03 January 2010

"Novelty is as old as the hills."

With New Year's now officially over and done with, I've managed to best temptation. I have not posted any sort of Year or Decade in Review, nor predictions for the future. Mostly because I was too busy to do so, which isn't really anything to take pride in - sheer laziness and holiday obligations have trumped the ease of composing a Looking Back, Looking Forward piece. The other part of it - because there is always another part - is fear. Fear that, once again, I have simply not done enough to create, to make my voice heard, to impose my will upon Creation. Time moves swiftly, and the window for making some kind of impact rapidly diminishing.

Crazy talk, of course. One can't take that kind of thing into account when dreaming up projects and films. Not too much, anyway. We just have to do what we can and let the public and press figure out what is worthwhile and what is crap (with our notions changing from moment to moment). But rather than doing something sensible like looking back and taking stock of what has happened to better manage and plan for what will come, I prefer to remain afloat on an uncomfortable cushion of speed and adrenaline (yes, yes, like Wile E. Coyote skimming through the air before he looks down). Retrospection should come only by accident, and all deeper findings derived from it should be judged with suspicion and trepidation. Perhaps like many artists, I don't know why I do what I do, and I'm afraid to find out what drives me. Knowledge is power, but self-knowledge is fucking scary. I'd much rather analyze and critique other people.


I just wrote those words, and I believed them when I did, but in re-reading, I realize they're bullshit. I love critiquing and analyzing myself when prompted - I'm my favorite subject, after all - and I also think that learning new information, while often destroying comforting illusions, replaces them with a more concrete, tangible, and rewarding reality/consciousness/state of being. Case in point: films. It's harder to lose yourself in an awful romantic comedy when you know how the sausage is produced, but it can give you greater appreciation for those filmmakers and works that fall outside the Hollywood milieu.

I suppose I've argued myself into actually having some Year in Review of what I and my collaborators have accomplished thus far. But, for the time being, I'd still rather be the dark horse and draw your attention to several films I've been fortunate to watch in the past few days.

Children of Paradise - There are certain classic films that most people are trepidatious about watching. They don't like the black and white, or it's in a foreign language, or it's four hours long. But those films are classics for a reason. Beyond their superb and innovative technical work, they contain great stories and tell them extremely well. They exist in a category I like to think of as "Classic Movies That Are Also Really Fucking Good," in that even non-cinephiles can dig them if they're willing to try them out. The most prominent two films I put here are Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai (I suppose The General also belongs...hell, I would put pretty much any old film I love in this category). Joining them now is Children of Paradise.

Alright, so Arletty was a bit too old for her part. Otherwise, flawless.

It's French. It came out in 1945. It's three hours long. It prominently features mimes. But it breezes by due to the great pacing of the editing and the sheer strength of the story and characters. It crams a lot into its running time, with no less than four major leads and a bevy of supporting turns. Though it's an original story, it feels like an adaptation of a major novel by Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens. Each character is well-drawn and distinguished, and even the minor ones have memorable traits, like Jericho, the ragman known by an infinite number of alternate monikers, or Avril, the street tough who isn't actually very tough. With its cosmopolitan and frank point of view on love and sex, the film, like all the greats, remains relevant and compelling today. The world it creates is so alive that the concluding scenes, set during the Paris Carnival celebrations, give you a you-are-there feeling, the sense that they will always exist and will always take place in some hidden corner of the space-time continuum (as a point of reference, this is the same hard-to-describe sensation I get when I read the The Sound and the Fury, particularly the Quentin section).

The Cameraman - While I was waiting for the delivery men to drop off my brand new bed this morning, I watched this Buster Keaton silent film. As if it were all preordained, they called me just when the movie was over to let me know they would soon be by. The film is a very good comedy made even more fascinating by the passage of time. It depicts cityscapes and attitudes long since past, with its hapless but determined hero trying to make good and win the girl by getting enmeshed in Tong gang wars featuring blasting machine guns but no visible casualties.

It's tough to find good gags these days that can compare with the best in silent comedies. From Keaton's casual reappearance after being knocked down a flight of stairs to his gently placing a knife into the hand of a struggling gangster to create a more exciting scene, there is an emphasis on the visual (naturally enough) that is sorely lacking in today's cinema. Nowadays it's largely about the one liners people can deploy to cut each other down - not that I'm against that, but it would be nice for some emphasis on other comedic areas as well.

Perhaps filmmakers first starting out should devote themselves to creating silent shorts. Once they've mastered how to tell a story entirely through visual terms, then they can go on and throw in dialogue and sound effects. Unfortunately, there isn't much of an audience for silents these days, but the Internet offers great potential as a distribution arm for the genre. People might not go to the theater anymore for a feature length silent, but I bet they'd be more than willing to download a five or six minute comedy, or even a series of them. Hell, Duly Noted is still the film we get complimented on the most, and it doesn't have a lick of talk.

Police, Adjective - Once my bed was delivered, I headed down to the IFC Center for a double feature. First up was this Romanian work, one of the latest in that country's new wave of realism. Truth be told, in the beginnings it's a little too slow-paced. I could hear the audience around me audibly growing antsy, then somewhat stir crazy with the film showing us every little piece of an investigation by a cop into a group of teens he doesn't want to bust. But the film tips its hand in a scene where the cop has to listen to his wife playing the same vapid pop song over and over. It's a masterpiece of dry comedy, and perhaps the frame through which the rest of the film should be viewed: as a very, very dry comedy. Certainly the later scenes become funnier as the cop deliberately delays completing his case by any means possible. Still, the very nature of the plot - a man trying to avoid doing something - makes for a slightly inert viewing experience. Not a film I'd recommend to the parents, if you know what I mean.

When it was over, I had some of David Lynch's signature cup coffee, "black as midnight on a moonless night," and chatted with a friendly IFC regular. Then I saw another film I definitely won't be recommending to the parents.

Antichrist - I'd read a lot about Lars von Trier's film before going into it, but I still wasn't prepared for the effect it had on me. I haven't seen much of his previous work - actually, I've only seen Dancer in the Dark, which was too melodramatic and manipulative for me - but felt like I should be defensive before going into this one. After all, isn't he only trying to be provocative in order to get a response? After watching Antichrist, I would say "No." The film certainly has provocative, cringing moments, but I would say that they work in service to a larger thematic point. In my mind, the film is about death, not in the sense of the main characters coming to terms with the loss of their child, but in the sense of DEATH as the operating principle and factor behind NATURE (yes, in capitals). Plus the evil that inherently lurks within man and woman alike.

It's certainly a horror film, one that leaves you feeling disturbed. There's something about the juuuust slightly shaky camera, and the off-kilter jump cut editing, and the syrupy visuals of the surreal moments that raises anxiety in the viewer. You watch the film waiting for a jump-scare that never comes, and the effect puts you on edge. (There is one jump-scare in the infamous "Chaos reigns" scene - now immortalized in IFC t-shirts - and I would say, absurdly enough, that that scene is the one that goes too far over the top; I'm suddenly reminded of a friend admitting that the "Like a Virgin" scene in Moulin Rouge was a bit much for him in a movie he otherwise loved.) The scares here are more of the philosophical, life-is-cruel kind, in addition to moments of unsettling sexual violence - deeply, deeply unsettling.

That's all I got in me for today, kids. I hope your New Year's was extra special and gooey, and that each and every one of us marches forward into the future with the luck, dedication, and vision to realize our greatest dreams.

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