Sunday, December 30, 2007

Closing the Year with a Bong -- er -- Bang

I see by the old calendar on the wall that this is almost certainly my last posting of 2007, and I'm happy to leave the old year on a positive note. Gregg Araki is not a filmmaker known for his keen sense of humor, so the idea of a slapstick comedy directed by the auteur of Mysterious Skin sounds less than appealing. However, his newest film, Smiley Face, which is currently playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan, is a giddy stoner frolic, equal parts Preston Sturges and Cheech and Chong. The film powered by a delightfully vacant performance by Anna Faris as Jane F, a stoner actress who manages to devour an entire platter of marjuana cupcakes that her ominous apartment mate (Danny Masterson) has baked for a sci-fi convention he is hosting. She also manages to get in dutch with her dealer (an amusingly detached Adam Brody in dreads), her agent, a casting director, a Marxist professor and what appears to be half the LAPD.

Smiley Face is a fairly entertaining example of a subgenre of comedy that Sturges, among others, raised to a sort of demented perfection, the tale of a single day of cumulative catastrophe. It's not hard to think of examples: Hawks's Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business leap to mind immediately, as well as numerous Sturges films, particularly Christmas in July and Mad Wednesday. All a filmmaker has to do to make one of these work is to find the perfect Rube Goldberg snowballing logic of disaster and start the machine rolling. Araki and screenwriter Dylan Haggerty have the advantage of a ready-made story illogic, since Jane's reactions to reality are inevitably a bit left-handed. It would be very easy, under the circumstances, for them to allow the film to be washed away on a euphoric cloud of dope smoke, casting anything resembling plot to the four winds, but they are too smart to fall into that trap.

The film is aided immeasurably by Faris's performance. She's like something out of a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, her eyes swiveling wildly, periodically bugging out of her head, her chin seemingly receding into her neck as she desperately tries to parse the grammar of a drugged-0ut reality. Araki accompanies her with a crazy day-glo palette, alternating with the drab colors of reality. The final shots are a perfect melding of the two, balancing orange jumpsuits against the muddy earth of suburban California. The result is an engaging, frequently very funny comedy of escalating errors, a very pleasant way to end the calendar year.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A little touch of Otto for Xmas

At least one film event worth waiting for to kick off the new year, a major retrospective of the works of Otto Preminger, 23 films worth, at Film Forum from January 2-17. The occasion is the publication of Foster Hirsch's splendidly comprehensive biography, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King (Alfred A. Knopf, $35). As I note in my Jewish Week piece on the program, this volume is required reading for anyone who wants a glimpse into the workings of the studio system and the handful of filmmakers who challenged it in the early '50s.

As for the films, Preminger's filmography is his own best defense. Although Hirsch finds Preminger's personality an uncongenial fit for the film noir -- Otto was basically an optimist, he argues -- it's pretty hard to argue with Laura, Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends, three key works of the cycle. Each is shot through with a certain erotic perversity but they all end with the possibility of redemption for a self-satisfied, self-absorbed character (exquisitely underplayed by Dana Andrews) In fact, although the noir is usually pretty pessimistic, you could argue that The Big Sleep, directed by an arch-optimist, Howard Hawks, is another example of one such film that works because of the director's temperament.

When you start to talk about family melodrama and epic historical melodrama, you are right in Preminger's sweet spot. More than any other directors of widescreen films, except for Minnelli and Nick Ray, Preminger knows exactly how to make the very small adjustments that create a sense of the literal and metaphoric space between his characters, balancing their positions within deep-focus long takes that allow everyone their turn at the podium. Bonjour Tristesse and the institutional blockbusters -- Advise and Consent, Anatomy of a Murder, The Cardinal, In Harm's Way -- are breathtaking in their formal rigor and classical elegance. Among the pre-'Scope films, Daisy Kenyon and The Fan are also superbly thought-out in terms of the ways that the interplay of characters and mise-en-scene gives the audience insight into the combative relationships.

I had not seen The Fan before, but watched it as part of my prep for the Hirsch interview. He describes it as one of OP's most underappreciated films. He's absolutely right. It's a delicate little gem, really quite lovely, with a luminous Jeanne Crain, one of the more emotionally committed performances I've seen from George Sanders and a remarkably nuanced turn from Madeleine Carroll. It's a great looking film, too (Joe LaShelle shot it). preminger plays the film as a subtle chamber drama, which works quite nicely. If you consider that comedy is the one genre in which his work is usually pretty awful, it's a particularly felicitous decision.

At any rate, after you recover from your 1/1 hangovers, toddle on down to Film Forum for some of the Premingers. God only knows when you'll get to see some of these films on a big screen ever again. And if you are in Los Angeles, you're in luck; the American Cinematheque will be hosting the series in the second half of January. Go here for more information.

A Pleasant Little Surprise

As I have written before, in recent years I have become less interested in identifying yet unnoticed auteurs -- if there any older ones left unnoticed -- and more concerned with the nuts-and-bolts workings of narrative. I have also been increasingly fascinated by the pre-Code era of Hollywood films. Those interests tend to converge frequently at TCM, and this weekend, interspersed with some Ira-eligible films and screeners for the New York Jewish Film Festival, which takes place next month, Margo and I watched several Warners and Fox programmers -- Dwan's Black Sheep, a sprightly shipboard number with Edmund Lowe and a very young Claire Trevor; Curtiz's Private Detective 62, a snappy William Powell vehicle; Del Ruth's 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon; and about 15 minutes of a ghastly tear-jerker by Herbert Brenon, Transgression, with a particularly tedious Kay Francis effort.

Those ran fairly true to form. I've seen the Del Ruth before; it's interesting and, in its rather coarse way, somewhat closer to Hammett's conception of Spade than the vastly better Huston of ten years later. The Dwan has a good reputation and it earns it by virtue of its amusing banter and a slightly convoluted but imaginative plot. The Curtiz is . . . well, it's a '30s Curtiz, so it moves faster than hell, Powell is delightful, there's a lot of chewy dialogue and a happy ending. As for the Brenon -- well I didn't expect much and it merely confirmed for me the notion that Lubitsch must have hypnotized Francis to get that delicious performance in Trouble in Paradise, so atypical and so wonderful.

But the real surprise was a 1932 programmer, Union Depot, directed by Alfred E. Green. Green's career stretched from 1916 to the late '50s when he was doing episodes of The Millionaire and The Lone Wolf. His best-known films are biopics like The Jolson Story, The Eddie Cantor Story and The Jackie Robinson Story. He also directed one of the most notorious pre-Code films, Baby Face, the movie in which Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way up the corporate ladder, her conquests including a very callow John Wayne.

Needless to say, nothing prepared us for Union Depot, which is one of those weird little films that the pre-Code studios tossed out from time to time. The film opens with an astonishingly elaborate long-take tracking shot that introduces about a half-dozen minor characters and motifs. Then it really picks up speed. Doug Fairbanks, Jr. is a hobo who accidentally acquires some cash and a new suit from a cameo-ing Frank McHugh, then gets mixed up with out-of-work dancer Joan Blondell, a sexual psychopath, a ring of counterfeiters represented by Alan Hale and the federal agents chasing him. If this sounds crazy, well, it is. It's beautifully shot by Sol Polito and almost never stops moving. The film's forward narrative drive is terrific, and the ending is unexpected and totally satisfying in a way that wouldn't have been possible two or three years later. I think what is most surprising, though, its the fluidity and fluency of Green's camera movements, from that impressive opening crane-and-track through a finale at the site of a departing train.

I don't expect this one to turn up on a DVD package any time soon. Regrettably, it isn't included in the Museum of Modern Art's little tribute to the always wonderful Joan Blondell, although that series includes some wonderful films (Blonde Crazy, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Nightmare Alley are the best offerings in the series, although Wellman's Night Nurse is absolutely wacky and should be seen, if only for Stanwyck facing down Gable). So the odds are against your seeing Union Depot soon. Unless, of course, you write to TCM and beg. Hey, a little groveling is good for the soul.

(Incidentally, the Blondell tribute at MoMA runs through January 1. An excellent way to say goodbye to 2007.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reports from a War

I don't know what, if any, film industry Iraq had under Saddam Hussein or his predecessors. IMDB shows 62 titles for Iraq, although I recognize one or two as being made by Iranians. (Bahman Ghobadi's Half-Moon, on which more momentarily, is the first one that jumps out at me.) Of course in these days of cheap video cameras, anybody can be a filmmaker, which brings me to my point.

Regardless of our politics, the view we have of the war is almost entirely the one that comes from American media outlets (okay, the media outlets of the major industrial nations). I am neither denigrating nor endorsing those outlets, merely noting that what we seen at home on our TVs, in movie theaters and, for the most part, on our computers, comes from a single set of sources. And that means that the bulk of what we see takes place in Bagdad's Green Zone. But what are Iraqis thinking outside the Green Zone?

There is a new website, Iraqiscope, that offers us a chance to see and hear precisely that, films and videos made by Iraqis about their embattled nation. Who is behind this site? They describe themselves as follows:

Iraqiscope is financed by the German Federal Foreign Office and the UNESCO and realized by MICT in cooperation with the Arab Film Festival Rotterdam, Kirkuk TV (Baba Gur Gur), Baghdad Short Film Festival, Susanne Kaufmann, Haider Helo, Diar Bakr, Sheelan Hassan, Amena Al-Zahabi, Zaki Ziad, and Hadi Mahoud and Fayez Alqanani. MICT - Media in Cooperation and Transition is a non-profit media organization with offices in Berlin and Amman. MICT's activities comprise the training of journalists and media producers, program and content development, production of radio programs, films and books. Since being founded in early 2004, MICT has been implementing media projects on political and cultural topics in Iraq in cooperation with Iraqi activists, journalists, artists, and media producers. Check out: www.mict-international.org and www.niqash.org

The one unfortunate drawback I've found on the Iraqiscope site so far is that many of the films -- but not all ot them -- I looked at were in Arabic without subtitles in any other language. With that proviso, the site is definitely worth a long look.

(Did I mention that there are cooking shows? Those seem generally to be subtitled. I can't wait to try some of these recipes. But that's another story, possibly for another blog.)



If you thought I was kidding about "Empire" . . .

Take a look at this story from Hollywood Reporter. A new overseas box office record for American films set in 2007; all six MPA member studios top $1 billion in foreign box office receipts. I needn't tell you at whose expense those numbers are being rung up.

A free-market type might point out that people go to see the movies that they want to see. And that is certainly true. (I, for one, have never had my finger on the pulse of the American movie-going public and I'd like to keep it that way. ) But that rather simplistic view of economics is based on the mistaken notion that there is a level playing field. In truth, the only times that local film industries thrive outside the U.S. is when national governments take a hand. The obvious example is South Korea, whose high-flying film industry has survived because by law a theater owner has to book a certain percentage of Korean-made films. (Of course, as anyone who has had the misfortune to see any of the '30s British films called "quota quickies" can tell you, such laws can be circumvented when American companies manipulate their foreign subsidiaries for that purpose. )

The playing field isn't equal when one of the players is astronomically more powerful, better funded and more willing to spend than anyone else in the game. If you are a poker player, you know damned well that anyone who comes to a game with significantly less money than the others at the table will need a spectacular run of early luck just to survive.

We've reached the point where, to pick the most disheartening recent example, French filmmakers feel obliged to imitate the worst American examples in order to compete for the domestic audience. How else to explain the unspeakable crap turned out by Luc Besson and his subordinates? Even French box office is now dominated by American product. And when the world economy takes a nosedive, three guesses who will still be at this particular poker table. Hint: they will have little American flags in their lapels.

Thirty years ago, that might not have depressed me as much as it does now. In the 1970s, American film was still vital and exciting, a few of the old masters were still alive and the young filmmakers who were emerging looked promising. But the spectre of a world in which the dominant narrative paradigm is determined by Jerry Bruckheimer and his ilk . . . well, it doesn't bear thinking about.

The problem isn't just that American film ain't what she used to be. The problem is that even at its best -- and that would be pretty damned good -- it was never the only viable film model in the world. Artistic diversity in the medium is as important as biodiversity in the ecosystem. Unhappily, we are losing both.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Not Over Quite Yet . . . .

The critics groups are busily tucking presents under some people's trees -- those that have trees, that is -- and the ten-best lists should start flooding the press, tv and the 'net any nanosecond now. But for the Ira voters, the year won't end until March. That's when we will get together to vote on our awards, the ones that really count, the Iras. Of course, if you are a loyal reader of this blog, you know that. You also know, then, that I won't post my ten-best list until then.

Hey, the Jewish ritual year starts in the fall, the Jewish "new year for the trees" starts in late January and Tet, the Buddhist lunar new year starts in February. You got a problem with that, buddy?

All joking aside, 2007 has been a pretty spiffy year for film. I have only 85 films on my list of Ira-eligibles seen for the 2007 awards -- I expect to knock down another 50-60 before Ira night -- and I already have a very strong ten-best list with four or five honorable mentions that would be creditable additions to a ten-best list most other years. But that is a story for another time.

The real reason for this dithering is that the estimable Ira Hozinsky, the man for whom the Iras are named, passed along to me a link that I want to share. Back in the heady days of auteurism triumphant, there was a particularly trenchant magazine published by the Seattle Film Society, Movietone News, and one of their most elegant features was a year-end wrap-up column called "Moments Out of Time," a collection of the most resonant images, sounds, lines from that year's films. When they moved up the ladder to Film Comment, the feature migrated with them, but when they left FC it disappeared. Until now.

You can find a 2007 edition of "Moments Out of Time" here. Feel free to offer some of your own, either on their page or in the comments to this posting. I'll wrack my brain looking for some of my own favorite moments shortly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Anatomy of a Mass Murder

A film about the devastation wrought by the Japanese Army on the city of Nanking in 1937 ought to be disturbing. After all, In the space of a few weeks, the invaders murdered about a quarter-million civilians, raped some 20,000 women and utterly destroyed the capital of China (as the city was then). But for the courageous intervention of a small band of Western missionaries, doctors and a few businessmen, those numbers would have gone much higher. In short, the "Rape of Nanking" is one of the terrible scars on the 20th Century.

And to a certain extent the new documentary Nanking, which opens today at Film Forum, tells this story unflinchingly, with candor and passion. But almost from the film's opening shots, there is something painfully upsetting about the way directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman have chosen to present this story and the result, I think, detracts from their intended message, albeit in a subtle way. The film opens with a group of actors in a large room that looks at first glance rather disconcertingly like a high school gymnasium. They slowly take their seats and begin to read from the actual writings of the men and women who spearheaded the effort to create a safe zone for the civilian population of Nanking. Throughout the remainder of the film, Guttentag and Sturman will cut between the testimony of actual survivors of the Japanese onslaught, newsreel and home movie footage of the events as they happened, and close-ups of the actors reading from the witnesses' letters, journals, diaries.

In fact, what we are seeing in those acted sequences is a staged reading of these materials. But the film never identifies it as such and the filmmakers have chosen to frame the actors, who are wearing period clothes, in tight close-ups so that we never see the audience at the reading, never actually know what we are seeing while these scenes take place.

These choices, which are at the heart of the film's structure and therefore inseparable from every other aesthetic choice Guttentag and Sturman make, are troubling for several reasons. Most obviously, we are never informed of the reality of what we are seeing; it's sort of a cheap way to make a Hollywood film about Nanking without having to recreate the terrible reality. (Granted, the opening pre-performance shots alert us that something unconventional is happening, but the film never returns to a long shot that would situate the actors in a theatrical space. Rather, the close-ups seem designed for the explicit purpose of integrating them into a cinematic continuum with the actual witnesses and the period footage.)

Second, the cross-cutting between actors and real participants creates an unfortunate moral equivalence between the actual survivors and people impersonating survivors. I would also argue that the use of on-screen actors inadvertently lends credence to the ultra-right Japanese militarists who still insist that nothing out of the ordinary happened in Nanking; when you mix modes like this, you are unwittingly casting doubt on how an audience is supposed to read the film's various registers.

Finally, to get more practical and less theoretical, except for Woody Harrelson, who reads the words of Dr. Bob Wilson, an American who stayed in Nanking to keep the city's only still-functioning hospital alive, Jurgen Prochnow, who reads from the diaries of John Rabe, a pro-Nazi businessman who led the committee that created and supervised the safety zone, Stephen Dorff and John Getz, who read the words of two of the missionaries, the acting is too florid, too . . . actorly. The worst offender by far is Mariel Hemingway, who positively throbs with emotion every time she opens her mouth, and bobs her head enough to give any viewer motion sickness. I'm reminded of the absolutely deplorable Holocaust documentary, Genocide, an Oscar-winner needless to say, in which Elizabeth Taylor practically sobs throughout her narration and Elmer Bernstein's score jabs you in the ribs to cue you when to tear up. (By the way, Philip Marshall's score for Nanking is one of the film's strengths, intelligent and understated.)

Yet, for all its shortcomings, Nanking is a film that should be seen. Despite the central conceit, the film is intelligently structured and the material is inherently fascinating. It is unlikely that another film on this subject is going to be made any time soon. Given its 90-minute running time, the film manages to convey the grim and terrible reality of what happened in Nanking 70 years ago this month. If there are oversimplifications, they are minor and unavoidable; if you want the entire gut-wrenching story, you should start with Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, as the filmmakers wisely did. (John Rabe's diaries are also in print.) There are many moments in this film that will cost you sleep and it's definitely not something to see on a full stomach. But that is what the 20th Century was. As the American short-story writer Lee K. Abbott wrote, "This is the 20th Century, pal. Bad is its middle name."

Opening shortly

Adam Rifkin has a weirdly variegated filmography. He's probably best known for the cult film The Dark Backward, remembered as the film in which Judd Nelson grows a third arm out of his back. (From this, he makes a living?) His latest film, Look, which opens Friday, is aiming for something more serious and while I don't think it works it's an interesting idea. At any rate, my interview with him can be found at the Jewish Week website here.

Nanking, the new documentary by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman opens later today (it's Wednesday where I'm sitting right now) and I'll have a review of it here before the sun sets.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

This 'n' That

If there is a more important active American documentary filmmaker than Frederick Wiseman, I don't know who it is. (Don't you dare say Michael Moore.) Wiseman's career spans exactly 40 years and from Titicut Follies to his most recent work, State Legislature, no one has offered more eloquent documentation of the institutions that govern the world in which we live -- in the broadest sense of "govern." Wiseman examines the disconnect between the individual and the large corporate body, whether it is in the private or public sector, with great incisiveness and insightfulness. But until very, very recently it was prohibitively expensive for an individual to own his films.

So I was delighted to receive an e-mail last week from his company, Zipporah Films, announcing that they are releasing 23 of his titles on DVD for the general public. Prices on the disks range from $29.95 to $39.95, and they can be purchased from Zipporah's website. I was going to suggest you start out with Near Death (1989), his six-hour film about the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital and a great favorite of mine, but that happens to be one of the titles not included in the initial bunch. If you are looking for something a little less fraught for a first foray into Wiseman's cinema, perhaps you'd be better off with Ballet, one of the best films of 1995, a riveting three-hour look at the American Ballet Theater.

On one level, DVD is really an ideal format for Wiseman's films. You can get a lot of information into a small physical object, and his best work defies the boundaries of feature-film running times. Visually, most of his films look good, but retaining the visual nuances of 35mm isn't as important for his work as it might be others, so the drop-off in visual quality between theatrical projection and your home entertainment center isn't crucial. Of course, the great advantage of seeing the films in a theater -- even though many of them were conceived for public television -- is the communal nature of the experience and the overwhelming size of the image. You can't have that in your living room and it's a shame, given the thematic focus of Wiseman's work. But this is certainly better than not being able to see them at all.

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If you have an hour to kill while you're sitting at the computer, take a look at the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, where there's an interesting discussion of the group's recent survey of its members on issues of reviewing ethics. You can also get to the actual questionnaires from that page. Most of what is debated has only a slender relation to the ethical issues facing film critics; the day that I have the same agent as Tom Cruise (or Manoel de Oliveira, for that matter), one of us will be in big trouble. But it makes for piquant reading.

(Heck, I just wrote this item so I'd have an excuse to use the word "piquant.")

Come to think of it, if you have an hour to kill, why don't you read a book?

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Okay, you're too tired/lazy/ennervated to read a whole book. Let me make a suggestion. From the many, many literary blogs one finds on-line -- we won't talk about film blogs, just look at the links on this page if that's what you want -- which would be worth a look? Of course, there are plenty of answers to that question, but let me pull your coat to a few that I think are worth your attention.

Scott Esposito's The Quarterly Conversation is an excellent compendium of essays and reviews that ranges widely in its focus, but is filled with many works in translation. I take that to be the hallmark of a civilized litblog in an era in which the American people (who I assume are my primary readers) are as oblivious to the existence of other languages and literatures as the English were at the height of their empire. Of course, the main drawback for readres of a quarterly is that it's a quarterly. You want more than four issues a year if the publication is good. Happily, there's a blog here also.

I've extolled the virtues of Words Without Borders on more than one occasion here. So I will merely note that their December issue is about partings and farewells. Nice choice for the end of the year.

Finally, the Literary Saloon is the blog of The Complete Review and it's a must-read for its clever, occasionally snarky rundown on book news and the like. Plus, the two publications review a host of literary fiction from all over the place that you won't find in the pages of the New York Times Book Review.


Monday, December 10, 2007

The Glittering Surfaces of Paul Schrader

Perhaps it's the difference between American culture and French, or the difference between Jansenism and Calvinism, but there has always been a significant disparity of means between the films of Paul Schrader and those of his hero, Robert Bresson. This isn't a knock on Schrader, who is a director of considerable talents; I suspect even he would readily grant that Bresson is simply playing in another league.

What I am talking about, rather, is Schrader's approach to what he once called "transcendental style." To roughly paraphrase the idea at the heart of his now-famous book, Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader argues that Bresson, Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, reversed the error of most ostensibly religious films, what Schrader calls “over-abundant means,” the cinematic excesses we associate with Cecil B. DeMille. Instead, each of these three directors constructed their visual universe austerely, with blank walls and restrained camera movement or none at all. Bresson went even further, eventually using only non-actors who he tried to purge of all “actorly” habits. For each of these directors, Schrader theorizes, there is a movement from ‘abundance’ to stasis that takes place when the main character is released from a set of circumstances in such a way that the audience experiences it as a moment of transcendence.

It's not a huge leap to say that for much of his career Schrader has been adapting and modifying the transcendental style for his own purposes, particularly, I would argue, in his "lonely man" trilogy of American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and his new film, The Walker. What sets these three films apart from the Bressonian model, obviously, is that where the French filmmaker pares away at the universe in which his films are set, Schrader actually does something like the opposite, albeit for similar ends.

The Walker is a sumptuously appointed film about the very wealthy and powerful. The production design by James Merifield and the cinematography by Chris Seager give the world of Washington power-brokers and their seemingly indolent wives a sheen, a patina that extends to their "friend" Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), the "walker" of the title. But that patina is not a protecting shield, and when Page finds himself caught between his friendship with Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the police investigating a murder in which he may be a suspect, it is withdrawn.

Each of the three protagonists of Schrader's self-described trilogy is an outsider by choice: gigolo, courier, gay escort to the powerful. Schrader describes these men as "watchers," and they are, in a way, voyeurs to their own lives. They are also men who must live by their outward images, either because that is what they are selling (Julian in American Gigolo and Carter in The Walker) or because an imposture is a necessary part of their illegal business (John in Light Sleeper). So they retreat behind those glittering surfaces, the glossy and pricey clothing and accessories they wear and all that comes with them.

It is part of Schrader's ingenuity and talent that he can uses these most UnBressonian means to indicate the spiritual poverty of his heroes' lives and, of course, he gradually strips them of a lot of their pretty armor. Inexorably, both the heroes and the audience come to the realization that it may look nice when polished but it gives no protection. In The Walker, he starts that process almost immediately with a scene of Carter undressing after a hard day of canasta and gossip, finally divesting himself of his lush and handsome head of hair. (You can't get much more stripped-down than that.) The scene is so obviously a reference back to American Gigolo's dressing scene that it barely escapes being self-parody.

Like its predecessors, The Walker uses the trappings of the crime film to give the audience entree into its world and to set in motion the forces that will bring its protagonist to self-understanding. Unlike either of the earlier films in the trilogy, The Walker strives for a degree of political commentary, trying hard to cut the Bush administration down to size, albeit with a very expensive manicure set rather than a more practical weapon. (Not that a fiction feature is likely to sway political opinion in any meaningful way.) The conspiracy at the heart of The Walker is not all that far-fetched, but its verbal assaults on the right-wing ideologues and climbers running the government are not nearly as potent as they could be. If the film didn't aspire to a certain political savvy, I probably wouldn't even mention it.

Frankly, although I thoroughly enjoyed The Walker -- it's certainly never dull, it's handsomely mounted and wonderfully well-acted by a cast as glittering as Carter's cufflink drawer -- it feels like Schrader-Lite, transcendental style for dummies. What keeps you watching is a gracefully nuanced performance by Woody Harrelson, who is virtually never off-screen. It isn't hard to be convinced that Carter undergoes the same kind of revelatory moment as his predecessors in the trilogy, simply because Harrelson makes you believe it.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away"

. . . as the great Willie Nelson sang. This evening marked the 23rd anniversary of my first date with Margo. In other words, when we met for the first time (about a week earlier), it was still the first ghastly term of the Reagan administration. American film was in the process of self-immolation under the guiding hands of Lucas and Spielberg and toy manufacturers everywhere.

Hmmm. Some things haven't changed all the much.

We spent the evening watching The Saddest Music in the World, Guy Maddin's delicious cyanide cocktail and I was reminded once again that sometimes the best film critic in the world is someone who is merely highly intelligent with a smattering of film knowledge, someone like the b.w., that is. Within moments of the film's opening credits she had made a crystal clear connection that had eluded me the two or three times I saw the film before (at least once in the company of another estimable film expert who, like me, didn't spot this one). As soon as the Lady Pont Huntington beer jingle came on the soundtrack, she started laughing uproariously and turned to me with a grin and said, "It's a Preston Sturges film!" Of course, I had been so fixated on the more obvious influences -- the visual ones -- Murnau, the '20s Soviets, pre-Code melodrama, that I had missed an important point that was glaring at me all along. And, of course, The Saddest Music is the one Maddin film (to date) that does owe a lot to Sturges, particularly in the dialogue for Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), the brash, pushy Broadway denizen. It's nothing less than the motor that drives the plot and gives the film its title. Doh!

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It always strikes me as rather amusing to backtrack my train of thought and see how I reached some particularly arcane -- or just inappropriate -- subject. Tonight, the signs were easy to follow. I was listening to Maria de Medeiros doing a jazzed-up rendition of "The Song Is You," went and got the utterly indispensable Lissauer guide to American popular song and looked up the ditty. As I suspected, it's Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. And they are damned clever but very flowery lyrics. They succeed brilliantly, as do similar words to another Kern tune, "All the Things You Are." Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I dislike almost all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog (we won't even speak of the film versions, which are beneath contempt), yet I find myself thinking, 'Gee, these Hammerstein lyrics are so right, so apt. They're not any less self-consciously literary than the later ones. How come these work?"

And that's when the lightning struck. Of all the great American songwriters of the Golden Age (and if you don't know when and what I mean, get yourself a copy of Alec Wilder's book on American popular song and come back when you've read it), Jerome Kern is the one, I think, who owes the most to and travelled the fewest miles from the Old Country. His melodies and harmonies owe the most to his European musical forebears. I suspect that may be because he is the oldest of the giants, three years older than Irving Berlin, and the one whose career began when the American musical theater was still a young sprout from the operetta/light opera tree-trunk. Berlin was born in Russia while Kern was born in New York City, but musically, Kern could have been born next door to Rudolph Friml. Kern is the pivotal figure in the transition to an American musical theater, distinct from its Continental predecessors (although still owing a lot in terms of narrative structure and characterization); for that to be the case, he had to be the one who had something to break with. Hammerstein, for all the hoo-hah about the innovations of Oklahoma and subsequent R&H shows, was firmly rooted in that old-world tradition, too. He never entirely shakes that lilac-scented romanticism with its no less purple wordcraft. But when you put his words to Kern's music, magic happens.

I'd be curious to know what Guy Maddin was thinking when he decided to make "The Song Is You" the centerpiece of his film. Oh, yeah, and was he thinking of Sturges?

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Coming attractions time:
Sometime this weekend I'll be posting my review of The Walker, the new Paul Schrader, which I enjoyed, although it feels like a minor Schrader. And during the week, I'll pass along my review of Nanking, a new documentary that is deeply disturbing for both good and bad reasons. (You know damned well the only reason for doing this is to force myself to write the pieces. I can't stand reneging on a promise, especially one that millions of people, in theory, can read. I guess that finishes off my political career.)




Monday, December 03, 2007

Blows Against the Empire(s)

Pure coincidence, I swear, but the Ousmane Sembene retrospective at Film Forum, from November 30 to December 13, is yet another example -- the best example to date -- of a filmmaker from outside the world of the northern metropolis creating a cinema that is a direct affront to the hegemony of the corporate north. Sembene, one of the first and certainly the best filmmaker to emerge from sub-Saharan Africa, made films about his native Senegal for his fellow Senegalese. And he made them in direct response to the challenge of communicating with a population that even today has a literacy rate of 39 percent. Sembene began as a novelist -- and he is quite a good one -- but quickly realized that he couldn't reach most of the audience he wanted to engage, so he took up the movie camera instead.

Watching some of his films again, I was struck by how deeply they draw from the waters of Senegalese folklore. Xala, for example, his mordant satire on the bureaucrats eager to assume control when the French stepped back from their former colony, manages to be both affectionate and yet detached in its depiction of traditional medicine. At the same time, it is utterly ruthless (and very, very funny) in its portrait of self-inflated paper-pushers whose primary interest in self-government is the opportunities it presents for graft.

But the humor of Xala, as bitter as its aftertaste may be, is actually an oddity in Sembene's filmography. The dark, mournful tones of Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye are more typical. These tragedies are relentless in their portrayal of the dilemma of the Senegalese soldier commandeered into the "white man's war," and the endless betrayals that Africans have historically experienced at the hands of the colonizers (particularly the French who, to this day, treat their former African colonies with stupefying arrogance).

In his last films, Guelwaar and Moolade, there is a mellowing in tone that produces some of his finest work. These two films are every bit as fearless and uncompromising as Sembene's earlier work, but there is a lyricism and intimacy, a gentle acceptance of individual behavioral quirks that allows Sembene to keep his satirical edge without disregarding the humanity of the men and women he is observing. Guelwaar, in particular, is a profound meditation on the necessity and difficulty of compromise and a certain bittersweet resignation in the face of the seeh impossibility of letting everyone have their way. It is an autumnal film in both palette and tone, not weary but wry.

It would be easy for me to say that despite the fuss made over the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni at the end of the summer, Sembene's death at the beginning was the greater loss. It's the sort of in-your-face polemical position that used to delight me, and I'm not convinced it isn't true. But it is unproductive on so many levels that I will brush it aside and merely say that a year in which three directors of that caliber die is a very bad year indeed. Of this, however, I am certain: the sociopolitical ramifications of Ousmane Sembene's death are much more serious -- and sadder -- than the loss of Bergman or Antonioni -- and the artistic loss is every bit as great. Sembene should be a model for anyone who wishes to create an art of resistance. His integrity, courage and aesthetic judgment are exemplary. And if you want to verify that statement, you must haul yourself over to Film Forum in the next two weeks. The series schedule is here.

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While we're on the subject of African cinema as a counter-cinema to the American corporate model, let me call your attention to another, very different model, this one from Anglophone Africa. Nigeria has become a hotbed of direct-to-video filmmaking, so much so that people are referring to these films as "Nollywood" products, a two-edged homage to Hollywood and Bollywood. I haven't seen any of these films yet, although I hear interesting rumblings that position them all over the narrative and political map. However, if you are, like me, curious to know more, you can make an excellent start with the new issue of the British film journal filmint., which dedicates most of its current issue to Nollywood. There are also essays on TV, video and film in Ivory Coast and the spread of the Nollywood model to the Caribbean. Better get a handle on this bandwagon fast, folks, 'cause it's leaving the station in a big hurry. The journal's website can be found here.