2007: "An Eventful Year..."
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Back when I was an art history major, I read a fascinating article, one that has stuck in my mind over the years. It's called "The Corporate Year in Pictures," and it's by a photography curator by the name of Carol Squiers. (It appears in a 1989 collection on photography and theory entitled The Contest of Meaning, an MIT book that came out of the general atmosphere around the journal October, although the book wasn't officially connected with it.) Squiers' article is a critical analysis of annual reports to shareholders, discussing the myriad ways (some sly, some painfully obvious) that companies work to manage their public image. One example from Squiers' essay that always impressed me (albeit in a gobsmacked, unmitigated-gall sort of way) was the cover of the 1982 Johnson & Johnson annual report. This was the year of the "Tylenol Scare," when seven people in the Chicago area died from cyanide-laced Tylenol, thus prompting the Fort Knox-like pharmaceutical packaging we all know and love today. Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol's manufacturer, published an annual report that was a masterstroke of insensitive PR understatement: an all-white cover with a small photo of a bottle of Tylenol in the upper right-hand corner, and a small helvetica caption: "An Eventful Year."
This admittedly clever maneuver has been on my mind ever since I decided that yes, I would compile a 2007 top ten list, and even write a (very, very late) year-end essay. I sometimes joke on this website that "this is not a blog," and although I don't want to disparage the fine work that the best bloggers are doing (on film, politics, parenthood, what have you) every day, I make those comments because from the beginning of the Academic Hack project, I have understood my relationship with my readers very differently. But at the same time, long time readers of this site cannot have helped but notice certain significant inconsistencies during the past year. Most notable was the termination of my Toronto festival coverage, followed by a hiatus. Suffice to say, a number of unexpected events in my personal life (illnesses, deaths in the family, and what under more normal circumstances would have been the usual demands of raising a precocious two-year-old) pushed film criticism to the back burner, and sometimes demanded an external hotplate.
But on the other hand, once things settled down I think I've been more productive than ever. Part of this was just about finally coming to grips with reality. Once I gave up the bitter torment and recognized that, yes, for a part-timer stuck in Syracuse, with a family and a fixed income, home video was going to make up the majority of what I could reasonably expect to see, a whole world opened up. I got savvier about procuring hard-to-find screeners. I discovered that some experimental filmmakers valued my writing enough to send prints up to Syracuse gratis, if I only asked them to. And, wonder of wonders, I got into bittorrent (or, in the much cooler French lingo, "telecharger"), which is a pretty astonishing can of worms in itself. Really, if you know where to look, it's a lot like Cannes and Toronto, only on tape delay. What's more, this small corner of the film world seems to have its own interests and rituals. Genre films reign supreme, of course, but also the international reach of the major bittorrent sites means that films like Elite Squad and Katyn actually assert themselves as forces to be reckoned with, long before the festival circuit catches on. (There are also fascinating little quirks to the scene. The opensubtitles site is as hilarious as it is useful, revealing that some weirdo out there will take the requisite hours to translate old "Frasier" episodes into Magyar.) All in all, what began as a necessary compromise actually rekindled a dormant part of my early cinephilia, the old underground tape-trading networks where I used to discover rare Hans-Jürgen Syberberg films in the collection of some crazy professor in Philly, who only wanted my Straub bootlegs in return. Crazy thing is, some of the very copies of films that I and my small circle sent surreptitiously out into the world ten years ago are still floating around, only in .avi form. So in a way, I was "seeding" before there was such a thing as a seed-to-leech ratio.
So, a few final words on the actual Year in Cinema, as opposed to the Year in Me. The hype was true: 2007 was one of those strange international harmonic convergences wherein fine, challenging works were unusually abundant. As I belatedly work my way through the Million Dollar Comp Line-Up from Cannes, I do find myself edging ever so slightly towards the ranks of the gainsayers. (Mark, thou art vindicated.) It wasn't everything it was cracked up to be, but neither was it a bust. In the end, it's a matter of taste, of course. I will never argue that No Country For Old Men -- a film whose lack of Cannes awards probably presaged its Oscar glory, Stephen Frears knowing a thing or two about le Systeme Americain -- is a "bad" film. It simply exhibits a surfeit of control when the brothers need to ease up, and relies too heavily on an iconicity that, under the Coens' overbearing touch, verges on the cartoonish. (That Bardem pulls it back speaks to his skill as a performer. Coenishness is difficult to defeat -- just ask Jeff Bridges.)
On the other side of the aesthetic aisle, I found Paranoid Park too mannered, too sure of its own elegance, to fully embrace. The concluding scenes in particular are so extravagantly poetic than one almost sees Van Sant composing them, his pen or paintbrush flying into the air with a flourish of masterstroke finality. Certainly, the Coens' film and Van Sant's, despite my reservations, captured more genuine concern for the trapped plight of the weak than Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner, which treated feminism, and friendship for that matter, as a substitute for thinking, rather than a sharpening of it. So yeah, the line-up was okay. My mileage varied: I preferred We Own the Night, Death Proof, Import Export, The Last Mistress and yes, The Banishment. I still need to catch up with Silent Light, My Blueberry Nights, and Breath. Only one film really cries out in my mind for a second look, and that's Zodiac. In retrospect, I don't trust my reaction to it at all. And, as a glance at my (semi-)final 2007 list will indicate, I had more luck with the Venice line-up. (See #s 11, 12, and 13 below; also, this was strong, and this and this and even this were pretty good.) But, much more so than with Cannes, Venice's Comp slate hit some very low lows. Hard to believe anyone would give a grand prize to this, or name an award after this, or even select something as asinine as this. But hey, in the end, who needs film festivals anyway? After all, Paul Thomas Anderson released One Film to Rule Them All, late in the year and without any festival support. This grand opting-out very nearly renders all the big Cannes and Venice prizes null and void, or at least appends those wins with a mighty asterisk.
Last and certainly not least, experimental film and video more than held their own in a year when all of a sudden, cinema seemed relevant again. For those paying attention, nothing could possibly be more relevant than, say, Phil Solomon essentially changing mediums and reinventing the terms for digital moving imagery. Or Jeanne Liotta and David Gatten taking us all the way back to the invention of the medium, when the dividing lines between art and science were far more porous and all anyone demanded of the fledgling artform was that it dazzle us with sights as yet unexposed. Or Bill Jones, Michael Robinson, and John Gianvito creating new, radical histories of America, channeling energies and desires that belong to the past in order to mobilizing them for a future based on freedom rather than fear and intelligence rather than ignorance. Or Ben Russell, Henry Hills, Luther Price, and Ben Rivers remapping the conjunctions between space and vision.
One last thing. I am happy to report this will be my last year-end missive from the godforsaken city of Syracuse. My wife has accepted a professorship at the University of Houston, and so this summer we will be moving to Texas. This is ironic, since I grew up in Houston and, at the time, couldn't wait to leave. But a lot has changed in the intervening years, and I look at it this way. It's not just that there are a hundred times more film and arts organizations in Houston than in Syracuse, although it's true, there are. Or that there are two major airports, featuring many reasonably-priced direct flights around the world, although that's also true. The main thing on my mind as I (finally) close out 2007 is this: living in this Shitville, I've managed to maintain this site over the years. I figure it can only get better from here. So despite some hurdles along the way, I conclude 2007 on a note of extreme optimism. So far, there's been a nonstop feast for the eyes and ears, and I'm not even done with it yet. It's been an eventful year.
This list is still open to revision more than most of my top tens, but I think it's final enough to go with. Here you are.
2007 TOP TWENTY-ONE (2007 world premieres only)
1. What the Water Said, nos. 4-6 (David Gatten, U.S.) [s] [review]
2. Observando El Cielo (Jeanne Liotta, U.S.) [s] [review]
3. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France) [review]
4. RR (James Benning, U.S.) [review]
5. In Memoriam -- Mark LaPore: untitled (for David Gatten) / Rehearsals For Retirement / Last Days in a Lonely Place (Phil Solomon, U.S.) [v/m] [article / review]
6. Light Is Waiting (Michael Robinson, U.S.) [v/s] [review]
7. Public Domain (Jim Jennings, U.S.) [s] [review]
8. La France (Serge Bozon, France) [review]
9. Profit motive and the whispering wind (John Gianvito, U.S.) [v/m] [review]
10. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.) [review]
11. Tearoom (William E. Jones, U.S.) [v/m] [review]
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, U.S.) [review]
13. False Friends (Sylvia Schedelbauer, Germany) [s]
14. Import Export (Ulrich Seidl, Austria) [review]
15. The Duchess of Langeais [Don't Touch the Axe] (Jacques Rivette, France / Italy) [review]
16. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, Spain / France) [review]
17. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, U.S. / France) [review]
18. The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen, China / Hong Kong) [review]
19. Victory Over the Sun (Michael Robinson, U.S.) [s] [review]
20. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, U.S.) [review]
21. Nymph (Ken Jacobs, U.S.) [v/s] [review]
2007 TOP TEN RELEASES (including earlier films commercially released in the U.S. during 2007)
1. What the Water Said, nos. 4-6 (David Gatten, U.S., 2007) [s]
2. Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali / France / U.S., 2006)
3. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, France, 2005)
4. Observando El Cielo (Jeanne Liotta, U.S., 2007) [s]
5. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, Portugal / France, 2006)
6. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / France / Austria, 2006)
7. In Memoriam -- Mark LaPore (Phil Solomon, U.S., 2005-2007) [v/m]
8. Light Is Waiting (Michael Robinson, U.S., 2007) [v/s]
9. Profit motive and the whispering wind (John Gianvito, U.S., 2007) [v/m]
10. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S., 2007)