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.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Deadpan despair: The Mist

What is it?

Go to The House to read some silly words about Frank Darabont's silly adaptation of yet another Stephen King novella, The Mist. It's kind of a cool movie, but it could have been cooler. It would have been cooler if it explored how the supermarket was a stage a little more, how people were taking on different roles. Plus, you know, it's got a transparent fourth wall that keeps getting broken in as literal a sense as possible. Meh. There's more important things in life, like Mario Kart Double Dash for the Gamecube system. [RWK]

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Strings and clicks and blood, oh my. UPDATED.

Following Karina's lead, I'm linking to The Playlist and embedding their MP3 player so you can hear some of the great score Johnny Greenwood composed for that terrible gem I hope more people continue to discover and love. Also, Glenn and friends like the flick a lot. [RWK]

UPDATE: That embedded shit was too fucking annoying.

Squaring a Circle: Kurt Cobain - About a Son

by Ryland Walker Knight

Lake Washington, chez Cobain
Aberdeen, wrecked

Read the full review in The Daily Cal. That is, as much as they allowed into the paper; my first few grafs are rather butchered, I must protest. Disregarding my dissatisfactions with the published piece, I should push forth the notion that it's almost an interesting movie. Definitely heart-felt and good looking. But it doesn't quite work that well, or as well as it could have, I imagine. Director AJ Schnack (Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)) attempts to answer my question of how do we speak of Nirvana now by replacing images of Cobain with images of the places (and the people of those places) where Cobain lived, and grew. It's an interesting conceit. But it never quite congeals. Still, it looks great, as you can see from above. My best snark? It definitely inherits something from Koyaanisqatsi (which Schnack apparently modeled his film after): it's kinda boring, despite its beatific images and that great Queen song. (PS: I like Manohla Dargis' somewhat slight review.)

anybody else's story
"It's not my story as much as it is anybody else's story."

More Western musings.

by Ryland Walker Knight

I got sick a couple weeks ago and couldn't make it to the press screening of Beowulf -- boo-hoo --, which afforded me more time and space to ask "What is a Western Now?" Not quite sure I answered it but it might spark some more thoughts. Or, it could. Please, reply in the comments. Is this horse dead yet? Maybe we could talk about how sweet The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is. Or, you know, Deadwood. You tell me. I'm quite literally asking for it. (Also funny? That staff picture. That dweeb is me?)

[Pix stolen from jeem. Peep that piece from Glenn. I find it funny the response to the ending of Glenn's piece is analogous to the response to the ending of the Coens' picture. Oh, and, yeah: still mulling it over.]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Six-word stories.

by Ryland Walker Knight

As per an earlier conversation, and this thing, I offer a few short-short-short stories I think you might like.

Tiring, this sleep; we woke up.

The Louvre stinks: let's race through.

They're sure to fuck up Godard.

Blessed be the orange, sexy condominium.

She bought me shoes six times.

Walter ate the steak, drank wine.

Guess that killed them? Wait, no.

Please, please. No, please. Yeah, alright.

Who fucked who how many times?

The river bends and breaks, falls.

The river does not stop flowing.

Waiting, Joan kept drinking, cooking, living.

Hemingway shot a chicken outside Paris.

Walter hated the steak, and wine.

Salinger ran, threw out the typewriter.

Humbert licked her wounds, and his.

"EAT ME, sucka!" cried the honey.

I lost her shoes six times.

I've been awake since four, dammit.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Shit is on.

shit is on
Four episodes into the fourth season of The Wire. Easily the best season yet, already. More after I finish.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Late night notes: criticism of criticism, or something, via Run, Lola, Run.

by Ryland Walker Knight

Michael threw up some words about Tom Tykwer's infamous Run, Lola, Run the other day. If you click this link you can see his initial post, plus some comments from yours truly, Cuyler, and Michael, in regards to the film, and criticism in general. It's kind of a mini preview of one of the things I'm concerned with in my Thesis, too. As such, I decided to go ahead and cross post my most recent comment here. Please, feel free to comment on it here, or there.

Here's what I've come to think: if you choose to write something about a film, or about anything, you have chosen to deem it worthy of a comprehensive investment. It's part of why I've slowed my roll on the blog. Sometimes you have to write about things you know are not "worth your time," though, as is often the case in school, which can complicate the task of writing. But I figure you should approach any writing project with a mind to make it fun, to feel comfortable to write whatever you want. I've simply chosen to try to limit my writing to things I want to praise. This does not mean complete adoration; no, some films, or albums, or paintings, do not work (and this bears attention, too), but when approaching such an object I think the admirable writing is one which refuses categorical value judgments. The evaluation element in criticism is not simply whether an object is worthy of time and thought but evaluating what of the object itself is worthy (in relation to itself). This is why I'm averse to lists. Criticism is not about what's better than what. It's about how things work; and if they do not work, it's not about how it should have worked, nor how it could have worked, nor how the object of criticism's failure/s to work diminish its worth of the object; the writing itself makes the object worthy. (When a film fails its ambitions it can make for an intriguing essay, too, as if offers the critic the opportunity to take up certain possibilities in thought for him/herself. Such as: what's at stake in choosing the soccer ball to open _Lola_? if the film fails that trope, what might that say about the trope itself and not the film? what if the trope is simply games, and not soccer?) Also, criticism is an invitation to share the critic's experience of the film. The best works of criticism give the reader (1) a picture of the film (2) as it relates to the critic (3) and how the critic finds associations from what is given to him/her. As I find (the great) films to be works of philosophy, I find a passage of Wittgenstein so apt I get giddy thinking I get to share it with you (that is, reiterate it): 126. Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything.--Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us. One might also give the name "philosophy" to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions. What else is a film but a phenomenon where everything lies open to view before us? We do not add to the film in criticism. We add up our experience of the film. Our experience of the film triggers associations, which we can explore in relation to the film, but the burden of criticism, as an elucidation and not as an explanation, is not to build a film up (trumpet its many virtues) nor to tear a film down (harp its many deficiencies) -- it is to simply offer the best (say the most interesting and comprehensive) picture of the object at criticism for the reader. I do not think I live up to this definition yet. Or, it's real hard to table certain urges.

So: if you choose to write about, think about, talk about, _Lola_, then the burden of your work is to explode the film. Altho I would suspect he does, Thoret may not even like _MiVi_: it's not about that: it's about how he sees the object and attends to its functionality as an object of intentionality. Which brings me to the other big complication inherent to criticism: how to deal with the object in its relation to other objects (by its author/s and by other author/s it invokes, or inherits from). As Felipe said best, or better (more concise?) than me: "For me, this is an essential element of criticism; the expression of the singular value of a text always locates that text's singularity in relation to other texts. Criticism as monadic reading." Phew! This is a lot to struggle with, clearly, and makes blogging that much more difficult, or appear incomplete in many instances, as many blogs simply offer opinions of their authors, not actual criticism. It's enough to give me hives. So I try not to stress it. I try to make each writing experience fun, without ignoring how serious the practice really is.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Timid but loud, blissed pain.

How does one write about Nirvana? I gave it a whirl for The Daily Cal, reviewing the new DVD of their Unplugged in New York performance. You may like my attempt, you may not -- you may not give a shit about my tenure at Culver Military Academy's summer program or you may find it an intriguing entry. (If you enjoyed your time at said institution, I apologize for my characterization of it; it just seemed that everybody I met there was an unhappy teen.) Basically: I'm not as good writing about music as I am about movies. Plus, how does one write about Nirvana? It's like trying to write something novel about The Beatles. Who cares, really, about some stereotypical reaction to a pop phenomenon? Oh well. Please, read it! After such an endorsement, how can you refuse, right? Stay up, peoples! --RWK

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Coens as passionate witnesses.

by Ryland Walker Knight

After seeing No Country For Old Men I did some thinking. I talked to friends. I read reviews. I was reminded of an almost tossed off reference to their work by Stanley Cavell in his book, Cities of Words. It comes in the 16th chapter, which focuses on Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, in the first three paragraphs. I decided I would quote the passage here as a kind of placeholder while my thoughts continue to develop in regards to the Coens' work, and how we may best evaluate it beyond "Is it good? Is it bad?" Also, I want to interrogate my previous stance on their films that I remember dismissing as "bad." I've already been proven wise to rethink their rather astounding The Man Who Wasn't There, which I now am thinking of as a possible flip side companion to The Hudsucker Proxy: fate literally fights for Tim Robbins' Norville Barnes; nobody, not even Tony Shaloub, really, fights for Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane.

A summary of a film comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges suffers most in missing the continuous, virtuosic precision and intelligence of his dialogue, in no case more than in that of The Lady Eve. Sturges is one of the most remarkable mids to have found expression in Hollywood. Not until after the end of the Second World War, with the reception in America of the outburst of filmmaking in Europe -- including films of Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman -- did an American audience become accustomed to finding a film written and directed by the same person. And Sturges' tight corpus of comparatively small-scale films occupies a treasure place in the hearts of those who care about the world and art of film; for example, beyond The Lady Eve, there are Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story and Hail the Conquering Hero. An instance of this esteem is recorded in the title of the Coen brothers' recent film, O Brother Where Art Thou? (with George Clooney and John Turturro), one of the most notable films of the past few years. It is worth taking a minute to say how that title inscribes a Sturges film.

The hero of Sullivan's Travels (played by Joel McRea, who is also the male lead in the remarriage comedy The Palm Beach Story, an interesting actor of considerable range, but less well known than the male stars, his natural competitors, of the remarriage comedies of the period discussed in this book) is a filmmaker whose great success is based on making thrillers with little intellectual or political content, and who wishes to make a film about something true and important, about suffering. The travels of the film's title are those taken by this director, who escapes the world of Hollywood escape in order to experiece the suffering of, after all, most people in the world, in preparation for making his important film of witness. The narrative takes him to the bottom of the world, in the form of being falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to a southern chain gang, where he discovers that the laughter provided by a Hollywood cartoon may provide the only rare moments of respite in a stretch of fully desperate existence. He contrives to be recognized in this place of anonymity, and returns to Hollywood to apply his hard-won insight, which means leaving unrealized his film of suffering.

The title of his projected work was to be O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen film, which opens in a southern chain gang, realizes this unrealized work by, as it announces, adapting (or more accurately, silently remembering names, and imaging sequences to realize them, from) episodes of the Odyssey (the Sirens, the Cyclops), taking as the overall adventure the return of an extraordinarily resourceful, or resilient, man to his native town to reclaim his sought-after wife (and children). The challenge the Coens take up, or depart from, in Sturges' fantasy of witnessing suffering, and which they seem to declare as part of their film (indeed of their corpus of fascinating films), is neither to record nor to distract from suffering. It is rather to witness, on the part of people who recognize, despite all, that life may still hold adventure, say hold out a perfectionist aspiration, but that to sustain a desire to meet the fantastic, unpredictable episodes of everyday modern existence, one must, and one can, rationally and practically, imagine that one will, at need, discover in oneself, in the register of passion, the resourceful persistence of Odysseus, and the mixed, but preponderant, favor of the Gods, call it fortune.

Perhaps we can use this as a kind of springboard into the Coens' pictures to investigate their particular expression of the American experience. I will return to this, along with my fellows here at VINYL, at a later date, perhaps as soon as December 1st, perhaps as late as December 25th. The point is: December will see some Coens writing from at least a few of us here, taking in, as best as time and space and ability will allow, the scope of their work through this notion of witnessing.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Cardboard cutouts: Even Cowgirls Get The Blues

by Ryland Walker Knight

Reverse Shot's newest issue, focusing on Gus Van Sant, was published this afternoon. I contributed an essay on his fourth feature, that ugly duckling of a film, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. You can read it here. It took a while to write because I had a hard time figuring out how to make something interesting out of an object I had no taste for. I'd have liked to write something on Last Days, which gets two essays (1, 2) in this issue, because I think it may be the best thing he's done (although the scene with Kim Gordon explains a little too much). But I caught the end of the assignments and picked up this odd specimen. It's better said, I hope, in the essay itself. But, please, do enjoy the other essays. I hope to read them all sooner than later.

[One of the best sequences of Last Days in my humble opinion.]

Are you an angry man? Are you envious?

Some words from Ryland Walker Knight to you, fine readers: Go to The House Next Door and read my early review of There Will Be Blood. It was difficult to know what to include in the review given the film does not open for more than a month (and then, only in New York and Los Angeles). But I think I got at something without spoiling too much, if anything, given a familiarity with the film's trailers. There's plenty more to discuss with this film and I look forward to other writers tackling its treasures/horrors. I'm sure somebody will talk about the scene in the ocean (yeah, really) in a beautiful way. And somebody's got to do something with the milkshake line (no, there's no boys at the yard). Simply put: it's a rich film, one that will astound many. And provide plenty of dialogue. I hope you see it on as big a screen as possible, with the loudest sound system possible -- it's the only way to do it justice. (I saw it at the Castro, along with Michael Guillen and, if it really was sold out, roughly 1400 other people, last Monday. I feel lucky: they have a huge screen and they always crank the sound. Part of the fun of their 70mm film festival is experiencing the screeching wails and dead-calm silence of 2001 when the volume is turned up to 11.)

While searching for links for the piece, I found this amazing shill bit featuring Jason Alexander (yeah, him) talking about Sam Shepard's play, God of Hell, which Alexander directed for the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles last year. Some of what he has to say applies to PTA's films, too, but I include it hear, mostly, because it made me laugh. Also, Tom Cruise is the best thing in Magnolia; imagine him doing this about his real passion, Scientology. Wouch.

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Still haven't listened to In Rainbows but I plan on it soon, especially after Johnny Greenwood's amazing score for There Will Be Blood. Is it worth 10 cents? How much did you pay? Guess I'll go ahead and download the son-of-a-bitch.

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I saw the Coens' new picture, No Country for Old Men this weekend. It, too, is brutal. But it's after something rather different. I hope to have more to say on the film in these webspaces soon. For now I'll hint with this: Tommy Lee Jones is perfect and the brothers' attention to language (as a social practice, as an element of characterization, as given to philosophy, as a music) is amazing. I like to think of Wes Anderson as the inheritor of Sturges but these New York Jews sure do have some of him in them. What's funny is I prefer this preoccupation with language in films like this one (and Hudsucker, which is more akin to Hawks) than I do in O Brother Where Art Thou?. But I should rewatch that picture. I may have to see this new one again before I can really argue for something instead of saying, "Jesus Christ. Er, God-damn. Oh, fuck it, the world holds too much evil sometimes." Stay tuned. In the meantime, the opening monologue:
I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job - not to be glorious. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. You can say it's my job to fight it but I don't know what it is anymore. ...More than that, I don't want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. ... He would have to say, okay, I'll be part of this world.

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Wanted to share that, yes, Days of Heaven looks gorgeous on the new Criterion disc. It's wholly different than There Will Be Blood and No Country, but they form a nice trilogy to watch together in a week. If you can, I recommend it. Perhaps some screenshots will come later.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Poem for the Month: an excerpt from T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1919)

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

In the spirit of No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood: this poem gets America. [Wiki: T. S. Eliot]

So how about a quick run-down?

by Ryland Walker Knight

take that!
say what?

I think I've been consuming too much without enough reflective writing. I'm just generating opinions for myself, not arguments about the art I've seen, read, sampled, tasted. Such are the vagaries of schooling. Not enough time for all the fun stuff, like blogging. During October I saw quite a few flicks but given the amount of writing I was doing elsewhere (for class, for an upcoming essay elsewhere, for my Thesis) and more than a little confusion (about the 'sphere, about criticism, about, ahem, life) I didn't find time to jot anything down. I would like this to change. At least part of my inspiration comes from a classmate, Michael, and his devotion to posting something every day over at his blog, Cinema. Et Cetera., where he keeps dropping my name. It's flattering, I must admit, but, in turn, I feel compelled to contribute more to our collective internets, our rhizomed conversation (to ape something Daniel and mush it with something from Felipe).

So how about a quick run-down? As if you care...

Watch The House for an early review of There Will Be Blood; it's phenomenal. Don't waste your time or money on any of these current flicks: American Gangster [Ridley's a great hack, with two classics to his name, but this would be nothing were it not for Russell Crowe and Harris Savides; one of Denzel's worst performances ever, oddly]; Gone, Baby, Gone [the Affleck brothers should keep making movies together because they can only get better (as director and star, although Casey's leading that race) and they won't feel they have to cast Morgan Freeman or Ed Harris: I want Freeman to get real ugly, and mean, again instead of oddly benevolent & I want Ed Harris to shut the fuck up and stop yelling all the time]; We Own The Night [this one's got some critical muscle behind it (1, 2), which kind of baffles me, as James Gray is quite the accomplished, classicist director but not much of a writer; that said, Joaquin is good, if fatter than ever, and you get to see Eva Mendes pleasure herself]. I can't quite recommend Michael Clayton but -- you know what? -- it's not terrible, and even poignant, perhaps stirring, twice: (1) Clooney tells his son how proud he is that the son will always be okay, will never succumb to the bullshit of the world; (2) the final, three minute, unbroken shot of Clooney riding in a cab, in close-up, confirms he really is a perfect kind of screen actor, even if he's simultaneously always a little smug.

The Netflix Experiment ended, as you may have guessed, a while ago, but I decided I like that practice, or at least getting the discs in the mail, so I signed up again at the end of the summer. Here's what I've seen since then: Discrete Charm of the Bougeoisie is delirious fun. The Miracle of Morgan Creek really should have been included in that box set; it may be the one in the Sturges oeuvre, even though all of them are fucking amazing. I forgot how damned smart The Ring is, despite its histrionics. Rivette's Secret Defense is a muted marvel that insinuates instead of announces. The first hour of Marnie is unreal good; after the rape scene it gets bogged down in odd, zeitgeist-y psychoanalysis. Dirty Harry is cool. Denis' Chocolat is not as good as her later work but still distinctive, very much of a piece with J'ai pas sommeil (and even L'intrus). Mann's Manhunter is, quite possibly, his secret masterpiece; sure it's dated, but look at Heat, or Miami Vice, in ten, or twenty, years and I think you'll see the same kind of thing -- and it won't make them lesser films. Last of the Mohicans, on the other hand, really isn't as good as I remembered it, even though the action is so well executed. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's first film, Mysterious Object at Noon plays like an exercise, without the umph or pizzaz of Syndromes and a Century (the other two are high up in the Queue). To Catch a Thief: 5 stars. The Wendall Baker Story is kind of like that kid you really want to help along, you want to like it so bad that you know it's not that good at all, despite itself, and the charms it does hold (which are a lot, surprisingly: Luke and Owen Wilson, Seymour Cassel, Harry Dean Stanton, Kris Kristofferson, and, yes, Eddie Griffin). I just finished the second season of The Wire: ouch. Renoir's The River keeps waiting for me to watch it, along with Dead Man's Chest, and I think I've got Band of Outsiders coming today. I want to buy Ratatouille but it might have to wait for a week.

At least I got all that off my chest. Now onto some Daniel Day-Lewis monstering, and lunch, and then class. This weekend: Coen Brothers, Jeff Wall, burritos. And, maybe, some more writing?

catch it while you can

[Lead pics from (no d'uh) Peter Berg's secretly amazing (read: goofy, fun) The Rundown. Closing pic: "A Sudden Gust of Wind."]