Saturday, October 8, 2016

Ava DuVernay's 13TH

It's not enough to look at one thing to analyze what is wrong with it, is a key point that may get overlooked (or simply not exactly the focus, but between the lines) in Ava DuVernay's powerful indictment of an entire society.  When you look at the systemic issues of racism in this country, slavery is the key thing, and the title refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution (need a cinematic reference point, see Spielberg's Lincoln for more), and how one small line in the amendment referring to how slavery is outlawed except, kinda, sorta, for criminals, is paramount in how black people and bodies have been treated in the 150 years since the end of the Civil War. 

Because at extremely crucial times in history, like right after the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, black people were not in positions of power or government or, of course, in business (as this doc goes very in depth on), figures who spouted 'Law and Order' and "War on Drugs" made life not a matter of inconvenience or difficult for blacks, it was more like a refitting or metamorphosis of the sort of principle that went into slavery - keep everyone repressed and afraid, and if they get out of line they have to work and work for no wages and have little rights - into the modern age.  Anyone can look up the statistics about how high the prison incarceration rates have gone up over the past 45 years (this despite the fact that, at least since the 1990's, crime rates have gone down generally speaking nationwide), and particularly for African Americans the struggle is that, well, 1 out of 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetimes (vs how much smaller that ratio is for whites).

DuVernay's film is a mix of a variety of talking heads, muckraking information that might be out of a Michael Moore film about things like the ALEC company and the like who formulate actual legislation that is pro-for-profit prisons, and footage from the likes of Nixon and Reagan's most damning points looking "Presidential" while distorting the truth (and the even more damning points from their advisers caught on tape how they actually were going about specifically going after minorities as "threats" to the system).  Constantly here, the thing is, nothing is in a vacuum.  What we see from The Birth of a Nation by Griffith (incidentally I saw this doc mere hours after seeing Parker's new film, so this almost picks up where he left off), was that there actually was a film that one can say really did inspire people to commit acts of violence: hyping up the KKK to become a dominant force after years of being dormant and unpopular, by painting blacks as the "savages" that will come and rape and pillage your precious whites. 

So much in that film may seem awful and hateful now, but also these sorts of images continue to be perpetuated, is what DuVernay is saying, and things are interconnected all the time; what happened with the Central Park Five in 1989; Willie Horton; Bill Clinton's crime bill; Mandatory Mininums; Trayvon Martin and Ferguson; all of these companies making bills for politicians that they can literally *fill in the blank* with their state name, which calls to question what a country is if corporations are writing bills.  There's so much to unpack in the film, but as a director DuVernay keeps things moving at a pace that is electrifying but also never hard to take in.  I'd want to watch this again more-so to admire the touches of filmmaking, all of the text pieces she puts up to accompany song transitions (Public Enemy for one), than even to take in pieces of information she puts out.

Also fascinating is how she puts the variety of talking heads here: we get people like Charlie Rangel (who was once very tough on crime and regrets it today) and mayor David Dinkins and Cory Booker and Angela Davis, but we also get to see Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist and a sort of spokesman for one of these ALEC type of companies (I forget his name).  Having them juxtaposed with figures who have seen how awful this country has treated people of color in the justice system with drug laws that are meant to make criminal (that's a word that comes back again and again) makes for a viewing experience that can be startling but it keeps you on your toes.  Will they possibly say something reasonable or reprehensible?  Some watching it may not even know who Norquist is - I should think DuVernay made this film to last, not just for the 2016 year, albeit clips from Clinton and Trump, the latter some of the explosive racist moments at his campaign stops in the crowds, make it timely - but it shouldn't matter too much.

13th gives you a massive amount of facts and statistics, but it's never a lecture, and if it's a plea it's that people should realize real reforms don't or really can't happen overnight.  Minds and attitudes need to change on a more fundamental level, where *centuries* of oppression have kept metastasizing like a cancer.  And at the center of it is DuVernay creating a conversation and narrative that inspires a great many emotions, mostly sadness and anger, but is just as palpable as in her film Selma.  A must-see.

Friday, July 15, 2016


"Now I know how Batman feels."

People are already going to want to know: Jack (and I'll reply, 'yes, reader?'), what is *wrong* with the new Ghostbusters, as if there immediately has to be something wrong with something just because it carries the namesake of a beloved product from the 1980's (perhaps the mere fact that there's been an outcry over a remake is a sign that there is still some fire in the belly of people not beaten down by remakes, though more on that near the end of this review). But if I had a general response it's that, simply, generally speaking, the "Ghostbuster Paradigm" is off here. It's not the only issue with the movie - and there are good things I can say about it (and will) - and what I come away with most is that four main characters (you can also call it the "Ninja Turtles" paradigm or the "Avengers paradigm from the 2012 Marvel movie") are not too distinctive from one another.

Actually, that's not fully the case. Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are... well, Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, but that's the problem. Their characters do what the script tells them to, as do the actors (hey, it's their job, right), but personality wise you don't get those clear distinctions that were there in that original Ghostbusters; the wisecracking guy we can relate to with Venkman; the straight-arrow guy who's kind of the leader in Stantz; Egon being the scientist so he's super-sciency; and Winston as the, well, guy off the street who we maybe identify with the most as the outsider. There is an exception in Paul Feig and Kate Dippold's creation here which is with Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann. She's an actress who totally embraces this character as a full-blown sciency-quirk-nerdy piece of magnificence, someone who can be whip smart and have a quick retort, but who also *looks* distinctive (I suspect at conventions cosplayers will most go after her look), and she gets to be really silly in down-time moments, singing to herself like no one is looking (even if someone is) or doing a little dance as she fixes something. She's a cool, awesome update of the Egon, and McKinnon is consistent and funny in the role.

But Wiig and McCarthy? More hit or miss, and while the filmmakers try to make the two distinctive early on - Wiig as the college professor fired over a book she wrote with McCarthy's character years back (why it's only discovered now, who knows, whatever, movie), and the former trying to at first distance herself while the latter's more like "no, no, ghosts, ghosts, c'mon' - but once they face off against their first paranormal entity early in the film, the two characters are not really distinctive, both can have some wisecracks (maybe Wiig's *slightly* more dry, but more-so it's that awkward-stilted approach to line delivery that she's perfected over time) and yet there's no distinction between types... which leads me to Leslie Jones, who, I say, IS trying here, but is given a character that has the one dimension of "AAH! GHOSTS! Can I work with y'all", and that's about it.

Even Slimer's like, "I'm getting told for this shit"

Her performance goes from at best tolerable, goofy sidekick to being obnoxious (and most of those scenes, to be fair, are in the trailer, some are left for the movie to give us new scenes to see as tired screaming-black-lady types), and Jones is better than that. Ironically given the four ladies, Chris Hemsworth gets a good role as the "token male" (ho-ho) who also happens to be playing the dumb-blonde type. This diverts from the original movie, which is fine (actually the attraction part now shows the reversal, where before Jeanine hit on Egon to little result, now one or more of the ladies try to when they interview him, and he's so dumb it goes one ear out the other), and Hemsworth owns what is basically also a one-note joke. But he plays that note for all it's worth, and is definitely the highlight of a climax that is... messy.

I think that I can say that this remake (let's call it that, f*** a 'reboot') of Ghostbusters is not terrible. It's also not very good on the whole. It certainly can shine in little pockets. It can also be irksome when a scene goes on for far too long - like a scene with Andy Garcia as the mayor where the Ghostbusters are called frauds, sort of - and it becomes like a game of one-up(wo)man-ship, and it's painful to see the jokes die. A lot of lines and jokes died for me, which is a shame since the actors clearly have good comic timing and chemistry, and can deliver exposition with some aplomb. But along with the weak 'four-character paradigm' aspect, there's also the familiarity that gets crammed in like a fowl in foie gras: slimer shows up, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man shows up (kinda, sorta, it happens) and even the *logo* becomes that "form of destruction" from the original.

For me it's not that it can't be be helped to associate this with the 1984 movie. I love that piece of work, but I can watch one thing and keep it at that. A major problem is that the movie won't let me, for the most part. At times it does try to make its own mark, like a 'villain' who is just some freak living in a hotel who wants to bring the "Ley Lines" to fruition (yeah, it's the plot, whatever), but it still calls back to the original over and over and over again. Just when it starts to cut its own path it goes back and says "remember the Ghost House? Remember the Ray Parker theme? Remember this and that and the other? Well, here it is again, anew!" And all in all it leaves one with an impression that this is all.... okay. Certainly Feig and the actors are trying. But it's burdened by the weight of its own franchise and not being able to just left go and cut a rug. Oh, and the improv, that's hit or miss too.

Lastly, there's the not-really-but-hey-internet elephant in the room of "Well, it's women now, so it's gonna suck" argument. What one comes away with is the people making these claims likely also were the same who said that Ben Affleck would be AWFUL as Batman. Get over it you small-penised losers. That's the absolute least of this movie's problems!

In other news, Chris Christie sucks because he's FAT!

Thursday, July 14, 2016


I imagine Nicolas Winding Refn (seriously, at this point he should shorten it to N.W. Refn and go full old-school auteur on us, Murnau style) has a lot of deep thoughts to put forward to his audiences. Sometimes they manifest out through stories and characters and images that coalesce in a succinct way (Drive), and other times not so much (Only God Forgives). But it's safe to say he's now in another universe than as the director who once did gritty hand-held street crime movies like the Pusher series, as he has a film that feels like a final thesis project in a Stanley Kubrick Masters class. And if I were a professor given the unlikely and dubious task of assigning students 'grades', Refn would get a B+. Or a B, I'm still not sure.

At any rate, I can call the man an artist because he listens to no one but his own intuition for a film such as The Neon Demon, which is mostly a drama (and in its way somewhat or maybe mostly too a horror film) about a seemingly ingenue-like 16 year old who comes to LA to gain traction as a model (Elle Fanning) and the perils she comes up against as she rises to stardom. Or... is it stardom? She says at one point to a male friend (not quite a boyfriend, I think) that she can't write or sing or do things creatively like that, but she's pretty and "I can get money for that." So she's out for the ego part, no question - how far she'll go is of course always the trouble in these stories.

If this kind of rise-and-fall scenario sounds familiar, well, it is. It's not uncommon to get the story of a young woman trying to find her way into fame and fortune only to have back-biting b***hes on a back because, well, they don't have "It". I think if Refn is out to use his gaze at anything, and it's a powerful one for much of the film, it's to look at the ugliness and despair and kind of scathing depravity just under the surface. Again, not necessarily the most original point either (I was reminded of the one bit from the movie Holy Motors, where the photographer is shouting one moment "Beauty! Beauty! Beauty" then turns his gaze at the freak and goes "Weird! Werid! Weird!")

There's many sequences in the film that are striking, if nothing else for how they're shot - ironically Refn, from what I've read and heard, is color-blind, so a magnanimous kudos to Natasha Braier and her team for the cinematography, tops for the year (like the kind that features lens flare that works, well, take note JJ Abrams) - like when Jessie, Fanning's supposed ingenue, is in front of the photog Jack (Desmond Harrington, remember him from Dexter, much better-creepier here, stone solid). It's her first time with him and he has her strip, to which he closes off the set and gets her slathered in gold. It's not done in some way like he's being a pervert or deviant, except in the way that maybe artists can get or are called out on (maybe Refn's own meta-commentary, in his way, a little, I think so), but it's really about how to make ART and be in control of a moment. When Jessie's asked how it went by Jena Malone's Ruby Jessie goes, "It was great."

Mmmm strawberry dna!
Does she mean it? Another scene, as if out of something like Under the Skin, is when Jessie first goes out onto a runway with the other models. She's by herself surrounded by darkness, and she no longer seems naive (whether that's a put on or not may be up for the audience to decide), but she has a real... moment, something that will be abstract as she sees a blinking triangle light in front of her and as the color red surrounds her face and the occasional flash bulb finds its way through the ether, and then other colors come through as well. It doesn't make logical sense, but it doesn't have to, and it's the most successful moment of some kind of transformation (or simply a self-fulfillment happening) in an emotional way. It's a slow-burn knockout of a sequence.

And yet I left the movie in an odd way not totally satisfied. The Neon Demon is shot and presented in a manner that says "see me on as big a screen with good sound for our kickin' 80's Cliff Martinez score, please", so if you do go see it in a theater. And one performance more than others, Jena Malone, feels complete and I wish in a way the movie was about her most of all (her character is a crucial component, as the real 'friend' as the non-model of the bunch of women). Despite all the movie has going for it, including a few amazing/terrifying/funny scenes with Keanu Reeves of all people, it's a very cold movie at its core, ugly, brutal, unrelenting in its outlook of, in brief, that women HATE women. Especially in a world where they're defined by how men (and, to be fair, other women as well to an extent) see them in clothes and their underwear or sometimes nothing at all.

so... existential, y'know?

I get that that's the point, but Refn stretches the ugliness to such a point near the end that it becomes silly, and not in a way that worked. Earlier on, the Kubrick comparison holds by being very icy and methodical in its camera-work - every pan, every push-in, every two-shot is slow-building and people talk in pauses and so on - but there's a satirical point to it as well, like we KNOW this isn't real, but that's the game to point that out. And then it... gets into real madness and its horror movie sense goes wild, to where I'm sure Refn knows he's f***ing with us, and yet Fanning's character gets the short shrift as a result. I hoped for more with Jessie here from how he's set up, and then after she changes (or does she, that's the interesting thing if she does or not) it soon devolves in the last 20 minutes into being straight-up provocation.

In other words, Neon Demon is a movie I loved and hated, and there's no easy response to recommend it. Refn and his collaborators once again bring out a Los Angeles that's got both the pretty (that wide vista overlooking the city from the cliff-top is there), the empty (those wide rooms showing the spaces that people have left open in their minds) and dirty (the motel area). It's someone putting up images and faces and moments that will shock us, or most of us, or some of us, but at least he's trying, and it's not a bore or misfire (cough, Only God Forgives, cough.

Saturday, July 2, 2016


Man... I feel like a dick with the review I'm about to give this. 

I think if I objectively look at this (maybe even subjectively, I don't know), I can point out how it's not very cohesive or hold up too well over time.  But I've been where Alison Anders, Kurt Voss and Dean Lint were at in the mid 80's: people in a particular place and time and milieu (in this case it was the west coast alternative-cum-punk scene, or maybe it's the other way around, just before hair metal fucked everything up), and wanting to get it down on film.  There's a rawness and a sense that 'hey, let's make a goddamn movie that WE want to see!)  At least that's what I suspect was the idea - and to give some kind of gritty noirish feeling amid the aimlessness of the events.  So set in the world that Repo Man was swimming in or even the kids from Suburbia might wander through, but a touch of Jarmusch or Wenders.  And... I wish it worked better!

So on a personal level I find it difficult to be harsh on it, knowing that its heart is pure and that it's a warped little calling card at best at a time when such films could get a few people to see it in an art-house and that'd be just fine. But... well, it is what it is, right?  A basic enough premise but with some promise - a few dumbass punk rockers (or rockabilly, a crossbreed you could say) steal some money and the main guy behind the group runs off to Mexico - Chris D as Jeff Bailey, who I believe was a figure in the west coast punk scene, or he looks that way, like Henry Rollins balding cousin.  The rest of the film finds his wife Luana (played by I think Anders' sister or relative Luana) tries to find out where he's at and more importantly why.

Here's the key problem I have with this: if it were a short, even 30 minutes, it would be pretty fantastic.  I actually am smitten with this time and setting; Suburbia and Repo Man are set in a similarly scuzzy world where people don't give a fuck and yet there's the air of responsibility and the outside world that hangs over heads (in Repo Man it was just 'fuck normal' and Suburbia it was more 'hey, it's a Roger Corman production, don't forget the violence and sex every 15 minutes or so).  But those films also had stronger performances and a better core to work with despite how aimless they seemed. 

But here the whole search is stupid; Luana could go down it seems to Mexico any time she wants to get her dead-beat husband (also a father to their kid, played by real life Anders daughter), and the resolution to the whole situation happens too gradually and without much logic.  Oh, and there's a "documentary" being done on these people - interviewed I think by the directors - as if their story is supposed to be like fodder for a documentary that is just... why

This isn't to say Border Radio is a complete waste of time.  Actually for certain stretches it's entertaining.  The two band mates of Jeff's, Chris and Dave (also named after themselves), are characters unto themselves, with Chris like a proto Randall from Clerks and Dave probably the most realistic kind of character in the movie as far as real life goes: mostly drunk, a total scumbag, but likely talented though still blackballed by the local clubs for being a, well, jerk like he seems to be.  In fact a lot of the acting here isn't too bad, and Anders as the sort of anchor to much of the absurdity in the episodes pulls off what she's asked to do.

In some ways Border Radio portends the "mumblecore" movies more than any other 1980's indie.  As episodic as Stranger Than Paradise was, it had a formal ambition to its making and execution that made it stand out from the pack.  With 'Radio', I doubted there was a firm script, certain people show up briefly who seem like they were plucked off the street (i.e. a Mexican at the trailer park, a punk rock girl who is "babysitting" Jeff/Lu's daughter at a key point), which may explain the fucked up logic at times of the characters or events as they go on in the story.  Or at the least, the characters, except maybe for Luana, are not sympathetic much at all (actually Luana seems to be questionable at one point near the end too, and yet it's at a point where logically I'd given up on the story), and this takes away from being engaged with things.  In little moments, like when Chris goes down to Mexico finally to confront Jeff in a series of scenes, it's successful and genuinely interesting.  In the bigger picture it falls flat and is too scattershot to ever revisit.

For all of the criticisms I can levy on it, I have not a shred of ill will towards it.  I'm really happy this exists and that people can watch it, on the Criterion collection and Hulu no less (though it's strange that the copy that's available, that I saw anyway, was not restored like other titles, scratchy print like it was taken off of a dusty negative).  I didn't mention my favorite part of the movie which is the soundtrack, also original music by David Allen of the Blasters: it's a joy to listen to music that is rock and roll to a pure point: punk, rockabilly, Mexican mariachi work, slower stuff, it all works and I was glad to hear it.  If only it was put to a story that was actually compelling or made more sense.

Thursday, June 30, 2016


(Would you believe me if I told you it took me five minutes to realize that the title has two 'n''s in the name?  Well... it did)

My first, instinctual, gut reaction to La Collectionneuse (or 'The Collector", though I probably prefer to call it the French title so as not to confuse it with the John Fowles adaptation or the 2009 horror movie), is 'well, a lot of this is surely written with a keen ear for the dialog of those with money, or at least those who think they have enough for vacation (and it IS France so why not), but what's all the fuss about?'  This is one of Eric Rohmer's six "Moral Tales", films dealing with men and women in relationships, mostly (if not all) from the male point of view, and how men ascribe expectations to women.  Though I've not seen all of the films (My Night at Maud's and Love in the Afternoon are fantastic, The Baker one is alright), this one seemed... well, dry, about characters who were not likeable engaging in a not-hot love triangle.  But then IS it love?

This is a film that features a trio of characters - the two main guys on their vacation, Adrian (Bachau) and Daniel (Pommereulle) - and how they're seeming idyllic time (or that spent just, well, not doing much except lounging about, maybe reading, a little swimming, trying to do as little as possible like they're in Chinatown or some shit) is broken apart by the appearance of Haydee (though there are two others, Adrian's girlfriend who leaves in one of the 'prologues' to the film, and an older man who appears later in the story as a collector of items that Adrian is trying to sell as an art dealer of some kind).  This is all from Adrian's point of view, by the way, as he goes on and on... and on in narration about how he sees the unfolding situation.  And he talks a great deal as well - sometimes, often, as is suggested by one character later, to hear himself talk.

The idea here is that the "Collector" of the title isn't Adrian with his antiques (though that could very well be him and I wouldn't put someone with the intellectual heft of Rohmer to have double or triple or countless meanings here), but with Haydee.  She goes out with men night after night, and Adrian and Daniel have a kind of deal to see who will/won't sleep with her first.  Adrian says he has no interest, and perhaps who can blame him?  Haydee is the sort of pretty girl who appears to have not much personality aside from being pretty: she looks great in a bathing suit, which we see in the first shots of the film in her 'prologue' of her on the beach, and she talks often in a way that is subdued, not really questioning or being too curious intellectually, except that she does rebuke Adrian's suggestion that she is a "collector" - she says she is "searching" for... someone, or something. 

IS she only a pretty girl?  I think the sort of challenge, if I can call it that, of watching this film is to find a port into it emotionally.  These are characters, at least for Adrian and Daniel, I'm not so sure about Haydee (though it could be argued), who are making conflicts for themselves under the bright, sunny French countryside skies and grasses (lensed by Nestor Almendros, so of course you can't complain there, it's just not possible).

 It's by Rohmer's design that people don't get too angry or too responsive to things where people, I don't know, raise their voices or laugh too much (though there are signs of amusement), with a couple of exceptions.  There is a moment where Daniel, getting tired of Haydee - who he ultimately has bedded first - is tapping his foot over and over again.  It's the sort of moment that can wake up even those handful who may fall asleep watching the film (and I'm sure there are a few of you out there on your couches or in the revival theaters).  That makes its mark for sure.

In other words, these characters can talk, and certainly Adrian can talk in such a way that people call him out on it as monologue (and in such a way that may be improvised - I see this actor along with the lady playing Haydee, with her own character's name as her own, and Daniel, have writing credits for dialog as if it were a mumblecore movie, which this most resembles if I had to break it down), and I think the whole approach is that the talk is all to obfuscate the emotions, that all of the intellectual processing and thought that Adrian puts in to what's going on puts aside anything that can ACTUALLY make people feel like love and compassion and care.  For him, it's all down to logic and how to plan this or that.  It's not a love triangle if there isn't a sense of any possibility for love, whether it's for Adrian (who slowly sees his "moral" compass going to the side, or Haydee who says she isn't interested, and we can believe her because, well, she's believable!)

But I knew I had seen a film that had something to say about how men look at women and use them for their own feelings and projections, and intellectually that is greatly intriguing to me.  So I went as soon as the film ended to Roger Ebert's page, where he puts this among his "Great Movies" list (a bold banner for sure).  This seemed like an astute observation:

"(The characters) live at a languorous pace. The men decide she is a "slut," because they assume she sleeps with the revolving roster of guys who take her into town. When a rich art collector visits the villa to look at a vase Adrien is selling, Adrien essentially offers her to the older man. The way she handles that speaks well for her insight into the situation."

This may be so.   There's more detail Ebert goes into, and I think that thematically La Collectionneuse is thematically rich - how men have their own point of view and projection of how they want to see women in a certain way.  Adrian's already seen off his girlfriend, who wants him to join her in London and says he can't because, well, "work" as he puts it, but is it really?  He spends the rest of the film on this "vacation" (which, as we know from Forrest Gump, is actually when you go somewhere and you don't ever come back, so in a state of mind sense you don't ever really *want* to go back to where you are while away, if that makes sense), and justifies how he sees Haydee because... well, (gasp) she sleeps with a lot of men(!)

Context may be something here, as it's 1966 and morality in this time was changing, and Rohmer's film is a reflection of that, how men are trying to open themselves up to new experiences, but social mores and what life and institutions have taught about how to be with another person, how to connect, changed in this decade for France and others across the world.  And there's Daniel as well, who is more like a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, but can put up a hissy fit... which to Adrian seems like a put on.

So there is a LOT here to consider and think about, though this is mostly after the fact (apt considering Rohmer was a film critic and may have still been in that critical mind-frame by this point).  I'd be lying if I said I didn't find some of this dry, in part due to a lack of any music in the film; the narration, one might say, is the kind of music that Rohmer's peppering, but I'm not convinced.  It's that prejorative word "talky" and lacks the sort of visual fluorishes that his Cashiers du cinema contemporaries had.  One might say he's more of the "adult" than the kidding around/revolutionaries of Godard-Truffaut-Rivette.  In the case of this film it takes, or did for me, for a few minutes, some adjusting to get used to.  But once I got into its rhythm I found much to admire substanatively, even as things are so subdued and played for realism it edges into that terrible word I don't want to use: boredom.

But then it's *about* characters who can possibly get bored, so...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


I'm a day behind, I know.  That may happen from time to time.  Life and all.

But meanwhile, I got to watch a truly fucked up work of art.  Yes, it's expressed in ways that cinema can only do - through a sensual, tactile, almost 3D-in-2D sense of how to capture skin and light and that thing that Anakin Skywalker seems to not like too much SAND - but fucked up.  Thank God for Japan.

First off, usually a character's profession should have some component of meaning for the film that he or she is a part of, no?  Maybe we as the audience can get an indication of how what the task the protagonist performs may/can/does have a bearing on the story. 

In Woman in the Dunes, Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) is an Entomologist.  What is that?  The study of bugs, insects, the like, and Niki is in a desert looking for some to bring back home for his studies (who we rarely hear if at all called this name, he's really just 'he' far as the audience is concerned).  But he misses his bus back home - or at least that's what he's told by some locals - and they suggest to him, when asked by Niki, to spend the night at a woman's house.  The house just happens to be at the bottom of a pit surrounded by sand.  The night with this Woman being sometimes odd and eerie notwithstanding, Niki expects to leave come morning.  That doesn't happen.  He's trapped - it's a set-up, and it's just the beginning of his troubles.

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he's been transformed into an ART FILM!
So what does this mean?  Well, at the least, he is smart, and at times can be clever and his mind is always trying to think of things that can possibly get him out of the hole he's stuck in.  But could it be something deeper, more existential?  A bug or an insect, like the ones that Niki collects and studies, have no real scope in life, no goals, except survival, getting by day to day.  And in Niki's possession these insects are trapped forever (some die, some are meant to be kept alive for a short while).  Has he been turned into one of these insects?  May he become one with the limited capacity for no thought except the tasks given him?  Perhaps Niki will awake one morning to discover he's been transformed into a literal giant cockroach.  But at least Gregor Samsa was turned into a literal creature - this man's humanity is stripped day by day, in a prison that the woman by his side (Ky├┤ko Kishida in a performance for the ages), and has come to accept with a combination of insane glee and reticence.  A nickname for this could be Slow-Burn Metamorphosis in the Castles Made of Sand.

There are many ways to read into what this man does and how it relates to this story, but what makes the film so impactful and powerful is that it's not content to rest on the page, so to speak.  The story itself can't help but be compelling - it's a tale of wrongful imprisonment as the man and woman, as many others we are told are in this situation among these dunes, have to work digging in the sand around these "houses" (more like ramshackle shacks that could break any moment) in order to sift through diamonds for these "villagers".  On paper this could be a horror movie, a bunch of backwoods fucks kidnapping people for their own sadistic purposes.  But the direction from Hiroshi Teshigahara is what makes it count - the way that he and DP use the camera to create a distinctive, suffocating world full of so many things that make it a CINEMATIC experience is nothing short of miraculous.

"Sandy Cheesecake" pinup photography was always a tough sell in Japan...
Sand is tricky in movies - it doesn't have much character, unlike waves which ripple and move, or trees which go about and have color and have height and length and varieties.  Sand is just sand, sometimes wet, sometimes drier, sometimes even quicksand (and at one pivotal point we see quicksand in action in WitD).  Teshigahara and Hiroshu Segawa photograph sand unlike any I can think of in movies, not even Lawrence of Arabia.  Some of it has to do with juxtaposition - having an image of dunes and then having an elliptical, oblique image of a woman's face over it early on is such a way - but also getting what sand feels like on a person's skin, when it sticks to sweat and can't be easily rubbed off.  There's even a sensual quality to it in Teshigahara's hands, as at one point when the man is rubbing the sand off of the woman slowly, and it becomes... I mean, Jesus, one of the more sensual scenes in all movie history, and without nudity (in this case, there is some mild nudity though done tastefully).

At times it's not unlike those opening minutes of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had ash as a similar conduit for skin and sex, as it adds another layer to the image and gives the filmmakers something to play with.  There's also simply how many great images these guys get of these two people, how they find new ways to get close-ups even when it seems like there's no where else to photograph.  And there comes a point where the man asks the villagers if he can have just a few minutes a day, maybe ten, or more, or less, to see the nearby sea (he won't run away, like he did before, which by the way that entire sequence is so goddamn intense, mostly done without words, that it's worthy of No Country for Old Men far as mounting and executing suspense in a chase). 

When the villagers give their 'condition' it involves them all getting a "Show" at night... involving seeing the man and woman fuck as if in some carnal thing, like watching animals screw or trained monkeys in a circus.  She refuses - it's an attempted rape, one might say conservatively - but the way it's all presented, how Teshigahara, his DP and editor, cut between and show these faces watching (some in Kabuki masks!) and then these two desperate, tired, hopeless people, it's ironically magical to watch despite (or because) it's all so terrible.

Woman in the Dunes is at many points, mostly speaking, profoundly disturbing.  It goes deep in and tears apart the human soul in a way like Oldboy - also a movie about someone wrongfully imprisoned - though it's as well showing the 'institutionalized' way a mind can get ala Shawshank after some time (you know, first you hate it, then you get used to it, then it becomes like you have to rely on it).  I thought of these as the only rational examples I could since the film is mostly unlike any other I can think of: it has the framing of a terror or horror movie, but it's shot in a way like the most beautiful art film imaginable.

We see this man lose his grip on reality, though the reality is already being stripped away from him, as we are seeing in a subjective, lovingly photographed way these people like they have no other position to be in but drenched in sweat and misery and the occasional sex and dirt.  It's a precise contradiction, of making the horrific and emptiness of a desert into something gorgeous, and that's the fascination of the film, or at least of the director with this script (which, by the way, Teshigahara somehow got an Oscar nomination for *direction* at the 66 Oscars, and more power to him!)

Oh, and the two performances by Okada and Kishida are down and dirty and full of sometimes madness, often despair, and for Kishida it takes a lot to really make us feel sorry for a woman who has lost it and may be (maybe) a little slow, though her loss (she had a husband and daughter, likely they're dead) shines through in almost every scene, if that makes sense.  She has nothing to do but dig and obey, and the man with her better get his head around that and out of his crazy ideas of getting out!  These two have to be good performers to keep our attention, and they sure as hell do. 

Lastly, there's the score.  This comes in like out of some abstract other realm, or perhaps that the desert itself can make music and is sometimes giving a wild accompaniment to what happens here, whether it's certain ominous sensual moments, or when Niki finally gets his moment of (short-lived) escape and it's suspenseful music from Takemitsu while still maintaining the same eerie spectacle of everything.  The music collaborates with this to be like, again going back to the Metamorphosis and Kafka, like a waking, unhinged nightmare where people are punished for reasons that have no reason. 

Maybe that's how the insects feel anyway, if they have feelings. 

Monday, June 27, 2016


(man approaches another man making a line in a road with white paint)
"What's going on?"
"You gotta draw the line somewhere."

In one of the selections via the Criterion collection's offshoot, the Eclipse series (I suspect I'll have other Eclipse titles this summer to view), Robert Downey Sr "UP ALL NIGHT", we get a selection of a handful of the iconoclast/provocateur/I-Don't-Know-What-the-Fuck-to-Call-Him's work.  Putney Swope is the kind of major artistic release that has challenged and provoked many (to the point where Matt & Craig of Welcome to the Basement coined the phrase "Putney Swope Panic" when viewing films that perplexed them greatly) and influenced others (Paul Thomas Anderson, who would also have a character named 'Floyd Gondoli' taken from this film, Chafed Elbows, and Louis CK, were two). 

But what about his other films?  What about something like this, which at one point was such an underground-culty-of-the-moment piece of work that it was put on a double bill with SCORPIO RISING for those who ventured to the basements and rooftops of arteets buildings. 

Has there ever been anything more hipster?
This story is... well, it's certainly out of the box, far more than anything I've seen all week (though I haven't seen much Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage lately).  It's the story of Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan), who is having his "annual November breakdown" (though it seems like his breakdown could happen also in January or March or who knows when), and is telling about how he started having lust/sex for his mother, goes to his psychiatrist and confesses this (to which the doctor calls the mother, and she finds not much wrong with it), and then wanders the streets randomly for... something, I'm not sure.

Chafed Elbows is all from the mind of Downey as being completely anti... well, what do you got in 1965?  It's full of raunchy material - not much cursing though, and a couple of points nudity is blacked out in boxes) - and it's not unlike what one saw in John Waters' early films: totally anti-establishment, anti-censorship, anti-authority, and above all anti-taste and purity.  And like Swope, this is a movie that thumbs its nose at establishments that, actually, would often come out to movies like 'Elbows' like snooty poet people out of The New School (that's a particularly memorable moment, where Dinsmore is asked if he's a poet and recites the one he's written, which is terrible of course), but also of course women who flock for people who may have the slightest bit of fame, and uh, well, other people.

The movie is all over the place though, to a point where it becomes a collection of moments with the really loose thread of Walter's attraction for his mother, which we hear in voiceover as 85% of the film is voice-over, and he also sleeps with one or two other women.  At one point one such woman he describes sexing is more like he is driving a race-car in metaphorical speak.  I suspect that the appropach visually, which is largely made up of still images strung together one after the other, was an intentional riff (or parody, though I didn't sense that so much) on Markers' La Jetee

For me though I didn't get that so much as a slightly more clever version of, of all the fucking things my mind could wander to (and it does this sometimes so please forgive me if you can), the ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD's review of... Plumbers Don't Wear Ties.  If you're wondering that is, you can watch some/all of the video (it's worth it), but suffice to say it's closer to something an old video game might do that doesn't have the budget to tell its story in full visuals.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?  Not exactly, but kind of.  I think the moments where Downey has actual film to work with in a camera that allows for moving images - and it's about 15/20% of the movie so it's sprinkled enough in there - it works better, and there's one part where Walter joins a band(!) and sings in a rollicking rock group for a song that it flies in an off-the-wall, off-beat comical way (actually any time music is used creatively in the film it really connects and carries some energy and momentum).  But more often than not Downey's intention is to shock, and this is a little over 50 years ago with material that, except for the wild incest parts, it's not as shocking any more.  And what we're left with in stretches of this 58 minute, uh, featur(ette) is a lot of nonsense and madness strung together like an underground sketch comedy reel.

So some of it is dated.  Some of it doesn't connect comedically.  But some of it does, and certain lines and zingers had me rolling on my couch (one point Walter describes himself to one of the women he's about to fool around with as, "I'm just like an art film - I never fade, and I got a lot of special effects"), and Downey is more often than not clever with how he's approaching this: it's zany and silly, obscene and radical, goofy and sacrilegious (watch for a scene set in a church that feels like a drug trip for a couple of minutes), and ultimately I assume for Downey it's a, uh, 'love' story between a son and his mother in the midst of the son's breakdown.  By design it's meant to make almost everyone uncomfortable.  I found myself that way 40% of the time, while also laughing.  Other times it's... tedious, over-the-top in an annoying way, and then Floyd Gondolli shows up to do a newscast. 

So it goes.

PS: One more good line: "I'm listed in the Yellow Pages under Truth."