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

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

Keith in blue (me in black):

PRE-SCREENING REMARKS BY KEITH:

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

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

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

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

SCREENING PLAY BY PLAY:

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

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

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

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

0:05 - This chase is just amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KBL: What problem do people have with Martin here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1:17 - The carrot lightsaber – genius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the Decade Derby: Live-blogging Inland Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After 30 minutes, what do we have?

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

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

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

-----

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2:00:15 - very cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2:38 - Infinite convergence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- May 25 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

<3 = D (t+d)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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...

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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: Can I Count on You Can Count on Me and other English language films from 2000?

I plan my next few screenings for the Best of the Decade Derby to revolve around releases from the year 2000. Looking at the films I'm most eager to revisit, there's a heavy representation from Asia: In the Mood for Love, Platform, A Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors - and I've already revisited Yi Yi.  In stark contrast, there are virtually no English-language films that I have an interest in watching. I'm wondering if I'm being biased and need to check myself, or if there really are no English language films that are truly worthy of considering for the decade's top ten films. Take, for instance, the five top ranked English language films of the decade, according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They? They are: Memento (#18), You Can Count on Me (#27), Dancer in the Dark (#39), Almost Famous (#62) and The House of Mirth (#65).  Nine years later, none of these films shouts at me for attention. Well, maybe Memento, if only because it inspired a very entertaining Bollywood musical remake that I saw recently. But at the time I found it gimmicky and ultimately slight. But I am open to be persuaded to re-watch it by anyone who wants to make a case for it (but only if you would personally put it on your own top ten of the decade).

But the film that kind of puzzles me is You Can Count on Me, which, to my surprise, I ranked at #7 on my 2000 list of films seen. What's more, this quiet little character study has a startlingly high ranking on the TSPDT best of the decade list. I do remember finding it a remarkably precise portrait of self-destructive, self-abusive behaviors within a wounded brother-sister dynamic. Maybe it didn't advance the cinematic artform in a significant way, but it was a powerfully acted and directed drama, and I'd probably put it on a list of the best films to come out of Sundance in this decade. But is it worth serious consideration for this project?  Again, anyone who would put it on their own list is welcome to step forward. Any other 2000 releases are also welcome to be nominated. Speak now, otherwise it's looking like I'm stuck with Asia (with a side trip to France, to finally check out a 345-minute pseudo-documentary I've heard very good things about)