26 October 2006

Off to See the World

This will be me as of tomorrow. I'm taking a much-needed escape from Saint Louis to New York City, so there won't be many updates until late next week. Some planned events in NYC include:

Finally seeing John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, as it doesn't come here until Thanksgiving.

Going to Grey Gardens: The Musical.

And POSSIBLY, dressing up as Rosanna Arquette from Crash for Halloween. I'm not much for dressing in drag, even for Halloween, even though I went as Yoko Ono performing "Cut Piece" last year. So, if it does happen, expect lewd photos sometime in November. Adieu!

20 October 2006

Puff This: A Personal Response/Attack for The Puffy Chair

The Puffy Chair - dir. Jay Duplass - 2005 - USA

First off, I hate the fucking adjective "puffy." Secondly, this is going to be a very personal response to the film, as I find arguing for or against its dramatic leanings to be uninteresting. So, if you had read the slew of positive reviews of The Puffy Chair online or during the trailer, you would probably be reminded that the digital film movement was supposed to offer a fresh alternative to the mediocrity of Hollywood. A lot of these critics claimed that The Puffy Chair was arguably one of the first to really do so, as other digital cinematic ventures had failed to really stick in people's minds (Tadpole, Personal Velocity, The Anniversary Party... and many others you've already forgotten). The low cost and accessibility of digital was going to make it possible for the little guys and girls whose cock-sucking skills didn't match their talent to make new, bold, real films. No longer do you need to be the casting couch cliché for the Weinsteins; you can just make a film with a bunch of your friends and hardly spend a dime. The Puffy Chair is the first feature-length narrative from the Duplass brothers (director Jay and writer/actor Mark), a remarkably obnoxious and tedious road film/intimate character study. First, we have Josh (Duplass), a former musician, current show-booker. It's his father's birthday, and he's bought a giant, mauve recliner off ebay, one similar to the chair his father used to have. He's got a girlfriend, Emily (Kathryn Aselton), a "sweet-natured" attention whore, waiting for Josh to turn into her Prince Charming. After severely pissing off his prima donna girlfriend, Josh invites her on the road-trip he'd planned to take alone, with an eye-rolling homage to that scene in Say Anything, pictured above. Then, we have Josh's brother, Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), who also decides to join the road trip, much to Emily's dismay. Fights ensue, high drama explodes, not without a few bumps in the road.

The Duplass brothers present their characters as someone like Woody Allen or a show like Six Feet Under might, exposing their deep character flaws, in addition to their admirable traits, in order to achieve some sort of three-dimensional truth. One thing they don't realize is that when a film is so utterly surface-level as The Puffy Chair is, the audience has no fun watching annoying fucking characters. We see scenes of Josh and Emily talking in goofy, cutesy voices to one another, showing us moments in a relationship that we rarely see onscreen and to which we can relate. This is fine, in my book, even if it is sort of queasy to watch, but to have us, a willing participant on this road trip, endure the obnoxiousness of their characters is just plain rude. When your film is all surface, let me like your characters, or, better yet, make me fascinated by them. Josh is the only excusable character here, perhaps because he seems the typical antihero of these sorts of films. Emily is grating, to say the least, and Rhett is a drag. Like I said, I can understand the purpose of putting "man" or "dude" at the end of every line of dialogue, but do I really want to see that? Do I really want to choose to join in on the roadtrip when I hate the people I'm traveling with... and don't really care where we're going? Sure, I'm being super personal with this film, but when something has nothing beneath the surface or between the lines to offer me, I can hardly bring myself to say anything perceptive or intelligent.

19 October 2006

2007 is looking good already!

I knew I couldn't have a shitty day if I woke up to find that Warner Brothers has finally announced the much-delayed DVD release of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance, starring Mick Jagger, James Fox, and Anita Pallenberg. This will be the first release of the film anywhere and will also be the uncut version of the film, thank God. The disc includes a documentary and will be out on Feburary 13th, 2007. So, if you wanna be my valentine, you know what to get me.

I must also wish a happy birthday to the late, great Divine, who would be 61 today. Divine is assuredly one of the finest comic actors that ever graced the screen. Too bad Divine ain't around any more, or I'd get her those coveted Cha-Cha Heels. Look and see:

14 October 2006

Je ne vous salue pas, Marie

Hail Mary (Je vous salue, Marie) - dir. Jean-Luc Godard - 1985 - France/UK/Switzerland

I've come to discover that Christians are likely the easiest group of people to piss off. Someone like Mel Brooks can make fun of Hitler, and not a single Jew will bat an eye. But if Kevin Smith casts Alanis Morrissette as God... watch out! Godard, at this point in his career completely satisfied with his pretentious provocations, apparently really fucked the European Christians up with this film, a modern retelling of the virgin birth of Christ. The pope himself was mortified by this film, and watching it... well, you can't really see why. Though littered with full nude shots of Marie (Myriem Roussel) and filled with questions of human existence, it's Godard. And Godard is certainly alienating. I might think people would have been most offended by the way he bores his audience than anything remotely blasphemous.

One of my professors perfectly summed up my feelings on Godard. He has the uncanny ability to cut his film in threes. During the first act, you're quick to announce him as the Savior of cinema. By the second act, you've scratched that thought. And by the third, you think he's a hack. I defended the purpose of this three-act structure for Weekend, but, here, even more so than the self-righteousness of something like Tout va bien, he gets so lost in his own mind, you quickly lose sight of anything he's trying to say. And maybe he does too. It doesn't help that Hail Mary is scathingly boring, more so with the promise of provocation. I commend his idea, examining the piety and confusion of a young virgin chosen to give birth to the son of God, and while the story would have made for a fascinating study of a young, God-fearing girl's sexual confusion and struggles, Marie seems to be more a part of Godard's sexual fantasy than her own or her betrothed, Joseph (Thierry Rode).

Marie's internal struggle is cut within strange moments involving a young student (Anne Gauthier) and her professor (Johan Leysen) who insists on calling her Eve, though her name is Eva. I would suggest that these scenes dissect the nature of subject and artist, but it's a hard sell (the New Yorker DVD includes a behind-the-scenes documentary directed by Godard called Petites notes à propos du film 'Je vous salue, Marie' which may enlighten this, but I wasn't interested). Marie is accosted by the angel Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) and a young girl (Manon Anderson), both of which are striving to carry out the message of their God, though Gabriel seems just as torn as Marie about the whole situation. Joseph's other girlfriend, Juliette (a very young Juliette Binoche), comes and goes, with fleeting moments of jealousy and confusion. Essentially, Hail Mary is a mess that probably only makes sense in Godard's head. He made later films, notably For Ever Mozart and his Histoire(s) du cinema series, that served some purpose outside of his own pretensions, but this was during the period when he stopped making films that were relatable or viable to really anyone. For its aspirations, Hail Mary is a super dud of a film. If you do end up seeing this, clue me in as to why the pope was so offended.

12 October 2006

I Should Know Better

Chinatown - dir. Roman Polanski - 1974 - USA

Please, if you haven’t seen Chinatown, don’t read this and run to your video store now (and to Josh, who rated the film 1 star on Netflix, try to win back my respect).

I really should know better. Instead of watching pieces of shit like Art School Confidential, I need to just revisit films that actually matter. No matter what your stance is on film versus video, one can’t deny the sizable appeal of home video. How else can one visit and revisit films like Chinatown whenever they want? You don’t have to pay to see the film repeatedly, nor do you have to wait for it to screen in your city. Chinatown, and other masterpieces, can be at your disposal whenever you want. I suppose everyone has films that can continuously amaze, astonish, and eventually break your heart. More than just a litmus test for whether I will like someone or not based on their opinion of Chinatown, Chinatown, for me, is the reason why I adore the cinema. The film, Polanski’s third film after the death of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and his final American feature, works for me in a way other film noirs (especially the neo-noirs) do not. While I hold films like The Maltese Falcon, Pickup on South Street, and Double Indemnity in an extremely high regard, Chinatown has something that these films do not, and it’s something that’s difficult to pick up on a single viewing. Chinatown is, no doubt, a richly textured and layered film; in fact I find myself stumbling over words trying to explain the plot. Thankfully, plot details seldom matter in film noir (look at The Big Sleep if you really want to get lost). One can applaud L.A. Confidential or Brick on the grounds of cleverness and faithfulness, but can we give them praise for their dramatic achievements? I’d say no, though I would accept an argument for the Joseph Gordon-Levitt character as being a bit like Polanski himself. To prefer Chinatown to L.A. Confidential is not to declare one’s self a pessimist or an optimist; it runs deeper than that.

Nicholson detractors, be advised: this ranks with Antonioni’s The Passenger as one of the least “Here’s Jaaaaaack” Nicholson performances. This is likely because he was under the direction of respected foreign auteurs, but I might argue that this is one of Nicholson’s best performances, for the very reason stated above. Though this is not a criticism, watching Chinatown once doesn’t hold the impact of multiple viewings. The film is assuredly plot-heavy in its dealings with the water department and corruption; at times, one even forgets why Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is still in the picture. But without her, Chinatown wouldn’t work on the level that affects me the deepest. Chinatown is all about J.J. Gittes and Eveyln Mulwray. Upon initial viewing, we’re as distracted as Gittes is. What is Evelyn hiding and why? Is she stringing him along like Barbara Stanwyck? Is everything that comes out of her mouth a bold lie like Mary Astor? Our questioning eye, thanks to the incredible singular point-of-view of Gittes by Polanski and screenwriter Robert Townes, doesn’t give Evelyn the sympathy that she so deserves, and it allows us to stray. Since this is after the heyday of noir, Evelyn doesn’t need to function as the cold, conniving femme fatale. This may be her exterior, but beneath the front, she’s a tortured soul, far more sad than the label of “sick woman” her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), gives her. The passion in Chinatown is real, not a sexual guise to achieve the seedy greed and fortune these noir spiderwomen so desire, which is what separates it from the rest. One also cannot really appreciate Faye Dunaway’s brilliant performance on a single viewing. Her performance is wildly complex, and Polanski allows her no trickery. We might assume her to be calculating, but this is only because of our prior cinematic knowledge, and Polanski and Townes play off that. Her frightened shutters and glances scream of a woman damaged, a woman with a dreadful, nearly unspeakable secret. Dunaway allows for the misinterpretation of her nervousness, and this is why she works so amazingly. We see her as Jake does, a mysterious beauty with something to hide. Only upon knowing the secret (which most people know without even seeing the film) does our opinion change. Her “sister, daughter” scene is so ruthlessly powerful, most people find themselves laughing to cover up their violent discomfort. The “sister, daughter” scene ranks among some of the most famous scenes in film history, and it could have been a complete disaster in the hands of a lesser actress. You’re probably screaming something about wire hangers right now, but under the direction of Polanski, there’s nothing remotely amusing about Faye Dunaway here. In fact, I kind of look away every time I see that scene. I can’t imagine another actress pulling that off, even though both Ali MacGraw and Jane Fonda were rumored to have been sought for the role of Evelyn. It may be rather bold of me to say this, but I honestly don’t believe Chinatown would have worked without her.

To scrape away the plot is to find Chinatown, both the film and the place. For Gittes, Chinatown is a bad memory. Chinatown, the location, quite literally becomes a personification of his loss, his own personal damage, and a reminder of why he is the staunch, cold Sam Spade of the film. Chinatown also becomes a black abyss of confusion, lawlessness, and a loss of control. The famous final line, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” sends chills down your spine. You’ve lost, just like Gittes has. Townes has always said that Roman changed the original ending from a happy one to the one that stands now: a bleak, miserable, wholly pessimistic explosion of a conclusion. Seldom do films elicit a physical reaction from me, but the sound of that damned car horn will always make my stomach sink… deep. So deep that just thinking about it has gotten my mind far off track in writing this. Chinatown, the film, is all about the doomed, tragic love affair between Gittes and Evelyn. More than that, it’s about the fucked up way things return to you; it’s a lot like Vertigo if you think about it, only Jack Nicholson has his guard up. He’s a tortured man who’s been rendered cold; James Stewart is a desperate man who’s been rendered obsessive. In a way, Vertigo ends happily. Order is restored, and James Stewart can continue with his life. It’s typical Hitchcock. The world of Chinatown is ruled by chaos and by the untouchable power of the wealthy. Order is certainly not restored; disorder has swooped around, like karma, to destroy Gittes again. I say this about Gittes because, as a viewer, we are him. We’re not Evelyn; she is our lost second chance. You can call Polanski an asshole if you so desire, but you can’t say his tragedy isn’t insanely beautiful and painfully haunting (for another example, see Macbeth).

The moral if this story, kids, is to respect your elders. Never turn down the opportunity for a revisit of the films that move you, even if it’s a Farrelly brothers comedy. True understanding of a film, even one less complex and wonderful as Chinatown, cannot come from one viewing (and, something, never comes at all). But it’s all in the attempt, isn’t it?

10 October 2006

Get it?

Art School Confidential - dir. Terry Zwigoff - 2006 - USA

On a scale of epic misfires, Art School Confidential may not rank very high, but in a year that has given us only one sole blockbuster (something about pirates, and whether it's good or not, people appeared to have liked it) and a string of mediocre snoozes, Art School Confidential would be refreshingly bad if it weren't so... bad. Now this is coming from someone who fucking hated Ghost World and was mildly amused by Bad Santa, mainly just for Billy Bob Thornton. On a scale of 2006 badness, Art School Confidential frighteningly makes The Black Dahlia look like a good time. In all honesty, it's hard to put your finger on where the film goes wrong; it's just puzzlingly bad. Surely, one can point out that it's a cluttered mess of silly side-stories, unnecessary characters, and boring familiarity. One could also make note of the fact that it's a satire that lacks any sort of bite or, counterly, subtlety. I could almost see real art students being enraged by the film, but the only picture I get is of those students tearing apart the film like the one-dimensional characters in the film do to others' paintings. Instead of dissecting the film's badness point by point, I'll let this post operate as an open letter to Anjelica Huston, begging her to quit trying to choose such "hip" film parts, even if she is the best thing in 'em.

05 October 2006

Lend Me Some Sugar...

Next Door (Naboer) - dir. Pål Sletaune - 2005 - Norway/Denmark/Sweden

New horror directors come and go. Promising talent succumbs to expectations and the system. Is it no wonder Alexandre Aja followed up his almost-wonderful Haute tension with the super-dud remake of The Hills Have Eyes? While it was certainly popular, Eli Roth’s Hostel was no Cabin Fever. And we’ll just have to wait to see if Neil Marshall’s follow-up to The Descent will meet already-high expectations (on a side note, it’s rumored to be a sequel to The Descent, but no final word yet). When these directors come around, critics throw comparisons to once-great horror (or horror-esque) directors like David Lynch, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, or Roman Polanski, as originality seems to be a thing of the past in both filmmaking and criticism. The box for Next Door very loudly accepts these comparisons, stating an “homage to Polanski with a nod to Lynch.” And, while that is somewhat accurate, to brush off Next Door as derivative horror shit would be wrong. It certainly calls to mind Polanski’s trilogy of the horrors of apartment dwelling as the film is set almost-entirely within brooding apartments, yet there’s a fresh weirdness and discomfort to Next Door that calling Sletaune a young Polanski would be to misjudge its prowess.

John’s (Kristoffer Joner) girlfriend Ingrid (Anna Bache-Wiig) shows up to his apartment to collect the rest of her things. Tension builds as you begin to realize their break-up wasn’t an amicable split. Her new boyfriend is waiting outside in the car and honks periodically, which prompts Ingrid to wave out the window to him. It’s an agreement they’ve made, and though we don’t find out initially why, we suspect something terribly dangerous. And for its first hour, danger is certainly on the menu. John then accepts the offer of his neighbor Anne (Cecilie A. Mosli) to help move a large chest (hello, Rosemary’s Baby!) in her apartment. She knocks on the door of her own apartment, and we hear a loud, disturbing rumbling. Seconds later, Anne opens the door, and we meet her roommate Kim (Julia Schacht). Apparently, the rumbling came from Kim moving the large chest away from the door. John quickly spots the eeriness of these two women and tries to excuse himself. The women are not as willing as he is to let him go. Cue weirdness.

Seldom have I ever seen a film as deliciously off-kilter as Next Door. The film takes about fifteen minutes to ease you into its world, its rhythm, and once it does, it’s terribly difficult to shake. Director Sletaune, who directed the black comedy Junk Mail in 1997, uses his setting just as well as someone as gifted as Polanski. There’s a claustrophobia, similar to The Descent, that makes for a real terrifying time. Never can the audience really draw a mental blueprint of the apartments, as hallways seem to never end and lead into more and more rooms. In the world of David Fincher, our tension and claustrophobia is squandered by a camera that insists on showing us everything, traveling through drainage pipes and navigating by way of the ceiling. Panic Room, well, sucked. The camera of Next Door, wonderfully shot by John Andreas Andersen, is a different creature altogether. This camera refuses to show us any exterior, cinematic maps of our world. Our world, instead, is seen through telephoto lenses, where the shadows and doorways are endless. Logically, these apartments couldn’t exist. But with artistic license, they provide a terrible, wonderful feeling of distress.

Only in our final ten minutes does the film lose it. The final shot is aesthetically pleasing, but dramatically disappointing. The world Sletaune creates with Next Door becomes cheapened by a throw-away explanation of the events, events so fresh and frightening that closure (even closure in the most head-stratching-ly weird as A Tale of Two Sisters) could only ruin. Sure, not explaining what’s going on would have pissed off a lot of viewers, but there’s no way I can look at the finale as anything but a giant mistake. Take for instance a scene where Anne is interrogating John. This is obviously one of the scenes that would force people to draw comparisons to Lynch, as it very much calls to mind the Grace Zabriskie/Harry Dean Stanton scene in Wild at Heart. For no reason, Anne starts making out with John, as he’s being held in a headlock by another man. After their kiss, the man holding John then proceeds to shove his tongue in John’s mouth. And we accept this, because the rules (or lack of rules) have been successfully laid out for us. Shitty endings aside, a film as concise and fascinating as Next Door doesn’t come around very often, and at seventy-five minutes, there’s no filler. With its uncomfortable sexuality and claustrophobic terror, Next Door is one of the great DVD finds of 2006.

01 October 2006

In his own way, he's trying to tell you he loves you...

Prince in Hell (Prinz in Hölleland) - dir. Michael Stock - 1993 - Germany

The term teen angst likely found itself a visual, cinematic reference in the 1980s, but the 1990s morphed into a real state of being, an unmistakable characteristic of the disgruntled youth, not only of the United States, but of the entire world. This angst extended beyond the teenage years, with films like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming or any of Gregg Araki’s films, creating separate facets of this global existentialism. From the post-undergraduate dormancy of the Kicking and Screaming boys and girls to the what-are-we-doing-in-this-godless-world-of-scientologists-and-violence teenagers that filled Araki’s screen, these anxieties spanned the gamut of youth, unaware of their place, purpose, and future. These sentiments still exist in cinema from all over the world, like Jia Zhang-Ke’s Unknown Pleasures (China) or Bruno Dumont’s The Life of Jesus [La Vie de Jésus] (France) to name a few, adding to the ever-increasing canon of what-are-we-doing-here malaise in cinema. Prince in Hell closely fits into the faded genre of New Queer Cinema, made famous by people like Todd Haynes, Bruce La Bruce, and Araki. While the gays were certainly not the only ones who held these anxieties, how fitting these feelings would be for a group of people long ignored, continuously hated with their history and their patriarchs being ravished by the crisis of AIDS, an epidemic upon which the government tried to turn a blind eye. Prince in Hell stands as a forgotten piece of New Queer Cinema, a film ripe with dissatisfaction, fear, and the shattered dreams of a generation.

There was a film that I so violently disliked, I could hardly bring myself to write about it, called FAQs. FAQs, made in 2005 by Everett Lewis, tried to stretch the genre of New Queer Cinema past the 90s, only with a knowing-eye, with a well-noted study of queer theory. In the film, all of the themes and aesthetic motifs, like music and fashion, seemed painfully contrived, leaving not a single moment for the audience to intellectually deduct a damn thing. Prince in Hell has all of these themes established for itself, most importantly the desire for a new family structure. Only, here, characters don’t throw out lines like, “We need to create a new family structure to combat against the patriarchal, republican assholes of our country.” Perhaps that wasn’t the line verbatim, but you get the point. Prince in Hell, like so many other NQC films, was of its time, and therefore created the style, themes, and motifs of a genre a director like Lewis so shamelessly wanted to revive. A commune of social rejects form in Prince in Hell, consisting of court-jester Firelfranz (Wolfram Haack), junky Jockel (director Stock), alcoholic, lovelorn Stefan (Stefan Laarmann), constantly-horny Micha (Andreas Stadler), his wide-eyed eight-year-old son Sascha (Nils Leevke-Schmidt), and his fed-up, baby’s-momma Sabine (Simone Spengler). They all live in a mobile home, with various others joining them for parties and eating, each looking out for the other and seeking to combat the treacherous world around them. Micha is a terrible father; his varying sexual interests keep his mind away from his child, so the Derek Jarman-y Firelfranz assumes the role of care-giver to the boy. Jockel and Stefan are in a stormy relationship. Stefan cares about politics and monogamy, while Jockel’s possible interests in either have hit the downward slope, possibly due to his heroin addiction.

The lives of the three central characters, the love triangle of Jockel, Stefan, and Micha, is paralleled by a puppet-show, conducted by Firelfranz about a young prince banished to the forest of Hell. In the forest, a petrified Garden of Eden, he lives with his lover but suffers from the constant torment and temptation of the evil Magician. The Magician offers him powders and potions that distract him from his one true love, as he struggles to once again get the approval of his father, the King. If you don’t spot the metaphor, you should probably open your eyes. Thankfully, the film doesn’t treat these parallels as a way to drive the point deeper, but as both a clever narrative tool and a way for the young Sacha to interpret the frightening world around him. This world of ambiguous love and sex, mind-altering substances, and rejection exists without real acknowledgement from the naïve young Sascha, and Firelfranz’s fable allows for the interaction and interest in the concerns of the world for the boy. He is the not-so-blissfully ignorant viewer, unconsciously blind to the hardships around him and a reminder of the scope of these anxieties, these ailments of a generation (and subsequent generations).

On another level, Prince in Hell addresses the cultural terrors of a newly-united Germany. As a film like Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) exposes the worldview of Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Prince in Hell carefully exposes the frightening reality of post-Wall Germany, where, it appears, not much has changed. Through radiocasts, Stock clues our audience into the world outside of this commune, where xenophobia and violence run wild. One might get the false impression that the commune exists as a peaceful outlet from the societal anguish, but the characters soon recognize the holding power of the outside world upon their “family.” Treks outside of the commune elicit frowning looks from on-lookers, animalistic sexual encounters, skinhead violence, and damaging drug intakes. All of these elements sadly bring themselves back to the family, where hopes of romanticized escapism are tarnished. Jockel’s drug addiction and failing interest in the good causes which the commune supported rub off on the rest of the characters. He introduces Micha, an easily tempted young man, to heroin and ignores the romantic leanings toward Stefan, who quickly becomes irrevocably frustrated with the entire situation, while not being able to break himself away from it. Micha’s free-love, experimental ways distance him further from his son and sparks hatred from Sabine, the boy’s mother. Even within this refuge, the hatred of the outside world, of a falsely-liberated Germany, seeps within.

After watching Araki’s The Doom Generation (which I will be writing about, again, soon) with a friend of mine, he commented about the bleak conclusion of what began as a raunchy, spunky black comedy. While Prince in Hell is hardly the riotous comedy The Doom Generation is, I can anticipate a strong, perhaps disgusted reaction at the finale of our film. Whereas something like FAQs strategically tied a pink bow around a tale of misguided gay activism, Prince in Hell doesn’t, leaving us a terrifying sense of gloom. Prince in Hell’s worldview tells us that, essentially, there is no escape, and despite the admirable efforts of small groups of people, the struggle is endless. The torch is metaphorically handed to the young Sascha, but a lingering question remains. Has a world as fucked up as ours jaded the youth? And has this jadedness given us no hope for our future? Time, of course, will tell, and while Prince in Hell may not have meant much to viewers upon its release (its IMDb rating is shockingly low), you can always throw your appreciation out to a cultural memoir, especially one whose dealings refuse to go away.