Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Death is the road to awe.

Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles
I'm feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much she knows...

There are a number of breathtaking moments in The Fountain, but the most indelible is a husband's whispered reassurance to his wife that "Everything's alright." The Fountain is a grandiose metaphysical contraption that rests on such intimate everyday moments; it's a beautiful reminder that the sublime resides not only beyond the infinite but right here in this very moment. And at the core of the film is the realization that real love opens us up to all the universe's possibilities - every moment is invested with genuine urgency once you've found your other half. The Fountain is a film about two soulmates faced with the question of whether they will meet again after this life; it is a lyrical, heartbreaking reminder that love itself is an enormous act of faith.

The dramatic core of the film, which tells three intersecting stories set in different times, continents and even regions of the galaxy, takes place in the present day. Tom (Hugh Jackman) is a scientist desperately searching for a way to save his dying wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz). While Tom spends his time in the lab looking for a cure, Izzy quietly urges her husband to stop and listen, to appreciate what time they have. Izzy writes a book, The Fountain, that tells the tale of a 16th century conquistador, Tomas (Jackman) on a quest to find the mythical Tree of Life in order to save his queen (Weisz). We also catch up with Tommy 500 years in the future as he journeys towards Xibalba, a brilliant, golden nebula that may contain the answers he's searching for in its dying center. At first, the effect of cutting from a violent moment atop a Mayan temple to the infinite silence of space is pleasurably disorienting; forced to adjust to the film's shifting aesthetic and temporal scope, we are almost hypnotically driven to discard any cynical detachment and give in to the film's trippy cosmic vibes. The Fountain is wildly ambitious, and if its thematic depth didn't match its nimble visual trickery, than the result would be empty, pretentious, and laughable. But director Darren Aronofsky has made an astonishingly mature, contemplative film, one that can stand up to terms like "transcendent" and "spiritual" without a trace of hyperbole. It's extremely rare to find a film that is both intellectually challenging and emotionally moving; it is rarer still to find a film like The Fountain, which sends your mind racing in a thousand different directions while it moves you to tears. It's a demanding experience, but it will shake you to your core.

The two leads do the best work of their careers here, juggling multiple variations on the same characters with insight and grace. Hugh Jackman goes above and beyond any previous expectations; while he's an easy fit for the conquistador, his modern-day Tom is an extraordinarily nuanced portrait of sorrow, allowing practically every minor gesture to reveal a larger truth about Tom's experience. He's matched by Weisz; I had no idea the actress was capable of such delicacy. Izzy confronts her impending death with clarity and grace; she's the kind of character you can't help but fall in love with, which makes the film's message all the more devastating. The actors anchor the film, particularly in its challenging futuristic sequences; by not condescending to the sci-fi aspects of the story and portraying its underlying humanity, they give the film a powerful emotional center that carries it across the universe.

But it is Aronofsky who is the real revelation here - The Fountain is a remarkable progression from his first feature, π, which first revealed the director's preoccupation with intertextuality that becomes deeper and more resonant here. One of the delights of The Fountain is the way that it celebrates the connections between various cultures' means of explaining where we've come from and where we are headed - I've long felt that we could all benefit from following Leonard Cohen's suggestion "Let us compare mythologies." Aronofsky moves nimbly between Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, and assorted esoteric archetypes, underscoring the ways in which symbols cross cultural barriers and suggest an underlying human narrative. Izzy finds comfort in the Mayan concept of death as a form of creation - both an ascension and a rebirth - and we are invited to do the same. Aronofsky isn't pushing us to embrace a particular belief; instead, he's urging us to participate in the greater chain of human life, and he does this with subtlety and wit.

The real surprise, however, is The Fountain's huge heart. I admired Aronofsky's previous film, Requiem For a Dream, but felt that the director used his innovative, hip hop-inspired editing rhythms and assorted directorial tricks as a way to detach himself from any real emotional investment in the material (Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn, who does fine work in a supporting role here, saved Requiem from being completely remote). The same tricks are on display here, but it feels as though he's internalized the filmmaking process; the fear that Tom feels is Aronofsky's as well, and he confronts it nakedly here. The use of ink to replace a lost wedding ring (itself an enduring archetypical symbol of love's transcendence of death) suggests that Aronofsky has become a true auteur; his personal and artistic concerns have been fused in a sort of beautiful symmetry. Even the special effects (which rely on optical effects more than CGI) bear the mark of uncompromising personal vision; Xibalba becomes a significant character, the face of everything we struggle but fail to articulate about our brief experience on this planet.

There is the unavoidable invitation to chuckle at the sight of a bald Hugh Jackman doing tai chi in space. But the visionary often borders on the ridiculous, and make no mistake: this is a visionary work. For all I've written about The Fountain, I suspect that I've only scratched the surface, as this is an incredibly dense work of art that demands repeat viewings to uncover its various layers (I haven't even touched upon its status as a passionate work of environmental advocacy). The Fountain is an bold, brilliant celebration of the dignity of human experience and the importance of love above all things. It is a wonder to behold.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Top 10: Gods

1. The Monolith
2. Zardoz
3. Xibalba
4. George Burns
5. Solaris
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail God
7. Zeus (Laurence Olivier) in Clash of the Titans
8. Ralph Richardson
9. Alanis Morissette
10. The Cowboy (Sam Elliot) in The Big Lebowski

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Trim Bin #49 (Thanksgiving Edition)

- I'm thankful that I spent Tuesday in Boston watching The Rock (and his cousin/double) run up and down a crowded street filming some wacky hijinks for his upcoming movie The Game Plan. The movie is no Departed, but it was still a great experience.

- I'm thankful that the Harry Potter movies keep coming out like clockwork.

- I'm thankful for the thirty-plus features and enduring legacy of Robert Altman.

- I'm thankful for my friends and family. I know that's obligatory, but it's also truer than it's ever been.

- I'm thankful that I'm going to be a dad.

Films watched this week:

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 8
Night on Earth
Planes Trains and Automobiles
Stroszek 10
Arabian Nights
(1974) 9
Babel 5
3 Women

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

It don't worry me.

"Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes."

- Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Writing about A Prairie Home Companion earlier this year, I predicted that Robert Altman would live for two hundred years. Sadly, that has not proven to be the case; Altman died Monday night at the age of 81 (probable cause: honorary Oscar). As with the death of any beloved figure who reaches an advanced age after a life well lived, we cry not so much for the director as for ourselves. Altman frequently complained about biographies written during his lifetime, as he felt he still had his best work ahead of him. But it's a bitter feeling to realize that now we can refer to the complete works of Robert Altman.

Altman struggled with the meaning of life within a finite timespan throughout his career. He explained more than once that he viewed his films as one ongoing narrative, and when viewed in this context, it's remarkable to see how each film reflects Altman's constantly shifting and evolving relationship to the world around him. Altman was capable of cynicism and whimsy, acidic satire and genuine sentimentality, often in the same film. It's remarkable how much he let us in - while most directors aim for statements, Altman chose to share his uncertainties. This openness extended to his generosity in collaboration with actors; few directors are such gifted observers, and fewer still have the confidence to listen. It's a difficult tightrope act, and when Altman failed, he failed huge. But when he succeeded, he was unparalleled.

But Altman's finest qualities as a filmmaker were his warmheartedness and humanism. You can feel his love for characters like Barbara Jean, John McCabe and Millie Lamoreaux (even Popeye) as they try to find a harmony with the world they've been unceremoniously introduced into. Even Altman's most sprawling, multicharacter narratives are driven by understated expressions of the individual experience - think of Keenan Wynn in Nashville quietly falling apart at the news of his wife's death while the crowd around him celebrates, oblivious to his loss. But the camera is there, and we in the audience are there by extension; Altman was expert at closing the distance between us.

A Prairie Home Companion dealt with the question of mortality directly, though in the end little is resolved. But remember the lesson taught by Rene Auberjonois at the beginning of Brewster McCloud, one of Altman's earliest features: it is better to have no resolution, for that would mean the end of dreams, of which there are far too few. So it has indeed come full circle; Altman has left us to keep asking questions, to keep dreaming. The story in his films is the ongoing story of human existence. And while this may not ease the pain of his death, there is plenty of cause to celebrate Robert Altman's life and art.

One personal sidenote: my wife and I shared our first dance as a married couple to "He Needs Me," from Popeye. Thinking about Altman's death (and, by extension, my own life) today, I had to conclude that we couldn't have picked a better song.

Links to many more tributes to Robert Altman can be found at Green Cine Daily; Dennis Cozzalio's memories at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule are particularly moving.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Trim Bin #48

- A front page article from the Berkshire Eagle about the area's new cinemas features an accompanying photo of my mug. I was particularly scruffy-looking that day, so it's not my best picture. But I figured it was worth sharing here so that some of you could get a glimpse of me in my office. However, I'm not, as the caption states, the projectionist (sorry, Dave).

- The trailer for David Fincher's Zodiac has hit the internet, and the film looks stunning. It's been four years since Fincher's last film, and seven since his last great one (I desperately tried to find room for Fight Club on my list - you know you've seen too many movies when it's tough whittling your favorites down to a hundred). I love the visual style on display here, I'm intrigued by what I've heard about the film (such as the choice to switch the soundtrack from mono to stereo when the film hits the era of FM radio), and anything with Robert Downey Jr. is a must-see (excluding The Shaggy Dog).

- 24 Lies a Second has an excellent new article on Dune and the films of David Lynch by Robert C. Cumbow entitled David Lynch Folds Space: Because He Is the Kwisatz Haderach! (thanks to SLIFR for the link). Cumbow easily trumps most of the print analysis I've read of Lynch's films; it uses the folding of space as an insightful entryway into understanding Lynch's methods. But I think I love it most of all because it means that Dune is finally getting some positive critical recognition. While I'll admit that it's Lynch's most flawed film and loses some of the things that made me obsess over the book as a kid, I still sort of love it. Dune was an important stepping-stone movie in my film education; it was the first Lynch movie I saw, and it led me to seek out The Elephant Man, "Twin Peaks" and Blue Velvet in quick succession. Had I not been a sci-fi geek, it might have been a long time before I discovered the film that is currently my all-time favorite.

What were your stepping-stone films?

- Finally, artist Francesco Vizzoli has elevated the faux-trailer trend to an art form with his Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula. Is it wrong that, on the basis of the trailer, I'd gladly pay nine bucks to see the feature-length version?

Films watched this week:

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan 9
Eaten Alive
Cape Fear
(1991) 10
Inside Deep Throat
Walk on Water
Marathon Man
A Clockwork Orange
The Departed
Over the Hedge 6
eXistenZ 7
The Devils

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is nice!

The best Borat segment from Da Ali G Show features the befuddled Kazakh journalist (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) performing at a honkytonk bar in Arizona. As Borat cheerfully sings a song which features the refrain "throw the Jew down the well," the audience claps and sings along, either indifferent to or in support of the song's message. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and most of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan inspires the same feelings. Not only is it riotously funny, it's also a far more insightful examination of contemporary racial and social tensions than Crash.

The film follows Borat Sagdiyev as he travels across the USA making a documentary film for reasons that the title makes clear. One of the most impressive accomplishments of the film is that it transcends its episodic structure to not only find a narrative through-line but also lend us an emotional investment in its main character. Borat catches a rerun of Baywatch on a hotel tv and immediately falls in love with Pamela Anderson; while his wedding plans for Anderson are pathetically misogynistic, there's something endearing about the idea of this character living according to a very specific reality. But then, Cohen is saying the same thing about us - look at how everyone in New York responds to Borat's antics with some variation of "I'm gonna punch you in the fucking balls" (I am now terrified to live in New York). The film mocks our country's most backwards residents - woman-hating frat boys, homophobic cowboys, fundamentalists - while still acknowledging their essential humanity; like Borat, they're just representatives of their villages.

However, I don't think Borat is as pessimistic as many are making it out to be. Borat encounters a lot of people who respond to his foolishness with patience and good humor - the car salesman who patiently explains that Hummers do not literally contain a "pussy magnet" comes to mind. As Pauline Kael said about Nashville, it loves us to much to patronize us. By bringing our bigots and yokels into the spotlight, the film invites us to laugh together at their absurdity; while Borat's targets may not be exceptional, they are by no means the majority (although stuff like this gives me pause). A seemingly endless nude wrestling scene between two men at first provokes our laughter at the blatant homoeroticism, then asks us why it's funny. It's a smart choice that the film never winks at itself; if you don't get the joke, then you are the joke.

But the bottom line with any comedy is whether or not it is funny, and Borat is the funniest movie this year. It takes real genius to create something this blissfully stupid, and director Larry Charles has created a deadpan pseudo-documentary worthy of Frederick Wiseman in its straightfaced depiction of the world it observes. And Cohen deserves all the praise in the world; he completely commits to the Borat's cheerful ignorance, turning a cartoon into a believable character that we root for even as we are horrified by his lack of understanding about anything. The thing that separates the great comedians from the rest is how they are able to react; watch Borat's eyes as he tries in vain to understand a lesson on "not" jokes, and you'll see a vacancy that is equal parts disturbing, hilarious, and recognizably human. If Borat is any indication, Cohen could become the next Peter Sellers. Bring on the Bruno movie.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Top 10: Happiest Movies

As with yesterday, some clips contain spoilers.

1. Amelie

2. Ghostbusters

3. The Gold Rush

4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being

6. Ed Wood

7. Revenge of the Nerds

8. Popeye

9. The Muppet Movie

10. Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Top 10: Saddest Movies

Some clips contain spoilers.

1. The Empire Strikes Back

2. Badlands

3. Being There

4. My Own Private Idaho

5. Sid and Nancy

6. A.I.

7. Mulholland Drive

8. Magnolia

9. The Squid and the Whale

10. Cries and Whispers

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Trim Bin #47

- Wake me up on May 4.

- Cinevistaramascope has gone commercial (sort of). To your right, you'll notice a few Amazon links to books, music and movies I've enjoyed recently. I've tried to make them as unobtrusive as possible, and while you'll never see me pushing any product here, if you do happen to think to yourself, "Hey, I've been meaning to see that," than we both win. These days, it's all about the Benjamins.

- On election night I watched The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover; as the film reached its gruesome ending, I realized that it made for perfect election-night viewing. The administration has finally been confronted as the primitive beast that it is ("Cannibal"). Whether or not this will result in meaningful change is yet to be seen, but for now, it's pretty damn gratifying.

- I've recently begun writing freelance articles for the North Adams Transcript; here's one on an upcoming show at WCMA, and a more informal column similar to the one I write for should start soon. It's sort of a personal milestone for me - it marks the first time I've gotten paid for my writing (although the column will be for the fun of it). It's strange - as far as screenwriting goes I'm sort of blocked, but I always look forward to coming back here and sharing my thoughts on the movies I'm seeing, and the Transcript looks to be an extension of that - I've gone semi-professional doing what I do for fun. As John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

He also said, "I am the egg man."

- Finally, in honor of the late composer Basil Poledouris, here's a sample of his finest work:

Films watched this week:

Land of the Dead 7
Eyes Wide Shut
Jesus Camp
Apollo 13
The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover
Corpse Bride

Monday, November 06, 2006

Voyeurism is participation.

I'm pro-sex, and you probably are too. Yet it remains a taboo in our popular culture - honest representations of adult sexuality are still faced with charges of obscenity, while we're constantly fed titillation and sophomoric smut (I shudder when I recall July 1999, when Eyes Wide Shut was killed at the box office by American Pie). The most impressive thing about Shortbus, the most sexually explicit mainstream American feature ever made, is that it reveals how silly and dated our preoccupation with such barriers truly is. Director John Cameron Mitchell celebrates sex as a doorway into understanding that which makes us human - our insecurities and fears, our desires and dreams, our implacable need to connect. And as I watched one man sing our national anthem into another's anus, I thought to myself, "Finally!"

The film follows a group of young New Yorkers who frequent a salon/sex club called Shortbus - as emcee Justin Bond explains, "It's the home of the gifted and challenged." They include Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples counselor who has never had an orgasm; James (Paul Dawson), a former street hustler and aspiring filmmaker (seemingly inspired by Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette) who asks his longtime lover, former child star Jamie (PJ DeBoy), to experiment with an open relationship; and Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix who easily dissects others' problems but is incapable of real emotional connection. The ways that these characters' lives intersect could have felt overly schematic; instead, the entire film has a loose, freewheeling style reminiscent of Altman - the people we meet at Shortbus are lifelike and believable in their searching, self-contradictory natures. Mitchell developed the film's screenplay with the actors, and his trust in their ability to carry the story pays off wonderfully - every scene is filled with humor and insight.

Like Mitchell's first film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (based on his stage play), Shortbus is a wildly ambitious work - it is at once political commentary, character study, slapstick comedy and burlesque (all that, plus cumshots). As with Hedwig, Mitchell equates national identity with sexual identity, suggesting that a paradigm shift in the former causes a ripple effect in the latter. The film's characters live in the shadow of 9/11 - the eye-popping animated grid of New York that frames Shortbus depicts Ground Zero as an open wound, and Bond explains the influx of young people in the city as a direct result of that day - "It's the only real thing that's ever happened to them." Mitchell positions his film as a freespirited anecdote to warmongering and divisiveness; sex here is a statement of community (hence the "National Anthem" rimjob scene). I guess it'd be easy to dismiss all of this as naive, but I really dug the "peace and love" message. Personally I prefer it to the dour humorlessness typical of the left - if we can't win the hearts of the moral majority, why not unite the freaks, misfits and preverts?

Between Hedwig and Shortbus, Mitchell is a refreshingly big-hearted artist; he gives even his most alienated characters the possibility of redemption and understanding. A scene between two lovers watching each other from separate windows mirrors a similar scene in Hedwig and suggests an ongoing exploration of the ways that we can achieve mutual understanding. And none of the sex can be described as gratuitous - even an autofellatio serves as a devastating metaphor for emotional isolation (it's also quite impressive). There's a winning, genuine optimism present throughout Shortbus, the belief that peace can be achieved through dialogue, through relationships - maybe even through orgies (why not?). To say too much would be to spoil the film's delicate charms - it's enough to say that Mitchell has made a film that is kinky in all the right ways.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Trim Bin #46

- After a few quick edits, I think my 100 list pretty accurately reflects where I am as of now (though it was painful not being able to find room for Altered States or The Royal Tenenbaums). I agree with John Cusack's character in High Fidelity - the things you like matter. Not because my opinion is more valid than yours or vice versa, but because the art we hold near and dear reveals a great deal about the individual realities we've been given. If anyone is actually willing to take the time, I'd love to see another person's list.

- Inspired by a comment from Jack: which decade of cinema was the strongest? I'd go with the seventies all the way, because it's closest the filmmakers ever came to running Hollywood. Worst would be the fifties - there are some masterpieces (The Searchers, Rebel Without a Cause, etc), but also a lot of junk that anticipated the studio system's crash in the mid-60's. Though if you throw in global cinema (Kurosawa, Bergman, Ozu), it's not bad after all. This is all relative, of course: every generation has classics and crap. I just reject the idea that films are getting worse - these things ebb and flow.

- The producers of Shortbus (which is completely beautiful - the best film ever to feature money shots) came to Images on Sunday for a post-film Q&A. They answered questions about the tricky process of financing and distributing a truly independent film, especially one with content as potentially controversial as this one (although they said they've met with surprisingly little resistance). One of them was very young and hailed from western MA. This is encouraging.
- I always look forward to Alex Jackson's reviews, so this is sort of a drag. It probably sounds ridiculous to say that Wet Hot American Summer was working on a whole other level that Jackson appears oblivious to, but that's how it is.

- Scorsese's doing a Rolling Stones documentary. What's the best Stones cue in a Scorsese film?

Films watched this week:

Halloween 10
Halloween II
Halloween III
Halloween 4
Halloween 5
The Prestige
Freddy's Dead
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
The Changeling
Shortbus 10
(1931) 8
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Night of the Living Dead
(1990) 6
28 Days Later
Hannah and Her Sisters