Thursday, August 30, 2007


This week is quickly flowing under the bridge. Another class finishing up, too much work to do, no time to do it, and surely no damn time to write. My wife sent me an e-mail a half hour ago, told me to take a break and find the video for Jill Scott’s new song, “Hate on Me.” I did. Thanks, honey. And all that hate reminds me of her towering moment from one of last year’s best movies, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, during which she and the Roots tear up her lovely ballad “You Love Me.” Hate and love. Yin and yang. Groucho and Harpo. No contradictions here. Now pardon me while I go fall in love with Jill Scott. I know my wife understands.

You Love Me

Hate On Me

Hey, between Shelley Duvall and Jill Scott, this is like "Faces I Love," only with audio! All right, all right, getting back to work...



The only piece about Owen Wilson so far that is worth your time was posted Tuesday by Matt Zoller Seitz. It’s called ”A Sunbeam in the Abyss”:

“Wilson's a good-time shaman; when he appears, you smile, because know you're about to have fun. He makes good films better and bad films tolerable. Onscreen, he's a human sunbeam. Offscreen, who knows? I don't -- and frankly… it's not my position to speculate on what demons he might have been wrestling with when this horrible incident occurred. But I will say that when I read news stories expressing incredulity that a well-liked comedic actor might be depressed enough to try to end it all, I wonder what planet these writers are from, and if they've ever spent time among the humans that populate this one.”

To paraphrase a comment I left on Matt’s site, I've talked to or rebuffed several people over the last few days who've not only asked me what I thought about the recent awful circumstances surrounding Owen Wilson (as if there's a chance I might be in favor of a suicide attempt), but also who have insisted that the whole thing is some kind of ridiculous mystery-- "Why would a guy with that much money wanna kill himself?" When it comes to depression that is profound enough to inspire such self-destructive impulses, there often is no "why," or certainly no single "why," and just because Wilson is a public figure doesn't mean that it's anyone's goddamn business even if there was. As tasteless as is the tabloid reportage of Britney and Lindsay and Paris and Nicole and Brad and Angelina and whoever else you see on the rack while in the grocery line, the scavenger reporters and paparazzi seem poised to reduce Wilson’s anguish down to the same kind of processed celebrity scandal fodder. Suicide, even the attempt thereof, ought to sell as well as sex, drugs and shaving your head, right? It would be a nice surprise if, for once, the vultures lost their taste for this meal and granted Wilson the privacy his family and friends have requested for him while he recovers. And I hope someone forwards him a copy of Matt’s piece. I can’t help but think it might help that climb out of the abyss just a little bit easier.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Next week, when I’m not so overwhelmed by the real world, I promise to submit some actual original material around here. But tonight, in the aftermath of a long study session, I found myself plugging the name of one of my favorite actresses, “Shelley Duvall,” into YouTube just to see what would come up. The first embedded clip is a somewhat corny but delightful slideshow of Duvall images set to Joni Mitchell’s “Raised on Robbery.”

Which got me wondering if her lovely number from Popeye, "He Needs Me," so effectively quoted by Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love, was available anywhere. Guess what-- I found it. (Unfortunately, the embedding option was not available, so just follow the link.)

Finally, I reacquainted myself with a fine written and visual appreciation of Shelley Duvall by Eric at When Canses Were Classeled that was published in the days just before Altman received his honorary Oscar.

If you love Shelley like I do, enjoy.



Think about this for a second. Off the top of your head, what was the last great sex scene in a major American film that you recall seeing? I heard someone in the back of the room say The Dreamers. But remember, I said American movie. Hmm… thinking… thinking… Could it have been—No, Swimming Pool was French. Uhhh… No. It can’t be Team America: World Police, can it? Can the last great sex scene from an American movie really be a raunchy parody featuring puppets banging away at each other in ever-increasing geometrically challenging positions? I hope not.

Well, Jim Emerson, he of the essential hub of Internet film criticism known as Scanners, has composed an open letter to “Hollywood” detailing a litany of excellent suggestions to combat what has been ailing “the studio risk-management -- er, movie – business” these days. At the top of the list? Skin, and the artful application thereof. Here’s Jim:

“What's wrong with some graphic nudity? Those gory physical effects are really convincing (most of the comic-book CGI stuff noticeably less so), but why do adults in Hollywood movies still behave as if they're on The Dick Van Dyke Show?... Do you know people who pop out of bed after sex sporting underwear? Who's in such a blasted hurry to get dressed?”

And just so you know that Jim isn’t just all about the unleashed libido, he has some thoughts on other avenues of blockbuster business as well:

“Despite whatever the latter Alien, Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels may have grossed, they cost you a lot in consumer confidence and goodwill. It's nice to have trilogies or tetralogies for DVD box sets, because you get to charge for an extra disc or two that nobody's going to watch -- like Jaws 3-D, Alien vs. Predator or Matrix Revolutions. But you know a lot of people feel ripped off by the final installment or two of a series. I know it's an alien concept, but whatever happened to the showbiz tradition of leaving 'em wanting more?”

Read the whole missive, entitled “Letter to Hollywood—Fixing Your Flops,” and see if you don’t agree with good Dr. Emerson’s prescription. And, Hollywood, though this is a complete examination, there really is no need to bend over. In fact, if I’m interpreting Dr. Emerson correctly, these measures should help your posture straighten up immensely.

And after you’ve finished Jim’s piece, can anyone answer the question this all started off with? What was the last great sex scene to come from an American film?

(Thanks to Kim for pointing me to Jim’s letter first!)


Monday, August 27, 2007


A Superbad junket interview featuring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera melts down when a snotty British interviewer brings out the shiv. Pretty hilarious stuff, and I would imagine not too far removed from reality. Turn it down at work, though—it’s rated “R.”


Sunday, August 26, 2007


If things have seemed a little quiet here on the SLIFR ranch this past week, it's not because they were anywhere near quiet in other worlds, both real and virtual. Perturbing events raised their head in the blogosphere last week, and they've inspired tough questions for those directly involved in those events, as well as those of us who are trying to bring a modicum of seriousness to what we do here with film writing in this still-new format. I was more than just a little depressed as I turned all this over in my noggin over the weekend. And then I clicked on Jim Emerson's post "The Stepford Critics", which I didn't see until tonight. Jim posted it on Friday night, right about the time a friend and I were draining an unsuspecting diner of their Diet Coke supply and hashing over this issue and many others during a lovely three and a half-hour sit-down, the likes of which I hardly ever get to enjoy these days. The sit-down cheered me up immensely, and Jim's post, and the excellent comments that follow, hit me like a cold drink of water at the end of a dry, dusty day. I urge everyone to please head on over there, read it and chime in. I promise I will too, Jim.

Speaking of cheering up, I got another shout-out this week on The Hucklebug, a very funny podcast hosted by SLIFR reader and blogger Stennie and her jovial compadre Bet. I'm relatively new to the joys of podcasting, but I love listening to these two chat their way through their very loosely formatted show every week. As I wrote to them on the Hucklebug Web site, "I’ve always gotten a kick out of listening to conversations like the ones you guys have, where I feel like I’m an outsider, yet I understand enough to keep me engaged. (There aren’t so many in-refernces that I feel shut out, or that I couldn’t become familiar with after an episode or two more of listening in.) It’s like eavesdropping in a place where you’re welcome. (I love movies like this too, where you know there’s important stuff on the sidelines or outside the margins, but you have to work to find it or draw conclusions without it-- this is why I like Altman.) And I really enjoy the pleasure you two take in each other’s company. That’s something that can’t be faked." If you find yourself with an idle hour, do check out the chat on The Hucklebug. You may find yourself hooked... like me. (And when you do, tell me if Stennie doesn't sound like a certain Oscar-winning actress with a new movie about to come out in the next couple of weeks...)

Finally, as the last week of August comes shuffling in, I was thinking about the summer movie season and how relatively few big blockbusters I saw this year. I just could not muster up the energy to see many of the big three-quels-- Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and I remain unacquainted. (I did see Shrek the Third-- twice-- but I'm a father of two who likes to take his kids to the drive-in, so I would like to claim mitigating circumstances, right alongside claims of bad judgment.) I also skipped Transformers (though if it showed on a tasty double bill at a drive-in, I could easily be convinced to give it a look) and the new Harry Potter picture, only because I haven't yet seen number 4. The Bourne Ultimatum has to be the summer's biggest disappointment, based on the anticipation-to-rewards ratio. I did see Ocean's Thirteen and thought it was pretty keen, though less engaging than Eleven (I find Ellen Barkin in full sex kitten mode hard to resist, though.) Live Free and Die Hard and The Simpsons Movie were delightful, the former in a very unexpected way-- it was really funny!-- and the latter in a very expected way-- it was really funny! Knocked Up was just about as wonderful as I had presumed it would be-- but I was unprepared for how painful it was as well. On the short list of minor surprises would be Vacancy, 1408 and Hostel Part II. I would term Hot Fuzz a mild disappointment, but I have to admit that I was VERY tired the night I saw it, so its recent appearance on DVD should be one I gravitate to pretty quickly.

But as August wound down this weekend, the movies that topped my summer list were an eclectic bunch, emblematic of the things summer movies can and should do best, but so often do not-- thrill us with the sheer audacity of their command of craft, of character, of their desire to entertain us by keepng us company with vibrant, surprising characters and rich, subtle, sometimes shaggy craft. And one of them was a freakism, a reminder that oddities do float around the perimeters of the so-called popcorn season, as they used to in the less demographically dominated dog days, and sometimes people will go to see them (even if they have to get duped into doing it).

My best movies of summer list, in ascending order:

4) BUG William Friedkin's startlingly effective psychodrama dares to cross the line from relative sanity to unabated madness right along with the lead characters, played by Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. It's Friedkin's most unhinged, balls-out movie in decades, and Judd never shies away from the possibility that she'll be misunderstood or look foolish-- hers is a brave, brilliant portrait of the thin veneer that separates the appearance of normalcy from paranoid tragedy.

3) HAIRSPRAY For sheer joy, happiness and unerring ability to strip away every one of my preconceptions, Hairspray has every other movie I've seen this year beat in a walk, or a twist.

2) RATATOUILLE Pixar rebounds from the relative disappointment of Cars with another thrilling technical achievement wed to the ever more prodigious and full-bodied storytelling mastery of writer-director Brad Bird, who, with The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and now this family-friendly consideration of what it is to be an artist, is fast approaching national treasure status.

1) SUPERBAD Hairspray defeated my resistance. Superbad not only fulfilled my expectations, but easily surpassed them. This mind-bogglingly profane paean to the penis, and the unexpectedly tender ties between two high school guys who happen to sport 'em and obsess over 'em, reaches the rarefied air where Freaks and Geeks once reigned. Director Greg Mottola transcends the teen movie comedy with ease and a subtle, surprisingly tender hand, as one night in search of booze and babes spirals off into giddy comic highs and emotional grace. And the funk soundtrack! As a friend of mine simply stated in a one-word e-mail to me about this movie, brilliant.

What are your thoughts on the summer movie season? Any big surprises? Any disappointments? And is there anything on the horizon that looks to shake up your expectations and pull you away from that ever-growing stack of DVDs that you haven't gotten a chance to see yet? I have every reason to believe that, as schoolwork comes to a head this week that things on the SLIFR ranch may be as quiet again this week as they were last, so I invite you to pop in a check in with your thoughts. What about the state of internet film criticism? Are the Stepford Critics taking over? What about the Hucklebug? And feel free to log in on the Summer of 2007 in the SLIFR Forum too. What did the movies do for you besides provide reliable air conditioning and overpriced M&Ms from June through August?

Monday, August 20, 2007

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENCE: Getting to a List of the Best Non-English Language Films

Here we go again. It seems there is a group of about 51 bloggers, writers, critics who have decided to give the whole list thing another shot. This time organized by Edward Copeland, the group was asked to compile a non-ranked list of 25 favorite foreign-language films (not best, not all-time anything) in an attempt to come up with a large list, filled with a nice mix of, as Campaspe put it, “warhorses, interesting recent choices and a smattering of wild cards,” from which a final list would be composed. Confesses Edward:

“I see now why lists can sometimes cause such headaches. We had to decide things such as whether Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns were eligible (We decided no, since most people are only familiar with the English dubbed version and the American actors didn't speak in Italian.)… I also originally planned to have the eligible list consist of films that made at least 5% of all ballots, but soon realized that that would make pretty much every film that got at least one vote eligible, so I opted instead for films that appeared on at least three ballots.”

The only real criteria that the voting committee were held to, other than the requirement that the dialogue be in a foreign language, was the length of the film (features only, no shorts, and no documentaries—there went my vote for Tokyo Olympiad) and that it be released no more recently than 2002 (there went my vote for Goodbye, Dragon Inn). Otherwise, each voter came to her/his final 25 by any means necessary. Some voted for the foreign language films they had seen more than any others. Some declined to vote for films in a series (Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, for example). Some held themselves to one film per director. And most voted for personal favorites over the recognized canonical films, unless, of course, those canonized works were their personal favorites.

When Edward had finally finished doing the heavy lifting last night, 122 films shook out of all those lists of nominees, 122 films that garnered at least three qualifying votes. I was somewhat surprised that, of the 25 I submitted on my original list, 16 actually showed up on that list of 122. However, for me the single most agonizing thing about looking at the lists of nominees I’ve seen, as well as the final list, is the sound of “D’oh!” that rattles in my skull when I’m reminded of a title that I wish I’d remembered but somehow didn’t. How could I have forgotten Roman Polanski’s Repulsion? Or Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil? (It was determined not to be enough of a documentary, I guess, to qualify.) Or George Sluzier’s The Vanishing? And I held back a vote for Suspiria based on the fact that I’d only seen the version that featured English language dubbing.

Other than those titles, though, the thing that is both exciting and embarrassing about participating in this enterprise is facing up to the block of Swiss cheese that is my experience with the history of films that originated in countries that aren’t primarily English-speaking. But rather than run from that, I decided that an essential element of taking part in this exercise, which has so far being enlightening as well as a ton of fun, would be to discover just how lacking I am when it comes to movies that are revered by others that I have not yet, for whatever reason, allowed myself to experience. (And yes, it is “allowed” these days, because most, if not all of the titles in contention are available on DVD.) But it’s not all about the gaps in knowledge—contributing to the list and sorting through also served, as it did for Jim Emerson and Jonathan Lapper and probably everyone, to one degree or other, to jog titles loose, some of which have languished in the memory for 25 or 30 years, and whet the desire to give them a fresh look (at the top of this list: Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road). And the fun has only begun—I was moved enough by Jim’s passion for Le Boucher that I ordered it sight unseen off of a Best Buy card I just got for my birthday. My mind is spinning at the seemingly endless list of films I have yet to see.

What follows then is a series of lists, all connected to Edward’s Foreign Language Film project. First, my own list, submitted for inclusion as part of the compilation of what became the List of 121:

* Amarcord (1974; Federico Fellini; Italy)
* Au Hasard, Balthasar (1966; Robert Bresson; France, Sweden)
* Beauty and the Beast (1946; Jean Cocteau; France)
* Belle de Jour (1966; Luis Bunuel; France, Italy)
Death in Venice (1971; Luchino Visconti; Italy)
* The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972; Luis Bunuel; France)
Fellini Roma (1972; Federico Fellini; Italy)
Going Places (1974; Bertrand Blier; France)
* Ikiru (1952; Akira Kurosawa; Japan)
* In the Mood for Love (1999; Wong Kar-wai; Hong Kong, France)
In the Realm of the Senses (1976; Nagisa Oshima; Japan, France)
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989; Hayao Miyazaki; Japan)
La Cage aux Folles II (1980; Edouard Molinaro; France)
* M (1931; Fritz Lang; Germany)
Matador (1986; Pedro Almodovar; Spain)
* Nights of Cabiria (1957; Federico Fellini; Italy)
* Open City (1946; Roberto Rossellini; Italy)
* Pierrot le Fou (1965; Jean-Luc Godard; France, Italy)
Project A Part 2 (1987; Jackie Chan; Hong Kong)
* The Rules of the Game (1939; Jean Renoir; France)
* Seven Samurai (1954; Akira Kurosawa; Japan)
* Sonatine (1994; Takeshi Kitano; Japan)
* Tampopo (1986; Juzo Itami; Japan)
* Tokyo Story (1953; Yasujiro Ozu; Japan)
* Woman in the Dunes (1964; Hiroshi Teshigahara; Japan)

• denotes the titles that made it onto the List of 121

I think I was initially a bit surprised at how heavily the Japanese weighed in on my list, but that surprised waned when I looked at the titles, which are all essential movies for me. Even more surprising was the fact that I found room for three Fellini films, including one (Roma) that has stuck in my craw with far more insistence than I ever expected it would. Had I remembered Repulsion and Sans Soleil, however, it would have meant ciao to Fellini’s remembrance of the big city, as well as to Almodovar’s perversely delightful Matador. And before I get too many comments on the order of “What the fuck is La Cage aux Folles II doing in there?” let me explain that I think the late Michel Serrault’s brilliance in this picture has yet to be truly measured, due to the fact that it’s contained in what can only be described as a routine, programmatic sequel. But even within that starched plot, when Albin and Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) head for the Italian hills to escape from a bunch of hoods (doesn’t matter why), and Albin, living in luxury dressed as a female in France, is faced with the reality of an Italian peasant woman’s existence, and how Renato is exalted merely because his gender, it occasions a bolt of seriocomic empathy for him, and for the audience, that lifts Serrault’s already heavenly portrayal into even headier territory.

No, I was not surprised that La Cage aux Folles II did not make the cut. But in the spirit of creating as idiosyncratic a list as possible, and thereby creating a list that would inspire those of us who worked on it as well as those who might read it, I felt like it was a vote worth casting. Otherwise, my own list, while by no means even close to comprehensive (I forced myself to leave off The Seventh Seal, The Leopard, Breathless and a dozen other film-school friendly titles out of sheer familiarity and, and I said before, it’d just been too long since I’d seen some of them), strikes me as one of many reasonable places to start down the road toward appreciating the non-English language cinema.

And now, Monty, the I Confess portion of our program. Here are the titles that made the list of 122 that I have not seen. (Draw whatever conclusions about me based on this information that you will.)

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Amores Perros
Andrei Rublev
Army of Shadows
Ashes and Diamonds
Band of Outsiders
The Battle of Algiers
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Black Orpheus
Celine and Julie Go Boating
City of God
Cleo From 5 to 7
Come and See
The Conformist
The Cranes Are Flying
Cries and Whispers
Day of Wrath
The Decalogue
The Earrings of Madame De...
Exterminating Angel
Eyes Without a Face
Forbidden Games
The 400 Blows
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
The Great Silence
Jules and Jim
La Dolce Vita
Late Spring
Le Samourai
Lola Montes
The Marriage of Maria Braun
My Night at Maud's
Raise the Red Lantern
Rocco and His Brothers
Sansho the Bailiff
Stolen Kisses
Story of the Late Chrysanthemums
The Tin Drum
To Live
Umberto D
The Wages of Fear
Wild Strawberries
Yi Yi: A One and a Two

That’s 51 movies! Jesus, it’s clear enough to me that I need to take about six months off and do some serious studying. Just at first glance, it seems that my experience with Truffaut’s films is the one most lacking, but really, it’s painful to look at any of those titles and think of the wonders I’ve so far denied myself. And in the case of Army of Shadows, The Conformist, The Decalogue and Pickpocket, these are movies that are sitting on my own DVD shelf—I have yet to make time for any of them.

And then there’s the list of movies I would, if I could, cherry-pick right off the list and flick to the wayside:

All About My Mother (not top drawer Almodovar, in my book)
Amelie (I’m not a hater, but really…)
Chungking Express (the movie that kept me at arm’s length from Wong Kar-wai for 10 years, and nearly ruined California Dreamin’ for me too)
Cinema Paradiso (I’m this movie’s prime demographic, and even I thought it was too much)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (A movie I love, but I had no problem leaving it off my list)
Das Boot (another one I like, but consider wildly overrated)
Dersu Uzala (This appealed to me as a college student more than some of Kurosawa’s other titles—20 years later, it seemed soggy and obvious)
8 ½ (I need to see this again, but I’ve remained unconvinced for a long time)
Farewell My Concubine (I honestly barely even remember this movie, outside of Gong Li)
Last Year at Marienbad (This movie was absolutely forbidding to me when I saw it in college; I need to see it again)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (I liked this movie, but I would have rather voted for Murnau)
The Red Desert (Antonioni begins to run awfully dry for me here)
Run Lola Run (I said this when it landed on the OFC Top 100—Whaaaat?!!)
Seven Beauties (I loved this in college, but I suspect I would think it was a piece of shit now—a good candidate for re-viewing!)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (I just don’t get it…)

And just in case the taste for masochism is getting as good for you as it is for me, here’s 20 other foreign-language films that I haven’t seen, that didn’t make the list, that I would love to see right now, in the order they came floating off the top of my head:

Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica)
The Truck (Marguerite Duras)
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quoi du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman)
Strozsek (Werner Herzog)
Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu)
Lola Montes (Max Ophuls)
The River (Jean Renoir)
French Cancan (Jean Renoir)
Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr)
Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Confidentially Yours (Francois Truffaut)
Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle)
Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard)
La Terra Trema (Luchino Visconti)
Police (Maurice Pialat)
Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
La Femme infidele (Claude Chabrol)
Femmes fatales (Bertrand Blier)
The Night of the Shooting Stars (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani)
Pepe le Moko (Julien Duvivier)

Okay, quite enough masochism from me. Here’s list of 122 nominees that you and I will be choosing from. If you want to cast your vote, choose 25 of the titles from the List of 122 and send them to before midnight CST, Sunday, September 16.

Be sure to check out the names that made up the nominating committee. And if you have a list of your own 25 and are looking for a place to post it, Jim Emerson is taking submissions, and please feel free to deposit them below for further discussion and fun!

Remember, the deadline is Sunday, September 16, midnight CST!

Saturday, August 18, 2007


O Lord, the hour is late and my eyeballs need proppin' open like those of Alex de Large. But I have to stay up just long enough to advise to you click (not run, neither walk) on over to Cinebeats where Professor Lindbergs has got a fascinating class in session right now on the rich significance of porn-derived Japanese genre films called Pinky Violence. Kimberly's wide-ranging appreciation for the subject thrusts and parries into not only a compulsively readable history of an ignored genre, but into a consideration of the nature of film criticism, particularly that branch concerned with the accepted canon of Japanese filmakers. If you're like me, this may be a whole new wrinkle in Japanese cinema to explore. And the wonderful thing is, Kimberly is the best guide to have along on a journey like this-- she combines encyclopedic knowledge with a fan's boundless enthusiasm and a seriousness of intent that is positively inspiring. My go-go boot clad colleague has distinguished herself in a big way with this blog and carved out some very fresh, charged-up territory in the process. She stopped posting for an extended period a while back, and my sidebar honestly seemed a footcandle or two dimmer for the duration. But she's back, baby, and stronger than ever. If you haven't yet acquainted yourself with Cinebeats, there can be no excuse for further deprivation. Bring yourself and your opinions too-- as it is on the best sites, assent and dissent are always welcomed as long as they are accompanied by civilty, a way with words and, of course, a true passion for film of all genres and classifications. I am seriously going to try to spend the weekend doing nothing that cannot be classified as leisure-time activity, and Cinebeats' latest brilliant post (and the equally detailed and informative comments, into which I intend to jump cannonball-style) are destined to be the centerpiece of my golden hours. Treat yourself right and do the same.

Rica kicks it old school-- and class is in session at Cinebeats!


Thursday, August 16, 2007


David Hudson and Green Cine Daily have provided a link to the latest salvo launched in the aftermath of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s controversial New York Times op-ed piece regarding the relevance of Ingmar Bergman to modern film audiences. It’s Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman on “The Moment I ‘Got’ Ingmar Bergman.” And if you’re behind on the whole tempest, a good place to catch up is Jim Emerson’s Scanners. Jim has thoughts on Rosenbaum’s initial column, Roger Ebert’s comeback, some further conversation on Bergman, Antonioni and Camile Paglia, further responses to Rosenbaum from Zach Campbell, critic David Bordwell’s very valuable two cents, and a ton of great comments throughout all these links, in what amounts to the kind of serious consideration of Bergman, Antonioni and other old masters that a lot of us haven’t heard or seen since our college days.

Also, under the “Critics on Critics” banner comes a pithy little bit courtesy of blogger/critic Phil Nugent, who takes Slate critic Dana Stevens to task for her apparently contrary views of Dreamgirls over an eight-month span. Stevens comments were derived from her original Dreamgirls review and then from the opening paragraph of her enthusiastic piece about Hairspray. Is this a classic case of left hand-right hand ignorance, or even specious contradiction, as Phil implies? Or did Dreamgirls simply seem, for Stevens, even less dreamy eight months down the road than it did in the glow of its prestige Christmas release?

The Passionate Moviegoer’s Joe Baltake highlights San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick La Salle’s sharp response to one of those letters from an irate viewer who lashes out with a very familiar argument: “Those who can, write. Those who can't, criticize.” To which La Salle responds:

“I know. But please, spare some pity for the others, those poor individuals who can neither write nor criticize. What do they do? I think they criticize critics. Yes, that's what they do, but we should resist all impulse to disparage them. We don't want to be people who criticize the people who criticize critics." Toosh!

For some good old-fashioned critickin’, get thee to Joe Baltake’s site right away.

Finally, this one courtesy of loyal SLIFR reader Blaaagh, who last week sent along an e-mail which contained a piece written by San Francisco Chronicle scribe Jon Carroll. The columnist, on July 17, 2007, mused about science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin’s spirited response to a review of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Slate reviewer Ruth Franklin, in which Franklin stated “Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it."

Here’s Carroll:

“I am pretty sure that Michael Chabon would agree with Le Guin's point. He too is irritated by the pigeonholing of genre fiction. A writer is not responsible for his reviewers or his fans, although a writer becomes justly disconsolate when the reviewers stop reviewing and the fans stop fanning… Ruth Franklin is in general a sensible reviewer, and one sentence does not a career make, no matter how much it ticks somebody off.”

However, he cannot resist taking delight in Le Guin’s literary retort, found on her Web site, and neither can I:

“Something woke her in the night. Was it steps she heard, coming up the stairs -- somebody in wet training shoes, climbing the stairs very slowly ... but who? And why wet shoes? It hadn't rained. There, again, the heavy, soggy sound. But it hadn't rained for weeks, it was only sultry, the air close, with a cloying hint of mildew or rot, sweet rot, like very old finiocchiona, or perhaps liverwurst gone green.

There, again -- the slow, squelching, sucking steps, and the foul smell was stronger. Something was climbing her stairs, coming closer to her door. As she heard the click of heel bones that had broken through rotting flesh, she knew what it was. But it was dead, dead! God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes!

What did the fool think he was doing?”

Read the rest of Ursula Le Guin’s ”The Return of the Genre Zombie” here. (Thanks, Blaaagh!)


So, what are you thinking about as you read these pieces and consider these questions, these writers and their thoughts? The SLIFR Forum is open! And by the way, don't get me wrong-- I think Anton Ego is a hero.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"I didn't want the film to be making any sort of judgment..." gravida REVIEWED, plus a talk with writer-director LUCAS McNELLY

It’s easy to imagine the basic situation in Lucas McNelly’s fine, patiently observed short film gravida if it had been directed by, say, the chat-happy Richard Linklater as a domesticated, working-class Before Sunrise-- a young receptionist with a secret (Rachel Shaw) contrives a stay-at-home dinner date with an amiable bicycle delivery man (Adam Kukic), the conversation turning from awkward beginnings to heavy small talk as the evening logorrheically glides toward its downbeat conclusion. One might also, if one was feeling somewhat ungenerous, be able to mentally refigure gravida as the centerpiece of a typically egocentric episode of Ally McBeal-- Ally gulps and gawks and tilts her head through another squirm-inducing date, while intrusive and obvious visual metaphors crash through her apartment walls, Vonda Shepard underlines the direction of the scene in chalk-on-blackboard vocals, and Ally bulges her eyes and waxes adorably indecisive about whether or not to tell the guy about that bump in her belly.

Fortunately, though the situation may seem common enough for various, possibly vulgar visualizations, McNelly grounds his story in a patient, European-style contemplative mode that belies his uncertainty with the two actors together but stands him in good stead when it’s just him, his lovely lead actress and a cat alone together in the candle-lit apartment where this young woman finally begins to face a very particular fear of the unknown. There is a lovely sequence of shots that opens the film—Shaw, as Kristin, the film’s protagonist, awakens, each stage of the rising punctuated by brief dissolves to black and the plaintive strains of Ilona V’s “Good Morning,” used here to faintly ironic effect. Kristin rustles in bed, reluctantly rises, entertains her cat on the kitchen table while perfunctorily eating from a bowl of cereal, and then the sequence’s crowning bit of magic—the lap dissolve from that kitchen table scene to the cat poised in the hallway, alone, its head pressed to what surely is a door on the other side of which is his human. By intimating the needfulness of the animal, McNelly masterfully suggests the hunger for companionship of this young woman and pricks up our senses for the impending shot of the woman massaging her midsection with lotion in front of her bathroom mirror. From some, it will look like she’s just been away from the gym too long. Others will know right away the purpose of hydrating and softening this belly. Either way, Kristin’s secret (or the fact that she has one) has been revealed.

Unfortunately, while the scenes with Shaw and Kukic together suggest the very real awkwardness of a first-date situation, they also hint that the director-writer is less sure of his footing here. McNelly’s visual strength, his ability to poeticize the frame and bring out meaning by simple observation, is more subdued in this section. You can feel him nudging the actors into groping around some facile conversation, into the dinner date that Kristin suggests (as a way, we suspect, not of satisfying some promiscuous carnal desire, but to provide her with the simple companionship she knows she’s going to need in the coming months), and finally toward some groping of the other, more intimate kind. But his touch is much less assured once the date begins, and you keep hoping he’ll be able to make up for the diminished visual assurance with at least some good dinner conversation.

Alas, the dinner, though most certainly well cooked and satisfying for the characters, is less so for the audience, its apparent small talk muffled under the blanket of Amy Crawford’s bright and illustrative tune “All I Want.” The tune itself is rather lovely, but it’s not what I wanted to hear at this point. I wanted to hear the ways these two either talk intelligently or fumble around their own defenses; I wanted to hear how they finally come to realize that there is no real reason to resist the development of their flirtation into something more passionate. Instead, the sequence comes off more like a commercial for itself, the promise of insight packaged into a slightly hackneyed romantic comedy montage.

Fortunately, for us, when McNelly moves into the third act, when Kristin can no longer hide what it is she has decided will be an insurmountable obstacle in her pursuit of companionship, the movie regains its power, again through the quite alchemic collaboration of this young director and his female star. gravida, in its final sequences, is about one woman’s dawning realization of the gravity of her situation, but it’s also about nothing less than Shaw’s deceptively blank face, a mask of serene, porcelain beauty that cannot hide or contain the roiling fear and uncertainty underneath. As she rubs her belly again near the film’s conclusion, book-ending the seemingly innocuous gesture of morning prep from the beginning, Shaw cuts through any remaining reticence, belonging to either the character or to herself, and taps into an electric vein of empathy for the beleaguered Kristin. gravida leaves her tearfully face to face with an entirely new kind of intimacy waiting to replace that terrifying loneliness with which she is already familiar. Shaw reveals to us the degree to which Kristin is not lonely so much as truly alone and soon to be never alone. It’s the emotional high point of gravida, and one that McNelly should prize in his young career, this darkened sequence which closes out the movie, when he and Shaw effortlessly illustrate the moment when she grasps the temporal fleetingness of this comfortable, familiar sort of pain and longing, which is about to become but a wistful memory. In the end, the movie slips through our fingers, like a memory itself, which is, as it turns out, its most impressionable, poetic quality. gravida marks the first sure steps in what one hopes will be a long and fruitful filmmaking career for its director.


The DVD package on which gravida is the centerpiece also features two earlier films by Lucas McNelly-- L’Attente (2006), a four-minute, one-joke swipe at French New Wave conventions which details one man’s search for a cup of coffee, and the altogether charming and disarming Guard Duty (2005), a chip off of Errol Morris’ old block in which McNelly sets his home video recorder on the jocular efforts of two engineers to cook up some potatoes for a camp of hunters; pleasantly disorienting and amiable antics ensue (or not). You can purchase the gravida DVD here, and if you like what you see and want to turn yourself into a walking billboard for Pittsburgh independent film, you can pick up a DPress Productions t-shirt and show your support for Lucas’ efforts sartorially as well.


Already no stranger to the realities of getting the word out about a new film, Lucas McNelly agreed to sit down with me and talk about gravida, the Pittsburgh film scene and, of course, how blogging fits into his plan for world domination. Unfortunately, he’s on the East Coast and I’m on the West Coast, so the sit-down took place in front of our respective laptops, where we e-mailed back and forth over the last week. What follows, then, is a series of exchanges that, though originating in an electronically one-sided process, have been arranged and edited to resemble a conversation as much as possible. I think you’ll find Lucas an engaging, thoughtful and articulate interview subject, even though we never did get around to steering the conversation toward Lindsay Lohan, cheap beer or some of his more outrageous responses to Mr. Shoop’s recent summer school quiz. (If you haven’t yet participated yourself, read this interview and then click here.)

(Please be aware that, after reviewing the movie with some sensitivity toward preserving the central secret of the main character, Lucas and I dive headlong into SPOILER TERRITORY with the first question. If you are of the inclination to be bothered by revelations of this nature, consider yourself warned.)

DC: How did the idea for gravida come about? Did you have to look for a pregnant actress? Or did the actresses' pregnancy inform the concept of the film from the start? (By the way, as the father of two, I very much appreciate, in a non-salacious way, your visual sensitivity to the particular beauty of a pregnant woman's body.)

gravida writer director Lucas McNelly

LM: The idea for gravida, like most of my good ideas, came from a night of insomnia where I couldn't shake this image out of my head of the back of a topless woman with her head looking to the side. And while I couldn't figure out where the image came from, I knew it looked a lot like those early photos of nude models, so I started searching and found this bit of 19th century French erotica. The idea then became, what if this serene, somewhat erotic, image was the only moment in that scene that looked that way? What if this was one serene instant following an emotional breakdown? For at least the first 5 drafts, the film was actually about the nature of photography. The character wasn't pregnant and I was trying to find ways to realistically get her alone in her bedroom, topless and crying, but that was proving difficult.

At the same time, I was looking for an actress who had the ability to pull the role off, but at the same time was "classically beautiful" enough to look like a model, as I really wanted to sell the erotic Maxim magazine look and then subvert it. One of the first people I thought of was Rachel Shaw, who's actually a good friend of mine, but being pregnant, that wouldn't work. It was Rachel who first floated the idea of the character being pregnant, and once I got my head around that, it became pretty clear that a pregnant woman would be a lot more hormonal, and thereby more likely prone to crying. It cleaned up a lot of the logistical problems with the script.

Of course, being a single guy with no kids, I know almost nothing about pregnant women, so there was a long process (probably a month) of Rachel and I emailing back and forth trying to hammer out all the details of the script and, more importantly, the various emotions her character would be going through. All the while, I'm reading
everything I can find on Wikipedia about pregnancy. Believe me, that part was not fun, but I knew that if the film was going to have any credibility at all, I was going to really have to know what I was talking about.

DC: It’s not surprising to hear that the movie has its origins in still photography. The movie has a visual and poetic spareness and patience, qualities you share with another talented young filmmaker, David Lowery, which this old fart finds really refreshing, especially in an independent cinema that seems so much to be geared as a jittery calling card to Hollywood.

LM: A lot of the films I really love are older films that work on a different pacing than what you see today. Something as simple as Annie Hall that has an average shot length of something like 14 seconds rings more true to me than, say, a Michael Bay movie. Whenever I watch a great film where the director is content just let his camera film something without the need to chop it all up with a hundred
different angles, I almost always come away with the feeling that the director has a real confidence in his story's ability to get the job done. There's no need to distract the audience or do something flashy simply to keep them interested. So I probably gravitate toward that as a rule.

DC: There's something terribly moving about the lap dissolve from the still shot of Kristin (Rachel Shaw) playing with the cat who is sitting on the kitchen table, to a long shot of a quiet hallway, the cat pressed up against what surely must be a doorway. The cat seeks the company of her loved one, in much the same way as Kristin will reach out in a groping, trembling way to this young man in hopes of temporarily distracting her from the new, frightening intimacy in her life. As a young filmmaker, over the course of three films, you've established a comfort with holding long (or longish) shots. Do you feel a stylistic connection or commitment to the stillness of your camera? Do you have a desire to tell the kind of stories in film that would necessitate a different approach?

LM:I'm not a big fan of telling the audience over and over what's going on. I prefer to let the images and words do that subtly. One of my big worries about gravida was that parts of it might be too subtle, that things like the image of the cat in the hallway (a shot that took forever, by the way) or the photos of the ex-lover (played by yours truly) would go unnoticed and people would be left trying to figure out what the hell is going on. I'm still not sure how many people have picked up on the significance of the stuff she rubs on her stomach, for example.

As for the different approach, one of my favorite things to say is that art does not work for us; we work for the art. That is, a lot of filmmakers, both indie and Hollywood, get an idea in their head that they want to make a movie that looks like [insert famous movie] and they go about trying to shoehorn a story into those constraints. I try to do the exact opposite. I find a story that I feel is compelling and interesting on its own merits and then go about trying to find the best way to tell that story. So gravida works with color and specific framing and has a very passive, detached look where the camera almost never moves, because I didn't want the film to be making any sort of judgment about this woman and her actions. She's so very much on the fence as to whether or not you can support her morally that I didn't want the camera to be pushing the audience in either
direction. So it mostly just observes her and lets the audience decide for themselves what they think of her.

Conversely, L'Attente is a French New Wave film not because I thought it would be fun to make one (although it was), but because an hour or two before filming I realized that the only way I could effectively pull off a story so slight, so inconsequential, was to go with the French New Wave. So to an outside observer it might seem as if it "unintentionally belittles the film movement he intends to honor via homage by responding to the French New Wave on only the most superficial level", as Andy Horbal argues (and I'm not disagreeing with him—it’s definitely a valid point), I tend to feel that making it a New Wave film out of necessity is perhaps the greatest compliment. There was no other way I could think that it could work, and that's a lot of what the French New Wave stood for.

DC: Rachel Shaw has a strong presence in the role, which is fortunate because the entire movie seems to be, in retrospect as well as in the moment, about her face. In fact, the simple scenes of her being with herself, encouraging the audience to the kind of interior contemplation that is ringing unmercifully between her ears, are tenderly effective. Were you more comfortable with those scenes that with the set piece involving the dinner in the apartment and the first-date fumbling?

LM: I was, if for no other reason than Rachel and I had worked so hard to figure out what would be going through her mind that it really took very little direction. Mostly, I'd sit down with her just before the scene and we'd talk about where she is emotionally at that moment and we'd run it 6 or 7 times and that'd be it.

The first date fumbling was a little trickier because Adam Kukic was a late addition to the film and we only had a couple of hours of rehearsal to work everything out, so there was more of a feeling of flying without a net than there was in Rachel's solo scenes. Add to that the fact that I intentionally wanted the opening date interactions to be awkward and directed them to both take liberties with the script when needed and you've got a pretty high likelihood of it not working at all. Even deep into editing I wasn't sure the dialogue scenes were going to work as well as I wanted and I was tweaking the office scene all the way until the day before the premiere. Actually, if it weren't for the premiere, I'd probably still be tweaking it.

Your observation about her face is a good one. So much of the film relies on Rachel's ability to convey emotion through little more than her eyes. Fortunately, she was able to do that, not that I was all that worried about her.

DC: The reason I asked the previous question is mainly because I found the second song intrusive. The first song was effective as a way of setting the tone and easing the audience into the setting. But I wanted to hear their conversation (assuming it was all small talk). I wanted that conversation to offer us some clues to her psychological struggle that the song just couldn't mine.

LM: The conversation was all small talk. The original idea was to have less music there and sort of weave in and out of the dialogue, but it became apparent pretty quickly that it wasn't going to work. The over-lapping dialogue wasn't working in conjunction with the images and it was really at odds with the sparseness of the rest of the film. It was, in short, just a little too jumbled and messy, so I scrapped it.

DC: Was the song ready and waiting to be plugged in to the scene then?

LM: Amy Crawford's song (which I love, by the way) was a very late addition to the film. We didn't get full clearance for it until 3 days before the premiere, which incidentally was around the time I was having panic attacks. In the end, it was really a question of since the dialogue didn't work, and we didn't have the option of re-shooting anything, we had to go with a song montage. With a bigger budget, there might have been other options available, such as some more scoring by the Futility Parade, but I think given the circumstances, the Amy Crawford song was the best options. And that's nothing against Amy, who is uber-talented and was generous enough to let us use her song.

DC: Having made the observation about the intrusiveness of the song, I loved what follows-- the opening shot of the two of them on the couch, facing the (unseen) TV. There's a fleetingly comic awkwardness communicated there that reminded me a little of early De Palma. Who were the filmmakers you were thinking of when you conceived the film? Were they different ones from the ones you were thinking of when you directed it?

LM: The biggest single influence here isn't a filmmaker at all, but the short story writer Andre Dubus, who wrote "We Don't Live Here Anymore", "Adultery & Other Choices", and "The Killings", which became In the Bedroom. Dubus has this ability to create characters over the course of a story and then destroy their emotional core in one sentence. I loaned one of his books to a friend of mine who was about to get married and she said it terrified her. She couldn't finish it.

In terms of filmmakers, I was really thinking more about Kieslowski than anyone else. I had Rachel watch Blue and I brushed up on some of Dekalog. Early in the going, when the male character was written a lot younger, I was watching Jiri Menzel's Ostre sledovanŠ¹ vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), but once we cast Adam, that got lost pretty quickly. There was also a bit of Claude Lelouch's Un homme et une femme in the beginnings of the date. During filming, it became pretty clear to me that I was treading pretty close to Bergman territory, especially that final scene. Overall, though, there's a definite Eastern European influence, but hopefully not one that's painfully obvious.

DC: Talk about the character's predicament. Andy Horbal observed about the film that it was "less 'a study of loneliness' than an observation from a distance of a day in the life of a lonely person." I didn't feel the distance from the character that Andy did, but maybe that phrase was employed because he found the behavior displayed in this "day in the life" somewhat generic. Whereas for me, especially the second time through, the movie seemed very much about this woman's trepidation at the prospect of trading in a familiar kind of loneliness for a new form of intimacy looming on the horizon that she fears will replace solitude (which she may on some level enjoy) with an ever-present responsibility that will leave her feeling not lonely, but truly alone.

LM: The phrase "a study in loneliness" was initially designed primarily as
a promotional means of keeping people unsure as to what the film is really about, as I was trying to keep the story of the film under wraps until the premiere, thinking the less information people had, the more powerful the end would be. I didn't want people to know it was about a pregnant woman or anything like that (although, based on the title and the first teaser, one could figure out the entire film if they felt so inclined, but no one really did). I didn't expect the loneliness phrase to catch on as much as it has, but oh well.

For me, the loneliness simply the motivating factor that pushes her into action. It gives her a desperation that causes her to engineer a delivery to the office in the hope that it might lead to a date and, later, causes her to seduce this guy--a high risk move that assures this won't be a long-term relationship. Ultimately she's not looking for a baby daddy or anything like that. All she wants is some companionship, someone to fill that space in her bed, that space you see in the frame during the opening scenes. Honestly, I don't think she cares about the sex at all, but sees the sex as a means to get him to spend the night. Ultimately, though, this is the first time she's hit with the realization that she's actually carrying a child. After he leaves and she's rubbing that oil stuff on her stomach there's a realization that what she had been treating as simply routine is of great consequence. Her eyes have that "Oh, my god, what did I almost do?" moment which, to me, is the moment she becomes a mother to that child. Up until that point, it was something to hide, something she had to deal with, instead of a responsibility that she had to care for. So while it may seem that nothing has been accomplished (she is, after all, still lonely), there's a rather large jump in maturity for Kristin.

DC: I watched gravida the first time on my big-screen TV, the second time on my laptop, and the intimacy of the smaller screen really seemed to suit the film (and it corrected some of the video resolution problems I was able to detect in some of the shots). How did gravida feel to you in a theater?

LM: It felt weird to me in the theatre, but then again, all my films feel weird to me in the theatre. L'Attente probably works the best on the big screen, because there isn't any resolution to lose, I've already added enough grain that it looks the same blown-up (or even better). The Hollywood Theatre has a brand-new high-def projector, so gravida looked pretty good up there, even though it was shot in standard def. Essentially, the projector prevented a lot of the resolution problems inherent in seeing DV so big.

DC: Do you find, especially working in video, you're thinking about alternative avenues, at the production level, for audiences to approach your films as new technological options arise?

LM: I don't know that when I'm working on something there's a voice in the
back of my head going, "Gee, I wonder how this will look on someone's iPod" because I'm spending all my efforts trying to make it work as effectively as possible in conjunction with the story. But if I'm aiming for one method of viewing it, I'd probably say it's for a 30-inch TV, as that's about the point that DV starts looking bad. But the monitor I edit on is pretty small (17 inches?), so that's got to be a factor as well.

DC: What is the back story of the gents from Guard Duty? This is the kind of simple comedy of observation where I feel like knowing too much about the background of the characters would undermine the sort of found humor of the piece. I like the sense of disorientation that you get from jumping into it midstream.

LM: George Peters and Bob Buric (the two gents) are both friends of my father, both highly intelligent, successful engineers who certainly are smart enough to cook something simple. The film actually came about from me playing around with my brother's cheap digital 8 camera he bought at Wal-Mart and just randomly taping the preparations for a meal at our family's hunting camp in the Maine woods. About half-way through I started to realize there was some real potential there and actually got up from where I was sitting and bothered to frame a shot. George and Bob were mostly unaware the camera was even there. It's very much the accidental film it appears to be. There's also a 15-minute version that feels a bit bloated and the only reason Guard Duty is 4 minutes long is because I decided to enter it in some local contest where it could only be 4 minutes (adding some nice humor to the line, "four minutes, I don't know..."). I knew it needed to be shorter, I just needed an excuse to re-edit it.

DC: L'Attente feels like a lark, but gravida does not. Yet I felt the titles at the end kind of undercut the seriousness of your intent, or acted as a defense mechanism, as if to say, if it didn't work for you, that's okay—we're not taking ourselves too seriously here anyway. (Among the end credits are title cards which read "D Press Productions does not condone getting pregnant, leaving your pregnant girlfriend, or seducing some poor guy you haven't yet told, just because you happen to be lonely" and "A deer was harmed in the making of this film, but not on purpose"). Yet you are—the movie is not pitched toward parody, certainly.

LM: Yeah, Gravida is definitely not a parody in any way. Hell, there's almost no humor in it. The titles (which several people have pointed out as being at odds with the rest of the film) come partly from a concern during filming that it might seem as if the film is condoning Kristin's actions, so I wanted to put in some sort of disclaimer and it kind of just snowballed a little bit. In retrospect, it may have been a little much, but at the same time it gives the audience something of a release before the lights come up. But I can certainly see the argument that the disclaimer shouldn't be there.

DC: How did the recent screening of the film in Pittsburgh go?

LM:In terms of people showing up and us making back the rental costs, it went okay. We were five people short of breaking even in that regard and a lot of people who said they'd show up didn't. But, you'll have that. More importantly, the reaction from the people who were there was great. Jerome Wincek played a wonderful set (with help from Nate Custer), and the audience was willing to engage all three of the films, which isn't always the case. There was a lot of positive reaction to David Lowery's Some Analog Lines, there was laughter during L'Attente, and there was utter silence during the final third of gravida, which I take as a good sign. Overall, the feeling I got from people (and this could just be people being nice) was one of surprise that a night of local film didn't feature slapstick comedy or zombies or horror, that instead what they got was a serious drama. People seemed to find that refreshing on some level. And I know a lot of people were impressed with the venue, which may just be the best kept secret in Pittsburgh film.

DC: What is going on with the Pittsburgh film scene? Does it have a
vitality you can tap into like, say, Austin does?

LM: Pittsburgh, it seems, has something of an inferiority complex in regards to the film scene, so there's a lot of navel gazing and complaining that we all don't live somewhere else, conveniently forgetting that you can do good work anywhere. I know there have been some attempts to enhance the social networking aspect of the city, but nothing's really come of it. If I had to pin it down, I'd say what we've got is some crew people that work for a number of different people, but the directors and production groups are scattered around the city, doing their own thing. Some of them are willing to expand into other areas and others are not. But there isn't a vitality that's even close to Austin or any of the other cities, and ultimately that may take me out of the city within the next year or two, but that's all in the air, of course.

DC: How's George A. Romero doing these days?

LM: You know, I could have sworn I saw George A. Romero like a year ago,
but I can't be sure.

DC: Is Romero’s a legacy in Pittsburgh film that still carries weight, as either legend or something young filmmakers aspire to?

LM: Honestly, in regards to Romero I'm a bad person to ask as I'm not fond
of horror (I have a weak stomach for such things), nor am I originally from Pittsburgh. Romero, therefore, means very little to me and I don't tend to pay any extra attention to conversations that involve him. But if I had to guess, I'd say he's a guy that still has a lot of influence in the local horror circles, obviously, but probably not significantly more than anywhere else. Everyone is aware of him, sure, but aren't they aware of him everywhere? I know it's not something I aspire to or even think about.

I also have the dual problem where I'm terrible at both networking and remembering people's names (those are probably related issues, I imagine), so I tend to be bad at the "recommend local filmmakers questions". I know there's a lot of good buzz around the new Encyclopedia Destructica DVD, which is now available for purchase, and Lift, a short by Hugues Dalton and Jeff Garton that starred Dominique Pinon. Other than that, all of the names I can think of are either people who have moved out of the city (like Rue Snider, who I thought was really close to doing some interesting work) or have shown work that's been underwhelming, to put it nicely.

That doesn't mean there aren't good ones, though, so I emailed Andy Horbal, who had this to say: "Justin Crimone (doing interesting things with horror, though he still has a long way to go), Jessica Fenlon (ambitious, experimental, used to organize Viewer Discretion), Ben Hernstrom (smart guy, in charge of ambulantic), Jesse McLean (widely regarded as *the* best local filmmaker, she won a prize at the Black Maria Film Festival a few years ago , unfortunately she's leaving town for grad school), Gordon Nelson (he's one of the guys who does Jefferson Presents, but I don't know his work well), and Ross Nugent (my favorite local filmmaker, also experimental, his work looks a bit like Jordan Belson's, though Ross claims he isn't a conscious influence)."

DC: How long have you been blogging? What do you find to be your main focus
with that form?

LM: According to Blogger, it's been since around September/October of 2005, so almost two years. For me, the main focus is that writing about film forces me to look at it critically in a way I wouldn't otherwise. It's one thing to watch a film and say, "Yeah, I kind of liked it." It's another thing to sit down and write 800 words on why. It forces me to dig deeper and really try and figure out what does and does not work. That translates to my own work in obvious ways, as I can use those same techniques on my own work. Essentially, it keeps me sharp.

And since it doesn't really matter what I'm reviewing and writing about, it seemed pretty logical to use that space and whatever number of readers I've accumulated to do some good for fellow filmmakers by way of the uber-indie project, which gives no-budget filmmakers both the exposure and the constructive criticism that so many of us crave. Not everyone sees the value in what often comes off as harsh criticism, but I'm of the belief that it's better for me to say your film has fundamental problems now, so you can work on that going forward, than to have Roger Ebert say it on national TV after you've maxed out all your credit cards. At the no-budget stage of filmmaking no one (myself included) is a finished product, but it's so easy to find friends and relatives who will tell you how brilliant you are, and while that's nice, it doesn't really help you improve as a filmmaker. It just inflates your ego. If you're clearly already brilliant, why should you bother to improve?

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I’m reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road today. Today he would have turned 10 years old.

“No list of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”

I love you, Charlie. Happy birthday.


Just when we thought the discussion of lists might be at a natural pause, here comes Ken Russell, who responds to his film class’s request for the director’s top 10:

“’Please, Professor Ken, I’m just starting a serious collection of DVD movie masterpieces. What are your Top Ten recommendations? And please don’t mention any of your own films, as we’ve already got them all, thanks to your generous discounted prices’ (Laughter).

‘And please don’t mention horror films because we’ve got all those, too,’ pipes up another voice in the film studies class I teach at Southampton University.

‘That’s a tough one,’ I reply. ‘I could give you a hundred titles off the top of my head, but ten — that’s something else.’”

But fret not. Russell comes up with a list, all right, and this very amusing piece chronicles his attempt to justify his choices to his jaded, know-it-all students. And since it wouldn’t be a Ken Russell List without some shock or surprise, wait till you get to number 10.

Thanks to Kim and David for tipping me to this one. David also points the way to Tim Lucas’ review of the new biography on Russell by Jospeh Lanza, entitled Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films. Tim’s mixed view of the book is pretty representative of other reviews I’ve read of it—not without interest, but misses the boat in key areas and indulges Russell in many of the same ways he tended to indulge his subjects on film. For a more sympathetic view of Lanza’s work, check out this review at Jim’s Book Reviews.

Russell has been much on my mind again lately, having just last weekend seen a screening of his great film The Devils, which is likely to come up for more detailed discussion in the next week or so as part of my film-by-film attack on my own top 100. But for now, to lead you into and through your weekend, how about a couple of YouTube treats, Ken Russell style.

The first is a nice accompaniment to the Ken Russell Top 10: the director rhapsodizing about Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

And finally, just because I haven’t seen it in years, the 1812 Overture as visually augmented by Russell in the movie he made just before The Devils-- Glenda Jackson and Richard Chamberlain (as Tchaikovsky) in The Music Lovers (1970).


On its journey to the big, wide screen, The Simpsons Movie has largely contented itself to expanding its familiar, beloved, vitally American universe of characters to fit the wingspan of the Panavision frame, and of course to making jokes about what works in the movies that doesn’t so much on TV (spectacle, more detailed animation, full frontal nudity, for example), as well as hurling barbs at those who would pay $10 to see what they could ostensibly get for free on the airwaves. Regular viewers (among which I cannot count myself, and not for lack of desire) might tell you, however, that the major difference between the new movie and an average episode from one of the last few seasons, is the high laughs-to-dead spots ratio offered by the new big-screen version. For anyone who still finds him/herself on the show’s wavelength (and the lines circling the Kwik-E-Mart 7-Eleven in Burbank throughout the month of July attest that they are still legion), the movie is almost a guaranteed good time. Although I did not laugh until my knees hurt, I most certainly did laugh, and a lot. The Simpsons Movie is consistently, likeably weird (Homer staring awkwardly at a pig with whom he has become obsessed, just before suggesting they just kiss and get it over with); touching in the familiar fashion of the series in confirming the solidarity of the Simpsons family while simultaneously peeling it apart at every opportunity (Bart begins to look on Flanders as a model father); but genuinely subversive merely in fits and starts.

Whereas South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut took the opportunity to rip with impunity (and a great song score) into the fabric of American intolerance and hypocrisy, The Simpsons Movie is ultimately satisfied with just providing the laughs— Homer sets in motion the environmental destruction of Springfield, which leads to the family’s exile in Alaska and eventual return to their hometown to save the citizenry from the evil intentions of a megalomaniacal EPA official (voiced by Albert Brooks), and that’s it, in terms of plot. No character behaves in a surprising fashion (except maybe Bart with that Flanders fixation), no institutions are ever more than mildly tweaked (even a U.S. government led by President Schwarzenegger), no sensibilities remain disturbed for long. Of course, there are many great bits and line readings along the way, more than one could possibly process in one viewing, and the vocal performances of the cast (Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer, et al.) are, as always, peerless. There is, however, one neutron bomb of a visual gag laying in wait within the jam-packed frames and usual sly references: at one point what appears to be a giant spaceship casts its ever-elongating shadow across the candy-colored Springfield landscape, and in a single shot we see the fear-stricken congregation of Reverend Lovejoy flock from the church and stampede straight into Moe’s Tavern, crossing paths with the panicked alkies who bolt from their barstools into the recently emptied pews. For this bright, shining, frighteningly hilarious moment, The Simpsons Movie honors and lives up to the acerbic standard of satire set by the long-running comedy series of all time at its best. For the rest of its 87 minutes, it settles merely for being one of the funniest movies of the year.

As much satisfaction as there is to be had in having high expectations for a movie actually fulfilled when you finally see it, I’m here to testify that I like it even more when my own prejudices and preconceptions about a movie get upended right from the get-go, leaving me to receive with enjoyment and a smidgen of awe the insistent happiness that has just ambushed me. And so it was with Hairspray, the heretofore undistinguished director Adam Shankman’s screen version of the hit Broadway show, itself based on director John Waters’ daft 1988 musical comedy film about stiff hair, stacks of 45s and the racial tension underlying a local Baltimore TV dance contest in the early ‘60s. By now one might think that Hairspray, an adaptation of an adaptation, would have cannibalized itself into irrelevance, or at least stood a good chance of coming across as merely a ghastly museum exhibit, an echoing souvenir of one’s fond memories of Waters’ film, or of the Tony-winning musical, only this time with John Travolta in a fat suit—kind of like that recent, ill-fated filming of the Broadway adaptation of Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

But Shankman, the choreographer-turned-director of such must-avoids as The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Pacifier has pulled a rabbit out of his hat with this exuberant picture. He gives the whole enterprise (courtesy of the film’s big budget) just the right pulse of over-the-top, stylized giddiness, and right from the first frames. The camera glides over the rooftops of a Baltimore neighborhood, which from this vantage point looks like a slightly upscale version of that Yorkshire ghetto immortalized in the “Every Sperm is Sacred” number from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, settling on portly, untraumatized Tracy Turnblad (played with infectious cheer by newcomer Nikki Blonsky) as she darts past friendly flashers and hops a ride to school on a garbage truck, all the while singing “Good Morning, Baltimore,” the upbeat ode to down-to-earth values that sets the tone for the story’s inclusiveness, as well as its relentlessly catchy song score.

I don’t think there’s another movie this year that, minute for minute, has made me feel as unabashedly happy as has Hairspray. Shankman stages each of Marc Shaiman’s tunes with verve and a kaleidoscopic, kinetic sensitivity to the musical form—the movie is paced headlong, without rearview mirrors, and there is hardly a misstep of tone or pace to speak of. The irresistible numbers, shipped straight from Broadway, illuminate the story with infallible appeal and had me, my friend (who was on his third viewing) and my wife and daughters bouncing with delight-- my oldest turned to me midway through the movie, unable to stop her shoulders from swaying and bopping, and said with a grin, “These songs are really good!” And the moments between songs, in which Tracy tries out for a local TV dance show – The Corny Collins Show-- are anything but filler. Our happy heroine unwittingly becomes the lightning rod in a struggle to exclude negroes and anyone else (like Tracy) who doesn’t conform to the slender, starched, bee-hived, teenage WASP ideal, made emblematic by hunky hoofer Link Larkin (High School Musical’s Zac Efron), society princess Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and Amber’s vicious ice-queen mother, Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who also happens to own the TV station from where The Corny Collins Show originates.

But for all the right directorial moves and the solid foundation of source material, it really is the cast that vaults Hairspray into rarified air. Zac Efron is effortlessly charming as the sincere Link, who must choose between his newfound love for Tracy and his shot at stardom via Corny Collins; and as his counterpart from the Negro side of the tracks, Elijah Kelley radiates star quality as the detention-bound Seaweed, who opens Tracy’s eyes to what it means to really move on the dance floor—it’s all about feeling good rather than looking good—and has eyes of his own for Tracy’s lily-white best friend, Penny Pingleton. For those who may know her only from her Disney Channel incarnation on The Amanda Show (or not at all), Amanda Bynes, as Penny, may well be the movie’s biggest revelation. She exudes a loopy innocence (whoever created her first-half hairdo, which perfectly visualizes her off-kilter appeal, deserves special applause) camouflaging a heady current of lusty curiosity that is worthy of classic sidekick dames like Joan Blondell, and her way with a line reading (not to mention a lollipop) kept me giggling every time her big eyes showed up center screen. She and Kelley strike a blow for on-screen miscegenation with a steamy kiss that is certainly cause for happiness, though the fact that such entanglements should still, in 2007, be thought of as a particular event, is cause for pause too. Similarly, who would guess that James Marsden, known mainly for his comparatively bland presence in WB-style teen dramas and as Cyclops in the X-Men franchise, would be such a magnetic song-and-dance man, as well as a razor-sharp comedian? His Corny Collins is an oily, smarmy showman with a mile-wide smile who lives to tweak uptight sponsors (embodied by the ever delightful Paul Dooley) and his boss, Velma von Tussle, and if he can do it on live TV, all the better. Marsden gorges on the ambitions and good intentions of this local TV star and turns what could have been a rote show-biz characterization into a small diamond of a performance. Of the entire supporting cast, only Queen Latifah disappoints, and only slightly. She’s a warm presence, but a bit too vanilla, especially in comparison to the live-wire Ruth Brown, who played Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed’s blues-lovin’ mother, in the original film. Even so, she sells the movie’s big civil rights anthem-- which has the cast marching on the big televised Corny Collins Dance Contest after Mrs. Von Tussle successfully gets Negro Day banished from the program’s regular schedule-- with considerable power and genuine emotion.

Michelle Pfeiffer seemed, in the late ‘90s, bent on sabotaging her credibility and interest as a movie star in flaccid vehicles like Dangerous Minds, Up Close and Personal, A Thousand Acres and The Story of Us. It’s been five years since she last starred in a movie, the well-regarded White Oleander, but it’s been a lot longer than that—I have to go back to The Age of Innocence (1993)—since she’s been fully engaged by a good script, and back even farther, to 1989 and The Fabulous Baker Boys, to remember a time when she seemed to be having as much fun on screen as she does as Velma von Tussle in Hairspray. Sure, it’s a cartoon portrait of evil, but there is plenty of room in even a cartoon for nuance, excitement, and for the sheer pleasure of acting, and Pfeiffer’s hits all the right notes of splendid outrage, sewn-up sexuality-- in a number glorifying her past triumph as the queen of the Baltimore dance party, as well as a brazen seduction of Tracy’s father, played by her Batman Returns nemesis Christopher Walken-- and sheer, waxen monstrousness. She’s devastating, and devastatingly funny, with a throwaway eye-roll that effortlessly spins vicious disregard into fine strands of high comedy.

But the movie lives or dies on the presence of Tracy and her mother, Edna. Newcomer Blonsky is relentlessly enthusiastic without becoming overbearing-- you believe her sincerity, and in the sheer pleasure she derives from opening herself up and letting her body move. It’s refreshing to see satisfaction in the act of dancing, rather than in the posture and processed image derived from dancing, being held up for enjoyment. And the positive images to be gleaned by kids and adults from a movie like this in regard to not only fitting in with a group, but specifically issues of body image and self-regard, are no less important. They seemed invaluable to me as I observed my own daughters basking in the image of a five-foot, 160-pound heroine who didn’t let the fact that she wasn’t built to code get in the way of her being who she felt she was.

Tracy helps bring her own mother, Edna, an apartment-bound seamstress, out of her own shell too, and the rather miraculous performance of John Travolta as Edna disarms the last possible reservation, the last possible holdout to the movie’s seductive enthusiasm. Travolta, from beneath a mountainous fat suit and tons of facial prosthetics, locates the crux of Edna’s soulful inertia, the little bit of Tracy left inside her struggling to break free, and transmits it through what is easily the actor’s most physically and emotionally graceful work since Blow Out. His Edna is right up there with Divine’s as a grand, cracked comic creation— listening to Edna describe, in a gloriously exaggerated Baltimore accent (authenticity confirmed by Waters himself) as she hovers over an ironing board covered with garments, how she must concentrate while painstakingly “nee-gayOSHiating pleats” is to marvel at an actor’s gleeful confidence in working without a net.

Yet Travolta locates the human-scaled emotion inside the grand (but never grotesque) cartoon as well, and he respects and responds to the iconic stature of the role of Edna within the history of Hairspray by channeling his own body, its confidence as well as its own struggles with weight and shape, into Edna’s DNA. Travolta rises to the occasion, once again, to shine in a Hollywood musical, one blessedly absent the crass pandering of Grease, and his big number with husband Walken is a bliss-out of sweeping emotion and backyard MGM allusions that recalls (even though director Shankman isn’t ultimately up to either) the sly comedy of Donen and Kelly and the more rigorous stylistic vision of Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven (in which Walken had a brilliant dance cameo). I only wish that Shankman (a gay man), and possibly his actors, hadn’t backed off on the kiss between Walken and Travolta that should have topped this wonderful sequence. They come close, but no cigars, and it’s about the only time that the savvy, spectacular Hairspray misses any of its targets.


The flip side of the joy of having high expectations fulfilled—that deflated feeling when they are not—is the dizzy, bitter emptiness I was left with upon stumbling out of The Bourne Ultimatum. Having loved the first two in the series about Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), amnesiac spy who, over the course of two movies, must discover who he is, and then the why of his existence, all the while dealing with the specter of how much death he has dealt, I had little reason to think director Paul Greengrass wouldn’t come through again, especially as the rave reviews started pouring in. Critics like Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times and Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly made convincing cases (before the fact, anyway) that Greengrass’ jittery, fractured spatial approach, where no single image is left still when it can be shattered into five or six or seven, the camera appropriating the restless paranoia of the protagonist, was essentially a new way of seeing the action.

Greengrass’ style is pretty much continued from Supremacy to Ultimatum. The difference is that, whereas the second film had to take time to lay the groundwork for an entirely new set of circumstances through which to propel the character toward the reawakening of his identity, of his purpose, this new movie simply picks up the dangling thread of Bourne’s discovery of his real name and puts him (and us) through very similar paces—ante all upped, of course—in a relentless trajectory toward Bourne’s quite literal reacquaintance with his maker. There’s a thinness, a perfunctory quality to the story this time around—the new movie, for all its utterly implausible post-9/11 globe-hopping (just how does Jason make it through all the security—national and corporate—necessary for him to be where the plot requires him to be?) and seat-of-the-pants visual construction, has very little weight. I can remember whole sequences from the dazzling second film; but two days after seeing Ultimatum, I have only vague recollection of a few details of performance (Julia Stiles is lovely and restrained; Joan Allen is pinched and self-seriousness, absent all joy of pursuit now that she’s, in this chapter, the conscience of the CIA; David Straithairn is Nixonian in his corruption, but also quite one-note) and a strong sense of visual disorientation not as an effective corollary to that of the Bourne character, but instead, as the Shamus suggests in his thoughts on the film, that Ultimatum’s shattered-glass propulsion is there to mask the hollowness at its core.

Worst of all, the tortured soul that Damon provided for the character in the first two movies has been replaced by a generic robotic relentlessness—we don’t fear for Bourne’s life any more than we do his soul, because all threat of him succumbing to his programming, or even dying in one of the movie’s you-are-there action sequences, has been snuffed out in remodeling Bourne in the image of the Terminator. In The Bourne Ultimatum, Greengrass pursues a pummeled verisimilitude, a camera-and-editing strategy that refuses to allow an image or sequence of images to take hold in our consciousness, one that values sensation—in this case an increasingly distressing sense of nausea—over meaning. In his attempt to charge up this adult-oriented franchise, he may have just pounded it into oblivion.