Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
October 2004

My friend Girish, who is knowledgeable and passionate about a humbling number of filmmakers, made a confession today, and I know exactly how he feels. The universe of movies is staggering. It's smaller than the universe of literature, of course, which is the deception: a hundred years of movies seems containable and knowable, until you try to contain them and know them. I saw 140-some movies in theaters last year and I'll see well over 200 this year. That doesn't count video. And yet every single time — well almost — someone asks me if I've seen such-and-such, I say, "Wow, no, I haven't seen that."

Like this: "Have you seen Sky Captain?" "No, but I like to call it Sky Cap'n." That's my contribution to the discourse!

I've never seen anything by Lubitsch. I've barely seen anything by Bresson. I've seen a smattering of Bergman. I've seen 3.5 Tarkovskys an average of 1.57 times each, which if you've seen one of those you know is akin to watching the trailer. (They take time, you see.) Who the heck is Rene Claire? I wouldn't know a Rivette if it bit me in the Jacques. I sure got a bunch of chuckles out of Raoul Ruiz's latest movie; hey, maybe I should dip into at least one of his previous 50 movies. I've never even heard of Kon Ichikawa, and Girish has seen 25 of his films.

These are movies that I want to see, I just haven't had the time for them, yet. They're in my queue, but movies go into the queue faster than they come out. <sigh> And, by the way, so do books. Don't even get me started on what books I haven't read. Lots. Lots!

Well, Girish, you should be glad that you have so much Ozu ahead of you. That much I know. The bullets in your post (you're using the time-tested list format, I see) ring true for many of his films. You're going to love them.

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Here's Garrison Keillor addressing radio and television correspondents in Washington, D.C., on May 2, 1994:

Sometimes, in the news business, people create cliff-hangers where there are no cliffs and write about events with a tone of urgency that has no basis in fact. I'm not saying that you do this, but you may know people who do. And that is why some journalists' credibility depends largely on the forgetfulness of the American people.

There is a great danger when the press wanders from the facts. If you do, you will be held to a different standard than one you're used to.

Journalists are held to a standard of truth which is demonstrable, at least over the long run. But when you slip into the field of fiction and entertainment, then you will be expected to be fascinating. This is going to shorten your careers. Nobody can be fascinating for long, but people can be accurate and responsible for an entire career.

And I wish all of you long and distinguished careers.

Posted by davis | Link

Here's the video of Jon Stewart's appearance on Crossfire. The program was broadcast live. Quite live. If you can't see the video, here are a couple of good rundowns in Salon and the Washington Post.

If Tucker Carlson is right that Stewart doesn't ask hard enough questions on his show, then I think it's fair to say that Crossfire just isn't funny enough to be worth a bucket of warm spit.

Then again, how the hell would I know? I guess I'm just going by their web site, where the hosts aren't mugging quite enough for the camera, which accidentally makes their show look like a mid-season replacement for The Profiler. Not funny. Not funny, like that. Granted, using the word "debate" three times in their 77-word description of the show is pretty funny, so maybe Crossfire is worth a bucket of warm spit after all.

Turn off the cable news channels. Please. My God, they make my blood boil.

(Via Long Pauses)

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I'm not sure how legit this link is, but those who may be interested can download and watch George Butler's documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.

I saw the film in Toronto and was pleasantly surprised. I went in with low expectations, having recently grown as tired as most everybody else of slapped together political diatribes. I'm talking about movies like The Hunting of the President (or as I prefer to call it, crap), Harry Thomason's film about the attacks against Bill Clinton in the 90s, a movie that operates well below the importance of its material and insults the audience at every turn. Actually, maybe "tired" isn't the right word, because I certainly think some of these topics are worth exploring but calmly, reasonably, logically, and with some sense of how movies work. Maybe "frustrated" is better.

Well Going Upriver isn't slapped together, and Butler's previous movies shouldn't lead anyone to think it would be. Pumping Iron and The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition were both fine documentaries, and so is this one.

Granted it has an agenda. And its opening minutes may lead you believe that it's going to be a syrupy-sweet hagiography, like something that might be projected at the Democratic National Convention. It has nothing bad to say about John Kerry, that's for sure, but I found the context that it provides for Kerry's post-war activism — the focus of the movie — to be quite valuable, especially given how many of Kerry's quotes from that period have been bandied about (two?) repeatedly on national TV. Context and information are good. Don't let a fear of bias keep you away from them.

Finally, it's nice to be in the hands of a strong filmmaker, simply for aesthetic reasons. The movie is well-paced and features great footage of Vietnam (which I suspect is color-enhanced by computers and, anyway, looks a lot better at your local theater than in the above download) and revealing footage of Kerry speaking — clearly, passionately, and persuasively — at rallies of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and on talk shows like Dick Cavett. It also features plenty of talking heads, including Bobby Muller who spoke memorably about his war experiences in Hearts and Minds and hasn't lost a bit of his spark. He was eloquent at the post-screening Q&A in Toronto and obviously cares greatly about his country.

(Via Population: One)

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I'm surprised at how many critics are falling over themselves to praise Tarnation. I wonder if some of the sentiment comes from a need to recognize the phenomenon of personal cinema that we all know is brewing even though we don't yet have a standard-bearer to mark the beginning. Until now. I'm not sure if Tarnation has the strength to take much weight, standing as it does on the brittle bones of psychodrama.

David Edelstein even anticipates the souring: "Probably after the 5,000th arty home-movie montage purporting to tell the story of someone's lousy childhood, I'll rue the day I called Tarnation a masterpiece." But he goes ahead, anyway. At least he's honest.

I'd cite Armond White, but his trashing of the movie is no surprise. You can set your watch by him.

Scott Tobias' positive review is measured, which I appreciate (and, hey, is The Onion allowing their critics to write longer reviews, now?), but most of all I was glad to see Anthony Lane end his review in the latest New Yorker like this:

... the picture is preyed upon, as is every memoir, by the threat of the narcissistic, and as the son points the camera at his mother in the New York of 2000, and presses her for details of her marriage, you fear a fresh cycle of harm. ?We can talk, Jon,? she cries, in obvious distress. ?We don?t need it on film.? There is an art, as hard as any other, in knowing when art has to stop.
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2003, U.S.
director: Jonathan Caouette

In 1973, influential filmmaker Jean Rouch wryly explained why he made documentaries about vanishing cultures: "Why do I take the camera among mankind? My first response will always, strangely, be the same: 'For me.'" Trained as an anthropologist, Rouch had a good many more reasons than that, but his statement was honest and philosophical. "Film," he added, "is the only means I have to show someone else how I see him." In the 1950s his embrace of new technologies — portable cameras and audio equipment — helped Rouch stand on the shoulders of Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North) and Dziga Vertov (The Man with the Movie Camera), innovators who recognized in the earliest days of cinema that a camera has the potential to break down barriers between people, like a little machine that captures the truth, or at least something close to it.

Born in Houston a year before Rouch made that statement, Jonathan Caouette grew up with one of those machines at his side, and he hung onto it like a security blanket through his family's dark nights. Tarnation, the 90-minute film that he extracted from two decades of footage, tries to untangle his complicated past and get at something close to the truth. It's his own story — he was a troubled kid with abusive foster parents, a boy who made slasher movies with his friends and partied at adult clubs when he was a teen — but it's also the story of his mother and her mental illness and the story of his grandparents who raised him, intermittently, during his mother's extended hospital stays. Caouette now seems like someone coming up for air after a long, breathless struggle; Tarnation is his testament of survival.

The promise of personal video is that it'll put the power of moving images into the hands — and homes — of ordinary people. It's another frontier opened by technology, a place that cameras have, until now, been too bulky or too foreign to go unnoticed. Albert Brooks poked fun at the attempts to film domestic spaces in his hilarious first movie, Real Life, where men with cameras mounted on their heads lurk around Charles Grodin's dinner table as he tries to carry on a normal — quote unquote — conversation with his family. But since then cameras have become as familiar as socks in many American homes, and for kids like Jonathan, the camera has become a substitute for a leather-bound diary, trusty and worn, a keeper of secrets.

Although Tarnation may foreshadow a new era of personal filmmaking, it doesn't necessarily herald the coming of a great filmmaker. Caouette's 90 minutes are a jumbled mass of images, aligned in arbitrary grids and edited with little grace. Maybe the high-volume, monotonous pace mirrors Caouette's own inability to order his life and his own tendency toward melodrama, but his movie would benefit from a keener, more curious eye. Instead of using the grammar of cinema to tell his story, he relies on pages of scrolling text that read like the piteous scribbles of a teenager holed up in his room with the stereo blasting. The world's against me. Woe is me.

Granted, young Jonathan had plenty to be woeful about, but the movie is best when it slips quietly into the air pockets between his family's dramatic episodes, showing Caouette's natural, spooky talent for acting in the process. A monologue he delivers when he's surely not a whisker over 12, playing the part of a battered housewife, is as riveting as it is disturbing. He's acting for an audience of one, his camera, and although it's not the kind of scene that would be the heart of most movies, it might be the heart of this one. At that moment Tarnation is tensely electric and seemingly on the verge of fulfilling its promise by tapping into an unexplored vein of human experience.

But an older Caouette, the one who edited this movie and seems to be at the mercy of his flair for drama, eventually abandons this intimacy to cater instead to an irresistible new audience, one raised on ambush journalism and televised domestic disputes. When he confronts his family or puts them in awkward situations for the sake of a good scene, dutifully waiting for one party to stomp out of the room, his movie feels simply conventional. It's no longer "for me" or even "for us" but all too eager to evoke pity in an unseen third party; it's "for you," the audience who expects an emotional roller coaster. Over-extending, Caouette says — in text — that his mother was a beauty before her unnecessary shock treatments, as if they're that much worse for having spoiled her appearance. With backhanded sympathy like that, it's no wonder the movie wasn't released on Mother's Day.

The video revolution may indeed be televised, and the truth may be streamed at so many bits per second, but the technology alone won't be enough. It will require revolutionaries, filmmakers who are sensitive to the needs of images that are so intimate they can either crush or be crushed, so tenuously powerful that they're devastating only until someone tries to make them more so. Caouette's life is filled with extraordinary experiences, but extraordinary experiences are nothing new to the movies. The ordinary ones, the ones that the tiny ubiquitous cameras have the greatest potential to reveal, remain, for the time being, elusive.

Toronto International Film Festival
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