31 March 2009

Ursula Meier's HOME @ ND/NF

Another piece I did for filmlinc on an interesting French-language film called Home that will be playing as part of the New Directors / New Films Festival, sponsored by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, can be read here.

29 March 2009

The Ideal Reader/Viewer and Leonard Bast

E.M. Forster's Howards End is one of my favorite novels, though it isn't the first book I think of when people ask me what books I like. I have always been drawn to those books which are soaked in some kind of stark ideology on the absurdity or pain of life (Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka) because I like the ideas. Even so, I find that many times my actual enjoyment of those works is heavily influenced by thinking about them rather than actually reading them. Often the style would be difficult or trying, needing supplementary aid in order for me to understand it. And yet when I read Howards End I found myself so easily pulled into the story, enjoying the characters without any resistance. On top of that, I found Forster had addressed profound ideas on class ideology, English society, and desire in a seemingly effortless way that didn't sacrfice the pleasure of reading. It reminds me of some quote I had read by Zadie Smith in which she says that there is always an author that we absolutely connect to in an intrinsic way -- the author for whom we are the ideal reader.

"Ideal reading is aspirational, like dating. It happens that I am E. M. Forster's
ideal reader, but I would much prefer to be Gustave Flaubert's or William
Gaddis's or Franz Kafka's or Borges's. But early on Forster and I saw how
we suited, how we fit, how we felt comfortable (too much so?) in each other"s
company. I am Forster's ideal reader because, I think, nothing that he left on
the page escapes me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I get all h
is jokes and
appreciate his nuances, that I am as hurt by his flaws
as I am by my own,
and as pleased when he is great as I would be if I did something great. I
know Morgan. I know what he is going to say before he says it, as if we had
been married thirty years. But at the same time, I am never bored by him.
You might know three or four writers like this in your life, and likely as not,
you will meet them when you are very young. Understand: They are not the
writers you most respect, most envy, or even most enjoy. They are the ones
you know. So my advice is, choose them carefull
y so that people don"t roll
their eyes at you at parties (this happens to me a lot).
The definition of a genius might be the reader who is ide
al for
multiple writers, each of them as dazzling and distant from each other as
religions." - Zadie Smith

I don't know who my author is yet (though reading Lolita now, it may be Nabokov -- maybe Forster, maybe Raymond Carver) but I think I know who my director is.

My favorite director is Akira Kurosawa; or, I am his ideal viewer. My attachment to him and his films is almost automatic. He was a starting point into my exploration of world cinema and my general entrance into serious film studies/appreciation, but even after several years he remains my favorite. His films are almost always enjoyable (a high priority for Kurosawa) and is able to make use of highly artistic elements of cinema or deeply profound thought, but never at the sacrifice of enjoyment. Sometimes I wish I would be more attached to someone as uncompromisingly subversive as Godard or as radical as Altman, and I do love those directors, but many times my relationship with them is akin to my attraction to Camus and Kafka -- the enjoyment comes from thought rather than experience. This is an obvious conflict of avant-garde-inclined cinema/art, but I suppose I am always trying to understand why I am attracted to certain things, especially in the arts (I won't even get started on music). There is always an x-factor, which is frustrating when you try to lay things out in a logical way, but there it is. But anyway, I don't want to dwell on Kurosawa now, for this post is really about Howards End and the one fictional character with whom I feel most connected to: Leonard Bast.

Leonard Bast is a side character to the Schlegels and Wilcoxes in Howards End, and Forster acknowledges Bast's peripheral relationship to the central characters by saying:

"We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend they are gentlefolk."

This is clearly tongue-in-cheek, undermining the focus on the rich when the poorer character is of infinitely greater interest and tragedy. Leonard is not desolately poor -- he is, I suppose, our equivalent of lower-middle-class -- which means he can see the abyss of poverty below him and the comfort of the rich above him, leaving him to desire and crave things he cannot have, which is really the curse of the middle class. Leonard reads books as escapism into fantasy but also in a desparate way -- in order to gain some education, wit, or insight relegated to the rich. "He hoped to come to Culture suddenly, much as Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus." He attends lectures on music in much the same way, working towards refinement and class. Around the rich he is both reverential and passively bitter; around his wife and the other poor he is empathetic and passively haughty.

I am attracted to Leonard in many ways, but mostly in his peripheral relationship to the world and those who get stories written about them. In Merchant-Ivory's beautiful, beautiful adaptation of Forster's novel (playing now for free on The Auteurs), Leonard Bast is a thin, forgettable young man with a thin mustache and bowler who lives with his Cockney wife in a shabby apartment next to a train track. The film has several fantasy sequences in which Leonard walks through a field of purple flowers as a V.O. narration has him reading from some piece of literature -- highlighting his romanticism and his need to escape. But when Leonard actually tries something like that in real life, walking through the forest until the dawn, he finds it disappointing.

"But was the dawn wonderful?" asked Helen.
With unforgettable sincerity he replied: "No."
..."The dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention -"
"- and I was too tired to lift my head up to look at it, and so cold too. I'm glad I did it, and yet at the time it bored me more than I can say. And besides -- you can believe me or not as you choose -- I was very hungry."

His admittance of such a disappointment to the laughing Schlegel sisters (played wonderfully by Emma Thompson and Helena Bohnam Carter) is liberating for Leonard, but the content of such an admittance is terribly sad. Those things he wishes for, those romantic notions in his head, are not real; they cannot exist, for he is tired, cold, hungry, and poor. Later, he is out of a job due to the passing advice of millionaire Henry Wilcox, who later admits he was wrong about his advice but is not sorry for it. (How's that for relevence in today's economy and the massive losses due to the bad decisions and advice of the priveleged players on Wall Street?) Leonard's only fulfillment of a wish, making love with Helen Schlegel, ends up terminating his life -- but I suppose in the greater view of things his life was over from the beginning. Poor Leonard!

The film itself is a gorgeously-shot and faithful adaptation of the novel. The characters were fantastically realized and even Howards End itself, the name of a house between the country and the city, looked just as I imagined it while reading the novel. I suppose this type of cinema is simply pleasure cinema for me, transcending any ability or desire for me to think of it in critical terms. And I was especially grateful to see Leonard Bast on screen, a wonderful "side" character that in many ways reminds me of the fascinating Cecil Vyse in another Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Forster's A Room With a View. Cecil is not poor (in fact the very opposite), but despite his sincere intentions he simply does not fit into the grand scheme of things, a tragedy similar to Leonard's.

Who are those characters of fiction or film who only get a supporting role but who steal all of your attention and compassion? For whom are you the ideal reader/viewer?

21 March 2009

Father Promotion

I helped my father make a blogspot site so he can show galleries samples of his work. Please enjoy these beautiful paintings at: www.wabestudios.com (especially if you are an art dealer/gallery owner in the United States -- or know any).

17 March 2009


I am currently contributing to the Film Society of Lincoln Center's blog (filmlinc.wordpress.com) for the New Directors / New Films Festival. It has allowed for me to go to press screenings for the first time, which certainly make me feel legit. But then I think about how I don't get paid and feel sad and non-legit again.

In any case, my first short write up for the black comedy Louise-Michel can be seen here.

15 March 2009

Friend Promotion

By the way, I just wanted to acknowledge the new title design made by my good friend Young Sun Compton. Check him out here: thesetreesspeak.com

14 March 2009

Art, Truth, and All That Other Stuff

I didn't quite know what to expect from an Orson Welles film in the documentary form. Perhaps those saying the same thing in 1975 were on Welles's mind when he made F for Fake, a film that not only refuses any identification with anything "Wellesian" but refuses any comfort of familiarity within the documentary form. It is not really a pure documentary (whatever that is), but a hybrid of nonfiction and fiction that reveals truths not through facts, as with other documentaries, but through lies. "No, not a documentary—a new kind of film," said Welles to Jonathan Rosenbaum when the latter was trying to understand Welles's new project.

The film begins with Welles in a fantastic cape and hat combo, addressing himself as a charlatan after performing magic tricks for a small child. This is Welles number one. We see the second Welles within the documentary, interacting and mingling with Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, the two central fakers in the film. (Elmyr is an infamous art forger while Irving is an author made famous for a book he published in which he claims to have interviewed the reclusive Howard Hughes, later confessing it was a hoax -- remember that Richard Gere film that came out recently?) The third Welles is the editor and Voice of God narrator who is shown in the editing room, controlling the footage of the other two Welleses and the rest of the film through his Moviola. These three manifestations of Welles provide different functions throughout the film, all of them fakers, liars, and charlatans in one way or the other -- whether explicitly in charlatan garb, as a performer, or as omniscient director/editor/filmmaker.

Though Welles does address some "facts" about himself, Elmyr, and Irving within the film, the fact that they are all massive liars (by nature, by trade) undercuts any authority the film could possess in its reporting. And that's exactly the point. Welles is insistent on absolutely breaking down the concept of "expertise" or "authority," which he primarily does by questioning those that make the decisions as to what constitutes art. The most potent examples being that art experts consistently fail to distinguish an original painting by Modigliani or Matisse from one of Elmyr's copies. Welles's own exploration of this idea is undercut by his presentation of it through the documentary film, an authoritative art form in itself; he wants us to not only question concepts such as expertise because of the film, but question the film itself. He makes this incredibly clear when he fabricates a fantastic lie about Picasso and later admits it was made up, which forces us to think how much of the rest of the film was a lie.

Okay, so maybe the idea that truth is relative is nothing revolutionary. But I've never watched a film or read any piece of writing that had me so completely absorbed and profoundly affected by its meditation on the nature of truth. Not only is truth relative, but truth is a lie. Art is a lie. Even so, these lies offer us some sort of truth that transcend fact or logic -- as Picasso said: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." And what else do we have but a bunch of untruths by which we guide our lives, seeking meaning from one illusion to the next. I am no longer a religious person, but my non-religiousness is perhaps just as much a lie. This whole exposition is nothing but a hoax to cover up my fear of the unknown anyway -- and perhaps that's why I am so drawn to films and these plastic arts which make plain their illusion so that a greater level of meaning can be derived. Anyway, I am not a philosopher so I will stop before my thought process becomes so obviously flawed (well, that's the point isn't it?) that I will read back on this and become embarassed. It's just one of those times in my life and I suppose this film came at the right time -- or the wrong time, I haven't quite made it out yet.

And Welles could probably have me follow whatever illusion he wants. He is so magnetically interesting and such a great performer that I am drawn like some mindless disciple to a golden calf (or maybe overweight bull in this case). Here is an oft-quoted video of Welles meditating on man's transcience and the overwhelming thought of life and death:

06 March 2009

Yes, I Also Watched the WATCHMEN

I just came back from a matinee viewing of The Watchmen. Though I haven't completely digested it yet, I wanted to write down some immediate reactions so they can float around in the mess of other online blog reactions/reviews.

The Watchmen poses an interesting challenge in screen adaptation. While comic books and graphic novels have been getting adapted and put on the screen for a while now (at a groan-inducing rate), The Watchmen is set apart not only by its cult following and near-historic status, but by its incredible density and literary weight. While dense, honorific literature is constantly adapted for the screen, a graphic novel of the same stature and complexity poses a new problem since it is a visual medium while literature is not. Thus, adapting The Watchmen presents the problematic issue of "faithfulness" to not only plot and character but to the visual style as well, down to very specific frames. In this way, I would argue that the graphic novel offers less room for filmic interpretation since the visual blueprint is largely laid out already.

Zack Snyder's attempt, though not without some merits, fails to transcend this problem of interpretation and adaptation. Indeed, Snyder makes sure to be quite faithful to his source text, down to specific lines and visual frames, but this seems to sacrifice performance and a certain chemistry that would give the film a life of its own. And even the attention paid to things such as the art direction and sets is diminished by Snyder's inability to direct effectively. There are way too many close-ups, the actors give mostly stilted performances, and there is a distant, glossy look that undermines any attempt to really immerse yourself in the carefully crafted universe Snyder worked to create. I never, for example, felt the grittiness of the city streets which Rorschach writes about, even as the camera folllows him -- everything glides along too smoothly to allow that kind of sensory absorption.

Instead, Snyder hits us over the head with loud crashes, slo-mo revolving camera actions shots, and accentuated violence, most of which is unnecessary. There is violence in the graphic novel, of course, and it does play an important role, but it is more concerned with the philosophy and psychology of violence rather than showing guts splattered against the ceiling. There does need to be some visualization of the violence in order for it to have an impact within the film, but I feel like Snyder stepped over the line in order to satisfy some sort of fetishistic fascination with gore. The raw, organic images of graphic violence also don't seem to fit in the slick, distanced world Snyder created -- it always feels a little forced, never a natural occurence within a convincingly-created world.

As someone who's read the original novel I of course have some personal gripes (what's with the casting of Ozymandias as some skinny-necked, mopey pretty boy instead of the chiseled Herculean charmer he was supposed to be?) that affected my viewing, and I wish I could abandon that but I can't -- and this is a bit of a problem for me. I had trouble separating the novel from the film, making for a very unique experience that may have prevented my complete immersion. I found myself anticipating certain scenes, down to the framing and dialogue. I didn't want to do that, but it couldn't be helped. I usually hate comparisons between source material and its film adaptation, especially with novels, since they are two different mediums of expression and are thus largely incomparable -- but with The Watchmen it seemed to be unavoidable, perhaps making its adaptation intrinsically flawed. Or perhaps this points out that a filmmaker shouldn't worry about the original frames, shouldn't reproduce instead of interpret, shouldn't think about the fanboys. Is that possible?

In the end, The Watchmen felt like giving the of fans of Moore and Gibbon's original graphic novel the satisfaction of watching their favorite characters come to life. And seeing specific frames recreated down to the tee was actually kind of satisfying at times. To see, for example, Dr. Manhattan in his black suit or Rorschach in numerous scenes (his costume was mostly completely unchanged down to the one broken epaulette). Even the newer inventions, such as Nite Owl's suit, were admittedly pretty cool. The title sequence was also a lot of fun -- I especially appreciated use of Dylan. For those unfamiliar with these scenes or these characters, I can't even imagine how I would view this movie.

I don't see how it would be possible to reach the level of depth achieved in the original text, and perhaps it's not. In this way, I can't completely condemn Zack Snyder's film. Like I mentioned earlier, a graphic novel of this much literary weight paired with specific visual layout is a uniquely overwhelming challenge and, like Nite Owl and the rest, Snyder had to make some compromises. I just wish those compromises weren't so keenly felt.