RECENT ADDITIONS TO OLDER TOP TEN LISTS, and other films destined for such:

Commingled Containers (Stan Brakhage, 1996) [s] -- It's bizarre that on first viewing this miraculous little film struck me as minor, because it's so, so not. One of Brakhage's most intensely photographic works made during a period of activity dominated by the hand-painted films, Containers is in essence a compressed study in the depiction of fluid, the many ways the frame can contain liquid imagery. This includes some abrupt hand-painted passages but mostly it's startling footage of light on water, from extreme closeups of beaded surfaces, drops forming concentric circles of squinty white on beige or amber backgrounds, or the exhilaration of blue-white water curving over a rock in a stream, an image so perfect it almost veers into beer-commercial kitsch (too beautiful for art?) but holds it back, keeping it on the right side of the law of aesthetics and dazzling, even paralyzing with its overpowering purity. Although the treatment of surface and especially of color are classic Brakhage, the use of alternating foci and non-connective editing junctures recalls aspects of Nathaniel Dorsky's work. Dorsky, of course, was deeply influenced by Brakhage but I wonder if Brakhage might have unconsciously been returning the compliment here.

Three Films by George Landow (Owen Land): "No Sir, Orison!" (1975) [s] / Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present (1973) [s] / A Film of Their 1973 Spring Tour Commissioned by Christian World Liberation Front of Berkeley California (1974) [s] -- Three of the only remaining Land(ow) films I'd not yet seen, and they comprise a tight, evangelical little trilogy of sorts. Although none exhibits the breadth and mindblowing originality of Land's two flat-out masterpieces, Wide Angle Saxon and On the Marriage Broker Joke, taken as components of the overall late-Land project these short works are highly provocative and one ("No Sir, Orison!") is most likely one of his most important films. Thank You Jesus is a fascinating formalist experience, given that it bombards the viewer with scads of sonic and visual information, looped and collapsed into near-incomprehensibility. We see snippets of a woman in a Vegas-like showgirl outfit working what looks like a CBS Records convention booth. We also get a close-up of an African-American woman looking upwards in praise, while the audio offers a near-sexual litany of a woman's devotion to Jesus Christ. Added to the mix, a manipulated chant of "God, God, God." The point is clear enough -- religious epiphanic time, or the temporality of God, is an "eternal present," a dense, enfolded time not amenable to quotidian linear experience. Land does construct a film that conveys the struggle of existing in that temporal zone, but he does this even more successfully with A Film of Their Spring Tour. Segments of a seemingly straightforward document of an evangelical duo, holding what look to be spectacularly uninvolving "revivals" in college classrooms, A Film intercuts two different times and angles on the events at hand, resulting in a barely comprehensible staccato-ization of the aural information. The jagged soundtrack never lapses into total abstraction (a la Paul Sharits), so the experience of listening is one of frustration and palpable loss of meaning. We know that there is a discussion of God, but as with Thank You Jesus, we are unequipped to grasp the complete text of the preaching, putting the word of God out of reach. However, it's possible to "get" the point without hanging on every single word, so Land hints at religious conversion as a tense mental space hovering between intellection and intuition. A formal / structural effort in every respect, Land manages to put this technique to the purpose of praising his Lord, in a manner that in no way diminishes the power Land obviously finds in the Word. The final film, "No Sir, Orison!", marks a move between these formal endeavors and the somewhat more performative turn Land's later work would take. We see a man in a vaguely Mennonite-looking suit pushing a basket in the grocery store. He stops to sing to the camera, a hymn about how love performs certain kinds of miracles, "and so does the market." The singer then drops to his knees mid-aisle to silently pray. (Program notes indicate he is praying for forgiveness for those who produce unwholesome processed foods.) If The Clash could be lost in the supermarket, Land implies, why couldn't someone just as easily be found, or even saved there? And although I would like to proffer a left-leaning interpretation of Orison, that Land's incongruous connection between (holy) love and the market implies a challenge to the right-wing American conjunction between Christianity and capitalism, if such a critique exists it is more along the lines of Land castigating the market, like all human constructions, as being too impure, too rife with sin, to share any meaningful content with the teachings of Christ. Finally, on a strictly filmic level, I must praise Land's uncanny ability, through framing and use of color, to simply set his camera up and film inside an existing supermarket and, in every respect, transform that space into a component of his aesthetic. You halfway expect the pandas to show up.

Run (Luther Price, 1994) [s] -- Somehow I'd mistakenly thought I'd seen this film before in its entirety, which I certainly had not until now [July 31, 2006]. I would have remembered the shocking way Price ends this dense, glitchy study of pigeons in the urban skies. I'm not as familiar with Price's work as I'd like to be; I've only seen this and Sodom. But Run gives a clear and bracing impression of what it is he (allegedly) does. Price scratches into the celluloid, layering images, but in a highly unusual way. He carves bits out of one filmstrip and affixes them onto another, often resulting in thick impasto cinema that runs through the projector but barely, resulting in continual damage to the film. Judging from Run, Price (who, according to the lore, was seriously wounded in Nicaragua and has taken "woundedness" and vulnerability as his aesthetic domain) seems to be making fragile objects of tense, muscular power. Most of the film is flat white sky, often thickened and hazed through multiple images. Tight linear construction and composition allows him to bisect the frame with telephone wires, and into this minimal field he introduces those "rats with wings," pudgy black forms shaking epileptically against the screen's dirty, compromised neutrality. They shake there, barely flying out of frame, sometimes stuck like ink stains, occasionally replaced in rapid-fire succession with other black objects. Price then goes further, mucking up the formal isolation of the film with scattered bits of (self?) portraiture. People don't belong in this film, and eventually it becomes clear that that's why they're in it. Similarly, the mechanical drone of the soundtrack gives way to something all too human, something that "doesn't work." Eisenstein argued for strong difference (or "articulation") between shots. Peter Kubelka upped the ante, favoring strong articulations between frames. Now, Price seems to be articulating within the frame, and the result is a fascinatingly impure, even soiled modernism.

Monday Morning (Otar Iosseliani, France / Italy, 2002) -- This is the third Otar film I've seen, and the first I've really connected with. Here his bone-dry wit and self-effacing craftsmanship meld into a jaunty little essay on truancy, one that hints at motifs from Kaurismäki and especially Tati but spins them into something utterly unique. I think the key is William Lubtchansky's roving camera, which takes ordinary scenes and, together with Iosseliani's deft movement of performers through the frame, turns them into some of the most graceful choreography I've ever seen. (The first ten minutes at the factory represent the finest evocation of industrial labor I've seen since, I dunno, Vertov?) It's as though all the available models for this kind of task-oriented cinema of bodies and spaces (Bresson, of course, but the aforementioned other two as well) suddenly seem too stuffy and constricted by comparison. They move people around the frame like sculptures in a gallery, but Otar conducts bodies like musicians playing a waltz. Just an absolute delight, Monday Morning reconceptualizes for me exactly what it is a film director can do with the medium. And although I have yet to experience what are generally considered Iosseliani's two best films (Favorites of the Moon and Farewell, Home Sweet Home), thins one's singular enough to vault O.I. into my personal pantheon. Well done, Otar.

It's Hummer Time (Robert McKimson, 1950) [s] -- I've been on the trail of this obscure Warner Bros. cartoon for years, harboring vague but indelible memories of it. I found a fragment of it on YouTube recently after getting a wild hair and doing a Google search with keywords "happy birthday," "the thinker," and "the works." I didn't even know what it was called. Anyhow, McKimson's a minor director in the Looney Tunes pantheon, but more than any Chuck Jones, Tex Avery or Friz Freleng toons, this one's seared into my brain. It's not only a masterpiece of the minimal premise; it's remarkably frank about the S/M undercurrent that drives it on. I mean, obviously Cat and Dog have been through these ritualized scenarios more than once, and Cat sure puts up a hysterical, doth-protest-too-much hissy fit, only to sit still for the elaborate prop work. Having Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling on the team just adds to the embarrassment of riches. Happy to have found it at last, my all-time favorite cartoon.

Fingers (James Toback, 1978) -- It was both awkward and revealing to see Fingers a few days after having seen Audiard's clumsy remake, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, since certain scenes are copied almost word-for-word. This only shows just how difficult Toback's and especially Keitel's balancing act really was. Whereas Audiard can't keep the thug and the musician together in the same frame (apparently believing them antithetical, therefore betraying a lack of conviction about the original's premise), Toback keeps them both present at all times, a slippery continuum resulting in both psychological and narrative instabilities. Fingers is a film that "doesn't work" in most traditional senses, since it fires on all cylinders and works overtime to maintain a frazzled, discomfiting response on the part of the viewer. Keitel's character is like something out of Dostoyevsky, a man whose passions and impulses, sexual as well as intellectual, send him flying in all directions, barely able to function in the most banal circumstances. (Hard to think of him managing to shave or eat a steak without throwing an elbow at some assailant, real or imaginary.) And yet, Toback doesn't romanticize him like a noble savage. Even though the film is completely in empathy with its protagonist, it tends to pin him down like a specimen, watching the pierced wing flail.

Xiao Wu (Jia Zhang Ke, China, 1997) -- Up to now, for me Jia has fallen into that category of world-class cineaste whose work I've mostly admired (Unknown Pleasures) or at least found worthwhile (Platform), but who has yet to really bowl me over. (Almodóvar is another.) So it's been a bit perplexing when, for example, the Village Voice calls Jia the world's greatest filmmaker under 40. Granted, up to now I've seen Jia's work in the context of festivals, where it's entirely possible that my flagging viewership simply wasn't up to their demands. But catching up with his amazing debut feature only complicates things, since I think it's by far the finest of the three Jia features I've seen. (I hope to catch up with his fourth, The World, later this year.) It's wonderful what a little hand-held camera can do. I'm certainly more forgiving of the Asian master-shot school than some, but what's really startling about Xiao Wu is the way Jia's camerawork explores an entire range of emotive possibilities. Yes, sometimes the camera is stock-still, and sometimes Jia lets the camera roll in a single extended shot. But, as with one of those rare moments when Ozu used a crane shot, the imapct of Jia's formal decisions is heightened through difference. The final shot, for example, delivers a palpable sense of entrapment, as our Nouvelle Vague-by-way-of-90s-Beijing antihero is thrown to the margins of a society that is every bit as corrupt as he is. Xiao Wu, in essence, becomes a kind of fall guy for the old China, the sort of hapless scum that must be brushed aside to clear the way for the new global ecomony. (Cf. Giuliani's "Broken Windows" inititative.) But unlike in the otherwise lovely Unknown Pleasures, Xiao Wu for the most part doesn't hammer its politics home in explicit statements. Instead, it lets us move around inside Xiao Wu's twitchy skin, getting a feel for a world that's rapidly closing in.

Silvercup (Jim Jennings, 1998) [s] -- I saw this years ago in a Jennings one-man show, and although I loved it at the time, it sort of slipped my mind. I resaw it recently and its jewellike magnificence pretty much slapped me upside the head. Essentially a series of high-contrast black and white shots of bridges, trellises, and commuter trains against a blank NYC sky, Silvercup manages to impress with its effortless interlocking shots. If you graphed them out or analyzed them, there would be no concrete reason why, from shot to shot, each framing and camera angle seems to be the logical complement to the last. The film isn't overbearing, like an Eisenstein montage, nor does it follow any predictable film grammar. But the editing works, like a perfectly curated series of photographs unwinding in time, all modern yet displaying a picturesque urban decay, an unlikely collusion between Franz Kline expressionism and Rodchenko-like Constructivism. Yes, it is perfect. And as we know, perfection is not an accident.

Yeelen (Solomani Sise, Mali / Burkina Faso / France / West Germany, 1987) -- It took me awhile to catch up with this major African film (considered by some to be one of the best films of the eighties, although that's damning with faint praise, now isn't it?). Sise seems to effortlessly generate poetic images, striking landscape sequences and morphing close-ups, all in the service of a kind of seduction. The narrative thread of Yeelen is never exactly clear, even to the protagonist himself, who knows his father wants to hunt and kill him, but is not sure why. The closest we get to an explanation has to do with a segment of the Bambara clan, of which Niankoro (Issiaka Kane) is a part, that wants to reveal the ancient secrets, making them accessible to all. Niankoro's father seems to object to this de-hierarchizing of the clan. The images Sise produces, and in particular his stunning use of desert space (blocking a sparse number of performers amidst an equally sparse smattering of trees, slowmy moving the camera through this arrangement), take our attention away from narrative concerns, bringing us into a kind of hypnotic "now" that seems to rhyme thematically with the tribal magic that saturates this tale. Also, the final showdown between father and sun is a striking conclusion, both a classic Western-style face-off and an abstract rendering of generational inheritance. Highly recommended. [NOTE: I have gone with the spelling of the director's name on the credits, which appear to be in Bambara. The more common spelling, however, is the Francophonic rendering Souleymane Cissé. If you care.]

Under Satan's Sun (Maurice Pialat, France, 1987) -- I don't want to come off like a lily-livered auteurist, but I really feel like I need to see more Pialat films before I can fully evaluate the greatness of this one, even though, as the first of his films I've seen, its power is pretty undeniable. Pialat is in conversation not just with Bernanos here, but Bresson and Dreyer, a tradition of pessimistic religious inquiry and miraculous materialism. (Similarly, Brisseau seems to be Pialat's heir in this arena.) Depardieu's lunkheaded hulk of a priest is himself Pialat's presentation of the conundrum. Would a modern saint be loved, feared, ostracized, or even comprehensible? The problem is staged as a series of conversations, all brutal contests of will. When Father Donissan (Depardieu) encounters Satan Incarnate as a traveller on the road (Jean-Christophe Bouvet), Pialat shoots the night scene as a composition of black on black, the frame almost completely unreadable. Donnisan's paranoid protestations emerge from a void. Are they a part of our world? On the other hand, Donissan's confrontation with Mouchette (the amazing Sandrine Bonnaire) takes place in broad daylight, in what looks like a roadside field. The only unbridled, self-aware presence in the priest's whole sorry parish, she is condemned by Donisson as possessed. The intricacies of verbal parrying, the balance (it appears to me) between scripted guidelines and extemporaneous sparring and reaction, lends the entire film an awkward documentary quality, as though we are witnessing a record of a very particular set of actorly interactions. I can see where the "French Cassavetes" tag comes from, but the tenor, and the stakes, are completely different. Whereas Cassavetes interrogates human behavior as a form of acting -- cinema's Erving Goffmann, if you like -- here Pialat is using Bernanos' novel and its worldly implausibility in order to force his characters into improbable, uninhabitable human states. If Satan controls the game, action is impossible, and yet action must continue. In this framework, one is giving into evil simply by continuing to exist. That's the double-bind of classical Freudian paranoia, and Pialat, in theme and execution, has produced the perfect paranoiac film.

Katzelmacher (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1969) -- Okay, this is a cheat, since I have not yet made a list for 1969, but I wanted to jot a few thoughts down before I forgot them.  Contrary to its middling reputation, Katzelmacher is a pivotal work in RFW's oeuvre.  It's pretty much the exact moment when his major influences come together.  There is a stark visual and temporal economy that harks back to his tutelage with Straub and Huillet.  There are the crisp black-and-white images, frontal blocking, and slimy, slutty underworld ambiance of Andy Warhol.  But now, thrown into the mix for what I think is the very first time is Fassbinder's Sirk jones.  In Katzelmacher, we see a host of pathetic back-biting bums and sluts (or both), essentially the sort of folks who we used to call "white trash" back home in Texas, before that became a classist epithet.  They turn tricks, nurse pipe-dreams about movie stardom, talk shit about each other behind their backs, but mostly sit on the wall until they get thirsty and go to the pub.  The only thing that can bring (most of) them together is an outsider, in this case Fassbinder himself playing a Greek Gastarbeiter with a shaky command of German.  It's here that Fassbinder the writer-director first lays down his major moves, pushing social commentary right to the brink of believability.  The "villains" speak in slogans and received ideas, all the better to get the point across.  But unlike some desiccated leftist exercise, Katzelmacher lends a sad pathos to the hatred, as if (as in actual works by Brecht and Sirk) the racists are saying and doing what they have to do, paying lip- and fist-service to ideologies they themselves can't even fully commit to.  After being a bit frustrated with some of the early films (Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague), Katzelmacher was an astonishing kick in the teeth.  Fassbinder the Master Filmmaker starts here.

Dawn of an Evil Millennium (Damon Packard, 1988) [s] -- Holy shit.  This guy is onto something.  I have not seen his recent, celebrity-roadtested opus maximus Reflections of Evil yet, but this little taste of Packard's sensibility (courtesy the Other Cinema Experiment in Terror DVD) has whet my appetite.  Packard is combining low-budget splatter-exploitation aesthetics (preposterous amounts of gore, dime-store Dracula fangs, 70s-pompadour haircuts) with the textures of classic grindhouse avant-garde (especially Kenneth Anger in Satanic-mode), all wrapped up in frenetic Benny Hill slapstick, frequently achieved just by undercranking the Super-8.  Everything has a sumptuous, grainy look and the over-pronounced light qualities of low-gauge film.  And it's all in the service of a slimy mustachioed cop fighting a veiny Halloween demon on the streets of L.A.  Cool.

L'Oeuvre au noir (André Delvaux, Belgium, 1988) -- A bit of classicism never hurt anyone, and while this film may adhere a bit too faithfully to the "great man" historical bio-pic, it's nonetheless incredibly engrossing.  Gian Maria Volonte radiates pure charisma as Zeno, a 14th century physician and scholar struggling to just do his work without being burned alive as a heretic.  I'm not above admitting that the subject matter -- a modern intellectual bristling in impotent horror at the superstition and stupidity around him -- resonated a little bit with my own feelings about our times.  Unapologetically stodgy, but this is why it works so well.  Added treat: Anna Karina as a lusty, brain-addled servant girl.

Notes After Long Silence (Saul Levine, 1989) [s] -- It's a staccato-edited Super-8 film comprised of noisy footage of a construction crew repairing what looks like an overpass, interpolating it with some domestic scenes and a fine mid-period performance by B.B. King off the TV. Levine knows how to get the blaring, almost neon intensities of light that only Super-8 can provide. The visible splices and off-and-on din make the film a bit like a musique concrete composition, a tape piece that just happens to have the perfect visual accompaniment.