Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
March 2004

I don't often blog about my shoes. Outside of holidays, I mean. But today I'm making an exception. I'm amending the by-laws.

I don't drive much, but I walk all over the place. I have a pair of shoes that I've worn for a year or so. They're the kind with the removable cork insoles that conform to your feet over time. I've broken them in.

Yeah, but not long ago I got a new pair of shoes. They're the same brand as the old pair, and although the style is different, the insoles are the same, except, of course, that they're new and rigid. I feel their supports pressing against my arches.

I rotate my shoes daily for variety. No, not clockwise. I mean one day I'll wear the new ones, the next the old ones. They feel very different, the two pairs, but I've gotten used to the difference. It'll diminish.

Recently, though, I pulled the insoles out of both pairs and swapped them. No, not left for right. Old for new. I don't know why, but I did it. So lately I've been walking around with old scuffed shoes that have strong new supports and stiff new shoes that feel perfectly formed to the soles of my feet.

Strangely, it feels like I have two totally different pairs of shoes than before. The ages of the shoes are now indeterminate; which came first is hard to say.

I remember reading about the movies of Leos Carax before I'd ever seen them. Sometimes reading about movies you've never seen can be frustrating. I make mental notes about the titles, but my head only holds so many. But the ideas about Carax, about a poetic cinema that takes its cues from silent movies, were so intriguing that I read on.

I eventually saw them: Boy Meets Girl, which I liked, Mauvais Sang, which I really liked, and Pola X, which I wasn't crazy about. I skipped over The Lovers on the Bridge because it wasn't available anywhere.

So the recommendation paid off reasonably well, but more than that a seed was planted. The centerpiece of Mauvais Sang — which is called Bad Blood in English, but I like the rhythm of the French title better ? is Denis Lavant's run/dance down the sidewalk while David Bowie's "Modern Love" fills the soundtrack, a moment of such joyous release that I tried to find something similar elsewhere at the movies, any movies, which led me to Beau Travail in which Lavant — the same actor — is a tightly coiled spring that eventually bounds free. Beau Travail was my introduction to Claire Denis, who is now among my favorite filmmakers, someone whose movies are perfect examples of poetic cinema even if the book that started the quest didn't prefigure this particular destination.

Earlier this year, The Lovers on the Bridge, Carax's third movie, the one that I skipped over in my initial survey, was released on DVD. Like Mauvais Sang, it stars Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant, and I've been looking forward to seeing it for a long time. But just as I never saw Denis's movies outside of the context of Carax's, I also can no longer step back into Carax's filmography without carrying Denis's movies with me.

It's the way of movie experience. Chronology is only one axis, and it's not always very descriptive of what ideas and sensations a movie contains, because the movie contains nothing; it only triggers the ideas and sensations in the viewer's head. Thus context is important, but highly nebulous. Beau Travail features a character from Godard's Le Petit Soldat, a movie made 35 years earlier, and the character is even played by the same actor, but since I saw Le Petit Soldat after seeing Beau Travail, who's to say which movie is referring to which in my head?

What I also notice about my shoes — oh yeah, the shoes — is that I'm a delayer. It's why I rotate them. It's why I swap their insoles. It's why I eat the half-cashews out of the bowl first even though I prefer the whole ones (naturally). It's why I haven't seen Lovers on the Bridge, yet. Patience.

Sometimes you have to give in to fistfuls of snacks. A year ago, I'd never seen a movie by Ozu. Now I've seen more than 20. But when you're at the mercy of film distributors, you're presented with stark choices, between seeing them all when the opportunity arises and waiting years for someone to release them on DVD. Luckily, Ozu's movies are so unhurried that even packing them into a few weeks makes them no less soothing.

Other times a slow savoring is more appropriate. Carax is much less prolific than Ozu, and transcendent moments like Lavant's acrobatics in Mauvais Sang and the last thirty seconds of Beau Travail, are too brief and too rare to gobble down.

You can watch such a moment again, sure, but you only get one chance to see it for the first time. Approach it as if it's the precarious cliff that it is.

And now back to a blog not about shoes...

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Speaking of music videos, a new DVD collection of videos called Director's Series — The Works of Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, and Michel Gondry has been selling like hotcakes for several months. Urban Outfitter stacks them near the cash register. People talk about them in California coffee shops. Amazon reports that it's in their top 20 DVD sales at universities around the world. Fascinating.

I've yet to be convinced that people who make great music videos can also make great movies, but at the rate these guys get funding for feature films, the major studios are hoping you disagree. I liked Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as much as the next guy, but I'm not sure the talents that were cultivated for Fatboy Slim are what make those movies appealing. (And anyway some people argue that it's the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, who's the real auteur of those movies.)

Sure Mark Romanek's Johnny Cash video is moving and profound by MTV standards, but by another metric its maudlin and borderline-crass (as is the whole project, in my opinion. I like the first American Recordings album, but I feel a little funny about the later projects in which Rick Rubin and video directors like Romanek treat Cash like a puppet, handing him Nine Inch Nails songs and harnessing his legacy for a cult of cool.) Romanek's feature debut, One Hour Photo, despite being 92 minutes longer than a music video, was even more shallow and even more prone to irrelevant visual filler. Don't worry, he'll get to make another movie. It'll star Tom Hanks.

It's interesting that Urban Outfitters, et. al., find such prestige in the word "director," prominently placed in the title of the collected "works." This may have its roots in 1960s cinephilia and the nouvelle vague, when directors used film as an art of self-expression, but I'm not sure any of these guys qualifies as an auteur, even of their music videos. The phenomenon is closer to the selling of a director that predates even the French New Wave. Hitchcock, as one of the most prominent examples, carefully built his image and used it to fuel ticket sales. His movies are also proof, by the way, that salesmanship and artistic ability are not mutually exclusive, which is why I'm not quite ready to write these video guys off. I'm just not ready to kiss their feet.

That is, I'm not ready to buy their DVDs. I might rent them, though.

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This weekend I picked up Movie Mutations a new book of essays edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. The book opens with a collection of letters exchanged in 1997 by Rosenbaum, Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez, and Raymond Ballour, all of them children of the 60s grappling with their generation's brand of cinephilia.

Although I haven't read past this opening section (33 pages), the letters are so rich with ideas that I'm recommending the book to cinephiles even if the remaining chapters turn out to be trash. Having skimmed them, I'm sure they won't.

Each of the letters contains more than its share of wisdom. For example, Kent Jones writes:

The emergence of the rock video and the home video revolution were concurrent phenomena that influenced and reflected back on each other. I've read a lot of useless theorising about rock videos, on the one hand panicky rants about how they have destroyed narrative coherence and on the other hand misguided assertions that their aesthetic had such historical precedents as Bruce Conner, Kenneth Anger and Un chien andalou (1928). But it always seemed clear to me that the rock video originated in yet another, earlier technology. One of the key experiences for American teenagers of my generation was driving with the radio on and feeling the intoxicating effect produced by the marriage of rock music and the passing landscape....
A secretly manufactured form of virtual reality, producing mysterious epiphanies when the blur from the car window was mixed with the sounds of whatever was coming from the airwaves, the music/movement experience was soon refined by the appearance of the tape deck, thus allowing the music to be chosen and to fit either the exterior or interior landscape (they had a way of mixing together), and henceforth become an actual soundtrack. The Walkman was a further refinement, releasing the whole experience from the limits of the car and giving it the potential for complete privacy and more direct physical impact. Rock videos were an intuitive outgrowth of this new form of experience writ monumentally large by mass production.

Those of us who grew up in the video age often overlook the massive but not always obvious impact that video has made on cinema. Now you can order up a movie based on personal whim, choosing a movie as a "self-prescriptive therapeutic device," as Jones says. In many ways, the availability of movies &mdash which has exploded since the writing of these letters — is a great thing. But in other subtle ways, we've become accustomed to movies meeting us, massaging our individual interests, rather than us having to work to meet a movie on its own terms.

Strangely enough, the Internet feeds this sense of individualism, even though it's a communication device, even though it connects people. We can choose our news feeds, dial up our channels, and speak into the wind on our Internet weblogs, islands.

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S-21, la machine de mort Khmer rouge
2003, Cambodia/France
director: Rithy Panh

In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia with an iron fist and may have been responsible for the deaths of a million civilians, many of whom underwent interrogation and torture in makeshift detention centers like the S21 in Phnom Penh. Very few of the 17,000 men, women, and children who were imprisoned at S21 survived, but filmmaker Rithy Panh has found two of them for his remarkable new documentary, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which shows the survivors not only returning to the scene of the crime but also sitting down to talk directly with some of the guards who conducted the brutal interrogations. The film consists of their moving, somber conversations that echo in the rooms of the dilapidated building.

Panh's subjects have such vivid recollections that he doesn't need any archival footage to recall the events that took place within these walls. One of the survivors, Chum Mey, is openly emotional about the experience, but the other, Vann Nath, seems to approach the project stoically, as if he's long since come to terms with what happened. But Nath's emotions run deep. His anger is so focused and his remembrances so gently articulate that he makes a perfect centerpiece for the film.

Nath is a painter, and his paintings tell more about what he saw than any amount of raw footage would. At the prison he pores over written reports of interrogations, picks through rubble, and talks with the former guards, conducting interviews that are far more civil than the interviews the guards conducted themselves in the 1970s. In one of the movie's central images, Nath stands with the men in front of one of his paintings, a large prison scene. As he describes the work and his experiences, the men listen quietly, but their postures are telling. They hang back and lean against the wall, attentive, but not fully engaged, which is how they seem to approach the entire project.

When Nath tries to understand how these men could have participated in such brutality, they provide a number of rationalizations. They were given orders, indoctrinated from early childhood by the army. Some of them were assigned to work at the prison when they were only 13 years old. Nath doesn't seem to forgive them, but the movie doesn't simplify their situation. They were young, they were indoctrinated, and the movie encourages us to wonder if they should be counted among the victims.

Even though it's much shorter, S21 is bound to draw comparisons to Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's landmark documentary about the Holocaust. S21 approaches its subject with the same austerity and shows the same reverence for personal memories by plunging the viewer into them without a lot of historical setup. But at times, S21 could benefit from more context, not about the political forces that led to these atrocities — which are outside of the movie's scope, just as Hitler's troop movements are outside the scope of Shoah — but about how the project came to be. Why are the former guards participating? In one of the movie's most chilling scenes, one of the guards, who was so young in 1977 that he's barely middle-aged now, reenacts his tasks at the prison. He falls into his old routine with such unsettling gusto that one wonders why he's going through this demonstration, but Panh leaves the explanation out. While the reenactment is a useful window into the past, it encourages an ill-informed judgment against this man based on how he acts today rather than what he did then. As in the scene where the men look at Nath's painting, it's hard to tell whether the behavior on display is natural or a response to offscreen prompting from the director.

The movie succeeds despite its ellipses because it's not focused on confronting the men, Mike Wallace-style, but instead on resurrecting the memories of the victims, who Nath and Mey represent, and somehow finding peace and closure by doing so. The final shot lingers on one of the building's empty rooms, a strong wind gusting outside. With the doors and windows long gone, the wind blows into the room and stirs up the dust, specters rising and howling, translucent evidence of people not forgotten.

San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival
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Despite our careful attempts to prevent this from happening, a number of people who attended a seminar at the Errata film festival on "making your own independent films" left the panel discussion thinking that "montage" is all about magazines. It is not. That would be collage (pronounced CO-lodge), not montage (pronounced mon-TAY-juh). They are similar but distinct concepts. To make a collage, someone, often a child or a night artist, will use blunt scissors to cut pictures out of magazines and affix them to heavy-stock paper. To make a montage, a film editor will do the same thing except with a strip of film and another strip of film. Many young filmmakers are confused about montage because it has been made obsolete by digital tools, but even if you don't use it yourself, it's still very important to understand the technical underpinnings of the dead medium so that you can appreciate old movies. Modern wavy-handled scissors that were developed in France in the late 1950s and imported by the U.S. in the mid 1960s defined a generation of filmmakers. You should know this. It explains Resnais and Point Blank and such. We apologize for the confusion and promise that next year we will try to give our panelists an environment where they will not misspeak so much.
Posted by editor | Link | Other Corrections

The schedule for the San Francisco International Film Festival was released today. The list of films on the web site is ridiculously difficult to browse. It's a bit easier to get an overview by looking at the calendar page, but that page doesn't have links to the film notes. So please enjoy the links I've provided below.

Unlike better-known festivals in other cities, the SFIFF serves the community, not the acquisition arms of film distributors or the PR machines of studios. It brings 175 movies and shorts from 52 countries, many of them without US distribution, to the Bay Area for people to see, period. It does give a couple of low-key awards to first-time filmmakers and documentaries, but there's very little emphasis on competition.

All of which makes the festival a great place to discover corners of creativity that you may never have seen before.

Here's a quick summary of what I'm looking forward to after an evening's perusal of the schedule:

  • Jim Jarmush has been collecting little vignettes of his actors talking, smoking, and drinking coffee for years, and he's finally collected them into a feature called Coffee & Cigarettes, and it sounds like a good way to open the festival. The cast includes Tom Waits, Jack White, Steve Buscemi, Roberto Benigni, RZA, Iggy Pop, Steven Wright, Bill Murray, etc. It'll be distributed by United Artists, so the only thing the inflated ticket price gets you is a chance to see Jarmusch and some of the cast in a Q&A after the show. Still, I've been looking forward to this for long enough that I just might pony up the dough.
  • Actually, the schedule has several movies that I've been looking forward to since they've played in other cities and been trumpeted by people with good taste: Since Otar Left (Julie Bertucelli), Ce jour-là (Raoul Ruiz), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang), and Les Sentiments (Noémie Lvovsky).
  • This festival often has strong documentaries, and several in this year's lineup have caught my eye: The Corporation and Super Size Me have been making the news; Bad Behavior about a couple who can't control their little girl sounds interesting; Control Room is about Al Jazeera; The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and Girl Trouble have local interest; and I often end up at the music docs, like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Festival Express about Janis Joplin, The Band, and the Grateful Dead on a multi-city tour.
  • Four that I'll earmark just because of who's involved: Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent making its US premiere, Last Life in the Universe directed by Thailand's Pen-ek Ratanaruang and shot by Christopher Doyle (cinematographer for Wong Kar-Wai's movies, and Hero), The Saddest Music in the World by Guy Maddin, and The Five Obstructions in which Lars von Trier challenges Jørgen Leth to remake his short The Perfect Human five times with five sets of restrictions.
  • Oldies: The Firemen's Ball, part of a tribute to Milos Forman; The General and Dans La Nuit with new scores by the Alloy Orchestra; and Matewan, part of a tribute to Chris Cooper.
  • I'm usually too tired for the midnight movies, and I'm not much of a beer drinker, but if you're up for it Guinness sponsors the "extreme cinema" series, which includes free beer.

Of course this list just skims the surface, and I'm sure I've missed a lot of good stuff. At least one of my favorite movies of 2003 was a festival movie that I saw knowing little more than the title and country. I intend to take as many of these chances as I can.

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A few years ago I started keeping track of the movies I see, whether in theaters or on video. And the books I read and concerts I attend. Sometimes it feels kind of (or very) nerdy, but it helps me get a handle on what's passing through my brain, in some way.

I've thought about putting this log online like some other people do on their sites. My laptop has been in the shop for several weeks (my logic board picked the same time as everyone else's to die — the part is backordered), which has made me change my usual routine pretty drastically. Everything from writing to logging my movies has been shifted around.

So I'm temporarily keeping my movie log in the little paper notebook that I always carry with me. (It's not for taking notes during movies, by the way.) And since I have an urge to type the entries into a computer, I'm going to dump the last couple of weeks' worth into this blog.

Maybe I'll start doing this on a regular basis.

3-8 Shaolin Soccer (Chow)
3-8 God of Cookery (Chow)
3-9 15 (Tan)
3-9 A Good Lawyer's Wife (Im)
3-10 Dolls (Kitano)
3-11 S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Panh)
3-16 American Stories (Akerman)
3-19 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry)
3-21 Chantal Akerman on Chantal Akerman (Akerman)
3-21 The Man With the Suitcase (Akerman)
3-21 Moving In (Akerman)
3-21 Portrait of a Young Girl in the Late Sixties in Brussels (Akerman)
3-22 Small Soldiers (Dante) [DVD]

(Note: I don't log video viewings of movies I've seen before.)

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Yasujiro Ozu's movies are made of the stuff of life, soft, subtle, and profound.
Note: This article was written as a very brief introduction to the great Yasujiro Ozu for a music magazine.
Tokyo Story
For a long time, Yasujiro Ozu's movies were thought to be too Japanese to appeal to American moviegoers. At least that's what some movie distributors thought, and as a result, although he made some 50 movies between 1927 and 1962, they've rarely been seen in this country. Finally, that's beginning to change. Ozu's movies about everyday middle class life have begun to trickle into your local video store. Ironically, despite the wisdom of past film distributors, it's hard to think of a movie more relevant to contemporary American family life than Ozu's wonderful Tokyo Story, recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.
Made in 1953, Tokyo Story is about an elderly man and woman who take a trip from their small town in the country to the big city of Tokyo to visit their grown children. Their kids welcome them, take them site-seeing, shuttle them from one family to another, and, to keep from getting too far behind with their own lives, send them on a weekend getaway to a nearby spa. While no one really says much about it, the distance between the parents and their busy children grows painfully more obvious as the days pass. The sight of the old couple sitting on a sea wall, frail and alone, staring at the horizon, is so real that it's heartbreaking. Those are your parents sitting there, and mine.
Anyone who ever moved away from home, played tour guide for visiting in-laws, or made a trip to see their children will recognize the interactions in Tokyo Story immediately. Jonathan Franzen's recent novel The Corrections is about a similar situation — a mother wants her grown kids who live in New York to come back to the Midwest for one more Christmas together. That a movie made in Japan in 1953 can touch some of the same nerves as a hip, modern American novel shows just how common these themes are: they span media, languages, cultures, continents, and decades.
By the time he made Tokyo Story, Ozu was well established as a master filmmaker. He had sharpened and reduced his style to a small set of crisp, deceptively simple elements. His camera rarely moves. It sits three feet off the ground, at eye-level if you're seated on the floor, as his characters often are. He begins each scene with a brief montage of beautifully composed shots that prepare us for what's next — the drying laundry of domestic life, the smokestacks of city and commerce, the trains of transition — a kind of grammar built out of simple clauses, "pillow shots," they're called now, little cushions between interactions. He famously omits events that other filmmakers would highlight — a wedding, say — far more interested in the conversations before and after the event than the spectacle itself.
His later movies have similar titles, like Late Spring or Late Autumn or Early Summer. The plots often revolve around the marriage of a daughter and the meaning that the act has to her and her family. Ozu even built up a company of actors that he reused time and again, often in similar roles. Japanese audiences watched the great Chishu Ryu, who plays the elderly patriarch in Tokyo Story, grow from a college kid into a distinguished gentleman by watching 35 years of Ozu's movies.
And yet while these movies look similar, they are made of the stuff of life — marriage, war, children, separation, loneliness, joy, sacrifice — and Ozu demonstrated that with enough care and precision, these elements are reconfigurable into an infinite number of delicate truths. He specialized in the little things, the smiles on people's faces when they're in pain, or the politeness of disappointed parents. But he wasn't afraid of the big issues, either. He dealt with the growth of wartime prostitution in 1947's A Hen In the Wind, and abortion in 1957's Tokyo Twilight. (Yes, 1957.) His early silent masterpiece I Was Born, But... is ostensibly a charming comedy about the two new kids in town trying to make friends in the neighborhood, but an hour into the movie it turns on a dime, making a devastating comment on class inequities, something the adults know all about but the kids are just discovering. In the movies that Ozu made after World War II, the remnants of the war lurk around the edges, never forgotten, echoing in the lives of people who lost family members or struggled to make ends meet. Ozu is so often thought to be gentle and mannered that people sometimes forget he could be equally honest about the ugliness of life.
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This weekend's New York Times includes a kind of meditation from A. O. Scott on Lars von Trier's Dogville. It's part review, part interview, and part interpretation.

I feel an affinity with Scott on this one. His view of the movie is similar in many ways to mine — he sees the character of Tom as "at once Mr. von Trier's alter ego and, ultimately, his villain" and sees the closing montage as "so heavy-handed it's hard to take it seriously at all" — but Scott goes on to see similarities with South Park and offer some fascinating comments on the sequel, Manderlay:

It is also interesting to note that, now that Ms. Kidman has moved on, the part of Grace will be played by Bryce Howard, a young actress who, as Mr. von Trier perhaps coyly put it, "turned out to be the daughter of an American director, Ron Howard." And while it may be going too far to suggest a link between Dogville and Mayberry — or, for that matter, between Dogville and Whoville — Mr. von Trier's austere art film may be closer to the mess and ruckus of American popular culture than he knows....

(I like how he suggests a link to Mayberry and Whoville while saying that it would be going too far to do so.)

Here's my favorite quote: "You can hardly expect a man who once cast Catherine Deneuve as a factory worker named Kathy to care much about authenticity."

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There's an interesting discussion of Donald Barthelme, plus some brief comments about him from John Updike and a nod to Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish, at a blog called s1ngularity::criticism. As you may know, Barthelme is one of my favorites.

(Via The Reading Experience, via Long Pauses. Sometimes trails lead nowhere. Thicker brush. Gnats. Other times, to clear-running streams.)

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In case you haven't been over to Spinsanity in a while, let me point you to a recent feature in which Al Franken and Rich Lowry critique each other's book (Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, respectively), and then the Spinsanity guys check their arguments.

I haven't read either book, but, hey, ideas and accuracy among people who disagree — I like it.

Spinsanity has been pretty good at highlighting misleading statements from politicians and pundits, and it would be great if they'd take it up a notch and become a neutral ground for more of these kinds of debates.

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Although we went to great pains to recruit only the brightest reviewers to write the film notes for the first ever Errata film festival, we've belatedly discovered a number of errors in their work. First, most historians agree that Josef von Sternberg did not "delete two vons" from his name when he moved to Hollywood, as the notes for Blue Angel state. Also the notes for The Battle of Algiers include photos of the actors, but one of the photos is incorrect. Below is the incorrect photo alongside the correct photo.
It has come to our attention that this may have been a deliberate substitution by one of our brightest reviewers who obviously has no sense of proper professional behavior. If pretending that Jafar Panahi was in The Battle of Algiers is someone's idea of a joke, we are only sad for that person, especially when he or she goes on to state that the actor's name is Bruno von Forestier and that his daughter once made a movie about apples, both untrue. Confusing two people only because they are both in the film industry or because one of them rarely wears fatigues makes us very very angry, very angry.
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According to a news item in Fangoria, Tarantino had something to do with Miramax taking Hero off the shelf:

I had to fight for it with Miramax. I think they lost faith in it and everything. And I thought that HERO was an absolute masterpiece, so I fought with them not to cut it. Not to bring it down, but to keep it the same length as when I saw it. And finally they agreed if I would present it.

I don't know which version he saw, or which one I saw, for that matter (93 minutes). So confusing.

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The San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival and all of its syllables concluded late last week. I suppose it's not surprising that a city with such a large Asian population, and large cinephile population, would host such a great showcase for Asian film, but I was still in awe at the number of screenings that played to packed houses.

Out of the roughly 130 features and shorts, from 30-some-odd countries, I saw only about a dozen features. I'll write reviews for a few of these, but for now, here's a brief summary of the most interesting:

  • Hero — Zhang Yimou's elegant, star-studded sword-fighting epic ambitiously attempts to elevate the action tradition both aesthetically and thematically. It uses colorful digital technology to create a more painterly effect than The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, and it harnesses the escalating violence among assassins for its theme of pacifism. I especially like the clever middle section, before the lessons set in, poignant though they may be, because when the king and his assassin tell each other tales, the movie feels like a kind of storytellers' chess. Hero, by the way, is exhibit A in the "what's up with Miramax" file. It was a smash hit in China a few years ago, snatched up by Miramax for US distribution, cut by 20 or so minutes, and finally shelved. Supposedly it will see a release later this year, but the most often asked questions are: 1) will it really, or will the release date move again? and 2) how many of the people who want to see this have already seen the full version on DVD?
  • Shaolin Soccer — Exhibit B is Shaolin Soccer, which has had a similar distribution snafu, courtesy Miramax. Stephen Chow rounds up a bunch of down-on-their-luck kung fu masters and places them, along with their gravity-defying skills, on a soccer field as a ragtag team of underdogs who have to use their shaolin arts to defeat the (evil) champions. It's silly, and the special effects are primitively digital (digitally primitive?), but Shaolin Soccer so deliriously riffs on everything from break dancing to Jurassic Park, that it's hard not to get caught up in the goofy fun. I laughed throughout, and so did everyone else.
  • Purple Butterfly — Lou Ye's movie about Japanese-occupied China in the 1930s is extremely opaque. It's a romantic wartime spy thriller, of sorts. It moves around in time with few visual queues to keep you in sync, it's filled with dark, elaborate sequences shot with handheld cameras and shallow focus lenses, and it relies on an editing style so rapid at times that important pieces of information seem to be on the screen for only a couple of frames. You have to fight to get inside this story, and while I'm afraid I lost the battle, I'm astounded by a sequence late in the movie that involves dance partners at a club. What's astounding is how riveted I suddenly was, how close I suddenly felt to piecing together the puzzle. So close, but not quite close enough. I'll need to see this again before I can comment further, but it's no doubt a triumph of style. What I'm not sure of is whether Lou Ye let his style run away with his movie or intended to obscure his subject matter, and what he says by doing so.
  • Dolls — I seem to catch Takeshi Kitano when he's working against type. The only other of his movies that I've seen is Kikujiro. Dolls is far more melancholy, a nearly-abstract study of couples who have a fixed distance between them, doomed to be neither together nor apart. The symbolism is heavy in spots, but I thought it resonated deeply. It's both calm and ultimately tragic.
  • Shanghai Express and Piccadilly — To honor Anna May Wong, perhaps the first Asian-American star in Hollywood, the festival showed 4 of her movies. The two that I caught were real treats. Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express shows Wong holding her own with sassy Marlene Dietrich. Piccadilly, a British silent, is both a showcase of Wong's diverse talents and a surprising interracial romance ("Kiss me," her eyes say, but not on the hand. Here, on the lips. Her British beau leans in and the scene ends, missing the kiss by only a couple of frames, like it's a gunshot in Purple Butterfly). Wong commands the screen even in small roles, but she was underappreciated and remains little known.
  • A Good Lawyer's Wife — I wanted to see Im Sang-soo's melodrama from South Korea primarily because it stars Moon So-ri who gave a great performance as a woman with cerebral palsy in one of my favorite movies from last year, Oasis (though arguably hers was only the second best performance in that movie). The treatment of a marriage falling apart in A Good Lawyer's Wife is a bit too conventional for my tastes, but Moon is strong, once again. She's definitely one to watch.
  • S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine — I hope to write a capsule about this harrowing, bare-bones documentary about a Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh. A remarkably composed former inmate, jailed in the 1970s for reasons that were never explained to him, interviews former guards at the prison. Although the movie uses no footage of the period, the ample documentation and first-hand accounts paint a vivid enough image of the details of genocide. It's a deeply disturbing look at systematic madness running roughshod over human life, but it's also a beautiful example of how to look through a telescope into the past by picking through the remaining wreckage, both physical and mental.
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We'd like to thank everyone who donated funds in support of the first ever Errata film festival, which concluded last weekend. However, we have some bad news. Our festival director was instructed by the powers that be to use the donations as best he could. "Look around you," he was told. "All of this costs money." And so it does. But our festival director has unfortunately sunk most of the funds for next year's festival into that most ubiquitous of movie snacks. Furthermore, to set an example for the many volunteers under his tutelage, he "went the extra mile" and popped every last kernel of said snack in a feverish marathon of popping late last night. Before we could stop him, your hard won donations were salted and buttered and already going stale. We don't want to do this, but sadly and humbly we must ask you all to donate again. To compensate for this doubling of your already generous support, we will be offering in exchange for your trouble a handsome, limited edition bas-relief plaque depicting one of several classic movie scenes, lovingly and swiftly hand-crafted out of that most organic of movie snacks and a clear-drying adhesive, the perfect addition to any media room, office, or den.
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2002, Japan
director: Takeshi Kitano

Two thirds of the way through Takeshi Kitano's Dolls, the images of distanced individuals begin to resonate with a profound but tragic calm. Kitano takes the tradition of Japanese puppet theater called bunraku and moves it into the present to tell three modern stories, each one about a man and woman who reach a doomed limbo, unable to be close and unable to be apart. Kitano could have told his stories simultaneously by cross-cutting, or he could have lined them up like three short films, but instead he follows the first story until it crosses one of the other stories, at which point the movie circles back like it's following a ribbon tied in a bow.

The knot at the center of the bow is so rich with imagery that Kitano seems for a moment to have abandoned narrative entirely and relaxed into a poem. The first story is about a man, Matsumoto, who leaves his fiancé, Sawako, for a woman whose family will give him a better standing in the community, which drives Sawako to madness. In her sorrow she doesn't recognize anyone, anymore, not even Matsumoto. The formerly engaged lovers can never be together after what has happened, but Matsumoto can't jettison his lover's memory as easily as he might have hoped, and so they are forever bound together, a psychological fact that Kitano visualizes by tying each of them to the end of a red rope which they drag behind them as they walk mournfully across the earth. Initially the rope is a clothesline that Matsumoto uses to keep Sawako from wandering into trouble while he's asleep, but later it becomes a thick braid. Their costumes gradually take on the traditional dress of bunraku dolls, and Sawako's face turns white and freezes into pained expressions like the painted face of her wooden counterpart.

Near the movie's center, the two walk past a lake. Shot from an extreme distance, they're a couple of specs on a hill, silhouettes crawling left to right while in the lake two ducks float in the same direction, traveling together, unconnected but inseparable. Sometimes the bound lovers walk side-by-side toward the camera and then halt together, as if they've hit a wall. They stand blank and weary, their shoulders drooping. Their loop of red rope has caught something on the ground and brought them to a standstill.

It's not always clear who's leading whom: as the saner of the two, Matsumoto guides Sawako through hazards, but he wouldn't be there at all if he weren't bound to her. On a beach, the pair pass a woman guiding a blind man, an analogy so apt that the scene seems abstract, and it becomes even more so when the camera stops following Matsumoto and Sawako for a moment and instead follows the blind man and his guide, who shortly reach someone else on the beach, a woman with a patch over one eye, the blind man and his guide merged into a single body. The symbolism is so heavy that it's a welcome surprise when these people on the beach grow into characters themselves, characters in a similar story which Kitano then detours to tell.

It's the story of a pop singer and her adoring fans. She needs them, and they need her, but they're connected at a distance, not by a red rope but by headphones, posters, buttons, autographs, picture books, and electric signs that display news headlines. And there's another story, about a yakuza boss with a connection to a woman who waits for him every day on a park bench. And there's a connection between a beggar in a wheelchair and the same yakuza boss, who is one of his benefactors.

The stories intertwine not dramatically but thematically. The bound lovers travel through spring, summer, fall, and winter, and Kitano uses a zoom lens repeatedly to place them in a flat frame of blood-red leaves or an expanse of snow. Each of the capsules lives in a stasis that ends only with death. Maybe. Blood is spilled in Dolls, but even where it isn't, a butterfly's wing is torn, a toy ball is smashed, and a red leaf is dropped and carried away by a stream. Kitano wrote, directed, and edited the movie, but he doesn't appear in it himself. It contains very little humor, but what it does have is wonderfully odd, such as the framing of a tiny toy ball in relation to a big car, a detail so delicate that — like the ducks in the lake — it could easily disappear on video. These human dolls are surrounded by a calm aura, the comfort of having someone with which to share a deep and prolonged sadness, a sadness anchored by an inability to share anything else.

San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival
Posted by davis | Link
Les Yeux sans visage
1960, France
director: Georges Franju

Georges Franju's 1960 movie Eyes Without A Face may have the elements of classic horror — a doctor driven to tinker with nature watches the tragic results of his failed experiments — but it's so different in tone and purpose from a typical shocker that it feels more like a meditation on identity and perfection.

Dr. Génessier is trying to perfect a skin grafting technique that allows him, among other things, to replace people's faces. He was involved in a car accident that injured the face of his daughter, Christiane, and after an unknown number of failed attempts to repair the damage, he has left her without a face at all. The movie picks up the story there, with Christiane holed up in her father's giant house, withdrawn from society, usually wearing a mask, prowling around the corridors like a cat. Génessier thinks he's a hairsbreadth away from cracking the secrets of skin grafts and finally putting this entire episode behind him. Behind them.

All he needs are fresh faces, and so like a spider he catches a girl in his web, takes her back to his lab, and wraps her in a cocoon on a gurney, unconscious, where he and his assistant, Louise, begin the gruesome procedure.

Génessier's understanding of identity is so paradoxical that the movie provokes the question: where does individuality lie? Génessier apparently believes that it lies within and that faces are, therefore, transmissible, but at the same time he's so fixated on surfaces that he refuses to see past them. He recoils in horror when he sees that his daughter isn't wearing her mask. He covers all of the mirrors in the house with drapes. He presses Louise's choker of pearls down to cover the scar on her neck, the only evidence that she was previously a patient herself, wincing when he sees it slightly exposed. Louise is just as reluctant to acknowledge what she and Génessier are doing: when one procedure goes horribly wrong, she helps the doctor tote the body of the victim to a crypt, but she covers her ears and smiles at the appearance of a plane passing overhead, drowning out the sounds of digging.

Once identities become shiftable, bodies become interchangeable. The most understated example of this may be a sequence in a police station where a woman is seated across from an officer's desk. The way she's shot, with her long coat and porcelain jaw, she could be Christiane. Out of the house! But the next shot, which looks over the officer's shoulder, reveals that it's not Christiane but a friend of one of the victims. She's filing a missing person report. After she leaves the station, another officer who's been taking a statement from a different woman comes to the foreground, and the two men discuss the case of the missing women, all of a similar type. As they list the physical traits — eye color, hair color — the composition of the shot puts the other woman between them, sitting still like a piece of furniture, her back to the camera. "What should I do with my blue-eyed one," one officer asks, motioning toward her. "Better keep her around. She might be useful," says his partner.

Women slip into each other's place, regardless of who they are, regardless of whose name is on the crypt, what ailment brought them to the hospital, or what malfeasance brought them to the police station. Like Dr. Génessier, the camera equates them. Like Génessier it fixates on their surfaces. It watches the grizzly face removal at length, quietly observing as incisions are made and skin is separated from the skull, but when Christiane looms unmasked over a woman on a gurney, the shot is out of focus, dark, and terminates abruptly. Look away. Cover your ears.

One of the few glimpses we get of the doctor's day job is his mysterious examination of a little boy. Génessier asks him how many fingers he's holding up. The boy makes a guess, but he's wrong. The doctor removes his own glasses and rubs his eyes, frustrated. The mother asks if the boy will get better, and the doctor says, "Trust me," which is how he blames others for their lack of faith, preemptively, just before things go awry. All of this emphasis on eyes — the boy's, the doctor's, the holes in Christiane's mask, the movie's title — is important. The boy seems otherwise healthy, but without sight he'll never survive in a world of surfaces.

Before they worked on the script for Eyes Without A Face, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote the novel d'Entre les Morts, which was the basis for Hitchcock's Vertigo. I've only read summaries of the novel, not the novel itself, but both Eyes Without A Face and Vertigo explore similar ideas about identity divorced from the body. And like Vertigo, Eyes Without A Face arrives at a retribution straight out of a fable. Vertigo builds a sense of inevitability as Scotty marches twice through an immutable loop and watches helplessly as his creation suffers the same fate as the model on which it was based, devastated by his unwitting role as the catalyst in both cases. Vertigo has a sense of poetry not only in its themes but also in its plot, which makes it deeply unconventional, different from the murder mystery or thriller that it resembles at the outset. (I believe the cyclical structure of Samuel A. Taylor's script differs from the structure of the novel, which ends with death but not from a tower.)

Eyes Without A Face, despite its tone, stays true to its genre. What's most interesting isn't the plot, which is somewhat rote and unsatisfying in its familiarity, but the multi-layered ideas of individuality. It leaves its story with a punished doctor and an animal freed, sure, but it also leaves amid a ghostly flutter of doves and a thousand questions about what might happen next.

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2002, Hungary
director: György Pálfi

György Pálfi's debut feature lasts a mere 75 minutes, but I'd wager that a poll of viewers exiting the theater would turn up just as many explanations of what occurs during that brief window. The movie seems to document a day in the life of a rural Hungarian village. It constructs a collage of found rhythms, something akin to Koyaanisqatsi or The Man With the Movie Camera, but buried among the noises of wildlife and an old man's burps is a mystery so subtle that if you nod off at the wrong time, lulled to sleep by country life on parade, you could miss it entirely. A murder investigation unfolds wordlessly, and Pálfi gives it the same weight as a snake in the grass and children eating breakfast.

There's something fascinating about hiding one genre film inside another, a narrative inside an apparently non-narrative conceit, especially when the enclosing movie seems so orthogonal to the needs of a detective story. But Pálfi doesn't treat them as separate at all. The two ideas share a similar thirst for patterns and a desire to piece the clues together to solve a larger puzzle. Death is part of this village's life, even when it's deliberate and unwanted, and the investigation into that death isn't so different from farming. Hukkle is a quaint whodunit, a poem with a plot.

San Francisco International Film Festival
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I'm always interested to see what trailers get attached to a movie. It gives you some idea of who the film distributors think will go see a particular movie.

As I sat waiting for The Passion of the Christ to start, I wondered how they'd package this. I'm sure if Hollywood had a bunch of Biblical epics in production, we'd be seeing ads for those.

The distribution for this movie has been so unusual that some people, such as those who've attended church-sponsored screenings, haven't seen any trailers before the movie at all. On the other end of the spectrum was my theater, which showed seven, count 'em, seven (7) previews. That's two more than usual.

And what did they advertise? Garfield (kid/family movie), Agent Cody Banks 2 (young teen action/comedy), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (hip-but-romantic comedy), Spider-Man 2 (comic book action/adventure), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (comic book-ish action/adventure), and, uh, ok that's where I hit my memory's limit. I'm conditioned to remember five.

What wasn't on the bill? The only one I thought might be: Troy (ancient violent secular tale).

By the way, I haven't seen any of the movies being advertised, so please excuse my flippant categorizations.

So... what does this tell us about what the distributors are thinking? The previews are all over the map, which means they probably had no idea. The missing Troy trailer makes sense. People aren't going to see The Passion for the action or the historical epic-ness. They're going for other reasons. That would have been a mistaken assumption, but it was one I thought the distributors would make in the absence of a better idea.

The most surprising entries to me are the kids' movies, because those don't usually get advertised before bloody R-rated films. Parents don't often go to the movies except for a family outing or a "parents' night out," and the violent movies don't really fit either of those scenarios, in general.

The perfect trailer, demographically speaking, might have been for something like Signs, the M. Night Shyamalan/Mel Gibson movie that's vaguely about faith and aliens.

But based on anecdotal evidence, I'd say the marketers were probably right: there were lots of parents at the screening I attended. How do I know? Because some of them brought their kids. (I don't care how religious you are, please don't take your kids to see this movie.)

And based on the wide cross-section of people who've seen the movie, maybe the smattering of disparate trailers was right on the mark, too.

This is like reading tea leaves. No, that's the future. It's like archaeology. Yeah, only more stupid. Sorry for wasting your time like this.

(PS: Here's a trailer that's getting a great reaction from audiences right now.)

Posted by davis | Link

I think I'm ready to declare it a trailer meme. There's another trailer out there that's pretending to be a product advertisement: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

I haven't seen this trailer in theaters, although that's obviously where it was intended to be shown. The movie has a more conventional trailer that's also running in theaters.

The movie itself was written by the often-interesting Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, etc.), and both Eternal Sunshine trailers get me right here with their use of ELO. Those songs never fail to take me back to fourth-grade skating parties.

Posted by davis | Link

Wired has a short but interesting article about some researchers at Hewlett-Packard Labs who are studying how information flows through weblogs.

Using newly developed techniques for graphing the flow of information between blogs, the researchers have discovered that authors of popular blog sites regularly borrow topics from lesser-known bloggers — and they often do so without attribution.

These findings are important to sociologists who are interested in learning how ideas grow from isolated topics into full-blown epidemics that "infect" large populations. Such an understanding is also important to marketers, who hope to be able to pitch products and ideas directly to the most influential people in a given group.

This "without attribution" aspect is being treated as a technical problem:

Indeed, the team at HP Labs found that when an idea infected at least 10 blogs, 70 percent of the blogs did not provide links back to another blog that had previously mentioned the idea.

To get past this obstacle, the researchers developed techniques to infer where information might have come from, based on the similarities in text, links and infection rates.

A possibly-practical outcome of the work could be a search engine that's smarter about the origin of ideas, or at least the point at which the ideas were introduced to the web:

The researchers have incorporated their techniques into a search algorithm they call iRank. Unlike Google's PageRank algorithm, which ranks websites based on overall popularity, the iRank algorithm ranks sites based on how good they are at injecting ideas into the mainstream.

"A lot of sites that get listed by search engines as most relevant are not always the most relevant," said Adar. "For instance, Slashdot often gets listed at the top, but it's just an aggregator. I may want to go to the source."

I'm interested in this because I think a lot of the most frustratring and potentially damaging aspects of our society are tangled up with the oversupply of information that we're all trying to manage. Having convinced ourselves that information is valuable, we've built systems to go out and get lots of it, bring it home, lay it at our feet. Now what.

We have no time to sort through it all, is what, and I think this pops up everywhere in our culture. News aggragators. One hundred ballot initiatives. (I failed to vote on Super Tuesday, for the first time in a long time.) Loud-mouthed political pundits who skip past the analysis because they know that what we want is someone to give us the conclusions.

New technologies will erode this mountain and try to identify the kernels of information at the middle. Look at the success of Google and the iPod. Information managers. But they'll only go so far because at some point they need to read our minds, and our minds just say, "Wha?".

Maybe our great-grandkids will be able to assimilate and process information more quickly than we can, through practice. Maybe we'll learn to depend on filters that we trust. (How will we figure out who to trust? Today our techniques are crude: radio and TV hosts become popular by being vaguely entertaining, by acting dead-sure of their opinions, and by acting exasperated at supposed enemies, a triumvirate of forces that hold the universe together. Yeah, radio and TV hosts, but politicians, too. Anybody needing a populace.) Maybe processing information will only expose additional problems caused by each of us looking at drastically different slices of the world, a society fragmented.

Whatever the result, I think how we deal with the information glut will define this era. I dunno.

Posted by davis | Link