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

OPENING REMARKS:

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.

CLOSING REMARKS

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: 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.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY

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.

THE FINAL SEQUENCE: DO NOT WATCH THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE ENTIRE MOVIE

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: 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: 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: Live-blogging Platform (2000, Jia Zhang-ke)

brought to you by Glenlivet 12 year-old single malt Scotch. When you need some liquid courage for revisiting a personal landmark movie, go Glenlivet. BACKGROUND INFO:

FIRST SCRENING: Sunday, October 8, 2000, 1:30PM - 38th New York Film Festival, Alice Tully Hall

It was a month since I moved to New York to live with Julie [my future ex-wife], and a year since we completed two years of teaching in rural China.   The New York Film Festival was a point of entry into the city's formidable film culture (it's since become my annual ritual). I showed up too late to get tickets for marquee attractions like In The Mood for Love or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - but there were plenty of tickets left for the only feature from mainland China.

In that screening my Chinese past and cinephilc present were united, and two year old memories that were already boxed up in a dark mental basement were retrieved, given pride of place, monumentalized.   The way Jia Zhangke filmed those kids stranded in the boondocks, taking delight in the changes around them before the world robbed them of their naïvete, the way he acknowledged pop culture's influence on their dreams and identities, was the same way my students in China saw themselves.   But he also scrutinized youth culture's seductive qualities and lamented its inability to contend with the demands of the adult world -- and that's what really spoke to me, how I had left China, rootless and destitute. Now I knew what Bunuel felt when he smashed the projector at a screening of Rose Hobart and accused Joseph Cornell of stealing his unfilmed visions.

Who was this Jia Zhangke?   I had never heard of him and had no critical or popular reputation as a reference point - no Ebert, Kael or Rosenbaum review upon which to rest my certainty, only lukewarm, somewhat uncomprehending praise bestowed by the New York Times. Had I ever felt so bereft and tentative in formulating my own response? Even if a critic I respected had offered a review that I agreed with, what were the chances they would speak from the same experience that was vital to what I felt this film was really about?   There had been films in the past that I felt belonged to me in some way or another, but this was the first time that I felt a film had been entrusted to me - that I had something no one else had: a duty to make the film understood.

The prospect of fulfilling this duty was grim from the onset, because the one person who I had shared China with most found Platform to be an utter bore.   Tedious, self-indulgent, pointless, Julie said; the Chinese are portrayed so inexpressively, with none of the convivial close-ups of Chinese like in To Live , her favorite Chinese movie.   How could she not see what I saw?   Did it not reflect or validate a sliver of her two years in China?   There was no time to dwell on this rift -- I had already decided that it was the greatest Chinese film I had ever seen, a feeling reinforced when I finally saw that kung-fu blockbuster breakthrough by my college hero, Ang Lee.   Such a watershed in bringing Chinese cinema to the global stage, and yet such a dandified work of neo-Confucian anti-feminist spite, with no sense of specificity to a space, place or community - it was everyone's Chinese movie, and no one's.   Platform was mine, and that meant everything.

NOW (FOURTH SCREENING - FIRST IN 6 YEARS - SECOND SCREENING OF THE 155 MINUTE FINAL CUT)

watching the shitty Artificial Eye 4x3 non-widescreen piss-poor transfer DVD. I can't find my New Yorker DVD copy (which sucks because it's the first DVD that I was ever cited on... a long story, which I've decided out of discretion not to include in this post, despite its immense significance to my life... I'll just say two things: that at one point in my life Jia Zhang-ke played a sort of matchmaker in absentia for me.  Imagine what it's like to meet someone you're attracted to and have them present you a printout of an essay you wrote three years ago with multiple passages highlighted and bolded.  I finally got to tell this to Jia last October, and he was flattered. Second, that I saw James Gray's outstanding film TWO LOVERS today and had a lengthy discussion afterwards about how youthful, go-for-broke romanticism, practically a symptom of arrested development, gives way to the sober pragmatism of adult relationships, achieved through a kind of spiritual death of youth.  It's worth bringing this up because PLATFORM itself chronicles this process in ways that few films this decade have - ALMOST FAMOUS tries to be about this but doesn't let you feel the full impact of innocence lost - really Philip Garrel may be the only director who can compete.)

0:00:02 - I didn't realize the opening sound was a squeal of what sounds like a speaker feedback - rhymes with the final sound of the kettle whistle at the end.

0:00:25 - coarse talk about illicit lovers, the kind you would never hear in a state-sanctioned Chinese film - Jia making a statement that this movie is going to tell you what you don't hear about elsewhere.

0:01 - "Platform opens with a performance of "The Train to Shaoshan" by the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group. In terms of artistic quality, imagine a children's propaganda musical written by Dick Cheney and performed by Texas A&M's Young Republicans for the West Bumblefuck elementary school. What could only come to fruition here in a deranged SNL skit was an everyday reality under Mao's China. Making the performance even more surreal to these western eyes, the Peasant Culture Group's audience wasn't school children - it was a large gathering of adult male farmers...

As Deng Xiaoping's market reforms transformed the Chinese economy, the Peasant Culture Groups underwent privatization. But instead of finding artistic liberation, they mutated from celebrated propaganda machines into vapid pop-culture reflections: traveling sideshows of jiggling girls and monstrous cover bands. A pivotal moment for art was wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies." - Matt Parker

from an email to Matt:

The group has it's biggest audience in the beginning, presumably due to a village mandate that everyone attend typical of rural Chinese communist practices. And that the audience is somewhat aware of the kitschy inadequacy ofnthe simulated chair train, but they seem to enjoy themselves all the same, in contrast to the fistfight that erupts at one rock concert near the end. And little details like the song of the Tibetan girl (programmed as a kind of ethnic propaganda reassuring everyone that the gov is doing right by those people). Another favorite moment is when they're introduced to that song by Zhang Di ("I,Zhang Di, am often asked/ if the girls of Singapore are better than Taiwanese girls") Sure it's vapid pop like you say but it's the first encounter these kids have with a singular voice of individualism, the antithesis of the vapid groupthink and group culture you also described. I'm glad that Jia's film is more descriptive than prescriptive; as such it bears vivid witness to a crucial period of a world superpower in the making like no other film has.

0:03 - WTF! This version is missing the solo by the "Tibetan" girl. I wish Jia would release the 3 hour "directors" version of the print I first saw at NYFF - I still think it's better than the 2 1/2 hour version that hit theaters.

0:06 - Holy shit, the train sounds at the beginning - for a second feature Jia has his motifs laid out masterfully.  And the wild, collaborative teenage energy of it - this was what was missing from THE WORLD (unless you want to see that film as a depiction of a fascist state-as-theme park in which case the lack of youthful anarchy has a purpose, I suppose...)

0:09 - I've seen about 200 Chinese features in the time since I first watched PLATFORM. I've long attributed the evolution of Chinese indie cinema into the long-take slow-crawl conventions that prevail today to this film. But watching it so far I'm amazed by the goofy accessibility of this movie (at least relative to much of what has followed it) - the peasant performance, the hollering in the bus, the sight gags with the bell-bottoms, this is Judd Apatow compared to the opaqueness of its successors.

0:14 - Ah yes, the scene that made me seek out Raj Kapoor and AWAARA, another all-time favorite. I have this film to thank for that.

0:15 - Jia's rule of thumb with this film seems to be "have more than one thing going on in a scene - preferrably one expository thing and one piece of incidental cultural context, and lay it on like dressing on salad" - case in point, Zhao Tao's character Yin Ruijuan comes out to meet her father who scolds her for hanging out with the wrong crowd - then he interrupts himself to tell a group of delinquent kids to turn and face the wall - we learn that he's a police officer and we get to see how authority figures treat juveniles.

0:17 - I fucking love this city wall. City walls have existed in China for centuries, occasionally rebuilt, to defend against invading Mongols and such. Who would have thought it'd be the preferred site for romantic trysts and heart-to-hearts. Interesting how you can hear other people talking from some undefined distance, suggesting that privacy is never an absolute state.

0:22 - "Fengliu, fengliu, shenme shi fengliu?' I wish they had this poem at karaoke bars. Expositionally significant because the concept of romance was publicly taboo for decades - and it's to Jia's credit that he doesn't make a big deal out of that (taking a cue from late 80s Hou). Maybe it's to Western audience's loss, but it bolsters the integrity of the film.

0:30 - I remember discussing Platform with novelist-filmmaker Zhu Wen (Seafood, South of the Clouds), who criticized the film for trying to be too epic, for trying to make a grand definitive statement about an entire generation. May have amounted to professional jealousy. Looking at this film, I have no complaints with Jia trying to say as much as he could about his generation's experiences of life and its slow evolution over the course of a decade. Our sense of where this country and its people has come from is the richer for it.  What's especially great about it is how he's able to lay in a lot of these details incidentally, as if they just happen to pass by the screen. For sharp contrast, see how Scorsese handles trying to convey historical information in GANGS OF NEW YORK.

0:43- ah yes the wall scene. The use of space here really struck me when I first watched it. I'm not sure if I've seen Jia use this technique since. To be honest I'm not sure if Jia has exhibited this degree of playfulness since his first two features, and it goes without saying that I wish he would...

0:47 - Bad boy pop officially lands in central China. To this day I still can't find this song by Zhang Di about whether Taiwan girls are better than Singapore girls, or the "Gen-Gen-Genghis Khan" song. But this sequence sends a chill through my spine, because it's depicting the dissemination of culture in a way that feels historically authentic while capturing the spirit of exhilaration, like what it was like for me to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time, or the moment I finally got Guns 'N' Roses (October 1990 Future Business Leaders of America conference in Fresno, watching a roomful of suburban white boys slamdancing to "It's So Easy").  This is not an easy thing to pull off, as wanna-be time capsule movies like THE WACKNESS will testify.

0:54 - more playing with the space of the walls - exiting the stage, a quasi-homage to Lim Giong jumping out of the frame in GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE.

1:03 - to my knowledge this is the first depiction of abortion in any movie from China, the country where more abortions take place than anywhere in the world. Followed by subversive use of "official" radio broadcast, one of Jia's stylistic hallmarks, to be copied by many Chinese filmmakers (though it was Hou Hsiao Hsien's CITY OF SADNESS that first made prominent use of this device in a Chinese cinematic idiom)

1:17 - we're well into the Fengyang youth group's first tour of the countryside, a trip that takes on multiple meanings - an examination of emerging class differences between city and country Chinese, visible even in the nascent stages of post-Mao Open Door Era China; an '80s pop version of the Cultural Revolution compulsory "sent down" assignments that urban youths had to endure; the limited possibilities to live as free and easy artists/know-it-all hipsters in a Communist society.

1:25 - there's a scene from the original cut that's missing from this mining sequence - a really dark and sinister moment when the troupe manager tries to collect from the drunk mine bosses and the bosses retort by threatening to have the miners rape the women of the troupe. I think I'd have to say that the film may be better without it - we'll eventually learn of the troupe's hardships in less melodramatic ways.

Another thing that's missing - a road interlude where they're listening to a Chinese adaptation of Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" from the movie STREETS OF FIRE, translated in Chinese as "I Miss My Mom." (I may be one of less than a dozen people in the world who saw that scene and got the reference...)

1:30 - ah yes, the title song sequence. Brings back a memory of my first week in China as an English teacher and going to a tacky nightclub where this 30-something singer performed a one man musical revue with the help of several skimpily clad model-dancers. One of his numbers was "Platform" and I remember him singing this song with an eerie guttural rage ("My heart waits, waits, ENDLESSLY WAITING..."). Watching PLATFORM the first time I thought of this guy and the possibility that he could have been one of these kids, only grown up and still hacking away at his dream of bringing music and a little star power to the world. I wonder where he might be today...

1:42 - Zhong Ping disappears. I wish I had the guts to ask Jia or someone whatever happened to this actress - not only does her character disappear from the film, but the actress disappeared from movies. I wonder if the two disappearances were connected.

1:45 - For the record, this drunken bricklaying scene wasn't in the original cut.

1:46 - I remember in the course of writing the Senses of Cinema essay feeling apprehensive that PLATFORM owed possibly too much to Theo Angelopoulos' THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS to be considered a truly groundbreaking work. But now I see how this film has its own idiom, achieved more through the violence of history separated by cuts from scene to scene than lyrical long take camerawork.

1:47 -

Is it true that I am leaving you? Is it true no more tears will fall Is it true I have a one-way ticket? Leaving on a road with no end? Is it true I am leaving you? Is it true no more tears will fall? Is it true, as I said before That lovers must be lonely?

Hands down the most poignant scene in the film. A young lady at her office on night duty, hearing a song and letting herself be carried into a dance she used to perform, surrounded by invisible memories of her old gang of comrades, her ex-boyfriend. The past resurrected, reanimated and put to burial all at once.

1:52 - Loveable Wang Hong-wei having his Billy Idol moment - I'm sure Billy Idol has had fruit and shoes thrown at him at some point. Things obviously not going well for the All Star Rock-and-Breakdance Electronic Band.

1:54 - A scene of startling, documentary-like directness, twin sisters talking about why they've joined the band, which feels as much 1999 - or 2009 - as 1980s. Girls leave their homes for more or less the same reasons then as now.

2:06 - Such a sad scene - the two girls dancing on a truck to "Girl Under a Streetlamp" along the roadside while the traffic drowns and crowds out their performance. Defiance and despair. They've adopted a cheesy 80s disco song as their chosen form of artistic expression, and they're not even performing it terribly well, but the courage, grit and pathos of the scene is undeniable.

2:21 - This subplot about Cui Mingliang's parents and his relationship with his absent father may feel a bit extraneous, but again, it's one of those things that hits a nerve with me, given my own family history. It just seems to take a long time just to establish that the father has remarried, without offering additional information - narrative, historical, etc. It might have had more of a place in the longer cut. Speaking of which, from my essay for Senses of Cinema:

For what it's worth, here I would like to describe the coda to the original version of the film, which has since been excised from the “distributor's cut”. It begins with a long shot of a silhouetted figure standing in the midst of a vast and desolate landscape, firing a rifle towards the sun lingering on the horizon (whether it is rising or setting is not made clear, and it adds to the alluring mystery of the image). The camera pans away from the armed figure until it reveals the entire ensemble of the movie, dressed in their performance costumes, standing together and facing the sun, in such a way that resembles the idealized human profiles depicted on Chinese currency. These people, whose collective hopes have been dashed over the course of the film, are given one final chance to re-occupy a common space, bravely facing the sun that symbolizes the setting of an old age, or the dawning of a new, or both. This is one of the most beautifully lyrical and humanistic images I've witnessed in the recent history of cinema, and for some reason it's not even in the final cut.

Guess there's still work to be done...

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: Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)

First of all, a slap of my own face with the unforgiving hand of hindsight:

Paranoid schizophrenic teenager starts hallucinating that the end of the world is nigh, with a menacing bunny rabbit giving him instruction. Like other young directorial efforts, it manages to be highly derivative and highly original all at once, approximating the generic suburban criticism of AMERICAN BEAUTY, the surreal nostalgic imagery of Fellini, the lame dialogue of afterschool soap operas, and the hazy, insular look and feel of 80s cinema, and somehow emerging with a sensibility that is as strong-voiced as it is confused, possibly because the former feeds off the latter. Ultimately it crashes and burns in a mess of half-assed salvation cliche, leading one to dread that Kelly's future will go the way of empty stylists like Darren Aronofsky. But there's a lot of delight to be had in the interim. As an aside, Jake Gyllenhaal looks like he'd make a more intriguing Spiderman than Tobey Maguire.

I think I was largely jealous when I wrote this seven years ago, feeling vaguely threatened that someone could display such tremendous visionary gifts his first time out, and needing to find easy ways to dismiss it. What you see above is dismissive, knee-jerk criticism at its worst, the kind that actively refuses to perceive or acknowledge what is wonderfully strange and wholly original in a work like this.  It also helps to have 7 years of increasingly commercial and formulaic indie cinema to make one cherish what used to emerge from Sundance.

Unfortunately I lack the time (and possibly the brains) to detail the many wonders of this work. So much the better if anyone else wants to chime in.  What I will remember most is the sound design, something easily overlooked amidst the searing imagery and brilliantly choreographed camera sequences, but which I think easily provides at least half of the film's unforgettably unhinged texture.

A distinct difference with me in 7 years separating my screening of this film is that I'm now more into how it feels than what it means.  As a depiction of a teenage kid's confused vision of America circa 1988 it does as much as it needs to to convey that experience.  Ironically, it's when the film tries to offer moral unequivocation that it falters. Really, the only thing that still bugs me about this film is the gleeful baiting of conservatives and self-help gurus that dominates the middle stretch of the film. It feels like fish-in-a-barrel puerility compared to the more lyrical evocations of 80s social mores in the first half hour, and the sheer apocalyptic bravado of the finale.  I'm of the opinion that if it weren't for this misstep, we'd have a film that exceeds Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, if only because its cinematic fecundity exceeds either of David Lynch's last two features. But I'm prepared to even remove that qualifier, pending reviewings of those films.

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.

Best of the Decade Derby: Four English Language Films from 2000

I should mention the results of the poll conducted last week both on this blog and on the IMDb Classic Film Board, where I invited everyone to recommend one title that most deserved to belong on a top ten of the decade. Over 50 people contributed their opinions, a pretty healthy turnout for this modest exercise. The overall winner of the poll was: Almost Famous. Close behind was Wonder Boys, and tied for third were The House of Mirth and American Psycho. Dancer in the Dark and Traffic rounded out the top finishers. You Can Count on Me, which has the highest rank among any English-language 2000 release according to The Shoot Pictures' survey of the greatest films of the 21st century, placed a disappointing 7th. I was able to watch Almost Famous, The House of MIrth and Wonder Boys over the past few days, even as I travelled to Berlin where I am now situated for the Film Festival. Additionally, I revisited another title that I forgot was a 2000 release until a couple of folks on this blog kindly notified me: Esther Kahn. Sadly I don't have time to go as deep into each film as I did with Yi Yi and the Hou Hsiao Hsien films I've covered earlier. But let me offer some brief reflections and if anyone wants to take the conversation further, I'll push it along as far as I can...

-----------

Getting to the question that prompted all this re-watching in the first place: Do any of these films have a shot at my top ten?  Each film has a legitimate claim to greatness and if they were to show up on anyone's list I would applaud. I could spin rationalizations for each film's case into perpetuity, so to best resolve the issue I revert back to the old standby question: how much do I wish that I could have made this film?

Looking at these four films, the one whose concept and story I most wish I could have made would be Almost Famous. It's such an ambitious and personal story that manages to entertain, spin a rousing yarn, and also encompass multiple layers of meaning and reality: a mythical lifestyle that a generation aspires to enact, and the fierce struggle to uphold the spirit of the myth, a struggle that's embedded in Crowe's own romantic - and romanticizing - approach to filmmaking. The thing that bugs me now as much as when I first saw this film is its candy-coating that polishes everything in a warm, idealized hue; from one perspective it's kind of one-dimensional and misleading. The dialogue often relies too much on snappy sitcom timing that often threatens to compromise the authenticity of what's represented under a Hollywood veneer. The thing that bugs me most about this movie is Crowe's reliance on deadpan reaction shots to drive the comic punch line of a moment with sledgehammer subtlety.

BUT -- this time around I was able to accept all of this as the idiom Crowe uses to make his story accessible to a mainstream audience. Once you get past his characteristic cutesiness (which, as in all his films starts with the casting and characterizations; Hayao Miyazaki's creations have more dangerous than these Disney creations), the film has a tremendous amount of thought put into it, especially in acknowledging the roles that each member of this microcosm has to play in maintaining this mythical lifestyle. As with Jerry Maguire, Crowe starts out with social types (geek rock writer, mystical groupie, mysterious rock star) and works steadily towards bringing out their distinctly personal human characteristics, primarily by playing them off each other and having them discover themselves in the process. This leads to a tremendous payoff in the end after they've all fallen out with each other, and one character's attempt to reconnect with another gets craftily deflected towards the third party, but in a way that makes peace between all three of them.

Finally, I have to admit that 10 years of becoming increasingly immersed in the world of film criticism has given me shocks of recognition with certain moments in this film, namely the scenes with Lester Bangs, played lovably by Philip Seymour Hoffmann. the first encounter between Russell (Patrick Fugit) and Lester echoes with about half a dozen encounters I've had with my favorite filmmakers and critics over the past several years: people who are rock stars in the eyes of probably only a few dozen people in the world, including mine, which is all that matters. Hoffmann's portrayal of Bangs, in its own way, seems to tease at an even deeper, more intimate movie that could have been made around him, a life devoted mostly in self-directed isolation to the mad pursuit of an impossible ideal of art and life expressed with unyielding passion and conviction, one that 99% of the world can't possibly relate to. It's an uncompromising attitude towards one's object of affection that the terminally affable Crowe, despite his own astute passion for his subject, can't approach.

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The virtues of Wonder Boys may lie chiefly in the source novel by Michael Chabon and the fulsome characterizations and dramatic situations issued from its pages, leading to a domino effect of excellence: a razor smart script by Steve Kloves, competent if unobstrusive helming by the elusive Curtis Hanson, and wonderful ensemble work by just about everyone in the cast. Whatever the case, this is a wonderful film, sort of an antecedent to the shaggy stoner comedies of Judd Apatow and company - and perhaps if the film centered around a harried 20-something charmingly unemployed pothead instead of a 50-something washed up campus author trying earnestly to save multiple aspects of his life at once, it wouldn't have been a commercial disappointment. But the way that the film steadily accumulates a hurricane of chaos around its beleagured protagonist is a work of ragged glory, held together by the sparks between its characters. Imagine John Wayne as a pothead professor and Rio Bravo a college town, and you get a sense of what this film accomplishes in weaving together a lively environment for its characters to give and take.  The only real disappointment lies in something Mike D'Angelo pointed out in his original review, that the film ultimately capitulates its delightful, deceptively disheveled state for the sake of a happy ending through rehabilitation. Maybe that makes for a better life for poor Michael Douglas, but probably a more boring one as well.

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Thanks to Keith Uhlich, I was able to revisit The House of Mirth on a gorgeous Sony Pictures Classics DVD. Of the four films I rewatched, my opinion was raised highest with this one. Maybe I was burned out on costume dramas when this came out - this time around what I realized was that the real action in this film is in its use of light.  And a mastery of scene transitions few films can touch - most notably the opening of the Riviera vacation sequence, which lingers on the hollow interiors of vacated New York homes, fading into the abstract patterns formed by rain splashing against a pond outside one of the homes, which then fades into the glistening surface of a sunlight ocean upon which the immaculate white crest of a cruise ship sails towards an impossibly golden Mediterranean shore.  This is a great film about the surfaces of opulence, and the oceans of desperation and cruelty lying underneath them.

(Sequence starts at 5:00)

Gillian Anderson is a perfect mis-fit of perfectly pitched mis-acting. her pseudo-modern brazenness breaking through her best efforts to remain civil throughout a series of miscalculated social maneuvers and verbal sparrings with would be users and abusers.  This is perhaps the only film of the decade worthy of being compared to the great works of Mizoguchi; in fact, I prefer this film over The Life of Oharu, because unlike Mizoguchi, Davies doesn't turn his woman into a fetish object for the noble suffering of all womankind; she's a flesh-and-blood human who as often pisses one off for her lack of good judgment as she ultimately earns great empathy for her struggle to settle upon a set of personal rules for which she her conduct can finally be judged fairly. ------------ Another great period piece about a misfit woman's coming to self-realization, Esther Kahn may look historical but the way it moves through its environment gives it a live wire now-ness.  This is one weird movie, possibly my favorite Desplechin film, even though it hasn't received nearly as much acclaim as Kings and Queens or A Christmas Tale. This is mostly due to the problematic performance of Summer Phoenix in the title role, a performance that doesn't convey much of the charisma that one would expect of an ingenue actress who ultimately is given no less prestigious a role as that of Hedda Gabler (while nearly sabotaging the entire production with an extended fit of bad behavior).  I'm not sure I'm fully resolved with Desplechin's handling of the character by the end. At best I can say it serves to demonstrate the maxim offered by Ian Holm's two-bit actor to Esther about the secret to good acting: "Every step you take has to be more unbelievable than the one before... Each step has to stretch like a rope in the audience's mind until they can't bear it anymore and they want to cry out, 'Careful you're going to break it.'" That's what this film is - a journey in search of one's limits: for Esther as an actress, i.e. a collector and performer of emotions; for Desplechin, the limits to whatever in his art can hold together historical, dramatic and emotional credulity.

I don't know if I fully accept the climactic sequence, the way it elides Esther's acting on stage after the film has spent so much time on the issue of how Esther is trying to become a better actress; it seems perverse to spend so much time setting up the crisis only to withhold the payoff, instead resorting to copious voiceover to assure us that she's giving the performance of her life. Also, there are some moments when I feel the film owes more than a little to Truffaut's Two English Girls (some use of Novelle Vague devices - elaborate dissolves, direct addresses to the camera - to advance and compress the narrative), but the films couldn't be more different in their outcome. Truffaut embalms its characters in a sense of fate; Desplechin liberates his.  Taking an overall look at where this film takes me, I stand in awe. While Almost Famous is the movie I most wished I could have made in my own way, Esther Kahn is a film with a daring that I couldn't possibly conceive, perhaps not even now. Of these four films, it's the one most liberated from convention. It's a film that, despite its frustrations, perhaps even deep flaws, answers to no one other than its own inspired instincts.

Best of the Decade Derby POLL: Best English language film from 2000

I got a lot of great feedback, and a lot of recommendations from my post pondering the merits of English-language cinema from the year 2000, and if there were any worth revisiting as I compile my top ten list of the decade.  Unfortunately as time is tight and I don't have time to rewatch everything, I think I can only commit to revisiting one or two films.  To decide which ones, I figure I'd put it in the hands of the democratic process.  So here's a list of the most likely English language films for me to rewatch from 2000, and some acknowledgements of those who've already endorsed some of the titles. Please vote for JUST ONE that you think is most worthy of being on a top ten list of all films from this decade. I'll make a decision by the end of the week...

Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe) - endorsed by Marcy Dermansky (about.com)

Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier)

George Washington (David Gordon Green)

High Fidelity (Stephen Frears) - endorsed by Christianne Benedict (krelllabs.blogspot.com)

The House of Mirth (Terrence Davies) -endorsed by Keith Uhlich (The House Next Door) 

Memento (Christopher Nolan)

Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)

Traffic (Steven Soderbergh)

Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson)

You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan) - endorsed by Matt Parker (moveease.blogspot.com)

 

Write-in votes are welcome as well (just list ONE, please)