Friday, August 31, 2007
Once introduces us to a struggling songwriter (Glen Hansard) who works in his dad's vacuum repair shop and spends his time off singing Van Morrison songs for loose change on the streets of Dublin. One night, while performing one of his own songs, he meets a young Czech woman (Markéta Irglová) who likes his song; the guy is leaving for London in a week to try patching things up with his ex-girlfriend, and she agrees to help him write and record a few songs before he goes. That's about all there is for plot in Once, which is built on the moments where the guy and girl get to know each other. As they work together, it becomes clear they're made for each other. The guy is the type to refer to himself as a cynic, sweetly oblivious to how wrong he is; the girl has a daughter at home and a husband in another country, and is far too serious-minded to realize the obvious. While this story has been told before, from Brief Encounter to Lost in Translation (likely its most direct influence), Once becomes completely unique in its study of two characters who cannot quite fully connect for precisely the reasons that they are perfect for each other. First-time feature director John Carney (formerly a member, like his lead actor, of the band The Frames) has a remarkable talent for revealing worlds about his characters in a moment; he's brave enough, for instance, to have a character deliver the most important line in the film in Czech.
Almost as impressive as the story itself is the way that Carney uses digital video to tell it. Until recently, I was dubious about DV, as most directors who used it raved about its functional ease without commenting much on its aesthetic qualities (mumblecore is commendable in theory, but I have yet to see a DIY film I like). But after last year's Inland Empire and now Once, the possibilites of digital have been blown wide open. In Once, the low-tech images have an intimate quality that matches the story of homegrown artists perfectly. Every shot is beautifully composed in a way I haven't seen in DV before.I was inspired not only by the story but by the filmmaking itself - it's a film that leaves one energized by possibility. There's a confidence in every moment that reminds of how imagination and vision are infinitely more valuable than a huge budget. I'm not always quick to buy into the romance of independent cinema, but Once fulfills this promise better than any film in a long time.
Once isn't a perfect movie - I agree with Todd VanDerWiff, who writes that "While the songs are good, the film requires us to believe that they’re so good that they simply cause everyone around Hansard to realize what an untapped genius he is." Still, its hard to complain about a film with this much soul, particularly since its imperfections become part of its charm. There are few films that contain as much pure warmth as Once; that it's a pretty great movie is all the better.
Monday, August 27, 2007
Since so much has been written in the past week about what Mr. Arlyn has come to represent, it might be helpful to begin by talking about who he is (thank you, Google). Damian Arlyn is a 31-year-old resident of Corvallis, Oregon. The manager of DVD World by day, Mr. Arlyn also participates in theatrical productions at the Corvallis Community Theatre (you can read about the recent Arlyn-directed production of Dracula here). Damian is also a born-again Christian who explains on his MySpace page that he decided not to include Jesus on his list of heroes because "the term 'hero' doesn't even begin to describe the place he holds in my life" (as his list of heroes includes both Martin Luther and Denzel Washington, I'd have to agree with his decision). It seems clear that Damian is a sincere, serious-minded man with a genuine love for cinema.
Damian, as many of you know, also has a blog. And last week, in the middle of his ambitious, entertaining "31 Days of Spielberg" project, he became the subject of some very serious accusations. Damian addressed those charges in his blog, and you can read what he had to say for himself here. I believe Damian is genuinely sorry for his mistake, but as of this writing, it seemed that he didn't really understand what people were so angry about. Damian never expected to be famous, and now, he explains, "I never anticipated this project would bring me into contact with actual published authors who have written on Spielberg, even if it's not under the best of circumstances." I understand how Damian feels, and not just because I, too, take a lot of crap for defending Spielberg. I never expected my writing here to be read by anyone other than a few friends, and I'm grateful for my readers and the ideas you share here. In return, I feel a responsibility to give you reading material that is passionate, well-written (to the best of my abilities), and, of course, accurate. And while I like Damian and his writing, I'm troubled by this:
"However, I am not doing--nor have I ever done--this for praise, for esteem, for glory, for fame and certainly not for money. One thing I have never lost sight of is that in the big scheme of things, I am a nobody. I am a thirty-one-year-old video store clerk who lives in Corvallis, Oregon. I make little more than minumim wage a year and I happen to love movies. I never intended for this blog to be anything more than an expression of one little guy's passion and affection for cinema. Thus, I began this 'Spielberg' project because I admire Spielberg and his films and I wanted to share that admiration with other people and maybe--just maybe--even spark a little bit of discussion on him because I personally don't think that enough can ever be said about this great artist."
There is another kind, that is more pervasive and insidious and nearly invisible. That’s the group-think that sweeps across the nation as certain reviews and reviewers set the tone and limit the terms of response to a film."
The irony is that D.K. Holm is Damian Arlyn's spiritual father, having made a living from the summary/trivia format he claims to abhor (the difference being that Holm is paid for his efforts). Damian Arlyn does not realize that he loves himself; D.K. Holm cannot admit that he hates himself. Arlyn's colleagues at The House Next Door have done a better job of more clearly stating their intentions, offering a brief explanation of why Arlyn was removed from their masthead and, like the jurors stepping away from the table in 12 Angry Men, expressing in relative silence what so many supporters and detractors in so many words have not quite been able to communicate.
So, yes, I do wonder what today was like for Damian Arlyn. To have found such massive support (the blogosphere's generosity being its finest quality) only, with one unfortunate error in judgement, to find himself at the center of a debate that is no longer about him. To have inadvertenly tapped such a deep well of buried resentment from elitists and populists alike. To stand behind the counter as angry customers demand their two dollars back because Pan's Labyrinth was in Spanish (and oh, those black bars!). Damian's silence is our loss, and when he's ready, I anxiously await his return. Because, after all, the world needs a passionate defense of The Terminal.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Thursday, August 16, 2007
"IN A WORLD WHERE..."
Voice-over is often used to gloss over narrative problems or water a challenging film down in the name of accessibility (Blade Runner being the most notable example of the latter). But like any cinematic device, when placed in the hands of talented filmmakers, voice-over can be transformed from something familiar into something we've never quite seen (or heard before).
1. Days of Heaven Terrence Malick's four films have all employed voice-over to great effect, the disconnected thoughts of characters in The Thin Red Line and The New World enhancing those films' meditative tones, and Sissy Spacek's rambling, disconnected thoughts in Badlands achieve a sort of banal poetry. In Days of Heaven, Malick presents the tragic turn-of-the-century love story from the point of view of the protagonist's preteen sister. First-time film actress Linda Manz narrates in a flat, unaffected manner that perfectly compliments her character, who is inarticulate but perceptive about the lives of those far older than her. Malick has been criticized for emotionally distancing his audience from the story; in fact, the narrator's guileless, wide-eyed memories draw us directly into the film's devastatingly ephemeral heart.
2. A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick once called this a "Who do you root for?" movie, and the director frequently used voice-over to confound his audience's expectations. The matter-of-fact, dryly statistical narrator in The Killing reduces the film's heist down to a shopping list of times, amounts, and other quantities, while the cruel storyteller of Barry Lyndon undercuts the characters' actions and dreams with savage irony (a device used in recent films like Dogville and Little Children). In both Lolita and A Clockwork Orange, the protagonists relate their stories with eloquence and wit, confusing our loyalties by causing us to sympathize with characters who do reprehensible things. A Clockwork Orange is particularly brilliant in this respect - Malcolm McDowell is charasmatic and strangely sexy as the young hooligan Alex, who recounts his evenings spent raping and pillaging with great gusto and his subsequent arrest and reconditioning with terrible sorrow. Kubrick asks us to sympathize with the devil in order to convey the film's philosophical message; the technique is no doubt manipulative, but it's also sickly hilarious and frequently imitated (see also: Trainspotting and American Psycho).
3. Taxi Driver Like A Clockwork Orange, the voice-over in Taxi Driver is meant to align us with a difficult character. But where Kubrick's aim was satire, Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader want us to understand Travis Bickle. As he prowls the city streets, seething with contempt for the decaying world around him, Robert DeNiro's narrative gives voice to fears, obsessions, and compulsions that, while extreme, are also all too recognizable. As Travis' inexpressive rage transforms into brutal violence, the scariest implication is that his madness is, somehow, our own.
4. Sunset Boulevard Has there ever been a filmmaker more joyously clever than Billy Wilder? Sunset Boulevard contains his wittiest device, the story of a murder recounted by the corpse. It's a concet that would prove popular - American Beauty, in particular, used it to wonderful effect - but in Sunset Boulevard, it's more than a plot device. Wilder's vision of Hollywood as a cemetary, a place where the long-forgotten dwell, is complimented by poor Joe Gillis' narration from beyond the grave. It's a perfectly acidic vision of the dark side of a city devoted to attaining cinematic immortality.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird The voice-over in Robert Mulligan's adaptation of Harper Lee's book has been frequently imitated over the years to lesser effect. The imitators attempt to mimic the unpretentious Southern charm of an adult Scout's memories of her youth, but they miss the eerier moments, the ghostly intimations of doom, and the bitter nature of an adult's memories of the moment she stepped into a world of absurd intolerance. There's nothing saccharine about the narrative - like the rest of the film, it's possessed with a hauntingly delicate soul that is ultimately heartbreaking.
6. Cries and Whispers One of Ingmar Bergman's best films, Cries and Whispers is bathed in red, a color that Bergman said he imagined the inside of the soul to be. And Cries and Whispers is a film composed of interiors, both literally and through the diary entries of the dying Agnes (Harriet Andersson). Agnes' memories of her life and her emotionally remote sisters are almost impossibly sad, laced with regret, confusion, and fear. All the more stunning that Cries and Whispers ends with Agnes' happiest memory, and Bergman, for once, grants his storyteller a moment of peace (for more on the ending, go here).
7. The Postman Always Rings Twice Film noir is littered with hapless schmoes who become putty in the hands of a smarter, more calculating woman. Never was this more perfectly realized than in the 1946 version of James M. Cain's novel. John Garfield's Frank recounts his torrid, deadly affair with Cora (Lana Turner) in a voice-over filled with uncertainty (Frank's most-used phrase is "I guess"), jealously and insecurity. It's not only good pulp, it's a sharp examination of the tortured male psyche.
8. The Royal Tenenbaums The narration in the story of a family of geniuses has the mannered, matter-of-fact style of a novel one might find in the young-adult section of the library (it's particularly reminiscent of Salinger, whose Franny and Zooey Wes Anderson owes a great debt to). Alec Baldwin's solemn, matter-of-fact delivery is a hilarious compliment to the film's deadpan tone and the eternal adolescence of the Tenenbaums.
9. The Big Lebowski The Coens often have a great deal of fun with voice-over, from Nicolas Cage's hayseed philosopher in Raising Arizona (Ebert panned the film for the narration, but I adore it) to Billy Bob Thorton's apology for his long-windedness ("They're paying me by the word") at the end of The Man Who Wasn't There. Best of all is The Big Lebowski, the story of a burnt-out bowling aficionado-turned-amateur detective as told by a folksy, sarsaparilla-swilling cowboy who may also be God. But there I go, ramblin' again...
10. Adaptation Like many of the films on this list, Adaptation does a fine job of using voice-over to illustrate its characters' unspoken fears and desires. But the moment that really sets Adaptation apart occurs when Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is attending one of Robert McKee's famous screenwriting seminars; as Kaufman excoriates himself in voiceover for looking for easy answers, his thoughts are interrupted by McKee (Brian Cox), who warns, "God help you if you ever use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you! That's flaccid, sloppy writing!" From that point on in the film, Kaufman's inner voice is silent.
Monday, August 13, 2007
Sunday, August 12, 2007
"I would never want to bully anybody into liking E.T. (nor would I ever say that someone is devoid of humanity or has “ice” in their veins because they feel nothing when watching it) but neither do I care for the implication that just because I am one of the millions of people who happen to be very moved by the film, that I am somehow a mindless sheep, a deluded fool not sophisticated enough to realize when he’s been “played like a piano” or whatever. To the people that might make this elitist claim, I tend to want to respond in kind with my own personal brand of elitism that asserts I would rather be a "foolish" believer, a sensitive soul, romantic at heart able to see the good in something than a hardened cynic blinded to the immense riches and rewards right in front of them if they would only have the humility and willingness to “open themselves up” to it. I do hope that for such individuals there is something (perhaps even a film) that brings them a comparable degree of joy, sadness and just general affirmation of what they hold dear. I hope there’s something in their lives that they cherish as much as I cherish E.T. because if so, they’re very lucky people."
- Rob Zombie's Halloween is almost upon us, and the newest trailer is wonderfully creepy. On the other hand, Zombie damns himself with some old quotes discovered by Stacie Ponder. Usually I have a pretty good sense of what I'll love or hate, but I have no idea how idea how I'll feel about Halloween, and I can't wait to find out.
- Siskel and Ebert's old reviews have found their way to the internet. For insight, watch their argument over Blue Velvet; for laughs, check out Siskel's faith in cinema shaken by She's Out of Control.
- Dual tributes to Bergman and Antonioni written by Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, respectively, remind that a great director is first and foremost a great fan (they also serve as a welcome antidote to Jonathan Rosenbaum's contrarian wankery).
- Finally, a grand piece of film writing: Walter Chaw's epic journey through the films of Patrick Swayze.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
Thursday, August 02, 2007
Barry Lyndon opens in wide shot - this is not uncommon with Kubrick, but it is used for a drastically different effect. Consider the opening image of 2001, designed to overwhelm our senses; or The Shining, with its labyrinthine helicopter shots teasing our anticipatory sense of dread. But from its first image, which depicts the death of the protagonist's father in a duel, Barry Lyndon keeps us at a distance. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott (with the help of a Zeiss lens originally used by NASA) create a period piece with an astounding sense of immediacy, the image of the opening duel composed with such astonishing depth and clarity that we feel present in the action. But rather than using the images to pull us in, Kubrick remains remote, a time traveller observing the alien behaviors and practices of 18th-century Europe. This gives each shot an oppressive weight, as though each moment were a slide examined through the microscope lens; this deterministic approach is perfect for a protagonist who remains almost totally passive in his own fate. We meet Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) as a sullen, lovestruck youth and follow him across the continent as he wins and then loses everything through no fault or effort of his own.
Kubrick uses O'Neal's vacant screen presence brilliantly - Barry is a cipher who is able to deceive his way into wealth and status not through any particular talents of his own but out of sheer luck (indeed, the Thackeray novel upon which the film is based was originally titled The Luck of Barry Lyndon). The scene when Barry romances the wealthy, widowed Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) is a masterpiece of surfaces, both actors photographed like perfectly-made porcelain dolls similarly incapable of demonstrating actual emotion. The narrator (Michael Hordern) assures us they have fallen in love, a fact we might have otherwise missed; throughout, the narration dryly mocks these characters' half-realized aspirations and lays bare their actual motivations (in original editions of the book, occasional notes from the editor served the same purpose). These characters have no apparent inner selves, substituting manners for morals and objects for ideas. The meticulously recreated props and costumes, along with the striking period locations, supply not just the film's style but its meaning - Kubrick simultaneously fetishizes the art and culture of the period while attacking the shallow materialism of his characters. Kubrick's films are frequently about the struggle of the individual; here, the individual has receded into the background, upstaged by the tapestries. It's as sharp a comment about the present as it is the past.
The film builds deliberately, almost to the point of boredom - what would constitute a good 40 minutes' worth of action in other films stretches past the intermission here. We begin to wonder why Kubrick has forced us to endure this endless parade of images that make us feel nothing. It's actually a setup, and Kubrick snares us with the introduction of the adult Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), Barry's stepson, who returns after a childhood of petty torments from his ineffectual stepdad to assert his rightful claim to his family's wealth. The moment when Bullingdon uses his smirking half-brother to interrupt a concert with a clomping pair of boots is a genuine shock; by destroying the sustained audiovisual symmetry, its as if violence has been done to the film itself. Kubrick presents our children as the only beings we must ultimately answer to - this is paralleled, devastatingly, with the death of Barry's own son after his fall from the horse that was the boy's birthday present. We do not see the fall happen at first; then, as the boy recounts it, Kubrick cuts suddenly, jarringly, to an image that represents everything we reach for and fail to attain. Dissonant noise replaces Schubert on the soundtrack for one moment, exposing the underlying chaos that we attempt to overrule by creating our own meaning. In this sense, Barry Lyndon is also a comment on the cinematic apparatus, which cannot help but recreate a reality that it was designed to reproduce.
Barry Lyndon, more than any of Kubrick's other films, invites the oft-repeated criticism of the director as a cold, calculating misanthrope, and it's certainly his chilliest film. However, while Kubrick's evaluation of humanity is unsparing, the film is almost religious in its search for meaning in the meaningless. Late in the film, Barry finally commits a selfless act, for which he is mercilessly punished. Kubrick has no sympathy for overdue introspection; his films attest to his understanding of existence as an ongoing practice that may eventually be perfected, and as the ending of 2001 demonstrated, he was capable of great hope. So while Barry Lyndon is far from Kubrick's cuddliest picture, it is nevertheless a perfect, dazzling example of the search for truth even in the most untruthful of worlds.