Saturday, December 23, 2006

Kung Fu Hustle

Kristi came down for a nice little visit this past week, and just before she left we watched Kung Fu Hustle, which might be her all-time favorite movie. With her and on my own I've probably seen the film a good four or five times now, and I'm a little surprised how little has been lost in the repeat viewings - it actually gets more enjoyable every time I see it. I like the way the film mixes and shuffles genres, which jumps not just from comedy to action to melodrama, but from Warner Brothers cartoon-style slapstick to traditional kung fu action tropes to more contemporary Yuen Wo-Ping/Matrix-y fight scenes, etc. It's pretty great how the film jumps between references and genres without ever being dragged down into Leslie Nielson territory. The allusions are never central to the plot or even to the film's enjoyment (and rarely even central to the joke - as witnessed by the huge popularity of the film among people like myself and Kristi who miss every single one of the kung fu genre references that many HK audiences would recognize instantly). The allusions are just kind of there, without any apparent purpose other than to ensure that the proceedings never get too serious - which they certainly could with the death of likeable major characters, the harsh social/economic conditions of "Pig-Sty Alley" and the unheroic protagonists who keep trying to do bad things to the film's most charismatic characters.

The film's about as close in feel to the classic slapstick of the silent era as anything since Tati, with the focus going completely the opposite direction of a film like Playtime. While the gentlemanly Tati oriented his films increasingly away from the body (particularly his own) and towards perception as the source of his comedy, Stephen Chow throws bodies all over the screen like a CGI'ed Buster Keaton. The interesting thing is that the old slapstick comedians are funny because they really dropped houses on themselves, or pole-vaulted into windows, or climbed the sides of skyscrapers. You take away that trust in the image and half the jokes aren't funny anymore. Think back to your favorite Buster Keaton film - would you have laughed if that drop from the two-story building into the villain's car, or the perfect timing that allowed the train to avoid the obstrutction, etc if there wasn't the implicit possibility that it might not actually work out, or that it might even be dangerous? That tension, which can make us squirm in our seats in anticipation, is central to the humor of those films. Bergson thought that humor came from infusing man with the properties of objects and objects with human properties, an part of what makes Keaton or Chaplin funny is their ability to perform truly inhuman acrobatic feats. They couldn't have been funny in the same way if they were digitally aided, because they wouldn't be humans acting like objects, but images/objects acting like objects.

But Chow is all about the CGI, enough that Kung Fu Hustle is practically a cartoon. So how is Kung Fu Hustle funny when digital gags in other films usually fall flat the moment the CG becomes apparent? (Or when, in another register, another film's CG monster isn't scary, or another film's CG action scene isn't exhilirating?) Again, I think that the allusions have a little something to do with it - the characters live in a movie world, so it's only naturally that they obey the rules of other movies, which in this case extends to slapstick and cartoons and kung fu action scenes and superhero movies all at once. And there's a certain consistency to the film's cartoonish logic, which only affects certain characters and only enters the action in certain kinds of scenes, and the consistent cartoonish-ness of it all means that the CGI never makes an especially jarring introduction. Because it's so much like a cartoon, the physical comedy is enjoyed as if it were a cartoon rather than classical slapstick, except that the cartoons are more detailed and familiar than most animations drawn by hand or computer because they're based originally on photography.

There's an insistence on the body throughout the film as well that is central to the physical, cartoonish humor. Not only is the body twisted, contorted and hurled across the screen through CGI, but there are repeated jokes about characters' appearances. It expresses a lot of anxiety about the body generally, in its jokes about the overweight landlady and the jiggling fat of Chow's sidekick, or buck-toothed Jane, or the general preponderance of seemingly mis-matched physiques, and also in the harsh grotesqueness of its violence (sliced limbs, body-throwing shotgun blasts, decapitations, etc). This location of cartoonish elasticity in the body feels like a part of the film's general thrust towards reassurance, and an unrealistic transformation of the body that's more akin to the Matrix and American superhero conventions (like in Spider-Man, which is referenced) than the physical sacrifice-heavy kung fu films. While the jokes are clearly parodic, in that they're intended to refer to a "normal" state of the body, the film tends to highlight them in order to minimize their ultimate importance. (One shouldn't overstate the case - the film doesn't dismiss them, and that line between "normal" and "abnormal" is most definitely present. It should also be noted that the most "normal-bodied" characters in the film are the axe gang members, who are anonymous, practically featureless, and don't have access to the cartoon exaggerations of the kung fu masters.)

Of course, there's a problem with the Bergsonian-ish (emphasizing the "ish") formulation above that equates images and objects. They are entirely different. Perhaps most CGI effects aren't effective because they treat images as images, mere pixels arranged on screen to resemble something vaguely photographic. That is, regardless of what it's depicting, what's on screen is just an image, and CGI remains faithful to that. Altering the Bergson-ish formulation just a little bit, you could say that it doesn't pit human-ness against object-ness, but that slapstick brings to the forefront the object-ness of a person (with Keaton being the embodiment par excellance). This slightly revised formulation is not reversible in the same way as the original, but we could say that infusing objects with human qualities is comedic partially because it blurs the lines between human and object, naturally a source of anxiety in the machine age. So, when an object takes on human traits, it's as if it were a human whose object-ness had all but drowned out its human qualities - or at least that's the way a human relates to it. So, Chow's film emphasizes the image-specific qualities of characters, and, conversely, finds familiar, human-ness in even its most ridiculous images, rather than letting the film devolve into a mere string of 2-d images.

PS - I don't know Bergson all that well and I'm guessing I've misremembered, misunderstood or not taken into account important points that should have been addressed (or should have been differently addressed).

That's much more than I intended to say about the film. I guess the relaxation of this vacation has turned to boredom and restlessness, and, perhaps, idle speculation. Maybe I just like typing.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I lugged in a large bag of books, which I sold, and still managed to make a significan dent in my credit card at Powell's this week. My level of indoctrination into the whole graduate school whatever can be measured by my excitement over the purchases I made, some of which are for a specific class, some of which are "for fun" (also because I know I'll need them and might as well buy them now, not that I have an excess of spending money or anything, just that I know they'll come in handy and Powell's had some good deals). I love Powell's, so much. The most I spend on any one of those books was $16.95, which was for required reading for the first week of class. The rest were all under or around $10. So goddamn great.

In Chicago the only used book store I know of is, actually, Powell's. It's the original Powell's, located in Hyde Park about a mile from my place. It's a different order of book store, small-ish and built for informal browsing rather than the Portland model, which is so large that you kind of need to know what you want beforehand (or stick to one of the poorly-stocked sections, like the entire film, art and music floor). You go to stores like the Portland Powell's in search of specific books, with a little browsing on top of that (and, naturally, careful inspection og all the "on sale" displays), while the Hyde Park version isn't large enough to reliably carry any specific title. But it's fun to spend an hour sifting through the poorly organized shelves of film books, breezing past the various randomly assigned sections on the ways in and out. Real good place. Even though I might prefer this to any one of Seattle's used book stores, I miss the variety and options you have there. Not that there aren't other great book stores in Chicago: Hyde Park's Seminary Co-Op, only five or so blocks from my apartment, is easily one of the best stores for new books I know of, but I can't justify a $25 new book purchase to myself as easily as I can four used books at $6.95 each, which you could find at any one of three places in the U-District and a couple on Capitol Hill. And Hyde Park's known as "the book district," sort of - I get the feeling that's intended as a vaguely derisory invocation of what the NYT called the neighborhood's, ahem, "nerdiness."

For the curious, the story behind the two Powell's is supposedly that Mr. Powell started the store in Chicago first, then moved to Portland. He sold the original store to somebody else, who kept the somewhat established Powell's name. The two developed independently of each other, with one attaining national prominence as the best book store on the West Coast, and the other being a fun, quirky hole in the wall that caters to the pointy-headed U of C crowd. I guess the biggest similarity for me is that I spend too much money at both.

Monday, December 18, 2006

And.... done.

And I'm now through with my first quarter of graduate school, recuperating in the delightfully uneventful city of Vancouver, WA. I'm enjoying the couch as much as I can. I guess it's a good thing I won't get my stipend check until I get back to Chicago, because otherwise I'd be spending a good chunk of it at Powell's. Already been once. Going back tomorrow with two bags of books that I don't really want to get rid of, but I realized that if I don't sell them they'll just sit in this house until my parents move (which might suddenly be a possibility for the not-too-distant future). Haven't bothered rereading the essay since I handed it in - too scared that I'll discover glaring, laughable mistakes all over the place. After shrinking the font and narrowing the spacing to 1.5 instead of the advised double spacing, the paper was a dense 16 pages that I hope to god are coherent, at least somewhat.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


I just discovered a good little note I'd jotted down a couple days ago in a discussion of Fassbinder's use of mirrors: Fassbinder's constant use of mirrors indicates what might be read as a heavy reliance of the acousmetre; by attaching voices to their 2-d mirror representations rather than the "real" subject on screen, Fassbinder grants many of his characters the status of semi-acousmetres. This both allows them to slip more easily into full acousmetric presences (such as the voice/body split that occurs in the slaughterhouse early in 13 Moons - also, in Fassbinder, as in Fellini, the voice dubbing is loosely synchronized, and, as Chion explains, "these post-synched voices float around bodies" rather than inhabiting them), but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, Fassbinder's conception of the image grants it so much power/primacy/control/whatever that the only way to compensate for that, and to compete with it, is by granting the voice a certain degree of acousmatic powers (hints of omniscience, omnipotence) that come from separating it from the mouth/body. The word I originally used to describe the image's power as Fassbinder conceives it was "overwhelming-ness" which is kind of poetic, in an awkward, accidental sort of way.

My favorite explanation of the acousmetric properties comes in Chion's discussion of Ordet (p. 129-30 of The Voice in Cinema, 1999):

"At the end of Dreyer's Ordet, the madman Johannes pronounces before the body of Inger the words that are supposed to bring the young woman back to life. Dreyer could have filmed this scene in either of two ways. He could have shown the face of Inger when the offscreen words of Johannes are heard, or the camera could remain on Johannes as the latter declaims the words of life.

"The first solution would be more magical - Johnanne's voice would function as an acousmatic voice with all the power of acousmetres. The second solution keeps thing in the human dimension - Johannes is nothing but a man, and the words have no power other than by the grace of God. That is the solution Dreyer chose. In the entire film, vocal production is filmd directly, head-on, with very few offscreen voices. Speech draws on the symbolic force of 'embodied' language here, not on the black magic of disembodied voices."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I think I've finally figured out where to start the Fassbinder paper - I've been writing and writing and writing, all in rough draft/note form and all relatively unstructured; the key hurdle has been trying to figure out that point of entry into everything, and then all of these notes I've been compulsively scribbling instead of actually writing this goddamned essay will be much easier to fit together. The theory, anyway, is that they'll all fall in line, magically, once I figure out where to start. The thing is, because I'm covering so much ground with this thing, the direction set by this first little bit can make a huge difference, up to and including which films the paper focuses on and which critics and theorists are privileged over others: the plan was to write about In a Year of 13 Moons and Michel Chion, utilizing eeeeeeeverything else as support, but I'm thinking a better intro might come from discussing Petra von Kant and a notion of cinematic space that comes mainly from Bordwell and Bazin. That doesn't mean that my main points can't still be Chion/13 Moons-related, but it's hard to make those the home bases around which the other arguments rotate if I'm unable to work them in until page 2 or 3. But I've kind of made up my mind, I guess. I was hoping that by concentrating on one film and one theorist and relegating the rest to supporting roles I might give off the (false?) impression of overall structural coherance rather than the anything-goes jumble I'm worried it will be.

The intro I'm currently thinking of ties the artificial-ness of Fassbinder's filmic space in general - the posing for the camera, the excessive audio-visual stimulation placed throughout the frame, the lack of 360-degree spatial representation (or, as I argue, the lack of 360-degree space, period; his films are shot along 180-degree perspectives, for the most part, although that's an assertion that requires some justification, evidence, etc), the self-awareness and emphasis on looking and the look, the lack of motivation on both the micro and macro levels, and the general (superficial) unreality of the acting - with the "abstract, unlocalized space" that opens so many of his films. In Beware of a Holy Whore, an actor delivers a lengthy monologue, filmed from below with a featureless blue sky his only background. In Petra von Kant, two cats rest on a set of steps, with no indication of whether this is occurring inside or outside. In 13 Moons, the shots alternate between extreme long shot and extreme close-up, a disorienting tactic that allows the viewer to follow the basic action but not to identify with any specificity the characters or, more importantly, how this space will relate to the rest of the story (it doesn't, standing out, paradoxically, as the most "natural" setting of the whole film). The American Soldier opens with three rough-looking men playing cards around a table, with a single overhead light illuminating the men and their cards, but everything behind them being hidden in total darkness. Fassbinder's first film, Love Is Colder than Death, opens in a more literally "abstract" space, with the walls either blank or covered over in solid-colored fabric.

Why this disorientation? Well, that's one of the big questions I need to answer, although the "why" is slightly less interesting to me than the "so what." My argument for the "why" portion of the paper has a lot to do with a similarly abstract notion of time, in which, for example, the past is thoroughly abstracted so as to exist only through its present representations (that's where 13 Moons comes in, as Elvira's past is literally carved onto her body). The temporal relationship between one shot/scene and the next is just as uncertain as the spatial one - which explains Fassbinder's tendency towards long takes when certainty is what a scene calls for. (That uncertainty is something that I'm still working through, but I'm tying it, at least in part, to the ways that space is actually explored in Fassbinder, mainly through the network of looks, stares and glances that play throughout his films.)

The "so what" is where the look/voice split comes in, in how the film cues the audience to interpret the sometimes "illegible" (according to Corrigan) scenes and construct spatio-temporal relationships between one character/shot/scene and another.

When it comes right down to it, though, Fassbinder's films take place in this kind of abstraction because space really doesn't matter. His conception of space is closer to the postmodern one that Corrigan describes, where geographical/physical distance cedes primacy to stress being placed on the hierarchy of information that populates any location. To be more specific, though, I think Fassbinder's films are organized (spatially, but also temporally/chronologically and occasionally dramatically) around sensations, around audio-visual experience of frame/image, of character, of location, etc. While not going so far as to say that, for example, his characters are mere placeholders in a greater aestheticized narrative, I'm going to fall back on the old postmodern cliche and say that his aestheticization - the highly theatrical posing, the audio-visual surplus, etc - is utilized neither in support of nor in ironic counterpoint to the narrative. It exists alongside it as an end in and of itself. A seeming paradox that lets Fassbinder have it both ways, so to speak - his films scream out their status as mere images, as cinema, but that doesn't mean they can't be "authentic."

Right now (cup of coffee #4 of the day, with the first two being very, very large - I guess I'm in place in which clock time doesn't matter all that much; my time is currently measured by pages left to write, caffeine consumed, and hours of sleep gotten), I'm feeling kind of overwhelmed because there's about five pages worth of arguments that I want to make just on Fassbinder's use of mirrors. But, if my dense ramblings above are any indication, I need to be more concise. So, here's the shortest possible explanation for all of the points I feel I should make about Fassbinder's insistent use on both filming in mirrors and on having characters look into mirrors:

1)a mirror reduces whatever it contains into a 2-d image, placing a character looking into one at same level as film viewer (sort of - the character can turn around at any time and see the rest of the scene, the camera cannot because Fassbinder composes his action for the frame rather than embracing Bazinian 360-degree realism... okay, that was too long)
2)mirrors distance characters from one another, wrapping frames around faces and bodies that separate them from the rest of the decor
3)mirrors double the character's image on screen - a typically German preoccupation, except that for Fassbinder this doubling produces both the character and his image, again drawing parallel to the viewer's perspective
4)looking at oneself in a mirror allows a character to understand and rehearse how others see him/her, and to try to control that in some way (a huge motivation throughout Fassbinder's work); plus, it allows characters to see themselves in relation to other people in the scene
5)this is my favorite one, and where I'm cutting off the list: the look has an especially important place in Fassbinder's cinema, and a character looking at someone else is not only communicative and revealing, but the fact that he/she is looking is usually more important than whatever's being looked at - which is a total reversal from traditional subject/object, shot/reverse-shot organization in the classical cinema. That's all been said before, much more eloquently (and packed with Lacanian jargon) than I ever could. The part I'm excited about is my realization that characters rarely lock eyes in Fassbinder, and when they do it's usually right before an outburst (usually very physical) or something climactic. Looks are mostly one-way, and conversations are staged with both characters looking towards the camera, or one staring at the back of the other's head. There's something far too intimate, and powerful, about the returned gaze to allow it casual use. So mirrors are kind of like those little boxes you use to watch a solar eclipse - they let a character see another character's face without actually having to look him in the eyes and meet his gaze. Bam. And it's directly related to 1.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Not the brightest bulb.

Have you ever used the bathroom in the middle of the night and, once you've finished, you flip the light switch instead of anything connected to the toilet? And then, because you realize your mistake, you try to be more alert and as you walk out the room you just stare at the light switch, not flipping it off, because you don't want to make the same mistake twice? Wild guess as to whether that happened to me early this morning

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Not dark yet...

But it's getting there. So, as a timewasting distraction before jumping back into my paper (which, I realized last night, only needs to be 15 pages, whereas I have notes for a paper that would be, oh, 50 or 60 pages - double-spaced, that is), I'm staring at the computer screen and doing my best to be non-productive and restful before writing a paper that will, undoubtedly, revolutionize R.W. Fassbinder scholarship... hehe, heh, *sigh*. I just kept watching, and just kept reading, and just have this huge surplus of disconnected notes about the relationship between voice (new!) and gaze (it's been done), and the weird abstract space/image/time in some, maybe most, of his films. The idea to connect Michel Chion's concept of the acousmetre (well, I guess it's a Pierre Schaeffer concept, but Chion's the one who applied it to film) to the semi-diegetic narrations of In a Year of 13 Moons was kind of a late-breaking lightning bolt that added an extra day to the writing and an extra $23.05 to my credit card bill (for Chion's The Voice in Cinema). The acousmetre is basically a voice that's not tied to a visible source, or, more specifically, a mouth. And, because it isn't attached to a body, it doesn't have to obey the same physical rules as an actual person, often taking on a kind of vaguely omniscient, omnipotent, panoptic quality - as in the old horror movie saw where the phone rings and the threatening caller tells the helpless, virginal blonde that "I'm watching you right now!!!" and then appears from out of nowhere brandishing a gigantic, sharp phallic object of some sort, like a knife or a harpoon.

And by expanding the Lacan-bating emphasis on the look and to-be-looked-at-ness in Fassbinder's films to the voice-inclusive idea of "perception," which explains not only the nicely avant garde feeling that his characters often seem to be posing for the camera, but that they often have a compulsive need to talk, usually either telling their own stories or talking either themselves or someone else into something. The visual is, of course, much more effective, and more trusted - by both characters and the audience. So, any time there's a reliance on the voice, usually as the alternative to an unseen image but sometimes when characters are trying to talk away visuals that are evident if not obvious, Fassbinder overcompensates. That overcompensation can come in the form of dramatic histrionics (though rarely if ever from the protagonist, with Petra von Kant being the most obvious exception), but usually this comes in the form of an excess of audio-visual artifacts and mannerisms scattered around the screen: cluttered frames, busy and distracting soundtracks, allusions to other films, music, etc.

Since I started writing, I've noticed sometimes, as with Querelle, In a Year of 13 Moons and Katzelmacher, Fassbinder seems to be pitting the voice explicitly against the image. In Querelle, the narration goes above and beyond what we're shown, commenting on the action without confirming or contradicting the image; the characters go through a ritualistic verbal denial of their own sexuality throughout the film, even when their pants are around their ankles; finally, Jeanne Moreau's character reads tarot cards at the beginning of the film, launching the action by mentioning Querelle, and then again at the end - when she discovers on her second reading that she was mistaken, with the words "I was wrong. You never had a brother!" she effectively erases the entire film as nothing more than a "mistake," a fever dream that never happened. But even though these various kind of verbal commentary actually do take control of the narrative, the vivid, hallucinatory images are powerful in an entirely different way, one that can't be erased by mere words. Etc.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


I spent much of the past week at the Bourgeois Pig, overcaffeinating myself in an attempt to stimulate my brain into, you know, working. Depending on who you ask, it's been effective, sort of. But I've been fundamentally exhausted in such a way that I get home from reading on the north side and fall asleep, or staying conscious in a state of near-sleep. Which is making it hard, and the solution is either more caffeine or less caffeine. Almost there, almost through with the quarter. One small paper down, one larger-ish paper left to go. In the meantime, my apartment's a disaster area (if only I could watch these Fassbinder dvds in an occasionally loud, crowded coffeeshop, I don't think I'd ever leave). I've been slacking on the swimming, too, which is bad, but the stupid little side effect of that is that when I do go, I'm completely rested and feel all in shape and stuff (which my finals-week diet most definitely does not do - based on a highly scientific informal poll, graduate students' cheese intake increases threefold in the final two weeks of the quarter).

Watching Fassbinder, I'm struck by how amazingly good this stuff is, and the thing is that the weirder films, i.e. Querelle and In a Year of 13 Moons, get more fascinating with each viewing. They're very dense films, and they grew denser as his output slowed to, you know, less than 7 per year (yeah, he actually made seven feature films in 1970). I've got a couple days to write, oh, 15-20 pages on this stuff, and I think I'm depending on coffee to provide me with inspiration, ideas, concentration. And I've been listening to a lot of Ornette Coleman, which I've discovered is the ultimate study music for me, more than Eno and his ambient/electro-brethren, more than classical strings, more than the soothing samba music favored by the Bourgeois Pig, etc. I suspect that something like "Lonely Woman" might be the kind of music we'd listen to if we were big, mutant, pulsating, disembodied brains (that somehow have ears?).

Until a week or so ago, I'd had maybe one cup of coffee in about six weeks. And now, now that my system's no longer accustomed to the daily coffee influx, that caffeine packs a punch. So, if you notice that I'm a little, um, jittery, think nothing of it. It's natural.

Today's inspirational verse, courtesy of Stephen Colbert:

"So the Christian Coalition are afraid they'll be called liberals. I don't blame them. After all, there's nothing more Christian than refusing to do good works because you might get called a name."

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Gunvor Nelson

Experimental filmmaker Gunvor Nelson came to campus last week for a screening of three very personal films: her tribute to her daughter My Name Is Oona (which the screening notes claim might be her best known film), the experimental mother/daughter/mother fiction Red Shift, and an absolutely devastating documentary portrait of her dying mother that I believe was called Mother. I'm not sure how representative these films are of the rest of her work, but her impressionistic, flowing montage is truly remarkable. And, I have to say, the experimental canon is such a boys' club, Nelson's films are a wonderful balance to the cumulative testosterone of her fellow filmmakers. Feminine without being overtly feminist, Nelson's more concerned with exploring ideas of immediate relevance to women without (explicitly) positioning her work against any conventions or traditions. My Name Is Oona and Mother are undoubtedly the most beautiful, affecting films of their kind that I've seen. There's something hypnotic in Nelson's images, and she's got a remarkable eye for the extreme close-up. The extreme close-up, used liberally in Red Shift, strikes me as a key technique to understanding her films, even if it was rarely used in the other two films last night. With Red Shift's magnified portraits of features and body parts, and Oona's endless, overlapping repetition of the name on the soundtrack, there's a sense in which Nelson's films fetishize the smallest, most tangible details (or at least they attempt to make these details tangible through the film) as a sort of defense mechanism, a way of understanding powerful and possibly painful relationships to her subjects (her daughter, her mother, aging, death) piece by piece, keeping them immediately comprehensible while allowing the montage to express the complexities and ambiguities (and the various inexpressibles) she feels towards them.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan was at Chicago last week. He came to our German class, just sat there listening for an hour. (I didn't say anything remotely smart while he was there, in case you were wondering - but as soon as he left...) He spoke at the Mass Culture Workshop about physical relationships with technology in his work, but really more generally than that. He's done several pieces - films and installations - in which old-fashioned tape recorders play a central role, and he's fascinated with them because the user does have such a physical relationship with the machine, a relationship that's one a wholly different order than the one with a computer, an mp3 player or any other kind of digital technology. Old analogue machinery creates an impression of having some sort of physical manifestation of its processes - you can, to a certain extent, see it working. In other words, Egoyan is incredibly sensitive to the postmodern (which I bring up because I'm finally the tiniest bit confident as to one specific aspect of the most poorly-defined word in the English language), and nostalgic for the modernist. You can see this in his films, which are structured/styled in a manner that's often characterized as "postmodern" and yet place an extra emphasis on physical transit - think of the body hunt in Exotica, the bus crash in The Sweet Hereafter, and all those customs agents that keep reappearing from film to film.
I'm kind of obsessed with the way that space is organized and categorized on screen, and have a vague suspicion about the possible relevance of Manuel Castells's "space of flows," which is, in my own horribly incomplete understanding, similar to Egoyan's conception of digital technology: space that's organized by informational logic rather than physical, geographical logic, and in which physical distance is less a factor than access within the network. My further vague suspicion is that, not only does the cinema have a similar relationship now to postmodernism that it did in the 20s and 30s to modernism, but that the cinema has been one of the central places where we've been working through that transition from modern to post, and that there's something fundamentally postmodern (in that incomplete "space of flows" definition I tried to explain above) about the onscreen organization of space, which would therefore lead one to conclude that the cinema has not only reflected that transition but, in some sense, led the charge.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

George Kuchar

Attended a screening of George Kuchar's most recent videos at the Siskel on Thursday with Pam and her housemate Emily, both of whom I think enjoyed themselves or at least found it interesting, but I loved it unconditionally. As he did when we brought him out to Seattle, George showed several of his diary videos, all of which were wonderful, and followed it with a ridiculously overblown campy melodrama that he made with his students at the Art Institute in SF, and which went on way too long. Of course, just as much as the actual work, the filmmaker was the draw and the biggest source of entertainment, and he didn't disappoint.

The program started on the wrong note when whoever it was that introduced Kuchar read a portion of an essay calling him "one of the great artists in the history of the medium," or something like that. Kuchar's films don't require such hyperbole. His place, along with his brother's, in the history of film, underground or otherwise, has much more to do with the amazing surplus of goodwill the rest of the film world feels towards him/them. His films are easy to like in a very fundamental way. The Kuchar brothers are both quintessential New York characters, lovably eccentric and wholly non-threatening (which is particularly important when you take into consideration the lurid subject matter of so many of their most influential films) - and their movies have a similar appeal. Amateurish, occasionally overearnest, delightfully strange, what-the-hell random, the Kuchars are perhaps unfairly treated something akin to outsider artists in the history of experimental filmmaking - the "perhaps" is there because when placed alongside Jacobs, Brakhage, even Jack Smith, it's clear that the Kuchars have a different, much less deliberately confrontational, relationship with the medium.

George Kuchar's diary videos on Thursday, all of which he shot over the summer and had recently finished editing, are truly delightful (to repeat myself), free-flowing jumbles. His presence at the center of all of them is key to their appeal, along with their endearing over-utilization of editing tricks (George has Final Cut Pro now, evidently). And I love the very basic philosophy of his video-making, that he carries a camera with him whenever he feels like filming something and then just turns it on, whether that's taking his aging mother around the block, visiting John Waters or Robert Breer, having dinner at a friend's house, or watching Mother Angelica on late night television. He'll jump from one location to another, and even, in one film, alternate between documentary and fiction, with no apparent motivation (narrative or otherwise). All this can be done because Kuchar creates a space that neither mythologizes nor belittles the everyday, but is instead an investigation of the quotidian for the sometimes faint traces of the stuff of melodramas and movie spectacles. But Kuchar makes no effort to compile them into one grand lurid narrative (even his grand lurid narratives are disjointed enough that they can't really be considered as such), he realizes they exist as bits and pieces and doesn't try to force them into any other formation.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Briefly, as if I want to go swimming today I have to leave in ten or so minutes. I'm writing this blog because the format suits me and because it gives me a means of procrastination that feels not entirely unproductive (because, I'm, like, you know, thinking through things, and shit). I often wonder, however, just how much of a tree-falling-in-the-woods effort this is. So, if you read this, please let me know. Danke shoen.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Went to a program of short animated films by Adam Beckett at the Siskel today. Beckett's five films in the program (he only completed six before dying in a fire at age 29), were all kinds of amazing. They were at their best when they were least psychedelic, a compulsive rotation of evolving shapes and patterns, some of which felt downright heroic for their ingenuity and the pencil hours it must have taken to produce them. The films were paired with other abstract/weird animations curated by Jim Trainor, including Oskar Fischinger's Motion Painting #1, which I'll never tire of seeing. There's a pseudo festival of animation around the city this weekend, including an appearance from Naomi Uman (which I can't make it to, unfortunately). I'm definitely going to the Sunday afternoon program of films by Robert Breer and his daughter (whose films are fantastic, by the way) Emily.


Watched Michael Snow's Wavelength the other night for a class (on 16mm, other screenings this week: Weekend and Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser). Can't get it out of my head, really, although I'm not really sure how to describe it. Fascinating, and I think I've starting to get a handle on what exactly fascinates me about it, but it's hard. So much of film analysis is based on the concrete and tangible (form in service of narrative, of theme, of argument), that switching over to something that doesn't articulate any sort of argument, in which narrative might as well be nonexistent, and in which the theme is ambiguous at best, can feel utterly alien. They're often described in terms of technique, much like painting or sculpture, but that's most definitely outside my own area of expertise, if you can call it an expertise. What I like about it is what's been occupying a lot of my brain, or at least that portion that fantasizes about what I will one day (soon) be studying instead of actually doing any studying: the way that space and distance are coded, particularly how they're infused with so much substance and significance by the oh-so-slow zoom in. And then there's the resolution, that final transporting image that the film spends 45 minutes explaining as an image (a photograph on the wall constantly at the center of the frame), but that functions, somehow, as a "real" escape from the confines of the room.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Randomness and Alternative Time Usage (aka Harder Better Faster Blogger)

Have a lot of work to catch up on over the weekend. Lots and lots, much of it dense psychoanalytic theory. I have to admit that I giggle occasionally at some of the assertions, which have abstracted themselves from experiential or observational analysis so much as to seem ridiculous on first glance, second glance too. A Lacanian's specialty, as I understand it from the little I understand of recent psychoanalytic criticism.

I really want to get Lynne Tillman's new book, American Genius. I know nothing about it except for that kickass title. I of course have no time for leisure reading right now, and have several large piles of books that I've been planning on reading one of these, with a not-all-that-small pile of "nightstand books" (quotation marks as in, I don't have an actual nightstand, just two cardboard boxes piled on top of each other) that I've been "planning on reading next" for who knows how long. As with several of my other favorite authors, Tilmman's books, no matter how much ridiculously gushing praise they get, are released in paperback only - good for me, the poor, broke grad student who feeds all his money into the library printers, but it would be nice if the author of No Lease on Life got a little respect from the industry.

The Kleptones have two albums available for download from their website (, neither of which I was aware of. Steven Shaviro turned me on to the Kleptones' Night at the Hip-Hopera on his blog, The Pinocchio Theory ( So far, the two post-Hip-Hopera albums seem to be more conventional mash-ups, in the a+b=c format (of course adding sprinklings of d, e, f). Night at the Hip-Hopera collapsed a veritable history of hip hop into the collected works of Queen, interesting conceptually in a fundamental way, for its play with issues of race and masculinity (in addition to playing black music in an extremely white way, Queen were swaggering poster boys of leather-bound masculinity, with a small but relevant secret - now juxtapose that with hip hop; Shaviro covers similar ground much more eloquently on his blog, by the way). 24 Hours, the album I'm currently listening to, is certainly energetic and always keeps the mix surprising and clever, and definitely has something to say (lots about money, especially; also quotes McCluhan more than once, with the "all-at-onceness" line sample standing out very early on disc 1 - not sure, but that may come from Waking Life). The standout track so far is "Daft Purple," a mash of my second favorite Daft Punk song, "Harder Better Faster Stronger" and Deep Purple's "Fireball," along with a "Money" interlude, some Jethro Tull, something by a rapper named Hijack, and the aforementioned McCluhan alongside dialogue from The Breakfast Club, and more, I'm sure. I've heard that Daft Punk song dozens of times, but had never figured out that it was an ironic endorsement of company life, of buying into and living for the system. I'd always just assumed it was about dancing. Vocodered Frenchmen aren't all that easy to understand, so I have an excuse.

Still haven't gotten sick of Wild Honey, or Love You. Trying to pick a favorite Sonic Youth song, for time-wasting purposes, realized that Rather Ripped's Jams Run Free is most definitely in the running. Possibly on the bill for next monday, JLG's Passion plus... wait for it... JLG's jeans commercials, a dozen of them. Jeans, by Jean-Luc Godard. I'm sure he made himself utilise prostitution as a metaphor for the capitalist system in his next feature as penance. Saw Psycho on 35mm last Monday for a class, had to skip Sauve qui peut (la vie) in order to do so. It was fucking great. The little bit of theory I've read so far this year has focused so heavily on Hitchcock that I feel increasingly aware of what to look for in his films, and am consistently surprised to find his films even more meticulously crafted than even the theorist's give him credit for (or deny him credit for, depending on what you're reading). There's always more to look for in a Hitchcock film. Which is good, because we've already watched four Hitchcocks, and we're supposed to have watched Strangers on a Train three times, and I have to do a detailed analysis of The Lady Vanishes that will require three full viewings at least and a shot-by-shot deciphering of a scene. It's a lot of Hitchcock to take in all at once, but better him than just about anyone else, I suppose. It was Kristi's birthday on Thursday, and in addition to a surprise package still on its way, I've been cheerily spending time making birthday mixes. I have to watch myself, though, because I'm making her a whole box set of mixes (7 and counting), and as I run out of my original ideas for a Mix For Kristi, I drift into my own tastes more and more, and lately those are running towards the darker, more dissonant, skronk end of the semi-popular music spectrum.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Beach Boys love you

I've been listening compulsively to post-Smile(y Smile) Beach Boys for the past couple days, particularly the albums Wild Honey and Love You. The former is a sparkling little gem, much more rocking than anything the group had done before, with a distinct r&b swing to it. The soft and bittersweet prettiness of Pet Sounds left behind for something that is perhaps less distinct, and, indeed, the sound calls less attention to itself as a "sound" and acts primarily in support of the songwriting (rather than being an integral part of the songwriting process, or vice-versa). But the songs are irresistible. With 11 songs, each lasting less than three minutes and several clocking in at under two, the disc is brief, and it feels slight: the layered harmonizing has been pushed into the background, and there's a general absence of Pet Sounds' deeply felt adolescent questioning. It's possibly most famous as being the first Beach Boys album on which Brian Wilson didn't write all the songs - but "Kokomo" this ain't; the 1:58 "How She Boogalooed It" is a nice little palate cleanser that leans more on its rhythm than its melody and works just fine as such. As Robert Christgau puts it, there isn't "a bad second" on the album, with each song whittled down to the most basic nuggets of pop perfection, which applies to the sonic as well as compositional qualities of the music. With both this and Love You (and much of the 70s output), Brian and whoever else was sitting in the mixing room (and there was somebody else sitting in the mixing room) shifted the focus to the production, rather than the performance, and it's all for the best. The instruments, electronic and otherwise, feel much more integral to their music than they ever had before, and the slightly off-key, not-quite-harmonic singing is mixed until it sounds pretty damn good and actually on pitch. And that's not because they were becoming better singers.

For what it's worth, Love You is a masterpiece as well, even if it feels like a sort of last stand for Brian Wilson - and it would be, as Wilson's last moment of undeniable musical genius until Smile (which I've also been listening to lately). The music is brilliant, reaching back to Wilson's earliest style of songwriting (but, again, with superior 70s production - and I do think the 70s production is superior), but the lyrics are what make the album most memorable, not in a good way. If 60s songs like "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" come from a a young man's anxieties and uncertainties about growing up, Love You seems to come from an adult who hasn't quite gotten it right. Every word on the album is painfully sincere, but whether they're singing about Johnny Carson's greatness, the planets of the Solar System or awkardly processed adult relationships ("pat, pat, pat her on the butt, butt, butt/she's almost asleep") it can be a little embarassing. It seems to be a missive from Wilson on a slide downhill, an attempt at the warmth and love (for girls girls girls, for surfing, for cars, for teenage life) he once wrote about that now seems out of place, or somehow mis-placed, at least in an adult, mature world. But the music is buoyant, joyful and immensely enjoyable. And songs like "Mona" and "Roller Skating Child" are just as catchy as "Help Me Rhonda" and "I Get Around," really they are. And to add to the hyperbole, I'd go so far as to say that song for song, recording for recording, Wild Honey is up to the level of any pre-Pet Sounds greatest hits collection you could put together. Brian Wilson just wasn't made for those/these times, unfortunately. And it is unfortunate, but also lends a great deal of poignancy to the whole of the Beach Boys' output. That vague sense of out-of-place-ness infuses Wild Honey and Love You as much as it does Pet Sounds, giving even the silliest lyric a resonance that reaches down into your gut.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


I've been swimming a lot lately. It's calming in a nicely repetitive way, like riding a bike, or mowing the lawn. I'm starting to get pretty good, and have usually been able to keep up with even the serious-looking swimmers to the sides of me - until two days ago, when the girl next to me who may or may not have had an invisible rocket strapped to her back, kept gliding by me at what seemed to be twice my speed. She was going as fast or faster than I was even when she was using a kickboard (i.e. no hands). I shrugged it off, as she appeared to be one giant muscle in the shape of a small-ish redhead, except that other people in the pool seemed to be going faster than me as well. Same thing yesterday. Now, it's not that big a deal, except that when people are blowing by you, you really become aware of your own lack of speed and the large number of laps you have to do to make swimming a worthwhile exercise - well, each one feels long, and each set of ten feels longer, and then each half mile takes forever. Maybe I just need to focus more. That would make sense, I have been having trouble focusing for the course readings. In that case, though, I just figured that laziness was the culprit.

I won't be swimming for a couple days, at least until I can find new trunks. My once dark green swimming trunks - which had, thanks to repeated exposure to the most poisonously chlorinated water I've ever swam in, turned a sort of peach-y color - developed a tiny hole on one of the legs. I had to cut my laps short yesterday, as somehow that tiny hole had developed into a gigantic rip. I slammed the shorts into the locker room trash can, and I'm pretty sure that I had a frustrated and/or perturbed look on my face as I was doing it.

Friday, October 06, 2006


Or maybe fatigue, who knows. I'm two weeks in to the quarter and already behind. The reading keeps piling higher and higher, but it's all interesting, with much of it being very interesting. Movies to watch, articles to read, hair to get cut, hopefully can squeeze some swimming in there - it doesn't help that the sheer amount of extracurriculur activities is so staggering, especially now that the CIFF is stacked on top of the normal great film programming on campus and around town. I get the feeling that I'm not drinking enough, just in terms of trying to fit in among my fellow Chicagoans. To watch: Rebecca (at the Film Studies Center), Strangers on a Train (again), Vertigo (Monday, on film), Syndromes of a Century (CIFF), also the TWO Apichatpong Weerasethakul shorts programs next week, Invisible Waves (CIFF), Taxidermia (CIFF), Climates (CIFF), hopefully Griffith's Intolerance, Shadow of a Doubt, and My Sex Life, or How I Got Into an Argument, my three Netflix films that are only sorta kinda related to coursework, and can be watched at any time. I've gotten nothing done today, though. And I'm going to give myself just a little bit more nothing, just for a little while longer.

The story of Yo La Tengo

Saw Yo La Tengo at the Vic last night. My favorite band - I realized a couple weeks ago that I did actually have an answer for the "what's your favorite band?" question - puts on one hell of a show. As much as I love them, I'd never really noticed Ira Kaplan's guitar god status. Even their ten-plus minute noise-groove digressions rocked pretty goddamn hard, for the whole ten-plus minutes. The slow songs were painfully pretty, in their signature not-quite-ecstatic way. (To be a little purple - blue? - YLT's feedback-radiating grooves are structured as almost tantric sublimations of that pop music, hook-driven tendency towards ecstatic melodic resolutions, directing the pop instinct inwards on itself instead of outwards towards the feet and hips; it occurred to me not long ago that YLT is actually a groove band, except that they're the least funky - er, whitest, New Jersey-ist - groove band ever.) Their live sound was remarkably similar to their album sound(s), with the only noticeable difference being the total dominance of the strings over the keyboards. There were four instruments used on stage - guitar, bass, keyboards, drums - and both James and Ira played all four, Georgia played at least three (didn't notice if she played the bass as well, although she very well could have).

After nine well-played songs, including a quick and perfect "Stockholm Syndrome," they sent the crowd screaming when they tore up "Cherry Chapstick," followed by "Watch Out For Me Ronnie" and "I Should Have Known Better," the most energetic tracks of their 60s-inflected new album. The set's high point carried over into the next song, a transcendent "Tom Courtenay" (electric, sung by Ira). Three and a half minutes of blissful heaven. "The Story of Yo La Tango"[sic], their latest album-ending rave up and maybe their poppiest, brought the house down, starting off slow and swirly and suddenly surging forward with that driving energy they manage to keep up for the full however many minutes.

Their last song before the encores was Painful's marathon groove finale "I Heard You Looking." During Ira's guitar/noise/feedback performance, he got as theatrical as Yo La Tengo gets, going so far as to wave his guitar in the air - a cliched rock'n'roll move, to be sure, until I figured out instead that he was directing it towards and around the speakers, trying to orchestrate the speaker feedback (which he did amazingly well, as if he's been doing it for decades).

The band played three encores, with the third coming because they wanted to convene backstage to discuss their final song selection (they opened it up to the audience to decide between three tracks from Fakebook, and ended up with "Yellow Sarong" - a decision my own yelling and screaming had a little something to do with). Their encores were mainly covers, the only other one I recognized was "Speeding Motorcycle" - chosen by audience request, by which I mean there was one guy standing near me who was screaming "Screaming Motorcycle!!!" throughout the show.

And if anyone hasn't seen their classic "Sugarcube" video, I just want to say "I love you, YouTube."'

One of their encore selections they chose because their "friend Mark" (Kozelek?) was in the audience, which I'm assuming he wrote. On another, a Dream Syndicate cover, they brought another Rick Rizzo, who they'd "been playing with since before most of you were born."

Oh, and somebody - the "Speeding Motorcycle" guy, maybe - yelled out "I love you Georgia." Ira ignored him until he yelled it again, then looks up from the drums (he and Georgia were playing drums in tandem) and says: "Not as much as me."

How can you not love this band?

In case anyone is curious, now that I have an iPod I'm able to keep track of what I'm listening to the most. After the break, a short list of most-playeds.

Belle and Sebastian - I'm a Cuckoo
D.N.A. - Blonde Redhead
Orange Juice - Rip It Up
Flipper - Generic (full album, "Ever" most of all)
They Might Be Giants - Doctor Worm
The [English] Beat - Save It For Later
The Box Tops - Soul Deep
Yo La Tengo - River of Water
Cut Chemist - Lesson 4: The Radio
Brian Eno - The Big Ship
Otis Redding - Cigarettes and Coffee
Kelly Clarkson - Since U Been Gone
X - Adult Books
The Blue Hearts - Linda Linda
Double Dee + Steinski - Lesson 1 (The Payoff Mix)
Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders - Griselda
Sonic Youth - Sunday
Kraftwerk - Trans Europa Express
Husker Du - Sorry Somehow
Bob Dylan - Workingman's Blues

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bargain shows in Logan Square

I've been going to movies lately. There's a three dollar bargain theater right down the street from here, and it's amazing what you'll talk yourself into seeing when you have no tv, no stereo, and it's only three bucks. In reverse chronological order:

Accepted is ridiculous in that its basic fundamental premise has to do with potential college students that have plenty of money and want to go to school, except no school will accept them. Evidently nobody writing (and there were quite a few writers who collected a paycheck for the screenplay), directing or producing this film has ever heard of community college. Also, how hard is it to get into a school if money's not an issue? Now, if the fake college in this movie preached school being free for everyone, that might be a good start for a legitimate and nicely subversive comedy. Also, I haven't seen this much surgical enhancement (female only, of course) in a movie since... since... ummm, never mind. Further evidence that the film cares nothing for reality, and so it exists in a sort of vacuum, a pneumatic effort to throw a random assortment of jokes at the audience and see if any stick. When Lewis Black is on screen, pretty much all of them do.

Monster House is a good little movie sprung from the Spielberg/Zemeckis philosophy that death and terror should be a major part of any movie for children (call it the Hansel and Gretel approach). So, it was made using the same motion capture animation that made The Polar Express so astonishingly creepy, except they decided to sidestep the uncanny valley by giving all the characters giant cartoon heads. The effect is not unlike a Chris Cunningham film: normal, ultra-realistic bodies and deformed gigantic heads (it's also not unlike a cartoon-characters-on-ice performance, in which the performer is given normally-proportioned costuming except for a giant head to place over his own).

X-Men 3... what can be said about Brett Ratner that does him justice? That he's the most mediocre prominent filmmaker working today? More than Michael Bay, who at least has a personal stamp of ridiculousness and frenetic stabs at iconic imaging and then some quips? Watching a Ratner is like a Film School 101 class, with every directorial decision (or lack thereof) prompting the viewer to ask him or herself, "Okay, what could a filmmaker do to add intelligence, personality, originality, dramatic tension, or to further explore the characters here?" It's filmmaking on autopilot - you can sing along even if you've never seen the film before. I'll just add that a major character dies halfway through - perhaps THE major character of the first two movies and of the comic book series in general - and another major character dies in the first twenty minutes; and yet, not only does it not leave much of an impression emotionally, both times it feels like a somewhat minor plot point. Brett Ratner's films are like pages out of a coloring book - you can tell what the picture's supposed to be, but we're still waiting for somebody to color it in to make it watchable.

Also seen: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, last night, at the Music Box. Bliss, although a little clunkier than I remembered. This isn't fair to the film, but it feels a little bit like a rehearsal for some of Almodovar's less frantic recent work.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sleater-Kinney's last show

Friday night I was at the first of Sleater-Kinney's two farewell-for-now performances at Portland's Crystal Ballroom. My ears are still ringing, and it's just as much from the crowd as from the atrociously distorted speakers - there were two or three songs that I couldn't identify because I couldn't hear the vocals, sigh.

No matter, though. Sleater-Kinney rocked the fucking house. No speakers (except, I guess, the lack of speakers that occasionally afflicted their 100 degree+ East Coast concerts last month)could keep down that kind of rockingness. I'm pretty sure the walls starting shaking during "Entertain," a bone-shattering, hard-rocking highlight approached but not equalled until (predictably) the second-to-last song of the night, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. This was a particularly devoted crowd, of course, with hundreds of people in the audience screaming notes they (ahem, we) couldn't reach under even optimal circumstances, and Corin Tucker at a couple points during the show seemed to consider handing the chorus over until thinking better of it at the last second and lunging into the microphone.

I was well-positioned for viewing purposes, and there's something about the Crystal Ballroom and it's roll-on stage that makes it seem remarkably intimate, despite the jarring sound problems. Matt M. was there with a Bolex and I kept trying to get his attention to see if maybe he could slip me into the roped-off area, but no such luck. Still, I was able to watch all three ladies very closely (and I watched, especially during the parts where I couldn't really listen), particularly Corin Tucker, a subtle performer whose embellishments largely consist of facial expressions of the sort she probably can't be sure an audience would even notice. Meanwhile, to her right, the more traditionally rawking rock goddess Carrie Brownstein jumped and kicked her way around the stage as she crunched away on her guitar or worked herself into a controlled frenzy to reach those screaming high notes, and Janet Weiss threw her whole body into her drums. (There was a throwaway line in the Voice about how disturbed the critic was that one of the best drummers on the planet now only belonged to one band... and it's Quasi. Not to knock Quasi, but mopey old Sam Coomes could get by with me sitting in on drums.)

Tucker and Brownstein come off as very down to earth, very approachable, and very, well, normal. In spite of their always mind-blowing performances on stage, they do seem the slightest bit guarded, even uncomfortable, in front of an audience. They don't talk very much during the set, and even though their music is often startling in its honesty and intimacy, there are few if any actual biographical details - on stage they are performers, who they are in private remains, in some sense, private (Tucker's husband, Lance Bangs, crouched behind a speaker about ten feet from her with his video camera out for the entire show but I never saw her, even when she dedicated the final song of the evening to him, glance or smile in his direction). On Friday they looked happy and even a little thrilled. I like to think that maybe the realization hit, that they couldn't help but understand that they had been, for a time, the best band on the planet. There was something about the half-suppressed smiles on Tucker's face that I'll remember for as long as I listen to music.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Ghost Dog

Rewatching it today, Ghost Dog feels like minor Jarmusch, and yet it's probably his most immediately accessible film, and one of his most enjoyable. It is, of course, a willful aesthetic stretch for a filmmaker pigeonholed into an extremely narrow genre (the 'broke hipsters talking to each other' genre). I love the film, even though it seems to gloss over many of the lessons of Jarmusch's previous film, the definitively major Dead Man. But that's significant, as I think it may reveal Jarmusch as being less interested in making all-encompassing statements (in this case about death and violence) and more in accessing the wider range of resonances and responses.

Jarmusch is a master of big picture thinking - the only contemporary filmmaker I can think of who is comparably attuned to structure is Takeshi Kitano, but his constructions are nowhere near as elegant. Think back to Strangers in Paradise, Down by Law, Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes or Broken Flowers and chart out the film's narrative progression in your head - each one contains a concise, beautiful story outline based on rather simple reversals, doublings, staged progressions (Jarmusch studied poetry at NYU, which doubtless had something to do with it). The inarticulate, aimless characters that populate his films are, in a sense, smoke screens that distract from the plot to make its ambling progression feel natural and organic. It occurs to me that perhaps without such lack of direction in the characters themselves the story might feel overdetermined, or at least heavily determined in the Stanley Kubrick sense. As it is, very little in his films feels inevitable until just before it happens, or just after (which, I'd argue, is even the case for Blake's death in Dead Man - an outcome predicted so early in the film that when and if he is killed becomes the central problem of the plot, and while the film maintains an atmosphere of impending doom the ultimate ending is still held up as a question).

I left Ghost Dog off that list above because I think that its failings can be found in the structure, which has less poetic/mythic resonance than most of his other films (which is strange, because it's his first attempt to create a traditional mythic hero). The opening quote announces the hero as dead, and, indeed, the film that follows is a long march towards death at the hands of a man to whom Ghost Dog owes his life - but the similarities to Dead Man shouldn't be overemphasized, as Jarmusch doesn't pursue that aspect of the film besides staging the hit at a house being represented by "Aligheri Realtors" (as well as an interesting flashback depicting a sort of death and resurrection). Ghost Dog is unchanging and devoted to his code, but the secondary characters who do change and progress through the film (in response to him) are very secondary, and there's no real insight into their evolution. There's no Nobody.

The real conflict in the film is between two warrior codes that are both dying out. Against Ghost Dog are small-time Italian gangsters - badly aging, broke, and in terrible shape. It's a nonsensical interpretation of the mobster code that kicks off the plot, and an almost nonsensical (if significantly more noble, in the film's terms) interpretation of the Samurai code that ends it. But there's no balance and no real clash of beliefs in the meat of the film. I love this movie, but watching it reminds me why I love Dead Man and Down By Law more, and what makes them truly great and this one merely intelligent, enjoyable and compulsively watchable.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Clerks II

I saw Clerks II last night. I went in with low expectations and still managed to be disappointed. The charm of the first film came from its modesty, from a crude screenplay that Smith quite obviously loved writing, and from the film's lucid depiction of the soul-deadening aimlessness of customer service jobs. The convenience store job was one that everyone could relate to and similar to something most viewers had probably experienced first hand - the heroes' impotent acts of rebellion against their jobs were the stuff of the sympathetic viewers' more low-key fantasies. Clerks was packed with little ideas, one after the other. Some were clever, some were not, and they were rarely tied together in any way, meaningful or otherwise. But that, along with the equally (suitably) crude performances and plunk-it-wherever camerawork, I think were actually what made the film kind of likeable. Every so often it would surprise you with a genuinely clever (or, at least, surprising) turn or joke. But even as subsequent films made his failings as a filmmaker abundantly clear, I think the focus on Smith's increasingly prominent fumblings with actors, staging, editing and cinematography distracted people from the fact that the holes in his writing have never been rectified.

Clerks II is missing everything that made me want to root for the first movie, except for Jeff Anderson as Randal and Jason Mewes as Jay. The convenience store setting of the first Clerks was recognizable and familiar, which made it ring true(ish) even in its more absurd moments. Nobody, ever, has worked at a business like the Mooby's fast food joint of the new film. It's supposedly a huge chain, but there are a total of four employees (all of whom, evidently, are scheduled to work the entire day) and, oh yeah, there's no pressure for speed or productivity or cleanliness. As in the first film, schlubby hero Dante is stuck between two women, except that again the familiarity of the first film is tossed out the window for a fairly complete lack of believability. This time, Dante's faced with a choice between Rosario Dawson and Playboy model Mrs. Kevin Smith. These aren't real women, of course, they are fantasy creatures that look and smell an awful lot like women as you and I know them, except that the things they do and the words that come out of their mouths bear no resemblance to anyone you or I have ever known. And there's no real dilemma, either. The deck is stacked against the blonde, who is the Platonic ideal of a chauvinist's worst nightmare (she's trying to "control" him). By Dante's third or fourth dewey gaze in Ms. Dawson's direction, we get the idea already, even though Dawson's character seems like the equally questionable flip side of the blonde harpy - the good fantasy girl of someone who, I can only assume, has never actually spoken to a woman before. Worse, Smith's attempts to plant doubt as to whether whoever Dante chooses would love him in return are lame and unconvincing. Instead of the plotless meanderings of the first film, here the plot mechanics kick in after fifteen minutes, everything proceeding according to expectations with a few insubstantial twists thrown in here and there. Not even horse fucking - and, I'll just say that it never occurred to me that bestiality could be predictable - can distract from the corny, cliched rigidity of the storyline.

Even the dialogue, once upon a time Smith's claim to fame, is dull, largely based on one character saying something outrageous and then another character groaning and shaking his head in disbelief. It's lazy lazy writing, and it's not funny, particularly after whatever sharpness may have been there is deadened by Smith's baldly incompetent editing.

I find the differences between the two films' relative charm enlightening, and Smith's continued popularity is a mystery to me. Even more mysterious is why this sentence is allowed to exist: "Written, Directed, Produced and Edited by Kevin Smith." Smith has some pretty clever ideas for how to make boring white Jersey a little more exciting (which is the basis for all his plots and, I suppose, his motivation for the actt of filmmaking), but this script is a first draft that somebody else should have edited and rewritten, and that somebody else should have directed. Somebody with a feel for people as well as dialogue, with the ability to tell a story that doesn't rely on the moldiest cliches in the book as basic building blocks, and with some aptitude for the staging and rhythms of comedy (and, for God's sake, someone who knows what to do with actors). My suggestion? Betty Thomas might be available. She's consistently given shit scripts and making the most of them. You might say that she specializes in films that should, by all accounts, be total disasters (The Brady Bunch, Howard Stern's Private Parts, Dr. Dolittle, etc) and making them watchable, with a few very good moments thrown in here and there. Maybe someday she'll make a good movie, rather than a suprisingly not-bad one, but everything she does well is missing from Kevin Smith's repertoire. At the very least she could flesh out his half-baked characters on both sides of the gender line, could show him how to put together gags both obvious and subtle, could instruct his actors on how to give a humorous line reading, and could bring a few more distractions of her own to cover up the hulking inevitabilities of the eye-rolling story.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Dennis Cooper's Try

I recently reread Dennis Cooper's "Try," which I had once thought of as one of his weaker books. Cooper's extraordinary generosity as an artist is located mainly in his two continual projects: humanizing the vilest monsters imaginable and also humanizing their victims. What struck me this time around is the extraordinary catharthis Cooper manages to wring out of the most mundane of moments (mundane, and often also disgusting or horrific if uneventful). It's a wonderful book, with the Bressonian austerity he preaches fitting nicely with the hesitating, inarticulate muddle of his subjects' thoughts and voices. When needed, he musters up passages of extreme honesty and clarity that will knock you on your ass if you're not prepared for them. The cast is larger in this one, which I like, and with strong, compelling female characters, who I wanted to know more about - which is actually exactly what the narrative requires you to feel. The grueling parts of Cooper's work always reveal themselves to be more tragic than sensational once the shock wears off (I nearly cried during "The Sluts" despite the fact that its most affecting passages describe acts more repulsive than anything I could ever conceive of). And the tragic parts manage to contain some faint (or, occasionally, not so faint) glimmer of hope that I can never quite locate. It's the moments in which nothing is happening - miniature revelations that might not even register on a character's face - when the most stirring sentiments are unearthed.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Mission: Impossible

I watched Mission: Impossible the first last night while working. I think it's held up very well and it's remarkable how much Brian DePalma has stamped himself all over it - I mean, he does it in the same obvious ways he always does (and God bless him for it), but it certainly didn't seem so at the time. It seemed like another Untouchables/Casualties of War effort at quality, cold, impersonal quality. But in addition to a setpiece that hasn't lost an ounce of impact a decade later, it is such a Brian DePalma film. It isn't terribly smart - although we like DePalma for his brilliance, not his intelligence - but it does everything that he does and does them extremely well. I remember watching it in high school and being the only person who wasn't confused by the plot - not because I figured anything out, but because I'm DePalma's ideal audience member, registering the self-referentiality without holding it against him and granting him those leaps in logic ("leaps" perhaps being too mild a word) because I like being carried along a story like that. I just didn't pay attention to the parts that didn't make sense.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself comparing Tom Cruise to the cartoon characters in that Robert Zemeckis movie I avoided so vehemently, The Polar Express. The "Uncanny Valley" theory describes likenesses that come very close to reproducing the real thing, but of course aren't the real thing. CGI animators figured out early on that making the design and movements of characters too close to real human movements, is, well, pretty damn creepy. Tom Cruise is like that. He performs all the actions required of an actor/human being, but there's something about his performances, loud or emotive as they may be, that just isn't right. He's like an acting machine, with a hollowness that allows in neither bits and pieces of actual humanity, nor the stylized cartoonisms animators adapt to sidestep the valley. He creeps me out.

Monday, April 24, 2006


I've been spending a lot of time in coffee shops lately (there's no heat in my office; there is heat in Uptown Espresso). But South Lake Union is not Capitol Hill, and hipsters don't control the cd players in these parts. It was nice to get some Stevie Wonder, but a compilation that ended before "I Just Called to Say I Love You" would have been nicer. The main thing that got me thinking, though, was Moby. I listened to Moby's "Play" start to finish and absolutely loved it. I haven't listened to that album in years - somewhere along the way my enthusiasm waned, likely around the time the frat boy set caught on to it (and recommended it to me personally), but I wore that cd out for a year or more when it hit the stores. Moby has very few defenders nowadays. He went from underground favorite to giganto-star (electromusic's first real personality, in the TRL celebrity sense) - and with his weirdest record, although it's true this was grounded in more familiar American musical traditions than the Eurosleaze pop-techno of "Everything Is Wrong." And then, nothing. An album that nobody really seemed to like barely ventured higher than his still-selling previous album and some eye rolling sloganeering. Some B-Sides. Etc. If Moby was a rapper, he would have made the transition from music to sitcom/film by now.

But Moby, despite his once solid underground cred, has never been cool. (I do realize that that cred came more from clueless indie kids than the electronic crowd, by the way.) As techno gained steam in the nineties it did so with stomping, soaring rockingness, while Moby's forays into tuneless rawk never fooled anyone, his squishy synthesizers and swishy 3rd-gen pop r&b - what Pitchfork disses as "soda pop froth" - were not all that hard hitting. And his stuff that does hit pretty hard, like the awesome James Bond reworking, wasn't what made him popular. No, Moby became a superstar because he is the missing link between Brian Eno and Enya. He was destined to become unhip. His reputation was based on being brainy, but listening to his stuff now, it sounds pretty simple compared to the more cerebral electronic stylings that have networked their way into the indie consciousness one laptop at a time. And simple in a way that can never be mistaken for "minimalism" or "essentialism" or "neo-primitivism" (you can try to make that case if you want, but I've got three albums of sugary synths that say otherwise).

I liked Moby's other stuff, particularly a few tracks from the hit-and-miss "I Like to Score", the gently bumpy wallpaper of "Ambient" and the fast ones on "Everything Is Wrong." (His contribution to "Schoolhouse Rock Rocks" was pretty fun.) But "Play" was something else. A fun album that introduced the unitiated to that sort of sample-based composition, where Shadow & co. utilized found audio as the material for largely unrecognizable music, Moby was basically doing remixes. A thump here, a squirk there. But wholly reliant on the original recording. But he does it well, and the New Age-y cuts on the album, although they haven't aged as well, are just as good as "Honey" and "Run On."

Moby is pop, and he always has been pop. Seen as a mainstream popper injecting very unpop ideas into the realm of mass music (though perhaps not as effectively as Timbaland), he becomes infinitely more interesting. His best stuff - and his best stuff is when he's honest with himself about his poppish leanings - is hard to resist. He is, at base, a remix artist anyway. "Go" is basically a (brilliant) remix of the "Twin Peaks" theme. It's true that the ones he writes don't have the same heft, but he knows how to tweak. An album as purely pleasurable as "Play" is rare, and I'm guessing that it's all Moby will be remembered for. But I don't think it will ever get any less fun.