Friday, May 7, 2010

Hannah Takes the Stairs in brief

Nudity that is about familiarity rather than titillation.

Kissing that is about vulnerability not voyeuristic pleasure.

At least in this film, all they do is kiss (as opposed to Alexander the Last which has a lot of fucking in it). But they kiss a lot and often for considerable duration and in tight closeup. Kissing is where the film locates intimacy, not fucking.

Note the lack of open-mouth, tongue kisses. Swanberg refuses to “keep it real” in that way. Consider someone like John Cameron Mitchell who thinks that the Real is to be found by showing penetration. Swanberg exposes that tactic as a lack of imagination.

Hannah's promiscuity is not celebrated; it is not a source of strength or revelry. On the contrary, it causes all of the problems in the narrative. She is not out for fun, but looking for love. She floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

It is hard to watch Hannah (Greta Gerwig) break up with Mike (Mark Duplass) and not because of something gratuitous or shocking. The pain is in the truth of her (and his, but to a lesser degree) acting. It is embarrassing to watch because it is all-too familiar not because it is inaccurate or melodramatic. The viewer is surprised by recognition, not by novelty.

This is what I mean when I say the movie is for adults. I don't mean that I'm a mature grown-up; I'm as immature and as mature as anyone else. I mean that Swanberg and the actors treat the audience like adults. The actors may be in their late twenties and early thirties, but you have to have had adult experiences in order to appreciate their scenes. By contrast most junior high kids can follow and understand the emotional worlds inhabited by every character played by Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Al Pacino in the last thirty years. One must be old enough to have gone through a couple breakups, to have done it and have had it done to you, to appreciate her struggle in that scene.

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Saturday, March 6, 2010

More problems with IFC: Indie Sex

These are my notes on the first installment I managed to see of IFC's four part series: Indie Sex. I don't know which one it was. Since this viewing I have also seen the part entitled: "Teens." Eventually, I'll see all four parts and put them together for an essay the lack of sexual imagination masquerading as its opposite in our culture. For now, here are some thoughts about the talking heads and the corresponding film clips.

IFC has turned into more of an unintentional comedy network than a place that showcases independent film. Case in point: they keep showing this documentary called Indie Sex, and I can't not watch it. It is as Bill Hicks once said of the TV show Cops, like a sore tooth I keep jamming my finger into my mouth to poke at.

It is loaded with pomposity and self-congratulation; filmmakers, critics and a third class of folk that I have to call "spokesmen" who take pride in their bravery for boldly dealing honestly with sexuality on screen or for being able to watch it maturely. My favorite part is when French director, Catherine Breillat, explains why she named her movie Anatomy of Hell: “because if hell has a human shape it must be that of female genitalia.” I apologize if I am misquoting. She said it so earnestly, so pompously, so... French-ly. She's like a caricature as good as anything you've ever seen from Eric Idle or Dave Foley. She also says that “the very fact that they ask: is it pornography or is it art, proves that it is art.” And I used to be jealous of the French and the superior education I imagined they receive.

Jokes aside, the thing I found most interesting is that the film paints Brown Bunny as the standout disappointment among the films considered. The talking heads are pretty dismissive of it particularly the IFC spokesmen with the nouveau Elvis Costello frames(I promise to learn his name by the time I get to part four). The consensus as I understand it is that they want to watch porn and feel good about it(I may be overstating it or even psychoanalyzing from my armchair), but then here comes Vincent Gallo to say “you have to watch this and you don't get to feel good about it.” He's probably heavy-handed but you have to feel the weight of that hand coming down on you if your going to say that. You can't dodge the blow (no pun intended) and then make fun of the guy. (In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I have not yet watched Brown Bunny. I can say, for whatever it may be worth, that Buffalo 66 is one of the best American films of the 1990's. So I am probably predisposed to let Gallo have the benefit of the doubt.)

There's an interesting tension in this documentary between suggesting that we need to lighten up about sex, and pounding that suggestion home with utmost sincerity as if it were the most important goal one could imagine. Which is it? Is sex frivolous or does it matter? Is reality located in showing “real sex” on screen, in showing penetration or is it located in the emotional complexity of the other 99.9 percent of life that couples live together? It is especially funny that they all talk about breaking down taboos, and making people confront sex and deal with it even though it makes them uncomfortable. You know, because we live in such a repressed culture. Apologies to John Cameron Mitchell, but do you really think you are encouraging some kind of sexual revolution by showing penetration in a movie?

Though they don't show his movies much anymore, but I believe that over at IFC they still regard John Cassavetes as the father of American Independent Film. If I am not mistaken, they revere him (and rightly so) as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium. So I cannot help but notice that he managed to put together an entire body of work that is bereft of a sex scene. No small feat when you consider that he made movies about teenagers prowling for easy sex, about a husband and a wife who end up cheating on each other, about a young couple falling in love, about three men who travel to England for the express purpose of cheating on their wives, about a strip club owner who seems to maintain sexual relationships with at least three of his “girls,” and about an author who lives in a house with a virtual harem, but still manages to find time to philander outside of the home.

This begs some questions. If we acknowledge that Cassavetes is an exemplary artist and a courageous truth teller of the highest order, we must ask whether showing sex is fundamentally truthful. Further, if we call Cassavetes the father of independent film, we must ask of showing sex is indeed a crucial aspect of independent filmmaking. John Mitchell Cameron argues that there is drama in the sex, drama that we miss out on in movies that zoom in to a closeup of a candle then dissolve to the post coital scene. Is that the independent tradition as Cassavetes practiced it; is that where the drama really is? If Cassavetes is the model then the tentative answers to these questions are no, no and no.

There's a lot of talk throughout the documentary about Hollywood lacking the courage to show sex. The way the subject is positioned, Hollywood is afraid of the truth of the sex act and indie filmmakers are not. That strikes my as a bit of grandstanding. What Hollywood fears is the loss of advertising dollars, not from showing sex acts, but from the failure to get big name actors in their movies. If actors were willing, Hollywood would put out nothing but graphic sex act after graphic sex act and they would make more money than they ever dreamed. A romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Alba might make a couple books, but if it includes them in a hardcore sex scene, it will be the top grossing film of all time. Hollywood's failure to show sex vs. indie film's insistence on showing it as explicitly as possible is not about truth.

IFC Still Dropping the Ball... and it's a bowling ball filled with cement that they're dropping squarely into my lap

So they've been showing Platoon. That's a flat out Hollywood blockbuster right there. They showed it three times today, and also showed Crash (the Hollywood blockbuster one, not the Cronenberg one, though they certainly manage to trot that one out a few times a month as well), The Station Agent (a fairly run-of-the-mill Miramax-style Indie) Last Days (I guess we're still calling Gus van Sandt “indie”) and Eaten Alive (a straight-up slasher, exploitation, B-movie).

That last one is indicative of a point I have made previously about this channel, namely that “indie” is now seen as an attitude of the viewership more than a description of the programming. It's indie and cool and hip to ironically watch bad horror movies, blacksploitation, Russ Meyer and all other manner of B-movie schlock, so IFC programs it. It's a lifestyle network now, not an art appreciation network. I guess that was too much to ask even though AMC, TCM, and even Sundance seem to do it reasonably well. My guess would be that IFC is the most lucrative of the four and I suppose business is business, its just that such a modus operandi kind of stands in direct opposition to the advertised spirit of the thing.

In another context I would write about the value of canon; of the necessity of showing the best of the best instead making sure demographics are represented. For the present, I am taking as read that the schedule of IFC does not represent the best of cinema any more than it represents independent cinema. My focus here is on the necessity of a venue for “alternative” cinema. I take IFC to task because they fly that banner. They make a big show of being the home for the indie and for the alternative, but they manage to program seemingly nothing but established former low-budget directors, fairly well known foreign films (today they showed Maria Full of Grace), B-movies that are to be consumed ironically and utterly mainstream films like Platoon.

IFC used to show movies I never heard of mixed with classics from the American indie tradition and from the art house tradition. If they had the same philosophy these days that they had when I first began watching the channel in 1997, we would not be looking at Cabin Fever, Boondock Saints, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, The Notorious Bettie Page, Go and Hard Candy, all of which are on deck for the coming week. Instead we might get to see Funny Ha Ha, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Sink or Swim, A Woman Under the Influence, Milestones, The Scenic Route and Portrait of Jason. I guess I'm asking too much.

It has come to this

I keep getting Asian porn spam in my comments so until further notice comments are turned off to all but other members of the blog. Not that this really inconveniences anyone....

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Notes on Reverence

I'm working on a piece about Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas' revisitation of Dreyer's Ordet. Here are some excerpts:

With the arts in general in their current state in America and particularly with the state of our film culture, I often wonder how enough audience exists to get art films made a distributed. I am often astonished by the titles put out by Criterion and Kino, because I have spent a lot of time in graduate programs in the humanities and the fine arts, and even among those corridors the viewership for art cinema is quite small. I recall a near revolt when professor showed Jeanne Dielman to a class of graduate film students at a major east coast research institution, and Criterion just put that one out a few months ago. I've also worked in video stores, and it has not been my experience that the public is responsible for this demand. Perhaps I shouldn't think about it so much. I certainly don't want to get into reception theory or perspectivism or whatever else the theory heads in film studies are up to these days. I hope it does not adversely color my appreciation and mislead my interpretation, but I cannot help but wonder who watches a film like Silent Light. It won awards and its available on Netflix, so someone must be watching it. I simply cannot imagine a film more out of step with our zeitgeist. (And then there is the gender mythology. I wonder if women hate this film the way they hate Lars von Trier movies.)


Of course these are not the concerns of Silent Light so forgive me if I have erected the straw man. The film is not so much about the possibility of miracles as it is about forgiveness, generosity and humility. The miracle is a narrative device – a metaphor; it is the embodiment of these qualities. In art we are allowed the communication of ideas through otherwise “unrealistic” means.


Mostly, though, Silent Light is about patience. The patience of the characters and the patience of the viewers. The first shot welcomes the viewer to the rhythm of the film before subject matter comes up. Before the infidelity, the drama, the death or the miracle, in short, before story comes the pacing. Reygadas treats the pacing as a foundation to build a story upon, a quite different approach than the traditional methods of establishing a setting and backstory. The film begins with a long take of a sunrise over a field. Only it begins in pitch black night, so it is not immediately apparent that one is watching a field. Trees in the foreground also obscure the view, but as the sun rises the image becomes clear. The sounds provide their own narrative, telling the story of night turning into day. Chirping crickets give way to singing birds which are in turn joined by mooing cows.

This measured slowness walks hand in hand with quiet. Cut from the field to the farmhouse interior. Only the tick-talk of the clock is heard while the family prays at the breakfast table. This is a silent prayer, with separate shot of the children, the mother, Esther, and finally the father, Johan, who breaks the silence with an “Amen” after a few beats, long enough, in fact for Esther to have stopped praying and start watching him intently. Now they eat milk over flakes. Clanking of bowls and slurping of milk dominate the soundtrack with occasional interjections of the children teasing one another. Some of the older children help the younger ones to eat, spooning the food into their mouths and wiping their chins.


It will be a while before the conflict in this drama is revealed. First, Esther takes the children out. Johan tells her he loves her. They depart and he is left alone. He retrieves something, a letter probably, from a container on a shelf above the front door, sits back down at the table, and begins crying. Here he is not quiet or reserved; he is really sobbing. This weeping is in stark contrast to the next scene, in which he goes to talk to his friend, Zacarias, about the affair. They talk seriously for a few moments, relating the nature of marriage and romantic relationships to the meaning of life. Suddenly, Johan is overcome by glee upon hearing a song on the radio. He hops in his pickup, turns up the volume and proceeds to drive around his friend in circles singing out the song to him and laughing, until he finally breaks out of the circle and drives away. This is surprising behavior in every context, unusual regarding what most viewers probably think of Mennonites, and it is a shocking contrast to both the reserved quietude of the morning and the outpouring of misery in the previous scene.

In a close-up of their two faces, we see the illicit lovers gaze upon one another for a few beats before they finally begin to kiss. A long kiss is followed by an embrace. No words are spoken. The introduction of the other woman, Marianne, is kept not just above the waist, but above the shoulders. Is love not so quiet? Certainly movies give us the impression that it is not. In most movies, the woman falls into the arms of the man, they kiss, she professes her love, he returns the favor, then depending on the era in which the movie was made they get down to business ranging from fade to black to a full blown sex scene with penetration and a cumshot. That two people who are engaged in such a sinful, dirty business would be shown simply hugging changes the way the viewer judges them. Moreover, by avoiding a salacious sex scene the narrative suggests the legitimacy of Johan's explanation to Zacarias that he has found his soul-mate. He's not a Mennonite looking for kicks, but a man in the throes of an existential crisis; he has married the wrong woman.

This scene is followed by an entirely different display of intimacy. Attention shifts to the wife and children. They are swimming, but it comes across as reverent as prayer. The children play, but play quietly. They play tenderly; very physical with one another but very gentle. That it all takes place in and around water makes it more intimate. One must be in at least a moderate state of undress to swim (and for the girls it is very moderate indeed; they where long, white dresses, perhaps it is an undergarment). Also the distance between people seems to shrink in water, because water is quite more tactile than air. Suddenly Johan is there. He has been there all along, but it seems sudden to the viewer, because we just saw him with Marianne, and the fact that his face has been withheld so far would lead one to believe he is still with her. Johan washes the hair of his children. This too is basic, elemental. Like the morning prayer and the eating of breakfast. Matter-of-fact intimacy, dispassionate tenderness. It is shot in sharp focus so the details of his fingers, the clumps of soapy hair, the soap bubbles, beads of water are clear and the background is lush, green out of focus. Esther is crying. The focus is pulled to her face, then the camera pans away to the green, blurry beyond. Slowly the focus is pulled, and the details of the forest vegetation become clearer, until finally there is a brightly colored flower in the center of the frame.

More details of the daily unforgiving, routine: the milking the cows sequence. The cows file into the barn and make their way to individual stalls. There are closeups of hands close-pinning tails up and out of the way. Then the milking machines are attached to the utters. This takes a few minutes before we see Johan who says, “Dad I need to talk to you.” The cows aren't symbolic; they have no bearing on the narrative other than that they are a part of the daily lives of the characters. Narrative moves slowly, quietly, and the characters likewise. Johan's father maintains a tranquil smile upon hearing his son's confession. His tone remains even as he recalls his own past temptation. His inner peace never breaks as he tells his son that he cannot make this decision for him, and that he will stand by him whatever he decides. The crunch of the snow takes the place of the gurgling water of the swimming/bathing scene.


(It occurs to me Reygadas may be thinking of Tarkovsky as much as Dreyer, certainly the would be two of a small number of filmmakers that would constitute a filmmaking tradition that is quiet, reserved, slow-paced, elemental.)


Marianne actually drives out to where they are working and Johan leaves with her. Esther makes him take the children. Does she think this will stop him from cheating or does he just want him to feel the guilt of having the children along on his tryst? There is a sex scene which is basically a single shot of Marianne's face and the back of Johan's head and shoulders. Like everything else it comes across earthy, matter-of-fact but no less intense and tender for its lack of histrionic demonstration or gratuitous nudity.


Esther dies of a heart attack. Dangerously close to a “broken heart,” but I'm willing to trust the narrative. The film has earned it at this point.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Two-Part Project

I get the same basic complaint about my writing from two different kinds of people. Regular folks and academics alike want to know why I spend so much time “complaining” about movies that “don't like.” I have been talking to some friends at work (I have a blue collar job) about composing my list of the decade's worst films, to be based largely on the various lists of the best films of the decade I have come across. I have a friend there who is really into movies, and he is immediately skeptical of the project. “Okay,” he says, “but can you talk about the ones you think are good too, and maybe explain what makes them good.” My scholarly friends and a lot of my professors over the years have said the same thing: “Do you have to spend so much time knocking down other filmmakers in an essay that is ostensibly about a great filmmaker. Aren't you setting up a straw man?”

I admit there's some truth to the observation, some validity to the request for more positive and less negative analysis. Yet, I would say that both parties may be missing the point. Would you ask Noam Chomsky to shut up already about what's wrong with the current power structure and get to describing his utopia? To do so would betray that you misunderstand his project, yes? Would you suggest to Karl Marx that he desist going on and on about the evils of capitalism and spend a bit more time describing what is so great about communism? I do not mean to inflate the importance my project by making these comparisons. But I do suggest that it is more accurate to look at it in terms of hard analysis instead of in terms of taste. I often write about good movies, but my project has two distinct parts: analysis of high culture/good art and analysis of mainstream culture/mediocre art.

I do not complain, and I do not discuss taste. I analyze the artistic and ideological limitations of mainstream culture. The other component of the project (not the second, because neither is more important than the other; they are both crucial) is to investigate the complexities of great art. Why must I discuss both at once? They are intertwined. Because I only know the good in contrast to the bad, to put it in rudimentary language. I believe that many of my friends in academia find a work of art that addresses most of their ideological concerns and then extrapolate from it an aesthetics. All subsequent works are judged according to the degree to which the measure up to the penultimate work. I hope it is clear that my aesthetics do not work this way. At least in part, my aesthetics moves from the opposite end of the spectrum. For me, I filmmaker is less interesting the closer his films are to the mainstream. I cannot tell you what makes a good film. Tarkovsky is not a paragon of excellence. He is unique. I can describe the attributes of a good film and these attributes will differ from Ozu to Dreyer, Tarkovsky to Kiarostami, Brakhage to Akerman. I can produce a grocery list of what makes a mainstream film and I can check items off one by one as I watch James Cameron or Lynch, Michael Bay or Hitchcock, Jurassic Park Spielberg or Schindler's List Spielberg.

My critique of Hollywood film does not stand or fall based on comparison to art cinema. It is an independent assessment. Mediocre movies are not mediocre because there are good movies in the world; the are mediocre because the espouse mediocre values and operate within mediocre ideologies. I understand the demand to show me something better. I sympathize with where that comes from. But it is equally important to understand the analysis of mediocrity. I am tempted to say that it is necessary to understand that first, because I know from experience with students that I can show someone all the art films I can think of, but he or she will never get it, because they have not yet internalized the need for them in the first place. It is quite easy to reject examples of high art, even after their qualities have been explained, when one fails to understand the critique of mediocrity.