Friday, June 24, 2016


Try saying THAT three times fast!

There are two thoughts I have as the freewheeling (though still focused) documentary-drama-experiment SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM unreels (which sounds like what Mary Poppins rattles off when on Ecstasy): first, I have to wonder what people who are not critics or film people think of this.  I am a filmmaker (or, to put it in the way Phillip Marlowe replies when he's told "You're not very tall, are you?" "Well, uh, I try to be").  Though not with the same level of equipment - things are more digital today, due to cost and efficiency/availability, when back then all they had was 16mm and nagra sound recorders - the process, of having to out together the scenes piece by piece, is the same.  Only here... well, this IS different, and we'll get to that in a moment. 

This is what goes on on a set, more or less, and of course every production is different; what Greaves captures here by letting all the cameras roll that he can is an accurate reflection of many facets of a production: the minutiae, most of all, that feeling of waiting around, of things being out together gradually, whether it's a scene with the actors talking things out, or little technical difficulties, or a police officer coming up asking for a permit or, yes, believe it, when other crew talk behind the director's back about just what the fuck he/she is trying to do. Or not doing, to put it that way. 

The other thing I thought of was the quote by Laurence Olivier (I wish I could find the link, maybe some day I will) where he spoke about how when a film is being made there's always some documentary aspect about it - that even when you have the most stylized drama with a script, what you're seeing on the screen is a kind of documentary of those actors at the time it was being created.  It's a little deep a thought probably for most people, but I completely get it, and it's easy to see when one looks at take after take after take of the qualities in performances, and also the moods of people, what's going on not with the actors in their character mode but the actors *themselves*.  So what happens in a documentary when a subject is trying to be him/herself?  It's all a performance, isn't it, to some degree? 

It's hard for me to be too objective in this review of this experimental film - though I can certainly comment on parts of it, like a few of the interactions between Greaves, who is a director filming a scene of a fight between lovers in Central Park, NY, and his male actor who can't decide whether to play it "butch fag" or "faggy fag" or something along those lines, or a few quips from the crew, tired of Greaves' interesting "non-direction" - but it's something that will hit film people differently than non film people.  Whatever you think about Greaves as a subject, a "character", an "actor" in his own film, he IS directing this scene and becomes a part of it along with the rest of the crew who are on camera (and part of what Olivier said I think is meant to be that once you are in front of a camera, whether you acknowledge it or not, there's something different that you do, unless you're completely unaware a camera is on you, which may be happening more today with sneaky camera phones and more obscure dslr cameras, but I digress).

So it's a difficult film to classify - for all I know watching it today, in 2016 decades after it was shot and assembled together (though oddly enough it seemed to get more of a release in this century, once Criterion got a hold of it and at some festivals, and I'm not sure what release it got in 68) - and yet it's entertaining because of how Greaves cuts between the varying perspectives, of what it's like on set for him doing his directing thing and the actors doing the scene over and over (and at one point other actors come in to do a different scene, or it may be the same scene I'm not sure, one of them Susan Anspach of Five Easy Pieces), and the crew back in their room talking about what's going on, or, especially, NOT going on by a few disgruntled members. 

It's a film in search of itself, and sort of satirizing its own making in a sense: if this was some renown filmmaker it might be a different story, but Greaves was, until he passed fairly recently, an iconoclastic, independent artist, (and according to IMDb was once an actor himself).   And what we're seeing put together isn't all of the raw footage - it's assembled in such a way (and, I ponder, a possible influence if Michael Wadleigh saw this before shooting/editing WOODSTOCK with the three-frames-in-one in mind) that is unmistakably on the fly, loose, showing things in such a form that passerbys do come up and ask if they can be in the film. 

On top of this all, the "fictional" film being acted out is full of the kind of language just a few years before wouldn't get by in a regular theater, and even for 1968 was racy and full of those dreaded "F" words (fuck AND faggot of course), and its anarchic spirit reflects exactly the time it was made.  By the time you get to the 90's this approach isn't gone but it gets put into a different context like Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, which is a fictional film with real-life stuff filtered through parts of it.  In other words, the whole project is akin to the guy next door who decides to become a nudist and let everything hang free and try some acid and do something new... and yet his wife still lives with the guy and criticizes him. 

So it's absorbing.  It may shy a little from greatness for me because of losing steam near the end, yes, for a 75 minute film it does.  It's oddly enough from one more passer-by, seemingly a vagrant in not shabby clothes, who comes by the crew during a break and gets into a random conversation with Greaves about where he came from and what his life is like and the guy is only too anxious to talk a lot about this that and the other.  I don't know if this happened near the end of Greaves' shooting and he put it at the end to be chronological, or if he made the decision to put this near the end, but it kind of grinds things to a halt.  And it's ironic because it's a moment that should be part of the fabric of this pastiche of different moving parts and what filmmaking is: seeing people in a fresh perspective and finding what makes cinema special.  But this guy may be, well, acting a bit much, or is such a natural 'character' that he outshines everyone else who come off more like regular people trying to get through the day.  It's the only part that seems to stand out as being, well, too strange for its own good.

But then that's why you watch a movie with this title that's scored to Miles Davis and looks so far under the hood of what makes people make films, why people watch them, for who something may be made, and what it's all worth it for, isn't it?  It's a funky product of its time that couldn't be made today in a world where we're surrounded by images and drama, when people grabbing a camera with little money or resources could do anything they wanted and it seemed... new. 

PS: Sometimes it's a funny thing when you come across a movie from another time and someone looks *exactly* like someone you know.  In this film, this guy, playing a guy named Rosen (ironic for me as another close collaborator if mine is named that), looks exactly like Mr. Gabe Rodriguez of the Apple Martini Podcast.  So it goes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


And so as hard a turn I make from meditative auteurs to low-budget 50's horror, I make a turn into 1940's "film-noir"... but is it?

It's easy to classify The Naked City as a film-noir.  It's easy because there isn't a lot of hard work to be done in classifying it as anything else - it's surely on most 'essential film-noir' lists and part of that Alain Silver book and so on - or if it might lose some luster as a lessor film in the significant 'canon' of films made in that golden era of dames and guys with guns in the shadows as deceit and crime happens... but wait, doesn't this have deceit and crime?  And there are dames, sort of, even if one of them is snuffed out in the first couple of minutes, shouldn't that count as part of it, the fact that this character, Jean Dexter, IS the femme fatale of the story, except that everything is about what happens post-mortem? And don't forget the jewel thieves...

It may be simpler enough to call it a "procedural."  That doesn't sound exciting, though, like you're about to go in to the doctor to get your gall bladder checked out.  I'd say it rests somewhere in the middle of a typical noir and what one might call a typical "procedural" mystery story, where the fascination is meant to come in seeing how the characters go from A to B to C and so on and where new leads and pieces of information lead (think of the earliest example of Fritz Lang's M, and recent ones like Memories of Murder or David Fincher's Zodiac or, if you want to look in a non-fiction mini-series format, Making a Murderer).  How do the cops break down who did what to who and where and how and why and when and all those 'W' questions?  That drives The Naked City, but that's not all.

There's two parts to this story that make it still palpable and exciting and at the same time slightly dry and possibly dated: New York city itself, photographed without any veneer of putting aside or hiding the people that crowd the streets and the voices and personalities.  It's not passive or meant for simple local 'color'; the edge is there constantly, as if a crime could happen as the day progresses.

Theres's a large variety of accents (not too many black people I could see though, but that's only a problem if one thinks on it after the movie ends, not so much as one watches it), and the places like Houston street in the east village or by the Brooklyn bridge, Brooklyn and Long Island City, midtown in the nicer parts, the jewelry district, the many shops and the kids on the street singing their aligator hopscotch songs and so on, all of it is part of the major character that is this city.  While films have used the place countless times, I have to think outside of Lumet and Scorsese, as far as this kind of New York city movie, Dassin and his team have the locations down pat.

The narration is more hit or miss.  At first, and for the first half, it works well with the narrative drive.  I think if it had solely been straightforward or too dry it wouldn't pass muster, but there's a sardonic touch of humor to Mark Hellinger's voice performance - and it really IS a performance, impressing on how the story is going and the motivations driving the case - and I liked that.

It's not, for a little while, just spoon-feeding what you're seeing on screen; if the narrator is saying what's on screen as it happens (mostly as the detectives go from place to place, tracking down clues, the nit & grit of having to seek out people and places in that, for younger audiences, somewhat per-Historic era before the internet or computers for easier access to information).  Where it loses me is when it can't let go of moments where Dassin needs to let the images speak for themselves, and in particular the final act, as the main bad guy is on the run, it gets grating and at this point the action and visual grammar of cinema should take over completely.

What else is there that makes The Naked City special?  How about the performances from Barry Fitzgerald (Det Lt Muldoon, as Irish as cops get I suppose) and Howard Duff (the suspect with the most conflict and complexity as a 'crook-but-not-a-killer-I-swear')?  I'm sure I can look up these players, along with Dorothy Hart (as Ruth Morrison, Niles' betrothed and the kind of jilted lover one finds in noirs sometimes) or the detective who is really excited and loves chasing down the clues the most (I forget his name), and find the many roles they had, but they're cast perfectly for the reason that I can't think on first notice what they were in.

There are 8 million people in New York city jails, and this is one of them... no wait, that's not right
 This is important; if you had a Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster or even a Louis Calhern (ie Asphalt Jungle) a certain illusion of reality would be lost, if that makes sense.  These characters should all be as part of the city and the world as naturally as possible as Jean's parents - they have a heartbreaking scene by the way, with a great ebb and flow from one wild emotion to another for the mother, not played for cheap sentiment in any way - and they slip into these characters like they've always been there.

Some of the procedural details may seem like from another time, when the cops (especially in the movies then) could do very little wrong, such as a case like this where it's all about the evil being sussed out among the millions of the city, and that the editing (which won an Oscar oddly enough) can be a little jarring from time to time in those montages (sometimes it's clever and well timed, other times it just randomly goes from one shot to the next).

But you can take Dassin's film on the terms of when it was made as well as that of today - it crackles as a murder mystery and as a look at a world where some characters are doggedly looking for answers and any scraps of information (though it takes time it's not as long as something like Zodiac), and other characters hide their information and true selves.  It's mature about the world it's depicting, and for its stylistic faults it's still sharp and honest and when it means to thrill it doesn't fuck around.

So to sum up: put this on at 1 in the morning, make sure it's completely dark (and that you're awake for it, that's important too of course), and bask in the intrigue of one of 8 million stories told about New York city in the movies (and I'm sure that's how many there are, I counted, trust me officer...)


(Just how many times did I type 'The Blog' instead of 'The Blob'?  Take a wild guess... suffice it to say I think when the Blob is remade yet again, and you know it will be some day, it'll be a giant amorphous internet page that clobbers unsuspecting citizens and gains in power and size the more it conquers with its times new roman type, but I digress).

Lo and Behold, Criterion has genre films - no, it's not just Bergman's entire catalog or the obscure films of Robert Downey Sr - and they are an... odd lot.  There's some major names like the original Japanese Godzilla (or 'Gojira'), a few by Terry Gilliam, two Michael Bay schlockbusters from the 90's (I imagine those were Criterion cemented during a drunken practical joke at the office), and even RoboCop and John Woo's The Killer (both OOP).  Often the "genre" films come from reputable auteurs...

And then there's THE BLOB(!)  Hmm...

 What is The Blob by... hey, is Irvin S. Yeaworth in the auteur canon yet?  Don't remember him showing up in 'Who the Devil Made it' by Bogdanovich.  But anyway, Steve McQueen (as, well 'Steve' is his name, more on that in a moment) and Aneta Corsault are having, uh, 'heavy petting' or close to it when a meteor (that at first seems like a shooting star) hits the earth right near them in their small town.  A farmer comes by and looks at it, and it cracks open and out comes a small, amorphous thing that clings tenaciously to this farmer's hand.  He's taken to a doctor soon after by McQueen and the doctor looks at it and... well, he doesn't know what it is, and very soon after the doctor is over-taken by this... 'thing'.   Shucks, can't call it that, that was the Hawks picture, remember!

This is apparently a much beloved science fiction space-invader movie, to the point that not only did it get the Criterion treatment (mostly likely picked by someone who had a deep nostalgic affection), but recently restored in full digital blu-ray splendor.  I can see why it would captivate some audiences for the time: this was a "B-movie", but presented by Paramount pictures, not just some rinky-dink company or Roger Corman (though with the latter I could imagine some more hilarity to ensue, intentional or otherwise).  It had something of a budget, even as it was made independently and later picked up by the company (this I found out as I was typing this so forgive me), and went on to make a lot of money.  My question by the end of it was... why did this blow so many people away outside of the blob?  Or was that it?

I think the answer to my own question should go with the latter, and that/it is the star of the movie.  It was created with a weather balloon and with colored silicone gel, depending on the shots, and by the end it really takes center stage as well it should.  Maybe its sparing appearances early on make it all the more of an attraction for when it makes its big appearance at the movie theater - a sequence that most horror fans have seen even if they've never seen the movie (it often pops up in montages of 50's sci-fi/horror in documentaries and retrospectives and so on), and it's iconic for a reason: it takes on a meta quality, not unlike something out of Scream many decades before, by a horror movie coming to play as a horror movie is being watched by some townspeople. 

The filmmakers were clearly conscious of this (I shouldn't think the people behind this were stupid or didn't know what they were doing, unlike other B schlock filmmakers of the period), and it adds a real sense of thrill and satire.  It's like: hey, we're in a MOVIE, folks!  You better hold on to your seats or the pretty girl you got as your date for this one (and better hope someone doesn't make a movie about someone watching the movie theater scene of The Blob where characters are watching a horror movie too... see how weird that gets?)

Truth be told if you told me this was a gummi-hand, I'd try to eat it... on a dare, of course, of course...
 But there's something else to contend with, which is the bulk of the rest of the picture.  The question there is, does that work?  Up to a point, maybe, and mostly in comparison with lessor productions with even less money.  One of the perks for the picture is that there's crisp color cinematography and the colors don't look cheap or faded - indeed this restoration by Criterion brings out everything that's there the filmmakers intended (or perhaps not), and there's a nice contrast between the colors of what the teenagers wear and the cars they (just once) have a sorta hot-rodding race with. 

But aside from McQueen, who does his best with a character who's one motivation is "Look, you gotta believe me!" and that's the thrust of the conflict like, hey, who's gonna believe this young kid (who's actually a 27 year old actor by this point) is seeing what he's seeing, the cast is standard at best, and weak at worst (notice the little boy and how terrible he is at his lines).

Again, compared to the kinds of monster movies being made at the same period of time - think Attack of the Crab Monsters or whatever THEN! knock-offs were coming out in the mid 50's - this has production value and a couple of decently acted scenes.  The highlight of which, and this probably kicks off the last half hour and this part works the best, is a scene in a super-market where Steve and Jane sneak about to see if the blob is in there and (eep!) Jane finally sees it with her own eyes.  But all the characters are stock and there's nothing really 'going on' as it were in the movie past the monster itself.  In The Thing from Another World or Them! or even War of the Worlds there was something else to chew on thematically speaking, there was something else to bring into the sci-fi part of it.  Here it's simply, well, who will trust a teenager who seems reasonable and cool-headed as far as he can be in this situation.  

But The Blob does remain memorable for its effects and that theater sequence, and an ending that seems just improbable enough that it has to work in a story like this.  I don't know when/if I'd be in the frame of mind to watch it again, but if you love 50's monster creations and done with a straight face then this should do the trick, even if it's not quite very good for me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Not intentionally I seem to be on the kind of roll that Paul Schrader might approve of - first Ozu, and now Bresson.  And this one is certainly, like many of his films, LIGHT viewing!  By that I mean you'll be light in the head from laughing so hard by the end that it's just so so.... who am I kidding, this is as funny as colon cancer.  Not that it doesn't mean it isn't great, right?  Let's see...

Perhaps a somewhat odd observation to make but I got to get it out of my system before I get to the full review: Mochette is a punk rock girl. They didn't have a name for it back then in rural France, or, I imagine, the book this film's based on, or in any sense of what Robert Bresson went through in the world, and through everything in the story of this 14 year old girl living in a world of shit, she says 'fuck you' right back to people - sometimes, perhaps egregiously, to people who may not deserve it like the other school girls (one of her pastimes seems to be hiding behind some grass as school lets out and throwing dirt at them - none of them fight back or do much, and yet this makes her even more alienated).

Disaffection is the name of the game with this young woman, and for good reason considering where's she's at in the world and who is around her and her hopes and dreams being nil.  If only she had grown up about ten years later in LA or New York city or even some small town where a Ramones or Clash record happened upon a shop, she might have found a modicum of release, or maybe the occasional punk rock friend to share the attitude of aggressive adolescence.

Alas, this character is in a Bresson film, and as it turns out its one of his finest. Oh, it's certainly depressing enough, and by enough it's by leaps and bounds. You can often gage a story's level of drama based on how much grim despair there is in balance with some lighter touches or moments where things aren't quite so absolutely-horrific-terrible-bleak-without-hope-or-future. Grapes of Wrath is about poor people seeking a new life, but we find that it's not all hopeless due to the perseverance of the Joad family, for example.

In Mouchette there's practically no release from either the stresses at home - taking care of a baby brother to a mother who is dying in bed and a father who constantly hits her for, well, no reason particular - and at school (not always respecting authority is one thing, but it feels claustrophobic for her, a cloud of depression) - and with other adults that she comes across (feuding neighbors who spend their days killing innocent animals like pheasants and rabbits), one of whom tries to (or does just) rape her while drunk. It'd be enough to make anyone crack.

Bresson does give this character one scene where it feels like the world is not all oppressive and dreary and full of judgmental adults, and that's when she goes on bumper cars. This was unexpected, a moment where Mouchette gets to let out some of her rawer emotions in an atmosphere of entertainment - she even has a kind of connection to someone that she's bumping into, maybe not the wisest decision but it's someone with for the moment kind eyes - and it lasts for a good few on-screen minutes. It's a distraction, a brief respite from whatever else she'll go through, when the tears streak down her eyes and she can't get away from people unless she hides under bushes at night or rolls down a hill to... well, I won't give that away.

At first I wasn't sure what the sub-plot between Arsene (the hunter) and the other farmer or whomever was about, if one can call it that in the world of Bresson where story is so clean-cut and stripped down to the bone of dramaturgy that actors have barely the basest of emotions. I thought it would be all focus on Mouchette, as her early scenes have the focus and drive of Bresson at his best, focusing on the little tragedies of the world that build to days full of misery and despair and what spiritual nature we find in the struggle.

But eventually these adults do figure their way into Mochette's life, and it's part of the village she lives in after all; we have to see how these men act, drunk or having epileptic fits (the latter part is intense to watch, mostly because of a lack of music or anything else draws us completely to this mans pain and Mouchette, a girl who still despite everything has some level of compassion and care, tends to him). It's all part of how Mouchette acts and reacts to everything here.

I don't know if I would suggest watching this as a first Bresson, and certainly don't watch it if you're having a particularly rough-bad day. Or, on the contrary, this may be just the thing to seek out when you're feeling blue. Not so much for the 'well, things could be worse, right?' frame of mind, that's simply cruel. It's more that Bresson's art, his straight-ahead-never-look-away focus on this girl and all that she goes through makes her what she is: raw, on-edge, angry, desperate, in physical and mental pain, and with those fleeting moments of joy, and the art comes about as close as it can to redeeming that struggle, if that makes sense. Can we feel any catharsis through this? You bet your ass we can, if we're open to it.

Monday, June 20, 2016


Hey, how about a new review series?  Will I be able to keep this one up?  Hell if I know!  But you got to try some new things and expand and change with the times (as the movie I watched today showed, which you'll see in a moment).  The idea here is simple: HULU Plus has the Criterion Collection movies available to watch, but I have the suspicion this won't last as they are now teaming up with TCM for a streaming service of some kind.  I may sign up for that in the future, I may not.  But the point is hundreds of titles may be off the block within several months, if not sooner.  So, why not take things like deadlines as an advantage to force myself to watch more movies?

So, here goes: each day, 1 Criterion movie.  Easy enough, right?

Let's start off with a master from Japan:

I work sometimes as a college professor for English non-fiction writing, and one of the key things I tell my students is to try to read both between and beyond the lines with what's presented to them. If you look at what is on the surface in Early Summer, it may appear somewhat dated, in the sense that in the 21st century (perhaps even the latter 20th century in general), single women are more prominent and acceptable as a group in society, and even can do things like turn the tides of elections in their size of numbers (as happened in the 2012 US election, but I digress). So in 1951 in Tokyo, Japan, a family (and several friends) who keep on a young woman named Noriko (the beautiful and always charming/dramatically wonderful Setsuko Hara) to get married already. I mean, hell, woman, you're 28 already!

But looking a little closer at what Ozu is doing here and the movie reveals itself to be about more than it seems to be, or, at the least, he's wise enough and has enough faith in his audiences to know that they can see what other statements can be read into about what a society does and consists of and what a family even means in certain respects. Of course the obvious touchstone is tradition: a woman finding a husband and settling down to take care of the kids was a given for many women for, well, centuries I suppose. Indeed it may almost seem modern in the scope of this film in its context that the parents of Noriko don't arrange a marriage for her when she's younger, and that she has this time to, well, dwell on things and think about what she wants to do with herself. She even has other (gasp) single unmarried female friends, though some would like to get married sooner rather than later.
How does one deal with this pattern of tradition? Is it only in marriage?

You might say the decisions here are a... piece of cake, right?
One of the aspects of the film I liked is that Ozu gives time to show how people in a family are always either exerting or under control from an early age. The two young nephews of Noriko - her brother (also Ozu regular Chishiu Ryu in a very different role from Tokyo Story showing his range) - are like most boys, playing around, doing this or that, sometimes one coming to a table not washing their face, or something doing something that warrants discipline.

I'm not sure if Ozu meant a direct correlation, but I could see in how this serio-comic supporting character thread connects from the kids to Noriko (I hasten to say 'storyline' since these are character portraits through and through). You're told what you should do as a kid, or what you must do, and you may take a few moments to process it but will eventually follow it (long as one's not a sociopath or something). But as an adult? What happens when it seems like every other person, if not everyone, asks the marriage question? I think it comes down to stability, or some way to attain happiness through it. But what if Noriko isn't happy or content with someone pressured on her?

This leads to a third act conflict that Ozu earns as a filmmaker because there's been so much character work that's been laid up to this point, and it leads to some emotional scenes. Early on in Early Summer it feels like little is "going on" in the usual Sy Field dramatic structure, as we're simply seeing people start their day, doing this or that, the little things at work that set things up with Noriko that we're not even aware are set-ups (the sign of a very clever and intuitive director), and yet through all of those trademark Ozu style shots of the camera being in just such a place to see the characters, or in those one-on-one style close-ups of characters talking to each other, there's stakes built up and we get who everyone is and why they feel the way they do be it they just don't know any other way to live or have lived in different periods of time.
It's a splendid film about transition from tradition, in a manner of speaking, but seeing what marriage means to different people (i.e. the man who may eventually become Noriko's husband being someone a little older who lost a wife and has a kid and may work in the sticks for a few months- not the ideal for her parents) and why these viewpoints matter whether it's in Japan in 1951 or in the US in 2016. Though I may have slightly preferred the similar themes in Late Spring, it's all the same a tremendous work of art, often seen like it's by some spirit peering in to these people's lives, about how humanity ebbs and flows and change is hard but worth the risk sometimes.

In short, if you read between and/or beyond the lines, there's a plethora of exceptional dramatic goods here, and meditative filmmaking to boot.