3/2/7 - 3/11/7
In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Max Ophul's The Earrings of Madame de... to lesser films by great directors like Richard Linklater's It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books to idiotic dreck like A Night at the Museum. In sections spanning 10 days at a time, The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance.
<<click here for 2/20 - 3/1>>
3.2. Decalogue IV: "Honor thy father and mother."
(dvd) my apartment.
The generally acknowledged high-points of the Decalogue are episodes V and VI, which both turned out so well that they were respectively expanded into the feature length films A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love. However, I think that part IV is objectively every bit as good as either of those films and I personally prefer it to part V. It's a queasy little number about the Gordian knot that is a teenage girl's relationship with the man who raised her. 1) The man raised the girl as though he was her father after the girl's mother died. 2) The girl finds letter saying the man is not actually her biological father. 3) The man and girl don't exactly have a father/daughter rapport – they behave like very close friends. The engine that drives that remainder of the film is the girl's impulse to incest: attractive girl with a blossoming sexuality, extremely emotionally close to a handsome man, that man might not be her father. I don't think I need to say too much about the irresolvable ironies inherent in that situation and the added layer that "Honor thy father and mother" brings to it.
It's a tough, beautiful film that’s every bit as shattering as episode VI's "Thou Shalt not commit Adultery." Anyway, I should also mention the famed mysterious silent "witness" who turns up in several of the episodes. He's camping out by the lake in I and he turns up here carrying a canoe. A lot of the critical writing on the Decalogue makes a big deal out of this guy, but I don't go in for mysticism or allegory or any of that forced bullshit, so I have a tendency to ignore him altogether. And, fortunately, that's easy to do: his presence is minute and his existence has no effect on the action. Sometimes a guy carrying a canoe can just be treated like a guy carrying a canoe. Thank God.
3.3. Liar Liar.
(vhs) Megan Bennett's apartment.
If I have come to understand one thing about the vagaries of taste, it is that everyone with reasonable taste in cinema (literally, everyone) has a comedy that they find to be hilarious, a comedy that holds a special place in their heart as pure hilarious 14-karat laugh-riot gold, a comedy that is a steaming pile of shit that goes against the grain of their otherwise reasonable taste. Just check their myspace listings. John Cribbs, for instance, insists that the teaming of Richards Lewis and Belzer with Louie Anderson and Ernie Hudson is pure genius in The Wrong Guys. For the talented and intelligent Jordanna Kalman, it is the execrable Cyndi Lauper/Jeff Goldblum psychic detective vehicle Vibes. I, myself, will insist to my dying day that Booty Call is genuinely dynamite. Even Paul Cooney seems to think that Paul Morrissey's undeniably shrill, racist and mean-spirited Spike of Bensonhurst is quite the chuckler. Eric Pfriender once said and I quote, "Biodome is really funny! There's a character named Petra Von Kant!"* Keep that in mind when I explain that Megan Bennett wanted me to watch Liar, Liar.
* That's not true. Well, it's true about a character being named Petra von Kant. But Pfriender probably hasn't even seen Biodome, much less made an interesting observation about it. For real, though, he does insist that Wayne's World 2 is as funny as the first one. Which is obviously incorrect.
3.4. Billy Madison.
(vhs) Megan Bennett’s apartment.
This one is on me: I hadn't seen Billy Madison since high school and I was looking for an easy time-waster while I had lunch. It's funny to see now how Sandler's comedic persona came out essentially fully formed. Madison is as pure an expression of his shtick as he ever created: the inexplicably hostile idiot man-child who drops the asshole act in favor of a cloying sentimentality. Still, this movie has plenty of totally acceptable low-brow humor, plus Norm MacDonald has an extended cameo. I can also applaud the film's willingness to draw laughs from ideas that are more fucked-up than funny, such as a moment when a clown on stilts falls down and smacks his head against the sidewalk causing blood pour to out of his mouth like a faucet. Everyone around him continues to laugh as the clown bleeds to death. Also, Steve Buscemi’s "People to Kill" list and subsequent lipstick application start off as a joke but the camera lingers just long enough that the scene becomes creepy. There's a healthy amount of comedy drawn from Sandler's thinly veiled hatred of children, including the scenes in which he sits in a Kindergarten class and exhorts that "you get off your ass and you find that fuckin' puppy!" as well as the always-enjoyable dodgeball scene. James Downey has two small monologues at the end of the film and both are pretty terrific, even if they reek of the early 90's SNL grotesquerie that makes that era of the show so repulsive to a lot of folks. Yep, watching this film, you can say one thing for certain: Adam Sandler’s M.O. has not changed a whole hell of a lot.
(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.
I've been more or less unimpressed by the finde-siècle Iranian cinema movement that occupies an almost mythic status in most critical circles. I've found Abbas Kiarostami's films to be much too slight to bear their immense reputations (and his widely acknowledged misfires Ten and Five seem to have prompted somewhat of a re-evaluation of his earlier work), while other films by Iranian filmmakers with significant releases (Marathon, Crimson Gold, and Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine come to mind) have been too mediocre to make me interested exploring the back catalogues in their purportedly talented filmmakers. Moshen Makhmalbaf's 2001 film, Kandahar was a godsend to the ethnographically-inclined critics that seemed to be the most vocal proponents of the diffuse Iranian cinema movement: a film by a London-based Iranian concerning the suddenly crucial place known as Afghanistan. If ever there was a film that seemed poised to bring a greater awareness to Iranian cinema, this established master’s new film was the one to do it. Too bad it's a mess of crude camerawork and generic drama. It plays the now-musty card of veracity earned through a "semi-documentary" approach to the subject: shaky-camera, stock "archetypal" situations, amateur acting - one or two surreal images didn't make up for much of that noise.
When Makhmalbaf's 19-year old daughter made a film that supposedly bore a heavy imprint of his influence, I had no interest in seeing it; despite its across-the-board great reviews and a special prize at Cannes. I was, however, interested in hearing a discussion led by the man who headed up the Cannes jury that awarded it the prize, Jonathan Demme. Demme hosts a monthly series at the JBFC called "Rarely Seen Cinema" in which he selects some of his favorite, underappreciated works for us to screen. I've been pleasantly surprised that he has very good (or at very least, genuinely idiosyncratic) taste: we've shown stuff like L'America, La Guerre est Fini, Pont de Varsovia, Report to the Commissioner and an incredibly bad Jacques Demy movie called The Model Shop. He also constantly asks us to find prints for films that we don't end up showing, including Shohei Imamura's Profound Desire of the Gods* and Monte Hellman's The Shooting. He also has picked a few things that stink, like Songs from the Second Floor and Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, as well as a few movies that don't quite fit the "Rarely Seen" parameters, such as Ride with the Devil and Au Hasard Balthazar. He also has a genuine affection for genre action films, so we've shown Dragon Squad and will be showing the Korean style-bomb Nowhere to Hide.
Unfortunately, as a host, he's strangely inarticulate and evasive about why he picks the films that he does and with Blackboards he was no different. He got up, spoke for a couple minutes before the film began, talked about how much he thought it deserved a special award, and then sat down. It wasn't particularly illuminating, but I'm glad to say the film totally stood on its own. It follows two traveling school-teachers on the border of Iran/Iraq who, in an effort to find students to pay for their services, split off from a larger group of teachers. Each one totes a massive blackboard on their back as they make their way across craggy cliffs into destitute villages where no one has the slightest interest in learning.
That sounds like it could easily be a bit of tedious social cause filmmaking, but the great thing about the movie is just how weird and darkly funny it is. Most of the audience I saw it with took it as serious drama, though, and failed to see the humor in a teacher trying to get his newly purchased wife to do multiplication tables. By the end, it does get violent and depressing, but the overall texture makes it not a chore to endure. It's bleakly funny and has a forcefully bizarre imagination - as I got into it, something that should've been obvious finally occurred to me: there most likely aren't traveling teachers that tote blackboards around the countryside and pathetically beg for students; that's just one of the film's many visually striking ideas that has the tinge of both loopy surrealism and mordant allegory.
*We actually ended up showing this extremely excellent film in 2008...
3.5. Decalogue V: "Thou shalt not kill."
(dvd) train ride to work.
Certainly the least subtle of all of the Decalogue films, episode V works with the blunt force of a sledgehammer. It's the one film that seems to have a political point of view that's as clear as day: murder is murder, whether it's carried out at random by a drifter who murders a taxi driver or whether it's done under the calculated sanction of the law. Again, the parable-simple plot leaves Kieslowski plenty of room to pick up all of the conflicting threads inherent in the notion of "Thou Shalt not Kill." As with episode II, he tweaks the conservative point of view which effortlessly reconciles the ideas of murder and legal execution – if anything, the execution of the prisoner by hanging is more harrowing than the initial crime. It's also fascinating to see what I'm presuming is an accurate depiction of the facilities used to carry out the punishment of the criminal. The little room with the trap door is such an odd space and Kieslowski's unblinking eye and simple compositions bring out its bizarre qualities without ostentation. I've purposely never seen either A Short Film about Killing or A Short Film about Love because I can't imagine what possibly could've been added to either episode to improve upon them. Here, the flow of the narrative is as unadorned and evocative as a koan – to add anything to it would risk damaging the stark expressivity of the idea.
For sweeping a historical epic, in the lead role you need a performer with a certain kind of presence: in Becket, Peter O'Toole effortlessly commands attention despite significant competition from armored legions, seething crowds of filthy peasants, hunting parties galloping across boundless vistas, and opulent courtyards. That's why it seems like such a waste to see him in something like last year's Venus: I can think of a dozen actors that would've been fine in that intimate tale of subdued passions – but how many actors could steal a scene from the stunningly ornate Canterbury cathedral? In contrast to the inwardly-directed method intensity that's currently the gold standard for acting, he's a performer with a captivating exteriority; his talents are uniquely suited to the widescreen format. Becket makes great use of O'Toole's considerable charisma and Richard Burton (as the titular Archbishop of Canterbury) matches him step for step. Their interplay is fairly amazing and, in this film, you can see how their legendary reputations developed – they're both effortlessly charming and seriously talented. Their outsized performances are rewarding on a grand scale, but also as pure entertainment: you enjoy taking their work seriously.
However, aside from the remarkable performances, Becket doesn't have too much going for it. There is a young would-be assassin turned Becket disciple that looks exactly like Mark Walhberg in his first scene. Later on, after he opens his mouth and is better lit, he resembles Donnie Walhberg. Not to get off track, but this is a pretty standard Hollywood epic, full of pseudo-Shakespearean pronouncements and courtly intrigue that pays dubious attention to historical detail. O'Toole's lovable asshole shtick is charming even when it's supremely fucked-up – the scenes with his wife and kids are brilliant dark comedy and even his unrepentant misogyny borders on being sweetly naïve ("I've suddenly become subtle – I think sleeping with that French tart is what did it!").
In regards to the political/emotional/historical fallout with Becket that drives the film, he plays Henry II like a jilted lover - but it's hard to tell if the heavy homoerotic subtext is intentional or just obvious in retrospect. That said, O'Toole's "I loved you, but you never loved me" speech is as a powerful a declaration of failed love as I can remember and his subsequent fixation on undoing Becket has an urgency and poignancy that wouldn't exist if the film were simply about a legal dispute between the church and the state. There's a lot to chew on: bitter betrayal, massive sets, gorgeous photography, a sweeping scope, but it's all more or less what you'd expect. At over two-and-a-half tiring hours, by the end I was more than ready for O'Toole to issue his character's famous outburst: "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?!"
3.7. Better off Dead.
(vhs) Megan Bennett's big television. She made Chilean sea bass for dinner. It was delicious.
On the commentary track for One Crazy Summer (the pseudo-sequel to Better off Dead), director Savage Steve Holland laments his former position as "the new Steven Spielberg." Apparently, the studios were so high on the wunderkind's Better off Dead that they green-lit its kind-of sequel before the first film was even finished. When both films under-performed, he was a victim of his inflated reputation: "I thought you were supposed to be the new Spielberg! What is this crap?" But watching Better off Dead, the Spielberg comparison seems particularly puzzling: it's amazing that this extremely weird mélange of teen romance, slapstick comedy, low-fi animation, suicide jokes, cartoon-ish sight gags, drug references, and competitive skiing ever even got made, let alone positioned as one of commercials cinema's next big things.
John Cusack is as lovable as a (suicide-obsessed) puppy dog in the lead role and Curtis Armstrong as Cusack's homemade-drugs-focused sidekick, Charles de Mar, refines the "Booger" persona that won our hearts in Revenge of the Nerds. Surprisingly, for its scattershot approach, virtually everything works in the film: the over-blown heart-break humor, the grotesque Ricky Smith, the adorable romance with the French girl, the "against all odds" sports movie that's also improbably shoe-horned in. It's all over the place and there are so many great little bits that are easy to forget about (Cusack's dad's attempts at using hip lingo to communicate with him, Badger Meyer's successful attempts to pick up sleazy women, the unbelievably weird animal suits) that the whole shebang is imminently re-watchable. Even the most well-known bits have a goofy charm that never seems to wear off: does the "Everybody Wants Some!" sequence ever get old? "Gimme my two dollars!" "I’m sorry your mom blew up, Ricky." Plus, Chuck Mitchell! I'll say this: Sugarland Express, Hook, Schindler's List and The Terminal all could've benefited heavily from a strong dose of Chuck Mitchell.
3.8. Decalogue VI: "Thou Shalt not Commit Adultery."
(dvd) train to work.
This is probably the most complex film in the Decalogue and indisputably one of the best: it follows a young postal clerk who spies on his middle-aged neighbor, an attractive and promiscuous woman. They see each other occasionally at the post office as well (especially when he forges notes that there's money waiting for her to pick up) and the clerk becomes more obsessed with her, even taking on a job as a milkman just so he can spy up close. He decides he loves her. He chases her down after a fiasco at the post office and confesses. She's repulsed. She has him come over and then sexually humiliates him (in a scene that suddenly reminded me of Ms. Cross saying "would you say you fingered me?" in Rushmore). The film continues to shift from there with the two main characters’ understanding of the situation and feelings for each other remaining devastatingly out of sync.
Of all of the Decalogue, I found this one most difficult to connect to the commandment – maybe it's that I can't get around the concept of adultery: isn't it explicitly linked to marriage? Anyway, the idea of "adultery" taken in a more metaphorical sense yields plenty; so maybe I shouldn't be such a stickler for semantics: the film is explicitly about the relationship between fucking and love, between innocence and cynicism, between purity and carnality. Her increasing sympathy for his perspective, literalized in a scene in which she looks through his telescope, is the big ironic pop at the core of the movie: she begins to regain her belief in purity... but by the end, heart-breakingly... he's all better now. He doesn’t spy anymore. There's a great sequence, too, where the woman ravages a man in a passive-aggressive display for the voyeuristic clerk, she then tells the ravaged man about the telescopic peeping, who then pummels the clerk. That kind of simple redoubling is constantly in these films: the film takes a simple idea as far as it will go and then comes back the original notion and spreads it out again in a different direction – just great stuff all around.
3.9. La Vie En Rose.
(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.
Get your Oscar ballots ready! Or your ballots for whatever the French version of the Oscars is. Get your ballot for that ready. Because we have a surefire bit of prime-chuck awards bait dangling out for you tonight! Costumed dramatics? Check! A stock biopic approach to a flamboyant art-star? Check! A star-making, note-perfect impersonation of said star? Check! Tasteful production design? Check! An unnecessarily long running time? Check! Gerard Depardieu? Check! A scene in which Chuck Mitchell fucks a riding mower? Check! Let's hear it for this blander than bland explosion of taste and class chronicling the life and death of tragic chanteuse Edith Piaf!
It's the type of project that bears no stamp of authorship, just a big, blank nothing of a movie done in an au courant style designed to remind you of every other film you’ve ever seen like this. It's one of those art-house money grabs that pops up every couple of months and convinces your aunt to drive into the city to see it, the type of snake oil that Merchant/Ivory peddled before one of them mercifully died. The film is so wrong-headed and over-flowing with the tradition of quality that it somehow manages to make being raised in a whorehouse seem like not such a bad prospect – this is exactly the type of film that can't help but glamorize its story and suck anything resembling human emotion or behavior out its characters. What is it about films based on historical fact that cause them to feel utterly phony? The thing is an endless blur of loves lost, songs sang, and montages edited. "Non, je ne regretted rein." I wish I could have said the same thing, but Piaf never had to sit through a screening of this film.
3.10 – 3.11. No movies.
But get ready for next week's installment, which follows a week-long vacation to John Cribbs' house and a marathon series of screenings...
<<click here for 3/12 - 3/21>>
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