Posts Tagged ‘critic-on-critic’

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.”

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.)

Finally: “Film Socialisme”

May 18, 2010

For those of you who were anxiously waiting for Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, “Film Socialisme,” to receive its much-anticipated premiere at Cannes, the wait, as of yesterday morning, is over. (I mean, what are the chances that it’ll get anything even vaguely resembling a nationwide distribution deal?) I’ll direct you toward this post by David Hudson over at the Daily Notebook, where he has aggregated most of the mixed/mystified response that the film has engendered in the day since its debut.

Funny how even the reviews that are intended to be at least somewhat negative only make me more eager to see what looks to be one of JLG’s most challenging, infuriating, inscrutable and uncompromising works of cinematic collage yet. For an encouragingly puzzled response to the film, I recommend that you read Manohla Dargis’s piece from yesterday’s Times.

As a recent (like, extremely recent) college graduate, I look forward to sharing “des problèmes de type grec” with Godard. And let’s pray that “Film Socialisme” opens somewhere other than NY at some point in our lifetimes, eh?

The Orpheum: Soon to become Madison’s largest arthouse theater

May 17, 2010

Spatially speaking, that is.

This isn’t exactly news but I missed my initial chance to comment on it when I was tied up with graduation stuff last week: 77 Square’s Rob Thomas reports that all summer long the Orpheum will be bringing an assortment of non-commercial (for lack of a better word) films to town for their first runs in Madison. This would be genuinely exciting news but, alas, the lineup is pretty underwhelming.

Yes, “Police, Adjective” (opening on Friday) is a phenomenal piece of work, but it already played here at the Play Circle in February and during the Romanian and Wisconsin Film Festivals. I tend to doubt that anybody who passed on it then is going to jump at the opportunity to see it now.

As for the rest of the films, only “The Most Dangerous Man in America” (opens May 28) and “House” (opens August 1) stick out to me as potential musts. Everything else screams “we took what we could have gotten without having to make much of an effort” (which is just the opposite of Sundance Cinemas’ attitude; to have a theater downtown that has Sundance’s exhibition mentality, though perhaps with truer aim, would be invaluable).

Finally, I’m totally clueless as to what Thomas likes about the Orpheum as a movie-watching venue:

One of the many good things about the Wisconsin Film Festival is that it reminds you what a great place the Orpheum Theatre is to see a movie. Granted, it’s unlikely that a regular screening there will draw a rapt crowd of 1,500 (like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” did during the fest, which was a great moviegoing experience), but the charm of the elegant old dame can’t be beat.

I went to three different screenings last semester alone in which the Orpheum’s projector broke down—once when there wasn’t a projectionist anywhere near the booth, thereby turning a 90-second bump-in-the-road into a 25-minute gargantuan annoyance. Plus the place has one of the worst sound-systems I’ve ever heard. When I attended a screening of “Collateral” there during the Wisconsin Film Festival, I asked Manohla Dargis what she thought of the theater’s sound-system, knowing perfectly well how’d she’d respond to my query; she said something to the effect of “Horrible. Just awful.” “Elegant old dame” or decrepit old hag?

Kid’s-eye view of a constant state of emergency

May 12, 2010

In this week’s Village Voice J. Hoberman reviews Benny and Josh Safdie’s “Daddy Longlegs” (2009), which, as you’ll recall, was my favorite narrative feature from the 2010 Wisconsin Film Festival. Indeed, I liked it so much that I ranked it #4 on my list of the top 10 movies that screened in Madison more than once over the course of the past school year.

Hoberman’s take on the film’s protagonist, Ronald Bronstein’s Lenny (not to be confused with his girlfriend, Leni), is pretty harsh, almost unsmiling; put simply, Hoberman seems to have been much less amused by Lenny’s various parental screw-ups than I was. Yet, he also seems to have found an especially spacious room in the film via forehead-slapping observation of Lenny’s bad behavior that I myself wasn’t able to spend much if any time in: the psychological—or, more precisely, psychodramatic—dimension of “Daddy Longlegs,” the discreetly raw dialectic formed by its 9-year-old adults and 40-something toddlers.

Keep your fingers crossed that “Daddy Longlegs” gets released on DVD some time in the next few months. It definitely deserves to be revisited.

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 5/5

May 5, 2010

From Nicole Brenez’s “The Ultimate Journey” (which, by the way, is a must-read for anyone—er, anybody—who’s into this sort of stuff):

Modern theories of cinema in fact unceasingly return to “the simplest question: the body, how do you find it?” The great analyses of the last years have looked into the ways in which film presupposes, elaborates, gives or abstracts a body, not hesitating to pose again such primitive questions as what texture is it (flesh, marble, plaster, affect, doxa)? What is its framework (skeleton, semblance, becoming, a structure of formlessness [plastiques de l’informe])? What destroys it (the other, history, deforming its contours)? What kind of community does its gestures allow it to envision (people, collectivity [collection], alignment with the same)? To what regime of the visible has it submitted (apparition, extinction, haunting)? What is its story really (an adventure, a description, a panoply)? What creature is it at bottom (an organism, an effigy, a cadaver)? In sum, they have explored the ways in which a film invents a figurative logic.

[…] For me the invention of figural analysis for the cinema definitively began in 1979 with Godard’s mise-en-page for his issue 300 of Cahiers and, very precisely, with the montage that argued, “See how Krystyna Janda acts in a bad dream of what used to be October“. Such is the Bazinian exigency maintained in the heart of a type of non-Bazinian analysis that no longer takes the real as second nature or as the second nature of film and which, in every way, does not have the same conception of the real (rather Lacanian these days): to find the way the cinema discovers human experience (and this could be a door as unexpected as Cocteau’s mirror-pools, the anxious face of an actress in a tendentious film [film à thèse], the formless shot of a bus with which nothing can be done) and the way the cinema sets that experience forth naked, in its radical strangeness, in that which is unnameable in it.

Reevaluating indie

May 4, 2010

Yesterday J.J. Murphy posted something that I think is very much worth reading: an attempt to make sense of the recent debate being waged by bloggers and filmmakers alike about what indie cinema is and can do in 2010.

I won’t pile much of my own commentary on top of J.J.’s because I think that his take on indie cinema’s present predicament ought to be read on its own terms. But I will add that I echo his sentiments on the following point: indie cinema always has an audience, even in smallish markets like Madison, and we definitely need distribution networks that can deliver contemporary indie films to these smallish markets while the critical buzz about them is at its height. (This then begs the question, to be answered at a later date: in the internet age, are conversations about individual movies ever really dead?)

Some screentime for the snobs

May 4, 2010

Today’s edition of the Daily Cardinal features my esteemed colleague Justin Stephani’s last music column of the semester; in it, he grapples with audiophilia (which he makes seem quite similar to cinephilia) as a sociocultural phenomenon through an outstanding reading of Stephen Frears’s surprisingly epochal (if you know the people I know, that is) comedy “High Fidelity” (2000). The following passage is especially relevant, given all the attention that film culture and cinephilia get on this blog:

Rob [John Cusak] and friends compete with each other in utterly immature ways. At one point or another, they all look like assholes who enjoy the title of “snob” way too much, and they all deal with similar social ineptitudes. These—even moreso than the aspirations above—can be associated with the breed of music-lovers. And when audiences are forced to get to know Rob in these personal ways on top of his superficial snobby qualities, it’s easier to look past the pretentiousness and sympathize with his inadequacies. This is the hope and envy of audiophiles: To be judged not by the sometimes snobby color of their language, but by the content of their character (and music libraries). [my emphasis]

My own tear-soaked swansong will be delivered in Thursday’s paper. Until then…

What to watch this summer (sort of)

May 3, 2010

In today’s edition of the Daily Cardinal you’ll find a preview of a handful of movies scheduled for release this summer written by my colleagues Kevin Slane, Jacqueline O’Reilly and Todd Stevens. The feature is certainly worth a look if you’ve somehow managed to avoid the trailers for “Iron Man 2” and whatnot (and if you did, tell me your secret). Personally, I have no desire whatsoever to see any of the films they wrote about (with the possible exception of that new Christopher Nolan movie with Leo, which I doubt I’ll end up seeing unless somebody else flips the bill). Either way, check the feature out; after all, there’s only one week of Daily Cardinals left for your reading pleasure.

“The Sun” at Sundance Cinemas

April 30, 2010

Sheez, my post titles have been works of art today.

Eminent Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s 2004 feature “The Sun,” which received its first (limited) run in American theaters last November, is now playing at Madison’s Sundance Cinemas. For local cinephiles, this is cause for serious excitement: Sokurov is one of the boldest, most dazzlingly grandiose film artists working today. (Anyone who has seen his 2002 film “Russian Ark,” which is as much a dance performed by a cast of thousands as it is a singular cinematic achievement, can attest to the boldness and dazzling grandiosity of which I speak.)

“The Sun” was showered with praise by critics like Manohla Dargis and J. Hoberman during its November release; I’m pleased to see that my editor at Isthmus, Kenneth Burns, also found it thoroughly thought-provoking. I’m hoping to catch “The Sun” at some point this weekend—tornadoes permitting.