Tuesday, June 21, 2011

#360: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm

(William Greaves, 1968)

What if Close-Up had been made by hippies? OK, maybe that's an oversimplification of both movies, but Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is certainly a meta-heavy exploration of the nature of cinema, and there happen to be a lot of people saying "man" in it who have hair that is not military-length. However, Close-Up seemed to me to be much more about the nature of watching a film, while this film is more about the nature of making one.

What's most interesting about the movie is how mysterious its intentions are. Are they actually trying to make a movie and filming the process, or is the process of filming the making of a movie the actual movie they are making? When the crew gets together to discuss the process, did they really do so without Greaves's permission, or is that a fabricated premise? And even if they did, doesn't the fact that Greaves included the scene in the film - and in many ways made it the core of the film - indicate that he fostered the kind of environment he was looking for with his initial concept? Simply by revolting against his authority, the crew may have made his film a success.

Further adding to the enigma of the film are the social cues that stick out with the passage of time. While the idea of a black director is much less conspicuous now than it was then, the flippant dialogue centered around the film-within-a-film's homophobic theme (along with some blatant sexism from the crew) must be evaluated from a modern perspective, which makes it even more difficult to look at the big picture and examine the film's true intentions.

These layers make Symbiopsychotaxiplasm an intriguing adventure in filmmaking and film viewing, but hardly an easily digestible piece of entertainment. The pleasure you derive from the film stems entirely from how much effort you put into it, particularly because the film lacks any resolution or even any real conclusion. It shouldn't be surprising that Steven Soderbergh, who has amassed one of the most unconventional oeuvres in mainstream American film, would be one of the major champions of the movie. Much of his more unusual work, particularly Bubble, Full Frontal, and one of his three Criterion entries, Schizopolis, finds its most novel ideas through an investigation of the nature of narrative film and its interaction with the audience. Schizopolis is arguably the best of these four films, but Symbiopsychotaziplasm goes so far down the rabbit hole that the journey feels even more exciting, despite a somewhat empty destination.

Monday, June 20, 2011

#582: Carlos

(Olivier Assayas, 2010)

Carlos has long been confirmed as a Criterion title, so the announcement last week was more of a formality than anything else. Combined with a (great) cover that is essentially a minor reworking of Sam Smith's theatrical poster, the announcement elicited more comments along the lines of "Finally!" than "Yes!"

This shouldn't take away from what will be one of the best contemporary films Criterion releases this year - possibly the best film of 2010. At five-and-a-half hours (it is unclear whether or not the film will be divided into three parts as it originally was or combined into one long piece for the Criterion release) Carlos is a sprawling epic that examines broad topics like terrorism, geopolitical gamesmanship, and an evolving global climate by focusing on one notorious terrorist from the cold war era in vivid detail. Assayas, whose last film, Summer Hours, is also in the Collection, has been increasingly interested in globalization, and Carlos seems to be his inevitable masterpiece on the topic. By examining a famous but now-irrelevant figure from history, Assayas is able to simultaneously evaluate how much the world has changed and delve into the psychology behind terrorism in a way that is totally relevant today.

Carlos serves foremost as a reminder that terrorism did not begin on September 11th, 2001. Following Carlos the Jackal (interestingly, the film never makes reference to this media-given nickname) through his decades-spanning career, the film charts the various relationships, attacks, and personal ups and downs of a celebrity terrorist. Assayas is able to develop Carlos as a fully realized character who becomes fascinating to watch but remains entirely unsympathic - perhaps most dominant in his persona is unrelenting narcissism, a characteristic that the film seems to argue is inherently tied to the concept of a so-called revolutionary intent on delivering terror. The detail with which his character is depicted over the course of the miniseries turns the movie into a topical in-depth investigation of the motivations behind terrorism.

Beyond these political aspirations, the movie is technically satisfying, most obviously because of Edgar Ramirez's performance. The actor speaks in multiple languages, gains and loses weight frequently, and goes from 0 to 60 in an instant. He is both totally believable as a charming and charismatic leader and terrifying as a foolish and dangerous psychopath. He commands attention and, like the film, manages to depict grand moments with such subtle and realistic detail that he manages to avoid cinematic tropes and stick to utter realism. Meanwhile, Assayas is quietly assured throughout, making the film a crime-novel-style investigation into major world events. The screenplay is dense as hell, but entirely rewarding.

At five and a half hours, Carlos is an intimidating journey, but one well worth it. I have a hard time thinking of many movies that have been better over the past few years, and Ramirez in particular is really spectacular. This is a welcome addition to the collection.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

#539: House

(Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)

House is undoubtedly one of the strangest movies you will ever see. It's also not coincidentally one of the most invigorating from a filmmaking perspective - there are moments here that are so filled with energy and ideas that it reminded me of when I was a kid and I would watch NBA playoff games and get so invested in the sport that I would have to go outside and play myself. House made me want to go into my backyard and make a movie - whatever movie I could, pulled together with camcorders and borrowed friends - and pour my whole being into it.

The plot of the movie would hardly qualify for an episode of The Twilight Zone. A group of teen girls has their vacation canceled, so one of them arranges for the group to visit her dead mother's older sister, whom she hasn't seen in years. As in most movies with a smiling ghost cat on the cover, things don't go as planned. The simple structure, however, is essential when a movie is this insane - there would just be no other way of following along with what's happening once pianos start eating people.

Even in the relatively calm beginning the film establishes its anarchic tone and then rarely lets up. Oddly, parts of the movie reminded me of Godard's A Woman is a Women, particularly moments that seemed more concerned with topical cool than rewarding plot development. But the movie that most came to mind was the comparatively tame Run, Lola, Run, which rode a similar crest of energy and style to international success a decade ago. Both movies have a certain music video aesthetic (though, of course, House was released before music videos became ubiquitous and developed the language we currently identify with the genre) and both films take simple stories and build something extraordinary out of them.  The most notable differences then can be attributed to the general sensibilities of their respective cultures, which in the case of House takes shape as a giant explosion of pop grotesqueries.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about House is that it was a commercial success in Japan. I don't know what that says about Japan, but the idea of a film this strange being successful in the US with anything other than the cult audience that has received it with open arms is almost entirely implausible. Still, the film is so strange, so idiosyncratic, so, well, itself that it refuses to be ignored. House is one step away from a giant disaster in every direction, and yet it is so infused with an unrestrained love of filmmaking that it walks the tightrope beautifully.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

#562: Blow Out

(Brian De Palma, 1981)

Blow Out is one of the few films that really is about voyeurism. Revolving loosely around a search for a perfect scream, De Palma's best film is related to the paranoid conspiracy films of the 1970s like The Parallax View and All the President's Men - and most obviously an homage of sort to Antonioni's masterpiece Blow Up - but is ultimately an exploration of an artist's relationship with his or her work, especially as it relates to cinema. That is, Blow Out is a movie about the unique experiences of making movies and consuming them.

John Travolta plays a sound man working on sleazy exploitation horror film when he is inadvertently thrown headfirst into a conspiracy that has left a governor and prospective candidate for president dead. The steps Travolta takes to develop evidence that proves the governor was murdered rather than killed in an unfortunate accident grow increasingly desperate throughout the film, culminating with the highly emotionally charged climax which takes place during a massive patriotic (but fictional) Philadelphia street parade.

Travolta is constantly struggling with the differences between observer and participant in the film. Before the car crashes, he listens in on a couple's romantic conversation. In the flashback to his days going after corrupt police, Travolta listens from afar, never sure when to join in. It is clear Travolta's character takes definite stances on this element, which makes his struggle to save Nancy Allen in the final moments that much more compelling. His desensitized response to the horror sequence at the beginning of the film emphasizes his own inability to connect with the outside world (much like James Woods's character a few years later in Videodrome) but his use of Allen's scream in the final moments seems to demonstrate that he is forever changed, finally sure he can always twist reality to suit whichever fantasy he chooses.

Blow Out becomes in those final moments one of those eternal fun house mirrors, a movie about movies. We are horrified by Travolta's choice, but deep down we know just how he feels - we were, after all, just watching a movie that featured Allen's cries and it was indeed a good scream. It's also, however, born out of the dying embers of the 70s, when the mistrust in authority gave way to cynical opportunism once the defiant realized they were powerless. Travolta's ultimate surrender is from integrity to commercialism, and the purity contained in Allen's last gasp is twisted into exploitation. The insistent, defiant hero has sold out and joined the firm.

#235: The Leopard

(Luchino Visconti, 1963)


The Leopard is certainly one of the most ambitious films I have watched so far. At over three hours (and still incomplete, with missing footage yet to be restored), the film guides us through countless gilded rooms, over battlegrounds and around darkened corners of Sicilian villages. It features three legendary figures in film history, the incomparable Burt Lancaster, the smoldering Claudia Cardinale, and the iconic Alain Delon. It centers in on the crucial moment in Italian history when the independent states such as Sicily were unified as a national whole, but it is truly concerned with the death of a world, the kingdom of the aristocracy. It is large. It contains multitudes.

Aside from being an epic of the highest and rarest degree (there are probably only two or three films as massive as this made every decade) The Leopard is also one of the best movies I have watched during this quest, which is to say it's one of the best movies I have ever seen. Dripping with detail and packed full of complex ideas and ideals, the film is endlessly fascinating - it was three hours, but I could have easily watched three more. Lancaster is so in charge of his role that it's sometimes easy to forget that he is being dubbed in Italian - an international star was necessary for the film's massive budget, but Lancaster was not Visconti's first choice and in fact was cast without his consent, though the two ended up working beautifully together, as demonstrated by the final product. He is able to reveal with the most subtle movements his character's loyalties, and he manages to be both intimidating and quietly resigned to obsolescence.

Perhaps the most natural comparison to The Leopard is Gone with the Wind. Also adapted from a novel set in the 1860s during a country's most defining (r)evolution, Gone with the Wind is equally impressive in its scope. But that earlier film, still the highest grossing movie ever made, suffers from overly simplistic characterizations and a Hollywood-style dedication to the empty spectacle (they were so anxious to get their rocks off with the burning of Atlanta sequence that it was made before they had even cast Vivien Leigh). In contrast, The Leopard is entirely focused on the decline of spectacle and the folly of such pursuits. Both movies have complex relationships with their protagonists, but only The Leopard chooses to face this complexity head on, making it a total pleasure to watch because the film is rich in character instead of obsessed with stereotypes.

This can all be traced back to Luchino Visconti, who had the talent and vision to complete such a massive undertaking. The biggest difference between a film like The Leopard and countless pseudo epics that pass themselves off as sprawling masterpieces is that a sure hand shines through in every frame. There are so many times during The Leopard when the camera confidently glides down a hallway or takes in a room that can only call to mind the tired cliché of "breathtaking." Visconti's blocking and framing are impeccable, and often reminded me of his Japanese contemporaries Kurosawa and Kobayashi. But most of all, his work is able to contain the massive presence of such spectacular performances by notable stars, forming a complete whole that feels like a contemporary event without taking away from its thematics.

The idea that this movie was slashed to pieces by American distributors is truly horrifying - I honestly don't know if I could sit through the English version of the film, though I do plan to try eventually and praise Criterion for including it in the set (just as I curse Netflix for only featuring the English version on streaming - let's all hope Hulu knows better). The Leopard deserves - demands - to be seen in Italian at Visconti's preferred length, just as any film lover deserves to experience its full beauty. Stunning and awe-inspiring, this one will stick with me for a long time.

#519: Close-up

(Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)

Close-Up is an enigma, a film that is simultaneously the vanguard of the post-modern response to the cinema and an immaculate conception of an isolated film culture. Abbas Kiarostami is probably the most famous director to come out of Iran - though he rose to fame during the 1990s, a decade full of astonishing output for a country that was and remains to this day an extremely difficult environment for expression. Yet in comparison with some of his contemporaries - Majid Majidi who made Children of Heaven, for example - Kiarostami rejects the neorealist tendencies found most often in work produced in countries which have a less developed cinema system.

Close-Up is Kiarostami's masterpiece by most accounts, and while I can only compare it to A Taste of Cherry, I certainly agree that it is a towering work. Mixing documentary footage and reenactments featuring the actual people who experienced the moments the first time around, Close-Up tells the story of a man put on trial for claiming to be a famous Iranian director, thus gaining the trust and respect (and potentially money) of a well-to-do family. The plot shifts back and forth between the real-life trial of the man and the recreated backstory of his deception and subsequent arrest. It features both the journalist who wrote an article detailing the crime and Kiarostami himself, asking for permission to film the trial.

What's most interesting about Kiarostami's work from a Western perspective is the complex interplay between the familiarity of his meta themes and the foreign nature of both his setting and culture and -much more importantly - his cinematic language. Close-Up - which is primarily concerned with cinema vs. reality, making it Kiarostami's quintessential work - might seem gimmicky from an American director, primarily because the temptation to tie the film's themes to the greater culture at large would be too great. But Kiarostami's film is such an unqualified success because it is stubbornly contained and oddly personal. I found myself moved both by the characters (slash subjects) of the film and by the film's interaction with my expectations. Close-Up manages to appeal to the heart and the head in such a primal way that it avoids the greatest trap of meta work - that it becomes too clever for its own good.