery's children lies at death's door because she doesn't have health insurance. Her miraculous healing later is similar to the end of Kaurismaki's Le Havre (stay with me here), a fairy-tale in which racism and European xenophobia magically evaporates along with the hero's wife's terminal condition. If Fox News hated The Muppets making the oilman a villain, they're really going to despise this overt talking-point. Nyuk nyuk.

Posted by ahillis at 2:08 PM

April 10, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Con Air (1997)

by Nick Schager

Con Air

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Guy Pearce's prison-break heroics in Lockout.]

Nicolas Cage is a paternalistic white American god who unites the country's disparate cultural-political schisms while sporting oiled biceps, stringy long hair, a scruffy beard and an overcooked southern accent in Con Air. That may not be immediately apparent from Simon West's 1997 blockbuster, a spectacularly stupid piece of mayhem spawned by Michael Bay's The Rock, which had, a year earlier, legitimized both Bay's more-is-better ethos and Cage's tough-guy credentials. Yet a peek beneath the insane bombast of this "high-concept" work—which hews to the extreme template of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose name tellingly appears during the opening credits over the image of an explosion—reveals West's film as a comprehensive catalog of action movie attitudes and paradigms, summing up all the clichés, racism, sexism, jingoism and all-around absurdity that defines the big-budget, testosterone-spectacle genre. At the heart of this dunderheaded maelstrom is Cage's Cameron Poe, a former army ranger who, after returning to sweet home Alabama to reunite with his wife Tricia (Monica Potter), winds up killing a drunken lout in self-defense after the man harasses Tricia. For this accidental murder, he is sent to federal prison for seven-to-ten years because, as the judge hilariously intones, "With your military skills, you are a deadly weapon."

Con Air

Poe is thus, from the outset, a paragon of military honor sullied by a country governed by injustice, a scenario that he nonetheless takes in stride during the laughable subsequent credit sequence, which condenses Poe's big house stint to a montage of him working out in his cell, giving Hostess Sno Balls (received in Tricia care packages) to diabetic friend Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), and writing and reading letters (in voiceover) from his daughter, who's born while he's locked away. "School is ver-ehy impo-tant," intones Poe in one of these correspondences, further establishing him as a symbol of responsible fatherhood, albeit one in a caricatured He-Man mold. A morally unimpeachable wronged man, Poe is released on July 14th (the same day as his daughter's birthday!), but his trip home fatefully turns out to be aboard The Jailbird, a giant high-tech prisoner-transport plane that's also moving inmates to a new SuperMax facility. These are not just any old criminals, but the worst of the worst, all of whom are introduced as nicknamed monsters by U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) as they exit a bus and walk through a line of officers to the aircraft in a scene that solidifies the material's WWE-ish conception of good and bad.

These villains are led by Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich), whose domineering, anything-goes leadership over a gaggle of multicultural cretins—Ving Rhames' brutal Diamond Dog, Dave Chappelle's junkie comedic-relief Pinball, M.C. Gainey's redneck pilot Swamp Thing, and Danny Trejo's rapist Johnny-23—makes him the malevolent father-figure flipside to Poe. Malkovich chews his eloquently evil dialogue with relish, yet Cyrus is a somewhat bland adversary most interesting for the way in which his power over his criminal charges involves racist barbs and a severe lack of patience or compassion. Such qualities are diametrically opposed to those of Poe, who, after Cyrus takes control of the plane, rejects a chance to escape the craft because—as a ranger duty-bound to never leave any man behind—he feels obligated to protect both Baby-O, who's in desperate need of an insulin shot (the needles are all broken!), and prison guard Sally (Rachel Ticotin), whom Johnny-23 wants to assault. If Con Air's disparate characters can agree on one thing, it's that rape is wicked, a position that's honorable but baffling in light of the film's otherwise gleeful depiction of cold-blooded serial-killer madness, here epitomized by Steve Buscemi's Garland (aka "The Marietta Mangler"), a schoolboy-looking psycho first spied in Hannibal Lecter-esque manacles whom West takes great pains to elevate into a likable fiend.

Con Air

When, during one of the Jailbird's many pit stops, Garland finds a young, pigtailed trailer-park girl all alone and sits down with her to play "tea party" and sing "He's got the whole world in his hands," Con Air reaches a level of stunningly tasteless horror-exploitation titillation, and one made more unpleasant by its phoniness, as a follow-up shot of a broken cup sitting on top of the girl's now-abandoned table teases about pedophilic sins that the film later confirms did not take place. Still, the story's lewd fondness for Garland—who it softens via making clear that he didn't defile his potential adolescent victim—is undeniable, and speaks to a misguided post-Silence of the Lambs cinematic trend of turning "colorful" madmen into characters for whom we can root. That modus operandi is also part and parcel of a general Bruckheimer philosophy, which positions everyone as a larger-than-life stereotype, many of which skew anti-Latino, from rapist Johnny-23, the universally frowned-upon scoundrel, and gay Ramon (Renoly Santiago), who's mocked as a "sister" by Dog, to drug lord Cindino (Jesse Borrego), who proves a sniveling self-interested back-stabber.

But back to Poe, the Uncle Sam Jesus Superman of Con Air, who takes it upon himself to not only thwart Cyrus, but to also defend infirm black Baby-O (his name indicative of his infantile nature) and helpless Hispanic Sally. Dying in Poe's arms, Baby-O says, "I got a bad feeling, son. A feeling like maybe I'm not supposed to make it" and then admits that he fears God doesn't exist, to which Poe—angered by the unfairness of it all—responds "I'm gonna show you God does exist," and then does so by slapping gay Ramon and taking control of the plane with Herculean might and ease. Able to repeatedly convince Cyrus to avoid violence (by posing as Cyrus' rational comrade), and determined to make it home to his daughter with a stuffed-bunny present in tow, Poe is an icon of white American male virility, cunning and power. And he's the one tasked, ultimately, with healing the Republican-Democrat, North-South schisms embodied by Cusack's intellectual Larkin, who suggests that the plane shouldn't be blasted out of the sky because Poe is a good guy on board and because inmates are victims of a lousy penal system, and Colm Meaney's Malloy, a shoot-first DEA blowhard who argues that Cyrus and company are animals who should be blown to smithereens because they lost the right to live "when they stopped giving a damn about the law, about civilization."

Con Air

Larkin is a college-educated, rational-hippie liberal, Malloy is a bloodthirsty my-way-or-the-highway conservative, and Poe is the bridge between them, a canny southern gentleman who cornily refers to his wife as "hummingbird" but also has no qualms about snapping limbs when the situation demands it. Poe exemplifies the best qualities of both cultural-political factions, and in doing so—and thwarting Cyrus' plans—he brings Larkin and Malloy together. He also, it turns out, is the first step toward Cage's devolution into abject cartoonishness. The actor's look and accent are ludicrous enough, but Cage's turn is most notable for its embrace of outsized reactions and gestures, none better than two separate instances—one in response to Cyrus commandeering the plane, and the other after he fails to save an undercover DEA agent from getting himself killed during a pistol stand-off—in which he expresses, respectively, you-have-to-be-kidding-me exasperation and I-told-you-so pity via closing his eyes and curtly shaking his head in dismay. It's an astounding performance of Schwarzenegger-ian machismo, one that avoids realism like the plague and, in the process, provides a foundation of cheesy silliness to the ultra-violent action.

That comingling of the grim and goofy is also, ultimately, fostered by West's direction, which apes Michael Bay-isms with a gusto that would seem downright plagiaristic were that tack not clearly on producer Bruckheimer's orders to deliver The Rock-times-twenty. There are three key elements to West's aesthetic—Fireballs! Slow Motion! Squealing Guitars!—and he returns to them so frequently and enthusiastically that, by the midway point, they calcify into inadvertent jokes, with every second- and third-act wail from an electric axe and orgy of pyrotechnic flamboyance eliciting uncontrollable laughter. Dialing every moment up to 11, West's style is a lewd and hyperactive exaggeration of an exaggeration, and as such, Con Air winds up functioning as a crazed crystallization of the genre's myriad and often muddled viewpoints and excesses. Saving minorities, stopping bad guys, and bringing that stuffed bunny to baby, all so we can hear the post-climax triumphant twang of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama"—Poe is a Loony Tunes vision of a real American hero, and Con Air, a preeminently big, dumb vehicle of action-cinema juvenilia, narrow-mindedness and rah-rah ridiculousness.

Posted by ahillis at 1:18 PM

April 5, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

by Nick Schager

White Hunter Black Heart

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Willem Dafoe's ignoble expedition in The Hunter.]

Clint Eastwood's surgical dissection of the iconic alpha-male persona that made him the '70s biggest box-office draw began as early as 1980's Bronco Billy (if not before, lest we forget the goofball shenanigans of 1978's Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel). Yet that critical modus operandi, which would gradually come to dominate his latter body of work (up to 2008's Gran Torino), began in earnest with White Hunter Black Heart, an adaptation of Peter Viertel's novel based on his experiences as a screenwriter on John Huston's The African Queen. It is, on the face of it, a wholly uncharacteristic vehicle for Eastwood, who not only helms the film but stars as John Wilson, a blustery, boozy movie director-cum-adventurer whom the star embodies with the same swagger, fierceness and drawn-out drawl of the legendary Huston. Devoid of serious action or genre accouterments, it's a character study with a thinly disguised true-life backstory, and one that winds up perfectly suiting Eastwood's patient, unfussy direction, especially with regards to his depiction of Africa, a "dark continent" that Eastwood refuses to romanticize or sentimentalize, instead shooting it with a straightforward sense of danger and toughness.

White Hunter Black Heart

White Hunter Black Heart's disinterest in glorification also extends to its protagonist, although its attitude toward Wilson is ultimately more complicated than simply "yay" or "nay," with the film cannily embracing its protagonist's contradictions even as it positions his story as one about the terrible consequences of foolhardy machismo. Introduced wearing a riding outfit while reading the newspaper in bed, Eastwood's Wilson is a jovial, blunt man used to speaking his mind and doing as he pleases, a hardheaded sort who despite deep debt embarks without a moment's hesitation on his African film with screenwriter pal Pete (Jeff Fahey, in the Viertel-proxy role) in tow as both his creative and hunting partner. Disgusted by his producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza), Wilson gets financing even as he deliberately sabotage his own film, via plans to first go on safari with Pete in order to kill an elephant. That quest turns Wilson into a veritable Ahab, discarding logic, reason or safety for crazed obsession that even Wilson himself doesn't quite understand, though his admission that what appeals to him about murdering an elephant is that it's a legally sanctioned sin speaks to his general rebelliousness—a trait that Eastwood dramatizes less with showy histrionics than via his increasingly stony, far-off eyes.

White Hunter Black Heart

Eastwood embodies Wilson as both a charming rabble-rouser and a man driven by staunch morals about the phoniness of happy endings (as he and Pete debate early on, in a slightly too on-the-nose scene) and the necessity of taking principled stands no matter the consequences—"If you fight, you feel okay about it," he tellingly informs Pete. Those two qualities come to the fore in White Hunter Black Heart's most amusing scene, in which Wilson absolutely eviscerates a woman he's attempting to woo with a caustic anecdote after she confesses—in front of avowed Jew Pete—that Hitler's one good idea was gas-chamber extermination. Wilson's duality is also forcefully felt in his simultaneous disgust with the Hollywood money machine and his defense of the system's "whores" (amongst whom he once counted himself), in his egotistical demand for financing and then cavalier abandonment of the production for hunting escapades, and—most fundamental of all—in his desire to create art and risk self-destruction. An arrogant son of a bitch who nonetheless courts a bloody beating in order to stand up for blacks against the racist Europeans who populate swank African hotels, Wilson is a man of various, often mismatched colors—or, rather, a figure who recognizes that life can't be pigeonholed by easy three-act narrative arcs, given its true nature as a then-this-happened, then-that-happened string of diverse events.

White Hunter Black Heart

White Hunter Black Heart's indictment of haughty colonialism is slowly but subtly linked with Wilson's own blind arrogance toward the ramifications of his actions, which come to the fore as he's further gripped by elephant-killing mania. Far from an interloper—he's embraced by the locals, and visually meshes with the hardscrabble landscape—Eastwood's Wilson seems to belong in Africa, even if the end result of his fixations can only lead to doom, regret and a dawning realization that his He-Man attitude toward the world is more irresponsible than admirable. While Fahey is hamstrung by Pete's one-dimensional goody-two-shoes responsibility, Eastwood delivers one of the finest, and loosest, performances of his career, smiling and joking about with a gleeful recklessness that's founded upon rigid values that are then slowly eroded by his actual confrontation of the lethal wild and what it means to treat life with king-of-the-world bravado. A layered and, by film's conclusion, haunting turn, it also affords Eastwood a preeminent scene of disarming take-it-as-it-comes humanity—as a monkey rips a script out of Paul's hands (an instance of nature triumphing over Hollywood artifice), and then proceeds to scatter pages across a lavish dinner table, Wilson doubles over with laughter and, epitomizing his fondness for life's unmanageable unpredictability, elatedly gasps out "God, this makes it all so worthwhile."

Posted by ahillis at 1:29 PM

April 3, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Damsels in Distress

by Vadim Rizov

Damsels in Distress

"What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people," transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) concludes near the end of Damsels in Distress. With his fondness for preppily dressed, decorous men and women behaving discreetly, writer/director Whit Stillman also seems to believes this, but he's too in love with eccentrically posited aphorisms for their own sake to make a convincing case for bland societal assimilation. Here, his leading lady is Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig, mastering Stillman's unusual cadences), her name a self-created yoking of two different flowers. Violet's a college student who leads a small, Clueless clique of self-appointed social reformers dedicated to helping "young people crying out for guidance."

This sounds terribly condescending, and one of the nicest jokes is that Violet's literally out of her mind, a former OCD kid prone to depression whose sharp comic timing is the result of mental imbalance. Adding Lily to her small clique introduces both romantic competition and dissent not forthcoming from Violet's two acolytes: boringly prim Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who insists every single male on the planet is a "playboy type oper-a-tor" (a joke the film beats into the ground through repetition) and dim but insistent Heather (Carrie MacLemore).

Damsels in Distress

It's been 14 years since Stillman's last effort, The Last Days of Disco, hit theaters, but he's still depicting the lives of privileged oddballs in embryonic emotional flux as if nothing had changed. His clipped dialogue is as distinctively stylized as David Mamet's, his characters communicating in an initially jarringly precious code that turns comfortably familiar within minutes. Though Stillman once identified as a conservative—writing snotty why-vilify-businessmen? columns for The American Spectator—he now prefers to label himself apolitical, and at the very least he's no social conservative. One of the best jokes concerns Lily's courtship by older, antagonistically intellectual French grad student Xavier (Hugo Becker), who nonchalantly justifies his mandatory requirement of exclusively anal sex by expounding on his adherence to Catharism, a gnostic-ish Christian sect eradicated by the 14th century. If this seems like taking an exceedingly long, disingenuous route to making a big request, it's even more amusing when Xavier later renounces his beliefs not because Lily walked out on him, but because he couldn't respect a religion that made Tuesday its Sabbath. 

Stillman's characters often similarly ignore the big picture, zeroing in fussily on arcane distinctions. The present day is more or less totally ignored on campus, depicted to the strains of a score co-written by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger. His cues sound like '80s campus comedies, full of cheap synth string sections and cheesy guitar, but Stillman maintains distance from the subgenre's gross-out staples, aside from including a cheeky, would-be obligatory frat house "Roman days" celebration the girls disdain as a sign of the End Times, even as they play along by dressing in togas.

Damsels in Distress

Violet learns to wear her neuroses externally, while Lily embraces her desire for calm conformity: the rise and gradual fall of Violet and Lily's friendship is the film's emotional backbone, keeping it from total shapelessness. Damsels in Distress would make a great double-feature with Gregg Araki's wildly dissimilar but equally indulgent essence-of-auteur Kaboom, which splatters onto the screen everything Stillman tastefully elides. Both feature dim guys named Thor: this film's incarnation (Billy Magnussen) gives a hilarious rant about how he shouldn't be mocked for literally not knowing the colors. Araki's vision is Bret Easton Ellis plus Repo Man, an '80s-reincarnated id explosion to Stillman's more archaic and restrained reference points: posters for The Earrings of Madame De... and Grand Illusion, a viewing of Truffaut's Stolen Kisses, the novels of Ronald Firbank.

There's much talk of religious morality as the basis for a life, often self-mockingly. Violet corrects herself when she says her goals follow simple Christian morality: "Judeo-Christian to be exact." Stillman seems to love manners for their own sake as a starting point for banter, not because he's overly worried about using them as a cudgel for moral instruction. Main male object of desire Charlie (Adam Brody) pines for the old days of "refined, hidden, sublimated" homosexuality, the words strung together as dubious synonyms that—the New York Times' Chip Brown noted—could be interpreted as meaning "the price of freeing gay men from the closet was too high because it produced a surfeit of illiterate beefcake."

Damsels in Distress

That admittedly seems like a stretch: it seems more like Stillman's utterly unconcerned about the implications of a bright verbal riff. Damsels mostly earns its right to exist in a delightful bubble. The pacing can lag, but the ending is aces. Without actually resolving their differences (the emotional negotiations and friendship shifts will go on for the rest of their life), the students tentatively face off, literally face the music and dance to Fred Astaire's rendition of the Gershwins' "Things Are Looking Up"—a song from 1937's A Damsel in Distress as the film ends with a glee-inducing leap into romantic musical comedy. Dance sequences are a Stillman trademark, but this one's not part of a debutante circuit party or discotheque revelry: it's a conscious leap into a fantasy past, undertaken with amateur goodwill by all involved. I'll be surprised if I see a more uplifting finale this year.

Posted by ahillis at 12:37 PM

April 2, 2012


by Steve Dollar

KEYHOLE filmmaker Guy Maddin

One loquacious greybeard, that most Canadian of Canadian filmmakers (or should we say "most Winnipeggian"?) Guy Maddin never so much sits for an interview as he does take occasion to deliver what sounds like a old-time radio drama, only far more wild and vivid and philosophical. Images whirl through the air. Ideas take shape and dissolve. Time collapses into a black hole that suddenly reopens like the iris of a camera lens. One senses—while processing the bitter jolt of a Starbucks coffee, alert to the home movie flickering across the director's eyes—that, for Maddin, everything really is cinema.

Visiting SXSW 2012 to show his latest film Keyhole, Maddin has made what might seem to be a more mainstream work: a gangster flick based around The Odyssey. But this haunted house hallucination is quite a bit more than that begins to describe. As Maian Tran noted in her recent review:

The protagonist Ulysses' (Jason Patric) psyche manifests an entire labyrinth of a house, filled with ghosts and painful memories. The film is a whirling, disorienting, psychedelic odyssey that feels like a '60s avant-garde film with '40s gangster-noir flourishes. Though beautiful to behold, the film's emotional impact hovers over each scene like the spirits that inhabit it... Like finding an ex-lover's hair on a pillow when you tried your best to obliterate those memories, Keyhole reminds us that our emotional baggage keeps a permanent residence in the deep, murky, phantasmagoric labyrinths of our minds.


I was intrigued to learn that this new movie is really about your fascination with houses.

Well, not all houses, but homes. I just spent the past two months in Paris, where they have a really big homeless problem, and there are people that had their little sleeping bags and cardboard cartons sleeping up against the Centre Pompidou. I realized these people probably feel the same way about their home as you feel about yours and I feel about mine. There's a sense of comfort from being in them.

It all came out of that Gaston Bachelard book The Poetics of Space, written in the '40s, which is a really wonderful read. It taps into thoughts you always had but didn't realize you had: That each room in your childhood home would produce feelings, a real palette of feelings. The space under a stairway, the smell of the basement, the privacy of your bedroom, the bathroom, the communal living spaces. They all produce an unbelievably complex array.

No symphony could match the complexity of the feelings these things produce, whether you live under a palm frond or in a mansion. Since we all live in the present and the past simultaneously, every home, the various corners and the nooks and crannies, all store up memories as well. When you tuck yourself into bed at night, you're actually piling on blankets of memories. The car headlight washes across your ceiling just as you're going to sleep, and it reveals more memories up there.


That explains my insomnia.

It's no wonder a whole genre of haunted house literature and movies came up out of it. Houses are haunted as we live in them, by ourselves. I don't really believe in ghosts. I don't need to, I'm already haunted enough. There's just every emotional experience you've had, they are released by the creak of a floorboard, by the smell of your freezer. Sometimes when I hear a toaster pop a certain way, four decades fall away beneath my feet. I had a strange little emotional mine go off underfoot this morning when I was just getting some sausages at the buffet and a window was open in the restaurant and I heard a lawnmower. I haven't heard a lawnmower in about seven months because I live in Winnipeg.

Lawnmowers and freight trains, welcome to the South.

All of a sudden, I wasn't just thinking of last fall. I was thinking of my dad cutting the lawn when I should have been. He had a heart condition. And all the other dads cutting their lawns, and all of a sudden it was a James Agee novel. Homes are like that. It's really just another take on my enduring fascination with where I am in the grand flow of time. Where am I in my own life, at age 56, where I live simultaneously at age four, and five-six-seven through 56, and the vague nod to the future every now and then.

I'm always fascinated by my place in history. Not as a great filmmaker, but just as a person who tries to understand how time passes emotionally for everybody. I'd like to know how old my grandmother was when the Titanic sank. I want to know how things felt for certain people. I've come to the conclusion that people have felt the same way all the time. We're just 60 generations removed from the time when Christ was supposedly around. It doesn't seem that long ago. Sometimes just 100 years feels like a million years ago. It's endlessly fascinating how elastic all this stuff is. It's very narcotic to me. So I decided to make a movie about that.


On paper, anyway, it sure sounds a lot simpler.

Ghosts meet gangsters. I decided to tie my own feelings about houses to human stories, and I thought I would borrow from the structure of The Odyssey, which is very simple. When I finally got around to reading it, I realized it was my story. The reason the story is so durable is everyone goes through it all the time. The hero has been gone for 19 years. He's abandoned his wife and son. We've all felt abandoned by someone, if only for a few minutes. The Odyssey is the ultimate deadbeat dad story. This guy just heads off and decides, after having his brains fucked out by some nymph on an island, that maybe he'll go home. You don't know if his return is being dreamt by his son or willed into reality by his wife, or if he actually is coming back and his wife and son are dreamt. Then you realize it's just a bunch of ghosts talking to each other.

The dreamlike composition is quite beautiful. How time-intensive is to get things to look the way they look?

It's pretty easy. The stuff sort of comes out the way it does. Somehow working in black and white is easier. Shadows just mean lack of light, lack of knowledge: You don't know what's in that space. Shadows in color have a different meaning. First of all, it's not really black in color, there are all sorts of other weird chemical colors in black. I'm working color on my next project and finding it a lot, lot trickier.


What camera did you use?

Keyhole was shot on the Canon 5D and transferred to film. When I was in France recently, the film was released digitally and so it's just raw digital nakedness up there. I liked it, actually. I'm ready to make the leap. For the longest time, I did feel that I wrote film scripts. They weren't video scripts, since I was writing about memory and haunted-ness. Now I realize, photography was only invented in 1827. There have been hauntings and memories for thousands and thousands of years before that. I'm sure once people felt cave paintings were the medium for recording memories. I've been dying to embrace digital filmmaking for a long time and finally made the leap, more out of necessity. We were $70,000 shy in the budget at one point, and we could easily make it up if we made the switch.

There's been a resurgence in indie filmmakers shooting on 16mm.

I feel sorry for those people. Anyone who knows me would expect me to be the last one, walking around in jodhpurs and a film camera. There's no way I'm going to be one of those pee-stained individuals, riding around on a giant bicycle with wooden wheels. I'm a pretty normal guy, just trying to make movies about the feelings we all have. I've been forced by some weird Darwinian forces into the style that I have. I try to keep evolving in my own slow way. I'm not a fast evolver, but since I'm convinced I'm going to live forever, what's the rush?

Posted by ahillis at 9:26 AM