Thursday, September 27, 2012

Talking NYFF on The Cinephiliacs

Barbara, from Christian Petzold, is just one of seven films discussed on my NYFF-centric episode of The Cinephiliacs, one of three I'll be doing. Simon Abrams joins me to run through the great films we've seen so far. Check it out here

Sunday, September 23, 2012

NYFF: Leos Carax's Holy Motors

Holy Motors
A Film By Leos Carax

            The first shot in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, besides the brief images of motion studies by Étienne-Jules Marey that pre-date cinema’s existence, is of an audience. They are mute, silent, perhaps asleep, perhaps dead, as a film unfolds before them. It’s hard not to read such as a provocative image as a comment about the state of cinema, especially as Carax himself awakes behind the theater in a small room, staring out toward the frame of reality, the window, ignoring the digital one, the computer, before peering at the audience below from the balcony. The easy suggestion would follow then that the film that follows is going to be one that wakes the audience, and thus saves cinema. But he doesn’t believe he can awake this audience—this is a film as much more about “Fin de Cinema” than it is about how to save them, less a love letter than a “fuck you” to it.

            Holy Motors was the runaway success of the Cannes Film Festival, receiving no awards but certainly one of the most praised, most talked about films. The first feature film by Carax since 1999’s Pola X, it’s a film about many things, mostly Carax’s own contradictory relationship to cinema. It’s filled with wild, bizarre imagery meant to shock into laughter, sometimes delight. But its depressive attitude toward cinema, even among its “wild and crazy” sequences, seems juvenile at best, and its schematic structure never makes the imaginative leap. Every time Carax might reach for something transcendent, he feels content, no, compelled to undercut himself and hold us back. Some of that is certainly by design, but it makes the film feel false. The more I knew what Holy Motors was, the less I found myself enjoying it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

NYFF KidCriticz

Some self-promotion of my own accomplishments I guess is in order, but really more of an explanation of my lack of New York Film Festival coverage so far (I've seen six films but simply haven't had time to write about them, and I've started a piece on Carax's Holy Motors about five times now). In continuing the program they launched in Locarno, Indiewire and Film Society of Lincoln Center teamed up to host their first ever NYFF "Critics Academy" to highlight new talent in film criticism, and yours truly was chosen among the bunch. I'm looking forward to working with the wonderful Eric Kohn and Eugene Hernandez, who have a lot of great panels and discussions planned for us, as well as writing stuff for Criticwire, Film Society's website, and The Playlist. I'll also be doing episodes of The Cinephiliacs every Friday with a different guest, so look forward to those as well. And I may post a few things here regarding other various films if I have the chance. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

NYFF: Brian De Palma's Passion

A Film By Brian De Palma

This is the first in a series of posts about the 50th New York Film Festival. Look for coverage also in upcoming episodes of The Cinephiliacs, as well as other outlets as they are announced.

            Seeing is believing in Passion, the latest hypnotic work from the legendary Brian De Palma. Throughout the film we are exposed to digital cameras that record our inner desires, truths, and fantasies. Perhaps that’s why the director took the narrative from the French film Love Crime, a melodrama that includes some naughty sex and even naughtier violence, because his interest in the text is only secondary for his visual text. He’s beyond any convention of classical narrative filmmaking (though one might have to ask when he ever was) and engrosses you with his ecstatic vision.

            This is De Palma doing what he does best, which means those who aren’t converted will most likely throw their hands up at the film’s ghastly direct dialogue, constant twists, and in-your-face crassness. De Palma doesn’t seem interested in bringing anyone up to speed who hasn’t drunk his Kool-Aid. But within his world, he indulges as he has wont to do with his emblematic color palette that exposes a world of truth and lies as told by cameras and hidden by performance.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Master: Notes on an Ideological Reading of a Pop-Freudian America

The Master
Written and Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Christopher Evan Welch, Amy Ferguson, and Laura Dern
Director of Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr., Editors: Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty, Production Designer: David Crank and Jack Fish, Original Music: Jonny Greenwood

Some mild spoilers follow, but I left it pretty opaque.

            The key to unlocking The Master, an intensely psychological portraiture of one of the darker sides of Americana, may be in Joaquin Phoenix’s right eye. As the misguided and confused Freddy Quell, Phoenix’s eye remains barely open, an opaque darkness coming through, but no sense of light. And then, compelled by the film’s titular character, it quivers and moves. Perhaps there is something in there. Until it regresses back onto itself, as beast, like the rest of Quell, which cannot be controlled.

            If Paul Thomas Anderson could have any dead soul watch his latest film, it should certainly be the Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs. No one knew the power of the close-up in the way Balázs describes on his writings on film and specifically microphysiognomy as he called it. So much has been made in cinephile circles about the use of 65mm cameras to shoot The Master, a format usually reserved for large epics across oceans and deserts. Anderson’s film features the occasional shot of those, but what becomes clear very soon is that he wants to use the format for the close-up, to capture every detail on the faces of his characters. The most mild gesture, one surely missed by 35mm and certainly digital, is often the essential stroke in unlocking the movements of this grand film that refuses any sort of simplistic categorization.

            What separates The Master from Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, is his decision to move into the cerebral. There Will Be Blood is a film essentially about the structures of institutions—business, both capital and religion—that opens itself to expressive images that made this connection clear. But film as a medium, based in its spatial existence, can only peer so far into human consciousness. This is perhaps why Anderson has created two such enigmatic characters that seem to be both signifier and signified—they act as emblems, sometimes too obvious, for their greater movements in the post-war American landscape, but they also become characters fighting toward own volition, attempting to redefine themselves as greater movements.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Cinephiliac Moment: M

           The Cinephiliac Moment is a weekly series in which I choose a moment in a film where cinema reaches transcendence. This moment may be inspired by anything – the composition of the frame, the score, the edit, the narrative – but it is a moment in which cinema becomes something more than entertainment and possibly more than art. Read about the original inspiration for the project here.
Who is the protagonist of Fritz Lang’s M? Certainly not Beckert, the child murderer so wondrously encapsulated by Peter Lorre. He’s on screen for less than a third of the film. One could argue it’s Lohmann, the detective responsible for solving the case, or it could be Safecracker, the de  facto leader of the gangs that organize to hunt down Beckert. But neither alone can be said to be the protagonist. Instead M is the story of a city, a city that is responsible for allowing the anonymity of Beckert to lead to the children’s deaths. So how does one stop them?  M doesn’t propose that the cops and authority are completely inefficient– As Tom Gunning explains on his book of Lang, they nail the identity of Beckert and sit waiting at his home. But man remain anonymous in this city, and only the anonymous can capture him.
There is a wondrous edit, perhaps one of the greats, that beautifully encapsulates why perhaps the criminals are the one for this job. The five gang leaders meet with Safecracker, who proposes that they must be the ones to hunt down this child murderer. During one of his impassioned speeches, he begins a question, which is then finished instead by Lohmann. Not only is the sentence finished by the detective, but the gesture of the arm Safrecracker uses is finished by Lohmann. When I recently rewatched M, it took me a second to realize we were in a completely different space, with different characters. The structural similarities between the cops and the gangs at this moment—the circular tables, the stern faces, the cigarette smoke—is brutally striking. But that is what Lang suggests, and it’s something he will continue to suggest, is the inefficiency of authority to create real change (We’ll talk about that final line in The Big Heat in this column at some point). We may look down at criminals as brutish and awful, but that is not why we must fear them. We must fear them because they are just as efficient, organized, and intelligent as those we lay our trust in. 

Watch the clip here.

Screening Log: Inorganic Transcendence Edition

            Hey look, the content on this site has already dramatically dropped! Hooray #GradSkool! But seriously folks, I am already knee deep in research, but it is my solemn duty to bring you something every week, even if it is short and incoherent and written after midnight (as tonight’s quite incomprehensible entry surely is). Again, as every two weeks, there is a new Cinephiliacs out there. This one has Bilge Ebiri talking quite intelligently about Bertolucci, Malick, Nolan, and especially Kubrick as we dive into Barry Lyndon. So check that out. Also, look for stuff related to the New York Film Festival soon! Press screenings begin Monday, and I’m going to have some exciting announcements soon related to it.

-The World, 2004. Directed by Jia Zhangkie. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Silent Light, 2007. Directed by Carlos Reygadas. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-/M/, 1931. Directed by Fritz Lang. Blu-Ray.
-Cooley High, 1975. Directed by Michael Schultz. 35mm projection at 92Y Tribeca.
-After Life, 1998. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. DVD.
-The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes, 2005. Directed by Stephen and Timothy Quay. 35mm projection at Museum of Modern Art. 

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Michael Slovis on Shooting "Breaking Bad" - Television's Most Cinematic Show

Over at Indiewire's Television Section, I had the true pleasure of talking with Michael Slovis, who has been the director of photography for AMC's Breaking Bad since Season 2. Within the interview, I try and make my case for Slovis as the show's true auteur. I'd be lying if I didn't say this is one of the best interviews I've ever had the pleasures of doing. Check it out here.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Screening Log: France Was Right Edition

            Small note of fun this week. As part of my Masters program, I’ll be digging through a lot of archival materials, and one of the best parts of Columbia is their Oral History archives, which are not available online. Here’s a quote I pulled from Fritz Lang, that I think explains a lot of the nihilism in his noir films: “Today, I’m convinced that mythical fate doesn’t exist. That you never make fate for yourself.” I wish I had more time with it, because Lang also talks a lot of who slept with who stuff.

-Hollywood or Bust, 1956. Directed by Frank Tashlain. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Artists and Models, 1955. Directed by Frank Tashalin. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-/Barry Lyndon/, 1975. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. DVD.
-New Guy, 2003. Directed by Bilge Ebiri, Streaming via Fandor. 

Lawless: Southern-Bred Crime

Directed By: John Hillcoat
Written By: Nick Cave, based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman
Director of Photography: Benoît Delhomme, Editor: Dylan Tichenor, Production Designer: Chris Kennedy, Original Music: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

            For a period so rich in American history, there are surprisingly few movies that cover the history of bootlegging in the United States. Sure, you’ve got your 30s gangster films, but those films are about the gangsters themselves—their goals, values, what have you—and not really about the down and dirty business of making moonshine and distributing it. And especially considering its rich history in the South, I’m surprised that director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave are the first to really tackle this odd moment in our nation’s history, as they do in Lawless.

            Unfortunately, Lawless, for all its violence and occasional moments of inspiration, doesn’t seem much interested in the history, or anything really. Based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant (writing about his grandfather’s history, so there’s some truth mixed in there as they like to say), Lawless throws us into the moonshine days of Virginia and the battles between the producers (the lawless) and the law. It’s a film filled with testosterone, but it also doesn’t feel particularly inspired by much of anything, and lacks a real punch.