Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995): Neil Young

"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."
An enthralling music video cum trailer for Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995):

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sunday, September 6, 2009

He Who Gets Slapped (1924): A fool is always laughing

"Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The melodramatic story of a scientist who after being robbed of his discoveries and his wife by a bourgeois swindler becomes a circus clown, He Who Gets Slapped, directed in Hollywood for MGM by Swede Victor Sjöström starred Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and John Gilbert, and was based on a  Russian play Tot, kto poluchayet poshchechini by playwright Leonid Andreyev.

A wonderfully expressionistic work which uses the circus ring cum spinning globe as a deeply pessimistic metaphor for life, love, and death.  A deeply profound performance by Lon Chaney in the lead role as He, the clown whose act is built on his being slapped for laughs as he repeatedly falls and gets up for more. Before a tragic finale he wreaks a terrible revenge on his tormentors. The final scene sees his limp body at the front of a spinning earth ringed by clowns unceremoniously swung into the void...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Goddess ("Shen nu" China 1934)

"We are but a moment's sunlight fading in the grass"
- The Youngbloods

A silent masterpiece from Wu Yonggang starring Ruan Lingyu.

A mother's anguish a revolutionary act.  The existential  heroine made flesh. A profound and mesmerising critique of greed and bourgeois hypocrisy, set against the tender counterpoint of the bond between mother and child.  The streets of Shanghai a glittering purgatory. The fallen woman walks the dark streets of oppression and shame. Trapped and struggling, loving and kind, a whore and an angel, she soars with wings of  joy for a brief instant above the sordid infamy of vanity, exploitation, and deprivation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Isle of Flowers: God Doesn’t Exist (Ilha das Flores Brazil 1989)

“The industrialized capitalist world has become an outside world of impenetrable material connexions and relationships” - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959)

Isle of Flowers is a 15 minute documentary film by Brazilian film-maker Jorge Furtado. This short is a fast-talking polemic on money capitalism and the failure of the human imagination. The critique is a sardonic ‘educational’ treatise on the food chain, consumerism, injustice, and how free markets operate. A spoiled tomato discarded by a middle-class housewife is tracked from a tomato farm to the slop fed to pigs on the Ilha das Flores, where the garbage not good enough for pigs is given to the landless poor in strictly controlled 5-minute intervals. There is no dialog only a voice-over narration.

On this trip we segue onto related topics as the story progress, in a canny prefiguring of the world-wide-web, where clicking on one hyperlink leads to another. The pace is frenetic with many scenes made up of dynamic collages of printed media and vivid unsettling scenes offering a banal yet forceful commentary on the theme. The narration is deliberately redundant and almost indifferent, and this technique enforces the visual irony. There is an element of the surreal as we are confronted with graphic imagery in the segues as juxtapositions to the common-place narrative which follows the food chain as metaphor. A metaphor of social hierarchies and oppressive imperatives. The soundtrack includes snatches of music as an effective counterpoint, and is most powerful over the closing scenes when a plaintive electric rock guitar riff ratchets up the emotional intensity.

Furtado is not so much portraying deliberately malevolent actions but the insularity of the bourgeoisie, who are protected not only from the stink and disease of their rotting waste, but from the realities of existence at the edge of an unequal society where pigs as a commodity rank higher than the poor who must scavenge after the fat porkers. Eisenstein move over.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Jammin’ The Blues (1944)

Director: Gjon Mili
Cinematography: Robert Burks.
Cast: Lester Young – on tenor sax, George ‘Red’ Callende on bass, Harry Edison – on trumpet, Marlowe Morris – on piano, Sidney Catlett – on drums, Barney Kessel – on guitar, Joe Jones – on drums, John Simmons – on bass, Illinois Jacquet, Marie Bryant – singer, and Archie Savage.

In 1944 Life magazine captured in a Warner Bros Hollywood studio the making of a jazz music short by an obscure 40 year-old still photographer born in Albania, Gjon Mili.

Gjon Mili (front left) on the set of Jammin' the Blues

This was to be Mili’s only directing credit and the 10 minute film of a group of black jazz musicians jamming was nominated for an Oscar in 1945, and in 1955 was entered into the National Film Registry of America.

The movie has been perfectly preserved and to me is the smoothest music short ever made. Totally avant-garde. The music and the singing is superb, and the direction amazingly modern. Cinematography was by the later Hitchcock stalwart Robert Burks on his very first DP assignment. There is a noir ambience to the film and each scene has a formal elegance that is enthralling. Gili has total command of his form, and the mise-en-scene and the continuity are impeccable. A must-see.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Jean Vigo: Joy is now

Jean Vigo (1905-34) was the son of a French anarchist and consumptive. He made only four films in his short life. His first and third films À propos de Nice (About Nice 1930) and Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct 1933) are exhilarating forays into an artist’s discovery of cinema as personal expression. These two films are anarchic joyous experiments in which we enter the world of a magic lantern. A mosaic surprise of the potential of cinema to not only observe the concrete in new ways but to express our humanity, to wonder, to rebel, and to laugh.

À propos de Nice

À propos de Nice is a silent 23 minute candid documentary study of the people of Nice at play. The bored stuffy bourgeoisie sunning at the beach are contrasted with the less privileged enjoying simple pleasures in the littered streets of the workers' suburbs. The joy of Carnivale and the angst of its aftermath are giant exotic paper-mache masks donned and then discarded, flowers lovingly thrown and then seen rotting on the empty road. Young women dance with abandon and uninhibited sensuality. Tall industrial chimneys billow smoke into the sky an uncanny premonition of the industrial stacks of Ozu's Tokyo Story. A chic young woman reclining on a cafe chair is cheekily undressed until she is naked, and a man sun-bathing turns black. Capricious satire and sweet melancholy. Working men laughing and kids playing on the streets. The camera swoops up and around at luxury hotels and cuts to the narrow alleys of teeming tenements. A true kaleidoscope... like life itself too short.

Zéro de conduite

Zéro de conduite
a 43 minute fiction talkie of boys at an elementary boarding school rebelling at the mindless discipline, is not only anarchic, but inspired comic lunacy from a fountainhead of deep love for childhood, and the joy of life lived with spontaneity and without pretense. A new teacher points the way: he is indulgent and playful. He is awed by everything. In the playground he suddenly starts impersonating Chaplin's tramp, then grabs a ball from the boys and runs. On an excursion into the town he leads the boys a merry chase after a young woman he fancies, and while she runs you see she is having as much fun as we are in the audience. The rebels take to the roof on a civic occasion and pelt the literally stuffed shirts from the Board of Governors on the dais below with rubbish. The stern midget principal with a beard nearly as long as he is short scurries away for shelter. Surrealism as fun shot at all angles and in frenetic montage, with a liberating asynchronous score of unbridled vitality. Mad pillow fights, irreverent language, and kids sick of eating beans throwing them at each other... Zero for conduct!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Noir City Blues: the cinematic city

The dark night of forsaken city streets, vistas of blissful angst and unholy pilgrimage. I have been there and known their inhabitants: deadly dames, drunken losers, dangerous hoods, crooked cops, dreamers of broken dreams, and flawed heroes.

LA, Frisco, Chicago, and New York. I know these cinematic cities though I have never been. A resident knows his locale, but the city in its ectoplasmic center is not reached corporeally, only in the phantasmagoria of a thousand and one shards of shattered night. Luminescent environs of a cosmic b-movie. Wet asphalt, fog-laden piers, deserted streets, rusting hulks at anchor, the neon glimmer of purgatory dives, cigarettes and booze, dark tenements, the skid of car tires, and the wailing sirens of the dead. Staccato rhythms and aching horns, crowded pavements and desperate loneliness.

One more fix, the last heist. Treachery, misplaced loyalty, and courageous infamy. The denizens of a nether world trafficking in sordid magic and lurid hopes.

A kiss before dying, the desperate lurch before oblivion, and the erotic click-clack of stilettos on pavement. Dank stairwells and silent corridors. Closed doors and hidden secrets. You break in and fall into a bottomless pool of black. Cut to a bare light-bulb burning on a current wired from hell. Lying on a steel-framed bed you stare through the bars of perdition at yourself a wraith in a cracked mirror on the ceiling.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reflections on Jane Fonda

Sunday, July 19, 2009

LA Confidential: Rollo Tomassi has checked out

Visually stunning thriller: great direction, production design, score, camera-work, and editing. Strong performances all-round. But it has no soul and lacks any semblance of a noir sensibility. Screenplay is hopelessly contrived, and the ending is not only pat but too cute by half. Mickey Spillane on steroids.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Movie Posters of the Day

Movie Notes #1

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) is a b-noir from a director who made only three movies in the early 50s, Earl McEvoy. The movie was lensed by Joe Biroc and stars the under-rated Evelyn Keyes, who passed away last year, and appeared to advantage in Joseph Losey’s The Prowler (1951) and Robert Rossen’s Johnny O’Clock (1947). Keyes plays an accomplice to a hood, who after a job in Cuba, returns to NYC with smallpox, in a dramatisation of the New York smallpox scare of 1946. Keyes is brilliant as ‘the killer’ and dominates the film, which in the light of the current swine flu scare, is a well-crafted docu-drama which deftly weaves the drama of the woman’s noir story and how a city of over 8 million people has to mobilise to deal with such a threat, with vignettes on how the illness is transmitted, and a continuing story arc of the fate of the killer’s first ‘victim’, a young working-class girl.

An interesting segue is how these old Hollywood b-pictures weaved wonderful vignettes and comic moments into the story. Two such scenes stand out in this movie. A milkman is infected and there is a scene in the sick man’s bedroom when the inoculation team visits. The poor guy’s persona is eloquently evoked by his wife’s harping but deeply loving commentary on her husband – before she realises the gravity of his illness. The other scene cuts to a Brooklyn street with kids playing on the road in front of a bar. The kids scramble as a police car pulls up. They gather on the footpath to check it out. As a burly detective steps out of the car, one kid pipes up and asks for the low-down “Hey Bub…”. The cop replies “Beat it kid.” The bar is closed so the cops after getting the form from the kids, drive off, and the kids jump back on the road shooting air tommy guns after the car. They don’t make movies like that any more.

Otto Preminger's Laura (1944) is an elegant noir melodrama. Gene Tierney is an exquisite iridescent angel and Dana Andrews a stolid cop who nails the killer after falling for a dead dame. Clifton Webb as the homme-fatale is his annoying best.

The original The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) is great entertainment, with a surreal mix of humor and violence, and a noirish denouement. Check out Walter Matthau’s loud check shirt and yellow tie.

Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows – France 1938)

The fog of angst seeps from the faces of two doomed lovers in the dank gloom of Le Havre. Jean is on the run and Nelly is trapped in a psychic prison as real as the physical constraints on her existence. Happiness is something that may exist but neither knows it.

They meet by chance one night in a broken-down bar on the waterfront amongst the detritus of an ephemeral humanity. Panama’s is a haven for the down-and-out named for its publican’s hat, an old shaman with a rusted soul as deep as the canal he visited in his youth. Father confessor of a convent for lost souls. He keeps his counsel, ask no questions, and strums his guitar.

And everywhere the fog and the harbor with rusting hulks at anchor ever-waiting transport for deliverance. The two lovers stroll as tentative friends with a hope as forlorn as it is sublime, when a bright clarity intrudes, a hood with a malice as sharp as his clothes and his shave, and as evil as his cowardice.

A night of bliss follows. Jean and Nelly find love at a sea-side carnival and that elusive union we all seek - in a rented room. They keep missing pernicious Fate a drunken vagabond. The glory of a new dawn is soon shattered. They each leave alone. Fate occupies the sheets of last night’s passion, and they are lost.

“Kiss me. We don’t have much time.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

For Neda

For Neda

“Policemen are not authorized to use weapons against people,” said Tehran Police Chief Azizollah Rajabzadeh, according to Press TV. “They are trained to only use antiriot tools to keep the people out of harm’s way.”

She was young
loving and loved
our sister

A simple honest life
modestly aspiring

She knew freedom
liberty dwelled in her lustrous soul
she acted
not with violence
nor rancour
a witness
against tyranny

An instant
the bullet’s trajectory unflinching
she falls
the blood
the horror
“I’m burning, I’m burning!”

Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, was killed Saturday evening when hit by a bullet during a protest in Tehran. Thanks to Lloyd Fonville of mardecortesbaja.com for bringing Neda’s story to my attention. Quotes from Los Angeles Times. In Farsi, Neda means voice or call.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

A boy talks to God on a CB radio in a beat-up cleaning van. A sassy young woman with no job and fewer prospects is transported to ecstasy trestling under an urban train bridge. Her older sister struggles in low-paid jobs to survive and bring up her son. A loser father who never gives up and with a heart of gold. A gentle one-armed man sells cleaning agents and makes model planes. Contract cleaning the grisly detritus of messy deaths as a path to a life with purpose.

Sunshine Cleaning is a simple film that transcends a modest premise if you look deeply enough and with empathy. A story of the mostly painful struggle of those living on the margins in the suburbs takes you gently, and without violence or sermonising, on a journey where you discover the emptiness of things, the value of family, and the pain and wistful joy of grief.

To have the perspective that sees something worthwhile in this thoroughly decent film perhaps one needs to have actually faced failure, been on the outside, been a father, or faced the angst that can push someone to blow their head-off. Ask an adult child who has had the heart-broking job of emptying their dead parent’s home of the stuff that is left behind, of the pain of deciding what to keep and what to throw away, of a place full of memories stripped of the signposts that anchored them, of the shock realisation that the artifacts of a life are at bottom junk to be removed for the next occupant.

In this movie we have an original screenplay and direction by relative newcomers, and from that perspective they have done well. The cast is engaging and modest, they assume their roles without affectation or histrionics. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are the two sisters. Alan Arkin, who has a mortgage on such roles, is the father, and Jason Spevack is charming as his grandson. Clifton Collins Jr. is impressive as the local cleaning aids supplier. Christine Jeffs’ unassuming point and shoot direction leaves the story by Megan Holley to unfold through the characters.

Not a great film but it remains in the memory as a bitter-sweet reminder of the transience of things, that a good life is not defined by the accumulation of possessions but by how honestly and bravely we tread the path fate has dealt us.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Summary Judgement: Gran Torino (2008)

A cliched story is saved by engaging performances from the the two young Asian-American co-stars. Eastwood's feel-good neighborly redemption and contrived sacrifice obscure the reactionary scenario that holds-up gun-justice and violence as solutions to urban alienation and conflict.

A truly disturbing confection that has nothing to say on the causes of urban decline and the economic forces that shape lives in the suburbs and on the streets.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: "Have You Seen...?"

I waited with as much anticipation as a depressive 56yo can muster for my Amazon order of film critic David Thomson's book, "Have You Seen...?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008). The reviews and blurbs are glowing: "a prodigious, seductive, and addictive achievement" said Richard Schickel and a "brilliant commentary" wrote Molly Haskell. Greil Marcus and Andrew Sarris offer similar praise. On receiving the book, I was sadly disappointed.

Thomson allocates a page for each movie giving him 600-800 words to play with. There are no images. The films are presented alphabetically and cover a wide range, with a strong bias for Hollywood product. The dustcover describes the contents as "including masterpieces, oddities, guilty pleasures, and classics (with just a few disasters)".

The marketing hype tells me the book is "a sweeping collection [presenting] films that Thomson offers in response to the question... 'What should I see?' ".

Sadly, the reviews are too self-consciously quirky and overly striving for knowing irony to be of any real assistance in their stated aim. I suppose you can put it down to dry English wit for it own sake. The short essays are full of arcane references for those cineastes who live for such trivia, and there is nothing wrong with that! But when you only have a page at your disposal, such indulgence costs. And the cost is high. After reading a review, if you have not seen the film, there is at bottom very little to inform your decision of whether to pursue it. If you have seen the movie, more often than not, you are left perplexed by the flippant tone and neglect of important elements.

For an old geezer, Thomson, who is in his sixties, strives to be hip by mixing obscenities with irony. Words such as, f*ck, f*ckability, and pr*ck, are often used where more elegant language would serve his purpose better.

As his bias is obvious I suppose it is to a degree acceptable. Though to my mind, this makes his survey rather limiting. For example, he writes-off the Marx Bros as mere vaudeville, refers to film noir as a "style looking for content", and barely tolerates Billy Wilder.

Better to spend your money on The Time Out Film Guide and 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (though I do resent having to pick up a book that has to always remind me of my mortality).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Movie Poster of the Day: 60s Pinku Eiga

Found in a back room of an Osaka cimena.

Image of the Day: Il Conformista (1970)

State of Play (2009)

Buried under the mire of cliché, there is an important story in State of Play, but its telling in a feature film will need a more intelligent screenplay and tauter direction.

An overweight long-haired junk-food-eating newspaper reporter, ably assisted by a young and attractive female blogger, stumbles across a story of corporate dirty-dealing which exposes government corruption and segues into sordid melodrama. Not to leave any stone of topicality unturned, we also have corporate demands for profits from the newspaper business, new versus old media, marital infidelity, abuse of process, and a deranged a gunman.

The reporter is played by a stolid Russell Crowe, who does little with an empty role. Helen Mirren as the blustery editor shouts and swears a lot, and nothing much else. Only Ben Affleck as a young Senator resonates, while Michael Berresse is strangely effective as a rogue psychopath.

It all plays out as a second-rate John Grisham novel, with a twist within a twist ending, which looks like it was tacked-on to appease a studio suit. The whole affair lacks tension or dramatic momentum largely due to the lacklustre direction and pedestrian cinematography. The soundtrack tries to instill a modicum of drama, but is weirdly out of sync: it telegraphs rather than informs the action.

If you want the real story told with conviction and intelligence read Naomi Klein’s thoroughly researched expose The Shock Doctrine.

Monday, June 8, 2009

All About Eve (1950): Last is best, older is better

The last scene in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve is the best. It encapsulates and reverberates the central motif: naked ambition is not a zero-sum game.

Bette Davis playing an aging actress is a testament to the eternal feminine: sassy, loving, vivacious, and vulnerable.

Reading the Movies

The Dancing Cinema film blog has asked film bloggers to list the film books that have enriched their passion. This is my list after excluding my latest disappointing purchase - "Have You Seen...?" by David Thomson, which I review here.

Landmark Films
William Wolf
A selection of films that Wolf saw as representing their time: from Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) to Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1975)

Film Noir
Andrew Spicer
Essential introduction to film noir

Film As Film: Understanding and Judging Movies
V. F. Perkins
A critique of film theory and criticism

A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953
Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton
THE seminal survey of film noir

More Than Night: Film Noir In its Contexts
James Naremore
A deeply insightful review of the the meaning of noir

American Movie Critics
ed. by Phillip Lopate
A compendium of American film criticism from the silent era to the present

The Art of the Film
Ernest Lindgren
How movies are made and the aesthetics of film-making

The Contemporary Cinema: 1945-1963
Penelopw Houston
A survey of post-war cinema

The Story of Film
Mark Cousins
A complete reference endorsed by Bernardo Bertolucci

The Philosophy of Film Noir
ed. by Mark T. Conrad
Anthology of the philosophy of noir from Plato and Nietzsche to Sartre

The Film Handbook (1989)
Geoff Andrew
A reference of major world directors with an introduction by Martin Scorsese

1001 Movies (2005)
ed. by Steven Jay Schneider
Film reviews of top 1001 films by selected major international critics