Via Chicago14 August 2008
October 2003

Camp again. If enough movies and TV shows celebrate camp, we're going to need another term to describe them. There's the earnest source material. There's the camp attitude toward it. There's the re-creation of the source material informed by a camp attitude. What's the next step? When does irony become so passé that we we need to comment on it in our art rather than simply embody it?

And it was just a couple of years ago, as towers fell, that someone predicted the end of irony. Maybe they were right, but in the wrong direction.

The earnest source material of the moment comes from the 50s. For Far From Heaven Todd Haynes conjured Douglas Sirk, really truly communed with the dead, as far as I can tell, and the screwball comedy, the caper, and the romantic comedy have roared back, sometimes intact and sometimes through an impossibly thick ironic filter: Catch Me If You Can, Down with Love (which I blinked and missed), Kill Bill, Intolerable Cruelty, etc.

Bubba Ho-Tep combines the J.F.K. assassination and Elvis Presley into a monster movie, with mixed results, too few ideas to sustain a feature but a few great moments. But the question: what besides distance is needed for tragedy to become camp? Does it require some kind of cultural understanding, a common ground finally drained of emotion? Did it happen to the J.F.K. assassination somewhere between Oliver Stone's movie and the Seinfeld episode in which Keith Hernandez's spit hits Kramer and ricochets "back and to the left"? Will the events of 9/11 make the transition, or are some things too awful, too sacred, like the holocaust? Tell that to Mel Brooks who, if not exactly laughing about Nazis in The Producers is at least laughing at tastelessness based on the sacredness of the subject. Layers.

Finally, this week, it's Die Mommie Die. I haven't written a capsule for this one, but I refer you to Ebert's excellent analysis. I thought the movie was kind of funny but strangely un-surprising. Ebert puts his finger on it: it makes fun of movies of the 50s because they're out of date but doesn't recognize that this type of humor — a drag queen as the lead female character — is itself out of date. (I also agree with Ebert's comments about Sirk being subversive, but then lots of people do, I think.)

Blog entries about camp. What to call them. I'm reminded of Elvis's best line in Bubba Ho-Tep: "Hey man, why ya got me in here lookin at chicken scratches on the shithouse wall?"

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I will say this about the Sundance Film Series: they chose four very different movies. The most important was probably In This World and the most entertaining was probably Die Mommie Die.

But I've complained about the series more than I've praised it, and let me try to summarize why. Three reasons:

  1. The stated goals of the mini-festival don't seem to match the execution in any way (yet another intersection of movies and national politics).

    For example, if the goal is to bring the "festival circuit" to places that don't already have it, why does nearly every one of the ten cities hosting the Sundance event already have a major annual festival? or two? Ironically, Dopamine and Die Mommie Die had already played at festivals in San Francisco months before the Sundance series began. This may also have been the case in other cities.

    Yes, it's true that this time these movies played longer, and in regular multiplexes instead of art houses. Ah, so maybe the Sundance series reached a new set of people who may be ignoring movies that are already available to them. Well, if you're curious about how many people went to see these movies, in terms of dollars, look here, here, here, and here. The total is $257,144, excluding Die Mommie Die which opens today and the screens that may have shown Dopamine a few more times past Oct 26. Sundance estimated that the marketing budget was $10 to $15 million, much of which comes from the sponsors.

    Nevertheless, speaking at a recent preview screening, the head of the Sundance Channel said plans had begun for next year's event. Do you think they'll recoup their costs by selling DVDs? Nah. Do you think they'll recoup their costs by increasing the exposure of the Sundance brand? You bet.

  2. Maybe I was turned off when the first course came out of the kitchen, and although the menu made it sound mouth-watering, and the maitre d' kissed his fingertips and said, "Magnifique!" the chef obviously had not used the freshest of ingredients.

    Or maybe I was turned off by what seemed to be an appeal to the admiration that "independent" movies still enjoy, a warm, comforting, vague, surface-level acknowledgment of artistry. I don't mind Sundance doing an end-run around the studios, distributing movies to theaters, DVD, and their cable channel, but I'd be a lot happier about it if this new studio proved its differences by picking good, unsung movies. Instead, the new distribution method brought us movies that ranged from terrible to inconsequential (I'd throw a "well-meaning" in there for one of them).

    Not to worry, it was all dressed up in the costume of independent film. We saw a 60-second, MTV-style clip of the director talking before each movie. We heard Robert Redford say a few sentences about the Sundance desire for small voices to be heard. And we saw ads with an indie-film theme. Aren't we lucky.

  3. Oh yes, the ads. The initial word was that the Sundance folks, because they had special control over the exhibition, would improve the experience by deleting a lot of the junk that runs before most movies.

    They did delete some minutes. But what they deleted were the trailers for competing films, the only part of the pre-show material that most people are interested in. They had just as many ads for Coke and Entertainment Weekly as anybody else. And we got to watch an NYU student stand there and introduce his Coke advertisement, seemingly without embarrassment, as "my film."

Choice in movies is good, but most people in the US don't have much, although they can choose not to go. If a movie is not (expected to be) in the top 10 by gross, nationwide, it doesn't play in Springfield, MO, or Ft. Wayne, IN. Those are the places that seem ripe for the staging of a true and honest attempt to expand the festival experience beyond its urban niche.

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Today's Guardian includes an article by David Mamet, who I mentioned just yesterday, about the movies. Or is it about politics?

In the article, Mamet predicts the death of the theater. The movie theater, that is. You need only follow American politics to arrive at this conclusion, he says (but with bigger and better words). Releasing movies in theaters leaves far too much power in the hands of the public:

[The wise captain of the studio] who will scrupulously observe and boldly reason will perceive that he need not take defeat from the recalcitrant droves, any more than the wise politician need fear an obstreperous electorate. The studios will note that — as in politics — vertical integration is the clear, essential, and sole answer to audience control. For the Droves have a choice at the box office, but they have no choice at home on the couch.

Studios will, therefore, opt for beaming things into your home where they have more control over packaging. Curious.

(Note that yesterday I uncharacteristically posted three items in a single day — about 1) David Mamet, 2) kids being raised on TV, and 3) the unexamined issues of the California recall election — in this blog that is mostly about 4) the movies. Then today, on Halloween, The Guardian manages to combine all four in a single article. I'm trying hard to consider this a coincidence, but I keep leaning toward the other possibility: that I alone control the universe. Fear me.)

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This is the sort of thing that should make people who live in California angry. We just had a special election that revolved mostly around budget problems. As a result, we the people threw the current governor out of office before his term was up, as the state constitution says we can. That's a pretty big deal.

And state politics don't normally get much play in national news, but this thing was everywhere.

So, did all of this media attention sharpen the debate, or did the major players just parade a spectacle of hollering people past the cameras? Was this another example of advocacy-over-analysis, the sort that James Tata (quoting Edward Tufte) has written about in his blog (October 17)?

California residents should take a moment to read this well-researched piece on Spinsanity and marvel at the profound failure of analysts in this debate.

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Although he has said off the cuff that he's "kind of retired from the theater," David Mamet has written a new play, Dr. Faustus. He'll direct its debut at San Francisco's intimate Magic Theatre in February and March of 2004. Tickets go on sale December 1.

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The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has released the results of a new study, based on a national survey, that seems to show media becoming a major part of our lives very early, before the age of 2.

While the study doesn't have answers about what too much TV at a young age does to people, it does have some startling statistics: children six years and under spend an average of 2 hours a day with "screen media" (TV, video, computers, video games), compared to 39 minutes reading or being read to; one in four children under two has a TV in his or her bedroom; and kids with a TV in their rooms or living in households with "heavy" TV viewing read less than kids who don't, although it may not be a causal relationship.

The link above goes directly to the Kaiser Foundation, and today's New York Times has an article about it, focusing on the rise of videos for kids, videos with smart names like "Baby Einstein," "Brainy Baby," and "Baby Genius."

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Some of the movies that played in theaters in the US this year that have vengeance as a major theme:

The Son (potential always lurking), Divine Intervention, Bus 174, Dogville, Stevie, Mystic River, Dog Days (the woman blamed for the vandalism), Intolerable Cruelty, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and Runaway Jury.

And perhaps also

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, City of God, Bad Boys II, The Matrix Reloaded, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Anything Else (figures prominently in the movie's funniest scene, about a car and a crowbar)

where vengeance drives some of the action.

This list is far from complete.

A movie about vengeance isn't inherently bad — The Son, for example, remains one of my favorites of the year — but look at how important the topic seems to be. A similar list could be constructed out of speeches by national politicians, where vengeance is surrounded by its relatives, justice and security.

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When we said recently that the fingers of film critics who take notes during screenings should be removed, one per infraction, a number of people mistakenly labeled this as a call for vengeance. We're not a vengeful web site. We seek only justice. Some critics recount far too many details, more than the capacity of typical brains, owing to chicken scratches in the dark. Did we say justice? No, sorry, not justice. Anti-piracy. No, security. Yes yes, this is strictly for security reasons. Critics wear itchy jackets. Everyone knows it. They raise their shoulders and roll their heads to sooth tweed-abraded necks. They raise their elbows. They crack their bones. They thrust their arms out at reel changes. They're accustomed to sparsely attended press screenings. They forget the regular movie-goer seated in the next seat who gets a finger in the cheek. And the one with a knuckle in his peanut butter cup. Lop the scribblers' digits off at their diamond encrusted rings, we say, for you and for me and for generations to come.
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Everyone's praising Mystic River, but I'm always suspicious when the first and foremost thing that people like about a movie is its acting, with a capital ack. Jonathan Rosenbaum goes much deeper than that in a new long review in the Chicago Reader, tying the movie to a thirst for vengeance in America.

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Several other blogs have mentioned Columbia Tristar's shoddy DVD release of the great Satyajit Ray movie Pather Panchali, the first movie in Ray's Apu trilogy. The movie's realism and the way it gently shows the encroachment of progress into poor, rural India will look familiar to fans of Abbas Kiarostami, who seems to have picked up Ray's baton in Iran.

For news on the disappointing DVD release, see Masters of Cinema, and for good commentary see Doug Cummings' comments on filmjourney and Darren Hughes' on Long Pauses.

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2002, Germany
directors: Angela Christlieb, Stephen Kijak

Cinemania is a funny but condescending documentary about half a dozen very hardcore film buffs who live in New York, or rather in the theaters of New York, since their days are spent watching 3, 4, or 5 movies a day, every day. For a film fan, part of the fun of watching Cinemania is seeing aspects of yourself in these people, magnified. I too have wanted to take the popcorn from someone's hands and throw it to the ground, or call the projection booth from my seat to demand that a problem be fixed without my having to get up and miss some of the movie, or write a computer program to help manage a film festival schedule. But I haven't needed such a program on a daily basis, which is the point of the movie: you, the viewer, are normal in comparison to these freaks, so sit back and be smug.

We learn next to nothing about these people's histories. The movie consists almost entirely of interviews with the buffs as they wait for movies to start or rummage through stacks of film paraphernalia in their claustrophobic Manhattan flats. But the movie cuts them off in the middle of a thought if the fragment is sufficiently goofy. One guy — whose list of favorite directors in his personal ad is pretty close to my own — reads his business card aloud: "writer and philosopher." Then he says that some people say his card is pretentious, as if he's about to respond to that allegation, but the movie cuts him off there, because the purpose of the movie is to validate our feelings about the guy, to assure us that, yes, he's pretentious. Full stop.

Cinemania includes footage of some of the buffs watching an early cut of the movie in a screening room — a possible allusion to Chronicle of a Summer by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin — but if the idea is to be a bit more balanced and give them an overdue chance to respond, the sentiment is undercut by showing us all of their geeky responses to the screening process, cut together with their complaints about video and the nature of art which are meant to seem extreme. Ironically, the movie is a perfect example of one of digital video's problems: the equipment is so small that documentarians forget decades of lessons about where to place a camera, how to hold it still, and how to keep from looking up the subject's nose. The most articulate and introspective of the buffs is Jack, and the movie appears more intelligent than it is simply by allowing him to string together a few unbroken sentences here and there. I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't make me laugh, but it's cheap entertainment that plants nary a thought in my head.

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2003, U.S.
director: Gary Fleder

Runaway Jury might look like a typical courtroom drama, but it's not. It's based on a John Grisham novel, but it's not the kind of movie in which the good and noble lawyer stays up late trying to crack the secret to his case on the night before the big cross-examination, poring over documents, clapping his hands in a flash of insight, then reducing his witness to a smoldering heap with the Best Speech Of His Career, thus saving the day. No, this movie isn't much interested in the details of the case; it's interested in the jury's decision afterward. But it also doesn't care about straightforward jury deliberations. No, this is Twelve Angry Men for the cynical 21st century, where lawyers are puppets, verdicts are tradable commodities, and jurors are pawns of forces they don't even know exist. Runaway Jury is a power struggle within the tightly confined spaces of the New Orleans French Quarter, quick and smart and expertly balanced.

Several movies this year have focused on con-men, but where Matchstick Men and Intolerable Cruelty each become enamored with a single con and then sit back to bask in its cleverness, Runaway Jury sustains its energy by piling con upon con and power shift upon power shift. This movie could have become a cat and mouse game where the mouse tries to figure out who the cat is for most of the movie, but this mouse figures that out pretty quickly, in the simplest way — someone taps someone else on the hand — and he moves on from there. This also isn't the kind of movie where the person pulling the strings speaks witticisms into a telephone while the manipulated party scrambles to trace the call. No, this manipulated party hangs up the phone and pulls some strings of his or her own, forcing the other side to make a move in response. These characters do gives speeches and trace calls, but they know that such opening salvos won't sink the opponent's ship.

The pace of the editing is too fast for my tastes, but as long as the characters are thinking just as quickly, I can tolerate it. I do wonder why someone would bother to play both sides in this case when blackmailing just the rich side would have been simpler. The only explanations I've come up with are that "simpler" is not what these filmmakers were going for and playing both sides gives Dustin Hoffman's character a chance to grandstand. The movie turns surprisingly sentimental in the end and takes a preachy stance on gun control that spoils a little of the fun, and Hoffman, despite having a great argument with Gene Hackman, is a bit too Southern-fried-folksy most of the time. But the movie's real momentum is driven by characters using their wits, which I like quite a bit.

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2001, Austria
director: Ulrich Seidl

Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days uses abuse as a metaphor for modern culture and is a very difficult movie to watch as a result. It follows half a dozen people going about their daily routines in a suburb of Vienna, cross-cutting between them in the style of Robert Altman. In the dog days of August, a man goes door-to-door selling electronic security systems and describing ugly scenarios to the owners of guard dogs. An elderly man whose life seems like a ritual of the mundane weighs his food purchases in a pantry the size of a small convenience store, making sure the contents of the containers match their labels, thereby detecting when he's been overcharged for his dog food. A woman who hitchhikes around town just to talk to people, ask them questions, and go through their belongings, becomes one of the common elements tying the people together. Much of her dialog is made up of jingles and advertising slogans, as if she's a personification of those sound bites sprinkled throughout Don Delillo's novel White Noise.

Although the movie takes place in Austria, this town could be just about anywhere in the modern world, as long as it's suburbia; the movie's skeleton consists of the containers of life — homes and cars — separated by open spaces. Seidl has an obvious talent for visual rhymes, apparent in the movie's recurring images of prone, sagging sunbathers, shoes crunching across gravel driveways, and metal shades sliding down over windows, sealing the people inside. The residents of this town eat, drink, sleep, converse, and have sex in automobiles, but they pace edgily around their white, secure houses. Some of Seidl's framing and the cold interactions of his characters seem influenced by Stanley Kubrick. One jealous man, sharing a house but little else with his wife, bounces a racquetball off of the walls of his home like Jack Nicholson did in The Shining, although here, rather than being large and empty, the space is tight and confined, but the character is no less of a coiled spring. The harsh sunlight and cultural noise is reminiscent of Todd Haynes' Safe, which is itself indebted to Kubrick's crisp lines and clean interiors.

The movie begins with a sure and steady hand, but these tales of suburban malaise are merely the benign starting points for Dog Days which moves quickly into Blue Velvet territory and beyond, exposing the disgusting secrets that supposedly lie beneath tract neighborhoods and spending more and more time on its stories of beaten and humiliated women. As it progresses — or degenerates — the movie begins to lose its form, relies more on a handheld camera, and eventually abandons most of its editing rhythm.

In one scene late in the movie, a man forces a woman at gunpoint to demand apologies from her abuser. This guy, it must be said, also participated in the abuse and then showed up at the bruised woman's door the next morning spouting apologies and confessing a fascination with the awful things that people can do to each other. Seidl is no doubt aware of the similarities between this character and his movie, but I can't find much comfort in that. Like the character, his movie paints these men as demons and does not flinch from showing the unflattering flesh of the morning after, but the movie is certainly a participant in the affair, and it increasingly does little more than parade one awful thing after another past the camera. Movies with interwoven story lines often seem to stretch for ways to braid their threads. The unifying element that Seidl uses for Dog Days is a hideousness that might be easier to stomach if its use as a metaphor outweighed its use as a mere plot device.

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Karen Wilson over at Cinecultist has posted a dissenting opinion of Kill Bill, and not because of the movie's violence. Here's a snippet:

In QT's world we can never be as cool as him, as quick as him, or as in the know as him to "get" all he throws at us. Sure, the thing looks slick and there's moments that are truly lovely in their brutality but if [Cinecultist] wanted to be talked down to, we wouldn't ask for it from a pop flick, a self-avowed paean to grind house movies.

David Denby mentioned something similar in his New Yorker review:

It will doubtless cause enormous excitement among the kind of pop archivists for whom the merest reference to a Run Run Shaw kung-fu picture from 1977 is deliciously naughty — a frisson de schlock that, for them, replaces any other vital response to a movie.

I can understand both of these points of view. On the other hand, I liked the movie, and I'd never heard of Run Run Shaw before. So I wonder what about the movie appeals to me? Do you think it's a desire to be a part of Tarantino's exclusive club? That I felt like watching the movie was giving me an education in obscure cinema? If I'd run home from the theater to look up Shaw-Scope then I could pretend I knew all along what Tarantino was referring to.

Except I didn't do that, and I don't have much of an interest in old kung-fu movies.

In 1964 Susan Sontag wrote a famous essay for Partisan Review in which she tried to define this thing we call "camp." I'd heard about the essay but read it for the first time last night. Despite being 40 years old, it's still surprisingly accurate and relevant.

Kill Bill isn't itself camp, but it celebrates it. Watching the movie is like sitting around with friends in the living room watching old, nutty TV shows, like someone has taken the funniest, campiest moments from those shows and spliced them together. As Karen at Cinecultist says, "Tarantino's originality lies in his ordering of reference." How should we respond to celebrations of camp? The movie's attitude is an example of what Sontag was trying to define. She says:

The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious." One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.

One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that "sincerity" is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.

The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness — irony, satire — seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.

Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment....

Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century's surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.

The dandy was overbred. His posture was disdain, or else ennui. He sought rare sensations, undefiled by mass appreciation. (Models: Des Esseintes in Huysmans' ? Rebours, Marius the Epicurean, Val?ry's Monsieur Teste.) He was dedicated to "good taste."

The connoisseur of Camp has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses. Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp — Dandyism in the age of mass culture — makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

I believe my enjoyment of the movie comes simply from its aesthetics, the way it surprises me in ways that action movies usually don't. I'm pretty indifferent to the allusions. I'm aware of them, but I don't get most of them, and I don't necessarily feel condescended to. Somehow the glow that those allusions give off, the spirit of camp, rather than making me feel like an outsider is inclusively giddy.

My reservations about the movie, then, are that I feel like Tarantino's ultimate goal is to enshrine his favorite moments from B-movies and perhaps appear cool as a result, which seems like a waste of talent. As Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his capsule of Pulp Fiction, which is surprisingly applicable to Kill Bill, Tarantino's goal seems to be "to evict real life and real people from the art film and replace them with generic teases and assorted homages, infused with hype and attitude, building a veritable monument to the viewer's supposed connoisseurship."

In some sense, rather than being exclusionary, Tarantino's movies are packaging camp and taking it to the masses, with him as our all-knowing leader, of course, waving the flag up front but not laughing at us.

Finally, as a counterexample, take a look at Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog. It's a movie about gangsters, modern day samurai, and it makes references to other movies, to literature, and to our use of cultural touchstones for communication — look at how Pearline and Ghost Dog sit on a park bench and talk about novels both trashy and classic — but the movie also gives viewers lots to think about as it draws its metaphors for multiculturalism, globalization, and feminism, and I don't mean the kind of faux-feminism of girl fights. You don't have to get Jarmusch's references to Jean-Pierre Melville or Akira Kurosawa to take something away from the theater.

I don't mean that Kill Bill needs to be Ghost Dog, because I get a different kind of charge there. I'd just like to see Tarantino one day train that sense of visual and musical collage and that ear for cultural communication on a more deserving subject.

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Despite having seen the trailer for the new Peter Weir/Russell Crowe movie half a dozen times, I can't remember the full title. It's huge. Master and Commander: The Far Distant Possibility That Anyone Will Read Let Alone Remember This Title. I think this is a requirement of boat movies this year, that their titles have at least twelve syllables and one colon. (I'd like to see Russell Crowe base his character on a combination of Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew like Johnny Depp did. Wait, no I wouldn't.)

But here's the part that makes me chuckle every time I see it flash by at the end of the trailer. The URL for the movie's official site is the full title of the movie, minus the spaces and punctuation, wedged tightly between "www." and ".com" on either end.

I didn't include a link to the site here, because I wanted to see if you'd type it out all by yourself, just to see some animation of boats dissolving with a close-up of a concerned-looking ship captain, or whatever might be there. Not going to? Didn't think so. Me neither.

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Pretend that you owe me nothing
(Tom Waits, "All The World is Green," Blood Money)
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Is it odd that two movies opening in multiplexes across the country this weekend have Jean-Luc Godard film titles prominently placed in their opening credits? Intolerable Cruelty is an Alphaville Films movie, and Kill Bill is of course from Tarantino's production company, A Band Apart (aka Band à part).

In A Decade Under The Influence, a recent documentary about the probably over-discussed period in the 70s when mavericks took over the American movie studios, half of those mavericks cite Godard as a huge influence. Scorsese added that they were impressed by the French New Wave... but were of course American, not French, which might as well be a summation of Mean Streets. Those bedroom scenes are straight from Breathless (or The Little Soldier, or Contempt, or...), but the characters are straight from the streets of New York.

My question, I guess, is why are Godard's fingerprints on celluloid everywhere, but he might as well be dead as far as anyone here can tell? He released a movie in the U.S. last year that was all-but-ignored, and it had wider distribution than any other movie he's made in years. Yes, he has made other movies. I know, he killed his own career by becoming increasingly uncommercial, but surely he's still worth paying attention to.

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2003, U.S.
director: Quentin Tarantino

Kill Bill is a martial arts movie in which beautiful women battle to the death. They wield swords, knives, chains, tables, and heads of people, but mostly swords, and Quentin Tarantino no doubt identifies with their manic determination and willingness to use whatever weapons are within reach. He obviously still considers this medium to be his playground, and Kill Bill is all the more thrilling for it. Every turn holds a little surprise, but the movie still follows the conventions of its genre, which is another way of saying that Tarantino has found new ways to tell old stories, no small feat.

The movie is a basic revenge tale, the kind in which the hero must defeat a hierarchy of minions before she takes out the boss, whose name is — I don't think I'm giving anything away — Bill. The story develops in chapters that seem at times so disconnected and out of sequence that the movie risks becoming bogged down by tangents. But once it gets going, as it does when Uma Thurman meets up with Lucy Liu, Tarantino lets the events play out at full speed without interrupting them, and although he keeps altering the landscape of this set piece — changing musical styles every few minutes, switching to black and white at one point, and killing the lights so that sword fighters become black silhouettes against an abstract blue grid — the components interlock like jigsaw puzzle pieces, fitting together so tightly that the momentum carries a sequence that must be nearly an hour but feels like 15 minutes.

The opening credits say that the the movie's original music was written by The RZA, the same artist who wrote the trancelike score for Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog, but it's hard to tell which of the songs in Kill Bill were pulled from B-movie soundtracks and which were created recently with the same groovy-retro sensibilities. This is also true of the movie as a whole. Tarantino puts elements of modern culture and his favorite movies into a blender, leaves the lid off, and ends up in a room full of bloody limbs and broken furniture, the floor writhing and moaning like a civil war battlefield. From the movie's first seconds, Tarantino tinkers with things that we take for granted, like the opening credits. He puts numbers next to certain names, the significance of which is revealed in due time. (Even his own credit is numbered: "The 4th Film by Quentin Tarantino.") He continues to play with text on the screen throughout the movie, partly for fun, partly as a nod to Jean-Luc Godard, and partly to help us sort out who is who and when is when.

Several movies in recent years have featured beautiful women fighting, but Kill Bill stands apart from these. Charlie's Angels is mostly interested in silly jokes, whereas Kill Bill's humor is deadpan and spare. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is interested in beauty — of natural settings and choreographed violence — and it's unfair to say that Kill Bill is not beautiful, because it is, but it finds most of its beauty — and indeed most of its humor — in broken bodies spurting fluid. The movie's most violent sequences are stylistically self-conscious, switching suddenly to animation or black and white just before a black mist sprays from every wound.

The image that dominates the movie from beginning to end is Uma Thurman's wide-eyed, often bloodied face framed by matted, shoulder-length hair. Thurman is just perfect as a fighter with a rational brain but an unforgiving heart. Her code name is Black Mamba, but her real name is bleeped every time it's uttered, a wink that recalls the moment in Hitchcock's North by Northwest when a roaring plane engine obscures seemingly important dialog. This creates an odd kind of suspense, because we assume that her name will be meaningful one day, but even if it's not, this flourish elevates the character to mythical status by giving her a name we aren't allowed to hear.

One of Tarantino's strengths is his ear for crackling dialog, but he doesn't use it here, doesn't even try. Then again, this movie doesn't rely on dialog like his other movies do. Here, Tarantino is working with one hand severed behind his back. I still miss his wit, however, because without his words, his humor feels a little less assured. One character has a truck with a funny name painted on it, and we see the funny name 4 or 5 times; in previous movies Tarantino would have been confident enough to tell a joke only once. More interesting than the jokes, which are few, is the recurring, disturbing motif of the creation of assassins, a cycle presented almost in its entirety: pre-assassin little girls, girls who experience violent trauma, girls who seek justice for the trauma, adolescent girls mentored by assassins, and finally assassins as mothers, or nearly mothers. It's the same sort of origin story required for super heros, further enhancing the mythical aura around any character caught in the never-ending swirl of revenge.

Much has been made of the fact that Miramax's Harvey Weinstein unsheathed his own sword and chopped this long movie into two pieces, volumes 1 and 2. Volume 1 feels incomplete but still satisfying; Tarantino's Lego-like plot was probably pretty easy to cleave. One day maybe Tarantino will get tired of the blood and make a serious movie about real people, but for now this prismatic curio stands, by many measures, as his most accomplished work.

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2003, U.S.
director: Clint Eastwood

Mystic River, the new movie directed by Clint Eastwood, is the kind of big Hollywood mystery in which you find famous people around every bend, brandishing accents as thick as the veins in their necks. The story revolves around three childhood friends, now adults living in Boston. A murder unsettles their neighborhood and stirs up some not-so-deeply buried memories for the men, setting into motion events that they seem to have been expecting for ages.

This somber movie is filled with fine actors — such as Tim Robbins whose face actually seems longer than usual and Sean Penn who looks like he's been wearing bifocals for years, although he does so here only briefly — but I was always glad when the story turned back to Kevin Bacon, the detective investigating the murder. He has a calming effect in this movie, mostly because he's not often called upon for gnashing of teeth but merely the steady uncovering of clues with his partner Laurence Fishburne.

The childhood friends have drifted apart as adults. They have plenty of opportunities to get reacquainted, and they do talk to each other, but they sometimes don't seem to be interacting so much as emoting, which may be more a fault of the filmmakers than the actors. There's a quiet scene where Bacon and Fishburne are talking to Penn, and near the end of their conversation, a brief, inconsequential shot of Laura Linney, who plays Penn's wife, startled me because I'd completely forgotten she was in the room. The movie seldom stays in one location long enough for us to become acclimated, which means we only get the high points of each conversation, not the still moments between them, which may in turn be the reason the neighborhood seems so tightly wound.

I'm also uncomfortable with the implication that all you need to know about a character is the one thing that happened to him as a boy, the one event that defined him for life, as if a person can be explained so simply. The movie doesn't tell us that these men have been programmed, definitively and deterministically, by a single event, since the three boys have gone in three directions, but instead of assuming the men were shaped by many events, the movie presents them as repelled from the same explosive point in history. I understand that this is crucial to the characters' fatalism, and to the movie's subtheme about roads not taken, but that doesn't make it any more true to life.

The climax of the movie is moving, tragic, and somehow expected, but the coda that comes out of it is something of a curiosity. If we take it in the same tone as the rest of the movie, a number of characters seem to flip-flop: from neutral to nefarious, from inquisitive to passive, and from AWOL to present-and-accounted-for. Some of these problems may be the result of character underdevelopment, something that can happen when a novel is adapted into a movie. (I haven't read the book.) But I suspect that the filmmakers' fatalism — which is distinct from that of the characters' but no less powerful — drives the need to arrive at an unearned conclusion, a beautiful structure that doesn't come naturally out of the characters as we've seen them developed.

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2003, United States
director: Nathaniel Kahn

In The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, a documentary released in 2000, Aiyana Elliott tells the life story of her folk-singing father, Jack Elliott, and when she wishes aloud that her father had done more parenting than rambling, the musicians from Jack's past say, well, yes but then we wouldn't have the music of Ramblin' Jack and might not have the music of Bob Dylan. In My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn seems to be searching for someone who will say something similar about his father, architect Louis Kahn, but the hypothetical scenario is more complex in Kahn's tale. As an illegitimate child, he wouldn't exist if his father had been a more traditional family man. Lou, as his son calls him, was an architect who slept on a roll of carpet in his office, easily lost track of whether it was night or day, and juggled three simultaneous families, with at least a child each. The first time Lou's progeny met was at his funeral in 1974.

Nathaniel is the youngest child — he was eleven when his father died — and My Architect is his very personal attempt to understand the man who dropped by the house once a week to see him and his mother. Despite being a quiet labor of love shot mostly on video, the movie features interviews with some architectural heavyweights: Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Robert A. M. Stern, and briefly Frank Gehry. Nathaniel is a calm and focused interviewer. He reveals his feelings through his questions, which probe for details about the man rather than his work or methods and are generally presented in carefully edited sequences of gestures and facial expressions. He approaches Lou's buildings the same way, exploring them inside and out, noting the details, looking for evidence of his father. He forms the movie's most memorable images by lingering on his favorite parts of those buildings, returning frequently to concrete courtyards flanked by multi-storey wings stretching toward the horizon, his father's parallel lives disappearing into the sunset, with Nathaniel roller-skating between them.

Although Nathaniel himself is more contemplative than emotional — Lou has been gone for decades — the movie is weakest when it attempts to squeeze tearful moments from a couple of its interviewees, with the camera zooming quickly into watery eyes, an embarrassing, twice-repeated ploy lifted from the local news that feels out of place here, as if a TV crew has momentarily taken over the camera. But overall Nathaniel's interviews are balanced, and his attempt to find his father in his buildings, scars and all, is credible and well-paced, with neat visual rhymes that circle back to points raised earlier. His search leads him eventually to Bangladesh where Lou built the capital building and where the movie arrives at a genuinely touching conclusion that somehow brings things to a close without really tapping into the mind of Louis Kahn. To this day, Nathaniel's mother believes that when Lou died alone in a railway station bathroom, he was on his way back to her. Nathaniel says that this is "a good myth to have." Perhaps the movie's conclusion in Bangladesh is Nathaniel's own good myth.

This capsule also appears in print in Paste Magazine #8, February/March 2004.
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2003, U.S.
director: Richard Linklater

Watching this silly, formulaic movie may be the most fun I've had in a theater this year. Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a variation of the character he played in High Fidelity — or, if you prefer, a cleaner version of the character he plays in his band, Tenacious D. — a guy whose unnatural desire to rock drives everything else he does. To pay his overdue rent, he poses as his roommate, a substitute teacher, and takes a long-term assignment at Horace Green Elementary. When he discovers that the kids in his class can play instruments, or at least classical music, he decides to toss the curriculum and transform the class into his backup band for the local Battle of the Bands, unbeknownst to anyone outside the classroom.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but despite the predictability of the plot and the softness of the satire, the movie is alive and funny, all the way through. It stays fresh where most movies like this have at least a few moments of tedium. The trick is the attention to character detail: the teachers are appropriately skeptical of Finn's claims, the kids have distinct personalities, and Finn speaks to them as if they're adults, or at least teens, which says more about him than it does the kids. Jack Black's energy is boundless — he's more like Yosemite Sam than John Belushi — and Joan Cusack is funny in a role that could be annoying, the uptight principal. An egalitarian spirit takes over the class, and I found myself rooting for each of the kids to shine. There's a scene in which a girl, at the last minute, won't perform because she's afraid she'll be laughed at, and the teacher tries to convince her that her voice will win everyone over. It's a necessary complication in the plot, but a key to the movie's success is that I really believe what these two people are saying. By taking such moments seriously, director Richard Linklater and screenwriter Mike White (who also plays Finn's roommate) honor a genre that you'd think would be spent by now, just as Finn idolizes the monsters of rock. Rather than dampening the humor, such attention enhances it because the audience isn't asked to care about cardboard cutouts. My one regret is that Sarah Silverman is underutilized as the roommate's domineering girlfriend, but a movie about stickin' it to the Man needs a few straw men to set ablaze, even if some of them are women.

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I caught the frequently-mentioned-of-late movie Pumping Iron a few days ago. It's showing through election day at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema, and it's also available on VHS. I remember seeing a bit of it on PBS when I was little, but then I was mostly curious about seeing the guy who played The Hulk on my favorite TV show. It was the same kind of curiosity that made me rush home to see the historic first episode of that old "Lone Ranger" TV show that a local station used to rerun after school, the episode where they show him without his mask.

Nowadays Pumping Iron is a little boring in spots, especially for someone who can't distinguish winners from losers in this sport. (My wife mentioned that maybe Arnold's routine was more graceful than the others, but neither of us could remember if that counts in the competition. Oh well.)

There's nothing in the movie that's too damning for Schwarzenegger — you'd have heard about it by now — but he does come across as driven to win. One scene in particular has a different ring now than it probably did in 1976: Arnold talks about how he'll use psychological tricks to mess with the head of his opponent, Lou Ferrigno (later The Hulk). He says that all of these tricks are fair game and that he uses everything available to him to secure victory. Then in a related scene, we see him having breakfast with Ferrigno and Ferrigno's trainer and father. Arnold seems to sum up the relationship of his opponent to his father and plants seeds of doubt about the quality of his training, smiling and laughing jovially the entire time.

If his views matched mine, I wonder if he's the kind of guy I'd want on my side? The movie itself is middling, but Arnold is funny, charismatic, and absolutely confident.

Because of confusion about a changing TV schedule, I never did see that first episode of "The Lone Ranger," never did see why he donned the mask, and never did see him without it. I often feel the same about the front-running politicians in the gubernatorial and presidential races.

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How would Rush Limbaugh reconcile these two statements made on his radio show?

October 3, 2003, he says that presidential candidates who called for him to be fired from ESPN, after he made racially tinged comments, violated his first amendment rights:

These are people who, if they were to be elected, would swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. They'd be the nation's chief this, chief that, chief executive, and here they are in total defiance of the Constitution, demanding that a company fire somebody. The Constitution says government can't do that. That's really how besmirched the document has become.

[Somehow comments by a candidate are equivalent to a legislature passing a law.]

You know, I'm fortunate; I didn't need the ESPN job.... But still, if I lose it, I lose it. I can afford to. A lot of people can't. So a lot of people don't tell you what they really think.... Fine, if that's what everybody wants. But there are times such as during political campaigns. Political campaigns, the world of politics, that's how we manage the affairs that determine our future. This is where we all get together and determine what we as a people are going to be governed by, who we're going to be governed by, and how, and what we're going to be supporting....

So, I mean, there are some bad aspects of this above and beyond just the fact that it's plainly wrong to want to punish somebody for an opinion you don't agree with.

July 9, 2003, he said this about the Dixie Chicks who had recently spoken against President George Bush and whose songs were being pulled by offended radio station managers:

The Dixie Chicks have no right to be heard. Nobody does.... You can go buy the freaking CD and listen to it at home without even needing a radio station! You can even download them on the Internet!

Likewise, I suppose even though Limbaugh has resigned from ESPN, you can still hear his 3-hour show 5 days a week on 600 "freaking" radio stations across the country.

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If you haven't yet tuned out the lackluster Sundance Series, you might be interested to know that the third movie, Dopamine, opens at participating theaters October 10.

A note for the filmmakers: putting sexually aggressive female characters in your story and having them say, "What's wrong with that?" no longer counts as progressive filmmaking like it did in, oh, 1974. Also: scientists can love.

UPDATE: Links to related entries in this blog: first and second.

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Recently in this blog I mentioned how much I was looking forward to Errol Morris's Fog of War. I still am; he's a great filmmaker.

But I also said offhandedly that "none" of the good documentaries this year quite measures up to Morris's. Well, first of all, that's a tall order. But more importantly, without having seen all of the documentaries released this year, I can't know that for sure. I did look over the list of documentaries I've seen this year before I wrote the entry, but that's probably a small fraction of what was released, so it's an imprecise thing for me to say.

Case in point: I missed the brief theatrical run of Stevie, the new documentary from Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams. But I've recently caught up with it on DVD. You can too, and you should. It's outstanding.

Stevie is a portrait of the man to whom James was a "big brother" over a decade ago. Having lost touch, James set out with his camera to reconnect with Stevie and find out if this troubled kid had been able to straighten up and make something of himself. He hadn't. In fact James found him in deep trouble.

James himself is a character in the movie — the filmmaker mining his past and trying to be a positive influence — and one of the most fascinating aspects of the documentary is how it constantly encourages the viewer, implicitly, to ask what is right: what's the right thing to do with someone like Stevie, and what's the right thing to do if you're making a documentary about him? Should you? Can you over-humanize, or over-demonize, a criminal? Is this exploitation? How can you walk that line and how can you be honest about it? James and his crew always seem to be defining boundaries: what can they ask their subjects, what responses can they show, and when have they gone too far?

This movie is disturbing and touching, a snapshot of fractured families, abuse, classism, guilt, and the failures of the system. It's a bundle of contradictions, bravely documented with what seems to be the utmost integrity. You'd think that would make the movie easier to make — or easier to watch — but as with the good intentions of the people who are trying to help Stevie, sometimes humanity and integrity don't seem to be enough to set things straight.

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2003, U.S.
director: Mark Decena

He's an artificial intelligence programmer in a San Francisco start-up. She's a kindergarten teacher and a painter. He has a flaw. She has a secret. If you're wondering whether the flaw will be overcome or whether the secret will be revealed with an outpouring of emotion, you're giving Dopamine too much credit. Of course they will. I'm glad that director Mark Decena chooses some of San Francisco's dingier locations rather than shooting only the city's beautiful vistas, and his story does develop a nice but unexplored parallel between the worlds that its two main characters create, but the movie is so flat and familiar that it's hard to draw much from these minor achievements. From its opening moments, the movie bathes itself in science, but two observations reveal that it's skin deep: 1) a Big Scientific Idea does not make up for one-note characters, a string of clichés, or graceless exposition, and 2) characters need not choose between loving science and living real life. Dopamine believes the chestnut that says in order to get the girl, the scientific guy needs to stop thinking so much and learn to feel.

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An article this week in the New York Times' business section compared the Netflix service with a new, nearly identical service from I wouldn't bother mentioning the article here if it weren't for a few surprising statistics:

[Netflix's personalized recommendation system] gives life to customer favorites that were not supported by much studio advertising. For example, Netflix points to Talk to Her, a critically acclaimed independent film by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, which Netflix users gave rave reviews. It was rented more often in its first six months on Netflix than Daredevil, the box office hit with Ben Affleck that received much less positive reviews on the site.

I don't know if it was Netflix's recommendation service that caused this rental behavior, as the paragraph implies, but isn't it interesting that Netflix customers rented Talk to Her, a movie released in the US on 255 screens more than they did Daredevil, a movie released on 3474 screens?

Now, we have to be careful with statistics. (I'm about to read a friend's recommendation, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos.) You know, maybe relatively more people wanted to wait for the video of Talk to Her than Daredevil. Or maybe Netflix's audience is not representative of the US as a whole (in fact the article says they count 5% of households in tech-centric San Francisco among their subscribers). Maybe any number of other variables — from advertising to the gossip pages — contributed. And note also that claims, in the same article, that its customers are renting Daredevil seven times more often than Talk to Her.

But. Maybe there is a segment of the population who would very much like to see smaller movies but can't because, in most towns, small movies are shut out of theaters. It's an old complaint, I know, but what if a major distributor picked up on this and starting running a "small movie" series in towns that don't usually get them.

By the way, I didn't see either movie, and I know that Talk to Her had a rather large campaign compared to some even smaller movies.

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