10/23/6 - 11/1/6

christopher funderburg

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 Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. 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 10/13/6 - 10/22/6>>

10.23. The Comedy of Power.

(dvd) flatscreen at the JBFC.

The most common metaphor for describing a thriller is that it “turns the screws.” Theoretically, a thriller builds up tension and puts the audience in a position where they are sweating it out, waiting for the other shoe to drop; it makes the audience squirm in their seats waiting for the big bang, the shriek that punctuates the narratives and releases the tension. So, it’s kind of odd that Claude Chabrol’s films are always characterized as thrillers – they certainly don’t turn the screws. In fact, another metaphor altogether is more appropriate for Chabrol’s films: they curdle. They are almost perversely low-key and rarely rely on the type of big set-pieces that characterize Hitchcock, the typically acknowledged master of the genre. The process of a Chabrol film is not building to a climax, but observing the process of how things go bad. Even the seemingly explosive climax of his 1995 masterpiece La Ceremonie has a strangely melancholy and detached feel.

The Comedy of Power is no different, on the surface it seems like it should be the story of how as Isabelle Huppert’s investigating judge puts the screws to a series of corporate big-wigs she descends into a shadowy world of deception, corruption and dastardly dastardness. You can easily imagine Huppert giving one of her signature ice-cold performances, calculatedly decimating the hypocrisy in front of her and arrogantly trudging into the path of peril. But Huppert surprisingly gives the warmest and most open performance I’ve ever seen her give – her character, while clearly intelligent and strong-willed, also has a humanity that makes her seem approachable and decent. She seems like a caring wife and has an easy-going rapport with her husband’s live-in nephew (played by Chabrol’s own unsettlingly handsome son).

Overall, the film plays more a like procedural for the French justice system than anything else – a detailed study of how one executes an investigation of high-level corruption - and Huppert’s judge is a perfect guide. She can be best summed up in her line “It is not the image of justice with which I am concerned, but justice.” The thriller elements (if there are in fact any) aren’t derived from her quest to get to the crooks at the top of the pyramid while navigating the hostilities of the underlings protecting them, but from the quiet domestic drama unfolding in the background. The power Huppert’s character wields slowly disrupts her marriage and it all ends with a catastrophe that feels as inexplicable as it does inevitable. Once again, the Chabrol film ends with a broken, tired sigh – the realization that the milk has rotted before our eyes.

 

10.24. Death of a President.

(dvd) my apartment.

Let me go ahead and spoil this film for you: Cheney did it. Yup, that’s the big surprise that comes after 90 torturous minutes of boringly ill-conceived fakery. This is the film where which George Bush is shot dead in an alternate reality and you’d think it would at very least be interesting on some base, queasy level. It’s not at all. The first and biggest mistake the film makes is to render the proceedings in the airless, tedious style of a History Channel documentary – it’s full of the fact-oriented, uninsightful generalities that characterize those things. There’s a big section describing the president’s route to the scene of the crime, detailed descriptions of the evidence involved, lengthy talks about the process of putting together the president’s final speech (mind you, not talks about the content of the president’s final speech, but stuff like how many drafts they did and whether the tone was sufficiently chummy. Really). This is obviously idiotic. Who cares about the factual specifics of a fictitious historical event?

Anyway, this film is a perfect demonstration of the failings of the left-wing in recent years: its point of view is actually very middle of the road and uncontroversial (the film’s main themes are how the Republicans use a climate of fear to their advantage and also use concerns about national security to curtail individual freedoms), but it renders that POV in a way that sets it up to be pulverized by the right-wing. Why have this film be about a standing President being killed if you’re only going to use that idea in support of the most middling of agendas? It has no guts, won’t convince anybody of anything, and seems all too ready to kowtow to its detractors – it seems to have taken the teeth of its satire knowing that there would be controversy in its future.

I would be interested in watching a foaming-at-the-mouth, virulent, mean-spirited, paranoid, hysterical film attacking the President, Dick Cheney, the Christian right, rednecks, racism, economic injustice, the villainous stupidity of the war in Iraq and everything that the right wing stands for, but this film is just more tepid left-wing bullshit. It could overcome its political blandness if it were at least a compelling narrative, clever in its execution, or in any way interesting as a cinematic experience, but it is decidedly none of those things. Also, Henry Fool’s unforgettable James Urbaniak is distractingly cast as a ballistics expert.

 

10.25. Lunacy.

(digiBeta) JBFC.

The man himself, Jan Svankmajer, gives a really great faux-serious intro to this movie in which he emphatically declares that this is simply a horror film “with all of the degeneracy peculiar to that genre.” In honor of that insistence, here is my review:

Naďve Jean Berlot is having nightmares in which two sausage-necked bald-o’s attempt to cart him off to the looney bin in a straight-jacket, so in a semi-awake fit he ends up smashing his room to bits like a hair metal band in Tijuana after their single just went gold. Naturally, the owner of the motel where he’s staying is not amused. Fortunately, there’s a degenerate Marquis willing to pay for the damages and before you know it poor Jean has stumbled on a perverted mass that doesn’t involve any actual clergy but does involve several polished bishops - if you know what I mean and I think you do. Of course, the best thing is for Jean to voluntarily enroll in a lunatic asylum that’s as fishy as Susan Lucci’s hair color and features radically therapy with paint balloons, wiggling eyeballs and tons and tons of chickens. From there we get naughty nurses, way too many old flabby buttocks, and zombie cow tongues that make the sign of the double-back beast. So, you can see what I’m getting at: absolutely no plot to get in the way of the story. 15 breasts. Approximately 7 pairs of naked buttocks (3 attractive, 4 cover-your-eyes grisly). 1 dead body. Multiple aardvarking and aardvarking with multiple participants. Non-kosher use of chocolate cake in a Satanic ceremony. Approximately 50 pieces of dancing meat. One Victorian carriage ride with no crash. An insane asylum being run by the inmates. One instance of vivisepulture (being “buried alive” for you Americans reading this). Sexual perversity. Moral perversity. Vegetable perversity. Degradation. Midget fu. Tar fu. Feather fu. Chair and dresser fu. 86 on the vomit meter. Drive-In Academy Award nominations for Jan Triska as the cackling Marquis who chokes on a banana while blaspheming and Anna Geislerová as the debauched nurse, Charlotte, who moans “I can’t wait - I want it now father!” 4 out of four stars. Chris sez check it out.

 

10.26. Babel.

(35mm) JBFC tech screening.

Brad Pitt is an exceptionally bad actor. Theoretically, pairing him up with Cate Blanchett in a movie being clearly positioned for the awards season isn’t fair: it’s like me going one-on-one versus Allen Iverson with a national title on the line. Not only would Pitt be totally outmatched if Blanchett weren’t even trying, it’s even worse because they’re in a position where she’s clearly going to bring her A-game. In reality, Blanchett spends the whole film whimpering on the floor and doesn’t even get a chance to upstage Pitt. This movie is full of actors wasted in roles that barely get a chance to register: within moments of seeing the film you will have forgotten that Gael Garica Bernal, Clifton Collins and Koji Yakusho are even in it (also there's a new doe-eyed Fanning in it, which is naturally a strike against it). Cate Blanchett’s zilchiness is just another wasted opportunity. Watching this movie, though, I got to thinking about two of my favorite performances of the year; which also happen to be amazing actresses paired up with sub-par actors: Gong Li in Miami Vice and Vera Farmiga in The Departed. However, in both of those films, the presence of those actresses has the effect of bringing out the best in Leonardo DiCaprio and, in the case of Colin Farrell, an ability to act that wasn’t even clear existed. The scenes in which Farmiga and Li appear are noticeably more emotionally complex, well-acted and human than the surrounding material – Li and Farimga seem to control and modulate the emotional tenor of those scenes. I obviously can’t blame Blanchett for failing to reign in Pitt’s crappiness in a similar fashion, but she definitely doesn’t do anything to help the weepy, marble-mouthed, hyper-emotive monstrosity that is Brad Pitt’s “performance.” So what, you say? You’ve gotten over Brad Pitt’s atrocious acting before (maybe you like Seven, 12 Monkeys, Ocean’s Eleven or even another Pitt movie with a number in the title) and you can do it again? Well, even worse than Pitt’s acting, this film suffers from the exact same problems from which Innaritu’s first two films (Amores Perros and 21 Grams) suffered: it places a lot of value on its a hyperactive sense of style while puffed-up, simplistic themes masquerade as deep philosophical discourse. Remember 21 Grams? Here’s a quick replay of my interaction with that film:

21 Grams: I’m about fate, guilt, and revenge!

Me: What about them?

21 Grams: What do you mean?

Me: What do you have to say about fate, guilt and revenge?

21 Grams: They exist!

Me: And?

21 Grams: And they’re important!

Me: Yeah, but how so?

21 Grams: Isn’t it obvious? They’re themes! You just don’t get it.

Me: I think I hate you.

21 Grams: Sean Penn!!! Sean Penn.

But, in that case, at least I got a chance to see yet another film waste a brilliant performance by Naomi Watts. Babel is similarly determined to touch on weighty themes without contributing anything to the discourse. Worse still, it features a ton of archetypal situations rendered without originality: a drug-fueled rave, a tense confrontation with border security, a dusty Mexican wedding, a tourist in a dire situation without recourse, several miscommunications with law enforcement officials, and awkward teenage seduction of an older man. At least it’s all punctuated with enough long, meaningful gazes to add 20 minutes onto the running time. In the mind of the filmmakers, Babel is all about communication and the global community that is humanity. What about it? It sure is hard for folks to understand each other! And everybody is connected! You see, when a butterfly flaps its wings (please consult Ashton Kutcher for the end of this sentence). It’s a film chocked to the brim with portentous conversations, contrived situations and hysterical breakdowns. It’s a bunch of empty signifiers pointing towards incoherency, hollow characters and forced situations implying a big picture that it never actually appears. It uses style and pretense to hide a lack of underlying meaning. Dumb but flashy – does this type of thing fool anybody anymore? Yes? Sigh

 

10.27. Old Joy.

(dvd) tv in my apartment

So this needs a little set-up: a month or so ago, I was reading the Onion AV Club blogs and Scott Tobias (a critic whom I really like and respect) posted this blog:

http://www.avclub.com/content/node/53199

I responded (that’s my response there in the first post) because he was talking about some issues that mattered a lot to me. Mainly, is there anything to be done about the Little Miss Sunshines and Brokeback Mountains of the world taking over the place in art cinema once occupied by Fellini, Cassavetes, Lynch, Jarmusch, etc? Not that any of those I’m necessarily of huge fan of any of those filmmakers, but their commercial viability represented a larger cultural attitude about what constituted high art. Since I had seen Funny Ha-Ha and Mutual Appreciation, Tobias’ recommendation of them as an alternative to commercial dreck got under my skin for a variety of reasons. First of all, they suck. They really, really suck. I was holding back in my response, but those movies are truly terrible and recommending them to folks is reprehensible and dumb. They are worse than Marie Antionette, which is my current yardstick for all-around terribleness.

Sooooo, I thought I should check up on Old Joy and see if that film gives some credibility to Tobias’ posting. Also, Manola Darghis (a critic I sometimes like) gave it a rave-y, rave rave review in the NY Times, so maybe it’s good? It is not. It’s an aimless narrative with lots of mumbly meandering dialog, drab photography of beautiful places and a lot of self-consciousness. In short, the kind of film that gives art cinema a bad name. It’s actually kind of weird/fitting that it got paired up with Mutual Appreciation by Tobias because they both conspicuously lack whatever spark of originality or artistry it is that animates something like Stranger than Paradise or Eraserhead (or even She's Gotta Have It). 

The best I can say for it is: Will Oldman (aka Bonnie Prince Billy) is much better than I thought he would be and the Yo La Tengo soundtrack is imminently listenable, if basically unremarkable. Overall, two boring stoners have trouble re-connecting with each other on a camping trip and don’t get into any fast food-related hijinks. I’m not willing to go on record that this film is more worthwhile than Little Miss Sunshine.

 

10.28. 51 Birch Street.

(vhs) in my apartment

Eric Pfriender in his “200 Movies” blog* made a point about how most documentaries suck. On the surface, 51 Birch Street is exactly what I think he’s talking about: it’s an unfocused, ultra-personal account of frequently tedious minutiae rendered in ugly, hand-held video by a filmmaker whose idea of “investigating the past” is to ask his sisters vague questions about whether they though their mom was happy or not. It’s cinematic narcissism in the Ross McElwee mode, rendered without an ounce of technical imagination or aesthetic ability.

But let me be a contrarian here and suggest that whatever power is contained in this film is derived from its blurry, scattershot home movie quality – think of it as a more awkward Capturing the Friedmans with much less at stake and fewer likable characters. Here’s the set-up: Doug Block’s parents had been married 50 years or so when his mom died. Three months later, his dad suddenly marries the woman who was his secretary decades ago. Naturally, Doug and his sisters are upset and worried that there was something fishy going on. Doug then makes a movie which dredges up a whole ton of repressed memories, family secrets, unfulfilled desires, strange relationships and all other manner of heartache, deception, and marital frustration.

In a way, it doesn’t matter that Doug Block isn’t a particularly insightful guy or talented filmmaker – the power of the film is to see archival footage of Doug’s mom lying through her teeth about the past or new footage of Doug’s dad struggling to explain his behavior. Doug Block is irrelevant: the heartbreakingly standard story of an unhappy marriage seen in 8mm vacation footage, seen in the grainy vhs of anniversary parties, read off the pages of a yellowing diary - that story tells itself. A good filmmaker probably would’ve just gotten in the way.

* It seems Pfriender kept it up for at least a little while.

 

10.29. Last Night.

(dvd) on Paul Cooney’s old television, which is now my television, in my apartment on 100th and Broadway.

Seeing the trailer for Children of Men made me want to go back and watch this film. There’s something that I’ve never bought about all of those end of the world movies where everybody’s going nuts and rioting full scale all the time, like there’s some "Apocalypse Switch” which gets flipped and suddenly old ladies are disemboweling babies and every middle-aged man is a creep-a-zoid rapist and everyone, everywhere has an irresistible instinct to set your car on fire. I think Last Night’s picture of folks coping with the end of the world is a much more believable picture.

In particular, there’s something about David Cronenberg’s portrayal of a guy working for a gas-utility company that feels essential to me: his willingness to stay at his job - working at an even keel until the last day of work, ever - rings somehow very true. Do I go to work as preparation for some uncertain future or do I go to work because going to work is what I do? Really, the whole movie is an extended metaphor for dealing with death. How do we make our decisions knowing that they ultimately don’t matter, that we’re ultimately going to die?

Fortunately, Don McKellar is more of a comedian and a pervert than a philosopher, so his answers to these questions are more funny and fucking-related than depressingly high-minded. McKellar is best known as the writer of 22 Short Film about Glenn Gould and The Red Violin or as an actor who occasionally pops up in Cronenberg and Egoyan films, but he’s directed a couple movies, too. I’ve only seen Last Night, which I like very much, so I should probably check out the others at some point. One is called Childstar, though, and I start getting David Spade flashbacks, so I may take a pass on that one.

Anyway, in addition to Cronenberg (have you ever noticed how he always gives surprisingly good performances?), the film features a great cast with Sarah Polley, Genevieve Bujold, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie, and McKellar himself all doing good work. The only real problem with the cast is that everyone keeps referring to Sandra Oh as “beautiful,” which is kind of unfortunate. It’s kind of uncomfortable to witness that bit of miscasting getting thrown back in her face every ten minutes. But on the other hand, the film builds to a nice romantic sweetness between Oh and McKellar – it would be hard to imagine a more exhilaratingly hopeful depiction of the annihilation of the planet than the one in their final scene together.

 

10.30. Heading South.

(dvd) my apartment

I had kind of avoided seeing this when it came out because the reviews it got were the wrong kind of positive reviews: it made it seem like the kind of staid middle-brow entertainment with which rich middle-aged ladies would really connect. I should’ve known better because Laurent Cantet’s last two films (Time Out and Human Resources) were two of the most subtle and intelligent films about class and power I’ve ever seen. And I’m sure the description “subtle and intelligent” makes them sound like the type of middle-brow entertainment with which rich middle-aged ladies would really connect – but they’re actually pretty subversive and there’s a distinct tone of cynicism that runs through them. It’s the type of cynicism that seems like it could easily bubble over into out-and-out rage at any moment and it gives the films a nice tension.

So, I should’ve ignored the reviews and guessed that Heading South was worth seeing immediately. It opens with an amazing scene in which a destitute Haitian woman tries to convince a chauffer to take her young daughter before the daughter is forced into a life of prostitution. It’s the type of scene that could easily devolve in a simple morality play or straight up melodrama, but Cantet is wise enough to understand the futility inherent in the situation – it’s clear from the start that this film isn’t going to trade in the ethical black and whites that you would encounter in a film like, say, Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’'s List.

The basic premise is that three aging, rich ladies go down to Haiti in the 1970’s to engage in sexual tourism; they’ve reached a point in their life where they don’t have the energy or inclination to pursue real relationships and their efforts (or lack thereof) to come to terms with paying for “sex with hot young black dudes” provides the structure for the film. Or as Charlotte Rampling’s character puts it: "I always told myself that when I'm old I'd pay young men to love me. I just didn't think it would happen so fast." Making the main characters women is another savvy decision on Cantet’s part: if this were a film about rich businessmen fucking 14 year-old Haitian girls, the balance of power would be so clearly out of whack that you (as an audience member) would be able to sit back and  comfortably rush to judgment. It would be a clear-cut case of the powerful exploiting the helpless to grotesque effect. But by making the lead characters female, the balance of power is much murkier: the Haitian culture has an inherent machismo that offsets this idea of exploitation. The men pretend to be in control and the rich ladies are all too willing to play their part as lasses swooning in the face of imposing male physical sex-power.

It’s also telling that the women justify their actions in a sort of pseudo-feminist terms: in their minds, their sex tourism is a rebellion against a culture which determines their value mainly in terms of their (now declining) physical beauty. However, Cantet doesn’t let them off the hook that easily and, if anything, his illustrations of their unintentional racism and self-absorption go too far in the other direction – I was always on the verge of hating them for being shallow and, you know, icky. I should mention that the film makes a few stylistic missteps and that there are a series of interstitchal, direct-to-camera monologues scattered throughout the film that are as bad as you might imagine. In addition, there’s a bit too much wallowing in the “true” Haiti once our heroines get dragged into that world - its efforts to expose the “reality” of Haiti are a little too leering/sleazy and they’re frequently unnecessary.

Overall, a nice capper to two weeks filled with films about affluence and power dynamics. In order of preference, I’d rate them thus far: The Comedy of Power, Heading South, The Queen, Sisters of the Gion, Marie Antoinette. Did I mention Marie Antoinette is an unconscionable piece of shit? Good.

 

10.31. Lola.

(dvd) portable dvd-player on my train-ride to and from work

Even though I’ve had Criterion’s beautiful edition of Fassbinder’s BDR trilogy for a while now, I never watched this disk. Not sure why – the supplemental disk has gotten plenty of plays and I’ve watched Maria Braun multiple times and also gave Veronika Voss another chance (still a weak film, in my opinion). So, I’m not sure why I hadn’t thrown this disk in, but watching Lola this time (for the first time on dvd) was like a revelation: it so closely resembles the type of film I would someday like to make. There are plenty of films I would be so super-psyched if I had made (like Diary of a Chambermaid or Faust or Revenge of the Nerds), but Lola really feels like the film I believe myself actually capable of making – it expresses the ideas and emotions in which I believe deeply, in a manner with which I identify.

If Satansbraten is the "most Fassbinder" film I have seen, Lola is probably the "least Fassbinder" of his films. For one, he doesn’t use many of his repertory actors in lead roles and so that lack of anti-theater acting creates a different feel than I’ve come to expect from his movies. For the most part, actors don’t bark and growl their lines, flop into hysterical poses, and violently change emotional states like some internal switch has been flipped. Armin Mueller-Stahl is great as the forward-thinking bureaucrat who gets seduced by Barbara Sukowa’s deceptive prostitute – their performances are heartfelt and vulnerable in a way that I don’t normally associate with Fassbinder.

Granted, he still puts them through a ringer of humiliation, debasement, and cruelty (so it’s not entirely unlike other Fassbinder films), but it’s even worse this time because the characters so recognizably human and much more frequently sympathetic. Also, the film has a very patient feel, it’s in no rush to get to the disasters on the horizon – most Fassbinder films drop you into a pressure cooker and start to turn it up from the first frame. Lola takes its time to an almost painful degree and that gives it an almost novelistic feeling – it’s hard not to be reminded of stuff like Madame Bovary or The Sleepwalkers or really even the novel Alexanderplatz.

There’s just so much good stuff in this film: the sequence where Lola makes the hand-kissing bet and follows through with its execution can only be described as “thrilling;” you’re clearly watching one of the greatest filmmakers of all time at the absolute top of his game. There’s also a beautiful moment where Sukowa and Mueller-Stahl are kneeling in church, singing a round. The scene simply leaves most other films in the dust: it’s just a tiny, throwaway moment but it manages to pack more emotion into two minutes of interaction than most melodramas could generate with a thousand pregnant mistresses. And I should really mention Lola herself, one of the greatest cinematic creations: her awareness of her power (an almost exclusively sexual power) and the frustrations of its limitations are heart-breaking. She’s a woman in a perpetual state of defeat who refuses to be defeated, she’s embodiment of how those who are stepped upon come to do the stepping and the poisonous defeat inherent in that victory.

 

11.1. Underclassman.

(dvd) portable dvd-player on a subway ride downtown

Fate conspired against me to miss seeing a movie today – but then destiny turned on the radio and I spent a 45 minute train ride watching this Nick Cannon classic on the portable dvd player of some older Indian dude sitting next to me on the subway. He even had the subtitles on so I could follow what was happening. At first, I couldn’t even figure out what the fuck movie it was because there’s some subplot about a rich white kid who wants to be on the basketball team but he’s just a scrub and that shit took up almost the entirety of what I watched. I kept thinking, “Why is this old Indian guy watching some teen comedy about a guy who wants to get on the basketball team?”

After I realized the film in question was almost certainly Underclassman, I surmised that the Indian guy was probably suckered by the “it’s like Beverly Hills Cop in high school!” pitch on which the advertising for the film leaned. I would watch a movie about a young Eddie Murphy breaking up some drug ring amongst the hoity-toities who didn’t cotton to his Detroit Tigers t-shirts, unconventional methods and complete disregard for public safety. I wouldn’t watch a movie about Drumline’s Nick Cannon taking free throws with a skinny white douchebag for what seemed like an hour and 15 minutes.

My other main thought was “Nick Cannon must’ve gotten his start with Nickelodeon.” I’m not sure if I can put my finger on it, but there’s a comedic acting style that’s really readily identifiable and (perhaps coincidentally) shared by Nick Cannon, Amanda Bynes, Keenan and Kel and the cast of “You Can’t Do that on Television.” The specific way in which those actors bug their eyes, do double takes, and smile broadly at their own antics makes me feel like there’s some acting coach out at Nick Studios just churning out class after class of mildly appealing, moderately talented kid actors.

Cannon has, like, the exact same mannerisms of Amanda Bynes – it’s fucking weird. It’s like how every cartoon show on Nickelodeon in the immediate wake of “Ren and Stimpy” was animated in the exact same style as “Ren and Stimpy” – just a taste of success and then they were off to the factory to reproduce it a thousand times over at a fraction of the cost. I’m sure if I watched any Nickelodeon whatsoever, I’d have an even more acute sense of this phenomenon. Underclassman clearly wants to be a real film (like Beverly Hills Cop), but Nick Cannon just makes you think of tv shows. Cheech Marin plays the Police Chief who looks on disapprovingly.

Also, it took me about a week to realize that the title Underclassman was probably supposed to be some play on the notion of “undercover.” It's like they started to make a pun but gave up. "Undercover. Under... cover. Underclass. Underclassman. Under... something." Maybe they could’ve called it Undercoverman. I probably would’ve watched a movie called Undercoverman – even in a non-Indian-dude’s-lap context.

<<click here for 11/2/6 - 11/11/6>>

 

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