Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Fall Movie Season

Summer may be lingering, but in Philadelphia the Fall movie season is in full swing, which at least partially explains my absence here. That, and yesterday's re-painting of the spare bedroom/study that doubles as the Blackmail Is My Life office, which has uprooted the desk and the desktop computer.

Be back shortly with:
  1. Mike Nichols and John Updike - A Lover's Quarrel: Carnal Knowledge, Closer and Bourgeois Marriage
  2. Grizzly Men -Timothy Treadwell and Klaus Kinski, or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
  3. Petite Sophisticates - Penn Jillette and the Problem with Middlebrow Comedy
For tonight? 2001: A Space Odyssey! And 2046 reaches the provinces Friday. Also coming soon: The Conformist, The Passenger and Elevator to the Gallows - repertory delight!

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Technical Question

While some of us are bragging about our new home viewing capacity, there are those of us still trying to assemble sensible computer infrastructure so as not to monopolize the good T.V. That said, in a horserace with no riders, which software is preferable - the partially installed Intervideo that manifests itself in Hewlett Packards, or the Nero software I've tried loading unsuccessfully on several occasions? I ask specifically because the latter is on sale this week, dirt cheap. My hesitation comes not only from past difficulty, but also from the knowledge that it's not great for fullscreen viewing.

Any words of wisdom are welcome. If there's any shareware that would serve my purposes (screen capture, potentially ripping/burning discs), drop me a line at AT gmail dot com. Also - send all URL's to sites like DVD Beaver and that ilk. Knowing which Criterion Editions will be released in November heightens their anticipation.

Once the landlord comes and paints the walls in the spare bedroom and the new desk is built, watch out!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Mike Nichols' Double Feature

My partner wisely wants to catch up on some recent releases, so it's my hope to have something to say about Carnal Knowledge and Closer shortly. Meanwhile, I'll continue to ruminate on which director to cover next - Bresson, Kurosawa (as once promised), Antonioni, Visconti, Billy Wilder, or Bogdanovich (that's right.)

Comments welcome as always. Thanks to Alfred, I may simply direct emails his way reasoning why Antonioni in so many ways affected the way audiences view mis-en-scene like no other director, using landscape as a prop and a character, and why those things make him one of the finest and most influential directors of modern film. He did for desert landscapes what Herzog's done for the rainforest!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

New York Film Festival

Wishful thinking. Better living vicariously through dearest Filmbrain. As a special note, I'm thrilled to hear that a director's cut of Antonioni's The Passenger (starring Jack Nicholson for those of you who are unfamiliar with the title) will be screened (and probably made available on DVD finally), but how soon is now for Red Desert, which may be the most underrated and perpetually overlooked Antonioni film in my opinion.

In any case, maybe the next turn will be to Antonioni's filmography, whose work I fell in love with immediately and whose aesthetic choices inform how I look at modern film. His work to me is also a natural gateway into Italian film, combining his trademark breathless style with the stark emotional brutality of his neorealistic colleagues like Rossellini. More on Rossellini and Sarris' derogatory evaluation of Antonioni to come.

The Constant Gardener

How I thought this would be what Pollack hoped for The Interpreter, plus all the best elements of French Connection II (that's right - the sequel), is beyond me. After they threw in the kitchen sink stylistically, what else was left to be done? Fiennes almost redeems his smash-you-over-the-head (figuratively) performance in Schindler's List. Nevertheless, this has that sort of wish fulfillment that ruins most left-oriented political thrillers. Can't someone be smart enough to let the good guys lose, and badly?

See also: Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Nadine Gordimer's The Late Bourgeois World and Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.

Controversial post-vacation edit: Considering how few films actually drew me into the theater (precisely two - Batman Begins [IMAX cut] and The Land of the Dead), there's more to be said of The Constant Gardener. Perhaps it's that the film has much to be said that hasn't yet been said elsewhere, but with all the subtlety of John Q. and its best intentions notwithstanding, this is yet another film adaptation that promotes literacy. Aa good story and bad retelling can be easily identified, and such was the case here. In political films like this, it's often the revelation and naivete that make the difference between patronizing the audience and preaching to the choir, engendering the sort of despair necessary to tie the personal to the political, each in their own inextricability.

That feeling of righteous indignation that becomes brooding anger in films like Z, The Battle of Algiers, The French Connection, Masculin-Feminin and in particular Medium Cool that makes it possible to consider how easily the public can be duped into supporting positions in which it doesn't believe and believing in positions it doesn't support; there's a variety in play here that simply can't be manipulated so didactically. Plenty of people know that pharmaceutical companies are fraudulent, cynical and heartless, but few know the manner in which these corporations go about executing their mendacious schemes tied to profit in the name of health. Truth be told, The Constant Gardener doesn't really tell that story very completely, resorting to vague explanations about suspicious activities, disappearances and questionable testing practices in the global South.

Maybe those other films succeed because they do away with messianic principles and The Constant Gardener clings to them. This is a personal reflection on the character of American and English political thrillers and their notions of heroes and villains, but there was something disgusting in believing that self-righteous European elites and local elites would be the sole actors in the film, reducing a poverty stricken populace to a position of voiceless animals being led to slaughter. As we can see in our current global political circumstance, no amount of intimidation and oppression goes without some degree of public protest. That, and the myriad other plotlines (ethnic/clan violence) that go more or less unexplored depict a place so chaotically banal that it's as though one English diplomat tours Africa with a violent storm of steel tracing his every move.

Absent are all the democratic sensibilities present in City of God, Meirelles' brilliant film about rival gangs in Brazil's underworld. Unlike that film, where good and evil are less clearly and ardently supported, The Constant Gardener fails to investigate the inability to build coalitions around issues like global health and drug testing, choosing instead to rely on the age old instant-sleuth tactic so common among films that treat social justice as something to be adminstered paternalistically rather than reclaimed from their expropriators. That may be my own wish fulfillment betraying me - how can one tell a story if it's not actually happening - but it's my belief that there is far more dissent among indigenous people than is portrayed in the film, a discredit to the subject matter and the people whose lives are at stake.

It will be a curious thing to see how critics receive the film this week. It would be easy to pass it off as a triumph of the liberal imagination, but I fear that would discredit the literary underpinnings that have clearly been done a disservice by the adaptation.

How to Disappear Completely, Vol. 2 - Mr. Arkadin

Welles' 1955 paranoiac thriller delves deeper into matters regarding memory, identity, privacy and anonymity all in the service of tremendous wealth. An interesting film that Welles may have believed to be more complex than it actually is is made tedious by a poor print and sound transfer. In addition to the DVD production flaws, a painfully embarrassing Tony Curtis introduction (he's wearing gloves. . . for no good reason!) and afterword taint what might be a gripping drama of international intrigue, murder and love.

The story begins with a killing at a wharf, mimicking in certain respects plot elements from The Lady from Shanghai albeit from the viewpoint of the onlookers rather than the perpetrators. The conditions of perspective, both visually and intellectually, are what set Welles films apart from Hitchcock in that both directors are extremely visual, yet Welles somehow prefers that his stories remain open-ended to the audience in terms of meaning and Hitchcock tends to resolve things very neatly, if sometimes unexpectedly and unrealistically.

Following the wharf murder we chase Arkadin's real identity backwards and forwards in time - after all, he is different things to different people. Arkadin's generosity and munificence belies his sinister past; his amnesia hides his secrets and protects his reputation, thus maintaining his beloved daughter's impression of him. Tracing the story introduces us to all the relevant figures in Arkadin's former life, but strangely, the telling becomes rote too quickly, leaving little to the imagination. Welles' flawed sense of Arkadin's mystery keeps us from having any investment in the personal entanglements, much less the characters themselves, despite their exoticism, eccentricities and bizarre attachments to Arkadin's life.

What might've been the central metaphor of the film is shown in the first scene - the empty plane cruising aimlessly - but Welles never brings us back to it with meaning. It's a beautiful image, but ultimately is just rendered a cheap plot device that connotes some existential mirage; an empty vehicle careering downward, literally following the story arc. Outside of that image is little more than your standard tale of high stakes globe-tripping. Where a story like Fitzcarraldo provides ample sustenance visually and intellectually, confusing even the director (see Burden of Dreams for proof), Mr. Arkadin unsuccessfully conflates narrative and critique and artifice with suspense.

It's unfortunate the film doesn't live up to its promise. Welles assumes too much about the audience's belief in his filmmaking ability and the magic he typically orchestrates. He also leaves too many loose ends in an atypical fashion; one grows accustomed to open-ended films but in this case too many questions remain unanswered - which government nearly fell? Why? It's as though Arkadin were edited in one take followed by studio butchery without equal. Whether or not that is the case I don't know, and we're not offered any chance for further exploration thanks to the paltry extras.


Despite a full month's hiatus from Welles blogging, I hope to continue with renewed interest soon. Apologies for the work stoppage, but my wedding and first vacation in three years intervened. But fear not, a new and exciting program at Philadelphia's International House caught my eye (and I'm trying to keep track via Myspace's convenient events calendar) and Bryn Mawr remains indifferent to the seemingly inexorable advance of commerce over art - Saraband will be seen in the theater!

Upcoming screenings likely to include The Aristocrats, Last Days, Grizzly Man, 2046 and The Conformist! Let's pause momentarily and give A Girl and A Gun, now silent, his due. R.I.P. George Fasel. It's a strange tribute to film blogging that such vibrant and interesting writers found their way into unremunerated, yet undaunted criticisms, are discovered and appreciated, each in their own quiet corner of the theater.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Family Values Tour

Expect some notes about the connotated and denotated expectations of existentialist art and their value in cinema. Then I'll explain how Broken Flowers achieves none of it, save for a few inspired, understated performances, including Bill Murray's.

The Welles wrap-up comes soon too. Well, short of that, how about How to Disappear Completely, Vol. 2?