Friday, June 1, 9:45pm
Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a man frozen in time by an unspeakable and disfiguring act of violence that leaves him dependent on synthetic testosterone. One could easily fill two cinematic hours with this story alone. But first-time director Michael R. Roskam felt compelled to encumber an otherwise impressive debut feature with a labyrinthian crime narrative that (thankfully) doesn’t completely quash the many strengths and sensitivities of BULLHEAD, which was nominated for the 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar.
We’re introduced to Jacky as he’s living out his days as a slightly shady cattle farmer, injecting his family’s herd with growth hormones that evanesce into pricey slabs of marbled meat. Extra-curricular to animal tending, in his twilight-laden room, Jacky leads a lonely and solitary existence, enacting a compulsive ritual of steroid drams, shadowboxing, and cold-water baths. At once memorable and metaphoric, these shots speak insightfully about the fragile nature of masculinity and the absolute pain of mind-body asynchronicity.
So, it shouldn’t really matter that Jacky is a Limburgish-speaking Flem who gets inexorably enmeshed with some French-spieling Wallons (a couple of small-time rim crooks, and one major “hormone mafia” baddie), but BULLHEAD certainly tries to make the case that such cultural and narrative convolutions do count for something. Just how much is not sufficiently clear to me an hour after watching the film (I’ll let you know for sure the next time I’m in Flanders), but I do find myself reassembling the storyline in hunt of better clues to Jacky’s inner life. And without a doubt, there’s much more to uncover behind that right eyelid heavy with the twitch of childhood tragedy.
But for now, BULLHEAD leaves me in further want of Schoenaerts’s standout performance of a tortured and taciturn almost-man on the cusp of realizing his humanity. I guess I’ll have to see what both he and Roskam have in store next.
Charlotte Rampling: The Look (2011)
Saturday, February 11, 2012, 7:20pm
One recent Christmas, I made a secret wish that God grant me the gaze of Charlotte Rampling, the diction of Genevieve Bujold, and the spectacular whatever of an as-yet-unidentified third older-woman crush (still looking). I sincerely hope someone someday makes a documentary of the ever-unfolding Bujold, but in the meantime, I’lll make due with “Charlotte Rampling: The Look”—a mesmerizing, if measured, documentary of the 1960’s starlet and current arthouse film cougar.
I’ve ony seen Rampling in her more recent work with Francois Ozon, so I couldn’t, even if I tried, bring to bear any of those earlier film provocations (“The Damned,” “The Night Porter,” “Max mon amour” ) to my assessment of “The Look.” And while I’ve read elsewhere that “The Look” disappointed some critics as to how little it revealed about Rampling’s private life, it’s a bit unfair, perhaps even depraved, to expect this level of intimacy just because Rampling has exposed herself so profusely as an actor (read: just because a woman is willing to get naked for the camera doesn’t mean she has to bare her soul). And perhaps we’re still living too much in the Old Historicism world, where personal biography is so often grafted onto artistic output, and vice versa.
Indeed, as oblique as Rampling comes off in “The Look,” there is no doubt as to the hold she has on the audience’s imagination and attention. At one point while in conversation with the photographer Peter Lindbergh, a moist, wayward brown speck of food can be seen latched onto her moss-gray silk charmeuse shirt. It just hangs there, like a sensual emblem of why Rampling has been so illuminating to me as an actress—she moves toward the dirt, grim, and detritus of human nature. There is a modern-day Rilke in her. This and the fact that she seems to have a penchant for mid-afternoon brownies, or maybe meatloaf.
A happy accident
It wasn’t a case of actually dying for my art, but it was a real-life close call. A few minutes into John Ewing’s intro to Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, I heard a loud, shrill crash to my left. I turned toward expecting to see shattered glass, but was surprised to find shards of plaster strewn less than 6 inches from me. A piece of the Cinematheque’s ceiling had fallen down on the seat next to me! Many people in the auditorium believed that a light bulb had fallen on me or near me, and a few came to see if I was alright.
OK, OK, even if the plaster had zonked me on the head, I probably would have been fine. Nevertheless permit me to draw some spiritual meaning out of this event, as any person writing a blog would be apt to do:
1) Don’t let anyone convince you that there aren’t “right” and “wrong” seats in a movie theatre. I’m not sure the reasons for sitting anywhere but dead center (tiny bladder?), but here it at least saved me from a smattering of ceiling.
2) Always pay attention to the main action of an event. Let the happy accidents happen as they may—don’t look for them—or at least let the cinematographer worry about them. What?! You don’t have a cinematographer following and documenting every snippet of your existence? Maybe you should take Ed Pincus’s lead.
3) Be charitable to your local art institutions! Aside from the work they do in bringing you great art, they also have to manage the upkeep of their facilities. You can donate to the Cinematheque by purchasing a membership here.
4) Or just treat yourself to a single movie—schedule here.
My Afternoons with Margueritte (2010)
Sunday, January 15, 2012, 4:30 pm
Every once in a while, the Cinematheque shows a movie like My Afternoons with Margueritte, a sweet, charming flick about the joys of learning and the possibility of rebirth, a movie that with its very candor and transparency set it apart from the usual fare that one may expect from an arthouse movie theatre. It’s a feel-good movie that’s as easy to take in as it is to make sense of. But perhaps owing to my very real belief in the curatorial wisdom of Tim Harry and John Ewing (directors of the Cinematheque), I doubt MAWN was put on the roster just to placate the masses. Indeed, good movies don’t have to emanate complexity or mystery. It’s enough for this filmviewer to be entertained and shown an earnest slice of life.
I will say I’m somewhat handicapped by time when writing about MAWM (and certainly won’t strain the Dear Reader’s eyeballs in providing a plot synopsis easily unearthed elsewhere on the Great Interweb). I saw the film nearly two weeks ago, and life (read: man problems) had brought my blogging to a virtual stand-still.
Then again, whatever’s remembered after a fortnight is probably a true essence by some definition. And to this end, beneath its sunny disposition and breezy allure, MAWN deliberates very successfully about the shadings of human nature, the ebb and flow of triumph and failure that pulse through us all. It’s also a movie about the great human quest to be understood, or specifically to find that One Someone who will simply take the time to understand.
Germain (Gerard Depardieu) and Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus) meet on a park bench, like all would-be movie lovers and bond over a shared appreciation of pigeons (or are they more appropriately love birds?). We know instantly that this is a love match, not of traditional romance, but of true friendship. And even as the narrative seems to pound home the concept of restorative motherhood, I still can’t buy the simplistic interpretation that, through MAWN, Germain seeks and finds a surrogate mother in Margueritte to replace his irascible bio-mom (played coincidentally by Claire Maurier, the mother in Truffauts’s The 400 Blows).
Thinking again about MAWN now, I am actually reminded of that great, mysterious truth uttered by the poet Rumi: “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.” And let us remember that Rumi wrote most of his “love” poems for his friend and teacher Shams.
In the Family (2011)
Thursday, January 12, 2012, 6:45pm
This is a placeholder for Patrick Wang’s In the Family.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Saturday, January 28, 9:30pm
At one point during “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the camera focuses solely and rather perplexingly on the jeans of Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader of a small cult in the Catskill Mountains. Patrick is seated in ample daylight, serenading his devotees, while the rest of the frame, including his face is encased in a beautiful blur of bokeh. The entire movie is filmed in this way, with an extremely shallow depth of field that felt cumbersome, barely purposeful, and at times drove me to the brink of actual annoyance (did the cinematographer simply have a problem properly pulling focus?). It’s not so fun worrying about what a cameraperson is doing while watching a movie—it’s like watching a magician give a lecture on how he performs his tricks.
All this represents what I found so unsettling about “MMMM.” The movie takes a topic of great moral profundity (the escape of a young woman, played convincingy by Elizabeth Olsen, from a dangerous cult) and winnowed it down to little more than an “aethestic”—the look and visual accoutrements of brainwashing, but never the dark heart of psychological torment. And while one could draw some reasons for these cinematic choices (to create a dream-like atmosphere, to frustrate the viewer’s ability to gain full visual insight as a means of creating tension or commisseration with the female protagonist, yadda yadda yadda), what is ultimately communicated is technique, not a continuity of feelings or ideas.
Saturday, January 7, 2012, 7:15pm
It was my very first D.W. Griffith’s film, and I learned, among other things, that “D.W” stands for “David Wark” (very charming indeed) and that silent films were usually taped at variable speeds. Duh! Of course. Cameramen had to hand-crank film in those days, so it was nearly impossible to maintain a constant film velocity. A quick search of the big G for “Intolerance film speed” brought me to this pdf tidbit: “[For Intolerance] cameramen on the Griffith lot, used to cranking anywhere between 45 and 65, were now instructed to crank at about 70.” For you math whizzes, that’s 70 ft/min or 18 ⅔ frames per second.
The Cleveland Cinematheque played their reels of Intolerance at 24 fps (the standard for modern projectors), which gave the effect of “speeding up” action to varying degrees. And what became evident is that at whatever apparent speed, Intolerance unfolds as a real moving image, not a series of shots and intercut transitions. True, if you blinked at just about any point of the 3-hour or so film, you would have likely had a beautiful shot etched onto your retina. But the images didn’t ask of your eyes to languish. Instead images appeared and disappeared, barreling forward and culminating like the notes of an unfinished Bach fugue with four voices played by Glenn Gould on amphetamines. Or so I imagine. And indeed the effect was at once intoxicating, exhausting, and mesmerizing. Major props to Joseph Rubin for providing the live piano accompaniment and to the secondary stars of any great silent film—the intertitles. Here are some especially luscious examples:
“Tish, tish, ‘tis no place to eat onions.”
“The new walk seems to bring results.”
“Say, kid, you’re going to be my chicken.”
“Of course—hired mothers are never negligent.”
“Beloved, I will begin building your city tomorrow.”
Man of the West (1958)
Day Two into the “cinematrek” and already life and film are colliding. Ten minutes into a semi-fancy meal of salmon, argula, and gluten-free fusilli, I realize I have 30 minutes to get my laundry and myself over to Anthony Mann’s Man of the West. Needless to say, the meal went half-eaten, the clothes damp and unfolded.
Likely my haste heightened the awareness that much of the action in MOTW occurs in real time with continuous camera shots. While I’m not well-versed enough in old Westerns to know if MOTW is an exception, it is still remarkable to see an “action” film unfold, rather than the “sense” of action being created by jarring cut-aways and skillful montage. In the case of MOTW, it gave me ample time to reflect on the psychology espoused by each image, to appreciate the ideas conjured up by both human and non-human locomotion.
There’s a point near the beginning of the film when Gary Cooper’s character Link boards a train, which then proceeds to lurch forward many times, just as Link struggles valiantly to regain his balance by clutching his hand repeatedly on the shoulder of the man seated in front of him. The immediate effect is comedic but this series of gaffes also underscores Link’s physicality as a common man, highly susceptible it would seem to external forces. Our hero is vulnerable.
Later, when the train is highjacked and Link goes tumbling inexorably down the a dirt hill, we are again left to question how our hero will achieve the physical prowess necessary to overcome his adversaries. Link is set apart from the bandits in this way, just as the plot is moving him closer and closer to a confrontation with this same set of criminals.
An additional layer of narrative tension is added when we later discover that Link has a criminal past and a history of violence. But perhaps owing to Gary Cooper’s slightly slouched physique, Link never appears as lithe or adept at battle as his bandit friends. Time and again, he is set apart in both physical carriage and ideology, as if to suggest to the audience that once a man is changed, he is changed forever.
One final note about an elegant series of shots in the film. Towards the end, as two of the bandits edge closer to Link for a gunfight, they do so laterally, parallel to each other on two separate planes, while the camera tracks their entire approach in real time. It’s simply beautiful and reminded me of two yarns moving on an old wooden spinning wheel, which made of me think of this photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson, taken in the Cities of the Dead, in Cairo, Egypt (where I first encountered a wooden spinning wheel myself).
I just love it when something beautiful leads to thoughts of more beauty. Who’s with me?
Brief reflection on movie etiquette…
Dear Reader, you couldn’t have known about M., the popcorn-chomping, bag-crinkling man who sat a few seats to my left for Blackthorn. But there he was, during the interlude before Passione, making his way towards the center of the aisle, sweatshirt covered in loose kernels and corn bits, beneficently offering me half of a candy bar. He proceeded to ask if he could sit near me for the next film. As I silently cursed my mother for not teaching me to be sufficiently rebuffing of strangers, I begrudgingly spurted out: “Ugh…I guess…if you want.” Just to be clear, there’s only one type of person, male or female, that I want near me during a film (and even for those things they call “movies” :P) and that’s a person who’s actually willing to watch the film! No questions about plot or dialogue, please. No offers of drink or food (later, later). My brain’s kind of stupid in that way—it can’t see, think, and respond at the same time.
I hope there are those of you out there who’ve realized (like me) that films are the great blessings of the art world—all you have to do is park yourself in a reclining position, open your eyes, and keep them fixed. And perhaps then, through the most accessible of all visual art forms, you start to surmise that it’s really about it, not you. And the more you pay attention to it, the more you will understand…emerging perhaps from the dark box of a theatre clearer-eyed about your own life, about the world, about your relationship to others…
So, yes M., that is a shot of “Vesuvius” at the beginning of Passione. But, with all due respect, is that what really matters?
Friday, January 6, 2012, 9:00pm
There are two types of people in the world, it’s said. Those who are Italian, and those who want to be Italian. And then there are those who revel in being distinctly Neapolitan, as shown in living color and song by John Turturro’s musical odyssey Passione.
From the get-go, we’re thrust into an apparently magical world, where people sing and gyrate in broad daylight and where chiaroscuro seems to exist not just in paintings, but en plein air! The dropped jaws of passersby tell us it’s a slight conceit, and the film does unfold like a ludic music video—until a moment of great gravitas. Situated on the edge of the Mediterranean, Naples’s history is peppered with war and conquest, or being conquered, more accurately—by the Arabs, the Saxons, the Russians, and even the Americans. We’re told this fact and then presented with three seemingly disparate musicians—all Neapolitan—united in a rendition of “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” originally performed by American country-western singer Al Dexter. Brimming with ululations, wails, and incantations—at once cacophony and symphony—this performance caused me to think instantly and often of the Psalmist’s lament—the one that begins with his refusal to sing unless God avenged his people, the one that ends with joyful praise.
And this, strikingly, is also the narrative arch of Passione, a head-bopping meditation on how the deep-brain art of music elevates the beleaguered human spirit first to song, then to dance, and finally to the smile of a modern-day La Gioconda.