WHY AM I SO TIRED ALL THE TIME?  -- my 2002 Top Ten (+1) and a semi-autobiographical excursus (which you should feel free to skip)

 

The truth is, I turned to hardcore cinephilia as an escape, a way to manage the pain of a failed marriage and a graduate school “career” which everyday looks less and less like something I actually want.  I have never been someone who can just veg out in front of the TV.  I’m not much of a drinker.  And while of late I have been a bit more reliant on my pain pills than I’d like, I don’t think I’d make a very good drug addict.  What does it for me is art. 

 

This is in part because I am drawn to the aesthetic world, to the surfaces of things.  Ever since I began looking at painting, I’ve had a predilection for scruffy, overworked surfaces and thick impastoes, and this always overrode my concern with what, if anything, was depicted.  To an extent that sort of orientation – “topical” in the other sense – governs my most profound interactions with film as well.  A deep, saturated color hovering on the screen, or a graceful, gliding camera movement are capable of delivering a glee so preverbal as to almost make me cop to a certain unfashionable Kantianism. 

 

But it is more than that, of course.  Mostly, I like going outside myself and encountering someone else’s organization of experience.  I realize this is a cliché.  This is what the hoary gray eminences and Defenders of the Tradition tell us art is for.  But while this encounter with the world from the Other’s point of view can indeed be edifying, this way of thinking about the situation tends to occlude the narcotic aspect of forgetting, the rush of not only not being yourself, but of not being anybody.  I merely observe, take mental notes, drift off.  I scarcely have to act.  “Action” is reduced to making connections, being stimulated, and concentrating on keeping myself out of the picture.  It’s downright unhealthy.  But it works.  Sometimes.

 

All of this struck me anew this past year, for a few different reasons.  For example, I experienced a significant disparity between the joy of moviegoing and the pleasure I actually gleaned from the movies themselves.  2002 was pretty lousy.  My top three films blew me away, but I didn’t even get the chance to see them twice.  The others, which I mostly got to see again, held up well enough, but could they compare with the dizzying heights of my filmgoing life, or even last year?  Not really.  They all seemed to fade quickly in my esteem, or else the pleasures they delivered were of a more intellectual variety.  (I don’t want to sound like I’m disparaging intellectual cinema! Far from it.  It’s exciting and perfectly valid, of course, and something which is sadly in short supply.  But – and I’m thinking especially of the Godard and de Oliveira films – there’s a big difference between rapture and approbation, between gasping, and nodding in assent.)  So while I really did enjoy the films discussed below, still there was something lacking.  If I really only seriously dug about 10-15% of the 400-sum-odd films I saw, how could I justify this activity?  Or more to the point, how could I justify the pleasure it nonetheless gave me? 

 

About the happiest time I spent by myself all year – and I qualify this because my happiest moments were all spent with Jennifer, my fiancée, and any moment not spent in her company is, to my mind, “qualified” – was attending the Vancouver International Film Festival.  I saw some wonderful films there (including Nos. 3 and 7 below), but overall, it was about average.  So what accounts for my unbridled joy?  On a certain level, simply having nothing else to do but see five films a day is pleasure enough.  But I now realize that it wasn’t even the films themselves, but the promise of the films, of sitting down and anticipating the Next Potentially Great Thing, or getting up afterward, shaking off the disappointment, and rushing down the street to the next venue, the next chance.  And this is really only a concentrated form of the mindset which governs my filmgoing every day of the year.  Maybe the next one will not just take me away, but give me something substantive in return.

 

And what does this mean?  That I cannot be “in the moment” with a film, that I am always looking ahead and beyond?  Or that the droning pain and annoyance of being with myself, of facing myself, is never preferable to even the worst cinematic offense?  And why won’t that old woman in the front row stop rattling that damned plastic bag?  And I was here first, why did that jerk have to sit down in front of me?  The subtitles are out of focus!  Usher, close the doors!  The feature’s started.  And there’s still a lot I need to answer for, and so many accounts left in arrears.  I have to get on that.  But not today.

 

1. Harmful Insect (Akihiko Shiota, Japan)

As the cruel vagaries of international film distribution inexplicably iced out this film, I am sad to have only been able to see it once.  While I was a fan of Shiota's previous film Sasayaki, Insect was the sign of an auteur making a watershed, decisively breaking through to another level.  But almost no one noticed.  Shiota deploys a style which combines the pictorialism of Imamura with the almost architectural visual control of Tsai Ming-liang, but these comparisons also fail, because he is derivative of neither.  The story of the accelerated emotional destruction of Japanese schoolgirl Sachiko (the fantastic Aoi Miyazaki) at the hands of callous or predatory adults, Shiota foregoes the swooning or finger-wagging of others who've mined this vein, in favor of a relentless objectivity. He is not, however, using aesthetics to seal us off from this world, as if to underscore its fated inevitability.  He's just reminding us that, if we pay close attention, we are sitting right in front of this type of degradation everyday.  This is not, however, a Solondzesque roll in the sleaze.  Shiota seems to agree with Renoir, that "everyone has their reasons."  It's just that they simply aren't good enough.

 

2. Looking at the Sea (Peter Hutton) [s]

This short film begins, a propos of nothing, on a verdant hillside.  At the time, I did not even know I was watching the Hutton film.  Slowly, shot by shot, the film moves us from the earth to the sea, with a blue-gray light saturating everything in the frame.  The water is slowed ever so slightly in its movement through the image, lending it a slight permanence.  A friend of mine, who was not as impressed with Looking at the Sea as I was, remarked, “it just owes too much to painting.”  This is absolutely correct; as Scott MacDonald has noted, Hutton is a filmic inheritor of the Hudson River school of landscape painting.  But reworking this imagery in cinema fundamentally alters its meaning. In cinema, we actually experience the moment of natural beauty’s capture and escape.  Hutton’s unparalleled achievement is his ability to collaborate with the sun, to generate films of fleeting luminosity.

 

3. Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

A film which hovers between narrative and the pure factual existence of nature.  Funny, sexy, relentlessly compelling to watch, I am still not sure what it’s “about.”  Often it just stands there, like a tree.  My favorite theory is that Joe W. is staging not only bliss, but its incompatibility with our basic representational codes.  Most narrative entails a contest, or a struggle to fill some gaping want.  We see this in the first portion, with Min trying to get a work permit, but also when Orn and her lover get sexual pleasure and the desire for conception all in a muddle.  Min and Roong, meanwhile, have an outdoor tryst virtually free of conflict, and this evolves into an almost intolerable experience of cinematic time.  When we are truly happy, everything seems to stop.

 

4. The Or Cloud (Fred Worden, U.S.A.) [s]

In avant-garde circles, Worden's reputation could scarcely be higher.  He's something of a filmmaker's filmmaker, counting tough-to-please luminaries like Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs among his fan base. This year, I saw for myself that Worden is indeed the real deal.  The Or Cloud is a mind-blowing frame-by-frame animation, derived from gray and black inkwash drawings on vellum.  The closest point of reference is Brakhage, but Worden's sense of rhythm and texture is utterly unique, since each frame retains its own physical independence and merges into the next only in the eye. Essentially, this film assumes control of the viewer's visual field, morphing it into a whirling pattern of streaky brushstrokes and jagged black marks.  An almost indescribable experience.

 

5. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, France)

A vampire film which primarily concerns itself with surfaces and textures (especially those of bloodied skin), but is never shallow.  The film’s magnificence isn’t in its depiction of desire as an alien yet animalistic force.  The greatness stems from the visceral power with which this force is depicted.  Beatrice Dalle’s feral performance as Coré captures the anguish of insatiability, particularly as she dines on her teenaged lover.  She emits groans which waver, second by second, between ecstacy and self-loathing.  Even more brilliant is Denis’s decision to counterpose Dalle’s tormented amour carne with the pragmatically American affliction of Vincent Gallo’s Shane Brown.  He wants to find Coré and her husband, to get this thing taken care of.  We sense Shane’s despair, but even at the end, there is a bizarre resignation along with a will to go on.  While it really is too cerebral and deliberate to succeed as a horror film, its unqualified success as a tone poem more than compensates.  Masterfully directed, exquisitely shot, as usual, by Agnes Godard.  Oh, yes, and the Tindersticks.  They smoulder.

 

6. 8 Women (François Ozon, France)

Campy, sure, but sexy, precise, and flamingly gay.  As much as I admired Haynes's Sirkian experiment with Far From Heaven, it often felt so deliberate that I could visualize the director in a room, writing with so much force his pencil snaps.  Ozon delivers sexual politics wrapped up in his flouncy farce like a savory bon-bon.

 

7. Silence . . . We’re Rolling (Youssef Chahine, Egypt / France)

This year's out-of-nowhere surprise, a balls-out semi-musical comedy that never once ran out of gas.  Anyone who expects airtight plot construction is going to hate this; its charm derives in large part from its irrepressibility, flying off in all directions.  Yet Chahine balances this out with precision timing, intelligent culture-clash gags, and the occasional plangent moment.

 

8. In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland / France) 

Preceded by expectations it could hardly live up to ("Godard's most accessible effort in years!") and unfairly tarred by the newly born patriots of the post-9/11 era, In Praise of Love barely got a fair hearing.  As Godard says in the film, when you think of something, you are always thinking of something else, and the film is resolute in its refusal to allow the viewer to have anything resembling firm, sure knowledge.  Lest this sound sadistic, it's worth noting that one of Godard's overriding themes in this film is the failure of his generation to achieve adulthood. In this case, maturity would have meant realizing the ideals of May '68, revolutionizing cinema, and coming to terms with the weight of history.  Instead, he finds a world which is all Coca-Cola and no Marx.  Godard doesn't hate the U.S.A. He both envies and critiques our childlike self-confidence, just prior to another of its periodic evaporations.

 

9. I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal / France)

Repeat viewings of Oliveira's surprise U.S. "breakthrough" film confirm that it is pretty much a masterpiece.  The director's rigor is aimed for a change at a rather modest character study, and his penchant for absurd humor is mostly toned down here.  (The "Buck Mulligan" sequence comes closest, but it lends us an identification with Gilbert Vallence's confinement, rather than liberating us from the formalist pall, as in The Letter or The Uncertainty Principle.)  Although the opening sequence -- Piccoli tearing through Ionesco's Exit the King while we gather that trouble is brewing backstage -- is the film's absolute highpoint.  I confess that I am ultimately more impressed by the film that moved by it, but its artistry is beyond question.

 

10. Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico)

[The writer of this sentence does not know that as he struggles to describe the effect Mr. Cuarón's had upon him, everything that could possibly be said about this film has already been logged somewhere else. He pauses, and realizes his inadequacy to the task.  He will never mention this again.]

 

10+. “Dirrty” [video for Christina Aguilera] (David La Chappelle) [s/v]

Not a film, but something really worthy of consideration.  I realize I am a fossil, an aesthetic stick in the mud who is sorely out of touch with pop culture.  So it may be hypocritical for me to embark on a semi-lucid cultural studies project, especially amidst the abstruse art cinema discussed above. But here goes.  This video is actually very interesting, and Christina Aguilera has been unfairly pilloried for it.  This is a fucked-up time to be a girl, with pop culture ladling on the mixed messages about the power and horror of youthful female sexuality.  Strippers are respectable now.  Boob jobs hover between trendy accessory and porno kitsch.  Britney pole-dances, and the world has the pants charmed off it when Xina coyly (not really) purrs about rubbing her little Genie the right way.  But like the decadent Roman culture it is, Amurka manages its right-wing libertinism by occasionally throwing a hussy in the stockade, for going “too far.”  What did Aguilera and La Chappelle do, really?  1) They let a skinny white girl get half-naked and sing about wanting some dick.  Or maybe more.  To state the obvious, nobody much cares when Lil’ Kim or Missy Elliott does this.  2) They let sanctioned strip-club raunchiness veer into “perversion.”  Why is Chrissie bare-knuckles boxing with a hard-body chick in a mask?  (Where’s the Jell-O?)  Why are those guys writhing in fur-suits?  I mean, hello Flyover Country, this is big-city sex calling.  3) Unlike Britney, who always has the blank yet ingratiating stare of a rookie employee at the bank, Christina appeared to enjoy being dirty.  The media had to denounce this as some sort of sick, incomprehensible stunt, to cover over the fact that it holds a mirror up to our very sexually confused present.  “Whut . . . ?!”

 

ten runners-up (alphabetical order)

CIRCLING ZERO Part One: We See Absence (Ken Jacobs) [v]

Harvard Man (James Toback)

La Captive (Chantal Akerman, France / Belgium)

Confessions of a Sociopath (Joe Gibbons) [v/m]

Heaven (Tom Tykwer, Germany / Italy / U.K.)

Late Marriage (Dover Kosashvili, Israel / France)

Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, U.K.)

Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes)

Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd)

Time Out [L’Emploi du temps] (Laurent Cantet, France)

 

 

Thanks to Jennifer and the rest of “Team Wingard.”  Apologies (for stylistic, thematic, or more direct theft) to Joan Didion, Theo Panayides, and the movie Gladiator.