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)




Dialogues (Owen Land) [v]

I covered a great deal of Land's film in my Cinema Scope featurette, where I compare the intelligent, self-aware dirty-old-mannisms of Dialogues with the complete randy-pants idiocy of Jørgen Leth's Erotic Man. The latter film is so dimwitted, and has been trounced so thoroughly, it truly requires no further comment. But one of the things that strikes me as so original about Dialogues, apart from its detachable-vignette structure (cue King Missile's "Detachable Penis"), is that there is an obvious puckishness to Owen Land's presentation of "Owen Land," to say nothing of his depiction of all the girls he's loved before. If, by some act of willful misprision, you take Dialogues at face value (which virtually every visual and auditory cue leads you against doing, but never mind that . . . ), it's true that Land's predilection for tits and ass, and his "self"-portraiture as a kind of wide-eyed, golden-dicked naif, bears a streak of surface sexism. But the real trick here is that, unlike most demonstrations of cinematic male swagger, Dialogues makes Land's Lothario act seem so off, so implausible and ridiculous, and its ostensible philosophical import so misguided, that the film turns sexism on its head. Land is not kidding when he starts out as the "pure fool" and the "trickster," Loki and Parsifal wrapped in one. Ever the dialectician, Land does not present a fake Platonic quest, but actually arrives at a truth through the wayward journey of the male member. That is, the sturdy, egoic "Owen Land" thinks he's getting somewhere by laying pipe across the land and owing nobody anything. But present-day Owen Land, the maker of Dialogues, is looking back at this young fool from the position of knowledge, as a man whose body is not even capable of the same flights of youthful folly any longer. He recalls these times in laughter and in irony, for he knows that no matter how many hook-ups we may find on our travels outside the Cave, in the end we all land up on our own. [My Cinema Scope piece can be found here.]




Coda (Vincent Grenier) [v/s]

Grenier's digital videos are unfailingly engaging even when they're brief. Pieces that would seem "slight" in lesser hands become fully-formed contributions to Grenier's increasingly important body of work, largely because the perceptual humor and misdirection that characterizes Grenier's finest efforts can hit its mark in the short form -- fool the eye, and the mind, and realign expectations -- without ever turning into a one-liner. It's a gift Vincent shares with too few working artists, especially in the avant-garde film world. Coda, as the title suggests, is the concluding part of a multi-video series of which Armoire is another component. (As far as I'm aware, the middle section / sections have not yet been released.) Based on the formal and conceptual commonalities between Armoire and Coda, we might anticipate the series being called something like "n-teen Ways of Confusing the Hell Out of a Blackbird." Grenier has declared a disorientation war on the crows of Ithaca, and while it is indeed droll, it ain't pretty. Coda, which runs under three minutes, begins with a view of a trembling afternoon lawn. In the lower left hand corner, we see a crow fly upward and vanish. The crow flies up and down against this lawn scene, and the camera begins to pan upward. We soon see wet landscaping rocks and a fountain, and the crow makes another swoop. The lawn image wobbles again. (Aha!) We're seeing a mirror image of the lawn behind us, and the poor crow is trying in vain to get to the birdbath. Holy Zeuxis! (Or is it Parrhasius? Depends on what we'll admit to.) The crow clears the top of the mirror, perches on top of it, and Grenier gives us a horizontal diptych, the green rearview and the trellis of a deck in front of us. Then, we pan back down, to the base of the mirror, where we see a flower in the garden as well as its reflection in the looking glass. (Narcissus! We humans are starting to look a lot worse than the bird in this equation.) Vincent's camera settles at the lower left hand corner of the mirror frame (blue, mitered, weatherbeaten), which forms a perfect right angle in the center of the screen. The blackbird, whose red breast is not visible in close-up, re-enters the mirror, and the frame, from this corner moving upwards, twice. In the distance we hear a train whistle; as the bird stops at the mirror's edge a third time, he or she stops, looks, and lets out a mocking song. It hops away, towards the camera, and then flies off. (Won't get fooled again!) Coda is a gentle paean to the simplicity of learning, the humble comedy of trial and error, and that most vulnerable part of ourselves -- the one that doesn't know.


Crosswalk (Jeanne Liotta) [v/s]

It seems rather pedestrian (sorry, no pun intended) to begin talking about Crosswalk by noting that it represents a departure for Liotta. But it's hard to avoid this, because just in terms of the immediacy of style and texture, this is the very first thing that jumps out at you. Unlike the recent films of hers that I know well (Observando el Cielo; Loretta; Muktikara; Sutro), Crosswalk does not hold images in its sights and "work" with them, nor does it engage with a frame of reference, like a plane in space, primarily at the level of the medium-long to long shot and describe that plane through movement or adjacency. Instead, Liotta seems to take us right down into the heart of a Loisaida Christian processional, at alternate views (street level / elevated window positions), and jostle us and herself about within a very anthropological cine-mix. Again, this kind of statement risks assaulting Crosswalk with surface banalities, but the film does feel very much like a response to New York City, a choice on Liotta's part to delve into the throng (or whip out a camera and work with / on the "throng" she found herself confronted with) rather than to try and bracket out human bustle in favor of formalist control. (As we know, it is certainly possible to make formalist NYC films that look as if everyone in the five boroughs has gone upstate for the weekend, leaving nothing but bridges and dusk.) There is a pun in the title, clearly, since within the crosswalk we're watching a Passion Play, with a Jesus figure schlepping his cross, getting scourged by thrift-store Romans, attended by the faithful, and a bevy of modern-day onlookers blocking the street in a drifting bunch. It's a unique phenomenon, but nothing we have not seen before. The procession is more interesting in theory, as a fragment of the overall texture of Loisaida cultural life.


What Liotta does with this material is more compelling, since, after providing a geographical "lay of the land" (although not a conventional "establishing shot," by any means), she begins editing the footage on the basis of movement and visual rhyme schemes. Crosswalk is a film of chunky, swirling grain, which lends everything on screen both an added physicality and an implied layer of historicity, despite the obviously contemporaneous profilmic events. Liotta's handheld camerawork, use of pans and zooms to follow the eye's attention, and her extremely quick edits, all recall Jim Jennings' New York films. However, typically Jennings does not zero in on a single locale or set of actions in this way. Liotta's filmmaking has always tended toward the Cubist; here, with Crosswalk's jagged, multi-perspectival approach to a street scene, we see her method neatly subsumed within an anthropological veneer. The Passion Play itself, as Liotta depicts it, oscillates between procession and tableaux vivants (what seem to be the Stations of the Cross), and Liotta's editing joins views in order to emphasis both the collision of "walk / don't walk" (with the Christian entourage's artificial stillness offset by garbage in the wind and the fidgeting crowd), and the multiple movements of objects, such as the Romans' whip coming down in close-up. Liotta's gestural montage efforts are too loose and lyrical to be truly Eisensteinian. In fact, they can elude perception altogether. But they provide armatures and color cues that render the pageantry legible as something other than self-contained religious iconography. By playing the procession's line against other pedestrians (as both competing and complementary forms), or framing them through a variety of car windows (which them give way to the empty street space, the "absence" of boxed-in vision), Liotta provides a formal demonstration of the Loisaida community, and its Catholic heritage, as an integrated circuit. It's there, not everyone has to be plugged into it, but its meaning remains a source of pride and purpose. By the end of the film, when Liotta has switched to black-and-white reversal images, it is as though we are seeing directly into the accumulated soul of an intersection's history -- literal "time on the cross." Ya tú sabes.


Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France)

As per usual, I don't have a great deal to add to my Nashville Scene piece. But I will say that, as invaluable as Bromberg and Medrea's documentary / excavation project may be, it's hard for the avant-gardist in me not to feel as if this whole project is a bit of a wasted opportunity. That's to say, the makers of this film seem to be just as intrigued with the story behind Clouzot's travails, the inability to complete Inferno, the on-the-set struggles and power battles, etc., as they are with the film-fragments themselves. This makes no sense to me. When you look at the screen tests, the extant passages, or really most of what Clouzot produced, it is truly unlike anything else that was being produced at the time, and it remains unlike any other film I've ever seen. One really does have to go back to the Surrealist avant-garde to find concrete antecedents, and even within that framework, Clouzot generated innovations. Why wouldn't filmmakers, when faced with this treasure trove, choose to embark on an excavation / reclamation project, rather than another "poor doomed genius" story? In all seriousness, this material should be sent to Guy Maddin immediately, and he should be given carte blanche.


Travelogue (Vincent Grenier) [v/s]

It's something we've seen before. We've lived it, and we've seen it in other films. But Vincent's personal approach to it is a lovely, personal poem, and the lack of form-busting in no way belies its beauty, or the comfort it imparts, the way in which Travelogue captures amid-length bus trip, the body's slight shrinking into itself in inclement weather, the pendulum of industrial windshield wipers, our eyes shifting focus between the hazy road ahead and the raindrops beading on the surface of the glass. Out the side window, traffic at differential speeds takes on the quality of painterly streaks, metallic silver and bright reflective reds and blues. The wavering baseline of the yellow stripe plays against the interior reflection -- the book in your lap, the edge of your face, the dark negative space between two seats. The grass on the side of the highway is greener after a rain. Upstate New York foliage (this is the trip between Ithaca and New York City) is vibrant, but can be dulled by the reflection and transmission of the double-paned glass. The speed of the bus makes the leaves look like pixels crackling on a digital screen. Which, lo and behold, they are.




Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, China / U.K. / U.S. / The Netherlands)

Here is my review. The estimable Jim Ridley assigned it the header "Train in Vain," and that pretty much sums it up. See Jia's Still Life, or 1/4 of a Wang Bing film. This is really not worth your time.


Please Give (Nicole Holofcener)

In some respects this is probably Holofcener's most "fully realized" film, in that her previous films have been organized by abstract concepts (women's body image in Lovely & Amazing; affluence and its discontents in Friends with Money) distributed across ensemble casts. By contrast, Please Give centers predominantly on Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a couple who buy antique furniture from bereaved family members at estate sales and then mark it up for sale at their boutique. Their interactions with Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), the granddaughter of their Manhattan neighbor, and her abrasive sister Mary (Amanda Peet), form Holofcener's B-roll; Kate and Alex purchased the elderly woman's apartment some time ago in anticipation of her passing, since they want to knock down the wall and annex the place into their own condo. Please Give 's narrow focus yields clarity and focus, but sadly, this is all to the bad. I've been rooting for Holofcener for years because, in spite of their flaws, her films have always shown great promise, operating within a basic Woody Allen template but evincing an inchoate feminist and class consciousness. The films are drab and writerly, not particularly cinematic, but have allowed for an occasional understated wisdom peering through the rote comedics. They were films with "character lines." But Please Give offers very little byplay or complication. If Friends with Money failed by resolving its complications with a final-reel deus ex machina, Please Give is all cheap resolution, in that it dances around white upper-class liberal guilt and then just walks away from the "problem," declaring it hopelessly insoluble. What Holofcener gives us, in the end, is a truly lame, tend-to-your-garden shoulder shrug that not only lets everyone (viewers included) off the hook. It cuts the line, and expects us to just live with the hook, to get used to it, or even learn to think of it as a cool new piercing.




Beatles Über California (Kota Ezawa) [v/s]

I've now seen four of Ezawa's short films. (I'm tempted to call them "conceptual animations," because I think of them as somewhat more imbibed with art-world values than filmic ones, and I mean absolutely no disrespect by making this claim as such. I could say the same, really, about work I admire, like the films of Tacita Dean, Mark Lewis, or early Steve McQueen.) Certain of Ezawa's animations, like his reworking of the O.J. Simpson verdict or the Ron Artest bleachers brawl, seem to gesture toward an implicit critique of the collision of racial anxiety (or "melodrama," per Linda Williams' scholarly analysis) and the spectacular side of pop culture / infotainment. But aside from his blocky, Alex Katzian rotoscoping technique, and his clearly deliberate work with the awkward side of televisual temporality (his films are too long to be news clippy, too short to achieve liftoff in terms of unexpected narrative build), Ezawa adds very little to his re-presented scenes. Even as I type this, I recognize that an attentive reader could reasonably object that the previous stipulations I just made would constitute "adding" quite a lot. But in the actual viewing and, more importantly, the sitting and thinking with Ezawa's films, there is not much frisson achieved, no sense that a gap in representation is generated which would allow critical distance, new appreciation or discomfort, shock or surprise. The films operate like bald, banal facts, nominally gussied up with some faux-primitive handicraft. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ezawa's short 2005 loop pairing the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations emphasizes this most dramatically, but his "montage" work juxtaposing John Lennon and Yoko Ono's bed-in with lectures by Susan Sontag and Joseph Beuys (Lennon Sontag Beuys, 2004) is equally flat and declarative. We can insert our own "readings" (history repeats; certain intellectual responses to the 1960s were more esoteric, some more enduring), but Ezawa isn't offering much help. Likewise, Beatles Über California is a one-liner that seems to follow up on the cycles-of-history idea, proffering it as yet another (in Jørgen Leth's terminology) "crap cartoon." An Ezawafied visual of The Beatles on "Ed Sullivan" is matched to The Dead Kennedys' recording of "California Über Alles," no doubt because 60s holdover Jerry Brown was about to become Governor of California yet again. Searing cultural critique, no? To my mind, Ezawa actually delivered a much more trenchant message on the state of our world when he, as an artist whose work is almost entirely dependent upon appropriated material, demanded that Beatles Über California be removed from YouTube.