Errata
Via Chicago
—• CONTENTS •—
— Errata Movie Podcast —
April 2004
2004, United States
directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

This enjoyable but overlong documentary follows the band Metallica in its attempts to regroup after a series of setbacks and squabbles. It's an insider's view of a band that feels as much like a family as a business, but it's so ill-paced that the rousing conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, a minor hurdle cleared by fidgety, easily irked millionaires on the way to their next album. Veteran filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky who made Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost could learn a thing or two from rookie Sam Jones who made his feature debut a couple of years ago with a similar documentary about the band Wilco. The Wilco documentary tracks the making of an album amid interpersonal friction, and with its crystal clear point of view it puts this movie to shame. As a fan of Wilco and not Metallica, I may be biased, but I truly am fascinated by high school friends who find themselves at the center of a multi-million-dollar organization — what band member James Hetfield calls a "monster" — and whose inability to get along threatens the stability of the superstructure. It's something that a smaller group like Wilco may never experience, so I went into the theater ready to learn all about how these guys resolve their personal issues under such pressure.

A good documentary is buried here, I'm sure, and there are good scenes scattered throughout, such as when the band, uneasy with the idea of recording a promo for a chain of radio stations, hams up the recording session. Or a scene in which the abrasive but surprisingly vulnerable drummer Lars Ulrich admits to feeling terrible after he watches a former Metallica bassist perform a successful gig with his new band. Or a scene in which lead singer Hetfield warms up for a gig by using a cassette tape that he got years before at a voice lesson. Such moments go a long way toward humanizing figures who also, when the going gets tough, can relax on the ranch, sell some valuable pieces of artwork for a pick-me-up, or spend a few months in rehab, but maybe more than anything else the fly-on-the-wall footage demonstrates the remarkable level of trust the filmmakers earned from the people who have the most to lose, and the most to gain, from the project.

But the documentary entertains far too many tangents and takes a wishy-washy attitude toward the touchy-feely therapist who works with the band. The most interesting discussions in the movie are about how to get rid of this guy who's milking the group for $40,000 a month. It's a problem echoed in the plight of the filmmakers. How should they wrap up this movie? Has the goal been accomplished? Can they put a Behind The Music, triumph-over-adversity bow on the band's recent problems and call it a day? Hanging over the entire project is an unstated recognition by everyone involved that such a story is good for the movie, good for the album, and good for the rock monster, but this produces a less than forthright documentary. Berlinger and Sinofsky have a way of making movies in which they themselves are unwittingly a part of the beast. For Paradise Lost they investigated a grisly child murder and tried to make the case that certain convicted teens were innocent and certain unconvicted parents were guilty, but the facts of the case were far less interesting than how the camera's presence affected those involved; when they stepped in front of the camera, the characters in the sordid tale employed everything they'd ever learned from watching television. Similarly, the musicians in Metallica, despite their frankness on the big screen, are surely aware of the power that these kinds of documentaries possess and have seen enough of them to know how they're supposed to end.

screened2004.04.18
San Francisco International Film Festival
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2003, Canada
director: Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin is some kind of genius, but his movies, as short as they are, still feel a little long. They're rich candy, and a little goes a long way. Like his previous movie, Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, which was on my list of provocations last year, The Saddest Music in the World is densely constructed out of black-and-white, sometimes tinted images that seem like they're 75 years old, like they were rescued from the floor of a film vault, but of course they were all shot recently. It's weirdly funny, like something out of a Robert Coover novel, the story of a contest to determine which nation has the saddest music, a competition with inane commentators that speak over the maudlin performances, jarring arena buzzers that mark the beginning of each bout, and a flume down which winning delegates slide into a beer bath. The rationale for the contest is explained with more plot points and family secrets than I can remember.

Those who call The Saddest Music in the World a parody of 1930s musicals might be hard-pressed to identify a movie that it parodies. A number of commentators are quick to liken it to silent films, although it's not clear whether they truly mean "silent" or just "old." The movie uses dialog instead of intertitles, for example. It exists in a world of its own, and while Maddin is certainly nodding to an era past, he appropriates only a few of its bits and pieces for his manic devices.

The result doesn't leave me with much to think about and it gets a bit repetitive, but I enjoy watching the huckster who's in charge of the American team, played by Mark McKinney from The Kids in the Hall, as he cherry-picks the best musicians from the other countries and concocts a kind of feel-good sad music that leaves the spectators stomping for more. Complicating matters, he and his family have a complex relationship with the judge of the contest, Isabella Rosselini, who incidentally walks around on glass legs filled with beer. But I'm sure you already guessed that.

screened2004.04.16
San Francisco International Film Festival
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Something I didn't mention in my recent post about the upcoming Pacific Film Archive schedule is a little item at the tail end of the April schedule. For some post-festival decompression, the PFA will be showing a three-part 1992 documentary on influential film critic Serge Daney.

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James Tata is the first of my daily reads to notice that Jonathan Rosenbaum has another new book out, and this one sounds great. It's called Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons.

I like canons that broaden our appreciations instead of hardening the walls around the old standbys. It's better to peruse a canon for the movies that are unfamiliar than to scan the list to make sure your favorites are included. I'm curious to see what Rosenbaum has to say about this.

When they don't broaden, canons help feed one of the most frustrating myths about film, that the universe of movies is small enough to be completely knowable by an individual. This myth manifests itself in a thousand ways, from shock that such-and-such wasn't nominated for an Oscar to the limited selections at the average American multiplex. It applies to other media, too, but for some reason it seems worse with movies, maybe because public exhibition is still an important part of the industry, a costly operation with such overhead that it's largely controlled by big companies.

I've thought about using this blog to highlight, regularly, recent events that help promote The Myth. A number of entities in the industry have a vested interest in perpetuating it. One of the reasons I've started logging my movie screenings is not only to share movie ideas and foster discussion but also to expose some of what's beneath the iceberg's tip. The movie universe is huge. Don't trust experts who claim to know it all.

This topic also plays into one of my other pet fascinations: information glut. Have you taken a look at a magazine stand recently? "In This Issue: The Top 100 Lumps and Crystals of All Time!" This rise in the popularity of magazine canons (or cable channel countdowns, or televised award ceremonies, or...) is directly related to our inability to process the flood of information we've brought to our doorsteps. Someone needs to do it for us. Tell us what to focus on. Filter the glut.

Filters are important. I like Rosenbaum as a filter. I like my favorite blogs as filters. But understanding how the most popular filters work, and what they're filtering out, is critical.

I can't wait to read the book.

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Wow, look at that. The Masters of Cinema guys have teamed up with Eureka Video to put their stamp of approval on a line of DVD releases. "All releases in the series will have great transfers, lovely covers and specially written booklets." Neat.

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It's been a while since my last movie log. Here's most of April. Note that several of these are shorts, which makes the list look longer. Still, if I'm going to do this I shouldn't let so much time lapse between updates.

All of these are theatrical screenings unless otherwise indicated.

3-23 A Thousand Clouds of Peace (Hernández)
3-26 La Captive (Akerman)
3-26 Night and Day (Akerman)
3-27/28/30 Shoah (Lanzmann) [DVD]
3-30 With Sonia Wieder-Atherton (Akerman)
3-30 Pour Febe Elisabeth Velasquez, El Salvador (Akerman short)
3-30 A Voice in the Desert (Akerman installation)
3-31 Big Animal (Stuhr)
4-1 My Brother's Wedding (Burnett)
4-2 Scarface (Hawks) [DVD]
4-3 Nightjohn (Burnett)
4-3 Several Friends (Burnett short)
4-3 The Horse (Burnett short)
4-3 When It Rains (Burnett short)
4-3 To Sleep With Anger (Burnett)
4-7 Crimson Gold (Panahi)
4-7 Mysterious Object at Noon (Weerasethakul) [DVD]
4-8 Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (Burnett)
4-8 Olivia's Story (Burnett short)
4-12 Permanent Vacation (Jarmusch) [VHS]
4-13 Year of the Horse (Jarmusch) [VHS]
4-14 Le Samourai (Melville) [VHS]

4-14/15 Coffee & Cigarettes (Jarmusch)
4-16 The Saddest Music in the World (Maddin)
4-17 Last Life in the Universe (Ratanaruang)
4-17 Festival Express (Smeaton)
4-18 Control Room (Noujaim)
4-18 Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Berlinger/Sinofsky)
4-19 The Green Butchers (Jensen)
4-19 Life and Death of a Boring Moment (Bossard short)
4-19 That Day (Ruiz)
4-19 Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai)
4-20 The Missing (Lee)
4-21 Since Otar Left (Bertuccelli)
4-21 Triple Agent (Rohmer)
4-22 Doppelganger (Kurosawa)
4-23 Back to Kotelnich (Carrère)
4-23 Popaganda: The Art & Subversion of Ron English (Carvajal short)
4-23 Super Size Me (Spurlock)
4-24 Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (Khleifi/Sivan)
4-25 The Corporation (Achbar/Abbott)

4-20/22/23/24 The Simpsons Third Season, Episodes 1-6 [DVD]
4-25 Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel short)
4-25 L'Age D'Or (Buñuel short)

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Guy Maddin, whose latest film The Saddest Music in the World is screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, was on Fresh Air Monday talking with Terry Gross. Comparing his idea of the movie to screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro's original idea of a political satire, Maddin says this:

For me the contest was a great backdrop for the way families and people in love manipulate each other in much the same way that countries do. It was a great chance for me to have an orgy of self-pity, not just among nations but among family members, you know the way familes really mess with each other's minds. So I just found kind of a microcosm within Ish's political satire.

See my previous post for comments on the film.

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The San Francisco International Film Festival has been great fun, even though the city has been unseasonably warm, which has made me miss a few screenings. Who wants to go indoors on days like these? Still I've seen some great movies, and I think there are more to come before the festival wraps up on the 29th.

Here are some observations about a few of the movies, some of which I'll turn into capsules on this site, eventually.

  • Super Size Me — Morgan Spurlock's entertaining film documents the 30 days that he spent eating all of his meals at McDonald's. It's funny and disgusting, and it deals with a hot-button topic of the day — our unhealthy diets and the companies that profit from them — but much of the movie's impact is deadened by what feels like a publicity stunt. [full review].
  • Coffee & Cigarettes — Jim Jarmusch's latest project is a collection of eleven shorts that he made over the last 18 years, all about people who are chatting over cigarettes and coffee, or occasionally tea. It's funny, and the patterns that develop when you see them back-to-back like this are surprisingly rich, surprising only because I expected this to be an easy throw-away movie, and while it's not as dense as something like Dead Man or Ghost Dog, it's a clever puzzle of interlocking pieces. When I try to decide which segments are my favorites, I can only narrow it down to about six or seven, but I will say that the ending with Taylor Mead is quite sublime.
  • The Saddest Music in the World — Guy Maddin is some kind of genius, but his short movies still feel a little long. I've only seen this one and Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (which was on my list of provocations last year), and both of them are densely constructed out black-and-white, sometimes tinted images that seem like they're 75 years old, like they were rescued from the floor of a film vault. But of course they were all shot recently. The Saddest Music in the World is weirdly funny, like something out of a Robert Coover novel. It's the story of a contest to find which nation has the saddest music, a hilarious competition with arena buzzers that mark the beginning of each bout and a flume down which winners slide into a beer bath. It didn't leave me with much to think about and it gets a bit repetitive, but it's fun to watch the huckster in charge of the American team, played by Mark McKinney from The Kids in the Hall, cherry-pick the best musicians from the other countries and concoct a kind of feel-good sad music that leaves the audience stomping for more. Plus, he's sleeping with the judge, Isabella Rosselini, who incidentally walks around on glass legs filled with beer. But I'm sure you already guessed that.
  • Last Life in the Universe — Pen-ek Ratanaruang's latest movie is a very nicely paced story, beautifully shot by Christopher Doyle (who also shot Hero and many of Wong Kar-Wai's movies) in pale blues with a gently drifting camera. It has some obvious but well-executed dramatic parallels — a neat-freak lonely guy meets up with an outrageously messy girl — but in the end I felt like the movie was too satisfied with some simple irony and surface-level loneliness. It's pleasing to look at, but it's more clever than insightful.
  • Control Room — Jehane Noujaim, one of the directors of Startup.com, was in Iraq before, during, and after the war. Her beat wasn't the war itself but the journalists covering it, specifically Al Jazeera. Control Room is the documentary that she made from the material that she gathered there, and it provides a great opportunity to hear the Al Jazeera editorial team talk about their decisions. Noujaim interviews producers and reporters from the network, plus CNN reporters and a US military media liason who is surprisingly frank about his struggles as the man in the middle. A particularly ironic scene shows Donald Rumsfeld chastising Al Jazeera by saying that people who lie on TV are bound to be found out because the truth eventually wins. Indeed it does. There's a lot of good information here, but most importantly, it's a first-hand look at some of the ways that news is malleable in the hands of militaries and news outlets alike, and it's a look at the passions and loyalties that drive some of the people standing between us and the streets of Baghdad. The movie is more balanced than you might expect, but it's the unabashed story of Al Jazeera, a network that has been kicked out of most Arab countries at one time or another for broadcasting "American propaganda" but that still reaches some 40 million viewers in the Middle East. It's a source of information that we ought to know more about, more than the blanket statements made by our secretary of defense, anyway.
  • Metallica: Some Kind of Monster — This enjoyable but overlong documentary is so ill-paced that the rousing conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, a minor hurdle cleared by fidgety, easily irked millionaires on the way to their next album. Veteran filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky who made Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost could learn a thing or two from rookie Sam Jones who made his feature debut a couple of years ago with a similar documentary about Wilco that puts this one to shame. As a fan of Wilco and not Metallica, I may be biased, but I truly am fascinated by the idea of high school friends whose ability to get along is at the center of a multi-million-dollar organization ("a monster"), so I went into the theater ready to learn all about how in the world they resolve their personal issues. A good documentary is buried here, I'm sure, and there are good scenes scattered here and there, such as when the band, uneasy with the idea of recording a radio promo for a chain of stations, hams up the recording session. But the documentary entertains far too many tangents and takes a wishy-washy attitude toward the touchy-feely therapist who works with the band. The most interesting discussions in the movie are about how to get rid of this guy who's milking the band for $40,000 a month. It's a problem shared with the filmmakers — how should they wrap up this movie? Has the goal been accomplished? Can they put a Behind The Music, triumph-over-adversity bow on the band's recent problems and call it a day? Hanging over the entire project is an unstated recognition by everyone involved that such a story is good for the movie, good for the album, and good for the multi-million dollar rock monster, but it produces a less than forthright documentary. In a Q&A after the screening, the band said that they no longer meet with their therapist regularly, although he stood next to them while they answered questions.
  • The Green Butchers — Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet have already demonstrated that you can make a good black comedy about a butcher shop that puts people in the meat. It's called Delicatessen. But when it's the core of a contrived, melodramatic thriller — complete with a movie-of-the-week score — the same premise is ridiculous. The first half hour has a few laughs, but that's only because the audience hasn't yet learned that the filmmakers intend to treat the butchers, and the young girl who works at the sanatorium, and the deep dark secrets of the brooding lead actor, seriously.
  • That Day (Ce jour-là) — This movie feels like it was made by a 20-something director who's full of vigor and brimming with ideas. It's wickedly funny, complex in character, plot, visual detail, and mise en scène. And it was made by the 60-something Raoul Ruiz, his 90th movie, but sadly the first I've seen. It's a movie whose plot unfolds so carefully that the less said the better. One character is insane but loveable, and this day is the most important in her life, a fact that she knows in advance. She comes across another character who's insane but scary, but that's before we get to know him. The pairing is sweet, despite the murders, the blood, the pile of bodies, and the glucose meter that keeps things in check, or so we're told by one of the insane. The police have a devious plan to do nothing but sit in a restaurant all day where forkfuls of food are framed so perfectly that they're as big as the patron's heads. The restaurant's tables lack a particular condiment, and even this is part of Ruiz's grand scheme. It's a real trick to make a movie that feels both perfectly worked out and sharply spontaneous, a paradox that's obvious throughout the movie but especially in an exquisitely choreographed chase through hallways, where the camera moves with graceful but tentative tracking, forward and backward, and seems as unsure about where to look next as we are, yet it always manages to frame the action just right. That Day is a lovely movie that I can't wait to see again.

I also had the opportunity to spend some time with Doug Cummings, who you know from filmjourney.org and Masters of Cinema. Doug was up from Pasadena for the festival, so we caught a screening of Back to Kotelnich, which I'll have to include in the next batch of observations. We also had a few good meals and a few good chats about movies and criticism and blogs and festivals and adoption, strangely enough.

Posted by davis | Link | Comments (0)
2003, United States
director: Morgan Spurlock

Super Size Me is a lively and accessible account of director Morgan Spurlock's attempt to spend 30 days eating nothing but McDonald's food — for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — while doctors monitor the changes in his vital statistics. It's an increasingly important topic. As a society, we've built a machine that saves us dollars at the cash register but requires us to pay them back in health bills down the road.

The movie does accomplish some of its more modest goals: it makes fast food look disgusting, makes the serving sizes seem outrageous, and, maybe most importantly, makes the food programs at many schools seem alarmingly poor at both providing nutritious meals and developing healthy eating habits. But when it begins to feel more like a publicity stunt than an object lesson, the movie is worth less of our attention. Spurlock, who is already talking about plans to parlay the movie's momentum into a reality series for a cable network, has developed three rules for his 30-day binge: he can only eat or drink what's available at McDonald's, he can only choose the "super size" option if the cashier offers it to him, and he must eat every item on the menu at least once during the 30 days.

Looking at these rules, it's hard to see what the goal of the stunt is. Is it to magnify the average customer's diet, to speed it along like time-lapse photography? The second rule provides a hint. From the outset Spurlock intends to stuff himself, and he does. Once he's off and running, it's not clear why he ignores his nutritionist who says that his fast food diet is giving him about 5000 calories per day when he only needs 2500. Twice she suggests cutting out the shakes and the sodas, and yet he continues eating shakes and drinking sodas to the end. Whether his goal is to approximate the average visit to McDonald's or ensure results for his movie project isn't clear.

As a counterpoint, it would be interesting to see what would happen to someone who tried to eat healthy at McDonald's, a notion that Spurlock doesn't bother to entertain. You could choose low-fat options, but it would be impossible to get enough vegetables and fiber, and the low-fat meal would be incredibly bland, the product of a system that has worked to optimize food delivery and consistency and in doing so has invented foods so devoid of flavor that they require dressings, oils, beef tallow, and goopy coatings to make them more than just textured blobs. The industry has worked hard to convince consumers that these odd, sweet flavors are not only good but also unique, recognizable as parts of a brand.

Spurlock doesn't attempt to convey this message, presumably because the affects of too few vegetables and too little fiber aren't as dramatic as speedy weight and cholesterol gains. Since the movie's premiere at Sundance, he has modified its closing titles to take credit for McDonald's recent decision to eliminate the "super sized" option from its menu. While McDonald's is surely aware of and responding to the negative publicity generated by the movie — and while the holy grail of many a documentarian is to effect change in the institution that he or she critiques — Spurlock is riding a wave rather than creating one. If any one media project deserves credit for opening the public's eyes to the food supply's systemic problems, it's Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation, published in January 2002.

Super Size Me cloaks itself in science, dispensing statistics at a rapid clip and parading three doctors and a nutritionist before the camera. What the experts say seems credible, but once again, they're just the ribs jutting from the spine of a 30-day binge, an exploit that Spurlock would probably admit isn't remotely scientific, even though his primary justification for the project is to "prove" what a recent court case involving two overweight teens was unable to: that fast food causes obesity and health problems. And yet he has an extremely small sample size (one), has no control group, records observations from people who have preconceived notions (his girlfriend and himself), and presents anecdotes from school lunchrooms as if they tell us something about the system as a whole.

I'm loath to side with McDonald's — I'd have trouble getting through a single day, let alone thirty — and I'm willing to believe that Spurlock's hypothesis is true and that he's bringing attention to an important problem, but someday I'd like to see a well-researched documentary as lively as this one on the harmful effects of pseudo-science in the media, how the ignorance of, or willful distortion of, basic scientific methods is used to manipulate public opinion, or at least further a filmmaker's career at the expense of truth. Super Size Me might not be on the poster of such a documentary, but in its attempts to convince us that it's proving anything at all, it certainly could be an exhibit.

screened2004.04.23
San Francisco International Film Festival
This review also appears at PasteMagazine.com.
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I've lived in San Francisco for 8 years now, but I've only recently started paying close attention to the schedule of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. I'm sure I missed a pile of great stuff in the first 7 years, but keeping my eyes open has certainly paid off in the last year with several outstanding series.

The PFA has just released the schedule for May and June, and once again it has some great selections. Here are a few:

  • Los Angeles Plays Itself — Thom Andersen's documentary about Los Angeles in the movies has been getting a lot of attention. It won the best documentary award at the Vancouver Film Festival, and I've been looking forward to seeing it. But the PFA is going all out. They're not only showing the movie twice (and loaning the print to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco for a showing in June), but they're also using it as an excuse to highlight L.A. in the movies by showing Point Blank, Zabriskie Point, Double Indemnity, Chinatown, Targets, and a bunch of other movies that use L.A. as a canvas. They're also showing several other documentaries by Thom Andersen.
  • Ozu's Mothers — The PFA was one of the hosts of the great, extensive Ozu retrospective last year, and they're bringing back four of the movies as a prelude to Mother's Day: Woman of Tokyo, A Mother Should Be Loved, The Only Son, and A Hen in the Wind.
  • Jean Rouch — In remembrance of Jean Rouch who passed away earlier this year, the schedule includes Rouche's Chronicle of a Summer.
  • Playtime — A restored 70mm print of Jacques Tati's Playtime will be showing at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco later this summer, but the PFA has a sneak peak: they'll be showing a new 35mm print of playtime that was made from the restored 70mm print.

These are a few of the highlights, but they've packed a lot into these two months, so check the schedule for more gems.

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According to an article in Variety, which I can only see a little bit of because I'm not a subscriber, Elvis Mitchell may be leaving the New York Times and A. O. Scott may remain as the head film critic. It feels a little like looking through a keyhole. Or swiss cheese. A cross-section of a loofa.

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I found this summary of recent events in Iraq to be very informative. The perspective is so clear and reasonable that I picked up Zakaria's book, as I mentioned earlier.

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I recently mentioned a thought-provoking collection of essays called Movie Mutations that examines world cinema, and world cinephilia, from several different angles.

In one of the essays, Kent Jones looks at the work of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, whose movies I haven't yet had a chance to see. The essay says a great deal about Tsai's work and why people outside of Taiwan are fascinated by it, but let me hone in on one aspect in particular: his depiction of city-dwellers.

Jones writes:

But what is odd and quite singular about Tsai is that, perhaps more than any other modern film-maker, he has successfully realised on film something that many of us who live in cities experience but few of us consciously understand, which is the melding of the public and the private. Those of us who walk the same streets, see the same faces, and find ourselves moved from one place to another by the same forms of transportation as we hear the same sounds and feel the same vibrations and breathe the same stale air, day in and day out, cannot help but make private, internalised rituals out of these supposedly neutral but nonetheless important parts of our lives, and key our desires and rituals of discovery and loss to their rhythms. Tsai is the first film-maker to somehow convey the antiseptic poignancy of modern urban life, its multiplicity of circumspect, guarded subjectivities dotting a landscape designed for 'functionality'. It has nothing to do with the old ideas of urban impersonality and alienation. There's no pre-existing, Edenic reality at which Tsai's ordinary people look back wistfully. This is their world, and all that concrete, asphalt and formica is just a regular part of it. Like New York or Tokyo, his Taipei seems to be operating according to a new physics, in which the city itself is set in motion by the private obsessions and biological quirks of the individuals who live within it, and within whom it lives — the reverse of the city films of the silent era.

I'm not sure which silent movies he's thinking of — I probably haven't seen many of them, The Crowd maybe? — but I do know that the inorganic cities in movies like Metropolis, City Lights, and Modern Times (the last two are pseudo-silents) seem to impose their large rigid structures on their inhabitants who are so disconnected from each other, so put upon by or kept at arms length from the other citizens, that their close proximity almost seems like a tragedy. But this isn't something I ever gave much thought.

It's funny, recently I was writing a capsule about the Hungarian movie Hukkle, and I very nearly described it as a "city symphony," a phrase often used to describe movies like Dziga Vertov's The Man With The Movie Camera, movies that train a quizzical eye on the rhythms of a city. The bustle of its sidewalks. The hum of its streets.

But Hukkle takes place in a rural village, not a city at all. It's the hum of bees and tractors. I wonder if the phrase came to mind because I live in a city. Maybe I mistakenly and subconsciously think of the rhythms around me as features of a city, even though they occur on farms and in nature, too. They're not features of a city; they're features of human, pattern-seeking perception.

Or maybe I jumped to the phrase "city symphony" because I'm not a native city dweller. I moved to the big city after college, and so while I've always been surrounded by rhythms — as everyone is — I wasn't conscious of them until they were new, until they were streetcars and subways and other rhythms I'd never lived among. I noticed this noise because it was unfamiliar. I gave it a name, citiniess, that I now (nearly) apply with knee-jerk recklessness to rural rhythms.

I recently picked up the book The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria. The book has a compelling premise: democracy and freedom are two distinct concepts that we sometimes mistakenly conflate, at our peril. Zakaria aims to put both of them under the microscope. I've only read a few paragraphs, but look at this opening bit:

From its Greek root, "democracy" means "the rule of the people." And everywhere we are witnessing the shift of power downward. I call this "democratization," even though it goes far beyond politics, because the process is similar: hierarchies are breaking down, closed systems are opening up, and pressures from the masses are now the primary engine of social change. Democracy has gone from being a form of government to a way of life.

Consider the economic realm. What is truly distinctive and new about today's capitalism is not that it is global or information-rich or technologically driven — all that has been true at earlier points in history — but rather that it is democratic.... Today most companies — indeed most countries — woo not the handful that are rich but the many that are middle class....

Culture has also been democratized. What was once called "high culture" continues to flourish, of course, but as a niche product for the elderly set, no longer at the center of society's cultural life, which is now defined and dominated by popular music, blockbuster movies, and prime-time television.... The key to the reputation of, say, a singer in an old order would have been who liked her. The key to fame today is how many like her.

I wonder if the difference that Kent Jones sees in how silent filmmakers depicted cities and how Tsai Ming-liang depicts cities stems from our different attitudes about cities in general. Cities have been democratized. Where once a city was built by the Gettys and Carnegies and Vanderbilts for us to inhabit, now we believe it is built by us, "the individuals who live within it, and within whom it lives."

And do these observations about the democratization of government, economics, and culture apply to Taiwan as much as they do America? Probably, but that's only a hunch; I'm not the one to ask.

For a major part of his essay, Jones tries to figure out what's so appealing about foreign movies like Tsai's. Their foreignness is part of the appeal, he argues. Foreign filmmakers use the familiar language of film to tell us about unfamiliar cultures. But I've found that even when it's not immediately obvious, learning about other cultures often tells me something about my own.

I'm not familiar with Tsai Ming-liang's movies. I'd like to be. But just reading Jones' observations about them has exposed assumptions I've made about my own environment — that cities are the source of rhythms, that cities are our collective expression — assumptions that are not or have not always been correct.

(Note: Tsai's latest film, Goodbye, Dragon Inn will be showing next week at the San Francisco International Film Festival.)

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Green mailbox gathers
Songs from friends, or dust, or dew
But nothing other

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I'm always afraid Wilco is falling apart, but so far I've always been wrong. As of today, you can listen to their new album on their web site. A Ghost Is Born is due out June 22.

When Uncle Tupelo broke up shortly after I first heard of them, I wasn't sad. It always felt like the two principals, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, were doing two different things, anyway. They made some good records together, but they made even more of them separately, Farrar with his band Son Volt and Tweedy with the remaining Tupelo players, rechristened Wilco (as in, "Yes, we will fulfill the Tupelo contract, but no we are not they. Will comply.").

People have always tried to wedge these guys into ill-fitting boxes. Farrar and Tweedy were the Lennon and McCartney of Uncle Tupelo, they say, with Tweedy being the lightweight. Or Tweedy was the guy who left the confines of country to make pop-rock that he wasn't suited for. But these are lies, all of them. First of all, Tweedy's no lightweight, and even if Farrar was the more sophisticated — or at least opaque — of the two at the time, Tweedy gave Tupelo great songs like "New Madrid" and "We've Been Had" where his lyrics and his raspy voice seemed to marry the energy of youth with the hard-luck lives of the folk musicians on whose shoulders Tupelo stood.

Second, when Tweedy followed his muse into an ever widening musical universe, any shocked responses were either disingenuous or ill-informed. Uncle Tupelo was no country band. They combined the Carter Family with Neil Young and the Sex Pistols. The Youngian guitar solos may have been Farrar's, but the energy and eclecticism, I'm convinced, were Tweedy's, and he carried both over to Wilco. At one of the most memorable shows I've ever seen at San Francisco's fabulous Fillmore Auditorium, Wilco's Jay Bennett broke a guitar and Tweedy ended up in the audience screaming a version of "Passenger Side" that would have made Johnny Rotten blush.

A lot of Wilco's energy came from Bennett, of course, the virtuoso who joined the band for their second album, Being There, a disjointed, ambitious 2-disc set of rock tunes as good — and as brooding — as they come. He helped lead the band into lush pop territory with the next album, Summer Teeth, on which no steel guitars appear anywhere.

But, like I said, I'm always afraid Wilco is falling apart. Not enough people bought those three albums. These guys will always remain obscure, I thought. They'll have to struggle to get their music heard. Most bands give up.

Then Bennett left the band while they were making their fourth album, and the next show at the Fillmore, a quiet, low-key affair — performed after they'd been dropped by their label and the new album was in limbo — left me thinking, "Well, that's probably the last time we'll get to see Wilco."

But then that album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was picked up by a different label and became an unlikely hit. This turbulence and serendipity are the subject of a documentary called I Am Trying To Break Your Heart that chronicled not only Bennett's departure but also the record label's waning interest in Wilco's noodling and the ironic twist that validated the band's approach and made the suits look like a bunch of weasels.

The band's fortunes have turned around miraculously. But will they handle the success? They've spent an unusually long time between albums, releasing only two in the last five years. That's not bad by most standards, but Tweedy and gang used to crank out one a year.

Will they handle the departure of Bennett? The forthcoming album will be the first since their debut to be made without his involvement.

Can Tweedy keep a band together? Their long-time multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach left the band recently.

Can Tweedy keep his lyrics from becoming too abstract? Can he continue to create melodies that are strong enough to hold together the increasingly sparse arrangements? Can he kick the pain killers?

Once again, I'm ready to treat the new album like it's the last we'll ever hear from them. Thankfully, they've crafted each of their albums since Being There with the same attitude. Everything's riding on this one. This time, we lay it all on the line. Every single time.

I've given the new album a single listen, streamed off of their web site. It's a big, strange, melancholy, piano-driven rock record, denser than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, something to sink your teeth into. Tweedy's voice is higher and wispier in some places than it's been before, combined with a soulful crunch here, a 10-minute pulse-and-drums groove there, an experimental guitar drone filling wide-open voids but not testing my patience, and lovely lovely melodies here and here and here. On "I'm A Wheel" Tweedy sounds like Big Star's Alex Chilton, not a bad model to be following all these years, as long as Wilco gets to keep making records and we get to keep hearing them.

I can't wait to see the live show, if and when it rolls into my town. I'm leaning toward "when," but I'll keep my fingers crossed just in case.

Posted by davis | Link | Comments (2)
Ying xiong
2002, China
director: Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou's elegant, star-studded action epic ambitiously attempts to elevate the sword-fighting genre in both style and substance. It builds not only on a long tradition of martial arts movies but also on more modern incarnations like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It begins with a king who's attempting to conquer a divided land to become the first emperor of China. A nameless assassin (Jet Li) approaches the king and reports that he has killed the three assassins who the king fears most — Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen). The nameless assassin has come to claim his reward.

In a flashback, "Nameless" recounts how he defeated each warrior, and the king listens to his tale, but he suspects that Nameless may not be telling the truth. So the king retells the story as he thinks it really happened, changing one detail that shifts the loyalties of each of the characters and changes the outcome entirely. But Nameless then changes yet another detail and tells the story again, like it's a move in a game of storytelling chess.

Hero is magnificently shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, known for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, and while he and Zhang take full advantage of digital effects to make people float and spin, their use of color takes a more painterly approach than Crouching Tiger or The Matrix. The characters spend much of their time fighting, but the violence is muted by a torrent of orange leaves or a shower of arrows so thick that it looks like a cloud of locusts.

Zhang is better known for period dramas than action flicks, and even within Hero's battles he explores more than just the choreography of combat. In what may be the movie's most spectacular set piece, the king, convinced that Broken Sword's fighting ability is related to his mastery of writing, sends his army to the calligraphy school where Broken Sword studies, a cluster of huts in the middle of the desert. The two disciplines, you see, require the same wrist motions and have some kind of mystical connection. The king's men, astride the king's horses, launch arrows toward the oasis, and Flying Snow stands outside the tent to shield the calligraphy students inside. Waves of arrows sail through the air, while the calligraphers feverishly write characters in the sand, as if it will protect them, and Flying Arrow performs an elegant dance that mirrors both the motions of writing and the defensive posture of sword fighting. With thrilling visual flair, Zhang pits the sword against the pen and fends off war with knowledge and non-violence.

Zhang dabbles less effectively with other themes, such as the issue of Chinese unification, which is highly relevant today and far too complex and divisive to be treated so lightly. A romance between Broken Sword and Flying Snow is interesting when it's a pawn in the game of storytelling, but it fails to convey much emotion. And a junior assassin played by Crouching Tiger's Ziyi Zhang seems like an afterthought; she's given very little to do.

But the theme of pacifism holds fast, developed through escalating violence and loyalties that change so easily we're encouraged not to take sides but instead to rise above them. The assault on the calligraphy school is echoed late in the movie when the king's army lets fly another flurry of arrows, this time at a man backing against a wall. The arrows stick in the wall so that it's soon covered with projectiles, except in one spot where the silhouette of a man remains. The man's shape is seen once more a few minutes later, under a red sheet as he's is carried through town.

From one flashback to the next, the colors of the assassins' clothing change — red, blue, shimmering white — and similarly each of the flashbacks features a tear running down Flying Snow's face, but the reason for the tear is different each time, a tear of anger, of jealousy, of loss, and finally, tragically, it's the tear of a warrior who cannot lay down her sword.

screened2004.03.04
San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival
This review also appears in print in Paste Magazine #11, August/September 2004.
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Siu lam juk kau
2001, Hong Kong
director: Stephen Chow

In Shaolin Soccer, writer, director, and star Stephen Chow plays a down-on-his-luck kung fu master who wishes people would make martial arts a bigger part of their daily lives. For example, it could be used to park cars or to avoid slipping on a banana peel. But he can't manage to get the word out. He's tried singing about it, but music is too subjective. Then he hits upon a brilliant idea: he rounds up a bunch of other failed masters and places them, along with their gravity-defying skills, on a soccer field. Together they form a ragtag team of underdogs who have to use their shaolin arts to defeat the reigning champions who are also — need it be said? — evil. It's silly, and the digital effects that enhance the slapstick are primitive, but Shaolin Soccer so deliriously riffs on everything from The Bad News Bears to Jurassic Park, from super heroes to break dancing, that it's hard not to get caught up in the goofy fun. Just when you think it's going to get bogged down with plot or sentimentality, it moves on to the next joke, quick and funny throughout.

This review also appears in print in Paste Magazine #11, August/September 2004.
Posted by davis | Link | Comments (7)
miscount
In our recent essay about the craft of screenwriting we stated that no screenplay is truly original because only 17 distinct stories exist and each of them has already been adapted into countless screenplays. However, we realize now that we forgot about the story in which the dog saves the family from the tornado and the one where Henry David Thoreau falls into Walden pond and just before he drowns is transported through space and time to 21st-century New York City where he is damn glad just to be alive even though he has to share an apartment with a college student and a duck, neither of whom will turn off the television. We apologize to any budding screenwriters who, due to our omission, wasted time on a screenplay based on either of these archetypes thinking that it was original.
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nothing to report
This site is functioning as designed. Per spec, as they say. We have adopted a new blank aesthetic. This page is useless? No, you are useless, my friend! We are tired of atoning. If eliminating content is what it takes to stem the tide of errors, then we will eliminate with abandon. We will abandon with elimination. Today you must go elsewhere to see a bunch of mistakes. Today Leo Tolstoy is no one's idea of a joke. Today we are very sure that Elf, Way Down East, and Modern Times have nothing whatsoever in common. Nothing! Today we are about nothing.
and so
We have nothing more on this topic.
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