WHY AM I SO TIRED
ALL THE TIME? -- my 2002 Top Ten (+1)
and a semi-autobiographical excursus
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
[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 . . . ?!”
CIRCLING ZERO Part
One: We See Absence (Ken Jacobs) [v]
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)
(Lynne Ramsay, U.K.)
Road to Perdition
Roger Dodger (Dylan
Time Out [L’Emploi
du temps] (Laurent Cantet, France)
and the rest of “Team Wingard.”
Apologies (for stylistic, thematic, or more direct theft) to Joan
Didion, Theo Panayides, and the movie Gladiator.