REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2010
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
As usual, I always feel as though I should add a little sump'n-sump'n to my Nashville Scene review. But I was actually able to articulate the primary strengths I found in this Wiseman, particularly his (uncharacteristic, possibly unconscious) deployment of a fantastic formal device in the audio track. The continual, drilling peal of the sparring buzzer lends everything onscreen an urgency it wouldn't exactly lack otherwise, but that would certainly not come across in the same manner. A lot of commentators seem to be damning Boxing Gym with faint praise, calling it "minor Wiseman." I don't know, maybe; but is that just because it's so brief? Personally, I think the expansive length (still short for him, I know) of La Danse added very little to its formal structure and in fact gave Wiseman more time to founder. The irksome class privilege on display in La Danse, which was not only unacknowledged but insultingly nodded toward (quick shots of rewiring and spackling, then back to those awesome ballerinas) is virtually answered in this film, a kind of paean to working (class) bodies in motion. This is the rough stuff. I like it.
Sometimes when you describe a film as a "grower," it's a kind of a backhanded compliment, implying that the work in question lacks certain basic surface pleasures but lets down its guard over time. That is, you develop an intellectual appreciation for this difficult object that helps you over the bumps in the road, places where seduction would be in a less arduous viewing experience. But that's not always true. Sometimes a film's pleasures are intellectual, even to the point of providing the easy diversions of solving puzzles, putting the pieces together, and rising to its often-humorous challenges. This is the case with Daniel Cockburn's You Are Here, a film I appreciated a great deal on first viewing but only really grooved on the second time around. Knowing what to expect, how the pieces would be laid out, and how they might possibly fit together, meant that I could experience more sheer enjoyment in the [That was the part where I was interrupted by my daughter demanding more pretzels.] Daniel Cockburn, a Canadian video artist whose work I had not been familiar with until now, has indicated that You Are Here represents, in part, an attempt to create a feature-length exhibition situation for his own short-form work, since too often its placement in omnibus group shows disrupted its rhythms and created unexpected and infelicitous contexts. I think there are good reasons for taking this idea into the screening room with you as you see You Are Here, although in some respects it's not entirely necessary either. Cockburn's feature operates something like a conceptually-driven sketch comedy program (think Kids In the Hall or Mr. Show), in which dominant themes and ideas are carried through from sketch to sketch. You Are Here has far more serious moments, of course, and Cockburn's theoretical dominant -- the structure of human consciousness -- carries through far more doggedly than any theme you'd see in the aforementioned sketch comedy shows. But there is a similarity in that You Are Here is comprised of semi-detachable vignettes which are intricately interwoven, with recursive characters and linked, Cubistic takes on the same related set of premises. Other filmmakers, particularly the structuralists, have attempted to make cinema that chronicles the process of human perception, but few have explicitly dramatized it. Fellow Canadian Michael Snow, of course, is one of them, and Cockburn opens You Are Here with a mini-homage to Snow's landmark Wavelength. The film opens with video of ocean waves (Snow's terminus), and pulls back to reveal a professor (R.D. Reid) lecturing in a university auditorium about how our perception predisposes us to look at the waves. This lecturer (half guru, half windbag) will be one of Cockburn's major guideposts throughout You Are Here, even as the film actively undercuts his authority. At one point we see him on the beach, videotaping waves for his lecture, and he encounters some kids. His gruff interaction reveals [I have to stop and think for a minute, plus the kid's Barbie cartoon is over. I probably have to go play.] The new feature work by Canadian video artist Daniel Cockburn is, in some sense, about cognitive organization, and part of its impressive rigor, along with its playful wit, comes from the fact that You Are Here itself is organized according to the selfsame principles that are its subject. It is a recursive film, operating as a kind of shell or framework that contains multiple strands of intellection but, at the same time, employs theme and variation, repetition and rhyme, and various unexpected mnemonic swerves in order to braid those semi-detached strands into a single cognitive entity. You Are Here is a set of small thumbnail sketches, but they hang together. This "hanging together," Cockburn shows us, is the very process by which random bits of sense data or assembled objects in a disparate field become intelligible. We see this when we meet The Archivist (the late Tracy Wright), who fills an office space with a collection of found street junk (most of it pertaining to communication -- abandoned films, audiotapes, overhead transparencies, file folders and the like), analyzes it, reports on it, and assigns it a "place" in her archive. As she discusses her work, it becomes clear that it is a personal project, organized according to a highly idiosyncratic taxonomy that would be unintelligible to anyone besides herself. She works alone, and it isn't clear that she is making "The Archive" for anyone else. (And, if we want to follow Cockburn into a metaphorical zone in which he himself may be loath to lead us, there may be no archive per se; we may simply be looking at an externalization of The Archivist's process of perceiving things and ascribing meaning to them.) Similarly, Cockburn shows an anthropology researcher named Dr. Mayhew (Anand Rajaram) enacting a "performance" of philosopher John Searle's theoretical problem called "the Chinese Encyclopedia." In it, a "reader" is given a reading comprehension quiz in Chinese, but the examinee does not speak the language. What he or she has to go on is a set of "encyclopedia" volumes with elaborate instructions, telling him/her to look for specific characters, identified by shape alone. When a character is located, the examinee must either copy it down in a specific slot, or look up a particular numbered direction on another page in another volume, and so on and so forth, until they fill out the entire test paper. In this way, according to Searle, it is possible to "produce" a fully accurate response to the reading comprehension, without the subject actually comprehending either the passage or the answer produced. In other words, a mechanical reading and writing exercise, of a sort, occurred, but in a fully externalized manner. We can think of this problem, which Cockburn obviously introduced into You Are Here for a reason, as a kind of opposite "problem" to that of the archive. The Archivist set up her own parameters and rules, and then set about giving shape to shapeless data. In the Searle experiment, the data set already had a predetermined meaning, but one which [Oh wait, I'm sorry, I have to go to the bathroom.] I've been struggling, even after two viewings, to parse You Are Here, a very original and actually quite seductive feature-videowork by Canadian artist Daniel Cockburn. Drawing on multiple frames of reference (the college lecture, structural cinema, the archival impulse, the psychology experiment), Cockburn has created a film that explores the question of human consciousness and cognitive capacity. The aspects of the film I've tried to articulate are challenging enough but, for a guy like me with a little bit of book-learning under his belt, certainly manageable. I'd also be quick to say that Cockburn, a sharp, snappy writer, has made his inquiry accessible enough that You Are Here would be a pleasurable enough watch even for the philosophically uninitiated. The places where Cockburn loses me (but which are no less intriguing) are those which seem to pertain to "cognitive mapping" or the negotiation of the body in space. Cockburn shows us an office in which four "trackers" manage calls from "field agents," regarding their present location in Toronto. The trackers tell the agents where to go and how to get there, but it's almost as if they are serving as an externalized representation of the "field agents'" own sense of direction. How and why this relates to the other questions explored in You Are Here should be more apparent to me. Even the title, which plays off the red spot on maps, comes into play, appearing as a red rubber ball in the hands of a multitude, and as the university lecturer's laser pointer dot. But why would the overall organization of You Are Here entail this leap between magnitudes, between the mind's capacity to impose order on the seemingly random facts of daily life, on the one hand, and the very material spatial circumstances of our bodies, on the other? I'm lost. [I'm lost.] [Perdu.] [.]
[MAJOR SPOILERS] A while back, this latest avant-garde provocation from professional epateur LaBruce was banned from a planned screening at the Melbourne Film Festival. Festival director Richard Wolstencroft screened the film anyway, more brouhaha ensued, a fine was levied, and the world moved on. ("Moved on," of course, to trying to throw festival directors in jail for showing A Serbian Film. But that's another story.) What so often gets lost in the grandstanding, of course, is any real consideration of the merits of the film in question. Bruce LaBruce is a true radical. His work advocates the overthrow of most every dominant sociopolitical or aesthetic regime. This almost always makes his films exhilarating, balanced as they are on a precipice of danger and dissolution. Where will this image, that character, go next? What, if anything, will LaBruce promote as a positive agenda, apart from creative destruction and wanton, lawless sexual desire? LaBruce's cinema has obvious forebears -- Jack Smith, Ron Rice, Andy Milligan, Joe Gage, the Kuchars, Fred Halsted, Christopher Maclaine, Tobe Hooper. It's an unmoored gay cinema, drawing equally from the vernacular moves of high-toned porn, splatter, and the avant-garde, and making virtually no class-distinction between those forms. And so, by leveling those distinctions, LaBruce produces a cinema that isn't exactly "between" art and trash, but exists as both art and trash at the same time. (Again, the Kuchars might be even more of a touchstone than the more obvious Jack Smith in this regard.) It's truly Rabelaisian, since, as Mikhail Bakhtin helped show us, the carnivalesque in Rabelais is the leveling of high and low distinctions for an upheaval of social codes, potentially revolutionary but more than likely too saturated with anarchy to achieve any revolutionary "program."
Is this what was so scary about L.A. Zombie? When you compare it to the relatively dogmatic (and better-directed, in a way) Raspberry Reich, or even the desultory Otto, L.A. Zombie is hardly a dogmatic work. If anything (and I cringe as I type this -- this is the sort of pansy-ass thing LaBruce would probably slap me for saying about his film), Zombie is a "tone poem." It follows the gentle if utterly disoriented exploits of one homeless guy (François Sagat), who is relatively young, has a slamming six-pack, and is hung like a prize-winning summer squash from the county fair. And, in the film's key sequences, he is most definitely a zombie, although at other times he is just one of the usual "walking dead" among L.A.'s transient population. Because, to have no home, no job, no "identity," and to be without the apparent mental faculties to articulate your personhood within the legible codes of the State is to be, for all intents and purposes, dead. And so, in the daylight Zombie just wanders, an erratic, near-violent nonentity, who occasionally beds down with another street person (e.g., along the L.A. Viaduct). But at night, he is a full-on, flesh-rotten, undead being whose green, pustule-covered penis ejaculates a dark-reddish-black substance that must be putrid blood and organ liquefaction, but resembles motor oil. However, thanks to LaBruce's sad, morbid sense of humor, this elixir gives life rather than takes it. The Zombie fucks dead men back to life (e.g., a car crash victim, someone frozen to death). And not just in their usual orifices, either. So, of course, this being a LaBruce Joint, the sex is explicit, but here it's both tender and creepy, something we perceive as the ritualistic orchestration of a fetish and a diegetic nightmare, based on a dystopia of absolute neglect. As with the carnivalesque / trashy avant-modes of Jack Smith and the Kuchars, there is a deliberate "fakeness" to the make-up and staging, but it's a painterly, meticulous fakeness (a "lie" that tells the truth), allowing BLaB to stage scenes that would probably be less disturbing if they exhibited higher, more realistic production values. The ramshackle feel, in both construction and mise-en-scène, only serve to heighten our self-consciousness of the so-called "pornographic" scene. Which, as usual, is in the recesses of our minds.
L.A. Zombie is a string of vignettes. Our Zombie achieves little in the way of narrative release or resolution. (If anything, like his George Romero counterparts, he just exists as one of a potential Multitude, awaiting mass activation, but playing tender loving triage until that fateful day.) But, as some of the extreme reactions to this really rather lovely piece of artcore have revealed, it's the spectator who is most likely to get fucked back to life, right in the eyehole. LaBruce demands that we account for our viewership. We can be zombies no more!
When a filmmaker is as prolific as Johnnie To, one has to wonder about the extra-cinematic exigencies that determine the commercial and artistic fates of his various productions. This is on my mind for a few reasons. Most recently, my friend Andrew Grant (aka Filmbrain), who now lives in Berlin, mentioned on Twitter amidst his on-the-spot coverage of the 2011 Berlinale, that To had a new film showing in the Market there. It's called Don't Go Breaking My Heart, and it stars Daniel Wu and Louis Koo. It's slated to open in Asia later this year, and by all appearances it's another of To's rom-coms (some of which are occasionally sprinkled with gunplay or martial arts, but just as many not), films that sometimes make their way to U.S. and Canadian Chinatown theatres (the few that are left), but pretty much never play on the festival circuit. (Since 2000, some of these titles have included Help!!!, Needing You, Love on a Diet, Fat Choi Spirit, Love For All Seasons, Turn Left, Turn Right, Yesterday Once More, and Flying Butterfly.) Now, clearly by contrast there was never any question that a To Triad picture co-starring the legendary Johnny Hallyday, a Hong Kong / French co-production with cameos by the usual Milkyway superstars (Lam Suet, Simon Yam) plus that César-winning axiom of French cinema, Sylvie Testud, would perform slightly better on the "legit"side of the street. If anything, Vengeance was hand-tooled for high-art performance, and some of that striving shows. The other To-related question that Vengeance brought to mind was an ongoing conversation I've had with Chinese cinema expert and To-booster Shelly Kraicer, who has claimed (rightly, I think) that even more than other auteurs, the "Johnny To project" comprises one big film. They are all fundamentally iterations of the same sets of formal and thematic concerns, and one can access this endeavor from virtually any starting point (allowing, of course, for To's development as a craftsman). I concur with Shelly. To's films are modules in a series, like Robert Ryman canvases or John Chamberlain sculptures. They operate with set parameters, sit alongside one another, and don't necessarily communicate their themes of "masculinity" and "honor" and "corruption" in ways that could be said to engage in their social or historical moment, at least not directly. To is engaged in his world, but obliquely. Violence is the rule, but moral considerations arrive in the form of roadblocks and impediments, the unexpected pauses that halt violence and make it double back on itself like an unwanted metacommentary. If you are caught in the rain, you have to switch your sartorial thinking from display to practicality, very suddenly. This is how violence tends to become "problematic" in To films. This is the case in Vengeance's best scene, during which a planned ambush in a public park by Costello (Hallyday) and his new team of Triad buddies (Lam, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung) on the rival gang is thwarted by the sudden appearance of . . . the bad guys' wives and kids. (It's a Triad picnic, and clearly the men's wives possess some kind of double-consciousness regarding what their husbands do for a living.) It's To at his best: showing how Triad violence and criminality both exists as and disrupts the fabric of everyday life in Hong Kong. However, taken as a whole, Vengeance, with its rehashed Memento plot and eventual lone-man reckoning, is not the finest iteration of "Johnny To." It tends to feel either sluggish or forced, an awkward star vehicle from a man who has retrofitted the old studio system for his own artistic purposes. In its own way, Vengeance is a film factory-built to debut in Competition in Cannes, which it did. By taking on such a full frontal assault on official success, To sacrificed the element of surprise. But no matter; he's already perfecting his next trick.
[SPOILERS] Contrary to what may be reader expectations ("Snob!"), I actually run hot and cold with Mr. Boyle, although I cannot claim to have imbibed the entire hypercaffeinated corpus. I walked out of Shallow Grave in exasperation about ten minutes from the end, in some rinky-dink arthouse in Austin before any of us knew who Danny Boy was or would become. I like Trainspotting well enough for what it is, I supposed, but, as with Fight Club, tend to have a tough time mentally prying it apart from its salivating fanbase. Really like 28 Days Later, which put the guy back on the map for me after ignoring him for years. (I.e., still haven't seen The Beach or A Life Less Ordinary. Where the latter's concerned, the Beck video "Deadweight," filled with hideous images from the movie including Stanley Tucci in half a latex bodysuit, has shown me all I ever need to see.) Sunshine is strong visually but lapses in the final third, when it "resolves" with a lunkheaded plot machination. Slumdog is pure colonialist idiocy, and Millions is like a big bowl of sugary cereal fronting as a complete breakfast. The common denominator in all of this: Boyle is a shrewd formal technician, far more mature and grounded in a sense of material reality than, say, Darren Aronofsky, a likeminded talent. This may seem counterintuitive in certain ways, given their choices of late, but honestly, even a fantasist's zombie flick like 28 Days demonstrates more attention to the inner workings of urban Britain, military logic, and flesh in motion, than one finds Aronofsky lavishing on his equivalent milieu in The Wrestler, his "realist" venture. That's because Boyle is capable of tamping down his own visceral fascinations in the moment, so as to evoke an all-over tapestry, a texture of fascinations. He can, at his best, work in sustained avant-stylistic concentration, rather than mere flashes of immature amazement. Even Slumdog, for all its faults, sustained its gaze; it was just a thoroughly wrongheaded one.
Watching 127 Hours twice clarified my problems with the film. My first impression was pretty simple - "three exceptional scenes connected with a whole lot of useless nonsense." I don't find myself exactly inclined to reverse that judgment. The sequence in which Aron Ralston (James Franco) first slides down into the crevasse and becomes pinned underneath the boulder, starting his 5 1/2 day ordeal, is a blunt, terrifying slab of existential dread. Boyle underplays his facility with film form so as to allow Franco to transmit his inarticulate rage and confusion, the "time trap" that far outweighs any actual physical peril when we find ourselves in a life-threatening crisis. "This thing happened. How did this thing happen? If I had just done a different thing ten seconds ago, this other, awful thing would not be happening now. Time keeps moving, and I am being taken further and further away from that moment, when I could have made the different decision that would have allowed me to avert this thing." (Ralston echoes this helplessness, even accepting it, later in the film, when he postulates that his entire life was in fact a lead-up to this accident, this particular hole in the earth.) Then there's the camcorder "morning show" gag, which I personally found uninspired but recognize objectively as a strong piece of actorly and directorial craft. What it does achieve, however, is the demonstration of Ralston's last gasp of centered selfhood, an assertion that he is an individual, there under that rock, and not just a surviving body. Ironically, this assertion of a "centered" self is displayed by active, multi-character splitting. And, speaking of splitting (both "dividing" and "getting the fuck out of Dodge"), far and away the best scene both Boyle and Franco have in them is the arm-severing sequence and its immediate aftermath. Part of what makes so much of the rest of 127 Hours seem so hollow is the fact that Boyle is intent on telling Ralston's story but cannot quite face up to it. It's not that the director has a weak stomach, like those now-infamous viewers at the Toronto International Film Festival who fainted or vomited in the aisles. It's that the droning, agonizing stasis of entrapment worries his filmmaking instincts. Boyle at his best is a kineticist, and so with the flashbacks and the "flood" and the "hot chicks prelude" and such, it's hard not to feel as though the filmmaker is hedging his bets (as well as giving Franco more obvious "acting" to do, not that he needed it).
By contrast, the excruciating physicality of the arm scene -- snapping the bone, slowly sawing through meat, popping a white tendon like a live-wire rubber band -- is all about the presence of a body in a place, of having to square off against one's own body as if it were a foreign object. 127 Hours makes it very easy (too easy, in fact) to extrapolate the larger themes from this. Ralston's thrill-seeking in the big exterior world has now been forcibly turning inward, to both the body and the mind. His insistence that he needs no one becomes his biggest regret, as flashback after flashback attests. Granted, Boyle and Franco are working with the material they've chosen. This is how Ralston describes his own experiences in his book, A Rock and a Hard Place. Still, on a formal level, Boyle tends to use this grand message as a passkey against spectatorial dread and / or boredom. Ralston is supposed to face hour after agonizing hour and discover meaning in the abyss, but 127 Hours doesn't want to take that risk, for the most part. Instead, he'd rather use ghosts, split-screens, diaristic asides, and hallucinatory flash-frames to predigest Ralston's revelation. Cliffs Notes to a secular epiphany - beats going the distance.
If you were smaller, you'd be home right now... Here are some things we can say, somewhat factually, about Tiny Furniture. It is the first full-length feature by Lena Dunham (after several performance-based shorts and a featurette, Creative Nonfiction, which I have yet to see). It was a hit at SXSW, where it had its world premiere. IFC bought it there, and it's had a fairly healthy commercial run through 2010. On the basis of its success, Dunham has now signed on to produce a TV pilot for HBO, executive produced by Judd Apatow. And, yes, Tiny Furniture is at least partially autobiographical, since Dunham was a graduate of Oberlin College (the Ohio school referenced in the movie), refers to her own online video shorts (attributed to her "Aura" character), and has her mother (photographer Laurie Simmons) and younger sister (Grace Dunham) play versions of themselves, in Simmons' actual Manhattan apartment / studio space. (In this regard -- although many would say the similarities end here -- Tiny Furniture shares with Azazel Jacobs's Momma's Man the concern with exploring the physical and psychological space of returning home as an adult.) Oh, one more thing: Tiny Furniture, much to the chagrin of some cinephiles, will be released on a deluxe DVD by the Criterion Collection in 2012, making Dunham the youngest filmmaker to achieve that milestone. These are some facts.
But there are some less objective but nevertheless equally pressing things one can say about Tiny Furniture. In fact, if we agree that a film, any film, is less a bounded, frame-one-to-final-frame entity than it is its social instantiation -- the give and take, the responses and the discourse that swirls around it and in some cases eventually sticks to it like an accumulated historical crust -- then these are precisely the things that need to be considered where Dunham's film is concerned. And I find myself more interested in that discussion than in my own personal opinions about the film, although I'll get to those. The thing is, people hate this film. Sure, a lot of people like it and some (like me, mostly) meet it with a shrug. But there is something about Dunham's persona, as constructed throughout Tiny Furniture, and what it says about her construction of it from behind the camera, that arouses more ire than I have seen since, well, Vincent Gallo. This woman rubs people the wrong way. Part of this, oddly, is that Tiny Furniture, the film, is taken to be an unproblematic, unmediated expression of "Lena Dunham," not even the persona but the individual. This assumption is made in a manner so routine as to give one pause; critics who typically understand the complexities of textually constructing the "I" are confident in reading Dunham right off the surface of TF. What gives? We could perhaps argue that something within the film-text encourages this reading, that "Aura" and the world around her is organized to be seen as a conduit of unmediated access. After all, Aura's "art," which we hear about but seldom see, is about her performing in skimpy clothes and acting silly, then posting it on YouTube. In other words, Dunham is mobilizing certain code-word activities for generational narcissism. But does this mean that TF itself is just a symptom of same? (This is obviously a generational question. Cf. Bujalski, Swanberg, on the male side, Coppola, Ry Russo-Young batting for the ladies.)
Dunham is involved in a delicate dance, and part of the problem, and part of the reason why many viewers are more than happy to consign her persona to the rubbish bin ("She's not critiquing narcissism, she's just a narcissist!") is that TF fails on many more basic levels. Were it not such a lightning rod, I myself wouldn't bother with its deeper implications. Dunham's sense of humor is corny and although she and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes have a definite eye for composition and arrangement -- a sort of dollhousey, DIY Wes Anderson vibe pokes through now and then -- you can't get around the fact that certain aspects of TF are jejune, or just pandering to the cheap seats. (E.g., "it's in the white cabinet;" the Nietzschean Cowboy; everything with Jemima Kirke, whose line readings as Charlotte make one crave the nuanced thespianism of Miss Piggy.) So, in some ways, it's easier to tear down TF than it is to defend it, because it is a flawed, early effort by someone who is nevertheless talented and in the process of developing a highly personal style. Naysayers can call on the flaws as evidence for the prosecution, whereas those of us who think TF is getting something of a bad rap are forced to mostly ignore them. But all the same, here are a few things I would note in Dunham's defense. I think that even though there is an undeniable irksomeness to the film and the Aura character, I appreciate Dunham's willingness to plunge into complete unlikability. Much like Gallo's work, Tiny Furniture is rather dark in its narcissism, and I'm continually surprised by those who find it cute or overweening. It's true that Dunham constructs Aura and the film as passive-aggressive, proleptically drawing attention to the character's pathological need for attention so as to stave off audience attack. Nadine (Grace) attacks Aura most viciously, but having Charlotte read off the mean YouTube comments, or having Aura's pseudo-suitors (Alex Karpovsky, David Call) treat her like crap serves a similar function. But I would say that this only enfolds Aura's / Lena's pathologies even further into the film, creating a more honest distaste for Tiny Furniture's self-absoption. Aura's tantrum when confronted by her mother, or her thoughtless treatment of her friend Frankie (the great Merritt Wever) demonstrates that Aura is not supposed to be liked. And neither is Tiny Furniture. Granted, this does not make up for Dunham's shortcomings as a filmmaker, but it does point to a bravery that holds potential, a spark that I fear TV will quickly extinguish. (Everybody likes to be liked, except maybe Larry David.) But Dunham, with her whining and pouting and lying and barely examined privilege, is really more in line with Lars von Trier than Sofia Coppola. I think people aren't seeing this because, even in 2011, we expect zaftig gals to "compensate" with their great, bubbly personalities. Even when I wanted to throw something at Tiny Furniture, I admired the fact that it felt no need to apologize for being there.