Monday, December 24, 2007

"I'd be the penguin."

by Ryland Walker Knight


It's kind of shocking how effective both of the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant series-ending Christmas Specials are. Especially this one, which teeters on maudlin throughout. When it comes down to it, they tell fairly simple stories -- stories that have been heard or read or seen before -- but they do it with passion. Their commitment is unflagging, too. This Extras finale is kind of a chore to watch as, again and again, the humor exploits that bleak and uncomfortable pathos that the second season of The Office so perfected. That scene with Clive Owen just keeps on going! But it's still funny, somehow. And then there's this climactic monologue. The humility is genuinely touching. I guess part of its success is due to the weight of the bleak situations, and its kind of standard dramatic structure, but regardless of the seen-it, done-it quotient, the scene hits. What's weird is that it's the same argument as their Comic Relief 2007 sketch, except that was pure comedy. Weirder still is my inclination to say that this series finale is "better" than the sketch. Part of it could be that with that much irony condensed into eight minutes, the piece gets grating. But maybe the reason the monologue worked for me is because I'm actually indulging some of those messy yuletide emotions I keep hearing about, and avoiding. Basically, I'm glad I stuck with the thing because the payoff is worth it. You almost believe it's Ricky Gervais being honest. Funny that should come in a film, not an interview. But then again maybe it's the correct thing. Maybe he really is a genius. A snub nose little fat man genius with quite a cackle for a laugh. But, hey, maybe Stephen Merchant is the genius.

pull back!
[That's what friends are for.]

[Merry Christmas.]

Friday, December 21, 2007

COEN COUNTRY: delay of game.

Mark it zero

RWK says: I spoke too soon. Mostly my fault, but at its simplest it's this: We Ain't Ready. Still, there's three concrete things I can blame for my procrastination: beer, dance parties and porn. Plus, I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road this week, which I was surprised I finished, especially after disliking his previous book (or what little I read of it), which I also thumbed through in preparation for this little project. So, thanks for your anonymous patience! If anything, we can say thank you to Mike for getting his essay done in, like, an hour after I emailed the crew about this project. In honor of that, here's another anonymous, patient mug, Ed Crane:

[There were marketing plans for promotional bumper stickers to read, "Ed is Ed."]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Round sound and stopped clocks. Stellet Licht sees sun spots.

by Ryland Walker Knight

UK Poster

While Carlos Reygadas' first two pictures are without a doubt more immediately impressive (to say more shocking) than his third film, neither Japòn nor Battle in Heaven have anything on Stellet Licht when it comes to ebullient photography. For all the flashy formalism, though, Reygadas has made a quieter, more tender film than before because of this picture's remediation (evolution?) of his signature aesthetic preoccupations. If Battle in Heaven shuttered the broken wall country vistas of Japòn in Mexico City’s urban myopia, Stellet Licht nearly strips the world of material frameworks: here, the glass of windows (and of the camera lens), coupled with the light of the sun, and its splayed presence (or its dark absence), are enough for Reygadas to round the pleated space of his films (of the spirit). Sure, frank sex still plays a part. But those unabashed lens flares, as well as the film’s impeccable and complex sound design, background Reygadas’ concerns with the messiness of sex and desire to foreground the relative purity of, and paramount confusion between, love and faith. Perhaps it’s Stellet Licht’s gentility that shocks most of all.

The film opens gentle enough with a protracted time-lapse dawn accompanied by sounds of the world awakening. Yes, Genesis. The single-take sunrise is gorgeous, to be sure, but the exaggerated sounds (as in a Bresson offering) frame the film as much as the light of a new day: animals bleat, wind whips, and, once indoors at a breakfast table silent with prayer, a clock ticks. The prayer lasts long enough for Reygadas to introduce us to patriarch Johan, his wife Esther, and their stable of six children, in perfect compositions that isolate the parents and group the children. After a mostly-silent breakfast, and a reminder “I love you” goodbye, Esther and the children leave Johan alone, at the end of the table, in the middle of the image, directly underneath that won't-quit clock. Johan sits quiet, staring at a spoon. Then he stands, retrieves a footstool, and steps up to stop the clock. Sitting again in the still of the room, the camera pushes in closer, and Johan cries.

The story is simple: Johan has fallen in love with another woman, Marianne. The complication is Johan still loves Esther, and he has been completely open about his affair from the beginning. This proves too much for Esther’s heart to bear, naturally, but the amazing thing about Reygadas’ film is its lack of judgment. There’s no scolding. Or, even when there is a scold, it’s undercut by empathy a second later.


I am told the great act of humility that closes Stellet Licht owes a debt to Dreyer’s Ordet, which I have not seen (nor have I seen any of his films, for that matter). Some critics have used this against the picture; others do not. I imagine Reygadas is smart enough that as much as he may inherit from Dreyer, his vision of the scene is singular. For instance, I doubt the Swedish film uses Jacques Brel as a touchstone for humble, beautiful, sexy gallantry. The inclusion of Brel’s 1967 performance of “Les Bonbons” (look below), viewed in a van with the doors closed, says as much about the gentle spirit of Stellet Licht and its characters, as does the supposed Dreyer quote. For one, it’s a song, a combination of storytelling and music. For another, it’s a filmed version of the song, introduced first on a television, then, bookended by fades up from and down into black, reprised across the full widescreen as a cropped television image. In a film about a remote group of Mennonites (a Christian Anabaptist denomination that resists pictorial representations) in Northern Mexico, this minor movie watching is an immanently suspect activity for its characters. But if Johan is testing his faith by falling in love with Marianne, what should stop him from pushing the boundaries of his faith with music videos, as he loves music, too. Earlier in the film we see Johan at his most excited singing along to a song on the radio, circling the camera, and his best friend, in his truck, in a patented Reygadas 360 (or a dizzying 1080 as it is here). Perhaps the overriding thematic question thus far in Reygadas’ films is “Where and how do love and faith intersect and interact?” The hilariously baffling thing about his films is that Reygadas wants to answer that question with every single shot he composes: he sees the beauty in everything.

Filmbrain’s mid-essay assertion points towards how I find myself drawn to these three marvels Reygadas has provided us with, as it speaks to certain filmic obsessions I harbor:
As with his other films, Stellet Licht’s tremendous power comes not from its narrative, but from Reygadas’ aesthetics; a masterful, poetic blending of son et image. The film exists at the intersection of John Ford and Terrence Malick, what with its epic landscapes, use of shadow, and depiction of nature and the elements as almost sentient beings.
It’s this regard for the “real matter” of the natural world, in tandem with his generosity towards his characters, that makes Reygadas’ films so special. You’re as likely to see a close up of a dog, or an orchid, or catch an umbrella flying through the corner of the frame, as you are likely to encounter a human face (or other body parts of humans, for that matter) front and center. In that regard, it’s easy to identify why finding Apichatpong Weerasethakul, along with Reygadas, this year has meant so much to me as a viewer, and a thinker. Their brand of what I want to call philosophy in film is one born not simply of humanistic striving for transcendence (although you can see that struggle in both filmmakers’ oeuvres thus far), but from how humans live in a world filled with things that are not human—spiritual or material, aural or visual, it makes no difference. So when Johan’s father starts the clock again at the close of Stellet Licht, it signals a choice of how to live in such a world. Ignoring the world doesn’t work. Faith and love are about respectful, thoughtful attention—to the world, to the spirit, to the life lead here on earth under the sun and stars among all cries of pain and delight heard across all time, clock or no clock.

[Final Notes: I wish I could have shown you more from the film but this will have to do. Also, I saw the picture at the Yerba Beuna Center for the Arts Screening Room on Sunday night and the projection was a little wonky, which made it a little harder to gauge certain scenes, as Reygadas plays with focal points in this picture in distinct way. So, as nice as it was nice to see in a theatre, I look forward to my DVD copy so I can play with screenshots and revisit all I missed. Even this post didn't get to talking in earnest about all that goes on in this. I promise that one day down the line I'll get into it real serious with his films. (Still learning, always learning, right?) Until then, can't wait for the next one, Carlos!]

Quickly: "I believe it's called seepage." PTA on Fresh Air.

[Pic stolen from Jürgen.]

RWK says: You can listen to the half-hour interview by clicking here. It's, well, it's a pretty standard Fresh Air interview, I guess, but in addition to the conversation, it's got some great dialogue clips from There Will Be Blood. Plus, PTA is a winning personality.
  • "That fever that you get is the most enjoyable part of it. So, um, we were definitely shooting what we were living, for the most part."
  • "First and foremost it's a great boxing match. ... They start out with their wits and their words, but then they start throwing punches."
  • "In my eyes, Daniel is the holy grail of I couldn't really wait to get my hands on him."
  • "And the funny thing is, as much as it's changed, it's still kind of the same as it is today: it's driving an enormous pole into the ground over and over and over again until, you know, you poke the monster enough, and it explodes."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Steve's Armond White Conversation: easy links.

Steven Boone just posted his third and final installment in a lengthy but oh-so-fun conversation with Armond White. The first installment: "In a world that has The Darjeeling Limited, Sidney Lumet should be imprisoned!". The second installment: Phonies, Cronies, American Ironies, American Gangsters. The third installment: Sweet Lime and "Sour Grapes". I finally commented on the last one. It's in line with all the usual obsessions, plus with some notes on my own take on Margot at the Wedding. So, please read their conversation if you have yet to: it's worth it. And the installments make it easier to get through in pieces. As much as White rankles, he comes off as a congenial fellow who loves movies, and loves the world, despite all the deficiencies apparent in both. There's also Steve's Ten favorite AW quotes. Once again, I'm sure you've seen all this before, since you are so cool, but Steve is my buddy and I thought I'd throw him yet more eyes, even the same ones a second time. --RWK

Friday, December 14, 2007

Memory made material: Millennium Actress

by Ryland Walker Knight

stretch marks

I don't know much about anime, per se, nor do I know much about film history, per se, but I know plenty about both to know that Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress is one of the best movies I've seen about either subject. Beyond that, Kon's film is simply one of the best movies about movies I've seen, even if it's a little film. Almost immediately after I finished watching the film I wrote this in an email to a friend: "Half as long and twice as incandescent (maybe), it's an apt Janus companion to INLAND EMPIRE." That's as good a pullquote as I can give you. The bigger argument is congruous with Kon's Paprika (and Lynch's film): life is movies because movies make memory material. What strikes me as more impressive about Millennium Actress, and what links it to Lynch's film, is that it goes a step further to say life is acting, which is the material of movies. Both movies go on to complicate this premise by their relationship to their lead actresses, but let's stick to the premise for now, due to my lack of time today. (Also of note: the wood of the actress' home, that build its beams and its cabinets, makes time, and hence memories, a material framework in Kon's picture.) The difference between the two artists, and their art, is that there is a giddiness -- a delight! -- amidst the perils of the adventure, for Kon; David Lynch is funny, but that man sees scarier demons than most would like to look at. Most of the magic in Kon's film is in the editing, and how the images move (or appear to move), so these stills can't quite do the film justice. Still, I thought I'd share some images that stuck out for me. (Plus, here's a kinda cheesy trailer.)

wood marks
a framework
still life?
so close
evil marks
ride along
push that picture forward
c'mon, it parodies me
[C'mon, this last image parodies me, right?]

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Glo for the day (for night?): Alive 2007

day glo for the night time
stars and stripes shining bright

Clearly, I need to get out to more "real" shows by "bands" instead of "DJs," or something, since Alive 2007 was probably the most memorable new music experience I had this year. Except, of course, it's not new music. Or, it is, but only because it's a remix. Too bad Vadim didn't get to attend. He might like the CD more that way. Anyways, it was a ton of fun. You can see how much fun below:

As annoying as the editing is here, it kind of captures how crazy the crowd was: how much writhing and yelling and hand waving you can get from such a mass of young idiots like this. Plus, it's a good representation of how awesomely coordinated their light show was. Then there's this video that the duo edited themselves, culled from video taken by a bunch of fans with digital cameras, in a kind of perfect youtube mashup kind of thing. (Read more about it on Daft Punk's youtube channel.)

But you all know all this already, right? You're way cooler than me. You know that those pix up top were stolen from that ancient news item on Pitchfork, too, don't you now? --RWK

Poem for the month: The Current

sit in it

These fish have no eyes
these silver fish that come to me in dreams,
scattering their roe and milt
in the pockets of my brain.

But there's one that comes--
heavy, scarred, silent like the rest,
that simply holds against the current,

closing its dark mouth against
the current, closing and opening
as it holds to the current.

Raymond Carver was a sad mope but a talented writer. I think this poem fits the mood of the month, of the life, I'm living. Plus, you know, Carver enjoyed some booze, to put it lightly. If there's something Altman's Short Cuts fails to do in translation, it's the impossible, really: to put in the rhythms of Carver's sentences. Both are downers, but they offer a kind of substantive view of life, of the world, that I can dig. Even when the river is a site of death. That's my only complaint with Carver: his fear of the water often overcomes his work. I hope it's clear that's a complaint about my taste, and not his words (as an argument for a certain kind of philosophy), because I fear it, too; but, more importantly, as much as water calms me, I find it exciting. --RWK

[Pic: me, resting, in the Grand Canyon, 2006]

The Wash: 'Tippi' Screenshots for the day

the delight
the horror
the aftermath

I found these at the Alfred Hitchcock Wiki, in their 1000 frames section (for Marnie, of course). I knew I'd love Marnie the minute the titles started and 'Tippi' was in those scare quotes. This isn't really a woman, this isn't really this woman, this is a film woman: what you see is what you get. But then it kind of betrays that in the second half. Still, that first hour is phenomenal. And she is probably my favorite Hitch Blonde. --RWK

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

COEN COUNTRY: an announcement.

by Ryland Walker Knight

One dime
[You've been putting it up your whole life.]

Seeing as the Coen Brothers and their new movie haven't gotten enough blogosphere attention, we here decided we would talk about the Coen Brothers and what their new movie has done to and in their body of work. A lot of it is due to my complicated reaction to the film, which I find ostensibly "perfect," if philosophically grim on the surface. Thinking about the film over the past month has deepened my appreciation for its positive aspects (speech-as-spectacle, mise-en-scène, the cast) if only complicated my uneasiness with its negative aspects (all that blood seen from such a detached perspective, the fatalism, its reputation). In that it is a film about America, as much as any of their pictures are, I thought it might be prudent to look at how No Country for Old Men plays next to the Coens' other works. Plus, you know, my whole Cavell obsession.

Luckily, my fellows at VINYL have decided to join me, offering their perspective on some of their favorites of the Coens' oeuvre. We should have them all good and ready by next Friday, the 21st (when Sweeney Todd and Youth Without Youth open). Expect a lost brother, a deadened barber, a foul-mouthed (non) ladykiller, a forested crossing, some bowling, and dialogue. As expected, all signs point to a coin toss. Be there. Call it.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Two Stars (Tormatozz/Possession mashup)

by Steven Boone

The Russian band Tormatozz asked me to make them a video along the lines of my Tarkovsky mashup. So here's pieces of Andrzej Zulawski's 1981 "horror" film Possession, set to Tormatozz's song "Two Stars." Both works are about love and separation, but one's a dream, the other a nightmare. Dig the contrast.