Point Finale

I am glad to chat up anything Quebec right now, as the integrity of that province is on such magnificent display these days. (Although I have always felt that Quebec is the best part of Canada. Right now they have just taken that to another level).

In any case, I very belatedly took multiple advices last night and watched Café de Flore, Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest, starring Vanessa Paradis. It is very good. It did not surprise me that it was made in La Belle Province, where, also not surprisingly, much of this country’s truly great cinema originates.

I thought I would make my Legendary comment on this film in the form of remembrances. After all, Quebec’s motto is “je me souviens”. Here then, are the things I remembered today about the film, without trying:

  • the first time you see the little hand grasp the back of the drivers seat, just for like ten frames or something
  • the use of extremely brief shots, in general
  • the boldness of opening with an extremely brief shot
  • the older daughter’s astute observances, particularly “he smells good” to her mother as her father heads to a “meeting” (where his future wife is waiting)
  • the “flight attendant” line dance
  • the breastfeeding
  • the airport arrival of what seems to have been an all-Down’s-Syndrome flight
  • the fantastic performances of physical intimacy, of all sorts, from all performers
  • the most beautiful gutter puddle ever
  • the man who briefly passes by in the distance outside the window of the seemingly secluded spa
  • the silent scream

The film opened in Australia and Russia last month, and the UK this month, and for those of you who still have the opportunity to see it in the theatre, I would say that yes, it is a big screener.

PS In addition to making Quebec seem, impossibly, cooler to me, this film has similarly enhanced my already high opinion of Johnny Depp.

Still not convinced? The soundtrack includes Stars of the Lid. Point finale.

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Next Time, Blow My Mind

The serendipity was divine. In a long stretch of overwork, with almost no time for any of my leisure habits, I was in front of a television with a couple of hours to spare at the very moment Beginners was about to air. I’d looked forward to this movie’s release, but it had become another item on this year’s long list of missed.

I’d looked forward to it for many reasons: had connected with author Mike Mills’ previous work and interviews, will always love Captain Von Trapp, had enjoyed all of Ewen McGregor’s performances I’d seen, interested to see the story of a 75 year old coming out to his son after his wife’s death, and fabulously, A TALKING DOG.

I was not immediately disappointed. In fact, I had such high hopes that I held off disappointment until the credits, when I had to face the reality that no further redeeming content was coming. To be fair, it is these same high hopes that cause me to scribble about “disappointment” referring to a well-made picture I enjoyed. I just thought it might be a favorite, a multiple screener, a special features watcher.

The funny thing is that my beleaguered brain had forgotten that it is a Mike Mills joint, and as the end came and my impression – of superficial self-absorption spoiling things a bit – became clearer, his title card appeared and with it my eureka. My eureka looked like this:

That’s Miranda July and Spike Jonze, two artists whose work, like Mills’, I enjoy and respect but, like Mills’, leaves me a little cold. I think what happens is this:

I relate to the perspective. Those are my people, or it is the point of view of my people at least. I feel like so little of the mass culture we’ve lived with has been written for us or by us that it’s kind of thrilling when I encounter culture that has been. I proceed through the encounter, eager to be told stories from that perspective, to contemplate themes and ideas informed by that point of view.

But I find, again and again, that the perspective is the story. The point of view, itself, is the idea.

This is an exaggeration of course. These books and movies and performances convey ideas about the human condition, alienation, communication, growing up. But in terms of content by volume, there is a lot of space given to pure demonstrations of the point of view and not much else. Call it quirky-cool, call it hipster – it may be pointless to try to categorize, actually – but the extended and detailed display of the tastes, idiosyncracies and hobbies of the heroes suggests, necessarily, that these tastes, idiosyncracies and hobbies are significant and to be noted. So you mark it down, okay, and then….they aren’t actually germane. All of the things which happen to the hero or are learned by him would also have happened or been learned if he was into jogging rather than roller skating, or if he worked in an administrative office of the municipal government rather than in the arts. The importance of telling your own stories, of working from a personal pov? Sure, but how come the bureaucrat joggers don’t position the jogging as a central part of the story? Answer: how absurd! Joggers are everywhere and have been for decades. The majority of the population either does it or has done it. It would be like making a movie featuring the toasting of bread. (Which, ironically, would be quirky.) So. What we are really talking about is difference. Mainstream versus marginal. And the tendency for several decades now, to elevate difference, in and of itself, to something significant. It is the foundation of the culture of “cool”. Why do we care so much about tastes, preferences, idiosyncracies? Because relative wealth has enabled the extensive contemplation of the self. And of course commercial interests have enthusiastically cultivated and exploited that trend.

This, I guess, is the exception I take to the portraiture of quirk and cool that I see artists like Mills and July (married, as you may or may not know) draw out. It fortifies the narcissistic chains we keep ourselves in. I want my mind blown, I want my life changed, I want to lose sleep over books and films and performances, and I want to believe that this work can come from artists whose perspectives I relate to, like July and Mills. There’s no reason not to believe this – both surely have loads of work ahead of them. Beginners wasn’t it, that’s all.

Slowfest

The best antidote to hecticity is idleness. For complete idleness, mental as well as physical, I suppose one could meditate. But if that is an overdosage for your particular circumstances, you might try being still, staring into the screen, and programming the screen so there is less to process. More than a screensaver, say, which could return you to the level of meditation. But less, far less than the programming usually appearing on your screens, most of it unbidden. Try these:

Gerry – so minimal it is almost ambient. Do not watch this with anyone inclined to “what are they talking about?” or “well that doesn’t make any sense”. In fairness, I suspect co-authors Affleck and Damon’s inclinations (“scenarios”, “dialogue”) probably hurt Van Sant’s (time and space revealed?) and allow for such moot analysis.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – many many more things happen in this one than in Gerry, but it still sends audiences packing midway. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I get this non-getting, but the whole rest of my mind is like “PEOPLE! What do you have against ghosts, monkey-men, talking fish, and the absence of violence and evildoing? This is cinema utopia damnit!”

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=14619648&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=1&color=00ADEF&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&loop=0

Jeanne Dielman – the influence of Akerman, especially this work, can be seen in Weerasakathul’s. Not the talking fish, nor the absence of violence, and in this sense it does not create that thrilled wonderment that a picture like Boonmee can. But hanging out real time while someone does chores can be mesmerizing, and comforting somehow. Actually, this is a good one to watch with your “what is that – a little stove?” friend who you’ll not invite to the Gerry screening. I wonder if I were watching it when it was made, without the constant appeal of “period” everything – decor, autos, wardrobe, architecture – would I still be captivated?

Despite this post’s title, it’s worth noting that pacing alone is not enough to satisfy a need for quiet. Remember this? Not a good comparison with Dielman’s vintage eye candy or Boonmee’s magic, perhaps, but why do I prefer the desert void of Gerry to that of A Taste of Cherry? It’s a question too challenging for my newly idle mind.

don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story

Given the impact each viewing of Tarkovsky’s work has had on me, I cannot explain why it’s taken me ten years to watch four films. Maybe part of that can be attributed to watching The Sacrifice repeatedly. Maybe not.

Anyway, I need to take a little webspace to genuflect right now. Not to prowess, or achievement, or mastery, although I assume all of those must be present to create this kind of Stendhal-inducing work. Masterful filmmakers are not in short supply. However, from everything I have read, few if any have been able to create the particular experience Tarkovsky creates. I am admittedly prone to hyperbole, but on this topic, I risk writing stale if I employ concepts like spellbound, otherworldly, euphoric, and transcendental.

Of course, there are as many who have an experience of boredom, confusion, or impatience. Which is why my genuflecting webspace will be devoted to proselytizing thusly: many things which are good for you do not feel so good going in. If you are determined to reap the goodness, you must learn to find your way beyond the not good feeling. Tips:

  • “slow” can be good. Think food, think sex, think Tarkovsky. It’s a feast.
  • engage. Tarkovsky preferred mise en scene to montage, feeling that cuts are tricks. Instead of a steady conveyor belt of bite-sized meaning, you get an open field in which to wander, and joining you in the field at unpredictable intervals and angles will be various-sized meanings.
  • you think you are reading it, but you will read it differently as you go. What at first seems spooky will become romantic.

And what is the goodness to be reaped? Contemplative travel to some very rich and mystical ideas about life and death. Time distortion. Dreams, memory, magic.

But maybe you’re not up for that tonight. That’s cool too, you can totally just dig on the crocheted ponchos and the sound of the Russian language and the inexplicably floating chandeliers.

Oh, yes, the one that prompted this was Solyaris.


How Can You Make A Bargain With A Pack Mule?

Recently at a busy opening, filled with illustrations, installations, and videos, I sat still, under headphones, for 29 minutes, while friends and strangers circled about intermittently, curiously, impatiently. Normally I would have returned at a quieter time to view the whole piece. But I could not interrupt the program, I tell you. I was mesmerized by Barry Doupé’s magical media potion, At The Heart Of A Sparrow. I contacted Mr. Doupé about sharing the mesmer here, and he kindly pointed me to a stream of the complete work at Lumen Eclipse, linked below.

http://www.lumeneclipse.org/26/doupe.mov

UPDATE: Barry just sent along this link to an interview he gave in 2008 talking about his process and other sagacities (I hope I made that up). Thanks Barry!

DIY Storytime

I had thought that performances by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman automatically created, if not masterworks, then certainly exceptional, outstanding cinema. In retrospect, that’s crazy talk and I don’t know what I was smoking, great though they both are. I came to understand this watching Doubt. His performance seems flat to me, considering the story and his role in it. Good thing she presents as complicated and magnetic a performance as ever. Right? Well, sure, if you’re not all greedy about stuff like theme and plot.  Or at least not impatient about these things. Because Doubt always feels like it’s about to boil up, so you stick with it, focus on Meryl, second guess where it’s going to go. And then – it’s – over? Fast forward with me now past the anti-climax and disappointment and confusion, through to the surprising delayed engagement this story had planted in me. The movie is made from rich enough concept that you can work out all kinds of premises, subtexts and motivations, all on your own! (If you have a good chunk of time afterward which will make no demands on your mind.) It’s a tell-yourself-a-great-story kit.

In Other Words, Smoking Helps

Hurrah, I have finally seen Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s award-winning 2003 film based on the Columbine school shootup. If I’d written this post last night, it would have been passionate, maybe all caps. I was a little stoned. Today, I am still inclined to post on it, but with the knowledge gained overnight that it hasn’t had the impact on me that I originally thought it had.

Strangely, I think both the immediate impact and its rapid dissipation come from the same feature of the film’s design: shallowness. Watching the slaughter of characters you’ve been getting to know for an hour or so is called Everynight TV, right? The reason you can yawn around between that and decorating and dancing shows, at the same time as you’re in IM on your laptop, is the artifice. You can recognize a Benz from the grill, and you can recognize a cop show from the music, cinematography and script cliches. You can only be so drawn into those stories, when you are constantly aware it’s Season 4 Episode 9. With Elephant, however, Van Sant presents you an unrecognizable scenario, in part by working improv with non-actors. But also by withholding dramatic devices which could be recognized as tropes: character arc, plot progression. The parts of your mind that normally turn off once they recognize the tropes, don’t turn off. You are observing more keenly. When the shit hits, you feel it more. Thing is, you developed no relationships, and you contemplated few or no concepts, so it doesn’t stay with you, like, in your heart. It stays in your brain as a masterful cinematic exercise, certainly. But you are untouched, ultimately, once the shock wears off.

And here is Gus Van Sant cutting the bugger on a FLATBED EDITOR. Divine.

And Now I Want To Die Too

I am a longtime apologist for slow pacing in cinema. There is something about that spacious temporal environment that feels luxurious to me. In the hands of a talented filmmaker, obviously.

Abbas Kiarostami is a director whose evangelical fans include Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, and Akira Kurosawa. His work is compared to that of Tarkovsky.

One of the most highly acclaimed Kiarostami films is 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry. I recently chose this for crossing-off from my discouragingly long list of cinematic masterpieces I’ve not yet seen. Here’s what I saw: a guy drives around and around on a dusty, barren hill, expressionless, occasionally engaging with strangers on the enigmatic job he offers. Well, the job becomes less enigmatic with each encounter.  But the driving does not become less around and around, the hill does not become less dusty or barren, and the expressiveness of this character does not increase.

He plans to commit suicide, and for some reason he wants to be buried in this remote, anonymous hillside hole after the fact. He’s already dug the hole, he just needs someone to refill it once his corpse is at the bottom. His prospective hole-fillers offer no interesting explanations for their refusals. I would estimate that there are 85 or 90 minutes of this movie in which the frame is the hero’s expressionless, driving face, or clay-coloured dust clouds billowing around the hero’s vehicle as it progresses along the dirt road that winds around the dusty, barren hill. The movie’s first ending is the guy in the grave, still alive. The movie’s second ending is the revelation of the cinematic device, in other words, shots of the director and collaborators on location.

Crafty Spot

Wanted to give this spot props for its manipulation of our understanding of how to identify whose story it is we are watching. The whole thing turns on that, and I don’t think I’ve seen much exploitation of it before. At least not without dialogue insurance.

Tropical Malady

I have not seen anything like this, and I would like to see more. I expect a lot of viewers would find the second half too long and slow, but I would like to be able to invent a potion that would enable anyone to quiet down to the place where you can just dream along with that second half, enjoying the alien voice of the shaman tiger ghost and the shimmering of the tree over the transfiguring cow in the jungle night.

Addendum: the first half is completely different aside from featuring the same two actors in roles that may or may not be related to their roles in the second half. It feels more conventional, in that a lot more is going on, and yet it is also unlike most things I’ve seen. It feels at once naive and worldly – not just in the innocent, near-chaste relationship between two gay guys, but in all of its facets: the dialogue, the production values – it could be amateur documentary, except for the regular sense of the poetic voice and crafty hand of the author here and there. Wow, check out that sentence. Anyway. The first half is wonderful in its own way, and I neglected to mention it earlier because the second half is kind of a show stealer.