Via Chicago
September 2007
30 September 2007 — Episode 005 Podcast

4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days

On today's podcast we offer empirical evidence to answer a long-burning question about whether podcasts can be produced without sleep, listlessly. Conclusion: a hearty somewhat!

Also, we talk about the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, paying special attention to world cinema. Reporting from Toronto is our own J. Robert Parks. This discussion also functions as a preview for people who are attending the New York Film Festival in October since many of these films play at both events, and it also functions as a preview of what may appear in art houses around the U.S. in the next 12 months.

Films marked "NYFF" in the rundown below apply both to TIFF and NYFF. Films marked "vom" feature vomiting. Films marked "whirled cinema" may induce vomiting. Films marked "calming" neither feature nor induce vomiting despite appearances to the contrary. Except in the case of "NYFF," these various designations have not been applied consistently due to shortage of time and spotty research. Caveat lector.

0:00 Intro: Tip for Parents, Toronto, New York, Program Notes
3:55 Toronto 2007, Part 1
4:16 You, the Living (Andersson)
6:53 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Mungiu) [NYFF]
9:21 Just Like Home (Scherfig)
9:45 Useless (Jia)
12:22 Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou) [NYFF]
16:40 Jellyfish (Geffen/Keret)
17:17 Happiness (Hur)
18:25 What's Coming Up? Reygadas, Van Sant, Sokurov
19:54 Banishment (Zvyogintsev)
21:04 What Else is Coming Up? De Heer
23:12 Toronto 2007, Part 2
25:11 Silent Light (Reygadas) [NYFF]
29:54 Paranoid Park (Van Sant) [NYFF]
33:20 Encounters at the End of the World (Herzog)
37:19 Secret Sunshine (Lee) [NYFF]
41.54 The Pope's Toilet and debut films
46:38 The Sun Also Rises (Jiang)
51:16 Alexandra (Sokurov) [NYFF]
53:06 My Winnipeg (Maddin)
56:22 Second-hand reactions: In the City of Sylvia, etc [NYFF]
59:53 Toronto 2007 Summary
1:03:27 Outro

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2007, U.S.
director: Wes Anderson

Photo Credit: James Hamilton

In Wes Anderson's first feature, Bottle Rocket, a young woman bats her eyes and says to Luke Wilson, "You're complicated, aren't you?" He pauses a moment and, with absolute sincerity, says, "I try not to be."

Anderson has never been closer to that sentiment than he was then; he's been a serial complicator ever since, taking what was interesting about his characters — their belief in organization, their anachronistic appreciation of personal objects, their wish to lead grander lives — and absorbing it into the films themselves, no longer observing these traits but embodying them, shifting his stories into ever more hermetic, romanticized locales, and indulging an over-fascination with eccentricity that once looked clever but now more closely resembles a nervous tic.

The Darjeeling Limited is, one would hope, the end of the line for this train. The film's prologue — a 13-minute short called Hotel Chevalier that won't actually screen with the movie but can be seen instead on the Internet [free here] and the eventual DVD — neatly encapsulates the film's nature. Jason Schwartzman welcomes Natalie Portman, the ex-girlfriend from whom he's running, into his Parisian hotel room. The short is immaculately shot, the spare dialogue is dryly witty, the slightly elliptical editing, although it feels sloppy at first, seems more assured as time goes on, and the ending is a muted epiphany, neither an exclamation point nor a question mark but a simple, dim period.

Anderson has an undeniable flair for visual grace, and in Hotel Chevalier he derives a good three-fifths of it from Portman, who's cute as a button in her Jean Seberg hairdo, Vulcan eyebrows, and lithe, nude poses. Anderson's camera tracks adoringly past her, or holds her just outside the frame at key moments. But, of course, his camera tracks adoringly past half of the people and vehicles in The Darjeeling Limited, usually in slo-mo as an Animals-esque guitar riff fills the theater like horses hooves in a Western.

Photo Credit: James Hamilton

The prologue's muted epiphany occurs when the characters breach the membrane surrounding the hermetically sealed chamber: they step onto the balcony, get some fresh air, turn outward, and breathe life, gazing toward whatever is off the left side of the frame, a Parisian cityscape perhaps, and — given Anderson's exacting sense of the twee — a cityscape that's more likely to include the Seine than the Eiffel Tower.

But then the camera fills the blank by panning 90-degrees counterclockwise, quickly and robotically, to reveal that the couple is looking at the side of another building across the street, an attractive gray building the likes of which line every rue in Paris. It's a telling discovery; the breath of fresh air, the widening gaze, was nothing of the sort. They're outside in only the most perfunctory sense.

* * *

In The Darjeeling Limited proper, which takes place a few days later, Schwartzman joins his estranged brothers, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson, on a train crossing India. The trip is Wilson's idea, an effort to bond with his brothers after their father's death. The interactions are mildly humorous, the rhythm is pleasant, the setting is intriguing, and the journey, we suspect, will be the reward, but before these elements have a chance to cohere, the weight of the film — the sealed tube through which the brothers move, the ever-panning camera — settles on the scene like a wool blanket on a summer day. The men grumble about their relationship with their parents, recalling The Royal Tenenbaums, but this film has no Gene Hackman to put a brick through the other guy's windshield, to take it out and chop it up. Anderson brings Bill Murray and Angelica Huston in for brief, iconic appearances, and he glimpses Portman (fully robed) once near the end of the film, but, while each of these actors precisely effects a trademark dour puss, they stand not like characters but emblems of some filmic pattern that Anderson doesn't bother to flesh out, dalliances as brief as the one that Schwartzman has with the train's stewardess, only less engaged. He honors them all with a closing montage that mirrors a moving train, like Fellini's in I Vitelloni, but I'm not sure what we're supposed to think as the camera glides past bodies we've never really been introduced to. Look, it's Bill Murray. It's Natalie Portman. It's Kumar.

In the main feature, the equivalent of the prologue's balcony scene plays out like this: the brothers are finally out of the train, thrown off for causing a commotion. (Snake. Pepper spray.) Suddenly they're walking along a rushing river when a tragedy occurs, a horrible, bloody event so finely executed that my heart began to race like the one on the soundtrack. It seemed Anderson had finally found the soul of his film. But when the senseless death turns out to be just a poetic parallel, a cosmic do-over offered generously by Great Fate, a sacrifice of a character in whom the screenplay had invested nothing anyway, Anderson has effectively panned toward a gray building instead of leaving us to imagine a cityscape.

The tragedy leads to a funeral that makes frustratingly little use of the fine actor Irfan Khan (The Namesake), who appears in what amounts to a cameo. Anderson bluntly ties the ceremony to the father's funeral using a jarring flashback that feels like a scene from Reservoir Dogs, a film that's probably closer kin to The Darjeeling Limited, with its color-coded characters, eclectic music, and slo-mo strides, than the films of Satyajit Ray or Jean Renoir that Anderson cites as inspiration. The sequence by the river is the emotional climax of the film, but its echoes are felt for another half hour or so in a series of smaller epiphanies that stem, one assumes, from the tragic moment. Anderson is too ironically deadpan to embrace any sudden transformations in his characters, so they don't seem remarkably changed by the event, which effectively reduces it to a plot point with an emotional patina, rendered impotent by a filmmaker who seems to think that he can compensate for the emptiness at his film's core just by pulling away from sentimentality. He's trying to fill one void with another.

The Darjeeling Limited premieres tonight at the New York Film Festival whose centerpiece, premiering a couple of weeks later, is a new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen. I haven't seen the latter film yet, but these filmmakers belong together. I can't remember what it felt like to look forward to a new film by the Coen brothers, but there was certainly a time when I did.

I'm beginning to feel the same about Wes Anderson.

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Luis Buñuel's autobiography, My Last Sigh, contains a font of practical ruminations in a chapter called "Earthly Delights," the most frequently quoted passage of which is Buñuel's recipe for the dry martini:

To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of the dry martini. To be frank, given the primordial role played in my life by the dry martini, I think I really ought to give it at least a page. Like all cocktails, the martini, composed essentially of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat, seems to have been an American invention. Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin's hymen "like a ray of sunlight through a window — leaving it unbroken."

Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won't melt, since nothing's worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients — glasses, gin, and shaker — in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don't take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.

(During the 1940s, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York taught me a curious variation. Instead of Angostura, he used a dash of Pernod. Frankly, it seemed heretical to me, but apparently it was only a fad.)

Nearly ten years ago in the digital pages of Slate, Buñuel's recipe was criticized with surgical nitpickery by none other than Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek's international edition and the author of The Future of Freedom, a book that, to the best of my recollection, contains no recipes of any kind and nary a reference to martinis. Nevertheless, Mr. Zakaria is a connoisseur. More vermouth, he spake, aghast.

To make his case, he began by pointing out that Buñuel's joke about the Virgin was doctrinally incorrect. It seems he's right about this one. Score one for the wonk. We could blame the translator, but I imagine the mistake is Mr. Buñuel's. However, while the filmmaker may have used the term "immaculate conception" to place the wrong instance of divine hymen-breaching in service of an analogy for how little vermouth to use, he was quite precise in describing his beverage as a "dry martini" in nearly every instance, a beverage very different from the plain ordinary martini that Mr. Zakaria favors. Apples and oranges, sir! The title of the piece in Slate: "Toward the Wet Martini".

And so it comes as no surprise to this fan of Buñuel's films that he was cavalier with Catholicism but precise in describing the earthly pleasures.

Truth be told, I like Mr. Zakaria a great deal. I find his work, like Buñuel's, to be sobering and lucid. But one of these men is also delirious and wicked, and which of them would you trust to make you the better martini? And which of them more generously offers the recipe whenever the opportunity arises?

Let me add another data point. I've tested both formulae. Mr. Buñuel is specific about most steps, but he does not mention whether one should chill the Noilly Prat and Angostura bitters along with the glasses, gin, and shaker. The first time, I chilled neither, and the second time, both. I detected no difference, so Mr. Buñuel's vagueness seems to be appropriate. He also, in this instance, mentions no garnish. There are those who are certain the Spaniard would choose an olive, but I prefer the lemon peel and consider Mr. Buñuel's citizenship of the world to be my license in this regard.

Aside from those ambiguities, his recipe worked like a charm both to provoke and sustain a reverie. Q.E.D.

But wait. So did Mr. Zakaria's. I conclude from this photo finish that the martini is remarkably resilient! However, the dry recipe tastes more complex even to my unrefined palate, in the same way that Land Without Bread seems to me even richer and more thought provoking than The Future of Freedom. One is the product of delirious reverie. I will forever wonder about its goats.

And so: to each his own. (Goat.)

PS: Inspiration for this post comes from Michael Guillen's survey of My Last Sigh. Apparently a blogathon is afoot. OK. I haven't been following them very closely. But I [try to] follow Michael's blog, which is sufficient for me.

PPS: Imagine a world where each man [sic] receives a goat. I'd prefer it to a world where every man gets a sapphire. Reason: obvious.

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