Greetings from London. I hadn't planned to see many movies this week, but I made a list of possibilities, anyway, and it looks like I may have a chance to catch Distant, after all. It opens here on Friday, which is a nice surprise since I missed its brief run at home a few weeks ago.
I ran across a small article in this week's Sunday Times Magazine about a guy named Alan Conway who went around London and elsewhere claiming to be Stanley Kubrick.
The fact that he didn't look remotely like the famous director did not matter: his deceit was helped by Kubrick's decision to spend the latter part of his life as a recluse. Conway was born Eddie Jablowsky in 1934 in London's East End. As a child he fell into petty crime, and while in borstal he changed his name to (aptly enough) Alan Conn. Several dodgy deals, name changes and fake credit cards later, he took Kubrick's identity as a key to a more lavish lifestyle.
This isn't news. Here's an article from 1999 that gives some of the details.
Now the curious thing is that someone is making a movie about this, called Colour Me Kubrick and starring John Malkovich as Conway. The director is Brian W. Cook who's making his directorial debut, although he's been working in the movies for a while and was even a co-producer of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
All of this will sound strangely familiar to fans of Abbas Kiarostami's Close Up, one of Kiarostami's most acclaimed movies, a fascinating tale about a guy named Ali Sabzian who pretended to be well-known Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. But Sabzian's trickery is about as different from Conway's exploits as Makhmalbaf's movies are from Kubrick's. Rather than jetting around the globe as someone else, Sabzian spent time prepping a family to star in his next film, going over to their house to talk with them and act out scenes.
This really happened, and then Kiarostami made a movie about it, but in typical reflective fashion he constructed his movie like a mobius strip: he cast the actual people — Sabzian and the family — as themselves and had them reenact the events for his camera; he filmed a sudden meeting between Sabzian and the real Makhmalbaf; and he filmed the court hearing in which Sabzian's mother testifies, the point where the movie becomes surprisingly emotional. With a layer of mirrors, Close Up gradually becomes a poetic examination of life and desire, and Kiarostami uses the prestige of movies as a reflection of that desire. Why, after all, would someone fantasize about being a celebrity or be flattered that one wants to come into his home?
(It's related to something that Hitchcock explores in Rear Window, I think, which just came up in a separate post. Jimmy Stewart wishes that he and his girlfriend had a more exciting life, like in the movies, and he projects that desire onto what he sees through his window — like a movie screen — but be careful what you wish for. His girlfriend breaks the barrier by stepping into the screen, which opens the door for the nefarious characters on the other side who then step out of the screen and into Stewart's apartment. Who's watching whom?)
Whether Colour Me Kubrick will be more like Close Up or Catch Me If You Can is anyone's guess, but it's interesting to imagine what someone who's willing to step through the looking glass, as Kiarostami was, could make of this material, especially with Malkovich in the role. He has not only played directors in the past, but he has also played "himself" in Being John Malkovich, a character we know isn't really him but instead a reflection of his celebrity.
Colour Me Kubrick opens later this year.
I'll be out of town all this week, but here are a few movie ideas for anyone who will be in the Bay Area (and a few DVD ideas for everyone else):
I keep thinking of an exchange in Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch's classic collaboration with Edgar Morin. In the movie, Rouch and Morin walk through Paris in the summer of 1961 looking for truth about daily life. They're not simply observing; the act of filming is a conscious part of the movie and rather than ignore the effect that the camera has on its subjects, the filmmakers acknowledge and explore it.
Adopting something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that we learned about in high school, Rouch and Morin see the effects of the camera not as errors, necessarily, but as a phenomenon that can perhaps be exploited for truth.
We've all been filmed so much by now that it's almost quaint to see an attempt to capture everyday life with handheld cameras that was made when the idea was in its infancy. It's like watching Eisenstein or Vertov as they tinker with the juxtaposition of shots and discover things that most of our current TV and film directors seem to have forgotten.
So the entire movie is fascinating as both a cinematic experiment and a slice of early-60's life, but it's one exchange in the middle of the movie that I keep replaying in my head. It goes like this:
Rouch and Morin have gathered their subjects around a table to discuss the war in Algeria and the Congo, which is on the front page of the newspaper. One of the film's subjects is an African who muses about Parisian life from an outsider's perspective, and someone asks him if he, being an African, feels any personal connection to the violence in the news.
Yes, he says, every nation in Africa was a colony at some point and so when Africans hear about white-on-black conflict, they have at the very least a sense of recognition, of familiarity.
A French woman at the table hesitantly says that she feels something similar when she hears about anti-Semitism, although she bookends her remarks by saying that it's not the same, it's not the same.
Rouch then asks the African if he knows what the number is that's tattooed on the woman's hand. Too big to be a phone number, he says, laughing. She explains that, well, during the war she was deported from France, and the tattoo is her concentration camp identification.
The group falls silent, and Rouch asks if the man knows what a concentration camp is. Yes, he saw it in a film once. Was it [Alain Resnais's] Night and Fog, Rouch asks. Yes, Night and Fog.
Much has been written about the presence of the camera in Chronicle of a Summer and its immediate effect on the people featured, and it's fascinating stuff. But what strikes me about this exchange isn't so much the presence of the camera but the way specific, distant, foreign events are personalized by people and the way cinema, as a form of human expression, can help to complete the circle.
Resnais's powerful short Night and Fog documents in detail the most horrendous acts of the Nazis. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Congo, and Rouch's film, in which his cohorts go around town asking Parisians, "Are you happy?" has seemingly nothing to do with either. And yet they're all connected because particular human experiences, as communicated through conversations or movies, including this one, are just carriers for basic human emotions that are shared by us all.
Night and Fog and Chronicle of a Summer also have nothing to do with Chantal Akerman, and yet it was this week — after reading about someone's experience at a screening of Toute Une Nuit and remembering that I still haven't written about the Akerman movies that I saw earlier this year — that I thought of this exchange, particularly as I thought about Akerman's American Stories which tells the tales of Polish Jews who immigrated to America. Maybe it was the Jewish connection that made me free-associate back to Chronicle of a Summer, but what amazes me about American Stories is how tightly woven the idea of performance is with the characters' lives. It seems perfectly natural that someone should stand in front of a camera and relate her experience of immigration.
And why? Because as a form of communication, it connects us, which seems somehow vital. An article in the Atlantic Monthly this month (via GreenCine Daily) asks this intriguing question: "If France makes movies for the French, and America makes movies for the world, who's left to make movies for America?"
Are movies really so particular that we can't appreciate details from another culture? Or that no one can appreciate details from our own? Can we not learn about the other's days and struggles, fortunes and politics, while finding ways to relate them to our own lives, if not literally then merely by valuing the greater understanding we have of people we will undoubtedly interact with in the future, somewhere, someday, on this shrinking globe?
Chantal Akerman's American Stories opens with a long slow gaze at the New York City skyline as seen from a gently rocking boat, the soundtrack peppered with whispers from unseen immigrants. The rest of the movie is made up of their stories of life in that dark and glittering new world, told in their own voices, inspired by and partially adapted from the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Men and women, young and old, speak monologues into the camera while standing on street corners or in vacant lots. The most moving of those tales are filled with fear and loss — questions about the ethics of survival or the withering and subsequent reflowering of faith and how different that faith looks having made the transition — but sprinkled among them are exchanges of wonderfully surreal Yiddish-derived humor. First man: "You know, life is like a fountain." Second man: "How so?" First man, raising his eyebrows and shoulders: "So it's not like a fountain."
The result is casually striking, not only in how wide a net it casts over the immigration of Polish Jews to America, but also in the way it depicts a life that's inseparable from performance, a joyous, ever-beating theatricality that seems like a natural and life-affirming reaction to oppression, like blades of grass through concrete. The range of emotion is reflected in the eclectic settings, all of them outside and exposed to the elements, with bridges in the background and trucks rumbling past. An extended restaurant sequence takes place amid a cluster of tables in a field, each one with a seated patron, a tablecloth, and, hanging above it out of the night sky, a bare bulb. (In lyrical fashion, the bulb above a young woman in love is always swinging.) As Judy Bloch wrote in the program notes for the Pacific Film Archive, for these characters, "New York is a way station, a point of transit before another incarnation, so Akerman's camera magically makes the real location appear to be an artificial set." Indeed, the characters seem like an extended family who've gathered to act out skits among brick buildings that are lit with blue and red lights like the backdrop of a stage play, a mix of professional actors and amateurs joined by memories of what it was like to take root in a new land. The movie provides no subtitles for the Polish whispers that open the movie, so soft that they blend with the lap of water against the boat, but all of the monologues that follow are in English.
The existential role of comedy in the lives of struggling people is maybe never so clear as when those people tell jokes under umbrellas while lightning flashes overhead.
I'd like to thank a few kind web writers out there who have added links to Errata:
Thanks for the links, guys.
I spent this past weekend doing something that I haven't done much of, lately: riding roller coasters. Yes, I'm a card-carrying member of American Coaster Enthusiasts, but I haven't kept up with most of the new coasters that have been built in recent years. I get motion sickness, and I always worry that I'm building up an immunity to Dramamine. Maybe that's part of it, but for whatever reason I just haven't made the time.
But when some friends asked my wife and me if we wanted to join them for the opening weekend at Cedar Point in Ohio, we jumped on a plane bound for Detroit. Not only was it a chance to visit our favorite coaster park with friends, but it was also a great opportunity to take our first ride on what is currently the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world, the Top Thrill Dragster.
It's 420 feet tall and reaches its top speed, 120 miles per hour, only 4 seconds after the train leaves the station. Obviously, it leaves the station rather suddenly. The weather on the Lake Erie coast was lovely, the freshly-painted rides were breathtaking, and we had fun catching up with our friends.
And to top it all off, the Dragster was having technical problems. That's not normally a positive thing, of course, but in this case it was kind of cool. Although we were strapped in for our first ride and gripping the handles with white knuckles, the sophisticated new launch system was unable to propel our train at 120mph. We shot off the launch pad, sure enough, but our train only reached a measly 100mph or so, which meant we didn't quite make it up all 420 vertical feet of track. We peeked over the top of the hill (we were seated near the front), but gravity took hold of the back of the train and tugged it like the elastic cord pulling a red rubber ball. We slowed down and started rolling backward off of the ride's highest point and did a reverse free-fall until we arrived back at our starting point at a very high speed.
That sounds scary, but it's happening more than Cedar Point would like. Everything from weather to wear-and-tear is giving the propulsion system fits, so every once in a while a train won't make it over, and ours was one of the lucky ones. The designers knew this was a possibility (thank you) and created a nice smooth braking system at both ends of the ride. So we sat for a minute, still strapped in, some of us woozy, as the maintenance people cleared the flashing lights from the console. Then the machine fired us again, and we cleared the hill and continued through the ride.
Gravity is a harsh mistress.
Here's a cool article from a trade journal, Machine Design, that describes some of the technical details of the ride in terms that we lay-people can understand. I especially liked this part:
Once blasted from the starting position the last thing anybody wants is to see the train rolling backward after not making the 420-ft climb. That scenario is unlikely, says [Cedar Point's Rob Decker, vice president of planning and design], but Cedar Point officials are prepared nonetheless.
Traditional coasters that gradually ascend the lift hill have antirollback devices that keep trains from reversing. Those systems aren't appropriate for a coaster of Top Thrill Dragster's immensity because a train that didn't make the hill would come back down going more than 100 mph. Traditional braking mechanisms would give passengers too much of a jolt. And once stopped, there's no other propulsion method in place to get the train moving again. [Ride manufacturer] Intamin's solution: a magnetic-braking system.
Permanent magnets mount to the bottom of each train, and copper-alloy fins are affixed to the track. Pneumatic cylinders pull the fins down so the train can launch over top, and then let them pop back up after the train blasts off. When the fins are up, they pass between the magnets, trimming the speed and eventually stopping the cars. "Because we are using rare-earth magnets, there's no need for a power source, and they work all the time. The ride can come to a halt safely, even in the event of a total loss of power," explains [Cedar Point's Monty Jasper, vice president of maintenance and new construction].
Unlikely, indeed. I'm glad the designers took the scenario into account.
I have to say, despite the thrill of the new ride, my favorite coaster in the park remains the classicly modern Millennium Force (three years ago it was the tallest/fastest ride in the world at a mere 310ft/93mph), followed closely by the gracefully twisted Raptor.
I'm also pleased to report that the Dramamine is still doing the trick. I carry the chewables.
Here's what's pencilled into the movie calendar for this week:
Hearing about the torture and the grizzly deaths in Iraq over the past week, I keep thinking of a new documentary about a notorious prison in Cambodia, the S21, which was part of Pol Pot's genocide machine in the 1970s. The movie, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine poses some pretty difficult questions about who the victims are in these situations. Should a child raised by the Khmer Rouge, who becomes a ruthless prison guard, who tortures inmates, who cannot see the inmates as human, be counted among them?
Certainly what has happened so far during the Iraq war, in terms of scope and number, seems to be a far cry from what happened in Cambodia, and I don't mean to compare them. I only mean that it's easy to make knee-jerk reactions about people — on either side — and much harder to admit the presence of darkness within ourselves that can lead to atrocities, to admit how malleable human behavior is, whether it's harnessed by people in power or just a product of a complicated system where justice turns into tit-for-tat when bookkeeping gets sloppy.
"I'm doing this because..."
S21 is having a limited release this year. Check it out, if you get the chance.
An article in Wired says that out of print music is the next frontier for expanding the number of legal music downloads:
In general, [Steve Jobs] said, labels have less than a third of the music in their vaults available for sale because it's too expensive to distribute such CDs to stores.
But to make songs available online, record companies wouldn't have to press CDs, get them to stores and worry about returns. "It's a one-time cost," [Alex Luke, director of music programming and label relations for Apple's iTunes Music Store] said. "Once it's been encoded and delivered, it's in the digital marketplace."
"What Jobs is saying is, 'We'd be happy to take all this content that is rotting away in warehouses and turn it into a new revenue source for you,'" said Barry Ritholtz, a market strategist with Maxim Group, a money-management firm.
I'm sure there are a few ongoing costs associated selling such music online, such as tracking royalty payments, which some labels have neglected, and maintaining digital storage and backups. But I imagine those are trivial expenses compared to manufacturing and distributing plastic saucers.
Here's this week's movie log, without much commentary for now. This includes the tail end of the SFIFF.
4-27 The Five Obstructions (Leth/von Trier)
4-27 Grimm (van Warmerdam)
4-28 A Diary from the Next World (Barkovskaya short)
4-28 Bad Behaviour (Clarke)
4-28 L'Esquive (Kechiche)
4-29 Reconstruction (Boe)
4-30 Serge Daney: Journey of a Cin?-Son (Boutang/Rabourdin)
5-1 Suzhou River (Lou) [DVD]
5-1 Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (Tarantino)
5-4 The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax) [DVD]
5-6 Chronicle of a Summer (Rouch)
5-6 The Mad Masters (Rouch short)
5-7 Millennium Mambo (Hou) [second time]
I'm currently travelling for a few days, but I'll be back to the movies shortly.
The Netflix DVD rental service has fundamentally changed how I rent movies. I've used it for two and a half years. My DVDs come quickly, the selection is good, the site is stable, and they've never sent me the wrong disc.
But recently the cool kids have been switching to a competing service called GreenCine (which they say is pronounced "green scene"). GreenCine offers the same rental model at the same price, but their raison d'être is that they have a selection that better appeals to cinephiles and alternative movie lovers.
I'm not a very big watcher of anime or midnight horror, but there have been a few times when a movie that I've wanted to see was available on DVD but was not available at Netflix. GreenCine claims to fix this. I've been so happy with Netflix that I haven't wanted to jump ship without more info, so for the last few months I've had accounts at both services so I can compare them side-by-side.
Here are a few observations:
Most of the people who visit this site don't live in San Francisco, but as long as I'm updating my personal calendar each week with potential screenings, I might as well dump a few of the highlights here.
Coming up in the next week, a little something for everyone:
Holy cow, even without setting foot in a multiplex, it's impossible to see everything, but it's hard to go wrong with any of the above. I'll be spending most of my weekend riding roller coasters, literally, so I'm not sure what I'll be able to squeeze in. We'll see.
And don't forget that Sunday is Mother's Day.
Despite being virtually ignored by critics who have previously hailed Hou Hsiao-Hsien as one of the greatest filmmakers working today, Millennium Mambo has achieved something that none of Hou's earlier features was able to: theatrical distribution in the U.S. The irony, of course, is that just as Hou's work has an opportunity to reach a wider audience in this country, his champions are looking down their noses at the film's one-note characters who are apparently unworthy of Hou's attention.
Millennium Mambo is the story of Vicky, played by popular pin-up model Shu Qi, a modern young woman in Taipei who has a little money in the bank and not much to do besides smoke, drink, and hang out at clubs with her friends. She bounces between her controlling, on-again-off-again boyfriend Hao-hao and the older, possibly wiser Jack, with occasional detours to a snowy part of Japan. Each of the three corners of Vicky's globe has a gravitational pull on her, sometimes defying all reason, and the movie artfully balances them and seems to weigh them for their worth, just as Vicky is doing the same.
It's not hard to see why American distributors have been reluctant to pick up Hou's movies. He watches his characters through very long takes without introducing them, follows them through minimal storylines that are about as far from the boilerplate three-act structure as a plot can get, adopts a complex inner logic for each movie that governs all of the elements, and has a particular interest in the turbulent history of Taiwan. Finding an audience in this country is bound to be an uphill battle, but movies that focus on individuals rather than institutions, as Hou's invariably do, can reach beyond the cultures in which they were born. Hou's three movies about Taiwan's 20th century, for example — A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women — tell their tales of national identity through the eyes of ordinary people, and Western audiences can gain a great deal from these movies without understanding all of the subtleties of Taiwan's history, as long as they're comfortable with being a bit mystified at times, which frankly can be one of the pleasures of seeing a foreign movie.
Writing in LA Weekly, John Powers remarked, "By my reckoning, Hou has made at least 10 better movies," and I can't disagree, but it's a statement that sounds more damning than it actually is. By consistently delivering thought-provoking material and exploring new configurations of his characteristic style, Hou has set the bar very high. Millennium Mambo is atypical in some ways, more urban and tense than most of his movies, and while he's no stranger to characters that seem stuck in cul-de-sacs, Vicky and Hao-hao don't seem as interested in transcending their condition as the similar characters in Goodbye, South Goodbye and Good Men, Good Women.
Despite these differences, Millennium Mambo deserves its place in Hou's oeuvre. Visually it's not far removed from the beautiful fishbowl apartment of Good Men, Good Women or the self-contained world of Flowers of Shanghai. Shot by Mark Lee, every frame is gorgeous, pulsing with colorful light that finds its way from the street to the bedroom via panes of glass or strands of beads. One of Hou's strengths, which is as obvious here as in any of his movies, is his sense of space. He fully utilizes the three dimensions of his locations not by roving through the hallways — his camera rarely moves — but by making the audience aware of spaces beyond the camera's reach such that his worlds feel observed rather than constructed. People disappear through doorways, but they still exist. They don't stand artificially in front of the camera. If they need to move into the kitchen to get something, they do, and Hou's camera waits for their return. In Millennium Mambo he seems fascinated by the way characters pass through boundaries, from hallways into apartments, from bedrooms into living rooms. The frame is often packed with people and furniture, reflecting not only the character's physical locations but also their lives. They're bouncing off of each other like volatile molecules in a heated container, in desperate need of fresh air but too numb to know it. The way the music connects and contrasts those locations, something Hou has rarely done to such a degree, is often sublime.
If Millennium Mambo's weakness is in its characters — hollow, selfish, and aimless — then the movie redeems itself by urging them toward serenity in a strangely moving final chapter. Hou originally intended the film to be the first in a series about young adults in present day Taiwan, and this long-range view of youth makes even the first installment unusually reflective. It's narrated from the future: "This happened 10 years ago, in 2001," says an oddly detached female voice, presumably Vicky's, even though she refers to herself in the third person. It's as if she sees her younger self, the one we're watching drift through empty days and nights, as a different person entirely. To escape the techno beats of Taipei, Vicky takes a brief trip to Japan where she strolls down an "avenue of film" and presses her face into a snow bank. The indentation that she leaves behind is sure to melt, like the faces on the movie posters hanging above her. Vicky strolls, wrapped in the heavy isolation of a winter coat amid the white stillness of a blanket of snow; this moment stands in contrast to her mesmerizing, slow-motion stride through a pedestrian walkway in the movie's opening minutes, where she's light and confident. The new millennium is an excuse for a party, but it's also a marker in time, a reminder of fleeting days. By the end of the movie, Vicky is a woman in search of permanence.
After completing Millennium Mambo, Hou put the series on hold to spend some time bolstering the Taiwanese film industry and making an homage to Yasujiro Ozu, two worthwhile ventures. But I hope he returns to the project. A country and its history are reflected in its people, and few filmmakers capture them so well.