David Bax over at Battleship Pretension has argued that the designation “mumblecore” doesn’t really mean anything—that it’s simply a catch-all term for a wide range of films that don’t have that much in common. I respectfully disagree; I think that the term is as useful as any genre distinction, insofar as it allows us to group films that share a basic set of conventions (minimalist plots about urban twenty- and thirty-somethings; a low-budget aesthetic; naturalistic acting). Like any genre, though, mumblecore’s parameters are sometimes loose. Is Miranda July’s new film The Future a mumblecore movie? It seems to have all of the right ingredients—a twee hipster couple, a cheerfully messy starter apartment, existential crises about adult responsibility—but adds July’s own particular brand of cloying whimsy. It’s a more sure-footed film than her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), especially in its first half, as the couple in question (played by July and Hamish Linklater) fret over the adoption of a sick cat and begin to worry that they’ve basically Facebook-ed away their adult lives. I like the premise, because it suggests a real willingness to deal with generational apathy, and with the crushing sense of frustration felt by those whose desire to make great things happen in the world has slowly been eaten away by banal jobs and niggling problems. July being July, though, she has to muddy this premise with cat voice-over (the feline equivalent of Beginners subtitling Ewan MacGregor’s dog’s thoughts), overly complicated parallel-universe gimmickry, etc. At the risk of sounding glib, I’m convinced that Miranda July’s films would benefit from being less…Miranda July-ey.
Isabelle Mejias bonds with snake in Julie Darling (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1983), just one of fifteen truly mind-boggling films that I’ll be looking at in the next few months. My new viewing project focuses on “psychotronic” films—exploitation flicks, cult favorites, forgotten B-grade duds, and the generally weird. I’m borrowing the term from James Weldon, whose Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film was a book that I picked up at age fourteen or so, mainly intrigued by its impressive number of horror film entries. I was happy to find that the capsule reviews also had considerably more personality than, say, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide—Weldon was funny and idiosyncratic, and he knew how to discern the wonderfully bad from the real so-bad-it’s-bad dreck.
What is a psychotronic film? Weldon offers this definition: “the releases that used to be called ‘B’ features and were later popular in inner-city grindhouses, at drive-ins, and on local late-night TV. [...] It doesn’t matter when or where they were made, whether they’re ‘good’ or not, whether they cost a few thousand dollars or over $100 million. They can be barely released obscurities, acknowledged cult items, or over-hyped and over-merchandised household names.” He adds: “All of this stuff is out there. You should know about it.”
Seven months ago—two months before this blog even existed—I thought, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool to watch at least one film that I haven’t seen before from every year, 1928 to 2010, in chronological order?” Seven months and over 100 films later, the project is complete, and damn, I’m exhausted. But, all told, I made some truly great discoveries, ranging from overlooked and forgotten gems (Radley Metzger’s Score, anyone?) to major and minor classics (The Bad and the Beautiful, Atlantic City, Cabaret) that I finally made myself get around to seeing. Around the 1953 mark (back in April) I had another thought: “hey, wouldn’t it be neat to post some of my jottings-down about these films and also get to play around with some screen-capture software?” And so a blog was born. Not to worry, I’ve got a devil of a new project already lined up; it’s smaller in scope than this behemoth (making a list of nearly a hundred films to work through in order—what’s wrong with me?) but one that I’m quite excited about. Let’s just say that it will involve all manner of cinematic vice (sleaze, sex, gore, etc.), and that parental discretion is advised (as the cable channels used to say).
Avatar (dir. James Cameron) being probably the most noteworthy film from 2009 that I hadn’t seen, I decided to sit down with it this week as my chronological project nears its end. And while I don’t believe that it was robbed of the Best Picture Oscar, I was surprised to find myself not hating it: there are some genuinely impressive capital-M Movie moments here, mostly in the first half and mostly having to do with shots of people flying on big dragon-like creatures through misty landscapes and so forth. Exhilarating and visually grand, these shots are pure cinema, and I found myself unable to resist them. (The by-the-numbers battle that takes up the film’s last half-hour, on the other hand, set my mind to wander. And that screenplay! But I digress.) Cameron’s talent—on full display in Titanic (1997), in which I do find big, old-fashioned-movie pleasure—is for spectacle, and when he gets it right, it’s good stuff. I understand as well that the film’s images work even better theatrically in 3D than they do on home video.
In addition to Flight of the Red Balloon, I decided to check out another film from 2008 that I missed during its initial release. Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer) is a quiet surprise, an extraordinarily small-scale film that ends up boiling down to three main characters whose relationship is slowly revealed, scene by scene. This makes for some tough going at the beginning; we don’t know what these characters mean to one another and why they behave to one another in the ways that they do. The device feels a little bit glib—too deliberately obtuse. But once things begin to come into focus at about the thirty-five minute mark Ballast becomes a compelling and rich domestic drama. You don’t even have to wait that long to discover that it’s also a starkly beautiful film to look at: the screengrab above is taken from the opening shot. (Set in rural Mississippi, this is a Southern film that looks like no other—it’s cloaked in steel greys and sharp, cold, early-morning blues.)
A typically lyrical shot from Flight of the Red Balloon (2008), Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s enigmatic foray into European art cinema. Purportedly “based on” the short Albert Lamorisse film The Red Balloon (1956)—or so an end title informs us (the film is also dedicated to Lamorisse)—Flight is by no means a simple, child-friendly fairy tale in the manner of its source. Rather, it’s a kind of outsider’s take on a French film, Hou’s first directorial effort outside of Asia, that seems equally inspired by The 400 Blows. Hou is mirrored in the figure of Song (Song Fang), a Chinese filmmaker and student who has arrived in Paris to act as a nanny to Simon (Simon Iteanu) and who ends up bearing witness to the domestic problems of his frazzled mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche). Song tells Suzanne that she’s making a film about red balloons, and we occasionally see her filming Simon as part of the project. Other shots involving Simon and the balloon are more difficult to place, because (to trot out a fancy film-theory term) they’re not sutured to any particular character or context. Do they belong to Hou’s film, or to Song’s? Are they reveries? Daydreams? Is this a kind of prologue to Lamorisse’s film, one that’s leading up the moment when boy and balloon first make contact? (The two are not really companions here, as in Lamorisse; rather, the balloon seems to be watching Simon pensively, from afar.)
And then, suddenly, a kind of masterpiece arrives: Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), his half of the “Grindhouse” double feature conceived with Robert Rodriguez. It’s the only one of his films I hadn’t seen before, and it’s a doozy—a pastiche of old 1970s exploitation flicks that is itself a revisionist comment on 1970s exploitation flicks. Split rather jarringly into two halves, the film opens with a car full of nubile young women headed to a Texas cabin for the weekend; as Tarantino himself notes in one of the special features on the DVD, it’s the premise of countless slasher films, and this first half of the film is nothing of not intentionally derivative. The slasher turns out to be a smooth-talking movie stuntman played by Kurt Russell (pictured), who follows the girls to a roadside bar and proceeds to gun them down with his pimped-out stunt car. These scenes are so ingeniously devised to look and feel like a vintage grindhouse film—complete with scratched negative, bad splices, bleached-out colors, and a hissing, popping soundtrack—that it really feels like it could have been made anytime between 1976 and 1983. (The work of Tarantino’s longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, is truly stunning here.) And because Tarantino’s films (especially from Jackie Brown on) are always about movies, or about themselves as movies, he makes this first half as sleazy and salacious as possible, in order to make us cheekily aware of the generic trappings of so many sleazy and salacious drive-in films, the sole purposes of which seemed to afford male viewers with the spectatorial pleasures of hot chicks, cars, and extreme violence. We’re treated to a shots of leggy girls in tight-fitting short shorts, a somewhat extraneous lap dance sequence, and an extraordinarily bloody massacre. End of Act I.
I got thinking a lot this week about special effects after watching Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006)—not exactly a masterpiece (and a bit annoyingly twee in spots), but a very enjoyable film, and a welcome relief from the kind of maximalist FX porn that constitutes so much of the summer movie season. Gondry may not be a master filmmaker, but he is a visionary artist whose use of visual effects—most of them done “in camera” as opposed to in post-production—is more interesting and creative than most of the CGI wizardry that’s laboriously, humorlessly worked over by teams of computer technicians. While most modern-day action and sci-fi films are made with actors performing in front of blue screens, holding fake props, reacting to blank spaces that will later be filled in by computer graphics, Gondry’s films make dazzling use of “homemade” special effects—stop-motion animation, cut-outs and miniatures, arts-and-crafts-class materials like cellophane and cardboard. His ability to solve cinematic problems “magically”—through visual sleights of hand and in-camera effects—recalls the early silent filmmakers (Georges Melies, Thomas Edison) for whom film was a great trick, a thrilling illusion. There’s a tactile quality to Gondry’s films that CG, which by definition is always mediated by machines, always seems to lack. It’s not that we’re less aware of the effects in Gondry’s films; in The Science of Sleep (2006), for example, most are quite obviously fake. But they’re somehow more stunning, more impressive, because we can see the fingerprints and the strings—the labor that put them together is somehow more visible, and more easily appreciated.
Maybe it’s that I’ve been spending the last three weeks immersed in David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest (which is every bit the tour de force it’s cracked up to be, and more), but of all the possible ways to understand Lucretia Martel’s baffling film The Holy Girl (2005)—as religious satire, feminist parable, coming of age story—I found it most enjoyable as a kind of absurdist farce. Like Wallace’s novel, The Holy Girl is about odd coincidences, misinterpretations, narrow-minded obsessions. Where Shakespeare’s characters had fatal flaws, Wallace’s (and Martel’s) have fatal quirks. The film is largely set in an Argentine hotel run by Helena, a beautiful but bitter divorcee who spends much of the film avoiding phone calls from her ex-husband’s new wife, who wants to announce to her that she is pregnant with twins. During a week-long medical conference being held at the hotel, Helena finds herself attracted to Dr. Jano, who convinces her to participate in a kind of doctor-and-patient role-playing exercise with which the conference will end. Helena agrees (and becomes increasingly panicked about the “performance”), but she doesn’t know that the sexually frustrated Dr. Jano has meanwhile been rubbing himself up against her adolescent daughter Amalia every afternoon while standing in a heavy outdoor crowd watching a theremin player, and that Amalia—who has been taught in Catholic school to be aware of signs from God signaling her spiritual vocation—believes that these rubbings-up may constitute such a sign, and consequently that her spiritual destiny is to sleep with Dr. Jano, or absolve him of his sexual guilt, or something.
Remakes are tough to get right and almost impossible when the film being remade is a flat-out masterpiece—as in the case of Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi head-trip Solaris (1972). Amazingly, Soderbergh’s version is a pretty remarkable film in its own right; it doesn’t have the sheer blinding poetry of Tarkovsky’s, but it’s just as mysterious and haunting and perhaps even more elegant to look at (and not only because of the presence of George Clooney). Soderbergh’s film tells basically the same story—that of a grieving widower who travels to outer space and encounters a simulacrum of his late wife—and it’s just as devastating and poignant this time around; Soderbergh even lifts some of Tarkovsky’s more mind-bending visuals. But the whole thing is given a slightly different sheen. It’s the best possible kind of remake: one that, like a cover of a classic standard, hits the same notes but offers different shadings and colors. Not all of it works; Jeremy Davies’ performance is too jittery and affected. Clooney’s acting, on the other hand, is rich and subdued here, and in certain shots (see above) he even almost looks like Donatas Banionis from the original, with his slack, sad, heavy face.
Gillian Anderson, looking pained in Terrence Davies’ The House of Mirth (2000), a film that was roundly praised by critics when it came out—J. Hoberman listed it as one of the best of the year, Stephanie Zacharek felt it captured the essence of the Edith Wharton novel on which it’s based, etc. I distinctly remember renting it on video at the time and failing to get past the first fifteen minutes. But I gave it another shot this week because that was eleven years ago and I was a teenager and generally less adept at making critical evaluations of things than I am now. After watching it, though, I’m wondering if my teenage instincts were not so far off, because I think it’s kind of a bad movie. The actors—many of whom are quite talented (Anderson, Laura Linney)—feel like they’re fighting with the dialogue, which is arch and heavy with the kind of ambiguity that works on the page (Wharton, like her contemporary Henry James, is a novelist of rich psychological subtlety) but doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen. Iain Softley’s roughly contemporary adaptation of James’ The Wings of the Dove (1997) was much more successful, largely because he jettisoned James’ tone-deaf dialogue, retaining the novel’s basic structure and set of complex relationships but making, like, a movie out of the thing (no small feat; the novel, while ingenious, is not exactly cinematic stuff). Softley’s film brought James’ novel to life; Davies’ film feels leaden and strained, as if it’s going through the motions but doesn’t seem interested in really giving us a way in to the story or the characters. It’s a stiff film in the Classics Illustrated style.