A year and two days ago…

August 3, 2010

… CineMadison was born. Where does the time go? Nowhere, I don’t think. Anyhow, the self-imposed summer hiatus has been a bit of a boon for my intellect; most of my time away from this blog has been spent with my gaze buried in one book or another, and I’ve worked back up to a respectable daily film-viewing clip. This all leads me to believe that when I return to writing regularly this fall (watch for a new incarnation of this blog sometime around then), I’ll have no shortage of interesting ideas to kick around and interesting films to talk about.

In recognition of your patience and perseverance, dear reader (gosh, haven’t typed that phrase in a great many moons), I offer you these two beautiful little sentence-fragments.

From Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster:

When all is obscured, there reigns the clarity without light which certain utterances foretell.

From Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, chapitre 2b: Fatale beauté:

Cinema must exist for words stuck in the throat and for the truth to be unearthed.

But there’s no point because we’re mortal

July 26, 2010

Exciting news, courtesy of Cineuropa by way of the Daily Notebook: Philippe Garrel’s new film, Un été brûlant, which stars Monica Bellucci and, of course, Garrel fils, begins shooting this week.

Being an unapologetic lover of pretty much all things Philippe Garrel, this is great, great news. I’m especially curious to see how Bellucci will do as the typically Garrelian “femme fatale/strung out/brooding/insecure actress” character.

With some directors, it’s actually a good thing that they make the same movie over and over again, forever retracing their steps, always finding something buried where it seemed that everything had already been unearthed.

(Visual) Quotes…, 7/23

July 23, 2010

From Histoire(s) du cinéma, chapitre 3a: La monnaie de l’absolu (1998).

Bringing the camera to the actors

July 23, 2010

Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in a conference call with Jay and Mark Duplass, whose latest feature, Cyrus, is now playing at Sundance Cinemas (having seen it a couple times, I can assure you that it’s worth a look). Jay and Mark entertained questions from yours truly as well as from a few other bloggers; their responses confirmed much of what I already thought about their style—at once derivative (insofar as it is obviously descended from older traditions of filmmaking, which is, of course, true of pretty much every style) and singular (because no other contemporary films ramble and stutter the way that those of the Duplass brothers do)—and its ends.

First, we discussed the process of casting Cyrus. In their two previous features, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, the Duplass bros. wrote with their friends in mind; heading into Cyrus, they were initially afflicted with the anxiety of writing roles for bonafide movie stars—John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener—without knowing for certain that they’d be able to get said movie stars to participate in the project. They navigated the casting process by seeking out likeminded collaborators who were, amongst other things, pleasant to be around. The Duplasses seem to value on-set morale and chemistry very highly.

One of the things that most excites the Duplasses about making films is the attempt to achieve an affective balance between tragedy and comedy. At times, Cyrus is so uncomfortable that one wants to look away from the screen, indeed, to look at anything else other than whatever brutally awkward situation Reilly and Hill have found themselves in; because this was something the Duplasses deliberately tried to effect, I guess one would be hard-pressed not to consider Cyrus a success.

What most surprised them about the experience of working with famous actors was how quickly they slipped into a creative groove with the actors, whom they were nervous about meeting before the project began in earnest. They were worried that they’d find it more difficult to work with movie stars than it was to work with their friends, but they came to realize that movie stars are movie stars for a reason: they’re very good at their jobs.

From Baghead the Duplasses learned the importance of using multiple cameras rather than just one, thereby streamlining the shooting process. From Cyrus, they learned to trust their creative instincts and not to be deterred by nagging feelings that something about such and such part of the film was a little off. This raggedness accounts for much of the film’s unique charm.

The Duplasses’ recourse to improvisation was supported by a tight narrative structure, that is to say, they used improv and the organic chemistry between their actors to fill in the gaps of the film’s plot. Mark referred to this approach as “shaggy control,” which I think is a rather elegant way to describe whatever it is that holds Cyrus together from behind the camera.

I had the gall to ask them about their now-infamous penchant for near-constant zooming-in and -out. Mark described it as an entirely functional, practical technique that complements their rejection of standard, rigid blocking when composing a shot. The zooming allows their actors to move around spaces freely, thus maximizing the spontaneity of their performances. Mark described the desire underlying the zooming as that of “bringing the camera to our actors instead of bringing the actors to our camera.”

Many scenes didn’t make it into the final cut of Cyrus, which the Duplass bros. decided to do mostly in order to preemptively appease the studio and elide any possible contentiousness when it came time for the studio to decide whether the film was ready for widespread distribution. However, Jay and Mark were also quick to explain that it’s not like anyone from the studio explicitly told them to cut certain scenes; it was all Jay and Mark’s prerogative.

Cyrus wasn’t inspired by any one real life experience, but rather by their more general interest in human relationships and their desire to try to make a “bigger” movie. They also wanted to take a conventional conceit (that of the love triangle) and do it in a different way.

Finally, Jay and Mark stated, somewhat emphatically, that they would definitely work with the cast of Cyrus again because of their consistent willingness to take creative risks and put themselves out there in the interest of developing provocative, provocatively honest art.

Many thanks to the Duplasses and to the bloggers with whom I shared the call. Again, Cyrus is currently playing at Sundance Cinemas; I strongly encourage you to give it a try.

Brainy but not terribly philosophical

July 22, 2010

It seems sort of imperative that I weigh in on Inception, which I saw with a predictably packed house at Sundance Cinemas on Tuesday night. (Can’t beat my seat: Row 1, Seat 1—the front-left corner of the theater. I’m exceedingly pleased with the fact that I didn’t end up going to see the film in IMAX.) My Isthmus colleague Kimberly Jones did an exemplary job articulating many of the things I found commendable about Inception: Its often exhilarating imagery, its intellectually demanding nature, its persistent desire to engage the viewer in its (perhaps overly logical) investigation of the human imagination in both its conscious and unconscious manifestations.

Kimberly is right on the money when she says

[Inception is] a mindbender bearing superficial resemblance to other question-reality manifestos like The Matrix and Synecdoche, New York, only minus the giddy pop psychology of the former and the me-myself-and-I self-seeking of the latter.

My immediate impression of Inception was that, for as convoluted as its narrative gets—with all of its meta-dreams and meta-meta-dreams and whatnot—it’s actually a pretty straightforward, conventional action flick. Nolan never ceases to employ genre conventions in the service of conjuring a cinematic experience whose most salient quality is its overwhelming bigness. That said, it’s undoubtedly a tight, lucid action flick, with only a handful of off-puttingly sluggish passages (such as the DiCaprio-Cotillard segments, despite Cotillard’s complex if overpraised performance).

Yet, because the film is, in my reading, more or less conventional, I couldn’t help but find its excavations of fictional minds to be more pretentious than substantial. Keep in mind that I’m not using “pretentious” here as a pejorative. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Nolan’s aspirations of creating films that are once riveting and cerebral, freight trains and therapy couches; I only wish that he had upped the film’s headiness and, by extension, its difficulty as a cinematic text.

The comparisons between Inception and the sci-fi films of Andrei Tarkovsky, namely Stalker and Solaris, are pretty apt, though Tarkovsky wasn’t nearly as afraid of ambiguity and irrationality, those being such key aspects of human subjectivity, as is Nolan, whose vision of the mind is defined by internal rules rather than by curious, often erratic responses to external phenomena. Also, like other critics I was puzzled by the film’s depiction of dreams as being mostly asexual; then again, the film’s PG-13 rating is probably a necessary concession in order for it to touch an audience the size of which it deserves.

Go see Inception, and hope that it puts up big  numbers at the box office (which seems very likely at this point) so that more big-budget films that take such thought-provoking stuff as their primary subjects are produced. But let’s also hope that, should films with comparably lofty intellectual aims become more commonplace, those films will handle their material in a less straightforward fashion. Recall Cocteau’s remarks on cinema’s potential “to practice a kind of hypnotism on the public and enable a large number of people to dream the same dream together”: “[cinema] is a first-class vehicle of ideas and of poetry that can take the viewer into realms that previously only sleep and dreams had led him to.”

The bad, the bad and the bad

July 17, 2010

So the Found Footage Festival screened a film entitled “Computer Beach Party” (1987) at the Orpheum’s Stage Door Theater last night. Yes, I was there. Yes, I wrote about it for Isthmus. Yes, the article can be found here. Yes, “Computer Beach Party” lived up to almost all of my expectations, though as far as bad movies go, it was definitely hurt by its utter lack of aluminum foil UFOs, flashlight laser beams and recycled footage of Bela Lugosi. But seriously, it was incomprehensibly bad.

“The Cool World” at the Cinematheque

July 15, 2010

As you may or may not know, the Cinematheque will continue its summer program tomorrow night with Shirley Clarke’s “The Cool World” (1964), her mock-cinéma verité drama shot and set in Harlem. Jacques Rivette, whose “L’amour fou” (1969) is often said to have been influenced by Clarke, named “The Cool World” one of his ten favorite films of 1964, placing it alongside such remarkable achievements as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders,” Carl Th. Dreyer’s “Gertrud” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Red Desert” (any of y’all seen that last one on Blu-Ray yet?). That, ladies and germs, is lofty company.

While I’ve yet to see any of Clarke’s films, I have seen the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research’s extensive collection of her films, home movies, personal documents, etc.; for whatever reason, Wisconsin definitely seems to have a thing for her. The screening, which begins at the C-tek’s new start time of 7PM, will surely be one of the most worthwhile cinematic events ’round these parts all summer. Be there.

That one time when Jimmy Stewart ended the Golden Age of Hollywood

July 12, 2010

If you’re in need of a worthwhile read this afternoon, I suggest you check out this excellent piece by Doug Dibbern at the Daily Notebook, entitled “Jimmy Stewart: Angel of Death.” It’s one-part self-consciously crackpot psychoanalysis, one-part erudite historiography and one-part extra-pithy “j’accuse.” I couldn’t care less whether Dibbern’s thesis or the conclusions he reaches are correct; the medium is truly the message in this short essay.

I’m suddenly very excited to watch Stewart in Anthony Mann’s “Bend of the River” (1952), which played at NYC’s Film Forum a week ago and which sits near the top of my personal film-viewing queue. (Oh, how I wish I was in Manhattan right now. Between Film Forum’s Anthony Mann retrospective, which ends this week, and the American debut of Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain” at the IFC Center, there’s plenty of cinema to get lost in.)

Opening in Madison, finally

July 8, 2010

Well, it’s an unquestionably beauteous day here in Madison, WI, but I’d nevertheless like to try to persuade you to spend some time indoors this weekend (when, as it happens, it’s going to be 80+ and rainy): two films that attracted plenty of attention when they were released in NYC last month, “Cyrus” and “I Am Love,” are both opening at Sundance Cinemas tomorrow. In my book, this marks the most significant event in commercial cinema ’round these parts thus far this summer. Here’s Manohla Dargis’s review of “I Am Love” and David Denby’s review of “Cyrus.” That is all.

Worth a look: Breillat’s “Bluebeard”

July 2, 2010

I honestly didn’t expect to be as knocked out by Catherine Breillat’s sublime adaptation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale as I was. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film released in the US this year so laden with truly shocking moments—not just because of their sometimes violent content but also because of their formal daring.

The last quarter or so of this exceptionally tight film struck me as being so sui generis, so singularly expressive, I couldn’t help but think that Breillat had achieved something at the level of film form that places her among such provocative and rigorously systematic stylists as Robert Bresson and Straub-Huillet. Perhaps I’m overreacting. Who knows. Nevertheless, I’m prepared to claim that “Bluebeard” is mandatory viewing for anybody genuinely interested in the medium’s formal possibilities.

Here’s the kicker: If Breillat’s “Fat Girl” or “Sex Is Comedy” or even “The Last Mistress” were more or less postmodernist in their graphic melding of humor, sex and trauma, “Bluebeard” is a more resolutely modernist work, delighting in its own elliptical mode of narration and striking yet economically composed images. It’ll be interesting to see which direction Breillat heads in next: Should she continue to mine this vein of bold formalism (something that was also present, or at least hinted at, in “The Last Mistress”) or return to her previous project of pushing film content to its pornographic limits?

“Bluebeard” is now available for rental at Four Star Video Heaven. Very, very highly recommended.

For good measure, here’s the film’s trailer (en français):


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