Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Make What You Don't Know

I understand why the ever-pressing creative principle write what you know is important, and I understand that perhaps it applies more to songwriting and fiction than the visual arts, but I think this quote from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky regarding his debut film Ellie Lumme is a refreshing challenge to that notion nonetheless: 

Well, I think it’s more fun when something doesn’t come naturally and you have to put a certain degree of effort into it. I’ve made this, and now we’re working on this other project that I’ve done some preliminary work on, so maybe this is just my approach, but I think it’s really important to always cast someone against type, to get some distance — this is just purely dealing with actors — to create distance between the character and the performer. Because then they have to cross that distance. I mean, if you’re playing someone exactly like you, you’re just going to be you. But if you’re playing someone different from yourself, you’re going to have to sit down and think and imagine this person’s world. It comes down to things as basic as appearance. You know, Stephen wears glasses, and it was very specific that his character wouldn’t, just to make it uncomfortable. I think it’s important for the actor to look in the mirror and have someone else look back at them. And I think that’s how I approach everything. I think when you set your goal outside your comfort zone, then you really have to figure out how you’re going to get there. You have to figure out, how do these people live? How do they spend their day? How do they organize their space? And I think that’s where the really interesting creative work happens — in the journey from Point A, which is you, to Point B, which is outside your area of expertise. I have a very limited area of expertise, and I swore to myself I would never make a movie about, y’know, Russian immigrants who become film critics. But the funny thing, now that I think about it, is that the most personal stuff comes in during the process of resolving the disconnect between yourself and your subject. Because you’re constantly drawing on your own life experiences to figure out how other people see the world.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Screen Shots

These are obvious choices, but can't take my eyes off these two

Monday, December 1, 2014

Fall Double Feature

Two of the best cinematic Fall offerings of 2014 also make for a pretty fine double feature. Whiplash and Birdman, which at least here in Dallas were released on the same day, are both about the nature of artistic pursuit, relevance in this big mighty world, and the question of whether greatness is actually worth it. Now, cinematically, these films, with the exception of their percussive soundtracks, couldn't be more different. Birdman, which by now you've probably heard, takes its mis en scene to the limit by giving the illusion that it's shot in one take (like Hitchcock's Rope, it does a pretty good job of concealing where the edits do occur). Whiplash on the other hand accentuates its use montage to the point where one could compare its extensive, fluid edits to jazz rhythms. Emotionally the two films are also distinct in that Birdman maintains a consistent level of comedy and pathos throughout while Whiplash shows, in the words of director Damien Chazelle, how musicianship "can bleed over into cruelty, into suffering, inhumanity, and fear." And yet the overarching ideas of these two films coincided in ways I never expected upon visiting them. 

I saw them back-to-back, and while I went with Birdman first and then Whiplash, I'd actually recommend reversing that order. Whiplash's diegesis concerns a jazz drummer, Andrew, played by the ubiquitous Miles Teller, who comes under the tutelage of a maniacal, brilliant instructor named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). To call Fletcher intimidating would be a gross understatement. He pushes his pupils to the very edge, makes them cling for dear life, and if they survive he just does it again. This repetitious method of Fletcher's is emblematic of the film as a whole, both in terms of the practice of jazz itself and in Andrew's education. That Charlie Parker became Bird because he had a cymbal thrown at his head after making a mistake is sort of Fletcher's mantra, and Andrew goes along with his severe training partly because he respects Fletcher as much as he's scared of him, and because he has his sights set on becoming like Charlie Parker, someone who will be talked about long after they're gone. At the beginning of the film Andrew seems like a pretty normal kid, but once he allows Fletcher to guide him, he willfully neglects any sort of connection with other human beings. When he and his father are guests at a friend's house, Andrew deliberately is insulting in order to make the point that greatness and compromise cannot co-exist. Andrew's also got a girlfriend, but when he realizes what Fletcher's demands are and decides to go along with it, he breaks off the relationship because he knows rather than spending time with her he needs to be practicing to the point where blood is dripping on the snare drum. 

I suggest seeing this first because it's about youthful potential, and yet a chief concern--definitely for the viewer, and perhaps for Andrew as well--is that there is the possibility that even if one were to sacrifice everything for greatness, they could very well still end up being a washed up failure (there is also of course the question of whether lasting greatness is all that important, but since the movie doesn't really investigate this question this piece won't, either). Andrew does seem to have a special talent, but greatness is contingent on so much more, like psychological stability, connections, and sheer luck. This problem ties perfectly into Birdman, in which Michael Keaton plays the exact kind of guy Andrew could one day become. Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood actor who made a name for himself playing a superhero named Birdman before getting old and predictably losing relevance. Now he's trying to turn the idea that all big-time blockbuster actors end up as nobodies with age on its head by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play. To reveal the direction Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's latest-and probably best-movie takes would be to spoil the copious surprises it has in store for the viewer. And yet with the basic premise it can already be argued why this would work so well as a follow-up to Whiplash. As an action star Riggan clearly didn't have the youthful prestige of a jazz drummer in an elite New York music academy, and yet his desire to be looked highly upon for his craft rather than as a human being is remarkably similar to Andrew's mindset. And if you wondered how Andrew would look in the eyes of those close to him when he reaches middle-age, you might as well just look at Riggan. His daughter, played by Emma Stone, sees him more as a fool than an inspiration, and the one woman (Amy Ryan) he seems to be able to communicate with won't be with him because she no longer trusts him. Were Riggan to maintain, if not respect, then at least respectability, it's hard to tell where his life would lie. That he now has neither makes one wonder if grand pursuits are ultimately worth the other sacrifices they often necessitate. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Museum Hours (2013)

If one's considering the origin of the word museum, it's not hard to find that it comes from the Latin mousa, which in English comes out as muse. Now, in Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses, daughters of Zeus who looked over arts and sciences. More generally though, in classical literature the muse was a kind of female presence who was called upon for creative inspiration. Considering that museums today are largely thought of as buildings in which culturally, artistically, or scientifically significant objects are displayed for public consumption, it's easy to see how the notion of the muse would figure into the name of these wonderful public spaces. In terms of etymology, though, it seems as though the true root is the Greek mouseion, which was a temple dedicated to the muses. 

And yet today the word muse is thought of more as a verb. To muse is to either be absorbed in one's own thoughts or to look upon something in a thoughtful manner. After watching Museum Hours, which may very well be the the best movie ever about museums and their power, I tend to think it's more concerned with muse as a verb than as a noun. One of the chief ideas that is expressed throughout the movie is positive and negative space in art and how it is undermined by subjective experience and what we choose to notice and prioritize in an image. And ultimately writer/director Jem Cohen is attempting to bring this mindset outside of the museum and into the world at large; in asking what we notice when we actually visit a museum (presented most clearly in a scene in which a museum guide offers a tour of a Bruegal exhibit that includes some very pesky tourists), he proceeds to venture beyond the limits of these nearly sacred spaces to ask that we notice the peripheries of a scene as much as the subjects of it. That we look, examine, and appreciate the myriad of details that are nonetheless obscured by the focal point of attention. While it pushes for a subjective experience of art that may be troublesome to purists, the film's attempt to capture the wondrous details of existence that are only available to the observant eye make it a particularly inspiring piece. Hence, my personal idea that Cohen's movie is more in line with the verb muse. 

And yet the movie is still fairly difficult to fully comprehend. The above statements are merely what I gathered from the film, and it's never perfectly clear what Cohen is attempting except to offer an ode of sorts to the wondrous existence of museums in general. One thing that is for sure though is that amidst the more academic facets of the picture is a rather moving tale of a man and a woman who bond over the many beauties museums offer, as well as the small yet profound details of the world outside these public spaces. Bobby Sommer, in a controlled and completely convincing performance, plays Johann, a Vienna museum guard who has seen it all and is now quite content patrolling the museum and surveying the art and the people who view it. 

Enter Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a foreigner who has suddenly arrived in Vienna due to a medical issue involving her cousin. Anne is somewhat overwhelmed by this new place, and she uses the museum where Johann works as a kind of sanctuary, a quiet spot to breathe and reflect. Johann, who narrates the film through extensive voiceover (never irritating as Sommer has a contemplative, soothing, pleasant voice), is inexplicably drawn to this fairly average looking woman. What is it about some people that makes one curious? he asks before introducing himself. 

What follows is a carefully wrought examination of two adults who have a mutual appreciation for museums as well as the world around them, who understand the value of human interaction, and see the fact that they are strangers as an invitation rather than an inhibition. Cohen's camera is stubbornly rigid in his presentation of these events. when they meet, rather than a basic two shot, we only see Anne. Later, at a restaurant, we see the two conversing at a table, yet instead of employing a shot-reverse-shot technique, the camera stays put at an angle where we can't see the front of Johann's face. When Cohen does cut, he goes to a random shot of a waiter bringing food up a flight of stairs. We expect the waiter to bring it to Johann and Anne's table, yet when we return to their conversation we see the waiter off in the background serving a different party. Traditional editing doesn't seem to do much for Cohen here, perhaps because he wants us to consider an image rather than have it taken away by a cut. And when we see the waiter in the background, it's as if Cohen is suggesting visually that just as in paintings, we should consider the space around us in full rather than simply hone in on the subject. 

What's impressive is how much feeling Cohen manages to pack into what is in many ways an essayistic film. It hardly ever seems as though Sommer and O'Hara are even performing. These actors, who both have wonderfully expressive and interesting faces while also a very comforting degree of common man normality, have inhabited the shoes of Johann and Anne as if they've been these people their entire lives. The film avoids romance and sentimentality at all costs; it's the rare story in which we get to see adults embrace their maturity rather than fall victim to their more childish selves. 

We do not quite know how to feel a thought, John Crowe Ransom once said. It's a fascinating phrase and I'm still not entirely sure what it means, but watching Museum Hours I felt a merging of feeling and thought through the ways the characters let themselves be drawn into the the spaces surrounding them while simultaneously looking from a distance and analyzing their feelings and perceptions. In the credits, Cohen dedicates the movie to his parents, who took me to museums. Museum Hours does touch on humanity and the world around us, but at the end of the day it still seems to be about the nature of these peaceful, intimate public spaces. And in investigating just how they work on those who visit them, Cohen may very well have proven Ransom wrong. 

Quote of the Day

Sam Adams, in an astute little piece over at Indiewire on the problem with using the word overrated: "It's a garbage word, conveying attitude without argument; it's a placeholder for actual thought, the rhetorical equivalent of a "Scene Missing" card."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Cinephiliacs: Alex Ross Perry

If you've got some spare time, consider catching the latest episode of The Cinephiliacs, which features Alex Ross Perry, whose new movie Listen Up Philip is one of the highlights of the year.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sanctuary/The Story of Temple Drake

The best course I'm taking this semester-and perhaps the best course I've taken in my college career-is Faulkner's Vision. There are five novels on the syllabus (The Unvanquished, Absalom, Absalom!, As I Laying Dying, The Hamlet, and Light in August) and one term paper due at the end of the course. For the paper, there is one requirement, that we truly create something unique for our professor, and one recommendation, that we write about a Faulkner novel not listed in the syllabus.

I'm very careful about the things I buy, and rarely purchase something just for the sake of spending money and obtaining something. But one thing I will never pass up is a Modern Library edition of a Faulkner novel. The editions are lovely, not too hard to find, and usually pretty cheap. I've such editions of nearly all the major Faulkner novels, and also one slightly lesser known title called Sanctuary. I picked it up last May, intended to read it over the summer, failed, put it on my bookshelf, and hardly imagined I'd ever get around to giving it a try. 

However, with this term paper business for the Faulkner class, I realized I had the perfect opportunity to read the book, and as I write I'm currently about a third of the way through the text. It's a fluid read with generally short chapters, plenty of dialogue, and a straightforward narrative technique with an omniscient narrator. In other words, it's a walk in the park compared to some of Faulkner's other works (thus far in the course, I found Absalom, Absalom! to be quite quite intimidating with its perpetual blocks of text, and As I Lay Dying to be fairly trying, though as a whole much more manageable). It's also a violent and harsh story, containing some of the more controversial material in Faulkner's canon. On top of that, it doesn't quite fit in with some of Faulkner's more renowned novels because it was written-supposedly-with commercial incentives. This book was written three years ago, writes Faulkner in the Introduction. To me it was a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money. I haven't finished the book so I can't quite comment on the extent to which the book is more a sellout than a work of art, and yet in terms of the principle of the matter I'm completely fine with Faulkner-or any writer-working under such motivations. Now of course letting one's entire career be guided by such principles is a shoddy, and yet a writer needs to put food on the table like everyone else, and it's better to sacrifice some of one's integrity to do so than to solely create so called pure works their entire life. There's something very human about an artist every so often gunning for gold, and humbling in his admitting this motivation. 

Now, what I'm getting at with all this is that in writing a book to sell copies, Faulkner produced something that was actually film-able (not that he movies can't be made out of his major works, as James Franco is attempting to prove-also, as I've written about before, I think Light in August has the potential to be a great movie). And sure enough, after the book was published in 1931, a film adaptation, called The Story of Temple Drake (directed by Stephen Roberts, a prolific but largely workmanlike and unremarkable director from the 20s and 30s), arrived two years later. Considering the novel's very clear structure, this isn't surprising. But what is is that Sanctuary is a notoriously brutal novel, and while the film apparently tames down on some of the harsher elements, it's supposed to still be pretty shocking for its time. It just goes to show how daring pre-code Hollywood really was. The film was considered mostly lost for a good long while, but a restored edition came out in 2011, and now the movie is readily available for public viewing. I eagerly await it once I finish the novel.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Night Moves (2014)

By today's standards, Night Moves is a slow-burn, character driven thriller, or what some might call atmospheric, or opaque. In other words, most audiences today will see it as too arty and self-indulgent, when in fact the film is precisely built around the premise that defined nearly all of the original great suspense pictures: psychology and paranoia are what get peoples' nerves bubbling, not fast paced, brainless action. Audiences today have by and large been sold a false idea of what a thriller is, and yet when you're raised on something that's false, you tend to believe it. Sure, there are plenty of thrills one can get out of the next Liam Neeson adventure, yet they pale in comparison to what can be accomplished when a filmmaker possesses that wonderful virtue of patience. 

Had Night Moves been released back in the 1970s, it would have probably been a hit, especially considering its environmentalist plot concerning three eco-terrorists and their plot to blow up a dam. And there's pretty much no doubt that that was a decade writer/director Kelly Reichardt had specifically in mind when making the film, especially considering that it shares the same title as one of the all-time great paranoid thrillers from that era, Arthur Penn's 1975 Night Moves with Gene Hackman.

The key here is understanding that suspense does not need to be narrowed down to high-octane energy or extreme situations of peril. As a result, scenes like that in which Dakota Fanning's Dena goes to buy 500 pounds of fertilizer that she and her accomplices (played by Jessie Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard) plan on building a bomb with produce a level of excitement uncommon among today's thrillers. The viewer simply must submit to the pacing and psychology of the characters rather than have (as is too prevalent today) those elements submit to them.

That said, by Reichardt's standards, Night Moves isn't nearly as cryptic as her previous works; it's refreshing to see a filmmaker move forward, even if it means forgoing an opaque sense of mystery for genre trends. The film isn't terribly surprising in getting where it needs to go, but it's all handled with such conviction and efficiency by Reichardt and her cast (Eisenberg is particularly surprising here, departing from his usual quirks for a dark intensity we've never seen from him before) that, until a rather silly climax, we never feel we're being sold short.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Autumn Evening

It's October 11th, but tonight is the first night that actually feels like October. Last night, as I took the train home from work, a light thumping was heard above, followed by drops streaking down the window I stared out of. At last, the cool front that the weather reports had been promising all week was arriving. It was a wonderful evening of moody rain as a faint chill began to fill the air. When I awoke this morning for work, the air was pleasantly brisk, the sky overcast, and-for the first time in months-the coffee was good because it was actually hot. 

Now I'm drinking coffee again as I sit at my desk in my apartment, the window open, the autumn air giving the room a distinct literal feel that in turn produces an actual emotional feeling. Normally I wouldn't drink too much coffee at night, but it is Saturday, I have the day off tomorrow, and in about an hour I'm heading out to see Gone Girl. I would like to think that no matter how long a day it's been, Fincher's images and the insanely exciting buzz the movie's been getting would be enough to keep me entranced. But I don't want to take any chances. For a film I've been excited about for months, it's a bit sad that I'm arriving at this a week late, but I've literally had no chance to see it until tonight. And In a strange way I'm sort of glad I've had to wait till tonight, because there's a mysterious but undeniable connection between weather and movies, and the way the right kind of weather puts one in the mood to go out to the theatre is, for me, one of the many pleasures of visiting the cinema. Thus, on this chilly evening, I feel more excited about seeing Gone Girl than if I were to have seen it last week when it was 20 degrees warmer. After ten days of October, I feel the best month of the year has truly arrived.