27 April 2008

Something to Look Forward To

I always need things to look forward to in life. Here are some things that are keeping me going:

1. David Byrne and Brian Eno have been reported to be wrapping up a new album they worked on together, coming together for the first time in nearly thirty years. Byrne also plans on touring, promising at least 40% Eno-era Talking Heads material sometime this year! Sweet Jesus!

2. The Film Forum in NYC is doing a retrospective on the films of Tatsuya Nakadai, a Japanese screen legend, throughout June. They are playing many films which I'd like to see, including Kobayashi's epic trilogy The Human Condition. Nakadai is also doing a book signing alongside Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa's longtime script supervisor and all around assistant. I'm hoping to get Nakadai to sign my DVD copy of Ran, a personally significant film in my life (of which Nakadai is the star), and Nogami to sign my copy of her memoir, Waiting on the Weather, which I've started and intend to finish over the summer. Also, both of these figures of Japanese cinema are doing discussion events of their own. I hope to at least see Nogami talk about Kurosawa.

3. I receive my English award on Wednesday, along with some prize money which I plan to use for a new mp3 player with more space (my iPod ran out of room). I'm looking at the new Zune, but am not completely sure. Either way, I'm getting a little unexpected money and a pat on the back, which is always nice once in a while.

4. The end of the semester is deliciously close, with the headache of finals being my last effort for the semester. My main project consists of completing my film, which I will work on editing throughout this week. The completion of my first film will feel good (hopefully) and once the semester is over I will be more than elated.

5. The Criterion Collection - a source of happiness for me - plans to rerelease High and Low on a special 2-disc DVD in July. High and Low is supposedly a superb non-samurai film of Kurosawa, some arguing that it is his best. I have yet to see it - always putting it off for one reason or the other - but now the rerelease allows me to treat myself to a long-awaited cinematic gem.

6. Sonic Youth is playing a FREE show at Battery Park on July 4th. Opening for them are the Feelies(!) who are reuniting for this amazing gig.

7. I may be going on a real vacation (for the first time in my life) to Mexico with Marlo, my money-making sugar mama wife.

8. I suppose you can say the summer in general, which encompasses most of these things. Along with that is the simple pleasure of being able to read books for myself (and not for class), to watch lots and lots of movies, to sleep in late, and to go to the beach, get some sun and look like less of a cadaver.

21 April 2008

My Melodramatic Weekend

When I used to hear the word "melodrama" I had always taken it as a bad thing - soap operas, over-acting, over-emotional responses to ordinary situations, etc. - but within the past few weeks my reaction to that word has changed quite a bit. This was due to my introduction to a wonderful German director called Douglas Sirk who made several Hollywood melodramas during the 1950s, most famously with Rock Hudson playing the lead role. The first film I saw was Written on the Wind, which I wrote about for class and previously posted, and I was instantly hooked. I have since watched that film three times and feel like I could watch it happily again anytime. I followed that up with All That Heaven Allows, which I believe Sirk is better known for and could possibly be considered the most characteristic of his aesthetics. These films feature beautiful colors and give dominance to mise-en-scene (on-screen elements such as sets, costumes, lighting, framing, etc.), especially the studio sets of domestic interior spaces in which Sirk often shot windows, mirrors, and screens as frames within the frame. Aside from the acting - which is, yes, melodramatic - the sets themselves carry the story through the way they are shot, lit, and colored, creating a densely saturated and rich world in which to get swept away.

Sirk's signature style in handling melodrama was a prime example of the Cahiers critics' auteur theory; Godard was (is?) an especially big fan. Sirk's melodrama style has influenced several directors, not just in theory, but in their actual filmmaking. Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes, and especially New German director Rainer Warner Fassbinder have all made films in Sirk's signature style. This past weekend I watched two films that were directly influenced by Sirk, specifically by All That Heaven Allows. They were Far From Heaven by Todd Haynes and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by W.R. Fassbinder. Both the films tried to rework the central story of All That Heaven Allows, which has a woman central character falling in love with a man whom the rest of the society would never accept. In All That Heaven Allows it's an American middle-upper class widow who falls in love with a gardener, in Far From Heaven it's an American middle-upper class housewife who falls in love with a black gardener, and in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul it's a German lower class widow who falls in love with a Morrocan old enough to be her son.

The two films both tried to recreate the Sirk feel by placing special emphasis on color and interior compositions. Haynes had a Hollywood budget with a Hollywood cast - Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert - and thus was better able to recreate Sirk's template in a grand way, almost to perfection. Fassbinder, on the other hand, shot on a much lower budget within 15 days, used what seemed to be all real locations and some non-professional actors. The contrast between these two films, which have the same goals but with different means, is really interesting to watch back to back.

The first thing I wrote down when I watched Far From Heaven was "These colors are beautiful!". And they were. Haynes' film, regardless of what you think of the story, is beautiful to look at. I've heard some criticism that claims the film is so visually calculated in its Sirkian replication that it feels cold. I think that's interesting because one characteristic of Sirk's that Haynes did not replicate was the ironic representation of the material. Sirk was known to subversively implement ironic symbols and visual motifs that would underscore the banality of the script. Haynes, however, seems to take the story seriously and presents it to us to be taken without irony. He does this by changing the plot a little bit to make the main female character not a widow, but a woman married to a closeted homosexual husband. He also makes the gardener black to add another thematic and moral tension. As a gay director and figure in the New Queer Cinema movement, Haynes' inclusion of closeted homosexuality in the film's plot is hard to take as irony. Though I would argue against the criticism of being cold, the film did give me mixed feelings since what I enjoyed about Sirk's films were the ironic bits and the detached presentation of otherwise pulp material. While Haynes manages to pretty convincingly tell a dramatic story (with extra help from some strong acting performances), the message of intolerance and social bigotry is so overdone that it's hard to be really swept up and emotionally involved.

Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul, unlike Sirk and unlike Haynes, mixes the melodrama with low-budget and almost neo-realist approach to filmmaking. I am always very drawn to movies that are made on low budgets, with real locations and non-professional actors. I suppose it makes filmmaking seem less of an elite dream job attainable only through climbing some long ladder of money and luck, and brings it back into the hands of the regular people, or, back into the hands of poor students (like myself). Also, the effect of non-actors and real locations both creates a very intriguing sense of realism that draws you in, yet isolates you in Brechtian fashion. The simplicity of the actions that happen to unfold the story are played out very matter-of-factly, nearly in a detached unreal way that reminded me of what I've seen of Bresson films. As Ali, El Hedi ben Salem acts very little and doesn't even speak well - the English translation subtitles make it seem as if he were speaking like a caveman - which is very interesting when contrasted to the more melodramatic Brigitte Mira; the combination, however, works well. Fassbinder also places emphasis on composition and color, but real locations make it more interesting. In the end, I ended up enjoying Fear Eats the Soul a little more because of its different approach to the studio Sirk melodrama and its neo-realist feel. Not to mention Ali and Emmi, the oddest couple I've seen in film since Harold and Maude.

Anyway, watch melodrama!

15 April 2008


I watched Taxi Driver again in film class this evening. What a great movie. During the discussion afterwards I noted a few insights and points that were new and interesting to me.

>Travis assassination attempt -> Travis's primal reaction against "everyone else" through the apparent leader, addressing his frustration with everything - politics, culture, and, especially, sex

>Bernard Hermann's Psycho motif plays during Travis's first killing in the bodega and are also the last notes heard in the film before the black screen with credits shows up.

>Is Schrader rewriting The Searchers through Taxi Driver? -> Ethan, the veteran, rescues Debbie from the savage Indians, leaving an ambiguous moral aftertaste for viewers in regard to Ethan's methods. Travis, the veteran, rescues the prostitute Iris from the street scum with the type of intense vigilante violence that leaves the same ambiguity in regards to Travis's heroism.

>Travis's mohawk reminiscent of American Indians. Yet, he is also called "cowboy"; he is a contradiction, just as Betsy first mentions.

>Taxi Driver is a road movie with the streets of NYC as the road, except this road doesn't take Travis anywhere - he can't flee.

> The scenes post-killing are Travis's dream? If not, is it purely ironic? Does the film endorse Travis's vigilante heroism? (I don't think so).

>His killing at the end as a type of orgasmic release which comes from his pent up sexual frustration and inability to maintain a relationship with anyone but himself.

>Scorsese addresses certain film conventions/genres, primarily: the returning veteran, the road movie, and the city in crisis films.

>The contrast of Travis's disgust with the city and "the scum" vs. the romanticism of the Beats' view of the homeless and the urban lower-class.


In other self-congratulatory news, I was informed that I won my school's Meranze-Tomlinson Film Award "for excellence in writing about film." I get a little bit of money and some recognition during an award dinner, the date of which is still unknown to me. Of course, I am very honored and excited to be recognized by my professors, especially since I've been searching for some kind of sign that I'm headed in the right direction by pursuing film studies. This also made me think a bit more seriously about applying to graduate school for Cinema Studies, but there's no final decision on that yet. Anyway, thanks.

07 April 2008


I've decided to start a film journal - something to jot thoughts down onto and maybe a quote or two. My first entry rewritten here for your pleasure is from Godard's Pierrot le Fou.

>"In the end, the only thing of any interest is [sic] the paths people take. The tragic part is that even when they know where they're going and who they are, everything is still a mystery... And that mystery, forever unsolved, is life." -> a summation of Godard's work (?) or at least of Pierrot le Fou.

>completely irreverent. ridiculous!

>Godard would often ask himself what Hitchcock would do if he were stuck. In this case Hitchcock would say, "You're on your own pal."

>Anna Karina is incredibly charming/beautiful, even though she has funny teeth
Jean-Paul Belmondo is beyond cool
-> is this the only thing keeping me interested?
I think so

>pure definition of post-modernist art in film

>I hate Godard. I love Godard.