Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A throwaway attempt at more generosity. A speak-and-spell second visit with Jesse James.

by Ryland Walker Knight


Sometimes I amaze myself. Why in the world did I watch this picture a second time? As much as I've come to appreciate the opportunity to be persuaded by a strong argument (that is, to change my mind), nothing, or close to, can save The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from my distaste. I'll grant it Casey Affleck: I was wrong about him: his performance as Robert Ford is pretty perfect. In fact, all the acting is good, especially Paul Schneider, as I said way back when. But I still won't grant it the voice-over or the vaseline. Here's a caveat: I didn't even finish it this time. I got to Zooey Deschanel after skipping Nick Cave and quit. So why write this? Well, sometimes the picture's okay, maybe even good, but I think it's mostly due to Roger Deakins' work as cinematographer. That, yes, and before we saw Hoberman speak on Sunday I re-read his review of Dominik's picture, which is very generous and shames my earlier attempts to say something -- anything -- about this picture. So, I turn it over to him for a spell:

Jesse James was shot largely in midwestern Canada, but there's something suggestively Australian about the way the movie dramatizes empty space and loneliness. Full of slow dollies and haunted close-ups, this is a film of Rembrandt lighting and Tarkovsky weather. The sun pours down like honey and Vaseline limns the lens. The skies shimmer with onrushing clouds; the fields dance with waving brown weeds, for which Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have provided a suitably spacey score.

Although not as radically defamiliarizing as Jim Jarmusch's avant-western Dead Man, Jesse James has the feel of an attic ransacked for abandoned knickknacks. There are intimations of what Greil Marcus called the "old weird America"—a sneaking sense that Dominik might have preferred to shoot the whole thing through a pinhole camera or fashion his story out of musty daguerreotypes. But then, as demanding as the movie is, maybe it's just old-fashioned crazy. [Full review]

That last line may betray a certain evaluation or judgment but the thing that makes this such a great piece is how non-judgmental it reads. He found the picture to be interesting in ways I failed to when I wrote this:

Voice-over is a routinely botched device, but this kind of literalization is unbelievably painful. The film opens describing Pitt’s Jesse James as a mysterious and powerful figure who can affect any situation despite not affecting any situation he’s shown acting within. This might be played as ironic in another film, but Dominik’s vision is only ever clouded by an earnest self-importance, which renders irony an impossibility. Were the cinematic blunders not so mind-boggling and blunt, the film’s shortcomings might have played light and parodic. Unfortunately, the film’s sobriety is suffocating, not enlightening. When the voice-over tells you James was concerned about being caught, you see Pitt mugging, searching the skyline for an answer, and you can tell he’s concerned about being caught. But just in case you couldn’t connect the dots, he has some dialogue to that effect as well. [Full review]

I don't even think I remembered the film correctly. I don't think that scene exists. I was probably thinking of all those other sequences where Dominik's pictures tell you all you need to know but get overdubbed with narration, like the day before the "assassination" when Bob wanders through the James household trying on Jesse's life: Bob touches Jesse's jackets, drinks Jesse's water, smells Jesse's sheets, bends a finger to mimic Jesse's mangled left hand. All the while the narrator describes the same things -- for what reason, I'm not quite sure. The images are already rich and evocative enough. The attentive viewer can piece it together. Try to imagine any scene in No Country or There Will Be Blood with a narrator. Hear him (always him) saying, "Then Chigur readied his air compressor, and shot the lock through the door into the trailer, where it bounced off the wall opposite"; or, "Plainview watched Eli bidding fairwell his so-called flock at the depot and remembered the pain of Eli's slaps not only to his impassive face but to his wrinkled and confused soul; then he averted eye contact as Eli ascended the locomotive." Right. As I said before, last year (like Larry Aydlette, too, I think), Manohla Dargis probably wrote the best review of the picture because she clearly liked some aspects of it but found ways to evaluate what went wrong without too harsh a sting. And because she uses the film as its own evidence, which I seem to have failed to do with any grace.

It’s a curious performance, at once central and indistinct, but then, so too is the character. Based on the novel of the same title by Ron Hansen, the film introduces James at the beginning of his end. Hunkered down in some woods, surrounded by darkly dressed men and leafless birch trees, and framed by Roger Deakins’s impeccable, stark, high-contrast cinematography, he looks a vision. This isn’t just Jesse James — it’s also Jim Morrison at the Whisky in 1966 with a dash of Laurence Olivier, a touch of Warren Beatty and more than a hint of Ralph Lauren. It’s the beautiful bad man, knowing and doomed, awaiting his fate like some Greco-Hollywood hero, rather than the psychotic racist of historical record.

The movies have their truths, which rarely align with those of history. Taken on its own narrow, heavily aestheticized and poetic-realist terms, then, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” works. The cinematography may speak to Mr. Dominik’s yearning for meaning and importance more than it does of his outlaw, but the visuals often dazzle and enthrall. (The images that approximate the blurred distortions characteristic of pinhole photography are especially striking.) They also distract and, after a while, help weigh down the film, which sinks under the heaviness of images so painstakingly art directed, so fetishistically lighted and adorned, that there isn’t a drop of life left in them. Instead of daguerreotype, Mr. Dominik works in stone. [Full review]

What's striking is how similar, underneath, her read is to Hoberman's and what's intriguing is how different people manifest their similar perspectives differently. It's why it's fun to read film criticism, or film reviews, even months later, even when the film does not completely satisfy. Sometimes, though, you wind up seeing a completely different picture than others, which is where Walter Chaw's review comes into play. Maybe more to the point, the problem I find with this review, which is sparklingly written, of course, is that it gives me more a sense of the associations the film produced for Chaw than a sense of the film itself, which is something Hoberman does so well while skirting this kind of piece. Still, in a way, I wish I had been fortunate to see this picture: it sounds awesome.

Kiwi director Andrew Dominick's heroically pretentious The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (hereafter Jesse James) is a deflated anti-western in the tradition of Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand and Terrence Malick's Badlands. Broadly, it's a magnification of the Nixonian malaise that infected the early-seventies, its suggestion that things aren't much worse now than they were then complicated by three decades of cynicism. As a piece, it's almost completely sapped of energy, though it isn't deadpan like Jarmusch's Dead Man. No, think of it as more of a dirge: not ironic, but post-modern; not a death march, but mournful. It's how J. Hoberman once (derisively) described Body Heat, a "remake without an original"--Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid corrupted by McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the whole of it shot through with an autumnal soft focus that looks exactly like the reunion sequence that pushes the third act of Bonnie and Clyde. It vaguely resembles an insect caught in an amber sepulchre. Yet despite its obvious pedigree, it is all of itself, infused with the spirit of the now, suffused with author Ron Hansen's transcendental prettiness (the film is based on his novel), and, as framed by DP Roger Deakins' painterly eye, overwhelmingly beautiful. Deakins is given the keys to the kingdom here and every moment of Jesse James looks like mythology pulled through a cinematic loom, often leaving the edges of the frame lanolin-indistinct as they trail off into history. I hadn't thought it possible to see our current crises of faith cast as romantic, but there it is. [Full review]


Monday, April 28, 2008

Sketches on Hoberman, Sylvia, looking and difference. [Part 2]


From: Jennifer Stewart
To: Ryland Walker Knight, Kevin B Lee
Subject: RE: hoberman, sylvia

Kevin and Ryland,

I have just a few comments all inspired by our pre/post film analysis and your fetching essay, Ry. Unfortunately my thoughts are more responsive and fragmented than yours are coherently developed. But I'll let you blogbarians take it from here.

Kevin, while on BART Ry and I spoke more about this phenomenology idea. I think your essay shows, Ry, that the film is more a phenomenology of spectatorship than a phenomenology of thought. What El was doing in the cafe as he looked and sketched, is not what I'd call tantamount to thinking but rather, to fixing a view; really, tantamount to intentionality: he's trying to settle what object his thought is bent on. And his efforts are subject to the interference of occlusion (other heads/objects get in the way), the limits/possibilities of two-dimensional collapse (the 'flat' surface of his sketching page), and the uncanny moment when these objects return his gaze, catch his eye. All goes well with his pursuit of "Sylvia," after all, until she looks back; until they reach the moment when he must account for pursuing her as a cypher for his desire. A moment he calls a disaster never really recovers from.

Two things I don't understand and think analysis of the film should explain:
  • what's significant about El sleeping with that beautiful but weird spaced out/drunk/bad dancer girl?
  • in the last few minutes, through the 'screen' of the train, we see a girl in sunglasses. The entire left side of her face is scared or burned. A few cuts later we see her again, removing her sunglasses to revealno eye (!) on that side. It was pretty gruesome. Kevin, you saw that, right? Ry somehow missed it so please confirm I'm not making this up.

Both these Sylvia dopplegangers (in some sense all the women in the film are) could be read as casualties of El's pursuit. The crevices, lines, and shadows of the scarred woman's disfigurement bears a resemblance to the dark, resistant etchings in El's sketchpad; the consequences of his agenda coming into relief. So we see your point, Ry, about El's fixation on the (absent) avatar of "Sylvia" and his rejection of the (present) abundance of difference. And here I think we add Bunuel's Obscur objet du désir to Kevin's Vertigo reading.

I'm tempted to read the whole film as a cautionary tale about one allegory of film spectatorship: the rich risks of film as fixing its/our gaze on a (lost) object of desire which can never be incarnated. So then we could read Ciudad de Sylvia as loosening this grip (hence my suggestion that it updates the Laura Mulvey thesis) since it refuses to offer an unambiguous object upon which to fix our desiring gaze. Indeed, it offers alternative figures of moving image itself (metaphors of dynamic celluloid frames) and the aesthetic acceptance of occlusion and the uncanny.

One last thing: Kevin, have you read If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino? En la ciudad de Sylvia could easily be read as a brilliant adaptation of it.

[Note No. 1: You can read my "Part 1" missive by clicking here.]

[Note No. 2: Because the trailer to Bunuel's film and the clip from Hitchcock's were too good to simply link to I'll go ahead and embed them down here. They add to this reading, I think, tremendously.]

[Note No. 3: Kevin's reply can be found by clicking here to his blog. --RWK]

Momentary Geek-Out. The Dark Knight ad campaign returns to form.


This comes via Rob Humanick, and while it certainly gets my fanboy juices flowing, it's still pretty hard to top those Joker-specific posters from a while ago (look here). But Heath Ledger's unfortunate, left-field death definitely stopped that marketing plan. How fitting is it that the new tagline is "Welcome to a world without rules"? I'm glad the print team, at least, is back to making this a supreme ad campaign (let's forget this hack-job and the worries it instills) because I have faith that this will be one pretty fucking awesome blockbuster with its questions about seriousness (what is the worth of seriousness and unseriousness? isn't unseriousness still a form of seriousness?), its abandonment of rules (think about how rules work, or don't, in The Prestige) and its Joker (RIP) and its mack trucks flipping over. I hope to see it in IMAX. I hope it knocks my socks off. Then again, I don't want to get too excited. It's not like Christopher Nolan knows how to shoot actions scenes like Gore Verbinski or Steven Spielberg. (Yup, I made that link.) --RWK [Cross posted on freeNIKES!]

5/4/2008 UPDATE: A new trailer premiered this weekend. You can view it right here. Heath Ledger was so cool...

Sketches on Hoberman, Sylvia, looking and difference. [Part 1]

[Note: On Sunday, April 27, 2008, I attended a San Francisco International Film Festival event with my friends Jennifer Stewart and Kevin B. Lee. After the SFIFF presented Jim Hoberman with the Mel Novikoff Award (named for the famed San Francisco film exhibitor), Kent Jones quasi-interviewed Hoberman on stage for about an hour, and then we were lucky enough to watch José Luis Guerin's In the City of Silvia. I wrote this first email to Kevin primarily, as a fellow blogger, and Jen secondarily, as my friend and interlocutor. I thought it might be interesting to others, too. Look for Kevin's response at his blog shortly. -- RWK]

From: Ryland Walker Knight
To: Kevin B. Lee, Jennifer Stewart
Subject: hoberman, sylvia

Yo, Kevin,

Glad we could enjoy that film, and that discussion beforehand, together. Before I talk about the film a bit let me say I remembered (or think I remember as) what Hoberman got mild applause for: he was saying he hoped more online criticism would link to other criticisms, incorporating other texts (and, I imagine, images and sounds) into itself. A very Web 2.0 kind of monadic reading; not simply monadic reading by making associations in writing but actually forging associations with hyperlinks (and images, even videos). It seems like his ideal version of online criticism is exactly what you're after at your blog. Which is a really cool thing! Congrats! Unless, of course, my memory is messing all this up. Which leads me to In the City of Sylvia.

I think I may go ahead and deem the film "a masterpiece" because I do think it's about more (plot-wise and otherwise) than simply a dude stalking some pretty babes. We know dude is visiting this town after a six year absence, trying to recuperate a love/r (or better: a memory of a lover), and not just another passerby inhabitant of this city. And, of course, as you said, that's a thin plot. However, it's a pretty tight little argument about movies, and about watching movies. When we watch a movie we're a foreigner in a familiar terrain (or logic, or vocabulary) trying to piece together different strands that coalesce because we make them (pace Bordwell) into a kind of meaning. For instance, your monadic read incorporates Kiarostami, just as mine incorporates my (potentially wrong, easily vague) understanding of phenomenology. All dude does in this picture is look at things to try to make pictures, to put things together, through imagination and projection and, above all, looking.

Now, the Vertigo analogy is pretty apt, but I definitely don't think this is "art for art's sake" by any stretch. This is an argument for the value of art, of the art of movies, of the art of looking, even the art of understanding (if that can be understood as an art, as I think it can). Of course, that argument would take longer than this brief missive allows. But my sketch, to follow our man from Sylvia (dig that double move!), begins with this: the worthiness of those arts -- of art -- seems to be in what they produce for their participants. I hate to trot this out but Gadamer says we only understand differently if we understand at all so maybe this film is arguing for that kind of openness to difference: our man at the centre is never fulfilled because he cannot accept a rather simple difference in his perception (of a girl, of the world). In a way he's got a greedy nostalgia. Which, of course, translates to our role as spectators: we keep looking, following films, hoping for an outcome. Which ties into something Hoberman said about the different expectations different movie goers bring to films. Some people look for a kind of confirmation entertainment (say, as we discussed, the Apatow pictures and their wish fulfillment drive) whereas other people look for a kind of new perspective, which, we must admit, can easily be another kind of confirmation, if somebody is only applying a certain lens to all films. I'm fairly certain I'm not doing that here. My reading is allegorical, sure, linking his looking to my looking, doubling the remove, but I think the film invites it. As you said, it's a city of surfaces and reflections. Just as movies are a surface projected onto a reflective screen.

But I should hit the hay, or at least read before I hit the hay. Say, you should write me back and I'll post the pair of emails on VINYL. That sound like a cool idea?

Take care,
later, ryland.



Jennifer's reply is posted in the space above (here's a direct link, and look for Kevin's reply over at his blog, Shooting Down Pictures, soon right here.


Other words worth reading about this picture:

The New World: Reverse Shot Goes Digital


It should probably come as no surprise that I wrote about Michael Mann for Reverse Shot's newest issue. He's been on my brain for a while now thanks to my thesis work and, well, his excellent films that invite scrutiny. You can read my contribution, "The Touch," by clicking here. And, of course, the intro is always a nice place to start, to give you an idea of what we were after in this latest symposium. You can read it clicking here. Hope you like. I invite any comments on my piece here since the main site does not; there's plenty to talk about. Or, if you read another, like Leo Goldsmith on VINYL-favorite David Lynch or Chris Wisniewski on VINYL-favorite Terrence Malick or my buddy Kevin B Lee on the immortal Ingmar Bergman, let me know. This is a very thoughtful and plain cool issue. --RWK

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Poem for the month, audio style. "No difference."

no difference

These 91 seconds are probably my favorite moment on cLOUDDEAD. This fugue of sorts, written and performed and recorded by Dose One, without partner Why?, end the six minute dirge that is the sixth track, "I promise to never get paint on my glasses again (pt.2)", which is really just the b-side of the third cLOUDDEAD 10-inch. See: the self-titled album is just a collection of six 10" records. But, magically, there's a cohesion. It remains a favorite despite my withering interest in most other anticon. releases (although that Alias remix of "Nude" is kinda dope). I thought about putting up the text of these lyrics-in-the-round but I like the idea that anything, like a song, can be a poem. Especially since this is a "song" very much about its lyrics, about language, in addition to being about a mood and a tone, to say an affect. It's hard not to think about that cover when you hear the final line. --RWK [Cross posted on freeNIKES!]

cLOUDDEAD - I promise to never get paint on my glasses again (pt.2) - EXCERPT (zshare)

[Pic: A scan of the unfolded cLOUDDEAD album cover, a Gerhard Richter.]

Third Revelation for the day.

i told you i would eat you

What's with this DVD? The image isn't impeccable like I'd like it and the "special features" disc is about as slim as a candle wick. Oh well, it's still a visual treat. Now if only I had surround sound...

Recommendation for the day: Stephen Mulhall.

by Ryland Walker Knight

As I often reiterate, I'm a slow learner stuck in loops I set for myself. Felipe recommended Stephen Mulhall's On Film (Thinking in Action) a year ago but it wasn't until a month ago that I finally read it. A small book, around 140 pages, On Film considers the Alien series of films as a starting point to argue for films as philosophical works. Mulhall's prose is clear and precise, a lucid examination of not just the four films attached to the series but of how each works in the oeuvre of its director. This post is a recommendation, flat out. It's not big on analysis of style (look to Style and Meaning for that), but there is no doubt about the high level of thoughtful evaluation on display here. Apparently it did not sit well with some of Mulhall's colleagues in the philosophical field (he has written books about Heidegger and Wittgenstein and Cavell), and some colleagues in the film studies field, which prompted Mulhall to write an essay called "Film as Philosophy: The Very Idea" (I've uploaded a pdf to zshare, breaking the rules a bit). It's a fine introduction to Mulhall's basic argument and I recommend reading that as well. A second edition of On Film was released last month and incorporates this essay as well as some writing on the Mission: Impossible trilogy as well as Minority Report. As a way to entice conversation, I'll now quote two paragraphs from the essay I've uploaded. Hope this strikes your fancy, too.

This point about what is proper to the condition of philosophy will recur; in fact, the rest of this paper will amount to retracing the circle of concepts I have just laid out in a more expansive and, I hope, elucidatory way. But for now, I want to concentrate on my claim about what one might call the argumentative relevance of particular experience. According to my conception of the matter, the ultimate touchstone for the validity of my argument that certain films, by existing in the condition of philosophy and consequently engaging reflectively on just the issues reflected upon in the philosophy of film, might be thought of as themselves philosophizing, is whether or not my claims to identify such moments in these films are convincing. So, for example, in my reading of Scott’s Blade Runner, I argue that Deckard’s Voight-Kampff machine, designed to distinguish humans from replicants, is a figure for the movie camera’s capacity to project and screen real human beings. And in my reading of Cameron’s Terminator 2, I claim that the clash between two models of terminator—a chameleon-like mimetic polyalloy confronting an obdurately inflexible titanium skeleton—is a way of scrutinizing two styles of acting (the actor becoming each character versus each character being a version of the actor).

Of course, what shows that the Voight-Kampff machine is a figure for the camera is not the simple fact that it exists in the film and possesses some properties analogous to those of a camera; by that token the presence of a mirror or a camera in any film would determine a priori that that film had substantial reflexive concerns. What matters is rather how the machine figures in the structures of significance established, developed, and even subverted by the film as a whole. So my claim that in presenting us with such a machine, Blade Runner is presenting us with a particular understanding of its own nature (by critically evaluating the opportunities and limits of one of its own determining conditions) can be justified only by showing that and how the film’s specific treatment of that machine betrays a genuinely thoughtful engagement with those conditions on the part of those who made it; and that can be established only by providing a convincing reading of the film as a whole in those terms.

Also, there's a Cavell quote (from The Claim of Reason) that Mulhall uses early in the book that I think is so succinct that I have to share it. It concerns how to distinguish between fear, terror and horror and speaks to why I (and others) like to see There Will Be Blood as a horror picture--as the kind of horror picture I'd like to see more of in the future. It's also pretty apt when you think about Ripley and her alien other...
Fear is of danger; terror is of violence, of the violence I might do or that might be done me. I can be terrified of thunder, but not horrified by it. And isn't it the case that not the human horrifies me, but the inhuman, the monstrous? Very well. But only what is human can be inhuman. --Can only the human be monstrous? If something is monstrous, and we do not believe that there are monsters, then only the human is a candidate for the monstrous.

If only humans feel horror (if the capacity to feel horror is a development of the specifically human biological inheritance), then maybe it is a response specifically to being human. To what, specifically, about being human? Horror is the title I am giving to the perception of the precariousness of human identity, to the perception that it may be lost or invaded, that we may be, or may become, something other than we are, or take ourselves for; that our origins as human beings need accounting for, and are unaccountable.

third revelation

Monday, April 21, 2008

Blogs as public transportation, conversation and self-examination.

by Ryland Walker Knight

peeking out

Girish asks every blogger's favorite question, "Why do you blog?" and there's already a lot of generous, thoughtful replies, as ever. Here's my rambling auto-critique. It doesn't do itself justice. It doesn't even answer the question that well. But I figured it'd been a while since I put anything up over here so here y'are. Now, back to work on that blasted Honors Thesis.

I dropped out of college four years ago. My college career has been one long, stupid story that began eight years ago at UC Santa Cruz in 2000. After that waste of time, I had a part-time pit stop at a junior college from 2001-03 before transferring to UC Berkeley for the 03-04 school year. I finally realized, with the help of some financial headaches, that I had never enjoyed any of my university level learning. I was, for the most part, happiest in auto-didact mode. I left school and began bouncing around, away from Berkeley, to Seattle and New York and back, not really "doing" much beyond working, reading on public transportation and watching movies.

Like many young people, or so I imagine, I put a lot of value in my taste during that period of my life. I was proud to like this or that; angry if you did not. I bullied my ex-girlfriend and our friends into new opinions, routinely steered conversation back to those silly topics of movies and music and books only to show off some new bit of knowledge I'd gleaned. I think my impulse to return to school, in the summer of 06, stemmed from that snobbery, when I'm honest with myself. I noticed that I hadn't written anything in a long time and before that I'd only written fiction outside of school. (Like the good drop out I was, I wrote a novel--a really awful novel--during my time away.) At work, I spent a lot of time arguing movies on the craigslist forums, where I first encountered, and struck an accord with, Steven Boone and Brian Darr. So, with encouragement from my forum friend Suzi, I went over to that blogspot account I'd started after dropping out and decided I would blog about movies, if only to try to hone my writing skills for my return to school. Looking back at some of those early entries it's a wonder to see how much stronger my writing is, how much more comfortable a writer I am, now. I tried not to self-promote my blog out of timidity, really, although I was much more active on certain blogs' comments threads then. Never did I think I could attract an audience. Much less the eyes of Matt Zoller Seitz, who, by November that year, asked me (and Steve) to start writing for The House Next Door. I think that's when I started to get serious about the blog, about writing.

Then I went back to school. The other day my good friend Cuyler said, "Surprisingly? We've learned a lot in a year and a half." I replied, "Yeah, but it feels like intangibles." School taught me, more than anything, a humility and generosity (that I'm still trying to put into practice) I did not have before. I think I'm a better reader now, sure -- I'm definitely a more generous reader, even though, on occasion, kneejerk habits pop up -- but I think I have a better take on living, too. Even if I still procrastinate; and even if get turned off by certain things (ahem, fellow students/sections) to the detriment of my studies (ahem, GPA).

So why blog? It's a question I ask a lot, too. Part of it, I'll admit, is a kind of careerism. I'm hanging on to that pipe dream that I may, one day, get paid real money to write something. (Or, more simply, that I may write for more outlets when I'm done with schoolwork in the coming months and I get to choose what I write about and when I want to write it.) In the meantime I can throw together little arguments when I please and maybe strike up a conversation about the object at hand. But I often find that the comments threads on other blogs are rarely as generous or humble as the threads we enjoy here at your blog, Girish. Even at my own, when I do get a random thought shared. For this reason I've kind of retreated from blogging in 2008. As much as blogs offer one a public forum to practice writing, there's always the danger of trolls and nihilist cretins out there trying to shut down conversations with posture. I stifle those urges, generally, because I don't want to perpetuate pointless arguments of taste. What I hope to offer is good criticism that argues for the real value of a film, or a book, or a song, or a poem, or a play, or a photograph; that is to say, of life. I'd like my blog to incorporate as much of my worldly interests as possible. I hope I go river rafting this summer. And if I do, I hope to share. Cuz, as fun as movies are, there's a lot else out there. Like Michael Jackson's Off The Wall. Say, Girish, while we're in the arena of almost-dance music, have you happened to listen to Cut Copy? Over on that other (silly) blog Cuyler and I started, freeNIKES!, I've linked to some of their songs. I wholly recommend both of their full length records. They're very 80s in a good way: not glib or facile but smart and fun. Here's my favorite song on their new album. It's superficially saccharine but these boys really know some things.

Thanks again for the stimulating post. It's a big question ("why?"s generally are, aren't they?) so I hope this epic, tangential, indulgent answer isn't boring. Also, thanks, Michael and Tucker, for your honest, open replies. Made me comfortable to share mine.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

turkey and cheese

by Steven Boone

Thursday, April 10, 2008

New Narrative. Excerpt from Harry, Zelda and Antoinette

by Marc Lafia

During the course of working on my Permutations project, I became fascinated with the idea of narration, where it happens and how. I had for some time been thinking about rules-based art, algorithms; a database cinema which I had been using in varied projects. But I wanted to proceed with these ideas in an internalized way, procedurally, not literally. I wanted to engage these strategies as approaches to shape and perform narrative. I had written a film scenario for Harry, Zelda and Antoinette and knew the dramaturgy very well. I wasn't getting any where raising money. So I thought how I can create an event of recording in with the permutations approach which become an event of narration with those things around me, folding them into a narrative, within which I was narrating and orchestrating the recording to such an end. The work consists of six parts each composed of some twelve to twenty multi-screen films. Here's an excerpt.

[Note: we understand that a youtube clip posted on a blog is not as striking as seeing the film/s projected on a white wall or a silver screen but we do hope you indulge our offer. Marc may try to upload this to for a better quality image. Until then, here's this. --RWK]

Permutation 13
Permutation 304
Permutation 12

by Marc Lafia

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

More eternity. More Mirror talk.

by Ryland Walker Knight

looking at yourself

[Note: I recently mailed in my application to take part in this year's Student Symposium at the Telluride Film Festival. Part of the application involved writing a brief essay on the following topic: "If you were being sent into the distant future, and you could take just one film with you, what would you take, and why? Please give this question serious consideration in terms of your passion for film as an art." This may be a little redundant given the essay I wrote for Reverse Shot (click here), but there's some other stuff happening, I think, that's worth sharing — at least in part because that stuff echoes recently completed passages of my thesis. Please, tell me what you think.]

looking at fire in rain

If we understand film as an art then it should follow that we find the most value in those films that stand up to repeated viewings, as do great paintings and photographs, as we witness recurring performances of great plays, as we read great books again and more. It comes to me, hypothetically of course, to pick a single film to take into the distant future, to bear our history and film’s history (our history with film) forward. This is a fraught decision. What do we value most in film? I say “we” because the film and its contingent particulars must accompany me forward: I bring an object loaded with intention and worth all its own, signaling many others than myself alone. I should choose a film that marks me of an era of humanity (as of thought as of action as of time) more than I should choose a film that marks simply a preference. For this I turn to a film that has, viewing after viewing, withstood time and scrutiny, yielding new riches (of insight, of beauty, of provocation) from its mysteries with each encounter. It is a film I enjoy without fully understanding — I intuit its argument — as I will never fully understand myself. And I find this fitting as this is integral to the film itself: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror is as first person and subjective a film, while simultaneously questioning the subject-object relationship (or structure as it is often called), as I have encountered.

The film does not have a narrative through line, although it begins with what might be understood as a birth and ends with a kind of death (of the body, if not the spirit). Built of moments, some like vignettes, some like passing observations, Mirror can confound sense at first. Elsewhere I have argued that the film is after a kind of eternity: that we may pass from this world and somehow remain in it, either in spirit or other manifestations, as in a light on a field (and through the woods) or as in a family inheritance one passes down (and leaves behind). Mirror tells a story of a man, perhaps Tarkovsky himself (we see a poster of the director's Andrei Rublev on the wall of the narrator’s home), and his tenuous hold on memories of his mother and his wife (both played by the same actress) and his son and himself as a boy (both played by the same young actor) and certain stages of childhood in a country cottage during the first World War. Digressions abound as Tarkovsky imports footage from early in the 20th century of balloons floating above a field and children fleeing Spain for Russia and the Red Army marching across Manchuria. As much as it confounds, Mirror aims to situate itself within a certain historical tradition, or a certain approach to history, that fuses the horizons of history. This fusion of horizons (pace Gadamer) is where eternity comes into play.

Mirror’s eternity is not born strictly from film stock but other film grammar, like the poetry read over passages of montage. Tarkovsky’s father wrote the poems, and reads them on the soundtrack, but, as intriguing as this background may be, it is irrelevant. The poems in the film exist unto the film as far as the film is concerned. The audible poetry, as opposed to the visual, is simply another horizon matched in Mirror’s eternal plane of activity. But to parse just what these poems “mean” in relation to the images Tarkovsky marries them to proves difficult after an initial, affective intuition: it is a rich artistic gesture designed to color the image. As much as it marries words to image, Mirror is a film, through and through, concerned with images. In this sense, the poems, as passages designed to trigger emotions, can be seen as no different than — perhaps even equivalent to — the images themselves.

To bring such a film forward means another fusion of horizons where our further understanding of Mirror’s mysteries (hidden in our plain view of the moving picture) may help us understand the mysteries that abound in life here, in 2008, and there, in that whenever of the future. Who knows, we may not even be able to play my DVD copy when I get there.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Costa Rica for the day.

a colorful wheel
coffee beans
a truck

A friend just returned from a trip through Costa Rica -- a place I, too, would like to see first hand. These pictures stood out to me, among the 200 or so that were forwarded my way, for their composition and intrigue. I've never seen coffee beans before roasting, for instance. And that truck looks like something one might see in a Claire Denis movie. My hope is this small selection does not make my friends' trip, our the country itself, look too precious. These are just a stranger's impressions; it's as simple as that. --RWK

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Game on. The season is under way and I'm not with it yet. There's another season still happening.

by Ryland Walker Knight

get big

So I didn't even start a fantasy baseball team this season. Oh well. There's better ways to waste time on the internet, right? Or, better still: there's good weather in California, good enough to drive me outside -- to play basketball. I'm not especially good (I may even be "bad") but since the start of 2008 it's been a lot of fun shooting and driving and running around with my friends. Some of it, I think, is inspired by the fun-times play of the Golden State Warriors this season. Every game I've watched has been full of awesome feats of athleticism (by Baron, yes, but moreso by Monta Ellis since the new year began). We even went to a game (that dope come-from-behind win over the Lakers) earlier in the season, which was the best thing I did over my winter break, I'd wager. It's going to be hard for any A's games to top that fever-pitch level of enthusiasm. Even with a lot of beer and sunshine. Because, as much as I'd like to be hopeful, I don't see the A's winning more than 70 games this year, if that. They have a pretty decent starting five, it's true, but I'm very suspicious of their line-up, and of Billy Beane. I think we could see today's starter, Rich Harden, gone by the deadline. (Probably more likely: yesterday's starter, Joe Blanton, will get a new uni quicker.) But that's baseball. The A's are rebuilding. One can only hope (as I'm trying) that things will look a lot better down the line. They did pick up a lot of prospects in those two trades, though, so I guess I should trust that guy in charge: he's made a lot of correct decisions. I mean, there was that book about him after all.

But, in the meantime, I'll occupy myself with how the Warriors close out their schedule. There's 8 games left. It seems likely that they can beat Dallas again tonight, and Memphis on Friday, before rolling into Chris Paul's Hornets on Sunday (it's on ABC!), which, in all likelihood, will be another L, or a real test in any event (outcome). If the W-men (pace Shay) can beat Denver, and give Phoenix a good run, they'll be in good shape, I think, to hit the playoffs a second year in a row. And you gotta like their chances more when you remember that Dirk probably won't be back to full health this season and that there's three cake games (Kings, Clippers, Sonics) tossed in there after New Orleans, too. And it's not like any of the three teams has any scheduling advantage down the stretch. It's just a reiteration of that adage: Every game counts. But, hey, I'm buying that marketing slogan: this is where amazing happens. I hope there's some amazing coming.

[Pix, both from A's fans dozing / Baron getting big. Videos: 1. Official NBA ad / 2. Fan ad.]

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Drips and sprays and pools and stains.

by Ryland Walker Knight


Maybe it's my mood of late, but I'm almost right there with Walter Chaw on this one. If anything, I'm totally with him in his lead: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is easily Tim Burton's best film." I don't rate things but I don't think I'd go full out and give this thing four stars, even though it is, surprising as it sounds, kind of excellent. I didn't think Tim Burton could pull off this, err, deadly tale, but it makes sense, really, that it should be a career high, what with its ghoulish demeanor (don't look back, nostalgia will eat up your shadow-present cannibal-style) and its ample opportunity for artifice, ink blacks and fire engine reds that drip and spray and pool and stain. I never thought I could (or would) find to its gore, ahem, beautiful -- but I do. (I'm not versed in giallo by choice, I should admit: I've found, as I've grown, that horror is a tricky genre for me to navigate.) A lot of the film's success is inherent in its source material, sure, but it's how Burton shot the film, along with the physical (to say facial, for the most part) acting of Johnny Depp, that brings home its wild pathos. (It doesn't really matter, no, that the singing isn't Broadway caliber when the acting is there, working as a part of images like these.) Fitting the blood looks like paint, and that Burton's "canvass" never rests unless it's splattered thick with the stuff. Earlier today I was talking with a friend about how we are kind of trained -- by film itself, by the dominance of "basic" film grammar -- to see film images as representations of objects first and visual patterns second. I think the best way to appreciate something like this picture is to look at its colors and angles and glints and reflections and movements as simply that: not an accretion of objects but a flow of colors in the visual field of the frame. It is a musical, after before all; it's pure spectacle from the get go. All the way to this gorgeous tableau mort, as Dub-C wrote.


10 minutes later update:
Glenn Kenny's got good words, too.

Next day update:
It looks like Rob Humanick watched Sweeney right about the same time as I did. And so did Keith Uhlich. Weird timing, indeed.