Via Chicago
April 2008

Someone walking the Caminito del Rey.

No, really, you go on without me. I'll hang back at the camp with a good book.

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27 April 2008 — Episode 015 Podcast

Roxie Cinema, San Francisco

On this episode of the podcast, we're talking about the films of Michael Haneke. He sometimes seems to be making the same film over and over with intriguing variations. His latest, Funny Games — the story of a family that is tormented for a few hours by a couple of white-gloved hooligans — has even fewer of those variations than usual, but the obvious repetition certainly fits among his usual obsessions.

0:00 Intro
2:58 Clip: Funny Games (2007)
3:47 Funny Games Remade
9:07 Caché (2005), Serge Daney on Perspective
17:37 Benny's Video (1992)
19:35 The Seventh Continent (1998)
21:03 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)
23:18 Time of the Wolf (2003)
32:30 Time of the Wolf and Funny Games
36:16 Funny Games as a Loop
39:41 Examples of Rigor
44:05 A Different Kind of Watching
49:47 The Piano Teacher (2001)
50:17 Code Unknown (2000)
52:58 Places to Start

— Postscript: Rob Watches Funny Games (1997) and Benny's Video

54:06 Revisiting Funny Games
56:52 Misremembering Movies
58:37 Revisiting Benny's Video
1:02:38 Absorbing Violence
1:06:13 Cleaning Up
1:08:42 What are we really like?
1:11:07 Outro

Coming Up: A discussion of Errol Morris's new film, Standard Operating Procedure and an interview with the filmmaker.

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Of the films opening in theaters this week, Deception is the latest high concept disappointment. More worthy of examination and discussion is the new film from Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure, which examines the infamous photographs taken at Abu Ghraib. It only opens on two screens, so we'll have our podcast discussion next week. The film is a valuable appendix to the other Iraq documentaries — notably Taxi to the Dark Side — but it's a series of footnotes instead of a clear argument, stirred together with questionable use of the scandal's iconography and an interview technique that builds up and tears down its subjects in equal measure, adding more mud to an already dark puddle.

See below for a list of films currently in theaters, conveniently organized with the cream at the top.

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Castro Theatre

The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival opens Thursday night and runs for two weeks. It's a strong lineup this year, but just six weeks ago I was still a little uncertain.

Most of this year's festival screenings are at the newly fancified Kabuki cinema, a few are at the Clay, and a few more are at the Castro, shown above. Many programs are also repeated at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive.

On March 10 the Film Society announced the name of the film that would be the "centerpiece" of this year's festival and injected a little worry into the pit of my stomach, a sheep shank in my galley, you might say, especially if you're a fake seaman. In a city that prides itself on varied and voluminous film screenings all year long, the SFIFF is still the flagship. It's a large festival — the first on this continent, actually — and although it suffered a bout of acute melancholia at the turn of the century, it seems to have been set aright by festival director Graham Leggat. It's the standard bearer for the city's culture of cinema. San Franciscans who care about movies guard it jealously.

Which is all the more reason for a local cinephile to worry that the festival will somehow compromise its programming whenever the economy hits rough waters, perhaps by resorting to big, dumb Hollywood movies in a desperate need to sell tickets.

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Boarding Gate
Asia Argento in Boarding Gate (Assayas)

Of the movies in theaters and newly available on DVD this weekend, here's what I like, with links to my reviews, if any. I've filed the new Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie, The Forbidden Kingdom, below.

UPDATE: I've also filed Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed below.

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Colossal Youth
Ventura in Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth

Since I'm married to someone who went to architecture school, our house has a bookshelf full of titles like The Poetics of Space, A Pattern Language, and How Buildings Learn. We've talked about these books at our house, or I've flipped through them, and I've even read a few.

I think of that last book when I watch the films that Pedro Costa has been shooting with a group of nonprofessional actors in Lisbon, Portugal. The first two films in the series are about an area called Fontaínhas where the people live in dark, improvised hovels, and the third film is about their move to a new apartment complex as the slums of Fontaínhas are systematically demolished.

How Buildings Learn is Stewart Brand's pictorial essay on how structures change over time to accommodate shifting needs, and the part I always think of while watching Costa's films — especially the second in the series, In Vanda's Room — is the chapter on what Brand somewhat facetiously calls "low road" architecture, buildings that were thrown up quickly without much thought or planning but that nevertheless seem comfortable and uncommonly productive, perhaps because they're not valued highly by the real estate economy. They're malleable.

Since he's a sort of entrepreneur himself, some of Brand's best examples of this form of architecture are from the world of technology, starting with the lore of Silicon Valley. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard famously started their company in a garage, as did Steves Wosniak and Jobs who came along later. Brand says that it's neither a myth nor an accident that groundbreaking businesses — Hewlett-Packard and Apple — grew out of the spaces that nobody wanted, germinating where nobody cared what messes were left. Such spaces allow a level of control and freedom that more rigid structures, because of their perceived value, don't allow.

Brand's best example of low road architecture is MIT's famed Building 20, a building that was, in his words, "constructed hastily in 1943 for the urgent development of radar and almost immediately slated for demolition... When I last saw it in 1993, it was still in use and still slated for demolition."

MIT's Building 20
MIT's Building 20

It wasn't perfect, but it endured. "Like most Low Road buildings," Brand writes, "Building 20 was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, Spartan in its amenities, often dirty, and implacably ugly. Whatever was the attraction?" The people who worked in Building 20 liked it because no one else cared about it, which made it flexible, which made it theirs. What did the students and scientists who worked in the building like? "Windows that open and shut at will." "The ability to personalize your space and shape it to various purposes. If you don't like a wall, just stick your elbow through it." "One never needs to worry about injuring the architectural or artistic value of the environment." "We feel our space is really ours. We designed it, we run it."

Brand completed his book in 1994. Let me build on his timeline:

  • 1998: MIT's Building 20 was finally demolished.
  • 2004: Building 20 was replaced by Stata Center designed by Frank Gehry.
  • 2007: MIT sued Gehry for $300m over "serious design flaws," noting that "the center's outdoor amphitheater began to crack due to drainage problems, the suit says. Snow and ice cascaded dangerously from window boxes and other projecting roof areas, blocking emergency exits and damaging other parts of the building, according to the suit. Mold grew on the center's brick exterior, the suit says, and there were persistent leaks throughout the building."

MIT's Stata Center
MIT's Stata Center

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Simon McCabe
Art Garfunkel as Simon McCabe in Joseph Heller's Pistol Pocket (unreleased)

The year was 1970 and the story has become pop music folklore. Art Garfunkel was jetting around the world to shoot films like Carnal Knowledge and Catch-22 while Paul Simon was moping in New York trying to write songs for the duo's next album. When Art accepted a role in a third film instead of returning to New York as planned, this time to shoot an acid Western somewhere in Central America, Paul flew into a rage. Art tried to explain that it was Joseph Heller's directorial debut, that he would get to play a womanizing caterpillar-wrangler, that principal photography had just begun, and that he'd already learned his line, but Paul would hear none of it.

Art bailed out of Pistol Pocket and booked a flight back to New York to record the album that would become Bridge Over Troubled Water. (The film was never completed for reasons unrelated to Art's departure.)

While Art was en route, Paul felt so bad about denting his buddy's acting career that he almost shredded the bitter songs he'd written in his absence: the one about being the only livin' boy in New York, the one about the long-gone days of harmonizing with "Frank Lloyd Wright." (Art had been an architecture student.)

But when Art walked into the 52nd Street recording studio still wearing the ridiculous mustache [see above] that he'd grown for the Heller flick, Paul, thinking that Art was hedging his bets, was so incensed that he forced him to sing those songs anyway. (Actually, Art simply liked the rugged look he'd suddenly achieved, enjoyed the sense of security it gave him on the subway where he'd previously been taunted by children, and never had a chance to explain to Paul that it was a fake mustache anyway. Somewhere in Central America, a property master was fuming.)

How it ended up on the cover is anybody's guess:

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I've disagreed with a few good friends about The Visitor (for example, with J. Robert Parks on a forthcoming episode of our own podcast), and I can always respect the opinions of someone who has seen and thought about the film, even if they differ from my own.

But I have trouble listening to the casual dismissals by Paul Moore at the aptly named On the site's latest podcast, he briskly characterizes the film as cliché-ridden — and bizarrely calls the ending a "message of hope" — which can only make sense to someone like Moore who says he hasn't seen the film and is offering his synopsis and opinion based on the trailer. Nice job.

But, of course, he also keeps referring to Wong Kar-Wai as "Kar Wai". (They're old drinking buddies, Moore and Wong.)

I often enjoy the Spout podcast, even when Karina Longworth is looking down her nose at Waitress, another light film that I enjoyed, because at least her opinion is well-informed. But specificity is important, and generalizations like the ones in the latest episode, about The Visitor and about the people who like it — all of which are expressed in the name of keeping "indie" filmmakers honest — are a major turn off, especially after these guys have, week after week, championed middling films drawn from a strikingly skinny pool.

The Visitor is a very nicely executed film, perhaps not for its broad strokes but for its fine ones. It's quite easy to make fun of the film by listing the major plot points (ditto for, I don't know, Vertigo or The Son), but plodding through a synopsis of this film overlooks its many assets, starting with the delicate, subtle, and often wordless exposition.

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Starting this summer, subscribers to the densely packed quarterly film journal Cinema Scope will periodically receive free DVDs, beginning with an advance copy of Colossal Youth by Pedro Costa, a film about which I have one more thing to say as it makes a final appearance in San Francisco this weekend.

More on that later. In the meantime, subscribe to Cinema Scope. It's Canadian!

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The Visitor
Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbas in The Visitor (McCarthy) (photo: JoJo Whilden)

Of the movies in theaters and newly available on DVD this weekend, here's what I like, with links to my reviews, if any. Young@Heart is not in this list because I walked out after about 45 minutes. It's not terrible, but I just couldn't continue, for the same reason I had trouble watching the likes of Mark Romanek treat the career and legacy of an aged Johnny Cash as his video plaything. Something about it doesn't sit well.

Opening in Theaters

  • The Visitor — Thomas McCarthy's quiet drama was a highlight of this year's Sundance (it actually premiered at Toronto before that, but I caught it later). Ed Gonzalez dismisses the film in the first paragraph of his Slant review by boiling each of the opening scenes down to a single adjective and wondering "why Thomas McCarthy didn't just call the thing About Walter." I respectfully submit that changing the title would have fucked the whole thing up. It's a lovely little film, not a masterpiece but the sort of thing I'd like to see more of, and half of the enjoyment comes from watching the title shift its object from scene to scene like a title by the Dardennes. The flaw in Gonzalez's final argument is that it supposes the film's ending is optimistic. [trailer, review, brief thoughts on the Sundance podcast, and I'll revisit the film with J. Robert and the film's writer-director on a future podcast]
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Flight of the Red Balloon
Juliette Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou) (photo: Tsai cheng-tai)

Of the movies in theaters and newly available on DVD this weekend, here's what I like, with links to my reviews, if any.

Opening in Theaters

Alert alert alert:

  • Flight of the Red Balloon — The great Hou Hsiao-Hsien, probably one of my two or three favorite contemporary filmmakers, turns in one of the most accessible, most sublime films of his career, and it features a fantastic performance by Juliette Binoche to boot. (It's a pairing that made my head spin when I first heard about it, kind of like when I learned that Isabelle Huppert will be in the next Claire Denis film, but at least they're both French.) When Millennium Mambo, Hou's first film to be distributed in the US, received a cool reception in 2001, I worried that we'd have an even harder time seeing his films here. Mambo was far from his best work, but the easy dismissal of the film's beauty and mystery did not bode well for the American art house. Or so I thought. Café Lumière, Three Times, and now Flight of the Red Balloon have proven me wrong, each one finding a quiet corner of our messy distribution system. This latest one deserves an appreciative audience. [trailer, my comments about the film on our NYFF podcast, an in-depth discussion of his work on an earlier podcast, see also: my "Editor's Pick" review in the April issue of Paste]
  • The Ruins — OK, it's not Hou Hsiao-hsien. And if I were going to watch either of these new films again — once, twice, or twenty-thrice — I'd obviously choose Flight of the Red Balloon. But I'm surprised to say that this horror-thriller is pretty fun. A line we removed from my review at Paste's site: "It's Turistas, but it doesn't suck." [trailer, review]
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3 April 2008 — Episode 014 Podcast

Snow Angels
Michael Angarano in Snow Angels by David Gordon Green (photo: Chris Reardon)

On this episode of the podcast, I talk with filmmaker David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow) about his fourth film, Snow Angels, which stars an ensemble cast led by Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell. Snow Angels is the first of three surprises that Green has in store for us this year. Green talks about resisting the pigeonhole, about adding humor to dark stories, and about finding moments in editing that you didn't plan.

0:00 Intro
1:40 Situating Snow Angels
7:07 Interview: David Gordon Green
36:10 Outro

Coming Up: the films of Michael Haneke

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