Saturday, July 30, 2011

23rd Psalm Branch: Parts I & II (1967 & 1978)

Experimental cinema is a niche not many of us venture into. Some more or less narrative films have been experimental in their handling of story sequence or the audacity of their imagery. We have numerous examples of this type of experimental film, but the genre as it has been parodied by and large finds its roots in filmmakers like Maya Deren and of course Stan Brakhage. His 23rd Psalm Branch is, as cinema, anti-cinematic, and as experimental work, a perfect example. Perhaps my difficulty in trying to understand 23rd Psalm Branch comes from my tradition with narrative films. I was looking for a story, and in fact was trying to create one in the images I saw, but this film works against convention, and this is refreshing and paradoxically makes the film difficult.

The film is in two parts, made at different times (1967 and 1978), and is completely silent. The director’s approach to his craft, wildly original and chemically and physically complicated, was partly created by distorting the actual film stock he used, in this case 8mm, by scratching, burning, or painting on it, creating visuals without photographic light. This is a style that, for many, will have its limits, and indeed I find it to be self-indulgent and defiantly confusing, but in the case of 23rd Psalm Branch, Brakhage takes old war footage and fuses it with his technique. The first part is an artistic rendering of WWII, and psychological terrain that leads to the horrors of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. In some cases it seemed I was looking in on the membrane of society; some shots look like microscopic footage of blood flowing through veins, some looked like the surface of the brain, and the ever flickering, ever changing kaleidoscopic vision was a perfect manifestation of a world using destruction to solve its problems. The second part tires in Brakhage’s mind to recreate Vienna, Austria, the birth country of Adolf Hitler, but I found this shorted part of the film more erratic and less representative of any motivation. It seemed to me, in both parts, Brakhage might have been comparing the horror and violence of war outside the United States to the relative tranquility that, up until September 2001, defined American civilian living. Both parts have moments of peace, of quiet, and seem to represent the American dream, but we are given allusions to the Nazis, their great architecture, the philosopher Nietzsche, who Hitler admired. The films, apparently part of a 31 piece project spanning several years, were made during and after the Vietnam War, and I think Brakhage is arguing for humility and common sense over the nature of war, and warning his audience, those who are manipulated and indifferent to it, that we support war by being silent.

The film’s title is taken from Psalm 23 of the King James Bible, and is quoted here:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

In this passage, quoted exactly but not in the poem-structure it is generally seen in, God is said to be our shepherd, leading us down a path of goodness and mercy where we will dwell in heaven along with our enemies, who will be seated beside us. Is the film a search by its director to find God or at least meaning in war? Or is it a warning against using religion as an excuse to execute war?

It is obvious Brakhage borrows the title from the Bible, but the film’s full title, 23rd Psalm Branch, recalls in equal measure a typical war movie from Hollywood’s silver age. 23rd Psalm Branch could have been a B-grade Ronald Regan picture or a Sam Fuller effort, and indeed the film shows us images of war; some startling, some familiar, including the familiar and often revisited visage of Adolf Hitler. But Brakhage crafts less a history of WWII but lays down visually the mentality of war on human beings. In quoting this Bible passage, is Brakhage forgiving his enemies, putting his faith in God that the life we lead is merely His will, or is he being less direct with his spiritual curiosity and asking why in war we go so far? Or is he saying nothing, offering us a jolt to our senses in an effort to get us asking these questions ourselves? I’m not familiar with Brakhage having only seen a handful of his work, but if I would to danger a guess, I’d say the latter. Truth be told, I found very little meaning in the film. It worked as an experiment but it did not engage me. But I think I am being too traditional and cannot fault the film for what it is.

In my self-conscious attempt to view the movie, one that went off relatively well (I was wide awake for the whole picture despite silent one hour running time), I was trying hard to link images together with ideas, trying always to stay ahead of the picture. I stayed with it, and often was impressed by the beauty of Brakhage’s colors and rhythms, but I am a very literal person. I find my patience for extremely non-narrative films to be low, but again this is my fault and not the film’s. I need to better acquaint myself with the director’s work, and thanks to Criterion’s 56-film primer, I can get but a taste of the director’s vast 350 picture career. I will say I am eager to see more, and have, but a vast project like 23rd Psalm Branch is a more difficult challenge than a 2 minute piece on Chinese characters, the director’s last work, made in 2003. I guess in a way my problem with these kinds of films is that they require less effort from the viewer; we only need to sit back and look, let the images pass over our retinas, and then afterwards, when the lights come up, should we think about what we’ve seen. This is why I think the film is anti-cinematic. The images come so fast and contorted that they’re more like sensations, and their impressions, if felt at all, are realized when every single image has been received. But maybe in saying anti-cinematic I really mean defiantly non-linear, devoid of plot or character, basically going against everything I’ve ever thought a film could be.

In a sense Brakhage continually tried to redefine what cinema is. His enthusiasm is overwhelming but I can’t say he succeeded in making excellent movies. He made experiments, fascinating, original experiments, but average viewers will not care. I consider myself well cultured in film but I cannot rank any of Brakhage’s work among the great works of documentary and fiction film. That is not to say he wasn’t a great artist, or that my opinion will not change over time, but to be completely honest a great deal of his work feels like an endurance test. To pass the test doesn’t make you a greater cineophile, but someone who enjoys experimental films.

Two recommendations about Brakhage’s movies: most are silent, and I know most people when watching silent movies often add their own soundtracks via iPods or MP3s. I am begging people to view his work without any sounds. All I had playing was the hum of my Blu-ray player and that was enough. Music tends to dictate the pace of the images, and while I can’t promise myself this, I hope to view every silent movie from now on without a score, unless the score was devised or approved by the director. My second, and maybe more important recommendation, is to view his films on the biggest screen you can find. IMAX might be perfect. Because they are so visual and impressionable nothing else should invade our eyes, including the vast black of the dark theater, or the black bars on widescreen televisions.

Brakhage does not need to be recommended or warned against. Chances are if you’ve heard the name, buried somewhere under film history, you know what you’re looking for.

23rd Psalm Branch: Parts I & II (1967 & 1978)
Director: Stan Brakhage
Part I runtime: 48 minutes (18 fps)
Part II runtime: 30 minutes (18 fps)

The total running time for both parts, on Criterion's Blu-ray and DVD, is 63 minutes.

IMDB links:

Part I:

Part II:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tree of Life, The (2011)

I looked and saw the creation of the universe and of the planet Earth. I looked and saw an American family. The entirety of it was life itself as it has evolved through millions of years of impressions and booms. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is about these equally enormous forces. It is as ambitious a film as I have ever seen, certainly one of the most visionary works of cinema in recent decades.

It is difficult to narrow in on what the film is about. It is not a traditional narrative. In fact the film in form and style is entirely experimental, and the scope of the story is vast. We begin with light, the basic building block of the universe, and we see a woman, Mrs. O’Brien, receiving a letter. She obviously belongs to the 1950s. It is a death notice; her son has died at war. We follow her eldest child, Jack, as an adult in present day New York. He is trying, as his mother did, to make sense of his brother’s death, and in these early scenes time does not exist. Terrence Malick cuts back and forth, to the mother as a child, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, Jack’s parents, as newlyweds and after their son’s funeral, where Mrs. O’Brien asks God what has led to her son being killed. Malick then shows the most startling and insane sequence: the creation of life. Light, explosions, lava, earth, water, the elements; single-celled organisms and then land creatures, dinosaurs, and always, always, trees. Though the film opens with a quote from The Book of Job, Malick does not show us the bible’s creation of man. There is no Adam and Eve, only the building blocks that were laid to waste for our arrival. Among other things the film is about spirituality, about metaphysics, more than religion.

But can anyone answer truthfully why God would take this woman’s son? Mrs. O’Brien offers to her children two ways through life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace. Are these opposing forces? Do they represent the different philosophies of mother and father, their own ways of raising their children? Mr. O’Brien believes in toughening them up, preparing them for a viscous, dog-eat-dog adulthood, whereas Mrs. O’Brien wants them to love every flower, every leaf, uniquely. Whether Nature and Grace stand for the feuding parents is really irrelevant when considering if Nature and Grace can co-exist. This is one of the many questions Malick seems to be asking. Are we our own creation, led to this point by a history of its own making, or has God shaped us to be like Him? But then wouldn’t God, Nature, and Grace be the same entity? Is the film arguing that religion is a convention of morality, that a “civilized” society cannot function without an institution to hold its shame in place, and that what some call God does not exist? I’m sure many would disagree but in this film, like in any great work of art, we are not given answers. Any interpretation is valid.

The special effects work as they seldom do in modern movies: they are a part of a philosophical search for meaning. By juxtaposing an American family with the creation of the universe, Malick is suggesting some big questions. The reel-long sequence is stunning, and Malick pulls it off. The first time I saw the picture, not expecting anything like what I was about to see, I was stunned. My jaw dropped and it felt as if I did not breathe for the entire sequence. When I saw the film again I surprisingly was not as awed. The visual effects are still great, beyond brilliant, utterly convincing (except for the dinosaurs—they lack realistic texture). I hate to admit it but the sequence comes off more as pretentious and lacking in the same drama that will follow. The sequence is still powerful but the existence of a family, the true meat of the film, is far more fascinating.

Terrence Malick has created an impression of family life like I’ve experienced only once in my life: while living my youth. I am only 25 years old. I did not grow up in the 1950s but my father did. And he raised me in a similar fashion as Mr. O’Brien did his kids. And my mom was always more lenient and affectionate and playful. As I looked at the screen I felt I was watching fractions of my own childhood. There’s a sequence mid-way through the film where Mr. O’Brien goes away on a business trip, and Jack and his brothers are excited and playful. This was my mood when my dad was at work or away for long periods of time. There was a weight lifted off of the house, but looking back now I realize that a great deal of the hostility was imagined, and that my insecurities around my father manifested themselves as anger and repression.  But I was stunned to see this in a movie. To hear Jack whisper the things he’d like to say to his father while he is being disciplined is something I can easily relate to. At one moment he asks God to kill his father, and sadly this too is something I can relate to. There are also depicted in the film moments of beauty, such as the scene when Jack kisses his younger brother’s arm twice. It brought tears to my eyes because I could remember similar moments of peace with my own brother. Maybe my experiences do not parallel the film so much as Malick has touched upon what it is like to be in a family, the joys and pains and every emotion in between, but however artfully I can describe Malick’s work, the simple fact is that it touched me deeply.

Jack seems to be having a crisis of faith. He notices in his young age a lack of action on God’s part, and this silence is so frightening to him that he acts out. He says to himself and to God after witnessing a kid his age drown in a pool, ‘There’s no reason to be good. You just do what you want to.’ I don’t know the denomination of the O’Brien’s church but I was raised Catholic, and many of the same practices and hostilities existed in my church and in my younger relationship to God. I have since lost any notion of divinity, but that’s not important. To Jack, God seems linked to his father. They have the same will, the same authority. Both seem to preach, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ This causes Jack more pain, and at one point he thinks something about his father that I truly fell: “You wrestle inside me.” This is an issue that a repressed, 1950s Christian society probably felt a lot, and through the simple action of shushing, like when Jack’s mom stops him from asking embarrassing questions in public, people were raised to keep these thoughts or emotions inside. That’s what men do, civilized people. And it is maddening.

The way Malick directs the moments in this family’s life is astounding. The camera never once functions as we think it should. It moves like an eye: free-wielding, focusing on something and then quickly turning to something else, always curious about what’s next. The film is more a memory. Malick creates impressions of what it’s like to be a kid at any age, but he does a particularly great job in recreating a realistic 1940s / 50s. Jessica Chastain’s hair is never perfectly quaffed like in traditional period pieces, the lawns are not even, green fields of grass; they have weeds and dead spots. The streets are laid with browning petals and potholes, and the clothes are of their time, not a recreation. Malick’s camera moves through the space of the 1950s in a most anachronistic fashion. In my mind at least, when films are set in 1950s America their cameras usually recreate the cinematic style of the era: careful, expressionally-lit compositions mounted on tripods. Camera angles lining up to the characters’ points of view, absolutely no hand-held work. The Tree of Life uses rather liberally the Steadicam, and the effect is dreamlike and haunting, and it recreates the mood of life back then, at least as I’ve imagined it.

I hope come Oscar time the Academy remembers this film. I know—who cares about the Oscars? But it looks like the best picture of the year is an American effort, and if the Academy Awards truly reward the best in American cinema then The Tree of Life should be nominated in several categories. Best picture, director, screenplay, editing, special effects, costumes, make-up, and acting. The acting category is going to be tricky. This is Terrence Malick’s film. His performers merely dramatize his vision, but there are several stand-out performances in a film filled with perfection: Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken. Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, and he deserves to be rewarded for this performance. He is not a cruel man; he is someone of his time, raising his children as he was probably raised himself. Pitt gives off every facet of this character and a best supporting actor nomination should come his way. McCracken plays the young Jack, and this character is the true lead of the film, though the film is intentionally plot-less. I did not like Jack. His father’s bullying is already manifesting itself in his violent thoughts, his repression, his lashing out at his brother in one scene and at the environment in many others. He defies his loving, lenient mother in a heartbreaking display of rebellion, but that McCracken is so hypnotic that he can carry an unlikeable, subdued role is impressive. In all likelihood the Motion Picture Academy will not nominate him at all and give Brad Pitt the nomination for lead actor. Such is the history of the Oscars.

Jessica Chastain needs to be mentioned as well. Her performance is magical—I am again surprised that a film dominated by its director can contain within some of the great performances of the 21st Century. Some critics have said her character of the mother exists outside of the bitterness and stern qualities of the world and of her husband, but Mrs. O’Brien is another archetype of old-fashioned American parenting. We see she does not like her husband’s approach, and as it would in real life (and undoubtedly has nationwide at every point in time) this sours their marriage. But either through love, commitment or society they do not divorce. Malick’s handling of the marriage and Pitt’s and Chastain’s is so powerful, and Chastain is beautiful and mesmerizing and I wanted to signal her out as well.

The final scene, which I will not detail, is, I think, about forgiveness, about reconciling everything and everyone you’ve ever known to the fact that something has happened; that a brother has died; that parents are not perfect, age, and will always be a moving force in one’s life. But what is to be forgiven: Nature or Grace? What was it that took away this child; that began an exploration through the creation of the universe? Was it the will of God or the chance of fate? Did the way the planets formed influence the decision? Had a petal fallen too fast or withered on the plant for too long? Or had God decided it was time to take back what is his? Malick does not provide answers.  He creates a scenario that is open, and the scene on the beach with strangers and characters we’ve gotten to know on this odyssey is a metaphysical experience rendered on film, one of the most moving and inexplicable experiences I have ever seen. I am not embarrassed to admit that the film brought tears to my eyes. In quick moments I had experienced what in actual time has taken a short lifetime.

With all this I haven’t scratched the surface of this movie. It is an event, something like we haven’t seen in the art world for some time. It might be premature, but The Tree of Life will stand against the works of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky as one of the most thoughtful and ambitious projects ever filmed. I had my doubts when I read others saying this, but I’ve seen it twice, with about a month’s break in between, and I was moved to tears more the second time. Go see this picture; if you see nothing else in a theater this year you will likely have seen as great a movie as can be made.

Tree of Life, The (2011)
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn
In English
Runtime: 139 minutes

IMDB link:

Friday, July 22, 2011

Stolen Kisses (1968, Baisers volés)

It is said that the average person will change professions several times in his life. There may be many reasons for change, but it is sad when one’s own character prevents him from charting a course and sticking to it. Antoine Doinel, the hero of The 400 Blows, has not quite grown up. Let me rephrase that: Antoine and his environment are changing at different speeds. When once Antoine’s insolence was charming, as an adult it is clear he may never find his way. But is that as sad as I think? In between his gigs as a soldier, a concierge, a detective, a stock boy in a shoe store and a television repair man (I think I’ve got them all) there is always love, sweet, impulsive love. In this regard Antoine will never age.

François Truffaut’s major preoccupation was romantic longing. We see it in every one of his pictures: Two English Girls and A Woman Next Door are both about obsession; in The Bride Wore Black love manifests itself as revenge for a lost love; Fahrenheit 451 details the love of books, and The 400 Blows was the love of childhood, of cinema, of friendship and liberty, all also themes in Truffaut’s work. In Stolen Kisses his themes clash in ways the director might never had hoped for. In the summer of ‘68, France experienced a revolution begun by students fed up with poor conditions in state-run universities. Riots and demonstrations (often one and the same) shut down industries; unions joined in the students’ struggles, and when the government appointed a new director for The Cinematheque Francais, ousting founder Henri Langlois, filmmakers joined in.

Langlois was one of the two most important people in Truffaut’s upbringing, along with Andre Bazin, film theorist and co-founder of Cashiers du cinema, the underground film magazine that Truffaut wrote for as a critic. Langlois, apart from single handedly preserving films that otherwise would no longer exist, gave Truffaut the opportunity to see films that no longer circulated in popular movie houses, and through Langlois, Truffaut and the entire Cashiers crowd gained their excessive love and knowledge of the history of their craft. Truffaut was so upset over Henri Langlois’ firing that he formed the Cinema Defense Foundation, an organization determined to give control of the Cinematheque back to its founder. The director supposedly made phone calls for donations in between takes on the set of Stolen Kisses.

For all of it though the film is mostly apolitical. If one does not research the topic it wouldn’t make a lick of difference when watching the film. Sure Truffaut opens the film with a shot unrelated to the story, the sad image of the French Cinematheque closed to the public (and he also dedicates the film to Langlois), but he does not address any riots, in fact completely ignores the plight of the students, a cause he championed in his private life. The reason for this is simple: he was not a political filmmaker, though it makes the words of Jean-Luc Godard at the 1968 Cannes Festival both ironic and searing, accusing himself and all filmmakers presenting that year that they were behind the times since no film detailed contemporary France, the struggle between the students and the extreme right-wing government. Is this a fault of Truffaut’s or merely something that proves him as a true auteur? I’m inclined towards the latter since I myself detest politics in films. Truffaut was more interested in the arts and humanity, in love and romance and friendship. Life should not stop because of political upheaval, instead this upheaval is a part of our lives, and we should live and rally against the opposition.

In this regard, Stolen Kisses as a movie is not one of Truffaut’s best pictures. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it is too improvisational; that is there exists a free-wielding structure that can be great in another movie but here it left me... not bored but ambivalent towards the screen. I hope that makes sense. Watching it in action the film moves as briskly as anything Truffaut made and it’s filled with beautiful, touching moments, but it lacked the earnestness of The 400 Blows, the film that gave us Antoine Doinel. Maybe I shouldn’t be comparing the two films. They are quite different.

Here Antoine is becoming a man. He (like Truffaut did) receives a dishonorable discharge after volunteering for the service. The man dismissing him wonders why he volunteered; speculates it was to impress a woman, but we soon learn the truth: Antoine read a book about the service and his experiences in the army merely did not match it. This is the problem with Antoine as he gets older. I may be biased since personally I’m not prone to risky, hasty decisions, but the older he gets the less “cute” his misadventures seem. He doesn’t seem to understand that the years will go by whether or not his romantic fantasies are indulged, and in trying to live as he thinks he should he is forgetting to live. But that is not right—this is my own attitude talking. Antoine lives an exciting, experience-laden life. His many professions allow him to sample a whole universe set up by tradition and necessity. He is constantly working, obviously, making enough money to keep an apartment (and certainly doing better than an old school friend he meets on the streets who rummages through trash—perhaps a dig at the government for failing its youth).

Jean-Pierre Léaud reprises the famous role. This man was a conduit of the New Wave. I get the feeling that we, the audience, have never known the true Léaud. Truffaut used him to express his own flighty moods and Godard used him as an anarchic symbol, another extension of someone else, and through it all Léaud let himself be shaped. He is a true chameleon, a divisive actor whose improvisation style never seems to be wrong. He always fits his films, even when he stands out. I can admit though to finding him pretentious sometimes, though seldom with Truffaut. Throughout the Doinel films he doesn’t shape an arch for the character. He simply performs the role as Truffaut wrote it, experiencing life as Antoine has in Truffaut’s script. This relaxed attitude towards his craft (and least that’s how it appears to me) is fascinating, and proves that movie acting is about having spirit and knowing lines, and very little complexity.

Stolen Kisses is Léaud and Truffaut’s lighthearted take on the growing adventures of Antoine Doinel. He is no longer the lost kid we first knew. He is a young man, making his way in the world and constantly lost in it through a free-wielding spirit in search of love. I along with millions of people since 1959 have adopted Antoine as a friend, a son, a spiritual partner, and care about him deeply. I guess ultimately I found Stolen Kisses somewhat melancholic; that Antoine cannot keep a job and moves with the wind does not speak well for his future endeavors.

Stolen Kisses (1968)
(a.k.a. Baisers volés)
Director: Francois Truffaut
Writers: Francois Truffaut, Claude de Givray
Stars: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claude Jade and Delphine Seyring
In French
Runtime: 90 minutes

IMDB link:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Paranoid Park (2007)

Stream of consciousness filmmaking is closely linked to the written counterpart, but because words are intellectual this form of writing is literate, whereas in cinema it feels more like memory. Moving images have an instant validity, and when a story is not linear, when it depends on the mind of a teenage kid with a lot of time on his hands, the work is experimental and involves us despite the disjointed, often fractured and confusing storytelling. Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park is a great and rare example.

Other examples in contemporary American cinema are some of Van Sant’s other recent works. He is proving himself a remarkable talent, one that even his early successes could not have hinted at. Paranoid Park is about an incident and characters that live it, but there is no storyline. Alex is a skateboarding kid. He hangs around with his best friend Jared who convinces him to go to a place that Alex admits he is not ready for: Paranoid Park, a grungy skate park in Portland. One night when Jared goes away, Alex goes to the park, meets some older guys, runs away with one of them via spontaneous freight train, and an incident occurs. This is linear progression, but Paranoid Park exists in Alex’s writing. He’s constantly writing in what I at first thought was an extended journal. Only at the end of the film did I understand that Alex is writing over the course of one night, and the majority of the film’s final scenes actually take place—chronologically—somewhere in the middle of the film’s short 84 minute running time.

We often see the same scenes repeated. The shots of Alex in either his uncle or his mother’s house show him entering his bedroom from a room where we had seen him previously write. I believe every time we see this same setup we are seeing the exact same moment in this character’s life. Why would Van Sant construct his film like this? He does a similar thing in Elephant, but there because of the structure of the film we were seeing several different stories taking place congruently. Here we have one perspective, Alex’s, and the conceit doesn’t seem like it could fit but it works remarkably well.

Well, why does it, and why do we see these repetitive moments? This is not a question to be asked but merely a fact we must accept. I personally found the challenge of deciphering this movie a welcomed change of pace from most films that predictably proceed in a linear fashion. I often wonder why films need to tell a story. It takes a skilled hand to render 90 minutes or so of screen time without a clearly defined story, characters and conflict, but often times the results of these experiments is quite fascinating. They are not slice of life films, a term I despise because of the connotations the phrase conjures. Rather they are experiences, impressions of life, and Van Sant’s treatment here creates an impression of a character. I often say that this is the ultimate reach of the cinema, to create impressions. A movie is a work of art, not life, and often times, films of this kind contain a hyper-reality that gives us, the audience sitting in our seats looking at a 2-dimensional flat screen, a sense of how the director uses reality to create his vision.

The film, however, though essentially about a death, is not a mystery nor is it suspenseful. Van Sant doesn’t show us the character most duplicitous in the crime or event as receiving punishment. He suggests it is coming and indeed creates a great deal of fear and paranoia and the utter indifference one so young, of a sort or type typical in youth culture for the past decades, but the film is never “about” the crime. It is about a kid dealing with the fact that he, directly or indirectly, is responsible and now has to deal with it. The film, however, is more definitive than I am suggesting, but because the narrative material is comparatively slight I will remain vague so as to not spoil for you the mood and anticipation I certainly got watching it.

One thing I greatly appreciated was Van Sant’s use of aspect ratio. Most films are in a wide-screen format, some 1.85:1 or even worse they’re in scope, something narrower like 2.35:1. This basically means the screen is rectangular. I don’t like looking at movies this way. In a sense the aspect ratio renders everything as a landscape, at least in terms of framing a painting; there’s either portrait or landscape. The landscape composition is meant to show beauty, and in cinema I find a square ratio, 1.37:1, is more fitting in capturing reality. It cuts off our peripheral vision and focuses in on what the director wants.

I love Gus Van Sant’s modern, experimental work. I love that it’s done by an American filmmaker. It shows us that American cinema isn’t dead yet. Paranoid Park is intelligent, thought-provoking movie making, about characters of a certain age, and still refreshingly original.

Paranoid Park (2007)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu and Taylor Momsen
USA / France
In English
Runtime: 84 minutes

IMDB link:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Antoine and Colette (1962, Antoine et Colette)

There is a perverse pleasure in falling love, in watching someone you’re attracted to from afar, forever inching yourself closer, anxious and scared of if or when you’ll say something. And when you finally do, you’re intimidated and excited. There is also a love for the cinema, a love possibly more infectious, without limits, for young love is seldom ever permanent, and almost always sours.

Antoine Doinel returns in a short film François Truffaut made as part of the omnibus picture, Love at 20. Doinel’s segment, Antoine and Colette, shows what might be the hero of The 400 Blows’ first romance, one that begins as we might expect from the once troubled teen. He and his friend René are at a youth concert, and Antoine sees a beautiful modern girl sitting with a girlfriend. He watches her, is as absorbed in her looks as the listeners are to their classical music. He follows her out but does not engage. He sees her again three times that week, and finally on their fifth encounter, he speaks to her.

Truffaut is the most infectious and loveable director I’ve yet discovered. He crafts intimate tales of amour, stories that range from innocent, to obsessive, perverse, and comical. In Antoine and Colette he mixes all his elements into one of his most pleasurable experiences. While a short and therefore better equipped to be tidy and fluid, there is a sharp earnestness to the director’s storytelling, sometimes relying on an off-screen narrator to simplify narrative montages (telling us Colette sees Antoine as a friend) and swift, unexpected but incredibly honest changes in his characters’ character and actions. For example, Antoine soon takes an apartment across the street from Colette’s. For a moment, if that, it seems cute and innocent, but it really is a creepy thing for anyone to do; to pack up and live next to the person you’re courting. It is obsessive, insecure behavior, in line with the upbringing we’ve seen of Antoine in The 400 Blows. The perverse nature is Colette’s rejection of Antoine, leading him on, maybe unintentionally, and confirming what he seems to understand during a after dinner soirée at Colette’s parents’ request. Colette brings her new love in, embarrassing her mother and crushing Antoine. This love does not end well, but throughout it all we feel the energy of Truffaut, that untouchable magic he infuses his movies with.

This bittersweet tale gets its lighter moments in Truffaut’s storytelling. For example, Antoine works at a record manufacturer. Why? No reason; it is an interesting and appropriate profession for a young man of Paris in the 1960s. There is a fabulous short scene showing Antoine pressing his first record, a gift he later makes to Colette. This is so charming, so carefree, and a gimmick unique to the cinema. I believe in most other mediums such a progression of narrative would seem cheeky, but it works here. Or, for another whimsical twist, try Antoine and Colette’s parents’ relationship. Love is not always sexual. Affection can exist for someone whom you feel in sympathy with, someone whose look moves you in profound ways. The narrator says that the parents “adopt” Antoine as Colette becomes scarce to them all. To change the focus of the story from the young couple to the young man and the parents is a sweet twist, one I loved to see considering how uninterested we know Antoine’s parents were. The final shot is quite rewarding, the odd family sitting down to watch television.

So Antoine has found love, a love more fundamental. He has gained parents, and with that the dignity of having two people to rely on. This is the second chapter in a series of films starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, and like the whole of Truffaut’s work, these films are pure pleasure—whimsical and spontaneous living creatures. They remind me of why the cinema is my true love.

Antoine and Colette (1962)
(a.k.a. Antoine et Colette)
Director: Francois Truffaut
Writer: Francois Truffaut
Stars: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Marie-France Pisier, Rosy Varte and Patrick Auffay
In French
Runtime: 31 minutes

IMDB link:

Criterion has released Antoine and Colette only as part of their terrific collection, "The Adventures of Antoine Doinel." It shares the same disc as The 400 Blows, but remember while Criterion has issued several different editions of The 400 Blows, including a Blu-ray, the edition available in the box set is the only one containing the short filmAntoine and Colette was released with another Truffaut short, Les mistons, by Fox Lorber a decade ago, probably with sub par image quality, but the disc is easily affordable via the Amazon links below:

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007, Voyage du ballon rouge, Le)

It’s almost impossible to describe how joyous it is to watch a film like The Flight of the Red Balloon.  It’s a masterpiece, the best film I’ve seen in the last 10 and more, and its power comes from the simplicity and beauty of its story, its images, and from the lives portrayed.  I used to think that for a film to be powerful and profound it must be dark or ugly, downright depressing so it can easily move its audience, but that is an immature thought.  The Flight of the Red Balloon is about the peaceful and hectic qualities of life that make existence such a magical thing.

I can’t give a plot summary.  It would sound boring, banal even, and may discourage potential viewers. Things happen in the film but they are elliptical, and a linear description would not serve the film well.  It is told from the view point of a red balloon, and we are dropped into the story looking in on three very special figures.  Fang Song, the Chinese film student studying in Paris; her new employer, Suzanne, a free-spirited mom; and Simon, her son, the child Song is now nanny to.  I could describe the events overseen by the balloon but the film would seem insignificant.  This is a film that has to be seen.  It needs to act on our senses.  Only then we can appreciate the experience.

Suzanne is a performer.  Her grandfather was a puppeteer and she now does the narration and voice work for puppet shows.  She is a mess, a ball of energy with weird fashion and a wonderful personality.  She is always losing things or forgetting appointments—she has so much to do, and yet the people around her she never forgets.  She has an instant rapport with Fang Song.  Immediately she trusts her son with the girl, has her make a key to their apartment.  The film might exist in a hyper reality where things are far from perfect but they are still slightly untouchable.  This might be what I loved about the film more than anything.  It is liberating to sit back and have such a soothing, happy experience without guns, violence, cussing, and all the ugly things that most movies rely on for entertainment.  The Flight of the Red Balloon is as aimless as a free-wielding balloon.  Conventional screenwriting techniques would proclaim this structure a failure, and indeed if the screenplay read verbatim like the final cut of the film it would probably not be a good read.  But this is a movie.  It exists in sounds and images that create a great impression of life as I certainly would like to live it.  Director Hsiao-hsien Hou has the eye and temperament of a master.  He does not rely on typical, beautiful compositions or clean kept streets for beauty.  Life in Paris is beautiful, or can be, just as it can be anywhere, and any pretense of creating artificial beauty is not needed.  Life is beautiful as it is.

This is not a film about nothing, or a slice of life.  I think we have certain impressions of such phrases.  I would say The Flight of the Red Balloon is a film about living.  Think of how many people we pass each day, how many names we’ll never know.  We will hear snippets of conversation or create scenarios based on what we can see, but for all of it we are no better off than a shiny red balloon.

The great surprise in this film is the character of Simon.  It’s very tricky to create honest child characters.  I think so many of us are disillusioned with life that we cannot recall what existing as a child was like.  In American movies, young kids, ages 4-8, are blank-eyed, silent and morose things that are more creepy than enduring.  Simon Iteanu is everything I would hope a little boy could be in real life: bright, inquisitive, interested in creativity, in cinema, painting, puppets; he sleeps with a stuffed bear and exists enough in the modern world to use a digital camera and play Playstation video games.  He has answers to questions, insights and observations, like when Suzanne is arguing with a man on the phone who may or may not have been her lover or his father—we’re not privy to such information.  Suzanne screams, “I need a man beside me and there is no one beside me.”  Simon in the back seat says, “I am a man.”  The delivery is much more charming than the words, and the little Simon Iteanu is superb.  Juliette Binoche we expect a perfect performance from, Iteanu is a revelation.

One of the greatest scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie is Suzanne’s final scene.  She has just argued heatedly with a neighbor, slammed the door in his face and now sits teary-eyed before her son, Fang Song, and a piano tuner.  The camera stays on Binoche’s face.  She calls her son over to her, asks what he did in school.  They hug and she smiles.  Simon goes off to play his Playstation.  Suzanne smiles serenely, still fighting back tears, shaken with anger as she asks the piano tuner if he’ll retune the piano okay.  Binoche does something magical.  Her expression, her attitude, her talent—I don’t know the right word, but this is a true moment of tranquility and it always makes the hairs on my arm stand.

I can only describe moments in the film.  There is not a thing wrong with it.  I could detail every scene but a masterpiece like this is better off discovered fresh.  I had such a profound reaction to this picture that I hope I am not overselling it.  Subtle movies affect everyone differently and it simply moved me like few films have.  I like to think the red balloon is watching all of Paris.  Only occasionally does it appear at the window.  Often it is floating in the sky.  Think of the stories that exist in the film that we do not see.  What does the red balloon know, and what other magic has it seen?

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
(a.k.a. Voyage du ballon rouge, Le)
Director: Hsiao-hsien Hou
Writers: Hsiao-hsien Hou and Francois Margolin
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu and Fang Song
In French
Runtime: 115 minutes

IMDB link:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Swimming Pool (2003)

François Ozon channels Alfred Hitchcock in his psychological thriller Swimming Pool.  Where Hitchcock only hinted Ozon marches fearlessly ahead in this surprisingly effective, sexually dynamic mystery that is more conventional then it ought to be.  Actors Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier as a would-be mother / daughter team break through the convention with fascinating performances, bringing out the rich nuance in Ozon’s macabre screenplay.

Rampling plays Sarah Morton, acclaimed author of the Inspector Dorwell series.  Sarah retreats to her publisher’s summer home in France to find inspiration for a new, watershed project.  When at first she begins writing the next in her Dorwell series, her tranquil visit is interrupted by Julie, her publisher / lover’s daughter.  Julie is a punk: brash, keeps odd hours, and is inconsiderate of the reserved English author’s peace of mind.  Julie brings different men home and has loud sexual trysts which agitate and seemingly arouse and fascinate Sarah.  The film doesn’t become a murder mystery until ¾ into it, and that section of the film is its weakest, but the set-up to the fatal accident gives us two very opposing rivals, one sexually liberated and one who, in Julie’s words, only writes about dirty things and never does them.  The dirtiest of things, the act which soils most, is done by the less likely of the women.

Ozon is unafraid to show Ludivine Sagnier’s beautiful body.  It’s hard to accept this is the same girl who played the impish Catherine in Ozon’s 8 Women.  I admit I didn’t want to see her naked having adored her in Love Songs.  I’ve associated a certain innocence with her.  Here her breasts are everywhere, and she touches herself more explicitly than a lot of actresses would on screen.  Some of her boy toys’ rear ends are seen, too, and these guys are not really the kind you might want to see naked.  This is something that bothered me about Julie.  She is so beautiful and sexy that you’d think she could attract hotter guys, at least guys her age.  And she probably could, but as we slowly learn this girl must be starving for attention, more so than we might thing even at the film’s climax.  The only nudity that embarrassed me was Rampling’s full frontal shots.  I felt that, while what the character was doing was interesting, it did not grow organically from the script and that Ozon was abusing his actress.  Then I realized that Rampling starred in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974, and then I understood that she is a fearless performer.

Her relationship with Sagnier’s Julie is really interesting.  Sarah, we sense, is an empty woman.  Her life is lived in her writing.  The only man at home is her invalid father; her lover—her publisher, Julie’s father—keeps big secrets from her, and she doesn’t have children.  I never sensed that Sarah wanted kids, but the twists she takes in her relationship with Julie really allow them to bond as mother and daughter.  I don’t want to give it away, but trust me, they do bond.  It could be that Sarah’s interest in Julie is solely as subject matter for a new book seemingly inspired by the writer’s experiences with the young girl.  In that case Sarah gets too intimately involved in the messes of her characters, but then again it is often said a writer’s characters become like their children.  Sarah’s efforts to protect Julie can be seen as motherly.

I can’t say, though, that I understood the ending.  To be honest, I guessed—and it will be fairly obvious to those familiar with the devices of thriller plots—the twist ending well before the finale, but the way the story unfolds is both unexpected and predictable.  So what does that ending do to Sarah and Julie’s relationship?  I honestly don’t know.  I can make assumptions, or at least explain it to myself, but my explanations alter or destroy the great material of the film, the relationship between Julie and Sarah.  But a twist ending in a thriller is often a letdown.  If the material is excellent, the bad ending can be overlooked, at least by me.  While the ending is not bad, it leaves a lot of questions at too late a point in the experience.  But I didn’t mind, just like I didn’t mind the some of the convention in the later part of the picture.  It is old-fashioned fun but with a sexually explicit twist to murder mysteries.

I’m really starting to like François Ozon’s work.  I’ve seen 4 films, and the first, Under the Sand, was very boring.  It also starred Charlotte Rampling, but it’s the kind of arty flick where the subtly was so subtle that any subtext was altogether lacking.  The other three have been terrific.  Swimming Pool isn’t unique or original, but I was not bored.  There were a few moments where I was nervously inching towards the screen, and if a thriller can do that, it’s won.

Swimming Pool (2003)
Director: Francois Ozon
Writers: Francois Ozon and Emmanuele Bernheim
Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Charles Dance and Ludivine Sagnier
France / UK
In English and French
Runtime: 102 minutes

IMDB link:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

400 Blows, The (1959, Quatre cent coups, Les)

Watching The 400 Blows for the second time I remembered things from my adolescence that I had long forgotten. These were not dramatic, life altering episodes but rather personal moments that add up to create an impression of life. This is what cinema can aspire to. Art is reproduction, it is not life. All it can hope to do is create impressions, and François Truffaut’s first and probably best feature film creates a terrain of childhood that we have all traveled, even if we’ve experienced it differently than young Antoine Doinel. After all, we are on some level lost children on a beach, returning to the elements in search of our freedom and place in the world.

I did not have the wild adolescence of Antoine Doinel. I never stole money from my parents, never skipped school. I was raised to be docile, to observe, and was made (either by my insecurities or by instruction) to please others when asked, and I could still relate to and sympathize with the misunderstood and grossly underappreciated Antoine, never believed by his parents, abused through indifference by them, a scapegoat for teachers, and even betrayed by in his friends in moments when the blame for a class prank falls directly on the boy’s shoulders. It is no wonder Antoine cannot conform to society. He’s a bright kid who remains loyal, who never rats out his friends or his cheating mother and who always is under pressure of being caught. For what? His lying of course—Doinel is not a perfect kid—but society has set it up so that he is always the villain. His is punished for his precocious nature; that he wants to understand and finds it difficult, that face-value is meaningless to him, that he has seen too much arguing between his parents and knows so much that someone so young, in their developmental stages, shouldn’t know will curtail his innocence.

But for all the ugliness and cruelty Antoine experiences there is always Truffaut. I often forget just how great a filmmaker he was. I’ve seen all of his movies, many of them have left indelible impressions on me, but for some reason I always recall many others directors as favorites before remembering Truffaut. His films contain a magic called joy. There is always a zeal for life, a craving never satiated though always pursued, that gives his work a momentum and passion that can only be truly appreciated when actively watching his films. They are hypnotic. They are experiences offering glimpses of life as it should be, as it should feel, and these impressions are among the greatest works of art of the latter half of the 20th Century. The 400 Blows may be his masterpiece, but Small Change (or Pocket Money, its UK title) is the other work of his that I truly think is just great. In both films one can see a motif that permeates much of the director’s work: his love of children, their unbiased look at a world that has fashioned itself on antiquation. The 400 Blows is a more tragic film, made at a time in Truffaut’s life when one can argue that as an artist and as a human being he was coming into his own. Small Change was made many years later, when the director had children of his own and we can guess having gained insight into his parents, his teachers, his world that were before too close to be obtained.

An aspect of the film I loved so and was grateful to have experienced vicariously was the close friendship Antoine shared with his schoolmate René. I did not have friends as a child, never learned how to make them being the younger brother and youngest of all my cousins. I was always with them as a baby, and when they entered school and made their own friends I was lost. Here I could experience a close, apparently life-long friendship (René is based on Truffaut’s best friend) that is as strong as any emotional bond ever described in a movie. These kids, so small and so cute, are there for each other. When Antoine repeatedly runs away from home René at first sneaks him into his uncle’s abandoned factory then into an obscure room in his spacious and beautiful apartment. He brings Antoine food and travels by bike to pay a visit when Antoine is sent to reform school. They skip school together and stand up for each other. When Antoine is expelled, René gets himself suspended to stick it to the teacher. There are beautiful moments like this throughout the picture and for me to describe them here is a waste. My words could never do justice to the atmosphere of Truffaut’s moving images.

But one more point on a similar subject. I loved the sense of childhood Truffaut created in the film. There’s one shot filled with humor and honesty and brilliance as a gym teacher takes Antoine’s classroom on a jog through Paris. Little by little patches of children run off, and thanks to one continuous overhead shot we follow the aloof teacher as his line of children gets smaller and smaller. Such an energizing image is indicative of the playfulness and inventiveness of The 400 Blows.

This is a very important film. Its greatness aside, historically cinema after 1959 might have been entirely different if Truffaut and his New Wave colleagues had not tried new things with the medium. A movie like this, of its reach, would not have been possible in a more structured filmmaking environment like France in the 50s, or Hollywood throughout the Golden and Silver Ages. The 400 Blows derives its power from it spontaneous and crude cinematic qualities, the honesty of its writer’s story and Truffaut’s love of being alive, indulging in his passion for freedom and the movies. The dichotomy is that without the past The 400 Blows could not have been made. We see that in Doinel’s love of Balzac and his stealing of a still of Harriet Andersson in Summer with Monika. How great must it have been to be young and in love with cinema in the 1960s. The passions involved in making movies, arguments even revolutions being made in defense of one’s heroes and the conviction that movie goers wanted something more than cheap entertainment is something that we likely will never have again. We do have though the physical films still, and these are enough to inspire us still, but I’m afraid something has been lost.

I hope I’ve done the film right by my words. I have related as best I can my immediate reaction to this marvelous picture, but I know I have not given a clear statement about what the movie is about. This is in part intentional. The 400 Blows and indeed many of the more adventurous New Wave films were radically different from traditional filmmaking, their storytelling raw and style crudely cool. The story is told through a series of events, one building upon another in a chapter-like way. There are no big story twists; a melodramatic event like Antoine seeing his mother kissing another man is treated as just a troubling fact of life that is best kept secret, partly to keep peace and also for leverage if the need would arise. These are the insights Truffaut has, and it is what makes all of his films and especially The 400 Blows so painfully beautiful.

Above all though, the film allows us to recall our own childhoods, and what can be more beautiful or painful than that?

400 Blows, The (1959)
(a.k.a. Quatre cent coups, Les)
Director: Francois Truffaut
Writers: Francois Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
Stars: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Remy and Patrick Auffay
In French
Runtime: 99 minutes

IMDB link:

Friday, July 1, 2011

L.A. Zombie: Hardcore (2010)

Can porn be art? Is porn ever entertaining? And for that matter, what qualifies edited pieces of film as pornography? What is pornography in general? Historically, I mean—how did we create this word and how do we define it in a contemporary world? It comes from the Greek porno, meaning harlot, and graphein, to write; a literal translation being the writings of prostitutes, a solicitation for sexual acts. A dictionary definition in America might be something like, ‘materials (film, video, photos) designed to stimulate sexual excitement.’ Maybe the definition of Justice Potter Stewart may be the most eloquent when deciding what it or isn’t porn: “I know it when I see it.”

I will define pornography for myself: sex scenes which cut to close-up shots of penetration, usually beneath and between the dominating sexual partner’s legs or just above his belly, looking down on the passive sexual partner’s lower back, or most boringly from a simple close-up profile shot of the two actors. It’s these close-ups that make sex scenes pornographic. Actual penetration might be erotic to see, but from a wide shot, showing both actors’ bodies and in particular letting us see their faces, actual sex in movies can be quite moving. Look at Catherine Breillat’s Brief Crossing or Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. Neither film is erotic, but one cannot deny the power that those images have in the context of their stories.

I think I’ve just thought more deeply about the subject than Bruce La Bruce, writer and director of L.A. Zombie. I don’t understand the purpose of the film, the reason for it being made, but the story revolves around a zombie, henceforth known as The Zombie, played by François Sagat, who emerges from the sea and has sex with the dead and brings them back to life. Sounds interesting, some of us more perverted might be thinking, but the execution and staging of L.A. Zombie is exactly like pornography. There might be parallels La Bruce is making with a certain kind of life style in excessive America, but the movie is quite frankly too depressing an exercise for me to care about. It is not well made—in fact in one shot a cameraman who’s going in for a close-up shot of sexual penetration actually pops into the master shot of The Zombie plowing a dead homeless man from behind—and it is not acted at all, except for the stereotypical loud moans and grunts of pornographic films.

It began well enough with some beautiful photography of the sea, a landscape similar to the beaches of Ingmar Bergman’s films, and a haunting all strings piece of music. The Zombie emerges from the water, much like the fragile characters of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, a film about a young woman with mental illness. This connection may be important to understanding the true nature of The Zombie. He is shown in three forms throughout the picture: a gray, post-George Romero zombie, a more hideously deformed zombie with large canines protruding from his gums, and a human form, Sagat in living flesh as a homeless man wandering the streets of L.A. Is The Zombie a homeless man by way of mental illness? Are all of his experiences largely imagined, schizophrenic episodes that speak philosophically to a perversity in gay culture in America? I’ve read comments on the internet like this, but I think that’s only a way for people to praise a film that has hardcore sex scenes without them seeming to the public to be perverted.

I think the director might have been trying to express a viewpoint, but what he didn’t understand, something anyone could have seen in the very first sex scene, is that pornography is not very interesting.

Male orgasm is achieved through a repetitious motion; watching an erect penis penetrating any orifice gets old very quickly. It’s pretty much the same no matter how you do it, and L.A. Zombie lingers on the penetration in the same ways as pornography. Bruce La Bruce should have known that showing porno scenes in-full would distract the viewer. I’ll admit I found the bodies on display to be attractive, though the scenarios were kind of disgusting and over-the-top, but after the first few minutes I got sick of seeing the sex. It was like watching open heart surgery: technical and gross. My mind started to wander; I started to think of why I was watching this movie. This is where the film became depressing—it was boring and wasting 2 hours of my life. How could La Bruce credit himself as writer? There’s no characters here, no dialogue except for the occasional trifles before the characters are killed (immature arguing between violent criminals, for example), and the structure of the film is stolen from pornography—the Zombie wanders the streets of L.A. and episodically has sex with the men he meets. What La Bruce basically had was a concept, an experiment which may sound interesting—a series of hardcore scenes—but as cinema it is lifeless. Boring, and that is the biggest mistake any filmmaker, narrative, documentary or experimental, can make.

Some might question if instead La Bruce has made an anti-pornographic film. And I would say that is an interesting argument. The form and function of pornography with blood; penetrating fresh wounds rather than natural orifices; and a penis for The Zombie that looks like a goblin’s tool—long, unnaturally colored with a curved tipped head—spouting blood instead of semen. It is impossible to find this material erotic, and I found it to be disgusting but so what? Any hack can revolt an audience. The image I found most deplorable is Sagat’s Zombie’s penis. Its unnatural curvature and the blood in place of semen might have been too much to take if the material weren’t so overblown, but I found absolutely no point to any of this. And, if this was part of La Bruce’s experiment, then he failed because most of the scenes involve natural-looking penises that have normal orgasms, the men for the most part are handsome, and the sex scenes linger so that I at least started to view them abstractly. Instead of the whole film I saw Sagat sucking on a penis. These are two diametrically opposite images and that they exist in my perception in this case is not a plus for the film. I got tired of what I was seeing and was looking for something else.

But to give another point to this idea of anti-pornography let’s look at François Sagat. I find him very attractive: a great body, handsome face and a great scalp tattoo. In L.A. Zombie he always looks ugly. Obviously as a zombie, but even in his homeless human form I felt more... pity, I guess, though I didn’t care about the character. I cared about François Sagat the actor doing some outlandish and embarrassing things onscreen. There is one scene where The Zombie tries to drink a cup of coffee but he spits up, and Sagat is made to rub the spilled coffee on his chest in an erotic way. Why is this man, who seems to be an intelligent guy in real life and who is a good actor (if his performance in Man at Bath is any indication of his range) degrading himself in such a meaningless piece of garbage like L.A. Zombie?

Maybe on some level the film does work. Maybe it is only meant as a provocation. Is society so numbed that we need these kinds of films? Yes and no. We have numbed ourselves in various ways as a culture (a 24 hour media?) but 99% of us if not more will never see this movie. They’ll never hear of it. I certainly didn’t like it but I’m trying to engage it on some intellectual level but it might be futile.

The version I saw was called L.A. Zombie: Hardcore. It ran for 105 minutes. Strand Releasing is putting the film out in theaters in the US, presumable in an edited form. It will run 63 minutes. There must be alternate footage shot because 63 minutes is still too long for the hardcore version minus the hardcore. I’m actually interested in seeing the edited version. Could it be a successful exercise without the penetration shots and the shorter running time?

L.A. Zombie (2010)
(a.k.a. L.A. Zombie: Hardcore)
Director: Bruce La Bruce
Writer: Bruce La Bruce
Stars: Francois Sagat, Rocco Giovanni and Wolf Hudson
In English
Runtime: 105 minutes

To purchase the hardcore version of L.A. Zombie, visit the film's official website:
Visit Strand Releasing's official page of the film to lean more about the US release:

IMDB link:

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Lars von Trier’s work is often very difficult to describe.  A plot summary would often make them sound silly, simple.  In reality his work is the opposite, and even if you disagree with what the director is saying, it is difficult to deny the power of his work.  Breaking the Waves may be in parts too simplistic, but the experience of watching it makes up for its weaker moments.

Bess McNeill is a good Scottish girl marrying an outsider in her community, Jan.  He works the oil rigs, and after their wedding which is as beautiful for Jan as it is for Bess, her husband goes off to work.  Bess is raised in a religious community that seems centuries away from our time.  Women are not allowed to speak aloud in church, cannot attend funerals, and must obey their husbands and the Lord.  Bess spends much of her time talking to God, asking for favors, and she answers herself in God’s words.  I found these moments a bit awkward and very unoriginal, but this has to be accepted as part of Bess’ character.  Is she really hearing the voice of God?  Well, yes.  As long as Bess believes, she does hear.  God promises to send her husband home early, and Jan is in a terrible accident when renders him paralyzed.

I was not as absorbed into Breaking the Waves as I have been with other of von Trier’s films.  The big problem is that the opening scenes or chapters are much too long.  They linger, and while as episodes they are not bad, the plot as I’ve described isn’t really what the film ultimately becomes.  About one hour into the film Jan, now a quadriplegic, asks his loving, devoted wife to sleep with other men.  He himself cannot experience love and if only Bess could tell her about her sexual encounters Jan will feel close to her again.  This is very interesting, at first naughty and in a dark way kinky.  But Bess is not all together.  She struggles with pleasing her husband, torn between his words and the word of her religion.  She asks God and he replies through her she must obey her husband.

She attempts to sleep with her husband’s doctor, a decent and very handsome man, but Bess cannot command her sexuality with intimacy.  She is on a bus, makes eye contact with a dirty old man, and masturbates him.  She tells Jan about it and he seems to get better.  Bess starts to believe in her ability to save her husband.

Von Trier is always asking profound questions, but with Breaking the Waves he is asking more about human beings than God.  Except for the ending, which I will admit to finding farfetched, this is not a religious film.  It is a film about faith; as all good religious films are—they do not presume too much—and it questions what most believe about God.  What is sin?  Can one be a sinner and still be loved by Him?  As God points out through Bess, Mary Magdalene is one of His most beloved creatures.  It is the harsh faith of the village elders, who have the power to banish people from the community, who decide what sin is.  In a way, the film questions whose faith is stronger.  Bess, a simple minded girl, the first heroine in von Trier’s trilogy of naïve and brutalized women, is like a loyal dog.  She does not matter; only the health and life of her husband counts.  The others with this stone and wood building and their bible do not understand what Bess has turned to, and for that they banish her.

Her family cannot understand her either.  Her mother is the first to warn her about banishment.  Her grandfather, a village elder, is non-vocal but his glances and presence impose much.  It is Bess’ sister-in-law, Dodo, who both knows what Bess is doing and why she is doing it.  They are best friends, have been since Dodo’s wedding to Bess’ brother, but his death brought them even closer.  Dodo cannot believe in Bess’ reasons for sleeping with other men.  She is concerned for Bess’ mental health and also for the sick control Jan is having over her.  She is a nurse, is treating Jan, and knows what the drugs and constant surgery is doing to his mind.  For Bess it doesn’t matter; as long as Jan’s condition improves, she will continue to be promiscuous.

Von Trier always gets great performances from his actors.  Emily Watson is probably the most substantial she has ever been on screen.  She has a pixy-like sweetness that really makes Bess a 3-dimensional character when she could have easily been a cartoon.  It’s surprising to discover that this was her first film.  She is intense, too, and very brave.  Often in this director’s movies actresses have to do things ordinary actresses would never be expected of, typically scenes of sexual explicitness, especially when portrayed so honestly.  It is however not the explicitness that makes these performances brilliant but the intensity and commitment by these actresses.  After all they agreed on the roles.  It makes me hopeful for Kristen Dunst’s upcoming turn in von Trier’s Melancholia.

Breaking the Waves seems so alien to most modern people: firstly the idea that the church can play such a significant role in life, and secondly because of the cruelty of being someone of faith.  Though Bess accepts her duty with relative ease, what Jan or God or she herself asks of her is too cruel.  The northern Scottish environment, the lack of technology—the reliance on public phone booths, for example, to receive a call—is so backwards.  So is the idea that a person can be banished from society for actions that others disprove of.  In their eyes Bess is a prostitute.  She dresses like one to attract men, but I never viewed her actions as perverted.  Bizarre, yes, but perhaps because I have walked with her I could understand.  The coldness with which friends and family, in the sake of tradition, greet each other is equally bizarre.  I was wondering if von Trier might have been exaggerating his story to be more effective.  That could be true, but then I remembered that in the Amish community one could be thusly banished, so this extremely religious mentality does exist today.  Most of us, including myself, simply do not experience it.

It’s hard to say whether I liked the picture.  If I had to be honest I would say I didn’t think it was a masterpiece as many have said.  It is in parts too long and boring.  Some of the actions and thoughts the characters have make little sense.  Let me rephrase that—they come out of nowhere.  When the Doctor steps in to talk Bess out of her delusion, he confesses his love.  He speaks and reacts to her indifference the way a lover would, so this “love” isn’t just plutonic, it’s more sensual.  They had only a few scenes prior, and nothing hinted at the Doctor’s feelings.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter.  You should see this film if it sounds interesting to you, and my opinions and observations aside, I think I’ve done a fair job explaining the extensive setup of the story.  It is interesting and worth sitting through to the end.  Those who are religiously inclined might find more topical or at least theological discussions to engage in with the film, but as a movie it is far from perfect.  But von Trier’s films are never perfect.  He is more instinctual, and his films are crude but powerful works of art and his audacity is enough to check out every one of his films at least once.

A final note, two versions of the film exist: an American version and the European version.  It’s obvious which is “censored” and you should seek out the European version.  I cannot describe all the differences except for one, based on a screenshot comparison I found online: during their wedding night, Jan lets Bess explore his body.  Von Trier’s camera lingers on a shot showing actor Stellan Skarsgård’s penis.  In the American version, his hand cups his privates.  If seeing Skarsgård’s junk isn’t your thing, consider this: the character’s hand covering his genitals tells the audience they’re watching a movie.  The image takes us out of the experience, and this is a film where every single image needs to be experienced the way its director intended.

Breaking the Waves (1996)
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier, Peter Asmussen and David Pirie
Stars: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard and Katrin Cartlidge
In English
Runtime: 159 minutes

IMDB link: