29 May 2006

Is Cannes as shitty as the Oscars?

The obvious answer is "no," Cannes is not nearly as awful at the Academy Awards -- after all, I don't think Crash was ever in competition there. However, I can't say some of the more recent Palme d'Or winners don't have something in common with those Best Picture Oscar winners, in that they'll probably all be forgotten in ten years. This is hardly a criticism of this year's awards ceremony, as I've seen none of the films yet, but, really, who got super excited when they heard the new Ken Loach film won the Palme d'Or? Certainly not me. In the past seven or so years, the Cannes jury have been leaning toward political films and subdued (read: boring) neo-realist films. The only two American films to go home with the Palme d'Or since the mid-90s were hot button-pushers (Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11). This year we've got a period piece about politics in 1920s Ireland, which teams well with Roman Polanski's win for The Pianist in 2002. And, of course, we have the Belgian Dardenne brothers, who won last year with L'Enfant and in 1999 with Rosetta, both nicely paired with Nanni Moretti's "human drama" The Son's Room (La stanza del figlio), a trio of films so quiet they were barely remembered by the time they even got to the United States. And then, of course, there's Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, a film that doesn't appear to fit with these boring Cannes trends, but maybe the jury, lead by (groan) Luc Besson that year, mistakenly took the film for a a stark drama/political statement on immigration in America instead of the absurdist musical melodrama snuff flick it really is.

I suppose I just find it strange to see a film like Rosetta or Elephant taking top honors in recent years alongside previous winners like Antonioni's Blow-Up, Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg), Carol Reed's The Third Man, or Fellini's La dolce vita. Then again, I suppose it's much simpler judging things as time had passed. For all the Cannes jury knew at the time, maybe La dolce vita would be as quickly forgotten as The Son's Room. I suppose also that I'm looking at some of the greatest hits of the festival; I mean, you've seen the 1962 winner O Pagador de Promessas (Payer of Promises), right? Oh, maybe not. I had the scary thought in my mind that maybe there's nothing wrong with the Cannes jury, and maybe it's just cinema that's getting continuously shittier as time goes on. I wiped my brow shortly after that thought and remembered that we can still look forward to the always sure-to-be-challenging works of nouveau auteurs like Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodóvar, Lars von Trier, etc. I guess I should just quit bitching; you'd rather see a neo-realist drama take the top prize than some Russell Crowe/Ron Howard flick, right?

28 May 2006

Palme d'Or 2006

In a not-so-surprise move, this year's Palme d'Or did not go to Volver or Babel, but instead to Ken Loach's period drama, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. The rest of the awards are as follows:

Grand prix: Flandres - dir. Bruno Dumont

Jury Prize: Red Road - dir. Andrea Arnold

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel)

Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar (Volver)

Actor: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem, Bernard Blancan (Indigènes)

Actress: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Chus Lampreave, Yohana Cobo, Blanca Portillo (Volver)

26 May 2006

We Don't Live Here Anymore

Manderlay - dir. Lars von Trier - 2005 - Denmark

Just announced for an August 8th DVD release by IFC Films, Lars von Trier's follow-up to Dogville (I can't really say the second installment of the USA: Land of Oppertunities Trilogy, as the final part, Wasington, may never show its face) reunites us with Grace, our little American idealist, en route with her gangster father, shortly after leaving (and destroying) the town of Dogville. In Manderlay, Grace appears to have gained in self-assurance what she has decreased in age (Bryce Dallas Howard is fourteen years younger than Nicole Kidman). The gangsters discover the town of Manderlay, a town that has ignored the abolition of slavery nearly seventy years prior. The owner of the plantation (Lauren Bacall) dies, and it is therefore Grace's job to structure equality in terms of the slaves and plantation family members. Of course, as Dogville has shown us, perhaps the bright shining optimism of young Grace might be thwarted by the final chapter of our tale.

On its own, Manderlay is just as brilliant as Dogville, a seering criticism of American dreams, yet as most critics have pointed out, it suffers from familiarity. The continuity problems with the casting of Grace never really seems out of place, in fact Howard's performance (not negatively) has given me more of an appreciation for Kidman's in Dogville. Initially, I found Kidman to be noticeably dazed and confused, often unsure of what she's doing in the town, let alone the film. The casting of Nicole Kidman, too, added another dimension to Dogville, as not simply the destruction of a woman, or idealism itself, but of the personification of glamour and Hollywood. You can't help but imagine von Trier snickering during the montage where the men of Dogville take full, sexual advantage of the shackled Kidman. The casting of Bryce Dallas Howard, however, does not work in such a way. Her Grace is assured, forceful, and blindly convinced and impressed of her own philanthropy. As I've read, Howard's knowledge and appreciation of the work of von Trier were helpful in getting her the part, so it comes as no surprise that she looks as if she knows exactly what she's doing here. And while this would make the claim for Howard's performance to be "stronger" than Kidman's, they both work beautifully within the context of each film. Grace "learned a lesson" in Dogville, which, of course, sets her up for a greater thwarting that I mentioned earlier.

Manderlay actually calls for a greater appreciation for its predecessor. Perhaps we didn't realize that a lot of the awe of Dogville came from the fresh manipulation of our senses. Without sets, von Trier forced us to look differently, in a way many of us haven't, at his film. It's meta to the fullest degree, completely capturing in cinema terms the idea of the thin (or non-existent, here) walls of small towns. Manderlay is filmed similarly, the plantation is designed the same way; there's an upstairs to Bacall's house sans walls, and there's a well. That's about it for set design. What worked so brilliantly in Dogville seems to have become an expectation from the audience, an expectation that removes the awe that we had when approaching Dogville. On its own, though, Manderlay works quite wonderfully. The ideas presented are frightening and button-pushing, in the best sense. I found the depiction of Grace's raging sexuality, teemed with her possible racism, to be especially wonderful. Often times we find warmth in familiarity, for why else would genre films still exist? When approaching a Lars von Trier film, however, this is not the case. Despite my feelings on his prior work, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, and Dogville all stand proud in the fact that your perception of film is being compromised. While Manderlay offers up a boat-load of controversial food for thought, it may never be regarded as highly as Dogville for the simple fact that we knew how to read it.

24 May 2006


In case you're not following the happenings at Cannes, I thought I'd inform you that Sofia Coppola's latest offering, Marie Antoinette, which was initially picked to be the American's best chance at a Palme d'Or win this year, has been ravaged by critics. The word all critics seemed to be using in their description of Marie Antoinette appears to be "shallow." I guess they hadn't seen her previous two films, or they might have expected as much. Despite what I said about mixed-reviews of John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus in my last Cannes update, the film appears to be getting a handful of praises, making it easily the most exciting American film to play at Cannes this year.


8 Mile - dir. Curtis Hanson - 2002 - USA

It's sort of a chore to bring myself to a film like 8 Mile. In fact, I haven't actually seen the film since it came out in theatres and played (thankfully for free) at my school. A friend of mine and I had a long discussion recently about rap stars and our intense dislike for them. While there are different genres of rap, there's a unifying quality to nearly every rapper working today shares; this is there shameless and unironic sense of vanity (this quality lends itself, too, to artists like Jennifer Lopez, as well). Rap songs these days are never really about anything; there're simply platforms for self-promotion, maturabation, and vulgarity. For some reason, speaking in the third-person about yourself has become the norm, and if that's not okay, at least have someone announce your name at some point in your song. This is even the case with hip-hop artists that I genuinely respect. For some reason Wyclef Jean, of the Fugees, turns a song about Shakira's hips not lying into a song about refugees. Jay-Z turned a Tupac metaphor of his "girlfriend" (read, his gun) into a song about his quite literal girlfriend Beyoncé. While rap music seems to have turned into an artless money-making business (and while 8 Mile is certainly a bad film), I find myself struck with the lack of this vanity and this vulgarity in 8 Mile.

Based on his real life (though very much dramatized in a Hollywood sense), Eminem plays Jimmy, your very typical introverted artist who just wants to rhyme, but life keeps getting in the way. Even before it's brought up, there's a tournament that hovers over the beginning of the film; it may not be explicitly mentioned, but you know it's going to happen. This is to be the arena where Jimmy can shine and prove everyone wrong. If you don't know how it ends, you haven't seen enough films. Perhaps 8 Mile's lack of vanity comes from director Curtis Hanson, a director who, on a few occasions, makes you forget that his screenplays are infested with clichés. There's a "rawness" in 8 Mile that never truly seems authethic, yet still manages to have you thanking someone in Hollywood for not making this into a vain two-hour long adaptation of a rap song. Really, the best scene in the movie is the sex scene between Jimmy and the boss' daughter (Brittany Murphy). It's never glamourized, not the least bit sexy, and our hero finishes in just a few minutes. Seriously, what rapper would agree to play a character who blows his load in less than five minutes? It's also a bit strange that a rapper like Eminem could outact both of his trained costars, Murphy and (especially) Kim Basinger as his mother. I will probably never see the 50 Cent vehicle Get Rich or Die Trying, as I find 50 Cent to be far more disgusting and narcissistic a creature than Eminem. And while I cannot even begin to call 8 Mile a good film, in retrospect, there's something genuinely refreshing about a film that strips away the now-staple unironic egotism that so plagues the world of hip-hop music.

23 May 2006

Cannes Update

According to the Internet Movie Database's press wire, Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, starring Carmen Maura and Penélope Cruz, and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, starring Gael García Bernal, Brad Pitt, and Cate Blanchett, have emerged as the critics' choice for the Palme d'Or, though the festival still has a few days left. So what does that mean? Likely nothing. Lars von Trier's Dogville was picked by just about every critic there to be the big prize winner before it went home famously empty-handed and Gus Van Sant's Elephant took home the Palme d'Or. While this means nothing in the race for the Palme d'Or, it at least has me more excited about Volver, further proving that Almodóvar has really hit his stride with a now-quartet of splendid films (All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education preceeding Volver).

In other Cannes news, a slew of other films have gotten decidedly mixed feelings. Call it attack of the 2001-first-time-filmmaker-becomes-cult-figure syndrome, as both Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) presented their sophomore efforts earlier this week, to mixed reactions. Kelly's Southland Tales is very quickly being regarded as one of the worst in Cannes history, inciting more walk-outs than Vincent Gallo's two-hour cut of The Brown Bunny. However, the IMDb press report (as if this means anything) stated that several people who endured the entire film were "mesmerized" or something to that extent. Bradford hilariously suggested that they were probably just reports for the deplorable Ain't It Cool News.

Mitchell's Shortbus also received a slew of mixed reviews, though no one claimed it to be as heinous as Southland Tales. Some called it a disappointing follow-up to Hedwig, while others remarked that his usage of graphic, unsimulated sex is far more refreshing and warm than something of a Catherine Breillat film or 9 Songs. The film stars Sook-Yin Lee, a Canadian rock n roller who played Kwahng-Yi, Hedwig's first back-up guitarist, among a slew of New York hipsters willing to bare all for the sake of art.

The other film I'm most excited about, Bruno Dumont's Flandres, also received quiet applause as well as several reservations from critics. X-Men 3 premiered yesterday, out of competition, of course. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette premieres tomorrow, and the awards will be named this Sunday. You can be sure I'll have them posted as soon as I find out. If you're interested in press photos, you can visit the Cannes homepage for plenty of photos of Audrey Tautou, Gus Van Sant flirting with young French actors, Monica Bellucci, and whoever else might be showing up on the red carpet.

19 May 2006

The Media and Despair

The Seventh Continent (Der Siebemte Kontinent) - dir. Michael Haneke - 1989 - Austria

There's something terribly unsettling about Michael Haneke's first film, The Seventh Continent, and it's not simply one's own expectations of a Haneke film. Just released by Kino alongside the two follow-ups to his "emotional glacation" triology, Benny's Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls), and a rerelease of Funny Games, The Seventh Continent is the most potent of the triology, following a family of two in mundane agony. Throughout much of the film, Haneke doesn't give us explanation, nor does he often give us faces. The vast majority of the exterior shots are close-ups of feet, hands, torsos cut at the head. To an undergraduate film professor, this would be murder... and indeed it is, but not in the same way. The family is not nameless, nor faceless; in fact, their story is based on truth. Even at an early stage in his career, Haneke's camera cannot be compromised. Every moment, every shot of the evening news on the television is completely necessary. It's really hard to talk about The Seventh Continent without giving away much of the horrific surprise, even though you might already expect this with an Haneke background (Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and Caché are good starting points). Upon completing his trilogy, I've come to the understanding that Michael Haneke is exactly what cinema needs right now, someone to intellectually provoke, challenge, and completely divide the audience.

Tolerance Unaccepted

Transamerica - dir. Duncan Tucker - 2005 - USA

I wouldn't say applause is always in order for a film that deals with a controversial subject and manages not to preach, but I can say it makes a film like Transamerica a lot easier to swallow. Writer-director Tucker never tried to show us that trannies are people too, and, for that, I thank him. Yet somehow he manages to show us nearly the opposite, unintentionally I'm sure. Our heroine Bree (Felicity Huffman) is a tranny who's on her way to getting the full sex change. We learn that her opperation is in just a week, and all she needs is her therapist's (Elizabeth Peña) signature. If we hadn't been aware of putting the DVD in our player or dishing out the cash to sit in a theatre, here is where we realize we've entered movie world. If Bree's therapist just signed the form and allowed for Bree to get her sex change, we wouldn't have a film, would we? Transamerica screams out MOVIE! from its opening moments, where we see Bree getting all lady-like during the credits, and this is where our problem begins.

Transamerica seems too painfully familiar that we can never truly accept what we're watching. The audience, thanks to this familiarity, is always three steps ahead of Bree, and when we know what's going to happen, we are less likely to sympathize with her as much as we are to become easily annoyed. "Bitch, if you just tell your son the truth now, you won't have to deal with the pain that's sure to come near the end of this film." But she's not smarter than we are, so she falls into the painful pitfalls of movie world. This makes it truly hard for us to see Bree as a person, let alone a likable one. She follows every move we've already plotted out for her in our heads, so her lies and coldness don't serve as character traits as much as they do robotic mechanisms. Bree is neither man nor woman; she's simply an all-too-recognizable memory of about a hundred films we've already seen (and these were films we wanted to forget, okay?). When Bree finally has her "change of heart," Tucker only shows us this through boring dramatic motifs. Now that she's a new (er, real) woman, she allows her son Toby (Kevin Zegers) to drink and smoke in her presence. Boy, has she grown!

The tolerance that Tucker does expect from us is even more offensive than a sweet "trannies are people too." He expects us to continue with his annoyingly familiar film because of Felicity Huffman. Now, I've seen my share of bad films in recent memory with good central performances in it (Charlize Theron truly is remarkable in the lackluster Monster). Not only is Huffman's "brave" performance forgettable, but Tucker is treading on familiar territory yet again. Her performance is no different than Hilary Swank's in Boys Don't Cry or Theron's, in that a pretty actresses "uglies" it up for a raw, Oscar-baiting role, except that it's completely forgettable. In no way is Huffman ever dynamic enough for us to allow the shitty clichés to continue without complaint. Upon finishing Transamerica, I felt remarkably unmoved, untouched, and completely uninterested... to the point that I almost thought revisiting Boys on the Side would be a good idea. Almost.

15 May 2006

It's about fucking, right?

9 Songs - dir. Michael Winterbottom - 2004 - UK

Sex and cinema. So I have this fascination with the combination, hence why I've been writing lately about a bunch of what your grandpa would call nudie movies. As unsimulated sex seems to be the trend lately, thanks Catherine Breillat, 9 Songs goes all the way. Whereas The Brown Bunny, Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy, or Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus) have there particular scenes, 9 Songs wins... it's an entire movie about fucking! And you may think I'm simply focusing on the sex (which is abundant), but really, that's all there is. On the DVD, there's an interview with the star Kieran O'Brien, where he talks about Michael Winterbottom pitching the project to him. O'Brien says, "he told me he wanted to make a porno, and I said that I'd love to be in it." And that's essentially what 9 Songs is: a porno. And a bad one.

The title of the film comes from the structure of the narrative. The fucking is cut between concert footage of a bunch of lame bands our two lovers are seeing. I had a discussion with a friend of mine about the usage of music in film and how, often, it puts a real time stamp on the film itself. This is blindingly true here, where Winterbottom enlisted a bunch of flash-in-the-pan bands that somehow lost their cool before the film even came stateside. I mean, did anyone really listen to the Dandy Warhols still when the film was being made, let alone when it premiered in the U.S.? I think even Spin Magazine's obsession with Franz Ferdinand had ended by then. In its defense, 9 Songs is one of the large handful of European films that found it necessary to use songs from Goldfrapp's Felt Mountain (My Summer of Love doesn't exactly count, as it mostly used renditions of one of their B-sides). And while using their music really doesn't do anything for me on film, the scene in 9 Songs set to "Horse Tears" truly fit. So... music, sex, cinema, memory. 9 Songs is told in flashbacks of a glaciologist (O'Brien) who's remembering (and giving us bad metaphors) a passionate affair he had with a young American girl (Margo Stilly). Like better films such as Presque rien or Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar, the film is a series of moments, not merely a continuous narrative depiction of their beginning and ending of an affair. This is where Winterbottom (almost) gets it right.

There are moments in the film where 9 Songs is fully alive. When Lisa teaches Matt how to dance, there's an intimacy and authenticity that isn't present during the fuck scenes. Yet, despite this, Winterbottom can't get over the fact that 9 Songs is all about fucking, a . It's even less amusing when you see that the running time is exactly 69 minutes long. Har har. 9 Songs, unlike The Brown Bunny, never really emerges further than a man's sexual fantasy; unfortunately, this fantasy comes from that of a teenage boy who thinks he's real cool, listening to The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and jerking off to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (whom Stilly often resembles). And how interesting is that? Looking at 9 Songs, not very.

04 May 2006

Images and Trust

Nathalie... - dir. Anne Fontaine - 2003 - France/Spain

There's something terribly calculated about Nathalie..., a French star vehicle from director Anne Fontaine (Comment j'ai tué mon père, Nettoyage à sec). I'm terribly skeptical of star vehicles in the first place. When you get three big French stars in a film that takes three years to come to the United States, something's wrong. And wrong, indeed, is the film Nathalie... As a regular film viewer, we tend to trust the images less and less. Aside from the obvious fact that the images are constructed by a person who has chosen the framing, lighting, color, etc., it has become obvious that audiences today don't want cohesive films and endings; they want surprise and awe. Now, as for awe, I can't blame them for this. But surprise and trickery are hardly substitutes for old fashioned dramatic conclusion. To put Natahlie... off the hook for a minute, it's hardly as treacherous as certain other films that rely on this element of surprise.

From the earliest moments of the film, we cannot trust Nathalie... Catherine (Fanny Ardant) has planned a surprise birthday party for her husband Bernard (Gérard Depardieu), but he can't make it. He "missed his flight," which we already assume to scream affair. The set-up is so familiar: a beautiful, middle-aged bourgeois woman plans an event for her husband, he can't make it, nor does he realize this event was intended to bring some life into their failing marriage. Catherine later listens to Bernard's voice mails, in which a young woman, of course, thanks him for the great night. Though she does confront him, she begins a ploy to hire a prostitute (Emmanuelle Béart) to have an affair with him and report back to Catherine about the details. The real indication of the final deceit of the film comes when "Nathalie" first reports back to Catherine. We don't see Nathalie or Bernard fuck; we just hear her testimony, and then Catherine pays her. A contemporary French film that is hiding the sex from us? There's something fishy going on here. In fact, we really don't see any of the saucy sex that is supposedly taking place offscreen in Nathalie... We're only told, with our imagination to run wild (or, at least, that's what Fontaine hopes for).

Fontaine hopes our imagination can run wild, and we can forget the fact that we never actually see any action. Unfortunately, we (or maybe simply I) have been conditioned to not trust films and certainly not their directors. As the film progresses, you almost hope that it's not going to go the way we expect. Unfortunately, our fears are realized in the final ten minutes. And that's really just the jaw-dropper, deal-sealer. It goes everywhere else we expected (in addition to telling her erotic encounters with Bernard, Nathalie also brings the "life" out of bored Catherine) and to no real satisfying degree. Some people can appreciate star vehicles as simply a way to exploit the familiar faces and traits of some of our favorite stars. This was big in the Golden Age of Hollywood... and still exists, even in France (for a truly wretched example, see Isabelle Huppert in La Vie promise, in which she plays a worthless sketch of a very typical Huppert "heroine"). Though Dépardieu is barely even there, Ardant and Béart are quite competent, and, for that reason, we stick with Nathalie... until its bitter(sweet) end.

Images and Obsession

The Brown Bunny - dir. Vincent Gallo - 2003 - France/USA/Japan

This blog is dedicated to Eric. [I don't think I'd suggest reading this unless you've actually seen the film]. I'd like to more accurately defend what I called at the time the best film of 2004. The Brown Bunny, as I'm sure you know, has a bad reputation. When it premiered at Cannes twenty-six minutes longer than the version any of us have seen, Roger Ebert called it the worst film to have ever played at the prestigious festival. Gallo claims the twenty-six minute longer version was a rough cut, as he hadn't finished it in time for the screening. A vile word war ensued between Ebert and Gallo, eventually ending in a truce, as Ebert gave the ninety-three minute long version three stars. This is hardly where the controversy ended. While critics sort of came to a consensus that The Brown Bunny was hardly the disaster they were lead to believe, the fact still remained that Chloë Sevigny gives Vincent Gallo a very real blow job at the end of the film. This, after the Cannes fury had died down, then spread just as quickly (if not more) to the United States movie-going public. A bunch of people who had probably never heard of the prior controversy went to see some fellatio and likely found themselves terribly bored until that point. When I saw the film for a second time (I had seen it previously abroad), a couple of people clapped when Sevigny put Gallo's member in her mouth. I heard one of the guys behind me sigh, "finally." If ever there's a need to defend the theatre experience, this is it. You cannot truly understand The Brown Bunny as an entity through home viewing. A girl walking out of the theatre told her boyfriend, "God, if only the rest of the film were that exciting." If only...

So what is The Brown Bunny, the Film? In some ways, it's not much different than The Brown Bunny, the Entity. It's an hour-and-a-half long masturbation for Vincent Gallo. Seldom do we encounter a creature like Gallo himself, a shameless megalomaniac whose actions and words are often beyond description, or belief. So to say that The Brown Bunny is simply Vincent Gallo's cinematic masturbation is not a criticism. Gallo's masturbatory fantasies are far more fascinating and complex than any old guy who wants to get a girl to blow him in front of a camera. When you actually see the film, no matter how you feel about Gallo or seeing him receive a bj, you must realize that there's more going on than a simple mouth to a dick. Melancholy, despair, sexual and romantic anxiety trace throughout the film, and while these emotions may be key to a number of repressed men's attempt at fantasy, it's far more fascinating to watch than a frat boy who dreams of seeing his girlfriend go down on another girl.

As most masturbatory fantasies are, The Brown Bunny, the Film, is completely interior. The only real show-stopping fault of the film is when Gallo's camera ventures beyond what he can actually see or imagine to show Daisy (Sevigny) smoking crack in a motel bathroom. Most people will find the long, single-take shots of the road through Gallo's windshield to be completely boring, but these scenes are essential to an understanding of this interior prose. The road itself is, surprise, a metaphor. As Bud (Gallo's fictionalized self) returns to California after a motorcycle race across the country, we're literally taken into a track through his memory and fantasy. It's never really understood whether the women he encounters on this trip are women from his past or simply fantasies; it is, however, understood that the encounters with these women, whether the ladies be real or not, are all created inside of his mind. Each woman is adoringly named after a flower (there's Lilly, Rose, and Violet) and have their names literally written on them in some manner, whether it be a name-tag or written on a purse. Each encounter begins promisingly, but due to a not-so-underlying anxiety on Bud's part, he leaves them and continues on the road. The anxiety is never made bluntly clear, though we know it has something to do with this Daisy. In fact we never really understand what it is about Daisy until the final "twist," which is peculiarly given away during one of the teaser trailers for the film.

It's probably necessary to also defend that scene. To some people, the scene is pretty unnecessary. It's Gallo's masturbation fully realized without the pretense of artistic expression (which I think is untrue). It doesn't matter whether we see Lilly, Rose, and Violet as memories of women post- or even pre-Daisy or fantasies of women; it matters that Bud cannot follow through with these women. Whether these women existed before or after Daisy or not at all is beside the point. Though he did not give himself to these women, for whatever reason, he wanted to and could not. If they're post-Daisy, we can see that because he gave himself so fully and vulgarly to Daisy and that things did not work out, he can't bring himself to open himself that way again. If they're pre-Daisy, we see that there's something quite special about Daisy that Bud would allow for such an intimate exposure of himself. Either way, he's broken, and he's broken because of this exposure. One could say the gruesome nature of Daisy's death could be equated with the obscenity of the fellatio scene. Or perhaps it's just intensity. It certainly isn't romantic. The sentence I'm about to type sounds terribly ridiculous, but I could think of no other way to put it. When Bud ejaculates, Daisy swallows, and it's here that we see the transfer of himself into her. She receives him and, not literally (to most viewer's relief, I'm sure) rejects this offering. As it's difficult to say whether what we see is a fantasy or a memory, it's not easy to say how Daisy rejects this offering. If it's a memory, she rejects him by going out, getting drugged up, raped, and murdered. If it's a fantasy, her rejection comes with her revelation that she's no longer alive. It's rejection either way, and this is where the melancholy, the despair, and the anxiety stems.

Though I named The Brown Bunny my favorite film of 2004, I'm questioning whether or not this is exaggerated praise. If I made any sort of adjustment, know that The Brown Bunny would still fall somewhere on the top tier of the list. Really, 2004 wasn't a good year for film; the only film that I can think of that would have competed for the top spot in my book was Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education (La mala educación), which really hasn't stuck with me in time. I find my ability to dissect The Brown Bunny, the Film, in such a way to be a bit distracting to my adoration. The films that truly resonate within me do so because of my inability trulyyly comprehend them. When a film leaves me at a loss of words, that's note-worthy, because, whether I'm completely wrong or not, I usually have something to say. The Brown Bunny left me with many words, as you can see. I struggle with calling Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni's masterpiece because I can read it far easier than I can L'avventura or L'eclisse (La notte is often regarded as the least of the trilogy for similar reasons; it's too easy to swallow). Yet, my ability to decipher Blow-Up does not hinder my love for it, as it still leaves me a bit unsettled and haunted. The Brown Bunny works like this as well, which is why it has stayed in my mind for so long, despite a proper dissection.

02 May 2006


The Guardian, in the U.K., has named the top 10 most controversial films of all time (thank you GreenCine Daily), citing Pier Paolo Pasolini's Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Saló, o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) as the number one. Most of the other films on the list are remembered by their Christian picketing (thankfully neither Dogma nor The Passion of the Christ made the cut) or by their scanadlous sexual or political content. The list is as follows:

1. Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom - Pier Paolo Pasolini - 1975

2. Natural Born Killers - Oliver Stone - 1994

3. Crash - David Cronenberg - 1996

4. The Last Temptation of Christ - Martin Scorsese - 1988

5. The Devils - Ken Russell - 1971

6. Pretty Baby - Louis Malle - 1977

7. The Birth of a Nation - D.W. Griffith - 1915

8. Straw Dogs - Sam Peckinpah - 1971

9. Monty Python's Life of Brian - Terry Jones - 1979

10. Bandit Queen - Shekhar Kapur - 1994

Images and Romance

Romance - dir. Catherine Breillat - 1999 - France

If you were keeping tabs on the history of the recent European (and American, if you count The Brown Bunny) trend of unsimulated sex in film, you'll find Romance at the beginning of your list. Surely, it's not the first film to have done such a thing, but it certainly started a trend, whether Catherine Breillat meant to or not. Back in 1999, Romance was a hot ticket. Intellectuals could get the rocks off without feeling smutty and look completely sophisticated for appreciating a film of this nature. "It's like Last Tango in Paris for the end of the century, only they really fuck!" (Coincidentally, Breillat has a small role in that film) There was a backlash too. As I was under 17 at the time, I wasn't allowed in the theatre, so I had to rely on my friends' testimonies to form an opinion. A lot of them were turned off by the film's coldness, while others laughed at the metaphor of a penis to a bird. Either way, I was clouded with negativity before even seeing it. When I actually did, I think I found it as silly as my older friends, but how does a sixteen year old begin to relate with a Catherine Breillat film? Now that I'm older (and hopefully wiser), have a lot more film experience under my belt, and an understanding of Breillat's other work (namely Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell) and the trend I spoke of earlier, I thought it was about time to revisit Romance.
Sure, the bird metaphor that Marie (Caroline Ducey) uses while holding her boyfriend's dick is a bit silly, but I hardly found it as silly as I did as a sensitive teenager. What Breillat presents is not simply an intellectual's porn film, stimulating the mind instead of the libido. She doesn't replace facials and double-penetration with thoughts on gender and sexuality. What she has to say is important... no matter how you feel about her work, her resounding voice demands respect. Yet what bothered me about Romance this time around is what bothers me about most play-to-film adaptations. Breillat has a fairly extensive background in literature; she wrote her first novel, entitled L'Homme facile (The Easy Man), at the age of seventeen. She also co-wrote the screenplays for several respectable directors like Liliana Cavani (La Pelle), Maurice Pialat (Police), and even Federico Fellini (...And the Ship Sails On), in addition to writing novels and adapting them into films. She adapted her novel Le Soupirail into Une Vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl) into a film in the mid-70s (though it was banned in France until just a few years ago), as well as 36 fillette in 1989, yet it probably wasn't until Romance came out that Catherine Breillat was ever considered "important" in the film world. She became "important" because she demanded importance. Her films were not going to go unnoticed, and from then on, they didn't, and perhaps this has most to do with the graphic sex, but I doubt that was Breillat's point.

Romance remains a failure though because it doesn't lend well to film. This is probably best explained in contrast to Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell, which is why I'm glad to have rewatched it after having a better understanding of Breillat's work. To say that Romance doesn't lend well to film is not to bare my secret prudishness, for that isn't true; it's meant to express my doubts toward Breillat as a filmmaker at this point in her career. The visual medium can be tricky for those trained in the written word. Romance falls somewhere between Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell in narrative. Fat Girl follows a more tradiontal structure, in which characters are exactly that. She infuses philosophy and thought into the story of the two sisters. In Anatomy of Hell, her characters don't even have names. It's meta to the fullest, and it helps that she cast a Gucci model and a porn star as her central figures. Romance is a semi-narrative about a woman, Marie, and her search for sexual gratification as her boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) has lost interest in her sexually. The narrative is cut by Marie's interior monologue about obscenity and degradation. Her sexual encounters range from a well-endowed widower (Rocco Siffridi) to her boss (François Berléand) who likes to tie her up. Marie is given a name, an occupation (she's a school-teacher), and Breillat gives us her thoughts. Yet, at the same time, she is meant to represent a larger scale of women, sexually unsatisfied and denied of their urges. This is not a successful union, as Breillat allows for the viewer to become somewhat attatched to her instead of letting her stand as a theory itself.
As for the visual nature of the film, Breillat's literary background hinders a greater appreciation again. While certain films (Bergman's Cries and Whispers comes to mind) use the color scheme to aid in mood, Breillat's knack for color comes off as annoyingly evident here. While the colorless white of Anatomy of Hell works perfectly for the film, it does not here. In Paul's apartment, the decor is minimal, all white or blanched; he is only seen wearing white or the palest of tan, just as Marie appears to be draped in white throughout most of the film. Get it... white is the color of virginity. When the change in color finally arrives, we saw it coming two reels ago. And, of course, it had to be red. Fire, passion! Her use of red and white seems rather textbook and painfully obtuse.
Breillat's intellect makes it truly difficult to outright dismiss Romance. She really has a voice of her own, and not one that's heard very often in the realm of cinema. Post-Romance, she's really hit her stride. However, as a film, it's also difficult to applaud her. The deconstruction theory of sexuality and femininity does not translate well here. Yet, further still, her ability to provoke (though provocateuse is probably too harsh a word to describe Breillat) and stimulate must be recognized. Breillat demands it. To discuss the nature of unsimulated sex onscreen would take a whole 'nother blog (or, better yet, a thesis paper), so I shall save that for another day. Romance will always have its place in the film history books, if only briefly mentioned after a passage about Larry Clark. But there is where a grave distinction between filmmaker and provocateur needs to be drawn.

01 May 2006

Family Life

Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca) - dir. Marco Bellocchio - 1965 - Italy

As I wasn't nearly as impressed with Fists in the Pocket as I might have hoped, I was going to dedicate this post to talking about what a twat I think Bernardo Bertolucci is. The Criterion disc features an "afterthought" by Bellocchio's contemporary Bertolucci, in which he takes any and every oppertunity to bring up his own films. "Well, Fists in the Pocket is a lot different than MY Before the Revolution..." you get the point. I understand that being a successful filmmaker like Bertolucci gives you certain bragging rights, but where does this extreme vanity come from? I imagined the interviewer saying afterwards, "Um, Bernardo, thanks for your thoughts, but this was supposed to be about Fists in the Pocket, not Before the Revolution." And plus, I think Bertolucci's bragging rights were officially revoked after The Dreamers (they should have been taken away after The Sheltering Sky, but I think we all still had hope for him then). So, in fear of doing the exact same thing that wanker Bertolucci does, I am going to save a rant about him when I'm talking about one of his films. On to, Fists in the Pocket...

Bellocchio probably ranks somewhere on the second tier of the great Italian directors. His most successful film, Devil in the Flesh (Il Diavolo in corpo), is probably only remembered because of the controversial shot of an erect penis and "unsimulated sex." So, I should have expected not to be as enthralled as I expected to with this Criterion release, even though they've more than pleasantly surprised me with their releases of forgotten classics like Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba and Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage). Fists in the Pocket introduces us to a dysfunctional family, in which the successful eldest brother Augusto (Marino Masé) carries the rest of the family financially. Augusto is handsome and expressionless. He has desires to marry his girlfriend Lucia, but the responsibility of his family is too much to add on a marriage. Alessandro (Lou Castel), the second eldest, realizes the burden he, his sister, retarded brother, and blinde mother cause for Augusto and plots to kill the family to relinquish his brother's burden.

Though he's making a comparison to his own film, Bertolucci accurately describes Fists in the Pocket as a non-political film. Instead of attacking bourgeois society as many of his contemporaries do, Bellocchio attacks the family structure to a not-so-starling effect. Sandro is essentially a nut-job, but a very typically 1960s idealistic one (truly aided by the Brando-esque performance by Castel). His plans to run the entire family off the cliff sound abhorrent, but through Bellocchio's camera, Sandro is a savior of sorts, not that we're meant to sympathize with the boring Augusto. The film also plays around with, surprise, Catholicism and the destruction of religious ceremonies, but never to the point of blasphemy. While this film may have been shocking at the time, it's not sharp enough to hold up today.

Instead, perhaps it is us, standing from a distance that realizes the faults in Sandro. While bursting with energy unlike his statuesque brother, Sandro is hardly different than Augusto. There's a very Through a Glass Darkly-ish relationship between Sandro and his sister Giulia (the astoundingly beautiful Paola Pitagora). When her playful crush turns cold, she explains her disinterest in Sandro with "you don't love me." Sandro's relationship with Giulia is as loveless as the relationship Augusto has with Lucia. While Augusto is looking for sexual relief, Sandro looks for a coconspirator in Giulia. As he cannot relate to the outside world, she's a far better aid than the retarded youngest brother and blind mother. Fists in the Pocket remains, however, a solid film, but as it's never clear as to its own attack nor sharp enough in its potentially blind assault, it's instead a reminder of why Bellocchio remains in that second tier of the great Italian filmmakers.