Three more short takes

I continue to work my way through ’90s cinema this week and am happy to report that it’s been mostly good stuff.  In three nutshells:

I checked out Werner Herzog’s swift 56-minute documentary Lessons in Darkness—made in 1992, released in 1995—after noticing it on J. Hoberman’s list of the best films of the year, and also out of a general urge to watch more Herzog (this being only the fifth of his films that I’ve seen).  Like most of his other work, Lessons is a visually striking film that is somehow simultaneously horrifying and beautiful: Herzog basically gives us an hour’s worth of images of the Kuwait oil fires, shot with a kind of panoramic magnificence, over a score of deeply haunting classical music.  Though somewhat slight, it’s arresting.

I moved on to Swingers (dir. Doug Liman), probably the best-known film from 1996 that I had never seen before.  I found it much cleverer and more charming than I had thought I would, and I liked its looseness and tossed-off feel.  It’s a movie that’s very much of its time, that time being not only the lounge/swing revival of the late ’90s (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy even makes an appearance) but also the height of Miramax and the American indie scene; 1996 was the so-called “year of the independent film,” of Sling Blade and Fargo and Hard Eight and a whole slew of exciting imports (Secrets and Lies, Breaking the Waves), and Swingers, with its made-on-a-dime feel and subsequent cult success, is as representative of that particular moment as are any of those other films.  It’s like a lovely memory of Miramax and American independent cinema before it turned into just another soul-dead corporate megalopolis.  (Also: man, Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau used to be way skinny.)

Irma Vep (dir. Olivier Assayas, 1997) is just as much of its time as Swingers, but in very different ways: it turns its attention to the state of world cinema, globalization, and the problem of originality at the end of the twentieth century.  A self-referential comedy about the attempt to remake Georges Feuillade’s silent Les Vampires (1915) in 1996, starring Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung (who appears as herself in a wonderfully funny, understated performance), it’s a film about a central postmodern conundrum: the impossibility of making anything new, and the related impossibility of remaking something old.  (In 2011, as Hollywood has become addicted to blithely remaking its own past hits, Irma Vep still feels relevant.)  It’s a strange but lively, thought-provoking film, much different in tone from Assayas’ delicate family drama Summer Hours (2009), and much more controlled than his mess of an Internet-porn thriller demonlover (2002).          

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