Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
December 2003
We've been disheartened by the number of film critics who are putting Abbas Kiarostami's Ten on their Best of 2003 lists. Kiarostami's remake pales in comparison to Blake Edwards' 1979 original. Recasting the Dudley Moore character as a child and making him the son of the leading lady drastically alters the plot of the movie, and while we understand Kiarostami's need to deal with his nation's censors, shifting the location from the beaches of Acapulco to the automobile interiors of Iran gives the movie an entirely different tone. The only thing the remake manages to do that the original did not is provide a snapshot of contemporary Iranian life, which is irrelevant. As a sexy romantic comedy, it fails nearly every metric. We therefore would like to encourage film critics to review the source material before once again heaping unjust praise on an unfocused film from Iran.
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The death toll of yesterday's earthquake in Iran is climbing, and the movie that comes to mind is Abbas Kiarostami's Life And Nothing More. I've mentioned this movie in previous blog entries. It's best seen after Where Is The Friend's House, but only for a little context. Thematically they're very different.

The image that springs to mind today is the scene where the little boy from the city, riding in his father's car through the rural rubble of an Iranian earthquake, wants to buy a soda. He asks a shopkeeper if his store is open as the shopkeeper is picking through the ruins of what was presumably the store.

It's an unusually pointed critique, I think, in a movie full of contrasts, distances, and connections between people. Sometimes soda and movies aren't as important as food and shelter.

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Something about endorsing a political candidate is belittling. Idealists who criticize an administration's actions or a candidate's plans have the moral high ground until they attach their support to an entire package rather than a single issue. Suddenly, oh, he's one of those Dean advocates, or Bush advocates. Suddenly she faces the cold reality of politics, which is compromise.

And so it is with a movie critic who lists his or her favorite movies of the year. You can't vote for just part of a political candidate — just his foreign policy, say, or just his convivial nature — and you can't watch only your favorite parts of movies until you've found them. I'm afraid that buying a ticket entitles you to every frame.

You can, however, stick to your guns, admit that each of your movie choices for the year is a compromise, that it has aspects that are less than perfect, but so be it. Somehow it works. Somehow it stands out from the available options, and the critic does his best to get the word out. Of course only one political candidate can win a given race, but unless you bow to the Oscar god, that isn't true for movies. You can see and enjoy more than one movie in a given year. You can see and enjoy a hundred. So a critic can champion overlooked movies without stealing votes from the front-runners.

Which is another way of saying what I've already said, I think, but this is nevertheless what I'm thinking as I try to sort out 2003, which I'm attempting to do even as the holiday jingle is stealing time from blogs and the allure of cookies is muddling the movie-soaked brain of someone who lives the rest of the year in the dark interior of a theater, or so it seems, where the naughty and nice are on display at 24 frames per second.

Happy holidays. More to come in the following days...

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There's a new issue of Reverse Shot online, and this one focuses on movie musicals. But there's other good stuff, too, such as an overview of the Ozu retrospective and a number of thoughtful reviews, like the one about Elephant. Where I saw Gus Van Sant refusing to provide reasons for the Columbine shooting, Ohad Landesman thinks he provides as many reasons as he can.

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The year-end "best of 2003" lists are starting. And the truth is that — even though I know nobody can truly have seen and evaluated every movie released in 2003, and calling something the "best" anything when you've seen only a sampling is ridiculous — I love these lists as much as anybody. Not the ones full of movies everybody saw. Who cares if so-and-so put Master & Commander at number 3 and what's-her-name put Mystic River at number 2. For me, the lists are a great way to find out about movies I missed during the year, or about some that I ignored because I thought they wouldn't be any good, or about some that I saw and didn't like. What's someone else's idea?

The surprises in these lists are invariably more interesting than the easy guesses. Take these lists from Artforum, for example, which I found via GreenCine Daily.

As someone who has recently begun to spout off about movies, I'm also interested in why critics want to make lists. Here's Andrew Sarris in a 2001 article about Pauline Kael:

Pauline once called me a ?list queen? to my face, but by then I had become accustomed to her reflex insults. But it started me thinking. To my knowledge, Pauline was the only critic never to compile a 10-best list. Her admirers might say that Pauline was above such trivial journalistic diversions. But with a 10-best list, a critic puts his or her tastes on the line, and makes an easier target than one would get, for example, by plowing through Pauline?s steam-of-consciousness prose.

These lists educate. They expose us to unsung movies and put the little guy side-by-side with the mogul. And they put a critic's taste on the line, the benefit of which I haven't fully got my head around, but it somehow seems important.

(By the way, about this GreenCine Daily: it's one of those wall-of-links blogs, but they've so consistently pointed to interesting things that I've been turning to them regularly when I need an info-fix. Check it out.)

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I'm intrigued by Marina de Van's new movie, In My Skin, as difficult as it is to sit through.

Both Stephen Holden in the New York Times and Scott Tobias in The Onion refer to Roman Polanski's Repulsion, a movie I haven't seen.

I'm partial to Tobias's review, and not just because he gives a nod to Trouble Every Day. He sees the humor that I think a lot of people don't (the next time someone calls to tell me she's not going to make our appointment, I just know I'm going to visualize someone covered in blood). I like the phrasing in this bit:

... In My Skin makes heavy demands of even jaded viewers, who are unlikely to stomach de Van's anatomical noodling from the same curious distance. But for the brave, the film's literal journey to find the "I" inside the body moves forward with a riveting single-mindedness.

As I mentioned in the Errata capsule, one way to read the movie, I think, is as a metaphor for the artist's relationship to her art. She puts a piece of herself into every movie, song, painting... and not without a little pain. Art is tangled up with its creator's identity, messy, private, disruptive.

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Dans ma peau
2002, France
director: Marina de Van

Marina de Van's debut feature is exceedingly gruesome. De Van writes, directs, and stars in this movie about a woman who develops a strange relationship with her own skin. While snooping around a colleague's backyard during a party, Esther slips and scrapes her leg. She doesn't notice how badly she's cut until she later sees bloody marks on the white carpet and is surprised to find that she made them. She's embarrassed and leaves before anyone else notices, but privately she's fascinated by her lack of feeling, which leads her to cut herself again, intentionally. She doesn't cut like a suicidal teenager, but stoically, as if she's carving her initials in a tree trunk.

This is merely the beginning, and as her fascination grows, as she begins to peel and gnaw at her skin and save pieces of it in her wallet, she has more and more trouble keeping this aspect of herself private, and I had more and more trouble keeping my hands from covering my eyes. Her boyfriend is troubled, thinking she's unhappy with him, although she doesn't otherwise seem to be. She's been promoted at work, but her compulsions endanger her new position. A dinner meeting where co-workers pick at the meat on their plates becomes unbearable.

This becomes the difficulty of the movie, that the character is impenetrable. She shows some fear of her loss of control but says very little. The climax, in which Esther hides away in a hotel room like she's having a tryst, is shown in split screen, with both sides prowling the room in extreme close-up. We get hints of what's going on — bloody footprints, knives, fingers — but the two images don't add up to a single complete picture. And so goes the movie: we see both the public and private sides of Esther's life, but that gives us only hints of why she feels this way about her body.

A number of French movies in recent years have explored our relationship to our flesh: the explicitly sexual movies by Catherine Breillat, the stylish but empty and revolting Irreversible by Gaspar Noë, and the benchmark as far as I'm concerned, Trouble Every Day by the great Claire Denis. Denis applies her sense of rhythm, visual poetry, and elliptical storytelling to a tale about vampire-cannibals and newlyweds and comes away with a movie about fear of intimacy. De Van has a less satisfying blend of elements, but her movie is still fascinating. She shoots scenes as if the limbs really are detached. Esther wakes up one morning with a numb arm, as everyone does sometimes, and it lies limp and unresponsive, even as she massages it with her good arm. Then a third arm reaches around to help, and this one really is detached. It's her boyfriend's. In fact some of the scenes of her cutting are shot in such tight close-up, that they could be love scenes, except that it's not a lover's arm she's nibbling, and it's more than a love bite. And of course there's the blood.

It's hard not to wonder why Esther does this. Does she feel guilty because she was promoted when her friend was passed over? At one point the camera crawls up an unidentified leg, surprising us with its clean, unbroken skin, but then the leg is revealed it to be the friend's, not Esther's, thus contrasting the two women. Or is it relevant that Esther preserves a swatch of skin using a CD jewel case, with the gleaming CD sitting in the tray opposite the rectangle of shriveled flesh. For twelve bucks you can get your own piece of an artist. But finally, I think, de Van is less interested in why Esther does this than that she must. We all have our private and public lives, and as much as we think they are separate, they aren't. They press on each other, and generally we keep them in their places, but we're all slaves to our bodies more than we'd like to admit.

De Van co-wrote Francois Ozon's Under the Sand about a woman whose husband simply disappears one day; she goes on with her life as if he's still there, as if he's the phantom twitch of a severed limb. It's curious that de Van puts herself so squarely in the middle of her directorial debut. I wonder if carrying screenplay ideas in your pocket, or spending long hours editing a movie in which your body appears in nearly every shot, is something like what Esther feels, strangely divorced from her own skin. Although I can't say I actually enjoyed it, De Van has produced an odd, thought-provoking work.

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I'm not sure how many people are aware of this — I wasn't until recently — but Hou Hsiao-Hsien's own SinoMovie has released a box set of four of Hou's movies from the eighties! It's a limited edition set that contains The Boys From Fengkuei, A Summer At Grandpa's, A Time To Live, A Time To Die, and Dust In The Wind.

The package is very nice, and although the booklet is not in English, I had no trouble playing the DVDs on my region 1 player with English subtitles. I've only watched the first two so far, and both prints were clean, presented in the proper aspect ratio.

I hope he's planning to release more of his movies this way. I've never seen Daughter of the Nile or his first 2 or 3 movies, and I've only seen The Puppetmaster on that crappy full screen DVD.

Posted by davis | Link | Comments (1)

Reuters is reporting that ABC and Mindshare, a marketing firm that calls itself a "head-space invader", will collaborate on some future television programs.

The venture could put a new twist on product placements and sponsorships, strategies being embraced by advertisers in the face of eroded audience ratings and technologies like TiVo which allow viewers to skip commercials and watch programs according to their own timetables.

Critics have said such strategies can blur too much the line between entertainment and marketing.

Yes, because today the line between programming and advertising is oh so rigid.

"This gives us a chance to have a collaborative relationship with our major clients early in the process so that we know ... we will meet the needs of the clients," Alex Wallau, ABC network President, told Reuters. "This could be an important part of a portion of our primetime programming."

In case there was any confusion, when ABC TV refers to its "clients," they're not talking about you, the TV viewer. Don't be silly. You're the inventory. You're piled in the back of a truck. You're being delivered. You're not being catered to.

"The door is open reasonably wide for anything we think is going to be compelling. The key is that it is scripted," Goldstein said, citing ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" as an example of a successful format. "We're not focusing in on reality (TV)."

Don't worry. There are limits:

But while a comedy born out of the partnership might use clients' products on its set, such as kitchen appliances, "that doesn't mean that were going to create a kitchen set simply for the sake of having a kitchen set," he said.

Name a family sitcom that doesn't have a kitchen set.

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