I saw a confluence of films surrounding the problem of violence and culpability for violence this year. There are always a steady stream of these kinds of movies at True/False. The world is always going to hell in a handbasket somewhere on the planet; that's manna for documentary filmmakers. Filmmakers aren't the only opportunists out there, though, and sometimes filmmakers cross paths with those other opportunists.
Friday, March 07, 2014
Thursday, March 06, 2014
Long careers in the arts--particularly in arts that are thought of as "entertainment"--are hard to string together, so when someone manages to become an elder statesman in such a profession, there usually comes a time to look back and wonder at it all. Career retrospectives are popular entertainments unto themselves. Greatest hits compilations are sometimes a musician's best-selling album. Stadium shows are sometimes singalongs in which music that was once growling and transgressive has become comforting and safe. So few filmmakers make vital cinema into their later years that it's hardly worth it to count the ones who do. Some of them just hang up their hat and take up real estate or some more mundane business. Several films at this year's True/False look back at the lives of aging artists. There's a bitterness in these films, but also some measure of celebration. It can be a heady mix.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
I don't know if it was by design--it probably wasn't--but one of the first line-ups of films at this year's True/False put Particle Fever right before 20,000 Days on Earth. Particle Fever documents the starting of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the largest science experiments ever mounted by human beings. One of the primary aims of the Large Hadron Collider was to verify the existence of the Higgs Boson, the keystone of the current Standard Theory of how the universe works. 20,000 Days on Earth follows musician Nick Cave as he composes his last album, Push the Sky Away, including a song called "The Higgs Boson Blues." If it wasn't planned, it's a classic case of synchronicity. Really, there's no guarantee that the audiences for these film would be substantially made up of the same people, so why plan something like that?
Be that as it may...
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
There's an old Harlan Ellison story called "Hitler Painted Roses" that postulates a woman who burns in hell for a murder she didn't commit. In his notes on the story, Ellison suggests that the idea was inspired by Lizzy Borden, who everyone knows "gave her mother forty whacks," and all that. The only problem with this is that Lizzy Borden didn't do it. She was knocked out on laudanum at the time. She was acquitted after the jury deliberated for a mere forty minutes. Facts don't really matter here, though, because what everybody knows about Lizzy Borden comes from a children's rhyme that went viral. Surely, Ellison surmised, Lizzy Borden burns in hell to this very day and never mind that she was innocent.
Several of the films at True/False this year address public perception of real-life criminals, taking what "everybody knows," and turning it inside out. Human beings are messy creatures, after all, neither angel or devil but some mixture of the two. Unfortunately, we are all profound mysteries to each other, a fact that these movies confront head on.
Friday, February 28, 2014
The True/False has started in earnest, but I've still got a couple of films from the screening process to write about. As I was saying in my last post, there's a dichotomy at True/False between films with large-scale concerns and movies that have a much more narrow scope. Some of the films with a narrower scope are personal stories or accounts of quirks in the way the world works. These are sometimes the festival's most pleasurable films. Sometimes, they are the most unpleasant. Regardless, they're usually the most daring entries at any given festival. The fun part of festivals is the blindness surrounding these films. You pays your ticket and you takes your chances and good luck to you.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
The night before True/False opened, they launched their companion series, showing with the festival, of "neither/nor" films. This year's series features Iranian meta-cinema from the 1990s. True/False, as their name indicates, has always been fascinated by chimeras, films in which fact and fiction intermix. The documentary as a form has always been untrustworthy. It's a feature and a bug that goes all the way back to Robert Flaherty. Few films are as aware of this fact as Abbas Kairostami's Close-Up (1990), which launched this year's series. It's the ultimate chimera.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
The True/False film festival returns to my fair city this week. I've been to every edition of True/False in some capacity. The last two years, I've had the privilege of serving on the screening committee, so I've seen a few of the films playing at the festival already. As was the case last year, this didn't make picking my schedule any easier, but it does let me write about several movies ahead of the opening of festivities. As usual for True/False, there are a host of films that are overtly political mixed in among films with smaller and quirkier concerns. I used to think that True/False was curated with this in mind, but the zeitgeist in documentary filmmaking is self-assembling, even in the slush pile. No assembly required.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
I've been trying to write about the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) for weeks without success. The film is receding in my memory now so if I don't put something on (digital) paper now, I probably never will. It's not that the film is impenetrably obscure. It's not. It's as watchable as anything the Coens have made. It's just that it's also hermetically closed, a moebius strip of a movie. It's one that doesn't let you get close to it or hang a thesis on it. Maybe it's just me. In truth, this is a film that hit me at a low point. It wasn't a film that I really needed at the time, which makes my relationship to it so complicated that I don't know where to start.
I think the word that best describes Inside Llewyn Davis is "morose." It's a grey film filled with grey characters doing grey things in a grey world. It has a downer of an ending and a downer of a beginning--a given, since it ends where it begins. It's a portrait of disillusion and failure. Its protagonist, the eponymous Llewyn Davis, is depressed and angry and confused at the outset. It's a state of mind from which he never emerges during the film. It tends to make the experience of watching it less pleasurable than it might be, especially if one is experiencing some of the same existential crises as Davis.
Note, here there be spoylers.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
It's been a while since I gave the ol' Netflix Roulette Wheel a go. Spinning the wheel this weekend gave me The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010, directed by Luc Besson). Color me surprised. I'm a fan of the Jacques Tardi comics, but I had no idea that this film even existed. My surprise was tempered a bit by director Luc Besson. I'm not a fan. Be that as it may...
Thursday, February 13, 2014
I don't have any deep insights into the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman beyond a vague distaste for the moralizing tone of some of its observers. It doesn't matter how he died. His family will grieve and then go on and sooner than you might think, the manner of his death will be outshone by what he did in life. This is the way these things happen. The shotgun does not outshine Nirvana. The needle does not outshine Hendrix. This is right and proper. I'm probably the wrong person to even be writing about Hoffman, because Hoffman has always been an actor who doesn't connect with me. I appreciate what he did, but my own tastes run to watching other people. This has nothing to do with his worth as an actor. He was very, very good at what he did.
According to the folks at my local art house, Hoffman appeared in more films to play their screens than anyone else other than Patricia Clarkson. They decided to send Hoffman off with a screening of his 2008 film, Synecdoche, New York, one of Charlie Kaufman's existential mindfucks. Given the way that the film maneuvers itself into a state of nothingness, it's likely the perfect film to stand as the actor's epitaph. It's a film I've resisted writing about, in part because I'm not sure how to encompass all of the thoughts it evokes. It's a film where its metacinematic structures create a vortex that sucks everything into it. More than that, it's a film that defies easy synopsis and forget about unpacking everything in it in the 1200 words of a blog post. Future film scholars will pore over feelies of this film like cyberpunk Talmudic scholars.
Saturday, February 08, 2014
"Late one night the club was heaving, I saw a vampire move across the floor.
Old and white with a silver cane lusting for youth through the mirror."
--The Mekons, "Club Mekon."
I stayed to the end of the credits of The Great Beauty (2013, directed by Paolo Sorrentino). The end credits wander lazily down the Tiber, coming to rest, eventually, on the Ponte Sant'Angelo. I don't want to read anything into this, because there's not really much symbolism here to decode. But it IS representative of the visual glory of Rome, something that is one of the film's primary concerns. It's also representative of the uneasy relationship between Italians and the Catholic Church, which is also one of the film's primary concerns. When, at last, it was done, a woman who had also stayed to the end asked me to describe what the film is about in three words. "Life," I said after a moment's reflection. "Death. Ennui." That's a gross oversimplification, because the film is also about art and movies and religion and how they all intersect in an Eternal City that has seen better days.
Friday, January 31, 2014
My ballot for the Muriel awards is due tomorrow and I have no freaking idea what's going to be on it. 2013 was one of those years that was so saturated with worthy films that regardless of what ends up on any given top whatever list, the omission of some film or other is going to feel like a lack. One film that I would love to put on my Muriels list, possibly even at the very top of it, is Shun Li and the Poet, but because of the way it was released (or, more to the point, not released in New York), it's ineligible. This, of course, is the peril of being a cinephile anywhere but New York or Los Angeles. Some of my favorite films this year are hold-overs from last year that are also ineligible for my list. Not that it matters much. I have a wealth of material to choose from. I made a huge list over at Letterboxd a couple of weeks ago to organize my thoughts, but it grew so fast that I doubt its utility. There are almost fifty films on that list.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
Now You See Me (2013, directed by Louis Leterrier) is candy. It's a caper movie about magicians, which is a high concept that says everything about the film. They say that a Hollywood pitch needs to be forty words or less. This movies pitch is only six words. That must have appealed to the suits. It appeals to me, a bit. I've been watching a lot of heavy films in the last month and a half, so candy is not something at which I turn up my nose. Not at all.
Monday, January 27, 2014
Frozen (2013, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee) finds Disney's animation unit making some sport of its own traditions. In doing so, it drags the Disney formula kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. If the songs were any better, this might even stand with the best of Disney's classic animations. Alas, when it opens its throat to belt out a song, Frozen crashes to earth. What's left is a pretty good movie that could have been a great one. Still, one takes pleasures where one finds them I suppose, and this movie does indeed offer pleasures aplenty.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
I don't know what I was expecting from Spike Jonze's Her (2013), but whatever preconceptions I may have had weren't even on the same continent as the movie itself. I mean, I knew the plot: lonely man falls in love with his operating system (probably easy when that system is voiced by Scarlett Johansson), but that high concept barely even describes the depth of thought and feeling in this movie. This is a full blooded science fiction movie that imagines huge concepts within the confines of its very specific focus on one lonely man. It's a universe in a teacup.