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Writing Samples 2014-15

This is a collection of links to writing I’ve published outside of this blog over the past year or two. It includes some of the recent work I’m proudest of, and I wanted to have it all assembled in one place for easier browsing.

A static medium shot of a man in a park paging through a book might not necessarily scream ‘scene of the year.’ Nor might a pan from left to right and then back again, even if it involved a woman’s husband waving a gun in her face. If, however, that latter shot broke off from the former, taking place on a separate, concurrent visual plane until they merged back together, with each half intended for just one of the viewer’s eyes, well, now we’re getting somewhere…

Attending the Ann Arbor Film Festival is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe. Here, dialogue and narrative lie on the margins, while abstract animation and ethnographic documentary take center stage. Absent are movie stars, paparazzi, and bidding wars; here, a “big name” is someone like Peggy Ahwesh or Lewis Klahr. It’s as if this one week in March at the historic Michigan Theater, just a couple blocks away from the University of Michigan campus, had been carved out of normal space-time and given over to the love of film as an art…

An hour into Robert Altman’s Nashville, a shot opens with a cluttered wardrobe where statues of saints rest next to a candle, a hair dryer, a lava lamp, and a mirror. A zoom out reveals a bathrobe-clad woman in that mirror, singing and shimmying as she listens to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. She’s Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), and she’s already been established as a waitress at an airport café with dreams of country-music stardom. She’s on the bottom of the film’s food chain, and her nasally drone of a singing voice means she’s unlikely to rise any higher…

“Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” an audience member shouted, interrupting Jared Leto. Again and again she shouted, until she was heard: “Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” This was, per The Hollywood Reporter, at a ceremony in Santa Barbara, California. It was February 2014, and Leto was sweeping through the awards circuit, receiving statuettes and ample acclaim for playing the HIV-positive Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

The day after that piece went up, Filmmaker Magazine published my first professional interview, with Tangerine director Sean Baker. And here are a couple other tidbits: in June, a tweet of mine was embedded in an online article for The Guardian; in January, another was named Indiewire’s “tweet of the day”; and reaching back to January 2014, my writing appeared (in embedded tweet form) on Sight & Sound’s website. None of these one-sentence snippets are especially insightful or representative of my writing, but I’m amused by how far and quickly they can travel.

I’ll wrap this up by mentioning that throughout 2014, I reviewed every single movie I watched on the social media site Letterboxd. Below are links to 15 of those reviews. They’re a mix of the ones that garnered the strongest reactions and the ones I’m happiest to have written.

The Big Parade · Bride of Frankenstein · Brief Encounter · Bringing Up Baby · Commando · Home Alone · Invasion of the Body Snatchers · Jodorowsky’s Dune · Mr. Peabody & Sherman · Night Moves · Nostalghia · One from the Heart · The Phantom of the Paradise · Point Break · The Silence of the Lambs

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2014: Darkness and Light

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The act of making an end-of-year top 10 list is an exercise in futile vanity. It’s reductive, repetitive, more in keeping with the behavior of a butterfly collector than that of an aesthete. (I wonder: do butterfly collectors ever get sick of being used in stale metaphors?) But, as with so many critical bad habits, the fact is that it’s also perversely fun. So here’s my end-of-year top 10 list.

I’ll preface it with a trio of “honorable mentions” which I couldn’t include on my list proper due to byzantine, self-imposed eligibility guidelines: (1) the first season of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, which straddles the increasingly permeable TV/movie border and contains some incredible “filmmaking” (or whatever you want to call it); (2) YouTube user Mia Munselle’s minute-long found footage opus “Camera falls from airplane and lands in pig pen–MUST WATCH END!!” which to my knowledge has never screened theatrically yet which is still an accidental gonzo work of substantial artistic import; and (3) Hong Sang-soo’s heartbreaking comedies Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi, both of which have been consigned to an inter-year limbo (as far as American critics are concerned) by the vagaries of distribution. Whether any of these items falls into the category of “2014 movie” is up for debate, but all are nonetheless relevant to any discussion of film form as this particular year winds to its close.

And now, about that “list proper”… well, first I have more honorable mentions; 15 of them, in fact, in alphabetical order. I just can’t help myself. They are ActressBlue Ruin, CitizenfourThe DoubleDouble Play: James Benning and Richard LinklaterErnest & CelestineGone GirlThe Grand Budapest HotelIt Felt Like LoveJealousyA Most Wanted ManObvious ChildOnly Lovers Left AliveSnowpiercer, and Stranger by the Lake. If you were to gently nudge my top 10, it’s possible that one of those could fall into a slot of its own, because listmaking is (enjoyable) bullshit.

I have 10 “runner-up” performances to cite, too! Patricia Arquette, for her maternal weariness in Boyhood; Emily Browning, dancing and lip-synching her way through God Help the Girl; Macon Blair, a hangdog sad sack out for blood in Blue Ruin; Zac Efron’s comic Adonis in Neighbors, especially impressive given the incoherent writing of his part; Charlotte Gainsbourg, agonizing to watch as the title character of Nymphomaniac; Liam Neeson as a brick-hewn embodiment of human duality in The Lego Movie; Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl as the year’s definitive femme fatale; Tilda Swinton as a Yorkshire-accented burlesque of bureaucracy in Snowpiercer; Paul Rudd as They Came Together’s archetypal romcom leading man (“handsome, but in a nonthreatening way”); Christoph Waltz further proving his versatility while (like Efron) making bad writing sound better in The Zero Theorem; and lastly Robin Wright, acting with body and voice as a sci-fi-skewed iteration of herself in The Congress. Whew! (Oh, and if for some sick reason you want a fuller picture of my year-end activities, I voted in both the Indiewire and 12 Films a Flickering polls.)

These past few years, I’ve handed out awards for Best Performance in a Documentary. Recipients have included Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Joyce McKinney in Tabloid, Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter, and Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing. This year’s addition to that informal hall of fame is Brandy Burre in Robert Greene’s Actress.

And now, the list proper.

Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

10) Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Although its frames are heavy with the ethical weight of 21st century living, this is still a crackerjack thriller: formally exact, noose-tight, never the slightest bit didactic. Bank heists have been pulled off with less precision than Reichardt brings to her camera angles and shot durations, which over time make even the Oregon wilderness feel as restrictive as a jail cell. Though its point (you can run, you can hide, but somebody’s always watching) has been reiterated by generations of paranoid thrillers, seldom has it been expressed with such rigor.

Kim Dickens plays Gone Girl’s hard-ass policewoman with screwball agility, her performance divvying up sympathy between the misled law and Ben Affleck’s patsy.

Though loosely inspired by Philip Roth, the aging literary giant played by Jonathan Pryce in Listen Up Philip functions broadly as a stand-in for a whole generation of successful assholes, their book sales counterbalanced by impotent rage.

9) We Are the Best!, directed by Lukas Moodysson

The mere fact that this is a positive, realistic movie about teenage girls’ friendships is refreshing enough, even if that alone may not a great movie make. (“You know,” I tweeted recently, “between Whiplash, Birdman, & Listen Up Philip, I really appreciate Vi ar bäst! depicting art as not strictly a macho pursuit.”) What does a great movie make, however, is ensemble energy yoked to episodic coming-of-age plotting and sharp-eared dialogue. We Are the Best! nails both the pains of growing up and the giddy pleasures of artistic collaboration.

Amy Seimetz’s role in The Sacrament could’ve been a throwaway “horror tour guide” part. Instead, she invests it with sisterly affection and evangelical zeal, drawing a straight line from friendly “hello”s to mass carnage.

Unlike many of my cinephile friends, I don’t follow wrestling, but I am consistently impressed by wrestlers onscreen: The Rock was my #1 supporting actor last year, and Dave Bautista is the best part of Guardians of Galaxy, as endearing with his deadpan line readings as he is lethal with a blade.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

8) A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

This tripartite avant-garde/doc whatzit is like an invitation to a trance state. Its audio plumbs the extremes of black metal and forest-shrouded silence, mostly forsaking dialogue; its ambulatory camera pushes on through open-air baths, firelit nights, and lakes whose waves lap against a lonely rowboat. It’s maybe baffling, definitely abrasive, yet still tantalizing as it weaves that wondrous spell.

I don’t expect Emily Blunt’s work in The Edge of Tomorrow to receive any awards attention; as far as Academy voting is concerned, acting rarely happens within action movies. But she’s the real deal (here, in Looper, in Your Sister’s Sister, in The Five-Year Engagement), providing the battlefield bravado that makes Tom Cruise’s death-by-death redemption possible.

I keep imagining Birdman as a mediocre remake of His Girl Friday, and maybe that’s in part because Edward Norton has such an old-fashioned charm to him. (See also: his “Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith” riff in Death to Smoochy.) I could see his strut, ego, dick, and all transplanted into the 1930s with minimal fuss.

Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

7) Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

By now, I’ve seen innumerable 2014 “best of” lists that foreground Boyhood, whether by naming it an ecstatic #1 or by crowing about its conspicuous absence. But I want to get away from all that, away from the “for or against” atmosphere fostered by a movie’s status as consensus favorite, and back to my feelings when I walked out of the theater this past August. I was gobsmacked, not merely by the unorthodox longevity of the film’s production, but by its dialogue and its complex ideas about family and the self, as well as its frequent grasps at the sublime from within the quotidian. It speaks to cinema’s possibilities, but also to its limitations, like the tragedy that a movie can only run from its beginning to its end.

With her bloodlust and blond mane, Mia Wasikowska injects a necessary dose of goofy id right into the middle of Only Lovers Left Alive. (She’s not half bad as the flawlessly coiffed object of “nice guy” desire in The Double, either.)

J.K. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash is admittedly blunt and showy, alternating between a couple of vicious notes for the whole of his screentime. But sometimes a movie needs an actor to be like a wrench to the rear of the skull, and Simmons is exactly, fatally that.

Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

6) Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

Watching this acrid comedy is like having a vial of misanthropy splashed in my face, yet counterintuitively it remains a pleasurable experience. The film zigzags through novel-emulating arcs of asshole behavior with no real comeuppance to be found at the end, yet still I relish its sour aftertaste. That’s because Listen Up Philip is satire that doesn’t resort to caricature, instead frankly replicating the headspace of a very intelligent young man (i.e. the worst type of human being) then dismantles its subject from the inside out.

Typically with a movie like Listen Up Philip I’d expect the antihero to have a “woman who holds him back”; instead, Elisabeth Moss plays “the woman he held back,” and her face (caught in close-up over the span of their break-up) says as much as Philip’s reams of smartass dialogue.

Although Boyhood’s most ballyhooed spectacle is that of a child aging from 6-18, it also depicts Ethan Hawke’s progress through his thirties into early middle age, accompanied by his character’s steady evolution: from songwriting “cool dad” to the uncool dad who drives a minivan and accepts his responsibilities.

The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

5) The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

I think of myself as pretty inured to horror movies’ scares at this point. I still watch them and love them, but—well, it’s like that bit in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Uma Thurman punches a plank of wood until her fist is numb. And watching The Babadook is like someone chopping that fist off at the wrist. Not only does the film boast immaculate craftsmanship (metronomic editing, monochrome production design) but it also makes motherhood—this fundamental fact of human existence—scarier than any bogeyman you could conjure up. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” indeed.

In Night Moves, all of Jesse Eisenberg’s usual mannerisms are tamped down, everything shoved below a stolid surface, with his interiorized fear and despair only bubbling up through his quavering voice and forced half-smiles.

As the author surrogate in Catherine Breillat’s autobio-drama Abuse of Weakness, Isabelle Huppert provokes sympathy and terror, her body put graphically through simulacra of strokes, PT, and a halting recovery.

Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

4) Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

You can break this experimental doc’s conceptual simplicity down into numbers: 11 shots, 2-3 people (plus occasional animals) per shot, 1 angle from which a static camera captures it all. Yet even forgoing most conventionally “cinematic” embellishments, the film still supplies a myriad of sights to see and miniature dramas to experience. It’s simultaneously a retreat back toward the basics of filmmaking and a leap forward via the primal power of the frame.

Even saddled with a phony German accent, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a fitting farewell performance in A Most Wanted Man. The nexus of the film’s anti-terrorist web, he visibly bears the weight of its moral compromises on his wide, world-weary shoulders.

What impresses me most about Jenny Slate in Obvious Child isn’t her motor-mouthed joke delivery, nor the way she subtly shades her sardonic reactions with pathos, but instead her fully demonstrated capacity for joy—a trait too often undervalued among performers.

3) Goodbye to Language, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

If Manakamana can be both a retreat and a leap forward, then the same is true of Godard’s foray into 3D, albeit in a more berserk fashion. It’s as if this old film-historical trickster god had invented a time machine that could carry him simultaneously into the future and back toward a pre-Lumière past. Breaking old rules, inventing new ones, taunting the viewer with unsolvable visual riddles: this is Godard all right, crafting (with the aid of stereoscopy and a curious pup named Roxy) a movie as fun, beautiful, and mind-bending as it is inscrutable.

Joaquin Phoenix may play a villainous pimp in The Immigrant, but his performance also disrupts such easy labels; though he may radiate wickedness and abjure audience sympathy, he’s still playing a human being first.

Scarlett Johansson’s anti-star turn in Under the Skin is a testament to her wealth of thespian imagination. It awes me that she even attempted to play an incomprehensible alien being, let alone that she succeeds to a terrifying degree.

The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

2) The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

Even though this rich melodrama only squeaked into theaters in 2014, it already feels as if it’s been around for decades. As if it’s an artifact from a bygone era, perhaps carved by Gray from a chunk of solid history, as one might make an amulet out of an elephant’s tusk. Walking into a new release this year, I never expected to see anything so pure, full, emotionally direct, and morally thorny. But then, The Immigrant has zero interest in playing to expectations.

The same applies to Marion Cotillard, who takes on a timeworn character type (“Gish-esque waif”) as the star of The Immigrant and makes the part hers. You can add her close-ups (like Elisabeth Moss’s) to the annals of great screen acting, right alongside Bergman and Garbo.

The aspect of Jason Schwartzman’s performance in Listen Up Philip that cuts me the deepest is the obvious sadness that will never be met by another human being’s compassion, because he lacks even a shred of the requisite humility.

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

1) Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

I hate to hyperbolize, but this is probably a new landmark in science fiction history.  Here, let me put that in hacky pull-quote form: “First came Metropolis, then 2001Star Wars, and now… Under the Skin.” To be terse: it’s just not like other movies.

No actor this year got to me quite like Essie Davis in The Babadook, whose performance incorporates notes of depression, abject terror, and homicidal resentment. She melds uncomfortable realism with outsize metaphor in the way she moves and screams.

And finally, Davis’s total inverse: Ralph Fiennes as the cosmopolitan Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He handles the role’s ornate dialogue, physical comedy, and latent melancholy with the same foppish grace.

[Movies I have yet to see include Beyond the Lights, Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, Love Is Strange, National Gallery, Selma, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and Two Days, One Night.]

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Link Dump: #85

Giant, person-devouring KITTY!

This week’s man-eating kitty is from the Sandman series, specifically the story “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” from the book Dream Country. Remember: Watch out, because with a single collective dream, cats could overturn the natural order again! And now, I give you our last set of links for 2012:

We’ll close off this year of Link Dumps with a pair of pussy-related search terms: “oozing foaming pussy vedios” (eww) and “two gey one pussy” (huh?). Yeah, I think “eww” and “huh?” just about sum up the Pussy Goes Grrr search term experience.

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Week End: Godard’s Cinematic Apocalypse

A couple weeks ago, some droogies and I watched and analyzed Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End (1967) for our radio show. However, I really didn’t get the chance to express all my thoughts  about it at the time, since it’s such an endlessly fascinating movie. It’s ideologically and formally hyperactive, like the best of Godard, flitting from one plot structure or revolutionary ideal to another in the space of a single scene. Godard rallies together every idea and device he’d been using to reinvent cinema for the past 7 years, and with them lurches toward the end. So, if I may, I’d like to put forward some ruminations about what, exactly, Week End is, and why I love it.

Week End is a very conscientious, on-target reaction its historical moment (i.e., the political climate of late-’60s France), yet it’s just as relevant today. It’s a flood of images and sounds depicting the slow, ignoble downfall of western civilization at its own hands. If Guy Maddin can say that his brilliant short film “The Heart of the World” is a creation myth for cinema, then Week End is a destruction myth. Everything must go: it’s a blowout sale of outmoded values.

The film’s #1 target, what Godard most wants to end, what he yearns to throw into the wastebasket, is its main characters, Corinne and Roland. They’re a comfortable bourgeois Parisian couple with few interests outside of themselves and their possessions; they’re also complete sociopaths. Each one schemes with a lover to do away with the other, while together they scheme to murder Corinne’s rich parents. This plot itself could make for outrageous satire, but it’s small potatoes for a director as ambitious as Godard.

For the first segment of his career, Godard had had great ambitions, and fulfilled them. He and his characters went right to the very edge of cinema. With Week End, he went right to the edge and then dived on in. Two despicable people embark on the perfect middle-class diversion – a jaunt into the countryside. But instead of pastoral beauty, their new environment contains cacophony, unbridled violence, and open class warfare. And just as the fundamental structures of capitalist society are breaking down, so are the mechanisms of the film’s narrative. On every level, this is a film about endings, whether of the week, of technology, of western culture, or of art itself.

In each of his early films, Godard attempted break up the story and to interfere with the audience’s enjoyment. In A Woman Is a Woman, he presented a musical without songs; in Vivre sa vie, he explained what was going to happen in each scene just before it began. But none of these was as directly an affront to the conventions of narrative cinema as Week End. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Corinne narrates a sexual encounter she had with another man and woman. (This borrows from a similar scene in Bergman’s Persona).

The scene goes on, and on, and on, in one lengthy take, but Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard blanket Corinne and her friend in shadows. So while the scene is as verbally pornographic as possible, the image is obscured. Complicating our experience of it even further, Corinne’s monologue is sometimes interrupted by music that swells, then fades. Godard gleefully throws wrenches into how we perceive cinema, and it’s fitting that many viewers would take Week End as a personal attack.

This is a movie burning with authorial aggression. You get a sense that Godard’s fed up with every system that governs life in the western world; it’s palpable in the irrational, often destructive behavior of his minor characters, in the nonsensical directions that the film travels, and in the burning car crashes littered along the country roads. Godard doesn’t place himself above this corruption and hypocrisy, though, since his film is mired in it as much as anything. But he’s hacking at these political and economic institutions from the inside, from his perch as a pioneer of French cinema.

Week End is a film that can sincerely be described as “anarchic.” It doesn’t just some flout some accepted filmmaking traditions. It sets the stage for honest-to-goodness political/aesthetic anarchy, and it questions the processes of making and watching a movie. To quote Sweet Smell of Success, Week End is that “cookie full of arsenic.” It’s drama and spectacle, yes, but laced with vicious sarcasm. I love it because it looks so aimless and haphazard while containing extremely sharp Buñuel-esque satire and a wealth of intellectual tidbits (as Godard’s films usually do).

I love how the satire leads the film down a rabbit hole where borders blur or disappear – fiction vs. documentary, actors vs. characters, past vs. present vs. future. Nouvelle Vague golden boy Jean-Pierre Léaud appears as a stranger, singing as he maneuvers around a telephone booth in the middle of nowhere; a hitchhiker turns out to be a revolutionary who takes Corinne and Roland hostage before turning out to also be a Christ figure. The characters sink deeper into the ennui of their would-be bucolic paradise, and the entire reason for their trip (Corinne’s parents) becomes a moot point.

The film ends on a note somewhere between nihilism and optimism. Not content just to torture his protagonists, Godard also radically changes the world around them, so we close with Corinne, now a guerilla soldier, consuming meat that may be Roland. Society, in the form of this upper-class couple, succumbs to Week End‘s apocalyptic violence. To paraphrase Pedro Almodóvar, this is a world on the verge of [and later, in the throes of] a nervous breakdown. Godard starts his revolution in what, as a filmmaker, is the most sensible place: with the end of his film. The bourgeoisie has eaten itself, and now their era – which has been in its twilight days throughout the film – has ended. But implicit in revolution is a new beginning… and thus Godard reignited his career in the aftermath of Week End, dedicated to rebuilding cinema shot by shot.

In Week End, Godard fiercely politicized and weaponized cinema. It’s a bleak sci-fi vision, a blistering black comedy, and a brutal polemic against everything he found to hate. With technical mastery – as demonstrated most obviously in the 10-minute traffic jam tracking shot – he and Coutard charted the boundaries of this self-immolating landscape, and then went beyond. As it struggles along, the film folds inward, repeats itself, backtracks, and skips through time, but then arrives at its inevitable and irreversible end. It’s morbid, but it’s the only acceptable conclusion Godard can see.

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