In the Family (2011)

February 1, 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012, 6:45pm

This is a placeholder for Patrick Wang’s In the Family.


Intolerance (1916)

January 27, 2012

Saturday, January 7, 2012, 7:15pm

It was my very first D.W. Griffith’s film, and I learned, among other things, that “D.W” stands for “David Wark” (very charming indeed) and that silent films were usually taped at variable speeds. Duh! Of course. Cameramen had to hand-crank film in those days, so it was nearly impossible to maintain a constant film velocity. A quick search of the big G for “Intolerance film speed” brought me tothis pdf tidbit: “[For Intolerance] cameramen on the Griffith lot, used to cranking anywhere between 45 and 65, were now instructed to crank at about 70.” For you math whizzes, that’s 70 ft/min or 18 ⅔ frames per second.

The Cleveland Cinematheque played their reels of Intolerance at 24 fps (the standard for modern projectors), which gave the effect of “speeding up” action to varying degrees. And what became evident is that at whatever apparent speed, Intolerance unfolds as a real moving image, not a series of shots and intercut transitions. True, if you blinked at just about any point of the 3-hour or so film, you would have likely had a beautiful shot etched onto your retina. But the images didn’t ask of your eyes to languish. Instead images appeared and disappeared, barreling forward and culminating like the notes of an unfinished Bach fugue with four voices played by Glenn Gould on amphetamines. Or so I imagine. And indeed the effect was at once intoxicating, exhausting, and mesmerizing. Major props to Joseph Rubin for providing the live piano accompaniment and to the secondary stars of any great silent film–the intertitles. Here are some especially luscious examples:

“Tish, tish, ‘tis no place to eat onions.”

“The new walk seems to bring results.”

“Say, kid, you’re going to be my chicken.”

“Of course–hired mothers are never negligent.”

“Beloved, I will begin building your city tomorrow.”

A happy accident

January 15, 2012

It wasn’t a case of actually dying for my art, but it was a real-life close call.  A few minutes into John Ewing’s intro to Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, I heard a loud, shrill crash to my left.  I turned toward expecting to see shattered glass, but was surprised to find shards of plaster strewn less than 6 inches from me.  A piece of the Cinematheque’s ceiling had fallen down on the seat next to me!  Many people in the auditorium believed that a light bulb had fallen on me or near me, and a few came to see if I was alright.

OK, OK, even if the plaster had zonked me on the head, I probably would have been fine.  Nevertheless permit me to draw some spiritual meaning out of this event, as any person writing a blog would be apt to do: 

1) Don’t let anyone convince you that there aren’t “right” and “wrong” seats in a movie theatre.  I’m not sure the reasons for sitting anywhere but dead center (tiny bladder?), but here it at least saved me from a smattering of ceiling. 

2) Always pay attention to the main action of an event.  Let the happy accidents happen as they may—don’t look for them—or at least let the cinematographer worry about them. What?! You don’t have a cinematographer following and documenting every snippet of your existence?  Maybe you should take Ed Pincus’s lead

3) Be charitable to your local art institutions!  Aside from the work they do in bringing you great art, they also have to manage the upkeep of their facilities. You can donate to the Cinematheque by purchasing a membership here.

4) Or just treat yourself to a single movie—schedule here

Man of the West (1958)

January 14, 2012

Saturday, January 7, 2012, 5pm

Day Two into the “cinematrek” and already life and film are colliding.  Ten minutes into a semi-fancy meal of salmon, argula, and gluten-free fusilli, I realize I have 30 minutes to get my laundry and myself over to Anthony Mann’s Man of the West.  Needless to say, the meal went half-eaten, the clothes damp and unfolded.

Likely my haste heightened the awareness that much of the action in MOTW occurs in real time with continuous camera shots. While I’m not well-versed enough in old Westerns to know if MOTW is an exception, it is still remarkable to see an “action” film unfold, rather than the “sense” of action being created by jarring cut-aways and skillful montage.  In the case of MOTW, it gave me ample time to reflect on the psychology espoused by each image, to appreciate the ideas conjured up by both human and non-human locomotion.There’s a point near the beginning of the film when Gary Cooper’s character Link boards a train, which then proceeds to lurch forward many times, just as Link struggles valiantly to regain his balance by clutching his hand repeatedly on the shoulder of the man seated in front of him.  The immediate effect is comedic but this series of gaffes also underscores Link’s physicality as a common man, highly susceptible it would seem to external forces. Our hero is vulnerable.Later, when the train is highjacked and Link goes tumbling inexorably down the a dirt hill, we are again left to question how our hero will achieve the physical prowess necessary to overcome his adversaries.  Link is set apart from the bandits in this way, just as the plot is moving him closer and closer to a confrontation with this same set of criminals.An additional layer of narrative tension is added when we later discover that Link has a criminal past and a history of violence.  But perhaps owing to Gary Cooper’s slightly slouched physique, Link never appears as lithe or adept at battle as his bandit friends.  Time and again, he is set apart in both physical carriage and ideology, as if to suggest to the audience that once a man is changed, he is changed forever.

One final note about an elegant series of shots in the film.  Towards the end, as two of the bandits edge closer to Link for a gunfight, they do so laterally, parallel to each other on two separate planes, while the camera tracks their entire approach in real time.  It’s simply beautiful and reminded me of two yarns moving on an old wooden spinning wheel, which made of me think of this photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson, taken in the Cities of the Dead, in Cairo, Egypt (where I first encountered a wooden spinning wheel myself).

I just love it when something beautiful leads to thoughts of more beauty. Who’s with me?

Dear Reader, you couldn’t have known about M., the popcorn-chomping, bag-crinkling man who sat a few seats to my left for Blackthorn.  But there he was, during the interlude before Passione, making his way towards the center of the aisle, sweatshirt covered in loose kernels and corn bits, beneficently offering me half of a candy bar.  He proceeded to ask if he could sit near me for the next film. As I silently cursed my mother for not teaching me to be sufficiently rebuffing of strangers, I begrudgingly spurted out: “Ugh…I guess…if you want.”  Just to clear, there’s only one type of person, male or female, that I want near me during a film (and even for those things they call “movies” :P) and that’s a person who’s actually willing to watch the film! No questions about plot or dialogue, please.  No offers of drink or food (later, later).  My brain’s kind of stupid in that way—it can’t see, think, and respond at the same time.

I hope there are those of you out there who’ve realized (like me) that films are the great blessings of the art world—all you have to do is park yourself in a reclining position, open your eyes, and keep them fixed.  And perhaps then, through the most accessible of all visual art forms, you start to surmise that it’s really about it, not you. And the more you pay attention to it, the more you will understand…emerging perhaps from the dark box of a theatre clearer-eyed about your own life, about the world, about your relationship to others…

So, yes M., that is a shot of “Vesuvius” at the beginning of Passione.  But, with all due respect, is that what really matters?

Passione (2010)

January 11, 2012

Friday, January 6, 2012, 9pm

There are two types of people in the world, it’s said.  Those who are Italian, and those who want to be Italian.  And then there are those who revel in being distinctly Neapolitan, as shown in living color and song by John Turturro’s musical odyssey Passione.

From the get-go, we’re thrust into an apparently magical world, where people sing and gyrate in broad daylight and where chiaroscuro seems to exist not just in paintings, but en plein air! The dropped jaws of passersby tell us it’s a slight conceit, and the film does unfold like a ludic music video—until a moment of great gravitas.  Situated on the edge of the Mediterranean, Naples’s history is peppered with war and conquest, or being conquered, more accurately—by the Arabs, the Saxons, the Russians, and even the Americans.  We’re told this fact and then presented with three seemingly disparate musicians—all Neapolitan—united in a rendition of “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” originally performed by American country-western singer Al Dexter.  Brimming with ululations, wails, and incantations—at once cacophony and symphony—this performance caused me to think instantly and often of the Psalmist’s lament—the one that begins with his refusal to sing unless God avenged his people, the one that ends with joyful praise.

And this, strikingly, is also the narrative arch of Passione, a head-bopping meditation on how the deep-brain art of music elevates the beleaguered human spirit first to song, then to dance, and finally to the smile of a modern-day La Gioconda.

Blackthorn (2011)

January 10, 2012

Friday, January 6, 2012, 7 pm


Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  But I have seen Sam Shepard’s face on screen and I want more of it.  It’s quite a face—never cut enough to be gorgeous and now irretrievably weathered (just say no to Bro-tox!)—it’s a true, on-screen rarity—a believably beautiful face. And that’s why Blackthorn, a reimagining of the Butch Cassidy legend by Spanish director Mateo Gil, represents not so much a failure of Shepard’s charisma as much as a misplacement of that charisma within a script that never fully deciphers the relationship between epic and elegy.

Just what type of hero is James Blackthorn (AKA Butch Cassidy) supposed to be? The Ancient Greeks had some strong opinions about the demarcation between the high epic and the second-best elegy.  And then came along JRR Tolkien, who provocated  that the great English epic poem Beowulfwas in fact an elegy, a sorrowful death-song leading up the protagonist’s funeral.  Accordingly, the last shot of Blackthorn is not a back-ended ride into the sunset or a heroic last stand, but rather a flashback of young Butch frolicking, face-forward, on the prairie with his cohorts. So, it’s fairly clear that Blackthorn is a lament for lost friendship, for an alternate life, even as a chase on horseback predominates the film.  And if the epic and the elegiac can co-mingle through the written word, can it likewise on the movie screen?  The lover of filmic ambiguity in me says yes, but it just didn’t succeed this time.

But Blackthorn does have some beautiful shots, things a person could only hope to see with the help of an American Express card and a long-eared, chocolate-colored burro.  Hillsides lush with vegetation, overcast somehow by a sort of cinematic jaundice—green on the simultaneous precipice of decay and maturation. Then there are the expansive pans of the great Bolivian salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni, filmed it seems grain by grain, so much so that I swear at some point I had inhaled a bit of briny talc flicked off of the back hoof of a galloping horse.  Yeehaw!