Poll: Chinese Films of the Decade

Running on Karma (dir. Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai) Over on the dGenerate Films website, the results of weeks of emailing Chinese film experts and tabulating of ballots to determined the top Chinese language films of the last 10 years. I'm kind of whateverz about the top pick, which I've reflected upon already, but I think results are quite interesting. I didn't expect West of the Tracks to place so highly, and didn't realize Devils on the Doorstep had so much support as well. But the showing for Oxhide was truly amazing - and heartening. I still need to write at length what I think about that film as well as it's equally astounding sequel.

I didn't submit a top ten list to the poll to avoid conflict of interest, but for what it's worth here's what mine would have looked like:

Before the Flood (Yu Yan and Li Yifan) Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang) - still waiting to see Petition though Hero (Zhang Yimou) Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow) Oxhide (Liu Jiayin) Platform (Jia Zhangke) Running on Karma (Johnnie To and Wa Ka-Fai) The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang) West of the Tracks (Wang Bing) - sort of the 800 pound gorilla whose massiveness can't be denied Yi Yi (Edward Yang)

See what everyone else voted by going here

Top 50 of the '00s (as seen on Twitter)

For those not following, here's the rundown: 50: ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (04 McKay) The purest, most protean offering from the Judd Apatow juggernaut. 49: HERO ('02, Zhang) Up there with TRIUMPH OF THE WILL among great propaganda movies. (The '08 Olympic ceremonies could have this spot 2) 48: CACHE. Former #1 of '05 4 me, but I've lost interest in Haneke's puppet-stringing along of his audience no matter how masterful 47: WOMAN ON THE BEACH (06) My favorite Hong Sang-soo film b/c it goes furthest beyond the psychosexual self-flagellation of prickish males 46: WEST OF THE TRACKS (04 Wang Bing) The SHOAH or SATANTANGO of the '00s? Europe/Asia say yes, US has no clue - I'm somewhere in between 45 KUNG FU HUSTLE (04) Not as deliriously funny as Chow's 90s work but more consistent, world audience-friendly, and still crazy inventive 44 GRIZZLY MAN (05 Herzog) Rarely has a filmmaker revealed so much of himself (boorishly & brilliantly) by sifting through another's work 43 WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE (06) 25th HOUR is great, but Spike Lee's 4 hr Katrina doc is like a Mahler symphony: 1 long cumulating heartbreak 42 BEFORE THE FLOOD (05 Yan Yu, Li Yifan) docu inspiration for STILL LIFE, w/o the arthouse dressing. Sometimes raw is better than cooked. 41 PAPRIKA (06 Satoshi Kon) like an anime Cronenberg movie, and even more chockfull of animation styles than SPIRITED AWAY 40: MOOLAADE (04 Sembene) A feel-good movie on female genital mutilation: one of many contradictions from this African JOHNNY GUITAR 39 FOUR MONTHS THREE WEEKS AND TWO DAYS (07 Mungiu) The terrifying splendor of claustrophobic long takes. 38 ESTHER KAHN (00) Less multitasking/audience-pleasing, more focused/iconoclastic than Desplechin's more touted films. Sinuous + defiant 37 THE HURT LOCKER (09 Bigelow) thoroughly exploits the paradox of its premise. War = cinema = traumatic high 4ever beckoning 36 WALL-E (08) My favorite Pixar film of the decade; their most purely cinematic achievement, at times approaching a musical formalism 35 RUSSIAN ARK (02) Yes it's a stunt, but it pushed digital cinema to uncharted territory. The last 5 minutes always takes my breath away. 34 MY ARCHITECT (03 Nathaniel Kahn) Essay on architecture woven into a heartfelt father-son dialogue. The final scene in Dhaka DESTROYED me 33 THE GLEANERS AND I (00 Varda) timely theme of recycling thoroughly explored to become a manifesto for living, seeing and filmmaking 32 HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (04 Miyazaki) Prefer this to SPIRITED AWAY - narrative more vibrant and disruptive, sentiments more adult. 31 BORAT (06 Larry Charles) Many arguments for, many against. Ultimately, I laughed my ass off more than any other film in 2000s. 30 THE CLASS (08 Cantet) One of the smartest, most energetic and immersive depictions of institutional education among fiction films. 29 JACKASS NUMBER TWO (06) The most meta Hollywood comedy of 2000s, exposing desperation and terror behind the endless pursuit of laughs 28) CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (07 Zhao Liang) 1 of the best Frederick Wiseman docs not directed by Wiseman. 1 of the best police movies period. 27 BEESWAX (09 Bujalski) Transcends "mumblecore" - too busy peeling away the intricacies of language to be bothered with labels. 26 PEPPERMINT CANDY (2000, Lee Chang-dong) Like diving headlong into a festering national wound. Absolutely devastating. 25 TAKE CARE OF MY CAT (01 Jeong Jae-eun) Sublime chronicle of pre-adult friendships fading - if only Hollywood teen movies were this good. 24 VIBRATOR (03 Hiroki Ryuichi) Of the many films about the malaise that hit 2000s Japan, this one was the most fun and inventive. 23 BATTLE IN HEAVEN (05 Reygadas) A camera that dances like a needle, sinuously weaving together the disparate patches of a society 22 HAPPY GO LUCKY (08 Leigh) Has serotonin levels rivalling MGM musicals, but also thoughtful reflection on social politics of happiness 21 MILLION DOLLAR BABY (04) Forget Paul Haggis' script - it's just a vehicle for Eastwood's determinist battle waged in light and shadow. 20 THE CENTURY OF THE SELF (02) Adam Curtis may be England's answer to Michael Moore; but this treatise on human desire is worthy of Bunuel 19 THERE WILL BE BLOOD (07) My favorite movie with a capital M this decade. My tastes so different from 10 yrs ago (MAGNOLIA my #1 then) 18 THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX ('09) a deceptively breezy, anthropomorphic masterpiece that dares to dance upon humankind's self-made tomb. 17 BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE (00 Bong Joon-ho) Comically obsessive, socially incisive. Set the template for Korea's best director of 2000s. 16 MIAMI VICE (05 Mann) For me this was the film that advanced digital cinematic art into Hollywood filmmaking (or vice versa) Romantic trifecta: 15) EVERYONE ELSE (09 Ade), 14) BEFORE SUNSET (04 Linklater) 13) ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (04 Gondry) 12) THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (05 Christi Puiu) Romanian health care = Dante's Inferno. When's the US remake? Oh yeah, we're living it. 11) THE WAYWARD CLOUD (05 Tsai Ming-liang) Can't think of a braver, more inventive film about sex and movies. So darkly candid it hurts. 10) BY COMPARISON (09 Harun Farocki) Film on how bricks are made around the world becomes a stunning probe into humankind's destiny. 9) BAMAKO (06 Sissako) The world put on trial for Africa's cultural genocide. Witness "reclamation cinema," scathing and serenely eloquent 8: L'INTRUS (04 Claire Denis) the ultimate anti-Tom Friedman book: the world ain't flat, it's got as many curves as your dreams and fears. 7) LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF (03 Thom Andersen) Had a profound influence on my own criticism/filmmaking - I can only hope to be as good. 6) YI YI (00 Edward Yang) The best instance of the decade's worst subgenre, the multi-character globalization drama. All downhill from here. 5) A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (01 Spielberg)http://bit.ly/BRnqg 4) PLATFORM (00 Jia Zhang-ke) http://bit.ly/8Vd7qL 3) OXHIDE (04) and OXHIDE II (09). Liu Jiayin turns mom, dad and their tiny apartment into 2 experimental yet heartfelt Cinemascope epics 2) WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? (01 Pedro Costa) The best documentary AND romantic comedy of the decade.http://bit.ly/7rZsgv 1) THE MAD SONGS OF FERNANDA HUSSEIN (01 John Gianvito) Changed my view on the meaning of movies like no other film. http://bit.ly/5bH98L

Stay tuned for a podcast between me and another critic who shares my choice for #1...

Best of the Decade Derby: Now on Twitter

I haven't had much time to pursue the Best of the Decade Derby in the latter half of this year, but it would only be right to give it some kind of closure. So this week I made some time to sort through a long list of films from the past 10 years, and compiled a list of top 50 films of the decade. (One proviso: there were so many good films that I wanted to include, that I decided to restrict the list to one entry per director.) I'll post the list before the end of the month on this site - but for now I'm counting them down on my Twitter feed. You can follow @alsolikelife.

For now, here's a list of films that I had planned to do Best of Decade derby entries on with friends and colleagues. We'll just have to reflect on what they might have been like...

Battle in Heaven Before Sunset The Death of Mr. Lazarescu Fat Girl Kings and Queen Punch Drunk Love Regular Lovers Syndromes and a Century There Will Be Blood Two Lovers The Wayward Cloud The Wire -  I would have done a roundtable podcast pondering whether it deserved inclusion among the best films of the decade (there are some critics I know who think so)

The New York Film Festival: 18 films from top to bottom

This year's NYFF was the tenth that I've attended, and it left me feeling more exhausted and less entralled by what I saw than I have in past years. Maybe because I was more in tune to what others were saying about these films (thanks Twitter and Indiewire), to the extent that it was encroaching on the space between me and these films. My burnout got to the point that I had to do a very geeky thing to put it into perspective: conduct a historical evaluation of how many great movies I saw for each of the past 9 years I've attended NYFF. If you look at the very bottom of the page, you'll see a list of the films I saw in each NYFF that I considered great. By objective ratings, 2009's edition was an above average year for me - at least 7 films i was genuinely excited about (as opposed to 6 most years and 4 last year). The last time I rated 7 or more NYFF films highly was in 2002. Still, my mind harbors the impression that my first three years of attending NYFF gave me the most, especially that first year when Yi Yi and Platform were the one-two punch that made me a NYFF fan for life.  And yet, this year gave me Everyone Else, a film that's on my shortlist for Best of the Decade and one that I find truly inspirational like few films I've seen in recent years.

Maybe that's the part of me that is harder to please - the part that is wanting to be blown out of the theater by what I see. Applying an intersubjective lens, I can say there were a lot of great films at this year's NYFF, possibly more than in most years. But somehow that's not enough. Maybe it has to do with getting older, having a more limited sense of time, and putting more value on how one spends it... which may put undue pressure both on oneself and on the movies to make for an awesome experience.

Here are the films I saw from the main lineup, listed in order of preference. I should make special mention in the YES category there should be one film from the Avant Garde program, Harun Farocki's In Comparison, which is one of the most deceptively simple yet observant and eloquent films I've ever seen.


Everyone Else (Maren Ade) - review on Slant Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz) - One of the more hated-on films in the lineup, but I laughed my ass off more than I have at just about any other movie this year. 

yes+ (interestingly, all of these films have a remarkably mercurial sense of time and history)

Ghost Town (Zhao Dayong) - My involvement with the film in recent weeks makes it hard to step back and evaluate it - but needless to say I've taken things from it more profound than a simple rating could convey. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais) - Both energetic and wise, reminiscent of Yeats' late poetry mixing regressive lust with creeping death. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (Manoel de Oliveira) - I really need to see this again, for its incredibly fluid, otherworldly sense of time, belonging to no particular period. Independencia (Raya Martin) - A quietly moving and inspiring film, one whose sense of timelessness within history you can get lost in. White Material (Claire Denis) - Once you take the films lack of historical/factual specificity in strike, it works amazingly as an allegorical post-colonial fever dream


Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar) - Almodovar's treatment of characters is as trademark as Solondz, with more affection than bite, but equally masterful. Precious (Lee Daniels) - those who decry this as "poverty porn" or "poorsploitation" need to get a life. Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat) - Not a fan of her use of grainy DV, but the story is both sumptuous and chilling, and certainly fresher interpretation of medieval sexuality than Antichrist. Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa) - Costa stays true to his desolate vision of the creative process, giving dignity even to what sounds to be a mediocre album project. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke) - Formally perfect but sterile; I have less and less patience for a cinematic game-fixer like Haneke, no matter how good he is at doing it. The Art of the Steal (Don Argott)- review on Slant Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu) - 100 minutes of boring climaxing in a 15 minute monologue of amazing. Henri Georges Clouzot's Inferno (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea)- review on Slant


Min Ye... (Souleymane Cisse)- review on Slant Antichrist (Lars von Trier) - If it inspired some very in-joke cinephile Halloween costumes, at least it served that much purpose.


Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine) - There's a distinction to make between a film about rural stupidity and a film that's just plain stupid.

And now, a list of films I consider (or in some cases considered) YES or yes+ level films from each of the past 10 NYFFs:







Films upgraded to YES status upon revisit:


Films downgraded from YES upon revisit:











Films upgraded to YES status upon revisit:


Films downgraded from YES upon revisit:












Films upgraded to YES status upon revisit:







Films upgraded to YES status upon revisit:


Films downgraded from YES upon revisit::










































Best of the Decade Derby Serial Killer Showdown: Zodiac vs. Memories of Murder with Andrew Grant and Vadim Rizov

memories_of_murder-1zodiac-3 On this installment of BoDD we're delving into the case of not one but two serial killer movies to determine which one is a better candidate for Best of the Decade. In one corner, we have Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, a critical and box office smash in Korea that flopped in the U.S., though not without a few raves by a handful of critics who caught it. In the other corner, David Fincher's Zodiac, which also flopped in the U.S., though well received by a critical contingent.

In this lively podcast, I discuss both films with Andrew Grant, aka Filmbrain, of the popular blog Like Anna Karina's Sweater, and Vadim Rizov, film critic and contributor to the Indie Eye blog at IFC.com. We discuss our experiences watching both films, as well as Bong's and Fincher's' defining characteristics, what made Memories a commercial success and Zodiac a flop with their respective target audiences, the juggernaut that was Korean cinema in the early half of this decade, and other topics. Also listen to find out which film is the #2 pick of the decade for which podcast interviewee...

Click to play (right click to download)

Best of the Decade Derby: A.I. liveblog with Keith Uhlich and Michael Joshua Rowin

Keith Uhlich in Black Michael Joshua Rowin in Blue Me in Green


KU - I saw it at the Ziegfeld on opening night. I remember a Rex Reed quote pertaining to another film he saw, where he maintained, "I'm not affected by the audience."  Well, when I saw A.I., it was the last 30 minutes or so when the hatred of the audience was palpable, I could feel the audience seething in dead silence, and it really affected me.

So I didn't like the movie when it first came out. But there was some discussion of it on the Brian De Palma Forum that was interesting.

So I saw it again on my own and this time it not only worked but it really turned Spielberg around for me. This film convinced me that Spielberg was worth my complete, devoted attention.

MJR:  I was in college. I was a huge Kubrick-head. I had a professor at the time who was great, but he was going on about A.I. and how he would never see it because it was Kubrick's project but Spielberg took it over, and Spielberg just wasn't worthy. I was impressionable and thought the same, and frankly I hadn't liked Spielberg since I saw E.T. as a kid. His name to me meant schmaltz, big budget corporate spectacle. So I never saw it when it came out. I also heard from my brother and other people that they hated it.

And then, later on, when I was a little older I came across other people I respected and had an appreciation of Spielberg and really liked A.I. I came around and checked it out - it was just a couple years ago. And I was blown away in ways that were deeply emotional and philosophical. But I was also profoundly agitated by certain things that were going on that I felt were classic Spielberg manipulation.

Also, one thing I want to put out is that Spielberg is the Michael Jackson of cinema - someone who has an innate brilliance in putting together the elements of mass entertainment into something truly exceptional. I'll get into that more as we watch the movie.

KBL: I saw this opening night at the Sony Lincoln Square. I had read the reviews by A.O. Scott and Jonathan Rosenbaum which were highly favorable. Especially Rosenbaum's which actually argued against what many other critics were saying, that Spielberg doing Kubrick was a disaster. Instead he claimed that they compensated for each other, Spielberg's heart joined with Kubrick's brain, or something. Anyway I saw it in a packed theater and near the end, like with Keith's initial experience, the feeling among the audience was one of disbelief and ridicule. It was one of those rare weird experiences where you're on a completely different wavelength than the people around you, and in a way I kind of felt like David in this movie, just alienated. But I left feeling like my mind had been blown, that a Hollywood movie had presented a slew of ideas about the nature and the future of the human race I had never thought about before.

CONTINUE TO THE FULL LIVEBLOG---------------------------------------

0:00 - KU: This is interesting because the voiceover here sets up the situation we see at the ending. So this is all a flashback, even though it's set in the future.

0:03 - KU: And this is the first mindblowing moment. This girl's face opening up! And for a director for whom it's said there's no sexuality to his aesthetic, here the way William Hurt puts his pinky in her mouth is very sexually invasive.

MJR: And also the way Hurt commands her to undress but then tells her to stop.

0:05 - MJR: And here with this mecha's definition of love we are introduced to the idea of love being a mechanized set of behaviors.

0:07 - MJR: This film was recently discussed in this online forum called Videogum, and it was nominated for this contest they're running about the worst film ever. And one argument against the film was "Why should we give a shit about this robot. It's just a goddam robot." But that's exactly the point of this movie, is that it makes us give a shit about a robot.

0:08 - KBL - And beyond whether it's a robot or a human, it's an image on a screen that we're responding to, which the film makes explicit by the end. So it's not just about humanity vs. robots, but also about the movies, and how the make us feel. It's an amazing paradox, how it's about both these intense emotions and the mechanisms behind them.

0:09 - KU: If you look here in the office of Prof. Hobby, there are all these images of Grimm's Fairy Tales in the back. They're kind of done in the classic storybook way, prettified and made innocent. Which belies the horrific elements that you found in Grimm's Tales, with people getting eaten or dismembered and stuff like that. And I think that's relevant to this movie, because Spielberg is also trying to bring out the terror within this fairy tale of David.

This scientist here in the lab is Matt Winston, son of Stan Winston, the legendary special effects wizard.

0:10 - KBL: When I first saw this movie, I'm not sure what made me so focused on this, but I couldn't stop finding references to other Spielberg and Kubrick movies. Like this first encounter of David is a visual reference to the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the skinny aliens backlit and emerging from the spaceships.

KU: Spielberg never focuses on people's faces when introducing them, he focuses on parts of them that give you an inside sense of who they are. Like this tap of David's foot gives you a peek inside his quirkiness.

0:11 - KU: Some people have an issue with some of the acting in this film.

MJR - Yeah, I do. This scene between the parents feels shrill and melodramatic. And their sterile bourgeois triteness. It's kind of appropriate, but still...

KU: When she comes back in the third act as the reenactment of the mother she's amazing.

0:12 KU: And this reflection shot of David projected onto the family picture, that's brilliant Spielberg shorthand.

0:13 - MJR:  The mother is really crucial and yet the father is a peripheral, almost a silly man - ha even here she even calls him silly.

0:14 - KBL: William Hurt is more the father figure in this movie. Father not just to David but to a new race of beings.

0:15 - MJR - Some of these shots can be a little too on the nose. But part of it is a satire of this kind of middle class propriety and the narcissism that lies underneath it.

0:16 - MJR: I'm also not a big fan of the music in this film either. These weird modernist touches, although I guess they're kind of Kubrickian.

KU - But it's a kind of mix of Spielbergian, so it's neither here nor there.

Look at what she's reading here in the bathroom.

0:17 - KBL - The way Monica is acting here, it's as if she's the child and he's the toy. And right now she doesn't want to play with him.

0:18: - KU: this table shot - look at the way he's framed. He's visually separated from the others. And yet it's also a halo.

KBL - Setting him up as the innocent.

KU - And also impressionable.

0:19 - MJR - I love how this movie makes explicit the whole process of childhood learning.

KU - It's all so programmed, there's almost nothing intuitive about it here.

MJR - And this approximation of human laughter is absolutely chilling.

KU - And there's also the issue of how did David learn to respond by laughing in the first place? It must have been some kind of programming by Prof. Hobby. Or is it something he's picking up in the moment with whatever intuitive abilities he has?

0:22 - KU: The way that she activates David to become her child, it feels like a spiritual exercise. The way that she touches him on the back of his head is like a shakra. And each word has a symbolic connection to the elements of our world and our existence:

Cirrus - clouds, the sky

Socrates - thought, ideas

Particle - material things

Decibel - sound

Hurricane - chaos

Dolphin - animals

Tulip - flowers

Monica - family

David - his name

0:24 - KBL: This is like a visual reference to Eyes Wide Shut. The parents dressed up to go out to a party.

MJR: If David has an Oedipus complex, I think you can say Monica has an Elektra complex - the female version of the Oedipus complex when he's a toy and she's getting off on him. She's substituting her lost maternal love on to him.

0:26 - MJR:  I still think it's incredible that this played in multplexes.

0:27 - KU: ah Teddy, one of the greatest things ever. And again this weird sexual thing with how his turn on switch is in his butt.

0:28 - MJR: "I am *not* a toy." it's weird how Teddy has more emotion than David.

0:29 - MJR: It's amazing how David learns things about voice by channeling the voices of others.

KU: and how he frames on Monica's hand  to express her emotional state - it's so Spielberg.

0:30 - MJR: The thing that gets me about Martin is that he's a dick. In any other movie you would have sympathy for this handicapped kid, and the way that Spielberg makes you sympathize for the robot over the handicapped boy is just perverse.

0:32 - MJR - Martin's human cruelty is disturbing, but David's purity is also disturbing. It's shown to be problematic in a real human world.

0:33 - KU: Now we see David trying to describe his first memory. It's this angel/bird figure. He remembers the statue outside the window of Prof. Hobby's office.

0:34 - KBL - Thes shots are impossibly beautiful. Idyllic mise-en-scene, soft-focus and over-saturated colors.

MJR: And this was the film Spielberg made after Saving Private Ryan which was de-saturated.

KBL: Some audiences and critics might find it kind of kitschy, but I think that kitschiness is intentional, like a Sirk movie. It's a comment on the idealized affluent lifestyle that we keep dreaming about. And Spielberg is making us aware of how manufactured it is.

0:36 - KBL: This dinner scene is interesting because on the one hand mechas have evolved beyond humans in that they don't need food, and yet David feels a need to eat these veggies because Martin can do it. And there aren't any words that are passed between Martin and David to convey this. It's like insecurity is a virus that humans can spread easily to others.

0:37 - MJR - David's face melting. What a fucked up shot!

KU - If that's fucked up what happens next is even more fucked up with the scene of him getting fixed. This shot of his face drooping is really chilling and yet what's really messed up is that it's misleading. Because we're trained to think that it's a sign that he's severely hurt, but in truth he doesn't feel anything, not like humans do, and that face is just a facade. And here Monica reaches out to him as he's getting operated on and him reassuring her that it doesn't hurt. And she finds that even more disturbing than if he was in pain, because it's not normal. She wants for him to have a soul.

MJR: And so do we. Because aside from David none of the other characters are that sympathetic. Purely because he's so innocent.

KU: And that gets to the idea of infantilizing and idealizing the child, which is such an American fixation. And it's perfect that Spielberg is the one making this movie. As well as the writer. He wrote the screenplay, his first since Close Encounters.

MJR: And this gets back at the Michael Jackson comparison. Michael Jackson was a wunderkind.- someone who can manipulate all our iconography and ideas about children and innocence and pop, and perform them in a way that comels us. Jackson's extollation of childhood was as obsessive as Spielberg's, and both were equally skillful about it.

MJR: Martin is using logic in a way that only humans can understand - this manipulative, political, exploitive way of using logic.

KBL - What this shows me is how much logic for human beings is an emotional thing. We all have our rational justifications for the things we do but ultimately they are driven by our feelings.

0:44 - KU: Another foreshadowing moment. David being left underneath the water.

0:45 - MJR: This is such a devastating scene. Just the utter neglect the humans have for David as they try to save Martin.

0:46 - KU: this is the eden thing in the story. And Adam was kicked out of the garden of eden because he bit from the fruit of knowledge

KBL - Whereas here David is being kicked out for wanting to feel.

MJR:  And picking up on your trend of finding Kubrick references. this moment kind of refers to The Shining. These letters being written obsessively. He wants to be find the right combination of words and sentiments to make Monica love him, and comes up with all these variations. First he says he hates Martin, then says he loves Martin because he knows Monica loves Martin, so then he says he hates Teddy. He needs an other to pick on to make him look better. He's becoming human in that he's projecting his hatred onto others.

KBL: And this idea of evolution - when mechas eventually supplant humans, it's because they learned from and have superceded humans. But then by the end the mechas have to go back to learn about being human.

KU: It's the question asked by 2001 - of who came first, humans or aliens?

MJR:  Yes, "Who Made Who"... which is a reference to AC/DC... which is what powers David! It all comes together!

0:50 - KU: Here the emotion is so raw - it's hard to watch this.

MJR: "a story tells what happens." - This really gets at the paradox of stories, stories aren't real and yet they are to us.

KU: It's the same power that's in the stories in the Bible or other religions. And here you're being told the origin story of the mecha - if David is to the Mechas what Christ , Buddha or King David are to their respective ideologies.

0:52 - MJR: and now we're moving to introducing Gigolo Joe. David's fall from eden segues to sexuality.

0:53 - KU: Oh my god, it's Trixie from Deadwood!

0:55 - KU: The Ain't It Cool News boys were so pissed off that this mecha sex slave was onscreen for less than a minute. She had been used in some of the posters so they thought they'd get to drool at her throughout the movie.

0:57 - KBL - Joe can't do anything against this guy who framed him for the murder, since presumably mechas are programmed not to harm humans. And yet he has self-preservation instincts, given that he knows to cut out his ID tag.

0:59 - KU: The central motif of this film is the search for the Blue Fairy. And the Pinocchio story as told in this story becomes a story about the god myth. You believe in something that you're never going to see for as long as you're mortal. Why?

1:00 - KU: Spielberg here plant some pretty sly things about race, like this Black mecha putting on a white hand.

MJR: These effects here are pretty incredible.

KU: The ultimate Spielberg reference being turned on itself - with the moon from ET, one of the most joyous and awe-inspiring images in his career now an icon of fear and menace.

KBL: It also anticipates the spaceship in War of the Worlds that sucks up and humans for fodder much like this one does with mechas.

KBL: David asks Teddy "What do we do now?" Teddy says "We run now" as if to acknowledge that this chase scene is an action movie cliche. And it's funny to think that David isn't familiarized with this cliche, that he has to ask what to do in this situation.

1:02 - KBL: Why is he refrencing Tron here? it's kind of cheeseball.

MJR: What doesn't fit the fabric for me is that the bikes are so fucking slow - how are they not catching up with the mechas?

1:04 - MJR: By this point David has become totally single-minded. If the idea that David is more human than human, then the problem is that it reduces this humanness to a single impulse.

1:05 - MJR: What was that, slow-mo?  That looked pretty bad.

1:06 - KU: Here's the long tracking shot that gives you a full sense of the Flesh Fair.

KBL: It's like a futuristic version of Monster Trucks Nite. It's a weird scene in that Spielberg betrays so much spite and contempt for his audience. I mean, this is the most explicit reference to a movie audience that we see on screen, and they are nasty, brutish and reactionary.

1:07 - MJR: It's another case of projection - taking his own anxieties about his audience and just putting it out there.

1:08 - KBL: The other thing about this sequence is that it kind of references Schindler's List with all these Mechas being exterminated. And when you combine these two subtexts, the Holocaust and the action movie audience, it really becomes something perverse that encompasses everything Spielberg has done and has wanted to be, both a respectable Oscar winner and a popcorn thrillmaker. And maybe it comments on the fact that he took something like the Holocaust and packaged it as a mass audience entertainment.

MJR - So he's implicating himself.

KU: And this image of Chris Rock's face - it says so much about race in America.

KBL: What I just realized that creeps me out is that if these characters were real humans, this film would probably get an NC-17 rating for this sequence, but because they're mechas we can watch them and not get too disturbed. But in the end they're all images, so the distinction is in some ways illusory. Although the mecha nanny getting washed in acid goes close to over the line.

MJR: It's just so ironic that this flesh fair that's supposed to be a celebration of real authentic human life couldn't be any more cruel and dehumanizing.

KU: What's fascinating about this scene is that the audience ultimately gets confused over David's humanity, just as we are. It's easy to make an audience turn on a dime, which is what Spielberg is showing here.

KBL: And that makes this scene another Kubrick reference, which is Paths of Glory. Remember the German girl in the end of that film, how she's forced to sing in front of a room of horny, catcalling French soldiers, and by the end they're all crying, missing their mothers and loved ones.

1:12 - KU: Crucifix alert!

KU: This monologue by Brendan Gleeson, you kind of wonder how much these words are Spielberg challenging his audience directly - don't you see that this boy is just an illusion, he's nothing real? Don't you realize how much you're being manipulated. It's like he's having a moment against himself.

KBL: "Remember, we are only demolishing artificiality!" It's like a Godard moment. Godard has been criticizing Spielberg for years, and now it's like Spielberg is mimicking Godard with what Gleeson says to the audience here.  He's occupying the position of his own critics.

MJR: “Let he is without Sim cast the first stone” - a pun.

KU: And they turn against the real human.

KBL: And they turn against Spielberg!

1:18 - KU: And now we get the whole backstory of Professor Hobby and why he made David the way he is.

MJR: Where's his wife in all of this?

1:19 - MJR - I wonder how much this idea of individuality in this moment is something deep in Spielberg - that feeling of betrayal when you realize that you're not the center of the world, and that you're not going to find unconditional love.

1:20 KU: Gigolo Joe: "I know all about women." Of course some would say that Spielberg doesn't know anything about women. Which may be true some time, but not all of the time.

And the crassness of Gigolo Joe's pitch here makes me think of Spielberg.  He also gets beaten up for being crass. Crass politicization, crass manipulation.

MJR: But I think there's a real pain in that, because to be who he is he has to work within those dictates of commercial cinema. You feel that in this movie that there's this artist who hates the marketplace in which he has to sell his art. The Flesh Fair I think is all about that.

1:22 - KU:  Listen to his pitch here. The only way he can relate to the world is by body.

1:23 - MJR: Look at how they enter the city, it's the mouth.

KBL: These mouths are straight out of A Clockwork Orange -remember the furniture in the Milk Bar?

KU: And now they're off to see the Blue Fairy, being Mother Mary - and it's a prop.

1:25 - KU: "The ones who made us are always looking for the ones who made them." That's such a great line.

KU: And now they're off to meet Dr. Know aka Robin Williams. Who has the perfect voice for a false god.

MJR:  I hadn't thought until now of Jurassic Park being related to this movie. Things being brought back to life and running amok, and what happens when you use technology to mess with nature.

KBL: Except that in Jurassic Park it was a moral cautionary tale, whereas here it becomes an inquiry into the relationship between technology and nature.

1:27: KBL This scene speaks to me about the whole history of how human beings have tried to organize their world with different information and knowledge systems. And yet the way that we organize information just keeps failing us like it's failing David now. There's always some way for what we want to know to fall through the cracks of what we've set up.

MJR: And it's also showing how knowledge is found through a dialectic process.

1:29 - KU: And so you combine the fact and the fairy tale.

1:30: KU: the way Robin Williams read this poem is beautiful. "The Stolen Child" by Yeats.

KU: Then we learn from this book that Professor Hobby is writing about how mechas are becoming orgas. in other words he's prophesying, like the Old Testament prophets foresaw the Messiah, which David is in this story. He's the new post-human being.

MJR: "that is why they call the end of the world "Man-hattan" - funny.

1:31 KU:  Man, that insistence, that child's sense of entitlement, they just nail it here.

1:32 KBL: Gigolo Joe talking about how people love what he does for people, and yet that pleasure is disposable, just like Monica's pleasure with David was eventually disposable.  Here I think is Spielberg making a distinction between art and entertainment. Because entertainment is endless gratification whereas art is what challenges us beyond what we simply want to enjoy.

1:33 - MJR: And again with David it's also Spielberg nailing this narcissism we have. "I am human, I am the most special human there is." We just think of what we want.

KU: And our toys will outlast us like cockroaches.

KU: If Spielberg reduces all of human and emotion into this infantalism and desire for love, ths pleasure, maybe it doesn't speak for everything but it's such a powerful drive that it cannot be ignored. So many films pander to that yet so few films dissect that.

MJR: God, another fifty minutes to this film. Most people at this point think we're nearing the end by now.

KBL: Well if we're going to hard-scramble everything else with our reactions to humans and robots, we'd might as well hard-scramble the three act structure.

KU: We had Genesis, we had the expulsion from Eden, we had the Jews in Egypt, and now we have the flood. so what's the ending?

KBL: It's the resurrection - he comes back to life in a kind of afterworld.

MJR: And that heaven is completely ersatz. And it's a complete ego projection. So is this a combination of Freud and the Bible? Freud wrote this book on Moses and Monotheism, and in it he theorized that the story of the Bible was a play of Christianity upending Judaism. The son overthrowing the father and so on.

1:39 - MJR: A lot of Lacan is bullshit but there is a really compelling power to the central myth that Lacan puts out, of the mirror phase and recognizing yourself in the mirror.  Being both your body and the awareness and the perception of your body is such a profound moment.

1:40 - KBL: and this set of Prof. Hobby references the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. And it's not an arbitrary reference. Prof. Hobby and Dr. Strangelove are both masterminds who inadvertently serve as architects for the end of humanity.

KBL: And David going apeshit, destroying his duplicate, it's like the ape in 2001 smashing a bone in Dr. Strangelove's War Room. Weird Kubrick mashup.

1:41 - KU: and here we get Prof. Hobby's explanation of everything to David, and yet it's clearly not enough. And it speaks to what James Ellroy said, that closure is bullshit.

MJR: And so here David has asserted his individuality and according to Prof. Hobby he gets his wish. Prof. Hobby tells him that he's a real boy. And like you said, Keith, it's not enough. But then even more chilling is that this realness can become commodified. That's one of so many devastating things about this movie.

1:43 - KU: And just now David says, "My brain is falling out" and it's just kills me, because i know exactly what he's talking about.

1:45 - KU: Oh god, what a fucking image. He realizes now that he's a machine. Is he going to realize that. Is he going to grow with that? Or is he going to go suicidal?

MJR: I love this packaging of all the Davids. As well as the female versions.

KBL: The silhoutettes are so creepy. This is all one take - from the point that he was approaching this face. Amazing.

1:47 - KU:  Here's the bearing witness shot. Joe watching David from the copter. And look at how he shoots David's fall reflected on Joe's face. Like a tear.

1:48 - KBL: This is a bit too much.

MJR: These fish and the twinkling sound are a bit too much.

KBL: - Though one could say that Spielberg is acknowledging his schmaltzy side. He's taking all the spielberg schmaltz and locating it and recontextualizing it in this story. Because in the end this is a fairy tale.

1:49 - KU: Here's like the "trials of Job" moment when he realizes that he can go on.

1:50: KU:  Joe's last line is amazing. "I am. I was."

MJR: Isn’t that the perfect summation of the human life?

KU: And he ascends. Into destruction.

KBL: And now the Coney Island theme park.

MJR: There's a deleted scene when David goes to Coney Island and gets a pint of Coney Island lager. And catches a Cyclones game. My god there's another half an hour left in the movie.

1:52: KBL: And now another face matching moment, where his face merges with the Blue Fairy. It's completely the opposite effect of the face matching with his replacement. He wants to meld with the Fairy. Instead of another being becoming you, here it's you becoming another being. Steven Spielberg's Persona.

1:53: KU: This is the total epitome of man's spiritual yearning. A boy pleading and pleading to God.

And the persistence of it and the futility of it all at once.

1:54: KU: Now with this part the big fallacy people make with this section that these beings are aliens. But these are advanced mecha.

I remember when I saw this the first time, the entire theater was silent and all you could feel was silent rage. All you could feel was anger around you.

KBL: I remember snickers of laughter, and just people being in disbelief that this movie would not end. It was like torture.

1:56- KBL: This vehicle, this box-thing. Look at the way it just floats away, like an application on a computer screen. This world that Spielberg is working in, in a sense it's just images. And maybe that has to do with how our existence is increasingly becoming tied up in ethereal online versions of ourselves.

MJR: These mechas are perfect compared to humans, and yet they're yearning for humans to complete something in them that they feel is missing. There's still this yearning for another

KU: God, what other filmmaker has killed off the entire human race? Spileberg kills the entire human race in this movie.

1:58: MJR: This ending, literally it's chilling!

1:59- KBL: The subtitles for the advanced mecha - I remember snickers about that among the audience- like on top of everything else, Spielberg is giving us a foreign movie.

2:00 - KU: Blue Fairy crumbles.  Your idol collapses. I remember my father telling me he bought my grandmother a Virgin Mary statue, and as he was bringing it to her he dropped it and it broke. And he was really shaken up by it, because he felt, "I've destroyed the mother of god." It's the emotions that we place into these objects and forms that matter more than the object. And also something about the sacred and the fragile coexisting.

KBL: What these Mechas do have is community. Look at how they share images with each other.

2:01 - KU: And here this scene is like 2001, the David in that movie wakes up in a room at the end.

KBL: The tone of this sequence grates on many people's nerves as manipulation. But this manipulation in terms of Hollywood codes. This scene at the end is a total movie set.

MJR: This whole movie is inside of you, it's a mirror bringing you out.

2:03 - KU: and we know who did the voice of the Blue Fairy - Meryl Streep - the greatest living movie actress.

MJR: And listen to how she tells him that he's special and unique. It's that narcissism gratified, but in such a perverse, chilling way.

2:05 - KBL: Teddy ex machina - the hair that brings the happy ending! Again, I remember the audience's groans and howls at this.

MJR: That initial act of violence David enacted on his mother is what leads to her resurrection.

2:06 - KU: Look at this. David's never cried before.

KBL: Maybe it's condensation from his deep freeze?

MJR: I didn't even notice that. By this point you don't even notice the significance of that, because he's so convincingly human.

2:07 - MJR: It's interesting that at this point David has a history of himself. We see him drawing pictures of his adventures with Joe.

2:08 - MJR: "Human beings must be the key to the meaning of existence." Another expression of narcissism - narcissism of the human race.

KBL: And nostalgia.

2:10 - MJR: These mechas are the ultimate movie directors - god/ extrahuman omnipotent movie directors.

2:11 - KU: If I'm crying now they are very multifaceted tears. When I saw this the second time it just fucked me up.

2:12 - KU: It taps into the desire to see someone again who you can never see again.

KBL - Or relive a memory from your life that you hold so dear and whose passing you mourn.

2:12 - KBL The way Monica is shot here is so sexual - she's beautiful in a sensual way.

2:13 - MJR - We talked about the saturation of the colors in the first act of the movie and now we're seeing itagain - but this time Spielberg's cued us in to an awareness of how this is being presented to us. And now we're aware of how movies are stylized.

2:14 - KU: David is now an artist. Before he was only a writer, that earlier scene where he was writing the different letters to Monica. Now he's drawing as well.

2:15 - KU: and here's an E.T. moment. They're hiding in the closet.

2:16 - KU: "David drew the shades without even needing to be asked." That's just chilling.  And David not wanting to blow out the last candle. simple iconic shit like that that he does so powerfully.

MJR: There is this weird thing of him wanting to do something with her. Just wanting to hang on to her.

This film is so much about time and that's the great paradox of time that a moment can be everlasting and yet pass

2:17 - KU: Again, Teddy playing silent witness.

MJR: In the end, it's an ersatz human being loving a recreated projection of a human being while being directed by advanced ersatz human beings.

KBL: Dreams being realized and extinguished at the same time.


KU: This film Kubrick makes Spielberg strange, and Spielberg makes Kubrick strange. Kubrick's cold intellect challenges Spielberg's gut emotion, and vice versa.

MJR: I don't understand Kubrick being described as a cold director. Eyes Wide Shut is a very human, emotion-filled movie.

KU - I think Barry Lyndon is a very warm movie.

MJR: Even if someone doesn't like A.I., you have to confront this shit it stirs up, about myths, about desire, about humankind's legacy.

KBL: We're used to movies doing the work for us, telling us what to think and how to feel, but this one drops it all in our lap. it's a movie that the more you think about it, and all its implications about who we are as humans, the more it disturbs you on a deeply emotional level.

MJR: It makes you look at the world anew, which is the highest compliment you can pay a work of art.

KU: Even talking through it I felt it. If we hadn't talked during the last scene I would have started bawling.

KU: If you don't believe in god you still have a desire for an ultimate attainment. And you have the everlasting moment, and then the moment passes. So you have the afterlife and the moment passes. "He goes to the place where dreams are born." It's sentimental gibberish bullshit. And this movie poses the situation where we're past the point of where the goal is attained, but is there more than that?

KBL: And how many films are about that?

MJR: Every film.

KBL: Well yeah impliclty. But how many films call critical attention to the whole point of having goals, or even goal-oriented storytelling as a dominant genre?

MJR: And this film is about how that arc of achieving goals is not satisfactory. And narrative conventions such as having a resolution and even having real human characters. This film presents a premise that is completely and utterly fraudulent and manufactured. And yet it's so devastating and crushing. For someone so involved in manipulation and spectacle Spielberg is sincerely invested in what audiences are into and what they want. Only someone who is so attuned to that can produce someting that can invert and explore what it's about.

Following our conversation, Michael had this to add via email:

The transition between the first part and the second part of the film not only segues Eden into sexuality, but the feeling of childhood abandonment from the mother to the search for connection or completion in romantic union. As the first part of the film fades out and David is left alone we're also left disoriented in the dark, but now the gender roles are reversed: an unknown woman (who might be David's mother, or the Blue Fairy for whom he's searching) intones through a pitch-black image, "I'm afraid" to a man. Her fear of a sexual encounter with a non-human mimics David's fear of encountering the frightening human world, but there are also resonances between one's loss of innocence and one's first explorations of physical commingling.

Also, one more irony about the film's ending: David never becomes a real boy. In the Pinocchio story A.I. directly references, Pinocchio becomes a real boy by earning it, by learning right from wrong and developing a conscience (and consciousness?) It's a moralizing lesson that Spielberg rejects but also inverts in favor of something far more troubling. Professor Hobby tells David he's become a real boy, but qualifies that with something like "or the closest thing to it." So David's not really a real boy, but even if he were he would have earned it only through persistence and faith. David has not learned much else, he's only stubbornly clung to and sought out his vision of eternal mother-love. Thus at the end of A.I. Spielberg reveals that David's journey to become a real boy is an enormous red herring. What's more important to David is not becoming real (he's already learned that that's impossible and that he's been commodified and replicated), but simply obtaining mother-love. Artificial intelligence also means false consciousness, and the new Pinocchio myth of the cybernetic era becomes one of infantalizing womb-protected bliss, complete and stunted fulfillment of the fake person's solipsistic dreams, without even the faintest desire to "grow up."

Best of the Decade Derby: Video Essay on L'Intrus for the Reverse Shot Claire Denis Symposium

Reverse Shot has just published another of their storied auteur symposiums, where pieces on just about every film by a director are given serious critical appreciation by a talented host of young writers. I've contributed to past symposiums, including one on Hou Hsiao Hsien last year. This time they're casting a much-deserved spotlight on Claire Denis, who I think is doing some of the most amazing work of any director working at the moment. For this symposium I wanted to contribute a piece on L'Intrus, given that it's a solid contender for my own "best of decade" list - only to find out that several other would-be contributors proposed to write on the same film. The honor eventually went to Genevieve Yue, who offers a lengthy, erudite essay that's simply fantastic to read, and does much to elucidate a film that at times is as impenetrable as it is hypnotic.

Meanwhile, my way to get at L'Intrus was to do an appreciation via video essay. What I didn't expect was how difficult this film would be to penetrate and elucidate, especially in a video essay format. This is probably the most challenging time I've had with a video essay and I owe thanks to several people for their encouragement, including Michael Baute, Daniel Kasman, Ryland Walker Knight, and of course Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert of Reverse Shot. The results, well, here they are:

Best of the Decade Derby: Looney Tunes: Back in Action liveblog with Keith Uhlich

In searching for the ten best films of the decade, I've taken a special interest in two genres that I feel are routinely given short shrift when generally thinking about the "best" films: animation and comedy. So I was happy to follow the recommendation of Keith Uhlich to watch Looney Tunes: Back in Action as part of the Best of the Decade Derby. Keith assures me that this film is highly likely to make his own top ten list (I think I know Keith well enough to predict what his list will look like: A.I., Five, Generation Kill, The House of Mirth, Inland Empire, Miami Vice, The New World...). It was fun listening to Keith take on a personal tour through Looney Tunes, especially after having watched The Incredibles, two films that seem diametrically opposed in their philosophies towards form, structure and sensibility in mainstream feature animation, as different as, say, the classic era of Warner Bros. vs. Disney. Given that I've been increasingly seduced by classical Hollywood form and craft (something that my re-watching of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein shook me out of, at least momentarily), it was good for Keith to remind me of how when I was a kid I preferred the manic anarchy of Warner Bros. over the impeccable prettiness of Disney. This opposition was definitely on Joe Dante's mind when he made this film, as Keith's liveblog comments (with my occasional interjections) bear out:

Keith in blue (me in black):


Man, this DVD menu is shoddy. It reflects Warner Brothers corporate attitude towards their properties - they're just out to cash in and make a quick buck, which Joe Dante makes as his target. This film was posited as Joe Dante's retort to Space Jam. Once Looney Tunes became corporatized by WB, which Space Jam epitomizes, the anarchic spirit of the original was lost, and that's what Dante is trying to recapture.

Another thing this film is about Bugs and Daffy as polar opposites.  When we think about Looney Tunes, we think about Bugs Bunny and how cool he is and how he always wins in the end. This film is interesting because it's more from the POV of Daffy, the perennial loser, which I think Dante identified with. And here I should bring up Mel Blanc. One special thing about Blanc is that he did both Bugs and Daffy, which is a really interesting duality. It's interesting that he was able to capture the god like omnipotence of Bugs and the patheticness of Daffy just through minor modulations of his voice.

After Mel Blanc died in the 90s it's no longer Blanc doing the voices, and I always felt there was something lacking in the replacement artists doing the voiceovers, there was always something off about them. But I think why it works here and why I don't miss Mel Blanc's voice in Looney Tunes: Back in Action is because of the timing. The tempo of this film is sped up and manic just like the old Looney Tunes. If you notice in recent Looney Tunes productions you notice that characters speak at normal speed and things are toned down. So Dante is trying to redress that as well.

Also, what amazes me about this film is that it plays like a grand anarchic tour through 20th century animation, fine art, music and culture at large. You really have to scour every single shot. And a lot of this should be credited not only to Dante but to animation director Eric Goldberg.


0:01 - They were originally supposed to begin with a Batman parody but I'm glad they didn't. Instead they jump into a reenactment of an old Looney Tunes cartoon, and they comment on it critically, with this quick montage of Daffy getting his head blasted over and over.

0:02 - This is Jenna Elfman's best role. And I love how these two identical twin actors play the Warner brothers. And this shot of the shelf with the Lethal Weapon Babies sequel poster on the one side and the Maltese Falcon on the other. Dante is just throwing one thing at you after another. And with this kung fu demonstration, it shows Daffy has to overcompensate for everything, whereas Bugs can shut Daffy down with just the flick of his finger.

0:03 - Look at this box of Daffy's. There's a picture of Daffy with Nixon and a Bugs voodoo doll. It's on the screen for just a second but it has so much going on.

0:04 - Brendan Fraser's character gets developed through an interesting way here. He's talking to Dick Miller and in the background is a billboard of Timothy Dalton in an action hero movie. And Dick Miller points at the billboard to identify Dalton as Fraser's father. In a way it's Dante saying that these screens and these images are our father, they are what we're raised on. At least it's true for him.

0:05 - This chase is just amazing.

KBL - It's really good at taking the anarchy of the animation into live action.

0:06 - I love the idea of Roger Corman directing a Batman movie.

0:07 - And here's where Dante's anti-corporate anarchy sets in with the Batmobile knocking down the WB water tower. And this dig at Finding Nemo is where I fell in love with the movie.

0:08 - This moment here is great because you see Dick Miller dressing down Brendan Fraser. And then the camera pulls out and you can see Miller stepping down from an apple box. You can barely see it. And that's what I love about this film, that Dante isn't waving all the things he's doing in your face. You get to pick them out yourself.

0:10 - In this dialogue Bugs is resisting his being commodified, so he's taking Dante's lead as well.

0:10 - This is kind of the 60s spy section. You see a portrait of Timothy Dalton who plays Fraser's dad, and he's playing a version of himself, a spy movie actor.

0:12 - This delusional rant by Daffy just nails his schizophrenia. And the film really takes off from that spirit.

0:13 - Here at the end of Dalton's message, and the earlier meet-cute between Fraser and Elfman, there's a moment when the film threatens to verge into sentiment, but Dante very quickly pulls out of that.

0:14 - This audio of the sputtering car (which by the way is a Gremlin, get it?) is from a vintage Mel Blanc recording, a nice touch.

0:17 - This is pure Frank Tashlin, the use of the split screen being pushed back and forth.

Now one of the problems that people have with this film is Steve Martin's performance, which we're about to see.

KBL: What problem do people have with Martin here?

It's him doing his wild and crazy guy schtick. It's very broad and Jerry Lewisy.

In this board meeting you get some random cameos - you get Mary Woronoff from the Warhol movies, you get Ron Perelman. I love how Dante is taking this big corporate Hollywood budget and lampooning it so broadly.

0:21 – This scene is a pure psycho parody, complete with a meta reference to the behind the scenes details.

KBL: It’s an example of Dante commenting on pop culture from multiple perspectives in just a matter of seconds.

"Why do you torture me" and this whole film is an act on torture on Jenna Elfman - she's like a live action version of Daffy Duck.

Meanwhile Bugs is so carefree, that's what I love about him. But there's also something distancing about his power that we can't relate to.

It's just perfect that Bugs tells Jenna Elfman that she has no soul. Too true.

0:24 - And just the endless resourcefulness of Bugs - this is what Space Jam got wrong. Like Matt Zoller Seitz said, why would the Looney Tunes characters need Michael Jordan's help?

0:25 - This Yosemite Sam casino - for a second I have to do a double take, because I was convinced that there is a Yosemite Sam casino in Vegas. It's another case of the film showing all the ways that corporate entertainment can cash out on its properties.

0:27 - This movie treats Heather Locklear like a cartoon, which is just perfect.

0:28 – Look at this shot. Even when he's focusing on plot, Dante is always trying to refocus your attention on different parts of the screen.

"How many galoshes did it take to make that luscious number?" That's my favorite line.

0:29 - The interaction between the human and the animated characters is so effortless and transparent. It's different than in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which kind of wears its effort on its sleeve - you can see them always commenting on the fact that the animators had to do all this work.

0:30 - I think this action sequence is amazing because you get all these different layers and depth to the set. And again, the interaction of live and animation is effortless.


0:31 - And here's Nasty Canasta in a cameo. And a “Dogs Playing Poker” shot with all the Looney Tunes dog characters. Dante seems like he wants to include about as many Looney Tunes characters as possible.

0:32 - And there's this great stop-on-a-dime rhythm throughout the movie. We have Yosemite Sam busting into the casino in a fury, but then taking a quick moment to kiss a rug with his picture.

0:33 - And here we have a NASCAR appearance, which is another way for Dante to acknowledge how everything is being commercialized and commoditized. And he uses this car to wreak havoc on half of Las Vegas. Like with the Batmobile, he’s turning commercialism against itself.

0:34 - "You, me, her, him" again the timing is everything in this.

0:36 - this is such a random gag – “Mother!” It's just moving everywhere.

0:38 – Again, another case of the movie jamming our expectations of where conventional cues are supposed to take us. Here the scene is fading to black, but Jenna Elfman says "but it doesn't work that way" and it comes back from the black.

0:38 - Now we have this scene with the two couples. And Jenna is feeling nostalgic for Dalton. But then Dante says let’s go back to Bugs and Daffy. He never wants to get too comfortable with the human characters.

KBL: Which is really challenging, and maybe why people couldn’t latch on to the movie so well, unlike with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Where you identify mainly with Bob Hoskins and you see the cartoon world through his eyes. Here you don’t have that ground to stand on.

0:39 – Here Dante shows how deft he can be with his character development – he let’s Daffy drop this quick line to Bugs: "You just munch on your carrot and people love you" and just like that Dante moves on.

This movie feels like a Technicolor movie even though it wasn't shot on it. This shot of Jenna Elfman in a pink dress walking across the desert is just gorgeous.

0:40 - And this Wal-Mart reference is just fabulous. "Nice of Wal-mart to provide us these Wal-Mart beverages in exchange for us mentioning Wal-mart so many times." That's Dante having his cake and eating it too.

0:42 - And now we're in the Wile E Coyote / Road Runner segment, and it's flawless.

KBL: And updated to a 21st century world. I love how Wile E Coyote orders his anti-Road Runner contraptions from the ACME website.

How many comedies, animated or otherwise, use the screen in so many ways like this?

0:44 - Now we're in the sci-fi section of the movie. I think is the section closest to Dante's heart. Here’s Robby the Robot and Joan Cusack as Robby's mother. And Cusack’s line delivery here is priceless: "I've known you ever since you were... that doesn't make sense does it?"

KBL: Elfman: "I can't go back to LA with duck soup." There’s a double entendre in there – Today’s Hollywood couldn’t handle the Marx Brothers.

Dante is just cramming all these references to sci-fi movies here: Marvin the Martian, the Dalleks, even Kevin McCarthy from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


0:47 - This is a quintessential Steve Martin delivery.

0:48 - Did you notice how they painted in the reflection of Bugs walking past the jar containing Marvin the Martian? It’s amazing that they took the care to do that, even though most people probably wouldn’t notice it.

And here’s a mention of giant ants and you hear the ant sound effects from "Them" in the background. And this tape labeled "Moon Landing Dress Rehearsal" – ha!

0:49 - This Peter Graves Mission Impossible mission debrief animation -  I think it has the style of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had its own anarchic qualities.

0:53 – So here’s the transition to the Paris/ Louvre sequence – Someone asks, "How do we get there?" And Bugs picks up a corner of the screen and pulls it like a drape, and instantly we're in Paris. This is Dante's way of looking at the world -  it’s all screens, planes and images.

0:54 - It's a Paris of the imagination - classic post-war American in Paris era stock footage, a shot of the Louvre with Madeline and her children walking across it.

0:55 - Even the critics against this film admire this Louvre segment. It's really a Louvre of possibilities, where it jumps into through all these immortal works of art and plays with them. And Goldberg animates the Looney Tunes characters in the style of each painting.

KBL: And there's a connection between the Looney Tunes aesthetic to each of these works being referenced - Dali's surrealism, Munch's emotional expressionism, Toulouse Lautrec's festive energy - these are all spiritual predecessors to Looney Tunes. And the music is the perfect match - Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Here’s Georges Seurat doing a cameo – and look at how he reacts to the Looney Tunes characters romping through his landscape. I love Elmer Fudd's gunshots here - the way it blasts the paint off the canvas.

0:58 - Here it just goes into overdrive. All these Looney Tunes characters dressed up as famous figures in paintings: Picasso's guitarist, Whistler's mother, Breughel’s hunter, the Vermeer’s girl with the pearl earring, I can’t even identify the rest.

KBL: And at the end Bugs has reconstructed himself fully while Daffy is using a paint by numbers dot technique to redraw himself. Ever the divide between them.

Here's a Jerry Lewis poster and the red balloon - the Paris references keep piling up. And here with these production values of this action sequence are incredible - you wonder why Warner Brothers put so much money. Dante had already screwed them with Gremlins 2, so he must have done something to get back on this project. But still this film bombed big time.

1:03 - Brendan Fraser did the voice of the Tasmanian Devil.

1:04 -Now we're in the Africa sequence. This was supposed to be the climax of the film.

Coming up is a gag that Charles Taylor criticized as why the movie doesn't work. When Tweety bird cries out "Cry Freedom" - He thought it should have been more of a comment on African politics, but Dante treats everything as a gag. I mean look here, he follows it up with an elephant ass gag.

KBL: It feels almost profound - everything gets mixed up into a neverending stream of phenomena, and they’re happening too fast for you to get hung up on any one of them.

1:08 - The humans are largely at the mercy of the animated characters.

KBL: Again, that's also an inversion of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the humans are the dominant class.

1:11 - The way this ends is crazy, the WWE wrestler Goldberg unveils himself as a Tasmanian She-devil and gets married to the Tasmanian Devil.

1:13 - And now this Martian sequence which is a total digression from what happened before. I think this got added in the final stages of post-production, and seems like it was just improvised.

1:14 - This is classic Looney Tunes, this assaultive comedy.

1:17 - The carrot lightsaber – genius.

1:18 - Now Dante is indulging in some of the cross cutting of Star Wars.

1:19 - And even with the heroic rescue, Dante ends the scene with Wile E. Coyote getting blown away - his sympathies lie with them.

1:20 - And because this is Joe Dante's picture, Daffy finally gets to become a hero.

And of course the corporate executive is reduced to a monkey.

1:21 - Here's the sentimental piece - but what's that out the window? Again, Dante can't resist any chance to destroy corporate space.

And the credits - this Junior Senior track works because like the movie it keeps encouraging to have fun and it pounds it into you.

Best of the Decade Derby: Lost in Translation video essay with Stephanie Zacharek

Another video essay for the Film in Focus Rewatch series. This one's on Lost in Translation, which many considered the best film of 2003 and one of the best of the decade. I personally wouldn't go quite that far, but I'm glad to have someone like Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com to make the case in this video essay, by honing in on one moment and exploring what makes it, and Sofia Coppola's direction, beautiful and unique among American films.

Read More

Best of the Decade Derby: Encounters at the End of the World roundtable podcast with "Werner Herzog"

encountersattheendoftheworld_scene0 When I took an open call for documentary suggestions for Best of the Decade Derby back in March, there was a strong showing of enthusiasm for Werner Herzog's recent works: White Diamond, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. We picked the latter for a Best of the Decade group screening followed by a discussion - We talked about how Herzog imposes his vision on the documentary format, the tragic humor of suicidal penguins, and which of Herzog's many movies are our favorites. At the end, we were visited briefly by none other than "Werner Herzog" himself!

Podcast audio is here (right click to download).  A big thanks to participants Ben Simington, Gina Telaroli and Daniel Kasman.

Best of the Decade Derby: Quick notes on Pixar, Hollywood classicism and animation after watching The Incredibles

I watched The Incredibles for the first time a few days ago. Pixar sure has a way of spoiling one with its consistent ability to amaze (Cars being the one exception in my book). What I loved about The Incredibles was that in its attempt to lampoon Hollywood action blockbusters, it applies such knowingness and such attention to detail to the genre that it effectively surpasses its object. It had me all but convinced that if I have a Hollywood film in my top 10 for the decade, it ought to be a Pixar film.

The Incredibles has a story that is impeccably constructed and advances deftly from one movement to the next while developing a wonderful, amusing and fairly complex family dynamic among its main characters. The issue of social misfits possessing exceptional talent and the struggle to apply it to a less than receptive world is a mainstay for just about all of the features directed by Brad Bird: this, Ratatouille, and The Iron Giant (a pre-Pixar production). Here it gets into some messy territory by villainizing its one main character who isn't born with exceptional gifts and has to work hard to compensate for his lack. I think Bird deals with the problems of supertalents more delightfully in Ratatouille, by just focusing on an underdog rodent trying to break into the restaurant business by working harmoniously with others. Even though The Incredibles is about people who save the world, the narrative conflicts deal more with the primacy of the nuclear family, while society is portrayed as a bunch of ungrateful sheep. On the whole, Ratatouille takes a more favorable view towards the world at large as it tries to assimilate its hero within it.

So I've basically talked The Incredibles out of consideration for Best of the Decade Derby, even as I'm bolstered to include a Pixar picture. The dilemma remains, which one? I'm between Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up. My main interest to favor Ratatouille is because the four-cylinder narrative efficiency on display in both of Bird's Pixar movies are really Hollywood classicism at its best. What other Hollywood films from this decade could compare in terms of old-school excellence?  Million Dollar Baby, Two Lovers... Strangely, the quintessential Hollywood craftsman Spielberg doesn't really offer much in this way in the past decade, Catch Me if You Can excepted - A.I., Minority Report and Munich consciously subvert the idea of a neat three-act structure, falling in line with the philosophical underpinnings of each film.

WALL-E at first feels incredibly innovative with its long stretches without dialogue, but it's really just classic silent filmmaking. I'm inclined to think that in terms of narrative rhythm and structure, Up is the most innovative thing Pixar has produced. It establishes its story in such an unexpected, beguiling way, first with the newsreel, then with that devastating montage (if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about - I tear up just thinking about it). What I love about Up is the ease with which it moves through its story; it really takes its time like few great Hollywood films I've seen, maybe with the exception of Judd Apatow.

And then there's the troubling thought, that much about what's great about Up is really indebted to Hayao Miyazaki. Not just that Miyazaki made two films about floating castles that resemble Up's flying house, but also a sense of whimsicality, a penchant for the lyric image and wistful sentiment that drifts through life as a cloud. I need to see Howl's Moving Castle again to see how this figures into all of this...*

* - For the record, I watched Spirited Away some time ago for the BoDD project and was amazed but not top 10 amazed. It's a dreamy film for sure that blends classical structure with lyrical digression, and it's simply ripe with invention. What I can't quite figure out is why it doesn't stay with me as much as I would expect it to for a film with such furtive creativity. The heroine gets returned to the real world, and she's certainly more mature than when she started. And so...?

Best of the Decade Derby: Elizabethtown Liveblog with Vadim Rizov

elizabethtown_ Poster3Elizabethtown_Poster1 When I approached multivalent critic-at-large Vadim Rizov about doing a Best of the Decade Derby movie liveblog with me, he proposed Cameron Crowe's last feature, the much-maligned Elizabethtown. I thought, there's a choice with a pair of big ones hung on it. Little did I realize (5 minutes before we started watching, to be exact) that this wasn't actually a film he considered one of the ten best of the decade (or 20 best, for that matter), but for some reason he really wanted to revisit it. Maybe he misheard the project as Most Underrated of the Decade Derby, but in any case, I figured it was worth watching Elizabethtown for the first time, since Crowe's three features prior had fascinated me for various reasons.

Vadim also alluded to this choice as some kind of reprisal for Mike D'Angelo's liveblog with me on 25th Hour. I don't remember the exact reason he gave for that, but as it turned out, the two films have remarkable points of intersection. Both are about young adult men who experience a major fuckup in their career, leading to a radical period of reassessment and revisitation of the past. Both climax with long sequences driving cross-country, the men dutifully following the voiceover guidance of another person who effectively function as guardian angels. Though the chief difference between the two is that one cross-country drive to destiny is real, the other imagined.

Anyway, Vadim and I both agree that Elizabethtown is more ambitious and more flawed than any of Crowe's films, and even though much of it doesn't work, there are several moments where he achieves unprecedented levels of depth, craft and maturity in his career. I would very much look forward to seeing him apply these advances in another feature, should he ever get the opportunity to make another one after the commercial disaster of Elizabethtown.


Vadim in blue, me in black.

0:00 -VR: Crowe's movies have gotten better looking over the year. No one talks about how Say Anything is such a horrendous looking movie. His technical skills, shooting- and montage-wise, are the best they've ever been in this film.

"There's a difference between a failure and a fiasco" - this is the line that everyone uses against the film. Nathin Rabin's ongoing Onion blog project on Hollywood flops used the words "failure, fiasco or secret success" to delineate between each film he discussed. Elizabethtown was the first film he covered. But I think he's going to end the project by going back to it, just to see if he feels differently.

0:01 - Oh this is a Judy Silk cover. This movie has more 70s music than even Almost Famous.

This is Cameron Crowe's Juliet of the Spirits. Style for the sake of style.

0:03 - KL - He's riffing off Jerry Maguire here.

VR: And that's what Mike D'Angelo hates about it. That it focuses and amplifies a lot of what's bad about Jerry Maguire.

Susan Sarandon is the worst thing about this movie.

0:04 - Here's the inevitable Apartment homage moment.

0:05 - KL: This is the quintessential "oppressed by success" monologue.

0:06 - VR: Here's Alec Baldwin's dry run for 30 Rock.


0:07 - "My Global Environment Watchdog Project" - this shot is part of why this movie cost $80 million dollars.


0:10 - KL: I love the photo of Jessical Biel on the flatscreen. And it's animated! VR: Yeah, in all the little touches you can see the budget of this film. 0:11- That facial expression on Orlando Bloom's face is his expression for the entire movie. This movie was his bid to break out of the Lord of the Rings ghetto, but people weren't having it. And yet this to me is a very satisfying romantic comedy performance.

0:15 - There's an implicit North/South thing which goes on throughout the movie. There's a Lynryd Skynrd thing that goes on, and then there's the scene where he sees his dad's corpse and Elton John's "My Father's Gun" plays, and it's a Southern themed song from Tumbleweed Connection. So a lot of the subtextual music plays out in the song selection. Elizabethtown, Kentucky is a real place, and he did shoot there, God bless him. 0:16 - KL: Bloom is the only guy on this flight. Don't they normally cancel flights in this situation? VR: Like I said, this is highly stylized. 0:17 - Kirsten Dunst is incredibly annoying. I hate her guts. She's awful. KL: It's more like this dialogue is the problem.

VR: Well the trick is that she's obnoxious here but then she grows on him, and they separate, and when they reconnect she embodies all the hangups about reuniting with someone after an extended period of building them up in your mind. But it's amazing that a movie that I really like features someone I really despise. Elizabethtown-14

0:21 - VR: I think when I saw this in the theater this was the point when the three girls sitting behind me started to flip out and every three minute say "What the hell is this?" 0:22 - KL: Part of it for me is the timing, It feels a little sluggish. 0:23 - And here's Fleetwood Mac - it's southern but faux southern. 0:24 - Now Dunst's character is starting to look better, after all that nattering about not missing 60B, not missing 60B, and look what happens to him. 0:25 - VR: Everyone's pointing him to the where is dad is. How do they know? Love it or hate it, the film is pretty straight up about what it's up to. elizabethtown-11

0:26 - And here's Paul Schneider from All the Real Girls. KL:  And was he ever heard from again? VR: I think hes been in some minor things here and there. But this was his first big role after All the Real Girls. elizabethtown-18

There's a great deal of hugging that Orlando Bloom has inflicted upon them. And these two guys are nice. You don't really see character actors like them. 0:27 - KL: "Whimsical." I really like this moment a lot because it's introspective and understated. 0:31 - But there goes the understatement. But that's what I like about it. It's not afraid to go over the top. At the same time he's letting the song do a lot of the carrying of the meaning. It's kind of candyish and overstimulated. elizabethtown-25

0:33 - KL: There's a pseudo-Preston Sturges thing going on with how he's dealing with Americana. VR: A lot of these people look like people from small town midwest. KL: But they're kind of exaggerated, and we're not sure what do do with these characters. He's poking them a little, but he seems to love them all the same. It feels ambivalent like a Sturges Americana movie. 0:34 - VR: This is one of the great nonsequirits of the movie - the way they shut the kid up is really awesome. It's like the "dialectics for kids" stuff in Half Nelson. 0:37 - I don't think there's been a scene that's longer than a minute. 0:38 - This is one of two films in 2005 that prominently featured Lynyrd Skynrd. The other one being The Devil's Rejects. 0:40 - I'm pretty sure David Gordon Green hates this movie. KL: Well he probably thinks its really disingenuous, not as heartfelt as his films. But it's heartfelt in its own way, just not a David Gordon Green way. VR: This film is really sincere, it's almost embarrassingly sincere. 0:44 - KL:  "You have to come back right away. Mom wants to learn how to cook." There's like this Sundance quirk thing going on. And we had just seen Shrink earlier this week, and the main line in my review for it was that it's quirk done to death. Here it's quirky-annoying too, but not in the same formulaic way. There's something about it that makes it his own. Something about the rhythms he establishes with his speech, a little left of James L. Brooks, and much further away from Sundance cadences.

0:47: This is a 3 hour phone conversation cut up into highlights. It's almost too much, but like everything else so far, it's go for broke. Take a cute, quirky idea and crank it to 11. Instead of 5 one-liners extracted from an all night phone date, how about 15?

elizabethtown -13

I think a young Holly Hunter or Frances McDormand would have pulled this off. She's more cute than sassy.


0:50 - VR: "Life and death and death and life, right next door, just a hair from each other!" He's drunk. And he's unleashed. I love the beer bottles clinking when they hug. KL: Yeah it has a nice punctuation effect to it.

0:51 -This movie is finding itself in my brain. People's everyday social behavior patterns have been somehow skewed - like everything and everyone is in an not quite there state. Maybe it reflects Orlando Bloom's mental state, the synapses are misfiring.

0:54 - VR: I've been watching the time on this sequence - and they've been on the phone in this movie for the last 10 minutes. And now they're in the car and they're about to be underwhelmed. And this is the first cue in the movie that I think you can consider Sundancey. The go look at the sunrise together. elizabethtown-4

0:57 - "We peaked on the phone." It only took him 13 minutes to make that point. But he'll come back to it. elizabethtown-21

0:58 - Susan Sarandon is the one in this movie who deserves to be in Little Miss Sunshine. 1:00 - KL: I still don't know quite to make of Kirsten Dunst. 1:01 - VR: Cameron Crowe shoud just stick to 70s music, because this song sucks. Even "In Your Eyes" is a shitty song. I don't know how he has this reputation as a great mixtape artist. Because he's not. 1:03 - "We are substitute people." Shades of Fight Club. 1:04 - Still, I kinda like this movie because it's digressive and unpredictable and leisurely, that even when it's annoying me it's interesting. Stuff like how did he find a gas station with that plastic horse outside. It's not annoying like in Garden State when Zach Braff wakes up and sees a guy dressed in a full suit of armor. It's found stuff. 1:06 - This is the first time that he asserts himself in the film. It's been 66 minutes. KL: I assume he'll be doing more of that? VR: No. He actually has no arc in this movie. 1:09 -KL: This kid's video - "Learning to Listen" - It's like he's entering Richard Kelly territory here. VR: I don't know why he puts this video in, but it's really cool.


1:14 - KL: Around now I feel like the movie is starting to find it's groove here where they've established the landscape and now they're just working their way through it. VR: Yeah, I feel like if this scene was in Garden State it would be really annoying. KL: The distinction there is that he's less interested in ingratiating the audience like what Garden State is intent on doing. Here he's just into playing and hanging out with his characters. It's like he doesn't know what they're going to do next. VR: Like where when she says she's been starving herself all week. I appreciate a line like that.

KL: This movie is like a romantic comedy jam session, he's just riffing and seeing where it's going. elizabethtown-5

1:18 - I'm really digging this scene. 1:19 - It's really cool how she saw that he was reading from a script and just shrugged it off. We've finaly arrived at some kind of truth with the Dunst character. The fact that she shrugged off his fake declaration of love and that she talks about being hung up with this other loser guy tells you how much she kind of hates herself. 1:20 - VR: Well they finally did it, thank goodness. Now they're watching Roman Holiday. 1:21 - This is really nice, the first scene of her that's not from his perspective. And you can start to see how massively damaged she is. 1:22 - KL: I wonder how many laidoff finance people would appreciate this now. 1:23 -VR:  In a way this is starker than Jerry Maguire because he has even less going for him. It is kind of annoying because it is about Cameron Crowe's self-flaggelation. "You're an artist, your job is to break barriers." 1:25 - It's a little tough-minded about the fact that she's seeing a married guy and she keeps telling him repeatedly. elizabethtown_23

1:26 - So in this part of the film, we get to experience the best and worst part of the movie back to back. 1:28 - I'm going to use the bathroom while Susan Sarandon does this . This is the scene that every review condemned, and rightfully so. This is truly unforgiveable KL: But why, isn't this what the movie's about? VR: It's what the movie's about but it takes the wrong things in the movie and amplifies them.  And also the things I value about the movie are visual and tone, and the fact that all of that stops for Susan Sarandon talking for a long time. And a penis joke. 1:35 - KL: What sucks is that he's now just trying to sell this moment and he's pushing too hard for some kind of beauty, and it's not quite coming out. And he has to lay on the touchy-feely distortion guitar to inject it with pathos. And the cuts to the sister being all soulful and shit are abominable. 1:37 - VR: But now they're going to rock out to "Freebird." And this bird in flames comes swooping down. This for me is the really last awesome sequence of the movie. 1:41 - KL: Cameron Crowe is so hung up on his iconic last looks of women. elizabethtown_24

1:42 - VR: This burial is kind of lame with the malfunctioning pulleys to lower the casket, but it's not different from the similar scene with Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. 1:43 - So here's the extended road trip, and it's like she had somehow had enough time to make a mix tape with notes and a scrapbook. In the same way that Vanilla Sky is both retarded and fascinating about what it says about Cameron Crowe and his obsessions. 1:45  This may be the only instance of classical music in Cameron Crowe's filmography, and of course it's during a terrible moment. 1:46 - It's so much like Vanilla Sky because it's about the massive presence of pop culture in your life, it's like an anti-Chuck Klosterman movie.

KL: But it's different because it's about how escaping into pop culture is a salvation when your life is falling apart. It's weird because he's lampooning the notion of cultural literacy but at the same time it's a salvation, or at least a salve, when nothing else is going for you. VR: But then look at this. He goes to the place where Martin Luther King got shot. And he's actually blasting U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" in the soundtrack.

KL: He must be doing this with his tongue in his cheek. It's so warped. It's playful, kind of jocular, self-consciously ridiculous. VR: Who knows. But I wil say that the reason why people like Nathan Lee will embrace Southland Tales but never this film is because this film doesn't attempt to be provocative and it's kind of retrograde and cuddly. To accept this movie you have to admit that there's a validity to the cinematic equivalent to the cheesy music Cameron Crowe likes. 1:52 - KL: It would have been great for him to have a long uninterrupted monologue of saying whatever it is that he's saying to his father's remains without Elton John drowning him out. VR: He probably couldn't think of what to write. 1:54 - KL: small town fair, carousel, anonymous in a crowd.  I wonder if there's an homage to Some Came Running?


VR: So the original ending was that the shoe gets discovered by some kid in Kuala Lumpur who finds some alternative purpose and it makes him into a millionaire.

Jeff Wells claims that Crowe was so devastated by the reception of this movie that he didn't have the heart to raise money for his next project.

KL: I think, more than in any of his previous films, he's trying to reinvent the romantic comedy here, or at least stretch things out to see what new things may come out. I wish I could think of a work in some 70s musician's career that this film correlates to, where it goes just one step beyond where most people can handle. Like maybe Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, though that band was never popular to begin with.

elizabethtown -2

Best of the Decade Derby: Live-blogging 25th Hour with Mike D'Angelo

Best of the Decade Derby resumes, hopefully with more frequency now that I'm settled in Brooklyn - and surrounded as I now am with dozens of cinephile friends and colleagues, I hope to have many of them over to watch and discuss more of the best films of the past 10 years.

Unfortunately, one of my favorite cinephiles and critics is moving out of New York today.  Although I've only known Mike D'Angelo personally for about a year, he's meant a lot to me for many years, as he has for many online cinephiles. When I first explored the internet for helpful writings on film, his voice stood out on his website The Man Who Viewed Too Much, long before the blogosphere cluttered the landscape with voices.  Once you read him, it's hard to forget his hard-edged style, his knack for an incisive turn of phrase that can raise both a chuckle and an eyebrow, and his more-than-occasional ruthless ass-ripping of a movie, including not a few golden calves cherished by myself or others (I'll never forget how he invoked the "cry of the fishmongers" line in Barton Fink to leave John Sayles' Limbo all but discredited.)  Mike became more or less the first to leverage his online writing into a career as a professional critic, with gigs at Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York and Esquire, which made him the envy of not a few young, aspiring critics, myself included. I remember going to a screening of Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep at Film Forum after reading Mike's glowing review, and being annoyed by several young guys in the row behind me talking loudly. They were discussing Mike's review.

Perhaps it was because his voice held so much sway that I eventually felt the need to rail against it, which I did in this post on the Rotten Tomatoes forum (I'm still rather proud of my opening line: "New York City, where models swing their hips and critics sling their quips" - and I find Mike to be the fastest quipslinger in the Western Hemisphere). In this post I accused Mike of being unwilling to meet a movie halfway, which I feel has blinkered him against certain treasures in world or experimental cinema (cf. his review of Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures: " Those who get off on movies that serve primarily as sociological legends will have a field day with it. You hardcore Jia fans know what to do.") I also called him "notoriously impatient," an accusation that finds support in his well-known penchant for walking out on films with great frequency (though in fairness, he sees a lot more films than just about anyone - including titles I couldn't be bothered to watch - so for him there are bound to be more worth walking out on).  This blog, in fact, was in some ways conceived by an un-D'Angelo philosophy: that with the films in Shooting Down Pictures I'd try to go as deeply and as generously as possible into articulating what's interesting about each film, even at the sake of challenging my initial snap judgments.

A few online cinephiles stopped corresponding with me because of what I said about Mike on Rotten Tomatoes, I guess due to a feeling of loyalty to Mike along with resentment that I had vandalized their own sacred cow. Apparently Mike didn't seem to mind, since he links to this critique on his own website, where he labels me "one of my most discerning critics."  I find it somewhat ironic, perhaps even sobering, that I've started writing for Time Out New York, D'Angelo's old platform. Just yesterday I told a filmmaker friend visiting from Japan that I was now writing for Time Out, to which he responded, "Wow, you're going to be like Mike D'Angelo!  He's a great writer, even though he wrote a hateful review of my movie!"

I'm only a few reviews into my stint and I've already come to realize how much my writing for this publication invokes that old D'Angelo snappiness. I feel that my writing runs a risk, the same risk that I'd complain about with Mike from time to time: to cut a movie down for an easy punchline rather than get to its center. But ultimately I do love writing in this voice, especially when it reflects a passionate, energetic and infectious concern for these films and for film in general - in other words, Mike's writing at its best.

I made sure to make Mike the first of hopefully many invitees to the Brooklyn Best of the Decade Derby, just days before his departure. We settled on Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a fitting choice in all too many ways. Not only is it one of Mike's very favorite films of the decade, and possibly one of mine as well, but it's about a man who's spending what may be his final hours in New York City. And it's about the bonds between guys who have a longstanding regard for each other, a bit of contentiousness mixed with concern.  My screening with Mike had little contentious to it whatsoever, just a lot of great insights from one of the best critics around, which I'd now like to share.

Here's the play by play, with Mike's comments in blue:

0:00 - MD'A: This always struck me as an odd way to start a film - you hear beating sounds and the whimpering of a dog.

KBL: In hindsight it could represent how the studio treated this movie.

MD'A: Yeah the studio all but buried this picture. Even this DVD package is pretty bare bones; it doesn't have much to it. They just didn't know what to do with a movie like this.


0:01 - KBL: Here's Tony Siragusa - ex-all-star linebacker from the Baltimore Ravens, in what I believe is his only film role

MD'A - I can see why that would be the case. His acting is pretty weak.

KBL: Especially in his last scene when he's pleading for his life. Pretty unconvincing.

0:02 - MD'A: Here's an example of something Spike Lee loves to do with shooting a scene - he cuts in the middle of a shot - not a jump cut, but shooting a scene from multiple angles and cutting between those angles. And he also loves to do this instant repeat of a shot, especially when people are meeting each other and shaking hands or embracing in a significant way.

KBL: I think that's something he got from Godard, but he's definitely made it into his own signature, just in the way he deploys it in his films.

MD'A: And there's also his infamous use of tracking shots directly facing an actor while the background is moving behind him - which this film has the best example of; we'll get to that later.

0:04 - MD'A: I just can't get over this opening credit sequence. When I first saw it, I didn't realize what it was that I was looking at. But then when it pulls back to a wide shot, and I realized what I was looking at, it floored me, and i think I was in tears when i first saw it. I don't think I've ever actually seen the WTC tribute in light in person.

At the time no one was acknowledging that this thing had happened, outside documentaries. As far as I know this is the first non-documentary to acknowledge 9-11, which is especially poignant as other films set in New York were busy erasing references to the World Trade Center. KBL: It definitely raises the stakes as far as what this film is going to deliver for the audience. Now you have the emotional weight of 9/11 to live up to.

MD'A: But it's not a film about 9/11. It's an adaptation of a book written before 9/11. And it's kind of grafted onto this event that happened. In the interviews i read, Spike said he said he couldn't shoot a movie in New York and pretend this didn't happen. Which is a pretty gutsy choice, as far as how he has to incorporate the event into the fabric of the film without it seeming phony.

0:08 - MD'A: It wasn't till later that i realized that this homeless bum appears later in the movie, in flashback - he's the business man who we see buying drugs from Ed Norton in the playground, and it's apparent that he's just gotten started. He's not nearly as messed up then as he looks now.

0:09 - MD'A: This whole sequence is beautifully shot - from here to when he gets to the school. We don't quite realize what Ed Norton is doing, but it's that he's leaving for prison. So he's looking around his neighborhood one more time.

KBL: It's remarkable how beneath the surface so much of this is, as well as how much he's laying out these little nuggets for the audience to notice later on, like the junkie you pointed out earlier, or the beaten up dog at the beginning, which corresponds to Norton getting beaten up at the end. And you really have to pay attention to the details of the film to appreciate its architecture.

0:11- MD'A: Spike does things with the camera that no one else does. Like this shot, with the camera tracking forward, and then it moves in from behind.

0:12 - KBL: Phillip Seymour Hoffman before he became a showboating oscarmonger.

MD'A - This was about the time that i felt he was getting overexposed but i think he's great in this film.

KBL - He's muted and introspective, though even so it's highly mannered. It's a sign of bad tendencies that festered and swelled as his career continued.

0:16 - KBL (looking at Anna Paquin): Too bad Sasha Grey wasn't around when this film was being cast

MD'A: Not sure she'd be right for the role. This character played by Paquin comes on so strong, and Grey is so closed off in The Girlfriend Experience.

KBL: Without going into particulars, let's just say that she's more forthcoming in her other performances.

0:18 - MD'A (on the investment bank sequence with Barry Pepper): Does this world still exist?

KBL: Spike Lee's Wall Street. I'm not sure how convincing this sequence is on its own, but what I like about it is how it takes us to a completely different social circle than the ones we've seen so far, carried over by a tenuous transition, Philip Seymour Hoffmann calling Barry Pepper. There's a unique narrative conflict brought about just by the structure of this movie, that the audience is put in a position of having to reconcile these three worlds that they've been presented. For all the hating on D.W. Griffith, I think Spike Lee learned a few things from the old honky. And like Intolerance, this movie is about how the world is so much bigger than any one person, how we it's impossible for us to fully account for the mistakes or the sins of others, and what we do in the face of this knowledge.

23 min - MD'A: How far are we into this, and we still don't really know what this movie is about? And how far will we go before we really have a sense of what this movie is really about? As a viewer I find this kind of thing exciting, up to a point, the longer a film goes without me knowing what the film is about, because once i have a fix on something I risk losing interest.

0:26 - MD'A: This bath sequence - I've seen this film so many times that it's second natue but when I first saw this scene I didn't know whether this was a flashback or a continuation of Norton and Rosario Dawson sitting on the couch.

You have to pick up cues from the contrast in tone between the two scenes. The couch scene was cold in washed-out daylight, this one is warm and intimate by candlelight. You have to infer that these moments are separated by a huge stretch of time, but even then you can't assume that this is a flashback, until you see what happens next. Lee's being pretty aggressive with messing up the linearity of the narrative.

0:27 -MD'A: This is the first time I ever heard that "sheeeeeiiiit" actor apply his trademark. The guy who plays Clay Davis in The Wire.

0:28 - KBL: This is great, how it moves from Norton looking at Rosario Dawson in the flashback to his hand on the couch. It went into the flashback with that moment, with his hand on the couch, where she had just been sitting, and it seemed that he was placing his hand where she was just sitting, just to capture that moment of her presence before she leaves her life possibly forever. But after this flashback we realize that he's remembering the moment the feds busted in and found his stash in the couch, and his doubts about her as the informant. But what's great is that these two contrasting interpretations can both be right - they are the two sides of his feelings for her, and they're battling in his mind and his memories.

0:34 -KBL: Brian Cox - he had such a great run at this time - starting with LIE, then Adaptation, 25th Hour. But like most great character actors, your ship comes in for a few years, then it goes away. Haven't seen him much lately.

0:36 - MD'A: Never really noticed this before - the bulk of the film is loose and naturalistic, but it has these parts that take you out of naturalism into this super crazy stylized set pieces. This "fuck you" sequence and the fantasy sequence at the end, as well as the club sequence, which is extremely stylized. It's almost the same as how an action movie is structured, with these moments that take you into another space, where everything has been leading to and it all kind of pays off.

KBL: This diatribe against just about every social subset of New York, it's so caricatured and crude, to the point of being grating. But the thing is that these kinds of crude, superficial ways of looking at people are what's inside people's heads, whether we like to acknowledge it or not. So much about this film is about how we judge others, and how that judgment reflects back on us.

MD'A: No other person could get away with this. Partly because Spike already did it in Do the Right Thing, so he had already set a precedent. But this monologue is also taken from the source novel by David Benioff. Though I wouldn't be surprised if Benioff took inspiration for it from Do the Right Thing!

Also, this sequence wouldn't work for me if it weren't for the very last sequence, when these caricatures all come back to say goodbye to him. Which is just so incredibly moving, i get choked up just thinking about it.

KBL: It also does a remarkable job of tying together all the pieces of the plot that have been placed on the table up to this point. Like you said, it's a payoff moment, both emotionally and expositionally.

MD'A: it also the first time the movie mentions that he's going away for 7 years, you get a full sense of the stakes involved now.

KBL: Wow, so that means that this year, 2009, is the year that Norton would be getting released from prison. You have to wonder what that movie would look like. And also Barry Pepper's character, in light of all that has gone down in the finance world. Where is he at now?

0:42- MD'A: And then it goes boom right into the film that you have just been watching. It's as if it never happened.

KBL: Which is what he does at the very end as well.

0:43 - MD'A: This is such a dad thing to say - "Oh don't take the bus to jail, i'll drive you there. It'll take half as long." Like yeah, gee I can't wait to get there, Pop!

0:44- MD'A: This is a controversial scene because of where it's shot. This is where some people think he goes too far because he uses a location so close to Ground Zero, and we even see Ground Zero right outside the window of this apartment. But it makes perfect sense that this is where Barry Pepper's character would be working, since he works on Wall St.

0:46 - MD'A: What strikes me here is that these two characters played by Pepper and Hoffman, they would never be friends if they had met now.

KBL: So that touches on the significance of your past and how much of that matters to your present life. What really is keeping these guys together, especially since one of them is being put away and no one has a reason for being friends with him?

0:47 - So much of this film is about judging other people, and the way Lee deals with it can be both crude and blatant but also formally sophisticated (how the shit Pepper says about Norton in this scene plays counterpoint to his dialogue with Norton, when he makes out to be a big brother to him).

0:48 - MD'A: There's too much score in this scene. It's one of my few beefs with the film, that in this particular scene you could have had no score and it would have been just as effective.

0:50 - MD'A: I love how Lee takes us from a fade to black into this weird flashback scene in all white. This entire film is an amazingly structured series of color and tonal contrasts.

0:52 - MD'A: Funny way to get the exposition across in this interrogation scene. Let's have the cops mock the exposition to Norton, like it's some bad crime movie they've seen too many times!

0:55 - KBL: "I'm in the 99th percentile of desirable men." This scene with Barry Pepper is prescient because it shows the mentality of the financial analyst - that they can apply whatever supposedly objective measures they want to justify their evaluations - of companies, of debts, of their own sexual prospects, of themselves.

0:57 - KBL: Again, people passing crude judgments - I get that it's about the prejudices that people harbor and how it finally seeps out. But sometimes it gets to be a bit much, like in a scene like this - the most they can seem to relate to each other is in this thick social stereotypes - it's not that different from MTV's the real world.

0:59 - MD'A: Again i love this way you don't really see this guy Simon the junkie clearly.

1:03 - KBL: I kind of wonder looking at Rosario Dawson here - could she have had Angelina Jolie's career? She looks just like her in this shot. She's easily as attractive, and possibly as talented - we may never know because there just aren't that many roles written for women of color.

1:05 - KBL - Bar scene. See that look the bartender lady gave when Rosario Dawson walked in? Again, always this theme of judging and competition.

1:08 - MD'A: I love how this scene gives that bartender a little moment to get humanized further, even though we don't see her again. The way she gets to express dismay and insecurity that these guys seem hesitant to come to her birthday party. I hate it when films get called generous in their treatment of their characters, but i think it really fits this film.

1:11 - MD'A: And now we're at the point where I think the movie finally makes it evident what Philip Seymour Hoffman's character is doing in this movie, because he is at the early part of the character arc shared by these three guys. He is at the point in his life where he's about to violate some kind of moral boundary. Ed Norton is already at the end of it.

KBL: And you can say that Barry Pepper is in the middle of it, playing fast and loose in the financial world, not even fully aware of the economic and even moral consequences of his actions - and we now have real life to make us aware of that.

1:12 - KBL: It's ironic that this super hip 17 year old dj who's being touted as being the hot new thing, that he's playing stuff from the early 90s. I don't know if this is Spike Lee's idea of a joke.

1:13 - KBL: "Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends." I would have bought a bottle for Mike, but he doesn't drink.

1:14 - MD'A: Here we have Norton egging Hoffman on about his possible dalliance with an underage student. This is a reversal of when Monty was about to start dealing as a kid, and no one was dissuading him. Now Hoffman is on the brink and no one is dissuading him.

1:15 - KBL: Here's where I rant about Hoffman's acting, because all the things I find annoying about him are in this scene. His slack jawed look, his bewildered eyes, the blinking, the sheepish downcast expressions. It was cool 10 years ago, but you simply cannot do this your entire career, because it becomes a schtick and you end up as petrified in it as Al Pacino's acting.

1:18 - MD'A: the "funny you should say that" bit - it's pleasurably digressive, it's worthy for its own sake, but it's the kind of thing that studios would have no patience for.

1:24 - MD'A: This is the first time in the film that he uses his trademark dolly shot reverse point of view, and it's great in expressing Anna Paquin's floating mental state, high on ecstasy.

KBL: And it's a bookend to the shot that ends this scene of Hoffman on the floating dolly, where he's in the exact opposite mental state.

1:26 - KBL: All that Hoffman low-key neurotic hamming actually amounts to the perfect buildup for what he says here. "I give a shit!!!"

MD'A: What's interesting is that at this point we can't tell if Anna Paquin's character is saying this stuff because she really wants the good grade in class, or if she's just fucking with him for the hell of it. Either way, she's clearly taken over the dynamic.

1:28 - MD'A: This is one of my favorite shots right here - this is so beautifully choreographed. He follows Anna Paquin up the stairs, then follows this random woman back down the stairs, where we find Philip Seymour Hoffman standing. And then we follow him going up. And then once he's inside the restroom with Anna Paquin, you can bearely hear the music in this scene.

KBL: The look in her eye is amazing - she's flabbergasted.

MD'A: Yeah, that he actually fucking did it.

1:30 - MD'A: And then we're back out and the music is now full blast - and this expression on Hoffman's face with that people mover shot. When I first saw this I was excited for Spike Lee because you've been trying to make this shot work for 15 years and Spike, you finally pulled it off!

1:33 - KBL: What a hypocrite - Barry Pepper's holier than thou speech to Rosario Dawson.

MD'A: The thing is that there's a lot of anger in him at the whole situation, a lot of guilt that he bears on himself. And the dialogue starts with him blaming himself and blaming himself, and then finally he can't take it anymore, and he has to direct it all at her.

1:34: MD'A: "Who do you trying to be, R. Kelly?" Mysteriously, surprisingly undated!

1:36 -MD'A: This is the only scene that feels like it should be in a different film, this scene in the den with the Russian mafia.

1:38 - KBL: I don't like these angles at all - they belong in a horror movie, esp. with the jack o lantern lighting.

1:45 - KBL: What's sad between Norton and Dawson's character is that she wants to have this crucial talk with him, but they never quite have it. He keeps kind of ignoring her. And to me that says the relationship is doomed.

1:47 - MD'A: This climactic fight scene. I had some really heated arguments with people on the net about what this fight means. Monty asks to get beaten up, supposedly so no one will want to molest him with his pretty boy looks once he's in jail. That's what he says, but I think what the scene is really about is what's the right kind of justice for Monty. He knows what he's done is awful and that he traded in people's misery. He knows that he needs to be punished but he doesn't want to be punished by the state. He wants to be punished by his friends, the friends who should have punished him long ago, when in actuality, no one told him to stop when he should have. So he's asking to be punished by someone who he respects, which is Barry Pepper's character. And he knows that Barry Pepper has been wanting to kick his ass for some time, and he's just laying out all the shit that's between them - including Pepper's attraction to Rosario Dawson - so this is really cleaning out the stable between the two of them.

KBL: Because that may be what it takes for them to purify the bond between them, so that they can get through this long jail term and still come out with a friendship intact. It's a trauma that they have to go through together to give meaning to their relationship, which really has been dead for a long time.

MD'A: And meanwhile Zach Campbell on the net was talking about this character's fear of anal rape and how it was endemic of Spike Lee's homosexual panic. I'm sorry, I don't think that's what this is about.

KBL: I wonder, looking back, if the reason Barry Pepper treats Dawson so badly in their last scene together is so that he's deliberately sabotaging his chance of scoring with her once Norton is in jail. Maybe that's a stretch, but it fits the kind of twisted, almost subconscious logic of friendship in this film.

1:51 - MD'A: Here Lee and Terrence Blanchard do the opposite from that ground zero scene. He takes the soundtrack out instead of blaring a lot of dramatic music into it. It's what he should have done before. Here it's just amazingly effective, this wash of silence.

1:53 - KBL: Finally, Norton and Dawson get a chance to talk, but it happens too quickly and too late. It really leaves things hanging between them. And then the way he dumps the ice that she gave him - that to me tells me that he's renouncing her, he wants her to move on. He's sabotaging his chances with her as much as Barry Pepper was.

1:55 - MD'A: Here all the people from the "fuck you" montage show up, but they're all smiling and happy.

KBL: It's like the movie is asking, when you're likely to never see someone or some place again, how do you want to remember all these people?

MD'A: You start to feel sentimental to all the things you despise, even stupid shit. When I first moved to New York, I worked for 2 years in a dorky video store. and i hated it, it was a shitty job, the only thing i got was free movies. But the last day i remember getting nostalgic about it, and I visited every corner of that store. I was already missing it.

And he has no idea when he's coming back to this city. You could argue that that's why he chooses to go to jail and doesn't escape like his dad suggests, cuz it gives him the option to go back home. I wonder if this movie just didn't make an impression widely because it's so specifically about New York and what it means to live here.

1:57 - MD'A: You wonder when did this sequence switch from real to fantasy - you have no idea.

2:01 - MD'A: This sequence is "The Last Temptation of Christ" compressed into 10 minutes.


2:04 - KBL: This is perfect - an absolute Nowheresville- how do you location scout a place like this?

KBL: Brian Cox is pulling miracles out of this monologue. "We'll taste the barley. Let it linger."  How you say a line like that and make it poetic instead of cheesy - if that doesn't define a great actor I don't know what does.

2:05 - MD'A: I can't think of another film that has such an extended speculative happy ending.

KBL: Well there's Murau's The Last Laugh, which was foisted upon Murnau by the studios who demanded a happy ending, so he gave them a happy ending that's practically stuffed down the audience's throats, it's beyond belief. This is kind of like that, but it's less meta than meditative. It's less about what it means to have a happy ending in a movie than what it means to make a life-changing decision.

2:06 - MD'A: This is such a great way to reintroduce Rosario Dawson. And instead of the Spike Lee patented double shot embrace, you get three shots - the more time there's more emotion! Too bad there's some unfortunate age make-up at the end of this montage.

2:07 - MD'A: There are people who are confused by the ending because they don't know the New York geography. They don't know if they took that turn or just kept driving to the jail, because they don't get that the sign that the car just passed is for the George Washington Bridge, which is the where the dad had wanted to turn off for their planned exile.

KBL: So is this your favorite New York movie?

MD'A: Well it's definitely up there. When they asked me to select a New York movie for the New York Film Critics Circle series a few years back, I picked Dog Day Afternoon. That's my favorite, but this would be up there.

Best of the Decade Derby: Russian Ark

Historical background:

Saturday, September 28, 2002, 3:00PM - 39 th New York Film Festival, Alice Tully Hall

An obvious choice for this list, perhaps, it announces itself as a post-millennial milestone.   And in that regard it invites skepticism or ridicule.   But one has to consider it from all possible aspects: as a costume parade, a theme park, a historical and cultural meditation; as performance art, a museum tour, and (not or )an industrial commercial for digital filmmaking.  Some complain that the constant camera movement propels us too much, that there isn't sufficient space for stasis and meditation.   Personally I found a strong countercurrent in that everyone in this film has a fixed place -even as we move with the off-screen narrator through one set piece to the next, our position is fixed through the frame - the screen we watch stays still.   Are we moving, or is the world moving before us?   This is echoed in the Marquis' ambivalent regard of his surroundings, and in the final image of the sea outside in a state of endless churning, endlessly still.

I can think of very few recent films that implant its way of seeing in a viewer as distinctively as Russian Ark .   That was certainly true when I saw it at the New York Film Festival; I left the grand screening room along with 1,000 other viewers flooding into and floating through the lobby and out into Broadway, borne aloft by ourselves and by the film - we became the film as surely as the film had become part of us.   I could hear Sokurov's detached, bewildered whisper voicing my perception of the surroundings - look at all these people, as destined to die and as alive in this moment as the digitally captured antique humans we just witnessed.   Look, there's Wes Anderson, encircled by admirers asking him what he thought of the film.   What is he saying that everyone is hanging on every word?   He says that a lot of the historical Russian stuff went way over his head, but he couldn't get over that one shot of the girls with flowers in their flowing tresses twirling and scampering down the hallway.

Certainly, a beauty that transcends cultural specificity is at least part of what Sokurov is after.   But is it possible to understand Russian Ark without appreciating the historical context - is gawking at the girls enough?    As one of the charter members of the Platform Fan Club, I'm all for dogged specificity and emphasis on the geopolitical -- and it needn't be in favor of the films either.   Dan Edwards, doing a great riff on David Walsh, writes of Russian Ark , "While the sheer material grandeur of Russia's upper classes prior to 1917 cannot be denied, it seems deeply abhorrent to nostalgically celebrate and mourn the passing of that grandiose tradition without any acknowledgment of the absolutely grinding poverty upon which this opulence was built." What response can be offered to such a formidable critique?     Is it possible to embrace this film without lamenting its seeming disregard for the masses?

Perhaps Russian Ark can be seen as a perverse inversion of early Soviet filmmaking.   Instead of eye-blistering montages, we get one super-extended shot, where the montage is in a disjunctive mise-en-scene, perpetually unfolding. Instead of peasants elevated to regal status, we get rulers reduced to a petty humanity - Catherine the Great searching for a piss pot, oodles of nobles standing around or walking, living lives with as high a quotient of banal lack of incident as the rest of us.

I don't necessarily endorse this tactic so much as I recognize how it's symptomatic of a larger trend in international culture, one also touched on in Guy Maddin's brilliant The Saddest Music in the World .   As Benjamin Halligan writes, the film manages to be both an introspective reflection and an outward promotional piece about Russia's potential to contribute and reconnect with both Continental and global culture.   This paradoxical depiction - that of a mighty national legacy with a down-home underbelly, embodied in grandiose figures who are also rendered as beneficent, mortal, and a tad pathetic, packaged for entry in the global marketplace -   can also be seen In Zhang Yimou's Hero and the domestic persona of George W. Bush (the least successful export item of the three).   The examples are all symptoms of neo-imperialist culture, a global competition over dreams of universal power and representations of entire peoples - a global battle that seems to play out somewhere way beyond where you and I exist.

While I don't necessarily disagree with what the former me wrote above, I'm having a hard time resolving it with what I felt watching it recently (third or fourth screening but first since 2005). There's no question that it's a unique work, but somehow the novelty of the film's formalist charms gave way to a new impression, something reinforced by a comment made by German filmmaker Christoph Hochhausler when I spoke with him about the film in Berlin. To him, the film amounts to one big bet that Sokurov, once his camera starts moving, must win by all means - as long as he gets those 90 minutes in, it doesn't necessarily matter what's in those 90 minutes. This was definitely a suspicion that came to mind when I watched it this time around. Of course, there are some stupendous moments of jaw-dropping beauty in the film, but there are also several passages when it feels like Sokurov is just letting the camera roll, focusing on nothing really in particular, either because the next set piece isn't quite ready or he didn't have a full set of ideas to play with visually in the current scene. Or there just aren't a whole lot of ideas put in play.  I mean, all the ideas I touch on in my earlier write-up are more of a cumulative impression of this film, but on a scene-by-scene basis the film feels like more of a sketch-level rendering of those ideas; his treatment of centuries' worth of Russian history feels willfully oblique.  This fatuousness is especially evident in the climactic ballroom scene, where the camera swings from one end of the room to the other, then back, with a little hint of romantic intrigue caught on camera, a lot of costume spectacle and not much else.

I might be overstating the case against the film in the wake of this disappointing recent viewing - there is still something stunning about the beauty of this film and its unique manner of exploring ideas of nation and history (though another thing that's become evident is how impatient I'm becoming with Sokurov's totemic approach towards those ideas). One thing I'll always carry with me is the film's Russian Ross McElwee/Michael Myers first-person lensmanship as it probes through space and time. It recalls submerged childhood fantasies of moving invisibly through the world, which may be why the film blew me away when I first saw it beyond all other considerations.

Best of the Decade Derby: David Lynch is okay, but he's no Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Some historical context:

Tuesday, February 11, 2003, 3:30 PM - Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, NY

3:30 PM can't be right, but that's what's listed on the schedule I have, so I must have taken a late lunch from my day job to watch this.   I wonder, did I even come back to the office?   Did I leave my computer on to feign my presence in the office?   What I remember is watching two Thai women and the Burmese man they are illegally harboring marking time through several mundane errands, appointments and obligations.   Yes, I escaped from white collar banality to watch third world banality.   45 minutes of this pass before me.   And finally, with all obligations fulfilled and provisions set, they finally get in their car and embark on a getaway to the Thai equivalent of the Catskills, at which point the opening credits roll to a blast of pop music, and I cried out "Yes!"   How many times do you get that moment where everything comes together, not just the meaning of the movie but its relevance to your life?   For me, it was this irreconcilable duality between my daily demands and the idyllic existence I was trying to formulate -- and have been for the last 5 years -- as a wage slave moonlighting as a career cinephile.   To live as an average young person is to live in a world that has made us numbly compliant to our own exploitation at the service of global capitalism, whether we be illegal migrant day laborers or overqualified computer drones.

What is Apichatpong Weerasethakul's prescription for our ailment?   A day in the country, an eternal balm.   Sounds like the kind of mystical opiate that Karl Marx railed against, and yet Weerasethakul depicts it in such a natural, inventive way, that our alibis for 21st century creative fatigue melt away.   He seems to say that all it takes is to observe nature and draw strength from its infinite mystery -- though he acknowledges that such transcendence is fleeting, and that the disappointments of the world are waiting at a moment's distance, an everyday horror into which we must dive headlong.

2006 New York Film Festival:

What David Lynch promises in Inland Empire, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century delivers. Again, it is a film that defies easy summarisation; basically it is another A.W. diptych, the two halves comparing life and love in a rural and urban hospital. The film manages to be both inscrutable and hypnotic, enigmatic yet ravishingly beautiful in its handling of visuals, rhythms and human interactions. It manages to occupy a number of contradictions at once: terrifying in its environmental creepiness yet funny in the shaggy, laid back behaviour of his characters, schematic yet spontaneous, natural and realistic yet self-conscious as an act of filmmaking, concerned about the conflicts between modernisation and the environment and the physical and spiritual well-being of the people around him, and yet the film is never pushy or preachy, just always watching and listening. His camera almost always seems to place itself in a non-assuming position, whether in close up or long shot – quite a few times his characters’ backs are turned away or they’re talking off-screen. He’s making the rules up as he goes, just going with what feels right, and having a blast doing it. I’ve rarely encountered a film with a filmmaker so innately in tune with his intuition.

Interestingly, both films share a similar ending, a kind of musical number, but I think the comparative effects are totally different. Lynch is closed, looking inward into his own reservoir of ideas, whereas Jo takes inspiration from the activity bustling in the world around him.

I don't think I set out, Armond White-like, to make Apichatpong Weerasethakul the corrective to David Lynch; it's just happened that way through seeing their most recent films in contradistinction at the New York Film Festival, and this week seeing Blissfully Yours following Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire (I still need to track down a copy of Syndromes and a Century; I'm not as eager to rewatch Tropical Malady or Mysterious Object at Noon, which are fine films but in my mind aren't "best of 2000s" caliber). As documented in this three party play-by-play viewing of Inland Empire, there are certainly a number of smart things to say about what Lynch may be up to in that film. The thing is, I found a lot of those smart things going on in rewatching Blissfully Yours, and presented in a way that feels more genuine, more organic, more beautiful, more true. An indulgence in non-narrative or anti-narrative. The attempts of people to escape from the dehumanizing industries of consumerist capitalism, specifically the entertainment industry (in Lynch it's the cruel politics of Hollywood film production; here it's factory work, with a girl painting the eyes on an endless array of Bugs Bunny toys).

There's also a good deal of game-playing in both films, not just by the directors but by the characters. Laura Dern gets to play several characters and part of the pleasure of her performance is in watching her feel her way through each one, an experience that must have been adventurous and torturous for her in alternating measures. Similarly, one thing that struck me rewatching Blissfully Yours is how much putting on and pretending there is among the main characters: in the first scene, they lie to the doctor in order for her to treat an illegal immigrant; later, we see them lying to get off work to pave the way for their jungle romp; by the end, we get an amazing sense of how this outing amounted to these three characters convening to act out their individual fantasies, before giving way to a bittersweet, dissolute flow of life's next chapter. I'll have to carry this insight the next time I go on a picnic, group excursion or even a party; thanks to this movie I'll see my social gatherings as collective productions of individual intentions commingling together. This isn't a cynical observation, just one that makes for a new sense of awareness to how one lives their life. (And not to be an asshole, but I'm not sure what Lynch has to offer in that department).

Both directors also use ambient sound to memorable effect, except that here again I state a strong preference: whereas Lynch uses a wall of white noise and synth chords to generate three hours of menace, Weerasethakul uses the teeming chorus of cicadas and frogs to convey an immersion in nature that's both meditative and hedonistic, tranquil and sensual.  Maybe it can be chalked up to what kind of film I prefer, but there it is.

When I think about both artists, I also think about that maxim someone once said about art being "whatever you can get away with." What amazes me about Blissfully Yours is just how little happens in terms of plot and incident.  It takes a good while to see how the initial, somewhat dissheveled sequence of scenes adds up to the brilliant catharsis that happens at the midway point - a lot of it is in adjusting to the. But every moment gets milked for all its worth, and every moment builds together into a strange paradox: a film that is both linear and alinear, that threatens to dissolve in the vagaries of a moment, then solidifies in the lucidness of another; that expands and contracts, that breathes.  I suppose the Lynch apologists could say the same for their film in their own way.  To each his own.

Best of the Decade Derby: Live-blogging Inland Empire

Starring me, Ryland Walker Knight, Daniel Kasman and a six pack of Beck's. Some context: Until today I've only seen Inland Empire once, back at the 2006 New York Film Festival - and my review was decidedly mixed. Not a few of my friends consider it one of the landmark films of the decade, and so a few of us got together to see if seeing it with them could persuade me. The result: I do have a greater appreciation for the film, because it does have some genuinely stunning moments and is trying to do things that no other American film to my knowledge is attempting. It may also be considered the first major work of cinema in the era of YouTube. I wonder if this film would be just as affecting if each scene were a stand alone clip on a website that allowed you to play them in any order, endlessly.

I like it more now than I do Mulholland Dr., which I also recently rewatched (my third time, first since its theatrical run) and found is like a sexier, more attractive warm-up act to Inland Empire, strung with the same liabilities of broad caricature and loose assocation, almost like skit comedy.

Here's the play by play, with Ryland's and Danny's comments color-coded:

0:01 - Ambient groan and white noise. Opening images - a projection of light (searchlight, film projector?) and the needle of a phonograph. Recordings of light and sound. As with Mulholland Dr. I feel Lynch can get away with anything so long as he has the ominous aural wallpaper going in the back. He could have footage of a bunny farm and make it come off as creepy. Speaking of which...

0:05 - Rabbits - a parody of domestic banality? The safe room of conventionality turned into a nightmare rabbit cage?

This does look better on DVD than it did in a theater. It probably looks even better on an iPhone.

0:08 - Lynch's second foray into filming in a foreign language, expanding on what he did in Mulholland.

0:11 - To what extent is this film a comedy, and what is he trying to do with the comic - the rabbit sitcom (putting menace into a comic setup), the awkward uncomfortable rhythms of the dialogue between the Polish lady and Laura Dern (putting comedy into a menacing setup).

Ryland: "I find this movie really funny. His company's name is Absurda, which invokes both comedy and horror."

0:13 - Discussion about the film - the film that we are about to watch? - between Polish lady and Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Heavy foreshadowing.

0:14 - Apocryphal story - "an old tale" about a little boy who went out to play followed by Evil. Leering, garish close-up, further uglified by DV imaging. David Lynch without the makeup mask of celluloid.

0:17 - "Actions do have consequences, and yet we do have the magic." "If it was tomorrow you would be sitting over there." The disorientation of language.

0:22 - Marilyn Levens' talk show - "Where Stars Make Dreams and Dreams Make Stars" - jackal industry feeding on manufactured intrigue of its own making. Hollywood = eating your own shit.

0:25 - Script reading - rehearsal.  A fiction of a documentary reading, practicing the performance of emotions. "Are you crying?" "Yeah?" But she's not. Continuing the interest in rehearsal and performance from Mulholland Dr.

0:32 - Disclosure that the feature film in production, High on Blue Tomorrow, is a remake of an unfinished Polish film, 4-7. Layers of fiction continue to accumulate.

After 30 minutes, what do we have?

Ryland: "I don't think it's an informational kind of film. I don't think it's part of his vocabulary. That might be the trouble behind understanding the "genre" of this film. Simply avant-garde play of light, affectations and moods. I think the first time I saw this, by this point I was thinking that it was explicitly about interpretation. And it's setting up all these signs for you to interpret in any number of ways. But it is going to provide a network of significance, and there are several things that will keep popping up for you to pay attention to how and when. There's an intuitive kind of architecture to the film. A lot of it is just the face - dreams, and faces. It's all about cinema as a dream, dreams as cinema. It's not even a syllogism, it's all a bunch of links. It's really easy to write it off as an art school wank job: dumb rabbit suits and stuff, making fun of sitcoms but not really. And projections - that's the first image, the projector coming on. And how does an image project itself and how do you project onto it.  "You look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you."  Merleau-Ponty's variation: "The image palpates you as much as you palpate the image" - there's an actual physical ecounter between you and what you see, your eyes literally touch what you see. It's manifest in all the close-ups of the face, they're pure expressions and confrontations that you are forced to read.

Kevin: "I admit I find those close-ups bothersome, garish, tacky. But that could be the point; Lynch isn't relying on conventional forms of aesthetic beauty to earn the appreciation of the viewer; quite the opposite. He's confronting expectations of forms in order to challenge them.

Ryland: "Definitely. Keith Uhlich likes to bring up that one of the first thing Lynch shot with this camera was something called "A Room to Dream" - messiness and smudginess gives you a lot of space to project onto it, what you want to see as much as what you do see. And he wants to activate that kind of encounter. It's a different tactic than something like the pure stimulus of something like Paul Greengrass, or the duration of Tarkovsky."


0:36 - watching the scene with two new characters, police interrogator and woman confessing to intentions of murder with a screwdriver lodged in her abdomen. Works as a stand alone short - makes me wonder how this film would work as a website hypertext where scenes could be clicked on individually and you could watch them in any sequence. That may very well be what this film is truly working towards; one thinks if Lynch wanted to go all out he could leave behind any trace of linear narrative.

Freddy: "There's a vast network; an ocean of possibilities. I like dogs. I used to raise rabbits." An incredibly disjunctive monologue, bits from three conversational threads spliced into one.

0:42 - music is less pronounced than in previous films. No Angelo Badalamenti this time, instead very subtle and gradual chord progressions with little or no melody. There's no music credit other than a music consultant. Ryland thinks Lynch may have composed some of it himself.

0:44 - Ryland laughing at the comic bit between director Jeremy Irons and "Bucky Jay" the lighting tech (voice played by Lynch).

0:47 - We're entering the shooting of scenes. Don't find the scene being shot in the film within the film terribly interesting (some parlor conversation between would be adulterers) - but there's some intrigue between the actors afterwards that's interesting because there's been plenty of advance warning that Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) is a cad, and true to form he plays the role - Nikki Grace replies "I'm sure you know a cute little Italian restaurant tucked away" - but she can't help but go along, seemingly unable or unwilling to change the script - in a film that is trying to fuck that up thoroughly.

0:55 - Brilliant move - adultery between the film's characters and the actors have been crossed up. Subsequent love-making scene is unclear which layer of fiction is being represented until Dern brings up a flashback, but they're talking in Southern accents as if they were their characters.

1:00 - Sign on door "Axxon - N" - recalling voiceover in the beginning which described "Axxon - N" as the longest running radio show in Polish history.

1:02 - we are now through the looking glass - Nikki goes through the Axxon N door and walks into the rehearsal scene from half an hour earlier.  She gets chased by Devon Berk into the orange interior of a house which may be a set -she calls out after Billy (the character Devon plays in the movie).

1:05 - walking through a house (of fiction?) - towards a bedroom with a man turning off a light. Rhythmic palpitating beats in the soundtrack.

1:09 - now we're in a light and shadow play, flashlights in the dark, Laura Dern surrounded by whores (or the women that Justin Theroux's character has already slept with?).  This may be the first truly amazing moment of the film.

1:12 - looping back to the beginning of the movie (black and white, girl speaking in Polish) layers of film's established realities collapsing upon each other.

1:15 - Next day? Breakfast, an unwinding clock and a hole burned through fabric and through another layer of story... More Polish. Old scratchy recording of audio matched to color footage - of what? Performance, historical incident? Theater?

1:20 - Reprise of the rabbits - and now dark spaces, setting the table for Laura Dern's centerpiece monologue. "A lot of guys change. They don't change but they reveal. They reveal what they really are. It's an old story."

1:27 - A harem of fears - women talking both cheaply and comfortably about their bodies, their daily business of sex - confronting Laura Dern with everything she's afraid that's cheap about who she is and what she desires (a-list actress attracted to playboy lover = self-debasement) "The Locomotion" - running train, lining up for sex

1:31 - domestic scene with unidentified man (husband from before but looking more low class) expressing dismay at Dern's pregnancy

1:32 - Rabbits again - a marker of conventionality? domestic setting, sitcom culture - from which Laura Dern's character is oriented on the outside - trying to call in ("Billy"?)

1:35 - alternating again with Laura Dern's unnamed trailer trash girl, continuing her epic monologue - heroic, strong, angry, trashy but dignified. The film's center of gravity in terms of humanism and true narrative (realer than the meta-movie layering). But again, it's a performance and as much of a fiction as everything else. And there's a look in Dern's eye like she's taking the piss (not unlike those "Unforgivable" videos on YouTube: storytelling that's out to push buttons)

1:39 - Ryland: "This Polish girl's line is a direct quote from an Erich von Stroheim movie (Queen Kelly?) that's being projected in Sunset Blvd, with those same lines showing up. It's a quote from a movie within a movie from another movie within a movie."

1:50 - We're back in the film within a film - though dramatically not feeling much at stake here. Susan Blue is at Billy's house, exposes the affair in front of Billy's wife. All the crazy effects (vertigo rack focus, a guy in a car talking Evil Dead gibberish) feel kind of laid on thickly.

1:56 - cool shot of Dern in the spotlight culminating in what Ryland calls "one of the most terrifying facial closeups in cinema history" - for me, something is flailing, either the film (overreaching for effects) or me in my ability to lock into what's going on.

2:00:15 - very cool.

2:02 - I think this whole Polish business is just not really working for me - not finding the scenario compelling in its own right, let alone as something that informs what's going on at the other layers of story. There's a neat graphic match dissolve from the Polish thugs to the rabbits - point being?

2:04 - I'm wondering if part of my problem is that I'm not as invested in certain genres being referred to by this film (crime, mystery, horror) in such a way that I'm impressed by how it's supposedly tearing them apart.

2:06 - Apparently Lynch has been watching Peter Tscherkassky.

2:09 - Gotta give Laura Dern credit for uglifying herself to the max on this one.

2:11 - Lynch's sociological comparison of street prostitutes in early 20th century Poland and early 21st century Los Angeles: more garish close-ups and leering looks between laughing veteran whores at the hapless neophyte.

2:15 - Now the trailer trash husband is speaking Polish - tease.

2:17 - Gorgeous shot of Dern, strands of blonde hair lit aflame in the oversaturated light.

2:23 - "Color palettes in his earlier films are like Edward Hopper paintings. But this is so ragged, it's robbed of beauty."

2:27 - Kasman is having too much fun listening to this Japanese chick talk about her friend in Pomona. "I can totally write an article about how this scene is new territory for Lynch, like a new humanism." His favorite scene in the movie, next to the end credits.

2:30 - Dern is giving a career performance in this movie, but I feel like in this death scene Dern is being upstaged by the supporting cast here. Weird blend of camp artifice and documentary authenticity. "No more blue tomorrows. You on high now, love."

Daniel: "I feel like one of the weakest aspects of this film is the film within a film.  Also disappointed that Jeremy Irons doesn't get more to do."

Ryland: "I love how space dictates time in this film."

2:36 - Ryland channeling Slavoj Zizek: "The image sees you!"

2:38 - Infinite convergence.

Daniel: "This film is taking discrete, unconnected things and finding intuitive connections between them."

Daniel: "I remember a quote by Naruse late in his career when he said that he wanted to make a movie with no sets or other cast, just Hideko Takamine against a blank screen. And I think that's what Lynch is after here."

Ryland: "It isn't even about feeling. It's about inhabiting a space."

2:41 - I'm feeling this movie a lot more now since the "death scene" - these silent sequences with Laura Dern walking through a movie approach pure abstraction. But I could do without the horror movie music - it burdens the sequence with too much genre baggage.

2:44 - Daniel: "Lynch and bad Photoshop were made for each other."

2:48 - Layers of spectatorship - the two protagonists (Dern and Polish chick) - a big confrontation between two characters who have parallel stories but know nothing about each other. And lesbian kissing. Makes sense in a somewhat intuitive level though emotionally effecting in only an abstract programmatic way.

Daniel: "I think digital is what Lynch has been working towards his whole career. Because all this speckled pixilation. It can't accurately represent everything that's in front of the camera, and that's all that's he's about. So that the experience of watching the film is as unstable as the story itself."

Daniel: "Argento and Lynch borrow something from Hitchcock: ambiguous point of view - you're never sure of what the perspective of the film is being focalized through."

Best of the Decade Derby: The Best Romantic Comedy of the Decade...

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? / Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001, Pedro Costa) It's true. It's hard for me to think of a film from the 2000s that's as worthy of carrying the mantle of The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby, much less one that's as intimate and perceptive a depiction of married life, as this deceptively simple and often surprisingly funny documentary which chronicles the edit sessions of the world's most renowned directorial couple. I'd like to claim to be the first person to make this clever connection, but Ryland Walker Knight has already pointed it out in his thorough write-up of the film:

This is a film about film, of course, but it understands film as a conversation—about searching, about understanding—as an opportunity for philosophy, we might say—and how all these elements build a working picture of marriage, too. It’s Costa’s version of the romantic comedy. And it works.

Ryland would probably know better than I would, since he's all up on Stanley Cavell. It's not that the film is structured as a Cavellian comedy of remarriage. Even better, it may be the first film structured around the rhythms of film editing sessions, both on micro and macro levels: the contentious back-and forth debates from shot to shot, leading to breaks tuned either to relief at the completion of the scene or frustration at a momentary impasse, then reconvening to the editing deck for more cuts and conversations among illuminated images in the swallowing darkness. Love and film as endless conversations (which brings to mind Before Sunset, another favorite I plan to revisit).

At the risk of inviting embarrassment, I dare say that following the rhythms of this film invites comparison between editing and multiple rounds of love-making: two people in the dark, working out their technique, giving and taking, breaking off and starting again.  This observation is less embarrassing than some I made upon my initial viewing of the film. I can't believe I didn't give this film its full due back then; it probably had something to do with my general ambivalence towards the films of Straub-Huillet, only one of which, The Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, I truly love. I couldn't begin to comprehend their most famous work, Not Reconciled, were it not for the video I made with Richard Brody, aka the badass of neo-realist theory. He also has a lucid brief review on Costa's film.

When I first watched this film, I had problems with Straub's long-winded, far-ranging monologues on film theory, especially as the mostly silent Huillet was slaving away at the Steenbeck. This certainly does not follow the 30s screwball model for dialogue that equipoises male and female voices and verbal wit. But, again, old models may need to be set aside to appreciate what's special about this dynamic. Huillet's power lies in her general silence, which makes the moments that she does speak amount to explosions of forceful necessity. (Particularly memorable is the second round of editing, when Huillet lashes out at Straub: "After all this time we've been editing films together, how come you still don't have the discipline? An acrobat relying on you to jump would fall on his face at every attempt!" (I also love how Huillet calls her husband out by his last name, as if they were together on a sports team or military unit.)

Straub's talk-talk-talking is one half of the equation, the other being Huillet's rigorous embodiment of practice. It's no surprise that Straub makes the assertion in the clip embedded above, that "First there is the idea, then there is form," since he is stuffed with ideas. But it's Huillet who takes these ideas (as well as her own) and applies them to every cut with her own hands. And as tempting as it is to separate the two (and by this I mean both the two concepts and the two practicioners), they are inextricably linked. Regardless of which comes first, ideas and forms need each other. And in over 40 years of working together Straub and Huillet developed such a unique approach to fusing ideas with forms that I have to wonder how much of it is exclusively understood between just the two of them. The film subtly brings up this feeling of isolation wrought by a fierce commitment to one's artistic ideals: we see them present their films to an audience of roughly a dozen people scattered in a sea of empty chairs. They are seen in two shots, the only two shots that show people other than Straub and Huillet.  Their art is a solitary world, and, in Costa's film, one that dwells mostly in darkness, but forcefully asserting itself into the void with Straub's philosophical pronouncements and Huillet's decisive cutting. The rigor and conviction they demonstrate is what I find extremely humbling as I consider my own practicies and principals as an editor, filmmaker, even a critic.

To hear Straub talk about it, with fierce eloquence, to the handful of people in front of him at a screening, is genuinely moving:

I've survived in a world in which the life of the artist in the open air was somewhat difficult, especially when you wanted to do what Cocteau described as: "Nourish that for which you are criticized, it's your real self." We see ourselves as privileged all the same. Because in a world in which 90% of the people have a job they're not interested in, we've been able to do a job we're interested in, and to do it the way we wanted to, and not the way others wanted us to do it, thus changing it.

Huillet, in possibly her longest monologue in the film, makes the same point with even more anecdotal eloquence, in accounting for why they made the film whose editing sessions Costa is documenting:

Sicilia!, it was love at first sight and we wanted to do it. Because in '72 when we were looking for locations for Moses and Aron, which we shot in '74, we travelled 30,000 km at a snail's pace. And during the search, one day, we were on a bridge and we said to each other: "What a strange smell, not unpleasant but very strong. What is it?" And so we had a look around and saw hundreds of kilos of oranges lying in the riverbed below. That stuck in our minds, and when we read the beginning of Conversazione in Sicilia, it came back to us as an extremely strong memory... It was also worth it for the oranges!

Then there's the story of how they met, which makes for the single warmest moment in the film, a dialogue truly worthy of a romantic comedy:

JMS: When we met in 1954, I was attending the Lycee Voltaire, but only for eight days. DH: Three weeks. JMS: Was I? Well, three weeks. Then I left... DH: You didn't. You were told it would be better to leave... JMS: I was kicked out. I was even told why. I knew too much about Hitchcock and that disturbed the class. I was watching her from a distance. We weren't sitting that close to each other. I didn't know her. I was just watching her. And every time she uttered something, the others would ask me - why me? - what she'd said. I had to translate. It was taken for granted that I understood. DH: And did you understand? JMS: Ah! That's a mystery! One will never know. They must have noticed that I had fallen madly in love at first sight, and so they thought: he must understand what she says.

Another thing that struck me watching the film this time around, that made it all the more personally poignant, is how much Straub and Huillet remind me of my grandparents, at least how they used to be: my grandfather's love for talking and telling stories, while my grandmother would interject some clarifications or annotations, call and response style, while busily doing housework, peeling vegetables or cooking dinner at the stove, her own version of Huillet's Steenbeck. I last visited them in January, when I took this photo.

That's my younger uncle in the middle, and on the right my grandfather, who turns 90 this July. He spends his entire day in that chair by the front door as he has for the last 15 years - if you dimmed the lights his stoic pose would fit perfectly in a Pedro Costa movie. My grandmother on the left, setting dishes at the table, one of the few things she can do these days.  I was shocked to find my grandmother already in a mild stage of Alzheimer's, a development that no-one in my family had informed me of. Unable to remember how to cook, or do any of the household activities, she paces around the room in the same workaholic housewife state as she has for decades, only now she forgets what she was pacing for. But even though my grandmother no longer recognizes me or remembers my name, she can still interject her own details to my grandfather's stories; those behaviors are hard-wired after so many decades of telling the same stories.

My grandfather now does the cooking and cleaning for my grandmother; I wonder if Straub now does his own editing since Huillet passed away from cancer three years ago. After first watching Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? I was amazed to think that Straub is continuing to make films on his own - looking at this film you would wonder if it were possible. Maybe Straub was right after all: it starts with having the idea, and with that the form more or less takes care of itself.

It's not a stretch to call Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? the most illuminating film on editing I've ever seen. I admit I haven't seen many other such films; I'm sure Murch would be especially valuable. But I doubt that there are other films that really give you a sense of what it's like to be editing a film, putting you through the full duration of the editing process, how it's a mix of grueling tedium peppered with brilliant revelations, and when it's really good, you get to understand your own thought process, deeply and intimately, especially in relation to your editing partner. It is very much like a love relationship, full of conversations, effusive proclamations, all out arguments and conciliatory compromises. And in the end, there may be as much or as little to show for it other than that you've been through something. In this regard, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? is one of the great love movies of our time.

Best of the Decade Derby: What's the Best Documentary of the Decade? (Two Case Studies)

I rewatched Platform last weekend as the first of two Jia Zhangke films I consider truly worthy of "best of the decade" status - the other is his much overlooked and underrated documentary Useless. Over his prolific output this decade (six features), Jia has made some great cinema - at least one other film, Still Life, can be considered a masterpiece, and 24 City keeps deepening in its layers of meaning - aesthetic, cultural and historical - the more I think about it. But Platform and Useless are really the stand-outs in my book. I entered my re-viewings wondering if Useless was possibly better than Platform, but that possibility was quickly dispeled for me moments into my reviewing of Platform. Apart from being a monumental achievement, the film simply has too much personal significance for me to deny its inevitable place on my top ten list.

But that doesn't take anything away from Useless, which, after re-watching it this past week, I consider hands down one of the great documentaries of the decade.  I re-read my review from 2007 (never mind that 3 1/2 star rating, it should be at least four), which clearly reflected how much I was still processing this work in my mind. Seeing it again, the three parts work more fluidly as a whole, as if in dialogue with each other, both thematically and visually. Visual matches like the dirt on Ma Ke's haute couture (a desire to return to a natural, organic relationship between people and products) and the coal dust that blackens miners' bodies.  Or the mind-numbing shifts in the clothing factory, where workers pass away hours under repetitive movements without speaking a word to anyone vs. Paris fashion models getting undressed and dressed, idly waiting for their show to start, talking about the extreme physical demands of staying still for hours under the spotlight vs. underemployed small-town tailors idly chatting or passing time on a cellphone while waiting for a customer to show up. What links them together is Yu Lik Wai's incredibly attentive camerwork, which moves fluidly through spaces in masterful tracking shots or sits in a corner taking in the geometric properties of a given workspace and how it influences the dynamic of social interactions within that space.

This is observational documentary filmmaking of the highest order, yet graced with dramatic touches that speak to the director's inspired manipulations and fictional stagings in order to intensify the connections and bring this film into something more than straight verite (something he does to even more beguiling effect in 24 City). In light of Ma Ke's fashion show with its bizarre sense of art-as-showmanship in the film's middle stretch, Jia's deliberate fictional elements seem to link themselves with Ma Ke's attempt to dramatize sociological issues the presentation of her work.

Watching Useless again shifted the attention of the Best of the Decade project into the realm of documentary. I went through my screening logs of the past several years and jotted a list of significant documentaries to see if I could come up with a working list to delve further. One name gave me pause for reflection: Adam Curtis. If only because of David Bordwell's excellent essay reconsidering the definition of "documentary film" published earlier this year on his blog. When I first watched Curtis' The Power of Nightmares back in 2004, I found it to be one of the most provocative and stimulating documentaries investigating the reasons for the Iraq War and the war against Islamic terrorism; certainly more focused, reasoned and persuasive than the buckshot invective of Fahrenheit 9-11. The film does such a masterfully sophisticated job over its three hour running time of analyzing and intertwining the history and motives of neo-conservatism and radical fundamentalist Islam. By doing so it exposes the aspirations of both ideologies to control their respective spheres of influence by perpetuating a state of social paranoia that effectively terrorizes its citizenry.

Watch The Power of Nightmares on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

But towards the end I felt something kind of lacking as the film makes its closing arguments. It doesn't entertain questions about what makes these ideologies so seductive and influential to John (or Muhummad) Q. Public, and more generally, what sort of ideology could take their place to provide for a safer, more peaceful world. Maybe such an ideology is implied in the film itself and Curtis' erudite and discerning, perpetually skeptical and subtly snarky narration. The most it seems to offer is that we must always be vigilant and exercise our better judgment whenever ideologies try to captivate us with their utopian visions concealing nightmarish outcomes.

The sensation of watching Adam Curtis' compulsively watchable films (I went through all ten hours of The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap within a 24 hour period - once you get sucked in, it's hard to look away) has been consistent for me through my recent viewings of each of his last three features: initial enthrallment and a sense of revelation, eventually giving way to a feeling of emptiness and even despair at the perpetual folly of human beings in trying to better their world. This was especially true in watching his most recent work, 2007's The Trap, a revelatory examination of the impact of Game Theory on modern economic and social policy.  For the first hour or so, it stays focused on defining Game Theory, and how economists and social policy architects alike derived grand plans for improving society based on the belief that people's inherent selfishness could become a driving force for increased innovation, freedom and prosperity for all.  In the second hour or so, its ambitions grow larger, opening into questions about the what defines individual freedom, how the indulgence of personal desire becomes a trap in itself, and the paradox of how institutions that tried to promote ideas of freedom ended up trapping people in systems that created even bigger disparities in wealth and social mobility than has been seen since World War II.  This film was made a full year before the economic meltdown that has put us where we are now, and today it looks downright prophetic.

Watch The Trap on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

But by the time the film enters hour three, its steady project of dismantling the authority of a misguided ideology, as with The Power of Nightmares, leaves us with a vacuum. After giving a provocative account of post-invasion Iraq as the ultimate folly of establishing free market society, positing Liberation Theory with its values of revolutionary sacrifice as a sort of antithesis to the individualist underpinnings of Game Theory, and putting in a final warning against overzealous attempts to impose and promote freedom around the world, he leaves us with a hopelessly vague exhortation to embrace "positive, progressive freedom" without delving significantly into what such a kind of freedom is.

I think my key limitation with Curtis is summed up by a quote from an interview near the very end of The Power of Nightmares: "A society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by a society that believes in anything." Swap the first "society" with "filmmaker" and you get an idea of what Curtis' films seem ultimately to be about, and why I feel somewhat empty at the end of watching these films despite having my eyes opened and my brain troubled by so many fascinating provocations about the misguided agendas that have shaped our world. Curtis' films argue viciously against both ideologues who stand too much for narrow ideals and demagogues who stand for nothing, but the middle ground (which Curtis presumably occupies) remains frustratingly undefined. Maybe the point is to leave the audience with the necessary challenge of defining that middle ground for itself, rather than have the film presume to provide a convenient answer.

If that's the case, I consider The Century of the Self, the most satisfying of the three Curtis efforts of this decade. It is revelatory, exhaustive and cohesive in its four-hour argument for how psychological practices were co-opted by big businesses and governments as a way for them to target and exploit people's desires. But more than just fulfill its stated thesis, the film is more successful than Curtis' other films at engaging with the more philosophical questions that emerge from his social critique, in this case, nothing less than what the meaning of having a fulfilling life is about, and what sort of relationship we are to have with our impulses and desires. It doesn't engage that question directly, but its persistent critique of the many attempts of 20th century schools of psychology and self-help, from Freud to Wilhelm Reich to Werner Erhard, attest to the frustrations and follies that arise in human beings' repeated attempts to liberate or govern themselves, asserting value systems that invariably expose their own limitations. In other words, it's like watching the BBC documentary version of a Luis Bunuel film.  Indeed, watching The Century of the Self, and Curtis' other monumentally ambitious works of this decade, I'm convinced that he is the Luis Bunuel of our time.

Watch The Century of the Self on Google Video - Part 1 embedded below:

This comparison may fit not just in terms of their worldview, but in Curtis'  awesome compilation of archival and original footage to create a brilliant montage that seems to take up multiple perspectives towards the image - sometimes it supports the point being made, sometimes it offers a snarky counterpoint, and sometimes it just seems to offer a stupefying depiction of humanity beyond description. Like video footage taken from a corporate market research video that illustrates different types of consumers: the interview subject labeled "societally conscious" is a bookstore owner so deep into the stereotype that he that we can't tell if he's an actor or not. It's those fluorishes of bizarreness that give Curtis an edge beyond the ostensible polemic of his projects, because they illustrate the persistent weirdness of humanity to defy its attempts to define itself.

So we have Jia's Useless, an exceptional observational documentary with intriguing elements of fiction, and the films of Adam Curtis, a master social documentary essayist. These are but two of the many forms of documentary that have thrived in this past decade.  The following are those that I consider the best of the decade that I've seen:

Capturing the Friedmans The Century of the Self The Gleaners and I Grizzly Man My Architect Los Angeles Plays Itself S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine Useless When the Levees Broke: A Tragedy in Four Acts Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?

I'm sure there are many titles I have yet to catch up with - I still haven't finished watching Wang Bing's lauded magnum opus West of the Tracks. But please submit your favorite documentaries of this decade in the comments. I'll be revisiting a select few over the course of the year, and fully expect at least one or two titles to make my list for best films of the decade.

Best of the Decade Derby: The Madness of revisiting a personal movie landmark

It seems that this project of sifting through a decade's worth of cinema to determine its best films has me performing my own version of Krapp's Last Tape. Last week a rewarding revisit to Donnie Darko became a flagellation of my past self. This time it's the opposite. This is one of my favorite things I've written, for how  a personal recollection opens into a call for values that binds together the aesthetic, the political, and the personal.

Tuesday, May 4, 2002, 7:45 PM - Brooklyn Academy of Music, NY

A friend invited me to a gala screening of The Royal Tenenbaums in Chelsea, hosted by Esquire magazine as part of their special series "Legendary Menswear in Cinema."   After two years in New York, I was tired of being a solitary cinephile with no connections to that greater network I knew was out there, and this event seemed like a good opportunity. But I was nagged by a Village Voice blurb about an obscure indie film depicting America after the first Iraq war. As I got in my car and made the half hour drive to Brooklyn, I kept asking myself why I was passing up a free Wes Anderson screening with cocktail hour and potential celebrity encounters to spend $10 to watch a movie by myself that I knew nothing about.   Lost in reflection, I took the wrong exit and arrived twenty minutes late. I walked sweaty and panting into a tiny, dark theater, where the silhouettes of the three other audience members were illuminated by the screen projection of two dead children floating down a river.

The rest of the film played like a continuation of my detour from the land of martinis and Legendary Menswear -- and it couldn't have been more different than the suffocatingly impeccable compositions of The Royal Tenenbaums (such a disappointment from Anderson's looser, earlier films).   It seemed to come at me from all angles, employing one stylistic approach after another: documentary footage of a concert and a mega bonfire burning, parodic montages of military toys, Godardian declamatory dispensations of military statistics and homefront reportage clashing with shrieking Griffithian melodrama replete with iris transitions.

Gianvito launched every cinematic missile, bullet and slingshot he had at an insurmountable object, such that it went beyond breaking down Gulf War America, but the cinema itself and its inability to redress -- or even address -- our crisis. His actors, almost all of them non-professionals, were valiantly taking on roles that were more momentous than any one of them could embody.   And yet that gap became the implied subject.   Everyone was trying their best, and the effort on display attested to a collective attempt to film the unfilmable: the grief and despair of living in a desolate landscape cloaked in victory.   So hearteningly awkward, so heroic were their efforts - that even in their most awkward moments they exposed every commercial American feature -- and most of the "independent" product that passes through the Sundance circuit - as calculated acts of cowardice.

This was the film that alienated me from mainstream American cinema, that made me despair at how hard it was to make a film that truly mattered . I've been scared to re-approach this film ever since (not that I've had many opportunities).   I finally re-watched it upon its recent DVD release this spring and the pain came swelling back again -- a pain that comes from recognizing how much pain went into its making, so palpable in the results.   The feeling of being confronted with a global crisis so immense, so overwhelming that one is torn by both the necessity and the impossibility of expressing it. A movie that cries out for the need to reinvent the movies in order to reclaim its relevance to our problems.

One country this decade that has figured out how to convert national trauma into commercially successful cinema is - who else? - South Korea.   But until we see the American equivalent of Peppermint Candy (2000, dir. Lee Changdong), Gianvito's film will serve as a road map, a cautionary tale, and a lost subgenre all to itself, waiting for artists who give a damn to draw inspiration from it.

- May 25 2005

I wrote these words just a few years ago but they seem to come from someone more idealistic, more naively clairvoyant than what I am today. He and I are separated by Just a few years and a few hundred movies.  The last few years have reaped an inevitable jadedness that comes through cinematic conditioning, a need to fall back upon standardbearers of excellence (narrative efficacy, cinematographic integrity, auteur authority, etc.) as a shortcut to engaging a film; sidestepping the process of planting and re-planting the film among limitless contexts and then selecting the one that just feels right for that film, that time, like the way I nailed it above with Mad Songs.

Watching Mad Songs last night, I admit to being more bothered than I was before with the clunkiness of some of the scenes and performances, to the point that I was second-guessing the directing, wishing it were tighter overall (this coming from someone who thinks every frame of Jeanne Dielman is essential). This may be a function less of my conditioned jadedness as a film critic, but as a filmmaker. The last few years have also brought many rounds of wanting things to be tighter in my own work (especially when targeting the YouTube audience). It's ironic that my filmmaking endeavors have brought me to this state, because when I wrote those last two paragraphs of that review, I'd be lying if I said I didn't see myself as being an heir to that legacy I described, someday being able to produce "a movie that cries out for the need to reinvent the movies in order to reclaim its relevance to our problems."

All of this is to say that Mad Songs feels even more foreign and foreboding to me now than it did then.  I'm not even sure I would say that it was enjoyable to watch this film again.  Sometimes I wish I had the unflagging fealty to certain films and filmmakers that some of my colleagues have (White, Knight, Uhlich, etc), the ability to summon the same unswerving assertions of value at the drop of the hat. I didn't feel like I had a safety net of aesthetic principles to reassure me as waded through its protean polemic swirling in aesthetic fits and starts, some of which are executed much better than others.  It's not a film that feels finished, something as masterfully engineered as something by Hou or Yang.  So I finished the film feeling genuinely troubled and uncertain of where it and I stood with each other. Except for the last 15 minutes, which are simply unassailable.  Those last 15 minutes are what Martin Scorsese's been trying to say about America his whole career, and they are worth the entirety of Gangs of New York many times over.

But then I read this old review of mine.  And I was both saddened and heartened that an previous version of me could write something like this, that not only accounted vividly for what a film could mean to him at a certain point of his life, but how valid those arguments still were in light of rewatching the film, even if they had been lost on the present version of me.

Serge Daney made the famous distinction between the films that we watch and the films that watch us.  If only for the history that I have with this movie, Mad Songs is inescapably in the latter camp. How much that matters to whether I deem it worth of my placing it on the top ten of the decade - hell, as if that even mattered anymore, in light of what I've been confronted with by this film.  Not that I couldn't find "objective" arguments to the film's value as a lasting achievement in cinema; now that the past has chastised me, I find myself capable of writing a book about this film (too bad that BFI monograph series is defunct), offering all kinds of arguments on the politics of performance, narrative vs. documentary aesthetics, the ethics of polemical filmmaking and its unfashionability today compared to the days of Eisenstein or Rossellini, two directors Gianvito undoubtedly emulates. But it's as if all of this were after the fact. It's as if the only fact that matters is that I saw this film on May 4, 2002, a fact from which all else springs (and hopefully has yet to spring).  I hope never to forget this again.

Best of the Decade Derby: In the Mood (or not) and 13 ways of looking at Maggie Cheung

<3 = D (t+d)

I jotted down this formula while watching In the Mood for Love the other day, the first time I'd seen it since its theatrical release in New York 8 years ago.  The formula, which I conceived (mind you, physics was my least favorite subject in school) translates as "love = desire multiplied by the sum of time and space".  It made a lot of sense to me at the time, but now, looking at it, it seems ridiculous.  Which, I'm sad to say, is kind of like the experience I had with re-watching In the Mood for Love. I'm still trying to make sense of it.

I didn't have terribly strong expectations for revisiting the film. It wasn't on my top ten for 2000, but I felt I owed it another look it due to its exceptional reputation and ranking - it is, after all, the top ranked film on the TSPDT poll of the best films of the 21st century. But starting into it, I could feel myself being gradually pulled in by the irresistible current of impeccable images flowing through time. Current feels like the right metaphor for the way that the film moves, initially in a tumultuous swirl: the opening sequence where the two potential lovers move into neighboring apartments, their furniture clashing and commingling with each other. The way that people move through narrow hallways and other tight spaces, lingering or hesitating at doorways: this push-pull between being physically close yet hanging on to personal spaces.  The famous slo-mo sequences set to tango emphasize the dance-like movements induced by this social setting, while also fetishizing them as objets d'art.  The way the camera will linger on a wall after Maggie Cheung has placed her hand on it, creating instant nostalgia for a moment that has passed both 4 seconds and 40 years ago.

And that's where it started to pull the floor from under me: the wall to wall gorgeousness of this movie, where every frame feels like it could be part of a gallery photo exhibit -  Wong is consumed with coming up with new ways of framing and looking at things. One needs only look at thirteen different shots of Maggie Cheung taken over the course of the film to appreciate the visual variety and splendor on display:

and one of Tony Leung for good measure (anyone else think that he's an Asian dead ringer for Obama?)

Around the 25 minute mark (the third slo-mo tango interlude) is where the film's pervading sense of loneliness and longing sets in for me. It's such a seductive, melancholy feeling to be sucked into if you're receptive to it, and I was.  The anticipation of these two people on the cusp of engendering attraction is, a seductive enough premise, but Wong amplifies the effect by treating his mise-en-scene as an endless landscape to explore, where their looks, their feelings, get framed and reframed, like an anxious lover replaying every moment, squeezing out and soaking in every detail. In this light even the multiple outtakes, the alternate endings, can all be integrated into the totality of this film as a fitting representation of obsessive, unconsummated love: its constant revisitations, revisionings and what-ifs...

That plus the sumptuousness of the camerawork, where the threads of Tony Leung's hair, the cracked patterns of an bare wall, or the pink fibrous texture of a steak all exude a hyperdetailed texture that you just want to sink your eyes into.

And that's how it was a for a good hour of my rewatching, until I had to interrupt it to keep an appointment. But the feeling engendered by the film stayed for me the rest of the evening and into the night.

The following day I picked up where I left off with the film. And I was surprised to find the whole thing somewhat empty, even banal, in terms of what this was all for or about.  Back in the day I had a couple of heated arguments about way the last 25 minutes of the film play out - some of my friends just couldn't handle the abrupt, seemingly pointless Angkor Wat sequence, especially the use of piss-poor archival video footage which disrupts the visual splendor that precedes it.  My argument back then - which I still believe - was that this disruption is the point; it's an unspooling of the spell that the film has cast on its audience, mirroring the spell of love that the circumstances of life are in the ruthless process of dissipating. So on a formal level, the film is brilliant from start to finish.

But my problem with the last third of the film, which casts back on the film overall, can be summed up by Rick Blaine in Casablanca: "The problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Something about re-entering the film 2/3 of the way through gave me a new, sober(?) context, an awareness of how much fetishizing Wong was lavishing on this narrative. It hints at a terminal state of self-absorption, an emotional wound that not only never heals, but that the film never wants to heal. There's something in me that finds this disturbing. And despite all I've said about the film as this seemingly endless visual and emotional landscape to explore and soak in, there's something about it that feels small and enclosed, in terms of its scope of the world, and of life.

In the end, I think we're left with a paradox of a movie, one that conveys and achieves so much intensity of cinema and emotion within an experience of love that's ephemeral, even extravagant, and leaves us wondering what it really was about. I suppose that the degree to which one finds this meaningful depends on one's convictions of cinema as an end in itself - or one's own valuation of fleeting love.