As many of you know, I spent a great deal of last year writing a senior thesis about the work of American experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton. Now, I’ve written a short overview of his work and consideration of the new Hollis Frampton Criterion Collection DVD for the online magazine Idiom. Take a gander! Thanks for reading.
(This was originally written for a blog run by my friend Alex.)
The Walking Dead, on AMC. Developed for television by Frank Darabont. Based on the comics by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore.
Siegfried Kracauer first suggested that the films of a nation reflect its mentality. What of a nation’s TV programming? The tone of AMC’s The Walking Dead bears undeniable similarities to the political language that has emerged in the United States during this nascent 21st century. Since their rise to prominence in George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, zombies have served as potent political symbols; warning against the evils of bioengineering as well as cheekily critiquing mindless consumer capitalism. The Walking Dead separates itself from classical Romero-style zombie narratives by focusing on a band of survivors instead of portraying the outbreak of a zombie epidemic–much like 28 Days Later, a triumph of zombie revisionism. (more…)
Oscar nominations were announced this morning and they might as well have been delivered by Mitt Romney, considering the deafening yawns with which they’ve been greeted. Before you check out the list, I just want to say that the only nomination I was looking forward to was one that didn’t end up happening. Albert Brooks’ turn as a murderous gangster/movie producer in Drive warranted a Supporting Actor nod, though it didn’t receive one. (more…)
Fresh off the heels of Contagion, Steven Soderbergh delivers Haywire, a lean government spy story. What drives the film are its action sequences, driven by mixed martial arts star Gina Carano’s abilityto kick and jum and crush throats with her thighs. The film also reunites Soderbergh with writer Lem Dobbs, responsible for penning one of the director’s best films, The Limey. Like The Limey, Haywire is a bare-bones genre flick that depends on its ability to play with convention in a way that’s more reminiscent of Shoot the Piano Player than Pulp Fiction. (more…)
Top 10 lists are a universally reviled form of critical expression for a reason: they force the thoughtful fluidity and artfulness of criticism into the confines of ascending order. It’s an exercise as banal as arranging a class of elementary school students by height. Countless stratagems exist that allow list-makers to ease the blow of their pointless task, though the successful approach for me has always been simple irony. See my inclusion of Tron: Legacy in last year’s top 10 list, or 2012 the year before that: two really bad movies meant to serve as a middle-finger to the very existence of year-end top 10 lists.
This year, I approached the list differently. I still don’t think of it as a serious critical process. I think of it as an impression. These are the first films I remembered when I thought about the experiences I had in movie theaters this year. Any picture I couldn’t remember on my own wouldn’t deserve a place below. In fact, I’m glad to have forgotten about the films I saw in 2011 that I can’t remember. They were the high school acquaintances of my movie-going experience. Their only suitable future purpose can be to serve as obscure punchlines. (more…)
Terrence Malick has made five films in thirty-eight years. All of his films are recognized critically as masterpieces. Keeping with that tradition, his most recent film The Tree of Life won top honors at the Cannes film festival last month. Speaking about the film, head of the Cannes jury Robert DeNiro said, “It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” DeNiro’s offhand comment is invaluable to deciphering how this film has steadily risen, without much apparent consideration, to a respectable position within the pantheon of contemporary American filmmaking.
The movie is basically the story of Malick’s Texan youth in the 1950s, intercut with glossy meditations on the history of life on Earth. Sean Penn, playing the older version of the young boy we see constantly intimidated by his father (Brad Pitt), wanders awed and aimlessly through a gleaming present-day metropolis. There is a quiet voiceover, often whispered, presumably because only serious things are whispered. As with any of Malick’s films, bizarre moments are captured with a grace that makes them undeniably appealing. In one scene a band of young, directionless boys destructively wander the hinterlands of their hometown; a father intensely urges his son to hit him as the camera floats gently before their faces; children frolic in clouds of hazardous DDT.
What sets these sequences apart from the rest of the film is their total honesty. They don’t defer to clichéd images that stink of Planet Earth—they instead capture the weirdness of being young, the inanities of fatherhood, strange moments that are genuinely past. Even if these aren’t real memories, they’re still something known, something felt, something represented.
However, the elements of the film that haves garnered most praise, confusion, and appreciation are the sequences concerning the origins of life. (more…)
J.J. Abrams Super 8 is a movie banking on the nostalgia of the Spielberg era of innocent American filmmaking. It seeks to appeal, I gather, not necessarily to kids and teens looking to cool off and get some thrills, but instead to their parents, who remember with fondness ET and The Goonies. What makes Super 8 more successful than other recent kidcentric adventure movies, though, is not its relationship to Spielberg’s action-comedies and science fiction dramas—unless that relationship is understood primarily in terms of historical setting. The movie’s 1979 setting is not an accident, nor is it pure homage. Instead, it’s the only way J.J. Abrams could possibly make a movie that doesn’t involve little kids interacting with computers, cellular phones, and the other assorted technical artifacts that keep kids from actually doing interesting things on screen. (more…)
Less of a review, more of a reflection.
Broadcast News, dir. James L. Brooks (1987)
Probably few of you remember this irritable writer complaining that The Criterion Collection had opted to release James L. Brooks’ 1987 Broadcast News instead of putting out “more Godard.” It seemed like a fair pronouncement at the time, one that few people would disagree with. Then I saw Broadcast News. (more…)
For those of us who paid even marginal attention to this years Cannes film festival, there were two non-surprises that were somehow engineered to be received as stunners. First, and probably less surprising, was the banning of Lars von Trier, the famously badgerlike Dane; second was the victory of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life over the other highfalutin shoo-ins from other directors who have become Cannes mainstays. Both directors came out on top–though for drastically different reasons. (more…)
The Fighter, dir. David O. Russell (2010)
The most impressive thing about The Fighter is its dedication to media reenactment. For the film’s boxing matches the filmmakers looked not only to acquire the actual cameras on which those matches were filmed, they acquired the original HBO crews to recreate, shot for shot, Micky Ward’s fights. From my description, you might think that what emerges is something annoying in its quest for authenticity. Yet the performances—from Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams—are so strong in their own right that they maintain aesthetic reenactments while steering clear of cheap imitation. (more…)
Somewhere, dir. Sofia Coppola (2010)
Richard Brody—a critic whom I respect—said of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere that it was “One of the most radical films ever made in Hollywood, if the root of the cinema is the conjuring of inner life through outer particulars. The gap between the life lived and the life perceived—a quiet tragedy, Sartre-style—is traversed with the tender, near-weightless glide of a Ferrari on a freeway.” I thought about Brody’s assessment of the film for a long time after I saw it. Aside from being simple amazed with Brody’s coining of the term Sartre-style to refer to an aesthetic, I wondered if we could have seen the same film: I would hardly call Somewhere, with its by now clichéd neo-Antonioni visual metaphors strained through Stephen Shore cinematography, radical.
New Yorker film critic David Denby prefaced his list of his favorite films of the year with a tidbit about Boston on film. Denby wrote:
“In recent American movies, Boston—not New York, not Chicago, not Los Angeles, but Boston—has provided the significant setting and a special urban music of slang, oaths, nostalgia, taunts, affection. The cycle of Boston films began, in 1997, with “Good Will Hunting,” which was written by its stars, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who were childhood friends in Cambridge. Dennis Lehane’s soulful Boston thrillers have served as the basis of Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, “Mystic River” (2003) and Affleck’s directing début, “Gone Baby Gone” (2007). The Boston screenwriter William Monahan wrote “The Departed” (2006), in which Mark Wahlberg, from Dorchester, appears in a supporting role as a fast-talking cop; Wahlberg now stars in “The Fighter,” set in Lowell, just to the northwest of Boston, as the real-world boxer and welter-weight champ Mickey Ward. Earlier this year, Affleck appeared as a Charlestown bank robber in “The Town,” his second film as director, and he plays one of the local executives who get whacked by a downsizing Boston conglomerate in the new “Company Men.” That’s seven major films. Now, you could say that the entire phenomenon is sparked by Bostonian male stars. True, of course, but Affleck, Damon, and Wahlberg wouldn’t get money for these films from the hardnoses of Hollywood finance if the movies weren’t expected to resonate around the rest of the country. So what is the source of Boston’s appeal? All these movies are about white working-class ethnics—Irish Catholics, in particular—who can talk a blue streak, and all of them are about men and women in clans. Families, friends, neighbors. The clan makes you and it threatens to destroy you, and for the heroes (who are all male—Arise, ye daughters of Hibernia!), the question becomes: Do I leave or do I stay? Do I let the clan define me or must I strike out on my own? And for the rest of us, the question might be: Is this neighborhood and ethnic solidarity not only a celebration, an atmosphere of terrific rough talk and family warmth, but a shudder of anticipation, a last united stand in multicultural America?”
A timely question–one I’ll certainly be thinking about. The only shudder here is that Boston becomes, in Denby’s eyes, the last refuge of white America. We all know Boston has a tremendous reputation for racism–but more so than L.A., New York, or Chicago? If Denby wants someone in Boston to make Crash, he shouldn’t insult our intelligence. Even Shaq happily calls Boston home (this is a petty point, I know). And though the whiteys of The Fighter certainly come out clan-like, they’re worlds away from the people in Company Men or even Good Will Hunting. Boston is also home to the highest concentrated number of Brazilians outside of Brazil, another sign on if tremendous diversity which hasn’t yet seen the light of the camera or projector. Yet how right–despite how narrow–Denby’s analysis is will be shaken slightly off balance, I expect, by other films from The Hub, as the city continues its on-screen ascent.
True Grit, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (2010)
My previous opinions on this blog can attest to my cagey relationship with the Coen Brothers. Some films—like The Big Lebowski—stand out as undeniably great, while others—anything from Miller’s Crossing to No Country for Old Men—seem a little too content with their supposed perfection for me to find them genuinely good. True Grit, though, appears to demonstrate a new direction for the Coen Brothers. (more…)
Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010), dir. Oliver Stone
23 years ago, Wall Street had it all: fat ties and golden tie buttons, suspenders, cocaine, Daryl Hannah. It consumed the zeitgeist of the 80s and spat it back out with cold venom. No one can forget how gaunt Gordon Gekko was—he looked like he should have had the heaviest shadows under his eyes (but this was Hollywood and of course he had nothing of the sort).
There are so many Gordon Gekkos that have come out of our culture—people who swallow the cruelty of a generation wholesale and spit it out with extra fire–but just because Gekko is a type doesn’t mean we’ve had one in a while. While the 80s were easy to embody, to critique, and be dissatisfied with, Bush was too much of a buffoon for anyone to really do anything but groan. Haven’t you missed Gekko? I have. (more…)
This has long been a Youtube favorite of mine: a 1958 Disney cartoon focusing on the Magic Highway of Tomorrow. One of the weirdest things about this is that it’s all analogue. If anyone can suggest any relevant reading about the switch from analogue to digital computing, please do. For now, enjoy this short ‘toon. Anyone interested in extra credit should compare to this video Le Corbu. Also looks a little like Dubai if that’s more your bag. Meanwhile I’m waiting for our heated pavement to melt the snow outside (this shouldn’t even been an issue thanks to my hovering car).
We’re in the middle of a blizzard here in Boston, so I thought I’d share some tips for those who need a hand getting through it.
1) The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I – Probably the best Christmas gift anyone could get this year, unless you needed a kidney or something. Twain stipulated that his autobiography only be published 100 years after his death. Lucky for us, we live to see the day. At over 700 pages, volume I is endless amusement to help you weather the storm.
2) Casino – Martin Scorsese is the only person who can make a casino look and feel like a cathedral. Strange (or maybe not so strange) that a film about the desert gets you through a snow storm. Special bonus: anyone who dresses as DeNiro or Pesci from this movie for Halloween 2011 will get something special from me.
3) Hollis Frampton on Ubuweb — Okay, I have to come clean. This is where I’ve been for the past however many months. I’m writing a senior thesis about Frampton, and before I was able to get my hands on the bulk of his films, I was leaning on Ubuweb like Walter Brennan on a wall. Do yourself a favor and watch Gloria!. If you don’t shed a tear you’d better get back on the yellow brick road.
4) A Winter Romance — Dean Martin’s 1959 Christmas album is good enough to listen to for a few days after Jesus’ Birthday has passed. In fact, I’ll probably have it spinning well into the new year. Put it on, listen to “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.” It doesn’t get any better.
5) Woodford Reserve – Whatever you’re doing, have some of this. You can replace the ice with a little clump of fresh snow from outside. And yeah, you can have another. Even a few others. The later you wake up tomorrow the later you have to shovel snow. Either that or you could wind up doing some serious playing in the snow.
Let the year end lists roll out. In preparation for our Company selection of the best films of 2010, I thought I’d tease out a selection of the best DVDs of the year from the Criterion Collection, one fetish for which I will never apologize.
1) Colossal Youth, dir. Pedro Costa (2006) — This film is enormous. Puts Costa in league with Béla Tarr. I love this movie.
2) Lola Montes, dir. Max Ophuls (1955) — Lush from the man who invented it. A spectacle gets the DVD it deserves.
3) Red Desert, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1964) — There’s only one way to watch Antonioni’s first foray into color filmmaking: on film. If you can’t do that, do this.
4) Underworld, dir. Josef von Sternberg (1927) — The film that launched the classic American gangster genre. There is a world inside the world.
5) Paisan, dir. Roberto Rossellini (1946) — Rossellini’s episodic follow-up to Rome, Open City is even more beautiful and, until now, much harder to find.
Runners-up: Make Way for Tomorrow and Night Train to Munich. No matter how good Criterion’s releases are, I always manage to find a fault: couldn’t they put out more Godard instead of Broadcast News? Do they really need to remaster The Ice Storm or Easy Rider instead of giving Kiarostami some extra distribution? But I guess Criterion gotta eat. Either way, a continual tip of the hat from me (even though you’ve been tipping my wallet for a while now).
There’s a new “edition” (new to my knowledge) of Oliver Laric’s Versions posted to his website. This time, Laric makes use of Disney’s penchant for reusing animation cells and the Romans’ tendency to copy Greek artwork to riff on the status of the image, which Laric argues is not watered down by but in fact requires reproduction (and always has). Laric’s versions are essential to any understanding of the multiplicities of the internet—-I’m extremely grateful for this one.
I’ve been trying, desperately, to come up with something intelligent to say about Toy Story 3 (something other than, “My mother and I cried watching this movie). With any luck, that review will be up here by the end of the week (any luck, really…). For now, I’ve been able to distract myself with the trailer for the film New Jerusalem, which stars Will Oldham. I love Oldham’s music and his acting, so I’ll be keeping and eye out for this one. As Vulture points out, his output is prolific. But it’s his presence in films–heartfelt, bizarre, genuinely talented and pleasurable to watch–that always fascinates me. This one looks no different.
If you watched the Webby Awards–which, thank you so much for asking but, no, we did not sweep–you probably saw the funniest introduction of the night. It featured Jason Bateman and Will Arnett introducing Arnett’s wife, Amy Pohler:
What you may not know is that the introduction was written by Ruchiki writer and Company member Peter Warren. Congratulations, Peter, for the joke of the night–which means a lot next to Zach Galifianakis and BJ Novak. Make sure you put in a good word for us next time.
I spent two rainy, somewhat cold, humid days in Paris last week. Exhausted and dirty, I felt like a young hero from a Balzac novel: none of the nobility, all of the fervor. At least I wasn’t wearing Tevas and crew socks. (more…)
I’ve been plagued by jet lag for the past few days, waking up around 4 wide-eyed and unable to roll over and talk in my sleep for hours (like I’d like to). It’s a nice, icy blue time of day–good to catch up on some reading, but even better to do some lonely home viewing. Here are a few of the things I’ve been enjoying at unlikely hours.
1. Breaking Bad — Okay, maybe you shouldn’t watch this at 4 AM: its tone is downright apocalyptic; and it’s more melodramatic than AMC’s other amazing offering, Mad Men. But Breaking Bad is not only engrossing and addicting, it’s pointed and truly modern in a way that fills a void left by The Wire and The Sopranos. The Season 3 premiere might be the best “the way we live now” ever.
2. By Brakhage — I’ve been revisiting these in preparation for the day when I buy Volume Two. Watching Brakhage without the flicker of the projector can be bizarre, but on DVD in the deserted morning it seems perfect: just let yourself zoom in, frame by frame, and watch everything pass and flow. But don’t look at it like a painting: it’s a film.
3. JFK — Why, yes, a healthy dose of epic conspiracy theory before the sun rises is more enjoyable than at night with friends. Paranoia is better in the dawn? Maybe. Don DeLillo in the evening, by the fire; Oliver Stone in the morning, with coffee. Back and to the left.
4. The Silent World — You’ve seen The Life Aquatic. Now spring for the real thing: Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle collaborated on this Oscar winning documentary which seems timelier now more than ever. All the DVD collections of Cousteau’s explorations are also highly recommended.
5. Guy Maddin — All of Guy Maddin’s bizarre and beautiful films are made better by early morning confusion and lightheadedness, especially Archangel and the amazing Careful.
Today, my good friend Kevin and I launched a Tumblr called Lines of Flight. We’ll provide tidbits from popular culture, history, philosophy, science–anything–and illuminate them with passages from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, which we’ve spent a semester plowing through. Stop by, please, if you’re interested in another way to look at pop culture.