The latest on Blu-ray and DVD, including Solo, Leave No Trace, and Three Identical Strangers.
A report from Venice on the festival's Venice Classics program, including restored films by Robert Bresson, John Ford, Andrei Tarkovsky, George Romero and Woody Allen.
Sheila writes: In 1968, Stanley Kubrick, whose game-changing "2001" was released that year, was interviewed for Playboy magazine. You can check out a facsimile of the interview here, but Open Culture has transcribed some of it, in particular the section where Kubrick gives some predictions on what the world will look like in the year 2001. It's fascinating speculative stuff.
China's military says "Pacific Rim" is American propaganda; the nudist colony member who just won't leave; a guide to Craigslist crime; remembering cinematographer Vadim Yusov; a case for the doofus Batman of yore; the 50th anniversary of MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech"; Park Chan-wook directs a music video.
The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.
I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?
UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.
Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.
Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)
Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.
Or: This IS my beautiful life! How did I get here?
The deaths of Andrew Sarris and Bill Sweeney on the same day last week got me to ruminating about my own life with movies and what drew me to them so strongly from an early age. Yes, there's that innate childhood desire to escape into new worlds (see "Moonrise Kingdom), and to create them, too (I started writing stories and shooting live-action and animated movies with my dad's wind-up 8mm Kodak Brownie before I was in my teens). But I think I've always known, too, that movies are like dreams, less about escapism or distraction than about getting closer to an understanding of the relationship between your inner self and the world. Tom Noonan said: "I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." To me, the best movies have always been more real than real. Life, John Lennon sang, is what happens while you're making other plans; art gets to the core of what it means to be alive.
I've had many life-and-death (and near-death) experiences in waking life that were no more vividly real, memorable, ecstatic, traumatic, or profoundly and indelibly affecting* than certain (sometimes recurring) dreams or, oh, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Sherlock Jr.," "Sansho Dayu," "Chinatown," "Nashville," "Kings of the Road," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Searchers," "Only Angels Have Wings," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Vertigo," "Un Chien Andalou," "No Country for Old Men" -- and those are just a few of the titles that popped into my head as I was typing this sentence. (And yet it's still such a young medium -- only a little more than a century old.) There are familiar places that exist only in my dreams, that I remember from dream to dream, and I revisit them often. Movies are those kinds of places, too.
Did somebody say "ambiguity"? I'm a big fan. Generally speaking, I much prefer movies with a little uncertainty, or a little emotional ambivalence, to those that spell everything out and tell me exactly how I should feel about it. Most of my favorite movies of 2011 thrive on ambiguity, open-endedness, a sense of the fluidity (or "slipperiness" as I like to call it) of time and space: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," "Certified Copy," "Margaret," "Meek's Cutoff"... But sometimes resonant inconclusiveness slips into deliberate laziness, substituting opacity for meaning. And when that happens, it's a shame.
Or, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes, sometimes it's "Shame," the movie by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carrie Mulligan:
... McQueen... opts to shroud the movie in vagueness. This goes beyond the characters--Fassbender as the barely-sketched lead, Mulligan as the generic broken woman (tellingly, her sex life is played as comedy while Fassbender's is played as grand tragedy), Beharie as the foil whose attraction to Fassbender is never explained--and their relationships; Shame is a Choose Your Own Meaning movie, full of blank spaces that a sympathetic viewer can fill with their own interpretations (this culminates in a lengthy sex scene between Fassbender and two women, with Fassbender's facial expression serving as a sort of Rorschach blot).
It's smart filmmaking--and also totally duplicitous and self-serving, the arthouse craftsmanship nearly hiding the film's middle-brow triteness (see also: I Am Love), every scene ladled with big dollops of cinema's most respectable cop-out: ambiguity. When McQueen isn't marking time with exercises in post-slow-cinema aesthetics (as in the long tracking shot of Fassbender sternly jogging to his bitchin' Glenn Gould playlist), he elides and defers. Shame wears its emptiness like a badge of honor; McQueen is trying for banal blankness, and though he succeeds in that respect, you kind of wish that a filmmaker (and one with a background as an artist at that) would aspire to do more than just say nothing.
Each of these astonishing "cinematoGIFs" (animated .GIF files) by Gusaf Mantel distills the essence of a cinematic moment into a living, breathing "movie still" -- an indelible moment preserved in time. Once you start gazing into them, you'll find it hard to stop...
Above: The apes and the monolith: "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).
Below: The tension of Travis Bickle, keeping his television perpetually balanced on the edge of smashing to the floor: "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese, 1976).
Let's start with the big picture: As near as I can divine, Terrence Malick's movie "The Tree of Life" is about itself, and that statement probably sounds as confounding and imposing as viewers will find the experience (as a whole or in part) of watching it. What I mean (if I can take another flying leap at it) is that the movie expresses the drive behind its creation, somewhat like the way that "Days of Heaven" embodies the peeling and unfurling process of its own making... but, OK, not exactly. This is a movie about (and by) a guy who wants to create the universe around his own existence in an attempt to locate and/or stake out his place within it.
In other words, it's not a modest motion picture. The ambition on display here is Tarkovskian¹ or Kubrickian in scale: think "Solaris," "Stalker," "The Sacrifice," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Barry Lyndon" -- journeys to the far reaches of space and time that are also explorations of worlds within: memories, desires, fantasies, the exercise of will and intelligence. What it comes down to, then, is that "The Tree of Life" is the story of one family (and one filmmaker) projected infinitely outward in all dimensions. (3D is so trifling, comparatively.)
The multiple narrators whispering in our ears are sometimes (but not always) identifiable as members of the O'Brien family, with the strongest voice being that of Jack (Hunter McCracken), eldest of three sons of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). Jack is also played as an adult by Sean Penn. The family's story isn't told chronologically, but covers umpteen billion years, give or take, from the origin of the universe to the dissolution of our solar system, with most of the action taking place in Waco, Texas, in 1956 or thereabouts, when Jack is around 11. (I got some of those factoids from the press notes, some from other published material about the film. Consider them guideposts. They may or may not be literally true, and Malick isn't particularly interested in nailing down these kinds of specifics within the film itself -- including the names of all the O'Briens, some of which can be found only in the end credits. But it helps to have a few solid points of reference on hand when discussing the movie.)
When I was a child I was taught that it was unacceptable to call something -- a movie, a song, an activity -- "boring" because: 1) it doesn't make sense (a thing can't be boring, unless perhaps it is a drill bit; a person feels bored); and 2) it's indefensible, since the quality of "boringness" cannot be isolated or identified as an element of the thing itself; it's a feeling and it is yours).
So, saying something is "boring" is not exactly like saying something in a movie is "funny" or "moving" -- though, again, I'd prefer to place the responsibility for a response on the "feeler" rather than on the object -- because at least you can describe how something is presented or intended to be received as humorous or touching, even if you don't think it is. (Yes, there are exceptions to that, too.) I mean, a joke or a gag or an emotional situation can be objectively analyzed, but there are no agreed-upon cultural standards for evaluating "boring."¹
"Boring," I believe, is more like the word "entertaining" -- too vague to be of much use in a critical vocabulary. So, I might say I found something about a movie "tedious" or "engaging" or some other thesaurus word, but I'll attribute the emotion to myself and my taste, and even then not without a serious attempt to describe what I'm talking about, and to give at least one specific example.²
But now, "boring" is hot, at least in overheated Interwebular film criticism circles, since the publication of Dan Kois' New York Times Magazine piece called "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables," in which he says:
In the summer of 1981, Robert Redford gathered novice and veteran filmmakers together for the first of what has become known as the Sundance Institute's Directors and Screenwriters Labs. Eleven projects were chosen for the workshop (there are 13 for the 2010 program) -- which, over the last 29 years, has included such films as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight," Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," Tamra Jenkins' "Slums of Beverly Hills," Darren Aranofsky's "Requiem for a Dream," Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now," John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and Kimberly Pierce's "Boys Don't Cry."
That's the old news.
Click above to REALLY enlarge...
UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...
Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.
In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)
Lars von Trier, maker of calculating horror comedies, is a shrewd showman -- if not exactly in the classic Hollywood tradition then at least in the Barnum & Bailey one. He pleases his audiences by teasing, taunting and testing them, keeping his tongue in his cheek. I picture him as a dancing, grinning little prankster on the fringes of world cinema, alternately flaunting a streak of astringent sadism and hiding for safety behind a shield of facetiousness.
He's also, in "Antichrist" particularly, a thudding literalist whose mock-academic ideas and images are so over-rationalized and in-your-face that (like the mysterious cry of a baby placed too far forward in the sound mix to be haunting or ambiguous) they don't have much room to resonate. When they ought to be harrowing, they're obvious and over-explained, which cuts them off from genuine emotion or experience. Nevertheless, "Antichrist" is a serviceable, sometimes atmospheric horror movie, until the last chapter-and-a-half when it just goes flat. By then it's already gotten a little too much of a charge out of commenting on its own giddy morbidity, and whether the audience is laughing at it or with it doesn't matter. Either way, the laughter is dismissive.
View image Richard Widmark, straight shooter.
You may have heard some version of this story about Richard Widmark, who died last week at age 93. I was there, at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983 when it happened, in the Sheridan Opera House for the tributes to Andrei Tarkovsky and Widmark. Emotions were heightened, perhaps, not only by the thin mountain atmosphere, but but by a terrifying Cold War showdown between Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan's USA (I don't know which scared me more at the time) over the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which we didn't learn about until we got to Telluride. Things were chilly up there.
The emotions associated with my memories are indelible, even if their precision has faded. But the gist of what Richard Widmark said that weekend, and the eloquence with which he said it, will always stay with me. Shortly after Widmark's death, I contacted Gary Meyer, director of the Telluride Film Festival (whom I'd known as co-founder of Landmark Theatres), to see if Widmark's tribute speech was transcribed anywhere, because I would love to reprint it. Those were relatively early days for the Telluride festival (which began in 1974 and seemed much more remote than it is now) and Gary couldn't find any record of the speech, which I remember Widmark reading from notes he produced from his jacket pocket. But he did find some 1983 press coverage, from which I have pieced together the following "story."