While it’s certainly not for everyone, Chris Marker’s 1983 film Sans Soleil (Sunless) is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Part travelogue, part prose poem set to moving images, the film ruminates at a leisurely pace on – among other things – time, history, memory, Japanese culture, post-colonial Africa, technology, Animism, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, film making, sex, and (of course) death. I found it mesmerizing, but I can also can understand how others could find it unbearable. Here are a couple of representative samples, the first a largely silent meditation on weary faces in a Japanese train and shopping mall, the second an almost poetic treatise on a civil war in Africa (warning: this clip has some very disturbing images).
When I recently read that, because he thought it would make light of his ancestors’ suffering, Spike Lee was making a point of not seeing Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, I thought he was probably being unreasonable. After all, although I’d had similar reservations about seeing Inglorious Basterds, I’d been pleasantly surprised by how adroitly Tarantino had managed to navigate the potential mine fields lying just under the surface of that film. Inglorious was a homage to several genres (including WWII films, holocaust films, and revenge films), and it was leavened with enough sharp humor and intelligence to make it thoroughly entertaining. The characters were boldly drawn but not quite cartoonish; the suspenseful scenes were genuinely suspenseful; and the genres were respected enough to draw you in. The same could probably be said for almost all of Tarantino’s previous films, but, sadly, not for poor Django.
From the very first scene, with its ridiculous soundtrack, Tarantino loudly announces that rather than paying homage to spaghetti westerns, slavery films, and revenge films (again), Django will be a relentless parody of those genres – a parody that is so self-conscious, it holds you at arm’s length; a parody with humor that is so broad and obvious that it careens wildly but quite narrowly between a pale imitation of a Mel Brooks comedy and a trying-way-too-hard Saturday Night Live sketch. Perhaps even worse, Inglorious at least had a convincing villain in Christoph Waltz’s Nazi character. Here, the main antagonist is merely Leonardo DiCaprio’s plantation-owning Calvin Candie, and you never believe for a moment that our heroes – Jamie Foxx’s Django and Waltz’s dentist-cum-bounty-hunter – are in any real danger from him. The one scene that rises to the level of Inglorious Basterds is a brief tête-a-tête between Candie and his head house-slave Stephen (played, admittedly, with brilliant irony by Samuel L. Jackson), in which it’s made clear who is really the boss of this house. But apart from that scene and a few other scattered moments, Django Unchained has almost nothing of interest – and certainly nothing remotely original – to say.
The weakness of the film lies, I think, at its very core: the script. The actors do the best they can with the roles they must play and the lines they must say; and on a technical level, Tarantino’s direction seems adequate to his limited goal of presenting nothing but a parody, not only only of the genres that concern him, but of his own style. But when an “auteur” director starts parodying his own already-broad style, you can be sure he’s reached the end of his rope (think of Hitchcock’s Family Plot). In a recent interview with Terry Gross – in which she uncharacteristically allowed her own disdain for the film to (faintly) shine through – Tarantino reiterated that Django Unchained may well be his last film. I think he’s a smart enough film critic to realize that if he’d had any doubts before that he’d run out of gas, Django Unchained proves it. Gross almost begged him not to stop making films, because she desperately wanted to see if his sensibility would change (say, by the age of sixty). Ouch.
Spike was right: viewing fictitious representations of 19th-century American slavery is worthwhile only if it teaches you something you didn’t already know, either about that institution or about oneself. But to use such images merely for entertainment or for the purpose of parody (particularly self-parody) only magnifies their obscenity. Attempting to excuse such a project by wrapping it in a revenge fantasy is as unconvincing here as it has been in porn films that salaciously portray rape and then attempt (or pretend) to excuse the use of that imagery by allowing the victim some violent revenge. I think that, at some point in the making of the film, Tarantino knew this himself, but perhaps by then both he and his producers were in too deep to live to die another day.
Late in the film, Tarantino, in a cameo role, literally blows himself up onscreen. That self-referential moment suggests that, at some level of awareness, he knows exactly what Django Unchained should (but probably won’t) mean for his career. However, I’m not only with Spike on this particular film, I’m also with Terry. I hope that Tarantino will keep making movies into his later years. But I also hope that his sensibility will mature.
Actually, there’s not much of a story in Jan Kounen’s (2009) hypnotic romance/drama, but you hardly care as Stravinsky’s lush music and the unapologetically sumptuous images wash over you like a tidal wave of Chanel No. 5. Oh… and don’t miss the kaleidoscopic opening credit sequence, which sets the film’s impressively consistent tone and pacing from the get-go. Warning: not for those allergic to self-consciously “high art”.
I finally got around to watching Denis Villeneuve’s excellent film “Incendies”, based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play. The tag line on IMDB reads: “Twins journey to the Middle East to discover their family history, and fulfill their mother’s last wishes.” It would be best not to investigate the plot further if you’re interested in watching it – let it unfold for you as it does for the twins. The film plays like a Greek tragedy (actually, a particular one, at least from the point of view of one of the apparently minor characters), set, via flashbacks, in the insanity of a sectarian war (clearly Lebanon some thirty years ago, but Villeneuve transparently obscures that fact, perhaps to underline the ultimate message’s universality). I advise not watching it right before going to bed, unless you want to wake up early in the morning thinking about it without being able to fall back asleep (if you were able to fall asleep in the first place). The plot is both completely ridiculous and, on reflection, completely plausible – which is what makes it, in the end, unforgettable. Here’s the trailer-
Those of you “of a certain age” are no doubt well aware of where I got the idea for the name of this blog: Ram Dass’s famous book, “Be Here Now”, one of the holy books of the late 1960s and early 1970s “counterculture”. And if you have read much of this blog, I’m sure you also recognize that the similarity of the titles is probably the only thing Blog Here Now and Be Here Now have in common. Part of the reason for this is that, while I very much respect the insights delivered by forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism (and the practices of meditation upon which they’re based), I don’t have much to say about those insights. In fact, I tend to think that the more one talks about them, the less insightful they seem. That’s not the fault of the insights, it’s just a result of the limits of languages and the conceptual schemes they encode. Poetry, music, and the visual arts do a better job of communicating the insights than language. But two well-educated intellectuals (or counter-intellectuals) of the mid-20th century, Ram Dass and Alan Watts, probably have done the best jobs of trying to communicate them in English. I tend to gravitate more towards Watts’ approach than Dass’s, because Watts “clothes” the insights in less religious language, and when he does use religious language, he goes out of his way to clarify what he means by it. Dass, however, perhaps more faithfully translates aspects of the Hindu tradition into English.
If you have never seen Mickey Lemle’s documentary, “Ram Dass: Fierce Grace“, which deals with how Ram Dass “transacted” – and continues to transact – with a life-altering stroke, I want to take this opportunity to recommend it to you. Here’s the poster for the film-
I think it’s particularly relevant to aging baby boomers such as myself. The way he managed, painfully, to integrate his neo-Hindu insights with his stroke is truly impressive and inspiring. Who knows when each of us might be similarly challenged?
What got me thinking about Ram Dass was an email I received from Noah Te Stroete, a former student of mine and one of the few regular commenters on this blog. It turns out that Noah has an artistic talent of which I was previously unaware: he’s quite a painter! Here’s his portrait of Ram Dass (which, I think, beautifully captures the man’s “spirit”)-
I’ve never been a big fan of musicals; they always seem to cheapen either the music or the narrative of what might otherwise be a perfectly good album or play. But this collaboration by Stew (of The Negro Problem) and his partner/bassist Heidi Rodewald really won me over, big time. Running just over two hours, I do recommend experiencing it in halves; the intermission is there for a reason. And the sophisticated lyrics, punctuated by Stew’s often ironic narration and the inventive choreography and staging, might require more than one sitting to fully absorb. But it all packs quite a punch the first time around.
Really, there are several decades worth of reflections and ruminations about art, music, politics, culture, race – and, of course, motherly love – crammed into and between the lines of this piece. But even if much of it goes over your head on first view, you can’t help but be impressed by the rock-solid songwriting and some absolutely jaw-dropping performances by the cast, which includes De’Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, Eisa Davis and Colman Domingo.
Oh, and did I mention that it was filmed by Spike Lee?
Here’s the trailer (which doesn’t really do it justice)-
Alex Rotaru’s 2008 documentary, They Came To Play, is well worth a watch, especially if you love classical piano. The film follows several competitors through the annual Van Cliburn competition for (dedicated) amateurs, and it’s quite inspiring in its own quirky way. If you don’t love this genre of music, no need to worry – the concert footage has been cut to (quite impressive) snippets of no more than a minute or two. Although Rotaru clearly appreciates the artistry of the pianists, he’s far more interested in their rich, non-musical lives. Each one is an entertaining character. Ultimately, the film is an ode to the making (or appreciation) of art for art’s sake, and the joy (or horror) of competition for competition’s sake. We found it streaming on NetFlix. Here’s the trailer-
I’ve seen two films lately worth blogging about. The first, Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void, sports the following blurb on IMDB: “A drug-dealing teen is killed in Japan, after which he reappears as a ghost to watch over his sister.” That pretty accurately summarizes the plot, but plot has very little to do with this film. It’s really all about the visual imagery, thanks to the largely first-person point of view from which it never deviates. The only time you see the protagonist’s living face, in fact, is in the mirror. And for the majority of the film, the perspective is not only subjective but also out-of-body: a ghost’s-eye POV, soaring over roofs, and through walls and heads. Early on, this discomfiting perspective includes perceptual distortions of the sort produced by various psychedelic drugs and magnified by the uber-alienating cityscapes of Tokyo. But the best of the imagery focuses on far more mundane subject matter, some of which – especially near the end of the film – is graphically sexual, but not particularly erotic… Rather, the point of all that feverish coupling is, well… surprisingly Buddhistic. Enter The Void is definitely not for everyone, but if the brief description above piques your interest, I recommend your checking it out.
The second film is the documentary, or near-documentary, Catfish, by three rather young filmakers: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and Yaniv Schulman. Unlike the technical virtuosity of Enter The Void, this production is shoe-string city, shot partly on little hand-held cameras, mostly in natural light and with ambient sound. But the low production values rarely get in the way, and sometimes they actually help by reinforcing the film’s sense of authenticity; you feel as if you’re watching a well-edited home video, and that somehow makes the film’s dénouement all the more touching. Catfish raises interesting questions about the ethics of internet relationships, but, due in part to the self-centeredness of the film-makers (which they make no attempt to hide), it also raises questions about the documentary form itself. For while the film-makers document a sort of romantic “abuse” that Yaniv suffers at the hands of a Facebook friend he has never met in person, the way they doggedly pursue their investigation into the matter itself teeters on the edge of abusiveness, without ever quite falling off the cliff. For the most part, Catfish pulls off its delicate high-wire act, and you’re left with a surprisingly complex aesthetic and emotional experience that adds up to far more than the sum of its low-budget parts.
It’s been an unusually poor year for films, it seems – or maybe I’m just getting harder to please. But over the weekend I saw three holiday releases that were, well, at least watchable. The first, True Grit, based on the Charles Portis novel and starring Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, was perfect material for the full Coen Brothers’ treatment, with their attraction to self-consciously literary dialog, dry humor and idiosyncratic characters. Since both it and the 1969 version starring John Wayne and Kim Darby draw many lines of dialog straight from the novel, it would be edifying to compare the two films back-to-back for their starkly contrasting directorial and production styles, not to mention their performances. You can get a hint of the contrast from the trailers, each of which is available on YouTube here and here.
The second film of the weekend, Black Swan, is, as many reviewers have noted, way over-the-top, but I enjoyed it. Director Darren Aronofsky returns here to his fascination with slow descents into psychosis of the sort he explored in his Requiem for a Dream – the film for which Ellen Burstyn should have won the academy award, truth be told. Natalie Portman, the main character here, is no Ellen Burstyn, but she is very well-cast as the ballerina trying desperately to get in touch with her darker, more passionate side. The deteriorating interiors of Burstyn’s and Portman’s apartments are so similar in style, and serve so similar metaphorical purposes, that Aronofsky seems to be committing a sort of self-homage with them (and he is clearly responsible, since the art directors were different on the two movies). My only quibble with the script concerns the final thirty seconds or so. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that if Aronofsky had been a bit more compassionate towards Portman’s character (and had made a few tweaks elsewhere in the film to heighten the ambiguity of her situation), he might have made a truly inspiring film about the sort of tunnel-visioned dedication it takes to become a great artist, rather than, well, a downer that verges on self-parody.
The third film, The King’s Speech, featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Colin Firth, was the most restrained (befitting the reserve of its royal British characters), but I think the best of the bunch. Of course, I might be prejudiced by the fact that, like Colin Firth’s King George VI, I required the services of a speech therapist for a time, albeit at a much younger age than he. While King George had a stammer even as an adult, I had the much easier-to-correct problem of my Ls and Rs sounding like Ws – real cute at 5, a real curse at 7 (when I had my sessions with my therapist). I don’t remember her name; I just remember how she gently and kindly taught me where to put my tongue in order to properly pronounce my consonants. We played board games that, when you landed on certain squares, required the making of certain sounds. Fun! Within a few weeks, the issue was resolved before it had the chance to permanently scar my personality… It’s best to save the scarring experiences for adolescence.
Anyway, here’s to the world’s speech therapists, the unsung heroes of uncounted zillions of children and at least one King of England-
I spent my early teen years (in the late 60s…!) in Honolulu, where the epitome of cool was the archetypal haole surfer dude, sporting only the straightest and blondest of hair. My own curly black locks flagged me at once as irredeemably other, and I found this so disconcerting that I once considered shopping for a chemical cure: if I couldn’t be an ultra-cool surfer dude, I might at least resemble the likes of John Lennon. Somehow I resisted the urge, and in college five years later I was literally living under an ashkenazi ‘fro reminiscent of Abbie Hoffman’s on steroids. Now the years have combed out almost all of my curl, and I’m left with a thinning, graying mini-mane that in Euclidean terms is closer than ever before to my 14-year-old ideal of having “good hair”. Alas, the consolation hardly registers.
Let’s face it, for all sorts of reasons best studied by social scientists, hair has a strange, primitive power over one’s self-image, and I have never seen a film that better explores this fact from the point of view of at least one American community than Chris Rock’s inspired documentary, Good Hair, now available on DVD. Here’s the trailer-
For most Americans, including me, the war in Afghanistan is a distant abstraction, something talked about but never even indirectly experienced. Restrepo, the recent documentary by Tim Hetherington and Sabastian Junger, helps to correct that deficit by showing the war from the perspective of American soldiers ordered to build an outpost in the heart of Taliban country. What it most clearly reveals, besides the mentality that the soldiers must adopt to survive, is just how out-of-kilter the mission of winning hearts and minds is from the cultural reality in rural Afghanistan. The scenes of the soldiers participating in weekly meetings with the local tribal elders demonstrate just how wide the gulf between the sides seems to be. They demonstrate this not so much by what is said, as by the elders’ facial expressions – expressions that are truly worth thousands of words. The strategy recently adopted by President Obama and General Patreus includes abandoning Restrepo (the outpost), and it seems to me that the documentary provides some grounds for thinking that this is necessary, despite the sacrifices of the soldiers who built it. But it also makes me wonder whether the entire project of trying to shape the future of Afghanistan suffers from a similar problem. Given the prospect – particularly for Afghanistan’s women – of the Taliban returning to power, I hope that it does not.
Here’s the trailer-
Agora, Alejandro Amenábar’s costume melodrama starring Rachel Weisz, is loosely based on one version of the story of how the ancient library at Alexandria was destroyed (perhaps for the second time) in the fourth century A.D.. There’s no doubt that the film has a negative view of religion in general, and of early Christianity in particular (although Pagans and Jews come off rather badly as well). But the film is not unequivocally anti-Christian, as some have charged; even the priest viewed as responsible for the most evil acts in the film is portrayed as sincerely championing charity at one point. In any case, putting aside the film’s claim to being “based on a true story” (which of course is hardly a claim to historical accuracy), what you have in Agora is a rousing pro-Rationality, pro-Science theme that is hard to find anywhere in popular culture these days, and that’s refreshing.
The film centers around Rachel Weisz’s Hypatia, a Platonist philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who (the film suggests) might have figured out the elliptical geometry of a sun-centered solar system long before Copernicus was born. When she is murdered by the superstitious, misogynistic mob, thereby becoming a martyr for reason and rationality, its enough to bring a tear to any philosopher’s eye. It certainly did mine, but I’m a sucker for bold, beautiful rationalists standing on principle and refusing to give in to brutal dogmatists.
Here’s the trailer, which, as usual, doesn’t do the movie justice-
Rarely does a movie make a philosophically interesting mistake, but “The Invention of Lying“, which I just watched on DVD, is an exception. In the world of the film, no one is supposed to have any concept of lying, and the film’s conceit is that the main character gains lots of power by inventing lying, with unintended consequences. There is an interesting screenplay on this theme that has yet to be written, but it’s not this one. The problem is that “The Invention of Lying” makes a conceptual error that renders it not just difficult to swallow, but completely incoherent. The error is to confuse lacking a concept of lying with lacking a concept of falsity. To lack a concept of lying, one need only never have intended to lie or ever thought that one has been lied to. But to lack a concept of falsity, one must also have never noticed oneself – or anyone else – making a mistake of any sort. One problem for the movie is that while it would be fairly easy to “buy” a world of the first sort, that’s certainly not the case with a world of the second sort. But, more importantly, if one were to lack a concept of falsity, one would also lack a concept of truth (which is defined, in part, by its opposite); and lacking a concept of truth, one would lack a concept assertion; and lacking a concept of assertion, one would lack a concept of communication. But the people of this world communicate constantly, even compulsively, and clearly are aware of what they are doing. So by being presented with a world full of communicative people that lack a concept of falsity in addition to a concept of lying, we are presented with a world that makes no sense at all (and this makes a willing suspension of disbelief, at least for me, impossible).
Intelligent comedies are hard to come by these days, and those that do get made often aren’t widely distributed. This is certainly true of Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go“, which didn’t get within 50 miles of Oshkosh during its theatrical rounds. But ever since his “American Beauty”, I’ve thought that Mendes is one of our better directors. “Revolutionary Road” certainly didn’t deserve the derision it received from many critics, but that’s another story.
“Away We Go” recently came out on DVD, and while it doesn’t rise to American Beauty standards, I’m happy to report that it is funny in the same sort of biting, satirical way. Like many “dramadies”, its tone is intentionally varied, but it’s also a little uneven, with several supporting players going way over the top while others play it more naturalistically. This is true even of the protagonists: Maya Rudolph admirably holds the film together with a straightforward performance of the pregnant Verona, while John Krasinski (her lighthearted and extraordinarily loving boyfriend) comes dangerously close to caricature with his Burt. But the film made me laugh, and its undertone of melancholy gave those laughs extra depth. Here’s the trailer (which, like most trailers, makes the film look more conventional than it is):
You probably know the story by now, so I won’t belabor it. To mark Roman Polanski’s unexpected arrest by Swiss officials, here’s the original trailer to “Chinatown”. If you’ve never seen the film, I can assure you that it is much better than the trailer, which is nevertheless charmingly kitschy-