The PRI radio program Studio 360 had an interesting discussion this week of how foreign artists view America. Forget for a moment that Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without having fought in the civil war: the radio show takes Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier to task for making movies like Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, which comment on an abstract America even though von Trier has never been to the U.S.
Some of von Trier's comments:
Well the films I do show my American mythology, but of course it's based on all the films that I have seen, all the American films that I have seen, and their mythology.
But I think that the quality of somebody making a film about a place where this person has not been is that he somehow acts like a mirror. But certainly there have been a few films about Denmark, one about Hans Christian Anderson, I remember, where, you know, everything was wrong, and you can say, Who cares, it's a film about Hans Christian Anderson. But somehow that's interesting for me to see, also, because if that is the way my country is seen then it's, well, it's educational.
I'm raised to always question the power, you know, and for everybody in the world right now or maybe always, America is the Big Brother and the power, and so I thought it was logical to kind of go into the subject.
Then Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, responded to his comments:
When we were in Iran, actually, we also connected to America through its films. We [my students and children] were watching, constantly, the Marx brothers and Harold Lloyd and Casablanca alongside of Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen, you know. If a work of art is a great work of art, with a great artistic vision, it definitely represents the reality it comes from in a way that you might never— I mean you might live in America for 50 years and never get the experience that Johnny Guitar or Casablanca gives you.
Ever since George Bush used the word "evildoers," I've been thinking regularly of Robert Coover's 1977 novel The Public Burning. It's a tour de force of style and structure that combines American iconography with a dramatic, fanciful depiction of the week before the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Coover writes entire chapters in the voice of Vice President Richard Nixon who ponders his place in the world and the similarities between his life and Julius's. Uncle Sam is a living, breathing folk hero, a rootin' tootin' westerner, fightin' fer liberty and justice against the wily Phantom who's always trying to take the country down.
Coover's characterization of America's collective attitude is so accurate and vivid that it has permanently colored my impression of national politics.
Sunday night, most PBS stations will begin airing a 7-part series of new TV movies about the blues, presented by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese directed the first one, followed by the likes of Wim Wenders, Mike Figgis, and Clint Eastwood.
I'm not at all sure that these movies are a good overview of the blues, nor that they try to be. We'll have to see.
I do know that Scorsese has directed two good documentaries about movies: a three-part survey of American movies and an excellent, 4-hour survey of Italian movies. Earlier in his career he made two funny, tender documentaries about his parents (Italianamerican) and a friend (American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince). He also, of course, has made music an important part of his narrative features.
So dust off those rabbit ears and see what you think.
While I like the Economist as a way to keep up with world politics and business, I'm not usually a very big fan of their anonymous film criticism.
But I like the way their little review of Lost in Translation avoids pointlessly mentioning who Sofia Coppola's husband is and what movies he has made and instead focusses on some of her own previous work: she directed a "difficult to categorise" feature film debut, co-wrote her father's segment of New York Stories when she was a teen, and spent time in Tokyo as a clothing entrepreneur gathering inspiration and friends for Lost in Translation.
[UPDATE: Sorry, that was a bit of a backhanded compliment. What I meant, but didn't exactly say, was that I like how they put Coppola's movie into the context of her other work without referring to her celebrity spouse, as many lesser reviews have. Her work stands apart from his just fine. Today, a Google search for both her movie and her spouse turns up a staggering 29000 hits, compared to 36000 with her own name.]
(An aside: a friend recently laughed, in his blog, at the cover of the Economist showing a cactus giving the finger to the WTO. I wonder what he thinks of the moose in sunglasses on the current issue?)
Forbes has a new list of money makers. They love lists as much as Rolling Stone and People. This one is a list of the ten highest-earning fictional characters of last year.
What does that mean?
To qualify for our list, a property must be both "fictional" — not based on a real person — and a "character" in the sense of having made their debut in a narrative story, be it a book, a film or even a videogame. That excluded pure toys, like Barbie, who would have ranked third on our list with earnings of $3.6 billion in 2002.
You might guess Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter, and Frodo would rank pretty high, and you'd be right. But the character ranked number one was a surprise to me. (And when's the last time you saw Barbie described as "pure?")
The list is presented in a flakey slide show on the Forbes site. Click the graphic in the middle of the page that looks like an ad.
The comments that some critics have made about Woody Allen's latest movie sound like the business page excitement for a 5% gain in a stock that's still some 80% down for the decade. A sampling of the positive blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes shows that Anything Else looks best when compared to Allen's recent movies: "Allen's best movie in years," "a return to the Allen of old", "a very welcome sense that Allen is back on track," "throwback to Allen's heyday," "nice rebound," etc.
But David Denby writing in the New Yorker is thinking long-term: "Waiting for Woody Allen?s movies to return to form has become steady work. It doesn?t help very much to say that Anything Else is better than his last two feature films, Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending, because it?s still not very interesting."
Why do so many critics seem to have such an interest in tracking the minor ups and downs of Allen's career? I suppose because many of them believe that he's capable of much more, and they can't help looking for ways to explain his mediocre output or be hopeful for signs of recovery. His regular release schedule makes it easier to check his progress. Where most filmmakers lacking ideas might disappear for a time then spring back when we least expect it, Allen has managed to tread water.
Even Denby closes his review with this: "Woody Allen appears to be terrified of not working. But most of his recent movies lack the many, and the many different kinds of, good ideas that went into Bananas and Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives.?
I'm glad a few people are enjoying Anything Else, but it's already starting to slip from my memory. I sold a while back, you see.
While I have seen Demonlover, I haven't written a capsule for it. I don't think I could do the movie justice having only seen it once, but I will say that I liked the way it gradually dissolves the boundaries between the characters' work and private lives — or between fantasy and reality — much the way, in another of the director's movies, Maggie Cheung slinks around hotel hallways in her cat suit even when she isn't remaking Les Vampires.
So instead I refer you first to Jonathan Rosenbaum's capsule in the Chicago Reader. Then for further reading, check out Reverse Shot which is running a special issue on director Olivier Assayas that features eight (8) articles on Demonlover, including an interview. The issue also has several articles on his other movies.
American Splendor showed us how Harvey Pekar projects and replicates his neurotic image, but I suppose Woody Allen has been doing that for at least a decade, ever since he's gotten too old to play the part of the young romantic for even the most generous of audiences and hired other actors to step into his shoes. The only other option would be to make a different kind of movie. Jason Biggs is nominally the Young Woody in this movie, but he's not the only one who effects Allen's cadence and aesthetic. Biggs is constantly and increasingly exasperated, except when he gets to unwind with his friends who talk about Humphrey Bogart, Cole Porter, their therapists, and their failed marriages. Kids these days. These 21-year-old Allen clones give the movie an awkward, pinball rhythm when they're put together in the same room, often next to Allen himself, talking past each other with their stuttering comic timing, like a physics experiment about the conservation of nervous energy. Danny DeVito and Stockard Channing smooth the edges a little when they appear, but the movie is never quite funny enough to be so unbelievable. Christina Ricci alternates between lounging in a sheer t-shirt and panties in one scene and tucking the sheets up under her arms in the next, which I guess makes about as much sense as anything else these characters do. While the movie does have a few chuckles, it also feels like a familiar shrug, right down to the uninspired title.
A few movies I've been looking forward to, just because of who made them:
I saw Matchstick Men digitally projected (at AMC 1000 in San Francisco). It's the second movie I've seen that way — the first was the most recent Star Wars movie.
Digital projection has a few obvious benefits today: the picture is stable, no matter how long the movie has been playing; the sound and picture are crisp and clear; and the sound doesn't pop between reels.
The drawback: sometimes it's obvious that you're watching video, especially when there's text on the screen because you can see the jagged edges of the letters. For that reason, Matchstick Men looked better than Star Wars — it didn't have any titles during the movie to identify locations. Still, when the camera turns to a bright field, like the sky, the scan lines are obvious. It suddenly feels like you're watching a big-screen TV.
How about this: AMC 1000 didn't show ads before the movie. They did show six trailers, the AMC logo, and a "Don't add your own soundtrack" hush reel, all projected digitally, but they didn't show any commercials for TV shows, cars, or sugary liquids. Are the ads not yet available in digital format? Woo hoo!
Most of the frenzy over digital projection seems to have died down, but I imagine it's still coming. I'd like to think that the simpler distribution that digital projection allows could make it easier for the little guys to get their movies into more theaters, somehow.
Movies about con men usually have too little conning, and movies about people who twitch usually have too much twitching. I love to watch the con man's side of a telephone conversation or be a fly on the wall of a high-pressure sales office, but a few obsessive-compulsive tics go a long way. Ridley Scott finds a nice balance with Nicolas Cage as Roy, a neurotic "con artiste" in Matchstick Men. Cage is funny when he tries to convince people to give him his meds, but I'm always glad when he gets those meds and calms down. Sam Rockwell plays his hipper, messier partner Frank as if he's Chuck Barris, if Chuck Barris were a different sort of con man. They work in the late-morning glare of southern California where they lie to people who they think deserve it, carry bundles of cash in briefcases, and always choose the right eyeglasses for the job. Thrown into the middle of this odd mixture is a third element, a dollop of cuteness: a 14-year-old daughter that Cage didn't know he had. After Thirteen and Lost in Translation, Matchstick Men is the least serious in a string of recent movies about how adults relate to young women, even though the movie makes sure Cage learns a couple of lessons about life and pharmaceuticals before it's over. More enjoyable than those lessons is the way the disparate elements combine into some lightweight high jinks and the way a few moments of real suspense remind us that Ridley Scott knows what he's doing.
One of the biggest disappointments for me last year was Punch-Drunk Love. I had high hopes, not only because I like Paul Thomas Anderson's sense of style, and not only because he was coming off of a very large movie and aiming for something quieter, but also because it starred Adam Sandler.
Not that I'm a fan of Adam Sandler. I liked some of his bits on SNL, but I was looking forward to the movie because underneath many a good comedian is a certain amount of sadness or anger. Asking a comedian to play a serious role can be interesting, but asking him to play essentially the same character he always plays but in a more serious or thoughtful context can be fascinating.
Punch-Drunk Love has its moments, but the movie to see is Lost in Translation, the new movie by Sofia Coppola starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. With the two movies under her belt, Coppola has been very good at biting off just as much as she can chew. I can't wait to see the kinds of movies she's making in ten years.
Lost in Translation is a melancholy, even sad movie, but I think Bill Murray has never (never) been funnier.
Sofia Coppola's second movie, Lost in Translation, is a beautiful, melancholy meeting of souls starring Bill Murray as Bob, a successful actor past his prime, and Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte, a young woman still trying to find her way. They're separately in Tokyo, Bob for a whisky endorsement and Charlotte tagging along with her husband, a busy photographer. Bob spends his days shooting commercials, dryly mocking everything around him while Charlotte sits alone in her hotel room, taking in the 180-degree view as if she's suspended in a bubble above the world, hugging her knees with a restless craving for purpose.
Coppola, who not only directed but also wrote the original screenplay, taps into the natural strengths of these two actors which makes the characters enormously likable. While I'm not sure I'd call the movie a comedy, Murray's performance is among his funniest, composed of witty remarks that he tosses off just to amuse himself or maybe to make a girl laugh. Charlotte, when she's not curled into a ball in her hotel room, wanders quietly through the city, searching but not sure for what, observing people through the eyes of a philosophy major as she visits both a temple and an arcade where people act out roles in front of video screens. Coppola shows us these characters separately, allowing us to pick up their attitudes from the way they roam, from the way they notice things around them, similar to the way Claire Denis tells us about her characters in Friday Night, another movie about a chance meeting of isolated people in a vibrant city.
When Bob and Charlotte strike up a conversation in the hotel lounge, we realize that their views are not only compatible but maybe even the same, with Bob's just 30 years further along. They both feel gaping holes within, but where Charlotte responds with fear, Bob applies cynicism. They speak non sequiturs into telephones, but the loved ones on the other end, across the ocean, fail to decode the deep misgivings in the conversations. As a result, Bob and Charlotte find each other, and the highlights of the movie are their quiet conversations about life. Not grand, all-encompassing philosophies, but little bits of wisdom and emotion.
The movie builds some suspense around the question of whether these two will get together romantically, whether it would be forced or creepy if they did, whether their relationship would devolve into a pop musical montage involving cotton candy and merry-go-rounds or instead be punished by the movie gods who force them into a tearful separation. This is what I was wondering as their relationship developed, but more importantly I believe this is what the characters were wondering, too. Without saying it, they behave as if they understand their unusual situation and recognize the full weight of their every action, rare traits among funny or attractive people in movies. The ancillary characters tend toward caricature — I imagine that Coppola identifies with Charlotte, and that Murray identifies with his character, but I suspect that no one among the filmmakers quite has a handle on Bob's wife who we hear several times over the phone — but in some ways this works to the movie's advantage, giving Bob and Charlotte a tighter bond and bright crisp edges where characters outside the spotlight seem hazy.
Coppola presents a loving portrait of Tokyo, and the way Bob and Charlotte feel about each other is similar to the way a lot of people feel about a foreign city they visited at a certain point in their lives, especially if the visit made them reflective. Can you stay in that city forever? Sure, but most people don't. Too few movies feature funny, intelligent, scrupulous people having honest conversations. This is one of them.
The second in the Sundance series that I mentioned previously will hit participating theaters on September 19. It's a British movie called In This World about a couple of Afghan refugees heading to London. While it's certainly a step up from The Other Side of the Bed, it's a bit dry and doesn't have much to sink your teeth into.
I may be in the minority on this one (although Rotten Tomatoes has posted only 5 reviews as of today). See what you think.
I'm curious about the choices that have been made for this series, not only the films themselves but the cities, too (New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.). Most of these cities already have plenty of opportunities to see independent or foreign movies. I understand that the organizers probably wanted to pick places that had a proven market for such things, but if I were going to do a nationwide mini-festival, I think I'd pick some of the American towns that never get to see any movies that aren't in the box office top 10.
Don't give me the old "nobody there wants to see indie/subtitled movies" excuse. I think if you picked better movies and turned the series into a well-publicized local event, people would go.
What do I know?
I'm not usually swayed to see a movie just because of who's in it. But sometimes the casting seems so inspired that I admit to being a little curious. A few such movies are just around the corner:
Yes, I'm usually disappointed in the final result. Usually the high concept of a cool pairing doesn't carry the movie, but at least Lost in Translation has a few more things going for it. We'll see.
While it's not, as far as I can tell, an official "Movie Issue," the September 15th issue of The New Yorker has several articles of interest to movie watchers:
In This World is a movie that Michael Winterbottom made on a shoestring about a pair of Afghan refugees who set out for London from Pakistan to find a better life. The movie follows Jamal and Enayat, played by non-actors, through Iran, Turkey, Italy, and France, using digital cameras to capture real locations and events that it uses to augment its fictional story. The story is so worthwhile and relevant that I almost feel guilty for thinking that the movie is a little shallow. We learn very little about the places that Jamal and Enayat pass through, which is probably true of fleeing refugees, too, but we also don't get a sense of the life they're leaving in Pakistan. This is an important omission for narrative reasons because someone facing constant danger is probably constantly asking himself whether it's worth it, and we can only assume that it is because the two keep pressing on. But it's also an important omission because the value of a movie like this is that it can reveal lives that we're ignorant of. The Iranian movies of Samira Makhmalbaf and her father Mohsen cover similar ground with greater depth, but the best comparison I can think of is La Promesse, the Belgian movie by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne about the lives of immigrants and the people they rely on for food, shelter, work, and transportation. La Promesse paints a clear picture of the pressures applied to all of the people involved. In This World does have some chilling sequences, and both of the main characters are likable and expressive, but the story's potential is far greater than what the movie has accomplished.
Thirteen, Catherine Hardwicke's debut feature, is a vivid and moving story about the 4-month transformation of a young girl, Tracy, into a rebellious teen right before her mother's eyes. The catalyst for the transformation is Tracy's new friendship with Evie, the most notorious girl in school who introduces Tracy to the vices available to girls who want them. The three actresses, Evan Rachel Wood as Tracy, Holly Hunter as her mother, and Nikki Reed as Evie (who is also the movie's co-writer), are all excellent. Hardwicke's camera has the attention span and eye for detail of a teenage girl, but the pace of the montage slows as Tracy approaches her breaking point, a counter-intuitive technique that is especially effective late in the movie when the camera begins to tilt woozily. The climax plays without music as Hunter holds her daughter in a mother-grip that seems almost too real to watch.
Many scenes are microcosms that echo the story's larger themes, such as when the mother, a hair dresser, wants to confront her daughter but is stopped by an egg timer that requires her to tend reluctantly to a client's highlights. Through much of the movie, characters bounce around the interiors of small houses asking each other for privacy while pushing easily through doors that don't lock and gazing through windows that separate rooms, as if the family members are figuring out literally and figuratively when to pull away and when to cling.
At times I wondered why Evie's expert manipulation seemed to fit the plot so conveniently, and at times I wondered if the movie was pandering to fantasies about what wild teenage girls do when they're not supervised, stirring nearly every imaginable temptation into a titillating stew. The movie simplifies Tracy's emotional state by implying that her problems can be blamed almost completely on evil Evie and can swiftly be repaired by a tearful mother-daughter heart-to-heart in which the mother says exactly the right things. But to its credit, that final scene, which is played with absolute conviction by Hunter and Wood, shows the movie's integrity by acknowledging other elements that have contributed to Tracy's situation, which goes a long way toward eliminating doubts about the filmmaker's motives.
Leni Riefenstahl, a German director best known for making Nazi propaganda films in the 30s, died Monday night near Munich. All of the obituaries struggle to separate her artistry from her ideology as they summarize her tainted legacy.
It's not easy to subdivide a person, but it may be necessary if we want to take cinematic lessons from movies with putrid messages. Take a look at how Roger Ebert dealt with Birth of a Nation in his Great Movies series. Omitting it from his canon would be criminal, but so would be downplaying its embarrassing, racist distortions of history. He tackles them individually in part 1 and part 2.
When Bryan Curtis reviewed a Griffith DVD collection for Slate he essentially concluded that Griffith had no political aims of his own and was easily swayed by those around him. While it's not an apology for Griffith, this observation may be useful. Maybe it's easier to embrace a great director if we see him or her as wedded more to the cinema than to any particular ideology.
Michael Moore is a contemporary filmmaker who presents the same problems. It's becoming increasingly difficult for a film critic to discuss Moore's work without acknowledging his manipulative distortions. But celebrities shape their public personas via multiple media now more than they did in the days of Griffith and Riefenstahl, so we may be too close to the issues at hand to know how to characterize Moore's legacy. We'll probably have to leave that to someone farther down the road.
Bus 174 is a documentary about a June 2000 bus-jacking in Rio de Janeiro that escalated into a long, public standoff with police. When an armed man took control of a city bus in broad daylight, local news agencies swarmed, capturing nearly all of the incident on video tape. Documentarian José Padilha has shaped the large amount of footage into a clear and well-rounded retelling of what happened. It may sound like a special episode of Cops, but Bus 174 is far more inquisitive than a reality TV show. In the movie's opening minutes, Padilha uses aerial photography to look down on the city as a whole, and later he does the same thing figuratively, widening his gaze to draw attention to social problems in Rio of which the hijacking is just a single dramatic symptom. The movie detours from the hours-long standoff to ask all the right questions about urban violence, and it reveals details about the hijacker's life — and the lives of other young homeless people who were involved in a previous drive-by slaughter — to link the treatment of homeless children with the incident on bus 174. Padilha weaves all of this into a suspenseful narrative that manages to satisfy the rubbernecking instinct while still contributing to our understanding of the consequences of poverty. The dichotomy runs deep: while it faults police for allowing the standoff to become a media circus, the movie in its current form would not have been possible without all those cameras.
[Sorry, I have been unexpectedly incommunicado for a week or so due to some travel.]
I just wanted to drop a quick note to tell you to be on the lookout for a documentary called Bus 174. It should get a limited release in the US in mid-October.