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7.27.2008

I HAVEN'T DREAMT OF FLYING FOR A WHILE

Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Ronald Harwood
From the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby









The eye is everything, the eye is the universe, the eye is God. And the eye is what Schnabel nails, that crucial POV. Crucial out of how the eye is all that’s left of Jean Dominque Bauby that works after an apocalyptic stroke leaves him severely crippled - - -well, that and his lucid brain. Disembodied but connective, biological yet psychic, it drinks in the world around it with a fetishistic relish, it ogles cleavage all boy and lascivious, it gums up when it gets so lonesome it could cry.

Bauby, he had no mouth and he must scream, sort of. And the eye was it- - - breaking down gregarious streams of consciousness into particles of code. I don’t quite get how it works exactly, this alphabet of twitches and tics, and don’t much care to, really. Knowing perhaps that as a feat of will, it’s a marvel, but as a trope, it can get distracting and turn gimmicky, Schnabel resists making its termite interstices and multiple moving parts central. He resists, too, making goo of injury. The human spirit rah-rah. The banalities of melodrama. Not that old school tearjerk is above him. Just lurid self-pitying, store-bought pathos, groveling for sympathy, cliche. The beach scene with Bauby and family gets milked for poignant crush once and never again and it’s the desperate yearning of Tom Waits’ All The World Is Green that does most of the work.

Bauby’s profound wreckage, reduced from robust to debris by the whip of fate. But it’s his loved ones that dismantle - - -and Max Von Sydow as his father disintegrates so brutally it claws lesions in my forebrain. Otherwise, Bauby’s funny, unrepentant, perverse, agog. What he sees through his cyclop gaze is a heightened state. Of bewilderment and awe. Of hallucination and catharsis. Slide past 35 and the horror story of locked-in syndrome seeps like ink into your brainfolds. That scene when it strikes Bauby gave me palpitations. I couldn't look. Locked-in syndrome is a terminal sentence. And the diving bell is more than a metaphor for Bauby's insurgent body. It’s the locked room the dying hole up in, the one with a less dispiriting view, with the possibility of uplift. Making peace with death,after all, is the ultimate triumph of the will. And its beautiful oblivion is what Schnabel aims for. No one is more alive than someone aware of his doom. It's a sad and awful thing but also a transcendent thing , a blissful thing, a state of grace, and when that rampant eye takes flight like a superpower , it soars high enough that it defies the gravity of the situation.

7.26.2008

WHAT WE DON'T TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE

Paalam Aking Bulalakaw (Goodbye My Shooting Star)
Directed and Written by Khavn De La Cruz
Dialogue by Khavn De La Cruz & Meryll Soriano








Who knows what came to pass between K and Ana before today? K is, of course, director Khavn himself sort of, the man with the movie camera whom we never see, and Ana is Meryll Soriano, his obscure object of desire whom we can't take our eyes off. They talk and it's not as if it gets so obtuse as to resist parsing. Just weightless and hesitant and stumblebum . There are no codes in the conversation to decipher. What we talk about when we talk about love are the things that go unsaid anyway. The inarticulate speech of the heart. So maybe we should just take Khavn's word for it that K loves Ana and that's as far as it got. Which then makes this. . . what? Chance? Or design? Date? Or destiny? Unrequited? Reunited?

The Linklater parallels you invoke only to cut a long story short and to peg what can be a bitch to peg, what is better off seeing for yourself- - - Before Sunrise at 30 f.p.s. on a shoestring. The parallelism does take, somewhat - - - the walking around, the talking around, the going everywhere, the going nowhere. But there's no arc in this first person love story, no fate playing matchmaker, no intrusions from the universe. Only the brutal symmetry - - - the solipsistic economy and delicate equilibrium and minimalist stasis
- - - of its POV.

It's the longest goodbye in the universe when your shooting star burns out, shooting star here's used loosely, figuratively. It rings more poetically in the vernacular - - -bulalakaw. You call them that because they burn so bright, because you wistfully look to the sky for their trajectories to cross your radar again even after their orbits have passed most likely forever, because you wish on them. But you knew that and maybe you knew that out of having had this extraterrestrial hurt too, out of having the unforgettable face of that lapsed darling afterimaging in your head long after her radio silence, her invisibility, her supernova before your eyes. And all of this is in K's head. Like the lovesongs falling on deaf ears, like the poetry in the details, like the words that fail, like the wishfully-thinking extraterrestrial hurt it hooks me with.

4.19.2008

ONCE

Once
Directed and Written by John Carney













Pin it all down to a moment that melts your heart like butter and gets in your eyes and sums it all up, and there it is, at the back of a music store, the brokenhearted busker giving the girl sitting on the piano a song to sing, a song he wrote for that other girl he can’t forget but transferable by fate and now a song for whoever, for the unfound One, the possibility beheld- - -“I don’t know you, but I want you, all the more for that . . .” What do you make of that hook when it digs into you and it’s someone you've just met? The giddy shaking to the core over a perfect stranger? It's all about the low spark when random lives overlap and emotional happenstance meshes into story. It's all about the angels shitting on you.

I break this down in my head over and over , out of how it sends me on so little, out of how words fail. Emotional happenstance is an old trope. Emotional happenstance without even a tic of melodrama is ,too, but it throws you on a loop for being so unfussy and honest. Boy meets girl, sort of fall in love, sing a lot. You can jot it down in the back of a bar napkin, like John Carney did, like you can with any love story. Boy’s Irishborn romantic depressive songwriter-in-waiting. Girl’s blithe Czech émigré, husbandless but with kid. She visits him at home and he makes a pass at her - - - lonely boys will be boys. He asks her if she loves her boy’s Dad and she answers cryptically in her own tongue which she wouldn’t if it was a yes and yet . . . yeah, women. Has all the niggling, baffling colors and noise and static that make men men and women women but still,I break it down and get parts that shouldn't fit but somehow do. I get a series of brief encounters banal on paper and on its own but somehow incandescent on a string. I get an ending I fervently wish is a beginning. I get naked and hurtful indiefolk love songs, fucking beautiful throughout and majestic at least three times, and blame it all on its wise mush.

And the way Glen Hansard & Marketa Iglova have with it, a delicate and almost icky earnestness that toes the line it has to cross before it becomes precious, a sense of its own vulnerability that refuses to back off, a clenching of all the tenderness and beyond loneliness and agony and pissed-offness into fists of pure emotion that not only catches in your throat but gets sticky in your forebrain. Marketa breaking down at her piano in the dark in The Hill. The skeptical engineer cracking a smile when he hears the cascading triumphalism of When Your Mind's Made Up. The indignant desperate yearning of Say It To Me Now - - -" . . . 'cause this is what you've waited for,a chance to even up the score, and as these shadows fall on me now, I will somehow, and if you have something to say you'd better say it now . . .” - - - that turns Glen's voice to gravel. The music store duet when it hits that tearjerky chorus - - -“take this sinking boat and steer it home, we’ve still got time”. Something for the longing. Tears on my pillow.

And the déjà vu when the songs snap into place as if you’ve heard them before. I have,sort of. And so have you. I’ve played some song just like any of these to myself in the grotty dark of my bedroom, headphones cutting me off from the cruel world, nursing a bottle of whisky, pining and pissed-off at the ex who left me for someone else or somesuch romantic crash and burn, poeticizing the apocalypse in my gut - - - which is really just me blowing trouble out of proportion but dammit if it doesn’t hurt and nag - - - with a pop song someone else wrote but feels uncannily as if whoever did fed a wiretap into my brain for grist. And I hang everything on its grasp of this eternal and emotional universality, also the singular virtue of the songs closest to our hearts, the pop beloved if you will. And there's no escaping how much song centers this.

If you can't be with the one you love , love the one you’re with - - - Stephen Stills was a prophet for nailing the dynamics of most modern relationships. And there may be a planet of difference between choice and decision but sometimes the stakes can be too high so you pretend there isn't. But much as true love may never run smooth for all the odds you have to buck getting there , it will find you in the end. Naive as it makes me, I hold out hope in that. And maybe it's just me but when Glen smiles to himself rushing to catch a plane and Marketa looks out the window, I can tell they do,too.

4.18.2008

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE



Across the Universe
Directed by Julie Taymor
Written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais
From a Story by Julie Taymor, Dick Clement
and Ian Le Frenais













The names are what rubs me weird before everything else: there's Jude, there’s Lucy and Prudence, Max - - -who hammers, Jojo - - -who doesn't get back, Sadie - - -who you can tell is sexy but some dork has to go blurt it out so the children get it, Dr.Robert - - -who’s Bono in a bad wig, Mr.Kite - - -who’s Eddie Izzard. No Eleanor Rigby but then that would’ve hit one more nadir of trite we don't need. No Strawberry Fields either, which would’ve hit yet another and all but ruined this fatally. We do get to hear the words “ . . . she came in through the bathroom window . . .” uttered and right after some girl does come in through a bathroom window,too! A green apple gets held up to the light at some point. Blue meanies cameo as chorus line but no yellow sub. And the Prudence chick holes up in her room just like the real Prudence Farrow did so her friends can coax her out of it by singing guess what song? Lord have Mersey.

Having seen her Titus and her Frida but not her Lion King , it's safe to say I’m no champion of Taymor. Florid and prone to overbear and needs lightening up - - -those are my nits. Florid has a place here much as prone to overbear doesn’t but they both show up regardless. Does her lightening up mean she has to stoop this low,though? When did she get this obvious, this corny, this kid silly? Did she not sift through the vapid rubble of Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)? Is everything now boilable to a pun? Is a little ambiguity too much to ask? Am I being a little too hard on Julie? Is Joe Roth really to blame? Mea culpa, then, for wishfully thinking that the prologue with the quasi-McCartney replicant on a beach cooing Girl to the camera was a portent, that its sublime crackle would keep throughout the piece.

No, I'm not above denying there’s high concept ore in making musical theater out of pop. I'm all for it, in fact. Show tunes suck for the most part. But until someone gets it right, we make do with Mamma Mia! The tricky part's how the ubiquity and presence of the music almost predisposes hanging all onus on it: never mind the libretto, the songs will out. Sure, but you end up with a revue that way. Not a very rock and roll circus, that. Baz knew to vogue on the mash-up. Also knew to fashion vivid new skins and vivid new contexts for his secondhand repertoire - - -some of which were boring at birth so he really had no choice - - - undergirded by Bollywoodian mutant La Boheme. Grotesque as Moulin Rouge often got, the synergies between song and libretto that are crucial to musicals never misfired. Funnish,too.

Not that this isn't, no, maybe not as wildly abandoned, but still a step up for Taymor, funwise. Making musical theater out of Lennon-McCartney does rope in a whole new make and model of tricky. I’m a third-gen Beatlehead who once briefly thought Siouxsie Sioux a genius for writing Dear Prudence but even I can’t sit through half the best-ofs on parade here without making my ears bleed a little from having heard them over and over and over. What are the chances of coming to Lennon-McCartney - - -the canon, not the obscurities, so not Rain, not I'll Cry Instead, not Polythene Pam - - - and sucking fresh sap from its old bones? Unless you're 12 , I'd say slim. Do these chestnuts have any give and flex left? Are they open to interpretation? Can we take a hammer to them instead ? And see what twists form in the shards? Is no one up for it? Should Taymor have asked for Siouxsie's help instead of Joe Cocker's? Oh, she does freshen I Wanna Hold Your Hand up with a churning, wistful eroticism - - -sung by a gorgeous Filipina lesbian cheerleader at that - - -that's better than the frankly crummy original. But if we go by yet two more (enough already) blues-rock vamps through Oh!Darling and Don't Let me Down here , if we go by the cover of Oasis' cover of Revolution, if we go by the riot footage playing over a bed of Helter Skelter, if we go by the overabundance of cliches, if we go by nearly everything else that very little is done to - - -could be what George Martin did for Love is as good as we'll ever get.

When she takes Let It Be to church, Taymor evokes the exhausted disillusionment of the 60s so poignantly that my theory of how she's refracting the era through the music starts to grow cartilage and bone. But the pablum 60s cliche she insists on is so determined, it pretty much second-thinks everything. The performances may be full-on and mad skilled - - -Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy and T.V. Carpio particularly - - -but the characters they sing through are so anonymous it all amounts to karaoke. I'm hanging on to my I Am Sam CD, if it's all the same to you. The songs don't tell a different story other than what we already know when we played those records, and therefore serve no story at all outside of its own nostalgic reflex, parsing as little more than robust but unimaginative covers, glorified retro, Sgt. Pepper Redux - - -and no I'm not being snide, I did like Earth Wind & Fire there, also the Steve Martin bit holds up.

And a softheaded pseudo-musical made from Beatles songs that is ultimately about nothing except maybe about singing Beatles songs is something a lot of people might want to tuck under their pillows. And who can blame 'em? We have shut off our brains for far worse pictures anyway. I'd argue for it somehow working as a valentine to the utopian aura of the Beatles' 60s but I'd stick with it being more often than not supernaturally pretty - - -and we're not even talking about Evan Rachel Wood yet. Taymor has a gift for visual pastry and for the times the gift spikes into odd coordinates of transcendence, this can be quite the ecstatic, empty eyeful. The circus folderol of Being for the Benefit of Mr.Kite may make me want to scoop out my eyes with a spoon, ditto the I Want You and Happiness Is A Warm Gun segments and maybe even Come Together, but I still haven't gotten over the underwater ballet set to Because. Nor those beautiful bleeding strawberries.

4.15.2008

BURDEN OF DREAMS

Burden of Dreams (1982)
Directed by Les Blank
Written by Michael Goodwin

Narrated by Maureen Gosling











The crackpot rubber baron Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald (a.k.a. Fitzcarraldo) took the steamship apart in real life, chasing this dream of his : Caruso among the savages, a dream sick with grandiose insanities. Werner Herzog's own sick dream only seems less sick except he was never going to shoot Fitzcarraldo (1982) in some wussy botanical garden with toy boats and Jack Nicholson. It was always Klaus Kinski and his epic tantrums in the veins of the Amazon herself. And he hauled the steamship up a mountain whole, on a 40 degree incline 20 degrees steeper than suicidal.

"I wanted the audience to trust its eyes again", he says now, hindsighting or,who knows, truly prescient about this fear he had back then of digital effects tyrannizing and falsifying the way movies looked and the way we looked at them because . . .well, they did. So much so that on rewatch, not only has that iconic sequence not lost the come-on of spectacle but gains, too, an exotic otherness to the rigor , to the whine and stress of the winches and pulleys. Scorn may have dogged the heels of Fitzcarraldo , some of it as it should, but when they pull that boat up, you can't neglect the way it trembles with this gauche purity.

The guts of the process transfix Blank. But it's in his laying bare the segregated encampments and the makeshift bordellos and the bodies in the mud and the internecine disputes and the aborted scenes like so much throbbing gristle that Burden of Dreams supernovas into more than some banal making-of, into something closer to a tactile contemplating of the schism between two cultures rubbing up against each other but never quite making a mesh. Werner stands on the precipice of another world openly lamenting this culture vanishing before his eyes, these natives in Mickey Mouse Disco shirts- - - "It's a catastrophe and a tragedy that's going on and we are losing riches and riches and riches and we lose cultures and languages and individualities and we're left stark naked in the end and will end up like all the cultures in the world and a universal kind of culture like America." But he is his own Fitzcarraldo here. And he, too, has embarked on a conqueror's folly. He,too, as he calls himself, has become a conquistador of the useless, an intruder who has made an enemy of- - -and fallen in love with- - - all this verdant and beautiful malevolence, all this vile nature, an enemy he never had a hope to quell but he could sometimes outwit - - - if it let him. "The Amazon's an unfinished country, a land God created in anger. A harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." Poison arrows for souvenirs and no getting drunk on the wine they ferment with spit.

Double-bill this with George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalpyse for the spiritual linkages, for the severity of the on-set turmoil edging into the surreal, for the same nutso charge it emits. Apocalypse Now was a set intimate with chaos,too. But Coppolla was not batshit like Herzog and in his grappling with the unfathomable, he was eaten alive and spat out broken: "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." Werner plunged into that jungle battle-readied. He had made his Apocalypse Now seven years before Coppolla with Aguirre Wrath of God. He was a man intimate with chaos. And prone to magnificent obsessions and the mad compulsions to act on them, at one point cooking and eating his shoe in public after losing a bet, and letting someone make a film out of it. He came out of Fitzcarraldo scarred but with a glint in his eye when he says "I shouldn't be making any more movies. I should be taken to an asylum."

Some quarters have upheld the ascendancy of Burden of Dreams over Fitzcarraldo, for hanging better as a piece maybe, which it does. But it doesn't so much supersede as it decodes and deepens, both uncannily symbiotic and separate. Blank directed Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, too. That tiny oddment spoke wryly between its freakshow lines on the impulses and logistics of art. This trawls over the same issues, but in its quintessence of the filmmaker as crackpot and the lengths he will go to when bullied by his sick dreams, it's a vaster and more fucked-up behemoth. It is, to put it one way, tremendously Herzogian.

1.30.2008

LIKE A COMPLETE UNKNOWN

I'm Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman









“Who said I was sincere?”


The quip is your typical Bob Dylan piss-take, typically glib and evasive yet atypically dead-on about his mercurial self-mythologizing, his one-man revolt against an easy peg, his career as a slippery hoax. All his counterfeit personae get inventoried early on. “Poet. Prophet. Outlaw. Fake. Star of Electricity.” But mostly fake. Masked and anonymous, like a complete unknown. Right.

Haynes breaks Dylan down for us into six of his splinter selves, not in the hopes of pinning down the man shifting from one shape to the next but more from knowing he couldn’t. There's Christian Bale multitasking as protest folkie Jack Rollins and born-again visionary Pastor John, Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark weathering a turbulent marriage with his sad eyed lady of the lowlands Charlotte Gainsbourg and Cate Blanchett's puckish hellion Jude Quinn cutting a swath through 60s London. These three are the least obtuse. Marcus Carl Franklin's black preteen Woody riding the rails with a fascist-killing guitar, Ben Whishaw's temperamental Arthur Rimbaud under interrogation in a disembodied no-place and Richard Gere's Billy the Kid hiding away in a gaudy Felliniesque frontier town opiate, they're the purer abstractions.

But we've all met them before. The troubadour and the evangelist. The lout. The rock beast. The vagabond. The dandy.The exile. Conscience, dysfunction, narcissism, innocence, agitation, penitence. Respectively. All of them are Dylan. None of them are Dylan.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." (Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)

The Basement Tapes outtake that gives I'm Not There its title was a ballad laden with regret:"Of course I'll not deceive her,I'm not there, I'm gone, it's all about confusion and I cry for her"  But pried loose from the song, it's become proviso, threat, kiss-off. And Haynes is staying true to its implications. It sort of bookends with the presentiment, and later the debris, of Dylan's mysterious motorbike accident as if to insinuate that all this is the life that flashed before his eyes right before he hit that tree and snapped his neck. But to go with that assumption incriminates Dylan as a co-conspirator, semi-passive but somehow in on this, here. And he isn't. If anything, the bookends foreshadow his leaving. Making him, at most, a ghost, reflected and refracted through a kind of metatexted Sixties with aspects of Godard and Fellini and Peckinpah and Richard Lester and D.A.Pennebaker and Huey Newton & Bobby Seale and Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg as prisms. Even if the likeliest place you'll find an artist is inside his art, Dylan isn't entirely there either. His catalog may run gorgeously like connective tissue between dream states here but sung by others. Echoes, mimicry, puppetry, ventriloquism, heresies, reconstruction, deconstruction, metamorphoses. 29 singers. 29 covers. 29 more shards. 29 more decoys.

The degrees of removal make plain that Haynes isn't drilling for biopic lode but also helps enable the possibility of hitting it, not by disambiguating the myths so much as pigging out on them, feeding it hormones 'til some veer into hallucination: Quinn and his band brandishing submachineguns and mowing down the crowd that booed Dylan at Newport for going electric, a cartoon whale chasing Woody after he jumps off a train into a river, circus animals wandering through the 19th century town of Riddle where Billy is known by many names. Being more Dylanhead than Dylanologist (because how much of a Dylanologist can I be having come to Dylan in hindsight, and by way of Street Legal at that?), Dylan to me's never been anything but this parade of camouflages the man hiding in plain sight couldn't possibly measure up to.  The troubadour and the evangelist. The lout. The rock beast. The vagabond. The dandy.The exile. Poet. Prophet. Outlaw. Fake. Star of Electricity. Dylan to me has never been there. And I suspect to many, too.Definitely to Haynes.

Unkempt, frivolous, heady, magnetic and daring with a not imminently crackable, if at all, semiotic density, he performs an autopsy on that absence and finds it sunk in the self-inventive urges of art and moreso, the self-inventive urges of rock and roll. And in exalting these fake Dylans, he exalts that urge, too. Doesn't matter if the one true Dylan remains missing. Haynes has eaten the document. And printed the legend.

HERE BE DRAGONS

Cloverfield
Directed by Matt Reaves

Written by Drew Godard

Produced by J. J. Abrams











Radioactive cautionary nothing. Godzilla - - - and really that entire lovable and endlessly regurgitating man-in-suit phenomenon - - - struck me as a symptom of some annihilation and renewal trauma, a culture crawling from the wreckage and ritually purging its hand-me-down collective memory of destruction at the mercy of an atomic behemoth. Godzilla was da bomb, so to speak. But that came much later, of course. More Eiji Tsuburaya voguing on Ray Harryhausen, Godzilla always had/has me at rampageporn.

Post-911 New York tussles with its own Hiroshima shadows. Relocate Godzilla and reframe the rampageporn in the default platform of the September 11 attacks - - -amateur video - - -and you’re tapping into these sticky new crannies of unease. Even stickier for the most of us who got all that catastrophe as bad news feed is this immersive, irrational quicksand of panic and turmoil and vertigo that's a cinematic mini-syntax upon itself,signifiers of a postmodern context reality. But it's not for everyone, this video verite. It's the motion sickness that gets to people, mostly. And it's a bit tricky to parse as cinema. As metatext, sure. But any horror fed through it gets no more viscous plotwise and characterwise than a campfire ghost story. Not that plot and character are the point. Rather, they're anything but. And much as the monster footage here is taped over the estranged lovers roaming their undestroyed city in happier times and in doing so, wrings some poignant frisson out of a rather blunt metaphor, it's a little off.

Cthulhu's a no-show here - - -gigantic penis with legs leaking homicidal crabs is more like it revealed in a dorky money shot that J.J. should've ditched,too. Like he ditched the reported multiple handycam POVs which is for the good of all, by dint of its found format. What the lone POV does is restrict the field of vision, amping an illusion of randomness, makes it ickier- - - here's a generation in all their collective narcissism, recording and uploading every twitch, every wank, every facet. All this compulsive shooting in the thick of bugfuck is just so them. Hazard a guess what goes through their heads as they run and shoot and run and shoot and it’s likely they’re thinking more about how bitchin' the footage would look on YouTube than their chances of making it out of the city whole. Yuppie dorks,yeah.

Cloverfield
works as one trick pony - - -skeletal and shallow as God intended. And closer to Michael Snow’s Wavelength than The Host for the way it targets a different substrata of emotional responses more to do with sensory discomfort , with the taxonomy of textures, with weird thingies you can't quite make out. The stress gains empathy and we lose the passivity that often comes with going to the movies. Blair Witch hooked me on spatial displacement , my fear of thickets, my deep love for campfire ghost stories. Cloverfield stokes my apocalyptic neuroses and Fortean hard-ons into hysteric simmer. The geek in me always found more creep and arcana in blurry photographs of cryptids but much as doozies of the sort abound here- - -a massive dimly-lit is-that-a-tail flitting between buildings, a skyscraper leaning against another like a heartbroken lover resting its weary head, a horse-drawn carriage missing its coachman wandering city streets missing its people - - - this kaiju meltdown had me at rampageporn.