Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Ginger Shore, Causeway Inn, Tampa, Florida, Nov. 17, 1977," by Stephen Shore
"What he creates becomes an artwork only when it enters into open life."
--"Art and Revolution" (Richard Wagner, 1849; translated by William Ashton Ellis)

"No piece of art can depict feelings if a piece of reality is not included in it."
--Jean Fautrier

Friday, February 26, 2010

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #11 - 13

La Cienaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001)

The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, 2005)

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)

"I don’t like swimming pools, because I have the feeling that they are always dirty, like an infection."
--Lucrecia Martel

Van Damme's Face

Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Hard Corps (Sheldon Lettich, 2006; photographed by Doug Milsome)

Van Damme's face is brutal, a real moonscape. But that's alright. An action star doesn't have to age well. Wear and tear improves an action star. Who would believe that someone gets beaten up for a living if they don't look the part? From Schwarzenegger and Van Damme to Stallone to Statham, it's a gallery of odd physiognomies and funny voices. There's a reason that the pretty boys are always cast as the sidekicks and that the big American action heroes (who are rarely American) are short or have strange accents or speech impediments or weathered faces or gaps between their teeth or receding hairlines or scars.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Beauty of TV #1

Roza Rymbaeva peforms "Aliya" on Song of the Year '77

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #10

The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008)

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #9

Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Lav Diaz, 2002)

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #8

Taurus (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2001)

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #7

Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008; photographed by Joaquín Baca-Asay)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Van Damme's Gun

Second in Command (Simon Fellows, 2006; photographed by Doug Milsome)

One of the pleasures of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies is that, because the short, wiry Van Damme looks tougher without a gun than with one, he's the only action star to consistently run out of ammunition. While the screenwriters of most action movies have to come up with ways to keep their stars supplied with an infinite amount of ammo, scripting a Van Damme picture means coming up with a scenario in which he wouldn't be able to use a gun. That's easy enough for the movies where he plays kickboxers and martial artists, but when he's cast as a policeman or a soldier (which became more common in the mid-1990s and is now de rigueur for a Van Damme movie), it means that a gun has to be kicked out of his hand or he has to be a lousy shot or that there have to be so many enemies that one clip just isn't enough. To make Van Damme's toughness plausible, increasingly implausible situations must be invented.

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #6

Jean-Claude Van Damme in In Hell (Ringo Lam, 2003; photographed by John B. Aronson)

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #5

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, 2007; photographed by Reinier van Brummelen)

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #4

Speed Racer (Wachowski Brothers, 2008; animated by Aaron Becker & Roy Cullen)

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #3

In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003; photographed by Dion Beebe)

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #2

35 Rhums (Claire Denis, 2008; photographed by Agnes Godard)

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #1

The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chaplin's Heart

[excerpt from an unpublished interview with John Woo]

IGNATIY VISHNEVETSKY: I wanted to ask you about Chaplin. You made a film called Laughing Times, with Dean Shek...

JOHN WOO: [laughing] Oh, no...

VISHNEVETSKY: Well, I happen to really like it.

WOO: It's a copy!

VISHNEVETSKY: Well, the reason I wanted to talk you about his films is that, is that, though none of us nowadays live like The Tramp, somehow we all feel Chaplin. That seems like a model for what a filmmaker should aspire to.

WOO: I greatly admire Chaplin. I love his movies, and we all owe so much to him. I wish I could make movies like he did. When his movie starts, you know: "This is Chaplin!" We are not only watching a movie; we are watching Chaplin himself.

VISHNEVETSKY: His feelings come out through the images. He had so much sympathy for everyone. And the images are often horrifying: people going hungry, sleeping in alleys. But what comes through strongest in his silent films is hope.

WOO: That's why he's so great. that's why he's the master: his heart.
Legionnaire (Peter MacDonald, 1998; photographed by Doug Milsome)
"The discourse in moral development interviews is often processed and coded as though what was explicitly said were a complete representation of what was meant or being argued ... If discourse is to be the measure of moral understanding and reasoning, then we must be concerned not only with what said but also with what was presupposed, implied, suggested, or conveyed by what was said; and we need a theory of how meaning is constructed in discourse to help us go from what was said to what was meant."
--Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology (Richard A. Shweder, 1991)

"Indeed, our political and social beliefs and our moral standards carry with them an emotional tone that is not characteristic of our attitude toward physical objects; consequently, this emotional character infects our manner of conceiving and explaining them ... The very fact of submitting them, as well as the phenomena they represent, to cold, dry analysis, is revolting to certain minds. Whoever undertakes the study of morality objectively, and as an external reality, seems to these sensitive creatures to be devoid of all moral sense, just as the vivisectionist seems to the layman devoid of common sensibility."
--The Rules of the Sociological Method (Emile Durkheim, 1895; translated by Sarah A. Salovay & John H. Mueller)

"I have enough trouble as it is trying to say what I think I know."
--"First Love" (Samuel Beckett, 1970)
[Farzana Wahidy / AP Photo]

In Search of Lost Time

[notes written in 2009 around the release The Limits of Control]

1. "Who is Jim Jarmusch?"

For many, that's a troubling question, because Jarmusch is a director that everyone seems to know. It's been an accepted truth that there is a "Jarmusch style" and that his films are about the same very particular things. Like most accepted truths, it's total bullshit. Jarmusch might be liked by those who think his movies are uncomplicated and low-key, but he is admired by those that realize that they are complicated and adventurous: that Jarmusch is no more "outsiders" than Melville was "crime," no more "stillness" than Ophüls was "movement," no more dialogue than Chaplin was "silence." To say that Jarmusch is "consistent" denies how much ground he's managed to cover in the last 30 years. To think of him as a traditionalist denies how much new cinema and culture his films have embraced over the years.

2. There's this insidious notion that anyone who loves movies is a nostalgist. It's a descendant of that self-defeating idea that "cinema is dead." Or, more properly phrased, that "death" is something terminal, and that "cinema" refers to one particular thing. Jarmusch loves movies deeply--it is a love that grows out of a respect for mystery and not the sort of patronizing love that grows out of a belief that one understands something or someone.

He is a polyglot who remains distinctly American: however many counties and cultural traditions (especially cinematic ones) Jarmusch absorbs, every movie he makes is an American movie. Stranger Than Paradise may quote Ozu and The Limits of Control may quote Costa, but they are always being quoted in American English. His nationality is as inescapable as Sam Fuller’s; his country has always been his subject. It’s no surprise that he planned for years to make a biography critical of Andrew Jackson.

Jarmusch's films have always been about the present. Who Jim Jarmusch is as a director changes with every film he makes. Yes, it's possible to say who Jarmusch was and what he meant when he made Mystery Train or Broken Flowers. But let's follow Jarmusch's lead; let's focus on the present, on who Jarmusch is today. He's an accidental brand and a fairly popular anti-populist, but these have more to do with the mechanics of film distribution than with Jarmusch's own intentions. They've also had the beneficial effect of getting him funding. It's because of film festivals and the American indie boom of the late 20th century that a person like Jarmusch, who would've been making films on shoestrings (if at all) the 1960s, is able to make a movie every few years and get it into theaters.
"...everyone, young and old alike, who journeys to the New World is either openly or in secret a fortune-hunter, albeit that some are worse that others, and all such fortunes are made at the expense of the local people."
--A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Bartolomé de las Casas, 1542; translated by Nigel Griffin)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jamie Gillis (4/20/1943 - 2/19/2010)

Gillis in Water-Power (Shaun Costello, 1976)
[The following text was written for this blog by Joe Rubin, cinephile-about-town, film historian, archivist, programmer, and all-around good guy. Joe's current film series, The Golden Age of American Sexploitation: Forgotten Works from the Sexual Underground, is currently running at Doc Films at the University of Chicago. He is also introducing films as part of Cinefamily's The Art of Exploitation series at the Silent Theatre in Los Angeles.]

I sat for 30 minutes trying to think of a proper way to introduce a eulogy for perhaps the most important and transgressive actor ever to appear in hardcore or X-rated movies. I'm still stumped. It's hard to properly introduce a man whose acting career spans close to 500 leading and supporting roles in feature films and well over 1000 additional appearances in stags films between 1971 and the late 2000s. One of the lucky few sex film actors who was hired just as much for his acting abilities as his sexual prowess. A seemingly larger than life sexploitation demigod whose performances were often more complex and profound than would seem possible in the numerous and dull one-day-wonders he appeared in.

He was a favorite of both filmmakers and fellow actors. An always reliable and always dynamic performer who was behind some of the seminal roles in the annals of X-rated cinema. What other actor can boast a career which offered him opportunities to portray Dracula (twice), a character inspired by Henry Higgins from Shaw's Pygmalion, and, what is still his most notorious role, Burt the Enema Bandit? Gillis was up for anything: a notorious movie villain but a gentleman to all who knew him, because in the end, Jamie was just Jamie, a nice boy from New York City who studied theater and wanted to perform Shakespeare but ended up becoming a great American sex-symbol.

A favorite leading man of Shaun Costello, Gerard Damiano and Chuck Vincent, Gillis was typecast early on as either a sociopath or, at the very least, a lovable asshole, and he fell into the roles perfectly, portraying some of the darkest and most unnerving characters ever seen in X rated films. Often playing rapists, killers, or both, Gillis' performances were very subdued, making them all the more frightening. He possessed a cool and collected madness, reminiscent of Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. His monster was never a compulsive one, but an intelligent and brooding madman hiding under a cloak of normalcy and ready to jump into action at any moment. His portrayal of a manipulative, incestuous father in Jonas Middleton's Through the Looking Glass (1976) is still perhaps the most terrifying performance in the history of sex films.


When I found out about his death, it sounded almost ridiculous. How could Jamie Gillis, the great survivor who had virtually paved the road of sex films since the early 70s, a pioneer in so many areas, suddenly be gone? No one, except for a few very close friends, knew he was sick. He didn't want their pity or their grief. He didn't want their sadness. He wanted to go while people still saw him as strong, not as a withering body and a crushed soul. But he was gone and news of his passing traveled fast, perhaps faster than it should have. Within two hours of my finding out from one of his close friends and even before many of his former co-starts and directors had heard, through the "blessing" of technology his death had been plastered all over the Internet. It was simply incredible to behold. The calls started coming, the text messages, mass emails, and more. But these exchanges weren't vulgar attempts to find out gruesome details, share rumors, or dig dirt, they were outpourings of love and respect for the life and careers of one of the most prolific actors in the history of cinema. Since I'm equally bad at introductions and conclusions, I'll hand the reigns over to what filmmaker Carter Stevens said of Gillis: "There are five kinds of people in porn: heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, tri-sexuals and then there's Jamie Gillis." No compliment could have made him happier.

--Joe Rubin, 2/21/10

Youth in Action #4

There Will Be No Leave Today (Aleksandr Gordon & Andrei Tarkovsky, 1959)

Youth in Action #3

Le Pont de Mauves (Jacques Demy, 1944)

Youth in Action #2

Befrielsesbilleder (Lars von Trier, 1982)

[Remember the online hubbub around the premiere of Antichrist, because von Trier had dedicated the film to Tarkovsky? I think he meant it very seriously. After all, von Trier started as the world's greatest Andrei Tarkovsky imitator. Few forgeries have been as thorough as the green-tinted final section of Befrielsesbilleder (also known as Images of Liberation), a 51-minute film set during World War II that von Trier made in 1982. Only The Key to Reserva goes further.]

"I've Got You Under My Skin"

Gamer (Neveldine / Taylor, 2009)
"Those sick people ... from their outward appearance, they didn't seem to be in pain. Only they couldn't move, and even as we watched them they seemed to become faint ... But their minds were quite clear ... not like people who had severe burns or shock or other injuries. There was one man who asked me for help and everything he said was clear and normal ... He even told me how somebody robbed him of his wristwatch ... but in another three hours or so when I looked at him he was already dead."
--an anonymous electrician, interviewed in Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (Robert Jay Clifton, 1968)

"Why are there misfortunes in life? They are usually the retributions for one's own sins, but this was not so with me!"
--Six Record of a Floating Life (Shen Fu, 1809; translated by Leonard Pratt & Chiang Su-Hui)

"The horror of life mixed itself already in earliest youth with the heavenly sweetness of life..."
--Suspiria de Profundis (Thomas de Quincey, 1845)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Vincent D'Onofrio in Hotel Paradise (Nicolas Roeg, 1995)
Jeunesse et Spiritualite (Claude Chabrol, 1979)

2 Texts + 2 Interviews

"I think it's easier for me to believe in the Devil than in truly evil people. I believe in evil as a concept and I believe in evil as an influence. I don't know, though, if it's a characteristic that's firmly rooted in people. I think there are extremely fucked-up people in the world who'll always do the wrong thing whenever they get a chance, but it's still hard for me to call them evil. But that's an insult to people who have suffered at the hands of those people."
--Andrew Bujalski

"I've been thinking about evil for some time. I've been looking at my three films and thinking, 'How can the grotesque and the evil be more a part of the film?' I've been thinking about the idea of evil and the idea of the grotesque ... Not every plot can tolerate evil, but of course it exists."
--Ramin Bahrani
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)

On War (Bertrand Bonello, 2008)

By the Law (Lev Kuleshov, 1926)

Youth in Action #1

Opération 'Béton' (1954)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Brisseau & Courbet

[revised 2/20/10]

In an 1861 manifesto, Gustave Courbet wrote: "Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects. An object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of painting.” Let me pick apart those sentences.
  • “Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects.” Courbet is working during the fabled time when paintings are still largely paintings, when the image is not yet an image and is something that belongs to a physical object. Paintings are concrete and therefore painting is concrete. It is the act of making a physical object that carries the image of other physical objects.
  • “An object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of painting.” As the act of making physical images, painting is therefore bound to the physical. The painter creates an image by arranging and representing real things.
If, in 2010, Jean-Claude Brisseau were to write a manifesto, it would read: "Cinema is an essentially concrete art and consists only of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects. An object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of cinematography, though it can be suggested through cinema.” Let me pick apart my own sentences.
  • "Cinema is an essentially concrete art and consists only of the representation of real and existing things." Brisseau could never make an animated film. He is interested only in flesh-and-blood individuals engaging in acts.
  • "It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects. An object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of cinematography, though it can be suggested through cinema." Brisseau practices the most physical and forceful of languages: Fritz Language, which he speaks almost fluently. What he has learned from Lang, above all, is the way physical objects, properly arranged (whether through editing, or within the frame), can suggest the abstract. You can't photograph evil, but you can make it felt. In addition, Brisseau has discovered that you can't photograph sex, only people fucking. Like Courbet's fine ladies, slumped over in their beds, Brisseau's nudes are cold. It's as though he's thinking: "We can't feel the heat of a flame from an image, and therefore fire must become a symbol. A medium without sensation, temperature or smell has no place for sex, and therefore it too must become a symbol." And he uses that symbol every chance he gets.



Landru's Beard

I think all period films can be divided into two categories: those for which the actors grow out moustaches, and those in which they wear false ones.

Chabrol's Landru falls squarely into the false-moustache category. As Landru, Charles Denner wears the falsest of false beards. I can think of only one falser: the beard Jim Caviezel wears in The Final Cut, a beard so glaringly fake it makes you suspect that the movie is secretly an over-the-top farce and that Caviezel might yank it off any second if he thinks it'll get a good laugh from the audience. With his thick, fake eye-brows and heavy make-up, Denner looks like a waxwork. It reminds me of the make-up Christopher Walken wore in Heaven's Gate (which made him look like a drag king, like a woman doing her best impression of a frontiersman) or the old man who puts on a dandy’s mask to go out to the dance-halls in the first segment of Le Plaisir. Denner’s froggy voice sounds like a little boy imitating an adult, or maybe like Alpha 60.

When we talk about films, we tend to equate falseness with shoddiness. “The acting was unconvincing,” we say. Or, “the special effects were bad.” This is a little ironic, considering the fact that the image itself is always false. There's a function to falsehood. Cinema finds a function for everything. As there is an element of the fantastic that can only be accomplished by a certain adherence to reality (Louis Feulliade discovered that principle; Michel Gondry is the one that practices it most fervently nowadays), there's an emotional reality that can only be achieved through total falseness. A few examples out of an uncountable number: the detail-less rooms of Monsieur Verdoux (more on that one in a bit) and Der Verlorene; the cutaway sets of The Ladies Man, Tout va Bien, Absolute Beginners or The Life Aquatic; the mismatched dubbing of numerous Fassbinder, Antonioni and Rossellini films; the oversized walls of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Nightwatching; those inaccurate accents that take on lives of their own, veering into the abstract, the voices becoming instruments, like the Southern twangs of Robert De Niro in Cape Fear and Nicolas Cage in Con Air; Eugene Green’s imaginary lions and ogres, the way long spans of fictional time lapse in a single take in Doomed Love, the backdrops of Percival and The Lady and the Duke. The false often offers a more direct path to truth than the realistic.

[I’ve already mentioned one Wes Anderson film in this text, The Life Aquatic, and it’s difficult to write for very long about a perceived “falseness,” especially if you wanna talk about cinema at the present, without mentioning Anderson. The point of so-called “distanciation” is to bring the audience closer – for Brecht, to the idea, for Anderson, to the feeling. Anderson, with his storybook pictures, folds Brecht’s principles back in on themselves, using techniques devised to mitigate involvement to involve an audience. His films are earnest. They’re nearly naked in their emotion—genuinely naked, not merely nude like so much “confessional” fiction.]
Making Landru, Chabrol drew on the same nasty little story as Orson Welles did when he came up with the scenario for Monsieur Verdoux. The story is fairly simple: Henri Landru, born in 1869, was a petty fraudster who’d done a little time. World War I rolls around. The middle-aged Landru is running a resale shop. Maybe the money’s no good, maybe he just wants to be better off than he is. Either way, he starts putting personals ads in the paper, saying that he’s moderately well-off and looking to marry. Widows and spinsters answer the ads, and Landru strangles the wealthier ones once he gets hold of their savings. He burns them in his stove; 10 in all, plus a snot-nosed kid who knew too much.

The character of Verdoux can be described as Chaplin’s understanding of Landru. For Chaplin, Landru is a metaphor. It should be noted that, acting the part and directing himself, he makes no attempt at making his Verdoux resemble the historical Landru physically (Chaplin may be doing so out of personal vanity, but vanity has brought us many good things). He makes the character into the genteel gentleman his victims must’ve imagined him to be. Verdoux is “the dream of Landru,” much as Johnny Depp in Public Enemies is the dream of Dillinger more than a historical representation (the difference, though, is that Depp's Dillinger has dreamt himself, whereas Verdoux could only be dreamt up by the society he preys on—an ideal husband, father, murderer and convict).

The perverse truth about Denner’s make-up in Landru, though, is that Henri Landru really did look like a wax figure; he was a creepy, trollish little man. Denner’s Landru talks like a man pretending to be refined, whereas Verdoux is genuinely intelligent. Both Landru and Monsieur Verdoux are comedies, but whereas Chaplin’s targets don’t become obvious until the latter half of his film, the falseness of Denner’s Landru makes Chabrol’s target obvious from the first scenes. He is after all those who would believe a Landru.

In making a sympathetic killer, Chaplin makes the society around him seem ridiculous. In creating an utterly false killer, Denner and Chabrol turn the attack from satire to absolute farce. In Monsieur Verdoux, society seems to be on the wrong path. In Landru, it's a joke. Even the judges wear false moustaches.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"24 / 7, rockin' this metropolis..."

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints raised a pretty good question: is Dito Montiel a good director, or does he merely have good taste? After all, the man cast Robert Downey, Jr. as himself and had Eric Gautier photograph what's essentially a personal creation myth. Fighting makes the answer pretty clear: good director.

What makes a "good director" anyway? Well, you could say that a "good director" is the sort of person who creates his or her own definition of directing and fulfills all of its requirements. They may not have a definition of cinema, but they hold themselves accountable to their own conception of directing. With Montiel, a director's contribution to mise-en-scene and decoupage is observation. He knows what little details should be visible in the frame, and where the camera should be pointed to catch glimmers of city life. The actors may be pretending to be locals, but the director "knows the place." Its inconceivable that Montiel would make a film outside of New York, or that he'd write a script about people he didn't think were at least a little like him.

Like a lot of people I know who dig Fighting (and probably a lot more I don't), I'm kinda obsessed with its opening credits sequence. It's only about a minute long and real simple, just title cards, shots, cuts and a track with that one sick Delfonics beat. The voices are barely even rapping; really, they're just giving us the setting. It's got most of the film's virtues: economical bombast, a fine eye for cuts and an encyclopedic knowledge of its setting. All that's missing is Terrence Howard's performance, the best of his career, and the gentleness with which the movie handles its characters. In a little less than two dozen shots (some of them aerial, others B-roll footage shot on the streets while filming scenes that come later in the movie), we see a city progressing from daytime bustle to evening quiet to nighttime jazz to morning solidarity.

Broken Teeth

from The Harder They Fall (1956)

I got up early Monday morning and watched The Harder They Fall. When I put the DVD in, it was still dark. By the time Mike Lane, with his mouth full of metal, begged Humphrey Bogart to show him his envelope full of money in the back of a cab, it was light out. I missed the dawn, but that's what cinephiles do: we forsake all of nature's wonderful imagination to bask in the half-baked ideas of people we don't know. We pick human poverty over cosmic splendor.

The Harder They Fall is a pretty standard Schulberg story with pretty standard Phil Yordan dialogue, pretty standard Robson direction and pretty standard Bogart acting. It all works and that's usually enough, but this being Bogart's last movie, it's a bit of a letdown.

The fight scenes, however, are quick, brutal and beautiful, especially the way Lane, a big ol' lunkhead, cowers (the low angles make it seem like the cameraman's cowering, too). Something touching about seeing such a big man hide his face behind boxing gloves. It helps that he's over a foot taller than Bogart, too, and when he shrugs, towering over the little man -- a shrug that could really shake the Earth -- you can feel Bogart's intensity, just for a second, the sort of strength it takes for an actor to dominate the frame when confronted with a human mountain.

There's a scene where Bogart watches Joe Gibb on a Movieola. Gibb is playing "himself," maybe just telling the story of his life, mumbling incoherently about sleeping in his car and being robbed of his money by his manager. He made half a million, maybe more, in his life, and he hasn't seen a penny of it. Gibb, as bald and and fat and toothless as Syd Barrett. A man robbed of his accomplishments is a man robbed of dignity. And, more importantly, robbed of his voice. Gibb's teeth have been knocked out; Lane's mouth, at the end of the film, is wired shut because of a broken jaw. Injury has been added to insult: men who already have no say are now barely able to talk.